Friday, August 31, 2012

❤ back to the books giveaway hop 2012

the season ❤ It's been a year already since our last Back to the Books giveaway hop — a year I've been in Korea! For what else but school?
the hop The Back to the Books Giveaway Hop, hosted by Kathy at I Am A Reader, Not A Writer and Buried in Books, works like this: each participating blog hosts a giveaway and then we link up together allowing our followers to hop easily from one giveaway to another.  For followers, it means lots of chances to win free books. For blogs hosting giveaways, it means lots of new visitors and followers. It's a win-win! The Back to the Books Giveaway Hop is scheduled from September 1st at 12.01 AM until September 7th at 11:59 PM (EST).
the prize  $25 gift card to your bookstore of choice! The Book Depository, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon are a few of many options.

the rules ❤ Since this is a follower hop, I will have to make subscribing to my blog via Email a mandatory entry (top right). For additional entries, you can (+2) follow ¡Miraculous! via GFC (again top right), (+1) follow me on Twitter (@lovestephaniexx), or (+2) enter any of my other giveaways. That's up to six entries total.

To enter, fill out the Rafflecopter form below. You MUST include the email address you subscribed with (and confirmed) — as well as your GFC name, Twitter handle, and/or other giveaway you entered, if you choose to take advantage of those extra entries, or else your entries will not be counted. I will be checking! No proof = no entries! Also, this giveaway is international, woohooooo! Being outside the US, myself (though not for long! I'll be back in July yippeeee), I just had to.
the small print I'm not saying this because I'm a completely anal and want to make your life a living hell, but because I've noticed something going on with a lot of follower hops. The point of them is not to temporarily follow that blog and unfollow as soon as the giveaway is over. The point of the follower hops is for the blogs generously offering giveaway prizes to gain more readers and followers — in return, participants receive the opportunity to win great prizes such as books, gift cards, and swag. I'm not just speaking on behalf of myself, because seriously, I'm so grateful for the followship I have (love every each and one of you!), but I know for a fact this happens with lots of other blogs as well. Being part of the blogging community, I just want my two cents be heard. And not to sound cheeky, but a lot of us bloggers use Qwitter, which is an app that tells us exactly who unfollows us on Twitter, so we're not as oblivious as you think. If you are so inclined as to read more about how I feel on this subject matter, please refer to this blog post.
the end Sorry my rant was a little bitchy. I'm not trying to be mean. YOU KNOW I LOVE YOU so don't even go there, darling. Be sure to enter all of the other giveaways going on for this hop; there are so many great prizes being given away!

xo and always!
Stephanie

Thursday, August 30, 2012

♥♥♥♥♥♥: The Holden Age of Hollywood by Phil Brody and Giveaway!

Release Date: July 17th, 2012
Publisher: Medallion Press 
Page Count: 299
Source: Complimentary copy provided by author, via Innovative Online Book Tours, in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you!)

“Hollywood died on me as soon as I got here. Welles said that, not me, but damn if he didn’t nail it, you know?” 

Sam Bateman came to Hollywood to settle a score, but amidst the sunny and 75, his plans went astray. Everything changed the day he drank in the intoxicating legend of Meyer Holden, the greatest screenwriter Hollywood has ever known, the one who pulled a Salinger and walked away. Holden now tacks pseudonyms onto his works and buries them in the bottomless sea of spec that is Hollywood’s development process. They’re out there for anyone to find—but at what cost? In his quest, Bateman severs all ties and sinks into a maddening world of bad writing and flawed screenplays. Paranoid and obsessive, the belligerent savant encounters an eccentric cast of characters — each with an agenda—in his search for the one writer in Hollywood who does not want to be found.

Phil Brody’s The Holden Age of Hollywood is at once a detective novel, an unexpected love story, and a provocative exposé of a broken industry. With dark humor and incisive commentary, the novel immerses readers in a neo-noir quest to attain the Hollywood dream, integrity intact.
What Stephanie Thinks: The essence of Hollywood cinema—the omnipresent and growing monster that constitutes it—is captured perfectly in Brody's observant, almost journalistic, novel. Sam Bateman's voice is strong, the perfect balance of humor, self-depreciation with an ironic tinge of haughtiness, and stunning insight, so I give Brody kudos for that, but I wasn't too fond of the actual flow of the book.

Mostly it's because there's hardly any interaction. Brody's certainly got a way with words and is able to demonstrate Bateman's thinking process and immediate activities (i.e. his mission to find the next Holden ticket), but the lack of dialogue, the lack of actual progress, makes it kind of a boring read. Don't get me wrong; as a whole, I did enjoy The Holden Age of Hollywood because I love the concept of the hidden scripts of genius, as well as a wronged man's journey to find it. I can't say I've ever read a book as creative yet at the same time, raw, as this one. But the plot structure and slow headway make it a less-than-fabulous read.

The style, I like. Brody has potential, some of which is displayed in his debut novel. The plot itself is decent too, with messages that play out well, including those regarding determination, the everpresent conceptual death and dying of Hollywood, as well as the power of intimacy and love. My verdict: good? Yes. Great? Not really. The Holden Age of Hollywood is a novel about discovery, about self-indictment and self-approval with an obscure tone and penetrating wisdom. With a bit of work, such as the rearrangement of certain events, the cut of some of the footnotes/historical pieces that drag on, and copyediting, it might be more enjoyable, but I think for the most part, my judgment would regardless remain the same.
Stephanie Loves: "He drinks, spews this advice: 'Write what you know.' Leaning in close, he whispers, 'And write what you know will get you laid ... Seriously, though, make it unique. Don't be bothered if some people don't like it. Simply find the one person who loves it.'— I think this is the perfect essence of what writing is, what it should be, conveyed eloquently with a dash of vulgarity and a tragic sense of humor.

Radical Rating: 6 hearts: Satisfying for a first read, but I'm not going back. ♥♥♥♥♥♥

Giveaway!

Thanks to the author and IO Book Tours, one $30 Amazon gift card will given away tour-wide. To enter, fill out the Rafflecopter form below:

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

❤author: Susan Wiggs Interview and Giveaway!

❤ I'm thrilled to welcome the fabulous Susan Wiggs to the blog today. Welcome to ¡Miraculous!, Susan! Will you please tell us about yourself and your newest release, Return to Willow Lake?

I’m so excited for Return to Willow Lake to get into readers’ hands. It's the first release in nearly two years from my bestselling Lakeshore Chronicles series, and centers on Sonnet Romano, one of my favorite characters. She’s smart, ambitious, but clueless when it comes to matters of the heart. At the wedding reception of her best friend and stepsister, Daisy Bellamy, Sonnet starts something she can’t stop...

Sonnet Romano's life is almost perfect. She has the ideal career, the ideal boyfriend, and has just been offered a prestigious fellowship. There’s nothing more a woman wants – except maybe a baby... sister? When Sonnet finds out her mother is unexpectedly expecting, and that the pregnancy is high-risk, she puts everything on hold – the job, the fellowship, the boyfriend – and heads home to Avalon just until things back on track. But when her mother receives a devastating diagnosis, Sonnet must decide what really matters in life, even of that means staying in Avalon and taking a job that forces her to work alongside her biggest, and maybe her sweetest, mistake – award-winning filmmaker Zach Alger. At once heartbreaking and uplifting, Return to Willow Lake plumbs the deepest corners of the human heart, exploring the bonds of family, the perils and rewards of love, and the true meaning of home.

I’m a wife, a mom, a daughter, a sister–a lot like my readers. I live at the water’s edge on a little island near Seattle with my husband and four (yes, four) dogs.


❤ How did you get published? Tell us your call story.

Gosh, it was so long ago: 1986. There was no internet, so it WAS a call. I had sent my first manuscript out, and an editor named Wendy McCurdy called to make an offer for it. My daughter was a toddler, getting into mischief, but I just stood there with a delighted smile on my face. All that hard work, all the hoping and striving... Since then, I’ve published a book or more nearly every year.


❤ That's such an incredible accomplishment! So many books. How much of your actual life gets written into your fictional stories?

Not so much, because real life is usually too messy or boring to fit neatly into a fictional plot. I do use my travels for settings. I tend to travel a lot for research. Return to Willow Lake, Sonnet has a past when she spent some time in Europe. That was based on my own travels. That sort of thing.


❤ Give aspiring writers a piece of advice you wish you would have known before getting published.

Take your time and get it right. Don’t rush things off half-baked.

❤ What's the most interesting comment you have ever received about your stories?

“You’re going to burn in hell for writing that.” Some of my readers really can’t stand it when my characters cuss.

❤ Wow. Then they're going to hate this: damnshitfuckWhere can you be found on the web?


❤ Thank you so much for being here today, Susan! It was a pleasure getting to know you and Return to Willow Lake

Giveaway!
Thanks to Little Bird Publicity, I have one print copy of Return to Willow Lake up for grabs. To enter, all you have to do is fill out the Rafflecopter form below:
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Giveaway runs through September 20th, 2012 at 11.59 pm (EST).
Open to US residents only!
Winners have 48 hours to claim their prize once they are chosen, or else their winnings will be forfeited.
As a reminder, you do not have to follow my blog to enter, though it is always very much appreciated ❤
Good luck!

Monday, August 27, 2012

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥: Loving Lady Marcia by Kieran Kramer

Loving Lady Marcia (House of Brady #1)
Kieran Kramer

Release Date: August 28th, 2012
Publisher: St. Martin's (MacMillan)
Page Count: 349
Source: Complimentary copy provided by publisher, via Innovative Online Book Tours, in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you both!!)

In the House of Brady, three very lovely girls have hair of gold—and hearts to match—but finding a match among the gentlemen of London is one comedy of errors that could bring down the house... 

MARCIA GETS SCHOOLED...

Of the three Brady sisters, Lady Marcia has always seemed the girl most likely to lead a perfectly charmed life. But after a handsome cad breaks her heart, she swears off love and devotes her life to teaching girls at a private school. In spite of her family’s wish for a London debut, Marcia is happy where she is—until terrible news sends her back to the Brady clan…and into the arms of an unexpected suitor. 

ON THE SUBJECT OF LOVE

A dark and dashing earl who knows Marcia’s past, Duncan Lattimore is surprised by what a fascinating and independent woman she’s become. Marcia, too, is surprised—by the fiery attraction she feels for Duncan. But why—why—must he be the brother of the scoundrel who broke her heart? Why must Marcia’s rival at school forbid her from seeing him? How can this lady possibly resist this fellow—when they know that it’s much more than a hunch...?
What Stephanie Thinks: I've heard so much about Kieran Kramer, and how amazing she is, so when I picked up Loving Lady Marcia, which is in every way a classic regency romance (not my favorite genre usually, but read on), I had pretty high expectations. "This better be good," I thought to myself. I even suspected I might be that one person who didn't like Kramer. But alas, I was, as with the book, delighted with her.

Loving Lady Marcia is the first installment in the House of Brady series, which, if you haven't figured out by now, is a historically romantic parody of The Brady Bunch. I LOVE that show, call me old-fashioned, so when I first connected all the names (we are introduced to Marcia's lovely sisters, Janice and Cynthia Brady—isn't that adorable?) I was absolutely thrilled. While the setting is 1819 England, the situation is very relatable and seems 'contemporary'.

Five years ago, beautiful, innocent, fifteen-year-old Marcia gave everything to Finn, the boy she knew as soon as she met eyes with, would be the love of her life. Everything. She thought they had a love that nothing else could surpass, that is, until one day he abruptly left for America by his aloof brother, Duncan's, orders. Marcia was devastated, so she swore off men and decided to become a headmistress at a girls' school—the only other position in her life she had ever felt so passionate about.


Now, she's a regal age of twenty and a bit of an enigma. She is known for her particular beauty and grace and has hundreds of suitors, but much to her parents' disappointment, she stays true to her own vows. Enter, suddenly, into her life again, Finn... God, he's more handsome than ever, but even worse... enter, Duncan.

Though five years ago she and Duncan had a difficult acquaintance, she can't help but feel attracted to him. He's charming, mysterious, relentless—and he's got an air of composure that his brother, and other men she knows, lack. But why must she? He's the one who ruined her relationship with Finn, after all... or is he?

I love love loved this book. Marcia's heartbreak is so realistic and so distressing, but at the time the story takes place, she's such a strong, dazzling character that I so admire. Her main love interests, Finn and Duncan, come to life within the pages as well. Finn is someone that I, like Marcia, immediately fell for, but grew to distrust and dislike by the book's end, as Kramer would have wanted. Duncan was harder to grow on, but eventually I saw him as the man of substance, the man truly after a woman's heart, so I fell in love with him too. Kramer is excellent at breathing life into each of her characters, even the minor ones, and getting to know them was such a ride.

The chemistry is steamy, the banter, witty and warm and wry. The dialogue is highly realistic and the situations just perfect. I smiled at every one of Marcia and Duncan's interactions—they are just so meant to be! Their taboo relationship composed of nighttime rendezvous, fateful and completely lucky bumping-intos, and very very naughty activities involving Duncan's skilled fingers, set the pages on fire. Above all, the emotional turmoil and suffering portrayed in Loving Lady Marcia is what make it such a special romance novel. Loss of innocence, and even worse, loss of trust, is conveyed thoroughly and painfully, but in the end, its resurgence is what fuels the heart.

I look forward to the next books in the House of Brady series... how could I resist Janice and Cynthia's stories? Definitely definitely recommend this one to all lovers of humorous, but still deeply resonant romance stories (even if, like me, you're not particularly fond of historicals!). Thanks to Kramer's smooth and cheeky style, I not once, felt like I was trudging through this book. I guarantee you won't either.

Stephanie Loves: "'It's never the right time to tell someone you love them,' Lord Brady said, 'whether it's a father, a brother, a daughter, or a woman you cherish. But it must be done. You take the risk of having it flung back in your face sometimes. But you do it anyway.'" 

Radical Rating: 9 hearts: Loved it! This book has a spot on my favorites shelf. ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Saturday, August 25, 2012

FavorDeal Promo and Giveaway!

FavorDeal is a professional online jewelry store that concentrates on providing their customers the best value, quality, service, and selection of silver, pearl, and gemstone jewelry at unbelievable wholesale prices. They've a bunch of discounts I want to share with you today... and they've been generous enough to offer a giveaway, too!

Deal #1: 10% Discount code widfa (not valid on daily specials/clearance items)

Deal #2: Clearance aisle, which features discounts for more than 50%!

Deal #3: Daily/weekly special that offers 10%-30% discounts

Deal #4: Daily promotion, which displays three items on the homepage that are on sale for more than 70% off

Our giveaway is fantastic — winner chooses any THREE pieces of jewelry from the below list! Some of them are really cute!









This giveaway is open to all readers, international included! Ends September 9th, 2012 at midnight (EST). To enter, fill out the Rafflecopter form below:

Thursday, August 23, 2012

❤author: Carolyn Moncel Interview and Giveaway!

❤ I'm thrilled to welcome the fabulous Carolyn Moncel to the blog today. Welcome to ¡Miraculous!, Carolyn! Will you please share a short bio with us?

Hiya, Stephanie! I’m so happy to be with you today! I guess my Twitter profile says it all: I’m a wife, mom, business owner and a writer. During the day, I run two companies: a bilingual Digital Project and Web Content Management firm called MotionTemps, LLC, and its subsidiary, Mondavé Communications, a media relations training and publishing company. At night I write. Currently, we are a family of expatriates! We moved overseas from Chicago, my hometown in 2002 and for exactly five years, I got to be “An American in Paris.” Now, I live in Lausanne, Switzerland with my husband and two daughters. I love music (indie rock and old school hip-hop and soul), cooking (as long as I’m not forced to do it), and movies. I’m a pretty serious person when it comes to my work, but I can be incredibly silly as well — just ask my children, who regularly pretend not to know me on the street!

You could be my best friend LOL! Tell us a bit about your books.


Encounters in Paris is a collection of short stories, and it’s my first book. There are five stories that all center around Ellery Roulet, a 35-year-old American who lives and works in Paris. Ellery thinks she has everything. She is married to handsome French guy, has twin daughters and runs a successful PR firm in one of Paris’ trendiest parts of town. Unfortunately, Ellery soon realizes that life isn’t always so perfect. In one story she loses her job, in another she finds out her husband is having an affair, and yet in another she deals with the death of her mother. She realizes that life can be quite messy; some problems can be solved while others can’t and that’s okay. The book really shows how flawed humans can be. There is room for forgiveness, but also missed opportunities for redemption.

5 Reasons to Leave a Lover is my second book. It’s a collection containing a novella and two short stories focusing on love and lost. Ellery and Julien Roulet from Encounters in Paris, return — this time involved in an emotionally-charged love triangle, and along with two other couples, explore how different types of love relationships splinter due to cheating, deception, ambivalence, abandonment, and even death. In the first story, “Set Yourself Free, Ellery,” Julien Roulet has been unfaithful and all involved in the love-triangle must deal with three of the reasons (cheating, deception and ambivalence). Abandonment is represented in the second story, “Or Maybe Just Leave, Steve,” as a best friend must decide where her loyalties lie. Finally, death appears in the last story, “Or Maybe in Death, Beth.” When a man’s wife dies suddenly after a 70 year marriage, he must decide how to go on with his life. Actually, all five themes can be found in each story, depending on how the reader interprets the story and that’s part of the fun. 

Railway Confessions is my current book and it’s a bit edgier than previous works. It follows three couples traveling on a high-speed TGV train from Paris to Geneva, Switzerland, a four-hour trip. It has been my experience while traveling that strangers sometimes will reveal very intimate thoughts. Maybe they do this because they never expect to see the other person again. I wanted to explore how revealing these secrets transform the characters.

In the story, "My Brother's Keeper," a couple must come to terms with the murders that each of them had a hand in committing and their aftermaths; In "A Choice in the Matter," two mothers discuss their love of baby girls and one’s desire to have a daughter at any cost, and in "Pretty Prisons," the last couple must deal with love, infidelity and all of its complexities.


❤ 
How did you first get published? Tell us your call story.


I hope to find a home for my work at a traditional publishing house but in the mean time, I’ve decided to self-publish. I made this decision because I’d been procrastinating for so long. At the nudging of family and friends, I decided to complete a collection of short stories first in order to get my feet wet. Then, I discovered that I really loved short stories as a medium so I’ve decided to continue.

How much of your actual life gets written into your fictional stories?

Bits of my personal life do inspire some of my stories, but not always. For example, there are two stories in Encounters in Paris, “A Haunting in Courbevoie” and “Some Birds of a Feather,” that are partially based on my own life but all the others are completely fiction. There are a lot of similarities between the character Ellery Roulet and myself. We are both American business owners living overseas. We’re both married to French men and have two daughters. However, that’s where the similarities end thankfully. Ellery makes her own decisions and some of them I’d never make!


❤ What do you consider your biggest strengths and weaknesses as an author?

Personally, I’m still learning what my strengths are as a writer. I think it’s a lifelong pursuit. All that I know for now is I like getting inside the heads of my characters and generating pure and truthful emotions. I like focusing on narrow moments in time and exploring what that means for my characters.

This takes me to what I think is a weakness. I have difficulty in providing overall descriptions of interior or exterior settings (the color of a leaf, the sky, or living room furnishings, etc.), because honestly, I’m don’t pay too much attention to these sorts of things in real life. If I were to put myself in the situations in which my characters find themselves, I can promise you that remembering those types of details in general, would be the last thing that I’d be focusing on. LOL

For me, the most obvious physical descriptions of something or someone are often incidental because what I’m looking for is the universality of a situation. For example, Ellery Roulet lives in Paris but what happens to her could have occurred anywhere. I always want to create circumstances for which readers can relate on a deeply personally level.



❤ How would you describe your writing style and tone?

It’s definitely realistic. I like looking at real situations unflinchingly. I’m an observer, and I’ve learned to write in a detached way. No doubt my time spent in Europe, particularly in France, has had a major impact on my style. Just like French movies, I don’t necessarily believe that stories should have happy endings but rather realistic ones. I like to give readers some space to think. 

❤ 
What’s the greatest thing you ever learned in school?

My English professor in college pulled me aside one day and said, “Never stick around waiting for someone else to validate your worth or talent. You already know what you can do and you don’t need anyone else’s permission.”


❤ Give aspiring writers a piece of advice you wish you had known before getting published.

I knew this before I started writing, but I think it’s still an important piece of advice: Find your truth in your stories and tell it. Truth is a subjective thing and finding it is risky because it requires deep introspection. Not everyone will agree with your interpretation but tell it anyway.

❤ Now give us your best personal advice — something you wish you had known when you were younger and would offer to your own kids.
I always try to give me daughters the same advice that my own mother gave to me. You shouldn’t be afraid to venture outside of your comfort zone because it’s how you grow. It’s okay to change your mind and failure is inevitable so try again.

I used to be so afraid of everything but as I get older, I find that I purposely run toward challenging opportunities, not away from them. I embrace some opportunities which carry a high threshold of risk. Starting a business, moving overseas, writing books, etc., were all risky opportunities but I’ve learned something new about myself in every instance.


❤ Give aspiring writers a piece of advice you wish you had known before getting published. 

I knew this before I started writing, but I think it’s still an important piece of advice: Find your truth in your stories and tell it. Truth is a subjective thing and finding it is risky because it requires deep introspection. Not everyone will agree with your interpretation but tell it anyway. 

❤ Share with us, your all-time favorite quote, whether it be one you live by or one you just find beautiful.

“Isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?” Author Lucy Maude Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables.

❤ Are there any occupational hazards to being a writer?

Yes! Sometimes I forget to do the things that make me a wife and mother, like cook and clean! However, my husband now understands and says, “Hmmm... you’re writing so I’ll make lunch if you make dinner!” Totally the correct answer, right?” LOL

❤ What’s the most interesting comment you have ever received about your books?

I can’t cite a specific comment, but it does blow my mind when readers find themes or symbolism within the work for which I haven’t considered on a conscious level!

❤ That's always mind-blowing! What’s something you love to see your readers do or say?

I love it when readers tell me that they can personally identify with my characters and that Ellery, in particular, feels like a real person. Once, I received an email from a reader and it simply stated: “I hope you know that you just made me cry!”

 What's next for you?

I have three projects in the hopper right now and bunch more swirling around in my head! I’m having so much fun writing a young adult novel called Nearly Lost You. Since I am collaborating with my teenage daughter, Chloe, we are writing under the pen name, Ella Swinton. The story follows the adventures (or rather misadventures) of Isobel Ballou, a sassy yet snarky teen from Evanston, Illinois. It’s the Parent Trap turned upside down in that Izzy wants to do everything in her power to ensure that her parents get divorced because they need to. However, fate has other ideas. We hope that teens and adult women in particular will find it an equally enjoyable read.

Additionally, I am finishing up the last book in the Ellery Roulet series called Geneva Nights, which will be a novel and will tie together all the characters introduced in previous works like Encounters in Paris and 5 Reasons to Leave a Lover. New characters also emerge including a very sexy new man who definitely has his eye on Ellery Roulet.

Last, I have another working novel tentatively called That House on the Hill. For 40 years a family has been divided due to an on-going feud. When the family’s patriarch dies in Chicago, the surviving relatives gather to settle the estate and also return him to his final resting place within the family crypt in Eastern France. A lost diary and a tree located in a small town hold the keys as to why the feud occurred in the first place. This story is still in the research phase but so far one character has already emerged and she’s from where else? Chicago! LOL Danielle Deschamps is married to one of the French-American sons. She’s all about family and finds it difficult to understand how other families can remain estranged for so long. As for their predicament, she calls it as she sees it and at times, makes the in-laws around her quite uncomfortable. However, it’s her outspoken nature and keen and truthful observations that propel the family forward so the feud can end and healing can occur.


You have such exciting endeavors ahead, Carolyn! Before we conclude this interview, I want to thank you so much for being here with us. Where can you be found on the web?

I adore hearing from readers! Please come and be my friend! LOL
Website | Facebook | Pinterest | Twitter
I want to thank you, Stephanie and your readers for allowing me to spend some time with you. Readers, stay tuned for the giveaway details!

Giveaway!
Carolyn has been generous enough to offer one print copy and one eBook copy of her newest book, Railway Confessions. That's two winners! To enter, fill out the Rafflecopter form below. 
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Giveaway runs through September 7th, 2012 at 11.59 pm (your time).
Open to ALL readers — international included!
As a reminder, you do not have to follow my blog to enter, though it is always very much appreciated ❤
Good luck!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Perception by Lee Strauss Cover Reveal, Excerpt, and Giveaway!

Chapter 1
Perception by Lee Strauss

Part 1
ZOE

I balanced on my surfboard, right thigh burning and salt water stinging my eyes, while the best wave of the early morning carried me like a goddess on a pedestal to shore. My older brother Liam and I shared a friendly competition, and it gave me a certain, blissful satisfaction to catch the same wave and to get to shore first.

“Beat ya!” I shouted over the noise of the crashing surf.

Seagulls flocked and circled over us, squawking loudly, adding to the cacophony.

The sun glistened off Liam’s damp blond curls as he shook them out. His eyes sparkled as his lips tugged up into a grin. “I let you win.”

“Did not!” I smacked him playfully on the arm. “One more ride?”

Liam unzipped his wetsuit letting the top half fall down past his waist. He was in fine form, and I understood why all the girls raved about him. He was responsible for a long list of broken hearts.

“I gotta get going,” he said, lifting his board.

I fell into stride beside him, my feet sinking into the cold, wet sand. “So soon?”

He nodded, the glint leaving his eyes. My lips tightened into a frown “You’re taking off with Jackson again?”

Jackson was my boyfriend but lately he’d been spending more time with my brother than he had with me. It was starting to tick me off.

Liam stared straight ahead. “Lab stuff.”

“What are you working on?” I rushed to keep up with my brother’s long, strong strides. He flicked his head, tossing the hair out of his eyes but didn’t answer.

“Come on,” I knocked into him sideways. “Tell me!”

“It’s just stuff.”

“Just stuff? Like what? Top CIA stuff? I know you’re smart but I think the government has been doing a good job without your help.”

I meant it as a joke, but Liam huffed. “It’s just stuff, okay? So leave it.”

I stopped short shocked that he’d snapped at me.

He turned around and exhaled, “Zoe, I’m sorry.”

“Fine. If you can’t tell me, you can’t tell me.”

We resumed our trek along the beach, and I pushed back my frustration. Liam used to include me in everything. It was always him and me against everyone else. Him and me against Alison and Paul, aka our mom and dad. Him and me against the surf. We were a team. When did we start keeping secrets from each other? Rather, when did he start keeping secrets from me?

I re-adjusted my board under my arm. Maybe I could get Jackson to unzip his lips. Especially if I helped him. He could be easily persuaded if I poured on the charm. I hated to go behind my brother’s back for information, but something about all this —this, whatever it was that Liam was doing--made me uneasy. I couldn’t pinpoint why, it just did.

We reached our home, a massive glass box with two floors of windows facing the Pacific Ocean. It was built after the San Andreas Fault shifted and triggered the Big Quake that, along with the subsequent tsunami, wiped out ten miles of shoreline. A nearby white-stucco storage shed housed all our water toys. We stopped there to hang up our wetsuits to dry.

“Thanks for surfing with me today.” Liam said, smiling at me, back to his jovial self. “I know it was a sacrifice for you to get up so early.”

I smiled in return. “No problem. It was fun.” Surfing with Liam was one of my most favorite things to do.

“You’re back for dinner?” I asked.

Liam didn’t know it, but once he left, I’d be spending the rest of the day preparing for his surprise birthday party. He’d turned twenty-one yesterday and had celebrated at a bar with his friends. I couldn’t go because I was underage, and it irked me that Jackson went and that he and Liam had once again shared a significant moment without me. I took consolation in the fact that Alison and Paul gave me free reign to plan this party. My heart beat with excitement, and I couldn’t wait to see his face when he got home and found the house full of his friends.

“Yeah, I’ll be there,” he answered.

I bit my cheek to keep my voice even. “Good.We’ll see you, then.”

Our property tiered twice before connecting with the sandy beach. Three glass doors slid open disappearing into the corner and creating a wall-less view of the stone patio that encased an eternity pool. Its waters slipped over the far edge into a waterfall that was collected again on the second tier.

Liam strode into the house, through the living room and down the hall to his bedroom at the back, his wet shorts dripping on the glossy white tiles.

I tightened the towel around my waist and climbed the open-slat staircase to my room.

As I passed the maid, Saundra something, her brown face blanched. She stumbled slightly before grabbing the rail and catching herself.

“Excuse me,” she said softly at my astonished look.

The woman really didn’t look well, and I was thankful for my enhanced immunization. I was glad I didn’t have to worry about diseases brought in from the outside.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

She nodded weakly, and proceeded to clean the rails. I’d requested extra staff to get the house ready for Liam’s party.

A trill of anticipation reclaimed my thoughts. I couldn’t wait for tonight.

The door beside my bathroom opened into a second room, a walk-in closet big enough to house another bedroom set. Racks of clothes and shoes lined the walls, a well-lit mirror station was located near the sky light and a cushioned leather bench was placed in the middle for sitting. I stood in my closet and stared at the rows of sundresses, blouses and shorts.

What to wear?

I settled on a lace blouse and cotton shorts, then went to take a luxurious shower, rinsing the sea water out of my long, blond hair. I leaned into the built-in seat that was designed specifically for my body height and shape. Laser lights mapped my head and twenty-eight silicon fingers reached out to massage my scalp while shampooing and conditioning my hair. Most days I had to watch or I’d doze off, but today I was excited. I commanded the water to turn off as soon as the rinse was done. When I was dressed and my hair combed out and tied back, I slipped my platinum Communication Ring onto my left middle finger. I tapped it which produced a holographic image of my phone apps on my palm. I touched the clock icon and holographic digital numbers appeared in the air.

Ten already? Where did the time go? That was the thing with summer holidays; every hour ran languidly into the next.

I imagined the cook and her crew were busy preparing for the party in the kitchen. I’d requested fresh sea food and simulated roast, fresh fruit and vegetables, an assortment of fancy chocolates and baked items plus a three-tiered, surfer-themed birthday cake.

I skipped down the stairs to check on the progress, but in my hurry to the kitchen, I slammed into a body.

“Sorry,” a male voice said.

I stepped back agitated. I recognized the dark-haired boy wearing the white tunic my mother made the male staff wear. He was the maid’s son and I guessed he was part of the extra staff. He held a wet mop in his hand, and I figured he’d been cleaning up Liam’s spotty water trail.

He stepped politely out of the way, but the expression on his face was stoic. Even though he was clearly from the outside and the help, I still expected some small sign that what he saw when he viewed me was pleasing. A twinkle in the eye, a slight upturning of the lips. These were the responses I got from all the boys. The straight ones, anyway.

He wasn't especially attractive but I didn't see people with his appearance very often. He had eyes the color of imported coffee beans and skin like caramel candy. His nose was wide and his jaw-line sharp. I was suddenly intrigued by him and surprised myself by thinking he looked exotic.

“Excuse me, what was your name again?” I asked.

“Noah.”

Right. I remembered now. I waited for him to say something, but he stayed quiet.

Footsteps echoed from the hall above. My parents spoke together, their muffled voices floating across the high ceilings.

“Do other maids send their sons to do their work?” Alison's voice had a brassy tone that carried through the cavernous space.

I felt a flare of red creep up my neck when I realized Alison was talking about Noah. My eyes darted to his, but he kept his averted.

“He does a good job,” Paul responded. “That's the main thing. Besides you know they need the money.”

“So we're charity now?”

“What's wrong with a little charity? Besides, they're not just anybody.”

“I don't care. I still don't trust him.”

I was mortified. My feet felt cemented to the floor and I didn’t know what to say. Anything would come off as trite since nothing I could say could undo what Noah had heard.

“Did you know the Pikes have a household robot now?” Alison, again. “Apparently it’s very efficient, and at least Mary doesn’t have to worry about things going missing.” Noah’s jaw tightened and he turned his back to me. He attacked Liam’s dried and dusty water spots aggressively and soon had disappeared around the corner.

“Zoe?” Alison click-clacked down the wooden stairs. She wore a pale yellow pant suit and high heels even though it was Saturday. She was in-between careers now, having spent the last fifteen years in law. She barely looked thirty years old and with lots of time ahead of her, she could do anything. Probably several things.

“Mom! You have to keep your voice down. How many times do I have to tell you your voice travels in this glass box?

“Oh.” She looked mildly shaken. “No matter. Is everything coming together to your satisfaction?”

“I’m just checking in on things now.”

“Your father and I are meeting people for lunch. What time is the party again?”

I blew a frustrated breath. She could at least pretend she cared enough to remember details I’d told her a dozen times already.

“Seven.”

“Right. We’ll see you at seven.”

Things proceeded throughout the day as planned and I was pleased with my ability to pull off an event like this on my own.

The decorators showed up at 1:00 as promised.

The band arrived to set up at 3:00.

I got dressed at 4:30, having bought a thigh-length mini-dress that sparkled with tiny crystals just for the occasion.

My hair and makeup girl arrived at 5:00.

I tapped my ring and called Jackson at 5:30.

“Where are you?” I said to the three-inch holographic image of him that popped up above my palm. “You said you’d help.”

“Sorry, Zo. Got tied up at home.”

“Are you okay? You don’t sound so good.”

It was odd. No one in Sol City ever got really sick, but it wasn’t unheard of to get run down if you pushed yourself too hard. Jackson had been working a lot lately. “I didn’t sleep well last night. Uh, spent most of the day in bed.”

I felt a little panicky. “You’re still coming, aren’t you?”

“Of course. I’ll be there soon.”

Alison and Paul arrived at 6:30 along with all of mine and Liam’s friends.

I hushed everyone at 6:55, giving instructions on when to shout “Surprise!”

It was all a wasted effort.

Liam never showed.

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