Thursday, January 12, 2017

Best Reads of 2016 Part 3


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 3 of my favorite reads of 2016 each containing my original review.

Click Here to Check Out
Part 1  /  Part 2

A Cowboy's Home by RJ Scott
Summary:
Montana #3
One burned and broken man finds his way home. Can he find peace in the arms of a man easy to love?

Justin made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, battling domestic terrorism, never the man he really was, using hate to avenge the death of his best friend. The friend he'd killed.

What he doesn’t count on is getting shot, and if he's going to die he wants it to be on Crooked Tree soil. Home.

Sam is as much a part of Crooked Tree as any of the families, and the offer to buy into the ranch is a dream come true. But falling for a hidden, secretive, injured man isn’t the way to keep his head in the game.

Click here to check out Montana series #1-3

Click here to check out Montana series #4
Original Review July 2016:
I eagerly awaited for Justin's story as soon as I finished Adam's story in The Rancher's Son, I was not disappointed.  Sam may not have had a big part in the first two books but it was pretty obvious that Crooked Tree Ranch had become his home and that the people on it his family.  So when his and Justin's paths cross, the connection was explosive if not exactly cordial.  I won't lie, I don't think that I found myself getting as invested in Justin & Sam's story as I did with Adam & Ethan(The Rancher's Son) or Nate & Jay(Crooked Tree Ranch) but that doesn't mean I wasn't completely absorbed once I opened the book.  Who am I kidding?  "Absorbed" doesn't even begin to cover it, I was completely and utterly hungry and I devoured A Cowboy's Home like a starving man who suddenly found an endless buffet at his feet.  Then when I reached the last page expecting it to be the finale of the Montana Trilogy only to discover it's not a trilogy at all and that there will be a book 4(Snow in Montana) tentatively December 2016.  RJ Scott just keeps getting better and better and I can't wait to see what she brings us next.

RATING: 

A Night at the Ariston Baths by Michael Murphy
Summary:
In rural Pennsylvania, Theodore McCall lives on his family’s farm and works as a clerk at the local general store. While his best friend, Martin Fuller, thrives in New York City, Theodore trudges through life. But on New Year’s Eve, 1902, Theodore’s world is turned upside down, and big changes call for bold action.

Theodore, who has never ventured more than eight miles from home, undertakes the daunting journey to New York City to join Martin. But the Martin he finds in New York is a stranger, a different man, doing things Theodore finds shocking. After just two months in the City, Theodore’s world is upended again as he an, d Martin are swept up in the events at the Ariston Baths.

Haunted by his experiences in New York, Theodore returns home, wondering whether he’ll ever find happiness in life. When he meets Jasper Webb, Theodore must boldly risk everything for the love he so longs for.


Original Review July 2016:
A Night at the Ariston Baths is a roller coaster of emotion.  Theodore McCall leads a pretty mundane life in a small Pennsylvania town, thinking he wants more out of life, he heads to New York City  where his best friend, Martin now lives.  Once there, it's not what Theodore expects.  The Ariston Baths were a part of history I knew nothing about so after reading this I looked it up and was delighted at the detail the author put in.  As a fan of historicals and a bit of a history buff, when authors devote their time and talent to meld history and fiction together with such a passion, I get a thrill and definitely take note.  I've never read this author before but I will definitely be keeping Michael Murphy on my watch list.  If you enjoy a great tale that brings life full circle with tons of emotion than A Night at the Ariston Baths is definitely one you want to check out.

RATING: 

The Gentleman's Madness by Bonnie Dee & Summer Devon
Summary:
An imprisoned heart finds escape in forbidden love.

No pride. No privacy. No hope.

Academic John Gilliam thought being caught embracing another man was the worst that could happen. Until he agrees to “treatment” at an asylum, where a vicious attack leaves him shaken and afraid.

But having all means of writing or reading taken from him… That is a serious threat to his sanity. Then a moment of kindness from an asylum attendant begins to restore his dignity.

Sam Tully feels sorry for the patient everyone calls “the professor”, but with a back injury that cost him his job on the docks—and without the education that would have bettered his position—he tries to keep his head down, and a tight lid on his attraction to men.

As John prays for freedom, he grows closer to the gentle, innately intelligent Tully. In spite of themselves, forbidden attraction leads to touches, kisses, and more. But there’s something other than curative treatments going on at the asylum. When John and Tully uncover a heinous conspiracy, their very lives are in danger.

Warning: Contains heinous crimes and frightening treatments—oh, and some sweet and loving sexy times between two healthy, not-crazy men.

Original Review July 2016:
John's journey definitely broke my heart but when Sam Tully entered his room, heartwarming feels popped up all over the place.  John and Sully wormed their way into my heart.  I say it often because when I read a really good book, the characters, the story, the setting, everything really gets under my skin and in my heart.  I invest all of me in it and The Gentleman's Madness is no different.  Once again, Dee & Devon have showed their devotion to historical detail in this amazing story.  I have to admit that the look in the eyes on the cover creeped me out a bit and because of it, Madness got pushed down on my TBR list a few notches but the farther into the story I got when I finally picked it up, the more it seemed perfectly fitting and now I can't imagine any other design.

RATING: 

Fit to be Tied by Mary Calmes
Summary:
Marshals #2
Deputy US Marshals Miro Jones and Ian Doyle are now partners on and off the job: Miro’s calm professionalism provides an ideal balance to Ian’s passion and quick temper. In a job where one misstep can be the difference between life and death, trust means everything. But every relationship has growing pains, and sometimes Miro stews about where he stands with his fiery lover. Could the heartstrings that so recently tied them together be in danger of unraveling?

Those new bonds are constantly challenged by family intrusions, well-intentioned friends, their personal insecurities, and their dangerous careers—including a trial by fire when an old case of Miro’s comes back to haunt them. It might just be enough to make Ian rethink his decision to let himself be tied down, and Miro can only hope the links they've forged will be strong enough to hold.

Click here to check out the Marshals series.

Original Review August 2016:
Miro and Ian return and what a follow-up Fit to be Tied makes!  Even with an established author that ranks towards the top of my favorite list, there is always a question will the new installment live up to the previous?  Well, Fit does and in my opinion surpasses All Kinds of Tied Down on all fronts, romance mystery, intrigue, and the WOW factor is off the charts.  When Miro's past comes back in the form of an escaped serial killer, the pair face their biggest trials yet.  That's all the plot references you'll get from me but it's definitely worth the read but you will want to make sure your day is free and clear because once you start you won't want to quit till you hit the last page.  Coming late to the party, I only have a month to wait for book 3 and even that seems like forever.

RATING: 

Tied Up in Knots by Mary Calmes
Summary:
Marshals #3
Miro Jones is living the life: he’s got his exciting, fulfilling job as a US deputy marshal, his gorgeous Greystone in suburban Chicago, his beloved adopted family, and most importantly, the man who captured his heart, Ian Doyle. Problem is, Ian isn’t just his partner at work—Ian’s a soldier through and through. That commitment takes him away from Miro, unexpectedly and often, and it’s casting a shadow over what could be everything Miro could ever dream of.

Work isn’t the same without Ian. Home isn’t the same, either, and Miro’s having to face his fears alone… how to keep it together at the office, how to survive looming threats from the past, and worst of all, how to keep living without Ian’s rock-solid presence at his side. His life is tied up in knots, but what if unknotting them requires something more permanent? What would that mean for him and Ian? Miro’s stuck between two bad choices, and sometimes the only way to get out of the knot is to hold tight to your lifeline and pull.

Original Review September 2016:
Miro and Ian are back!  They may not be quite up to Sam and Jory caliber in my heart but they are definitely giving the boys some competition coming in at a very close second.  In this third installment, we see the boys apart for some of the story as Ian does his duty as a green beret and Miro back on the job after his torture at the hands of escaped serial killer Chris Hartley.  When the pair is reunited, it isn't all chocolate and roses, they face both old and new enemies.  Tied Up in Knots is filled to the brim with mystery, romance, humor, and friendship in the form of intriguing plots, mesmerizing main characters, and interesting secondary characters.  Another winner from the amazing Mary Calmes.

RATING: 

Fallow by Jordan L Hawk
Summary:
Whyborne & Griffin #8
When Griffin’s past collides with his present, will it cost the lives of everyone he loves?

Between the threat of a world-ending invasion from the Outside and unwelcome revelations about his own nature, Percival Endicott Whyborne is under a great deal of strain. His husband, Griffin Flaherty, wants to help—but how can he, when Whyborne won’t tell him what’s wrong?

When a man from Griffin’s past murders a sorcerer, the situation grows even more dire. Once a simple farmer from Griffin’s hometown of Fallow, the assassin now bears a terrifying magical corruption, one whose nature even Whyborne can’t explain.

To keep Griffin’s estranged mother safe, they must travel to a dying town in Kansas. But as drought withers the crops of Fallow, a sinister cult sinks its roots deep into the arid soil. And if the cult’s foul harvest isn’t stopped in time, Fallow will be only the first city to fall.

Fallow is the eighth book in the Whyborne & Griffin series, where magic, mystery, and m/m romance collide with Victorian era America.

Click here for Whyborne & Griffin Series 

Original Review August 2016:
What can I say about Fallow and not give away any spoilers?  Let's see what I can come up with.  Whyborne and Griffin just keep getting better and better, if that is even possible, throw in Christine and Iskander and what you have is off the charts.  Our little group goes to Griffin's hometown of Fallow, Kansas where life is not as he recalls from his youth.  Whyborne's plan to leave Griffin in Kansas, which he sees as a way to keep Griffin safe, breaks your heart and every time his inner monologue debates the plan I found myself screaming at my Kindle "Just talk to him!!"  Well, have faith, Jordan L Hawk has never steered her readers wrong and Fallow is no different.  If you are already a Whyborne & Griffin fan then you'll be in paranormal romantic suspense heaven and if you haven't checked them out before, don't let there being 8 books in the series scare you away.  Trust me, whether there is only 8 or 108 entries in the series, it's well worth the time,  they are fantabulous! A must read for magic lovers.

RATING: 

Flight or Fight by Dirk Greyson
Summary:
Life in the big city wasn’t what Mackenzie "Mack" Redford expected, and now he’s come home to Hartwick County, South Dakota, to serve as sheriff.

Brantley Calderone is looking for a new life. After leaving New York and buying a ranch, he’s settling in and getting used to living at a different pace—until he finds a dead woman on his porch and himself the prime suspect in her murder.

Mack and Brantley quickly realize several things: someone is trying to frame Brantley; he is no longer safe alone on his ranch; and there’s a definite attraction developing between them, one that only increases when Mack offers to let Brantley stay in his home. But as their romance escalates, so does the killer. They’ll have to stay one step ahead and figure out who wants Brantley dead before it’s too late. Only then can they start the life they’re both seeking—together.

Original Review August 2016:
What a great mystery! Just had to put that out there.  Not only is it a great mystery but it's also a pretty cool romance too.  I loved the way Brantley and Mack connect even though Brantley is a suspect at first, which of course he isn't guilty because that would be way too easy.  When Brantley moved to South Dakota from New York, he expected his life to get simpler, well life has a way of working the way it's suppose to and that's not always how we expect.  One thing I really enjoyed was as a Wisconsinite it was refreshing to read a book not full of cliches of simple country life vs. busy city life.  The twists and turns of the mystery blended well with the burgeoning romance between Brantley and Mack, both of which had me on the edge of my seat.  Flight or Fight is only the second Dirk Greyson story I've read but it certainly won't be the last.

RATING: 

The Flowers of St. Aloysius by Hayden Thorne
Summary:
A dying young mother’s desperate hope for her child leads her to a fateful meeting in the clearing of an old wood. A meeting whose otherworldly purpose quietly and gradually takes shape as the child matures. A meeting that has left the wood under a dark spell, unable to rise up in fury to undo what it sees as a violation of natural laws.

Two families from old aristocratic lines agree to end the century-long and bloody feud that has left one side fading and the other flourishing. To achieve such an end, Laurent Veilleux, the youngest of his family, and Brys Lajoie, the last of his bloodline, are forced to marry though still strangers to each other. Marriages of convenience and political marriages are common among the upper-crust, and despite their initial reluctance and disdain, Laurent and Brys slowly allow themselves to open their hearts and minds to each other in hopes that somehow, by some miracle, love would eventually bloom between them.

But their union has awakened something, a fragrant and deadly shadow that leaves a trail of bodies in its wake. Healthy people suddenly fall ill and die after suffering long, excruciating declines marked by symptoms of poison. Plants and flowers wilt, butterflies and birds tumble to the ground dead, and it appears as though this murderous shadow follows the young couple everywhere.

To make matters worse, this threat seems to gather more strength when Laurent and Brys develop the emotional connection they’ve always hoped for. And somewhere in the French countryside, the woodlands finally emerge from the dark spell, unleash their fury, and seek justice for a past wrong, the trees’ reach spanning distances in search of the unsuspecting pair.

Inspired by the poison maiden legend from India, which Nathaniel Hawthorne also adapted in “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, 'The Flowers of St. Aloysius' is a gothic gay fairy tale set in an alternate universe nineteenth century France.

Original Review September 2016:
This interesting blend of fantasy and history makes for a very intriguing, terrifying at times, alternate universe.  I always enjoy AU historicals, they give the author such unique leeway with facts, letting them put their own brand of storytelling into the tale.  The Flowers of St. Aloysius is my first Hayden Thorne book, but it most certainly won't be my last.  I will say that if you have a deathly fear or phobia of nature then this is one you should probably approach with caution but otherwise, I highly recommend Flowers especially with October and Halloween just around the corner.  Brys and Laurent's story is what I imagine a book would be if Nathanial Hawthorne and the Grimm Brothers had collaborated, all kinds of gothic romance, magic, and mystery with a good old fashioned helping of creepy.  This is a definite must read and I can't wait to check out the author's other work and if they happen to only be half as good as Flowers I'll be a happy reader but something tells me they'll be way more than half as good.
RATING:

Priddy's Tale by Harper Fox
Summary:
What doesn’t kill you sometimes makes you wish it had…

Priddy’s a lost soul in a part of Cornwall the tourists don’t get to see. He’s young, sweet-natured and gorgeous, but that’s not enough to achieve escape velocity from his deadbeat village and rotten family life.

He’s a drifter and a dreamer, and self-preservation isn’t his strong suit. An accidental overdose of a nightclub high leaves him fractured, hallucinating, too many vital circuits fried to function in a tough world. When a friend offers him winter work in a lighthouse – nothing to do but press the occasional button and keep the windows clean – he gratefully accepts.

His plans to live quietly and stay out of trouble don’t last very long. A ferocious Atlantic storm washes a stranger to Priddy’s lonely shore. For a shipwrecked sailor, the new arrival seems very composed. He’s also handsome as hell, debonair, and completely unconcerned by Priddy’s dreadful past.

Priddy has almost given up on the prospect of any kind of friendship, and a new boyfriend – let alone a six-foot beauty with eerily good swimming skills – out of the question entirely. But Merou seems to see undreamed-of promise in Priddy, and when they hit the water together, Priddy has to adapt to Merou’s potentials too, and fast. His lover from the sea might be a mere mortal from the waist up, but south of that line…

Far-flung west Cornwall has a hundred mermaid tales. Priddy’s loved the stories all his life. Now he has to face up to a wildly impossible truth. Merou’s life depends upon his courage and strength, and if Priddy can only find his way in the extraordinary world opening up all around him, all the ocean and a human lifetime needn’t be enough to contain the love between merman and mortal.

Original Review September 2016:
An awesome tale of merman, humans, and love.  It can be a gamble when you read paranormal because although there is a lot of room for elaboration the author still needs to make the reader believe.  That's exactly what Harper Fox has done with Priddy's Tale, a unique blend of reality and paranormal that had me hooked from page one till the last.  Love, romance, mystery, friendship, throw in mermen and mermaids and what you have is a great addition to any paranormal library.

RATING: 

Ten Days in August by Kate McMurray
Summary:
From the Lower East Side to uptown Manhattan, a curious detective searches for clues on the sidewalks of New York—and finds a secret world of forbidden love that’s too hot to handle…

New York City, 1896. As the temperatures rise, so does the crime rate. At the peak of this sizzling heat wave, police inspector Hank Brandt is called to investigate the scandalous murder of a male prostitute. His colleagues think he should drop the case, but Hank’s interest is piqued, especially when he meets the intriguing key witness: a beautiful female impersonator named Nicholas Sharp.

As a nightclub performer living on the fringes of society, Nicky is reluctant to place his trust in a cop—even one as handsome as Hank. With Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt cracking down on vice in the city, Nicky’s afraid that getting involved could end his career. But when he realizes his life is in danger—and Hank is his strongest ally—the two men hit the streets together to solve the crime. From the tawdry tenements of the Lower East Side to the moneyed mansions of Fifth Avenue, Nicky and Hank are determined to uncover the truth. But when things start heating up between them, it’s not just their lives on the line. It’s their love…

Original Review September 2016:
As those who follow my reviews will know, I am a HUGE historical buff and love historical fiction, so when Ten Days in August caught my eye it was a no brainer that I would give it a try.  I am so glad I did because it is an amazing read, the characters, the mystery, the romance, and the attention to historical detail, well any one of them would have had me hooked but when you have them all it's a spectacular ride to Reader Heaven.  The connection between Nicky and Hank may be instantaneous but that doesn't mean it will be easy, add in a killer and the heat wave, it will most definitely not be easy.  As a Wisconsinite from a small farming community, I understand and respect the power of Mother Nature, but to find her the main character in a book added to the authenticity of the era and trust me, the heat wave is a huge factor here because the heat can grind on you and make a tense situation volatile. I always love discovering a new author, I look forward to checking out Kate McMurray's backlist.

RATING: 

Kyle by RJ Scott
Summary:
Legacy #1
Two men destroyed by the past learn to live—and love—again.

Kyle Braden has nowhere else to go. With no money and no prospects, he turns to the only man who promises him help. Jack Campbell-Hayes wants to show Kyle that he can be more than he ever thought.

Kyle begins to see how far he’s come from being the scarred man who shut everyone out, when the first person through the doors of Legacy Ranch is Jason; a young man with nightmares that follow him when he's awake.

Lost in the system and with three years on the streets marking every inch of his body, Jason Smith is scared. His life is an evil mess of hate and despair, and even the offer of a fresh start and a clean bed isn’t enough for him feel safe. Until Kyle comes into his life and shows him that it's okay not to be in control.

For these broken men, Legacy Ranch offers more than a place to live and work.

It offers hope.

A new story set in the world of Jack and Riley Campbell-Hayes and the Double D Ranch, Texas.

Click here to check out the Texas series to learn Jack & Riley Campbell-Hayes' journey.

Original Review September 2016:
Some might say that Kyle Braden is a broken character in need of fixing, I don't, I see a man who was lost after being abused in the most horrible way.   Jason Smith is only slightly less lost after his life on the streets.  When they're both given a chance to find their way at the Legacy Ranch the newest addition to the Double D, life changes but it's not easy.  After everything they have both been through and seen, trust is not easily given.  Kyle, The First Legacy is a wonderful story on its own and the fact that it is a spin-off of the author's Texas series is only an added plus.  I never imagined that I could truly enjoy the Double-D spinoff without Jack and Riley Campbell-Hayes, boy was I wrong.  That's not to say we don't see some of the regulars from the Double-D universe but it's in small side helpings, almost like a bites of dessert taken throughout the meal.  Legacy Ranch may be a off-shoot of RJ Scott's Texas series, but it is a journey all on its own with new stories that I can't wait to continue reading because I couldn't put Kyle down.

RATING: 

Across the East River Bridge by Kate McMurray
Summary:
Winner of the 2012 Rainbow Award for Best Gay Paranormal

When historian Christopher Finnegan walks into a new museum in Brooklyn, he's chagrined to learn its curator is his old academic rival, Troy Rafferty. Worse, Troy is convinced the museum is haunted and wants Finn's help learning more about the ghosts. Finn and Troy have never gotten along and Finn wants to run screaming, but then Troy offers him an intriguing proposal: Troy will help Finn with a research project for his overbearing boss if Finn will help Troy solve a mystery involving two men who died in the building under mysterious circumstances in 1878.

Finn and Troy piece together the two men's lives--and the quiet romance that grew between them--through diaries, newspaper clippings, and police reports. They're both soon convinced the men were murdered. They're also convinced the ghosts are real even Finn witnesses paranormal phenomena he can't deny--and that they're capable of affecting thoughts, feelings, and actions. When Finn and Troy start falling for each other despite years of animosity, Finn worries he's being manipulated by the ghosts to stay with Troy and solve the case. Troy is convinced the love between them is real, but he'll need to figure out how to get rid of the ghosts in order to prove it.
Original Review September 2016:
I completely fell in love with the blend of historical, contemporary, paranormal, romance, and mystery, the balance hit every one of my reader heaven buttons.  Troy and Finn may be acquaintances that have done the horizontal tango more than once but it's pretty obvious Finn views their connection more adversary than friendly.  Work brings them together once again, add in an interesting ghost story with intriguing ghosts, work and personal history may be the last thing that is on their minds.  Another great book for my paranormal library.

RATING: 


A Cowboy's Home by RJ Scott
Chapter One 
Justin’s vision blurred as his head smacked against the wall, but he used the force of the blow, caught his attacker off balance, and pivoted to avoid the gun against his side.

They grappled for dominance, and Justin knew from sparring that he would have to push beyond his skill set to take Saunders down. Fucker wasn’t new to this, and he was a scrappy fighter with nothing to lose.

“No one leaves the team, you know that!” Saunders snapped. “You’ll fuck us all up.”

“You lied to me,” Justin shouted.

In answer, Saunders shoved him, but Justin sidestepped and pressed forward. He wanted Saunders to answer questions. Adam was alive, and Saunders had stolen Justin’s life. He wanted him unconscious on the floor, and then he could think.

Saunders grunted as Justin went limp, and Justin waited for the exact moment when Saunders’s center was extended, and then with the flat of his hand, he jabbed his boss right in the throat. Saunders didn’t go down, he didn’t make a fucking sound, but his focus was knocked for a second. Justin slammed him into the wall, kicking hard at Saunders’s wrist; the gun Saunders had pulled on him to “clean up the Adam mess” fell to the floor.

Saunders didn’t wait to be killed—he was fighting for his life, just as Justin was—but Justin had years of bottled up aggression, and he let it rip with a snarl. Saunders scrambled to get the gun, but as he bent over, Justin kneed him in the face. Dazed, Saunders stumbled back. Then, having control for a moment, Justin shoved him hard, pushed the heavyset man against the wall, and held him tight with his feet off the floor.

“You told me my family was in danger!” Justin shouted right in Saunders’s face.

“They could have been.”

“I was a kid.”

Saunders pushed him, but Justin ignored the frantic scrabbling of Saunders’s nails on his skin. Justin had strength borne from the temper and horror clawing inside him.

Saunders gouged at Justin’s face, snapping free with a slick move. Their foreheads connected and Saunders stumbled; Justin’s hold loosened enough for Saunders to use his weight advantage and slam Justin into the wall, his head taking the brunt of the assault.

Justin shook off the pain, and was up on his toes, forcing Saunders away, then crouched a little and swept out a leg to catch Saunders at the back of the knee. He shouted in pain and fell to one side, giving Justin a better advantage, pushing his knee to Saunders’s throat and levering his body to exert more pressure. For the second time Saunders scrabbled to get free, but Justin wasn’t shifting.

“Stop it, Justin!” Webb shouted over the confusion. The other operative had stayed out of the fight up till then, but he was stepping in as soon as Justin got the upper hand.

Webb’s gun was trained on him, and even as Justin pressed harder on Saunders’s throat, he calculated how he could get the weapon away from Webb.

“You gonna kill me?” Justin snapped at Webb. “What lies did he tell you to get you to do that?”

Saunders was nothing but red tape and rules, even in a unit with allegedly zero accountability. Webb, on the other hand, was another enforcer, the one who’d trained Justin, shown him how easy it was to kill.

Justin pressed harder, and Saunders’s scratching and pawing grew less intense with each passing second. Webb wasn’t shooting, wasn’t pulling Justin off. What did he care?

The scrabbling stopped. Saunders was finally unconscious, and Justin had a split second of knowing that Saunders wasn’t dead, just passed out, but hell, he didn’t want to kill the guy.

A bullet burned its way by his body and thudded into the wall. Webb wasn’t letting him leave the warehouse alive. With no time to assess, and acting on pure instinct, Justin swung round. A second bullet caught him in the thigh even as he tripped Webb and made a calculated grab for the gun.

Saunders jumped him—freaking asshole hadn’t stayed unconscious, but Justin pushed back against him, twisting so Webb’s gun was at chest height. Saunders reflexively pressed the trigger, pumping a bullet into Webb. The O of surprise on Webb’s face was the last expression he made as he fell to the floor with a neat hole in his forehead.

Justin fought for control of the gun. He was next—and that was not how he was going to die. He still had a list to complete.

Saunders tried every trick he knew to take Justin down, but Justin wasn’t playing by the rules. He used every ounce of his killing side to fight dirty until he finally took the gun from the man he’d called the boss.

And then he turned it on Saunders.

“Justin, back off.” Saunders dropped to a crouch, his hands on his knees, his breathing labored.

“You lied to me,” Justin said.

“We had to, Justin, we needed you hungry. Needed men who were willing to die, who didn’t care about themselves.”

Justin didn’t even flinch, that was him in one sentence. But if he’d known Adam was okay, would it have been different? “You should have told me Adam was alive.”

Saunders held up a hand. “Justin, you were in so much pain you were giving up. You wanted to die, and Adam was in witness protection with a head wound and amnesia. Hell, kid, I saved you both.”

Justin couldn’t believe what he was hearing. That was some fucked-up thinking right there. If he’d had known that Adam had survived, maybe that would have just left guilt he could live with. He may not have even started on this journey; not killed his first man in this all-consuming need to pay for his sins, not caring if he lived or died. “The first thing you told me was that Adam was dead. You never even had to think about what to tell me.”

“There was so much confusion at the scene—”

“Bull. Shit.”

“We had to put Adam in WITSEC. The DOJ said they’d keep him safe—”

“And me?”

“I saw something in you when you woke up. You had a fire in your eyes. I gave you purpose, trained you—”

“Turned me into a killer.”

“We gave you purpose when you were ready to give up.”

Justin tapped the gun on his knee. “Fuck you,” he said.

“Think of the lives you saved working on this team.” Saunders near screamed at him. He was losing control, and likewise Justin had to rein back his instinctive need to shoot the son of a bitch.

The team had stolen all those years from him, and whatever good he might have done couldn’t weigh up against losing his family. “We’re going to the ranch, and we’re explaining it all to Adam, to my family.”

“You know that won’t happen. You did this for your country. You tell anyone, and they’ll hunt us all down. You think any of this was sanctioned? Rob will have no option—protocols will kick in. You know they’ll get Rob to kill you, and then he’ll be gone as well.”

Justin didn’t care about any of that. Rob was just another hired assassin, same as him; there was nothing Justin feared from Rob. He crouched next to Saunders, the gun tight in his hand and resolve in his heart. “Do you know how many people I killed for this team?”

“For you, Justin. What about the extra list, huh? The ones you killed for yourself?”

Justin reared back. “They’re not part of this. I’m talking about the unsanctioned ops, the situations we were ordered into.”

“Fuck you, Allens; you were happy to do it. Your fucked-up brain—”

“Let me think,” Justin snapped. He’d seen Adam in Chicago, seen him at Crooked Tree through the trees. Seen with his own eyes that he was alive. There could have been hope for Justin with Adam by his side, maybe he could have pulled himself back from the brink—

Saunders interrupted his thoughts. “For God’s sake, you know what we do. You signed up for the ops, killed to keep your country safe. You knew if we were compromised, we’d be removed. You shot Webb.”

Justin gestured with his gun. “Technically you shot Webb.”

“You think that’s going to go unnoticed?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Justin spat. “I’m out.”

“You can’t do that.”

“Watch me.”

“You’ll have a target painted on your back? You need to come in, and we’ll deal with this appropriately. There are procedures, rules to follow—”

“Suddenly there are rules? What happened to a free license to keep the country safe?” Justin asked.

“You fucked that up as soon as you started on your forays into revenge?”

“As well as getting the job done. I saved lives. No one knew what we’d done. We’re heroes, right?”

Saunders looked uneasy. “Clarke won’t like this—Webb down, you gone rogue. You know what will happen. He’ll ask me to deal with this before it all goes to shit. No one can know what we do.”

“Then explain to me why I shouldn’t take you out now, before you order me killed? It seems to me that without you doing whatever Clarke tells you, I’ll be a hell of a lot safer.”

Saunders must have read the intent in Justin’s eyes because he whimpered and crab-walked back to the wall, one hand in front of him. “Please,” he begged. “Don’t kill me.”

Justin grimaced. “Jesus, Saunders, I’m not going to kill you.” He noticed a lot of tiny details at that moment: Webb’s blood spreading to touch his foot, the scent of death, the way Saunders had a calculating look in his eye even when cowering—he probably had already called Rob for backup.

The team had made Justin into a weapon, and he’d been the good soldier, every minute of his day fueled by anger. He’d done everything to keep his country safe, everything to keep his family and friends from being hurt.

And in the middle of that he’d hunted down four out of the five who’d hurt him and killed Adam, dealt with the collateral damage, boxed away the fallout, and finally he had Saunders—the man who had taken the hate in Justin’s heart and turned him into a killer—begging for his life.

“What will you do?” Saunders asked, his chest heaving, his face bloodless.

Justin had to think. He didn’t know what he was going to do. He wanted to go home, but his head told him that wasn’t right. His heart, however, demanded that he explain, see his family. But that would put them in danger.

Webb was dead. Saunders crouched in front of him, and Rob? Who the hell knew where Rob was. Last Justin knew, Rob had finished the job in the Carolinas. They were an elite team: him, Rob, and Webb the blunt weapons, and Saunders the planner, and above them Clarke, who sat at his cozy Pentagon desk deciding on the order of people’s lives. Who knew who was above that and how far it went?

Justin had never asked, had signed up wholly to the concept that with terrorists on US soil, sometimes corners had to be cut to ensure their country’s citizens were safe. He cast a look at Webb, and something like remorse washed over him.

“If you kill me, Rob will have no choice but to take you out before you kill him.”

Justin chuckled darkly as he focused back in on Saunders. “I know my place, and I’ll eat a bullet before Rob has to kill me and my part in this is over. But you… if I let you live, what does that make me?”

Saunders looked desperate. “Compassionate?”

He kicked out at Justin, caught his knee, and Justin stumbled backward. Everything happened in slow motion: Justin pivoted to get his balance and Saunders reached for an ankle holster, pulling a gun, his movement sharp and desperate. He shot, but Justin had a grip on his arm and the bullet went wide.

“Stop it!” Justin ordered. “I don’t want to kill you—”

“Fuck you!” Saunders shouted and yanked at Justin, lifting the small pistol until it was aimed right at Justin.

Justin acted on instinct. He didn’t have a clear shot as he let his weight shift, falling back as he pulled the trigger. The angle was acute and the bullet ended up off-center in Saunders’s forehead.

Saunders was dead before his body hit the floor.

For a few seconds, Justin stared down at the man, guilt and adrenaline like acid inside him.

“Jesus,” he muttered. He waited for guilt to win, but common sense shoved it out of the way.

He pushed his weapon into his jeans at the base of his spine and scanned the empty warehouse. The place was familiar to him, and he pushed open the first door with a rusting Staff sign, stumbling down corridors until he found the keypad, stopping to catch his breath. The minute he attempted entry, Clarke would know.

He imagined the interior, the steel framework, the desk, and the computer.

After quickly keying in the code and opening the door, he crossed to the office, pushed in the memory stick from his pocket, thankful it hadn’t been smashed in the fight. He dragged everything he could find on the PC onto it. Then he pulled down the container of C4, flipped the catch, packed the explosive around the room, set the timer, and gave himself just enough time to get away.

He needed to run, so he pressed his shirt to the wound in his leg, dragged the belt from his jeans, and used it to keep the shirt in place. Where it had been numb, there was fire in his leg, and he was pretty much fucked if he didn’t get the bullet out soon. He was halfway across the interior of the warehouse when he heard the single word.

“Cowboy.”

Justin stopped. His hand automatically went for his weapon, but it was only Rob, using the ridiculous nickname that had been coined over one tequila too many.

Rob, the one trained killer who knew Justin way too well.

Justin didn’t even bother to take out his gun. If Rob were here to kill him, then he would have been dead already.

He turned. Rob had his weapon in his hand, but held loose at his side, not aimed at him. “Rob.”

“You’re bleeding.” Rob’s tone was steady, dispassionate; no empathy in his expression or in his flat tone.

Justin looked down at his jeans, at the tear in them and the damage the bullet had wrought, at the blood soaking into denim. “Flesh wound,” he dismissed, even though it burned like hell.

That raised a dark chuckle. “That’s what you said in Vancouver, remember? You nearly fucking died.”

Justin forced his hands into his pockets. He didn’t want a walk down a shared memory lane of undercover jobs. “I’m okay.”

Rob tilted his head to the warehouse. “What did you do?”

Justin shrugged. “What I had to do.”

Rob closed his eyes briefly. “Shit, Justin. Who?”

“Saunders, Webb.”

“Both of them?”

“I didn’t have a choice.”

“Why?”

He wasn’t going to explain that it had been Saunders who shot Webb; the technicalities weren’t necessary. Saunders and Webb were dead: the boss, the enforcer… and that just left him and Rob. He couldn’t even think about the pencil pusher above them, Clarke wasn’t important.

So, what should he say? I killed them because they fought back, because they carried on lying? Because they destroyed me, made me into something I was never meant to be?

He kept those words to himself. “It was me or them,” he said instead.

Rob winced. “And just us now.”

“And Clarke, and whoever he reports to,” Justin reminded him.

They’d had this conversation before, wondering how a unit like theirs could survive without someone above Clarke calling the shots.

“There’ll be a price on you now. Whoever the fuck it is, they’ll say you’ve gone rogue, and send me to kill you for what you did. You know too much.”

Justin stepped closer to the man he loosely called friend. “You’re a liability as much as I am. Come with me. We can find somewhere, anywhere, and be something else.”

“Like what? This isn’t some happy-ever-after scenario. We’re trained killers, Justin. We don’t know any different.”

Justin held himself steady, pushing away the insistent press of dizziness. “We could be something else.”

Rob laughed, and when he moved, it was to holster his weapon. Then he looked at Justin with deliberation in his icy green gaze. “You’d better hide well,” he said, and regret flashed in his eyes.

Justin nodded. “I’m done.”

Rob shook his head. “No you’re not; you still have one more on your revenge list. I know you.”

The list that Rob spoke of, the men who had hurt him and killed Adam, named five men—and four were dead. Only one more left to cross off. But his imperative to kill, that Adam was dead, was a lie. So, did that mean Justin had been wrong to end those responsible for Adam’s death? Even if he wanted to hurt them for what they’d done to him? Or, if they wanted to hurt others? A tiny amount of uncertainty pushed its way into his consideration, but it wasn’t enough for him to stop.

“One more.” He didn’t drop his gaze from Rob’s.

“You need to leave that list alone, Cowboy. It’s going to be the end of you.” Rob sighed heavily. “Clarke will send me to take you down after what you’ve done here. What you know, what we’ve done, we could take down the White House.”

“I took an oath….”

“But you’d be running for your life, and I know you as well as you know me. I’ll find you. Don’t make me do this.”

“Just give me some time.” Justin thought of the memory stick in his pocket, all the information he’d gathered about the fifth man on his revenge list.

“Hell, I don’t know how much time I can stall this.”

“I’ll do what needs to be done, and I’ll disappear.”

Rob scrubbed a hand over his face. He looked more than troubled, horrified maybe, almost certainly resigned. “Shit, Justin, this…. You have to drop this, go somewhere I can’t find you.” He shook his head. “Look, leave it, yeah? They’ll know what you’re doing. They’ll send me to track you down. Don’t make me kill you.”

Justin stepped closer, placing a palm on the flat of Rob’s chest. “I won’t make you do it.” He injected some of the familiar cockiness into his voice. “You’re my friend, Rob, as much as we can be in this fucked-up shit.”

“Then just hide, don’t let me find you.”

“Even if you find me, I’ll make sure to take myself out. I won’t let you have that on your conscience.”

Sadness replaced the horror. “Fuck, what did they do to us?”

Justin wished he had an answer. Wordlessly he turned and walked away.

In a sick, twisted way, Rob was the definition of his family, and what Justin had just done had made Rob his enemy.

It’s not like I deserve family.

He made it to his car, not even the noise of the explosion making him falter. With determination, and staying under the speed limit, he made it away from the city. Heading south he switched cars twice to older models he could hot-wire, avoiding cameras as much as he could.

He only stopped when his ability to focus began to fade. His head hurt, his thigh burned, and something was seriously wrong. He was nauseous and dizzy, and wasn’t going to make it much farther.

He wiped the steering wheel clean of the blood and his prints. Any CSI worth their salt would still find DNA in the car, and they would have all the information they needed for a profile, but the man who matched it wasn’t even alive.

Because Justin Allens had died when he was sixteen, and the man he’d become overnight was black ops, hidden so deep he wasn’t even sure he knew who he was anymore.

He closed his eyes as he stood beside the car. He’d driven south by instinct, pulled off the road at a lane that eventually led up into the mountains. Somehow his head told him the place would be safe until the fever broke.

Or until it didn’t.

Twenty miles west of here was where the Crooked Tree land started. The bleeding had stopped, but the pain had reached the point where he couldn’t breathe or move without cursing. The agony in his head was a band of fire, and his thoughts were a muddle of hell and hurt. He’d been slammed him so hard against the wall he likely had a concussion, and it was a miracle he’d driven that far in one piece.

Unless he went to a hospital and got some treatment for the leg wound, he could just bleed out, slowly and agonizingly, his brain swollen and frying in his head.

Maybe from here he could get to Crooked Tree. He crouched with difficulty and cursing to dig at the dirt, holding enough in his hand so he could feel its coldness, smell the dark loam. This was Montana soil, and dying here would work.

He glanced up and down the road. Who would find him? A soccer mom with kids? A man on his way to work? A bus driver minding his own business?

Justin didn’t have a choice. He pulled out his knife and tore at the jeans, sweat beading on his brow. He couldn’t see a fucking thing. The entry hole was small, but who the hell knew how far the bullet had gone?

He ran the blade of the knife across the wound, blood seeped, and he swallowed a scream. Blackness threatened, and he counted in his head, focusing on the numbers until he could look down at the wound.

He poked with the knife, finally finding the bullet, and as if he was doing it to someone else, he dug out the piece of metal, screaming in the safety of his car at the pain. His vision blurred but he was aware enough to ask was the bullet he’d removed intact? Had he got it all? I need to check.

He tightened the belt another notch; the wound was red and raw, but wasn’t bleeding so much. Thank God it appeared no arteries were involved, but there was enough blood that made him think he wasn’t going to make it out alive from this situation. Hell, what did it matter anyway? Even if he managed to get to a hospital, he’d be a dead man as soon as Rob got the order to take him out.

What had happened back at the warehouse was the beginning of the end for the Unit, and he’d broken every unspoken rule. He was dying either way, but he regretted that he may not live to kill the last man on his revenge list. Somehow he needed to find peace with that. He’d wanted so badly to make his revenge complete.

Maybe Jamie Crane would be the one who got away. The one man who’d actually won after what he’d done to Justin and Adam; the one who lived.

His vision dimmed a little and he blinked away the blurriness. He was going to die there on the side of the road.

No.

Finding somewhere on Montana dirt to die wasn’t enough. If Justin was going to let the poison inside him eat away at his flesh, it had to be real and forever, back where it all started.

He wanted to find a small corner of Crooked Tree, and he wanted to die there.

Rob’s voice echoed in his thoughts. “Cowboy, don’t make me kill you.”

Justin wanted to go home.

A Night at the Ariston Baths by Michael Murphy
Prologue
THE EVENING news usually didn’t make Theodore jump up and try to dance and do a cheer, but it did on Saturday evening, June 28, 1969.

“Theodore, stop!” Jasper warned. “You’re going to fall and break a hip.”

But Theodore didn’t care. “They did it. By God, they did it!” he said as he thrust the fist at the end of his skinny arm into the air.

“Who did what?” Jasper asked, confused.

“Our people,” Theodore gasped out, as he fell back into his chair. “Our… people.”

“Mr. McCall, you having trouble breathing, baby?” a health aide asked anxiously when she saw Theodore panting for breath.

“The old fool was just trying to dance a jig or cheer or something ridiculous,” Jasper said critically but with a hint of concern. “What were you thinking? You’re nearly ninety years old. You can’t do things like that anymore. Especially after being in the hospital just two weeks ago.”

“Oh, hush,” Theodore said. “This is a day… that will go down in the history books. And I lived to see it. I’ve dreamed of this, but I was afraid I wouldn’t live long enough. But I did. What a glorious day.”

“What are you talking about?” Jasper asked, looking more concerned about Theodore than he was about having an answer to the question he’d just asked.

“That last news story. Didn’t you hear it?”

“I must have, but I couldn’t tell you what it was about.”

“There was a riot last night—this morning, I suppose.”

“Who rioted about what?” Jasper asked.

“Our people. The homosexual youngsters.”

“Where?”

“Right here in New York. Some place called the Stonewall Inn.”

“Have you been there?”

“No. And you know that, because you haven’t been there, and you and I go everywhere together. We have for more than sixty years now.”

The health aide had been taking Theodore’s pulse while they talked. “You’ve known each other how long?” she asked.

“More than sixty years now,” Theodore said.

“Sixty-five years,” Jasper corrected.

“Good Lord,” she said admiringly. “My mama wasn’t even born yet when you two met. I’m not even sure if my grandma was alive yet.”

“That’s because we’re older than dirt,” Theodore said.

“Hey,” Jasper said, “speak for yourself, old man. I’m younger than you are.”

“Only by a couple of months,” Theodore said. “It’s not like I robbed the cradle.”

“Whatever you say, oldster.”

The health aide laughed. “You two are too much. My job wouldn’t be half as much fun if I didn’t have you guys here.”

“Thank you,” Jasper said.

“How did you meet?” she asked.

“I hired him to work in my store in 1904,” Theodore said. “Best decision I ever made too.”

Looking at Jasper, she asked, “Now don’t you know you’re not supposed to have workplace romances?”

“I was the only employee. It was him and me. We didn’t have any rules like that back in our day. And let me tell you,” Jasper said, leaning forward as if to share confidential information, “if you could have seen him… oh, my goodness. Just the sight of him made my heart race. The man was quite a looker.”

“You weren’t so bad yourself,” Theodore added.

“We were much more focused on living without attracting a lot of attention. It was hard to be homosexual back then,” Jasper said.

“Hell, it’s never been easy to be gay in this country. Doesn’t matter that we’ve been here right from the start, a part of every single generation that made this country what it is today.”

“We had to conduct business, live our lives, and help everyone believe they couldn’t see and didn’t know what was going on between us. Everybody knew, but God forbid their safe little worlds be disrupted by something that didn’t fit their concept of what was what.”

“Everybody had their heads buried deep in the sand. Sometimes I wondered how they managed to breathe,” Theodore said.

“You spoke about something going down in history. Gentlemen, you are history.”

“You trying to say we’re old?” Theodore asked with a smile.

“I didn’t say anything about you being old,” she said. “I said you two are history, not historic.”

“This day, today, what just happened last night, is finally our people not quietly letting the cops beat us down and abuse us and treat us like less than dirt. This is for Martin.”

“Well, one of you better start and tell me that story.”

“Well, you see, it started on the last day of 1902, New Year’s Eve. But let me back up a little. It was Christmas Eve, 1902….”


Chapter One—Christmas Eve 1902
“STEP CAREFULLY, Mrs. Robinson,” Theodore said as he helped her into her buggy after loading her purchases. It wasn’t a big step, but she was an old woman.

“Thank you for your help, Theodore,” she said, once she was seated. “I hope you and your family have a very happy holiday.”

“You as well, Mrs. Robinson.”

Theodore hurried back inside the store with an involuntary shiver. His height made it easy for him to reach things off high shelves, but his slenderness didn’t give him a lot of insulation from the winter cold.

Not only was the day dull and gray, but the wind was also biting cold. It had been frigid that morning when he’d walked to work in the dark, and the arrival of daylight had done little to make the day any warmer.

Had he been planning to walk more than ten feet from the store’s front door, he would have grabbed his jacket before going outside, even for a moment, but they had been so busy that day he hadn’t wanted to waste the time.

He wasn’t back inside with the door completely closed before he heard his boss, Mr. Hoffman, calling to him. “Theodore. Mrs. Moscrip needs help getting her items to her wagon.”

Inwardly he groaned, but outwardly he planted a smile on his face and grabbed the box filled with her purchases.

“And hurry back, Theodore. There are other purchases to be carried out.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Hoffman,” he said, even though he wondered where he might dally outside without a jacket, had he been so inclined. He wanted to say, “Step lively, old woman,” but of course he could not, nor would he ever say that.

All day that December 24th, Theodore was in and out of the store, helping to carry items to wagons and carts and buggies. Every two minutes it seemed Mr. Hoffman was calling him to assist someone. He’d lost track of how many times he’d been outside.

When Mr. Hoffman closed and locked the store doors at six that evening, pulling the blinds down to signal they were closed, Theodore wanted to fall on the floor and give thanks. He was exhausted, but somehow Mr. Hoffman, more than twice his age, seemed perky and energized.

“We’ve had a most lively season of holiday shopping this year, haven’t we?”

“Yes, sir, we have.”

“We have shelves to stock, Theodore.”

Theodore groaned silently. He’d stayed late nearly every night that week, and he was not in the mood to do it again. It was Christmas Eve, and he just wanted to go home and sleep.

Either Mr. Hoffman read that on his face, or he’d been toying with Theodore. “But that can wait until after Christmas,” he said, giving Theodore, his one and only employee, a smile.

“Thank you, sir,” Theodore said, immediately moving to grab his coat and hat to bundle up and prepare to make the long trudge home.

Mr. Hoffman had disappeared somewhere in the back, so when a loud rapping sounded on the front door, Theodore was left to shout, “We’re closed.”

Either the person did not hear him or did not choose to hear him, because the rapping repeated.

“I said, ‘We’re closed,’” he shouted a little louder. Surely the person could hear him or at least read the sign prominently displayed in the middle of the door announcing the time of their closing that day. But the person apparently did neither, and the loud knocking came yet again.

Usually unflappable, his overall fatigue made Theodore more easily irritated. After striding to the door, he yanked back the shade that Mr. Hoffman had lowered and was about to shout once again that the store was closed, when he beheld a sight for sore eyes.

“Martin,” Theodore squealed with delight. His best friend stood on the other side of the door and stared in through the glass, a huge smile on his face.

He unlocked the door and admitted Martin, then quickly locked it again before throwing his arms around his friend and hugging him so hard he was surprised he didn’t do damage.

Martin wasn’t as tall as Theodore, but he was more solidly built—not stout but muscular.

“What are you doing here?” Theodore asked. “I didn’t know you were coming home. I’ll have a word with my mother for keeping that from me. I didn’t know she was capable of keeping a secret.”

“She didn’t know,” Martin said.

“You mean your mother didn’t tell her?”

“No,” Martin told him. “No one knew I was coming home. I didn’t even know until this morning when I decided. Plus I need to tell you all about the big bad world and try to rescue you from a slow death here in the back of beyond.”

“What do you mean?” Theodore asked.

“Those last few letters you wrote sounded morose. I was seriously worried about your state of mind.”

Theodore cast his gaze downward, embarrassed, and shrugged, trying to act as if there was no problem. “I’m fine.”

“I know, because I’m here,” Martin joked.

“Sounds like city living has given your confidence a boost,” Theodore remarked.

“Oh, Teddy, you have no idea. But fear not, your fairy godfather is here to save the day.”

“Excuse me?” he asked.

“Come on. Let’s get out of here and get home.”

“Theodore?” Mr. Hoffman said.

Theodore turned, amazed the man had crept up on them without him noticing. “Yes, sir.”

“I have a little something for you.” Mr. Hoffman handed him an envelope.

Theodore looked inside and was astonished to see cash—a surprising amount of cash.

“What’s this, sir?”

“A Christmas bonus, son. I know how busy the last several weeks have been, and I also know how hard you’ve worked. Business has been good, and I’ve made an acceptable profit this month. Of course that profit has to sustain us throughout the rest of the year when business is slower, but still, I wanted to share something with you as a way of saying thank you for all of your hard work.”

Theodore was astonished. In previous years, there had not been a bonus, Christmas or otherwise. “I don’t know what to say, Mr. Hoffman. Thank you so much. It is most appreciated.”

“It’s good to see you back home, Martin. How is city life?”

“Great, Mr. Hoffman. I love it.”

Turning back to Theodore, Mr. Hoffman said, “Go home, Theodore. Enjoy the holiday with your family, and I’ll see you back here on the 26th, bright and early.”

“Yes, sir,” he answered before he and Martin left the store and started the walk to their families’ farms.


Chapter Two—The Long Walk Home
THE SUN had long since set by the time Theodore and Martin exited the store. With no moonlight, they had to walk slowly and carefully to avoid ruts.

Martin stopped suddenly and sniffed the air. “What is that?” he said.

“What?” Theodore asked.

Martin wrinkled his nose. “It smells like… manure?”

“Oh, you city boy. You just stepped in horse shit in the road.”

“Disgusting,” Martin said.

Theodore wanted to commiserate but couldn’t suppress a chuckle. “Come on. Pick up the pace. It’s cold out here.”

“I know it’s cold. I can barely feel my toes.”

“Then step lively, man. I can’t believe it’s really you.” Theodore looped his arm around Martin’s waist and held him close as they continued their trek home.

“I missed you terribly and was worried when I read your letters.”

“Was I really sounding that terrible?” Theodore asked, feeling embarrassed.

“You sounded like a man trapped in a bad situation.”

After a moment, Theodore answered simply, “That’s because I am. My life isn’t really a life. It’s more of an existence. I get up, go to work, come home, eat, fall asleep, and get up and do the same thing the next day. Over and over and over again. My job is not remotely challenging.”

“Oh, Teddy, I’m sorry you’re feeling so bad.”

“Me too. But enough about that. How long are you staying?” Theodore asked.

“Long enough to get a solution for your problem. And I have a good one in mind.”

“You do? What?”

“In due time.”

“Tell me, please,” Theodore begged.

“Not tonight.”

“No fair,” Theodore complained. “You can’t tell a fellow something like that and then keep him waiting.”

“Yes, I can. I just did.”

“I hate you,” Theodore joked, withdrawing his arm from Martin’s waist and giving him a shove.

“Hate me or love me, it’s your choice. But I think you’re going to love me—just like so many men have loved me since I moved to New York City.”

Coming to a complete stop and lowering his voice so no one could possibly hear their conversation—even though there wasn’t another person anywhere within a mile—Theodore whispered, “Really?”

Martin excitedly nodded. “Oh, Teddy. New York City is an amazing place. There are men like us there.”

“You’ve found others like us?” Theodore breathlessly asked. He had dreamed of such things.

“Oh, yes. Many, many, many other men like us. I’ve wanted to write to you about this and tell you how many of our kind there are, but I was afraid your mother would read my letters and that she’d find out about you or me or us.”

“You’ve met some of those men?” Theodore asked, lowering his voice, partly from a desire for secrecy and partly from excitement at the idea of finding other men like him and Martin.

Martin smiled. “Oh, yes, Theodore. Oh, yes. I’ve met a good many of them. But even with all of those men, I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are just so many of our kind there.”

“Have you… have you… been… with any of these men?”

“You mean, have I had sex with them? Yes. With many of them.”

“You have? You’ve been with other men… since… me?”

“Of course,” Martin said.

His words stung. Theodore knew he had no right to feel upset, but he had always fantasized about Martin off in the city, pining for him as he was for Martin. But he knew he had no claim on Martin, and his friend was growing in ways that were not an option for him.

“I’ve learned some new things that I can’t wait to show you,” Martin said, pulling Theodore from his reflections.

Theodore snorted. “Well, that will have to wait until summer. There is no way I’m disrobing outdoors in temperatures like what we’ve had lately.”

“I would never ask you to do such a thing.”

Theodore quickly looked around to make sure no one was about.

They took advantage of their isolation and wrapped their arms around each other again. Martin rested his head against Theodore’s shoulder. Had it not been such a bitterly cold night, they would have lingered longer, but a gust of wind encouraged them to move along.

They came to Martin’s family’s farm first.

When they walked up to the front of the house, Martin hid while Theodore went to the door and knocked.

Mr. Fuller, Martin’s father, opened the door after a moment.

“Theodore! This is a surprise. What are you doing out on such a cold night?”

His wife was right behind him, echoing his feelings. “What a surprise,” she said.

Theodore smiled, barely containing his excitement. “I wanted to stop by on my way home and wish you both a very Merry Christmas and to ask you a question.”

“All right,” Mr. Fuller told him after glancing curiously at his wife.

“What would you like Santa to bring you for Christmas this year?”

Mr. Fuller laughed, but his wife seemed to be considering the question. She answered, “Probably for Martin to be home for the holidays.”

“Well, ho, ho, ho.” Theodore’s imitation of Santa Claus wasn’t very good, but he tried. “Merry Christmas.”

Martin stepped out from the shadows and stood beside him. They put their arms on each other’s shoulders and were nearly bursting with delight at the response they got from Martin’s parents. Both his mother and father cried out at the sight of their son.

Martin’s mother wrapped him in a huge hug, and his father patted his back.

“You boys get in here. You’re letting all the heat out,” Mr. Fuller ordered.

Theodore was tired but decided a few minutes wouldn’t hurt, especially since the alternative was leaving Martin when they’d only just been reunited. After coats were hung and boots removed, Mrs. Fuller ushered them into the kitchen and parked them at the table. Mr. Fuller tagged along and took a seat before asking, “Why didn’t you let us know you were coming, Son?”

“I didn’t know myself until today. I got up this morning and just decided it was time for a visit, so I hopped on an early train and just got in a short while ago. I stopped by Hoffman’s Store to pick up this one,” Martin said, reaching over to playfully tousle Theodore’s hair. It was a system they had worked out over the years so they could enjoy each other’s touch while surrounded by people. That and the arm thrown around the shoulder were their most common moves.

Mrs. Fuller produced a plate of cookies along with the offer of tea or coffee. Her cookies were legendary in the valley. Martin and Theodore both took a cookie and practically moaned on the first bite.

“Oh, how I’ve missed these,” Martin told his mother, words that made her smile.

“It must have cost you a fortune to get a train on Christmas Eve,” Martin’s father commented.

“It wasn’t cheap, but there were a few empty seats on the train. Don’t get me wrong, there weren’t many—the train was mostly full. I guess everyone who wanted to go home had gone earlier in the week.”

“What a wonderful surprise to have you here with us for Christmas,” Mrs. Fuller remarked again. “Since it’s just the two of us, we haven’t put up any decorations or anything festive. I’ll have to go up into the attic and see what I can find.”

“No, please don’t,” Martin instructed. “Please, sit with us, talk with us. I’ve missed you folks.”

“So what is life like in the great big city?” his father asked.

“Wonderful. I love it. My job is good. I’ve got lots of friends.”

Theodore sat up straighter at that. What friends? Martin had not mentioned any friends in his letters. But then he suddenly remembered how little Martin had actually been able to say in his carefully worded letters.

“And do you have a steady gal?” his father inquired.

“I’ve got many friends, and I don’t want to tie myself down with anyone right now.”

“You’re not getting any younger, Son. A fine young man like you should be finished with sowing his wild oats and should be getting settled down with a nice wife and then some children.”

Martin’s happy look was slipping away. Theodore knew Martin had had this same talk with his parents on a number of occasions. They had never understood his desire to move to New York in the first place. Martin’s return to see his parents for the first time since he’d left their valley two and a half years earlier opened him up for a revisiting of that conversation.

“A family takes a lot of money, Papa. My job is good but not that good just yet. I need to become more established and more secure in my profession before I even consider something like that.”

Theodore watched his best friend and his father debate. He knew the script that each man would follow, but he still paid close attention to their words.

“It’s time to become a man and do what a man is supposed to do.”

“I am a man, Papa. A man is responsible, but he has to have the resources to take care of a family.”

Their conversation went back and forth for some time, with both sides remaining fully entrenched. Martin seemed uncomfortable and was becoming increasingly annoyed. Theodore suspected this conversation was one of the reasons Martin had not returned home.

After a quick check of his pocket watch, Theodore knew he needed to get on to his own home. “I’m afraid I must head home. My mother will be waiting. She will not go to bed until I’m home each night.” Rising, he said his good nights, lingering perhaps a moment longer than necessary with his hug for Martin. Once again he felt the telltale stiffening in Martin’s midsection, a feeling he had so desperately missed during the time they had been separated.

“My mother is cooking a feast tomorrow,” Theodore announced. “She still cooks as if there is a huge family to feed, but they all have their own families now and no longer come home for the holidays. There is just entirely too much for my father and I to possibly eat. So, why don’t you all come over and join us?” Theodore took a chance with his invitation. He knew he should clear such a thing with his mother first, but he wanted more time with Martin, and that was about the only option he could come up with on short notice.

“No, we wouldn’t want to impose,” Mrs. Fuller protested.

“No imposition. You weren’t planning on having a houseguest, especially one who can eat his own weight in a single meal,” Theodore joked, taking his turn at tousling Martin’s hair. “I won’t take no for an answer. Tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. I’ll be highly offended if you don’t attend.”

Mr. Fuller responded for himself and his wife, “We weren’t planning to do anything special for the holiday,” he explained. “We’d be delighted.”

“Wonderful. I’m off. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

Partly due to the cold and partly due to his excitement, Theodore ran the rest of the way home. When he told his mother he’d invited the Fullers to dinner the next day, he was met with all sorts of protestations.

“Theodore, how could you?” she demanded. “This house is a mess. I was only planning on three for dinner.”

“Mother.” Theodore gave her a sweet smile.

“You and that smile of yours,” she said, trying to be angry and failing. “You know I can’t say no to you, my boy.”

“Why would you? I’m so sweet,” he joked. “You still cook like we were a much larger family, even though I’m the only one left at home.”

“I can’t help it. I cooked for so many for a lot of years. It’s hard to make the switch to cooking less.”

She swatted him as she headed into the kitchen to check on Theodore’s dinner.

They all retired for the night, Theodore excited at the prospect of time with Martin the following day, and his mother and father with checklists of things they wanted to do before guests arrived.

The Gentleman's Madness by Bonnie Dee & Summer Devon
John didn’t often lose his temper these days. Punishment came fast when one did, particularly when one had been diagnosed as aggressive. But their intrusive presence now, after this morning’s humiliation, proved too much for his temper. No more pens in his life. He’d been reduced to nothing more than a trembling child hiding under the covers. No. He must fight for what little he had left. Not dignity, but a faint shadow of it.

He drew the blanket from his face, down to his shoulders, too aware of his undressed state. “Dr. McAndrew, if you must speak of my illness and symptoms as if I am deaf, please be so good as to do it outside of my room.”

He looked over the group of four men. Earnest, well-educated men. As he had once been, but nothing like him any longer. His voice trembled, but he didn’t shout. “There is no reason one should be forced to listen to one’s diagnosis.” And then he lost all words. Familiar blue eyes met his, widened with shock, then pity and, worst of all, contempt.

The day’s pain suddenly increased beyond physical torment.

“Stanhope,” he whispered.

Stanhope hadn’t changed much in the last few years. He still wore his hair too long, and the shadow of freckles touched his nose.

“You look well,” John said, pretending that his old friend had answered. “I know the same cannot be said of me. I had heard you were going into medicine.”

Stanhope stepped back so he was at the rear of the group. The blank look he gave John now held no recognition. Except he gave a sharp glance to either side, probably to ascertain no one gazed at him with repulsion—as if John’s condition of madness was contagious.

“Oh, do not pretend you don’t know me.” John sat up, heedless of his naked torso. The dark rage boiled now. “For pity’s sake, that is too much. We were best of friends at school. No, gentlemen, not like that. He was spared any sort of perverse desire. Please, you must learn to hide your disgust better than this, especially you, Stanhope, if you hope to deal with patients who possess more intelligence than turnips.”

McAndrew stepped forward so his black jacket was all John could see. “Mr. G., you must calm yourself.”

He should, he knew. Instead, he rose from his narrow iron bed and wrapped the blanket tight around his shoulders. They had taken all but his drawers from him, and he knew he looked silly standing there, a skinny, crow-nosed fool, no doubt red-faced and staring. If he hadn’t been mad before, he had become so; he had nothing left. They had taken his pens, and now they stripped him of his past.

“I have nothing left,” he told them all, looking at Stanhope, whose gaze had dropped to examine something on his sleeve. “Apparently, even the inside of my brain is tainted. With despair, I should think. But no disease, no aberration is nearly as grotesque as pretending you do not know your old friend. You leave me with nothing.”

He should retreat and shut his mouth, but he knew that if he stopped railing, he would begin to weep. Anger kept the tears away, and he refused to cry in front of Stanhope and the rest of these gawping, muttering “gentlemen”.

“Attendant!” McAndrew didn’t shout, but the word held menace. Maybe John would have heeded the threat two hours earlier. Perhaps he would have heard it if he’d gotten some sleep the night before, but they’d been playing some sort of sleep-and-wakening game with him, seeing if they could wear him down.

“Attendant, now!”

The other men shuffled back to make room for the big oaf in gray who came into the room, moving far too quickly for a hulk like that. “Remove Mr. G to the restful room.”

“Mr. Gilliam. My name is John Gilliam,” John shouted at them all. “I still exist.”

The large gray-covered arms came around him, fast but not rough. He fought against the hard bands of those enormous arms, but they only tightened around him, catching his own arms helplessly at his sides. Too much like the man who’d attacked him in his sleep only a week earlier at Dr. Maxwell’s Asylum, and John began to panic, his heart beating erratically.

“Hush now, sir,” a voice said next to his ear.

“Give me one good goddamn reason why I should.”

The attendant didn’t answer as he expertly shoved John’s hands and arms into restraints.

“I hate this,” John said. He stopped fighting and allowed himself to be strapped and buckled into the jacket, which had been designed to calm the hysterical. Yes, that fairly described him at the moment.

At least the others had moved on, out of the room, so he could let go of the anger. “I fucking hate this all.” And he let the tears fall.

The attendant said, “Yes, sir,” and with a firm hand on his shoulder, marched him passively out of the room and down the hall.

“Today is not a white-letter day for me.” John talked just to hear his own voice rather than their footsteps, which echoed in the long, empty hall. Or rather, the attendant’s boots thumped. John’s bare feet, his ineffectual flesh, merely slapped against the floor. They went into the stairwell, and now their steps shuffled and clapped on the iron steps. “Do you know where the term black-letter day came from?”

He didn’t expect an answer, but the attendant said, “No, sir.”

Rather than think of his lost dignity, of the scorn in Stanhope’s eyes, of his own idiotic response, of anything to do with his proclivities or the fact that the large, ignorant bear of a man who held his shoulder had complete power over him, John began to babble. “A black-letter day is an unlucky day, one to be recalled with regret and sorrow. The Romans marked their unlucky days with a piece of black charcoal, and their lucky ones with white chalk.”

As always, knowledge soothed him. That small bit of the ancient past in his head connected him to the rest of the human race, to all that he had learned and all that he would someday return to. He could breathe without sobs again. And think, thank the good Lord.

“If I can think,” he said to no one as he waited for the figure of doom next to him to fumble with the jangling circle of keys, “I am not lost after all. I shall survive.”

“Yes, sir.” The attendant fitted the right key into the lock, and iron scraped against iron.

John’s storm had passed. “I suppose I will have to ask McAndrew to forgive my outburst,” he said, wishing he could wipe the tears and mucus from his face. He tried hunching his shoulder, but that didn’t reach the worst of the mess on his cheek.

“You might, later.” The attendant’s voice was mild and deep. So far the man hadn’t shouted or barked, a pleasant change from most of the asylum’s staff.

The door opened, the door closed, and John stood alone in the entirely empty room. I have nothing, he thought again, though the storm of self-pity had passed and the thought aroused no strong emotion. I am nothing, and I am alone.

Although no, he wasn’t alone. The attendant had come in as well.

“Get away from me,” John said. “I am not interested. I don’t know what they told you about me, but just get away.”

“I thought perhaps I might take the restraints off, sir.” The attendant stood, hands at his sides. Not impatient or scornful, simply waiting.

“Yes, yes. Thank you.” Unable to keep his balance correctly with the straitjacket, John dropped suddenly to the floor. He landed on his rear with an oomph.

“Whoops.” The attendant lunged forward as if to grab him.

John flinched. “No. Stay away.” He added the word, “Please,” not because he was begging, but because he remembered he was a civilized man and had been taught manners. Ah, damnation, the tears would start again.

He shut his eyes, and something soft, some fabric, touched his face.

With a cry, he jerked away. “Damn me,” he muttered when he realized the attendant had pulled out a handkerchief. He’d wiped John’s cheek. He cleaned the rest of his face carefully, as a nurse dries the tears of a screaming baby, which John supposed fit the situation.

The big man tilted his head to the side to inspect the cleanup he’d done. “That’ll do,” he said.

“Thank you.” It was time to pretend to be an adult human again. “How do you do? I am John Gilliam, as you probably know. You are?”

“Tully. Sam Tully.”

Fit to be Tied by Mary Calmes
Chapter One
I COULDN’T control the whimper of delight. Since we were out in Elmwood, where we never were, I’d begged and pleaded with Ian to stop at Johnnie’s Beef and buy me a sandwich before we got to the house we were sitting on. I hated stakeouts; they were so boring, and I tended to use them as an excuse to eat good instead of the alternative. It could be argued that an Italian beef sandwich with sweet peppers was not, in fact, a gourmet meal, but anyone who said that had obviously never had one. Just opening it up, with the smell that came wafting out… I was salivating.

“This better be worth the long drive outta the way,” Ian groused.

No amount of grumbling was going to get in the way of my happiness. And besides, he owed me. The day before, on our way to the same stakeout, I’d stopped and gotten him hot dogs at Budacki’s—Polish with the works, just how he liked it. I’d even broken up a fight over ketchup between a native and an out-of-towner while I was there and still managed to deliver the goods. So swinging by the beef place was the least he could do.

“You wanna screw the sandwich?” he asked snidely as he started on his pepper and egg one.

I lifted my gaze to his, slowly and purposely seductive, and I got the catch of breath I was hoping for. “No. Not the sandwich.”

He had opened his mouth to say something when we heard the shots.

“Maybe it was a car backfiring,” I offered hopefully, having peeled back the wrapper, ready to take a bite. On this quiet tree-lined suburban street, the kind with white picket fences and people walking their dogs and little A-frame houses with picture windows, it could definitely be something other than a gunshot.

His grimace said no.

Seconds later, a man came flying across the street and down the sidewalk past our car that was sitting quietly on the storybook street at a little after one on a Tuesday afternoon.

“Motherfucker,” I groaned, placing the sandwich gingerly on the dash of the Ford Taurus, out the passenger-side door seconds later.

The guy was fast—I was faster, and I was gaining on him until he pointed a gun over his shoulder and fired.

It would have been a miracle if he’d hit me—he was moving, I was moving—but still, I had to make him stop. Stray bullets were bad, as we’d learned in our last tactical seminar, and more importantly, we were in a small, quaint residential neighborhood where at this time of day, women could be jogging with strollers, followed by beagles or labradoodles. I would make sure reckless discharge of a firearm was tacked on to the charges as soon as I had the guy in custody.

He shot at me a second time, missed me by a mile again, but it was enough of a threat to make me alter my course, cross into a heavily foliaged yard, and cut through two others—one with a swing set, the other with wildflowers—to catch him at the corner. Arm out, using the classic clotheslining move I knew from my days of fighting in foster homes, I had him off his feet and on the pavement in seconds.

“Oh shit, what happened?” Ian asked as he came bounding up beside me. He put his boot down on the guy’s wrist, pinning it painfully to the sidewalk as he bent to retrieve the .38 Special. I’d been the one stepped on before, so I knew the pressure hurt like a sonofabitch. “Look at this. I haven’t seen one of these in years.”

I nodded, admiring my FIORENTINI + BAKER suede boots on him, not even caring if he messed them up, loving more that what was mine, he considered his.

“This is a nice gun that you tried to shoot my partner with,” he said menacingly, his voice icy.

“I’m fine,” I reminded him. “Look at me.”

But he didn’t; instead he lifted the gun and bumped it against the stranger’s cheek.

“Fuck,” the man swore, his eyes wild as they rabbited over to me, pleading.

“How ’bout I make you eat this,” Ian snarled, much more pissed than I’d realized as he hauled the runner up off the sidewalk and yanked him close. “What if you’d hit him?”

The man was either smarter than he appeared or his survival instinct was exceptionally well honed. He correctly surmised that talking back to Ian at that moment, getting lippy, was a bad choice. He kept his mouth shut.

“Everything’s fine,” I soothed Ian as police cars surrounded us.

“Freeze!” the first officer out of the car yelled.

Instead of complying, I unzipped Ian’s olive green field jacket, which I was wearing, and showed them my badge on the chain. “US Marshals, Jones and Doyle.”

Instantly they lowered their weapons before surging around us. Ian handed off both the prisoner and the gun, and told the officers to add reckless discharge of a firearm to whatever else they were charging the guy with.

I was surprised when he grabbed hold of my arm and yanked me after him a few feet down the street before jerking me around to face him.

“I’m fine,” I assured him, chuckling. “You don’t have to manhandle me.”

But he was checking, looking me over, still scared.

“He missed me clean.”

He nodded, hearing but not listening, not taking my words in. I was about to tease him, wanting to nudge him out of his worry, when I realized he was shaking.

“Come here,” I prodded, tugging on his sweater, getting him closer, unable to hug him—not with so many people around—but able to whisper in his ear. “I’m okay, baby. I swear.”

He muttered something under his breath, his shoulders dropped, and his fists unclenched. After a second, he seemed better. “I bet your sandwich is cold,” he whispered.

“Fuckballs,” I muttered, turning to trudge back to our car.

“So what’d you learn?” he teased, normalcy having been restored with my swearing.

“Not to run after other people’s suspects when we’re supposed to be eating.”

Ian’s snicker made me smile in spite of myself.


A LITTLE more than eight months ago we were Deputy US Marshal Miro Jones and his partner, Ian Doyle, but it hadn’t meant what it did now. Then, it was us living apart, him dating women, me wishing he was gay so there would be hope that I could have him instead of comparing every man I met to my very straight, very unavailable partner. Everything changed when I finally saw what having his full and undivided attention actually meant, and when he got up the guts to tell me what he wanted and needed from me, I dove in quickly, drowning in him as fast as I could so he wouldn’t have time to think that maybe, since he’d only recently discovered he was bi, he might want to try the dating scene before settling down. The thing was, though, Ian was one of those rare guys who wanted the one person in the world who fit him like a glove, and that person, it turned out, was me.

So, yes, Ian was still technically bi, but was exclusively now Miro-sexual andwasn’t interested in trying the buffet. All Ian wanted was to stay home with me. I couldn’t have been any happier. Everything was mostly working in my life. Professionally I was in a great place, and personally I was ready to put a ring on Ian’s finger. Like really ready. Like maybe even too ready for Ian, but all in all, my life was perfect except for the grunt work we were currently doing.

After our interrupted lunch, we had to drive all the way back downtown to file a police report to be in compliance with Chicago PD—since we’d been the ones to make the collar—and then turn around to head back out to Elmwood.

“This will teach you to help,” Ian grumbled, and even though I knew he was kidding, it was still a huge pain in the ass.

We were supposed to sit on the house of one William McClain, who was wanted for drug trafficking, but I got a call from Wes Ching, another marshal on our team, asking us to help serve a warrant out in Bloomingdale instead. He and his partner, Chris Becker, were already in Elmwood on another errand, so they would take my and Ian’s crappy stakeout chore and we would take their more—in theory—interesting warrant duty.

I was not a fan of the suburbs, any of them, with or without artery-clogging food, or the hours it took to get to them from each other or the city itself. Traffic in Chicago, all day every day, was a beast, and added to that was the fact the radio in the new car didn’t get Ian’s favorite channel—97.9 The Loop—and the crappy shocks that let us feel every bump and dip in the road. Because we drove whatever had been seized in a criminal investigation, sometimes the cars were amazing—like the 1971 Chevrolet Chevelle SS we had for two weeks—and other times, I worried if maybe I’d died and gone to hell without anyone letting me know. The Ford Taurus we were in currently was seriously not working for me.

“It’s fuel-efficient,” Ian prompted me, reaching over to put a hand on my thigh.

Instantly I shifted in my seat, sliding down so I could get his touch on my cock instead.

“What’re you doing?” he asked slyly even as he pressed his palm against my already thickening shaft.

“I need to get laid,” I said for the third time that day.

It was all his fault.

Instead of getting right out of bed that morning like he normally did, he’d rolled over on top of me, pinned me to the mattress under him, and kissed me until I forgot what day it was. He never did that; he was so by the book in the morning, so on task and barky with the orders. But for whatever reason, I got Ian in languorous vacation mode, all hard and hungry, hands all over me, putting hickeys on my neck, instead of the drill sergeant I normally had to deal with until he got the first cup of coffee in him. He was ravenous and insistent, but then our boss called and Ian was up, out of bed, doing the “yessir, right away, sir” thing and telling me to hurry up and get in the shower fast.

“What?” I roared, sitting up in bed, incredulous when I heard the water running. “Get your ass in here and finish what you started!”

He actually cackled as he got into the shower and was still chuckling as I sat there in bed, fuming, before I fell back to take care of myself.

“Don’t you dare touch that!” he yelled from under the water.

I groaned and climbed out of bed and plodded downstairs to get coffee. Chickie Baby was happy to see me, mostly because I fed him. Stupid dog.

“There was no happy ending for me this morning,” I complained to Ian, back in the present. “You didn’t take care of me.”

“What?” He chuckled, moving his hand back to the wheel. “I woke you… up nice… and… crap.”

I wanted Ian, needed Ian, but he was distracted as he slowed the car, and when I dragged my gaze from his profile to the sight in front of me, I made the same noise of disgust he had. Immediately I called Ching.

“You fuck,” I said instead of hello when he answered.

Snort of laughter. “What?” he said, but it was muffled like he was chewing. “Me and Becker are doing stakeout for you in Elmwood and then following up on a lead from the Eastern District warrant squad.”

“Where the fuck are you?” I snarled as I put him on speaker.

He said something in reply, but it couldn’t really be categorized as a word.

I was instantly suspicious. “Are you at Johnnie’s Beef?”

“What makes you think that?”

“Asshole!” I yelled.

“Oh, come on, Jones, have a heart. We’re doing you a favor, right?”

“I’m sorry, what’d you just say to me?”

All I heard was laughing.

“You know we’d rather follow up a bullshit lead than serve a warrant with a task force, you dick,” Ian growled from beside me. “This is fucked up, Wes, and you know it.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Ching finished with a cackle. “You two get to work with the DEA and the Chicago PD for the second time today. That’s awesome.”

I should have known when he offered; it was my own fault.

Ian reiterated my thoughts almost perfectly, which made things that much worse. “You have no one to blame but yourself.”

After Ian parked the car, we walked around to the trunk and got out our TAC vests, put the badges on our belts, and Ian put on his thigh holster that carried a second gun. Walking over to the group, Ian asked who was in charge. It turned out to be exactly what Ian and I expected; it was a clusterfuck better known as a task force. We saw both district and regional groups, this being the latter because I could see local law enforcement as well as guys from the DEA who all looked like either grunged-out meth addicts or GQ models. There was no in-between with them. I had, as of yet, never met a DEA agent I liked. They all thought they had not only the toughest job, but also the most dangerous. They were a bunch of prima donnas I had no use for.

It was amazing how many people thought that marshals did the same things other law enforcement agencies did. They assumed we investigated crime, collected evidence, and sat in front of whiteboards to try to figure out who the bad guy was from a list of viable suspects. But that was simply not the case. Much like it was in the Old West; we tracked people down and brought them in for trial. As a result, a tremendous amount of time—when we weren’t out on loan to a joint task force, for instance—was spent running down leads, watching houses, and basically doing surveillance. It could be a little mind-numbing, and so, occasionally, when the usual was broken up by things like traveling to pick up a witness or taking part in an undercover operation, it was viewed as a welcome diversion. But neither Ian nor I ever thought working with the DEA was a good thing.

Today the task force was looking to pick up three men with ties to the Madero crime family who’d slipped federal custody in New York and were apparently hiding out with one of the guys’ distant cousins in the burbs of Chicago. That was what serving a warrant meant. It was fancy phrasing for taking someone into custody.

The plan was for us to go into the five-story apartment building like thunder with battering rams, the whole deal. The raids were my least favorite, but I understood why we were there. Normally a Fugitive Investigative Strike Team consisting of Feds, local police, and other state agencies extracted a witness, and FISTs fell under the purview of the marshals service. It wasn’t a task force without us, so our office had been tacked on.

Chicago PD went in first, the DEA douchebags following. Ian and I stayed put on the first floor until we heard shots fired in the stairwell. We went straight up while people yelled that there were men escaping onto the roof.

I yelled first to let anyone else around know what was going on, then for backup, but they’d all scattered to the lower floors, so that left Ian and me to charge up to try and head off whoever was up there.

“Do not go out that door!” I yelled after Ian, who, as usual, was in front of me. The only reason he’d been second earlier in the day was because I’d been in the passenger seat when the guy ran by the car. Nine times out of ten, I followed Ian into whatever the situation was.

He burst through the heavy metal door leading to the roof and, of course, drew immediate answering gunfire.

I ran out after him in time to see Ian level his gun and fire. Only in the movies did people yell “don’t shoot” when people were actually shooting at them.

The guy went down, and I watched another turn and run. He didn’t have a weapon that I could see, so I holstered my gun and took off after him as Ian rolled the guy he’d shot onto his back and roared at the men who had followed us up to take him.

I raced across the rooftop hard on the fugitive’s heels, churning my legs and arms to catch him before he reached the edge. He sped toward the building’s ledge, then launched himself into the air. I had no idea if there was another building there, but since there had been no scream, I pushed myself harder and followed after him into the sky.

The rooftop of the four-story building across the narrow alley was a welcome sight, and I landed easily, somersaulting over onto one knee, then pushing up into a dead sprint again. I guessed we were out of real estate when the man abruptly stopped, whirling to face me. Pulling a butterfly knife from his back pocket, he flipped it open and advanced on me.

I pulled my Glock 20 and leveled it at him. “Drop the weapon, get on your knees, and lace your fingers on top of your head.”

He was deciding—I could tell.

“Now,” I ordered, my voice dipping an octave into a cold, dark place.

He muttered under his breath but released the knife and went to his knees. I moved fast, reaching his side before he complied with the entirety of my request, kicked the knife away, and pulled a set of Plasticuffs from my TAC vest. Shoving him facedown, I waited for backup.

My phone rang and I winced upon seeing the caller ID. “Hey.”

“What the fuck was that?”

“That was the Ian Doyle special,” I teased, trying to lighten the mood.

“Oh, no, fuck you! I don’t jump off shit, Miro, only you do that!”

I did have a bit more of a history with that than he did. “Yeah, okay.”

“Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m good,” I replied, smiling into the phone. “Promise. I’ll meet you downstairs as soon as I get some fucking help up here.”

His inelegant snort made me smile.

Moments later I was swarmed by police officers ready to take the fugitive off my hands. As I was following the men down four flights, I asked the sergeant in front of me if we were transporting the criminals to their station, whichever one that was, or if they were going in our holding cell downtown.

“I think the DEA is taking custody of all three.”

That meant all three men would be questioned and the one with the best information would be given a deal. The others would be turned over to the police. It was a waste of time for Ian and me to have even been there.

“Did you hear this bullshit?” I groused at Ian as he came hurdling up to me. “We don’t even get—”

“Shut up,” he growled, grabbing the armhole of my vest and yanking me forward. His gaze ran over me and I heard how rough his breathing was.

“Oh, baby, I’m sorry,” I whispered, leaning close so he could hear me but not touching, the motion making it seem like I was relating privileged information and nothing more.

“I have faith in you, don’t get me wrong,” he said quickly. “But you know as well as I do that you leaped without knowing what was there, and that’s plain stupid.”

He was right.

“Don’t fuckin’ do it again.”

“No,” I agreed, leaning back to search his face. “So am I forgiven?”

He nodded, and I finally got a trace of a smile.

We were going to head back to file a report when we saw the people who were flushed from the apartment, three guys in all, now sitting outside on the sidewalk.

“What’s goin’ on there?” I asked the closest officer, gesturing at the men.

“We’re about to let ’em all go.”

“Why?” Ian asked, clipping the word, clearly irritated.

“Hey, man,” the cop responded tiredly, “we ran those guys through NCIC for outstanding warrants already, and they all came up clean. There’s no use keeping ’em.”

“Mind if we check?” I replied, trying to make my tone soothing.

“Only if you take custody,” he replied petulantly. “I don’t have time to stand around here with my thumb up my ass waiting on you.”

“Sure,” Ian agreed, his tone silky and dangerous. “Transfer custody to us.”

It was done in moments, and the freed officer jogged over to let his sergeant know. His superior gave us a head tilt, clearly thinking we were DEA since he couldn’t see the back of the vests. Had he known, he wouldn’t have given the go-ahead. No one ever turned people over to the marshals because with our warrant information network we could always find something extra, just that bit more and being shown up pissed them off like nobody’s business. No one ever hated asking for our help to pick someone up after the fact or on a lead that’d gone cold, but having the marshals show them up at the scene of a bust made everyone bitchy.

Ian pulled out his phone as I squatted down in front of the first guy.

“So who the fuck are you?” our first suspect asked.

“Marshal,” I answered. “We’re going to run you all for warrants again.”

No one seemed concerned.

Mike Ryan and his partner, Jack Dorsey, were on desk duty that morning, which meant they got to look up the records of the men sitting on the curb. We released the suspects one by one—Ryan and Dorsey making a note of it over the phone—removed their cuffs, and wished them a good day. “Go to hell” was the most popular response to Ian’s cheerfulness while “fuck off” ran a close second.

It turned out a warrant for attempted murder and aggravated battery came back for the last guy.

“Winner winner chicken dinner,” I announced, smirking at him.

“Fuckin’ marshals,” Dario Batista griped. “I thought this was a DEA bust.”

Ian cackled as we hauled him to his feet.

“Come on, man,” he whined. “I have information I can give you. Let’s work out a deal.”

“We’re marshals,” Ian said as the three of us began walking back to the Taurus. “We don’t make deals.”

I called in as we stuffed him into the backseat.

“What the hell kind of clown car is this?” Batista complained.

“It’s fuel-efficient,” I rationalized as I set the childproof lock on the back door before getting in.

“God, I hate this car,” Ian growled irritably.

I promised we’d check on a new one when we got back to the office.

Tied Up in Knots by Mary Calmes
Chapter Two
I WALKED through O’Hare at seven Friday morning, and I was surprised when I came through the security area and had Kohn and Kowalski there to meet me.

“The fuck?” I said by way of greeting.

“Nice work in San Francisco,” Kohn said, smiling wide. “My city is the shit, huh?”

“It’s hilly” was all I gave him. “I didn’t get to appreciate much of it running through alleys and chasing down dirty DEA agents.”

He shrugged.

“So what’s with the reception?” I asked him and his partner.

“Well,” Kowalski began, smiling smugly. “We’re here to take you to breakfast and then officially give you back custody of your children.”

I was confused, and it must have shown on my face.

“Those fuckheads, Cabot and Drake,” Kohn snarled. “Jesus Christ, Miro, that shit is a full-time job!”

I chuckled, even though I knew he was right. Drake Ford, now Drake Palmer, and Cabot Kincaid, who used to be Cabot Jenner, were two witnesses Ian and I not only took custody of, but took under our wing. A lot of it had to do with the fact that they were young, both eighteen when they entered WITSEC, and we were the ones they bonded with.

“First you ask us to watch them last year when you and Doyle were in Phoenix, and then after when you were gettin’ better from the whole kidnapping, and—”

I called him on his bullshit. “That’s crap, man. Ian and I took them back from you as soon as I was off desk duty.”

“Yeah, but then you left the boys with us when Doyle was deployed and you were sent to San Fran, and we’re here to officially give them back.”

“What’d they do?”

Kohn threw up his hands. “Drake saved a little girl who fell in the water at Navy Pier.”

I scowled. “Why is that a bad thing?”

Kowalski shook his head. “The saving was good, the forgetting to call us before he talked to a reporter… was not.”

“Oh shit,” I groaned.

“Yeah, so we’re all set to ship him and his boyfriend off to New Mexico or wherever, but they’re crying about school and jobs and mostly—I shit you not—you and Doyle.”

“Fuck.”

“I told you before, those guys are way too attached, and Kage says you have to ship them out or they’re out of the program.”

“Out of WITSEC?”

“Apparently the shit they were in for is over. They’re not considered targets at this stage.”

“You checked with the Feds?”

“Yep.”

“And the investigation is closed?”

“He and the boyfriend are cleared, but because of the threat from Cabot’s father to both he and Drake that you noted in his file, the call can be made to keep them in the program, but just not in Chicago.”

I understood. “So they can be out of WITSEC altogether and stay in Chicago, or remain in WITSEC and move.”

“You got it,” Kohn told me.

“Fuck.”

“Kage is giving you today and the weekend to get it all sorted out. Come Monday morning he wants a status report.”

“And why’s he sending that message with you guys and not telling me himself?”

“He sent you a memo,” Kohn clarified. “And us. Do you need him to yell at you too?”

I did not, no.

“I mean, he can. We both know he’ll be fuckin’ happy to do it. I think he was just cutting you some slack until Doyle got back.”

“Which’ll be tomorrow,” I informed them.

“Good,” Kohn said, grinning at me. “So what, you ready to eat?”

Kohn wanted to take us to Jam over on Logan, but Kowalski wanted mounds of food and something closer, so we hit a diner on our way from the airport, some greasy spoon where a short stack of pancakes was six high. Just watching Kowalski eat was terrifying.

I cleared my throat. “That doesn’t frighten you?” I asked Kohn, tipping my head at Kowalski’s shovel of a fork.

“I make sure to keep my hands away from his mouth and we’re good.”

It was fun to watch sleek, metrosexual, model-handsome and manscaped Eli Kohn partnered with the belching mountain of muscle that was Jer—short for God knew what because he’d never tell me—Kowalski. Their banter was always fun to listen to, especially about fashion, but heaven help you if you threw out a dig about the other in his presence. I’d seen Kowalski put an FBI agent on the wall—like, several feet off the ground up on the wall—for quietly insinuating Kohn was more interested in his hair than in taking down a fugitive. The guy was lucky to keep his lungs.

“Hey.”

I looked back at Kohn from my plate.

“You sleeping okay?”

I was really sick of people asking me if I was or wasn’t. I could see the dark circles under my eyes as well as anyone else—I just didn’t want to talk about it. There was nothing to say. The dreams would stop when they stopped. “Why, don’t I look all right?” I teased.

“You look like shit,” Kowalski apprised me, his raised eyebrow daring me to contradict him.

“I’m fine,” I muttered, going back to eating even though I wasn’t that hungry.

“Oh fuck,” Kowalski groaned after the bell on the door jingled, bumping Kohn with his elbow. “It’s this shit again.”

Turning in my seat, I was surprised to see Norris Cochran, along with another guy I’d never met, walking toward me.

“He can’t eat in peace?” Kohn barked at Cochran as he closed in on us.

Cochran gave him his arrogant cop grimace that didn’t hit his hazel eyes, and when he reached us, grabbed the chair beside me, turned it around, and flopped down. The man I assumed was his new partner took the seat on the other side of me so I had to lean back to keep an eye on both of them.

“The fuck do you want?” I asked my ex-partner.

“Nice,” Cochran said, forcing a chuckle. “Didn’t I tell you he loved me, Dor?”

The guy to my right nodded.

“Miro, this is Dorran Barreto. Barreto, my first love, Miro Jones.”

We didn’t shake hands. I didn’t offer and Barreto didn’t either.

“What do you want?” I asked Cochran again.

“You ain’t even gonna ask after my kids?”

“Your wife and I are friends on Facebook,” I informed him. “I know how the kids are.”

That surprised him. I could tell from the flicker of annoyance and the trace of something else crossing his face. But it had been a long time since I’d been around him, so I was out of practice reading him. Not that it mattered. We weren’t friends.

“So what, detectives stalk marshals now,” Kohn baited.

Cochran glanced over at him. “If you had just told me when he was coming back instead of giving me the runaround, I wouldn’t’ve had to do that.”

“And I told you,” Kohn replied fiercely, leaning forward, pointing at Cochran, “that we are not in the habit of giving out personal information to people who are not family or friends of members of our team.”

“I’m his ex-partner and I’m a cop.”

“And cops in the city are, of course, to be trusted,” Kohn scoffed.

“Yeah, maybe not, huh?” Kowalski rubbed salt in the open angry wound that was the ongoing Justice Department investigation of the Chicago PD. “I’m not sure any of you fuckers know what procedure is.”

Before things escalated, I got up and headed for the door. Cochran was no more than a half a step behind me.

Outside, I rounded on him, already annoyed that my food was getting cold, and he took a step back so he wouldn’t run into me.

“What do you want?” I growled, venting every bit of irritation, not caring, not bothering to filter as I would with practically everyone else.

“A gun,” he answered flatly, crossing his arms, his gaze locked with mine.

“Explain.” A demand, clipped and cold.

“It’s about Oscar Darra.”

Everyone knew the story. “The ex-mob enforcer?”

“Yeah.”

I had to think. “I thought he was dead.”

“Yeah, so did a lot of people, but he turned up last week in a routine sweep of a Turkish bath down on Cicero.”

“No shit.”

He shrugged.

“Where the hell’s he been all this time?”

“He’s been laying low down in Springfield with some cousin.”

I grunted, leaning back against the wall of the diner. November in Chicago right before Thanksgiving wasn’t arctic yet, but it was cool. I was glad I had on a hoodie under my leather jacket. The wind would have blown right through me. “What does any of this have to do with you being here?”

“I—”

“Is this gonna be a long-ass story?”

He didn’t answer, just coughed and put his shoulder against the wall so he was facing me. To anyone walking by, we looked like two buddies out shootin’ the shit.

“Fine,” I sighed. “Talk.”

“Okay, so after we pick him up and get Darra back to the station, he starts telling us that if we agree to cut a deal with him, he’ll tell us where the gun is that was used to kill Joey Romelli.”

I shook my head. “You lost me.”

“You don’t remember Romelli?”

“I remember Vincent Romelli, who was in charge of the Cilione crime family, but he’s been dead awhile. Who’s Joey?”

“His son.”

“He had a son?”

“‘Had’ being the operative word, yeah.”

“And how’d he die?”

“Well, according to Darra, he was shot by one Andreo Fiore.”

“Who?” I could feel myself getting annoyed all over again. I hated playing name the thug and I especially didn’t want to do it with Cochran.

“He was Vincent Romelli’s muscle back in the day.”

“Okay, so lemme get this straight,” I began, turning to face him. “You guys pick up Darra because he’s in town for whatever reason, and when you grab him, he wants to give up this Fiore to cut a deal.”

“Yeah.”

“And you care about this why?”

“Well, we don’t at first. Barreto and I figure it’s bullshit, right? But we go to where he says he’s stashed the gun and—”

“This is already fucked up, Nor,” I said, slipping back into calling him by a nickname like we’d never been apart. It just came out. Shit. “I mean—”

“Just stop.” We stood there in silence, him staring at me and me finally looking away because I had no idea what the hell to say.

“It was good you caught Hartley.”

My eyes were back on him.

“I’m sorry we—”

“It’s not—”

“It is,” he croaked, stopping me, hand slipping around my bicep, squeezing tight. “We—I didn’t know what to do with how that went down. It would’ve been better off if you let me shoot him.”

I cleared my throat. “I know.”

“More people died because you let him live that night.”

I yanked free of his hold and took a step back. “I know that too,” I retorted, angry but quiet, feeling my body wash hot, then cold with regret and shame.

He moved forward into my space, grabbing hold of my jacket. “But it was right, what you did.”

I searched his face for clarity because he was making no sense.

“If I’d shot him, I would’ve been guilty because I had him.”

I understood like no one else could because I was there. Hartley had me in his hands, a knife shoved into my side, and Cochran was looming above us, gun in both hands, and he could have shot Hartley, killed him if I hadn’t used my body to cover the psychopath and keep my partner from becoming a murderer.

“You—” His voice bottomed out. “—did it to protect me, not him.”

That revelation had only taken close to four years. “Fuck you,” I raged, the hurt and anger over his betrayal—he’d never even visited me once when I was in the hospital—boiling over like it always did whenever I revisited that time in my life.

He had been my family, his wife and kids, his parents, his siblings, and in one moment he was gone and so were all the rest of them. His wife had come around, finally, but no one else did, and it still hurt. Mostly it was that helplessness that came from things being taken away while I’d had no control. I hated that. I was a foster kid, so I’d never had a say about any part of my life, and to have that happen again when I was older had made me gun-shy of partnership and putting my faith in anyone. Ian was the one who changed that, the only one strong enough to break through the wall I’d put up.

From the beginning, Ian had simply assumed I belonged to him, his backup, his friend, his shadow, and because he took me for granted, I had uncoiled, relented, and finally trusted. Anyone but Ian, anyone who wasn’t a battering ram, all prickly vulnerability, dangerous temper, and raw, primal heat—constantly in my space, close, leaning, bumping, touching—I would have kept at a distance. But there was no saying no to Ian Doyle. The ache that welled up in me made it hard to breathe.

“Fuck me?” Cochran yelled.

I couldn’t even be bothered to have my head in a fight. That was how much I didn’t care about Norris Cochran. After shoving him back, I strode to the edge of the parking lot. He was there fast, walking around in front of me.

“So,” I demanded shortly, meeting his gaze. “If Fiore killed Romelli, where did your guy get the gun?”

He took a breath. “Well, so Fiore shot Romelli, Darra’s sure of it. He was in the bedroom when he heard the shot, and when he came out, he saw somebody run out the front door.”

“So he followed him out to the street?”

“No, Romelli was killed in his penthouse.”

“Oh, so your guy follows this Fiore down however many stairs.”

“Yeah,” he confirmed. “And when he gets there, he follows him into an alley and watches him stash the gun in a drain.”

“Why would he do that? Why not just take the gun with him?”

“Well, I don’t know if you remember, but at that time, with his father having just been murdered—everybody was watching Joey. They found him that night like a half an hour after the shooting.”

“And this Fiore, he was a mob enforcer like Darra?”

“No, not at all. Like I said, he was just one of Vincent Romelli’s goons.”

“Then why kill his son?”

“We don’t know.”

“Does he still work for Strada?”

“No, I ran him through the system and he’s clean. He’s always been clean. He was a known associate of Vincent Romelli and he was questioned when Vincent Romelli was gunned down, but he and his buddy Sal something were the only ones who got out.”

“But—”

“Oh, and Joey Romelli.”

“The son was there when his father died?”

“Yeah. Fiore was the one who got him out of the massacre.”

I needed a second. “I’m sorry, what?”

“I know!” he snapped at me. “It makes no sense.”

“So Fiore saves him and then turns round and kills him?” I was incredulous. “This is what Darra would have you believe?”

“Yeah.”

“Tell him to go fuck himself and charge his lying ass.” I was done and turned to go.

He grabbed hold of my shoulder to keep me there, and I rolled it, out of habit, instinctively, because someone I didn’t like was touching me. “Wait,” he barked. “The gun he gave us, the ballistics matched.”

“What gun? The gun he turned over to you?” I said, exasperated that I was having to stand there and listen to his bullshit.

“Yeah.”

“Well of course the ballistics match. He killed Romelli, probably on orders from Tony Strada. The last thing you fuckin’ want around when you’re the new boss is the old boss’s kid.”

“Yeah, that’s what we thought, but when we ran the DNA on the gun—there was Romelli’s on the muzzle, like the gun was shoved down his throat—and someone other than Darra’s on the grip.”

“So?” I was so aggravated. Cochran had always taken forever to get to the point.

“So Romelli was killed execution-style with a bullet in the back of his head. That’s why everyone figured it was a mob hit.”

“Then what?”

“Well, now we think whoever did it shoved his gun in Romelli’s mouth first—probably so he’d know who was pulling the trigger—and then shot him like he did to make it look like everyone would expect.”

“Okay, so lemme wrap my head around this. You have the gun, the ballistics match, so it’s for sure the one used to kill Romelli, but Darra’s DNA isn’t on it, and he says it was Fiore.”

“Yeah, plus we have Fiore’s prints.”

“You have Fiore’s prints on the weapon?”

He nodded.

“So bring his ass in.” I almost growled. “The fuck does this have to do with me?”

“We can’t.”

“Why not?” I retorted, done, at the end of my rope. I wanted to eat and go home and pass out. “You’ve got prints, DNA—get a court order and test Fiore’s DNA.”

“Yeah, we can’t get an order.”

“Why the hell not?!”

“Because we don’t have the gun.”

“What do you mean you don’t have the gun?” He was making no sense and I was a second away from walking—hoping he’d try and grab me again. I really wanted to hit him. Some of it was his fault because of our past and because he’d always been fucking irritating. But a lot of it was Ian and how much I missed him and how stretched thin with yearning I was. I needed my man home, and this close to getting it—a mere day—I was in that headspace where anticipation became panic racing around in my head like a cat scrambling after a mouse. I was scared something was going to happen and Ian would be gone again. I was taking it out on Cochran, but he was taking for-fucking-ever to get to the point. “You just said you got prints and DNA and—”

“We don’t have the gun ’cause it was transferred to the marshals by mistake,” he explained almost sheepishly.

“Come again?” I asked, incredulous, beside myself.

He cleared this throat. “My lieutenant—”

“Who’s that now?”

“Cortez.”

“Okay, sorry, g’head.”

“Yeah, so Cortez transferred three guns to your office because, like your guy said in the diner, lots of cases are being looked at by Justice right now, and lots of evidence is being reexamined. So our gun went back to evidence after ballistics and prints and DNA was run, but from there it was accidentally transferred to you.”

“What does it matter? It was tested for prints, which you got, and you’ve got the sample of whoever’s DNA was on it, so just get Fiore’s sample and match it… or not. It’s done either way.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Of course it is. The prints will compel the DNA sample.”

He shook his head. “No.”

“No? How the hell you figure no?”

“The ASA assigned to the case—Sutter—she says that without the gun, it’s our word against Fiore’s that the prints were from the gun. She says they could’ve come off anything, and it could look like we’re trying to set him up. Fiore could make a case for tampering.”

“Are you serious?” I asked, overwhelmed with the stupidity of all of this.

“Yeah, I’m serious!” Cochran flared. “Without the goddamn gun, we can’t make Fiore give us a DNA sample.”

If I thought about it logically, that made sense. No judge in their right mind would issue a court order to compel Fiore to give them a DNA sample if the item his DNA was supposed to be on was, in fact, missing. What if it was always missing? Never found? What did that say about the police department that they’d had the weapon in their possession but didn’t anymore? What if the prints in question had come from somewhere or something completely different, and Andreo Fiore had, in fact, never even been in the room where Joey Romelli was killed? It was a mess.

“I get it,” I admitted. “You need the gun.”

“Fuck, yeah, I need the gun, and that’s where you come in.”

“How?” I could hear how icy and stilted I sounded, so no way Cochran was missing it.

“Chain of custody says it’s in your property room.”

“But?”

“But your boss says the gun’s not there.”

Now I was really lost. “Okay, wait. You’re telling me that you already questioned the chief deputy about the gun?”

“Barreto and I did, yeah.”

This finally felt like the gist of it. “And?”

“And like I said, he told us that it’s not there.”

“Then what the fuck, Norris? If he says it’s not there, it’s not there.”

“But I think it is, and I think he’s lying.”

“What?” My brain was ready to explode. “How dare you fucking—”

“Calm the fuck down!”

“Don’t tell me to calm down!” I roared, drilling two fingers into his collarbone. “You don’t know shit about Sam Kage because if you did you’d never—”

“I think your boss is purposely hiding the whereabouts of that gun,” he yelled over me.

“For what reason?” I shouted.

“I have no idea.”

“Does Sam Kage even know Andreo Fiore?”

“Not that we can tell. There’s nothing at all that links them.”

“Then why the hell would you think he would lose the gun?”

Cochran cleared his throat. “You know, back in the day, his partner was dirty, and guess where that guy went—into WITSEC,” he said offhandedly.

“What are you insinuating?” I asked, feeling my skin heat under my clothes, afraid of what I would do if the words actually came out of his mouth. Irritation, annoyance, all of it was gone, replaced solely by anger. How fucking dare he.

“Dirty partner… you understand.”

“I don’t think I do,” I said flatly, my vision tunneling down to him, lost on the edges, going black, my throat dry, my heart beating so fast I wondered how he couldn’t hear it.

“C’mon, Miro, don’t be stupid.”

“That was a long time before my boss was even a marshal,” I ground out.

“Whatever. It’s not right and you know it.”

“What isn’t?” He had to be clear. I couldn’t bury his career if he wasn’t.

“Your boss is fuckin’ dirty.”

It was worse than I thought it would be, hearing his words, having them out there, the accusation making my stomach churn.

“Did you hear me?”

The rage filled me up, made me see red, and fisted my hands at my sides. Only the thought of Kage, his disappointment if I surrendered to my base instincts, kept me still. “You don’t know him at all.” I bit off each word.

“Like I said, I know of him. I know his partner was dirty and he—”

“Well, I know him,” I spat out, my voice hoarse. “And he would never, ever, tamper with evidence, any evidence! If anyone is screwing with you, it’s your boss. Who the fuck transfers the wrong guns to the Justice Department?”

“Cortez signed a piece of paper to transfer a crapton of evidence, not just one gun! Do you have any idea how many cases and reports and everything else Justice is going through? It’ll take years for them to get through it all.”

“And then they can start looking into Homan Square,” I blasted.

“Fuck you, Miro!” he yelled, shoving at me hard but barely moving me, as I was prepared for his reaction. I knew Norris Cochran; his fuse was far shorter than mine. “You know I never—”

“I don’t give a shit that you never,” I roared, knocking him back several feet. “But don’t you dare come at me with some bullshit accusation about my boss covering up a crime by tampering with evidence. For all we know, the goddamn gun was never even there in the first place!”

He threw a wild roundhouse punch that I ducked easily, and I would have tagged him right in the jaw, but someone grabbed me from behind and got my arms pinned behind me.

As I struggled to free myself, Cochran caught me in the right eye, but I managed to twist hard enough to take the next one in the right shoulder instead of the side of the face, and the last one in the gut. He was ready to hit me again; I saw the fury all over him, knew he’d been waiting years, ever since we arrested Hartley the first time, to kick the shit out of me.

Then we both heard a bellow of outrage. I was released instantly, and before I hit the gravel, I was in Kowalski’s arms.

“You better fuckin’ run!” he thundered after them. “I’ll have both of your motherfucking badges for this!”

“For crissakes, Jones,” Kohn grumbled as he reached us. “We can’t leave you alone for a second? Why didn’t you yell for us?”

“I didn’t know he had backup. How is this my fault?” I railed.

“Jesus,” he moaned, “lookit your face, man. I think we’re gonna have to get you to the hospital.”

“Fuck that,” I groused, spitting out a mouthful of blood. “Nothing’s broken. Just take me home.”

“We’ll call Kage on the way.”

I couldn’t argue with that.

Fallow by Jordan L Hawk
Chapter 1
Widdershins always knows its own.

Welcome home.

The wind strengthened from over the ocean, coiling around the slender figure standing atop a craggy rock. She might have been some barbaric sea goddess, dressed in nothing but golden jewelry and a skirt of knotted seaweed. Dark swirls marked her pearlescent skin like war paint, and the stinging tendrils of her hair writhed as the autumnal breeze grew into a gale.

I kept a grip on my hat to prevent it from flying off. Even though I stood well back from the water in an attempt to preserve my suit, dampness flecked my exposed skin. I licked my lips and tasted salt.

The wind died away, just as quickly as it had arisen. My twin sister let her arms fall and turned to me, mouth splitting into a grin and revealing rows of shark’s teeth. “I told you I’ve been practicing.”

I crossed the strand to her, my shoes sinking into the moist sand. “Well done,” I said as she climbed down from the rock. “You’re as good as I am at drawing power from the maelstrom now.” Which was only natural, I supposed, given our relationship to the magical vortex lying beneath Widdershins.

“Better,” she countered. Her tentacle hair flicked out in a sudden blur and sent my hat flying from my head.

“Persephone!” I snatched it up, brushing sand off the brim. “This is serious. Not a time for-for childish pranks. We’re preparing for war, in case you’ve forgotten.”

Two months ago, the Fideles cult had used the power of the maelstrom to send a sorcerous beacon through the veil separating our world and the Outside. They meant to summon back the ancient masters who had ruled the earth thousands of years ago, who had created the ketoi and the umbrae, and twisted the arcane lines to form the maelstrom.

We’d failed to stop them from sending the signal and beginning what they called the Restoration. Eventually the inhuman masters would return, and if we failed a second time…

It didn’t bear contemplating. The ketoi and umbrae would either be killed or enslaved, and I doubted humanity would fare much better.

“It doesn’t mean we can never laugh again,” Griffin said as he approached, the light of his lantern gleaming off Persephone’s sleek skin.

I folded my arms over my chest. “I didn’t say that,” I replied, trying to conceal my annoyance. Judging from the look on his face, I failed.

Griffin didn’t understand. How could he? He didn’t know the truth about the maelstrom.

About me.

Oh, he thought he did. He’d seen…something…during our battle against the Fideles cult in July. And of course he already knew about my ketoi blood.

But I couldn’t tell him worst of it, the thing I’d realized when I briefly touched the consciousness of the maelstrom. The vortex beneath Widdershins wasn’t just a feature of the landscape, like a river or mountain. It was magic, and alive in a way I didn’t entirely understand. It wanted things and acted to get them.

Chiefly, it wanted not to be used by the masters upon their return. And Persephone and I were the keys to its plan, its attempt to touch and understand the world, to give it hands and eyes and hearts to work its will.

In the end, my sister and I were the ones responsible for preventing the return of the masters. The sheer weight of our obligation threatened to overwhelm me at times. I’d spent every waking moment searching for any way to halt the Restoration and the return of the masters.

“Did you see?” Persephone asked Griffin.

“I did.” He meant it literally—Griffin had returned from our Alaskan expedition with shadowsight, the ability to perceive magic. “You burned like a candle when you pulled on the maelstrom. Just as your brother does.”

Persephone grinned happily. I tightened my arms across my chest and hunched my shoulders forward slightly. I was used to being the only one Griffin described in such a way, and I wasn’t certain I cared to share it, even with my sister.

He looked handsome tonight—well, he always did, but his new suit from Dryden & Sons complimented his figure nicely. The rust-colored vest in particular brought out the brown threads in his green eyes and the russet in his hair.

“What did the spell look like?” Persephone asked. She crouched on the sand, the fins on her arms jutting out awkwardly.

Griffin’s eyes went slightly unfocused as he considered. “The glare from the arcane line running under the beach can make it hard to see,” he said. “But it was as though you took a needle and thread, and punched them through the fabric of the world. Then you drew the cloth together, and the wind came.”

Persephone frowned, an expression far less ferocious than her smile. “We don’t sew cloth beneath the sea,” she reminded him.

“Of course.” He grimaced. “It wasn’t the most accurate description anyway. Think of it as weaving a net, then, to catch the wind.”

I drew out my pocket watch and was startled at the time. “We should leave. I have work in the morning, after all.”

Persephone perked up slightly. “You will see Maggie there?”

“Of course. Miss Parkhurst is my secretary.” They’d met during the awfulness in July and struck up something of a friendship.

Persephone detached a pouch at her waist. “Will you take this to her?” she asked, passing it to me without opening it.

Even through the knotted seaweed, I could sense its faint call. “A summoning stone?” I asked blankly. “What on earth for? I can’t imagine any reason Miss Parkhurst would need to summon ketoi—”

“One never knows,” Griffin interrupted. “Before we go, may I ask the two of you to try something?”

“Yes!” Persephone said hastily, rising to her feet.

I looked pointedly at my watch again, but they both ignored me. Griffin gestured in the direction of the rock, where Persephone had cast her spell. “Have you tried working a spell in tandem?”

“No,” I replied slowly. “Why?”

“What would happen? Would it be more powerful, or…?”

I hadn’t the slightest idea. My damnable cousins, Theo and Fiona Endicott, had performed sorcery together to raise a tidal wave in an attempt to destroy Widdershins, so I knew it was at least theoretically possible.

“Let’s try!” Persephone said eagerly.

“All right, but I’m not climbing on that boulder,” I said. “I haven’t the shoes for it.”

She looked disappointed, but followed me a bit further up the beach. The slow pulse of magic through the veins of the earth throbbed against the soles of my feet. “Here. We’re still on the arcane line, so it will be easy for us to draw on the maelstrom.”

“What should we do?”

I had only the vaguest idea. “Cast the spell at the same time, I suppose.”

“Would touching help?” Griffin asked. He stood a short distance back. He’d once touched me while I pulled arcane power from the lines, an experience neither of us wanted to repeat. Its effects hadn’t been permanent, but it had hurt him at the time, bursting capillaries in his eyes and sending him reeling into unconsciousness.

Human bodies weren’t meant to touch such power directly. But the maelstrom had spent years changing probabilities, nudging the odds this way and that, until Persephone and I were born. Sorcerers of ketoi blood, who could channel the magic directly without harm.

Persephone took my hand. Her skin was cool and slick against mine, the points of her claws pressing lightly as our fingers twined together.

“We’ll summon the wind again,” I said. “On three.”

She nodded, her expression determined. “One,” she said.

I took a deep breath, centering myself. The world seemed to still around me.

“Two.”

My awareness of the power beneath our feet sharpened.

“Three.”

I reached for the magic, shaping it with my will. Arcane energy surged through our bodies, and the scars on my right arm burned. I felt my sister beside me, her breathing and heartbeat matching mine.

We touched the world, and the world responded.

Wind roared in from the open ocean, a wall of force that knocked me to the ground. An instant later, the ocean answered the sky with a roar of its own. A massive wave rushed into the cove, bursting over the strand and nearly reaching the cliff. It surged around me, the greedy, cold water seeking to drag me into the sea.

I let out a surprised shout, clawing at sand that washed away beneath my fingers as quickly as I could grasp it. Then the wave receded, leaving me soaked to the bone and covered in seaweed, my shoes filled with sand.

I rose to my feet and wiped ineffectually at my suit. My hat was gone, probably blown all the way to Boston on the wind we’d summoned. A fish flopped on the beach beside me. Persephone picked it up and tossed it back into the surf.

“Well,” I said, turning to Griffin. “That was…oh.”

He stood dripping wet from head to toe, his new suit soaked in seawater. A strand of seaweed clung to his hair, and his hat had joined mine somewhere a few counties over.

“Yes,” he said, plucking sadly at his ruined vest. “It certainly was.”

~ * ~

“I’m so sorry,” I said yet again as Griffin unlocked the door to our home.

Our journey from the beach had been uncomfortable. It was impossible to remove all the sand from our shoes and clothes. Salt stiffened our suits and crusted our skin. Once back in Widdershins proper, we’d attempted to hire a cab, but the driver had taken one look at our sodden state and left us on the curb. For the first time, I found myself regretting the destruction of Griffin’s motor car.

“Stop apologizing,” Griffin said, holding the door open for me. Once inside, he locked it again, then began to peel off his coat. “It isn’t as though you knew what would happen.”

“What did happen?” I asked. “From your point of view, I mean.”

Griffin bit his lip, his eyes going thoughtful. “It isn’t easy to describe. Your spells…resonated? Overlay each other? I wonder if perhaps the spells the Endicotts and other sorcerers do together are handled in a different fashion. Each one contributing a piece to a more complex whole.”

That made sense. “Judging from what I’ve read in the Arcanorum and other magical texts, you’re probably right.”

“Could you and Persephone learn to perform spells like that?”

“Of course,” I said, more sharply than I intended.

“I don’t mean to cast aspersions on your abilities, my dear.” Griffin offered me a smile as he unbuttoned his salt-stained vest. “But from what little I know of the matter, you and Persephone aren’t quite the same as other sorcerers. You learn spells, yes, but they’re something of a crutch that you can discard after a while. When was the last time you had to draw a sigil to summon wind, or chant to make frost appear?”

“It’s only a matter of will for everyone,” I insisted. Griffin didn’t look as if he believed me.

I didn’t believe myself. But the conversation was getting too close to things I didn’t want to discuss with anyone except Persephone.

It wasn’t that I wished to keep secrets from the man I called husband. But if he knew the terrible truth I’d learned in July, when I touched the maelstrom and perceived the world as it did…

He’d be furious, and rightfully so.

“I am sorry about the suit,” I said, hoping to distract him. “It was brand new, and it looked so fine on you.”

By unspoken consent, we’d remained in the hallway to remove our ruined clothing. No sense scattering sand and dripping water through the house. He peeled off his trousers and stood clad only in his drawers. His eyes followed my movements as I did the same. “You appreciated how it looked, did you?” he asked, and I recognized the low note in his voice.

“Very much so.” I stepped closer, and he rested his hands on my hips, just above the edge of my drawers. His fingers felt chilled against my skin.

A slow smile curled his lips. “In that case, it’s a shame to have lost it so soon.” His grip on me tightened. “You’ll have to make it up to me, I think.”

“However shall I do that?” I murmured.

“You can start on your knees.”

Flight or Fight by Dirk Greyson
MACKENZIE “MACK” Redford was tired.

“Gloria, I’m done at the Stevens’s place,” he said into the car radio as he drove like dust in a cyclone. He slowed when he saw how fast he was going and remembered he needed to set a good example when he wasn’t out on a call.

“How bad was it?” Gloria asked.

“You don’t want to know.” Domestic calls were the worst.

“I think I need to, Sheriff,” Gloria said, and Mack remembered that Elise Stevens was Gloria’s cousin. Hell, in this area of Central South Dakota, everyone was related to most everyone, knew everyone else, and relied on one another. He liked to think of it as small-town living at its best. But Hartwick had its share of problems, and this morning one of them had reared its ugly head.

“You know I can’t on the police band.” He needed to keep as professional as possible, even though he’d wanted to rip Harley Stevens’s head off. “Have there been any other calls?”

“Not at the moment,” Gloria answered. Then the radio went quiet, but his cell phone began to ring, and he knew he’d better answer it or there would be hell to pay. Gloria was a nice enough woman, but mess with her family and she was the biggest mama bear on the planet. “You’re not on the police band now, so tell me what that piece of shit my cousin is married to did this time.”

“He got drunk and knocked Elise around. She has some bruising, but she kept saying it was from falling down the stairs. If she’d press charges, I’d go after Harley with everything I have, but she won’t.”

“Hell…,” Gloria swore. “I thought she would this time after I had a talk with her.”

“She’s more scared of losing him and having nothing than she is of him.” Mack knew fear, and it had rolled off Elise in waves, even as she’d stood right next to her abuser. “It’s a damn shame, because she’s a kind person. Gloria….”

“I know. I’ll wait a day or two and have a talk with her. I have one more button to push, but it’s the nuclear one. Thanks for doing what you can.” Gloria ended the call, and Mack continued toward the small center of town.

Hartwick, South Dakota, wasn’t much: a single traffic light and a block or so of businesses that serviced the town and surrounding area. The town’s lifeblood was whatever the fertile South Dakota soil that surrounded them would produce. Most of the area was cattle country, where hearty crossbreeds were raised. In general it made for a quiet but hard life that led to more than its fair share of alcohol abuse. Firewater, as his grandfather had called it to warn him away and to help connect him to his roots, was almost a plague in his town, and Mack had just witnessed one of the symptoms.

His intention was to make a pass through town and stop at the liquor store to pay them a visit. Not that his professional problems were their fault, exactly, but it was best they knew he was watching whom they sold to.

“Sheriff.” Gloria’s voice came through the radio like sandpaper, and he was happy as hell to be in his car at that moment. She’d be fuming for hours yet. “A call came in on that anonymous hotline the state put in. They called us. It seems there’s some sort of disturbance at the old Richardson place.”

Mack pressed the brake and pulled off the road. “I thought that was empty.” Shit, that could mean someone was trying to use the house as temporary shelter or for God knows what.

“That place is a mess.”

“It looked fine the last time I was by,” Mack said as he turned around and headed back out the way he’d come, making a right turn at the first road and then stepping on the gas.

“I don’t mean a physical mess. It’s an estate mess, or at least it was for a long time.”

“Okay. Thanks. I’m on my way.” He continued driving as fast as he dared. He didn’t want to make a big deal of it yet. He’d received calls through the state hotline before, and they usually turned out to be nothing.

Mack slowed as he approached the ranch. A truck so shiny the sun reflecting off it was nearly blinding stood near the house, and a man was on the porch, huddled over something. Mack pulled up and was instantly on his guard.

The man rose, and Mack pulled his gun, opened the car door, and stood behind it. The man’s shirt was covered in blood and a body lay on his porch. From the look of the body and the amount of blood, it wasn’t going to move on its own ever again. “Step back and keep your hands where I can see them,” Mack called forcefully.

The man was on his knees, and he backed away, putting his hands in the air, pale as a sheet and slightly green around the gills. “I didn’t kill her.”

“Gloria, I need backup at the Richardson ranch, now,” Mack said into the radio.

“Roger, Sheriff,” Gloria said. “Deputy Morris is on his way,” she told him thirty seconds later.

“ETA?”

“Two,” Gloria returned. “He says he’s flying.” There were few people Mack had ever met who drove as fast as Zeb Morris. He had a love for speed, and it was coming in handy now.

“Settle down and keep your hands where I can see them.” Mack took in the surroundings. The guy didn’t seem to have a weapon, but that didn’t mean much. Slowly Mack came around the door. “Lay facedown on the porch, hands where I can see them at all times.”

The man complied, and Mack came closer, his heart pounding as he took each step.

“I didn’t hurt her. She was there when I came home,” the man said feebly. “I was trying to help her, and then you showed up.” He was shaking, which was a good thing. A healthy dose of fear might work in Mack’s favor.

Keeping an eye and his gun on the man, who didn’t move a muscle, Mack checked the body for a pulse. He didn’t find one. Shit, blast, and fuck. He made his way to the man and secured his hands behind his back with his handcuffs. “Stand up,” he ordered and helped the man get to his feet. His hand warmed where it touched the man, and he nearly let go at the jolt of interest that shot through him. He had to remind himself that he was not supposed to be attracted to suspects. Mack patted him down, finding a set of keys, a wallet, and nothing else in his pockets. “Okay. What happened?”

“Am I under arrest?” the man asked in a stronger tone.

“That remains to be seen,” he said, turning to the woman, who lay on her side facing the house.

The man turned around. “Until I am, you can remove the cuffs, as you have no right.” He sounded like some Eastern snob and looked the part too, with jeans that were almost indecently tight and boots that no one out here would ever wear, let alone could afford. Like his car, everything about him looked brand-new and costly, right down to the thousand-dollar white Stetson that lay on the ground near the porch steps.

“Fine, but no fast moves, and your hands stay where I can see them.” Mack doubted the man was an immediate threat, so he removed the cuffs and stepped back, keeping a hand on his gun.

Zeb pulled into the drive and screeched to a halt, then raced up the steps and slid to a stop. “Jesus.”

“Call the coroner and get him out here. I need you to ascertain who she is, and touch as little as possible. He’s going to need to see everything exactly the way it is. Once you’ve done that, get the camera and take pictures of everything.”

A fucking murder in his town. That was just awesome. Just what they needed.

“Yes, Sheriff,” Zeb said and raced back to the car.

Mack swore that kid never did anything slower than a run. “Walk,” he called, and Zeb complied. Then to the man, Mack said, “Why don’t we step aside, and you tell me who you are and what happened.” He opened the wallet he’d found and saw a New York driver’s license. “A long way from home, aren’t you, Mr. Calderone?” Mack lifted his eyebrows.

“My name is Brantley Calderone, and this is my home. I officially bought the ranch a week ago and moved in on Monday.” Some of his holier-than-thou attitude had slipped away.

Mack pulled out his pad and pen and began making notes. “Is there anyone else here?” he asked, still on guard.

“No. The house is kept locked, and as you can see, there hasn’t been any activity here in a while.”

“So you’re saying you bought this place?” Mack asked, continuing to look around. He now remembered a rumor that the Richardson place had been sold to someone from back East. Regardless, Mack was suspicious and kept his back to the house so he couldn’t be snuck up on.

Brantley nodded slowly, like he was sizing Mack up. “Yes. I went to town to get some groceries and to look around. I’m trying to figure out what I want to do with the land. I intended to talk to a few people to find out what would be best, but no one would give me the time of day.”

Looking the way he did, Mack wasn’t surprised.

“When I came back, I saw someone on my porch. As I got close, I saw blood and tried to help her.” Brantley motioned down his shirt. “That’s how I got this on me.”

“Why didn’t you call 911?” Mack snapped.

Brantley’s eyes widened. “I was about to, and then you showed up and treated me like a criminal. I was only trying to help her.” He slowly rubbed his wrists.

“Sheriff, the coroner is on his way,” Zeb said, then went about taking pictures.

“I don’t even know who she is. All I know is that I came back from a very dissatisfying and unfriendly visit to town to find someone dead on my porch.” Brantley did seem confused and more than a little scared, judging by his dilated pupils. But that could be the result of good acting.

“You have to admit that story is a bit far-fetched,” Mack said. He said no more until another car pulled into the drive and parked next to Zeb’s patrol car.

“What do we have?” Doc Phillips asked as he strode over. “Oh.”

“Exactly. Take your time, Doc. This is a murder investigation.” The last thing he wanted was to be on the six o’clock news in Sioux Falls because his office had botched an investigation, like what had happened a few months earlier in the western part of the state. That was not going to happen on his watch. “Zeb, stay with him,” he said when his deputy came over.

“Sure, Sheriff. I got plenty of pictures.”

“Okay.” Mack used the keys he’d found to unlock the door. He pulled his gun and did a sweep of the house, which was empty, just like Brantley said. It was also spotlessly clean and filled with paintings, a few Western-themed sculptures, and furniture that probably cost more than Mack made in a year. He made some notes in his book and returned to the porch, where he joined Doc Phillips. “How did she die, Ray?” Mack asked.

“A single shot to the chest. Didn’t stand a chance,” Doc Phillips answered and slowly turned her over so Mack could see her.

“Renae Montgomery,” Mack said, and the doctor nodded.

“My real estate agent?” Brantley said.

“I thought you said you didn’t know her?” Mack asked, standing up and approaching Brantley, sure he’d caught him in a lie.

“I don’t, not by sight. I contacted her, and she was acting on my behalf to buy this ranch. We talked by phone, but I never actually met her. We were supposed to meet this evening so I could thank her for everything she’d done to help me.”

This was getting harder and harder to believe by the second. Mack returned to his car and made a call. “Gloria, call the city clerk’s office. I need to know if the Richardson place sold, when, who the buyer was—anything you can find. And if they’re closed, call whoever you have to. I need to know ASAP.”

“Yes, sir,” Gloria said and hung up.

Mack logged into his computer in the car, splitting his attention between the screen and the suspect. He keyed in Brantley’s driver’s license number and requested a background check. He needed to know whom he was dealing with. The computer came back with very little information. There were no outstanding warrants or tickets. That wasn’t surprising, given the fact that, according to his story, Brantley hadn’t been in the state very long. Something wasn’t adding up about all this at all. He wasn’t ready to believe Brantley’s story; something about the whole scene didn’t seem right. Mack got back out of his car and returned to where Doc Phillips was still going over the body.

“I called for a vehicle to transport her to the morgue, but there are a few things I think you need to see. As far as I can tell, she’s been dead about an hour, maybe two. The blood has just started to pool a little. The thing is, I don’t think she was shot at close range. I need to get the bullet out and look at it, but the caliber doesn’t seem right, and there are no powder marks. My initial guess is that she was shot with a rifle.”

Bells went off in Mack’s head. “Thanks. Was she moved at all?”

“Only rolled over, as far as I can tell, and from the blood stains, she fell forward and was probably facedown.”

Mack nodded and got out of the way so Doc Phillips could do his job. “Shit,” he swore under his breath. It would have been so damn simple if this guy—stranger, new in town—had done this. His job would have been easier, but now he was going to have to unravel a puzzle. And the person the town would love to pin it on because he wasn’t one of their own didn’t seem to have done it. Mack was still suspicious of the Easterner, but as much as he’d like this to be an easy case, Mack would have to check out Brantley’s story, as well as run down half a million leads, he was sure. But damn, something wasn’t right.

“Let me get this straight,” he said to Brantley as he approached again. “You bought this ranch without ever meeting your real estate agent? Did you look at the place?” Mack asked as the morgue truck arrived.

“I saw pictures. Renae came out here and took detailed photos of each room and the view from each window. She must have sent me two hundred pictures. Then she walked the perimeter of the property and took pictures there as well. So even though I hadn’t seen the property, I knew the measurements of each room because she also put together a detailed floor plan. Renae went above and beyond for me.” Brantley turned and watched as the morgue personnel lifted Renae’s body off his porch and put it into a body bag. Then they placed the bag on a stretcher and rolled it to the waiting black coroner’s vehicle, which looked a lot like a hearse.

“Why did you buy this particular ranch, Mr. Calderone?”

“I initially saw pictures of it online and contacted Renae once I decided to move out West.”

Mack could tell he wasn’t giving him the whole story, and if he needed it, he would be back for more.

“I’ve looked in a few other places, but nothing felt right until I saw this place. There are trees in back and plenty of yard. The barn is in good shape, and I can get horses if I want. There aren’t any cattle, but I can change that if I decide to. I thought I might want children one day, and there’s a spring and a creek that runs along the ridge. Renae even took pictures of a swimming hole.”

“And you never actually met her?”

“No. Not until I found her on my porch. I tried to help her. But there was nothing I could do. I think she was already dead by the time I got home.” He tilted his head. “Can I ask you something?”

“All right,” Mack said skeptically.

“How did you know to get out here? I’d been home maybe three or four minutes when you showed up, and there hadn’t been a car by the ranch at all.”

Mack had wondered about that as well. “We got a call through the state hotline. Can you tell me where you’d been for the past few hours before you got home?”

“I was at the grocery store in town. The girl with the green hair and black lipstick checked me out. I’m sure she’ll remember me. Oh yeah.” Brantley took off toward his truck, and Mack tensed when he opened the door. “I have the receipt here with me, and it has a time on it.” He returned and shoved the paper into his hand. “You’ll see the corresponding credit card in my wallet, and you know how long it takes to get out here from town. I’m sure the coroner has told you an approximate time of death, so you should have a pretty good idea that I didn’t kill Renae. But obviously someone did.”

Mack checked the receipt and the credit card, then handed the wallet and keys back to Brantley. “Do you have any enemies, Mr. Calderone?”

“Me? Here? I moved here a week ago. I haven’t had the time to make any enemies. All I’ve done is tried to get unpacked and get the house set up. I’ve been into town twice, and so far as I know, I haven’t looked cross-eyed at anyone. Few people have spoken to me, so I have to say no.”

“What about back in New York?” Mack asked.

Brantley’s confidence cracked a little. “I was in a very cutthroat business for a number of years. Fortunes could be made one day and lost the next. Thankfully I made many more fortunes than I lost, and those that didn’t come out so well? Let’s just say they aren’t going to be sending me flowers.”

“So you do have enemies,” Mack pressed.

“Yes. Almost three thousand miles away, and they would be happy that I’m way out here and no longer involved in the business. I retired from financial management and hedge funds when I decided to relocate out here. So any of these enemies would want to keep me out here and far away from the New York financial markets.”

“Call me a country sheriff, but I don’t understand. People who hate you will sometimes go to great lengths to hurt you,” Mack explained. He had seen it more than once in his career.

“That may be, but killing my real estate agent is hardly the way to do it.” Brantley shook his head. “No. The men I count as my enemies would be motivated by making more money than me in my absence. See, I have more than I could ever spend in two lifetimes. But that doesn’t matter. Money isn’t about what you can buy with it. For them, and me up until a while ago, money is simply a way of keeping score. The more you make, the better you are at playing the game, and the less someone else makes.”

“It sounds pointless,” Mack said. Everyone he knew worked hard to try to keep house and home together. A life like that was unfathomable.

“It was, to a degree. That’s why I got out while I was on top.” Brantley smiled slightly as Mack continued making notes.

“If you could give me the names of these enemies, I’d like to try to eliminate them as suspects.”

“Very well.” Brantley rattled off several names. “You aren’t going to get anywhere near them. They work all the time and are surrounded by people at nearly every hour of the day for one reason or another.”

Mack was clearly out of his depth.

“I never got coffee or took care of mundane things like laundry,” Brantley went on. “I had people who did that, including more than one personal assistant. They knew where I was at all times so they could support me and help me remain productive.”

That left Mack with little to go on at the moment. He’d have to start by speaking to Renae’s family and friends to try to find a motive for her murder. But something still niggled at him. “Do you know why Renae was here today?” He turned toward a dark green Toyota Corolla that he’d seen around town many times. “Did you call her?”

“No. I’m surprised she was here as well. I wasn’t expecting her. She may have stopped by to give me something, but I would have expected her to call.” Brantley pulled out his phone. “She didn’t.”

Mack made a note to request telephone records in order to see what calls she had received. “Thank you.” He was running out of questions. He went to Renae’s car, pulled on gloves from his pocket, and then opened the door. It was neat, with a box of files on the backseat and a day planner on the passenger-side floor. He carefully lifted it out and checked her appointments for today. There wasn’t anything noted for the last few hours. “So this wasn’t a planned appointment.” Mack turned to stick his head out of the car door. “Zeb.”

His deputy rushed over. “Sheriff.”

“Have you found her phone?”

“No.”

“Check on the porch, and be sure to wear gloves. Once you’re done, widen the search if you don’t find it and then check out in the field and see if you can find where the shooter stood.” If it was a rifle shot, then the shooter stood somewhere, and Mack was determined to find where that was.

“Is it all right if I unload my groceries and take them inside?” Brantley asked. “I’d also like to change my shirt, but I’ll bring this one to you if you like.”

“Please,” Mack said. “Don’t disturb anything outside.”

“I won’t.” Brantley stared at the spot on the porch marked by the bloodstain. “This may sound dumb, but will you clean that up, or….”

“We will once we have what we need,” Mack said.

Brantley went to his truck and carried plastic bags inside, going around the area where Renae’s body had been.

Mack carefully checked under the seat, but found nothing helpful. He popped the trunk and looked there as well. Only some For Sale signs and the materials of her job. The car wasn’t much help, but he did bag and tag her day planner for evidence. When he was done, he joined Zeb in the search for the phone, but they came up empty. She certainly would have had one.

“I found where the shooter was,” Zeb called as Mack was about to give up. “It’s about forty yards out in the field.” He led Mack to the spot. “The shooter must have hidden behind that building right over there and then stepped out to take the shot. The trail of crushed grass is pretty clear, although it won’t be tomorrow.”

Mack followed the trail to the end and carefully searched the tall grasses. He’d hoped to find a casing, but there was nothing. The shooter must have taken it with them. He did have Zeb take pictures of the spot, as well as the view back toward the house.

“Are we done here?” Zeb asked.

The coroner had left with the body, and Mack was left with questions and yet more questions.

His phone rang, and Mack pulled it out of his pocket.

“Sheriff, I was able to get that information you asked for from Records. The sale of the Richardson place went through a week ago, and the new owner is a Brantley Calderone. They’re sending over copies of the documents, and I’ll put them on your desk so you can look at them as soon as you get back.”

“Thanks,” Mack said, watching the house for a few seconds. “Zeb, we’re done here for now.” He lifted his hat off his head, waved it a few times to cool off, and then plopped it back.

“All right. I’ll get things packed away.”

“Very good. Send me copies of all the pictures, and I want your impressions of everything from the body, to Calderone, to the ranch.” He had long ago learned that others saw different things than he did, and he wanted to make sure nothing was missed.

“What are you going to do?”

“Run down what I can of Mr. Calderone’s story.” He needed to verify that he was telling the truth. The easiest thing would be to find that Calderone was lying, and then he could close the case. Brantley had answers for everything. Even so, Mack wasn’t ready to accept them. Not yet. The best lies and cover stories were those woven with just enough truth to make them believable.

“I’ll see you back at the station,” Zeb said.

Mack nodded, then walked back toward the house and knocked on the door. It opened to reveal Brantley standing in the same tight jeans and a tank that highlighted the top of a powerful chest.

“I put the shirt in a plastic bag for you.” He handed it to Mack. “I’m sorry about Renae. She was helpful and seemed like a nice person. Did she have a family?”

“Thankfully no. She divorced her husband a few years ago, and they had no children.” Mack was going to have to tell the useless bastard about his ex-wife’s death, though. Not that Harry Montgomery was likely to care about anything other than the bottom of a whiskey bottle. “Please don’t make any plans to leave town. This is an ongoing investigation, and it’s likely that we’ll have additional questions.”

“Am I still a suspect?” Brantley asked, a little surprised.

It was on the tip of his tongue to tell him yes. “You’re a person of interest. I’ll leave it at that.” Mack blinked as his gaze centered on Brantley’s trim form and incredible eyes, zeroing in on exactly the kind of interest he’d like to be showing. But Mack pushed that down deep, where it belonged. “I’ll be in touch.” Mack turned and took the shirt back to his car.

The Flowers of St. Aloysius by Hayden Thorne
The Veilleux-Lajoie union was specifically designed to be a quiet yet dignified affair befitting two old families with aristocratic blood in their veins. The church was no grand cathedral meant to inspire awe and perhaps even terror in the hearts of the congregation. No—a small church in a small town north of Florismart had been chosen, but the presiding holy dignitaries elevated the proceedings from a modest wedding to one truly witnessed and approved by the Church of Rome.

No less than three bishops were in attendance, and as he solemnly walked to the altar, his hand resting atop Laurent’s raised palm, Brys’s earlier confidence wavered terribly. He couldn’t keep his gaze ahead, succumbing to the temptation of letting it dart left and right to take in the immensity of the moment. The bishops standing in silent and somber watchfulness intimidated him with their grand ecclesiastical robes, and their elaborate mitres made him shrink inwardly while also wondering how in heaven’s name both families had managed to pull such important, magnificent strings where the church was involved. He could only guess old connections between the families and Rome were responsible for this remarkable display.

In attendance were families—unfortunately almost all coming from the Veilleux side, the Lajoies represented by none else but Brys’s parents. They, along with Mme Veilleux, sat in front, everyone else filling up space behind them.

As he and Laurent finally reached the apse, Brys dared a glance in his parents’ direction and noted the coldness on their features—a vastly different look from Mme Veilleux, who watched him and Laurent with a faint, indulgent smile on her face. But that meant little, really, and shouldn’t be anything to worry about. The Lajoies were a doomed clan. This union meant everything to them as a dying bloodline. Whether or not Brys and Laurent decided to sire offspring down the line, there was still that uncertainty shadowing Brys’s steps, and the tension evident in his parents was testament to the desperation propelling this shocking move to unite the families.

When he met his parents’ gaze, in fact, Brys saw no affection or reassurance in either of them. Just a stony, unreadable light in their eyes, their pale faces fixed in an expression devoid of life. He had to suck in a deep, rattling breath to comfort himself instead.

When he felt his hand lightly squeezed, he turned his attention back to the altar and the priest who stood solemnly before them.

“Are you all right?” Laurent whispered, his words barely heard even in the tomb-like silence of the church.

“I am, thank you. Just nervous.”

“As am I. But we’ll pull through this.”

Laurent gently squeezed his hand again, and Brys’s earlier anxiety eased. At a cue from the priest, the two knelt rather stiffly, and if Brys weren’t still on edge, he’d have laughed at the ridiculousness of the moment, particularly the formal attire he and Laurent were obliged to wear for the occasion. Not having worn the ensemble before, Brys felt his movements hampered by the stiff fabric and the elaborate embroidery and embellishments up and down his person. It certainly didn’t help that the outfits he and Laurent wore were ornamental silk and lace costumes from a century prior—perhaps a symbolic reminder of the beginning of the two families’ deadly enmity. Shirt, cravat, waistcoat, jacket, breeches, stockings, and even buckled shoes—both young men were also, much to Brys’s dismay, forced to top things off with simple bag wigs, but at least the hair color matched their own. It was all too much, really, and Brys didn’t care a jot for it, but this wedding was proving to be a great deal more significant then he’d expected. The only thing that lightened his mood was the look of horror on Laurent’s face as he glanced at himself and then at Brys just before they traversed the nave, their hands together.

He even thought he’d heard his soon-to-be-husband mutter, “I’ll never live this one down” before the doors swung open to welcome them into the church.

The ceremony itself was quite simple despite the superficial pomp, and again, perhaps it was intentional, shedding all the unnecessary layers where it counted the most: the joining of two lives forever. The only extra touches involved the visiting bishops taking turns blessing the union with prayers and exhortations, etc. Before he knew it, Brys was pronounced Laurent’s husband and vice versa then encouraged to stand and turn around to face their families and friends as spouses.

Deferential but cheerful applause followed their presentation, and Brys took advantage of this moment to glance at his parents.

Both appeared to be pleased with the proceedings, but they still had an air of gravity about them. At the very least, they offered Brys brief little smiles before their expressions settled back to icy calm. And Brys wondered if their behavior stemmed from the fact that this move toward a reconciliation—clearly a necessity in their eyes—had also been a severe blow to their pride. Brys could never really gauge their true feelings on the matter as they’d always been guarded about their thoughts and their hearts. Yes, there might be some relief in there somewhere, knowing their one and only child and the last of the bloodline had been easily welcomed by a stronger, more fruitful family who also happened to be their antagonists for a century. There was a hint of defeat somewhere in there as well, the realization that their family couldn’t be sustained anymore, the risk of Brys succumbing to an illness only grounding home the need for a reconciliation and a clear conscience before it was too late.

So many reasons and justifications could have made up the present moment, but Brys had never been—and perhaps never would be—privy to his parents’ closely guarded thoughts and feelings on the matter. He only hoped he’d do them justice in the end, that he’d fulfill his purpose or role in a manner that would make them proud and pleased with the sacrifice of their son in this semi-political game.

“Let’s go,” Laurent whispered, leaning close. “I’m dying to change my clothes. This is madness.”

Brys blinked and turned to him, startled at first, but the grumpy scowl on his husband’s face finally broke the ice, and he laughed softly. “Yes, let’s go. I don’t understand all this, myself. And these ugly shoes are absurdly stiff. I’m sure my feet are black and blue by now.”

Laurent’s scowl melted then, and their gazes met while applause continued around them. “Welcome to my life, Brys Veilleux-Lajoie.”

Brys at first wasn’t sure if Laurent was teasing him, but the somber, earnest light in his husband’s eyes told him otherwise. He didn’t quite know what to say to that other than a stammered, “Welcome to mine, Laurent.”

And then they were walking back down the aisle toward the doors.

A carriage awaited them, and they clambered inside, settling down in the stiff, uncomfortable seats with groans of pain and fatigue.

“God, I can’t wait to walk around in normal shoes again,” Laurent blurted out, now that they were on their way to the wedding banquet. He immediately bent down and struggled with his shoes, eventually pulling them off and sighing loudly when his stockinged feet were finally free of their awful prison. He glanced at Brys, who sat across from him. “Aren’t you going to take your shoes off?”

Brys didn’t answer right away. If anything, he found that he couldn’t. The realization of his being now really, truly married had finally sunk in, and he was at a loss. From a life spent in isolation, deprived of friends his age, to being married to a stranger—and this marriage carrying far greater baggage than any other marriage ever could—Brys suddenly felt not only confused as to what was now expected of him, but also unnerved by his shifting role.

How did betrothed couples go about getting comfortable enough with each other? What were the chances of love—real, deep love—growing from a connection that had been forced on them? Would he and Laurent end up resenting each other instead for the rest of their lives? Brys had heard of mistresses and lovers on the side, apparently considered a necessary evil to those in the same situation he and Laurent now found themselves in. If a loveless marriage was all he had to look forward to from this day forward, would Brys eventually succumb to the temptation of finding a devoted lover on the side as well? Laurent was obviously a great deal more knowledgeable and worldly, having traveled and experienced growing up in a big family and also expensive boarding schools. Would he be more likely to tire of Brys and enjoy a string of bed partners to satisfy his needs and make his marriage more endurable?

“It’s been my experience,” Laurent continued, breaking up Brys’s dour thoughts, “that overthinking things can only make the situation worse.”

Brys sighed and looked up, suddenly feeling exhausted by everything. “We don’t love each other,” he simply replied. “How does something like this work?”

Laurent regarded him in thoughtful silence for a moment. “One day at a time, I suppose.”

Brys didn’t know if he’d struck a nerve because Laurent didn’t speak again for the duration of the trip, and Brys’s spirits wilted at the thought. He fought against a well of emotions and pulled himself together, turning his attention to the gorgeous day and the idyllic countryside. Perhaps he was overthinking things, as Laurent noted. But he couldn’t find it in himself to feel awful about it, seeing as how he felt awful enough like this.

A butterfly suddenly appeared, having flown inside one window, only to find itself trapped inside a moving vehicle. It fluttered past Brys’s face at first before frantically flying around for an escape, and it was really impossible to somehow show where it needed to go when the wind rushing through the open carriage windows kept the poor little creature from getting over its frantic confusion.

Seeing a butterfly so close like this was a first. Back in Cheney, the Lajoie garden didn’t seem to invite birds or even butterflies and all other manner of small wildlife of one species or another. Brys had never even seen earthworms or caterpillars. Such animals were always spotted outside, well beyond the thick stone walls surrounding his home, and whatever knowledge he’d had regarding these creatures came strictly from his books. In fact, the more Brys thought about it, the more he realized the flowers he’d been so used to seeing around him weren’t the usual varieties so plentiful in Laurent’s mother’s garden. Perhaps, he told himself with a mental shrug, the plants his parents grew were strictly only from that region. It certainly made a great deal of sense when regarded as such.

Brys sighed, taking pity on the trapped butterfly, and lifted both hands to try to somehow nudge it in the direction of a window. Wind and movement brought the butterfly close to his face, forcing Brys to blow gently at it before it touched his mouth, and it fluttered around for a bit before attempting another escape. In another moment, however, the creature seemed to have lost coordination, and it clumsily fluttered in a downward spiral to settle on the cushion, just an inch or two from Brys.

There it lay for another moment, its beating wings turning erratic and sluggish, until the butterfly went still, its little body jarred by the carriage’s movements and thrown about by the rushing winds.

Priddy's Tale by Harper Fox
His arms were empty, the rippling surface vacant. He whipped round, losing his footing, submerging under the weight of his soaked jeans. That was all right—he needed some ballast, something to keep him down here while he searched, because he was damned if he was going to let the sea snatch Merou now. He kicked off his shoes and dived.

The water was so dark! He lost his bearings instantly. Something was swirling around him, a heavy current or one of the vortices that occasionally formed as the tide combed the ocean back through the Hell’s Teeth barricade. Priddy tumbled through it, blind, casting hopelessly around him for a floating limb, a handful of hair. “Merou,” he yelled, wasting his last breath on the cry. Silver bubbles, soundless, shimmering away into the abyss...

Something bumped against him. He had a DNA-deep west Cornishman’s terror of sharks, and he lashed out wildly. If it was a mako or a white, you stood a chance—a very remote one—if you could catch the bastard a hard enough thump on the nose. Christ, though—this felt more like a serpent, one of the giant eels that got caught in the nets and passed into infamy as grandfather stories, tales around a beach fire on Golowan night. A coil of it slipped around Priddy’s waist and clamped tight. Bubbles and foam rushed past him and he broke surface with a breaching dolphin’s force. Whatever had caught him just as suddenly let him go. On reflex he started to swim, coughing and trying to clear his vision. There were the stars and the bright heavens, bisected like Merou’s unmarred belly with the silvery brush of the galactic rim.

Merou was swimming beside him. Priddy sucked an astonished breath and went under again. Again something caught him—coiled around him—raised him with supple, irresistible force. Not Merou, who was calmly treading water, smiling incandescently. “All right there, then, blue-eyes?”

“Merou!” Priddy threw his arms around him, not caring if he drowned them both. Merou burst into laughter, not a bit inconvenienced by the attack: seized him joyously in return. Priddy’s world turned upside-down once more, the Milky Way swooping down into the depths and the glitter-filled water soaring to the zenith. The eel, the serpent, was rolling him over and over, laughing all the time, and Priddy couldn’t be afraid, because... “It’s you,” he cried out, the next time he could breathe. “You’re back. You’re alive. It’s you holding me, isn’t it, with your... with your...”

“With my tail,” Merou finished for him, taking pity. “Keep still, wriggly landling, or I’ll scratch you up. The scales are very sharp when they first grow back.”

“Oh, man, what the fuck are you talking about? I’ve lost it, haven’t I? This is a fucking dream.”

“Feeling is believing, my handsome. Let go your stranglehold on my neck. Go on! I won’t bite.”

Heaving great lungfuls of air, Priddy forced himself to unlock one hand and slide it down Merou’s back. The skin was warm as sin and toast, normal enough if normal meant bloody perfect, all the way down the groove of his spine to his waist, and then to the opening crease of his arse, which began right on time but then... “Shit!” Priddy snatched his hand back. “You’ve got scales. You really have got a tail.”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. And you’re sitting on part of it, so don’t freak out too far.”

Priddy gave a barking caw of laughter. Keeping one arm hooked safely around Merou’s neck—the top end of him, the part that still made sense—he tried again, and this time dared to feel the great muscled curve that had swept behind the back of his thighs and was supporting him there. “How are you... How are you holding us still in the water like this?”

“Great big fluke on the end. Whale-style, not fish-style, perpendicular to my tailbone and totally flexible. Treading water, you could call it, only...”

“Only you don’t have feet. Oh, God. Oh, God.”

“Calm down, you infant. Even Jacques Cousteau wasn’t as overwrought as this.”

“You really did know him? So—wait...” Priddy tried to catch his breath and bring his voice down an octave or so. “What does that make you—immortal, as well as a mermaid?”

“Not immortal, no. I’d have died tonight if not for you. A change on land is one of the few ways to kill us. And... there’s nothing maidenly about me, as you’ll find out soon enough.”

Priddy shivered hotly. “Sorry. I scarcely dare ask what’s become of John Thomas.”

“Oh, he’s in there. Just tucked away behind an armoured wall of muscle and scales, like any sensible penis ought to be. Can you please pay attention? This has to be done in the proper, formal way.”

“What has?”

“Just a short ceremony. Landlings can’t be allowed to know about us, you see, not unless they’ve done us a great service.”

“But... doesn’t my dad know about you now?”

“Not at all. I’m just a drunken vision that will haunt him the rest of his life. But you, Jem Priddy... Wait. What’s Jem short for, when it’s a boy?”

“Nothing.”

“Yes, it is. You’d better tell me, or you’ll go down in the annals as Jemima.”

“Jeremy, then,” Priddy growled. “And don’t ever call me that. What annals?”

“Never mind now.” Merou cleared his throat and raised his voice, as if something in the water or the diamond-blazing sky was bearing witness. “Jeremy Priddy, you have done a favour for a spirit of the sea. In consideration of such, I can now, by the powers of the Mer in Lyonesse, grant you a wish.”

Priddy settled more comfortably on the great coil of tail. He’d been cold for a while, but now he too was sin-toasty warm. Maybe he was drowning, or in end-stage hypothermia, and somebody else’s life was flashing in front of him. “An actual wish?”

“Yes. Just like in a fairytale, or...” The tail gave a teasing jounce beneath him. “...or when you were a little lad on Santa’s knee in Trago. Come on—make it a good one. You saved my life.”

“Technically I saved it twice. Once just now, and the other day—”

“Crikey, did you bargain with Santa like this? That one doesn’t count. I only needed saving then because you turned me into a biped.”

“I did? How is that supposed to have happened?”

“I tried to tell you at the time. You touched me. If a landling lays a hand on us, and if we like the hand enough, we can change. Sometimes,” he said ruefully, tightening his grasp round Priddy’s waist, “we like it so much, we don’t get any choice.”

“I’m sorry.” Priddy didn’t mean it: he was overwhelmed with pride, to have been the catalyst for such a transformation. “It didn’t seem to hurt you then, though. Not much, anyway.”

“It’s fine if it happens in the sea. It just feels like being... unzipped, or zipped up again, if I’m going the other way. Did you think of your wish yet? Would you like a speedboat? Your father’s heart, liver and lungs served up to you on a silver plate?”

“Jesus, Merou.” Priddy pulled a face, but the thought of old Vigo’s entrails didn’t really disturb him. What scared him was the power of his wish. I wish you’d stay with me forever, with your magic and your laughter, and your sweetness that makes everything else I’ve discovered in this world so far seem hollow and bitter and dry. But that wish wasn’t fair. It involved someone else, and what if Merou didn’t want to stay? If by some insane chance all of this was real, and the wish had binding force, he’d be trapped.

Priddy could only ask for something for himself. “I wish,” he said faintly, leaning his brow against Merou’s, “that I’d never taken those damn pills.”

Merou became very still. Somewhere in the waters below, the great fluke was sculling, place-holding them against the tide, but he stopped stroking Priddy’s hair and tipped his head a little, as if listening. “Ah,” he said regretfully after a moment. “Can’t be done. Would involve swimming in time with an unqualified person, and the inevitable paradox. If you hadn’t taken the pills, you’d never have ended up here, so we’d never have met, and I couldn’t be here granting your wish, or trying to. You see?”

“I do, but so far you’re a pretty crap Santa, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

Ten Days in August by Kate McMurray
CHAPTER 1
A small black dog with wild eyes ran up Broadway, snapping and snarling at passersby. As women shrieked and men hopped out of the way, a cry of "Mad dog!" echoed through the crowds out strolling, trying to find relief on a hot day.

The saloonkeepers and police officers from City Hall to Houston Street knew Jerry the dog; he would wag his tail and beg for scraps and get a head pat before jogging from one saloon to the next. Most considered him a harmless little tramp. But today, something was wrong. He ran for the open front door of a bank, alternately panting and growling. When the attendant tried to kick Jerry out of the way, Jerry bit his foot and ran inside. Someone said, "Look out, Mac! He may be mad!"

The panic inside the bank caught the attention of bulky Officer Giblin, who hauled out his gun and eyed the little dog. Jerry's gaze darted around the room as he slobbered all over the floor.

Officer Giblin brandished his gun, but didn't want to do anything rash. He poked at the dog with his nightstick, trying to ascertain if he really was mad. The dog snapped and lunged for the nightstick. That was all the evidence Giblin needed. He aimed his gun.

"Not in here!" one of the clerks shouted. "Think of the ladies present!"

Giblin nodded. "All right, you mangy rascal." He chased Jerry out of the bank. Once they reached the street, Giblin aimed his gun and fired. The little dog rolled over dead instantly. The crowd cheered.

Hank Brandt watched from a few feet away with some amusement as Officer Lewis ran across the street. He fired his own gun into the dog's head.

"Thank you, Lewis," said Hank, pulling off his hat and wiping the sweat from his brow with his handkerchief. "He was just as dead before you fired, but we appreciate your attention to detail."

Lewis thrust out his chest. "I just dispatched with a mad dog in my precinct."

"So you did." Hank wasn't completely convinced the little dog was mad so much as suffering from the effects of the day's extreme heat, even more relentless than it had been the day before. "Congratulations, Lewis. You killed a dead dog."

Lewis muttered an oath and walked away from Hank, so Hank decided to continue on his way to the precinct house.

"Extra, extra! Heat wave taking over the city!" crowed a newsboy, thrusting a paper at Hank.

"I'm living it, kid," Hank said. Still, he tossed a nickel at the newsie and took a paper. The unbearable heat dominated the headlines, although a story below the fold complained about Police Commissioner Roosevelt blustering about saloons being open on Sundays again and gave an update on the trial of a woman accused of chopping her husband into bits before dumping the remains in the East River. The World had no qualms about declaring her guilty.

Hank had some doubts, given that he'd worked the case. He still suspected her lover, a married man who delivered ice. Maybe the city had decided the ice was too valuable to spare him for trial.

Hank was sympathetic. Dear Lord, it was hot. The air around him was thick and rancid. Simply being outside was like walking around with eight blankets draped over his shoulders. The street smelled of rotting food and horse manure.

Ah, New York in the summer.

He arrived at the precinct house on East Fifth Street, where the whir of the overhead electric fans drowned out all other noise, and still the fans weren't doing much beyond blowing papers around. It smelled slightly better inside, but it wasn't any cooler.

"Brandt."

Hank wasn't even at his desk yet and already someone was trying to get his attention.

He sighed and turned his attention toward his colleague and sometime partner, Stephens, who stood there with his arms crossed.

"Would you like for Roosevelt to give you a lecture?" said Stephens, glaring at Hank's bare forearms.

Hank had forsaken a jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves in an attempt to escape the oppressive heat. Not that it worked. Stephens, of course, wore his full uniform. The collar of his coat was soaked with sweat. Hank wondered what Stephens hoped to achieve by suffocating under all that wool.

"It's amusing to me that Commissioner Roosevelt thinks any man could wear a coat in this weather. If he wants to discuss proper attire, he can do so when the weather cools off." Hank pulled his handkerchief out of his pockets and mopped his brow again.

Stephens balked, but recovered quickly and said, "We have a new investigation. That is, now that you've decided to grace us with your presence."

"It is too hot for sarcasm, Stephens. What is the case?"

Stephens puffed out his chest and made a show of pulling a wad of crumpled paper from his jacket pocket. He consulted his notes. "Murder at a resort on the Bowery."

Hank glanced back toward the front entrance to the precinct house. Taking on a case would mean investigating, which meant going back outside. The last thing Hank wanted to do was go outside. Not that the precinct house was cool and comfortable as such, but Hank reasoned if he sat very still, he might be all right. He turned back to Stephens. "Which resort?"

Stephens looked at his tattered papers. "Club Bulgaria."

Hank schooled his features. He wondered if Stephens knew of the reputation of this particular club. Not that Hank had ever been there. He'd merely been tempted.

"Any other information?" Hank asked.

"Not much. Officers who arrived at the scene first talked to the club owner briefly, but he didn't seem to know anything. The body is still there. A few of the staff from the club have been made to wait there for our arrival."

Hank could only imagine how putrid the body must smell in this heat. "Well," he said. "No sense standing around here dripping. Let's go."


Nicholas Sharp — stage name Paulina Clodhopper — stood outside Club Bulgaria in his street clothes, smoking the last of a cigarillo. It was doing nothing to calm his nerves. He tossed the butt of it toward the street and rearranged the red scarf draped around his neck. It was too hot for such frippery, but he had an image to maintain, and besides, the police were on their way. He wanted to look somewhat respectable. Really, though, Nicky would have much preferred a long soak in an ice bath while wearing nothing at all.

The sun blared down on the Bowery and it smelled like someone had died — which, Nicky acknowledged, had happened in truth — and it was nearly unbearable, but he couldn't stand inside any longer. Not with Edward laid out on the floor like ... well. Nicky didn't want to think of it.

A man in rolled-up shirtsleeves and an ugly brown waistcoat, his hands shoved in his pockets, walked down the street toward Nicky. The man beside him must have been boiling inside his crisp police uniform.

The man in uniform looked Nicky up and down with an expression of deep skepticism on his face. "Are you Mr. Juel?" His tone indicated his real question was, Are you even a real man?

Nicky bristled. "No, darling. He's inside."

The man in shirtsleeves said, "You work here?"

"Yes."

This man was really quite attractive, in a sweaty, disheveled way, although Nicky supposed there was no way around that in this weather. The man pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and then pulled the dusty bowler hat off his head, revealing dark brown hair, cut short. He wiped his whole face from his damp forehead to his thick mustache before he dropped the hat back on his head. There seemed to be a strong body under the wrinkled clothing, but it was hard to tell. Still, this man intrigued Nicky. His companion in the uniform was blond and bearded and looked considerably more polished, but in a bland way. The disheveled man was far more interesting.

"I'll take you in to see Mr. Juel," Nicky said. "That is, if I could have your names."

"I'm Detective Stephens," said the uniformed man briskly.

"Hank Brandt," said the man in shirtsleeves.

"Acting Inspector Henry Brandt," Stephens said. "Honestly, Brandt, there are protocols."

Brandt grunted and waved his hand dismissively at Stephens. To Nicky, he said, "And you are?"

"Nicholas Sharp. Come with me." He led the police officers inside.

Julie waited in front of the door to the ballroom. He stepped forward and introduced himself, standing tall but fussing a bit more than necessary — "This is such a terrible tragedy, nothing like this has ever happened here before, I am still in such a state of shock!" — his voice growing increasingly shrill as he spoke. Nicky might have believed him if this had been the first act of violence perpetrated at Club Bulgaria.

"Can you tell us what transpired, Mr. Juel?" asked Detective Stephens, the picture of proper politeness, although it was Brandt who pulled a pad of paper and a pencil from his pocket.

"I did not know the fate of poor Edward until I arrived this morning."

Nicky glanced at Brandt to ascertain his reaction. Julie was lying just as sure as he had a receding hairline; he rarely left the club. Nicky knew for a fact Julie had been sleeping in his office at the back of the club for nearly a week, ever since his lover had thrown him out of their Greenwich Village apartment. Nicky didn't know for certain, but he also suspected poor Edward had been lying on the floor of the ballroom for some time before Julie had deigned to notice him.

"And where were you through all this, Mr. Sharp?" asked Brandt.

Nicky adjusted his scarf. "I went home just after midnight last night. I arrived back at the club about an hour ago, where Mr. Juel confronted me with the news that poor Edward had departed the earth."

Brandt nodded. "What exactly is your occupation here?"

"I entertain the guests."

Brandt pursed his lips. "You entertain them."

"I sing," said Nicky.

Brandt's eyebrows shot up. "Right. So. This Edward, is he a friend of yours?"

Nicky kept hoping Julie would intervene, but he stayed resolutely quiet. Nicky wasn't quite sure what the best answer to these questions would be or how much information he should give away willingly. He said, "He also entertained the guests. In a somewhat different capacity."

Brandt turned toward Stephens and said, "Would you go take a look at the ballroom? I'll follow along in a moment."

Stephens nodded and proceeded into the ballroom. Julie trailed after him.

Nicky shivered, alarmed now that he was alone with Mr. Brandt, who removed his hat and took a step closer to Nicky.

"Tell me honestly," said Brandt. "Edward was a working boy."

Nicky sucked in a breath. Brandt stood close enough for Nicky to smell him, a sour, earthy scent, the fragrance of someone who had spent too much time stewing in his own sweat on a hot day.

"Yes," Nicky whispered.

"And you are as well?"

"No. I only sing."

Brandt grunted. "I'm not here from the vice squad. I do not wish to toss anyone in jail unless they killed your friend Edward. Do you understand me?"

"Yes. And I am being honest. Edward was a working boy. I sing on stage a few times a week." Nicky pointed toward the ballroom. "That's all."

"You sing."

"Yes. And to answer your next question, last I saw Edward was last night. He was entertaining a guest. They went to the back. I do not know what happened after."

Brandt must have been astute enough to discern Nicky's meaning, because he jotted something down on his pad. "What did this guest look like?"

Nicky closed his eyes to try to picture him. "He had dark hair. He was quite tall. Thick mustache. A very fine suit of clothes, much nicer than the sort the guests here usually wear."

Brandt scribbled in his notes. He said, "Would you recognize this man if you saw him again?"

"Yes, I believe so."

"They went to the back and never returned?"

Nicky didn't quite know what to make of these questions. Clearly, Brandt was worldly enough to know how a club like this worked, so he must have known the back rooms behind the ballroom at Club Bulgaria were where men went to have sex with each other. Edward would have sidled up to a man like the one Nicky had seen him with last night and seen the money dancing before his eyes. He would have taken the man in back for a ... financial transaction. And then?

"I'll be honest and tell you I didn't think much about Edward hanging on the arm of some man from uptown. This fancy dressed man was slumming, which is hardly a novel occurrence. Usually the bourgeoisie come down here to gawk and feel superior, but occasionally one of the boys here does get his claws in one. It wasn't strange enough for me to take notice."

"Except for his clothes."

"Yes, well. I quite liked the cut of the man's jacket and spent a brief, wondrous moment imagining I could afford to purchase such a thing."

Brandt nodded. "In other words, Edward may just have emerged from the back room unscathed after entertaining this man, but if he did, you did not see it." He stepped toward the ballroom. "Come with me."

"Oh, no, darling. I couldn't possibly. I've spent far too much time with poor Edward today as it is."

"Fine. Stay here, then. Don't leave. I'm not done talking to you."

"Your wish is my command."

Brandt narrowed his eyes. He probably didn't appreciate Nicky acting flippant, but Nicky knew of no other way to manage such a situation.

Nicky watched Brandt walk into the ballroom. When the voices of the men inside rose, Nicky found a spare chair to sit in. There was nothing to do but wait.


For nearly a year, Police Commissioner Roosevelt had been trying to cure the city of vice. Standing in the middle of a tawdry ballroom, Hank could see his point. There was something particularly sad about this room. Hank glanced toward Stephens, who he knew thought cleaning up the city was a worthy goal, and maybe it was. Hank did not believe it was an achievable one. The city was too far gone, perhaps. And its residents liked their vices.

Hank imagined this ballroom had once been grand. There were the remnants of a forgotten era everywhere: sculptural touches carved into the ceiling and a series of murals painted on two of the walls. On the other hand, the murals were somewhat vulgar and depicted men in various states of undress lounging about in parks or, in the case of one of them, in the ruins of Ancient Rome. Hank supposed the murals were supposed to be titillating, but there was something strange about them. Hank was no art scholar, but these were not quite right, as if they were a parody of art and not art itself.

Artistry and architecture aside, though, the ballroom inside Club Bulgaria was worn and filthy. The wooden floor was stained and scratched, the stage curtains were threadbare, and the sculptures were chipped or broken.

Stephens stood frowning as he took in the room. They hadn't discussed it on the walk over to the club, but Stephens was no greenhorn. He had to have known to expect a dance hall or brothel at least — the residents of New York did not come to this neighborhood to see Shakespeare — but he might not have known that this was a fairy resort. This was precisely the sort of place that would send him into fits. If Stephens was trying to hide his revulsion, he failed badly.

Hank knelt and took a closer look at the body. There was something vulgar about the dead man, too, something that made him blend in with his sordid surroundings, and not just because he was dead. Hank recorded every visible detail in his notes. The dead man wore a stained shirt and black trousers. A smudge of some kind of grime stained his cheek. His hair was unruly. There was powder on his face and some sort of rouge on his cheeks, which kept the paleness of death at bay.

Not to mention, there was a knife wound in his chest.

Hank turned to Mr. Juel. "Mr. Sharp mentioned seeing this Edward go off with a wealthy-looking man. Did you happen to see this man?" Juel shook his head. "No, Inspector. I wish I had. Do you know what it will do to my business if word gets out this kind of violence could be perpetrated at my club? If that man is responsible for this, I want him caught! I want —"

"No need for theatrics," said Hank.

"No need? Why, just three weeks past, a man was killed outside Paresis, and what did the police do? Nothing. One more dead prostitute, eh? The working boys who walk along the Bowery at night are inverted and less than human, are they not? Why should the police bother to investigate?"

Kyle by RJ Scott
Chapter 1 
Last Christmas Eve 
Jason Smith had two things he needed to do before he could sleep.

The first was to work enough men coming out of bars so he could finally add to his cash and bank another five hundred.

The second was finding somewhere he could rest.

Jeb had turned him out last night, muttering something through his disgusting, acid-rotted teeth, explaining that Jason was a fucking leech who needed to get out.

Jason left with his one bag, and he’d spent the night in the park. Which was no hardship. The nights were cold, but he had newspaper and a single blanket, and he was used to this shit. Anyway, the park was alive with all kinds of humanity that were on his level. He used his bag as a pillow, slept with an ear open for any sounds, and managed a couple of hours of shut-eye.

Okay, so getting woken at 5:00 a.m. by a guy in a suit who wanted a cheap-and-quick blowjob with added hair pulling wasn’t the best way to meet the new day, but the twenty Jason pocketed was worth it. He just needed to clean up now and used the locked public bathrooms by climbing in through the narrow window. His skinny frame easily fit through the small space, and he dropped to his feet inside.

The place stunk; even if it was raining, no way on earth would he sleep in here. The stench of urine and shit and fuck-knows-what-else were enough to have his eyes burning. Still, there was water in here, and he had bits of soap in his backpack—real soap that he’d taken from his last motel booking—and a can of deodorant.

He needed it because today was going-to-the-bank day. He took the money out of every place he’d hidden it, and laid it out on the sink. Five hundred and eight dollars. Jason pocketed the eight, enough to buy breakfast, and the rest he rolled up with a rubber band and poked right down into the bottom of his bag. He considered leaving out another fifty, maybe even getting a room for the night, but he’d easily get a place in a hostel if he turned up early enough.

No point in staying out to earn anything; pickings were slim on Christmas Eve. Most of the men who wanted his services were at home with their families, with no chance of a fuck-and-run to get whatever was in their heads out of their system.

“Yo, J. You in there, dude?”

Jason sighed at his reflection in the cracked, misted mirror. “Yeah,” he called back.

Noises announced someone else slithering in through the window, and then Evo stood next to him. No one knew why he was called Evo, but the five-five skinny teenager was probably the closest thing Jason had to a friend. If you could have that kind of thing in his walk of life. They’d partied together, but not in the beer-and-laughter sense, more the being-used-together kind of way. Still, situations like that bonded guys.

“Heard there’s a party over at Jeb’s tonight,” Evo said with a grin. He looked well, bright and awake, and he was wearing new clothes. Likely he’d lifted them from a john, but he actually looked kind of cute.

Then it hit Jason: Jeb was having a party, so that had to be why Jason had gotten thrown out. Jeb’s parties were young boys, old men, and a hell of a lot of pain. Not Jason’s scene and he wouldn’t go again, not after last time. But Evo looked at him steadily, and he was smiling.

Jason frowned. “Fuck, you’re not going, right?”

“Jeb asked me. Said I could make one-fifty if I took it all, if I did okay. More if I made him proud.”

Temper had Jason rounding on Evo. He hated that Evo looked for approval from Jeb, who was nothing more than a lowlife peddler of second-rate drugs and used-up kids.

“Jesus, Evo, it’ll kill you. Stay away from Jeb.”

Evo looked up at him, his wide brown eyes focused right in on Jason. “Where else am I gonna make that much money?” he asked a little petulantly.

“From anything but working one of Jeb’s parties, for God’s sake.”

Part of Jason wanted to suggest they share a bed at the shelter. Sometimes the shelter people would look the other way but part of the deal with getting a room was to be at least outwardly clean. Evo looked a little on edge, his pupils wide, probably high on something. Jason had learned his lesson in the past; Evo was an addict and at least two years shy of eighteen. Way too much heat. Guilt flooded him, but he’d learned he needed to look out for himself if he ever hoped to get off the streets alive.

“Pays well.” Evo began hopping from foot to foot.

He did that a lot recently, shimmying and shaking his ass, unable to sit still. Jason didn’t know what Evo’s backstory was—well, apart from leaving home at an ungodly age and finding his way to this particular part of the city—but something really bad had driven him out here. Jason had seen the scars on Evo’s back, knew the pain that must have put them there.

As he danced, Evo checked his hair in the mirror, pouting as though posing for a selfie, like the ones tourists took all the time, and then catching Jason’s eye and winking at him with an added broad grin.

Evo rummaged in Jason’s bag, not deep enough to get to his money, but Jason grabbed at it to yank it back. Evo wasn’t allowed near his bag; it was unspoken between them that they had boundaries.

“Sorry, just wanted this.” Evo grabbed the deodorant and then danced out of reach, shoving the can under his jacket and T-shirt.

He sprayed enough to knock a guy unconscious at ten paces. Jason, still waking up, couldn’t even be bothered to chase him. He was still stiff from a night outside on a bench, not to mention the early-morning blowjob and his scalp stinging from the hair pulling.

Evo held out the deodorant, his eyes going from Jason’s face to the bag, a flicker of uncertainty in his expression. Jason looked down at the bag; a couple of the zippers were open, and he pulled them tight closed.

“I’ll put it back,” Evo said.

He sounded wrong—though Jason didn’t know how exactly. It wasn’t a defined thing; Evo just wasn’t his dancing, smiling self for an instant.

Jason held out his hand, and Evo passed over the can. He was worrying his lower lip and kept glancing down at the bag.

“Fuck,” Evo muttered, then looked up at Jason and grinned broadly. The smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Bye!”

“Whatever, asshole.” Jason concentrated on washing his face with the remnants of soap and the copper-colored water the old restroom faucets provided, gripping his bag very firmly between his legs.

Evo did one last check in the mirror and then danced back to the window.

“Merry Christmas, J,” he said, and in a smooth, sinuous movement he was out of the window and scrabbling down the wall outside.

Jason leaned on the sink as the water drained away. One of his tricks had been just a little too handsy last night and decided mid-blowjob that he wanted to add in breath play. Fucker. A ring of bruises marked Jason’s neck. He stared at them, even poked at them, pressing hard until it hurt. When he released the pressure, they disappeared in a bloom of scarlet, then reappeared as his skin settled. At least if he took a couple of days off then the bruises would fade a bit; he definitely wasn’t offering dying while sucking cock as an option.

He straightened, then used the spray on his pits and in a general sweep over his body before pushing the can into his backpack.

He scrambled out of the restroom, dropped to a crouch, rose, and walked across the park to the bank. Way too early for it to open, but he had other things he needed to do.

At all times, Jason was aware of the noises and people around him. A few early commuters were around, but most everyone else were creatures of the night like him. One coffee and a bagel later, he took up residence on the bench outside the bank and waited. The minute it opened, he went into the front of the queue. He carefully completed a blank deposit slip in his neatest handwriting and passed it over.

The cashier smiled at him, an honest-to-goodness smile. She counted out the money. A pause followed as she was likely checking it wasn’t fake. Then she ticked it off on the slip, slid the whole lot in a drawer, and printed out the receipt.

“Could I have an account statement, please?” Jason asked politely. He owed himself the Christmas gift of seeing how much he’d saved. He’d never asked for one before but it seemed almost like a gift to himself to count the money he’d saved.

“Do you have ID?” she asked.

He didn’t. Of course, he didn’t. Not real ID, not one for Jason Smith. The bank account was a leftover from his time at the group home, the only thing he had that was anything official, anyway.

“Not with me, but it’s okay,” he said. “I’ll check outside at the ATM.”

She glanced left at the security guard who hovered tactfully just out of reach. It seemed the bank didn’t mind taking the money from someone who looked like him, someone with five hundred in cash, but they damn well-needed security close while they did it.

Jason didn’t take it personally.

She smiled, tightly this time. “Have a nice Christmas, sir.”

“Thank you,” Jason murmured and left the counter.

He stopped just inside the exit door at the cash machine, aware of the security guy following him at a discreet distance, and pushed in his card and entered his PIN. The card was only a month away from needing to be renewed. It was the last thing he had from his home, from that time when he had an address. At some point in the next week, probably by New Year’s, he needed to take out all his money with his card and get the hell out of Dodge.

Balance showed as a couple of hundred dollars, with the available balance just the extra five hundred dollars.

“What?” He ejected the card and pushed it back in again. Maybe something was wrong? The same balance showed again, so he clicked on the statement option.

There, in black and white, the money had gone on a daily basis: fifty here, thirty there, some days a hundred. In the last two months, nearly every cent had been taken.

And there was only one person who knew he had money saved, and who had stood next to him at the ATM on more than a few occasions. Evo. He recalled Evo standing by his bag this morning looking for deodorant—or was he putting the card back? How long had he been doing this?

Jason’s money was all gone.

And there was no point in talking to the bank; it wasn’t an administrative error.

The world fell around him. No wonder Evo had spent the last few months dancing around and living like he had it all. He’d taken Jason’s money and injected it into his arms, or inhaled it, or given it to clothes stores.

It had to be him. And Jason had never noticed, even though he checked his card was there every day… more than once a day.

He opened the small pocket inside his backpack where he kept the card—and pulled out a loyalty card from Starbucks, the same weight and shape as his bank card. Was that what he’d been feeling? Why hadn’t he unzipped the whole thing? Why hadn’t he checked visually? With a clenched fist, he punched the wall next to the cash machine and cursed loudly.

When he turned around, he walked into an unmoving wall of blue.

“Is there a problem, sir?” The guard looked down at him with no expression on his face. The man had a wide body, a thick neck, and a gun on his hip.

Jason somehow managed to look the huge, intimidating mountain of a man in the face. “No. I’m just leaving.”

The guard nodded, and Jason slipped past, exiting into the coolness of a Dallas December.

In a daze, he walked out with as much control as he could manage, and he held his head high. He went back to the park and into the now-open bathroom where, only a few hours earlier, he had stood with a feeling that he was close to his dream of getting a bus ride away from there and starting new somewhere, somehow.

Now he was back to square one.

He locked himself in the last cubicle and rested his head back against the wood-and-plastic partition. God knows what was on those walls, the unseen deposits alongside the graffiti.

Even though Evo had taken every single cent he had, Jason didn’t cry. Evo wasn’t to blame; he was a kid who didn’t know better, and Jason had been lax. He only had himself to blame.

So.

He moved on. Found the hostel, decorated with donated tinsel and garish with bright lighting, and he got himself one of the last rooms.

His cell vibrated as he sat on the edge of the narrow bed, clutching his bag, but he ignored it. He didn’t want to talk to the only person who had the number; Evo was dead to him.

Maybe an hour after, he decided to listen to the voice mail—it could be Evo apologizing. He should at least listen.

Damn kid was going to be the end of him one day.

The message was garbled; only two words made sense: “Help me.”

Fear had Jason running from the hostel to Jeb’s place, forcing his way into Jeb’s apartment, desperately looking for Evo, pushing at the body that leaned against the bathroom door, knowing it would be his friend.

And hell, he didn’t cry when he cradled Evo in his arms; when the boy who had stolen his money and danced in the bathroom bled out around him. Whoever hired out Jeb and his boys that night had done their best to destroy all the evidence. They’d left Jeb for dead, used Evo, and cut him. The fatal wound was a slice across his throat that hadn’t been deep enough to kill him outright.

Jason didn’t remember calling 911, but he must have done so, because suddenly the cops arrived. He still couldn’t make himself cry even when he was arrested, covered in Evo’s blood.

There was no point in crying. Who would he be crying for? Evo? He was in a much better place.

And for himself? What did it matter? No one cared if he cried.

No one.


Chapter 2 
October. The Double D Ranch 
“Ready?”

Kyle nodded. He wasn’t ready at all. He’d only just gotten settled into the bunkhouse at the main ranch, and now he was being asked to move.

For good reasons, yes, but still, he wasn’t at ease with it.

The man asking him, Jack Campbell-Hayes, the owner of the Double D, was looking at him with that expression on his face. The one he used when gentling a horse, all care and calm and irritating peacefulness. At least Jack didn’t look at him with pity; unlike Jack’s husband Riley, who stared at Kyle like he didn’t know what to say.

Kyle hefted his bag onto his shoulders. His entire world was in that bag: clothes, a Kindle and charger that Jack had given him, and a few photos he’d collected along the way. Nothing permanent, nothing that spoke of family—because he didn’t have one. Nope, the photos he carried were of the horses he’d loved down the years, starting with Apollo, his first-ever pony when he’d been a little over five years old, and his mom made him believe that Apollo was his to keep.

Of course, Apollo didn’t belong to his mom—a cook and housekeeper on a ranch—or to Kyle, and that was the first of many disappointments in his life. Losing his mom when he was sixteen had just cemented how crappy fate was to him.

He rose above it, found temporary jobs on ranches, worked his way up, and landed a job at Bar Five, working for the Castille family.

Which was where everything went to shit.

But he couldn’t think about that today. He had enough to do focusing on keeping his distance from everyone while not being a big enough dick that they sent him away.

Jack scratched Solo, his horse, between the eyes and leaned in to press a kiss on his soft velvet nose. “We’ll walk them down.”

“Okay.” That made sense. The new building was half a mile from the main house, and Kyle had his bag to carry.

Movement to his left startled him, but it was only Liam. Liam was a harmless guy, a ranch hand, and he and Kyle had a lot in common. They’d both worked for the Castille family on the Bar Five.

Both suffered abuse at the hands of Hank Castille.

They never talked about it, but it was there, right in the middle of them. Sometimes, when Kyle was low, he would consider Liam, look at the man who seemed so happy in his skin, with his boyfriend and his place at the D. Kyle would wonder just what it was that Hank had done to him.

Was it the same as he’d done to Kyle? Liam had gone through the ranch after Kyle had finally had the balls to get away.

What if Kyle had turned Hank in, reported him? Would that have meant Liam might have escaped what Hank had done? He would never know.

Not once did Liam ever look at Kyle with anger or disgust. Nope, he was the nicest guy Kyle had ever met. Under different circumstances, they might even have been friends.

Jack, Liam, and Kyle set off down the main road away from the ranch house, with Jack slightly ahead and Kyle walking abreast with Liam. Kyle had hold of the reins of his horse.

And yes, he couldn’t get over that—he had his own horse. One that they wouldn’t take away. Transferred into his name, and he’d seen the paperwork. Part of his salary for working at the D, or so Jack had said.

“Nervous?” Liam asked.

Kyle shrugged, but Liam didn’t let it drop.

“I was nervous when I started at the D, but this is a good place.”

“But I won’t be at the D,” Kyle said.

And he wasn’t. He was being farmed out to one of Jack’s projects, rebuilding and adding to a crumbling stone house, making it a center for people who needed it: young people without direction, abused or just completely fucked-up like Kyle. A pity project, no doubt, from a man who was as rich as anything Kyle could imagine. Or rather, not Jack—he wasn’t the rich one, that was his husband, Riley, an oilman who seemed to find Kyle fascinating and appeared to want desperately to be Kyle’s friend.

Nope. Not happening. Riley was too… everything. Too polished, too clever, too pretty to be real. And there was something about the tall businessman that put Kyle on edge, something to do with the memories of another time that froze hard in his mind.

“Nope, you’re managing Legacy when it’s done,” Liam said.

And that? Legacy. Whose legacy? Jack’s? Who named a ranch Legacy?

“Hmmm,” Kyle responded and hoped that would be the end of the conversation.

Clearly, Liam was in a chatty mood, and when Jack slowed up a bit so they were three abreast, Kyle felt claustrophobic.

“If we get Pod One finished, we can fit the shower,” Jack began. “The plumbing is all in for that room and waiting to go, and the construction crew from the barn raising has the skeleton done.”

Kyle knew all that, Liam had already told him, but he didn’t tell Jack that. “Okay,” he did say, because there was a lull in the conversation and he had to fill it.

“Pods One and Two are our priority,” Liam interjected. “Then Kyle will have somewhere to sleep until the foreman’s room is done.”

The understanding had been that once construction was underway, Kyle would be staying at the new Legacy ranch to oversee security and generally be there for deliveries, as well as working on the development itself.

Construction wasn’t his thing. Horses were. But Jack had explained this was going to be Kyle’s project, that he was reporting only to Liam, and then only when he had things he couldn’t handle himself.

Jack had given him a budget, a cell phone for contact—and one hell of a lot of responsibility.

But Kyle was determined. He could do this.

They reached the new Legacy area. The wooden structure for the accommodation was two arms laid out on either side of the central stone building, in one long rectangle. To the left stood the professionally built horse barn. Liam carried on to the barn, but Jack stopped and touched Kyle briefly on the arm to bring him to a halt.

“Will you be okay in a tent?” Jack asked.

He looked concerned, glancing from Kyle to the construction and back.

“Jeez, I said it’s fine,” Kyle snapped.

That was the fifth time Jack had asked the same thing, and Kyle was pissed that he apparently wasn’t making himself understood that yes, a tent inside the barn was a good thing. It was isolation, and warmth, and all his own.

Jack narrowed his eyes and Kyle swallowed. He’d instinctively snapped, but this was Jack Campbell-Hayes, his boss, the man who was offering him a chance to make a difference in his life.

“I’m sorry,” Kyle said, for the first time since he’d come to the D. However, he felt, whatever his feelings were for being there, Jack was a good man and deserved his respect.

Jack looked at him steadily, “Me too. You know your own mind; I shouldn’t keep questioning it.”

Christ, this man was too good to be true.

Jack tied Solo off on the fenced-in paddock, and Kyle followed suit with Skeeter.

Then Jack headed into the barn. “There’s a microwave, a kettle, and we brought down some mugs and plates, and Jonah will bring down food twice a day, breakfast and dinner.”

Jonah was a new guy to the Double D, even newer than Kyle was, responsible for feeding what had become a small army of staff at the D, the riding school, and now Legacy.

Jack then indicated the tent, opening the flap to expose a cot and a small table. “All yours,” he said.

Kyle nodded. He’d check it all out later when everyone was gone. To be honest, all he wanted to do was to get into a routine. He was building the pods—as they called the accommodation rooms—and he was responsible for a couple of horses: Skeeter and the horse Liam had brought down the grumpy Sundance.

Kyle wanted everyone to go so he could get a start. Liam would be coming back every so often, to help on days when he could, but Legacy was Kyle’s domain, and the idea of isolation here was about the only thing making him smile.

Yes, it was Jack’s charity, and that still grated on him, but it was a new start.

“Thank you,” he murmured and held out a hand to Jack.

Confusion filtered into Jack’s cornflower blue eyes, but he held out a hand and shook firmly. “No need to thank me,” he said a little gruffly. “You’re the best person for the job.”

Kyle bit his lip to stop himself from saying something stupid, like “not sure why you think that.”

Instead, he said, “I won’t let you down.”

“I know you won’t,” Jack said with a smile, and with not one hint of threat in the words.

The sound of hooves had both men turning. Kyle’s heart sank; Riley was joining them.

Riley drew his horse to a halt and slid smoothly to the ground. “Hey, guys,” he said, as he walked over and bumped shoulders with Jack.

“Thought you were waiting for a call?” Jack said, and then his eyes widened. “Tell me you didn’t leave Hayley waiting on a million dollar deal phone call.”

“Knowing her she’d probably get us two million,” Riley huffed.

They smiled stupidly at each other, so much connection between them, and Kyle almost relaxed. Riley wasn’t talking to him, or asking him if he was okay, or sending thoughtful enquiring glances his way.

But then it changed, and abruptly he was the one in the spotlight. “Hey, Kyle,” Riley said. “All settled in?”

Kyle nodded. He didn’t talk to Riley. Riley asked him questions, and he was tall and built, and there was something about him that was off. What could a millionaire oilman see in a cowboy like Jack? Why were they together? What did Riley want? He had to want something—that was the only way being in a relationship began, and ended. All Hank had wanted from Kyle was for Kyle to suffer, and to rent him out, and Kyle’s two other hookups after leaving the Bar Five had been nothing more than sex and pain.

Kyle had seen Riley and Jack disappear into their barn, and from the teasing comments Liam made, seemed like the barn was some kind of den of sex or something. Kyle didn’t go anywhere near it. Or indeed Jack, or Riley if they were alone.

Kyle bet Riley made Jack go to his knees. He just bet that behind closed doors, Riley was in charge.

That was all wrong.

Jack touched him gently on his arm. “You okay?”

Kyle jumped a little, feeling utterly stupid, and then turned and walked out of the barn and over to the small fenced-in exercise area, untying Skeeter and letting him loose in the space. Riley didn’t try to talk to him again. Well, apart from calling a goodbye as he waited patiently for Jack to join him.

“Okay. Well, see you, Kyle,” Jack said. “I’ll be back in a couple of days, but if you need to, you can get me anytime on the cell I gave you.”

Kyle nodded at that, and it seemed like it was enough. Then he climbed the fence and sat on the top rail, inhaling the scent of the October day and allowing himself to relax a little at a time, watching as Jack mounted Solo and he and Riley headed toward their home.

“What is it with you and Riley?” Liam asked, climbing to sit next to him.

Kyle couldn’t believe that Liam was even asking that. After a short while, Kyle asked, “You remember Paul?” Because Liam needed to understand; he had to. Liam had been at the Bar Five so he’d seen the kinds of things that happened.

“Paul who?” Liam narrowed his eyes in thought.

“Tall guy, brown eyes, city guy, always wore suits. He was one of Hank’s friends,” he mumbled.

Liam closed his eyes and Kyle felt guilty. The last thing he wanted to do was make Liam think back to a time that had to hurt. But Liam had asked, and Kyle wanted to tell him.

Liam shuffled on his perch. “No. There was no Paul.”

Kyle squirmed a little. Paul had been the nastiest of Hank’s friends. Money crossed hands for him to be allowed time alone with Kyle. Real money. He’d turn up in his expensive car, with his fancy suit and this air of expectancy, and Kyle knew he’d be in for hours where he would lose who he was and became nothing more than sold goods.

I could take Paul now. I could punch him out. I don’t want to use violence. But I would hurt Paul before he hurt me again.

They didn’t look anything alike, Paul and Riley, but they had a presence about them: confident, moneyed, in charge. Paul had looked so normal, laughing and joking with Hank, until the door shut on them, and then…

It changed.

“Paul hurt me worse than Hank,” he murmured. The words were so soft that part of him hoped Liam hadn't heard. Clearly he had.

“And Riley reminds you of him? What is it? Flashbacks?”

Kyle stared out to the bluff above Legacy, and wanted to drop the whole thing.

“Riley wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Liam murmured. “You have to know that.”

Kyle shrugged. That was his go-to response whenever he didn’t want to dig deep into the well of shit he had in his head.

“You’ll see,” Liam continued. “He’s just one of those guys who everyone likes when they get to know him. He won’t stop trying until he gets you to smile. He’s tenacious like that.”

But Kyle was lost in thought again…

Of the last time that Paul hurt him. Of the blood, and the pain, and the humiliation.

Mostly he knew Riley wasn’t Paul, but he couldn’t stop the instinct to run whenever Riley was anywhere near him.

Fuck. My. Life.

Across the East River Bridge by Kate McMurray
“What the hell are you doing here?” Finn asked, letting his gaze travel over Troy’s infuriatingly handsome face. He rubbed his temples gently, trying to get the ache to ease.

Their gazes met briefly. Troy was still hot in a Clark Kent kind of way, his broad chest hidden under an eggplant-colored button-down shirt and matching tie, dark-rimmed glasses sitting on his nose, dark hair neatly combed. Finn silently lamented that his enemies had to come in such attractive packages.

Troy laughed. “It is lovely to see you again too. As it happens, I curate this house.”

Finn knew that Troy was working for the KCHS these days, but this promotion was news to him. “You’re kidding, right? I made an appointment with a woman named Genevieve.”

Troy’s grin was unnerving. “Genevieve is my assistant. She has been doing the tours lately, but when I saw that she’d made an appointment with one Christopher Finnegan, I decided I had to follow up myself.” He straightened the cuffs on his shirt, drawing attention to his big hands. “How are you, Finn?”

“Oh, just dandy. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were stalking me.”

“You give me too much credit.” Troy motioned for Finn to follow him into an office off the lobby. The room looked like the relic of the past that it was — given the ornate wallpaper, the thick curtains, and the severe-looking man in the painting on the wall — if you overlooked the brand-new laptop sitting on the intricately carved desk. There was a lot of clutter too; Troy had never been terribly organized. He clucked his tongue. “Or maybe you’re right. Obviously, I knew that you would one day be researching a project on nineteenth-century Brooklyn, so I quit my job at NYU to take a low-paying assistant curator job at the Kings County Historical Society in the hopes that one day I’d curate the museum in an old house the KCHS just acquired three months ago, knowing you’d want an appointment.”

“Shut up,” was the best witty rejoinder Finn could come up with. He blamed the headache.

Troy picked up a file folder from his desk and extracted a few sheets of paper. “This is the fact sheet,” he said, handing the paper to Finn. “That has all the same information as went into the press release we put out when we announced the museum’s opening, plus a few other facts that I thought the public might find interesting. The other two pages are a brief history of the building that I wrote up for the Historical Society. Was there something in particular you’re looking for?”

“My boss is researching Victoria Woodhull.”

Troy pursed his lips. “Are you sure you’re not stalking me?” He shook his head. “Right time period but otherwise wrong tree. Woodhull never lived in Brooklyn, as far as I know.”

Finn already suspected that this trip out to Brooklyn was a dead end. Woodhull had spent most of her years in New York in the same house in East Village, and the date Finn had been given for Woodhull’s supposed residence at the Brill House conflicted with the date she’d left for England to start over after she’d been ruined. Still, Loretta had insisted he check it out. Plus he didn’t want to waste the trip. “She spent time in the area. She gave speeches in Brooklyn, for sure one at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and it’s pretty well known that she befriended Theodore Tilton. He lived a few blocks from here, right? As did Henry Ward Beecher.”

Troy appeared to consider this. “I’ve spent the better part of the last two months poring over almost everything ever written about this house. If Victoria Woodhull had ever been here, I’d have run across her name. I’m pretty sure I haven’t yet.” He shrugged. “You want the tour anyway?”

Finn had come all the way into Brooklyn. “Sure, what the hell?”

Troy grabbed a small notebook from his desk. “Let’s go.”

He led Finn down the hall. Finn took a moment to check Troy out again; looking at him certainly stirred something in Finn. Troy had always been classically handsome, but whether it was his good looks or their long history together that got Finn’s blood pumping, it was hard to say. Probably a little of both. Finn found that frustrating; this would be so much easier if he could just get the information he needed and leave without having to think about all of this.

“We’re setting up exhibits on the first, second, and third floors. The fourth floor is the library, and the fifth floor is mostly storage. The third floor has a portrait gallery of famous residents of Victorian Brooklyn and a gallery of mediocre landscapes by Brooklyn artists, mostly the cast-offs of the main KCHS museum. Do you care about those?”

“Not especially.”

Troy nodded and continued walking toward a stairwell. He mounted the first step and said, “I want to add a photography gallery, but I’m still sorting through several boxes of prints from the KCHS archive. I’ll keep an eye out for Ms. Woodhull.”

“Thanks. What’s on the second floor?”

Troy smiled. “This is the real highlight of the museum, as far as I’m concerned. We’ve recreated what a building like this would have looked like in the 1870s. A lot of this furniture was in storage at the KCHS or other museums in the city, waiting for a home. Some of the pieces are really extraordinary.”

When they got to the second floor, Finn followed Troy into what looked like a bedroom. There was a grandiose four-poster bed off to the side with heavy green damask draped all around it. The bed was made of oak, Finn guessed, as was the ornate chest of drawers on the other side of the room.

“The building was originally constructed in 1868,” Troy said, flipping through pages in his notebook. “It was intended to be a single-family residence according to the plan, but from very early on, before 1872 at least, the owner rented out rooms on the upper floors. My guess is he needed the income from the boarders. At any rate, this was the master bedroom. It’s been many other things over the years, too, and this whole building was converted into apartments in the sixties, but this is our best guess for how the room would have looked when the first owner lived here. We had some floor plans and even a fuzzy photograph.”

Finn wondered if he should be taking notes. “You’ve had to do a lot of work on this room.”

“Yeah, in its last incarnation, this was a studio apartment with a kitchen and everything. We took out the kitchen. It’s been kind of fun, watching this house devolve into its original form. Like backward time-lapse photography.” Troy walked over to the bed and ran a finger up one of the posts. “The house is said to be haunted too.”

“Oh, please.”

“I’ve seen enough weird stuff that I can’t stay completely skeptical, let’s just say. There have been a number of documented ghostly occurrences here. A woman who lived here briefly in the forties kept a journal detailing her encounters with the spirits. Most of it’s classic haunted-house stuff. Strange noises, cold blasts of air, doors suddenly slamming shut. Interestingly, almost every account of paranormal activity here indicates that the ghosts are two men.”

“Okay.” Finn had run into many ghost stories over the years he’d been working as a researcher and thought most of the stories were pure nonsense. He humored Troy, though, who seemed to be enjoying himself. “Do you know anything about who the ghosts might be?”

“No one has ever specified, but I have a guess.” Troy’s eyes practically sparkled with excitement.

“Did the previous owners know?”

“No, but I don’t think they bothered to find out.”

Troy enjoyed drawing things like this out, Finn knew. He held out a hand and motioned for Troy to keep talking. “What’s your guess?”

“The first owner of this house was Theodore Cummings Brill. He was the youngest son of a large and moderately wealthy family. He and another man, George Washington Cutler, were found dead in this very bedroom in 1878.”

A shiver went up Finn’s spine. Someone had died in the room in which he was standing. “So that’s who you think is haunting this house?”

“Yes. The facts fit, given when the sightings started.” Troy walked closer to Finn. “I’m working on digging up causes of death. There was a story in the Times, but it was vague, saying only that the circumstances of their deaths were unusual. I’ve been piecing together other evidence, though.”

“And you have a theory. You always have a theory.”

“Suicide. Possibly murder-suicide, but I’m pretty sure they both took their own lives. Because they were gay.”

Finn rolled his eyes. “You always think everyone was gay. You bought that horseshit about Lincoln being gay. Sometimes there’s a simpler and much less biased explanation. What makes you think murder-suicide?”

“I can’t remember offhand. Something I read, a contemporary account of the crime, I think. It makes more sense than any other theory of the crime I’ve seen.” Troy rocked on his heels. “Some of the flooring is original. If you squint, you can still see the blood stains in the wood paneling on the floor.”

Finn shivered again. “Show me something else.” He left the room.

Troy’s shoes squeaked on the floor as he caught up to Finn. “The theory has merits.” He led Finn across the hall to another room. It had an elaborate sofa and a couple of chairs, everything Rococo revival. It was not a style Finn especially liked, but he knew it was popular in the 1870s. The upholstery on all of the pieces was beautiful, almost like new, except for a chaise longue in the corner that looked faded and worn.

Finn bent to take a closer look at the scrollwork on the sofa. Troy said, “This is the parlor. The furniture is mostly from the 1850s, but we had everything reupholstered, save for the chaise, obviously. The upholstery on the other pieces had disintegrated, but, I don’t know, I kind of like the old faded quality on the chaise. What do you think?”

“I agree. It looks kind of…soft and homey.” Finn meant it. He bet that chaise would be an excellent place to take a nap. Of course, thinking about that made Finn think about beds, and he had a sudden flash of Troy, hovering over him, naked. That certainly got his blood pumping. He coughed, trying to keep his body’s reaction to the memory at bay. He reminded himself that he didn’t like Troy much.

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.

Michael Murphy
In a world of so many things, how do you settle on just a few? All my life I've been interested in everything around me, wanting to see new places, meet new people, tell new stories. Writing has been the culmination of a long term dream. Being a part of the Dreamspinner family is priceless beyond compare. Anytime I'm asked the question of who I am I have to stop and try to decide how in the world to answer. I might biologically be middle age, but inside I feel like a randy teenager anxious to explore the world. Dreams of writing have been a part of my life since I was five years old. Two of the greatest influences on me as I was growing up were my two grandmothers. Both were strong women who had unbelievable burdens thrust upon them when they were widowed very early in life. Both of these incredible women loved stories. They loved reading stories and telling stories, and the stories they had to tell were incredible. For as long as I can remember I've been writing stories. What has been different over the last five years is that I've finally been brave enough to allow someone else to read what I'd written. When that happened I found that others liked what I'd written which made me beyond happy. In addition to writing, my other love is photography. Taking photos of some of the beautiful men of the world is my current focus. With any luck, one of those photos will grace the cover of a Dreamspinner novel in the near future. My partner and I have traveled the world, trying to see as much as possible. When not traveling, we live in Washington, DC with our best friend, a throw-away dog we adopted twelve years ago. To pay the bills, I am Director of Information Technology for a national organization based in Washington, DC. While I'd rather be writing full-time, I haven't figured out how to make that a viable option - yet.

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.

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).

Mary Calmes
Mary Calmes lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband and two children and loves all the seasons except summer. She graduated from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, with a bachelor's degree in English literature. Due to the fact that it is English lit and not English grammar, do not ask her to point out a clause for you, as it will so not happen. She loves writing, becoming immersed in the process, and falling into the work. She can even tell you what her characters smell like. She loves buying books and going to conventions to meet her fans.

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.

Dirk Greyson
Dirk is very much an outside kind of man. He loves travel and seeing new things.

Dirk worked in corporate America for way too long and now spends his days writing, gardening, and taking care of the home he shares with his partner of more than two decades.

He has a Master’s Degree and all the other accessories that go with a corporate job. But he is most proud of the stories he tells and the life he's built.

Dirk lives in Pennsylvania in a century old home and is blessed with an amazing circle of friends.

Hayden Thorne
I've lived most of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area though I wasn’t born there (or, indeed, the USA). I’m married with no kids and three cats, am a cycling nut (go Garmin!), and my day job involves artwork, crazy (read: incomprehensibly fun) coworkers who specialize in all kinds of media, and the occasional strange customer requests involving papier mache fish with sparkly scales.

I’m a writer of young adult fiction, specializing in contemporary fantasy, historical fantasy, and historical genres. My books range from a superhero fantasy series to reworked folktales to Victorian ghost fiction. My themes are coming-of-age, with very little focus on romance (most of the time) and more on individual growth with some adventure thrown in.

Harper Fox
Harper Fox is an M/M author with a mission. She’s produced six critically acclaimed novels in a year and is trying to dispel rumours that she has a clone/twin sister locked away in a study in her basement. In fact she simply continues working on what she loves best– creating worlds and stories for the huge cast of lovely gay men queuing up inside her head. She lives in rural Northumberland in northern England and does most of her writing at a pensioned-off kitchen table in her back garden, often with blanket and hot water bottle.

She lives with her SO Jane, who has somehow put up with her for a quarter of a century now, and three enigmatic cats, chief among whom is Lucy, who knows the secret of the universe but isn't letting on. When not writing, she either despairs or makes bread, specialities foccacia and her amazing seven-strand challah. If she has any other skills, she's yet to discover them.

Kate McMurray
Kate McMurray is a nonfiction editor. Also, she is crafty (mostly knitting and sewing, but she also wields power tools), she plays the violin, and she dabbles in various other pursuits. She’s maybe a tiny bit obsessed with baseball. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with a presumptuous cat.



RJ Scott
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE  /  B&N
SMASHWORDS  /  EXTASY  /  AMAZON
EMAIL: rj@rjscott.co.uk

Michael Murphy
EMAIL: writer@gayromancewriter.com

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

Summer Devon
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SAMHAIM  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAILS: summerdevon@comcast.net
katerothwell@gmail.com

Mary Calmes
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EMAIL: mmcalmes@hotmail.com

Jordan L Hawk
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WEBSITE  /  BLOG  /  NEWSLETTER
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ITUNES  /  AUTOGRAPH  /  CAFE PRESS
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EMAIL: jordanlhawk@gmail.com

Dirk Greyson
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EMAIL: dirkgreyson@comcast.net

Hayden Thorne
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Harper Fox
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EMAIL: harperfox777@yahoo.co.uk

Kate McMurray
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iTUNES  /  TUMBLR  /  KENSINGTON  /  LOOSE ID
EMAIL: kate@katemcmurray.com



A Cowboy's Home by RJ Scott
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A Night at the Ariston Baths by Michael Murphy
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The Gentleman's Madness by Bonnie Dee & Summer Devon
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Fit to be Tied by Mary Calmes
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KOBO  /  AUDIBLE  /  iTUNES

Tied Up in Knots by Mary Calmes
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KOBO  /  AUDIBLE  /  iTUNES

Fallow by Jordan L Hawk

Flight or Fight by Dirk Greyson
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The Flowers of St. Aloysius by Hayden Thorne
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Priddy's Tale by Harper Fox
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Ten Days in August by Kate McMurray
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KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  GOOGLE PLAY

Kyle by RJ Scott
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Across the East River Bridge by Kate McMurray
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  GOODREADS TBR


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