Hi guys! We have Mia Kerick writing as Jude Munro popping in today with her newest release Born For Leaving, we have a great guest post from Jude, a brilliant $10 Amazon GC and Prime’s review so check out the post and leave a comment to enter the giveaway! ❤️ ~Pixie~
Born For Leaving
(New England State of Mind 01)
When they say be careful what you wish for, do you pay attention?
Neither did Oliver Tunstead.
Oliver wishes for nothing more than to get his mind off his crappy bartending job, pile of debt big enough to swallow him whole, and playboy ex-boyfriend/boss who refuses to back off. Too bad distractions, like the hot little convertible he has his eye on, cost megabucks. And Oliver is flat broke. Renting the spare bedroom in his rundown beachfront cottage is his only option to pick up the cash he needs–a risky proposition, as Oliver is the polar opposite of a people-person. When he responds to a bizarre ad in the Waterfront Gazette seeking summer housing, he gets more than he bargained for. But Oliver can cope… After all, how much harm can a single quirky tenant do to his tightly guarded life in three short months?
Where Oliver is a loner by design, urban cowboy Bodie is a loner by necessity. A family dispute long ago dropkicked him onto the path of a lifelong wanderer. This changes when Bodie moves into the tiny beachfront cottage and starts working the door at Oliver’s bar.
Despite Oliver and Bodie’s nearly paralyzing instinct to avoid commitment, they fall into a wary romance. And to their surprise, life as a couple is sweetly satisfying; that is, until their jealous boss devises a cruel plan to destroy the tentative bond they’ve built. True to form, Bodie hits the road, leaving Oliver to lick his wounds alone.
Can these wounded souls defy their urge to flee and fight for love?
**Trigger Warning: discussion of childhood sexual molestation of adult character, graphic physical violence, off-page coerced sexual relationship
Bad things happen when supos go unchecked. That’s why Abarra needs The Ministry: to keep tabs on royals with powers run amok. Queen Maialen has entrusted the safety of her subjects to her nephew, Prince Xabier, placing the agency in his capable hands.
Only, the Prince would rather spend his days putting his own power to good use in the vineyards than to wither away on the bureaucratic vine. Tired of policing perpetrators and babysitting bean-counters, he schemes to groom his first lieutenant (and second cousin) the Duke of Shrubs. After months spent moving chess pieces, he is poised to convince the Queen to assign his cousin to his post.
But an unlikely pawn still stands in his way: the sexy Zain Otxoa is the pushiest pencil-pusher in all of The Ministry and head of internal affairs. Prince Xabier has plotted to have him fired at least thrice. Zain’s influence over the Queen—his only saving grace—is baffling.
When a master maneuver to have Zain reassigned exposes a shocking imbroglio, Prince Xabier learns The Ministry isn’t what it seems. And Zain isn’t a pawn at all.
Not so fast.
My heels clicked in rapid succession as I walked down the centerline of the grand executive hall. It was far afield of the offices on lower floors. It took minutes to get all the way up there, which was why I’d needed to make haste. Left unattended on nights when he would rather have been any place but at his post, the Prince had a tendency to disappear.
The floors were made of marble and their design was quite ornate—a wide white border off to each side, with an elaborate design forming a runway down the middle. It wasn’t a pattern, but a work of art, its geometric pieces reminiscent of stained glass. It gave the sense of walking on a rug made of stone.
Hues from garnet, to ruby, to tawny, to rose made up elements of a palette that swirled and faded to ambers and golds. They complemented magnificent oil paintings of Abarran countryside that lined the grand corridor’s high walls. Spaced-out sitting benches rendered the space worthy of entertaining. Yet, he kept it to himself, and spent most of his time alone.
The downstairs offices were another story. They were filled with six-by-six-foot cubicles configured en masse for the Ministry’s rank and file. Enclosed offices here and there were reserved for mid-level managers: MLMs, as we liked to call them. I inhabited one of the better of these offices—a space in the corner on a higher floor with a not-bad view—though an MLM I was not.
Ostensibly, I was the Head of Internal Affairs, which was exactly her intention—a gross understatement considering my deep involvement with the covert side. Not making that last fact public was by design. My list of responsibilities was too long to name—too long for me to remember most days. Yet, the highest of my duties was to babysit him.
He was Prince Xabier Garrastazu, third in line to the South Abarran throne, son of Prince Frantzisco, nephew to the Queen, and Duke of Brix. He was also the Minister of Powers—the highest-ranking official at this agency and—despite my charge to keep him from making too big a mess out of things, he was—technically—my boss.
“Is he in?” I asked Eusebio, more for his benefit than mine. I knew the Prince’s comings and goings. I had eyes on him at all times. I tried not to roll my eyes as Eusebio made a production of picking up the phone to announce my arrival. The Prince enjoyed forcing me to wait to be let in.
The more ridiculously childish and infuriatingly vain Prince Xabier, Duke of Brix, chose to be wherever I was concerned, the easier it was to ignore his ridiculous appeal.
“Your Grace.” As usual, I greeted his back, the part of him that always seemed to face me when I walked into his suite. Even from behind, the man was magnificent. Broad shoulders filled out a perfectly tailored button-down made of fine fabric and subtle herringbone design. Today’s shirt—white if you weren’t paying attention—was the faintest of lilac. He was the epitome of a dashing prince.
To be clear, I was paying attention, not only to the way its snug fit showed the definition in his shoulders—to the place where the fabric stopped and his rolled-up sleeves gave way to skin. For all the hard work he didn’t do, there needn’t have been any rolling up of sleeves. In my most outlandish of theories, he did it to torment me.
“Mr. Otxoa,” the Prince greeted blithely, not turning toward me just yet. He stood on a rug in the sitting area with his gaze remained fixed on the fire. His office was a projection of the man himself—pleasantly fragrant, clean to a fault and dripping with style. Tufted wingback chairs with ottomans flanked a matching Chesterfield, all three in a dark teal. Fire glow warmed his features, casting appeal on the planes of his face, flattering the smooth line of his nose and cutting shadows from his diamond jaw.
I stopped at the edge of the rug next to the drink trolley that carried only wine. Its twin at the other end of the Chesterfield was all crystal decanters and spirits. When he turned, I was meant to bow out of deference. This was always the most difficult moment—the one when he first cast his gaze upon me. I faltered at the devastating beauty of his eyes.
“And what have you for me tonight? More documents to sign, no doubt. More supos with powers run rampage?”
He made no secret of the fact that my presence vexed him. Unencumbered by the burden of common birth, the Prince was under no obligation to feign politesse. Logic dictated that his resentment stemmed from me holding him to task. Instinct told me that the sport he made of pushing my buttons was something more.
The Prince finally cast his sapphire gaze upon me and I did bow then, thankful that the deep hue of my skin made it easy to hide my flush. Blood that he could not see rushed to my cheeks and prickled my nose and burned the tops of my ears. If he resented me, I, too, resented him. Training the Prince was not supposed to be so difficult as this.
Kenzie Blades is a queer author of romantic LGBTQ+ fiction and is the alter ego of a multi-award winning author who writes other fiction under a different name. Kenzie lives in San Francisco and enjoys lots of things that start with the letter B, like bacon, bourbon and books.
Nick Bedford coaches the men’s rowing team at California Pacific College, a small liberal arts school in Sacramento. He’s quiet, dedicated—and closeted. He struggles with professional ethics and NCAA rules as he denies his attraction for Morgan Estrada, one of his rowers. While they may not be far apart in age, the difference between coach and athlete leads Nick to worry about exploitation.
But Morgan has desires and a mind of his own, and what he wants is his coach. As the spring racing season advances, Morgan feels his coach’s eyes on him. Morgan may be gay, and while he’s not out to team, he hasn’t hidden it, either. It may be a coach’s job to check out an athlete’s form, but Morgan hopes Nick’s interested in more than his technique.
Morgan corners Nick in the boathouse, and Nick admits that while he wants Morgan he can’t have him. Morgan laughingly points out that he’s not bound by any of those rules and he wants Nick. Nick and Morgan start a relationship, but Nick worries whenever they’re in public: what if someone sees? An anonymous complaint from a rower to the athletics director sends Nick’s worries into overdrive just as the crew prepares for the make-or-break race of the year.
Warning: This excerpt may contain sexually explicit material, please proceed at your discretion.
Coach Nick Bedford watched the eight men—his athletes, sweaty and pushed to the edge, their sides heaving like thoroughbreds—do their best to beat each other on the boathouse ergometers. The ergs, specialized rowing machines that duplicated the rowing stroke almost exactly, were his rowers’ best friends and worst enemies, building their conditioning and strength but also devouring everything they had to give and demanding more. He often shared their workouts, but not today. Today he walked around each athlete’s erg, looking for flaws in his technique. The crew’s coxswain helped him, but he was still the coach. It was his job to get them in shape.
They were a small crew, and California Pacific College was a small school. A former college rower himself, Nick was a graduate student working on his master’s degree in exercise physiology at a not-too-distant state university, and around the boathouse, he did it all. He was the resident expert on bodies in motion, guiding each athlete through workouts on land and water, each designed to make the boat go faster. He was the dietician, trying to keep a group whose natural prey was pizza and beer on the nutritional straight and narrow to build muscle and fuel recovery. He was their sport psychologist, helping them through losses and guiding the young men through the shoals of school, rowing, and life. He spent his free time immersed in exercise science literature, reading, reading, reading—anything to give his men that extra edge.
He even rigged the boats, adjusting the hardware and making minor repairs.
Eight varsity athletes, eight seats in the varsity boat. Nick was lucky they were so competitive, even with each other. Posting their erg scores meant someone would be pulling harder next time. He also had a standing offer to the junior varsity rowers: any JV athlete who beat a varsity rower on the ergs could challenge him for a seat in the boat. He’d only had to make good once. Each of his eight rowers put the “I” in team, each determined to beat the others. For a small program, it was ideal. For eye candy, it was unbeatable.
“What’d you think, Coach?” his coxswain asked, coming to stand next to him.
Nick was lucky. Stuart Cochrane had coxed in high school, and the junior premed major was as skilled as they came. “There’s room to improve,” Nick said, never taking his eyes off his athletes. “Look at Sundstrom. He’s hunching his shoulders. On the ergs, it’ll hurt, but on the water, it’ll strain his muscles and make it hard for him to stay in synch.”
“He’s never going to catch Morgan without fixing his technique, either. I’m on it,” Stuart said. He walked over and knelt next to the large rower, watching intently for a few strokes before correcting him. Stuart returned, his coxswain’s strut even more pronounced.
Nick had to smile. The best coxswains were small and light, so they didn’t slow the boat with weight that wasn’t pulling an oar, and they had Napoleon complexes. Stuart fitted the bill: short and cocky and determined to win. “That worked.”
“Of course, it did.” Stuart smirked. “Keep your eye on Estrada. Have you noticed how he speeds up just a bit during the last two k? That’s part of how he keeps beating Brad.”
“I like a nice, friendly rivalry.” Nick grinned. “It keeps the erg times fast.”
“I’m not sure how friendly it is. Brad was the fastest until Morgan joined the team and hasn’t taken kindly to being beaten,” Stuart added quietly, his voice just loud enough to reach Nick’s ears over the sounds of the ergs. “And some of the other guys are beating him too.”
“Then Brad needs to up his game.” Nick didn’t want to know about rivalries like that. He’d seen crews torn apart by such distractions. So long as his rowers left their differences on the dock when they rowed, he didn’t care. As he’d told Stuart, a rivalry on the ergs would move the boat faster.
Nick returned his focus to the ergs. He’d kept an eye on Morgan Estrada, all right. It was hard not to. Collegiate rowers were in fantastic shape, but something about Morgan drew his eye. He was tall, taller than Nick (who, at six feet, wasn’t short), but then, rowing selected for tall men and turned them into muscular ones. Sweat dripped from one wavy brown lock, running down his cheek, but Morgan ignored it.
Nick noticed it, however. It defined Morgan’s cheek, flushed red with effort, but normally very fair. There was more conquistador than conquered in Morgan Estrada’s background. All Nick’s men were good looking in one way or another, but something about Morgan pulled him in, something that threatened to swallow him whole.
Eye candy was a perk of his job, but Nick tried not to stare too much. They were his boys; he was their coach. There was a trust there, and he took that trust very seriously.
Still, watching Morgan strain, sweaty and grunting and red, made Nick think of crossing that line.
Christopher Koehler always wanted to write, but it wasn’t until his grad school years that he realized writing was how he wanted to spend his life. Long something of a hothouse flower, he’s been lucky to be surrounded by people who encouraged that, especially his long-suffering husband of twenty-nine years and counting.
He loves many genres of fiction and nonfiction, but he’s especially fond of romances, because it’s in them that human emotions and relations, at least most of the ones fit to be discussed publicly, are laid bare.
While writing is his passion and his life, when he’s not doing that, he’s a househusband, at-home dad, and oarsman with a slightly disturbing interest in manners and the other ways people behave badly.
Christopher is approaching the tenth anniversary of publication and has been fortunate to be recognized for his writing, including by the American Library Association, which named Poz a 2016 Recommended Title, and an Honorable Mention for “Transformation,” in Innovation, Volume 6 of Queer Sci Fi’s Flash Fiction Anthology.
Jennifer, Sean, and Maria are jewel thieves—and lovers. When a job gone wrong sees Jennifer in the hands of the FBI, Sean and Maria have to figure out how to break her out. It’s no easy feat, since Jennifer is both their hacker and master planner. But these two thieves will do anything to steal their heart back.
Jennifer had only seconds to act. The pounding of footsteps up the stairwell echoed against the walls. This old building had zero insulation. They probably thought they were being quiet, but Jen had good ears and fast hands. Years of experience had her moving before thinking.
One glance at her laptop showed the dual security camera feeds she’d hacked into. Sean hovered above the case of jewels and Maria waited patiently in the getaway car. Jennifer had a second to tab through the rest of the feeds to make sure no police had gotten close to either of them. She entered the kill code to erase the recordings while she still could.
At least they would be safe.
Jennifer touched her fingers to her lips and then the screen, brushing over both Sean and Maria’s faces, imagining the soft feel of the stubble on Sean’s cheeks and the flutter of Maria’s long black eyelashes. She regretted not being able to touch them one more time. Even this warning would have to be abbreviated in case she was overheard.
“I’m about to get busted.” Jennifer never thought she would be the one saying these words. “Get out, now. I’m burning the laptop.” She ripped the headset out of her right ear without waiting for a response. After five years together, she trusted them to listen, still a surprise to her even now to know that she could rely on anyone other than herself. Jennifer slammed the laptop closed and pressed her thumb against the failsafe fingerprint reader she’d installed on the bottom.
She ran out of time. The door behind her cracked under the weight of some asshole cop’s foot as she dropped the laptop onto the floor. At least she hadn’t rented this apartment—she’d never get the deposit back. No, she’d chosen an empty location with good sight lines to the jewelry store and picked the lock on the door.
If this had been a long con, they would have rented an apartment and tried to look like good neighbors. Jennifer had fond memories of jobs where they entrenched themselves, living for months or more in one place until that location felt like home. This job in particular should have been quick, in and out.
Yeah, that turned out well.
The cracked door gave way with a crash, and her once private sanctuary filled with large men in uniform. Jennifer forced down the panic as they surrounded her, black barrels of guns pointed at her. This had happened before, only she hadn’t been the target. “Put your hands in the air!”
Jennifer stood with deliberate caution, keeping her hands in view. Cops would take any excuse to get a shot off, and if she wanted to survive this night, Jen knew she had to play the game. However, the sarcastic little shit inside of her couldn’t resist saying, “Congratulations, you got me.”
Because really? Dozens of armed men for little ole her? Come on.
They didn’t seem impressed, at least no one responded other than to grab her by the shoulders and turn her around to cuff her wrists behind her back. The metal felt familiar on her skin from so much time practicing slipping out of handcuffs. Maybe that skill would come in handy tonight.
More important than slipping her cuffs would be figuring out the man in charge. If she kept her wits about her, Jennifer could think over the pounding of her heart, over the fear that this time she wouldn’t make it out. No, she had to focus. Think. None of these keystone cops were distinguishable from the others. They all wore the same damn blue uniforms with black body armor and helmets. Foot soldiers. She needed a mastermind.
That’s when he walked in. No nondescript body armor for him. He wore a suit, not an expensive one with a label, no, something utilitarian you’d pick up in the mall. Still, she noticed the bulge in the line of his jacket, a clear indication of a weapon. He carried himself like he expected to be obeyed, shoulders back and his jaw clenched. She met his eyes as he stared her down like he cataloged her for evidence, startled by the pale blue of those eyes and the contrast of that with his dark hair.
Funny. In another circumstance she’d consider him hot. Jennifer had always loved the combo of dark hair and light eyes, although his eyes were nowhere near as striking as Maria’s. She swallowed down thoughts of Maria or Sean. If she didn’t keep control of herself, if they guessed that she had partners out there, then the game was as good as lost. This stranger in a suit couldn’t know anything real about her.
When they forced her to walk past him she made sure to throw him a cocky grin.
He didn’t seem affected by it. She didn’t register to him any more than an object. Good to know. He nodded at one of the uniformed men. “Take her in.”
CC Bridges is a mild-mannered librarian by day, but by night she writes about worlds of adventure and romance. When she’s not busy solving puzzles in an escape room, she can be found diving into comics or binge-watching superhero movies. She writes surrounded by books, spare computing equipment, and a fluffy dog. In 2011, she won a Rainbow Award for best gay sci-fi/futuristic novel.
Living paintings, spectral children, cannibal serial killers, lost souls, haunted houses, and ancient evil proliferate The Door and Other Uncanny Tales. Everywhere reality and fantasy collapse to create a new unstable world, even the body is not what it seems. Combined with Dmetri Kakmi’s gothic imagination and mordant humor, the result is fiction that is as memorable as it is unsettling.
This collection contains three new and three previously published stories, including the acclaimed Haunting Matilda, The Long Lonely Road and The Boy by the Gate.
The Door: Chapter One “There now,” Orestes said, standing back to admire the painting.
It hung before him from a sturdy hook on the landing of the staircase leading from the darker downstairs part of the house to the lighter upstairs, with rows of small windows and the French doors that opened on a balcony, overlooking narrow Transom Street. This had been after all, in other times, an industrial area, filled with factories, abattoirs, noise, and the stench of hard labor in the shadow of the nearby Convent of the Good Shepherd, by the river. Now the suburb was gentrified and provided accommodation for the likes of himself, Orestes Gallanos, and his partner Simon Cole, artists both, living the inner-city dream in lofty warehouse spaces.
“There now,” Orestes repeated, casting an eye over the artwork he had labored upon for almost five months, in the garage turned studio with its stuffy air and bad light. He folded his arms across a narrow chest, tilted his head to the side, and stepped back to admire the results of his efforts. Not too far back because the hardwood landing was small and he risked falling down the steps to the polished concrete floor below.
It was a splendid work, even if he thought so himself. Very effective. It achieved exactly the outcome he aimed to produce in its creation all along.
It was a door painted with oil on linen. A life-size door, seven feet in height and three feet wide, with an old-fashioned handle that gave off a pleasing brass gleam. The square frosted glass panel above complemented two vertical panels below, and he had found that working with oil allowed him to capture perfectly the desired grain and texture of wood.
He descended the stairs and studied the painting from the entrance hall. From there, should a guest visit, the painting looked like a real door, complete with architrave and wooden step to complete the illusion. Only Orestes knew that, if he should by a miracle manage to open it, there would be nothing on the other side except plasterboard. A guest ascending the stairs and brushing by the painting would assume it was a real door, leading to, presumably, a newly built room on the other side.
At that moment, the front door opened behind Orestes and Simon came in, bringing with him a cold gust of July wind. His hair was cut short and newly dyed blond to accentuate the navy in his deep-set eyes.
“Hello,” Simon said, removing the black plastic raincoat and hanging it with a sprinkle of rainwater on the coat rack. “Why are you in the dark?”
It was four-thirty in the afternoon and almost pitch-black in the hallway. Orestes pointed wordlessly at the painting; a smile played on his lips.
“Oh,” Simon uttered, coming to stand beside him. “It’s terrific. It really is.” He gave Orestes a peck on the proffered cheek. “Congratulations. Are you pleased?”
“I think so…” Orestes cupped his chin and stared at his work for a while.
Simon stepped forward, rested both forearms on the staircase handrail, and gazed at the painting with a contented sigh. Orestes bathed in the way Simon was always so genuinely enthusiastic and encouraging about his work. It gave him confidence, made him feel he was worthwhile after all.
The electric light from upstairs streamed down and fell on the painting with intensity, making it resemble a well-lit stage, set for a play.
“Any moment now the door will open,” Orestes whispered behind Simon, “and the actors will step forward to pronounce the made-up lines meant for made-up lives.”
Simon’s smile was warm when he said, “That’s what I was thinking.” Then he caught the expression on Orestes’s face. “Something’s bothering you.”
“I wondered if I should have the door slightly open.”
Simon was also a painter, of a more esoteric order, and, although slightly younger than Orestes, had strong opinions on this sort of thing.
“No,” he cried, shaking his head and glancing at the painting as if he might have to fight for its right to remain as it was. “That’d be overemphasizing it. Glass is a kind of opening for one’s perceptions even though one’s body remains shut out.”
Orestes considered. “You’re right,” he said finally. “Glass lets your eye enter the other side, but only partially, since it’s not clear glass.”
“Oh, baby,” Simon cried, coming up to Orestes and catching his wiry form in his arms. “This can be the centerpiece for a series of trompe l’oeil for your next exhibition. Imagine a whole room!” Simon twirled happily around the floor with Orestes in his arms, smiling and pressing him to his body. The room spun with them, the glass bricks of the bathroom at one end and the darkness of the garage-studio at the other. “This calls for a celebration.”
“There’s a bottle of Taittinger in the fridge,” Orestes offered.
They went upstairs. Orestes popped the champagne bottle and poured the amber liquid in tall crystal flutes inherited from Simon’s mother, Orestes’s side being poorer and lacking in luxuries and good taste. After watching Laura with Gene Tierney for the umpteenth time, they made quiet, habitual love on the couch and much later still, after watching Farewell, My Lovely for the sixth time, they crossed to the bedroom and slept soundly in their double bed, behind an elaborate wooden Japanese screen.
In the long winter’s night, the building settled with a sigh around them. It resolved its sound angles and determined lines into a world filled with peculiar, shifting disturbances, some fleeting and others lasting, deep in the mortar and concrete of the century-old foundations. The last train raced by unnoticed on the raised tracks a block away, the procession of near-empty windows piercing the night like accusations. In the early hours of the morning, when traffic slowed on nearby Hoddle Street, only the icy wind was left to prowl the empty streets. It slid past the grille pulled over the sturdy front entrance, passed through the barely discernible crack under the door, and set out feelers toward the stairs, from there to reach the painted door with the frosted glass panel and the glistening doorknob. The painting showed faint in the cold silver of a night-light left on halfway down the stairs. If there was anyone at the top of the stairs at that hour, one would have been forgiven for thinking the door looked forlorn on the landing, where people pass but rarely stop. An invitation.
Dmetri Kakmi was born in Turkey to Greek parents. His fictionalized memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. Dmetri also edited the acclaimed children’s anthology When We Were Young. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.
The aftermath of the last battle has left Nickel weak in bed and grounded for the next decade. Despite being in trouble, Nickel wants to return to the battle against the enemy as soon as he can, but thoughts of Platinum, the dragon helping to nurse him back to health, keep distracting him.
Platinum can’t believe how much his life has changed. He went from being a lonely fugitive on the run to part of a family in only hours. The last few days have been his happiest, especially now that he’s met Nickel. He knows it’s only temporary, though. The enemy that kept him captive for most of his life isn’t finished with him yet, but even Platinum and Nickel’s combined powers might not be enough to save them all.
Nickel fought to open his eyes. The lids felt like they were weighted down or as if someone had sewn them shut. He struggled with them for a few long minutes, then, exhausted, gave up and drifted off to sleep.
The second time Nickel woke, most of the weight had vanished. His eyes slid open easily enough, and then he had to blink away tears as the bright light from his bedside table lamp almost blinded him.
“Sorry!” Someone whose voice Nickel didn’t recognize gasped. There was a thump as something hit the floor, and the light snapped off a second later. Footsteps ran away from him, heading toward the door. More light flooded into the room as the door was flung open, but Nickel’s eyes had finally adjusted. “He’s awake!” the stranger yelled into the hallway.
A series of familiar thumps, bumps, squeals, and exclamations sounded as Nickel’s family literally dropped whatever they were doing and ran toward Nickel’s bedroom. The door was flung open wider, and a small stampede rushed to Nickel’s bedside.
Alloy reached Nickel first. He climbed onto the chair pulled up next to Nickel’s bed where the stranger had been sitting moments before. He leaned over Nickel’s head to see him better.
“Yup, he’s awake,” Alloy chirped happily. Alloy’s hair was rumpled from playing, and the bright red-and-blue strands that matched the colors of each of his wide eyes hung over his forehead. A pair of hands wrapped around Alloy’s middle and gently lifted him off the chair. Alloy was happy to settle into Mercury’s arms so Mercury could bend closer to Nickel.
“How are you feeling?” Mercury asked. His voice was soft, almost as if he was afraid of startling Nickel, which was silly after all the yelling from just a moment ago. Mercury’s bronze-colored hair was long on his neck, and his bronze-colored eyes looked concerned. Mercury was still wearing the button-up shirt he wore to work, so it must be late afternoon.
Nickel blinked slowly, trying to figure out what he had done to deserve the fanfare. Had he been sleepwalking? No, he didn’t feel strong enough to sit up, let alone get out of bed and walk around. He must have been sick, yet that answer didn’t jive either.
The rest of his family had lined up behind Mercury. Lumie was standing next to Copper, their bright red hair and eyes an exact match for the shade in Alloy’s hair. They were fire dragons, but Lumie was only ten years old while Copper was eighteen, the same age as Nickel. Next to them were ’Ron and Chrome, the two earth dragons. Chrome looked like he had been digging outside again; half of his face and his clothing were covered in dirt the same color as his and ’Ron’s hair. They were both thirteen years old, but ’Ron was considerably cleaner than Chrome. Dane had his hands on ’Ron’s shoulders, no doubt to keep her from jumping onto the bed to give Nickel a hug. That would be painful, but Nickel still couldn’t remember why his body ached so much.
Dane was the tallest person in the room. His blond hair seemed to glow, and his ears were pointed at the moment, which meant the glamor he used to hide his otherworldly appearance was down. He was unbelievably beautiful, but then he was the child of a god.
Zinc was next in line. Her long white hair, distinctive of air dragons, was loose from the braid she usually kept it in. It hung in a wave down her back. Her gray eyes were earnest as they looked at Nickel, except her face seemed thinner than Nickel remembered. She also seemed to be taller, almost Dane’s height.
Nickel blinked in surprise, and then saw the hand clasped in Zinc’s and gaped. Zinc, with her hair still in its distinctive white braid, was standing next to herself. Only, now Nickel was realizing that the first version of Zinc was actually male. They were egg twins, identical dragons except for their gender, hatched out of the same egg. He was Platinum, the dragon who Nickel and the rest of his family had been searching for ten years.
Like a spark had been lit, a fire erupted in Nickel’s head. He winced at the sudden pain, only it didn’t exactly hurt. Memories flooded back, each a little video that connected with the others to give him the whole story. There were a lot of them, the sheer volume overwhelming him and causing the pain-mimicking feeling.
Searching the woods for the person mucking with the weather. Finding out that Platinum had escaped from the enemy scientists. Watching Lumie and Platinum get kitnapped. Flying off to defeat the scientists once and for all. Losing the battle. And then nothing. He didn’t know how he had gotten home, only that he was safe now.
“How long am I grounded for?” Nickel asked. His voice was thick and scratchy and his throat dry. How long had it been since he had last spoken? Surely it couldn’t be more than a few hours. A day at most.
Mercury let out a growly snort. “For the foreseeable future. And don’t even think the word ‘candy.’”
Nickel sighed, but at the moment he honestly just wanted a glass of water. Begging for candy could wait until he could sit up properly again.
When Mell Eight was in high school, she discovered dragons. Beautiful, wondrous creatures that took her on epic adventures both to faraway lands and on journeys of the heart. Mell wanted to create dragons of her own, so she put pen to paper. Mell Eight is now known for her own soaring dragons, as well as for other wonderful characters dancing across the pages of her books. While she mostly writes paranormal or fantasy stories, she has been seen exploring the real world once or twice.
The young bride of the town’s wealthiest man is missing and rumors of her whereabouts are rampant. The whispers of her being killed by her husband and chatter about her running away sound like an interesting story for young Jerry Mathews to write to ensure a place in his school’s newspaper team. But peeling away the layers unravels a far more dangerous mystery than Jerry and his friends could have anticipated.
As if dealing with high school wasn’t already too much for him, Jerry has to quickly learn that a wrong move during his investigation could end his life.
Warning: abduction/kidnapping, attempted murder, mentions of domestic abuse, and violence/gore
“Jerry, wake up,” came my mother’s voice, the same voice I’d heard every morning for as long as I could remember.
“Eeeep, Mom!” I cried. I was in one of my smallest shorts and a vest. “This is so uncool!” I concealed myself in the covers.
“Well, it’s not as if I haven’t seen what you’ve got.” She smiled and winked at me. “Now get up, or you’ll be late for school.”
“High school, Mom!” I corrected her, rolling my eyes, ignoring the comment she made about having seen what I had got. “Not school.”
“Just get up, dear.” She smiled again.
She walked out of my room and down the stairs. Giving my body a good stretch and suppressing a yawn, I got up and went to the bathroom. I took a quick shower, pulled on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt lying on my bedroom floor, and looked at myself in the mirror. A five-foot-seven boy with black eyes, black hair, a not-so-deep cleft in the chin and wearing a pair of glasses looked back at me.
Not bad, Jerry Mathews. I had accepted the fact I wasn’t supermodel material a long time ago.
I picked up my backpack and went downstairs to the kitchen, where my parents were having breakfast.
“Ever heard of alarm clocks?” asked Dad, a huge, mostly serious man.
Knowing him, I knew he was trying to make a joke even though he was always awful at them.
“Good morning to you too, Dad,” I answered, sitting down at the table between my parents.
“It’s not his fault!” said Mom, obviously mistaking Dad’s weird, so-called joke for something else. “I like waking up my child in the morning,” she continued, pouring me a glass of milk with a smile as I helped myself to some toast. “He’s the only one I’ve got. I want to spend as much time as I can with him before he goes into the world on his own.”
Mom and her attachment issues.
Dad must’ve been rolling his eyes. I couldn’t tell because his face was behind the morning newspaper he was reading. The rest of the breakfast went on silently as usual; we were one of those families who preferred talking more as the day went by.
“Well, I’m off,” I said, getting up and grabbing my backpack from the floor. “See you both later.”
“Have a nice day, sweetie!” Mom called as I reached the front door, followed by a weird grunt from Dad—his way of telling me to stay safe.
He had always been bad at showing his emotions, though Mom did tell me he was quite romantic. That was yet to be proven true as far as I was concerned.
I went out of our house and started walking toward school, taking in the familiar surroundings. I lived in a typical suburban neighborhood. Every upscale house on either side of the road had well-manicured lawns. A few houses had small apple trees. I saw a couple adults in suits getting into their cars for work. A group of five kids laughing at something funny rode past me on their bicycles on their way to school.
“Good morning, Mrs. Dave.” I waved at our neighbor across the street. The old woman smiled and waved back as she tended to the flowers in her front yard.
Yup! Life does look the same when you’ve been living in the same neighborhood since you were born, and that, too, with the same people around you. Even if you don’t want to, you’re still going to end up knowing everybody living in the neighborhood as time passed and force yourself to have a smile when you see them.
“I knew that was you walking,” said a voice from behind me. I recognized the voice, so I slowed down a little to let her catch up.
“Seriously, Jerry, you walk too fast!” said Ash as she reached me.
I smiled; people had always told me I walked fast and, well, a bit weirdly. Weirdly in the sense I, according to them, walked as if I was about to jump in the air after every step. But as far as I was concerned, I walked fine enough, thank you very much. Mom did tell me years ago my weird gait might be because I used to walk on my toes as a child, as if I were wearing invisible heels around the house. That never made any sense to me.
“Your father isn’t driving you to school today?” I asked Ash, pushing my glasses up my nose.
“Nah, he had to leave early,” Ash answered.
Ash or Ashley Burro-way and I had been friends since kindergarten. She had beautiful brown hair, perfect dark skin, and piercing green eyes. I’d always told her she could be the hottest girl in our school if she tried. But she maintained a bossy air around her and dressed like a boy.
“Hey, did you do the chemistry assignment?” she asked, forcing her short brown hair into a knot behind her head. “I found it quite tough!” she added.
“I know what you mean,” I answered. “Who cares how atoms bond together. Why can’t we let three-dimensional objects be?”
Ash and I walked on for a few seconds when I heard a car behind us. “Ash, look out!” I yelled, pulling her away from the side of the road as the car zoomed past us. Its tire went through a puddle of muddy water. The drops missed us by inches.
“I bet you twenty dollars it was that jerk, Drew!” growled Ash, glaring at the speeding car as it grew smaller and smaller. “He’s been after me ever since I told the principal he and his cronies were smoking near the school bicycle stands.”
“Well, you know it might help a lot if you don’t feel the necessity to tell on everybody at school,” I said, as we both started to walk again.
“It’s not my fault the school has rules,” answered Ash. “And we as students are expected to follow the rules in order to…”
Blah, blah, blah. I tuned her out. It was something you had to learn if Ash was your friend. She was one of those people who held upholding the rules in high regard. It’s not as if I didn’t follow the rules; it’s that I knew about the line you shouldn’t cross unless you needed to make enemies at school.
A.J. Raven is an author who likes to write mysteries with queer characters. He likes exploring leads that have a lot to learn and aren’t perfect; they will make mistakes. So, bear with them. You can find A.J. onTwitter
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Jack Whitaker lives a grayscale life. But a violent, yellow-eyed woman; a tea-drinking animal in human form; and a woman in brown with devastating powers of healing have Jack rethinking the boundaries of reality.
Marin, the woman in brown, is supposed to be the most important leader Jack will ever meet. She’s certainly the kindest, so Jack accepts the task of protecting her for a month from a violent duo with a supernatural ability to track their prey.
Jack and Marin travel the country, healing humans and animals, meeting everyday heroes and villains and everyone in-between. Jack isn’t sure if the world is ready for a woman like Marin, let alone whether she is.
Jack didn’t believe in a lot of things: politics, soul mates, religion. Stage magic, all of it. She sure as hell didn’t believe in anything supernatural.
Work, traffic, humidity—those she believed in. Not that she didn’t employ a little whimsy in her life. She liked reading novels, especially a rousing space opera or an angsty, dystopian handwringer. Any piece of fiction penned by Noelle Stevenson, illustrated or digital, enjoyed a prominent place in her leisure time. She loved science fiction movies as social and creative commentary. And the wicked special effects.
Fellow Floridian Carl Hiaasen she found funny and topical. Had she any close friends, she could have discussed some of his biting social commentary.
But believe in any of these fictions, magical or not? Of course not. Jack Whitaker was a rational person. The walls in her tiny apartment, bare of anything but two Firefly posters and a magazine clipping of a black-and-white picture of blues singer and lesbian icon, Gladys Bentley, echoed only her voice, both literally and symbolically. Work as a security guard satisfied without stimulating. On the occasions she felt a tingle for socializing or, heaven forbid, physical touch, she booted up her laptop and binge-watched the latest postapocalyptic series.
Once, she had believed in big ideas like spirituality and a wife and kids. She’d since grown up.
Most of this changed in mid-July on her way home from work at the aquarium in Timuca, a small city in Northern Florida. The day started off as tidily as usual, although traffic seemed a bit less hectic and the day much sultrier than usual.
“Do you believe in magic?”
By the end of the day, when someone with feral memories posed the question to her, she answered differently than she would have just twelve hours prior.
Holly began writing novel-length romances in junior high. She continued scribbling wild tales on her college-ruled notepads till those pesky college and career things got in the way. Finally, after earning her PhD in sociology, Holly gave herself permission to get a life. She has since published four novels, one short story, and several poems. Now a boring academic and a not-entirely-boring political activist, she spends just about all her waking hours doing one or more of the following: teaching, writing, volunteering, protesting, and tending to the whims of her fur masters.
Holly lives in South Dakota with her wife and numerous fur kids.
“Nope. And that’s the last time you watch that movie before bed, baby boy.” Talos cut off Kikoi who pouted.
“Fine. Then tell me about when Uncle Majid finally stopped being so grumpy and murdery all the time.” Kikoi batted his thick eyelashes.
“Okay, I can tell you all about that. Well, I don’t think he’ll ever stop being murdery as you put it.” Talos settled into his customary story telling position.
“Some would say that story begins well over two thousand years ago when I first met my best friend and powerful unicorn shadow. Some others would say it started a little over a thousand years ago when tragedy struck. But I think it starts when my eldest brother, the crazy half-giant vampire that he is, retired and went on a quest for redemption.”
Kikoi draped himself across Talos as he closed his eyes.
“Little did Majid and Odin know that Fate sent a tough, smart, wasn’t going to take lip from them polar bear to cross their path when they needed it most…”
Majid’s best friend, Talos, has found his mate and finally recognized his lover of the past several hundred years as his other mate. The mate Majid had spent the last eleven hundred years trying to forgive was back in his life.
Will Majid rescue one mate only to lose the other? Or will the fierce polar bear, Siku, give him a chance to redeem himself?
Will Odin forgive himself for the actions that tore Majid from his life? And will the not so little bear find him to be a worthy mate? Or is he doomed to die on a quest for redemption?
Will Siku find his place not only within the relationship his mates clearly already have but also the entirely different world that is city life? Or is he just fooling himself that he can get over the wall between him and his mates?
Bloodlines of Fate is an urban fantasy series set in a world destroyed by humans and resurrected by supernatural beings. This book contains depictions of omega polar bears who will eat you in self-defense, sturdy hairbrushes that break naughty butts, timeouts for coloring and painting toes, and a family reunion for the history books.
Majid is part two of a two-part story arch that tells the love story of two triads (MMM). It is necessary to read Talos to fully enjoy this book that does end in a HEA despite bickering chefs who try to burn the estate down.
Santino Bellomi and his coworker, Cam, are sent to Cassadaga, Florida by the Aspida Pneuma, a group of psychics and mages. Their job is to rescue a nixie from a polluted lake and to check out the town, which is known for its psychics. New recruits to the Aspida are always welcome and where better than a spiritualist camp to hunt for them? What Santino wants most, however, is to finish the assignment quickly. He isn’t a fan of heat and humidity, and he’d looking forward to a well-earned vacation once the mission is over.
Ryan Doyle grew up in Cassadaga, where being psychic runs in the family. Ryan has never roamed far from home, though it’s hard being a geeky gay, wannabe urban fantasy author living in a small town. His job as one of the town psychics is fairly routine until he meets someone new. Ryan has never encountered anyone with a psychic shield so strong until Santino sits down for a reading. Intrigued, he asks Santino out even though Santino is as secretive as he is fun.
Santino hopes to win Ryan over both for himself and for the Aspida. And he’s hoping his skills in the kitchen will swing the balance in his favor. Ryan has almost given up on finding love, living in rural Florida. Can a seductive tourist be the answer to his dreams?
Things never run smoothly for those in the Aspida. What should have been a simple rescue mission is plagued by mosquitoes, enraged ghosts, and someone or something draining residents of their life force. Ryan’s first foray into adventure may be his last.
Ryan drew his shield over himself, letting his psychic senses dampen down. All day, most days, he dropped his armor, walking around exposed, vulnerable on all sides to the flood of stimuli. Such was the life of a professional psychic. He was unable to cut himself off when he was on the job. His clients depended on his abilities. While he could cold read a person to give Houdini a run for his money, Ryan was the real deal when it came to being psychic. Houdini would have had a helluva time debunking his abilities.
Here at home, safe in his fortress of solitude, Ryan armored up, drawing upon his psychic shields. He could rest, letting his senses recharge. Elsie—one of the original inhabitants of the town in the 1890s—had been the only thing able to penetrate his shields. The books on his bookcase rattled alerting him that Elsie, his boisterous ghost, had noted his return.
Ryan double-checked the setting on the air conditioning in his tiny Harmony Hall apartment. He might have been born and raised in Cassadaga, but it didn’t mean he loved Florida summers. That said, the air conditioner sat at an acceptable temperature, but inside, the heat stifled him. He turned on the old fan from the 1930s, the kind with barely a whisper of a guard surrounding it, and aimed it at his computer. Only the force of the wind coming out of the fan kept Kuro from jamming his paws into it to catch the blades. His cat didn’t like his fur mussed.
Ryan drew the curtains where his apartment overlooked the Cassadaga Hotel before stripping off his shorts. There, he was as naked as he could get without removing skin, and he was still too hot. He crammed into the cramped shower and ducked his head under the faucet, wetting his hair. Afterward, he strolled into the kitchen, poured himself an iced tea, and rubbed the cool glass across his nipples a few times in a vain attempt to lower his body temperature.
Finally, giving up, Ryan returned to his computer and let the ancient fan and his wet hair act as a swamp cooler. Acclimatize my ass. In quiet moments like this, Ryan was sure he heard the mildew growing on his skin in the humidity. He streamed some indie music and opened up a story file. After a day of work, he enjoyed doing what he’d actually gone to school for: writing.
Unfortunately, his career as an urban fantasy writer hadn’t taken off yet, so he was still in the family business. Much to the endless and completely irrational irritation of his sister, Mary. Ryan didn’t quite get it. She’d been vicious in claiming their mother’s house as her own to do readings in, following their mother’s path. Their whole family possessed psychic abilities, as did many others in Cassadaga, a Spiritualist commune.
Ryan didn’t understand why he couldn’t share the house with Mary, but she was having none of it. She’d been pissed off he’d been accepted into Harmony Hall after proving his abilities worthy of the honor. One had to be psychic to rent there. It bemused him that his only living relative didn’t want much to do with him, and it wasn’t because he was gay. Mary didn’t give a crap about his sexuality. No, she didn’t like the fact that his psychic abilities equaled hers.
Shoving Mary from his mind, Ryan tried to get into his story, but the day’s worries bled into his consciousness. Tomorrow, a big open house would have trainees doing half-price readings at the Davis Center, and he’d have to oversee Lisa, his trainee. It was fun, in a way, interacting with the public, and many turned out for the half-price offering. But surely there was more he could be doing with his ability.
A vague disappointment dogged Ryan because he hadn’t thought to do the psychic TV thing. He assumed they started out legit, but ratings and pressure from the shows’ money men probably quickly led to faking results. Sure, some of them did fake stuff. He’d been on more ghost hunts than he could count. No one got so many results every time, and demons didn’t really lurk around every corner. Oh, he didn’t discount demons—but to have house after house filled with them? He had his doubts. He didn’t want to contribute to all the charlatan acts out there. He was the real deal.
Sighing, he gave up for a moment and tried to clear his head with a little internet therapy. Of course the internet was as big a bane to his writing as it was an asset to his research. He checked out a tarot card Kickstarter using some truly gorgeous art and sighed again. The goal hadn’t quite been reached yet, but hopefully soon. He planned to add them to his collection. His last acquisition had been a steampunk deck almost too pretty to use. Tarot cards were the one thing he collected outside of manga. Ryan had reluctantly put his books into storage because his apartment was too small, and he’d moved to e-books, which didn’t have the same appeal. Still, his hating on the e-book afforded him nothing. He planned to sell some one day.
Elsie fluttered in the corner of his eye like black butterflies dancing in and out of the ceiling fan blades. When he turned his attention to her, she smiled, waved, and faded away, content she’d gotten his attention. Rolling his eyes, Ryan turned to his computer. He goofed off on the internet for a little while longer before getting back to his fantasy world. He’d left his warrior witch in a rough spot. He probably ought to have her save herself.
Jana is Queen of the Geeks (her students voted her in), and her home and office are shrines to any number of comic book and manga heroes along with SF shows and movies too numerous to count. It’s no coincidence that the love of all things geeky has made its way into many of her stories. To this day, she’s disappointed she hasn’t found a wardrobe to another realm, a superhero to take her flying among the clouds, or a roguish starship captain to run off to the stars with her.
Savarin honed his Talent through years of study, and to achieve his goal of becoming the most powerful and accomplished sorcerer in Tournai, he made magic his life. Among the wealthy and noble circles he moves in, no one would suspect the handsome, refined, arrogant sorcerer’s humble beginnings—which is how Savarin prefers it. He wants to be seen only as the man he’s made himself. When Tournai’s princes task Savarin with studying and strengthening the spells that protect the principality from magical attack, he is more than happy to do so. The spells are complex, centuries old, and exactly the type of puzzle Savarin is eager to solve. But to his annoyance, the princes insist Loriot accompany him on his journey.
Second son of a minor noble family, Loriot worked his way up the ranks of the royal guard to captain with single-minded determination and takes pride in his service to the crown. He must obey the prince’s orders to protect Savarin, despite believing his skills would be best used elsewhere and his wariness of magic. UnTalented himself, Loriot has learned not only the benefits of magic but also its potential for harm—and how to counter it. He still believes it’s best to avoid most magic entirely, which is difficult when he’s tasked with playing guard to a powerful sorcerer.
Loriot and Savarin clash repeatedly during their journey, but the simmering tension between them doesn’t only stem from their work, and passion develops into feelings neither expected. But Savarin must still secure Tournai’s magical barrier, and his only solution will endanger both him and the royal family.
As afternoon waned into evening, Loriot approached his house on Dove Lane. Weariness dragged at him with each step. He hadn’t slept more than a few minutes in the last few days, and now that the crisis had passed, he felt the fatigue down to his bones. But the lack of sleep was worth it for the good outcome of the situation.
He trudged up the few steps to his front door, its rich blue color recently freshened, and let himself in. The key turned smoothly in the lock, and the magical protections on the house recognized him as belonging, allowing him inside. He shivered, even though he didn’t feel anything as he crossed the threshold; perhaps someone with a Talent would, but he had neither Talent nor any sensitivity to magic.
Inside, the house was quiet. The formal parlor was empty, which was unsurprising as they rarely used it—only when Joceline and Oriana chose to entertain. He wanted more than anything to go up to his bedchamber and collapse into his bed for the next few days, but he couldn’t. Couldn’t even collapse for a few hours without checking on his family. But he knew where at least one of them was likely to be at this time of day.
The sitting room at the back of the house was quiet, too, so quiet he could hear the scratch of his sister’s pen on paper as he stepped into the doorway. Joceline sat at her writing desk, papers spread around her, pen flying across the page. Despite the silence, she didn’t notice him. A good writing day, then. He hated to disturb her, but she’d want to know he was home.
“Story going well?” he asked, keeping his voice quiet so he wouldn’t startle her. He’d learned it was better to have to repeat himself than to scare her when she was absorbed in a world of her own creation.
But he didn’t have to repeat himself today. She glanced up immediately, her gaze hazy and then sharpening. “There you are! I was wondering if you were ever coming home.”
He hadn’t been gone so long—only a couple of days—but he did try not to let a day go by without returning for at least a little while. He stepped farther into the room and sank down into a comfortable chair. “It was unavoidable. You got my notes?”
“Of course. You know I was just teasing.” Joceline narrowed her eyes and studied him with an intensity he could almost feel. “Is everything all right? You look exhausted, and I heard yesterday the guard was searching everyone leaving the city.”
He scrubbed a hand over his face. Sitting had been a mistake. His eyelids wanted to droop; his body wanted to melt into the cushions. “There was a kidnapping.”
“Not Prince Julien?”
“No, no. And it’s fine now,” he reassured her, trying to keep her from coming out of her chair in her alarm at a threat to the heir to Tournai’s throne. “It wasn’t a member of the royal family at all.”
“But you were involved?”
As captain of the royal guard, Loriot normally wouldn’t be directly involved in such a situation. “The baby taken was the daughter of Prince Amory’s friend, Master Tristan. The merchant. Though if what I saw means anything, he’ll likely be a member of the royal family soon.”
“Really?” Joceline leaned forward, her interest of a different kind now. “There’s going to be a marriage? To whom? The princess?”
He shook his head. He didn’t need to tell her what he said should go no further. He didn’t ever tell her anything truly secret, but Loriot didn’t see the harm in a little meaningless court gossip now and then, especially since she wouldn’t spread it. “No. Lord Etan.”
She sat back with a huff. “Well, they really are bucking tradition, aren’t they?”
He let out a short laugh. But what she said wasn’t untrue. Both Tournai’s prince and his cousin, a royal duke, had married men in the last couple of years, and now it seemed Lord Etan, another cousin of Prince Philip’s, would do the same. Loriot couldn’t think of a time when such a thing had happened, as the royal family and nobility tended to marry those who could provide bloodline heirs for their titles—and some families were even more conservative, only marrying women.
“Good for them,” Joceline said. “I hope they’re happy.”
“Now that Tristan’s daughter is back with them, I believe they are.”
Concern flooded back into her pretty face. “You found her? And the person who took her?”
“Yes, with Master Savarin’s help.” He’d gotten over any resentment he might have had that he needed the help of magic long before today and was happy to use any tool he had access to. Savarin, the most powerful sorcerer in Tournai, was not someone whose help should be turned away, and Savarin never withheld it, serving Tournai whenever he was called upon.
“The sorcerer? How did he help?” Joceline sat forward, a gleam in her eyes he recognized well. She wasn’t simply curious; she wanted to know because she might use the information in a story.
He sighed and shook his head. “He used his magic to try to track the kidnappers and then to try to find the baby directly. He pointed us in the right direction, let us know where to search for them.” Loriot didn’t bother mentioning the help they’d received from someone else, a scholar at the university. If he read Savarin right, Savarin would be finding Master Corentin at the university soon and asking him about the magic he used, because it also sounded as if Savarin hadn’t heard of anything like it.
“Let me guess, your new story has a sorcerer character.” He arched an eyebrow at her, his mildly disapproving tone mostly put on. Which she would know, as she was aware how proud he was of her accomplishments.
“I have an idea that would call for one. What’s Master Savarin like?”
“I don’t know him very well.” He tried to think of anything he knew about Savarin beyond the surface. “He’s powerful and arrogant with it.”
She shrugged. “I’d be surprised if he wasn’t. Aren’t all powerful sorcerers arrogant about their power?”
“I wouldn’t know. I don’t know any others.” He resolutely pushed his newly acquired knowledge of the royal family’s secret Talent from his mind. He didn’t need Joceline seeing a hint in his expression and trying to badger the information out of him. He would never tell, but life would be easier if he didn’t have to fight Joceline about it.
“All the ones I’ve read about in stories are. Especially the evil ones.”
“Tell me you’re not going to base a character on Master Savarin and make him evil.” Making the most powerful sorcerer in the country an evil character in a book sounded like a horrible idea.
Another shrug. “Powerful sorcerers always seem to be evil characters. Or self-sacrificing ones who save the day.”
Loriot shook his head and heaved himself to his feet. If he didn’t move, he’d end up sleeping right there. “Alain is upstairs?”
“Yes. But wait,” she called after him as he walked toward the door. “You must know something else about Master Savarin.”
“I really don’t.” He didn’t turn.
“Is he handsome?”
Savarin’s image filled his mind—his height and broad shoulders, perfectly carved features, blond hair he thought would be soft under his hands. His stride hitched, but he shook the image away and ignored Joceline calling after him. Perhaps she would forget the idea entirely if he didn’t encourage her.
He doubted it, but he could hope. The idea of Savarin as a character in a book on the shelf of a bookshop made him cringe.
Trudging up the stairs took the last of his energy, but he forced himself to bypass his own bedchamber. He couldn’t go to bed without seeing Alain. Not after so long away, not even if it hadn’t been very long. The door to the room at the back of the house was partially open. He peeked in as he pushed it open the rest of the way. The room was tidy, except for a veritable city built of blocks in the middle of the rug. The nursemaid noticed him first, but Alain wasn’t far behind. He looked up, his bright-green eyes—twins of Loriot’s own—lighting up, and something inside Loriot melted, just as it always did under those eyes.
With ease of long practice, he caught the five-year-old bundle of energy that came flying at him and swung his son up into his arms. He cuddled him close for as long as Alain would allow. As tired as he was, he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. “There’s my boy. I missed you. Show me what you’ve been doing.”
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 (which 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 e-books, 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, Antonia 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.
Jeremy Booth leads a simple life, scraping by in the gay neighborhood of Seattle, never letting his lack of material things get him down. But the one thing he really wants—someone to love—seems elusive. Until the couple next door moves in and Jeremy sees the man of his dreams, Shane McCallister, pushed down the stairs by a brute named Cole.
Jeremy would never go after another man’s boyfriend, so he reaches out to Shane in friendship while suppressing his feelings of attraction. But the feeling of something being off only begins with Cole being a hard-fisted bully—it ends with him seeming to be different people at different times. Some days, Cole is the mild-mannered John and then, one night in a bar, he’s the sassy and vivacious drag queen Vera.
So how can Jeremy rescue the man of his dreams from a situation that seems to get crazier and more dangerous by the day? By getting close to the couple next door, Jeremy not only puts a potential love in jeopardy, but eventually his very life.
How many disappointing dates will I endure before I just give up?
I mean, here I am, a perfectly attractive, fit, self-sufficient thirty-year-old, and I’m still waiting to meet the man of my dreams. Mr. Right. Hell, tonight I’d even settle for that character who seems to come along on dates for most of us, the all-too-common Mr. Right Now. But even he isn’t on the seat beside me. In fact, I strongly doubt he’s anywhere in the vicinity of the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle where I live.
Believe me, I’ve looked.
Mr. First Date pulls his Ford Fusion up to the curb in front of my apartment building on Aloha Avenue. We sit in awkward silence for several long moments, listening as the engine ticks down as it cools. I can feel him looking at me. As he’s done most of the evening, he waits for me to speak. I turn my head and, in the dark, give him a weak smile. The date, dinner at a little sushi place on Broadway, had not gone well, full of uncomfortable silences, awkward pauses, and desperate looks around for avenues of escape—on both our parts.
Do I need to say we just didn’t click?
I didn’t think so.
So what he says now surprises me.
“Do you want me to come up?”
Really? We’ve just spent an hour and a half of agony together, trying to find a snippet of common ground that doesn’t exist, and he’s wondering if I want him to come up, which we all know is code for “Shall we make the beast with two backs?”
Seriously? The most irksome thing is, I’m considering it. I mean, he’s cute in spite of our lack of social connection. He’s a games developer for a software company here in town and looks it, with a sort of hipster/geek vibe going on. He has red hair, which I love. He has a beard, which I love. He wears retro glasses, which make him look paradoxically goofy and sexy—which I love.
Would it be so terrible to sleep with him? I mean, it’s been at least two weeks since I’ve enjoyed the charms of anyone other than Mr. Thumb and his four sons, so at least in terms of a release, maybe I should just say “Sure” and open the car door. If things go like some of my dates in the past, he’d follow me upstairs to my apartment and be back in his car in, like, fifteen minutes.
No, I tell myself. And then I tell him, shaking my head, looking sad, and saying the words countless heartbreakers have used over the years to stop ardent passion in its errant tracks.
“I’m sorry, Neil. But I have to get up early.” Lamely, I pat his hand. “Maybe another time.”
I don’t need to be psychic to know that we both know another time ain’t gonna happen.
Neil seems relieved as he restarts his car. He shrugs. “It’s okay. Club Z’s just a couple minutes away, right? Down Broadway and a right on Pike—easy.”
He grins at me, and I wonder if he expects me to laugh. Club Z is one of Seattle’s filthiest bathhouses, and yes, it’s only a few minutes away. He doesn’t seem to need directions.
It’s my turn to be relieved that I didn’t actually succumb to the temptation of inviting this jerk upstairs. Wordlessly, I get out of the car and slam the door behind me.
Neil roars off into the damp and still night.
I pause and sigh, staring up at the building in which I’ve lived for the past five years. It’s an okay place, an old redbrick three story with none of the modern amenities—no stainless steel, granite countertops, or gas fireplaces. My apartment is homey. It even has the original tile, sink, and claw-foot tub in its single bathroom. The living room is large, with three big windows that look out on Aloha and let in lots of light—on the days when we have sun in Seattle (that means usually summer days). The floors are scuffed original hardwood. The kitchen actually has a pantry and built-in china hutch. I’ve painted the place a cheery, soft yellow.
Upstairs, the TV, with its DVRed episodes of at-odds Sons of Anarchy and Downton Abbey, awaits. Upstairs, there’s the gelato I love from Whole Foods in the freezer—hazelnut dark chocolate.
Such is my life. Comfortable and a little lonely.
Sometimes I wonder, like Peggy Lee, if that’s all there is.
I head toward the glass-paned front door. I grope in my jeans for my keys. The mail had not yet arrived before I left for my date, and I wonder if there will be any surprises in the vestibule mailbox. You know, like an actual letter from someone, standing out from the usual assortment of bills and solicitations by the cursive spelling out of my name—Jeremy Booth.
My problem is I always have hope, even when there’s little reason.
I open the front door, and that’s when everything changes. My life turns upside down. I go from bored discontent to panic in a split second.
The first thing I hear is someone shouting “No!” in an anguished voice. I look up from the lobby to see two figures on the staircase above, on the second-floor landing. One is a guy who looks menacing and so butch he could pose for a Tom of Finland poster. An aura of danger radiates from him. Aside from his imposing and muscular frame, he’s even wearing the right clothes—tight, rolled jeans and a black leather biker jacket with a chain snaking out from beneath one of the epaulets. His high- and tight-buzzed hair gives him a military—and mean—air. He has his hands on the shoulders of a guy who looks a bit younger and much slighter, making me want to call up the stairs, “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” The smaller guy, blond and clad only in a pair of pajama bottoms, struggles with his attacker, looking terrified. Their movements, clumsy and rough, would be comical if they weren’t so scary. The smaller guy is panting and batting ineffectually at the bigger one.
“Please! No! Don’t!” the smaller guy manages to get out, his voice close to hysteria.
I have never seen either of these men before. In fact, the whole scene has the quality of the surreal, a dream. The danger and conflict pulsing down the stairs makes my own heart rate and respiration accelerate, causing feelings of panic to rise within me.
And then the worst happens. The big butch guy shoves the smaller one hard, and all at once he’s tumbling heavily down the stairs toward me.
The fall is graceless, and it looks like it hurts. It’s over so fast that I’m left gasping.
I look up to see the leather-jacket guy sneer down at his mate, lying crumpled and crying at my feet, and then turn sharply on his heel to go back into a second-floor apartment that had been vacant yesterday. He slams the door. The sound of the deadbolt sliding into place is like the report of a shotgun. Both slam and lock resound like thunderclaps, echoing in the tile lobby, punctuation to the drama and trauma of this short scene.
I switch into Good Samaritan mode and drop to my knees at the sniveling, crumpled mess of a man lying practically at my feet.
“Are you okay?” I ask and reach out to lightly touch his shoulder.
He jerks away and, wincing, pulls himself up into an awkward sitting position. He stares at me with clear blue eyes for a moment, almost as though he’s trying to place me. He finally looks away.
“My ankle is throbbing. It hurts like hell. Maybe I twisted it.”
I don’t know what to say, other than to ask, “Would you like to try and stand? Test it out?”
I lean over to grip him under the arms—it’s damp there, and I can smell the ripe aroma of body odor, probably inspired by fear or panic—and pull. He comes up with me and then stumbles, wincing and crying out.
“Damn. I might have sprained it when I fell.” His eyes are so appealing, in both senses of the word, as he stares at me, as though seeking direction for what to do next. He leans on me, taking his weight off the injured ankle.
I keep my arm around him, and together we limp over to a bench set beneath the bank of common mailboxes. We sit.
“What do you want to do?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I think Cole may have locked me out for the night.”
Rick R. Reed is an award-winning and bestselling author of more than fifty works of published fiction. He is a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Entertainment Weekly has described his work as “heartrending and sensitive.” Lambda Literary has called him: “A writer that doesn’t disappoint…” Find him at www.rickrreedreality.blogspot.com. Rick lives in Palm Springs, CA, with his husband, Bruce, and their fierce Chihuahua/Shiba Inu mix, Kodi.
A childhood in foster care taught Carey Everett to hold tight to what he has. Enlisting in the Marines gave him purpose, but a life-threatening injury ended his career—and took his leg. Now fully recovered, Carey’s happier than he’s ever been. He has a fulfilling job, a chosen family and, best of all, a cherished friendship with Jase DeSantis, the platoon medic who saved his life.
Jase knows how to take care of the people he loves. As the oldest of seven, and then a Navy corpsman, it’s what he was born to do. Still, he’s haunted by his actions overseas. Playing music with his band keeps the demons at bay, but it’s a battle he’s starting to lose.
After a week of sun and fun in San Diego, Jase and Carey’s connection takes an unexpected turn. With change comes a new set of challenges. For Jase, it means letting someone else into his deepest pain. For Carey, it’s realizing love doesn’t always equal loss. In order to make their relationship work, they’ll each have to come to terms with their pasts…
…or risk walking away from each other for good.
With an oath, Carey broke away from Jase, turned, and strode off the dance floor.
Cursing, Jase ran after him.
“Carey, wait!” he called, but Carey didn’t stop as he pushed through the doors leading to the patio. It was almost empty, the chill of the late night air having driven most everyone back inside. Abruptly, Carey whirled and grabbed onto Jase’s T-shirt with both fists.
Bracing for a shove, or a blow, Jase staggered when Carey instead yanked him into the shadows just outside a soft pool of light.
“Damn you,” he hissed, his eyes glittering. “Damn you, Jase.” Despite the harshness of his tone, Carey didn’t let go of him, his fingers twisted in the fabric of Jase’s shirt. His lips were parted, breaths coming in pants, spots of color high on his cheekbones.
His heart thudding painfully in his ears, Jase deliberately took one step closer until their bodies were only inches apart. Carey turned his head away, but still didn’t let go, his grip tightening.
“Damn you,” he said again, but the words were without heat, softer, more like an exhalation. He dropped his head back to the wall, pulse throbbing visibly in the hollow of his throat, eyes drifting shut. “Oh God. I don’t know what’s happening to me.” His voice was barely audible.
Blood racing, body trembling, all Jase could do was wait him out. At last Carey opened his eyes, the normally brilliant blue dark with emotion. His gaze clung to Jase’s, his lips parting as Jase started to close the last few inches of distance between them…
Gasping, Carey shoved him back, then yanked him close again in an abrupt motion that had Jase slamming his palms against the wall to keep from crashing into him. He looked down at Carey’s fists, still twisted in his shirt, then met his eyes once more.
“Let me go,” he said softly. “If you don’t want me to kiss you, push me away.”
For one heart-stopping second, Carey’s grip loosened, then tightened again. Leaning in until their lips were only a whisper apart, Jase breathed, “Let me go. If you don’t want me to kiss you—”
The rest of his words were muffled by Carey’s mouth, crushing his. Hot, slick, eager, Carey’s tongue slid deep, almost devouring him. With a hoarse groan, Jase slanted his head, his own tongue thrusting, parrying. They bit and licked at each other, bodies straining, breaths sawing in and out…
Then Carey ripped his mouth free. “No.”
Struggling to focus, Jase staggered a bit when Carey pushed him away. For the space of several heartbeats they stared at each other, chests heaving, Carey’s body tense, coiled, as if ready to flee.
Seeing it, Jase forced himself to blow out a long, slow breath, and crammed his hands in his pockets as he deliberately took another step back, giving him some room.
“I’m sorry,” Carey whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
“For what?” With an effort, Jase kept his voice low, calm. “I was a more than willing participant.” He waited until Carey met his eyes. “You think I don’t want this? Want you?”
Carey shook his head wildly. “I can’t risk it. I can’t.”
“Oh, Carey. Risk what?”
His throat worked. “Losing you.”
“Losing me?” Jase took a step forward, but Carey put up a hand to hold him back.
“Three years ago, I did almost lose you. Over this.” He made a sawing motion between them.
“That was different.” Jase still kept his voice low, despite the emotion raging through him that made him want to shout at the top of his lungs. “This is—”
Pain stabbed Jase down low. “Is that what it feels like to you? Curiosity?”
“I don’t know!” Carey shoved his hands through his hair, then linked his fingers behind his neck, visibly striving for calm. He met Jase’s eyes again. “But whatever it is, it’s not worth risking our friendship over. I can’t—”
He sounded so distressed that Jase dredged deep and summoned a smile. “Then we won’t risk it. We’ll forget this ever happened, okay? Chalk it up to temporary insanity or something.”
The relief that spread across Carey’s face made his heart ache. “Yeah. Okay.” Pushing off the wall, he brushed past him, muttering, “See you at home.”
Melanie Hansen doesn’t get nearly enough sleep. She loves all things coffee-related, including collecting mugs from every place she’s visited. After spending eighteen years as a military spouse, Melanie definitely considers herself a moving expert. She has lived and worked all over the country, and hopes to bring these rich and varied life experiences to the love stories she gets up in the wee hours to write. On her off time, you can find Melanie watching baseball, reading or spending time with her husband and two teenage sons.
A dead intruder. A missing scientist. A terrified child.
No one wants a dramatic case first thing on a Monday morning, but that’s exactly what Detective Inspector Jacob Ofori got. It should be open and shut, but scientist Tom Sanders is nowhere to be found, a dead man seems to have appeared from thin air, and the Temporal Research Institute—Sanders’s company—is strangely uncooperative about assisting with the case.
Jacob’s only source is TRI engineer, Kit Rafferty. He clearly wants to help, but there’s only so much the man can and will tell him. As more and more impossible questions mount up, Jacob finds himself facing a reality that could change his world.
Chapter One At first, everyone assumed it was a burglary.
The postman was the first on the scene. He’d arrived early in the morning to make a delivery to the house in question and found the front door wedged open. No one answered when he rang the bell, so he called the police. The two constables arrived to investigate, and they were the ones who found the body.
It escalated after that.
Not even noon, Jacob thought grimly. Hell of a way to start a Monday.
His autopod shuttled along, arcing off from the main highway. As much as he missed manual controls of old-fashioned cars and early autocars, he appreciated the driverless function of the pod because it gave him time to skim through the images from the crime scene en route.
He wouldn’t get a feel for the scene until he got there, but the images let him know what he was about to walk into. There were signs of a struggle in the room where the body was found, and plenty of blood, but the rest of the house seemed undisturbed.
“Control to Delta Seven. ETA to destination?”
Jacob leaned forward and cleared the images from the display on the windscreen, bringing up his location on the map. Beyond it, he could see the country roads through the glass.
“ETA fifteen minutes, Control,” he replied, then muttered under his breath, “Into the backside of nowhere.”
It was half an hour beyond the miles of sprawling suburbs of the city in the middle of green fields and close to a forest. The nearest amenities had to be at least four miles from the building. He shook his head. What kind of person chose to live all the way out there anymore? It wasn’t as if there were a shortage of housing in the city.
A chime indicated another image had been received.
Jacob opened it up and leaned forward, frowning.
A door, barely visible, blended into the pattern of the wall. No handle, no visible hinges.
“You seeing this, sir?” Constable Foley’s voice rang through the speaker.
“I am indeed, Foley,” he said, widening the image. “Is that a safe room?”
“Looks that way, sir,” the constable replied. “The dust in front of it suggests a box was moved and recently. Looks like someone might be in there.”
Smart girl, Jacob thought with approval.
“Not yet, sir, but if they were attacked—”
“They might not be capable of replying,” Jacob finished. “Keep trying.” He minimised the image and looked out through the windscreen. “I have visual on you, Foley. Be with you soon.”
Ahead of him, the house was visible between the trees. The red brick structure had to be at least two centuries old, but even from a distance, the modern touches were obvious. The windows were thick and secure. The roof had been replaced with faux slate.
The autopod purred to a halt beside the four other vehicles lining the gravel courtyard, and the door slid aside. Jacob stepped out and glanced at the other vehicles. He recognised the coroner’s transport pod, and the standard blue-and-white- patterned squad pod, but the other two were probably the homeowner’s.
Foley opened the front door to greet him.
Half his age, she hadn’t been with the force long enough to be as jaded as him yet. She smiled in greeting. “Morning, sir.”
He winced. “Say afternoon. It makes it a little more bearable.”
She laughed. “You want a summary, sir?”
“I read up on it on the way over. Any word on the owner?”
“Thomas Sanders,” Foley said, leading him toward the house. “Forty-eight. Widower with one young son. He’s a well-reputed scientist and engineer. High up in some kind of historical and scientific research program in the city, the Temporal Research Institution.”
“Have you been able to make contact with him?”
Foley shook her head, her sandy ponytail swinging. She offered him overalls to cover his suit. “We’ve tried his business and private numbers. His colleagues said he’s been on a leave of absence for health reasons for several weeks. Our best bet is the safe room.”
“Any sign of the son?”
“We assume he’s with his father,” Foley replied.
“Do we have an ID for the body yet?”
She hesitated in the hallway. “That’s the strange thing, sir. We can’t find anything on him. His prints aren’t in the system. No DNA trace either. We still need to run facial recognition, but so far, we’ve got nothing.”
“That’s not unusual.”
Foley looked at him. “There’s something off about it all. I’ll show you.”
The house was spacious inside. The lower level was split into four rooms, all branching off from a wide, sunlit hall. Foley led him down the hall and to one of the rooms at the back, her covered boots thumping on the wooden floors.
Jacob stopped in the doorway, taking a moment, then stepped across the threshold. The crime scene team was still at work.
The room appeared to be some kind of laboratory with workbenches running along one wall. Another wall was covered in old-fashioned whiteboards with all kinds of incomprehensible text and codes marked on them in half a dozen colours. Jacob studied all of it for a moment, but whatever Sanders was working on, it was far beyond Jacob’s barely adequate physics A level.
There were little machines here and there, suspended from the boards by wires. Spools of wire and gears were scattered across the floor. Several boxes had been upended from shelves and lay on their sides.
In the middle of it all, the body lay face down on the floor, a bloodied hammer close at hand.
Danni Michaels was working on the body and glanced up with a nod. “Sir.”
“Cause of death?” Jacob said, keeping his eyes off the dead man’s face.
“Looks like blunt force trauma,” Danni replied, nudging her magnifying glasses up her nose with her knuckles. “I don’t think it’s a wild guess to say the weapon was that hammer. It was a single blow, landed here.”
Jacob gritted his teeth and looked. The left side of the man’s forehead was ruptured. His eyes were open, and he had an expression of surprise on his rigid, bloody face. He was young. Maybe thirties. Dark-haired. His eyes were dark, the pupils flared wide open, but death sometimes did that. Blood had spread in a wide, sticky pool around his body. Jacob swallowed down the familiar rising acid.
Christ, he hated the messy ones.
He glanced around the room.
A pair of slippers, several steps away from the blood pool, had left bloody prints on the polished floor. The owner must have kicked them off, and they’d ended up at least three feet from each other. Not good shoes for running, slippers. If he—men’s slippers, size nine approximately—had already knocked down the man on the floor, then there had to be another assailant whom he was running from.
“Any sign of this man’s accomplice?”
“Accomplice?” Foley asked.
Jacob gestured to the slippers. It was easier than looking at the body. “You don’t try and run from an unconscious, nearly dead man. There was someone else here.”
“We haven’t seen any sign of anyone else,” Foley replied. “Sorry, sir. I didn’t even notice that.”
He offered her a brief smile. “That’s why I’m a DI, Foley.” He motioned to the body. “You said there was something off?”
Foley nodded, crouching by the body. “Take a look at his right eye.”
Jacob went down beside her, propping his forearms on his knees. It took him a moment, but then he saw what she was pointing out: The pupil wasn’t blown. There was no iris at all.
“What the hell…” He leaned closer. “Michaels, can I borrow your magnifiers?”
She handed them over and obligingly shone the torch over the man’s eyes. “Clever, isn’t it?”
Jacob peered down and frowned. “A synthetic bionic eyeball? Is that even possible?”
Michaels shook her head. “I’ve heard of people developing them, but I’ve never heard of any successful trials.” She squatted by the body and grinned. “I can’t wait to get it out and see what it’s made of.”
“And there’s one of those images I didn’t need,” Jacob murmured, peering through the magnifier again. The pupil seemed to be a focusing lens. High-quality, high-end technology. “Foley, have you checked anywhere that might carry tech this advanced?”
“We’re putting together a list,” she said. “But from what we’re hearing back, this is off the charts, sir. No one has heard of technology like this before, or if they have, they’re not telling us about it.”
He straightened up. “You said this Sanders was a scientist?”
“Doctor in physics and engineering,” she confirmed.
“Could he have made something like this?”
She hesitated. “From all accounts, he didn’t deal in human biology or bio-artificing.”
“Doesn’t mean he couldn’t.” Jacob ran a hand over his face. “Well, if we can’t find this man by standard identification, maybe we can find him by the eye he doesn’t have. Danni, we need all the information you can get us as soon as possible.”
“Sir,” Danni said at once.
Jacob turned to Foley. “Where’s Singh?”
“Still trying to get into the safe room.” She jerked her head. “This way.”
The safe room was up the stairs in what appeared to be a playroom. Windows lined one of the walls, the others covered in posters and drawings. Kids’ toys and games were scattered all over the place. Singh was working his way along the one blank wall with a scanner.
Jacob took in the mess. “You said Sanders has a son?”
“Ben,” Foley confirmed.
Foley looked at him in surprise. “Seven and a half. Is this another one of those detective things?”
Jacob chuckled. “This time, it’s one of those dad things.”
Singh glanced over his shoulder at them, sighing in frustration. “Foley, I know you said to scan for a high intensity of fingerprints on the wall, but this whole wall is fingerprints.” He nodded at Jacob. “Afternoon, sir.”
“Singh.” Jacob approached, studying the wall. “It’s very smoothly done, isn’t it?” He rubbed his short beard thoughtfully with his fingertips. “No visible buttons or latches anywhere?”
“None we could find,” Foley said. “I thought it might be a pressure-point system, but seems not. We requested an expert, but they’ve been delayed.”
“I think we need to un-delay them,” Jacob said, touching his earbud to activate it. “If Sanders is wounded and inside there, we need to get him out. If not, we need confirmation, because this could be an abduction.”
While they waited, Jacob had gone down to the laboratory to take another look at the whiteboards. He didn’t see what it had to do with Sanders’s work at the Temporal Research Institution. A quick search suggested the institution specialised in identifying historical discrepancies and confirming historical events. It could be something to do with locating old records and creating algorithms, he supposed. You would need a specialised engineer to do that.
Jacob turned. “Foley?”
“The smith is here. I thought you might want to be present if he can open the door.”
They headed back up the stairs to the playroom. The body had been removed in the hour before the locksmith arrived, the crime scene unit now working their way out from the house across the grounds, searching for trace evidence of the intruders.
The locksmith was already working on the wall with a scanning device.
“Apparently,” Singh said, joining them, “all safe room doors come installed with a registration chip, in case the mechanism needs to be deactivated in an emergency.”
“Not unlike this,” Jacob observed. “Useful.”
The locksmith glanced over. “It’s a recent make. Give me two minutes.”
In the end, he took less than thirty seconds, and the door swung outward.
Inside, there was a room big enough for a family, but only one person was there. A small tawny-haired boy shrank back into the corner of the room, his arms wrapped around his legs, his face bone-white.
Jacob motioned for the smith and the two constables to back off, and crouched a couple of feet away from the door.
“Hey,” he murmured.
The boy was shivering, and tears rolled down his face from swollen, red-rimmed eyes.
Jacob took out his badge, laid it on the floor, and slid it across to the boy. “It’s okay. I’m a policeman. My name’s Jacob.” He watched as the boy tentatively leaned forward and looked at the badge. “Are you Ben?”
The boy nodded. “Where’s my dad?” His voice shook as much as he was.
“We’re trying to find him now.” Jacob offered a hand. “Do you want to come out? You don’t need to stay in there.”
“Dad told me to stay here.” Ben wrapped his arms tighter around his legs. “He told me to, until he came to get me.”
“I know.” Jacob knelt and sat back on his heels. “We want him to come and get you, too, Ben, but right now, I think he’d want you to be safe, don’t you? How about we keep you safe?”
Jacob nodded. “Promise.”
Ben got unsteadily to his feet. His trousers were sodden, and there was vomit on the front of his shirt. The poor kid must have been terrified. Jacob knelt up, offering both his hands, and Ben’s icy fingers wrapped around his.
“There you go,” Jacob said as gently as he could, drawing Ben back out. “You’re safe now.”
The little boy gave a sob and stumbled forward and wrapped his arms around Jacob’s neck, clinging to him. Jacob scooped him up and rose to his feet with the boy in his arms. He rubbed his hand in circles on Ben’s back.
C.B. Lewis has been making up nonsense since she was able to talk. Now, she puts it into computers and turns it into books. She is chuffed to bits to officially be yet another one of the collective of authors from Edinburgh. Find C.B. Lewis onFacebook.
Connor Molina’s summer can’t get any worse. He’s stuck in his college town taking summer classes, and he’s got a dead-end lifeguard job he’s too old for and a baby gay who’s thirsty for all the wrong guys.
Even worse? Tristan, a wild patron, won’t leave his section of the pool, splashing him and pulling stupid stunts to get his attention. When Tristan fakes a drowning to get closer to him, Connor’s furious, but he quickly realizes that Tristan’s reckless nature isn’t always infuriating…it’s also intriguing.
Can he let his guard down and let Tristan in, or will he be bound by his own rules and drown in the self-doubt this summer could free him from?
I overslept. One week into summer, and I’d already overslept. Showering? Not really an option. Nothing about the summer after my sophomore year of college had gone the way I planned for it to go, so oversleeping? Yeah, not super unsurprising. That was me, Connor Molina, epic fuck-up. I knew why I was stuck in that godforsaken town the entire fucking summer, and almost all of it had everything to do with going to parties more often than going to my 8:00 a.m. classes. Can anyone blame that on me, though? No. The blame goes to anyone who thought morning classes would ever be an acceptable thing for anyone to experience. Whoever came up with that idea should be locked away, key thrown away, all of it.
But summer started all wrong. My ultimate goal had been to go back home. You know, normal summer stuff. Swim laps in the backyard pool, slack off, maybe hook up a few times. I don’t know. Obviously, that didn’t happen. I wouldn’t be saying shit about that summer if it had. Uneventful stories never make for good reflections, do they? But that summer was eventful in ways I didn’t expect it to be. It’s part of what made my summer so, so fucked.
Instead of being home for the summer, I was there, at the Springdale Aquatic Center and Lap Pool, sitting in ungodly heat and staring at unnaturally blue-looking water. You know the kind of blue of skies and oceans and all that? No, this was hyperchlorinated blue, made more intense by the paint at the bottom until it was an intense cerulean. Instead of swimming in my parents’ greenish lap pool, I was trying to make sure no one drowned in this lap pool. Real upgrade there, Connor. Awesome.
You’d think that shit wouldn’t get old after a day and a half, but it did. The only perk was not getting audited in the first couple of days—if no one was checking to see whether I was watching closely enough, then I couldn’t get screwed over and lose my job if I missed the sign. Of course, it would have been no surprise if the summer went like that. Considering everything else that had happened so far, it would have made sense for it to blow up in my stupid face and leave me jobless too. But that didn’t happen. All I wanted was to make it through the summer without someone dying on my watch. That shouldn’t have been too much to ask.
Nothing about the job was worth the money. If you’re thinking about being a lifeguard, let this be your warning. It isn’t worth it. But I couldn’t back out no matter how badly I wanted to. It was on the schedule before we even had the most terrifying meeting ever, and I had no choice but to press on. Never mind that they made it clear the job was life-or-death during that meeting. Never mind that I hated the concept of ever setting foot in the pool again after the stuff their words stirred up in my mind.
Never mind that I was scared to death someone might drown right in front of me because of my own fuck-up or inability to keep them alive. Never mind the added pressure when I was already at my breaking point going into summer. All of it was horrifying, but I didn’t have the luxury of choice. Everything else was full. Literally every single damn summer job…full.
If I wouldn’t have had to be there in the first place, I could have slacked off and loafed around on my parents’ couch and watched shitty daytime talk shows, checked out The Price Is Right and tried to guess the price of a car I’d never own. But no, I had rent to pay. I still do. I had to have something to do. Every pizza delivery position, every law firm secretary job, every retail cashier option, all of it was full. I couldn’t even get a job sacking groceries, not that I would have taken a position clearly made for a high schooler. Any of those had to be better than lifeguarding though. Every job in town, even that, was for teenagers. I was underqualified for the good shit, but I was way overqualified for being a lifeguard.
One summer. I promised them I’d work there for one summer, but after that, I had told myself there was no way in hell I’d ever be caught on that guard stand again. The whole job is complete and utter bullshit. No amount of SPF in the world could have gotten me through it either. I still don’t know how I didn’t lose my entire mind being there. Well, I do, but I didn’t at the time.
Sure, I probably took it a little bit too seriously, a little bit too personally whenever they mentioned, you know…drowning. None of my other coworkers gave a shit if someone were to die in their section. The thing is, they’re all basically kids, lifeguards are. High school babies at best, with a few going into college in the fall. I was the only jackass actually in college when I got the job, so, of course, none of them took it seriously. It made sense that they didn’t give a shit if something happened. None of us ever think it’ll happen to us. No one ever does, do they? But that stuff does happen. It does. I had seen it happen before, and the thought of letting it happen that summer somehow? I was horrified by the entire prospect. Don’t worry, nobody actually drowned over the summer, though the close calls were enough to make me hate the job regardless.
The summer didn’t start great, either. We were down two guards on the second day of work. One of them never bothered to call in, and I’m pretty sure she never showed up all summer anyway. The other one missed the audit ball and got sent home. Greg, the manager, tossed this little ball in the water in your section. Each ball represents someone drowning, and if you don’t jump in and save the ball in time, you get written up and sent home early. I’m not sure why they think sending you home is the right choice there. It’s not like it gives you more practice. To me, you should be buddy-guarding until you get it right, but that’s not how it goes, and it left us shorthanded. Way too shorthanded.
That’s why I scan the water, why I always keep scanning the water. The ball represents a life, someone she would have just let drown because she wasn’t even watching. Getting sent home was the least of her worries. Maybe if it had been a real person, she would have understood. We hadn’t been working together long enough for me to even know her name, and by the third audit she missed in two weeks, she was fired, so I never really got to know her anyway.
I don’t switch off when I’m working. I can’t. You never know who the hell might end up drowning on your watch, and I wasn’t about to have a death on my conscience. I couldn’t fathom the idea of telling someone’s mom, “hey, your kid drowned because I wasn’t paying attention,” or somehow having to deal with the consequences there, the nightmares or whatever else. It’s stuff like that making the job literally the worst in the world. If I looked away, who knows what might have happened? Maybe someone would have died. I don’t know. Maybe I was just fucking paranoid. Maybe I still am.
Or maybe it’s the way my section always attracted the biggest jackasses on the planet. The entire time I was working the first few days, regardless of the section I was in, there was this one guy. One damn kid who had to show off, basically. He and his buddies were there to break every rule, doing flips off the high dive, trying to play chicken. They were old enough to know better and old enough also to set a bad example for anyone younger—if they could do it, the younger kids thought it was safe to do too. It was impossible to watch everyone in my section when he kept pulling my focus, making me watch him and his friends carefully so nobody got killed.
He was there when I was manning the diving boards, attempting cannonballs and flips far beyond his skill level. When I moved on to the wide slide typically reserved for kids to slide down with his parents, he and his friends were shoving each other down and trying to launch themselves off. I’d tell him to sit on his ass (in nicer words) and not on his stomach, but halfway down he’d spin, flipping to skid down headfirst.
“He’s cute, isn’t he?” I can still remember James asking me that question and even now, a huge part of me wants to slap him over it.
“The one with the death wish? No, he’s not.” I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand how half of the guards at this pool could think he was hot. I was there trying to watch, trying to keep track of everyone, and it felt like everyone else was simply there to gawk at the patrons. Being the only one actually there to work sucked, even if I got that they were just kids. You know, whatever, but some of us didn’t need the added distraction.
“You have to admit he’s at least a little bit cute,” James said, elbowing me in the ribs. I was half tempted to break his arm over the way he jabbed me.
“I don’t have to. He’s not being cute. He’s trying to crack his head open on the side of the pool. What are you doing over here anyway?” This wasn’t James’s section right then, not where I was, and I couldn’t understand why he was even where I was at, to be honest. Last I saw, he was supposed to be over by the lazy river, not close to me in the deep end.
“I’m on break,” he told me.
“Oh, so you’re over here lurking and trying to stare at him and everything else, getting in my way when I’m trying to do my job? Cool. Thanks.” I was only half joking. I tried to make myself seem as pleasant as possible, but a large part of me was really annoyed. The last thing I needed was James near me, trying to talk while I was taking this seriously. James was the only other openly gay guard there, and not even a small part of me was surprised he was interested in a dumbass like that one. I never tried to hide who I was, and if a girl at the pool flirted with me, she usually figured out she wasn’t my type pretty quickly. But James? He couldn’t hide it. Anyone could’ve clocked him from a mile away. He wasn’t subtle and it was okay, but it also got him in trouble. The town wasn’t the most open-minded place ever.
J R Hart is a queer 30-something novelist passionate about telling romantic and erotic stories about LGBT+ characters. When J R isn’t writing, you can find her at the science museum with her son, cheering for her favorite soccer team, or at The Bean Coffee Co plotting her next work.
As Rudy adapts to life in a new town, he lays eyes on a man whose very presence steals his heart. The man is bewitching. Bewitching…and grumpy.
Samuel has no interest in the coyote shifter who’s been following him around like a lovesick pup, even if he is adorable. Adorable…and persistent.
Born a vampire before the Great Wars, Samuel’s had plenty of time to make enemies. If he can’t discover and kill the one who’s been stalking him, it could be Rudy who pays the price. Samuel doesn’t do relationships, and he won’t bend the rules for Rudy, but that doesn’t mean he wants the coyote hurt. Stuck together as Samuel plots revenge, Rudy finally has his chance to win over his mate.
Can they harness the power of their fated bond, or will Samuel’s dark past overcome the future they’ve yet to claim?
Admiring the quaint architecture along each side of the narrow street, Rudy strolled through the small town he would call home. He’d chosen Stonesburg to be near his friends from university, but he couldn’t fathom why they’d picked it. The old mill town rose and fell with the textile industry. When the mills closed, humans abandoned the place and supernaturals moved in. The rolling hills of a nearby mountain range held some appeal, but Rudy found the nightlife lacking.
He wandered downtown in search of the Eternal Knight Club, where he’d meet the other coyote shifters for drinks. Crisp night air chilled his nose and flushed his cheeks. Spying two ornately carved doors that stood out from the other entryways with their whimsy, Rudy found the place. He pulled open the massive mahogany door and stepped into a spacious, dimly lit interior hazy with cigar smoke. Spotting his rowdy group holding down a corner booth, he headed their way until a fleeting glance toward the bar revealed a sight that stopped Rudy in his tracks.
Who is that?
An exquisite being perched elegantly on a stool, smoking a pipe, his attention on the bartender. Rudy couldn’t help but gawk. Black shining hair, dark as charcoal, fell in waves past his shoulders. He leaned toward his companion with his spine straight, shoulders squared, and one leg crossed neatly over the other. As if he knew someone stared at him, his brown eyes flashed upward and homed in on Rudy. The stranger’s face went from neutral to annoyed in a flash. Rudy knew he should look away, but he couldn’t tear his eyes from the vision before him.
And the vision before him was clearly irritated.
Unable to resist, Rudy drew close.
The man’s glare darkened.
Rudy turned his hands out, palms up in an “I mean no harm” gesture. He glanced at the fellow in the next seat and to the bartender, who both watched his approach, then focused his gaze back to the pretty… Hmm, what was he? Vampire? He had that otherworldly stillness older vampires possessed.
Desperate to make a good impression, Rudy meant to say something clever, but words tumbled out before his brain caught up. “Who are you?”
The man glanced over his shoulder to the bartender. “Mabel, is he talking to me?”
“I’m afraid so,” she replied.
“Can’t you make him leave?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Be nice.”
With an exasperated sigh, the man turned back to Rudy, lips pressed in a hard line, one ebony eyebrow raised. “Well? Let’s have it. What do you want?”
Rudy found him more striking up close, his dark features a beautiful contrast against skin so pale he nearly glowed. “You’re the most handsome person I’ve ever seen.” That was true enough, but it wasn’t only his looks drawing Rudy in. There was something else tugging on his insides, fueling his need to be close to this stranger.
The man rolled his eyes. “You must get out more. Or on second thought, don’t.”
“Can I buy you a drink?” Rudy asked, hopeful.
The gorgeous creature opened his mouth and drew back his upper lip, revealing fangs. He all but hissed, threatening. The sight only enthralled Rudy further. Definitely a vampire.
“No drink, then. How about a smoke?” Rudy offered instead.
The man narrowed his gaze and lifted the cigar he already had. If you could say “duh” with a facial expression, he’d done it.
“Right. Dance with me?” Rudy extended a hand in one last bid to keep his attention.
“I think not.” The vampire turned back to the man sitting next to him, who radiated amusement with the whole situation.
Realization dawned, and an unwelcome tension invaded Rudy’s chest. Perhaps this vampire was here with the other man. “Oh, I’m sorry! You’re here together?” His hands fluttered between them. “I didn’t mean to… Well, I’m sorry.”
The other man grinned. “No, no, he’s all yours.” Laughter filled his voice. “Single and ready to mingle. Isn’t that how the saying goes?”
The raven-haired vampire stared daggers at his friend. “Benjamin, really?” he chided before shifting his attention back to Rudy. “Listen, pup, since you don’t seem to pick up on much, I’ll speak plainly. I’m not interested. Fuck off.”
Rudy’s face fell. “You don’t have to be mean.” He couldn’t hide his disappointment. The desire to be near this vampire didn’t diminish even after the rejection. “If you change your mind, I’ll be over there.” Rudy motioned to the table of coyote shifters in the corner. “I’d love to dance with you.”
The vampire’s exasperated expression burned into Rudy’s memory with an unpleasant flush of heat. Discouraged, he slunk to his friends, all of whom had watched the exchange and were in various states of laughter and confusion.
“Did you seriously hit on that vampire, Rudy?” asked Emerson. “What were you thinking? You’re lucky he didn’t squash you like a bug, because it looked like he wanted to.”
“Slide over, Em.” Rudy nudged his way into the booth. “He’s cute is all.” He shrugged, downplaying the inexplicable attraction, meanwhile glancing over his shoulder to make sure the vampire hadn’t left.
“You’re crazy,” said Morris from across the table. “That’s a good way to get yourself killed. You go pissing off vampires for fun nowadays?”
Carlotta elbowed her boyfriend and gave Rudy a sympathetic smile. “He seemed kind of rude.”
“Rude?” Morris scoffed. “Murderous would be more accurate.”
“Can we drop it?” Rudy squirmed in his seat. “It didn’t work anyway.”
“What didn’t work? What were you hoping to achieve?” Emerson asked.
Rudy’s shoulders lifted. “Wanted to dance is all. He said no. End of story.”
Mabel came to collect drink orders with humor twinkling in her eyes. “Sorry, champ. You picked an impossible target. What can I get for you folks?”
His friends requested refills, and Rudy asked for a beer and hoped the conversation would veer to something less embarrassing. It did, thanks to Carlotta, who mercifully changed the subject.
“How do you like Stonesburg?”
“It’s great!” he lied with enthusiasm. The town wasn’t all that impressive, but he’d needed a change, and Stonesburg was as good a place as any. “I mean, there’s you guys and the mountains, so I’m sure I’ll love it soon enough.”
“Wait until you get settled,” Morris encouraged. “We’ll shift and take you for a run in the forest.”
“Sounds great.” Rudy grinned. “It’s past time I stretch my legs.”
Mabel set an ice-cold beer in front of him and placed the other drinks around the table. They thanked her, and Rudy took a big gulp. Delicious. His eyes drifted back to the grumpy vampire at the bar.
Mabel noticed and laughed under her breath. “Wasting your time on that one, babyface. He doesn’t date, not in the time I’ve known him,” she said, not unkindly, but Rudy didn’t care for her message nonetheless.
She shrugged. “Don’t know. And I wouldn’t ask if I were you. You don’t want to get on his bad side. He’s dangerous.”
Rudy tucked into his beer as she left, letting the conversation happen around him. It was nice being with friends again. He’d been sad and lonely at home with his family.
Risking another glance to the bar, he caught the vampire staring back at him.
Lee Colgin has loved vampires since she read Dracula on a hot sunny beach at 13 years old. She lives in North Carolina with lots of dogs and her husband. No, he’s not a vampire, but she loves him anyway. Lee likes to workout so she can eat the maximum amount of cookies with her pizza. Ask her how much she can bench press.
If you enjoyed this book, pick up Lee’s debut novel Slay My Love to find out what happens when you’re attracted to the very person who want to kill you an enemies to lovers 56,000k novel available now.
Hi guys! We have Wayne Goodman popping in today with his new release All The Right Places, we have a brilliant guest post with exclusive excerpt and a fantastic $25 iTunes giveaway so check out the post and enter the giveaway! ❤️ ~Pixie~
All The Right Places
“All the Right Places” is a collection of short stories, most written for submission to anthologies or collections. Starting in the near future and proceeding to the near past, men interact with other men in the pursuit of love and companionship.
When Hunter and Alex are given the vacation of a lifetime, it’s a chance for them to pay attention to romance and get out of danger’s path. The tiny Caribbean island of Saba is gorgeous, the first to have marriage equality, and the Sabans are the nicest people on earth. There’s lots of rum poolside for relaxing and a room with a mirror on the ceiling for passion. Hot Karaoke nights, cold beer, and new friends.
Orfeo and Max, and Max’s sister Talisha, confide a troubling secret. Alex and Hunter want to help. As a hurricane bears down on them, a dead body surfaces and a purple backpack loaded with stolen jewels brings Derek Boyd, a jewel thief, into their lives. He wants his ex-boyfriend Max and the stolen jewels returned before the Russian mobster, who wants his wife’s jewels back, can catch up with him and exact his revenge.
The door closed behind the last customer, and the noisy bar returned to silence, a booze-fumed, tacky-underfoot silence where the small noises Alex made seemed twice as loud. His ears rang as he picked up the broom to sweep out the crap on the floor behind the bar.
The front door opened again, and his shoulders tensed. He cursed himself for not locking it when he’d shoved out the last drunk patron, distracted by the e-mail he’d received. A rookie mistake. He groped under the bar for the bat the owner had urged him to use if he suspected he needed to.
“Excuse me,” the man in the doorway said. He’d been in the bar earlier, an Asian man along with a rather bland, nondescript white guy.
Alex looked closer, not letting go of the bat. “We’re closed. Need me to call a cab for you?”
The man appeared innocuous, but innocuous-looking people could still be trouble. The instincts Alex had honed all those months on the run had stayed with him. Director Flint’s warnings about retaliation flashed through his mind.
The guy opened his mouth to answer Alex’s question, but someone shoved him from behind before he could speak, and he stumbled. Alex grabbed the neck of the bat.
“Didja ask him? Is it him?” The pushy friend pressed himself forward a few steps, far drunker than his buddy.
“We’re. Closed.” Alex threw some menace behind the authority in his voice and revealed the bat. The Asian man flinched and grabbed at his friend, who fished in his pocket for something.
“It’s him. You. Boy Blue,” the drunk man burbled.
Alex froze, shifting gears. He tightened his grip on the bat. Anger fueled his ass up and over the bar to land a few feet in front of the drunk who pulled out a phone, aimed it in his direction, and blinded him with the flash.
“You fucker!” Alex reached out to slap the phone away—too late, because the man had thrust it back into his pocket. Alex smacked the bat against the tiles on the floor. It made a sharp, solid noise, and they both looked at him with drunken, slow-motion surprise. “Get out before I call the cops!”
“Asshole!” The first guy grabbed his friend again, shoved him out the door, and slammed it shut behind him.
Alex locked it this time and leaned against it, heart racing. When it began to slow, he took a deep breath and another, and his temper faded. He had a date tonight, and if he didn’t move his ass, he’d be late. Cranking up Dropkick Murphys to exorcise the intruders, Alex cleaned the place out in record time. Once done, he grabbed his phone and clicked on the video text. Happy Birthday! The handmade sign filled the screen. Alex smiled.
Bare feet on their unmade bed. Hunter wiggled his toes, and Alex laughed. The phone camera traveled along Hunter’s shins to his knees, all dusted with brown and copper-tinged hair, and as he bent his left knee, the sheet fell from his muscular thigh. Hey, the pointed birthday hat covered his… Hunter stretched like a big cat, and the tip of the hat rocked as he adjusted his hips. Alex swallowed hard, mesmerized as the camera swept across Hunter’s hips and flat belly, up the opposite side of his body, past an erect pink nipple, the tattoo, and the hairy armpit, along his biceps, which he flexed, then forearm to wrist and the silver bracelet around it. Alex’s heart gave a little lurch, beating faster. His boyfriend had handcuffed himself naked to the bed for his birthday.
Oh, honey. Alex groaned, grabbed his wallet and keys from the cash register, and ran for the door.
He jogged out into the warm June night, the sky clear and sparkling over Delingham as he jumped into the car. He hoped to get home without wrecking the care while Hunter’s video replayed in his head. His blood boiled for Hunter.
He drove through the quiet streets. Alex hadn’t wanted to come back to Delingham at all, but Hunter’s family had made sure the rent got paid on his apartment. At least they had a safe place to go to when Hunter recovered from Dale Markham’s accidental gunshot wound. Dale Markham, former FBI agent, rotting in jail—someplace hot, Alex hoped, good practice for when he got to hell. Nick Truman, too, but a big black hole existed where he’d once been. Maybe they had put him in Witness Protection like Nick had hoped. The case against the two men who had murdered Alex’s uncle had become a nonissue, since before they could be taken into custody, someone had killed them.
Nothing like thinking about those things to defeat his raging hard-on, so he blasted out Dropkick Murphys again to fuel up the testosterone.
“Here I come, baby,” he murmured.
Not finding a parking spot near the apartment building set him seething and grinding his teeth. His lot in life had improved, but not his temper. He dropped the keys twice on the front stairs and made it through the door before he considered alerting Hunter. Alex texted—coming up now—and smiled to think again of Hunter there, waiting, naked, and handcuffed to the bed. They’d talked about playing like this but hadn’t got around to it yet. In the video, Hunter had kept the wounded leg covered; he hated the scar, the asymmetry where they’d taken part of the muscle during surgery. Doing better after a pretty deep depression before his physical therapist motivated him on the road to getting back in shape.
Yeah, we’re doing good.
Alex kicked away his shoes and whipped off his socks. “It’s me!” In the bedroom, both the music and the lights were low. Alex opened the door, grinning from ear to ear. Hunter grinned back at him, naked on the bed, the party hat on his head tipped at a rakish angle. A second set of cuffs dangled off the tips of his fingers. Alex pulled his shirt up and over his head, wrecking his hair, but he didn’t care. Hunter’s eyes were on him; Alex wanted Hunter drinking him in as much as Alex drank in Hunter. Alex had set himself up with a rigorous workout schedule to prep for the physical part of the special agent application process. He didn’t know for sure if he’d get accepted, but the real payoff lay in Hunter’s eyes.
Alex worked the zipper of his jeans. “Have you been waiting long?” He stripped off his jeans and underwear.
“I’m fine. Come and have your birthday cake.” Hunter laughed, the sexy, dirty laugh Alex loved. Hunter’s whole body moved in a sinuous, inviting wiggle, and the cuffs rattled. Alex’s cock and heart led him right into the bed like the needle on a compass pointing true north. He straddled Hunter, their legs tangling together in the sheets. He ran his hands over Hunter’s bulging biceps; he and Hunter had been working out together.
Hunter, his dream of love, impossible, unreachable. His selfishness for staying with Hunter kept him awake at night, tossing and turning, his head filled with fear. Vargas or Truman would take Hunter from him, from the world, and he’d be left to live out his days without Hunter, knowing he had been the one to cause his death.
Alex kissed Hunter to burn away his fears. When he put his hand down on the bed to brace himself, he touched the second set of cuffs. “I can’t believe you did this for me.”
“I guess you liked the video?”
Alex froze for a moment, like he had in the bar when the drunk guy had called him Boy Blue. Looking around, he found the webcam on the nightstand beside Hunter’s laptop and moved it into the top drawer.
“Ah,” Hunter said. “I thought you might want to make a sex tape, you know, for us?” He smiled cute and sexy, but Alex shook his head.
“I want my cake.” He nibbled Hunter’s neck.
“Did something happen in the bar tonight?” Hunter’s eyes were so light blue they appeared gray, but this close they were dark with concern. “You looked worried there for a minute.”
“Nothing to worry about,” Alex assured him, hoping he spoke the truth.
“Okay?” Hunter bucked his hips under his. “Come on, baby. Let’s go. I’ve been lying here thinking about you and all the things you’re going to do to me when you get home.”
“You look good enough to eat. And lick.” Alex flicked his tongue across the letters of Hunter’s tattoo. When he took a hard little nipple in his mouth, Hunter arched his body with a moan, and Alex tightened his thighs around him. Hunter pulled at the cuffs. They rattled again, the play of straining muscle in his arms mesmerizing Alex. He unwrapped Hunter like a present, pulling the sheets from them both until they were naked. As he reached for the lube, he tightened one hand around both their cocks and squeezed and stroked them together. Hunter’s groans set his blood on fire, and he strained to keep from sinking into Hunter’s ass and fucking the daylights out of him.
“So ready for you.” He moaned, arching up against Alex, the heated slide of their skin making Alex shiver. “Come on, tiger.”
Alex moved Hunter’s wrist to the headboard and cuffed his other hand to the top of the wooden frame.
Monogamy had freed them from the tyranny of condoms. Hunter’s hot and ready flesh welcomed Alex, wrapping around his aching cock like a velvet glove, and he pummeled the soft nub of Hunter’s prostate until his body fell under Alex’s control. No wrestling with his bossy bottom—Hunter took what Alex gave him, and Alex gave everything he had. He stared into Hunter’s eyes as he fucked him, the eye contact a live wire between them while he drove into Hunter, so sexy, so much love.
“Coming,” Hunter groaned out, tears in his eyes. “Oh, God…Alex…I love you.”
Alex couldn’t form words. Hunter had melted his brain. Alex stroked him until he came in Alex’s hands, crying out his name as orgasm racked his body. Alex didn’t hold back anymore and came like a rocket.
Heloise West, when not hunched over the keyboard plotting love and mayhem, dreams about moving to a villa in Tuscany. She loves history, mysteries, and romance. She travels and gardens with her partner of fifteen years, and their home overflows with books, cats, art, and red wine.
Poor Ethan Schwartz. It seems like he will never find that special someone. At age forty-two, he’s still alone, his bed still empty, and his 42-inch HDTV overworked. He’s tried the bars and other places where gay men are supposed to find one another, but for Ethan, it never works out. He wonders if it ever will. Should he get a cat?
But all of that is about to change…
Poor Ethan Schwartz. He’s just had the most shocking news a gay man can get—he’s been diagnosed HIV positive. Up until today, he thought his life was on a perfect course. He had a job he loved and something else he thought he’d never have: Brian, a new man, one whom Ethan thought of as “the one.” The one who would complete him, who would take his life from a lonely existence to a place filled with laughter, hot sex, and romance.
But along with the fateful diagnosis comes another shock—is Brian who he thinks he is?
Ethan finds himself alone once more and wonders if life is worth living, even one with a cat. Via a Facebook friend request, an old nemesis appears, wanting to be friends. Ethan is suspicious but intrigued because it seems this old acquaintance has turned his life around…and the changes just might hold the key to Ethan getting a new lease on life…and love.
Ethan Schwartz was alone. At forty-two, the state of being alone was almost like having another person by his side, a person he was growing to know more and more intimately with each passing night in his too-big-for-one bed. In fact, Ethan sometimes wondered if being alone was his natural state of being. Perhaps it was simply his fate to spend his evenings in front of his brand-new forty-two-inch Toshiba HDTV, watching classic 1940s movies from an endless queue at Netflix.
He wondered if his life would ever change. Maybe he would continue to go to work at his job as a publicist for several Chicago theater companies, come home about seven o’clock, nuke a Lean Cuisine, fall asleep in front of the TV, and repeat the routine until he expired.
He had thought, as he tossed in bed at night, in those endlessly stretching hours slogging their way toward dawn, of getting a dog or even a cat. He envisioned himself walking into his apartment door at night, greeted by a French bulldog’s grin or the slightly harlotish leg rub of a Maine coon. But an animal just didn’t seem like—well, it just didn’t seem like enough.
In the above scenario, he also imagined a man coming in the same door minutes later and Ethan getting the four-legged companion riled up by saying “Daddy’s home!” No, Ethan knew—in his heart of hearts—he wanted an animal of the two-legged variety, one who would talk back to him, one he could spend long autumn weekends in Door County with, one he could take out to dinner parties and bring home to his family at Christmas. He wanted an animal that wouldn’t shed and would need little housebreaking. Well, at least not much. At forty-two, Ethan had lowered expectations.
He also dreaded the thought of subjecting some poor tabby or Boston terrier to a solitary existence much like his own. After all, the stand-in-for-a-boyfriend pet would spend most of its time roaming the apartment by his or her lonesome and staring mournfully out the window because of Ethan’s long hours at work.
He knew from experience that subjecting an unsuspecting animal to an existence akin to his own would be cause for calling out the SPCA.
So Ethan would have to go on dreaming of meeting Mr. Right in human form and continue to watch as those dreams faded into wispy gossamer as the years relentlessly marched toward old age. Already Ethan found it necessary to use a moisturizer on his face and a depilatory on his back. His dark brown hair he kept buzzed close to his skull in an effort to minimize its traitorous thinning. Starting at around age thirty-two, every year he’d added a pound or two to his five-foot-ten-inch frame, and every year that pound or two became harder and harder to lose, in spite of long, sweaty hours on the treadmill or a diet consisting chiefly of the frozen culinary delights of the people at Smart Choice, Lean Cuisine, or South Beach Diet.
Heading toward middle age sucked…especially when you were doing it alone.
Tonight Ethan dug in the Doritos bag for one remaining chip of decent size while glued to the adventures of Ugly Betty. Why couldn’t he at least find a nice nerd, as Betty once had? Why couldn’t he at least have a little drama at work, like the Mexican magazine assistant faced every single day of her charmed life? Ethan’s days were spent trying to chat up theater critics in hopes of persuading them to write a review or feature on whatever play he was pushing that week. Or he holed up in his cube and wrote the same press release over and over, with only the titles, venues, and dates changed. When he had taken the job ten years ago, he’d thought the free nights out at the theater would be a great way to get dates. He’d assumed he would meet lots of handsome actors, and they would all want to cozy up to the publicist who could get them so much press.
He’d thought wrong.
Ethan got up and shut off the TV and threw his Doritos bag in the trash. He stretched and looked out the window. His move to this North Side Chicago neighborhood had been another misguided romantic maneuver, one that started full of hope and confidence and had been dashed by cold reality. He felt even more isolated and alone as he looked down from his studio apartment on Halsted Street, the blocks between Belmont and Addison that Chicagoans referred to as Boystown. When he had rented the little studio above a gay bookstore a decade ago, he had reasoned that wrangling a date would be no more difficult than hanging out his third story window with a smoldering gaze and a come-hither pout.
He had reasoned wrong.
Shortly after Ethan had moved in and hung his first Herb Ritts poster, Boystown had begun quickly gentrifying itself. Most of the gays moved farther north to Andersonville or even Rogers Park. Sure, gay bars still lined the street, and the teeming throngs continued to taunt him with luscious examples of masculinity on the prowl, but it had been a long time since one of the minions had made his way up the creaking stairs to Ethan’s studio.
Oh, he supposed he could throw on some jeans, T-shirt, and his Asics and run across the street to Roscoe’s or any of the other watering holes lining the rainbow-pyloned avenue, but he had been to that dry well too many times to even consider it. Every year, it seemed, there was a new crop of gorgeous twentysomethings laughing and drinking…and practiced in the art of ignoring nice but nondescript men like Ethan. One could only endure so long the hours of standing against a wall, Stella Artois in hand, trying to look approachable and then never being approached. It didn’t do much for the ego.
And it didn’t do much for the wallet. Or the self-esteem. Or certainly the romantic, or even sex, life.
No, the bars had long ago lost their allure, becoming more and more an exclusive club for younger gays looking to hook up, or dance, or text message each other…or whatever other ways they found these days to make Ethan feel old. Besides, Ethan hoped for a more meaningful connection.
And with each gray hair, each crow’s-foot and laugh line stamped upon his features, he despaired of ever finding it.
He padded into the little bathroom and gasped as a cockroach beat a hasty retreat into a crack between the baseboard and linoleum-tiled floor. He shook his head and thought that even the bugs wanted nothing to do with him.
He looked at his tired face in the mirror and laughed. “Jesus,” he said to his reflection, “you’re pathetic.” He held his aging mug up to the light cast by the overhead fixture and said, “What’s wrong with everybody? You’re not so old. You’re not so bad.” And indeed, Ethan spoke the truth. He looked every bit of his forty-two years, but that was still pretty young, wasn’t it? Didn’t somebody at the office just yesterday say something about forty being the new thirty? And his face, while certainly not Brad Pitt sexy, was pleasing, with a nice cleft in his chin, a strong nose, and deep blue eyes framed by long black lashes. His lips were a bit thin—a gift from his German father—and he could probably use some sun to give his pasty complexion a little pizzazz, but all in all, it wasn’t a face one would run from, screaming into the night. It was every bit as cute as a Tom Hanks or Will Ferrell.
Ethan pulled his toothbrush from the medicine cabinet and decorated its bristles with orange gel—when had toothpaste gone orange?—and gave his teeth a savage brushing, even though his dentist always admonished him about that, telling him a slow, gentle course was the way, lest he wanted to erode his gums entirely away. But Ethan had never been able to dissuade himself from the idea that the harder the brush, the whiter the teeth.
He spit and wiped his mouth on the hand towel and headed back into the common area to pull out his queen-size—hush!—futon for another night of lonely slumber.
Tomorrow, he thought, he had to do something about his depressing state. And he did not mean moving out of Illinois. Somewhere there had to be a companion for him, just waiting. His dream man wasn’t in all the places he had fruitlessly checked, like the bars, backstage, and in his office. But he was out there, and like Ethan, he too was pulling the covers up by himself and thinking the answer to the riddle of how to escape a solitary existence was just within reach.
Just before he fell asleep, he wondered if his mystery man also cynically told himself the same thing every night.
“Shut up!” Ethan cried into the darkness. And then whispered, muffled into his pillow, “Tomorrow will be different. I just know it.”
Rick R. Reed is an award-winning and bestselling author of more than fifty works of published fiction. He is a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Entertainment Weekly has described his work as “heartrending and sensitive.” Lambda Literary has called him: “A writer that doesn’t disappoint…” Find him at www.rickrreedreality.blogspot.com. Rick lives in Palm Springs, CA, with his husband, Bruce, and their fierce Chihuahua/Shiba Inu mix, Kodi.