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Flash Fiction: Lisa Queen of Love

FirstUndressing1I’m so excited to be part of the launch day of the First Undressing Blog Hop (#1stUndress), inspired by this great video!  It’s happening all week, organized by the fabulous Audra North! Here’s the schedule for the rest of the week, featuring some of my very favorite romance writers!

BTW–did you notice I have a gorgeous new website?  It’s designed by the fabulous Amber Shah at Book Beautiful.  She does covers too, and she’s great to work with! To celebrate, anyone who hasn’t yet signed up for my new newsletter will be entered in this giant book giveaway. Winners chosen Friday, books mailed Tuesday!

Blog hop rules: strangers meeting and undressing for the first time on camera! A pretty tough set up…I hope you enjoy my attempt :-)

Lisa, Queen of Love

The formally dressed singles filed into the hotel ballroom. Their excess of glam layers and accessories made for a festive atmosphere, but dampened their elegance. Oh well, the party vibe was the important part.

“I still say this will never work.” A grudging smile colored Brad’s words. The crowd was far bigger than they’d expected.

Anxiety squeezed Lisa’s chest so tight her sternum might crack in half.

It had to work!

In college she’d matched six couples who’d wound up happily married, earning herself the nickname Queen of Love. Since then, she’d turned her gift into a career. Or, she’d tried. Brad had funded her matchmaking business twice over. Both times, her dating services had built momentum, landed a few successes, but never quite managed a profit. Brad had gently suggested it was time to throw in the towel.

Instead, she’d devoted herself to studying what attracted young singles in San Francisco–avant garde events, bordering on the absurd. Hell, at this very moment, in the hotel next door the crazy-popular new cunnilingus-as-meditation club met.**

Let a stranger go down on you to find inner peace?

Whatever rocks your little birdie, girls.

Like the stereotypical matchmaker, she’d neglected her love life and had self-rocked her own birdie for months, but she wasn’t willing to go that far. Still, if her potential clients wanted an adventure, she would create one for them. She’d thrown her last funds into one final hurrah—Take off that Black Tie!

The rules were simple. When the music paused, dance partners would remove one item of each other’s clothing. When the tune started again, they could keep moving, or stick together for the next round.

Brad had roped his buddy Sean’s band, The Incidents, into playing. As serious up-and-comers, they’d drawn a big crowd.

“I’m so glad he volunteered.”

“He wanted to meet you.”

Brad had been trying to set them up for years. She’d listened to Sean’s CDs, watched videos on Youtube. “Leave the matchmaking to me,” she’d always said. The edgy musician had magnetic appeal, but guys like that weren’t for keeps. She preferred men like Brad—clean-cut, professional, safe. “When are you going to introduce me to your straight identical twin?” In reply, he’d rolled his eyes.

Across the room, Sean saluted Brad–an odd pair of friends, but true ones. The wiry singer wore no coat, his black tie was askew, and the cuffs of his tight, white tux shirt were rolled up to reveal ropy forearms. His jeans fit his rangy body like an adoring glove. Her mouth went dry–his sexy mockery of “black tie” was hot as hell, and she wasn’t the only one to notice. Droves of girls stared up at him as he tuned his guitar and half-smiled, gazing down with languid eyes.

“I told you he was something.” Brad snickered, as if reading her mind.

Even more so in person—he vibrated with charisma. “So not my type.”

“Mine either, unfortunately, but I still like to look,” he drolled, surveying the crowd. “I can’t believe these buffoons paid fifty dollars each to come in here and strip.”

He was reading their conspicuous use of accessories all wrong.

“They paid to see each other strip, silly. To see how they handle the scene and wear their own skin.” Personally, she preferred coffee for a first date, but these people were in search of a partner, a future, and she desperately wanted to help. It made it easier believe she’d have a future eventually too.

“Hhmph.” Brad raised one brow, looking her over.

A sleek halter–style dress and her grandma’s diamond stud earrings–the lack of accessories made it clear she was the hostess, not a player.

If Brad weren’t gay, she might have thought his intense regard of her cleavage meant he was checking her out. “You’re not planning to join in?”

“I’m on the clock. I need to mingle, make sure the vibe is fun and relaxed. And I’ll be guiding the videographer.”

“Video?”

“Everyone signed waivers at the door. No nudity. Just tasteful shots. We need this to go viral for business to pick up.”

“Indeed we do. Look, time to kick things off.”

It was. She wound around the edge of the crowd and stepped onto the stage.

Guitar slung over his shoulder, Sean watched her cross to him, his gray-green eyes as intense as one would expect of a soon-to-be rock star. She tried not to let it unnerve her, but a surprising twist of desire tightened her core. He probably looked at every woman like that.

God maybe she did need to get tongued into inner peace next door.

He stuck out his hand. “Finally, I meet Lisa, Queen of Love.”

He made it sound exotic, almost erotic. Not like the silly, playful nickname she’d built her brand around. And how would those calloused fingertips feel on her body?

He smirked and tugged his hand. “I’ll be needing this back.” Something odd about his voice caught her attention.

He strummed the guitar and the room went quiet.

“Evenin’, y’all. Time to get this party started.” A layer of long, lilting Irish vowels lived underneath his southern twang. Holy shit. The man had two accents, working together in an alchemy of sex appeal. Why hadn’t Brad warned her about that?

“Our lovely host, Lisa, Queen of Love.”

That time, her nickname in his mouth coiled through her pelvis, a hot, liquid counterpoint to her tension. He stepped back from the mic with a courtly bow. With her whoosh of exhaled breath, the high-stakes night nearly slipped out of her control.

The expectant faces of the crowd reminded her why she was there–last chance to be the Queen of Love. That vise of anxiety squeezed her heart again. She swallowed her nerves and delivered her speech. Everything came out clunky and stilted. As she spelled out the rules of the night, Brad cringed.

Sean, on the other hand, wore an s-shaped grin, like she was the most amusing thing he’d ever seen. He leaned so close to the mic she couldn’t help but look at his mouth.

“Like the pretty lady said, dance.” He strummed his guitar again and began to croon.

Lyrics with a fast, biting punk rhythm, sung in his deep, smooth voice–the unexpected dissonance mesmerized her.

Then her skin grew tight all over. Something was wrong. She looked at the crowd.

The camera guy was panning five hundred frozen bodies, their awkward stares caught, like insects in amber. Even the die hard band groupies stood still. Her stomach plummeted. At the end of the first chorus, Sean brought the song to a screeching halt. There was a collective shuffle.

“Folks. Y’all look like a bunch of grade-schoolers, afraid to spin your first bottle. So me and Lisa are gonna show you how it’s done.”

What? No!

Sean strode across the stage, long legs in black jeans. He took hold of Lisa’s hand, then gave her a leisurely once over. Damn it if her nipples didn’t pearl.

Into the mic he said, “I don’t suppose it would be fair to snag your dress first?”

The crowd chuckled nervously.

He dropped to his knees and grabbed her ankle, sliding off one high heel then the next. His calloused fingertips shot tingles up her legs. He rose and held up his spoils to a cheer.

In the corner of her eye, the cameraman moved, boxing her into his shot. Oh, God. This was not the plan. But if it would save her business…

“Your turn.” She crossed her arms over her tight breasts. “Let’s have that shirt.”

Sean set the guitar in its stand. She reached for his collar. A hundred tiny buttons joined the pleated plackets. Underneath, his skin radiated heat. She bit her lip and focused on the task.

He took hold of her shaking hands and whispered, “Relax. They need to see you’re into this, that you’ll play along. I’ll help.”

She met his eye and saw kindness there—strangers bound by a mutual friend.

Then those green irises took on a sparkle. “And best to make it look a little sexier.”

Her palms prickled in response and she gulped. “I’ll try.” She pulled his open shirt from his jeans, wanting to touch the dark trail of hair there. No. Too intimate.

She put her hands on his shoulders instead, dragging the sleeves down strong, sinewy biceps, lingering and stepping closer. She smiled up at him, hoping it was gratitude and not lust showing on her face. He grinned back.

Gloriously bare chested, he leaned into the mic, keeping Lisa in his line of sight. “I’ll tell y’all a secret. Couple a years back, I saw a picture of Lisa here on my pal’s fridge. Every time I’m there, I look again, but she’d never agree to meet me. Until tonight, and I’m going to take off her clothes.”

Lisa’s skin burst into flames as the crowd burst into a raucous cheer.

“Pretty Lisa, Queen of Love, this song is for you. And while I sing it,” he pointed both his index fingers at the crowd, “y’all need to find somebody to get naked.” A few fans woo-hood. The energy in the room shifted again, becoming more relaxed. People began to mingle as he sang a soft ballad. She tried to slink off the stage.

Brad blocked her way. “Sweetheart, the success of this evening very likely depends on you letting Sean take your dress off.” He nodded at the camera crew. “Hope you signed your waiver.”

The chorus ended. He leaned into the mic while staring right at her. “Earrings, or dress?”

The crowd roared, “Dress!”

“Yeah?” That time the question was for her alone.

Her cheeks blazed.

“Is this a punishment for not wanting to meet you?” she whispered.

He flinched. “Christ, no. I only wanted to help, when Brad said how much you wanted this.”

They’d never met, and yet he’d done this for her. Her throat tightened so she could only whisper. “Thanks.”

He spun her so she faced the band, which would spare her some embarrassment. It was the most gentlemanly thing anyone had done for her in ages.

“Want to get a coffee sometime?” she blurted.

“Love to.” His grin was something wicked.

She waved at the drummer, who gave her a stoic nod. Sean reached behind her neck and untied her halter, baring her breasts.

“Love to,” he repeated, gazing down at her very hard nipples. “Gents,” he raised his voice, “if you had this view, you’d all sign up for Lisa’s matchmaking services, and wind up broken hearted over her.”

A laugh rumbled behind her.

“Panties?” he asked, one hot word in her ear.

“A thong.”

“If it’s any comfort, I’m commando, and likely to be sporting quite a hard-on if you take my trousers. Makes it damn hard to play guitar.”

She laughed. “I think I’ll let you keep them, then. Let’s hope my bare ass is enough to keep the natives from getting restless.”

He circled behind her, shielding her, and unzipped the lower half of her dress, letting it fall to the floor.

Again, the crowd cheered, but she only felt his gaze burning into her. “Even more beautiful than I imagined. Why wouldn’t you ever have a drink with me?”

She glanced over her shoulder, somehow seeing subtle hints of his vulnerability, as if she’d known him for years. “Because I wanted to too much.”

His wicked grin grew wider. “Immediately after this, Lisa, Queen of Love, I’m taking you out for coffee.”

“It will be one A.M.”

“Decaf, then.” And he pecked the peak of her shoulder before stepping aside, and exposing her to five hundred people, who whistled and clapped.

She didn’t care a bit. Averting his eyes, Brad handed her a wadded up tablecloth. Heart aflutter, she wrapped herself in it, and watched Sean sing.

**I couldn’t make this up, but it’s actually clitoral hand job as meditation.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my story “Lisa, Queen of Love.” If you liked it, consider signing up for my newsletter to receive news about my latest releases.

Now, check out Julia Kelly and A.L. Parks‘ blogs. They are also posting stories for day one!

A Scandalous Love: a Sermon on Mary Magdalene

Icon of MM

It was fun and challenging to preach about Mary Magdalene today as St. Marks in Palo Alto observed her feast day–challenging, because it’s quite a task to condense my messy ideas about feminism, sexuality, and sex work into one sermon. If you’re interested, here’s my attempt.  I think an audio recording will also go online, and I’ll share the link here when it does.

The nice folks at St. Marks were so welcoming and lots of them joined me for a lively chat about sexual ethics in early Christianity and now.

Update: Here’s the audio version (.mp3). For some reason I preached this one really slowly. You could probably speed it up in your audio player and enjoy it more :-)

——

If the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?

Hi, my name is Amber Belldene, and I write romance novels. Between you and me, they’re pretty racy. Actually, Amber Belldene is my pen name, because I’m also an Episcopal Priest with a full-time churchy job.  It’s not super top secret though, because this Bishop just started following me on Twitter last night.

I arrived in these dual vocations at different times, and in different ways, and yet they harmonize, and have proven to be interconnected in ways I never expected. Because people are hungry to talk about sexuality and spirituality, they long to hear their bodies and desires are a part of their relationship with God, not an inconvenient hurdle on the path to holiness.

I think that’s why Salying invited me in particular to talk to you about Mary Magdalene. From Pope Gregory to The Last Temptation of Christ to the DiVinci Code, she’s a figure that’s fascinated people throughout history. The Gospels really only tell us she was Jesus’s friend, a beloved disciple, and yet their friendship has been the cause of much speculation.

On the one hand, in 2014, we roll our eyes that a friendship between a man and a woman would be scandalous. We interact with people of different genders and sexual orientations all the time. Yet, the way we socialize and work together is just a tiny speck on the timeline, when you consider the long span of human history that’s come before us. And even still, in these enlightened times, our interactions aren’t always easy. We experience moments of unexpected attraction, or we take offense at something someone says. Gender and sexual desire are always with us, two of the most core pieces of our identity. If we try to ignore them, they take on dangerous powers.

I’ll never forget a conversation with a colleague in which I naively suggested sexuality—attraction, and the real bodily need for physical love—that these things shouldn’t be such a big deal. The way he paused and then said, “Amber, come on,” it forced me to look more deeply, and I haven’t really stopped since then.

For the long span of history, human social rules have mostly assumed the worst of our behavior–that given the chance, we will use and abuse each other. So, in Jesus’s day, unmarried men and woman didn’t interact personally or privately—certainly not with the freedom and regularity we do now. Jesus’s friendship with women—prostitutes, sinners, and even those society deemed respectable—these friendships were inherently scandalous, part of what we call the Scandal of the Gospel. Jesus refused to see women as merely objects of temptation, or as shameful sinners who wantonly turn to prostitution or commit adultery.

As someone privileged by so much relative freedom, hard won by women of earlier generations, it’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to realize how radical his message was. In his time, a woman was pretty much a piece of property. A prostitute was a woman who used her only piece of capital—her body—to survive in a world where a woman couldn’t own anything else (and she only owned her body when she was without the protection of a husband or family, who would otherwise own her).

From Jesus’s friendship with women to his teachings on lust and divorce in the Sermon on the Mount, he is proclaiming women are people, not property. His first appearances after the resurrection are to women, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene claims he revealed certain teachings only to her. The Gnosticism and secrecy of that gospel were rejected by orthodox Christianity, but the passage we heard today (Chapter 9:1-10) is illustrative. The moment Peter disagrees with Mary’s testimony, he uses her gender to discredit her. Just as later church fathers will do.

You’ve probably hear that Mary was a reformed prostitute. There’s absolutely no Biblical evidence of this, and the origins of the legend came from a sermon Pope Gregory the Great gave in the sixth century, conflating Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha), and the woman who anoints Jesus’s feet. Gregory blithely states they are all the same woman, a former prostitute. Mary Magdalene is later confused with Mary of Egypt, apparently another reformed prostitute. (In the forum after church I will talk more about the genre of reformed prostitute stories, which were actually a Christian co-opting of the very first romance novels).

But back to the Gospel of Mary. When Peter and Andrew reject Mary’s testimony, Levi takes her defense.

Peter you have always been hot tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said.

Amen, Levi. That’s some pretty good advice.

It must have been daunting for the apostles, trying to translate the experience of knowing Jesus–a living, breathing miracle–into stories and a pattern of life for people who never did meet him face to face. That challenge of translation is why we have so many Gospels, so many different movements within the early church.

Among them, there are fabulous feminist impulses inspired by Jesus’s friendship and teachings: There’s Paul’s proclamation that there is neither slave nor free, male nor female. There are the female bishops and priests who scholars like Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza have resurrected within the texts from which the church fathers literally erased them. There is the way the church helped end the Greco-Roman institution of slavery, freeing both men and women from widespread sexual abuse by their masters. So many good and holy impulses toward freedom instead of slavery, toward humanization instead of exploitation.

And yet, we’re a very human institution, and for two millennia, we’ve still gotten a lot wrong, because of those deeply ingrained social rules attempting to regulate sexuality. The disempowerment of women, the clerical abuses preceding the Reformation, and recent sexual abuse scandals are some of the most obvious examples. Instead of Mary Magdalene as an icon of women’s authority, as Levi paints her, she is seen as Pope Gregory’s repentant sinner.  Not that repentance is bad, it’s something we all need to do. Though Mary might be celebrated for repenting, she hasn’t really been honored as she deserves, because of a deep and lingering ambivalence around sexuality.

On the one had, Mary deserves to be vindicated from the charges of being a reformed prostitute. Biblical scholarship tells us it’s not true, it was an attempt to relegate a woman with authority into a diminished role by assigning her a shameful past. As a woman, this lie makes me angry, it reminds me of times I’ve been labeled too brazen, too aggressive, or prurient.

On the other hand, I want to claim all those fictionalizations. I want to say thank you to Dan Brown and Nikos Kazantzakis for asking us to imagine that maybe, just maybe, Jesus did love Mary Magdalene passionately and sexually, because sexual love isn’t wrong or unholy when it’s freely undertaken with mutual affection and respect, it’s a beautiful way to experience divine love.

And I want us to remember that Jesus was friends with prostitutes, even if Mary wasn’t one, because we must look more closely at prostitution. There’s so much shame attached to it, as if women undertake sex work because they’re greedy and licentious. In fact, most people resort to prostitution out of desperation, and the real shame belongs to a society that drives some people to that point of desperation.* Jesus’s scandalous friendships with prostitutes helps us see more clearly the underlying causes: poverty, discrimination, and a predatory sexuality built upon using people instead of loving them.

If the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?

In an unexpected way, the distortions people have told about Mary and the stories they’ve imagined are all a part of her Gospel. And they hold up a mirror to the institution of the church, helping us to see who we are, and who we have been. And when you hold those stories together–lies, truths, and possibilities–they tell a story we need to hear. A story that’s part of The Gospel of God’s scandalous love for humanity.

A love so passionate it required Jesus’s human body to be expressed.

A love so fierce it demands the protection of the poor and the oppressed.

A love so broad that it includes those labeled unlovable.

A love so vulnerable that it asks to be returned.

It’s quite a miracle that Mary Magdalene has come to symbolize all those things, and that’s a sure sign of God’s spirit repairing the mistakes of human history. Because a Love so scandalous, so abundant it pours out of the bounds of respectability, that love will not rest until every single beloved creature lives in its light.

 

* I could say so much more about sex work, but this generalization has to suffice in the context of a sermon.

**I love this icon, which Kay (@MissBatesReads) shared with me early in the week.  Thanks Kay!

News and a Review

stairs

I’ve been a bit absent in the last few weeks and it’s time for some news and updates, as well as a mini-review.

Firstly, I have some time off from work this summer, and aside from my family vacations, I’m spending it writing and walking. I got a Fitbit, and my goal is to be a healthier, more balanced writer. I’ve been tossing my laptop into my backpack and hiking all over San Francisco, moving from café to café to library to meet my word count and step count goals. I feel great and I’ve learned I am a happier writer when I get out of the house everyday. An added bonus—I get to explore the glorious city where I live and often come across secret staircases like this one. Of course, I always have to take them. At the top or bottom may be something perfect to include in my WIP!

As a result, I haven’t been on Twitter or Facebook as much, and I miss seeing everyone there, but my heart and previously-widening booty are healthier for the exercise! I’m still around—@me or tag me or whatever and I will reply ASAP!

There have been a few delays with my novella One Sinful Night in São Paulo but I’m told it will be releasing sometime this summer. As a result, I’m extending my newsletter sign-up contest until the release date. You can sign up over in the sidebar to get news of all my new releases, and also be entered to win one of three stacks of book! (See this post for details on the contest.) After edits, I like that story even more and I’m so grateful to Entangled Publishing for giving it a home.

JackieBarbosa_HotUnderTheCollar_800px-682x1024 2

Hot Under the Collar

Also, here’s a quick mini-review of a story I really enjoyed: Hot Under the Collar.

This historical novella by Jackie Barbarosa features a sexy vicar hero who falls for a disgraced woman. Barbosa sets up a perfectly delicious conflict for this third son who needs his position in the town and a good reputation, but who falls for a woman with a poor one. It’s an engaging story, and there were two things I especially liked about it.

1) I love nuanced stories featuring mistresses, prostitutes, and sex workers. One of my favorites is Cecelia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone. I find books that explore this sort of work without simplistic moralizing to be fascinating and refreshing looks at what it means to be a woman. Barbosa’s heroine is sympathetic, strong, and sexually confident. No wonder the hero falls for her!

2) I also love stories about vicars, and Barbosa’s is reluctant, rakish, and not especially devout, and yet he finds himself both well suited to and enjoying the role. Not only is this a satisfying arc to read, but as a priest I love it when others of my order are humanized and our work demystified and celebrated.

When Grant introduced me to Barbosa on Twitter once, Jackie said sexy vicars don’t sell especially well. Why not change that, I say!?!

It’s a fun, quick read and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Lastly, I met a very interesting writer at RT, Sally Kilpatrick, who I think is going to bend some genres in interesting ways! Look out ROMANCE!

She was kind enough to leave me this review for Blood Entangled after attending my panel on Sex and Spirituality.  Reviews are always appreciated and when they come along a year after a book releases, it’s nice to be reminded of what I loved about that book too.

Launching my Newsletter & a Contest

I’m launching a newsletter. Like most authors, I would prefer to write stories, so don’t fear being overrun by emails from me! But I will send out updates about releases and other major news.

Everyone who signs up for the newsletter before June 30 will be entered to win one of these 5-book stacks by genre: contemporary,  historical, and paranormal–lots of good stuff in here I’ve collected at various conventions and conferences over the last year!  Since I write in all three of these genres, I thought this would be a fun way to say thank you to everyone who signs up:

A Stack of Contemporary Romance Novels

Contemporary

A Stack of Historical Romance Novels

Historical

A Stack of Paranormal Romance Novels

Paranormal

 

You’ll be entered to win the contest just by signing up for the newsletter over in the sidebar–>

but if you prefer a particular genre, you can let me know in a comment below and I’ll do my best to accommodate the winners :-)

The God and Sex Panel Recap #RT14

Because some people asked, I’d hoped to video our panel at the Romantic Times Convention last week in New Orleans, but my iPad ran out of memory about two minutes in. So here is a recap, which I wrote with the help of all the panelists: Alice Gaines, Tiffany Reisz, Christa Soule/Desir and that’s me on the end (Amber Belldene).

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To me, the best thing about the panel was the way it became a conversation, exactly as we’d hoped it would. And to my mind, the easiest way to recap a conversation is to organize it by thread. This isn’t by any means a verbatim account of what happened, but a recollection of themes.

The erotic writer at church:

Alice Gaines shared her story of finding her way back to church, oddly enough through a sexy story she was plotting that involved an Anglican priest as a hero. She immediately joined the altar guild, and yet secretly wondered if people would be shocked to learn she wrote erotic romance. Then, one Sunday, her rector gave a sermon based on the werewolf romance novels his wife reads, and Alice saw her opportunity to come out to him about what she wrote. Now his wife reads her books and is reading Amber’s too. At church, Alice has put her writing to work composing lyrics to hymns, and she gives a portion of her writing proceeds to the church, so that erotica will soon be purchasing new choir robes.

Tiffany Reisz spoke of being a student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky working on a dual Masters in Theology and Biblical Studies when she started reading and writing erotica. Writing became her passion and she decided to quit seminary to focus on her writing. Luckily it’s worked out for her. It comforts her to receive emails from readers who are inspired to pray more or return to church because of her books.

Christa Soule shared her story of growing up without religion, and yet always longing for a spiritual community.  When she graduated from college, she joined a group that brainwashed her into uncharacteristic behaviors, such as throwing out her vibrators, and distancing herself from her college best friend, a gay man.  Her other college friends intervened, got her out of the cult, and years later, she saw a GLBTQ inclusive sign on a UCC Church, walked in, and found a place where she could be herself.  Case and point: her pastor texted her with a prayer of support before our panel began.

Amber Belldene shared the story of feeling like she had a secret when she began writing alongside her day job as an Episcopal priest.  Upon selling her first book, she told her bishop (whom she is vowed to obey) that she was writing racy romance under a pen name.  He was only encouraging, and later, at a clergy conference, he told her he’d read the book.  When she was not embarrassed by this news in a dining hall full of hundreds of clergy, Amber felt that she had come a long way past shame, and now boldly proclaims the good news of erotica and romance.

Two members of the audience shared their struggles with families, and with a school in a small town—being ostracized and accused of sinfulness. This led to a further discussion on finding a faith community that accepts you and how much it is or isn’t the church’s business what you do for your job. And the importance of making that decision for yourself.

Amber recounted a Twitter conversation with Tiffany about the Jewish tradition that sex on the Sabbath is a mitzvah—that it’s good to make love as a way to rest, rejuvenate, and honor God.  Amber suggested this deep Biblical tradition might be a common ground an erotica writer can strike with people who disapprove of his or her work.

Another member of the audience shared she penned her first erotic romance while employed as a lay professional at a Catholic Church.  When her book sales took off, and she quit her day job to write.  At her farewell party, the parish priest announced her success and everyone embraced her.  She sold many books that night, and she’s still a member of the parish.

After a round of cheers, Christa added that churches have a responsibility to develop open, sex-positive cultures because of the history of sexual abuse in all denominations.

The religious in erotic books:

Tiffany Reisz expressed her opinion that the absence of religion in romance and erotica is unrealistic.  All people have religious convictions, including atheists.  When we face challenges, choices, and death, we all consider our beliefs and we often pray.  Yet all of this is missing in the books being published, and that leads to flatter, shallower characters.

A member of the audience commented that the absence is because publishers are afraid of touching on hot-button, culture-wars type issues, and not wanting to offend or alienate any readers.

Tiffany responded that publishers should realize people are often more open-minded than we expect.

Amber added that readers have to ask for realistic depictions of religion in books and writers have to write it really well.  If a character is well drawn and sympathetic, the reader won’t be alienated, even if he or she disagrees with the character’s beliefs or actions.  Reading can make our hearts and minds bigger.

Theology and Ethics

Tiffany discussed the theology implicit in her books, and how often readers comment that it moves them, for an example, a life-like depiction of Christ suffering on the cross as a symbol of love that suffers for the beloved.

Amber shared about the book From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, and its exploration of the roots of very strict Christian sexual values in the Roman institutions of pederasty and slavery.  Even if the ethics the early church developed in that context no longer apply perfectly in ours, the history suggests that at the core of Christian sexual ethics lay respect, freedom and consent.

Along those lines, the group also discussed understanding the Bible in context of the “living word” and how Jesus telling women not to divorce their husbands at the time was because women were left destitute without their spouses, with no work or access to income to live. Similarly, there’s an evolution of relationships in the Bible, that polyamory is in several stories, and that it’s important to historically contextualize the scripture so that the core message of love and respect remains at the foundation.

Alice forgot to mention the most important part of her rector’s sermon on werewolf romances, so she’ll put it in here.  His message was that the books were about love and how the heroine soothes the hero as if by telling him, ‘I love you.  Calm down.”  He said that’s God’s message for all of us.  “I love you.  Calm down.”

For those who asked, Amber’s novella One Sinful Night in São Paulo (about a seminarian who worries she’ll never get laid again and sets out to seduce her brother’s best friend) is slated for release June 30th, from Entangled’s Brazen line.

My appearances at #RT14

suitcaseWine. Check. Cat. Check. I’m all packed up for the Romantic Times convention and I fly on a red eye to New Orleans tonight.

I’m so excited to meet readers, connect with lots of authors friend, and attend great workshops and parties.   Here are my scheduled appearances:

 

The event I’m most excited about is my panel “God and Sex,” code named “Holy F*ck.”  Three other great authors will be there:

And here’s the blurb:

Hot sex – many of us who read it, write it and have it care deeply about spirituality. Bring your heart, libido, sense of humor and opinions for a lively discussion! Tiffany Reisz will advocate that sexy characters with religious convictions have added realism and engaging conflicts. Episcopal priest Amber Belldene will explore sex-positive Judeo-Christian traditions that shape her sex scenes. Altar-guild member Alice Gaines will share her enthusiastic reception at church as an erotic writer. Erotic romance editor and Sunday-school teacher Christa Soule will discuss the healing power of LGBTQ stories that claim the spiritual goodness of all kinds of sexuality.

I also have a basket in Club RT, and that’s where these wine bottles are going. Here is the description:

Sample the intoxicating vampire romance of the Blood Vine Series, featuring the winemaking vampires of the Maras family. This basket will include signed copies of the complete series: Blood Vine, Blood Entangled (Book Two), and Blood Reunited (Book Three) as well as wine from the Maras’s native Croatia and wine made in ceramic qvevris, according to the most ancient winemaking techniques. Sip these remarkable vintages from a set of your very own Kaštel Estate Winery stemless glasses.

Flash Fiction for the #FirstKiss Blog Hop

Alessandro_Petacchi_Rick Jarvis

I’m excited to join the #FirstKiss blog hop with other authors writing about first kisses caught on video. You can read more about the hop and find links to the other stories on my friend and the organizer Audra North’s blog.

And be warned. I haven’t written much flash fiction, and I failed at keeping it under 1500 words. This one is more like 2000. Sorry. I hope this picture of the Italian cyclist Alessadro Petacchi helps you forgive me. He looks a lot like how I picture Rick in this story.

The Kissing Roxanne Project

“Come on.”  Greg unclipped from his pedals and hopped off his ride. “Why live in this crazy city if you don’t become part of the performance art sometimes?”

Rick propped his bike on the other side of the rack, unable to resist scanning the small and eclectic crowd lining up for the Kiss A Stranger project.

He lived in San Francisco because he could step out his door and ride forty-six miles across the Golden Gate Bridge and back every Saturday.  The city was the art—he didn’t need to watch a performance, and he sure as hell wouldn’t be in one for fun. The mayor kept him tap dancing and the Board of Supervisors was pretty much a shit show. “No way.”

The flock of hip twenty and thirty somethings were dressed to impressed, and surely didn’t smell like they’d just pedaled a half-century.

“Dude,” Greg chided. “You haven’t been on a date in months. You so need to kiss a stranger.”

Rick kicked his heel onto his saddle and stretched his hamstring. “That’s impossible, like needing a kitten.” They were cute to cuddle for three minutes then turned into a pain in the ass, and they sure as hell weren’t essential to anything.

Greg had knelt to fiddle with his bike lock, and he grinned up, all helmet, shades, and teeth. “All work and no kissing makes Rick a grumpy bastard. Consider this an intervention.” He closed his bike lock with a definitive click, attaching Rick’s frame to his own.

Rick couldn’t help but laugh—a cheap trick, downright Machiavellian, but not an outright victory. He could easily do the awkward cleat-walk home and force his buddy to bring back his bike. “Like I said, I’m out. And be careful. If you pop wood, everybody’s gonna notice in those pants.”

Greg’s grin faltered as he looked down at his skin-tight cycling shorts.

Rick took the chance to cast the crowd of stranger-kissers one last glance. A trio of feminine backsides greeted him, three women bent over a folding table, signing papers. Release forms, no doubt, promising they wouldn’t sue if they drew the lot to kiss a sweaty cyclist with an agressive hard-on. They moved toward the entrance and his gaze got stuck on the one in the middle.  Tall, her long straight hair blacker than ink, she walked with the upright posture of a woman who knew people were looking.  The others seemed to be ushering her inside as if they were her entourage.

Damn. Some feral urge seized control of him and demanded he get a look at her. So much for gawking. He was going in there in his sweaty spandex, to kiss some stranger. Hell, he’d do worse, just to see that woman’s face.

He signed the release without even glancing over it.  Inside, a red LED board mounted near the ceiling displayed the kissers’ numbers, like at the goddamn DMV.

He weaved between people until he found her. The view was an unsatisfying profile and she still wore her sunglasses. He shifted to see more, but the room kept filling up, and he lost sight of her. Numbers were called out of order. Forty-two, twelve, sixty-three. Someone repeated it over a bullhorn a few times before he thought to look at his number. Sixty-three.

All for nothing. He’d come in to see her, and hadn’t even managed it. He should bail.

In the crush of people, it took a moment to find the door he’d come in through.  Hordes more people had crowded in. Hell, he’d get out of there faster if he went through with the randomly assigned kiss. He ran his tongue over his teeth. A hint of cherry-flavored energy gel lingered in his mouth. That was something. He unhooked the chinstrap on his helmet and showed his number to the bullhorn guy.

“Right this way.”  The staffer guided Rick down a long hall and into a room equipped with video cameras.

A small woman stood, watching with big eyes. Pixie haircut, trendy clothes, serious mouth. Not bad, if not his type.

He met her under the lights and gave her a little wave. “Hi.”

She turned beet purple and burst out laughing. “Oh God, I can’t do this.” She snorted and covered her mouth, doubling over with a textbook nervous laugh. Someone led her out while the bullhorn guy came to Rick’s side.

“Sorry. She told us when she came in she was having second thoughts. We’ve already posted the next number.”

At least it wasn’t Rick’s skintight spandex that had offended her. In fact, this was perfect. He could just follow her out. “Hey, man—”

The door opened and two women came inside.

Her.

His heart sped up to max, like he was climbing a steep grade without a warmup.

Her friend had hold of her elbow and seemed to point her toward Rick while standing on her toes to whisper in her ear.  Head-on, the woman’s striking face was nothing like he’d expected, more exotic than beautiful. Firm jaw, wide mouth, long and narrow nose. He didn’t want to look away.

“Which one of you is fifty-six?” asked the staffer.

Her, please. A silent plea to the gods of performance art.

She raised her hand.

Thank you.  

She shoved her dark glasses up on her head. Her eyes didn’t focus on him, didn’t focus anywhere.

He, on the other hand, stared.

A long moment passed and he sensed eyes on him, everyone’s but hers. Like he was going to get the crazy-nervous giggles next.  He swallowed down the giddy mix of surprise and excitement like it was a mouthful of his favorite beer. What kind of asshole wouldn’t kiss a gorgeous women because she happened to be blind?

“Hi, I’m Rick.”

She stepped toward his voice and smiled. “Roxanne.”

He moved closer. “Can I show you to where we’re supposed to stand?”

“Thanks.”

“Right here.” He squeezed her elbow and moved to stand opposite, studying her face. Her closed eyes gave nothing away, the muscles around them seeming immobile. He was about to kiss a stranger. She was about to kiss one she hadn’t even seen. “Nervous?”

“A little.” She chuckled and her nostrils flared.  Damn. She probably had super keen smell, or was that a stereotype?

“Sorry I stink. Just finished a ride. Wasn’t planning to come here.”

“Are you in good shape?”

“Pretty good.”

Her arms came up and instinctively he took hold of her wrists, leading her hands to settle on his shoulders.

She smoothed them along the topmost seams of his jersey. “You’re tall.”

He wanted to settle his hands on her waist, but left them dangling at his side, helmet hanging from one finger. “Maybe this is completely the wrong thing to say, but you could touch my face, if you wanted to, you know…see me.”

Her smile fell.

Shit. “Sorry. Can I take it back?”

“No, don’t.” She pressed her palms into his shoulders. “It was sweet. It’s just…intimate.”

“More than a kiss?”

“Yeah, kind of.” And then the fingers of one hand came up to his ear and began a gentle examination, feathering through the hair at his temple, her thumb gliding across his forehead and finding its way along one eyebrow, then down his nose, then up again to touch the bump in its bridge. “I love a strong-nosed man.”

His heart raced like it was striving for a personal best. Her delicate brow furrowed and she brought both her hands to cup his face, tracing his lips with the pads of both thumbs. “Soft,” she murmured. Then she raked her nails against his Saturday stubble and pleasure tingled down his neck and spine, straight to his balls.

Shit. There were cameras, an audience of staffers. This was performance art, with footage that could be used for God knew what.

“You said you weren’t planning on coming to this,” she whispered, her breath caressing his mouth. “What changed your mind?”

You.

“My buddy dragged me in.”

“Well, I’m glad he did, and now I’m going to kiss you.”  She brought his face down to meet her.

Her sweet lips brushed his then pressed firm. Chaste, and yet urgent anticipation coiled through his gut. After a close-up glimpse of her smooth skin, he closed his eyes. It seemed only fair.

He let her take the lead. The wet tip of her tongue licked at him and his mouth watered.  He parted his lips and she darted in, stroking.  He wanted to suck her tongue into his mouth, wanted to shove his own inside her, but he reined himself in and let her play in this shallow, teasing space. Something about the firmness of her mouth told him she was smiling and that cranked the coil of want inside him.  He wanted to be the cause of her smile, wanted to get out from under these cameras, buy her a coffee and learn everything about her.

He nipped at her lip and she groaned, so quiet he might have imagined it. And then her body was there, small, firm breasts flush against his jersey, her pelvis fitting against him, drawing his blood toward his cock.

All at once, she pulled away from his mouth. “Phew.” Her cheeks were pink, her lips swollen.

He wanted her underneath him looking just like that.

She smiled, sliding her hand up his neck to his face as if searching out his own response. “That was a great kiss.”

“Yeah.” Greg had been right. He needed a hundred more just like it. Today alone.

“Thanks.” Gratitude colored the word, and he wanted to punch anyone who’d made her feel lucky to be kissed.

“Are you kidding? Thank you. That blew the top off my skull. I didn’t want to stop.”

“I noticed.”

Great. Now he was mister aggressive hard-on. He stepped back, hoping like hell the chamois in his shorts left the exact shape of his cock to their audience’s imagination. All four staffers clapped. His cheeks heated with the completely irrational feeling of violation, as if their kiss had been private.

Her friend was already walking toward her, ready to guide her out, and giving him an appraising look on the way.

“Can I call you sometime?” he asked.

Roxanne’s mouth fell open. “You’re not supposed to ask that. You agreed on the release form.”

Right. The one he hadn’t read. Damn it. Every single part of him from his gray matter to his gonads wanted a repeat performance. Greg had been wrong about that part. Rick didn’t need to kiss a stranger.  He needed to kiss her.

“I’m Rick Jarvis. I work in the mayor’s office. If you call there, you’ll find me.”

She bit her lip, obscuring a nascent smile. “Nice to meet you, Rick Jarvis.” And then she let herself be guided away by her friend.

He watched her go, wishing for a sign, a glance over her shoulder that meant she might call.  But why would she look back when she couldn’t see? Just like the kiss itself, he’d have to let her take the lead.

At the door she stopped, raised her face and craned her neck toward him.  “I have an appointment downtown on Tuesday. If you happen to be free around lunchtime, I might come by.”

He would glue his ass to his desk chair for the chance to see her again. “Great.”

“I said might.”

That she’d said it at all meant she was very likely coming, and he would make it his project to kiss Roxanne again.

First Kiss Blog Hop Schedule

FirstKiss-icon

I’m excited to participate in the First Kiss Blog Hop with a little flash fiction story!  Thanks to  Audra North for inviting me (btw–I just read her super dark and edgy cyberpunk erotica Out of the Box. Great writing, fascinating themes. I loved it!)

Remember the video where 20 strangers kiss for the first time? Right after it came out, it went viral, and even though it was later revealed that it was shot as an advertisement, the effect was pretty amazing. Attraction is…attractive. So attractive, in fact, that it inspired a group of us got together and write our own version of “20 Strangers Kissing.” Except in this case, it’s over 20 authors, each writing a flash fiction piece about two strangers who share their first kiss on camera. Every day from April 7th through April 14th, participating authors will post their stories to their websites. We’ll also be tweeting out links to the #FirstKiss hashtag on Twitter and posting links to Facebook. We’ve put together an easy-to-use schedule of authors below. But even if you’re not on this list, you can still join in the fun! Have a first kiss short that you want to share? Just tweet out the link to the #FirstKiss hashtag between April 7th and April 14th! We hope you’ll enjoy all the posts, share them with friends, and maybe even be inspired to write your own. Because attraction is attractive!

First Kiss Blog Hop Schedule

Here’s our lineup of awesome authors, including links to their website, Twitter handles, Facebook accounts, and First Kiss posts! Just a note: First Kiss post links (they look like this: FirstKiss-icon-small) won’t be live until the day they’re scheduled to appear.

April 7th

Emily Ryan-Davis

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Mary Ann Rivers

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Rebecca Grace Allen

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April 8th

AJ Cousins

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Alexis Anne

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Audra North

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April 9th

AL Parks

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Amber Lin

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Shari Slade

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April 10th

Mary Chris Escobar

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Piper Vaughn

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Julia Kelly

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April 11th

Karen Booth

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Karen Stivali

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Sasha Devlin

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April 12th

Geonn Cannon

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Jennifer Lohmann

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Lia Riley

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April 13th

Cate Dean

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Petra Grayson

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Cherri Porter

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LM Sparks

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April 14th

Alexandra Haughton

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Amber Belldene

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Stacy Reid

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For those of you who missed it, here’s the video that started it all: 

National Poetry Month

This is just a quick little post in praise of poems. (And even though its April 1, it’s not a tongue-in-cheek one, though I could imagine writing that too.)

I’m not a poet, and I’m not even a great connoisseur of poetry–my tastes run to the simple, the evident, and mostly either the domestic or the religious.

But the poetry I know and love forms the walls around the place inside me where faith and inspiration live, the place of mystery and wonder, the place beyond the literal, where words create, evoke and transform.

Some of my favorite poets are Mary Oliver, Galway Kinnel, Denise Levertov, Ceslov Milosz, and the mystics like Rumi and Hafiz.

I’m also steeped in the poetry of hymnody. The fourth verse from the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” really struck me today as a profoundly romantic sentiment, that captures the ecstasy of both spiritual and erotic love:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,

that were an offering far too small;

love so amazing, so divine,

demands my soul, my life, my all.

 

Hogwash, Joy, and the Bloody Birth of Stories

This is an essay about writing.  But first, it’s about another kind of creation.

At 38.5 weeks gestation, my twins were estimated to weigh upward of 8 pounds each and baby boy wouldn’t keep his head down.  So I had a c-section.

hogwash

I have some ambivalence about missing out on labor, as if that painful birthing is the essence of motherhood.  That’s hogwash, of course, as all adoptive mothers will say. But its one of the many idealizations we internalize about parenting, and which we can use to abuse ourselves about whether we are doing it right.

Motherhood (and fatherhood) is a messy, creative, profound, painful, joyous boundary exploding chaos, and the birthing is only one moment, crystalizing the beautiful blood bath that brings new life.

It helps me to remember this when I’m writing, or more accurately when Iam revising. When the boundaries between myself and my manuscript fade. When I love it and hate it at the same time.  When I know something is true about a character and yet my critique partners insist they cannot see it and I have to figure out how to show it better.  When I am overwhelmed by the ecstasy of a story, and must figure out how to do it justice with words.  When I doubt myself.  When I think it is done, and then realize it’s really not, and then am forced to admit it’s never really done, just like me, but at some point I have stop and call it good enough and send it off.

scraped kneeAll of this hurts, much like watching your own child scrape her knee, or having to sit-out a tantrum or a screaming time-out, or discovering he or she has a learning difference, or has made a terrible mistake. Parenting is not for the faint of heart and neither is writing.

Some authors believe we shouldn’t talk about this part of writing.  That we should pretend it’s effortless, so that people will trust we are truly gifted.  Others, like Delilah Dawson and Chuck Wendig, are so frickin’ hilarious about the ups and downs of the writers’ life that they are my occasional life raft.

I wonder about readers—do you like to imagine authors sitting at our tidy desks consulting our orderly outlines and confidently typing “The End” while wearing broad smiles? Do you picture evil geniuses, slaving and sweating over laptops and tugging on matted locks of hair? Or do you imagine that we all write differently, based on the characteristics of our books—the winding ones and the crisp ones?  Do you like to know how the sausage is made, or do prefer to stay out of the kitchen and just enjoy the book?

all joyI recently heard an interview with the author of a parenting book called All Joy, No Fun and her thesis struck me as true.  Joy is a deeper emotion than fun or happiness.  It is big enough to capture pain and suffering and sacrifice, as well as bliss, affection, contentment.  Joy is both more bittersweet, and more profound.

The best books leave us with a sense of joy.

I write because something deep inside me demands it. It’s not always fun and it doesn’t always make me happy, but it does always bring me joy.  And as an author, I’d rather be honest about it, because I think it tells you something about what you can expect from my characters and my worlds.

They may or may not achieve bittersweet profundity, but they are written by someone who lives it every day.