Saturday, January 9, 2016

Best Reads of 2015 Part 3


I read nearly 300 books in 2015 so when I decided to do a Best Reads feature it was very difficult to narrow it down.  I finally decided on 3 books for each month broken into four parts, here is part 3 of my favorite reads of 2015 each containing my original review.  Click here to check out Part 1 & Part 2.

Bully & Exit by Brigham Vaughn
Summary:
“What happens when the past won’t let you go?”

Theater student Caleb Stockwell is ready to leave college behind. Too bad his past isn’t ready to let him go.

With less than a month to go until graduation, Caleb runs into Nathan Rhodes at a house party.  Nathan is a star hockey player for Western Michigan University and finally ready to step out of the closet.  He’s also the guy who broke Caleb’s heart in high school.

Nathan’s determined to make amends for what he did four years ago, but Caleb isn’t willing to risk getting his heart stomped on again.  With only a few weeks left before they go their separate ways, it’ll take all of Nathan’s creativity and help from some interfering friends to convince Caleb to give him a second chance.


I am just going to jump out of the gate by saying this story is amazing and the characters are perfect.  Now, I know what you're thinking "perfect? Where is the fun in that?"  Well, I guess it depends on your definition of perfect.  To me perfect is not about being a "utopian" character it's about having flaws, surviving and flourishing because of those flaws.  And that's exactly what Caleb and Nathan have, flaws.

You will definitely hate or at the very least despise high school Nate and you will most definitely want to shake college Caleb more than once.    Plain and simple this is a story about making amends.  We all did at least one stupid thing in high school that we regret, that we would love to have a chance to step into HG Well's Time Machine and set right, but life doesn't work that way.  We live with those mistakes and so does Nate but now that he has "grown up" he wants to make things right.

Going back and forth from past to present gives us a rich blend of who they were and who they are.  Some times not letting go can be as damaging as the event we refuse to deal with.  This is one amazing story that shows what great things can come from acceptance of both, past events and who you are.  The story of Nate earning and Caleb finally giving that chance is one you really don't want to miss.

RATING: 

Over the Fence by Melanie Moreland
Summary:
There are so many ways to fall in love in today’s world. Besides the usual bars and blind dates, you can meet someone from any part of the world via the computer. The scope is endless. Possibilities abound, if that’s what you want.

But what happens when you aren’t searching for love, and it shows up—way closer than you ever expected?

Two neighbors—strangers— with one thing in common—they share a fence.
But is that the only thing they share?

Nathan Fraser lives a solitary life, never letting anyone get too close. It’s safer that way.
Kourtney Whyte hides from the world and behind her work, too afraid to really live her life to the fullest. Rejection is what she knows best.

But one night, the sound of her soft voice and the tantalizing aroma of her evening meal, prove too enticing for Nathan to ignore.

So begins their unconventional relationship—talking, learning, texting, and gradually opening up to one another, all over the fence.

That is, until the day Nathan braves the high fence to protect Kourtney from her past, and changes everything forever.

Can they move forward together, without the buffer of the fence?

Or will their pasts prove to be too much of a barrier?


In a world where looks are so important and often impact our first impressions, Over the Fence is a refreshing change of pace.  Nathan and Kourtney come to know and care for each other before ever laying eyes on the other even though they live just feet, even inches, apart.  That alone had my heart won over but as you continue reading you begin to wish you had a fence in your own life once in a while, because the fence might not be so much of keeping the world out but giving you the freedom to let the person within the space to shine.  When that speaks true for both Nathan and Kourtney then maybe they will find that piece of  themselves they never knew was missing.  I can honestly say that there isn't a rating scale out there that goes high enough to fully express just how much I love and recommend this book or the author.  If you have not read Melanie Moreland before, this is a great one to start with because the powerful emotions Over the Fence invoke will knock you on your ass in all the best ways imaginable.

RATING: 

His Grandfather's Watch by NR Walker
Summary:
It was just an ordinary day for Alex Harper at Harper's Antiquities, until Callum Winters walked in with a watch.

"It was my Grandfather's. I was hoping you could tell me something about it."

A love story of two couples, generations apart.

***Second Edition. Earlier edition released in 2012. No additional content has been added.***


This novella may be a short quick read but it is more powerful than many full length novels I have read.  I was sitting in my front yard under the shade of my maple tree and was so glad I had sunglasses on because otherwise I probably would have scared the children playing across the street when the tears started running.    The blend of contemporary and historical is perfect for the emotional buildup for the story the watch represents.

The historical part of the watch's tale touched my heart a bit more but I am a bit of a history buff so stories of the past usually do.  As my mother's 24/7 caregiver for the past 20 years, when Callum said "My life hasn't been about me in a long time" really struck a chord because in those 10 words she summed up what every caregiver lives not to mention the kind of man Callum is and the fact that Alex understands it also goes a long way in describing his character as well.

I rarely give novellas a full 5 bookmark rating just because my heart prefers full length stories but this is such a powerful emotional ride that nothing short of the full 5 is fitting.

RATING: 

Piece of Cake by Mary Calmes
Summary:
After years of domestic partnership, Jory Harcourt and Sam Kage are finally going to make it official in their home state of Illinois. It’s been a long and rocky road, and nothing—not disasters at work, not the weather, not a possible stalker, not even getting beat up and having to attend the ceremony looking like he just got mugged—will make Jory wait one more day to make an honest man of the love of his life.

Should be a piece of cake, right?


What a great treat for fans of Jory and Sam.  Loved seeing them get married now that they would be recognized nationwide but more than that, I just loved seeing everyone in a new story.  This is a wedding done in the only way Jory could possibly be part of, trouble magnet extraordinaire. Hannah and Kola are still precious and definitely their fathers' children.  I won't lie, I would have loved it to have been longer but I was just over the moon to just have Jory, Sam, and everyone back.  A short but amazing addition to the Matter of Time series.

RATING: 

The Truth as He Knows It
Summary:
Lies are the chains that keep you weighed down at rock bottom.

Officer Noel Carlson isn’t out to anyone in small-town Stratton, Pennsylvania, only to distant friends and family, so a relationship is out of the question. That doesn’t stop him from wanting one, though.

When a night-shift call brings him face to thonged butt with a hired stripper whose girl-party gig went terribly wrong, Noel takes pity on the guy and lets him go. But he can’t get the encounter out of his mind.

Shane has big-time debts to repay, especially to the brother who sacrificed nearly everything for him. His two jobs, in a deli and as a stripper, leave him no time for a social life. But a non-date of hot sex and takeout food with Noel? He can squeeze that in.

The bond they form is stronger than either expected or wanted. Especially since the step Shane’s about to take to put his brother—and his soul—back in the black isn’t quite legal. And he never calculated just how much his determination to make things right will cost him in the end.

Warning: Following on from the Cost of Repairs series, this book contains a closeted cop who’s looking for love, an indebted stripper who doesn’t believe he’s worthy, and a tasteful abundance of dirty guy sex. Also contains references to past physical abuse some readers may find disturbing.


Once again AM Arthur takes us into Stratton where we meet Noel Carlson when he & his partner answer a noise disturbance call where he meets Shane, a stripper tied to a bed.  And boy do they make a connection in that short time.  The baggage that both carry on their shoulders is heartbreaking and definitely causes trouble for the pair.  Watching them both deal with, and sometimes ignore,  their issues tugged at my heart so deeply that I thought it might just pump right out of my chest.  The story of Shane and Noel had my stomach flipflopping all over the place, torturous at times, but entertaining all the way through.  Can't wait to read Tristan and Gabe's story in As the World Sees It because Tristan may have only been a secondary character in The Truth as He Knows It but boy did he burrow his way into my soul.

RATING: 

Moments by RJ Scott
Summary:
Jacob Riley is one of Hollywood’s bad boys. Child star turned television and B movie actor, he has a reputation for wildness and difficulty honed by years of close encounters with drugs and alcohol. When his latest brush with the law results in him facing a prison term that could ruin his career, he is offered a choice: either participate in a new kind of rehab program or go to prison…again.

Mac’s is an adult education center located in a part of Los Angeles known for gang violence. They are not a drug rehab program, but Ethan Myers has agreed to oversee Jacob’s community service probation in exchange for a donation from Jacob’s wealthy father.

Ethan is less than impressed with the spoiled and immature actor, but the center – his labor of love – is struggling financially. He figures that he can put up with just about anything for four months in order to keep his program alive.

The two men don’t exactly start on a positive note. Jacob is angry enough to want to sabotage the program, and Ethan sees the young man as more of a hindrance than a help. Over time, however, a truce develops, and soon Jacob finds himself more involved with the center – and with Ethan – than he has ever been with anything in his self-centered life. But is this change in him permanent? Is the enfant terrible actually growing up? Or is he just marking time until his four months are up and he can return to his old life in Hollywood?

***Please note: This is a re-edited book originally published with Silver Publishing. There are no new major scenes, although POV amendments have been made to the story.***



I need to start by simply stating that you will not like Jacob Riley in the beginning.  He is the classic, some might say cliche, Hollywood child actor turned bad boy.  Whether you see Jacob as classic or cliche, it doesn't matter because it works and that's what makes Moments enjoyable.  Despite Ethan's panic attacks he is incredibly patient, more patient than I would be when faced with dealing with Jacob.  I don't do spoilers but I will say there was a point in the story that I thought the author might take a certain path with Jacob's character but she didn't and the road Miss Scott took was much better and appreciated.  Moments may not be what I would classify as an emotional roller coaster but it definitely pulls at your heartstrings and will stay with you.  Moments is another great example why RJ Scott is on my short list of "1-click without the blurb" authors.

RATING: 

Slasherazzi by Daniel A Kaine
Summary:
Recently promoted to Detective, Alex is out to prove himself and the Slasherazzi case is the perfect opportunity. Mutilated corpses are showing up across Tampa, and when the team discovers the newest victim was tortured alive, Alex becomes more determined than ever to stop the crazed serial killer before the horrific stabbings escalate further.

With the return of Alex’s ex-boyfriend and journalist, Vince, the investigation takes a dangerous twist: the killer starts showing a personal interest in Alex. Can he stop the murders and salvage his relationship with Vince, or does he risk letting both men get away?


Where does one begin with a story such as Slasherazzi and not give spoilers? I'll do my best.  This is not for the faint at heart.  The story is told from the detective's POV with the exception of a few chapters where you see inside the killer's mind, which is not a pretty sight.  I came across this little gem when I was searching for some hauntings and ghost stories, there aren't any ghosts in this story other than what's in the killer's own mind, but this popped up and I do love a good mystery so I thought, "What the hell, I'll give it a go".  Boy am I ever glad that I did because this was magnificent even at it's more gory moments.  Let's just say if this was a movie then there are definite scenes where you'd be covering your eyes and screaming.  So delicious!  And having read it with Halloween season fast approaching was just icing on the top.  If you have the stomach for a few scenes of unpleasant destruction than this is the one for you and if gore isn't really your comfort zone, I think you'll still enjoy Slasherazzi because in my opinion you could "skim" through those few chapters and not be lost.

RATING: 

The Mystery of Ruby Lode by Scotty Cade
Summary:
After six months of research, adventure seekers Bowen McAlister, Cyrus Curran, Duff Gentry, and Lockhart Dawson make their way to Boulder, Colorado, to explore the abandoned gold mine Ruby Lode. But when they arrive, Duff, a born psychic, senses something isn’t quite right—and the closer they get, the more his unease grows.

Something long buried in the deep shafts and drifts of Ruby Lode makes its presence known by exposing dark, guarded secrets. Preying on the adventurers’ weaknesses and insecurities, Ruby Lode’s own destructive secret threatens their sanity, friendship, and ultimately their lives. Bo, Cy, Duff, and Lockey must work together to unravel the century-old mystery before they become another footnote in the mine’s history.


I loved the blend of history and paranormal all mixed together with romance.  When Frink and Counter meet Hepp and Shull, they had no idea what would be set in motion.  Even though the majority of the story is set around the four friends, Bo, Cy, Duff, and Lockey in present day, what went down in the past hovers over the entire story.  Love, friendship, betrayal(at least in one character's perception), and a certain level of creepiness that makes this a perfect read for lovers of October scariness but will make a great read any time.

RATING: 

Texas Wedding by RJ Scott
Summary:
Sometimes Riley and Jack have to be the ones to fight other people's battles and stand up for what is right.

With the life changing prospect of a yes vote from SCOTUS on the issue of same sex marriage, Riley and Jack realise they have decisions to make. Add in some distressing family news and the very real possibility that old secrets may resurface, and this last book in the Texas series pulls together as many threads as the boys can manage to handle.

But through all the ups and the downs, children, family events, laughter, and tears, there is nothing as special as the forever love between these two men.


This book had me in tears, both from laughing and tenderness, had me fanning myself from hotness, simply put Texas Wedding had me in a jumble of emotion.  I don't really know what to say about Jack and Reily that I haven't already said throughout the series.  When Texas Wedding's release day arrived my heart warred between my need to know and my need to prolong the finale but my need to know won out.  This was a great way to end an amazing series and the idea of there being no more Jack and Reily is heartbreaking but I am sure we haven't actually seen the end of our favorite couple, even if their future is in the form of secondary characters in a future spin-off series, Legacy, coming in 2016.  Texas will always be my absolute favorite series in the M/M genre, not only because it was the first I read but because it is superbly written with characters that are interesting, intriguing, and real.  RJ Scott has given us a true gem when she created the world of Jack and Reily Campbell-Hayes.

RATING: 


Bully & Exit
They were silent at first, but their arms brushed every so often, and Caleb would swear he could feel Nathan’s gaze on him. His palms were sweaty and his heart fluttered as their arms bumped when they passed on the stairs or their hands grazed when they reached for the same box. Caleb found himself craving those touches—innocent though they were—and he realized he was shifting closer, angling to make it happen again. When his fingers grazed Nathan’s for the umpteenth time, he realized he needed to stop.

The last thing he wanted was for the hockey player to think Caleb was flirting with him, even if it was true. Even if every part of him wanted to feel Nathan’s skin against his again and again. Although he was careful not to bump Nathan in any way, it kept happening. Tired and on edge, keyed up from the accidental touches and the strangeness of being around Nathan, Caleb blurted out the question that had been lingering in his mind. “Why are you doing this anyway?”

Nathan paused and straightened, pushing his sleeves up his muscled forearms as he gave Caleb a baffled look. “You need help.”

“Yeah, but … you’re … you, and since when do jocks help out drama freaks?”

Tugging at the brim of the baseball cap he was wearing, Nathan shrugged. “Look, that’s stupid. You need help, I’m here, and I can lift. Who gives a shit?”

Caleb brushed his hair out his eyes. “Uhm, the rest of the school, apparently.”

Nathan frowned. “That’s idiotic.”

“Yeah, no shit, but it doesn’t change anything.” Caleb reached for one of the last two boxes on the floor, grunting when it was heavier than he realized. He straightened and found himself face to face with Nathan, who had lunged forward to help him lift it.

“I can help.”

Caleb stared at the bead of sweat trickling down over Nathan’s temple. “I’ve got it,” he grumbled, irritated Nathan was treating him like a weakling, and that even though a part of him resented Nathan, he was still turned on by him. His half-hard dick had been nudging at the fly of his jeans since Nathan showed up.

Nathan’s fingers pressed against Caleb’s as he wrapped his hands around the bottom of the box. “Let me help.”

Caleb looked up and, for the first time, noticed that Nathan’s eyes were more grey than blue, slightly slanted, and his brown hair had a little bit of a curl to it where it peeked out from under his ball cap. Caleb swallowed hard and looked back down at the box. His arms were starting to hurt, and he cleared his throat before he embarrassed himself. “Fine, I’ll go up the stairs first.”

The box bumped his thighs as they tried to work together to carry it, but after a moment, they figured out how to walk in step to make it easier. He concentrated on keeping his footing steady; it was easier than looking Nathan in the eye. When they reached the top, he set the box down on the table. Nathan stepped back, pulling at the shirt clinging damply to him.

“Fuck, it’s hot up here.”

Yeah, definitely not the only thing that’s hot, Caleb thought. He turned abruptly, irritated with the way he reacted to Nathan. He shouldn’t be thinking about him that way; it was bound to end badly. He was going to get his ass kicked if he wasn’t careful. He jogged down the stairs, wanting a moment away from the jock, but Nathan followed. “Just this bench then?”

“Yeah.”

Caleb refused to make eye contact with Nathan as they carried the old, wooden bench up the stairs. They were both sweating by the time they reached the top. Caleb’s T-shirt stuck to his skin, and he watched—wishing he could tear his eyes away—when Nathan pulled his Henley off. He was wearing a thin white undershirt underneath, but it was so drenched with sweat it was nearly see through, and it clung to every line of his body. Caleb could see the ridges of Nathan’s abs and the dark circles of his nipples. He had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep himself from getting fully hard.

“Is it always this hot up here?” Nathan muttered.

“Yeah, pretty much.” Caleb looked away, staring at the racks upon racks of costumes from previous shows.

“Seriously, feel this.” Nathan’s hand closed around Caleb’s wrist, gently tugging. Caleb struggled to maintain his balance, and his left hand landed on Nathan’s hip, the other on his chest, palm pressed against the hot, hard muscle there. It should have been disgusting—Nathan was dripping with sweat—but Caleb’s breath hitched, and his eyes rose to meet Nathan’s. Lips parted, eyes locked on Caleb, Nathan’s fingers slipped between Caleb’s. He slowly dragged their joined hands across his chest until they rested right over his heart.

Caleb didn’t know if initially it had been an innocent gesture on Nathan’s part or not, but it wasn’t anymore. He could feel Nathan’s heart racing under his palm, and they were too close. He could see Nathan’s dark eyelashes and the scar above his upper lip. The air nearly shimmered with tension. All the blood in Caleb’s body was currently in his dick, and combined with the heat, he felt lightheaded.

Other than those stupid kisses during party games, he’d never done anything with another guy. He’d never held a guy close. Never felt his sweaty chest. Never had a moment of breathless anticipation, waiting to see what would happen next. “Yeah,” he said hoarsely, not knowing what else to say. He had no idea what was happening, why Nathan was here at all, much less, why they were close enough to kiss. Thoughts whirled through his brain as he stood there. Could Nathan be gay? Caleb’s heart leapt at the thought, but it was crazy, wasn’t it? And even if he was, he wasn’t likely to come out about it, especially not to Caleb.

So why was Nathan leaning closer? Why was he licking his lips and looking at Caleb as if he was the last bite of chocolate cake he was dying for but knew he shouldn’t have? Caleb could hear himself breathing, the choppy, ragged breaths loud in the otherwise silent room.

“Caleb?” Nathan said hoarsely, looking as bewildered as he felt.

“Yeah?”

“I …” He dipped his head lower, so close Caleb could feel the exhale of air against his lips, and his eyes involuntarily closed. His heart raced, waiting for the contact of soft lips. He held his breath in anticipation … waiting … waiting … until the heavy thud of a slamming door in the distance broke the spell. He jumped, jerking away from Nathan as his eyes flew open. Equally startled, Nathan reached for him, but Caleb bolted for the stairs.

“Caleb, wait!” he heard Nathan call after him, but he was already halfway down the stairs.

His Grandfather's Watch
Chapter One
Sitting in the back room at my desk, with a dismantled 1901 Newman's clock, I heard the bell that chimed every time a customer walked through the door. My dad was behind the counter, and I heard him greet the customer, making small talk, discussing whatever antique it was they'd brought with them.

It's what we did.

My father's love of all things antique grew into this business, Harper's Antiquities. Dad was the expert and Mom did the research, but they both traveled, scouring the globe for their life's passion. My brother Scott did antique furniture restoration, but it wasn't something I ever saw myself doing. Then I started helping out when I was a kid at school, and I found a love of clocks.

It’s my specialty.

I could hear Dad talking to the customer, but didn't pay them any mind until I heard my name.

"Alex?"

Putting down the part in my hand, I walked through to the showroom where I found my father and the customer he was talking to. Very different from my pale skin, black hair and grayish eyes, he was a good looking guy, similar age to me, but with sandy brown, kinda longish hair, tanned skin and blue eyes. He was holding a pocket watch in his hand.

"This is my son, Alex," Dad explained. "He's the expert on watches like yours."

I extended my hand in professional courtesy. "Hello."

"Callum Winters," he said by way of greeting, putting the watch on the counter before shaking my hand. There was an accent, Southern I thought, but I wasn't sure.

Dad waited for us to let go of each other's hands, then he looked at me and smiled. "Callum was just telling me he'd like to know more about this watch."

I looked at the silver watch casing and fob chain, then at its owner. I reached my hand toward the watch, but before I touched it, I asked, "May I?"

"Sure," he nodded.

Picking it up, I could tell a few things from a visual inspection. "This casing was a popular design in the 1940's," I told him. Gently, I opened the casing to reveal the quartz face. "The dial is Hamilton, but I won't know dates or maker for certain, unless I take the back off and look at the movement."

"Could you do that?" he asked. His accent was definitely southern. "I was hoping to know as much about it as I could."

I smiled. "Sure. I'll need to grab some details, and I should be able to look at it in about two days. Then I can tell you everything I know."

Callum nodded. "That'd be great." We looked at each other for a little too long, and I couldn't help but wonder if this cute, Southern man was gay.

Dad seemed to think so, because with a cheeky smirk, he handed me the register log, looked between us and not-so subtly said, "Callum, I'll leave you in Alex's very capable hands." He pointed behind us, "I have... stuff... I need to do out the back."

Callum politely thanked him, and I considered kicking my father in the shins. We were behind the counter, so it's not like Callum would have seen me do it. But Dad must have picked up on the look I gave him, because he smiled, turned quickly and disappeared through the door.

I grabbed a pen, handed Callum the register and asked him to fill in his details. I picked up the watch, turning it over in my hands. It was a nice piece, and I couldn't help but ask, "What do you know about the watch?"

He looked up from the paperwork. "Um, it was my grandfather's. That's about all I know."

He handed me the completed form, and I told him as procedure, I required some ID. Taking out his wallet, he handed me his driver's licence. His Texas driver's licence.

"I just moved here," he said. "I've got my change of address receipt here somewhere."

He started looking through his wallet, and I stopped him. "No, its fine. I just need to sight photo ID, that's all."

He smiled kindly and nodded. "So, two days?"

"Yeah. I'm half way through another job. Then I can look at this, and I'll give you a call when I'm done," I told him. "Is there anything in particular you're looking for?"

He shrugged one shoulder and shook his head. "No, not really. Just dates, make, model... to be honest, I'm not really sure."

As I was putting the watch and paperwork in a paper envelope, I asked him, "Would you like a valuation?"

"No," he said simply. "Monetary value isn't important."

He thanked me, I told him I'd be in touch and he left. When I walked back into the workshop, Dad grinned at me. "He was a nice young man," he said.

"Mom!" I yelled to the upstairs office, where my mother would have undoubtedly had her head in a catalogue. "Dad's trying to set me up again."

She yelled back, "Was he cute?"

Oh for crying out loud.

He was actually, but that's not the point. Dad chuckled at me.
Ignoring him, I sat the pocket watch on my desk and turned my attention back to the clock I was working on.

I managed to ignore both my parents and their comments about cute, brown-haired watch owners until they got bored and left me alone. And I managed to push the thoughts of the pocket watch and its handsome Texan owner out of my mind until it was time to go home.

*****

I arrived back at work a little before nine in the morning and headed straight for my desk, which was more like a workstation, when the paper sleeve holding the pocket watch caught my eye.
I picked it up and took the watch out, feeling the cool, heavy weight of it in my hand. I didn't hear my dad come up behind me, and his voice startled me. "How's Mr. Yeo's clock coming along?"

"Oh, shit! You scared me," I said with a laugh, clutching my heart. Then looking back to the clock I had half done, I told him, "Um, it should be ready by lunchtime tomorrow."

He nodded thoughtfully. "I think you should do the watch instead."
I looked at the pocket watch I was still holding. "Why?"

"Because Mr. Yeo is a collector," he replied with a shrug. "To him that clock is just something else he acquired. Even old Mr. Yeo will tell you that. But this," he pointed to the watch in my hand, "this means something."

Dad smiled at me. "Mr. Yeo can wait a day or two. He won't mind. I'll even phone him myself."

"Are you sure?" I asked.

He nodded. "He wants me to go with him to look at an 18th Century hand-carved Italian rococo centre table he'd seen at an auction house anyway, so I need to speak to him."

"Okay," I agreed. Within twenty minutes, I had Mr. Yeo's clock itemized and put away and the silver pocket watch in front of me.
I made my usual notes as I proceeded detailing. There was nothing remarkable about it, until I removed the back casing.

Because what I found hidden in the back of the pocket watch was unlike anything I'd encountered before.

I took out the client form with Callum Winters' details on it and picked up the phone. "Callum Winters? It's Alex, from Harper Antiquities. I'm calling about your watch."

"Yes?" he answered, unsure.

"Can you come into the store?" I asked. "There's something you need to see."

Piece of Cake
Chapter One
IT WAS my wedding day, so of course, Sam Kage, the love of my life, was standing in the middle of our quiet suburban street in a navy three-piece suit with a yellow tie and a gorgeous yellow orchid boutonniere with his foot on the jugular of a guy who’d just tried to shoot me.

The gun, equipped with a suppressor, was now in the hand of police Lieutenant Duncan Stiel, a friend and guest at my ceremony, who had picked it up using paper towels from my kitchen. He was currently standing there, also in the middle of the street, looking stunned as Sam reminded him that this was par for the course with me. Duncan’s husband—my ex, billionaire real estate mogul Aaron Sutter—was looking at me and shaking his head.

“What?”

He lifted his hands in total disbelief. “Who gets shot at on their wedding day?”

“This is not my fault.”

His squint told me he didn’t believe me.

“I—”

“Jory, goddamnit!” Sam bellowed from the road as we all heard the sirens.

I turned from Aaron to him. “How is this my fault?” I called over.

“I’m going to beat you!” he threatened, and his snarl was only made slightly less terrifying because he was in the suit we’d bought specifically for this occasion, for our wedding. The man was stunning, just the power radiating off of him making me want to run out there into the street and climb him like a tree. And since he was supposed to exchange vows with me in less than ten minutes, it was hard for me to take the threat seriously.

“We’re still getting married, right?”

The Truth as He Knows It
Officer Noel Carlson followed his partner down the breezeway toward apartment 303 and the source of their disturbance call. Even without the apartment number Noel would have been able to peg this place. A deep bass thrummed through the door, right into his chest, reminding him of late nights in hot, sweaty dance clubs. The neighbor who’d reported the party said the music had been going like that for over an hour, and it was already after one in the morning.

Officer Wade Benedict paused to adjust his hat before he hit the bell, then banged a meaty fist on the door for good measure. Noel flanked him, the junior officer in their partnership, allowing Benedict to take point.

The music continued, so Benedict bell-banged again. “Stratton Police Department!”

Noel glanced at the other three apartment doors on this floor, curious if anyone was watching through their peep holes. Enjoying the floor show. Cedar Hills was one of the nicest, newest complexes around Stratton, and far beyond Noel’s budget without at least two roommates. But his privacy was worth more than extra space and a pool, so he was happy enough renting a room above a church-run thrift store downtown.

Benedict pounded the door. “Police! Open up!”

Someone must have finally paid attention to his bellowing, because the music went down to a bearable volume. The front door opened, still on its chain. A sliver of a female face popped into view. “Show me your badge.”

Noel and Benedict took turns stepping into her line of sight so she could see the badges on their uniform shirts. The door shut, a chain slid, and they were allowed into a blast of air conditioning. Not unwelcome after walking through the late-May humidity.

The open floor plan gave Noel a clear view of the party still in progress. Pink and white streamers and balloons. A banner that said Happy Thirtieth, Sandy!. The remains of a demolished birthday cake on the kitchen island. Liquor bottles strewn about on various surfaces. Five women—two on the sofa, two in the kitchen, one by the door.

The woman who’d let them in was listing a bit, cheeks flushed, obviously intoxicated. “What’s the problem, Officer?”

Benedict grunted. “Are you the current tenant?”

“Yep, that’s me.”

“What’s your name?”

“Olivia Presnell. Who’re you?”

“I’m Officer Benedict, this is Officer Carlson.”

Olivia smiled at Noel, practically batting her eyes. “You wear that big gun in the bedroom, Officer?”

Noel almost laughed at the awful attempt at flirting. “Ma’am, we received a noise nuisance call this evening.”

“Who was being noisy?” Olivia asked.

“You were,” Benedict said. He had a gruff, angry bear way about him that made everything he said sound like he was snarling. And it worked on Olivia, who slinked into the kitchen.

“I think it’s time you broke up the party and called cabs for your friends,” Noel said.

A grumble of protest came out of the living room. One of the women on the sofa cast a forlorn look at a closed door at the back of the apartment. Probably the bedroom. Something about it pinged Noel’s curiosity.

“Is this everyone who’s in the apartment?” Noel asked. “Or are there others?”

Sofa Lady glanced sharply at Olivia, who was frowning.

Unease rolled through Noel’s gut. “Is there someone in the bedroom?”

“Just the stripper,” Olivia replied, clipped. Annoyed. More sober than a moment ago, possibly from adrenaline.

Odd.

Hiring strippers wasn’t illegal, as long as the transaction didn’t cross the line into prostitution. He glanced at Benedict, who tilted his head at the bedroom door. Clearly not volunteering to go get the guy.

Noel crossed the room and paused in front of the door. To Olivia, he said, “Will you please open the door?”

She heaved a put-upon sigh, then stalked over and twisted the knob. Noel nudged the door open with his foot, unsure exactly what to expect. The light was off, and a thick beam from the living room cut across the foot of a bed. Noel slid his hand along the wall until he could flip a light switch. A floor lamp in the corner flared to life.

A man sat in the middle of the bed, propped up with pillows, tied to the headboard by his wrists. He was mostly naked, except for a red thong and a pair of laced-up work boots, and goddamn, Noel had to work hard not to appreciate the long, lean expanse of male body on display. Or stare at the unusual monarch butterfly tattoo on his left hip. The stripper was gagged by a piece of cloth that did nothing to hide his pretty face, all sharp planes and high cheekbones. He kept blinking at Noel like he wasn’t quite awake. Everything about the scene felt off. Wrong.

“We were just playing,” Olivia said behind him.

Noel ignored her. He approached the figure on the bed slowly. Dark brown eyes focused on him, really seemed to see him, then went wide. He jerked against the cloth binding his wrists. Muffled words didn’t quite make it around the gag, but Noel would be damned if they didn’t sound like “Help me”.

He undid the gag, which appeared to be someone’s scarf.

The stripper licked his lips, fear settling into his dark eyes. “This isn’t what it looks like,” he said.

“What does it look like?” Noel undid the knot on the guy’s right hand.

“I’m not a prostitute, I swear. She paid me to strip for her friends, but nothing else. I’m not into this.”

Noel let the guy undo his other wrist for himself. “Not into what? Getting tied up with silk scarves?”

“No, I’m not.” He got loose, then slid to the other side of the bed.

“Then why were you?”

“Misunderstanding.”

Noel glanced at the door where Olivia was watching, her expression hawkish. This entire scenario felt wrong to Noel, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. The stripper seemed genuinely scared of something—getting caught taking money for sex, probably. But Noel hadn’t seen any money exchange hands, so he had no evidence of prostitution. And what a stripper did when he was off the clock was not Noel’s business.

So why did he want to know why the dark-haired man hunched over on the bed looked so haunted?

“What’s your name?” Noel asked.

“Shane.”

“Are you impaired, Shane?”

“I didn’t drink tonight.”

“What about drugs?”

“No, sir.”

“Anything you’d like to report about the party tonight?”

“No. I’d really like to go home now, if I’m not under arrest.”

“You aren’t under arrest.” Noel pulled out a notepad and pen. “But I do need some information for my report.”

“Shane Joseph, twenty-four, I live at 240 Naylor Street.” Shane rattled off a phone number. “Would you like my social security number too?”

The initial fear was sloughing off, leaving a lot of attitude in its place. Attitude that sharpened handsome features into something fierce. Almost feral. And the fact that Shane was still only wearing that thong made the whole shift sexier than it had any right to be, and Noel had to quit thinking like that. He was on the clock, damn it.

“No, that’ll do it,” Noel replied.

Shane fetched a patched backpack from the floor by the dresser, then disappeared into the master bathroom. Noel returned to the outer room, where Benedict was taking down personal information while the party attendees called for rides. A minute later, Shane stormed past and out the front door.

It slammed shut and Olivia jumped.

“Next time you want to throw a party,” Noel said, “watch your volume. And maybe skip the stripper.”

Olivia rolled her eyes. “Believe me, I will not be referring him to my girlfriends.”

He curbed the urge to ask why. Shane had a body he looked like he knew how to use— Quit it. Just quit. No sexy thoughts about strippers he’d ousted from a birthday party gone wild.

Moments
"Shit, Sam. March? That’s four frigging months."

Jacob Riley, all six-three of pissed-off male, slammed the door to the small conference room behind him and stamped to the window to stare moodily at the bright sunshine-filled day outside. He twisted both hands tight into his hair in frustration, wondering how the fuck this day had just all gone to hell. His lawyers—his fucking well-paid lawyers—had said they’d get him off, not land him with some lame-ass probation community service crap. Jeez, like he was gonna be taught anything by cleaning streets or dealing with people’s trash. Shit.

The TV in the corner was showing some trashy entertainment show, where a very smug presenter was reporting the latest news. Jacob tried to tune it out but it was nigh on impossible—it must have been the tenth time the show had been played in rotation.

The news of the arrest of actor Jacob Riley boosted the audience figures for the half season’s finale of End Game to their highest point for eight months. He’s been offered a lifeline in a county programme of rehab and his spokesperson said he’s concentrating on work and on himself. Well, folks, here’s hoping this is one recovering addict who actually makes it out alive.

"It’s on hiatus," Samantha replied carefully from just inside the door. "I’ve just got off the phone with HBO and they’ll delay your return to ‘Game until you’re free to come back. Remember, with Christmas on the way, we have some room to manoeuvre."

Jacob spun on his heel. His quiet, calm assistant stood holding a clipboard, a cellphone balanced on top of it.

"Fuck," he summarised. HBO would be stupid to lose him, he was convinced of it. ‘Game was his show. Jacob’s character was pivotal, the star of the whole goddamned show.

"You’re lucky you play Zach," Sam snapped. "And that Zach is a drug-taking manic depressive. Otherwise I swear they would have canned you today, no hesitation."

Was she trying to make him feel better? "Sam, do I look like I give a shit?"

"You need—"

"No! I don’t need anything or anyone. They push me off the show and they’ll see their ratings drop overnight. No one loses Jacob Riley and sees their show survive."

Sam stared at him in bewilderment.

Resentment bubbled up inside him. He was fully aware he was coming across as petulant and childish. But how could Sam or anyone understand what was going through his head? Sam, with her to-do lists and her anal outlook on life, sure as hell couldn’t. Who the hell did she think she was? HBO wouldn’t tell his assistant anything of any importance.

"We have four months to get you into a programme and complete your work through the community service," she continued. Her patient tone, measuring every word, talking to him as if he were a small child—he hated every syllable.

"No," Jacob snapped, balling his temper and his dismissal of her into that one word.

She stepped away from him to stand against the door. "Jacob—"

"No. I’m not cleaning streets, I’m not searching for rubbish or any of the usual crap they put celebrities through to humiliate us!"

"Jacob, it’s not meant to be a humiliation. But it is a punishment," Sam said, raising her free hand in an attempt to placate him. Her cellphone slid off the clipboard and tumbled to the floor.

Jacob listened, but what she’d said only served to increase his temper. He could feel the itch of addiction under his skin, and it terrified him. Although he would never admit it, he was out of control and it was eating at the edges of him.

In over a year, he hadn’t wanted a hit as badly as he did at this moment. Frustration and anger burst out of him with uncontrolled force. He reared up and crowded her against the door, his hand circling her wrist and gripping tightly. "Don’t get all sanctimonious on me, Sam, it’s not your style," he snarled.

"Jacob, you’re hurting me," Sam whimpered, visibly pushing as close to the wood as she could. Her words didn’t register, and his grip tightened. "Jacob. Please…" she said, tears in her eyes, pain and real fear in her voice. Something in the simple please reached through his anger. He threw Samantha’s hand back towards her body, but he didn’t move away.

"I’m sorry, but don’t push me, okay?" he said tiredly. Half closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. It was the first time in their relationship he could see fear in Sam’s eyes, and it scared the hell out of him. Was she actually afraid of him? What do I say? How the hell do I…?

"Your father," Sam said. "Your father is waiting for you in the next room."

Jacob flipped from menacing back to petulant instantly.

"Great, another thing to make my day." Jacob stepped back, watching as Samantha rubbed her wrist and blinked back tears.

"Jacob, he wants to help. He knows of this place you can go for the next—"

"He’s the one who got me into this mess, Sam! He freaking turned me in!"

"He’s waiting."

Slasherazzi
The naked body laid before me trembled with fear, the muscles beneath his pale skin vibrating like an engine starting up. Wide green eyes stared up at me. He struggled against the black duct tape that bound him securely to the wooden table and muffled his cries for help. I tensed my fingers around the hilt of my Bowie knife, and a twisted smile spread slowly across my face as I debated where to make the first cut.

The body squirmed as the knife point pressed against the twitching flesh of his stomach. I trailed the tip up his chest and over the ridges of his heaving ribcage. Here? No. Back down to his legs. His muscles stiffened as the cold metal passed his exposed genitals, and I chuckled quietly to myself. Here.

“You’re going to die today,” I informed him with no more emphasis than if I had announced that blood is red. “You’ll have no more need for this than you will any other part of your body.”

The skin gave way to the sharp, narrow point of my blade, and the first crimson rivulet spilled out of the cut to meander down his shriveled sac, traversing its way through a forest of dark curly hair. I licked my lips in anticipation. He cried out through the old sock and layers of tape, but it wasn’t enough. I drove the knife in, and oh God, did he scream, an animalistic cry stifled by the makeshift gag. My breath hitched at the sound. His back arched, straining against the bondage holding him firmly in place. Tears rolled from his bloodshot eyes and down the sides of his head past sparse chestnut hair. My pulse raced through my body, creating a familiar tightness in my pants. I pulled the knife out and held it up to the faint light where I could watch the blood trickle down its length.

“Wanna see?” I asked, dangling the knife over his face. He screwed his eyes tight shut as a few drops splashed against his cheek. “Where next, I wonder?”

Cutting was a new game to me. In the past, I stuck to playing with the body only after I had watched the life drain from their eyes and blood stream from their lacerated throats. But now, I needed something more. The old routine had become boring…stale. I needed more excitement. More blood. More screaming. I was no longer content with a mere reminder of their lives passing under my supervision. I needed to find my release as they found theirs.

Death was what I sought, what I craved. It was the ultimate release. But now I had the order right, a part of the learning process like experimenting with which parts to cut, and in what order, to produce the maximum amount of pain and terror. The greater the agony, the greater the climax when death finally came—and so did I.

I placed the inch-wide knife across his stomach and picked up the 35mm camera that hung around my neck to snap a few shots of the quivering mess laid out in front of me. Then I looked over the body, deciding on my next move. Nothing seemed quite as appealing as that first thrust, slicing deep into the soft skin of his small, wrinkled cock. Perhaps I was too eager in drawing out the first scream. Better to go back to something more basic and make it last longer.

A finger, perhaps? I moved toward his left hand, and he clenched his fist, straining against the tightly wrapped tape around his wrist. Even then he struggled against my efforts to pry open his little finger. Naked and bound, staring into the eyes of his executioner, his ferryman, and yet he fought and clung to life. With some difficulty, and a little coaxing from the blade, I managed to extend his narrow digit, the knife easily slicing the soft flesh around the middle joint and hitting the bone beneath. Blood welled to the surface in a steady trickle, pooling on the table beneath him. He screamed out his muffled cries as I labored vigorously to remove the stubborn finger, grinding my teeth at its refusal to budge. I stabbed the tip into the joint, working through the gristle as I made a mental note to expand my hardware collection. It gave with a pop that echoed the release of tension inside me, and a spurt of crimson splashed against the carbon steel blade. I picked up the finger and held it for him to see before placing it gently upon his sternum.

His chest rose and fell in short, rapid movements as I contemplated my next move. Blood flowed from the stump of his finger, seeping outward with every frantic beat of his heart. The severed digit pointed downward to the soft flesh of his stomach as if telling me where to cut next. The blade easily pierced it, a small incision of an inch or so. I placed the knife onto his stomach and slipped my finger into the warm hole, sending a shiver down my spine. I gasped, as I’m sure my playmate would also have done had he been able. My finger penetrated his new orifice, thrusting in and out, wiggling around inside the warm, squidgy cocoon that oozed dark blood with every movement. His body bucked as I slammed inside, his endless wailing reduced to a groan through the dirty, sweaty sock that filled his mouth. Even the violent shuddering of his body became nothing more than a weak shudder.

The need within me was slowly building, like an old kettle bubbling within until finally ready to blow its spout. With my free hand, I undid my fly. There was another piece of flesh that required my attention.
******************
Vince groaned, stretching his arms and legs out across the white sheets of his bed. I lay back down next to him after cleaning myself up, my leg draped over his and the palm of my left hand gently passing over his smooth skin, still damp with sweat.

I leaned in, my lips brushing against his ear as my hand ventured down farther toward his firm, round ass. “I don’t think you’ve fully paid for your crimes, yet,” I whispered, his body shuddering against me as I pressed gently into his slick hole, the muscles clamping down on my finger.

He chuckled and turned his head to smirk at me. “What’s got you so horny today?”

“Nothing.” I pushed a second finger inside him, his hips rising to start fucking himself on my fingers. Withdrawing them, I rolled over on top of him, straddling his legs. My cock began to harden, rubbing between his cheeks. I leaned down to lock my lips around the juncture of his jaw and neck, biting down gently and drawing a long moan from his throat. “Hope you’ve got some more rubbers.”

“Middle drawer. I just stocked up, so we can go at it all day if you want.” He leered at me, lifting his hips to rub his ass against the underside of my dick.

“You think you can manage that?” I asked, standing and giving his left cheek a firm slap. He let out a surprised yelp, the smacking sound reverberating through the small room. “I’m not gonna be as gentle on you this time.”

“Who’s asking you to be gentle?”

I walked over to the chest of drawers and opened the middle drawer, rummaging under the layer of socks until my hand closed around a small box. Placing it onto the bed next to the bottle of lube, I retook my position above Vince, pressing my body flush against his.

“Tell me, Vince,” I whispered. “Tell me what you want.”

“I want you to fuck me, Alex. Fuck me hard.”

My dick swelled, twitching with anticipation. “Yeah? You like my cock inside you, don’t you?”

Vince nodded, a small whimper passing his lips.

“I’m gonna fuck you so hard…ram my cock all the way in. Wanna hear my balls slapping against you. Is that what you want?”

He grunted into the pillow, his fists clenching. “Yes. God, yes. Fuck me, Alex. Fuck me now.”

I opened the box of condoms, taking out one of the foil wrappers and began to tear it when a soft buzzing caught my attention.

“That better be a new toy I’m hearing,” Vince said with a groan.

My phone. “Shit. Hang on,” I said, clambering off the bed to search through the mound of clothes until I found my cell and flipped it open. “Hello?”

“Took your damn time. Wait, don’t tell me. You were with Vince, weren’t you? Spare me the details, okay? As much as I love you, Alex, I don’t need those kinda images scarring me for life.”

“Tanya. What’s up?” I sat down on the edge of the bed, doing my best to ignore Vince as he wrapped his arms around me from behind, pressing his hard cock against my spine.

“We got a name for our John Doe. Robert Pearson. His wife showed up at the station this morning to file a missing persons report. She ID’d the body about half an hour ago.”

“What do we know about him?” I asked, stifling a groan as Vince’s tongue began to circle my ear. I lifted my right hand to try and swat him away.

“Not a lot, yet. The wife hasn’t exactly been in a talkative mood. What we do know is that he was a pastor at one of the local churches. I’m doing a background check on him now, see if I can dig up any dirt on him.”

“Well, thanks for letting me know. You’ll call me as soon as you find anything, right?”

“Actually, the reason I was calling you is because we’re holding a meeting in about forty-five minutes. The lieutenant wants you there.”

“I don’t know why I bother trying to take days off,” I said with a sigh, then a grunt as Vince’s teeth bit down gently on the shell of my ear.

“That better not have been what I thought it was. Is Vince with you right now? Put me on speakerphone. I want a word with him.”

‘Tanya—”

“Alex, put me on speakerphone, or so help me God, I will whoop your ass, you hear me?”

I lifted the phone away from my ear and hit the speaker button. “Go ahead,” I said, and Vince looked at me in askance.

“All right, you listen here, Fairfield. I don’t know what kinda game you’re playing this time, but if you hurt Alex again, you’ll have me to deal with. I’ve got my eyes on you, okay?”

Vince grinned. “I’ll make sure to wear some tight jeans so you get a nice view.”

“And why would I wanna look at your skinny white ass?”

“Because it’s round, firm and has no tan lines. You can come have a close-up look if you want.”

There was a moment of silence. “I’m gonna just pretend you didn’t say that,” she ground out. “But remember, you’ve been warned. Now, put your dick away before I have to come around there and neuter you. I need to borrow Alex for a while. Official police business. You know how it is.”

“Sorry, Vince, but you heard the lady. I’ll be there as quick as I can. Don’t let them start without me, okay?”

Tanya laughed. “When have you ever known the lieutenant to wait for anyone? You’d best get your ass on over here.” The line went dead.

The Mystery of Ruby Lode
Chapter One
“SETTLE down, folks! Settle down.”

The lanky auctioneer slammed a gavel on the podium, demanding silence.

When the room was again quiet, the auctioneer looked up from his perch.

“Our next piece of property is the Ruby Lode Mining Claim, designated by the surveyor general as survey number one-nine-four-five-three. The claim embraces a portion of section six, in township two North, Range seventy-one West of the sixth Principal Meridian in the Mining District and bounded and described as more particularly set forth in the patent from the United States to O.E. Jasper of record in Boulder County, Colorado. Records; said survey number one-nine-four-five-three extending one thousand five hundred feet in length along the Ruby vein or lode; the premises herein granted containing five and fifteen hundredth acres along the South St. Vrain River. The tax lien is one hundred dollars.

“Do I hear an opening bid of one hundred dollars?”

You could hear a pin drop in the sparsely filled town hall.

“Do I hear an opening bid of seventy-five?”

From three rows back, Frink Davis fidgeted as he and his best friend, Counter Stephens, scanned the room for any signs of activity. A hand going up, a wink, a nod, even a cough could indicate a bid. Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, Frink saw movement, and Counter must have seen the same movement because they both turned quickly in that direction. Seated in the front row, a rugged middle-aged man wearing a brown cowboy hat leaned over and whispered something to an exceptionally broad-shouldered man wearing all black sitting right next to him. They nodded in agreement and the man wearing the brown hat brushed his hand across the brim. Counter elbowed Frink in excitement.

“Seventy-five dollars,” said the auctioneer. “Do I hear eighty?”

Frink nervously watched as Counter studied the two men. Then he scanned the room again, looking for other bidders before turning to Counter and smiling. Counter raised his hand and the auctioneer nodded.

“Eighty, I have eighty dollars. Do I hear eighty-five?”

The two men in the front row turned around with surprised looks on their faces to see where the next bid had come from.

This time, the man in black shouted, “Ninety dollars.”

“Ninety dollars, I have ninety dollars. Do I hear ninety-five?”

Frink’s hands were beginning to shake uncontrollably, and he felt as if sweat was pouring out of each of his palms, but he held his emotions together as he prayed his best friend could make this happen.

Wait for it, Count, wait for it, wait…. But the excitement must have gotten the best of Counter because he jumped to his feet and yelled, “One hundred dollars,” glaring at the men in the front row.

Frink couldn’t believe his ears, and he glared at Counter, shaking his head from side to side. He leaned in and hissed, “Ninety-five, you idiot, not one hundred.”

“One hundred dollars, I have one hundred dollars,” the auctioneer yelled. “Do I hear one-ten?”

Counter smacked himself in the head. “Fuck! Did I just say…? Did I say one hundred dollars? I meant to say ninety-five.” Silence again filled the hot, stuffy town hall. Frink couldn’t think. In his head he kept hearing Counter’s voice over and over again: one hundred dollars, one hundred dollars. He put his head between his legs and did his best not to pass out.

“Going once.”

More silence….

“Going twice.”

Again, the two men in the front row slowly turned around and glared at them, then turned back and stared straight ahead.

But still more silence….

“Sold!” The auctioneer yelled as the gavel hit the top of the podium. “Ruby Lode sold to the gentleman in the third row.”

Frink would have sworn his heart was going to leap out of his chest. Just then Counter threw his calloused hands in the air and shouted, “Hot dog, Frink, we just bought ourselves a mine.”

Frink stood up with a concerned look on his face. “Count, I sure hope there’s gold in that there mine, ’cause if there’s not, my paw and everybody I borrowed money from to buy it is going to hang me from a tall tree with a short rope.”

Frink felt Counter’s hands on both of his shoulders, and his heart began to race.

“Relax, Frink, there’s gold. I can just feel it. We’ll find gold in Ruby Lode, or we’ll die tryin’.”

Frink’s bottom lip quivered. “That’s what I’m afraid of, and I sure hope it’s not the latter.”

Frink had never been able to deny his best friend anything, no matter how big or how small. All through school, Counter had gotten him into so many tight jams he’d lost track. And he’d lost count of the number of times he went home from school with bruised knuckles because he’d taken the blame for something Counter had done. The schoolmaster had vowed to break Counter’s bad ways and all the while, Frink kept on covering for him.

He felt Counter’s comfortable hands patting his back, and he started to calm just a little. But as quickly as those hands were there, they moved, and Frink suddenly found himself being dragged to the front of the town hall, he assumed to pay for their new gold mine. Midway to the cashier, the two rugged men from the front row stepped into the aisle and blocked their way.

“Howdy and congratulations, son,” one of the men said to Counter.

Counter stood up straight and smiled. “Much obliged.”

“The name’s Thomas, Hepp Thomas,” the man said with a slight smile while sticking his hand out in an offer of introduction. “And this here’s Shull Johnson”—pointing to his friend.

“I’m Counter Stephens,” Counter said as he looked hesitantly at Frink.

“And I’m Frink Davis.”

Frink watched Counter accept the stranger’s hand and shake; then he did the same. But the stranger held on to Frink’s hand a little longer than normal protocol, looking directly into his eyes. The stranger then released him and turned to Counter.

“Good to meet you, boys,” Hepp offered.

Frink looked at Counter and then the waiting cashier. “Ain’t aimin’ to be rude, gentlemen, but we got a little business to take care of.”

“Uh, call me Hepp, and about that—before you pay the cashier, can we talk some business?”

Frink saw another cautious look fill Counter’s eyes.

“What kind of business might that be?” Counter asked suspiciously.

“How would you like a couple of partners in Ruby Lode?”

Frink threw Counter a questioning glance. “Partners?”

“Yep,” Hepp replied. “We came here to buy Ruby Lode, but we only had ninety dollars between the two of us.”

Frink rubbed his head. Boy, I know what that feels like.

“I don’t think so,” Frink heard Counter tell the stranger.

He jammed his finger in Counter’s side and Counter yelped. “What’s that for?”

He shushed him with a wave of his hand. “Counter, can I have a word with you?”

Counter stared at Frink and waited for him to speak.

“In private,” Frink ground out through clenched teeth. “Please give us a minute, gentlemen.” Frink grabbed Counter’s arm and escorted him outside.

When they reached the porch of the town hall, he stood with his hands on his hips. “What in tarnation do you think you’re doing?”

“What do you mean, what am I doing?” Counter snapped. “I’m protecting our investment and keeping us from going into business with two thugs we just met.”

“But Count, that’s fifty dollars,” he whined. “I could give some of the money back that I borrowed, and we could still have the mine. Come on, if that mine is half as full of gold as you say it is, there’s more than enough for all of us.”

“You’ve got a point, Frink, but we don’t even know these guys. How do we know they’re not going to shoot us, bury our bodies, and take our deed?”

“The mine will be in our names, and if and when we hit gold, we’ll put half the mine in their name. If he doesn’t agree, we try something else, but I don’t want to pass up that money.” Frink studied the all-too-familiar look on Counter’s face that appeared when he was ciphering on something. He finally used what worked every time: his pleading eyes.

“Oh, okay, fine,” Counter snapped. “But I’m not gonna give it to them too easily. And if they double cross us, I’m the one who’s gonna hang you from a tall tree with a short rope.” Counter gave him a warning look. “Right after I plant my boot in your ass.”

Counter turned and stormed back into the town hall without waiting for his response, and Frink hurried to catch up. Hepp and Shull remained where they’d left them.

“I’m sorry, gentlemen, but—”

“What if I sweeten the pot?” Hepp quickly interjected.

“I’m listening.”

Frink cleared his throat and gave Counter a stern look.

“I mean, we’re listening.”

Frink folded his arms. “That’s better.”

“Shut up and let the man talk, Frink.”

“What do you have for equipment?”

“We’ve got what we need,” Counter snapped defensively.

“Is that so?” Hepp asked. “Do you have poppet heads and winches?”

“Uh no, not yet, but—”

“Do you have rails, ore carts, picks, cold chisels, and lanterns?” Shull interrupted.

Counter’s eyes got big as saucers, and Frink did his best to hide his shock. He wasn’t about to give away how completely unprepared they were. They had little more than a few picks and some worn chisels.

“Shull and I have all the tools we’ll ever need to break this mine,” Hepp informed them. “This is not our first time at the rodeo. We’re experienced miners.”

Frink glanced at Counter. “Under one condition,” he said.

Looking a little distrustful, Hepp said, “Okay, we’re listening.”

“The mine stays in our name until we hit a vein and strike it big. Then we put the mine in all our names.”

Shull looked back and forth between Counter and Frink. “No deal,” he said, and then turned to his partner. “Hepp, I told you this was a stupid idea. Let’s go.” Shull headed for the door. He looked over his shoulder and added, “These boys are amateurs and we don’t have time for amateurs.”

“Sorry to have wasted your time, boys,” Hepp said, tipping his hat in their direction. “Good luck with Ruby Lode.”

Hepp turned and walked away. It was Counter’s turn to poke Frink in the ribs. “We need those tools, Frink. Stop him. I think they’re on the up-and-up.”

Frink rolled his eyes and sighed, “I sure hope you’re right. Hepp, wait.”

Hepp stopped and turned around.

“Okay. You get twenty-five percent ownership right now and the other twenty-five percent when we strike it big.”

Hepp turned around again and started for the door.

“Okay, okay, you win,” Frink conceded. “Fifty percent right now for fifty dollars in cash.”

Hepp smiled genuinely. “I’m not interested in winning. I’m interested in what’s fair.” Hepp went out to the porch and joined Shull. Frink and Counter followed, the four men shook hands, and just like that, they were in business together.

After paying for their new gold mine, the four new Ruby Lode mine owners walked down to the local watering hole to seal the deal. They shared a bottle of whiskey and started to get to know one another. Frink and Counter explained they shared a room over the post office in Boulder, and they’d saved every penny they could, borrowing the rest from family to buy Ruby Lode. Hepp and Shull, both single men, explained they owned a farm together in Lyons, just seven miles outside of town in the opposite direction, and they’d had moderate success mining both gold and silver over the years.

With the whiskey slowly loosening tongues, Frink listened with interest as Hepp confessed he and Shull had met an old drunk at this very saloon who had told them his family owned Ruby Lode up until the state seized the mine for back property taxes owed. Hepp told the story of how he and Shull had pumped the old guy full of whiskey, and over the course of a few hours, the guy admitted he and his grandfather had first started mining the lode in 1906. When they dug the first shaft into the mine, they had seen gold in Ruby Lode. The old cuss also explained they hadn’t been able to afford the equipment needed to dig and stabilize the first shaft properly, but they had kept digging as best they could, resulting in a dangerously unstable shaft at a pretty steep thirty-degree angle. Mining the shaft was difficult and risky, but they knew there was gold so they kept going. At one point they hit what they assumed was the tip of a major vein and pulled enough gold out of the shaft to buy the equipment they needed to dig and properly shore a second shaft, hoping to hit the gold midvein. Unfortunately, they never hit that vein, but that old man swore the gold is there. Before he could find the vein, his grandfather passed away, and his family lost the mine to the state. He never told anyone about the gold, hoping one day he’d find a way to get the mine back, but he never did.

Frink watched Counter’s eyes grow wide with excitement while listening to Hepp and Shull’s story. When they were finished, Frink confessed he and Counter had first become interested in the mine after hearing the identical tale from the same old man.

“That old man gets around,” Frink chuckled. “Wonder how many more people he’s told his story to?”

“Doesn’t really matter none.” Hepp raised his glass in salute before taking a sip. “The mine belongs to us now.”

“Let’s just hope the old guy is right about the gold.” Shull shook his head. “We’re all betting on it.”

Suddenly the table got quiet, and their moods took a somber turn. Probably a combination of the whiskey and the shared admission that they’d each spent their last penny based on the ramblings of an old drunk bellied up to this very bar.

Counter downed his last shot of whiskey and closed his eyes as he enjoyed the slight burn. “Well, if he’s not right, we’re all doomed.”

With the getting-to-know-you phase clearly out of the way and the celebratory mood over, the realization of what they’d just done began to set in. Frink’s right knee started to bounce, and goose bumps ran up and down his spine. He was suddenly very anxious about the days ahead and ready to get started. The four men quickly made plans to meet the next morning at Hepp and Shull’s farm to get the needed equipment. They’d take the equipment up to Ruby Lode and at the same time, survey the shafts for safety and stability. After saying his goodnights, each man left looking forward to getting to work on the mine.

The next morning, following the directions given to them, Frink and Counter rode the seven miles or so to Hepp and Shull’s farm, and together they loaded what equipment they could fit into Hepp’s wagon and departed for the two- to three-hour ride to Ruby Lode. When they arrived, the four men stood at the base of the mountain and looked up at an almost vertical peak. There stood the capped entrance to their new mine. The capping was a ten foot by twenty foot platform with a shed roof built over the mine’s opening.

Frink looked up the mountain in disbelief. “How in the hell are we going to get the equipment up there?”

Shull gave him a knowing glance and a jab to the ribs. “The same way we’d get ore, or in our case, gold, out of the mine: by pulley system.”

Frink eyed the heavy equipment with uncertainty. “Hope you have some mighty strong rope,” he commented with a shrug.

Hepp suggested he and Counter unload the equipment while Frink and Shull climbed up to the mine’s entrance with ropes and pulleys over their shoulders. The climb was slow going, but the last hundred yards were the toughest. Frink and Shull crawled up the almost vertical peak on all fours, mostly holding on to vegetation to keep them from sliding back down the mountain. When they reached the mine’s entrance, Frink watched as Shull secured the pulleys to a large rock covered by the old wooden structure protecting the mine’s opening. He slipped ropes through each one and told Frink to stay put.

“I’m going to lower myself back down the mountainside with the ends of the ropes. No sense both of us risking our lives,” Shull teased and winked.

Frink sat on the large rock and stretched his legs out. “Be my guest. I’ll gladly sit right here and watch ya work.”

Frink gasped when Shull lost his footing and started sliding down the mountain before digging his boots in and stopping his descent downward. He let out the breath he didn’t know he was holding when Shull gave him a weak smile and thumbs up before continuing down the mountain. He watched anxiously until Shull finally reached the bottom. Shull, Counter, and Hepp secured item after item to the ropes and hoisted the equipment slowly but surely to Frink’s awaiting arms. He stacked and organized the equipment as it came up, and just as the sun dipped over the mountain, the full wagon of equipment had been completely hoisted up and organized. Frink stretched his overworked back before heading down to join the others.


HEPP stood and wiped the sweat from his brow with his red work handkerchief. “One more load tomorrow and that should do it.” He shoved the handkerchief into his back pocket. “No need for you boys to ride the fifteen miles back home when you can just follow us and stay at our place. It’s nothing special, but it’s clean. Shull can cook up a mess of something and y’all can spend the night. That way we can get an early start in the morning.”

Frink looked at Counter, and he nodded his head in agreement. The sooner he filled his belly and laid his head down for the night, the better.

“That’d be mighty fine, Hepp,” Frink said appreciatively. “Much obliged.”

When they again reached Shull and Hepp’s farm, Hepp, Frink, and Counter tended to the horses while Shull went into the house and rustled up something for them to eat. Soon, all four men were cleaned up and sitting down to a dinner of hearty beef stew and warm bread.

Frink took a bite of warm buttered bread. “This is awful good.”

“I’ll say,” Counter added. “Where’d you learn to cook like this, Shull?”

“I was born back east, and my momma died when I was thirteen. I had two younger brothers and my daddy had to work, so that left only me to take care of the young’uns,” Shull explained. “You do what you gotta do to get by, so I had no choice but to learn.”

Counter and Frink watched as Hepp gave Shull a warm smile in an almost proud but loving way.

“Wow, Shull,” Counter added. “That couldn’t have been easy.”

“’Tweren’t easy. But nothing worth nothing in life is—easy, I mean,” Shull admitted. “I did what I had to do to give my brothers the best chance I could give them. Hell, I was their maw and paw all rolled up into one most of the time. Especially the youngest. He was only a year old when Maw died.”

Counter had a confused look on his face. “How did you know how to take care of a young’n?”

“I’d watched my Maw with both babies and did mostly what she did. Pretty soon I learned if you keep them fed and clean, most of time they’re pretty happy, unless they’re sick or something.”

Hepp cleared the dishes and they all pitched in until everything in the tiny kitchen was clean and organized.

Frink stretched and yawned. “Where do you want us to sleep?”

Hepp looked at Shull with a questioning look and Shull nodded.

“There’s an extra bedroom upstairs next to ours if you boys don’t mind sharin’.”

It was Counter and Frink’s turn to look at each other.

Frink’s eyes widened. “You men sleep together?”

“Yep, for the last twelve years,” Shull confessed. “You got a problem with that?”

“I… I guess not,” Frink stammered uneasily. “You boys sodomites?”

“That’s not a term we like to use,” Hepp said with distaste. “But yep, I guess so.”

Up to this point, Counter hadn’t said anything. Frink watched as he rocked from one foot to the other, nervously looking back and forth from Frink to Hepp to Shull.

“Counter?” Shull asked. “You have anything to say?”

“Uh, no, sir, just shocked is all. Never met a real sodomite before.”

“Sure you have, son, you just don’t know it. This is not something we talk about with many folks. Our ways are not popular with most people, so we keep to ourselves.”

“But you guys don’t seem like sodomites,” Frink said curiously. “I mean, you’re big, strong, and manly. Everyone thinks sodomites wear dresses and have pretty hair and act like girls.”

Hepp and Shull both laughed at that one. “How old are you boys?” Hepp asked.

“I’m nineteen.”

“And I’m twenty,” Counter added.

“The way you describe what we are is what most people think when they think of sodomites, so no one ever suspects us,” Hepp said. “We’ve lived here for going on eight years and no one we know has ever questioned our manhood. We don’t rub our lifestyle in folks’ faces and everyone leaves us alone.”

“Are you afraid of burning in Hell?” Counter blurted.

Hepp looked at Shull before turning a questioning look toward Counter. “Why do you think we’re going to burn in Hell?”

“When I was a kid, I remember our preacher in church preaching about Sodom and Gomorrah and how all sodomites would eventually burn in Hell for their sins. He said sodomy ain’t natural and is against God.”

“Son, faith is faith, and Hepp and me, we live good, clean lives. We ain’t done nothing against God. Besides, if he sends us to Hell for loving one another, then his Heaven is not a place we want to be anyway.”

Hepp continued before Frink or Counter could respond. “You boys are going to believe what you want to believe, so filling your head with our beliefs won’t do anyone any good.”

“Look,” Shull interrupted. “The only reason we said anything at all is because we felt that if we were going to be in business together, we wanted to be honest with you. That’s all.”

“Much obliged,” Frink said. “I don’t personally believe all that fire and brimstone talk, and I don’t really know where sodomites go when they die, but faith aside, it’s not for me to say what two people do behind closed doors.” Frink looked at Counter, hoping he wouldn’t continue down his current line of questioning.

“Yeah, what he said,” Counter agreed with a curt nod.

“Then that settles it,” Hepp said. “No need to bring it up ever again.”

“Let me show you boys to your room,” Shull motioned towards the stairs. “We need to be loaded and ready to go at first light.”


FRINK and Counter stripped and crawled into bed like old habit. They slept in the same bed every night in their little room above the post office and had shared a bed many times before that as kids during their twelve years of friendship. Frink thought about the many times they’d had relations in the quiet of the night, starting out exploring like boys do when they were kids, but continuing on well into their young adult life. Counter had never once spoken of what they’d done, nor had he ever acknowledged the feelings Frink knew hung between them, but after both tossed and turned for quite some time, Frink was the first to speak. “Count, you awake?”

“Yep, I’m up.”

“I know we’ve slept together hundreds of times since we were kids, but lying next to you feels different to me tonight.”

“I know what you mean,” Counter admitted. “Maybe it’s because we’re sleeping so close to sodomites.”

Frink hesitated and then asked the question that had been plaguing him for so many years. “Do you think we’re sodomites?”

Counter sat up in bed. “Why in tarnation would you ask that?”

“Well, because we’ve… uh, slept together so many times.”

“That doesn’t make us sodomites.”

“Doesn’t it?” Frink suggested.

“Heck no! You’ve got to do stuff,” Counter insisted.

There was silence for a few minutes. “Count?”

“Yeah?”

Frink opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it. “Uh… never mind. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Frink.”

“WELL, that went pretty well,” Shull said as he snuggled against Hepp’s broad chest.

“I guess so, but Counter didn’t seem as okay with us as Frink seemed to be.”

“Yeah, I picked up on that too.”

“Shull, have you ever noticed the way Frink looks at Counter?”

“Yeah, I have. Like the sun rises and sets just to shine on him. Just like the way I look at you,” Shull admitted.

“You think…?”

“Who knows, but those boys have known each other since they were kids, and we all know what kids do when they reach puberty.”

Hepp chuckled. “I know what you mean, but I guess time will tell about those two. The more we work together and get to know each other better, maybe they’ll get used to us and relax and just accept us.”

“I sure hope so, ’cause I like them both. They’re good boys.”

“Me too. ’Night, Shull.”

“’Night, Hepp. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Texas Wedding
Chapter One
Jack slid his arms around Riley from behind and pressed his cheek to the space between broad shoulders. He couldn’t stop himself from moving his hands under the soft T-shirt material and caressing the warm skin. Touching Riley was an addiction.

“You all done?” he asked.

Riley turned in Jack’s hold, the laundry in his hands crushing between them.

“It’s like these tiny T-shirts multiply,” Riley groused. “I turn my back for one minute and suddenly there’s another ten of the damn things.”

Jack smiled up at his husband, at the narrowing of his beautiful hazel eyes and the stubborn set of his mouth. Then he released his hold of his waist and instead cradled his face.

“It was your idea to sort out the twins’ old clothes,” he reminded Riley.

“I wanted to box it away….”

“We can do it together at the weekend.”

“I want to do it today—”

“It’s a Tuesday.” Jack interrupted Riley’s reasons why. “I thought you said you had that report to read from Tom?”

Riley huffed a little. “I can’t concentrate.”

“So, you’re sorting clothes?”

“Is that a bad thing?” Riley sounded so defensive.

Jack sighed. “What are you avoiding?”

Riley raised an eyebrow, and Jack couldn’t help but press a kiss to his lips. After all this time together, he had learned these weird domestic chores Riley undertook were usually a way of avoiding things he didn’t want to do. Whether it was Riley’s way of thinking about things, or pure procrastination, Jack didn’t know.

“I have a shareholder meeting the first week of February.” Riley finally said.

“I know. I got the same letter, but I wasn’t planning on going. Why will this be different from any other meeting?” Jack was confused. Hayes Oil meetings were dry and boring, and he’d survived the only two he’d attended by slouching back in a chair directly opposite Riley. He would eat as many of the complimentary mints as he could manage and gently disrupt the meeting by rustling the wrappers. This never failed to make Riley smile. Mostly Jack conned Josh into going, or gave Riley his proxy. Still, when he did go, he loved nothing better than insolently lazing around and being all cowboy in the room full of suits. Inevitably, this led to hot sex with Riley, who couldn’t keep his eyes off Jack throughout the entire meeting.

“I have something to admit,” Riley said with a sigh. He eased himself away from Jack and leaned back against the cabinet. “Dad has appointed this new manager to the team, and we have a history.”

Jack huffed a laugh. “Riley, you have a history with so many people, I lost count.”

Riley looked affronted for a second, but that emotion didn’t slip into a ready smile, so Jack realized this was serious. Jack stood next to Riley and waited for the man he loved, to admit what the hell was going on. In fact, Riley had been weird for a few days: less quick to smile, less easy to poke at, in a hurry to go find a quiet space away from everyone.

“Not like that,” Riley said. “The woman’s name is Charlotte Harrold, and her dad is Josiah.”

Jack nodded. He and Josiah had their own kind of history, one where Josiah had tried courting Donna and failed, where Josiah looked down at Jack, and where Jack refused to give a rat’s ass. The fucker had blocked Hayes Oil on several occasions and didn’t have a high opinion of Riley, nor of Riley and Jack. Add to that, Tom, Riley’s right-hand man at work, had unfortunately had a run-in with Josiah Jr., Charlotte’s brother. Too much history between the Hayes and Harrold families.

“Why would Jim hire her, then?” Jack paused to think about what he knew concerning Charlotte. “I remember her being a bitch with daddy issues.”

Riley shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, I asked him, and he said she’s good at what she does, and that she’s changed, whatever that means. Oh, and I should give her as much of a chance as people gave me.”

“Cryptic. So you think she’s going to cause trouble.”

Riley looked at Jack sharply. “Hell no. I know her work, and she’ll be an asset. It’s only….”

Jack tensed. “You slept with her.”

“Jesus, Jack,” Riley said instantly. “No way. She was Jeff’s. I mean she and Jeff were having an affair. He called her Charlie, and I damn well walked in on them once. The wedding photos were still wet at the printer’s, and there he was, fucking around on Lisa.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, oh. And we’re going to be in the same room as her. All I can remember is that Jeff was balls-deep in Charlie, and he had his hands—” Riley demonstrated with his hands in front of him in a ring. “—around her neck.”

Jack immediately realized what the problem was. The joined families, whether Campbell or Hayes, had quietly consigned Jeff and everything he had done to something never to be talked about. Riley never shared cute childhood stories where he, Eden, and Jeff were friends; no tales of brotherly misadventures. To Jack’s mind, Jeff had been born a sadistic bastard, and likely there were a lot of stories Riley hadn’t told him about the kind of things Jeff had done to both Riley and Eden.

“Seeing her makes you face what he did,” Jack said. He reached over and held Riley’s hand, lacing their fingers together and squeezing. This was what he did best. He was there for Riley, supporting him, holding him up, knowing as much as he needed to know, and still being there for the man who was his other half.

Riley sighed and bumped shoulders with Jack. “Yeah,” he whispered.

“So your dad doesn’t know that Jeff and Charlie were…?”

“No. I’m sure I’m the only one.”

“Lisa didn’t know?”

Riley squeezed back. “She always knew he was unfaithful, but with Charlie, no, I don’t think so.”

For a second, Jack allowed the words to settle. Lisa was damaged by much more than physical pain. She had a world of hurt where her dead husband was concerned, not least of which was the end result of what he did to her. The secret she carried with her was too awful for Jack to contemplate knowing how she lived with it.

“We don’t see enough of Lisa and the kids,” he said.

That was true. Lisa hadn’t visited in a while. Although to be fair, whenever Jack and Riley organized a family gathering of any sort, they always invited her. She’d moved to San Antonio with her fiancĂ©, Ed, and was building a place for herself and the kids well away from the life she’d had here. Luke was sixteen, Annabelle coming up for nineteen. They weren’t at the ranch as often as Josh’s kids. They had lives of their own, but still, Jack was all about family.

“We’ll get them over, or maybe we’ll go visit them,” Jack said. He wasn’t going to let Riley focus on this one thing to distract himself from the central issue. “Back to the meeting. When you sit there, it will be all business, and if she comes over to talk to you, you smile, nod, and put on the best goddamn Riley act you can.”

“You’re not planning on being there.”

“I hate them,” Jack said, then he felt guilty. Riley was clearly concerned about the meeting, and he should make the effort. “I can try.”

“Don’t say that.” Riley smiled at Jack. “As much as I like it when you do that ‘I don’t care, I’m a hot, dusty cowboy’ thing, I seriously think you should stay away.”

“Yeah?”

Riley looked at him again. This time, the shadows had disappeared from his eyes. “It’s like torture for you.”

“Tell me more about how you like the cowboy thing,” Jack growled.

Riley grinned. “When you push the chair back and you kind of sprawl there, with your thumbs in your belt. You smile and nod when you need to and all I want to do is crawl over the table and ride you right there in the meeting.”

Jack’s cock swelled and pressed against his jeans. Riley’s voice was husky and low and sent every molecule of blood south.

“Jesus, Riley.”

“Sometimes you unwrap those stupid little mints, and you press one to your lips, and then you suck it in.”

“I like the mints.”

“All I can imagine is my cock in your mouth, and I’m so freaking hard I can’t concentrate on the numbers.”

Jack wriggled to get comfortable, and he had to press his free hand to his zip to ease some of the pressure. “Like it’s easy for me,” he muttered. “You in your suit, and those ties you wear, and all I can imagine is ripping it all off, tying you down and fucking you into tomorrow. That’s the only reason I go.”

Riley moved so quickly Jack didn’t have time to draw breath. He straddled Jack and pushed him back on the bed.

“Carol.” Jack mentioned their nanny’s name with the last remaining moments of having the presence of mind. “People…,” he added as a warning, as Riley stole his words with the deepest, dirtiest, messiest kiss he’d had since the last time they’d been in the barn.

Riley pulled back enough so Jack could look into his eyes. “Barn,” Riley said. “Now.”

Riley scrambled up and away, unbuttoning his jeans and adjusting himself. “Now,” he repeated.

With determination, they made it out of the house. Hayley was at school, Max out with Robbie and the horses, the twins were happy with Carol, so they had nothing to stop them. It didn’t matter it was ten in the morning, this was happening.

“Hey, boss,” Robbie called as Jack stepped outside.

Jack stopped so suddenly that Riley had to do some nifty footwork to try not to walk into the back of him. He didn’t quite manage it, and instead they met in a slam of limbs.

“Fuck,” Riley muttered.

“Hi, Robbie,” Jack said. He needed to cover the fact that he was hard and thanked the heavens that Riley had tugged out his shirt.

“Starting on the porch today,” Robbie said. He was carrying a box full of tools. “Lumber got delivered at the ass crack of dawn.” He gestured toward Jack and Riley’s barn, at the wood piled in front of the door.

Fuck. Whose idea was it to get a porch added to the main house?

Yours, you idiot.

Liam was next to him, a saw in one hand and a bucket of nails in the other. Liam didn’t seem to want to stand still, restlessly moving his weight from one foot to the other. Liam still wasn’t entirely comfortable talking to Jack one-on-one, but Jack didn’t have time to think about that now. He’d forgotten that today the lumber was arriving. Jesus. Fuck.

“Good. Riley and I are… inspecting… stuff.” Way to go with the lack of the English language.

“Stuff,” Riley repeated.

Robbie tilted his head a little and damn it if there wasn’t a slight smile on his face. “Okay, boss,” he said, then he and Liam carried on to the old barn and the woodpile.

Jack thought for a moment, then grabbed Riley’s hand, and in the space of a few minutes, they were leaving the ranch house and heading out on horseback. People were around; people were here: visitors to the riding center, people working. Along with kids, nannies, moms, dads, siblings. Hoping to find peace, Jack deliberately turned Solo to the east and into the parts of the ranch he knew Riley hadn’t seen, the rougher parts of the acreage that were fenced off.

Riley followed. Alex was a little skittish this morning until they were in a smooth canter and heading up into the thick, lush grassland to the east of the ranch. Ten minutes of riding, with no talking, and they reached a stand of trees. A small tributary from the main water supply to the Double D house carved through the coppice. It was a typically cool, fresh January day.

Jack dismounted and tied Solo off, grabbing Riley’s hand as soon as Riley had secured Alex. He tugged Riley into the trees, to the one place that Jack knew they would get privacy. In his pocket, his tight pocket, he had lube. He was stripping before they stopped walking, and by the time they reached the smooth grassed area in the shade, he was naked and a trail of clothes lay behind them. Jack hoped to hell there were no armadillos in hiding or snakes waiting to pounce.

Jack attempted to lay out the blanket he’d grabbed as he saddled Solo, but a naked Riley jumped him and tackled him to the ground, and he knew this wasn’t going to be gentle lovemaking. This was going to be raw, and Jack needed the connection like he needed his next breath. He always did.

Riley covered him, pressing him into the grass and the rucked-up blanket, and kissed him. The kisses were more of the same—hot, messy, deep, with no words. This was heat and fire, and Jack rolled so he was on top. He needed something; he wanted Riley in the worst way.

“I want you to fuck me,” Riley demanded.

Jack nearly lost it there and then. Riley asking him to push inside and—

Jack kissed and bit Riley’s nipples, laving them as they pebbled, sucking marks of possession into Riley’s tan skin. In answer, Riley arched up into Jack and, with his nails, dug biting crescents into Jack’s back. They were nothing but sensation, and Jack wanted to claw his way inside Riley.

He swallowed Riley’s cock with no finesse, no gentle licks, nothing soft and slow. Only when Riley slapped at him with a protest that he was close did Jack release the sucking. Without hesitation, he pressed his lubed finger against Riley.

“Tight,” he ordered.

Riley clenched, then released. They’d worked this out—that clenching the muscle was enough for it to loosen. They knew each other that well. Jack pushed in the first finger, letting Riley adjust, waiting until Riley rocked against it, and he never moved it once. More lube, a second finger, a third, and Riley was begging now. Jack swallowed his cock again, as deep as he could, pinning Riley to his fingers and scraping his teeth gently against Riley’s soft skin. Riley pushed him up, forced him away, and curled his spine. Jack went to his knees, using his thighs to position Riley, then pushed inside his lover. The sight of Riley near slamming his head back on the grass and wool, exposing his neck with a groan of pain and need leaving his mouth, was almost too much.

“Riley, fuck,” Jack gasped. He thrust inside, walking a little closer on his knees, stones pressing into his skin. He didn’t care. He was the other part of Riley; they fit like they were meant to be. He didn’t move again but let Riley press, move and writhe and Jack stole kisses all the time. “I love you, I fucking love you. Riley… shit….”

Riley reached up above his head and grasped at tussocks of grass, holding his upper half still, forcing himself down on Jack’s cock his eyes open and intensely focused. “Touch me,” Riley begged when it was obvious he was close.

Jack balanced himself on one arm, reaching for Riley’s cock. The tightening of Riley’s muscles, the ebb and flow of pressure, and Jack was fucking into Riley’s heaving body with a shout of completion. He stilled as Riley groaned, cursed and shot white stripes over his chest.

“I love you, Jack,” Riley forced past his kiss-bitten lips. “Love you.”

They stayed joined, kissing and exchanging heated words of love, until Jack softened enough to pull free. He used his discarded boxers to wipe at the come, knowing that Riley would need more than that after Jack had come inside him. Riley wouldn’t be comfortable, but it didn’t look like he cared for now. He was blissed-out, flat on the ground, half on the twisted blanket and half on the grass.

“I needed that,” Jack murmured. He flopped to lie next to Riley, tugging at the blanket so they were at least both on it. He held Riley’s hand, “You think it will ever stop?”

“What? This?” Riley gestured with his free hand. “Making love under the blue sky in the middle of the morning?”

“No,” Jack said thoughtfully.

Riley turned his head to look at him. “Then what?”

“The burning. To be with you, to want you, to look at you. Think we’ll ever stop?”

Riley smiled, and the smile reached his eyes, which were more green than brown today. “It burns in me as well.”

“Always?”

“Yeah. All the time. It isn’t only making love. It’s sleeping next to you, looking at you, seeing our kids. It’s everything.”

Jack squeezed Riley’s hand. “Hetboy, you’re my everything.”

“Back at ya, cowboy.”

Chapter Two
They lay there for maybe thirty minutes, then laughed and joked as they collected the trail of clothes. It was only as they got dressed that Jack recalled something he’d meant to do before. They could do that something, seeing as they were this side of the ranch.

“Can I show you something?”

Riley twisted his hands around Jack’s neck and locked them in place. “You already did,” he smirked. “Wanna go again?”

“I’m not sixteen anymore,” Jack said, but he kissed Riley and enjoyed the feeling of holding and kissing.

“So what did you want to show me?” Riley finally asked.

Jack climbed onto Solo’s back, and Riley followed suit onto Alex. Together the two men left their little haven of loud sex, and Jack joined a trail up and over to the acres beyond. They came to the stone building quite suddenly. Over a rise in the ground, nestled in a grassy hollow, was the house Jack had called the Ghost House when he was young. He’d done that to freak out Beth, and only because Josh had done the same thing to him, but the Ghost House was what it remained.

“What is it?” Riley looked left and right. “This is still DD land, right?”

Jack tied off Solo. “Yep, all ours.” He waited for Riley to dismount. “Let’s go look.”

The house looked as solid as Jack remembered. “It has its own access road of sorts,” Jack explained with a wave to an overgrown area to the front of the house. “It was the original ranch, or so we think. I’m pulling the records to find out for sure, but it would be way back before the land belonged to my family. Me ’n’ Josh called it the Ghost House.”

“Does it have a resident ghost, then?” Riley teased. “A grizzly old cowboy with chewing tobacco and a six-shooter?”

“We only did it to tease Beth. Didn’t want her up in all our boy’s business when she was little.”

Riley huffed a laugh. “Seriously? Poor Beth.” He stepped closer to the nearest wall and examined the stones. “Seems to me this would be exactly the right place for a ghost.” He looked through the space where there had been a window. “It’s kind of spooky.” He wiggled his fingers at Jack and let out a ghostly wooh, edged with laughter. Jack couldn’t help himself, he immediately pulled Riley close and held him tight. When Riley laughed and teased, Jack fell more in love with his husband.

Riley got with the plan, closing his arms around Jack and holding tight. They stood that way in the place for the longest time until Riley released his tight grip and kissed Jack deeply. They kissed and hugged, and Jack relaxed into Riley’s embrace.

“You okay?” Riley murmured.

Jack nodded. “Just an awful lot of memories in this place, y’know. Sometimes Dad would come out to find us, back when we were real tiny, and he’d play cowboys with us. I remember those days as happy.”

“Before he….”

“Yeah,” Jack finished. “Before the Hayes shit got inside his head and wouldn’t leave him.” Riley stiffened next to him and Jack immediately regretted his words. “I didn’t mean to say that.”

“Yeah,” Riley began softly. “You did, and it’s true. I wish there could be a way I could rewind everything and make it right.”

Jack frowned. What he and Riley had? That was making it right. All of it.

“Riley, we made it right the minute you said you loved me.”

Riley said nothing for the longest time, but when he finally spoke, his words were filled with emotion.

“If there had never been a Hayes-Campbell feud, we wouldn’t be together.”

They kissed again, and this time Jack pushed Riley back against the solid wall and made the kiss mean way more than I love you. He pressed his weight against Riley and felt the exhalation of Riley’s satisfied sigh against his lips. When they finally separated, Jack was so hard, it was like they hadn’t just made love under the trees. He wanted more, and it seemed like Riley did too, judging by how hard he was.

“I can never get enough of you,” Jack said.

Riley cradled Jack’s face. “And I can’t get enough of you.” He looked down at the ground around them. “We could….”

Jack grimaced. “I like the idea of a mattress this time.”

Riley snorted a laugh. “Thank fuck. I was wondering how my knees would survive.”

Jack kissed the laughter from Riley’s lips, then with reluctance he pulled back.

“So tell me about the place,” Riley asked.

“Don’t think it had a dramatic past. Nothing more than it got too small for the family, or they decided they wanted the flatland by where the ranch house is now.”

Riley pressed a hand to the stone. “But it’s old?”

“Yeah. But built to last.” They stepped farther inside, and Jack could see the sky where the roof had long since disintegrated into piles of kindling on the floor. “A new roof, utilities—we could make something of this.”

Riley leaned against an internal doorjamb where once there would have been a door hanging. “Make something of it? You mean us moving here?”

Riley sounded intrigued rather than concerned.

“Not exactly.”

“Tell me what’s on your mind.”

Jack worried at his lip. He’d been having thoughts about this building for a long time. Niggling thoughts that wouldn’t leave him alone. “It’s difficult to explain. Well, not difficult, but it would need investment, maybe more than the riding school, even.”

Riley didn’t appear worried by that. “Go on.”

“You remember when I was in Laredo for the court case?”

“Yeah, of course.” Riley looked puzzled as well he should. Jack was starting this story a long way back.

“I met three men there. Actually one was still a boy. They were the witnesses that were in the dock with Liam in the case against Hank Castille. I put some finances in place, started myself down the road for helping them. Only, it didn’t happen.” This was the difficult part. How would Riley react to what he said next? Jack had dropped the ball because he’d been so wrapped up in Riley and the kidnapping; so much so that everything had gone cold and he’d lost contact with two of the boys.

“Because you had me to worry about.” Riley’s insight into what had happened meant Jack didn’t need to explain. Riley didn’t sound pissed or guilty or any one of a million emotions Jack had considered. He should have had faith in his husband, known that Riley would be above all that now.

“Some,” Jack said.

“I get that. So what do you want to do now?”

“I can’t stop thinking about them. About why, when they were thrown out of their own homes, did they end up at the Triple K? Why had they been drawn to a ranch, then put in such a vulnerable position with Hank Castille, when they were just kids?” He took off his Stetson and ran his hands through his hair. It needed a cut; it was long and ever so slightly irritating. “Clearly they wanted to work on a ranch, and okay, it may have been because ranches have casual help, I get that. But, those three men and Liam, they loved the ranch. So I’m not saying I can fix the whole damn world, but I thought we could offer them a place here.”

Actually that was what he’d been thinking for a long time. Sitting in that courtroom had scarred him. Hank’s abuse of those young men had left a legacy in each of them that had to be so hard. Thankfully Hank had been found guilty and was serving his time. Jack never once hoped that Hank had it easy in prison because he’d grown fond of Liam, the fourth boy he knew had been hurt by Hank. Liam was working on the ranch now, and surely the other three could have work here if they wanted.

“The three men from the trial? There’s always room for more at the D,” Riley said.

Jack nodded. Sometimes he felt like Riley could read his thoughts.

“Maybe those three,” Jack said. “Maybe others. I haven’t thought this through as much as I should have.”

“You mean you want somewhere for kids who have nowhere else to go. A place like the one Steve works at.”

Jack glanced at Riley, saw the thoughtful expression in his hazel eyes. He could do this without Riley because he felt that strongly, but having him backing this play would make Jack’s life a lot easier. No, that wasn’t right. Having Riley love him and support him was what Jack craved.

“I thought we could maybe work with Steve, offer places. I know we give money, but that’s easy for us. I want to do something more proactive and concrete.”

Jack stopped. He thought that maybe he sounded like a bit of an idiot, as if voicing the proactive stuff made it seem like what he could do would make a difference? Kinda arrogant, actually. Doubt crept into his thoughts, and Riley would pick up on that. So he forged ahead positively.

“I got the impression from their testimony that all three wanted to work on the ranch, that’s why it was so easy for Hank to take advantage. They thought they’d landed on their feet, and look at them all now, scarred by what happened to them.” Jack could remember the three witnesses. The oldest, with the ill-fitting clothes, who’d had to be helped from the stand; the middle guy in a designer suit; and the kid who left with Family Services, his expression bleak.

“I don’t know how they survived,” Riley began.

“I’m not sure any of them have. The oldest, Kyle, is working minimum wage, living in this tiny pay-for-the-night room. He won’t take any money, and he won’t talk to me. The other two have disappeared entirely. I only have an address for Kyle.” He shrugged. Gabriel was evading all searches, and Danny went off the grid as soon as he turned eighteen a couple of weeks back.

“Okay, I’m not going to pretend I don’t worry. Have you thought about talking to Steve at the shelter? Maybe get him to use his contacts?”

“Already done. I asked for his help tracing the three of them, and he gave me the name of a couple of PIs, and also put feelers out. They have so many resources already in place.”

“What did Steve think of your ideas?”

Riley still sounded wary. “He calmed me down a lot, talked me out of an all-singing, all-dancing place with answers for everyone. He said to start small and keep him in the loop.”

“So that takes some of the pressure off you?”

“Yes. Off me and off us as a family, but I can’t promise it won’t swallow some of my time.” Jack had to be brutally honest. Otherwise, he’d be trapping Riley into an agreement on something he didn’t really want.

“Okay,” Riley began, “we start by finding the first of your victims.” He frowned as he said that, clearly uncomfortable with the word. “Then we talk to planners and get this place sorted? Or maybe we should do that first?”

Relief filled Jack. Riley was using the we word, and that was good. In fact, Riley was making it sound easy.

“There is one thing, though,” Riley warned. “Not thing, exactly… more person, or people.”

“Liam and Darren,” Jack said.

“Yeah, you need to talk to them about this. They’re part of the ranch now. Liam was another victim, and this is connected to Darren’s fucker of a brother, and Darren’s the first person to want to take the blame on himself….”

Riley knew what it was like to have a bastard for a brother. Unspoken was that Liam was important to them, and Liam was happy with Marcus and would probably want the past left where it was.

“I’ll talk to Liam and Darren,” Jack said. “But just between us here, you’re okay with this?”

Riley looked at him, puzzled. “You sound like you’re asking my permission?” He sounded as confused as he looked.

Jack couldn’t look Riley in the eye. “We already have the kids, and the horses, and the riding school.”

Riley crossed to Jack and held him close.

“I don’t think this will be easy at all. But you have such a big heart, and there’s room for so much more. We’ll manage to juggle it all, somehow.”

Jack hugged him back. “Really?”

“Hell, yeah. So where do we start?”

With that, Riley made everything right. 

Author Bios:
Brigham Vaughn
Brigham Vaughn has always been a voracious reader with her own stories to tell.  After many years of abandoned plots, something finally clicked.  Now she's eating, sleeping, and breathing writing and is excited to have finally figured out what she wants to be when she grows up.  In the little time that isn't spent writing or reading, she loves cooking, yoga, photography, and remodeling her ninety-year old home.  Brigham lives in Michigan with her four cats and an amazing husband who has always been her biggest champion.

Melanie Moreland
Melanie Moreland lives a happy and content life in a quiet area of Ontario with her husband and four children. Nothing means more to her than her friends and family, and she cherishes every moment spent with them.

Known as the quiet one with the big laugh, Melanie works for the sporting teams of a local university. Her (box) office job, while demanding, is rewarding as she cheers on her team to victory.

While seriously addicted to coffee, and somewhat challenged with all things computer-related and technical, she relishes baking, cooking, and trying new recipes for people to sample. She loves to throw dinner parties and socialize, and also enjoys traveling, here and abroad, but finds coming home is always the best part of any trip.

Melanie delights in writing a good romance story with some bumps along the way, but is a true believer in happily ever after. When her head isn’t buried in a book, it is bent over a keyboard, furiously typing away as her characters dictate their creative story lines to her even more inspired tales, for all to enjoy.

NR Walker
N.R. Walker is an Australian author, who loves her genre of gay romance.
She loves writing and spends far too much time doing it, but wouldn't have it any other way.

She is many things; a mother, a wife, a sister, a writer. She has pretty, pretty boys who live in her head, who don't let her sleep at night unless she gives them life with words.

She likes it when they do dirty, dirty things...but likes it even more when they fall in love.

She used to think having people in her head talking to her was weird, until one day she happened across other writers who told her it was normal.

She's been writing ever since...

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

AM Arthur
No stranger to the writing world, A.M. Arthur has been creating stories in her head since she was a child and scribbling them down nearly as long. She credits an early fascination with male friendships and "bromance" (and "The Young Riders") with her later discovery of and subsequent affair with m/m romance stories. When not writing, she can be found in her kitchen, pretending she's an amateur chef and trying to not poison herself or others with her cuisine experiments.

RJ Scott
RJ Scott has been writing since age six, when she was made to stay in at lunchtime for an infraction involving cookies. She was told to write a story and two sides of paper about a trapped princess later, a lover of writing was born.

As an avid reader herself, she can be found reading anything from thrillers to sci-fi to horror. However, her first real true love will always be the world of romance where she takes cowboys, bodyguards, firemen and billionaires (to name a few) and writes dramatic and romantic stories of love and passion between these men.

With over sixty titles to her name and counting, she is the author of the award winning book, The Christmas Throwaway. She is also known for the Texas series charting the lives of Riley and Jack, and the Sanctuary series following the work of the Sanctuary Foundation and the people it protects.

Her goal is to write stories with a heart of romance, a troubled road to reach happiness, and most importantly, that hint of a happily ever after.

Daniel A. Kaine
Daniel Alexander Kaine, born and raised in England, makes his living working as a customer service advisor.

Daniel started writing in 2009 to alleviate boredom while searching for employment. He started out writing a cheesy fanfic for his favourite anime, Naruto, in which he paired our hero with the gorgeous Sasuke in an Anita Blake-esque world of vampire hunting. To this day he still cringes at the memory of all that cheese... *shudders*

In 2010, Daniel finally worked up the courage to start writing an original story. Thus, the idea of the 'Daeva' series was born, and with the help of the NaNoWriMo boards the story became a reality.

Now Daniel has three novels and two short story out. He has many more stories in the works, and is working hard to avoid the pitchfork-brandishing horde who want the third Daeva book yesterday!

Being an out-and-proud gay man, Daniel's main characters often fall somewhere under the LGBT spectrum, though he does not limit himself solely to stories about gay romances.

When not writing, Daniel enjoys curling up with a good book, and a glass of Jack Daniels and coke. His favourite genres include fantasy of all kinds - particularly paranormal and urban fantasy - crime and M/M romance. He also has a fatal love for video games and can often be seen pretending to be a giant cow with super healing powers on World of Warcraft, saving the world from Russian ultranationalists on Call of Duty, or slaying dragons on Skyrim. He also collects and paints Warhammer 40k models. Outside of the house, he can be found bowling, canoeing and running.

Scotty Cade
Scotty Cade is the author of fourteen books published by Dreamspinner Press. He left Corporate America and twenty-five years of Marketing and Public Relations behind to buy an Inn & Restaurant on the island of Martha's Vineyard with his partner of eighteen years. He started writing stories as soon as he could read, but only four years ago for publication. When not at the Inn, you can find him on the bow of his boat writing gay romance novels with his Shetland sheepdog Mavis at his side. Being from the south and a lover of commitment and fidelity, most of his characters find their way to long healthy relationships, however long it takes them to get there. He believes that in the end, the boy should always get the boy.


Brigham Vaughn
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Melanie Moreland
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NR Walker
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Mary Calmes
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EMAIL: mmcalmes@hotmail.com

AM Arthur
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EMAIL: AM_Arthur@yahoo.com

RJ Scott
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Daniel A. Kaine
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Scotty Cade
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EMAIL: scotty@scottycade.com



Bully & Exit
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Over the Fence
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His Grandfather's Watch
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Piece of Cake
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The Truth as He Knows It
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Moments
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Slasherazzi
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The Mystery of Ruby Lode
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Texas Wedding
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