EskieMama Reads Saturday Spotlight: Half a Step Away from Love by Olga Kuno

Welcome to EskieMama Reads Saturday Spotlight!
Today we are spotlighting Olga Kuno's 
Half a Step Away from Love!

In the scheming world of palace intrigue, Inessa Antego is in her element. Being the first lady-in-waiting to the Duke's sister, she won't stop at anything to please her mistress. Cancel an unwanted wedding? Easy. Show a secret lover out of the Duchess' bedchamber? Not a problem. Steal a portrait which compromizes the Duke? All you need is ask. Never mind she does it all with a little help from the palace ghosts. It's true that ghosts' friendship comes with strings attached, but what's a few favors between friends?

The only problem is, Inessa has to play her scheming game against Lord Cameron Estley. Who is smart, clever and painfully handsome. Can she successfully juggle her lady's interests and those of her own heart? Especially considering that hate is only half a step away from love?

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Q & A with Olga Kuno about Half a Step Away from Love!

Tell us about Half a Step Away from Love
This is a historical fantasy romance novel, in fact, more of romance than fantasy. The events take place in an imaginary country, but while working on the book, I took many of the details from 18th century Europe. The novel is largely about the confrontation between lord Cameron Estley, a nobleman and an advisor of the duke, and Inessa Antego, a lady-in-waiting to the duke’s sister. In the world of palace intrigue, these two are on the opposite sides, and we get a “from hatred to love” romance story. The book includes adventures, intrigue and a love story that develops step by step. Or even “half a step by half a step”. :) Originally, I wrote the book in Russian, and it has been recently translated to English by Alexandra Tussing.

What initially inspired you to write Half a Step Away from Love?
I wanted for a long time to write a novel that would involve a confrontation between the main characters. Also, I suppose I was inspired by the atmosphere of 18th century Europe and by such authors as Moliere and Beaumarchais.

Tell us little about the characters in Half a Step Away from Love.

I guess I have answered the question partially above. Lord Cameron Estley is a count, powerful, proud and attractive. Lady Inessa is a count’s daughter; she is witty and energetic. Both live in a palace and feel quite comfortable in the world of intrigues. And they consistently try to outplay each other. Although closer to the end of the book they come to play on the same side. None of them is perfect, as I think it is boring to write and read about ideal characters. :)

What was the hardest part of writing Half a Step Away from Love?

Actually, this was one of those books where the story just flows, so it was relatively easy to write. And I think it still remains my favorite book among the ones I’ve written.

What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?

Dialogues. I love writing dialogues, especially ones where the characters are involved in a kind of verbal contest or duel, pricking each other and finding witty and humorous ways to answer.

What are your future project(s)?
I am currently working on a fantasy romance novel that is remotely related to the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, but inversed: with a female “beast” and a male “beauty”.

Is there anything else you would like to tell the readers about this book/series?I have written two more books about the same world. While each of them can be read separately, some characters from “Half a Step Away from Love” figure in the second and particularly in the third book. These novels haven’t been translated to English yet, however.

Now an exciting excerpt from Half a Step Away from Love!

"Excuse me, Marquis, would you let me borrow Lady Antego for a moment? I promise to return her soon, safe and sound."
I lift my head, nonplussed, and purse my lips. Estley is the last person I want to see right now! What, pray tell, could he want from me?
The Marquis, too, does not seem too happy, but he understandably refrains from arguing.
"Well, of course, Count."
"Thank you."
Estley aggressively reaches out to help me up. As if I had the slightest desire to do so. And what really drives me up the wall: men discuss everything between them, but nobody seems to care about my opinion.
However, there is no point in making a scene. Especially because I am trying to make a good impression on the Marquis. So I present my hand to Estley, dutifully stand up and walk with him to the nearest potted palm. Only then do I allow myself to show what I really feel.
"What the hell do you want from me?" I whisper loudly. "And why is it so urgent?"
"Why, is it a bad time?" Estley looks surprised. But seeing my eyes flash with anger, he immediately retreats. "Okay, do not get angry. I will not take much of your time."
"What is it?" accepting the inevitable, I sigh.
"I want to ask for your forgiveness," he says seriously.
I say nothing, since speaking while slack-jawed is somewhat difficult.
"Yesterday in your bedroom I really did behave improperly," continues Estley. "I have to admit that I got a little carried away."
"So now what?" I mutter, not so much angry as still surprised. "Are you going to re-draw the portrait, to make amends?"
"Unfortunately, the gods have not bestowed a gift of painting on me. Still, I’d very much like to believe that you will forgive me." Lord Cameron takes my hand in his and looks into my eyes. "Will you, please?"
In contrast to Dorion's palms, Estley’s hands are dry and cool. His index finger seemingly randomly traces a circle on my palm, lightly touching me with the tip. I shudder. Damn ‒ what's happening to me? Palms, cool ones, so what? That's no reason for a rapid heartbeat. The exhilarating scent of his perfume is also not an excuse. Neither is the fact that his eyes are a little sarcastic and at the same time penetrating, which in combination with the alcohol makes my breath quicken even more. And he seems to have been trying to purposely hypnotize me with his gaze, and his face is coming closer and closer to mine.
A second later, I throw my head back and close my eyes, allowing his lips to do with mine whatever they want. They want to do a lot. He kisses me for a long time, skillfully, with feeling... God, how much I've missed those kisses, since that unfortunate incident near his office!
Cameron's hands confidently settle down on my waist, and my own eagerly cling to his shoulders. I open my eyes again to meet his again... and in my peripheral vision I see the Marquis, very upset, sneaking past us out of the hall.
Understanding washes over me like a cold wave, making my blood run cold. I abruptly push Estley away. What a bastard! He orchestrated the whole thing just to ruin my plans!
"You are an incredible scoundrel!" I gasp indignantly, trying not to raise my voice in order not to attract the attention of the public. Fortunately, we are hidden from the view of the players and their audience by the same potted palm. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Saving you from doing something very stupid," calmly responds that bastard, not even trying to deny the accusation. "You could thank me, by the way. Interesting ‒ how far were you willing to go?"
"None of your business," I snap. "Are you attempting to instill solid moral principles in me? My parents, as you can see, have failed to do so. You think you can do better?"
"Gods forbid!" Lord Cameron says dismissively, as if he had seen a ghost. "What kind of person do you think I am?"
"I've already told you, a total scoundrel," I helpfully remind him. "And a person capable of forcibly kissing a girl in front of witnesses."
"No, don't even try to attribute that to me!" He is indignant. "I didn't force you. You were quite willing! Besides, you know I had to get you back for the incident near my office! You did not seriously expect me to just forgive and forget about it?"
I hear mocking notes in his voice again, and would have liked to be very, very angry at him. But gods damn it, the white scarf is really becoming on him... Many courtiers with these new-fangled scarves look as if their heads start directly from their torso. On him everything looks great: that scarf, those long pants that seemed ridiculous before, reaching down almost to the ankle...
"But do not worry: I'm not going to put forward an accusation against you for kissing me against my will," adds Estley, and then my delicate nature just can't take it anymore.
"Bravo, great idea!" I silently clap my hands, pretending to applaud. "If you want to expose yourself to ridicule, go ahead! What do you allow yourself, Lord Estley? At first, like a romantic fellow you climb into my room through the window, and now this! Do you realize that I have a young man?"
"Indeed? Who's that? Oh yes, apparently you mean Baron Laimon," Lord Cameron chuckles. "I'm sorry, I did not realize. It's difficult to take the likes of him seriously."
"The likes of him?" I ask caustically. "Decent? Honest? Reliable?"
"More like a rabbit," corrects Estley.
"You know, Count, your train of thought is quite difficult to follow."
"You know, a lot of girls like to keep rabbits," the Count starts to explain. "Soft, fluffy, gentle, warm. They cause no trouble and never bite. Do not have claws or their own opinion. They're a lot of fun to hold in your palms, cuddle and feed carrots to. You know what's the problem? Mistresses are easily bored with their rabbits. Girls begin to look for new toys and, well, hopefully don't forget to regularly feed their pets. Otherwise, the latter are not to be envied."
"Very subtle." My voice drips venom: Estley’s words somehow manage to strike a chord. "But David is not a rabbit, and I don't like cuddling."
"Haven't you had enough of this boy yet?" my companion somehow ominously squints. "Maybe I should arrange for him to be denied entry to the castle?"
"Why would you do that?" I am taken aback. "What does it have to do with you? What kind of person are you, eh? Do you enjoy playing dirty tricks on everyone around you?"
"Well, first of all, you're also quite an expert on playing dirty tricks," says Estley, not one to tarry with an answer. "Second, do not try to deceive me. You responded to my kiss quite eagerly. Consequently, you must feel at least a bit of affection towards me."
"My affection", I reply, carefully enunciating my words "is called 'three goblets of red wine'." A few goblets more, and I would have felt affection for this stone sculpture." I casually gesture to one of the statues decorating the room.
"But not for the Marquis," astutely notes the Count, earning a very disapproving look from me.
"To feel any affection for the Marquis I would need a lot more," I admit. "Say ... " I try to mentally figure out how drunk I would have to become, but quickly give up.
No, the ducal wine cellar would empty first, I admit, which causes Estley to roar with laughter.

Born in Moscow and having left Russia in 1991, Olga Kuno has lived in Europe, Asia and America. Having completed her Ph.D. in linguistics, she started writing fantasy romance novels. Today she is both a lecturer in linguistics and a Russian fantasy writer who tries hard not to mention princes, dragons and magicians in her scientific articles. Olga has published 13 fantasy novels in Russian (however scary that number may seem!). In June 2016, her novel “Half a Step Away from Love” was for the first time electronically published in English translation. Her interests include British folklore, linguistic analysis of humor and animal communication.
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