The first excerpt from my new book is here!

Brutal muscular firefighter holding safety axe in fire sparks over grey background

 

I know I’ve been quiet, but it’s because I’ve had my head down, writing the next novel. This one’s a second chance romance (my fave, I think), about a wildlands firefighter… grrr.

Ahem. Sorry. Sometimes my personal preferences come out in the stuff I write 😉

It’s still untitled, though I’m about 95% sure what I’m going to call it. I just need to see what it looks like on the cover.

Enough chatter, it’s time for an excerpt. Totally raw, unfiltered, and probably dotted with typos. Enjoy!


“What is it I’m looking at again?” Hunter says, looking carefully through the telescope. It’s set up for someone about two-thirds his height, so he’s crouched down and looking up, which is a pretty awkward position.

“The bright blob with stuff around it,” I say. “If you really look close, you can make out the rings, though not the individual ones.”

It’s an hour later, and most of the kids are gone. Just a few are left, including the eleven-year-old who got so excited about Saturn’s rings. He’s been quizzing one of the volunteers about the asteroid belt for about ten minutes now, and before that, he talked my ear off about the differences between Mars’s two moons. His dad is standing nearby, looking tired and ready to leave.

Hunter’s quiet for a long time, peering into the telescope. Then he backs away, blinks and shakes his head.

“Maybe I should look at another planet so I can see the difference,” he says.

“That one’s got Jupiter,” I say, pointing at a different setup.

Hunter walks to another huge telescope, crouches down, and looks up.

“Which one is it?” he asks.

“The big, bright one,” I say.

“There’s two of those.”

“Let me look,” I tell him, and he steps aside, but not quite far enough. I bump into him as I crouch and look up through the telescope, and I can almost feel the warmth from his hard, solid body through both our heavy jackets.

I have to fight the urge to reach out and put one hand on him to steady myself. My body refuses to listen to my brain when I’m around him, because I keep telling my body it’s over and it’s been over for ages, but I still have the urge to reach out and hold his hand, touch his arm, lean into him.

I know better than to kiss him, but all those little, intimate touches between couples? Those are what I can barely keep myself from doing out of sheer habit.

It doesn’t help that I’ve got a very, very clear memory of everything else we did. Half-clothed fooling around in the back seat of a car? Check. Getting eaten out int he basement of my parents’ house while they were watching TV upstairs, holding a pillow over my own face so I wouldn’t scream? Check.

Fucking in the back of his pickup truck, parked behind the barn, underneath the stars on a warm summer night, my nails raking down his back? Definitely check.

Sudden arousal prickles through me at those memories, and I wonder if I remember a little too well. Obviously I’m just remembering my first through rose-colored glasses, right?

“You can’t tell either, huh?” Hunter says, his slow voice coming from above me.

Right. Jupiter.

“It’s on the left,” I say, and stand.

As I do I can feel his hand brush my back, his fingertips running from my shoulder to my hip. It’s casual, almost automatic, and I wonder if he even meant to do it.

Hunter bends down and looks back through the telescope again. I shove my hands into the pockets of my jacket and step away so I’m not tempted to touch him again.

“Okay, got it,” he says, after a moment. Then he walks to the other telescope and looks up.

The excitable kid is finally being walked off by his dad, even though I can still hear his excited yelping from where I stand. I wave to Albert, the last volunteer who’s still around.

“You want help putting the telescopes back?” he calls.

I glance at Hunter, still folded in half and staring up through the telescope.

“Go home,” I call back. “We’ve got it.”

“See you around,” he calls, and walks toward the parking lot.

Just like that, it’s me and Hunter alone in a circle of big, powerful telescopes. I wander back to where he is and look up at the stars, mentally ticking through the constellations.

“I think I can see them,” he says. “They’re real faint, but there they are.”

He stands up straight and then squints at the sky.

“You can’t see them without the telescope,” I say.

Hunter just looks at me with a no shit, Sherlock look on his face, and I laugh.

“Sorry,” I say. “I explain a lot of things to eight-year-olds.”

“I assumed that was why I was looking through a telescope,” he says, a smile in his voice.

He’s standing up straight, his hands in his pockets, gazing intently at the horizon. After a while he points.

“It’s one of those, right?” he says.

He’s pointing at a sky full of stars on a dark night. It’s hard to tell which one he thinks it is.

“It’s sort of down there,” I say. “See Mars?”

I point. He moves in, closer to me. My stomach flips and I swallow.

“It’s the one that a little bit red,” I say. “Right near the horizon, right above the branches of that tall tree that got struck by lightning a couple years ago.”

“Because I know which tree got struck by lightning.”

“It’s the one without leaves on top,” I tease. “I thought one of the Canyon Country hotshots might know what a struck tree looked like.”

“It’s full dark with no moon, you know,” he says.

He moves closer, standing behind me. We’re not touching, but it’s just a technicality, because he’s leaning over my shoulder and so close I can feel his body heat.

Then, after a moment: “Okay, I think I’ve got it. That one?”

He reaches over my other shoulder and points right at Mars. We’re still not touching, but my heart is beating about a thousand times a minute, because my dumb body remembers everything and it wants me to put my cheek against his, lean back against his chest.

“Now, look a little down and to the right,” I say. “That’s Antares, another bright star.”

He points at the wrong thing, and I grab his forearm, gently point him at the right one.

“Okay,” Hunter says. He’s so close I can feel the vibrations of his voice.

“Now, go up a little, and see the third star kinda making a triangle?”

I move his arm again, until he’s pointing to Saturn.

“That’s it,” I say.

There’s a long moment where we both just look at the two planets and the star, right above the horizon. He moves his arm, and for a moment I think he’s going to drape it over my shoulder, because that’s what he would have done, back then.

He puts it back in his pocket instead. I try not to be disappointed.

“Can I tell you something?” he asks.

“Of course,” I say. My stomach twists, and I rock a little on my heels, fighting my urge to lean back against him, let him wrap his arms around me.

“When I got back from the desert, I was surprised that we’ve got the same stars,” he says.

The desert is Afghanistan. He was calling it that before we ever broke up.

“Not exactly,” I say.

“I was surprised we’ve mostly got the same stars, then,” he says. “I didn’t know the sky depended on latitude, not longitude.”

“You learn something new every day,” I say, because I have no idea what else to say.

There’s a long pause.

“When did you get back?” I ask.

“Two years ago.”

I do some quick math.

“You signed up for another tour.”

“Sure did,” he says. “Semper Fi and all that.”

“But you didn’t want to be career military?”

I’m not sure why we’re talking like this, side-by-side, pretending to look at the stars instead of face-to-face, but I’m too nervous to move. I’m afraid if I do, I’ll somehow end up with my lips on his, and he’ll pull back and laugh and tell me that he hasn’t thought of me that way in years.

“I’m not cut out for it,” he says. “I… didn’t always have the level of respect for my superiors that they preferred.”

“But you signed up for another two years of active duty,” I press.

It’s dumb because it doesn’t matter, but somehow, it feels like another betrayal. We were together when he signed up in the first place: four years of active duty, four years of being in the reserves. His father had been in the Marines, his grandfather, most of his uncles. All Marines.

So when I had a complete and total meltdown, he didn’t understand. But I didn’t want him going away for four years, to somewhere dangerous and scary, somewhere that I wouldn’t see him and he might die. I was seventeen, insecure, selfish, and fucking terrified.

It was our first big fight. I didn’t want him going at all, and I made him swear up and down that when his four years was up he wouldn’t sign up for another tour.

“I signed up the week after you dumped me,” he admits.

I blink. I was pretty sure he dumped me, but I don’t say anything.

“I ended up wishing I hadn’t, to be honest,” he goes on. “But it was the only thing I could think of to do that would really show you I didn’t give a shit about you any more.”

He’s straightened up now, his head somewhere above mine, still standing behind me. I’m frozen, looking at the stars and not seeing any of them.

He stayed in a war zone just so I’d know he didn’t care about me any more, I think.

That’s not what someone who actually doesn’t care does, and we both know it.

“Except I think you just found out for the first time, so the joke’s on me,” he says, a chuckle in his voice. “I’m sure you’re really hurt about something I did years and years ago. I sure showed you.”

I don’t say anything. I wouldn’t say I’m really hurt, but I don’t feel nothing. I wish I did.

“Clem?” he says.

“Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t know you were…”

I let my voice trail off, because I’m not really sure what to say.

“I didn’t even know you stayed in the military that long,” I say instead.

I didn’t know it would still kind of hurt my feelings, I think.

“Are you okay?” he asks, because of course he can still tell when I’m upset.

“Yeah,” I say.

“Clem.”

I stare resolutely at the horizon.

“Clem, c’mon. Turn around.”

He takes me by the shoulder, and I let him spin me in a circle until I’m eye-level with the collar of his jacket. I look at it, the stretchy brown material that edges the dark green canvas, because I don’t know how to look him in the eye right now.

“It worked,” I finally blurt out, then look up at him.

He looks confused.

“What worked?”

“You signing up for another tour,” I say.

There’s a long, long pause. My hands are fists in my pockets. I don’t think I can explain why my feelings are still hurt, because I don’t understand myself. It doesn’t make any sense, and I know it.

“I didn’t want it to,” Hunter says softly. “Not any more. Not for years now.”

“I know,” I say.

“I didn’t think I could come back and see you,” he goes on. “Even the thought of living in the same town with you three years later seemed unbearable.”

His hand is still on my shoulder, warm and strong and oddly comforting. I try to laugh.

“I’m that bad, huh?”

“Yeah, you’ve got this weird smell,” he teases. “It definitely wasn’t because I was afraid to see you with someone else.”

I give in. I lean forward and put my head on his shoulder. Even through his jacket it feels familiar, and a tremor runs through me as he puts his arms around me, my hands still in my pockets.

Friends hug, I think. It’s fine.

“Think we can wipe the slate?” I say. “Just start over, like all that didn’t happen.”

I feel a gentle tug on my scalp, and I realize he’s playing with my hair, absentmindedly winding a strand of it around his finger over and and over again. Like he used to.

“I don’t think that’s possible,” he says, and I feel his voice rumbling out of his chest. “But I think we can accept that it happened a long time ago when we were different people.”

“I’ll take it,” I say.

I believe it for exactly one second, and then there’s another light tug on my scalp, because he can age and he can come back from the military and he can be more mature and he can change, on the surface, but he’s still playing with my hair the same way he did at seventeen.

I take my hands out of my pockets and put my arms around him, and he holds me a little tighter, my head burrowed against his chest. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not sure that people can change, or at least, I’m not sure I believe that they can change enough.

I never loved you anyway, he said. I don’t think he meant it. I haven’t thought he meant it for years, but he still said it and that’s what counts, right?

“Can I tell you something?” I ask.

“No,” he says.

I roll my eyes, even though he can’t see. Then I take a deep breath.

“I missed you,” I say.

“You missed me?” he says, and he sounds genuinely surprised. “You were at college. There were tons of people around.”

I shrug against him.

“After a while it was just little things,” I say. “I’d see a really great dog or something, and I’d think, I have to tell Hunter about that dog and then remember that I… couldn’t.”

“Tell me now,” he says. “Clean-ish slate. All that is just background noise.”

I laugh, and he adjusts his stance a little bit, pulling me even closer. I hope none of the volunteers come back and find me just standing here, in a weird hug with some guy, but I don’t really care that much. I’m an adult. I can hug whoever I want.

“Start with Trout,” he suggests.

“I’ll make you a deal,” I say. “Help me put these telescopes away, and I’ll tell you about eight years’ worth of notable dogs.”

I pull back and look up at him, my hands still on his sides.

“You remember all eight years?” he asks.

“I can always invent dogs you’ll like,” I say.

I’m about to say something else, but Hunter’s looking down at me, our eyes locked, and it flies right out of my brain.

He’s going to kiss me, I realize. He’s going to kiss me and I’m not going to do anything to stop it.

 

Get Torch now! FREE with Kindle Unlimited!

 

Convict is coming this weekend!

Who’s got time for intros? Have a teaser instead!

Convict Teaser 2

“I didn’t actually offer you a ride,” I point out.

He raises both eyebrows, and I can feel his eyes moving down my face, from my eyes to my lips and back. I’m not short, but he’s way taller than me, and I almost feel dwarfed.

“You were going to,” he says, smiling one dimple into his cheek.

“You don’t know that,” I say. “My next sentence could have been good luck getting home.”

What the serious fuck are you doing right now? I think.

“Even after I got your keys back for you?” he asks.

He tilts his head slightly, like he’s just about to kiss me. Our faces are inches apart. He smells like motor oil and leather and saltwater, and my heart feels like it’s exploding in my chest.

“I know better than to be alone in a car with strange men,” I murmur.

Stone looks my face up and down again, like he’s debating something with himself, like there’s some internal struggle I don’t know about.

Yes, Jesus, I want you to kiss me already even though I sound like an asshole, I think at him.

I wish I could bring myself to say it out loud.

“Then I’ll stop being a stranger,” he says. His green eyes are boring into mine, and I feel like I can hardly breathe. “Right here, since that’s what you want.”

Stone presses his mouth against mine, hard enough to back me up against the side of my car. His hand slides around the back of my neck, his callouses rough and a little ticklish.

For a second, I’m perfectly still.

Then I open my mouth under his and his lips move against mine, his slight stubble scraping against me. I can just barely feel the hard edges of his teeth, he’s kissing me so fiercely, and there’s something desperate, something voracious about it.

He’s pressing my face to his with one hand, the other moving to the small of my back, his fingers warm and rough even through my thin shirt. Our bodies are pressed together. I think I might be melting.

I run my tongue along his lower lip and wind my hands through his dark hair, and then his tongue is on mine, snaking into my mouth. It’s slow but hard, needy and sensual all at once, like he can’t stop himself from doing this. Like he’s lost control.

His hand tightens on my back, and I arch my hips against him. Even through his jeans I can tell he’s half-hard. I can also tell I was not mistaken about what I saw him packing in that wetsuit.

I pull back for a moment, breathing hard, our lips millimeters apart. My eyes are still closed. I fight the urge to wrap my legs around him, right here in this parking lot. Even though we’re in public, I feel like something else entirely, something primal and animal, has taken over my brain.

Stone bites my lower lip, and I gasp. He chuckles, and then we’re making out again and I’m running one hand down his torso, beneath his open leather jacket, feeling the ripples and ridges of his muscles. I slide my fingers under the hem of his shirt before I can stop myself and run my fingertips over his warm, hard skin.

There’s a hand around my wrist. It’s not hard, but it’s firm, and Stone pulls my hand out from under his shirt, even though I can tell he’s getting harder by the second, his thick length pressing against me so hard I think it might bruise.

Finally he pulls back a few inches and looks at me, his eyes stormy, his hair wild. He slides his thumb along my face and just below my lower lip, his face so intense that I don’t even speak.

You can get in my car, I think. We can go to any shady motel you want, because my place is way too far away right now.

“You’re trouble,” he murmurs. “I can tell.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. We’re both consenting adults. I’m at least ninety percent sure I can make it out of here with my clothes on.

I snort quietly.

“I’m anything but,” I say.

He looks at me, eyes blazing with pure concentration.

“It’s not you, detective,” he says, his voice low and gravelly. “It’s me.”

Stone kisses me hard one more time, his hand on my face, his tongue in my mouth. Fire burns through me and I move my hips against him, his delicious hard length obvious through his jeans.

He pulls away, his forehead against mine. We’re both breathing hard, and I reach down and open my car door.

“I was kidding,” I say. “I can give you a ride.”

God, I can’t even say something sexy mid-makeout.

Stone takes a deep breath.

“I can’t,” he growls, his voice low and rough.

Can’t get a ride from me? I think, bewildered.

“I can’t do this, Luna,” he says, one thumb sliding along my cheekbone. “Fuck. Fuck. I can’t. I’m sorry.”

“Can’t—“ I start, but Stone pushes himself away.

He looks furious, his jaw clenched, eyes blazing, and he turns and jams his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket. Then he strides away down the dark sidewalk.

I’m still standing there, mouth open. I don’t call after him. He doesn’t look back.

I have no fucking idea what just happened. Was I trying to push things too fast? Did I come on too strong?

He can rub his boner against me but if I make a move it’s over?

I get in my car and start the engine, but for a long time, I just stare at the the license plate of the car in front of me, both hands on the steering wheel. I can still feel his lips on mine, his hand on my back, and then just: I can’t.

Maybe he’s some kind of crazy religious nut, I think. At least that would make sense.

I feel half used, half stood up, and half like if he came back right now I’d still drive him to a cheap motel. Yeah, it’s three halves, but I’m baffled and angry and fractions aren’t at the forefront of my mind right now.

I clear my throat and turn the keys. My car makes a scraping sound, because it’s already on, and I pull out of the spot and drive out of San Rafael. I don’t see Stone anywhere.

I drive home too fast, but I don’t get stopped.

Welcome to Coastal California!

Welcome to Coastal California!

Cambria blog

 

I have a confession to make: I’m lazy. I moved ten months ago, and there are still a few boxes I haven’t unpacked just yet. Sometimes, for lunch, I’ll eat an apple, some crackers, and a few spoonfuls of peanut butter because I don’t feel like cooking.

I’m telling you this because, even though I really loved writing Reign, it was a ton of work. I did lots of research on Eastern Europe, the Russian language, the Soviet Union, the geography of the Black Sea region, and lots more… before I even started writing the thing. The whole time, I swore up and down that I was setting the next book in my apartment, because I already know it so well.

It’s not my apartment, but the next book is set a small town on California’s central coast, where I’ve been a bunch of times. (I took the above picture last winter.) It’s picturesque as hell — bluffs, rocky beaches, mountains, forests. There are sea otters and elephant seals.

The town in the book is made up, but it’s a mishmash of some real places — namely Cayucos, Cambria, and Morro Bay, which are lovely places for a weekend escape in you’re in LA or San Francisco.

If you go, think bad boy thoughts for me 🙂

Work in Progress: Another Sneak Peek

James Dean RebelConfession: I’ve never actually seen Rebel Without A Cause. Lots of people have told me that, for an iconic movie, it’s not actually that good.

I’ve stuck to checking out hot pictures of James Dean.

I feel like I’ve made an okay decision about that, because damn, dude. Damn.

Anyway, here’s another snippet. Enjoy!


I lean against the bar next to Luna, elbowing a guy with flip-flops and long hair. He looks at me like he’s gonna say something, but changes his mind pretty fast. Luna doesn’t notice.

“You come all the way down here to drink alone, detective?” I say.

She turns and looks at me, her mass of curls bouncing. Then she laughs.

“I’m not alone,” she says, her warm brown eyes dancing. “This place is practically overflowing.”

Luna’s leaning against the bar with her forearms, wearing a sleeveless shirt and shorts, her skin pale gold. I have to fight the urge to lick her shoulder.

Then she looks at my drink, and raises one eyebrow.

“Your latest married conquest buy that for you?” she asks, tilting her head just a little to one side.

Even though our eyes are locked, I can tell she’s checking me out again. I fight the urge to pull on the collar of my t-shirt under my jacket, just to make sure none of my ink is showing.

“Because it’s purple and has a cherry?” I ask, and take a sip.

“I had you figured for the gruff, whiskey-on-the-rocks type,” Luna says. “That’s positively delicate.”

“I’m dainty as fuck,” I say, twisting the stem of the glass between my fingers. “Couldn’t you tell?”

She laughs.

“So you fix cars, surf badly, wear leather jackets, and prefer your drinks purple?” Luna asks.

“I’m complicated,” I say. “Besides, I can make myself a whiskey on the rocks at home. I don’t even know what’s in this thing, but it’s delicious.”

“Looks like the Cheshire Cat took a piss in a martini glass,” she says.

Luna squeezes her eyes shut for a moment, like she’s wincing. Then she laughs.

“I spend too much time around cops,” she says. “Those filthy assholes are wearing off on me.”

“I’m deeply offended,” I deadpan.

“You do strike me as the pearl-clutching type,” she teases. “You write a lot of letters to the editor about how disrespectful the youth of today is?”

“Thousands,” I say. “I live for it, detective.”

The bartender comes over and sets two beers in front of Luna.

Two?

I raise my eyebrows, then take another sip of the tasty purple drink to cover my surprise.

“Same tab?” he asks.

Luna just nods.

“Yeah, he owes me,” she says, and the bartender leaves again.

She grabs the beers and turns to me.

“I did tell you my name,” she says. “You don’t have to call me detective, you know.”

I can’t stop wondering who the other beer is for, or whether it’s the he is who owes Luna.

“I had to drag it out of you,” I say. I’m trying to sound light, but my voice sounds a little hollow, even to me. “I thought you might prefer your title, detective.”

“Well, I’ll see you around, mechanic,” she teases.

Work in Progress: The First Sneak Peek!

It’s summer, and my brain feels like hot mush, but I’ve been hammering away at the next book anyway.

No title yet. No cover either. But here’s a mini-snippet anyway.


“Hi, I’m Detective Rivers with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s office,” I say, the words on autopilot, walking forward to the desk he’s standing behind.

I hold out my hand. He looks at me for just a moment too long, and I feel like his green eyes are going right through me. Like he can see the future, and in it, we’re naked together.

“Stone Williams,” he finally says, and takes my hand. He’s got a firm, almost hard handshake, and his hands are rough, the nails embedded with grease.

The hands of someone who works with them for a living.

The hands of someone who knows how to use them, and oh fuck now I’m blushing at work. Thank god Batali isn’t here to watch me turn into a fourteen-year-old in front of a cute boy.

“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” I say. I let his hand go and pull out my pen and notepad.

“Ask away, Detective,” he says, and smiles.

His smile is just a tiny bit crooked, and he has one dimple, on the left side of his face. Between that, the dark hair, the sideburns, and the coveralls, he’s got a 1950s, Rebel Without A Cause, devil-may-care, rockabilly vibe.

I’d let him take me to a soda fountain and a sock hop, I think.

Not that I own a poodle skirt. I’m not sure I own any skirts.

“Just start from the beginning and tell me what happened this morning,” I say.

There isn’t much for him to tell: he got to work and it was vandalized. It’s hard as hell for me to concentrate on the details, and on asking the right follow-up questions, like were the cans of spray paint still there? Did the paint look wet? Was the door open or shut?

I just concentrate on writing it down, because he’s still got this funny little half-smile on his face, his one dimple showing.

Even in his coveralls he’s built, easily over six feet, and wide-shouldered. I try not to look at him too much, because I’m starting to feel very unprofessional.


Stay tuned 😉

Reign is live!

"Kostya is a gentleman and a dirty boy."

The sexy prince book is finally live! Just 99¢ or FREE with Kindle Unlimited.

Some fairy tales start after midnight.
The crown prince and I have nothing in common.

He’s a rugged, battle-hardened soldier who spent four years in the Royal Guard, an elite military unit. I met the King and Queen for the first time wearing leggings and a sweatshirt.

He’s the serious, quiet, straight-laced heir to the throne, and I accidentally got drunk at a formal dinner.

But there’s the way he looks at me, eyes blazing with hunger. Like he knows every dirty thought I’ve had about him – and he likes them. There’s the way my pulse skyrockets every time his hand brushes mine.

I’m the ambassador’s daughter. I know better than to mess around with a foreign head of state.

But I don’t know how long I can resist.

Not all princes are charming.
I spent years in the Royal Guard, our most elite military unit, fighting like hell so I could rule one day – not so I could give my father an heir with some well-bred rich girl.

I have a f*cking country to run. My love life can take a back seat. It’s not like I’ve ever met a girl I had to have.

Until her. The ambassador’s daughter. She’s so… American. Lowborn, brash, wildly unsuitable… andgorgeous.

I’m disciplined, tough as hell, and I don’t f*ck around. But I can’t stop thinking about the way she laughs, about how she might taste. My father’s threatening to strip me of my title if I touch her, but she makes me want to break every one of my own rules.

F*ck titles. F*ck rules. F*ck my father’s threats. I want her. I need her.

She’s mine.

Reign Sneak Preview!

Chapter One

Hazel

Something clangs right above my head, and I wake up with a snort.

“Passport!” the uniformed man says.

He’s very loud, very gruff, and staring down at me with the sort of flat, serious irritation only an Eastern European can muster. His accent is so thick that it takes me a moment to figure out what he’s saying, and I just stare up at him, mouth partly open.

The customs officer puts his hand on the luggage rack above my head and leans in, just a little.

Passport,” he says, very slowly.

“Right,” I say. “Yes. Of course. Da.

He steps back, I stand, and the papers that were on my lap slide to the floor.

“Shit,” I mutter, but everyone else in the compartment is totally silent. “Sorry. Sorry. Prosti.”

The uniformed man takes another step back, this time to the door of the train compartment, and just stares at me. Totally stone-faced. The compartment is full, but no one moves to pick anything up.

Thanks, guys, I think. I’m starting to sweat.

First things first. I need my damn passport so Mr. Ice Carving over here can move on with his rounds, then I can pick up my shit.

I grab my frame pack, sling it onto the seat, open the main compartment and slide my hand into the slim inner pocket. Then I fish around, feeling for the skinny booklet.

It’s not there. I shove my hand in further. Nothing. I push my entire arm into my backpack, my hair falling in front of my eyes, sticking in the velcro fasteners.

“Sorry,” I say. “Prosti, prosti…

Still nothing. My heart is doing flips, and I’m frantically trying to remember the last time I saw my passport.

I had it when I got to the Ukraine four days ago, I think. I had it when I checked into the hostel in Kiev.

Jesus, did I leave it there?

Now I’m pulling dirty clothes out of my backpack and piling them onto my seat. The woman sitting next to me, who somehow still looks just as fresh and put together in hour thirteen of this train ride as she did at hour one, glares.

Everyone’s glaring, but I don’t care, because I need my passport.

Finally the bag is empty, and I peer into the entrance. My heart’s hammering, because not only is it very bad form to leave your passport god-knows-where, my mom might actually kill me if she has to bail me out of this.

She’d be justified, though.

“No passport?” the man says. His facial expression doesn’t change at all, but I smile at him desperately, my best I’m irresponsible, not a terrorist smile.

“It’s here somewhere!” I say brightly.

My fingertips brush over a small cylinder at the bottom of the bag, and my smile gets even tighter. I look in the bag, praying that it’s a cigarette that wandered in there somehow.

Nope. That’s a joint.

I guess I did lose that one in Amsterdam, I think as my fingers go cold with fear.

I have no idea what the drug laws are like in Sveloria. Lax, I hope.

The man waiting at the door shifts, crossing his arms in front of him, and I pretty much stick my entire head into my bag.

At last, I see a corner of something that looks very passport-like poking out of a hole. I jam my hand into it and pull out the little blue book, nearly collapsing to the floor with relief.

I turn around, holding it out, but the guy is crouching on the floor, looking at the papers I spilled everywhere. Very carefully, he picks up a photo of Sveloria’s royal family — king, queen, and crown prince — by the edges.

Then he picks up a stack of papers, thumbing through them slowly. Finally, he turns over the folder with the seal embossed on the front.

“What’s this?” he says without looking at me.

The train rolls from side to side just a little. I grab onto the luggage rack to keep my balance while I try to think of the simplest explanation for this very official-looking file with photos of the royal family and a surprising number of charts.

“I’m visiting Sveloria for the first time, so I was reading a brief on the country,” I say. “I like to be prepared.”

A couple people in the compartment glance at me then, and it’s dead obvious no one believes that.

The man starts gathering my documents back into the folder, and I kneel on the floor, trying to help, but he cuts me off.

“No,” he says, holding up one hand. “Put your laundry back in your bag.”

It’s not really laundry, it’s my clothes, I think, but that doesn’t seem like a good point to make right now. I stuff all my things back into my backpack and cinch it shut.

The customs officer is standing now, my briefing in his hand.

“Passport,” he says, and I finally hand it over.

He glances at it briefly, his eyes flicking from the photo to my face, and flips through the pages, looking at the stamps. Finally he closes it. I hold my hand out, but he doesn’t give it back.

“Come with me,” he says, and steps out of the train compartment.

I take a deep breath. Everyone else in here is still looking at me in total, stony silence as I hoist my backpack onto my back. For a moment I have the stupid urge to give them all a thumbs up as I leave, but instead I take a deep breath and follow the agent through the train.

Get a grip, I tell myself. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching my mom, it’s that cool, calm, and collected gets the best results.

We walk through four more cars, heading for the back. Through the windows to the left I can see the Black Sea, cliffs plunging down toward deep blue water, forested rolling hills to the right.

I definitely understand why the Svelorian royal family has their summer palace near here, because it’s gorgeous.

The officer keeps looking back at me, like he’s making sure I haven’t tried to escape or something. I want to point out that we are on a train, but I keep my mouth shut.

Once the initial panic wears off, I’m not actually all that worried. Not only am I an American citizen, my mom’s the American Ambassador to Sveloria.

So it’s not ideal that I’m about to be questioned by Svelorian customs, but I’m pretty sure it’s gonna turn out okay. As long as they don’t find the joint at the bottom of my bag.

I say one last prayer that Sveloria is cool about marijuana and follow the agent into the last compartment on the train. This one has a metal folding table in the middle, and two other customs officers are smoking and playing cards on it.

They both stub their cigarettes out when we come in, and the officer I’m with says something harsh-sounding to them in Russian. No one makes a facial expression, but they leave and he cracks the window, then slaps my folder onto the table.

We both sit, and he points to the folder.

“What is this?” he asks.

I take a deep breath, lick my lips, and make sure that I speak as clearly as possible.

“My mother is Ambassador Eileen Towers,” I start. “I’m visiting Sveloria because my parents invited me to spend the month with them at the royal family’s summer palace.”

No reaction, but he flips open my passport again.

“I have my father’s last name,” I explain.

“You’re Chinese?” he asks.

I’m tempted to sarcastically reply no, I’m American, just like my damn passport says, but I know better than to be a smartass to a foreign customs official. Especially when there’s a joint in my bag.

“My grandparents immigrated to the United States from South Korea,” I say, because I know the question he’s really asking.

He just grunts. I take that as an invitation to continue, so I explain that my mother might be the most thoroughly prepared person on earth, and she sent me this brief on Sveloria so I could learn something about the country before I came.

She also doesn’t believe in doing things halfway, so it’s complete with photos of the royal family, several members of the king’s small council, photos of the summer palace where I’ll be staying, and even a map of Velinsk, the nearest town. And of course it’s printed on high-quality paper, carefully organized with a table of contents, came in an official State Department folder, and was hand-delivered to my hostel in Kiev by a courier.

I finish, and he doesn’t say anything. Even though the silence makes me nervous, I force myself to sit there, poised, and wait for him to finish going through the papers. He flips past a couple of pages on proper manners, Svelorian traditions, cuisine, and traffic laws.

At the end, he gets to the photos and spreads them out on the table.

“Lots of Prince Konstantin Grigorovich,” he says.

I look down. There’s four of him, which is more than anyone else, but it’s not a lot.

Honestly, I think one of my mom’s assistants has a crush, and I do not blame her. Konstantin looks like the model for a prince in a Disney movie if Disney princes also dripped raw, rugged sex appeal. He’s got dirty blond hair and gray eyes, and in every photo he’s glaring at the camera with the hottest glare I’ve ever seen.

I don’t even like the serious, brooding type, but I didn’t mind the extra pictures of the prince. I didn’t mind them at all.

I look back at the customs officer and shrug.

“The documents were put together by a woman,” I say. I don’t know if it’s true, but the more he thinks I’m just some silly American girl, the better.

For the first time, he cracks a smile. Just barely, but he does.

“The prince is very popular with women,” he says, and I raise my eyebrows just a bit.

“I can see why,” I say, and smile back at him.

He just grunts and collects the photos back into the folder, then places my passport on top of the folder and pushes both toward me across the table. I take them, relieved.

“Apologies for the inconvenience,” he says, stone-faced again.

“It was no inconvenience,” I say, nodding my head at him.

We both stand, and he gestures at the door of the compartment.

“We will arrive in Velinsk in thirty minutes,” he says.

“Thank you,” I say.

I walk back through the train, taking deep breaths. I can’t wait to get off this thing. I’ve been riding it for thirteen hours, and I’m pretty tired of being in a metal tube.

Before I go back to my seat, I go to the tiny bathroom. I splash my face off, brush my hair, and pull it into a bun since it’s obvious I haven’t washed it in two days.

I wonder if I should change my clothes, since I’m wearing leggings, an oversize tunic, a sweatshirt, and sneakers, but everything else I have is dirty. Besides, I’m not formally meeting the royal family until my welcome dinner tonight, so I’ll have time to change, bathe, and feel human again before that.

Then I go back to my seat and study the briefing like mad. I probably look insane, muttering names and phrases over and over to myself, but the people in this compartment have already seen me at my worst, so I don’t really care.

Finally, the train pulls up to a small train station. I shoulder my enormous pack, straighten my spine, and get off the train at last.

The air is summery but slightly cool, and it smells salty and fresh. I take a deep breath, glad to be off the train full of human smells.

I start walking, and as I do, my phone goes off in my pocket.

Texts from my mom start pouring in, all time-stamped at least an hour ago. We must have been out of range, or something. I stop in my tracks and read them all quickly, my heart sinking. I start chewing on one thumbnail, something I always do when I’m stressed.

The gist of the texts is: the royal family will be meeting you at the train station, so you should look presentable.

I look around for a bathroom, where I can frantically change into dirty clothes that at least aren’t these dirty clothes. Instead, I see my parents waving their arms. I stare for a moment and then hesitantly wave back, then walk over to them.

“Welcome to Sveloria, sweetie!” my mom gushes as I hug her, then my dad.

Then she smiles her polite-but-slightly-worried smile.

“Did you get my texts?” she asks.

“They came through about twenty seconds ago,” I say. “I guess I was out of range, but I’ve got some other clothes with me. They’re kinda dirty, but I can go change right now if that’s better?”

A black limousine pulls up to the sidewalk outside the station. Two men in black suits step out, and the other travelers step out of the way. A few point and whisper.

My mom puts one hand on my arm. She doesn’t look thrilled.

“Don’t worry about it, sweetheart,” she says.

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