Announcing This Year’s Romance Winner

Breaking news from the Novel Rocket LAUNCH PAD Contest, Boosting You Out of the Slush Pile: we have a winner in the Romance category.

But first, we should remind you that the contest is winding down for a close. There’s still one category open for submission, and that’s Speculative Fiction. But the deadline is TOMORROW, September 10, so if you have an entry you’ve been thinking of sending it, you’d better jump to it, because you have no time to waste.

The winners of each of the six categories (Suspense/Crime/Mystery/Thriller; General Fiction; Nonfiction; Middle Grade/Young Adult; Romance; and Speculative Fiction) will be eligible to move on to the finals. In December, we’ll announce our Grand Prize winner. That lucky writer will win a trophy much like the one pictured here, and will have his or her winning entry taken out of the slush pile and put on the top of the stack on an appropriate agent or editor’s desk. I’m talking personal attention here. No guarantees of publication, but much juicy opportunity.

The winning submission in the Romance category caught the attention of both of our judges this month. Once you read the entry, you’ll see why. Not intended for the CBA market, the descriptions are a bit sensual at times; but that’s not a problem for a secular romance. Despite prose that tends to be a little “purple” (in one judge’s words), it’s skillfully written, has the romantic element required for this category, a good handle on point of view, and a synopsis that promises a well woven story.

We’re pleased, therefore, to congratulate Catherine Lawrence of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for her story, The Duel.

The Duel
Catherine Lawrence

Cambridge, 1733
Chapter One
What did a man wear, when he might die before sunrise? 
Crossing to the clothes press, Thomas Caldwell pulled out a crisp linen shirt and thrust his head into it. 
He could smell the spring green bushes where it had dried and been sun-bleached after laundering. He drew on his waistcoat, the indigo one, with silk-embroidered buttons, sewn in Spitalfields. Not his finest but well-fitted, dark enough to blend into the early morning shadows, loose enough to raise his pistol-arm swiftly. Handsome enough to meet his Maker–but no! 
Blood wouldn’t mar this dashing swoop of cravat today, nor any another, God willing. 
Knife, slipped in his boot. Dagger, sheathed in his belt.
Hands–clenched and unclenched, awakening reluctantly, readying themselves. 
He shrugged into his favorite coat and rubbed the thick nap, dark brown like his hair. His fingers combed through stubborn curls and tied them back in an efficient queue. 
Candlelight flickered in the mirror. Yes, he cut a fine figure. 
Fine, fine. Two French pistols in their case. 

He slung his brother’s satchel on his shoulder and cantered down the dark stairs.
Robin’s desultory lantern lit the mews. 
“Come on, lad!”
The boy rode hard with him past the Cock-and-Bull Tavern, past the Colleges. The morning star gleamed above a church spire as they galloped by. 
A sign? Tom said a prayer, several. 
Eight hoofs on cobblestones beat a tattoo in his head. Their horses careened between carts headed to market on the bridge arching over the Cam. Farmers, too, up before the sun in market-day rituals. This Saturday of nearly-spring was dawning fair.
They were the first to the fields outside town. Dismounting, they walked through the tall grass that stretched across the meadow and rustled in the March wind, their footfalls quiet from sinking in soft mud. The last snows had only just melted into the earth.
It was a good day for a duel. It had been too chilly to practice in the snow and ice. Tom’s nose was still sorely chapped from the interminable cold that plagued him for weeks every winter.
He coughed. No good, that. He feared it would distract him. 
Fear would distract him. 

Must concentrate.
The sharp chill of dawn heightened all his senses. He could almost hear the Earl’s stallions whinnying in the distance and charging across the fens. He was fortunate this wasn’t a joust, since he could never match the Earl’s horsemanship. 
But he had finesse with flintlock and cartridge. Robin held the case open. 
Tom claimed his weapon and hefted the long, slim gilded gun in his hand. The metal was bracingly cold. His leather gloves were warm and supple, so no matter.
The matter was this: Turn, pace, count. Turn. Fire.
His arm rose steady. His mind was clear of everything but the heavy, fulsome, all-consuming need for vengeance. His heart would take satisfaction in the shot, whatever the outcome. When his finger jerked, his ears rang with the report. 

The sun rose at last, glinting in his eyes. 
Why was he facing east? That was a mistake. He would know better next time.
“Good shot, sir!” Robin waved to him as swirls of smoke blew away. 
Together they paced back to the makeshift, life-size puppet, wool-felt hung upon wood, standing in for the challenger. The cloth gaped, torn in the center and smoldering where the bullet had whizzed through. Jagged fibers exposed the board cracked beneath. 
His chest tightened. 

Thus do I, gentleman-scholar and barrister-at-law, unwilling heir to a barony in the Borderlands, complete the first of my trials.
The biting stench of black powder lingered in the air, drifted across the valley, and wafted to the sky, where high above his brother must be looking down upon him. Was Alex smiling now? Tom could not. His anger at himself thrummed too strongly, despite the gratifying pleasure some small part of him took in the accuracy of his aim. 
He would perfect this ritual. Spring made travel possible. He’d go to London, to Edinburgh, whatever it required. And before summer was out, he would kill the Earl of Roxburgh.
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