Sunday, October 23, 2016

Random Paranormal Tales 2016 Part 8


Pretty Poison by Kari Gregg
Summary:
Deadly poison…or exquisite cure?

Noah fell from an eighth story balcony as a toddler, cracking open his skull and shattering his body. The accident would’ve killed a human, but even shifter blood can’t heal some damage. After the pack recommended a mercy killing, Noah’s family ran. But there’s no outrunning the mating pact formed before Noah’s birth.

Wade, the new alpha, chooses an adult Noah to fulfill the pact. Wade believes the previous alpha was a fool to reject Noah as a weak and inferior wolf, but Noah’s family was wrong to hide him and starve his wolf, too. Human doctors with human medicines are poison to shifter physiology. Now that Noah is fully grown, halting his shift to retain the pins, plates, and bars holding him together hurts rather than helps him, and for Wade, more than Noah’s recovery is at stake.

Noah’s family sacrificed everything to keep him alive. Noah will do whatever it takes to save them—including mate with the alpha who is determined to correct past mistakes and defeat old prejudices contaminating the shifter community.

Too bad some still believe Noah is the true poison…and should be culled from the pack for good.

Content Warnings: Dubious consent, shifter knotting/tying, and Nerf gun assassination attempts. Ereaders (and you) may spontaneously combust–-Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Shifter stories are not my usual norm but I do enjoy them and Pretty Poison goes right to the top.  I loved the connection between Wade and Noah.  Not sure which I loved more, Noah and hisdesire to save his family when Wade wants to take him as his mate or Wade and his desire to fix what his predecessor did to Noah and his family.  I do know that what really spoke to and stayed with me was having a main character, a paranormal shifter character at that, with a disability even when Noah finally begins to embrace his shifter side and needs which make some of his disabilities lessen, they don't disappear.  As for their connection, the spark may be instantaneous but that does not mean it's easy going.  Pretty Poison is a great little addition to my paranormal shelf and I can already see a re-read in the future.

RATING: 

The Ghost on My Couch by LA Gilbert
Summary:
Alex Tanner is a male nurse who divides his time between his job and his television schedule. His idea of the perfect partner, like so many other people’s, is a tall, dark, and handsome man. Preferably alive and breathing. Surely that’s not asking too much? Then an uninvited guest—a ghost, of all things—forces Alex to question what he’s always looked for in a lover and his definition of what makes a person so beautiful.


A lovely paranormal romance that even though I kind of figured out where it was headed early on, I still found myself enraptured till I hit that last page.  When Alex comes home from a particular hard day at work to find Sid at the other end of his couch watching Grey's Anatomy with him, to say he's startled and unsettled is an understatement.  Alex's best friend Andy is one of those secondary characters that if he wasn't the bbf he'd be the villain of the story but you know all his jibes are said with complete love and Alex plays off him perfectly.  It's only too bad that Andy can't see Sid but you can't have everything in a story.  Great little love story that's perfect for this time of year.

RATING: 

Shatterproof by Xen Sanders
Summary:
Saint’s afraid to die. Grey can’t stand to live.

Grey Jean-Marcelin wants to die. He thought painting his passion—vivid portrayals of Haitian life and vodou faith—would be enough to anchor him to this world. But it isn’t. And when the mysterious man known only as Saint saves Grey from a suicide attempt, it’s more curse than blessing—until Grey discovers that Saint isn’t just an EMT. He’s a banished fae, and can only survive by draining the lives of those he loves.

All Saint needed was a simple bargain: one life willingly given for another. But as Saint’s feelings for Grey grow deeper, centuries of guilt leave him desperate to save a man who doesn’t want salvation, even if Grey’s life means Saint’s death.

When Grey’s depression consumes him, only he can decide if living is worth the struggle. Yet his choice may come too late to save his life . . . or Saint’s soul. And whatever choice he makes, it may shatter them both.

Warrior Pledge by EE Montgomery
Summary:
When the two moons of Thalazar cross orbits, the Warrior Pledge must be completed or the cat-shifting Mafdeti nation will face annihilation. There are four who can save the people and their land: the Silver Shining from Rock, the Great Heart Farseeing, the Changeling, and the Pure. They must find each other before time runs out.

Silver-eyed Checa is Captain of the Guard for the Mafdeti. Thanks to the friendship and loyalty of Heath, son of the Mafdeti Matriarch, Checa has survived and thrived after a childhood of horrific abuse. He knows Heath is his Bond-Mate but refuses to bond with the younger man because he feels he isn’t worthy. Nor does Heath’s mother approve of her son bonding with a lowborn warrior.

Together they face deadly wing-strikes from carnivorous birds, earthquake, betrayal, ambush, and an enemy invasion, only to be confronted with the possibility that the Warrior Pledge will bond Checa and Heath to others. If Checa is to complete the Warrior Pledge, he must overcome the belief that he doesn’t deserve Heath’s love, and fight for the one man who can make him whole.


Downtime by Tamera Allen
Summary:
On assignment in London, FBI Agent Morgan Nash finds himself moments away from a bullet through the heart when the case he's working goes awry. But fate has other plans, he discovers when he wakes in a world far removed from his own.

At work cataloguing ancient manuscripts in the British Museum, Ezra Glacenbie inadvertently creates the magic that pulls Morgan out of the twenty-first century and into the nineteenth. It's an impromptu vacation which may become permanent when the spellbook goes missing. Further upsetting Morgan's search for a way home is the irresistible temptation to investigate the most notorious crime of the nineteenth century. But it's the unexpected romance blossoming between Morgan and Ezra that becomes the most dangerous complication of all.


This wasn't exactly what I was expecting, it was even better.  Morgan is everything most of us expect out of a modern day FBI agent when reading such stories and he is thrown for a real doozy when he thinks he's knocked out or even shot but wakes up in the same place but a very different time.  In 1888 to be precise.  The men who brought him to 1888 may not have meant and don't really know what to make of Morgan at first but I feel it's exactly what all involved needed.  This is a story that was even better than I expected and one I hated see come to an end.  The characters are well written, the plot well developed, and one I enjoyed immensely from beginning to end. Downtime may be more time-travel than paranormal but the magic used to make it happen makes it a perfect addition to my paranormal/Halloween shelf.

RATING: 

Random Paranormal Tales 2016 Parts

Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3  /  Part 4
Part 5  /  Part 6  /  Part 7



Pretty Poison by Kari Gregg
Noah heard the crunch of tires on gravel outside only because that morning’s migraine had silenced his mp3 player, which he’d shoved into a dresser drawer. He’d maxed out his meds for the day. The worst of his blinding headache was gone so music wouldn’t have been painful, but after his sick agony earlier, the quiet soothed him. Hunched over his laptop, he usually hummed along while he updated websites for his clients, the beat of arena rock coaxing his fingers to fly over the keyboard. Even softer melodies would’ve been uncomfortable with his stomach still tender from vomiting and his sore muscles tight from clenching, though. Silence was better.

He frowned at the muffled thump of car doors closing in the driveway.

Weird. The farm entertained few visitors.

Ignoring the distant rumble of voices and the screech of the opening front porch door, Noah focused on his computer screen. He knew the drill. His dad met distributors at a diner a few miles away to sell their crops, but inspectors sometimes assessed their operation to ensure they fulfilled organic farming requirements. Sunset was late for an inspection. Maybe neighbors needed a favor or help? The reasons didn’t really matter to Noah. When outsiders came, he stayed hidden. Humans weren’t as eager to hurt him after Dr. Phares accepted him as a patient, but he’d learned not to take chances.

He tuned out the noises and worked.

The tap on his bedroom door didn’t alarm him, either. When he hobbled to the door, his eldest brother stood in the hallway. Tall, beefy with muscle, and dark like most shifters, Mikael often let Noah know when humans arrived at the farm as well as when it was safe for Noah to leave his room.

“Come with me,” his brother said, face ashen.

That pricked Noah’s unease. He trusted his family. His dad and his brothers had proven a million times they could be relied upon to protect him. Noah was alive because of his family’s diligence and sacrifice. If Mikael said he had to go, then he would go.

Noah shut down his laptop. After the screen went black, he fetched his forearm crutches. Dread stirring, Noah pushed his glasses up his nose with a bunched shoulder and followed his brother’s silent hulking back.

He stumbled when they reached the living room. Noah’s mother had died shortly after Noah’s first shift at puberty, but the house was the same as she’d left it: full of overstuffed furniture, draping afghans, family pictures, and vases that Noah’s father still supplied with wildflowers. The cluttered living room wasn’t big. And Noah had never seen so many shifters inside it.

He’d never seen so many shifters. Ever. Not this close.

Terror sprinted through him, fiery hot, because he recognized some of these men. City shifters. The pack from town. The same shifters who had wanted to kill him when he was a toddler. A mercy killing, they’d called it. After he’d fallen eight stories from a high-rise balcony, when he’d awakened from weeks in a coma to paralyzed legs and excruciating migraines, these shifters would’ve ended him. His parents had fled to the country instead and made enemies of their former pack by seeking human medical treatments to help Noah.

Was this it then? Had the city shifters finally decided to exact judgment?

Trembling more than a little, Noah clamped his mouth shut while Mikael guided him to join his father and his other brothers who perched stiff and pale on the couch on one side of the cramped room. They faced a small army of betas from the town pack, who stood behind an easy chair occupied by a sprawling man who must be their new alpha. Dressed in casual khakis and a form-fitting black T-shirt, he blended in with the other shifters, but no one would mistake the intense energy that vibrated the air around him. Nor his eyes. Dark as midnight. They glittered with command. And fury.

Noah shuddered.

Rather than dropping to the couch with his family, he stood beside them, leaning against his crutches as his wrecked knees jellied. He wouldn’t risk the censure of the shifter horde by drawing attention to his brace and crutches by sitting. His father, alarmingly, hung his head low and focused his stare on the living room carpet. Wouldn’t look at Noah, whose fear rocketed when his brothers wouldn’t meet his gaze, either.

Although he must certainly smell the stench of Noah’s mounting terror, the alpha smiled. Wade. Wasn’t that the new alpha’s name? He studied Noah for moments that felt like lifetimes, his stare lingering on Noah’s forearm crutches. Noah slumped his shoulders, trying to look as insignificant as possible. The accident had stunted his growth, and he’d topped out at five foot six inches. He couldn’t pull off invisibility, but at least being small wasn’t difficult, even if being shorter than everyone else in the room was another strike against him.

“This is the boy?”

Noah shivered at the alpha’s voice.

Stress lines bracketing his mouth, Noah’s father confirmed that Noah was indeed the boy with a murmured, “Yes.”

“The pact you formed with the old alpha demands the selection of this generation’s alpha mate among your children. Since the child specified, your eldest, married a human,” Wade said, mouth twisting to a terse grin, “I can now pick from your sons, and your family is required to give him up.” When Noah peered through a layer of lashes, the alpha nodded. “You may consider the pact satisfied.” He angled his head at Noah. “Him.”

Noah’s stomach plummeted to the floor. His jaw dropped.

He blinked at the dark-haired alpha.

What had just happened?

“No!” Dad’s stare snapped up. “Take one of my other sons if you insist on fulfilling the pact. Each of them is ready and willing to go with you.” Flanking his father on the couch, Noah’s three brothers bobbed their heads in uniform agreement. “But not Noah.”

“You’ve broken our laws and defied this pack long enough. You can pay for those crimes. Or you can honor the mating pact.” The alpha’s lips thinned to a grim line. “I choose the boy.”

A pair of betas strode across the short width of the room. They grabbed Noah by his biceps. “Dad,” Noah said while he ineffectively jerked his elbows and forearm crutches to try to break free. “You said leaving the pack negated the old mating pact,” Noah pleaded with his father. With the city shifters. With anyone who would listen. “You said they didn’t care about us anymore.”

The alpha shifted his frown to Noah. “Your father was wrong.”

Mikael bolted to his feet, a snarl on his lips, but Dad halted the rebellion with his white-knuckled grip on Mikael’s arm. “Stop, you fool. Or they’ll kill us all.”

Eyes wide, grief-stricken torment writ across his face, Mikael sank to the couch.

Noah’s last hopes died.

The taut, avid attention of the gathered betas and the angry glitter in their alpha’s glare proved they hadn’t driven to the farm to enforce an obsolete mating pact. Arranged matings were barbaric. Though shifters drafted the agreements to convey special honor and status, few were executed. No one pushed to fulfill a mating pact unless both parties were willing, even at the top of the shifter hierarchy where the practice most often continued to foster alliances between packs. But as much as Noah loved his family, they weren’t another pack. No political benefit would be fostered or gained here. His dad had been important among the city shifters once, the most trusted of the old alpha’s betas, but after the accident, his family became rogue wolves, outsiders. And criminals. They hardly merited the high regard and attention of the new alpha.

Wade wanted revenge. That was the only explanation.

City shifters had left his family alone as long as they’d stayed out of sight, but the new alpha’s largess had made them sloppy. Stupid. Lydia marrying Noah’s physical therapist had crossed a line, no matter how they’d convinced themselves the pack wouldn’t notice or care. Noah would now pay the price. With the eldest child mated, Wade could choose among the remaining siblings according to the letter of the law regardless of how little mating pacts were enforced, even in the city. Wade was right about that. Dragging Noah away was a vicious taunt, the alpha daring his family to object, and perhaps provoking his father and brothers into a fight they couldn’t win. Not against this many betas.

Noah was doomed.

Maybe his family, who had sacrificed so much for him, didn’t need to be.

“I’ll go.” Sandwiched between the two betas, Noah let his body go slack. His fear coiled like vipers in his belly, but he stopped struggling. The shifters lifted him until his feet dangled uselessly above the floor. “I’ll do whatever you want, if you grant my family amnesty. If you don’t hurt them.”

The alpha beamed in predatory triumph. “Agreed.”

Noah hung limply between the pair of betas as they dragged him toward Wade, whose smile roiled Noah’s stomach.

“In the car,” Wade ordered the betas.

While the collected shifters parted to create a path for the two manhandling Noah to the door, Noah’s father at last made a shaky attempt to help him. “He needs his medicines, his extra brace and forearm crutches, his computers—“

When Noah looked over his shoulder, the alpha cut Noah’s father off with a sharp wave. “You’ve done enough harm to him. The boy is no longer your concern.”

Oh God.

They muscled Noah, heart thundering, to the nearest of a fleet of black Chevy Tahoe’s. He swore he wouldn’t gamble his family’s safety, but he flinched then. He stiffened in the beta’s grasp when they opened the SUV door. He couldn’t go into that vehicle. He’d be helpless. Captured. They could hurt him. Maybe kill him.

He jerked away—and earned a light cuff to his temple in rebuke.

His brothers wrestled. Often. All shifters did. The mock battles that frequently resulted in bloodied noses and bruises were their way of jockeying for position even in a group as small as their family or that’s what his mother had said when Noah was younger. His brothers had never touched him, though. Shifters could take the rough and tumble, but not Noah. He’d been physically vulnerable, easily injured.

The blow, however gentle, rocked him to the core.

He’d known pain—endless surgeries, torturous physical therapy, and a shattered body that refused to function properly. But he’d never suffered as much as a casual swat on his butt when he’d misbehaved as a child and none of the typical punishments meted out by his father to maintain discipline among the adult wolves since.

“Don’t look at me like that. And stop cringing. We won’t abuse you.” The beta frowned. “You’re a shifter. He’s ordered you to be treated as one. That’s all.”

That didn’t reassure him considering bitter experience had taught him shifters were the most brutal of nature’s creatures. More scared than he’d ever been in his life, Noah stopped resisting, though, and they shoved him into the back seat of the Tahoe. They took away his forearm crutches, cramming the lightweight supports at their feet on the floor. When Noah instinctively reached for them, the shifters tied his hands with rope. The engine roared to life, and the Tahoe shot forward, zooming from the farm while the betas bound his feet, too. Once he was restrained, they ignored him. Terror balled inside Noah as he waited for what would happen next.

After they reached the blacktop of the main road, the Tahoe turned right, toward town. When one of the betas caught him spying out the window and watching the long tail of headlights leaving the farm, Noah yanked his gaze down. He hunched over to protect his stomach, but the anticipated blows never landed.

One of the betas snorted scathing disapproval. “They should be punished.”

“Wade granted amnesty. You heard him.”

“Still.”

“When we slow on the next straight stretch, the lead cars can overtake us,” the driver said into the head set of a cell phone and then glanced in the rearview mirror. “Alpha Wade wants to know if the boy is all right.”

“He’s fine.” The beta smiled. “As docile as a lamb.”

Noah squeezed his eyes shut. Please let that be enough. See? I’m cooperating. No reason to go back to the farm to murder my family. No reason to hurt them—or me.

The vehicles streamed into the city. The fleet of cars blended into traffic headed to the far side of town, where Noah and his brothers had been forbidden. Noah had only ever left the farm to sneak to doctor’s appointments. They hadn’t dared anything else. His father had even installed an indoor pool so he could do his physical therapy at home rather than chance facilities in the pack’s territory. He’d rarely been in town, never this part of the city, and certainly not at night. The lights overwhelmed him, a headache quickly building at the sensory overload of flashing neon, blaring car horns, and the assault of foreign smells, mostly fried food and car exhaust. He glued his gaze on his hands, but that morning’s migraine flared back to life. Agony pounded his skull, behind his eyes, at the base of his neck. His tender stomach couldn’t take a second assault that day, and despite the breathing techniques he’d learned from Dr. Phares, Noah moaned in warning. “I’m going to throw up.”

One of the men cursed, a heavy hand landing on Noah’s nape to push his head between his knees. “Keep driving. We’re too close to stop now.”

Noah vomited water and bile to the floor while the other beta grabbed a phone. Noah hurt too bad to make out the words.

The Tahoe screeched to a halt moments later. They opened the door on Noah’s right. They pushed him from the car. He tried to force his legs under him to walk, or at least stand, but with his crutches inside the vehicle, his feet bound, and his head aching, he dangled between the two goons. A gentle but firm fist in his hair eased his gaze up. He groaned, squinting at bright spotlights in front of the pack house.

“His senses are over-stimulated.” When the alpha’s stare dropped to the rope binding Noah’s wrists and ankles, he scowled. “I thought you said he wasn’t fighting this, that he was okay. Why is he restrained?”

“He balked at climbing into the rig. You said you didn’t want him hurt. When he panicked, we tied him to ensure he didn’t injure himself,” one of the betas answered. “He settled down then.”

“Because he’s petrified.” The alpha grimaced. “He’ll be calmer once he’s inside and cleaned up. Take him upstairs, but keep the rooms quiet. Dark. Untie him. I’ll decide if he’s a danger to himself.”

They carried him away again, through the double front doors of the pack house. They strode into a gauntlet of gawking shifters inside. The two betas hauled him up a wide staircase. The foreign scents in the house—of other shifters, of lemon-scented cleaners and even here, the city smells—overpowered him. He concentrated just to avoid vomiting again. They guided him into a bathroom three flights up. He screamed, the blinding glare of overhead lights too much for him. Thankfully, one of the betas doused the light and flicked another switch for dimmer sconces topping a mirror above the sink. When the betas stripped him, he was too sick to fight them. Even when they removed the rope cuffing his wrists and ankles, he couldn’t manage more than clumsy twitches. They unbuckled his leg brace and discarded it with a negligent toss. His glasses were set aside on the vanity with more care. Blurrier now, the two strangers pushed him to sit on the lid of the toilet. Noah had never felt this naked, not only of his clothes, but stripped of the supports that helped him walk, of even his sight with his glasses tucked away. Shaking, he rubbed angry red marks the rope had left on his wrists, but knew the shifters didn’t need restraints anymore. Without his brace, crutches, and glasses, he was helpless.

Startled, he jumped nervously when the alpha strode through the bathroom door. “Reminders of other scents will confuse him. Destroy his clothes,” Wade told one of the betas, who snatched up the piles of fabric and scrambled to leave. “Help me with him,” he ordered the remaining shifter. They lifted Noah by his biceps and pushed him into the shower. Hot water soon relaxed his cramping muscles. Fully clothed, Wade joined him under the shower and scrubbed him with a scratchy sponge while the other shifter held him upright. Wade washed Noah’s hair twice and then traded shampoo for a softer sponge to thoroughly clean Noah again.

By the time Wade hauled him from the shower to towel him dry, the smells of his father, brothers, and home had washed away.

Noah’s mind shut down.

They walked him through another door to a utilitarian bedroom and dumped him on a narrow bed, where he lay in a boneless heap. The beta placed a basin next to him. “In case you throw up again.”

“His body temperature is lower than ours, more human than shifter. Turn the thermostat up. I don’t want him uncomfortable.” The alpha leaned over him, palm cupping Noah’s cheek. “You’re going to be all right. I promise.”

Noah shut his eyes, and after they’d gone, when the room was dark and the ticking of the baseboard heater proved the alpha’s command had been obeyed, Noah finally realized he wouldn’t be raped. He wasn’t safe, but they were leaving him alone. For now. He surrendered to exhausted sleep.

* * * * *

When he awoke, the basin was gone. Someone had moved him under the sheets and a green cotton blanket. He smelled a stranger in the room, but numb by his terror, Noah didn’t cringe. He turned inside the snug cocoon of covers to find the indistinct blur of a new shifter standing guard at the door a few feet away. Miraculously, his wire-rim glasses rested on an otherwise bare night table. He groped and awkwardly shoved his glasses onto his nose. Able to see now, Noah lowered his gaze in the submissive pose he was positive would be expected of a prisoner and used the opportunity to surreptitiously study his guard. He was tall like most shifters and dark, with a long tail of black hair streaming down his back from an elastic band at his nape. He was dressed like city shifters—jeans, a simple blue work shirt, and scuffed boots. Noah couldn’t be sure. Last night was a blur and all shifters looked the same to him, big and bulky with muscle. As blunted as his sense of smell tended to be, though, he didn’t recognize this shifter’s scent. This one was new.

The stranger frowned, but didn’t speak to him. Instead, the guard reached for a cell phone strapped to his waist. “He’s awake.”

Without his leg brace or forearm crutches, Noah sat up in the bed and scooted to lean against the plain oak headboard. He tugged the blanket up to his chin, only his head remaining uncovered. He had to pee and his bad leg hurt like fire, but until he knew how much trouble he’d landed in, he wouldn’t move again.

One of the betas from last night walked into the sparse room moments later, and Noah sighed in relief that it wasn’t the shifter who’d slapped him. “He hasn’t been up?”

“Too scared.” The guard studied Noah through narrowed eyes. “He’s pretty scrawny. I’m not sure he can.”

The newcomer grunted. “Wade won’t like that. C’mon.” He and the guard tore Noah’s blanket away. They helped him to the bathroom, and when Noah couldn’t stand upright, the beta from last night supported him while Noah urinated into the toilet. And Noah thought his hospital stays were embarrassing? The pokes and prods from dozens of human nurses hadn’t compared to this. The shifters steadied him while he washed his hands and brushed his teeth. They handed him a comb for his hair, then a washcloth to wipe his face.

When they returned him to the bedroom, they plunked him in a tangled clump on the mattress, but his bladder wasn’t ready to burst. They’d permitted basic grooming. A tray of food now rested on the night table where his glasses had been. Noah’s mouth watered at mountains of scrambled eggs, toast, and bacon.

His morning could have been a lot worse.

The guard exited the bedroom, but the beta from last night stayed. He nodded to the food. “Eat.”

Noah stared at the steaming platter. His empty stomach yowled. He guessed the meal could have been drugged, but they didn’t need to sedate him to make him do what they wanted. They must not have settled on killing him. Not yet at least, not if they were feeding him. He didn’t see any purpose in starving, especially since refusing food would be considered a challenge. That, Noah knew, would be met with merciless efficiency.

Wrapping a corner of the blanket around him to cover his nudity, he reached for the tray. It was heavier than it looked, weighed down with more food than Noah was accustomed to, and he snorted when he noticed the cutlery was plastic. Like he was dangerous?

“You’re on suicide watch.”

Noah’s jaw dropped. “I don’t want to die,” he protested.

The beta shrugged. “Sick and injured wolves do desperate things.”

Sure, they did. Like submit to antiquated mating pacts to spare the lives of their kin. But a deal was a deal. City shifters might deem Noah damaged beyond repair, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t hold up his end of that bargain. “I said I’d cooperate.”

The shifter rolled his eyes. “Then, eat.”

Noah glared at the beta before grudgingly returning his attention to his food. The massive portions were more in line with the quantities his brothers and his dad regularly consumed. Shifting burned lots of energy. They needed the extra calories. Noah didn’t. Dr. Phares had him on a strict diet, carefully balancing nutrition and caloric intake so he wouldn’t gain weight that could throw off his precarious balance or hinder his physical therapy. He never went hungry, but he never enjoyed this kind of excess, either. Though his family mixed with humans often, most shifters didn’t. The city pack was no judge of proper portions for damaged wolves like him.

Still, he couldn’t refuse.

Picking at the scrambled eggs, he lifted a bite on the ridiculous plastic fork to sniff it. According to Dr. Phares, his sense of smell was almost as muted as a human’s, but blunted senses were better than none at all. His nose scented nothing amiss. Just eggs. He poked out his tongue to test the taste and groaned at the explosion of cheese mingling with the eggs. He shut his eyes, a shiver of delight working up his spine. When had he last been allowed cheese? Probably not since his mother’s heart attack, shortly after his recovery plateaued following his first shifts.

If cheese masked the taste of drugs, Noah didn’t care.

He shoveled the bite into his mouth. Then another. And another. Ducking his gaze to avoid the tiny curl at one corner of the beta’s lips, which Noah supposed passed for a smile, he ate scrambled eggs—only the eggs—until his cavernous stomach filled. Before last night, he might’ve been embarrassed at his haste, but the food tasted wonderful. Besides, with his modesty preserved by only the stingy corner of a blanket, pride numbered among the many items he couldn’t afford anymore. He ate rapidly and gluttonously, reasoning that increasing his food intake must have balanced out the calories he’d burned while he’d struggled with his terror last night. Even then, when his fork slowed, mounds of food remained on the platter.

“More,” the beta commanded.

Too bad Noah couldn’t justify consuming the rest. Piles of crispy bacon taunted him especially, but he didn’t know when or if he’d see a pool for exercise again. He didn’t want to risk force-feeding, though. He nudged the eggs with his fork. Squaring his shoulders, he screwed up his nerve to ask for his leg brace. “I can’t walk without it,” he said, pausing to consider how to condense the dry terms in a way someone unfamiliar with his medical history would understand. “My knees hyper-extend. Mostly the right leg, but also the left. I wish I could control that, but I can’t. I could dislocate the joints, tear muscles and tendons. Unless you want to carry me to the bathroom every time I have to pee or watch me crawl—“

“Eat.” The beta crossed his arms over his chest.

That wasn’t a “no” exactly. To show his good will, Noah forked more fluffy eggs into his mouth. “I need my medicines, too,” he said after he’d consumed the bite. “Pins stabilize my hips. The white lines running down my legs? Those are scars from my surgeries. Dr. Phares said I might be able to walk without pins, plates, and bars strengthening my bones once I’m fully grown, but not yet.”

“You’re twenty years old.”

“Exactly.” Noah nodded. “I’m small, even by human standards. Dr. Phares wants to give me another year to see if I hit a growth spurt delayed by the accident.”

“Shifters mature by sixteen.” The beta scowled at him. “You’re short and too skinny, but you’re an adult.”

Frowning, Noah shoveled another heaping mound of scrambled eggs he didn’t want into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed. “Listen, I’m not like you. Not like other shifters.”

“But you are a shifter.” The beta glowered. “A stubborn one who needs to shift.”

That was what he was afraid of and the last thing he should do. “My doctors adapted to my physiology. After I stopped therapeutic shifting to try to heal the damage, we worked around using bars and plates as much as we could, but I have a few left in me. Anything foreign to our bodies disappears during a shift, though. So I can’t shift, okay?”

Eventually, Noah stopped trying. He dutifully ate as much of his breakfast as he could stand. Only then did the beta move, walking to the bed to collect the still half-filled plate. “I won’t make trouble. I’ll do whatever he wants, I swear. Just please…tell me what’s happening? Why is he holding me prisoner?”

“You aren’t a prisoner. You were rescued,” the beta said, but when he left with the dirty dishes, Noah heard the lock click.

The Ghost on My Couch by LA Gilbert
ALEX was so glad to be getting home he could cry. His feet hurt, his head hurt, and he had that sterile hospital smell about him that was so unpleasant. Better than smelling like vomit, he supposed, but still, not great. Unfortunately, today hadn’t been the first time he’d been thrown up on. It wasn’t even the fifth. As a male nurse, not only did Alex have to contend with witty, stereotypical, emasculating jibes from his annoyingly straight friends, but finishing a shift with spatters of blood, vomit—and even, on occasion, shit—on him was a regular occurrence. But hey, it was a small price to pay for saving lives on a daily bas—oh wait, no, that was the doctors.

No, Alex Tanner was a twenty-seven-year-old male nurse who earned eighteen grand a year, lived in the crappiest flat in Camden Town imaginable, and had never really saved anybody’s life. But if you needed a catheter inserted or your balls shaved, he was your guy.

“Ugh, shower, shower, shower….”

He was pretty sure he’d washed clean at the hospital, but he still had that lingering disinfectant scent on him, combined with the stale, muggy, pollution-like odor that was unavoidable when taking the underground. A shower first thing when getting in from work was a strict part of his routine, a routine he rarely deviated from.

He dumped his backpack on the kitchen counter (if a nook with an oven and microwave counted for a kitchen) and pulled the scrub shirt off over his head as he headed to his bedroom. There, he stripped off the rest of his clothes and shoved them into his bathroom hamper. Turning the nozzle to the shower, he stepped under the water that alternated between scalding and sub-zero, sighing as he dipped his head back and wetted his hair.

What a day. What a fucking day. He’d started the day out okay enough, not too tired, and early enough to make himself a coffee and to find fridge space for his cream cheese bagel, but it had kind of gone to shit after that. A little boy had come in with a broken wrist after falling down the stairs; he’d been trying to cheer the little guy up when he noticed how stiffly he was sitting. A quick look under his Pok√©mon T-shirt revealed a large boot print that, if he remembered correctly, seemed to look about the same size as the father’s DM’s. The kid had cried like his heart was broken when Child Services intervened.

“Crazy Bitch” in the mat unit had taken being very pregnant and uncomfortable out on him at every available chance. He’d managed to make himself look like a simpleton in front of one of the doctors by clumsily bumping into him and spilling his tea. Then there’d been the vomit which… never mind. And worst of all, “Old Guy” on 3Z had refused to have his blood drawn by a “poof”, afraid he’d get “those nasty Aids”. The head nurse had told him to shake it off and not to mind the cranky old git, which he’d appreciated, but it had made him no less pissed.

He hated that there was something about him that announced he was gay. He wasn’t effeminate, but he couldn’t really claim to be particularly macho, either (so what if he’d seen Pride and Prejudice twelve times?). And that bugged him. It bothered him to be perceived as such, because that was the kind of guy that he personally just wouldn’t be attracted to. He liked the Matthew Macfadyens out here. The Clive Owens, the Gerard Butlers and the Russell Crowes (despite the latter being a bit of a twat). But buff guys attracted other buff guys and… guess what? He wasn’t buff.

Alex stepped out of the shower and grabbed a towel. Absently rubbing his head dry, he looked in the mirror. Oh please, buff? He should be happy with whatever he could get. Or so his oh-so-sensitive mates kept telling him. Fuckers.

No, he was hardly the depiction of masculine beauty, which made him feel like a hypocrite for setting his own standards so high to begin with. He flung the towel into the hamper, looked at his reflection with a sigh, and then snorted. His hair stuck up in thick tufts gone dark with the damp. Dry, his hair was a light blond, which didn’t look like it’d be receding any time soon. Thank God for small mercies. He considered himself to be pretty plain. Blue eyes, a scattering of light freckles across the bridge of his nose that made him feel like he was thirteen, and a somewhat shy smile that hid teeth that could stand to be a little straighter.

He’d have loved to have broader shoulders and thicker biceps, but lifting weights bored the hell out of him. He’d like to be a little taller than his five foot eight inches, but Cuban heels made him look daft. He’d swap his slight belly for a six-pack any day, but simply could not be bothered to get his arse down to the gym. He turned to his side and sucked in the curve of his stomach, then let it go with an unhappy grumble. He touched his stomach and looked down at his toes.

“Well, as long as I can still see my dick when I look down, I guess it isn’t too bad.”

He pulled on his sweats, padded back into the living room, (a whole three feet away) and threw himself onto the couch. He shimmied into his favorite corner, and pulled his feet up under him. Reaching for the remote and flicking on the TV, he pulled a cushion to his chest and went through his TV planner.

“I’ve been yelled at, embarrassed, and regurgitated on today. God help my Sky planner if it hasn’t recorded Grey’s Anatomy again.”

Finding the show in question, he settled down to watch before going off to bed to rest up for another fulfilling day of being underappreciated and underpaid. Roughly twenty minutes later he hit pause and went to pour himself a well-deserved glass of very cheap wine. Curling back up on his spot, he reached for the remote and took a sip of his Lambrini.

“They should so make Shepherd gay; they’d earn themselves a whole new demographic.”

“I always liked O’Malley, personally.”

“Oh please, why wo—” Alex froze.

He looked to the end of the couch where the voice had come from, and very nearly swallowed his tongue in shock. Sitting there, casually watching his TV was… some guy. Just… some guy. Sitting there on his couch. He tried to speak, to say something, but could only stare wide eyed at the sight of the complete stranger so casually sitting there beside him. The man sitting on his couch glanced at him briefly and then back at the TV, and then snapped his head back at Alex.

They both let out terrified yells of surprise and scrambled off their respective ends of the couch. The stranger stood against the wall, his shoulders sagging as he clutched at his heaving chest. “Oh God, you scared me!”

“W-What… what….”

“So you can see me now?” He didn’t finish his sentence and instead winced as Alex suddenly remembered how to speak.

“What the—who the—what the fucking fuck?” Alex yelled and backed further away, shaking and holding his now empty wine glass in front of him like a weapon. The guy was big, a good foot taller than Alex and a perhaps a little on the podgy side. He stood with his hands out in front of him, looking equally as startled. He had on thick-rimmed glasses and had his hair tied back; he wore a ratty T-shirt, checked PJ bottoms and—of all things—big fluffy bunny slippers.

“Oh wow, you really can see me, can’t you?”

And he apparently had a Bristol accent. Alex squeezed his eyes shut and quickly rubbed his free hand over them.

Nope, still there.

“How the fuck did you get in here?” Alex managed to get out, only sounding slightly less like a hysterical woman.

“Ah, well, I don’t rightly know that.”

“I—I’ve been here all evening. How’d you sneak in?” he demanded, edging away and toward the phone, but keeping his eyes on his unexpected guest.

“I—I just kind of appeared, odd as it sounds. Been here since last night, actually.”

“What?”

The guy winced, and took another step back, his shoulders hunching slightly. “I tried to talk to you, say hello,” he gave a silly little wave, “but you couldn’t see me.”

“Are you fucking crazy?”

“You sure do swear a lot when you’re surprised.”

“Have you been stealing from me?”

“What would I steal?” The guy frowned, and then sputtered on quickly, “Not that your home isn’t lovely….”

“You’ve got ten seconds to explain yourself before I call the police!”

“Uh, well… let’s see, where do I….”

“Five seconds!”

“I’m dead!”

Alex gaped at him for a second, and then dropped his glass to dive for the phone. He couldn’t get his hands to stop shaking enough to hit the nine.

“No, no, please don’t do that,” the guy implored. “You’ll just embarrass yourself and then I’d feel dreadfully guilty.” He approached Alex.

Alex saw this and backed up against the wall, pointing the phone at the man. “Back up! Back the fuck up! I—I know jujitsu!”

The man held his hands out in front of him. “Maybe if we could sit and talk, take some deep breaths….”

Alex reached for the nearest object, a snow globe, and threw it at the guy. The man ducked out of the way and the globe smashed against the wall. Alex went for the next nearest item and the guy gasped.

“Oh no, not the flowers, they’re lovely. Throw a shoe or something, if you have to.”

It was at that moment that Alex lost the feeling in his fingers, and the vase of lilies crashed to the floor. The man winced.

“G—get out of my flat!”

“I can’t do that, I’m so sorry.”

“Oh God.” Alex’s hand went up to his throat. “You’re going to kill me; you’re going to kill me and chop me up into tiny pieces and use me for potpourri, aren’t you?”

“What? No!”

“You’re some mental patient that’s followed me home from the hospital and been hiding in my closet. Oh, God. Oh, Christ.”

“Honesty I’m not. I’m just…” The guy bit his lip anxiously and shrugged. “I’m a ghost, I think.”

“Oh for—just take what you want and get out! I won’t report it to the police, I promise, please just get out!”

“I told you I can’t, I’m….” He gave Alex an apprehensive look, and walked over to the low coffee table that had a lamp sitting on it. “Look.” He swiped his hand straight through the lamp. “See? I can’t hurt a fly. I also can’t go anywhere.”

Alex stopped breathing. He’d just watched a man put his hand through a solid object. Now that he looked at him, he looked a little… translucent-ish. As soon as he was able to draw breath again he ran to the door, bending and nearly falling over as he snagged up the nearest shoes and grabbed his parka before whipping open the front door.

“Wait!” the man called.

Alex slammed the door closed, and dashed down the stairs and into the street. If he received any funny looks whilst running down the street in his crocs, his sweats and parka, and nothing more, then he didn’t notice. By the time he got to his friend’s front door, which was, thankfully, only two streets away from his own, he was panting and as wild eyed as a startled animal.

“Andy! Andy, open up, open the fucking door!” He banged his fist against the door, and nearly stumbled as it whipped open to reveal a very rumpled and annoyed looking man.

“Alex… what the fuck, man?”

Not pausing to give any sort of explanation, Alex shuffled him back and closed the door.

“Alex you know I’m on early shifts; I was fucking sleepi— What the hell?” He broke off, looking at his sweaty, slightly hysterical looking friend. “Alex, you’re not even wearing a shirt!”

“Andy y—you’re not going to believe… there’s… he’s… and… fucking bunny slippers!”

“Have you finally lost it?” He looked down at Alex’s feet “Are those crocs you’re wearing? Christ, you really are gay—”

“Listen to me!” Alex took him by the arms and shook him; Andy easily pulled out of the grip and glared at him.

“No, you listen, you crazy shit! I have to be at work in less than three hours to take over the security shift at the—”

“Andy!” Alex yelled, wringing his hands a little. “Please just listen to me!”

Andy gave an almighty sigh. “This better be worth it. I mean it, Alex, I’m dead on my feet. Make it good.”

After wincing at his choice of words, Alex took a steadying breath, and pressed his still trembling hand to his chest. “Andy,” he began, “there is a ghost, in my flat.”

Andy stared at him, and for a second he thought he was about to be taken seriously, but then he was being shuffled back towards the door.

“I’m serious!” he nearly shrieked.

Apparently the hysterical note in his voice gave Andy pause, and the taller man sighed and ran his hands through his already mussed hair. He seemed to notice something, and his eyes narrowed as he looked down at Alex’s pants, he leaned close and took a sniff.

“How much have you had to drink?”

“I’m not drunk,” he protested indignantly.

“Well, either you’ve been slinging back a few, or you’ve pissed your pants.”

“Oh fine, I had one glass of wine before noticing the ghost sitting on the couch beside me!”

Andy gave him a disbelieving look. “What was it doing, then?”

“He was watching TV with me.”

“What were you watching?”

“Grey’s Ana—what does it fucking matter what we were watching?!”

Andy snorted, finally seeing some humor in the situation. “Alex, mate, any chance you got a little tipsy and nodded off?”

“This was not a dream, and I have a broken snow globe to prove it.”

Andy shook his head and made to escort Alex out the door, but Alex pushed his hands angrily away.

“I did not imagine this!”

“Oh my Christ, you did not just stamp your foot. And in pussy Croc shoes, no less….”

“Andy, be a fucking friend and give me the benefit of the fucking doubt!”

“Kiss your mother with that mouth?”

“Andy!”

Andy looked at him evenly, and then sighed as he walked down the short hallway. “Come on.”

“What are we doing?”

“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m standing here in my boxers, and you…” he glanced back over his shoulder, “…look mental. I’m getting us some clothes, and then we’re going over to your place so I can check for ghosts and then tuck you into bed like a good little retard.”

Andy gave an “oof” as Alex threw himself at his back, wrapping his arms around his middle in a tight hug. He grinned begrudgingly and patted the arms around his middle. “Alex?”

“Yeah?” He sounded oddly choked up.

“What did we say about the spontaneous hugging thing?”

Alex pulled back and sniffed. “Right.”

Andy couldn’t help but snort in amusement, and turned to pull Alex into his bedroom. “Come on, I’d rather not confront Casper in my underpants.”


“KEYS.” Andy held his hand out to Alex who shuffled nervously behind him as they stood outside his flat door.

“Um….”

“What?”

“Well, I was kind of in a rush….”

“You left your door unlocked? Alex, come on, that’s just asking for it!”

“I wasn’t wearing a shirt, what made you think I’d have my keys?” He was still wearing his sweats, parka, and yes, his Croc shoes, and Andy had lent him a sweater that looked ridiculously big on him. He didn’t think it made him look any more presentable, but… whatever.

“You know what the crime’s like in this area; my mate John got his place broken into not a week ago, and he lives… what, ten minutes away? You gotta—”

“I don’t need a lecture, Andy.”

“Sounds to me like you do!”

“Well forgive me for not setting the alarms and sprinklers before leaving, but there was a fucking poltergeist in my living room!”

“That’s a bit overboard isn’t it?” Andy laughed.

“It was scary!”

“I thought you said it was wearing bunny slippers?”

“Still scary!”

“Pussy.”

“Fuck you.”

“I can leave, if you like.”

“Please don’t.”

Andy grinned and opened the door. “You bell-end.” he chuckled, and walked through to the living room. “What the hell did you do?” He stepped carefully around the broken glass and lilies on the floor.

Alex sighed. “Dropped it, I was going to throw it at him.”

“What, and then you remembered what a massive homo you are and that you can’t throw worth a shit?” Amused by himself, Andy gave him his best shit-eating grin.

“You know the gay jokes are extremely offensive.”

“To anyone else, yeah.”

“To me too!” Alex replied tersely, surveying the room carefully as he dared to edge closer to the couch.

“Nah.”

“What do you mean ‘nah’?”

“It’s your own fault. We’re mates, so I get to be as offensive as I like.”

“And if we weren’t friends?”

Andy pulled back a curtain, and then turned to bend and look under the coffee table with exaggerated caution. “Well then I wouldn’t dream of speaking to you in such a way.”

“That’s fucked up.”

“It’s me being affectionate, actually.”

“That’s even more fucked up.”

“Do I need to remind you of why I’m here?”

Alex crossed his arms and remained quiet. He looked around him. His TV was still on, and the wine glass he’d been drinking out of lay on its side on the floor. Other than the broken glass from the vase, and the mark on the wall from where the snow globe had smashed, it all looked normal. He was beginning to feel mighty foolish.

Andy came back out of the bathroom. “Not in the shower.” He gave his head a scratch and turned to Alex with an eyebrow raised.

Alex sighed and flopped down on the couch, dejected. “I swear it was real. I saw something, I know it.”

Andy sat himself on the other end of the couch. “Had a tough day?”

“I guess. Though it’s never made me hallucinate before.”

“What happened?”

Alex groaned and waved his hand at him in a dismissive gesture. “The usual. I got puked on again.”

Andy laughed and then quickly smothered it. “I think getting chucked up on, on a regular basis is enough to make anyone lose it.”

“Some old guy was… never mind.” He shrugged. It wasn’t like it mattered.

“What?”

“He called me a poof.”

“You’ve been called a lot worse,” Andy joked, shrugging.

“Thanks for the support.”

“Ah, come on. Old people can be like that some—”

“He wouldn’t let me touch him. He didn’t want to get Aids.”

The teasing grin slowly disappeared. “Oh, I see.” Andy shifted uncomfortably on the couch. “Well, fuck him—old bastard. He doesn’t know you.”

Alex shrugged his shoulders again. “It doesn’t matter.” He played with the sleeves of Andy’s sweater where they overlapped his hands. “It was just embarrassing—made people look at me differently.” Alex looked to his side at Andy when he heard him clear his throat.

“You need like… a hug, or something?”

Alex snorted and shook his head, going back to fiddling with his sleeves. “That’s alright; I’m a big boy and all.”

Andy sighed again. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, come here.”

“What?” Alex asked in amusement.

“We’re hugging.” He shuffled closer to Alex, slung his arm around his shoulders and pulled him close. “You like this hugging crap, and I’m trying to be a good friend, so just go with it.”

Alex laughed as he received the manly thumps on his back. “Thanks, man, I know what a sacrifice this is.”

Andy ruffled Alex’s hair roughly, and let his arm fall away to rest on the back of the couch. He looked around the room, and then back at Alex. “Alex, there’s nothing here, mate.”

“So what does this mean?”

“I guess it means you’re bat shit crazy.”

“Ah, crap.”

“Yup.”

“Maybe… I mean it was a long day-”

“And you did get puked on again.” He pointed out helpfully. “I’m surprised you haven’t gone on a killing spree, to be honest.”

“What an interesting insight into the way your mind works.”

“Hey, I couldn’t do your job. There’s a reason I like to work night shifts as a security guard.”

“Minimal excretion of bodily fluids?”

“That and I’m an anti-social bastard.”

“You’re not anti-social.”

“Oh, but I’m a bastard?”

“Yeah, but in an oddly likeable way.”

“That’s something, I guess. If you could just let everyone else know I’d be awfully grateful.”

“Other people….” Alex began to object, then paused, squinted and then shrugged. “Some people like you.”

“If you could just tell the ladies, then.”

Alex nodded in agreement. “You do need a girlfriend.”

“So do you—evil homosexual.”

Alex shrugged apologetically. “Sorry, I like the cock.”

Andy winced and then laughed, shoving Alex—who was grinning proudly—by the shoulder. “Man, it’s like there’s nothing different about you, then you go say some shit like that that totally throws me off.” He laughed. “Fucking funny.” He sighed, wiping tiredly at his eyes.

“Ahh, the enlightened twenty-first century heterosexual.”

“That’s me; just don’t try and talk to me about taking it up the jacksie.”

“You’re the most politically incorrect person I know.”

Andy puffed out his chest. “That makes me so proud.”

Alex snorted and shook his head; he looked at Andy thoughtfully for a second, a small smile playing across his lips. “You know, you should meet my friend Jackie.”

“She politically incorrect too?”

“No, but she is single, and wonderful, and—”

Andy held up his hand to stop him. “She sounds fat.”

“What do you mean she sounds fat?” Alex asked, affronted.

“Well, if she was a looker, that’s what you would have started off with.”

“Jackie is pretty, and she’s smart—”

Up went Andy’s hand again. “Whoa there, strike two.”

“Oh so now you don’t like smart women?” Alex asked, exasperated.

“They’re okay, but now you’re just compensating for the fat. Unless there’s something else wrong with her. What is it, bad teeth? Annoying laugh?”

“You know what? Forget it. You’re not good enough for her.”

“Probably.” Andy laughed, and then grinned crookedly. “Hey.” He shoved Alex’s shoulder gently.

“Enough with the fucking shoving,” Alex snipped.

“Oh come on. I’m sure she’s real nice, but do you really want to try and fix her up with someone like me?”

“When you’re not being a dickhead, you’re a nice guy, and she’s a great person.” He shrugged. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to fix up two people you care about.”

“You care about me, huh?”

Alex shrugged begrudgingly. “Despite common sense, yes.”

“And not in the ‘I wanna make friends with your balls’ way?”

“I might have thought you were semi-good looking when I first met you.”

“But….”

“But then I got to know you.” Alex laughed. “That killed any potential attraction.”

“Thanks, buddy.”

“Any time.”

Andy swiped his hands over his face and looked around the place. “What time is it?” He craned his neck to look at the clock on the wall behind him. “Shit, I’ve gotta be at work in like an hour, I better get going.” He looked at Alex, actual worry showing in his expression. “Are you going to be okay?”

Alex sighed, “Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’m sorry for being a massive freak.”

“Don’t worry about it. Kind of why I like you.” Andy patted his shoulder and stood, stretching his arms over his head.

“Bed,” he ordered, and Alex raised an eyebrow in question. Andy pulled him up by the arm and pointed him in the direction of the bedroom. “I can hang around for a few more minutes. Or long enough for you to fall asleep, anyway. Go on.”

Touched, Alex said his thanks, and fought the compulsion to hug him again before heading off to bed. Knowing his friend was in the other room somehow put the evening into perspective. He had no doubt that his fear had been real, but whether or not it had been brought on by a long, crappy day and nodding off in front of the TV, or early onset dementia, he now found it difficult to believe that he had run from his apartment in a blind panic. Thinking about that and knowing that the sounds coming from his living room were of Andy sweeping up broken glass, his weird and terrifying evening didn’t prevent him from dropping off the second his head hit the pillow.

Andy discarded the broken glass, and dumped the now dead flowers into the kitchen bin. He glanced again at the time and silently tiptoed to Alex’s bedroom door. Hearing soft snores, he let himself out of the flat and made it halfway down the hallway before mentally slapping himself. Going back to the flat, he let himself in and quickly scanned the place. Finding Alex’s keys on a worktop in his tiny kitchen, he quietly closed the front door behind him, tested it to make sure it was securely locked, and then posted the keys back through the letterbox.

Back in the flat, when all was quiet save for the sounds of Alex’s breathing, the ghost heaved a sigh of relief.

Shatterproof by Xen Sanders
1
“My name is Saint,” he said, “and I kill everyone I love.”

Saint stared down at the digital recorder in his palm. Seconds ticked by on the screen. His black-polished fingernail underscored the blocky numbers, accusing with every moment he stared, silent in the sluggish, slow heat of the balmy Georgia night. He was supposed to be telling his story. Recording the things he knew, so he could piece together the things he didn’t.

This was pointless.

He lifted the device to his lips again, hesitated, exhaled. “I call myself Saint, but I . . . I don’t know my real name. I don’t know where I came from. As far as I can tell, I’m over two hundred years old. I haven’t aged a day in that time. But sometimes . . .” He wet his lips. “Sometimes I start to fall apart. Sometimes I grow weak, faint. Until . . .” His heart rolled over, a heavy thing weighted with pain. “. . . until I fall in love. I’ve loved . . . God, too many. Calen. Michael. Remy. Dorian. Philippe. Arturo. Victor. Jake.”

He closed his eyes. Jake. Jake and his grass-green eyes; Jake and the way he’d breathed Saint, Saint as if the name was a prayer to save him. It had been eighteen years, and still he remembered the way Jake’s hands had spanned his hips, and how those hands had been so emaciated and feeble when his eyes glazed over and his body just . . . deflated, like there was nothing inside to hold it up anymore. He’d been the last. Saint wanted him to be the last.

He couldn’t stand to do this again.

“They always die,” he whispered, then pressed his mouth to the recorder, the little stipples over the speaker scraping against his lips. “It’s always the creative types. Artists. Musicians. Painters. Authors. Poets. They’re brilliant. They’re beautiful. They’re the only ones who can make me feel. Everyone else is monochrome, but for me they’re all the colors in the world and even when I want to resist, I can’t.”

He swallowed, thick and rough. “But then . . . something happens. This fire goes off inside them, and they become . . . God, I don’t know how to describe it.”

He opened his eyes and stared blankly across the room, his dark little warren of odds and ends collected over the decades. Then he looked at his arm, touched his chilled skin, traced his fingers over the patterns marked on his flesh in shimmer-dark ink. Right there—the firebird, brilliant in its sparks, coiling from his wrist to his elbow. That was Jake, burned forever into his skin.

“Transcendent,” he said. “Like a phoenix, just before it dies . . . only they never rise again. It’s like they’re burning apart from the inside out. Like their souls come alight and they’re bleeding them out through their art. And I . . . I think it’s my fault. I don’t know what I am. Some kind of incubus, maybe. I’ve never met anyone like me. But because of me, they burn out. They die. And for a little while, I don’t feel so weak anymore.”

He swore softly under his breath. Each word was a noose, tightening around his throat.

“Every time, I hope it will be different. Every time, I . . . I become a murderer all over again. I can’t believe it’s not because of me. I’ve been in denial for too long. It’s like I’m being punished for loving, but I—I just want to figure out what’s causing this.” His grip tightened on the recorder; the plastic cut into his palms, the heat of the battery warming his hands through the casing.

“So I can figure out how to stop.”

He paused the recording and hit Rewind. The track skipped back to 00:00, then started to play. His own voice lilted out, crackling faintly, racked with things he wished he knew how to stop feeling when every time broke him all over again.

My name is Saint, and I kill everyone I love.

What would happen, he wondered, if he never fell in love again?

He stopped the audio. Erased the track, tap-tap-confirm, yes, absolutely sure. Started again, pressing his mouth to the recorder and feeling its plastic slickness against his lips like a dead, mechanical kiss.

“My name is Saint,” he said, “and I can’t remember who I am.”

He shut the recorder off, pitched it on the table, and walked away.

2
Grey wondered who had found him.

He’d thought he planned it better than this. Quiet and alone in his apartment, the pulsing throb of gut-deep, grinding music drowning out any sounds he might make: the noise of the gunshot, his cries, the low quiet whisper of the loa come to take him through Bawon Samedi’s gates.

It hadn’t been an easy choice, though it had felt increasingly like an inevitable one. As if a road that once branched in many directions had narrowed down to a single path, one walked by many feet before his, one that drew him along step by step until he couldn’t have turned back if he wanted to. And he hadn’t. Wanted to, that is. No. No, he’d wanted this.

And then he’d fucked it up.

He’d considered more silent methods at first. Something less absolute and terrifying than the rifle in the mouth, angled just so, to make sure there’d be nothing left of his brain, the top of his head completely gone. Quieter methods were more likely to fail. He might get one wrist slit the right way and not have the strength to slit the other, waking up later in a pool of his own blood but still waking up. His body might force him to vomit up pills. Hanging, both the rope and the chair might slip at the wrong moment. A pistol to the temple could graze, miss, come out the other side.

But the Hemingway solution . . .

Brutal. So beautifully brutal; so very effective. His last work of art, splattered in blood and flesh over a canvas of gleaming floorboards.

That was how it worked, when you really wanted it. You didn’t advertise it. You didn’t broadcast it to anyone who might stop you. You held it close, a precious little secret clutched to your chest, and planned it out so nothing could go wrong.

Only something had.

He remembered pain, blinding and hot. The wavering disc of the overhead light cut in chop-chop-chop streams by the blades of the ceiling fan, strobing in and out. The wet feeling of blood pooling, and the sad, quiet thought of:

I hadn’t wanted to feel this.

I hadn’t wanted to feel anything ever again.

Then a scream he didn’t recognize, heavy footsteps, the clatter of equipment, the jumble of sirens, his body moved about like a lifeless sack while he felt like he was floating outside it, watching while deft, capable hands took his vitals, staunched the flow of blood, eased something soft under his head. The ambulance jouncing around him. And a pale figure next to him, in an EMT’s blues.

He struggled to focus. The lights inside the ambulance were too bright, everything blurring in and out in a haze of white. Strange eyes. Strange eyes like the rose color of sunset just before twilight, as if they wanted to be violet but something inside had bled out crimson to taint their color. Dusk, he thought dimly. They were the color of dusk, flecked with motes of sunlight, set against a white, sullen face framed in a messy thatch of black. A delicate face, grim with a sort of quiet, constant fear that lined his angled eyes and set the line of his jaw just so. He didn’t look old enough, Grey mused with a sort of detached clarity. He didn’t look old enough for those slim pale ghosts of hands to be touching Grey’s body, piecing him back together, saving his life.

Stop, he wanted to say, but his tongue was leaden and bloated and filling his mouth. Don’t. Don’t bring me back. Just let me go.

But first, tell me what you’re so afraid of.

Those hard, angry dusk eyes flicked to him as if the pale man had heard him. He studied Grey intently, while the siren shrieked a high keening wail and the ambulance careened around a corner hard enough to make everything inside jerk and rattle.

“Why’d you do it?” he asked, so soft Grey almost didn’t hear him.

He swallowed thickly, forced his tongue to move. His voice struggled to come up, a cold and unmoving lump in the bottom of his throat. “Does i-it . . . does it matter?”

“Yes.” The pale man lowered his eyes. His hands rested on Grey’s chest, the wings of white doves, feathers tipped in black. Black-painted nails, chipped and gleaming and throwing back reflections of those pensive, pensive eyes. “It always matters.”

You’re wrong, he wanted to say, but his voice still wouldn’t work. He closed his eyes, fighting past the dull throb of pain to find thought, find reason, find anything other than an overwhelming sense of failure.

But against the backs of his eyelids he saw strange sunset eyes, and felt the warmth of hands resting quiet and sweet just over his heart.

“What . . .” He choked, coughed, his mouth a desert. “W-what’s your name?”

A low laugh answered, oddly melodious. “I thought we were talking about questions that mattered.”

It matters, Grey thought. It matters to me.

But he couldn’t get the words out. The dark was coming fast.

And when it swallowed him down he went willingly, and hated that on the other side waited a blinding and damning light that shone too bright to let him hide from anything.

Even himself.

Warrior Pledge by EE Montgomery
1. Warrior Pledge
THE BREEZE dropped as the sun peeped between the mountain peaks on the other side of the valley. A shiver ran across Checa’s shoulders, and with a thought he deepened his slide from human to were and thickened the fur at his ruff. To the north the trees that followed the river were dry and brittle, more than half of them already dead. Radiating out from that line were patches of darkness and light, a camo pattern of toxic sludge and severe drought. Even this high up, he could smell the rot that had taken over the valley. The farms provided a patchwork of gray and brown, sliced unevenly by the sludge emanating from the river systems. Smoke curled from a few farmhouse chimneys, but most lay abandoned, their inhabitants having long given up trying to eke a living from the dying land.

To the east the sky grew dark as the norrgel took flight and headed south. Checa blinked to enhance his sight and watched the wings rise and fall, the deadly threads trailing from wings and tail, waving gracefully in the movement. Far below the first horn blew, its familiar sound picked up and echoed by other watchers throughout the valley.

Wings up. Time to find shelter or die.

Checa had never known a time when a norrgel watch wasn’t needed.

A parrot squawked. He closed his eyes against the growing light, and deep in his soul, the two moons, Makai and Nayeli, moved inexorably closer in their ages-old battle for supremacy. Another sign the prophecy was coming true.

Checa refused to be part of it. No matter what, he wasn’t going to be the hero who would save the world. He wouldn’t let his star rise on the back of another’s death.

His be-damned eyes had turned bright silver when he was sixteen, the moment he’d killed the Bastard. The judge had found out, proclaimed Checa the Silver Shining from Rock, overturned his conviction, taken him to the palace, and put him with the guards for training. None of his fellow trainees had believed he was the one. Checa was a gutter rat from the slums, a murderer. He knew how to fight, though, so that’s what he did. Every time another guard challenged him.

In the ravine below, a flock of parrots took flight. Checa shook his head and huffed in irritation. Even with fifteen years training behind him, Heath could never move anywhere quietly. Checa checked the norrgel, but they were still flying south, their screeches rising every time they found something to hunt.

Checa had killed for the second time when he was eighteen. It was an accident while training in the field, but his eyes had changed to silver again. No one challenged him to a fight after that, except when forced to for training. For a long time, no one spoke to him. Except Heath.

“Checa!”

His name carried in the still air, and an involuntary smile overtook him at the joy in Heath’s voice. Checa’s muscles twitched, wanting to move, to go down and meet him, see the morning light grow as it reached Heath’s features. Just that one sight would be enough to make Checa’s day complete, even if it hadn’t yet really begun.

He returned to his human form and counted his breaths to ensure he remained in place, sitting cross-legged on the platform. There’d been an unusual vibration in the air during the night, an unsteadiness growing louder the closer the moons moved, and even though he wasn’t a Seer, he had to determine what it meant. As Captain of the Guard, it was his duty to keep his people safe. Whether they liked or trusted him made no difference.

“Checa!”

Heath was closer now, the sound of him crashing through the brush a rhythmic counterpoint to his steady footfalls on the leaf-strewn ground. Checa allowed his posture to relax and straightened his legs. He shifted forward so his balance would be stronger, wiped the new smile from his face, and waited.

Heath burst into the clearing like a new spring bloom and launched himself at Checa. Checa braced his legs against the edge of the platform, opened his arms, and caught the younger man as he flew to him. They landed flat on the platform, the bare skin of their chests fusing, Heath’s sweat soaking into Checa’s chest hair and becoming his own. Checa oomphed as his head hit the stone and Heath’s landing knocked the air from his lungs, but he didn’t release his hold, and his smile broke free again.

Some days this was all he had. This was the best of everything he had.

He wrapped his arms around Heath more securely.

“Sorry,” whispered Heath as he snuggled his head under Checa’s collarbone.

Checa ran his fingers through Heath’s long, tangled hair, relishing the touch of smooth skin at the back of his neck. “You’ve been running,” he said as he loosened another knot. He lifted the now-smooth strand and released it. It fell like a waterfall of gold and bronze, copper and chocolate in the strengthening light.

“I had to.” Heath pressed his lips against Checa’s chest and inhaled before relaxing in a boneless heap. “It’s faster.”

“And you just had to race up here to snuggle?”

Heath nodded, then chuckled. “I don’t think I’ll get any more time alone today. And snuggling with you is always worth racing for.”

“So what had you in such a tearing rush?” Checa continued gently smoothing Heath’s hair, not in any hurry to break the contact he craved, but Heath bounced up to sit squarely over Checa’s groin. Checa groaned at the change in pressure and punched his hips up. Their loincloths prevented direct contact, but Heath’s every ridge and bulge pressed against Checa and raised his interest.

Heath grinned. “Yeah, that too, but you’ve got to hear this. It’s happening, Checa! It’s finally happening.” Heath bounced in his excitement.

Checa grabbed Heath’s hips and lifted him off, ignoring the pouting scowl he got in return. Once they were seated on the platform, with dawn washing its gentle light over them and the soft breeze returning, he raised an eyebrow and waited.

“Stop it.” Heath slapped Checa’s arm. “I’m not some test animal. You don’t have to experiment to see how long I stay silent.”

“Clearly not long. So tell me what’s happening.”

Heath leaned forward and pressed his lips to Checa’s neck. Checa groaned at the light suction. Unable to resist he dragged Heath back on top of him and gripped his asscheeks, pulling him tight against him. Heath groaned. They wouldn’t be doing any more talking for a while.

Times like this, when they were alone with little likelihood of anyone discovering them together, were rare. Checa slipped his hand between them and pushed their loincloths out of the way. Heath’s solid, hot cock pressed against his stomach. As Checa wriggled his hand, Heath lifted just enough to align their cocks, then pressed down again.

Checa wrapped his arms around Heath, not letting him slip or slide just yet. “Let me feel you,” he whispered.

“If I could, I’d brand you.”

Checa stilled.

Heath huffed an irritated sigh. “I know you won’t bond with me, Checa. I know my mother would never give her approval. But none of that changes the fact that I would do so in a minute. I’d have you wear my brand so everyone would know you’re mine.”

As Heath spoke, Checa writhed, unable to remain still at the possessive note in Heath’s voice or the picture he painted of the two of them bound forever. He slipped his hand between them again and grasped their cocks together, squeezing before setting up a rhythm that would bring them both to the brink.

Heath lifted up until he was sitting on Checa’s thighs again, his hands between them, slipping in the precome as he fisted Checa’s cock hand over hand. They stroked together, in tandem, their gasping breaths loud in the quiet of the early morning.

“Come for me, Checa. Let me see your eyes when you come,” rasped Heath.

The words were enough to set Checa off. With effort he forced his eyes to stay open as he shot stream after stream of milky liquid on his chest and stomach.

“Yes,” hissed Heath as he leaned forward, his gaze locked on Checa’s as he convulsed in the throes of pleasure. After a few frozen seconds, Heath collapsed, boneless, on top of Checa and snuggled his face in the crook of his neck.

“I think this is your favorite position,” said Checa once his breathing began to even out.

“Any way I get to touch you is my favorite.” Heath huffed, relaxation slowing his words. “I love the way your eyes change when you come. They’re so bright and beautiful.”

Checa resumed rifling through Heath’s hair, sifting the soft strands over his shoulders and back. Only Heath thought his very ordinary green-gray was beautiful. “Tell me why you came tearing up here.”

Heath jumped off, fixed his loincloth, and bounced around the clearing. “You’ve been summoned by the Matriarch.”

Fuck. They’d been found out. Heath’s mother had made it clear that Checa wasn’t good enough for her only son. He was going to be banished, or worse. The roaring red pain flashed through him and he hunched his shoulders and allowed the Change to take him.

As fur grew across his shoulders and his muscles bulged underneath, his incisors lengthened and his hips and knees articulated. He could run on all fours like this, in his were form, or he could continue to full cat mode. He could run faster like that. Faster and longer.

Checa jumped off the platform and flexed his arms to prepare for the full shift, only to find Heath in front of him. Scowling. Angry.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Heath shoved hard at Checa’s chest, making him stumble backward. “Change back right now.”

Heath. His Heath. Checa deflated. As his breath left him in surrender, so too did his muscles reduce and his fur diminish. The sting of it popping back beneath his skin made him shiver. Heath was right. A leader, especially a military leader, couldn’t run when something went wrong. A good leader would stay and listen. A good soldier would stay and fight.

He crossed his arms across his chest and gifted Heath with a scowl of his own. “Why does your mother want to see me?”

Heath huffed out a frustrated breath and looked over the valley, his jaw tight. Finally he closed his eyes in a long blink and breathed deeply. When he opened them again, his temper was restored even if his eyes didn’t hold the same joy they had a few minutes before.

“The summons is from the Matriarch. If my mother found out about us, she wouldn’t hide behind her job. She’d scoop my balls out with a spoon and send you to the norrgel nests.”

Checa sighed. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m just—”

Scared.

“I know. Me too. But, Checa—” Heath’s eyes glowed with renewed excitement. “—it’s coming. The signs are all there. It’s time for the Warrior Pledge! The Matriarch has called the Seer to the city.”

That’s what that vibration was.

Checa jammed his fists onto his hips and looked out over the Analee Valley. The Descendants lived there now, those born of the aliens that had landed a millennium ago and taken what they wanted—but once it had been the hunting grounds for the Mafdeti. If the Warrior Pledge worked, it would be again, but Checa wouldn’t live to see it. The breeze dropped along with his hopes. If Heath was right and it truly was time for the Warrior Pledge, then he had to say good-bye. He’d studied the legends and knew only one of the four would survive. As Silver Shining from Rock, it probably wouldn’t be him.

“Checa, do you know what this means?” Heath was so close behind him, Checa could feel him vibrating with anticipation. He turned to look at the only man he would ever love. “You’re Silver Shining from Rock. You’re the only one who has the eyes, and now that it’s time, that means it’s you.” Heath reached up and cradled Checa’s face. “It’s you!”

Checa had endured the fascination with his eyes since he was sixteen. He preferred disbelief. No one else had silver eyes. Everyone else in every pride throughout the mountain ranges both north and south of the Analee Valley had yellow or green or, in the case of the ruling families, brown. Like Heath’s. Checa’s were a common green, as pale as sun-dried grass, except when he killed.

“Checa?”

Checa ignored Heath as much as he could with him standing so close, his warmth seeping into his back. He continued to look out over the valley. “What signs have you seen?”

Heath sighed, a contented sound that let Checa know he’d been waiting to be asked. “The Chronicles detail a series of events that lead up to the Pledge. The norrgel are nesting earlier this year. Their numbers are double what they were five years ago. The Crystal River has dried up, releasing only a toxic sludge that’s threatening every life in the valley.” He grabbed Checa’s elbow and turned him away from a wisp of smoke at the far end of the valley. “I had a dream,” Heath said significantly. “Last night, I had a dream.”

“You’ve dreamed before. What was special about this one?”

“There were four in the dream, just as the Pledge describes.” He crossed his arms and lifted his chin smugly. “And when I woke, I was standing by the window.”

“The window?”

Heath nodded. “The one that looks over the valley.” He grasped Checa’s hands and squeezed them. “I was in Pledge stance, Checa. Pledge stance. You know what that means, don’t you?”

If it was anyone else, Checa could ignore them. Not Heath. Heath came from a long line of rulers and Seers. If he told you he had a dream, you’d damn well better listen. He looked down the valley again. “So… the Warrior Pledge.”

“Yes! And I’m one of them.” Heath bounced on the balls of his feet in his excitement. “And so are you.”

“No, you’re not.” Checa gestured to his eyes. “I have to be, but you’re not going to be involved.”

The Farseeing dies.

“Bullshit. I’ve known since I met you that I’m the Great Heart Farseeing.”

“You were eight. You couldn’t know anything that young.” Checa increased the derisive tone in his voice. He had to get Heath to accept he couldn’t be part of this. He needed to speak to the Matriarch and get her to forbid Heath to go. “And why would you think you’re the Farseeing? Because you had a dream?”

Heath’s face changed so rapidly Checa couldn’t keep up with the emotions flitting across his features. Hurt, certainly—again—but also anger. He saw that one clearly a split second before Heath hauled back and let fly, his fist hitting squarely on Checa’s jaw. Blood flooded Checa’s mouth as he bit his tongue, and he staggered back several steps before he found his footing again.

“Fuck you, Checa,” panted Heath, his eyes glowing wetly in the bright morning light. “Fuck you,” he whispered.

Heath turned and trudged back down the mountain. Checa waited just long enough to acknowledge he was a bastard, then ran after him.

“Heath! Wait!” He stumbled over tree roots on his dash down the hill. Heath must have shifted as soon as he was out of sight to be so far ahead already. Checa crashed between some trees, back onto the rugged path they used to reach the top. In front of him was a large, growling cat, his tawny fur ruffled aggressively. “I’m sorry,” Checa panted. “I shouldn’t have said that. It’s not true.”

The air wavered and the cat’s features blurred and shortened as his body rose. Checa sighed in relief as Heath allowed his body to flow through the stages from cat to were to man. He smiled at the graceful Change. “I love watching you do that.”

Heath strode toward him, fists clenched. “Why do you always do that?”

The smile evaporated, and Checa took a step backward.

Heath shoved at Checa’s chest. “You’re my m—my best friend. Friends are supposed to support each other, not lie.”

“Heath—”

“Shut up! What is it? It’s okay to spend every day with me but it’s not okay to acknowledge I might have a future outside this claustrophobic warren of caves? It’s okay to fuck me, but only if you make me feel worthless at every opportunity?”

“You’re not worthless.”

“Then why do you always tell me I am?”

“Heath.” Checa tried reason. “The Warrior Pledge is for warriors, not Seers.”

“I am a fucking warrior, Checa. You trained me yourself. Remember? There’s not one fucking soldier I can’t flatten if I want to, except maybe you. Don’t you dare try to tell me I’m not a fucking warrior.”

“You’re a Seer.”

“Yes, I’m a Seer. What the fuck do you think being a Seer means? It means I’m farseeing. I’m a fucking farseeing fucking warrior! How long since you recited the fucking Warrior Pledge, Checa? Or are you just going to ignore that because you don’t think I’m capable of being the Farseeing one?” He punched Checa’s shoulder. Checa rolled with it. “You think being a Seer is easy? I’ve worked fifteen years to get where I am: a Warrior Seer. All you had to do was kill the bastard who murdered your brother for your fucking silver eyes to come out, but I’m the one not good enough?” Heath’s voice wavered and tears welled in his eyes. “Fuck you, Checa.” He angrily brushed the tears away and reached to shove Checa again, but he didn’t make contact. The fight went out of him: his shoulders dropped, his hands unclenched, the breath left him in a rush. “Fuck you,” he whispered again.

Then he turned and ran down the path.

“Heath,” Checa whispered. “It’s not you who isn’t good enough.” The gusty sigh that left him as Heath disappeared into the forest took most of the joy he’d been feeling just a few minutes before. Killing Warden wasn’t the only thing the Bastard had done. It wasn’t the only reason Checa had spilled the man’s guts over the basement floor. After what the Bastard had done to Checa, Checa would never be good enough for Heath. But he’d do whatever it took to protect him, both from the knowledge of what Checa had done and from the dangers inherent in the Warrior Pledge.

He followed Heath down the mountain, slowly, no longer interested in watching the new day’s light awaken the lands.


A few months before
JUN PUSHED farther back between the rocks as the men in the tan uniforms walked by. Imperial soldiers on patrol. That wasn’t unusual, but this was the fourth patrol in this area this week. At least Fan was with them. He grinned at the thought of what he’d do to his lover when he finally got him away from his unit.

The soldiers clung to the thin shadows around the rocky outcropping. Like twists of dust, they slipped between the tall columns of stone into the only shelter from the unforgiving sun.

As the heel of the last soldier disappeared around the outcropping of boulders, a shadow caught Jun’s attention. He moved his head slightly, not enough to let the hidden man know he’d noticed him. An Exile, the detritus of the land, criminals and madmen the lot of them. When the man stopped and slipped between two nearby boulders, Jun edged closer, glad he was in were form. A thick black wedge of fur ran from the back of his neck to the crack between his buttocks, thinned and faded to gray as it wrapped around to his stomach. The fur darkened and thickened again on forearms and shins before thinning to nothing over his large square hands and feet. It helped him blend with the landscape. With luck, Jun would be able to move past the man’s hiding place and follow the soldiers without being seen.

Then the fool moved and Jun knew the man had spotted him. There was nothing for it now but to engage and see if he could get some answers as to why he was there, following an Imperial patrol.

Jun sidled up against the rock, keeping to the slim midday shadows, his focus partly on the soldiers ahead and partly on the sky, watching for norrgel.

As he approached the crevice where the Exile was hiding, the man grabbed his arm and dragged him into the gap between the boulders. Jun reacted, swinging the Exile around and pressing his forearm hard against the man’s throat. The Exile gripped Jun’s arm, his breathing harsh in the confined space.

“What the fuck are you doing? Imperial soldiers kill people like you,” the Exile croaked through the pressure against his throat.

Jun tensed. Why would the Exile be concerned about a Mafdeti? At least he was smart enough not to try to fight. Jun, like most Mafdeti, was a massive, heavyset man, his body rippling muscle and strength. He fought to win or die, and he fought dirty. The Exile didn’t stand a chance.

Jun relaxed his muscles so that all the Exile would feel under his fingertips was warm, soft fur. He waited while the man sucked in a tight, relieved breath.

“The patrol has been here since dawn.” The man tilted his head so he could see around the edge of the rock and out to the desert beyond. Jun knew there wasn’t much to see, just white and charcoal on black, the dark shapes shimmering in the heat, the landscape stripped of color in the noonday sun.

“That’s not a regular patrol,” Jun murmured as he crowded behind the Exile.

“I know. They’re searching for something. Or someone.”

Jun cursed and released the man, stepping farther back into the shadows. Had they found out about his visits? It was the only explanation he could think of, though he always approached the city from a different direction and never stayed in one spot long enough to be detected.

“Shit. How could they have found out?” the Exile cursed.

Every molecule in Jun’s body jumped to high alert. “They’re after you?”

“It’s possible.”

“Because you’re an Exile or…?” He left the question hanging. He couldn’t think of any reason a lone Exile would be in this area, unless…. “Are there others out there?” Drett. Was he going to have to spend the entire day rescuing careless bloody Exiles?

“No.” The man offered no further explanation.

Jun pushed farther back between the rocks. It would be relatively easy for the soldiers to find them. It wasn’t as if there were a lot of hiding places out there in the desert. Not on the surface anyway, but Jun had another agenda. Something more urgent. “Are you going to stay squashed in here all day?” His voice rumbled through the black hair hanging down the Exile’s neck.

The man shivered and took a small step forward, putting space between their bodies. He turned his head and whispered, “If we’re going to be that intimate, you’d better know my name. I’m Fisher.”

Jun looked closely at Fisher. At first he thought the man wore camouflage makeup but then realized it was the pigmentation of his skin that made him look mottled with patches of smooth ivory and darkest chocolate.

Fisher moved forward a little more to look out at the desert, then back to Jun. “I’d rather be stuck here all day than dead.”

Jun smiled, just the corners of his lips lifting, and leaned back against the wedge of rock behind him. “So, what are we going to do to pass the time?”

Fisher scowled and slid down the rock to squat in the sand. There was something not quite right about the Exile, but Jun couldn’t work it out. Why would he be this close to the city and alone, unless he was looking for something… or someone? Fisher had been following the patrol, not trying to avoid it. Jun didn’t need to know. He had an appointment to keep, and he needed to warn Fan they were being followed. He just had to make sure that he and his lover weren’t caught in the cross fire, whatever it was.

Fisher looked up at him and smiled a smile that would fool Jun’s mother. “I don’t know what you have planned, but I’m going to sleep for a while, then leave.” He lowered his buttocks onto the sand but kept his feet under him, like a soldier, ready to rise quickly. Then he closed his eyes and ignored Jun.

After several minutes, Fisher’s breathing slowed and the muscles in his neck and back relaxed. His head dropped forward, cheeks landing on his knees. The pressure forced his mouth open and saliva dribbled out. Time passed and Fisher settled more comfortably into position. Jun wasn’t fooled Fisher was asleep, but he was almost impossible to track once he was out of sight, so he moved past slowly, barely brushing Fisher’s hair, thanking the Elders he could move so quickly and silently.

Within seconds he was back in the scorching sun, following the patrol. He kept his steps deliberate and silent as he closed the distance between himself and the last man in the Imperial patrol.

The slip and crunch of a sandy body sliding against rock was the only warning Jun had before a tan-clothed arm shot out between boulders and dragged him into a small area. As Jun scented his mate, he swiftly changed to fully human form.

“Thank the Elders you managed to get away. I’ve been waiting all day.” Jun grabbed Fan’s sandy brown hair and kissed him roughly.

“We’re on extended patrol.” Fan was panting, whether from his flight to Jun or from arousal, Jun didn’t care. He was there and that was all that mattered. “There’ve been intruders spotted.” Jun fumbled at Fan’s belt; the buckle clinked as it released. A low groan from Fan covered the sounds. “We can’t…. The others.”

“I’m so desperate for you it’ll be over before they notice you’re not right behind them.” Jun dropped to his knees, nuzzling Fan’s groin as he tugged his clothing out of the way. Within seconds his mouth closed around the warm, silky skin of Fan’s cock. Jun sucked in a deep breath as he tasted him. It was like coming home. There was no fragrance, no taste that brought more peace to him or that he craved more.

Fan groaned, the sound muffled as he shoved his hand over his mouth. Jun sucked harder, fondled Fan’s balls, and tugged gently.

“Jun, wait, it’s too much. I’m going to….”

Jun moved his fingers behind Fan’s balls to the delicate skin beyond. Frantic thrusts jammed against the back of his throat as warm liquid flooded his mouth. Above him, Fan keened like an animal in pain.

“Yes,” Jun hissed around Fan’s cock.

“Jun!”

Behind the cry sand slid against sand. Jun stilled, listening closely, his own need to come forgotten at the threat of discovery.

“What is it?”

He rose to his feet and drew his mate into a quick hug. “Nothing. It’s fine. You’d better get back before they miss you.”

“Two days?” Fan’s smooth tenor sounded gravelly and breathless.

“I’ll be here.” Jun dragged him into his arms, relishing any time he could get with him, wishing things were different and they could be together all the time. He pressed closer, letting his gentle kisses tell Fan what he needed to know. “Watch out for a tail.”

Fan’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded his understanding. He righted his clothing and walked away, sand crunching against rock as he headed through the maze of boulders and back to his unit. Jun watched him go, leaning back against the rock, waiting to make sure they hadn’t been discovered by Fan’s teammates and listening for the man on the other side of the boulder.

Downtime by Tamera Allen
MOM always said all I needed to succeed, I carried with me. Though the Glock strapped to my side had gotten me out of trouble more than once, I think she referred more specifically to my head and heart. But soul-searching had never been my strong point—not even while doing nothing in particular besides freezing my ass off in an empty warehouse in drizzling cold London.

I’d spent the better part of three days holed up with only said Glock and MI-6 Agent Leonard Gladstell, whose perpetual chatter and good cheer were getting on my nerves. We were consuming too much coffee, considering that the only john in sight was a portable toilet in the vacant lot next door, and we still hadn’t heard a peep on the location of the defector we intended to bring home.

To make things worse, Leonard was under the impression he had charge of the op, since the case officer had come down with the flu and hadn’t done a hell of a lot since, except to bitch about it with the occasional call. I’d kept to myself through most of the long hours, reading whatever was at hand, including the city map Gladstell had given me. That’s how desperate I was to avoid being drawn back into conversation with the guy.

It was just my luck he showed up for his shift with warm cinnamon rolls and more hot coffee. I can put up with anyone who comes bearing cinnamon rolls. Leonard, smiling like he knew it, dropped the box on the crate next to the computer I’d set up and made himself comfortable on the sleeping bag I’d draped over another crate. “You look a little cheerier today, Agent Nash. Another week and we shall have you calling London home.”

I was seriously missing the crisp New York September I’d left behind. Though Gladstell relentlessly promoted England as God’s gift to mankind, it wasn’t my foreign land of choice. “I wouldn’t live in this swamp if you paid me.”

His smile widened. “How many times have you had the privilege of working here, Agent?”

I waved two fingers in the air as I burned my tongue on a sip of coffee. Leonard nodded sagely. “And have you seen anything of London apart from a hotel room and the inside of a musty warehouse?”

I had to admit I hadn’t. “I was going to do some sightseeing last time, but that was pretty much a wash. Literally.”

He laughed. “You Americans. A little rain and you run indoors in a panic. I do recall it raining in New York the last time I was on assignment there. No one seemed to need medical aid after exposure to it.”

“New York rain’s not as lethal.”

He sighed without ever losing the smile. “I’d guess you were not really a morning person, Agent, if I’d ever seen you anything but foul-tempered.”

“Sorry.” I was not at my best after a night and day spent with only a sleeping bag between me and cement that could have passed for a sheet of ice. I should have gone to the hotel last night, but I was starting to think we were going to lose our man and I hadn’t wanted to abandon my post. “It’s not just the rain, but the damned wind. I’ve already lost two umbrellas and the third’s not doing too well.” I nodded at the heap of bent wire and sagging cloth lying like a wounded blackbird near the warehouse door. “And that was just from the hike over to that icebox passing for a bathroom.”

“Come now. You look like a stalwart fellow. This can’t be that much of a hardship for you.”

“Well, I usually survive this sort of assignment pretty well. It’s just that I left my electric blanket at home.” Scooping out a warm cinnamon roll, I got up and stretched aching legs and back. Sitting and waiting were two of my least favorite occupations. “You going to be okay? Guess you’ve got Creighton to keep you company.”

His lips twisted. “I may keep the phone switched off for a bit.”

I almost felt sorry for him. When a case officer whined in your ear, you listened whether you wanted to or not. “Good idea. I’m going to take another look around before I go back to the hotel.”

“We’re not under surveillance, I assure you.”

“Then what the hell’s taking so damned long?” I’d figured it was due to Nosik, whom the case officer had referred to as a lone wolf, trying to get to us without the help of any confederates. But even so, he should’ve showed up by now—unless he was hurt or worse.
For the first time, a grim look took up a position front and center on good old Leonard’s face. “The word is that we may have lost him. But we’re to hold the fort, nonetheless. Until we know for certain.”

“Until we know for certain,” I said. “Great. Just great. I’m going back to the hotel and soak myself in a bath hot enough to boil lobster.”

“Stout heart, Agent. It can’t be more than another day or two, either way.”

I had the feeling Creighton already knew for certain and he was just hovering over his chess pieces until he figured out a way to break it gently to the higher-ups that we’d lost Nosik. There wasn’t much point to scouring the place now. No one gave a shit that we were here, freezing to death for a fish who’d slipped the hook. And meanwhile back at home, Reese would be finishing what he’d started when I’d left for the airport: packing up to move out and find someone who wouldn’t leave him stranded without a date every Friday night.

It just wasn’t my week.

It apparently wasn’t Leonard’s either. “I’m disappointed too.” He broke into my brief deluge of self-pity, sounding surprisingly sympathetic. “I was rather intrigued to meet him, you know. After all we’ve been through together.”

I’d known about Leonard’s rep for code-breaking long before I ever met him. What amazed me was that as long-winded as he could be on all other subjects, he had hardly said a word about his work and the accolades it’d won him on both sides of the pond. “That’s why you asked to be in on this?”

“I didn’t ask. Nosik requested it.”

“Why doesn’t Creighton get them to up the ante?”

“The firm doesn’t consider him worth the cost.”

“They would’ve if he’d wanted to settle down in Merry Old England.”
That comment won me an annoyed glitter, not to mention some scathing sarcasm. “Compete with hot dogs, apple pie, and Penthouse? We don’t stand a chance.”

I decided I was lingering long enough to justify another cinnamon roll. “Don’t forget sunshine, ice-cold beer, and real football. Did I mention sunshine?”

“Didn’t you say something about a hot bath, Nash?”

And still no punch in the nose. The guy had remarkable restraint. I grinned at him. “Stout heart, Agent Gladstell. Sooner or later we’ll round up your pal and you can come visit him in the M.C.C. Compare notes, bask in his admiration, all that.”

Leonard’s smile returned, wholeheartedly amused. “You are a right bastard, you know that?”

A right bastard. There were a lot of people who’d agree with that assessment. I knew I was being a little harder on Gladstell than was fair. It wasn’t his fault my personal life was about as bright and promising as the weather.

Leaving the last two rolls to Leonard, I gave him the half-empty but still warm thermos and headed out. I didn’t want to go to the hotel. I wanted to hop the next plane home and dive under my ratty brown and green comforter and sleep two days straight with a pair of warm arms wrapped around me. I had a feeling by the time I did get home, the best I could hope for was the comforter.

The phone at the bottom of my pocket chimed and I fished it out. Speak of the devil. “Reese? What’s up?”

There was a rueful snort at the other end of the line. “Languishing in my absence, I see. Just wanted to let you know I mailed my key to the apartment. I thought about leaving it under the mat but, you know, burglars and all. Not that you can’t take care of yourself.”

“Give it a rest. You know I hate that crap.” I kept walking. It was either that or freeze.

“I’m not baiting you.” I could hear the sigh he was holding back.

“Look, it just isn’t working. I’ve got my life and you’ve got—whatever the hell it is you’ve got.”

“Right now, I’ve got an agent who’s playing hide and seek and I’m working on a serious case of frostbite.”

“Gotcha. Not a good time, then?”

And people called me a pain in the ass. “Can we talk about this when I get home?”

His laugh was abrupt and humorless. “I already have plans for Christmas. How does New Year’s work for you?”

I decided to ignore that one too. “I’ll be home in another day. We can meet for dinner.”

He was quiet for so long that I wondered if we’d been disconnected. Finally he spoke up, in that flat, resigned tone I’d gotten used to hearing in the past two weeks. “As fantastic as makeup sex is with you, I think I’m going to have to pass this time. You’re not a keeper. I just wish I’d figured that out five months ago.”

Not a keeper. “What the hell does that mean?”

“You know what it means. You don’t want to belong to anyone. Stupid attitude, but hey, it’s your life to fuck up as you see fit.”

“Damn. Talk about attitude.”

His soft snort was a weary echo of his resignation. “Shift it ’round to me all you want. You bailed before I did and you know it.”

“People don’t belong to each other. With each other, maybe—”

“Lessons in true love, courtesy of the man who hasn’t got a clue. God, I should’ve figured you out in the first five minutes, forget months. Trouble is, I’m too much of a sucker for chocolate-brown eyes and a great ass.”

Reese and his flair for the dramatic. You’d never guess he was a headshrinker, he was so full of it. Or maybe you would. “C’mon, Reese. Dinner, Tuesday.” I went out on a limb, hoping I’d be able to wrap this one up and catch a flight by Monday. “How about Cooke’s? I promise to eat my vegetables.”

“I don’t think so. Maybe I’ll catch you at the Firehouse sometime.”

He was as likely to show up there as I was to eat at Cooke’s without him. “So that’s it? Going without even a good-bye?”

“Good-bye, Morgan.” Quiet, as he was only when he was dead serious.

“Jesus. You’re not being fair. You know how I feel about you.”

“Good-bye,” he said even more firmly and the line went dead. I snapped the phone shut and shoved it into my pocket. For five months, Reese had been pulling at me to take more time off and spend it with him; invest in something besides work, he’d said. And my superiors had come down on my ass for the little time I did take off, hinting around that plum cases come to those who are so seldom at home, they couldn’t describe the wallpaper in their bathroom under threat of torture.

Maybe Reese was right and this was for the best. He’d always felt like he was competing with my job. I had the feeling he was starting to hate it, and that was one step away from hating me. As the phone went off again, I sighed. This day was picking up speed as it raced downhill.

Not Reese this time, I realized, at the blast of choice invective that greeted my hello. Unit Chief Faulkner wasn’t one who believed in nurturing the inner agent. “Hey, boss. You got my voice mail?”

“I got it. Is your sorry ass still in one piece, Nash?”

“Let me check.” I glanced over my shoulder. “Looks like it. Sorry to let you down, boss.”

“You’re a real comedian. And for Christ’s sake, stop calling me ‘boss’.” He sighed. “The British Museum. Get over there. Word is your boy’s interested in a more public venue. And make sure you take Gladstell with you, okay? Let’s not piss off any delicate sensibilities. Any more than you already have.”

“If I have, you can blame it on neurological impairment due to hypothermia.”

“You’re lucky I didn’t send you on Dornan’s team to Siberia, pal. Wrap this up neat or your next assignment’s going to take you to scenic Des Moines.”

“Someone cross the state line with an overdue library book?”

“Move it, Nash.”

I swallowed a laugh but let the grin crack my near-frozen face. “Love you too, boss.”

He snorted. “You need a break. Two weeks, Agent. I told you—soon as Nosik’s bagged, you’re gone. If I see you back here before mid-October, Des Moines will be looking damned good to you. Got it?”

If you asked for a day off, chances were you’d be working seventy-two hours straight on some godawful rookie chore that’d make sure you never asked for another day off in your life. But once you got to know Lou Faulkner, you figured out that you didn’t have to ask. He knew whether you needed a day or two off. And in my case, he was right. I was a little wrung out, though I hadn’t noticed it really, until now. I was probably coming down with something nasty, thanks to three days trapped in a damp refrigerator.

Aware that I was standing in the middle of the road, fast losing sensation in my extremities, I gathered up Leonard and we headed for the museum. I’d never been much on museums when I was a kid, and I still wasn’t, but once we’d gotten inside, it was something to see. I found myself regretting that we didn’t have time to look around, but I had to figure that seeing everything in every gallery would take at least a year. As it was, Nosik only had an hour to show up before the place was closed for the day. I kept an eye out for our man and tried to ignore Leonard’s rambling, if authoritative lecture on the Egyptian exhibit.

“Here we have Nenkheftka or rather, a good likeness of the old fellow.” Leonard stood in front of a statue decked out in the usual wraparound skirt, jewelry, and heavy, black wig. I had a few friends in New York who dressed similarly, but Nenkheftka carried the look off better. The clothes—or lack of them—showed off a well-proportioned physique. Broad shoulders, good tan, nice smile. What more could you want in a man?

And Reese thought I was unreasonable.

I eyed old Nenkheftka curiously. I could tell by the hint of a smirk on his face that he’d been the sort of Egyptian who knew how to tell a good joke— and keep some pretty juicy secrets too. At my side, Leonard was giving the statue the same once-over, but with a different sort of interest, probably. He threw me a sidelong glance brimming with pride, as if he’d unearthed Nenkheftka himself. “Remarkable, isn’t it? Limestone. Fifth Dynasty. Note the way he’s posed, in mid-stride. Typical of—”

“Where’d you guys get all this stuff, anyway?”

Leonard seemed pleased to have finally impressed me. “Explorers over the centuries have collected artifacts from every corner of the world. So much that we will never be able to display all of it. Did you know....”

This is what happened to a guy who worked every day at the same desk under the same clock with the same view. No wonder he’d been so excited about getting out and having a face-to-face with old Nosik. Getting a taste of adventure—if you could call camping out in a cold, deserted warehouse for days on end any kind of adventure....

*I didn’t ask. Nosik requested it.*

“Goddamn it to hell.” Was the bastard defecting—or watching us, to find the right moment to put a bullet into the brain of the man who’d bested him too many times to count? Even as I spun on a heel to grab Gladstell and get him the hell out, I could hear Creighton’s dour admonition that my tendency to trust my gut feelings—act on impulse, was how he’d worded it—would not be acceptable while working with his agents. I knew my own higher-ups in Washington had warned him about me, but I didn’t give a shit. An agent who didn’t trust his instincts was a dead man. And right now, I was sure Leonard was one if I didn’t haul his butt out of the museum in record time.

As I grabbed him, he looked at me in alarm. I didn’t get a chance to explain. At the other end of the exhibit, I saw a stout man in blue plaid slacks and a cheap windbreaker. Gray hair a wind-blown fringe around his head, cheeks and nose red in a sallow, sagging face, he’d come in from the cold in one sense, anyway; just not the one we’d had in mind.

Nosik’s attention settled on me and his jowls lifted with a smile of polite interest. Not the sort of look you normally see from a guy in the process of hitching up his windbreaker to extract a bulky, ancient Stechkin. The gun might be forty years old, but Nosik clearly had every confidence it would do the trick as he centered on Leonard.

I dove behind the exhibit, dragging Leonard with me. When I looked up, Nosik was gone. “Son of a bitch.”

“Nash?”

“He’s after you. Stay down.” Ignoring my own advice, I took off in the direction Nosik had gone. I spotted his bald head in the crowd and was pushing my way through when the cell chimed again. For God’s sake. “Yeah?”

“How do you feel about me?”

“Reese? What the hell—” Nosik vanished behind a door just at the bend of the corridor and I put on a burst of speed, determined not to lose him.

“You said, ‘you know how I feel about you’,” came the reminder patiently from faraway New York. “And the fact is, I really don’t. But after I hung up, morbid curiosity got the better of me—”

“Reese, this is really not a good time. Can I call you back?” Reaching the door, I leaned lightly against it to listen for any sound inside.

Reese’s voice came from the phone I’d lowered to my knee. “Are you serious? Jesus, Morgan, you are a piece of work. You try your best to get to me and when you finally do, you pull this disinterested shit every damn time. Do you have the vaguest idea how hard it is to love a guy like that?”

I kept my voice low as I ducked into a dim storage area stuffed with more treasures, but harboring no sign of life. “Hard. Yeah.” I crouched down behind a stack of crates. “Twenty minutes. I’ll call you back. Swear to God.”

“Yeah, you go ahead and call back. Leave a voice message. See what it gets you.”

Under the brittle anger, his voice had roughened with emotion that took the edge off my concentration. “Reese, I’m not doing this to hurt you, for God’s sake. I swear I’m not. Just let me call you back.”

Reese was quiet too long. I was going to have to hang up on him, as much as I hated to do it. But then he spoke just as I was lowering the phone. “You know something, even if you live to be ninety, you still won’t get it. You won’t know why you’re all alone and lonely. Maybe you had a tough break when you were a kid and maybe now you think you’ve got to save the world to make up for not being able to save him. But your whole life is just about chasing the bad guys. There’s got to be more than that.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

“I’m right?”

I put the phone to my ear. “You’re right. My life is about chasing the bad guys. And right now you’ve got to let me do it.” I jabbed the button with my thumb, disconnecting, and hit the power to make sure nothing else would break my concentration. I heard soft cursing in Russian, then the scuffle of a shoe on the straw-littered floor. I rose with my gun, ready for him. The door opened behind me and Nosik’s eyes widened in alarm. He babbled something that I translated as a warning to his confederate behind me and I knew I was shit-deep in trouble. I started to turn, hoping to bring the confederate down before Nosik shot me. Even as I did, I heard Nosik cock the ancient piece and fire.

So much for ending the day on a high note.


AFTER hours on the floor with nausea churning in my gut and something that felt a lot colder than blood running too fast through my veins, I dragged open bleary eyes and blinked at the dim hands on my watch. Okay, it hadn’t been hours—more like five minutes, but that was plenty of time to bleed to death. I jabbed the number for Leonard’s cell and got exactly nothing for my effort. “Goddamn it.” Looking for service. Fucking fantastic. If you wanted to get anything done, you had to do it yourself.

I fumbled a hand over my stomach, grimly determined to stop the bleeding however I had to—and found none. I checked again, teeth clenched against very real nausea, but there was nothing to feel except smooth, if clammy skin.

What the hell? I would have sworn Nosik had blasted a hole through me....

But apparently he had missed, from just ten feet away. Maybe he needed glasses. Whatever the case, I wouldn’t get answers lying on the floor all day. As I pushed myself onto hands and knees, I felt a distinct difference in the room. I hadn’t passed out. I was fairly sure I hadn’t. But tilting my head to peer to one side only confirmed the feeling. The light was different. Not brighter but—warmer, like candlelight. Things were moved. Rearranged. And Nosik was nowhere in sight.

Uneasiness prickled the length of my spine as my focus sharpened. Maybe I was too sick to stand up, but I wasn’t too sick to blow a few holes through Nosik’s little helpers, if they were the ones waiting around to bag me. I gritted my teeth and forced myself back on my haunches—and there they were, three of them. My uneasiness expanded to new dimensions. If these were Nosik’s buddies, they’d fallen into an even deeper time warp than Nosik with his plaid trousers. They stood gathered in a tight group, looking less like foreign agents than museum employees, of the type who were stuck in storage rooms to catalogue junk as dusty as they were.

Then I realized none of them had tried for my gun, which lay on the floor just within reach. I grabbed it and lurched to my feet, telling myself on the way up that it wouldn’t look professional to vomit in front of the enemy. As I hefted the Glock in a firmer grip, two of the three men fell back a step. The third, a leather-bound book open in his hands, stared at me with wide blue eyes. Instinct told me he was the leader of this little gang of—art thieves? Art theft was more popular than ever. Even drug cartels and arms dealers were getting into the act. But these guys didn’t look like arms dealers any more than they looked like agents. They didn’t even appear to be armed.

Maybe they were just museum employees, but something out of the ordinary was going on. I took a shot at prompting a confession.

“Guess I interrupted something. You gentlemen are aware of the minimum stretch for art theft these days?”

His face alight with interest, the blue-eyed one made a move in my direction. His cohorts grabbed him, sending the book thudding to the floor, and he resisted with an impatient shake of his head. “Look at him, Derry.” He nudged the well-padded ribs of the black-haired guy doing most of the pulling. “An ordinary man, nothing more. No need to worry.”

His confidence did not persuade Derry, who said something I had trouble comprehending because of a brogue thick enough to cut with one very big knife. But I did catch a name. Ezra. The one who wasn’t afraid of me— although judging by his comment, he was aware of my reputation.

Keeping my firearm trained on him, I fished out my identification. “Special Agent Nash, gentlemen.”

“He’s American,” the thin blond fellow noted.

“Very much so,” Ezra said and leaned in for a closer look at the Glock. “A sort of pistol, is it?” He tapped the muzzle, apparently not in the least perturbed by the possibility of taking a bullet in the head. Jesus, these guys weren’t smart enough to be art thieves or museum employees. They needed to be locked up for their own safety, as well as mine.

“Okay, maybe I didn’t make myself clear. Morgan Nash, FBI. Now listen up—”

“Agent, you said?” Ezra looked dubious. “As in house?”

“Federal.” I flashed the badge again. “As in government.”

His eyebrows rose. “You work for the government? By faith, we have conjured a demon.”

Derry’s broad face contorted and the thin blond fellow broke into a twitchy smirk. It was a weird reaction for three guys who knew they were about to be arrested, and it was an annoying reaction. I appreciated the fact that some situations resisted evaluation, but I was about to do a little placement of suspects into the good old search position.

“I hate to ruin your fun, gentlemen, but I’m going to have to take you in for questioning. I want you to line up, hands clasped behind your head. If you’re planning to reach for ID, let me know so I don’t have to break anyone’s fingers.”

The threat normally inspired grumbling and the occasional sullen scowl. These guys resisted the norm right down the line. Three wide-eyed faces looked at me in bemusement and I did the scowling. “Like this.” I seized a handful of Ezra’s coat and swung him to face the wall. No sooner did I have his hands resting on his curly brown head than he started to lower them and turn to me. I jabbed the muzzle in his back. “Yes, it is a pistol and yes, I will use it if you force me to. I suggest you don’t.”

“You’re arresting us?”

The guy was not taking his predicament seriously in the least. Wondering if I still had my cuffs with me, I kept the gun at his back. “I knew you’d catch on, Ez, old chap. Keep your hands up, please.”

“Can he arrest us?” Derry whispered to Ezra.

“How can he?” the thin blond asked with contempt. “He doesn’t even belong here.”

“He doesn’t know that.” Ezra snuck a look at me and I caught the sympathy in his eyes.

I didn’t know what his game was, but I wasn’t playing. “If you want a British agent to haul you in, I can arrange it.” I snagged my phone and tried Leonard’s number again, but the connection had gone dead. I couldn’t get even a whisper of static.

Fed up, I pushed Ezra toward the door and persuaded the other two with a wave of my gun to line up behind him. I patted them down one by one. Not a gun on any of them, nor, unfortunately, a cell phone.

“I would advise you gentlemen to stick together and keep quiet. If you want to know just how good a shot I am, making a run for it is one way to find out.”

There was no sign of Leonard or Nosik, but I noted the museum was still open—and apparently Nosik’s discharging his weapon hadn’t perturbed anyone in particular. Then it hit me that the people roaming the exhibits looked as though they ought to be a part of one. The earlier crowd in their jeans, sneakers, and jackets had gone and a suit-and-tie crowd had taken their place. But these suits must have been pulled from an old trunk in museum storage. The coats were too long, the collars just one step away from neck brace. More striking were the women. Skirts brushed the floor, hats piled with feathers reaching in the opposite direction. The men wore hats too, and I wasn’t talking baseball cap. I didn’t see an untucked shirt or pierced nose in sight.

If someone was filming a movie, I saw no camera or director. I hooked a hand around Ezra’s arm and pulled him to face me. “What the hell’s going on?”

He looked me over with what I might have taken for concern if he’d known me from Adam. “You’re a little shaken, I can imagine, sir.”

I jabbed the firearm in his ribs. “You’re the one who provided the manpower and the means. Who are you working for?”

“Not manpower, precisely,” he said, looking uncomfortable for the first time. “We—rather, Henry—”

“Oh, no you don’t,” the blond said, hot with indignation. “I wasn’t reading it properly, if you will recall. Leave it to the Latin expert—”

“He never said he was expert,” Derry cut in. “You were making such a mess of it. I could tell, clear as day, and you know what my Latin’s like.”

“Well, if you’d hie yourself to Mass, you heathen,” Ezra said in what was obviously a private joke, judging by the smile he exchanged with Derry. Then he noticed I wasn’t laughing and his smile faded. “You’ll have to forgive us. We weren’t expecting anything to come of it, really.”

“Come of what?”

Silence descended as they shared a worried look. I kept quiet. Sometimes it was better to let suspects run off at the mouth, and I felt confident this group could produce enough rope to hang themselves.

“Oh saints,” Derry groaned. “Kathleen!”

“We meant no harm,” Ezra said, but he didn’t look any too happy, himself.

The pinched line of Henry’s mouth tightened further. “We aren’t taking him home with us, I hope? How can we be so sure he’s not a demon?”

“The devil may assume a pleasing shape,” Ezra commented, stealing a glance at me that was appreciative and then some. I managed to return the glance with indifference, concealing my surprise. Though I could see he wasn’t easily fazed, it took balls to flirt with a guy holding a gun on you. I’d run into the occasional raven who would do his job whether the target was male or female, but I doubted Nosik had hired one for that purpose. My personal life wasn’t common knowledge. That would make a risky business even riskier. And maybe this guy wasn’t too bad on the eyes, but his chances of seducing me to get any kind of information out of me were nonexistent— assuming he was even working for Nosik or anyone else, something I was beginning to doubt.

If Nosik had somehow slipped me something to make me hallucinate, this was one hell of a solid and consistent hallucination. I glanced at my watch, to find it showing the same time it had fifteen minutes ago. Damn, it had only been issued to me three weeks past. Probably the camera in it was broken too. First the cell, now my watch; not exactly something I could blame on Nosik, but a hell of a fluke, if he’d had nothing to do with it.

But if he hadn’t, who had? And what the hell was the plan? Because if they wanted to take me permanently out of the game, I wouldn’t be standing with a loaded gun and more or less the upper hand. Maybe I was already dead and this was Hell, where so many had invited me to go over the years. Whatever it was, I was the one out of place. Or out of time. And my instincts were failing me fast.

Ezra laid a hand on my arm. “Are you all right?”

I shook him off. I wasn’t putting up with any of that winning-theprisoner’s-trust bullshit. I was no one’s prisoner. “Let me see if I’ve got this. You want me to believe you were trying to cast some kind of magic spell to summon a demon and you ended up dragging me back through time?”

Ezra cleared his throat. “I believe the Latin translates into something along the lines of ‘one who brings knowledge of the future’. Not a demon, necessarily. A man would certainly do. But why you in particular....” He shook his head, then changed the subject. “Must you do that?” He pushed gingerly at the gun in his ribs. “I’m not a danger to you.”

I pushed back. “Let’s focus on the real world for a minute, all right? I want to know who you are, who you’re working for, and what they want from me, in that order. I also want the name of the drug you guys slipped me to send me into the Twilight Zone.” I tucked the gun muzzle under his chin. “By the way, what did you do with Leonard? And what the hell did you do to my phone and my watch?”

“Your phone? And your watch?” He peeled back a corner of my leather jacket. “You haven’t—”

“My watch.” I twisted my wrist to show him the display. “Not working. And neither is my cell. I pass out in the twenty-first century and wake up in what looks like the nineteenth. Why? What do you want?”

His eyes went wide. “It is the nineteenth. You said—twenty-first?”

I didn’t have time to deal with lunatics. I had a spy to hunt down. I sheathed my gun and left Larry, Moe, and Curly to deal with their mental problems on their own. Heading for the entrance, I figured I could find a pay phone and contact Leonard from there. That was assuming Nosik hadn’t hauled him off for ransom, or worse.

Well aware that the sorcerer and his pals were following, I stepped outside, braced for the ice-cold wind—to find the evening had turned comfortably cool and clear in the space of twenty minutes. At the top of the steps, I noted with a peculiarly detached feeling that what lay in front of my eyes was not at all what was supposed to be there. Stone and brick dominated, reminding me of the London I’d left behind, but the neon was gone, and shadows loomed larger in the yellow glow of old-fashioned street lamps. The absence of real traffic—rumbling engines and blaring horns—was damned unnatural. I hoped devoutly that we were downwind from a barn and that the smell assailing me would not be prevalent everywhere I went; judging by the number of horses at work in the road below, however, the smell would not be easily escaped. The tangle of carts and carriages and God knew what else were at a virtual standstill; rush hour in the nineteenth century, replete with the shouts of irritated drivers expressing themselves in familiar language.

“Mr. Nash?” Ezra pulled me from my dazed perusal with a firm grip on my arm. “You look a little pale. Please don’t worry. We will get you home.”

Contending with a headache and lingering nausea, I found myself searching for a single thread of evidence that would unravel all the lies he’d been feeding me. One shred of proof. A plastic cup. A candy bar wrapper. A dropped coin with a twenty-first century—hell, even twentieth century—date stamped on it. “You’ll get me home? When?”

“Tomorrow?” Ezra suggested, after an inquiring glance at the others.

“And until then?”

“Yes....” Ezra looked at Derry. “Do you think she’ll mind?”

“Need you ask?” But Derry was grinning, so I assumed we weren’t in too much trouble even if she did. “He’ll stay with Henry.”

“Kathleen will not so much as allow him into the parlor in those clothes,” Ezra said. “I’ll loan him something suitable.”

“Loan him your room as well,” Henry said. “You’re the one who conjured him.”

These guys knew how to bruise an ego. “I can stay in a hotel. And you’re not stuffing me into one of those monkey suits. There’s nothing wrong with what I’m wearing.”

“I think it would be better if you stayed with us,” Ezra said, amusement fading. “And Henry’s right. You’re here because of me.”

“He’s here thanks to all three of us,” Derry countered. “And I still think this weather’s had a hand in it. Look at that sky. Crimson as blood. There’s no good in it.”

“It’s only an atmospheric phenomenon,” Ezra said as if he’d reiterated it several times already. “I suppose—well, I suppose he should stay with me, after all.”

I smiled thinly. “Your enthusiasm is touching. Just drop me off at a hotel. I’ll take it from there.”

Ezra looked marginally abashed. “Mr. Nash, I do realize we’ve disrupted your life to a degree—”

“Try a hundred and eighty. How the hell you did this, I don’t know, and I feel pretty confident I don’t want to. I’m sure there’s some explanation that doesn’t go against all the laws of physics, but I’m too damned tired to burn off any more brain cells thinking about it. I’d just like some dinner and a place to crash. Sofa, bed, floor, I don’t care.” I would have preferred the hotel, but being a little short of whatever coin was legal tender in this nightmare, it appeared I didn’t have a choice.

My little speech stymied their powers of comprehension. Derry leaned toward Ezra. “Crash?” he murmured.

Ezra shook his head. “An interesting sort of English, but I think I gather the gist of it.”

“Kathleen won’t like the pistol,” Henry predicted.

“And we’ll none of us mention it,” Derry said. “Now, Ezra, you loan him something to wear and he’ll stay with me tonight. No one shall mind him on the bus, I think, and Kathleen will give him a bite to eat. There’s ours,” he added, and suddenly we were all lurching down the steps into the raucous miasma of humanity that reminded me of a few Third World countries I’d been to. Ezra grabbed my arm and hauled me aboard what looked like a trolley car pulled by horses. Henry dropped onto the only vacant seat with a sigh of relief, only to be promptly pulled to his feet by Derry while Ezra gave me a push to sit. Henry’s peevish protest that he’d been on his feet all day was cut off by Derry’s heartfelt admonition. Apparently I looked as tired as I felt.

Wheels on cobblestones made it difficult for me to nod off. I floated somewhere between dozing and sleeping, hoping when I did wake, I’d be somewhere familiar. There were plenty of recognizable things in this world, but all the small differences added up to a big off-kilter picture. The lonely feeling of waiting it out in the warehouse seemed intensified. Fortunately, it wasn’t very long before Ezra tugged at my sleeve. “Sorry,” I mumbled. “Dead on my feet.”

“Mr. Nash, do you need a doctor?”

“No doctors. Need a bed.” Yawning, I stumbled off the trolley after him and tried to get out of the way of people rushing aboard. Apparently manners weren’t a thing of the past. They’d never existed at all. “Which way’s home?”

The neighborhood seemed clean and quiet, mostly row houses that reminded me of the Brooklyn neighborhood where Reese lived. I wrapped a hand around the cell phone in my pocket and wondered if Reese had tried to call me again. I wouldn’t be retrieving any messages for a while.

We walked a couple of blocks farther and Derry finally swung past a gate to sprint up the steps of one house in particular. I noticed the handwritten sign tucked in one corner of a window, which read, “Rooms to let. Single gentlemen.”

So none of these guys were married. Not much of a surprise. But there was a distinctly feminine touch about the place, from the scrubbed clean steps to the flowering boxes at the windows. I’d hardly started up when Derry turned and whispered loudly enough for us to hear,

“I’ll distract her, but for the love of St. Michael, be quick or she’ll know we’re up to something.”

“I’ll have him presentable in ten minutes,” Ezra said—and before I could assert that I was already damned presentable, he was pushing me up the steps and into a dim hallway. He reached for a low-hung chandelier with two tiers of red glass globes and twisted a small knob. The jets sprang to life, brightening the hall, and I could see flowers—on the marble-topped table, in a corner vase, and even on the wallpaper. I rubbed an already itching nose and hoped that was the extent of the indoor garden.

Ezra steered me to a steep flight of carpeted stairs and I couldn’t suppress a groan. “Tell me you’re kidding.”

“Just one floor up,” he said cheerfully, giving me another little push. There were three rooms on the second floor, and we went into the first. Still cocooned in the detached certainty I was only dreaming, I stood in the dark and listened to Ezra’s boots on the wood floor, followed by the sound of a match being struck. A lamp on the bedside table threw the room into soft illumination. Despite being nearly too tired to keep my eyes open, I looked around. Gleaming brass, plump pillows, and a quilt in shades of blue drew me like a magnet. Before I could drop onto it, Ezra turned me toward a window seat crowded with throw pillows and books, some of which he hastily moved aside so I could sit.

“Take off your clothes, Mr. Nash.”

Author Bios:
Kari Gregg
Kari Gregg lives in the mountains of Wild and Wonderful West Virginia with her Wonderful husband and three very Wild children. When Kari’s not writing, she enjoys reading, coffee, zombie flicks, coffee, naked mud-wrestling (not really), and . . . coffee!
LA Gilbert
L.A. Gilbert currently lives in a small British town where not much of anything ever really occurs. Jumping from job to job, she has no real qualifications in anything and is blithely proud of it. Between spectacularly failing driving test after test, she generally spends her free time reading about beautiful gay men, if not attempting to write about them. She is perhaps not the most outgoing of people, but is certainly one of the most cheerful.

Her aspirations are to eventually leave England and see a real, live whale (London's zoo is poorly lacking in that respect) and to perhaps one day hold in her hands a published copy of her own work. One down.

Xen Sanders
Xen Sanders is a New Orleans-born Southern boy without the Southern accent, currently residing somewhere in the metropolitan wilds of the American Midwest. He spends his days as a suit-and-tie corporate consultant and business writer, and his nights writing genre-bending science fiction and fantasy tinged with a touch of horror and flavored by the influences of his multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual background—when he’s not being tackled by two hyperactive cats. He wavers between calling himself bisexual and calling himself queer, but no matter what word he uses, he’s a staunch advocate of LGBTQIA representation and visibility in genre fiction.

He also writes contemporary romance and erotica as Cole McCade.

EE Montgomery
E E Montgomery wants the world to be a better place, with equality and acceptance for all. Her philosophy is: We can’t change the world but we can change our small part of it and, in that way, influence the whole. Writing stories that show people finding their own ‘better place’ is part of E E Montgomery’s own small contribution.

Thankfully, there’s never a shortage of inspiration for stories that show people growing in their acceptance and love of themselves and others. A dedicated people-watcher, E E finds stories everywhere. In a cafe, a cemetery, a book on space exploration or on the news, there’ll be a story of personal growth, love, and unconditional acceptance there somewhere.

Tamara Allen
Tamara Allen resides in the piney woods north of Houston with her cozy family of husband, son, and cat. Her primary occupation is keeping them out of trouble, but on the side she likes to make up stories, for the pleasure of living briefly in an era long gone by.


Kari Gregg
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LA Gilbert
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Xen Sanders
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EMAIL: blackmagic@blackmagicblues.com

EE Montgomery
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Tamera Allen
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Pretty Poison
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The Ghost on My Couch
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Shatterproof
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Warrior Pledge
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Downtime
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