For those who really can't wait, ARCs are available so contact me if you're willing to write a honest review in exchange of a free copy.
Broken Hearts will be released on September 21 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.
Update: All three chapters are up on Wattpad. For those who prefer to read it in one go, the excerpt is also available on Readwave.
2nd Update: I'm adding the excerpt here as well in case the other links don't work for you.
The closer the train got to the French border, the more agitated Nicholas became. He paced the floor inside the compartment of his car despite repeatedly telling himself he had no reason to worry. As part of their deal, Big Dino had arranged it with the authorities so he could set foot on French soil again without being picked up by the draft committee or, worse, as a runaway. Being a telecharger these days was too much of a hassle, but it wasn’t a skill he could unlearn.
A slight lurch of the car brought Nicholas to a stop. The tracks slowly deteriorated across the continent because the European United Nation Council was too busy with the war to worry about anything else. In a few years, they’d have to skip the tracks and roll on airbags. Not everyone prided themselves on coming as prepared as The Nightingale Circus.
But Nicholas didn’t want to think about the war or the bleak future ahead. The present concerned him more. Sighing, he ran a hand through his dark hair. Was there more gray in it? While vanity was not one of his many flaws, he couldn’t help but wonder. How much had he changed in the decade he had spent on the road, touring with the circus? Would his family recognize him? The memory of the night he had left Toulouse, just before the draft committee had formed, remained painfully carved in his memory.
He took a look around his car, assessing how far he had come. The massive worn out, comfortable armchair; the table with his last, unfinished project; his trunk of tricks; his coat hanging on a peg on the wall; and the bed in the back… Not many items, but all of great importance in his life. Well, less so the bed until recently, but after having spent most of the afternoon in it with Anya, he’d become rather fond of the old thing. The wrinkled sheets still smelled of her, the entire room still impregnated with her perfume.
Nicholas found himself smiling as he thought about his beloved Russian ballerina. How things had changed overnight! He’d become the circus manager and gotten the girl. Not that she hadn’t been chasing him for a while, but he hadn’t allowed anything to happen until he had something to offer. It turned out he was old school after all. Who would have thought? His mother would be proud, and his father wouldn’t believe his ears. Maybe after they delivered the power source and the circus performed a couple of shows in Paris, they could take a vacation and run south to introduce Anya to his parents.
“What are you smiling about?”
Nicholas turned to find Anya standing in the doorway, a mug in hand. The white silk robe invitingly hugged her perfect figure as she waited for his answer.
“I was thinking about you,” Nicholas said, only to be rewarded by a delighted smile that formed on Anya’s heart-shaped face, framed by chin-length brown hair.
He sat in the armchair and gestured for her to come closer.
“I’m afraid it’s a little cold, but I had to cross the entire train to get it.” She offered him the mug and climbed on the armrest of the chair. “Not my fault your car is so far down the line.”
Nicholas wrapped an arm around her slim waist. “It’s fine.” Without thinking, he stirred the molecules with the power of his mind until steam rose from the mug. “What’s the news?” He tasted the coffee. Bitter, but good. “How’s Serioja?”
Anya’s face took on a somber look. “He hasn’t regained consciousness. They say there’s no way of knowing if or how the fall affected his brain until he wakes up. It can take up to thirty-six hours, and then we can start to worry.” She sighed and bit on her lower lip, a sign she wasn’t happy with waiting and was worried already. “Riella is with him,” she muttered, frowning.
What annoyed her so much? The rivalry between two of the three main attractions of the show would never end, but she couldn’t be jealous. Anya had ended the relationship with the Russian aerialist when it became clear Serioja had fallen for Riella’s charms. While they remained friends, she kept acting like an overprotective sister, the way she always had. Whether it had been guilt or something else that had prompted Serioja to jump off the high bar and provide the distraction they needed the other night at the Hrad, in Bratislava, Nicholas didn’t know. Keeping the crushed man’s organs together with the power of his mind while Rake and Spinner rebuilt his rib cage had to be one of the goriest scenes he had ever witnessed.
Refusing to think about it more than he had to, Nicholas asked, “Any other news?”
“Yes.” Anya leaned against his shoulder with a familiarity she shared only with him, her body pressing warm and soft against his. “Rake and Spinner managed to detach Cole from the transporter without causing him further damage. They’re fitting his legs with braces to reinstate some of his mobility. The fall didn’t affect his arms.” She raised her long legs and placed her feet in his lap. “They expect a full recovery in four to six weeks. They estimate he’ll leave in three, sooner if he finds a job he can do.”
“Good.” Nicholas nodded. One less thing to worry about, even though Cole wasn’t technically part of the crew. “And Cielo?” He placed the mug on the table and rested his hand on Anya’s knee, stroking it through the thin fabric of the robe.
“She hobbles around on her bad leg and doesn’t let anyone approach Cole. She should be resting, too, but you know how she gets. There’s no way to reason with her when she’s in this mood.” She laughed quietly and tilted her head. “Her crush on him is kind of cute.”
Yes, but what was going to happen after Cole left? He couldn’t stay with the circus forever. It wasn’t his world. And a heartbroken Cielo was not something with which Nicholas wanted to have to deal.
“Stop frowning.” Anya rubbed the spot between his eyebrows. “It’s going to be fine. She needed this. She needed something in her life besides her singing.” She paused and ran her fingers through Nicholas’s hair. Her voice softened. “Just like I needed something, someone, besides dancing.”
Her voice mesmerized him. It might have worked if he hadn’t experienced the Nightingale’s enthralling voice before and hadn’t known Anya so well. His eyes narrowed. “What do you want?”
“I was thinking…” She pursed her lips as she played with the collar of his shirt. “Now that we’re back in France, you’re going to visit your family, right?”
“We’re not in France yet…” They still had a few kilometers to go. “But yes, I will eventually. Why?”
“I’d like to go with you, if you don’t mind.”
Was there a slight hesitation in her voice?
Nicholas pulled his head back to look into her dark eyes. “You want to meet my family?”
“Yes.” This time, the answer was full of confidence. “I’d love that. We can take a few days off, can’t we? After all, you are the manager.”
The word “manager” rolled awkwardly on Nicholas’s tongue. He still had to get used to it, but it was true. He was the manager, and while Big Dino—the owner of the circus—hibernated, Nicholas could do whatever the hell he wanted … as long as the money kept pouring in.
“Of course you can go with me.” His arm tightened around her, and he grinned. “Do you plan on asking my hand in marriage, too?”
“Oh, Nick, what about my reputation?” Anya playfully slapped his shoulder. “Give a girl at least a couple of days…” She fiddled with the lapels of her robe, making more creamy skin available to his hungry eyes. “Besides, we haven’t even slept together yet.”
“Haven’t we?” Nicholas arched an eyebrow and tugged on the sash holding her robe closed. “I seem to remember differently.”
“I meant really slept.” She rolled her eyes, gracefully waving a long arm. “What if you snore? I couldn’t spend the rest of my life with someone who snores.”
“I don’t snore.” He pulled her head down to give her a kiss, to which she answered willingly.
Time stretched while he was distracted by Anya’s sweet lips. His concerns remained somewhere in the back of his mind as Nicholas allowed himself to enjoy things for a while.
“Ahem…” Someone cleared a rough voice in the doorway.
He needed to put a lock on that door, especially now that Anya was going to spend some of her time, hopefully a lot, in there with him. Nicholas glanced over her shoulder.
Spinner stood across the threshold, his bulky body filling the doorway. In the dimming light of the afternoon, the web of thin scars covering the knife thrower’s face and arms were less visible than usual.
“Yes?” Nicholas took pity on Spinner, who seemed reluctant to disturb the intimate scene he was unlucky to witness.
Anya openly glared at him and kept her arms laced around Nicholas’s neck.
“The custom check…,” Spinner said. “They want to speak to someone in charge. We thought we shouldn’t wake up Big Dino just for that. They probably want some bribe not to charge us with trafficking prohibited goods or something.”
Nicholas hadn’t even noticed the train had stopped, but it must have because he didn’t feel the hum of the engine anymore. “All right.” He sighed and disentangled himself from Anya’s arms. “Duty calls.” He placed a kiss on the back of her hand while she slipped into the armchair. “Keep my seat warm. I’ll be back as soon as we’re rolling again.” He shrugged on his tailcoat. It worked for his magician act, not so much for the new role as manager, but it would have to do. Circus people were known for being eccentric. He walked towards Spinner. “I’m all yours. Don’t forget, I’m still new at this and can use all the pointers I can get.”
“Well, just keep them away from Fei Lin,” Spinner said while they walked in the corridor. “I don’t think she can handle another dismembering of her bot the way we had to upon returning to Europe. It was too traumatizing for her.”
“Okay, no Fei Lin.” Nicholas nodded. “Is she still hiding in the storage car?”
“Yes, and she doesn’t like it, so hurry. Other than her, we’re clean. Or I think we are. I have no idea what they added to the transgression list.” Spinner shrugged and opened the front door.
Nicholas stepped out into the chilly November air and took in his surroundings. There were too many uniforms gathered on this side of the train. Being busy with breaking into the Hrad then packing the circus and leaving in a hurry, he hadn’t kept up with the news during the past twenty-four hours, but France and Germany were still allied and part of the European Union. While the enemy got closer every day, nothing could explain this display of forces in the middle of the continent. They could have only come for them. Or him. A block of ice settled in the pit of Nicholas’s stomach.
The increasing number of crew members walking out of the train, determined expressions on their faces, surprised him even more. Something was up and, unlike him, they knew what it was. He tossed Rake a glance. The taller knife thrower frowned at the soldiers, his big hands balled into fists. Although it happened on occasion, Nicholas had rarely seen Rake ready to murder someone. He didn’t want a bloodbath now.
“I’m Nicholas Renard, manager of The Nightingale Circus,” he told the officer in charge. “What can I do for you, gentlemen?”
The officer gestured to the soldier standing beside him, and this one brought out a scanner and showed him the readings. The officer nodded. “This says you’re Nicolas Rieux, a class D telecharger. You failed to show up when the draft committee summoned you seven years ago. We have your metrics. There’s no mistake.”
Nicholas sucked in a breath. Other than the fact he had evolved to an F over the years, the information was correct. But from where did they get his metrics? As far as he knew, he wasn’t in the system or they would have caught him a long time ago.
“We have an arrest warrant with your name,” the officer said over the sound of guns being aimed at Nicholas. “You’re required to come with us … peacefully, if possible.”
Murmurs broke out among the crew.
Nicholas glanced at the guns. Those were not regular weapons, but were specially designed to target telechargers. He didn’t feel their presence on the power grid. It didn’t matter. He had no intention to oppose resistance. There were too many people around who could get hurt. Besides, he’d always known it would end like this.
The murmurs increased in volume.
Until he left the scene, he was still manager, so Nicholas slowly turned around.
Behind him, the stilt men elongated their legs, and the aerialists slipped forward through the crowd. Almost everyone had exited the train by now. The knife throwers stood immovable in place, but their knives were never far from reach. At a window, Cielo opened her mouth.
“Don’t!” Nicholas raised a hand.
Cielo’s mouth snapped shut, but if her eyes had been as powerful as her voice, several people would have been lying on the ground already.
Sorry, mouthed Spinner.
They had sold him out. The realization hit him harder than expected. They had lured him out, knowing damn well what would happen, and they had let him walk into the trap without a warning. Sure, their loyalty was to the circus first, and he’d only been manager for one day, but he’d traveled with the circus for years. The betrayal hurt.
“Sir?” the officer said.
“It’s all right. I’ll go with you.” Nicholas turned and presented his wrists to another soldier holding a pair of thick manacles.
They closed with a click, and Nicholas’s shoulders slumped. The device inside the manacles annihilated his ability to manipulate mass and energy. Ever since he could remember, he’d never been without it. Its absence made him feel empty.
Nicholas turned again and said with all the confidence he could muster, “Stick to the schedule, and take the power source to Paris. Also, wake up Big Dino. We had a deal.”
Rake grunted and crossed his arms over his chest. The rest of the crew members froze. Well, that cleared up who was the boss.
Nicholas stepped forward to follow the soldiers, but Anya’s silhouette, pale and shivering, in the car doorway made him stop.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said, repeating the same words she’d told him earlier.
This time, however, they both knew it was a lie.
Hanging on the rooftop of a rundown building in the middle of the night was a new low for him, but how else could he protect someone who didn’t want his protection? Dale had stayed in Bratislava, keeping his promise to Big Dino, who had gone to deliver a second power source to Paris. So, for the time being, he was stuck.
It should have been an easy job—the Golden Lady already had guards of her own, and too many people feared her to try anything—and it was easy … during the day. They inspected jewelry stores and pawn shops, and he accompanied her to business lunches, which he wore suits to because of Aurore’s insistence to introduce him as a business partner rather than a bodyguard. It was boring, but nothing he couldn’t handle, and it beat fighting on the battlefield.
At night, however, things became more complicated. After they said good night and each retired to their sleeping quarters, Aurore sneaked out of her lavish mansion on Venturska Street, paying visits to various shady characters in the city as she dealt with the less legit side of her business. She never mentioned her nightly adventures the following day, so Dale assumed she didn’t want him involved. A bit naïve to believe something like that could pass by him, and the Golden Lady was anything but naïve, but as long as she wasn’t in imminent danger, he had to settle for keeping an eye on her from a distance.
Ten meters separated him from the frozen ground—an unpleasant fall if he jumped or the roof collapsed under him, which would have delayed his enhancements’ recovery cycle by days. Since Dale needed a clean bill of health to receive the command of the top secret plane he intended to pilot, he kept his joints locked, so as not to tempt fate, and his senses dialed high as he paid attention to what happened outside and inside the building.
Surrounded by half of her guards, Aurore waited near the front entrance, the white coat and platinum-blond hair making her an easy target in the dim light filling the courtyard. She kept her hands in her pockets despite her prosthetic arms not suffering from the cold the way everyone else did. In the freezing November night, the air formed hazy clouds from their lips.
Inside, the rest of her men turned the place upside down, searching for something. They must have found it because sounds of a scuffle ensued, followed by shouting. No shooting, though. If firearms had been used, Dale would have been forced to intervene before the enemy became a threat to Aurore, but he stayed put for now. This wasn’t his problem to solve.
Tadeo walked out of the building, holding his hand out. Something glinted in his large, meaty palm. “We found the stones.”
Aurore picked one up in between her golden thumb and forefinger, and examined it in the pale light coming from a stray streetlight. “Yes, I had these delivered from Zagreb last spring. They don’t sell well because they’re expensive, and the potential customers fail to see their beauty.” She shook her head and let the stone drop in Tadeo’s palm. “Anything else?”
“Nothing, just the guy who stole them,” Tadeo said. “By the look of it, he was preparing to rob at least two more stores. Good thing we caught him in time.”
“I want to speak to him,” Aurore said.
“They’re bringing him out right now.”
Thumping came from the stairs as two of the guards dragged another body between them.
Dale shifted his weight, careful not to fall through one of the holes in the roof. Other than shaking in protest, the beams made no sound.
The guards dumped a skinny man at Aurore’s feet. Grunting, he managed to pull himself up to his knees. He swayed then muttered something unintelligible and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his thin sweater. They hadn’t waited for him to grab a coat.
From his vantage point, Dale couldn’t see the man’s face, but the dark stain left on the sleeve could only be blood. It did smell like blood.
Aurore made a disgusted face and took a step back, probably to prevent any of it from landing on her clothes. “You know, I’m not as upset about the stones as I am about vandalizing those two pawn shops.” The chill in her voice got the man’s attention. “So, this is what we’ll do. You tell me who sent you here to mess with my business, and I’ll let you go.”
Dale had witnessed a similar scene in a different part of the city the previous night. While the reputation of the Golden Lady was that of a tough woman, she wasn’t lying. She would let him go if he told her what she wanted to know. Violence was necessary at times, but despite her reputation, she tried to avoid it whenever possible. Dale had learned a few things about the Golden Lady during the couple of days spent by her side.
However, the man must have missed the memo because he growled and spat on the pavement. “Fuck you, bitch!” He drew himself up to full height, becoming taller than expected, and lunged for her.
It took Dale a second to assess the situation. From the way the man held himself and angled his arm, he had to be armed. How the weapon had slipped past her guards, Dale didn’t have time to figure out. Aurore was too close and her guards were too far. He jumped at the same time she raised an arm to defend herself. Not a gun. A knife then? She could use some good defense lessons.
Dale landed with a thud right behind the attacker. Something tore in his side at the impact with the ground, but he went with the momentum and grabbed the man by the back of his neck, pulling him off Aurore. He shoved him away so hard, the sound of breaking bones echoed in the night as the man hit the building, collapsing in a heap, and remained motionless. Metal clattered on the pavement. Definitely a knife.
In an instant, a dozen guns were pointed at Dale. Too late, boys. He slowly breathed in and turned towards Aurore, his fists clenched by his side. There hadn’t been time to pull out a gun. “Are you hurt?” The words came out in a rush.
She shook her head, eyes wide, lips parted, and not a drop of color in her face.
They stared at each other, startled, frightened, and angry.
Dale frowned, ready to unleash his fury on her. “What—”
Aurore raised a hand. “We’ll talk when we get home.” She walked up to the fallen man and nudged him with the tip of her boot. No reaction. “Well, he’s no use to me now.” She let out an unhappy sigh. “All right. Torch the place and take him to the police station. Let Chief Horak know I’ll call him in the morning and I’m not happy I have to do his job.”
Dale didn’t move because those orders weren’t for him. The air left his lips in small pants, but he displayed no other signs of exertion.
With a wave of her hand, Aurore returned to her car. Dale nodded to the driver to get out, his hard stare silencing any protests, then he slid into the front seat and started the engine before anyone else could get in. Let them find their own means of transportation if they didn’t all fit in the other car. He didn’t want them there. Right now, he could barely stand Aurore’s presence, frozen in the front seat, without snapping.
The car sped away faster than it was safe to drive at that late hour. Dale’s hands clenched the steering wheel, his eyes fixated on the road. A heavy silence fell between them.
When he checked, flames reflected in the rearview mirror.