Sunday, October 30, 2016

Random Paranormal Tales 2016 Part 11


Sightings by Kari Gregg
Summary:
Love longer than forever.

Quinn Laramie moved to Mill Valley to care for his sick Aunt Betsy. After her recovery, he invested hours once spent in hospitals hiking and exploring the surrounding hills rather than returning to an empty apartment in the city.

Patrick, a photographer and self-proclaimed paranormal expert, saved Quinn from tumbling into a flooded creek where a bridge had washed away years ago, taking a pair of doomed lovers with it. Quinn and Patrick meet for other creepy jaunts thereafter: a derelict one-room schoolhouse, an abandoned cemetery, the burned-out shell of a home… Quinn hasn’t seen any ghosts yet, but Patrick’s shy kisses haunt him after each paranormal adventure ends.

Quinn wants more, and with their next spooky tour set to begin, Patrick is finally ready to give in. But what surprises wait them in the eerie manse atop Warner Hill?


Sightings is a beautiful little blend of paranormal and romance with a dash of mystery.  Could it have been better had it been a bit longer? Perhaps but frankly, I loved it just the way it is. Sweet, tender, and yet a certain splash of eerie that makes perfect Halloween reading.

RATING: 

My Boyfriend's Back by Elliot Cooper
Summary:
After losing both of his parents, Academy of Magecraft student Steven Durant doesn't want to see anyone else lose a loved one before their time. Traditional resurrection methods, however, only create mindless, flesh-hungry zombies; they're no cure for death. He's certain his unique brand of necromancy—using alchemy and blood magic—is the only answer.

When his boyfriend, Dax Everhart, has a fatal accident, Steven sees no choice but to use his experimental Lazarus Elixir. Dax comes back wrong, but the more humans he consumes, the more human he becomes.

With the help of his best friends, his ghostly aunt, and her living doll homunculus, Steven fights to regain normalcy and repair his shattered relationship with Dax. But with Dax openly embracing his monstrous nature, Steven shoulders the guilt of assisting in a murder spree that could lead the mundane and magical police right to their door.

Whiskers of a Chance by Tempeste O'Riley
Summary:
Jason Grant runs his own IT business from home, owns his own home, and has the best friend he could imagine. What he doesn’t have, or believe he will ever have, is love. When Jason catches a glimpse of his new neighbor on moving day, his libido ignites and his fascination in piqued. He even manages to concoct an excuse to go over and meet the man who makes him hope and want for more than he has in years.

Keith Skyler is a shifter in a world where his kind is known to only a few, but they don’t often mix and they never mate. Keith has been hoping for a mate since before he can remember, but gay lynx don’t have true mates. As far as he knows, they don’t have mates at all. However, while moving his little family across Seattle—and away from their tribe—his reality tips and spins more than he thought possible.

When these two men meet over a dish of five-cheese broccoli-noodle casserole, sparks fly. Who knew a welcome to the neighborhood gift could give both of them their chance at love?

An Evidence of Magic by Kris Michaels & Patricia A Knight
Summary:
Forty-year-old, hard bitten, foul-mouthed, homicide detective, Hiro Santos, suspects the owner of the art studio committed the gory killing. Too bad. There are other things he'd like to do to the gorgeous young man than book him for murder. Worse, his sexy suspect is certifiable. The nutcase claims he's some kind of high wizard from an alternate reality and needs Hiro's help to save their worlds.

While the striking Sable Campion appears a youthful twenty-five, he’s endured over two-hundred lonely years as guardian of the portal between Everlight and Elysium. None of those centuries offered him any experience finding a vicious killer. That's where Hiro Santos comes in; but convincing the virile detective to trust Sable will take all his persuasive skills...and perhaps a bit of magic.

The magic they find in each other's arms will rock each of their realities.








The Master of Seacliff by Max Pierce
Summary:
It is 1899, and young Andrew Wyndham has accepted a position tutoring the unruly son of wealthy industrialist Duncan Stewart in the hopes that the work will be brief yet provide an avenue to pay for his passage to France to study art. But Seacliff is a dark mansion enshrouded in near-eternal fog, dark mystery and suspicion—perhaps a reflection of the house’s brooding master. An imposing Blackbeard of a man, Duncan Stewart is both feared and admired by his business associates as well as the people he calls friends, for Stewart may have murdered his own father to gain control of his business.And his home, in which Andrew Wyndham must now reside, holds terrible secrets—secrets that could destroy everyone within its walls. For pure gothic escapism with a decidedly masculine point of view, The Master of Seacliff is an enthralling and satisfying read.


Such a great read and a new author for me.  Very Jane Eyre-ish, not better after all Jane Eyre is a classic, but similar and in my opinion nearly as good.  Duncan definitely has Mr. Rochester's brooding down and Andrew certainly shares Jane's curiosity.  Did Duncan really kill his father & Albert then make it look like murder/suicide?  For that you'll have to read and you really won't know until near the end, I will say that my suspicions changed a few times.  Very rarely does a story come together where every single character has a true purpose and effect on both the tale and the reader.  There is a little something for everyone and just because I have made comparisons to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, don't think this is just a M/M genre retelling of the gothic classic, aspects are remnant but not a copy.  The Master of Seacliff is a story all its own and I am so glad that luck or fate brought it to my eye.

RATING: 

Random Paranormal Tales 2016 Parts

Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3  /  Part 4
Part 5  /  Part 6  /  Part 7  /  Part 8
Part 9  /  Part 10


Sightings by Kari Gregg
Chapter One
“Fuck. Shit, shit, shit!” Teeth gritted, Quinn drove into the skid, his foot pumping the brake pedal of his rattletrap Mazda. Time slowed. Terror jolted down his spine. The screech of the car, the rumble of thunder from the torrential storm, and even the musical clamor from his iPod faded. Only the quickening thud of his heartbeat echoed in his ears as he wrestled the steering wheel. He screamed when his wipers cleared the flood of rain from his windshield long enough to reveal a cluster of thick sturdy oaks in his path, but then he was spinning… spinning… spinning…

Between one blink and the next, his car straightened out on the single lane blacktop. Still gliding on water sluicing off the hill. Quinn fought to point the car down the road. He shook, hands trembling despite his tight grip on the steering wheel. His nuts crawled inside his body, but miraculously, astoundingly, his tires gripped asphalt. The Mazda shot down the deserted country road like a bullet.

The laws governing motion and centripetal force pushed Quinn’s body against the driver’s side door when he cornered the next curve and he prayed he wouldn’t hydroplane again. Pulse racing, he glanced through the late afternoon’s stormy gloom in the rearview mirror to try to catch a glimpse of the slick stretch that had almost cost him his life, but between the downpour, tree limbs whipping in the wind, and the mountain the road curled around, he couldn’t make out anything. Blowing out a shaky breath, he eased off the gas and slowed the hell down. Delayed by bad weather or not, Patrick wouldn’t be pleased at Quinn risking an accident to reach the manse faster.

The wide turn-off Patrick had described in his directions to Warner House appeared through the sheeting rain a couple miles after Quinn’s near-catastrophe. He edged the Mazda off the road, hoping the tall grasses his fender mowed down were a promising sign he wouldn’t need a tow from the muck later. Climbing from the car, he grabbed his bulging backpack and pulled on a disposable poncho he’d picked up when he’d stopped for gas. Frigid rain drenched him before he’d finished unfolding the cheap plastic, long before he pulled the rain gear over his head, but keeping the contents of his pack dry was more important. He reached into the Mazda for the scrap of paper upon which Patrick had neatly printed the directions. He tucked that under the poncho too.

Spying the trail Patrick had mentioned, Quinn took off into the woods. Wet, dripping vegetation swallowed him. Mud caked Quinn’s boots, the path as slick as the road had been, but the hike settled nerves that still jangled from almost hitting the trees head-on.

Quinn loved the woods. The slow incline of the flat valley creeping up and into the mountains got his blood pumping, warming him despite the arctic rain. Forest critters stayed in their burrows during storms and mist shrouded wild greenery the farther up Warner Hill he climbed, but it was still a pretty hike.

In the year and a half since he’d moved in with Aunt Betsy, he’d never explored past the city limits on this side of town, only going as far as the ruins of the old covered bridge—replaced by an ugly, though sturdier, steel bridge decades ago. Why come out here when spooky riches filled the western woods? He’d liked the derelict one-room schoolhouse where a teacher had murdered her lover and then hung herself from the rafters. He’d spent weeks in an abandoned cemetery where many swore another murder victim, this one headless, roamed. Quinn had never seen the ghost, no matter how much time and sweat he’d invested in righting the disintegrating tombstones and clearing weedy overgrowth. He hadn’t seen the school marm’s corpse swinging from a noose at the schoolhouse, either. That failure hadn’t stopped him from climbing into the burned-out shell of a home—bricks scarred with black soot—where a mentally disturbed young man had nailed the doors shut one night and set fire to the place, killing his entire family including an aunt, two nieces, and his grandfather. That time, he’d experienced something. He’d heard the creaks and groans of the wrecked house and sly whispers that could have only come from the murdered young girls—just as the locals of Mill Valley had reported.

Mill Valley, with a population of a scant few thousand, hadn’t been overrun with ghost hunting teams and paranormal adventure tours because locals shunned outsiders. Plus, the valley was prone to flooding and a deluge in 1984 had destroyed most of the town’s historical records. Residents of Mill Valley alone knew the old stories now and they didn’t talk to anyone they didn’t consider one of their own.

Luckily, Aunt Betsy had gone to bat for him these past weeks. Quinn hadn’t been raised in Mill Valley, hadn’t even been born in Pennsylvania, but when his single and childless aunt had been diagnosed with lung cancer, he’d moved to the rural isolated town to help in whatever way he could. His job as a medical transcriptionist allowed a flexible work-at-home schedule, which had adapted to appointments for chemo treatments and to otherwise tending to his aunt’s needs. The valley had become home to him. He’d learned to love his compassionate yet stubbornly independent neighbors and the beauty of the mountains. After Betsy’s lung cancer went into remission, neither one of them had talked about him returning to the city.

Instead, Quinn had shifted the hours he’d once spent caring for his aunt to exploring the haunted places the townspeople had started mentioning to him once he’d met Patrick.

His heart thudded, and though Quinn panted a little, the sprint of his pulse had little to do with exertion from the steep path up Warner Hill. His blood heated. His cock hardened. The cold rain stopped annoying him and he quickened his pace.

Because Patrick waited at the end of this hike.

Patrick had saved Quinn’s life when Quinn had gone to the old covered bridge on his first hike in Mill Valley. Sure, the state had put in a new bridge after the historic landmark had washed away during a flood in the 1970s, but stubby remnants of wood buttresses, which had made the Valley Bridge an historical oddity, still speared from the shores of the creek if you knew where to look.

How was Quinn supposed to know the hillside to the creek was prone to sliding?

Patrick had grabbed him and pulled Quinn from a perilous tumble into the rushing water. Patrick’s camera had dangled from a strap around his neck and had repeatedly clocked Quinn while Patrick had hauled him from danger. When they both had reached the safety of the road, Patrick pointed an angry finger at a triangle-shaped caution sign that had escaped Quinn’s notice, as well as the extra sign bolted beneath: Slide Area.

“It’s rained for the last three days and the creek is at flood stage. The bank’s eroding. You can see it crumbling and falling into the water! And you, genius, decided to climb down?” He planted his hands on his hips and glared at Quinn. “Are you suicidal? Or stupid?”

Rubbing his abused head, Quinn had peered up at him. “Er…stupid?”

A shaken and distraught Patrick had berated Quinn for a solid ten minutes—Patrick could be the king of paranoia when it came to safety and taking every precaution—but they’d become friends.

Patrick had told him about the legend of the covered bridge over a thermos of coffee fetched from Quinn’s pack. “They probably told you in town the bridge washed out in the seventies,” he’d said, arching a devilish eyebrow while his lips curled in a hint of a smile, “but I bet they didn’t mention the two men driving across the bridge when it let go.”

Quinn had felt like his eyes would bug out of his head as he’d gulped his coffee. “No shit?”

Patrick had nodded. “One of the men is said to haunt the road here.” His lips had quirked. “Sightings are sometimes reported after storms, while the creek is flooding.”

Nobody loved spooky stories more than Quinn did so he’d angled his head and squinted at the buttresses he’d glimpsed from afar. “To warn other drivers?” He glanced up and down the road. “Maybe if I hang around, I’ll catch a glimpse of him.” He returned his attention to his goal: the buttresses.

“You’d better hope not. Only those who have been marked for death can see him …or so the story goes.” Nose wrinkling, Patrick had lifted the camera strap over his head and passed the camera to Quinn. “Here. Use the zoom lens to look.” When Quinn reached for the camera, Patrick held on. Tight. “No climbing down to see the buttresses yourself until the weather dries out and the ground stabilizes. I mean it. You could’ve been hurt. Maybe killed.”

Quinn had liked Patrick’s hand beneath his on the camera, the strength and warmth of his grip. “All right,” Quinn had said in immediate agreement. Whatever Patrick wanted was okay by him. Without letting go of the camera, Quinn had thrust out his other hand and introduced himself. “Quinn Laramie, medical transcriptionist and newly-intrigued paranormal investigator.”

“I’m Patrick.” He’d shaken Quinn’s hand, his grip neither weak nor crushing. Patrick’s chin had lifted toward the camera. “Photographer.” He’d grinned. “And paranormal expert. Are you genuinely interested in ghosts and hauntings?”

Before that moment, Quinn would’ve said no. He’d seen the shows on TV and thought they were bullshit. People with questionable acting skills scrambled around abandoned prisons, condemned mental hospitals, and other predictable sites of urban decay with video cameras and various whacky gizmos. If Quinn were a ghost, he’d stay the fuck away from rude intruders and their unwelcome spotlights, thanks. With Patrick staring at him with eyes the color of jade, though, Quinn had decided he wanted another ghostbusting day with Patrick and if he had to lie to get it? Oh well.

“Yeah, I like ghosts.”

Patrick had chuckled. “Okay.”

That had been four weeks ago—four perfect, arousing, frustrating, and ultimately romantic weeks. Quinn hadn’t known for sure Patrick was gay at first. The valley could be as good as time traveling back a few decades—discretion was smart, but even the day Patrick had yelled at Quinn at the bridge, Quinn had caught him staring at Quinn’s mouth. Patrick hadn’t kissed him at the bridge and Quinn hadn’t worked up the nerve to try. Their first magical kiss hadn’t happened until Patrick had met Quinn to show him where to find the schoolhouse later in the week.

“She shot him,” Patrick had said inside the grayed wreckage. The door had been gone as well as all the glass in the window frames, but aside from spots of splintering wood and a few missing floorboards, the structure had seemed basically sound when Patrick had insisted both he and Quinn stomp on the stairs and floor to test them. “After she killed him, she returned here and hung herself from the rafters.”

When Patrick had shone his flashlight beam toward the decaying ceiling, Quinn had shuddered.

Patrick cocked his head at a curious angle. “Can you see her?”

Squinting at the darkness inside the ruined schoolhouse, Quinn shuffled to the front of the single room, where Patrick’s flashlight beam shone.

“Careful.” Patrick had grabbed Quinn with a steadying hand. “We didn’t check that part of the floor. You could fall through.”

“I thought a shadow shifted in the rafters—Probably just a bat.” His shoulders had slumped with disappointment. “No ghosts. I don’t see anything.”

“You will. One day.” Patrick had wrapped his arms around Quinn. He’d pulled Quinn against him. “I promise.”

When Patrick’s lips had brushed Quinn’s, something beautiful and right had settled deep in Quinn’s bones. Patrick’s warmth had seeped into Quinn’s body where their chests had brushed. The softness of Patrick’s kisses had dizzied him. Patrick had tasted of cinnamon and the coffee they’d shared from Quinn’s thermos. He’d tasted like home.

Quinn hadn’t been able to get enough of Patrick’s kisses since.

In his old life in the city, Quinn would’ve assumed a man who hadn’t touched his cock in a month of dating—and the spooky jaunts were dates—was either a tease or disinterested. Moving to Pennsylvania must have changed Quinn, though, because he’d realized from the moment their mouths had first met, Patrick was definitely interested and he wasn’t a tease. He was just shy. Painfully shy and awkward. When he had his hands on his camera or spoke of the histories behind the haunted places they visited, Patrick stood tall, his broad shoulders squared with unshakeable confidence. The man was very much in his comfort zone when he discussed his area of expertise, Mill Valley’s ghosts, but the moment Quinn caressed him, Patrick’s self-assurance evaporated. Instead of boldly meeting Quinn’s gaze, he glanced under his lashes. His fair, freckled face colored a bewitching pink that highlighted copper streaks in his choppy brown hair. He trembled when Quinn twined his fingers with Patrick’s. Patrick topped Quinn’s six foot height by a couple inches, but when Quinn kissed him, Patrick seemed more delicate somehow. Fragile.

The hunger in Patrick’s returning kisses might be nervous, but Patrick had been far from disinterested these past weeks. Shifting the weight of his pack on his shoulders, Quinn hurried up the slippery path in renewed determination to faster reach Warner House—and Patrick.

They’d planned the daring trip after they’d finished cleaning up the forgotten cemetery on the other side of town. Warner House wasn’t abandoned. Though no one lived in the manse, fully paid property taxes year after year proved its continual private ownership. Not by locals. A wealthy family from Philadelphia had bought the land and built the place as a vacation home ages ago. The parents had left the house, clothes still hanging in the closets and a teacup allegedly resting on a table in the sitting room, the day their child had disappeared. Neither they nor their son had ever returned. Like Mill Valley’s version of the Mary Celeste, the eerie manse squatted empty and derelict atop Warner Hill and peered down onto the town, which was why Quinn had to sneak up the back of the property. If he and Patrick were caught inside the house, the cops wouldn’t be amused.

Patrick had sworn the house wasn’t in ruins. Aside from dust easily wiped away, he’d said the place was comfortable if a little spooky, still outfitted with furniture, kitchenware, linens, and everything else a family might need.

“Warner House is a popular trysting spot for brave teenagers from the Valley,” he’d said, blushing tomato red when he’d suggested the manse for their next ghost adventure.

Quinn had been pushing for a real date. Well, a more traditional one anyway. Dinner at the steakhouse by the highway, maybe a movie. He wanted Patrick on every level. He’d enjoyed crawling around the woods with him, gleaning details about the reticent Patrick along with the tales of doom and death crowding this patch of ground. He’d loved Patrick’s shy kisses too, the tentative dance of Patrick’s fingers over Quinn’s stomach, and the salty flavor of Patrick’s neck. But he wanted more.

“The manse has… b-beds,” Patrick had stammered, staring at the leaf-strewn ground rather than Quinn as he spoke. “I can change the linens.” He’d gulped. “The candles are all gone, though. Kids steal them.”

Quinn had stuffed his backpack with candles. Wine. An army of his aunt’s Tupperware filled with what he hoped Patrick would consider a romantic dinner as well as one of Betsy’s handmade quilts, in case his skittish soon-to-be lover was wrong about the sheets. Nothing could keep Patrick from Quinn tonight. Not the presence or absence of furniture at the manse. Not the wild storm that had blown into the valley the night before and lingered, swelling the creek and pouring rain down in torrents. Nothing. Patrick was his.

Rounding a bend in the path, Quinn marched from the tree line and into an overgrown yard. He’d made it to Warner House.

The place truly was a mansion. Despite the downpour from the storm, he slowed to assess the place—he hadn’t studied architecture, but he thought the style might be Tudor? The house rose three floors high at the crest of Warner Hill, a pair of gables from the steeply pitched slate roof vanishing into the stormy mist at both ends of the structure. The long stretch between featured a wattle and daub pattern of crisscrossing wooden beams that might be teak, interspersed with tall windows, each’s small diamond panes glinting off distant flashes of lightning. As Quinn neared the back of the house, he frowned in consternation at the windows, or rather the very intact windows. None of the panes appeared to have been broken during what must have been decades of neglect. Wild grasses grew up to Quinn’s waist in the backyard, and he’d circled around a cement birdbath and a stone bench hidden by the overgrowth. Ivy grew up the side of the manse, smothering half of the house. When he drew closer, he crossed from the jungle of the yard onto a brick patio with spongy moss growing between the stones under his hiking boots. He passed a rusted wrought iron table, chairs still gathered around it. A shiver ran up Quinn’s spine.

The place looked and felt hollow, vacant, like a dried out husk. Yet, not one pane of window glass had even cracked.

“The kids alone…” Quinn muttered under his breath. Partying kids would’ve broken something, torn up a lot probably, but as Quinn walked around the ivy-covered right wing of the house, examining the house instead of making for a surprisingly undamaged back door, he recalled Patrick had mentioned teenage lovers. Not parties.

Stepping close, Quinn pushed heavy vines aside to peer into one of the many windows and shuddered at hulking shadows of furniture draped by filmy sheets. No debris marred the room, though. No mold or water stains defaced its pristine walls. With a little cleaning, the house would be habitable once the dust cloths were removed.

Why wouldn’t local kids take advantage of a dry place to drink and get into trouble? For that matter, why wouldn’t vagrants strip the copper wiring for extra money?

The manse was empty, felt almost skeletal, but the house, if not the yard, had been maintained. Cared for. Someone had made sure the roof didn’t leak and the unbroken windowpanes continued to keep out the elements.

Mindful of the mud, Quinn worked his way around the house, goose bumps that had little to do with the storm’s chill raising on his skin under his wet clothes. Something was wrong, very wrong about this place. Quinn couldn’t put his finger on what. If he hadn’t spotted a flicker of light through a window, inside where Patrick waited, Quinn might’ve boosted his pack higher on his shoulders and hiked back to his Mazda. The sense of utter wrongness was that disconcerting. The light beckoned him, though, called to him. If Quinn concentrated, he could almost hear Patrick whispering to him and feel Patrick’s shy fingers exploring Quinn’s body.

Spooky house or not, Patrick was in there. Waiting. Wanting him.

Stiffening his spine, Quinn stalked to the front door. He reached for the knob… and screamed when the door jerked open.

The old woman inside screamed, too.

My Boyfriend's Back by Elliot Cooper
Catrina skipped through the garden, her bangs fluttering below the neat braid pinned across the top of her head. Her hair was darker than the rest of her unearthly blue-green form, the yard partially visible through her translucent skin and clothes. She flopped down on the ground in a way that made her appear to have mass and then poked at the fetid opossum corpse until she managed to flip it to its belly.

“Told you so,” she said matter-of-factly. “You didn’t use enough.”

Steven ignored her and kept digging. She didn’t have any idea what she was talking about. Catrina had admitted to him multiple times that she’d never dabbled in necromancy in life; she’d been too young to get much further than simple charms and potions. Back in her day, they hadn’t even had the local campus of the Academy of Magecraft, which meant she’d been homeschooled by his great-great-grandmother.

“Did you run it over yourself?”

Steven huffed in annoyance and jammed his shovel into the earth. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with one gloved hand and glared at the little ghost.

“No. I found it. I’m a necromancer, not a murderer.” He looked down into the hole he’d made, judged it to be deep enough for the poor animal, and then gently lowered the opossum body into the ground.

The potion hadn’t been potent enough, which wasn’t entirely his fault. Several of the ingredients were out of season and expensive. His little herb garden was already done for the year with the cooler fall weather turning the trees in his yard gold and umber. Steven didn’t like to waste any of his potion supplies and didn’t think it was a fault to be conservative with his elixirs.

Only maybe he’d been overly cautious. Maybe he needed to take a cue from his boyfriend, Dax, and get overzealous with his potion making and application rituals.

Steven’s mouth screwed into a sour frown at the thought as he shoveled the pile of dirt back into the hole.

“Is it really smelly?” Catrina peered up at Steven from her seat on the grass. She plucked at the hem of her dress and pulled it down over her knees.

“It’s not too bad.” Steven shrugged one shoulder as he tamped down the loose dirt with the flat side of the shovel. “I can’t even smell it now.”

“So that’s your ‘I just thought of something that offends my Stevie senses’ face.” Catrina pursed her lips at him and then skipped off toward the house.

“Don’t call me that!” Steven called after her. Catrina was the only one who called him that, and she’d done so since he was little enough to want to play games with her. But he’d outgrown the nickname a long time ago. It was a child’s name, not the name of a future world-renowned mage.

He heard Dax’s car pull into the driveway as he put the shovel and gloves back in the shed with the rest of his gardening equipment. At least Dax wouldn’t get all holier than thou about his failed attempt to raise roadkill from the dead. Again.

“Hey, babe!” Dax called to Steven as he walked around to the front of the house. “You wanna help me with these groceries? I got you a little something special.” He waggled his dark brows and grinned but then noticed his jovial expression wasn’t catching. “Everything all right?”

“Opossum number three was not, in fact, the charm,” Steven said with a shake of his head. He let out a sigh and sidestepped Dax to reach into the car for the bags.

Whiskers of a Chance by Tempeste O'Riley
Chapter One
KEITH SKYLER sat in the hard, high-back wooden chair across from his father, Adam, fighting the desire to scowl at the ignorant male. It was bad enough to be called into his office like a recalcitrant child, but to have to sit in the uncomfortable chair while Adam sat in the plush office chair irked him even further. The positioning was deliberate, to remind Keith that his father had the power, as if he didn’t know that already.

“What part of ‘Taylor and I are moving to one of the outer areas of town’ don’t you understand? You insist that since Taylor is without a mate, she needs me to live with her. You also demand it so Zeke can have a male figure in his life, at least until Taylor or I mate. She wishes to move closer to her work, as do I.”

Adam Skyler’s expression was stoic, as always, but the energy pouring off him was bordering on violent. Keith waited for his father to respond, knowing Keith would get what he wanted, though not certain what the cost would be yet. One did not simply do things without the great and mighty Adam Skyler, Alpha of the Glacier Rim Tribe, giving his approval… except when he and Taylor did.

“Why are you only bringing this to me now, Keith? You know how I feel about your sister’s wild ideas of living with the humans. It’s dangerous!”

“Other tribes live—”

“Chain.” Adam closed his eyes as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “A ‘tribe’ of lynx is called a chain, and you know it.”

“That’s a human term, one that isn’t even agreed upon by the inter-tribal council. Other lynx call their groupings tribes, not chains.” He hated the term chain. It made them sound like a stupid fence instead of the extended family and friends that make up a tribe. Well, that’s what tribes ought to be. Theirs failed on many points to be that, mostly thanks to his father’s extreme patriarchal methods. When he took over, if he ever did, he swore to make their tribe more egalitarian—though Adam did not know that yet.

“I will not debate this with you, nor do I approve of Taylor and you moving away from our area.”

“Father, the house is already bought. We signed the papers yesterday and picked up the keys.” Yeah, he knew their method of gaining a little independence was inappropriate, willful, and could easily backfire, but he was determined to give his sister all the freedom he could and hopefully teach Zeke to be a good man, as well as a good lynx.

“You already did what?” Adam bellowed, his stoic demeanor finally cracking.

“We bought the house.”

“On whose authority?”

“Mine. I am the prince and heir, and well over the age of adulthood. I need room to live and breathe. Taylor needs room to raise Zeke without the other females in her space. I know they mean well, but Zeke is her son, not theirs.”

“They are only trying to help your sister. She’s all alone and trying to raise her child.”

“No, she’s not. She has me. I know her mate died, leaving her single and with kit, but I am there for both of them. Besides, with both of us working in town, this arrangement makes the most sense. And don’t worry, the house abuts the woods, giving us plenty of room to hunt, roam, and live in both our skins.”

“And if I forbid this move?” Adam asked, his tone dropping to one of resigned irritation—a sound Keith was well used to.

“We are locked into the mortgage, Father.” Adam Skyler was never one to waste money, a fact Keith was exceptionally glad of right then. “We will have to pay for it either way, and it would be foolish to own a home and not use it.”

The growl from his father was not unexpected. Still, were he in his feline skin rather than his human skin now, his fur would want to stand on end.

“Since you have made it difficult to argue against this nonsense, you and Taylor may move, but I will visit shortly after you are settled. If the residence does not meet with my wishes and standards, you will come home and find a way to sell the house.”

Thank you! “Give it a chance, Father. You know Taylor’s tastes. She wouldn’t live anywhere unsuitable.”

“Anywhere among humans is already unacceptable, but we shall see.”

“Thank you, Father. I need to make sure things are ready for our move.” Keith waited, hoping Adam would allow him his leave and not push further.

“You are excused, Keith. However, I do not appreciate being managed this way. Until you come of age, I am still the alpha of this chain.”

Tribe, dammit! “Understood, Father.”

Keith quickly stood and exited the room, then maneuvered through the house to find Taylor. He was itching to shift and go for a run. His lynx always wanted to be outside, in his fur, after he was called before his father—or the council for that matter. By the time he found Taylor, outside playing with Zeke, he was bordering on screaming. Seeing them playing in their lynx forms helped calm him, allowing him to breathe easier.

“Taylor?” He couldn’t help the smile that tugged at his lips when she turned, her tufted ears swiveling before her gaze met his. “When you’re ready, I need to pick up the U-Haul and get things loaded.”

They had been packing, but as their father never came to their part of the house, even though it was just one floor up from his own suite, he hadn’t noticed all the boxes or layout plans. Their father’s home was more akin to two houses stacked one atop another. He and Taylor had their own kitchen, living room, dining space, and bedrooms, but they didn’t have any freedom or real space to be themselves. Not with their father and his advisers always underfoot and snooping into their lives.

Taylor hurried to where Keith stood, shifting as soon as she stopped in front of him—luckily her nudity no longer fazed him. When he was younger, her doing that had bothered him a great deal, but only because she was his sister. “He said yes?” she asked, her voice cracking on the last word.

Damn, she must have been more worried than she’d let on. “Of course. He insists upon checking on us once we’ve moved in, but that is to be expected,” he explained, shrugging one shoulder. He didn’t want to make a big thing about their move while they were outside. He never knew who might be within hearing range, after all.

Taylor grinned as she launched herself at Keith. “Thank you!” Without letting him go, she turned her head and called to Zeke, “Go make sure all your things are packed for Uncle Keith to take with him. I don’t want you upset that something special left with him instead of being in your travel bag.”

Laughing, Keith unwound his sister from around his body. “Go put something on, would ya? Like I want your girly bits on me.”

Taylor swatted Keith’s chest as she took off after Zeke—who had opted to stay in lynx form as he hurried inside and up the stairs.

By the time he’d caught up to them, Zeke was in his room, going through the special travel bag Keith had bought him the week prior. He’d been so proud of Zeke for not saying anything about their packing, not even to the other kittens in their tribe. Keith had been so careful when bringing boxes in and out of the house, making certain that neither his father nor his advisers were around to see what they were doing.

“Can’t believe you managed to get his approval so quickly,” Taylor said from behind him as he stood staring at the stacks of boxes ready to move.

“Hey, playing the money card usually works with him. Why do you think I wanted us to have signed the mortgage papers and all before I said anything to him? I’m not stupid, and moving away is the only way either of us will have any freedom to be who we are, instead of who he thinks we should be.”

She sighed contentedly. “I know, and I can’t wait to get going. Are you sure you want to do the move yourself? Zeke and I could help, instead of us only getting there after you have the house all set up?”

“Taylor, I know how you want everything set up. We’ve gone over the pictures and floor plan dozens of times already. This is safer for Zeke and will give me a chance to scope out the woods a little more before he gets there and wants to go run or climb.”

“Yeah, I just hate for you to do all the work like this.”

Her pout was adorable, but he had reasons, personal ones that he didn’t want to tell her yet, for wanting to go ahead of them. When they’d gone over to view the house the second time—which was when they’d put in the bid—he’d caught a scent he never thought to find. The pull had been almost painful, and now he just needed to find out who it belonged to. Even though he needed more information, his mind kept yelling mate. Being gay, he hadn’t believed he would have a mate, but he couldn’t think of any other reason for the insta-hard-on, the driving need to mate, or the way his cat paced just under the skin after he refused to go back to the house early and find who the luscious scent belonged. Hell, he wasn’t really certain he wanted to find the person. He didn’t want a female! And though only Taylor knew that his heart and body only craved others of the same sex, he feared finding who Baast had chosen for him.

“I’ve got some friends that are going to help me unload in exchange for pizza and beer.” He chuckled. “Seems that works for humans as well as cats.”

“All right, Keith. But if you need help, you’ll call me, right?” Her little upturned face always reminded him of her cat with its wide hazel eyes and tiny button nose, which she tended to wrinkle when annoyed. “Please.”

“Of course, but it’ll be fine. I promise. This time next week, you’ll be in our new home and won’t have anyone but me nosing into your business.”

“Won’t that be wonderful?” she chirped, bouncing on her toes. “Okay, go make sure you have your immediate-needs bag ready. When do you leave?”

“A little after lunch tomorrow. The cats helping on this end of the move will be here in the morning. The humans are, of course, meeting me at the house. It’s all going to work out, sissy, I promise.”

By the time Keith made it to bed that night, he was so anxious he barely managed to get any sleep. He wondered about the scent he’d caught, and the future, and hoped for freedom from his father’s keen gaze and bigoted mouth.


THE DRIVE to their new home wasn’t long, but loading everything into the U-Haul while his father looked on, scowling and making unhelpful comments, had Keith’s nerves frayed and his temper short. The hope-slash-fear of finding his mate added extra layers to his stress. By the time he arrived at the Wendy’s where he would meet the guys, he was in serious need of a drink—or three. Since that wasn’t an option yet, he pigged out on Spicy Asiago Ranch Chicken Club sandwiches and Frosty treats. Carbs instead of booze….

“Dude,” Dale groused. “How can you eat all that and still be as thin as you are?”

His eating habits drove his human friends crazy. If they ate like he did, they’d all be too big to get through the door. “Good genes,” he quipped, same as always.

“So not fair,” Ryan pouted. He struggled with his weight, wanting to be thin to attract guys at the club, but his body wanted to be slightly chubby no matter what he did.

Personally, Keith thought his friend needed to stop worrying about what shallow club-boys thought and focus instead on being happy and healthy for himself. “Sorry, didn’t mean to make you feel bad, Ryan.”

“You don’t. Just wish I had your metabolism. Seriously, I can’t figure out where you put it all.”

If he just told them he was a lynx shifter and they even knew what that meant, they would know why—all shifters had overdeveloped metabolisms, a side effect of all the shifting they did. However, he was forbidden to reveal his species, and as often as he hated not being able to share that part of himself with his friends, he knew it was too dangerous for humans to know of their kind… or of any kind of shifter, for that matter.

Well, a few humans knew, but it was exceedingly rare and considered dangerous to their kind as a whole. What if the government or scientists wanted to collect them and experiment? A shiver tore through him at the thought. He pushed the morbid thought away and focused on his friends again.

“Ready to head out?” he asked. He didn’t like depressing Ryan, so he usually didn’t eat around him.

“Yeah, let’s get this party started!” Dale crowed.

An hour later they were at his new home, with the U-Haul, and various cars filled with human and a few of his cat friends—the ones who didn’t look down on humans—parked along the driveway and curb. As soon as he opened the truck door, the scent of his mate slammed into him, stealing his breath for a moment. Conscious of the other cats close by, he schooled his face and took a few slow breaths, trying to force down his desire and need. No way did he want others to know what was going on before he found the woman. Woman, he groaned internally. Why did he have to have a mate? Being gay was hard enough and not something he could let others know about, as it just wasn’t done—not with how his father would react—and being mated on top of that would just be cruel.

By the time they were done with all the unloading, Keith decided that the Gods hated him. The scent of his mate constantly called to him—burning wood mixed with sandalwood and grass—teasing him mercilessly, and worse, he’d caught one of his neighbors watching him and his friends moving their things inside. The man pushed all his buttons—well, what of him he could see, thanks to the man being on the other side of a window from him—making him both thrilled that he’d moved and regretting it. His neighbor hadn’t come out to meet him yet, but if the man didn’t stop by soon, Keith decided he would just have to go over and say hello—if this whole mate thing didn’t interfere. If he mated, he’d be screwed… or rather, he’d never be screwed again. That depressing thought wound through him, helping him keep his hormones in check and his focus off sex.

Once all the unloading was done, they broke out the beers and called for pizza. That done, Keith cranked up his stereo so it could be heard outside, though not too loudly, not wanting the cops called, then joined his friends for food, booze, and relaxing. Though it would have been more relaxing if the two couples—both gay couples, no less—hadn’t been determined to dirty-dance and make out so much. Jealousy was ugly, he knew that, but right then it was a hard fact to remember.

Going to sleep the first night in his home, one that his father had nothing to do with, should have been an exciting and freeing event. Instead he tossed and turned, dreading the next day more than he had anything since his mother’s passing when he was a boy. He had nowhere to be, and the house was mostly put together. He’d been up half the night after his friends finally left, putting books on shelves, dishes in cupboards, and trying to convince himself that his mystery mate would be a male. The last item was his only failure of the night.

An Evidence of Magic by Kris Michaels & Patricia A Knight
“I’m finished here for the moment. Get me back to Everlight.”

He nodded and stood up from the sofa. “Of course. Stand next to me.”

Hiro stepped to within two arm’s lengths.

“A little closer, please.”

The detective eyed him suspiciously. “What? We having some sorta ‘Kumbaya’ moment?”

Sable dropped his head and bit the inside of his lower lip to conceal his smile. He raised his gaze. “The closer your proximity to me, the less energy I have to exert to open the portal.”

The light of challenge gleamed in Hiro’s eyes as he stepped up to him, wrapped an arm around his waist and jerked him against the detective’s muscular chest. Sable felt the man press his groin into his. Santos hardened against him and a provocative shiver traced erotic fingers up Sable’s spine. Mere inches away, Hiro’s brown eyes found his. “How’s this work for you, magician? Close enough?”

The man was taunting him. He knew it, and still, it was all he could do not to groan, close his mouth over the detective’s lush lips and inhale him. He trembled with the need to grind his cock against Hiro’s. Instead of doing either, he murmured, “Works just fine for me, detective.”

The Master of Seacliff by Max Pierce
“Why do you hate Duncan so much, Leo?”

Leo gave a loud laugh and turned to view himself in the mirror. “It’s not hatred, Andrew. Pure jealousy.” He lowered his voice. “You see, for all our pretense, my sister and I are not in the best of financial situations. I fear in another generation, the Van Hornes will be back on a boat to the Netherlands, rowing the entire way. Duncan would jump at the opportunity to purchase Glendower Hall and send me packing.”

I wasn’t sure if Leo was honest or if this was another of his inventive tales. “Why?”

He fingered the cuff of my nightshirt, rose from the bed and walked to the door. “I feel the need for a drink. Would you like one?”
I shook my head.

To my surprise, Leo did not leave, but knelt down by the green clock and ran his left hand along the side of the base. In a second, a door popped open at the bottom.

“Steven discovered this. Seems Janina didn’t want to trundle downstairs to get her liquor.” Leo removed a bottle of brandy and two glasses. “Join me? Makes the pain go away.”

“Duncan went overseas looking for Steven. If he didn’t want him back—”

Leo filled his glass, replaced the decanter and closed the secret door.

“As far as that grand display of combing the corners of the earth for his lost love, I’ve come to doubt those motives. My guess is that he actually tracked Steven down.”

“And?”

“Andrew, Duncan Stewart has contacts all over the world, from heads of state and religious leaders to some of the most dangerous thieves and blackguards since Ali Baba. I suspect he paid Steven to leave, but as a trump, I wouldn’t be surprised if Steven was dispensed with by an assassin shortly after. That would explain why his clothes remain here after so many months. And don’t forget our visitor during the séance.”

Except for the séance, his theory made sense.

“What does that matter, my heir apparent? I see you’ve acquired not only Steven’s wardrobe, but his bedroom as well.” He looked to the door behind the screen and his lips curled at the corners. “And room to spread out. How do you find—”

I was in no mood to be linked to Duncan, especially by Leo Van Horne’s cruel innuendos.

“I’ll be returning to my own room as soon as possible.”

“I most certainly hope so. I’d like to see more of you—” He started lifting the sheet that covered me. When I put my hands down to keep it secure he took my hands in his and kissed them.

“— when you are up and around and free of Duncan.”

“I have no romantic feelings for Duncan, or anyone, Leo.”

Leo’s face lost its color and for the first time, his expression scared me. “Don’t reject me Andrew. You may regret needing a true friend in this house. Steven located some documents. They stated Gordon’s intent to disinherit Duncan. I have them now. If you find anything else, you must come to me at once. I—”

“And what if I believe Duncan innocent?”

“He is fond of you, Andrew. I don’t deny that. Perhaps if you get him to confess…in a moment of weakness…using your charms.”

“Duncan is not guilty of killing Steven,” I said. I wished I could be as confident about the deaths of Gordon and Albert.

“Then prove it to me.” Leo gave a light laugh. “But now, I must fly; until later. Think about what I have told you, and perhaps you’ll be ready for some liquor at tea time. Or, if you get thirsty, remember our hiding place.” He swirled out, all green velvet and gold silk, leaving on the nightstand a small box tied with a bright yellow ribbon.

I clasped my hands together and shook my head. The thought of these two men trying to win my favor put Steven Charles’ fate right out of my mind. Plain Andrew Wyndham, heretofore resigned to a lonely life as a tutor and artist, now attracted two powerful men, in a grand mansion above the ocean.

One a possible murderer; and the other determined to prove it. Seacliff brought me an escape from my old life, but I debated the price of that escape. If Duncan were found guilty, my plans of going to France would be just a dream. As for Leo’s thoughts on Steven Charles, I suspected that was a blatant attempt to discredit Duncan, and cast himself in a better light. I couldn’t believe Duncan would have the man he loved killed. The man he loved—would I ever experience that?

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!

Elliot Cooper
Elliot Cooper is a creativity addict who prefers writing stories that embody adventure, a hint of the taboo, and shadows that are deeper than they appear at first glance. All the better if romantic or erotic elements are key.

Elliot also enjoys video games and knitting, and lives in the southern US with his human and feline family.

Tempeste O'Riley
Tempeste O’Riley is an out and proud omnisexual / bi-woman whose best friend growing up had the courage to do what she couldn’t–defy the hate and come out. He has been her hero ever since.

Though new to writing M/M, she has done many things in her life, though writing has always drawn her back–no matter what else life has thrown her way. She counts her friends, family, and Muse as her greatest blessings in life. She lives in Wisconsin with her children, reading, writing, and enjoying life.

Tempe is also a proud member of Romance Writers of America® and Rainbow Romance Writers.

Kris Michaels
Kris Michaels is the alter ego of a happily married wife and mother who loves to write erotic romance with a twist of military flavor.

A chance meeting and immediate friendship with an established author propelled Kris into a world where her lifelong fantasy of publishing romance novels came true! Her vivid imagination and erotic fantasies evolved into the Kings of Guardian Series now under contract to be published with Troll River Publishing.

Kris believes in meeting life head on…as long as there is an ample supply of coffee, whiskey and wine! She believes love makes this crazy life worthwhile. When she isn’t writing Kris enjoys a busy life with her husband, the cop, and her two wonderful sons.

Patricia A Knight
Patricia A. Knight is the pen name for an eternal romantic who lives in Dallas, Texas with her horses, dogs and the best man on the face of the earth – oh yeah, and the most enormous bullfrogs you will ever see. Word to the wise: don’t swim in the pool after dark.

Max Pierce
Max Pierce enjoyed a successful career as a Senior Executive in the apparel industry while he developed his writing skills.

As a journalist, he began writing on Hollywood history in 1999 for CLASSIC IMAGES magazine. He has contributed to numerous anthologies and is the author of the Lambda Literary Award-nominated gothic suspense, THE MASTER OF SEACLIFF and the romantic comedy AT THE CROSSROADS, both published by Lethe Press.

He has called Los Angeles home since 1988.


Kari Gregg
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Elliot Cooper
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Tempeste O'Riley
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EMAIL: Tempeste.ORiley@gmail.com

Kris Michaels
FACEBOOK  /  KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  ARe
SMASHWORDS  /  TROLL RIVER PUB
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EMAIL: krismichaelsauthor@gmail.com

Patricia A Knight
EMAIL: patriciaknight190@gmail.com

Max Pierce
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Sightings
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My Boyfriend's Back
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Whiskers of a Chance
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An Evidence of Magic

The Master of Seacliff
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Sunday's Safe Word Shelf: The Emperor's Wolf by JC Owens


Summary:
The echoes of a war four years' past still resounds in the minds of those who endured it. Jaden longs to search for his sister, though he is bound in the fetters of slavery. When he is given to the very man who conquered his country, he is caught up in his own hatred, yet fascinated by the mystery of his new master, the Emperor of Tranaden, who all say is demonic, without mercy. Trapped in the snare of his master’s beauty, Jaden begins to realize that there is much more beneath the surface...

Dersai is Emperor to his fingertips, he is used to command and being obeyed. He will sacrifice anything to see his country safe. Beneath, he is well read, highly intelligent and far sighted in how he views others. Yet, Dersai has an inner demon, a demon that kept his kingdom free and safe from conquerors; only in his dreams can he imagine one strong enough to love him. Now his slave may be the only one who can set him free.

Publisher's Note: This book contains explicit sexual content, graphic language, and situations that some readers may find objectionable: Domination/submission, dubious consent, male/male sexual practices, violence.


Some four weeks later, the army was on the move, and a late winter storm in the mountain pass lent misery to the march. Shivering, Black slogged along with his arms wrapped around himself. His fur-lined boots had been long since soaked, and the waterlogged snow seemed to drag at his every step. He did not complain; the rest of the men were just as miserable, whether slave or free soldier. Only the leaders rode above it all in their vehicles.

Beside him, Black felt Rem stumble and go down to his knees. Black stopped and turned back to the boy, going against the flow of humanity to drag him up. The boy leaned against him, gasping with effort, and Black cursed under his breath. The boy was too soft for a journey such as this. He should have been left back at winter headquarters.

Rem shook with cold, misery, and exhaustion. Black wrapped his arm around the boy’s waist. “Not much farther, boy. We will make camp soon.” He certainly hoped so.

Rem seemed to gain some sort of strength from his words, though, and that was all that counted. They walked together and shared body heat as best possible.

Black could only give a sigh of relief when he saw Mailyn raise her hand and order a halt. He pulled Rem to the side, and they waited for Mailyn’s personal caravan to catch up. As it parked in the middle of the emerging encampment, they huddled on the lee side of it, trying to get out of the wind. Although not allowed to assist in the setup of the camp, they were to be no place else when she returned.

The other slaves slowly gathered, and for once there were no arguments or quarrels of status or place. They were all too miserable to care; indeed they even moved closer to each other in an effort to warm themselves.

Black hung his head into his crossed arms, trying to warm his face, and consciously relaxed his body, knowing he would be warmer that way. Gods, he hated this damn place. The knowledge that day by day they came closer to Tranaden ate at him, fed his fears. He squeezed his eyes shut more tightly, trying to force away the images in his minds of the horrors of his capture, the day his world came crashing down and his slavery had begun.

He could not shake the feeling that fate was not done with him and the fear that he would again encounter that man. The commander. The monster that, before Jaden’s very eyes, had crushed his captain’s throat with one hand. The thought brought nothing but that irrational fear he could not seem to control.

It was a mere two days later that his fear became reality. After the descent from the chill mountains, the warm climate and rich beauty of Tranaden was a welcome relief to Mailyn’s forces. But Black kept his eyes down and his attention focused on each step that took him closer to a place he had no wish to go. His closed his eyes and heart to the lush surroundings that so pleased those around him. He could feel nothing but hatred and a quivering awareness of…something -- a sense of change that left him ill at ease.

A large contingent of Tranaden’s army and those hated machines met Mailyn’s army at the border. Black could only shudder at the sight of those soldiers’ uniforms. They were escorted to the palace with little ceremony and no talk. The palace was a formidable structure built into the side of one of the mountains so that it loomed over the valley below. Mailyn and a small contingent, including Black and Rem, were allowed within the great walls themselves.

Black shuddered as he heard the massive gates shut behind them with an audible boom, trapping them within.



Hours later, Black could feel his mistress’s impatience from where he knelt beside her, his head down in proper submissive pose. Rem knelt, trembling, beside him, his cheek swelling from one of Mailyn’s fists -- a tangible sign of her frustration. Earlier that day, they had at last been escorted within the palace to meet with the emperor of Tranaden, where they had been kept waiting most of the day, something that was not putting Mailyn in a good frame of mind. They had just been informed that they would be attending the evening feast first and meeting with the emperor afterward.

Mailyn and Sayra silently fumed, though their faces bore no expression at all. The opulence of their surroundings seemed to do nothing to distract the two women, though Black had not been able to resist subtly eyeing the glories of the waiting room.

The stone beneath his knees was the finest marble, inlaid in places with the emperor’s crest of the wolf, reminding Black all too well of the emperor’s commander -- the Wolf of Tranaden. Gold and black marble crisscrossed the great expanse of the floor in linear patterns, softening the vastness. The dark furniture was utterly masculine and huge in its design, ornate carvings prominent on the legs. Soaring ceilings arched overhead, while snarling mythical beasts carved from black stone lined the walls; their lifelike eyes seemed to stare down at the four intruders. Guards stood around the edges of the room, silent and still as the statues. Only their breathing marked them as human at all. Huge murals of past battles towered from ceiling to floor, many of them showing past emperors, their faces filled with near madness as they faced their foes.

If intimidation was the premise of the room’s design, it had certainly worked. Black could feel Mailyn’s uneasiness, and certainly he himself felt small and insignificant beneath the evident glory of the empire as represented here.

He flinched as his mistress stroked his hair, then jerked it viciously to relieve her tension. He did not pull away, only braced himself at the pain, trying to make his tired mind think of anything else. Mailyn had been tense for days before this. He could almost smell her fear of this emperor, of his power and might and what he could do to her small mercenary company should he choose.

She had taken her temper out on Black; he bore the multiple bruises and whip marks of her frustrations. He could only pray that the coming meeting would go well, for if it did not…

Black was relieved when they were finally summoned and guided through the immense double doors to the great hall where the feast would take place.

The feast itself was loud and merry. People talked and laughed in a general atmosphere of happiness and goodwill. Music formed a pleasant backdrop and, combined with the people’s temperament, seemed at complete odds to what Black had expected of Tranaden and its court. The rumors of the emperor’s fearsome temper, his arrogance, and his madness were well circulated. The carefree attitude present in the feast hall made no sense whatsoever.

The pleasant byplay only served to irritate Mailyn further. By an announcement made earlier, Black knew the emperor was present, though he could not see him from his position on the floor. The man had not spoken as far as he could tell. That in itself made him even more mysterious and more someone to fear. Black could literally feel the man’s presence, like an energy that pulsed against his mind.

Black swallowed hard -- thirsty and hungry in equal measure. There would be no relief of that tonight, not with Mailyn in the mood she was in. He closed his eyes, trying to work past the pangs of his stomach. He heard a small whimper beside him from Rem. It was obvious the boy was not used to such treatment. At his age he was still growing, still needing food regularly.

Mailyn petted Black gently, then jerked his head back suddenly by the hair so she could read his eyes. He kept them blank, submissive, drawing a quivering sigh of relief as the fingers in his hair loosened and he could breathe properly again. His mistress returned to eating, and he blessed the reprieve from her attentions.

There was a sudden lull in the conversations, and Mailyn and Sayra abruptly rose as though at a signal. Black and Rem obediently rose in their mistresses’ wake, following at their heels with bent heads.

As they entered a smaller, more intimate room, it became evident that Mailyn’s meeting with the emperor would finally take place. Their escort gestured for Mailyn and Sayra to seat themselves. Black and Rem knelt to each woman’s right, silent and still.

“Your Imperial Majesty, we have come to discuss trade for the right to cross your lands.” Mailyn’s voice was humble, her arrogance reined in for once.

“And what is it you offer to us?” The emperor’s voice was deep and calm, with a chill edge that demanded respect.

That voice -- it could not be. Black went rigidly still, blindly staring at the ornate mosaic floor under his knees. His mind flew back to the day of his capture and the commander’s order: “Take them to the holding area. I want them tagged and marked with the sign of the wolf.”

The realization stole his breath. Dear gods…the commander. That man had been the emperor himself. Black began to shake. He could not prevent himself from looking up, his whole body freezing in place as the emperor’s dark eyes, strangely empty of the madness Black had seen the fateful day of his capture, suddenly turned upon him.

Black could not tear his eyes away; he was paralyzed with memory and fear of what this man was, if he was a man at all. For the first time in his life, Black felt like he might pass out. Death was a presence at this man’s side -- the only thing Black feared. If he died…what of his sister? Dear gods no. His captain’s death, so simple, so effortless, danced before Black’s eyes. This man, this demon, killed without conscience and reveled in death.

The emperor’s dark eyes narrowed upon him, uncertainty in their depths. Then he leaned forward, hands clenching the arms of the throne, disbelief, then fury foremost in his expression. “Jaden,” he whispered incredulously.

The sound of that name broke Black’s frozen demeanor. He lunged to his feet to run, but a wave of the emperor’s hand had guards closing in from all directions. Jaden tried to surge past them, mindless like a trapped animal, but they wrestled him down, finally holding his sweating, gasping form against the cold marble floor. Black could dimly hear Mailyn’s angry questions, but his own harsh breaths rang in his ears, deafening him to the angry confrontation between the emperor and his mistress.

At last the guards let up on him a little, allowing him to breathe, but they remained alert and ready should he attempt another escape. Only now could Black understand what was being said.

“You come here, to my own court, and flaunt what you have stolen?” The emperor’s voice was ice itself. The tension in the room was strung taut, ready to explode at any second.

“I stole nothing. He was sold to me at the markets of Isnai. No one told me of any prior claim.” Mailyn’s voice was high-pitched and defensive. She and Sayra stood close together, hands resting lightly on weapons, their eyes flicking fearfully at the ring of stone-faced guards whose guns were already drawn and ready. “There must be some mistake.”

The emperor was silent for long moments, his anger slowly dying down to a cold calm that drew shivers from the two women. “No, I have to admit that you would not be so foolish as to bring him before me. You know all too well what I am capable of.” He slowly seated himself once more on the throne. “You have your answer. You may pass over my lands. I have my tribute.”

Mailyn gaped at him for a moment, and then her eyes flicked to where Black was securely held. Fear made his heart pound as he stared transfixed at his new owner.

“Ask me for anything else. He is --”

“Mine,” the emperor cut in, cold and sharp. His eyes narrowed. “Do not try my temper further. You are lucky I release you at all. I claim both these slaves as tribute. Do you wish to dispute that?” His hand went to rest lovingly on the gun at his side and stroked the well-worn weapon.

Mailyn obviously longed to dispute, but Sayra was no fool. No slave was worth the emperor’s wrath, and his temper was clearly on a knife-edge as it was. They were lucky to escape with only this loss. She grabbed her leader’s arm, hissing at her to remain silent. Mailyn’s lips thinned with fury she dared not express. She nodded once, casting a final agonized look at Black before she whirled on her heel and left the room with Sayra at her back.

Black watched her go, fear riding him hard so that sweat ran down his spine; the chill of it made him shiver. He struggled briefly as the guards pulled him up, fighting against the multiple hands that held him. Fury rose like a tide within him as the emperor approached, an expression of satisfaction and possession clear on that hard face. Jaden lunged, longing for a weapon, any weapon. Any sense of self-preservation seemed to suddenly flee.

“Bastard! Murderer!” Jaden spat, little caring of anything beyond that he needed to hurt this man. He needed revenge for what this man had taken from him.

His outburst brought no satisfaction. The emperor merely arched an eyebrow as if Jaden’s response intrigued rather than angered him. His long fingers came beneath Jaden’s chin and tilted his face up so that he had to meet those cold, dark eyes. What Jaden saw stirring in their depths was utterly terrifying and punctured even Jaden’s rage.

“We meet again, Jaden. This time you will wear my mark,” the emperor said, then motioned to the guards, who chained Jaden and Rem’s hands and pulled them from the room.

Jaden’s mind was a mass of confusion, fear, and anger as guards escorted them deeper into the palace complex. Shock held him in thrall. This could not be happening; it could not. How could fate be so cruel as to give him back into the hands of the very man who had turned his life into a nightmare?

Before he would have been pleased to find any way to escape Mailyn; now he only wished to return there. In her worst mood she had never made him feel as threatened as the emperor could without even trying. His instinctual fear of what the emperor was, was tempered with confusion at his mention of marking. Had not the man sold Jaden and Yamina? For so long Jaden’s hatred had been based on that and on what he had endured that now he could not reconcile what the emperor could have meant by it.

Fury rose with his thoughts, and once more he tried to resist, but the two guards holding his arms simply tightened their grasps and moved him briskly forward. They were not brutal in their grips, but they made it very clear that he would keep moving. He could not dig in his feet on the marble floors, and rather than be dragged, he conceded that at the moment he had no choice. When he did, he vowed that he would try to escape. Perhaps this change of circumstances would lead to a situation where at last he could be free, could return to his country and find his beloved sister.

The thought buoyed him and kept him from totally panicking.

They entered a large, humid room, and Jaden tensed when he realized they were taking him to the bathing quarters. The guards led him to an area with hooks in the ceiling. They pulled a mechanism down and attached his manacles to it before raising it again. His hands were now held above his head, but not cruelly -- not so high as to punish but not low enough to allow him to move in any direction.

The same was done to Rem, whose terrified eyes watched the men as though he expected them to beat him at any moment. Not that Jaden was any less trepidant, but he hid it well, his jaw tight and eyes defiant. What more could the emperor do to him that had not already been done by Mailyn? Take your life, your very soul if he is the demon they say he is, an inner voice whispered maliciously.

The guards withdrew to the entrance, some of them leaving, others standing just inside the door. Nerves on edge, Jaden and Rem waited for whatever would come. Jaden forced himself to relax, to save his strength. His shock and fury began to wear off, allowing him to think, to hope that somehow this change of circumstance could lead to better things. If he just played along and was obedient… If anger achieved nothing, then perhaps submission -- no matter how false -- could.

He dropped into a half doze, remaining only partially aware of his surroundings. He had long since perfected this technique to save his sanity when he had to kneel at Mailyn’s side for hours with nothing to do. He could hear Rem shifting from foot to foot anxiously and mused quietly to himself that he would have to teach the boy patience if he was to survive life as a slave.

Rem had been drawn into this horror, into the emperor’s hands, because of his connection to Jaden. Jaden vowed he would not allow his own behavior to put Rem into further danger, no matter what Jaden had to do. He could do this. If he offered himself, was compliant and submissive… The emperor obviously wanted him in some form or another, or he would not have claimed him. It was up to Jaden how to use that to whatever meager advantage he could.

Voices at the door made him open his eyes. His body sprang into instant tension when he saw the emperor enter; it was as though Jaden’s thoughts had conjured him.

The leader of Tranaden walked slowly and silently around Jaden, his face utterly without expression. Then without pause, he drew his knife and began to cut away his new slave’s clothing, not hastily but in slow degrees. Anticipation lit his eyes.

Jaden did not struggle when it was patently useless, but he shivered with the need to protest. He clamped his lips shut against the words he longed to fling at this old nemesis and wished he was free with a weapon in hand. Remembering his strategy to be compliant, to offer himself, Jaden forced himself to relax. He was no virgin to fear what was to come. If his submission would make the emperor gentler, would lead to a chance to escape or even take revenge, then so be it.

When at last Jaden was utterly nude, the emperor made a slower circuit, this time his fingers trailing over Jaden’s pale skin. He paused briefly at each of the marks left by Mailyn’s cruelty; some were still raw and open. A silent snarl curled his lip, making Jaden lean away, shuddering. The emperor cupped Jaden’s chin in his large calloused hands as he stared intensely into Jaden’s eyes; his frown deepened. He muttered a curse under his breath, then stepped away.

With complete disregard for the men by the door, he began the arduous process of unbuttoning his ornate uniform. The soldiers immediately turned away, respect rather than the fear Jaden would have expected showing in every line of their bodies.

Jaden’s eyes widened. Despite all his determination and all his previous experiences, he felt a shiver course through him. The uniform jacket slid to the ground, revealing a white shirt tailored tightly to a well-formed torso. The emperor slowly undid each fastening, heat rising in his eyes as he watched Jaden’s expression.

The sheer possessive force in the man’s eyes spoke to something in Jaden. Jaden jerked his head back, shocked at his own thoughts. There was nothing to admire in this man, if he was even a man.

The shirt slid to the floor, the movement causing the emperor’s broad shoulders to flex. Muscle coated his chest, rippling with each motion of those powerful arms, and led down to a narrow waist and ridged stomach. Next, the emperor removed his boots with a grace Jaden could only envy. Jaden felt his breath catch as his captor’s fingers began to work on the laces of those tight breeches, then pushed the sleek silk down lean hips.

Jaden drew a deep breath. Galen -- once a fellow slave and mentor in Mailyn’s harem -- had been the only one to breach his body, and that had been with some small degree of caring that had grown into true friendship. This man felt none of that, and his brutality was near legendary. If Jaden’s ruse of compliance was to hold true, he would need to participate, would he not? Jaden flexed his hands helplessly in their bindings, wishing he were free of the bonds so he could offer to touch the emperor, soothe the beast. Or did his new master wish only a body, like Mailyn had?

The emperor shed the last piece of clothing, drawing Jaden’s attention back to him. The man was a gorgeous dark brown all over. Various scars served as testimony to the fact that he was as much warrior as political leader. As an example, his high-boned face, sharp and aristocratic, was marred only by that scar on his right jawline. Long black hair fell to midback, thick and lush. At the moment, his eyes were clear of the madness Jaden remembered from their previous encounter; their color fluctuated from rich mahogany to almost black as his moods shifted. He was tall and intimidating, standing almost a good foot higher than Jaden, who had never felt short amongst other men.

But it was the sheer presence of the man that intimidated the most: his cold demeanor, the sense of power that literally came off him in waves. Jaden could only stare at him as prey watches a predator, waiting for the strike yet admiring the sheer beauty of the beast. He swallowed with difficulty as his eyes fell to the emperor’s shaft, its impressive length proud and thick in its excitement, its tip already shining with moisture. Heavy balls hung low beneath it, already drawing up in anticipation of what was to come.

Oh gods… He had to convince the man to take him gently. Jaden flushed deeply and turned his face away, a mixture of anger, fear, and a certain unthinkable arousal thrumming through his veins. The emperor lowered the mechanism above his head and released his chained wrists from it, though they were still bound together.

“Come,” he ordered, and Jaden did not resist. The guards were close at hand, and resistance at this point would be foolish. He could only hope compliance would appease the man and reduce the level of whatever torture he had planned. That it would be sexual was apparent by his captor’s touches, but he could survive that. Hehoped. He cast a last look over his shoulder at Rem. The boy was shaking as he watched Jaden being taken away, fearing he was next, no doubt.

The emperor led Jaden by the chain between his wrists, and as long as Jaden followed, he did nothing that could be construed as cruel. They passed within a low archway and into the bathing rooms. Moisture was heavy in the air and redolent with the scents of oils and soaps. Without pause, the emperor headed for the nearest, largest of the baths and took Jaden down the ornate marble steps that led into the steaming waters.

Jaden caught his breath at the heat of it and almost balked, but the emperor’s pull was insistent. He complied, reluctantly stepping deeper into the water. He hissed a little as the heat rose high enough to encase his balls and shaft, the sensitive skin cringing.

The middle of the bath deepened to his waist. Then as they neared the other side, the level of water went back down to his hips. Swallowing with difficulty, Jaden watched as the emperor attached his manacles to a ring and chain embedded in the ornate edging that adorned the bath.

Once assured that Jaden was properly secured, the emperor turned to him with an expression that caused Jaden to shiver. “So you are angry, little one.” A faint smile tilted the emperor’s lips, though there was little true humor in his expression. “You will learn to curb that. You will learn to obey; there is that within me that does not tolerate disobedience, rebellion. You would do well to remember that.”

Author Bio:
Also known as J.C. McGuire.

J.C Owens lives in small town, rural Alberta and is a self confessed writing-a-holic. In the absence of help for this affliction…

I do indeed love to write and have over twenty books sitting idle in my computer, waiting… I love the genre of male/male stories and conflict in what a person thinks they want, versus what they truly need to become themselves. I think any writing that shows the beauty of men loving men is worthwhile.

I love to hear from my readers and always appreciate suggestions and comments for future books. Sharing a love of reading and good, hot sensuality between men is always a cause for celebration!


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