Wednesday, January 18, 2017

After Christmas Holiday Reads 2016


Well, the holidays are over and the new year has begun but there were still a few Christmas romances that were burning up my Kindle.  So here are the reviews for those holiday tales and it's never too late to surround yourself with the magic of Christmas.  If you find you're still in the holiday mood be sure to also check out my 12 part series of Random Tales of Christmas 2016.

Random Tales of Christmas 2016 Parts

Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3  /  Part 4
Part 5  /  Part 6  /  Part 7  /  Part 8
Part 9  /  Part 10  /  Part 11  /  Part 12

The Road To Frosty Hollow by RJ Scott & Meredith Russell
Summary:
Nick and Cameron face old demons, and find new love, on a Christmas road trip.

Former Marine Nick Sheridan is at a crossroads. With his entire life ahead of him he struggles to find direction and his place in the world. Car sharing to get home for his sister’s Christmas wedding seems like a good idea at first. Spending the time with the man he kissed and left years before, maybe not so much.

Cameron Bennett lost most of his teenage years to cancer and he now lives every day to the fullest. He decides to drive from Seattle to Vermont for his best friend’s wedding and capture moments of it on film. He hadn’t planned on car sharing with the man who kissed him ten years ago, but somehow he ends up with a brooding Nick by his side.

Along the way, the men learn that sometimes life plans mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Love can be found in the most unexpected of ways, and facing your demons head on is sometimes the only way to live.


When you factor in centuries upon centuries of the written word, pretty much every trope is a bit cliche, but that doesn't mean every book reads like a cliche.  Well, that's what you have with The Road to Frosty Hollow, past crushes on a road trip together going from point A to point B but the journey, like Nick and Cam, is so much more than the typical road trip story.  First off, the journey has many stopping points thanks to Nick's sister who happens to be Cam's best friend, it's more of road trip from point A to point Z.  Second, Kaitlin knows exactly what she's doing when she planned the journey, each stop brings the boys closer together.

Personally, I love road trip stories because, as in life, it's not always about the endgame but the journey getting there instead.  Nick and Cam both have hurdles to overcome and watching them maneuver the road blocks and potholes is rewarding and refreshing.  You might just walk away from Road having learned a thing or two about yourself while having fun watching Nick and Cam learn a few things too.  This collaboration from RJ Scott and Meredith Russell is amazingly entertaining and extremely romantic with just the right mix of drama and humor.  I can't recommend this one enough.

RATING: 

Analog to Digital by Posy Roberts
Summary:
For years, Ethan and Toby have said they’ll never marry, despite Ethan’s secret wishes. So leaving sunny California for snowy Minnesota to witness his sister’s vow renewal is not how he wants to spend his Christmas Eve. It’s the second time she’ll say “I do” in less than a year, when Ethan saying those words to Toby even once is hopeless.

In the run-up to the ceremony, Toby seems to avoid Ethan, and doubts grow in his absence. Ethan can’t help noticing Toby spends more time with Ethan’s family than with him. Little does Ethan know, Toby has desires of his own. But if Toby doesn’t find a way to reveal them, Ethan could leave for home without him.

A story from the Dreamspinner Press 2016 Advent Calendar "Bah Humbug."


Analog to Digital may be a little on the short side as far as content but it's long on quality.  I just loved this little tale of Christmas love.  Just when you think Toby will be the character lacking in the holiday romance department, it turns out that Ethan might just be the one who finds himself getting a little fed up and ready to ditch the holidays all together.  It just goes to show that not everything is as it seems and it's also a great lesson of how people change over time.  Such a great addition to my holiday shelf.

RATING: 

Resolutions by Emma Keene
Summary:
As an advertising executive, it’s Logan’s job to sell people holiday cheer, and he’s good at what he does. But deep down, Logan hates everything about Christmas, so he worries that his crush on the hot baker who loves the holidays is a recipe for disaster.

Last year, Logan saw Ryan at a holiday party Ryan was catering, and the attraction was instant. In a drunken moment, Logan made it his New Year’s resolution to ask the pastry chef out. But another year has slipped away, time is running out, and Logan’s assistant demands he collect on his resolution. Can Logan find the confidence that usually comes so easily to him? And if he does, will Ryan have any interest in spending the holidays with a man who doesn’t share his enthusiasm for the season?

A story from the Dreamspinner Press 2016 Advent Calendar "Bah Humbug."


Another great little tale of holiday romance.  Resolutions is exactly what the title says, when Logan made a resolution to ask out the baker, Ryan before the year is up I don't think he really thought he'd follow through with it but thanks to his trusty secretary he better.  Resolutions is a great example of how you don't always need sexy times to bring a sexy story to life.  I've never read Emma Keene before but it won't be the last time, can't wait to keep an eye out for more.

RATING: 

So This is Christmas by Josh Lanyon 
Summary:
Adrien English #7
God Help You Merry Gentlemen…

Arriving home early after spending Christmas in jolly old England, sometimes amateur sleuth Adrien English discovers alarming developments at Cloak and Dagger Books--and an old acquaintance seeking help in finding his missing boyfriend.

Fortunately, Adrien just happens to know a really good private eye…

Click here to check out Adrien English Series


I hate to say the words "what a great ending to a fantastical series" because I dread the idea of it being the end.  Whether this Christmas novella is an end or not, it is still great and I am already looking forward to re-reading this one for many holidays to come(and all other series long re-reads).  There may not be the relationship drama that has often followed Adrien and Jake in So This is Christmas but that alone shows how far the couple has come as well as the growth they've experienced as individuals.  Of course, that's not saying the bantering between the boys is non-existent because you can't have Adrien and Jake without at least some of the back-and-forth they are known for.  This is just an an all around great addition to the series(end or not) and to my Christmas library.

RATING: 

Krampusz by Lou Harper
Summary:
Freshly out of college, shy and introverted Brian Preston travels from LA to Budapest to teach English, ready to embrace life and spread his wings.

It's early December, and the air is heavy with the scent of roasting chestnuts.Getting involved with his new roommate, native Hungarian Zoli Park, promises to be the adventure Brian always wanted. But all is not as it seems, and Brian might find himself in the arms of Krampusz, demonic companion to St. Nick, who punishes bad boys.

A story from the Dreamspinner Press 2014 Advent Calendar package "Celebrate!".


I'll admit that the title had me thinking this might have a bit of a paranormal element, well it doesn't.  Was I a little disappointed? Perhaps.  However, it only took a few pages for me to forget the disappointment and fall in love with both Brian and Zoli, so much so that I hated to see them go when I reached the last page.  Krampusz is from Dreampsinner's Advent Calendar from two years ago, how it missed my radar before this I'll never know.  A wonderful holiday romance with well written characters and definitely will tick all your love of travel boxes.

RATING: 

His Needs by Kris T Bethke
Summary:
When State Trooper Travis Kinslow is injured right before Thanksgiving, the only positive is that for once he won’t be working during the holidays. Since he has no family, Travis was absorbed into his best friend, Joe’s, and he considers them as good as his own. Everyone except Joe’s brother Noah. Travis has been in love with the younger man for much of his life, but he’s always kept his distance.

As an ER nurse, Noah is a caretaker by nature. When his brother’s best friend is hurt, he’s happy to help Travis while he heals. He’s only ever allowed himself to think of Travis as the next best thing to an older brother, but by the light of the Christmas tree, Noah finally sees Travis’s true feelings. And in that moment, everything changes.

When faced with opposition and a Christmas nothing like they imagined, will their hopes for the future be enough to carry them through?


His Needs is another sweet holiday romance to brighten your day.  That's not to say there isn't some drama to liven up the story, Travis' history alone is full of drama but it's also filled with love when he was taken in by the Mastriano family.  I just love unrequited love stories, especially when they might not be as unrequited as the players think they are.  Nick and Travis both squirmed their way into my heart and even knowing a HEA awaited them I couldn't put my Kindle down.  Kris T Bethke is another new author to me but it won't be the last one, I look forward to watching this author for many years to come.  A great addition to my holiday shelf.

RATING: 

A Christmas for Oscar by Alex Whitehall
Summary:
Oscar has never liked the holidays and all the surrounding rigmarole, but that doesn't stop his best friend from dragging him along for her Black Friday shopping spree. The only perk of the day is that he meets Nathan while he's there.

With sparkling blue eyes, curly blond hair, and a smile that won't stop, Nathan is a Christmas elf in the flesh. He even spends his days in a workshop! But Nathan is more than his bright smile, and he may be just the right person for Oscar. Assuming, of course, Oscar doesn't drive him and his holiday spirit away first.


Such a wonderful holiday story that will leave you smiling no matter what time of year you read A Christmas for Oscar.  I have to admit that if I could meet an elf like Nathan, I too would brave the Black Friday sales.  Oscar may not be a Scrooge but he's no Christmas elf either but Nathan brings something into Oscar's life that just may bring the Christmas spirit to life.  Another new author for me, which can be scary but I find it to be exciting and Alex Whitehall is a name I'll be checking out again.  A great addition to my holiday shelf.

RATING: 

Last Leap of the First-Foot by Ari McKay
Summary:
Iain Donaldson and Bran MacRae have been best friends since childhood, despite Iain being part of the gentry and Bran a mere crofter's son. Iain's feelings of friendship have deepened over time, and he suspects Bran might share his inclinations—and Hogmanay may be the time to confess feelings. As the old year becomes the new, Iain keeps his promise to first-foot at the MacRae cottage, and Bran takes the opportunity to bare his heart—will it be enough to overcome the challenges to their budding relationship?

A story from the Dreamspinner Press 2013 Advent Calendar package "Heartwarming".


A wonderful blend of history and holiday to make you smile.  Childhood friends Bran and Iain, couldn't be more different as far as social status but their hearts are perfect for each other.  Last Leap of the First-Foot is from the Dreamspinner 2013 Advent Calendar but it just crossed my Kindle this year, what a lovely little treat it is too.  It might feel a little rushed at times but I still found it to be entertaining, believable, and just plain fun to read.  Now, having said "fun" don't think there isn't drama because there is and it blends in at just the right time and just the right amount.

RATING: 

The Vampire's Dinner by TJ Nichols
Summary:
For vampire Charles Redfort, Christmas is a bitter reminder of the day he was killed by a werewolf. After fleeing the vampire army he was created to serve in, he has lived in exile in England. Once a year he allows himself to tell the truth about his life over dinner. Then he eats the man he’s hired for the night.

Blake Wells is an engineering student by day and escort by night. He works Christmas because he doesn’t want to see his father, and his mother doesn’t want to see him. When he meets Charles, he thinks he’s gotten a bonus present that he can’t wait to unwrap. But as the truth is revealed, Blake will have to think fast to live until morning and convince Charles to give up his lonely life.

A story from the Dreamspinner Press 2016 Advent Calendar "Bah Humbug."


Vampires at Christmas? What is this madness?  Well, The Vampire's Dinner is a beautiful story of finding something you didn't even realize you were missing.  Paranormal, Christmas, and heart makes this a wonderful addition to my holiday shelf.

RATING: 

Christmas Waltz by Josh Lanyon
Summary:
Holiday Coda #2
In 2012 I began a holiday tradition of writing holiday codas for some of my — and your — favorite stories. I ran the codas on my blog and left them up there for readers to enjoy all year round.

At the request of readers, I collected the codas in an expanded and edited edition which I published in 2015 as Merry Christmas, Darling.

Since then I’ve written an additional twenty-one codas, so it seems about time to do another collection. As before, I’m including recipes for cocktails and dishes that are either featured in the original works or seem to add some final comment or insight into the era or the characters or their relationship.


I just love Josh Lanyon's Christmas Codas, a treat I look forward to every year so having so many of them together in one package is a blessing.  There were a few from stories I haven't read yet, what you say? There's a few Lanyon tales that have escaped my Kindle?  Just a couple and once I have read those missing gems then I'll come back and read the corresponding coda.  It's always nice to revisit some of your favorite couples and what better time of year to do so than Christmas.

RATING: 


The Road to Frosty Hollow by RJ Scott & Meredith Russell
Chapter 1
“This is crazy, sis. I can’t believe I let you talk me into this road trip.”

Nick Sheridan sat on the end of the bed and stared at his luggage. He’d been pacing a line back and forth in front of his bedroom window for what felt like hours, but, was really only minutes, and his nerves were getting the better of him. He held his cell phone in front of him, set on speaker phone, waiting for the reassuring sound of his sister’s voice to fill the room.

“It’ll do you good. It’ll do you and Cameron both some good,” Kaitlin said.

Her voice held an edge of excitement. She was setting him up, and he knew it, and he was pretty sure she knew he knew it. Cameron Bennett was the last person Nick wanted to share a cross-country drive with, with his dimples, and his smile and his ability to make Nick forget how to speak.

With a sigh, he scratched a hand though his hair, teasing his bangs to spiky points. “Maybe.” He glanced around his bedroom. He was supposed to have packed everything into boxes ready for the move back home in the New Year, but surfaces were still scattered with mementos of his life and his closet remained full of his clothes.

Kaitlin asked, “What time did Cameron say he was getting there?”

Nick rested his phone on the bed and got to his feet. “Anytime now.” He crossed to the window. Lifting a slat in the blind, he looked out on the street below.

Kaitlin’s voice came from the bed behind him. “You remember what he looks like, right?”

How could he not remember Cameron Bennett? The man’s face was plastered all over his sister’s social media every time Cam happened to be in the same state as her: Cam and Kaitlin horseback riding along a treacherous mountain trail, or jumping out of a plane, or parasailing. The man took risks that made Nick worry, considering Kaitlin sometimes got involved too. Kaitlin and Cameron had been best friends since any of them could remember.

Not only that, but Cameron’s face was all wrapped up in memories of one stolen kiss and years of what ifs.

Not that he was admitting that to his sister. “Shut up,” he said, raising his voice to make sure she could hear him.

Kaitlin laughed. “It’s so easy to wind you up. But seriously, have some fun, live life, get all thinky about what you want to do.”

“Thinky?” Nick mouthed the word to the room and smiled. He had been thinking. In fact, he’d done nothing but thinking ever since he received the official invitation to Kaitlin’s wedding a few months ago.

Sitting on his dresser was the ivory-and-turquoise-decorated card. Nick eyed the names of his sister and soon-to-be brother-in-law, struck by a strange sense of loss. He rubbed at the feeling of emptiness in his stomach. When he had settled in Seattle two-and-a-half years ago, he’d thought that was it. Sure, there might have been a chance he would be called back to active duty, but Seattle had felt like home. He’d had a boyfriend and the promise of a career and finishing up school. It had been a fresh start. True, he and his family lived on opposite sides of the country, but that was okay; he had things to work through, and they didn’t need a screwed-up Marine in their lives.

Now, of course, the boyfriend was no more, the career was at a grinding halt, and he’d failed his last exam. Yeah, life’s great.

“Nick? You still there?”

Nick breathed in deeply and glanced over his shoulder at his phone. “I’m here.”

Now he was in need of another fresh start, and as far as he was concerned, running back to his hometown in Vermont was for the best. He needed the security of having his family around him, at least for a while until he got his head on straight.

Then why haven’t you packed yet?

“I have to go,” Kaitlin interrupted his thoughts. “I’ve got an appointment with the florist. Mom’s coming with me, so wish me luck.”

Their mom had taken to the role of mother of the bride like it was a military campaign. Kaitlin had even taken the drastic measure of phoning Nick one night, stressed, cursing, and insisting their mom should have signed up with him eight years ago. It was kind of nice she reached out to him, as though he was needed. “So, I’ll wish you a safe journey, big brother, and guess I’ll see you in three weeks. Text me, right? Text me a lot. Photos as well.”

Yeah, right. Photos of Cameron and his broad, stupid smile and his hazel eyes, standing next to Nick, the battered former Marine. Those were photos she’d love to share on her Facebook page. No way that was happening.

“Three weeks,” he confirmed.

Then he shook his head, even though no one could see him. That was a long time to be just him and Cameron. He yawned widely. He’d not slept properly last night; when he’d rolled over on his arm, discomfort had kept him awake.

“Like I said, it’ll be good for you. Just—” She paused for a moment. “—just enjoy the ride and see where it takes you.”

Nick chewed his lip. His life had been so regimented throughout his twenties, and though he was all for living in the moment and taking some chances, his default setting was survival and it was difficult to adjust. “I’ll try.”

“See that you do. Anyway, I have to go. Feel free to give Cam a big hug from me.” Her voice held a laugh as she teased him.

Shaking his head, he picked up his phone. “Later, sis.”

“Love you.”

“You too.” He ended the call and pocketed his phone.

Blowing out a breath, he checked around the room. Everything he’d put on his list was packed in his case and large backpack. He had three weeks on the road and an undetermined amount of time with his folks for the wedding, Christmas, and into next year.

His cell phone chimed and he freed it once more from his pocket and eyed the details of the text message. It was from Cameron.

Getting gas. Be with you in ten.

OK, he typed.

He hesitated, wondering if he was supposed to say more. Billy, his ex, added smiley faces to all his texts, even when he was pissed. “I am so out of the loop,” he muttered. With a shrug, he hit Send; he didn’t want to give Cameron a weird message by using the wrong yellow faces.

“Okay,” he said to his room. “This is really happening.”

When Kaitlin had suggested he join Cameron on his road trip from Seattle to Vermont, Nick’s first instinct had been to say no.

He remembered a lot about Cameron; his illness as a kid that kept him in his room a lot, his stupidly cute hair, his thoughtful expressions. And the kiss. He recalled the kiss and Cameron pushing him away in great detail.

But they weren’t friends like Cameron and Kaitlin were. Being two years older than them meant Nick had always been a step ahead in the checkpoints of life—graduating, going away to college, dropping out to embark on a career in the military.

Not anymore. Hell, you’re going backward. It was as though his life had been unraveling over the last five months. His relationship had ended, he wasn’t happy at work, and he had no direction, no damn idea what to do with himself.

At least being a Marine gave you stability and focus.
It had given him other things too. He glanced down at the palm of his hand, then curled his fingers, brushing the faded scars that stretched down to his wrist. The memory of gunfire made his shoulders tense, and just for a moment he was back there, his patrol under attack, and jagged rocks shredding his hand as he scrambled for cover.

The idea to re-enlist had been a brief one, some knee-jerk reaction to change in his life. But he soon changed his mind; he had done his time, served his country. He wasn’t a career soldier. He needed something else. If only he could figure out what that was….

Shaking off the old memories, Nick took the few minutes he had to check over his luggage and the apartment. There was a feeling of unease as he picked up the wedding invitation. In three weeks he would be back in Vermont, back in Frosty Hollow. He hadn’t been home since Christmas two years ago, and that had been a flying visit.

The sound of the intercom buzzer interrupted his thoughts. Too late to change your mind now.

He paused at the receiver, his hand hovering over the speak button. The buzzer rang again and Nick took a breath. “Okay,” he said to himself, then pressed the button and spoke into the intercom. “I’ll be right down.”

After gathering his things, he checked the apartment one last time before heading downstairs. He pushed open the building door with his shoulder and backed outside, turning around to maneuver his belongings through the door with him.

“You need a hand?”

He stopped. The door swung shut behind him. “What?” It took him a moment to link the voice to the man standing at the bottom of the short flight of steps leading up to the apartment building. Tall and wide across the chest, with stubble and sunglasses pushed back in his hair, Cameron Bennett looked like a cross between a biker and a model, and he was every bit as gorgeous in person as Nick remembered. He looked a bit pale, white against the dark of his jacket, but hell, he looked good.

Cameron removed his shades, folded down the arms, and nodded toward Nick’s suitcase. “Your things. Do you need any help with them?”

Lifting his pack higher on his shoulder, Nick shook his head. “I’m good. Thanks.”

When Nick didn’t move, Cameron raised one of his neat eyebrows. “What?” he asked with a smile, shifting his weight onto his other leg and looking up at Nick expectantly. “I got something on my face?” His smile widened. The way Cameron’s lips curled made dimples appear in his face. Yep, there they were, the Dimples of Doom.

“What? No, sorry.” Nick lowered his head. “I just….” He looked Cameron up and down. Cameron Bennett all grown up. “I was trying to remember how long it’s been.” He picked up his suitcase and headed down to the sidewalk, where he met Cameron’s hazel eyes and waited for an answer.

“Nine or ten years, I guess.” Cameron walked behind him. “Senior year, wasn’t it? My senior year, anyway. You’d come home from college for the weekend, and Kaitlin had that Valentine’s party.”

Nick didn’t have to try to remember the party, ever since he’d agreed to this road trip he’d had the damn party on his mind. He didn’t want to talk about it, not after making a fool of himself with Cameron, thinking the other man actually wanted to kiss him. But Cameron was looking at him expectantly; waiting for an answer.

“Alice in Wonderland,” he said, finally. Kaitlin had roped him into decorating the house with strings of hearts and playing cards.

And he and Cameron had kissed. Don’t think about the kiss.

“I’m impressed you even remember. You were pretty drunk.” Cameron grinned. It didn’t look like Cameron recalled the kiss, or the awkwardness that followed it.

“A house full of Mad Hatters is enough to drive anyone to drink.” Nick offered; anything to stop thinking on things that should never have happened. The party had been the night after he’d come out to his parents and told them he was dropping out of college to enlist all in one go. Turned out him being gay wasn’t a problem to his parents. Signing up, however, they hadn’t taken too well. Not at first, anyway.

“So many sexy Cheshire Cats and slutty Alice’s,” Cameron mused.

Nick prodded Cameron in the back. “Hey, my sister was Alice. She wasn’t slutty.” He couldn’t help the defensiveness that stiffened his spine.

“Nicky, I’m kidding.”

Nicky. The name surprised him. He hadn’t been called that in years. Even his sister had dropped the cutesy version of his name.

If Cameron noticed Nick’s faltering steps, he didn’t make it evident. Instead he continued. “Seriously, I’m the last person to judge anyone for what they wear.” Cameron spun around, walking backward a few steps as he tugged at the front of the V-necked T-shirt he wore under a leather jacket. The action exposed more of his chest.

Nick noted the faint dusting of hair across the pale skin of Cameron’s chest and what looked like the edge of a tattoo.

“My name is Nick, not Nicky.”

Cameron nodded his understanding, and with a smile, he slid his shades back on and stepped out into the street.

They stopped by a functional black SUV with snow tires and Nick blinked to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. “Thought you were a muscle car fan? This isn’t quite what I imagined for your grand cross-country adventure.”

Cameron pulled open the driver side door and rested his arms on top of the frame. He shrugged as he looked over the roof of the black SUV, meeting Nick’s eyes. “Well, I had considered renting a Mustang, maybe. But then I remembered it’s December and we have snow.”

“Good call.”

“Anyway, I know you like working with cars, but I didn’t want you having a busman’s holiday every time we broke down.”

“Thoughtful of you.” Nick was aiming for jokey, but he sounded more sarcastic than joking.

Cameron looked confused at the tone and he worried at his lip for a moment. “You can still change your mind, you know. I won’t be offended.”

“About what?”

“The road trip, three weeks with me. I know Kaitlin can be very persuasive when she wants to be.”

Shaking his head, Nick said, “She can be, but I want to do this.” He might have been quick to blame Kaitlin for the road trip, but he was really doing it for himself. “I promise you this is my decision.”

Cameron seemed to consider Nick’s words as he tapped the fingers of one hand on the back of the other. “Okay.” He pulled the door open a little farther. “Put your things in the back and we’ll get out of here.”

After loading his bags in the trunk, Nick slipped into the car and strapped himself in beside Cameron. “So, what’s the plan?”

“Spokane.”

“Sorry?” He raised an eyebrow.

“That’s where we’re headed, or at least we are, according to Kaitlin. It’s just over five hours from here.” Cameron reached behind the passenger seat and pulled out a map. “Figured we could drive a couple of hours, stop for something to eat at the halfway point, and then do the rest.”

“What the hell’s in Spokane?” Nick asked. “Kaitlin picked the place?”

Cameron looked sheepish. “She may have planned the whole trip. Well, I mean, I helped and all, but she was the one who came up with the itinerary.”

“Right. Okay.” Nick scratched behind his ear.

“Here.” Cameron opened the glove compartment and pulled out a notebook. Loose, folded sheets of paper stuck out from between the pages. “I printed off what we decided on.”

Nick folded back the corner of the little book, allowing the paper to flick across his thumb as he slowly released the pages. He rested it on top of the map across his thighs. “I know you asked me about wanting to do this, but are you okay with me being here?”

It seemed Kaitlin had a much bigger role in the trip than Nick first thought, but he wasn’t entirely sure about Cameron’s reasons for taking the cross-country trip. Apparently, it was some mix of a personal work project and self-evaluation of his life.

Cameron curled his hands around the steering wheel. “Trust me. You’d know if I didn’t want you here.” He briefly turned to look at Nick. “And you never know—we might actually have some fun.”

With a nod, Nick agreed, “Yeah, we might.”

“So,” Cameron said. “Ready?”

As I’ll ever be. “Sure. Let’s do it.”

After all, how bad could three weeks on the road with Cameron be?

Analog to Digital by Posy Roberts
LOOKING UP from the doodle I’d started on a cocktail napkin, I ordered. “Surly Furious. Two, please.” It was the beer I’d begged my sister to ship to me from back home. I wanted to give my employees a taste of Minnesota, even if they relentlessly teased me about my accent and “unfathomable” work ethic. I didn’t end up owner of a top-rated design house by the time I was in my midtwenties by phoning it in, so I never let their jibes bother me much.

The server reached for glasses after cracking each large can with a pfft and pfft, but I waved him off. “We’ll drink ’em right from the can, thanks.”

“Certainly.”

I slipped a ten in his tip jar and turned to the center of the distinctive ballroom, where people were dancing. His thanks trailed after me as I made my way over to Toby, who looked ready to blend into the leather couch while the room buzzed around him.

I pressed the chilled beer into his warm palm. “Here. This is the one I told you about.”

He took a sip and looked at me with dark eyes before taking another few swallows. He smiled when he finally set the can down. “It’s good. Real good.”

“Told ya.” I leaned in and kissed the beer foam that clung to his mustache. His beard brushed my chin, and as much as I wanted to get lost in his kisses, I was there as the boss tonight and couldn’t really let go like I wanted.

“Look at you two! So in love.” Stella, my right-hand and necessary coconspirator in most projects, plopped herself in the chair next to me and sipped at a neon-pink drink garnished with at least three fruit kabobs. Her eclectic style, mostly latent punk rocker meets Vargas pinup girl, was in full bloom. She would’ve fit perfectly on the nose of an Air Force plane or at any dance club in the city.

I smiled at her as I leaned against Toby’s shoulder. The sparkle in her lined eyes made what she was about to ask obvious.

“When are you two going to finally tie the knot?”

“We’re not,” Toby said without a second’s hesitation.

Resolutions by Emma Keene
“MERRY CHRISTMAS! Ho ho ho!” Santa cheered while ringing his bell.

Logan cringed. He couldn’t wait for this damned holiday season to be over. Christmas was his least favorite time of the year, all of the false cheer, the commercialization of the holiday, and the businesses just trying to make a quick buck. He would know too; he worked for one of those companies. His advertising company always made a killing during the holiday season.

The only solace he found was going to get his morning coffee and muffin down at the bakery Whisked. They always made his latte just the way he liked it, and the muffins were fresh out of the oven. It was the best damn bakery in town in his humble opinion, but of course it had nothing to do with the fact the owner of said bakery, Ryan, was hot as hell. No, Logan had told himself that didn’t factor into it at all.

Logan pushed open the door to the bakery and was hit with the aroma of coffee and cinnamon. He couldn’t help but smile, much to his chagrin. Yes, he did hate the holidays, but he was a sucker for holiday treats. Ryan always made the best cookies, cupcakes, and muffins throughout the year, but for some reason, around the holidays he seemed to put something more in each recipe to make it taste extra delicious.

“Hiya, Logan!” Ryan waved from behind the counter as he walked over to Logan. He was wearing reindeer antlers, making Logan groan inwardly. Yes, Ryan was hot, but those reindeer antlers were absolutely ridiculous.

“Hey, Ryan. How’s it going?” It was Logan’s standard question for everyone, and it sounded wrong passing through his lips. Ryan deserved a better greeting than that. Every time Logan saw him, the blood drained from his head and went straight to his dick, making conversation impossible. It pissed him off, because here he was a successful advertising agent, selling people on crap they didn’t need, yet he couldn’t talk to this guy without imagining Ryan bent over the counter that stood between them and fucking him right now.

“Pretty good! We’ve been really busy today! I made my special sugar cookies this morning. Word spread fast, and it seems everyone has been in, trying to get their hands on them. I ran out so quickly, but that didn’t stop them from buying other things.”

Damn, Logan thought, I missed out on those cookies.

Resolutions by Emma Keene
“MERRY CHRISTMAS! Ho ho ho!” Santa cheered while ringing his bell.

Logan cringed. He couldn’t wait for this damned holiday season to be over. Christmas was his least favorite time of the year, all of the false cheer, the commercialization of the holiday, and the businesses just trying to make a quick buck. He would know too; he worked for one of those companies. His advertising company always made a killing during the holiday season.

The only solace he found was going to get his morning coffee and muffin down at the bakery Whisked. They always made his latte just the way he liked it, and the muffins were fresh out of the oven. It was the best damn bakery in town in his humble opinion, but of course it had nothing to do with the fact the owner of said bakery, Ryan, was hot as hell. No, Logan had told himself that didn’t factor into it at all.

Logan pushed open the door to the bakery and was hit with the aroma of coffee and cinnamon. He couldn’t help but smile, much to his chagrin. Yes, he did hate the holidays, but he was a sucker for holiday treats. Ryan always made the best cookies, cupcakes, and muffins throughout the year, but for some reason, around the holidays he seemed to put something more in each recipe to make it taste extra delicious.

“Hiya, Logan!” Ryan waved from behind the counter as he walked over to Logan. He was wearing reindeer antlers, making Logan groan inwardly. Yes, Ryan was hot, but those reindeer antlers were absolutely ridiculous.

“Hey, Ryan. How’s it going?” It was Logan’s standard question for everyone, and it sounded wrong passing through his lips. Ryan deserved a better greeting than that. Every time Logan saw him, the blood drained from his head and went straight to his dick, making conversation impossible. It pissed him off, because here he was a successful advertising agent, selling people on crap they didn’t need, yet he couldn’t talk to this guy without imagining Ryan bent over the counter that stood between them and fucking him right now.

“Pretty good! We’ve been really busy today! I made my special sugar cookies this morning. Word spread fast, and it seems everyone has been in, trying to get their hands on them. I ran out so quickly, but that didn’t stop them from buying other things.”

Damn, Logan thought, I missed out on those cookies.

So This is Christmas by Josh Lanyon
Chapter One
“You don’t remember me, do you?”

I looked up from the latest love note sent by the California State Franchise Tax Board and offered what I hoped was a pleasant smile. Between the taxes, the jetlag, and the unwelcome discovery that my soon-to-be-demoted store-manager stepsister was using the flat above Cloak and Dagger Books as some kind of love shack, pleasant was about the most I could manage.

Medium height. Blond. Boyish. As I stared into an eerily familiar pair of green eyes, recognition washed over me. Recognition and astonishment.

“Kevin? Kevin O’Reilly?” I came around the mahogany front desk that served as my sales counter to give him a… well, probably a hail-fellow-well-met sort of hug, but Kevin didn’t move. He grinned widely, nodded, and then— unexpectedly— his face twisted like he was about to burst into tears.

“Adrien English. It’s really you.” His voice wobbled.

“Hey,” I said. I was responding to the wobble. My tone was a cross between warm and bracing. Alarmed, in other words.

Kevin recovered at once. “It’s only… I figured it couldn’t be the right store. Or if it was, you’d have sold the business and moved to Florida.”

“Moved to Florida?” Did anybody move from Southern California to Florida? Did Kevin remember me as an elderly Jewish retiree? No. Kevin was just talking, mouth moving while he stared at me with those forlorn eyes. Trying to make his mind up.

About what?

He looked… older, of course. Who didn’t? And thinner. And tired. He looked unhappy. There was a surprising amount of that during the holidays. And even more after Christmas. Which is what this was. The day after Christmas.

Boxing Day, if we had stayed in London.

Which we hadn’t.

“Wow. This really is a surprise,” I said. “Is it a coincidence? Or were you actually looking for me?”

“Yes.” Kevin hesitated. “No.”

I laughed. “Good answer.”

Kevin opened his mouth but changed his mind at the thump of footsteps pounding down the staircase to our left.

Natalie, my previously mentioned stepsis and soon-to-be-demoted store manager, appeared, looking uncharacteristically disheveled— though I’ve been duly informed that smudged eye makeup and “bed head” is a real thing and supposedly sexy. Angus, my other business investment mistake, was on her heels. Right on her heels. In fact, they nearly crashed down the staircase in their hurry to stop me from whatever they thought I was about to do.

“Adrien, it’s not what you think!” Natalie clutched the banister as Angus lurched past her.

Why do people always say that?

I spluttered, “Seriously? Really? Are you kidding me, Nat?” Angus, having avoided knocking Natalie down, promptly tripped over Tomkins, the beige alley cat I’d rescued six months earlier. The cat was apparently also fleeing my wrath, though he’d been the only innocent party at that… party.

I held my breath as Angus managed to hurdle the last three steps and deliver a barely qualifying 12.92 landing on the ground floor.

I glared at him. “And you. You stay out of my sight.”

He shrank inside his gray hoodie like a retiring monk, which he was demonstrably not. Note to self: next time hire a headless monk.

“I’m fired?” he gulped.

Natalie gasped. “

Hell no, you’re not fired. In the middle of the holidays? Wait. Maybe you are fired. I have to think about it. Meantime maybe you could bring yourself to reshelve the week’s worth of books sitting on this cart?”

Angus leaped to obey.

“It’s not a week’s worth,” Natalie said with a show of defiance. “You haven’t been gone a week. That’s two days’ worth, and we didn’t have time to reshelve because we were busy selling books.”

“And you were busy not selling books. But we’ll discuss it later.”

“Fine. Okay. Yes, Mr. Scrooge, we did take Christmas off.”

“And other things too, it seems, but like I said, we’ll discuss later. Right now we have customers.”

She looked at Kevin.

“Not him.”

“Where?” she demanded, mutiny in her blue eyes. Flecks of green glitter dusted her model-like cheekbones.

Right on cue, the bells on the door chimed in silvery welcome, and I had to smother a grin at her irate expression as a pair of elderly, male professorial types wandered in, each clutching what looked ominously like bags of books for return.

“Want to grab a cup of coffee?” I asked Kevin, who had observed the last three minutes in astonished silence.

“Sure,” Kevin said.

“We’ll let these two get their story straight before I cross-examine them.”

“Oh, so funny,” Natalie muttered.

I did laugh then, although she was right. It wasn’t funny, and Natalie + Angus was an unexpected and unwelcome equation both in the work place and every other place I could think of. Which is why it seemed like a good idea to step away before I said things I might regret.

Plus I desperately needed caffeine. To add to their other offenses, Natalie and Angus had pinched every last coffee bean in the building. I’d had to choose between coffee and nine more minutes with Jake that morning. Which went predictably. My gaze veered automatically to the clock on the faux fireplace mantel. Jake ought to be walking into his meeting about now. He’d headed out to meet a client as I’d left for the bookstore. We were hoping to rendezvous for lunch— and just the idea of that, of being able to casually meet Jake for lunch, instantly warmed me.

We left Natalie distractedly greeting customers, and I led the way out of the store into the damp, chilly Monday morning. The smell of last night’s rain mingled with street smells. The gutters brimmed with oily water, and the street was black and slick. The fake evergreen garland and tinsel-fringed boulevard banners looked woebegone and windblown— like they’d gone to bed without taking their makeup off.

All the same, it felt weirdly festive. Like the dark side of Christmas.

“Is it always like that?” Kevin asked as we jogged across the already busy intersection.

“More or less. I prefer less.” I threw him a sideways smile. His brows drew together. “You haven’t changed at all.”

“Now there you’re wrong.”

“No, but I mean you look exactly the same. You look great.”

“Thanks. It’s the Wheaties.” And the successful heart surgery. Being happy probably didn’t hurt either. I pointed down the street at the blue and white umbrellas crowding the sidewalk in front of the indie coffeehouse, and we veered from the crosswalk and hopped the brimming gutter, just missing getting splashed— or worse— by a Mercedes who didn’t notice the crosswalk or us.

I said, “How long has it been? Three years?”

“About. It feels like thirteen.” He looked like it had been thirteen. There were shadows beneath his eyes and lines in his face even though he couldn’t be much more than twenty-eight. Out of college and doing archeology for a living? Could you make a living doing archeology?

Probably as easily as you could selling books for a living.

“So how’ve you been?” I prodded his sudden and complete silence. “How was your holiday?”

His face twisted again. “If you’d asked me last week—”

We’d reached the coffeehouse. I held the short, wrought-iron gate for Kevin, and as we reached the glass door entrance I gave him an encouraging shoulder squeeze— hold-that-thought! The life-affirming fragrance of hot coffee and baked goods wafted out.

“Find us a table.” I headed for the mercifully short line. “What do you want?”

“I don’t care,” he said. “A tall, pumpkin spice latte with caramel drizzle and no foam.”

Uh-huh, as the philosophers say.

“Got it.”

I placed our orders and eventually located Kevin at a tiny table behind a large potted tree festooned with red bows and white fairy lights. He had his head in his hands, which is never a good sign in someone you’re planning to have coffee with.

I pulled out the chair across from him. “Something tells me this is about more than not getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

The words came out muffled behind his hands. “I don’t know where to start.”

I sighed mentally. I’m all for extra helpings of comfort and joy this time of year, but I was more than a bit sleep deprived, and I was worried about the situation with Natalie and Angus. Still.

“Start at the beginning. What are you doing in my neck of the woods? Are you visiting family?”

“No. My family’s all up north.” He raised his head and took a deep breath. “I’m looking for someone.”

“Who?”

“Ivor. I’ve checked the hospitals, the morgue. The police won’t help because his family won’t report him missing and he’s an adult. They say he’s got a right to disappear if he wants.”

“I’m sorry,” I interrupted. “Ivor is…?”

“Missing.”

“Right. I mean, who or what is Ivor to you?”

“He’s my boyfriend.”

“Oh, that’s great!” Possibly I sounded overly enthused, but as I recalled, Jake had not taken kindly to Kevin’s, er, boyish interest in me. Or mine in him. Not that I’d ever really been interested in Kevin.

Anyway, it was all a long time ago.

“Yes. It was. Is. And that’s why—” Kevin broke off as the barista brought our coffees and a couple of pastries on a tray.

In a mystery novel, that would have been the point at which a silencer would have appeared through the branches of the potted tree to take out Kevin, but in real life we just waited politely until she departed.

“Have some baklava,” I said, “and let’s walk this back a few steps. Ivor is your boyfriend, and he came down south to spend the holidays with his family, and now he’s missing?”

“Yes. Right. Exactly.” Kevin reached for a slice of baklava.

“And his family is saying… what?”

“Nothing.”

“Meaning they won’t talk to you or they don’t have any information?”

Kevin chewed like a threshing machine and spit out, “Both.”

“It can’t be both.”

“First they said he wasn’t there. Then they stopped talking to me.”

“Ah. So you think—”

“He didn’t change his mind about us! I know he’s there. Something happened while he was down here visiting them.”

Yep. And that something had led Ivor to change his mind about being with Kevin. Been there and done that. And honestly, it had all turned out for the best. As painful as it had been getting dumped by Mel, I didn’t regret a minute of that heartbreak because my path had ultimately led to Jake.

I didn’t try to tell Kevin that, though. I didn’t tell him if it was meant to be, it would happen. I didn’t reassure him about all the fish in the sea. Because it doesn’t help when you’re in love with a particular fish.

“What do you think happened?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Realistically, I mean.”

“Realistically, I don’t know. Nothing they could say would make any difference to him. I know Ivor. I know he loves me.” I have to admit his absolute certainty was convincing. Or maybe it was just poignant.

I said tentatively, because sometimes hearing it aloud jolts you back to reality, “Do you think he’s being held against his will?”

“Maybe.” He said it more in challenge than in belief.

“What do you think would be the purpose of that?”

“Maybe they would try to force him into conversion therapy? They’re really conservative. I mean like something out of the nineties.”

“Uh…” Presumably he didn’t mean 1890s.

“I didn’t even think normal people could feel that way now,” he said all wide-eyed and shocked-looking. Seven years wasn’t a generation, but Kevin had grown up in a different world than me. Certainly a different world than Jake.

“I’m not sure how normal they are if they’re really holding their son against his will so that they can force him into conversion therapy.”

“I mean normal-seeming. People who live in the real world. Who’ve been to college. Who have jobs. Friends. Who have money.”

That caught my attention. “They have money?”

“A lot of money.” He said it with complete disgust.

“What’s Ivor’s last name?” I asked.

“Arbuckle.”

“Arbuckle? As in Candace and Benjamin Arbuckle?”

Kevin watched me, torn between hope and unease. “Right. Why? Do you know them?”

“My mother knows them. I went to school with Terrill.”

I hadn’t thought of Terrill in years. And I’d have been happy to go on never thinking of him.

Kevin was staring at me expectantly. I admitted, “I vaguely remember Ivor. There was a sister too, I think.”

“Jacintha. Yes.” Kevin continued to wait for my pronouncement.

I didn’t have a pronouncement. If I did, it would be something along the lines of Run for the hills! Terrill and I had been doubles partners on the tennis team back in high school. He was a good player but a total prick off the court. Happily, once my health had sidelined me, I’d never had to deal with Terrill again. As in literally never. I’d never seen or heard from him again after I got sick.

Terrill Arbuckle as an in-law was something I wouldn’t wish on anyone— or at least not the Terrill Arbuckle I’d known back then. And I couldn’t imagine the rest of the clan was any better. That was an assumption. I didn’t know it for a fact. Maybe Ivor was the white sheep of the family.

Kevin gazed beseechingly at me with those wide green eyes. He said huskily, “Do you— could you— can you help me, Adrien?”

“Me? Well, I don’t know how much help I’d be. I do know—”

“You saved me,” Kevin broke in, and he sounded startlingly passionate about it. “I’d have gone to prison for murder if you hadn’t stepped in three years ago. Nobody else believed me. Only you. Well, also Melissa. Anyway, I never got the chance to tell you. Never got the chance to say thank you.”

“That’s okay. You didn’t have to.”

“When I saw your bookstore, it was like a sign. I mean, I know that probably sounds crazy, but I was driving around feeling so— so desperate and alone, and then when I saw you, I knew it would be okay. I knew you would help. That I’d managed to find the one person who could help.”

“Okay, but wait,” I said quickly. “First of all, you’re welcome for three years ago. I couldn’t have done that on my own, though. And really the same goes for now. I’d like to help, but probably the most helpful thing I can do is put you in touch with someone who can get you some answers.”

“Who?” Kevin asked blankly.

I smiled. Because even in these not very cheerful circumstances, knowing I could call on Jake for help, could count on Jake now and forever, filled me with… happiness.

Yeah. Happiness.

“Jake Riordan,” I answered.

Krampusz by Lou Harper
“HAVE YOU packed the candy wrappers?” Kate asked as the car hurtled down the freeway toward the airport.

Brian blinked at her. “Huh?”

“You know, the bone balloons, cock socks, love gloves, cootie catchers—”

“I got what you meant!” He cut in because it sounded like she could go on for a while. She was a big girl, even more so by personality than stature, always ready to say something outrageous. The tips of Brian’s ears had grown warm. “Yes, of course I did. They’re in the suitcase.”

Brian could only hope his luggage would go through customs unmolested. Or he might die of embarrassment. His overactive imagination was already conjuring the image of a stern-faced female customs officer holding up the pack of fancy rubbers and asking him if he was traveling to Hungary for business or pleasure. The heat spread from his ears to his cheeks.

Kate took her eyes off the road long enough to shoot him a penetrating gaze. “You’re fretting again. Stop it.”

“Easy for you to say.”

Kate had all the self-confidence he didn’t. They’d met at the first gay and lesbian student meeting he went to in freshman year. She took one look at him, swooped in, and became his surrogate big sister. Kate had freckles across her broad face, blonde hair that got frizzy in humid weather, and a loud laugh. She was also the kind of person who’d give you a variety box of condoms as a parting gift.

She sighed. “You worry too much. Everything will be fine. You’ll see.”

Brian wished he had her composure. The early afternoon traffic moved briskly, and they were making good time. All the same, anxiety gnawed on Brian’s insides. “We should’ve left sooner.”

“Relax. We have tons of time. You’ll be bored to death waiting around the airport by the time your plane even starts boarding. Trust me. I hope you brought something to entertain yourself.” She spoke with the astuteness of the seasoned traveler she was.

Brian was prepared, though. “No worries, I loaded a ton of books onto my Kindle—it’s amazing how many classics you can get for free.” He’d also spent the hundred-dollar Amazon gift certificate—a present from his dad—buying newer books, and of course he had all those he’d accumulated over the years. Just thinking about all those wonderful stories at his fingertips helped to ease his mind. Boredom was one of the few things he’d never worried about.

Kate didn’t quite share his passion for books. “You’ll be halfway across the world. Don’t you dare spend all your free time reading. Promise me you’ll go out, see places, meet people, make new friends.”

“Well, of course I will,” Brian replied, although making friends—with real flesh and blood people—wasn’t his strong suit.

She pressed on. “Have adventures.”

Brian sighed. “I’ll do my best.”

“Your best blows goats. You’ll need to try harder.” The way Kate shook her head, slowly, it was clear she had no confidence in him in this matter. “I wish I was going with you. Remember how much fun we had in Death Valley? And how about that trip to Vegas? Who knew you could pole dance almost like a pro?”

The heat spread from Brian’s face to his neck and chest. “Certainly not I. And the hangover nearly killed me.”

“Pfft. You had a good time, don’t deny it. There’s a daredevil under that shy and bookish exterior of yours, just waiting to break out. You should let your hair down more often. Life’s an adventure.” She smacked the steering wheel. “I know what! You’ll need to have a wild fling with a local hunk. Someone who’s not like Leslie.” Kate was hitting all his sensitive spots today.

“Hey, Leslie was a nice guy.”

“Yes, nice, and as exciting as a glass of warm milk. What was the most thrilling thing the two of you ever did together? Sort your postage stamp collections?”

“We didn’t have postage stamp collections,” he said indignantly. She was right, though. He and Leslie had met in a class about classic French literature, and the basis of their relationship was common interests. They’d spent many Friday nights comparing books to their movie versions. Or different translations of the same books. They even looked alike: what old books called willowy, though more average height than tall. So what if they weren’t madly in love? Brian thought liking the same things was enough. Apparently not for Leslie, who one day announced they should see other people, and demonstrated his point by going out with an older man. Leslie dumping him hadn’t broken Brian’s heart, but it had still left a painful void in his life.

Kate wouldn’t let him wallow in self-pity. “He was a bad influence on you.”

“That’s what Mom says about you,” Brian retorted.

Kate chuckled. “I bet. No offense, your mom is a nice lady, but she’ll keep you tied to her apron strings till you’re old and gray, if you let her.”

“She’s a little overprotective, I know.” Brian was an only child, and his mother would’ve kept him locked in the house if she could.

Kate snorted. “A little.”

They had reached their exit, and soon navigating through the logjam of buses, cars, and cabs around LAX demanded Kate’s full attention, making further conversation impossible.

Brian would’ve been fine with being dropped off at the curb, but Kate insisted on finding a spot in the short-term parking lot and helping him carry his bags all the way to the security check-in. When he turned to say his final good-byes, she pulled him into a fierce embrace. Brian hugged her back, unexpectedly overtaken by gratitude for her caring about him so much. When they pulled apart they both rubbed the corners of their eyes.

“Look at us, like a couple of crybabies,” she said with a little laugh. “I’m proud of you, kiddo—finally leaving the nest. Have a good time, immerse yourself in new things, live life, but be smart. Here take this.” She pulled a square foil package from her pocket.

Mortified, Brian shook his head. “I told you, I’ve packed the you-know-whats.”

“Yeah, but do you have any in your carry-on?”

He gaped. “Of course not.” He had no intention of joining the mile-high club. Ever. “I’ve been in airplane bathrooms before. They are barely big enough for one person to turn around in, let alone two. Put that thing away—people are staring.”

“Fine.” She stuffed the packet back into her pocket. “Did you switch your phone plan to international?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Text me the moment you land.” She squeezed him one more time and dashed off without stretching the parting any longer.

His Needs by Kris T Bethke
ANGELA MASTRIANO was a formidable woman, taller than average, with broad shoulders and heavy bones. Yet in spite of that, she carried herself with elegance and grace. Something about her made me think statuesque, and it fit. She was still beautiful, despite her more than sixty years, and the only hints of her age were the crow’s feet at her eyes and the deep laugh lines around her mouth. There wasn’t even much gray to speak of in her long dark brown locks.

Her warm smile softened her fathomless brown eyes, and she was always ready with a hug and a kind word. As long as you weren’t in trouble, that is. Her tongue was sharp, and a scolding by her left you feeling guilty and miserable. She’d taken in a scruffy, unkempt ten-year-old boy—the best friend of her second eldest son—and made him one of her own. In the twenty-five years since we met, she’d been the closest thing I had to a real mother.

I’d dozed off because the drugs were just that good, and to wake and find her sitting at my bedside was both comforting and disconcerting. I expected Joe, but I wasn’t exactly surprised to see her instead. I knew she was there because she was worried, but I also knew I was in deep trouble.

She sat knitting a baby blanket, and her hands moved quickly, making stitch after precise stitch. But her gaze remained fixed on me, and it did not waver. I saw the displeasure there. The hurt and worry and fear. I swallowed hard, wanting to crawl under a rock. I hated that I’d put that look in her eyes.

“A week before Thanksgiving, Travis.” Her voice low and even but full of irritation. I fought the urge to squirm, but only because I knew it would hurt. I was going to strangle Joe for telling her I was in the emergency room in the first place. My best friend could have saved that information until after I’d gotten released.

“It’s not my fault,” I defended. I sounded raspy and I tried to clear my throat. Angela clucked her tongue and put her knitting down to reach for the bedside table. She came back with a cup, and spooned up an ice chip to feed me. It took a second for my morphine-addled brain to remember that I couldn’t have liquids until they were sure I wouldn’t need surgery. I sucked on the chip and nearly sighed in relief. I never knew how good that would taste or feel.

Angela’s eyes narrowed, but she returned to her seat and once again picked up her knitting. She kept her glare fixed on me, and I knew better than to try to defend myself further. For anyone else, getting hit by a passing car during a routine traffic stop for speeding would have garnered sympathy. But for the woman who claimed mothering privileges over me, it didn’t matter that I was thirty-five years old and a decorated state trooper. She only saw that one of her children was hurt, and that always made her grumpy.

“How does something like this happen?” she muttered, her gaze dropping to the fabric in her lap. She could knit even faster when she was watching what she was doing, and I always found myself fascinated by the way her hands moved. It was even better now that I was kind of high.

“The asshole didn’t watch where he was going,” I responded, even though her question had been mostly rhetorical. I didn’t have to check my language with this woman. She might be my pseudomother, but she never chastised for word choice unless it was disparaging or derogatory. Curse words were just fine in the Mastriano house when there weren’t little ears to hear. “At least the guy I had pulled over called 911 and gave me first aid until the ambulance arrived.”

She harrumphed as if that was little consolation. I supposed it was.

I’d been patrolling that stretch of road because it was a notorious spot for speeders. It was long, straight, and fairly isolated. From now until the middle of January, there would always be one of us keeping an eye on that spot. The holidays brought out the reckless and drunk drivers, and we did our best to keep people safe. Part of that was making sure we enforced the speed limit.

The little Camry had been going sixty-five in a forty, and I turned on my lights to pull him over. The man had been nervous, apologetic, and cooperative. I was just heading back to his car to return his license and registration, as well as give him a ticket, when I heard a roar seconds before getting clipped. I hadn’t lost consciousness, but things were a bit blurry after that. The motorist giving me assistance, being loaded into the ambulance and brought to Upstate University Medical Center—it was all kind of fuzzy. I’d spoken with my captain, who had assured me the dashboard camera from my cruiser had caught the whole thing, and other troopers were already on their way to arrest the negligent speeding driver.

It was after that I’d dozed off, finally being left alone for a little while, and with the good drugs coursing through my IV. Only to wake to find Angela’s worried and disapproving stare. I could have done without the latter, but the kid in me was glad that she was there to protect and comfort me.

“Do they at least know who did it?”

“Yes, Mom,” I answered quickly, using the title she always insisted on, just to soothe her. She softened a bit and leaned to clasp my hand, careful of the IV. I’d been part of the Mastriano family since Joe befriended me in fifth grade. But it was still odd to call her “Mom,” because it felt like I was pretending. I couldn’t call her Angela to her face, and Mrs. Mastriano seemed too formal. Usually I did my best not to call her anything at all. Sometimes, though, it was needed, and I defaulted to the one she preferred, even though it didn’t sit right on my tongue. She might be comfortable calling me her son, but I’d never quite gotten to that level myself. Angela wasn’t actually my mother, but she’d given me a place to escape to when life at home had been too much.

“Good.” There was a hint of malicious intent in her eye and I couldn’t help but grin. She was the sweetest woman on the planet, until someone messed with anyone she considered family. Then it was no holds barred, all bets were off. I loved that about her because I was the same way.

The doctor chose that moment to walk into the little cubicle. I hadn’t seen her in hours, ever since she checked me over and sent me for tests. But she was back now and smiling, so I thought that might be good.

“How are you feeling, Officer Kinslow?” Her voice was soft and pleasant. It took me a minute to remember she had previously introduced herself as Dr. Ritter. I blamed the morphine.

“Okay,” I answered honestly. Everything hurt, but I could handle it. “When can I get out of here?”

Angela clucked at me again, and Dr. Ritter gave a soft laugh. “Soon. If your guest will step out, we can discuss your care and your test results.”

I could feel the tension rise as Angela crossed her arms over her ample chest. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Dr. Ritter offered a placating smile. “Ma’am, if you would—”

“No.” Her glare was almost defiant. “I’m his mother. I should be here.”

The doctor looked startled. “Oh. I thought—”

This time I was the one to interrupt. “It’s fine. She can stay.” I didn’t want to have to make any explanations. It was clear from her darker complexion and my much fairer skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, we were not related by blood. While that could have been explained away, Joe was listed as my next of kin and emergency contact, and he was the only one. And I knew my captain had spoken with the medical staff. It was clear I didn’t have any family, at least not those related by blood.

The doctor took another minute to process the information and my request, but she finally smiled again, turned toward the small computer on a stand, and started clicking through my chart. “All right, then. Well, Officer Kinslow, the truth is you were very lucky. No broken bones, not even a concussion. All your imaging came back clear. You’re going to be very sore for a while. Very, very sore. You have some pretty serious bruising and a few small lacerations, but none that needed stitches. And the road rash on your left shoulder and hip will need meticulous care as it heals. But in a month or so, you’ll be back to normal.”

God, that was good to hear. I blew out a breath and then nodded. “So I can go home?”

“Not so fast,” Dr. Ritter chided gently. “We want to keep you overnight, just to monitor you for internal bleeding. But we won’t admit you as long as everything remains clear, and you can go home in the morning.”

I would have argued, tried to convince the doctor that I could be released now, but Angela cleared her throat and gave me a warning glance.

“Thank you, doctor,” I said instead.

“And what about work?” Angela asked.

Dr. Ritter turned toward her. “He’ll have to follow up with his PCP, but it’s going to take him a long while to heal. He’ll be on medical leave for at least four or five weeks.”

“Six.” Angela didn’t hesitate.

The doctor blinked. “Pardon me?”

“He needs to be out at least six weeks.” Her tone brooked no disagreement. “I’m going to have him home for the holidays this year instead of running off to work the crap shifts. I won’t have him missing out, not when he’s not fit.”

“Hey now,” I protested.

“That depends on Officer Kinslow, how he heals, and his primary care physician,” Dr. Ritter explained gently. She turned to me. “You’ll get released back to work only when your body is ready and not before. I’m sure the troopers won’t take any chances.” She graced us both with a smile. “All right, then. Do you have any questions?”

I couldn’t think of any so I shook my head. Angela glared but then thanked the doctor. After leaving instructions to press the call button if I needed anything, and to try and get some rest, the doctor left. I watched her go, feeling weird. I didn’t know what I would do with myself with a week off, let alone four or five. Or six, if Angela had her way. But I was tired and hurting, and the drugs coursing through my system pushed that all back.

Angela stood and combed her fingers through my hair before leaning forward to kiss my forehead. “Rest now, Travis,” she murmured soothingly.

My eyes drifted shut.

A Christmas for Oscar by Alex Whitehall
“Come on, Oscar, don’t be such a grouch.”

He glared at Marie. “That is so original.”

She shrugged, merry as ever.

He grumbled as they were forced to swerve around another mother with two shopping carts. “If you didn’t want me grumpy, then maybe you shouldn’t have dragged me out shopping on Black Friday.”

“You’re my best friend—”

“Which means you shouldn’t torture me like this.”

“Who else am I going to take?”

“Your mother?”

Eye roll.

“Your sister-in-law?”

Eye roll.

“Cindy?”

“I love the girl, but she doesn’t really know my family. And she can’t spot a sale to save her life.”

“I can’t spot sales!”

“But you know my family. Oh! I wanna hit this one.”

He sighed as he was dragged—yes, dragged—into Another Store. Under his breath, he muttered, “You could go alone.”

She continued on, oblivious. Or at least very good at faking it. He hoped this earned him some major points.

“What do you think of this?” She held up a cashmere-blend sweater in baby blue.

“For who?”

Her lips puckered in moue. “Me.”

“I thought we were shopping for your friends and family.” He mock glared. Well, mostly mock.

Marie flapped her hand at him. “Just tell me.”

He sighed and glanced over to the picked-through selection. “It’s gorgeous, but is it even in your size?”

She bounced—like she hadn’t even considered that, somehow—and twirled back to the rack, furiously searching through the remaining sweaters. She chirped and pulled out a much larger size in what Oscar could only call puce, folded it over her arm, and returned to the baby-blue ones. “I’ll have to ask if they have more in the bac— Oh my god, look at that sale!” She tossed the blue sweater to him. “Can you find a salesperson, and ask if they have a small? I need to be over there!”

And she was gone. Which left him with two options: say no and be a horrible friend, or say yes and tear through the crowds to find an overworked, overstressed salesperson. Joy.

With a sigh, he searched for someone in the store’s dress-coded uniform, and wasn’t sure if it was a blessing or a curse when he spotted the cute guy smiling winsomely, surrounded by a mob of people. The most attractive thing was that his mob was smaller than the mob surrounding all the other salespeople.

Gritting his teeth, he clenched the sweater and elbowed his way over through arguing women, grumbling men, and a few screaming children. And that was only across six feet.

When he finally arrived at his destination, he noticed his salesperson was six inches shorter than him, with curly blond hair, and wearing an elf hat. He had shimmering blue eyes and apple-round cheeks. He couldn’t possibly be real.

The bright-blue eyes flashed up to Oscar with a literal sparkle in his eye, although that had to be the overhead lights. “Hello! How can I help you?”

Despite his elfish appearance, the dude’s voice wasn’t high-pitched. In fact, to keep with the ridiculous metaphor developing in Oscar’s mind, it was more like caramel or hot chocolate. It was almost enough to make him forget where he was.

And then some jackass elbowed him in the back, hard, and he was shoved forward. He growled and pushed back, not taking his eyes off his little elf helper. “Hi. I was wondering if you have more sizes of this in the back? I need a small.” He held up the sweater in question.

The little elf’s lips puckered in thought. “I can check, sir, but I think what we have out is all we have. Wait right here.”

He was gone in a flash, and Oscar was left standing there, blinking at the space where the man had been.

“Ex-scuse me,” a woman lashed out. “Can we not stand in the middle of the aisle, puh-lease?”

He heaved a sigh and stepped back—the six inches he could—to let the woman pass. She scrunched her nose at him and hurried on to the next big sale. Restraining another sigh, he wished he could close his eyes and sink into the floor, or vanish, or at least run the hell out of here. But no, he waited, like a good friend, for the salesperson to return. And it seemed to be taking forever, but he was sure that was his imagination—and frustration—playing tricks on him.

Glancing around, he checked on where Marie was, because today he wouldn’t put it past her to leave without him or the sweater, and found her almost swallowed up in the jewelry section. He nodded and looked back to where his elf had been, only to find his helper had reappeared, cheeks rosier, curls somehow unrulier, and elf hat slightly crooked.

“Good news! There was one small tucked behind another bunch.” He held up a slightly rumpled blue sweater. “Looks like it may have gotten missed when the stock was brought out. It doesn’t look damaged or anything, but feel free to inspect it and let me know…”

The guy trailed off, probably because Oscar was staring at his hat. It shouldn’t have been humanly possible for a disheveled hat to make him that much cuter. But it did. Oscar slung the sweater he was still holding over his shoulder, reached out, righted the salesperson’s hat, and then tucked a particularly rebellious curl under the rim. There. He smiled. Much better.

“Uh, sir?” the guy asked, not quite squeaking, but definitely breathily.

Oscar’s eyes shot down to meet those sparkling blues. “Oh! Sorry. It was… You must have knocked it when you were getting the sweater. So I… It was only right that I help. Thank you. For the sweater.”

Certainly not for the pounding of his heart. He held out his hand for the top.

The elf’s uncertain, wide eyes scrunched up with his grin. “Thank you for fixing it.”

He really had the bluest eyes. It seemed like they would have to be contacts, but Oscar didn’t think even a company could manufacture that pure a blue.

“Ex-scuse me!”

Oh hell, it was the woman from before. Oscar couldn’t move much and was about to tell the woman she could probably go around, but the little elf flashed a customer’s-always-right expression and glided over, clearing the aisle and putting not much between them but the sweater.

Oscar’s breath caught. The little elf beamed up at him.

“Is there anything else I can help you with today, sir?”

Oscar had some ideas. Some very dirty ideas, actually. But then the elf blinked, casting a glance at the chaos surrounding them, and Oscar remembered now wasn’t a good time to be hitting on a salesperson.

And that he was waist-deep in Black Friday. He groaned and slid his fingers around the small sweater, gently taking it.

“I think this will be all. Thank you very much,” he murmured—well, as much as he could murmur and still be heard in this mess.

The elf’s smile widened—if that was possible, and somehow it was—and his eyebrows lifted with the excitement strewn across his face. “Well, I hope you have a good day. And I really hope you come back again sometime.”

Then, just like that, Oscar’s helpful little elf was swallowed up by the crowd.

The cheerful good-bye was probably a standard store requirement, Oscar told himself as he turned to hunt down Marie. It almost certainly wasn’t to entice him to return just to see his elf again. The guy probably wasn’t interested.

Oscar sighed. Though his eyes had seemed to light up when they’d been pressed together. And he hadn’t minded Oscar taking certain privileges with his hat. And he had been so very helpful. Which, yeah, it was his job, but…

A tiny tot ran into his shin, the mother glared at him, probably for standing in space that her child wanted to occupy. When he looked around, he realized he’d lost where Marie was.

“Goddamn it!”

Several glares were shot his way. He didn’t care, though.

“Did you find someone?” popped Marie’s voice from behind him.

He spun around, clenching both sweaters to his chest. “Jesus!”

“You found one!”

“Yes, I found one,” he snapped, shoving the smaller size at her. When his hand was free, he began searching out the original location, but even with his height advantage, the store was a swirl of bodies and colors. He glared at Marie. “And you can put the other one back.”

She pouted. “But you’re supposed to be helping me—” She clicked her jaw shut at his glare. “I mean, you found one in my size, so thank you so much! Let’s go return this one to the rack.”

She led the deceptively easy way back to the sweaters and hung it up. “Okay, with that done, let’s get on with the day.”

He groaned, knowing that the best part of the day had already walked away.

Last Leap of the First-Foot by Ari McKay
IAIN DONALDSON released a satisfied sigh and pushed back his chair, offering a grateful smile to the MacRaes. “’Twas delicious as always, Mrs. MacRae,” he said, and he meant it.

The fare served at the cottage of Niall and Barbara MacRae was simple, even for such special occasions as this. With Niall paralyzed from the waist down after a fall from the thatched roof of their cottage, the family had to be frugal, even at Christmas. Their son Bran had stepped up, shouldering the responsibility of helping his parents after his older brothers had set sail for America, but times were hard, especially for crofters.

Iain had provided the fat goose as he did every year. With his parents dead, his sisters moved away, and himself unwed, he spent many a night with his feet under the MacRaes’ table. He knew how to cook well enough to fend for himself, but Barbara worked magic over a stove, turning plain ingredients into savory dishes far better than anything he could manage on his own. He made up for the intrusion by providing meat and vegetables as often as they would allow. Their pride kept him from doing as much as he wanted to make their lives a little easier, although Barbara also claimed he was the son she hadn’t borne when she wanted to tease him about his frequent visits.

It wasn’t just the food that drew him to the small cottage with its rough stone walls and thatched roof. Auburn haired, green-eyed Bran was even more tempting than roast goose, parsnips, and cock-a-leekie soup put together.

“Sure you will nae have another bit o’pudding?” Barbara watched him with a twinkle in her green eyes. She knew she could usually tempt him, but not tonight. He’d eaten too well already.

“I’ve no place to put it!” he protested. Besides, he was eager to get to the rest of the Christmas celebration, which would include Bran playing the pipes for them. “May I help you clear away the table?”

Bran was busy helping his father move his bath chair—custom made by Bran himself—away from the table and over to the hearth, and Iain thought perhaps helping Barbara would let them get to the music that much more quickly.

“You ha’e business elsewhere.” She shooed Iain away with a flap of her apron. “Bran has a gift for you, and he’ll nae be in the mood to play ’til ’tis in your hands.”

Iain smiled and cast a fond look in Bran’s direction. Bran was a gifted woodcarver, and he’d given Iain a special carving for the past ten years or more, since he’d become satisfied enough with his work to give it away. Iain had each and every carving on display in his parlor, and he would be pleased to add another to his collection, although it wasn’t the gift he truly wanted. That gift was too much to hope for, he thought with a quiet sigh, but he had no one to blame but himself for being foolish enough to fall in love with his best friend.

“As it happens, I’ve a gift for Bran as well,” he said, pitching his voice louder to make sure Bran heard him.

Bran settled his father’s chair comfortably before the fire, then glanced at Iain, his green eyes—so like his mother’s—gleaming with amusement. “Ha’e you, now? Something very practical?”

Iain smiled wryly and rubbed the back of his neck, feeling as if he’d been caught out. His gift was rather practical, but it was personal as well, far more personal than gifts he’d given Bran in the past.

“Not very practical,” he said, regarding Bran worriedly. What if Bran didn’t like what he’d made? What if Bran thought it was boring and predictable? “But you won’t know until you open it.”

Patting his father on the shoulder, Bran straightened and reached for a fabric-wrapped bundle on the mantel. He crossed the room to Iain, his smile reassuring. “I was only teasing a bit. Mostly because my own gifts are so predictable.”

“In a way.” Iain inclined his head slightly to acknowledge the point. “But they are also creative. I never can guess what you’ll create for me each year, and I look forward to finding out.”

Bran stopped in front of Iain, smiling up at him. Physically they could not be more different; Iain was a big, powerful man, in contrast to Bran’s more slender build, kept lean through hard work. Bran was pale skinned with a dusting of freckles that went along with his reddish hair, while Iain had dark hair and eyes.

“Good. Here, then, see what I’ve carved for you this year.” Bran offered him the muslin-wrapped package, tied up with a green ribbon.

Beaming, Iain accepted it and unwrapped it eagerly, gasping in delight when he saw the intricately carved replica of his house. His family was a distaff branch of the local gentry; descended from a younger son three generations or so back, Iain held no title, but he owned a profitable parcel of land on which sat a well-made house, too spacious for a bachelor, but previous generations had seen it filled with children.

The carving captured the details of his house perfectly, and he ran his fingertips over the smooth wood with a reverent touch.

“’Tis lovely indeed.” He smiled at Bran warmly. “Thank you. I’ll find a special place to put it so all who visit may see it.”

A flush crept over Bran’s cheeks, but his answering smile was pleased. “I’m glad you like it. I couldna think of any more animals that would make sense to go with the rest. We all see enough sheep every time we go outside, I dinna think you want to stare at a row of carved ones when you go inside!”

Iain laughed and shook his head. “You’ve the right of it. If I want to see sheep, I’ll look out a window. Now, then, are you ready for your gift, practical and dull as it may be?” he asked, giving Bran an arch look.

Bran chuckled and held out his hands. “Practical isna always dull. You’ve ne’er given me a gift I dinna like.”

Iain went to retrieve the package he’d hidden in his cloak; it too was wrapped in muslin, but it was much softer. He handed it to Bran, watching him hopefully.

Bran’s slender fingers made short work of the ribbon; then he carefully pulled back the fabric covering to reveal a mass of soft green wool. He lifted it, his eyes growing round as the knitted scarf unrolled, showing the intricate cables along the length. At each end were color work figures: a row of thistles nearest the end, followed by a row of tiny bagpipes, and topped off with a row of sheep.

For a moment, Bran didn’t speak, but simply held the scarf, caressing the figures of the pattern with a delicate finger. Then he looked up at Iain again, and there was no mistaking the pleasure in his eyes. Bran had chuckled at the first lumpy, misshapen garments Iain had produced under his mother’s tutelage years ago, but Iain had practiced and improved since then. “’Tis the most beautiful thing anyone has e’er made for me. Thank you, Iain. I shall treasure it always.”

Relieved that Bran liked the gift, Iain reached out and caught the stray end of the scarf and ran it between his fingers, which was the closest he could get to caressing Bran. “I’m glad you like it. It took me quite a while to get the color work the way I wanted it.”

He hadn’t always been grateful that his mother had coerced him into learning along with his younger sisters, claiming they all needed to know how to knit their own stockings, scarves, and hats so they would always be warm. However, he was quite glad of the skill and that he had some measure of adeptness at it now.

“I can see.” Bran’s smile was warm, and he reached out, clasping Iain’s hand and giving it a brief squeeze. “’Tis perfect, and I shall wear it special for Hogmanay.”

“Ach, yes!” Mrs. MacRae stepped up to admire the scarf, then beamed at Iain. “’Tis indeed a lovely gift, Iain. And speaking of Hogmanay, who are you first-footing for this year? You always seem to bring good luck to whomever you pick.”

“I’ve not decided yet.” Iain always had several requests to serve as first-footer, a Hogmanay tradition that went back centuries, but he limited himself to one or two households at most. Otherwise, he might easily spend the first day of the year doing nothing but walking into other people’s houses. “It’s been a while since I’ve come here,” he added hopefully, eager for an excuse to see Bran on New Year’s Day. After all, his mother had always said he would spend the rest of the year doing whatever he did on that day, and he wanted to see as much of Bran throughout the year as he could.

The smile that curved Barbara MacRae’s face was luminous. “Would you really? ’Twould be the best possible thing I could imagine! Niall, did you hear? Iain is going to first-foot for us!”

“The whole village heard you, woman!” Niall replied drily. “Now, how about fetching your poor husband some warm milk?”

Barbara chuckled, giving Iain a grateful pat on the arm before bustling off to care for her husband. Bran, for his part, was grinning almost as widely as his mother.

“You’ve made her whole year with that,” he said. “Thank you.”

As in most of Scotland, the small village of Kirkaldy celebrated Hogmanay, the last day of the year, with music and dancing and feasting that lasted for the entire night and well into the next morning. “Auld Lang Syne” would be sung at midnight, and then the practice of first-footing would begin, in which a man who wasn’t part of the household would be the first to set foot inside a house, bringing gifts of bread, salt, and whiskey to ensure good luck and prosperity for the inhabitants in the year to come. It was considered luckiest to have a tall, dark-haired man perform this honor, which explained why Iain was in such demand among the various blonde and red-haired inhabitants of the village. This year being 1899 and the end of a millennium, it was considered even more important to have a first-foot who would set the tone for the future.

“My pleasure.” Iain took back the scarf and wrapped it around Bran’s neck so he could see how the green hand-dyed wool looked with Bran’s vivid green eyes. He made and discarded several batches of dye until he’d mixed up exactly the shade he wanted to complement Bran’s eyes, and he was pleased with the results. He let his forefinger graze against Bran’s jaw as he pretended to fluff up the folds of the scarf.

Bran’s eyes widened, and Iain thought there was a flash of something in them, a response to the touch. But then Bran glanced away, and when he spoke, his voice was husky. “Did you ha’e any particular song you want me to play tonight? You’re the guest of honor, after all.”

“Nay, I’ll gladly listen to whatever you wish to play.” Iain stepped back with reluctance and took a seat near the fireplace with Niall. “Please yourself and you’ll please me.”

Bran nodded and moved to one corner of the room, where rested the case that held the bagpipes passed down from his grandfather. Everyone acknowledged Bran was the best piper in the village, and he was always in demand to play for weddings and birthdays. After inflating the bag, Bran looked at Iain with a smile and began to play “The Gypsy Laddie.” From the time they were young, Bran had teased Iain, because of his dark coloration, about being descended from the Gypsy who had wooed off the Lord of Castle’s lady.

When they were younger, Iain had been amused by the comparison, but over the past few years, he had begun to notice Bran as more than merely a friend, and his interest had deepened. Now he couldn’t hear the song without wishing he could carry Bran off like the Gypsy had.

Then again, they were on the cusp of not only a new year but a new century, and Iain was tired of being alone. He thought he’d seen Bran pay more attention to the lads of the village than to the lasses, and if that were so, it might mean Bran shared his preferences. Perhaps it was time to woo Bran and see if there was any hope his feelings might be returned.

If there was, it would be the best Christmas present of his life.

The Vampire's Dinner by TJ Nichols
SNOW WAS falling and settling on the footpath that ran through the center of the park. He wanted to be able to appreciate the swirling flakes before they melted away, but he couldn’t. The beauty was transient and would be ugly brown slush tomorrow.

Lights of every color had been strung from the trees. The tree in the center was lit up so bright he wondered if it would catch fire. He half hoped it would just so he could see the humans watching the carolers scurry.

His cane tapped on the ground as he walked, his leg stiff from the old injury. He could’ve skirted the park, but it would have taken him longer. However, as the voices of the choir carried toward him, he wished he had. Their overly saccharine songs and Christmas cheer made his fangs ache—although that could be hunger.

A snowball hit the back of his leg, and he stumbled, caught himself on his cane, and put too much weight on his bad leg. He turned, ready to growl. The kid who’d thrown the snowball smirked even as his mother apologized.

There were too many people around, and they were all here having a good time. He curled his lips in something that approximated a smile and kept walking. Christmas. He hated the cheer and the goodwill. Mostly he hated being reminded of the day he died.

The gleaming lights of the hotel greeted him from the other side of the park, and he quickened his pace. He checked his watch. He had half an hour until his evening plans would begin. If everything else went smoothly, that was plenty of time, but today had been full of delays.

Heat hit him as he walked through the hotel door. He didn’t spare a nod for the man standing there bundled up against the damp London cold.

The hotel concierge greeted him with a perky attitude that bordered on obsequious. “Mr. Redfort, we are so glad to have you back this Christmas. Your suite has been prepared. Will you be having your usual meal?”

“Yes.” He hadn’t been able to eat in over four hundred years, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to sample roast duck and Christmas pudding with brandy sauce. “That would be delightful, Peter.”

He’d made the effort to read the man’s name tag. People liked that kind of thing, and he had learned if one was very polite to the staff and left a large tip, one could literally get away with murder.

On Christmas that was exactly what he did.

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

Meredith Russell
Meredith Russell lives in the heart of England. An avid fan of many story genres, she enjoys nothing less than a happy ending. She believes in heroes and romance and strives to reflect this in her writing. Sharing her imagination and passion for stories and characters is a dream Meredith is excited to turn into reality.


Posy Roberts
Posy Roberts writes about the realistic struggles of men looking for love. Whether her characters are family men, drag queens, or lonely men searching for connections, they all find a home in her stories.

Posy is a Jill of all trades and master of the drill and paintbrush. She’s married to a partner who makes sure she doesn’t forget to eat or sleep during her writing frenzies. Her daughter, a budding author and cinematographer, helps her come up with character names. For fun, Posy enjoys crafting, hiking, and singing spontaneously about the mundane, just to make regular life more interesting.

Emma Keene
Emma Keene is not only a writer, but is also appallingly bad at wrapping presents. It doesn’t help that her family wraps gifts like they are on some sort of design competition reality show. Seriously, we are talking pinecones, pine needles, and big perfect handmade bows.

When she isn’t writing or reading a ridiculous number of books (is there even such a thing?), she is out taking pictures or going to sports games. Baseball is her favorite, and yes, she is a firm believer in the designated hitter.

She lives with a grouchy cat and has considered getting her cat a friend many times, but then realizes that she will become the “crazy cat lady” and quickly rejects the idea.

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.

Lou Harper
Under a prickly, cynical surface Lou Harper is an incorrigible romantic. Her love affair with the written word started at a tender age. There was never a time when stories weren't romping around in her head. She is currently embroiled in a ruinous romance with adjectives. In her free time Lou stalks deviant words and feral narratives.

Lou's favorite animal is the hedgehog. She likes nature, books, movies, photography, and good food. She has a temper and mood swings.

Lou has misspent most of her life in parts of Europe and the US, but is now firmly settled in Los Angeles and worships the sun. However, she thinks the ocean smells funny. Lou is a loner, a misfit, and a happy drunk.

Kris T Bethke
Kris T. Bethke has been a voracious reader for pretty much her entire life and has been writing stories for nearly as long. An avid and prolific daydreamer, she always has a story in her head. She spends most of her free time reading, writing, or knitting/crocheting her latest project. Her biggest desire is to find a way to accomplish all three tasks at one time. A classic muscle car will always turn her head and weekend naps are one of her greatest guilty pleasures. She lives in a converted attic with an aquarium full of tropical fish and the voices in her head. She’ll tell you she thinks that’s a pretty good deal.

Alex Whitehall
If there are two types of people in the world, Alex Whitehall probably isn't one of them, despite being a person. Her—for lack of a better pronoun—favorite pastimes include reading, horseback riding, reading, watching geek-tastic television, reading, and running. While Alex prefers writing over doing anything else (except maybe reading), sometimes she emerges from the cave to be social and to hunt for food at the local market. She can be found blogging, searching the Internet for more books to read, and tending after her aloe plant Cornwall.

Ari McKay
Ari McKay is the professional pseudonym for Arionrhod and McKay, who collaborate on original m/m fiction. They began writing together in 2004 and finished their first original full length novel in 2011. Recently, they’ve begun collaborating on designing and creating costumes to wear and compete in at Sci Fi conventions, and they share a love of yarn and cake.

Arionrhod is an avid costumer, knitter, and all-around craft fiend, as well as a professional systems engineer. Mother of two human children and two dachshunds who think they are human, she is a voracious reader with wildly eclectic tastes, devouring romance novels, military science fiction, horror stories and Shakespeare with equal glee. She is currently preparing for the zombie apocalypse.

McKay is an English teacher who has been writing for one reason or another most of her life. She also enjoys knitting, reading, cooking, and playing video games. She has been known to knit in public. Given she has the survival skills of a gnat, she’s relying on Arionrhod to help her survive the zombie apocalypse.

TJ Nichols
TJ Nichols is happiest with a bourbon in hand and a cat on the lap while plotting to take over the world… no, sorry that is TJ’s supervillain alter ego. TJ is an avid runner, martial arts enthusiast, and self-confessed nerd who does like bourbon, cats, and plotting to take over the world when writing. Having grown up reading thrillers and fantasy novels, it was no surprise that mixing danger and magic came so easily. After traveling all over the world, TJ now lives in Perth, Western Australia.


RJ Scott
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE  /  B&N
SMASHWORDS  /  EXTASY  /  AMAZON
EMAIL: rj@rjscott.co.uk

Meredith Russell
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PINTEREST  /  INSTAGRAM  /  TUMBLR
EMAIL: meredithrussell666@gmail.com

Posy Roberts
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
NEWSLETTER  /  iTUNES  /  KOBO  /  TUMBLR
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Emma Keene
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Josh Lanyon
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Lou Harper
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EMAIL: lou_harper@ymail.com

Kris T Bethke
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Alex Whitehall
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EMAIL: AlexDWhitehall@gmail.com

Ari McKay
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TJ Nichols
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The Road to Frosty Hollow by RJ Scott & Meredith Russell
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Analog to Digital by Posy Roberts
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Resolutions by Emma Keene
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So This is Christmas by Josh Lanyon
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Krampusz by Lou Harper
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His Needs by Kris T Bethke
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A Christmas for Oscar by Alex Whitehall
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Last Leap of the First-Foot by Ari McKay
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The Vampire's Dinner by TJ Nichols
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Christmas Waltz by Josh Lanyon