Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today: Antonia Aquilante has been making up stories for as long as she can remember and, at the age of twelve, decided she would be a writer when she grew up. After many years and a few career detours, she has returned to that original plan. Her stories have changed over the years, but one thing has remained consistent—they all end in happily ever after.
She has a fondness for travel (and a long list of places she wants to visit and revisit), taking photos, family history, fabulous shoes, baking treats that she shares with friends and family, and of course reading. She usually has at least two books started at once and never goes anywhere without her Kindle. Though she is a convert to eBooks, she still loves paper books the best, and there are a couple thousand of them residing in her home with her.
Born and raised in New Jersey, she is living there again after years in Washington, DC, and North Carolina for school and work. She enjoys being back in the Garden State but admits to being tempted every so often to run away from home and live in Italy.
You can find out more about her books at www.antoniaaquilante.com.
Thanks so much, Antonia, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?
Antonia Aquilante: I’ve always had stories in my head, but I was twelve when I first knew I wanted to be a published author. I had just taken a creative writing elective for a quarter in school, and I wrote this novella length murder mystery for the final short story project when everyone else was writing a couple of pages. From then on, I wrote all the time. The Agatha Christie-type mystery was the strangest part of my middle school writing—I’ve always written long, but other than that period of time, I’ve always written fantasy. I just like getting lost in fantasy worlds too much. Both the mysteries and fantasies all had romance in them, though, so I guess that need for HEA is consistent too.
As for discovering I was good at it…have I done that? The answer varies by how well the writing is going!
JSC: What do you do if you get a brilliant idea at a bad time?
AA: Write it down in a journal (I have a collection of them to choose from!), and come back when the time is right. To Love the Dragon King was one of those. I had the idea several years ago, and I scribbled everything I knew about the characters and the story in a journal (now falling apart after all the work I did with it) and put it aside. There are a lot of ideas like that, and I hope to get back to them.
JSC: Do your books spring to life from a character first or an idea?
AA: Usually characters come first. The one exception for me was A Dance of Water and Air. The plot idea came to me first with that one (prince must marry the queen of a neighboring country in an arranged marriage but falls for her brother instead), but otherwise, I think it’s always been character. I’m closer to being a pantser than a plotter. To start writing, I generally only need to know kind of where I’m starting and where I want to end up, but I do need to know my main characters. Everything else builds itself around them.
JSC: What was the hardest part of writing To Love the Dragon King?
AA: I started writing this book in early 2020. Everything was going well, I thought I would have it published by the end of the year, and then the pandemic hit. And I just couldn’t write for long periods of time. It was miserable and frustrating, and I didn’t know if it would ever get better. It did, obviously, after a while, but just getting the words out was a struggle. I worried that I would never finish a book again. More than anything, I felt relief when I finally finished this book. But I’m really proud of it too. I think it’s my best book so far.
JSC: Who did your cover, and what was the design process like?
AA: Natasha Snow did the cover, and she is amazing. Her work is always fantastic, and she’s great to work with. I didn’t have a vision of what I wanted this cover to look like. I told her about the story and the feel of it and the characters—seriously, mostly vibes—and she made suggestions and came back with something amazing. The final cover is really close to the first version she sent me. She changed the figure on the cover to better fit Sascha’s character, and that was that. And then it took me so long to finish the book that I had to sit on this gorgeous cover for ages. It was killing me!
JSC: What secondary character would you like to explore more? Tell me about them.
AA: There are several! Felix, Thalia, Alan, Galina, Romilly…I loved spending time with those characters. When I start writing a book, I generally have a decent idea of my main characters—though I get to know them more as I write—but often secondary characters are total blanks. They pop up and I have to figure them out as I go. In this book, that was the case with all of these characters except Romilly, who was also a secondary character in The Envoy’s Honor in my Chronicles of Tournai series, which exists in the same world as the Dragons of Ivria, and whom I knew pretty well. Romilly was not originally meant to be in To Love the Dragon King, but they fit so perfectly and I loved writing them, so I happily let them have their way with this story. I know there’s a lot more to learn about all of these characters, and since this is only book one of the series, I have time to get to know them. Right now, I’m spending a lot of time in Felix’s head.
JSC: Were you a voracious reader as a child?
AA: Oh, yes. I’ve always loved books and reading. I used to be scolded to turn off the light when I was reading past my bedtime (I probably need someone to tell me that now, so I don’t ruin the next day by staying up all night with a book!) or reading at the table during meals. I absolutely get that from my mom. She’s a voracious reader too and always has books around and more than one started at a time.
JSC: What other artistic pursuits (it any) do you indulge in apart from writing?
AA: I love art and crafts. I used to draw regularly, but I haven’t in a while, so I’m probably very rusty though I’d like to get back into it. These days, I always have at least one embroidery project going. I find it to be a fun creative outlet and also really soothing. Though it has bled over into writing—a secondary character is now an embroiderer and I’ve written a couple of artists. I also love to bake and cook. None of my characters have picked up on that yet, though!
JSC: We know what you like to write, but what do you like to read in your free time, and why?
AA: I read mostly romance these days. The world is such a mess and I like the comfort that comes with knowing everything is going to turn out well. I read widely within romance—adult and young adult, fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, historical, some contemporary. I do sometimes read SFF and mystery that don’t have romance as well, but romance is the bulk of my reading.
JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!
AA: I’m currently working on two projects. The first is the second book in the Dragons of Ivria series, To Trust a Dragon Spy. It’s the story of two supporting characters from To Love the Dragon King. They have their own romance and I tie up some loose ends from the conspiracy plot in the first book. That should be my next release—no firm date yet, but I’m hoping for spring 2024.
The other thing I’m working on is a paranormal cozy witch romance series. I’ve had it in the back of my head for a while now, where it has existed as mostly vibes, but I finally decided to see what I could do with it. I’m hoping to have the first book out in fall 2024, but no promises!
And now for Antonia’s newest book: To Love the Dragon King:
Once upon a time, before the hunts, dragons were plentiful in the world. Now they exist only in legend…except in the land of Ivria.
Without the Dragon Talent, Sascha has long been told his only value is his ability to make the best match possible, whether as concubine or husband. He has always done what his family expects of him, cultivating grace and beauty, and when his parents make a match for him, Sascha goes without protest. He never anticipates being contractually bound to a cruel man embroiled in a plot to overthrow the king of Ivria. Or being confronted by the king himself, a man with whom Sascha is disturbed to find himself fascinated.
With help from the few people he can trust absolutely, King Lysander is working carefully to uncover the members of a conspiracy to overthrow him and expose the existence of dragons to the world. Apprehending one traitor only complicates the situation further, not the least of which because of the man’s beautiful, intriguing concubine. Who may be involved in the plot and whom Lysander is immediately attracted to.
As danger looms, Sascha and Lysander grow closer, but can Lysander trust Sascha with his life and heart? And can Sascha be strong enough to love the dragon king?
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The high gray stone walls of Castle Grau were bleak against the slate-colored clouds blanketing the sky. Sascha shivered and huddled deeper into his fur-trimmed cloak, despite knowing the reaction hadn’t been entirely—or even mostly—caused by the raw chill in the air. His first sight of the place he would live for the next several years made him wish to be anywhere else.
But he couldn’t stop staring out the carriage window as they approached the building. He schooled his features carefully into the serene mask he’d practiced for long hours until he could hold onto it even if everything inside him quaked, as it did now. Deliberately forced his breathing to even out. Best to prepare himself when he was alone, Lord Jannik’s man of business having chosen to ride up with the driver the whole journey from Sascha’s family home where the man had retrieved him and turned over the contractual payment to his parents. It had made for a long and lonely trip—all day yesterday and overnight in the carriage—but Sascha wouldn’t have chosen the company of the other man anyway.
He wouldn’t have chosen any of the circumstances for this journey, and the manner in which it was being made—not to mention the sight of its endpoint—was not helping Sascha hold on to any hope that this portion of his life would be good. And hope was something he’d determinedly clung to since his parents had told him of the contract they’d signed, making him Lord Jannik’s concubine.
The carriage rattled over the cobblestones of the road leading to the castle’s imposing front doors and slowed to a stop behind a second carriage. There was a flurry of activity around it, as servants loaded and secured baggage. Was Lord Jannik leaving with Sascha arriving today?
The door beside him was pulled open abruptly. The stern-faced man of business—what was his name?—stood there, looking particular dour.
“We’re here.” He didn’t offer assistance or wait for Sascha to climb out before walking away. Concubines were supposed to have status and respect on par with that of spouses—both traditionally and contractually. Sascha hadn’t been treated that way so far.
He took a long, slow breath, searching for calm despite the sick roiling in his stomach. Then, gathering his cloak and his dignity around him, he stepped down from the carriage. Another couple of servants were coming for his trunk, and he thanked them, receiving nods in return. Moving away from the carriage, he surveyed his surroundings. The castle looked no less forbidding up close, but perhaps the place would be more pleasant in spring. Late winter meant bare trees and no flowers or color anywhere. Even the snow—something Sascha usually saw the beauty in—didn’t help.
A young woman about Sascha’s age hurried through the castle doors. Her hair shone gold in the weak sunlight before she flipped the hood of her green cloak up to cover it. She was halfway to the carriages before she stopped abruptly, her gaze landing on Sascha. Her rosebud lips turned down in a brief frown. When she moved again, it was in his direction.
He straightened his spine against the fine tremors moving through him and waited, watching her approach.
She flicked her gaze over him briefly once she stopped in front of him. “So you’re my father’s new concubine?”
“If your father is Lord Jannik, then yes. I’m Sascha of Clan Sapfir.”
If anything, she looked more troubled. “I can’t say you’ll like it here and mean it. I’m grateful my marriage is getting me away, and I have no idea what it will be like. I can only wish you good luck.”
Sascha blinked at her, shock robbing him of words.
“Lady Triana.” The stern voice had them both looking toward the man of business. “It’s time for you to go.”
Triana nodded regally, but she turned back to Sascha instead of moving toward her waiting carriage. When she spoke again, her voice was barely a whisper. “My father’s man of business is horrible, but the housekeeper and the maids and kitchen staff are all kind and helpful. Take care of yourself.”
He took the hand she held out to him, let her squeeze his nerveless fingers. “Thank you. You take care of yourself as well.”
With a brisk nod to him, she moved away, sailing past the glowering man of business—Sascha had been told his name, hadn’t he?—to the carriage where a footman assisted her inside. The driver got the horses moving immediately, and Triana was on her way to an uncertain future…but one she’d rather confront than the past she’d left here. What was Sascha walking into?
“You need to go inside.” The man’s clipped tone drew Sascha’s attention once more. “You don’t want to keep Lord Jannik waiting.”
Sascha raised his chin a fraction in an effort to appear calm and dignified. “Of course.”
Heart beating wildly, he concentrated on his breathing, on taking measured, graceful steps across the stones and through the open door. His heels clacked loudly on the marble floor, the sound echoing in the large entry hall. He almost flinched at the noise, but servants still hurried around in the wake of his arrival and the departure of the daughter of the house and the stern-faced man had followed him inside—Sascha refused to show such weakness in front of them.
His resolve didn’t stop him from jumping when a voice bellowed from deeper in the castle. It didn’t stop his hands from trembling when he realized the owner of the bellowing voice was coming closer. And that, from the reaction of the staff, the bellower had to be Lord Jannik. No one had taken Sascha’s cloak, so he clenched his gloved hands together beneath it and strove to regain his tattered self-possession as he was left alone in the center of the hall, the servants scattering, the man of business halting several feet away from him.
Sascha’s first sight of Jannik did not inspire calm—nor did it inspire feelings like desire or infatuation or even interest, and so he let go of any dream of such things he might’ve had. No, the man who strode into the hall inspired nothing but fear. Physically, he wasn’t imposing. His build was average, and he was older than Sascha’s father. Gray streaked his thick blond hair. But an aura of menace surrounded him. His eyes were hard and cold, his lips set in a mean twist. His movements were sharp and authoritative. This man was in complete control of his household, of his affairs, of all he considered his—and his control would not be kind or fair.
Sascha understood Triana’s warning now.
His breathing had sped up and he focused once more on slowing it.
Had his parents known what they were sending—selling—Sascha into? They couldn’t have. No matter how attractive the contact and connection to a prominent family, they wouldn’t have gone through with it if they’d had any idea of the man they were giving him to. Sascha knew well his role in the family—like that of his sisters—was to make the most advantageous match possible, whether as spouse or concubine, and he’d accepted it long ago. But did the match have to be this one?
Lord Jannik stopped in front of Sascha and scrutinized him head to toe from his position a half a head taller. Sascha had never been so glad for the enveloping cover of his cloak as that gaze slithered over him.
“Well,” Lord Jannik said finally, “your face is as exquisite as they told me. Let’s hope the rest of you is as well.”
Sascha’s lips parted, but his mind was blank. He could think of nothing to say in response to that greeting.
Lord Jannik didn’t seem to expect a reply. He turned to his man of business. “Hannes, I need to see you in my study for a few moments.” He directed his next words and his hard gaze back to Sascha. “While I’m in my meeting, you will go upstairs and bathe. No need to dress after. I want a good look at you, and as long as you please me, more than that.”
Sascha still couldn’t seem to conjure a reply, but he gasped when Lord Jannik reached out and gripped his chin firmly.
“Don’t think to keep me waiting, little Sascha. You’re mine now to do with as I will, and you won’t like the consequences if you disobey.” He pressed a hard kiss to Sascha’s closed lips, then released him as abruptly as he’d grabbed him. “A maid will show you up.”
He turned and strode away. Hannes followed on his heels, not sparing a look for Sascha.
Sascha stood for a moment and trembled, his cheeks burning fiery hot. Waves of alternating fear and dread and embarrassment crashed through him, leaving him hot then cold in succession. He was just supposed to go upstairs and… And Lord Jannik had seen fit to order him to his bed in front of his man of business and several servants, and now all of them knew…
And Sascha was just supposed to go whether he wanted to or not, and let Lord Jannik do as he pleased with him. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. A concubine was supposed to be treated with respect, and the legal standing they deserved. He wasn’t supposed to be ordered about and threatened. He wasn’t supposed to be a possession.
Apparently, none of that mattered in Lord Jannik’s domain.
Inside his head, he was screaming, wailing questions about what his parents knew. Surely they would’ve looked into anyone making an offer for one of them? Surely they would’ve cared? What could they have gotten out of this arrangement that was important enough to put Sascha through this? It couldn’t have only been the money, could it? What did Lord Jannik have to offer that was so important?
The quiet voice startled Sascha so much he jumped again, but he didn’t have the capacity for more embarrassment. His vision refused to focus, spinning and twisting and blurring, but, as best he could, he brought his attention to the young maid in front of him.
She bobbed a quick curtsy when she had his attention. “Your things are being brought to your bedchamber. I can show you upstairs if you’re ready, sir?”
Unspoken was that he’d better be, and her eyes were filled with so much sympathy Sascha wanted to weep.
“Yes, thank you.” He didn’t manage a smile for her—couldn’t—but he refused to be anything but polite to the staff, especially when they were being kind to him.
She turned and made for the sweeping stone staircase at the other end of the room, and Sascha forced himself to move, to follow. He fisted his hands in the folds of his cloak to stop their shaking and willed himself to steadiness as he slowly climbed the stairs behind her. Something pushed him to move faster, cold dread of what could happen if he wasn’t exactly where Lord Jannik wanted him when he arrived, but if he moved any faster in his state, he’d tumble down the stairs.
He needed to pull himself together. He was stronger than this.
As he took the last step to the landing halfway up, he stopped abruptly and frowned. “Do you hear that?”
“Sir?” The maid stopped and turned back to face him. Worry and impatience lurked in her eyes, but instead of saying anything, she frowned too.
It was wings. The sound of many large wings beating at the air, flying closer. Landing, from the sounds in the courtyard outside. Then shouting.
The doors to the entry hall burst open, and the room was flooded by soldiers wearing the uniform of the king. Someone was shouting orders, more than one someone. Sascha froze for an instant, then grabbed the maid and dragged her down with him. He huddled on the floor with the teary-eyed girl, scared and confused and unable to even speculate as to what was happening now.