Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Best Reads of 2016 Part 2


I read over 200 books in 2016 so when I decided to do a Best Reads feature it was very difficult to narrow it down. Some of them were new releases, some were just new to me, and some of them are re-reads but all really stuck with me and found a lasting place in my heart and library.  I finally decided on 4 books for each month broken into four parts, here is part 2 of my favorite reads of 2016 each containing my original review.

Click Here to Check Out

The Rancher's Son by RJ Scott
Summary:
Montana #2
A man without memories, and the cop who never gave up hope.

When he wakes up in the hospital, the victim of a brutal beating, John Doe has no memories of who he is or who hurt him. The cops can find nothing to identify him and he can't remember anything to help... except the name Ethan and one recurring place from his dreams. Two words, and they're not much, but it's a start: Crooked Tree.

Detective Ethan Allens has never stopped searching for the two boys who vanished. When a report lands on Ethan's desk that may give new leads, he jumps at the chance to follow them up. The man he finds isn't his brother, but it's someone who could maybe help him discover what happened twelve years ago.

What neither man can know is that facing the very real demons of the past could destroy any kind of future they may have together.

Click here to check out Montana series #1-3

Click here to check out Montana series #4


I have to admit that I loved Nate and Jay from Crooked Tree Ranch so deeply that I knew going in that there would be no competition for top spot but boy do Ethan and Adam give them a close chase.  Sometimes young love is just that young but every once in a while young love is everlasting, even when the odds are against them and 12 long years of not knowing whether Adam was alive or dead is definitely having the odds stacked against you.  Ethan never gave up hope and is rewarded for it but is hope enough?  For that answer, you will have to read The Rancher's Son for yourself but just because this is Ethan and Adam's tale, don't think you won't get to see the rest of the crew at Crooked Tree Ranch, after all the ranch is home and home is where the mystery will be revealed.  Do you need to read book one first? Probably not but my honest opinion is that it will read much smoother if it is read in order, if for no other reason than to keep characters straight.  Once again RJ Scott does not disappoint: mystery, romance, drama, humor, love all held together in a well fashioned saddlebag being tended to by an even better fashioned cowboy who knows how to take care of his gear.

RATING: 

The Copper by Bonnie Dee
Summary:
Jaded lord, stalwart cop, instant attraction.

Lord Avery Wickersham wakes from a night’s debauchery at a bordello to police officers pounding on the bedroom door. During the vice raid, Constable Connor Tate is ready to arrest the lord and his two male sex partners when Avery’s glib tongue earns a reprieve for his friends if not for himself.

From this grim beginning, men as opposite as summer and winter slowly work their way to an unexpected spring. Avery is ripe for a change in his aimless life, while Connor struggles between duty and desire. Overwhelming passion takes them by storm, but can a rush of lust evolve into love when their lives are so different?

While Avery attempts altruism by volunteering at a charity mission, Connor uncovers government corruption and an evil man who brings torture and death to his victims. The duo join forces to try to stop the killer, but when one of the lovers faces peril, their time may run out.


Amazing! The Copper is only the second Bonnie Dee solo book that I have read so I don't have much experience to draw from as to whether the gritty details of torture that Bertrand and others face are the norm for her writing.  Some might find them a bit too detailed for a romance but for me, they were perfectly fitting for the story and the way the characters, especially Connor, deal with it and the fallout from it is realistic.  As a history buff, I find the details and realism of the era pretty spot on, which only further heightens both my enjoyment of the story and my respect for the author.  I love how Connor and Avery seem to influence change in each other but I think what they really do is make the other dig down deeper to expose what was already there.  If what you are looking for is lighthearted romantic fun, this probably is not the book for you.  Yes, there are moments of fun and romance between Connor and Avery and definitely moments of tenderness towards Bertrand but overall this is a gritty tale of corruption and torture with moments of pure unadulterated darkness.  So if these are not your thing, proceed with caution but I found the story heartwarming along side the dark showing what the human spirit is a capable of when tested, so I highly recommend The Copper. it does not disappoint.
RATING:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to check out the Perspective series.


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

RATING: 

Tartan Candy by KC Burn
Summary:
Fabric Hearts #1
Finlay McIntyre (aka Raven) is a successful adult film star with a penchant for kilts, until an accident cuts short his stardom and leaves him with zero sexual desire, lowered self-esteem, and no job. He knew his porn career wouldn’t last forever, but he wasn’t prepared for retirement at twenty-eight. While trying to figure out the rest of his life, Raven agrees to attend a high school reunion. That’s when a malfunctioning AC unit in his hotel room changes everything.

Caleb Sanderson, an entrepreneur with his own HVAC business, has no idea what to expect when he steps into Raven’s hotel room to fix his AC unit. They’re attracted to each other, but Caleb, closeted, can’t afford a gay relationship, not with his mom pressuring him to produce grandchildren. If he wants to keep Raven—who no closet could hold—he’ll need to tell his family the truth. But Raven has a few secrets of his own. He refuses to reveal his porn past to Caleb, a past that might be the final obstacle to Caleb and Raven having any kind of relationship.


This is a great tale of coming to terms with the unexpected and triumphing over the hurdles that life gives us.  Raven and Caleb are nearly perfect together.  When I think of "perfect" in terms of relationships, I don't think of Utopia kind of perfect that most of us have in mind.  I think of the good and the bad for both parties that just fit together, they fight, they kiss, they understand, they misunderstand, but at the end of the day they faced it together even if it does not always run smoothly.  This is another great read by KC Burn.  I never thought I had much of a kilt fetish but after Tartan Candy, it is certainly among the possibilities.

RATING: 


Hexbreaker by Jordan L Hawk
Summary:
Hexworld #1
Will a dark history doom their future together?

New York copper Tom Halloran is a man with a past. If anyone finds out he once ran with the notorious O’Connell tunnel gang, he’ll spend the rest of his life doing hard time behind bars. But Tom’s secret is threatened when a horrible murder on his beat seems to have been caused by the same ancient magic that killed his gang.

Cat shifter Cicero is determined to investigate the disappearance of one friend and the death of another, even though no one else believes the cases are connected. When the trail of his investigation crosses Tom’s, the very bohemian Cicero instinctively recognizes the uncultured Irish patrolman as his witch. Though they’re completely unsuited to one another, Cicero has no choice but to work alongside Tom…all the while fighting against the passion growing within.

Tom knows that taking Cicero as his familiar would only lead to discovery and disaster. Yet as the heat between them builds, Tom’s need for the other man threatens to overcome every rational argument against becoming involved.

But when their investigation uncovers a conspiracy that threatens all of New York, Tom must make the hardest decision of his life: to live a lie and gain his heart’s desire, or to confess the truth and sacrifice it all.

Click here to check out the Hexworld series.


She has done it again!  Jordan L Hawk is a master storyteller, her attention to historical detail coupled with paranormal flare, has created another amazing world filled with magic, murder, mystery, and love that has strengthened my respect and overflowed the WOW-ness cup I like to think sits in my library.  Her Hexworld universe may not have quite reached her world of Whyborne & Griffin yet but it is definitely well on it's way.  When a series centers on a different pairing for each book, it often takes a couple of chapters for me to get hooked, and Hexbreaker wasn't any different but before I was finished with chapter two, Cicero and Tom had me in a full on can't-put-this-down mode.  I am now sitting on pins and needles waiting for the next installment.

RATING: 

Between the Devil and the Pacific Blue by Charlie Cochet
Summary:
For the last six months, Detective James Ralston has worked the nightshift as security for the Pacific Blue Hotel, and every night at 2 a.m. his rounds lead him to the radio room where the handsome and mysterious Franklin Fairchild sits listening to waltzes as old as the hotel itself. James is drawn to Franklin, but Franklin is a man at the end of his rope, and James has no intention of getting caught up in whatever trouble Franklin is in. A heated encounter late one night sends James down a disturbing path and has him questioning everything around him, including his very sanity.


Strange happenings, mystery, romance, a bit of history.  Roll them all together and what do you have? A great read and an amazing story.  Normally, I knock off half a bookmark for novellas just on principle because I prefer long novels but when they are written as well as Between the Devil and the Pacific Blue, I just couldn't.  If you enjoy paranormal, then you definitely need to check this one out, even if you don't normally go the novella/short story route, this is worth the read.

RATING: 

Fire & Snow by Andrew Grey
Summary:
Carlisle Cops #4
Fisher Moreland has been cast out of his family because they can no longer deal with his issues. Fisher is bipolar and living day to day, trying to manage his condition, but he hasn’t always had much control over his life and has self-medicated with whatever he could find.

JD Burnside has been cut off from his family because of a scandal back home. He moved to Carlisle but brought his Southern charm and warmth along with him. When he sees Fisher on a park bench on a winter’s night, he invites Fisher to join him and his friends for a late-night meal.

At first Fisher doesn’t know what to make of JD, but he slowly comes out of his shell. And when Fisher’s job is threatened because of a fire, JD’s support and care is more than Fisher ever thought he could expect. But when people from Fisher’s past turn up in town at the center of a resurgent drug epidemic, Fisher knows they could very well sabotage his budding relationship with JD.

Click here to check out Carlisle Cops #1 & 2

Click here to check out Carlisle Cops #3 & 4


Once again, the cops of Carlisle are the officers of the law that we all want protecting our own town.  They are smart, brave, careful but they also go that extra mile to do their job.  In Fire & Snow, we have JD, a man who was virtually thrown out of his family for being a good man who stayed true to himself, and then we have Fisher, a man who had his life turned on it's head after a car accident but has the determination to keep going forward.  When they meet, Andrew Grey has once again showed us that one person truly can change the lives of many.  Technically, Carlisle Cops is a series of standalone reads since each entry focuses on a different couple but personally, I highly recommend reading them in order because the cops and their partners are often in the next installment, sometimes only as cameos, but they are still mentioned so I find it just flows better to read in order.  A series that has earned it's spot in my series library and one that will also find it's way to my re-read shelf in the future.

RATING: 

Learning to Love by Felice Stevens
Summary:
After ten years away from home, bad boy caterer Gideon Marks has a lot to prove. Getting the holiday catering job at his childhood synagogue is the first step in demonstrating to everyone he didn’t turn out to be the failure they predicted. What he doesn’t count on is Rabbi Jonah Fine, his high school nemesis and secret crush, stirring up old feelings Gideon thought long gone and secrets he’s buried deep for years.

An unexpectedly passionate encounter shocks Gideon, but he pushes Jonah away, convinced he isn’t good enough to be in a relationship and would never be accepted by Jonah’s father. But Jonah hangs tough—he won’t allow Gideon to hide or run away from life again. And when it comes to love, Gideon learns the most important lessons aren’t always taught in school.


Another great story by Felice Stevens!  There is connection, chemistry, history, love, food, and it is all wrapped up in a nice happily ever after package.  Some might say that knowing you are reading a happily ever after before going in is a major spoiler but for me, it is not always about where they end up but how they got there and that is what Miss Stevens brings you: the journey.  It takes talent to bring you a tale based on how and not just the endgame, so I highly recommend checking out this great little love story.  We've all had at least one unrequited crush in our school days but finding out it may not have been so unrequited and are given a second chance you can't ignore it.  If you have never read Felice Stevens before, this is a perfect place to start and if you have, well you know Learning to Love is worth checking out.

RATING: 

Reaping Fate by AJ Rose
Summary:
Reaping Havoc #2
For Nate Koehn, the worst part of being a reaper is maintaining his compassion without becoming too involved with the souls in his charge. He’s always been sensitive to others’ hurts, and there is no hurt bigger than death, with which he’s already intimately familiar. The learning curve is steep, but the perks of the job—spending the next 300 years with the love of his life, his husband Mitch Seeker—are unmistakable. For Nate, death is a lifelong commitment.

Then Mitch is assigned to reap a serial killer’s victim.

Mitch and Nate are willing to go to just about any lengths to bring the killer to justice, but Divinity has a plan for everyone, and the reapers are at risk of being terminated themselves if they meddle too much. Mitch knows better than to tempt fate, but Nate isn’t wired to sit idly by while innocent people lose their lives to a vicious killer.

Nate sets out to balance the scales of justice for the souls in their charge, but what happens when he becomes the killer’s bug in the web? Can he stop a killer without exercising his own free will or putting those he loves in the crosshairs? Only Death knows, and he’s not talking.

Warning: Contains graphic descriptions of violence, which may be too intense for some readers. Reader discretion advised.

Click here to check out Reaping Havoc duology


Sequels in the paranormal genre can be a little iffy, sometimes they seem repetitive of the first, others are equally as good, and then there is the rarity that surpasses the original.  Reaping Fate falls into the third category, I never thought it possible but it's true.  I don't do spoilers but since this is made mention of in the blurb, I guess it's okay to say something.  Having seen what Mitch dealt with in Reaping Havoc, there was an inkling to what Nate might be facing now that he is a reaper too.  This time around, amongst their reaping duties they also are facing a possible serial killer, but being reapers they have a different code of ethics when it comes to death but will Nate be able to follow the code?  For that you'll have to read it for yourself, trust me you will definitely want to.

RATING: 

His Private Secretary by Summer Devon
Summary:
Down on his luck and desperate for employment, Ezra Seton is offered only one job: to work in the house of a heartless bully, the very man who drove Ezra's lover away. Gritting his teeth, Ezra takes the position. But neither the new job nor the master of house are what he expected. Still, he vows to keep his distance, no matter how difficult it is to maintain his composure.

Robert Demme's pleasure-seeking days are over. Having rescued his cousin Ambrose from a lunatic asylum, he expends much of his energy pacifying the fragile eccentric. Hiring an assistant offers some relief--and also intriguing temptation. Unfortunately, the fascinating Seton apparently loathes him. Determined to discover the reason, Robert uses his considerable wit to get under the man's skin, stunned when his plan backfires. Instead of unraveling the stalwart secretary, Robert has undone himself. All he's accomplished is a deepening of his own interest.

When the two spend the night together in an inn, their mutual desire proves too strong. The secretary and the gentleman succumb to lust. But when Ezra's old flame reappears and the cousin's experiments go awry, it's a battle to discover which will win the day: love or lunacy.


It's no secret that I love historicals nor is it a secret that I absolutely love to devour historicals co-authored by Summer Devon & Bonnie Dee.  So when I had a chance to read The Private Secretary by Summer Devon, I jumped at the chance because even though I've never read one of her solo pieces, I had no doubts and I was not let down.  Ezra finds himself having to take a job for the man who sent his friend and lover packing.  But is Robert the heartless bully that Ezra's ex painted him out to be?  For the answers to that you will have to read this one for yourself, trust me you will enjoy finding out.  The attention to detail is one of the things I love most about a great historical and again I was not disappointed.  Combine great historical detail, romance, intriguing characters with all around great drama and what you have is The Private Secretary well worth reading, even if you are not a typical historical fan.  This is one that will tug at your heartstrings and keep you coming back for more.

RATING:

Doc Brodie and the Big, Purple Cat Toy by Brigham Vaughn
Summary:
Grant Murchison is a computer programmer with a great job, a small house he’s fixing up, and a mischievous tabby cat named Molly. Doctor Brodie Hall is a veterinarian with a sleeve full of tattoos and an enormous mastiff named Ruby.

When Molly gets sick after nibbling on Grant’s favorite purple toy, he rushes her to the vet clinic where the doctor works. Grant’s embarrassed to admit what Molly ate, but Brodie finds Grant’s reaction charming.

Brodie decides to pursue Molly’s owner, but getting close to Grant is a bigger challenge than he anticipated. Despite Grant’s attraction to the vet, his past leaves him unable to trust in a future together. Doc Brodie may be great with scared and hurting animals but will his technique work on Grant?


Curiosity killed the cat, well Molly's curiosity doesn't kill her but it certainly creates a little havoc in her human's life that changes everything for Grant and the vet who tends to her curiosity fallout.  Another great short story/novella(I'm never quite sure where to draw the line between the two.  Sometimes what I call short story is considered a novella and vice versa so I have taken to covering both bets - lol) by Brigham Vaughn.  The drama level is pretty low but not non-existent for the pair but this tale is fun, loving, and romantic.  If you haven't figured out just what Grant's purple toy is, well I am not going to spell it out but it's a nice change that I haven't often seen explored in this genre.  An all around great read and generally, stories of this size usually get 1/2 a bookmark knocked off just because on principle I am a long novel girl, but over the past couple of years I have read some pretty amazing shorter tales that I no longer automatically knock it down.  Doc Brodie and the Big, Purple Cat Toy definitely earns a whole 5 rating and left me smiling, which is always a good thing.

RATING: 

A Frost of Cares by Amy Rae Durreson
Summary:
Military historian Luke Alcott leaps at the chance to live in the seventeenth-century country mansion of Eelmoor Hall, home of the Royal Military School of Medicine, after being offered a job cataloging the school’s archives. Luke believes he chose the perfect place to start a new life and put his broken past behind him. But soon after settling into the old house, he hears strange noises—like footsteps—and he begins to suffer from terrible nightmares.

The only person Luke can turn to for help is the taciturn caretaker, Jay, a veteran of the Afghanistan war who carries an old battle wound. Together they try to understand Eelmoor Hall’s history and decipher what could be causing the haunting. As the weather grows colder and snow dusts the countryside, a child goes missing. Luke needs to deal with his own demons and learn to trust in love again if he hopes to face down the angry spirit and find the missing girl.


A Frost of Cares has a little bit of everything.  Paranormal, gothic, mystery, romance, history, ghosts, all tied together with a certain level of creepiness that will definitely keep you on your toes.  Halloween may be months away but it's a great read for any time of the year, however if you only read paranormal in October, you must put this near the top of your spooky TBR list.  I always find tales of mystery the hardest to review because I just do not do spoilers so I guess, I'll make this short and sweet:  I highly recommend this creepy romance!  This is the first Amy Rae Durreson story I've read but it most definitely won't be the last.  I know that not every one is comfortable when it comes to new-to-them authors but I find they fill me with almost as much anticipation as opening a new book and Durreson is no different.

RATING: 


The Rancher's Son by RJ Scott
Ethan must have nodded off at some point, waking to another coffee from Clare and a ten-minute warning that breakfast was about to be brought up to the patients. His neck ached, and he was semi curled up in the hard chair.

“Thought you needed this. If you want to go to the cafeteria, I can keep an eye on Adam.”

“No, I’ll stay here. Thank you, though.”

“I’ll see if I can get someone to bring you up something.”

A quick glance at his watch showed Ethan it was a few minutes after six. He checked his email. He’d only sent the information to Navy Liaison at late last night, but there was already a message back saying all efforts would be made to get the information to Cole Strachan. There was a group joke sent by one of the shift officers back at the precinct, and some spam. Other than that, nothing.

Ethan stood and stretched tall, sipped his hot coffee, and watched the April morning unfold before his eyes. Clare managed to scrounge up some pastries, and he ate them at the window, a hundred thoughts racing through his head.

A nurse disappeared into Adam’s room, and Ethan tensed in expectation. He desperately wanted to go in there, but would Adam even be interested in talking to him?

“Are you Ethan?” the nurse asked. The tray in her hand carried untouched food.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You can go in. He’s asking for you.”

As he started to walk past her, she thrust the tray at him. There was a plate of eggs, and a sorry-looking pancake. “Try to get him to eat some of this,” she said.

He took the tray, because he didn’t really have a choice, and went into Adam’s room, kicking the door shut behind him. There was no one in the bed, but the bathroom door was closed, so Ethan assumed that was where the errant Adam was. He placed the tray on the table and waited, looking out of the same window Adam had been standing at last night. From this angle and at this height, Ethan could see the water of Lake Michigan and watch the hospital parking lot grow busier by the minute.

The bathroom door opened. Ethan instinctively turned and wished he hadn’t, because now he was staring. Not so much at the pajama bottoms that rode low on slim hips, or the broad chest that had a smattering of hair, tapering to a happy trail downward, nor to the muscles in Adam’s arms. No, Ethan was staring at the scars—new ones and some way older by the look of them—bruises purple and yellow and green, and the tattoos.

Tribal tattoos circled Adam’s arms, over his right shoulder, and down onto his pec: big swathes of dark ink with finer detail in curls around muscles. Something that looked like old burns marked his neck. A body that had seen a lot, felt a lot.

“I don’t remember them,” Adam said, his voice lost. He ran his fingers over the tattoos as if touching them would bring back memories. “They must have hurt, don’t you think?”

Ethan thought of the small tattoo over his heart and recalled the discomfort of getting it. His hadn’t hurt; the million tiny pricks into his skin were nothing.

“Maybe,” he offered.

Adam turned a little and checked the tattoos in the mirror, peering close. “I wonder what they mean?”

When he turned, he exposed more marks on his back and the fine lines of a horse standing on his hind legs. Ethan inhaled sharply.

“What?” Adam snapped, attempting to see his back even though he couldn’t get the right angle. “What is it?”

“Your horse.”

Adam frowned. “That is my horse? I want to see that again, the detective took a photo but he didn’t have a copy for me.”

Ethan pulled out his cell and snapped a shot of the beautiful tattoo, then passed the phone to Adam, who stared at the picture.

“Why is it—” Any energy seemed to leave him in the exhalation of a sigh, and he slumped to sit on his bed. “—I remember this is a cell phone, but I don’t recall patterns on my own skin?”

From his research Ethan learned terms like brain centers and retrograde amnesia, alongside traumatic stress, he didn’t understand a lot of it. “I have no idea.”

Adam curled into himself, hunching over his knees, looking utterly defeated.

Compassion welled inside Ethan, and he sat next to his old friend, pushing the tray toward him. “Eat your eggs,” he said gruffly.

Adam side-eyed him and huffed before taking the tray and resting it on the small hospital table. He forked some into his mouth, grimacing as he chewed and swallowed, but at least he ate half of what was there, and one cold, dry pancake.

“I need a proper breakfast,” Adam grumped.

“Like what?”

“Hot fresh bacon,” Adam said immediately, paling at what he was saying. “I think that I love bacon. I’d eat plates of the stuff if you gave them to me.”

“And real pancakes,” Ethan added. He reached over and poked at the sorry excuse for one that had been served. “But not like this one. Fluffy, steaming pancakes.”

Adam nodded and darted his tongue out to collect a small piece of egg resting on his lips. “Maple syrup,” he added softly.

“You always liked maple syrup.”

Adam finished the eggs and grimaced again. “When we get out of here, will you find me bacon?”

“Of course.”

“Real bacon, and pancakes with maple syrup. That sounds just like what I want to eat.”

Ethan’s chest tightened as Adam looked up at him under his eyelashes, his dark eyes holding humor. Adam and Justin had spent their childhoods getting Ethan to do what they wanted: the older brother with money from a part-time job, the one with the car. And he’d done everything they asked.

“I wouldn’t take you anywhere bad,” Ethan said

Adam pushed the tray to one side. “I need a shower, and then we go, right?”

“Right.”

“You should take photos of all my tattoos, so you could maybe find out more about me.”

“I know who you are. The rest will follow when your memories return.” He didn’t want to say that he’d already decided to email the tattoo of the horse to Jen, just in case she could track down where it had been done. It was a beautiful piece of work, and likely whoever did it would have it in a portfolio somewhere. Of course, that was a needle in a haystack. Who knew where Adam had been in the last twelve years? Chicago, where he was now? Or had he traveled from Montana to another city?

Adam looked at him, confused. “You said I disappeared. How old was I when that happened? Fifteen, you said?”

“You were nearly sixteen.”

Adam glanced down at himself, “And I’m twenty-eight now, so what happened in between?” He stood up and half turned. “You should get them all.”

Ethan did as Adam wanted, and pulled all the photos into one email, sending the whole lot to Jen with a particular request about tracking down the artist. Meanwhile, Adam went into the bathroom, closed the door, and left Ethan staring at the wood.

The Copper by Bonnie Dee
Avery drew on his drawers and had one foot in his trousers when raised voices and clattering footsteps on the stairs alerted him to disaster.

“Come out now, you blighters! You’re all under arrest.” A booming voice preceded pounding at a door down the corridor. More shouts followed as the police swept through the rooms where Madame’s select clientele lay sleeping off the night’s dissolution.

Avery froze like a fox flushed by hounds from its den. His haven had been breached. His heart pounded as he envisioned the ramifications of an arrest. Even more than fear, anger surged through him at this invasion of privacy. What he and his companions chose to do here should be no one’s business but their own, and he defied any man who said otherwise.

Defying was easier dreamed of than carried out when the bedroom door crashed open and a man in a uniform rushed in. The pair on the bed jumped up in alarm, the possible Norwegian cursing in his native tongue and the singer bursting into tears and begging, both of them pulling up bedcovers to shield their nudity.

The front of his trousers still open, Avery planted his feet and stared into the constable’s eyes, which were a vivid blue below the brim of his blue helmet. “What’s the trouble, Officer?”

The strong jaw beneath a day’s worth of stubble clenched so hard, Avery thought it might cut through the man’s flesh. “You’re under arrest. Hold out your hands.”

“What’s the charge, sir?” Avery asked blandly.

“You know very well.” The man began to quote the law by rote as he produced a pair of handcuffs. “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, procures or attempts to procure any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”

“Do you see any one of us engaged in any sort of promiscuous act? We were merely sharing a bedchamber…” Avery glanced at his nude companions. “And all of us happen prefer to sleep without a nightshirt. Or drawers.”

The policeman beckoned the Viking to him. “You first.”

Avery wondered if the bearded giant planned on giving the policeman trouble. But he shuffled forward docilely and offered his wrists, still rumbling curses. The blue-eyed bobby snapped on a pair of cuffs.

Poor Bertrand cried so loudly, the noise was deafening. Another officer entered the room and approached the sobbing singer. “You shut yer gob, you flamin’ pouf.”

Bertrand shrieked and flailed his hands, raking the man’s cheek with his painted nails. “I won’t go back there. I won’t!”

The balding copper, who’d lost his helmet somewhere along the way, pulled back a fist and drove it into Bertrand’s face. Blood spurted from Bertrand’s nose, and he howled.

“Here now. That’s enough. Leave him alone.” Avery started toward the pair to stop the smaller man from being beaten to a pulp. But he couldn’t intercept before the constable punched Bertrand again, in the stomach this time, effectively stopping his screaming as Bertrand gasped for air.

Avery put himself between the officer and his victim, intercepting a blow, which clipped the side of his head. He hadn’t felt a punch like that since his boxing days at university. The knuckles against his ear made his head ring. He blinked away white stars and formed a fist of his own, but before he could punch the bald cop, the other officer grabbed both his arms and pulled him away. The man’s grip was like a pair of iron manacles. His body against Avery’s back was granite.

“Go on, Turnbull. I have these men under control. See if any of the others need help.” The constable’s voice rumbled near Avery’s ear. He was nearly Avery’s height, and not many men were—excluding the giant Swede, who stood a head taller than either of them.

When his angry partner appeared ready to keep punching, the one snapping cuffs on Avery’s wrists repeated, “I don’t need your help here. Go!”

The other constable glared but left to join the mayhem beyond the room. Avery glimpsed men in uniform and others in various states of undress passing by the partially open door. Chaos had entered Renaud’s, and not of the fun sort they’d all experienced last night.

After his partner left, the officer moved toward Bertrand, who’d crumpled into a naked heap on the floor. He removed his helmet and rubbed a hand through closely shorn but very thick black hair, then squatted beside Bertrand without touching him. “Calm yourself. I won’t handcuff you, but you must promise to behave while I escort you to the wagon.”

Bertrand gazed up at him over the hand covering his injured nose. “I can’t do it. I can’t go back there. Please don’t…” The rest of his words were muffled by blood and mucus.

“For God’s sake, let the man put on some clothes.” Avery felt fairly exposed himself, wearing only his unfastened trousers. He began to button him with his cuffed hands. “Allow the lad some dignity.”

He half expected the policeman to make a retort about nancies getting what they deserved. But the officer covered Bertrand’s parts with a sheet from the bed, offered him a handkerchief for his nose, then rose and searched for the singer’s and the Swede’s clothing.

“They’ll be in the wardrobe. The staff here is meticulous about clothing.” Avery considered that poor Madame Renaud would likely be arrested as well. She’d be charged with pandering. And the servants? Likely they’d scattered like pigeons the moment the bulls charged inside the building.

As Bertrand sniffled and drew on the frock he’d worn for his performance last night, the Norwegian awkwardly pulled on his trousers with his cuffed hands.

Avery drew a breath and considered his dire situation. He could probably buy his way out of a jail sentence, but he couldn’t afford the scandal. Not that his name would ever be pure. Most of high society guessed his inclinations but continued to invite him to galas because Avery added sparkle and life to any gathering. Wealth and a title went a long way toward making people overlook things they didn’t want to acknowledge.

But with this arrest, Avery’s secret life would be on full display. No more hiding in the shadows. An end of invitations and shunning all around, except for among his own kind. Likely those who hadn’t missed being caught up in the raid would go to ground for a while until the scandal blew over. They’d scatter to villas in Tuscany, islands in Greece, perhaps steam across to New York for a visit. London would be void of all life, color, and companionship for a time.

Avery shook off his gloom. Here he was selfishly thinking about a dearth in his social life when some of the men arrested today, the ones without resources, could be facing long prison sentences. And poor Bertrand’s beautiful face!

Avery went to help him fasten the buttons on his gown. “Is your nose all right? Does it hurt too badly?”

“Damn my nose! I can’t go to jail again. I can’t. You don’t know how it was for me last time.” Bertrand’s eyes darted right and left. He was terrified nearly out of his mind, and that simply wouldn’t do.

Avery turned to the constable, who was helping the Viking fasten his trousers over the man’s considerable cock. The officer’s face flushed deeply as he completed his task.

“Officer… May I know your name?” Avery asked.

The man glanced up. “Tate.”

“Officer Tate, please hear me out. If you’d let the three of us slip through the cracks, as it were, I’d show you deep gratitude commensurate with such a generous act.”

“Are you offering me a bribe, sir?” Cool eyes drilled into him like diamond points. “The reputation of the force is shadowed by corruption, but I assure you, I do not accept bribes.”

“Not a bribe. Think of it as a reward for kindness. As you can see, Bertrand here will not last a night nor even an hour in jail. Please, at least let the boy go with a warning. He could hide under the bed until everyone is gone, with none of your colleagues the wiser. I’ll accompany you without complaint.”

Those eyes continued to skewer him, but Avery pressed on. “After my solicitor secures my release, I shall pay you an equal amount for helping this poor youth.”

“A bribe,” the policeman repeated.

“A gratuity,” Avery insisted and realized how often he used his hands to gesture for emphasis. He felt quite at a loss with them cuffed.

The noise in the hallway continued, but the quiet in the room grew thick and heavy as the copper seemed to be mulling over the offer.

Avery held his breath, the Swede ceased his muttering, and even Bertrand stopped whimpering.

The square-jawed officer pressed his lips tight and stared at each of them in turn, his gaze resting longest on Bertrand’s tear-streaked face and swelling nose. He pointed at the singer. “Hide until you hear everyone clear the house. The other pair must come with me. I can’t come away without arrests.”

“God bless you, sir. You’ve saved me!” Bertrand started to throw his arms impulsively around the uniform, but the copper pushed him off. The singer took the hint and quickly scrambled under the bed.

The Swede or Norwegian bobbed his shaggy head in approval. “Ja. Utmerket.”

Avery exchanged a steady look with the officer and nodded, sealing his deal with the devil.

But as he passed the man to precede him from the room, the copper grasped his arm. “You may keep your money. I told you, I don’t accept bribes.

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

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

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

That made Tristan nervous. “What happened?”

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

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

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

I bet I wanted to get laid.

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

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

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

Loser.

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

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

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

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

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

Lonely. Horny. Scared.

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

All of the above. All the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

He was also stupidly, insanely jealous.

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

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

“Hi, Mr. Henson,” Noel said.

“Bear, son. Everyone calls me Bear.”

“Right. This is my friend Tristan Lavelle.”

“A right pleasure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Tristan replied.

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

This is the kind of dancing Shane does? Shit.

He was probably twenty kinds of hot up there.

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

Lucky bastard.

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

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

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

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

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

Noel flinched.

Okay that was wrong. When was I here before?

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

“Yeah, thanks,” Shane replied.

Richard knows because Shane works here.

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

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

“Coming up,” Richard said.

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

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

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

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

Holy hell, he’s gorgeous.

“Hey, Gabe,” Shane said.

Gabe.

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

His eyes. The eyes I see. We’ve met.

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

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

“I remember your eyes.”

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

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

“I guess I made an impression.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So hot.

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

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

“Of course.” His chest flushed with anticipation.

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

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

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

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

Jon flat out grinned. “Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I know you do. I want that too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine.” He actually was fine.

“May I hug you, Isaac?”

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

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

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

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

“Is this okay?” Jon asked.

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

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

“I will.”

“Good.”

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

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

“Still okay?” Jon asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Isaac whispered.

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

Tartan Candy by KC Burn
“OOH, I just love a man in a kilt.”

Raven smiled at the newcomer, pretending he hadn’t heard the phrase a million times since he’d walked into the ballroom. Normally he didn’t mind being the center of attention, but tonight the overwhelming interest in him crawled over his skin like a swarm of fire ants.

No denying, he looked hot. His bright red plaid kilt matched the thick red streaks in his black hair perfectly. It was one of the reasons he’d bought the kilt in the first place, a few years ago. He had about a dozen kilts that matched various hair dyes, but he liked the classic red Royal Stewart. Unfortunately, all the sexy outer trappings weren’t enough to make him forget he wasn’t getting naked with anyone ever again.

Jeremy, Raven’s purported date, stepped closer to him. Close enough to almost slay Raven with his nearly lethal cloud of body spray.

“Jeremy, is that you?” The newcomer was not the first person who’d been surprised by the change in Jeremy since high school. Like every high school reunion Raven had seen on TV and in the movies, a giant poster board at the entrance to the ballroom displayed everyone’s yearbook photo. While Jeremy signed them in, Raven had taken the opportunity to inspect Jeremy’s image. Dude had had a shitload of good plastic surgery done. It was almost cliché: the geeky underdog who’d made it big coming back to his old stomping ground to revel in his new wealth and surgically enhanced appearance. Unfortunately, Jeremy hadn’t let the past go, and his personality bordered on rancid.

“Rebecca? It’s so lovely to see you again.”

Oddly, Rebecca appeared genuinely pleased to see Jeremy, and she coaxed the first happy smile Raven had seen on Jeremy’s face. If he didn’t know Jeremy was gay through and through, he’d have suspected Rebecca to be an old girlfriend or crush.

Rebecca gave Jeremy a hug. “I hear you’ve done well for yourself. You look fantastic.”

When Jeremy slipped an arm around Raven’s waist, he had to work at not flinching.

“This is Raven.”

“Nice to meet you, Raven.” Rebecca seemed nice, around the age his mother would have been, and was fond—perhaps overfond—of pink glitter. Maybe that was only natural, since Rebecca’s name tag proclaimed her head cheerleader. How she was even aware of Jeremy’s existence, Raven didn’t know.

“Raven’s my date. Gorgeous, isn’t he?”

Almost buckling under the strain, Raven managed to keep a pleasant smile on his face while Rebecca chatted, even though Jeremy was treating him like a slab of meat. It wasn’t the first time a guy had done that, and it wouldn’t be the last, but Raven badly wanted to correct the “date” misnomer. For a hefty sum, Jeremy had purchased Raven’s companionship—minus any sex—for the duration of his high school reunion weekend retreat. Raven wasn’t in the business of offering the “boyfriend experience.” Even if he had ever been planning to have sex again, there wasn’t enough money in the world to get him to sleep with Jeremy.

Jeremy’s grand plan had backfired in an unexpected way: he’d thought people would be impressed he showed up with an attractive younger man. He hadn’t anticipated Raven would garner more favorable attention than the changes in Jeremy’s appearance. Hence, his treatment of Raven as if he were an expensive possession.

Raven extricated himself from Jeremy’s clinging embrace and tipped the last of the beer in his bottle into his mouth.

Rebecca smiled brightly—or perhaps drunkenly, it was too early to tell—at them both. “He certainly is. I’m glad you found someone great, Jeremy.”

Sputtering, Raven managed to swallow his mouthful without choking to death or embarrassing anyone.

“Are you okay, honey?” Rebecca’s smile faded into concern.

“I’m good, thanks. Just swallowed wrong.”

Jeremy snorted, and Raven barely refrained from slugging him. Jeremy’s mind was in the gutter—again.

Rebecca patted him on the back and turned her attention back to Jeremy. “We’re seated at the same table for dinner.”

“Lead the way, Rebecca. I’m starving, although if this place is like most conference hotels, we’ll still be starving after our plate of rubbery chicken.”

Raven cringed, but Rebecca just giggled.

“Hey, baby.” Rebecca kissed the temple of an imposing man who was already seated at one of the round tables set for ten.

“I got you a glass of Chardonnay.” Big and beefy was pretty hot, even with the severely receding hairline. Raven peered at his name tag. Yet another cliché come to life. Bret was the quarterback of the team. Would Raven’s own high school reunion be so predictable? Not that he’d ever consider attending, outside of his nightmares.

“Bret, honey, you remember Jeremy, right?”

“Nope,” Bret grunted, and Jeremy looked like he’d swallowed a bug. Dealing with Jeremy’s ruffled ego for the whole weekend, and trying to calm him without encouraging any advances, was going to make this “date” last for-fucking-ever. Raven wasn’t quite at the point of counting down the hours, but he wasn’t far off.

“One too many hits to the head, eh, Bret? I guess what they say about multiple concussions is true.” Jeremy’s tone was jovial, but Bret’s face flushed a dark red.

Rebecca patted her husband’s arm. “He’s the one who tutored me in calculus.”

Oh. Now the Rebecca-Jeremy relationship made sense.

“Right. Him.” With those two words, Bret instantly dismissed Jeremy as a threat, and as a person. If this was how everyone had treated Jeremy in school, then maybe Raven had a smidgeon of sympathy. A nanosized morsel of sympathy. High school could be sucky.

They were saved from too much discussion as the rest of the guests at their table seated themselves and made introductions. Another football player and his wife, a drama club member and her husband, and a couple who were now teachers at the same school from which they’d graduated made up the ten at their table. Most of them, like Jeremy, had moved away from Orlando after graduation and hadn’t seen each other since. Dinner began, and throughout the meal there were a number of awards, announcements, and commemorative videos, so it wasn’t until the meal had been cleared away in preparation for dessert that any real conversation sprang up.

Rebecca’s cheeks had pinkened from the effects of three glasses of wine, and she smiled blearily at him. “Raven, what do you do for a living?”

“He’s in school right now,” Jeremy jumped in before Raven could answer. There were worse things he could have said, but he made it sound like Raven was still in high school.

“Uh, yes. I’m almost finished my business degree.” One last semester in the fall, and he’d be done.

“And how did you two meet?”

With a leer, Jeremy slung an arm over Raven’s shoulders. “Raven here likes to be taken care of. And I was just the man for the job.”

Horrified, Raven felt his jaw drop as heat flashed into his cheeks and an awkward silence fell over the table. With that one statement, everyone at this table either thought Raven was a gold digger or guilty of atrocious taste in men. Or both. He shouldn’t care what these people thought, and he rarely told people how he made a living, but he was proud of what he’d accomplished all on his own.

Raven smiled weakly at the other diners and extricated himself from his seat. “I’m going to go have a smoke.”

Amanda, the drama club member, spoke up. “I love your kilt. Is your family Scottish?”

“Nope. But it sure is easy access,” Jeremy answered for him and slid his hand under Raven’s kilt to grab his ass.

Raven barely held in a yelp of surprise and glared down at Jeremy.

“What?” Jeremy’s eyes widened in overly theatrical surprise. “I had to check to see if you were wearing your kilt properly.”

Raven glanced around the table. Forget awkward silence; Jeremy had just made almost everyone uncomfortable. Amanda looked as mortified as Raven felt.

“Don’t be long, you’ll miss dessert.” Rebecca giggled drunkenly, too soused to notice the undercurrents of tension.

“Eh, skipping dessert will help him keep his weight down.”

Amanda gasped at Jeremy’s cruel words, and Raven’s nostrils flared as he considered if decking Jeremy was worth it. Jeremy seemed completely oblivious to the censure.

When he was able to unclench his jaw, he spoke again. “Feel free to eat my dessert. I’ll be back soon.”

He detoured by the bar to grab a beer before leaving the ballroom. He wasn’t the only one ready for a refill, and there was a line, dammit.

Raven should never have agreed to this stupid job, but it had been good money. Despite the large number of women wanting to touch his chest or just plain ogle him, it would have been bearable if it weren’t for pompous, self-important, and passive-aggressive Jeremy.

The touching was a bit much. Overwhelming in a way it wouldn’t have been a year ago.

There had been a lot of touching—by everyone, not just Jeremy. For an ex–porn star, casual touching shouldn’t be such a problem, but it had been over a year since Raven starred in his last movie. Over a year since he’d had sex. Aside from doctors, nurses, and physiotherapists after his accident, he’d not been touched by anyone in all that time.

He had no family, no boyfriend, just his friends from the studio, but Raven had pulled away from everyone after the accident, and he saw them only rarely. Raven’s colorful appearance had invited a lot of casual touching from people he’d been introduced to at the reunion, which hadn’t much thrilled Jeremy either. Perhaps that was why he slapped a virtual brand on Raven’s ear the moment anyone demonstrated the least bit of interest.

Jeremy had also done about half a dozen underwear checks so far this evening. Bastard. Raven clenched his hands into fists, struggling to keep a neutral look on his face. Happy was too much to ask of him, but Jeremy was footing the bill for more than a couple months’ mortgage, and Raven couldn’t tell him to fuck off. He couldn’t ditch him, either.

Finally, finally, he got his beer and headed out of the ballroom.

His smile came easier and felt less like a mask the farther he got from Jeremy, and he moved with enough purpose that no one stopped him.

Motion-sensitive doors to the back garden whooshed open. Muggy, humid air slapped Raven in the face as he stepped out into the hot Florida evening. Almost immediately, sweat sprang up on his skin. At least his tight-fitted dress shirt was black; no sweat stains would show.

His haven was close. He took a tiny path, ducking the overhanging greenery. The resort treated smokers like lepers, hiding them well out of sight. Not that Raven was a big fan of smoking—it stank up his hair, and he’d seen what it could do to someone’s stamina—but it was a fantastic escape, especially from a handsy client with asthma.

He’d learned a long time ago that pretending to be a smoker gave him an out, a viable, believable reason to hide out that he’d used on more than one occasion. Leaning against a lamppost, he pulled out a battered pack of smokes and a lighter from his sporran and lit a cigarette without inhaling.

Raven held the cigarette down by his hip, tilted his head away from the smoke curling upward, and enjoyed the silence.

Hexbreaker by Jordan L Hawk
“That means I can—can do something to let you see through my eyes,” Cicero went on. “You wouldn’t be with me physically, but you’d know if I got into trouble and needed rescue. Would that be enough?”

“Some sort of hex?” Tom asked, confused.

“No. It doesn’t matter now—there’s no time.” Cicero tugged against his hold. “Decide.”

“Aye. What you suggested—let’s do it.”

Cicero took a deep breath. “Then go down on your knees and close your eyes.”

Tom obeyed. He heard Cicero’s slow exhale—then felt the softness of lips against the fragile skin of his right eyelid.

Cicero’s hand caressed the side of his face. “Let me in, Thomas,” he whispered, then kissed the other eyelid.

The fine hairs on Tom’s skin stood straight up, as if he’d been exposed to a lightning strike. Sparks flashed in the darkness behind his closed eyes. Strangely, the taste of blood filled his mouth, then was gone again.

Tom’s heart raced, and he felt Cicero, bending over him. Breath on Tom’s cheek. And he couldn’t keep himself from tipping his head back and finding Cicero’s lips with his own.

For a moment, Cicero didn’t respond, his mouth still against Tom’s. Then suddenly he was kissing back, tongue darting against Tom’s lips. Tom parted them tentatively, and Cicero slipped in, exploring his mouth, then daring Tom to do the same in return.

Between the Devil and the Pacific Blue by Charlie Cochet
THE PACIFIC Blue Hotel did something to people. Hell if I knew what it was.

With every passing day, it became harder and harder to remember how I ended up here, and I wasn’t the only one with that problem. It was like everyone else in this place sat in the same boat, drifting through a thick fog in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle waiting to be sunk, unaware of when or how they got there.

I’d been working security on the nightshift at the Pacific Blue for the past six months. It felt more like six decades. Plenty around here didn’t make sense to me. The hotel had been built in the late 1800s. That didn’t befuddle me. This was New York City. There were scores of old buildings around still in use. What I often found myself wondering about was why a bunch of old rich guys spent a fortune building a hotel made to resemble the lost city of Atlantis and then named it the Pacific Blue? And why stick it on a street known at the time as Death Avenue? Sure, the West Side Freight Line stopped running back in the early 1940s, but it had killed and mutilated enough people by then to have earned the name. Even the West Side Cowboys assigned to ride in front of the train to warn pedestrians hadn’t stopped people from ending up dead.

Tenth Avenue had come a long way since then. It no longer consisted of crumbling pavement surrounded by factories, warehouses, and meatpacking plants. Now we had towering office buildings and a couple of attractive government buildings that could moonlight as prison blocks. Either way, neither century’s landscape inspired thoughts of the seaside. Then again, most of the hotel guests were permanent residents, some who looked as old and worn as the hotel itself. I suppose those poor souls could easily fool themselves into believing they were surrounded by sandy beaches and rolling blue-green waves. There were few new arrivals at the Pacific Blue, and they didn’t stay long. This wasn’t exactly the Marriott.

Daryl, the night porter, had finished dimming the last of the lights in the main lobby over an hour ago. Inside the Pacific Blue I couldn’t get a phone signal, much less Wi-Fi, so I hadn’t been surprised when I saw Daryl manually turning down the lights. I’d counted maybe half a dozen employees on the nightshift, all of them probably old enough to remember paying ten cents for a quart of milk. By now residents and guests were tangling with the sandman, which meant it was getting to the time of night I enjoyed most. Just me, my thoughts, and the ghosts that came with them.

I checked my watch and glanced past the front desk, down the dimly lit hallway just to the right of the main lobby. The faint glow of lamps and the soft hum of some faraway melody came floating out of the radio room. I stopped in front of the pink-and-gold-veined marble desk and tapped the oxidized bell. It was a miracle the thing still worked. A few seconds later another miracle happened; the manager heard it. An old man who looked as rusty as the bell I just rang came shuffling over.

“I’m gonna start my rounds, Leslie.”

Leslie gave me a nod and shuffled back to finish his nap. I liked the old guy, even if he did forget most of the conversations we had. Not that I minded. The old boy’s weary gray eyes had a way of lighting up whenever he spoke about “the good old days,” back when he’d been a lad of seven, walking into the arms of the Pacific Blue for the first time. What a grand gal she must’ve been then. Her decorative moldings of swirling foliage free of cobwebs and her patterned walls of pink and turquoise hues fresh, vibrant, and untouched by growth and decay. Now she was like a shimmering Hollywood starlet who hadn’t managed to make the transition to talking pictures. With each passing day, she faded away a little more.

Walking down the deserted hall, I stopped just short of the stone archway and listened. It was a waltz, one of those sweeping, haunting ones that carried memories of a distant past. The kind whose imprint lingered well after its final note had faded, much like the man in the gray three-piece suit settled on the salmon-colored armchair listening to it. His eyes were closed, long lashes resting on fair cheeks, a smooth angular face with a strong jaw and a good mouth. He was tall, slender, handsome. The kind of guy who only stopped in dumps like this on his way to something better. Except Franklin Fairchild had gotten lost along the way. His hair was black and neatly styled, his eyes dark and bright as a midnight sky. How did I know about his eyes? I’d seen them every night for the last six months.

“Mr. Ralston,” Fairchild greeted quietly, his nice lips lifting slightly on one side. His eyes were still closed, but once they opened, they’d be intense and haunting, kind of like that waltz. “Your lurking is distracting.” He opened those impressive eyes and turned his head slightly, his gaze capturing mine and holding on. “Much about you distracts me.”

The way his voice subtly dipped in pitch had me taking an interest in the faded blue-green carpet at my feet. “I didn’t mean to disturb you, Mr. Fairchild. I was just doing my rounds.”

Fairchild gave a soft laugh that crawled under my skin and made itself at home. He had a nice voice. Lulling, quiet, and in no hurry to get to where it was going, much like Fairchild himself.

“Funny how your rounds lead you here every night at 2:00 a.m. Worried I’ll skip out on the bill?”

He was teasing me, but it somehow fell flat. My guess was insomnia wasn’t the only thing keeping Fairchild up at this hour. “Not really,” I replied with a shrug, and that was the God’s honest truth. Though if he did try, I didn’t think I’d be too upset about it. That alone should’ve been my warning to stay away from him.

“Just worried, then?”

Franklin Fairchild had been here six months, arriving the same night I started my first shift. He only left his room late in the evening after everyone had gone to bed, and then all he did was come downstairs to listen to the radio. As far as I knew, he took all his meals in his room, didn’t talk to anyone, didn’t have visitors, and didn’t interact with another soul other than to say the cursory “thank you” when necessary. I seemed to be the exception to the rule. It made me feel kind of responsible. I didn’t much care for that.

“You seem like a smart guy, Mr. Fairchild. I’d hate to see those smarts splattered all over the pavement.” He was right. I was worried. The Pacific Blue had a habit of drawing in folks looking to uphold the old Death Avenue moniker.

Franklin’s big dark eyes widened, and his cheeks went rosy in hue. It was a good look for him. Obviously he didn’t think so, because those nice full lips frowned at me.

“I see” was all he said. He turned his gaze back to the radio, which was now playing a lovely little melody about “The Day You Came Along.”

How apropos.

“Sorry if I offended you.” I realized then how much that sounded like an apology. Aside the fact that it was about as common an occurrence with me as a government tax break, I had no clue what the hell I was apologizing for. I wasn’t the one possibly thinking about taking a swan dive off an eighth-floor balcony, passing my misery on to some poor bastard who didn’t know when to leave well enough alone. Well, that was just great.

Fairchild stood, his slender frame rising from the chair with all the ease and grace of a dancer. He was about my height and size, without the added bulk. There was the slightest bit of crookedness to his nose, one noticeable only to someone who’d suffered from his fair share of broken noses. What I didn’t understand was how a refined guy like Fairchild ended up with a broken nose. I was pretty good at sizing people up, finding their angle. It was my job. Six months, and all I knew about the man before me was what my gut told me. And that was that Franklin Fairchild was a man at the end of his rope.

“Good night, Mr. Ralston.”

Fairchild swept past me, the faint smell of aftershave, soap, and something else caressing me on its way out. The room wasn’t the only thing left cold and empty from his departure. I looked down at the armchair he’d vacated to find a gray jacket draped neatly over the side. I picked it up and sprinted from the room, catching him before he reached the elevator.

“Hey! Wait!” I held the jacket out to him. “You forgot this.”

“Thank you.”

He smiled and reached out to take it. His fingers grazed mine, and the spark it caused gave me a start. I couldn’t say whether it was my running across the carpet or if it was something else, but it was enough to make me drop the suit jacket like an idiot. I swiped it off the floor, doing my best to remain aloof. He didn’t seem to notice.

“Clumsy me,” he purred.

“No problem.” I felt a little tremor go through me when his fingers brushed over my hand again. His gaze held mine long enough to tell me all I needed to know but briefly enough not to share it with anyone else. Then he turned and disappeared inside the elevator the porter held open for him and Daryl, who gingerly stepped in after him. He stood so close to Franklin I thought he was going to step on the man’s toes. Maybe it was time for Daryl to get himself a new pair of bifocals.

Walking off toward the main lobby, I gave myself a nice little speech. I couldn’t take Franklin up on his offer, no matter how long it had been since I had a guy in my bed. Good-looking men weren’t exactly throwing themselves at my feet these days. Then again, when had they ever? There’d been a time when I was getting my kicks and didn’t much care who I was getting them from. Those late-night rendezvous inside deserted toilet stalls no longer held the appeal they once had.

What did Franklin Fairchild want with me anyway? Maybe what he wanted wasn’t so different from what I wanted. Pants around the ankles, grunting, groping, giving it, and getting it good until our knees felt wobbly, and then “Thanks a bunch, pal.” We would each go on our merry way, and that was that. Except it wasn’t, because he was a guest, and I was the help.

There was also the possibility that Fairchild had gotten a little bit too deep under my skin over the last few months, and letting him go on his merry way might not be as easy as it sounded. I was past believing in happily ever after. Jesus, I was working a second job as security for a run-down hotel because the few hours a week I worked cold cases wasn’t enough to pay the rent and all the therapy bills. I’d tried to be all I could be, until an IED nearly killed me and partially blinded me in one eye. Again I wondered how the hell I’d gotten here. And this time I wasn’t thinking of just the hotel. There were times when I felt like a stranger in my own home.

“You’re a laugh a minute, James,” I muttered to myself as I made my rounds. It was the late hour messing with my head. Not that I would have been asleep at this hour anyway, hence using the time to make some extra cash. There wasn’t a whole lot to secure around here either, which made my job that much easier, and my license to carry a concealed weapon unnecessary. I doubted the chipped, gaudy ceramic seashell ashtray would fetch much at the pawnshop.

I got on with the rest of my rounds and came to the conclusion that if I didn’t shake off the lingering feel of Fairchild’s slender fingers, I would be a goner. Not to mention it was going to be one hell of a long night. Lucky for me, a drunk stumbled into the lobby, taking up a good deal of my time. I listened to the poor bastard’s war stories, not bothering to mention I had plenty of my own. I escorted him out, handed him a few bucks, and told him to get himself a couple of hot meals and some coffee. When I punched out at the end of my shift, I decided the best thing to do would be to stay away from Franklin Fairchild.

The next night I managed to hold on to my conviction for a whole hour. I was real proud of myself too. My body was no better at heeding the warning. As I neared the radio room, the sweeping melody of one of Franklin’s waltzes made my pulse flutter. I stepped into the archway and pretended his subtle smile didn’t send my heart racing or give me butterflies in my stomach. Damn. He was something else.

“Mr. Ralston,” Franklin said softly. He wore the same gray three-piece suit I’d seen him in every night since we met. His eyes were closed, and he sat in the same chair he always did. I didn’t delude myself into thinking his nightly routine had anything to do with me, so I put it down to him being a creature of habit.

“Good evening, Mr. Fairchild.” Maybe tonight I’d string enough words together to form some kind of conversation. Preferably one where I didn’t end up insulting him.

Fairchild stood and walked toward me, or rather the doorway I was blocking. Guess he wasn’t in the mood to chat. Not that he ever was. I stood still as he swept by, then caught his arm before he could leave.

“Hold on.”

Fairchild arched an eyebrow at me, and instead of letting go, I pulled him closer. He allowed it. His midnight eyes searched for something in my gaze before he turned his face away.

“Every night you sit in this room until I arrive, and every night you say just enough to get me riled up before you leave. I’m getting whiplash from your signals here, Fairchild.”

“Please.” Fairchild’s eyes grew glassy, but he put a finger to my lips before I could open my mouth to speak. “I have to go.” He moved his hand to my cheek, and I leaned into the touch. His thumb caressed my skin, a familiar scent I couldn’t place filling my nostrils. “Let me go.”

I did as Fairchild asked, even though I felt sick doing it. My reaction surprised me. I didn’t want him to walk away, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why. He leaned in, and my breath hitched as he planted a tender kiss on my cheek. His lips lingered against my skin, and I took advantage, turning my face ever so slightly so I could brush my lips over the corner of his mouth. He smiled and pulled away.

“Until tomorrow night, Mr. Ralston.”

I swallowed hard and watched him walk away, aware of the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. Was the guy messing with me? If he was, why was I letting him? Maybe it was time to get some answers.

At 2:00 a.m. the next evening, I made my way to the radio room. The moment I heard some perky pop tune playing instead of a waltz, I knew something was wrong. I stopped in front of the archway and felt an odd sensation in my chest. I didn’t like it. The salmon-pink armchair was empty. So was the rest of the room. I turned off the radio and sat down in what I had dumbly come to consider his spot. It had been a long time since I’d bothered feeling any kind of way about anything, and now it was coming at me from all directions. Damn it all.

Fire & Snow by Andrew Grey
Chapter 1
“HEADING OUT on patrol?” Red asked as JD Burnside stopped to grab his coat and hat before going outside. Red looked him over and shook his head. “Here. You’re going to need these gloves, and put on an extra pair of socks.”

“It’s only November…,” JD said, getting a little worried.

“Maybe, but the wind will go right through you, and they have you on foot patrol in the square. That cold concrete is going to leach the heat right out through your shoes unless you have something extra on.”

JD sighed and sat back down in the locker room, going through his things until he came up with a second pair of socks. He slipped off his boots and pulled them on. Instantly his feet began to sweat, but he ignored it and pulled on his now-tight boots. “Is there anything else I should know?”

“Be sure to keep your citation book handy. Fallfest is just winding down, and everyone should be going home, but that also means the heavy-duty revelers will take it into the bars, so be on the lookout for people weaving and bobbing. We don’t want them driving home.”

“Is that why I’m supposed to be outside in god-awful weather like this instead of tucked in a nice warm patrol car like a regular person?” At least the patrol car would have heat. JD had not gotten used to the weather up in Central Pennsylvania, and he was beginning to realize that his first winter here was going to be hard as hell to get through.

“We always have someone visible to deter drunk driving. I did it two years ago, and Carter had the glorious honor last year. It’s only for a day, and all you need to do is keep yourself warm and your eyes open. Everyone will empty out in three or four hours, and then you can come on back and grab a patrol car. These are always interesting evenings.”

“Yeah?” JD inquired as he got to his feet.

Red grinned. “A few years ago, they had this cow parade thing where artists decorated fiberglass cows and they put them around the area. There were four of them in town, and one was on the square. That year we had someone decide it was a bull and that he was going to ride it… buck naked in the middle of town.” Red began to laugh. “By the time we got to him, he’d turned half-blue and all his friends were getting ready to take their turn. We stopped them before the entire crowd turned into a streak-fest.”

“What happened to the naked guy?”

“We hauled him away for indecent exposure, and he got a fine. The thing is, this may be a small town, but we have some crazies when they drink. So keep an eye out and call if you see anything. I’ll be around and will stop by to check on you.”

JD thanked Red for his help and the story, which had brightened his mood a little. He made sure he had everything and slammed his locker closed before leaving the station and heading out through town toward the square.

He was a block away from the square. When he arrived, he glanced up at the clock tower on the old courthouse to check the time.

“Assault in progress, courthouse common” came through his radio.

JD responded and raced forward, heart pounding. He rounded the courthouse and saw a group of three college students crowded around one of the benches.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, old man?” one of the boys was yelling, the sound carrying through the square. The others yelled as well.

“What’s going on?” JD projected in his best police voice. The students backed away, hands exposed, which JD liked. At least they didn’t seem to be a threat to him.

“This old guy was about to take a leak on the veterans’ memorial,” said the kid who’d been doing the yelling. “We sat him down and were trying to talk to him, but he tried to hit Hooper here.” He took a further step back and gave JD room. A man in his late sixties, if JD had to guess, sat on the bench, shaking like a leaf. The front of his pants was wet, and he smelled. When JD touched him, the man felt cold, and he continued to shiver. JD tried more than once to get the man to look at him, and when he finally did, his eyes were vacant and half-lidded.

“I need an ambulance on High Street next to the old courthouse,” JD called in. The man continued to shiver and shake. This wasn’t just from the cold. The scent of alcohol permeated even the mess he’d made of himself. The man needed help.

“Is he going to be all right?” Hooper asked. “We didn’t hurt him or anything. He was going to take a leak right there on the memorial, and we tried to stop him and help him sit down, but he swung at me and nearly fell.” The kid seemed upset. His eyes were as big as saucers.

“Did he hit you?” JD asked.

“No. He was too slow. But David here, the big idiot, started yelling, and that must have been what you heard.”

“How much have you had to drink?” JD asked David.

“Enough to know I won’t be driving,” David answered with blinky eyes.

“None of you had better,” JD advised.

“I’m their ride,” Hooper said. “I hate the taste of the stuff, so they buy me food and Cokes, and I drive the idiots home.” One of Hooper’s friends bumped him on the shoulder.

JD turned back to the old man, who was rocking slightly from side to side. JD tried to get his name, but he was becoming more and more unresponsive. JD got the students’ information and sent them on their way. He could check with them if he needed to, but what they’d said rang true.

There must have been plenty of calls already, but an ambulance finally arrived and they got the man settled into it. He didn’t have any identification on him. JD made sure to get the information he could, and then the EMTs took the man to the hospital.

At least during that excitement he hadn’t had a chance to be cold. Once the ambulance pulled away, the square turned quiet. Dry leaves rustled in the trees, and wisps flashed in the lights that lit the side of the old courthouse. JD shivered when he realized those wisps were snow. God, he was going to freeze to death here.

JD pushed that thought aside and walked around the square, then along the side streets, watching for trouble. He passed a few people still huddled on the benches, but he figured they’d soon give up and head on home.

Now that the streets were no longer blocked off for the festival, traffic continued flowing through the main intersection, as it usually did. JD returned to the intersection, crossed High Street and then Hanover, then continued around to the narrow side street that ran next to one of the churches on the square. He hated that street. It wasn’t well lit and there were plenty of shadows.

He peered down to check for movement and was preparing to move on when Red pulled up in a patrol car. JD opened the passenger door and got inside.

“I saw you heading this way and thought we could take a ride for a while,” Red said.

JD was eternally grateful as he soaked up the heat inside the car. “I hate that street.”

“We all do. The chief is going to demand a streetlight. The church has been fighting it because they say it will mess up the light coming in from the stained-glass windows or something. But lately it’s become a real hazard.” Red put the car in gear and made the turn, slowly rolling down the street.

At the slight bend, two figures raced out of a corner and took off down the street toward the church’s back parking lot. Red flipped on his lights while JD jumped out and took off on foot. Red raced past him to try to head the men off.

JD was fast. He had run track in high school and college, and no street punk was going to outrun him. He pounded the pavement, feet racing. One of the men dodged and got away once, but when he tried it again, JD was ready and grabbed the back of his coat, yanking the man to a stop.

He fell to the ground and rolled. JD stayed on his feet, and when the man stopped rolling, JD knelt and placed his knee on his back.

“I wasn’t doing nothing,” the man protested.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” JD said as Red pulled up.

“The other one got away,” Red said angrily.

“This one was throwing things out of his pocket as he ran,” JD said, pointing back the way they’d come.

“Oh man. You going to try to pin shit on me now?” the man asked as he shifted on the ground.

JD cuffed him and made sure he was secure. “Nope. I’m going to make sure you get what you’ve got coming to you.” JD watched as Red carefully photographed and tagged what had been thrown aside. The law had been the family profession for generations, so JD had decided to become a police officer. But once he’d started down the path, he’d discovered a love of fair play, protecting others, and enforcing the law. Maybe it was genetic? He wasn’t sure.

Other sirens sounded, and soon two more cars joined them, bathing JD and the suspect in headlights.

“What have we here?” Aaron Cloud, one of the detectives, asked as he got out of his car.

“Cocaine, by the looks of it,” Red answered. “Enough of it that he’s going to be doing some long, hard time.”

“That ain’t mine,” the suspect said.

JD shook his head. “I saw him throwing it out of his pockets, with his bare hands, as I chased him. It was his. His prints will be on the bags.” The guy must be an idiot.

“Go ahead and read him his rights. We’ll take him down to the station.”

“There was another man with him,” Red said. “JD here jumped out of the car when we saw him, took off like a shot, and got this guy. I followed the other man, but he ran between the houses over there and disappeared across High Street.”

“We’ll find out who he was,” Aaron said, looking down at the suspect. “Won’t we?” The menacing tone Aaron used had the guy shaking a little. JD knew it was an act. Detective Cloud was a “by the book” kind of guy, but if he hadn’t been a police officer, he could have had a career in Hollywood.

Aaron took custody of the suspect, and JD helped Red confirm they had found everything that had been thrown by their suspect before driving to the station.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful for a drug bust in my life,” JD said as they rode, the wipers swishing back and forth to wipe the falling snow from the windshield.

They passed the square slowly. JD turned when he saw movement. A man stood up from one of the benches and slowly walked away. “Are there always people on those benches? They have to be freezing in this weather.”

“Yeah. People sit there all day long. They have their favorite spots, and heaven help anyone who tries to take it. Mostly people just pass them by and don’t really notice them.” Red made the turn and continued to the station. JD pulled his mind away from the bench sitters back to the report he was going to have to help write.

At least the station was warm. JD went to his desk and got to work putting together his statement of events.

“You did good,” Red told him as he passed. “Though I don’t recommend jumping out of moving cars every day.”

“Did we get any information out of him?” JD asked.

“Aaron is leaning on him pretty hard. He’ll probably lawyer up pretty soon, but he says the other guy was just a customer,” Red explained, which was what JD had figured. At least they got the dealer this time. Usually it was the other way around. “Did you send in your statement?”

JD nodded and stood up. It was time for him to go back out on patrol. At least this time of night he’d have a vehicle. “I’ll head out with you.” Red walked him to the parking lot, and they got in their respective cars. “Stay safe.”

“You too.” JD started the engine, then pulled out of the lot. He drove through town and turned into the same side street he and Red had gone down earlier. It was empty this time, and he continued on.

The snow was getting heavier, and he drove carefully as visibility got worse and the streets more slippery. Toward the end of his shift, he made one last tour of town. He passed the square and saw a single figure on one of the benches in the courthouse square. JD knew there was nothing wrong with sitting on the bench, but it was after eleven and cold as hell. He pulled to the side of the street and got out, then walked up to the man.

He was hunched and curled into his coat, arms wrapped around himself, chin to his chest.

“Sir, are you all right?”

The man looked up and then lowered his gaze once again, saying nothing.

“Sir, is something wrong? It’s way too late and too cold to be out here. You should head on home.”

“I’m fine. Doesn’t matter, anyway. No one cares.” He lowered his gaze once again and continued sitting where he was.

“You’ll be a lot warmer and safer if you go home.” JD was becoming concerned. “I can help if you like? Can you tell me where you live?”

“Of course I can. But it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.” He got to his feet. He seemed steady enough. “People are crap, you know that? Everyone takes advantage of everyone else, and no one gives a crap about it.” He took a few steps, weaving slightly, and then he straightened up and headed off toward the courthouse. “No one cares about anything or anyone.”

“Do you need some help?” JD asked.

“No. There’s nothing you can do.” He walked off and JD watched him go. Something wasn’t right, but he was cold and the guy seemed harmless enough. JD went back to his car and slowly drove down the road. He saw where the man turned, and then watched as he went inside one of the apartment buildings in the first block of Pomfret.

His phone rang, so JD pulled to a stop before answering it. “You heading back to the station?” Red asked.

“Yeah.” He checked the time.

“Terry is going to meet me at Applebee’s. They’re still open, and we can get something to eat.” Red had been nice enough to befriend him when he’d joined the force six months earlier.

“Sounds good. Let me get back and finish up. I’ll meet you there.”

JD drove back to the station, checked in, and then left. The snow barely covered the ground, but it was enough to make him itchier about driving. He knew people here didn’t think too much about a little snow, but he’d rarely driven in it back home. As he clutched the wheel, he tried to remember the last time he’d actually driven in snow. It must have been four or five years ago.

JD approached Hanover Street and saw a hunched figure walking back toward the square. JD knew he was off duty, but he turned left instead of right anyway. He watched as the man went back to the same bench and sat down. There was something very wrong.

JD pulled off the road, then got out and jogged across the street to where the man sat. “I thought you’d gone home,” JD said gently.

“This is my bench. I like it here.”

“Dude, it’s really cold, and you’re going to get sick.” JD helped him to his feet. “It’s also really late. You need to get home where it’s safe and warm.” He hoped the guy wasn’t sick, but he couldn’t leave him out in this weather. “When was the last time you ate?”

The man shrugged. JD looked at his arm, checking for a medical bracelet. He’d had a friend who acted like this sometimes, a little loopy and strange. He’d been diabetic, and when his blood sugar got wacky, he’d act really out of it. “Why don’t you come with me, and I’ll see about getting you something to eat.”

“Okay,” the man agreed, and JD helped him walk across the street. He got him into the car, wondering what Red was going to think when he showed up with a stranger. The guy sat quietly, lightly fidgeting with his hands as JD drove to the edge of town and pulled into the restaurant parking lot.

“Let’s get you something to eat, and then maybe you’ll feel better.” JD had committed himself now. He’d crossed a line between officer and public a long time ago—and if this turned out badly, he could be in a hell of a lot of trouble—but something told him the guy wasn’t dangerous, just a little confused.

He parked and they got out, the man following docilely.

Red met him at the restaurant door, staring quizzically. “Who’s this?”

“He’s….” Shit, how was he going to explain this? “A guy who needs some help.”

Red turned slightly, looking at JD like he’d truly lost his mind. “Is that some Southern thing?” Red asked.

“It’s a human thing,” JD answered.

Learning to Love by Felice Stevens
“How did you know where to find me?”

“I didn’t. But when I went to your apartment and discovered you weren’t home, I thought to myself, ‘Where would a chef be early on Saturday morning?’”

Pleased he’d thought so carefully about me, I bit my lip to keep from smiling, then muttered with my head down, “Lucky guess on your part.”

“I’d like to think so,” said Jonah, his voice as soft as the breeze. My eyes met his, the hurt from our last conversation shimmering bright in their depths, causing a throb within me of a longing I’d never known existed. “Or maybe it was fate.”

He smiled then plucked the paper bag of rugelach out of my clutches, rummaged through it until he found an apricot one, and bit off half.

“Well, if you’re that hungry, I guess you can come home with me, and I’ll make you an omelet,” I grumbled but couldn’t stop the small grin tugging at my lips. “But I planned on browsing a bit more through the market first.”

“I’d like that.” Jonah walked beside me, and we meandered past the stands piled high with colorful peppers and squash. We strolled in silence, but every few steps I’d sneak a glance at him, expecting Jonah to speak. Instead he remained irritatingly, cheerfully silent.

I sampled some hot mulled cider and licked my lips. Spending so much time with Jonah gave me new insight. I’d always thought him superior and judgmental; perhaps I had been wrong in my assessment. He captivated me with the humor in his speech, warmth in his smile, and that unmistakable flare of desire in his eyes. Goddamn it, I wanted him.

I extended the paper cup. “Do you want a sip?” Its heady cinnamon scent remained one of my most favorite things about the fall season. To my shock, instead of answering me, he bent down and kissed me on my lips, lapping at their sticky sweetness. He stepped back, but I put a restraining hand on his wrist.

“What’s going on? Why are you really here?”

The honesty in Jonah’s face took my breath away.

“Do you really have to ask, after the last time?”

My body refused to listen to the war inside my head, kindling a deep need I couldn’t understand. I took a step forward, but unlike me, Jonah didn’t retreat. He stood firm, and I stood close enough to almost touch. Close enough to smell him.

“I’m not who you want; can’t you see that?”

“You don’t have any idea what I see when I look at you, Gideon.”

I wanted to yell back at him, No, you have no idea who I am, but I couldn’t bring myself to ruin the moment. I had no clue who Jonah thought I was, but I wanted to be that man if only to be able to have him always look at me like this. Like I was special. Like I was his. The sun beat hot upon my shoulders, and I held his gaze while contentment poured over me like a warm summer rain.

Doc Brodie and the Big, Purple Cat Toy by Brigham Vaughn
Brodie smiled at the sight of Grant’s geekery on display, complete with Doctor Who posters and a life-size Captain Jack Harkness cardboard cutout from the spin-off Torchwood, because what nerdy gay man wouldn’t have a crush on an openly bisexual character with a wicked sense of humor? Brodie had fantasized about Captain Jack more than once that was for sure.

“This is great,” Brodie said, enthusiastically. He’d grown up watching Dr. Who. “Who is your favorite doctor?”

“You,” Grant blurted out, then closed his eyes as if embarrassed by the fact he said that aloud. “Um, ignore that. I, uh …”

Brodie stepped closer, thrilled by Grant’s admission. “You like me, huh?”

“Yeah,” Grant croaked and cracked an eye open.

“Well, you’re the favorite owner of a patient of mine,” Brodie murmured before he closed the distance between them.

Grant’s eyes closed again as Brodie’s lips touched his. Grant’s mouth was warm and soft, tasting faintly of lemonade. He clutched Brodie’s T-shirt, and Brodie groaned at the contact between their bodies.

He cradled the back of Grant’s head as the kiss deepened, gently teasing Grant’s lips apart. Grant let out a little groan of pleasure, and Brodie felt his cock stir at the sound.

They were both panting when they finally pulled away. Grant’s cheeks were flushed, or maybe that was the heat between them. Brodie had a sudden, desperate hope that his deodorant had held up against the jogging he’d done earlier.

“Damn,” Brodie said with a slow grin, and Grant nodded, Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat as he swallowed noisily. “I was planning to ask you out on a date before I left, but I think that answers my question.”

Grant nodded again and licked his lips. His voice was hoarse when he responded. “Um, the answer is definitely yes.”

“Tomorrow maybe?” Brodie offered, hoping he wasn’t being too pushy.

“Yeah, I’m free tomorrow. But, uh, you don’t have to run off right now or anything. Unless you have to be somewhere?”

“I can stay. Besides, I should take a look at my patient.” Brodie winked, and Grant’s mouth curved up in a smile as he seemed to relax.

“Oh, she’s probably curled up on my bed. It’s her favorite place.”

“Can’t say as I blame her,” Brodie murmured as he followed Grant out of the office.

A Frost of Cares by Amy Rae Durreson
Chapter One
IN A way this story begins with me standing by the window of my London flat on Boxing Day with a cricket bat in my hands, seriously considering smashing every bloody fucking pane of glass in the bloody fucking flat into bloody fucking shards. The thing that stopped me, in the end, was the handle of the bloody bat, wrapped in a fraying green grip. The end of the grip was peeling up, and that tiny imperfection, that little spike of lighter green, by being out of place, threatened to tear open the whole grip. Staring at it, I realized that I didn’t know whether the bat was mine or Danny’s.

Well, fuck, I thought. You’ll have to excuse the paucity of my vocabulary at this point in the story. Obviously I was drunk as the proverbial skunk, and several of its cousins as well, and I never was much good at talking about my (bloody fucking) feelings.

The bat could have been mine. For two brief summers as a gangling teenager, I had been a proud but somewhat unlikely member of my school’s second eleven. It hadn’t lasted, and I couldn’t remember if I’d kept any of that once treasured kit or whether it was in Mum and Dad’s loft with the other detritus of our childhoods.

Danny, on the other hand, was keen on every sport going: cricket, rugby, tennis, golf, football, anything that can be discussed in arcane and passionate depth with complete strangers —or as he used to put it, I like anything with a nice set of balls. And there was the dilemma. If this was Danny’s bat and I damaged it by using it on the windows…. It was unthinkable. What if he came home and found out I’d wrecked his stuff and so turned back round and walked away again?

Of course, by then I was 90% convinced that Danny was never coming home. He’d been missing for almost a decade, after all.

And that was why I didn’t break any windows. Instead I put the bat down, poured myself another drink, and decided to get the fuck out of London.

And by “another drink,” I mean the rest of the bloody pack, obviously.

Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best place to start this story, because I’m pretty sure right now you’re just thinking about what a sad and lonely fuckup this loser narrator is. Was. I’ve changed. Honest. Of course, I’ve no idea who “you” are. Who the fuck am I even writing this down for? I know what happened. I remember every moment of it. The only reason I’m trying to write this is because Jay thinks I’m clinging onto it a little too hard.

“Ten years ago, now,” he said to me yesterday, calmly challenging in that way only Jay can be. “You’re okay. Maybe, y’know, let it go? Let her go.”

“She is gone,” I reminded him. Of that, at least, I’m sure.

“Not if she’s still in your head.” He propped his chin up on his fist and looked at me, calm, steady, and analytical. (I still think of it as his “army face,” though I never knew him while he was still on active duty.)

“I hardly ever think about it.”

He smiled at me, wry and knowing. “Yeah? How many times this month have you slept with the light on?”

“Fuck off. Hardly any.”

“Twelve. I know because I’m in the bed with you.”

Hard to argue with that. “I can’t just switch bad dreams off.”

“You’re not going to be that guy.”

“What guy?”

“Never gets over seeing a ghost. Sits there in the old people’s home trying to scare all the nurses. I’m not letting you.”

“What am I supposed to do about it, then?”

“Get it out of your system,” he said and shrugged. “Write it down. Lock it away somewhere and stop thinking about her.”

I’m not convinced it’s going to work, but Jay asked, and since he did, I suppose I have to try. He doesn’t ask me for much. So I suppose I’m my own audience, or perhaps I’ll do the traditional thing and one day pass on a flaking and dusty, well, Word document to some eager young great-nephew.

Or not.

Jay has just leaned over my shoulder and asked why I’m writing about hypothetical nephews. Fair question, though he blatantly knows the answer as well as I do.

I do like the smell of procrastination in the morning.

Also coffee. I like coffee. Perhaps I need to make some to help me get started. Mmm, coffee. Or tea. A whole pot, brewed from the leaf, slowly strained and served with Rich Tea biscuits. I don’t think we have any Rich Teas. I could just pop out to—

Okay, and that was the point where Jay took my tablet away and made disappointed faces at me. No more procrastinating. I’ll be good.

I don’t want to write about her. What if it brings her back?

My husband is now trying to bribe me with filthy promises. Cheater.

Okay.

Here goes, in proper ghost story style:


The professor first went down to E—— Hall on the 27th December 20—. At the time when he boarded the train at Waterloo, he had little apprehension that—


No, can’t do it. Bit too much of the M. R. James in that, and I never liked old Monty much. Too much prose, too little action, and far too many phobias of damp and hairy things lurking under the bed, poor closeted git.

Truth is, I wasn’t in a fit state to be apprehending anything that day, because I was as hungover as one of those aforementioned skunks would have been if they tried to sleep it off in the bottom of a hop kiln. It was late afternoon by the time I got to the station, and I had to wait ages for a train. I’d managed to stumble over to my estate-agent sister’s that morning, timing it for while Mum and Dad were out taking their Day After Boxing Day stroll across the common, and I’d tossed my key at Katie before I could change my mind. I’d told her to go ahead and do what she’d been begging me to do for years: shove my crap and Danny’s into storage and put the flat on the market.

I’d finally had enough of waiting.

I was regretting it bitterly by the time I got to Waterloo, but I resisted the urge to phone Katie and tell her I’d changed my mind. Enough was enough.

If Danny came back while Katie was there, she’d make sure he stayed around long enough for me to rush back up to town. I trusted her, even though it galled me to ask my little sister to clean up the mess that was my life.

I had enough self-awareness to know I couldn’t do it without help, though.

I actually had a good reason to be leaving London. “Professor” is a bit of a stretch, but I was already steadily on the academic career path. I was a Junior Research Fellow at one of the lesser-known London colleges, specializing in the nineteenth-century development of the British Army. I’d done a lot of work with military archives before, and my PhD supervisor, now my boss, had done considerably more.

At the time I went to Eelmoor Hall, the Army was in a state of quiet upheaval. After seventy years, it had just been announced that they would be withdrawing British troops from Germany. By the end of 2016, the Army claimed at the time, 11,000 troops and 17,000 support staff and family members stationed overseas would be back in the UK. To house them, there needed to be a vast reorganization of British Army bases. Barracks that had long stood empty were being spruced up, and regiments and organizations were being relocated all over the country.

One of the many changes underway was the relocation of the Royal Military School of Medicine from its traditional home in North Hampshire to a cheaper and more modern campus in the northeast. The RMSM had been housed in Eelmoor Hall, between the towns of Fleet and Aldershot, since 1923, and as part of the move, their CO had written to my supervisor to ask if he could recommend a keen young chap who might be interested in spending a few weeks cataloging and organizing their archives and small museum in preparation for the move. They were offering a decent wage, it would get me out of London for a few weeks, and they were putting me up for free in the now empty hall itself.

Jay says I’m waffling again, bloody backseat driver that he is.

Well, that got rid of him, though I’ll have to offer makeup sex later. So, where was I?

Eelmoor Hall.

It was dusk by the time the taxi drew up at the gates, the sort of dull winter dusk that is only the steady fading of a gray day into true darkness. There was supposed to be an on-site caretaker, one Sergeant McBride, who would let me in the gate. I climbed out of the taxi to hit the buzzer on the intercom and started to shiver. The air here was noticeably crisper than it had been in London, and my breath immediately rose in clouds.

Sergeant McBride took his time answering and was curt when he told me to wait until the gate opened. I shoved my hands into my pockets and took another breath of that cold air. It tasted cleaner than London air, and I squinted through the gates to see the grounds of Eelmoor Hall. There were lawns on this side, and a long drive running towards a pillared frontage. The old house had two wings that stretched back from the main front so the hall was longer than it was wide, and I knew there were a number of modern buildings in the grounds behind it—offices, accommodation and teaching rooms—as well as several assault courses and firing ranges. The archive was in the library, in the east wing of the old hall.

Standing there, gazing up at the stark lines of the hall, it looked as dark and tired as I felt, its redbrick frontage turned brown by the fading light. The windows were dark, but I could easily imagine that someone was standing in there, hidden behind the heavy curtains and watching my approach.

The gate whirred open, and I scrambled back into the taxi. When we finally drew up on the front drive, a man was waiting by the front entrance, leaning back against the base of the right oriel window with his arms crossed. He wore a khaki jacket and had a woolen cap pulled down low, although a few fair curls escaped around the back. He didn’t say anything as I paid the driver and lugged my case up the low steps. Only when I put it down at the top did he nod to me. “Dr. Alcott, I presume?”

“Luke,” I corrected him and held out my hand. “You must be Sergeant Mc—”

“Jay. Not in the Army much longer.” His voice was flat. “Was expecting you a little earlier.”

That explained his bad mood. In the emotional tumult, I’d forgotten to phone and let him know I was running several hours late. “Shit, I’m so sorry. It’s been a day, man. I didn’t mean to—”

“Library key,” he cut over me, handing an old brass key over. “Master key for bedrooms and kitchens, passcode for the gate and external doors, which changes on Saturday. You’re in Room 221. The corridor can be accessed from the main stairs or the library gallery. Crates and packing material are in the ground floor store cupboard by the main library door. If you get lost or need something, I’m on extension 445, unless I’m at work.”

“And then?”

“I’m at work. This isn’t my main job.”

“Then I’m even more sorry to have screwed with your day. Don’t the Army pay a proper wage for this?”

He lifted one shoulder in a slow shrug. “They just don’t want the place to sit here empty. I live here and keep an eye on things, and they don’t charge me rent.”

“Oh, the property-guardian thing. Couple of my grad students do that. Always thought it sounded like a bit of a scam, but this looks like a nice setup.” I was babbling, thrown by his grim, unresponsive face. He was handsome, now I looked properly, and that just made me want to talk more. “I mean, it must be good to have a whole bloody mansion to call your own. Or the Army’s own, I suppose, though—” I made a conscious effort to stem the word-dribble. “Um. So. I should be getting inside.”

He didn’t move, but a faint hint of amusement around his eyes salted the grimness. He had an accent, faintly underlaying everything he said with that peculiarly Ulster combination of musicality and muscle. “If you like.”

He clearly wasn’t going to come with me, and I bit back a little irritation of my own. Okay, so I’d inconvenienced him, but he didn’t have to be rude. “Point me in the right direction?”

“East,” he said and pointed. “Thataway.”

“Cheers,” I said and lugged my case inside. I glanced back to see him still leaning against the wall, scowling out over the now shadowy line of the drive where it curled back towards the gates and the lodge.

Look, I never claimed it was love at first sight.

Inside, the foyer had that odd mixture of institutional function and faded grandeur that seems to characterize old schools and posh hotels. It was dark, but lights came on as I moved forward, triggered by some motion sensor somewhere, and I was able to follow signs to the library, the lights rising and fading as I walked. I stopped for a moment at the bottom of a stairway, wondering whether it was a shortcut to my room or whether I should just carry straight on and find the way through the library.

I must have stood still too long for the motion sensors, because the lights went off. It was dark—country dark, not London dark—with no lights outside to shine through the windows, and suddenly the big house seemed even vaster and colder. I could hear a faint rattling in the wall, a distant electronic hum from somewhere, a creak of floorboards upstairs, all the normal sounds of an old and empty building.

And, as you sometimes do in old buildings, I suddenly felt that I wasn’t alone. I thought that someone else was there in the darkness, breathing in perfect time with me, so close that I could have reached out and touched them. I startled, and the lights came back on.

I was alone, of course, in an empty hallway filled with blank notice boards. It had just been my imagination.

I made my way to the library, and once I was there, I forgot all about the creepy hallway and Sergeant Arsehole McBride and got caught up in the work. They had records in there going back to the founding of the school, and the last catalog had been done back in the eighties, when they’d actually employed a part-time archivist and librarian. His neat little cabinet of index cards was still there, although one glance showed me they were hopelessly muddled. Some of the newer material had been added, but that effort seemed to fizzle out in the mid-nineties. There was a computer, a PC old enough that it still had a floppy disk drive and a dial-up modem. A faded Post-it note on the front told me that it was available for half-hourly slots only (“Please do not abuse your extranet privileges”).

So the first step would be to find out exactly what I had in here.

I’ll spare you the details. I find them fascinating, but in the end they’re not what this story is all about. What I do need to explain is what I was thinking about that first night in the library. Jay reckons, and I agree, albeit reluctantly, that if I had been any other type of miserable, I probably wouldn’t have caught her attention in the way I did.

Author Bios:
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.

Bonnie Dee
I began telling stories as a child. Whenever there was a sleepover, I was the designated ghost tale teller. I still have a story printed on yellow legal paper in second grade about a ghost, a witch and a talking cat.

Writing childish stories for my own pleasure led to majoring in English at college. Like most English majors, I dreamed of writing a novel, but at that time in my life didn't have the necessary focus and follow through. Then life happened. A husband and children occupied the next twenty years and it was only in 2000 that I began writing again.

I enjoy dabbling in many genres. Each gives me a different way to express myself. I've developed a habit of writing every day that's almost an addiction. I don't think I could stop now if I tried.

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

KC Burn
KC Burn has been writing for as long as she can remember and is a sucker for happy endings (of all kinds). After moving from Toronto to Florida for her husband to take a dream job, she discovered a love of gay romance and fulfilled a dream of her own--getting published. After a few years of editing web content by day, and neglecting her supportive, understanding hubby and needy cat at night to write stories about men loving men, she was uprooted yet again and now resides in California. Writing is always fun and rewarding, but writing about her guys is the most fun she's had in a long time, and she hopes you'll enjoy them as much as she does.

Jordan L Hawk
Jordan L. Hawk grew up in the wilds of North Carolina, where she was raised on stories of haints and mountain magic by her bootlegging granny and single mother. After using a silver knife in the light of a full moon to summon her true love, she turned her talents to spinning tales. She weaves together couples who need to fall in love, then throws in some evil sorcerers and undead just to make sure they want it bad enough. In Jordan’s world, love might conquer all, but it just as easily could end up in the grave.

Charlie Cochet
M/M romance author by day, artist by night, Charlie Cochet is quick to succumb to the whispers of her wayward muse. From Historical to Fantasy, Contemporary to Science Fiction, no star is out of reach when following her passion. From hardboiled detectives and society gentleman, to angels and elves, there’s bound to be plenty of mischief for her heroes to find themselves in, and plenty of romance, too!

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.

Felice Stevens
I have always been a romantic at heart. I believe that while life is tough, there is always a happy ending around the corner. My character have to work for it, however. Like life in NYC, nothing comes easy and that includes love. 

I live in New York City with my husband and two children. My day begins with a lot of caffeine and ends with a glass or two of red wine. I practice law but daydream of a time when I can sit by a beach somewhere and write beautiful stories of men falling in love. Although there is bound to be a little angst along the way, a Happily Ever After is always guaranteed.

AJ Rose
It began with a Halloween themed short story assignment from a second grade teacher, and from then on, AJ Rose fell head over heels in love with writing. Even an active social life through school, learning to play the piano in a passable imitation of proficient, and a daring cross country move couldn't stop the tall tales about imaginary people that refused to be ignored. With college experiences came a change in perspective to romance and passion. A propensity to slash favorite TV characters brought AJ to today, writing mostly M/M for publication. But don't be surprised if the occasional ghost still pops up.

Summer Devon
Summer Devon is the pen name writer Kate Rothwell often uses. Whether the characters are male or female, human or dragon, her books are always romance.

You can visit her facebook page, where there's a sign up form for a newsletter (she'll only send out newsletters when there's a new Summer Devon or Kate Rothwell release and she will never ever sell your name to anyone).

Brigham Vaughn
Brigham Vaughn is starting the adventure of a lifetime as a full-time writer. She devours books at an alarming rate and hasn’t let her short arms and long torso stop her from doing yoga.  She makes a killer key lime pie, hates green peppers, and loves wine tasting tours. A collector of vintage Nancy Drew books and green glassware, she enjoys poking around in antique shops and refinishing thrift store furniture. An avid photographer, she dreams of traveling the world and she can’t wait to discover everything else life has to offer her.

Amy Rae Durreson
Amy Rae Durreson is a writer and romantic, who writes m/m romances. She likes to go wandering across the local hills with a camera, hunting for settings for her stories. She's got a degree in early English literature, which she blames for her somewhat medieval approach to spelling, and at various times has been fluent in Latin, Old English, Ancient Greek, and Old Icelandic, though please don't ask her to speak any of them now.

Amy started her first novel nineteen years ago (it featured a warrior princess, magic swords, elves and an evil maths teacher) and has been scribbling away ever since. Despite these long years of experience, she has yet to master the arcane art of the semi-colon.


RJ Scott
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EMAIL: rj@rjscott.co.uk

Bonnie Dee
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SAMHAIM  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: bondav40@yahoo.com

AM Arthur
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  FB FRIEND
BLOG  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  ITUNES
KOBO  /  B&N  /  AUDIBLE  /  TUMBLR
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EMAIL: AM_Arthur@yahoo.com

KC Burn
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
KOBO  /  B&N  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: authorkcburn@gmail.com

Jordan L Hawk
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WEBSITE  /  BLOG  /  NEWSLETTER
AUDIBLE  /  KOBO  /  B&N  /  PINTEREST
ITUNES  /  AUTOGRAPH  /  CAFE PRESS
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EMAIL: jordanlhawk@gmail.com

Charlie Cochet
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
AUDIBLE  /  iTUNES  /  GOOGLE PLAY
TUMBLR  /  INSTAGRAM  /  AMAZON
EMAIL: charlie@charliecochet.com

Andrew Grey
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
NEWSLETTER  /  KOBO  /  ITUNES  /  AUDIBLE
GOOGLE+  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  AMAZON
EMAIL: andrewgrey@comcast.net

Felice Stevens
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WEBSITE  /  NEWSLETTER  /  KOBO
B&N  /  AUDIBLE  /  GOOGLE+
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iTUNES  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: felice@felicestevens.com

AJ Rose
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EMAIL: ajrosefiction@gmail.com

Summer Devon
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  FB FRIEND
WEBSITE  /  BLOG  /  WEBSITE2  /  KOBO
SHELFARI  /  PINTEREST  /  iTUNES
SAMHAIM  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAILS: summerdevon@comcast.net
katerothwell@gmail.com

Brigham Vaughn
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FB GROUP  /  KOBO  /  GOOGLE+  /  iTUNES
SMASHWORDS  /  PINTEREST  /  B&N
EMAIL: brighamvaughn@gmail.com

Amy Rae Durreson
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  BLOG
NEWSLETTER  /  KOBO  /  GOOGLE PLAY
iTUNES  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS



The Rancher's Son by RJ Scott
B&N  /  KOBO  /  SMASHWORDS

The Copper by Bonnie Dee
B&N  /  KOBO  /  SMASHWORDS

The Heart as He Hears It by AM Arthur
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  SAMHAIN  /  GOODREADS TBR

Tartan Candy by KC Burn
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  GOOGLE PLAY

Hexbreaker by Jordan L Hawk
B&N  /  iTUNES AUDIO  /  AUDIBLE

Between the Devil and the Pacific Blue by Charlie Cochet
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  GOOGLE PLAY

Fire & Snow by Andrew Grey
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  DREAMSPINNER  /  AUDIBLE

Learning to Love by Felice Stevens
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N

Reaping Fate by AJ Rose

His Private Secretary by Summer Devon

Doc Brodie and the Big, Purple Cat Toy by Brigham Vaughn
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
AMAZON CA  /  KOBO  /  iTUNES

A Frost of Cares by Amy Rae Durreson
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  iTUNES

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