Sunday, January 10, 2016

Best Reads of 2015 Part 4


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 4 of my favorite reads of 2015 each containing my original review.

Click here to check out Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3.

Fish and Ghosts by Rhys Ford
Summary:
When his Uncle Mortimer died and left him Hoxne Grange, the family’s Gilded Age estate, Tristan Pryce knew he wasn’t going to have an easy time of it. He was to be the second generation of Pryces to serve as a caretaker for the estate, a way station for spirits on their final steps to the afterlife. The ghosts were the simple part. He’d been seeing boo-wigglies since he was a child. No, the difficult part was his own family. Determined to establish Tristan’s insanity, his loving relatives hire Dr. Wolf Kincaid and his paranormal researchers, Hellsinger Investigations, to prove the Grange is not haunted.

Skeptic Wolf Kincaid has made it his life’s work to debunk the supernatural. After years of cons and fakes, he can’t wait to reveal the Grange’s ghostly activity is just badly leveled floorboards and a drafty old house. The Grange has more than a few surprises for him, including its prickly, reclusive owner. Tristan Pryce is much less insane and much more attractive than Wolf wants to admit and when his Hellsinger team unwittingly release a ghostly serial killer on the Grange, Wolf is torn between his skepticism and protecting the man he’d been sent to discredit.


When I was searching for paranormal reads for October I asked around and Hellsinger by Rhys Ford was recommended more than once so I decided to check it out.  The connection between Tristan and Wolf jumps off the page and you can just feel it in every fiber of your being.  The secondary characters may be secondary by definition of their page time but not by their contributions to the story.  Don't even get me started on the creepiness of Winifred the ghost, shudders just thinking about it.

RATING: 

The Yearning by AJ Rose
Summary:
Eric is a fiercely passionate ghost with a complicated after-life. He’s in love with Justin, a mortician who is very much alive and very much in love with someone else, his best friend Darren. Torn between desiring Justin for himself or wanting Justin’s happiness, Eric never expected his death to be harder than his life. When darkness threatens Justin’s soul, is Eric strong enough to enlist Darren’s help, or will Justin be lost to both of them forever?


This was recommended to me over a year ago, I didn't read it right away and then it just seemed to get buried in my TBR list but now I finally got around to reading it and WOW!  Loved Eric from the very beginning.  Justin and Darren are a great pair, course they don't both agree on what kind of pair they are.  This story has everything, ghosts, friendly and evil, friendship, romance, and hotness.  The Yearning captured my heart from page one and though I would have liked it to have lasted longer, the truth is I don't think it would be as powerful if the author had added a single word.  A true balance of hope and fear will have you on the edge of your seat, you really don't want to miss this great paranormal read.
RATING: 

The Boys on the Mountain by John Inman
Summary:
Jim Brandon has a new house, and boy, is it a pip. Built high on the side of the San Diego mountains by a legendary B-movie actor of the 1930s, Nigel Letters, the house is not only gorgeous, but supposedly haunted. As a writer of horror novels, Jim couldn't be happier.

But after a string of ghostly events sets Jim’s teeth on edge and scares the bejesus out of his dog, Jim begins to dig into the house’s history. What he finds is enough to creep out anybody. Even Jim. It seems long dead Nigel Letters had a few nasty habits back in his day. And unhappily for Jim, the old bastard still has some tricks up his sleeve.

As Jim welcomes his ex, Michael, and a bevy of old friends for a two-week visit to help christen the new house, he soon realizes his old friends aren’t the only visitors who have come to call.


I don't think I will ever find the words to properly describe how great this story was.  From the very beginning I knew this was going to be a daytime kind of read because it is definitely all kinds of creepy.  Jim's perfect home is filled with mystery and even though it's solved early on, there is still a lot of work for Jim and his friends to do.    This is by far one of the best ghost stories I have ever read and the first work by John Inman, but it won't be the last.  The evil the boys on the mountain faced is not pretty and you will definitely hate Nigel Letters.  That is the best I can say without delving into spoilers that you know I just refuse to do so I'll end by saying, if you like creepy, if you like mystery, if you like paranormal than this is one you will not want to miss and if you throw in the comedic camaraderie between Jim and his friends then this is all kinds of must read.

RATING: 

Redeeming Hope by Shell Taylor
Summary:
Fifteen years ago Elijah Langley’s world came to an abrupt halt with the death of his high school boyfriend. He keeps his past—and his sexual orientation—hidden until he attends a fundraiser for The Center for HOPE, an LGBT youth center, where he meets Adam Lancaster, HOPE’s infuriatingly stubborn and sexy founder.

A survivor of a turbulent childhood, Adam understands better than most the challenges his youth face. He’s drawn to Elijah’s baby blues and devilish smile but refuses to compromise his values and climb back into the closet for anyone—not even the man showering time and money on HOPE. Months of constant flirting wear down Adam’s resolve until he surrenders to his desires, but Elijah can’t shake his demons.

When a youth from the center is brutally assaulted, Elijah must find a way to confront the fears and memories that are starting to ruin his life, so he can stand strong for those he loves.


I don't even know where to start.  First off, for a debut author this book rocks all my emotional sensors and I can't wait to see what she brings us in the future.  At the base of this story is Adam's need to help the LGTBQ+ youth but we soon learn that The Center for HOPE helps not only the youth but also the adults that are involved in the center.  When Kirstin and Kollin come into Langley Lumber with brochures for the center and an upcoming fundraiser, they have no idea how all their lives are about to change including the lives of the Langley family.  Elijah gave up on a part of himself when he lost his boyfriend many years ago, watching him find that part of himself again is an emotional roller coaster that is equally heartbreaking and awe inspiring.  That's about all I'm going to say in regards to the plot because as I often say, "I don't do spoilers" but I will say the characters are perfect.  When most people think of perfect they think of utopian but I think of flaws, strengths, pros and cons and the way the author meshes that all together and Miss Taylor does that amazingly well.  She told me last night that Resurrecting Hope, Adam's story, is due out on Christmas Day - talk about a great stocking stuffer.

RATING: 

Winter Wonderland by Heidi Cullinan
Summary:
Finding Mr. Right can be a snow lot of fun.

Paul Jansen was the only one of his friends who wanted a relationship. Naturally, he’s the last single man standing. No gay man within a fifty-mile radius wants more than casual sex.
No one, that is, except too-young, too-twinky Kyle Parks, who sends him suggestive texts and leaves X-rated snow sculptures on his front porch.

Kyle is tired of being the town’s resident Peter Pan. He’s twenty-five, not ten, and despite his effeminate appearance, he’s nothing but the boss in bed. He’s loved Paul since forever, and this Christmas, since they’re both working on the Winter Wonderland festival, he might finally get his chance for a holiday romance.

But Paul comes with baggage. His ultra-conservative family wants him paired up with a woman, not a man with Logan’s rainbow connection. When their anti-LGBT crusade spills beyond managing Paul’s love life and threatens the holiday festival, Kyle and Paul must fight for everyone’s happily ever after, including their own.

Warning: Contains erotic snow art, toppy twinks, and super-sweet holiday moments. Best savored with a mug of hot chocolate with a dash of spice.


I want to start by saying I loved how on the surface Paul and Kyle are the perfect bear and twink stereotype but underneath the author has tweaked them just enough so that they are anything but society's often preconceived stereotypical bear/twink couple.  Add in the wrapping of local flare and I was in reader heaven.  I have never been to the North Woods of Minnesota but being from Western Wisconsin only minutes from the Minnesota border I enjoyed the local references but even more so I appreciated the respect for the harsh winter weather that is displayed in this series.  There is a fine line between just another snow storm, the need to carry survival gear in the trunk of your car, and enjoying the holiday.  Don't even get me started on Paul's family but the warmness of Kyle's more than makes up for it.  Throw in the carefree friendships, hearts, and love between the three couples, Marcus & Frankie, Arthur & Gabriel, and Paul & Kyle, at the center of this trilogy and you have a beautiful addition to your holiday reading.

RATING: 

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

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

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

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

Love can conquer all, but can it beat death?


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

RATING: 

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * *

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

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

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


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

The Greatest Gift by Felice Stevens
Summary:
After five years, Alex Stern and Rafe Hazelton have what seems to be the perfect marriage. Alex is entering his last years of residency and Rafe’s veterinary business is busier than ever. For Rafe, all that is missing is a child, but Alex, afraid of ending up to be a man like his father, isn’t as sure. He doesn't want to make any mistakes.

When a new patient enters the hospital, Alex is drawn to the young, desperately ill single mother, who shares her fears for the future of her young son. Rafe worries about the toll on Alex becoming emotionally invested in a patient, yet he too can’t walk away once he meets the little boy, and together they vow to help in any way possible.

Families are not always born of blood— love is a gift no one can plan for. And sometimes from the darkest of tragedies, the brightest light will shine.

This is a 25k word novella in the Memories series.


Alex and Rafe are possibly my favorite Felice Stevens' couple so when I heard they were going to be starring in their own Christmas story I was beyond stoked.  Let's just say I was not disappointed.  I have not had any intimate experience with cancer but I have spent a few Christmases sitting by my mother's hospital bed so just after reading the blurb I knew a few tears would fall, and fall they did.  I can't really think of more to say that wouldn't leak spoilers so I'll just say this is a beautiful story that needs reading because not only is it a great tale but you just might walk away learning a little something about yourself too.

RATING: 

Maelstrom by Jordan L Hawk
Summary:
Between his father’s sudden—and rather suspicious—generosity, and his own rash promise to help Christine plan her wedding, Percival Endicott Whyborne has quite enough to worry about. But when the donation of a mysterious codex to the Ladysmith Museum draws the attention of a murderous cult, Whyborne finds himself in a race against time to unlock its secrets first.

Griffin has a case of his own: the disappearance of an historic map, which quickly escalates to murder. Someone is sacrificing men in dark rituals—and all the clues lead back to the museum.

With their friends Christine and Iskander, Whyborne and Griffin must discover the cult’s true goal before it’s too late. For dark forces are afoot at the very heart of the museum, and they want more than Whyborne’s codex.

They want his life.


As usual, I was blown away by Jordan L Hawk's Whyborne & Griffin, of course, I never expected not to be.  The entire series has me on the edge of my seat but there was something about Maelstrom that had me perched on the edge that I might as well have sat on the floor because it took everything I had to stay on the chair.  As always, Christine adds her unique brand of friendship and determination.  I don't do spoilers but I will say there came a point that I was yelling "NO! NO! NO!", the rest I will let you discover for yourself and trust me, you will want to find out.  Can't wait to see what she has planned for their next adventure.

RATING: 


Fish and Ghosts
Prologue
“SMELL THAT?” Wolf Kincaid paused at a narrow doorway, his broad shoulders wedged up against the creaking wooden frame. “Effervescent in nature, a whiff of dirt.”

He was speaking of the wispy mist blanketing the battered floor, its swirls created by the uneven knotty planks as much as by the two men walking down the hall. Around Wolf, the plantation house creaked with noise and echoes, tidbits of sound reaching back to tantalize the men sent to document its haunted history.

Built during the early days of Louisiana’s settlement, Willow Hills Plantation was once a hub of Southern activity, providing the surrounding area with food and, during bleaker times, an avenue for escaped slaves to begin a new life in the North. Stripped down nearly to its frame by its aging tenants, Willow Hills had been resurrected from its near death as a bed-and-breakfast. Positioned as the last stop of an Underground Railroad tour, the plantation soon earned a reputation of being a great place to eat as well as a home to restless spirits.

It was the latter part of its reputation that Wolf Kincaid came to tear apart.

“Hey, Wolf, want me to get an air sample?” Matt peeked out from behind his shoulder-mount camera, its illuminated trim splashing up enough of a glow for them to see in the plantation’s dark halls. “Or is it an ambient leak from outside? Swamp gas?”

“Some kind of gas,” Wolf muttered. “Nah, I know what it is. Don’t bother.”

No, he wasn’t going to feel bad about taking out the Willow Hills ghosts.

And if he had a chance, he’d go back in time and kick the shit out of its builders too. At a little over six feet, he should have had more space to walk around in the upper floors’ hallways. Instead, he felt like Alice after she had too many frosted cakes. His elbows hurt from banging into the walls, and the household staff wouldn’t have to dust for cobwebs because Wolf was pretty sure he’d walked through all of the ones in the attic storerooms. If he’d thought ahead, he could have taken a feather duster, done the job right, and charged the Willows for a deep cleaning as well as a spectral investigation.

Another step into yet another tiny room in the warren of servants’ quarters and Wolf found himself face-to-face with an apparition.

As apparitions went, it was fairly strong. White pallor, groaning black mouth, and empty eye sockets, with trails of ebony bleeding out under the spirit’s surrounding mottled skin. Her features were difficult to see, but the jut of her breasts straining against the thin lawn shirt she wore left Wolf with no doubt that he was staring through a woman.

Then she opened her mouth and a horrendous shriek rattled his eardrums and set fire to Wolf’s nerves.

Somewhere behind him, Matt screamed, and from the thudding sounds that soon followed, Wolf guessed he’d toppled over, probably taking the camera with him. The woman flickered in and out, a blue-white veil of features and fabric. Without warning, she rushed them, advancing on Wolf with her hands stretched out in front of her like talons.

He ducked. It was instinct born of human nature, and he cursed himself for it nearly as soon as he curled his shoulders away from the ghost. An icy chill hit him, whooshing over his face and arms. Then another struck, a stronger blast of air, cold enough to peel goose bumps up from his skin. The screaming continued, a murderous shriek echoed at a lower volume by his cameraman.

Something wet struck his cheek, and Wolf turned, looking up at the angled ceiling, where clotting strands of something dark and viscous dripped slowly down on top of them. It smelled rank and of curdled metal. Dabbing at a moist spot on his cheek, Wolf tasted the thick fluid, recoiling at its sourness when it spread over his tongue.

“Blood,” he murmured, holding up his wet finger for Matt to see. “Are you recording this?”

“I’m fucking freezing my nuts off, and I think I swallowed my tongue.” The young man struggled to get to his feet, tugging his ill-fitting Hellsinger Investigations T-shirt down over his slightly rounded belly. “Did you fucking see that? Shit, tell me you got readings on that.”

“Oh, I got something on it,” Wolf replied with a grin. “Come on, Matty. See if you can keep up.”

He left the younger man behind, edging past him, then launching into a full run down the tight staircase leading to the kitchens. His elbows took a beating. Obviously, his body had picked through his genetic soup and decided it preferred the enormous bulk of his Scottish ancestors above everything else and poured out his muscles and bones with a maniacal, enthusiastic glee.

While height and brawn were good in a fight, it made for shitty going while trying to run down a spiral staircase meant for tiny seventeenth-century women.

Somewhere behind him, Matt clomped along. He’d hired the young man for his filming and technical skills, not for going through an obstacle course, but Wolf didn’t really care. Most of the time, Matt could keep up. This time, however, it wasn’t as important as Wolf getting down to where he thought the apparition originated.

Because he needed to put an end to the haunting.

It was what he was paid to do. It was what he loved to do. Capturing that moment on film wasn’t as important as just having that moment.

And Wolf Kincaid was famous for having those kinds of moments.

Booming thumps echoed in the rear of the house, percussive rounds loud enough to shatter the eerie silence that settled down after the ghost’s shrieking. The walls around Wolf shook, and he ducked out of the way as a framed sampler fell off its hanger as he rounded the stairwell’s landing.

Behind him, Matt followed, stomping and cursing at the tight fit. The young man would have a hard time of it. The camera was too big, too bulky to make the tight turns quickly if Matt insisted on keeping it fixed to his shoulder to film. Which was what he’d certainly do. It was what Wolf paid him to do, even as he was tumbling ass over teakettle down the stairs behind his boss.

The staircase let out into the servants’ kitchen, a dank-smelling, closed-in room that, despite the staff’s best efforts, seemed to cling to its grimy lower-class roots. Wolf slipped on a tile, his sneaker catching on a thick line of grout, the sandy mixture providing some traction against the overpolished ceramic floor.

Ahead, the noises grew louder, more ear-shearing rattles and booms. More shrieks followed, echoing first upstairs, then suddenly snapping to the bottom floor, louder and more profane than the ghostly banshee moans. Rounding the corner, Wolf found himself in a room directly beneath the staircase, a long, rectangular space the plantation used for storage.

A stein flew past Wolf’s head, nearly clocking him on the temple. The heavy ceramic shattered against a wall behind him, and he felt a shard cut his cheek, the brief sting deepening into something heavy and wet on his skin. Another stein followed, then a plate wide enough to host a good-sized turkey.

“Fuck!” Matt exploded into a round of curses. From the sounds coming from behind him, Wolf guessed a piece of flying crockery had found its target in the cameraman or his equipment. “Poltergeists now?”

Wolf fumbled to find a light switch. His fingers found a bank of sliders on the wall next to the door, and the storeroom burst into view, two banks of overhead fluorescents throwing everything into a stark contrast of bright and shadow. Fully drenched in light, two women in period costume froze in place, one caught in the middle of throwing a metal steaming tray while the other’s hands were tangled in audio-visual feed lines. The cables disappeared through a small hole in the ceiling tiles, and nearby, a tripod lay on its side on what looked like a camera case. Both women were bleached white from heavy layers of makeup, their eyes hollow and bleak from a coating of dense theatrical kohl.

Smug, Wolf gave both women a short, mocking bow, then sneered, “Hello, ladies.”


Chapter 1
“THEY WERE pretending to be ghosts so people would go stay there?” Nahryn placed a steaming mug of black coffee in front of Wolf and settled into an empty wing chair next to his. “Why would someone do that?”

A bubbly young Armenian woman and Hellsinger’s Girl Friday, Nahryn kept their office running at a finely tuned hum and, more importantly to Wolf, made certain he had a pot of Ka‘u coffee to bolster him by the time he made it into their San Francisco office.

Even if sometimes her coffee was strong enough to bleach Wolf’s dark-brown hair to white from its bitter shock.

“Because ghosts equal profit,” Gidget pronounced from behind her teacup, her mascara-thick eyelashes fluttering the steam rising from her Earl Grey. “It was a pretty stupid rig too. Projection onto dry ice mists with leads feeding into speakers on the third floor. They’re never going to get the pig’s blood out of those ceiling beams.”

Their technician and Matt’s lover went for a more Rosie the Riveter look that morning, a piss-yellow bandana holding back a spill of flame-red curls from her pale face and her overalls creaking as she shifted in her chair, the heavy denim still so new it stank of dye. Glass cherries dangled from her lobes, a row of four in each ear, and they chimed when she moved her head. While they matched the printed cherries on her button-up shirt, Wolf thought it looked like she’d lost a fight with a fruit salad.

He’d tell Gidget that as soon as he told Nahryn about her coffee. One wrong, pissy word and Gidget could have his sensors bleeping a spectral hit on every pile of dog shit he walked by.

While he might get the hots for a long-legged man in jeans, he could commiserate with a straight man about the minefields of living with a woman. He spent days on end with two of them and still had to tread carefully with the best of them. Also—Wolf grinned into his coffee—he always had Matt to throw in as a sacrificial lamb whenever he needed an out.

“But that’s lying,” Nahryn insisted.

“It’s what keeps us in business, Nah-nah,” Wolf pointed out. “And since Willow Hills invoked our confidentiality clause and paid their invoice in full, we can’t say anything about their two wayward docents. The powers that be didn’t know, and now that they do, they want to make sure no one else does.”

“So we can’t even tell people they’re lying?” Her big brown eyes were narrowing. “That’s wrong too. The world sucks.”

“People hire us to prove their ghosts are real or at least come up inconclusive.” Turning on his tablet, Wolf tapped through his appointments. “Willow Hills gambled and lost. They didn’t know they were playing loaded dice. It happens sometimes. A lot of people think they can pull one over an investigator—”

“But the equipment doesn’t lie,” Gidget crowed, resting her heels on the corner of the conference table.

“Nope. It usually doesn’t.” Wolf saluted her with his coffee mug. “Let’s see what we’ve got on the books for today.”

“You have an appointment with a Mrs. Walter Pryce the Third in half an hour. She called right as I was making coffee, so I didn’t get a chance to put it down on the books yet.” Nahryn scrolled through her own tablet, then stopped to wrangle her curly brown hair into a tie. “She wants to hire you to look into a haunting. She thinks it’s bullshit.”

“She actually say bullshit?” Wolf’s eyebrows lifted. “People with the Third in their names don’t usually trot out the word bullshit.”

“No, she said implausible, but I was having problems spelling that so I just wrote down bullshit.” Nahryn grinned at him. “I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“Nope, I don’t,” Wolf admitted. “Okay, I’m going to talk with Mrs. Pryce. Then, after that, I’ll take all of you to 39 for some lunch.”

“Crab?” Nahryn paused halfway out of her chair and did a little dance with her butt against the upholstery. “’Cause you know… crab.”

“For you, Nah-nah, we can get crab.” He tweaked his Girl Friday’s nose. “First Mrs. Pryce’s boo-wigglies and someone get Matt on the phone. About time he got to work.”


“MY NEPHEW is insane.”

Wolf spared the woman a brief glance as he shuffled through the papers she’d brought with her. Mrs. Walter Pryce III was an older woman, one Born-to-the-Park, pinkie-lifting Junior Leaguer. Patting her swing of artfully done blonde hair, she took a moment to pause at the doorway of his pier-front office, her critical gaze taking in the space’s blend of gentlemen’s club furnishings and broad, sweeping view of the water. He almost didn’t catch the curl in her lip or the slight flare of her nostril, but he did. The brittle smile that chased after the hint of disapproval slipped from her face. After tugging carefully at the hem of her cardigan, she then smoothed her black pencil skirt and held her head up as she let herself be led into Hellsinger’s conference room.

Now, settled into a leather wing chair and armed with a porcelain teacup filled with a lavender-lemon blend, Mrs. Pryce seemed much more in control, especially after she’d shocked Wolf with her pronouncement. She nodded curtly at Wolf’s glance, probably mistaking his curiosity for something else. Or maybe, Wolf thought, she didn’t really care what he thought just so long as he took the assignment and delivered on the job.

“Rather than me reading through now, why don’t you give me the highlights so I can decide if I’ll take the case?” Wolf matched Mrs. Pryce’s haughty sip of her tea with a sloppy slurp of his coffee.

“I didn’t realize I was here to be auditioned.” Another sip, and this time, the nostril flare remained too long on her face to be dismissed as a tic.

“I don’t take every case presented to us,” Wolf replied. “If I did, I’d never get any sleep. But please, tell me about your nephew… the insane one.”

“Are you mocking me, Mr. Kincaid?”

“Not at all, Ms. Pryce.” Wolf shook his head. A lot of people walked into Hellsinger either thinking they were crazy and hoping to find out they weren’t or dancing on the razor’s edge of needing a wraparound jacket and looking for someone to prove them sane. It was, however, the first time someone sat across of him and openly declared her prey nuts. “Please go on. I’m all ears.”

“Tristan has always been a delicate boy.” Her pinkie flexed slightly, hovering over the cup’s handle as if she was afraid to let it touch the porcelain. “It all started when Great Uncle Mortimer Pryce died—”

“Mortimer?” Wolf nearly snorted coffee through his nose. “Really?”

“It’s a family name,” she replied smoothly. “My third son is named after him.”

“God help him,” he muttered to himself. “Sorry, continue. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“Tristan’s parents were quite normal. Did the best they could for him, but of course, he always seemed to wander away. Even if he was right in front of you, he would… rather… appear to not be paying attention. Great Uncle Mortimer was fond of the boy and would have Tristan visit him over the summers. I personally didn’t think his parents should have let him go to Hoxne Grange by himself. Mortimer was… a confirmed bachelor, if you know what I mean?” Her eyebrows somehow both lifted and scowled with disapproval, something Wolf had not thought possible before he’d met the woman.

He didn’t answer, merely blinking with a muted ignorance of what she was implying. “There wasn’t anyone for him to play with?”

“No, that is not what I meant,” Mrs. Pryce said firmly. “Tristan was a young boy and at an impressionable age. Great Uncle Mortimer should not have had access to him. He filled the boy’s mind with rubbish.”

“What kind of rubbish?”

“That Hoxne Grange is haunted and that he somehow was its caretaker… the ghosts’ caretaker.” She shuddered, either with the foolishness or the growing bitterness of the cooling tea. “Mortimer was one thing. I mean, he was an older gentleman. Very set in his ways and the Grange is… well, it’s a family legacy. The Pryce family had it built nearly a century and a half ago. It’s on a fantastic property in Mill Valley. Great Uncle Mortimer inherited it when his father died. When he passed, he left everything to Tristan. It’s been a touchy subject in the family since then.”

“So Tristan getting the property wasn’t expected?” Wolf began taking notes, diagramming out the Pryce family tree.

“No, my husband is the next eldest son in the Pryce family. Tristan’s father was his youngest brother.” She set her cup down, the saucer rattling beneath it. “It should have gone to him, but instead, Tristan is Mortimer’s sole heir, and from what we can tell, he’s continued the man’s insane claims about the Grange being haunted.”

“How long has he been its owner?”

“Since he was nineteen. Really, it was too big a burden to hand over to a teenager. He’s almost twenty-eight.” Mrs. Pryce’s mouth flattened into a line, crinkling her pink lipstick. “Luckily, he kept most of the landscaping staff, and there is a daily housekeeping staff that comes in, so at least the estate isn’t being run to the ground.”

“So he’s maintained it?”

“Thankfully, Mortimer set up a trust fund to dispense monies to Tristan until his twenty-eighth birthday. It truly is a blessing. Tristan’s… an artist of sorts. A children’s book writer, I think. Certainly not enough of an income to keep the Grange up.” She lifted her shoulders in an elegant shrug. “On Tristan’s birthday, he’ll inherit the rest of the estate and have full control of its assets. The family is concerned that with Tristan’s… peculiarities… he’ll be taken advantage of. We’d like you to help us ensure this will not happen.”

“What about Tristan’s parents?” Wolf cocked his head, tapping the tip of his pencil on two empty boxes on his flow chart.

“Carol and Sandy… Alexander was his real name… they died in a small plane crash off of the coast of Italy about six months after Tristan inherited the estate.” A frown crinkled her smooth brow, and she played with a button on her sweater. “Sandy was against Tristan living there. He thought Mortimer was setting his son up to continue playing his little ghost game. Of course, Tristan denies this. He fully believes the Grange hosts his little friends. He’s turned the family home into an inn, Mr. Kincaid, and the majority of his guests are not real.”

Wolf didn’t have to guess at the Pryces’ motivations. Mortimer’s money and estate seemed to be their first priority, although he couldn’t rule out the woman’s concern for her nephew. A few taps on his tablet called up the Grange’s visual from an overhead map. Constructed during the Gilded Age, the sprawling estate was built into a nest of hills, and from what Wolf could make out, clearly designed by someone with a love for the Renaissance Revival form. A photo of Hoxne Grange called up a view of its front drive and landscaped grounds. The place was huge—sprawling seemed to be too weak of a word for the winged W set among the redwood trees—and embellished with formal gardens.

“What do you want me to do? I’m not in the business of declaring people mentally incompetent,” Wolf pointed out. “Even if I’ve got a sheepskin telling you I can.”

“The family would like you to stay at the Grange and investigate Tristan’s claims. Your agency is known to be fair. We’d just like you to show Tristan that his ghosts only exist in his mind. If you can do that, Mr. Kincaid, just show him that the Grange isn’t a way station for phantoms, we will pay you anything you ask for. He needs to be shown reality, Mr. Kincaid, and I think you’re just the man to do that.”


HIS UNCLE was going to wear a hole in the library floor; Tristan was sure of it. The last half hour was ticked off by the squeak of his Italian loafers when he turned, a five-second interval bleeding off Tristan’s morning. Checking the grandfather clock for what he thought might have been the hundredth time since Walter Pryce III came through his front door, Tristan waited for his uncle to wind up yet another argument meant to move him out of the Grange.

“Your aunt is speaking with the agency now—” Walter began another circuit, his meaty hands clasped around his back.

“Is she still counted as my aunt if she’s your third wife?” Tristan huffed a breath up at his forehead, hoping to move a chunk of blond hair away from his eyes. If he used his fingers, he knew he’d get trapped in playing with his hair, and anything Walter said to him would be lost in the contemplation of how the sunlight changed the colors as it bled through the shafts. “I mean, Aunt Judith counts because she was first, right? Sharon maybe because she had Mortie, but Ashley? Is she my aunt too?”

“Tristan, please concentrate on what I’m saying to you.” The man harrumphed, exhaling forcefully enough to make his lips flap. Tristan’s fingers itched for a sketchbook, wanting to scribble out his impressions of a disgruntled walrus waddling back and forth on an ice floe. “We’re hoping you’ll see reason.”

“Reason….” Tristan repeated softly. “By opening the Grange up to people who chase ghosts?”

“They are paranormal psychologists. Or at least the agency head is.” Walter turned again, squeaking off another tick of time. “I know it would be terrible to discover that perhaps you’ve been encouraged to… um… what is the word I’m looking for?”

“Hallucinate?” he supplied for his uncle. “Sucking on guano from the bats in my belfry? Rowing with one oar?”

“You’re not crazy!” His uncle frowned, caught in midstep, his large belly jiggling under his suit. “Look, boy, I’m fond of you. I want the best for you. Just let them come stay here for a bit and see what they can find. Is that too much to ask?”

Tristan stretched out his legs, rubbing at the cramp forming along his thigh. He’d not asked Mara to turn the heat on in the library that morning until Uncle Walter’s sedan pulled up in front of the Grange. It had been an unexpected visit, and they’d both sworn under their breath when the man’s driver let his short, soft-bellied uncle out of the car.

Well, he’d sworn. Mara merely muttered darkly and scurried off to turn the heat on before pulling together a coffee tray for his guest. He’d sworn enough for both of them. His elderly housekeeper, while a pleasant woman for the most part, liked to get her daily work done and out of the way so she could spend her afternoons watching the shows she’d recorded the night before. Since most of her day included making sure he kept himself fed, Tristan didn’t care how she spent her days so long as the Grange was always guest ready. With fifteen bedrooms to keep up and two young women from the nearby town coming in to help her dust and mop, Mara kept the Grange primed and lemony-fresh, and she resented his uncle’s sudden appearance on a tightly scheduled Tuesday morning.

Tristan wasn’t too fond of Walter’s arrival either. He had only ten more minutes before he had to be at the reception desk, and from the man’s squeaky pacing, it didn’t sound like Walter Pryce was going to leave until Tristan gave him some kind of concession.

“And if they find out I’m not crazy?” he offered up in exchange. “Suppose they hand you a report that I’m sane and the Grange is what Uncle Mortimer and I say it is? Will you leave me be then?”

The look of confusion on his uncle’s face told Tristan the man had not considered that possibility. A few lip flaps and another squeaka-squeaka pass later, Walter Pryce grumbled, “If he comes back and says that there’s something here, then yes, I’ll acknowledge that there might be something to your claims. But the agency has to verify that there is some sort of activity here. If not, then I’m going to insist you stop this nonsense and come home.”

“I am home, Uncle Walter,” Tristan said softly. “I’ve lived here at the Grange for most of my adult life and spent nearly all of my summers here. If this isn’t home, then where is that?”

“Then we’ll come to you.” The man’s hand on his shoulder was meant to be reassuring, but Tristan felt it held a greater weight than his uncle’s skin, bones, and flesh. “We’ll come here to you at the Grange. It is the family home, after all.”

He was able to hustle his uncle out with a few murmured assurances and then exhaled a sigh of relief when the door closed behind him. A few seconds later, the sedan’s quiet engine rumbled away and Tristan was left with the silence of the Grange around him.

The snick-snick of a dog’s nails on the foyer’s parquet floors echoed up into the high ceiling, and Tristan grinned at the shaggy gray head poking out from around the side of the sweeping mahogany counter Mortimer Pryce had built to be the Grange’s reception desk.

“Come on out, Boris.” He whistled to the Irish wolfhound. “He’s gone.”

“That dog knows evil when he smells it.” Mara appeared at Tristan’s elbow, moving as silently as one of the hall’s guests.

“He knows Uncle Walter doesn’t like him.” Bending over, Tristan scratched at the enormous dog’s floppy ears, sending Boris into a wiggling dance of ecstasy. “The man’s not evil, he’s just… closed-minded.”

“Well, ghosts or no, he’s a menace.” The woman’s harrumph was less pronounced than Walter’s, but it was still impressive. “Your ghosties are your business. This is your house. If you want to hold balls for faeries, it’s your right, and damn anyone else who says something against it.”

A dusting rag hung from her elbow crook, and a faint hint of the green-tea soap Tristan gave her for Christmas perfumed her soft white skin, its delicate scent fighting a losing battle against lemon polish and the arthritic salve Mara used for her aching knees. A softly curved woman, she came up to Tristan’s shoulder and often was in and out of a room, leaving behind only plates of sandwiches and cookies as evidence she’d been there. Something clung to the frosted candy floss of Mara’s silvery hair, and Tristan reached over to pluck it off.

It was a single diamond stud, and he handed it to her. “Did you find the other one?”

“No.” She shook her head, closing his fingers over the stone. “You keep that one. Maybe even change that silly hoop you have in your ear. You look like a little boy playing pirate.”

“Maybe.” He’d never told Mara the hoop belonged to his mother, a sliver of gold some faceless official handed him over her remains. She would scold him about being morbid, not understanding the hoop made him feel close to the woman who’d given birth to him but never really understood the changeling she’d been saddled with. “Or maybe even a second hole?”

“All you need is a parrot instead of that dumb Sasquatch you’ve brought into this house.” A deep belling roll began to sound off from the library, and Mara sniffed at the chilling air. “Well, that’s time, then. I’ll be off. You deal with… that. Don’t get to talking too much. I’ll be bringing you lunch at noon, and don’t forget, the gardeners will be here this afternoon, so get that beast to his walk before then.”

“Yes, Mara.”

He was talking to her back by the time the final chime from the library’s grandfather clock struck. Settling himself on the stool behind the old-fashioned reception desk, Tristan immediately regretted leaving his coffee behind. There was no telling how late his morning arrival would be, and he’d only had half a cup. He’d have to scare up another pot before he headed to his study on the third floor.

“If I’d really been thinking, I would have brought a sketchbook too,” he informed Boris. The dog lolled his long pink tongue at him and began a leisurely scratch at a spot near his jowls. “Really, Uncle Walter showing up just screwed the whole morning.”

He didn’t have to wait long. A few minutes after he’d sat down, the Grange’s front doors rattled and swung open. A brisk wind cut through the open portal, carrying in the scent of rain on its breath. As suddenly as it opened, the wide doors closed, whispering on their well-oiled hinges. From behind the desk, Boris whimpered, tucking himself into a huddle, and Tristan patted the dog’s broad head.

A wet footprint appeared on the wooden floor about two feet into the foyer, then another, a sopping trail of steps marking someone’s progress toward the reception area. Elongated shadows played beneath a large round table set in the middle of the circular area, and something brushed against a stray pink rose that drooped from the enormous flower display sitting in a mint-green urn on the table’s top.

She came into view a step or two after she passed the table, a bedraggled woman dressed in a neatly patched plain dress. Clutching her case in front of her in a white-knuckled grip, she nodded carefully at Tristan, then plastered a tentative smile on her pleasant face, clearing her throat before she spoke.

“I’ve come about the cook’s position, sir.” Her melodic voice was stamped with the distinct grit of a Northern Londoner, and if Tristan looked carefully, he knew he would see the black grime of the Lower Hells stuck under her fingernails. The rest of her was neat and trim despite the wear on her clothes and the fatigue on her still young face. “I’ve got no references, as the Lady turned me out for what the Lord was doing, but….”

“I don’t need your references. You’ll do fine,” Tristan reassured her. “Wages are forty pounds, and you’ll be given tea, beer, and sugar, as well.”

“That’s too generous, sir.” She blushed, a pink lightening up her pallor. “I’m not skilled for that—”

“We’ve only one cook position,” he cut her off gently. “Kitchens are through that door and down the hall. Can you start now? I’ve nearly a full inn and need a dinner set up for the guests. Your rooms will be behind the kitchen.”

“Yes, sir. I can start immediately.” She dropped into a short curtsey, nearly losing her satchel. “My name’s Heather. Heather Cook, sir. Thank you so much. I won’t be letting you down.”

“I know, Heather. I know,” Tristan said, pointing to the door. “Welcome to Hoxne Grange. We’re glad to have you here.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, she whispered away, dropping out of sight in flecks of light until nothing remained of her but the wet footprints on the foyer’s wooden floor. He was about to fetch a mop when Mara came out of the door he’d directed Heather to.

“So she’s gone, then?” Mara asked, wheeling out a metal mop bucket in front of her.

“Yeah, she is.” Tristan smiled, saddened by the young dead woman he’d spoken to.

“Well, then, it’s done until next Tuesday,” his housekeeper pronounced in a firm voice. “I’ll clean this up, and you go on upstairs. There’s coffee waiting for you and some brekkie. Maybe later on, you’ll get a nap. I know how Tuesdays wear you down.”

“Thank you, Mara.” He kissed the froth of silvery-white curls at her temple. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“You’d be mopping your own damned floors every Tuesday after you hire your dead cook again.” She slapped at his arm. “Go on with you, and take that cowardly beast with you.”

The Boys on the Mountain
Chapter One
THE DISTURBANCE began with a rattle of curtain hooks tapping the rods on the bedroom window above my head, a sound one might hear during the course of a small earth tremor. But this was no seismic event. My heart would not have leapt into my throat had this been a mere earthquake. I have lived in Southern California for most of my adult life, and nothing the earth might do beneath my feet, short of an eight on the Richter scale, could frighten me any longer.

What this house managed to come up with to frazzle my nerves night after night, however, scared the bejesus out of me.

And I loved it.

The sound above my pillow that jerked me from my sleep was not something I had been expecting. The disturbances did not usually occur so nearby. They were always somewhere in the house but far off. Out of sight and barely within hearing. They were several rooms away or in one of the many walk-in closets, out back in the carriage house or up on the roof. Tonight’s disturbance, coming as it did within inches of my head, had me wide awake and sitting up in bed in less than a second, as stiff as a statue, wildly blinking the sleep from my eyes.

My bedroom was pitch-black and silent but for those clattering curtain hooks above my head. When the drapes were suddenly flung open by invisible hands and moonlight flooded across my bed like a spotlight, I gasped, but still I felt more exhilaration than fear. I may even have allowed a small grin to creep across my face.

When cold, damp flesh touched the side of my neck, however, I flew out from under those blankets like I was shot from a cannon. In my imagination I was out of the house, down the mountainside, and halfway to Los Angeles before my feet hit the floor. It took a moment for me to realize the eerie touch had not come from some sort of slavering, hungry creature fresh from the grave. It came from Rex, my Irish setter, who had just crawled from beneath the covers to see what all the hubbub was about and calmly pressed his damp nose to my neck by way of greeting. He had not intended to stop my heart or send me flying across the room and halfway down the hall before my brain caught up with my imagination. It had not been his intention to give me reason to wonder if I might need to change my boxer shorts.

I could hear Rex following me down the hall, his toenails clicking across the hardwood floor. Now I had done it. He would insist on a potty break, and he would insist I accompany him. I sometimes wondered if maybe Rex was afraid of the dark. At night he would go nowhere inside the house, or out of it, without me trailing along behind him.

When we first moved into this house on a picturesque mountain overlooking San Diego, I thought Rex had taken it into his head to stay at my side for protection. Faithful dog guarding beloved master. That sort of thing. It had taken me a few days to realize this was not quite the case. The protection he was insuring was for him rather than me. Rex was a coward of the first magnitude. I just never realized it until we came here.

I dropped to my knees in the hallway, and Rex walked into my waiting arms like a big red fuzzy car pulling into a garage. If I could have maintained the position, I knew, he would have been content to stand there, wrapped in my arms, until morning.

I pressed my face into his soft neck. “Coward,” I mumbled, my heart still clog dancing.

I reached up to the wall switch beside me and flipped on the hallway light. Rex and I both looked around to assure ourselves that we were alone, and in this dimension, we were. I listened for more noises from the bedroom, but all I could hear was the ticking of an old-school clock that hung on the wall above the flagstone fireplace in the music room. Whatever it was that had woken me and rattled the curtain hooks over my head was gone now, or if not gone, at least silent.

My galloping heart gradually slowed to a canter as I led Rex through the dining room and across the wide living room to the front door, where I grabbed his leash off the doorknob.

We stepped outside, crossed the veranda, and at the broad steps leading down to the driveway, Rex stopped. He would go no farther until his leash was securely snapped to his collar. This was not a matter of training on my part. Rex had picked up the habit on his own, flatly refusing to leave the house without a lifeline between the two of us. We had been separated once. He was not about to let it happen again.

Poor Rex. He really was a most profound coward. The incident with the mountain lion was the beginning of his slide to disgrace. Not that it was a real mountain lion, of course. The house had conjured it up for our amusement. Or at least, I think it had. I hoped it had. The thought of a real mountain lion roaming through the house frightened me much more than the idea of a spectral one.

Spectral, after all, was what I had come here to this mountaintop to experience, not that I truly expected to experience anything more spectral than my own imagination. But the house had surprised me. Surprised the hell out of poor Rex too. Were it not for his inability to dial a phone or leaf through the Yellow Pages, lacking opposable thumbs as he was, or even the most rudimentary of reading skills for that matter, I suspected Rex would have called for a taxi long before this and been back in Los Angeles renting an apartment before the next sunset. I seriously doubted it was his devotion to me that kept him at my side. After all, what other choice did he have? Even the most pampered pets are chained. Whither we goeth, they goeth, whether they like it or not.

His umbilicus firmly in place, Rex tugged me, still clad in boxers and nothing else, down the veranda steps to the drive.

The house was perched high in the stark San Diego Mountains. There was not another structure within three miles of the place and not another inhabited structure within five. Looking at the house now in the moonlight made me recall the first time I had seen it. I knew it was haunted, of course, or purported to be. Everyone said it was. And even though I made my living writing books that scared the hell out of people, or so I hoped, I had about as much faith in the house actually being haunted as I had in my agent giving up his percentage and opting to work on a friend-to-friend basis rather than siphoning off my hard-earned money. Like that’s ever going to happen. And neither, I suspected, would the house turn out to be truly haunted.

In that, happily, I was wrong. Happily for me. Not Rex.


DRIVING UP the long lane that wound around the side of the mountain to the house on the day of my arrival, I had expected the type of house one anticipates when seeking out ghosts. Victorian. Two-story. Towering gables and long, swooping rooflines all cast eerily in shadow, with maybe a hint of thunder and lightning booming and flashing in the background to help set the scene.

The Letters House did not resemble my mental image of a haunted house in any respect. It was not Victorian. It was not two stories, and there wasn’t a gable to be seen. It looked more like an eighteenth-century Mexican hacienda. It sprawled across the side of the mountain, tucked in among the boulders, its plastered arches and balustrades overhung with bougainvillea that brought a riot of color to the otherwise drab and sepia-toned landscape. The air, hot on the summer afternoon of my arrival, was redolent with the cloying scent of sage and desert emptiness. There were no shadows, only a scorching Southern California sun beating down on my head through the sunroof of my Toyota and shimmering off the heat-soft macadam of the driveway.

When I turned off the car, the only sound I heard was Rex, panting in the seat beside me, an insipid grin on his face. No thunder. No lightning. I closed my eyes for a moment, letting the isolation sweep over me, and when I opened them again, I was smiling. Eager as kids, Rex and I sprang from the car and set out to explore our new domain.

I loved the house from the moment I saw it.

That had been a week ago. I had learned a lot in the seven days since. First and foremost, I learned to no longer doubt the house was haunted. It was indeed. And this was a revelation to me. I had spent most of my life writing stories about the supernatural, but deep down I had never truly believed in its existence. This was no longer the case. Stick a translating device down Rex’s throat and listen to him agree with me. He would probably talk for days about the Letters House and the moronic master who dragged him here.


NIGEL LETTERS was a cornball, ham-handed actor in the nineteen twenties and thirties who never advanced beyond the B-horror-movie slot but did, amazingly enough, enjoy a modicum of success in that genre. Don’t ask me how. God knows he was about as talented as a stick of butter and just as slick. He oiled his way across the screen in a string of low-budget schlock fests, usually wearing more makeup than his leading lady and delivering his monotonal lines with all the passion of a near-comatose Kevin Costner, who in my view has never been known to stretch beyond the monotone either.

While I waited for Rex to do his business—and for a dog of very little bravery, he was certainly taking his sweet time about it—I gazed up at the heavens. The night sky seemed so close I felt I could reach up and pluck the stars from it as easily as picking raisins from a scone. Smog did not exist here. Only clear mountain air. And silence. Blessed, blessed silence.

After twenty years as a working writer, Los Angeles was finally wearing me down. Too many people. Too many bars. Too much sickness. I had had my fill of Starbucks’s latte. I was ready to get back to basics. Suddenly, Sanka sounded pretty good.

The silence on this mountain was as alien to me as unprotected sex, which was something else I would like to get back to, but that didn’t seem likely. AIDS is just as prevalent as ever. Of course, the meds are better, so now it takes you longer to die, but die you still do. Not much of a perk.

AIDS aside, I wondered if seventy years ago Nigel Letters might not have felt the same way I did. Why else would he remove himself from the klieg lights and story conferences of Hollywood and build himself a secluded castle way the hell up on the side of this beautiful, stark mountain?

Nigel Letters had died in this house. He died in the very bedroom where I now slept. His death had been just as cornball as any of his movies, the only difference being at the time of his death he was wearing more makeup than usual. He died in high drag, with a red silk scarf wrapped around his throat and tied to a hook on the wall, which slowly choked the breath from his body as he happily masturbated beneath the lovely taffeta evening gown he was wearing at the time. His body was going to fat by then, and his movie career was on the skids. Hollywood had moved beyond schlocky horror movies, and poor Nigel found himself without work.

All he had left was a sizable fortune and his hobbies, the favorite of which was apparently autoerotic asphyxiation, which by all accounts can make for some pretty impressive ejaculations, but precautions need to be taken when practicing it. On the night of his death, Nigel must have been a little careless about the precautions. His housekeeper found him hanging on the wall like a piece of art, pecker still in hand, when she came to deliver his breakfast tray.

Rumor has it the housekeeper laughed so hard upon discovering the body that she dropped the breakfast tray and broke two toes on her left foot when the coffee pot landed on them. But according to legend, even that didn’t wipe the happy grin from her face. She was still giggling like a schoolgirl when she limped to the phone to call the press. Only later would she remember to notify the police as well.

Nigel, it would seem, was not a well-loved employer.

The hook from which he was dangling when the housekeeper found him was still on the bedroom wall. Upon my arrival at the house, I used it to hang an old studio publicity shot of the man taken in his heyday, so even now, more than half a century after his ridiculous exit, the poor guy still hung from that goddamn hook, this time in top hat and cloak from an old Jack the Ripper film he starred in at about the same time Hitler rose to power. I didn’t have a snapshot of Nigel in taffeta or a Rita Hayworth wig, or I would have used that instead.

Nigel Letters may have been an unlikable putz in real life, but I had to give him credit for one outstanding accomplishment. He built this house. I was not ridiculing the man when I hung his 8x10 glossy on the bedroom wall from the very hook on which he died. I thought of it more as a tongue-in-cheek shrine. Nigel and I, after all, had a few things in common. We both plied our trade in Hollywood. We were both gay. We both loved this house. And we both, in our day, owned Irish setters. Nigel’s Irish setter, although male, was named Nancy. Somehow that didn’t surprise me, coming as it did from a man who enjoyed masturbating in taffeta.

I have always been a videophile, even as a child growing up in Indiana and before my first novel led me to Hollywood, where it was made into one of the worst movies ever put on celluloid. I have a Raspberry Award for the Worst Adapted Screenplay to prove it. None of my later novels were put on film, thank God, but by then California had its hooks in me, and I never left. But my love for movies continued. Especially bad movies. The worse they were, the better I liked them. Theoretically, my own movie should have been one of my favorites (yes, it was that bad), but perhaps I was too close to it to appreciate the reek.

So, being a lover of film, all film but my own, that is, the name Nigel Letters was not unknown to me. I had seen most of his earlier work, when he was still handsome, and I had seen many of his later films, when his jowls were more pronounced on screen than his heavily made-up eyes. And I had enjoyed them all, not for the artistry of them, but for their complete lack of artistry. Spooky pulp, I called them, but at the time of their release, that was what the audiences wanted. Stuffy British actors in creepy black-and-white period pieces was the big thing then. The scripts must have been cranked out in a matter of minutes, and not much more time spent filming them, but the popcorn-chomping populace ate them up. Today those films seem absurd, pretentious, and totally inane, but Nigel got rich making them, and by all accounts, in his youth, before his beauty had faded, the popularity of his films made Nigel Letters quite a draw with the male contingent of aspiring actors, street hustlers, gigolos, and starstruck fans that populated Sunset Boulevard during those years. Apparently when not in front of the camera, Nigel’s face spent most of its time stuck in the lap of any good-looking male he could entice into a dark corner. And he enticed quite a few, if half the stories are true.

When my agent told me that Nigel’s house in the San Diego Mountains had been put on the market, I leapt at it. When I heard the house was haunted, I leapt even higher.

And now, after only a few days of living on the property, I knew I would buy it. Rex would not be happy about my decision, but he wasn’t the one writing the checks. And like I said before, whither the master goeth….

After a decade or more of enduring the screaming pulse of Los Angeles, with its crowded streets and blaring traffic, the solitude to be found on this silent mountainside was almost breathtaking. Even nature lent very few notes to the music. Perhaps an occasional night bird could be heard, or the rustle of palm fronds from the trees beside the house when the wind whipped up the side of the mountain before a rain, but that was all. There were no people sounds. No car horns. No boom boxes. No strident voices yelling obscenities at strangers.

The only noise came from myself, from Rex, or from the house itself, or whatever it was that resided in the house with us. For I knew from the first night, as I lay in the unfamiliar bed and savored the newfound silence, that I was not alone here.

On that first night, and for many days and nights afterward, I neither saw nor heard anything to make me think that mine were not the only thoughts at play within these walls. It was just a feeling. A sense of being near something you can’t quite see. A sense that there were sounds to be heard if they were just a little louder. A sense that this house was not quite at rest. But it didn’t frighten me. There was no feeling of malevolence about it. I didn’t feel surrounded by evil. I didn’t feel like a character in one of my books.

Even later, when the disturbances began, I didn’t fear for my life. My heart might leap into my throat at a sudden sound, coming as it did from a seemingly empty room, but I felt no terror. It would startle me, and my heart would begin hammering, but not from any sense of life-threatening horror. I think the heart hammering came as much from exhilaration as anything else. I had spent my life scaring people with words on a page. Now it was my turn to be afraid, and there was nothing fictional about it. Perhaps I had been writing truths all along and simply never knew it.

For a writer of horror, the house was perfect. By the end of the first week, I could not imagine living anywhere else. I phoned my agent and set the wheels of purchase in motion. Then I phoned my friends and invited them up.


NOW, AS I stood in the moonlight in my boxer shorts and waited interminably for Rex to make the earth-shattering decision as to when and where to poop, I thought of my friends and wondered what they would think of the house and my decision to move here permanently. I suspected they would approve of the first and despair at the second, loving the house as much as I did but unable to comprehend how I could ever dream of leaving Los Angeles.

My friends. We had been an entity for more years than I cared to admit. Michael. Lyle. Frank. Stu. From various parts of the country, we had descended on LA in 1997, and somehow we had come together, drawn to each other like shreds of metal to a magnet. Everyone had slept with everyone else at one time or another. That was perhaps what first drew us together, but sex did not keep us together. Friendship did that. Friendship and love and an understanding of each other that allowed us to bare our faults, or flaunt our talents, without resentment or jealousy getting in the way.

We commiserated with each other during the low times, times we all had at one point or another as we were carving our way in the world, and we praised each other for our successes. Michael’s graduation from veterinary school and the subsequent hanging of his shingle on a small pet hospital in Van Nuys. Lyle and Frank’s marriage on a beach in Santa Monica, the only members of our little band who stayed together as lovers, now into their twelfth year and seemingly as happy as the day they swapped vows in the sand. Stu’s first hair salon with his name in neon, and a few years later, a second and third salon, all making money hand over fist. Money was never a problem for Stu. Relationships were. But he made up for it by replacing quality with quantity. There was a different man in his bed every night of the week, and like a kid in a candy store, he just couldn’t decide on the one he liked best, so he tried them all, chewing them up and spitting them out like gumballs.

My friends were there for me during the publication of my first novel, which if not for them would probably not have sold a single copy, and they were there for me during the subsequent disaster of a movie it spawned. My success only came with the release of my second novel, but I will always remember how my friends supported and praised me for the first. We were our own little fan club, adoring each other and making sure each of us knew it.

Now, with time dragging us reluctantly toward forty, the youthful blush in our cheeks has perhaps faded, our faces appearing a bit wiser and less eager in the bathroom mirror in the mornings when we shave, but our zest for life has not diminished. Nor has our devotion to each other. I have very little patience for anyone else in the world, but for my friends there is always an opening in my mental appointment book. We offer little to anyone else, but to each other, we offer everything.

By leaving Los Angeles, I was forming the first breach in our communal front on the world, and I knew my friends were not happy about it. No longer would we all be minutes away from each other. By taking up residence more than a hundred miles away, I would undoubtedly be viewed as the first rat to abandon the ship. I could only hope that after inspecting this house and learning to love it as much as I did, they would come to understand why I chose to live here. Friends, after all, are chained to us as securely as our pets, or should be if they are truly friends. A little distance shouldn’t make a difference.

As I stood in the moonlight with the warm evening breeze blowing across my body and watched Rex finally squat to do his business, all I could do was hope that my friends would see my desertion in the same light as I did. Perhaps the house would convince them. It wanted me to stay. At least, I thought it did. At any rate, it hadn’t tried to kill me yet. Not really.

Looking up at the house from where Rex had led me down the sloping driveway, I saw a curtain move. I had left the front door open when Rex and I stepped outside, so it might have been the night breeze that fluttered the fabric. But I knew instinctively it was not. The house watched us constantly. It was something I had grown accustomed to in the time I had been there. From that very first day, when the house was still new and exciting to me, I had sensed a welcoming presence as I moved from room to room and explored my new domain.

It was a large house, containing fifteen rooms, beautifully constructed with rounded ceilings and wide stone fireplaces scattered around. The teak flooring was polished to a lovely deep brown, almost black. It gleamed underfoot like dark, still water. The sound of my footsteps echoed through the house on that first day, and I could imagine the house soaking up the sounds of life, which had so long been absent, and I immediately felt at home, as if my entire life had been leading me to this one destination.

I felt welcome.

Even later, when I came to realize that I was not the only resident, that sense of welcome did not diminish.

From the first moment I stepped inside the door, the house seemed to envelope me in its arms, making me feel at home. Making me feel needed. But it was a dangerous need, for there was a threat inside this house as well, although I did not consider the threat to be directed at me. Rex would probably argue that point. He had been uncomfortable and wary of the house from the beginning.

But all this I would only come to realize later, after I had spent a few days and nights inside the walls of this splendid house tucked against this barren, magnificent mountain. In fact, it happened only after I had determined to buy the place, which in retrospect occurred about two minutes after I set foot inside the front door.

The house was still furnished with Nigel Letters’s old belongings. Clunky art deco furniture, recently uncovered and cleaned. Cherrywood cabinets, buffed to their highest sheen. Windows and french doors rendered spotless, allowing the Southern California sun to pierce the house like rays of blessed light penetrating a cathedral. The dark teak flooring shone beneath my feet like obsidian. The Realtor had been true to her word when she told my agent the house would be ready for me. It was indeed. It looked as new as the day it was built, over seventy years earlier.

I could almost hear it breathing.

A circular breakfast room, lined with leaded windows and boasting a high cupola ceiling, jutted off the southeast corner of the house. On my arrival it was the only room unfurnished. Built-in bookshelves lined the walls beneath the windows, freshly painted but empty of books. Ornate art deco wall sconces and a brass chandelier supplied the lighting after the sun went down, but during the day the sunlight streamed in from every angle. To me, it was the most beautiful room in the house. Here I would write. Here, with my books filling the shelves and my computer humming to life on a broad cherrywood desk I found tucked away in a corner of one of the bedrooms, I would spend most of my time.

I should have known it was more than coincidence that the only room completely empty was the one I would most need and most love. It was as if the house already knew me, knew what I would require, knew what would make me happiest. This room was a housewarming gift from the house itself, and I immediately went to work preparing it.

Even before my clothes were unpacked, I had scooted a couple of Indian-print throw rugs under the legs of the massive desk and tugged it down the long hallway, across the dining room, and into the breakfast room, placing it at an angle in the center of the room directly beneath the brass chandelier. I found a red armchair in one of the other bedrooms and placed it behind the desk. Then I unloaded my computer from the trunk of my car, situated it on the desk, and hooked it up. With a stack of fresh, white paper placed neatly beside it, I had everything I wanted.

All I needed to do was send for my books. My own furniture, sitting unused back in LA in my tiny one-bedroom condo, I would either sell or put in storage. I needed nothing more than what the house already offered.

I pulled out the red chair, tucked my legs beneath the wide desk, and stared at the desert landscape outside the breakfast-room windows. I could see for miles down the slope of the foothills, with nothing man-made to mar the view. No buildings, no automobiles, nothing. Nothing but pure unblemished landscape.

Now I felt at home. For the first time in years, I was uncrowded, free. With the house for protection and Rex for companionship, I would be content. I could write here without interruption, for hours on end. Day after day.

My fingers itched for the keyboard.

From some far-off corner of the house, I heard the tinkle of broken glass. A fragile sound. Rex, standing beside my chair, perked up his ears and tensed. A soft whimper emanated from his throat as he gazed at my face with his big brown eyes.

I pushed myself away from the desk and with Rex at my heels, set off in search of the source. Something must have fallen. Perhaps we had mice.

We roamed from room to room, searching for the cause of the sound, but we never found it. Soon the incident was forgotten in the bustle of moving in.

The clothes I had brought with me were neatly hung in the deep walk-in closet in the master bedroom. Nigel’s room. I knew it the moment I saw it. Sturdy mahogany furniture filled every corner. Brass fittings sparkled in the sunlight pouring through the bedroom windows. A four-poster bed stood at attention against the wall, cradling the thickest feather mattress I had ever seen. When I laid my hand on it to test the softness, it all but disappeared in the folds of the chintz bedspread that covered the bed.

The feather mattress would have to go. Allergies. I measured the bed and, digging out my cell phone, ordered a firmer mattress to be delivered the following day—after a five-minute discussion with the clerk as to how to find the house. The feather mattress I rolled into an awkward bundle and hauled off to a distant closet. I doubted I would be getting much sleep tonight anyway. I was too excited. If I had to, I would crash in one of the other bedrooms for the night. Sleep and I were infrequent companions anyway. I did most of my writing at night. How else should horror stories be written?

I admired the heavy, dark bedroom furniture for a long time, standing in the center of the floor, the mattressless bed beside me. The room was large. Massive by LA condo standards. A door to the left led to a walk-in closet. Another door to the right led to the master bath, with sunken tub and tall art deco statuettes standing in every corner like sentinels, slim male figures, nude, their right hands reaching upward to cradle crystal globes. I flicked the light switch on the wall, and the globes came to life, emitting soft, velvety light throughout the room. A flattering light. The sort of light an aging movie star would relish. I glanced at myself in one of the full-length mirrors that ranged across the wall and realized I was rather partial to that light myself. I looked pretty darn good in that fuzzy light. Nigel might have been a first-class asshole, but he had taste. I had to give him that.

On that first day, as I left the bathroom, my eyes were drawn to the one thing in Nigel’s bedroom that seemed out of place: a large hook, like a hay hook, attached to the wall facing another full-length mirror on the opposite wall. With a sharp intake of breath, I realized that this was where Nigel had met his less than illustrious end. He had been hanging from that hook when the housekeeper found him, still draped in taffeta, with his cock in his hand. I found myself wondering if, after the life was choked from his body and the blood no longer churning through his system, settled, he might have maintained his erection even after death, like King Tut, whose royal penis was embalmed for all eternity in a happily erect state. Of course, unlike Nigel Letters, young King Tutankhamen wasn’t pounding his pud at the moment of his death, or not that we know of.

I spun on my heel and stalked off to one of the other rooms in the house I had explored earlier. In my mind I had dubbed it the ego room. Here I had found dozens of framed photos of Nigel Letters from his heyday. Publicity snapshots and stills from his many movies adorned the walls. There were no other decorations in the room, only Nigel’s handsome face peering out from photo after photo. And they were all pictures from his younger years. There were no sagging jowls or puffy eyelids anywhere in evidence.

I plucked one from the wall, a still from the Jack the Ripper film I mentioned earlier, and carried it back to the bedroom, where I carefully hung it from the hay hook on the wall, taking a moment to position it squarely. Nigel was back in the place where he had apparently spent so many happy hours whacking off, until the night he got careless and suddenly found himself whacking off in the afterlife.

It seemed a fitting memorial to the man who’d had the bad taste to die the way he had but still possessed the good taste in life to build this marvelous house.

With Nigel back where he belonged, I went back to the mundane tasks of preparing the house for life.

The kitchen was roomy and well-appointed, right down to an ultramodern microwave oven that looked like it belonged on the space shuttle and would probably take me weeks to figure out.

According to the Realtor, there had been a string of tenants inhabiting the house over the years but few prospective buyers, which seemed odd to me considering the beauty of the place. Perhaps the price tag was the main deterrent. The place didn’t come cheap. But my last book had sold well, and I had made some sound investments over the years, so I figured I could afford it. I had another novel due out in a few months. My publisher had received the final rewrites only days before and had assured me it would do well. Since he had never been wrong before, I tended to take him at his word.

Well-appointed the kitchen may have been, but the cupboards were as bare as the day they were built. The only food in the house was the box of Milk-Bones I had brought along for Rex and a dusty tin of tomato paste I found tucked away on a shelf above the refrigerator. Even Emeril would be hard-pressed to concoct a meal from that. I set about jotting down a shopping list, whistled for Rex, who had found a block of sunlight on the living room floor to take a snooze in, and headed out the door to a supermarket I had noticed a few miles away on the outskirts of San Diego.

Rex waited in the car, his nose pressed to the side window, as I spent an hour in the market, roaming the aisles, buying everything from condiments to veggies to meats to booze. Then I remembered Rex and snagged a fifty-pound bag of Alpo to top off the cart. Two-hundred dollars later, I was back on the road.

As I left the city and the car began climbing the foothills of my little mountain, with Rex’s tongue and ears flapping in the wind outside the passenger window, I found myself humming.

For the first time in my life, I felt myself heading toward a place that I truly thought of as home. I didn’t know I would be sharing that home with the others who already resided there, who had, in fact, been residing there for many years. The ones who could not leave.

That knowledge would come later. And it would alter my perception of the world forever.


MY CELL phone rang as I unbagged groceries in the kitchen on my first day inside the house.

Without preamble, a female voice asked, “Are you staying?”

“Squeeze me?” I said in a bad Mike Myers impersonation before I could stop myself. It was a habit I had long been trying to break. Movie lovers sometimes tend to pluck dialogue from their favorite films and plop them down in everyday life, with occasionally disastrous results.

The woman on the phone sounded suddenly confused, not that I could blame her. “I’m sorry? What did you say?”

“I said ‘excuse me,’” I lied.

“Oh.”

“What did you say?” I asked.

“I asked if you were staying.”

“In the house, you mean?”

“Yes.” Her voice, whoever she was, sounded more amused now than confused. “I’m asking if you intend to stay in the house. This is Caroline.”

“Caroline?”

“The housekeeper. I prepared the house for your arrival. I hope everything was satisfactory.”

I did a mental forehead slap. “Oh! The housekeeper. Yes. The house is wonderful. Spotless.”

“You didn’t find my note, did you?”

“Note?”

“I left you a note on the mantle.”

“I’m sorry, Caroline. I didn’t see it. I’m James Brandon, by the way. And in answer to your question, yes, I am intending to stay in the house. In fact, I intend to buy the house.”

“Really?”

“Well… I think so. It’s a beautiful house. I fell in love with it the minute I walked in the door.”

“Did you just arrive?”

I laughed. “I got here bright and early this morning.”

“And you’ve already decided to buy?”

“Yep.”

There was a silence on the line for a couple of ticks before she said, “Haven’t you ever read any of those books you write?”

“Squee… I mean, excuse me?”

“If I were you,” she said, “I wouldn’t transfer any funds into escrow until you spend a couple of nights in the house. The place may seem a little different in the dark.”

“Have you ever spent a night here?”

“As a matter of fact, no. But my family has had a connection to that house for many years. My mother worked there as a housekeeper off and on over the years, and before that my grandmother worked for Mr. Letters. She was his live-in.”

“Good Lord, don’t tell me your grandmother was the woman who found him on the day he died!”

“No, but she found him the following morning.”

I had to ask. “Did she really laugh so hard that she dropped a coffee pot on her foot and broke two toes?”

Caroline’s laugh came over the line like a tinkle of bells. I could envision her now. A pretty slip of a girl, weighing in at under a hundred pounds, with pale skin and a no-nonsense outlook on life.

“I’ve heard that story before, Mr. Brandon, but I’m afraid it isn’t true.”

“She didn’t laugh?” I asked.

Caroline groaned. “Oh, she laughed all right. And she did indeed drop the tray with the coffee pot on it. But she didn’t break any toes. Only the pot.”

“Well, that’s disappointing.”

I could sense the woman smiling now. “The story of the broken toes rather appealed to your sense of the dramatic, didn’t it? I’ll let you in on a little secret, Mr. Brandon—”

“James. Jim, actually.”

“Jim. That story appealed to my grandmother as well. Even today, when she tells of that morning, she’ll point to the arthritis in her toes and swear it came about because of that falling coffee pot. But I’m afraid it really is just a story. It never happened.”

“Your grandmother is still alive?”

“Yes. She’s ninety-six, and her mind is as sharp as ever. Her body isn’t. She’s in a nursing home in the city. Has been there for more years than I care to remember. She could tell you things about that house….”

“Could she?”

“She could, yes. But that’s not to say she would.”

“Well, perhaps I’ll meet her someday.”

“Perhaps.” The way she said it made me think that she was humoring me now. She got back to the purpose of the call. “When you read the note I left you, you’ll find that the reason for the note was to offer my services to you if you need someone to clean for you. Just a couple of days a week, mind you. I won’t be spending any nights there.”

Teasingly, I asked, “Are you afraid?”

“Yes, Jim, I am,” she said bluntly. “But that’s not the reason. I have a husband and child at home, and I don’t wish to spend that much time away from them. So if you need help with the house, and I should think you would, then I would be happy to help you. My rates are more than reasonable, I think.”

“I’m sure they are,” I said, roaming around the house with my cell phone to my ear, thinking of all the things that would need to be done on a regular basis if I planned to keep the house as beautiful as it was now. Without a housekeeper I would spend all my time cleaning, not writing. An unpleasant thought. I enjoyed housecleaning probably about as much as I would enjoy rectal surgery.

“And,” she added, “if there is any repair work to be done, my husband is quite handy.”

I was about as handy as Rex.

“Well, that’s wonderful,” I said. “Two days a week it is.”

“I would even be willing to cook for you on occasion, if you wish. But I won’t spend any nights there. Are we agreed on that?”

“Absolutely. No nights.”

“And I must insist that when I’m there, you or someone else will always be there with me. I don’t want to be in the house alone. It may sound silly to you, but those are the rules.”

“And your rules are accepted. I spend most of my time writing, so I will always be here. If for any reason I need to be away, we’ll simply change your day. Is that agreeable to you?”

“More than agreeable. Thank you.”

“Thank you.”

We spent a few minutes discussing wages and what hours she would be willing to work, finally settling on Tuesdays and Fridays from nine to six.

With matters of business no longer hanging over our heads, the conversation took on a friendlier tone.

“When I heard it was you moving into the house I went out and bought a couple of your books.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll need the money.”

She laughed.

“So… did you like them?” I asked, with that familiar trepidation creeping into my voice that I had come to expect every time I asked that question of a stranger.

I breathed a sigh of relief when she said, “Very much. I can’t wait to read your next one.”

“Then you’re in luck. There’s one coming out in the fall.”

“That’s wonderful, but I don’t mean that one.”

“I’m sorry. You lost me.”

“I’m talking about the next one. The one you write inside that house.”

“Oh. Well, I don’t have a clue what that one will be about. I haven’t really thought about it yet.”

“It will be about the house, James.”

“Will it?”

“Oh yeah.”

I began to wonder if Caroline, my new housekeeper, wasn’t perhaps a bit flakier than I originally thought.

“What makes you say that?” I asked.

“Haven’t you wondered why no one has bought the house over the years?”

Miss Caroline, as I had already begun to think of her, seemed to be a fairly perceptive flake. I had indeed wondered about that.

“Well,” I said, “I assumed it was the price tag. And perhaps the remoteness of the location.”

“No, James. It’s the house itself. All those rumors about it being haunted aren’t just rumors, you know.”

“Do you know this for a fact, or are you…?”

“That appeals to you, doesn’t it, the fact that maybe the place might be haunted? Judging by the books you write, I should think that would appeal to you very much.”

Perceptive indeed. “As a matter of fact, it does. But I don’t really believe the stories, if that’s what you’re wondering. The house has a past, certainly, but all old houses do. I’ve been here for a couple of hours now, and a ghost hasn’t popped out of the armoire yet.”

“You haven’t heard any odd noises?”

“Well, I did hear the sound of glass breaking, but I racked it up to an errant mouse.”

She giggled like a schoolgirl being offered her first corsage. “Then it’s started already.”

“What has started?”

“The house. It’s testing you. Feeling you out.”

“Oh, come now. Maybe I should clean the house and you should write the books.”

Her laugh was interrupted by what sounded like a tower of pots and pans crashing to the floor.

“I have to go,” she said. “My son is rearranging the kitchen cupboards.”

“A handful, huh?”

“Several handfuls, actually.”

“You’re more than welcome to bring him with you when you work, if you wish. I wouldn’t mind at all.”

“I would mind, Mr. Brandon. I mean, James. I mean, Jim. I’ll never bring my little boy into that house.”

The intensity in her voice surprised me. “Does it really frighten you that much?”

There was a long silence before she finally answered. “Children are not safe in that house. Please remember that. Children have never been safe in that house.”

Softly, she hung up the phone, and I was left with a dial tone in my ear. The sudden silence of the house engulfed me as I clicked my cell phone shut and went about the task of putting away the rest of my groceries.

“Bit melodramatic,” I muttered to Rex, who looked supremely uninterested. “But she cleans well. That’s what counts.”

I MADE two tuna sandwiches, tossing one to Rex, who wolfed it down in less time than it takes to tell about it, and nibbled on the other one myself as I set out to really explore the property.

Miss Caroline, flake or not, had done her job well. The house, all fifteen rooms of it, was immaculate. The skillful workmanship that went into building the house was an amazement to someone who had spent most of his adult life in formula condos, erected with nothing more than speed and economy of space in mind.

Here I found fragrant cedar-lined closets, all walk-ins, each and every one of them as large or larger than my bathroom back in LA. French doors with hazy leaded windows sealed off the rooms. Built-in cupboards and bookshelves and drawers were everywhere. A grand piano stood proudly in a wedge of sunlight in the music room, the keys polished and shimmering, waiting for nimble fingers to bring them to life. After studying the photographs in the ego room, which was just an archway away from the music room, I learned that the ancient Baldwin was there for more than decoration. There were several pictures of Nigel Letters, in topcoat and tails, his dark hair slicked back from his regal forehead, with his fingers at the keys. In one, his eyes were closed, and I could imagine the music swelling around him.

I plopped myself down on the piano bench and laboriously pecked out “Chopsticks.” The acoustics in the room were good. My playing was not. I gently lowered the fallboard to cover the ivory keys to protect them from the harsh sunlight streaming through the window, and continued my exploration, Rex still following along at my heels.

The two guest bedrooms were as different as night and day. Literally. One was decorated in whites and creams and the other in dark grays and black. I began to wonder what sort of mind would think up something like that. Nigel Letters was becoming more fascinating to me by the minute.

Beside the bathroom situated next to the black bedroom, I found the practical part of the house, a laundry room with massive washer and dryer and a water heater banded to the wall, a concession enforced by state law due to the unstable tectonic plates Southern California rested on. Here I found shelves and cupboards well stocked with cleaning supplies, all the unexciting items required to keep a house livable.

The furnace was here as well, a monstrous beast with cast-iron doors like jaws, huddled in the corner, obviously placed there when the house was first built. I wondered if it still worked, then decided it must, considering all the renters the house had entertained over the years.

I left the laundry/furnace room, stepped through the kitchen and dining areas, and entered the living room. It was huge, with varnished wooden beams spanning the ceiling and a fireplace on one wall that was big enough to land a plane in. The art deco furniture, well tended over the years, still looked new. I would later learn that the furniture had spent much of its time in storage since many renters preferred their own more modern pieces to lounge around in on a daily basis rather than this overstuffed and rather pretentious art deco stuff. Personally, I liked it. It suited the house.

It took me back to that bygone era when movie stars were lords and ladies, always regal—at least in their public lives—impeccably dressed every time they stepped foot outside their royal mansions, hair coiffed, makeup perfectly applied, graceful as swans. Movie stars today are just people. When Nigel Letters reigned, they were gods. Hollywood was Mount Olympus, not a Babel of overpriced shops and drug-infested nightclubs where actors and actresses can be seen frequently falling on their faces and making asses of themselves for the paparazzi. Of course, stars in the thirties did all the ridiculous and self-destructive things that stars of the present do, but there were publicity people back then to keep it quiet.

Stars were a commodity, well protected, their foibles shielded from the movie-going public, who expected nothing less than perfection from these twenty-foot titans they watched every Saturday on the giant movie screens. Today, reality has destroyed the dream that once was Hollywood. Everyone now knows that movie stars are nothing more than regular people. Regular people who oftentimes are not smart enough to realize how lucky they are. We might still be in awe of them, but they are no longer worshipped. Not by anyone with a lick of sense at any rate.

The artwork I found scattered around the house consisted mostly of Erte´ prints and some fairly well-done paintings in a Southwestern motif, most of which displayed cowpokes and Indians in various stages of undress. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Nigel Letters was more than a little enamored of the male body. Not that I minded. I have always been rather partial to it myself.

I had a few decent pieces of art of my own hanging on the walls of my condo back in LA, and I spotted places for each and every one of them here. I would have the paintings shipped up with my books and a few other personal items that I had come to love and did not intend to live without. Other than those few well-loved possessions, I would leave the house the way it was.

I knew I was indulging myself. I spent almost every waking hour sitting in front of my computer. What use did I have for a fifteen-room mansion? I could survive quite happily with a ream of paper, an electrical outlet, and a toilet. I supposed it was my love of movies that made this house so appealing to me. And, of course, the ghosts, if that was what they were. That was a definite draw.

I intended to pick Miss Caroline’s mind the first time I had her under my roof. There were secrets in this house she seemed to know something about. It suddenly seemed likely that she might be right when she said that my next book would be about this house. Ideas were creeping into my head already, and that was always a relief. After one book is finished and another yet to be started, I am always filled with the fear that my well of imagination will suddenly dry up, leaving me a basically unemployed and unemployable middle-aged male with no discernible talents other than writing. I probably couldn’t hold down a real job if my life depended on it. Writing is all I know or care about. Without it, I might as well follow in Nigel Letters’s footsteps and hang myself from that hook in the bedroom, although I can’t see myself doing it in heels and an evening gown or whacking off in the process.

I found Miss Caroline’s note on the mantle in the living room, right where she’d said it was. When I unfolded the note, a key fell to the floor. I picked it up and read the note. After offering her services as housekeeper, Miss Caroline had added a postscript explaining that the key was to the carriage house out back. Since the house was not built in the era of horse-drawn carriages, I assumed the term carriage house was just a euphemism for garage. Nigel Letters seemed like the sort of grand personage with an overly inflated ego who would call a garage a carriage house. And I had to admit, it sort of appealed to me too. Gay men can be pretty darn pretentious at times. Far be it from me to buck the trend.

Rex was snoring like a lumberjack on the living room floor, exhausted, I supposed, from all the excitement of moving, although he hadn’t lifted a single article, so I left him there and quietly left the house.

The veranda spanned the entire side of the house, from back to front. Adirondack chairs and lounges were placed at intervals along it as one might have seen on the deck of an ocean liner back in the days of the Titanic. They too, like everything else in the house, must have been taken out of storage and returned to their original positions. They had been recently restored with fresh coats of white paint. Miss Caroline’s husband’s work, I presumed, being handy as his wife had promised.

At the back of the veranda, toward the rear of the house, a small flight of steps led down to a flagstone walk that led directly to the carriage house.

There was no lawn to speak of. Keeping grass alive on this barren mountainside would have been more trouble than it was worth. Still the area along this side of the house was beautifully landscaped with cactus and jade plants, the only plants, presumably, that could thrive in such a dry environment. The sandy soil had been recently raked into circular patterns like those seen in Japanese gardens. Large stones rested here and there to break the monotony, making the area between the main house and the carriage house a pleasant place for quiet contemplation on a day when one didn’t have anything better to do. There was even a little stone bench tucked up against the side of the house, and I wondered if Nigel Letters ever sat out here pondering the demise of his movie career or perhaps deciding what dress to wear for that evening’s autoerotic asphyxiation party.

It must have been a lonely existence for someone who was used to the fawning attention he had reaped in his youth—to suddenly find himself aging and alone so far from the Hollywood that had once looked upon him as a god. Or did he have friends who made pilgrimages here, visiting him in his seclusion? Was the house once alive with the sound of cocktail parties and laughter? Was the Letters house like a teeny version of Hearst’s mansion in San Simeon, where stars of the day came to play far from the watchful eyes of the Hollywood press, where they could let themselves go without their antics finding their way onto the front page of the trade papers, where they could unleash their baser instincts and not have to worry about some studio mogul eating their contract in front of their faces for embarrassing the glorious institution of moviemaking?

Or did Nigel Letters relish this newfound solitude? It had been his decision, after all, to move here. He must have had a reason for turning his back on Hollywood, although by all accounts, it was Hollywood that first turned its back on him. Had he come here for the same reasons I had? For simple serenity and silence? Was this house he built the fortress he needed to sequester himself from a world that, in his eyes, seemed to no longer require his presence?

Was he happy here, or did he reside within these walls in sadness? It seemed of paramount importance to me that I learn the truth. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps because I had followed many of the same paths he had taken so many years ago. I wondered, suddenly, whether I too would die inside this house. Preferably after many long years of residence, of course. I had no intention of doing it this week. After all, I had just invited friends up. It would be the epitome of rudeness to die before they got here. They had only just received their invitations, for God’s sake, and knowing them, they would be highly offended by such slipshod planning. In the gay world, everything has to be just so. Especially where a party is concerned. Death is no excuse. Yes, I definitely had to stay alive at least until my guests arrived. After that, I could politely drop dead if I felt the urge to do so.

I began to wonder if perhaps the next time I rolled down the mountainside and into town, a brain scan might not be in order, or had my thinking always taken such odd twists and turns?

I decided the latter was probably the case, so I pushed everything from my mind and slipped the key into the little door at the side of the carriage house.

It became quickly apparent that Miss Caroline, in her zealous cleaning, had not wandered this far south. The air inside the carriage house was heavy with must, the earthy stench of mushrooms in dank ground. Dead air. As if the building had not been opened to the outside for a very, very long time.

The place was as dark as the inside of a pyramid, and I groped around for a light switch, finally finding one on the wall beside the door. A ceiling light blinked on and dispelled the shadows, but it did nothing for the smell.

Except for a few dusty odds and ends and several packing crates arranged along one wall, the carriage house was empty.

There were no windows. The walls were red brick. All four of them. I stepped outside and walked around to the front of the carriage house, where I saw two sets of double doors, each entryway large enough to accommodate two vehicles. Four vehicles in all. Then I returned to the little side door, stepped inside, and once again studied those four unbroken brick walls. I went back outside, mumbling to myself, and tried one of the front doors. It wasn’t locked. When I pulled it open, I was faced with the same brick wall I had seen on the inside. The small door at the side was the only access to the building. Had Nigel Letters, for whatever reason, added the inside walls after the carriage house was built? I walked around three sides of the carriage house and counted two wide double doors in the front and four windows, two to each side. Only the side door I had entered through had not been bricked up.

The back of the building rested snugly against a sheer cliff wall that protruded straight up at the back of the property to a height of perhaps eighty feet. It gleamed red in the setting sunlight. Sandstone, I thought. It was a natural wall of rock, carved by nature, not by man.

I reentered the carriage house and stood in the center of the room with my hands on my hips and simply stared at those four brick walls. This was a mystery of mythic proportions. Had Nigel Letters been insane? Moving closer to one of the walls, I realized the masonry was not professionally done. It looked like a homemade job. Did Nigel stack and mortar these bricks himself? And if he did, what the hell was the purpose of it? I gave my head a little shake, walked out of the carriage house, flicking off the light as I went, and closed the door behind me. I couldn’t wait to hear what Miss Caroline had to say about this. I also intended to bring the matter up with the Realtor. I might get a few thousand dollars knocked off the price of the property. After all, if I intended to use the carriage house as a garage, I would need to remove the brick walls, and not being handy like Miss Caroline’s husband, I would have to pay someone to do it.

But those were side issues. My main question was why did Nigel Letters erect those walls in the first place? I sincerely hoped I would not go to my grave never learning the answer to that question.

As I climbed the back steps to the veranda, I heard Rex raising holy hell inside the house. He barked for a few moments, then let out an eerie howl that sent the hair bristling up the back of my neck. I ran to the front door and hurled myself inside. Down the hall, I saw Rex standing in the doorway to the music room. The fur was poking straight up along the ridge of his back. He took one look at me, then turned his gaze back into the music room. His lips rose, exposing every tooth in his head. A menacing growl emanated from his throat. As I drew nearer, I saw that he was trembling.

Trying not to wet myself, I peeked around the edge of the music room door and saw—nothing. The room was exactly as I had left it a few minutes earlier. I followed Rex’s gaze, trying to figure out what he was growling at. He seemed to be focused on the piano. Then I saw it.

The keyboard lid, which I had closed earlier, was pushed back against the front of the piano, the keys once again exposed.

As I stood there staring at the keys that now looked like teeth in the wide mouth of some weird wooden beast, I heard the clear tinkle of a single high note as a velvet hammer struck a string inside the piano. The note was pure and in tune. It seemed to echo through the house, then fade away to silence.

A chill swept through me as Rex plopped his ass down on the hallway floor and looked up to see what I was going to do. So I did what any intelligent person would do. I gently slid the leaded glass door to the music room closed and patted Rex on the head.

“Let’s forget that ever happened, shall we?” Did I detect a tremor in my voice? Hell yes, I did.

Rex thumped his tail on the floor a couple of times and pushed his muzzle into my hand, as if to say ignoring what had just happened sounded like an excellent idea to him.

I motioned for Rex to follow, and he obediently trailed along at my heels as I walked to the kitchen, pulled a Milk-Bone out of the box for him, and got a beer out of the fridge for me. We stood there, each in our separate ways—him chewing, me slurping up beer—soothing our jangled nerves. The beer was gone almost as quickly as the Milk-Bone.

I thought, fuck it, and repeated the whole process again. Another beer. Another Milk-Bone. This beer went down a little slower, although the Milk-Bone disappeared just as quickly as the first, and when the second beer was gone, I dropped into the red chair in the breakfast room with Rex at my feet and clicked on the computer.

I wrote until the sun went down and Rex coaxed me outside for a walk. After Rex relieved himself in the middle of the driveway and I cleaned up the mess with a handful of Kleenex, I returned to the computer and continued to write.

The next thing I knew it was morning, and I found myself with my head on the desk, slumped and drooling, with a stiff neck and a sore back and my face stuck to a sheet of paper. Rex was nowhere in sight. I discovered him in the living room, sacked out on the sofa, with his head tucked under a throw pillow as if to say, “If this house has any more surprises for me, I’d just rather not see them, thank you very much.”

Bleary-eyed and achy, with my hair doing God knows what on the top of my head, I just stared at him in disgust. He really was a most profound coward.

I plucked the paper from my cheek with an audible pop and headed for the shower, groaning all the way, dropping my clothes like litter along the hallway as I went. Naked, I peered into the music room through the open door as I passed. The piano was silent.

It wasn’t until later, while the hot shower massaged the aches from my body, that I realized the music room door should not have been open at all.

Redeeming Hope
Prologue
ELI CLUTCHED the glossy eight-by-ten as tears welled in his eyes. He could hardly believe the emaciated, washed-out figure in the picture was the same person he’d centered his entire world around just a few weeks earlier. Eli would recognize that face anywhere. God knows, he’d spent enough time staring at it—running his fingers over those soft lips, sucking on the kidney-shaped birthmark just below the ear. He never imagined he’d see those eyes so lifeless.

“It’s him,” Eli whispered, dropping the picture on the officer’s desk.

His mother rested a hand on his shoulder. “E.J.—”

“Don’t pretend to care, now that he’s dead.” Eli shrugged out of her grasp and clenched his jaw to hold in the gut-wrenching sobs brewing in his chest. “Will I need to identify the body in person too?”

The officer avoided Eli’s eyes, but his voice was kind. “If you’re certain, this is good enough for us. He’ll be released in the next thirty-six hours. Will you be claiming him, or will the city keep him?”

Eli’s eyes widened, and panic ripped through his heart. He’d never expected the search to end with a dead body, and there was no way he’d be able to give his boyfriend the funeral he deserved—the one Eli owed him for his own part in Brian’s death. Prepared to beg, he turned and met his father’s eyes for the first time since Brian disappeared from their house almost three weeks earlier.

“We’ll take care of his arrangements.” Eli’s mother spoke quietly but firmly, and his father dipped his chin in silent agreement.

Relief carried Eli back to his parents’ car, but grief consumed him as soon as he slid into the back seat. Burying his head in his knees, he shut out the rest of the world. Eli didn’t leave the quiet safety of the car until long after he arrived home, his cheeks crusted with salty tears from mourning the loss of the future he’d been so sure of.


Chapter 1
SOMETIMES LIFE just sucked.

There was no rhyme or reason for why good things happened to bad people—or why bad things happened to good people, for that matter. Karma was nothing more than a myth, made up to trick everyone into doing good deeds. Life consisted of a random series of events that would inevitably occur whether you were generous enough to hold doors open for complete strangers or selfish enough to jam the Close elevator button when your boss came running around the corner.

But on days like this, Elijah couldn’t help but wonder what the fuck he’d done to deserve the shitfest that had been dumped on him.

It started on his morning commute when the moron in front of him slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a squirrel—a fucking squirrel—forcing Elijah to swerve off the road and spill hot coffee all over his Dior slacks. Fortunately Elijah kept a spare suit in his office, but as soon as he sat down at his desk, he was assaulted with a list of ten “friendly” reminders from the “former but not quite ready to give it up” CEO of Langley Lumber and Construction—also known as his father. Then the head of his accounting department—the man he’d been training to officially take over the role of CFO so Elijah could cease wearing both hats—put in his two weeks’ notice.


When a conference call ran over, Elijah missed lunch. By the time some environmentalist freak who didn’t think Langley Lumber was doing enough to save the planet showed up in his reception area, he wasn’t even surprised that she’d demanded an audience with “whoever’s in charge.”

Elijah was tired. His nerves were shot, and for the first time in… well, ever… he wanted to cut out of work early, go home, and do absolutely nothing. But it was Wednesday, which meant dinner with his parents, and they always ended the same way—a lecture from his father about everything Elijah needed to do for the business and apologetic looks from his mother while she sipped her wine.

Shoving the cuff of his shirt back to check the time, Elijah saw he still had twenty minutes before his next appointment, and he needed a break to survive his last meeting as much as he needed a quick bite to eat. Shrugging on his suit jacket, he walked down the short hall to reception.

Elijah rapped one finger on his secretary’s desk. “Sherri, I’m heading to Etman’s to get a sandwich. I should be back in time for the four-thirty meeting. If I’m not, tell them to start without me.”

Oblivious to his sour mood, Sherri offered her tight, patented almost-smile and nodded.

Elijah dipped his chin once, a habit he’d only grudgingly acquired from his father, and started toward the door. He stopped in his tracks when the front doors opened and laughter ushered two strangers inside. A young woman, maybe midtwenties, with a pretty, oval face and choppy, shoulder-length blondish-brown hair nudged the kid beside her as if reprimanding him for whatever he’d just said. When she turned her smile toward Elijah, her entire face lit up, making her even prettier than Elijah had first thought. But once he got a good look at the kid beside her, she could’ve been J. Lo and Elijah wouldn’t have noticed. The kid’s hair was different—darker, shorter, and artfully swept to the side—but Elijah would have sworn he was staring at a younger version of the guy he once thought he’d spend his life with.

“Hi,” the woman chirped to Sherri. “I’m Kirsten and this is Kollin. We’re making rounds in the neighborhood, dropping off some information about The Center for HOPE. It’s the LGBT center over on Leftwich. HOPE stands for Healing, Opportunity, Protection, and Equality, and we’re committed to providing a safe place for queer youth to feel accepted and help prepare them for their futures. We’re having a fundraiser in a few weeks to purchase the old Tarboro Inn just down the street from us. We thought it would also be a great opportunity to bring awareness to the community about what HOPE is and what we do.”

She spoke quickly, but Elijah didn’t get the impression it was out of nervousness. He couldn’t say for sure. His eyes stayed glued on the boy she introduced as Kollin.

Kollin shrugged off his book bag and pulled out several information pamphlets. He handed one to Sherri and then turned to Elijah and gave him a curious once-over.

“Nice suit. Dior?”

Elijah nodded once and offered a rare, small smile. “Impressive.”

Kollin raised his shoulder and gestured toward his own outfit—burnt orange pants, a white hippie shirt, and black suspenders he somehow managed to make look good. “I’m into fashion.”

“Ah, I see that,” Elijah replied.

He held out another pamphlet. “You want one of these too?”

Elijah took the paper and glanced at the front page. “You look a little young to work for a place like this.”

“I’m just helping Kirsten out today. She can’t go anywhere by herself apparently.” Kollin raised his voice enough to catch Kirsten’s attention, making her hip-check him in the middle of her conversation with Sherri but not slowing her down at all. “But I’m also one of the impressionable young minds who benefits from everything HOPE has to offer.” He rolled his eyes, but the warmth of his smile told Elijah the kid was grateful for the center.

“You are, huh?” Elijah waved the pamphlet around. “So, what’s the plan for the Tarboro Inn?”

“Adam wants to renovate all the rooms and set up some kind of system so homeless youth can have a safe place to stay. He wants to help them find work and all that. Give ’em a chance to get back on their feet.”

Elijah nodded, once again impressed. What Kollin described was no small undertaking, but if successful… well, his life would’ve been a lot different if something like that had been around seventeen years earlier. He had no business asking something so personal, but as he glanced back at Kollin’s too-familiar face, he couldn’t help himself. “And will you be needing the inn?”

Flashing him a bright smile, Kollin shook his head. When he spoke, the sarcastic lilt was back in his voice. “My parents tolerate me well enough, as long as I don’t wear the suspenders in the house.”

Elijah huffed out a laugh.

“Ready, kiddo?” Kirsten asked, grabbing the back of his shirt.

“Yes, ma’am. Nice meeting you, sir.”

Elijah shook Kollin’s hand and thanked him, purposely not introducing himself. Even if Kollin hadn’t reminded him of Brian, Elijah would have found him to be a breath of fresh air—once he got over the initial shock of staring his past in the face, that is. Kollin was comfortable in his own skin and didn’t seem to give two shits what anyone else thought of him. Elijah didn’t want the kid to know he’d just made one of the most influential men in Cary nearly speechless.

“Mr. Langley, sir?” Sherri stared at him, a questioning look on her face as Kollin and Kirsten left his building. “Would you like me to run down to Etman’s and get you that sandwich? Your meeting starts soon.”

Elijah’s gaze strayed to the clock on the wall. He’d spent over half of his break talking to Kollin. “No thank you. I’ll find something in my office.”

Elijah tapped the pamphlet on Sherri’s desk and went back to his office to review its contents. He showed up at his final meeting of the day almost ten minutes late and still hungry.


IF ELIJAH’S parents noticed how distracted he was at dinner that night, they didn’t mention it. They also didn’t question why he wanted to go through his old room when he excused himself after dinner. His parents had redecorated immediately after he moved out of the house, so it looked nothing like the room he’d grown up in. He found the box he was looking for shoved into the very back corner of his old closet, and briefly considered grabbing the other two as well, but he childishly decided he liked the idea of inconveniencing his parents.

Elijah placed a kiss on his mother’s cheek and assured his father he’d prepared for the quarterly board meeting the following day. He dropped the box in the passenger seat of his Lexus and spent the short drive home wondering what in the hell he was doing. He’d quickly learned that the only way to move past Brian’s death was to pretend he’d never existed. It had been over fifteen years since Elijah locked his past away in his childhood bedroom closet and metaphorically thrown away the key. He knew leaving his past in the past was the smartest thing he could do, but he couldn’t stop himself from plowing forward when he had that old box within arm’s reach.

At home, Elijah poured himself two fingers of scotch from his fully stocked bar and stared at the black and red Air Jordan shoebox on his coffee table. He took a healthy swig of his drink, topped it off again, and sank into the couch. Steepling his fingers, Elijah eyed the top warily and wondered what fresh hell awaited him. As he gently removed the lid, he immediately regretted his decision to take a trip down memory lane.

Staring up at him was the seventeen-year-old version of himself. His smile was huge, and he had a basketball tucked under one arm, but all Elijah could see was the boy tucked under his other arm. Instead of looking at the camera, Brian was grinning up at Elijah, the smile on his face betraying how utterly smitten he’d been. Elijah had always loved that picture. While he’d never considered himself closeted—more like careful—that particular picture told the truth about what he and Brian really were to one another.

The alcohol in Elijah’s stomach swirled around, and he shoved the top back on the box, unable to look into those trusting blue eyes any longer. He pushed it farther away, stood, and ran his hands through his hair. What the fuck was he thinking when he grabbed that box? He hadn’t been able to deal with Brian’s death when he was seventeen, and he sure as hell hadn’t done anything since to change that.

Clearly time didn’t heal all wounds.

Elijah stripped off his suit as he climbed the stairs to his bedroom and carelessly tossed the discarded clothes into a pile outside his closet door. Kollin’s flippant comment about his parents merely tolerating him popped into his mind. Elijah didn’t know the kid from Joe Blow on the street, but he couldn’t help wondering how much truth lurked behind his facetious words. His heart twisted at the thought of Kollin ending up like Brian. Had anything improved? Were there more places like The Center for HOPE? Was it easier to be a gay teenager today than it was fifteen years before? Elijah had no idea, but he was damn sure going to find out.

Winter Wonderland
Chapter One
A ten-foot-tall snow penis towered over Paul Jansen’s front steps. Again.

He perched on the edge of his sofa, sipping his coffee as he kept the curtain pulled back with his foot so he could assess today’s phallic offering. It was pretty good. It had a bulging vein down the front, but it wasn’t as defined as usual. Big balls, but they’d clearly been joined to the shaft in a hurry. The glans had a nice contour—the snow artist usually took the most time there.

He’d give it a B+. Putting his mug aside, Paul tightened his robe before stepping into his boots. Opening the front door, he squinted into the sleet and wind. Saluted the penis. Snapped a photo for posterity.

Then he took aim with his right foot, braced himself against the doorframe and kicked the sculpture into pieces before reaching inside for his shovel so he could deal with the balls.

This was the third snow penis he’d dismantled of the season—the very early snow season, as the first squall had come through in late September. After the October tenth storm, they’d had snow cover ever since. The snow penises had started shortly after the blizzard. The first time had him laughing, and he’d left it up for a few hours. But it upset his neighbor on the other side of the duplex. It also made it tricky to get out the front door. So after taking a picture, he’d kicked it down and told his friend Arthur once he got to work, “Very funny, but stop upsetting Mrs. Michealson.”

Arthur had only blinked at him. “What’s funny?” So Paul showed him the picture on his phone, and Arthur laughed. “That’s pretty good! But how’d you do it? The snow is way too fine to pack.”

“I didn’t. You think I’d put a penis on my own front steps?”

Arthur shrugged as if to say, Why not? He squinted at the photo. “Seriously, this is a work of art. It’s almost a sculpture.”

“Well, it’s gone now.” Paul frowned. “I thought for sure you’d put it there.”

“Nope, sorry.” Arthur passed Paul his phone. “Let’s get to work on this bookshelf.”

Paul had put the snow penis out of his head and focused on his job. Logan Design and Repair had only been open for eight months, and while they weren’t about to go bankrupt, they worked like dogs to break even. Paul had gotten his electrician’s license over the summer, and Arthur was working on plumbing. They didn’t do anything big, but they could fuss with a water heater, a fritzing stove, a garbage disposal. Right now they were assembling custom bookshelves for the new pastor’s study at the Lutheran church.

Paul did the books, which often kept him at the shop late. When that happened, dinner usually appeared, delivered by Frankie, Paul’s other best friend’s fiancé. Sometimes it was stew or something homemade, sometimes it was a hot beef sandwich from the café. Sometimes he got hauled off to Arthur’s house to have dinner with the whole gang: Frankie and Marcus, Gabriel and Arthur. Hauled off was the only way they got him there, because Paul hated being the fifth wheel.

Though he was equally tired of being alone.

The day the first snow penis showed up they’d tried to get Paul to come to dinner once they were done ribbing him about his secret admirer, but Paul refused to go, opting to eat his dinner from home at the shop as he caught up on some paperwork.

Shortly after he settled in, his mother called.

“Paul. I’m glad I caught you.” The clipped, irritated tone made it clear glad was a figure of speech and nothing more. “I heard about the incident on your porch. I hope you told Arthur it was in poor taste and I won’t have to hear about this happening again.”

Arthur’s name dripped with disdain as it came out of her mouth. “Actually, I have no idea who did it.”

His mother clucked her tongue. “What a scandal. Have you told the police?”

About a snow penis? Paul entertained himself for a minute with the idea of trying to file that report. “It’s only a prank, I’m sure. Probably won’t happen again.”

“I certainly hope not.” She paused, her tone promising she was about to segue into the real reason she’d called. “I wanted to know if you were coming to church this Sunday.”

Oh, hell. Whenever Mary Jansen told her son she wanted to know if he was going to church, it was code for I have someone I want you to meet. And this someone would not, under any circumstances, be male.

Paul fumbled for a lie. “I’m due to go hunting with the guys this weekend.”

“You’ve hardly been to service lately. What will Pastor think?”

“I went a few weeks ago, but I promise I’ll go again soon.”

“Let me know when, and I’ll have your favorites for dinner after.”

His favorites and an eligible young lady. “I will,” Paul said. This was also a lie.

She’d ended their call shortly after that, but the exchange put Paul off finishing his supper and distracted him enough he mostly stared, frowning at the totals on the computer screen until it was just past midnight. Giving up, he headed home.

A new penis blocked his front door.

The second one had been something else. Not quite as tall, but it curved carefully to the right, and it had all the veins detailed like it was going to be used for an anatomy lesson. This one was uncircumcised, and the balls had hair—dried grass fused into the snow.

He took a picture of this one too, sending it to Marcus, Gabriel and Arthur as a group text. Fess up. Which one of you is the artist?

He had his money on Frankie, since he was the stylist, but either they were all practiced liars, or it wasn’t any of them. They all replied laughing, insisting it wasn’t them, dying to know who it actually was.

Paul had no idea.

He wracked his brain, crawling through his most recent hookups, but none of them fit the penis-sculpture bill. None of them lived in Logan, either, and while he did live on the edge of town, whoever was giving his front steps dick was putting in serious effort at weird hours in questionable weather. This had to be somebody local.

Everybody in town ribbed him about his snow sculptures. Some people, usually older women, clucked their tongues and seemed to blame him for disgracing the town, but most people thought it was funny. Someone had snagged a picture of the second one, and it wasn’t uncommon for Paul to stand up from selecting a can from the bottom shelf at the grocery store to find someone grinning and showing him a Facebook photo of his front steps with a penis on it. Not knowing how exactly he was supposed to respond, Paul would chuckle or roll his eyes, basically aw-shucks his way out of the awkward.

His mother, of course, kept urging him to report the “indecency” to the authorities. His elderly neighbor hounded him with fears this meant they were about to see a home invasion. His sister, Sandy, sent him several Facebook messages explaining to him in self-righteous disdain how embarrassing the situation was to the family and how it was Paul’s responsibility to keep it from escalating.

Paul wasn’t sure what there was for him to do. He’d figured the first two for kids distracting themselves from the fact that they were getting full-on blizzards this early in the year. This third one, though, tipped him into annoyance.

The night following the third penis, after the little old lady behind the library checkout desk flashed him a snow-penis photo before she scanned his card, Paul complained to Gabriel, Logan’s librarian and Arthur’s fiancé. “Why just me?” he complained as Gabriel stood with him in the vestibule while Paul put on his coat. “It can’t even be a gay thing. You and Arthur aren’t getting it, and neither is Marcus or Frankie.”

“We’re too far out in the middle of nowhere. If anyone showed up on our lawn, Arthur would meet them with a shotgun.” Gabriel rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “But yes, you’re right, Marcus and Frankie should be fair game in their new house, if it’s a gay thing. Though maybe they’re afraid to target a lawyer who looks like a grizzly bear.”

Paul sighed as he wrapped a scarf around his neck. “I thought about rigging up a video camera to catch them, but I don’t have one. Plus it’s so cold and snowy, it would probably fog over or plain not work.”

Gabriel grimaced at the parking lot, which was a wasteland of snow and drifts. “It’s ridiculous how early the snow came this year. Frankly I’m terrified of January at this rate. Everyone’s worried, talking not about if we’ll lose power, but when and how often. Your snow-penis adventures are almost comic relief.”

“My neighbor doesn’t find them funny.”

Gabriel waved this idea away. “Edna Michealson loves to complain. Every time I run the Bookmobile, I have to mark out a half hour for her stop. Not to discuss books, but to listen to her itemization of the things she’s angry about that day.”

Paul didn’t enjoy listening to his eighty-nine-year-old former fourth-grade teacher lecture him about inappropriate snow organs. “They were cute at first, but enough is enough.”

Gabriel’s lips twisted in a sly grin as he leaned into the wall beside the coat rack. “I’m having fun watching Arthur attempt to replicate them. He’s finally figured out he needs to add water, but he doesn’t have the ratio correct and either ends up with soup or crumbs. Yesterday he managed an obelisk, but it cracked in half when he tried to add a testicle.”

Paul tugged his stocking cap into place, arranging it so the hole from the nail he’d caught it on wasn’t over his ear. “My family is convinced it’s Arthur.”

“I know we’ve been teasing you about it, but maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s a secret admirer.”

Paul snorted. If the snow-penis artist truly was an admirer…well, honestly, Paul wasn’t sure what he thought of that. Why not message him on Grindr and ask to meet for coffee? Anybody whose idea of courtship was c**k-blocking his front door…

Okay. It was a little cool. And even when the balls were glued on and he had to chisel them off the stoop, he laughed.

Paul waved goodbye to Gabriel and went home, stopping at the café to grab dinner. Unwrapping his hot beef sandwich, he sat in front of his television with the movies he’d checked out from the library.

It was admittedly too early, but Paul was already on his second round of Christmas movies. Gabriel had built up quite a collection, and there were enough new ones Paul had a lot of ground to cover before the actual holiday.

He loved the Hallmark and Lifetime movies. The first movie, Christmas with Holly, reminded Paul of the year he, Arthur and Marcus had lived together at Arthur’s cabin—that was the Christmas where Marcus and Frankie met, when Frankie got stranded in Logan. That holiday the four of them had become a family.

The second one, Christmas Lodge, wasn’t as good. It was sweet and cute and had that squishy quality Paul favored, where all the problems evaporated and Christmas was amazing. But it had a heavy Christian bent, and Paul couldn’t sink into it the way he wanted. While nobody in the movie was overtly homophobic, Paul knew the movie producers would tell him he didn’t deserve a gooey Christmas miracle because he was gay. He loved, though, the way the heroine found the perfect guy in the perfect place in the mountains. He knew real life wasn’t like that, but he adored sinking into the soft feeling where things did work out, especially at Christmas.

He could use a good Christmas. He could use a perfect guy showing up on his front door with a wreath and a wry smile, ready to move into his life. It hadn’t happened exactly that way for either Marcus or Arthur, but…well, it hadn’t escaped Paul’s notice that the last two years were like they’d taken turns getting Mr. Right for Christmas.

Three years, and three of them. The three bears, Frankie teased them. That made Paul baby bear, he supposed, which was fine. But he’d been trying to find his Goldilocks all year long, and he’d pretty much dated or bedded every gay man in the county and then some. Unless someone else got stranded during a blizzard, he couldn’t see how he’d be getting a happily-every-after for Christmas.

He checked his Grindr in case he could hunt down a different kind of happy ending, but there was only the usual nudge from PrinceCharming1990. Paul had no idea who the guy was, or even where he was—he had his location turned off. Wherever Prince Charming lived, he had some kinky ideas of what he wanted to do with Paul, and he was damn persistent about them.

Tonight PrinceCharming1990 played it coy. Let’s play in the snow.

Paul ignored the request to play in the snow the same as he had all the other not-really-veiled innuendos.

1990. That was probably the guy’s birth year. Paul would turn thirty-eight in February. When Prince Charming had been born, Paul was entering high school. That was just…no. The thought alone made him feel like a child molester. Even if this particular child could curl his toes with some of his sexual suggestions.

Prince Charming wasn’t on a sex app and wasn’t crafting snow organs on his doorstep. Paul put ice penises and Grindr out of his mind and one of the disks from the ten-pack of holiday romancesinto the player.

He’d been looking forward to this DVD set ever since Gabriel had ordered it for him, and he’d saved it for last in his current checkout binge only because the other two were due the next day. He had every intention of watching at least two of the ten movies, but he’d gotten up too early, and he fell asleep five minutes into the first one. One minute the first movie was starting, and then he opened his eyes and found himself staring at the silent home-menu screen.

Listening to the scritch, scritch, scritch of something on his front porch.

Paul sat up slowly, blinking at the door. It sounded like a raccoon. Or a bear.

Swish, swish, swish. Scritch, scritch, scritch.

Scrape. Shuffle. Scrape.

That wasn’t a bear. That was somebody on his front porch.

That was somebody assembling a snow penis on his front porch.

He scooted to the edge of the couch, checking the urge to rush to the door. If he made too much noise, whoever it was might run off. If he tiptoed to the door, he could pull it open and catch them by surprise. Halfway to the door, though, it occurred to him he should maybe have a weapon. Nothing lethal, but…well, if it wasn’t a couple of kids, he should be ready.

He didn’t have a baseball bat, though. He had his hunting rifles in the closet, but those were hardly appropriate. He also didn’t have a lot of time. A peek through the curtain revealed the penis was nearly assembled.

One guy. Not a kid, and not a bruiser. All Paul could make out was a dark-colored parka and a knit hat with earflaps. The pants were different. Kind of like the things they wore in hospitals. What did you call them? Scrubs. Something about them rang a bell, but he couldn’t figure out why.

In the end, he went without a weapon. Whoever this was, Paul could take him, though he doubted it would come to that. Drawing a deep breath, he steeled himself for God only knew what and put his hand on the doorknob.

He managed to flip the light switch after he yanked, which meant as the dim bulb illuminated the porch steps, he got a good look not only at a seriously articulated frenulum but the face of a bright, blue-eyed young man, cheeks pink from cold.

Paul stared. “Kyle? Kyle Parks?”

Kyle’s lips closed, pressing into a thin line. Then, bold as you please, he lifted an eyebrow, and his sly smile made Paul shiver in a way that had nothing to do with cold.

Blowing Paul a kiss, Kyle stepped off the porch and into the night, leaving Paul to stare at the snow penis, which he saw now came with a piece of printed card stock hanging by yarn cemented into the sculpture.

The card read, Let’s play in the snow.

Paul lifted his gaze to the intricately crafted penis, seven feet tall, flared glans gleaming like an icy jewel in the porch light. He thought about Kyle Parks, the nice night nurse standing out here on his porch, carving the penis, shaping all those veins.

Sending him all those PrinceCharming1990 Grindr texts.

Kyle. Little Kyle. Offering to lick his…

Paul shut his eyes, but he still saw the wicked smile from Kyle mixed in with PrinceCharming1990’s naughty suggestions.

Letting his breath out in a ragged huff, he opened his eyes and yanked the card off the penis. He kicked the sculpture over, not taking a photo, not lingering to watch it crumble in his haste to get inside and flip off the light.

But he lay in bed for hours, staring up at the ceiling, so far from sleep he wasn’t sure he’d ever get there again.

That couldn’t have happened. Of all the people who might have mounted a snow penis on his porch…

Let’s play in the snow.

To his shame, Paul got a little hard.

He buried his face in his pillow, groaning into the stuffing. He couldn’t act on this. He needed to block PrinceCharming1990 right now.

He didn’t, though. He lay in bed until the wee hours of the morning, the cheesy Christmas movies mingling with Kyle Parks’s wicked smile, until they tangled together and he dreamed of sweet Kyle standing outside a picturesque log cabin, smiling and welcoming Paul home.

Flanked by an army of well-endowed snow penises.

Everyone in Logan thought they knew who Kyle Parks was. Everyone in Logan was wrong.

The problem of growing up in a town of less than one thousand was people couldn’t seem to let go of your youth. They remembered Kyle selling Boy Scout popcorn or sitting in their Sunday school class or wetting his pants in their backyard when he wasn’t quite potty-trained, and somehow all those memories meant they couldn’t accept he wasn’t that kid anymore. In their heads, he was still the leggy little boy with a bad haircut. And everybody, everybody still talked about how he’d had such a habit of tottering around in his mother’s makeup and heels. Shouldn’t that have been our first clue? Except even there he wasn’t a gay man. He was a gay kid.

It didn’t help, Kyle knew, that he looked like a kid. Not only did he get carded everywhere he went, but more often than not people argued with him. You can’t be twenty-five. Out of town they talked about his baby face, but in Logan the people who’d known him since he was little insisted he still was little. The general consensus was he might, possibly, be almost twenty, but that was as far as they’d go. The State of Minnesota’s decree on his license that he’d been born in 1990 had to be a mistake. Someday Kyle supposed he’d be grateful for his youthful looks, but right now, he’d give anything for a few gray hairs. Or the ability to grow more than peach fuzz for a beard. Or a hometown where people were willing to believe he wasn’t Peter Pan.

As he drove away from Paul Jansen’s duplex, heart beating too fast, memory of Paul’s shocked, slightly horrified face burned into his brain, Kyle hated his youthful appearance more than he ever had.

In his head, making the snow sculptures combined with Grindr taunts had been the perfect flirtation. It was true, he couldn’t get Paul to give him so much as a second glance in person, but he’d assumed that was the whole you’re too young thing again. Possibly the I only date big, hairy bears thing, though he’d seen Paul with a few svelte men. Kyle had already tried to alter his own type—for a week he ate nothing but fatty food and drank whole milk, but he ended up losing weight because he got sick from all the junk. In the end, he’d reasoned all he had to do was get Paul to see him as a fun, sexual object. And available. And willing. Ergo, Grindr. Except Paul had at best nibbled on his lures.

The first snow penis had been a lark, but he’d gotten more mileage out of that than a pile of dirty direct messages, so he figured what the hell—lather, rinse, repeat. If he’d thought Paul would catch him in the act, he would have dressed for the occasion, or worn something he could have undressed in more quickly. Though from the look on Paul’s face, it wouldn’t have mattered. Dammit.

The drive between Paul’s house and his own home was brief, but no one else was awake at this ungodly hour, so Kyle was able to continue scowling to himself as he put away his coat and pulled material out of the refrigerator to make a sandwich. In deference to his shitty mood, he added an Angry Orchard cider. Putting the whole business on a tray, he shuffled around the corner to his room.

As he ate, he wondered, not for the first time, if it would help if he got his own place. It was possible Paul would reject him at any age and in any locale—which hurt—but…well, Kyle was willing to try anything.

He finished off his sandwich quickly but nursed his cider as he poked around the Internet, turning the volume down as he indulged in some shameless porn-clip surfing. Since he was cranky, he didn’t go for his favorites but instead fed his bad mood by searching for his kink in free two-to-six-minute teasers.

Because even in his porn he was “too young”. He’d bet his ass none of the guys in the bear-twink sections were twenty-five, and Christ, if he was dumb enough to go to the daddy-kink section, he got alarmingly young boys and men who reminded him of his grandfather. Which, he wasn’t casting any stones. But could a guy get a thin, handsome young man with a cute, cuddly bear who was either his own age or only a little bit older?

He knew better than to hope he’d stumble on the twink doing the bear. Oh, those videos existed, and you can bet your ass he had them bookmarked. But when he was in a mood like this…well, he didn’t know why all he wanted to do was drive home how impossible he was, but it’s what he reached for. In case he had some idea his problem was because he lived in a teeny-tiny town in the middle of nowhere. No way. He was a freak in every direction. Long, narrow feet. Skinny body and long legs. Baby face. Feminine mannerisms. Nellie bottom tattooed on his forehead against his will.

He had a nice haircut, and an excellent dye job, since Frankie Blackburn had moved to town and opened up a hair salon. Other than that, everything was miserable, and he might as well have a second cider.

He didn’t, because at this point it was six in the morning, and his mother was almost up. It didn’t matter how many times he told her it was different to drink in the morning when you’d been up all damn night, she still clucked and fussed. Which he supposed was another argument to move into his own place.

I’ll scan the ads tomorrow, he told himself as he climbed under his covers and drifted off to sleep.

His dreams were a fu**ed-up mash of porn, Paul and work. Which got weird when his brief foray into medical porn clips inspired dreams of Kyle giving a naked Paul a prostate exam in a nursing home bed. Had he been awake, he’d have shut his imagination down, but as it was, he woke hard and came in the shower with the very pretty image of naked Paul Jansen on all fours, begging for Kyle’s c**k.

His mother was in the kitchen as he came out, cooking pork chops for lunch, and she smiled and murmured, “Good morning,” to Kyle as he emerged. A country station played in the background, and Daryl Parks sat at the table, reading the paper. Kyle’s brothers sat across from each other, scanning through mobile phones. At the smaller table by the sliding door, three of Kyle’s nieces and nephews fought over who had more chicken nuggets and tried to spill each other’s milk.

Kyle peeked around the corner to the dining room and the TV room beyond before frowning at his mother. “Where’s Linda Kay?”

“I don’t know.” Jane Parks’s tone was heavy singsong, her eyes wide as she nodded toward the cupboard.

Kyle made a big show of scratching his chin and frowning. “Oh, no. Do you think she moved out?”

“It’s difficult to say.” Jane’s voice played along, but she returned her focus to lunch preparations.

“That would be a shame. It snowed again last night, and I was going to make a new fort. A big one.” He sighed dramatically. “I suppose I’ll just make a small one for the kids.”

The door to the pantry opened as two hundred pounds of beaming, gleeful woman emerged. Linda Kay enveloped Kyle first in a wide smile with her tongue protruding past her lips before wrapping arms around him and squeezing him. “I got you, little brother.”

Kyle hugged her back as best he could, and his smile, if not as beautiful and pure as hers, was heartfelt. “You got me all right. Does this mean you’ll make a snow fort with me?”

Linda Kay squinted her eyes shut tight and shook her head hard enough to flap her brown hair into his face. “No. I want to make a dragon. Breathing fire.”

“A fire-breathing dragon?” Kyle repeated, his brain already running ahead of him with the possibilities.

“That fire will be made out of snow, not the propane tank,” Jane remarked dryly from the stove.

Damn. Kyle grimaced at Linda Kay. “Our mother is no fun.”

Linda Kay got a wicked look in her eye as she leaned in and whispered loudly in Kyle’s ear, “I’ll sneak it out of the garage.”

“You will not, Linda Kay.”

When Linda Kay pouted, Kyle kissed her cheek. “We’ll find a way to make it cool. Let me get something to eat and a cup of coffee, and it’s on.”

Linda Kay followed Kyle around the kitchen as he made himself a pod of decaf in the Keurig, and when he leaned on his mother’s left shoulder to peer at his breakfast/lunch, his sister took up a similar position on the right side.

Jane sighed. “You two. Can’t you wait ten more minutes?”

“We’re hungry.” Linda tried to pinch off a corner of a pork chop only to laugh as Jane swatted her away.

This was because after twenty-five years as Kyle’s twin, she knew the drill. While she made her feint, Kyle stole a piece of bacon from the plate by the stove. He took a bite before surreptitiously passing Linda Kay the rest behind Jane’s back. As his sister scuttled off with a wicked chuckle, Kyle leaned on the counter and sipped his coffee while he chatted with his mother.

“Do you work tonight?” she asked him. “I know the schedule has been a mess lately, and I’ve lost track of your rotation.”

He nodded. “The late-late shift. Eleven-to-seven. But tomorrow I have off, because I’m day shifts over the weekend.”

Jane clucked in disapproval. “It’s not healthy for you to work such irregular hours. It’s bad enough with all those overnights.”

“Somebody has to work them. Though, there’s good news.” He grinned as he set his coffee aside. “I hear Dolorianne is thinking of retiring.”

Jane nearly dropped her spatula in joy. “Oh—does that mean you could take her shift? The regular days-only one?”

Kyle rolled his eyes. “God, I wish. No, this would mean I could have the three-to-eleven one if I wanted it.”

She frowned. “But, Kyle, you can’t possibly go back to school with those hours.”

Not this again. “Mom, I don’t want to be a registered nurse. I’m fine with being an LPN.”

“But you’d have so many more career opportunities as an RN, and you’d make more money.”

Kyle didn’t want to have this argument for the eightieth time, so he changed the subject. “How was your circle meeting yesterday?”

She brightened. “Oh—it was wonderful. The Ruth Circle and the Hope Circle met at the church, and the library board came over too, even Mr. Higgins. The fundraiser is on for sure.”

“So more sleigh rides with Santa and dancing after?”

“No, this year there will be more. A craft fair, an ice-skating rink, and all the local businesses will have open houses. And.” She elbowed him and waggled her eyebrows. “I told them you’d make snow sculptures.”

“Mom.”

“Don’t complain. You love doing it, and Linda Kay will get such a kick out of helping.”

“They’re something special I do with her.” And until I got caught, on Paul’s front steps. Kyle glowered into his coffee. “Am I going to get paid, at least?”

She swatted him hard enough to make him yelp. “Kyle David Parks! Of course you won’t get paid. All the funds go to the library.” She aimed a wooden spoon at his nose. “And when you stop by to talk to Gabriel Higgins about what kind of sculptures, don’t you dare bring up money.”

Kyle held up his hands in self-defense. “I swear I won’t.”

Mollified, she added some cheese to the eggs she fixed for Kyle because she insisted people needed eggs for breakfast, whenever it happened. “It’s going to be something special. There will be charter buses from the Cities and Duluth, a Santa village and reindeer. They even have a theme this time. Winter Wonderland.”

That wasn’t a theme so much as a cute, generic title, but Kyle wasn’t going to argue. “Sounds great. I’ll stop by the library tomorrow, see if Linda Kay wants to go along.”

“If it snows the way it’s supposed to, that will work out nicely. She has designs on going to Eveleth to see Kenny, and she’ll be upset if the weather cancels her plans.”

“Okay.” Kyle pushed off the counter to get plates and glasses for the table, but his mother caught the edge of his T-shirt and held him in place.

“I also heard at the meeting there was another sculpture on Paul Jansen’s front porch this morning.”

Kyle grimaced, his black mood returning with a vengeance. “Yeah, well, it’ll be the last one.”

“I should hope so. He’s too old for you.”

“He’s thirty-seven, not seventy. Besides, our age difference is only three years more than the one between you and Dad.”

Jane pursed her lips and became focused on over-seasoning Kyle’s eggs. “I don’t understand why you can’t date someone your age, is all I’m saying.”

“Because the men my age are idiots. Also, there are five of them on my team in the whole county.” He pushed his toe into the loose section of a floor tile. “It doesn’t matter. He’s not interested. Nobody’s interested.”

She hesitated. “I bet there are more gay men your age in Duluth.” When Kyle gave her a hurt look, she kissed his cheek. “Don’t pout. I’m not telling you to move out. I’m trying to help you be happy.”

“I want to be happy here. If I move out, it will be to an apartment downtown.”

Linda Kay stuck her head around the corner where she’d been eavesdropping, her face a picture of betrayal. “You can’t move out!”

“I’m not moving out.” Kyle pulled out a stack of plates and passed them to her. “I’m setting the table, and you’re helping.”

She grumbled, but she helped all the same. When they sat down to eat, she leaned in close and whispered, “How did the snow penis go?”

He shook his head. “Busted. And he didn’t like it.”

Linda Kay flipped her wrist in a dramatic throwaway gesture. “Please. No taste.”

Grinning, Kyle leaned over and kissed her hair. “I love you, Linda Kay.”

“That’s because I’m awesome.” She stole a piece of his bacon and winked in her delightfully clumsy way. “We’ll give our snow dragon a big penis.”

“Mom would have a fit.”

She gave him a please, don’t be stupid look. “So we hide it, obviously.”

She held up her hand for a high-five. Kyle gave her one, then ate his eggs, his black mood getting buried under plans for an elaborate, ice-breathing dragon with a hidden dong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

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

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

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

“I wasn’t going to say anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or honesty.

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

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

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

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

“How old is it?” Dylan asked.

“It was built in the ’90s.”

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

“No. The 1990s.”

“It looks older.”

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

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

“They copied an older style of architecture.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It could be worse.”

“How?”

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

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

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

“It does.”

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

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

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

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

“Well, is it everything you dreamed?”

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

Not that he’d ever admit it out loud.

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

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

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

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

“Let’s do it here,” Dylan whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

Literally.

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

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

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

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

Did they have any lube handy? Or condoms?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought I saw—”

“What? A photographer?”

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

“Did he have a camera?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want a drink?”

“That won’t help.”

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

Anything.

As long as it was only for tonight.

Anything he needed, but only until morning.

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

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

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

Nobody there.

***

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

If only it could be like this every day.

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

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

Buying the house had been the first step.

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

Not yet, at least.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JayWalk in the Throes of Drug-Induced Hallucination!

JayWalking His Way to the Loony Bin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He found nothing but dirt and damp cobblestones.

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

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

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

“I have a flight to catch.”

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

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

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

Jason’s heart sank. “Oh?”

“Remember Tryss?”

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

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

“I have turned that down.”

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

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

“I had a great time last night.”

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

“You know I love you, right?”

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

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

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

And casual.

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

Jason nodded. “Right,” he lied.

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

Like a friend.

“Take care, JayWalk.”

“You too.”

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

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

Funny how solitude and loneliness felt so much alike.

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

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

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

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

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

“Jason! How’s my favorite client?”

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

It was pathetic, any way you sliced it.

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

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

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

“Getting there.”

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

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

“Well, now, hear me out.”

“That good, huh?”

“They’re both horror movies.”

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

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

“Is it a ‘found footage’ film?”

“As a matter of fact, it is.”

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

“Don’t you at least want to—”

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

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

“It’s complete crap, isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

“It isn’t found footage!”

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

“It’s a sequel.”

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

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

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

“It’s set on a small cruise ship.”

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

“Apparently, it was all a dream.”

“Are you shitting me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean me being outed by StarWatch?”

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

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

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

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

“What’s the pay?”

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

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

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

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

“April.”

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

“They think they can wrap in three months.”

“So, I should plan on five.”

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

“How soon do they need an answer?”

“By the first of January.”

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

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

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

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

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

Somebody was there!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“It’s Jason.”

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

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

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

“I assume she’s moved on.”

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

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

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

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

“Your agent. Natalie something?”

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

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

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

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

“In that window.”

“In the garage?”

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

“What exactly did you see?”

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

“In the window?”

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

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

“Jason. My name is Jason Walker.”

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

“No.”

“Any drugs?”

“No!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think it hasn’t happened before?”

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

“No kidding.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, they do.”

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

“Right. And Jadon Walker Buttermore.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alone.

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

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

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

“Mr. Walker?”

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

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

That meant . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes the boy was there.

Sometimes he wasn’t.

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

A ghost. A hallucination. A real person.

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

If real ghosts existed.

Which they didn’t.

No. Definitely not a ghost.

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

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

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

It still made his blood boil to think about.

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

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

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

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

Nonetheless, he had to go.

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

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

Or an ax?

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

Still . . .

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

He knocked.

Boom, boom, boom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this a prank?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know . . .”

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

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

The Greatest Gift
“Are you asking me to walk away from it?” Sometimes in the night he’d wake up and ask himself if it was worth it, so he understood Rafe’s concern. But then he remembered Seth’s words, inscribed in his heart—if you give up, maybe that one person whose life you can help won’t make it because you aren’t there.

And that meant everything was worthwhile.

“No, of course not. I know how hard you’ve worked. It’s hard to see you sad, that’s all I’m saying.” Rafe toyed with the beer bottle. “I don’t want you to change from the happy person you always were.”

“Am I?”

His greatest fear, the one that prevented him from adopting a child and giving Rafe that family unit was losing his joy and becoming bitter and disillusioned, like so many others.

Without answering, Rafe took his hand and led him to the sofa where they sat down together, legs entwined.

“No, not yet. But I could see how easily it might happen. I know you’re doing it because of your brother—”

“No, you have it all wrong. It may have started out to beat what killed Seth, but now I want it because I feel as if I am making a difference. That if I help one person it can be the start of helping two or three.”

Alex needed this validation from Rafe, the person he loved beyond anything to ground him. While this residency was brutal emotionally, the rewards it reaped were worth the toil and he’d gladly give of himself if it helped his patients. He needed to know that Rafe wouldn’t give up on him and their marriage.

“I want to keep on with it but I don’t want to lose you in the process. If I become a different person or you see me change for the worse you need to point it out to me; smack me in the head and tell me I’m fucking us up.”

There was such tenderness in Rafe’s eyes, and his lips curved in a smile. “You’ll never lose me; I’m in it for the long haul. It’s you I worry about. I don’t want you to lose yourself.”

There was a sense of peace wrapping his arms around Rafe to hold him close; something special and wondrous in being secluded from the rest of the world with the one person who understood and never judged him, who merely loved and provided a warm and safe harbor to return home to every time.

“I’ll try not to.” He rubbed his feet over Rafe’s, warming them up against his socks. “But if I do, make sure you look hard.”

“You could never hide from me,” said Rafe kissing his cheek. “No matter where you go, I’ll always find where you are.”

Maelstrom
Chapter 1
Whyborne
I stood amidst the press of bodies at the Nathaniel R. Ladysmith museum, desperately wishing I were elsewhere. Preferably back in Alaska; although I’d despised the cold climate, at the moment the memory seemed heavenly compared to the stuffy heat of the crowded grand foyer. Sweat crept down my back beneath my layers of clothing, and I longed to slip outside and remove my gloves. In previous years, I might have at least escaped to one of the open windows in hopes of catching a bit of a breeze.

Unfortunately, the days of my anonymity were over. Almost as soon as I arrived this evening, Dr. Hart and the museum’s president Mr. Mathison cornered me. We’d soon been joined by the head librarian, Mr. Quinn, whom I couldn’t remember ever seeing outside of the Ladysmith’s library before, let alone in formal wear.

The gathering tonight celebrated a rather large donation of rare books to the museum’s library. Although my philological expertise tended to the deciphering of more ancient languages, the source of the donation made it of more than usual interest to me.

Two years ago, my husband Griffin and I had traveled to Egypt to assist our dear friend Dr. Christine Putnam. Christine’s sister, Grafin Daphne de Wisborg, had joined us, ostensibly in mourning for her dead husband.

In reality, Daphne had used the books in the late graf’s library to find a way to communicate with the spirit of Nitocris, Queen of the Ghūls, lurking Outside our ordinary world and awaiting her chance to come back. Daphne, possessed by Nitocris, then murdered her husband and came to Egypt with the intent of turning the world into a wasteland of the dead for her ghūls to rule over. My left shoulder still bore the scar of the bite she’d inflicted with her jackal teeth, as we fought for our lives in the Egyptian desert. As for Christine, losing her only sister in such a terrible fashion…well, she didn’t speak of the incident, but it couldn’t have been easy.

The letter from the current Graf de Wisborg had taken Christine by surprise; that much I did know. The young graf had found himself in possession of a crumbling castle he had little interest in maintaining, and an extensive library he cared for even less. Daphne’s connection with Christine, and thus the museum, had inspired him—and if his generous donation came with the chance to travel and meet rich American heiresses, so much the better.

I’d come tonight not only to please the museum director, but to offer my support to Christine. Her nerves were already stretched thin from the stress of planning her upcoming wedding; this had certainly done them no good. Unfortunately, I could think of no way to politely extricate myself from the director and president.

“This is quite the triumph, don’t you think, Mr. Quinn?” asked Dr. Hart. His balding head shone with sweat, and his face flushed red with the heat.

“Indeed.” White tie and tails somehow failed to make Mr. Quinn look any less like an undertaker. His silvery eyes went to Dr. Hart, then to me. He then proceeded to stare at me without blinking. “I suspect we’ll find many tomes of great value within. Perhaps Dr. Whyborne would care to assist when we open the crates.”

His suggestion caught me off guard; cataloging new arrivals wasn’t remotely one of my duties. Still, it would give me an excuse to look for the truly dangerous tomes and suggest they be kept under lock and key, before they had a chance to find their way onto the general shelves. “Of course, Mr. Quinn. I’d be glad to assist.”

Dr. Hart rubbed his hands together with glee. “The Wisborg Collection will finally wipe the smirk off the faces of those fellows from Miskatonic. Their paltry library will be nothing compared to ours!”

“Now, now,” Mr. Mathison said with a good-natured smile. “Let’s not forget Miskatonic University is Dr. Whyborne’s alma mater.”

“Dr. Whyborne belongs to Widdershins,” Mr. Quinn said, giving Mathison a rather poisonous glare. “His allegiance, I should say. To the museum.”

“Er, yes.” I cast about for some means of escape. Once again the elite of Widdershins crowded the Ladysmith’s grand foyer, nibbling on canapés beneath the looming hadrosaur skeleton, exclaiming over the carefully curated displays from Nephren-ka’s tomb, and silently judging one another’s clothing, demeanor, and heritage. “I say, has anyone seen Dr. Putnam recently?”

“Last I saw, she was speaking with the graf,” Mathison said, taking a flute of chilled champagne from a passing waiter. I snagged a flute of my own.

“No, no, the graf is being set upon by every heiress in the place,” Dr. Hart replied. “The ones with enough money to desire a title to accompany their fortune, that is.”

“He looks like Orpheus stalked by the maenads,” Mr. Quinn observed wistfully.

I edged away from him—but I also took a quick look about to make certain the graf wasn’t actually being torn apart. I assumed as much from the lack of screams, but…well, the former Graf de Wisborg had been killed and eaten by his own wife.

I didn’t see the new graf, but I finally spotted Christine near the Nephren-ka relics. Iskander stood beside her, in earnest conversation with my father.

My heart sank. God only knew what Father might be saying to them. To suggest I’d been shocked when Father offered Whyborne House as the venue for Christine’s wedding would be an understatement. Obviously he must have some sort of ulterior motive, but what he had in mind hadn’t yet become clear. Most likely he thought doing favors for my friends would convince me to abandon my career, return to the fold, and take up my position as the heir of Whyborne Railroad and Industries. It was, I suspected, the same reason Father settled a large amount of stock on Griffin for his birthday last month.

“Excuse me—I need to speak to Dr. Putnam.” I hurried away without waiting for an answer. As I wove through the crowd, I caught sight of my friend Dr. Gerritson and his wife. Unfortunately, they appeared to have been cornered by Mr. Durfree and Mr. Farr, a pair of art curators known for their passionate disagreements on anything and everything. I hurriedly ducked behind a gaggle of heiresses to avoid being drawn in.

My champagne had grown warm in the stifling heat. A whisper of magic chilled the glass, frost forming briefly on the outside of the flute before melting. I lifted it to my lips and was promptly jostled from behind. Champagne splashed across my chin and down the front of my shirt.

“Oh, sorry Percy, didn’t see you there,” drawled Bradley Osborne. He didn’t sound sorry at all.

I took out my handkerchief and began to dab ineffectively at my now-wet clothing. “Quite all right, Bradley,” I gritted out between clenched teeth. “Accidents do happen.” Not that I imagined for an instant this had been an accident.

Bradley observed my efforts at drying myself with a smug smile. “You really ought to watch where you’re going. Been drinking a bit more champagne than good for you, eh?”

The old familiar anger ached in my chest. I straightened my spine, which forced Bradley to look up at me. “Actually, I’ve been speaking with Mr. Mathison and Dr. Hart.”

His jovial mask slipped—just for an instant, but enough to let me know I’d struck home. Bradley had spent his years in Widdershins trying to claw his way higher into society. When we’d first met, he’d held me in contempt, for…well, for all sorts of reasons, but not taking advantage of the class I’d been born into was certainly one of them.

Bradley’s right hand tightened around his champagne flute; his left he tucked at the small of his back, perhaps to conceal a fist. Then he relaxed and put on a false smile. “I’m sure they found your father’s money and name—I mean, your conversation—most fascinating.”

I forced my expression to remain neutral, even as I seethed within. It wasn’t just Father’s money that had brought me to the attention of the museum’s board and president. Most of the blame lay with my wretched brother Stanford, who’d held Widdershins’s upper crust hostage in this very foyer, forcing me to save them.

“Among other things,” I replied coolly.

“Ah, yes, other things.” He continued to smile, but his eyes were cold and dead as knives. “By the way, how is Mr. Flaherty?”

“I’m quite well,” Griffin said from just behind Bradley. “Thank you for your concern, Dr. Osborne.”

I felt a thrill of savage satisfaction when Bradley started in surprise. Griffin stepped to my side, his green eyes fixed on Bradley and a smile no more genuine than Bradley’s on his lips. The man I called husband always cut a handsome figure, but the tailcoat and white tie suited him very well indeed. His chestnut hair, worn longer than strictly fashionable, curled around his collar.

Unfortunately, Bradley recovered quickly enough. “I’m glad to hear it, Mr. Flaherty,” he said even as his lip drew into a sneer. “After all, if I recall correctly, you were shot right over there. I take it the wound no longer troubles you?”

Goosebumps prickled on my arms despite the heat, and I felt as though the marble floor had shifted beneath me. The night Stanford had taken the museum staff and donors hostage, he’d also tried to kill me.

But first he’d shot Griffin, with the clear intention of hurting me. After first calling me a sodomite.

The implication had been obvious enough. But Stanford was a madman who had tried to murder the most powerful people in Widdershins. Polite society put his insults and actions down to lunatic ravings.

Whether anyone really believed that or no…well, Griffin had quietly received an invitation to various museum functions, including this one, with no real explanation as to why. If pressed, no doubt it would be pointed out he’d tried to save everyone at the Hallowe’en tour and been gallantly wounded in their defense. Surely that was worth a few invitations to exclusive events?

And perhaps it was the real explanation. I honestly didn’t know and certainly would never ask. But I had no doubts as to Bradley’s opinion.

Would he try to use it against us? He hadn’t so far, but that didn’t mean the day wouldn’t come when we’d find police knocking on our door. Or my name in some headline from a tawdry New York paper, as no reporter in Massachusetts would dare risk Father’s wrath.

My hand tightened on the champagne flute, the scars beneath my white glove pulling tight. The great arcane maelstrom that underlay Widdershins turned beneath my feet. A breeze ruffled through the gathering, bearing on it the scent of the nearby ocean.

“As I said, I’m quite fine,” Griffin replied. “Come, Whyborne—you need to dry your shirt.”

He touched my elbow. The breeze died away, and my sense of the maelstrom receded to the back of my mind, in the same place that kept track of my heart beating and my lungs breathing.

“Yes,” I said, and let him steer me away.

Author Bios:
Rhys Ford
Rhys Ford was born and raised in Hawai’i then wandered off to see the world. After chewing through a pile of books, a lot of odd food, and a stray boyfriend or two, Rhys eventually landed in San Diego, which is a very nice place but seriously needs more rain.

Rhys admits to sharing the house with three cats of varying degrees of black fur and a ginger cairn terrorist. Rhys is also enslaved to the upkeep a 1979 Pontiac Firebird, a Toshiba laptop, and an overworked red coffee maker.

AJ Rose
It began with a Halloween themed short story assignment from a second grade teacher, and from then on, AJ Rose fell head over heels in love with writing. Even an active social life through school, learning to play the piano in a passable imitation of proficient, and a daring cross country move couldn't stop the tall tales about imaginary people that refused to be ignored. With college experiences came a change in perspective to romance and passion. A propensity to slash favorite TV characters brought AJ to today, writing mostly M/M for publication. But don't be surprised if the occasional ghost still pops up.

John Inman
John has been writing fiction for as long as he can remember. Born on a small farm in Indiana, he now resides in San Diego, California where he spends his time gardening, pampering his pets, hiking and biking the trails and canyons of San Diego, and of course, writing. He and his partner share a passion for theater, books, film, and the continuing fight for marriage equality. If you would like to know more about John, check out his website.

Shell Taylor
Shell Taylor is a full-time mother of three exuberant and loving kiddos and one fur baby, a tiny but fierce Yorkie-poo named Rocco. As a Christian who practices love, grace, and humility rather than hatred and judgement, she tries her best to instill these same virtues in her rowdy kids. She just recently learned how to crochet to start bombarding new mothers with matching hats and booties. She is a huge Marvel fan and because of the superhero-plastered tees paired with jeans and Chucks has been told when helping out in her son’s classroom that she looks more like the students than a parent. Her favorite way to procrastinate is to binge watch entire seasons on Netflix. Best of all, she’s been married ten years to a man who’s turned out to be everything she never knew she needed.

Heidi Cullinan
Heidi Cullinan has always loved a good love story, provided it has a happy ending. She enjoys writing across many genres but loves above all to write happy, romantic endings for LGBT characters because there just aren't enough of those stories out there. When Heidi isn't writing, she enjoys cooking, reading, knitting, listening to music, and watching television with her family. Heidi also volunteers frequently for her state's LGBT rights group, One Iowa, and is proud to be from the first midwestern state to legalize same-sex marriage.

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

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

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

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

Felice Stevens
Felice Stevens has always been a romantic at heart. While life is tough, she believes there is a happy ending for everyone. She started reading traditional historical romances as a teenager, then life and law school got in the way. It wasn't until she picked up a copy of Bertrice Small and became swept away to Queen Elizabeth's court that her interest in romance novels was renewed.

But somewhere along the way, her reading shifted to stories of men falling in love. Once she picked up her first gay romance, she became so enamored of the character-driven stories and the overwhelming emotion there was no turning back.

Felice lives in New York City with her husband and two children. Her day begins with a lot of caffeine and ends with a glass or two of red wine. Although she practices law, she daydreams of a time when she can sit by a beach and write beautiful stories of men falling in love. Although there is bound to be some angst along the way, a Happily Ever After is always guaranteed.

Jordan L Hawk
Jordan L. Hawk grew up in the wilds of North Carolina, where she was raised on stories of haints and mountain magic by her bootlegging granny and single mother. After using a silver knife in the light of a full moon to summon her true love, she turned her talents to spinning tales. She weaves together couples who need to fall in love, then throws in some evil sorcerers and undead just to make sure they want it bad enough. In Jordan’s world, love might conquer all, but it just as easily could end up in the grave.


Rhys Ford
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EMAIL: rhys_ford@vitaenoir.com

AJ Rose
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EMAIL: ajrosefiction@gmail.com

John Inman
FACEBOOK  /  WEBSITE  /  KOBO  /  B&N
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EMAIL: John492@att.net

Shell Taylor
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EMAIL: shell4jmu@gmail.com

Heidi Cullinan
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EMAIL: heidi@heidicullinan.com

Indra Vaughn
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EMAIL: indravaughn@gmail.com

Marie Sexton
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NEWSLETTER  /  KOBO  /  GOOGLE PLAY
EMAIL: msexton.author@gmail.com

Felice Stevens
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TO EMAIL: http://www.felicestevens.com/contact

Jordan L Hawk
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EMAIL: jordanlhawk@gmail.com



Fish & Ghosts
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  ARe

The Yearning

The Boys on the Mountain

Redeeming Hope
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  ARe

Winter Wonderland
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  GOOGLE PLAY
ARe  /  SAMHAIN  /  GOODREADS TBR

The Winter Spirit
B&N  /  KOBO  /  ARe

Winter Oranges
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N  /  KOBO
ARe  /  RIPTIDE  /  GOODREADS TBR

The Greatest Gift
AMAZON CA  /  AMAZON AU  /  KOBO

Maelstrom
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  CREATESPACE  /  ARe