Saturday, December 19, 2015

Random Tales of Christmastime Part 8


Where You Lead by Mary Calmes
Summary:
ATF agent Peter Lomax isn’t a hearts and flowers kind of guy, but he can be possessive, and it caused problems until Carver Fleming. Carver may be part of the art world, but he gets Peter, loves belonging to the man, and Peter treasures the way Carver understands them together.

Carver loves Peter, but he's fully aware that six months doth not a commitment make. Carver wants to make the relationship last forever, but he’ll have to leave their life in Chicago to take care of the family he loves. He wants to do it with Peter by his side, but going from the city of Chicago to tiny Colt, Kentucky is a big change.

Carver has only one Christmas wish: Please, oh please, let Peter fall enough in love with Carver's family to follow Carver home.


I have yet to read characters created by Mary Calmes that I didn't fall in love with from page one and Peter and Carver are no different.  I would love to read more stories featuring this pair but for now I am content adding this amazing holiday tale to my Christmas library.

RATING: 

The Family We're Born With by Kaje Harper
Summary:
Jesse Calhoun met Devin Palmer five years ago, in front of a Christmas tree at a friend's party. It was Jesse's first holiday alone, away from home. Devin didn't have much of a home to go back to. They found a way to make the season brighter, together.

Four years ago, Jesse brought Devin to his parents' house and came out to them. It wasn't all roses, but his family came around, and Devin has spent each holiday with the Calhouns since then. Jesse really loves sharing Christmas with his family, and sharing his family with Devin.

So he isn't prepared to hear his mom say, “I don't want Devin to come to the house for Christmas Eve this year.” Suddenly it's not smooth sailing, keeping peace with the family he was born with.

Puppy, Car, and Snow by Amy Lane
Summary:
Ryan’s entire life changed the night Scott surprised him in a bathroom at a party. Now Ryan’s soulless climb up the corporate ladder has stalled—but his quality life has become a whirlwind of laughter, joy and surprises, thanks to Scotty’s playful, gentle heart.

After three years together, they’re going to Ryan’s parents’ cabin to spend Christmas. Snowed in by the weather and locked under the icy glare of his mother’s disapproval, can Ryan show he has found the most profound happiness in the simplest of things?


Another great holiday tale by Amy Lane.  Ryan and Scott are a cute and established couple that mesh perfectly together, too bad Ryan's mother doesn't quite see it the same way.  This is definitely going into my holiday re-read shelf for next year.

RATING: 

Bianca's Plan by BG Thomas
Summary:
Bianca worries that her daddy, Gavin, is lonely and decides he needs a boyfriend for Christmas. So she enlists her father's best friend, the straight and unattached Curtis. Gavin has a Christmas wish, too, and Curtis setting him up on disastrous dates isn't part of it! Meanwhile, Curtis finds life becoming complicated as he tries to please Bianca, make Gavin happy, and fend off his own unexpected mixed feelings. Will anyone's wish come true?

Nine Lights Over Edinburgh by Harper Fox
Summary:
Detective Inspector James McBride is riding high on the belief that he's about to bust a human-trafficking ring. But just five days before Christmas, his unorthodox methods catch up with him and his world comes crashing down.

McBride tries to concentrate on his new day job as security for the visiting Israeli ambassador. He even starts to feel a renewed sense of self-worth when the leader of the Israeli team, the aristocratic Tobias Leitner, takes a bullet for him in the line of duty. But he can't forget the trafficking case, especially when his investigations result in the kidnapping of his own daughter! McBride has no one to turn to for help—no one, except Toby.

Can these two very different men work together to bring about a holiday miracle—and heal one another's heart in the process?

Included in His for the Holiday Anthology


Some might classify this story as too depressing for a Christmas story but I didn't.  Yes, James McBride is definitely a detective with some major life issues that have brought him on the edge of a very bad place but he doesn't stay there.  Christmas is all about hope and even if it takes most of the story for James to find the kind of peace we all want, the hope that he'll discover it is there from the beginning, in my opinion anyway.  I'll admit that the plot may move along at a slightly rushed pace but it is a holiday novella and truth is, sometimes life moves at a rushed pace so why shouldn't a story do the same once in a while?  A great addition to my holiday library.

RATING: 


Where You Lead
One
TRUTHFULLY, THE idea had been a good one, and you had to give it to the director’s wife for coming up with a fun way to drum up contributions to the fallen agents’ fund, but why we all needed to go was beyond me. It wasn’t like, on our salaries, plus living in Chicago, we could actually afford to purchase any of the art on sale.

Not that any of us had any real appreciation of what we were looking at anyway. I had a little more than the others because I had the hot boyfriend who ran a different gallery in the city. He was on loan, along with a lot of other people, to oversee the well-publicized black-tie event.

“It’s a roach,” my partner, special agent Elliott Dorsey of the ATF, was explaining to his lovely wife Felicia. “Pete and I had to come over here earlier to drop Carver off some food so he wouldn’t starve to death, and we saw this creepy piece of crap then.”

“I asked C when the giant—” I burped up a chili dog I’d had for lunch. “—can of Raid was gonna be added, but he just told me to get out.”

“Which was rude,” Elliott commented.

“Right?”

“And I still don’t see it.” He pointed, gesturing at the eyesore in the center of the gallery.

No sound from Felicia, so after a second, we both turned to look at her. She looked absolutely horrified.

“What?” I asked her.

“Are you kidding?”

She seemed agitated but still beautiful. I had never seen her in an evening dress before.

“Bug making you wanna hurl?”

“I don’t really get it,” Elliott said, wincing. “And if you think about it, it’s actually kinda gross.”

“It’s not a bug!” Felicia Dorsey insisted, looking at us both like we were nuts. “And where is Carver? I need him here to cut the stupid.”

“He’s around here some—Hey,” I said defensively. “Are you trying to say something about me and your husband?”

“Trying?” she demanded sarcastically.

“It’s totally a bug,” Elliott said, pointing at the long strands protruding from the top—or what I thought was the top—of the sculpture. “Those are the feeler thingies on top.”

“Antennae,” I corrected him.

“They are not,” Felicia insisted.

“Are you high, woman?” Elliott asked his wife, gesturing with both hands. “Can you not see the legs and the wings? It’s a sewer roach.”

“It is,” I agreed, tipping my head at the back end. “And I think that’s supposed to be crap it’s climbing out of.”

“Oh dear God,” she groaned.

“Maybe it’s supposed to represent urban decay,” Elliott said, obviously pleased with himself.

“The plight of the inner city.”

She whirled around to face the both of us. “You guys are disgusting. They would not put a giant roach on display here at the Sanderson Gallery! Ask Carver if you don’t believe me.”

We were both quiet.

“Stop looking at me like—Gah! I hate you both.”

I squinted at her. “Money where your mouth is, smarty-pants. Twenty bucks says it’s a bug.”

“She’s not taking that bet,” Elliott said. “It’s totally a bug.”

“Ohmygod, where is Carver?” she moaned loudly.

“Don’t cry about it,” I baited her.

“She’s just bein’ weird ’cause she’s all dolled up for once and she doesn’t want us to make fun of all the froufrou art.” Elliott yawned again. “Man, I’m beat.”

“What art?” I grumbled. “It’s a bug.”

“It’s not a bug!” she half yelled. “Do you know what normally gets sold out of this art gallery?”

“Art?” Elliott snickered, cracking himself up.

I nodded helpfully.

“Seriously, could you two just grow up for one night?”

“Gotta be good,” I told him. “We’re dressed up.”

“’Cause it’s nice in here.”

“Upscale.”

“Fancy,” he said, dragging out the word

“Swank.”

“Refined.” He made a clicking noise with his tongue.

“Stylish.”

“Chic.”

“Ritzy.”

He furrowed his eyebrows because he was thinking.

“Ohmygod, stop,” his wife snapped at us. “If you two could not ruin my night with your juvenile crap, I—”

“Speaking of,” Elliott said, cutting her off, his gaze on me. “I bet you can’t take a crap here.”

“You’re daring me to take a dump?”

“No, I’m saying I bet the bathroom is way too nice here to drop a load in.”

“Are you kidding?” Felicia moaned.

“No matches,” I offered.

“Only scented candles,” he confirmed, shaking his head. “Not gonna cut through the noxious cloud of gas.”

“You’d have people passing out all over the place.” I gestured to include everything.

“Ohmygod, you two need to be separated,” she whispered harshly, stepping between us.

“But why?” Elliott stomped his foot.

Spinning me around and then shoving me forward, she ordered me to get lost.

“Yeah, but—”

“Go rescue your man from whoever’s got him,” she directed, sliding her arm through her husband’s to lead him away. “And remember, we’re going to dinner on Sunday because I want to see you guys before you leave on your trip.”

“Oh, don’t remind him,” Elliott whined. “He’s a fuckin’ basket case about it already.”

“You are?” She switched from wanting to brain me with her sequined black clutch to worrying. “Why?”

I shook my head.

“What if Carver’s folks hate him?” Elliott theorized. “It’s not like Pete’s some great catch. I mean, look at him.”

“He’s gorgeous,” she soothed me, leaning forward to kiss my cheek. “And he’s an ATF agent, which is sort of romantic, and—”

“You think our job’s romantic?” he asked his wife seductively. “You wanna come with me to my car, lady?”

“I’m going to beat you ’til you’re dead,” she said flatly.

He made a noise of disgust. “Not hot.”

“Walk with me,” she said between clenched teeth, tugging Elliott forward. “I look fantastic, and I never look fantastic, so you two better suck it up and give me a goddamn elegant evening!”

“Elegant,” Elliott repeated, snapping his fingers. “That’s the word I was trying to think of.”

She growled and started walking away with my partner.

“The snarling certainly isn’t elegant,” I called over to her.

The flipping me off over her shoulder wasn’t either, but it made her husband laugh.

I walked from sculpture to painting, saw the bids on little sticky notes on the corners of the glass, moved on before anyone could ask me if I liked whatever I was looking at, and kept an eye out for my boss.

I was trying to stay out of Director Harvey’s way since he would not be happy to see me and I really didn’t want to get into it with him again. What he called reckless, I called saving lives. Yes, I had traded myself to a gunman for a civilian, and yes, I had been taking a chance, but it had been a necessary risk. Afterward, Elliott had punched me so hard in the stomach I had doubled over, and when I got home—since he had gone ahead and called Carver and informed him of the peril I had put myself in—that had been a whole other scene. It had taken hours of reassurance and cajoling to get the man I loved to speak to me. And even though it was weeks ago at this point, I was still on the director’s shit list. Everyone had gotten out safely, including the gunman, but still, the director was pissed. We had saved three lives at a liquor store robbery that had escalated and turned into a hostage negotiation. And while I didn’t think I would get a commendation, neither had I anticipated my director thinking I had a death wish. I didn’t. Not at all. But Friday night, after work, was not the time to have that discussion. So when I saw him walk in the front door, I ducked out toward the back.

I walked around some walls and came out in front of a painting that didn’t make my eyes bleed or my brain hurt. Not that I liked it, that part had to be made clear, but certainly it was the only piece in the gallery I found interesting.

As far as I could tell, I was looking at yellow ghosts. Maybe. Or they could have been shadows made of gold or sunlight, because there was also rain.

I thought it was rain.

Maybe the vantage point was inside looking out at the rain.

God, I hated art.

“You’re looking at my piece.”

I turned slowly because, really, I would have had to be deaf to miss the come-on.

“You are.”

“Yes, I am,” I said, pivoting to face the man.

“You like it?”

“I don’t hate it,” I conceded.

He held out his hand for me. “Anton.”

“No last name?” I asked, taking the offered hand.

“Just Anton,” he simpered, running his gaze over me from head to toe and back.

It took me a second to realize that the delicate, vulpine-featured man who I had thought would be intimidated with my size had clasped my hand with his other and was holding on tight.

He was five foot six, with huge, limpid green eyes fringed in long, thick, brown lashes, and was maybe all of twenty. The way he was smiling up at me was absolutely decadent.

I scowled and then it hit me. “I’m not an art collector, I don’t own a gallery, and I’m not looking to be your patron.”

“Okay,” he whispered, stepping in closer to me and inhaling.

“Are you drunk?” I asked dryly. “Anton?”

“No,” he purred. He reached out, put a hand on my hip, and curled a finger into the belt loop of my dress pants. “I’ve just been stalking you since you came in, and I kept hoping I’d figure out a reason to come talk to you. Who knew you were an art lover?”

“I’m not,” I clarified, cupping his chin in my hand and staring down into all that emerald. “It’s just that of all of them in here, yours is the only one I at least get.”

He lifted one mischievously arched eyebrow. “And? What do you see?”

“Angels.”

“And you knew that before or after you read the title?”

“Don’t be a wiseass,” I snapped, letting him go. “I figured something like that before.”

“Go on.”

“But is the painting supposed to be in the rain?”

“You see rain there?”

I groaned.

His breath caught. “I bet people tell you all the time how beautiful you are.”

“No,” I said softly. “Only my boyfriend.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.” I said frankly. “But thank you, I’m very flattered.”

“He’ll never know,” he assured me, lifting his hand to my bicep.

“I’ll know.” I was adamant, taking a step back so his hand fell off my arm. I wasn’t stupid; I knew what I looked like, and at six foot three, built like a linebacker, with muscles formed from years of devotion to the gym and a strenuous job, I knew some men noticed me. But more importantly, I always had one man’s full attention and that was worth more than every other on the planet. That’s what love did: it made you accept no substitute once you found the real thing.

“Would you like to have dinner with me?”

“If he were single,” Carver said as he appeared at my elbow, “he would probably love to have dinner with you, Christopher Banks. But since he’s not, he can’t.”

Poor kid—his eyes got huge and round, and he looked like he’d seen a ghost.

“Walk away before I get angry,” Carver warned him.

“I—Mr. Fleming, I had no idea he—you…. Please don’t pull my pic—”

“I won’t,” Carver said, taking hold of my hand. “No harm done. Just go. Now.”

Anton, aka Christopher, didn’t say another word, just bolted like he was being chased.

“You,” he growled at me.

“Oh, I didn’t do anything, and you’re so not mad.” I laughed softly, kissing his cheek.

“I’m not? Because I think I am.”

I took his face in my hands, marveling as I always did that the man with the big, beautiful brown eyes, adorable little upturned nose, and the most beautiful lips I had ever seen in my life belonged to me. “No. You know better.”

“I’m mad,” he snapped even as his eyes betrayed him, drifting shut as I bent to kiss him. “Don’t pick up little boys.”

“Never,” I promised, slanting my mouth down over his.

He opened for me, tilted his head back in surrender, and wrapped his arms around my neck as I took and he gave, boneless against me, a low whine in the back of his throat as I claimed him.

“You like kissing me,” I mumbled, smiling before I straightened up.

“No. Correction: I love kissing you,” he husked, grabbing the lapels of my suit jacket and then tugging me back into an alcove before reaching up—he was five foot ten to my six foot three—and wrapping his arms around my neck. He pulled me down and kissed me, pressing his hard, lean body into mine.

His attention, as always, annihilated me. It had from the beginning.

The very first time I saw the man, I nearly swallowed my tongue. He had been standing in a group of people at my friend Irene’s fortieth birthday party, and the only thing wrong with him was the other man draping his arm around his shoulders.

Lithe, with a lean, taut frame, his back tapered to a narrow waist and a beautiful, tight, round ass. His long legs were encased in threadbare jeans, and the color on his arms was, I was guessing, the same as he was all over, a gorgeous golden tan. I wanted to check and see, have him naked under me so I could perform a thorough head-to-toe inspection.

“That’s Carver Fleming,” Irene had explained as she wafted by on her boyfriend Gus’s arm. “Cute, huh?”

I had nodded, watching him laugh, curl his hair around his left ear, and shift from one foot to the other, just that much movement showing off the fluid, sleekly muscled lines of the man. Because I was so involved with my own carnal thoughts, I didn’t notice when the entire group of five people—my dream guy, his date, and three others—focused on me. It was fantastic. Everyone got to see me drool.

Groaning, I turned toward the sliding glass door to make as dignified a retreat as possible and was alone out on the patio of the club in River North moments later. Fortunately it was summer in Chicago or I would have frozen to death.

“Caught you staring.”

When I turned my head, of course I found myself looking into the big, warm, brown eyes of the man I wanted to make a meal of. “Yeah, I’m sorry if I embarrassed you or—”

“Why would I be embarrassed?” he asked, walking forward to join me at the rail, his gaze searching mine. “A gorgeous man checking me out? How is that bad?”

“Oh,” I said curtly, trying to remain aloof. “I just—I saw your boyfriend and I meant no disrespect.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” he clarified.

“No?”

“No,” he assured me, leaning closer, into my space, putting his hand on my arm. “I’m Carver Fleming. What’s your name?”

“Peter Lomax.”

“And what is it you do, Peter?”

“Pete,” I said without thinking.

“Pete,” he echoed, smiling up at me with hooded eyes.

“I’m an ATF agent.”

“That’s like FBI?”

“Not really. We do tobacco and firearms and a lot of other crap. Mostly gun-trafficking, bring people up on firearms violations.”

“Gangs, the mob; I bet you see a lot of them.”

“Pretty much, yeah,” I said, gazing down at him as he slid his other hand under my jacket and settled it on my left hip.

“So, Pete,” he began, “like I said, I noticed you checking me out.”

“Guilty.”

His smile was warm. “Well, obviously I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been looking right back at you.”

It made sense.

“I have a soft spot for bright Caribbean-blue eyes,” he teased, winking at me.

He was an artist, so I understood the extra modifiers. Black wasn’t black, it was onyx. Beige was ecru and yellow was amber. But the truth was, only one color got me worked up.

“I like brown,” I rumbled, and I watched as his lips parted and heard his breath catch. “Blue, green, gray—those can all be cold. But brown is always warm and soft and deep.”

He nodded, and when he spoke, his voice had dropped an octave. “Okay, so forget about the flirty banter I was gonna lay on you… would you like to grab a late dinner with me and then go back to my place?”

I liked straight to the point. I was a big fan, actually. “Yes, please,” I sighed as I put a hand on his cheek and dragged my thumb over his lips. “Except we should pick something up and I should take you home with me.”

Something flickered in his face. “You want to take me home?”

“If that would be all right?”

He scoffed. “Got a revolving door on your bedroom, agent?”

I chuckled, powerless to glance away from him. I was riveted. “Not at all, not in a very long time.”

“Can’t be that long, how old are you?”

“Thirty-four. You?”

“Thirty-six,” he answered, squinting at me.

“Older man,” I teased him. “That’ll be different.”

“How so?” he asked, letting go of my jacket and reaching up to slide his right hand around the back of my neck, and step into me, parting my thighs with his knee, notching his groin against mine.

“Maybe you know what you actually want,” I said playfully, licking my lips because they had gone dry, along with my throat. “That would be a nice change right there.”

He nodded. “Get a lot of that, do you? Indecision?”

“Yeah.”

“Me too,” he confessed, “and guys wanting to take things slow but without the pesky monogamy.”

I grinned wide. “I think we’ve been dating the same people.”

“Have we?”

“Yeah. I mean, apparently I don’t even know how to date, since I’ve been told I get too serious too fast.”

He seemed bemused. “Let me understand: a man who looks like you, and no one wants to keep him? What’s wrong with you?”

“Well, for starters, apparently I’m much too possessive.”

“I would think it would be the other way around.”

“Why’s that?”

“I bet you get hit on everywhere you go. I could see that getting old for whoever you’re dating.”

I scoffed at him. “Hardly.”

“Do you own a mirror, Agent Lomax?”

“No. I mean,” I hedged, “I don’t scare little kids when I walk down the street, but I’m not normally the guy people follow around after either.”

“Oh no?” he asked, slipping his fingers up into my hair and massaging the back of my head. “I find that very hard to believe.”

“Well, it’s—” God, he smelled good, and the stubble on his cheeks, was so sexy, and his dark, full lips. “—true.”

He tightened his grip as he bent my head down. “I think you’re mistaken. You’re definitely the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a very long time.”

It didn’t matter if the man was deluded, the important part was how he sealed his lips over mine, the way I opened for him, and the press and play of our tongues together.

His low moan made me brave, and I tore my mouth free.

“No, don’t go,” he protested.

I grabbed his hand and yanked him after me down the stairs and around the side of the building into the alley. Crowding him, I walked him back into the wall on the other side of the dumpster, pushing, pressing, putting my hands all over him, desperate for skin. I tugged on his shirt, got under it to run my hands over the washboard abs, and then slid them lower to his belt buckle.

“Say it.”

“Whatever you want.” His breath fanned hot over my face.

“Fuck a lot in alleys?”

“No. I never—this isn’t like me,” he gasped, and I understood. He was a little too classy to let some stranger grope him in public. “You’re just so—”

“Intent,” I replied, working the belt loose first, then the snap on his jeans and the zipper, before shoving my hand down the front of his pants.

“Yes,” he moaned.

His noises were so sweet, so full of surrender.

“Pete you—oh,” he panted when I closed my fingers around the long, hard length of him.

“If you feel this good in my hand, I can only imagine how good you’d be in my mouth.”

“I want to—eat with you,” he whimpered as I dropped to my knees, “and—Pete!”

I shucked his jeans and briefs to his knees in one sharp motion, leaving no room for protest, then slid my lips over the large, flared crown. I loved that he was already rock hard simply from being close to me.

“You’re not supposed to—”

He stopped talking when I took him down the back of my throat, swallowing, squeezing, and then licked the underside, making everything wet, laving and sucking until the man was writhing on the wall, clutching at my hair.

“I can’t… you have to stop.”

But I kept the suction strong, bobbing my head as I quickened my movements and he began pumping in and out of my mouth, chanting my name, whimpering softly.

“Just—please,” he begged me.

I shoved my fingers into my mouth beside his dick and got them wet, slick with saliva, and then dragged one along his crease as I swirled my tongue over the length of him, tracing the thick vein on his beautiful cut cock.

“Pete!”

Pulling back, I let him slide free of my mouth and stood fast, spun him around, and shoved him roughly up against the exposed brick wall. He clutched at it, bracing himself as I jerked him off with one hand and parted his cheeks with the other, working a finger slowly, gently, up inside.

He yelled my name as he spurted over the wall, rigid in my hands, gasping, jolting with aftershocks before he started mumbling something under his breath.

“Slow down and talk to me.”

But he was shuddering too hard to speak coherently, and when I wrapped him in my arms, he leaned back heavily.

It took long minutes for his breathing to even out, and I was careful as I uncurled my fingers from his shaft, and slid free of his clasping channel. Tenderly, I lifted his underwear and pants, zippered and belted, piecing him back together. Turning him, I leaned next to his ear and kissed the skin behind. He took a deep breath, and when he did, I could finally make out the word.

“What about home?” I asked as I leaned in to hug him.

He coiled his arms around my waist, burrowing against my chest. “Take me home with you. Let’s go now.”

“You sure? I just manhandled the hell out of you.”

“I’m sure.” He shivered, sighing deeply. “And you can do that whenever you like.”

“Remember what I said about being possessive?”

“I do, and I’m looking forward to it,” he murmured, lifting his head to kiss over my jawline. “You lead, I’ll follow.”

And for the past six months, the highly independent, driven man who worked day and night to make his gallery the premier spot in the art community in Chicago—hosting everyone from new and upcoming artists, trending ones, and established darlings of the art world—also, amazingly enough, made time for me. But I too had changed, bent for him. What I had done for no others—small things like making sure we always ate dinner together, calling before making plans to check if he wanted to come, and never, ever, letting an argument fester—I did for Carver Fleming. And I knew why: I was finally, desperately, in love. He was my home and I was his. The problem was, unlike my own family, which was scattered to the wind, his was in one centralized location, and even worse, they expected him for Christmas.

“… not listening to me.”

Jolting, I met his gaze and saw how amused he looked. “What?”

“You didn’t hear a word I said.”

“No.” I cleared my throat. “I did.”

“Really?” He was trying not to laugh. “What did I say, then?”

I had no clue, so I went in another direction. “I noticed that you didn’t put your painting in the show.”

“Don’t try and change the—”

“You don’t want to own an art gallery; you want to be an artist.”

He glared at me. “I’m not ready yet.”

“I think you are.”

It had been a common conversation lately: his dreams versus his life.

“I don’t want to talk about this right now,” he said irritably, stepping away from me, letting me go.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s not time.”

“That sounds ominous.”

He shook his head. “I’m going to have to ask you to make a choice here soon, but not yet. I need more time.”

I should have known it was all too good to be true.

The Family We're Born With
Chapter One
Jesse stared at his mother. “You want what?”

“I'm sorry.” She reached for him, cutting her gesture short with a flutter of her fingers. “You know I love Devin. I think he's great for you, really.”

“But you don't want him to be here when Sam arrives.”

“Just not right at first,” Mom said. “I want us to start off right. Sam's looking for his roots, his birth mother, and I want it to be good. He was raised in Texas, you know. He's a Marine. His adoptive parents have lots of money. I don't want us to seem too...”

“Too what? Too weird? Too liberal? Too gay?”

“Jesse.”

“Don't Jesse me, Mom.” He wanted to pace, to shout, maybe hit something. He cracked his knuckles, not trying to annoy her but all the same, today he didn't stop when she winced. “I am gay. If he's going to hang around with us, he'll have to live with that.”

“I know, and he will. I promise. I'm not asking you to hide it. Just don't push it in his face the first day.”

Jesse frowned at his mother, wondering where the hell this was coming from. She hadn't been thrilled when he told her he was gay, four years ago, but she'd never asked him to hide it or suggested there was something wrong with him. This was coming out of left field and it hurt, even at twenty-five with a job and a boyfriend and all. “I could just stay away myself tomorrow, leave you to bond him to the normal part of the family.”

“Oh, dear.” His mother pleated her sweater into folds between her fingers. “I don't want you to go away. I just want us to all have a lovely holiday with no fighting.”

“What makes you think that can't happen if Devin celebrates it with us, as usual?” For the last three years, his boyfriend had been part of their family Christmas. Devin's own mom was long dead, and his father was in a nursing home. They were all the family Devin really had. How many times had Mom said she thought of Devin as one of her kids? Apparently that stopped when one of the real kids came home, even if it was a kid she hadn't seen since the day he was born.

“Sam was in the military for years,” she said. “I really don't want to push my luck.”

The tremble in her voice made Jesse stop and take a calming breath himself. He hated it when Mom cried. “What do I tell Devin? That we just found out my long-lost adopted illegitimate half-brother is going to come see us on Christmas Eve, so Devin should just go hide in the hotel while we kill the fatted calf?”

“He could come on Christmas day, maybe. Once Sam's been here a bit.”

“Look, Devin and I can just play it cool at first. Until we sound Sam out and see if he really is homophobic. We won't kiss, or even stand too close together. Okay?”

“That won't work.” Mom touched his arm. “Can't you tell Devin it's a compliment, really? That he loves you so much, it shows when you're together.”

“Some compliment.” Jesse shook her hand off and turned for the door. “I'll be at the hotel.”

The whole drive there, he turned her words over in his mind. Objectively, maybe he could understand why she... no, on second thought, he couldn't. This was his mother, who put spiders outside rather than kill them, and gave money to every panhandler she passed. Who claimed kindness was important, and now suddenly was willing to make Devin feel like shit.

By the time he got to the door of their room, he'd worked up a good head of steam.

“She said what?” Devin pulled him inside and closed the door. “Slow down, you're not making sense.”

“She doesn't want to offend that damned Sam with our gayness.”

“So you can't wear make-up to dinner?” Devin teased. “No kissing under the mistletoe?”

“No you.”

Puppy, Car, and Snow
Chapter 1
First Round
“HEY, Ryan, give me your hand.”

Ryan made sure his aching foot and calf were firmly anchored on the brake and the car was completely stopped before he looked over at his boyfriend, trying not to yawn. Five hours. They’d been trying to get up the hill to Donner Summit for five hours. God—were they the only people who could put chains on before it got critical?

The smell of exhaust was making him queasy; he’d started up and killed the engine about six times to conserve gas while they were at a standstill; and Blitzkrieg, the world’s most massive not-poodle, had needed to be walked on the side of the road three times. She’d also eaten some of Ryan’s luggage. Ryan didn’t want to look. It was a new set, and it was just too painful.

The look he shot Scotty was annoyed at the world at large.

Scott grinned back.

Scotty Davidovich had high Russian cheekbones and longish, if carefully cut, hair. (It was black and yellow this month—dyed specially, Ryan thought, to piss off Ryan’s mother at the holidays. It was a worthy endeavor. Ryan approved.) He also had blue-gray eyes with dark lashes that glinted wickedly when he looked sideways and full, smiling lips that looked like sex in a shot glass when he licked them and parted them just so. He was Ryan’s first male lover, and the love of Ryan’s life.

And right now, in the car, the look he was shooting Ryan was pure, one-hundred-percent, unadulterated, give-it-to-me-baby, fuck-me-without-mercy-in-front-of-the-dog sin.

That look was so incongruous with the little Honda stuck in traffic on the way up to visit Ryan’s parents for Christmas that Ryan had to look twice.

He put the car in park and turned off the ignition just in time for Scott to grab his hand from the keys and put it under the blanket he’d thrown on his lap the last time they’d turned the car off.

Ryan’s eyes got so big the chilled air from the windows dried them out. He blinked rapidly and squeezed, listening to Scotty’s grateful “Ah-ah-ah… ooooooohhh…” with a little bit of shock.

“Scotty, is that your…?” Stupid question. He squeezed Scotty’s cock—stiff and warm and peeking out over Scott’s underwear, yet still under the warm fuzzy blanket. Scott whined a little and bucked his hips and thrust deeper into Ryan’s hand.

Ryan’s heart started roaring in his ears, and he took a rabbity little look around their vehicular neighborhood to make sure no one was watching him give Scotty a hand job in the front of the car.

People in front of him in the big SUV? Little kids apparently enthralled by a new Dreamworks film featuring a fifty-foot woman with a nice rack. Check. Pouty teenage girl with iPod to the left of him, asleep against a pillow on the window? Check. People behind him still blocked by the luggage sharing the back seat with Blitzkrieg? Check. Rowdy frat boys on Scotty’s side surreptitiously passing a joint from person to person in the traffic? Check.

Operation Hand Job was a go!

Ryan loved the feeling of Scotty’s prick in his hand. It was hot, and the skin was soft, and the veins throbbed against Ryan’s palm. He watched Scott’s face as he stroked, loving the way Scotty threw his head against the headrest and started moaning softly in complete abandon. Traffic? Scotty didn’t see no stinking traffic; all he knew was that Ryan was jacking him off, rubbing his pre-come over his cock-head and murmuring hot things into the cold space of the car.

“You like that?”

“Mmmm…. Yeah….”

“Want it harder?”

“Ohhh… please, Ryan!”

“Harder?”

“God yes!”

Ryan let his grip slack to nothing, and Scotty’s cry of denial was almost a howl of pain.

“Ry! Please, Ry… please… lemme come… I wanna come… God… please….”

His hands were on the armrests, holding them tightly, and Ryan recognized the game; Scotty wouldn’t touch himself right now, because that was Ryan’s job.

Ryan worked hard to be good at his job. He tip-toed his fingers up Scotty’s slender length, listening to the hitch in Scott’s breath tell him that his teasing was just right. When he got to the tip, he rubbed his fingers in the pre-come that was drooling out of the slit. Scott whimpered, and Ryan used two fingers and two fingers only to slick Scotty up. He knew that the air leaking in under the blanket would serve to titillate Scott even more.

Scott wasn’t gibbering anymore. All of his concentration was on keeping his ass locked in his seat and his hands clenched on the armrests. So when he turned to Ryan with his eyes large and pupils dilated, his hips squirming and his full lips parted in mute appeal, Ryan knew he was about at the end of his rope.

“Please?” he murmured. “Please, Ry? Please finish me off?”

Ryan took one more look around and, after twisting his body in the unforgiving space of the car, dropped his head, grateful when Scotty pulled the blanket back and then covered him up with it. In the warm cocoon of come-scented dark, he fumbled for a minute, then found Scotty’s cock with his mouth and swallowed him down.

Scotty grunted, the sound reverberating against Ryan’s ear, and then Ryan grunted, because after three years together he loved this, loved taking Scotty’s cock into his mouth and sucking hard, and loved the sounds that Scotty made when clenching his hands in Ryan’s hair and bucking up, unashamed, completely lost in Ryan’s mouth on his body, in being tended to and waited on and loved.

Scotty groaned, the sound starting in his toes, vibrating in his thighs as they sat under Ryan’s cheek, and bouncing around his stomach for a while, and then Ryan was too busy swallowing, swallowing, not letting himself gag on the taste even a little, or it would make him spit up and Scotty would need to change his pants.

Scotty stopped coming, and there was quiet then under the fuzzy blanket as Scotty rubbed his hands on Ryan’s head and Ryan let Scotty’s cock fall out of his mouth and pulled back far enough to breathe.

Then Scotty’s whole body stiffened. “Oh shit, Ry! There’s a news camera three cars up. They’re interviewing people. Sit up, quick, before they spot us!”

Ryan sat up so suddenly the blanket came up, and then there was a frantic scrabble as Scotty pulled his loosest pair of jeans up and did the fly and Ryan wiped his face on the edge of the blanket while Scotty was using it to cover his crotch, just in case.

Ryan let go of the blanket, and Scotty pulled him forward for a kiss that suddenly stopped time and panic and all sorts of things, including Ryan’s heart. When Scott pulled back, his smile was gentle, even though his eyes were still dancing wickedly.

“Thanks for helping me get my perv on,” he said, that mobile mouth stretched into a smile.

“God, I love you!” Ryan blurted, because there was one person in the world who could have convinced Ryan to commit vehicular fellatio in a traffic jam.

Scott’s smile faded, and his hand came up to cup Ryan’s cheek and rub his lips with a tender thumb. “The news crew is about to knock on our window, Ry. Don’t make me get all sloppy stupid right now, ’kay?”

Ryan laughed and then almost jumped out of his jeans at the knock on the window. He clicked the keys, pressed the button, and turned around and flinched back from the blast of cold air and the fucking camera that damned near pushed its way into the car.

“Hi, I’m Suze Bachman from FOX News. So, what brings you up the hill in the middle of the crush?” Her hair was blonde and stiff under the fashionably soft red hat, her teeth were brightly veneered, and her voice was sort of scritchy-bright, and Blitzkrieg gave a muffled “ooof?” from the back seat. Ryan smiled and tried to sound like a lawyer and not a sexual deviant.

“Hi, Suze. We’re just going up to visit my parents for the holidays. I got caught up in work, and we left a little late. We were trying to beat the rush.”

“So, you and your roommate are staying in the family cabin for Christmas. That’s sweet.” She didn’t trip over “roommate,” and he didn’t see a reason to correct her—until she put her manicured hand on his shoulder through the window. He flinched back and Blitzkrieg, being the good guard dog she was, sensed the tension, skipped the “ooofing,” and let out a for-real bark.

Scott and Ryan both cringed as the entire car shook until the windows rattled. Suddenly, Blitzy wasn’t just a hidden monster in the luggage. She was a giant, black, curly head with ears long enough to fly, thrusting her narrow muzzle between the car seat and the window and biting like Suze Bachman was a new flavor of Alpo and she was gonna get her some of that.

Suze gave a little yelp and tripped backwards, and Scotty leaned over Ryan’s lap and called out, “Sorry about that. She’s jealous of strangers.” Ryan shot him a droll look that Scotty returned blandly, and then they both smiled at the camera and waved when Suze and her camera man took the “How Miserable Are These People In Traffic” show down to the next car in line.

Ryan rolled up the window, and he and Scott looked at each other and giggled like the stoned frat boys in the next car. (And why weren’t they getting interviewed for the six o’clock news, that’s what Ryan wanted to know!) Blitzkrieg whined, and Scotty pulled her forward, rubbing those fantastically silky ears and crooning, “Good dog! Who’s the bestest good girl in the world, oh yes! Driving off that nasty, mean reporter who wanted your other daddy’s body! Good girl!”

Ryan rolled his eyes. “She was just being annoyingly friendly—no lust needed.” But he joined Scott and petted the dog, because she was warm and she liked to lick their faces, and because she was their baby and had been since Scott had brought her home from the grocery store six months earlier and said, “Isn’t she a sweetheart? She’s supposed to be a toy poodle, and she was free!”

They’d learned a couple of things since that day in the summer. Thing the first: the dog wasn’t a toy poodle. She was maybe a cross between a giant poodle and a Clydesdale horse. Thing the second: They both loved the rapidly growing kibble disposal unit with an almost frightening intensity. Thing the third: There was no such thing as a free dog.

It was a thing Ryan had known when he put her in the backseat with the new luggage and the reason he could forgive her for slobbering all over his best suit right after he’d had it cleaned. It was the reason he’d risked his credit for a little house in the suburbs and the reason for the exclusive “Yes, I make house calls because your idiot canine ate garbage with a chaser of shoes” veterinarian, and generally one of life’s big lessons that didn’t hurt at all when Blitzy was licking your face after a shit day at work.

And now, as Ryan’s hands tangled with Scott’s in the curly tornado of Blitzkrieg’s fur, he realized that the dog might not be free, but that didn’t mean she didn’t pay you back.

“Yes,” Ryan said softly, squeezing Scott’s hand. “The dog saved me from the predatory heterosexual female who was horning in on your turf. Are you going to give her a treat now?”

Scotty flushed. “Sorry, Ry. It’s not the female that got me, really. You know that, right?”

Ryan knew. Scott usually wasn’t jealous at all—mostly because he kept saying that Ryan was the most trustworthy man he’d ever met. But usually they weren’t going to meet Ryan’s family.

“Look,” Ryan said reluctantly. “If you really don’t want to go, we can always take the next overpass and turn around.”

Scott rolled his pretty gray eyes. “For another five hours of traffic? No. We have to visit with them eventually. I mean, they do love you.”

And it was true. They did love Ryan. It was Scott they weren’t so crazy about, and not because he was the reason their son came out of the closet, either.

Ryan sighed, and then flashed a grin at Scott. “Just shows they’re biased—doesn’t mean they’re smart.”

“Yeah? How smart are they going to have to be to figure out that we were fooling around right before that news camera showed up?”

Ryan shrugged. “It wasn’t like it was written on our faces. Besides, that Suze person didn’t even see it, and she had to have read the vanity plates.” SCTSBOI was what the plate actually said. “Scotty’s Boi-Toi” was what the plate frame around the plate said. Scott had bought them for Ryan’s Christmas present the year before, and Ryan loved them.

Scott gave Ryan a purely male shove on the arm. “For all she knew, you were Scott, and the plates were about the car! And as for written on our faces….” Scott finished the sentence by pulling his hand up to Ryan’s lips and rubbing his thumb across the bottom.

Ryan looked in the rearview mirror and groaned. He’d wiped off his mouth, but his lips were both swollen and red. He’d been doing something with his mouth, that was for sure.

“Oh shit,” he mumbled. “God. I do. I look like I’ve been blowing someone with a cock the size of the Chrysler building.”

Scott smirked. “Well, I don’t like to brag….”

Ryan was aware that the cars around them were starting up in preparation to move, and he did the same. But no one was moving quite yet, so he turned around and smiled gently at the man he was pretty sure he couldn’t live without. “It’s not bragging, sweetheart, it’s the truth. Besides, what are the odds that’ll actually show up on the news and my folks will see it? Best way to kill time in traffic ever.”

Scott’s smirk softened, became the rather vulnerable smile that Scott saved for Ryan and Ryan only, and then the car in front of them moved and it was time to move on.

Bianca's Plan
“CURTIS? Do you think Daddy’s happy?”

Curtis Harrell turned from the turkey he was stuffing to look at the ten-year-old peering at him across the table. Her dark-brown hair was pulled back tight and her big brown eyes were filled with deep concern. “What makes you ask that, Bee?”

Bianca shrugged and looked away for a moment. “I don’t know.”

Curtis raised an eyebrow. There was never a time that Bianca didn’t know why she was asking anything. “Come on, Bee. Out with it.”

She made a face and blew out a puff of air. “He should have a boyfriend, don’t you think?”

Curtis stopped stuffing and flexed his sticky hand. This he had not been expecting. Bianca, interested in her father’s love life? He supposed he should be grateful she was so casual about the gay thing and that she had no fantasies about her father finding her a new mom.

Truth to tell, Curtis did worry about Gavin. It made him sad there was no one special in his best friend’s life. “Maybe he’s not ready.”

“What’s he not ready for?” She bit her lower lip. “It’s been a long time since Voldemort ran off.”

Curtis tried not to laugh at Bianca’s nickname for Gav’s ex. Voldemort—Steve—had vanished one day while Gav was at work. Gavin had been frantic with worry, only to discover the creep had run off with the owner of The Watering Hole, a semi-popular Kansas City hangout. Neither Curtis nor Gav had gone to the bar since. That had been almost two years ago.

“I never liked that freak, anyway,” Bianca added.

Curtis hadn’t liked the guy much either. Steve had been gorgeous, there was no doubt about that. But the man had always felt fake to Curtis. He certainly hadn’t been very… intellectual. Curtis suspected it was Steve’s Olympic accomplishments in the bedroom that had kept Gavin interested more than any other reason. And hell, why not? But it was just that Curtis felt his friend deserved more.

“Your dad’s busy, honey. He works hard for his money.” Gavin did too. He worked a full-time shitty job (plus as many overtime hours as they’d allow) to support himself and his daughter. “Why else do you think he’s not here helping us get dinner ready?” Curtis asked.

Bianca sighed and rolled her eyes. “You think that damned job is going to let him go home early? Who has to work on Thanksgiving anyway?”

Anyone who worked Thursdays at RMMS, Gav’s shitty place of employment, Curtis thought. The place was open 365 days a year and Gavin worked Thursdays, so he always worked Thanksgivings.

“Don’t swear, Bee,” Curtis said.

She rolled her eyes again. “All I said was ‘damned’.”

“Nevertheless,” was his only answer.

Bianca pouted. It only made Curtis grin. She was too old to pout and he told her so.

She humphed in reply and, humming “Jingle Bells” under her breath, began to open cans to make the green bean casserole.

God, Curtis loved that little girl, in many ways wished she were his own. But she wasn’t. All he could do was hope he found the right woman so that one day he could have a child. One day! It had better happen soon. He was already thirty.

Curtis shook his head. “It’s going to be a great day one way or the other,” he told Bianca. “We’ll have a big wonderful dinner no matter what.”

“I wish you weren’t straight,” Bianca said suddenly.

Curtis let out a bark of surprised laughter. “Why is that?” he asked.

“Because I love you. And you and Dad would be a great couple. You’re already best friends. I think it would be cool having you as my other dad.”

Nope. Bianca harbored no wishes that her dad would meet “the right woman.” Curtis shook his head. “You come up with the craziest stuff, Bee.”

Bianca turned back, scrutinized him. “You are straight, right?”

Curtis leaned on the table and propped his chin in his hand—too late realizing it was the one that had been stuffing the turkey. “Shit.”

“No swearing,” Bianca cried.

With a snort, he stood and grabbed a towel and wiped at his chin. How did he answer her? So complicated. “Straight enough,” was the answer. But instead he said, “Have you ever seen me date a dude?”

“I haven’t seen you date a girl in forever!”

“What about Caitlin?”

Bianca grimaced. “Please.”

Well, yeah. He deserved that. He tried another. “Susan?”

Bianca flicked her hand, not even honoring the name with a comment. To be fair, Susan wasn’t really worth it. Not that she was a bad person, she just wasn’t his type. Whatever that was. He’d yet to discover that.

“And you better not say Alison either,” Bianca stated flatly.

“You keeping tabs?” Curtis started to run his fingers through his hair, and remembered at the last second that a sticky chin was bad enough.

“Yes,” she said with a toss of her head.

“Then how can you say I’m not dating?” He began to stuff the turkey again. He’d finished the chest cavity and was now filling the neck.

“’Cause you never date them twice.”

“What about Alison?”

Bianca flipped a piece of onion peel at Curtis. “I told you not to mention her.”

“Hey! No throwing food!”

Bianca threw a piece of eggshell.

Curtis flapped his hand and bits of stuffing flew at Bianca.

“Gross!”

“Stop throwing food,” he repeated.

Bianca sighed again and flounced onto a kitchen chair.

“Do you think Dad is hot?”

Curtis coughed, nearly choked. “Hot?”

She nodded. “I mean, why doesn’t anyone ask him out? He’s not ugly, is he? I was in the laundry room yesterday and heard Preston telling his sister that Dad’s hot when he didn’t think I was listening.”

Preston, the skinny little florist who lived two floors down, thought Gavin was hot?

She shook her head. “It’s hard to tell when it’s your own dad,” she said.

Curtis cleared his throat. “Well… ah, I don’t know if I’m the best person to ask.”

“Because you’re straight? Come on, Curtis. You can admit another guy is hot, can’t you? I think Taylor Swift is hot. You don’t have to want to bang him!”

Bang? Had Bianca really just said “bang”? Curtis cleared his throat. Gavin, hot? The image of Gav came to his mind. Slim, nicely built, athletic, dark-blond hair, shining blue eyes, sweet smile, and…. Oh hell. Why not admit it? “I… ah… he’s a good-looking man. I suppose if I dated guys, I’d ask him out.”

Bianca sighed as only a ten-year-old could. “But you don’t. Dammit.”

“Bee. What did I say about that?” Curtis shook his head and turned to the sink, started the water with his elbow, and began to wash his hands. “Why are you suddenly worried about your dad having a boyfriend?” he asked over his shoulder.

“Teacher was asking us the other day what we wanted for Christmas, and I only had to think about it for ten seconds. I want Daddy to get a boyfriend. Since you’re too uptight to snap him up, then we got to find him someone.”

“We?” Curtis spun to face his best friend’s daughter. “No. No way.”

“Curtis, you gotta help,” she said, eyebrows furrowed. “Santa won’t.”

“Santa?” Did ten-years-olds still believe in Santa Claus?

“Yesterday Daddy took me to the mall, and Santa was there. I figured it was just some fat guy with a fake beard, but when we walked by I saw he looked like the real thing. His clothes were all smudged and his big beard was real. Daddy asked me if I wanted to get my picture taken, and I didn’t really, but I wanted to talk to him. So we waited in line and I got in his lap and he smelled like tobacco. But it was nice and not like cigarettes, you know? So I asked him to get Daddy a boyfriend.”

Curtis started coughing. She did what? “You—you asked Santa to get your Daddy a boyfriend?” Boy, what had the man thought about that? “What did he say?”

“He said slavery was illegal and he couldn’t get Daddy a person! So I told him I wanted a Project Runway Make-Up Set.” She rolled her eyes.

Curtis tried not to laugh.

“So you see, you gotta help me!” she exclaimed.

“I told you,” Curtis said. “There is just no way I’m doing that.”

“Why not? You know a lot of gay men. Almost everybody in this building is gay.”

Which was true. The Oscar Wilde did have a high percentage of gay renters. The few straight women in the building were always sure to remind Curtis how happy they were that he was available. The problem was he didn’t find any of them appealing. They were too skinny or too soft or their breasts were way too big to be believed.

You better hurry up and pick a type, his inner voice advised him, or you’re going to be ninety before your kids graduate.

“It doesn’t matter,” Curtis said.

Bianca’s eyes grew wide. Sorrowful, even. “Why not? Do you want him to be alone another Christmas?” she asked piteously. “No one to cuddle with in front of the fireplace?”

“You don’t have a fireplace,” Curtis reminded her.

“No one to kiss under the mistletoe?”

“Look, baby girl. I think one of the biggest mistakes in the world is trying to set someone up. Especially a friend. It almost always ends in disaster. Remember it was your dad that introduced me to Alison.”

Bianca picked up a piece of celery, almost threw it, but stopped at the last second. “No mentioning Alison.” She popped the celery in her mouth.

“Okay. But get this idea out of your head. Right now. I am not setting up your dad. And that’s the last word.”

But when Curtis saw that look come over the face of the girl he almost thought of as a daughter, he wondered if it was. Bee could be very determined.

And she almost always got her way.

Nine Lights Over Edinburgh
A cold, unforgiving she-wolf of a city.

Not the parts the tourists saw, though in some places the two worlds coexisted, like the vaults, where population pressure had caused the Old Town builders to dig as far below the earth as they had raised their rickety structures above it. Guides took visitors down there—to gawp at grinding poverty safely set two hundred years in the past, though McBride knew men and women who lived there still.

McBride knew his city. He made his way in the grip of a bitter elation down the cobbled wynds that led between the Grassmarket and Cowgate. The back streets were icy, but he did not slip or fall. He knew the glitter side: Holyrood and the Tattoo, the peerless art galleries and science museums of the Enlightenment. He knew the squatting dwellers of the vaults, the tramps and gangs of disaffected kids who scratched out a troglodyte existence there. Even with a skinful of scotch, he knew how to place his feet on the cobbles to be steady and quiet and sure.

The city was his: he had conquered it. McBride knew the underworld network of clubs that threaded the Grassmarket. Some were for the tourists, a bit of spice and vice to titillate the lads on their stag weekends. And some were much worse. McBride, undercover as Archie Bayne, alcoholic and gambling addict, was a paid-up member of the worst of them. Oh, he knew Auld Reekie, who stank high enough to live up to her name behind these elegant, crumbling Georgian facades. McBride knew—almost—from which of the underworld dens Sim Carlyle was trading in the lives of Romanian women and kids.

Fifteen years on Edinburgh's streets, from constable to DI. Many of them happy, while he was pulling off his act as a heterosexual family man well enough. Team years, those had been, shouldering the harness beside Libby, ticking over like clockwork in his Harle Street squad. Then came his promotion. Better pay, plain clothes and the beginning of working alone. Of thinking too much and drinking too much to drown the thoughts; learning too well how to vanish undercover into night. Of Libby growing tired of playing mistress to a man now married to his job.

McBride emerged from the wynds and onto Castle Street. He snatched a surfacing breath. Leave all that mess down in the murk with Sim Carlyle. There was his city: a river of lights pouring down over the Royal Mile ridge, and above it all, brooding, visible only by its darkness, the root of the ancient volcano. Six days before Christmas, the cold had come down from the hollow sky at dusk, ringing, reverberant, making McBride's blood sing. His pockets were fat with cash from his poker winnings, his mind alight with all the things he knew. He was better off without his team—without a partner.

Without a family. The courts had granted Libby custody of their ten-year-old daughter, Grace. That was natural and good. McBride had not contested it. He had his girl for weekends and holidays, and that was enough. What kind of life could he give her? If McBride still really cared for anyone, it was the brat. She was staying with him on Christmas night. The money rustling in his pockets was destined, of course, for the police treasury—most of it, anyway; McBride was not as particular as he once had been concerning such niceties. All he was thinking as he turned the corner into Usher Close, was whether an iPod or that absurd Swarovski crystal necklace would go down best as an extravagant, unnecessary stocking filler. Both, maybe, though that would piss off Libby something cruel.

"Hoi, Archie!"


Author Bios:
Mary Calmes
Mary Calmes lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband and two children and loves all the seasons except summer. She graduated from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, with a bachelor's degree in English literature. Due to the fact that it is English lit and not English grammar, do not ask her to point out a clause for you, as it will so not happen. She loves writing, becoming immersed in the process, and falling into the work. She can even tell you what her characters smell like. She loves buying books and going to conventions to meet her fans.

Kaje Harper
Kaje Harper grew up in Montreal and spent her teen years writing, filling binders with stories about what guys like Starsky and Hutch really did on their days off. (In a sheltered-fourteen-year-old PG-rated romantic sense.) Serious authorship got sidetracked by ventures into psychology, teaching, and a biomedical career. And the challenges of raising children.

When Kaje took up writing again it was just for fun. Hours of fun. Lots of hours of fun. The stories began piling up, and her husband suggested it was time to try to publish one. Kaje currently lives in Minnesota with a creative teenager, a crazy little omnivorous white dog, and a remarkably patient spouse.

Amy Lane
Amy Lane dodges an EDJ, mothers four children, and writes the occasional book. She, her brood, and her beloved mate, Mack, live in a crumbling mortgage in Citrus Heights, California, which is riddled with spiders, cats, and more than its share of fancy and weirdness. Feel free to visit her website or blog, where she will ride the buzz of receiving your e-mail until her head swells and she can no longer leave the house.

BG Thomas
B.G. Thomas lives in Kansas City with his husband for nearly fifteen years and was legally married in 2014. Ehey have a fabulous little dog, Sarah Jane. He sees his wonderful daughter just often enough to miss her when she isn't there! He has a romantic soul and is extraordinarily lucky to have many friends.

He loves science fiction & fantasy, horror, romance and more, has gone to SF&F conventions his entire adult life, and been lucky enough to meet many of his favorite writers. He is a “Star Trek” and Joss Whedon fan from way back!

He has written all his life, it is where he finds his joy. In the 90’s, he wrote for gay magazines, but stopped because they wanted him to cut out story and romance, and write only sex.

Then through a few friends, he discovered the growing market of M/M Romance and was thrilled beyond words. FINALLY, a way to write the stories he always wanted to write. Adventure, romantic comedy, science fiction, and more, but with gay characters. And he wouldn't have to fade to black! People wanted to read the erotic as well. Plot and sex! HURRAY!

B.G. Thomas very much believes in The Law of Attraction and that "thoughts become things." A lot of things all started happening at once. He heard the words, "Leap, and the net will appear," and something re-kindled inside. He sent out a story and was thrilled when it was almost immediately accepted.

He believes that we are divine expressions of the Universe, each and everyone. "It is never too late!,” he states. “Pursue your dreams! They will come true!"

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.


Mary Calmes
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Kaje Harper
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Amy Lane
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BG Thomas
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Harper Fox
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EMAIL: harperfox777@yahoo.co.uk



Where You Lead
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The Family We're Born With
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Puppy, Car, and Snow
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Bianca's Plan
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Nine Lights Over Edinburgh
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Saturday's Series Spotlight: Granby Knitting by Amy Lane


The Winter Courtship Rituals of Fur-Bearing Critters #1
Summary:
Rance Crawford is an alpaca rancher, fiber mill owner, and self-proclaimed grumpy bastard. When sweet, charming tenderfoot Ben McCutcheon moves onto Crawford’s rural road, Rance is very aware that Ben makes it a grand total of two gay men in their tiny town, and even though he is instantly, painfully smitten, any move he makes could be simply chalked up to being hard up. Using his best weapon and favorite skill, Crawford launches an awkward, wordless effort to make sure Ben is kept warm during the cold Colorado winter, every last piece of him—especially his heart.

How to Raise an Honest Rabbit #2
Summary:
Everything about Jeremy has always been a lie—including his last name. When one grift too many ends in tragedy, Jeremy goes straight. But life’s hard for an ex-con, and Jeremy is down to panhandling and hope when Rance Crawford offers him work at a tiny alpaca farm and fiber mill. Jeremy takes him up on the job, thinking this could be his last chance to be a good man, and meets Aiden, who is growing into a better one.

As Aiden comes of age, Jeremy finds himself desperate to grow up, too, because Aiden starts looking to him for things Jeremy doesn’t know how to give. Being honest is terrifying for a man who’s learned to rabbit at the first sign of conflict—more so when Aiden gives Jeremy a reason to stay that can’t be packed up and carried in a knapsack. When Jeremy’s past comes knocking at their door, can Jeremy trust enough in Aiden and his new home to answer bravely back?

Knitter in His Natural Habitat #3
Summary:
Stanley’s life took a left turn at a knitting shop and hit a dead end. The closest thing he’s had to a relationship breaks things off to date a “nice boy,” and none of the pretty young things in Boulder’s limited gay scene do it for Stanley. He needs to reevaluate whether working as a floor designer for a series of craft stores is really where he wants to be.

Then Stanley does a peculiar thing: he starts to live the life he fell into. Stitch by stitch, he knits his life into something meaningful. Just when he does, Johnny, the store’s new delivery boy, walks in.

Johnny is like no one Stanley has ever met: he doesn’t believe in quickies in the bathroom and has a soft spot for theater and opera. There has to be a catch. When Johnny’s dark past comes back to haunt them, Stanley realizes how much he loves his cushy life in the yarn store—but he’ll give it all up to keep the man who makes his ordinary life extraordinary.

Blackbird Knitting in a Bunny's Lair #4
Summary:
After three years of waiting for “rabbit” Jeremy to commit to a life in Granby—and a life together—Aiden Rhodes was appalled when Jeremy sustained a nearly fatal beating to keep a friend out of harm's way. How could Aiden’s bunny put himself in danger like that?

Aiden needs to get over himself, because Jeremy has a long road to recovery, and he's going to need Aiden's promise of love every step of the way. Jeremy has new scars on his face and body to deal with, and his heart can’t afford any more wounds.

When their friend’s baby needs some special care, the two men find common ground to firm up their shaky union. With Aiden’s support and his boss’s inspiration, Jeremy comes up with a plan to make sure Ariadne's little blackbird comes into this world with everything she needs. While Jeremy grows into his new role as protector, Aiden needs to ease back on his protectiveness over his once-timid lover. Aiden may be a wolf in student's clothing and Jeremy may be a rabbit of a man, but that doesn’t mean they can’t walk the wilds of Granby together.

The Granby Knitting Menagerie
Summary:
Welcome to Granby, Colorado, a small town at the foot of the Rocky Mountains where it snows eight months out of the year and knitting is a mashup of art form, necessity, and religion. Here you will meet:

* Rance “Craw” Crawford, owner of the local alpaca farm and fiber mill, who courts tenderfoot Ben McCutcheon with awkwardness and the most lovingly handcrafted knitted garments known to man.

* Jeremy Stillson, ex-con and ex-grifter, who comes to work for Craw and learns the secrets to being honest are in both the yarn he learns to use and in Aiden Rhodes, his young co-worker, who has a very direct way of dealing with life and seducing Jeremy.

* Stanley Schulz, yarn buyer and Craw’s ex-lover, who discovers the joys of knitting alone—and then discovers the joys of knitting for Johnny, a delivery driver with a shady past. Join this menagerie of knitters as they craft to keep their toes toasty and their hearts warm.


The Winter Courtship Rituals of Fur-Bearing Critters #1
Chapter 1
Bald
Crawford watched the new resident of #15 Llama Lane move in with interest. It was early September in Granby, Colorado, and the snows were not that far off.

Granby, Colorado, part of Grand County, sat in a bowl of a valley which was, itself, set shallow in the midst of the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. According to the computer, it was a mere thirty-four miles away from the more populous Fort Collins, but that thirty-four miles was over a road so treacherous and so winding that they had made it a state park. From June to August, people from all over the world traveled over Trail Ridge Road (otherwise known as Highway 34) in awe. For one thing, it made it to over 12,000 feet in elevation, making it the highest road in the country. For another, it still had six feet of snow on the sides even in July, and it spanned the continental divide. It also had (the non-locals were wont to complain) a distressing lack of guardrails, but that didn’t bother Crawford none. He had a large, comfy barn, a roomy garage next to the mill, and a giant meat freezer. He laid in hay and grain for the alpacas as well as firewood for himself all summer. He made one last big trip to Boulder on the other highway in December and just hunkered down with the alpacas until March. A few trips to the store in the 4x4 would do him then, unless he had to call the vets, but he could handle most of the animal husbandry problems himself.

Crawford was just fine.

But as he watched the young man move computers and electronics equipment into the small one-bedroom cottage in the middle of September, he could not say the same for his new neighbor.

Crawford was out checking the fences, something that was not as difficult with alpacas as it was with other critters. Alpacas didn’t mind being closed up none and didn’t stress a fence or test it in odd places—not like sheep. Crawford had sheep on the other pasture, sure, and a thick wooden fence over there, too, but here, bordering his new neighbor’s scant acre of land, it was not much more than pig fencing, and the alpacas didn’t give a hoot. They just hung out and ate the grass, like they did, and ignored the fence. The other side of the fence might as well have been the other side of the world to their amiable little hearts, and since old Mrs. Humphreys had passed away, it had been to Crawford too.

But this new guy wasn’t old Mrs. Humphreys.

He was young, for one thing. Midtwenties to Crawford’s late-thirties, and bright and shiny as a spit-polished shoe. His hair was cut fashionably long, and he had just enough scruff on his lip and chin to make Crawford think that maybe he kept that scruff full time. He wondered how long it would take for that scruff to grow to beard length, and thought that would be a crying shame, because the boy had a narrow face with a squarish little block of a chin and tip-tilted sea-green eyes. His mouth was wide and smiling, with full lips, and all in all, it would be a real waste to hide that pretty face behind what would probably be sandy-brown hair.

He was also quick to talk, quick to smile, and gregarious. He chatted with the movers and took notes of the good places to eat (there were really only two places where the locals ate, and Crawford listened shamelessly enough to know that the movers knew those places too) as well as where he could find a movie or help if he needed it.

“And if you need help,” one of the young men said (Robbie, Clarence and Angie’s boy, who used to be a hell-raiser in high school but who had settled down now with a wife and two kids), “Crawford here might help you. He’s queer, but don’t let that bother you none, he’s harmless.”

Crawford refused to flush under the boy’s sniping and stared at him until he blushed instead, mumbling something about checking the overhead and disappearing into the truck. The new kid moving in grinned brightly.

“Well since I am, too, that won’t be a problem,” he said with such sunshiney goodwill that Crawford found himself smiling back from his side of the fence.

The two movers took in this information with widened eyes and flushes, and the new kid just rolled his eyes and continued to chat, putting them both back at ease quicker than Crawford had ever been able to. In a few minutes, just that much, they drove off in a choking cloud of diesel exhaust, leaving the kid with his little city car and a thoughtful look on his face as he surveyed his house.

God, Crawford thought uncomfortably. There had been so much those two yahoos had not told him.

“You’re going to need more firewood!” he hollered shortly, and the kid looked at him in surprise.

“Really? There’s a gas heater and a whole stack against the side of the house—”

“The gas guy doesn’t always get out regular, and what’s against the house will only do you a week.”

Crawford was twisting lengths of wire over a hole, and he carefully wrapped that last end so it didn’t snag on the alpaca’s valuable fur, and then stood and pulled off his work glove.

“Rance Crawford,” he said shortly, shaking hands with the boy.

That thin face lit up, and Crawford’s work-roughened, lanolin-softened hand was suddenly grasped tightly in bony fingers as the boy pumped his hand with some enthusiasm.

“Hi! My Aunt Gretchen talked about you! I’m Ben, Ben McCutcheon. Gertie sort of left me her place.”

Rance nodded. “I’d wondered how that went. She had a whole passel of relatives out here right after she died. You weren’t one.”

Ben grimaced. “Yeah—she was really my great-aunt, and my mom was sort of the black sheep of the family. It was mostly just her and me, you know? We used to come out here once a year or so when I was little, and I sent her Christmas cards after Mom passed. I didn’t know it, but I was apparently the only member of her family who didn’t think she was batshit crazy or just want her little acre in Colorado.”

Crawford had to smile, because Gertie Humphries had been a tough old bitch who’d once threatened to shoot his best stud because she claimed he scared her best laying hen. Rance had cured her of that in a hot second—he’d knitted up some of Burlingame’s top-notch fleece into a hooded shawl that the old girl had worn even on her deathbed.

Yup, Gertie had liked him in the end, which was why he’d been sorry to see that swarm of kin around her house, likely counting chickens for their celebration dinner. He hadn’t seen what had broken them up and sent them scattering, but now that he’d met the boy, he heartily approved of Ben.

Although that could have been just because he was pretty enough to make Crawford do the pee-pee hard-on dance.

“So,” Crawford said, eyeing the weathered little cottage dubiously, “you’re going to settle in here during the fall?”

Ben grimaced. “It’s a little colder here in the fall than it was in Sacramento,” he admitted.

Crawford stood and straightened, picking up his lightweight denim jacket and putting it on again now that he wasn’t sweating in the thinning sun. “How cold was it in Sacramento when you left?” he asked judgingly, and Ben looked sheepish.

“Ninety-five degrees.”

Crawford knew his eyes had widened. It was laughable. Here in Grand County, near the end of September, at ten o’clock in the morning, it was around fifty degrees. “It may make sixty-five by the afternoon.”

Ben shrugged. “It’s been sort of a shitty long summer.”

Crawford just looked at him. “What’s winter like?”

Again, that shrug. Like living through snows was going to be no big deal. “Mild. Lots of rain—if we’re lucky.”

Crawford nodded and sighed. “You’re going to need a list,” he said on a grunt. “You going to keep the chickens?”

Ben nodded. “Aunt Gertie liked ’em.”

“The rabbits?”

“Why not?”

“She’s got an old sheep named Millicent and a yapping piece of coyote kibble—”

“Yeah, I’m keeping Millie, but my mom’s least favorite uncle took Biddy-Bye for his grandkids to play with.”

Crawford shook his head. Stupid fucker. “The little shit’s gonna eat herself some fingers.”

Ben chuckled and sighed happily. “Yeah. I hope they’re his.”

Crawford turned to him with nothing more than a raised eyebrow, and Ben blushed. “They weren’t nice to my mom,” he mumbled, looking at the small house in the middle of the overgrown grasses. A shrill autumn wind sang through the valley, and the grasses rippled, but even through the ever-present shushing, Crawford heard him when he added, “They weren’t nice to me.”

Crawford nodded then and gathered his tools, rolling them in the leather holster and putting it in the saddlebag. He had a tractor and a motorcycle, but those things made the beasties skittish. A horse was still a good idea with fifty acres to tend.

“I’ll make you a list, then,” he said decisively. “Things you’ll need, shit to prepare for. Winter’s not a joke here. You’d best take it seriously.”

Ben looked at him and smiled, and it was a child’s smile, open and clear and trusting. His green eyes lit up, and he nodded, even as he shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. “I’d like that,” he said happily. “That would be really kind of you. I’ve got money—I just don’t know what to do with it to prepare.”

Crawford looked at him bouncing on his toes in his tennis shoes, shivering a little in his long-sleeved T-shirt. “Money’s a start. When’s it run out?”

“It doesn’t!” Ben smiled again, this time proudly. “I work from home. Independent game companies send me their code, and I clean it up for them. They call me the Bug Man—it’s sort of cool.”

Crawford thought his eyes might bug out of his head. He knew about the Internet, and they got it fine in Granby, but a hotbed of media development they were not. “And you thought you’d relocate here?” He had to ask it. He absolutely had to ask it.

Ben couldn’t look at him anymore. The ever-present wind had blown the clouds over the sun, and the temperature had dropped again. He tilted his head up to the sky anyway; it was vast and open, horizoned by the Rockies on all sides.

“Do you have any idea how high your heart can soar in a place like this?” he asked. His nostrils flared a little, like he was scenting the wind and the animals and even the snow that would probably visit in November.

Crawford’s pee-pee hard-on dance stilled for a moment, and he found himself looking hungrily at that young, pretty face. “You forget,” he said softly, not thinking about the sky at all. He’d gotten lost in the sky years ago—he was well aware he’d never find his way back.

Ben pulled his attention earthward, still shivering, but now looking peaceful and not lost in the sky. “It’s beautiful,” he said simply. “And I was really loved here. I sure would appreciate that list. Should I come over for it?”

Crawford’s brain shorted out. He didn’t want Ben coming over to his place. He was not ashamed of it—the mill, the connected store, the house next to that—he was proud of all of them. It was just that suddenly, these places were… personal. They were personal, and he only wanted Ben to see them if he was going to be personal too.

“I’ll bring it in the morning,” he said. “On my way to town. I’ll take you. There’s firewood for sale. You’re going to need it. I’ve got a truck.”

Maybe, with a little bit of revising, he might have made the whole speech a little more rock-bottom terse, but it was the best he could do on improv.

Ben didn’t seem to care, though. He nodded seriously, like a child taking orders. “What time?”

“Eight thirty.” Because he was up at six, the lumberyard with its supply of firewood opened at nine, and he had to be back at ten thirty to open the shop. He could do it, he was pretty sure. “I’ll have the list,” he added before swinging himself up on top of his patient horse. Everclear had sat docilely, eating grass and giving Sourmash, Edna, and Hankity the evil eye so they’d stay away from him, but as soon as he felt Crawford’s weight, damned if that gelding didn’t give a disgusted little snort and jerk his head toward Miss Gertie’s place instead of away from it. Crawford gave the reins a little jerk back and eyed the horse with suspicion. It didn’t pay to give the horses their head too much—they tended to think worse of you.

“I really appreciate the help,” Ben said, his gratitude as open and as transparent as the sky.

Of course he appreciated the help. He was like to freeze to death without it. Crawford grunted something, probably something socially inept and grim, and swung Everclear away and down toward the mill. God, he had shit to do.

How to Raise an Honest Rabbit #2
Dishonest Work
JEREMY didn’t really know his last name. His father was a con man and his mother was history, and he went through so many different identities as a kid helping his dad on the grift, that all he knew of himself, really, was that he was a bad person. He had to be. His one skill set was relieving people of their money.

He was okay at it. When he was a kid, he simply sat by his father’s side and looked hungry (not hard to do) when his father was selling encyclopedias, bibles, or “free” ammo, depending on the area they were canvassing. As a blooming adolescent, he hit colleges and sold magazines, just like the legit kids doing the same thing. His specialty was selling to the chubby, lonely girls who looked like they had money but no attention. He paid attention to them, talked to them as they sat under the dappled leaves of a picturesque tree looking intellectual and dreamy, and walked away with checks ranging anywhere from ten to a hundred and ten dollars, without having to even give them a kiss. He stayed young looking well into his twenties, so that was pretty much his job, right up until he went to prison.

He and his father supplemented their income with the usual grifts—Three-Card-Monte, The Fiddle Game, The Good Samaritan, and The Embarrassing Check—and Jeremy was a decent student. When the other kids were graduating from high school, Jeremy and the old man were having “clear the apartment” drills—they could completely relocate their lives in less than five minutes. Once, when the cops were banging on the door and they were sneaking out the window of a walk-up in Chicago, they'd done it in two. Jeremy figured he and the old man could probably have continued to con the world as an unbeatable team pretty much forever, but two things happened.

The first was that the old man got shot when he conned the wrong guy. One minute, Jeremy had been waiting in the shadows of an old Vegas casino while Oscar had been signing over a phony deed to some property in Utah, and the next, the guy had pulled out a .45 and blown him away. Jeremy stood there, holding his breath, sinking into the curtains of the theater, and making sure nobody saw him. He stood there while Mario Carelli shot his father again in the head to stop him from twitching; he stood there while Mario had his goons haul away the body and wash the floor; he stood there while Mario started asking if anyone would actually miss some con man with shitty shoes and a cheap suit.

He stood there when Mario’s favorite goon, Gianni—who had gone down on Jeremy the night before, while Oscar and Mario had been hammering out the final deal—had shrugged and said, “I dunno, boss. He had muscle with him, but the guy was hired and not that bright. For all I know, he took a powder when he heard the shot.”

Gianni had known exactly where Jeremy had been standing, and he knew that Oscar was Jeremy’s father, and he knew that Jeremy was almost twenty-six years old and thinking about maybe going to college for real. Oscar had spent a long time building the pig-in-the-poke con, and Jeremy had a long time to spend with Gianni, telling him as much of the truth as he could, because you don’t tell a guy your old man is scamming his mob boss, even if you’re starting to feel a little bit bad about it. Jeremy had “sweetened the pot” with a lot of marks, both male and female, and Gianni’s mouth on his cock hadn’t been unexpected. The unexpected part was the sweetness of Gianni’s shy smile at the end, and the way he’d carefully done up Jeremy’s slacks and then kissed him passionately on the mouth. Jeremy had returned the kiss, a little bit frightened by how real it was, because until that exact moment, he’d thought sex was the biggest scam of all.

So Gianni took a big risk for Jeremy, and Jeremy repaid him by staying right in that exact spot—surrounded by stage curtains, trying really hard not to piss his pants—until his father’s brains were cleaned up off the floor and Mario Carelli had stalked off with his goons, chuckling about the look on the old man’s face. Even after they were gone, Jeremy stood there, swimming in his own sweat, feeling it drip from his calves to his ankles to the nylon socks inside his dress shoes.

He was thinking that his daddy had told him to hang back the night before because he had a grifter’s sense the con had gone bad. Oscar hadn’t been a Hallmark father, and Jeremy would eventually figure out that he’d been sort of screwed in the parenting department as a whole, but in this case, Oscar had done his son a solid and worried Jeremy might get hurt.

He was thinking that Gianni would be dead right now if Jeremy had breathed or whimpered or pissed his pants after that whopping lie Gianni told, but Gianni still told it, all because of a blow job and a kiss, two things Jeremy hadn’t thought much of at all.

He was thinking that for his whole life, he’d thought love might be the biggest con of all, and all of a sudden, it was the only real thing, and he was swimming in it, suffocated by it, just like he was suffocated by the wool curtains and swimming in his own sweat.


HE made it out of there eventually, but by the time he got to their shitty hotel room, it had been raided by Mario’s men, stripped of his and Oscar’s backup money, the mattress upended, and even his small cache of possessions trashed and stolen. He’d been out of hope when he went rooting in the dresser for their last-hope-stash tucked into a defiled bible, but he was suddenly rewarded.

There in the little cavern carved into the glued pages was not only the cash, but also his father’s wallet and ring—two things he knew had been in Oscar’s possession when Oscar had been shot.

He looked at them and swallowed. Gianni. Gianni had taken a hell of a risk for him, and there it was: his chance to walk away.

And he did, but walking away was harder than it sounded. Two months later, he was in Denver, trying to get a nice woman at a gas station to give him cash for a bad check. She’d been smiling at him tentatively, coyly, starting to blossom under his insistent charm, when he noticed the fading bruises around her mouth, and his heart sank. Yeah, the rich girls under the dreaming trees in the colleges used to look at him the same way; he’d known they were neglected, worried out of the confidence that would have kept them safe from a predator such as him. This woman hadn’t had her confidence neglected—she’d had it beaten out of her, and that didn’t really sit right with him. How was getting swindled out of fifty bucks going to make that situation any better? Then the child had walked in, a little boy, five at the most, saying, “Mommy, do we have to wait in the car?”

Jeremy's brain did some sort of horrible rise and dip then, like a roller coaster, only uglier, with more vertigo. His stomach heaved with a combination of hunger and self-revulsion. He shoved the cash back in her hand and hissed, “What’s the matter with you? Don’t ever give your cash to strangers.” Her eyes widened, and her mouth pinched narrowly, and he saw in that moment the ugliness that ugliness had made of her. Yeah, she’d known what he’d been selling, and she’d wanted it, desperately, needed to buy it, even for a moment, and he’d just ripped it out of her hands.

He turned around and walked out of the gas station and into the November cold, well aware that she was probably raising a ruckus behind him but not caring. His vision was dark and spotty, not just from the hunger, which was acute, but from the realization of what he was. He was a bad guy. A swindler, a con man, a thief, and a crook. The woman’s name had been Linda—how many Lindas had he taken money from over the years? How many Lindas had put their faith in his fast-talking pretty face and been betrayed and injured, yelled at or beaten, or simply just cheated, because he thought his right to eat was of more priority than theirs?

He was a bad guy. He was one step away from the guy who’d put a bullet in his father’s head and hosed his father's brains off the floor.

When the cops caught up to him, he was squatting in the dirty snow, dry heaving because he hadn’t eaten in three days.

His public defense attorney sucked. He should have gotten thirty days for fraud, maybe—but suddenly they were bringing in all the shit he’d done with his old man, even the stuff they couldn’t prove he’d done, and the woman (sporting fresh bruises from her husband) came in and said that Jeremy gave her a split lip to boot.

He ended up spending two years at Fort Lyon, a lovely place that let him out in the yard once a day and gave him many opportunities to take a dump in public.

It had been surprisingly peaceful, stuffed in that cell with his monosyllabic cellmate and his rapidly burgeoning conscience. Nothing to do but read, write, and think. He was maybe one of the very few people in that place actually to take the child’s advice to sit in a corner and think about what he’d done.

He wasn’t thrilled by the experience, really. It was hard. He would have been wrong to say he relived every con and every score, because he was a petty con man, and he’d made his life off small potatoes. One small potato looks very much like another one, and after they’d been boiled and peeled, the only thing left to do was mash them—and that’s just what Jeremy did. He boiled his experiences in his head, peeled them and mashed them, and decided that what was left in his head was not what he wanted to be living with for the rest of his life.

He got his GED at Fort Lyon, and started taking college courses. He managed to work too, in the laundry, and when he was discharged after two years, he thought he was well on his way to becoming an honest citizen.

He was so wrong.

Nobody would hire an ex-con. Nobody. He was discharged, not paroled—he had no resources, and even if there had been any, he wouldn’t have asked. There had been no bonding for him in prison. No brotherhood. His first cellmate had been in there for manslaughter after a DWI—a lifetime con man and a detoxing banker? Their best quality as a couple was that they were good at leaving each other the fuck alone.

Jeremy was released in December. For a month, he managed to live on soup kitchens, washing dishes, and the Christmas kindness of strangers. Later, he would wonder why he hadn’t taken to giving blow jobs for food money, and it took him some time to realize that it was because he’d never considered himself a victim. He’d always been looking for a way, an avenue, an alternative—that kind of optimism gave you confidence. It kept you from being meat. It made your shoulders swing in such a way that nobody would dream of asking you if your ass was for sale, because if they did, you might have a comeback that would shrivel a dick forever, and who wanted that from a cheap piece of ass?

But in spite of his continued optimism, his trolling of the Goodwill for clothes that made him look like he could hold down a job, his haunting of the YMCA to keep clean and groomed, and his insistence of hauling around his own sheets so he didn’t get lice at the shelters, by January, he was more than a little bit desperate.

He started haunting one particular street corner in Boulder, where little old ladies frequented a family style gym and a yarn store. If he stood there between the time they got out of the gym and swarmed the yarn store, he could almost always win some food for breakfast or lunch from them, and while panhandling lacked dignity, it was at least honest. Life didn’t get much more honest than “Please give me money because I’m hungry,” or at least it hadn’t for Jeremy at that point.

Then, after about a week, he saw a big guy, not too burly, with curly red hair on his head and growing out in what was probably an unintentional beard, fighting his way through the flood of little old ladies like a bear swimming against a salmon tide.

One nice woman, a regular with short white hair, kindly eyes, and a velveteen pantsuit, who always liked to talk to him about his day, had just finished pressing five dollars in his hand. “Okay, dear—now, don’t get this wrong, but I hope not to see you next week. You say you’re looking for work; I’d like to see you find it!”

Jeremy had nodded and smiled, but inside, he was dying a little for lack of hope. He’d used the library computer to fill out applications for everywhere—dry cleaners, pet stores, lumber mills, coffee shops, everywhere. There were jobs to be had, but you had to know someone first. The only person Jeremy had ever really known was probably rotting in a shallow grave.

Suddenly, the big guy with the red hair was right there, glaring at both Jeremy and the little old lady.

“Helen,” he said—and his voice rumbled too—“is this guy bothering you?”

The woman smiled up at him and patted his arm like he was some sort of tame giant-frickin’ afghan dog. “No, Craw—he’s a good boy. Did you bring in new stock today? You know I love your stuff.”

The guy grunted. “Ariadne’s dyed up some Sweeps. You’d better hurry—there’s a swarm.”

The little woman looked up in honest alarm, and, without another word to Jeremy or the big-furry-bear man, darted into the store to go at it in some serious elbow-to-midriff competition for what appeared to be a big bucket of brightly colored yarn that didn’t seem to follow a rhyme or a reason in terms of color or size or anything.

Jeremy watched her do battle through the big plate glass window and then sighed. “Helen” had given him lunch money, and now he got to go search the want ads fruitlessly over some food at Denny’s. Well, some days it had just been over coffee, and some days, it had been a full-out meal. Some days he’d even been able to find work too—stacking pallets, loading shit onto a truck—but the fact was, although he wasn’t weak, he didn’t have a powerhouse physique. There were guys with more powerful bodies and harder hands who could do a better, faster job of it, and he was often passed over at the train yard when people were looking for spare hands.

And nobody gardened in January in Colorado.

So when he noticed the big guy was just watching him through narrowed eyes, Jeremy had a moment to think that he’d been getting off easy. He’d made it through two years of prison by trading cigarettes and helping to smuggle in luxuries, and thus had not had his pretty little body violated in any way he didn’t want it to be. (He hadn’t wanted it to be. Once you started having sex in prison, that sort of thing got around, and pretty soon, you were the prettiest girl at the prom. He’d kept his sexuality to himself, and people had left him alone.) For just a second, he thought he might have to actually whore himself out to do honest work.

Then the guy had wrinkled his nose and said, “Five bucks? You’re gonna get lunch for five bucks?”

Jeremy smiled greenly. “Denny’s—they serve cheap breakfast all day, unless you’re gonna hand me a ten!”

The guy laughed shortly. “It’s gonna take more than a ten to fix those shoes.”

Jeremy looked mournfully at his feet. They were the same shoes he’d worn into prison, and they’d started out pretty good quality, but now the leather was cracked and the sole was worn thin enough to let in the dirty, melted snow. “Yeah, there’s nothing like a good pair of shoes, you know? First thing I’m going to buy when I get back on my feet is a new pair of shoes.”

“Got any plans to get back on your feet?”

Now that Jeremy felt his person wasn’t in imminent danger, he could patter like the pro he had been. “I’m gonna get me a sales job, right? ’Cause I’m good with people. But first I’m gonna work under the table for a bar, right? ’Cause I’m good with people, and then I’m gonna get me some new threads. But before I find that bartender job, I need me some breakfast—and the bigger the breakfast, the better. So, can you spare a ten?”

The guy laughed and stuck out his hand. “I’m Crawford, and I’ll buy you some lunch, how’s that?”

Wow—lunch and a five in his pocket, and he didn’t even have to put out. (The guy was over six feet tall, and Jeremy didn’t even want to speculate on the hole Crawford would rip if he decided that wasn’t the case. Jeremy was just as happy not to have to break his record for not bending over to eat, thank you very much!)

It was lunchtime, but Jeremy ordered breakfast, because he loved eggs and toast, and he was ebullient over the first meal. He bolted it down in an all-fired hurry, because his stomach was doing all the talking in his body, and it needed some frickin’ chow. Of course, he could talk and eat, so he started spinning all sorts of pie in the sky, about being a salesman and owning his own store and then going to college and getting a law degree. “Because the way I see it, being a salesman is just a legit way of being a con man, right? So I’ve already got the groundwork, and I know how to talk, and I’m pretty sure I could sell water to a duck, right?” (That’s one of the key things the old man had taught him—people would do almost anything to avoid being rude.) “So I figured you’d—”

“You’d sell people shit they don’t need, and your only claim to honesty would be not ending up in prison?” Crawford asked, and Jeremy blushed and mopped up the eggs on his plate with toast, and then started using his finger for the last of the egg. A heavy silence might have fallen then, but Crawford signaled the waitress with two fingers and a point to Jeremy’s plate. Jeremy opened his mouth and then closed it, and Crawford took a swallow of coffee and then looked at him like he expected an answer.

“Well, how am I going to pay for the law degree?” he asked, but he was watching with wide eyes, realizing that all that beautiful food was going to be for him as the waitress walked back to the kitchen and called a double of his exact order. For no reason he could think of, his voice cracked as he said it, showing the cold winter sunshine peeking through his thin fictions, like the snow saw through the holes in his shoes.

He swallowed, and Crawford took another swallow of coffee. “You’d make a great lawyer,” he said meditatively. “Those fuckers’ll suck the life outta you with words too.”

Jeremy didn’t have a comeback for that. He was too filled with visions of food, real food, not just enough to keep him on his feet, but enough to gorge on, to make himself sick. He swallowed, his mouth suddenly watering like it hadn’t when they’d walked into the diner, and he felt like he had to work for his money. He had to talk, had to, because that was all he had to pay Crawford back for the second and third helpings of food coming his way.

“Yeah,” he said, swallowing again. “Yeah, they’ll suck the life outta you, but you know, you get a good one, and good things’ll come your way, right? So, you wanna be that person, the person who can make the rain come. My daddy, he talked all the time about the rain comin’ down, and how that’s all a man can want is to make the rain come, and I figure a lawyer, he’ll be all about makin’ it happen, but only a good one, right? I wouldn’t want to be a bad one, because the bad ones, they get you put away for….” He swallowed again, and the waitress brought him the two servings of toast that went with Crawford’s order and he just looked at them, suddenly just touched beyond words. The first meal, that could have been a fluke, but this was… God, this was the rain coming down, wasn’t it?

“How long?” Craw asked, his voice gruff, and Jeremy didn’t even think to lie or evade.

“Two years,” he said, watching numbly as Craw picked up the little jar of jam he’d seen Jeremy use and started preparing the toast. Craw handed him the plate and Jeremy ate automatically.

“How old are you, son?” Craw asked softly, and Jeremy swallowed toast down so he could answer.

“I’ll be twenty-eight next month,” he said, and Craw nodded, like Jeremy had looked that old, which he hadn’t used to, and Jeremy’s pride flared. “Yeah, I know I look young, but I coulda picked your pocket a dozen times if I’d tried, and if I hadn’t been going straight, you’d be signing me your first born by now, so don’t worry about me being young. I can take care of myself, but thank you much for the breakfast just the same.”

“Kid, have you done an honest day’s work in your life?”

The waitress took that moment to drop off his first second breakfast, and Jeremy looked at it longingly. It was like suddenly he realized he’d been caught in a long con, and if he took a bite of those eggs, he wasn’t going to be able to wriggle his way out.

He really wanted those eggs.

“No,” he said simply, picking up his fork and shoveling them on a second piece of toast. “I don’t even know how. You’re the first honest man I’ve ever known in my life.”

“You think I’m honest?” Craw asked curiously, and Jeremy’s shoulders shook.

“I think if you weren’t such an ass sometimes, a decent con man would have screwed you six ways to Sunday,” Jeremy replied frankly, because Craw had been an ass—he’d broken every law of conversation Oscar had ever taught him. If Jeremy had been on the grift, he would have walked away from this one—guys like Craw would call you on your bullshit because they just didn’t give a fuck.

Craw nodded, a faint smile on his mouth under the unintentional beard. “Good. Then come work for me. I’ve got a full-time employee and a kid coming by after school, but it’s getting too big for us. I’ll teach you honesty.”

Jeremy blinked and ate another bit on automatic. “You’ll teach me honesty?” he said numbly. Oh God. Suddenly that sounded harder to learn than lawyer shit. “How’s that going to feed me?”

Craw shrugged. “I can put you up in a tack room until you get enough to rent an apartment,” he said, obviously having thought this out. “I can feed you until then too.” Craw’s eyes swept the bustling streets of Boulder, full of human sheep and pigeons, all ready to be fleeced and plucked, if only Jeremy hadn’t sworn off fresh game. “The only catch is you’ll have to leave this shit behind. I live in Granby.”

Jeremy shivered, just hearing the name. It was the last stop before the Rocky Mountains—Jesus, he didn’t even know the road to Granby was open this time of year!

“This is the only jacket and shoes I got,” he said, his heart sinking.

“Will you work for me?” Craw asked.

“Yeah,” Jeremy said, not even bargaining for clothes and shoes. It was a job. It was a job, and a place to stay, and food. Jeremy hadn’t realized how desperate he was until he was offered all three of the things he wanted most, when he’d just gotten used to a full stomach in the warm diner.

“Then I’ll get you what you need,” Crawford told him, and Jeremy looked at him with gleaming eyes.

“Why?” he asked, wanting to hear something, anything, that would make sense.

All he got was a shrug. “Aiden needs your help.”

Jeremy took one more bite of the second plate of eggs and then started mopping up the yolk again. “Who in the hell is Aiden?”

And Crawford just laughed.

Knitter in His Natural Habitat #3
Watch, as the Innocent Crafter Chooses His Path
STANLEY missed Craw ever so.

It wasn’t like he’d been in love with the big goober—no. But he’d liked Craw’s visits, as terse as the guy had usually been. They broke up Stanley’s job somewhat, and that’s always nice, even if you love your job. And better yet, those visits meant Stanley got laid, and, as Stanley sat at the counter and peered moodily into the mid-November slush, it turned out Stanley hadn’t been doing a lot of that without Craw.

He couldn’t really put a finger on when it had happened, either.

Stanley Shulze had arrived in Boulder a little more than ten years before with a fresh-off-the-turnip-truck business degree, an art minor, and a job as a yarn buyer. God, hadn’t he been a deprived child in the bowels of fucking Nebransas, because Boulder had seemed like a bustling metropolis of gay. He’d gone to the clubs, gotten fucked by anything that cared, gone down on a few more that hadn’t, and had enjoyed the hell out of himself.

When had the novelty worn off?

He couldn’t put a finger on it. He certainly hadn’t started off exclusive when he’d bent over for Craw. He’d seen the guy—a big giant of a bear, covered in curly auburn hair—walking through the doorway of the yarn store and thought “Hello big daddy bear man! Now wouldn’t it be lovely if you were—” And then he’d seen Craw checking out his best ass. The tight, bouncy little bubble one, right on top of his thighs, and Stanley had been in….

Well, not love. But certainly in enough of a dither to grab a lubed condom out of his messenger bag, lock the door between rushes, and follow Craw to the bathroom to proposition him.

Craw had shrugged, said, “Well, if you’re fucking serious,” and a tradition had begun.

And five years later, Craw had met a nice boy and settled down, and it had ended. And Stanley was left wondering—when had bending over for Craw become the be-all and end-all of his love life?

He wasn’t sure. Sometime in there, it had gotten too bothersome to go out to clubs and find a hook-up that he’d maybe had before and then had to forget. Sometime in there, the music got too loud, the kids got too young, and the scorn for an aging fag got too hard to bear. All he knew was that the Friday night after Craw had called it quits, Stanley had gone to Wilde’s, his favorite meat market, and had met… well, twenty-one year old children, mostly.

They’d been pretty—ohmygod, was it possible they were getting prettier?—but their conversation?

Well, lacking.

“Dude!”

Stanley looked encouragingly at the young man and crinkled his eyes, which were blue with dark lashes and he’d spent hours looking in the mirror trying to make them alluring. “Yes, sweetie?” he asked, batting those dark lashes.

The young man—tall, with a heavy chest and heavy thighs, who looked like he could probably break Stanley in two if he felt like it—had smiled sweetly and said, “Dude,” while nodding his head up and down and taking in Stanley’s trim little (five feet seven) body. He seemed to have earned an expression of approval, and Stanley tried to make his smile extra special.

“So, would you like to buy me a drink?” he articulated.

The kid nodded, his jaw slack and loose. “Oh yeah. Dude.”

Stanley had taken a deep breath and realized that blowjobs were never free and a good primal pound in the ass was gonna cost him a fortune in self-respect. Oh well, he’d been living on credit that way for years.

“Awesome. I’ll have an Amaretto sour, if that’s okay.”

The kid blinked and wrinkled his nose. “Dude?”

“Don’t worry, sweetie. If you order one, Victor will make it.” Stanley looked over at the bartender, who was everything you wanted in a gay-bar-bartender: tattoos, bandana over his bald head, no shirt over his solid body, leather chaps, chains around the groin, and all!

Victor rolled his eyes at Jethro and slid Stanley his sour, and Stanley simpered up at his pretty, dumb friend and tried to seal the deal.

“So,” he said, trying for conversation. “Do you go to school around here?”

Jethro looked down a little and blushed. “Construction,” he mumbled, and Stanley saw it, and kicked himself for seeing it.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” he said sweetly, touching the back of the kid’s hand with his own. “We do what we’re good at, right sweetie?”

The kid looked at Stanley mournfully. “And what are you good at?” he asked, and Stanley almost gave him the easy answer only. But instead he said, “Selling yarn to little old ladies,” before he said, “and giving blowjobs.”

And of all things, that lit the kid’s face. “Do you knit?” he asked, enthralled. “Because my mom knits and that’s cool!”

Stanley blinked. “You’re not impressed by the blowjob even a little?”

The kid shrugged and looked around. “All these guys give blowjobs,” he said matter-of-factly. “And I’m hung like a donkey, so I get lots of ass. But you didn’t even answer the question. Do you knit?”

Stanley shrugged. “A little. You have to, if you’re going to help sell the yarn, right?”

The kid’s eyes got really big and moony. “Would you knit me a sweater?” he asked, and Stanley’s mouth fell open. He knit garter stitch. Plain garter stitch. Back and forth, repeat ad infinitum. And here he was, his first visit to a meat market in a year, and this kid wanted to know if he would knit?

“Oh Buttercup! No one is that good a fuck, okay?”

The kid considered and then jerked his chin in the general vicinity of the back privacy rooms, where what you did in there might not be seen overtly, but it was really not anything near private. “Well, I might be. Want to give a try?”

Stanley pursed his lips. “Yeah, sure. But don’t pull my hair—my hair plugs are just starting to look natural, okay?”

The kid patted the top of Stanley’s blond head—which he could do easily since he was well over six feet tall. “Yeah, okay.”

Stanley looked despairingly at the little darkened cubicles and realized the bathroom in the yarn store where he’d been doing Craw had at least been cleaned once a day and had air freshener and disinfectant and… young Jethro put his hand on Stanley’s shoulder.

“Kid,” Stanley shouted, because the music gave an extra loud throb at that moment, “what’s your name?”

The kid traced a line down the side of Stanley’s neck and nibbled his ear. “I’ve got a condom,” he said, close enough for Stanley to hear him. “It’s lubed. Do you care?”

“Well, if I’m gonna knit you a sweater, you’d better make me care,” Stanley grumbled.

A rather sweaty fifteen minutes later, Stanley leaned against the wall of the privacy cubicle and pulled out some wet wipes from a box provided for guest convenience. He wiped off his stomach and his hands, which were wet from come, and turned around to see the kid tying off the condom. Together they threw away their trash and Stanley looked at the kid and shrugged.

“You’re right, Junior; I don’t think names are necessary. But on the downside, I ain’t knitting you shit if I don’t know your name.”


THAT had been about three months before Thanksgiving. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Craw had brought his “nice boy” to visit while he made his delivery, which depressed the hell out of Stanley.

Ben really was a nice boy. He was funny, he was acerbic, he was fully aware that his catch and Stanley’s former steady lay was a walking communication dysfunction, and he looked at Craw with such yearning that even Stanley had to admit he would have felt bad if he’d gotten between them. Oh for fuck’s sake, didn’t his jealousy even function anymore?

The two of them took turns baiting Craw (apparently Ben had been in the dark about Stanley until Craw pulled the truck up to the curb—that was always good for a few chuckles) and then he’d turned that sunshine-poet’s face with its hipster’s stubble toward Stanley and said, “So, do you knit?”

Stanley had gaped. Seriously? He was getting this from Jethro and from the ex’s new squeeze? What in the fuck?

“Stanley doesn’t knit,” Craw grunted, walking by with a box neither Ben nor Stanley was bothering to help him with. Big dummy. Bringing the new squeeze to meet the old lay. How desperately tacky. Oh, yeah, sure, the guy called it being up front, but Stanley knew unintentional emotional punishment when it was flogging him on the tush. Stanley was so put out he didn’t even bother to contradict Craw about his knitting, although, by Craw’s standards, a little bit of garter stitch didn’t count.

“You don’t knit?” Ben said, surprised. “Even I’m starting to knit. I mean….” Ben gestured around the store, and Stanley rolled his eyes. It was a huge chunk of floor space, and he’d done it up right, with smooth black lacquered cabinets artfully overflowing with yarn sorted by brand, type, and color, plush couches set at feng shui angles, cream colored (stain resistant) carpeting, and mirrors on the available walls next to the windows to make the place seem even bigger than it already was.

Stanley looked again and saw the yarn this time and not the floor space. “Yeah,” he said, pulling up one corner of his upper lip. “I guess there is yarn.”

Ben shook his head. “Okay—I’ve known the guy for three months—I’m telling ya—the yarn is the only thing he sees. And I’m starting to get tunnel vision that way too.”

Stanley looked at Craw, coming back with another box, and then at Ben, who was just so sunshiny sugary sweet that Stanley wanted to eat him up with whipped cream and chocolate, and then saw the way Craw looked at Ben when Ben didn’t know he was looking.

“Yarn,” he said, looking around his place of business again. “Go figure.”

See, the thing is, Stanley had a business major with an art minor—he’d been going to buy and sell art. He’d just taken the job in Boulder as sort of a stop-gap bill-paying measure. Sort of an interim thing to put on his resume. Because those sorts of jobs are a dime a dozen when you’re sending your resume to everyone between Boulder and New York, right?

Yeah. That had been ten years ago. He was still here. He had his regulars, he had his club scene, he had his neighbors—and fuck him if he didn’t have two cats and a wild attack ficus.

Oh hells. Stanley had a life here, one it would sort of piss him off to leave. He hadn’t sent his resume anywhere in years, and quite frankly? He had no desire to. He liked Alice, his boss. Although he mostly worked in Ewe’ll Love This, the fact was, she owned four different craft boutiques around Boulder and Fort Collins. He got to buy for and design the floor space for all of them, and it was fun. It wasn’t acquiring art for a Vegas casino (’cause those people had cash) and it wasn’t designing for Cosmo, but it played into his strengths and, well….

He was damned good at picking yarn, yarn that would be fashionable or yarn that would be trendy, yarn that would be practical and yarn that would wear well. If he was going to make his life like this, maybe he should get his hands dirty. (Of course, the allure of yarn in the first place was that you could get your hands dirty while keeping them reasonably clean.) And why not? He’d spent the last eleven years pushing fiber on little old ladies (and a surprising number of trendy young ones). Wasn’t it about time he became a user too? God, it beat the hell out of amyl nitrate—he’d had at least three regrettable encounters in college due to that little chemical nightmare. It’s not like yarn could be any worse!

And besides. Craw had left him for a man who wanted to learn to knit. The sweet boy at the club had thought his one interesting feature was that he sort of knew how to knit. Knitting was a sign of commitment; Stanley knew enough about the craft to know a project took some devotion and had some permanence.

Maybe, if Stanley learned how to knit, he’d figure out how to have some of that in his own life.

So, the day before Thanksgiving, he cashed out two skeins of yarn and some nice square-shank knitting needles to make himself a scarf.

Now, Stanley knew his own limitations. He assumed he’d be interested in knitting like he’d been (thus far) interested in men. He’d see something shiny, try it out, and then think he could probably do better in the next privacy booth. So he started out with big, thick yarn and big, thick, phallic needles (he liked the squareness in the shank—although that did make him do some online research to see if that was a trend in sex toys, because, hey, something he didn’t have would be nice! He did find a few plugs in that shape, which he ordered. Why not?)

And he made the yarn something… rich. Yummy. Decadent. A deep, flashy, lipstick red. Now Stanley himself usually looked good in cool colors: crisp navies, charcoal grays, ice greens. But that’s not what he wanted to wear. So he picked this deep, flashy, candy-apple, hot-car, full-lipped, I’m-a-superstar red, because he figured, if he was going to get his granny on, he was going to do it like the look-at-me attention whore he was.

He remembered his basics, and the night before Thanksgiving, while the curried lamb dish he was making for his boss’s pot luck the next day simmered, he sat down with the some previously DVR’d episodes of Top Chef and Project Runway, and cast on.

For the first episode, he cursed his own stupidity, struggled with the yarn, struggled with the needles, and felt like an idiot douchebag. He got up, tended to his food for a moment, poured himself a glass of wine (to go with his whine, he supposed), and picked the red in case he got really wasted and spilled the wine on the hand-wash-only merino/cashmere blend.

After the first glass of wine, the repetitive movement became soothing.

After his second glass of wine (and after he, thankfully, took the food off the stove and prepped it to take to the early dinner the next day), the zen of the color started to seep into his hands.

He never made it to his third glass of wine. He became totally enthralled, sitting there, knitting, watching the skank ho designing the dress try to possibly squeeze one last millimeter of non-boob out of the spider-monkey of a model. Van Gogh, his manic-depressive black cat, curled up in a little ball by his shoulder and Matisse, his big, surly orange tom, was spread out unapologetically on his lap, and their combined weight pretty much arc-welded his ass to the couch. But that was okay; in fact, it was perfect. It was like the permanence he’d been seeking had found him, just by gluing him to the couch and making his activity so soothing he didn’t want to go anywhere.

He finished the first skein of yarn that night, and when he woke up, he realized he hadn’t done half bad. He liked it so much he put it in his messenger bag, so he’d have something to do while Alice’s redneck son was monopolizing the television. It was so unfair. Everyone else there—Alice, her daughter Candace, her daughter-in-law Amanda—they all wanted to watch the Thin Man marathon, every year. But no—not Jed. Jed was going to by golly watch the fucking football games, and even trying to imagine those boys naked didn’t make that game any more fun for Stanley, who was not a fan of BDSM even when it was the fun stuff, with the leather. But Mandy was sort of a doormat, and Alice was trying to have peace with her children one day a year since their father got them for Christmas, yes, even into adulthood, and waging that sort of war in someone else’s house was just déclassé.

The curried lamb was a success—even more so because the curry had a chance to settle in and work up some kick. As a traditional Thanksgiving side dish, well, maybe it didn’t blend, but Alice and Candace both kissed him on the cheek and told him thank you, and everyone but Jed (who hated him), including Mandy, used it as an alternative to gravy on the mashed potatoes when they ran out of rice.

Jed, for his part, just sat at the end of the table and glared and muttered things under his breath about pansy food, and Stanley ignored him. The fact was, he hadn’t been welcome in his parents’ home for years—not even to attend their funeral. The story was so old by now—and Stanley was a big fan of the “It Gets Better” movement, because he was certainly glad to be free of that mausoleum—that he couldn’t bear repeating it, even for the sympathy. But sometimes, sometimes, he did miss the sound of his mother’s voice, with his sister in counterpoint, singing the doxology over their meal, which, as far as he knew was a tradition that was just the Shulzes’ with their good old Lutheran upbringing.

But Alice? She more than made up for it. Alice was one of those hard-nosed broads—with a core of solid chocolate. She cut her graying hair short and didn’t wear make-up and didn’t do battle with time so much as just turn her back on the bitch and go about her business. She wore jeans and a nice sweatshirt to prepare dinner and told Candace, her ultra-feminine daughter, that she looked lovely in a winter-white cashmere dress with red trimming. Candace did, too. She’d piled her fiery red (dyed) hair up on the top of her head and left tendrils down and painted her lips almost the exact pop-my-cherry color of Stanley’s scarf.

Stanley adored them both. When Stanley had first started working for Ewe’ll Love This, Alice would bring her children into the store while they consulted. Jed had been sixteen, surly, scornful, and obviously a carbon copy of his father, whom Stanley had met once and it had been more than enough. Candace, on the other hand, had been fourteen and shy. Beautiful—God, even through the pimples and the gangliness and the braces and the bad hair, you could still see the snub little nose and the bee-sting mouth and the heart shape to her freckled little face—but shy. Terribly, terribly shy.

Stanley had adored her. He’d ramped up his camp and called her honey and mooned over the boys in the fashion magazines to make her giggle. She reminded him of his own sisters, before he’d come out and they’d hated him like the rest of the family, except her mother had told her kids straight out that Stanley was gay and they could like it or they could keep their mouths shut about it. Candace had chosen to like it, and Stanley had chosen to love her with all his gay little heart.

Eleven years later, she was this amazing, fabulous woman who was studying art as an artist and not a buyer, way out in New York, which Stanley had wasted his youth thinking of as a metropolis just waiting to discover him. He very possibly could have been bitter that Boulder had been here all along, just waiting for Stanley to discover it, except Candace was his darling, and when she had gone off to college and begun to make a name for herself, he’d had a very hazy, wine-soaked conversation with God about giving her all the success he’d never achieved. He wanted her to have it. He wanted her to shine. He was content to sit at her mother’s table during the holidays and spice up her time with curried lamb.

But he wasn’t sure when she’d grown older than him. That hadn’t been part of the deal.

They’d lingered over wine after the dinner clean-up, and she’d smiled at him over her wineglass.

“Stanley,” she said, only a little buzzed, because she was a lady like her mother. “How is it you never bring anyone by for Thanksgiving? Or over Easter? Or for the summer barbecues? I am starting to worry about you!”

Stanley looked back at her, touched to his core and trying not to tear up because Jed would only call him a big flaming mo. “Darling, don’t worry about me. I’m learning to knit,” he said proudly, and Alice was suddenly at his elbow, with some leftover turkey and gravy (good, he needed some carbs and protein to sop this buzz!) and complete attention.

“Oh Stanley,” she said, sounding sober, “that’s wonderful!”

Candace grimaced. “Mom—it’s knitting. It’s no big….”

Stanley knew he had sort of a sappy smile on his face. “It’s all the secrets of the universe wrapped up in one Zen little ball of string,” he said happily. “Everything I thought was missing in my life is twisted up in fiber and the magic stitch.”

He was aware Candace and her mother were exchanging rather alarmed glances.

“Stanley,” Alice said, her voice getting as gentle as it possibly ever did, “I love the craft. I mean, it’s why I started the store, but do you really think you should be pinning the secrets of the universe on—”

“Stanley, you need a man.”

“Candace!” Alice was scandalized, but Stanley, he understood.

“No,” he said sadly. “Don’t you see? I don’t get a man. I’ve squandered my golden years being a one-night mantrap. I need to own up, Candy darling.” He patted her hand serenely. “You get to go out and be fabulous. I’ve got the cats, the ficus, and now I’ve got the knitting. These things will fill my time until I shuffle into the sunset. I am content.”

“You’re thirty-six!” Candace squawked, and Stanley held his hand to his chest, mortally wounded.

“Thirty-five!” he corrected. “But that’s not the point!”

“Oh, that’s exactly the point,” Alice muttered, taking a gulp of her daughter’s wine. “Stanley, honey, I’m glad you’ve embraced knitting, I really am. It’ll make you even better at your job, and, quite frankly, I was starting to think you had the morals of a con man. It’s good to know you don’t. But maybe don’t embrace celibacy just yet. Maybe, you know, just embrace a new you.”

Stanley looked dispiritedly at his wine. “It’s better than the old me, I guess.”

Alice was a chunky woman, but that’s what made the arm around his shoulder feel solid and real. She kissed his temple. “The only thing wrong with the old you is that you treated dating like finding a vibrator on legs. There’s more to finding a life mate than that, honey. I mean, Candace’s father fucked like a god—”

“Mom!”

“But he fucked everything liked that, and who wants that kind of competition? Certainly not someone worthwhile, Stanley. Maybe the knitting is a good thing. You can practice project monogamy and then move on to the human kind.”

“Oh Jesus.” Candace’s eyes were wide, and she stood up and started searching the counter for the other bottle of wine. Stanley didn’t have the heart to tell her he was pretty sure he’d killed it while he’d been helping her mother with dinner. “Mom…. God, maybe monogamy just isn’t Stanley’s way—”

“It could be,” Stanley said pathetically. His messenger bag was hanging over the back of his chair, and he found himself suddenly needing the comfort of his yarn very much. “It could be,” he repeated, getting out his scarf. He started working the row with dogged determination. The wine was starting to recede, and he was with his people now, his darling, beautiful Candace and her mother, who had been trying to fill in for his mother since he’d applied for the job. “I just… I just need to find the right project,” he said, thinking this scarf was too short and he was going to need another skein of yarn. That was good. The scarf could go on and on and on and on, and it could be the harlot-red banner of shame that wrapped him up and kept him warm when the nights grew lonely and cold.

Candace managed to find another bottle of wine—Chablis this time; it had been hiding in the fridge—and Alice continued to lean her head on his shoulder soothingly.

“Stanley, you know, I was pretty sure when I divorced their father that I was going to be alone my entire life and I’d never find another man. You know what I discovered?”

Stanley kissed the top of her silver-gray head. “That you’re a lesbian?” Jean hadn’t been able to make it for Thanksgiving—she had her own kids. The good news was that her kids were there for Christmas, so Stanley got to have family at both the major holidays. Who needed to bring home a boyfriend? It also helped that Jed didn’t have to see proof that his mother was everything he professed to hate; he got to pretend she was still his mommy and needed to wait on him, hand and foot, along with his wife. Stanley had never been puzzled by the idea that parents as straight and narrow as his had gone and thrown themselves a Stanley. Nice people like Alice were squirting out assholes like Jed every day.

“Well, yeah, that,” Alice conceded. “But you know how I discovered that?”

Candace choked on her Chablis. “If you say ‘masturbation’, I am never coming home again, ever.”

Stanley grinned at her, thrilled at how quick she’d gone from sophisticated glamour girl to horrified teenager. “Oh baby, you know she lives to make you spit-take. Let mummy finish her story and we can have a lovely game of hand-n-foot over pie.”

Candace rolled her eyes and glared at him indulgently. “You know, Stanley, you’re still the best father I’ve ever had.” Jed gave a cheer from the living room and pumped his fist. The three of them looked over to where Amanda was sitting next to him, looking longingly at the table. Amanda was tiny and mousy, with dark hair and sloe eyes, and Stanley thought if Jed ever actually laid a hand on her, he would possibly throw a punch for the first time in his life. “And older brother,” Candace added with a sympathetic glance at Amanda, “rolled into one. But that doesn’t mean you can tell me not to be freaked out by my mother’s sex life.”

Stanley started to giggle. “You’re just lucky your mother has a sex life. My parents spawned us in the mud puddle behind the house. I was the egg that got stepped on and that’s why I’m gay.” He turned to Alice again. “Finish your story, darling. You were trying to give me hope about my love life, and I need some.”

“You weren’t the egg that got stepped on,” Alice muttered. “You were the egg that had the good sense to move out from under the fucking horse.” She finished grouching and sat up, suddenly looking as sober as Stanley would have to be before he drove home in the snow. “Anyway, no. There was masturbation because I was alone, but that’s not what I discovered. What I discovered was that I liked myself. I was alone, and it sucked, but I wasn’t a bad person to be with. You’re not a bad person to be with, Stanley. You can keep sex in your toy drawer for a while, until you find someone you wouldn’t mind meeting us for Thanksgiving.”

There was another cheer from the living room, and Alice grimaced. “Or lunch. Tell you what. You name a non-holiday time, and I’ll fly Candace out and we can meet Mr. Hasn’t Walked Through The Door, okay? That way, we won’t let Jed scare him off.”

Well, why not? Stanley laughed a little and made his next stitch. Some of the wine was wearing off, and he was starting to crave pie. “Why not,” he said grandly, thinking the odds of that happening were as thin as the odds of him actually becoming a knitter for life. “Darling, if that happens, I’ll fly Candace out.”

“As if,” Alice grunted. “I know what you make, Stanley, and it ain’t that impressive.”

Stanley shrugged. “After you give me a raise.”

And then there was pie!

Blackbird Knitting in a Bunny's Lair #4
Prologue
JEREMY KNEW two things in the moment before he almost died.

The first was that he’d had this coming.

Five years ago, when he was still on the grift in Las Vegas, he and Gianni Cabrisi shared a moment—a kiss, a blowjob, eye contact, each knowing exactly who the other was, and that it was all okay. The next day, on the weight of that moment alone, Gianni lied to his crazy mob boss about knowing where Jeremy was when Jeremy was huddled in a theater curtain not five yards away, wetting himself with fear after hearing his father die. That sort of dedication on the basis of a kiss needed to be repaid. So sure, Jeremy had left that moment determined to go straight—and for the past three years, he’d been working like an honest man and doing just that—but he’d known that wasn’t all. He’d known he had to put paid to all the wrong he’d done as a con man. He’d known he had lots to pay for.

And now he was paying for it.

Gianni had gone straight too, had become Johnny—and now Johnny’s boyfriend cowered, terrified and innocent, in the little room in the barn where Jeremy was about to meet his maker. Stanley Schulz was a little guy, a yarn store designer who’d only wanted to settle down, and Johnny thought Stanley was his reward for going straight himself. Jeremy thought Stanley was Johnny’s reward for hiding his punk con-man’s ass back in Vegas, so Jeremy was going to hide Stanley with that much dedication.

It wasn’t hard, really—Mikey Carelli, the mobster who was currently breaking Jeremy’s teeth and most of the bones in his body, was too fucking crazy to listen, even if Jeremy had broken to spill the beans.

But Jeremy wouldn’t break. He had this coming. He’d had three good years working with good people, honest people, and falling in love with Aiden, and he owed for that. He’d pay up with a smile, because he’d had Aiden, and the one thing he knew was that this pain was all worth it.

The other thing he knew was that Aiden would never forgive him. Aiden, Jeremy’s beautiful, golden boy, the boy who had grown up while Jeremy watched, and then walked right up and claimed Jeremy as his own. Aiden had been the north on Jeremy’s compass from pretty much the minute Jeremy set foot in Granby, and had, in fact, been the one person responsible for Jeremy staying. Not that Jeremy had dreamed in a million years that Aiden would love him back—Jeremy was just happy that he’d gotten to work with Aiden in the fiber mill for the past three years. Honest work with the boy he loved—in a million years, he hadn’t dreamed that would be his lot, even for a little while. But Aiden had claimed him, which had been amazing, and they had become lovers, which still blew his mind, and now Jeremy was about to do the unforgivable.

He was about to leave.

He gazed up into the eyes of Mikey the mobster and saw nothing. His internal vision was already focused on Aiden and how upset he’d be that Jeremy had left after all.

The shotgun blast that ended Michael Carelli’s life shattered Jeremy’s good-bye right then, and Jeremy didn’t have to leave Aiden after all.

At the beginning, though, it seemed like it might have been easier if he had.


Shattered Bones and Broken Strength
JEREMY STILLSON spent more time in the hospital after he stopped living a life of crime than he had before he’d quit. Given that his second hospital stay ever lasted over two months, he could safely say he was over the experience by the time he left for home.

If Craw hadn’t thrown a fit and begged and pleaded so that Jeremy could share a room with Ariadne, he never would have made it.


HIS FIRST week was hazy, just a confused mess of pain and voices and Aiden—Aiden—holding his hand a lot, his voice choked and messy. Jeremy had a lot of surgeries in those first days, which was a blessing, because he didn’t really have to make any decisions. Aiden and Craw made all of those decisions for him.

Sometime toward the end of the first week, he woke up abruptly, breaking out of a bleary dream of being locked in a box of pain.

“Boy! Boy! Aiden!” he called, because his one constant in the past three years had been his boy. At first his boy had been sarcastic and frustrated because Jeremy couldn’t seem to learn the ways of living an honest life, but that had changed, hadn’t it? Aiden had gone from frustrated to friendly, and then, in these past months, from friendly to more than friendly.

Why wasn’t Aiden next to him?

“Boy?” he asked the cold and alien darkness. Some of his teeth were missing, his mouth hurt like the blazes, and it was hard to talk. “If you’re gone for water, I could use some.” Because his mouth was dry and his entire body… it felt achy and creaky and everything, everything hurt, but that dry mouth, that was the thing that was making him craziest.

“Jeremy—”

“Boy?” It was a woman’s voice, and Jeremy couldn’t figure out why a woman would be in his bedroom, his sweet little bedroom in his and Aiden’s tiny apartment. Jeremy loved that little apartment; it was safe, like a den or a warren, and you could fight the urge to run when you were safe.

“Honey, it’s me, Ariadne. We’re in the hospital, remember?”

Oh. Ariadne. Craw’s assistant and best friend. Spider-thin woman who liked to dye her hair bright red and who could knit lovely things like lace while yelling at “her boys” not to track sheep shit all over the store.

What was she doing here?

Oh yeah.

“Hey, Ariadne,” he said, feeling loopy. “How’s the baby coming?”

“Hanging in there,” she said weakly. She had pregnancy diabetes as well as high blood pressure. She was one of the most active people he knew, and she’d been on bed rest since Thanksgiving, which was….

When was Thanksgiving?

“Ariadne?”

“Yeah, hon?”

“What day is it?”

“December 20. You’ve been here around five days.”

Jeremy whimpered. “I don’t like hospitals,” he said nakedly, and he heard a noise. He tried to move his head, but his face was swathed in bandages and his body just hurt so bad. In a moment there was a rustling, and the sound of something being dragged, and then something else.

In another moment there was a softness near his cheek and the smell of the special soap Ariadne liked to buy from a crafter in Grand.

And then there was a pressure on his blessedly undamaged hand.

“I’m right here,” she said, and he moved his eyes just enough to see her wan and pale face in the light creeping in from the hallway.

“I don’t mean to be a bother,” he said, keeping his voice low in the hospital echo. The words were almost a cruel repeat of his first months spent at Craw’s farm and yarn mill, when he’d had one foot out the door and all of his earthly possessions packed and ready to bolt. The words “I don’t mean to be a bother,” had been code then, for “Don’t get attached to me, I’m not staying.”

“Well, it’s nice to have company,” Ariadne said quietly. “Keeps me from worrying so much about my little one here.”

Jeremy felt weak tears sliding down the sides of his face. “You shouldn’t have to worry,” he said sincerely. “You of all people should have a healthy, happy baby. You’re gonna stick around for it. That’s important.”

“I’ll be here for you too, okay, Jeremy?”

Jeremy nodded and tried not to be afraid. Bad things came out of the dark—fists and gunshots and the butt ends of pistols. Sharp needles and scalpels and that horrible, nauseating, free-floating feeling of anesthetic.

“I appreciate it,” he said, feeling dumb and helpless. “Just until my boy gets here.”

Oh no. He’d just called Aiden “his boy” when Ariadne and Craw weren’t entirely comfortable with the two of them yet. “Don’t tell Craw,” he mumbled. “But I really love that boy.”

“Craw’s fine with it,” Ariadne soothed, rubbing the back of his hand. “Craw and Aiden saved your life.”

“Yeah,” Jeremy said, remembering that terrifying moment when he’d heard the gunshot and thought it was the one that killed him. And then Aiden sobbing over him, yelling at him for going to defend their friend alone. “He cried for me. My boy shouldn’t ever cry for me.”

“We all cried, Jer,” Ariadne murmured into the darkness. “You’re going to have to take better care of yourself now that you’re meaning to stay.”

“Yeah, okay.” Jeremy was tired now, and the fact that he could smell his friend, feel her touch on his hand, that meant the world. “You… you’re not leaving anywhere tonight, are you?”

“No, baby. Right here.”

“Well, as long as you’re comfortable,” Jeremy said, and then he fell asleep.


SOMETHING HAPPENED. Something bad. Another surgery, maybe? Pain, confusion, more anesthesia—God, that shit made his stomach feel just raunchy. But it was over, and he was back in the bed, and he knew Ariadne was with him in the same room. He thought numbly that someone must have brought her bed over to his, because when he tried to turn and then stopped because it felt like a steel spike was lodged through his stomach, she was close enough to touch his shoulder as she soothed him.

“Aiden, hon, he’s awake. He was asking for you.”

“Jer?”

“Boy.” The sound was a drawn-out syllable of relief. “Boy, you’re here.”

Jeremy felt a hot presence next to his shoulder, rough with razor stubble and tearful breath.

“Jeremy,” Aiden breathed.

Jeremy smiled a little. “Got used to you,” he mumbled. “You and me, we lived together. I loved that. It’s hard when you’re gone.”

“We still live together,” Aiden said, and the words relaxed Jeremy’s shoulders, helped the pain flow over him and drip away, just like the bag of fluid attached to his arm.

“We do? I don’t live here?”

“No, Jer. I moved into your apartment, remember? Except we’re gonna move.”

“Why do you have to move?” No! Oh no. Aiden couldn’t move out—not when Jeremy was thinking about starting a bank account and taking everything out of the safe. Including the mittens.

“Not me, Jeremy, us. You and me are going to move out. Ben is letting us buy his house now that he’s in with Craw.”

“Craw’s mad,” Jeremy said disconsolately.

The week after Thanksgiving, Aiden had told their boss at the fiber mill that they were together. Jeremy had been in the barn, feeding the animals and making sure everybody’s heater worked, and Aiden had come up behind him, wrapping those great brawny arms around Jeremy’s waist and kissing softly at the nape of his neck.

“Bad?” Jeremy asked. He’d heard the voices from outside the barn and the slam of the door as Craw stomped inside the house. Aiden had promised him—promised—his voice soft and insistent, that Jeremy would not be put on the spot because their three-year friendship had finally matured.

“He’s a stubborn bastard,” Aiden said into his ear. “Nothing new. He still thinks I’m his little brother.”

Jeremy’s shoulders drooped. “You were my little brother,” he said softly, stroking the rabbit in front of him. “Maybe I should just—”

Aiden’s arms tightened. “If you say it, Jer, you’ll break my heart.”

Jeremy closed his eyes then. “Anything,” he muttered. “Anything but that, boy. You understand? Not breaking your heart—that’s like my number-one priority.”

Aiden’s warmth at his back comforted him like a bale of straw, throwing his own body heat back at him with interest. Behind his closed eyes, Craw’s anger, the displeasure of the first man who had ever known him and shown kindness, dissipated, and there was only Aiden.

Aiden hadn’t been kind, not at first, but when the boy had grown, he’d become even better than kind. He’d become a gruff bastion of safety. Nothing would ever hurt Jeremy while Aiden stood guard. Jeremy trusted that.

But that didn’t change what happened next.


“SH,” AIDEN whispered now.

Jeremy must have lost time.

“Craw’s not mad?” Jeremy muttered. He heard Craw being mad. He was outside the hospital room somewhere.

“Oh, he’s mad, all right.” Ariadne’s dry voice soothed like a balm. “But not at you. Honey, Craw couldn’t stay mad at you. Certainly not after what you did.”

“What’d I do again?” That was what he thought, anyway. All his words were what he thought. But what they sounded like was worse, like he was talking through marbles.

“You… dammit, Jer, you—”

“Don’t be mad!” Jeremy couldn’t stand it if Aiden, his safety, his wolf, suddenly turned all his fierceness on Jeremy.

And then, to his horror, something worse happened.

He heard the noise first, the rasping of voice in Aiden’s throat, the choked sound of breath that wasn’t cut free soon enough. He moved his head slowly to his left and Aiden’s face had blotched deep purple, and his chin was folded like fabric.

“Boy,” he said helplessly, and Aiden shook his head and buried his face next to Jeremy’s on the pillow.

His shoulders shook like mountains as the earth crumbled beneath them. Jeremy reached up with the arm he knew had not been broken, and scrunched his hand in that dark-gold hair.

“I’m sorry,” Aiden sobbed. “I’m sorry, Jeremy, but I’m so damned mad.”

Jeremy moaned in his throat. “But I didn’t talk,” he protested, feeling weak. “I didn’t let them get Stanley!” The little yarn seller Gianni had fallen in love with. Jeremy owed Gianni—dammit, Johnny—and Stanley was his lover. Jeremy had done Gi—Johnny a solid, that was all.

“I didn’t talk,” he mumbled again, hoping to reassure, hoping to make Aiden feel better. “You can’t be mad if I didn’t talk.”

“Oh Jeremy,” Aiden groaned, looking up from the pillow, so close Jeremy could count the sleepless crimson branches in his eyes. “Why didn’t you run? Three years, you had one foot out the door. The mob comes, all set to kill you, and you couldn’t rabbit away?”

Jeremy ran his tongue around his mouth, trying to find where his teeth were and where they weren’t, so he could talk better. “You deserve better than a man who’d run,” he said, hoping that wasn’t too garbled.

Aiden’s face crumpled again, folded, and he shook his head. “I deserve you,” he mumbled. “I’ve wanted you for so long—and now, I’m so worried.”

“Don’t be worried,” Jeremy told him, thinking his voice sounded more like his voice now that he’d gotten his teeth figured out. “I’m not the guy who’d run.”

There was more to it than that, he thought as his eyes closed. His face hurt—he thought he might have bandages on it, because in front of his eyes were layers of things that infringed upon his vision. His pretty, pretty face, the thing his daddy had always said was his moneymaker, and now it was damaged, probably beyond repair.

“You’d better not run,” Aiden choked next to him. “You’d better not run. We’re subletting that house, Jeremy. We’re putting your name on a paper. We’re opening a bank account, and you’re meeting my parents.”

Jeremy woke up enough for that. “Not when I’m not pretty,” he complained.

Aiden’s voice grew flinty, like it used to do when Jeremy tried to shirk his chores. “Fuck pretty,” he snarled. “Fuck pretty, fuck it to hell. You’re mine, and I love you, and we don’t care about pretty. You understand?”

“Yeah, fine,” Jeremy sulked. “You be pretty for both of us. I’m already too old for you. Now I’m not pretty anymore. That’s fine.”

At that point something in his body gave a big fat throb, and his head clanged timpani with it, and he moaned from pain, because just that suddenly, it was drowning out all the other voices.

“Here, Jeremy,” Ariadne said, fumbling with the little red button near his hand. “Don’t mind him. He’s worried, and he feels bad ’bout not being there.”

“Don’t let him do that,” Jeremy mumbled. “My bad. So many things in life I had to make right. Don’t you see that, boy?”

But the morphine was potent and quick, and Jeremy’s mind and body were soon sliding around consciousness in the liquidy viscousness of pain and drugs and the firm belief that he’d had this coming all along.


JEREMY DIDN’T even know his real last name. He thought it might have been the one his father had died with, but even that was sort of a crapshoot. Oscar had been telling lies a lot longer than Jeremy had—even his “original” name might have been a lie.

As far as he knew, Jeremy had come into the world conning people. He was reasonably sure his parents had grifted their way out of the hospital bill when he was born. His mother was a hazy memory of bangly earrings and the smell of scotch, and his father had been more impressed with Jeremy’s benefits as a partner in crime than as a son.

Jeremy had hurt a lot of people before he’d just up and decided to be honest. He’d cheated women and children, hardworking men, college students alone in the world. And as hard as he’d worked at Craw’s fiber mill, as much effort as he’d put into being an honest man, he’d always felt like it wasn’t enough.

Nothing would ever be enough to make up for the man he’d been before Craw had found him, an ex-convict panhandling on the streets of Colorado.

Nothing would ever be enough to earn the love of the beautiful boy he’d been smitten with from the very beginning, when it probably wasn’t right that Jeremy had even noticed his beauty at all.

So when Aiden had invaded his space, invaded his home, made Jeremy notice the three years of friendship and attraction between them, Jeremy had accepted it, because he had no choice. Aiden was his boy—as long as Jeremy could stand not to run, he was helpless to do anything but to fall into his orbit.

It had been a tenuous gravitational shift, at first. Jeremy had always circled around Aiden; from the first moment he’d seen the boy working in Craw’s mill, Jeremy had wanted to be nearer to him. But Jeremy was older, and dumber, and he was sure his soul had shriveled, a withered flower with roots in an oil spill, twisted almost since birth.

He was a bad man. Bad men did not deserve to orbit near the bright and shining sun that was his boy. It wasn’t until Aiden proved he had interesting shadows, dark spots in the sun, was a wolf and not a lapdog, that Jeremy even dared to dream.

They’d had a month, almost two, during which Aiden spent most nights in Jeremy’s little apartment. The past few weeks, he’d been there full-time, all of his clothes in boxes, new towels from his mother in the bathroom, his favorite cereal in the cupboards. Just a breath, just a taste of having Aiden there in his home, as his home, and then….

Well, Jeremy had debts to pay. When one of them called him up in a panic, Jeremy had to pony up.


JEREMY WOKE up the next day actually feeling like a person. How did that happen? One minute you were free floating, a specter in a hospital bed, hearing people talk about you, drifting to escape the pain, and the next time you opened your eyes, it was you, in your body, anchored to the sheets by stuff that your body did.

“Aiden?” he murmured. Aitbhen. That was what it sounded like. “Jebuth thfuckin’ krith—when bo I ge’ my fhfuckin’ teef?”

Craw had a deep, growly bear voice, and his unmistakable laughter echoed over Jeremy’s head. “Today, actually,” he said. “You get fitted for them, anyway. You didn’t have any dental records, Jeremy. We had to wait until the swelling in your jaw went down to make a model.”

Jeremy remembered that. In fact, he realized that some of the difficulty he’d had talking actually had to do with his jaw still being wired shut.

“Whab bay ith ib?” Oh man, the more conscious he was, the worse he sounded. He felt like he could finally hear what he was actually saying instead of what he thought he was saying.

“You’ve been here for a week,” Craw said. “We’re going to take some plasters for your teeth and unwire your jaw. They’ll be changing the bandages on your face today and seeing if you need cosmetic surgery.”

“Aiden?” He had to work hard, but it sounded right.

“I made him go home today, Jer. He was dead on his feet.”

Jeremy closed his eyes in relief. “Good. He won’ thee me.”

Craw made a hurt sound. “Don’t worry about Aiden seeing you, okay? He’s always seen you.”

“When I wath preddy.”

Craw growled. “All the crap I gave that boy about you two being together and you’re telling me you’re going to take it back because of a little blood?”

Jeremy had been beaten, talking the whole time, so that guy beating him wouldn’t find Stanley. Suddenly meeting Craw’s eyes was not quite as hard as he’d thought it would be, that not-so-long-ago day when he’d listened to Craw and Aiden argue.

“We bode know ith more.”

And Craw, who didn’t know how to bullshit, shifted his green-brown eyes away. “Have faith,” he said gruffly. “Ben found me, Stanley found Johnny, Aiden found you. Have faith.”

If Jeremy could have talked more, he would have spun sunshine and rabbit crap about how sure, a man had to have faith, and maybe, under a sunny sky, he’d have enough faith for them all. He would have said that faith is a wonderful thing, but it was better to have faith when you had a plan of escape, and that once you had a way out, you could have all the faith you wanted.

But it was all a big, fat, painful, throbbing lie. Aiden would never forgive him for not calling for help, and Jeremy had no hope that he ever could. Jeremy could lie like a champion with his words, but his eyes—well, as a con man he’d had to squint a lot, because his eyes had been touch and go. He’d had to believe his bullshit to lie with his eyes.

And now he couldn’t use his words, and his eyes were all he had. He looked at Craw mutely, no con between them, just the painful, painful truth.

Craw nodded, and for a moment his lower lip trembled. “I’ll have faith,” he whispered. “That boy has always known his own mind and been strong about getting his way. He wanted you, I guess, and I admit, when I saw that it was real and not just you two bickering like you were married, I had second thoughts. But….” Oh no. Craw’s voice was wobbling. “Jeremy, we’ve been worried. They say you’ll probably be okay, but the lot of us, we’ve been worried. You’re our family, boy.” He swallowed. “I’ll have faith for the two of you.”

Jeremy closed his eyes then, tight, because they were burning. “’Kay,” he mumbled through a mouth full of missing teeth. “I’ll bind tum ob my own.”

“Good man,” Craw told him. Then the doctor came in, and unpleasant things happened with his mouth and dental tools, and in his head he was in Craw’s field with a piece of clover in his mouth, sitting on a rock in the sunshine, warm under the golden sky, teased by the breeze, watching Aiden herd the sheep.


TWO DAYS later his bandages came off again. The whole world crowded into Jeremy and Ariadne’s room, and they all, Aiden included, took a deep, fortifying breath when the last bandage came off. Jeremy didn’t need to look in a mirror. He would have turned away, but they’d propped his neck so he couldn’t rub his cheek on the sheets. Aiden held his hand the whole time, though, as the doctor probed and prodded, pulled at skin, removed some stitches, made some others.

Jeremy closed his eyes and answered questions with one syllable until finally Aiden squeezed his hand hard enough to make him gasp.

“Don’t be an asshole, Jer. The guy just asked you if you wanted cosmetic surgery, and you said no.”

“Money.” Now that was a word he could say, even if his teeth hadn’t gotten there yet. “Da dafe only had do much.”

“Fuck money,” Aiden snarled, and Craw, standing right behind him, said the same thing at the same time.

“Tereo,” Jeremy said, and he made sure his lips quirked enough for a smile.

“I’m serious,” Aiden growled. “And forget about the fucking safe. We’re not bringing the fucking safe to our new home. The safe means you can pick up and leave, and I’m not having it.”

“I like de dafe. ’Th modprood.”

Aiden’s green eyes bulged. “Mothproof my ass. You just want to be able to pick up that thing and run. No.” Aiden shifted his gaze to above Jeremy—Jeremy had almost forgotten the doctor. “He wants the cosmetic surgery.”

“We’ll find a way to pay,” Craw said, but his voice sounded stretched thin. Jeremy knew enough about small businesses to know that this would be a doozy of a blow.

“No,” he mumbled, not wanting to pay them back this way.

“Shut up,” Aiden said, and he wasn’t growling anymore. In fact, he sounded about growled out.

“Check my dafe.”

“I will throw the safe off a fucking mountain and into a river,” Aiden said, sounding stubborn.

“Dake de midden’ ou’!” All the mittens, gloves, cuffs, and fingerless mitts Aiden had knitted him over three years of friendship. Jeremy didn’t have much money—the mittens were the whole reason for the damned safe.

“I will not!” Aiden snapped. “I’ll throw them all away and the cash too, and you will have to stay and wait for me to knit them all again. And by that time, you’ll have come to your senses.”

The thought of all that beautiful knitting sinking to the bottom of the Colorado River made Jeremy’s eyes more than burn—they spilled over. “Craw! Don’ ’ed him!”

“Then stop talking bullshit,” Craw snapped.

Jeremy glared at both of them. “Abbholed,” he said, feeling the word deep in his stomach, and he was not surprised when Aiden smiled, predatory and proud.

“I made your life miserable for years, Jeremy. No reason to change that now. Now you don’t worry about the money—you go ahead and tell that nice man yes, you’ll take another surgery, thank you.”

Jeremy looked at the doctor and rolled his eyes, and the doc made a notation in his chart. Then the doc looked meaningfully at Craw, and Jeremy knew that the money was something to worry about, but that he was helpless and flat on his back and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do.

He closed his eyes then and remembered his little apartment, sleeping in sweats because the heater wasn’t fantastic, but having Aiden’s young heat at his back like a furnace. Aiden, warm and protective—had Jeremy ever felt that safe? In his whole life?

Aiden’s hand engulfed his, squeezed, and Jeremy grunted and squeezed back. He had nowhere to go but in his head, and Aiden was there too.

He must have dozed because when he woke up, his bandages were back on and Aiden and Craw were gone. Ariadne was right next to him, on her side, looking at him anxiously.

He could hear Aiden and Craw, their voices far away down a corridor, yelling. But not, from the sound of things, at each other.

“How you doin’, Mid Ari?” He stopped—Ariadne was a mouthful during the best of times.

Her sober hazel eyes grew shiny too, and he wanted to take back the question.

“Pregnancy diabetes sucks ass,” she said softly, and he was relieved—so relieved—to be able to fixate on someone else’s ills.

“I’m do dorry.” He meant it too. That baby—they had all been worried about that baby.

“They think the baby’s got a cleft palate,” she said softly.

Jeremy, his face under the new bandages, couldn’t even wrinkle his nose. “Bub dill okay,” he said, because he knew what that was. It was when the lip was split after the baby came out. Didn’t stop kids from being cute, he thought. Didn’t stop them from being loved.

“Yeah,” she said, and he heard a certain amount of relief in her voice. “Lots of operations and stuff, and ear tubes, and—”

“Bub dill okay,” he insisted. Oh, damn the words he once threw like dandelions to the wind. Now when he needed them, they were buried under bandages and broken teeth.

And Ariadne was crying. “You get that,” she said, her voice thick. “How come you can get that for my baby, but you can’t get it for you?”

“Baby gon’ be lubbed.” It was one of the few things he knew for sure in life.

“So are you.”

Craw and Aiden’s voices cut off abruptly, and even down the hall, Jeremy could hear the voice of the man whose life he’d saved. There was murmuring then, a voice he didn’t know, and peace.

“Baby gon’ be boodibul,” he murmured, and Ariadne’s hand felt sweet, pulling his hair back from his bandages. Family was exhausting, oh yes they were, but sometimes, when there was no escaping them, they did make a rabbit hutch out of a lump in the straw.


HE DOZED some more, and then Stanley came in a few minutes later, smiling tentatively. The little shop manager had visited a couple of times, and Jeremy had mostly been out of it, too wrecked to talk. Today he came with a basket of yarn for Ariadne and something she could eat that was probably nutritious and tasty, because he did like to bake.

Aiden came hard on Stanley’s heels and threw himself on his vacated chair. He glared at Stanley without heat and stroked Jeremy’s good hand while Stanley talked about the sweater he’d made for Johnny and how he would bring in Christmas dinner and how the doctor told them that Jeremy would be getting teeth tomorrow, so he’d have new teeth for Christmas.

Jeremy said “Thank you,” as best he could, and Aiden nodded thanks too.

Stanley shrugged them off. “Oh, now don’t thank me. Apparently Johnny is pulling big strings at WITSEC, which is nice of him.” Stanley had a ruddy face under white-blonde hair, and little hands he waved around when he talked. He put the a in “flame” and “gay.” Jeremy had always wondered how his own bright beacon of gayness had managed to stay so covered for so long. Then he’d met Stanley and realized that Stanley just burned bright enough for all of them. “Johnny’ll take care of you,” Stanley said soberly. “He’s really grateful.”

Jeremy nodded. Well, yeah, Johnny had saved his life once upon a time. Jeremy would concede that he was nice. “Mud lub oo.” God, he wanted his teeth.

Stanley smiled, and his entire volume went from eleven to three. It was refreshing—almost like watching a five-hundred-watt light go from “kill the eyeballs” to “read a book.” “He does,” Stanley said with quiet pride. “Imagine my surprise.”

Aiden squeezed his hand, and Jeremy rolled his eyes.

“Don’t you roll your eyes at me,” Aiden argued. “You keep acting like it’s all going to go away. I told you, we’re moving into Ben’s house, you’re getting rid of the floor safe—”

“Keepin’ de door dade!”

“Bullshit. Getting rid of the floor safe, keeping the mittens, and taking care of Ben’s rabbits—”

“Rabbid?” Oh, rabbits. Skittish critters, but if you gave them time, fed them carrots, loved on them a little—Jeremy could live with some damned rabbits.

“Yeah, rabbits. And a dog. We’re gonna get us a big watchdog, something with a head the size of a football.”

“A woov!”

“A wolf? Yeah, sure. A wolf and a Newfoundland or something—”

“Bigger’n’me!”

“You betcha. That fucker’ll guard the house. Ain’t nothing’ getting past it—”

“Care de rabbid!” That wouldn’t be fair!

“Yeah, well, you stopped being scared by me, the rabbits will learn to live with a dog.”

Jeremy glared at him, abruptly tired. “You’re eg-haud-ig.”

“I’m exhausting? Am I making you tired, Jeremy?” Aiden never let go of Jeremy’s hand, but he did drag his other hand through his dark-blond curls. “I’m making you tired. You are in the hospital. I wake up tired. So you suck it up and let me plan for the damned future, okay?”

Jeremy’s eyes were closing, but dammit, he still wanted a say. “’Maller dog.” He narrowed his eyes mutinously. He didn’t want no bigass dog that was going to scare the bunnies.

“We’ll see,” Aiden conceded with absolutely no grace whatsoever.

“Boy—”

“No. You get better. You get better, you get home, then you’ll have a say in the dog and the rabbits.”

“’Mnod helpledd!” Aw, dammit. He was. He was so damned helpless, and Aiden knew it. Aiden knew it all.

But he didn’t do that to his Jeremy, and Jeremy would always be grateful to his boy. Instead, Aiden took Jeremy’s knuckles to his lips and kissed them. “No, Jer. You’re not. I think you proved that already.”

“Saved my gay ass!” Stanley piped up, and Jeremy met his eyes and realized he was worried. About Jeremy, who was a common laborer as far as Stanley knew. Stanley was right to be grateful, but he didn’t have to be worried.

“Id a goo’ add,” he reassured, and Aiden’s laugh at his side let him know that of all things, that was not what Stanley had been worried about.

“Nice of you to say so,” Stanley said, smiling sweetly, and Jeremy closed his eyes so he’d have enough energy to let his lips quirk up. His ribs ached, and his shoulder, and he was pretty sure there was more slicing and dicing in his future, but right now, his friends and his boyfriend were being really nice to him, and he knew enough about life not to take that for granted.

Of course, it didn’t stop him from falling immediately asleep, either.

Amy Lane
Amy Lane dodges an EDJ, mothers four children, and writes the occasional book. She, her brood, and her beloved mate, Mack, live in a crumbling mortgage in Citrus Heights, California, which is riddled with spiders, cats, and more than its share of fancy and weirdness. Feel free to visit her website or blog, where she will ride the buzz of receiving your e-mail until her head swells and she can no longer leave the house.


Amy Lane
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The Winter Courtship Rituals of Fur-Bearing Critters #1
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How to Raise an Honest Rabbit #2
Knitter in His Natural Habitat #3

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The Granby Knitting Menagerie