Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Random Tales of Christmastime Part 5


Love's Design by RJ Scott
Summary:
Can Christmas be the time when Kirby finally stops running and allows himself to fall in love with the man who saves his life?

CIA Agent Stefan Mortimer is cooling his heels in the UK until he can go home. Taking on easy assignments with Bodyguards Inc. seems like a good solution to keep him sane. He's used to life throwing him curveballs, and it’s just another day at the office when he rescues Kirby Devlin and his niece and nephew. Now he has to keep Kirby and the kids alive and stay professional.

Kirby Devlin has one priority; keeping his small family safe. On the run, and facing danger at every turn, Kirby finally runs out of places to hide on a snowy December day at an Edinburgh train station. Stefan comes to the rescue, saves him and the children. Is it possible that Kirby finally has someone to trust?

Now, if only it would be as easy for Kirby to trust Stefan with his heart.

Click Here to Check Out the Bodyguard's Inc Series


I will say that Kirby and Stefan may not be my favorite couple working at Bodyguards, Inc but they are still completely and utterly adorable that ranks them near the top.  Kirby may feel like he's floundering when it comes to taking care of his niece and nephew but he is doing what is most important, he's keeping them safe, keeping them loved, and doing everything he can to keep them fed.  Which is where Stefan comes into the picture, perhaps reluctantly but he still steps up and does what he does best, kicks a little ass and protects the hurt and innocent, although he may question Kirby's innocence he knows the little ones are.  RJ Scott has done it again and this time she's wrapped it in a big, sexy, hunky, beautiful Christmas bow.

RATING: 

Daybreak by Keira Andrews
Summary:
Lucas and Nate enjoyed eight steamy nights of forbidden romance last year at Hanukkah in Eight Nights. Now after months of long-distance dating, they're living in their own apartment in Greenwich Village and beginning a new life together. Lucas hates lying to Nate's family about the true nature of their relationship, but being with Nate is worth it.

They revel in having a private place to explore their relationship -- and every inch of each other -- but Nate and Lucas soon discover that living together isn't always perfect. When an unexpected betrayal shatters their tentative happiness, they struggle to find their way back together as the holidays approach once more. As their first magical nights together become a distant memory, can Lucas and Nate's relationship survive the break of day?

Publisher's Note: This book contains explicit sexual content, graphic language, and situations that some readers may find objectionable: male/male sexual practices, BDSM dungeon scene (non-participating).

Christmas of White by Devon Rhodes
Summary:
Can Blaise coming back to Montana turn Owen’s blue Christmas into a warm, shared Christmas of white?

Owen never thought he'd see the all-too tempting veterinary intern from the previous summer again, until his brother drops the bombshell that not only is Blaise returning, but he'll need to stay in Owen's house again until he gets settled. He's the bachelor uncle in their ranching family, and if people know what that means, no one talks about it. He can't be gay, no matter what happened in the barn last time Blaise was here…

Blaise made the life-changing decision to relocate to Montana for many reasons but with one clear goal in mind—to convince Owen of what they could share if he would only let Blaise in. He's prepared himself for a long siege, but with the help of his scheming best friend, Owen's brother, a donkey and a lot of snow, an early Christmas present might just be in store for them both.

The Winter Spirit by Indra Vaughn
Summary:
Nathaniel O’Donnelly likes his life quiet, his guests happy, and his ghosts well-behaved.

Although a boyfriend wouldn’t go amiss. Someone to share his beautiful B&B with, even if it is in the middle of nowhere and he’s long past the wrong side of thirty. Problem is, Nathaniel's living with a ghost who thinks he’s cupid, and whose arrows fly a little too straight.

Gabriel Wickfield had the unfortunate luck of dying before his time, and now he’s stuck trying to make romance happen to earn his right to move along. Not that he’s bored in the meantime--Nathaniel is just too easy to tease. And also a little bit scrumptious…

With the curse reaching its expiration date, Gabriel needs to make this final match this Christmas. Without it, nothing but darkness awaits.

Love can conquer all, but can it beat death?


This tale's Christmas setting might make the heart tug a little more but the truth is this story would have wormed it's way in even without the Christmas element.  Gabriel's time may be nearing an end but he definitely seems to want to make the most of what he has left and Nathaniel is finally opening up to what is front of him.  The Winter Spirit has a little bit of everything but I won't lie, you will most likely want to have a box of tissues handy, I know I did.

RATING: 

Out by Harper Fox 
Summary:
**This book as also available through the Comfort and Joy anthology**

It’s Christmas at Edinburgh’s magnificent Barlinney Hotel, and chief housekeeper Cosmo Grant is in charge of the festivities. He’s already got his hands full when handsome Ren Vaudrey checks in. Ren is an accountant, or so he says, and he’s asking questions about his missing colleague, Sam.

It soon turns out that Ren is an undercover cop. Cosmo wants to help him – Ren is kind as well as handsome as hell – but unless he can do it within the Barlinney’s walls, Cosmo is stuck. A victim of crippling agoraphobia, he’s been a prisoner in this gilded cage for over a year.

There’s another problem too. Ren clearly adores his partner Sam. In the face of his rising attraction for this man, Cosmo has to bear in mind that Ren may be already taken. Cosmo gathers all his courage to do the right thing by Ren and Sam – and as a glittering Christmas Eve descends on the city, finds himself confronting his very darkest fears.


Poor Cosmo has a hard time dealing with life outside the walls of his home and the hotel where he works, and the reason is understandable.  I can't say I would have the same reaction but it is not out of the realm of possibility.  Sometimes though it's just a question of timing and companionship and when Ren walks in to the hotel Cosmo's life is never the same again.  That's about he extent of what I can say without leaking spoilers but I will say that it's emotional, heartwarming, suspenseful, and just a plain fun Christmasy read.

RATING: 




Love's Design
Chapter One
“What the hell is he doing?” Stefan murmured as the man in the cheap suit moved out of the shadows and back into them again.

Tall, with his hands pressed deep into his jacket pockets, the man crossed from one side of the large empty waiting room to the other. His expression was one of determination, but his posture screamed anger, and it was difficult to tell which was winning from this distance.

Stefan was killing time at Waverley, the train station in Edinburgh, waiting for the train holding his latest babysitting job to depart, and all he could focus on was this one man. Typical that even when he was supposed to be having a quiet time with his Kindle, Stefan spotted shit that just wasn’t right.

Call it boredom, call it a sixth sense, but the man in the suit was up to something. And he was one of three. He had two friends along for the ride: a tall guy and another as wide as he was tall, with his head disappearing into his thick neck. Abruptly, Stefan knew he had been looking at the man in charge of two heavies. Both Tall Guy and Neck Guy had disappeared into the bathrooms five minutes ago and had yet to come back out.

The Boss, as Stefan called him in his head, kept pausing outside the bathrooms, where a sign proclaimed “Cleaning in Progress”. The waiting area was sprawling, drafty and empty of all but a few diehards, probably those waiting for late arrivals, which were mostly delayed, due to snow.

Stefan knew something was going down in there and he fairly itched with the need to get involved.

“Not my circus, not my monkeys,” he muttered to himself. Kyle would kill him if he got involved with something that would call the wrath of MI6 down on them again. As it was, Kyle was trying to calm down the CIA after the whole missing-scientist incident, and almost had them agreeing to take Stefan back so that Stefan could hunt down whoever fucked up and exposed the scientist they’d had under protection.

Three suspicious men in a near-deserted railway station weren’t his problem. His problem was the annoyingly entitled investment banker who was now safely on a train with his next bodyguard, on his way to London. A glance at the board had Stefan wincing. He’d hoped to be gone from the station by now, but the snow was causing delays and some cancelations, and the London train would be the last on the board scheduled to leave, four hours late at nearly 10:00 p.m. The rest of the departures were listed with large signs saying everything had been canceled. No wonder the station was empty. And yes, he was bored.

One thing Stefan Mortimer didn’t do well, was sitting on his ass doing nothing. I’m bored. I need to get laid, and I need to go home. Not necessarily in that order. He’d been stuck in the UK for going on half a year now, and, by necessity, had slipped into working for Kyle at Bodyguards Inc. Not that he needed the money, but he was a man of action, and sitting around with his thumb up his ass was not the way he spent his time.

He sipped at his coffee, and the cold, bitter brew furred his tongue. He’d left it too long to drink while studying the dynamics of the man and his two bodyguards, and the drink hadn’t been that amazing to start with. Brits didn’t know how to make coffee, not like back home.

The man he’d been watching stopped pacing and checked his watch, then, with a brief look around the area, pushed through the bathroom door. He wouldn’t be able to see Stefan from that angle, not properly; to all intents and purposes Stefan looked like he was sleeping and was behind a metal grate enclosing a small area where he was hiding from having to interact with people.

As soon as that bathroom door shut, and with no real conscious decision, Stefan was on his feet, his hand automatically going for his weapon, then falling away when his brain caught up with his muscle memory. Scotland. No guns.

As he walked to the bathroom, he unzipped his jacket and flexed his arms a little to make sure he had full movement. He didn’t know what was happening behind that door, but he might need to think on his feet. Or, he might have to make a big deal out of washing his hands and retreating, if indeed nothing was going on.

He slipped through the door and waited just inside. The bathroom smelled of bleach, and the lights were low. There was a small entry area with long mirrors—two had large cracks in them—hand dryers, and an off-center arch that led through to the cubicles and urinals. That was where the noise was coming from. A rhythmic banging… and a whimper.

Either I’m walking in on an orgy, or shit is going down.

Stefan looked around for a weapon, anything he could use. Short of smashing a mirror, he had nothing, and only in the movies was smashing a mirror a good idea. Last time he’d tried it, he’d cut his arm open. He still had the scar to prove it. Stefan pulled back his shoulders and sauntered around the corner and into the main bathroom as if he had no better place to be. Like he belonged. Pacing Man from outside had his back to Stefan, Neck-Guy the same, but there was no sign of the victim or the third goon.

The third man came out of the last cubicle dragging something—a body—and looked directly at Stefan with a shocked expression. “Private party,” he said, brooking no argument. “Fuck off.”

Stefan slumped a little and made himself look as small and innocent as he could. “I just need to—”

“You need to leave.”

Stefan saw the blood, the body, saw the muscle-bound man turn and walk his way, observed Pacing Man step toward him as well. He knew exactly where they all were.

“What’s wrong?” Stefan asked. “Who’ve you got there? Your boyfriend?”

He knew better than to ask the bad people questions, but this seemed like a wisecracking kind of moment to him and he needed them all coming toward him.

Elephant-Necked Guy got to him first, a meaty hand on his shoulder, gripping hard and attempting to propel Stefan back out of the bathroom. Stefan allowed him to step forward, and then mid-step, when he was off balance, Stefan twisted his leg, caught the man behind the knee, and had him crashing into the urinals. His huge head smacked the porcelain, rendering him unconscious.

“Oops,” Stefan said. “My bad.”

Pacing Man stepped back in shock, and bodyguard two dropped the victim’s lifeless body before assuming a stance, clearly thinking this was coming down to a fight of some sort. Stefan steadied himself, waiting until he was gripped, and he had the second man unconscious at his feet with the judicious use of a bathroom door, a toilet, and a paper dispenser.

That just left Pacing Man.

Who, for fuck’s sake, had a gun on him.

“This is the UK, you know,” Stefan said, his breathing a little heavy. It had been a long time since he’d gotten physical with anyone, and it was showing. “No guns.”

“Fuck you,” Pacing Man said. “Turn around and leave.”

Stefan glanced at the body. Noticed movement, saw eyes open through blood, and shook his head. “Not happening.”

Pacing Man shook his gun. “I’ll shoot you.”

Stefan made a hundred small observations. Pacing Man was pale, a little shaky, the gun not quite so steady, but he had the gleam of something in his eyes, a confidence. Was he high? The victim groaned, made an effort to stand, grabbing at the slick tiled wall to find purchase.

“Help,” the beaten man pleaded.

“Why are you hitting him?” Stefan asked. He didn’t know what was going on here, but a gun against fists wasn’t a fair fight. He didn’t care why the guy on the floor had been beaten, because, whatever the reason for beating someone to a pulp, it didn’t sit right with him. Stefan stepped forward suddenly and Pacing Man reared back, fear in his face, his hand lax, and Stefan relieved him of his gun in the blink of an eye.

Pacing Man’s eyes widened, just before they shut as Stefan slammed his head against the bathroom door. Pacing Man twisted in his hold, taking Stefan by surprise, Stefan’s gun hand and the man’s head getting caught by the door as it slammed on them. Stefan felt the agonizing pain of mashed muscles and skin at the same time as Pacing Man slumped to the floor, unconscious.

Which left only Stefan and the victim awake.

Stefan leaned over and helped the bloody man stand, taking his weight even as they stumbled back against the wall.

“Help me,” the man said.

“Trying, buddy, really trying.” He attempted to hold the man upright though his wrist throbbed. He knew the pain would ease in a minute—he’d had injuries like this before—but, just at this moment, it hurt like a bitch.

The man exhaled noisily and wiped his face with his sleeve, blood smearing over pale, freckled skin.

“I need to get them,” he muttered.

“What’s your name?” Stefan began to move them out of the bathroom area.

“Help me,” the man said again.

Stefan helped him over the bodies on the floor; Elephant-Necked Guy was mumbling and groaning, and they only had a few minutes to get out of the bathroom before Stefan would have to hurt his fists again.

He reached awkwardly for the dropped gun and placed it in the small of his back. They needed to get the fuck out of here. He wasn’t sure he’d be up to taking on the big guy in there with only one hand in use and holding up the victim too, and he sure as hell wasn’t using a gun. “What’s your name?”

“Kirby,” the victim said.

“Okay, Kirby, let’s get you out of here.”

They made it out of the bathroom and out to the waiting room. Luckily for Stefan and Kirby, it was as empty as it was five minutes ago. Swiftly, Stefan moved Kirby along, but then Kirby balked and stopped.

“Wait,” he said on a painful exhale.

“What? No waiting. We need to get you to a hospital.” Hell, we need to get me to a hospital.

“Please,” Kirby whispered. He yanked himself away from Stefan, and the only thing stopping him from hitting the floor was the departures board support.

Stefan grabbed him to stop him from falling, intensely aware of the blood all over Kirby’s sweater and jacket. Kirby was bleeding, but from God knew where. Stefan had seen a cop here earlier, doing his rounds, or maybe it was a security guard. They’d exchanged nods, but the man was nowhere to be seen now.

“The hospital,” Stefan said firmly. He’d call the cops once he knew Kirby wasn’t bleeding internally.

“No.” Kirby shook his head, his eyes closing. “Help me.” Using Stefan as a crutch, he lean-dragged himself away from the support.

Stefan sighed noisily. He had half an eye on the bathroom door behind them and half an eye on every other fucking thing. Who the hell was this Kirby guy, and why were three men—well, one at least—beating on him?

“Help you how? You need a hospital.”

“No, they’ll be killed. Please.”

Who? Who’ll be killed? “What do you need me to do?”

“To the door, to get them,” Kirby mumbled.

They made it to a side corridor, and a door marked Staff Only.

Kirby leaned on the door. “Thank you.”

“What’s in there?” Stefan asked. Kirby’s thank-you sounded suspiciously like a dismissal. “Drugs? Is this a drugs thing?”

Kirby shook his head, and Stefan took the time to catalog the contusions under the blood. The blood on his face was from a split lip and a wicked-looking cut over one eye, and it had matted the long dark hair that fell around his face. He was skinny, short, and weighed nothing, but there was a fire in his bright emerald eyes.

“Thank you,” he said again and then waited for Stefan to leave.

“Not going anywhere.” Stefan was following this through to find out what the hell was hidden in the room. He had a gun in his possession, a man who’d been beaten, and three goons who were clearly after something. Stefan wasn’t letting this go.

A hundred thoughts must have passed through Kirby’s head, and they all telegraphed in his expression. Fear, anger, and finally resignation—at least those were the ones that Stefan read.

“Who the hell are you?” Kirby’s words were mumbled around a swelling mouth.

Stefan thought on his feet and pulled out the ID that he never left at home, realizing at the last minute that he’d have to reach across his body, because his right hand was way past sore. “Stefan Mortimer, CIA.” He waved it in front of Kirby, who grabbed at it and held it still.

“Fuck,” Kirby muttered.

“So, tell me what’s going on?”

Kirby leaned back against the door, and he pushed a hand into his pocket.

Stefan tensed. What was Kirby trying to retrieve? He only relaxed when Kirby pulled out a security card, which he pressed against the keypad.

“I stole a card.” Kirby wasn’t apologizing, merely explaining. The door lock released, and Kirby went into the room, with Stefan close behind. They shut the door and Stefan flicked on the lights. He didn’t know what he would see, but when boxes moved of their own accord, he tensed. What the hell?

Kirby stumbled toward the boxes, fell to his knees, and gathered two small children into his arms. Stefan felt himself go slack-jawed.

Children?

Not drugs, then.

The little girl was making that noise Stefan’s nieces made when they were just about to go into full-on, blubbering tears, and Kirby held her closer, muttering words under his breath but gripping the small girl tightly.

Stefan stepped forward to ask questions, He stopped himself. Someone else would deal with this; someone who was better placed to care about the man who had been beaten up. The same man who held these two children like they were the most precious things in the world.

And now the little girl was sobbing into Kirby’s neck. Stefan sighed inwardly, his innate sense of making things right pushing to the front.

“What is this?” he asked, glancing back to the door, but there was no danger, nothing chasing them. No one had seen them come into the room.

Kirby said nothing.

“Kirby?” Stefan crouched down by the three of them, reaching out a hand toward the crying girl before drawing it back.

She was all about Kirby and probably wouldn’t want a stranger talking to her. Finally, Kirby released his tight hold and opened his eyes—deep, remorse-filled green. He made to stand, off balance with the added weight of the girl and what looked like a slightly older boy hanging around his neck. Stefan held out a hand, but Kirby managed to stand without his help. Evidently he was used to the extra ballast.

“I am so sorry,” he said. He had a soft Scottish accent, more obvious now he was calmer. Maybe Kirby was from Edinburgh itself, or at least close by. “I had to leave Louise and Andy in here when I saw them.”

“You mean the guys looking to take you out?”

Kirby shook his head. “You shouldn’t get involved. We’ll be fine now.” Stefan saw he was talking directly to the young boy who nodded mutely. This must be Andy.

“You might have a concussion.” Stefan’s field training kicked in. “We need to get you to a hospital.”

Kirby smiled up at Stefan, although he grimaced with the pain of it and the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I don’t feel dizzy, just sore.”

Stefan wondered how much of a lie that was. Was he used to being beaten up? Hell, he couldn’t be more than a buck-sixty and at least six inches shorter than Stefan was.

“Just keep an eye on dizziness and feeling sick,” Stefan finally offered.

The little girl’s sobs had now reduced to hiccups, and huge blue eyes peeped at Stefan over Kirby’s shoulder: wet eyes with long lashes and tears sparkling in them.

“You’re bleeding,” Andy whispered. He touched Kirby’s face. “Did McLeod do that to you?”

“No.”

Andy added something with resigned perception. “Was it Bull or Tommy?”

Kirby nodded. “It’s okay, though,” he said. “This man helped me, helped us.”

Andy slipped out of Kirby’s hold and looked up at Stefan.

Stefan was tall, a couple of inches over six feet and aware that he was probably intimidating, considering his white sweater was darkened with Kirby’s blood. He copied what Kirby had done, crouching low again, and held out his good hand. “Hello.”

Andy held out a hand and shook Stefan’s gently, his touch light and wary. “I’m Andy, and this is my sister Louise. She’s four, nearly five, and I’m seven.”

“Nice to meet you, Andy. What do you say we get Kirby to the hospital, huh?”

“We’re not going to the hospital,” Kirby snapped.

Andy winced at the harsh and unyielding tone of it. “No hospital if Uncle Kirby says no.” He pulled back his thin shoulders as he spoke.

Stefan didn’t like to see a kid wince that way, in fear, and he recognized the bravery that followed. He looked at Kirby, at the blood, at the pale wash of heat on his high cheekbones and the pain that bracketed his eyes. “Yes, we are. You, me, the kids, are all getting checked out.”

“I can’t,” Kirby said a little desperately. “If we do….”

“He’ll find us,” Andy finished.

Stefan looked from Kirby to the little boy and back. “Who will? One of the guys I knocked out?”

Andy’s eyes widened. “You did? All of them? Bull as well?”

“Is Bull the big guy with no neck?” Stefan asked.

Andy nodded. “Aye.”

“Yeah,” Stefan said. “Even him.”

Andy’s eyes widened. “Really?”

Kirby moved between Stefan and Andy. He evidently wanted to cut off the fledgling hero worship. “We need to go,” he said. “The bairns and I, we need to go. Now.”

Stefan translated the word bairns to mean children. “Sorry, can’t do that,” he replied. “I need some answers, and I need them now before I call Security.”

If anything, Kirby’s face paled further at those words and Stefan saw his gaze dart guiltily to the door.

“I’m just taking my niece and nephew for a break,” Kirby said quickly and started to brush past Stefan.

“I don’t believe you.” Stefan gripped Kirby’s arms, startled at the sheer fear in the other man’s eyes and wondering whether, if he looked hard enough, he could find a glimmer of guilt.

“Let. Me. Go.” Kirby’s words had an edge to them, an edge of violence, and it was all Stefan could do not to scoop up the kids there and then. Violence in a man with children this small didn’t bear thinking about. “I don’t know who you are, but you need to leave me and the bairns alone,” Kirby said firmly, drawing himself as tall as he was able. “He can’t have them, and I swear if you try anything, I will call Security myself.”

“Who can’t have them? Is someone after you? Is it Child Protection? What are you trying to do?” Stefan asked.

“Leave us alone,” Kirby forced out, rubbing soothing motions into the girl’s back as she whimpered at his raised voice.

Stefan realized the more Kirby talked, the more involved Stefan became. Clearly there was an agenda here, and Stefan wasn’t sure he wanted to be a part of it. He wanted to know why a man and two children were being chased down. What was Kirby’s connection to the kids? And who the hell were Bull, Tommy, and Pacing Man? Kirby would be going to the hospital if Stefan had his way, but first things first, Stefan needed to assess this situation.

“I’m calling Security,” he decided. Something was wrong here, and he had to get the authorities involved.

Stefan didn’t see Kirby move or put the little girl down, but he sure as hell felt the punch that snapped his head back. He immediately went on the defensive, grabbing Kirby, twisting him around, and pressing him to the wall.

Kirby yelped in pain, but Stefan wasn’t letting go just yet. He felt tiny fists on his thighs.

“Leave him alone, let him go!”

Both kids were thumping him. Stefan loosened his hold, watching as Kirby slid down the wall, and the two children moved to stand between him and Kirby.

“Please,” Kirby said, “No police.”

The way he said police—poe-leece—was so soft, and pleading was clear in every cell of him.

“Don’t touch my uncle,” the boy snapped, fierceness in his expression.

Stefan held up his hands. “I won’t touch him.”

“Let us go,” Kirby murmured. “Go away so I can find somewhere safe.”

Stefan thought on his feet and crouched again, so he was on the same level as the kids. “I can help you, but you have to tell me something first.”

The boy frowned but didn’t lower his fists or step away from Kirby. “What?” he asked suspiciously.

“Is he really your uncle?”

The frown didn’t drop. “Yes.” The boy nudged the girl. “Tell him, Lou.”

“Tell him what?” The girl, Lou, didn’t have her fists up. Her eyes were bright with tears, but she was as brave as her brother, standing as a barrier between Kirby and Stefan.

“Tell him you want to stay with Uncle Kirby.”

She didn’t answer in words; she nodded, then slipped back and into Kirby’s arms.

Stefan eyed the tableau critically. “Okay, I’ll get you all away from here, as long as your uncle promises to see a doctor.”

“I will,” Kirby said. “Let us go, and I will go straight to a hospital when I can.”

Stefan didn’t like to point out the contradiction in going straight there and the added “when I can.” He would cross that bridge when he came to it.

“This is how it’s going to go,” Stefan began. “We’re leaving.” He stared past the small boy and into Kirby’s green eyes, wondering what kind of man Kirby was.

“We’re getting a train,” Kirby said.

“Not tonight, you’re not. They shut the station down, issues with snow.”

“Shit.” The curse was loud and made Lou wince.

“Why do those men want you, Kirby? What did you do, and whose kids are these?” There, that was all the questions Stefan had at this moment.

Kirby stared at him, holding the girl tight. Maybe Kirby wasn’t bleeding internally, but he looked like shit. Kirby stumbled to stand, using the wall to support himself. Stefan took a step closer, and, in response, Kirby moved to one side, his hands on Andy’s shoulders, his legs hitting boxes. He looked scared and defiant, and he stepped forward so he was between Stefan and the children as much as he could be.

Andy still had his hands clenched at his sides, and there was a scowl on his face. “McLeod hurt Daddy, stuck a knife in him and made him fall down,” Andy said. “We saw him do it.”

Stefan looked from Andy to Kirby and put two and two together immediately. The kid’s dad was knifed, and the uncle was taking them from Edinburgh? Jesus, this was worse than he thought. “The children are witnesses to something?”

Kirby nodded mutely, and the horror of what was happening here hit Stefan. This was stupid; they needed to call the cops.

“An’ Uncle Kirby was keeping us safe,” Andy added. “Don’t you hurt him.”

Stefan shook his head, as struck dumb as Kirby was. The pain in his wrist was more of a dull ache, so it clearly wasn’t that bad. Either that or adrenaline was numbing him. Wouldn’t be the first time. He had to trust Kirby and his niece and nephew were in danger, and this was what Stefan did best—he handled threats, and he looked out for people.

“We need to get you out of here. Where’s your car?”

Kirby blinked at him. “We were going to…. I don’t have a car.”

“Okay. I have one. I’m in the main parking area.” He stopped talking and instead internalized all the steps needed to get Kirby and the children to his waiting car and then the authorities. By now the three men he’d dealt with would be awake. “Follow me and stay behind me. Okay?”

“Uncle Kirby?” Andy said from behind him.

“It’s okay, Andy. You remember the rules.”

“Aye, run, and if they catch me, I scream right loud, like a girl.”

The kid looked so earnest. His short dark hair was in a messy pile of sticking-up bits, his eyes were damp, but he’d spoken with complete determination.

Kirby nodded. “And stay with me.”

Andy looked up at Stefan. “You a bad guy who’s good?”

What Stefan landed himself in, he didn’t know, but hell if he was abandoning one skinny man with intriguing green eyes and two small kids.

A bad guy was not who he was. He was a typical good guy, who was quite happy being the bad guy if it kept innocent civilians safe. That was who Stefan Mortimer was.

And he was excellent at his job.

Chapter Two
Kirby held Louise tight and eased over one shoulder the backpack he’d left in the room with his niece and nephew. The burn was intense. Tommy had hit his mark each time. God knows what would have happened if Bull had joined in. Kirby should thank the heavens that Stefan had found them before he ended up a bloody mess or worse on a bathroom floor. They wanted Andy and Louise, and there was no way Kirby would crack and tell them where they were.

“Come on, Andy, he won’t hurt us,” Kirby lied. How the hell would he know what this superhero was going to do? He was CIA, but that wasn’t a cop, so he wouldn’t know who McLeod was, wouldn’t know how bad this situation was for Andy and Louise. He held out a hand to Andy, which the child took immediately.

“I’ll take the boy,” Stefan ordered, attempting to wrest Kirby’s grip from Andy.

Andy shouted a sharp “No!”

“What the hell? Stop it! For God’s sake, you’re scaring him,” Kirby snarled, his free hand coming out to block Stefan’s movement.

They stood staring at each other.

“I’m scaring him?” Stefan sounded incredulous. “How can I be scaring him? I’m trying to help him.”

“Just be gentle.” Kirby’s voice was determined, firm, but it wasn’t enough to get Stefan to stand down. At this point, Kirby wasn’t sure that anything he could say would make Stefan stand down. Kirby’s voice was low, his hand raised, palm upward, entreating Stefan not to make a fuss. As Stefan moved again, Kirby switched suddenly from simply telling to instant pleading. “Please, don’t hurt him. Just help us out of here.”

Stefan looked confused for a moment, and then, more carefully, he held out his hands. Andy looked from Kirby to Stefan before accepting the lift up. He curled into Stefan’s neck.

“Uncle Kirby?” Louise’s voice was so low that Stefan almost missed it. “I’m thirsty.”

The little girl was oblivious to most of what had happened today, but however used to the violence she was, she had to be scared and uncertain, and in turn, Kirby had to be the strong one. It broke his heart to hear her soft voice. “We’ll get you a drink soon, sweetie. You’re going to be okay?”

She nodded. Then it was clearly time to go. With the silent impasse, the tension curling between the two men, Kirby waited as Stefan opened the door a crack to peer outside.

“It’s clear,” Stefan announced.

Kirby wanted to ask him if he was sure, but he didn’t. Stefan was CIA; he must know what he was doing. More so than Kirby, general fuck-up and a waste of space, would.

Stefan turned back to him. “New rules. You stay with me, you don’t run off, we find the cops, and we sort this out.”

Kirby’s world shifted. “No, I can’t. We can’t. Please.” If the cops knew he was here, if they knew about McLeod, and Robbie, they would take one look at Kirby and take Andy and Louise. He wasn’t going to let that happen.

“What?” Stefan frowned.

“No cops, please. Just let me get them safe.”

Then what? Kirby asked himself. He didn’t even know what the fuck he was doing. Getting a train from Edinburgh to freaking anywhere hadn’t gone well so far after the snow had canceled so many departures.

“We need to report this,” Stefan persisted.

“I’ll explain everything. Just get us away.” Pain knifed through him from his chest, which Louise’s weight pressed on, and he couldn’t help the gasp of pain. “Please.”

Stefan stared at him, incredulous, and clearly two seconds away from calling emergency services and bringing the full weight of the law down on the idiot who thought he could fix everything.

“I’m not promising anything.”

“Then I will take them and run.”

“Fu—freaking idiot.” Stefan corrected his cursing. “People want to hurt you.”

“Not as much as I want to hurt them,” Kirby snapped.

Stefan’s lips tightened, He relaxed and exhaled noisily. He’d clearly read something in Kirby’s expression, probably the evidence that Kirby was not taking this to the cops.

“Okay, but the minute I think—”

“Thank you,” Kirby interrupted.

Stefan peered back out of the door. “Walk normally,” he said under his breath. “Hide your face.”

Kirby didn’t argue. He tried to walk as normally as he could despite every part of him screaming that he should run fast and far. He hid the bruises on his face and the blood that pooled at his throat behind Louise’s long hair and hoped to hell no one stopped them.

They made it out of the waiting area, and Kirby refused to look at the door to the bathrooms. What if McLeod was awake, or Tommy and Bull? With what Andy and Louise knew, those guys weren’t going to let them get away.

They crossed two roads before entering the parking lot. Kirby wanted to look around them, wanted to ensure Robbie and his goons weren’t waiting for them, but he didn’t. With absolute focus, he followed Stefan, walking just a few feet behind him, fixated entirely on the slightly limping walk that Stefan had going on.

That man was a goddamn hero; he’d dispatched McLeod and Tommy—not to mention Bull—in just a few simple movements. He was capable and clever, and he’d get them out of here. They reached a large black 4x4, and the sound of the doors unlocking was loud in the nearly empty part of the parking lot.

With quick motions, both men had the back doors open. Only then did Kirby realize there were no car seats. He closed his eyes briefly. They needed car seats. His eyes caught Stefan’s, and he knew that was the least of their worries. He strapped Louise in, watched as Stefan did the same with Andy, and then they climbed into the front.

“Please drive safely,” Kirby murmured. “Don’t hurt the bairns.”

Stefan cast him a quick glance that spoke volumes. If looks could kill, Kirby would be dead already.

Efficiently, Stefan had them out of the parking lot and onto the main road until the glow of the city receded and they were on the M8 driving southwest. Stefan kept checking his mirror.

“Are we being followed?” Kirby asked.

“No, I can’t see that we are.”

“You can drop us anywhere.” Kirby looked back at Andy and Louise, both dozing in the belts. “Soon. I don’t like them in the car without seats.”

“Seems like the least of your worries,” Stefan commented evenly. “Want to tell me what the fuck just happened?”

Kirby shook his head and faced front. “Drop us off at a bus stop or something.”

“Of course I can do that,” Stefan said.

Kirby sighed with relief; he’d been expecting Stefan to argue. “Thank you.”

“As soon as you tell me where you’re going. What bus stop should I be dropping you at?”

Shit. Kirby should have known that Stefan wasn’t letting this lie. He thought on his feet. “I have family in Jedburgh,” he lied.

“No, you don’t.”

“I do.”

“Kirby, stop. I’m not dropping you or the children anywhere for some freaking bus at nearly eleven at night. It’s freezing out there. You’d last five minutes.” They stopped at a junction, and Stefan crossed his hands on the wheel as they waited for the lights to change. He seemed to be favoring his right hand, and it looked swollen. Had he hurt it trying to help Kirby? “Stop messing about. What do you need?”

“No cops.”

“I got that. What do you need?”

“Sleep. Somewhere for the children to sleep, somewhere I can clean up. To think.”

Stefan nodded. “Finally, the truth.” He pulled into a gas station and cut the engine. “Stay here. I’ll be back in five minutes.”

Kirby nodded mutely. Where the hell would he go? Take Andy and Louise and run. But run where? Stefan had stopped in the middle of freaking nowhere, despite being on the main road. The snow was persistent but not heavy, the roads were still white with it, and anyone passing would be unlikely to pick them up. Was Stefan in there calling the police?

Stefan came back pretty quickly, with a carrier bag of stuff that he stowed next to Kirby’s seat. Kirby didn’t ask about the police; he had to trust Stefan. They left the service station and took the next road winding out into the countryside, with Stefan visibly looking for something in particular. They ended up driving for about ten minutes, and the outskirts of a small town began to emerge on the otherwise deserted road. The sign read “Livingstone,” and there was a Premier Inn. Stefan went in, paid, then drove to the rear of the hotel, parking the car under the trees by the snowdrifts against the wall, around a corner and out of sight of anyone happening to pass.

The man who had saved them had skills.

“We can go in the rear.” Stefan took the carrier bag, opened the back door and scooped up a dozing Andy, who murmured in his sleep, then woke and wriggled to be let down. Stefan let him slip to the ground as Kirby picked up the sleeping Louise. Soon the four of them had made their way through the rear entrance with their key card, and up one flight of stairs to room 210.

Kirby didn’t know what he was doing. Why did he trust this man? What secrets would he have to keep to stay safe? Fuck, how were they in a hotel room with a strange man?

What had happened to keeping his head down and staying alive?

Daybreak
A blazing waft of hot air battered Lucas McKenzie as he descended the stairs to the subway platform, and he had to resist the urge to turn around and find an air-conditioned cab. New York City was in the midst of an August heat wave, and although it was hot as Hades on the street, down in the subway it was an absolute oven.

Lucas dropped his shopping bags and paced back and forth a few feet on the platform, staring down the tunnel every few seconds, hoping to see the approaching light. Sweat dripped down his forehead, and he checked his watch for the umpteenth time. He needed to get home.

Home. It was still surreal to think of New York that way; it didn't quite feel like home yet.

He'd been living in the city for two months in a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village and had transferred to NYU. He'd taken almost all science and math courses in his first year at Brookfield, and now he was basically back to square one. Lucas knew he didn't want to be a doctor, but he still had no idea what he did want to be.

Right now, the only thing he didn't want to be was late. Lucas ran a hand through his sweat-damp blond hair and sighed loudly. He'd gone to Brooklyn to pick up a few things at Target, and if the subway didn't come soon, he wouldn't make it back to the Village in time.

Waiting for the subway was bad enough under normal circumstances, but in a hundred and ten degree heat and running late, it was excruciating. Just as he thought he might melt, a faint glow appeared at the end of the tunnel. Lucas prayed the subway would be air-conditioned, and thankfully a cold blast of air greeted him as the doors swooshed open.

Lucas sat beside a wilting woman whose blouse was dotted with sweat stains. He shuddered to think of what he looked like himself and checked the time again. He'd been planning to have a shower and clean the apartment before they arrived, but the trip to Brooklyn had taken longer than he'd anticipated. He was still getting used to the rhythms of the city.

Finally he reached the West Fourth Street station. As he climbed the stairs, the handles of the plastic shopping bags were slick in his hands and he wished the crowd would move faster. Outside, Lucas took in a long, grateful breath. Compared to the heat of the subway platforms, the air on the street seemed positively cool. Of course, it didn't take long for the stench of garbage to settle in, and Lucas hurried home past the Saturday shoppers and dog walkers.

When he rounded the corner onto his street, his heart momentarily sank. A rental van was pulled up halfway onto the sidewalk in front of his building, which meant he was indeed late. Then Nate Kramer walked around the other side of the van, and Lucas's concerns melted away.

His heart pounded at the sight of Nate. It had been two months, and Nate looked just as gorgeous as he had before going to Europe. His dark, wavy hair was a bit longer than the usual cropped cut, and his skin had a golden hue. His lean muscles and long limbs were toned under his T-shirt and jeans.

Lucas somehow resisted the urge to run toward him. Instead, he called over, walking quickly to the van and dropping his bags.

"Lucas! How are you? Hope you had a good summer." Nate's father appeared and smiled kindly as he shook his hand.

Lucas forced himself to focus on Mr. Kramer and tore his eyes away from Nate, who grinned at him. "I'm good, thank you. How was Europe?"

"Wonderful, wonderful. Very…European. Saw lots of family and you know, all the things you're supposed to see. Museums, art, old buildings."

Nate spoke up. "Great to see you again." He also offered his hand, and Lucas took it, trying not to betray the bolt of electricity that coursed through his body and shot straight to his dick.

"Well, you'll be seeing lots of Lucas now, won't you, dear?"

They all turned as Nate's mother approached from the front of the van. She smiled, but Lucas was sure he could detect some strain. He waved awkwardly. "Hi, Mrs. Kramer."

She softened and moved toward him. "Come here and give me a hug, young man." Lucas obediently opened his arms and grasped her briefly, conscious of his sweaty clothes. She kissed his cheek. "It's lovely to see you. I expect you both for dinner next weekend."

"Mom. I told you we'd visit, okay? Would you lay off?"

"I'm simply extending the invitation to Lucas, Nathaniel."

Nate snorted. "Invitation? More like direct order."

Lucas quickly intervened. "I'd love to come for dinner. I look forward to it, Mrs. Kramer."

She smiled at him. "Now that Samuel's moved out with that…young woman," she said as her face momentarily pinched with distaste, "you really could have taken his room, Lucas."

"Mom. We've gone over this. It's time for me to move out, and Lucas needs a roommate." Nate's patience with his mother appeared thin after spending the summer with her.

Lucas concentrated on keeping his face passive so he didn't betray his excitement. He couldn't believe it was actually happening. After the bliss of spring break, alone in Lucas's dorm room at Brookfield, they'd had to make do with months of late-night phone calls and furtive sex in Nate's room at Passover and during a few other weekend visits. But now they'd have their own place, where they could be together all the time.

It was going to be perfect.

"I just don't understand why both of you can't stay at the house. Why waste money on rent?" She gazed at the brown, ten-story building. "No balcony, no air-conditioning. It's just so --"

"Deanna, they're students! Don't you remember being young?" Nate's father smiled at her affectionately. "Come on, it's too hot to stand around arguing." He opened the back of the cube van and began lifting boxes out.

Mrs. Kramer patted Nate on the cheek. "Well, at least you'll be closer to the library. Don't start fooling around now that you're not at home. You'll have to fill out your law school applications before you know it."

Lucas coughed to hide his squeak of surprise, and Nate steadfastly avoided his gaze. Law school? Hadn't Nate told his mother he'd transferred to NYU's Tisch School for photography? Or had he actually stayed enrolled in his prelaw classes? Lucas heaved a box into his arms and carried it into the waiting elevator.

He kept his head down as he went back and forth to the van, suddenly anxious as the fears he'd tried to quell all summer boiled up. Nate had spent two months in Europe, which was filled with hot guys who were a hell of a lot more exciting than Lucas. Did Nate have other secrets?

When the elevator was half-full, Nate tugged Lucas's arm and called to his parents. "We'll take this load up and be back down in a minute. Take a break, Dad."

Lucas turned the elevator key and pressed the button for the seventh floor as he wiped the sweat from his forehead, grimacing. Ugh, he was a mess. European guys probably never looked like this. "There's not that much left. Why don't we just get it all done in one trip?"

As the elevator door closed with a thunk, Nate pushed Lucas against the wall. He stared intently, his fingers skimming over Lucas's face. "Because I couldn't wait another fucking second to kiss you." Then he did, and Lucas opened his mouth with a moan, reveling at the sensation of Nate's tongue sliding inside. It had been so long, and he'd almost forgotten how good it was.

Almost.

Nate reached out and turned the service key for the elevator, which clanged to a halt between floors. His hands roamed under Lucas's sticky T-shirt as they kissed desperately, only stopping to suck in air before tasting each other again. Lucas's insecurities and nagging questions evaporated into the muggy air as he held Nate close.

Grabbing Nate's ass, he ground their cocks together. They were both hard, and they groaned at the contact, even through layers of material. "Oh God, I wanna fuck you," Nate muttered, his hands everywhere, his teeth sharp on Lucas's neck. "It's been so long. I've thought about this every night for months. And every morning." He kissed Lucas again before breathing deeply. "Some afternoons too. A few evenings."

Lucas laughed and his chest swelled with joy and love. Wrapping his leg around Nate's hip, Lucas increased the sweet pressure. They were only dry humping, but his balls tingled and he knew he wouldn't last. Nate pressed him against the wall, thrusting his hips. They both dripped with sweat now in the small confines of the elevator, and they moved against each other frantically, kissing. Then Nate stopped and shuddered, moaning softly as his body jerked against Lucas.

After a moment, he dropped to his knees, yanking at the button and zipper on Lucas's shorts. Nate only had a chance to suck him deeply into his mouth before Lucas came, fingers tangled in Nate's curls. Nate swallowed every drop before Lucas slid down to the floor as well, barely squeezing in beside the stack of boxes.

He kissed Nate, tasting himself on Nate's lips and tongue. "I missed you," Lucas whispered, pressing their foreheads together.

"I'm not sure if I was clear, but I missed you too." Nate sat back on his heels. "Guess we should finish moving me in so we can send my parents on their way."

"Huh? Oh, right." Lucas had almost forgotten. He smiled wickedly. "What will we do with ourselves once they're gone?"

Nate smirked. "Hmm. Nothing springs to mind, but I'm sure we'll come up with something." He glanced down. "Got a pair of shorts I can borrow? I'll tell my parents I was too hot." He waggled his eyebrows. "I'm sure you agree."

Laughing, Lucas kissed him again and they struggled to their feet in the cramped space. Giddy with happiness, he turned the key, and the elevator lurched into life, continuing upward.

Christmas of White
Blaise was coming back.

Apparently for good.

The usual din from his nephew and nieces eating Thanksgiving dinner around the kitchen table faded into white noise as the world receded around him. Owen struggled to process Kent’s unexpected news—not only was his brother taking on a partner in his up-until-now solo large animal veterinary practice, but it was to be the very man Owen’d thought of every day for the past year. Or should he say, tried not to think of every day.

Blaise Wilcox.

Before Blaise, Owen’d had no idea men like him existed outside of movies and books. Long and lean, as tall as Owen but much slimmer, he kept in shape by running—even marathons, Owen had heard. He’d surreptitiously watched Blaise running the ranch roads during his internship that summer, those fit legs chewing up the distances, and had to admit it was obvious he was a natural. Just how he planned to keep it up in the forbidding Montana winter, Owen had no idea.

Blaise had landed in his house for the summer a year ago. Since Owen had plenty of room living alone on his part of the ranch, he usually housed the veterinary interns his brother periodically took on. Owen could tell from the first hello that Blaise was different from the rest—for one thing, he was around Owen’s age and had already been a practicing DVM for years. But that was the least of the differences. He’d had no idea that every facet of his existence was about to be turned on its ear.

Blaise had bullied Owen into keeping recyclable goods lying around for weeks until he could faithfully and happily run them into the city to the recycling center. He drove a hybrid, didn’t eat meat—this mystified Owen, who’d grown up in a family that ate meat three meals a day, how could that be healthy?—and walked around barefoot whenever he could get away with it. Blaise always bypassed the general groceries for the very small organic foods selection and had spoken with pleasure about his composting and year-round gardening back home in Oregon.

His shoulder-blade length, dark blond hair was usually pulled back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, and he wore wire-rimmed glasses through which his sky-blue eyes invariably regarded the world with humor and interest—when he wasn’t wearing his stylish prescription sunglasses, that was.

In other words, he was the antithesis of every man Owen had ever known.

And he was gay.

It was this last fact which had, surprisingly, been the easiest to deal with when Owen had gotten to know Blaise. After all, it wouldn’t affect him any—but trying to plan meals without meat? Rinsing out cans and crushing them instead of tossing them in the trash? That was a pain in the ass.

And Blaise was unrepentantly gay. Oh, he didn’t swish or anything. In fact to look at him, he was as masculine as any other guy…other than the longish hair. But he openly talked about boyfriends he’d had, admired athletes on the television when Owen had a game on, and had been nothing more than polite to every woman Owen had seen him interact with.

And then there had been that time in the barn…

The air between them had been simmering all day long, and the hot weather didn’t help one bit, because while they were both in work jeans and boots for the task, they’d long ago lost their shirts. Blaise might look slim with clothes on, but he had a tight, defined musculature that was definitely masculine and made Owen a bit self-conscious of his own slightly beefy torso.

It was Sunday and technically a day off—at least as much a day off as a rancher and a vet could get, that was—but they’d quickly gotten stir crazy. So Owen had decided to work on clearing out one of the extra stalls he’d been using for storage in the barn. Most of the stuff that had been tossed in there had another home or didn’t really need keeping, plus an extra stall might come in handy as overflow if Kent needed him to keep an animal for observation while Blaise was still here. Blaise had soon wandered out and joined him. He was a hard worker and there wasn’t much conversation between them, but every once in a while Owen would catch himself staring at Blaise as he lifted and stretched… It was like his eyes had a mind of their own. Not even the fear of getting caught ogling kept his gaze from repeatedly straying to his house guest.

Fuck.

The Winter Spirit
I glared at the mirror of my en-suite bathroom, enhancing the crow’s feet fanning out from my dark grey eyes. A thick tuft of brown hair obscured my view, so I blew it out of my face. “Just this once,” I said, pointing a finger at my own reflection. “Behave yourself. Just this once.”

No reply, of course. There never was one when I really needed it. With a sigh of annoyance I turned away. Heading downstairs, I pushed the cuff of my checkered sleeve back and looked at my watch. Only six am. There were two guests at the Lake House B&B. Neither of them would be up before eight, so I had plenty of time to put some effort into my own breakfast.

On my way past the reception desk, I slowed and glanced at the check-in log. It was still handwritten, even though I did keep records on the computer too these days.

Owen Ashurst, arrival two pm. The booking had been made through the B&B website, not over the phone. But I just knew. I knew. I eased a long breath through pursed lips, hoping it’d settle the squirmy nerves in my belly.

“It’s fine, Nathaniel,” I told myself. “It’s fine.” I wanted to close my eyes and remember all the ways in which Owen and I had been best friends for life. Until life got between us.

I forced myself to walk on toward the kitchen and open the swinging door. Elisa Brown wasn’t in yet, and that suited me fine. I usually didn’t mind her bright and cheerful personality as she did the dishes and restocked the food pantry. But today I wanted a little peace and quiet to ease my whirling mind.

Without giving much thought to what I was doing, I set about making an asparagus and feta cheese omelet, toasted and buttered two slices of bread, roasted a couple of tomatoes and mushrooms, and slid it all on a plate with perfect timing. The old house with the white country kitchen was still quiet. I settled in the seat at the head of the huge wooden table with a sigh of relief. My nerves were ebbing. There was nothing to worry about. Owen was just another guest.

I scooped some egg onto my fork and aimed it at my mouth, when the pan I’d left in the sink rattled. I put the fork down again.

“Gabe, I swear, if you mess with me today I will cover every mirror in this place for an entire month. Don’t think I won’t.”

Silence.

Satisfied, I lifted my fork again. I opened my mouth. The pan gave a tiny rebellious rattle and I was about to say something else, when the door behind me opened. Elisa burst inside in a flurry of snow and…Christmas lights?

“Morning Elisa.” I knew better than to comment, despite the fact that the outside of the Lake House already looked like an exploded Christmas tree.

“Before you say anything, these are for inside. And morning, Nathaniel.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“I could hear you think it from here. It’s time for a Christmas tree in the house again.”

I gave her a long steady look. She shrugged out of the oversized winter coat needed in these Michigan winters. Her curly blonde hair drifted with static around her round, pretty face. “You do remember what happened the last time we had a Christmas tree, don’t you?” I still suspected Gabe, but innocent until proven guilty and all that.

“I do. That was five years ago. I got a fake one, so this one won’t catch fire. It’s still in my trunk.” She fluttered her eyelashes at me. “If you’d be so kind.”

Resigned, I shoveled eggs in my mouth as Elisa went to hang her coat away. When she returned she busied herself with tidying up the pots and pans I’d used. I’d feel bad about her cleaning up my mess if it wasn’t her job.

“So still just Anderson and Houzer? No stragglers wandered in last night?”

“No, but we do have a new guest coming in today at two.”

“I saw, yes. Owen something. I freshened up the Bear room yesterday.”

“Actually, I’d like to put him in the Superior room.”

Elisa zeroed in on me like a well-aimed missile and I mournfully stared at my empty plate. I had a vague idea a mouthful of food would come in handy any second n—

Two tiny fists planted themselves on a pair of well-formed hips just inside my field of vision. “Nathaniel O’Donnelly, is there something you have to tell me?”

The B&B had twelve double rooms, and each of them was named after a lake in Michigan. It’d make sense to put Owen in the Bear room because it was down the same hallway as the other guests’ rooms. Efficient, when it came to changing sheets and towels. Conflicting with my plans to keep Owen close to my own room, which was at the opposite end of the large old house.

Out
“It’s raining,” Brace said. “Mr Vaudrey has gone out. He doesn’t have an umbrella.”

The Barlinney always provides its guests with an umbrella. He didn’t need to say it. That was one of the first rules drummed into newly hired staff. Umbrellas, shampoo, maps, newspapers, extra towels: you never refused a request for something small. What you cost your employer in pennies you earned back a hundredfold in goodwill and repeat business. It was a good rule. I taught it to new staff myself.

Just over a year ago, I’d come straight back here from hospital because I was due on duty, and I’d thought I was fine. I’d been semi-resident here anyway. Like the Polish and Hungarian kids who came here to work, I had a garret flat on the top floor, and when we were so busy that it was scarcely worthwhile my going home between shifts, that was where I stayed. Once I understood that I wasn’t fine—how much deadly trouble I was in—I’d spoken to Brace in the office.

He’d cut me a deal. The foreign staff lived here free because they were paid next to nothing and had no homes to go to. I was paid well, and had a nice flat of my own in Corstorphine. So obviously he’d have to charge me rent. He’d take it out of my wages, and since I’d be getting my board and bills paid too, I couldn’t complain.

He’d been right. I couldn’t, not even when my next pay packet came through and I’d discovered what a jackass he’d made of me. He hadn’t called a doctor or a shrink, and I hadn’t complained. He didn’t give a crap about me. I could go take an umbrella to Renton Vaudrey, or I could give up the one place in Edinburgh where I had work and a home.

One thing about me and Brace—we understood each other pretty well. I’d given a big pull on my leash, and this was him jerking me back.

Well, fuck that. Vaudrey had only got as far as the first set of traffic lights on the corner. Through the glass doors I could see his straight-shouldered figure, elegant in his gabardine, waiting there. It was a complicated crossroads and people stood about interminably waiting on the pavement for a green. I could get that bloody far. I turned and snatched a Barlinney umbrella from the stand. The street was my battlefield. Brandishing the brolly like a sword, I marched for the exit.

Andrew opened the door for me on reflex. I barely had a second to register his open mouth, his astonished, fading offer to go after Vaudrey for me. I held my last lungful of indoor air inside. There were seven steps down to the street. My muscle memory knew them well, so well that I could close my eyes for this first part. Yes. Blind and breathless, I dived in.

But I had to look at some point. I had to exhale. I was pretty fit from dashing up and down all my daily stairs, so I just started running. I could reach him in twenty paces, I reckoned, hand him the fucking umbrella and sprint back. He’d think I was a nutcase about to assault him if I did all this in silence, of course. I gave up my breath of safe, sweet, wealth-scented air. “Mr Vaudrey? Excuse me—Mr Vaudrey!”

He spun round. All kinds of questions chased across his weary face and just for a second they distracted me. If we were on a battlefield, I was a messenger bringing him tidings of life and death: he looked at me that intently. “Yes?” he said. “It’s… Er, it’s Cosmo, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir. It’s raining. I’ve brought you…”

Shit. I couldn’t remember what this pointy bat’s-wing thing was called. Breathing out now meant I had to breathe in, and I sucked my year’s first lungful of bus exhaust and life. The golden Victorian gables of the Jenners department store, the spire of the Scott monument, the brass-blue blaze of the Edinburgh sky—because it wasn’t bloody raining at all—tipped up and swallowed me. I crashed onto the kerb at Renton Vaudrey’s feet.

He picked me up. Flapping like pigeons over my head came help and advice from the concerned Edinburgh public, let him lie still and loosen his shirt collar and gie the wee ponsy a slap round the chops. None of that would have helped. He got my arm around his shoulders and hauled me upright, restoring for me an axis, a sense of up and down. I hung on to him, gasping. Gravely, he handed the brolly to the old chap who’d called me a pansy, an ancient tramp who slogged the length of Princes Street in all weathers and certainly stood in need of one. Then he turned all his attention to me. “All right. What do you need?”

“To be in. Back in. In.”


Author Bios:
RJ Scott
Writing MM Romance with a Happy Ever After...

I am in awe that people read my writing and thank you all for taking the time to read, rate and review. Rj xxxxx

About me...I live in the UK just outside London. I love reading anything from thrillers to sci-fi to horror; however, my first real love will always be the world of romance. My goal is to write stories with a heart of romance, a troubled road to reach happiness, and more than a hint of happily ever after.


Keira Andrews
After writing for years yet never really finding the right inspiration, Keira discovered her voice in gay romance, which has become a passion. She writes contemporary, historical, paranormal and fantasy fiction, and—although she loves delicious angst along the way—Keira firmly believes in happy endings. For as Oscar Wilde once said, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

Devon Rhodes 
Devon started reading and writing at a young age and never looked back. After a creatively sapping career in the business world, she gratefully took some time off to be at home.

At 39 and holding, Devon finally figured out the best way to channel her midlife crisis was to morph from mild-mannered stay-at-home mom into erotic romance writer.

She lives in Oregon with her husband and two children, who are (mostly) understanding of all the time she spends on her laptop, aka the black hole.

Indra Vaughn
After living in Michigan, USA for seven wonderful years, Indra Vaughn returned back to her Belgian roots. There she will continue to consume herbal tea, do yoga wherever the mat fits, and devour books while single parenting a little boy and working as a nurse.

The stories of boys and their unrequited love will no doubt keep finding their way onto the page--and hopefully into readers hands--even if it takes a little more time.

And if she gleefully posts pictures of snow-free streets in winter, you'll have to forgive her. Those Michigan blizzards won't be forgotten in a hurry.

Harper Fox
Harper Fox is an M/M author with a mission. She’s produced six critically acclaimed novels in a year and is trying to dispel rumours that she has a clone/twin sister locked away in a study in her basement. In fact she simply continues working on what she loves best– creating worlds and stories for the huge cast of lovely gay men queuing up inside her head. She lives in rural Northumberland in northern England and does most of her writing at a pensioned-off kitchen table in her back garden, often with blanket and hot water bottle.

She lives with her SO Jane, who has somehow put up with her for a quarter of a century now, and three enigmatic cats, chief among whom is Lucy, who knows the secret of the universe but isn't letting on. When not writing, she either despairs or makes bread, specialities foccacia and her amazing seven-strand challah. If she has any other skills, she's yet to discover them.


RJ Scott
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Out
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The Ticket by Christine Schimpf

Title: The Ticket
Author: Christine Shimpf
Genre: Inspirational Romance
Release Date: May 7, 2015
Publisher: CreateSpace
Cover Design: Christine Shimpf
Summary:
If you enjoy Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge, you’ll fall in love with… The Ticket.

A Heart Torn in Two Between True Love and one for The Ship Of Dreams, The Titanic!

Margaret Reardon vowed to leave Belfast. Her appetite for adventure helps her get hired as one of eighteen stewardesses on the ship everyone’s talking about, Titanic.

Joseph Flanagan is all business at Anderson and McAuley. His fight is against time to prepare Titanic for her maiden voyage. But time stops the day Margaret walks into the store changing Joseph’s perspective forever.

Two lives collide igniting a spark neither one can deny, revealing a truth that changes everything.


Margaret ran a slender finger along the edge of the ticket. Pleased with what she’d accomplished, she smiled. In two weeks, she’d sail on the liner that everyone in Belfast was talking about—the Titanic.

She’d won the approval of her parents to journey as one of eighteen stewardesses, which was no easy feat. She recalled the lines that etched Mum’s face when she told her she wanted to apply for one of the positions. It was Papa who granted her the permission she needed. In exchange, she’d promised both of her parents and Joseph, that upon her return, she’d marry and settle down.

Joseph, she breathed. Just saying his name brought a smile to her face. Delicious warmth spread deep inside all the way to her very fingertips as she thought of him. Yet, uncertainty about everything hung in the air creating a tightrope. It would be tempting to be in New York with all of its opportunities in retail. Joseph had told her she had a natural talent when it came to merchandising, and she’d proven herself at the store, especially her work on the display window to attract Titanic’s passengers. Even she was beginning to believe she possessed a marketable talent in the industry.

She ran her fingers across the words, “Permission Granted to Board ‘R.M.S. Titanic.’ Her breath caught. She could hardly wait.

Author Bio:
Christine Schimpf is a city girl who has fallen in love with country living. She writes both fiction and Christian romance.

Her debut novel, Nick, The Journey of a Lifetime (2011) is based on the life of her grandfather-in-law and is considered an immigrant-to-success story. The book remains a best seller in her hometown. The Ticket (2015), an inspirational romance, won the 2014 semifinalist seat in the American Christian Fiction Writers Association’s Genesis Contest in the Historical Romance Novella category.

Christine is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and is an award winning essayist. She is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers Association and the Romance Writers of America.

She lives on five acres in the country with her husband and golden retriever and is now fortunate enough to devote most of her time to her writing. In her spare time she enjoys golf, tennis, kayaking and anything outdoors which churns the wheels of inspiration for her.


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