Thursday, December 17, 2015

Random Tales of Christmastime Part 7


The Magic of Weihnachten by Bru Baker
Summary:
American Walsh Brandt is happy when a promotion lands him his dream job and a quiet new life in Germany. Until December rolls around, when he realizes it’s almost impossible to hide from the holiday season in Germany.

Dierck Reiniger is fascinated by Walsh’s hatred of Christmas and makes it his personal mission to help Walsh enjoy Weihnachten and the German traditions he grew up with. Walsh has a great time getting to know Dierck—but he still isn’t sold on Christmas, despite Dierck's efforts. Dierck's on the rebound, and he's determined to develop their physical relationship slowly, much to Walsh's frustration. It isn’t until they’re alone in a secluded cabin—hiding from the traditional trappings—that Walsh finally recognizes what the magic of the season can bring when spent with someone special.

The Healing Power of Eggnog by Jamie Fessenden
Summary:
Will Sutherland hasn't been home to see his parents in four years—not since they reacted badly when he came out. This Christmas, he’s finally worked up the courage to go home, where he's surprised to find they've taken in a boarder. Ryan Bennett is just a couple years younger than Will, cute, sweet... and openly gay.

As Will deals with his jealousy of the man who's been receiving the love and acceptance he was denied, Ryan finds himself falling for Will's brooding good looks. But Ryan also suspects the Sutherlands may be using him as a pawn in their long-standing conflict with their son. Will this Christmas finally tear the family apart, or is there a chance they can put their hurt and anger behind them?

On the Rocks by Ari McKay
Summary:
For years, Mal has given Aidan a little piece of the world for special occasions in the form of unique rocks and fossils—until the year he gives Aidan a piece of the moon instead. Aidan has treasured every gift: in a world of impersonal relationships, they’re the one reminder he has that somebody out there cares about him for who he really is. Then through a twist of fate, their relationship goes beyond personal and into intimate, leaving Aidan shocked and set to run the other way. Despite his feelings for Mal, past experiences have convinced Aidan that he's a failure at relationships, and he's afraid to trust his heart. It just might take a Christmas miracle for Aidan to find the courage to love.

A story from the Dreamspinner Press 2012 Advent Calendar package "Evergreen"


As so many times in life, we don't always see what's right in front of us despite how much we want it, our fears keep us from seeing it.  Well that is exactly where Aiden finds himself and when he gets what he wants, even if he doesn't recognize it at the time, he still lets those fears tear his world apart.  On the Rocks is a great little story of friendship, fear, hope, love, and all the elements that comprise a heartfelt Christmas tale.

RATING: 

Inseperable by Chris Scully
Summary:
After a car accident, Adam wakes up in a hospital room with no memory and a man named Joe, who acts like his boyfriend. So when Joe says Adam is straight—and Joe’s not—and they’re just best friends and roommates, Adam is more than a little confused. But as Adam starts to fill in the gaps, the one thing that becomes apparent is that Joe is the missing piece that can’t be replaced.

A Christmas Portrait by JP Bowie
Summary:
When Peter and Jeff accept an invitation from their longtime friends Rod and 'A' to spend Christmas in London, they don't expect murder and mayhem to be part of the festivities!

A Christmas pantomime a British tradition, when families flock to the theatre for ribald entertainment, gender bending roles and thinly veiled innuendo. But jealousy, hate, murder? Surely that's not part of the entertainment? Or so Peter and Jeff think when they accept an invitation to spend Christmas in London from their longtime friends Rod and 'A' (short for Arthur). 'A' is making his return to the stage in Cinderella, playing one of the ugly sisters.

Things get really ugly when Ken Blackwell, the other sister, tries to shake up Arthur's self-esteem by calling him a washed up old has-been, then goes on a rampage when the show's director falls ill and Rod is asked to replace him.

Peter's psychic intuition helps him see past the pantomime's gaudy glitter and into the dark secrets some people are desperate to conceal.

Book 6 in the Portrait Series


Even with the mystery element, A Christmas Portrait is an interesting addition to my holiday library.  I will say that I did not read the first 5 books in the Portrait series and there were a few character references and points that I didn't quite connect with and would probably have made more sense had I read the rest of the series first.  Having said that, I was not lost and it didn't take anything away from my enjoyment of this holiday tale.  I have been watching British sitcoms and mysteries on PBS since I was 4 years so I "got" the setting, most Americans probably won't understand the popularity of the pantomime as a Christmas tradition but that too won't lessen the enjoyment of the tale.  I will definitely be checking out the rest of the series in the new year.

RATING: 


The Magic of Weihnachten
WALSH BRANDT wasn’t homesick, not exactly. That would imply he missed positive things about his homeland, which he definitely didn’t.

He’d made the move from the United States to Germany six months ago and never looked back. He hadn’t moved there on a whim. He’d thought long and hard about the promotion to clinical research director for a major pharmaceutical company that had sent him overseas. It was everything he wanted, and he had jumped at the chance, despite the fact that it required him to move.

He hadn’t even thought about the States for months, since he was happy where he was. Except seemingly overnight, everything here had changed. One day it was a normal place, and the next it was like Father Christmas had exploded all over the normally quiet city square. Weihnachten, the German word for Christmas, was suddenly everywhere.

So no, he wasn’t homesick. But he did miss how much easier it was to ignore Christmas there than it seemed to be here in Germany.

Despite his frequent trips to the region over the last few years for work, he’d never visited Germany during the holiday season. He’d assumed it would be just like it was at home in the States.

He’d never understood why people loved Christmas so much. It was a solid month of horrible music, overindulging in food and drink, and being incessantly peppered with reminders that he ought to be cheerful. He wasn’t religious, and he hated the forced cheer of holiday parties, so he’d never found a reason to like the holiday. Even as a kid, he and his mother hadn’t celebrated much. She’d viewed the hectic shopping season as an opportunity to make some extra money, picking up shifts that helped her supplement her income over the rest of the year. And that had left Walsh home alone more often than not, which had served him well. He’d used it to do chemistry experiments and read. He’d been nineteen when she died, leaving him alone in the world, aside from a few estranged relatives.

Hiding from Christmas wasn’t entirely possible in the States, but he could avoid the worst of it by not going out in December. He ordered anything he needed from online stores, including groceries, and spent the month growling at the extra traffic on the way home from work and catching up on his journal reading, much like he had as a kid. He supposed it was his Christmas tradition.

Working for a pharmaceutical giant had taken him all over the world, so he’d never really had time to put down roots. He’d moved four times in his twelve years with the company, all in the name of better positions and career advancement. And now he was settling into one that should keep him stationary for quite some time here in Mannheim.

The cultural differences between the United States and Germany weren’t too hard to swallow. And Walsh had made a nice little group of friends at work. He’d finally reached a comfortable fluency with the language, which helped. He’d even settled into a nice, domestic routine, walking down to the square to do his weekly shopping on Saturday mornings. He’d load up at the farmers’ market and stop by his favorite butcher’s to stock up on meat and his favorite local cheeses, usually popping by the bakery for a treat and some bread for the week.

It already felt more like home than Indianapolis had, and he’d been there for three years. That is, it had felt like home until he rounded the familiar corner to the square and came up short, faced with a very unfamiliar sight.

The normally tidy square was overrun with tents and booths. The weekend market always drew a fairly good-sized crowd, but today it was absolutely teeming with people. Children darted in and out of booths, and adults who normally were all business were stopping to chat, their baskets overflowing with both the normal farmers’ market fare and new additions, like baked goods and tinsel.

It was the last Saturday in November, and it looked like Christmas had thrown up on the square. Every inch of the place was decked out in festive decor, and roving bands of singers were belting out carols everywhere.

Walsh blew out a disgusted breath and dove into the melee, intent on getting what he’d come for and getting the hell out. It looked like there wouldn’t be any leisurely coffee or danish for him today. He just wanted to get away from the insanity in the square.

A lot of the vendors were unfamiliar, so Walsh was able to pretend he didn’t speak German as they offered him samples of stollen, a traditional German sweet bread, and other treats. By the time he made it back to the regular market, he had a headache from the pervasive scent of cinnamon and a scowl on his face.

“Guten Tag, Walsh,” his usual vegetable vendor greeted him. After six months, he was getting used to people pronouncing his first name with a V instead of a W. His name wasn’t exactly traditional in German.

“Sei gegrüßt, Pieter,” he answered dutifully. It had taken a while for him to fall into the pattern of shopping here in Mannheim. He wasn’t used to people actually wanting to talk to him. That didn’t happen at the standard mega-marts in the States. Buying produce straight from farmers was worth the added pleasantries, though. Walsh loved to cook, and the produce available to him here was far superior. All the ingredients were. Things that cost an arm and a leg in the US, like grass-fed beef, were the norm here, and priced accordingly. With the added expense of actually talking to the vendors, that was.

“Not enjoying the Christkindlmarkt?”

Walsh looked around and wrinkled his nose. “Will it be this bad all the way up to Christmas?”

Pieter laughed. “Worse, I’m afraid. This is just the beginning.”

Walsh couldn’t imagine how it could possibly be worse. “I didn’t realize Mannheim was so religious.”

“It’s not,” Pieter answered. “Die Vorweihnachtszeit is about family and introspection, not just religion.”

Walsh wrinkled his nose. “This doesn’t look very introspective.”

Pieter wrapped up the cabbage Walsh had handed him and shrugged. “Tradition. Every family has its own way of celebrating die Vorweihnachtszeit. It’s important.”

The word wasn’t familiar to Walsh, but he could piece together what it meant. The beauty of German was its limited vocabulary. Most words were just compounds that threaded two words together.

“Well, my pre-Christmas tradition is to hide from all the trappings, but that seems like it’s going to be next to impossible here.”

“Viel Glück,” Pieter said, and Walsh snorted out a laugh at the absurdity of Pieter wishing him good luck with avoiding Christmas.

Pieter tossed a rope of garlic into Walsh’s bag with a wink. “Maybe that will help.”

“I think that’s for vampires, not Santa,” Walsh said wryly, but he nodded his thanks anyway. All the vendors liked to throw in extras for their regular customers; it was part of the feeling of community. Walsh could see how people who were that dedicated to their customers might also go a bit overboard on the friends and family part of the holidays.

His mood was a bit better as he eeled his way through the crowd on his way to the bakery with his cup of coffee. He’d forgone sitting at one of the quaint wrought-iron tables outside with it like he usually did, so it was full when he ran headlong into something solid.

His breath punched out of his chest at the impact, his coffee sloshing over the rim of his cup even with the added protection of the plastic lid. It scalded his shoulder, but more of it landed on the stranger who’d run into him than on himself.

“Entschuldigung!”

Walsh was still breathless from the surprise, responding to the apology in English instead of German. “It’s fine. Are you all right?”

“Ah. American? I’m unhurt. It was my fault.”

The man he’d run into was only a little taller but quite a bit broader. Walsh’s chest ached from where the guy’s shoulder had hit him; he could already feel a bruise blooming. The man was hunched over his purchases, and Walsh realized he must have been digging through a bag when they’d collided.

“Shit,” Walsh cursed when he saw how much of his coffee had landed on the man. He switched to German, finally recovering enough from the shock to think clearly.

“Are you sure you’re not hurt? This coffee was hot. I’m sure it didn’t tickle,” he said, pointing to his own splattered shirt.

The man threw back his head and laughed. It was a rich, melodious sound, and Walsh’s stomach swooped a bit. “I’m pretty tough.”

That was an understatement. The guy was built like a brick house. A very attractive, well-proportioned brick house. Walsh flushed when he realized he’d been checking him out.

“Well, my apologies anyway,” he managed to stammer out.

He’d only gotten a few paces away when the man called out to him. “At least let me replace your coffee?”

Walsh turned, his blush deepening. “Not necessary,” he said, toasting the man with what was left in his cup.

“I insist.” He caught up with Walsh with two powerful strides, and Walsh swallowed, his throat going dry at the way the man’s tight jeans did nothing to hide the way his thighs flexed. He was insanely ripped.

“It’s from Johanna’s, right? I recognize the cup.”

Walsh nodded dumbly. He’d been too preoccupied by his mortification to really take in how gorgeous the guy was before, but now that he was standing in front of him, Walsh could see his initial impression of attractive didn’t even begin to do this guy justice. His cheeks were slightly reddened from the cool weather, probably because, unlike Walsh, he wasn’t wearing a coat. His sweater clung to his well-defined chest, his arms straining the sleeves.

And Walsh was staring. Fabulous. Maybe the guy had hit him harder than Walsh had realized. His head felt fuzzy. Was it possible he’d knocked his head on something and just didn’t remember? He shouldn’t be going this knock-kneed over a hot guy.

Then again, it had been nearly a year since he’d had the attention of a hot guy locked on him—and his last hookup had been a nice specimen but nowhere near as built as this guy. Who he was now not-so-subtly fantasizing about, and he didn’t even know his name.

Walsh shook his head to clear it and took a deep breath of the crisp air. It came with a heavy dose of cinnamon and fir, but he ignored that and focused on letting the cold wake him up a bit.

“Yes, it’s from Johanna’s. No one else’s coffee on the square quite compares,” he managed to stammer out after a moment. His German hadn’t been this halting since college; God, he was mortified.

The man didn’t switch to English again, though, so that was good. Walsh would really have been embarrassed then. He hated being thought of as an ugly American who couldn’t speak the language. This was his home, after all.

“You sound as though you speak from experience,” the man said, laughing.

Walsh wrinkled his nose. He’d tried most of the coffee shops and restaurants in the area after he’d moved here, finding Johanna’s by trial and error. He hadn’t strayed once he’d had her Franzbrötchen, a pastry that was hard to find in southern Germany. But Johanna was from the north, and she’d brought her delicious cinnamon rolls with her. She also made a great latte, which was what he’d been drinking when he’d run into the mystery man.

“I’m Walsh,” he blurted out. He hoped the guy thought his reddening cheeks were due to the cold and not abject mortification. Walsh never claimed to have any sort of game, but he usually wasn’t quite this bad. Then again, he was out of practice. Mannheim wasn’t exactly teeming with gay clubs, and he’d been spending so much time settling into his new place and his new job that he wouldn’t have had time to seek one out anyway.

The man gave him an amused smile, seemingly unperturbed by the abruptness of Walsh’s introduction. “Dierck.”

He held his hand out, and Walsh shook it, swallowing audibly when the man’s palm brushed his. Walsh had cursed himself for forgetting gloves when he’d set out earlier, but now he was glad. The skin-on-skin contact was thrilling.

“You really don’t have to buy me a coffee,” Walsh said, glancing over at Dierck’s bags. “You probably want to get those home.”

The “to your wife” was left unspoken, but there were way too many groceries there to be just for one person. Dierck probably had an entire family, complete with adorable towheaded toddlers.

Dierck shrugged dismissively. “I haven’t been to the butcher yet, so there’s nothing perishable. I have time for Johanna’s. Especially if she’s got any Spitzbuben left.”

There had been most of a tray full of the jam cookies when Walsh had been in getting his own treats. They’d been a new addition, and Johanna herself had insisted he try one of the special Christmas confections. They’d been a bit too buttery for his tastes. The Zimtsterne she’d given him next had been much better, but even the cinnamon holiday cookie couldn’t deter him from his weekly Franzbrötchen.

“She did a few minutes ago,” Walsh said before he remembered that he was supposed to be trying to convince Dierck he didn’t want to go to Johanna’s with him.

“Well then, let’s make haste,” Dierck said with a grin. “They go fast, especially this early in the season. But by Christmas everyone will be sick of them, which means more for me.”

Walsh’s lip curled at the reminder that the holiday season was just starting. During his brief exchange with Dierck, he’d managed to tune out the carols and general mirth in the square.

The one thing he did know about Christmas in Germany was that it was a time for family. That’s why the sheer size of the Christkindlmarkt had surprised him so much. Walsh had been expecting a more introspective holiday season here.

“I’m sure the Spitzbuben you can get at home are better,” Walsh said, letting his mouth get away from him again.

Dierck didn’t take offense, though. He laughed again, which Walsh was quickly finding was his natural response to most things. He’d only known Dierck for a few minutes, but he was hands down the happiest person Walsh had ever met. It was a bit disconcerting.

“Oh, I’m sure. Though don’t let Johanna hear you say that,” he said, shaking his head. “But they don’t ship well, and I’m not heading back to Berlin for the holidays this year. So store bought will have to do, since I’m not much of a cook.”

Did that mean what Walsh thought it did? Was Dierck single? Walsh took a curious look over at Dierck’s bags again, prompting yet another chuckle.

“Ah. These aren’t for me. They’re for my neighbor, Frau Haber. She broke her hip a few weeks ago, but she’s still insisting on cooking for everyone. Her family’s in Sweden now, so she’s adopted all of the singletons in our building for the holidays. We always have meals together on Sundays in December after we light the Adventskranz.”

Walsh furrowed his brow. It wasn’t that he was unfamiliar with the word—like most of German, it was literally a compound of the two words it represented, in this case, Advent wreath. But he hadn’t realized they were lit. Weren’t they hung on doors or something?

“There’s a candle for each Sunday in Advent, plus one we light on Christmas Eve. No one’s overly religious, not even Frau Haber, but it’s tradition.”

Walsh looked around. Tradition seemed to be pretty entrenched here.

“Maybe I’ll pick up a stollen at Johanna’s if she still has any.” Dierck shifted his burdens and started walking back down the sidewalk toward the bakery.

He turned, giving Walsh a look that could only be described as come-hither. Walsh shivered, though it had nothing to do with the brisk breeze. He was actually feeling a little warm.

“Coming?” Dierck asked, his lips quirked into a playful grin.


Walsh looked down at his half-full coffee, which was probably ice cold by now. What harm could having coffee with someone do? “Sure.”

Healing Power of Egg Nog
Chapter One
WILL CLOSED his laptop and tucked it into its case as the bus pulled in to the Montpelier bus station. It was a beautiful December day, with just a few clouds drifting through a bright-blue sky and clean white snow blanketing the Vermont countryside. Even here at the edge of town, the snow hadn't yet become covered with soot and grime near the road. The dome of the state house down the street gleamed gold in the sunlight.

Unable to stop himself, Will scanned the cars in the parking lot, looking for his father's old brown Ford pickup truck, or his mother's small blue Subaru. Neither was there, but he hadn't really expected them to be. It had been four years. They probably had new cars by now.

He stepped off the bus and breathed in the crisp, cold air, fresh-smelling even with the exhaust from the bus drifting by. But as the driver opened the baggage compartment in the bus's underbelly and he collected his bags, Will couldn't help but notice that there was still no sign of his parents. He didn't want to admit that he was bothered by it. Any number of things could have made them late. Still a part of him had hoped to find them standing there, anxiously awaiting his homecoming. It was his mother, after all, who'd sent him the invitations, year after year.

"Will?"

He turned to see a young man standing there in a gray down jacket, a black baseball cap partly covering his strawberry-blond hair. The guy was perhaps a couple of years younger than Will, broad-shouldered and tall—though not as tall as Will's lanky six foot two—with misty blue eyes. His full mouth was offering Will a shy, tentative smile. "I'm Ryan. Your mom asked me to pick you up. It's good to meet you."

Will tried not to frown as he stepped forward and shook Ryan's hand. "Are you a new neighbor?"

"No, I rent a room from your folks."

Will pulled his hand away abruptly and then tried to disguise the motion by reaching for one of his two suitcases. The house hadn't had any spare rooms when he lived there. Just his parents' bedroom and his room. Was he going to be sharing it for the weekend? Or were they expecting him to take the couch?

Will was carrying his laptop case over his other shoulder, so Ryan grabbed his second suitcase and led him to a maroon SUV parked behind the bus station. It didn't look like the kind of car a guy in his early twenties would generally own, and as Ryan opened the hatch to stow the luggage, he commented, "My car is full of crap, so your mom told me to take hers."

"Cool," Will said, trying to hide his irritation that this stranger was on such familiar terms with his folks.

"She said to apologize for her not meeting you," Ryan added, seeming to sense that something was wrong. "She's just been stuck in the kitchen all morning, preparing for the party tomorrow night."

"Ah," Will muttered. "The party. That will be fun."

Ryan slammed the hatch shut and gave him an odd look before leading the way to the front of the vehicle.


WHAT THE hell is this guy's problem?

Ryan knew that Will hadn't been home for the holidays since he left for college four years ago, but Gary and Diane had never said why. Now Ryan was beginning to suspect the guy was just an asshole.

He was cute—no denying that. Hot, even. Tall, with thick, dark-chestnut hair and brooding good looks, like the hero of a gothic romance novel. But so far he seemed just as unpleasant as those heroes tended to be. Whatever had made him turn his back on his family years ago, Ryan had a hard time believing it was anything his parents did. They were the nicest people he'd ever met, doting on him as if he were their own son, when his parents had kicked him out of the house.

Still, they were thrilled when Will e-mailed them that he'd deign to grace them with his presence this year, so the least Ryan could do was be nice to the guy for a few days. He wouldn't be the one to ruin their Christmas.

"So…," he said, fishing around for a topic of conversation while he navigated the SUV out of the parking lot and onto Main Street. "Diane tells me you're a writer."

Will was looking out the passenger side window at the shops along Main Street as they passed by, and he looked reluctant to turn his attention back to Ryan. "I've only published one novel. And it didn't do very well."

"What kind of stuff do you write?"

"Nothing you'd be interested in."

Jesus. What the fuck was that supposed to mean? That Ryan was obviously too dumb to read anything but comic books? Ryan bit back an angry response and simply said, "I'm interested in a lot of stuff."

Will turned to look at him full on, a sour expression on his face, and then said with exaggerated patience, "Do you read gay novels? Because that's what I write."

Asshole.

"Dude!" Ryan snapped. "What the fuck? Do you think I'm some kind of redneck country hick who can't go to sleep at night without beating up a fag or two?"

Will didn't look even remotely apologetic, but he said, "I didn't say that."

"I'm gay too," Ryan went on. "I mean, I didn't know you were, until just now, but—"

"You're gay?"

"Yes!"

Rather than look happy that they'd found some common ground, Will practically snarled, "That's just great."

He turned back to the window again, and Ryan let him. Gary and Diane could deal with him when they got back. Maybe he'd be less pissy around them, though Ryan doubted it.

On the Rocks
AIDAN Grimm strolled into Ground Zero at twelve fifteen, unrepentantly late as usual, but he knew Mal would be waiting, and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee greeted him as soon as he walked through the door. As he finger-brushed his tousled dark hair into place, he glanced around and saw that Mal was indeed waiting for him at a two-seater window table.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said as he approached, which they both knew wasn’t true.

Dr. Malcolm Saltzman raised one eyebrow at him, blue eyes dancing with amusement. “I’m sure you are,” he replied. “What was it this time? Traffic jam? Stolen wallet? No, wait. You stopped to help a woman who’d gone into labor in the middle of the sidewalk, and the grateful parents are naming their new son after you?”

Aidan fixed him with a wide-eyed gaze, trying to look innocent. “All of the above. How’d you know?”

Mal chuckled. “You’re incorrigible. That look might fool some people, but not me. I used to watch you practicing it in the mirror.”

“The dangers of keeping you around so long,” Aidan replied, plucking a menu out of its stand. “I should get a pass on tardiness today anyway. Isn’t there a rule about that? If there isn’t, there should be.”

“Oh?” Mal frowned in puzzlement. “Today? What’s so special about today?”

Aidan gave him an aggrieved look over the top of the menu. “Oh come on. Don’t try to tell me you haven’t already arranged for a stupid cupcake with a stupid candle on it to be brought out later when I ‘least expect it’. Deny it, and I’ll call bullshit.”

Mal’s jaw dropped. “Your birthday! Geez, Aidan, I’m so sorry, but I completely forgot!” he said apologetically. “I only got back from Morocco day before yesterday, and I’m still jet-lagged. I’m afraid the date slipped my mind.”

Try as he might to maintain his facade of casual aloofness, Aidan couldn’t keep his expression from crumbling at that. It wasn’t just the shock of Mal forgetting his birthday, because Mal was the sentimental type who always remembered birthdays, or that he cared much about his birthday in general, because he didn’t. No, what bothered him most was that it meant he wouldn’t be adding anything new to his collection this year, and that disappointed him more than anything else.

When they were roommates at Cal Tech, Aidan had been fascinated by Mal’s rock collection. Mal, a geology major, had an amazing assortment of stones. When Aidan asked, Mal had told him the significance of each one, both scientifically and personally. Aidan had particularly liked a small, rough piece of black stone that Mal had called an Apache Tear. He’d told Aidan the legend of how they had been formed when a group of Apache warriors, fighting a losing battle, had ridden their horses off a cliff, and the tears of the warriors’ families had hardened into stone when they hit the ground.

Aidan had been intrigued by the stone, and that October, Mal had given it to him as a birthday gift. Mal had seemed surprised when he displayed it prominently on his desk, but after a lifetime of being given impersonal gifts with no thought behind them, that simple rock meant more to him than any gold Rolex.

After that, Mal had given him a rock for every Christmas and birthday. They’d been from his own collection at first, but when Mal had started doing field work, he gave Aidan rocks he found on his trips. Mal explained what the rock was and sometimes gave him a book as well if there was a particularly interesting story behind it. But there was always a rock, each one unique.

Mal never asked what he did with the rocks, and Aidan had never told him. No one else knew but his housekeeper, who was the only other person who ever saw the inside of his bedroom; he rarely took lovers home, and when he did, he took them to a guest room, not to his private sanctum. So no one ever saw the case he’d commissioned to display the rocks Mal had given him over the years; each one was placed in the order it was received with a note to remind him of what it was and where it had come from, and he always looked forward to adding a new one.

“It’s okay,” he said, trying to sound more nonchalant than he felt. The last thing he wanted was for Mal to realize how disappointed he was. “I’m surprised you haven’t run out of ideas by now anyway. Sometimes I’ve wondered if you’ve just been wrapping pebbles you found in your shoe.”

“Oh, you expected me to give you a rock?” Mal asked, his expression suddenly too innocent. “Wouldn’t you prefer something more special for your thirtieth birthday?”

“Like what?” Aidan asked, eyeing Mal suspiciously.

“Well, a rock is boring, isn’t it?” Mal reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a small black box tied up with a silver bow. “I mean, if you can’t tell the difference between a pebble I picked up on a street and a two-hundred-million-year-old piece of fossilized wood….”

Aidan could tell the difference between every single piece in his collection without even looking at the notes anymore, including the piece of fossilized wood Mal had given him for his twenty-fifth birthday, but he wasn’t about to admit that aloud.

“You said you forgot! You probably lied about the cupcake too,” he exclaimed, barely refraining from reaching across the table and grabbing the box in his eagerness to see what was inside.

Mal grinned. “After you kept me waiting for fifteen minutes, I thought a little payback was in order,” he replied, sliding the box across the table.

“I knew it,” Aidan grumbled even as he picked up the box and tugged the ribbon loose.

On a nest of black velvet lay a brownish stone, roughly the size of a walnut, with odd white patches all over and a rough, pitted surface. It wasn’t as pretty as some of the rocks Mal had given him, but it was definitely unusual; Aidan had never seen anything like it.

He took a moment to examine it, admiring its unique appearance, and he glanced up at Mal, waiting for the origin story he knew was coming. “Are you going to tell me what the hell it is, or do I have to guess?”

Mal’s smile turned smug. “You hold in your hand, my dear Mr. Grimm, a piece of the moon.”

“Seriously?” Aidan couldn’t keep the amazement he felt from permeating his voice as he stared at Mal. “Where did you get it?”

“It’s the reason I was in Morocco,” Mal said, his eyes alight. “I went to find out if a meteor strike there was a lunarite: a meteorite that originated from the impact of an asteroid on the moon. When that happens, rock is sometimes ejected from the moon’s orbit, and eventually falls to earth. I verified its authenticity, and the owner gave me this piece. Now you can say someone’s given you the moon.”

Aidan removed the piece of moon rock from its box carefully and examined it closely to cover the surge of wistfulness he felt at Mal’s words. When Mal gave him one of those earnest looks, he felt a dangerous surge in his chest—a much higher location on his body than where he usually felt surges. It didn’t help that Mal was ridiculously appealing. Blond hair, blue eyes, and usually sporting two or three days’ worth of stubble that Aidan would have loved to feel rasping against his skin. Mal was far more outdoorsy than Aidan’s usual type, but no one was perfect.

It wasn’t even incompatible sexuality keeping them apart since Mal was gay too. No, Aidan had to squelch any wayward longings because Mal was his best friend. Hell, Mal was his only friend. Aidan didn’t like or trust most people; they flocked to him due to his illustrious family name and even more illustrious family fortune, and he loathed gold diggers and ass-kissers. Mal was the one person in the world whom Aidan was sure liked him for himself, not his money or social status, and he didn’t want to ruin that with sex because he sure as hell couldn’t sustain a relationship. After being burned one too many times, he’d limited himself to hookups that lasted no longer than a weekend.

So the one person from whom he wanted the moon and stars and everything else was the last person in the world who could give it to him—and yet he held it in his hands nonetheless. The closest to the moon and stars as he would ever get, thanks to Mal.

“Thanks,” he said, offering a small but genuine smile. “It’s really cool.”

Mal’s smile faded. “Should I have gotten you something more—” He paused, looking uncertain. “Normal?”

“No!” Aidan shook his head, closing his fingers possessively around the lunarite. “No, I mean it. It really is cool. Normal is overrated, and I’d much rather hold a piece of the moon in my hand.” He smiled wryly and shrugged, trying to think of something that would explain his bout of melancholy without revealing anything about the true direction of his thoughts. “I guess turning the big three-oh is hitting me harder than I thought. I’ve been moody all day.”

Mal placed one hand atop Aidan’s. “Hey, thirty is no big deal. You aren’t going to wake up tomorrow with wrinkles and gray hair.”

“Just promise that if I start to lose my boyish good looks, you’ll lie and tell me I haven’t,” Aidan joked as he valiantly tried to ignore the warmth of Mal’s hand on his.

“You look better every year,” Mal replied. “I wish you’d tell me how you do it!”

Aidan chuckled, but he was also pleased because he knew Mal meant it. Unlike most people Aidan was surrounded by, Mal always told him the truth even if he didn’t always want to hear it.

“If you want my beauty secrets, it’s going to take more than a moon rock to pry them out of me,” he replied.

“I tried!” Mal squeezed Aidan’s hand before releasing it. “At least you’re smiling again, which is how it should be on your birthday, especially when you’re handsome, rich, and brilliant.”

“All that, and I have a new rock,” Aidan replied lightly, holding up the lunarite between his thumb and forefinger. “I can’t think of anything to top all that.” He paused and then fixed Mal with a stern look. “But if you had them put an ‘over the hill’ candle on my cupcake, you’re dead meat, Saltzman.”

Mal held up his hands defensively. “No over-the-hill jokes, I promise!” he replied, and Aidan suddenly heard the sound of clapping. The entire staff of the coffee shop surrounded their table, one of them holding a plate with a chocolate cupcake with mocha icing—his favorite—topped with a single white candle. Mal led them in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday,” his deep baritone louder than the rest combined.

It was no less than Aidan expected from someone as sentimental as Mal, who had seemed shocked and dismayed to learn that Aidan’s childhood birthdays hadn’t been filled with cake and ice cream, festooned with balloons, and celebrated with romping clowns. He doubted this was the kind of glamorous birthday celebration that the socialites of Seattle would have expected him to have, but it was the kind he wanted, and as he carefully put his little piece of the moon back in its box, he considered this to be a happy birthday indeed.

Inseparable
A FLASH of bright light in my eyes, a jumble of raised voices and hands pulling at my body—these are my first memories. Then the pain slicing through my skull, through my body, sharp as a knife, and bringing with it blessed darkness.

When my brain finally struggles up through the murky depths of consciousness, each sense slowly reawakens. Everything seems disjointed and muddled, and the first thing I hear is the raspy sound of my own breathing. The fingers of my right hand twitch; I feel warm skin gripping mine and the whisper of a soft breath across my knuckles. A heavy weight presses on my chest, making it difficult to breathe, and I want to push it away, but I can’t summon the strength to move. Slowly, I crack my eyes open a slit. They feel swollen, and the steady throbbing deep behind them means I can barely keep my eyelids open long enough to confirm that I am in a hospital room. There must be a nightlight somewhere, because the weak glow is just enough to illuminate the faded curtain enclosing my bed and the dark tousled hair of the man whose head rests by my hip on the mattress. Somewhere beyond the curtain, someone is snoring, but my companion is silent, slumped forward in a chair, clutching my hand as if, even in sleep, he can’t bear to let go. Good, I’m not alone. With that fleeting thought, unconsciousness pulls me under again.

The next time I resurface, it is daylight. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my face and see the soft golden glow bathing the room from beneath my lashes. But it’s too much when I try to open my eyes. The brightness stabs through my retinas. I roll my head on the pillow to escape, and explosions of pain go off in my skull. I can’t hold back my whimper. There is a sudden movement next to me, and then a gentle touch on my forehead, on my cheeks, wiping away the tears leaking out behind my closed eyelids.

“You’re awake,” whispers a man’s hoarse voice. “Oh God, Adam, you’re awake.”

“Sun,” I croak.

“What? Oh, it’s too bright?” My companion moves about, hurriedly closing the blinds. When the light dims, I cautiously open one eye, which gives me the chance to observe him unnoticed for a moment. He is young, in his late twenties, and attractive with chin-length dark curly hair that looks like it needs a good combing. When he turns and smiles, I’m struck by what a nice face he has, tired, but open and friendly, and full of so much raw emotion it almost hurts to see it. His eyes are red and swollen from crying, and even as I watch, fresh tears well in those brown velvet depths, spilling down round cheeks into the neatly trimmed stubble of his beard. I want to comfort him, but the pain radiating through my chest is driving out any other thoughts, driving out the air from my lungs.

“Can’t… breathe,” I gasp.

“Shh, calm down. I know it hurts. It’s your ribs, but the doctor says you have to try to breathe deep. Just look at me.” I focus on his face, the sound of his gentle voice. A small gold stud glints in each ear, and it’s so appropriate, because he reminds me of a gypsy I saw once. Somewhere. “That’s it. Just breathe in and out….”

There is dried blood on the front of his grey sweater, but he doesn’t seem injured. Mine? I struggle to recall how I got here. He must see the panic on my face because suddenly he asks, “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t remember.” My voice sounds hoarse and unused. I close my eyes and think. Think, I tell myself. But all there is, is blackness.

“The accident?”

“Anything! I don’t remember anything.”

He pales visibly. “Where the hell is that nurse?” he mutters, fumbling with the call button beside the bed. He takes my hand. It’s the only part of my body that doesn’t hurt. “Do you know who I am?”

I shake my head, which makes the pain even worse. There is a brief moment where his face crumples. He seems wounded more than anything and, even though I hardly know this man, I would do anything not to upset him.

“I’m Joe,” he says and, once again, his calm voice pulls me back from the edge of panic. “You’re Adam. You were hit by a car.” He starts to pull away, but I refuse to let go. “It’s okay. I’ll be right back. I’m just going to get the doctor.”

He isn’t gone a minute before he’s back with a nurse. Then another arrives. Then one doctor and two, and within no time my side of the curtain is crowded with people poking and prodding and asking me questions, talking over each other when all I want to do is sleep. Someone blocks my view of Joe’s anxious face, and I can’t bear it. As if sensing my distress, he moves to my side and takes my hand again. The contact soothes me. It’s the only thing I can hang onto in a world that has suddenly been pulled out from under me.

They tell me I was hit by a car yesterday—SUV actually—while crossing the street. I have three cracked ribs, some bruising, and a concussion. Oh yeah, and I can’t remember shit. There’s a big black hole where my memories used to be.

A Christmas Portrait
Prologue
"Hey, look at this." Peter Brandon passed the card he held to his husband, Jeff Stevens. "Rod and 'A' must be the only people we know who still use snail mail to send messages."

"Well, they're old school," Jeff said taking the card. "Still write letters and send out real birthday cards and stuff instead of using the Internet and texts. Kinda nice really." He scanned the card. "What the heck is a pantomime?"

"It's a traditional British show done at Christmastime, mainly for kids...you know fairy tales, Cinderella and the like."

"How do you know about them?"

"I saw one years ago when my mom and dad took me to London the first time. Can't remember much about it, but 'A' told me he's played the 'Dame' a couple of times. Mother Goose or something like that."

"He plays a dame?"

"Yeah, it's another tradition. A man always plays the Dame. In Cinderella, the ugly sisters are usually guys in drag and made up to look even uglier."

Jeff shook his head. "Doesn't sound like something I'd want to see."

Peter chuckled. "Read the rest of the card."

"It would be wonderful if you and Jeff could somehow manage to be there opening night," Jeff read aloud. "'A' is very nervous about his return to the stage and would love to have friends there to support him. I know it's a lot to ask but if your Christmas plans aren't yet set in stone we'd love to have you stay with us in London. Your room is always ready."

He looked across the table at Peter. "Are you seriously considering this?"

"Well, Nick and Eric will be in Pittsburgh spending Christmas with Nick's sister, Andrew and David are tied up with family obligations, and Mom and Fred are going to be in Hawaii, so it would just be you and me anyway."

"But all the way to London? I don't know if I can take that much time off. We'd have to stay at least a week, wouldn't we?"

Peter nodded. "Plus a couple of days traveling time, but Nick will be back to look after things. They're only going away for two days. I think we should consider going. Rod and 'A' have been good friends for so many years now..."

"What about Emily and Jerry and the kids? You know you love being over there handing out gifts..."

"We can do that before we leave."

"So your mind's made up, oh Master? I have no say in this whatsoever."

Peter grinned at him. "Of course you have a say."

"But it better be, 'when do we leave,' right?" Jeff pushed his chair back from the table. "Well, I better get to work, earn some more shekels to pay for this trip, by the looks of things."

Peter got up and slipped his arms around Jeff's hard body. "You don't mind too much do you?" he asked and gave Jeff's lips a peck. "We could use a short vacation."

"Yeah, but London in December? It'll be freezing cold. Meanwhile Eve and Fred will be sunning it up in Hawaii. We could have gone there, don't forget. They did invite us."

"Yeah, but they also invited Martha Harley, and as sorry as I feel for her after all that pain and humiliation she went through after that shit went down about her husband I really couldn't stand listening to her prattling on and on about stuff I could care less about!"

Jeff laughed. "Don't hold back now, Peter, just tell us how you really feel."

"Well...sorry, but she just gets on my last nerve. How my mother can stand it I'll never know."

"They've been friends since kindergarten or something."

"I know, and I bet even then Martha was the gossip of all time. You'd think Mom would've given her a wide berth..."

"Okay, so make the arrangements. I can't stand here chit-chatting all day."

Peter gave him a sly grin and pushed his crotch against Jeff's. "We don't have to chit-chat...there are other ways to start the day, you know...like this..." He slid an arm round Jeff's neck and pulled him in for a long, lingering kiss.

Jeff groaned. "You always know how to get my engine running. I was going to the office."

"Later," Peter murmured. "Much later."

Author Bios:
Bru Baker
Bru Baker got her first taste of life as a writer at the tender age of four when she started publishing a weekly newspaper for her family. What they called nosiness she called a nose for news, and no one was surprised when she ended up with degrees in journalism and political science and started a career in journalism.

Bru spent fifteen years writing for newspapers before making the jump to fiction. She now works in reference and readers' advisory in a Midwestern library, though she still finds it hard to believe someone's willing to pay her to talk about books all day. Most evenings you can find her curled up with a mug of tea, some fuzzy socks, and a book or her laptop. Whether it’s creating her own characters or getting caught up in someone else’s, there’s no denying that Bru is happiest when she’s engrossed in a story. She and her husband have two children, which means a lot of her books get written from the sidelines of various sports practices.

Jamie Fessenden
Jamie Fessenden set out to be a writer in junior high school. He published a couple short pieces in his high school's literary magazine and had another story place in the top 100 in a national contest, but it wasn't until he met his partner, Erich, almost twenty years later, that he began writing again in earnest. With Erich alternately inspiring and goading him, Jamie wrote several screenplays and directed a few of them as micro-budget independent films. He then began writing novels and published his first novella in 2010.

After nine years together, Jamie and Erich have married and purchased a house together in the wilds of Raymond, New Hampshire, where there are no street lights, turkeys and deer wander through their yard, and coyotes serenade them on a nightly basis. Jamie recently left his "day job" as a tech support analyst to be a full-time writer.

Ari McKay
Ari McKay is the professional pseudonym for Arionrhod and McKay, who collaborate on original m/m fiction. They began writing together in 2004 and finished their first original full length novel in 2011. Recently, they’ve begun collaborating on designing and creating costumes to wear and compete in at Sci Fi conventions, and they share a love of yarn and cake.

Arionrhod is an avid costumer, knitter, and all-around craft fiend, as well as a professional systems engineer. Mother of two human children and two dachshunds who think they are human, she is a voracious reader with wildly eclectic tastes, devouring romance novels, military science fiction, horror stories and Shakespeare with equal glee. She is currently preparing for the zombie apocalypse.

McKay is an English teacher who has been writing for one reason or another most of her life. She also enjoys knitting, reading, cooking, and playing video games. She has been known to knit in public. Given she has the survival skills of a gnat, she’s relying on Arionrhod to help her survive the zombie apocalypse.

Chris Scully
Chris Scully lives in Toronto, Canada and grew up spinning romantic stories in her head. When the tedium of her corporate day job grew too much, she took a chance and found her escape in writing. Now she longs for the day she can make writing a full-time career. Her stories feature everyday characters falling in love. She hopes to write across multiple genres, but you can always count on a happy ending.

JP Bowie
J.P. Bowie was born and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland. He wrote his first (unpublished) novel – a science fiction tale of brawny men and brawnier women that made him a little suspect in the eyes of his family for a while.

Leaving home at age eighteen for the bright lights of London, he found himself in the midst of a “diverse and creative crowd” that eventually led him to the performing arts. For the next twelve years he sang, danced and acted his way around the theatres of London and the provinces, appearing in shows with many famous British singers, actors and comedians.

After immigrating to the US and living for many years in Las Vegas where he worked for that incomparable duo, Siegfried and Roy, J.P. found himself entranced by the fair city of San Diego where he currently lives with his partner, Phil.


Bru Baker
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EMAIL: bru@bru-baker.com


Jamie Fessenden
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Ari McKay
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TUMBLR  /  SMASHWORDS  /  ARe  /  TORQUERE

Chris Scully

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EMAIL: cscully@bell.net


J.P. Bowie
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EMAIL: jpbowie@cox.net



The Magic of Weihnachten
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Healing Power of Egg Nog
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On the Rocks
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Inseparable
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A Christmas Portrait
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Release Day Blitz: Walking Heartbreak by Sunniva Dee

Title: Walking Heartbreak
Author: Sunniva Dee
Genre: New Adult Romantic Suspense
Release Date: December 17, 2015
Summary:
Don’t judge me.
I am not what you see.
I am the opposite.
—Nadia’s lipstick note on Bo’s mirror.

Indie-rocker Bo Lindgren is worshiped for his looks and musical genius. It’s been lonely at the top since his ex left. Bo will never take a girlfriend again though, because he doesn’t have the chops to love. He knows he’s poison, a heartbreak waiting to happen for anyone he allows too close—like his ex. Bo screws his way through the fangirls until he’s sick of it all. Until the dark gaze of Nadia Vidal appears in the door to his dressing room.

Saved from an arranged marriage by Jude, the love of her life, Nadia eloped and got married at nineteen. But now, two years later, life is wilted, dead, and not what anyone should have to endure.

Nadia, with her secret-keeper eyes and instant understanding of who Bo is, attracts and fascinates him without even trying. The ring gleaming on her finger should keep them apart, but morals can’t always resist destiny.

When brokenhearted meets heartbreaker, whose heart is really at stake?

NADIA
"Baby," I croak before I open my eyes. I stretch beneath our sheets, writhing at the sound of the alarm clock. Awakened from dreams colored by our past, my first thought goes to my husband. "Turn it off, babe? Please," I say.

The alarm keeps beeping, beep-beep-beeping. It's annoying and chased by my customary just-awake confusion. "Jude, you know how much I hate that sound.”

I'm at home in our apartment in St. Aimo, Los Angeles. Slowly, it registers that the alarm is for me, not him. I turn to face him, whine softly, but he doesn't give me the response I crave: a chuckle and a kiss while he playfully commiserates with me.

"Oh sweetie," he usually murmurs. "I'm sorry you have to leave for school. Maybe you should play hooky and stay in bed for a rubdown? I’ll rub… all the way down."

I always crack a smirk then, reading between the lines. He would leave us mumbling heated words and gasping for air if I surrendered.

Deep in my belly, something contracts. Something bittersweet and beautiful that hurts, because today, again, he doesn't react.

I slide from the covers and sit on the edge of the bed. My head feels heavy. It needs support, and for a second, I’m struck by how alive my hand is when I cup my cheek with it.

Soon, I find the courage to rise.

The bathroom door is closed, but I go to it anyway. “Do you remember when you first came to our church?" I ask Jude, my words stuttering, sleep-exhausted. I exhale and lean my forehead against the door. "Your eyes were bright with fear as you entered the Heavenly Harbor between your parents. You were lanky, a gangly fourteen-year-old, a little boy big enough to have gotten yourself into trouble."

My throat produces hard lumps so easily these days. This one I muscle down. I control the sadness accompanying it and let a small smile filter out instead. "Oh Jude baby. We didn't know then, of all the adventures to come.

“I remember sitting in the pews between Mother and Father, head twisted at the creak of the door. You entered on a lull between psalms.

“I didn't know. We didn't know."

I sniff, an attempt at stanching the tears.

The wood of the doorframe cools my cheek. Presses into it as my memories brighten. "Your skin," I mumble. He’s quiet behind the panel. The shower has stopped—in our bathroom or in the one above us, I'm not sure. If he's moving, he's not making a sound. Perhaps he's listening to me.

"Fine veins shone blue at your temple beneath your too-long hair.” I snort out a wet laugh. “And the sun reached you through the stained-glass window, spilling the rainbow over your face."

I roll my forehead to the side against the door. "Funny how your parents picked our church because ‘Heavenly Harbor’ sounded like the right kind of place. They wanted the best haven for you."

 Not long ago, my Jude would have grinned at this. He'd pull me in, golden bangs falling over me and tickling me while he ran his nose up mine. He'd croon, "Oh and weren't they right. I found my haven—in you."

I'd push him good-naturedly, not allowing fear of the future to ruin our love. "But you'd be safe at home with your parents if they hadn't crushed on the name of our church."

He’d kiss my nose, groan, and say, "Right, and I wouldn't have a beautiful wife."

"A child bride," I teased once.

"Nineteen is a fine age. Get them early." He winked, knowing well he only held two months on me.

We were young. Married. And so on the run.

Author Bio:
Sunniva was born in Norway, the Land of The Midnight Sun, but spent her early twenties making the world her playground. Southern Europe: Spain, Italy, Greece—Argentina: Buenos Aires, in particular. The United States finally kept her interest, and after half a decade in California, she now lounges in the beautiful city of Savannah. Sunniva has a Master's degree in Spanish, which she taught until she settled in as an adviser at an art college in the South.

Sunniva writes New Adult fiction with soul. Sometimes it's with a paranormal twist, like in Shattering Halos, Stargazer, and Cat Love. At other times, it's contemporary, as in Pandora Wild Child, Leon's Way, Adrenaline Crush, and now Walking Heartbreak.

Sunniva is the happiest when her characters take over, let their emotions run off with them, shaping her stories in ways she never foresaw. She loves bad-boys and good-boys run amok, and like in real life, her goal is to keep you on your toes until the end of each story.


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