Friday, January 13, 2017

Best Reads of 2016 Part 4


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

Click Here to Check Out
Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3

The Haunting of St. Xavier by Carol Lynne & TA Chase
Summary:
Justice comes to all in time.

Although empty for over fifty years, St. Xavier Monastery was still an awe inspiring structure and Jason Bentley thought he'd found the perfect location for his newest resort. Yet once construction begins to bring the magnificent building back to its former glory, odd events begin to occur. While the death of a stonemason shakes Jason, he decides to continue anyway. Everything changes the night Jason's confronted by a nun covered in blood on the fourth floor. Staring into the haunting eyes of a ghost rocks Jason's emotions. Unsure of where to turn, Jason seeks the advice of the local Catholic Church.

Deacon Ryan Christopher has decisions to make. While his mentor, Bishop Adler, presses him to commit fully to the church, Ryan has reservations. For years he's resisted his desire for male companionship and he can't take his vows until he makes a decision. Though struggling with personal issues, Ryan has also followed the events at St. Xavier in the papers. No stranger to things that go bump in the night, Ryan believes Jason and agrees to help him investigate the monastery.

The spirits that haunt St. Xavier have waited decades for justice and revenge, but who will be the recipients of their hatred?

Original Review October 2016:
With a murder scene out of an 80s slasher flick, a 40s style mystery, and ghosts that could give any haunted house a run for their money, The Haunting of St. Xavier will keep you on your toes from beginning to end.  Definitely one to read with the lights on in sun filled skies.  Ryan and Jason's connection may seem instantaneous and I know some don't find that believable but in this case, it fits and as they delve into the mystery deeper, their growing bond gives them and the reader a much needed dose of calming hope.  An incredibly eerie and entertaining read for any time of year but extra special for a Halloween treat.

RATING: 

A Demon Inside by Rick R Reed
Summary:
Hunter Beaumont doesn’t understand his grandmother’s deathbed wish: “Destroy Beaumont House.” He’s never even heard of the place. But after his grandmother passes and his first love betrays him, the family house in the Wisconsin woods looks like a tempting refuge. Going against his grandmother’s wishes, Hunter flees to Beaumont House.

But will the house be the sanctuary he had hoped for? Soon after moving in, Hunter realizes he may not be alone. And with whom—or what—he shares the house may plunge him into a nightmare from which he may never escape. Sparks fly when he meets his handsome neighbor, Michael Burt, a caretaker for the estate next door. The man might be his salvation… or he could be the source of Hunter's terror.

Original Review October 2016:
First off, the fact that most of this story is set in Wisconsin was a real upside for me.  As a Wisconsinite, it's always a thrill to read stories set in my state, it's not one often used and on top of that, one of my college advisors has written many books about haunted Wisconsin, we even have one here in my hometown.  Now, back to A Demon Inside,  this is the first book by Rick R Reed that I have read and well, let's just say it won't be the last.  To say Hunter Beaumont's life will never be the same when he doesn't follow his grandmother's dying wish to destroy Beaumont House is an understatement.  A Demon Inside is creepy, weird, and just plain scary but there's also a little romance which may seem out of place in such a dark story but truthfully, it only heightens the freak out factor.  Along with the Wisconsin connection, I'm a bit of an introvert myself so I felt for Hunter immediately and understood so much of what his inner monologue was saying.  A great addition to my Halloween/paranormal shelf.

RATING: 

Volume One: The Case of the Cupid Curse / The Case of the Wicked Wolf  by RJ Scott & Amber Kell
Summary:
End Street Detective Agency #1 & 2
Sam, 100% human (no, really) inherits a crumbling building and a private detective agency from his Uncle.

Bob, a brooding stubborn and ancient vampire turns up at his door and refuses to leave.

Before Sam can say 'I only want human cases' he's knee deep in werewolves, dragons, vampires and witches.

The Case of The Cupid Curse #1
Sam Enderson is a human detective who inherits a building from where his Uncle used to run a detective agency. He finds himself working for paranormal creatures despite his resolve to stick with humans only. To supplement his income as a new PI Sam rents out rooms in the large house.

Bob is a vampire and turns up on Sam's doorstep to rent a room. Sparks fly and Sam is attracted to the vampire despite himself.

Sam is cursed by a witch, and has two cases landing on his desk. Werewolves, annoying ghosts and a grumpy gargoyle are enough to drive Sam mad. But somehow in amongst all of this he has to find a missing fae and a missing shifter child.

The Case of the Wicked Wolf #2
Naiads, humans, sirens and a challenge for Alpha make up the intricate story in the race to rescue the missing children.

Sam and Bob have more than just the case of one lost child to handle. Not only is Shelby Hartman missing, but other paranormal children have disappeared. The race to rescue the children is hampered by naiads, humans, sirens and a challenge for Alpha.

Hartman Hunter is desperate to find his daughter. He turns to the demon Danjal Naamah for help. The problem is that Danjal is the only person Hartman has ever loved—the man he let go for the sake of the pack…

Click Here for End Street Detective Agency Series

Original Review October 2016:
Cupid Curse is a wonderful beginning to a series.  It introduces us to the main characters, and a few secondary ones, with just the right blend of drama, humor, and mystery.  We all know that not witches are bad but when one curses you, you definitely don't take it for granted.  Sam finds himself wanting to run a purely human cases only private investigation business but he soon finds that is not the route fate seems to have in mind.  Witches, gargoyles, ghosts, sirens, faes, and a vampire named Bob(which completely caught me off guard in a lovely humorous way that still has me smiling weeks after originally reading) have put Sam smack into the middle of world he really didn't want to be in.

Wicked Wolf: Sam is still searching for the missing little girl wolf, Shelby but we also meet Dan the demon as well as get to know Hart the alpha better.  Wicked begins right from where Cupid left off and Sam is still intent on having human only cases but once again, fate intervenes and is Sam completely human himself?  Well, you have to read that for yourself but I will say with each case and each new paranormal he helps, Sam gains little extras that certainly question who or what he is.

RATING: 

Spindrift by Amy Rae Durreson
Summary:
When lonely artist Siôn Ruston retreats to the seaside village of Rosewick Bay, Yorkshire, to recover from a suicide attempt, he doesn’t expect to encounter any ghosts, let alone the one who appears in his bedroom every morning at dawn. He also doesn’t expect to meet his ghost’s gorgeous, flirty descendant working at the local museum… and the village pub, and as a lifeboat volunteer. But Mattie’s great-great-grandfather isn’t the only specter in Rosewick Bay, and as Siôn and Mattie investigate an ill-fated love affair from a bygone era, they begin a romance of their own, one that will hopefully escape the tragedy Mattie’s ancestor suffered.

But the ghosts aren’t the only ones with secrets, and the things Siôn and Mattie are keeping from each other threaten to tear them apart. And all the while, the dead are biding their time, because the curse of Rosewick Bay has never been broken. If the ghosts are seen on the streets, local tradition foretells a man will drown before the summer’s end.

Original Review October 2016:
I had never read this author before this past summer and Spindrift is my fourth in about 3 months time, can I just say that Amy Rae Durreson knows how to tell a ghost story.  Spindrift, like the others, is so much more than just a ghost story, it's a love story with wonderful characters and incredible detail to atmosphere, combined they create an incredible tale I just couldn't put down until I reached the last page.  Mix in secrets, a past mystery, and a ghost or two and what you have is a read that leaves you mesmerized and a little creeped out, okay a lot creeped out at times but completely hooked.  A definite must for paranormal lovers.

RATING: 

Across Your Dreams by Jay Lewis Taylor
Summary:
“I hope we’ll meet again on the other side of fear, but should this damn war choose otherwise then all we can do is bear it …“

Lew and Russ, Grant and Alan have been caught up in the Great War, which governs their coming together and their moving apart; which has sucked them into the machine and seems reluctant to spit them out. When at last the Armistice comes, three out of the four survive; but how many will survive the peace?

Original Review November 2016:
This is the first time I have read Jay Lewis Taylor but it won't be the last.  I loved the way two separate storylines, two individual stories of love converge into one. You have Alan and Grant who's story quickly turns from happy to heartbreak and then you have Lew and Russ who also does not remain cheery for long but seems more hopeful until it no longer does.  There are secondary characters that blend the stories together, sometimes you aren't sure whether to trust those characters but they are no less important to the overall canvas of the tale.  I truly loved the detail to the time frame as well as how the characters continued to develop throughout the entire book, that doesn't always happen but as the war progresses and the Armistice is signed, we see them continue on to face life after war.  A true blend of war, love, drama showing that sometimes no amount of planning can replace just living. A really great addition to my historical shelf.

RATING:

Reclaiming Hope by Shell Taylor
Summary:
Home for Hope #3
Four years ago, Kollin Haverty’s best friend, Riley Meadows, dropped off the face of the earth. When he shows up out of the blue, armed with a flimsy excuse for disappearing and having nearly completed his transition from female to male, Kollin wants to pick up where they left off. But Riley’s unwillingness to be honest with Kollin prevents him from fully trusting Riley again. Despite Riley’s insecurities and Kollin’s abandonment issues, they quickly discover there’s something more than friendship between them.

When a ghost from Riley’s past unexpectedly appears with haunting memories in tow, Kollin’s anger about being lied to outweighs his desire to be the understanding boyfriend Riley needs. As Riley’s web of strategically withheld secrets begins to unravel, he must find the courage to pursue his own peace before he can move forward with Kollin, and Kollin must decide what’s more important—supporting his best friend or protecting himself.

Click here to check out Home for Hope series.

Original Review November 2016:
What a beautiful conclusion to Shell Taylor's Home for Hope trilogy!  I'll admit that I may not have been as invested in Kollin and Riley's relationship as I was with Adam and Eli's but that's not saying I wasn't completed engulfed in their journey.  In Reclaiming Hope we get to see how Kollin is doing a few years after Resurrecting Hope and when Riley re-enters the picture, their lives really begin.  I can honestly say I have never read a book where one of the main characters is trans let alone in mid transition, which means I don't have anything to really compare Reclaiming to but I can't imagine the author's portrayal being any better.  Shell Taylor, in my opinion, does justice to both sides of the relationship, obviously we get to see just what Riley is dealing with as he works towards the final steps to his bottom surgery but we also get to see how his friend and partner deals with the fine line between staying true to his own heart and not pushing his friend and partner where he isn't ready to go.  I can't recommend this series enough, trust me, whether you like M/M stories or not, if you enjoy a well written romantic journey you don't want to miss out on Home for Hope.

RATING: 


Guardian Angel by Hayden Thorne
Summary:
When nineteen-year-old Dominic Coville’s parents die in an accident, leaving him not only alone but on the brink of poverty, he desperately searches for work and is thrilled when the post of secretary is awarded to him despite his obvious inexperience and ignorance. Mr. Wynyard Knight of Mandrake Abbey, however, gladly welcomes Dominic and earns the young man’s immediate sympathy for his fragile health as well as gratitude for the promising new life now awaiting Dominic.

"Inside rock and timber, hungry shadows seek..."

But unusual things soon happen and appear to focus solely on him, and Dominic begins to wonder about the true history of Mr. Knight, the strange young man haunting the third floor, and Mandrake Abbey. With the persistent and increasingly violent attempts at communication by an angry ghost shadowing his hours, Dominic struggles to unravel the mysteries of his new home. And even with the help of a handsome young gentleman who’s an aspiring supernaturalist as well as his clairvoyant sister, danger closes in far too quickly.

Then it’s only a matter of time before carefully constructed facades fall away, and the sickly, decaying underbelly of Mandrake Abbey’s centuries-old collection of stone and timber will reveal itself.

Set in an alternate England sometime before the mid-19th century, 'Guardian Angel' weaves a tangled and dark tapestry of old magic, romance, and madness, a celebration of classic gothic fiction and its macabre sensibilities.

Original Review November 2016:
Holy Hannah Batman! I thought the author's Flowers of St. Aloysius was creepy and hair-raising but Guardian Angel is way creepier and fear inducing and don't even get me started on adrenaline pumping. Dominic Colville is a character that could easily be anyone of us, as a 24/7 caregiver myself, the idea that your charge or others in the household are not exactly who you thought can put fear in your heart faster than flipping to the next page.  Throw in some ghostly behavior and the handsome stranger, Edgar, and what Guardian Angel brings you is an incredible gothic journey into the mysterious world of the paranormal in a timeline where magic is the norm.  Before the mystery is solved, you might even find yourself questioning your own sanity when those bumps in the night that you often credit to the wind or the house settling, suddenly don't seem as easy to explain.  The author has created a world that will satisfy your love of paranormal, mystery, love, and especially tweak your thirst for the "what ifs" and "was its".

RATING: 

Murder Between the Pages by Josh Lanyon
Summary:
Felix Day, author of the Constantine Sphinx mysteries, and Leonard Fuller, author of the Inspector Fez mysteries, are bitter rivals and the best of enemies. Both happen to present when a notorious author of roman à clef is shot by an invisible assailant during a signing at historic Marlborough Bookstore.

Even if they weren’t both suspects, it’s the perfect opportunity to match wits and sleuthing skills.

If only the murderer was equally amused.

Original Review November 2016:
Another great Josh Lanyon murder mystery!  I don't know if there are any plans for future Day/Fuller mysteries or if it's just a standalone but either way, what a wonderful addition to my historical romantic suspense shelf.  Murder Between the Pages is a perfect blend of history, romance, mystery, and humor that is very reminiscent of film noir of the 1940s.  Ethan Day and Leonard Fuller may not appear to like each other but they have more than one common interest and when a murder happens right before their eyes, lets just say those common interests become very interesting and extremely entertaining.  The duo may not be up to Holmes & Moriarity or Adrien & Jake caliber but Day & Fuller are still fun and their connection is definitely intriguing.  As for the mystery, well I've been watching and reading mysteries of all kinds ever since I was old enough to sit up so very few actually stump me anymore.  Personally, a mystery is not just about the who and why but also about the journey getting from the deed to the discovery and trust me, the journey in Murder is awesome.

RATING: 

Santa Baby by Heidi Cullinan
Summary:
Minnesota Christmas #4
Trimming the tree is more fun with three.

Twin Cities developer Dale Davidson has come to Logan, Minnesota, to turn it into Christmas Town, not to give in to Arthur Anderson’s offer to join him and his fiancé, Gabriel Higgins, for a Christmas Eve threesome. Dale is polyamorous, but it’s clear Arthur is offering a night of fun and nothing more. Maybe one night with the couple he admires so much won’t hurt…

Together the three of them light a fire hot enough to boil Lake Superior in January, and one night of fun becomes an extended engagement as Dale puts down some tentative roots in his new hometown. Everyone loves Dale, Logan’s own Santa Claus, and somehow no one knows what wild times are happening right underneath their noses. No one knows, either, the complicated ways they’re falling in love with one another.

But a shadow from Dale’s past emerges, an abuser threatening him with violence and shame. Ronny doesn’t want a happy ever after for Dale, only to draw him back into a consuming darkness. It will take the love of not only Gabriel and Arthur but all of Logan to convince their Santa he has nothing to be ashamed of—and that he will always have a home in their hearts.



Original Review November 2016:
I just love the boys of Logan and they're back in full force with this year's Heidi Cullinan holiday treat, and it's just that: a treat of mega proportions!  But Santa Baby is a little different than the first three in the Minnesota Christmas series.  I've read threesomes, I've even read foursomes before some of which have led to poly relationships but never before has an author explained the nature of a true polyamory family as well as Miss Cullinan and she's done so without it coming across as a school lesson.  Arthur and Gabe, who we first came to know in book 2 Sleigh Ride, are back and very much in love but when Dale enters the scene, things should become complicated and jealous but they don't.  Oh, there are moments of awkwardness, what kind of a story would it be if everything was smooth sailing from page one?

Personally, I don't think I could manage a successful poly relationship, I like sharing my things but I don't think I'd be any good at sharing my love, not like that.  Perhaps that's why I'm so intrigued to read stories that have that kind of dynamic, especially when the tale is as well writen as Santa Baby.

Whether you like polyamory, threesomes, or just a well scripted love story, I highly recommend reading Santa Baby.  Do you need to read the series in order? I recommend doing so but as each story is centered around a different couple, it's not really mandatory but I find it flows better in order but you really do need to read Sleigh Ride before Santa Baby since they both are about Arthur and Gabe.  I haven't re-read these stories yet but I look forward to doing so as the Wisconsin weather gets colder, they'll definitely keep you warm on the long winter nights.

RATING: 

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

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

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

Original Review December 2016:
What a lovely take on the legend of Krampus!  I'm not going to say too much about Krampus Hates Christmas but I will say that it is a perfect blend of holiday, paranormal, romance, and just plain fun.  I just could not put this down until I swiped the final page and I am already looking forward to re-reading this one next Christmas and for many more holiday seasons to come.  As it's another new author for me, I also look forward to checking out future tales from Andi Van.

RATING: 

Snow in Montana by RJ Scott
Summary:
Montana #4
An actor in the closet, a sheriff in love, and memories that won’t stay hidden.

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

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

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

Click here for Montana series #1-3

Original Review December 2016:
What do I say about Snow in Montana that could even begin to come close to successfully express how much I loved the latest installment of the Montana series?  It's RJ Scott!  Okay, maybe I need to say more, lol.  Snow might be Ryan and Jordan's tale but we also get to see Adam and Justin's stories advance.  Jordan's contribution to the holiday season might be a list of cheesy Christmas films that most of us secretly classify as a guilty pleasure but when him and Ryan meet, it's less cheese and more spiked punch that threatens to short out your ereader and burn your fingers, but in the absolute best way imaginable.  I'd be lying if I said Snow in Montana is just another RJ Scott holiday story because it's so much more than that, it's a little bit of everything, well there's no science fiction or paranormal elements but everything else is there.  The fact that it's all wrapped together in a great big Montana sized package with a big bright red bow on top just makes it even better.

RATING: 

Nicolas by Dianne Hartsock
Summary:
Betrayed by a lover, Jamie rents an isolated cabin on Lake Huron, wanting only to be left alone. Instead, he is pulled from his solitary existence as an artist and tumbles headlong into the legend of Saint Nicolas.

As a young man, Nicolas accidentally killed a man intent on murdering three children, only to have the man's malicious spirit rise up against him. Fleeing through the centuries from the Krampus, the evil troll-like creature that dogs his steps, Nico finds refuge with the young artist who takes him into his home and bed. But Jamie has questions. Who is Nicolas, and why does the Krampus want to destroy him?

When the Krampus begins to torment and torture anyone Nico comes in contact with to punish him, Jamie’s life is put in danger. And Jamie isn’t sure whether he can help Nico defeat his nemesis or if he’s merely a pawn in the Krampus’s game.
Original Review December 2016:
If you are looking for something different from the happy, happy holiday reads then Nicolas is the one for you.  A delicious blend of good, bad, sexy, torture, mystery, paranormal, and well just about everything in between.  I first came across this one when I was doing my paranormal blog posts for Halloween but never had a chance to read it so I stuck it in my holiday folder and loved it from page one. Nico, Piter, & Jamie's connection keeps you enthralled all the way through, I just hated putting it down to eat, I've never rushed through a meal so fast to get back to my Kindle.  With the paranormal darkness elements I hate to touch on any specifics so I don't give away any spoilers but let me just say that I am already looking forward to re-reading Nicolas for many holiday seasons to come.

RATING: 


The Haunting of St. Xavier by TA Chase & Carol Lynne
Signing his name with a flourish, Jason fought the surge of happiness threatening to overwhelm him. After six months of negotiations, he finally had his hands on what could be the biggest venture of his life.

“Here are the keys to the doors and to the gate.” The real estate agent’s tight smile spoke of relief more than happiness over the huge commission she’d just made.

“Thanks. I appreciate all the work you did to help me get this.” Jason took the keys and shook the lady’s hand.

“Well, you were very determined, and the building’s just been standing empty since the sixties.” She shrugged. “To be honest, I never thought I’d find a buyer.”

“Why?” He turned to study the large stone building standing rather forlornly behind the wrought iron gate. “It’s gorgeous and absolutely perfect for what I’m planning.”

“The problem isn’t how the place looks. I think it has more to do with what it was used for, the tragedy that took place here and all the rumours surrounding it.”

Frowning, he shot a glance over at her. “Rumours? About what?”

She waved her hand dismissively. “All the usual ones about it being haunted by the nuns who were murdered. Strange screams being heard when there’s no one around. I’m not sure anyone has actually spent any time on the property, except for the man you sent over to appraise it.”

Jason doubted any of the reports were true. Abandoned buildings, especially ones with twisted pasts, tended to get a creepy reputation after a while. He didn’t believe in spirits or ghosts. Hell, he didn’t want to think about hanging around this world after he died.

His real estate agent seemed to shake off her melancholy thoughts. “You never did say what you were going to use the property for.”

The woman must not have done her homework. The Bentley Corporation, of which Jason was CEO and founder, was the premier builder of gay resorts, but this venture was all about sex. He planned on creating the world’s foremost gay erotic resort.

“I’m going to open a resort. The original building is big enough to offer a bunch of rooms, plus I plan on building smaller, more private bungalows around the grounds. I love the English garden, and I’ll bring in landscapers to work on getting it back into shape.”

“Oh good.” She checked her watch. “Well, I need to be going if I’m to get these forms filed with the county clerk’s office in time.”

Jason hid his smile. He could get carried away with his visions, and not everyone saw them as clearly as he did.

“Thank you again. I’ll keep your office in mind if I’m looking to pick up more land in the area.”

He watched her drive away, barely managing to contain his excitement and eagerness to tour the property on his own. He waited until her car disappeared from sight before strolling up to the huge iron gate. He studied it for a second, tracing the scroll work with his gaze. ‘St. Xavier’ was spelt out in iron as well in the arch over the moving part of the gate. He would keep that, though the rust needed to be removed and the scroll work repainted. He liked the old-fashioned feeling it gave to the grounds.

Inserting the key into the lock, he paused and it was like the entire world froze with him. Almost like every living creature held its breath, hesitating while he thought about opening the lock. The strangest sensation washed over him and his hands trembled. Owning the monastery and stepping onto the grounds at this moment seemed like the most important thing he’d ever done. His life was going to change, Jason could feel that, but he didn’t know if it would be a good change or bad.

The sound of a car passing by on the road broke the spell and he laughed at himself. Foolish thoughts. It was just the joy of taking this next step in reaching for that elusive thing called happiness. If he achieved his goal of creating the world’s most exclusive gay resort, then maybe he could silence all those voices in his head telling him he wasn’t good enough.

The key turned in the lock, and he shoved the gate open. The metal hinges screeched like a woman being attacked. Jason cringed and frowned. The agent had sworn all the locks, hinges, and doors were in working condition, as had the appraiser Jason had hired to look at the property. He’d ask the contractors to take a look at the hinges. He would replace them if it looked like they would be more work than he’d thought.

He considered getting his car and driving up to the imposing structure, but he wanted to soak in the overall ambience of the place. The trees hung over the driveway, creating an oppressive feeling of being trapped as Jason wandered along. Those would have to be cut back. He pulled out his notebook and jotted it down. The driveway itself was in good condition, though the grass seemed to have taken over. Made sense considering there hadn’t been many visitors since the monastery closed down suddenly all those years ago.

A Demon Inside by Rick R Reed
Prologue
Stoketon, Wisconsin, 1845
THE WOMAN is alone in the woods, now more than ever. Above her the boughs of naked winter branches clatter together with the force of the wind. They remind her of people whispering as she passes. In the air is the promise of snow by morning, and the dark sky is cloaked with gray clouds. She peers upward, searching for the moon. But it, like so many others, has deserted her this cold night.

She kneels and sets the baby in her arms upon the hard, frozen earth. She looks down at his face, ghostly white in the pitch blackness, and a single tear drips from her eye, splashing the little face, cold and pale as polished marble. Angrily she wipes at her eye with the back of her arm, cloaked in black wool. There have been enough tears and sorrows. Enough cursing them for their neglect and fear. They could have saved him. She will not succumb any more.

Now it’s time for revenge.

She looks up once more and at last locates the moon, a sliver of pewter glowing dully before a cloud rolls over it, obscuring it once more. Bending, she lifts the child and raises him to the moon, as if in offering. She whispers words in an ancient tongue and keeps the child aloft until her arms grow weak. She sets him back down, looks one final time into his eyes, green now turned milky. One last time she strokes the chubby cheeks and runs her finger over the parted lips, which will never draw breath again.

She picks up the shovel lying next to the baby and begins to dig. Her work, damn it, is punctuated by sobs. She digs tirelessly, the shovel breaking into the hard, icy earth with precision and a force of will that is almost beyond human. At the end of her labor, there is a small trench, about three feet long and deeper than that—its sides come up to the woman’s waist. She climbs out of it, picks up her child, and gently lowers him into the grave.

“Punish them for what they’ve done to us both.”

She begins whispering furiously once more, ancient words, ancient curses. She reaches to her right, and her hand wraps around a small vial. She uncorks it and sprinkles the dark liquid on top of the child. It is black, wine-colored when the moon reveals its hue.

She wipes her hands on her coat. “Avenge us, my son.” She picks up the shovel again and begins the hard work of refilling the hole. It’s easier once she can no longer see her boy. By the end of her toil, she is drenched in sweat, no longer cold, even though the first flakes of a winter storm have begun to fall and the sky has begun to lighten in the east.

She stoops to cover the little grave with pine needles and leaves, then stands and wipes her hands on her billowing black coat. In the forest a wolf howls. She hurries away from the grave, passing a sign as she goes.

PRIVATE PROPERTY
CONSTRUCTION SITE. KEEP OUT
Anton Beaumont, Owner

Chapter 1
HUNTER BEAUMONT awakened drenched in sweat, striped sheets twisted around him. His heart pounded, and an irrational fear coursed through him, disproportionate to the calmness of his dark bedroom.

He sat up, rubbing his hand over his slick face, and reassured himself with the same words countless nightmare sufferers have told themselves since the dawn of time: “It was only a dream. It was only a dream.” But it was that same dream again. The one that was part memory, part horror movie. The one where he is camping with his parents and he can see the glow of the campfire flickering on their faces. It’s a lovely scene at first, romantic and warm. His parents’ voices are hushed, his mother’s laugh tinkling as the two of them huddle together, the fire keeping the darkness of the woods surrounding them at bay. But then a shadow falls over his mother’s and father’s faces, and their eyes turn in an instant from contented and adoring to terrified. Then come the screams… and the blood, all the blood. That was when Hunter always awakened.

But this time something more than the nightmare had awakened him. Was someone knocking on his bedroom door? Yes, there it was again, an almost tentative tapping. In his postnightmare state, Hunter imagined the worst—that a monster lurked outside, something needing to be invited in. And once inside it would rip him limb from limb, gorging on his flesh and drinking his blood.

Hunter allowed himself an embarrassed laugh and attempted to pull himself together. He sat up straighter against the headboard and used a corner of the top sheet to dab at the beads of sweat still gathering on his forehead. “Yes?” he called out.

With a creak the door opened, and Lori Schmidbauer, his grandmother’s nurse, peered in. Even backlit, Hunter could see the kindness in the woman’s dark brown eyes and the concern and sadness on her face. She glanced down the hall and then back toward him, gave him a tentative smile.

“Hunter? Honey, I’m so sorry to wake you. Can I come in?”

Hunter pulled the sheet up farther, covering his chest. A new kind of alarm had begun inside, the dread beginning to churn like something alive in his guts. “Is everything okay?”

Lori didn’t respond. She simply tiptoed into the room and sat down gingerly on the edge of his bed. Hunter leaned over and switched on the nightstand lamp. Lori still wore her scrubs, and her curly brown hair was pulled loosely into a ponytail. She looked like the most tired woman in the world. Hunter repeated his question and added to it.

“Is everything okay? Is Nana all right?”

Lori clutched his hand, squeezed it, and let it go. “I don’t think so, dear.”

She stared off at a point over Hunter’s head, and he could see her eyes glistened with tears.

It felt like his stomach dropped a couple of feet. He bit his lip. “Is it time?”

Lori drew in a quivering breath before responding. “Yeah. I think it is. You better come now if you want to say good-bye.”

“Okay,” Hunter whispered, barely able to find breath to put behind the single word. For his whole twenty-two-year life, his grandmother had been his savior, protector, shield, comforter, mother, father, playmate, and teacher. And now it looked like there actually was a monster outside his door, and its name was cancer. Now it appeared that monster was about to rip all he held dear away from him.

Lori waited on the bed, watching him. He could tell she was trying to gauge his reaction, to see if perhaps he would need a hug. Lori was the kind of nurse who was free with her hugs. A good woman. But right now, Hunter needed a moment to himself, and he told her that.

“Sure, sweetheart. Just don’t be too long.” She got up and paused at the door. “I don’t know how much time we have.” Sorrowfully she nodded, her lips coming together in a line indicating sympathy. She took her time leaving his room. Then he heard her quickened pace as she hurried down the long hallway to his nana’s bedroom.

Hunter didn’t know if he could do this. Part of him thought if he just stayed there in bed he could delay or prevent the inevitable. If he could only freeze time at this moment, he would never have to face a world without Nana in it. He shook his head and chastised himself for being weak. To every season, he thought, there is an end.

Feeling numb, Hunter roused himself from bed. He slid into the jeans and sweater he had left on the rocker by the window. He looked outside, where the inky darkness revealed nothing, a void. He knew Lake Michigan was out there, and in the morning it would reveal itself in aqua or gray, depending on the quality of light, but right now it seemed as though the huge body of water had vanished. The night’s darkness pressed against his windows like something palpable, aching to get inside.

Barefoot, he padded down the hall to his grandmother’s bedroom. Ever since he had lost his parents at the age of five, this had been his home, and suddenly the big old house seemed strange and unfamiliar to him, as if he were seeing it for the first time. There was the portrait of his father, painted when Daddy was sixteen, looking young and vibrant and not that much different from Hunter, the same smile and auburn hair. And there was the old Oriental rug, its pinks, blues, and grays faded, leading the way to the door to his grandmother’s bedroom, which yawned open. Hunter stood for a long while, staring at that doorway and breathing in the smell of sickness that emanated from the room. “Go,” he whispered.

He ducked into the room. Nana lay propped up on her old four-poster bed, the one she’d had since marrying Hunter’s grandfather about six decades ago. She looked small and shriveled, vulnerable and nearly lost among the pillows, blankets, and quilts that never could keep her quite warm, not once she took ill. Her hair looked like gray straw, and parts of her scalp peeked through. A few days ago, they had taken her off the IVs and the oxygen, knowing there was no hope. The medical detritus stood in a corner of the room, looking like defeated soldiers.

Lori stood near the bed. When she saw Hunter, she leaned down and whispered to Nana, whose eyes fluttered open at the sound of the nurse’s voice in her ear. Although she had not been really coherent for the past couple of weeks, a combination of the morphine she took to manage her pain and her own failing memory, her eyes brightened when she saw her grandson. She even managed a weak smile, which vanished almost as soon as it arrived, as if the effort to maintain it was just too much for the old woman.

It probably was.

Lori stepped away from the bed and donned a fleece jacket she had left on a chair nearby. She hugged herself and then said, “I’ll leave you two alone. I’m going to run downstairs and call Dr. Blackstock.” She squeezed Hunter’s shoulder as she left the room.

Hunter sat down beside his grandmother on her bed. “Nana?”

“Hunter,” Nana croaked, her voice only an echo of the vibrancy it once had. She tried to lift her hand to his face, and it appeared she didn’t have the strength, letting it drop back down to the bedding. She closed her eyes and swallowed. The latter action looked painful, and Nana winced.

“Don’t talk, Nana. If it hurts, don’t talk.” He picked up one of her withered hands and covered it with both of his, trying to impart some of his own warmth to the frail appendage, feeling now as if it had been made of parchment and bird bones.

She nodded, staring up at him. She licked her lips. “I just want to go to sleep now. I’m ready. Can you tell the nurse?”

“Sure.” Hunter smoothed her hair away from her forehead and leaned in close. He bit his lips, not wanting to cry in front of the old woman. What if she didn’t know this was the end? He couldn’t be so cruel as to reveal that to her. And even as he thought these things, he knew—deep in his heart—that Nana knew perfectly well what was happening.

“Sleep. That sounds good.”

Nana’s eyelids fluttered and closed. Hunter thought she had fallen asleep and simply sat with her for several minutes, holding her hand. Finally he thought maybe he should creep away, hoping against hope that this was not the final moment. Lori could have been wrong, after all.

But then Nana opened her eyes, and Hunter thought he should say what needed to be said while there was still time and before he gave in to the tears and sobs that were clamoring inside to get out. He gathered the old woman up in his arms and pulled her close. Placing his lips close to her ear, he thought for a moment, grasping for something profound to say, but finally decided on only this.

“I love you so much.”

“I love you too,” Nana whispered. He released her and she slumped back against the pillows.

Hunter covered his mouth. Was she gone? But her eyes opened once more, only about half-mast, seeking him out even though his face was only inches from her own.

“Beaumont House,” she croaked.

“What?”

“Beaumont House. Promise me you’ll burn it.”

“What are you talking about, Nana?”

The old woman simply shook her head, and he could see a spark in her blue eyes.

“Promise.”

“Sure, Nana. Anything for you.”

The old woman closed her eyes, and a tremble coursed through her. She turned very pale, and then, as Hunter watched, color seeped back into her cheeks, almost rosy. Had she rallied?

But Hunter knew it was over. He bent to place a kiss on her forehead.

Downstairs the doorbell chimed. Nana’s doctor, Jay Blackstock, had arrived. Not that there was anything he could do now. He gazed down at her, touched her once more, then turned away.

In the hall he passed Lori bringing Dr. Jay Blackstock to his grandmother’s room. The three stopped to regard one another. The young man—who only the year before had replaced the doctor his grandmother had seen most of her life—had worry stamped on his dark features. He was only a bit older than Hunter himself, and Hunter had to wonder if he had seen many deaths yet in his new career. He felt a stab of pity for him.

Lori spoke. “Is she…?”

Hunter wondered where the calm he felt was coming from. Where were the tears? The anguish? Somehow, he thought, they waited patiently for him, gathering together in a round room with dim light, a kind of emotional way station. Hunter exchanged somber glances with both of them. “She just passed,” he said softly, biting his lower lip. He stared into the doctor’s brown eyes for a moment. “You’ll want to verify that, of course. But she’s gone.”

“I’m so sorry.” Lori Schmidbauer came toward him, arms outstretched.

Hunter stepped back, not ready yet for the comfort the older woman had to offer. “I’m okay. I’m okay.” He nodded and smiled but knew the smile for the lie it was, and he was certain Dr. Blackstock and his grandmother’s nurse did as well.

The doctor hurried into the bedroom, and Lori followed. She looked back at Hunter.

“I know. It’ll come.”

She turned and left him standing in the hallway. Purposely he did not glance into the bedroom, not wanting to see them hovering over his nana’s body. She wasn’t there anyway.

He hoped she was in a better place, free at last from the pain and agony of the last six months, free from invasive treatments and drugs that made her sick, most of all free from the beast that went by the name of cancer.

He returned to his bedroom, still feeling next to nothing. When he had imagined this moment coming, as he had over the course of Nana’s illness, he had envisioned hysterical sobbing, choking, a torrent of tears, reddened eyes, and difficulty breathing. When his grandfather had died, many years ago, Hunter had still been a child, and the loss really hadn’t registered. In a way it had been only Hunter and his Nana alone in the word for so long. And now he faced being completely alone in the world—no parents, no grandmother, no grandfather, no one. Nana had seen to it that he led a very sheltered life, and he knew her intentions were good. She wanted to protect him from a world that had murdered his parents.

He sat down heavily on the bed, as if drunk, although he had yet to experience that particular sensation firsthand. The bed itself was a mess, and Hunter realized he must have been thrashing around like a caged wild animal to do this much damage. Besides the sheets and pillows being damp from sweat, the fitted sheet had pulled away, revealing the striped ticking of the mattress below.

The nightmare images paraded through his mind, a macabre circus. The campground. Their tent pitched in the woods, where five-year-old Hunter had lain huddled inside a sleeping bag. The looks of terror on his parents’ faces. The screams. The struggling. Blackness. Dull morning light and his parents lying together, no longer alive, the gory ruins of their corpses….

Hunter gasped. No matter how hard he tried, he could not remember the actual event. Not really, not the details. He had only been five, and he knew shock could block or even erase horrible trauma. But over the years cops, psychologists, and even a professional hypnotist had tried to get him to remember details about the carnage. All to no avail. The memory, as far as Hunter was concerned, was gone.

The case had never been solved.

And Nana, God rest her soul, had never allowed mention of the slaughter in her house, not after the first few weeks, when the police and media had been relentless in pursuing the two of them in and out of Nana’s Evanston home. Nana, over the years, chose not to remember that she’d had a son and a daughter-in-law who had died. Hunter wondered, leaning back on the bed to lie flat and stare up at the ceiling, if she was in denial herself, or if it was all part of her master plan to shield her grandson from further grief and horror.

Whatever it was, she had held Hunter away from the world. He had never seen the inside of a school. Nana had arranged for a succession of private tutors to come to their house. Hunter had never been allowed to play outside unsupervised. Nana had tried to make up for it by being Hunter’s best friend and lavishing him with expensive toys, electronics, and carefully guided tours of world capitols.

And now Hunter was alone. Really, truly alone. And with his grief and despair at the loss of his grandmother held temporarily—he thought—at bay by shock, he had the luxury of wondering just what the hell he would do now.

He was twenty-two years old and—he supposed—rich, an heir to a fortune once made from something as fragile and insubstantial as paper.

The world was his. He thought of a cliché: the world was his oyster. He could do anything. Travel. Go to college. Work. Engage in long overdue rebellion and fall headfirst into hedonism.

He shook his head, and the first tears coursed out of the corners of his eyes to dribble down his face and run into his ears. He sat up and wiped them away. He didn’t know what he would do. He had no idea what he was good for or good at. He didn’t even know what he wanted. He glanced at the window, where the sky was just beginning to lighten, a band of pink at the horizon. The first day without Nana was beginning. The world out there was not his oyster; it was an enigma.

There was a gentle rap, once, twice, at his closed bedroom door. Thinking Lori had come by once again to see if he was ready for a hug or some words of condolence, he said simply, “Come in.”

Dr. Blackstock entered. Hunter noticed for the first time—and he thought how inappropriate this was—how handsome the doctor was, with curly black hair cropped short, an olive complexion, and the darkest eyes. His whole look was Mediterranean, belying the white-bread Blackstock name.

He smiled at Hunter and took only a step or two into the room. “I just wanted to say I was sorry.” The doctor chewed on a corner of his lip, glancing rapidly from Hunter on the bed back out into the hallway. Hunter was touched by the anxiety and overcome by the desire to offer sympathy.

“I appreciate that. Lori has all the information about, um, final details, so if you’d just take care of….” And Hunter hunched over, the onslaught of tears taking him completely by surprise. The grief hit him like a physical blow. It was a sneak attack; he didn’t have any time to prepare.

Dr. Blackstock laid a hand on Hunter’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about a thing.”

Hunter thought that statement was easy for the doctor to say.

What would he do now?


HUNTER AWAKENED to bright sunlight streaming into the room. Last night he’d thought he would never sleep, but Dr. Blackstock had given him an Ambien, and it knocked him right out. He glanced at the clock on the nightstand and saw it was nearly noon.

Outside, the sun was shining in a pure, unadulterated-by-a-single-cloud sky. Hunter got up and stared out his window at the back lawn of the house, a pristine expanse of green leading down to their private beach. Beyond the sand and pebbles stretched Lake Michigan, an expanse of aquamarine that appeared almost tropical. The day seemed out of sorts with what had just happened, as if the sky should be heavy with storm clouds and the lake should be a roiling mass of muddy waters in deference to Nana’s passing.

Hunter sat down on the window seat and stared out at the day, wondering once more what he would do with himself now that the foundation of his whole life had been knocked out from under him.

End Street Detective Agency Volume 1 by RJ Scott & Amber Kell
The Case of the Cupid Curse #1
Sam Enderson stood outside his building and smiled with pride. The fresh sign painted on the door in crisp black letters read 'End Street Detective Agency'. Examining the overall effect, he nodded in satisfaction. This move to becoming a private investigator was as far from being a timid bookseller as he could get. No one would walk all over someone who investigated crimes for a living.

Three months of correspondence school and a shiny new multi-weapon licence had given his confidence a much-needed boost. After the hellish past year, in which he’d found his boyfriend in bed with his now ex-best friend, followed by the death of his favourite uncle, Sam was ready for a new start in life.

Uncle Hanson. Just thinking about him made Sam feel sad. He had fond memories of visiting his uncle at work. The man had always liked Sam. He evidently had carried that affection into Sam’s adult life. After all, he had left Sam an entire building in his will, the building Sam now stood in front of. An office with accommodations over the top, it was worth quite a bit of money despite its proximity to an undesirable area.

"You should sell," his friend Oscar had said. Oscar had had no love for Uncle Hanson. In a sniffy tone, he’d often consigned Hanson to the idiot pile and called him ‘odd’.

"I don’t want to sell," Sam had protested.

"What are you going to do with it?" Oscar had asked.

"Open up my own agency."

Oscar still wasn’t speaking to him, even now, three months later.

Sam sighed at the memory then mentally pushed it all to one side to admire his property. The lower half consisted of a business office and reception area, with the upper two floors divided into four apartments. Three were empty but his uncle had filled the fourth one with notes from his own investigative practice. That room was high on his list of things to sort out, but he first needed to concentrate on renting out one of the empty apartments.

Sam may have inherited the house, but it hadn’t exactly come with a burgeoning bank account to match. Forty years of being a detective and all Hanson had had to show for it was this building, a small bank account and a room full of papers. Sam was determined to be different. He even had a five-year plan in place. Sam didn’t doubt for one minute that he knew exactly why his uncle had had little money to speak of. Uncle Hanson had done too much pro bono work for them.

Filing cabinets and boxes overflowed with notes from years of being a private detective. A lot of those papers included cases involving aspects of the paranormal, things Sam thought better left alone. Sam didn’t have a drop of supernatural blood in his entire body and he didn’t plan on associating with those who did. It hadn’t exactly worked out for his uncle.

Paranormals had their place. Hell, they owned half the city. Vampires and werewolves, witches, fae and pixies—they all had their own parishes. Neighbourhoods where they lived amongst their own kind. Like enjoyed living with like, and, although they often mixed and matched, no one in Sam’s family had ever crossed the romantic boundary between the magical and the not.

Sam didn’t count his second cousin Christa, who had taken up with a blood demon. There was a bad seed in every batch.

Worried he’d use up the rest of his small inheritance, Sam had put an ad in the local paper to rent out two of the four apartments. They were empty but spacious rooms that had no one currently occupying them. After a quick mop and dust, they were ready for renters. Why his uncle had a space with no one living there didn’t make much sense. Of course, if his cousin Erik hadn’t been estranged from his father, Sam wouldn’t have inherited anything. A twinge of guilt went through Sam, but he hadn’t heard from his cousin in years and had no way of getting hold of him.

“Excuse me!”

A soft voice had Sam spinning around to see an old lady looking up at him. Her wrinkled skin and the way she leaned against her cane betrayed her great age.

“Can I help you?”

She squinted at him as if trying to make him out through her foggy white eyes. “You owe me a favor.”

“What?” Sam examined the lady carefully, but he hadn’t ever met her before in his life. What possible kind of favor could he owe her?

“The man here before. He promised he’d help me out,” she explained.

“I’m sorry—”

The old lady didn’t give Sam a chance to explain. She jabbed her finger into the air at Sam, pursed her lips, then began shouting. “He owes me. He owes me!” she repeated twice, her voice rising to a screeching pitch.

Ahh, now it becomes clear. “You must be talking about my uncle. Why don’t you come inside and we can discuss what I can do for you.” Although he didn’t feel the need to keep a dead man’s promise, if he could help the woman out, he would.

After opening the front door, he motioned for her to go ahead of him.

She settled into his visitor chair while Sam scooted past her to sit on the leather chair opposite, patting his uncle’s gargoyle statue as he walked past. Uncle Hanson had the strangest collection of art he’d ever seen. Eventually, he’d get rid of it all, but right then the weird pieces reminded him of his beloved relative and better times.

“My name is Sam Enderson. How can I help you?”

Scowling over at him, she shook her head. “The guy here before never told you not to share your name, did he?”

“The man here before was my uncle. No, he didn’t tell me not to share my name.”

She shook her head as if not understanding Sam’s stupidity. “You never share your name with a witch unless you want her to do a spell.”

Sam jerked in his seat, appalled at what he’d let through his front door. “You’re a witch?”

The woman slammed her cane onto the wooden floor. “Of course I’m a witch. I’ve got the wrinkled skin, the hunch, the cane, and the rheumy eyes. What did you think I was?”

He shrugged. “I-I thought you were just an old woman.” An old scary woman who gave him the creeps, but an old woman nonetheless.

“Old!” the witch shrieked. “How dare you call me old? I’m only a hundred and sixty!”

“Forgive me.” Sam raised his hands in alarm. “I didn’t mean any offense.” Secretly he wondered how old a witch had to be before she fell into the ‘old’ category.

“Well, I am offended,” she snapped.

“Sorry. I don’t know much about your world.” Witch or not, he couldn’t help the little slip of derision into his tone.

The witch regarded him carefully. “What are you?”

“What do you mean?”

“What blood flows in your body?” she asked, as if expecting him to come up with some sort of interesting paranormal cocktail.

“Human. Just human,” Sam answered.

“You don’t like paranormals, do you?”

“No.” Sam saw no reason to deny the fact.

“So what are you doing here?” she asked suspiciously.

“I’ve inherited this building.”

“And you intend to do what?”

“Carry on business as usual. Private investigations. It’s what I’m qualified for.” And he had the multi-weapon license to back him up.

“Then you’ll have to do paranormal cases.” She gave him a taunting smile.

Sam’s stomach churned. “Why?” He didn’t plan to ever take a paranormal case.

“Because the law states no business can discriminate against a paranormal due to his or her status,” she explained. “It’ll get you shut down, it will.” There was definite glee in the old woman’s expression.

All Sam wanted to do at that moment was place his head in his hands and curse. He didn’t. He was much too professional for that. Instead, he shrugged. His mom always said if you had nothing good to say, then don’t say anything.

The witch cackled in true witch fashion, and Sam shuddered inwardly. The scent of something dead and decaying pervaded the room. Add in the crooked teeth and the rags for clothes and he couldn’t understand why he hadn’t immediately pegged her as something different.

“Now about that favor…” she continued.

“What?” He couldn’t look her in the eyes. Maybe if he didn’t look, whatever she said wouldn’t be real. He was comfortable with his denial. In fact, he might just lock the door, pull down the shades, and wallow in it for a few days.

“I need help tracking down a werewolf.”

Sam looked at her. “Why?” Paranormal hunting paranormal? That couldn’t end well.

The witch scowled at him while tapping her cane on the floor. “What do you mean, why?”

Had he stuttered? “I mean, why do you need a werewolf?”

“It’s none of your business why I need a werewolf, boy. I just do,” the witch snapped.

“It is, if you want me to do your dirty work.” Sam knew all kinds of uses witches had for werewolves and none of them was nice. “Not to mention hunting werewolves is illegal.”

“Pfft.” She waved away the law as if it were nothing. Probably was since she didn’t plan on breaking it but had asked Sam to do it instead. “I’ve got a rare potion to make, and I need some werewolf bones.”

“No.” Sam might not like paranormals very much, but he wasn’t going to hunt one down, either.

“Your uncle owes me!” she screeched.

Sam wanted to cover his ears at the high-pitched noise. “My uncle is dead,” he began to explain as patiently as he could. “I was willing to hear you out, but I’m not going to go kill an innocent werewolf so you can make a potion.” Were werewolves actually innocent? Hadn’t there been that whole rampaging werewolf-pack mess last year? Sam seemed to remember people—human, non-magical, regular people—getting killed in that little incident. Still, whatever issues he had with werewolves, he didn’t do that kind of work. He had enough problems without getting jailed for killing werewolves, innocent or not.

“This potion can save a loved one!” the witch announced dramatically. “I need those bones.”

“Find a different potion. I’m sure any given werewolf is someone’s beloved too.”

The witch scowled at him, then abruptly leaned back in her seat and smiled. The smile exposed a mouthful of yellowed teeth, and Sam winced inwardly at her lack of dental care. “Do you have anyone you love, Mr. Enderson?”

Sam’s mind shifted back to the image of his boyfriend of ten years screwing his best friend. “Not anymore.” Despite his ex pleading for forgiveness, some things Sam wouldn’t forgive. He’d moved out and away from his lover within days and blocked both work and mobile numbers from his phone. His uncle had been his last close relative that had stayed in his life. So really, with his uncle dead, at this point in time, he had no one he could call a loved one. But he’d give her his own bones before he admitted the extent of his loneliness.

The witch stood with a purposeful air. “When you’re on the verge of losing someone you love, come find me and maybe I’ll free you. Until then, enjoy my present.”

With a poof of smoke, the witch vanished.

Gasping, Sam tried to wave away the stench that accompanied the smoke, acrid and with a hint of burnt almonds. Finally, when that didn’t work, he rushed over and opened a window to let the ashy smell out. Great start to his first day as a PI.

“You’re an idiot.”

“Ahh!” Sam jumped back from the window to face the empty room. What the hell? Was she still there? Was the witch invisible?

“An idiot,” the voice repeated. This time Sam confirmed the source, emphasized when the statue on his desk turned its head and regarded him with eerie yellow eyes.

“What the hell are you?” he managed to ask coherently.

The statue’s stone wings moved, creating a sound like gravel underfoot. “I’m a gargoyle. What are you?”

“I-I’m a human.” Sam swallowed rapidly, trying to get some moisture into his dry throat. “What are you doing here?”

The statue stretched out of its crouch until it stood about a foot tall on the corner of the desk. Its baleful glare pinned Sam to the spot. “You’re an idiot. That witch has something planned for you, and it isn’t good.”

“H-how do you know?” Sam’s heart beat faster than a rabbit chased by a werewolf.

The gargoyle rolled his eyes. “You’re not too bright, are you? Your uncle trafficked with that witch.”

Sam frowned. His uncle had been a kindly old PI, who hadn’t seemed to actually do much from day to day. There was no way he had trafficked anything. He had been the type of man who always had a ready supply of candy for eager young visitors like Sam.

“The sweet old man who brought you candy didn’t exist,” the gargoyle answered his thoughts. Wait? How the hell…?

“How did you know what I was thinking?”

The gargoyle ignored the question, “He would’ve had that werewolf for the witch by the end of the day and walked away with enough cash to eat for months.” He didn’t sound like he approved, and there was sadness in his tone.

“N-no, that can’t be true.” Sam shook his head in denial. Surely the gargoyle had his facts wrong?

“Have you actually looked at the paperwork upstairs yet? I heard you banging about. I assume you actually read some of them?”

“I was moving furniture for my future tenants.” Sam shook his head. “And no, not yet. I thought they were just old case files that needed organizing.”

Defending himself to a freaking gargoyle made Sam feel like an idiot. The damn thing had been sitting there every time Sam had visited, and never once had it appeared to be anything more than an ornament. The creature must be wrong. Sam would have seen it if Uncle Hanson had been a bad guy. He wasn’t stupid. How could he not have understood his uncle’s true nature? Nope, this ‘gargoyle thing’ had to be wrong.

The gargoyle clomped across the desk. “Look at the files and check out the back closet in the file room. Your uncle had more going on than anyone knew about. That includes exposing himself to a lot more than just a witch with teeth problems and a ready hand with curses.”

With those parting words, the gargoyle sank back into his original position. A loud, crackling noise filled the room, and the creature became a statue once more. Sam poked at it with his index finger, but it didn’t move again.

“Huh.”

Maybe he was in the middle of a dream, one where he was going to wake up in his sun-lit apartment in Johnstown with his boyfriend in bed with him.

File room.

The gargoyle’s words sank in. Maybe he did need to check out the apartment with all the files a little more carefully. It wouldn’t hurt to see what other pies his uncle had his fingers in. As he stepped out of the office, a knock on the front door had him turning away from the stairs and back towards the front door. Why would someone be knocking? The door was unlocked. At least, he didn’t think he’d locked the door. But then, it was an old place. Maybe the latch had closed behind him when he’d escorted the witch inside.

His mind still on the files upstairs, he opened the door and stopped, frozen.

Vampire.

The man could be nothing else. Tall, elegant, and having an unearthly beauty, the vampire gave him a smile that exposed his fangs. “I hear you have an apartment to rent.” The vampire’s voice was like scotch over ice and dripped with sensuality.

A vampire here? In the daylight? Sam glanced past the vamp. Yep, the sun shone brightly in the sky.

“Ah, you’re not used to us.” The vampire flashed another smile. “We don’t actually burn up in the sun.”

That’s a shame. That would be one less paranormal to cause trouble.

“Um, you need an apartment?” Sam had never heard of a vampire living in an apartment. “I thought you people had mansions and crypts and stuff.”

The vampire threw back his head and laughed. “That’s only in the movies. Now, can I see your place?”

“…Umm” Sam searched his mind for a good excuse. Anything to keep the skeevy, blood-sucking supernatural out of his house.

The tall vampire smiled. “You know that part about vampires reading your mind?”

With a sinking stomach, Sam nodded.

“That part’s true.”

Sam sighed. “You’d better come in. It’s right this way.”

The day had started out so well, too. Now, Sam just wanted to go back to bed and hide under the covers.

“I’d be happy to keep you company,” the vampire said in a low, sultry tone. For a second, Sam didn’t understand what the hell the vampire was talking about, and then he recalled what he had just thought about beds and covers. Sam looked over his shoulder to see the vampire checking out his ass. Rolling his eyes, he headed up the stairs, leading the vampire to the top floor. He pulled an old-fashioned key from his pocket, unlocked then opened the door.

“No spell locks?” the vampire asked with concern in his voice.

Sam shook his head. Like he’d had any time to do things like that. The vampire was lucky the room had been tidied and cleaned. “You’re welcome to add your own, of course.” Fuck, he was going to rent to a vampire. He could hope the creature didn’t want the place. “It’s nothing fancy.”

Please want something fancy.

Before Sam could take more than two steps into the apartment, the vampire pinned him to the wall. “I’m not a creature. I’m a man, and I’d be happy to show you exactly how manly I am.”

To Sam’s shock, he could feel the vampire rubbing his erection against him. “U-um, s-sorry.” Was this what vampires did just before they drank every drop of blood from your body?

“I don’t want you sorry. I just want you to want me.”

Sudden, inexplicable desire burned through Sam and his body hardened in reaction to the proximity of another man. The vampire smiled, exposing a flash of fang. A shiver of fear trembled down Sam’s spine.

“No!” He shoved at the vampire, who, surprisingly, broke his hold and released Sam.

The vampire watched Sam with a wary look. “What are you?”

Why does everyone keep asking me that?

“I’m human, okay? Just human.” Sam scowled at the vampire.

“No human has ever shattered my glamor.” The vampire sounded thoughtful, and his appraising look unnerved Sam.

“Well, good for me.” Sam folded his arms. He might not like paranormals, but he knew enough about vampires and their way of controlling people to know he didn’t want that within six feet of him. “I’m not going to rent a room to someone who tried to glamor me. You might as well go.”

The vampire smiled. “My name is Bob.”

A snort of laughter burst out of Sam. “Your name isn’t Bob.”

The vampire tilted his head, and his eyes glowed with amusement. “How do you know?”

“Because I just had a witch tell me not to share my name with a paranormal so I doubt you would be telling me your real name.”

Bob grabbed Sam’s wrist. His grip was firm, and instinctively Sam yanked his arm to try to break the vampire’s hold. “There was a witch here?” Bob snapped urgently. “What did she look like?”

“A witch.” What did it matter what she looked like? “She was old, crony, and witchy. You know—” He gestured expansively with his free hand— “A witch.”

“What did she want?” Bob still hadn’t let go of his wrist. The vampire didn’t know his own strength. One last tug and Bob finally let him loose. Idly, Sam rubbed at the sore skin burn.

“From what she said, werewolf bones.”

Bob scanned the room as if he expected the witch to jump out of the wall or something. “Never trust a witch and never, ever, tell a witch your real name.”

“Okay, um… Bob.” Sam could barely hold back the laughter building inside him.

“My real name is Roberto, but I go by Bob,” Bob finally said. “Vampires don’t have last names outside a coven. Your last name reveals the group you belong to. I am an independent.”

Sam couldn’t hold back the laugh inside him. Dire warnings about witches aside, he couldn’t wrap his head around a badass vampire calling himself Bob. Hell, a vampire named Bob. That was wrong on so many levels.

“Vampires are supposed to be sexy. There’s nothing sexy about a Bob,” Sam finally managed to say without laughing. Why he cared what the vampire called himself, he didn’t know, but there was no way he was going to call a vampire Bob.

Bob seemed to forget his need to warn Sam about witches and names and instead pulled Sam into his arms. Evidently he had returned to his first agenda. “I’m sure I can convince you I’m sexy,” he drawled. What was it about this man—vampire, whatever—feeling like he could manhandle him at every turn?

Sam narrowed his eyes at the vampire. The man might be the sexiest thing Sam had ever seen, but he wasn’t going to admit it…

Damn. He had just thought that. And damn—Bob had heard him. Shit. Bob was definitely smirking.

“Do you have a multiple personality disorder or something? You bounce around more than anyone I’ve ever met. From scary vampire to smirking idiot in a second.”

Bob smiled and didn’t appear to take offense at Sam’s comment. “You’ll have plenty of time to examine my personality when I move in. How much is the rent?” The quick change of subject threw Sam, but it didn’t keep him from trying one last time to stop Bob from moving in. He mentioned an exorbitant amount for the monthly rent to attempt to deter the vampire.

Bob released Sam, and then walked through the living room and down the hall. There were two bedrooms and a small kitchen, though Sam doubted Bob would need a kitchen. Vampires didn’t eat real food. Right? But wouldn’t he need a fridge or something for all the blood? Or would he be one of those vampires with a live donor?

What did Sam know? He had thought vampires could only come out at night.

Sam pushed aside thoughts of blood.

Bob returned to Sam’s side in long, confident strides. “I’ll take it.”

Shit!

The Case of the Wicked Wolf  #2
Sam Enderson sat back in his desk chair and looked at his notes with annoyance. The strip of ribbon Hunter had sent him sat in the corner. As long as he didn’t touch it he couldn’t hear the girl crying. Despite what Bob said he knew it was the missing werewolf girl. Who else would be crying out in pain? Unless the abductor who sent the ribbon knew Hunter’s daughter Shelby had vanished and was taking advantage of that fact. The only thing that made Sam question his judgement was Bob’s statement that he didn’t sense any shifter scent on the ribbon.

"It’s a puzzle."

"Yes it is," Sam replied to Smudge, the black cat familiar, curled on the pillow beside his chair.

Smudge flicked his long tail as he groomed his black fur in long, languid strokes. When he spread his legs to lick his privates Sam turned away. "Can’t you do that elsewhere?"

"You’re just jealous because I’m bendy." Smudge taunted.

Searching for a distraction he turned his attention back to his sparse notes. Nothing made sense. Where had Shelby gone? Bob had talked to his contacts and the witch was still complaining to everyone she could find that Sam hadn’t lived up to his uncle’s promise. Since word had also travelled that she’d cursed Sam and he’d recovered the missing fae, his name was beginning to become rather well known among people he’d rather avoid.

Sam wished he could interrogate the werewolves and especially, Constance, Shelby’s ex-wife. From the little Hartman told Sam about her she seemed a prime suspect. Hartman kept insisting none of the shifters would do that to a little girl but Sam had his doubts. Shelby’s mother had two sons from a previous marriage both old enough to challenge for Alpha. Even Hartman admitted she was power hungry. What better way to bring down the Alpha than to crush his spirit? Even if Hartman denied his pack had anything to do with Shelby’s disappearance Sam noticed the Alpha didn’t ask for his pack’s help in locating his lost girl.

He sighed as he looked at the miniscule amount of information he had to work with. If the case hadn’t involved a little girl Sam would’ve passed on it, however, he couldn’t refuse to help out an obviously broken-hearted person even if he was a werewolf.

Unfortunately this new job didn’t do anything to help foster a good reputation among the human population. So far paranormals were the only ones interested in Sam’s services.

A knock on the door drew Sam’s attention away from his futile endeavour.

"Yes?" Sam called out.

A large hulking man with hair popping out of every visible crevice stomped into Sam’s office. He wore a surprisingly stylish suit but Sam figured if you were that large everything was probably custom made.

"Are you Sam Enderson?" he asked in a voice so deep Sam thought he felt the floor vibrate beneath his chair.

"Yes." Sam stood up to greet his guest. The man-creature-being whatever the hell it was towered over him even when standing. Sam’s confidence raised a few notches when he realised he could probably flee the building before the visitor reached him. "Can I help you with something?"

Smudge hissed from his perch.

"Troll."

Sam had never met a troll before. Fascinated, he watched his visitor with open curiosity. He hadn’t known trolls ever left their bridges. Of course what he knew about trolls could be stuffed in a brownie’s pocket.

"I need something removed." The troll spoke in slow drawn out syllables as if each word had to be dredged from his soul.

Spindrift by Amy Rae Durreson
Chapter 1
SIÔN DREAMED he went back to the bridge again, stepping out along the pedestrian walkway with his camera banging against his chest where it hung uselessly. The fog was just as deep as it had been on that day in March, wrapping around him like a bag around his head. It muffled his steps and made even the occasional rumble of passing cars sound far, far away. The fog closed behind him, hiding the north bank and the river below. As he walked he became convinced that he would never reach the far end, that he would walk forever through this damp gray shadow of a world.

Gradually, just like the first time, his steps slowed until he simply stood where he was. A bleak, quiet conviction settled over him.

He was completely alone in the world.

It seemed inconceivable that there even was a world out there beyond the fog, and he knew there was no one there who would miss him if he stayed here forever. He had no family, no friends, no lover, only a few colleagues he never socialized with. He didn’t even have a cat.

So why keep walking? Why not just stay here in the fog?

But he knew that the fog would lift and the world would still be there, and it would still be empty for him.

Even as he thought it, fear was clenching around his heart. Something was wrong.

Something was wrong with him.

And a shadowy figure came walking out of the mist toward him, stopping a foot away. Siôn recognized him at once—knew the expensive camera hanging around his neck, the soft old university hoodie with the St John’s College logo faded on the breast, the jeans that had never sat comfortably over his narrow hips and too long legs, the flop of pale hair. He was looking at himself, but it was a version of himself that had no face.

Looking at that dark emptiness, feeling that thin, screaming fear in his heart, Siôn suddenly understood. It wasn’t the world that was empty. It was him. He was the problem.

It seemed only logical to turn to the water. The stone handrail was elbow height, easy enough to climb, and he knew the river below was deep and fast enough to suck him down. Carefully, he took off his camera, handing it to his shadow self, and made for the edge.

Out in the gray, a gull cried, and then another and another, squabbling with sudden energy.

Their noise pulled Siôn away from the bridge, and he came out of the dream with a sudden gulp of relief. The cold fear released him so fast that he choked on his own indrawn breath and began to cough painfully, his lungs hurting.

By the time he could breathe again, he was fully awake and knew where he was—not on that cold bridge, but tucked under the sloping ceiling of Spindrift Cottage. The first light of the summer dawn was spilling softly through the dormer window and the lace curtains, creating thin patterns of light on the polished wooden floor and tufted rag rug in front of the unused hearth. Those seagulls were still squabbling outside his window, and he could just hear the sea breathing softly against the harbor bar.

He was alive. He was sane again. He was safe.

He was still alone.

But that was one of the thoughts he had learned to guard against, so he took another steadying breath, pushed himself up against the pile of lace-trimmed pillows, and went through his mantra again.

Alive. Sane. Safe. It had been three months since the bridge, and—with the help of a change of scene, mandatory therapy, and plenty of pills—he knew everything he had seen and felt up there had been false. He no longer believed that death was the only logical conclusion.

Tempting sometimes, but not logical.

Another breath, and this time he said the three words aloud to remind himself more firmly. “Alive. Sane. Safe.”

It helped to be here, in a sunlit room in this quiet house. Siôn had been reading before he went to sleep, Gavin Francis’s travelogue True North, and he reached out for his e-reader to keep going. There was nothing like the fascinating yet distant details of life in a cold climate to soothe his restless mind.

But as he turned, he heard a soft noise from his bedroom door. Then he saw the man standing there.

He was an ordinary-looking young man, of average height and squarely built, not much more than twenty. His dark hair was cropped close to his skull, and his face was ruddy and weathered. He had a slightly pointed face, not unhandsome, but not remarkable either, his expression solemn, although there was something around his eyes that suggested he could laugh. He wore a heavy navy blue jersey, cable-knit in complex patterns that drew Siôn’s eye, and faintly oily looking.

He had a thin little mustache and a gray leather flat cap, both of the sort Siôn associated with period films and a particular subset of urban hipster, and they seemed out of place in this little coastal retreat.

The initial surprise was giving way to indignation. Siôn had let the cottage for the next three months, and the agency had promised him that he would be left alone to enjoy it. They had also mentioned that the owner’s grandson would be staying in the basement flat once his university term was over, and “if you need owt and can’t get us on t’ phone, young Mattie will take a gander for thee.”

Siôn had managed to hide his instinctive grimace at both the idea and the exaggerated-cod Yorkshireism being thrown in his tourist face, but at least he now had a clue who this intruder was and how he had managed to get in. Bloody students.

Irritated, he snapped out, “What the devil do you think you’re doing?”

The man turned his head toward Siôn. His eyes were very wide and a little unfocused, as if they were seeing things Siôn could not, and suddenly the room felt icy, all the soft heat of early June seeping away like a retreating tide. The hairs on his arms stood on end, and his back cramped.

“Sarah,” the man said, and his voice was as cracked and distant as an old record, fading more with every syllable. “…Sorry… d—ned… shua….”

And he came forward across the room, bringing with him a stink of salt and rotten seaweed and something worse, something old and deep and dead.

Siôn couldn’t move.

Frozen in place, naked under the duvet, he watched this man—this dead thing—come gliding closer and closer to him, and he couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even flinch.

The ghost passed across the room, his blank eyes unblinking, brushed past the bed, and walked toward the wide, low window where the dawn light was blazing in, thin and white and dazzling. He stepped into it and was gone, leaving behind only a lingering smell of death.

And then Siôn could breathe again, though part of him didn’t want to. The thing he had feared since he woke up in hospital had finally come to pass.

He had lost his mind again.


HE DIDN’T go back to sleep, though it was a long time before he could talk himself out of the bed. It was only when his alarm went off that he forced himself up. Routine was important, and he followed his with a dim, cold sense of detachment.

He ate his breakfast standing at the sink, forcing cornflakes into his mouth as he stared out of the window, for once not registering the soft loveliness of the morning light over the rooftops and harbor below. He washed up his bowl, put it carefully in the rack to dry, showered, and tried to shave.

His hand was shaking so much he put the razor down before he hurt himself.

It was only then that he realized he was tensed for that feeling—the bridge feeling—to come back, for that certainty to steal over him and make him believe it was time to die. If his brain was starting to break apart, to show him ghosts, that was the inevitable next step, wasn’t it? He was hallucinating again, this time without the excuse of months of insomnia. If his eyes had failed him, how long would it be before his logic turned on him too? He was used to analyzing risk, to recognizing situations that could not be overcome, and he wondered, a little frantically, what it would be this time—a bridge or the sea or, oh God, the cliffs?

What had possessed him to come and recuperate in a place with cliffs?

Had he been self-sabotaging even then?

It was the worst thought yet—that all these months of dealing with the shock and fear of what he had done, of recognizing that he wasn’t okay, whatever logic told him, and slowly picking up the pieces… they had all been for nothing if the dark, cold place inside him was still building traps.

“Routine,” he said to his reflection, which was hollow cheeked and wan, but at least still possessed a face. “Get back to routine.”

Routine meant dressing in light summer clothes and then shrugging on his windbreaker, because it might be June, but it was still Yorkshire. It meant gathering up his art supplies, checking that his phone was charged—for all the good that would do him when he couldn’t get a signal at the bottom of the village—and making sure he had some cash to buy lunch in the pub.

Staring at the emergency numbers pinned to the kitchen notice board wasn’t part of his usual routine, but it took an effort to drag himself away. Should he be calling someone? What would he say? Hi, I’m not suicidal and am frankly embarrassed that I ever was. I feel fine, except for the fact that I just saw a dead man walk across my bedroom.

What could they say to that? Nothing much, beyond suggesting it had been a bad dream and he should come in for a checkup, which would mean either a whole day driving or hours on buses and trains followed by twiddling his thumbs in the too solemn quiet of the waiting room, then having to find a hotel, and then losing another day traveling back. No. Let them spend their time on people who really were at breaking point. He would monitor himself as closely as he could and call if he started feeling genuinely bad.

Newly resolute, Siôn picked up his bag and strode out the door of the cottage and down the narrow steps into the sloping street.

Spindrift Cottage stood on the corner of a lane in the village of Rosewick Bay. The road curved down around the house to drop toward the tiny harbor below. Siôn had to enter the house by climbing a steep flight of steps to the kitchen door. The front windows of his living room looked over the rooftops and tiny patio gardens of the houses on the street below, while the back ones overlooked a small patio of his own and the foundations of the houses on the next street up. Below his part of the house was a tiny single-floor flat that backed into the cliff side on two faces, had a door opening onto the street at the front, and a window that was above head height on the sloping road that turned around the corner of the house. The whole village was a precarious tumble of red-tiled rooftops and terraced houses crammed into every foothold.

It had been an artists’ paradise since Edwardian times, and Siôn had chosen to retreat here for that reason. He had been here a fortnight already and was still not tired of trying to capture the higgledy lines of the houses, the water below, the gulls soaring overhead, and the light over the North Sea.

Today he walked briskly down through the village, heading for the harbor bar. It was early enough that the air was still cool, though in a way that promised heat later. The light was as thin and bright as sugar glaze, and he quickened his stride, no longer alarmed by the startling steepness of the lanes and the narrow ginnels that wound between the houses.

The harbor was pressed between two high cliffs, both of which were the haunts of seabirds who screeched and yammered as he walked below them and headed out across the breakwater that stretched from the foot of Minehouse Nab, the northern cliff. From the breakwater he could position his easel so he could look back at the village, and he took his time selecting a good spot.

But today, miserably, the art would not come. Every thin line he sketched seemed skewed, and when he gave up on guidelines and tried to splash watercolor straight onto the page, everything came out misshapen or saccharine.

He had never lost his art before—and he knew that, not the pills and therapy, was the main reason he had recovered as well as he had. He had heard so many horror stories about creativity and antidepressants. He had always been able to paint, although the mood and nature of his paintings had changed, the grays and stark lines of his urban landscapes giving way to a more dreamy, romantic palette. So he had come here to paint, and nothing else. Sometimes, still, he woke in the night with his heart pounding at the thought of going back to the silence and loneliness of London. Here, though, in this little bubble of light and sea and watercolor, he was safe.

But today, his muse failed him.

Perhaps it was the worry. Perhaps it was the way the keening gulls sounded so eerie today, or the way the sigh of the sea on the other side of the breakwater kept making the hairs rise on the back of his neck. Perhaps it was the memory of the hallucination’s eyes focusing on something other than Siôn, something only it could see.

“It was a dream,” he said firmly out loud. That was the only logical explanation. He had woken from a nightmare, and his still-dreaming brain had constructed something out of shadows and reflections.

He had never before had a nightmare that smelled like anything, let alone rot and water.

Just thinking of it brought the memory of the scent back so strongly that he was sure it was rising out of the big boulders of the modern breakwater behind him.

It was the harbor and the tide, he told himself. He had been living in the city so long he just didn’t know how to cope with natural smells any longer.

But the tide was high, and the stink was getting stronger and stronger.

Behind him there was a faint scrabbling noise, as if the rocks were shifting—or something was crawling across them.

Siôn shot to his feet, knocking his easel over, and spun, throwing his hands out defensively.

There was nothing there—only the open sea and the long stretch of the coast, the far cliffs still soft with morning mist.

All the same, since his paper was ruined and he was clearly getting nothing done here, he gathered his stuff and headed along the breakwater to get his feet back on solid ground.

He wandered the village for a while, trying to find a perspective that appealed to him, but nothing worked and the first coachload of day-tripping retirees had arrived. Giving up, he took his easel back to the cottage and contemplated just staying there, taking advantage of the light in the attic studio to improve some earlier pieces.

But isolating himself in this frame of mind was a bad idea, so he dragged himself out again, tucking his sketchbook under his arm as a defense against the world. He wasn’t required to talk to anyone directly, but he could eavesdrop a bit and sketch a few poses, and so feel a little more connected to the rest of the world. His first instinct might always be to isolate himself, but he had been forced to learn better, however much he resented having to step out into the world.

Halfway down the hill, he passed the open doors of the Rosewick Bay Heritage Center and paused. He hadn’t been in there yet, and perhaps this was the day. He could find out a little more about the history of the place and soak up some inspiration. If he was very lucky, they might even have some information about the Rosewick Group, that little offshoot of the Yorkshire impressionists who had settled in the village in the 1890s and early years of the twentieth century. One of the first pieces he had bought when he was finally earning enough to invest in real art had been Elinor Castle’s Rosewick Cobles, showing fisherwomen helping to pull a boat ashore. The painting had brought him here when he’d had to choose a place to recuperate. He had liked the idea of following in the footsteps of an artist he admired, and although her studio, now a lucrative little holiday cottage, had been let all summer, his inquiring phone call to the letting agent had brought him to Spindrift Cottage, which had been a family home until last year and had only just become available.

There was no guarantee the little museum would have anything about Castle and her circle, but they were the village’s only claim to fame, so there ought to be a postcard reproduction or two for sale at least. Castle herself was still moderately famous, and her pieces sold for more than a local museum could afford, but there might even be some works by, or information about, the lesser artists of the group. Siôn knew little about them, and perhaps today was the day to repair that gap in his knowledge.

Inside, the museum was bigger than it had looked from the outside. A glance along the main corridor revealed that a new frontage must have been built across the original terrace, because there was space for a whole row of Victorian-style shops done up in painstakingly authentic style. A spiral staircase led upstairs, with a sign taped to it that announced, “Fishing gallery, Art and Artists in Rosewick Bay, a Victorian Missionary in the South Seas, Childhood Past and Present.”

There was a wooden sign on the wall by the door that stated the entrance fees, as well as a counter, although it was unmanned. Someone had Blu-Tacked a bit of paper to it that read, in a scrawl of purple felt-tip, “Back in 5m! Please leave cash in honesty box!”

Siôn guessed that meant the wooden box with a slit in the top that was chained to the counter. He put his two pounds in, amused and oddly touched. London seemed very far away.

He wandered over to the first exhibit, a display of fishing lines carefully strung with hooks, and leaned in to read the typed explanation pinned to wall above. It was surrounded by framed photographs of fishermen and boats, old newspaper clippings, and a rather ferocious-looking fish mounted on a board with its teeth showing. Glancing around, Siôn realized that every wall was covered in the same way. At a guess, he would say that every single scrap of the village’s history was on display here.

It was charming, in a cluttered sort of way, and he moved on to study the contents of a reconstructed chemist’s shop, which seemed to feature the rescued contents of local medicine cabinets from Victorian times to the 1970s, all arranged so the brand names faced outward. There was even a door with an old-fashioned knocker. It was closed, and he wasn’t sure if it was just for effect or whether there was more to see inside the shop. Carefully, he reached out and pushed at it slightly, to see if it would open.

“Nowt but wall behind that one,” a warm, cheerful voice said behind him. “You have to go round to get to the history of the lifeboat.”

Irrationally embarrassed, Siôn stepped back. “I’m sorry.”

“You weren’t to know,” the kid behind him said. He had a nice voice, deep with a thick Yorkshire accent. He sounded friendly, young, confident—everything Siôn struggled with. “I keep telling Mrs. Peacock that we ought to put a sign up, but she won’t have it. Says it would spoil the authenticity.”

Siôn turned round, preparing a smile, and started to say, “I’d hate to see anyone try to force….”

Then the words dried up in his throat.

The young man leaning over the counter and grinning at him looked very, very familiar. In fact, Siôn had last seen him only a few hours ago, although he had been dressed very differently then.

This was the man who had walked across his room at dawn and vanished into a blur of light.

Across Your Dreams by Jay Lewis Taylor
London, October 1916
The noise; the crush; the explosions of steam; the constant shrill of whistles. It might have been the anteroom to Hell.

It was, in fact, Victoria Station.

David Lewry got down from the train, took a firm grip on his bag, and walked along the platform, looking straight ahead.

He had stayed awake through France, and during the appalling Channel crossing. Once aboard an English train he had fallen asleep in the corner of his compartment. Now, he was not altogether sure that he was conscious; he could barely feel the ground beneath his feet, and walking seemed easy, dreamlike.

In one corner of the station men were queuing for tea and a place in the refreshment area. He would have given anything to have joined them, but he was an officer, and officers were expected to pay their own way. Moreover, he was expected at – at – he tried to drag the name of the hotel out of his memory. If only he still had that letter.

It was raining in London, of course; but he was used to the rain. He paused for a moment under the station canopy. Maybe the name of the hotel would come back to him if he sat down and thought about it. The nearest place … he turned round, walked back into the station and shouldered his way through the passage that led to the Grosvenor Hotel.

“Would you have a quiet corner where I could sit and have some tea?”

They showed him to a small room and brought tea and biscuits. The biscuits he devoured ravenously, but the tea was weak. He swirled it round a little, and set the pot down. He would wait for it to brew, and try to remember the name of that hotel.

He woke with a leap of every muscle at the touch of a hand on his shoulder.

“God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

The light was behind the newcomer, and all Lewry could see of him was the usual khaki, a face, a blur of chestnut hair. He rubbed his eyes.

“What are you doing here, for Heaven’s sake? I left a note for you to come up to the room.” David Russell-Hansford-Barnes, clean and shaven and good-looking as hell, with a frown on his face. “I was expecting you two hours ago. I ate dinner on my own.”

Lewry blinked at him. “Russ,” he said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even remember that this was the hotel.”

“Didn’t you get that letter either?”

“I did, but I don’t have it any more.” Lewry touched the teapot: it was stone-cold. In his cup was one mouthful of cold, weak, dust-coloured brew. He drank it.

“My first letter,” Barnes said, low and teasing, “and you throw it away?”

“The only letter I had from you in six months.” Lewry rubbed his eyes with the hand that was not holding cup and saucer. “I was reading it when a shell got our parados. After that – it wasn’t legible.” He did not say why, but he could not stop a shudder from running through him, strong enough to rattle the china.

Barnes took the fragile things from his hands. “We’ve found each other now, anyway.”

“Yes.” It should not have been like this; they should have met each other off their respective trains, and smiled and waved and been able to talk cheerily. And then – “You did say a bed?” Lewry asked.

“Yes, Lew. Well – two beds, to be honest. I … didn’t have the nerve.”

“Good.”

Barnes looked a little startled at his vehemence. “What are you going to do about dinner?”

“I couldn’t eat a thing. I was sick all the way across. I want to sleep.” Lewry stood up. “I saw you were gazetted Major, by the way. Youngest major in your regiment, isn’t it?”

“Oh, I don’t know who told you that, it’s rubbish. Besides, what about you? Captain. You’ll catch up with me yet.” Barnes clapped him on the shoulder.

The smile soured. “Rather not,” Lewry said. “Promoted because of all the dead, not because of competence. They should have left me in the Surreys.”

“Another four shillings a day, though.”

“There is that. But – oh, never mind.” He reached for his bags as Barnes picked them up. “I can manage those.”

“I’m sure, but let me help, eh? The room’s not far.”

“I can carry them.”

Barnes stopped short; looked at him; and handed the bags over. “If you must.”
The room was on the first floor, and an oil lamp was already burning. The covers had been turned down on the beds. There was a covered jug of water and a glass on each stand, and a ewer of hot water on the cabinet. Lewry came in from the WC at the end of the corridor to find Barnes stripped to the waist and washing.

“Left some clean water for you,” the major said, muffled through a towel.

“Use it. I’m too tired.” Lewry’s bootlaces fought every attempt to undo them, but he wrenched his boots off at last and slung his khaki on the nearest chair. Still in his underwear, he sat on the bed. “Night, Russ.”

“Lew … “

They looked at each other.

“Well?” Lew said.

“I’ve been here for two days.” Russ ran his fingers through his hair. “Waiting for you. For this.”

Lew’s muscles stilled into tautness. He said, “You didn’t think I might not … “

“For Christ’s sake. I thought it was you started all this off by wanting me. That time.”

“That was then.”

“Lew – “

“Russ,” Lewry cut in. “I am tired. I don’t want to. Not now this minute. And besides – “

Barnes looked at him. Hurt? There was no way of telling. “Besides, what?” he said, his voice abrupt and clipped.

“Besides,” Lew said again, “I’m buggered if I’ll let a major pull rank on me.”

“So what am I supposed to do? Go out and shoot one so that you can step up again?” Russ snapped.

“No, of course not.” Lew stared at him. “Oh, fuck, Russ. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it to be like this.”

Russ stared back; then, at last, relaxed and laughed. “Fuck, likewise,” he said. “I’m sorry, Lew. We shouldn’t be fighting. Of course you’re tired. Of course I’m a pushy bastard. You have your sleep out. I’m very glad to see you.”

Reclaiming Hope by Shell Taylor
Chapter 1
KOLLIN HAVERTY glanced away from his computer screen to ogle the other patrons of the bookstore. Next to his table, a young couple talked animatedly about their summer plans as they browsed the sci-fi section. The guy had sandy blond hair and a dimple that popped up on his right cheek every time he smiled. Kollin allowed his gaze to linger on the guy’s handsome face a moment longer and then returned his attention to his studies. If he didn’t stop getting distracted, he was about three random hot guys away from flunking his psych final.

The chair across from him scraped against the wooden floor, and Kollin gritted his teeth, both irritated at the interruption—there were plenty of other open seats nearby—and relieved for another distraction.

“Seat taken?” a rough voice asked.

Kollin looked up. The owner of the voice looked familiar, but Kollin couldn’t place where he’d ever seen him. They’d probably shared a class together at some point, but then again, Kollin didn’t think he’d forget that guy if they’d spent three months in the same room. While the stranger’s face wasn’t particularly distinctive, his hair was shaved close on the sides but left long on top, with platinum blond streaks. Several hoops hung from his ears, and Kollin noted not only a nose ring but also a hoop adorning his bottom lip.

Kollin waved toward the chair as he continued to stare. “All yours.”

“Thanks.” The stranger looked nervous, but he shoved his hands in his pockets and sat down.

Kollin offered a smile and returned his attention to his notes.

He hadn’t even finished reading a sentence when the guy spoke again. “You come here often?”

Kollin held back a laugh. He recognized a pickup line when he heard one, but he wasn’t expecting to get cruised at Barnes & Noble while wearing ratty sweats. The guy was cute enough, though. He had a little more facial hair than Kollin preferred—there was just something he loved about a smooth face on a man—but he definitely had potential.

Kollin abandoned his notes and sat back in his seat to give the guy his full attention. “Not really. My little sister was having a meltdown at home, so I came here to get some cramming in before my last final tomorrow.”

“You have a little sister?” He sounded surprised. Too surprised for a random guy chatting up a stranger in the local bookstore.

“Uh… yeah. She’s twelve.” Kollin fiddled with his pen. “I’m sorry. Do I know you?”

A ghost of a smile spread over the stranger’s face, and his features softened as he shook his head and looked down at his hands. “No, no. I’m sorry. I can tell I’m bothering you. I’ll let you get back to your studying.”

The guy was gone before Kollin even realized he’d left his chair.

“COME ON, Koll,” Lizzie whined. “They let you do whatever you want. Please, please, please, convince Adam to give me my phone back.”

“They don’t ‘let me do whatever I want.’ I just know how to work them. And that does not include whining about punishments. You really think I could’ve gotten out of a punishment if I were failing school? As strict as Eli is about earning good grades?”

Lizzie stomped her foot. “Math is stupid. That’s why they invented calculators. It’s not like I’ll need to solve algebra equations to actually do anything.”

Kollin looked around the multipurpose room at The Center for HOPE, the LGBT safe haven that his adoptive father, Adam Lancaster, founded and ran. Most of the tables were full of students preparing for the upcoming end-of-year exams. Not his sister. Not the girl who was one bad grade away from failing math. Lizzie’s scowl showed the righteous indignation that every twelve-year-old seemed to master. Why shouldn’t she be able to pout, bat her eyelashes, and get her phone back?

When she moved in almost three years earlier, Kollin had quite possibly been more excited than anyone. Lizzie joining them was concrete evidence that Adam and his other adoptive dad, Eli, wanted a family. Kollin had never shaken the feeling that he might be more of an obligation than a son after Adam and Eli took him in when his birth parents abused him and kicked him out. Logical or not, Lizzie coming to live with them served as Kollin’s lightbulb moment. He finally understood that Adam and Eli truly wanted him in their lives for good.

Lizzie proved to be a challenge, though. Her parents died in a tragic accident when she was only four, and after a short stint with a worthless aunt and uncle, she entered the foster system. Old enough to remember her parents and how much they loved her but too young to understand why she had to live with strangers, Lizzie struggled to keep her temper in check. As a result, time and time again, she was passed over for adoption.

She was just as difficult for Adam and Eli when she first moved in, but Kollin spent as much time with her as he could. Slowly, he gained her trust and convinced her that she’d found a home where she didn’t need to fear rejection. Kollin’s constant support and assurances eased her worries about being different because of her skin color, her struggles at school, and her sassy attitude. With Lizzie’s trust placed firmly in Kollin, he was able to bridge the gap between Lizzie and his dads. By the time the adoption finally went through, Lizzie had become a mischievous, stubborn bundle of energy, and none of them could imagine their lives without Elizabeth Constance Jones Langley.

Kollin would do anything for his sister, and she damn well knew it.

“I’ll talk to Eli. See what I can do. Maybe if I promise to supervise you doing your homework, he’ll give in a few days early.”

“But Adam’s the one who took it away from me.”

Kollin rolled his eyes. “Trust me. Eli’s your best bet at getting that phone back early. Just make sure they see you studying, and try to look like you actually care about math. Okay? And stop bugging the shit out of them about it. That’s annoying as hell.”

Lizzie grinned and grabbed Kollin around the neck. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ll clean your room for a week.”

Kollin laughed. “No you won’t, but thanks for pretending.”

“If you get my phone back, I’ll at least clean it once.”

“Whatever, Squirt. Get outta here so I can finish this presentation for Adam.”

“But I don’t have anything to do,” Lizzie complained.

“Uh… you could do your homework. Maybe even in Dad’s office, to show you’re making an effort.”

Lizzie huffed and crossed her arms over her chest. “Can’t. He’s in there with some guy I’ve never seen before.”

“Oh?” Kollin glanced at the door. “Someone who might need the inn?”

Home for Hope, the inn Eli helped Adam buy and renovate into a safe house for LGBT youth, was completely full, and some of the rooms even housed multiple occupants. Adam had plans to build an extension so an additional twenty beds could help keep as many youth off the street. Kollin would spend the summer helping Adam oversee the addition and gaining invaluable experience, not only in his business minor but also his human services studies.

Lizzie shrugged. “Dunno. He didn’t look too bad off. Kinda cute actually. Dad hugged him when he walked in, so I guess they know each other.”

Kollin frowned. He volunteered at HOPE as often as possible, but that didn’t amount to much with a full college course load. He’d missed being there so much that he moved back home his sophomore year and drove the fifteen-minute commute to NC State’s campus. Even so, he missed out on a lot going on around the center. That guy could be anybody.

“Ooh. Here he comes,” Lizzie whispered and not so subtly nodded her head toward the doorway.

Sure enough, Adam had his arm around someone Kollin shouldn’t have known but immediately recognized.

“I saw that guy at the bookstore a couple days ago. He talked with me for a few minutes,” he whispered.

“Looks like you’re about to see him again,” Lizzie whispered back and then put on her sweetest smile. “Hi, Daddy.”

“Still not getting your phone back.” Adam put his arm around Lizzie’s shoulder and kissed the top of her head. “And hi, baby.”

Lizzie rolled her eyes and straightened her soft, brown curls back into place. “I wasn’t even gonna ask this time.”

“Yeah, okay.” Adam rolled his eyes to mimic her and then turned his attention toward Kollin. “Look who the cat dragged in.”

For some reason, Kollin’s heart fluttered. Waves of nervousness raced through his body as he tried to figure out why Adam thought he should know the stranger. He’d never told either of his parents about meeting the guy at the bookstore, and even if he had, Adam couldn’t have known he was the same person.

The man studied the ground, seemingly reluctant to look at Kollin, but Kollin knew he couldn’t identify him even if they were staring directly at one another.

Fortunately Adam saved him from further embarrassment. “I didn’t recognize Riley until he threatened to own me in Ping-Pong.”

Kollin sucked in a huge gulp of air. The nervous flutters, which had been nothing more than a curious enigma, ceased, and he suddenly felt as if a boulder had settled in the pit of his stomach.

He hadn’t spoken to Riley Meadows in over four years. When Kollin’s parents kicked him out, Riley had been the one who kept Kollin sane. He tethered him to reality when all he’d wanted was to escape inside himself. They’d kept in touch when Riley first went to college and somehow became even closer—until Riley seemingly dropped off the face of the earth. Phone calls, e-mails, texts… all unanswered. Kollin eventually took the hint and gave up.

Now Riley was back?

“Hey, Kollin.” Riley shoved his hands in his pockets and peeked up at Kollin.

“Hey, Ri,” Kollin said, feeling dumb that he’d had an entire conversation with him a few days ago but had no clue. Riley looked completely different. He had clearly taken huge steps in his transition when he went rogue, but Riley’s new look wasn’t limited only to the steps he’d taken toward gender transformation.

Riley’s formerly brown, shaggy hair was cut shorter around the back and sides. He’d left the top longer and added the blond streaks that had grabbed Kollin’s attention in the bookstore. The piercings in his nose and lip were new, and Kollin could only remember Riley wearing modest studs in each ear. Riley’s jaw had squared some, and he’d slimmed down but bulked up in muscle. He didn’t look remotely close to the same person, but when Kollin looked carefully, he could still see Riley. His eyes hadn’t changed, and he still rubbed the tips of his fingers together when he was nervous. A trio of freckles graced the side of his neck, and Kollin recognized a faint scar on Riley’s forearm that he knew came from the time Riley thought he could jump out of a tree when he was a kid.

Kollin should have recognized his best friend. “I, uh… didn’t know you were back in town.”

Riley shrugged. “It was a last minute thing. Sorta.”

“Oh.” Cleared that right up.

After a moment of awkward silence, Adam spoke up. “Riley, this is Elijah’s and my daughter, Lizzie. Liz, Riley used to be a regular at HOPE, before he went away to college.”

“Nice to meet you.” Lizzie offered Riley a small smile and then turned to Kollin and screwed up her face, clearly expecting him to take over.

A fat lot of help she was.

Kollin scrambled for something to say. Why did you abandon me? Did I really piss you off so badly that I deserved so many years of silence? Why didn’t you tell me who you were the other day? Everything that popped into his head seemed accusatory and inappropriate for the moment. He felt so flummoxed he couldn’t even come up with a sarcastic icebreaker.

“So—”

“I—”

Kollin stopped talking so Riley could finish his sentence, but Riley must have had the same intention, and once again, the four of them stood in uncomfortable silence. Adam furrowed his brow at Kollin, but Kollin gave a tiny shake of his head. He’d figure out the mess with Riley on his own.

Adam took the hint and clapped his hands together once. “This has been fun, but I need to get back to my office and finish some work so we can get home on time. I’ll let you guys catch up.”

Seeing her opportunity, Lizzie grabbed Adam’s arm. “Can I come with you? I want to start studying for my next math test so I can get back the thing that I’m not supposed to talk about anymore.”

“Subtle, but come on.” Adam offered Riley and Kollin a wave on his way out.

Kollin slid his foot across the carpet and pushed out a chair on the opposite side of the table. He didn’t take his eyes off his old friend as Riley sat, still silent, and fiddled with his thumbs on top of the table. Strangely enough, Riley’s nervousness settled Kollin’s erratic emotions.

“So,” Kollin said. “‘You come here often’ was the best you could come up with?”

Riley spat out a laugh and looked up at Kollin through long eyelashes. “Sorry about that. I didn’t know what to do when you didn’t recognize me.”

“I think, ‘Hey, Kollin, it’s me, Riley,’ would’ve worked well.” Kollin tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice, but Riley cringed, and he knew he’d failed.

Good. Riley deserved to know he’d hurt him.

“It’s been so long… I wasn’t sure how that would go.”

“Yeah. About that. I’m assuming by the way you look that you haven’t been held captive in some dark basement without access to a phone or e-mail. Even a carrier pigeon would’ve sufficed. So….” Kollin looked hopefully at Riley and wished he would offer an explanation good enough to ease some of the resentment currently churning around in his heart. Naturally empathetic and forgiving, Kollin rarely held a grudge. But he needed some sort of explanation for being dumped.

In fact, Riley looked so pitiful sitting across from him, wringing his hands as he searched for the right words, that Kollin knew Riley could offer some lame, half-assed excuse, and he would put the entire mess behind him. But he needed something to explain why he’d lost his best friend.

Riley finally looked up and met Kollin’s eyes. “Long version might take a while, but the short of it is… I needed to get my shit together without dragging you down. I was slowly falling apart back then, and you had enough to worry about.”

Anger flooded Kollin. “Come on, Ri. That’s bullshit, and you know it. It sucked when Adam bailed, but in what world is being abandoned by you somehow better than being your friend when you needed one? I would’ve been there for you.”

Riley shrugged. “Maybe so. But it’s too late now, and there’s nothing I can say to make it better, except I’m sorry. I know now it was a shitty thing to do.”

Riley had always been difficult to read. Kollin used to think that’s why he had so much trouble making friends. Not many people were willing to make the extra effort it took to get to know him. It was a shame, really, because he was one of the kindest and funniest people Kollin had ever met. But Riley seemed to have perfected hiding his feelings over the years.

Riley’s tone and words sounded dismissive, but his slumped shoulders and constant fidgeting conveyed remorse. Kollin wanted to push Riley about why he’d left him hanging in the wind, but there had to be a better place for that conversation than the multipurpose room at HOPE.

Instead he asked, “So now that you’re presumably not falling apart, what exactly are you doing here?”

“I, um… had to talk with Dr. Maggie. I’d like to start the preparations for metoidioplasty. I need a second recommendation first.”

“Metoidio-what?”

Riley shifted in his seat and looked down at his hands. “You know. Bottom surgery.”

“Oh….” Kollin blinked. He shouldn’t have been that surprised. Riley always said he wanted both top and bottom surgery as soon as he could get it, but Kollin had trouble reconciling the man in front of him with the same Riley who had very obviously had female sex parts down below.

Kollin recovered quickly enough and genuinely smiled. “That’s fantastic, man. I’m really happy for you.”

Relief flooded Riley’s eyes, and he smiled. “Thanks, Koll.”

Kollin kicked at Riley’s shoe. “Well, now that my life isn’t in the shitter and yours seems to be going well, think you can handle being friends again?”

Riley’s cheeks tinged pink, and Kollin almost laughed. He’d never seen Riley so bashful. “Yeah. I think I can handle that.”

“Want to grab dinner tonight, then? My treat.”

“Yeah?” Riley stared at Kollin, his eyes wide. “Just like that, huh? You haven’t changed much.”

Kollin shrugged. Technically all hadn’t been forgiven, but he didn’t want to ruin their already rocky reunion. “No point in holding a grudge. Chili’s at seven?”

Riley nodded and stood. “Sounds good. I better get out of here, then.” He took a couple of steps and turned back to Kollin. “For what it’s worth… I really am sorry for going radio silent on you like that. I’ve regretted it every single day.”

Awesome. That wasn’t super cryptic at all. Kollin offered Riley his most reassuring smile—one he’d learned from Adam. “Don’t even worry about it.”

Guardian Angel by Hayden Thorne
“Ah. I see.” He paused, narrowing his eyes at me in that exaggerated way I’d seen Edgar do whenever he teased me. “Something recent, I think. Something to do with your visit with your friend a few days ago? No, no, the blush is enough to satisfy an old gossip’s curiosity.” He grinned now, eyes sparkling. “Well, I’m very pleased to know you’re now collecting happy memories during your tenure here, Mr. Coville. I’d like to think they help alleviate the tedium of keeping someone like me company—or even the dreariness of living in a place like Mandrake Abbey and its endless secrets and ghosts.”

“Oh, but I don’t find you or the abbey tedious or dreary, sir…”

“What’s your friend’s name, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Do you wish to meet him, sir?” I asked, surprised.

Mr. Knight’s smile made the air feel icy all of a sudden when I hesitated and allowed a nervous pause to draw itself out. “Dominic, what’s the gentleman’s name?”

“Mr. Knight, sir! May we have a word, please?” a man’s voice cut through the momentary silence that had fallen on our conversation.

With this the spell broke, and the hard edge that had suddenly surfaced vanished, and Mr. Knight was once again the pleasant old gentleman I’d always known. He looked around and saw one of the workmen trudging over the grass toward the elm. The big, burly shape looked almost out of place against the backdrop of the timeless abbey, and while some with more refined tastes would call him an eyesore, I was awash with relief with his sudden appearance.

“Yes, Smithers?”

“Sir, there’s a growing crack in the abbey’s foundation,” Mr. Smithers replied, a little out of breath. He barely acknowledged me with a slight nod as he stopped.

Mr. Knight hesitated. Again, I sensed something simmering below the genial surface of the man. “I’m rather occupied at the moment. Has Mr. Carradine seen it? I’ve given him authority to—”

The frantic beating of wings tore our attention away from Mr. Smithers, and I glanced around to find a raven flying past the elm in a rush of black feathers. Once it vanished from view, it cawed, tearing the general calm with its shrill cries. The unexpected disturbance rattled me, and I’d shied violently away at the sudden movement and especially the creature’s harsh calls.

“Good lord,” I breathed, making a face as I stared at the point beyond the elm’s leaves, where the raven had vanished. I’d also heard Mr. Smithers utter a low curse as he, too, was startled by the bird.

“A crack, you say? Let me look at it.” With a grunt, Mr. Knight stumbled to his feet, waving away any offer of help from either me or Mr. Smithers.

He did ask for his cane, which I quickly handed to him. Oddly enough, when before he was quite annoyed at being disturbed, he now seemed keen to remove himself from the area. And when he walked over to where Mr. Smithers stood, his pace was quick and smooth, his usual slow and almost laborious gait diminished greatly.

Before long the two men were walking back to the abbey, lost in conversation. I frowned as I watched them go, wondering why Mr. Knight was in such a mood that morning. In the end, though, all I could do was chastise myself for pushing him so much over my new sleeping and bathing arrangements.

Once they’d vanished from view, I decided to stay there for a little longer to enjoy the calm and the glorious weather and to revel once more in thoughts of Edgar.

I didn’t know how long I’d spent lost in pleasant memories, but soft, furtive movements nearby drew me back to the present. The raven had returned, it seemed, and I didn’t even notice it fly back and land just a few feet away. It hopped on the grass, pausing now and then to look at me with those bead-like eyes whose depths hinted at an unnerving kind of awareness and intelligence.

“Good morning to you, too,” I piped up, bemused. I dared not move for fear of scaring the little creature away. “It’s awfully rude of you, by the way, to frighten us half to death with your wild movements and noise.”

I smiled at it as it hopped even closer, staring hard at me as it paused now and then. When it was only about a handful of inches away from the edge of the blanket closest to me, it stopped. Only then did I notice the raven looking different—off, even. It was definitely a raven, but its feathers were a dulled black, and they looked coarse and unhealthy. The bird’s eyes had a film over them, making them look milky. The beak was rough in appearance as though it was somehow losing its natural—dare I say healthy—qualities. It even looked somewhat misshapen.

“Mr. Dominic Coville must take care,” it squawked. “Inside rock and timber, hungry shadows seek.”

My smile faded. The raven fell silent, still regarding me with inhuman intensity. Then with another shrill cry it beat its wings, and it—exploded. One large black bird suddenly burst into hundreds—no, thousands—of loud, buzzing flies that flew everywhere, spreading out and immediately disappearing, their horrible noise fading in the distance. I’d let out a small yelp of surprise and disgust, curling myself in a ball when I thought I was about to be overwhelmed by a host of those dreadful insects, but nothing came of it. The flies dispersed in the opposite direction away from the elm.

Within seconds all I could hear were my rapid, irregular breaths as I slowly calmed down. I dropped my arms from where I’d bent them above my head protectively, and I cautiously looked around, bug-eyed and drop-jawed. No, all was glorious and peaceful once again, and there was nothing anywhere that I’d just had a singularly terrifying meeting with a cursed raven—if, in fact, that creature that had warned me was a raven. I simply didn’t know.

I scrambled to my feet and ran out, almost getting myself tangled with the blanket in my haste. I looked at the sky and the surrounding countryside for signs of the swarm. Here and there, I thought I spotted dark dots flickering in their rapid flight. I was also growing aware of a lingering stench, and once I’d fixed my mind on it, the stronger and more horrible it smelled.

I grimaced. “What is that?” I whispered. “Something dead?”

I couldn’t tell, but it certainly made me think of death and even decay, which then made me think about an animal’s carcass in the process of rotting away. And yet not quite—somehow, the stink seemed a little different from what I’d grown to know as a dead animal’s. How did a decomposing human body smell? I shuddered, disgusted and also glad I didn’t know the answer to it. The smell seemed to soak the air around the elm, though, and with no breeze dissipating the stench, I was forced to hurry back in the tree’s shadows and snatch the blanket before staggering away.

I’d held my breath the whole time I jogged over the grass toward the abbey and allowed my strained lungs some valuable air again once I deemed it safe to inhale. The air was clear where I’d stopped, and I sighed in relief.

I settled my nerves there by carefully folding the blanket and thinking over the bird’s strange words. A warning? Yes, it was a warning, but it was, unsurprisingly, cryptic. Hungry shadows inside rock and timber? And they seek? Seek what? And what on earth were those shadows all about?

I stared at the abbey and its imposing façade. Ghosts? Did the cursed raven mean ghosts? Mr. Knight had referred to ghosts off-hand, even unthinkingly, over breakfast, but I’d never really thought much about it, convinced he was saying nothing more than something metaphorical in some way. Ghosts of the past had been my initial impression, but now—was he referring to something more literal? Mandrake Abbey was haunted?

I took a deep breath and hurried inside.

Murder Between the Pages by Josh Lanyon
Chapter One
Felix
The first person I spotted when I stepped into Marlborough Bookstore that blustery May afternoon was Leonard Fuller.

Which, now that I think about it, was rather remarkable given that the room was packed and Josiah Shelton had already begun speaking.

“Is the book a roman à clef? I suppose you might call it that.” Shelton said in his mellifluous voice to the spellbound audience. He was a large man. Not handsome. His iron gray hair was as wild and unkempt as a roadside hedge in winter. His pale eyes protruded in such a way that he seemed perpetually outraged, even now when he was smiling and cheerful and in his element. His nose was too long, his mouth too wide, but the overall effect was of a powerful intellect, a force to be reckoned with.

I made my way through the crowd and found a place near the back of the room.

Shelton continued, asking rhetorically, “Is it satire? No. It is a sincere effort to capture themes and motifs that have absorbed, nay, consumed me for much of my adult life.”

“Poppycock,” muttered an elderly gentleman in the row seated before me.

His female relations tried to hush him.

“Don’t you shush me,” he hissed right back. “He’s in it for the money. Trading on other people’s misfortunes, that’s what he’s done.”

It made me angry to hear him, but no one else seemed to take any notice. Anyway, Shelton didn’t have to prove anything to these people, and certainly not to this old relic who probably thought the pinnacle of Concord’s literary heritage was when Ralph Waldo Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists used to pop into the Marlborough to check on their book sales.

An unpleasant draft whispered against the back of my neck; the chilly spring breeze finding its way through the gaps in the one hundred-and-fifty-year-old mullioned windows facing the street. The crowded room smelled of wool and tobacco and ladies’ perfume, but mostly it smelled of a century’s-worth of old books.

“With two world wars behind us, who here hasn’t wondered what, if anything, lies beyond the gates of death?” Shelton asked. “Though I have the reputation of a skeptic, even a cynic, I began this project without bias.”

That wasn’t true, of course. No one was without bias. Even a great man like Shelton. In fact, it probably followed that a great man would have great biases.

Or perhaps not. But anyone who knew Shelton knew he was rather opinionated. In fact, we’d had quite an argument over practical occultism only a month ago. Shelton was a ferocious arguer and I always loved a good debate. However, I’d sensed a certain strain since, which was why I’d felt it important to come to his reading that afternoon.

I and everyone else in Concord, it seemed. We’re not Boston but we pride ourselves that we know a thing or two about books and scholarship.

I glanced at Leonard Fuller who was--very rudely--engaged in whispering conversation with Georgie Wolfe, the poetess. Women always gravitate to Fuller, which would be amusing if it wasn’t so ludicrous. His blond head bowed toward her still fairer one, and he was smirking, which is his usual expression with the fairer sex.

As though feeling my gaze, Fuller lifted his eyelashes and met my eyes. His own are a startling and azure blue. It’s a color one feels in the solar plexus -- like jumping out of a plane into cold, empty sky. Your heart seems to stop.

Fuller’s lip curled in greeting. I bared my incisors in reply.

He writes the Inspector Fez so-called mysteries under the moniker of L. F. Monarch. Inspector Fez is nothing but a pale imitation of my own Constantine Sphinx, celebrated gentleman sleuth and Egyptologist, which makes all the more laughable Fuller’s accusation that I stole the idea for The Sphinx from him.

Ha!

Happily my publisher, Mr.  James Cornell--coincidentally also Shelton’s publisher--was able to prove to the jury’s satisfaction what hogwash that was when I sued Fuller in open court for slander.

Fuller has never forgiven me--and I have never forgiven him. Which suits us both beautifully.

Of course we are bound to run into each other now and then, given the size of Concord’s literary community, but not so frequently as to make things awkward.

Fuller was once more listening with fake attentiveness to Georgia. I knew what they were discussing given Georgia’s indiscreet glances at a tall, veiled woman sitting in front of an open-backed bookshelf that towered all the way to the ceiling.

Though wedged in by people, the veiled woman maintained an air of splendid isolation.

Everyone--well, certainly those of us who had read the advance copies of Shelton’s book--knew that the character of Madam Galen was based on Lucinda Lafe, the society hostess and celebrity medium. It was either very brave or a deliberate ploy for publicity for La Lafe to show up here today.

Did that mean the Woolriches were also attending the reading?

Surely not.

I scanned the crowded seats and to my dismay spotted the stony, patrician features of Miranda Woolrich a few rows up. Beside her was Ingham, looking as faded and fragile as papyrus.

A great writer couldn’t be inhibited by other people’s feelings. He had to write the words the Muse whispered in his ear. Even so. I wished the Woolriches hadn’t attended today’s event. It was bound to be painful for them. Even more so once Fuller had finished speaking and the press began to ask their questions.

That was another thing. I hadn’t realized there would be reporters. Not including  Bill Reed of the Courant, I counted at least two other newshawks. From Boston? New York? If the New York press had resumed interest in Shelton, he truly was restored to his rightful place in the New England literary pantheon.

I risked another glance at Fuller.

Georgia had wandered away to interrupt someone else’s enjoyment of Shelton’s talk, and Fuller was now standing to the left of a marble bust of Emerson. Fuller had the kind of cinematic good looks that appeal to some people, still there was an uncanny likeness to Emerson’s profile, particularly about the nose. Their twin aquiline appendages tilted upwards as though some noxious odor had assaulted their chiseled nostrils.

Fuller was no admirer of Shelton’s--he was too egotistical to admire anyone he didn’t recognize off a reflective surface--but he could never bear to miss an opportunity to suck up to James. The free food was probably another inducement. It was hard to imagine the Inspector Fez books were still selling well.

Perhaps when the reading was over we would meet upstairs in the lending library    and exchange a few unpleasantries over the inevitable tea and cookies. I always looked forward to our skirmishes.

Meanwhile, Shelton was in fine form.

“It is easy to become a Theosophist. Any person of average intellectual capacities, and a leaning toward the metaphysical; of pure, unselfish life, who finds more joy in helping his neighbor than in receiving help himself; one who is ever ready to sacrifice his own pleasures for the sake of other people; and who loves Truth, Goodness, and Wisdom for their own sake, not for the benefit they may confer--is a Theosophist.”

God almighty he could--and did--talk.

“Mr. Shelton, do you consider yourself a Theosophist?” called someone from the audience.

The voice was male and mocking. I couldn’t make out the speaker, hidden as he was amidst the blooms of a garden’s-worth of ladies’ hats. I suspected the heckler was another reporter. We seemed to have a regular infestation of them that afternoon.

“I consider myself to be an artist,” Shelton said. “Art is its own philosophy. My only allegiance is to the written word.”

On the dais behind him, Donald Marlborough, owner of Marlborough Bookstore, James, and Viktor Merlin--who happens to be my own agent as well as Shelton’s--were beaming. They knew the book was going to do wonderfully well and make them all pots of money.

Which was excellent news given how unfairly Shelton’s last two books had been received by the reading public. Not the critics. The critics never failed to appreciate his genius. But a man couldn’t live on praise, however warm.

And speaking of warmth, it was getting stuffy. I loosened my scarf, partially unbuttoned my coat. I hated crowds, though I was glad for Shelton’s sake he was getting such a good audience.

I hoped when the time came he would not read the chapter where the first séance takes place. It was well written, naturally, but it would be impossible not to wonder what the Woolrichs felt hearing those things aloud. Yes, the book was fiction, but it was also the truth. Viktor had told me at lunch over a month ago that he believed this time for sure Shelton would surely be sued for libel.

Shelton never cared about such things. And even Viktor hadn’t seemed unduly worried. He thought the publicity would sell even more copies of the book.

“Maybe that sounds arrogant,” Shelton was saying. “But the true artist has to remove himself from the artificial restraints of a bourgeois morality.”

Fuller yawned widely.

A sigh ripple through the other latecomers standing in the back of the room with me. There were soft whispers, some shifting of weight. Shelton had been speaking for over forty minutes.  I wouldn’t have minded a drink, myself. And not tea.

BANG!

A shot rang out.

A gunshot in Marlborough Bookstore.

Shelton jerked back a step at the loud and unmistakable crack, sounding even louder and more unmistakable in the confines of the crowded room. The tang of gunpowder--no, that was cordite--cut the woolly fug that had settled over the audience.

A .32, I thought. That sounded like a .32. My wits were infuriatingly slow and sluggish. That’s what peacetime will do to you. The report of a pistol had at one time as familiar as the brassy morning bell on my alarm clock, and was now utterly, shockingly alien.

Alien and terrifying in this environment where there were so many civilians.

As I stared, still trying to assemble my thoughts, Shelton swayed, and crashed down on top of the table that had been set up for his signing. The stacks of books tumbled over, thudding, unautographed, to the floor.

Shelton landed face down atop them.

Chapter Two
Leonard
I’d like to say that I reacted with the sangfroid of Farid El Mahfouz when I heard the gunshot that killed Josiah Shelton. But on the level? I was as shocked, as stupefied as anybody else in the audience.

It didn’t help that the crowd seemed to rise as one from the sea of chairs, looking around bewilderedly for the source of the pistol report. You’d think people who had just been through a war would know better. Would hunker down. Make some effort to take cover. But nope. Men and women rose as one, gazing stupidly at each other, seeking explanation, searching for the source of all the commotion.

Except there wasn’t any commotion. Not at first. Nobody was waving a pistol around. Nobody tried to make a run for the front doors. Or even the back doors. The crowd standing at the back of the room looked as surprised and confused as everyone else.

Even Felix Day, who might be a lot of things, but is certainly wide awake, looked as blank as the first sheet in a new pack of typing paper.

Day. I’d seen him the minute he’d entered Marlborough’s. It would have been impossible to miss him, standing at the back of the room in his familiar black tweed coat, looking like an elegant scarecrow. His dark hair was too long and untidy. His scarf was stuffed in the pocket of his coat instead of wrapped around his scrawny neck. But there he stood, pale-faced and blazing-eyed as ever, nearly vibrating with intensity. No doubt imagining Shelton had stolen the idea for this latest book from him and planning his next lawsuit.

A woman in the last row of chairs, gave a little sigh and swooned away into the arms of the guy next to her.

That seemed to be the cue everyone had been waiting for. People started screaming and yelling and pointing. But the pointing was toward the platform where Shelton’s body was sprawled on a pile of books. Don Marlborough and James Cowan knelt beside him. His agent, Viktor Merlin, stood over them, literally wringing his hands.

The employees who had been upstairs preparing the refreshments, crowded down the stairway to see what was going on.

And still nobody made a play for the exits.

Don rose from Shelton’s side. He held his hands up and said, “Please! Please, everyone. Stay calm. Stay in your seats.”

Stay in your seats? With a sniper in the house?  Nobody listened. It was doubtful they even heard him over the cries of “Where did it come from?” and “Where is he?”

Lucinda Lafe called, “It came from over here. Almost beside me, I think.”

Beside her? I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been her, given the things Shelton had said about “Madam Galen” in that pseudo-novel of his.

Out of the corner of my eye I spied movement. The very thing I’d been waiting for.

Felix Day made for the front entrance of the shop, his face white and wild-eyed. His normal expression, in other words.

Day?

Well, why not Day? No surprise to me if he’d finally snapped and killed someone.

I pushed my way through the milling crowd determined to stop him from fleeing the scene of his crime. His latest crime--not counting the travesty of Mr. Sphinx Sends His Regrets.

“If you would all just take your seats again,” Don was pleading. “Ladies and gentlemen, please.”

Poor Don. Did he think we were all going to buy a book and sit down for tea and cakes after a murder had taken place? That’s the optimism of a bookseller for you.

I got through the maze of bookshelves in time to see Felix reach the front door at the same time as a large man in a gray overcoat. Preoccupied with Day, I had completely missed this other player in the unfolding drama, which was aggravating as hell.

“Sorry.” Day shoved shut the door. The bell atop gave a cheery jingle. “You can’t leave. We’ve got to wait for the police.”

He was slightly taller, but the man in the overcoat was built like a tank. He calmly sized Day up. “Who’re you?”

Day squared his shoulders. “I’m not here in any official capacity, that’s true. It doesn’t change the fact that a man has been murdered and no one can leave the scene of the crime.”

As usual, using three words for every necessary one--and still failing to answer the question.

“That’s not what I asked,” the large man said. His hair was brown. His eyes a light, indeterminate color. He fixed them on Day with a hard, level look. “I asked you your name.”

Day’s jaw grew stubborn. I wouldn’t doubt there was a mule somewhere in that family tree; I know there’s an ass. But as he glared at the man in the overcoat, his expression altered indefinably. “Felix Day,” he admitted.

“Well, Felix Day, I am the police. I’m Captain Harp of the Concord Police. I’m going to need your assistance. I tried to phone from Marlborough’s office, but there’s no one on the switchboard. I’ll need you to stand here and guard this door while I go for help.”

The bell jingled as Harp yanked open the door and went out, and to my astonishment, Felix let him leave without so much as a peep.

“What the hell?” I said as I reached him. “You let him go?”

Day seemed almost distracted as he replied, “He’s with the police.”

“Are you kidding me? That’s the oldest trick in the book!” I grabbed the door handle--and Felix grabbed my arm with bony but surprisingly strong fingers.

He was scowling--which is his usual expression with me--and I scowled back.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” he said.

“If you don’t want a punch in the nose, let go my arm,” I warned him.

“Just try it.” Felix’s black eyes were narrow and hostile. Again, perfectly normal for him. “Where were you when that shot went off?”

“Me?” I gaped at him. “That shot came from the back of the room. As you very well know.”

“I don’t know any such thing.”

“Where were you? That’s the question.”

His eyes blazed. “Had I been planning to shoot anyone today, it wouldn’t have been Josiah Shelton.”

“Oh, very nice!” I retorted. “Well, maybe you missed and shot Shelton by mistake.”

“I don’t miss.”

“That’s not what the critics say.”

Day’s face turned a nice healthy red.

“Gentlemen! Please!” Mr. Kent, the floor manager, bustled up to us. He’s a small, plump man with small plump hands and a small plump mouth. His hair is as fine and pale as corn silk. “Mr. Marlborough says no one may leave. Please take your seats again.”

“Did you see the guy who just left?” I demanded.

“Someone left?” Alarmed, Kent peered through the window at the swiftly retreating gray overcoat. He relaxed. “That’s Captain Harp.”

“He’s a cop? You’re sure?”

Kent’s frown faded as he studied my face.  “Oh, Mr. Fuller. It’s you. I didn’t recognize you for a moment. Yes, yes. That gentleman is with the Concord Police Department. I know him well. An excellent customer. Mostly non-fiction, though he does collect first editions of the Romantic poets.”

“So he is a real cop.”

It wasn’t actually a question, but Mr. Kent said, “Oh, yes!” He smiled. It was a wobbly sort of smile. “For all the good it’s done. If only your own brilliant Inspector Fez had been on the scene when this terrible thing happened.”

Day snorted.

I ignored him. “What about the back entrance, Mr. Kent? Is anyone watching to make sure no one slips out through the basement?”

Mr. Kent  shook his head. “I don’t think so. I don’t believe most customers know that there is a back entrance.”

“Leave it to you to be familiar with the back entrance of any establishment,” Day observed.

I managed to ignore him that time too, though it wasn’t easy, and turned away to push my way back through the crowd to the main room.

“Len, what has happened?” Georgia cried, reaching out to me.

She’s a poet. They’re congenitally unable to accept the obvious. Always looking for another meaning. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar--and sometimes a gun is just a gun.

“Murder, my sweet,” I threw over my shoulder.

I paused by the staircase and tried to see what was happening on the platform. Only a couple of minutes had passed since that single shot had been fired. People crowded around the dais making it difficult to see. What wasn’t happening was resuscitation. That I’d known the minute Shelton landed on the floor. I’d seen too many guys die to mistake that broken flop. And even if I hadn’t, the look on Don’s face had said it all.

How had the thing been managed?

It didn’t seem possible anyone could have escaped out the front. The bell over the door would have alerted us all to any attempt to exit. No one had tried to run upstairs--and where would they go anyway?

That left the basement.

Or…the murderer was still in this room.

No. I was betting on the basement. I left Georgina talking to air, and ducked down the stairs to the basement, taking them fast.

At the foot of the staircase was a long poorly lit hallway lined with three wooden doors. Having been down here on numerous occasions, I knew that one room was Don’s office and one room was the toilet. Both were unlocked and both were empty. The third door led to the basement.

It was also unlocked and swung soundlessly open onto a large room lined with shelves stacked with bins. The bins were full of new books and labeled with the printed names of publishers.

An interior swinging door led onto yet another room.

I pushed through the swinging door and found myself in a long narrow room filled with packing boxes, paper, string. A single light burned from a bare bulb positioned over a large table.

At the end of the room a woman in a silver fur coat and veiled green hat was frantically tugging at the door handle.

Santa Baby by Heidi Cullinan
December 19, 2015
Logan, Minnesota, belonged on the front of a Christmas card.

A set of cards, actually, and as the thought expanded in Dale Davidson’s mind, he stepped away from the Winter Wonderland festivities to make a voice note on his phone. He took a few photos as well, examples to put in his ever-growing portfolio of ideas for how to turn sleepy Logan into a tourist destination.

He’d come to the small northern Minnesota town both as a favor to his longtime friend Marcus Gardner and as a straight-up business opportunity. Tiny hamlets like this, dressed up and spun the right way, could mean big tourist traffic for local businesses and investment money for the developers that helped the municipalities get those coveted visitor dollars. He saw a lot of potential profit in Logan.

Of course, because it was a small town, there’d already been trouble, chiefly at the informal city council meeting the other night, when a group calling themselves the Concerned Citizens for Logan had burst in and accused Dale of pushing a “homosexual agenda.” As irony would have it, this was in fact a bit of why he was here. If Logan was LGBT friendly, it’d be more attractive to Twin City tourists. Marcus and his friends had managed to make this sleepy village unusually gay-friendly—or so Dale had thought until the Concerned Citizens had appeared. The city leaders had worked overtime ever since then to convince Dale the naysayers were nothing but an aberration, that Logan was ready for this project and the vast majority of its citizens were fully onboard.

No one had worked harder, though, than Gabriel Higgins, Logan’s librarian. He had pulled Dale aside the day after the meeting and launched into a long speech about his own experience moving to Logan from Minneapolis. He’d explained the difference between Logan and his hometown of Roseau, Minnesota, making it clear Dale wasn’t to paint all small towns with the same brush. All this was impressive enough. But then he’d pulled out a binder of research and grants on LGBTQIA youth and adults in rural areas, statistics on how little development was being done in those places, and projections on how much good attention and effort was believed to do for that population. This was presented in a fat three-ring binder, which he’d given Dale a forty-five minute tour of before sending him home with the same. Gabriel had made it clear he could fill three more volumes with as many bits of data Dale required to be convinced of Logan’s worthiness.

Everyone on the city council and chamber of commerce had come up to Dale all day during the Winter Wonderland festival to make sure he hadn’t been too put off by the Concerned Citizens’ theatrics. They seemed sure Kyle Parks’s clever snow sculptures or Gabriel’s carefully delivered opening speech, or possibly Mrs. Jessup’s delicious, state-fair-winning Lussekatter had been what convinced Dale to continue the Christmas Town project and not back away slowly from the potential headache the Concerned Citizens had shown him. The truth was none of these things had swayed him. Thirty percent had been the mayor’s promise he’d pass local legislation if he had to in order to keep the riffraff at bay, which had kept Dale’s hand in. Seventy percent, however, had been Gabriel Higgins. His binder full of data. His passion.

And the fact that Dale found him incredibly attractive.

All of Marcus’s gay friends were a buffet of handsome and cleverness, but Gabriel in particular drew Dale. His wittiness, his devotion to causes he believed in, even his occasional awkwardness was endearing to Dale. Unfortunately Dale had missed his chance with the man by a year and some change, because Gabriel was also engaged, as were all the gay men in Logan, apparently. Normally when Dale felt an attraction this strong, he would push a bit, hoping perhaps the object of his affection was also polyamorous or at least open to hearing a pitch about joining his ranks. However, he wasn’t in Logan to complicate his friend’s life with his unconventional concept of relationships. He was here to develop the town’s tourist interests. End scene.

This didn’t mean he stopped pining for Gabriel, especially as he took his photos during the festival and discovered Arthur and Gabriel in one of his frames. They were thirty feet away from him: a tall male figure with glasses and a mop of curly hair smiling and holding a bag of something as he bent to kiss a shorter man with red hair and a full beard beneath a tall, wide-limbed tree draped with snow. Dale quickly snapped a photo, smiling to himself. He lowered the phone and pulled up the image, cropping it and editing the brightness and sharpness and adding a filter to make it the sort of image the two of them could use in their engagement announcements, if they wanted.

He had it pretty much perfect and was about to save it when a text-notification bubble drifted over the screen, and he hit it instead of the DONE button. The text, Dale noted with a riot of emotions, mostly negative, a few slightly anticipatory, was from Ronny.

Ronny Morgan: When are you done with Mayberry?

Dale rubbed his thumb along the side of his phone case, arguing with himself about how to respond and whether or not he should at all.

He’d gone six months without this relationship, except for the aberration at the company Christmas party last weekend. He couldn’t even call Ronny his ex. They had…hooked up. Kinky, intense, power-play hooking up, which initially had been fun. But it had gotten weird, uncomfortable, borderline seriously not okay, especially after last Christmas, so he’d ended it. Or rather, he’d tried to end it, an effort which had become so much easier once he’d broken away from Kivino Enterprises to form Davidson Incorporated. He was still a subsidiary, still worked for the same CEO, but he and Ronny were in different office complexes now, on different sides of the metro area. All he had to do was ignore any of the man’s texts that weren’t about work. Which he had done without issue.

Until he’d had too many glasses of champagne and let Ronny put his hands on him in the hallway while he waited for an elevator at the Christmas party. Until he’d sent a mixed signal instead of a firm not interested. And now here he was, unable to know if Ronny was texting him about work or trying to start something up again.

And how like him to not let me know which direction in the opening text.

The only way to find out was to engage, so Dale tapped a reply. Not sure. Why?

His heart thudded as he waited for the answer, and it sank, twisted and confused, when it came.

Need to make sure I give you your Christmas present.

Dale put his phone in his pocket without replying and did his best to erase thoughts of Ronny from his mind. He’d made a mistake to engage. The odds of Ronny having anything work related to say to him were low, and nothing would have been to do with the Logan project. It was Dale’s sole focus at the moment. It needed to remain that way.

Think about Logan, he reminded himself. Logan is why you’re here.

He mentally indexed the notes he’d made last night, the ones he’d put right on top of Gabriel’s. But his mind was jumbled, thrown by Ronny’s interjection into this safe, idyllic space. His phone buzzed against his thigh, jolts of sensation flicking him repeatedly to make Dale do what Ronny wanted. Pulling him into the shadows, laughing as he pushed him—

Dale shook his head roughly, dispersing the image. He settled his gaze on Gabriel and Arthur once more, letting himself appreciate how prettily slender and tall Gabriel was as he frowned at the bag, how handsome and strong Arthur seemed as he waved his arms and spoke animatedly to his fiancé. Dale didn’t consciously decide to start walking toward them, but he didn’t stop himself once he realized what he’d done. They didn’t appear to be doing something they’d mind him interrupting, and he desperately needed a distraction right now.

When they saw Dale, they smiled at him, waved, and then Gabriel sighed and gestured helplessly at what Dale saw now was a brown bag of steaming chestnuts.

“Do you have any idea how to eat these?” Gabriel held them toward him. “I bought them from a local vendor because I was trying to be polite, and now I have this bag of too-hot nuts I don’t know what to do with.”

Dale tugged his gloves from his fingers and tucked them in his pocket before withdrawing a nut from the top of the sack. “My grandparents had a chestnut tree on their farm in Wisconsin when I was growing up. They’re rare in the United States, though this wasn’t always the case. A blight in the early twentieth century wiped almost all of them out. They’re doing what they can to repopulate them with a strain strengthened by an Asian variety, but it’s going to take a long time to get back what we lost.” He peeled one edge of the tough husk with a skill honed by years. The chestnuts hadn’t been sliced through quite enough before they were roasted, and he had to get his pen knife out of his pocket to help them along the rest of the way. “Chestnuts are universal. Armies have survived sieges on them. They’re part of special celebrations the world over and have been for centuries. Millennia, even.”

He could feel Gabriel soaking in the story as only a librarian could. “I’ve always thought it was odd how we had a holiday song about them but we didn’t know what they were. Now I understand why. I should have thought to look them up sooner.”

Arthur leaned on a tree, watching idly as Dale peeled. “My great-grandpa talked about eating chestnuts at Christmas. I wonder where these came from, if they’re so rare.

“They’re starting to make a comeback, but demand far outstrips supply.” Dale discarded one side of the husk and worked off the other side as well. “Different cultures have different legends about chestnuts.” He sliced it in half to give them each a taste, passing the first half to Arthur, holding it out to drop it into his gloved hand. “In Japan they’re used to celebrate the New Year, symbolizing both hard times and success.” He extended the second half to Gabriel, but he was caught up listening, clutching the bag with both hands. Possessed by devilry, Dale didn’t give the librarian time to extricate himself and popped the meat into Gabriel’s mouth instead. “The early Christians believed they symbolized chastity.”

Oh, but Dale liked the way the remark made Gabriel blush. He knew he needed to diffuse the flirt, though, to let Arthur know he wasn’t actually making a play for his man.

Except Arthur only snorted and gave Dale a heavy wink, chestnut meat poking between his teeth as he reached into the bag for another nut. He swept the half Dale had peeled for him into his mouth with a wicked swipe of his tongue and bit into it smartly, giving it a few chews before replying. “Put us down for Japan, sweetheart.”

Arthur peeled the chestnut, mimicking Dale’s technique, holding his hand out for the pocketknife when the nut failed to comply as it had for Dale. Dale handed the tool over without a word, though he did note the way Arthur needlessly caressed his fingers as he collected the implement. Dale stroked his beard, trying to check his flicker of interest and stick to his earlier conviction Logan wasn’t the place for such things. Especially with practically married men in Logan. Especially with practically married men whose fiancés were standing right fucking next to him.

Hoping for a reminder of why he should behave, he glanced at Gabriel—only to find Gabriel studying him with the same wary, careful gaze.

Wary, careful, tentatively interested gaze.

The world shifted beneath Dale’s feet.

Arthur sliced the chestnut, carving it into thirds and splitting it between the three of them. He popped his part into his mouth, fed Gabriel the same way Dale had, and he did the same for Dale, though he took care to be extra sensual with his delivery of Dale’s portion. “A shame we don’t get chestnuts here too often, then. There’s no reason they should be so rare, except they’re not planted. Sounds like all they need to thrive is a bit of science, some common sense, and some care.”

It was all simple enough, what he was saying, and yet Dale had never felt as if tree talk could strip him naked. He was working out how to call Arthur out and ask if he was getting propositioned with a bag of nuts and for what, exactly, when Gabriel whispered in a warning tone, “Arthur.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “I was being cool, until you had to go and point it out.”

Gabriel blushed as if someone had been roasting him on an open fire. He tucked the bag of chestnuts to his chest and pressed a mitten to his face. “Stop, you’re making it worse.”

Ignoring him, Arthur turned to Dale, the seduction veil lowered, though not entirely dropped. “Look. Let’s be real. You’ve been giving both of us eyes one way or another.”

“Oh my God.” Gabriel tried to make himself shorter.

Arthur patted him on the back and kept going. “And you’re a tall drink of water, I’ll grant you. So let’s cut to the chase. You just flirting, or you interested?”

Stick to the plan. Tell him no. Except Dale’s gaze kept tugging to poor Gabriel, who was mortified at Arthur’s blunt approach. “Very interested. But I don’t know if it’s such a good idea, starting something in a small town.”

His reply leached some of the tension from Gabriel. Arthur, however, seemed annoyed. “Oh, hell, that doesn’t matter. It’s not as if we’re gonna fuck on the city square or anything.”

Gabriel rounded on Arthur, looking ready to do murder. But when he raised his hand as if to strike, Arthur caught his wrist in a lightning-fast strike, grinning as he held him captive with a wink.

Dale’s dick got a little hard, especially when Arthur raised an eyebrow at him. “You want to come play with us sometime before you leave for the Cities?”

Dale glanced around. They were in full view of the town, but they were slightly separated, off on a snowy knoll behind the farthest ring of shops. It was risky and surreal. He reminded himself of all the reasons he should say no.

But Jesus, Gabriel and Arthur were one hell of a distraction from those reasons. Gabriel’s pretty curls and the memory of what Arthur’s tongue did to a piece of meat. Dale’s thigh buzzed again, but Ronny’s texts were no more annoying than a gnat at this point, because he had other, better prospects now. Ronny could fuck himself with his present.

Dale cleared his throat. “What type of play are we talking?”

Arthur’s dark chuckle made Dale’s knees waver, and when Arthur stepped close enough to run a subtle hand up his arm, Dale’s legs buckled, however briefly. “I don’t know, son. Why don’t you tell me what you like?”

Dale’s blood rushed to his groin, but enough of it lingered in his brain to remind him of Gabriel’s nerves. They had to quit doing this out in the open. But part of him feared if they went anywhere private right now, Arthur would start something immediately. Dale paused, struggling to remember why exactly that was a bad thing.

He cleared his throat. “I’m pretty open-minded. Discretion is my bottom line, though. I’m not interested in being the subject of local gossip.”

“Then it sounds as if we’re all of the same mind.” Arthur’s thumb massaged at Dale’s elbow. “When do you leave town?”

With this prospect on the table, Dale was willing to stay through the New Year. “I’m flexible. I largely work remotely at this point, so I can stay in Logan as long as I’m needed here, or check in from the Cities. I have engagements tonight, tomorrow, and Monday night, but beyond then I’m free.”

“We’re booked Tuesday, but Wednesday we’re open. How about you come over to our place? Show us your chestnuts.”

It was Gabriel’s curls, Dale decided. They’d hypnotized him. He stared at them, cock throbbing a happy hum in his pants as Arthur stroked his arm, and he threw his common sense out the window. “What time?”

“Six-ish? We’ll feed you first.” Arthur chuckled and swatted Dale’s butt. “Wisconsin boy like you must eat venison, right?”

Dale kept his attention on Gabriel, who was long and lean and graceful as a gazelle. “Oh yeah. Anytime I can get it.”

“Great. See you then.”

Arthur linked arms with Gabriel and his bag of chestnuts and led him away.

Gabriel glanced over his shoulder, mortified, flustered…and eager.

Dale adjusted himself as discreetly as he could, relieved the phone in his pocket had finally gone quiet. God in heaven, but he wished it were Wednesday.

*****

As the Winter Wonderland festival wound to its successful close, Arthur stood at the back of the old elementary gym with his fiancé, family, and friends, and soaked it in.

An older, former school on the other side of town had been turned into low-rent apartments, but this place had been where Arthur went to school until Logan’s enrollment had dipped low enough they’d had to consolidate with Pine Valley. Now this structure was the city council building and general catch-all meeting place for any and every event Logan couldn’t fit in the American Legion or a church. Tonight Marcus’s friends Laurie and Ed led Logan’s finest in the waltz, rumba, and, at the moment, were giving the room a tango demonstration.

Arthur watched this from the side of the room, and beside him stood two new friends, Spenser and Tomás, whom Laurie and Ed had spoken of last year and had managed to coax up for the festival this time. They’d brought their son, Duon, and Tomás’s parents and his nieces and nephews. They’d had reservations, apparently, about coming up to such a small town, worried about prejudice and discrimination, as Spenser was the single white person in their entire crew, but by all accounts they’d had nothing but a wonderful time all day. Renata, Tomás’s mother, had fallen in love with the craft fair and engaged in a lengthy discussion of knitting techniques with one of the sellers who, by some miracle, knew Spanish. Tomás’s father, José, and Arthur’s best friend and business partner, Paul, had been huddled together for the last half hour, Paul struggling to resurrect his high school Spanish and José dredging up his best English so they could have a serious discussion about the Minnesota Wild’s chances for the playoffs this hockey season. And the kids had a fantastic time because it was a festival and there were a million kid things to do and a Santa to visit in “his real house,” Arthur had heard them whisper to each other.

It felt good to be having a festival in his hometown. He missed these kinds of community events. When he was a kid, it happened all the time. The Memorial Day bonfire. The Fourth of July parade and celebration in the park, with the fireworks at dusk. The parade had stopped happening when he was really young, but he had a dim memory of standing on a curb beside his mom, stamping his feet and dancing in time to the beat of the bass drum. The bass line had fascinated him. His mom had told him when he was older he could be in band if he wanted, and he could be the one to carry the drum, and he couldn’t wait. Except by the time he got to school not only was the parade gone, so was the marching band. They barely had a music program at all now.

The tango demonstration ended, and the room erupted in applause. After Laurie and Ed took their bows, Laurie grabbed the mic from the stage behind him.

“Thank you so much for coming to the Winter Wonderland festival. Logan is such a wonderful town, and I know I speak for Ed and so many of us when I say we love any excuse we can get to come here and support your library, the Pine Valley Children’s Home, and so many other great causes. In a moment we’re going to announce the total raised, but first, let me thank—”

He cut off as Arthur’s mother, Corrina, leaned over and whispered in his ear. He nodded, then resumed speaking. “I want to thank everyone who has donated their time and resources today, particularly Kyle Parks for his stunning ice sculptures in the city center. I understand he stayed up all night finishing some of the pieces. So don’t miss your chance to thank him for his hard work, and remember, the best thanks you can give him is to make a donation to the Logan Library or to the Winter Wonderland Foundation. You can find links and addresses for those at the website, at the library itself, or in the back of the room on flyers near the cake, which I must warn you is almost gone. And we will announce the amount donated today, but before we do, we have to wait for the mayor. So until then, what do you say to a little more dancing?”

The room erupted in cheers and applause, though Arthur couldn’t help noticing Tomás, who was standing beside him and juggling a weary six-year-old, frowned. “Ed can’t keep dancing,” he said to Spenser. “He was pushing it to tango as it was.”

Arthur wondered why Ed couldn’t dance, then remembered the former semipro football player was former because he’d had a serious neck injury.

Spenser bit the corner of his lip. “You could dance with him, yes? Or Duon?”

Duon held up his hands. “No way. I ain’t dancing in front of all these white people.”

Tomás shifted the sleepy boy in his arms. “Where’s my mom? If I can pass off Ashton, I can get over there.”

“Here, give him to me.” Spenser held out his arms.

“He’s heavy.” Tomás jostled the boy gently. “Buddy, you’re big enough to stand. Let Uncle Spenser take you to Abuela, okay?”

But before they could get any further in their plans, Laurie continued speaking. “I’d like to do something different this time. You’re familiar, I’m sure, with the dollar dance at weddings, where the guests pay a dollar to dance with the happy couple? We’ll do a variation of it now. Ed will collect the money, and the dancers will be me…” he made brief eye contact with Tomás, who nodded, “…Tomás Jimenez, from my studio in St. Paul, and of course your librarian, Gabriel Higgins.”

Gabriel stiffened, choked on his sip of hot cider, and turned to Arthur with a wide, terrified gaze.

Arthur patted Gabriel on the back and took the cup from his hands. “You can do it, baby. You’re a great dancer. Anyway, all you gotta do is stand there and smile.”

Gabriel still looked rattled. “They could have asked me.”

“I imagine this was Laurie punting on the fly, trying to make it seem planned. Dollars to donuts he apologizes after for putting you on the spot.” He pulled his fiancé closer to plant a kiss on his cheek. “Hon, it’s gonna be ninety percent little kids coming up to you anyway.” He winked and shifted his hand to grip Gabriel’s butt. “And me.”

“You’re right.” Gabriel sighed. “I suppose I should get out there and do my civic duty or whatever this is.” He leaned into Arthur’s touch, bending slightly to speak into his ear. “But if I’m beset by Concerned Citizens for Logan or anything else unpleasant, I fully expect you to come rescue me.”

“Always, honey. Always.”

Arthur clapped with the rest of the town as Gabriel joined the other celebrity dancers, but nobody beamed with pride the way he did over the town librarian. Everyone queued up to dance with the gentlemen, but the line to Gabriel was longest and mostly filled with children clutching dollar bills and bouncing on their heels, smiling and staring wide-eyed at Arthur’s fiancé as if he had personally hung every star in the sky. Linda Kay, Kyle’s twin sister who had Down’s syndrome, hesitated at Gabriel’s line, but opted in the end for Tomás, waggling her eyebrows at Kyle when he came forward and quietly admonished her to behave herself during her dance. “I’ll be good,” she promised. “But he’s sure a sexypants.”

Arthur joined Gabriel’s line out of loyalty, though he did agree with Linda Kay.

Kyle stayed with his sister, apparently not trusting her to keep her promise, but Kyle and Arthur’s lines processed in parallel, so they chatted as they went.

“Too bad Laurie didn’t call up your mom or someone,” Kyle observed. “It’s all women in these lines, except for us. Women and kids.”

Arthur studied the sea of people waiting and saw Kyle was correct. “I guess this is the downside to him only knowing a bunch of gay men in a small town? I don’t know. Something tells me he’s killing time. I don’t think he had the luxury of forethought here.”

Kyle grinned. “I wished he’d have asked me. I would have suggested Penny Mattherson.”

Arthur scratched his chin, trying to think of why she sounded familiar. “Penny Mattherson. She’s Bob Mattherson’s sister, right? Went out with Ottie Johnson back in the day?”

“Yep. Right up until she acknowledged she was a lesbian instead.”

Arthur laughed. “So you wanted to have a full rainbow coalition on the dance floor?”

“Well, sure, but three gay men and one lesbian would hardly be a full representation.” Kyle sighed wistfully. “I keep thinking of what Dale said at the city council meeting, about how we could be a draw because we’re queer. I know it’s not that simple, but I’d love to make even a little of it happen.”

“It’s not as if we don’t already have a rainbow up here. We just have to gather it in…whatever you gather rainbows in. We should have a monthly LGBT supper club or something.”

“That’s a good idea.” Dale Davidson’s bright voice boomed over them, and Arthur and Kyle turned to find him standing in line with them.

“Oh, hi, Dale.” Kyle shrugged. “I’d love to have a group, but I don’t have time to organize it, and my schedule sucks. Maybe once I get to take my new shift, though it won’t be a whole lot better. Besides, where would we have it?”

“They meet all over.” Dale gestured to the gym around them. “Here would be a good place, though it might be big. Council room might be a bit stale, but it would work.”

“Or the library.” Arthur wanted it to be the library, actually, mostly because of family pride. “Maybe it could rotate. Because when the weather’s nice, we could have it out at our place.” He could see it in his mind’s eye. Picnic tables set up on the ridge, him and Marcus working the grill, Gabriel chatting with the guests. God, he wanted to have them all over now. When they had the remodel done, they’d have room for that kind of thing inside the house too. Of course, once they started fostering, they’d also be full of kids. Which was good. He wanted kids. Watching Spenser and Tomás wrestle their brood, however, had made him quietly glad they’d agreed on older kids only.

Hopefully kids less moody than Tomás’s eldest niece, who was off in the corner weeping over something with her abuela. For what had to be the eighth time.

This hour.

Kyle frowned at Dale, glancing at him and then at the two queues forming on either side of him. “Are you in line, or…?”

Dale looked sheepish. “You caught me. I came up to talk to you guys in hopes I could slip in. I tried to get over here earlier, but those kids are fast. And they’ve cut off Gabriel’s line.”

Arthur bit back a grin as he gestured to the space in front of him. “Be my guest.”

Dale inclined his head. “Thank you.”

They were nearly to Gabriel now, and Arthur made eye contact with his fiancé, getting a smile and a wave in return. Dale got a smile and a blush, and when Dale and Kyle got to chatting about the ins and outs of how to start up a local LGBT support group, Arthur noticed Gabriel’s gaze kept sliding over to Dale, mapping the muscles of Davidson’s chest through his sweater.

Arthur grinned. This was so much more fun to think about than whether or not he was biting off more than he could chew by signing on to be a parent.

Last night in bed they’d had the best sex they’d had in a long time while Arthur demanded Gabriel admit how much he was attracted to Dale. His fiancé had been stealing glances at the man ever since he’d shown up Wednesday night, and once Gabriel admitted he thought the guy was handsome, Arthur couldn’t resist taking the fantasy to the extreme, teasing Gabriel until, in the throes of passion, he acknowledged he wanted to be fucked by Dale. Because they were playing, Arthur had pretended to threaten to call the man up and tell him, then settled for giving Gabriel a sound spanking instead.

Dale Davidson was fucking hot, and he turned both Gabriel and Arthur’s cranks. He was almost as tall as Gabriel, but he was as wide as Arthur. He was blond, but a dull, dark blond, not the shiny light blond of Marcus’s fiancé, Frankie. He had a granite jaw covered in a neatly trimmed full beard and mustache. His eyes were a soft blue, reminding Arthur of the Minnesota sky in summer. Paul had said Dale was like a combo between Chris Evans’s Captain America and the Brawny paper towel man, and all this was truth. He looked as if he could bench-press a mountain, but he’d hold a door for you while he did it.

The man was a certified flirt with everyone from little old ladies to the stodgiest of councilmen, but whenever he flirted with Gabriel, he made a point to acknowledge Arthur as well so he knew Dale didn’t have any dishonorable intentions on his man. He did this now as he danced with Gabriel, not settling for simply dancing in place with him as the children had but instead showing off his moves as he spun Gabriel around the floor, eliciting catcalls and laughter from the audience. Gabriel blushed and did his best to keep up, but he appeared to be having the time of his life.

Dale gazed at Gabriel as if he wanted the next spin to take them into a bedroom, but then he’d wink at Arthur, the gesture telegraphing, Don’t worry, man, I won’t.

Too bad the guy didn’t know Arthur wouldn’t mind one bit, so long as Gabriel came home again once they were finished.

Dale Davidson was handsome and polished, with all the city ways that gave Logan residents a thrill, but he was honest folks too. At least six different people had said as much to Arthur while Dale visited in the final preparation for the Winter Wonderland festival. Dale was a charmer, but he was a pleaser above all. Odds were good he’d carry that attitude into bed as well.

Oh, hell yes, Arthur wanted this experience for Gabriel. And he was going to make sure his baby got it. Arthur thought about how good they looked together dancing now, how good they’d look fucking on Wednesday night. He thought, too, about what a pretty picture Dale would make on his knees. Captain America/Brawny Man could fit into one hell of a submission fantasy.

When Dale’s turn ended, he brought Gabriel back to his station to a round of applause, and passed him, breathless and flushed, into Arthur’s arms. Arthur accepted his fiancé’s embrace with a grin.

“Nice moves there, buddy.” He winked and drew Gabriel close, leading him in a slow, simple sway. “Bring them Wednesday.”

With a grin, Dale saluted and disappeared into the crowd. But Arthur watched him go, and Gabriel had his eyes on him too.

Oh yeah. Wednesday was going to be all kinds of interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eat,” Saul ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“After what Sarah did to him—”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ryan!”

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

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

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

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

Still no sign of Justin coming back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I talk to you?” Justin asked.

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

“Not here, not now. I’ll text you.”

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

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

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

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

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

For information purposes only, obviously.

“Hey,” Ryan said, abruptly very unsure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the hell? Where did that come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, it’s okay. Follow me.”

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

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

“How will you film outside scenes without coats?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for coming.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about him?”

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

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

Too many secrets.

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“Need him,” Ryan finished.

“Yeah.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He couldn’t.

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

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

If only it was that easy.

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

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

And likely rip families apart in the process.

Nicolas by Dianne Hartsock
JAMIE STARTLED awake. “What?”

He had trouble breathing, the crushing weight on his chest seeming to have followed him up from his dreams. But that couldn’t be right. He’d rented the cabin for its isolation. No one should be there. Did he still dream?

A warm breath brushed against his cheek, sending a shiver of dread and strange anticipation through him. “Easy, baby,” a silky voice whispered in the darkness. Sharp teeth nipped his earlobe and pleasure and pain sparked along his nerves. His eyes adjusted to the moonlight filtering through the sheer curtains, and he stared in amazement at the man gazing at him with wild green eyes, long pale hair, high cheekbones and a slender neck he craved to run his tongue along.

The stranger laid his weight on him, driving the air from his lungs and making Jamie struggle for every breath. Shifting position, the man sealed his full lips over Jamie’s, drawing a long groan from Jamie when an impossibly large cock slid against his. In sudden panic he reached to shove his unknown visitor away and touched hot skin and lean muscles. Of their own volition his hands roamed lower, following the curve of the stranger’s back to the rounded swell of his ass. He drew a quick breath and the man laughed into his mouth, pushed his tongue deep, thrusting inside to match the movement of his hips as he ground against Jamie’s aching dick.

Heat pooled in Jamie’s stomach. God, what was happening? The thing in his bed looked like a man, but his every instinct shouted otherwise. His skin was warm when it should have been cold from being outside. And how had he gotten in? All the windows and doors were locked tight against the winter storm. It was as if he’d just materialized in Jamie’s bed. “Who—”

He cried out when a hand pushed between them and grabbed their cocks, stroking them together until he lost the ability to think. So close! He grabbed the man’s firm ass and yanked him tighter against him, rising up to shove into his strong grip.

The triumphant hiss in his ear shot ice through his veins. “So naughty.”

“No!” Jamie struggled to sit up, scrambling back against the headboard. He blinked, finding himself alone in the room, only his ragged breaths disturbing the silence of the cabin. A forgotten anxiety knotted his stomach. Naughty. He hated that word, tossed about by the boys he once knew in school. The ones he’d suck off behind the gym, desperate for a gentle hand in his hair, balm against his loneliness. He’d been terrified his parents would find out he was different, that he liked girl things and found boys much more exciting than he should. They would know he was gay and there would be hell to pay for their freak of a son.

He scrubbed a hand over his face. God, that had been ages ago. The last shreds of the dream dissipated, and he reached for the bedside light, fumbling in the darkness for the switch. Low light stung his eyes and he blinked at the empty bedroom, unable to believe the attack hadn’t been real.

He flung off the heavy quilts and slid to his feet, clinging to the post at the foot of the bed as a wave of dizziness struck him. Laughter from the other room jolted him. Heart pounding, he bolted for the door and it crashed into the wall as he flung it open. The reddish glow from the banked fire on the hearth lit the main room of the cabin, though the kitchen area remained in shadows.

Jamie’s gaze swept the rooms, focusing on the dark corners. No one jumped out at him. Nobody sat on the couch. His coffee cup remained undisturbed where he’d left it on the hearth. Of course. The cabin was isolated, miles from the nearest neighbor. Who would bother to come way out there, especially with the threat of another snowstorm on the way?

He ran a trembling hand through his hair, pushing the sweat-drenched bangs from his forehead. Christ, the dream had seemed so real. The cold of the great room finally registered, creeping up from the hardwood flooring. Shaking, he crossed to the fireplace and stirred up the coals, adding another log.

With a sigh, he sank into the cushions of the worn couch and pulled the woolen afghan up around his bare shoulders. The log caught and the fire crackled, sparks dancing up the flue. Recalling his dream and the hard body against his, he shrugged when his cock perked up.

“It’s been a while,” he acknowledged, watching the flames lick at the oak log. He’d signed a year’s lease on the cabin, right after catching his boyfriend in the stairwell of their apartment building, making out with their neighbor. It hadn’t been the first time, either, though again Patrick had his apologies ready. That had been over six months ago, and since the cabin stood miles over rough terrain from the nearest town, he’d rarely seen another human being in all that time.

“Just the way I like it,” he told the indifferent fire burning its way through the wood. But the stranger’s lips in his dream had been soft, his thrusting tongue sweet in Jamie’s mouth. He hadn’t liked the violent aspect of the dream, but if that had been a lover in his bed? His dick pressed against his thigh, and Jamie reached under the heavy blanket, moaning when he took its heavy weight in his hand. Drawing lazy circles on his balls, he let the pleasure build slowly, lifting his cock while in his mind the stranger licked the glistening head, his pale gold hair a curtain of silk against Jamie’s sensitive skin. He moaned as the man slid his tongue down the thick vein on the underside of his cock.

His mind flitted over the question of whether the guy would fuck him or want it the other way around. Didn’t matter to him. He liked it both ways. Rolling to his back, Jamie continued to stroke himself while he tugged his tight balls, then pressed a finger against his hole. He remembered the lube in the nightstand drawer by the bed, but he wasn’t about to stop, and hissed when he pushed the finger inside. The man’s cock had been huge in his dream. What would it feel like as it stretched him open? Would it be enough to fill all the empty spaces inside him?

It was a moment before the tolling of a bell outside the cabin registered. What the fuck? Jamie sat up, trying to hear past the pounding of his pulse in his ears. His cock throbbed and he groaned in frustration, knowing he couldn’t chase his pleasure until he found out what was going on at the dock. The only one to boat in was the man who dropped off his monthly supplies, and he’d been and gone two days ago. Who else would be using the dock? Jamie had been isolated for months without anything disturbing his peace. But this night he’d had a wildly erotic dream and now this. What made tonight so special?

With a deep sigh, he got up and returned to his chilly room to dress. Thermal underwear was a must, along with snow pants and a wool sweater. Nights in Alpena, Michigan, averaged around twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit in early winter but could drop to the teens when sleet swept off Lake Huron. Stomping into his boots and sliding his arms into a heavy coat, he pulled on gloves and a hat and opened the front door. Freezing air struck his face, catching at his breath, and he almost returned to the warmth of the great room behind him.

“Dammit.” He pulled the door closed and maneuvered over the icy porch and steps. The bell tolled again, and he hurried through the pristine snow blanketing the yard and surrounding forest. Even if it was only an animal that had ventured onto the dock, if it had slipped on the icy surface into the lake, he had to try to save the poor creature. It could take only moments to freeze to death in the subzero temperatures of the water. The lake shimmered in the moonlight as he approached the bank, a wide expanse of silver stretching in all directions.

His heart stumbled when he spotted a form sprawled on the dock jutting from the snow-covered bank. A canoe lazily bumped into the wood planking, sending the bell chiming into the night. Forgetting the danger of the slick wood, he hurried to the man’s side, praying it wasn’t already too late. He knelt and peeled off a glove, letting out a held breath when the man’s clothing proved dry. Biting his lips at a surge of anxiety, he rolled him onto his back.

The man’s features hardly registered as he hastily loosened the stiff scarf and searched for a pulse. He leaned closer and relief washed through him when a faint breath warmed his cheek. “Thank God.” His gaze ran over the man’s large frame. “But I can’t carry you. Can I wake you up?”

A melancholy smile flittered across his face. “Talking to yourself again, Jamieson,” he muttered. Maybe he’d been spending too much time alone after all. “Well, let’s try to get you up.”

He slid an arm under the broad shoulders and lifted the man into a sitting position, resting the heavy body against his chest. He patted a white cheek and worry creased his brow. The man felt ice cold.

A shudder ran through the long frame and the stranger began to shiver in earnest. Thick lashes fluttered, and Jamie lowered his head to catch the words that whispered past blue-tinged lips.

“What? I can’t understand you.” The foreign language sounded familiar. Spanish? No. With the man’s olive complexion and the dark waves of curls brushing his shoulders, there was a chance he might be Italian. He sounded like the foreign exchange student from Italy Jamie had known in high school. “Can you stand up?” he asked, hoping the guy knew English.

“Sì.”

Jamie helped him to his knees and heard the man’s deep breath before he struggled up, leaning a heavy hand on Jamie’s shoulder. “Grazie. Thank you,” he said. The slightly accented voice sounded sexy even in the frigid air, and Jamie looked at him with sudden interest. Incredible hazel eyes met his gaze, dark with exhaustion and pain but also curious, stirring a small ache of pleasure inside Jamie. It had been a while since anyone took notice of him.

“Let’s get you inside,” he said, self-conscious as the man continued to stare as if intrigued with his face. Feeling the heat of a blush in his cheeks, he glanced aside. Sure, he was attractive enough. Freckles dotted his nose and cheeks, and at times his mop of red hair could be unmanageable. Previous lovers had called his lips deliciously full, kissable. Too bad that hadn’t kept any of them in his bed. But he had nothing to gain this man’s attention.

Putting aside the bitter thought, he left the man a moment to secure his canoe to the dock. The stranger leaned against the railing, head down as he waited, and Jamie swung an arm around his waist and nudged him toward the cabin, walking gingerly on the icy wood planking of the dock. He’d broken a path through the snow to the structure, but it was still a steep climb, the man seeming to grow heavier with each step. They reached the halfway mark before the stranger stumbled and dropped to a knee, breathing hard. Tremors ran through the large frame under Jamie’s hand.

“Please, it’s not much further,” he begged. No way could he carry him, and staying out here in the snow was unthinkable. The temperature had dropped lower and his face was growing numb. The man must be frozen through.

Muscles bunched under Jamie’s fingers, and the stranger heaved to his feet, a moan torn from deep inside his chest. The walk became a nightmare after that, each step forward a small triumph over pain and exhaustion. Jamie lost all sense of time. There was only whiteness and cold and the porch light promising heat and safety if they could reach it. At long last they stumbled up the steps and Jamie shoved open the door, coming close to dropping the man as they crossed the threshold into the stifling warmth of the cabin.

Slamming the door shut behind them, Jamie somehow managed to keep the dead weight in his arms from sliding to the floor.

“Couch,” he barked through frozen lips, and they staggered across the room, the man crumpling onto the cushions as soon as Jamie eased him down. Jamie looked at him, not sure what to do, then shook off the panic skittering along his nerves. He had to warm the guy up. He knelt, cupping the man’s cold face. “Can you sit up?”

A small grunt escaped the blue-tinged lips and Jamie helped him into a seated position. He removed the man’s heavy coat, then got to work on the snow-encased boots. The laces were impossible, and he tugged off his gloves to work on the knots, his fingers stiff with cold.

“Fuck,” he muttered, reaching over and grabbing scissors from the coffee table drawer and cutting the strings. He slid the boots off, then very carefully rolled down the socks, holding his breath while he removed them. The toes were white with cold but—thank God—no sign of frostbite.

He looked up, his heart clenching when he saw that his guest had fallen asleep. Pain lined the man’s face, and Jamie set his lips, knowing he still might be too late. He had to warm the chilled body and hope his heart was strong enough to survive the shock. And there was also the threat of pneumonia…. Shoving that fear aside, he began to undress the man, lifting the bulky sweater over his head. He tried not to notice the defined muscles of his chest and arms and strong thighs as he removed his jeans and thermals. The dark cotton briefs were dry, and Jamie left them on in relief, embarrassed by his body’s reaction when the man was plainly suffering.

After a brief hesitation, he searched the pockets for a wallet or anything to identify him. Not even a phone. Who was he? Didn’t matter. Jamie had to get him warm. He stripped down to his blue panties. Shivering, he stirred up the coals in the fireplace and added one of the thicker logs. That should keep burning for the rest of the night. He almost hated to disturb the sleeping man, but with some tugging and pushing, he was able to pull the blanket from under him. Stretching the long frame out on the couch, he lay down beside him and covered them both with the thick afghan. The man felt wonderful in his arms. It had been too long since he’d had someone in his bed, even if this man still shivered with cold. He should begin to warm up soon enough.

Jamie yawned as exhaustion caught up to him. He blinked sleepily, then fell into a heavy doze with the man’s warm breath on his neck.

Author Bios:
TA Chase
There is beauty in every kind of love, so why not live a life without boundaries? Experiencing everything the world offers fascinates me and writing about the things that make each of us unique is how I share those insights. I live in the Midwest with a wonderful partner of thirteen years. When not writing, I’m watching movies, reading and living life to the fullest.

Carol Lynne
An avid reader for years, one day Carol Lynne decided to write her own brand of erotic romance. Carol juggles between being a full-time mother and a full-time writer. These days, you can usually find Carol either cleaning jelly out of the carpet or nestled in her favourite chair writing steamy love scenes.

Rick R. Reed
Rick R. Reed is all about exploring the romantic entanglements of gay men in contemporary, realistic settings. While his stories often contain elements of suspense, mystery and the paranormal, his focus ultimately returns to the power of love. He is the author of dozens of published novels, novellas, and short stories. He is a three-time EPIC eBook Award winner (for Caregiver, Orientation and The Blue Moon Cafe). His novel, Raining Men, won the Rainbow Award for Best Contemporary General Fiction. Lambda Literary Review has called him, "a writer that doesn't disappoint." Rick lives in Seattle with his husband and a very spoiled Boston terrier. He is forever "at work on another novel."

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.

Amber Kell
Amber Kell has made a career out of daydreaming. It has been a lifelong habit she practices diligently as shown by her complete lack of focus on anything not related to her fantasy world building.

When she told her husband what she wanted to do with her life he told her to go have fun.

During those seconds she isn't writing she remembers she has children who humor her with games of 'what if' and let her drag them to foreign lands to gather inspiration. Her youngest confided in her that he wants to write because he longs for a website and an author name—two things apparently necessary to be a proper writer.

Despite her husband's insistence she doesn't drink enough to be a true literary genius she continues to spin stories of people falling happily in love and staying that way.

She is thwarted during the day by a traffic jam of cats on the stairway and a puppy who insists on walks, but she bravely perseveres..

She also writes under the name Mikela Q. Chase.

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

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

Jay Lewis Taylor
Despite having spent most of my life in Surrey and Oxfordshire, I now live in Somerset, within an hour’s drive of the villages where two of my great-great-great-grandparents were born. Although I work as a rare-books librarian in an abstruse area of medical history, I am in fact a thwarted medievalist with a strong arts background.

I have been writing fiction for over thirty years, exploring the lives of people who are on the margins in one way or another, and how the power of love and language can break down the walls that we build round ourselves.

Shell Taylor
Shell Taylor is a full-time mother of three exuberant and loving kiddos and one fur baby, a tiny but fierce Yorkie-poo named Rocco. As a Christian who practices love, grace, and humility rather than hatred and judgement, she tries her best to instill these same virtues in her rowdy kids. She just recently learned how to crochet to start bombarding new mothers with matching hats and booties. She is a huge Marvel fan and because of the superhero-plastered tees paired with jeans and Chucks has been told when helping out in her son’s classroom that she looks more like the students than a parent. Her favorite way to procrastinate is to binge watch entire seasons on Netflix. Best of all, she’s been married ten years to a man who’s turned out to be everything she never knew she needed.

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.

Josh Lanyon
A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author JOSH LANYON has been writing gay mystery, adventure and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English series, including The Hell You Say, winner of the 2006 USABookNews awards for GLBT Fiction. Josh is an Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist.

Heidi Cullinan
Heidi Cullinan has always loved a good love story, provided it has a happy ending. She enjoys writing across many genres but loves above all to write happy, romantic endings for LGBT characters because there just aren't enough of those stories out there. When Heidi isn't writing, she enjoys cooking, reading, knitting, listening to music, and watching television with her family. Heidi also volunteers frequently for her state's LGBT rights group, One Iowa, and is proud to be from the first midwestern state to legalize same-sex marriage.

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

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

Dianne Hartsock
After growing up in California and spending the first ten years of marriage in Colorado, I now live in the beautiful Willamette Valley of Oregon with my incredibly patient husband, who puts up with the endless hours I spend hunched over the keyboard letting my characters play.

I have to say, Oregon’s raindrops are the perfect setting in which to write. There’s something about being cooped up in the house while it pours rain outside, a fire crackles on the hearth inside, and a cup of hot coffee warms my hands, which kindles my imagination.

The intricate and fragile nature of the mind is always fascinating. Having worked with the public through various careers I’ve come to respect the resilience and strength of the human spirit. I’m always trying to capture that spirit in my writing.

Currently, I work as a floral designer in a locally-owned gift shop. Which is the perfect job for me. When not writing, I can express myself through the rich colors and textures of flowers and foliage.


TA Chase
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Carol Lynne
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Rick R Reed
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RJ Scott
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Amber Kell
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Jay Lewis Taylor
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Shell Taylor
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Hayden Thorne
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Josh Lanyon
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Heidi Cullinan
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EMAIL: heidi@heidicullinan.com

Andi Van
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Dianne Hartsock
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EMAIL: diannewrites2@hotmail.com



The Haunting of St. Xavier by TA Chase & Carol Lynne
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A Demon Inside by Rick R Reed
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End Street Detective Agency Volume 1 by RJ Scott & Amber Kell
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Spindrift by Amy Rae Durreson
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Across Your Dreams by Jay Lewis Taylor
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Reclaiming Hope by Shell Taylor
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Guardian Angels by Hayden Thorne
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Murder Between Pages by Josh Lanyon

Santa Baby by Heidi Cullinan
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Krampus Hates Christmas by Andi Van
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Snow in Montana by RJ Scott
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Nicolas by Dianne Hartsock
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