Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sunday's Safe Word Shelf: Cutting Cords by Mickie B Ashling


Cutting Cords #1
Summary:
When Sloan Driscoll and Cole Fujiwara become reluctant roommates, neither man is willing to share too much. Sloan is instantly attracted to Cole but knows it's a hopeless cause; Cole has a steady girlfriend. But one night they share a joint, and Cole opens a window neither anticipated. A relationship may be impossible-both men are living with heart-breaking secrets. While Sloan is smart, sassy, and a brilliant graphic artist, he's also a pothead with severe body image problems. Cole, a former major league pitcher, has his own personal crisis: he's going blind. Sloan and Cole are suffering on so many levels, they might not realize that the ultimate salvation could be within each other's arms.

Vessel #2
Summary:
Five years into their relationship, Sloan Driscoll’s peaceful existence is suddenly upended. His lover, Cole Fujiwara, gives him an ultimatum: agree to a surrogate birth or break up. Noriko Evans, a beautiful woman of Japanese/American descent, is handpicked by Cole’s father to be the surrogate. At the same time, Trent Hamilton, model and established Dominant, sets his eyes on Sloan, offering him another life choice.

Sloan is thrown off balance by this series of events he can neither understand nor control. He’d thought the topic of children had been laid to rest years ago, but with the advent of a new form of genetic testing, Cole’s fear of passing on retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that leads to blindness, has been greatly reduced. Noriko’s abrupt appearance threatens Sloan, as does Sloan’s attraction to Trent and a side of the BDSM world he’d never thought to explore.

Will Sloan be able to muster the inner strength he’ll need to deal with one shocking revelation after another, or will he succumb to a dangerous coping mechanism? His decisions will either lead to salvation... or hasten the end of the relationship that literally saved his life.

Cleave #3
Summary:
On New Year's Eve, Cole Fujiwara stands vigil at his father's deathbed while his surrogate wife, Noriko, gives birth to twins. As Cole contemplates his future, he acknowledges that he's living his father's dream... and that he's probably destroyed his chance at happiness with Sloan, the love of his life. Finding harmony in an emerging D/s relationship has not been without issue for Sloan Driscoll and his Master, Trent Hamilton. Their journey has been littered with mishaps, but their powerful love and sexual connection continue to bind them together-until Sloan comes face to face with Cole for the first time in nine months. The meeting means different things to each of them. To Cole, it's the first step on the path to a reunion. To Sloan, it's a terrible mistake, one he confesses immediately. As for Trent, the bitter realization that a connection between the former lovers still exists forces him to issue an ultimatum. Is Sloan willing to do anything to prove their relationship is worth saving, including becoming Trent's 24/7 slave? And if Sloan stays with Trent, how can Cole ever hope to find happiness again?

Cutting Out #4
Summary:
Hours after stepping off the yacht where they had their mock wedding, real life intrudes, and arguments arise between Sloan Driscoll and Trent Hamilton. Seeking relief at his BDSM club, Trent bumps into an old army buddy who tells him things are different now that DADT has been repealed. Meanwhile, Sloan receives a frantic call from ex-lover, Cole Fujiwara, who tells him that his twins and ex-wife have been kidnapped. Cole asks Sloan for help but makes him promise not to include Trent in the rescue attempt.

Trent considers the opportunity to resume a career cut short, and despite Sloan's threat to postpone the wedding, he leaves for the Middle East as an independent mercenary while Sloan rushes to aid Cole.

In Tokyo, disturbing revelations draw the former couple together, and old feelings are rekindled. Despite this new understanding, neither man makes a move. Sloan is focused on rescuing Cole’s family without jeopardizing his relationship with Trent, while Cole must prepare himself to survive disappointment if Sloan chooses to segue into married life as a military spouse.

Cutting Cords #1
THE line of people snaked across the entire length of the lobby, curving around twice before ending at the security checkpoint. It was a typical scene at San Francisco International Airport, packed with travelers from all over the world trying to get in and out as quickly as possible. I watched dispassionately as a family of Filipinos gathered to say good-bye to some relative who was laden down with boxes of who-knows-what. There must have been at least ten people standing around the old man, crying and carrying on like he was going to his death, instead of a plane ride.

My dad jabbed me with his elbow and admonished, "Stop staring."

I turned away, annoyed that he'd caught me doing my favorite thing: people watching. I've always enjoyed it - the artist in me picking apart every detail of a person or incident, keeping them tucked away in my brain somewhere for future reference.

"Are you sure you've got everything?" Dad asked, trying to pull my backpack away from me to check the contents. I yanked it back roughly, angered by this invasion of my privacy. I don't know why I was surprised, but every time it happened, it pissed me off. "Stop it!" I glared, daring him to say anything. I hated it when he treated me like I was a fucking ten-year-old instead of someone who had just turned twenty-three. Everyone around was watching to see how my father would react, but they lost interest when he did nothing except look at me.

"I've got it under control, Dad," I reiterated, in a whisper this time, putting my mouth close to his ear. "Stop freaking out!"

He didn't look the least bit apologetic. He just stood there, all six foot four of him, arms akimbo and puffed out like a Thanksgiving turkey. "I just don't want you forgetting anything."

"Dad, I haven't forgotten anything. Besides, I'm going to New York, not another country."

"You're getting in late, Sloan. You don't want to have to stop at a store in the middle of the night."

I sighed, exasperated by his concern, but I answered patiently. "It'll be ten o'clock when I get there. I'm pretty sure that I'll find a store if I need one."

He grabbed me and gave me one of his bone-crushing hugs, practically squeezing the air out of my lungs. My head barely grazed his chin, and I felt like I was trapped in the arms of a polar bear, his size always a formidable thing. Although I was rapidly approaching his height, he bested me by at least one hundred and twenty pounds, making me feel even scrawnier than normal. I wondered again if I'd ever get to be as big as him. I'd been hearing how I was going to start to fill out ever since I was a kid, but all I did was get taller and taller, not wider.

"Now, you call me as soon as the plane lands, you understand?" he said, in a voice surprisingly gruff with emotion. I would have thought he'd be glad to get rid of me. Out of sight, out of mind, I assumed, but I guess you couldn't take away the parenting gene.

"I promise, Dad. I'll be okay."

"This is it, Sloan." He pulled away and looked at me with eyes that were uncharacteristically moist. "No more second chances, kid. The Big Apple will either make you a man or break you."

I rolled my eyes internally, thinking it would take much more than New York City to make me the kind of man he was hoping for, but I opened my mouth and said, "It's going to be fine, Dad. I wish you'd stop worrying."

"Can't help it, son. You're my boy and I'll always worry. That's my job."

One he was very good at, I might add. He'd taken worrying to a whole new dimension.

The line started moving a little faster, probably because they'd added another person, and I was fast approaching the area where we had to open up our bags, take off our shoes and jackets, and walk through the metal detector. I could feel my heart banging against my chest and my pulse beating like a conga in my head. I was terrified suddenly, sure that they'd find my stash and embarrass me and my father. I could see the headlines already: Joe Driscoll's son stopped at the airport with two grams of Northern Lights.

Being a former San Francisco Giant had its advantages, but it wouldn't save his son's ass, if I were arrested. Dad had already used up all his favors in the last few years. The SFPD and I had become very well acquainted, and although they'd never formally arrested me, in deference to my father's Hall of Fame status, they knew me on a first-name basis. They could make my life, and my father's, a living hell, if they chose to.

This was the reason I was being exiled to New York City. Not because I'd been accepted at Pratt Institute. I could have gone to the San Francisco Art Institute for a lot less money. The reason was to get me away from here, from everything familiar, to give me a fresh start. It was Ken Fujiwara, Dad's best friend from his baseball days, who had planted the seed in my father's head. Ken had a son who lived in New York City, and this played right into Dad's hands. They'd made arrangements for me to go and live with Cole without even asking me. As usual, my life had been mapped out, planned, signed, sealed, and delivered without my input or consent.

It was my turn at security, and the guards told Dad he'd have to go through the detectors as well, if he planned on staying with me until I boarded. I tried to dissuade him, but he was having none of it. He wanted to see me walk down the ramp and board that fucking plane to make sure I got my scrawny ass out of town. I took off my jacket and threw it on the moving belt, along with my backpack and my Nikes. I still had several layers of clothing on; an undershirt, a colored T-shirt, a light flannel in a faded blue color. The usual layered look I preferred, giving the illusion of a normal torso, when in reality, I had the build of a twelve-year-old.

"Hey, Joe." The guard who was attending to me recognized my dad, which was good in a way. It distracted him and he waved me through. "This your kid?"

"Yeah, Sloan's my oldest. He's off to the Big Apple to become a famous graphic artist."

"That's pretty cool," the guard replied, signaling me to pick up my bags and stuff. "Are you going with him?"

"No," Dad answered, walking up to the metal detector, pausing to get the okay to pass through. He was waved on and he stopped to bullshit with the guard while I tied my shoes and gathered my belongings. "He's off on his own."

"Well, good luck to you, son," the guard said, rewarding me with a huge smile. "You guys are free to go."

Thank you, thank you. We walked away and headed toward the food court to kill a few more minutes. Dad bought me a latte, shaking his head in disapproval when I asked for an extra shot of espresso. I poured in at least three tablespoons of sugar and took a sip, sighing in relief that I'd made it through this far without any incidents. Now I just had to get rid of Dad and I'd be home free.


IN NEW YORK CITY, Cole Fujiwara was about to go off on a man who demanded nothing but respect from his children. But Cole wasn't going to let that deter him from speaking his mind. He was still angry that his father had made plans with his best friend before consulting him, telling Cole after the fact that he was about to gain a roommate. Did he honestly think I'd be okay with this?

"Dad, would you please reconsider? I don't want Sloan to come live here. I have enough problems of my own. I don't need to take on anything else."

"Why are you assuming he'll be a problem?" Ken asked. "Joe has assured me that the kid has cleaned up his act and wants to make a fresh start."

"And you believe him?"

"Why shouldn't I? I'm surprised by your attitude, son. I didn't think you were so heartless."

"I'm not heartless, Father," Cole protested. "I'm just being practical."

"You used to play with this kid. You were best friends!"

"I haven't seen Sloan since he was eight years old," Cole countered. "I was eleven, for Christ's sake - hardly his best friend!"

"Calm down, Cole. You'll give yourself an asthma attack."

"Dad, you know the timing of this sucks. I'm dealing with all my own shit."

"I know," Ken said, in a voice filled with sadness. "I thought that maybe you guys could help each other out."

"Please tell me that he doesn't know, or have you already primed him?" Cole spat out bitterly.

Ken sighed heavily into the phone. "I haven't said a word to anyone, Cole. Not even Joe knows. You asked me not to discuss it, and I've respected your wishes."

"Thank you. Eventually people will find out, but until they do, I want things to be normal."

"Maybe Sloan can help you around the apartment. Do some of the chores?"

"Is that what the plan is? Make Sloan my seeing-eye roommate?"

"Cole, stop it."

Cole swiped angry tears away. They were an automatic reaction to his father's interference. Despair was warping the man's judgment, his need to help so painfully obvious, but Cole had insisted on being independent. He had to learn how to cope with it, to become a disabled person and survive without anyone's help. It was hard enough to deal with the reality that he was going blind, but he was determined to be self-sufficient and not become a burden to anyone. He'd been preparing for the inevitable for six months, learning to live alone and manage. Now, he was being thrown another curveball, expected to welcome Sloan with open arms when he had no idea who or what he was dealing with.

Each morning Cole woke up thinking this was all a nightmare that would go away. But sadly, it wasn't going anywhere, and the shadows got worse every day. It was that day he was preparing for: the day he'd wake up and see nothing.


THE doors of the plane were shut; the engines revved and ready to go. I leaned back and plugged in my earphones, increasing the volume so that I could hear nothing but Queen blaring out Bohemian Rhapsody. I loved their music, even if it was considered old school by many of my peers. I loved their drama and their style, much to my father's horror. One summer I even made the attempt to dress and talk like Freddie Mercury. It wasn't that hard, since we had the same body type, not one ounce of fat anywhere. My little game was met with outraged disapproval, so that persona went back into the closet of my brain, along with all the other shocking thoughts that resided there.

The plane finally took off, almost in sync with Freddie's falsetto blaring in my ears. I removed my earplugs and unfastened the seat belt when the captain turned off the sign. It was time to go to the rest room and take care of business.

The light in the tiny bathroom cast a yellowish shade on my normally pale face. I stared at the mirror, trying to see if I looked any different since my haircut, and my father's attempts to make me look respectable. Everything appeared the same; my hair was still a boring brown, my eyes an unremarkable shade of gray. My mouth was a bit too full and too girly for Dad's taste, but there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. I wondered how long it would take for my hair to grow out again. I hated the feel of the cold air against my neck, although my tattoo was now clearly visible, the Queen logo a testament to my devotion.

I started to strip, undoing the belt buckle and pushing down my jeans, past the scars on my thighs that showed in bright relief against the expanse of white skin. They were an angry hue of pink, which was normal for me and almost a non-issue. I stepped out of my pants and left them balled up in the corner. Next off were the tighty-whities and the sandwich bag with my stash. It had been held in its hiding place near my crotch, nestled nicely in between my boxers and the boring white underwear. I dumped the briefs into the wastebasket and pulled my jeans back up.

I opened the bag and inhaled the pungent aroma of the high-grade weed, wishing I had the guts to light up, but I knew that all kinds of hell would break loose if I did. So I popped a Xanax instead, knowing it was a poor substitute but certainly better than nothing.

I spent the rest of the flight in a hazy fog. Thanks to my age and the money in my pocket, I was able to buy a few drinks to add to my drug-induced high. That, plus the reassuring sound of Freddie serenading me, calmed me down. I passed on the food, shaking my head at the flight attendant, asking for more peanuts instead. I could hear my father admonishing me, telling me to eat and not skip meals or I'd stay scrawny, but I wasn't buying into that plan anymore. No amount of food had ever worked to give me the kind of body I craved, so any time I was on my own, I ate whatever the fuck I wanted.

I knew I was in New York as soon as the cabbie pulled up to the curb and looked me over without leaving his seat. "You want a ride, buddy?"

He was an Indian, turbaned head and all, doing the whole head-shake thing and expecting me to haul my gear into the cab on my own. I hefted the duffel with all my worldly possessions and placed it in the open trunk. "Can I smoke in here?" I asked, as soon as we got going.

"Sure, buddy."

I pulled out a joint I'd rolled in the airport restroom and lit up, inhaling deeply, letting the smoke fill my lungs. The cabbie lifted an eyebrow as soon as he smelled the weed. "You want to share some of that?" he asked, hoping I'd say yes.

"Knock yourself out," I replied, passing the joint through the opening in the glass.

He took a huge hit, nodding his head in appreciation. "Good stuff, buddy."

"Yeah, it better be, for what it cost."

"Where are we going?" he asked, finally realizing I hadn't given him an address.

"Chelsea."

"Okay, buddy."

It was almost eleven by the time we stopped in front of Cole's building, and after I handed over my money, I waited to see if Mohammed would help me with my bag. Stupid thought. The man just sat there and shook his head. "Good luck, buddy."

Fucking asshole.

I dragged my shit out of the cab and waited for the doorman to let me in. Apparently he'd gotten word of my arrival, and he actually helped me place my bag in the elevator and told me the apartment was on the tenth floor. When I got there, I stabbed at the doorbell for a good five minutes before I saw a light go on and heard footsteps coming toward the door. It was pulled open and a guy stood there, pissed off as all hell.

"Will you ease off the fucking bell already?"

"Hey, I didn't know if you were asleep or what."

"Well, I'm wide awake now."

"Oh. Sorry about that. I'm looking for Cole Fujiwara."

"You found him," he replied warily. "Sloan?"

"The one and only."

"Wow. You've grown. When'd you get so tall?"

And when the fuck did you get so hot?

"Probably when you lost all the weight," I replied out loud, taking a really good look at him. He was nothing like I remembered. The fat kid with thick glasses who teased me and told me I threw like a girl was gone. In his place was a Johnny Depp look-alike with bone-straight black hair that fell over his forehead. The glasses were gone as well, probably replaced by contacts, but those dark blue eyes were the same, courtesy of his Irish mother, and a little disconcerting in his obviously Eurasian face.

"So, are we going to stand here all night?" I asked, needing to move away from this guy. I was doing the whole staring thing again, and I was afraid he'd say something.

"Oh, sorry. Come in," Cole said, turning and walking down the hall. I picked up my bags and followed. The place was immaculate, nothing like I expected.

"Wow, you have a housekeeper?"

"No, why?"

"Everything is just so neat."

"I like order, and I'll expect you to maintain this apartment the way I like it," Cole said, pushing a lock of hair out of his eye. "You hungry?"

"Not really. Can I light up?"

"I'd rather you didn't."

"You've got to be fucking kidding me."

"I don't smoke. Do you mind?"

"Yeah, I mind! This is my place now, and I should be able to smoke whenever I feel like it."

"It's not your house!" Cole spat out. "It's mine, and if you want to stay with me, you'll follow my rules."

"Rules," I groaned. "I thought I'd just escaped from rules."

"Look, Sloan. There are just a few things I need from you," Cole said, changing the tone of his voice. "I really can't be around cigarette smoke."

I stared at him, taking a good look at his face now that we were in better light. The artist in me picked out each feature, lingering over his nose, which was straight and narrow, his ridiculously high cheekbones, and finally his mouth, which looked soft and tempting. He probably tasted great as well, since he was a nonsmoker. I tore my eyes away and said, "What about weed? That's medicinal."

Surprisingly, he said, "I'll let you smoke weed, but only in your room with the door closed and the window open. Understood?"

"Sure. Thanks."

"Well, it's late," Cole said softly. "Let me show you your room and then I'm going back to bed."

I let him lead the way, giving me the perfect opportunity to check out his body. He was about five-eleven and beefier around the arms and shoulders than me. The rest of him was perfect. His broad back tapered into a slim waist, and his silk boxers clung to his rounded ass. His long legs were tanned, well shaped, and muscular. A sudden vision of those same legs wrapped around my hips stirred my imagination. My cock twitched, confirming the unexpected and powerful attraction.

"You still playing ball?" I asked, hoping my voice didn't betray my feelings.

"No," he replied, without turning around. "I gave it up."

"I heard you were pretty good at it. In fact, my dad said you might be following in daddy's footsteps."

"Nah, no way," Cole said, with a little hitch in his voice.

We stopped in front of a door, and he pushed it open and said, "This is your room. We share a bathroom, so don't be a slob. I can't be wiping up after you all day."

"God, Cole. Have you always been this anal?"

"Yup," he replied. "Deal with it."

He spun around and opened a door on the other side of the hallway entering his room without even turning on the light. "See you in the morning," he called out and disappeared.

I was a little taken aback by his sudden departure, but I shrugged it off and began to unpack. It had been a long fucking day and I was ready to unwind. I opened the window and noted that a fresh breeze came in easily. My room was facing in the right direction, which meant I could air it out after too many cigarettes. I'd be damned if Cole was going to tell me what I could or couldn't smoke. Fuck that shit! This was my space now, and I'd do whatever the hell I wanted.

Vessel #2
Prologue
THE sun was starting to creep over the horizon when Reiko awoke. She could tell what time it was by the faint rays of light filtering through the blinds, illuminating her small bedroom. There was no need to look at the clock. She was a creature of habit and had always risen at dawn, eager to start her day long before anyone else stirred. She lay on her futon for a few more minutes, enjoying the warmth of the thick down comforter that covered her frail body. Soon, she would have to fling it off and brave the frosty air to begin this momentous day. It had been a decade since she had awoken with such a feeling of anticipation, and she forced herself to rise, knowing it would take more time to achieve the desired result because she would have to do it herself.

The okiya was silent as she moved about slowly, preparing her morning tea. Reiko remembered a time when the dawning had resonated with the tittering voices of young women on the brink of maturity. The geishas in training, the maiko, had occupied her every waking moment since she had taken over as okaa-san of her own house fifty years ago. Her days had been productive then, abounding with important decisions that could improve or destroy someone’s life. She had trained a legion of women in the ancient art of being a geiko and had ruled with an iron hand, but time had been her enemy and the modern world her undoing. The traditions that were an integral part of her universe since she was fourteen years old no longer applied in this century when transactions were completed on cell phones and e-mails. The mizuage was a thing of the past, and the services of a geisha no more necessary than the hefty price tag that came with equipping them. The kimonos and obis that had cost thousands of yen and had once lined the walls of one room, had been sold one by one to support her, now that she could no longer count on the income generated by the karyukai. The disadvantage of living well into her eighties was that she’d run out of money, and the meager amount she received from her government pension was hardly enough to keep a tiny sliver of fish in her rice bowl.

Yesterday’s phone call had been a most welcome surprise, and an opportunity she had jumped on with the eagerness of a sixty-year-old. Her arthritis and assorted aches and pains were forgotten in the momentary rush of excitement at being at the center of an undoubtedly protracted negotiation. Fujiwara-san had been very specific about his needs, and Reiko was pleased that, once again, she was in a position to provide a service.

She adjusted the magnifying mirror and gazed at her face dispassionately. Who was that old lady with the skin of a desiccated mushroom? No one she knew. Reiko’s mental picture of herself had not changed through the years. She was still the beautiful geisha who had elicited voluminous praise from those who had been lucky enough to be graced by her elegant presence. Her mizuage had broken records, and when Hiro Fujiwara, Ken’s father, had paid the astronomical figure to become her patron, she’d reached the pinnacle of her career and had become a legend in Kyoto. Now, Hiro’s progeny needed a favor, and she was not going to dishonor his memory by greeting Ken-san as an old crone. The white rice powder would hide every wrinkle and imperfection, and the black wig would cover the sparse white hair that barely concealed the mottled skin of her ancient scalp. She reached for the pot of paste and poured water into the dried out concoction and began to mix it with her gnarled fingers. It would take some doing, but she would be presentable in approximately one hour, in time to wrestle with the only formal kimono she had left. By the time her visitor arrived, she would be more than presentable for the tea ceremony she intended to perform with the grace and panache of a geisha in her prime.


Chapter One
“IT’S a wrap,” Max said, stepping away from the camera and removing his glasses. “You can relax, Sloan.”

Relax? What a concept. I hadn’t relaxed in over three months, so his words were meaningless. I pulled out several tissues from the box on the dresser, attempting to scrub off the foundation and lipstick without the creamy solution that would have made the task easier and less damaging to my skin.

“I do plan on using your angelic face tomorrow, so please use the makeup remover, and stop trying to obliterate your features,” Max said, giving me dagger looks. “I don’t want to deal with any red marks.”

“You can airbrush them away,” I said, reaching for the jar of cream, however, and applying the white goop liberally. “What are we shooting tomorrow?”

“Sunglasses.”

“That means I can get blitzed, and no one will see my eyes.”

Max stopped looking at my current photos on his computer and gave me the raised eyebrow. “What’s going on, Sloan?”

“Nothing.”

He wandered over to my side of the room and gathered me in his arms. “What’s the matter, darling? You’ve been out of sorts for weeks.”

“I’ve got stuff on my mind.”

“Is it Cole?”

“Isn’t it always?”

“I mean medically speaking? Any new developments?”

“You can’t get any blinder than blind.”

“Stop being a sarcastic shit, and tell me what the hell is going on at your house. You’ve lost weight, and even though you’re still the most beautiful face around, you’re starting to fray around the edges. You’re not doing anything stupid, are you?” He reached for my arm and pushed up my sleeve.

“Get your hands off me!”

“I’m sorry,” Max said softly. “If you would be kind enough to tell me what’s going through your lovely head, then maybe I’d leave you alone and not assume the worst.”

“Cole wants a kid.”

“What?”

“His old man has been driving us crazy with this need for an heir.”

“Well, unless something has changed, and one of you has sprouted a uterus, I don’t see how that’s possible.”

“When you have the kind of money Ken Fujiwara has, you think anything can be bought.”

“In case you aren’t aware of this important fact, surrogate births are illegal in New York State.”

“Is that so? I wonder if Ken knows that.”

“Sloan, you’re not seriously considering this, are you?”

I could see the concern in Max’s eyes, and I knew he wasn’t paying lip service. The man had been nothing but kind to me since we met five years ago, and he took me under his wing. Working together hadn’t changed anything. He was still my mentor in the world of fashion photography and a devoted friend. Although he’d accepted my relationship with Cole and had respected my boundaries, it was apparent to everyone that I continued to be his “beauty.” The primo photo shoots and contracts somehow managed to come my way, and I knew that all I had to do was give him one sign I was interested in starting up the intimate relationship we’d had long ago, and he’d be right on top of it, or below it, depending on his mood. He was twenty years older than me, highly respected in his chosen field, and a renowned Dom for those who participated in Manhattan’s BDSM world.

My association with Max Leavitt had made me a household name, earning me millions as the face for Klas Cosmetics, but at the root of our friendship was a sexual attraction that had never faltered on his part, even though it had been snuffed out on my side by my love and commitment to Cole Fujiwara, my partner. Nonetheless, I knew Max cared. He’d understood the demons I’d wrestled with when we’d first met, most of which had been tamped down by my satisfying relationship with Cole. Lately, however, dark thoughts had begun to taunt me in the most frightening way. Max’s inspection wasn’t too far off the mark, which made it rankle even more.

“I’ve no choice but to consider a child since Cole and his father have been arguing about this issue for months.”

“Didn’t you tell me that Cole was terrified he’d pass on the gene that’s caused his blindness?”

“It’s always been the reason why we’ve never talked about starting a family. Besides, Cole’s sisters had agreed that whosoever had the first grandson would be amenable to retaining the Fujiwara surname. Ken and his illustrious ancestors would be appeased by a male heir. The line would continue and the pressure on Cole would lighten up.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“They’ve had females so far. Ken Fujiwara has four granddaughters?not one man-child in sight.”

“Shit.”

“My sentiments exactly.”

“Why is he bugging Cole again?”

“There’s a company in New Jersey that can do PGD.”

“What the hell is that?”

“Preimplantation genetic diagnosis.”

“English?”

“It’s a new method of genetic screening that is performed before an embryo is implanted in a womb. Several genetic mutations or diseases can be ruled out so that only healthy embryos are retained and implanted, thereby eliminating the trauma of abortions performed in the past, when testing had to wait until the third or fourth month of gestation.”

“It sounds like a godsend.”

“It also allows for gender selection. Ken will be guaranteed a grandson if they go this route.”

“You appear quite knowledgeable on this topic.”

“I have been immersed in medical lingo for the last four months, Max. It’s all Cole and his father talk about.”

“You poor thing,” Max said, practically cooing and drawing me closer. I lay against his broad chest and sighed in relief for the first time in weeks. It was so good to be able to share my thoughts with someone who knew the dynamics of my relationship with Cole and wouldn’t judge me for my concerns.

“What do you want, Sloan?”

“I’d like this to go away. It’s not that I have anything against children. I love Cole’s nieces, but this whole surrogate business is macabre. It’s like something Hollywood conjured: Avatar meets Frankenstein.”

“What bothers you the most? Having another responsibility, or is it because a stranger will be carrying Cole’s child? Maybe the entire concept of becoming a father is abhorrent.”

“It’s so premeditated and cold, Max. Shouldn’t parenthood be a spontaneous and joyful event?”

“First of all, you’re both men, so there’s nothing spontaneous about this decision. Secondly, given Cole’s genetic problems, you can’t afford to be mysterious. The last thing you want is a child with retinitis pigmentosa. I understand where Cole is coming from.”

“Intellectually I do, too, but my emotions are all over the place.”

“Why?”

“We expected Cole to lose his eyesight, but he’d been holding for a long time, so we became rather complacent. When he went completely blind last year, it was still a shock. Coming to terms with irreversible darkness has not been an easy thing for him. I’ve been learning how to deal with Cole’s mood swings.”

“Has he been difficult?”

“He’s had a lot of bad moments. Bringing a child into the mix won’t be a simple decision. The bottom line is the kid’s going to be one more item I’d have to deal with on a daily basis.”

“Sloan, babies aren’t items. In any case, you have the money to hire a full-time nanny.”

“We could have a housekeeper, a chauffeur, and a butler,” I pointed out, “but Cole wants none of that. He insists on doing everything and will only accept help from me. Lately though, I’ve been doing most of the work around the apartment.”

“And a baby will just add more to your plate.”

“Which is quite full, I might add.”

“Oh, Sloan,” Max crooned, rocking me gently. I was comforted by his mothering. I didn’t even know I’d missed it, but the truth was I was overwhelmed by my responsibilities with Cole and hadn’t realized how bad it was until now. “Am I wrong for being so selfish?”

“Sloan, you’re one of the most selfless people I know. I haven’t seen your brand of caring since the early days of the AIDS epidemic.”

“He’s not dying, Max.”

“No, but you seem to be. Your contented aura is fading, darling. How’s your sex life?”

“None of your damn business.”

“I hope your needs are being met.”

“Give it a rest, will ya? It’s all good.”

Max cradled my face and kissed me on the lips. “Tell me.”

I sighed and turned away. Not ready for that discussion either. Somehow, telling my former lover I wasn’t getting much action seemed highly inappropriate, although he knew me well enough to have guessed I wasn’t floating on a cloud of sexual satisfaction. Far from it. Cole’s libido had been waning since we started the discussion on babies. There wasn’t anything I hadn’t tried to bring the excitement back into the bedroom, but my efforts had been futile. I was living like a monk. All work and no play made for a very unhappy Sloan.

“Listen, I’ve got to get going,” I said, reluctant to leave Max’s cozy embrace but a little concerned that my body was starting to react to the close proximity. And he knew it too. The bastard was taking full advantage and shifted his legs to get closer. “Really, Max. I’ve got to go.”

“What’s so pressing?”

You! “Ken and Eileen are stopping by after dinner, and I was requested to attend the meeting.”

“It sounds like a command performance.”

“It’s probably more of this baby shit.”

“Keep me informed, will you?”

“I’ll do that,” I said, relieved when he stepped back. “What time do we start tomorrow?”

“Be here by ten.”

“You got it.”


THE cab ride from Max’s studio in Tribeca to our apartment in Chelsea was too short to suit me. I wanted more time to mentally prepare myself for this meeting with Cole’s parents. Unfortunately, traffic was light since most of the business commuters had long gone, and the cab was in front of our apartment building in no time. It was close to seven in the evening when I inserted my key into the lock. I hoped my in-laws hadn’t arrived yet because I wanted to shower and change. They were still a little judgmental about my decision to become a fashion model instead of pursuing my career in graphic arts, but the money was too good to pass up, and although Cole would never lack for funds, I preferred to pay my way. Modeling was a short-lived career anyway. The demand for a younger fresh face would be coming any minute now, so I had to take advantage of every opportunity until then. However, the less they saw of my modeling the better the outcome of the evening. It wasn’t smart to show up with any residual eyeliner, and I knew that in my haste to get away from Max’s probing questions, I probably missed a few spots.

I heard voices when I stepped into the hall and realized they were already here. My leather rucksack ended up on the table by the door, and I entered the living room prepared for a confrontation. Freddie came up to me immediately, wagging his golden tail and nudging my pocket by way of greeting. I rubbed his head and slipped him a small knot of rawhide before walking up to Cole, who lifted his face for a kiss.

There was a young woman standing between Ken and Eileen. She was staring at her feet, so I only saw the top of her head. She had jet-black hair that covered her face as it fell forward in a silky curtain.

“Sloan,” Cole held my hand tightly. “I’d like you to meet Noriko Evans. She’s agreed to surrogate for us. She’ll be the mother of our son.”

I heard what he said, but the explosion going off in my head after his appalling pronouncement rendered me speechless. The mother of our son. What in hell?

Noriko looked up and broached a tentative smile. Her hazel eyes slanted upward but were lacking the epicanthic fold more common in Japanese. Her complexion was flawless, practically glowing with good health, and devoid of any make-up but for a faint hint of blush over her prominent cheekbones. Her lip gloss was a light shade of peach, emphasizing her plump mouth. Bone-straight hair with long bangs that brushed her eyebrows framed her face perfectly. “Hajimemashite, Sloan-san,” she said in a soft, melodic voice.

I gaped at her.

“I’m very pleased to meet you,” she said, switching to perfect English. She stretched out her hand, hoping to obtain a polite handshake, but my body refused to cooperate. I nodded curtly and left the room.

Cleave #3
Chapter One
THE raw silk kept slipping through the loops as I stood in front of the full-length mirror attempting a half Windsor. The simple knot was eluding me, impossible to explain given my mastery in the fine art of bondage. Everything seemed a little off-kilter this morning, most likely due to the aftereffects of last night’s debauchery. A New Year’s Eve party at Wilde was always over the top, and once again, Max had not only exceeded last year’s celebration but had raised the bar for future parties. His table for twelve had simply groaned with delicacies from all over the world, and the men he’d lined up to serve were the perfect appetizers. Sloan had made a pig of himself with the caviar, accompanied by multiple shots of vodka, which had also been my poison for the evening in the spirit of welcoming 2011.

I let go of the stubborn tie when my concentration was completely ruined by the music coming from Sloan’s iPhone. The name that flashed on the screen didn’t help my mood, and the ring tone had the same effect as nails on a chalkboard. Sloan had assigned Queen’s “Love of My Life” to his ex. The poignant melody had never played since we’d been together, so hearing it now raised questions and disrupted my plans for the morning. I despised people who pried, but seeing Cole Fujiwara’s name on caller ID was reason enough to break my own rule. Not only did I want answers, I even considered canceling the meeting I’d intended to keep in an hour. Although modeling was fun and led to interesting perks, such as meeting gorgeous men like Sloan, it didn’t hold my attention. There was no challenge whatsoever, so I’d kept my investment business, and the handful of clients I’d retained made it lucrative enough to justify the time I split between my two careers. My potential investor was a player in the scene and a referral from Max, who’d insisted on the New Year’s Day meeting.

Love of my life - you’ve hurt me.

You’ve broken my heart and now you leave me.

Just hearing the refrain repeat in Freddie Mercury’s distinctive voice set my teeth on edge and elevated my blood pressure instantly.

There had been no news from Camp Fujiwara since the breakup in London nine months ago, and it had taken me that long to get my submissive-in-training to come to terms with the end of his long-standing relationship. Sloan could finally discuss his past without breaking down, and now our peace of mind was about to be disturbed by Cole’s reappearance. What in hell did the asshole want? And why in fuck did Sloan still keep his number, and more importantly, why hadn’t he ditched that particular ring tone?

Sloan walked out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist and froze. He gaped at the phone in my hand and darted a quick look at my face to gauge my mood. When he saw nothing more alarming than a raised eyebrow, he heaved a sigh of relief and reached for the phone just as the caller disconnected. “I wonder what he wants,” Sloan mused.

“Are you going to return the call?”

“I suppose I should.”

“Why?”

Dove-gray eyes flared in defiance but banked just as quickly. “What if it’s important?” Sloan suggested.

“What if it’s not?”

“Please, let me call him.”

“Not yet,” I said, bracing for an argument. “Anything he has to say can wait until after your meditation.”

“Sir, it’ll only take a second,” Sloan protested, clutching the phone and looking slightly panicked. “He’s never called before.”

Shaking my head, I took the phone out of his hand and tossed it back on the nightstand. “The reason I have you meditate first thing in the morning is to get you in the right frame of mind.”

“But?”

“Sloan, listen to me. I won’t have you disrupting your schedule over a phone call. I want you grounded before you talk to him.”

I could see all the emotions warring in Sloan’s expressive eyes as he wrestled with his decision, but I was satisfied when my boy took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and sank to his knees in front of me. Seeing him assume the rudimentary submissive pose?hands clasped behind his back and bowed head?was always a thrill, but this morning’s surrender was particularly sweet and deserved a reward. I lifted his chin and bent down to kiss him softly on the mouth. “Thank you.” He responded immediately, opening his mouth and allowing my tongue to slip in. Submitting did not come easily to Sloan, but that side of his personality I’d awakened had grown and blossomed under my care. I stepped away from him reluctantly and resumed my meditation stance.

The towel that encircled his slim waist fell to the floor in a puddle, exposing the body that was Sloan’s undoing. Despite the positive physical changes that had come with maturity and my very obvious appreciation, the mental image of an underweight and undesirable man continued to plague Sloan. He needed to be reminded that he was attractive and worthy of the adulation he received in the modeling world, along with the monetary and personal rewards. Part of his path of self-discovery was a daily mantra reiterating his worth.

“Take a deep breath and banish everything from your mind.” My voice acted as the trigger, guiding him through his morning ritual. “Inhale… exhale.” I repeated the words several times until I saw the subtle shift in body language. The rhythmic rise and fall of his chest signaled his transition into a calmer space, one that didn’t allow outside influences or chaotic thoughts to intrude. I began with the usual questions. “Who are you?”

“Sloan Driscoll.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a successful model.”

“How do you know you’re a success?”

“The contracts I’ve acquired over the years and the financial rewards.”

“Do you believe you deserve the fame?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I’ve worked very hard to get here.”

“Are you beautiful, Sloan?”

“They say I am.”

“Why don’t you believe it?”

“Beauty is subjective.”

“You’re beautiful to me.”

“Thank you, Master.”

“Don’t you feel attractive?”

“When I’m with you, I do.”

“What about in front of the camera? I’m not the only one who thinks you’re special.”

“I’ve been lucky.”

“I think you give yourself very little credit. You work damn hard.”

“You’re very generous with your praise.”

“It’s the truth, boy, not flattery.” My body was reacting to the desirable vision in front of me, even as Sloan responded to my encouraging words. I couldn’t help but notice his growing erection. “Do you know how much I care for you?”

“I feel it in your voice and your touch, sir.”

“How else can you tell?”

“You’ve helped me find the special place where I can be myself.”

“Through physical pain?”

“And my surrender.”

“Good answer, boy. Open your eyes and look at me.”

Sloan blinked a few times. He appeared to be on a powerful hallucinogenic, when the reality was far more complex. He was in his subspace. To see him in this state was immensely satisfying, considering the long and somewhat rocky journey he’d traveled since we first hooked up. Taming Sloan was like trying to corral a wild stallion. As soon as I thought I had him, he’d slip out of reach, only to be subdued after an intense scene. It had taken patience and a lot of effort to finally arrive at this place, and I would be damned if one phone call from Sloan’s past would ruin it all.

“May I please you this morning?” Sloan asked, interrupting my thoughts.

“God, yes.” I sank down on an upholstered leather high back and spread my legs wide apart. My cock was throbbing, and watching my sub crawl naked toward me, with his massive erection leading the way, was making me salivate. Adding to the mix was the pungent odor of our mutual arousal. It enveloped me, and I leaned back on the chair and moaned in anticipation. I was dressed for my meeting, however, and I expected Sloan to work for his reward. He gripped my zipper in between his teeth and slid it down slowly, encouraged by my groaning.

“Take care not to soil my pants,” I warned. “I have an appointment in less than an hour.”

“Yes, sir,” Sloan said before engulfing my rigid shaft down his throat. He began to suck with due diligence, and I closed my eyes and sighed with content. When I felt my balls pulling up, I pushed the cloying mouth away abruptly.

Sloan looked confused. “Don’t you want me to finish you off?”

“To hell with my meeting,” I snarled, pushing my pants down my thighs while I toed off my shoes. “Get on the bed.”

Sloan beamed at me happily. His lips were shiny with saliva, and he looked loopy from a combination of lust and meditative reflection.

I stepped out of my pants and boxers, folded them at the crease, and laid them on the leather seat. Next off was my shirt, and instead of wasting time with the long line of buttons, I struggled with the top two before yanking it over my head and draping it over the back of the chair.

Sloan was already waiting in the middle of the massive four-poster bed that took center stage. I straddled him, reached for the leather cuffs, and attached the pair to Sloan’s wrists. I then clipped them to the chains that dangled off the wooden posts until Sloan was spread out and immobilized. “Comfy?”

Sloan nodded, trancelike.

“I want to play with your pretty cock.”

“Yes, Master.”

I rolled my thumb over his slit, spreading the emerging drops of fluid until his impressive cock head glistened. I leaned over and whispered. “I owe you a present.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I haven’t forgotten, even though Christmas has come and gone.”

“There’s only one thing I want,” Sloan replied hoarsely.

“I know.”

“Is that my present?” Sloan’s cock rose appreciably, encouraged by the possibility of an unexpected bonus.

My boy had been trying to top me for months. His fondest wish was to sink his notable cock into his “Highlander,” a nickname I’d earned after donning a kilt in London. That and the tawny locks I’d retained since the photo shoot had made me an honorary Scotsman in Sloan’s eyes. It helped that I was indeed part Scottish, and soon I ranked high up on his list of sexy men in kilts, alongside Captain Jack of Torchwood and the lunatic from Braveheart. Throughout our holiday in the UK, as we traveled from castle to loch, enjoying the magnificent views and exploring my ancestry, Sloan had pestered, begged, and cajoled. My continued refusal to allow any penetration had become a bone of contention, and Sloan was starting to take it personally.

I knew I’d have to overcome this personal hurdle if I wanted to win his heart. I could feel his admiration and respect, but the deep connection was impeded by this one obstacle. I’d always been introspective, and there were times when this characteristic frustrated Sloan, who was the most verbal and honest person I’d ever met. My insistence on holding back often left Sloan feeling rejected, which was the last thing I wanted. Still, it would be a monumental task to divulge the reason I had issues with anal sex. On the other hand, what kind of relationship was this if I couldn’t share my misgivings?

“I’ll do it in a scene,” I said, blurting out the words before I could change my mind.

“What scene?”

“We’ll discuss it at a later time. Let’s talk about something I want for you.”

“What’s that?”

“Tying you up and dripping hot wax all over you,” I growled into his ear, making Sloan shiver in anticipation. “Then I’m going to cut my name into your shoulder with that lovely new knife you gave me for Christmas.”

Sloan gasped and closed his eyes. I did the same, picturing the hot wax dripping over my boy’s legs and torso, along with a trickle of blood. Instead of freaking him out, Sloan was on the verge of coming. “Please, Master, suck me?” Sloan begged beautifully, sending signals straight to my groin. Mentioning the knife play was a stroke of genius. It was still Sloan’s preferred method of achieving subspace whenever we did an official “scene,” and I wanted to accommodate my sub as much as possible. A happy Sloan was a wanton and uninhibited sex toy, and I loved this side of him.

Sloan’s hands were imprisoned above his head, but his legs were free, and he bent them, bracing himself on the bed. He dug in his heels, lifted his hips, and began thrusting in and out of my mouth, fiercely aroused by my vivid description of a future scene. I turned so my ass was in Sloan’s face. Spreading out, with one knee on either side of Sloan’s torso, I offered up a part of my body that I usually guarded closely. I moaned when Sloan lifted his head and began to tongue my hole with abandon. I loved this, and yet I always pulled away at the last minute. The thought of Sloan breaching me made me clench automatically, but it also made me dizzy with lust. I wanted to experience that hot burst of heat while Sloan fucked me raw and claimed me in a way like no other. It was a tantalizing goal I’d set for myself that had yet to be achieved. That vision increased the pleasure as I continued to suck Sloan’s cock, pushing me toward orgasm, and I spent in a warm splash across Sloan’s chest even as my mouth filled with my boy’s massive load.

After I released the bindings and threw the cuffs on the nightstand, I took Sloan into my arms and held him tightly.

“You realize,” Sloan whispered, toying with my nipples, “I’m going to be in a state of high arousal until we do the scene you talked about.”

“I know.”

“When is this happening?”

“Don’t be impatient, and stop doing that or I’ll never get out of here.”

“Why are you having a business meeting on New Year’s Day, anyhow?”

“Max set this up with a new Dom who has some disposable income he’d like to invest. I’d be stupid to pass it up.”

“I guess. Now back to my question.”

I pushed Sloan’s hand away from my erect nubs. “I know you can hardly wait.”

“I don’t want you to feel obligated, sir,” Sloan said, emphasizing the word. He continued to question the titles I’d demanded but used them because they pleased me. “The last thing I want from you is a pity fuck.”

“It won’t be.”

“Good… can we set a date?”

“You’re a persistent shit. You know that?”

“One of my better traits,” Sloan admitted. “I like to set goals.”

“Me too,” I agreed. “How about next weekend?”

“You promise?”

“We’ll go out to Montauk and do it in a scene.”

“Raw?”

“I think we’re both ready to throw away the condoms.”

Sloan buried his face against my neck. “Thank you, sir.”

Freddie Mercury interrupted our special moment, vocalizing angst through the small instrument beside the bed. “Fuck that phone!” I said, losing my patience. “Pick it up and see what that bastard wants, then delete the goddamn song!”

Sloan crawled over me and lifted the much-maligned instrument off the nightstand. My mood had turned black, and I would have cheerfully thrown the phone out the window, but I knew it would start a huge fight. Sighing dramatically, he said, “Hello, Cole.”

Cutting Out #4
Chapter 1
THE MINUTE I saw the furrow between Trent’s eyebrows, I knew there was a problem. When we’d left for P-town four days ago, most of the details of our over-the-top ceremony had been worked out to everyone’s satisfaction. Trent had grumbled throughout the negotiation but was convinced to allow the extravagant affair when Max showed him the staggering amount the paparazzi were willing to pay for this once-in-a-lifetime photo op. After all, we were the first celebrity couple to hop on the new right-to-marry train that had gay New Yorkers standing outside city hall in a frenzied need to join the mainstream. Now Max wanted to change everything.

“You’ve got to be kidding!” Trent snorted disapprovingly, having taken one look at the Regency wear Max had conjured up at the last minute. “There’s no way in fucking hell I’m wearing tights on my wedding day,” he continued, following up his defiant proclamation with a loud slam. He’d barricaded himself in his study and wouldn’t unlock the door despite my best imitation of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.

“Trent,” I begged, knocking like a demented woodpecker. “Let me in. Please? Trent… will you open the fucking door!”

After five minutes, the lock turned and the door swung open, revealing one pissed-off Dom. He’d changed into his club leathers while I was trying to get his attention and looked more formidable than ever. Before I could protest, he cut me off. “Not another word! Max isn’t subjecting us to more ridicule than necessary, Sloan. It’s bad enough you’ve agreed to be Little Lord Fauntleroy, but I absolutely refuse to look like some foppish duke to appease this sudden surge of Britishmania that’s swept the country since the royal wedding. NO. FUCKING. WAY!”

He punctuated every word with a finger poke to my chest, but I remained undeterred. “It could mean a condo overlooking Central Park.”

Trent scowled. “Since when has money been so important to you?”

“Honestly? I couldn’t give a rat’s ass, but I owe Max big-time and he’s pushing for this.”

“You’ve made him a bloody fortune over the years. Why do you think you owe him?” Trent demanded. “And while we’re on the subject of modeling, you should be the first to know I’ve about had it with the whole experience.”

“Wait—what?”

“Max can take his agency and shove it.”

“Come on, Trent. Be reasonable.” How could I explain my complex relationship with a man who’d taken me under his wing over eight years ago and turned me into a household name? I’d been nothing but an insecure cutter, underweight and miserably confused, until Max showed me that underneath the bones was a beautiful person. America had fallen in love with me, and in the process, so had Max. He’d been my lover for a very brief time, but beyond that, he’d been the mentor I’d never had, the brother Junior could never be, and the best friend anyone could ask for. I would have done anything for him, which included facing the wrath of my soon-to-be-legal husband.

“Reason has nothing to do with it!” he snapped. “I’m tired of catering to the high-and-mighty Max.”

“I know you don’t understand why I feel the way I do when it comes to Max, but it is what it is. Consider this your wedding present to me if nothing else. I would be eternally grateful.”

“No,” Trent said adamantly. “I won’t put on a powdered wig or one of those repulsive beauty marks. I’d do almost anything for you, Sloan, you know that, but don’t ask me to look like a fool on the most important day of my life.”

“Even if I lick your boots and promise a long session of bondage as your reward?”

Trent paused, appearing to consider my offer, then shook his head. “No, I’m sorry.” He brushed past me and headed toward the front door.

“Where are you going?”

“I need some time at the club to cool down.”

I turned away and let him walk out the door. There was still a part of me that hated the idea of Trent continuing his role as Dom at Wilde, the BDSM club where he and Max had first met. We’d argued about it on the yacht on our way to Provincetown, and it had almost ruined our expedition, but he’d convinced me that his need to dominate and inflict pain on a willing sub was an integral part of his makeup, and at the time, I’d accepted that as gospel, especially when he swore that sex wasn’t involved. So long as he didn’t fuck any of his subs, we were good. Still, the vision of him in black leather wielding a whip and getting turned on by a stranger made me clench my teeth and want to scratch the eyes out of his submissive-for-the-hour without an ounce of remorse. Then again, I took comfort in the fact that he would come home to me, randy and ready for a good, long session of rough pounding. It would be my reward for allowing him to have his own space.

I shrugged in resignation, hoping his time at the club would put Max’s request into perspective. Why was Trent making such a big deal over this anyway? We’d already had our private commitment ceremony, exchanging the most meaningful vows meant only for our ears. They were too personal to share with the world, and I wouldn’t have wanted to, even if Trent had insisted we reenact that special hour. Why not give the onlookers the circus instead?

After being a model for so long, I’d learned to tune out the looky-loos and get into my zone. One or one hundred people in the wings made no difference to me, but if it made Max happy and kept the bling flowing, why not? Where was the harm in it? Surely Trent could see the economic benefits: he was a financial planner. The additional zeroes might also allow me to cut back on my work and devote more time to him. It could be a win-win if he’d only listen to reason.

I threw a load of laundry into the washing machine and sorted through the usual pile of junk mail before retrieving my phone messages. I rarely gave out my mobile number, for the obvious reason: I didn’t want to fend calls all day long. The only ones privy to my iPhone were family and close friends. Staring at the blank screen reminded me to turn it back on. Trent and I had sworn to remain incommunicado for our impromptu weekend, and it had paid off. We’d had the most romantic four days of our lives, but now, reality came crashing in. I saw with a growing sense of alarm that there were over a dozen missed calls from Cole. Christ, now what? I thought the guy was settled in his new relationship with Bryce and resigned to my upcoming nuptials. Trust him to fuck this up at the last minute. He was good at shaking me up without even trying.

I listened to the first few voice mails. Most of them were a terse “Call me.” Then his voice changed, going from reasonable to quietly desperate. By the tenth message, he could barely talk. It was so creepy it made my skin crawl. What could have frightened him so badly? I prayed that he wasn’t spiraling again. There was no way I’d find the strength to talk Cole off the ledge a second time if this was another suicide attempt.

Bracing for the worst, I tapped in his number. He answered on the first ring and broke down when he heard my voice. I was frozen as I listened to the strangled sobs coming through the line. Cole was exceedingly reserved and proud to the point of haughtiness. He despised public displays of emotion and had always criticized my lack of restraint in that regard, so this unprecedented breakdown was so shocking I didn’t know how to respond.

“They’re gone,” he said, trying to get the words out between each stuttering breath.

“Sorry?” I had no idea who or what he was talking about.

“The twins are gone,” he said brokenly.

“Cole, try to calm down,” I soothed, even though I was starting to freak out. “Did Noriko take them on a trip without telling you?”

Clearing his throat, he said, “I can’t discuss this over the phone. Please come over as soon as possible.”

He hung up before I could respond, and I stared at my phone for several minutes. This didn’t sound like another ploy to grab my attention. Cole was obviously frightened and at his wits’ end. He would have never called me if he could handle the situation on his own. Respecting our boundaries had been his top priority since our last discussion. This call was a serious breach, so I had to go and find out what in the hell had happened in the last four days.

Everything had been working out so beautifully since that horrible suicide attempt over a year and a half ago. He’d come to terms with our breakup, done the right thing by divorcing his wife, and had even begun seeing someone. His future was certainly much brighter than it had been for a long time, and now this. Christ, would he ever find peace?

I tried calling Trent, but it went to voice mail. I gave him an abridged version of the last fifteen minutes and hoped he’d listen to his messages before rushing home to fuck the lights out of me. Finding me gone might set him off again, and I wanted to warn him so he wouldn’t be disappointed.

Opting for a cab instead of the subway, I stewed in traffic far longer than necessary. The underground would have been a better choice, but it was too late to do anything about it. By the time the cabbie delivered me to Cole’s apartment, I was a wreck. My imagination was doing a number on me, and I envisioned blood and entrails everywhere. It was easy because I’d seen it once before—the blood that is, minus the slimy guts. Cole had tried to commit seppuku during some pretty tough times. It had been a really close call, but thankfully, he’d made a full recovery mentally as well as physically. Nonetheless, it didn’t stop me from picturing the worst.

I caught myself digging my nails into my jean-clad thighs and shook my hand in annoyance. Dammit, would I ever be rid of this nasty form of pain management? Just when I thought I was permanently cured of my cutting, shit would happen, and I’d catch myself wanting to break skin. It was my knee-jerk reaction to stress, an impulse I’d been struggling with for years.

I pulled out the keys Cole had given me long ago. The locks had never been changed, and he’d never asked for their return. Babysitting had become part of my weekly routine, and getting in and out of the place without bothering Cole was much easier than waiting for someone to open the door.

The apartment was pristine and as quiet as a library. The only noise breaking the silence was the sound of Freddie’s nails on the hardwood floor as he came to the door to greet me. He was Cole’s guide dog and had known me from the start of his partnership with his master.

Sticking his head into his favorite spot in between my legs, he wagged his tail happily as I rubbed behind his ears. “What’s going on with Daddy, boy? Will ya take me to him?”

He woofed and then spun around, leading me to Cole’s bedroom. The lights were off, but that was normal around here. Blind people never bothered turning them on. It had been a bone of contention when we lived together, as I was constantly bashing into furniture when he’d forget I needed to see. This time I didn’t bother to switch on the lamps, letting the overhead from the hallway spill into his room. He was lying on the bed, fully clothed and intact. I didn’t see any blood or knives and heaved a sigh of relief. Perching on one side of him, I grabbed his hand and gently squeezed.

“I’m here.”

“Thank God,” he sighed, turning toward my voice.

“What’s going on, Cole?”

He sat up and ran long fingers through his hair, pushing the thick mane away from his face. He groped for the covered elastic on the nightstand and gathered the strands into a loose tail at the back of his neck. “You can switch on the lamp if you want.”

I did, and when the room lit up, I could see that he’d had some sort of shock. He was unshaven, a rare sight considering his fastidious nature, and the scraggly stubble made him look ashen and defeated. The lines around his mouth were more pronounced and his clothes were wrinkled, another sign that his world had been turned upside down. Usually the color of freshly brewed tea, Cole was a perfect combination of Irish and Japanese genes that had been my undoing for years. Under normal circumstances, he was an attractive man who’d hardly aged since we met years ago except for the jet-black hair that was now more salt than pepper. In a year or two, the white would overtake the entire lot, making him a silver fox before his fortieth birthday, a striking contrast to his youthful physique. His eyes, however, remained unchanged. They were still the same compelling blue that bore into me and made me catch my breath, even if he couldn’t see a damn thing. It always felt like he had a fast track into my soul.

“Thanks for coming, Sloan.”

“You want to tell me what’s making you so miserable?”

“Let me show you instead,” he said.

He stood and slipped his stocking feet into his leather slippers. Freddie and I followed him out the apartment to the bank of elevators. He hit the button for the twentieth floor, where Noriko lived with the boys and a Japanese nanny. The door to her apartment was unlocked, and I gasped when we walked in. The place had been ransacked.

“Were you robbed?” I asked immediately. “Is that why the kids are gone? Did she take them somewhere to protect them?”

He shook his head and went to the kitchen. On the dinette, there was a letter written on some flimsy paper as well as a DVD in a boxed case. The words were in English, although printed with heavy black ink in a floral hand that was almost calligraphic. I assumed the DVD was a spoken version of the letter for Cole’s benefit.

“Read it,” he said, handing me the paper.

He sat with his head in his hands as I read. The blood froze in my veins when I caught the gist of the demands. Kidnapping and ransom were ugly words no matter how flowery the script. The boys and Noriko were on their way to Japan, and the only way Cole would ever see them again was if he came up with three million dollars. The rest of the letter was a long and convoluted set of instructions I couldn’t see because of the tears filling my eyes.

“Who in hell are these people, Cole?”

“Yakuza,” he whispered, spitting out the word like it was vilest thing on the planet.

“What does it mean?”

Cole raised his head and gave me a quizzical look that spoke volumes. He was an expert at making me feel dumb. “Most people recognize the name, Sloan.”

“Enlighten me.”

“It’s the biggest organized crime syndicate in Japan. They have branches all over the world.”

“Why did they pick you?”

“It seems I’m still paying for my father’s stupidity.”

“Sorry?”

“You know about Noriko’s ancestry.”

“Tell me again so I know what I’m dealing with.”

“Noriko’s biological grandmother, Mieko, lived and worked in the same okiya, or geisha house, as my grandfather’s mistress, Rieko. They became good friends, and when Mieko died in childbirth, Rieko adopted the baby, Hana, who is Noriko’s mother.”

“Right, now I remember. Your ex-wife comes from a long line of women in the service industry.” Cole’s facial expression changed. I realized at once that sarcasm and the rehashing of our painful breakup was counterproductive to this current crisis. Putting my inner bitch back in the drawer where she belonged, I apologized. “I’m sorry, Cole, that was uncalled for.”

He nodded and continued his dissertation on the whores of Kyoto. “Reiko, who’s still alive, by the way, managed to keep the geisha house afloat during the war by borrowing money from the Yakuza. Loan-sharking is a lucrative part of their organization, and they charge usurious rates of interest. Noriko was everyone’s ticket to freedom. The fee she received for becoming my surrogate paid off her own debt to the okiya, but apparently, she continued making monthly payments to try to reduce Reiko’s astronomical balance, which had compounded through the years. Noriko kept her end of the bargain while my wife, but she stopped sending the monthly payments as soon as we divorced. She thought they’d give her a pass, seeing as how she no longer had access to my income.”

“How do you know all of this?”

“Noriko said so in the DVD.”

“But wasn’t your settlement more than generous?”

“Very generous, but if you factor in a thousand dollar payment each month on an ancient debt, it begins to pale in comparison to what she could have as my wife. Unfortunately, she never told me the truth, or I would have tried to come up with a fair solution.”

“She’s good at that.”

“What?”

“Omitting the truth,” I said, forgetting my good intentions to filter. It was one thing to forgive the monstrous lies that had led to our breakup, but this was the fucking icing on the mountain of shit I’d been dealing with since Noriko came into our lives.

“I’m just as angry as you, Sloan. She had no right to keep this from me and jeopardize my family.”

“Is she in cahoots with them?”

Silently, he pushed a small box toward me. It was made of blue velvet and looked like a jeweler’s case. It took a few heartbeats for the contents to register after I opened the box, but when I realized I was looking at Noriko’s pinkie, the one that had the Cartier puzzle ring, I hurled all over the kitchen floor. My head started to spin, and I continued to retch long after I’d emptied out my gut. Cole was beside me in a second, as soon as he heard me barf. When there was nothing left to upchuck, he wiped my mouth with a napkin he’d dipped in water, then cradled my head against his waist.

“I can assure you that Noriko is not in cahoots with these people,” he said flatly. “They’ve threatened to keep sending me more of her body parts if I don’t come up with the money by the deadline.”

I stared up at him in shock. “We have to call the police, Cole.”

“I’ll never see the boys again if we do. They’ll separate them and sell them off to desperate families who’ll pay and do anything to adopt a healthy male child, especially one with Japanese genes.”

“Trent will know exactly what to do; this is right up his alley.”

“You mustn’t tell him.”

“Don’t be so damn proud!”

“This has nothing to do with pride! Don’t you think the Yakuza know about Trent and his military connections? They know everything, Sloan. The negotiations will blow up in my face as soon as I bring him into the picture.”

“Then we’ll find someone else.”

“I won’t involve the cops or the FBI.”

“Why not ask Bryce?”

“Come on, Sloan, I barely know the guy. I can’t expect him to close down his bar indefinitely.”

“I’m sure he’d be more than happy to help you out. You are in a relationship, aren’t you?”

“Really? Now’s not the time or place to be having this discussion.”

“What can I do to help?”

“Come with me to Japan. Be my eyes so I can bring them home.”

“Won’t they suspect something if you bring along an ex-lover who happens to be engaged to someone with a military background?”

“They can’t expect me to do this alone. You were my partner for years, and it’s only natural that I turn to you for help.”

“Right… of course… it makes perfect sense.” Jesus fucking Christ….

Author Bio:
Mickie B. Ashling is the alter-ego of a multifaceted woman raised by a single mother who preferred reading over other forms of entertainment. She found a kindred spirit in her oldest child and encouraged her with a steady supply of dog-eared paperbacks. Romance was the preferred genre, and historical romances topped her favorites list.

By the time Mickie discovered her own talent for writing, real life had intruded, and the business of earning a living and raising four sons took priority. With the advent of e-publishing and the inevitable emptying nest, dreams were resurrected, and the storyteller was reborn.

She stumbled into the world of men who love men in 2002 and continues to draw inspiration from their ongoing struggle to find equality and happiness in this oftentimes skewed and intolerant world.

Her novels have been called "gut wrenching, daring, and thought provoking." She admits to being an angst queen and making her men work damn hard for their happy endings.

Mickie loves to travel and has lived in the Philippines, Spain, and the Middle East but currently resides in a suburb outside Chicago.


TWITTER  /  WEBSITE  /  BLOG  /  ARe
EMAIL: mickie.ashling@gmail.com



Cutting Cords #1
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
AUDIBLE  /  iTUNES AUDIO  /  ARe

Vessel #2
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  ARe

Cleave #3
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  ARe

Cutting Out #4
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N  /  KOBO

Garda by Stacy Eaton

Title: Garda
Author: Stacy Eaton
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Release Date: February 5, 2015
Summary:
“He is my destiny."

There is a place that lies between heaven and Earth, it is called The Realm. Within this place, the Guards of Peace, known as Garda SΓ­ochΓ‘na, learn to guide and protect the ones that live below until they are called home.

Officer Corey Hamilton is dedicated to being the best that she can be, in uniform and out. Her loving nature, compassionate thoughts, and warrior strength make her the perfect candidate to join the Garda SΓ­ochΓ‘na and spend her eternity protecting and guiding others.

Just before Corey dies in a line-of-duty accident, she meets Officer Mitchell O’Reilly. Her feelings for him may change her destiny, but not for the better, as she falls in love with this married man. Brock, Corey’s personal Garda, will bring her home to The Realm and attempt to train her for her future, even while she still fights for her past.

Will Brock be able to direct Corey down the right path, or will she cross the line and fall from grace?

Join Corey, Mitchell, and Brock for an emotional and heart-pounding adventure that is sure to make you wonder if angels are really guiding us in our everyday lives.


A tremor passed down my spine as I realized what he must mean, “I’m dead.” I spun back to the younger man, his fierce sea foam gaze observing me closely.

“Yes, you are.”

I swallowed and turned away. I watched a man fall to his knees, the pain on his face so evident that I wanted to comfort him. I felt like I had to help him, and I took a step forward.

Brock materialized in front of me, blocking my path. “Not now, Coralenna. We must go.”

I jumped back into a fighting stance, my arms up, my hands lightly fisted. “How did you do that?”

A small chuckle came from behind me before Brock answered, “I just can, you will be able to soon, too. It is time to leave.”

“Where are we going?”

“Home, Coralenna, we are taking you home.”

Montgomery stepped up beside me and smiled pleasantly. Without thought, I returned his easy smile, feeling at peace until I glanced over the scene again.

“Did anyone else die?” I watched people running around. The man was now on his hands and knees, his head bowed as if he were crying. Was he crying for me? Why?

“No, you saved the child,” Montgomery answered.





Author Bio:
Stacy has been a full-time police officer since 2000. Her current assignment is as Detective of her small town department.  She enjoys crime scene investigation; taking a passion in putting the pieces together to figure out the crime. She is also a business owner where she helps people get the awareness out for the causes they care most about. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for her local Domestic Violence Center. She is a mother of two, a son proudly serving in the United States Navy and a tween daughter who is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and loves cheerleading. Her husband is also in law enforcement. She loves music and photography. Stacy has published 9 novels to date, with several more coming out in 2015.


FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
PINTEREST  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS



Brought to you by: