Sunday, September 29, 2013

Felix Ferrero, Plagiarizing Dick

Okay, so.  I got a notice from the extremely lovely Authlim of Xvim letting me know that my story Cinders--yeah, the serial one I wrote here, the one I put up on Literotica for free just like so, so much of my stuff--has been plagiarized by one Felix Ferrero and put up on and smashwords, along with the works of several other authors--J. Vaughn's  RoughBoys, anybody?  fantasyhunter2's They Are A-OK, and others.  I've already contacted Amazon and smashwords to get the stories taken down, and hopefully they'll come through quickly for me.

This is the first time it's been thrown at me that my stuff is being plagiarized.  I'm sure it's happened before, I may have blocked it from my mind, but this time it's not only blatant, it's also not only me!  Yeah, copy some of the most popular authors on Literotica, don't even bother to rename the frickin' stories and see where that gets you!  Really?  Just...really?  My free work is meant to be just that, a gift for readers, and it annoys me to no end that someone else is trying to profit off of it.

Felix Ferrero has a website, and a facebook, and presences on the Amazon and smashwords platforms.  I'm not going to contact him directly, at least not yet, because I despise drama and hopefully can get this taken care of without a lot of fuss.  But that might not be the case, and if it isn't, I'm looking for advice.  Has anyone had to deal with this before?  What steps did you take?  Do you follow another author who's been through it?  Feel free to pass on some wisdom.

You are a pain in the ass, Felix, and not the good kind.

And Authlim of Xvim, who left me a comment about this earlier, you are awesome for bringing this to my attention and you deserve a short story, at the very least.  I'll contact you.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Love Letters Post #32

Notes:  Jasmine POV here, because we needed it.  Some aftermath, some consequence, some ambiguousness and then next time around we’re back to Ben.  Gosh, in some ways this is the most adult thing I’ve ever written, because I’m not diluting the emotion with action scenes, or giving up the quick and delicious HEA I tend to love.  Instead there’s impact and rebound and decision and it all takes time.  Grr, so much time.  This story is going to end up spanning close to a year, at least in the book’s timeline.  Wow.  Good thing I’m writing something incredibly fun and easy to leaven the mood on this blog.  I’m enjoying Love Letters more, though, now that I’m over the dreaded fight scene.  Later this week comes Cody!

Title: Love Letters

Part Thirty-Two: Changing the Angle Mid-Swing


To say that Jasmine was surprised to be hearing from Ben was an understatement.  One thing his trip to Boston had shown was that Ben wasn’t the type to reach out, especially not for simple social reasons.  Jasmine, on the other hand, was that type, but whatever Ryan and Ben had going, it was prickly enough that she didn’t want a random phone call to dislodge anything.  So she beat back her occasional impulses to give Ben a ring and focused on her own life. 

Jasmine’s life got a lot harder when Ryan left to go back to Concord—mad preparation for deadlines filled her days, and finagling with printers and banks and reviewers all while trying to keep Ryan focused on getting the next part of the story done consumed all her free time.  The incident with Joey ruining some of Ben’s canvases was enough to make Jasmine want to pull her own hair out, but fuck it, shit happened.  One of her own brothers had accidentally set her senior prom dress on fire half an hour before she was going to be picked up—she hadn’t been wearing it, thankfully, but it wasn’t the kind of thing you could patch up with string and duct tape.  That was only one of about a million times that things hadn’t gone as planned, and Jasmine had learned to ride out the waves and make as much use of the calm periods as possible.

She knew enough about Ryan’s family to know that there was no way in Hell, capital H, that she would ever be caught dead at Maydays.  It was nice that it was Ryan’s birthday and all, but hanging out with a bunch of waspy southerners who’d probably spend every second snickering up their bespoke sleeves at her?  No fucking thank you.  It had been a surprise to hear that Ben was going, and Ryan had sounded so happy about it that Jasmine hadn’t had the heart to ask him if he really thought that was the best idea.  Ben would fit in with that crowd better than she ever could.  He could probably handle it.

Oh yeah, he’d handled that shit all right.

It took five phone calls over twenty four hours to get everything ironed out.  The first one had been mostly reaction, and Jasmine would be the first to admit that she was heavily biased to come down on Ryan’s side, so it took her a few minutes after she hung up on Ben to get a handle on herself and look at the situation logically.  Then she called him back.

“I’m sorry, I was totally out of line.  You’re right.  He’s a dick.”

“It’s not that I don’t understand why he’s acting the way he’s acting,” Ben said tiredly.  God, Jasmine could hear the fatigue threaded through his voice like a bass line in the kind of somber song that left you wanting to slit your wrists.  “But I’m not going to be able to help him any more, not directly.  I can’t.”

“No, I get that,” Jasmine said, tugging on her braids.  It was a nervous habit her mom had tried to break her of when she was a kid, and mostly had, but it came back under periods of stress.  “What can I do?”

“First, you can head to Concord.  Ryan’s going to need someone to rely on, and he’ll listen to you.  I think you being there is probably the only way you’ll get him to do anything not directly family-related anyway, so…”

“Oh Jesus, of course,” Jasmine sighed, mentally kissing her carefully-organized schedule goodbye.  “What else?”

“I’m about to get on a plane, but I’ll call you after I get back home.  I’ve got some ideas, but they’ll take a little bit to set up.”

“Are you going to talk to Ryan?”

Ben was silent for a moment.  “No,” he said at last, “and I don’t think you should tell him you’re talking to me either.  Not yet.  At least, please don’t give him any details.”

“What kind of details would I give?”

“I’ll tell you when I call you back,” Ben said cryptically, and hung up.

It turned out that Ben had all sorts of ideas, from connections to a law firm in Winston-Salem to a contact with the head of human resources with the Concord Police Department to see about some of the details of Brody’s mandatory life insurance policy.  “I don’t know how much of this they’ve already tried,” Ben told her as Jasmine sucked down coffee at ten o clock the next morning.  She’d only slept about two hours, trying to get everything ready for her unexpected road trip.  “I know that getting a fresh perspective from an outside lawyer will be new, but that’s about it.  Melissa Carter is a very good lawyer, though, and she’s giving me the family rate for this, so I think she’ll really be able to help.”

“I thought you didn’t have any family,” Jasmine said unthinkingly, then cursed herself out in her head as silence reigned for a few seconds.

“She’s a distant cousin,” Ben said at last.  “On my father’s side.  I actually called him to make sure she was the right one, it’s the first time I’ve talked to him in five years.”

“Wow.”  Heavy.

“Yeah.  Listen, the only person who needs to know that I’m paying for the lawyer is DeeDee, okay?  I don’t want Ryan knowing, I don’t want him feeling indebted, I don’t want anything from him.  I’m just happy to be helping Brody’s family, and that’s all.  If DeeDee has a real problem with me paying then she can pay me back once they’re out from under her brother-in-law’s control, but that’s it.”  He sounded determined.

“Does that mean it’s over between the two of you?” Jasmine asked, kind of dreading the answer but needing to know.  She knew a lot about Ryan, about how he threw himself into things with complete abandon, always looking for something to make up for everything that he hadn’t had.  She’d always thought she’d done a pretty good job being a surrogate sister, but no one had held Ryan’s attention like Ben since she’d known him.    

“It means…that I don’t know, but I do know that we’re not a priority.  Getting his life and his family back together should be Ryan’s priority, not thinking about me.  And honestly, I really don’t want to talk to him right now, so…”  She could practically hear his shrug.  Ben sounded so cool, so controlled.  If Jasmine hadn’t met him before, and wasn’t as good with people as she was, she would have thought he was entirely unaffected.  Instead, she knew that there was a lot of pain in there, and the only way he could deal with it right now was to put up a wall and shut it down.  Which, hey, not a perfect picture of a healthy psychological response to stress, but whatever.

“Want me to let you know how things go?” Jasmine asked instead of digging deeper.


All of her preparations led to a twelve hour car trip, including two flat tires (fucking lug nuts and the way they could roll off bridges, she was never doing that again, never) and copious amounts of coffee, and finally Jasmine standing on the front porch of Ryan’s mother’s house, after not being able to get through to him on the phone. 

When a kid who looked a lot like him opened the door, looked at her and said, “One,” Jasmine knew who she was dealing with. 

“Hi Joey.  Is your Uncle Ryan around?”

Joey didn’t say anything, just turned and walked back into the house.  A minute later Ryan came to the door, and when he saw her his jaw dropped.  “Jasmine…what…”

“I just drove all damn day to get here, don’t I get a hug?” she asked archly, holding out her arms.

Ryan moved into her embrace and Jasmine wrapped him up, sighing when she felt his tension melt against her, so fast that he was barely keeping his feet.  He looked ten years older than usual, and like he hadn’t been sleeping if the dark smudges beneath his eyes and the sallow color of his skin were any indication.  “Rough couple of days, huh?”

“You could say that,” he muttered into her shoulder.  “How…wait, what are you doing here?”

Saving your ass.  “Being your backup,” Jasmine said.  “Ben called me.”

Ryan pulled back and stared wide-eyed at her.  “He called you?  You’ve talked to him?”

“Briefly.”  Like, only for five hours or so.  “He told me about your uncle and said you could use a little support.  And since my work is mobile and is mostly you anyway, I thought I’d come down.  Problem?”

“No, of course you’re welcome.  I meant to call you, but my phone is…you talked to Ben?  How is he?”

Oh yeah, that was guilt in Ryan’s voice.  “How do you think he is?”

Ryan winced.  “Angry?”

“Try shell-shocked, baby.”

“Oh my god.”  Ryan covered his face with his hands.  “I told him to leave but I didn’t expect him to actually leave the state, he was supposed to be here for one more day and I was going to go talk to him but he’d checked out of the hotel, and now he’s not taking my calls or answering my texts.”

Jasmine was going to say something about that, but her attention was distracted by the willowy blonde walking up behind them.  Her eyes were bloodshot and she looked a little unstable on her heels, but her voice was clear enough.  “Ryan, who’s this?”

“This is Jasmine Napuna, Cheryl, she’s my publisher and my roommate and my…pretty much everything else,” Ryan said, snapping out of his momentary fugue. 

“It’s a pleasure to meet another friend of Ryan’s,” Cheryl said graciously, extending a hand.  Her fingers were far too cold, but she seemed sincere.  “I’ll go tell DeeDee.”

“Is she out of bed yet?”

Cheryl sighed.  “I don’t know.  I’ll go check.”  She wobbled away and Ryan turned back to Jasmine.  “Let’s get your stuff inside.”

Getting this family to do anything out of their brittle routine, Jasmine found out, was an almost Sisyphean task.  It didn’t take long to realize that Cheryl was a barely-functioning alcoholic, DeeDee had a wet blanket for a spine and Joey required almost all the attention that Ryan and his sister Molly could give him now that he didn’t have the structure of school to occupy him.  Even mentioning lawyers brought tears to DeeDee’s eyes, and it took every bit of charm and conviction Jasmine had to get her to agree to a meeting with the lawyer Ben had recommended.  Ryan was an unexpected source of support, maybe in an effort to make up for his earlier failure with Ben, who still wasn’t taking his calls. 

Thankfully Melissa Carter, born a DeWitt, was just what they needed.  She was friendly but brisk over the phone and just the same in person, and even better, the day she was available to meet was one where Ryan was out of the house with Joey and Molly.  She spent several hours secluded with DeeDee in the drawing room—which, this was the first time Jasmine had ever stayed in a house that had a drawing room, what was this, Downton Abbey?—and by the time they emerged, DeeDee looked a million times more hopeful and Melissa had an armful of financial papers and was ready to get a subpoena for the rest.

“I’m so grateful, you’ve no idea,” DeeDee said as she showed Melissa to the door.  “Do you really think you’ll be able to straighten things out with the annuity?  Only Bill has so many friends…”

Melissa Carter’s lips pursed into a tight line.  “Bill Kuzniar’s law firm has been investigated twice in the past year for fraud, and it’s only the good old boy’s network that’s keeping him alive.  I know how to handle bullies with powerful friends, Mrs. Kuzniar.”

“Thank you so much.”

“It’s my job,” Melissa replied.  “I’ll have more information for you tomorrow.” 

After she left, DeeDee turned to Jasmine.  “Would you mind helping me in the kitchen for a bit, honey?”

“Only if you’ll let me do some of the cooking,” Jasmine said with a smile.

“Oh, certainly.  There’s some chicken in the fridge, make whatever you want.”

It was a big, beautiful kitchen, the kind Jasmine had always wanted in her heart of hearts.  She had memorized the layout of the drawers her first day here, and she and DeeDee worked in silence for a while, Jasmine boiling the chicken in preparation of making it kelaguen-style, and DeeDee getting started on collard greens and black eyed peas before she started to speak.

“Mrs. Carter told me that her services are being paid for by someone else.  That’s not you, is it honey?”

“No,” Jasmine said firmly.  No matter how much she would have wanted to or been willing, she didn’t have that kind of money, not even in credit.

DeeDee sighed.  “Then it must be Ben.  I asked Mrs. Carter and she got cagey.  I’m afraid myself and my family made a terrible impression on that poor young man.”

“I think that’s true,” Jasmine agreed.  She’d decided early on not to pull her punches, and even though she wasn’t trying to be cruel, she didn’t blink when DeeDee looked down at the ground ashamedly.  Jasmine could see where Ryan had learned some of his more submissive mannerisms.  What the fuck must his father have been like in person? 

“It wasn’t Ryan’s fault things went so badly, it’s mine,” DeeDee confessed.  “It’s my mess, and he just got sucked into it.  I…I haven’t been very good to my family lately.”

“Your family has had it rough, I get that.”  Oh, she’d been there.  “But you can’t just dwell on the rough parts, because that’s how you get stuck.”  It felt awkward as hell, standing here cooking in a gorgeous kitchen with Ryan’s mother, offering up advice like Jasmine had a handle on all the tricky parts of life.  Ha.  Still, someone had to offer a little guidance, and it couldn’t be Ben.

“Mmhmm,” DeeDee murmured quietly, stirring the peas.  “You know, Cheryl and I have an appointment with the insurance company tomorrow,” she offered after a moment.

“I know.”  Jasmine had unashamedly listened in while Ryan made the appointment.  A lot had happened in the past few days.  Ryan had even had some time to paint, which was good because his panels needed to be done in five days to keep to the schedule.

“If Mrs. Carter can do what she thinks she’ll be able to with the annuity, then we might be able to get a caregiver for Joey too, for half days at least.  So Ryan can have some time off.” 

“Good.”  He needed it.

There was clearly more she wanted to say, but DeeDee hadn’t quite worked up to it and Jasmine wasn’t going to prod her into it.  She was here to keep things moving smoothly, not help people having epiphanies or come-to-Jesus moments or whatever they needed to get on with their lives.  They spent the rest of the afternoon cooking a ridiculously large meal—at least Jasmine and DeeDee had that in common—and talking about little nothings, and that was fine.

It was a week before Ryan was finally able to get through to Ben, and Jasmine wasn’t around for that conversation.  She’d been teaching Molly how to make Chamorro Latiya, one of her favorite desserts, when Ryan walked into the kitchen looking—well, devastated was the best Jasmine could come up with.  She knew it wasn’t because of anything happening here, since Cheryl was set to go into rehab next week thanks to some financial wizardry with a life insurance policy that no one had remembered, and Melissa Carter had fucking Uncle Bill on the ropes and was moving in for the knockout.  He had left a long, vituperative message on the home answering machine which Cheryl had replayed for her with glee.  So it wasn’t what was happening here…it was personal, then.  It had to be Ben.

“Go ahead and put that in the fridge, Molly, and I’ll come back and help clean up in a few minutes, okay?”  Molly nodded and Jasmine headed over to Ryan and pulled him out onto the back lawn.  It was beautiful out there, bright sunlight filtering through the tall birch trees as it slowly set.  The grass was cool on her toes, and Jasmine sat down on the ground and tugged Ryan down next to her.  He sat slowly, almost crumpling, like a puppet being discarded once the show was over.

“Bad news?” she asked softly.

Ryan shrugged, still staring down at the phone clutched in his hand.  “I guess…we’re taking a break.  That’s what Ben said, but I don’t think that’s what he really meant.”  He sighed and looked over at her.  “At least he picked up the phone this time.  He actually apologized to me for not answering earlier, he said he just…couldn’t.”  Ryan shook his head. 


“Honest,” Ryan corrected.  “I actually…you know, it makes me feel sick, physically ill, that I actually fucked up so badly Ben couldn’t bear to talk to me for a week.  What kind of person does that make me?”

“The kind that makes mistakes,” Jasmine said, as comfortingly as she could.  “You’re not perfect, for sure.  Your situation has been pretty bad, though.”

“Yeah.”  Ryan gazed off into the distance, his eyes unfocused.  “I wish I could blame it all on that.  It would feel a lot better if I could say Ben was the judgmental one and had fucked me over just as much as I have him, but that’s just not true.  This is on me.”

Jasmine hadn’t been prepared for quite that much honesty.  She’d actually thought that comforting Ryan would entail hugging and soothing, not sitting and talking about things like rational adults.  “Did you tell him that?”

“Yeah, I did.  And he thanked me for apologizing.  Then he said goodbye.”

They sat quietly for a while, Ryan watching the lengthening shadows on the lawn and Jasmine watching Ryan.  “What are you going to do next?” she finally asked, a little unnerved by the silence.  Ryan wasn’t the type to let stillness linger.

“I’m not sure.  Stay here, make sure things are okay for Mom and Cheryl and the kids.  Get the paintings finished.  Although,” he turned to look at her, “I have to change the last one.”

“Ryan, no,” Jasmine groaned.  “There’s no time for a new scene, we’re due to get these to the printer in three days!”

Ryan shrugged.  “I’ll work through the night if I have to.  I’ve got to change it.  The story’s not the same anymore.”

“Honey, you’ve gotta dissociate yourself from your main character some,” she argued.  “Her arc doesn’t have to follow yours, that’s not how writing works!”

Ryan sat up straight and looked her right in the eyes.  “It’s how this story works,” he said seriously.  “It always has been, and you know it.  Everyone does.  I can’t write this one way when I’m feeling another, not Janie.  If I don’t feel this one, I can’t write it.”

“So, what then?” Jasmine demanded.  “You’re going to have her get all the way to the Phantom only to have him say, ‘Get lost’?  Because that’s not gonna fly for your fans, Ryan, and like it or not your do have to consider them and not just yourself in this.”

“I know.  And no, I’m not going to do that.  I’ve got another ending in mind.  It’s a little ambiguous, but that’s life.”

Jasmine felt the mental lightning bolt of a sudden insight.  “Ryan…is this…are you making this into an apology?  Because I don’t know if Ben will appreciate that.”

“He doesn’t have to appreciate it.  He doesn’t even have to accept it. I just have to make it,” Ryan replied.  He seemed perfectly calm, determined.  Jasmine felt a little lost.  Where was the playful guy, the sweet, slightly hapless one that she just wanted to wrap up and protect?  Holy crap, and when had she become his mother?  Although from the looks of things, Ryan and his mom had never had that sort of relationship.  Maybe that was why he’d clung so hard to her when she’d offered to be his support system.  Enabler, her mind taunted her.  Jasmine shifted uncomfortably.

“What is it that gets to you about him so much?” she asked.  “Really.  He’s not the guy you read about, Ryan.  That guy was your brother’s friend, not your boyfriend.  Shit, you guys barely had time to be boyfriends!”

“I know,” Ryan agreed.  “And it’s…look, you think I’ve got him on a pedestal.  I know he does too.  And that might be where I started at, but it’s not where I am now.  When he was here, when we were fighting, I told him he wasn’t Brody.  And he isn’t.  But I think that should be a good thing.”  He tilted his head up at the sky.  “Maybe a break is a good idea.  I’ll need to figure this out before I talk to Ben again.  I want him to know I’m sincere.”

“Actions speak louder than words.”  Jasmine felt stupid right after she said it; couldn’t she do better than stupid clich├ęs at a moment like this?  But Ryan was nodding.

“Exactly.  Which is why we have to start with the story.”  He stood up and brushed off his jeans, then held a hand out to her.  He was wearing a t-shirt today, and seeing the colorful curve of the serpent on his arm was reassuring, like Ryan was coming back out of the dark shell he was hiding in when she got here.  She took his hand and let him help her up.

“Let me show you what I have in mind.”

Sunday, September 22, 2013

RMFW 2013, or What I Did This Weekend!

Hi guys!

I spent all weekend, including Friday, at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer's conference.  There were panels and master classes and workshops, as well as the opportunity to pitch to agents and get critiques of the first parts of stories.  I learned a lot of interesting things, including how to prepare a manuscript and turn it into an epub and mobi document, which means I'll be able to produce my own ebooks.  This is important because I also made contacts who work as freelance editors, including one lady who is an erotica editor for Changeling Press.  Now I have people to go to to get quality editing so that when I finally do put out my own ebooks, you the reader will get something professional, and not something that looks homemade.

When I say finally I actually mean pretty damn soon, hopefully before the holidays, because I want to get my older stuff revised and rolling.  I'm going to start with The Captain and see how that goes.  Right now I don't have plans to get rid of the free versions on Literotica, so there won't be any yelling and screaming and gnashing of teeth.  The new version will be professionally edited, will bring all three parts together, will have cover art and be very reasonably priced, but there should still be options for people who just can't bring themselves to pay for me or who have no other way of accessing my work.  I want to be a professional writer, but I also get that this habit can get expensive.

I also learned about Chinese ghost lore (so awesome), fantasy fundamentals (thanks Carol Berg, now I have so much more work to do), rewriting and revising (thanks for the same reason, Cindi Meyers), I got to sit in on panels with Rob Thurman (urban fantasy) and Ron Malfi (thriller/horror) and Margaret George (historical fiction) and I met a ton of fantastic people in addition to all the other stuff I can't remember but have written down.  I attended this conference last year for the first time and loved it, and this year was different but still very good.  When it comes to improving the craft of writing, making connections and scaring the fuck out of yourself by pitching your story to an agent who couldn't be bothered to stop texting for the first few minutes of your meeting with her, I highly recommend a conference like this.

Bit by bit, I'm getting there.  Anyway, there should be Love Letters on Tuesday and a beginning to my Cody story later in the week, as long as no more natural disasters befall us.  Have a lovely Sunday, darlins.

PS--Rob Thurman (of Cal and Niko Leandros fame, check it out here) critiqued my mainstream UF novel and gave me such a nice response! Of course, this is the novel I'm shelving for now, but still...huzzah for being told I write at a professional level!  How lovely, considering I'm trying to actually be a professional.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Today You Get Stand-In Story

There is no new Love Letters today. I hate that there isn't, I keep a schedule for a reason and this is twice in the last 5 weeks I've broken it, but I've gotta say these are some pretty extravagant extenuating circumstances.  I left you guys with a terrible cliffhanger, but then, we're kind of hanging onto a cliff ourselves right now.

I've spent my non-working time digging on my road, at the top of which rests my car, and at the bottom of which rests a collapsing culvert.  I figure I should still try to make the road usable, for whenever we manage to get a crew up here to help fix things.  My man and I are sharing a vehicle, and we've got neighbors to help who weren't as lucky as us.  Because we were truly, incredibly lucky with this storm.  Our home is fine, we're both mostly healthy (I'm a little screwed up, but what else is new?) and the cat is reassuringly ornery.  So, lucky!  But time isn't something we've had a lot of.  Time or clean water.  I'm boiling and bleaching my water again, it's like being back in Togo.  I risked a shower today--bring it, microbes!  No wait, don't.  Please don't bring it...

So, I'm going to do my best to have both Love Letters and the first entry for Cody's story--which I haven't titled yet, I need to--for you next week, as an apology.  Today, you get the first part of a story titled Dangerous Territory coming out next month in an SMP anthology.  This is just me givin' my darling something to go on, because I love you.  Read and enjoy, or don't and get your recompense next week.  

I hope you all are safe and happy.  Thanks for your lovely comments over the past week, I've really appreciated it and I'm sorry for delays in response--the power was iffy for awhile.


Dangerous Territory

By Cari Z

Carter Bly stared blankly at his father’s tombstone, so exhausted now that he couldn’t spare the energy to think about why he’d beaten his way out to the cemetery in the middle of a dust storm, too tired to think of anything except his own failure.  One month his pa had been in his grave.  One month was all it had taken for everything to go to hell.

The wind blew dry and hot this time of year across the Oklahoma Territories, stinging the skin with sand and filling every crevice of skin and cloth with dirt.  Carter was aware, absently, that he looked a damn fool out here, battered felt hat clenched in his fist, dust marking out the premature lines in his face, carved after decades of squinting into the sun.  He’d worked his whole life with his father on the ranch, worked to make it bigger and better.  More animals, better feed, the finest cattle west of the Mississippi.  Cattle that would command a great price at auction.  Cattle that would give him and his sister an easier life than their parents had had.

Carter’s eyes ached, red-rimmed and gritty from sleepless nights and never-ending frustration.  He ran a clumsy hand through his hair, felt the strands clump thick and greasy against his palm.  His mama would have switched him something fierce if she could see what he looked like right now. 

He glanced over at his mother’s tombstone, five feet away.  It was a little rounder about the edges than his pa’s, but the engraving was still clear.  Caroline Bly had been dead for five years, and Carter had never thought of that as something to be thankful for before now.  As it was, he was grateful she’d been spared the pain of seeing everything she’d worked for fall to pieces.

Well, not everything.  From one way of looking, Millie had done more than all right for herself.  Carter knew that was how his sister saw it; it was how she had to see it if she was going to live with herself.  Both Carter and Millie had taken after their father, and while in Carter’s case that made him a fairly handsome man, tall and long-legged and strong-featured, Millie had ended up a gangly, raw-boned and strong-featured woman, which no woman wanted to be called.  She’d been convinced she’d live and die a spinster before their little town had become a stopping point for barges heading downriver to the big trading cities.  Before Percy.

“Carter.”  A heavy hand clapped his shoulder, shaking him out of his reverie.  “Come on back to the big house now, son.”

His eyes prickled painfully at the word ‘son,’ but any moisture was soon swept away by the wind.  “I will not sleep in that house while he’s under the same roof.”

“Half of that roof is yours,” his company pointed out.  “You should claim it.”

“I can’t.”  Carter shook his head, the freshness of his misery finally resurfacing.  “I can’t, Keena.  I’ll punch the man in the face before he says two words, and then who knows what his fancy-pants lawyer will be able to bleed outta me?  I can’t go back there, not…”  Not broken.  Not like this.  Not while all I can think of is everything that I’ve lost.

“Then come home with me,” Keena said gently.  “Gertrude wants to get her hands on you anyway; she’s convinced you’ll starve to death without a cook around up there.”

“Percy has provided his own cook,” Carter sneered.  “Calls him a chef, actually.  Boy from the Loozy-Do who can’t even make biscuits without burnin’ ‘em.  Covers perfectly good steak with sauces, and he actually brought gator sausage with him.  Throws it into the grits and ruins the taste.  Gator.  Who in the hell eats gator?”

“Come home,” Keena repeated.  “You can get a bath, get some food, some sleep.  Tomorrow is soon enough to figure out the rest of it.”

Carter wanted to argue, wanted to say that there was nothing to figure out, he was pure and simple screwed, that was all, screwed out of his inheritance by his besotted sister and her snake-eyed husband, but he knew Keena didn’t want to hear that.  The old man had worked on this ranch since before Carter was born, and he was the closest thing to family that Carter had now outside of Millie.  Hell, he and his wife Gertrude might be Carter’s closest thing to family including Millie, what with how she’d behaved of late, like some prissy, weak-minded debutante who wouldn’t even breathe without asking for her husband’s permission first.  That wasn’t the sister he knew.  Nothing was familiar anymore, nothing except…

“C’mon now,” Keena coaxed him, and Carter let himself be led away from his father’s grave.  There was no comfort to be had there, anyway.

Keena and Gertrude had a small place about a half-mile from the big house, where they’d lived ever since they’d first married and Pa had put Keena in charge of the herd.  Carter used to run back and forth between the two homes on a daily basis, delivering food or gossip for the women, carrying plans and whiskey for the men.  Gertrude and Caroline had been friends their whole lives, and Caroline had been one of the only people not to shun Gertrude after she’d married Keena. 

Keena was half shifter, and that sort of intermarriage was still frowned upon by polite society.  Fierce shifter clans were a large part of the reason that early efforts to make this new land into one united country had failed so spectacularly; the newcomers might have had better guns, but they couldn’t track a hawk through the sky, or a wolf into the mountains.  

Many attempts at inroads into shifter territory had been made, but the cost was usually so high for whomever tried it that an uneasy peace had gradually settled over the land.  Shifters gave up territory they didn’t much care for to whomever could grab it first, and with no central government that made for a lot of small, insular communities. 

Apart from the original thirteen colonies back east, who had gotten their land in part by passing along illness before shifters got wise to it, the continent was a patchwork of claims.  Various shifter tribes, the Oklahoma Territories, the Dukedom of Louisiana, the People’s Republic of Texas…it was a wild place, this part of the world.  Hardscrabble lives made it difficult to trust outsiders, and Keena was shunned by both groups.  The Blys had provided him and his family with a sanctuary, and now even that might be taken away.

Keena pulled Carter to the small barn outside his home, opened up a rain barrel that had nearly gone dry and dampened a handkerchief, then passed it over.  “Better clean up some first, or Gertrude will take one look atcha and send you right back outside.”

Carter took the cloth and ran it numbly over his face, shutting his eyes for a moment and letting the cool water wash some of the grit away.  God, he was so tired…it was tempting to keep the thin cotton draped there, easing the harshness of his breaths and taking away some of the pain of reality for a while, but Carter knew he couldn’t hide from his troubles.  He had tonight, and only tonight, to figure out a plan that would keep him independent, or he’d have to give in to Percy’s demands.  There was too much at stake for him to be obstinate now.

Keena’s warm hand touched Carter’s elbow.  “C’mon now, son,” he murmured, turning them both toward the house.  “Come on.”

Inside that humble front door was the warmth and welcome that Carter had always received from Gertrude, in the form of a pair of work-weathered hands clasping his face and a brief, concerned cluck.  “What type of fool are ya, Carter, to go out into those dustups with nothing but a single layer, hmm?” she asked him with a sigh.  “Your mama didn’t raise you to be ignorin’ the weather.”  She pointed at one of the chairs—the widest one, the one she’d always given to his father before now—at the table.  “Go and sit down before you fall down and let me get some food into you.  Both of you,” she added, including her husband in her admonition.  He raised his hands peaceably and sat down.

They stayed mostly quiet while they ate, Keena and Gertrude exchanging soft, easy words and touches as the food made its way around the table.  It was a light evening meal, not the hearty dinner served earlier in the day, but there was bread and slices of cold, salted ham, and stewed apples flavored with cinnamon and a few precious cloves.  That bottle of cloves had been Caroline Bly’s last gift to Gertrude, and the experienced cook had made them last for half a decade so far.  Carter gulped down his lemon water, finally realizing how parched he was, and had seconds under Gertrude’s watchful eye until he could eat no more.  While she cleared the plates, Keena took out a bottle of whiskey and poured them all a dram.

“Now, before we let ourselves go, why don’t you tell me what happened up at the big house today?” Keena asked gently.  “Sharing your burden might help ease it.”

Carter chuckled bitterly.  “I was going to have to talk to you about it anyway.  It’s got to do with the running of the ranch.”

Gertrude frowned as she sat back down.  “I thought that was settled,” she said.  “You and your sister split it equally, just like your father intended.”

“Only what’s left isn’t equal anymore,” Carter said with a sigh.

“What’s that mean, son?”

“It doesn’t take into account Millie’s dowry.”

Now Keena frowned.  “But the dowry was settled on before your father died.”

“Yes, but it wasn’t delivered,” Carter explained.  “It’s supposed to be ten percent of the total herd.  We didn’t have time to plan the ceremony while pa was so poorly, and since he’s been gone, well, there hasn’t been time for a wedding.”

“We knew about this,” Gertrude said.  “It’s all planned out now, isn’t it?  They’re going to marry next spring.”

“Can’t wait that long.  Millie’s pregnant.”

Gertrude’s hand flew to her mouth.  “Oh dear.  Oh, that poor dear.  Poor, stupid girl.”

“She’s not far enough along to show, not yet, but she was scared to death that Percy was going to change his mind and leave her, so she convinced him to marry her now.”  Carter snorted derisively.  “Didn’t take much convincing, honestly, that man would have had her the same day he met her if it meant getting a chance any sooner at our cattle and our land.  He’d already made himself comfortable in our home, and I let him, I let him have a hand in the running of my house because I thought it helped Millie, having him closer instead of in town.

“Apparently I kept him too close.  She married him today, at the courthouse.  She didn’t even bother to tell me until they got back.”  It hurt to think about, the look of nervous defiance on his sister’s face, her blank expression as Percy sat down in front of Carter and explained to him that, as 60 percent of the herd now belonged to him, and his sister had signed all of her authority over to her husband, and that by territory law Percy had control of the running of the ranch now.  And the first thing he would do, he said, was—

“—fire that wretched old shifter fellow who tends the beasts.”  Percy’s tone had been full of disdain, his modulated, educated words carelessly hateful.  He was dressed in his Sunday best coming back from the courthouse, a peacock next to his new wife’s drab peahen, for all that she’d tried.  Millie wouldn’t meet Carter’s eyes.  “I prefer to staff my own kind, not half-breeds or other raffle.”

“You can’t fire him,” Carter had replied, incensed and doing his best not to show it.  “He knows this land better than anyone, he keeps the snakes away from the animals, he knows which cows are about to drop, and he almost never loses a calf.  This ranch needs him.”

“Oh, I beg to differ,” Percy said with a sniff.  “And as I own controlling interest in this quaint little venture, I am the one who has the final say.”

Carter knew, then, that there was no way he could continue on here, in the house he’d been born and raised in, with this man and the sister he didn’t know anymore.  He’d grind his teeth to nothing holding back his rage, when all he wanted was to sock this dandy fop so hard in the jaw he couldn’t eat for a month.  He wanted to yell at his sister, to demand her support after everything they’d been through together, but he couldn’t do that to Millie.  No one should be made to choose between their husband and their family, so Carter would take that choice out of her hands.  He just had to figure out how to do it without impoverishing himself.

Keena and Gertrude were both silent, absorbing what Carter had shared.  Gertrude spoke first.  “That man doesn’t know the first thing about ranching,” she snapped.  “Keena’s worth the work of ten of his fancy cowboys.”

“I know it,” Carter agreed.  “I got Percy to agree to accept severance pay in exchange for me breakin’ off my share of the herd.”

“How much money?” Keena asked immediately.  “And when?”

“Another ten percent.  It’ll leave me with fewer than a thousand head, but we can build up from that.”  Carter blew out a frustrated breath.  “The thing is, I don’t have the money right now, and he won’t take the payment in more cattle.  Bastard’s already got his livestock booked on the first barges down to auction at the Big Top, and there’s no room for mine on board.  If he floods the market before I get there, I won’t get enough for my stock to make enough to pay him to sever with me.”

“And if you don’t sever now…”

“Then he has the running of the ranch for a year, while I scrape the money together,” Carter sighed.  “He’ll take this house.  He’s said as much, he wants it for his own men.”

Gertrude paled, and her eyes suddenly glistened in the lamp light.  “But…we’ve been here since we first got married, longer than you’ve been livin’.”  Her husband reached out and took her hand, stroking it gently.  She turned towards him and pressed her face into his shoulder.  Carter had never seen Gertrude cry before, not after her miscarriages, not even after his mama died.  To see it now made him feel strangely ashamed of himself.

Keena spoke up after a moment.  “You’ve got to get to auction before Percy.”

“I know,” Carter said, clenching his hands in his hair.  “I just don’t know how.  If the rains are late, real late, I could drive ‘em to auction and get there first, but that’s a long trip and I need you here, looking after the heifers and their calves.  It would be hard as hell by myself.”

“You could use Mason Canyon,” Keena said, and both Gertrude and Carter stared at him like he was crazy.

“That’s shifter territory,” Carter said at last. 

“The last time you went to speak to them, they tried to shoot you!” his wife exclaimed, wiping furiously at her eyes.
“The local tribe’s leadership has just changed.  I think their new chief might deal with me.”

Shifters willing to deal?  That didn’t happen in the Oklahoma Territories.  You carved out what you could hold and prayed no one saw fit to fight you for it.  Carter tried another tack.  “Mason Canyon’s full of snakes--they’d decimate my herd.”

“These shifters can handle any snake,” Keena said calmly.  “Mason Canyon is almost a straight shot right down to the Big Top.  You’d get there in under two weeks, and your guide could help you handle the cattle.”

God damn, but that was mighty tempting… Carter strained to hold on to his objectivity.  “If the rains come early,” he murmured, “the canyon will flood.  I could lose everything.”

“If you don’t try,” Keena told him bluntly, “you’ll lose everything anyway.  And so will we.”  He leaned forward a little, his plain, wide face earnest.  “Let me try to strike a deal.  If this works, you could make enough to pay off your debts and have enough to start over, build your own place, claim your own land.  I will help you.”

“We both will,” Gertrude said, then threw up her hands in exasperation.  “Assuming that this old fool doesn’t go off and get himself killed tonight dealing with those ruffians.”

Carter swallowed hard.  “You think it could work?”

Keena nodded slowly.  “I think it has to work.”  He pushed his chair back and stood up.  “This tribe is more active at night.  I should go before the moon is too high, though.”

“Are you sure you don’t—”

“Don’t you even think about going with him,” Gertrude interrupted.  “You need to sleep.  You’re dead on your feet.  I’ve got the spare bed all made up.”

“If you’re sure…”

“Of course I’m sure.  Go on, there’s more water in the room, and a kit for shaving in the morning.” 

“Get some sleep,” Keena reiterated.  “You’ll need it for the journey you’ve got ahead of you.”

A journey down Mason Canyon…the result was either going to be utterly brilliant or the worst mistake of his life.  Right now Carter was too tired to care.  He levered himself out of his chair, biting back a groan at the stiffness in his arms, and headed for the second bedroom.

The room was small, with hardly enough room for the slender bed, rough wooden nightstand with mirror, kit and lamp upon it, but it was homey and familiar.  Carter had slept in that bed more times than he could remember over the course of his life.  It was too short for him now, but he still found it more comfortable than anything he’d be sleeping in back in the Big House.  At least here, he could breathe.

He shucked off his dirty clothes and hung them over the rail at the foot of the bed, used the wet rag in the basin to wipe the worst of the sweat and dirt away, then slipped under the cool, stiff covers.  Carter was so wound up he honestly didn’t think he’d sleep, but the days of toil had taken their toll, and the moment his body actually began to relax, he was dead to the world.