Saturday, April 30, 2016

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Perspectives by AM Arthur


The Truth as He Knows It #1
Summary:
Lies are the chains that keep you weighed down at rock bottom.

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

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

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

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

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


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

The World as He Sees It #2
Summary:
Love knows no limits…but fear could keep them from seeing it.

Gabe lives a double life. As Gabriel Henson, he works multiple jobs to support his remorseless, alcoholic mother. As Tony Ryder, he does internet porn for extra cash and regular safe sex without complications.

Yet when he encounters a scared young man freaking out in a night club, he’s compelled to reach out. Ever since then, the memory of that young man has haunted him.

Tristan Lavelle lives his life thirty minutes at a time. After a traumatic brain injury three years ago, he gets through his day recording his life in spiral notebooks and sticky note reminders.

A month after Tristan’s embarrassingly public meltdown, another chance meeting with Gabe sparks a warm, emotionally fulfilling email relationship. Both men crave more, but fear of the next step stands between them.

Until Tristan gets the opportunity to take part in a clinical trial that could improve his memory—if the side effects don’t kill him. But for Tristan, the possibility of a real life with Gabe is worth any risk…

Warning: Contains two damaged but lovable heroes, secret-keeping friends with good intentions, and an abundance of inappropriate food innuendo.



I fell in love with Tristan when he was introduced in The Truth as He Knows It and it grew even deeper with every page.  Of course, Gabe captured my heart too in book one when he worked with Shane so when they met it was off the charts anticipation.  AM Arthur did not disappoint.  Tristan and Gabe's chemistry on the verge of short circuiting my Kindle.  My grandmother had some short term memory issues after her stroke and my mom has a few memory gaps from her health issues but neither compared to what Tristan lives with so even though I had an inkling of what was to come my heart still broke when he didn't remember Gabe or even Shane but the connection was still there.  I don't think I can say much else without giving away anything so I'll just say that as much as I loved Noel and Shane's story in book one Gabe and Tristan far surpassed anything I expected.

RATING: 

The Heart as He Hears It #3
Summary:
Love can slip through the smallest crack in the door.

While most of his friends have moved on to “real” careers, Jon Buchanan is content skating through life as a part-time waiter and gay porn star. Firmly single thanks to a previous relationship disaster, he focuses his spare time on Henry, a dear friend dying of cancer.

And with Henry’s happiness paramount, Jon is on a mission to help Henry meet his recently discovered grandson.

Isaac Gregory hasn’t set foot outside for the past year. He has everything he needs delivered, and his remaining family knows better than to visit. When a complete stranger shows up claiming to be his grandfather—with a distractingly handsome younger man in tow—his carefully structured routines are shaken.

Despite his instant attraction, Jon senses Isaac is too fragile for a relationship. Yet tentative friendship grows into genuine companionship. And when Henry’s health begins to fail, they realize Fate brought them together for a reason.

Warning: Product contains a neurotic porn star with body image issues, a virgin hero with severe agoraphobia, and a fluffy ball of gray cuteness you’ll want to take home and cuddle. Also contains references to past abuse some readers might find disturbing. 


As usual, when each new installment in a series concentrates on a new couple, I have a hesitancy to let the new pair into my heart because I am not ready to let the last one go yet.  With AM Arthur's Perspective series, I was dead set on knowing no one could possibly reach me as wholeheartedly as Tristan from book 2, The World as He Sees It, did.  Boy was I wrong.  Isaac Gregory may not have passed Tristan in my heart but he burrowed in right next to him.  I am by nature a very shy person having grown up in the boonies and an only child, I tend to keep to myself as well but it does not compare even an iota to what Isaac deals with.  When he lets Henry and Jon into his home, their lives are forever changed.  With The Heart as He Hears It, the author shows us just how much one person can truly change our lives, how strangers become friends, lovers, and become home.  Truly a great read filled to overflowing with heart, all the strength and weaknesses that come with letting someone in.  I cannot recommend this series enough, you won't be disappointed.

RATING: 

The Truth as He Knows It #1
Officer Noel Carlson followed his partner down the breezeway toward apartment 303 and the source of their disturbance call. Even without the apartment number Noel would have been able to peg this place. A deep bass thrummed through the door, right into his chest, reminding him of late nights in hot, sweaty dance clubs. The neighbor who’d reported the party said the music had been going like that for over an hour, and it was already after one in the morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benedict grunted. “Are you the current tenant?”

“Yep, that’s me.”

“What’s your name?”

“Olivia Presnell. Who’re you?”

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

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

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

“Who was being noisy?” Olivia asked.

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

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

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

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

Sofa Lady glanced sharply at Olivia, who was frowning.

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

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

Odd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then why were you?”

“Misunderstanding.”

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

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

“What’s your name?” Noel asked.

“Shane.”

“Are you impaired, Shane?”

“I didn’t drink tonight.”

“What about drugs?”

“No, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No, that’ll do it,” Noel replied.

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

It slammed shut and Olivia jumped.

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

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

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

The World as He Sees It #2
Tristan focused on the nighttime city streets, catching the occasional glimpse of something he knew from before. An exit sign. A restaurant. A busy intersection. His focus slipped, and he glanced at the notebook entry for a reminder.

He’d been twenty when his accident happened, so he’d never been to Big Dick’s before. Rumor was the bouncer was an expert at catching fake IDs, so he and Noel had never bothered trying. And he didn’t feel like flipping back through hundreds of pages of handwritten text to find his answer. “Have I been to Big Dick’s before?” he asked Noel.

“Once,” Noel replied. He squirmed, uncomfortable with the question.

That made Tristan nervous. “What happened?”

“About two months ago, you decided you wanted to go to Big Dick’s on your own, to prove to yourself that you could.”

Tristan dropped his forehead into his palm. He was impulsive on the best of days. His memory problems only exacerbated the stress those impulses put his friends through. “I freaked out, didn’t I?”

“A little bit. You lost your notebook, and you didn’t know anyone. The owner called me, and I drove out to pick you up. Nothing happened to you, Tris.”

I bet I wanted to get laid.

Tristan didn’t need to check his notes to know he hadn’t had sex since before the accident. Three years was a long damned dry spell. Not that he could remember the dry spell, exactly. He sensed the passage of time, of course. He could look at Noel and the ways he’d changed and know it was way past college, only it would take a while to remember exactly how long past.

Somehow he innately knew three years. Déjà vu sense at work?

So yeah, dry spell. Then again, who’d want to have sex with a guy who’d probably forget what they were doing halfway through and freak the hell out on him? No one.

Loser.

At least I can dance for a while without forgetting. And Noel will be there. I’ll be safe.

Noel was his touchstone. No notebook needed to know that. Or to know his parents weren’t around. Noel had been his one constant through everything. Tristan wouldn’t be able to function without him.

“I must have felt terrible for dragging you all the way to Harrisburg in the middle of the night,” Tristan said. “You don’t live there anymore.”

Noel nodded, his cheeks pinking up like they did when he was remembering something he didn’t like. “You did feel terrible. But I didn’t mind.”

“Yeah, right. You shouldn’t have to babysit me. And I shouldn’t have gone out alone.” Tristan considered flipping back through his notebook to see if that night was in this one. To figure out his mindset. Except he knew what it was, because he felt like that most of the time.

Lonely. Horny. Scared.

Sick and tired of his broken brain. Desperate to be whole again.

All of the above. All the time.

“If I make a scene tonight, I am so sorry ahead of time.”

Noel squeezed his knee. “I called the owners last night. They remembered you and they know we’re coming. Their employees know.”

Humiliation flamed his face. “Shit, Noel, really?”

“I didn’t do it to embarrass you. I did it to keep you safe. It’s actually a good thing, other people knowing about your disability.”

Dark eyes flashed in his mind. They didn’t belong to anyone in particular. He saw them occasionally and for no good reason. Kind, dark eyes. A warm smile.

“Have I made any new friends lately?” Tristan asked.

“Friends? No.” Noel took an exit into another part of the city. “I mean, you’ve been meeting new people when we go out places. You’ve met some people in Stratton.”

“Okay.”

Noel parked in a pay-by-the-hour garage instead of on the street. Tristan took another look at his notebook for additional clarification, then used a marker to write Noel, Shane, dancing on the backs of both hands. He’d look kind of silly but it would help.

The late hour didn’t diminish the sweltering August heat, and Tristan worked up a good sweat walking. Shane and Noel both looked crazy sexy in their club clothes, and even sexier walking side by side. He was happy for Noel. Happy his best friend was in love and enjoying himself.

He was also stupidly, insanely jealous.

He stuck close with his stupid, insane jealousy because the streets were teeming with people of all ages, heading into and out of the different restaurants and clubs. They turned down a quieter side street that was more like an alley. Halfway down the block a few guys hung out against a stone wall, most of them smoking cigarettes. An industrial door with no sign or markings was being guarded by a big, burly bear of a man in a black leather vest.

“Hey, Officer Carlson,” the bouncer said. He had a deep voice to match his broad body. “Nice to see you again.”

“Hi, Mr. Henson,” Noel said.

“Bear, son. Everyone calls me Bear.”

“Right. This is my friend Tristan Lavelle.”

“A right pleasure.”

Tristan shook Bear’s hand, surprised by the gentle grip. “Hi.” He glanced at Shane, who didn’t seem at all annoyed at being left out. “Um, that’s Shane. Noel’s boyfriend.”

Bear grinned. “Yeah, I know that one all right.”

“You do?” He reached for a notebook he didn’t have, then looked at Noel for answers.

“Shane dances here once a week,” Noel said. “He got the job through Bear’s son Gabe.”

“Oh.” He didn’t bother asking if he’d already been told that. Probably. Every single piece of information that was mildly important to his life had been repeated to him at least, oh, eighteen times. Minimum.

“Enjoy yourselves, boys,” Bear said. “First drinks are on the house.”

“Thank you,” Tristan replied.

Noel pulled the door, and what had been a distant bass became an impressive thumpa-thumpa in Tristan’s chest. The interior of the club was wide and deep, with a high ceiling decorated in strands of red and blue lights. Strobes and other lighting flashed around the dance floor, which seemed to make up most of the floor space. A small U-shaped bar stood to the right. In the rear were what looked like raised platforms. Two hot guys in red short-shorts were gyrating together on one of them.

This is the kind of dancing Shane does? Shit.

He was probably twenty kinds of hot up there.

Someone jostled past them, reminding Tristan to keep moving forward. Noel was hustling them straight for the bar. Tristan couldn’t drink alcohol because of his antidepressants and anxiety medications, and Noel was driving so the only person able to drink much was Shane.

Lucky bastard.

Not that Tristan was going to mourn his dry night. Men. Everywhere around him, a sea of hot men. All kinds of eye candy. Every age, height, weight, shape and body hair amount. He observed and mentally drooled over the flesh on display. The air smelled of liquor and sweat and sex, and good Lord he was starting to get lightheaded from it all.

Noel nudged them closer to the bar. A middle-aged man with gray hair and a pink sequined vest gave them all a big, toothy smile. “Noel and friends,” he said. “Richard Brightman, pleased to officially meet you, Tristan.”

“Hello,” Tristan said. Officially meet you implied they’d interacted before, but the man’s name meant nothing to him.

“I’m Bear’s husband. We own the place.”

“Oh. It’s a great place. I’m pretty sure this is my first time. I like it.”

Noel flinched.

Okay that was wrong. When was I here before?

“So what are we drinking tonight?” Richard asked. “First round on the house. Samuel Adams for you, Shane?”

“Yeah, thanks,” Shane replied.

Richard knows because Shane works here.

“I’ll have a vodka tonic,” Noel said. “Tris?”

“Virgin margarita,” Tristan said. He loved margaritas, and while a virgin wasn’t as good as one with Patrón, he couldn’t mix with his meds.

“Coming up,” Richard said.

The music changed to a faster, sharper beat. Tristan’s hips rolled in tiny motions, instinct bringing out his love of club dancing. Of getting into it with another dude, all writhing bodies and gyrating hips. Arms and legs. Sweat and heavy breathing.

Wonderful arousal stirred in his gut, heating his blood already. He might not be getting laid tonight, but damn it, he was going to have some fun.

“Hey, you guys made it,” said a sexy, sultry voice.

Tristan glanced over his shoulder to see who the voice had spoken to, only to find himself staring into a pair of kind, dark eyes. Kind, dark eyes belonging to a stunningly handsome face. Black hair. Tan skin. Tall and well-built. A walking wet dream who was smiling like they were old friends.

Holy hell, he’s gorgeous.

“Hey, Gabe,” Shane said.

Gabe.

Those kind, dark eyes never broke from his, and Tristan couldn’t look away. Gabe was a stranger, and yet somehow familiar.

His eyes. The eyes I see. We’ve met.

“We’ve met,” Tristan said before he could think twice.

Gabe’s eyebrows twitched. “Yes, we have. Do you remember that?”

“I remember your eyes.”

“You remember my eyes?” He didn’t sound surprised or weirded out by that. More like pleased that a detail had actually stuck.

It pleased Tristan all over the place. “That’s weird, right? I remember your eyes, but I couldn’t tell you what I had for dinner tonight.”

“I guess I made an impression.”

“It’s easy to see how you might.” Hell yes, Tristan was flirting. Hot guy. Dry spell. He was out to have a good time. “I’m guessing we met here?”

“Yeah, we did.” Gabe glanced at Noel, who apparently knew this story, because he nodded at Gabe. “About two months ago, you came to the club alone.”

Dread crept over him. “How badly did I embarrass myself?”

“Not badly. Once my dad called Noel and he explained everything, it was okay. I’m glad I was here to help.”

He was leaving out a lot of details that Tristan wouldn’t remember in half an hour, and he wasn’t entirely sure he needed to hear them. Possibly for the second, third or tenth time. Instead of pressing the issue, he took a long sip of his margarita, savoring the pop of lime and salt on his tongue. Then he looked Gabe in the eye and asked, “You wanna dance?”

Gabe’s grin was immediate and blinding. “Definitely.”

Tristan chugged the rest of his drink, then plunked the glass down on the bar. He grabbed Gabe’s hand and led the way into the sea of moving bodies. Arms and hips bumped and brushed. Music poured through him, setting the beat as he turned to face Gabe, who was already moving. A white tee clung to what was probably a perfect six-pack. Black jeans hugged his ass and outlined a nice package.

So hot.

And his for now, so Tristan let go of Gabe’s hand, closed his eyes and danced.

The World as He Sees It #2
Tristan focused on the nighttime city streets, catching the occasional glimpse of something he knew from before. An exit sign. A restaurant. A busy intersection. His focus slipped, and he glanced at the notebook entry for a reminder.

He’d been twenty when his accident happened, so he’d never been to Big Dick’s before. Rumor was the bouncer was an expert at catching fake IDs, so he and Noel had never bothered trying. And he didn’t feel like flipping back through hundreds of pages of handwritten text to find his answer. “Have I been to Big Dick’s before?” he asked Noel.

“Once,” Noel replied. He squirmed, uncomfortable with the question.

That made Tristan nervous. “What happened?”

“About two months ago, you decided you wanted to go to Big Dick’s on your own, to prove to yourself that you could.”

Tristan dropped his forehead into his palm. He was impulsive on the best of days. His memory problems only exacerbated the stress those impulses put his friends through. “I freaked out, didn’t I?”

“A little bit. You lost your notebook, and you didn’t know anyone. The owner called me, and I drove out to pick you up. Nothing happened to you, Tris.”

I bet I wanted to get laid.

Tristan didn’t need to check his notes to know he hadn’t had sex since before the accident. Three years was a long damned dry spell. Not that he could remember the dry spell, exactly. He sensed the passage of time, of course. He could look at Noel and the ways he’d changed and know it was way past college, only it would take a while to remember exactly how long past.

Somehow he innately knew three years. Déjà vu sense at work?

So yeah, dry spell. Then again, who’d want to have sex with a guy who’d probably forget what they were doing halfway through and freak the hell out on him? No one.

Loser.

At least I can dance for a while without forgetting. And Noel will be there. I’ll be safe.

Noel was his touchstone. No notebook needed to know that. Or to know his parents weren’t around. Noel had been his one constant through everything. Tristan wouldn’t be able to function without him.

“I must have felt terrible for dragging you all the way to Harrisburg in the middle of the night,” Tristan said. “You don’t live there anymore.”

Noel nodded, his cheeks pinking up like they did when he was remembering something he didn’t like. “You did feel terrible. But I didn’t mind.”

“Yeah, right. You shouldn’t have to babysit me. And I shouldn’t have gone out alone.” Tristan considered flipping back through his notebook to see if that night was in this one. To figure out his mindset. Except he knew what it was, because he felt like that most of the time.

Lonely. Horny. Scared.

Sick and tired of his broken brain. Desperate to be whole again.

All of the above. All the time.

“If I make a scene tonight, I am so sorry ahead of time.”

Noel squeezed his knee. “I called the owners last night. They remembered you and they know we’re coming. Their employees know.”

Humiliation flamed his face. “Shit, Noel, really?”

“I didn’t do it to embarrass you. I did it to keep you safe. It’s actually a good thing, other people knowing about your disability.”

Dark eyes flashed in his mind. They didn’t belong to anyone in particular. He saw them occasionally and for no good reason. Kind, dark eyes. A warm smile.

“Have I made any new friends lately?” Tristan asked.

“Friends? No.” Noel took an exit into another part of the city. “I mean, you’ve been meeting new people when we go out places. You’ve met some people in Stratton.”

“Okay.”

Noel parked in a pay-by-the-hour garage instead of on the street. Tristan took another look at his notebook for additional clarification, then used a marker to write Noel, Shane, dancing on the backs of both hands. He’d look kind of silly but it would help.

The late hour didn’t diminish the sweltering August heat, and Tristan worked up a good sweat walking. Shane and Noel both looked crazy sexy in their club clothes, and even sexier walking side by side. He was happy for Noel. Happy his best friend was in love and enjoying himself.

He was also stupidly, insanely jealous.

He stuck close with his stupid, insane jealousy because the streets were teeming with people of all ages, heading into and out of the different restaurants and clubs. They turned down a quieter side street that was more like an alley. Halfway down the block a few guys hung out against a stone wall, most of them smoking cigarettes. An industrial door with no sign or markings was being guarded by a big, burly bear of a man in a black leather vest.

“Hey, Officer Carlson,” the bouncer said. He had a deep voice to match his broad body. “Nice to see you again.”

“Hi, Mr. Henson,” Noel said.

“Bear, son. Everyone calls me Bear.”

“Right. This is my friend Tristan Lavelle.”

“A right pleasure.”

Tristan shook Bear’s hand, surprised by the gentle grip. “Hi.” He glanced at Shane, who didn’t seem at all annoyed at being left out. “Um, that’s Shane. Noel’s boyfriend.”

Bear grinned. “Yeah, I know that one all right.”

“You do?” He reached for a notebook he didn’t have, then looked at Noel for answers.

“Shane dances here once a week,” Noel said. “He got the job through Bear’s son Gabe.”

“Oh.” He didn’t bother asking if he’d already been told that. Probably. Every single piece of information that was mildly important to his life had been repeated to him at least, oh, eighteen times. Minimum.

“Enjoy yourselves, boys,” Bear said. “First drinks are on the house.”

“Thank you,” Tristan replied.

Noel pulled the door, and what had been a distant bass became an impressive thumpa-thumpa in Tristan’s chest. The interior of the club was wide and deep, with a high ceiling decorated in strands of red and blue lights. Strobes and other lighting flashed around the dance floor, which seemed to make up most of the floor space. A small U-shaped bar stood to the right. In the rear were what looked like raised platforms. Two hot guys in red short-shorts were gyrating together on one of them.

This is the kind of dancing Shane does? Shit.

He was probably twenty kinds of hot up there.

Someone jostled past them, reminding Tristan to keep moving forward. Noel was hustling them straight for the bar. Tristan couldn’t drink alcohol because of his antidepressants and anxiety medications, and Noel was driving so the only person able to drink much was Shane.

Lucky bastard.

Not that Tristan was going to mourn his dry night. Men. Everywhere around him, a sea of hot men. All kinds of eye candy. Every age, height, weight, shape and body hair amount. He observed and mentally drooled over the flesh on display. The air smelled of liquor and sweat and sex, and good Lord he was starting to get lightheaded from it all.

Noel nudged them closer to the bar. A middle-aged man with gray hair and a pink sequined vest gave them all a big, toothy smile. “Noel and friends,” he said. “Richard Brightman, pleased to officially meet you, Tristan.”

“Hello,” Tristan said. Officially meet you implied they’d interacted before, but the man’s name meant nothing to him.

“I’m Bear’s husband. We own the place.”

“Oh. It’s a great place. I’m pretty sure this is my first time. I like it.”

Noel flinched.

Okay that was wrong. When was I here before?

“So what are we drinking tonight?” Richard asked. “First round on the house. Samuel Adams for you, Shane?”

“Yeah, thanks,” Shane replied.

Richard knows because Shane works here.

“I’ll have a vodka tonic,” Noel said. “Tris?”

“Virgin margarita,” Tristan said. He loved margaritas, and while a virgin wasn’t as good as one with Patrón, he couldn’t mix with his meds.

“Coming up,” Richard said.

The music changed to a faster, sharper beat. Tristan’s hips rolled in tiny motions, instinct bringing out his love of club dancing. Of getting into it with another dude, all writhing bodies and gyrating hips. Arms and legs. Sweat and heavy breathing.

Wonderful arousal stirred in his gut, heating his blood already. He might not be getting laid tonight, but damn it, he was going to have some fun.

“Hey, you guys made it,” said a sexy, sultry voice.

Tristan glanced over his shoulder to see who the voice had spoken to, only to find himself staring into a pair of kind, dark eyes. Kind, dark eyes belonging to a stunningly handsome face. Black hair. Tan skin. Tall and well-built. A walking wet dream who was smiling like they were old friends.

Holy hell, he’s gorgeous.

“Hey, Gabe,” Shane said.

Gabe.

Those kind, dark eyes never broke from his, and Tristan couldn’t look away. Gabe was a stranger, and yet somehow familiar.

His eyes. The eyes I see. We’ve met.

“We’ve met,” Tristan said before he could think twice.

Gabe’s eyebrows twitched. “Yes, we have. Do you remember that?”

“I remember your eyes.”

“You remember my eyes?” He didn’t sound surprised or weirded out by that. More like pleased that a detail had actually stuck.

It pleased Tristan all over the place. “That’s weird, right? I remember your eyes, but I couldn’t tell you what I had for dinner tonight.”

“I guess I made an impression.”

“It’s easy to see how you might.” Hell yes, Tristan was flirting. Hot guy. Dry spell. He was out to have a good time. “I’m guessing we met here?”

“Yeah, we did.” Gabe glanced at Noel, who apparently knew this story, because he nodded at Gabe. “About two months ago, you came to the club alone.”

Dread crept over him. “How badly did I embarrass myself?”

“Not badly. Once my dad called Noel and he explained everything, it was okay. I’m glad I was here to help.”

He was leaving out a lot of details that Tristan wouldn’t remember in half an hour, and he wasn’t entirely sure he needed to hear them. Possibly for the second, third or tenth time. Instead of pressing the issue, he took a long sip of his margarita, savoring the pop of lime and salt on his tongue. Then he looked Gabe in the eye and asked, “You wanna dance?”

Gabe’s grin was immediate and blinding. “Definitely.”

Tristan chugged the rest of his drink, then plunked the glass down on the bar. He grabbed Gabe’s hand and led the way into the sea of moving bodies. Arms and hips bumped and brushed. Music poured through him, setting the beat as he turned to face Gabe, who was already moving. A white tee clung to what was probably a perfect six-pack. Black jeans hugged his ass and outlined a nice package.

So hot.

And his for now, so Tristan let go of Gabe’s hand, closed his eyes and danced.

The Heart as He Hears It #3
Jon studied Isaac, his gaze taking in…something. “May I ask you something?”

“Of course.” His chest flushed with anticipation.

“How do you feel when you’re with me?”

Isaac tried to push aside the anxiety still attempting to blur his thoughts, an old friend that wanted to be part of the conversation. Only anxiety wasn’t allowed in, not this time. He shuffled through different words, emotions and adjectives, searching for the one that best described how he felt about Jon. How Jon made him feel, despite being a near-stranger, bigger, stronger and far more experienced in pretty much everything. Jon still made him feel… “Safe,” Isaac said.

Jon’s eyebrows crept up. The corners of his mouth quirked into something not quite a smile. “Really?”

“Yes. The first time I saw you on my security feed, I noticed how beautiful you were.” His cheeks warmed.

Jon flat out grinned. “Yeah?”

“You’re kind and patient, and I feel safe because you don’t try to fix me, and you don’t act like I’m broken. My family thinks I’m broken, and I don’t want them to fix me. I just…” Something in Isaac shifted, accepting this new truth. “I need to feel safe, Jon. That’s why I hide. But you make me not want to hide.”

Jon’s eyes glittered. His expression melted into something so warm, so sweet, that it burned in Isaac’s blood in a way he didn’t understand at all. The strange sensation urged him to reach out, to initiate contact of some kind. Deep-rooted fear kept Isaac still, unable to make that first move. Unable to do anything except soak in the wonderment on Jon’s face.

“I think that’s the greatest compliment I’ve ever gotten,” Jon said. His voice was hoarse, strange. Almost difficult to hear, so Isaac paid more attention to his lips. “Is it cheesy to say your strength makes me want to be better too?”

Isaac shook his head. “I’m not strong.”

“You’re stronger than you think. You proved that by letting me and Henry in two weeks ago. You proved it again by going out to rescue a kitten. Twice, by the way. You told me you want to get better, get into the world, and that takes a ton of courage when you’ve lost as much as you have. I know it won’t be easy, but I still want to help you do that.”

“I know you do. I want that too.”

Isaac needed to prove to Jon how much he wanted it. He couldn’t do it with words. Words only went so far when making promises. Actions spoke much more loudly. Swallowing hard against a storm of butterflies, Isaac turned his left hand palm up and slid it to the center of the table, knuckles skidding on the cool wood.

Jon’s gaze traveled from Isaac’s eyes, down his arm, stopping at his hand. His outstretched hand. Jon placed his right hand flat to the table and pushed it forward, a centimeter at a time. Timid. Tentative. Oh so careful. He stopped with his middle finger a bare inch from Isaac’s. Neither of them spoke. For an instant, Isaac forgot to breathe.

And then Jon covered Isaac’s palm with his, warm and strong, so much like their handshake from the previous week. A sure grip that sent a jolt up Isaac’s arm, then right down his spine to his d**k and balls—a reaction that terrified him as much as it made something deep inside of him sing. An acknowledgment of feelings he couldn’t yet voice.

He was holding Jon’s hand, and he liked it very, very much.

Jon’s fingers drifted higher, the tips lightly stroking the inside of Isaac’s wrist in a gentle, soothing rhythm.

Isaac closed his eyes, basking in the simplicity of something so rare as human touch. Human touch that he’d initiated for the simple reason that, in his very core, he’d missed it. Early hugs from his mother. Back slaps from Pappou. Brief, one-armed embraces from Yia Yia. Wrestling with his cousins when they were children.

Jon’s hand in his made his body hum with joy as much as it made him want to cry. Isaac had made a connection. An actual, real connection with another human being unlike anything he’d had with his family. This ran deeper, past his fear and his walls and into his soul. This was something he could trust.

Pressure and heat around his hand increased, the squeeze subtle, but Isaac’s eyelids flew up. Jon was smiling at him, perfect teeth flashing white, his eyes dancing with beautiful things.

Isaac reached his other hand out, and Jon caught it in a sure grip—a lifeline that would never let go. “I don’t understand this,” Isaac said.

Jon drew their locked hands together in the center of the table, all four in one tangle. “This is what attraction is, Isaac. This thing you’re feeling. You don’t have to act on it, but does it feel good? Safe?”

“Yes.” It felt unlike anything Isaac had experienced. Was that it? He was attracted to Jon, so all of the good things like trust and friendship came along with it? Perhaps so. “I do feel safe. And good.”

“I’m glad.” Jon’s gaze flickered lower, toward Isaac’s chin. No. Mouth. “You have no idea how much I want to k—hug you right now.”

Isaac’s gut burned in a totally new, unexpected way. A good way. The last hug he’d allowed had been on the day of Yia Yia’s funeral, from his cousin Grace. Afterward he began side-stepping hugs, and the family stopped offering them. “I haven’t been hugged in a really long time.”

“I kind of guessed.” Jon’s smile went soft, almost shy. “Is that okay? Are you doing okay?”

“I’m fine.” He actually was fine.

“May I hug you, Isaac?”

Instead of allowing the question to throw his insides into knots, Isaac calmly examined it. He liked touching Jon, and he liked it when Jon touched him. A hug was something offered between friends and family, and they were definitely friends. And he trusted Jon enough to know that if Isaac asked him to, he’d let go.

“Yes,” Isaac said. “I’d like to try that.”

Jon’s smile was wide and beautiful, joy going all the way to his eyes. “Okay.”

Somehow they both stood without letting go of each other’s hands—except they were kind of holding each other by the wrist now, a firmer, more powerful grip. Jon came around to his side of the table, slowly obliterating the space between them. Isaac’s shoulders tightened and his back tensed, an instinctive reaction to proximity that he couldn’t stop. Jon noticed and froze with less than a foot of air separating them.

“Is this okay?” Jon asked.

Isaac rolled his shoulders, forcing himself to relax. “Yes. Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. If it gets to be too much, tell me, all right?”

“I will.”

“Good.”

Isaac concentrated on their hands, warmed by this new, intoxicating connection to another human being. It made Isaac want more than his closed-off life in this house. Jon shuffled closer, the spice of his cologne and the heat of his body living things that wrapped themselves around Isaac.

Their eyes stayed locked, Jon’s flickering with both intent and trepidation. Isaac had no idea what his eyes said to Jon. Yes, please, it’s okay, I’m fine, he hoped. Slowly Jon let go of his hands, leaving Isaac’s skin cold where they’d touched—until one landed on his shoulder, while the other rested gently on his hip.

“Still okay?” Jon asked.

Isaac’s heart flipped, overjoyed at how patient and careful Jon was being with him. “Yes.”

Jon’s hands slid toward his back, one down over the shoulder, the other up past his waist. He leaned in, his chest pressing gently against Isaac’s, an unfamiliar but very welcome weight, until Isaac was enveloped in a one-sided embrace. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, enjoying the scents of cologne, sweat and something earthier beneath it—the unique scent of Jon. He relaxed into the sensation of heat and pressure everywhere Jon touched him.

The angle of the embrace left Isaac’s arms free. He wanted to hug Jon back, but hugs were bigger than holding hands. He worked against the stiffness that had overtaken his limbs, forcing his right arm to move to Jon’s waist, fingers brushing cotton and the shape of a belt. He got his left arm working too, and rested his palm lightly on Jon’s shoulder. As much as he wanted to mimic Jon’s posture, he couldn’t make his hands stray from those points.

His heart thundered in his chest and blood pulsed in his temples. Everything about this felt right, like everything he’d been missing for a very long time. A part of a puzzle he’d been too scared to acknowledge was unfinished. He unknotted himself enough to rest his chin on Jon’s shoulder, putting Jon’s ear close to his mouth. Jon hugged him a little bit tighter and leaned his head against Isaac’s—another contact point.

He wanted to ask Jon what he was thinking, what he was feeling, but Isaac couldn’t find the words. All he had were unexpected and joyous emotions, and speaking might ruin it all. Except he had to say one thing. One thing to show Jon how important this was.

“Thank you,” Isaac whispered.

More than hearing the words, he felt them rumbling through his chest as Jon answered, “You are so welcome.”

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


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The Crown Prophecy by MD Laird

Title: The Crown Prophecy
Author: MD Laird
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy, Supernatural
Release Date: April 29, 2016
Cover Design: JC Clarke of The Graphics Shed
Summary:
Eve Franklin is a normal teenager until she visits a hidden world with her friend Will Farley, a Guardian of Arkazatinia, and her life takes an unexpected turn. Eve asks a question which alters her destiny and sets her upon a course fraught with peril. Her path is not all adventure and Eve finds adjusting to her new life difficult. Lonely and unhappy, she seeks the friendship of Calab, a moody and heavily conflicted demon, whose advice is … unconventional.

As the threat against her becomes imminent, Eve must learn what she can about the Crown Prophecy to prevent the Crown falling into the hands of the enemy. Can she trust Calab and can she learn what she needs to know in time?


Chapter One
February 2003
“Where are we going?” asked Eve as she followed Will through the front door. The gravel crunched under his heavy footfalls as Will made his way quickly to his father’s car parked in the driveway.

“It’s hard to explain,” he replied as he climbed into the driver’s seat and slammed the key into the ignition. “Just get in.”

Eve climbed into the car’s passenger seat. She had barely closed the door before she was pinned in her seat as Will accelerated away from the house. She quickly pulled on her seatbelt. “Are we going after that thing? That man?” she asked.

Will sucked in breath impatiently and said, “We’re going to ask for help from some people called the Procnatus.”

“Who?”

“It’s complicated,” replied Will, “you won’t understand.”

“Why?” asked Eve, who was now feeling thoroughly confused with the turn the morning had taken and Will, who was clearly under pressure, lacked the patience for explaining anything. She pushed him nonetheless and said, “Tell me.”

“They’re like another species. They’re called thorian,” replied Will in almost a growl, a surge of irritation had struck him as he narrowly escaped a head-on collision with a truck while overtaking another car. “They look like us, but they’re not human. They’re stronger and faster, and they’re immortal.”

“You’re right, I don’t understand,” said Eve, feeling her breath quicken and wishing she had brakes in her foot well as Will—who had passed his driving test only days before—almost hit another oncoming vehicle. “What are they?”

“I told you; they’re another species.”

“That makes no sense. How can there be another species of people?”

Will drove the car into a multi-storey carpark; he pulled the ticket from the machine to raise the barrier and sped up the levels to find an available space. After parking, they ran down four flights of foul-smelling stairs, entered the street and tore towards the train station. Will purchased two open returns for the next train to Milton Keynes, and they headed for the platform.

“It’s delayed,” he said, eying the departure board. “We have twenty minutes.”

“Good,” said Eve. “You can tell me about these magical beings.”

“Hush,” hissed Will, motioning for her to enter the empty waiting area. “Keep your voice down. Look, I will tell you, but you need to keep it to yourself.”

“Sure, whatever,” said Eve. “It doesn’t sound like something anyone would believe anyway.”

“No, you’re probably right,” Will said. He gave her a thin smile before continuing. “There is a world located above our world, and it is home to the thorian who I mentioned earlier and some others. The world has continents like our world; the one we are going to is called Arkazatinia. It is split up into wards, each controlled by a different group of thorian who have a ruler. We’re going to see the Procnatus thorian ruler.”

“So why are we going to Milton Keynes?”

“We’re going to use an entrance to their world in Milton Keynes, there are others, but that’s the only one I know will take us right where we need to be on the other side. I haven’t been many times, and I don’t want to struggle to find my way around.”

“Okay,” Eve slowly replied as she tried to sift through the mass of questions filling up her consciousness. “So, they look human? And they can pass to our world? So, I could know one?”

“It’s possible—they are really good-looking.”

“Really?”

“I haven’t met many, but they were stunning … this is our train.”

The two left the waiting area and joined the small crowd gathering on the platform to board the train. The train was relatively quiet, and they managed to find an empty table. A couple and a small child, who was busily colouring a fairy princess, occupied the table next to them. Eve and Will sat opposite each other.

“What is the world like?” she asked.

Will glared at her to keep her voice down and looked at the family next to them who, amidst colouring and chatting amongst themselves, seemed not to have noticed. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a sleek pocket watch that appeared to be coated with some fluid-like substance. He opened the reverse of the watch to reveal a small control panel, which housed a screen displaying the words ‘NORMAL MODE’, Will pressed a red button on the touch screen panel and the screen now displayed ‘SECURE MODE’.

“We can talk now,” he announced. “I have cloaked us so we’ll look like we’re not speaking.”

“Okay,” said Eve slowly. “I’m so confused, what is your part in all of this?”

“My family and I are guardians; we help to make sure Arkazatinia is kept secret—hence the speakeasy.”

“Speakeasy?”

“Yeah,” Will smiled. “My great grandad was American and was a young man during prohibition; he called the watch the speakeasy because it was easier to say than vox dissimulatrix.”

“You mean to tell me that this space age cloaking device has been around since the twenties?” exclaimed Eve.

“Well, not this model,” replied Will, “but others like it. My grandad had an actual Victorian style pocket watch; it is quite cool—very steampunky—my dad still has it. There have been many devices modified to conceal speech; that’s more or less what vox dissimulatrix means … oh, hang on.” Will switched the watch back to normal mode as the conductor approached them to check their tickets before turning back to secure mode and continuing. “I was given a speakeasy when I turned sixteen. When every member of my family reaches sixteen, they become a guardian, and we’re given the task of keeping the supernatural world a secret.”

“How? Do you turn up when something strange happens and cover it up like some secret government agent?”

“More or less,” smirked Will. “At least, the adults do, I’m only seventeen so I’m still in training.”

“Why doesn’t the supernatural world just be more careful and then you wouldn’t have to cover stuff up?”

“Most want their world to be kept secret, but there are a few who cause trouble in Lycea—that’s what they call our world. It is the role of the guardians to seek out the rogue Arkazatines and deal with them.”

“Deal with them?” asked Eve. “You mean you kill them?”

“Or send them back and have them arrested under Arkazatine law,” replied Will coolly. “Whatever it takes. To be honest, it sounds more exciting than it is; it is actually quite rare that we have to deal with anyone.”

“Right.” Eve shook her head in disbelief. How had she known Will all her life and never known any of this until today? “So, this supernatural world,” she said. “What is it called again?”

“The world is called Anaxagoras, the continent we cover is Arkazatinia, well, we cover part of it anyway.”

“Ok, Arkazatinia, why hasn’t it been found by our world? How can a whole world exist on Earth and we don’t know about it.”

“It exists on Earth, but on another level. It’s invisible to humans. I don’t really know how to explain it—I’m not sure if anyone does. Have you heard that sub-atomic particles behave differently at a quantum level and that some scientists have even suggested that it is evidence for an alternate dimension? That is perhaps the smallest hint of that world.”

“Wow! So one day scientists could just stumble across it?”

“They might do; some humans can detect the supernatural world, some people have ‘gifts’. Humans just write them off as being eccentric, but there have been some people who have managed to pass over. They are usually sent back home after their memory has been erased.”

Eve pressed her hands to her head as she imagined plausible explanations for every UFO disappearance she had heard of—did she just think this was plausible?

“This is hurting my brain,” she said. “I need coffee.” Will switched the watch to normal mode while they made their way to the buffet car to order coffee. On returning to their seats and with secure mode safely on, Eve took a sip of her coffee before continuing her interrogation. “These people we’re going to see? What are they called again?”

“The Procnatus.”

“Yes, why are we seeing them? Are they in charge?”

“No,” he said, “their government, the Imperium, is in charge of Arkazatinia, but my dad always told me to speak to the Procnatus first in an emergency as they’re the most rational.”

Will had spoken calmly though Eve could see that his eyes were betraying a hint of anxiety and she stopped her questioning.
*****

They continued the rest of the journey in silence. Will gazed out of the window, the anxiety, which had settled on him briefly, had left his eyes and his expression gave nothing away. Eve felt a surge of anger rising in her stomach as she imagined all the lies he had told her and all the secrets he had kept from her. She swallowed the feeling and thought instead of everything that he had told her and everything she had seen that day. The world was so different from yesterday; yesterday supernatural beings were the subjects of fantasy: books, movies and TV dramas, but now they were real. She squeezed her temples to push a sharp pain that had formed behind her eyes into a dull ache.


*****

Will shook Eve gently as the train arrived at Milton Keynes Central Station; she rubbed at her neck, which was now sore from dozing off with her head on the window. Her headache, at least, had subsided.

“It’s not far,” he said, leading Eve out of the train station and into the streets. They walked for around ten minutes with Will using a map feature on his pocket watch to guide them. “We’re here,” he announced as they approached a large glass fronted building.

“They live in a theatre?”

“Their guild occupies the same level as the theatre; they’re not in it.”

Will opened the reverse of the watch to reveal the control panel; he selected a new menu, and a lock replaced the speech display. Concealing the watch from view, he entered a password and instead of the theatre, they saw a beautiful neo-classical building fronted with massive columns.

“That is amazing!” exclaimed Eve. “It looks just like the British Museum and it doesn’t…what? What is it made from?”

Eve stared at the material used to construct the building, it looked like stone, but it moved, only slightly, but it definitely moved!

“I was shocked the first time I saw it,” laughed Will. “All of the buildings in Anaxagoras are built from this, it’s like an organic material, and it can move and change shape. It’s because rocks and metals in this world are alive.”

“Are you serious?” Eve spluttered. “So, the building could just decide to change shape if it feels like it?”

“It’s alive in the same sense that a tree or a plant is alive,” chuckled Will. “They don’t just have rocks wandering around. They can manipulate the material to join with other materials to form and hold the shapes they want. It doesn’t grow like a tree or a plant or erode like a rock, so it has zero maintenance.”

“Your watch thingy, that fluid isn’t just some weird case, it’s actually the metal?”

“Yes.”

“That’s amazing! What is it called?”

“All the materials have different names, and I don’t remember any of them, apparently the guild has a great library.”

“With real books or are they alive too?”

Will laughed as he rang a bell at the door of the Guild of Procnatus and said, “No, the organic matter used to make books dies just as it does in our world.” An incredibly handsome man answered the door; Eve felt her mouth fall open at the sight of him.

Will also seemed slightly fazed, but recovered quickly and said formally, “Good afternoon, I’m William Farley, I’m a Guardian of Arkazatinia, and I request an urgent audience with Lord Thalia.”

The man glanced towards Eve, who blushed heavily. He did not react and looked back towards Will and asked, “Who is this? Another guardian?”

“No,” replied Will, maintaining his cool, “I shall explain all to Her Lordship.”

The man invited them into an elegant waiting area. Despite the grand exterior, the building did not have a vast entrance hall or high ceilings and instead showed a practical use of the great space. Both Eve and Will, expecting a breathtaking scene, found it a little disappointing. They were invited to sit in the waiting area chairs, which had the same ‘living’ properties as the building. Feeling a little creeped out, Eve preferred to stand.

“Did you say Her Lordship?” she asked.

“Yes,” Will said, “they have male and female lords.”

“Weird,” replied Eve.

“Why don’t you sit down? The chairs won’t hurt you.”

“You said it forms new shapes with other material,” replied Eve, jumping away from the wall she had leaned on without thinking. “I don’t want to become part of a chair or a wall.”

“They wouldn’t use it if it was that easy,” Will laughed, “they need a skilled alchemist to change them.”

“I’ll stand all the same,” shuddered Eve. “It would be like sitting on a chair made from bugs.”

Her eyes ventured towards the organic floor, and she began to shuffle uncomfortably. Will started to laugh, but quickly silenced himself as the door opened and a young woman entered. She appeared to be around nineteen or twenty and was incredibly beautiful.

“This way,” she said, indicating for them to follow her through the door.

She led them down a corridor rather grander than the entrance hall. The walls of the corridor were filled with portraits and news clippings of scientists and scientific feats through the ages. The walls were lined with display cabinets containing a trove of apparatus, gadgets and what looked like random junk. It should have looked cluttered, but its beautiful arrangement could easily pass for an exhibition.

The girl led them into a large office and motioned for them to sit on two chairs in front of a solid oak desk. The office was like a library/laboratory hybrid. The walls were lined with thousands of leather-bound volumes, and more cabinets displayed everything from crude tools to microscopes and numerous planetarium and orrery models. Eve and Will sat (Eve was relieved to find that the wooden seats did not appear to move) and were surprised to find the girl had sat opposite them.

“You’re Lord Thalia?” stuttered Will, blushing furiously.

The girl smiled. “Pleased to meet you, Guardian,” she said. Eve studied her face; she was as fresh-faced as a skincare model, but her eyes appeared to be as old and wise as an ancient scholar. Will started to speak, but something about her gaze hushed him, she said gently, “I am not accustomed to visits from guardians, Mr Farley, nor am I accustomed to visits from humans who should be unacquainted with our world. I assume you have a good reason for this interruption?”

Will nervously swallowed, he felt his heart beat faster and stammered, “I did not know where else to turn, my father has been taken … by … by a demon.”

Thalia raised an eyebrow and betrayed a mix of alarm and confusion before quickly regaining her composure. “I sympathise, Mr Farley, really I do,” she said, “but we have a protocol and channels to follow. Surely you’re aware that Arkazatinia is controlled by the Imperium?”

“Yes,” said Will, lowering his eyes, “but my father always told me to go to the Procnatus in matters of urgency as you are the most rational.”

She smiled, it was a warm smile and she said, “It’s kind of your father to say so. I may be able to be of some assistance in this matter. Have you eaten?”

Will relaxed a little; Eve had not noticed how tense he was until he did. He replied, “We had coffee on the train.”

Thalia pressed a button on a panel on the desk.

“Yes, My Lord?” came the crackled reply.

“Mark, could you arrange for some refreshments to be brought to my office and ask Mikæl to attend?”

“Yes, My Lord.”

“So,” said Thalia, leaning back into her seat, “tell me about this demon.”

Will and Eve glanced at each other before Will regaled Thalia with the events of the day. “My father, Andrew Farley, had been working in the garden before I got up around ten this morning when Eve phoned and said she was on her way.” His cheeks reddened and he felt a little foolish, but Thalia listened patiently and he continued. “Anyway, Eve and I went into the garden; I’d made my father a coffee and was taking it out to him when—”

Will stopped as the door opened and another handsome male entered with a tray of food and drinks. Eve stared at the man who was even more beautiful than the man who had answered the door. Breathe, she told herself.

He grinned and set the tray on the desk, he spoke in a jesting tone, “You called, my queen?”

Thalia smiled at him and said, “William Farley and I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name—Miss?”

“Eve Franklin,” said Eve, her cheeks burning.

“This is Mikæl Livius Salinator; he is my head Consiliario or consul if you will.”

“And head tea boy and bringer of scones,” Mikæl said, he winked at Eve and she blushed furiously.

“Mr Farley was filling me in on a schedule twelve incident that occurred earlier today in Lycea. Please continue.”

Mikæl appeared intrigued and perched on the edge of Thalia’s desk and folded his arms. Eve peeled her eyes from his bulging biceps when she realised that she was not breathing.

Will continued, “Eve and I had taken a coffee to my father in the garden and we saw that he was speaking to someone, it appeared to be a heated discussion. I asked Eve to wait inside, and I approached my father. I noticed that he was speaking with a demon—it was humanlike with eyes like green glass and its nails were like talons.”

“That’s an Asmodeus demon,” observed Mikæl. Thalia showed no reaction.

“I called out to my father to ask if everything was okay,” continued Will, “and the demon grabbed me and said, ‘I could take him, I could take him somewhere you’ll never find him.’ My father shouted at him to let me go and said he would do what he asked. Eve heard the raised voices and came into the garden. The demon moved from me to her, he taunted me and said that he could easily kill her. I shouted at him to ask what he wanted. He laughed at me and squeezed Eve around the neck. I tried to fight him off, but he threw me across the garden.

“He said that he had a message for the Imperium; he said, ‘you tell the Imperium that we want our seat and we will attack Lycea until we have it. We will start a war with the Imperium, with Lycea and with anyone who gets in our way. Here’s some incentive for you, I’ll kill your little girlfriend.’ I picked up a garden fork and drove it into his back and he let her go. He just laughed at me and said ‘you have spirit, little guardian, I like that. You pass on the message; tell the Imperium if they want to keep Lycea safe and get their guardian back, then we want our seat.’ Then he grabbed my father, leapt over the fence and left.”

Eve pulled down the collar of her sweater to reveal the bruises the demon had left behind. Thalia had stood and was pacing nervously as she listened.

“This situation could have been avoided if the Imperium weren’t so stubborn,” she said. “I can only see things becoming worse.”

“What do you mean?” asked Eve.

“Our government, the Imperium,” replied Mikæl, “thought it wise to exclude the demonic officials from the court. Demons have always been part of the Crown Alliance, the Crown was like our monarchy, and now we have the Imperium the demons are not included and they’re not happy about it. It’s a dangerous situation because the Imperium is unwilling to cave on giving a seat to the demons and the demons will up the ante.”

“I’m sorry if I sound a bit dumb, but,” said Eve, “demons have officials and want a say in parliament? That makes no sense to me; I mean, why do they care? They’re evil; they can do what they want, right?”

“It’s a common misconception,” said Thalia, “demons aren’t inherently evil, like everyone they are both good and bad. They have a role to play in the world like everyone else and that role is to provide balance. They challenge people, tempt them from righteousness to test who proves worthy to enter paradise. The demons were angels once, but they tired of the oppression they faced under Heaven’s strict rules and started a rebellion, which got very messy and saw them cast out. They formed Hell, their own system and lived by their own rules.

“They did eventually make a truce with Heaven, but they were never invited back—it seems they preferred Hell anyway. However, they did agree that they would work with Heaven to test for worthiness and have done so ever since. Demons now live and work between Hell, Anaxagoras and Lycea. The Imperator is of the opinion that the demons do not belong in our world, and he wants them cast out of Arkazatinia. He does not seem to realise the consequences of excluding them, the demons had been oppressed before and waged war on Heaven because of that. Even Heaven had to compromise with them eventually.”

“So, what now?” asked Will. “How can I get my father back? Do I need to speak to the Imperium?”

“That is what protocol commands we do,” replied Thalia. “I fear involving them will serve only to make matters worse. Mikæl, your thoughts?”

Mikæl was on his feet, he was fiddling with the instruments on the display cabinets. He answered, “Taking hostages and revealing themselves to humans is out of character for demons, it seems they have grown quite desperate in their rage against the Imperium. I agree involving the Imperium will only fuel their cause against the demons and we risk the life of your father. Mr Farley, whatever action they deem appropriate is unlikely to be a course, which will prioritise the life of one man. The Imperium has already proposed war against the demonic forces and if we involve them, it will not end well.”

“What option is there?” asked Will anxiously.

“We have always had an accord with the demons,” answered Thalia. “I shall visit Prince Calab, the head of the Asmodeus demons, and try to reason with him.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?” exclaimed Eve. “They could kill you!”

“He may not listen to reason, but I shall not be harmed,” she replied calmly. “Mikæl, will you accompany me?”

“Of course, my queen,” he smiled.

“I want to go too,” said Will.

“If you’re going, Will, so am I.”

“I will make the arrangements,” said Thalia, pressing the call button on the control panel desk. “Mark, could you arrange for transport to convey four to the Guild of Asmodeus and call ahead to advise we seek an audience with the prince.”
*****

The transport Thalia had requested was a vector. It resembled a horse-drawn carriage, but required no horse and propelled along silently at great speed. Eve could not identify a power source, but assumed it had some sort of battery as it had an electronic control panel programmed with the destination. The vector sped away from the guild so fast that Eve could only see the distant landscape of Arkazatinia, anything closer blurred. It was charming and very like the English countryside.

“Is your home based on the British Museum?” asked Eve.

“It is a similar classical style,” she said. “The guild has changed many times; we usually model other buildings of interest to us. The last model was based on the Pantheon though having a round building limited the available space considerably. When I was much younger, I had a thing for large empty spaces but as I have gotten older, I have realised that we actually need to use indoor space for more than ‘gazing in awe’. We kept the columned frontage and changed the rest of the building and the interior so that it was more practical.”

“It’s gorgeous,” Eve smiled.

“Thank you,” Thalia smiled back.

“Does everyone live at the guild?” asked Eve. “I’m sorry, I’m being nosey.”

“Not at all,” grinned Thalia. “And no, many live out in Eurasia or in Lycea. The guild is mostly home to the younger generation and the troublemakers who can’t be trusted outside and would otherwise end up on the wrong side of Mr Farley’s sword.”

Eve’s curiosity was piqued and she had a ton more questions; however, she worried that she was becoming an annoyance and bit her tongue.

Despite the speed, it still took almost an hour to reach the Guild of Asmodeus. The guild was also built in a classical style and was smaller than the Guild of Procnatus but just as impressive. A demon met the group at the door. He had the same eye colour as the one who had attacked Eve and Will that morning. Eve guessed the species of demons shared characteristics, which was how Mikæl was able to ascertain who had attacked them.

The demon led them through to an impressive library, Eve gasped—the library was so vast she thought it must house every book ever written. Sat in an armchair aside an open fire was the demon who had attacked them. His face made Eve gasp and although he appeared much calmer than he had that morning, his appearance was quite terrifying. He looked to be no more than twenty and had a lovely mop of black, curly hair, but his thickset features and a cruel twist to his mouth gave the impression of an ancient evil lurking within. He could have passed for human, albeit an unattractive one, had it not been for his eyes. They were like brilliant green emeralds or marbles, or as Will had described—like glass. He also had long, deadly claws, which protruded about two inches from the end of each finger.

“Calab,” smiled Thalia, extending a warm greeting.

Calab looked somewhat puzzled when he noticed Eve and Will, but returned the greeting. “Thalia,” he said, kissing her cheek, “a pleasure as always.” He invited her and Mikæl to sit by the fire, motioned for Eve and Will to sit at a desk behind them, and said, “Thalia, I must say I am somewhat concerned that you have arrived here with the two humans. Are you doing the Imperator’s bidding now?”

“Not if I can help it,” replied Thalia. “Mr Farley came to me as his father had instructed him to seek out the Procnatus rather than the Imperium in times of need. I have not contacted the Imperium and I rather hope we can avoid doing so. It won’t help your cause Calab; it will only give them further ammunition against you.”

“What choice do we have?” asked Calab angrily. “The other princes and I, we won’t be without rights and without a voice. We have existed peacefully in Arkazatinia for thousands of years, Thalia, we don’t deserve this.”

“I am on your side, Calab; I have been very vocal in my opinions of your lack of presence in court. The Imperium has tried to have me voted out because of that. Fortunately, it wasn’t supported.”

“Yet our exclusion was supported?”

“It wasn’t—isn’t. The Imperium has not put it to a vote, I have implored them to do so, but they refuse. The other Arkazatines are supportive of your seat.”

Calab bit his lip and relaxed into his chair. “Why are they so determined to run us out?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said Thalia. “But I do know that acts of war and attacks on Lycea will not help and you risk alienating your allies.”

“Including you?”

“Calab, you know we won’t have a choice,” she said sadly. “We have to protect Arkazatinia and protect Lycea from threats from Arkazatinia. We have been friends a long time; I’d hate to see us fall out. The Imperium is the problem, I’ve already moved for a vote of no confidence in the regime. Please let’s tackle this through the appropriate channels; let us spare lives and the exposure of our world.”

Calab took a deep breath. “Charon, release the prisoner,” he instructed the demon who had let them in. Charon nodded and left the room. “You’re right as always, Thalia.” The demon gently took the thorian’s hand in his taloned hand and said, “I have acted irrationally and out of desperation. I will listen to your counsel, but if your method does not amount to change, then we will take action.”

Thalia nodded and said calmly, “I understand; however, I would urge you to speak with me before making any decisions.”

The door opened and Charon entered with Andrew Farley, who looked furious.

“You’re free to go, Guardian,” said Calab, turning Will and Eve. “I assure you he is unharmed and I offer my apologies for this morning. I would not have killed you, human; I was merely trying to be heard.”

Eve nodded and gave a thin smile. She thought she would be filled with hate for the demon who had left her bruised and fearing for her life; however, she was surprised to find she sympathised with his plight.

“That’s all well and good,” snapped Andrew, “but what happens the next time you don’t get your way. It’s only a matter of time before you kill someone!”

Calab snarled at Andrew. “There will be a war if the Imperium does not allow us the same rights as everyone else and unfortunately, wars have casualties!”

“It isn’t just you,” Andrew snarled back. “Guardians haven’t been given a seat either. We’re supposed to risk our lives defending our worlds and we have never had a say. It baffles me that you thought the Imperium would be concerned for my safe return. If my son had gone to them, he’d have done them a favour and given them a reason to take action against you.”

Calab shuffled in his seat, his brow furrowed with irritation, “Well, it seems everyone has drawn that conclusion,” he said dejectedly.

“You would too if you thought anything through!” continued Andrew.

Mikæl stood and said sternly, “We should not be quarrelling amongst ourselves. The Imperator clearly has an agenda and fighting amongst ourselves or endangering the lives of the innocent will not help anyone.”

Thalia looked thoughtfully at Mikæl and said, “Mikæl is right, he does have an agenda. I don’t know what it is but it involves more than just levying and wasting taxes.”

“So, we rally our armies and start a rebellion!” stated Calab.

Thalia shook her head and replied, “We shouldn’t be so quick to resort to acts of war, we first need to try and settle this by non-violent means.”

“I will go along with you, for now, Thalia, but,” said Calab, “there will be a war, I feel it, and you will need to decide which side you’re fighting for when it happens.”

Author Bio:
MD Laird is from a small town in the north of England. Her hobbies include drinking tea, eating biscuits and daydreaming … lots of daydreaming. When she is not reading and writing, she is daydreaming.






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