Saturday, December 17, 2016

Random Tales of Christmas 2016 Part 7


A Present in Swaddling Clothes by Andrew Grey
Summary:
Josh held baby Vivian when she took her first breath in the world, and he has loved every breath she’s taken since. Now Vivian needs a home—a “for real” forever home, and Josh would love to be the one who takes her in. But Josh’s partner, Sammy, isn’t a fan of children of any size or stamp. Will Josh have to choose between being a lover or a parent, or will Josh’s niece work her baby magic on Sammy, giving them all the best Christmas present of all?


Another beautifully heartwarming novella by Andrew Grey.  The story as a whole may warm the heart but the reasons behind the setting will break your heart first.  Would this story have been a bit better if it had more pages?  Perhaps, but for a Christmas tale of the heart, it's pretty darn good just the way it is.  Another great addition to my holiday shelf.

RATING: 

Merry Christmas, Mr. Miggles by Eli Easton
Summary:
Toby Kincaid loves being the junior librarian in his hometown of Sandy Lake, Ohio. He spends his days surrounded by books and chatting with the library patrons. He especially adores the head librarian, Mr. Miggles, who is kind, witty, knowlegable about everything, and hopelessly addicted to Christmas. Sean Miggles is also pretty cute—especially for an older guy who wears ties and suit pants every day.

But Sean keeps himself at a distance, and there’s a sadness about him that Toby can’t figure out. When Sean is accused of a crime he didn’t commit, he gives up without a fight. Toby realizes that he alone can save the library—and their head librarian.

Toby will need to uncover the darkness in Sean’s past and prove to him that he deserves a second chance at life and at love too. And while Christmas miracles are being handed out, maybe Toby will get his own dearest wish—to love and be loved by Mr. Miggles. 


I won't lie, after reading the title I thought Mr. Miggles was going to be a cat that factored into bringing a couple together, then I read the blurb and realized otherwise.  Mr. Miggles may be a bit of a loner but he runs the library well and made it a place of comfort and fun, not to mention he is a hopeless Christmas geek.  Toby loves his job as Junior Librarian and it doesn't hurt that he has a massive crush on Mr. Miggles.  My heart breaks for the head librarian when his kindness is slandered in one of the worst ways possible but Toby spurs into action and realizes that his boss has actually been doing a lot more than anyone realized.  Merry Christmas, Mr. Miggles is an excellent example of what Christmas means and has just cemented Eli Easton as the Queen of Christmas romance in my book.  I'm already looking forward to whatever tale she brings us next year.

RATING: 

Xmas Cake: A Modern Fairy Tale by Raine O'Tierney
Summary:
Once upon a snowy Christmas season, in the glowing metropolis of Midday...

If this were a fairy tale Kyle would be the handsome prince and Riley would be the poor baker in distress. Oh wait, but that's exactly what it is!

When Kyle Prince sees Riley collapse in the snow-covered parking lot, he swoops in to the rescue, whisking the feverish young man off to his high-rise apartment without a second thought.

As Riley mends under Kyle's care, a feeling of closeness grows between the two men. But every fairy tale has its complications. Will the two find their happily ever after this Christmas?



Deck the Dire Wolves by Stephani Hecht
Summary:
Dire Pack Reborn #2
Love is like the flower you've got to let grow-John Lennon.

Already reeling from being forced to flee his old home town, the last thing that Dire Wolf Clark needs is to find himself attracted to his new Alpha, Bishop. More surprising, is that Bishop seems to return Clark's feelings. However, Clark has been hurt in the past and the last thing he needs is to find himself in another relationship. So, Clark withdraws and rebuffs Bishop. The last thing Clark expects is for Bishop to continue his chase of the Omega. Will Clark be able to let go and trust again or is he doomed to be alone forever?




Cursed Miracles by Meg Harding 
Summary:
Two hundred years ago on Christmas Eve, William Mashinter was frozen in time, cursed by his wife to roam the world on his own, waiting for the love of his life to find him. The love of his life, whom she killed. Time hasn’t healed this wound, and William is tired of the happy holiday and the constant reminders of a love that’s been taken from him. But then the impossible happens, and maybe… maybe he can get a new Christmas perspective.

Brady Gallagher has lived three different lives, always aware of the first and most important, yet unable to find the man who will fill in the missing pieces and let him know he’s not crazy. He encounters him at a work event, of all places, but is he willing to throw everything else to the wind and embrace the miracle laid out before him?


Cursed Miracles is the perfect blend of romance, history, paranormal, contemporary, and it's all wrapped up together in a beautiful Christmas package, small maybe but Miracles will warm your heart, not to mention spice it up just the right amount, faster than a bag of roasted chestnuts and a glass of mulled wine.  A lovely little holiday novella that I look forward to re-reading next year and many Christmases to come.  Meg Harding is another new author for me and I look forward to checking out her backlist and future tales in 2017.

RATING: 

Random Tales of Christmas 2016 Parts

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



A Present in Swaddling Clothes by Andrew Grey
Chapter One
The screaming vibrated along Josh’s spinal cord and not in a good way. Reaching for a cool towel off the tray, he wiped his sister Nicky’s forehead, trying to cool her off. “Breathe, remember to breathe like they showed us in class.” Josh tried to keep his voice calm, but his legs were twitching beneath him, and he was doing his best not to hyperventilate.

“Fuck the breathing! Get this out of me!” Josh barely understood the last part over the cry of pain that had Josh looking to the doctor. There had to be something they could do.

“The baby’s not moving,” the doctor said in a calm voice, and Josh knew that couldn’t be good, not with all the pain Nicky was already in. “Bring over a surgical cart. We’re going to need to do a Cesarean.” His voice remained calm even as the activity in the delivery room sped up.

Josh watched as everyone moved with a hurried but practiced grace. Nicky was strapped down, injections were given. At least Nicky calmed down and stopped screaming. Josh also saw that her eyes drifted closed, and he looked up at the others in the room. The person monitoring Nicky didn’t seem to notice anything wrong, but Josh still breathed a sigh of relief when her eyes slid open again. “Just sit where you are and stay with her,” the doctor told him, and Josh nodded, wiping Nicky’s brow once again.

Josh stayed behind the curtain, but kept looking up at the doctor as a feeling of complete dread settled in his stomach. What if Nicky wasn’t all right? What if something happened to her?

“Everything is going to be fine,” the doctor told them both, almost as if he’d been reading Josh’s mind. “We’ll be ready to begin in a few minutes. We’ve already given you something to stop the contractions, and you should see your baby soon.”

Nicky mumbled something and closed her eyes again. The doctor began quietly asking for instruments, and Josh watched and waited. Under circumstances like this, not that he’d ever been in a circumstance like this before, but when they were kids, Josh had always held Nicky’s hand. When they saw a scary movie, he’d held her hand, and when she’d fallen off her first bike, Josh had held her hand before helping her get back on. Nicky was his little sister, and he’d always been there to hold her hand. But now, at what seemed like such an important moment, he couldn’t hold her hand because of the arm restraints. All he could do was sit by her head and wipe her brow. “It’s going to be okay. You’re going to see the baby soon,” Josh encouraged her and stroked her cheek even as the activity around them continued. He hoped this would be over soon, because Nicky looked as weak and exhausted as Josh had ever seen her in his life.

“You’re going to be a proud father very soon,” one of the nurses said, and Josh didn’t correct her. The father of Nicky’s baby had taken off as soon as she’d told the lowlife that she was pregnant. Their other brother, Timothy, and his wife, Josh’s bitch-in-law, had actually tried to convince her to have an abortion. Nicky had immediately told both of them to go screw themselves. She was having this baby. It hadn’t mattered to her that she would be forty-one by the time the baby was born, she wanted this child. Josh had supported her then, just like he always had, and he was supporting her now, and he wasn’t about to stop.

“I can feel things moving around,” Nicky said.

“Does it hurt?” Josh asked.

“No. It just feels like pressure.” Then Josh saw the doctor lift out the red blood-covered baby, which he handed to a nurse.

“Just another minute,” the doctor said, and the baby began to cry. The doctor worked for a few more seconds, and then the nurse carried the baby to a table and they wrapped it in a blanket.

“You have a girl,” the nurse said, and she motioned for Josh to come over. “She’s beautiful and perfect.”

“Her eyes are closed,” Josh said as he looked down at the crying, openmouthed baby. The nurse turned down the light, and the tiniest baby Josh had ever seen opened her big blue eyes, and Josh felt his heart begin to melt. The nurse lifted the baby and handed her to Josh, who looked down into that beautiful little face, feeling a tear run down his cheek. Turning around, he showed Nicky her daughter. She couldn’t hold her because they had to finish the surgery, but Josh let Nicky look. “She’s gorgeous, Nicky.”

“She is that, and her name is Vivian.”

“Hello, Vivian,” Josh said softly, greeting his niece with a smile. He knew she couldn’t smile up at him, but she stopped crying and her eyes closed. “Is something wrong?” Josh asked.

“No,” the nurse said indulgently. “She’s falling asleep. She’s had a hard time of it too.”

Josh nodded and watched the precious child as he held her, waiting for the doctors and nurses to finish with Nicky. Josh sat on the stool he’d occupied earlier and let Nicky gaze at her daughter. “You did good, Nicky, really good.” Beyond that Josh didn’t know what to say, and his throat closed around his words. He was holding a new life in his hands. Josh had held babies before, but never like this, and the entire experience sent ripples up his spine when he thought about it. This was his niece, Nicky’s daughter, and as close to a child of his own as he was ever going to come. “Happy Thanksgiving,” Josh said to Nicky with a grin. “I can’t think of anything anyone could possibly be more thankful for than this little one.” Nicky didn’t answer, she simply smiled and stared at her baby.

The nurse took Vivian from Josh and carefully cleaned her up before placing her in a fresh blanket and handing her back to Josh. It was a good thing his partner, Sammy, wasn’t there; he hated the sight of blood. Eventually, once the incisions were closed, they checked Nicky over thoroughly before wheeling her to recovery and then into a room, where Josh was finally able to let his sister hold her baby. Once she was, Josh left them alone to get acquainted, and so Nicky could nurse Vivian.

In the hallway outside the room, Josh pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Sammy, it’s me.”

“Is everything okay? You’ve been gone such a long time. Nicky and the baby are okay, aren’t they?” The questions flew off Sammy’s nervously excited tongue.

“Yes. They’re both fine. She gave birth by Cesarean, but they’re both fine now. Nicky’s feeding the baby, and I wanted to take a few minutes to let you know what was happening. Both mother and baby are fine and healthy. It’s going to take Nicky some time before she’s 100 percent, but Mom is coming to stay with her.”

“She called a few minutes ago,” Sammy told him. “She said she’s on her way and she should be there in a few hours.”

Relief flowed through Josh. He knew Nicky was exhausted, but so was he. He had stayed up with Nicky through the long hours of her labor, and he hadn’t slept in over twenty-four hours. He hadn’t felt it until now, but with the adrenaline wearing off, he could barely keep his eyes open. After yawning, Josh told Sammy that he’d be home as soon as he could before hanging up the phone. Next, he called some friends of Nicky’s and gave them the good news. He had a whole list of people that he’d been given to call and dutifully made all the calls before pushing open the hospital-room door and peering inside. Nicky was resting back on the bed with Vivian in her arms, and both of them looked as though they were asleep. Josh motioned to one of the nurses, and she came inside and took Vivian to the nursery so Nicky could sleep.

Josh went in as well and leaned over the bed to kiss Nicky on the forehead.

“Are you leaving?” she asked.

“Yes. I’m going to try to get some sleep, and I’ll be back tomorrow morning. You get some sleep and take care of that beautiful niece of mine.”

“I will,” Nicky said with a smile. “You get some rest too.” Nicky took Josh’s hand and squeezed it. “Thank you so much for being here. It meant the world to me.” Nicky began to cry, and Josh handed her a tissue from the bedside table.

“You know I wouldn’t have missed this for anything. I’m never going to have a child of my own, so I intend to spoil yours rotten.” Josh gave her his best grin, and Nicky smiled behind her tissue.

“You’re too good to me,” Nicky said, dabbing her eyes.

“No, I’m not. The world’s just too hard on you,” Josh said before kissing her again. She released his hand, and Josh walked toward the door. “Call if you need anything, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I will,” she promised, and as Josh left the room with a wave, he saw Nicky flash him a smile. Josh made it to his car and began to drive home. He stopped along the way for coffee more than once before pulling in front of his and Sammy’s home, a little more than an hour north from where his sister lived in Baltimore. Josh hadn’t been sure if Sammy would be home from visiting his family yet, and he smiled when he saw Sammy’s car parked in its usual spot. Getting out, Josh walked toward the front door, and it opened as soon as he stepped onto the porch. Once he stepped inside the house, Sammy closed the door and then pulled Josh into a hug. “I have soup for you, and Mom sent some Thanksgiving dinner home along with some of her fresh bread.” Sammy refused to let him go even while he talked, and Josh rested his head on his partner’s shoulder, already feeling the urge to sleep beginning to take over. “Come into the kitchen and eat, then we’ll get you up to bed.”

Josh was too tired to answer and simply let himself be led by the hand into the large and immaculately clean kitchen. Josh took a seat at the table, and Sammy moved around the space, opening drawers and cupboards. Josh had no real idea where anything was in this room of the house. He and Sammy had decorated the house together and done most of the work required to bring their century-old house back from near wreck and ruin. A warm bowl of turkey soup with a cream base was set in front of him, and Josh looked to Sammy with a grateful smile. “I love this,” he said and felt Sammy’s hand on his shoulder.

“I know you do. That’s why I made it.” Sammy smiled at him and sat at the next seat with a cup of tea. “How did it go?”

“It was rough,” Josh told him as he started to eat, the rich, creamy soup sliding down his throat, comforting from the inside. “The baby wasn’t coming, so they had to do a Cesarean. Nicky’s sore, but she’s doing okay. How was Thanksgiving at your mom and dad’s?”

“It was nice. They both said to say hello and to tell you that Nicky is in their prayers. Mom also sent lots of leftovers, and she baked you a special pumpkin pie.” Sammy took a sip from his cup, and Josh smiled. Mona always took care to make Josh’s favorites. He knew where Sammy got his love of food. In many ways, Sammy was the male version of his mother because, like Mona, he said love with food.

“I’m sorry I missed it,” Josh said quietly. He knew everyone would understand.

“I know, but you had something more important to do. They’ll see you around Christmas, and they said they’ll be down for the Christmas party in a few weeks. Mom asked if she should bring some of her homemade caramel corn, and I told her to bring whatever she’d like.”

“Tomorrow I’m going to ask Nicky to come. She and the baby can spend the night in the guest room. She’ll be ready to get away by then, and I’ll have the chance to spend some time with Vivian.” An image of her precious blue eyes looking up at him in the delivery room flashed in his mind. Josh knew he would never forget that moment as long as he lived.

Taking another sip of soup, Josh gazed at Sammy and saw a touch of fear in his eyes. He knew what that meant and had been expecting it. “Just don’t expect me to… do… anything with the baby. I’m allergic to dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, children, and I like it that way.”

“Sammy. Vivian is adorable. You’re going to take one look at her, and she’ll have you wrapped around her little finger.”

Sammy shook his head stiffly. “Babies scare me, you know that. They’re so small, and I don’t know a thing about them.” He shook his head again. “I know you’ve talked about children a few times, but I never realized you were that serious. They scare me to death, and don’t get me started on the pooping, peeing, diapers. Oh, and let’s not forget the puke and projectile vomiting. No.” Sammy continued shaking his head the entire time.

“I didn’t say we needed to adopt or have a child of our own. You told me how you felt about children when I first met you, and I’d never try to make you do anything you really don’t want to do.” Josh took Sammy’s hand. “But you know Nicky is going to need help with Vivian.”

“I know. You’ll need to help, and I’ll help too. Just don’t expect me to actually hold or take care of her. Once she’s older, I’ll show her how to cook and we can bake cookies and cakes together, but while she’s at that spit-up stage, she’s all yours.” Sammy grinned, and Josh went back to his soup. Once the bowl was empty, Sammy placed a plate with a piece of pie in front of him, and Josh took a bite of Sammy’s mother’s pie and groaned softly as the creamy pumpkin slid down his throat. “By the way, before I forget, Terry called yesterday, and he said they just got in a lamp that he thought we’d like. There are pictures on the web. It looks really nice, and I asked him to hold it until you could take a look at it. It’s a newel-post lamp, and it’s never been electrified. It looks like it needs some work, but he says it’s nothing we can’t do. I thought it would look great in the parlor.”

“Can we look at the pictures tomorrow?” Josh said with a yawn as he finished his pie. Now that he’d eaten, his bed was really calling to him.

“Of course. Terry said he’d hold it until Monday for us,” Sammy said, and Josh pushed back from the table. “Do you want to go right up to bed?” Sammy asked as he took the dishes to the dishwasher.

Josh covered his mouth as he yawned. “I think so.”

“I’ll be up soon,” Sammy said from the sink as he finished cleaning up the kitchen. Josh walked up the stairs and into the room they used as a family room. He and Sammy entertained a lot, so the main floor included the formal living room, parlor, and dining room as well as their kitchen. They used the extra bedroom upstairs as their television and media room. After turning on the television, Josh lay down on the sofa and turned on the Food Network. It wasn’t long before his eyes began to drift closed, and soon he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Let’s get you to bed,” Sammy said softly as he reached over and turned off the television.

With a sigh, Josh forced his legs to work and walked into the bedroom, yawning almost the entire time. After cleaning up in their en suite bath, Josh stripped down and climbed into their bed with crisp, fresh sheets that Sammy must have changed just today.

Sammy took good care of him, there was no doubt about that. They both worked, but Josh’s days were much longer, and his job as a food-systems engineer involved a lot of travel. Sammy worked close to home, and early in their relationship, Sammy simply took over taking care of their home. With Sammy, everything had a place, and Josh could always find what he was looking for.

The bathroom light switched off, and Josh heard Sammy’s footsteps in the now dark room. The door to the closet where they kept the dirty-clothes basket opened and closed. Then Josh felt the bed dip, and Sammy joined him. They didn’t curl together like they used to. After almost fifteen years together, they rarely cuddled in bed anymore. Sammy usually complained that it made him hot and sweaty. Sammy did lean close to him, his warm hand stroking Josh’s cheek, and Josh felt Sammy’s weight shift as he was kissed good night. “Love you,” Sammy said before kissing him again.

Josh returned the kiss. “I love you too.” He felt Sammy hug him for a few seconds, and then Sammy rolled over onto his side, and Josh did the same. They had a good life together. They were settled and very happy. Sammy took good care of him, and he took care of Sammy. Sure, some of the passion had gone out of their relationship after fifteen years, but that was to be expected.

Josh rolled onto his other side, stroking Sammy’s shoulder as he closed his eyes. He was tired beyond belief, but he could not seem to fall asleep. Something was bothering him, but whatever it was seemed elusive and just out of reach.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Miggles by Eli Easton
Chapter One
“To everything, there is a season, and every season has its work of the day. Do you know what today’s work is, Toby?” Mr. Miggles hovered over my desk like the Ghost of Christmas Present.

I glanced at the date on my computer screen. It was Friday, November 18th. I groaned. “No. No, please. It’s too early for that.”

“Nonsense! There’s far too much to be done to let it wait until the last minute. Come along! We’re off to plunder the hidden treasures of this noble edifice.”

“This place? Noble? What, have you been tasting the eggnog already?” I put the computer on screen saver and got up from my seat at the front desk with a show of great reluctance.

“The Sandy Lake Library is as noble as the Vatican. After all, it’s filled with books.”

I rolled my eyes behind Mr. Miggles’s back as I followed his dramatic sweep toward the back of the library and the steps that led up to the unfinished attic. It was time for the annual—and far too early, in my opinion—ritual of Bringing Down the Christmas Boxes.

It wasn’t that I really minded the task all that much. It was slow in the library after lunchtime during the week, and I could use a break from the endless work of digitizing our archives. But this was a game he and I played, our familiar roles.

He was the buttoned-up, tie-wearing head librarian and my boss. He acted older than he actually was. He was probably in his thirties,

but he dressed up for work every day in a suit and tie. The honorific, “Mr. Miggles,” aged him too. The previous librarian had been Mrs. Wisener, and she’d been there since the dawn of time. No one ever called her by her first name. I’m not sure she even had one. So when she died and a new librarian was appointed, everyone called him “Mr. Miggles.” It suited him. He was always serious, often sad, and he had an ageless, professorial thing going on. I thought of him as the Socratic ninja of the Sandy Lake Library. He moved around stealthily, getting invisible shit done. And when he did speak, he sounded like he was reading from one of the high-brow books he loved.

It was kind of awesome.

My role, on the other hand, was to be the smart, hip, and mildly jaded young employee. I played it to perfection, if I do say so myself.

“It’s not even Thanksgiving yet,” I muttered, tromping up the attic stairs behind him.

“You’ve mastered the calendar. Good for you, grasshopper.”

I rolled my eyes again, even though his back was to me.

That wasn’t a retro Kung Fu reference, by the way. He’s speaking of Aesop’s fable, the one with the ant and the grasshopper. The grasshopper is the lazy one who doesn’t store food up for the winter but spends the summer playing around instead. So you can see where he was going with that one. Or maybe the shade he was throwing.

The attic of the library was an unfinished space that managed to be hot even in November in Ohio, and we both had to duck our heads to avoid hitting the bare struts in the roof. There were cobwebs and spiders too. I was not a fan of the attic.

“Now then.” Mr. Miggles took a clean rag out of a pocket and dusted off some boxes. “All these. And this whole stack. Don’t be shy.”

“Are grasshoppers shy?” I feigned innocence. Honestly, it was entertaining to hear Mr. Miggles talk when he was in a philosophical frame of mind, so I hoped for more. But no such luck. He gave me a hairy eyeball.

“Lift, Toby. Don’t think you can talk your way out of this.”

“Who, me?” I grabbed a couple of cartons. They must have contained ornaments because they were light.

“Put them in Santa’s Headquarters.”

“You do realize it’s just you and me, right?” I asked. “So there’s no reason to call it ‘Santa’s Headquarters’ right now.”

“You’re missing the spirit of the thing. And it’s always best to start as you mean to carry on.”

Bit by bit, we moved all the Christmas boxes down to the small conference room, which no one ever used this time of year and was, therefore, our temporary Christmas closet aka “Santa’s Headquarters.”

After the last of the boxes were put on the table, Mr. Miggles looked them over with a satisfied smile. “There! That’s all for now, Toby. Thank you for your assistance. Tomorrow we’ll start the Christmas Surprise Box.”

“Sure thing. Oh, and if I caught Hantavirus in the attic, you’ll be hearing from my lawyer.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less,” Mr. Miggles replied cheerfully. He opened a box, clearly already thinking of other things.

I left him to it and returned to the front desk. No one was waiting. There were a handful of people in the library at this hour, but they were all occupied. I returned to my archiving work with a sigh, glancing toward the conference room now and then. I could see Mr. Miggles through the small window in the door as he opened the boxes and checked the contents.

Why did I keep looking at him? Procrastinating, probably. Anything to avoid buckling back down to archiving. I was tempted to check my email, see if there was anything from Justin. I resisted the impulse and tried to focus. Inexplicably, I had a craving for Christmas music to listen to in my earbuds while I worked.

Ugh, Mr. Miggles. It was his fault. He had a thing about Christmas. And even though I’d only been working at the library for two years, it was starting to rub off on me.

Not a shred of tinsel ever appeared in the library until the Monday after Thanksgiving, but the groundwork began in mid-November. Mr. Miggles liked to review the boxes of decorations as though they were troops and he was mapping out a battle plan. He was so serious about it, so engaged. There was a light in his eyes and a slight smile on his face that wasn’t there at other times of the year. Honestly, it warmed the little cockles of my heart to see him like that.

Through most of the year, Mr. Miggles had a sadness about him, as if he carried around an invisible cloak made of some suffocating weight. But this weight seemed to be lifted in those few weeks between mid-November and December 24th. He insisted on keeping the library open until noon on Christmas Eve day. It was always with a great show of reluctance that he locked the door for the holiday break, wished me and my family a very Merry Christmas, and trudged away through the snow. Alone.

Sitting there watching him unpack boxes in Santa’s Headquarters, I remembered that moment last Christmas Eve. I’d felt a niggle of guilt and worry as he’d walked away. As far as I knew, he lived by himself and probably didn’t have anyone to spend Christmas with. Maybe that’s why the library’s Christmas was such a big deal to him—because it was the only one he got.

Last Christmas Eve, I felt guilty, as if I should have invited him to share Christmas with my family. I always spend the holiday at my parents’ house with my four brothers, my boyfriend Justin, and about a gazillion other relatives. But I hadn’t invited Mr. Miggles. That seemed like a line you didn’t cross with your boss.

Why didn’t he have a family? He was a bit of an odd duck, but handsome enough for, you know, an older guy. He was tall and in decent shape, had curly brown hair and wore sturdy horn-rimmed glasses that were retro enough to be almost cool. But, like I said, he had this sadness to him most of the time. I had a theory there was something tragic in his past, something mysterious and painful. He reminded me of a brooding character in a Charlotte or Emily Bronte novel. Sort of a Mr. Rochester meets the Phantom of the Opera only with invisible scar tissue.

In case it isn’t obvious, I freaking love those books, so that does not put me off in the slightest. Quite the contrary. I found my boss intriguing.

But whatever his story was, Mr. Miggles wasn’t talking.
*****
A little before 5 o’clock, Justin walked into the library. His blond hair was shoulder-length and naturally turned up at the ends. His beard was close-cropped and his eyes were pale blue. He wore his lined denim jacket, a red T-shirt, and tight jeans. I admired the view, as I always had. Though these days, I had to admit, the view had less effect on me than it once did.

Wasn’t there a theory about diminishing returns from repeated exposure to a pleasure source? I’m sure Mr. Miggles could quote me a volume on the subject if I asked him.

“Hey.” Justin came to a stop a foot from the front desk. He put his hands in his back pockets, which was a bit of a trick given how snug his jeans were.

“Hi. I thought we were meeting at Al’s.”

Justin looked frustrated. “Yeah. Well, the truck was making a weird noise today so I took it over to Simpson’s, right? Wouldn’t you know it, turns out I need new plugs. Three hundred bucks! I was hoping I could borrow it and go get that taken care of before he closes. I have to drive to Clinton tomorrow and don’t want to risk it.”

My insides twisted into a sour, miserable knot. “I’ll be done in ten minutes.” I looked at the clock. “Can we talk about it then?”

Mrs. Rosenberry came up to the desk to check out her books. She stood politely behind Justin, waiting.

“That’ll be too late,” Justin insisted with a note of petulance. “I want to get this done before the shop closes. Can’t you just write me a check or something? Then I can meet you over at Al’s later. Like in an hour.”

The knot in my gut intensified. I lowered my voice. “You already owe me a lot of money you haven’t paid back.”

His handsome face flashed with annoyance. “Don’t be a dick! I don’t get paid until the 15th, and I need to get this done today. Do you want me to break down on the highway somewhere? Don’t be so selfish!”

Mrs. Rosenberry looked extremely uncomfortable. She studied the library carpeting. I felt a rush of shame. I pulled my checkbook from my backpack under the counter.

“How much exactly?”

“Just make it out for $300. To me.”

I paused, looking up at him. “Why not Simpson’s?”

He rolled his eyes. “Because it’s not exactly $300, that’s why. I’m going to add a little from my account. Jesus, do you seriously not trust me?”

I made the check out to him, ripped it off, and handed it to him.

“Hello, Justin.” Mr. Miggles stopped at the desk, a frown on his brow.

“Hey, Mi—uh, Mr. Miggles,” Justin said flatly. He folded the check, his gaze returning to me. “See you in an hour.” He winked at me, flashed his cheeky grin, and walked away.

I checked out Mrs. Rosenberry’s books. My cheeks felt hot with a noxious mix of annoyance and embarrassment. Part of me thought Justin did that on purpose—showing up just before the end of my shift, knowing I wouldn’t be able to argue with him while I was at work. And another part of me thought that was unfair. He’d probably just found out he needed the new plugs. Why did I doubt him? Maybe I really was selfish.

Two years ago, I’d finished my master’s in Library Sciences and moved back to Sandy Lake. I started going out with Justin shortly afterward. We’d gone to high school together, only we hadn’t exactly been BFFs back then. In high school, I was out to two of my closest friends, but otherwise mum on the subject. I never dated girls, though. Justin, on the other hand, had been a jock. He’d dated a cheerleader.

It’s not like Justin was my big high school crush or anything. My life wasn’t that much of a Nicolas Sparks book. But Justin Tremont was seriously hot, and I’d definitely noticed him back then. So when I moved back to Sandy Lake and learned he’d come out as gay, and then I saw him at the diner and he showed an interest in me, it had been pretty thrilling. It seemed like another indication that my decision to work for my hometown library had been the right call. Go me.

It was true we didn’t have a lot in common. My passion was English Lit and Justin hoped to take over his dad’s hardware store one day. But opposites attract. Right? Plus, I was young and healthy and horny. It’s a medically known fact that if you don’t use your penis regularly it will wither and fall off. I firmly believe that.

I scanned Mrs. Rosenberry’s books—six Regency romances and a book on comfort food casseroles—and put them in a paper bag with handles for her, the way she preferred. She was a tiny thing, Mrs. Rosenberry, and probably in her seventies. She thanked me and tottered off, already trying to read one of the books as she walked and nearly bumping into a pillar. It made me smile.

There were some very nice people living in Sandy Lake. And I had a theory that the library saw all of them.

“Are you, uh, all right, Toby?” Mr. Miggles gravitated to the front desk. He looked worried, and he swayed awkwardly, hands behind his back. There was a knowing, dare I say pitying look on his face that made me feel embarrassed and angry all over again, as if he were judging my relationship with Justin.

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” I boldly met his gaze.

He swallowed, looked like he was going to say something, then nodded. “Very well. Have a nice evening.” He wandered off.

What had he been about to say? Whatever it was, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to hear it.

It was after five, so I grabbed my bag and headed out. The November day was overcast and cold, but I decided to walk around the town park until it was time to meet Justin at Al’s. I spent too much time sitting at work.

Sandy Lake has a Main Street, like most American towns. The town park is right in the middle, and it’s across the street from Al’s Pizza, the bank, the clock tower, and the J&J Shop. It’s a big park with a bandstand in the middle, a playground area, and lots of wandering paths and benches. I ignored the benches and walked around, trying to get a little exercise and stay warm.

Do you ever have that feeling something’s wrong, but you don’t know what it is? Like, your stomach and your body are all tense and tight and stressed, as if there’s something important you should do, or some life-altering plot point is about to smack you upside the head, but your conscious mind has no freaking clue what it is?

I’d been feeling that way lately. It had something to do with Mr. Miggles. Or at least, that itchy do-something-itis was worse around him. And after that stupid scene with Justin, I was particularly tense and unhappy.

There was nothing wrong with my relationship with Justin, I reminded myself. He was gorgeous, fit, and gay, and that was a hell of a lot of check boxes ticked in a small Midwestern town like Sandy Lake. So he wasn’t an intellectual giant. Or particularly ambitious. Or conscientious about things like borrowing money—he owed me almost two thousand dollars now. But that was only because he didn’t think it was a big deal. And money wasn’t a big deal. Not in the larger, utopian, Thomas More-ish, nonmaterialistic view of life. Which was an admirable way to think, really.

If you wait for perfect in life—the perfect job, the perfect house, the perfect love—you’ll never do anything. All relationships have their challenges.

The butterflies in my stomach continued to vomit regardless. With a sigh, I headed to Al’s. I’d have a beer while I waited.


“So, then Jimmy was like ‘I ordered ten packs of them! I know I did!'” Justin took the last slice from the pizza pan. “Of course, when I checked with the distributor, no order had been placed. Big surprise.”

“Hmm. Maybe the order got lost.” I tried to sound empathetic, though it was hard to get worked up over M6 bolts. I filled both our glasses from the last of the pitcher of beer.

“I’m sure he just forgot. Fucking Jimmy.” Justin gave an exasperated shake of his head. Jimmy was an older man who worked at the hardware store with Justin. Justin was always complaining about him. “I swear he can’t remember jack shit. Probably has Alzheimer’s or something.”

“He’s not that old, is he?”

Justin gave me a look. “He’s, like, in his fifties. Sort of like Migs, I guess.”

I gave a gasp of surprise. “Mr. Miggles is not in his fifties!”

“How do you know?”

“Because he’s not!”

“Well, he dresses like an old man. He looks like my grandpa.”

“He dresses like a professional. He’s the head librarian. What do you expect him to wear? Jeans? Rolling Stones T-shirts?” I tried to keep my tone neutral but wasn’t super successful. Justin liked to rag on Migs. That is, Mr. Miggles. I didn’t like it.

Justin studied my face. “Christ, Tobe, I just said he dressed old. Why do you always defend him? I swear, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think you have the hots for him.”

I let out a breathy huff of derision. “No. But he’s a good boss. I don’t see why we’re talking about him in the first place.”

“Whatever.”

When in doubt, retreat. I changed the subject. “So… the weather’s supposed to be nice on Sunday. Sunny and 60 degrees.” I smiled. “We’re still on for Columbus, right?” We’d planned to drive to Columbus for lunch and an early movie, maybe some shopping.

Justin rubbed his beard, his face guilty. “About that.”

“Oh, no.”

“Sorry. We’re expecting a big shipment Saturday afternoon, and Dad wants it unpacked and shelved by Monday morning. We’re low on all kinds of stuff.”

“But it’s Sunday!” I gave him a pleading look.

He huffed. “You know those big blue eyes won’t work on me. It’s my job, Toby. I can’t just blow my dad off. Jesus, what do you want me to do?”

I picked at my pizza with my fork, but my appetite was gone. “Can’t you do inventory Saturday afternoon or really early Monday morning?”

“I don’t know what time the shipment’s going to arrive, do I? And Dad wants it out first thing Monday morning. You know I’m not a morning person. And it might take hours.”

“So we can’t do anything on Sunday?”

“I didn’t say that.” Justin’s voice was thin, like I was being unreasonable. “I should be done by five or so. We can watch a movie at my place.”

“That’s what we always do. I wanted to get out of here for a few hours.” I liked living in Sandy Lake, but sometimes I needed time away. I loved big cities too.

“So go, Toby, Jesus. No one’s stopping you. Text me when you get back into town. If I’m still around, you can come over.” Justin ate the last bite of his pizza, watching me with a wary expression I’d come to think of as his “is Toby going to be a baby?” face. I hated that face.

I swallowed down my irritation. I could argue that it was a date we’d arranged weeks ago. I could argue that he always wiggled out of going out of town with me. Justin didn’t really like Columbus and seemed more than happy to hang around Sandy Lake until he grew mold. That was his right, obviously, but it annoyed me that he seemed to make less and less of an effort to do the things I wanted to do the longer we dated. But I’d just sound like a nag if I said any of that. I finished off my beer and said nothing.

“You coming over tonight?” he asked. He nudged my thigh suggestively with his knee under the table.

What can I say? I was twenty-four and my body responded instantly to the nudge. I sighed in resignation. “Yes.”

Justin grinned and wiped his beard with his napkin. “Cool. I’ll see you over there.” He winked, stood up, tossed a ten-dollar bill on the table, then strode away.

I finished my beer a bit more slowly and paid the bill. It was almost thirty bucks with the tip, but at that point, I wasn’t thinking about much other than driving over to Justin’s apartment and getting naked.

For the moment, the butterflies fell silent.

Deck the Dire Wolves by Stephani Hecht
Chapter One
Clark once read about what POWs of WWII suffered at the hands of their enemies, but he'd never dreamed that it would happen to him. Certainly, not at the hands of his own pack.

Sure, his family and pack had always been a bit odd. They lived off the grid--television, Internet, cell phones, and most books were off limits. As was running water, electricity, and all the comforts that normal people have.

Whenever anybody dared to question their Alpha about his reasoning, Bern said that it was because they couldn't let anybody, human or Dire Wolf, know that their pack existed. While Clark could understand that, he never really quite got the literature and media thing. Even Clark had heard about American Horror Story and he thought he would really like it.

Back to the point. The one where Clark was in the pack prison. Which was really a big issue. Especially given the fact that his skinny ass had been curled up in an underground cell for nearly two months. Actually, calling it a cell was an insult to all cells in the world. What he really was in was a shallow hole in the ground. By shallow, he meant a slight indention in the ground that had a set of bamboo bars over him. He was so close to them that they brushed his hair whenever he tried to move around. The fact that the ground was covered with three inches of snow didn't help matters either. By his best estimate it was some time in December. Well, that and the fact that all the Betas just had an ugly holiday sweater party the other night.

They liked to call his current lodgings the "Omega Jail", because no normal-sized Dire Wolf could fit in it. Even with his thin frame and small stature, every movement caused Clark agony. That was with the exception of the areas that had lost all feeling. His only true hope at the moment was, since they were barely feeding him, that he would waste away enough that his lodging would soon actually be comfortable.

Somebody gave the bars a swift kick, causing Clark to jump in fear. If he got the whip one more time, he swore that his already shredded skin was going to slide off his back. As it was, all his fingers were broken, because he'd dared to curl his fingers around the bars over him.

Glancing up from under the overgrown fringe of his blond hair, Clark's heart began to thump with raw terror. It was Sheen, the Alpha's Second Beta in command. Oh, and Clark's oldest brother. Not that it really mattered, since Sheen had turned on him faster than Zoolander during a walk-off.

"I talked to Dad today," Sheen said with a snide look only Stalin was capable of giving.

Dad? Dad, who? Last time Clark checked, his sperm donor had written him off as dead when the pack discovered Clark was gay. In fact, he was the asshole who'd turned him in and even worse, was the one who made it a unanimous vote to send Clark to the hellhole.

When Clark just glared at his brother, it only urged his brother on. "He found Mom crying over some old photos of you. She's so weak that she refuses to see you for the defect you are. So, do you want to know what Dad did?"

Even though Clark's blood boiled at the thought of what his father was capable of, he still didn't speak. Whatever happened to her could not have been good. Clark was raised in a home where violence came first, then conversation after. All of which had consisted of him begging for forgiveness from the spawn of Satan. His mother had endured the same situation. It was only Sheen, the strong one, the brutal one, who was the apple in his father's eyes. It was so sickening at times that Clark wouldn't have been surprised to learn that they held hands while skipping their way to the ballpark. Then after, Sheen probably got an ice cream cone, double scoop, because nothing less would do for the super son.

Sheen continued, "Not only did he rip the pictures from her hands and throw them in the fire, but he gave her a really good beating. So bad that I'd be willing to bet she thinks you got off easy."

"How does it feel?" Clark asked.

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

"To have the whole pack think that you're some great enforcer. Protecting the innocent, being the Alpha's Second Beta, all the while the truth is that you're afraid of him too."

Confusion crept into Sheen's face. Something Clark had seen his fair share of. Not that all Betas were stupid, far from it. However, there was always one who broke the mold and in this case it was his brother. He was so dim-witted that at times he walked into walls, simply because he'd forgotten they were there.

"Afraid of who?" Sheen demanded.

"Your father. All those years you stood by and didn't do a damn thing to protect your mother. Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't Betas supposed to protect the innocent? Not laugh while they are bleeding all over the living room carpet."

Sheen stomped on the bars several times, causing them to bend and beat into Clark's already up shit's creek back. Clark had to bite his tongue to the point it was bleeding, but he refused to cry out in pain. That was one thing Sheen would never get from him. No matter how hard he tried. He didn't deserve it, especially after all the other things Sheen had ripped away from Clark.

"I have never been afraid of him and that will never change," Sheen raged.

Sheen's dark hair gleamed from the various torches surrounding the prison and his eyes sparked with anger. Then the tick appeared above his right eye, the one that always let Clark know that he was in deep shit.

Sure enough, Sheen unlocked the cage then ripped Clark out of his hole. Pain shot through Clark's body, both from the iron tight grip his brother had on him and from the simple act of walking. Every old wound in his body broke open and began to bleed. Plus, to add to Clark's humiliation, he found he'd been in his near-fetal like position for so long that he couldn't walk upright. He was reduced to a hunched over gait that would have made Igor proud.

"I think this Omega piece of shit needs a shower," Sheen announced to the guards.

Clark's stomach formed a tight knot. He'd had the opportunity of having a shower from the prison and it had been far from a pleasant experience. Before he knew it, his clothes were ripped off his body. Then he found himself shivering and naked as he stood in front of a concrete wall.

He tried to look toward the guards, so he would at least know when the blast of water was coming his way, but they were shining bright lighting in his eyes. So, all he could do was stand there in the spotlight, naked as the day he was born, and wait for the worst to begin.

There was a long pause, no doubt with the sole purpose to fuck with his mind. Then the water hit him. The blast was so cold and hard that it took everything Clark had in him to keep standing. And it hurt. Oh God, did it hurt. The icy water instantly made his muscles seize up. At the same time, it bore into his wounds. It was so bad that Clark made the mistake of turning around, exposing his back.

As soon as he did that, Clark wanted to kick his own ass for his stupidity. That made it so his back was exposed to the spray. He finally gave up the fight and let out a scream of pain. He clawed at the cement in a desperate bid to keep from falling, but his efforts were futile. Clark dropped to his knees so hard that he knew for sure he was going to have bruises later on.

Finally, after what seemed to be forever and a day, they turned off the hose. Clark lay on the ground, shivering both from the cold and the agony ripping through him. I'm not going to survive this. They are going to kill and bury me in some unmarked grave. Then I'll only be a ghost, nobody will remember me, with the exception of Mother. Even then she would only mourn for me in private.

They left him on the concrete for such a long time, that he eventually stopped shivering. Clark was a paramedic, so he knew that didn't mean he was getting warmer. He'd just slipped into the early state of hypothermia. That would be his luck, to freeze to death, balls out for everyone to see.

Just as he was accepting that would be a real possibility, somebody threw some clothes at him. While they were the drab, gray prison garb, holes and all, at least they were clean. Clark put them on as fast as possible. His frozen fingers and stiff joints made it a long, almost torturous process. Eventually, he managed to get dressed again.

How he wished he had his ability to shift. Not only would his fur keep him warm, but he could at least lick his wounds to heal them some. That was impossible, though. On his arrival to the prison, he'd been given an injection that made it so he was unable to turn into his Dire Wolf form. Worse yet, it had severed all contact with his inner Wolf, to the point where he didn't think he'd ever feel it again. It was such a loss to who he was, that Clark almost felt as if a body part had been hacked off.

When they took him back to his cell, Clark was shocked to see that somebody had taken the time to clean it. Maybe, one of these goons actually had a piece of humanity. They didn't even have to shove Clark in. He was so desperate to get into his ball of warmth, that he willingly crawled in.

Soon after, all the torches were doused and the prison was encased in complete darkness. Usually, Clark's enhanced shifter skills would still have allowed him to see. But, since they'd taken that part away from him, he could barely make out his hand in front of his face.

He was almost asleep when he saw a light beam from a flashlight. To his horror, it made its way to his cage. Then there was a light thump as somebody sat down, next to him.

"Thank goodness. I never thought they'd leave," a cool, feminine voice declared.

"Lillian? What are you doing here?" Clark asked.

While he might not be able to see her, Clark would have recognized her familiar tone anywhere. They were cousins, but they'd rarely seen each other, since their fathers didn't get along well. Okay, maybe it would be better to say that they were mortal enemies and went for one another's throats the instant they were in the same room. For Clark, that was a normal family exchange, so it'd never bothered him.

"I'm getting you the hell out of here," she declared.

"Why would you take that risk for me? You have to know that they're going to detect your scent and know it's you."

"Because, unlike our dads, I know the true meaning of family. I'm not about to stand by and let them kill you," she replied.

"They'll murder you if they catch you."

"And they'll finish you off if I don't."

In the dim light from the flashlight, Clark could see that she had a large duffle bag over her shoulder. Setting it down on the ground, she pulled out a set of bolt cutters. Within moments, she had clipped the lock off Clark's cage.

He tried to scramble out, but found to his mortification that he couldn't even stand anymore. Lillian, bless her heart, didn't show an ounce of pity. She reached in and hauled Clark out. Since he was still unable to stand, she threw an arm around his shoulders and dragged him away.

"Gotta love lazy Betas," she said. "I was able to get in here without even a glance from any of them."

As much as Clark loved her, he couldn't hate the fact that she didn't sound the least bit winded. What made it all the worse was that she was an Omega too. If only it hadn't been for that damn shot, then Clark would have been able to carry his own weight. Now, he was worried that he would end up slowing her down and getting them caught in the process. If that were to happen, Clark would never be able to forgive himself.

When they reached a clearing, Clark let out a small breath of relief. While they might have escaped the prison, they were still on pack lands. All the Alpha would have to do was send out his pack of Betas and Clark and Lillian would be toast. Damn, but it sucked to be the weak one.

Then when he made out the outline of a Pontiac GTO, he couldn't hold back a gasp of shock. "Is that yours?"

"You bet your sweet ass it is. I rebuilt the thing myself. Of course I had to do it off pack lands, since cars are a big no-no."

She opened the passenger door, the interior light finally giving Clark a good view of her. Her long, blonde hair was tucked into a baseball cap. Several tendrils had fallen and fanned her sweet as peaches complexion. Her blue eyes sparkled with pure mischief, which paired perfectly with the smudge of dirt on her pert nose.

"I wish we'd started hanging out sooner," Clark exclaimed.

She grinned. "Well, we're starting to now and the fun is just beginning."

She slowly eased Clark into the car. Even so, he still moaned in pain several times. Once he was settled he curled up into the seat as Lillian got into the driver's seat. Somehow, she was an image of sheer perfection as she sat there, all that steel under her command.

"Where are we going to now?" Clark asked.

"We need to get you to a doctor STAT."

Oooookay, that wasn't helpful at all. "Where? We can't go to a human hospital. Even with the shot in my system, they're still going to figure out that one of these things is different from the other. Don't you dare say a vet, I may be at my lowest, but even I have my standards."

She shook her head. "No, I have the perfect place in mind. We're going someplace where you and I are both going to be safe."

Cursed Miracles by Meg Harding
TWO HUNDRED years ago, William Mashinter the Third learned a very important life lesson. One he won’t forget—even if he lives two hundred more.

Don’t piss off a witch.

As he sits at his large oak desk, staring out at the city of Chicago with its sky-high buildings and abundance of snow flurries, he thinks back to the Christmas Eve that changed everything. The day where his life went to complete hell after being sunk partially in it for a too-long time. The events that led to it. When everything had been ripped from him because he’d dared to try and touch the stars.

He scowls.

He hates Christmas. It’s the only time of year he gets reflective. The one period of time when his pain is more present than ever. So many years later, and it’s still a raw wound. He doesn’t think it ever won’t be.

The scenery outside his window changes, his office vanishes, and he’s standing in an old Victorian room, staring at his father from across the man’s desk. His father, Lord Mashinter the Second, is an imposing man with iron-gray hair and an attitude that has people naturally bowing to him. His face is lined with age, his stomach going soft. His eyes are hard, like flint, and they’re not prone to displaying affection. This isn’t an exception. He’s staring at William like he’s talking to an underling, and for all intents and purposes, that is what William is to him.

“Lord Granger has agreed to marriage terms between you and Lady Jennifer Granger.” He says it casually, while barely looking up from the paper he’s reading.

William’s stomach feels like it plummets to his feet. The nightmare he’s avoided his whole life is finally here. Marriage. To a woman he doesn’t love. When he loves someone else. He has to reach for the chair back in front of him, grip tight to keep from falling. His world is being flipped upside down. “Father,” he says, protest on the tip of his tongue. He’s made his feelings on this matter as clear as he could without revealing the truth. He loves Lord Brady Gallagher. And he knows—is painfully aware—that their love isn’t conventional. That it won’t ever be accepted amongst these people he calls friends and family.

Author Bios:
Andrew Grey
Andrew grew up in western Michigan with a father who loved to tell stories and a mother who loved to read them. Since then he has lived throughout the country and traveled throughout the world. He has a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and now writes full time.

Andrew’s hobbies include collecting antiques, gardening, and leaving his dirty dishes anywhere but in the sink (particularly when writing)  He considers himself blessed with an accepting family, fantastic friends, and the world’s most supportive and loving partner. Andrew currently lives in beautiful, historic Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Eli Easton
Having been, at various times, and under different names, a minister’s daughter, a computer programmer, a game designer, the author of paranormal mysteries, a fan fiction writer, an organic farmer, an avid hiker and a profound sleeper, Eli is happily embarking on yet another incarnation as a m/m romance author.

As an addicted reader of such, she is tinkled pink when an author manages to combine literary merit, vast stores of humor, melting hotness and eye-dabbing sweetness into one story.  She promises to strive to achieve most of that most of the time.  She currently lives on a farm in Pennsylvania with her husband, three bulldogs, three cows and six chickens.  All of them (except for the husband) are female, hence explaining the naked men that have taken up residence in her latest fiction writing.

Raine O'Tierney
Raine O'Tierney wants to change the world...one sweet story at a time.

As the Queen of Sweetness, Raine loves writing character-driven stories about first loves, first times, fidelity, forever-endings and...friskiness?

When she's not writing, Raine is either playing video games or fighting the good fight for intellectual freedom at her library day job. She believes the best thing we can do in life is be kind to one another, and she enjoys encouraging fellow writers.

Contact her if you're interested in talking about point-and-click adventure games or discussing which dachshunds are the best kinds of dachshunds!

Stephani Hecht
Stephani Hecht is a happily married mother of two. Born and raised in Michigan, she loves all things about the state, from the frigid winters to the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. Go Wings! You can usually find her snuggled up to her laptop, creating her next book or gorging on caffeine at her favorite coffee shop.

When she’s not running around like crazy, trying to get her kids to their various activities, she’s currently working on numerous projects. In the coming months, she has several books coming out with eXtasy Books in both The Lost Shifter Series and Drone Vampire Chronicles, plus a few additional projects that are still in the development stages.

Meg Harding
Meg Harding is a graduate student, currently studying MA Publishing in the UK. She's an editor and a lover of fanfiction. When she isn't writing she enjoys the theatre, concerts, and lazing about in front of the TV. Meg Harding is a graduate of UCF, and is completing a masters program for Publishing in the UK. For as long as she can remember, writing has always been her passion, but she had an inability to ever actually finish anything. She’s immensely happy that her inability has fled and looks forward to where her mind will take her next. She’s a sucker for happy endings, the beach, and superheroes. In her dream life she owns a wildlife conservation and is surrounded by puppies. She’s a film buff, voracious reader, and a massive geek.


Andrew Grey
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
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ARe  /  B&N  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: andrewgrey@comcast.net

Eli Easton
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EMAIL: eli@elieaston.com

Raine O'Tierney
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EMAIL: Raineotierney@gmail.com

Stephani Hecht
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TUMBLR  /  SMASHWORDS  /  ARe
MLR BOOKS  /  EXTASY  /  AMAZON
EMAIL: archangelwriter@yahoo.com

Meg Harding
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  GOOGLE PLAY
B&N  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS



A Present in Swaddling Clothes
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  ARe

Merry Christmas, Mr. Miggles
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK
AUDIBLE  /  ARe  /  GOODREADS TBR

Xmas Cake: A Modern Fairy Tale
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  ARe  /  SMASHWORDS
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Deck the Dire Wolves
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Cursed Miracles
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DREAMSPINNER  /  GOODREADS TBR


Saturday's Series Spotlight: The Secret Santa by Nikki Lynn Barrett


Series: Secret Santa #1-4
Author: Nikki Lynn Barrett
Genre: Holiday Romance

The Secret Santa Wishing Well #1
Summary:
The magic of Christmas has been lost to Jacob Winston. At the suggestion of his ill sister, Jacob takes a job as a Secret Santa at the mall, hoping to restore his Christmas spirit. Even that doesn't seem to work, until a special little boy ambles up to make a very special wish...

Cheyenne Jensen is struggling to raise her two kids without the help of her ex-husband who refuses to acknowledge his daughter's existence and doesn't provide for the son he does. This Christmas is shaping up to be as heartbreaking as the last, until her son Ben's kind actions lead a stranger to them.

Ah, but it's Christmas time and the magic has begun.

When Jacob and Cheyenne meet, neither can deny their immediate attraction to one another. As situations arise that require they spend more time together, their feelings grow stronger and stronger.

With Christmas fast approaching, the pair learn what matters most in life. Now, if only they could ditch the ghost of Christmases past.

Maybe this holiday will bring some wishes come true- for everyone after all.

On the 12th Day of Christmas #2
Summary:
After being mugged, Robin Sorenson is left shaken and her spirit in humanity is broken. Worse, she's not sure how to deal with the new anxieties or who to confide in, since she's always preached to pick oneself up and move on. Yeah, she's been the go to girl when anyone's had problems. Christmas is coming, and her belief in magic and miracles has faded.

Then Jonas comes back.

Jonas Aimes made a mistake when he walked away from Robin a year earlier. A big one. He'd loved her, always had and still does, but his desire to please his aging and strict parents took precedence. Back from the overseas internship they'd struggled to get him in, he plans on winning Robin back. What he didn't count on was discovering the shell of the vivacious woman he'd loved.

Broken.

Remembering her love of Christmas, Jonas pulls the holiday heartstrings. What? All is fair and love and war, right?

Twelve days, Twelve Dates.

Robin is speechless when Jonas not only refuses to leave her alone, but dares her to accept his cheesy holiday-themed challenge. Twelve dates to give him a chance to prove that he loves her and is never leaving her again.

But in the season known for miracles, can Robin find the magic needed to open her heart and faith once more ... or will she forever wonder about the ghost of the Christmas past that could have been?

Tis the Season for Forgiving #3
Summary:
Eric Jensen doesn't need the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to know he's made his fair share of mistakes. The reminders haunt him every day of his life, but a terrible loss becomes an eye opener this holiday season. A heartbreaking question from a young boy pushes Eric to do some serious soul searching, and helps him strive to be better.

Forgiving is the key...

Petra Cavannaugh spent the past two years growing as a person. She left her ex-boyfriend and struggled to make it on her own as a single mother. When Eric shows up at her doorstep one night just needing to see her, she wonders if he's finally becoming the man she always wished he'd be.

The best gift could be a second chance...

As Eric shows a side to Petra she's never seen, the two grow closer. But is forgiveness enough to take another chance on love? Eric must learn to forgive himself, and Petra has to learn to put her trust in the new Eric and not let his past dictate her future.

There are more than presents waiting to be opened. Will this Christmas finally open the two hearts sealed tightly shut?

Complicated Christmas #4
Summary:
Life is full of complications, so why not have an uncomplicated arrangement between friends?

Former figure skater Caitlin Aimes doesn't care to make life complicated. Publicly humiliated by her ex-fiancé years ago, she closes herself off to relationships and love. She never thought she'd be that girl- the one having a friends-with-benefits relationship. No complications, right?

Wrong. This holiday season, the unexpected happens, catching Caitlin and Ron off guard...

Ron Mercer lost his wife four years ago and has no plans to commit himself to another relationship. Life as a widower with two teenagers is already complicated enough. But in a world constantly changing, he finds himself in a predicament he never expected....

The arrangement they made has consequences which neither ever prepared for. Caitlin and Ron are in for a Christmas like they'd never had before.



The Secret Santa Wishing Well #1
"I have a question to ask you." Jacob let her go to kneel next to her son, his tone serious. "You're the man of the house, and I need to get your permission about something."

Ben looked at him, then at his mom, curious and confused.

"I'd like to know if it's okay with you if I become your mom's boyfriend. You and Desiree are an important part of her life, so if I'm to be in it, I want to make sure you're okay with it."

Cheyenne watched her son's expression, waiting. She didn't realize she was holding her breath until Ben burst into tears. "Ben, honey?"

"Will you be our Daddy, too? I love you, Mr. Jacob." Ben threw himself at Jacob, crying into his shirt. Jacob wrapped his arms around the little boy, hugging him and comforting him.

"I think being your daddy would be amazing, Ben. But to be honest, your mom and I aren't that far into our relationship to think that way. But let me tell you this. You can call me and talk to me about anything. I know you have a dad in your life, and I don't ever want to take his place. That wouldn't be fair."

Ben lifted his head, sniffling. "My daddy isn't very nice. He doesn't seem to like me, and he doesn't like Desiree."

Cheyenne wanted to cry, too. She made her way beside Ben, Jacob and Desi, who didn't understand what was going on. "Jacob and I are taking it one day at a time, Ben. I care for him very much, but it's a long way before thinking about forever. You have been a brave boy, and I know it's hard for you when your dad isn't there for you. It hurts me here." She rubbed a hand over her heart. "But we do the best we can, right?"

Ben nodded and came over to her for a hug. "I love you, Mommy. I just want my wish to come true." She stroked his hair, attempting to soothe him.

"What wish, Ben?" She already had an idea, of course. She just needed to hear what her son wanted.

"That you don't have to work so hard, and we could have a Daddy that loves us. I thought that would be Jacob." At those words, Cheyenne thought her insides would explode. This was the first time Ben admitted his wish out loud to her. He wanted so badly for a family and a dad. He wanted Jacob to be his daddy. For a little boy to have such a heartbreaking wish tore her up. She'd been wanting the same thing for so long, but Ben didn't understand that she and Jacob weren't there yet. They were a long way from that step.

On the 12th Day of Christmas #2
A smile lit up his face. "Give me twelve dates."

Robin raised an eyebrow. "Twelve dates? What are you talking about?" Now he was just acting strange.

Kind of cute, but definitely strange.

"Twelve dates to show you just how much you mean to me. On the twelfth date, if you don't feel like we could at least try to work things out, I'll leave you alone. If I don't at least give this a shot, then I'm going to have a lot of regrets."

"Twelve dates, huh? You seriously sound like someone from one of those cheesy films they air this time of the year." Okay, this man looked and sounded like Jonas, but his twelve dates idea made her wonder what happened to the real Jonas Aimes. Robin shifted in her seat and narrowed her eyes.

He feigned hurt. "Cheesy? Ouch. That's a blow to the heart."

"Twelve dates isn't a long time to decide." He was being serious about this, wasn't he? Twelve dates? How in the world did he plan to try and show her anything with only twelve dates? The idea sounded cute, charming and sweet, it really did. But how did he plan to pull it off?

"Maybe for people who don't have our history. But we've known each other since high school. Come on, what could it hurt?"

A lot, actually. She kept the words to herself. Despite it all, she couldn't hide her curiosity.

"Of course, we can talk and spend time together outside of the twelve dates, so it's not like we're limited," Jonas continued. He circled her palm with his thumb. "Oh, and right now doesn't count as one of the dates."

Robin laughed. Butterflies danced around in her belly. Good grief, what happened to her promise just a few hours ago? To focus on her own life and not get wrapped up in a man?

Okay, just because I agree to this doesn't mean I'm changing my mind. They're just dates. Dates with a man I love, but they're still just dates.

"What about your family? What will they say?" she blurted.

A storm of anger built up in his eyes. "I don't care what they say anymore. My family shouldn't have so much sway on how I feel about you. I should have realized that a long time ago. They don't get to choose anymore.”

Tis the Season for Forgiving #3
“You're not exhausted?” he blurted.

She let out a yawn as if on cue. “A little bit. You don't have to sit, I was just letting you know it's okay if you do.”

He finally sat, glad to have made a decision one way or another. But now what? How did he ever manage to win Petra over at one point? He had no people skills. He had no talking skills. Hell, what kind of skills did he have?

“See, that wasn't so bad, was it?” Petra turned her head and laughed.

“ I'm not good at this stuff.” Eric muttered. A surge of frustration ran through him. He didn't like her mocking his awkwardness.

Or maybe she isn't. Chill, man.

Petra sat up. “What stuff?” Her face scrunched up in confusion.

“ Talking. Sitting. This.” He waved his hands around.

“You're getting better.” Petra replied softly. “Something got to you today. What was it?”

Eric sighed. “When I went to talk to Adrian's widow, her little boy asked a question that haunts me. He asked something along the lines of 'doesn't he love us enough to stay'? Got me thinking about Ben, Desiree and Kinley. Adrian went back to his angry ways one night and it changed his family's world.”

“Damn.” Petra's eyes were wide. “I'm sorry, Eric.”

“ I wonder how many nights Ben asked the same thing. He's the only one old enough to remember and understand the things I did. He looked at me today with such disappointment and even warned me. He's dealt with way more than a nine year old should.”

“That explains the stricken look on your face when you watched the kids.” Petra's eyes were full of compassion and warmth.

did he have to start this conversation? Eric wished it would end. He didn't like this exposing his feelings thing. Weird. Just weird.

Maybe it was time to go and end this strange night.

Complicated Christmas #4
Too bad she didn't believe him. Kate craned her neck and scanned the room. “Caitlin's here with her friends.” She whipped her head around to stare wide eyed at him. “Do you have a thing for her?” She raised her voice, causing several people to look their way.

“Why in the world would you think that?” Ron's pulse raced. Did his voice crack slightly? Damn. Kate caught on, but at least for now she didn't know the rest of the story.

“Well, that answers my question. You look so guilty. But seriously ? You and Caitlin? She's young and so not your type.” Kate rested her hands on the table.

“Are you saying I'm old?” Ron gasped, trying to pull it off as playfully as possible.

“Umm, yeah. I kinda am.” Kate rolled her eyes. “Too old for her, anyway.”

“She's thirty. I'm forty. Why is that too old?” Why was he even arguing this point with Kate, anyway?

“Because forty is … ancient. Thirty seems it too, but I don't know. I can't imagine being thirty and wanting to date a forty year old.” Kate's lips twisted in some weird expression.

“Gee thanks, Kate,” Ron muttered. “Love your vote of confidence there.”

“Sorry, but come on! Wait, does that mean you actually like  her that way? Caitlin's so out of your league, Dad. She's fun. You're … not.”

That hurt. A lot. “Why am I not fun?” Again, he avoided her comments and questions. It bothered him more than he cared to admit that his daughter didn't think he was fun. Okay, so maybe lately, he'd been a buzzkill. But as the only parent, he had to when it came down to it.

“Sometimes you're grouchy and mean. But stop avoiding my comments and questions. Do you seriously want to date Caitlin?”

“Would it bother you?” There it was. The ultimate question. He should have asked this ages ago, but there'd never even been a hint of a dating possibility in his life, let alone he never wanted to go that route again.

Author Bio:
No matter where she goes, USA Today Bestselling author Nikki Lynn Barrett hears voices in her head. Instead of calling her crazy and locking her up, her family realizes it's just a product of being an author and allows her to write the stories so that the voices shut up.

But they don't. And probably never will. There's no need to lock her up, Nikki knows she'll never escape the voices, not until each and every last story is written. And for every story she writes, about ten or more ideas pop up.

When she isn't slaving away at her computer writing books that will probably make you cry and keep you in suspense, Nikki plots to take over the world one book at a time. What? It's a sickness. One she can't escape!

Books aren't her only addiction, though. Nikki can be found making up parodies to drive her son crazy, and bantering back and forth with her husband, who somehow manages to steal her away from the fictional world she lives in all the time.

Nikki lives in Arizona with her husband and son, where she can be found using every creativity outlet she can find through music, photography, handcrafted things, and random interests that she may pick up from time to time.

If you want to learn more about the author who makes people cry for a living, check out her website.


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The Secret Santa Wishing Well #1
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On the 12th Day of Christmas #2

Tis the Season for Forgiving #3

Complicated Christmas #4

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