Thursday, December 24, 2015

Random Tales of Christmastime Part 12


Magic & Mistletoe by Annabelle Jacobs
Summary:
Christmas is Harry’s favourite time of the year, but it looks like he’ll be spending it alone. When it comes to the men he fancies, his luck is non-existent. Harry’s nerves always get the better of him—especially when he tries to talk to Andrew, the hot guy downstairs.

Everything changes when Harry meets a mysterious girl in the woods who professes to be a witch. He dismisses her claims, but when odd things start happening to him, he has to reconsider.

Andrew was attracted to Harry from the start, but their awkward encounters put him off. All goes well until Harry opens his mouth—and ruins it with his stupidity and silly comments. When Harry suddenly becomes more relaxed and they have a proper conversation, Andrew realises his first impression was wrong. As the days count down to December 25, they get swept up in the Christmas spirit and their relationship moves faster than either expected.

A little winter magic might have been the push they needed, but Harry worries that when it wears off, he’ll no longer be the man Andrew wants.


Talk about the magic of the holiday.  I already love Christmastime and all the glory and magic of the season but if I didn't this is the story that would make me believe.  Another new author for me and I can't wait to check out her other work in the new year.

RATING: 

Mistletoe at Midnight by LB Gregg
Summary:
Owen McKenzie has traveled to Vermont to spend an old-fashioned Christmas with his family when he finds himself staying at the same inn as his first love. Owen is disconcerted to realize he's still attracted to Caleb Black but refuses to pursue him. Caleb left him once, and Owen's not going down that road again.

Caleb is ready for a second chance with Owen and gets it when fate and the matchmaking McKenzies conspire to strand the two men in a rustic cabin during a snowstorm on Christmas Eve. Can Caleb convince Owen to rekindle their romance so they can stop spending their holidays apart?

Included in His for the Holiday Anthology


Christmas is the perfect time of year for reconnecting and that's what Owen & Caleb have an opportunity to do, too bad it's a door Owen isn't ready to open.  Sometimes fate has other plans.  Another great seasonal novella by LB Gregg and I'm thrilled to add it to my holiday library.

RATING: 

Rebound Remedy by Christine D'Abo
Summary:
The last thing Cole expects to get for the holidays is dumped. But there he is, in the airport on his way to Banff for a romantic getaway, helplessly watching as his boyfriend’s ex declares undying love, proposes—and is accepted. With a few weeks to go until Christmas, Cole’s mood dives from jolly to jaded. But instead of sitting at home alone and feeling sorry for himself, he goes to his favorite bar, McGregor’s, for a pint and some company.

The moment Owen McGregor sets eyes on Cole, he knows there’s something wrong. So he takes it upon himself to ensure that Cole has a happy holiday: twelve outings for the twelve days before Christmas. Even if he can’t quite think up twelve activities that don’t involve getting the forlorn hunk into his bed.

With each outing they take together, Cole realizes that the love he thought he’d shared with his ex was less than perfect. And that Owen might prove to be more than just his rebound remedy.

NOTE: Twenty percent of the publisher proceeds from this title will be donated to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) National Help Center


Another great story by a new author, for me at least.  Some might find the insta-connection between Cole and Owen a little unbelievable but once again it is fiction, but those kind of immediate bonds to happen in all forms, friendship, lovers, kindred spirits.  As for Owen and the health issues his father is dealing with really drew me in because my grandmother went through memory issues and my mother has some gaps that she don't remember from when she was in the hospital, it isn't the same but it made me connect to the character.  That alone makes this an amazing story because when an author can create that kind of compassion between characters and the reader, you know you have something special in your hands.

RATING: 

Stranded by HelenKay Dimon
Summary:
Cabe got out of the gun-for-hire business the hard way — by nearly dying. Except then his former boss calls in one last favor for one final job. The mission should be simple: get a message to a retired operative in Alaska. But it puts Cabe face-to-face with the one man he doesn’t want to see and can never forget. Not after all the secrets and lies. Not after Brax almost killed him.

Brax Hughes lived hard and retired young to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Well, that was the plan, but before he can hang up his sniper rifle, he has one last mission: win back Kyle Cabe. Brax wants another chance, wants to come clean, but after months of lying to Cabe, he knows he could face a bullet — or worse — when they meet again. And they will meet. Brax made sure of that.

With a storm moving in and someone lurking outside the cabin, time is running out. Brax needs to talk fast and keep his weapons ready. And his best weapon is the truth.

NOTE: Twenty percent of the proceeds from this title will be donated to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) National Help Center.


I love enemies to lovers stories anyway but to find one in a Christmas setting made it even better.  It was a nice change of pace and for me it was another new author that I will be watching for in the upcoming year.

RATING: 

Winter Oranges by Marie Sexton
Summary:
A Love for the Holidays charity novel

Jason Walker is a child star turned teen heartthrob turned reluctant B-movie regular who’s sick of his failing career. So he gives up Hollywood for northern Idaho, far away from the press, the drama of LA, and the best friend he’s secretly been in love with for years.

There’s only one problem with his new life: a strange young man only he can see is haunting his guesthouse. Except Benjamin Ward isn’t a ghost. He’s a man caught out of time, trapped since the Civil War in a magical prison where he can only watch the lives of those around him. He’s also sweet, funny, and cute as hell, with an affinity for cheesy ’80s TV shows. And he’s thrilled to finally have someone to talk to.

But Jason quickly discovers that spending all his time with a man nobody else can see or hear isn’t without its problems—especially when the tabloids find him again and make him front-page news. The local sheriff thinks he’s on drugs, and his best friend thinks he’s crazy. But Jason knows he hasn’t lost his mind. Too bad he can’t say the same thing about his heart.

* * * * * * *

Twenty percent of the proceeds from this title will be donated to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) National Help Center. 

Founded in 1996, the GLBT National Help Center is a non-profit organization that provides vital peer-support, community connections and resource information to people with questions regarding sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Utilizing a diverse group of GLBT volunteers, they operate two national hotlines, the GLBT National Hotline and the GLBT National Youth Talkline, as well as private, volunteer one-to-one online chat, that help both youth and adults with coming-out issues, safer-sex information, school bullying, family concerns, relationship problems and a lot more. 

To learn more about this charity or to donate directly, please visit their website.


Such a unique idea.  I've read stories where a building is haunted or an a spirit is attached to an object and exists in the home it comes into but to live in the snowglobe and can only be so far from it was intriguing.  Jason and Ben quickly burrowed it's way into my heart and it'll definitely be in my re-reading pile.

RATING: 

A Case of Christmas by Josh Lanyon
Summary:
Christmas on Catalina Island--it's just what the doctor ordered. 

Injured in the line of duty, FBI Special Agent Shane Donovan is longing for a few days of peace and quiet. Some nice meals, a couple of good books, and maybe a bottle of the best. No family, no friends, no Fa la la la la...just a little time on his own to think things through.

But an offshore storm, a geriatric treasure hunter, and the guy who dumped him without a word two years earlier are about to unwrap all Shane's carefully laid holiday plans.


Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without a Lanyon read.  Sometimes timing is everything and will Shane and his Not-Norton get it right the second time around?  A great little romantic comedy for your holiday library.

RATING: 

Click on each to check out the first 11 parts

PART 1  /  PART 2  /  PART 3  /  PART 4
PART 5  /  PART 6  /  PART 7  /  PART 8
PART 9  /  PART 10  /  PART 11


Mistletoe at Midnight
Evergreen looked exactly as it had online. From across the river it was picture-postcard perfect, almost as if some Christmas miracle had brought my mother's favorite Currier & Ives cookie tin to life. A smoky gray tendril rose from the chimney of the sprawling white farmhouse. The snow-laden fields were sectioned by hundred-year-old stone walls, the Green Mountains framed the horizon, and any second now, my truck would fall through the warped boards of the dilapidated covered bridge.

The truck dipped into a pothole and Jake grunted from the passenger seat. He tilted his head as only a beagle can and gave me his are-we-there-yet look.

"Almost."

In reality, I had no clue. My family was coming for Christmas to see my new hometown, but I wasn't familiar with the area yet. I'd let my brother pick our holiday spot, and apparently Ryan had chosen a place on the North Pole. We were at least fifteen minutes from St. James's center and there hadn't been a house for miles, never mind another car. The dirt road was plowed, at least, and the fields on either side of the river were laced with snowmobile trails. Just a few minutes ago, I'd maneuvered around an unmoving moose.

I'd get used to this. As St. James's newest veterinarian, I'd be meeting all kinds of interesting wildlife.

I just needed to survive Christmas with my meddlesome family first.

The last time I was home, I'd put my foot down with my well-meaning mother—no more surprises. No dates. No set-ups. No mysterious guests. No kindly actuaries waiting in the parlor to have an impromptu dinner. I had been ambushed at every event since Keith Turner walked away months ago and, frankly, I was done. How could anyone, specifically my mother, presume to know what I wanted when I didn't know that myself?

The thin road entered another shadowy tunnel, this one formed by the gentle arching bows of the towering pines that lent the inn its name. We came around the lazy bend and there it was. Evergreen.

I pulled to a halt on the snow-crusted driveway, parking at the very end of the line of cars, and shut the engine off. I had to be the last. It was the unwritten rule. Late to my own funeral, Mom always said.

The stars shone clear and merry above the distant mountains and barred owls hooted high in the pines as I climbed stiffly from the truck. Icy air frosted my lungs. Jake wobbled sleepily from the front seat, his white tail stiff, and he stared at me for a moment before lumbering down the shoveled walk to sniff the frigid new scenery. I grabbed the bags.

We entered the inn, jostling the strap full of sleigh bells hanging over the door, and music and warmth enveloped us. The smell of something cooking...apples and cinnamon and clove...the pervasive scent of balsam pine. It smelled like Christmas on steroids. Doug Winters had called the place homey and he hadn't lied.

I set my bag down on the braided rug and, like any good hound, Jake sat his ass on the carpet and scratched lazily at his floppy ear. We both looked around. The front hall was empty. Noise floated from the back. On a narrow table, a bowl of clementines sat beside a closed laptop and a small service bell—which I rang just because it was there. Ding ding ding.

Rebound Remedy
Chapter One
The holidays were Cole Todd’s favorite time of year. Everything from the smell of homemade cinnamon rolls cooking to the sound of kids singing off-key carols at the mall for passersby. It was the time of year when he could believe in magic and wonder. When he knew good things could happen, and for once he was going to be the one in charge of making sure the holidays charmed the right person.

This year he’d had something amazing planned, something he’d been looking forward to for over a month now: a trip for him and Steven to a ski resort in Banff. Everything had been prearranged. A quiet dinner for two ready to go in their room upon their arrival. Two tickets to the jazz room and a chance to see Diana Krall perform a holiday tribute. Exclusive use of the private outdoor hot tub with the hope that it would lead to sex in the massive king-sized bed.

Yes, he had worked out everything. Scrutinized each detail, ensuring it was perfect. Ensuring nothing could possibly cause them any problems. He’d accounted for everything . . .

Everything except this.

“I know things haven’t been great between us for a while, but I can’t let you go. I need you. I love you more than anything else in the world.”

Those words would have made his heart sing if they were the climax of a movie or a romance novel. They were spoken with passion and longing that would melt the coldest of hearts. Hell, they would have him dancing in the airport right now if they’d been directed at him.

But they weren’t.

He was listening to another man—a man he’d never met before—say them to Steven, his boyfriend of six months. Oh he’d recognized Adam Seltzer from the various pictures of him on Steven’s computer. Adam had broken Steven’s heart when he’d left Toronto for a job in Vancouver. Cole had been there to pick up the pieces. Sure, he’d had doubts that Steven was ready to move on; he’d feared their relationship was the traditional rebound romance and he was the one who’d get hurt in the end. But everything had simply clicked. They’d gotten on so well, so perfectly, that he couldn’t help but hope that this time, for once, he’d be on the winning end of things.

Apparently not.

He watched as Adam dropped to his knees in the busy check-in area of the airport, watched as Steven reached out and cupped his former lover’s face to stare longingly into his eyes.

“Steven, I quit my job. I’ve talked to my old boss and they’re willing to take me back. Everything is set for me to move back here, to be with you. All I need is a yes from you. I’ve hurt you. If you’ve moved on, if you don’t love me any longer, then I’ll understand. I’ll find a way to push you from my thoughts—”

“No baby. I . . .” Steven’s voice cracked and tears filled his eyes. “I still love you. I always have. I probably always will.” Then he leaned in and kissed Adam.

It was the most passionate kiss Cole had ever witnessed. Steven had certainly never kissed him that way. Shit, this wasn’t going to end well. Not for him at any rate.

When they finally pulled apart, the small crowd that had gathered around them applauded. Cole didn’t know what everyone thought they’d witnessed. It wasn’t an engagement or anything—

“I brought this. I’d hoped . . .” Adam reached into his back pocket and pulled out a ring box.

Oh come on!

“Steven Mitchell Cibulskis, would you do me the honor of being my husband?”

Cole wasn’t sure, but he might have groaned. Loudly.

Fuck, he’d lost Steven. Though from the sound of things, he apparently never really had him in the first place.

His stomach churned as Steven pulled Adam to his feet and kissed him passionately one more time before embracing him. It was only then that Adam locked gazes with Cole. The other man at least looked embarrassed, though Cole had no doubt it had more to do with Cole being forgotten than the outcome of the scene. Adam whispered something into Steven’s ear.

“Oh shit.” Steven turned around and looked at Cole. He’d clearly been so caught up in the situation that he’d forgotten about him. “Cole.”

There were many ways he could handle this. He could lose his temper, he could cry and whine, he could hand over the tickets and encourage them to go on the trip. It would be a romantic gesture. That’s what would have happened in the movies.

He held his ticket a little tighter in his hand. “So, I take it our plans have changed.”

“I’m so sorry.” Steven left Adam’s side and came a few steps closer. “There was no way I could know this would happen.”

“I know.”

“I didn’t plan for him to come back into my life. I thought he was gone for good. That he didn’t want me anymore.”

“I know.”

“If there is anything I can do to—”

Cole held up his hands, his eyes squeezing shut. He’d been hurt far too many times to be overly gracious. “Stop. Please.”

“You had plans.” Adam’s voice made him open his eyes once more. “You were taking him on a trip? Steve, your parents didn’t mention—”

“Yes.” He swallowed down his anger. “To Banff.”

“Can you get your money back?” Steven reached back and took Adam’s hand. “Or can we take the tickets and I’ll pay—”

“I’ll get a refund. Don’t worry about it.” At least he hoped he could. He wanted to say something else but his throat tightened, blocking the way. With each second ticking past, his emotions threatened to tear him apart from the inside out.

He had to run. Get the hell out of here before everything exploded. “Just . . . Sorry, I need to get out of here.”

“Cole, wait!”

He yanked his suitcase behind him, ignoring Adam’s, “Let him go. I’m going to take you away. He’ll be fine.”

Would he? He’d been dumped before and survived. Well, not at an airport on his way to a romantic vacation a few weeks before Christmas. This was actually the third time he’d been left for another man. Did he pick guys who were on the rebound on purpose, or was it simply bad luck? Maybe a bit of both. His family wouldn’t tease him, but from the beginning none of them had been big fans of Steven. He hoped his mother and sister would at least wait a week before they started saying, I told you so.

The December air was sharp and bit into his skin as he made his way to the Park-and-Go. He wasn’t a big fan of the cold, despite living in Toronto, but for once it felt good to be out in it. The wind blew away his anger and numbed his emotions so he could catch his breath. His feet crunched against a thin layer of the snow that had been falling steadily since they’d arrived. He’d been concerned that the snow would delay their flight and they’d spend a long time in the lounge. That they’d lose out on a day of their vacation.

Oh, if only things had been that simple.

The car door creaked as he pulled it open. He should have put his suitcase in the trunk, but that was more effort than he was able to make. Instead he threw it into the passenger’s spot, the place where Steven had sat not thirty minutes earlier, excited to head out for their trip and chatting nonstop about wanting to try snowboarding. He was alone, cold, and wanting a drink.

This was like being trapped on the wrong side of a romantic comedy. Holy shit, he was the dude no one remembered at the end of the movie. He was the leftover. The drip no one rooted for at any point in the book. The putz. The loser.

Damn it.

He fell into the seat, slammed the door shut, and turned the car on. The windshield had already frosted, lines of crystals covering the inside glass in long thatched marks. The frost meant another delay while the car heated up. Gripping the steering wheel, he fixed his gaze on the frost, watching as it ran away from the heat that blasted from the vents.

“Fuck!” He slammed his hands against the wheel, the force of the impact elevated by the cold material against his bare hands.

Why did this shit keep happening to him? He should have known things weren’t exactly right between them, that what they had wasn’t long-term–relationship material. Steven had always willingly followed him and his choices, but never seemed all that committed—like he was simply passing time.

There was something about Cole that kept others away. He was smart, good at his job, generous with his time and money. What more could someone want?

“Maybe I’m broken.” His breath rolled from his lips, chasing the words into the dark night.

The cold dampened his anger, bringing it down to little more than a wisp. By the time the window was clear enough for him to drive, he had relaxed. There wasn’t anything he could do about the situation. Steven loved Adam, which was obvious to anyone with eyes in their head. Cole couldn’t very well get upset, chase after Steven, or even demand compensation for the lost vacation. He might be many things, but he refused to become a villain. Not even at the cost of his happiness.

The highway wasn’t overly busy, and it didn’t take long for him to make the drive back into the city. Even the traffic in Toronto itself seemed to take pity on him, easing his journey home. He pulled into his parking spot for the condo building, turned the car off, but didn’t get out immediately. The thought of going in to his place—totally devoid of holiday decorations because he hadn’t been planning on being here for the holidays—made him ill.

What he wanted was a drink.

Maybe more than one.

Leaving his stuff in the car, he got out and made his way down the street to his favorite bar. It was after eleven, which meant McGregor’s would be packed. He’d be able to find a spot at the bar, have a beer, and lose himself in the surrounding noises. It would be enough to shake away the pain. At least for a while.

Walking through the doors of McGregor’s, he realized fate was working completely against him. He was greeted with a blast of hot air and “White Christmas” playing on the jukebox. Yes, of course, it would have to be Steven’s favorite holiday song crackling through the speakers. His shoulders slumped forward a tiny bit more as he stepped into the bar and let the door swing closed behind him.

Instead of the normal crowds that filled the place this time of night, the bar was barely half-full. The booths and tables were littered with small groups, folks who were celebrating the season. The only people sitting at the bar were a young couple: a man and woman who were so into one another the bar could have been burning around them and they wouldn’t have noticed.

“White Christmas” faded away and was promptly replaced with “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

Goddamn it.

This wasn’t going to work. He should turn around and go back to his condo. Nothing good could come from him sitting in a bar and inevitably watching a happy couple make out. He’d half turned when Owen McGregor came out from the back and stepped behind the bar. The bartender looked over and saw him, lifting a hand in greeting. Owen had gotten a haircut since the last time Cole had been there. His black hair was cropped close against the sides of his head, but still long enough on top to tempt a man to run his fingers through.

Maybe someday Cole might get up the nerve to touch it, see if the hairs would tickle his palm as he scratched Owen’s scalp.

Oh, that was a helpful line of thought. Idiot.

Owen winked at him. “Hey, man. I’ll be right with you.”

Shit, there went his escape. He waved back and walked over to the opposite end of the bar from the couple. “Thanks.”

The only thing more clichĂ© in Cole’s mind than wanting to bone a cop who’d pulled you over was the impulse to fuck your bartender against the bar. Owen had starred in several of Cole’s masturbation fantasies over the years. Which wasn’t surprising given how good the man looked. He didn’t have a clue if the bartender was gay or not, but it didn’t particularly matter on those nights. Owen was built, had a wicked smile and big hands.

Cole had to adjust himself as he slipped onto the stool. He wasn’t wearing the right outfit to hide a massive boner.

Owen had a smile that could make hearts pound, but a kindness about him that made everyone feel special. He was the reason Cole had started coming to McGregor’s on a regular basis. Not to flirt with Owen, but simply to be around and enjoy the warmth of his personality. If anyone could help get Cole into a better mood, it was him.

“Surprised to see you here.” Owen slid two bottles of beer to a waiting patron, then flipped his hand towel over his shoulder. “I thought you were going out of town for Christmas.”

“An unexpected change of plans.” The bar seat was hard beneath his ass, offering support as much as discomfort. “Draft, please. Whatever’s on tap is good.”

Owen grabbed a pint glass and started the pull. “That sucks, dude. Though it’s nice to have a friendly face in here tonight.”

“I was going to ask. It’s pretty damn quiet.”

“There’s a live band down the street. Some big holiday reunion tour thing. I couldn’t even tell you the name of the group, but they’re apparently popular. People started leaving here in droves about thirty minutes ago.” Owen shrugged. “I don’t mind. It’s nice to hear myself think for a change.”

When Owen placed the glass in front of him, the draft had just the right amount of head on it. “Thanks.”

There was something refreshing about swallowing down a cold beer when you were having a bad day. His body instantly relaxed in a way that he didn’t want to examine too closely. Steven always had thought he enjoyed his alcohol a bit too much. Which was ironic, since Steven often drank more than he did, with all the careless assurance of a young man who seemed blissfully immune to hangovers. Still, with his tension slowly bleeding away, he was able to calm his mind.

Owen chuckled. “That kind of night, eh?” and topped off Cole’s drink. “I’ll make sure you don’t run dry.”

“Thanks.” Cole reclaimed the glass, staring at the way the bubbles rose to the surface and popped into the warm air. “My boyfriend, Steven, left me. For his old partner.”

Owen wasn’t the kind of bartender who normally encouraged a man to pour out his heart. It wasn’t that he was unfriendly, quite the opposite, but he was busy running his business. Shit, Cole didn’t even know if the other man knew he was gay. He looked up to see a slightly bewildered expression on Owen’s face. “Sorry. I don’t know why I said that. You don’t need to know about my crap.”

“Hey, it’s fine.” Owen glanced around the bar, checking on everything before reaching into the fridge below the bar and grabbing a beer, cracking it open, and taking a drink. “It sounds like you need to talk.”

Unlike a few moments ago, Owen wasn’t quite meeting his gaze any longer. Great. Now that he knew Cole was gay, this was going to be an issue. “Naw, I’m fine. Just wanted a beer before heading home.” Swallowing down as much of the draft as he could stomach, Cole left a good inch in the bottom of the glass before slipping off the stool.

“All I Want for Christmas Is You” switched over to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

“You don’t have to go.” Owen put his beer down and took Cole’s hand. His skin was cool, damp from holding the bottle. He gave Cole a gentle squeeze. “There isn’t a problem if that’s what you think. I’m more than happy to listen.”

Cole’s heart ached a bit more at the look of pity coming his way. No, fuck, that was one thing he couldn’t handle. “I shouldn’t have come. I’m not fit company for anyone tonight.”

He was going for his wallet when Owen held up his hand. “On the house. It’s the least I can do.”

“Thanks.” Normally he would argue, or at least toss down a generous tip to compensate, but tonight he tucked his wallet back into his pocket. “See you.”

The tension took root in his shoulders once again as he slipped on his coat and trudged toward the door. Still, it didn’t quite explain the feeling that he was being watched as he left. When he looked back at the bar before the door closed behind him, Owen had moved off to the side, wiping the bar down as he moved.

Typical. Another example of Cole misreading the situation. Owen hadn’t done anything to deserve him being an asshole. Just another reason for him to hide away from people. Pulling up the collar of his coat, he walked through the cold to his empty home.

Chapter Two
One thing Owen truly appreciated about owning a bar was the opportunity to meet all sorts of interesting people. It was one of the perks that helped ease the stress of having taken over running McGregor’s after his dad’s stroke. Night after night he’d come in, meet with the staff, chat with customers, get local musicians to come play, and generally be able to forget about the rest of the shit in his life. Sure, there were those people who’d had bad days and needed to vent. Hell, he could relate. That didn’t mean he would let anyone wallow if he could help it. So he talked to his customers, learned all he could about them so when they needed it he could perfectly distract them.

Bad day at the office? Dude, the Leafs are actually winning a game!

Fight with a spouse? Wow, I need the name of your personal trainer. You look amazing.

Money issues? Hey, this one’s on the house. Frequent buyer bonus.

Rarely did he take on the problems of his patrons. He simply didn’t have the emotional reserves left for that, and wanted to offer everyone at least one place they could come and forget their troubles.

So when Cole had walked out of the bar two nights earlier, looking as though his heart had been ripped from his chest, it was more than a little surprising that Owen wanted to do something to make the other man happy. It wasn’t normally his thing to be the soothing type. But he was a fixer. Give him a problem and he’d tackle it head-on. Cole was a regular, a nice guy who was normally always looking out for the people around him. Owen had seen him pick up other customers’ tabs, slip cab money into pockets, and always generously tip the staff. Not that he was seeking anyone’s attention. If anything, he went to great lengths to avoid anyone knowing it was him.

Owen knew.

He’d been a bit surprised when he discovered Cole was gay. Not that it mattered to him. Hell, Owen had slept with guys as often as women. It was more that Cole had always been so buttoned-up, so reserved about all aspects of his life, let alone his sexuality. His out-of-the-blue announcement had thrown Owen for a loop.

And what kind of asshole left someone at Christmas?

The mere idea was a jab to his protective self. If he had anything to say about matters, he’d make sure Cole was in a better place by the time the twenty-fifth rolled around. The only problem was that he didn’t know much about Cole, where he lived or worked. The other man didn’t come into the bar on any sort of schedule, which would make it hard to nail him down.

Still, he wasn’t about to give up.

Saturday night rolled around, and the bar was back to its normal bustle. Owen flew behind the bar, filling orders and shamelessly flirting with anyone who looked him in the eyes. It was a terrible habit to have, but it helped with the tips and set up an atmosphere of fun. People knew that for whatever time they were there, they’d be welcomed and looked after. Not that he had a chance for any action with the patrons. Between making sure that everything was moving smoothly behind the scenes in the day, and keeping the bar tended at night, Owen barely had time to sleep let alone date.

Hell, he hadn’t even had sex in . . . shit, eight months.

Ouch, that was painful to even think about.

“Behind you.” Jane brushed against him on her way to the bar fridge. “We’re getting low on draft.”

“I’ll drag another keg out in the next lull.”

“Oh, that’s wishful thinking. And I think we might have a puker in the gents’.” She had the gall to grin as she returned to her side of the bar.

“Where’s Moe? It’s his turn to clean up.” His newest employee had a talent for being anywhere but where Owen wanted him.

“Not sure.” Jane twisted off three bottle caps in rapid succession before sliding the bottles across the bar to the man ogling her chest. “I’m sure he’ll turn up once everything’s back to normal.”

Fuck, what was the point of being the owner if you couldn’t shove the shit jobs off to the new guys? “I’ll get it. Hold the fort.”

“Will do.” He was so going to read Moe the riot act when he found the little bastard.

Grabbing the bucket and mop from the back room, he made his way down the hallway toward the restrooms. The ladies’ had a decent line as usual, but there was no one standing outside the men’s. Great, any chance that Jane was wrong went out the window. It explained the recent rush of guys going outside and coming right back in. The alley would smell like piss tomorrow. Owen braced himself for a second before pushing the door open to the one part of his job he hated.

The sound of vomit.

“How are we doing in here?” His normal routine of checking on the drunk was shattered when he looked up to see Cole standing beside a young man who’d had way too much to drink.

“Hi.” Cole quickly looked between Owen and the guy. “He’s not with me. I came in and found him on the floor. I didn’t want to leave him here and figured help would come eventually.”

“Yeah, I’d heard we had a puker.” Owen stepped farther into the room, shoving the bucket and mop to the side. “But this isn’t your job.”

“Merry Christmas.” Cole gave him a small smile. “I don’t mind. I couldn’t leave him on the floor.”

That tiny twitch of lips did something strange to his stomach. It churned in a way that had nothing to do with the awful smell, and everything to do with the way Cole’s eyes lit up.

Damn. He really didn’t have time for a crush. Especially with a man who was nursing a broken heart.

“Umm, let’s get this kid up before he causes us more problems.” He came around to the drunk’s other side and draped the guy’s arm around his neck. “Mind helping me get him up and out to a cab? I’ll give you a free drink for your trouble.”

“Sure, though the drink isn’t necessary.” Cole mirrored his action, resulting in their arms brushing against one another along the kid’s back. “Think he has anyone here with him?”

“Probably. Though he might have been orphaned by them. I think he’s part of a hockey team who came in earlier, and they all left about thirty minutes ago. Probably assumed he’d wandered home.”

They struggled to get the moaning kid up and out of the bathroom. This wasn’t exactly how Owen had wanted his next meeting with Cole to go. Nothing cheery, sexy, or fun about dealing with a drunk. Especially one who weighed as much as this one did. The kid started to moan and struggle against them, forcing Owen to tighten his grip. “Settle down.”

Ignoring several shouts and taunts from the slightly less drunk patrons, they managed to get the kid outside where Owen could flag a cab. “Want to check his pocket for a wallet? We need to find his address.”

Cole patted the kid down. “Yup. Here.”

The next thing that happened was something Owen should have expected. As he stepped away to check for a driver’s license, leaving Cole to hold the kid upright, the taxi pulled up. Owen gave the guy the address and his corporate number to charge the cab to, while Cole tried to get the kid into the backseat. It was at that exact moment the kid woke up long enough to realize a stranger was manhandling him and decided to defend himself. He roared and took a swing at Cole. The sound of fist meeting face was followed by Cole landing in a heap on the ground, moaning.

Cole shook his head as he sat in a pile of slush and snow.

“Fuck!” Owen lunged for the kid and managed to push him into the taxi before he could take another punch at Cole. “Get this asshole home. And put a twenty-dollar tip on there for yourself.”

The driver looked less than impressed. “There’ll be a cleanup charge if he pukes back there.”

“Fine. You have my corporate number.” He couldn’t worry about that now.

Cole was still splayed out on the ground looking more than a little shocked by the turn of events. If Owen had been thinking straight, he would have warned him that drunks are rarely happy to be moved.

Holding out his hand to Cole, he gave him a smile. “I think you’ve earned yourself free drinks for life.”

“Wow, that hurt.” Cole adjusted his jaw with his hand before reaching up for Owen’s. “I’m going to hold you to that.”

“Good.” If that was all it took to make the other man happy, then Owen was getting off easy. “Let’s get you inside and get some ice on that.”

Jane and Moe were running the bar when they came back in. Moe cringed when he looked at Cole. He’d been on the receiving end of a drunk punch on his first night, so he knew what Cole was feeling. Owen would have to have a long chat with his young bartender about disappearing during a shift.

“I’m getting some ice,” he called to Jane as they walked past. “You two good?”

“All set. I’ll make Moe restock.” She gave him a shove. “Draft keg. Go.”

Cole was surprisingly quiet as they moved through the bar and stepped into the back room. Owen wasn’t normally one for silence. His natural gift of the gab served him well in his adopted profession. People didn’t come to his bar to be alone. It was a place for music, lively conversation, and cheer. Especially during the holidays.

“I have an ice pack in the freezer. Let me grab it, and you take a seat.”

The scrape of the chair being pulled away from the table was the only acknowledgment Cole gave him.

“I’m sorry about the punch. It’s a pretty common thing. I used to be a bouncer here when I was working my way through university. You learn to bob and weave pretty quickly.”

He turned around to see Cole rubbing his hand along his cheek. A red mark was already rising on his skin, making him look as though he were blushing. It would only be a matter of minutes before the red deepened into purple, marring his handsome face.

Whoa, where had that come from?

Owen cleared his throat. “Anyway. I’m sorry about that. You’re wet. You must be freezing.”

“It’s all good. I’ll have to head home and change my jeans.” Cole shook his head slightly before wincing. “It’s been a while since I’ve taken a hit like that.”

When he handed the ice pack over, Owen made sure to keep from brushing against Cole’s hand. “Don’t take this wrong, but you don’t seem like much of a fighter.”

“I’m into kickboxing. Been doing it for years.” He pressed the ice pack to his cheek and sighed. “Lot of good it did me tonight. I wasn’t expecting him to move like that.”

The image of Cole topless and sweaty flashed through Owen’s mind. He swallowed hard. “I’m glad your instincts didn’t kick in. I try not to pummel the drunks, even if they deserve it. The cops tend to frown upon assault.”

Cole held his gaze for a moment, and Owen saw the spark of light flicker, before it was snuffed out. God, what happened to make this man hurt that badly? It had to be more than a bad breakup, though given the time of year that was horrible enough. He didn’t know what it was, but he was determined to discover the truth.

“I want to take you to breakfast.” The words were out there before he realized he’d spoken. Not that it mattered. It was the perfect idea. “As a way to thank you for your help tonight.”

“That’s not necessary.” Cole was on his feet, the quick movement sending the chair skittering back. “I should probably head home and take some pain pills. I hope this doesn’t bruise too badly.”

Owen stepped into the other man’s personal space, ignoring the way Cole’s eyes flashed and his body stiffened. “I insist. I don’t make it a habit of letting my patrons get assaulted. And you look like you could use the company. Tomorrow morning. Meet me here at about ten and we’ll get something to eat. Or better yet I’ll bring something in. I’m a pretty decent cook.” When it looked as though Cole would refuse again, Owen lowered his chin and swayed in a bit closer. “Please?”

Stranded
Chapter One
The blistering cold seeped through Cabe’s insulated jacket as he crested the ridge. He stopped moving long enough to check out the short stretch of open land in front of him. Then he cursed his former boss for calling in a favor and dropping him in the-middle-of-fucking-nowhere, Alaska.

A thin layer of ice crusted over snow. White blanketed the area, hanging off trees in clumps, weighing down branches until they looked ready to snap in half. Bad weather never bothered him before, but he hated everything about this assignment. The rough free climb to get there. The snow. Going in blind. All of it.

This time, the encoded operation briefing file had consisted of only one page. These coordinates, a timeline that had given him three days to get there, and a cryptic message. Not even a contact name or photo of a target. Just a code he needed to memorize and hear from whoever he found out here, then the three words he’d been told to deliver: Holly Trent Clear.

The lack of information made him wonder if he’d been sent on a one-way assignment. Lured in so someone could sneak up behind him and put a bullet in his brain. Possible, but good luck to anyone who tried.

Cabe had no idea what the hell it all meant. Didn’t actually care. He got paid whether he understood the endgame or not. And this operation demanded in-person communication, so whoever waited on the other end for this intel must need it to stay under. Possibly maintain the pretense of being dead. That was the only explanation for the inability to get a message out here any other logical way.

With the help of binoculars, he could make out the cabin in the distance—small, tucked into a round of trees and, like every other thing around here, coated in a layer of drifting snow. If he hadn’t been looking for the place, he might have missed it. Well, he wouldn’t. Others would, but he’d been trained to hunt, track, and eliminate when necessary.

One last scan of the area for signs of life and then he moved. Already dropped into a doubled-over crouch, he traveled inch by slow inch as he listened for any sound that could pinpoint his objective. Watching for a potential attack that could come from any direction, human or even unmanned drone.

His gun never wavered, and he kept his knife close. He’d have to adjust his aim to account for the thin gloves, but without them he’d be risking frostbite and he’d vowed not to go down that road again. Not after the last time almost cost him two fingers. His thumb still ached in the cold.

He crept along the edge of the cleared area and disappeared into the line of trees where the layer of snow was only a few inches, instead of feet, deep. Dodging and sliding, never making a sound as he used one trunk after another as a shield.

When he stood fifty feet out from the cabin, the air grew still. It wasn’t his imagination or a change in weather. He had company. Trained company. Someone who knew how to slink in and stay hidden. He admired the training that led to skills like that but wasn’t really in the mood for a chase.

He mentally flipped through his options and settled on pretending to let his guard down. Nothing lured in prey faster than a signal the attack could end fast. That worked for Cabe. Ease the other person in, letting him think he had the best hand. Or her—Cabe didn’t take women attackers for granted. He might be bigger, but he never discounted a woman’s stamina and ability to gain the advantage.

Ignoring years of training and instincts that rarely misled him, Cabe dropped his hand. Just an inch, but enough to suggest he’d need an extra second to shoot. Never mind the knife in his other hand.

The blade slid down from inside his sleeve, the tip edging against his wrist. When a hand wrapped around his biceps and yanked, Cabe pivoted. The snow made his movements clunky, but momentum worked in his favor.

A blur of black flashed beside him. He heard a grunt as he caught his attacker off-balance and slammed him into the nearest tree trunk. Cabe elbowed the guy in the gut as the blade fully slipped down into his other palm and he grabbed the hilt. He shifted, but the other man was a half step faster.

It all happened in less than three seconds and ended with a weight pressed against the side of Cabe’s skull. He knew the sensation. A gun. His breath rushed in and out as he calculated the pressure he’d need to put into a backward kick to take the attacker’s leg out and shift the gun out of shooting-him-in-the-head range.

“You’re getting old or sloppy. Not sure which.” The deep voice rang out in the late quiet afternoon.

It can’t be. It absolutely can’t be.

The owner of that voice was very dead. He’d been taken out. One shot execution style, or that’s what the briefing Cabe had stolen said. He remembered the day, the very minute, he’d read the news. He’d wanted to celebrate and shout about how karma was a nasty fucking bitch, but he’d ended up looking into the bottom of more than one empty vodka bottle and not feeling anything but numb.

But that voice haunted him. Husky and so tempting as it licked against his balls. It had played in his head for months until his hatred finally squashed it out and forced his brain to forget. Or so he’d thought.

Certain he’d finally lost what little was left of his mind, Cabe turned around for a better view just as his attacker pulled up the ski mask covering every inch of his head. Cabe couldn’t deny the face in front of him after that. Same dirty-blond hair, cut military short. Those intense blue eyes, so bright and clear, telegraphed a certain genuineness that Cabe believed in. He’d never suspected he’d been set up a year ago until the shots had rung out and he’d dropped to the ground in a pool of blood. Even now Cabe had to fight the urge to rub the puckered scar on his chest, though for once he appreciated the reminder of his idiocy. Now he could prevent a repeat of that mistake.

“Braxton Hughes.” Cabe hated the kick to his chest that came with saying the guy’s name. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

Brax grinned. “Good to see you too, Kyle.”

Only Brax would dare to use the first name Cabe despised. Brax’s cocky self-assurance hadn’t slipped. Add in that face and the scruff around his mouth and chin. It all drove Cabe wild, and in just a few seconds he slipped right back into the old habit of imagining Brax stripped naked and stretched out across the bed. Any flat surface.

Yeah, that was enough of that shit. Cabe tore his gaze away. Only for a second because this was not a guy to be trusted for any longer. Still, just looking at Brax brought memories of those sex-fueled months long ago rushing back.

Cabe shook his head, hoping to knock out the remaining mental images from that time. But no luck. “Fuck.”

“We’ve already done that.”

Cabe didn’t need a reminder of that, or any part of their history. He had a bigger problem to deal with right now. “I saw the photos.”

Brax shook his head. “Not real.”

The words made sense, but Cabe’s mind refused to process it all. He could almost feel his brain trying to reboot. “The blood. Your body.”

He could not let the sick memories invade his brain. It had taken weeks after first reading the file to be able to close his eyes without calling up the image of Brax’s mangled head. Despite all the anger and betrayal, seeing the man he’d slept next to for four months blown apart only made Cabe’s recovery all the harder. He’d wanted to stay furious, let the rage fester, but thinking Brax was dead added a whole layer of guilt and confusion to the process.

The only way Cabe had gotten through it was by shutting out the loss and concentrating on the deception. Letting it fuel him until he’d vowed to get up from the rehab bed and disappear forever, to leave that line of work and never return.

“It was all fake, man.” Brax said the words like he was talking about the weather. No emotion. No inflection. “All of it.”

Not uncommon in their work. Assignments went bad, people turned, and you had to regroup. Go under, get smarter, hide in another country, change names and become someone else. More than one operative had turned to surgery for the extra security that came with a new face. Cabe knew all of that but still couldn’t stop blinking and as he tried to wipe out the vision in front of him.

And now he had a new layer of Brax’s deception to deal with. “I was in rehab and you were dead.” That was part of the timeline in Cabe’s head. They’d gotten together, had four months, then one day he walked out of the shower and Brax shot him.

Cabe spent the next eleven months trying to recover while he figured out what the hell happened. Half hating Brax, and half not. It all led to right here. To this place.

“That’s what you were told.” Brax blew out a long breath. “It wasn’t true.”

Just another lie. “You mean that I was in rehab—because of you, you son of a bitch—and you were, what?” Cabe glanced around. “Out here building your dream cabin?”

Forget the cold and the wind. Anger heated inside of him, threatening to spew.

“You were recovering and so was I.” Brax held up a hand as if trying to fight off any argument that might come. “There was a shooting, but I survived . . . just like you did.”

Wrong thing to say. And so careful. “No thanks to you.”

“We can talk about that.”

No fucking way. Cabe tightened his grip on his knife, let the handle dig into his palm. He needed to forget this part, to tuck it away and examine it later because right now he needed to do this last job and get the hell out of there. Get as far away from Brax and his lies as possible. Away from everything and this life.

Stay focused. “You’re the assignment?”

Brax exhaled again. “Cabe, look—”

“Just answer the question.” The briefing file and the code. Those were the only things that mattered now. Cabe concentrated on those.

“Do you have a message for me?”

In a flash, Cabe’s good intentions blinked out again. Seeing Brax standing there, alive and so damn sure of himself, made something inside Cabe snap. Forget work and this assignment. Forget it all. “Yeah, kiss my ass.”

This time Brax winked. “Done that too.”

There it was. It hit like a punch, a reminder that Brax would use any weapon, including Cabe’s attraction to him, to win. No way was he getting sucked in a second time.

Cabe called up every memory of that damn rehab bed to stoke his anger. “Screw the assignment and message, and whatever it is you need. I’ll shoot you, leave you to bleed out, and claim I found you that way.”

Throughout the conversation Brax never moved except to drop the hand with the gun to his side. Didn’t step back and give Cabe space. Didn’t even twitch. “Is that anyway to greet a guy you used to—”

“Don’t.” Cabe didn’t want to walk down memory lane. Not the one that led to clothes on the floor and fucking against the wall. “I’m not here for that.”

Brax nodded. “Right.”

“And you’re forgettable.” Cabe felt the need to say it, so he did. Also took two steps back because being almost on top of Brax made Cabe waver between killing the guy and things that would be so much worse. He slipped the knife back up his arm and into its protective sheath. The gun stayed right where it was—in his hand and ready to fire if needed. He decided to keep it aimed at Brax, just in case.

“Forgettable?” Brax’s head tipped to the side. “Really?”

No, that was the part that truly sucked. Big-time sucked. Cabe inhaled, trying to fight off the cold settling in his bones and the memories floating through his head. “I can’t believe Myers sent me to help you. If I had known you were alive . . . If I had known where you were . . .”

“You would have tracked me down and killed me.”

Sounded good to Cabe. “Possibly.”

As usual, Brax didn’t back down. If anything, he came out swinging even harder. “At the very least, you would have refused the assignment.”

“Damn straight.”

“Yeah, nice try. We both know it doesn’t work that way.” Brax shifted his feet, covering his tracks and evidence of their quick fight. “Ted Myers would not allow that.”

Ted Myers, the head of Cantor Industries, the nondescript name for the company Cabe worked for up until three weeks ago. He’d officially quit. Not that Myers accepted the resignation. Once a man joined his undercover squad of assassins sent in to even the playing field in international conflicts, Myers considered him an employee for life. Funny how that wasn’t mentioned in the employment agreement . . . not that Cabe had one of those.

Well, that was enough thinking about retirement. Technically, he was done and out of the game, but he’d agreed to do this one last favor. Not that he’d had a choice. Myers called him in with the reminder of how he’d planted all the leads and covered every track so Cabe could continue to pretend he was dead now that he was out of rehab. Even the government thought he’d been killed.

He now lived off the grid and with a new identity in New Mexico, far away from anything or anyone that could connect him to his past. And he had a future to get to. “I need confirmation you’re really my assignment, and we’ll get this done. Then I’m out of here.”

Brax started shaking his head before Cabe had even finished the comment. “Not possible.”

A rough gust of wind blew over Cabe, but he barely noticed. His instincts were too busy kicking in. “Excuse me?”

“Lower the gun, Cabe.”

Not happening. “Explain first.”

“We’ve got bad weather coming and your limited hours of available daylight are almost over. That will leave you at negative eight degrees with little light as you climb over rocky terrain with limited equipment and no partner. A guaranteed death wish.”

Cabe eased up on his aim. “I’ll be fine.”

“There’s no way for you to head back over that mountain until at least tomorrow. Even then, I can’t promise the weather will hold out. One good gust and you’ll be at the bottom of the next ravine.”

“I’ll take my chances.” In a race between falling to his death and dealing with whatever Brax had planned, Cabe knew he stood a better shot with the mountain. Still, he lowered the gun to his side, ready to fire if Brax even twitched.

The corner of Brax’s mouth lifted. “We can share my cabin.”

That suggestion didn’t even need a second of thought. “No fucking way.”

Now Brax’s smile nearly lit up the darkening sky. “I see your language hasn’t gotten any better.”

“You’ve earned it.”

The smile faded. “How do you figure that?”

“Last time I saw you, I’d barely pulled up my pants before you tried to kill me.”

“You look fine to me.” And Brax took his time looking. Glanced up and down Cabe’s body, hesitating here and there.

Cabe wasn’t getting sucked in again. The last round of fucking with this guy nearly killed him. “Yeah, leaving me to die didn’t work. Guess you’re the one who’s slipping.”

Brax’s gun disappeared when he put his hands in his jacket pocket. He nodded toward the cabin. “Maybe we should head inside and talk about what really happened last year.”

“Give me the retrieval code before I follow through on every fantasy I’ve had for the last eleven months and kill you right here.” A sharp silence followed the comment. It hung in the ice-cold air for a second as they engaged in a staring contest that bordered on lethal.

Brax glanced away. “That’s what your fantasies about me have looked like?”

“Exactly.”

He whistled. “Not very flattering.”

Suddenly Cabe felt the full intensity of the cold. The chill seeped through the specially designed jacket as his joints tightened from prolonged exposure and lack of movement. He needed to end this or risk serious damage. “You have ten seconds.”

“You’re not going to shoot me at the eleventh second.”

“Test me.” But Cabe didn’t bother to aim again. “Give me any reason.”

“Fine.” Brax held his hands in the air in mock surrender. “You win.”

That was too easy. The Brax that Cabe knew, self-assured, almost too confident, wouldn’t back down so fast. He was younger, faster, and a better shot. Cabe knew because he’d trained Brax. Mentored him, screwed him, then really gotten fucked by him. The only questions he had, ones he’d likely never get an answer to, were why Myers was in contact with Brax at all and why he didn’t share the news of Brax’s sudden recovery from being dead. Myers extinguished traitors. He didn’t pass messages to them or cover for them.

Cabe listened to the warning bell wailing in his brain. “I’m still counting down. Just so you know, I’m at eight.”

“Then let’s get you that code.” Brax started walking. Didn’t seem to care or worry that Cabe stood behind him with weapons ready.

“Stop.” Taking one more step would only prolong the inevitable. Cabe needed this meeting to end before the reality of Brax being alive and all the implications of that hit him full force and dragged him to his knees. “You can tell me right here.”

“There’s something I need to decode the message and we need to go inside for that.” Brax nodded toward the cabin. “Hey, you’re the one who wants this over nice and neat. No talking. Fine, but that means going inside for a second and no shooting.”

Cabe didn’t trust Brax at all, so he kept his gun right where it was in his hand. “I’m almost disappointed you’re giving in without a fight.”

“That makes two of us.”

Chapter Two
Cabe had never been the open and chatty type, but during the six months Brax was forced to play dead it looked as if Cabe had gone emotionally comatose. Brax shouldered most of the blame for that. He’d had a reason for every move and every play a year ago, but the gruff guy standing across the room was not ready to hear about them.

“Give me the code,” Cabe said as he kept watch out of the small window over the sink.

“Soon.” And by that Brax meant as soon as they worked everything out. God knew how long that would take.

“Now, Brax.” Cabe started moving. Pacing as much as the ten-by-ten space would allow. “I gave you until we were inside, and we are now. So, get whatever you need and let’s get this done.”

Lucky for Brax they had all the time in the world because Cabe was not going anywhere. Even if that meant drugging him. He would stay and eventually listen. That was the plan, but his plans regarding Cabe had a way of imploding. Like the one where he had to play dead instead of getting to Cabe’s bedside and explaining right away. Now they had this gulf between them and all these lies, and bridging it would take time.

Still, Brax took a second to watch Cabe. He usually stalked, lean and fast like the predator he was. Totally in control of his body and never flinching when it came to getting the job done. Cabe followed the rules. Brax never did, but he admired Cabe’s dedication. Did more than admire when it came to his looks. The near-black hair and eyes, the brooding.

Cabe liked sex and guns. He didn’t shy away from dirty talk. He was half-wild the first time Brax dropped to his knees and took him into his mouth. Before that day they’d never talked about their personal lives or the attraction that spiked between them every time they brushed past one another. Brax hadn’t even been sure Cabe was gay or could admit it. Until his zipper came down and then it was clear they wanted the same thing.

Now Brax had to figure out how to get them back to that head space. Myers said he’d help, but there were limits. Cabe had to want this and right now he looked half-ready to climb out of his skin. The uncharacteristic fidgeting.

“I thought you retired.” Brax actually knew, so he didn’t bother to ask it as a question.

Cabe stopped moving around. “We’re not doing this.”

“What?”

“Small talk.” Dishes clanked in the sink as Cabe shifted things around. “I need the confirmation code.”

He sure as hell wasn’t making this easy. “I’m holding off for your own good. If you try to leave, you’ll die.”

Cabe turned around nice and slow. His mouth had pulled tight and tension showed in every line of his body. “So?”

Not exactly the answer Brax expected. “Since when do you have a death wish?”

“I don’t.” Cabe rested the heels of his hands on the small counter behind him and leaned back against it. “I meant ‘so’ as in ‘why would you care?’”

The chip on his shoulder grew bigger each second. Brax took the blame for that, too.

Cabe had never been easy. He was older, more hardened by the work, less trusting in general. He didn’t believe in much except a personal code about finishing the job no matter what. Despite the rules and all the secrecy, he handed back any assignment that included children or targets he deemed inappropriate for a hit list. Other agents tried that move and disappeared. Myers—former Special Forces and an all-around controlling bastard—did not tolerate any question of his power.

But Cabe did not compromise. Not with his sniper-like ability to wait out a target, hide and kill without blinking. Brax always assumed Myers viewed Cabe as a man you wanted on your side.

Brax wanted a hell of a lot more than that from Cabe.

Winter Oranges
Chapter One
It was easy to believe the house was haunted. After acting for most of his life, Jason Walker’s first thought upon seeing the home he’d purchased virtually sight unseen was that it would have been a perfect place to film an Amityville remake.

A little far from Amity, but hey, Hollywood had never been a stickler for rules.

Or honesty.

Jason put his car in park and killed the engine. Gravel crunched as his friend Dylan’s rental car rolled to a stop next to him. They climbed out of their vehicles and stood side by side, leaning against Jason’s front bumper, staring up at his new abode.

Dylan whistled, long and low, then shook his head. “This place is creepy as hell.”

“It’s just the light.” Even a washed-up actor like Jason knew lighting could make or break a scene. The pictures he’d seen online of the house had been taken in full sunlight in October, with the majestic glory of autumn on all sides, the gold- and scarlet-leaved trees nearer the house backed by the evergreens of the surrounding forest. But now, only a week into November, the eerie orange glow of twilight fell on bare branches, and the pines seemed droopy and forlorn. None of it was doing this house any favors.

Still, Dylan had a point. The house was creepy. Something about the lone, low window over the second floor’s covered patio. Something about the house’s quiet isolation, and the thin white curtains hanging uniformly in every window. Or maybe it was the detached garage with its guesthouse on top, sitting like a forgotten toy off to the left.

“How old is it?” Dylan asked.

“It was built in the ’90s.”

“The 1890s?” Dylan was incredulous. The idea of spending money on anything so old was obviously beyond his comprehension.

“No. The 1990s.”

“It looks older.”

“It’s supposed to.” His real estate agent, Sydney Bell, had called the house an American foursquare revival. Jason didn’t know what that meant and didn’t care. The price was right, the house was fully furnished, and its relative seclusion in the mountainous region of Idaho’s panhandle would make it harder for tabloid photographers to find him.

“They intentionally made it look old?” Dylan asked, as if it was the most absurd thing he’d heard all day.

“They copied an older style of architecture.”

“Huh.” Dylan scratched his chin and threw Jason a smart-assed grin. “Retro. Like you.”

Jason laughed, because that’s what Dylan expected. “Fuck you.” He pushed off the bumper of his car, rattling his keys in his hand. “Let’s see what it’s like inside.”

The second story extended out over the first like an overbite, creating a covered front porch that ran the length of the house. “A veranda,” Sydney had called it. The front door opened into a hallway, although Jason suspected Sydney would have said it was a foyer. Or maybe a vestibule. To the right lay a large living room, furnished in what could only be called cozy-grandma style, with lots of flowers and overstuffed cushions. A stack of moving boxes stood in the center of the floor, having been left there the previous day by the moving company, working under Sydney’s direction. To the left of the foyer sat the dining room, through which they could see the kitchen. Jason knew a mudroom and pantry made up the back half of the area. Directly ahead of where they stood by the front door, a bathroom and the staircase leading up completed the ground floor.

No ghosts, though. Not so far, at least.

“Who the hell picked out that couch?” Dylan asked.

“The previous owner, I guess.” In truth, Jason hadn’t cared much what the furniture looked like. Sydney had promised him it was all in decent condition. Jason was just happy he didn’t have to go wandering around town searching for a damn table to eat at, or a chair to sit in while he watched TV. He’d had Sydney stock the kitchen with a few essentials too, assuring he wouldn’t have to go grocery shopping for a few days at least. The last thing he needed was for somebody in Coeur d’Alene to discover the child star turned B-list actor known to the public as Jadon Walker Buttermore had moved in to their small community. The longer he remained anonymous, the better.

Dylan scowled at the couch as if it had personally offended him. Knowing Dylan and his neo-minimalist style, it probably had. “It’s like something my grandma would have bought.”

Jason laughed. “What? You have something against giant pink roses?”

“On a couch? Yeah, I do. And so should you.”

Jason sat down on the sofa and leaned back. He searched with his left hand and found the lever to extend the footrest. He reclined the backrest and smiled up at Dylan. “It’s not bad, actually.”

“You should have let me furnish it for you.”

“Yeah, right.” Jason sat upright again, shoving the footrest closed with his heels. “I’d have ended up with one designer chair that cost more than my car. And it wouldn’t even have been comfortable.”

Dylan’s laugh was sudden and loud in the confines of the quiet house. “Boy, you don’t think much of me, do you?”

That wasn’t true. That wasn’t true at all, and he suspected Dylan knew it, but Dylan always did this to him, asking questions that seemed to dare Jason to blurt out how he really felt. Jason chose to ignore most of them, this one included. “Come on. Let’s check out the rest.”

Although the house was more than twenty years old, the kitchen had been updated and included all new chrome appliances and a trash compactor that Sydney swore was top-of-the-line and quiet as a whisper. Jason didn’t bother to test the claim.

The second floor held a tiny bathroom and four bedrooms, one in each corner, which Jason supposed was what gave the foursquare its name. A stairway led to a long, slope-ceilinged attic bedroom. At the far end, the single narrow window Jason had noticed upon arrival allowed a bit of light to creep inside. It was a sad, empty room, and they didn’t linger.

“Whoever lived here sure did love flowers,” Dylan said as they scoped out the first couple of bedrooms on the second floor. “Wallpaper, bedspreads, pictures. Even the rug in the bathroom has roses on it. And they’re all pink.”

“It could be worse.”

“How?”

“Uh . . .” Jason stopped, considering. “I’m not sure, to be honest.”

They ended their tour, by some unspoken agreement, in the master bedroom. It was the one room Jason’d had refurnished before his arrival. He’d chosen the furniture himself—online, of course—and Sydney had made sure everything would be ready when he arrived. His new room held a large oak dresser, a chest of drawers, and a love seat, which he knew would end up a depository for not-quite-dirty laundry. A king-sized bed covered with a thick down comforter sat against the wall, between two nightstands.

Dylan pointed to the glass-paned door in the corner of the room. “This goes to that patio we could see from the front yard?”

“It does.”

The two front bedrooms shared a covered porch that sat dead center of the front of the house, directly below the attic window. It was a strange setup, a throwback to when husbands and wives had separate quarters. The porch would have allowed them to cross to each other’s room without alerting the children, except this house had been built at the end of the twentieth century, making the floor plan an anachronism.

Dylan opened the door, and Jason followed him outside. They still wore their jackets, but now the sun had set and the November evening felt cooler than before.

“There’s a room over the garage too?” Dylan asked.

“Yep, bed and bath.” They stood surveying the building in question from their vantage point on the porch. It was eerily silent.

“Well, is it everything you dreamed?”

Yes. Standing there with Dylan, out of sight of everybody else in the world was exactly what he dreamed about, nearly every night.

Not that he’d ever admit it out loud.

Instead, Jason nodded, then asked, as casually as he could, “You’re staying the night, right?”

Dylan grinned and stepped closer to slide his arm around Jason’s waist. “I didn’t come all this way to see your house.”

Jason’s relief felt almost tangible, so sudden and strong he wondered if Dylan sensed it. He hoped not. He hoped the darkness hid his pathetic happiness at knowing Dylan was staying. They’d been friends for more than ten years. They’d shared a bed more times than Jason could count. Dylan may have suspected Jason’s true feelings, but Jason did his best to never confirm them, especially since Dylan avoided genuine emotions and commitment the way Jason avoided anybody with a press badge hanging around their neck.

Still, Jason rejoiced as Dylan pulled him close. He sank gratefully into the warmth of Dylan’s kiss, comfortable in his friend’s arms. He grew breathless as Dylan began fighting with the buttons of Jason’s jeans.

“Let’s do it here,” Dylan whispered.

Jason glanced around in alarm, searching for the telltale wink of light reflecting off a camera lens. “Somebody will see.”

“There’s nobody around. That’s why we’re in the wilds of Idaho, remember?”

Jason’s protests dwindled as Dylan sank to his knees, pulling Jason’s pants halfway down his hips as he did. He traced his tongue up Jason’s erection. “God, Jase. It’s been too long.”

“I know.” Way too long since he’d had Dylan to himself. Too many lonely nights since he’d felt Dylan’s touch. He’d been in love with his friend for longer than he cared to admit, but this was the first time in months they’d been alone together. Still, he was hesitant to do anything out in the open. “Dylan, wait. I—” His words died as Dylan wrapped his lips around Jason’s glans. “Oh God.”

Dylan sucked him in deep, stalling for moment with his nose pressed against Jason’s pubic bone. Then, finally, he began to move, sliding his warm mouth up and down Jason’s length. Jason gripped the cold porch railing with one hand, tangled the fingers of the other into Dylan’s heavily moussed hair, and tried to lose himself to the pleasure of being sucked by the man he loved. He breathed deep, willing the tension away. Doing his best to banish the pressure of trying to make it in Hollywood and failing, of never living up to what was expected. He tried to forget it all. To simply revel in the pure joy of being with Dylan here and now, knowing they had one full night together, just the two of them. No other struggling actors or desperate starlets. No two-bit directors or double-crossing producers. And above all, no media waiting to catch them with their pants down.

Literally.

But as good as it was being with Dylan, the real world always intruded. His house was set back half an acre from the road, but anybody who came up the drive would be able to see them. The No Trespassing signs wouldn’t mean a thing to a photographer hoping for a scoop.

Jason moaned—part pleasure, part disappointment that even now he couldn’t relax—and opened his eyes. He kept his hand on Dylan’s head as he surveyed the tree line, his chest tight with anxiety at what he might find.

But the grounds around the house—his house, he had to remind himself—were dark and still and silent. Nobody lingered there.

Yes, this could really happen. Jason almost laughed at the realization. He imagined being fucked by Dylan right there on the porch. The thought thrilled him, and his throaty moan made Dylan speed up, his ministrations gaining a new urgency as he sucked Jason’s cock. In the low light on the porch, Jason could barely make out the movement of Dylan’s hand between his legs as he stroked himself.

Did they have any lube handy? Or condoms?

Fuck it. Just this for now. I’ll let him suck me here, where only the moon can see. We’ll have time for the rest later.

He surveyed the yard again, his eyes half-closed, his breath quick and labored as his orgasm neared. He peered past their parked cars. Found the garage. Followed its lines up toward the second-story guesthouse and its single window—

“Holy shit!” Jason jumped back, away from the porch railing, away from Dylan, trying to clumsily pull his pants up and hide himself against the wall.

“What the hell, Jase?” Dylan’s voice was low and hoarse.

“There was somebody—” But there wasn’t. Jason swore he’d seen a face in the window of the apartment over the garage, but now it stood empty except for the unmoving curtains. Jason swallowed hard, willing his heart to stop pounding. He pointed with a shaking hand toward the garage. “I thought I saw somebody in the guesthouse.”

“I’ve never met anybody as paranoid as you.” Dylan pushed himself up from his knees, his pants still hanging open, his erect cock sticking into the night air like some kind of ridiculous talisman. “Not that it isn’t justified, but . . .” He gestured to the empty lawn. “There’s nobody there.”

“I thought I saw—”

“What? A photographer?”

Jason shook his head, holding his pants closed around his waning erection, trying to sort through his thoughts. Had he imagined it? “It was a man.”

“Did he have a camera?”

The question took him aback. “No,” he said, almost surprised at his own answer. He’d seen only a face. Not even a full face, to be honest. Only the pale suggestion of eyes and a chin, and lips held in a comical O of surprise.

But now, the window was empty. The curtains weren’t even swaying. The room over the garage was pitch dark.

“Do you want me to go check?” Dylan asked with the accommodating condescension of a father offering to check for monsters under his teenage daughter’s bed.

“No.” Jason took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, feigning a bravado he didn’t feel. “You’re right. There’s nobody there. I must have been seeing things.”

Dylan grinned and moved closer, wrapping his arms around him. “You need to relax, JayWalk.”

It was the press’s nickname for Jason. He hated it, although it didn’t sound quite so ridiculous when Dylan said it. “I’m trying.”

“You want a drink?”

“That won’t help.”

“Some weed?” He kissed Jason’s neck, pushing his erection insistently against him. “Poppers? A Valium? I have some in my bag. Tell me what you need, baby, and I’ll get it. You know that. Anything for you.”

Anything.

As long as it was only for tonight.

Anything he needed, but only until morning.

“Let’s go inside,” Jason said. “I have a brand-new bed in there, you know.”

Dylan’s laugh was throaty and gratifying. “Then let’s go break it in.”

Jason followed him inside, glancing once toward the guesthouse over the garage.

Nobody there.

***

Jason woke to birds chirping happily outside the window. Sunlight was streaming through the thin white curtains, making the entire room feel like a midmorning dream. Dylan slept next to him, his bare back rising and falling with his soft snores. For a while, Jason simply watched him, remembering the night before. Reliving how good it felt to fall asleep next to the man he loved.

If only it could be like this every day.

But no. Dylan would go back to California, and Jason would be left alone in a house that was way too big for him.

He was looking forward to it. Not to Dylan leaving, of course. That’d break his heart, like it always did. But after that, there’d be only him, the house, and the bliss of seclusion. People often said privacy was the last luxury. Jason knew it was true. After a lifetime in the limelight—or chasing the limelight, at any rate—he’d learned that privacy was a commodity more precious than gold, as unattainable as stardom and fame, rarer than real breasts in porn. Privacy was the great white whale, and Jason was determined to harpoon that beast and make it his.

Buying the house had been the first step.

He climbed out of bed and considered what to wear. Of course, the closet and all the drawers were empty. They’d never gotten around to bringing his suitcases in from the car. Some of the boxes in the living room held clothes, but he’d didn’t relish the idea of digging through them naked. He put on the jeans he’d worn the day before and went barefoot down the stairs in search of coffee. He waited until it was brewing to check his cell phone. No messages from Natalie Reuben, his agent. That meant no pictures had surfaced of him and Dylan on the porch.

Not yet, at least.

He took his coffee out onto the veranda. Movement flashed in his peripheral vision, but when he turned, he caught only the unmistakable white tale of a deer bounding into the trees.

“Hey, you can stay,” he called after it. “As long as you don’t have a camera.”

The deer kept running, clearly unimpressed by Jason’s concession.

Jason rested his hip against the railing and searched in vain for more wildlife. Sydney had mentioned deer, caribou, bighorn sheep, and lemmings, although Jason wouldn’t know a lemming if it popped up and said hello. She’d also mentioned foxes, wolves, wolverines, and grizzlies, although she’d assured him those were more elusive. Jason had jokingly told her he’d rather face a grizzly than a photographer. Now, staring out into the woods that surrounded him, he wasn’t so sure.

His eyes fell at last on the garage. It’d been built in the style of an old barn, with a tall, rounded roof. The big doors meant for cars were on the far side of the building. On the near side, there was only a single, person-sized doorway, with a cobblestone path leading to the mudroom off the kitchen. Jason eyed the window on the second floor. Had he really seen somebody in it?

He left his coffee cup on the porch and descended the front steps, angling off the path toward the garage, the frosty grass crunching under his bare feet. It was colder than he expected, each step worse than the one before, and he ended up doing an ungraceful skip-hop-hop across the frozen ground, trying to walk without letting his feet touch the ground any longer than necessary. He imagined he looked like those idiots who walked across coals, so he stopped when he reached the cobblestones and glanced around, hoping no photographers had shown up to capture it on film. No matter how innocuous the activity, the tabloids always managed to put a tantalizing spin on things. He imagined the headlines.

Jadon Walker Buttermore on Drugs! Thinks the Ground Is Hot Lava!

JayWalk in the Throes of Drug-Induced Hallucination!

JayWalking His Way to the Loony Bin!

Not as sensational as a sex tape, but still enough to sell a few copies.

His paranoia proved unwarranted. He saw no sign of trespassers. Then again, he hadn’t seen the photographer who’d taken the pictures of him and Dylan eight months earlier, either. He hadn’t known until Natalie called him the next morning that he’d made StarWatch’s cover once again. In some ways, it had been a relief. He’d been debating the best way to come out for ages. But being outed in such a sensational way hadn’t been part of the plan.

He glanced toward his bedroom, and the second-floor porch, where he and Dylan had made out the night before. He shuddered, thinking how careless he’d been. Some people said there was no such thing as bad press, but those people had clearly never been caught in a tabloid’s crosshairs.

“Can’t let that happen again,” he mumbled as he turned toward the garage.

The door was nothing special. A four-paned window up top, solid wood below. He tried the knob, but found it locked. Nothing of interest when he peered inside, either. Empty spaces where cars belonged and empty shelves along the walls. He knew from viewing the floor plans that the staircase to the guesthouse lay directly to his right, along the same interior wall that held the door, but he couldn’t see it.

He tried the knob a second time, for no good reason whatsoever. Still locked. Not that he’d expected that to change.

If a photographer had found their way inside, would they have thought to lock the door behind them? Would they still be up there, or had they snuck out during the night?

Jason crouched and inspected the cobblestones at his feet, searching for footprints, or—

Well, to be honest, he didn’t know what exactly. Maybe a note written in chalk, “The paparazzi was here”?

He found nothing but dirt and damp cobblestones.

He crossed back over to the house, confident that he looked less ridiculous than he had the first time. He went quietly up the stairs, wondering if Dylan was still asleep. He imagined crawling under his new down comforter, snuggling into the familiar warmth of Dylan’s arms, maybe making love one more time before saying good-bye. It disappointed him to find Dylan already up and half-dressed.

“Hey, there you are,” Dylan said as he buttoned his shirt. His jeans were on too, although his feet were still bare.

Jason settled on the bed and crossed his legs. “Are you leaving already?”

“I have a flight to catch.”

“I see.” Jason had driven his car full of belongings to Idaho and checked into a motel in nearby Coeur d’Alene a few days before the closing. He’d been thrilled when Dylan had called at the last minute and told him he’d booked a flight to Spokane and would be there in time to help Jason with the move. And now here they were: Jason’s bags still sitting in his car in the driveway, and Dylan already with one foot out the door.

Jason fiddled with the ragged hem of his jeans, debating. He wanted to ask what was so urgent that Dylan had to rush out before breakfast. He wanted to suggest that Dylan stay, if not another night, at least a few more hours. But he couldn’t figure out how to say any of it without sounding desperate.

“I have an appointment for new head shots at four,” Dylan went on. “And then later tonight . . .” He grinned mischievously. “I have a hot date.”

Jason’s heart sank. “Oh?”

“Remember Tryss?”

“Victim Number Five, from Summer Camp Nightmare 3?”

“That’s the one. Poor girl has daddy issues from here to the moon, a failed acting career, and a boob job she’s still paying off. It’s like the desperation trifecta.” He winked. “Even you couldn’t turn that down.”

“I have turned that down.”

Dylan laughed and perched on the edge of the love seat to pull on his shoes. When he glanced up again, Jason was surprised to find his expression somber. “It was good seeing you, Jase.”

Jason did his best to keep his tone casual when he answered. “You too."

“I had a great time last night.”

“So did I.” But those words didn't sound casual at all. Jason knew his heartache had crept into his voice, but Dylan showed no sign of having heard it as he crossed the room and put a hand on either side of Jason’s face, leaning close to peer into his eyes.

“You know I love you, right?”

Jason’s heart leapt. He swallowed hard. “You do?”

“Of course. You’re like a brother to me. You know that.”

Jason was pretty sure most brothers didn’t do what they’d done the night before, but he didn’t argue. He only hoped Dylan couldn’t see how much those words hurt him. “I love you too.” He was proud that he managed to keep his voice steady.

And casual.

“You’ll call me if you need anything, right?” Dylan asked.

Jason nodded. “Right,” he lied.

“Good.” Dylan kissed him—not like a brother, certainly, but not quite like a lover either.

Like a friend.

“Take care, JayWalk.”

“You too.”

And then Dylan walked down the stairs. Out the front door. Jason refused to watch. He only listened as Dylan’s car crunched over the gravel drive toward the main road.

And then there was only Jason, and the solitude he’d longed for so desperately.

Funny how solitude and loneliness felt so much alike.

Chapter Two
It wasn’t an auspicious beginning to the day. For a while, he simply lay in bed, listening to the birds, imagining how it would feel to have Dylan with him all the time. But his melancholy didn’t linger. For better or worse, he was used to saying good-bye to the man he loved, not knowing when he’d see him again.

Besides, the sun was shining, and the mystery of his new home beckoned. Jason had looked forward to this day for months now, longing for the moment when the world would disappear and he could begin his new life. Not Jadon Walker Buttermore, child star of a long-defunct family sitcom. Not JayWalk, teenage heartthrob of yesteryear, now pushing thirty, all grown up with nowhere to go.

No. Now he was just Jason Walker, regular guy.

He finished unloading his car, showered, then made himself breakfast—a bagel with lox and cream cheese, which he took to the veranda to eat—before facing the task of unpacking. The stack of boxes in the living room seemed daunting at first, but he hadn’t actually brought much. What wasn’t clothing was electronics: television, stereo, Xbox, and the accoutrements that went with them. Everything else, including all the mementos of his years in Hollywood, he left in boxes that he stacked in the narrow attic with its creepy lone window. Finally, he pulled his car into the garage, glancing around as he did for any evidence of the man he’d seen the night before. He saw no signs of habitation, and the guesthouse door at the top of the stairs was still closed.

He was halfway across the lawn to his front porch, thinking what a gorgeous day it was for November, when his cell phone rang. He glanced at the screen: Natalie. He took a deep breath before answering, steeling himself for bad news. “Hello?”

“Jason! How’s my favorite client?”

Jason winced. He’d hired Natalie three years earlier, and she had potential, but she was still an up-and-coming agent in a town where agents of any variety were more common than rats and pigeons and granted approximately the same amount of respect. Most of the actors and actresses she represented were completely unknown, happy to land a toothpaste commercial. As dreadful as Jason’s career had been the last few years, she considered him one of her big-ticket stars. And now he was leaving it all behind to hide himself away in the mountains of Idaho.

It was pathetic, any way you sliced it.

Still, Natalie’s upbeat opener eased his mind. She wouldn’t be so chipper if she was calling to tell him StarWatch had published pictures of him having his cock sucked.

“I’m fine.” He plopped down on the steps of the shaded porch, glancing proudly around at his property. “The house is great. It’s exactly what I need.”

“I’m glad. You’re all settled in, then?”

“Getting there.”

“Good.” But she hadn’t called to chat. She was clearly anxious to get down to business. “Listen, Jason, I have some great news for you. I got you an offer. In fact, I got you two!”

Jason’s heart clenched. Those words no longer excited him as they once had. Now, they only caused anxiety. “What kind of offer?”

“Well, now, hear me out.”

“That good, huh?”

“They’re both horror movies.”

The coolness of the wooden steps seeped through his jeans, and he stretched his legs out, reaching for the line where the shadow of the porch ended, letting the sunlight play over the toes of his shoes. “Of course they are.”

“The first one . . . I have a feeling you’ll pass without even seeing the script.”

“Is it a ‘found footage’ film?”

“As a matter of fact, it is.”

He shook his head, even though she couldn’t see him. “No way.”

“Don’t you at least want to—”

“There’s no point. Everybody thinks they can make ‘found footage’ work, and almost nobody can. They don’t seem to understand that it may give you a pass on cinematography, but not on writing. And you can’t skimp on both. You get Peter Jackson’s budget and Industrial Light & Magic doing the visual effects, you can have the shittiest script in the world. But when you’re filming an entire movie on somebody’s iPhone, you better have some goddamn compelling shit happening on screen or it falls utterly flat.” He stopped, a bit embarrassed by his outburst, but knowing he was right. He scrubbed his hand through his hair. “Did you read it?”

“I glanced at it.” Her hesitant tone told him all he needed to know.

“It’s complete crap, isn’t it?”

She sighed. “It isn’t great, I admit. But maybe with your star power—”

“Ha!” His laugh was so sudden and loud, it startled two birds off the porch railing. He felt a bit guilty for having disturbed them. “Forget it.”

“Okay. I expected you to say no to that one, anyway. That’s why I pitched it first.”

“Fine.” He leaned back and stared up at the blue sky, hardly daring to hope. At least she’d saved the best for last. '”What’s the second offer?”

“It isn’t found footage!”

“Uh-huh. Is that its only redeeming quality?”

“It’s a sequel.”

“Oh God,” he groaned, covering his eyes as if it would save him from whatever was coming next.

“Summer Camp Nightmare 4. Subtitle: Blood Bath at Sea.”

Jason waited for the punchline. Finally decided that was the punchline. “A summer camp at sea?”

“It’s set on a small cruise ship.”

“But my character died at the end of the third movie.”

“Apparently, it was all a dream.”

“Are you shitting me?”

“This one starts with you waking up. I’ve read the script—the whole script, this time—and I’m telling you, Jason, it’s not bad.”

Jason picked at a wedge of wood that was trying to peel away from the porch step. “It’s a slasher flick.”

“But it’s one of the stronger franchises, and they’ve given you some great scenes. I think it has potential. They have a new director, and he’s good. I’m not talking Syfy channel here. This guy has directed big-budget thrillers before.”

“Then what’s he doing making Summer Camp Nightmare 4?”

“Well, his last couple of movies flopped, but I don’t think it was because of his directing. There was a problem on the last film with the lead actor—”

“Stop.” He’d asked the question, but he found he wasn’t interested in the answer. He tossed the released sliver of wood toward the driveway and began worrying at another crack in the worn steps. “I wasn’t planning on acting again.”

“I know.” But he knew she’d never quite believed his resignation. When he was being completely honest with himself, neither had he. “For what it’s worth, Jason, they want you. This whole thing that happened last year—”

“You mean me being outed by StarWatch?”

“There are plenty of gay actors in Hollywood. There always have been. And right now, it’s more acceptable than ever. Neil Patrick Harris and Zachary Quinto are household names, and it doesn’t matter that they’re gay. So yeah, some rag of a magazine published a photo of you in a lip-lock with Dylan Frasier, but you could have denied it. You could have done a lot of things, but you didn’t. You stepped up and you owned it. You didn’t act ashamed or sorry—”

He slammed his hand against the porch railing. “Why would I be?”

“Exactly. And the Summer Camp Nightmare writers love it, Jason. They want to use it. They’ve seen a huge uptick in DVD sales and requests for television rights on the third movie since you came out. And for what it’s worth, this script has a spot for a love interest, and they’ve left it vague. They say it’s up to you if you want a woman or a man playing that role.”

Jason swallowed, his head reeling. Yes, it was a shitty part in a B movie. They’d be lucky if it spent a week at the box office before going directly to DVD and television syndication, but it was the first time in ten years a part had been written for him.

“What’s the pay?”

“Still negotiable, but they’re offering nearly double what they paid you for the third movie.”

He gulped. “Double?” It wasn’t a lot of money, especially by Hollywood standards, but for the fourth movie in a run-down horror series, it was damn good. “Are you serious?”

“They’re calling it a series reboot. They have high hopes.”

Jason closed his eyes, shutting out the beautiful Idaho day. The blue sky and warm sun. The chirping birds and the almost imperceptible creak of the trees, swaying slightly in the soft breeze. He considered how it might feel to be in front of the camera again. “When would filming start?”

“April.”

At least it wasn’t right away. He'd have plenty of time to settle into his house. Hell, maybe by then he’d have cabin fever and be ready for something new. “For how long?”

“They think they can wrap in three months.”

“So, I should plan on five.”

“Probably.” He could hear the excitement in her voice. “Does that mean you’ll consider it?”

“How soon do they need an answer?”

“By the first of January.”

He sighed, wishing he had the willpower to say no. And yet, acting was all he’d ever known, and he found it hard to let go. “I’ll think about it.”

“Oh, Jason! I’m so glad to hear that. I’ll send the script right over.”

“Great.” He clicked off without saying good-bye. Rude, he knew, but he was annoyed both at her and at himself. He tapped his cell phone against his leg, thinking.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. A few months filming and a decent paycheck at the end. And Dylan had been in Summer Camp Nightmare 3 with him. Was his character scripted for a return as well? Jason wished he’d thought to ask Natalie, but he wasn’t about to call her back just for that.

The garage caught his eye again as he pushed himself to his feet. He glanced up at the guesthouse window and froze, his heart bursting into high speed.

Somebody was there!

It was the same person he’d seen the day before, he was certain—a man, although only barely. Jason guessed him to be only a year or two out of his teens. He had a narrow jaw, high, sculpted cheekbones, and thick black hair over shockingly pale skin. Jason expected him to dart out of sight now that he’d been seen, but he didn’t. On the contrary, he seemed utterly delighted. He bounced up and down in glee, waving excitedly.

A deranged fan? Jason didn’t have many these days, but Hollywood was full of alarming tales involving insane stalkers.

“I’m calling the cops!” Jason yelled, shaking his fist ineffectually toward the window.

The man’s lips moved as he spoke, but Jason couldn’t hear him. Not that he was interested in whatever the lunatic had to say anyway. Jason went inside, slamming the door behind him and locking the dead bolt. He called nine-one-one to report an intruder on his property.

“Somebody from the sheriff’s office will arrive right away,” the dispatcher told him.

“Good.” With any luck, it’d be somebody who’d never heard of Jadon Walker Buttermore.

Jason systematically checked every lock on every door, making sure his unwanted guest couldn’t get in. Not that he needed to bother. When he peeked out the window, the man was still right where Jason had left him, staring hopefully down at Jason’s front door. They stood there—Jason watching the boy, the boy watching the house—until a car from the sheriff’s department rolled up the driveway.

***

The word “sheriff” wasn’t without its glamour. In Hollywood, a cop could be whip-smart or stereotypically donut-obsessed, but a sheriff? He had machismo. Whether a slimy dirtball, or a charismatic ladies’ man, he’d have a pronounced swagger and a healthy appreciation for the absurd. Jason imagined a burly gentleman with a handlebar mustache and a bit of a paunch hanging over his belt, probably with a toothpick jutting from the corner of his mouth.

He was surprised when a black woman in her early thirties stepped out of the sheriff’s car.

“Well, well, well,” she said, shaking her head as she came toward him. Jason came down from the veranda to meet her, feeling a bit vindicated in his assessment: she definitely had a swagger. “I heard the infamous JayWalk had moved into my jurisdiction, but I didn’t expect to meet you so soon.”

“It’s Jason.”

She stopped and rocked back onto her heels, wrinkling her brow in confusion. “I thought your first name was Jadon.”

“The agent my parents hired when I was eight thought Jadon was better. He said it was edgy and hip.”

She stuck her thumbs into her belt in true sheriff style and smiled at him. “My little sister thought you were edgy and hip, all right. She had your face plastered all over her bedroom walls. Told everybody who’d listen she was gonna marry you someday.”

“I assume she’s moved on.”

“Several times. She’s set her sights on Chris Hemsworth now, I think.”

“Can’t blame her for that.” He didn’t want to talk about his career, though. He never did. “You’re the sheriff?”

She held out her hand and he shook it. “Regina Ross.”

“Thanks for coming.” He suddenly realized what else she’d said in her opening statement. “Wait. Somebody told you I’d moved here?”

“Your agent. Natalie something?”

Jason’s heart fell. “Natalie Reuben. She wasn’t supposed to tell anybody.”

“Well, she asked us to keep it quiet, but she said the paparazzi might find you eventually.” She glanced around, quickly assessing the house and the circle of trees around them. “And now here it is, only your second day as a resident of Idaho, and I get a report of an intruder.”

Jason pointed to the window of the guesthouse and the young man who even now stood staring down at them. He waved enthusiastically when Jason’s eyes fell on him again. “He’s up there.”

She followed his finger, holding one hand to the sky to block the sun from her eyes. “Where?”

“In that window.”

“In the garage?”

Was she blind? Jason glowered at his unwanted guest, still waving like the homecoming queen on parade day. “In the guest room,” he said, trying not to be impatient. “Right there!”

“What exactly did you see?”

“Last night, I was . . . well, I was out on that balcony.” He pointed to the place he and Dylan had been. “And I thought I saw somebody, but then he disappeared. But then half an hour ago, I looked up, and there he was.”

“In the window?”

“Yes, in the window!” It was harder to hide his aggravation now, with the boy still standing in plain sight. The sun was bright, shining into their eyes and reflecting off the glass. Still . . . “Can’t you see him?”

She rocked onto the balls of her feet, then dropped both her hand and her gaze. “Mr. Buttermore—”

“Jason. My name is Jason Walker.”

“Mr. Walker, I have to ask you: have you been drinking?”

“No.”

“Any drugs?”

“No!”

Her eyes were dark with disbelief. “Didn’t you have some kind of breakdown last year? Smoked some bad weed or something and ended up in the hospital?”

“That’s not what happened. And that has nothing to do with it. I’m telling you—”

She held up her hands. “Look, Mr. Walker. I’m not here to judge you for your lifestyle.”

“What the hell does me being gay have to do with anything?”

He’d spoken too loud. He’d let his anger show, and she reacted. She leveled her eyes at him and squared her shoulders. Her hand snuck toward the heavy stick hanging at her belt. “I’m not talking about you being gay. I’m talking about being famous. I’m talking about Hollywood and Betty Ford and the way you all pass narcotics around like candy. I don’t even know what the latest designer drug is, but I’m sure it isn’t good, and I’m guessing it has mild hallucinogenic properties.”

He took a deep breath and did his best to keep his voice calm and level. “I’m telling you, I’m not on any drugs. There’s a man in my guesthouse.” He didn’t bother to point to the window again. “He’s probably a reporter. If you could just take him off my property, I’d appreciate it.”

“You think there’s a reporter camping out in your garage?”

“You think it hasn’t happened before?”

“No offense, but you aren’t exactly the most sought-after actor in Hollywood.”

“No kidding.”

She arched her eyebrows expectantly, as if waiting for an explanation. He suspected she was enjoying herself.

“You obviously read the tabloids,” he said, remembering her comment about the bad weed.

“Only the headlines, while I wait in the checkout line.”

“Then you know they don’t bother confining themselves to the A-list.”

She cocked her head, thinking. A grin spread slowly across her face. “They do spend an awful lot of time on John Travolta and Kirstie Alley.”

“Yes, they do.”

“And Lindsay Lohan,” she went on, apparently warming to the subject. “Miley Cyrus.”

“Right. And Jadon Walker Buttermore.”

She rocked back on her heels again, thinking. “Yeah, they do like you too, don’t they?” She glanced toward the garage, although she still gave no sign of seeing the man in the window.

“Just go up there and see for yourself,” Jason said. “Please.”

She shook her head, but her smile remained. “I’ll go check it out. I suppose it’s the least I can do, seeing as how it’s my job and all.”

He realized that meant she’d need the keys, and went to get them for her, relieved that now, at least, she’d see he wasn’t crazy.

She took the keys and turned toward the garage. “You stay here.”

He didn’t need to be told twice. He sat on the veranda steps and imagined her climbing the stairs and unlocking the door at the top. The boy in the window turned away, apparently retreating back into the room. A moment later, the sheriff’s face appeared in that gap between the curtains. Her expression was unreadable. She disappeared too, and Jason waited impatiently for her to come out with the man in tow. He hoped she’d apologize for doubting him, then felt guilty for being petty. But the seconds stretched into minutes. The minutes became three-quarters of an hour. Finally, Sheriff Ross emerged.

Alone.

Jason stood, his stomach tight with dread as she crossed the grass from the garage.

“I searched everywhere. Checked the whole guest room, and the closet. Even under the bed.” He thought he heard a note of apology in her voice. “Searched the garage too, in case he’d snuck down the staircase. I assume you didn’t see him come out?”

“No, I—” Jason glanced up at the window. At the face that had reappeared there. Not waving happily this time, but frowning.

“Mr. Walker?”

Jason swallowed, reeling. He sank slowly back to the wooden step, which suddenly seemed ice-cold under his backside. The lawn fell into shadow as the sun passed behind a cloud. A breeze rattled through the trees, tossing dried leaves across the grass and sending goose bumps up his arms.

Either Sheriff Ross was lying—and Jason didn’t think that was the case—or she really couldn’t see his intruder. That meant . . .

That meant . . .

He wasn’t ready to think about what that meant quite yet. But he sure as hell wasn’t going to continue acting like an ass in front of her, either. “I don’t know what to say.” His voice didn’t sound right, not even to him. He cleared his throat. Clenched his hands between his knees. “I must have been seeing things.”

But what? A ghost? He didn’t believe in ghosts.

“Maybe he snuck out while you were waiting for me to arrive?”

She was offering him an easy out, and he took it. “Maybe.” Except the young man was still there, watching from the guesthouse as this ridiculous drama played out. Jason cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to have bothered you.”

“It’s not a problem. You can call anytime. But . . .” She hesitated. “Stay off the drugs, okay? It’ll help.”

“Yeah,” he agreed weakly. “I’ll do that.”

And he watched her swagger back to her car. She gave one tiny wave from the driver’s seat before driving away, leaving Jason on his veranda, his world spinning around him.

Just him, his brand-new house, and a ghost Regina Ross couldn’t see.

Chapter Three
Jason ignored the garage and its ghost for two days.

Two days, while he rattled around his new house exploring and unpacking and rearranging as he went. He set up his TV, stereo, and Xbox in the living room and ordered furniture online for the veranda and the balcony. His script arrived. He opened the envelope, slid out the packet of paper, but didn’t read past the title page. He even ventured into town, to the grocery store Sydney had suggested, where luckily nobody recognized him. And through it all, no matter how hard he tried to keep from obsessing, he couldn’t keep his eyes from drifting toward the garage.

Sometimes the boy was there.

Sometimes he wasn’t.

And all the while, Jason’s mind ran in circles, assessing the possibilities.

A ghost. A hallucination. A real person.

Not a ghost, because Jason didn’t believe in ghosts. Besides, the man in the window didn’t seem threatening. He didn’t fill Jason with a sense of dread, as Jason supposed a real ghost would.

If real ghosts existed.

Which they didn’t.

No. Definitely not a ghost.

And not a hallucination. Jason had never had one, and he couldn’t imagine why he’d start now. Yes, he’d experimented with drugs now and then through the years, but he hadn’t done anything recently. The incident the sheriff had referred to had stemmed from some weed laced with some kind of hallucinogen. That much was true. But as usual, the tabloids had twisted the entire story. One of the extras in Summer Camp Nightmare 3—a buxom young lady whose job was simply to run screaming and braless toward the camera—had smoked a joint with a gaffer who’d only hoped to get laid. Jason and Dylan had been on set that day, but had been released early due to problems with the lighting. On the way back to their dressing room, they’d found the woman on the floor, clawing her face and screaming to “get them off.” The gaffer was in a panic, sure he’d lose his job. Dylan, who always seemed to know what to do, no matter how bad things looked, had sent the gaffer away with a promise of silence. Then he and Jason had taken the girl to the hospital. Dylan drove, and Jason sat in the back seat with the actress, trying to keep her calm.

It’d seemed like the logical thing to do at the time, but somewhere along the way, a photographer had found out about it. Somehow, they’d gotten word of why the girl had been admitted. But a no-name actress taking drugs wasn’t exactly headline-worthy, so they’d gone with a photo of Jason, snapped just as he was climbing out of the car. Even he had to admit he looked crazy in the picture, with claw marks across his cheeks, and his eyes wide with panic.

The magazine followed up a week later with a picture of him outside a tennis club. The headline had read, “JayWalk Checks Into Posh Rehab Facility.” The stupid thing was, he didn’t even play tennis. He’d gone there to have lunch with Dylan, only to find him with a starlet draped across his lap.

It still made his blood boil to think about.

So no, he didn’t believe the boy was a drug-induced hallucination, his Hollywood “lifestyle” be damned.

Which left one possibility—some strange man was living above his garage. Jason never saw him coming or going from the building, but he saw him in the window often enough to know it was true. The man still waved occasionally, but his excitement had waned. In fact, he appeared downright dejected and desperate as he raised his hand in greeting.

There was never a camera, though. He clearly wasn’t a reporter.

Jason wasn't sure how the man had managed to elude Sheriff Ross when she’d searched the building, but no matter how he looked at it, a deluded fan with uncanny hiding ability seemed the most logical explanation. He seemed harmless, at least, and too shy to approach Jason directly, thank goodness.

Nonetheless, he had to go.

Jason wasn’t about to call the sheriff’s department again though, so that left him one option: deal with it himself.

On his fifth day in the new house, he went to confront his intruder, feeling the boy’s gaze on his head as he crossed the grass to the garage. He stopped just inside the door to let his eyes adjust to the low light. The guest room was built into an enclosed loft, taking up only half of the upper portion of the building. His knees wobbled and his pulse raced as he climbed the stairs. The landing was only a few feet wide. The door itself was closed, and Jason stopped, suddenly unsure. The boy knew he was coming, but he hadn’t opened the door. Jason was hesitant to be the one who opened it. What if the boy was waiting for Jason on the other side with a camera?

Or an ax?

Jason shook his head, chuckling at himself. This wasn’t one of the two-bit horror movies he’d acted in over the years.

Still . . .

After a moment of debate, he came up with an alternative plan.

He knocked.

Boom, boom, boom.

The sound seemed unbearably loud as it echoed through the empty garage. Jason waited, bouncing nervously on the balls of his feet.

“Hello?” Jason pounded on the door a second time. “I know you’re in there. I don’t know who you are, or why you’re in my guesthouse, but this is private property. If you leave peacefully, I won’t press charges.”

No answer. Not a single sound. Not a gasp of surprise, nor the shuffle of feet hurrying across the floor.

Jason frowned, debating. Finally, he tried the knob and found it unlocked.

He threw the door open, stepping inside. The boy stood there in the center of the room, his eyes wide—not quite with surprise, though. He appeared downright elated.

“Listen, you!” Jason said, “I don’t know what—”

And suddenly, Jason realized what he was seeing—the boy. And the room. Specifically, the boy and the part of the room directly behind him, both at the same time, in a way that was utterly impossible.

“Holy shit!” Jason backed up quickly, ramming into the doorframe, practically falling onto the landing. He took another step back, discovered too late there was nothing beneath his foot, and fell down the first few stairs, twisting his ankle and banging his knee before managing to catch himself on the banister. Still he stared, horrified and unbelieving at the boy, who now stood in the doorway of the guest room. He looked much as he had in the window—young and thin and pale, his skin almost translucent.

No. Not almost translucent. Literally translucent. Everything from his baggy, high-waisted trousers and worn boots to his rough-woven white shirt and old-fashioned waistcoat, was not quite solid. Jason could see right through him to the cheap watercolor hanging over the bed. He wasn’t sure how he’d missed it before—whether due to the reflection of the sun on the window, or whether his mind had simply refused to see it—but staring at the boy now, it was quite clear he wasn’t real.

“You really are a ghost,” Jason gasped out, still clutching the banister with both hands.

The boy shook his head, pointing behind him into the room, his lips moving as if he were talking, but no sound came out.

“Is this a prank?”

The boy frowned, shaking his head. He started speaking again, as mutely as before.

Jason’s mind reeled, grasping at possibilities. “Are you a hologram? Are there cameras somewhere?” He wanted to look around for some, but he didn’t dare take his eyes off the figure above him. “Who put you up to this?”

The boy kept shaking his head, gesticulating with his hands, moving his lips.

As horrified as he’d been, Jason’s alarm faded, made less urgent as the pain in his knee and ankle started to sink in. Was an interactive hologram somehow more plausible than a ghost? He didn’t think so. Whatever this was, he didn’t feel threatened. The apparition—or whatever the boy was—hadn’t moved from the doorway. He was still talking, gesticulating wildly, and Jason sighed and said, “I can’t hear you.”

The boy stopped, blinking in shock, dumbstruck as the words sank in. He appeared to take a deep breath. Finally, his lips moved. Only two words, but between context and lip-reading, Jason understood. You can’t?

Jason shook his head, rubbing at his sore ankle. “No.”

The ghost slumped, crestfallen. He spoke slowly and deliberately, pointing at Jason and then at his own eyes, and then at himself. But you can see me?

“Uh, yeah. I think we’ve established that.” Jason stood up, testing his weight on the twisted ankle. It didn’t feel great, but he was pretty sure he hadn’t done any real damage. He rubbed his bruised knee, still watching the boy at the top of the stairs, trying to make sense of it all.

He’d always imagined ghosts to be white, but this one wasn’t. Yes, the boy’s skin was pale, but it was clearly a natural skin tone against his shirt. His pants were dark gray, his boots and waistcoat black. Jason searched the walls and the ceiling, still wondering if the boy was some type of projection, but he didn’t see any cameras. The technology for such an advanced hologram may have existed, but Jason doubted it came cheap. Even a tabloid chasing a sensational photo wouldn’t have the resources to put together such an elaborate hoax. And if they did, they sure wouldn’t waste it on JayWalk.

The boy watched him, his eyes bright with hope. His lips moved, and he gestured behind him. Jason didn’t need to hear him to know he was being invited back into the guest room. It seemed absurd. Shouldn’t a ghost be trying to scare him? Yelling “Boo”? But no. Instead, he was inviting Jason inside, maybe for a nice spot of tea.

Jason wasn’t entirely sure he hadn’t lost his damn mind.

“I don’t know . . .”

The boy held out his hand, looking heartbroken. Looking desperate. His lips formed one simple word. Please.

What did Jason have to lose? His life? His sanity? His peace of mind? He hadn’t felt too sure about any of those things to begin with.

A Case of Christmas
The rain had stopped as he staggered down Crescent Avenue, past the shop windows decorated with garlands and red bows, then up Clarissa Avenue, past the quaint little cottages trimmed with Christmas lights, wreaths on every other door—For Rent signs in the windows of the rest. He was trying to decide if the wet soaking his T-shirt was perspiration or blood—and not caring much either way so long as he could die on his own living room floor—when he noticed the vacationer from across the street was now outside, balancing on a ladder in fact, as he strung red lights along the edge of the cottage roof.

That seemed pretty industrious for a holiday renter, but some people took their Christmas very seriously.

Not Shane. Which was to say, he liked the holidays fine, liked his family, and generally liked spending time with them over coma-inducing feasts, liked presents—even occasionally liked shopping for them—but he couldn’t think of the last time he’d actually purchased a Christmas tree (not counting the potted plant currently squashed under his arm) or mailed a Christmas card. Most years he was too busy to remember to even open the ones he received.

The guy on the ladder was clean-shaven and had brown hair, neatly cut. He was tall and muscular—a trim, powerful body—in faded jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. Shane was in physical distress, but he’d have to be dead not to notice a body that nice. He stopped panting like someone practicing his obscene phone call routine and tried to straighten up beneath his load of holiday goodies.

The man on the ladder glanced around, spotted Shane, did a double-take, and nearly fell.

“Whoa,” Shane called. “Need a hand?” He hoped the answer was no, because attractive though this guy was, Shane needed to lie down very soon. His side really did hurt like hell, and he realized that between dragging his suitcase from the dock and hauling groceries from the market, he probably had overdone it. If he thought his family was nagging him now, it would be nothing to the symphony of shame he’d be subjected to if he landed back in the hospital.

“Uh, no,” the guy in the black and blue flannel shirt said. “No thanks.” He wasn’t looking at Shane, and his voice sounded muffled, strange…

Strange but familiar.

Shane went down the little walk to his cottage door, fumbled the door open, and dropped his groceries on the sofa. His hands were shaking.

“You’re crazy,” he muttered to himself.

After two years he couldn’t possibly remember what Norton’s voice had sounded like.

His heart was pounding so hard he felt sick.

“He doesn’t even look the same,” he protested, but he went over to the window, twitched the blinds wide open, and stared out.

From across the road, the man on the ladder was staring at Shane’s cottage.

He didn’t look like Norton. The hair was wrong. Norton’s hair had been a wild yellow bush. The build was… Norton had always worn baggy, loose clothing…clogs, earrings, beads…but he had been tall and well-built. Like the guy across the street. His face…

It bothered Shane that he had difficulty remembering Norton’s face. Especially since he was trained to remember facial types. But whenever he tried to recall Norton’s features, his memories were troublingly vague. Norton had looked like a lot of people. He had been attractive, but nothing in his attractiveness had really stuck out. He’d had a nice grin, and he’d made a lot of faces when he was joking around. Expressive. That was it. His eyes had been alert, his demeanor lively. His features had an almost malleable quality to them.

The guy staring at Shane’s cottage—in fact, he was probably watching Shane watch him—was still and unsmiling. Secretive? Or was Shane projecting? But yeah, had Norton ever had an alarmed or disbelieving moment, that was likely the expression—or lack of expression—he’d have worn.

Shane left the window and went outside. The man on the ladder observed him cross the road. There was no traffic. No golf carts. No pedestrians. Nobody out this misty, gray morning but Shane and…whoever this guy was.

Shane came to a stop on the narrow sidewalk outside the white picket fence surrounding Norton’s cottage. “Well,” he said. “This is a surprise.”

“Yeah?” the man on the ladder said defensively. “Is it?”

Yep, the voice was definitely Norton’s.

“You looked pretty surprised to me a minute ago. What are you doing here?”

“I live here.”

“No, you don’t.”

The blue eyes—how had he forgotten Norton’s eyes were a cold, clear blue?—hardened. “Not all year, I don’t. In the spring and summer I rent the cottage out.”

Shane heard it, but it didn’t really register. He was busy with his own thoughts, struggling to contain the volcano of feelings threatening to erupt out of him. He felt…peculiar. Emotional. He was confused and angry, and he wasn’t exactly sure why. Normally he was controlled and rational. He liked that about himself. He believed it was what made him a good agent. A civilized man. A grown-up. But he did not feel controlled right now. He felt…like his head was about to explode. Like red-hot rocks were going to crack the roof of his skull and go flying, shattering nearby windows perhaps.

He said, “It is you, right? Norton?”

If it wasn’t Norton, it was his twin. Or his doppelgänger.

The man in front of him didn’t answer, seemed to be considering what he should say, and for some reason that made Shane all the angrier.

“I mean, I already know Norton isn’t your actual name. That much, I figured out a long time ago. It would be nice to know the rest of it.”

Nice wasn’t exactly the word.

Norton’s—no, not-Norton’s eyes narrowed. “What is it you think you figured out?”

“You’re some kind of investigator. You were hired by the family or by the Bureau. I’m guessing the family. The Fallons. To investigate me.”

“That’s right,” not-Norton said. “I worked for Metropolitan Mutual. The Fallons’ insurance company. And, as you know, I cleared you of all suspicion of wrongdoing, and you got your job back. So…you’re welcome.”

“W-w-welcome!” stuttered Shane. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say to me?”

Not-Norton frowned. “What would you like me to say to you?”

Author Bios:
Annabelle Jacobs
Annabelle Jacobs lives in the South West of England with her husband, three rowdy children, and two cats.

An avid reader of fantasy herself for many years, Annabelle now spends her days writing her own stories. They're usually either fantasy or paranormal fiction, because she loves building worlds filled with magical creatures, and creating stories full of action and adventure. Her characters may have a tough time of it—fighting enemies and adversity—but they always find love in the end.

LB Gregg
LB Gregg (Lisabea) writes fun, fast-paced contemporary male/male romances for a variety of publishers including Riptide, Samhain, and Carina Press. Her wildly successful Men of Smithfield books feature hot, hunky men looking for love in small town New England.

Christine D'Abo
It took Christine a lot longer than the average bear to figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. When she was home on maternity leave, she decided to take a stab at saving her sanity and sat down to write a romance novel. After dabbling with various sub genres she realized she really enjoyed creating strange new worlds and writing about sex. Whether due to the pregnancy hormones or sleep deprivation, she thought this was a great combination.

Many years later her kids are in school and she's back at her day job, but the writing bug is here to stay. When not torturing her characters, she's busy playing with her children or conducting "research" with her husband. 

HelenKay Dimon
HelenKay Dimon spent the last twelve years in the most unromantic career ever - divorce lawyer. After dedicating all that time and effort to helping people terminate relationships she is thrilled to write romance novels full time. Her books have earned praise, appeared on besteller lists and won numerous awards. Her first single title, YOUR MOUTH DRIVES ME CRAZY, was featured in Cosmo as a "Red-Hot Read" for August '07 and spotlighted at E! Online. Her novella, "It's Hotter At Christmas" from the KISSING SANTA CLAUS anthology, was featured in Cosmo as a "Red-Hot Read" for November '09. 

Marie Sexton
Marie Sexton lives in Colorado. She’s a fan of just about anything that involves muscular young men piling on top of each other. In particular, she loves the Denver Broncos and enjoys going to the games with her husband. Her imaginary friends often tag along. Marie has one daughter, two cats, and one dog, all of whom seem bent on destroying what remains of her sanity. She loves them anyway.

Josh Lanyon
A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author JOSH LANYON has been writing gay mystery, adventure and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English series, including The Hell You Say, winner of the 2006 USABookNews awards for GLBT Fiction. Josh is an Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist.


Annabelle Jacobs
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LB Gregg
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Christine D'Abo
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HelenKay Dimon
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Marie Sexton
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Josh Lanyon
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EMAIL: josh.lanyon@sbcglobal.net



Magic & Mistletoe
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Mistletoe at Midnight
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Rebound Remedy
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Stranded
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Winter Oranges
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A Case of Christmas
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