Saturday, December 24, 2016

Random Tales of Christmas 2016 Part 12


Hearts Alight by Elliot Cooper
Summary:
Dave Cunningham hates the rampant consumerism that’s come to dominate his family’s Hanukkah celebrations. But a chance to bring a bit of a holiday happiness to his long-time crush, Amit Cohen, helps put him in a more festive mood.

In the quest to craft the perfect gift, Dave tries to urge a few personal details out of stoic Amit. Unintentionally, he learns the Cohen family’s secret: Amit is a golem. But Amit has a problem that runs deeper than his magical origin, and a Hanukkah miracle might be the only thing that will keep the budding flame between him and Dave from going out. 



I loved the blend of holiday and paranormal that brought Hearts Alight to life.  I don't know just when I loved such a cynical character such as Dave, his hatred of the commercialism of the holidays has begun to cloud his judgement.  It takes Amit and his unique-ness to warm not only Dave's heart but also his views of the season.  Sometimes, commercialism can bring(or lead to) the true meaning of the holiday to one's heart.  Hearts Alight may only be a holiday novella but it's packed to the brim with hope.  Another great addition to my holiday shelf.

RATING: 

Krampus Hates Christmas by Andi Van
Summary:
Karl Kringle hates the modern-day Christmas. He was born to be Krampus, but the Holiday Council refuses to let him help his brother Nick—aka Santa Claus—with the Naughty List until he finds his holiday spirit. To meet that challenge, he’s turned human and dumped in a strange apartment.

Lewis Weatherby loves the holidays and always has. Not only do his parents own a pumpkin patch and tree farm, he’s also inherited a Christmas-themed shop. All he wants from Santa is the man of his dreams, and the Big Guy might’ve just delivered. Lewis’s new neighbor Karl is gorgeous, sweet, and has a fantastic sense of humor—if his jokes about being Krampus are any indication.

Soon getting home is less important to Karl than what will happen when Lewis inevitably realizes the truth behind his jokes. He’s finally starting to understand the real joy of the season—now he just has to figure out how to hold on to it.


What a lovely take on the legend of Krampus!  I'm not going to say too much about Krampus Hates Christmas but I will say that it is a perfect blend of holiday, paranormal, romance, and just plain fun.  I just could not put this down until I swiped the final page and I am already looking forward to re-reading this one next Christmas and for many more holiday seasons to come.  As it's another new author for me, I also look forward to checking out future tales from Andi Van.

RATING: 

Walking on Thin Ice by Jocelynn Drake
Summary:
It’s not easy for Spenser Roland to admit it, but he needs help. Christmas is just a few days away, and he can’t face the idea of showing up to his family’s gathering alone … again. They want to see him happily settled, but Spenser doesn’t date. He can’t risk it if he wants to protect his family. But one unexpected night with Evan Scott has him thinking that maybe he can strike a deal that will make his family happy and give him a little holiday cheer as well.

Evan never should have accepted a ride home from the sexy-as-hell corporate executive, but he’s proud that he stuck to his guns. He’s done with the one-night stand game. He wants something real. Something that lasts. But when Spenser returns, asking him to pose as his boyfriend over the weekend at a Christmas celebration, Evan is sure he’s lost his mind.

But he can’t say no.

Maybe it’s the shadow of loneliness in Spenser’s bright blue eyes that’s too much like his own. Or maybe it’s his heart-stopping smile.

Either way, Evan knows he’s on thin ice with Spenser, risking his own rules and heart, but Spenser is worth the risk.


Walking on Thin Ice is so much more than just another bringing-home-a-stranger-as-a-pretend-significant-other, it's a tale that will warm your heart and if you aren't exactly feeling the holiday spirit, it will stir that too.  It may be a trope that's been done many times before and will be done many more times to come, but that doesn't mean it reads as a cliche.  Spencer and Evan just burrowed their way into my heart and that is what makes Walking a great tale.  I couldn't put it down because my need to find out what happened was so powerful and yet when I reached the last page, I wish I had read it slower to make it last longer.

RATING: 

Snow in Montana by RJ Scott
Summary:
An actor in the closet, a sheriff in love, and memories that won’t stay hidden.

Jordan Darby is known as the King of Christmas. The star of eight made-for-TV Christmas movies, the leading man who always gets his girl. Filming at Crooked Tree Ranch in Montana, in the ice and snow, Jordan is fighting to make a go of his new company and dealing with fears of exposure over one huge secret. After all, who the hell would buy into him being a romantic straight lead if rumors about him being gay were proven to be true?

Sheriff Ryan Carter is advising on the new movie being made at Crooked Tree. He hoped this would be one day of work and nothing more. Until, that is, he meets the hero. But while Jordan is sexy, he’s also very much stuck in the closet—everything that Ryan doesn’t need in his life. And then lust becomes part of the equation, and Ryan’s quiet life is thrown into turmoil.

Their story unfolds against the chaos that overtakes the ranch, with Adam regaining memories that terrify him and make him look at Justin differently, and Justin leaving the ranch to make things right. Only through trusting in love and friendship can Justin and Adam learn to look to the future instead of letting the past destroy everything. But will they ever see clearly enough to do that?

Click Here for Montana Series #1-3


What do I say about Snow in Montana that could even begin to come close to successfully express how much I loved the latest installment of the Montana series?  It's RJ Scott!  Okay, maybe I need to say more, lol.  Snow might be Ryan and Jordan's tale but we also get to see Adam and Justin's stories advance.  Jordan's contribution to the holiday season might be a list of cheesy Christmas films that most of us secretly classify as a guilty pleasure but when him and Ryan meet, it's less cheese and more spiked punch that threatens to short out your ereader and burn your fingers, but in the absolute best way imaginable.  I'd be lying if I said Snow in Montana is just another RJ Scott holiday story because it's so much more than that, it's a little bit of everything, well there's no science fiction or paranormal elements but everything else is there.  The fact that it's all wrapped together in a great big Montana sized package with a big bright red bow on top just makes it even better.

RATING: 

Glass Tidings by Amy Jo Cousins
Summary:
Eddie Rodrigues doesn’t stay in one place long enough to get attached. The only time he broke that rule, things went south fast. Now he’s on the road again, with barely enough cash in his pocket to hop a bus south after his (sort-of-stolen) car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, Midwest, USA.

He’s fine. He’ll manage. Until he watches that girl get hit by a car and left to die.

Local shop owner Grayson Croft isn’t in the habit of doing people any favors. But even a recluse can’t avoid everyone in a town as small as Clear Lake. And when the cop who played Juliet to your Romeo in the high school play asks you to put up her key witness for the night, you say yes.

Now Gray’s got a grouchy glass artist stomping around his big, empty house, and it turns out that he . . . maybe . . . kind of . . . likes the company.

But Eddie Rodrigues never sticks around.

Unless a Christmas shop owner who hates the season can show an orphan what it means to have family for the holidays.


* * * * * * *
Twenty percent of the proceeds from this title will be donated to The Trevor Project.


Because Glass Tidings is a holiday story, we all pretty much know where it's going to end up but sometimes it isn't about the end but the journey.  Which is exactly what Glass is about, the journey for both Gray and Eddie.  Gray is a bit of self-exiled hermit who runs a Christmas shop and Eddie is a traveler on his way to the next Renaissance Fair, when their lives are pushed together by circumstance.  You can't help but love both of them for their shared loner-ness and even though you may know what the last page will bring them that's not to say getting there is easy going.  Be prepared for a few tears, a few laughs, and tons of heart.  A truly great addition to my holiday shelf.

RATING: 

Random Tales of Christmas 2016 Parts

Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3  /  Part 4
Part 5  /  Part 6  /  Part 7  /   Part 8
Part 9  /  Part 10  /  Part 11



Hearts Alight by Elliot Cooper
Nothing made Dave Cunningham want to hibernate in his apartment for the winter quite like shopping for Hanukkah gifts with his brother-in-law. He stared up at the shelves full of brightly colored toys with an internal groan. Only another hour, he told himself. Two if he was unlucky. He fought the urge to plug his headphones into his ears to drown out the omnipresent Christmas music filling the store.

“What d’you think of this LEGO set?” Jake held up a large box depicting a desert island playset, complete with pirates and skeletons. His wide brown eyes looked frantic, panicked. He shook the box and pulled a face at the heavy rattling. “Shoshie loves pirates, but she’s probably too old for LEGOs. Or…I mean, is anyone ever too old for LEGOs?”

“She’ll love whatever you get her.” Dave half glared at Jake but caught himself and shook his head. It wasn’t Jake’s fault the delightful minor holiday of their youth had been swept up in consumerism. “You shouldn’t have to get her anything. We go through this same torture every year.”

“It’s not torture; it’s fun. It’s festive!” Jake insisted and flashed a bright smile. “Just thinking about her face when she opens the big one on the eighth night? I love it. And, more importantly, she loves it.”

“My sister likes getting presents,” Dave said. He couldn’t help but blame her for the deterioration of their family’s Hanukkah celebrations. There wasn’t any malice left in his blame, though, just an understanding of the sad truth. In trying to keep Shoshana invested in and excited about her Jewish heritage, their parents had put them on a dark path to celebrating materialism.

It had started when he was in high school and Shoshana was in middle school. First, with her upset at her Christmas-celebrating friends and their incredible hauls of gifts. Then the growing jealousy over not being able to participate in the Santa-spangled sweep of dominant American culture. Finally, they’d all endured one too many crying fits and months-long debates about whether or not modern―or historical―Christmas was even about Jesus’s birthday.

Their mother and father decided to do what some of their friends had done: one small gift for each night of Hanukkah. And since their father had grown up in a Christian family, he liked the idea of gifts exchanged between everyone, not just from parents to children.

For the first few years, the new tradition seemed all right. Shoshana’d been made happy. Dave had even enjoyed helping pick out gifts for his sister and parents. But as time went on, the presents got bigger, and their importance in the scheme of the holiday celebrations almost usurped their father’s latkes. They’d definitely overshadowed the lighting of the menorah and family game time.

“Don’t act all high and mighty like you don’t like gifts,” Jake said, arching a brow. He glanced back at the second box he’d picked up―a pirate LEGO set of a huge ship. “Ship or island?”

“Ship, so she can display it after it’s built.” Dave didn’t bother looking at the boxes or their respective price tags. Jake made plenty good money running Gin Teal, his hipster bar downtown. “I’m not saying I don’t like gifts or that she shouldn’t. Just that Hanukkah isn’t about gifts. It’s the festival of lights. Celebrating the rededication of the Temple. The miracle of the oil. Spending time with family and―”

“You’re saying you don’t want a totally secular Hanukkah, I get it. But Shoshie does.” Jake put the ship set in his shopping cart and headed down the aisle toward the board games. “She’s an atheist. I’m agnostic. It works for us and we can celebrate with old traditions and more modern ones. Without guilt, even.”

Dave plucked at the fringe on his blue-and-silver-striped scarf, his mind a jumble of rebuttals. There was more to it than the consumerism, the secular chokehold. He didn’t mind a dash of either. Modernity wasn’t the problem. It was the lack of balance. And the horrible pressure to be thoughtful and tasteful and have enough money to bring material happiness to his loved ones. He’d tried not giving gifts the year before, after explaining his tight budget and distaste of the focus on presents. No one had batted an eye; they’d all been understanding. And then they’d lavished him with gifts and, without meaning to, had made him feel terrible for not being able to reciprocate. It was a vicious cycle he couldn’t break.

“Maybe I should just celebrate on my own this year. I could open up my schedule to take more evening shifts at work, make a little extra money. Business is picking up with people wanting to do pottery-painting parties to make holiday gifts. And we’re booked up for three of our five holiday-themed painting classes,” Dave said as he trailed after Jake, hands thrust deep into his jeans pockets.

“You just said Hanukkah is about families celebrating together.” Jake shot him another look, pursing his lips in disbelief. A slow smile crept across his lips. “Oh, I know what this Scrooge act is about.”

The gleam in his eyes was the same one Shoshana and his mom got when they tried to set him up on dates.

“Don’t say it!”

“You’re lonely. Romantically lonely.” Jake picked up a game box and skimmed over the descriptions on its side and back. “Hiding at work and in your apartment isn’t going to change that. Besides, no one’s going to be doing art classes the week after Christmas. You’ve told me before your Valentine’s customers don’t start until after the first of the year.”

Dave groaned and picked up a Magic 8 Ball, flipping it over a few times without reading the message in the inky window.

At least Jake hadn’t said the dreaded “you need to find a woman.” Dave had tried dating women, but it had never worked out, for one reason or another. He was too oblivious. Too attentive. Too observant. Not observant enough. And, once, he’d been so lackluster in bed that his girlfriend had told him to stop, thanked him for his time, and walked out of his life.

Dating men hadn’t gone much better, if he were being honest with himself. He was no towering gym-honed testament to manhood, with his short stature and soft middle. He wasn’t highly educated, having done a failed stint at one of the local community colleges. He didn’t have much money, though he did have a decent job at his dad’s art studio. Since he’d gotten his own place, he’d been treading water. No one wanted to stick around and join him in his ambitionless pool.

“You should swing by the bar Saturday night,” Jake said after placing a dice game in his cart. He smiled at Dave with the brotherly warmth that had been there since high school, when they’d only been best friends, and then reached over to grip Dave’s hunched shoulder. “I’ll buy you a beer if you’ll just show up. You don’t even have to talk to anyone. Just…be present.” He smirked and cocked his head to the side, putting one fabulously thick sideburn and wooden earlobe plug on display.

“Har-dee-har. Let’s see what the oracle has to say. Should I go to Jake’s hipster haven on Saturday?” Dave shook the Magic 8 Ball, still secure in its packaging. When he flipped the ball over, the answer floated to the window. Dave sighed. “It is decidedly so.”

“Good!” Jake pushed his cart down toward the seasonal area of the store, beyond the tinsel trees and endcaps bursting with foil bows and rolls of wrapping paper. “Just a heads up, my uncle Amit’s working that night.”

The man was physically everything Dave wasn’t: chiseled muscles, strong chin, tall, huge hands, and slightly wavy black hair that swept perfectly to one side. Amit Cohen straddled that maddening line between men Dave wanted to be and men he wanted to be with. So what if he was a reclusive workaholic?

Krampus Hates Christmas by Andi Van
“THAT’S SUCH bullshit,” Karl snarled to his brother as they stomped out of the council’s meeting room. “The same old fucking excuses every single year.” His hooves crashed against the marble floor with a resounding boom, and the dwarfs who were escorting them had to dodge out of the way before they become a gooey mess under the force of Karl’s steps. They glared at him, but he returned the glare with one of his own, and the dwarfs paled. It was something about the horns, he guessed. Or maybe the pointy teeth. Or just the fact that he was three times their height and could turn them into tomato paste on the hard floor.

“It’s not a big deal,” Nicholas said. “I’ve done this for how many centuries?”

Karl came to a screeching halt and turned his glare to his brother. “That’s not the point,” he rumbled, poking his brother in the chest, though he was careful to do it gently, despite his anger. “You shouldn’t be doing it at all. Hell, it works perfectly for us in the few parts of Europe they let me assist with. Why shouldn’t Krampus be able to help out jolly old Saint Nicholas in the United States too?”

Nicholas let out a mournful sigh, shook his head, and turned the full force of his disappointed gaze on his brother. Karl tried not to wince, but it was hard. He hated disappointing Nick.

“You know why,” his brother said. “You hate Christmas. You need to find your holiday spirit before they’ll ever let you help me.”

“Why are they even on the council instead of you?” Karl asked, his voice growing in volume in the hope that the puffed-up idiots in the other room would hear him. “They’ve left you all the damn heavy work. With every year you’re the one with more and more responsibilities. That damn rabbit doesn’t have to judge good or bad. He just drops off eggs and candy and hops away, no matter what kind of brats are on his list. Halloween’s become a night to cause trouble and get hyped up on sugar instead of a time to celebrate the thinning of the veil. But you? Oh no, you get to judge every single child who celebrates Christmas before going out of your way to make them happy. And even when you do, half the time those ungrateful kids whine about how you didn’t give them a damn pony. At least where I get to help you, the kids are afraid if they aren’t good, I’ll take their presents away.”

Nicholas rubbed his face and then dropped his hand to his side. “We’ve been over this,” he said softly. “You’ll get your chance.”

“It’s not about me, Nick,” Karl protested, his voice booming with his anger.

“I’m going home,” his brother said. “We’re not having this discussion again.”

“Nick,” Karl growled, but he stopped when Nicholas looked at him through narrowed eyes. “Fine,” he grumbled. “Tell that diva you married that I said hello.”

Karl was pleased to see Nick’s expression soften, and his brother nodded. “I will. I’ll call you later.”

Karl nodded and waited until his brother and his escorts were out of earshot and then turned around to look at the dwarfs who were still waiting to kick him out. He gave them a toothy grin, leaned down, and roared so loudly that half of them toppled over. The other half ran for it, and there was an odor that followed them out that suggested at least one of them had soiled themself. With a snicker Karl spun around and stomped toward the exit.

Walking on Thin Ice by Jocelynn Drake
For the first time since he’d met Evan, Spenser watched him close up. His smile disappeared and the light dimmed in his eyes. “No, my family is dead,” he softly replied, crossing his arms over his chest. “What about you? Big family plans for this weekend?”

Spenser grunted, trying not to clench his teeth at the idea of being trapped in his family home for four days. “That’s why I’m here. I want to ask a favor.” He paused and licked his lips, trying to find the words to continue. “I want you to come with me.”

“Where?” Evan’s hands slid back down to rest on the edge of the island and his brow furrowed. “To your family shindig?”

“Yeah, as my boyfriend.”

Evan burst out laughing, nearly falling over in his amusement, and Spenser sighed. Yeah, that’s the kind of response he’d been expecting. The whole idea sounded ridiculous, but he was positive this was the only way he was going to stay sane through the entire affair. He needed Evan there as a kind of buffer between him and his family. Evan, with his easy-going nature and gentle smile made everything lighter and uncomplicated.

When Evan finally stopped laughing, Spenser glared at him. He stood with his legs wide apart as if bracing for a fight.

“Shit. You’re serious,” Evan gasped, wiping the tears from the corners of his eyes. He shook his head and moved into the kitchen. “This is going to need something a little harder than milk.” He leaned under the sink and came back up with a bottle of Jack Daniels.

“Oh, now you bring out the alcohol!” Spenser snapped, crossing to the kitchen as Evan pulled out two glasses and started to fill them.

“Hey, I didn’t know this was going to be a drinking conversation,” he sharply replied. “Now why the hell do you want me to pretend to be your boyfriend?” He lifted his glass to his lips and then stopped, his eyes growing wide. “This isn’t how you plan to come out, is it? Just waltz in to Christmas dinner with a boyfriend in tow?”

“No! Of course not!” Spenser snarled before downing half the whiskey in his glass in a single swallow. “I told my parents the summer after my freshman year in college.”

Evan winced, sipping his drink. “How’d they take it?”

Spenser gave a little roll of his eyes at the memory. “My mother kissed my cheek and said, ‘That’s nice, sweetie,’ and my father brushed it off with a wave of his hand before he spent the next thirty minutes bitching about the fact that I didn’t ace my microeconomics and statistics classes.”

“You got lucky.” Evan’s voice was barely over a whisper. Spenser watched him, taking in the haunted look in his wide eyes that twisted something in Spenser’s chest. He had a feeling that Evan might not have been so lucky and he felt for him. Evan seemed to shake himself out of whatever memories he got lost in and looked up at Spenser. “Then what the hell do you need a boyfriend for?”

“I don’t need a boyfriend. I need a buffer. Someone to help distract my family so I can have a little space, a little breathing room.” Spenser drained his glass, willing the burning alcohol to go straight to his head so this damn conversation would go smoother. “They’re good people, but they drive me crazy. If I bring a guy home and call him my friend, they’re going to assume we’re fucking so I’m cutting out the middleman. Saying we’re dating saves time.”

“I don’t like the idea of lying to your family.” Evan shook his head and focused his gaze on the drink in his hand.

“We’re not dating.”

“Technically, we are,” Spenser countered, snapping Evan’s head up. “We’ve had two dates.”

“We have not!” Evan sounded torn between horror and laughter.

“Yes, I bought you a drink at a bar,” he said holding up one finger, “and then I bought you dinner at the restaurant,” he finished, ticking up a second finger.

“Yeah, you bought me a drink, but you didn’t ask me out to that bar. It’s where we met. That doesn’t count.”

“But the restaurant—”

“I asked you there.”

“Still counts.”

“It does not!”

“Why are you arguing about this? I thought you wanted to date.” A slow, evil grin spread across Spenser’s lips as he leaned across the island. “Am I not good enough to date you?”

Evan took a nervous step backward, his mouth opening and closing twice before he could make a sound. “What? You’re fucking insane.”

“You’re saying that you’re not interested in dating me?”

“I’m not answering that question, you psychopath,” he said with a laugh. Evan finished the last of his drink, trying very hard to glare at him. Spenser noticed the flush to his cheeks and he didn’t think it had anything to do with the alcohol. “You just want to ‘date me’ so I can act as this buffer,” he said making air quotes with his fingers. “It has nothing to do with me. And when you no longer need a buffer, I’ll be kicked to the curb. That’s not dating.”

Spenser smiled slowly and stepped around the island so that it no longer separated them. “Don’t sell yourself short. That’s four days and three nights you’re stuck with me. I’m sure we’ll find other ways to get along.”

“No!” Evan said sharply, taking a step backward.

Spenser quickly stepped back as well, holding his hands up. Apparently, his charm wasn’t going to work in that direction, which was unfortunate. Having Evan at his disposal for a few nights had been one of the bonuses to this plan. “I’ll behave as much as you want me to. We go to my parents, hang out, eat some good food. Nothing more.”

“Except lie to them.”

“What lies?” Spenser stepped back to the island and griped the edge. “They ask how long we’ve known each other?

We say, not long. How did we meet? At a bar. That’s about it and not one word of that is a lie.”

“You’re taking me to stay with your family for—how long did you say? Three nights. How do you know I’m not some psychopath, serial killer?”

Pushing away from the island, Spenser stepped closer to within a foot of Evan. To his relief, Evan held his ground, frowning up at him. Very slowly, Spenser reached up and ran his thumb along the stubble lining Evan’s hard jaw before sweeping it over his full bottom lip. “Because I’ve talked to you. Kissed you,” he whispered. He dropped his hand and flashed a wan smile. “I’ve kissed the crazy, stalker types. You’re not it.”

“Spenser…”

His name was a whisper and Spenser tried not to celebrate. Evan was weakening. “I’ll behave or misbehave as much as you want.”

“That’s not helping.”

“Then how about this? Would you rather spend the weekend with a bunch of loud, crazy but sweet people eating good food you don’t have to cook and sleeping in a comfortable bed or would you rather stay here, alone, eating cereal?”

Evan bit his lower lip, trying to hold back a smile. “You know, I think you’re underestimating the versatility and awesomeness of cereal.”

“And I am looking forward to spending the next four days debating the merits of cereal with you,” Spenser said, taking a step forward so that their chests bumped. Dipping his head, Spenser could feel Evan’s quick breaths dancing across his lips. “Now say yes.”

“Yes.”

“Thank you,” he said softly. “Can I kiss you?”

“Maybe.”

That wasn’t a no.

Cupping Evan’s cheek with his right hand, he held the man in place as he swooped in to steal a deep, searching kiss. Evan’s lips parted for him immediately, allowing him to dip his tongue into his mouth. He tasted of whiskey and a little something that was just Evan. The combination was a new kind of intoxicating that had Spenser wanting to stand there kissing him the rest of the night. He loved the contours of his mouth and the soft sounds bubbling up from him, demanding he deepen the kiss.

Evan placed his hands on Spenser’s waist, pushing him backward as they continued to kiss, pinning him against the island while Evan pressed his groin against Spenser’s. There was no missing his hard length as it rubbed against Spenser’s, wringing a groan out of him. Sliding his left hand down to grab Evan’s ass, he ground himself against Evan. This kiss was growing hotter by the second, tempting him to start pulling off Evan’s clothes. He hadn’t intended for this to happen at all and he needed to get it under control before he did something that convinced Evan to back out of their agreement.

Sucking on Evan’s lower lip, he slowly drew away, breaking off the kiss while keeping him pressed against him. Nearly black eyes stared up at him, glazed with lust, stealing Spenser’s breath away. What had he said? He was a good enough guy to deserve tomorrow. Yeah, Spenser was beginning to believe that too, but Evan didn’t fit the tomorrow that he had in mind and he needed to be careful. He had no wish to hurt Evan, especially when he was doing him a favor. But why did he have to be so damn sexy?

“This is going to be a long weekend,” Spenser murmured as he forced himself to release Evan and step to the side, putting some space between them.

With a shake of his head, Evan huffed a soft laugh. “Yeah.”

Spenser shoved his hands into his pockets to keep himself from reaching for Evan again. “That was the last one, I swear.”

“You sure?”

“Yes.” He ignored the pressure in his chest to see the wide, teasing grin return to Evan’s lips. “You deserve a lot more than the kind of tomorrow I have ahead of me. Remember that.”

Snow in Montana by RJ Scott
Chapter 3
“Morning, Sunshine,” Saul said and slid a coffee across the table.

Ryan took it and grunted his thanks. His brother knew there was no way he would be capable of much rational speech this early in the morning, and they’d dropped into this system whereby perpetually cheerful Saul, the oldest of five boys, made everything better. How Saul could be this awake at 5:00 a.m., Ryan didn’t know.

Saul ran a bar. Carter’s Bar was his baby, and even though he had staff, he couldn’t have closed much before 2:00 a.m.

“What time do you need to be at Crooked Tree?”

Ryan glanced at his watch, but it was a blurry mess without his glasses or contacts. “Six.”

Something bumped his hand and he glanced sideways at the plate of toast.

“Eat,” Saul ordered.

“Yes, Dad,” Ryan snarked, then took a few bites. It was coffee he really wanted, and Sam might well have food he could scrounge when he got to the ranch. Or maybe Ashley had baked. Still, the toast helped, and the coffee began to work to sharpen his senses.

“Eddie is bringing the kids up on the weekend,” Saul said.

Ryan didn’t have to look to know that Saul had his ever-present diary notebook out on the table. Somehow the eldest Carter hadn’t let go of that need to look after all his brothers. There were columns for all of them in age order, and in there, Ryan knew, there would be notes of his shifts and anything else Ryan had mentioned. Saul was eighteen years and three days older than Ryan, and the other three Carter boys ranged in the middle.

Saul had been just old enough to take responsibility for his brothers at eighteen, including the baby Ryan. “How is he?”

“You’d know if you called him,” Saul admonished in that soft tone that made Ryan feel guilty in an instant.

“Last time I called he hung up on me,” he explained.

Saul muttered something and then sighed. “Saying you were going to do a background check on his new girlfriend will do that to a guy.”

“After what Sarah did to him—”

“It’s not our business, and Jenny is lovely, and she’s good with the kids.”

“Says the brother who knows exactly where we are and what we’re doing every minute of every freaking day.”

Saul changed the subject. “Thought we’d do a barbecue. Be here at noon?”

Ryan wanted to point out he wasn’t going to be anywhere else. He was on duty until eleven. He lived over the bar, sharing the apartment with Saul, so of course he’d be here.

“I’ll be there.”

Saul scratched something in the diary—probably some kind of tick in the attendance column.

“Bring a friend,” Saul said, his tone that infuriating mix of hope and interference. “How about Mark? I liked him. He was nice.”

Ryan was really not going there at 5:00 a.m. in the freaking morning. Mark had lasted exactly a week, right to the point when Mark explained how he wanted him and Ryan to have an open relationship.

“Back off,” he snarled, snapped, and laced it with a little brother’s patented whine. Then he pushed his chair back and stomped out of the kitchen.

“Ryan and Mark, sitting in a tree,” Saul shouted after him.

“Whatever.” He grimaced as he took the steps up to his room two at a time. At least now he was awake.

A shower, his contacts, and dressed in uniform, and he was back in the kitchen. One last coffee and he was out to his car.

When he arrived at Crooked Tree, he walked into chaos. Or at least it looked like chaos to him, but to everyone walking in and out of trailers in the parking lot it was probably highly organized chaos.

“Ryan!”

He turned to face the owner of the voice, spotted Sam and Justin just inside a large tent, and decided that direction was as good as any. He wanted to check in with Justin, see how the man was doing. A couple of people nodded at him, muttered “Officer” or “Sheriff,” but no one stopped to talk. Everyone had something to do, and Ryan wound his way past wires and boxes to what he assumed was the catering tent.

Justin had gone before he got there, leaving Sam and a table groaning with food. Two young guys there, both in chef’s whites, were clearly assisting with the burden of catering for however many people were present.

“Twenty-seven,” Sam explained, “but I catered for more, so help yourself.”

Ryan didn’t hesitate; he grabbed a plate of eggs, crispy bacon, and fluffy pancakes, and stood back in the corner, checking his watch every so often. Ten minutes to go and he’d cleared his plate while watching Sam doing his thing, ordering around his two assistants.

Still no sign of Justin coming back.

In fact, Justin did a very good job of avoiding Ryan, and with ten minutes to kill, Ryan decided to zip up his coat and go looking. Something about the way Justin wouldn’t quite look him in the eye had him feeling off. Justin had secrets—he’d been working for some shadowy kill squad after vanishing years ago with Adam. There was no information that Ryan could dig up, a blank of years that frustrated his analytical law enforcer’s brain.

He finally found his quarry standing with Marcus, hands in his pockets and a stony expression on his face. Marcus had been overwhelmed getting his son back, and Justin had tried hard to fit back into Crooked Tree life, but it was plain to see there was tension between father and son. When Ryan observed the two of them together, he often thought the pressure was going to snap into something more, but there was always a rigidity about Justin. The guy only truly relaxed when he was with Sam.

Justin saw him coming, lifted his chin, and stared. “Sheriff,” he said, with a nod.

“Ryan,” he emphasized, and not for the first time. “Call me Ryan.”

They were surely friends more than professional acquaintances. Being five years older than Justin meant they’d never been at school together, but still… more than just acquaintances, surely.

Another nod and Justin pressed his lips into a thin line. Ryan just knew that Justin wouldn’t be calling him by his first name.

Then they ran out of things to say. Or rather, Ryan wanted to ask questions and Justin didn’t want to answer them. They’d fallen into this weird, stony face-off, and Marcus had long since left.

“Can I talk to you?” Justin asked.

Ryan frowned and looked left and right. Justin was actually addressing him, right? “Of course.”

“Not here, not now. I’ll text you.”

And then he slipped away, sidestepping Ryan in one of his freaky ninja moves, and by the time Ryan made it to the front of the tent, Justin had vanished again.

Well, that wasn’t at all covert and weird. He shook his head and stepped out into the icy early morning half-light.

“Hey,” someone said from his side, “Good morning, Sheriff.”

Jordan was there, in so many layers of coats and scarves that it was difficult to see any more than a thin strip of his face, but Ryan would recognize those eyes anywhere. Then he remembered Jordan had a twin; was this Micah? They hadn’t looked the mirror image of each other, and Ryan couldn’t recall the color of Micah’s eyes.

Which reminded him he needed to google the man and find out about the father, then look for photos of Jordan and his twin, Micah.

For information purposes only, obviously.

“Hey,” Ryan said, abruptly very unsure.

Something in his tone must have shown hesitation because Jordan—or possibly Micah—pushed down the scarves from his face.

“Jordan. Remember me? I fell asleep in your car.”

Ryan held out a hand and they shook, which wasn’t easy when both were wearing heavy gloves.

Jordan kept talking, his voice less gruff than it had been two days ago, and he was staring right at Ryan.

For a second, Ryan imagined he had egg on his face and dismissed the idea. Just because a guy stared at him didn’t mean he had food on his face. He hadn’t the last time, and he didn’t now.

Still, he brushed at his mouth with his gloved hand, just in case, because Jordan made him feel like he wanted to look perfect.

What the hell? Where did that come from?

“I’m sorry about that, by the way,” Jordan carried on. “I usually don’t go sleeping in sheriffs’ cars.” He smiled, and Ryan’s brain short-circuited because, fuck, dimples.

“You spend a lot of time in sheriffs’ cars?” Ryan asked before his brain caught up with his mouth. I’m losing it.

Jordan shook his head. “No, I guess not. I was dosed up and ill.”

“I know.” And then he recalled the usual thing that normal people might say at this point. Normal, sane, rational, people. “Are you feeling better?”

Jordan wrapped his hands around himself and stamped a bit. “Much. Just freaking cold.”

Ryan searched his brain for an answer to that one while trying not to lose himself staring into those gray eyes. “It’s Montana,” he said lamely.

Jordan chuckled, coughed a little. “So it is. You want me to show you around?”

Ryan didn’t want to take Jordan away from whatever he was supposed to be doing, so he said, “I can do my own thing.”

“No, it’s okay. Follow me.”

Jordan pivoted and led Ryan through the maze of tents and wires, stopping and explaining that this was Production, this was their version of a green room, and this was Editing.

Ryan spoke to everyone, got a feel for the way things were running, and filed away as much information as he could. There wasn’t much he could say, although he had a list of things he needed to check when they were somewhere warmer. Not for his sake—he was plenty warm enough, a Montana native with enough layers to make him look like a snowman—but Jordan still hadn’t got the idea and he was shivering under the coat. Which had Ryan considering one question they hadn’t covered…

“How will you film outside scenes without coats?”

Jordan looked a little panicked for a moment, but it soon cleared and cheerful optimism seemed to carry him through. “We’ll be fine.”

Ryan didn’t want to point out that this was early in the day, and if there were night shoots, Jordan was in danger of becoming a Popsicle.

Jason arrived a little after nine, in uniform and clearly just off shift judging by the tiredness bracketing his eyes.

“Hey, little brother,” he said on a yawn.

That was the way he always addressed Ryan, but somehow, in front of Jordan, Ryan didn’t want to be identified as little. Then, Jason held out a hand, and he and Jordan did that whole awkward glove-slap thing.

“Jason Carter, MFD liaison,” Jason said and yawned again. “Sorry, long night.”

“Thank you for coming.”

Jason did that thing when he smiled and winked and showed way too much happy despite being exhausted. Ryan often wished he could channel Jason’s eternal happiness.

“You’re welcome,” Jason said with another smile. “Show me the way.”

And like that, Ryan’s part in this was over. He watched Jason and Jordan leave to check out whatever pyrotechnics plan they had cooked up, and realized he was standing there like a prize idiot and Jordan was looking back at him and sketching a small wave.

So, Ryan waved back, a thank-you wave—not at all a sexy wave, really—and then he felt even more of an idiot, so he left to find Jay, with his list of concerns in his head.

Jay was in his office, which wasn’t exactly his office anymore; Adam was sitting on one seat, Micah on the other. From the papers spread out on the desk, they were talking horses, and Ryan didn’t really have much to say on that, but he indicated he just needed paper and a pen and wrote out in careful block letters the things he thought needed checking out. Jay mouthed a thank you and placed the paper to one side with a thumbs up.

Ryan moved to leave but stopped when Adam grasped his hand.

“A word?” Adam asked softly and stepped out into the chaos without a jacket.

Ryan immediately went into protective mode, which was his default setting with Adam. After all, Adam had years of missing memories and still suffered from killer headaches. Should he be standing out in the cold? “Everything okay?”

“It’s Justin,” Adam said, worry in his expression.

“What about him?”

“Something’s wrong. He won’t talk to me or Ethan, and he’s quiet.”

“He’s always quiet,” Ryan said, not because he wanted to play devil’s advocate, but because it was the truth. Not only was Justin trained to be stealthy, he also played his cards close to his chest.

Too many secrets.

“No, this is more than normal, and I think it’s my fault.” Adam tapped his shoulder. “My tattoo. I woke up from a dream that I think could have been memories of the man who did the tattoo, and then I dreamed about being on that ranch and seeing the two men with me die. I mean, I’m not entirely sure, but when I told Justin, he just looked really pained and pale.”

Ryan filed away the information. Maybe this was what Justin needed to talk to him about. “I’ll talk to him,” he reassured Adam.

“There was something else…,” Adam murmured, as if he didn’t really want Ryan to hear and ask him what it was.

“What?”

“In the dream….” He hesitated again, then couldn’t look Ryan in the eyes. “Justin was there in the dreams, front and center.”

Too many questions. “I’ll talk to him,” he repeated. Adam turned to leave, but Ryan stopped him with “Are you okay?”

Adam glanced back, a lost expression on his face, one Ryan had seen many times. “Today isn’t a good day, so I gave in and called Ethan. He was coming home anyway, so he’s just leaving earlier. I don’t like doing it, but I just…”

“Need him,” Ryan finished.

“Yeah.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

Sometimes Adam was too lost, needed his fiancĂ© by his side, and Ethan was working his notice at the job in Missoula. They hadn’t worked out what he would do at Crooked Tree, but Ethan wanted to be with Adam full-time and not just between shifts.

Ryan wished they had the budget at the sheriff’s office, but that wasn’t happening anytime soon. They had a rookie and that was pretty much all they could afford.

“No, thank you. I’ll be okay,” Adam said.

And that answered everything. “Good.” Ryan ushered Adam back into the warm office, then left.

Justin was waiting for Ryan next to his car, his hands thrust deep into his jacket, a beanie pulled low on his head. “Hey.”

Justin always looked so wary, as if, at the drop of a hat, Ryan was going to pull his gun and arrest him or shoot him.

“Hey,” Ryan said, and waited for more.

“Is Adam okay? I saw you talking to him.”

Ryan considered lying, but Justin wasn’t stupid. “He thinks that he remembered something and wanted to talk to me about it.”

Justin gave a sharp nod. He was in constant movement from one foot to the other, his expression fixed on Ryan, but Ryan imagined he was aware of every single inch of his surroundings. Whoever trained him way back had done a good job.

“What exactly did he think he remembered?” Justin asked.

“You know I can’t divulge information like that.”

For the longest time, Justin stared at him, his expression blank. Then he sighed. “Tell me he’s okay.”

Ryan wished he could say that, wanted to be able to say that he was, but he would be lying. “You should talk to him,” he advised, because that was the best he could do.

Justin looked down and kicked at a stone next to his boot. “He won’t talk to me. He’s avoiding me, or I’m avoiding him, fuck knows.” When he returned his gaze to Ryan, there was real grief in his eyes. “He’s remembered something and he looks so beaten down. How can I help him?”

That was the most Justin had exposed of himself to Ryan, ever, and part of Ryan, the compassion that wished he could help, wanted desperately to explain that Adam was dealing with memories that made no sense.

He couldn’t.

“Find him. Talk to him if you can,” Ryan said, and then he added with feeling, “I’m sorry, Justin.”

“Not your fault.” Justin drew himself tall. “I’ve got him. I’ll do what’s best for him.” He added, “Always.”

If only it was that easy.

They shook hands, and Justin walked back up to Branches.

Justin held too many secrets, and that scared Ryan. Because after today, with what Adam had told him, secrets could destroy Justin and Adam and any friendship they may have.

And likely rip families apart in the process.

Glass Tidings by Amy Jo Cousins
Chapter One
This was an incredibly dumb idea.

Eddie huddled into his hoodie, head ducked against the knifing wind, wishing he’d tugged another long-sleeved T-shirt from his bag and put it on before leaving the shelter of the broken-down car back on the highway. He’d been in a hurry to get away from the car, though, and when he’d hit the road before the sun went down, it hadn’t felt that cold out.

Could be worse. Could be snowing.

The November freeze wasn’t exactly unexpected in Illinois, but Eddie was normally a thousand miles south by this time. The Renaissance faire circuit wrapped up each year with some late-autumn festivals in the deep South, where the weather stayed warm enough until Thanksgiving for strolling minstrels and washerwomen who ladled out insults by the bucketful. Most years, Eddie would have worked his way down to Texas by October, saying good-bye to the northern states until the next summer.

But this year, November was drawing to a close and he was way off schedule, having been dumb enough to trust a soft touch and an easy smile. If Eddie’d had any luck at all, he would have been halfway to Texas by the time the sun rose, jittery from caffeine and the many cigarettes he would have smoked on the highway to keep himself awake. That much nicotine at one time would thrum in his blood, his body unused to him indulging in his addiction like that. Instead, it was almost midnight on Thanksgiving, edging into the early hours of Black Friday as he walked.

Thinking about cigarettes made him want to fire one up right now, but that was a dumb-ass idea. No sense wasting smokes.

Not like you’re going to fall asleep walking.

He’d expected there to be a twenty-four-hour gas station just off the next exit, so he hadn’t minded the miles he’d had to hike on the highway shoulder.

Always the optimist, buddy.

His own snort of disbelief startled him as he trudged through the fogged puff of his breath. Optimist. Right. All he wanted to do was hunker down under a rock somewhere, but sure, he could call it optimism to assume he’d find a gas station at a highway exit.

Today, however, the universe hated Eddie Rodrigues, so there’d been no evidence of retail life as he’d strolled down the shoulder of the curving ramp. A green and white sign at the foot of the ramp offered Clear Lake to the left and Skeeterville to the right. A quick Google determined that only one town had a Greyhound bus stop, and he guessed he was glad it wasn’t in the town that sounded like bugs, even if it did mean extra miles of walking.

A couple of cars had passed him on the long country road, but none of them slowed, and Eddie wasn’t looking to hitch anyway. He was too tired and too frustrated to be polite about refusing a demand for head in trade for a ride, and experience gave him better than even odds of coming across an asshole who’d demand exactly that.

Anytime the yellow glow of headlights swung over him, he drifted off the edge of the shoulder and kept his head down. He’d get there on his own just fine. Besides, there probably wasn’t going to be a bus before dawn, so he might as well kill time walking. Google Maps gave him a shortcut through side streets that grew more crowded with houses, and he took it, happy to get off the country road where he felt so conspicuous.

He was halfway down another block of biggish homes, most of them with wraparound porches and turrets and fancy roof trim, when the girl ran across the road.

Eddie wasn’t even sure how he knew it was a girl, what with the bulky coat and hat pulled low. Something about the way she ran maybe, almost on tiptoe, arms straight at her sides as she crossed the empty road at the intersection ahead, just before the street humped up in a steep hill.

“Hey!” he called out, too soft to hear probably, but he didn’t want to wake up any nosy neighbors. He knew better than to start running at a girl in the middle of the night on a deserted street though. Maybe she was old enough to drive him to the bus station Google Maps had pinpointed in downtown Clear Lake, which was a synonym for Bumfuck, Egypt, for sure, because that was definitely where he was. Even with his most charming smile, the odds were slim, but he’d managed crazier stunts. At least some girl wasn’t gonna hit him up for a BJ. “Excuse me!”

She was halfway across the broad street, not having noticed him yet, when a yellow glow built suddenly behind the crest of the hill. Eddie’s brain processed the reason for the brightening light faster than he could get the words out of his mouth.

“Look out!”

If the car that barreled into sight hadn’t been flying at high speed . . .

If he’d managed to shout a warning more quickly . . .

The car swerved at the last second, but not enough.

The front passenger-side bumper of the car picked the girl up at the knees and flung her in the air. It was like watching a silent film, no sound registering except the sudden rush of wind or blood or adrenaline in his ears. Her arms flung wide. A cartwheel in midair.

Time jumped, and Eddie was at the corner, running into the middle of the street, feet slapping against the pavement. He’d shrugged off his massive duffel bag somewhere behind him.

His brain stuttered. Struggling to process the sensory input of his eyes, his ears, his nose.

He was close enough to smell the copper-penny brightness of blood. He wondered who’d left the irons in the fire too long at the smithy.

Someone had left a crumpled pile of coat and boots and blue jeans at the edge of the road.

Snakes of blond hair with black roots spilled over the frosted tips of grass blades that crowded the curb.

The car never stopped. It fishtailed after striking the girl and then straightened out again, punching down the road until Eddie jumped back as it sped by him. The white face in the side window was drawn with cartoonish lines of shock and horror, turning suddenly away as if to hide from him.

Gravel bit into his palms and his knees burned. He’d fallen in front of the girl, whose roots weren’t dark with anything except the spreading soak of blood.

God, so much blood.

You weren’t supposed to move someone who’d been injured like this. He knew that. Knew her back could be broken and maybe moving her would fuck her up even more. But he was pretty sure she had to be dead already, and her face was pressed into the gutter, eyes and lips and nose smooshed into the dead leaves gathered there. So he rolled her, just a bit. Until her head rested on his thighs, her shoulders on his knees, the limp weight of her a terrible thing. Her eyes were closed, her face smeared with dark stuff like camo paint on a soldier. The tiny gap between her lips filled with a wetness that rose as he watched, and gathered in the corners of her mouth before trickling onto her cheeks.

A bubble formed in the blood between her lips. Formed, stretched, then popped and disappeared.

Another bubble.

He was shouting, had been shouting for a long time already, shouting for help and about fires, because nobody came for help but everyone liked a good fire. He tasted blood, maybe hers in the air, coating everything, even him, but his throat ached hard, and an unused corner of his brain wondered if he’d torn something from screaming.

Lights were coming on in the houses lining the silent street. Flicking on in second-story windows, but slowly. Too slowly. Like dominoes planted in honey.

Nine-one-one. Call.

He had a phone. He’d had a phone, at least, before he started running.

A hundred years ago, before he started running.

Before he shouted, Look out, too slowly to save a girl.

He was colder than ever now, with the dying girl—because surely she must be dying—draped limply across his thighs. The blood leaking from her mouth, from everywhere on her battered body, was soaking into his jeans, making them stick wetly to his skin.

Her eyelids fluttered once, barely lifting, as if she were waking up. He petted her hair, hardly daring to touch her, afraid of causing her more pain.

“You’re gonna be okay. I got you.” Which was fucking awful, because if you were probably dying and needing someone to make you feel safe, a drifter telling you, Don’t worry, I got you, wasn’t gonna cut it on the reassurance end of the scale. But there wasn’t anyone else around, so he kept repeating himself and waiting for far-off sirens to draw closer. “You’re gonna be okay. It’s okay.”

Everything faded out of focus, all his attention spiraling down to the slight rise and fall of the girl’s chest in her bloody winter coat as Eddie repeated the words softly, over and over again, telling her everything was all right, still shouting too because he couldn’t stop.

Nothing was all right. Nothing at all.

When lights and voices arrived, he stopped shouting. He was afraid to look up and see their faces. The girl was still breathing. He was still telling her it was going to be okay.

He didn’t want to read on anyone’s face that his words were a lie.

“Move aside, son. We’ve got her now.”

Thank god.

Hands slid between the girl’s skull and his thighs, big knuckles scraping against him. As soon as the ambulance guys shifted her, Eddie crab-walked backward through the gutter to get away. He couldn’t stop staring at his jeans, the spreading dark splotches that stained them from his knees to the hem of his hoodie.

Dried leaves stuck to his hands, crumbling under his palms.

Someone asked him what had happened, and he managed to get out a shaky, “Hit and run. A car. Threw her.”

Organized chaos erupted in front of him. Two EMTs worked as one to brace the girl’s neck with a foam collar, lift her onto a lowered gurney, and then hustle her to the open back doors of the ambulance that had slewed into the curb. A cop stood at the edge of the EMTs’ whirlwind, growling into a radio.

Nobody paid any attention to Eddie, his butt aching on the cold concrete of the curb, but that wasn’t going to last. Jesus. He raised his hands to scrub his face with his palms, then jerked and inhaled sharply at the blood inking his fingers.

Holy shit. He was in so much trouble. A stranger in town on a dark street with a dead girl, covered in her blood. What if they asked him where he’d come from?

Don’t be a fucking moron. Of course they’re going to ask you where you came from.

He had to get out of here.

Sooner or later someone was going to report the Nissan Sentra abandoned on the side of the highway on I-88. Bertie might not come down from his high long enough to notice his car was missing until midday. If Eddie was lucky, Bertie would assume it had been booted and towed and would spend another couple of hours dealing with the drones who answered the twenty-four-hour hotline for the city. But eventually he’d figure out that his car was gone. Gone just like Eddie was gone, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the connection.

Eddie had told himself he wasn’t stealing the car. Not exactly. He was just . . . borrowing it. Bertie had always told him to treat the car like it was his own, although he’d never actually meant it, of course. But Bertie had said it a hundred times, which meant Eddie wasn’t technically stealing the car. You couldn’t steal something that belonged to you. And anyway, he hadn’t planned on using it to get much past Champaign, figuring that was the farthest he could push it without getting into real trouble. Sure, Bertie would be pissed when Eddie texted him with wherever he ended up leaving the Sentra, but then he’d figured Bertie would call one of his trustafarian friends to pick him up and drive him downstate to retrieve the car.

Eddie’s ex never had enough money to keep the electricity and the gas on simultaneously, and eventually Bertie was going to give up and go crawling back to his rich parents for help. Sooner rather than later, no doubt. But in the meantime, his friends had enough money to keep him wasted twenty-four seven with the dregs of their drug orders. So the odds of that road trip happening without several bowls of pot were slim, and Eddie felt a pang of guilt at knowing another wasted driver was going to be on the road because of what he’d done.

Focus.

He wasn’t far enough away from the city yet to tell Bertie where his car was. He’d only been on the road for six hours before the car broke down and the snarled city traffic meant he hadn’t gone more than a couple hundred miles. He needed to make sure he was good and gone from Illinois before texting Bertie. Even a pothead might get mad enough to call the cops if he thought Eddie was still in reach.

The car doesn’t fucking matter. That girl . . .

But it did fucking matter. Because all he wanted was to get out of this state and away from the cold and back to people who didn’t need to know where he came from or who he was or any damn thing about him at all. And getting tangled up in a police investigation was going to throw a wrench into his plans. Eddie started levering himself to his feet. He could feel terrible about that poor girl without wanting to spend a minute more than he had to in—

“Sir, please stay put until I can talk to you,” the cop barked at him, but in a way that felt more cop-in-a-hurry than like Eddie was in trouble.

Eddie sat back down on the curb.

No point. Not like they won’t see me walking down the street.

Might as well stay put and try not to get himself in any more trouble.

The ambulance peeled away from the curb with lights flashing, and two seconds later the cop was back on Eddie’s ass, demanding his name, address, home and work phone numbers, her brown lace-up boots practically nudging at Eddie’s shoes as she loomed over him.

“Rodrigues with an s, not a z. Portuguese, not Spanish. I don’t have an address. I’m traveling. Yes, I have a cell phone. No, I’m not employed at the moment.” Eddie knew every word out of his mouth was dragging him higher and higher on the cop’s #1 Suspect list, but his brain was slow.

“Okay, tell me what happened here. What did you see?”

Eddie didn’t want to think about what had happened. Didn’t want to tell it like a fucking fairy tale or a recap of an episode of Law & Order, but that girl . . .

That girl was probably dead by now, and he would remember the sight of her pinwheeling through the air for the rest of his life. Would remember that he hadn’t shouted in time to save her.

He wasn’t going to tell the cop about that part. He couldn’t. They’d lock him up for sure. Failure to Be a Good Samaritan or Stupid Fucking Dumbassness or some charge like that.

He couldn’t tell the cop about how he could’ve prevented the accident, but Eddie could point the law in the direction of the driver who’d fucking run a girl down with his car and then just kept going.

Hell, maybe I didn’t save her, but I didn’t fucking kill her. And I didn’t leave her. I stayed.

“Sir.”

“There was a car. It didn’t stop.” He could get that much out before choking.

“A hit and run?”

“Yes.”

He glanced up. The cop was writing things down in a tiny notebook as she fired more questions at him about how long ago it happened, in which direction the car drove off, had it swerved at all . . .

“What kind of car? Did you get a plate number?”

“No. I . . . It happened so fast. It was a regular car. I mean, a . . . what do you call them?” Words were fading in his mouth faster than he could say them, a gray cloud hovering over his tongue. “A sedan. Four doors. I think. A dark color. I think.”

He was waiting to be asked what he was doing here, who had given him permission to walk the streets of this nice, normal town.

Nice, normal town where people run you down and kill you.

“Did you get the plate number?” the cop repeated.

Guilt swamped him. Useless. He was so fucking useless. Eddie shook his head. “No. It happened too fast.”

He hadn’t been able to take his eyes off that flying body. Even the driver’s face had just been a streaky blur of pale skin and a dark slash of eyebrows.

Shivers wracked his body. He turned his face away, looking for something, anything else to distract him long enough for the images to fade.

A man was walking across the lawn of a big house three doors down. With broad shoulders, his head hunched down into the collar of his jacket, the man strode with a rolling gait Eddie imagined sea captains of old deployed on their ship decks. His hair was short and dark, with gray patches at the temples, and the strong line of his jaw blurred into the night with a way-beyond-five-o’clock shadow.

The man nodded as he came to a halt at the edge of whatever circle of politeness kept people from standing on each other’s toes. His eyes skimmed over Eddie, pausing on his face for a long moment that made Eddie’s breath catch.

Surreal, being clocked by another gay man in a situation like this.

Eddie turned back to the cop in time to catch her return nod to the man.

“Grayson.”

“Christine. Need anything?”

“Permission to shoot and a stiff drink?” she answered sourly, frowning down at Eddie.

He was pretty sure he wasn’t the one she wanted to shoot.

One hundred percent sure would’ve been fine and fucking dandy though.

The man named Grayson barked out a laugh.

“Mr. Rodrigues—” she began again.

The radio on the cop’s hip crackled with static and then a distorted voice.

“Shit.” The cop tilted her head while she listened, eyebrows scrunched up, then put her hand on her belt radio. “I’ve got a helluva mess here, John. Can you handle it?”

When only half the conversation was intelligible and you were covered in blood, tuning out was easy. Eddie’s brain was most of the way shut down, his attention focused on the shivers still quaking his body. The man who looked like a sea captain squatted down next to him.

“Here.”

A soft jacket dropped onto his shoulders. Eddie shrugged it off reflexively. The man caught it before it hit the ground.

“I’ve got . . .” Eddie waved at his pants. Blood.

“You’re cold.” The man’s voice was firm as he lifted Eddie’s left arm and slid it into the sleeve of the navy-blue fleece, dressing him like a child. “It’ll wash.”

“Jesus Christ.” The cop was back. Her shiny boots planted themselves in front of Eddie’s feet. “I’ve got to get over to the Walmart out on County Line Road before John has to shoot someone.”

“At midnight?”

This wasn’t the kind of town where a lot of shit went down in the middle of the night, Eddie bet.

“Black Friday tomorrow. Tonight.” The cop’s voice curled with disgust.

“They’re fighting over TVs?”

“I wish. We got a family feud breaking out in the parking lot. They normally keep their distance, but everybody’s been in the parking lot since sunset, waiting for the doors to open. Now they’re rioting. Goddamn. Frigging Romeo and Juliet with tire irons.”

“Montagues and Capulets.”

The cop snorted. “You would remember that high school crap.”

“Hey, I’m not the one who threw up on stage, Juliet,” the man crouched next to Eddie shot back. Before the cop could open her mouth, though, the Grayson guy must have thought better of arguing. “Sorry.”

“Listen, sir. Mr. Rodrigues.” The cop’s attention was firmly back on Eddie. He looked up. “Are you staying around here?”

“No, ma’am.” He knew better than to speak to police without bowing his head, even metaphorically. “I’m on my way to Texas. I was just headed for the bus station. I had a lift drop me off nearby.” Which sounded like he’d been hitchhiking, in a state that strongly frowned upon that activity, but that was better than admitting he’d abandoned a sort-of stolen car on the highway.

“Of course you were,” the officer said, then shook her head as if realizing how her frustration sounded. “Sorry. I don’t mean anything by that.”

“No problem.” Always be polite to cops.

“Double shit.” The cop rubbed her forehead like it hurt. “Gray, I need to ask a favor. Can you put Mr. Rodrigues up for the night?”

“What?” Mr. Have-My-Coat stood up in a hurry.

“I need to get his statement, but I gotta get out to the Walmart before somebody caves in a skull. You’ve got plenty of room in that monstrosity of yours, right? The town’ll reimburse you for the equivalent of a motel room.”

The big man grunted, clearly unhappy.

Yay. Just what Eddie needed. To be left like a kid in need of a babysitter with a man who’d been strong-armed into putting him up for the night.

“Can’t he go to a motel?”

“You want to drive him? Mr. Rodrigues here is apparently on foot. And fork out the cash for the room? Be my guest. Just let me know where you drop him and get a receipt.”

Eddie could see the emotions rolling across the man’s face like the tide. Hope, frustration, resignation. Probably not a ton of nearby motels in a town this size. A long drive after midnight clearly didn’t appeal.

“Fine. I’ll put him up.” The man scrubbed at his face with both hands. “Jesus.”

He stomped off down the block in the direction Eddie had come from.

“Hey, don’t do me any favors,” Eddie snapped, scrambling to his feet.

“Relax,” the cop said with a tired smile. “Mr. Croft doesn’t bite. He’s just a hermit who doesn’t like being forced to interact with the human race.”

That his bark held no bite was something Eddie was going to have to take on faith, apparently. He tugged the zipper of his borrowed jacket up. The casual kindness of the loan made him want to trust these two strangers enough to take the man up on his offer of a bed for the night, but that was a damn stupid idea.

Maybe it wasn’t even up to him whether or not he stayed, though.

“Do I have to stay? Am I under arrest or something?” he asked, stomach churning as he pushed out the words.

“No, son. You’re not under arrest. But I don’t know if Lily Rose is gonna make it through the night, so it’s important, what you saw.” The cop looked him in the eyes, none of that authority intimidation bullshit shining out of her. Just plain old asking for help. “You understand me. I can’t make you stay, but I sure would appreciate it.”

Eddie dropped his eyes, staring hard at the pavement between their feet. His battered running shoes looking all kinds of fucked up next to the shine of that polish.

Damn it.

The sticky wetness of his jeans lay cold against his thighs. He couldn’t leave town with that girl’s blood all over him. Not and wake up in the morning without loathing himself.

“Fine.”

“Just sack out and I’ll be by in the morning to get the rest of your statement.” She put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed.

Eddie concentrated on not flinching or pulling away. After what felt like seventeen years of her staring him in the face as if trying to read his mind, she sighed and dropped her hand.

“Can I count on you?”

Eddie snorted. Most people didn’t bother to ask that question. Took one look at him and just assumed the answer was no.

“No problem.” Yes, problem. Fucking blood and dead girls and sea captain’s coats and being left in the dark with very big strangers.

The cop’s mind-reading skills were clearly for shit.

A thump at Eddie’s feet turned out to be his duffel bag, which the man had apparently retrieved from the end of the block. A softer thump accompanied the drop of his cell phone on top of the bag. Eddie pocketed it without a word. He’d totally forgotten about dropping his phone in the snow when he’d started running toward the girl. That the man had spotted it was . . . nice.

“Thanks, Gray,” the cop called out, jogging over to her waiting cruiser.

The big man shrugged uncomfortably and waved as she pulled away from the curb. Then he turned to Eddie, brows lowered over his dark eyes. The wind pressed the fabric of the man’s shirt against his body, making him shiver.

“C’mon. Guess you’re with me.”

The man—Grayson Croft, the cop had said—pivoted and walked off down the block, heading for a house that looked like a shadowed castle with turrets and a dungeon, probably.

Eddie swiped a hand under his runny nose, and hauled his bag to his shoulder. The last thing he wanted was to be on some cop’s radar as the guy who left town without making a statement. Especially since she had his info, and Eddie was only off the grid some of the time.

Plus, he was so cold, his bones ached.

Down the block, the man strode across the lawn and up the front steps of the house, leaving the golden rectangle of an open door behind him after heading inside.

Eddie followed.

Chapter Two
“Bathroom’s upstairs if you want a shower to warm up,” Gray said, leading the way.

The skinny guy with long, dark hair pulled back in a ragged ponytail had moved hesitantly through the open front door as if on the lookout for an ambush. Gray slouched and kept his sentences simple, all too aware of how he loomed over most people.

Their feet were silent on the faded carpet runner of the staircase to the second floor.

“I’m in the back.” He waved a hand toward his bedroom before jerking his chin toward the hallway that led to the room at the other end. “You’ll be up front in . . . the guest room.”

Hard to say the words when he still thought of it, after all these years, as Brady’s office. Even though the room had never been that anywhere except Gray’s imagination.

He paused outside of the open door to the guest bathroom. “I can bring you fresh towels if you want.”

A strange look crossed Eddie’s face as he stopped in the middle of the hall, his shoulders dropping. A moment later, Gray’s guest straightened up again and walked into the bathroom with his bag, jaw set and a thousand-yard stare haunting his eyes.

“Sure. I’ll shower.”

He didn’t close the door behind him, which was strange. Despite that one burst of awareness between them on the street, there was no way that was an invitation, but the open door stuck in Gray’s brain like a burr.

“I’ll get you some towels.” He didn’t keep any in there. Made no sense, stocking towels in a room no one ever set foot in.

He’d spent years on the long, slow haul of sanding floors, hanging new drywall, painting, installing cabinets. The need for a project, for something to occupy his time, not to mention distract him from the sounds of him rattling around this ridiculous house by himself, had been intense. That no one would use the rooms he repaired had never been the point.

Gray grabbed a couple of thick navy towels from his own bathroom and returned to the hall.

“Here you—” Go was swallowed along with most of Gray’s tongue as he pushed the mostly ajar bathroom door all the way open.

“So, what are you, like, deputized?” the naked man in his bathroom asked without turning his head.

Gray tore his eyes away from the skinny hips, skinny arms, skinny ass. Someone needed to feed—

Not your problem. Leave him alone.

“What?” He had to replay the words in his brain, and then he snorted. “Hardly. I was just the closest person with a spare room who was awake and available.”

“So if I want to leave after this?” the young man asked, waving one hand at the shower as he pulled a ponytail holder off his lank, dark hair with the other. The ends brushed the sharp angel wings of his shoulder blades.

Gray had heard his overnight guest tell Christine he was twenty-eight, but reconciling that fact with the man’s youthful face and sapling-like body was breaking Gray’s brain. His mind kept slotting the man into “college student” even though he knew better. Gray caught himself about to lecture the kid—the man—about his responsibilities as a witness like he would one of his part-time holiday hires at the shop.

Eddie. His name is Eddie. And he’s a grown man.

A grown man who is not self-conscious about being naked in front of a stranger.

“Leave the towel in the hamper and find me in the kitchen downstairs if you want a sandwich before you hit the road,” he said and took a step back. He wouldn’t—he would not—start lecturing this man about his responsibilities.

Your opinion is neither needed nor wanted, asshole.

“And if I stay?”

Gray didn’t understand the question. “If you stay . . .”

Eddie sauntered over to him, hips slinky in a way they hadn’t been during the perfectly ordinary walk to the house and upstairs. As if Eddie’s pelvis had decided to start broadcasting all sex, all the time in stereo when Gray wasn’t looking.

This close, Gray could smell the stale scent of the road rising off all that bare, olive skin. The ghost of cigarettes and gas station junk food. Processed cheese and cheap chocolate. The musky undertones of a man who’d been wearing the same clothes for almost twenty-four hours now. The combination made his mouth water. Drove a need in him to wrap his arms around Eddie and tuck his own face into the warm skin of Eddie’s neck, inhaling deeply.

Gray crossed his arms to keep himself from reaching out. His palms itched.

As if reading Gray’s mind, Eddie hooked his fingers into the belt loops of Gray’s jeans and yanked him forward a step. “I’ll blow you, but no fucking. And you have to wear a condom.”

Gray’s hands flew out, whether to grab Eddie back or to brace them apart, Gray wasn’t sure. But the skin under his hands was so chilled, he automatically started rubbing Eddie’s upper arms.

“Jesus Christ.” A no was supposed to have come out of his mouth too, but Grayson found himself swallowing the sudden rush of saliva in his mouth. His brain was stuck on blow you, replaying the words over and over again in Eddie’s seductive voice. What the hell was happening here? It was as if a switch had flipped and he’d found himself in the awkward opening dialogue of a porno.

“Or maybe you want to suck me?” Eddie asked, and Gray had to struggle to keep his eyes from dropping to where Eddie’s soft dick pressed against him. Eddie hitched his hips up a notch, then let himself drag against the denim of Gray’s pants on the slide down. That dick was firming up. “Been too long since you’ve gotten on your knees for someone?”

Gray’s vision swam. He was so light-headed, he held on tighter to Eddie to keep from swaying on his feet, which must have read as some kind of go ahead signal, because Eddie snaked a hand up and pulled Gray’s face down until their mouths met.

Author Bios:
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.

Andi Van
Andi Van is a foul-mouthed troublemaker who lives near San Diego with a small fluffy thing named Koi, a baseball bat that's forever being used for things other than baseball, and a fondness for rum and caffeine (though not necessarily together).

Andi is fluent in three languages (English, sarcasm, and profanity), and takes pride in a highly developed -- if somewhat bizarre -- sense of humor.

Jocelynn Drake
A former Cincinnati native, Jocelynn briefly lived in the wintery wonderland of Wisconsin before mounds of snow had her running for the sun-kissed beaches of South Florida. She started writing when she was 12, spending one summer re-writing the story of Robin Hood because it really needed a kick butt female character. Since those early days, she’s written fantasy, romance, horror, science-fiction, and just about everything in between. It’s all about creating a great story.

When not writing, she can been found with her nose buried in a good book, fulfilling the role of evil Dungeon Master for her D&D group, traveling to interesting locations, or relaxing with family and friends.

RJ Scott
RJ Scott has been writing since age six when she was made to stay in at lunchtime for an infraction involving cookies and was told to write a story. Two sides of A4 about a trapped princess later, a lover of writing was born. She reads anything from thrillers to sci-fi to horror; however, her first real love will always be the world of romance. From billionaires, bodyguards and cowboys to SEALs, throwaways and veterinarians, she writes passionate stories with a heart of romance, a troubled road to reach happiness, and more than a hint of happily ever after.

Amy Jo Cousins
Amy Jo Cousins lives in Chicago, where she writes contemporary romance, tweets more than she ought, and sometimes runs way too far. She loves her boy and the Cubs, who taught her that being awesome doesn't necessarily have anything to do with winning.



Elliot Cooper
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Andi Van
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Hearts Alight

Krampus Hates Christmas
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Walking on Thin Ice
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Snow in Montana
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Glass Tidings
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