The Pit and the Passion

She held her gaze steady, mainly so she could delve deep, deep into those chocolate eyes. Together with his sharp, angular nose and intense, almost predatory, expression, he reminded her of a peregrine falcon on the hunt.

The Pit & the Passion

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Toni Sweeney: Where the Willing Suspension of Disbelief Reigns

If you’re looking for something a little different (and it isn’t M/M or even ménage), try “Variation,” now available from The Wild Rose Press.  Today my guest Toni Sweeney, multi-multi published romance author, will tell us about her latest release (and the second book out in one week).


Does anyone remember Quark? It was a one-season SF satire created by Buck Henry in 1977. Starring Richard Benjamin and Tim Tommerson, it chronicled the adventures of Adam Quark, captain of a garbage scow which was part of the United Galactic Sanitation patrol (and secretly a galactic agent). One of his crew members was Gene/Jean (played by Tommerson), a Transmute with characteristics of both sexes. Gene could change to Jean at the flick of an eyelash, leading to some hilarious situations.

When I started writing “Variation,” I decided to take a leaf from Captain Quark’s log. My “second” hero was also going to be a mutation, but I was going to go about it in a more serious way. Aleksandr Karanov is a Terran, a Russian whose village was destroyed in a nuclear meltdown, leaving the 4-year-old an orphan and possessor of the V-gene, enabling him to change sex at will. Now, he’s a Federation assassin, utilizing his ability to enable him to get close to his unsuspecting targets. Lexei’s small (5’3”), dainty, and forever being mistaken for something he’s not because of his size. As his partner says,

if he’d been about a foot taller, Karanov would have been someone to be afraid of. As it was, he was more likely to be cooed over by women, scorned by men, and not taken seriously by anyone. Which might not be a bad thing at all, considering his profession. 

Lexei’s partner is Gabriel Marsh, and the two couldn’t be more different if they’d planned it. Marsh is 6’8”, amber-eyed, and possesses a libido as granite-like as his face. He’s an Angelus, from a planet where people are judged by their morals, and he’s already decided what he thinks of his new partner.

And then he meets Deirdre…Lexei’s Other, his Alter Ego, his Second Persona. The little assassin’s extremely possessive of her and immediately warns Marsh away…and that’s where the problem comes in……for Marsh has already fallen in love with a woman who doesn’t exist. 

What do you do when the girl of your dreams is the man from your waking life? 

EXCERPT, Variation:

The doors opened automatically as he approached them and he went inside. Standing in the lobby, he glanced around. It was stark and modern, done in unrelieved white and chrome, glittering and antiseptic. There was furniture in the lobby and genuine living greenery in ceramic urns making a backdrop to the set-up, but no people around. Vaguely, he was thankful for that. At least no one’s seen me going in.

From somewhere above him, he could hear music, and without knowing why, decided to follow the sound. He didn’t even check for Karanov’s name on the tenant register. Would it actually be there?
The music led him up two flights of non-escalating stairs to a door in the center of the hallway, a door which, when he tapped the inter-com pad, slowly swung open. Suspecting a trick, he stepped to one side, carefully pulled the Winchester TR-27 out of its shoulder holster and pushed the door completely open.
Cautiously, Marsh looked in. What he saw was unexpected but totally enjoyable.
A pair of softly rounded buttocks and slender white legs. A young woman, back to the door, doing some type of calisthenics. Bemidjian aerobics, if her gyrations were any indication. She appeared to be wearing nothing more than a towel and Marsh wondered how long it would be before her movements caused the tucked velour cloth rectangle to dislodge and end up on the carpet. He felt a flick of latent lust, wondering if he had enough time to wait and see. There was a headset over her ears and the way she was pausing slightly between each movement told him she was listening to a physical fitness lecture, and that, combined with the loudness of the music, was the reason she hadn’t heard his knock.
She finished the call and tossed the headset onto the counter of the little kitchenette and spun around. Damp curls bobbing, she was in the middle of a deep stretch making the breasts under the towel rise dangerously, when she saw Marsh standing there, gun in hand. Immediately, she squealed and fell against the counter. Scrambling behind it, she stood with arms crossed over her breasts, which were still pretty well covered as far as he could tell.
For just a minute, they stared at each other.
She recovered fast. Jerking the headset away from her ears, she tossed it on the counter, then touched a button on the control panel set into it. As the music died away, she said, without a quaver, “You must be Marsh, Lexei’s new partner. Come in, shut the door, and put away the hardware. We’re friendly here.”
“How’d you know who I am?” He turned to face her, acutely aware his own Inglaterre sounded awkward and stilted. Damn, I sound like someone fresh off an immigrant-freighter!
“Lexei.” She was completely composed now, as if heavily armed near-seven footers barged through her door every day. “He lets me know what I need to. What are you doing here? I thought you were supposed to be formally introduced at the beginning of the week.”
“I-I thought we should meet beforehand.” It was lame. He really didn’t have a reason and was sure she knew it.
“I’m Deirdre.” She came from behind the counter, not in the least embarrassed by her skimpy attire, and took his arm, leading him into the kitchen. “Can I get you something to drink? It’s not ten o’clock yet, so how about a cup of coffee?”
“Coffee?” She got raised eyebrows at that. “The real stuff?”
He slid his tall body onto one of the stools at the counter, noting ruefully it was definitely not constructed for someone with a normal height of six-foot-nine. He felt as if he were sitting with his knees under his chin. If either Karanov or the girl were in his place, neither’s feet would touch the floor.
“Uh-huh.” She was getting a cup from a rack on a nearby wall, lifting a glass carafe from a burner. “I know, it’s illegal, but the UTF likes to keep its employees happy. Right?”
He gave an agreeing nod. The UTF had been known to support its agents’ vices as long as they weren’t too expensive and didn’t interfere with operations.
“What other bad habits does he have?” Marsh, who’d never tasted genuine coffee in his life, ignored the cup she set before him. He couldn’t stop his nose from inhaling the steam wafting from it, however.
“Cigarettes.” She made a face. “And I think those things are abominable.”
For just a moment, Marsh stared at her silently. Cigarettes andcoffee? Well. The little guy went after the bad ones in a big way. Those items were Numbers One and Two on the Surgeon-General’s Universal List of Proscribed Substances. It took real guts to handle either by itself, and together… Once more, Marsh’s estimation of Aleksandr Karanov did an about-face.
“Of course,” she went on, as if belatedly trying to defend her absent…roommate, lover, friend…whatever he was. “He doesn’t smoke them much because he’s not certain how they’ll affect me.”
Thank God for small favors, then, was all Marsh could think at that point, though he didn’t say it aloud.
“He only does it when he’s worried.” She nodded at a small saucer-like object at the end of the counter. Marsh could see a mound of ash and three crushed and badly charred tubes of paper in it. “He smoked three last night after he got home. He’s a little anxious about meeting you.”
Same here.
As she poured herself a cup, he studied her quietly. Her hair was damp from exercising, the exact shade of ash-gold he remembered Karanov’s as being. She was dainty, probably didn’t weigh more than forty-eight kilos. The perfect mate for the diminutive assassin.
“You indulge, too?” He felt it was time he said something.
“Just the coffee.” She smiled. “At least it tastes good. Whoops! Forgot the sucrose. I can’t drink this stuff unsweetened.” She turned, opened a cabinet and stood on tiptoe, reaching to the top shelf. The towel lifted and parted, revealing a smooth pale hip with a blood-colored blemish on the white skin, an irregularly-shaped Valentine.
“You shouldn’t do that,” he told her. “It’s giving me a very good view of your heart.”
“What?” She looked over her shoulder at him, followed his gaze and reddened, placing one small hand hastily over the mark. “Oh!”
For a moment, she just stood there, deep pink spreading through the pale skin. Then, she got very busy spooning the sweetener into her cup, leaving the bowl on the counter.
“W-would you like some breakfast?” She attempted to cover the awkward moment.
“Don’t eat breakfast.”
“You should. It’s the most important meal of the day. Here—” She pulled open the refrigeration unit, took out a bowl and set it before him. “Have a strawberry.”
There were probably two quarts of the small red berries. Arcanian Strawberries, extremely expensive, clones of a now-extinct Terran plant, and definitely out of season.
“Lexei buys them special for me. By the pound.”
“They must be paying your boyfriend pretty well if he can afford these little gems.”
“That’s a good one.” She laughed. It was nice, low and soft.“Glad to see you’ve got a sense of humor.”
“What do you mean?”
“Saying Lexei’s my boyfriend.”
“Isn’t he?”
“Don’t you kn—” Suddenly, she looked puzzled, then abruptly angry. “I-I’d better get Lexei.” She practically ran from the room, disappearing down a hallway.
Exactly three minutes later, Karanov himself appeared.
Totally naked.
Well, not quite. There was a towel around his neck and he was rubbing another vigorously against his wet hair. For a moment, Marsh wondered if this was his usual at-home attire, then realized he had probably been in the shower when his visitor arrived.
He could at least have dressed first. Marsh was letting his prudery surface and tried to quell it. Be open-minded, be liberal, after all, he is a Terran. That was enough of an excuse right there. Native Earthers were known for still housing some very primitive beliefs and actions, and never attempting to suppress them. And you two are going to be together for the next year or more? Oh, God!
Involved with the towel, Karanov stood there several minutes . He was still as slight as he’d been the night before, maybe only two or three inches over five feet. Marsh was startled to see that without his clothes he wasn’t as frail-looking as he’d appeared on the dance floor. There were very well-formed muscles in his chest and arms. Even the movement of using the towel gave an indication of strength Marsh wouldn’t have believed possible in such a slight body.
If he’d been about a foot taller, Karanov would have been someone to be afraid of. As it was, he was more likely to be cooed over by women, scorned by men, and not taken seriously by anyone. Which might not be a bad thing at all, considering his profession.
All Marsh could think was that he and Deirdre were perfect complements to each other and if they weren’t lovers, then… Brother and sister? Twins, maybe?
Lexei lowered the towel, looked directly at Marsh through a mop of wet ringlets and came toward him, one hand outstretched. “Well, the famous Marsh. We’re face-to-face at last.”
He had a strong grip for someone his size. Marsh forced himself not to flex his fingers as his hand was released.
“Hmmm. Big hulker, aren’t you?” For a minute, the pale eyes studied Marsh’s face as he wrapped the towel around his waist and tucked it securely. “Younger than I thought, too. The lighting in the Blue Eagleadded ten years to your age.”
“You saw us last night?”
A shrug of the slender but well-muscled shoulders, a quirking of a blond brow as he went on, with an accent just as heavy as the girl’s, “Couldn’t help it, the way you kept staring. At first I figured you were just trying to decide whether or not to attempt a pick-up.”
For just a moment, Marsh couldn’t do anything but choke.
“Hey, I’m kidding! I recognized Raine and knew exactly who you were.” Another shrug. He pulled the other towel from his neck and dropped it on a stool and went behind the counter. “Still can’t figure out why they wanted us to meet that way.”
“You mean, you knew I’d be there?”
“Nope. Didn’t take much to figure it out, though.” A shake of the golden head. He took a berry from the bowl and ate it.“You know, you really should eat breakfast. How’re you going to have enough energy to do what has to be done if you don’t nourish your body properly?”
“How’d you know—?”
“You told Deirdre. I know everything she knows.” He looked at the cup of rapidly-cooling coffee. “Didn’t touch the coffee, either. You ought to drink it. The caffeine’d pep you up. You look as if you could use a little stimulation.”
Marsh swallowed his answer to that.
“I mean, I know you’re Angelus, but nobody can be that strait-laced.” Karanov picked up Deirdre’s cup and took a swallow. “Damn! She’s filled it with sucrose again.” He grimaced as he set down the cup, and leaned both forearms on the counter. “So why are you here, Marsh? A little private follow-up to last night?”
Why does he have to make it sound so suggestive? Marsh felt himself bristle as he nodded. “I felt we needed to talk before we go to briefings tomorrow.”
“Good idea!” Karanov looked down at his cup. “I’ve always asked it be explained to my partners very thoroughly about me before we start any training.” He raised his eyes to Marsh’s, suddenly very serious. “It helps to prevent any misunderstandings.”For a bare instant, he paused, taking a deep breath and letting the words hang in the air. “So! How do you feel about working with someone like me?”
“Just keep your hands to yourself, Lexei Karanov,” Marsh told him bluntly. “And we’ll get along fine.”
Me?” He’d swear the shock he saw was real. “I was thinking more of the other way around!”
“Listen, you!” Marsh found himself on his feet, towering over the little Terran, who didn’t appear in the least intimidated. “I wouldn’t touch you—”
“I’m not talking about myself, you idiot!” For a moment, Karanov looked as if he wanted to laugh. “I mean Deirdre.”
Of course. He’d be protective of his sister, wouldn’t he? UTF assassins were notorious womanizers.
“Don’t worry, seduction’s not one of my habits.”
“Good. I try to keep her out of my work as much as possible.” He turned and saw the sugar bowl sitting on the counter. “She forgot to put it back again.” Picking it up, he opened the cabinet and stood on tiptoe, returning the bowl to the top shelf.
For just a moment, Marsh was subjected to a weird deja vu as the blond, towel-wrapped little figure reached into the cabinet. Then, the towel parted and he saw the Valentine-shaped mark on Karanov’s hip, and the little man looked over his shoulder, placing one small hand over it, saying coyly with another grin,“Sorry. Didn’t mean to give you a good view of my heart.”
Oh, God. Sweet, everloving… Abruptly, he understood. Everything. And also why he hadn’t been given any information about his new partner. “You’re a Variant, aren’t you?”
His new partner was a God-damned Variant, one of those genetic freaks who could not only change physical appearance at will, but sex as well. And if Karanov could do that, that meant Deirdre—
“Deirdre’s your Other, isn’t she?”
“Didn’t you know?”Karanov was staring at him with total confusion. “They didn’t tell you? Anything?
Marsh shook his head, allowing himself a faint laugh, the closest he could get to genuine amusement. Genuine, but oh so rueful.
“God! Seems we were talking at cross-purposes, weren’t we? What you must have been thinking.” Karanov looked angry. “I know exactly what you were thinking.” 

Toni V. Sweeney was born some time between the War Between the States and the Gulf War. She has lived 30 years in the South, a score in the Middle West, and a decade on the Pacific Coast and now she’s trying for her second 30 on the Great Plains. Her first novel was published in 1989. An accomplished artist as well as writer, she has a degree in Fine Art and a diploma in Graphic Art and produces videos as well as writing. Toni maintains a website for herself and her pseudonym Icy Snow Blackstone, and has been associated with the South Coast Writer's Association, the Pink Fuzzy Slipper Writers, several other writer’s loops, myspace, Facebook, and YouTube.

You can contact Toni here:

   Twitter: @tonivsweeney


Janice Seagraves said...

Sounds like a fun read. :)

Good luck with your release and wish you many sales.


Linda Acaster said...

This is an interesting character scenario, and I was interested to learn how you came by it. I can't recall Quark being screened across here in the UK - yes, I'm old enough to be able to recall TV that old (rolls eyes). It's perfectly true that tidbits lodge in the old grey matter to resurface years later. I wish you well with it, Toni.

Thanks, MS, for tbe great posts.

Toni V.S. said...

Well, Linda, I remember TV shows older than that one! SO that really dates me!

Thanks for the good wishes, Janice.