Monday, January 8, 2018

Best Reads of 2017 Part 1


I read 250 books in 2017 so when I was getting ready to do my Best Reads of 2017 feature, it was very difficult to narrow it down. Some of them were new releases, some were just new to me, and some of them are re-reads but all really stuck with me and found a lasting place in my heart and library.  I finally narrowed it down to 44 books broken into four parts.  Part 1 features my favorite reads from January, February, & March of 2017 each containing my original review.

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Part 2  /  Part 3  /  Part 4

Regeneration by Louise Lyons
Summary:
In the 23rd Century in the galaxy of Sigma Kappa, Kim Fortune was the first surviving experimental enhanced human—a regenerate. Aged fifteen, he escaped the lab and years later, his failings as a regenerate and the suspicion of regular humans, leave him lonely and lacking in self-worth. Stranded on an abandoned planet, the arrival of a stricken ship and its crew give him hope that he may finally find what he always longed for—love.

Christian Novak is a successful regenerate with all the intended attributes—including lack of human emotion. Despite their immediate attraction to each other, Kim's failing confidence, and Christian's inability to empathize are a recipe for disaster. But war, imprisonment, and danger throw them together, and after each saves the other's life, their feelings begin to change.

Can a seemingly unsuitable pair ever find love, or is a future together destined to fail?

Original Review January 2017:
WOW!  I just had to start by throwing that out there.  I have been a sic-fi fan since I first saw Star Wars when I was 4 years old in 1977 so as you can imagine I've seen and read many science fiction plots in the years since.  It isn't easy to tell a romance story in science fiction setting and pull it off with amazing heart, well Louise Lyons has done just that with Regeneration.  Kim Fortune worms his way into your heart with his lonely soul, he may be a bit naive when it comes to certain things but he's always genuine.  When Novak crashes into his life, nothing will ever be the same for either of them.

Not a lot I can say without revealing too much but I will say I love how the technology and science in Regeneration may not be doable in our lifetime but it certainly is a believable progression given the future time frame.  Add unlikely romance into the possibility that one day it just may be the world our future generations live in and you have a story that really sucks you in and sticks with you.  Once I started I just couldn't put it down, I know that may sound cliche but it's no less true.  Prepare yourself to get lost in Kim & Novak's tale.

RATING: 

The Curse of the Blue Scarab: A Monster Mash-Up by Josh Lanyon
Summary:
Who or what is responsible for the gruesome deaths of members of the secret society known as the Order of Osiris?

Dr. Armiston, an irascible, confirmed bachelor who believes in medicine not mysticism, is certain the deaths are only tragic accidents.

The members of the Order of Osiris suspect something more sinister is at work. They profess to believe an ancient curse has been visited upon their society. Handsome and mysterious Captain Maxwell requests Armiston’s help.

Tarot cards? Egyptology? Spiritualism? Armiston has little patience with the superficial and silly pastimes of the rich, but he does love a good puzzle. Or could it be that he is more drawn to young Captain Maxwell than he wishes to admit?

Either way, Armiston must solve the secret of the cursed sarcophagus very soon, for Captain Maxwell is the next slated to die…

Original Review January 2017:
Another amazing tale from the great storyteller Josh Lanyon.  The Mummy has always been one of my favorite Universal & Hammer horror stories and this interesting mash-up/spin on it had me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end.  Is the Mummy real? Well, for that you'll have to read The Curse of the Blue Scarab yourself, but I will say that you won't want to miss this one.  So many elements in this one bring the story to life in ways that had my heart in my throat, my knuckles white from gripping my Kindle so hard, and the building anticipation had me tingling from my hair to my toes.  Such a delicious way to start the New Year, a Lanyon novel with all my favorite elements: historical, romance, mystery, and hints of the paranormal which tick all my WOW boxes. The only disappointment was that it had to end.

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…


Original Review January 2017:
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: 

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.

Original Review January 2018:
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: 

Nothing Special by AE Via
Summary:
Nothing Special #5
The boys are back and fiercer than ever!

"We were a unit tonight, moving as one. Even apart, we are deadly, but when combined – we are f**kin’ unstoppable." ~~ God ~~

Atlanta's notorious narcotics task force is at it again. They are stronger, bigger, and better than ever. Especially when a city councilman sends RECON Marine, Edwin Steele - who’s been blacklisted from his Oakland department - to join the team. God and Day weren't recruiting. They have a lot on their plates, like the fact they're supposed to be getting married soon. They don't have the time or the patience to integrate a decorated war hero with a slight chip on his shoulder into their well-oiled machine.

A hothead that's uncontrollable and terrible with authority… but wasn’t that their team motto?

Steele was ready to hang up his shield. He was done fighting with bigoted bastards that couldn't respect the job. He was good at fighting; he just needed the right team to fight with. When his uncle - City Councilman, Rasmus Steele - shows him a video of God's team in action, he knows right away, it's where his nephew belongs in order to restore his faith.

Steele pointed to the driver, a behemoth of a man wielding those massive firearms like a true beast… like a soldier. “And him. Who the hell is he?”

“That’s your new boss. Lieutenant Cashel Godfrey… they call him… God.”

Steele was skeptical about his new placement, but when he meets God's technology specialist/computer genius, “Tech,” he's willing to give it his all, and he definitely shows and proves.

Tech is stunning. His sweater vest and khakis, a stark contrast to the blue-jeaned roughnecks he works with. A beautiful sheep amongst the wolves. Steel thinks there's no way the brilliant man would be interested in a hardhead like him, but Tech has a few badass hidden talents of his own and manages to fool him... fool all of them.

This story is a part of a series but can stand alone. It does not end on a cliffhanger and has a HEA. There are no multiple pairings in this novel.
Original Review February 2017:
Another great entry in this series! It was so fun to see all the guys again as well as a couple of new faces.  Steele fit in perfectly with this awesome group of cops, thank heavens his uncle thought of him.  I always love it when the computer nerd can do more than sit behind his keyboard and Tach fits with Steele as if they were missing puzzle pieces finally found hiding under the table.  Getting to see God and Day loving and yet not exactly settled, even if it's due to lack of communication, makes this a smile-inducing, heartbeat-increaser, humdinger of a read.

Throw in an introduction to Hart and Free who will hopefully be coming soon in their own installment to this wonderful series and that super creepy Vasquez, who I'm sure we haven't heard the last of, and Nothing Special V has risen to my second favorite for the Atlanta Narcotics Task Force, nothing beats the first entry where we meet God and Day.  I have to admit I missed Ro and Johnson and the fun that they had with God and Day, they certainly aren't a long-term-in-love foursome, but I'm sure it's something they revisit from time to time but we can't have everything.

I loved having Pres, Ric, & Blair show up.  I hadn't read their story, You Can See Me, I had tried when I read this series the summer of 2015 but I just couldn't let go of the Atlanta boys enough to get into it then so I went back and read it now - YUMMY!  Bringing them in to remind us that Pres is such an important part of Leo's life was a great treat.

As if that all wasn't perfect by itself, AE Via then threw in a little Genesis and Curtis tale at the end to put icing on the cake.  Whip it up all together and Nothing Special V is a meal to end all dinners that will leave you full, satisfied, and still hungering for more.

RATING: 

The Puritan Pirate by Jules Radcliffe
Summary:
The Caribbean, 1664

An uptight naval lieutenant. A free-living buccaneer. Enemies from the first.

It all changes the night Quinn reluctantly rescues Lieutenant Peregrine from the consequences of his folly. Their tentative truce leads to a wild tryst and the thrilling discovery that their unconventional desires are perfectly matched.

Perry is the most delightfully submissive lover Quinn has ever had, and he wants Perry by his side for good. But such an affair would not only end Perry’s career, he may never be able to return to England and his family. Fearful of discovering Perry’s desire for respectability is stronger than his love, Quinn leaves him behind in Port Royal.

But in his darkest hour, Quinn discovers that Perry will risk his life for them to be together.

Original Review February 2017:
Historical, romance, intrigue, and most important: PIRATES!  I couldn't help but fall in love with Perry and Quinn, both as individuals and as a couple, their chemistry is off the charts almost more when fighting than when loving.  Don't get me wrong, the loving is more and full of WOW but their fighting is just dripping with want and is obvious foreplay.  As much as I love pirate stories it is not one of my areas of history that I know in detail so I can't exactly speak to the historical accuracy of the author but what I am familiar with seemed pretty spot on.  Jules Radcliffe is a new author for me and as much as I loved The Puritan Pirate, I can safely say that it won't be the last time I read a Radcliffe tale.

RATING: 

Plaid versus Paisley by KC Burn
Summary:
Fabric Hearts #2
Two years after his life fell apart, Will Dawson moved to Florida to start over. His job in the tech department of Idyll Fling, a gay porn studio, is ideal for him. When his boss forces him to take on a new hire, the last person he expects is Dallas Greene—the man who cost him his job and his boyfriend back in Connecticut. He doesn’t know what’s on Dallas’s agenda, but he won’t be blindsided by a wolf masquerading as a runway model. Not again.

Dallas might have thrown himself on his brother’s mercy, but his skills are needed at Idyll Fling. Working with Will is a bonus, since Dallas has never forgotten the man. A good working relationship is only the beginning of what Dallas wants with Will.

But Dallas doesn’t realize how deep Will’s distrust runs, and Will doesn’t know that the man he’s torn between loving and hating is the boss’s brother. When all truths are revealed, how can a relationship built on lies still stand?

Fabric Hearts #1 & 2  /  Fabric Hearts #3

Original Review February 2017:
KC Burn has done it again.  Plaid Versus Paisley is a great follow-up to Tartan Candy in the Fabric Hearts series.  Now, as so often with series' that focus on different couples with each entry, Plaid can be read as a standalone but personally, I recommend reading Tartan first.  You won't be lost if you don't, Raven, Caleb, and Jaime from Tartan are only in a few scenes but I just feel that knowing their character history helps everything flows smoother.

Will and Dallas really dug in close to my heart.  I can empathize with Dallas' health issues and Will's paranoia, though extreme and stemming from misunderstandings, is definitely believable.  Together they make an intriguing pair of past acquaintances and co-workers that find themselves in a current and new employer/employee scenario.  All of this set in and around the gay porn website, Idyll Fling, balances the drama and romance perfectly with humor and friendship, put them all together and Plaid Versus Paisley will leave your heart smiling.

And a little side note: I am hoping that Beck and Jaime get their own Fabric Hearts entries.  Perhaps even paired together. *hint, hint* Ms. Burn.

RATING: 

Fair Chance by Josh Lanyon
Summary:
All's Fair #3
Elliot Mills comes face-to-face with evil in this follow-up to Fair Game and Fair Play from bestselling author Josh Lanyon  

One final game of cat and mouse…

Ex–FBI agent Elliot Mills thought he was done with the most brutal case of his career. The Sculptor, the serial killer he spent years hunting, is finally in jail. But Elliot's hope dies when he learns the murderer wasn't acting alone. Now everyone is at risk once again—thanks to a madman determined to finish his partner's gruesome mission.

When the lead agent on the case, Special Agent Tucker Lance, goes missing, Elliot knows it's the killer at work. After all, abducting the love of his life is the quickest way to hurt him.

The chances of finding Tucker are all but impossible without the help of the Sculptor—but the Sculptor is in no position to talk. Critically injured in a prison fight, he lies comatose and dying while the clock ticks down. Elliot has no choice but to play this killer's twisted game and hope he can find Tucker in time.

Saturday's Series Spotlight: All's Fair Trilogy

Original Review March 2017:
Elliot and Tucker may not have the same hold on my heart as the author's Adrien and Jake from her Adrien English Series but they do give them a run for their money.  Their give and take chemistry in both their home life and the Sculptor case is even stronger in the aftermath of Fair Chance as it was in the initial investigation in Fair Game.  I dread the thought that we won't be seeing any more of these two but if that truly is the case, well what a way to say "the end"!

Did Andrew Corian have an accomplice or is he just trying to keep his game afoot with Elliot, to keep him looking over his shoulder, or to get the death penalty off the table?  For that answer, you'll have to read this yourself and if you have been following this tale since Fair Game you won't want to miss this great conclusion, if you're new to the game well then here is the perfect time to give these boys a go.

I love it when every secondary character has a purpose.  When you are dealing with a mystery sometimes the secondaries are glorified extras to cloud the suspect pool.  Not in Fair Chance, each one has a specific role, some are true suspects, some are true co-workers, some are family, but they are all important, they all add a little something to the tale that would leave a hole if they were not there.  When the mystery is "Is there a mystery?" it takes talent to tell it, to blend "is there" to "yes there is", to thread passion and humor with love and hate.  Those are just some of the reasons that Fair Chance is a nail-biter and if you don't bite your nails, be sure to have some toothpicks handy to gnaw on, you are going to need them.

RATING: 

Here for Us by AM Arthur
Summary:
Us #1
Cris Sable doesn’t walk into popular gay bar Big Dick’s expecting to find more than a casual hookup, so he’s surprised by his instant attraction and intense chemistry with go-go dancer Jake. Jake’s sexy as hell and a firecracker in bed. The sparks between them are undeniable, and what starts as a hookup evolves into something deeper, possibly permanent—until Jake dumps Cris flat on his ass for no good reason.

Angry and confused, Cris finds comfort with his longtime friend and employer Charles “Chet” Greenwood. Cris’s emotional state stirs up Charles’s long-buried feelings for Cris. Feelings he’s denied for eight years, because Cris is his employee and therefore off limits—not to mention two decades younger than Charles. Cris admits he has feelings for Charles, too, but he’s still getting over Jake and both men agree nothing can happen between them while Charles is still Cris’s boss.

Jake Bowden knows he doesn’t have anything to offer a guy. He’s a go-go dancer with no degree and no real career aspirations. He’s also used to everyone who loves him leaving, so it makes sense to cut Cris loose before things get too serious. Cris is kind, passionate and totally deserves a guy like Charles—wealthy, owns a home, successful businessman. Jake can’t compete so why bother? They’re better off together. But when Jake has a serious personal crisis, Cris and Charles unite to pull him back together, and the three men discover it’s possible—maybe even inevitable—to fall in love with more than one person at a time.

A brand-new spin-off from the fan-favorite and award-winning Perspectives series, Us tells the story of three very different men finding each other and understanding that love comes in all shapes, sizes, and even ages.


Original Review March 2017:
I just absolutely love AM Arthur's work and the idea that she was venturing into a polyamorous storyline thrilled me to bits and left me completely giddy.  When Here for Us showed up on my Kindle, I dived in and I can safely say I was perfectly right to feel giddy, simply put - it's amazing!  The characters, the chemistry, the setting all meshed together and blended perfectly with the inner monologues of the three men at the heart of this tale.

If you're asking me is this a standalone or new series? My answer would be yes, it's a new series.  However, it is a spin-off of the author's Perspectives series so do you need to read them first? No, but I do suggest reading them first as there are a few of the characters from that series that pop up and I just think the whole atmosphere runs smoother knowing them and their journeys before you begin Here for Us but you won't be lost if you haven't read them.

As the porn industry is at the center of their occupations and livelihood, some of the characters will have two names but I did not find that confusing at all, I can see where some might find that to be a bit of a hiccup but I didn't. Chris, Charles, & Jake all have their issues that bring them to where they find themselves meeting.  It may seem cliche to say but the truth is sometimes we meet people who make us stronger and that is what Chris, Charles, & Jake do. Having said that, it's not as simple as just meeting and being happy because that would take about 20 pages and would be a bit boring so there is drama, humor, romance, ups and downs, and of course lots of yumminess.  I'm afraid that's as close to spoiler material you're going to get from me but I will add that I can't wait to see where the author takes these boys and I highly recommend giving it a look, you won't be disappointed.

RATING: 

Imago by NR Walker
Summary:
Imago #1
Nerdy, introverted genius lepidopterist, Lawson Gale, is an expert on butterflies. He finds himself in a small town in Tasmania on a quest from an old professor to find an elusive species that may or may not even exist.

Local Parks and Wildlife officer, Jack Brighton, is an ordinary guy who loves his life in the sleepy town of Scottsdale. Along with his Border collie dog, Rosemary, his job, and good friends, he has enough to keep from being lonely.

But then he meets Lawson, and he knows he’s met someone special. There’s more to catching butterflies, Jack realises. Sometimes the most elusive creatures wear bowties, and sometimes they can’t be caught at all.

Lawson soon learns there are butterflies he can’t learn about it in books. They exist only in a touch, in a kiss, in a smile. He just has to let go first, so these butterflies can fly.

Imago is the story of finding love, bowties, and butterflies.

Original Review March 2017:
Who knew geekiness could be so appealing? Well, I could because I find intelligence to be extremely sexy but in this case Jack does too.  Lawson sees himself as a social outcast, not that he's complaining about that title it's just how he sees other people categorizing him.  Jack on the other hand loves his geek and intelligence side, it's refreshing and add in those bowties, well lets just say he's in hook, line, and sinker from the getgo.  As for Lawson's opinion of Jack?  Pretty perfect too but he doesn't understand why Jack is so enamored with him.

Their first interaction may not be super smooth but circumstances quickly change that and their chemistry is as bright as a wild bush fire that only the drought stricken Australian land could equal.  Throw in butterflies, Tasmanian devils, incredible food, amazing friends, Rosemary the dog, and what Imago brings you is an incredibly fun and overall lovely story.  I have to say that one of my favorite things about Lawson is his geekiness has not made him desperate for love or companionship.  As for Jack, I love that he may have a bit of jockiness(for lack of a better word) about him that helps his confidence but has not left him arrogant.

Some might see this as a story of insta-love but I see it as a story about finding your other half, of not realizing your lonely until the prospect of being alone again is a terrifying nightmare you never want to face.  Jack and Lawson were both satisfied with how their lives were but once they faced their week together coming to an end that is when it became real. So whether you term that inst-lovesoulmates, or something else is up to you but what I call it is re-readable.

RATING: 

The Case of the Guilty Ghost by RJ Scott & Amber Kell
Summary:
End Street Detective Agency #6
Bob is lost in grief, Sam is fighting for his life, and there is no middle ground. Can their love survive?

Bob is grieving over his brother’s sacrifice. Guilt-ridden and devastated, he buries himself in vampire mourning and pulls away from Sam.

Magic tears Sam from the vampire castle and he has to face new adversaries alone, when all he wants is Bob at his side.

Ettore is in the Aset Ka waiting room, next in line for the ceremony for his soul to be torn from his body. Aset Ka has other plans, and Ettore finds himself reunited with a lost love and fighting alongside his brother.

A forgotten past binds Theodore ‘Teddy’ McCurray Constantine III to Ettore, and with the curse tied to Ettore broken by his death, Teddy’s past returns to him with a vengeance.

A royal family in denial, a battle between gods, and long forgotten love leaves no time for Sam and Bob to take a breath. Is it too late to save the supernatural world?

Saturday's Series Spotlight: End Street Detective Agency

Original Review March 2017:
I had bittersweet feels about this one when the release day came around.  On the plus side, End Street Detective Agency Series is amazing, stupendous, fabulous, well frankly it's just plain great all around.  On the minus side, it's the conclusion, the end, finale, final, finis, no more, well frankly that leaves me with just all kinds of boo-hooing.  So as you can imagine, I hated to begin because then it would be it when I hit the last page but I couldn't not read The Case of the Guilty Ghost, the gang cried out to be read.

What can I say about Guilty Ghost without giving anything away?  Not too much really but I can't stress enough that this is NOT a standalone, you have to start at the beginning with The Case of the Cupid Curse.  I will say that Sam has finally accepted that he's not entirely human, although I don't think he likes it being pointed out.  His magic, or paranormality if you will, continues to grow and we finally learn why he is what he is as so many factors fall into place.

We have vampires, dragons, and ghosts, oh my!  Bob's brother returns, Teddy the ghost's history is revealed, the evil is uncovered, and the future is shaky but it's all yummy.  RJ Scott and Amber Kell have created a world that one can get lost in and who knew it would go where it did when Bob the Vampire rented a room from Sam the human(he thinks).  I have already re-read the first five stories even though it hasn't even been 6 months since my original read and I'm already looking forward to my next re-read, which probably says more about how much I love this universe than all the words I've already written.  End Street has definitely earned it's prime position on my paranormal shelf.

RATING: 


Regeneration by Louise Lyons
I found the galley empty, Neil having left his dish on the table with the others. I gathered up the dishes and spoons and dumped them in the steel sink. Novak hovered by the table, muscular arms folded across his chest. Silence hung heavy around us, and I struggled to think of some way to break it. Ask a question.

“Who are you?” I knew nothing about him. I’d learned a little about the others, but this man—he could be anyone and have done anything. Why was he a prisoner? Susan, Dina, and Johnson hadn’t been able to tell me much.

“Christian Novak; escaped convict. Well, I had escaped, until that jerk Ross caught up with me.”

“What did you do?”

“Killed a few people.”

“Are you trying to scare me?”

His grin broadened. “Ain’t it workin’?”

A faint prickle of fear touched my spine, but I ignored it. His attitude toward me didn’t indicate a threat. “Who did you kill?”

“Anyone who got in my way. You do that when you want to get away from something.”

“You didn’t kill Neil.” I turned my back to him, and opened a cupboard to retrieve a box of what passed for coffee granules. Removing one of the sachets, I emptied it into a mug. I didn’t offer him one.

“My mistake.” His boots scraped on the floor as he stepped closer to me. The scent of warm flesh and stale sweat reached my nostrils, and I wrinkled my nose. My heart pounded harder as his breaths came, slow and steady, inches from the back of my head. “Most people don’t turn their back.” His voice rumbled in my left ear, low and teasing.

“I’m not most people.”

“What would you do if I were to do this?” He moved his hand so fast I saw only a blur from the corner of my eye, before he gripped my throat and squeezed, not hard enough to cut off my air supply. Just as quickly, I snatched the pistol from the back of my pants, and thrust its barrel back over my left shoulder until it connected with hard flesh.

“Squeeze a little tighter and you’ll find out,” I hissed.

Novak loosened his grip, but his hand still cupped my throat. “It’s not primed.”

“It would have been, if I really thought you planned to hurt me. I can take care of myself.”

“You sound like my kinda boy.”

“Don’t push your luck.” I silently cursed the way my voice shook. Novak released me and raised both hands, one either side of me so I could see them. As he moved away, I tucked the pistol back into my pants, and wiped my sweating palms on my thighs.

I turned to face him and leaned against the sink. He watched me steadily, still smiling. He was dangerous, I acknowledged. Not because he’d killed people. I didn’t care about that, whatever the circumstances. He was hardly the only one. In this world, the strong survived and sometimes there was no other way. What scared me was the way he made me feel; the way he made my heart race and my hair stand on end; the way my cock twitched in my pants as he looked at me with hunger in his brown eyes. I’d never encountered anyone like him and it seemed we were to spend some time in each other’s company if I meant to leave Pardus behind. Maybe things would be different this time. He was a regenerate, so if I revealed we came from the same place, it wouldn’t matter to him. But would it matter when he realized I was a failure? Lacking most of the attributes I should have? Probably. My enthusiasm faded and I tried not to hope, but in that way, I was too human. I felt, and hoped, and longed, and prayed it wouldn’t matter to him.

The Curse of the Blue Scarab by Josh Lanyon
Chapter One
I Am Called In
I remember the fog was particularly thick that February morning.

Pressing its formless face to the steamy window panes, grey and dreary as a specter, it crept down the chimney, dripping and hissing onto the smoking logs.

Drip. Hiss. Drip. Hiss.

An otherwise unremarkable start to the day that was to change my life forever.

Bird, my servant, an ex-sergeant of Marines, was spinning some lengthy and involved yarn about his exploits at Ladysmith while I attempted to read my magazine and finish my breakfast before the business of the day began.

“Those were weary hours. Lying on that hill while the bullets hailed down on us. I can still hear ‘em cutting through the air and clacking on the rocks. You couldn’t hear yourself think...”

“One can only imagine,” I murmured.

My name is Armiston. I’m a physician living and working in the West End. This sounds grander than the reality which is a little flat over a grocer’s shop in a small side-street off Piccadilly. My patients are principally the servants (and principally the men-servants—butlers, coachmen and such) from the big houses and clubs.

“Nine hours we clung to that pile of stones. Cartridges dwindling and men dying. I can tell you hope was fading…”

“I feel as though I’m there beside you.” I turned the page of the paper, studying the dubious claims in the advertisement for Madam Harper’s hair tonic.

In the street below a couple of news-boys began yelling about exciting information  exclusive to the special edition of the Daily Tale. I knew nothing would satisfy Bird till he got a copy. So I sent him out.

Drip. Hiss. Drip. Hiss.

Presently the outer door was flung open, and a man’s voice demanded whether the doctor was in.

“Second door right-hand side of lobby,” I shouted, and the man was in before I could swallow another mouthful.

He was a handsome, well-dressed young fellow, though noticeably lame. He leaned heavily upon an ebony walking stick--I noticed he wore no gloves--and his face was bloodless and strained with pain and shock.

I rose at once, ready to go to his aid, but his words stopped me.

“Sorry to come in on you like this,” he said, “but there has been a sudden death in Albany—a man I know—and I--we--need you to come round at once.”

His eyes, dark now with emotion, appeared to be gray in color. His hair was black. He was perhaps thirty.

“I see.” I left the paper-knife to mark my place in the magazine. “Are you quite sure he’s dead?”

“I’m afraid there’s no doubt about it.”

“Poor fellow,” I said, and sat down again. “If he’s dead, I may as well finish my breakfast.”

The young man stared as though he could not believe his ears.

I took another mouthful of kippers.

“You damned cold-blooded c-cormorant,” said the young fellow very angrily. “Will you come or won’t you?”

I studied him for a moment. Too thin, nervy, and young. Younger than I had first thought. Pain and illness had taken their toll.

“Not unless you want me,” I assured him, “but I’m ready if you are--and it seems you are.” I took one final bite, rising and turning into the lobby for a hat, munching the last of my breakfast as I followed my visitor out.

I didn’t mind his remarks, for though my attitude was both logical and practical, his sentiment was natural enough. I observed his awkward gait as he preceded me down the stairs. He managed to move quickly, which must have hurt considerably.

Instinctively I patted my hip-pocket, to make sure that my hypodermic case was there. It is an old servant, and reminds me of a good many queer things if I sit down to overhaul it. But the queerest had not happened when I felt it in my hip-pocket that raw February morning.

A taxi-cab waited at the street door, noxious fumes pooling into the fog. We piled inside and the cab pulled away at once.

Maxwell, as he told me his name was, said that he and another man had gone round to breakfast at the Albany, and had found their host lying lifeless on the ground.

“Poor Scrymgeour’s man Seymour knew you,” he said. “He gave me your address.”

The name Scrymegeour was unfamiliar to me and I could think of no patient named Seymour. I had a number of questions--beginning with why Scrymegeour’s own physician had not been summoned--but it seemed futile to quiz Maxwell when I was about to see for myself.

My companion did not appear to be a talkative man. His profile was grim and withdrawn as he stared at the cab window. The hand clutching his walking stick clenched and unclenched in unconscious anxiety.

In a few minutes we reached the Albany. Maxwell paid the driver and we hurried inside.

All was quiet. There was no sign of life. And by the same token, no indication that a death had occurred. The gas lamps made a valiant effort to challenge the chilly gloom of the day, but the soft light could not dispel the shadows lurking in the corners.

We hastened up the stairs. We had just reached the top of the dimly lit landing when a woman seemed to come out of nowhere, narrowly missing collision. Head down, face heavily veiled, she brushed past us with a breathy wordless apology and disappeared hurriedly down the stair.

I glanced after her. “This way, Doctor,” Maxwell urged, and we continued down the corridor.

Maxwell knocked at A14 and the door opened at once.

A cadaverous-looking specimen stood before us, and I recognized my former patient Seymour. His complaint had been a touch of liver, as I recalled, and in fact his gray and puckered face rather resembled a piece of undercooked liver.

Maxwell and Seymour exchanged a certain and silent look. Without a word Seymour turned, leading the way.

These Albany suites consist mostly of dining-room, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen, and a pigeon-hole for a servant. The three first are en suite, each opening into the hall or lobby. Seymour took us straight to the bedroom from the outer door. Entering, one faced a high carved mantelpiece over the fire; and above the mantelpiece was the half-length portrait of a man in the dress of Charles the Second’s time.

On the hearth a large, heavy man lay, his head turned a little over his shoulder, his face half-hidden. It was easy to see before handling him, that his neck must be broken, and when I touched him I found he was not only dead, but cold.

Next to his feet lay wooden steps of the sort one uses to reach high book shelves. The right panel had broken off and the stool was overturned.

I glanced up at my companions. Maxwell met my gaze steadily, almost fiercely, as though waiting for me to make some objection. Seymour was staring at his fallen master.

I returned my attention to the unfortunate Scrymgeour. He wore evening-dress, and his face, the face of a man about thirty, was strikingly like that over the mantelpiece. The resemblance was increased by a small pointed beard, and by the dead man’s pale hair being just a little longer than most men wear their hair in town nowadays. What troubled me was his expression. His milky blue eyes were protuberant, as though starting from his head in alarm. His lips were drawn back from his rather pronounced teeth in a grimace of horror.

A young fellow, whom I judged to be Maxwell’s companion to this projected breakfast, joined us through another door than that by which we had entered, and bowed rather ceremoniously to me, without saying anything.

I began to like the situation less and less, though I could see nothing actually untoward in the case. More, it was the peculiar attitude of Scrymgeour’s friends. They were genuinely shocked, as they should be, but they also seemed almost…fearful, and for this I could see no reason.

I became conscious of a strange scent, an undernote to the more obvious odor of death. What was it?

“Your friend is, of course, dead,” I said, rising from my knees, “and he has been dead several hours.”

“And will you be so good as to tell us the cause of death?” asked the young fellow who had just joined us. He was fair-haired with soft brown eyes like a calf. He would have been about the same age as Maxwell, but of a softer and more conciliatory nature. Maxwell, unless I missed my guessed, had seen military service. This young man had never faced a more dangerous enemy than a bill collector. His voice was pleasant, though high-pitched, his manner was polite almost to affectation.

“A broken neck,” I said, “vulgarly speaking. More accurately, there is a separation of the cervical vertebrae, and probably complete rupture of the spinal cord.”

“But would you kindly oblige us with your opinion as to the cause of the broken neck?” At Maxwell’s warning look, he added, “I hope I am not asking too much.”

I looked at the young man, at the body, the steps, and the portrait.

“I cannot take the place of the coroner’s jury, you know,” I said. “The general appearance of things suggests that your friend was using the steps—perhaps examining that portrait—and that the steps broke, and the consequent fall did the mischief.”

He offered an uncertain smile. “Quite so. That is what we thought. I am greatly obliged to you for your opinion.”

“But my opinion,” I went on, looking at them both rather sternly, “isn’t of the slightest value, except as to the injury. The police must be told at once, and things had better be left exactly as they are until the police come. There will be an inquest.”

“Is that absolutely necessary?” Maxwell asked.

“Absolutely, as you must surely realize. But the police will tell you,” and I turned to leave the room.

I was thinking about the poor fellow on the floor, whose face was, I dare say, a good deal less grave and dignified then than it had been while he was alive. When death is sudden, in this case almost violently sudden, the victim is sometimes frozen in his final conscious or unconscious act, however ludicrous or embarrassing. The abject terror on the dead man’s features was disturbing even to someone who had not known him, and I wondered if perhaps it was this that was so distressing his friends to the point of addling their wits.

Preoccupied with this thought--or at least that would have been my excuse had either challenged me--I made absent-mindedly for the nearest door which led to the room the second young man had exited in order to join us.

As I reached for the handle I heard the two friends say simultaneously, “Not that door!’’

But they were too late.

The strange scent was much stronger in here and I recognized it at once.

Bitumen.

The hair rose on the back of my neck, though there is nothing inherently terrifying about the substance.

The room smelled of other things too. Cedar and candle wax and musty linens, but the acrid smell of bitumen underlay it all.

I pushed the door the remainder of the way open, and my attention was immediately caught by the queerly-shaped something propped against the far wall. It was the size of a small settee.

The next instant Maxwell reached me. He caught my arm. “This is only a dressing room, Doctor,” he said. Though his tone was courteous, his expression was grim.

I glanced down at his hand, raised my gaze pointedly.

Maxwell stubbornly held my stare.

I saw the very moment the thought occurred to him--recognized it because it was the exact same instant the thought occurred to me. His eyes searched mine and then he withdrew his hand.

I said, “I was thinking that if I write a note for the police—I know the inspector—it may save you trouble. I can write it here, I suppose?”

“No,” the other young man said. “You can’t.” He threw Maxwell an impatient look and then turned to Scrymgeour’s man. “Seymour, find the doctor pen and paper. Doctor, there is a writing table right in here.”

I ignored him, nodding at the heavy coffin-shaped container. “What is that?” I asked. I suspected I already knew what it was, though it was difficult to be certain in the poor light. I could see that it was made of dark wood and had been painted with exotic blue and gold designs.

“That?” It was Maxwell who answered. His tone was casual. Too casual. “That’s a mummy case, with a mummy inside. Poor Scrymgeour was interested in such things.”

This was my first introduction to the Mummy.

I wish it had been my last.

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.

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?

Nothing Special V by AE Via
Chapter Five
Steele
Damn, why couldn’t people just leave him the hell alone? Steele had arrived back in Atlanta only three weeks ago and his uncle had already sent for him. He wasn’t the least bit concerned about making a difference anymore. All he’d done was fight for the good, the innocent, fight for his country, and look what it got him. Look at all it took from him. Half of his battalion killed behind enemy lines. Then his partner shot and killed because his backup was a goddamn homophobic sonofabitch. But Steele’s last straw was when his own department covered it up. He was turning in his shield and there wasn’t anything his uncle could do about it.

Steele took another shot of Jack, not caring that it was only one o’clock in the afternoon. He’d heard that day drinking was the new trend, anyway. Everyone’s doing it, he grinned at himself, kind of liking his new sense of freedom. He pulled on his tan, rustic leather jacket and bent over to tie his black shit-kickers but stopped when his head protested. Shit. He groaned and stood back up, looking around for his badge before realizing he didn’t need it anymore. Ever again. Fuck Oakland.

His phone buzzed in the back pocket of his ratty jeans, but he ignored it again. He knew who it was and he knew he was late, but he was too fucked up to get on his bike. He might not care about his own miserable existence right now, but he wasn’t going to kill anyone else.

Because you care. You’ll always care: it’s who you are, Steele.

Steele growled at the sound of his best friend’s voice in his head and pulled the half-empty bottle of whisky back out of the cabinet, this time not bothering with a shot glass. He tipped it back and gulped a couple times, wincing at the harsh burn. He’d do it until he couldn’t hear that voice anymore. Until he could get some peace, maybe even some sleep.

You won’t find peace unless you’re fighting for what’s right.

Gulp. Gulp.

He stepped outside the broken screen door of his singlewide trailer and lit the last half of his Swisher Sweet Little cigar. The air was brisk and comfortable this time of year, reminding him that he’d always liked Atlanta in the fall. It was boots and leather coats weather, perfect for riding his bike. He needed to ride, wanted to feel the vibration against his balls, feel the freedom that came with it. But he’d have to sober up enough first.

He looked around the rundown trailer park, kicking a couple beer cans to the side as he stood on the rickety porch surveying the filth around him. He was never a man of expensive taste or much class. Give him a decent television with good reception and a roof, and he was satisfied. He didn’t need a walk-in closet, overpriced furniture, or a fancy kitchen with stainless steel appliances; shit, he couldn’t cook anyway, hence the garbage bags full of takeout containers and pizza boxes. He worked out enough to combat the negative effects of his diet.

“What up, cop?” A man who lived a few trailers down threw at him on his way by. It wasn’t a friendly greeting or one that warranted a response. He wasn’t a social neighbor and most that came across his path never had the urge to want to see him again. Which suited him just fine.

Steele pulled a deep inhale off his cigar, blowing half of the sweet-smelling smoke out of his nose. His phone buzzed again and he let his cigar hang out the side of his mouth while he pulled his jacket open to get it. He read the short text, frowning at the audacity of his one and only relative.

A car will be there in two minutes… get in it.

Damn. He figured he might as well get this over with. His uncle would be disappointed in his decision to leave law enforcement, but if there’s one thing Steele never did, it was let anyone tell him how to live his life.

He listened to the depressing sounds of the place he currently called home, the crying babies, the fighting spouses, the god-awful heavy metal music that his neighbor blasted no matter what time of day or night it was, but still he felt no desire to be anywhere else. Ackerman was gone, his best friend, the man that he’d wanted more than anything to become his lover, was gone.

He stood there with one hand braced on the rusted overhang while he watched a shiny, black Lincoln Town Car navigate around the deep potholes of the one street that curved through his neighborhood. One way in and one way out. As the car got closer, Steele heard the door across the street bang against the side of the metal trailer, and a toddler that looked too old to still be in diapers hurried out into the yard, heading toward the street.

Steele’s heart lurched and without thought his body sprang into action. He ran across the dirt that made up his yard and grabbed the little boy before he could run out in front of the Lincoln, the fender clipping the heel of his boot. He was just able to get his footing and not drop the kid.

The boy was at least three or four. His hair was a tangled mess of sandy brown curls and he wore nothing except his Pull-Up, which was barely hanging on since it was weighed down with urine. He had bright brown eyes and he looked at Steele like he was Superman, not the slightest bit concerned that he was in the arms of a stranger. The benefits of being young and oblivious.

Steele placed the kid back inside the front door and locked it from the inside, not bothering to notify the parents. This wasn’t the first time the little one had run outside; Steele would most likely see him back out again when he came home later.

Steele climbed in the front seat of the Lincoln.

“No smoking in here.”

“Fine, I’ll stay here.” Steele went for the handle.

“No wait,” the driver hurriedly said.

“Mm hmm. Drive,” Steele grunted and pulled another long drag on his cigar. He didn’t care when the teen in a grown-up outfit put the window all the way down, he simply reclined back and enjoyed the cool breeze in his hair.

“That was awfully heroic of you with that kid. I didn’t see him.”

“You should pay attention where you’re going. Especially in residential areas.” Steele was barely opening his mouth when he spoke. He wasn’t in the mood for conversation. Especially with him. The guy’s perfect haircut, impeccably pressed navy blue suit and red, stripped tie screamed do-gooder.

“I was distracted by that piece of crap tin box you live in. But you’re right, I should’ve been looking. You move fast. One second, you were on your porch and the next second, you were across the street. That’s amazing… especially being three sheets to the wind. You smell like a distillery. I’d be intrigued to see what you could do if you weren’t wasted.” The man turned a cocky grin at him and Steele had a mind to knock that smug look off his adolescent face.

“How old are you, kid?” Steele tossed his small cigar out the window, watching the scenery of Atlanta’s busy streets fly by.

“I’m not a kid, I’m twenty-five.” The guy balked, his frown almost making Steele laugh in his face. Was that his mean look?

“What exactly do you do for my dear old uncle, huh? Besides pick up his hard-headed nephew?”

The guy didn’t respond, as if Steele had hit a soft spot. Instead, he turned the corner hard onto Trinity Avenue and pulled into the parking lot of the Atlanta City government building. Tall oak trees surrounded the building, the once green leaves already turning their bright reds and oranges. Steele walked through the cold, heartless lobby ignoring the disgusted looks of the distinguished gentlemen that milled about and went straight to the bank of elevators on the north hall. He overlooked the classic beauty of the historical building, its tall columns and grand staircases; no longer interested in the magnificence of things. He wasn’t here on a field trip – he’d been summoned.

Steele paused, staring at his uncle’s last name on the glass, double-doors. The name his father held, grandfather, great grand…, and him. Instead of using the brass handles, he placed his large palm over the word Councilman and entered the city official’s office. He walked across the thick carpet, stopping in front of the only individual behind one of three desks that made up the waiting area. A petite blonde smiled brightly and gave him a courteous greeting before she asked how she could help him.

“I’m here to see Councilman Steele.”

“Do you have an appointment?” she asked, flipping open a bulging, black calendar book.

“Nope,” he replied curtly, sticking a well-chewed toothpick in his mouth that he’d pulled from his coat pocket.

The woman gave him a look that barely masked her revulsion. “I’m sorry. The Councilman’s calendar is full for today, but I’d be happy to take your—”

“Not a problem, I’ll come back when he’s not busy.” He winked and turned to leave. He was almost home free when he heard a sharp, “Stop right there. Don’t even think about it.”

Steele stopped midway out the door and took a couple steps back, letting the glass close in his face. No matter how much he’d like to, he couldn’t ignore that voice or the tone. One that sounded exactly like his father’s.

“Come on, Edwin. Inside.”

When he turned around and looked his uncle in those light eyes, his chest ached with a need to see his father just one more time. It was his twin standing in front of him, but if he closed his eyes, he’d swear it was his dad. That Estonian accent lingering just barely on the tip of his tongue, but overshadowed by the extensive time spent living in America.

“Please hold my calls, Renee. Thank you.”

Steele walked past the wide-eyed receptionist, her face showing her confusion. Confused that the regal Councilman would consort with such a vagabond. His uncle closed the door and walked up to him, pulling him into a hug. Steele didn’t have the strength or willpower not to hug him back. He embraced his father’s twin with the ferocity of needing him to make everything not only right in his life, but right in the world. Life was screwing him too hard and he couldn’t take it anymore.

“Vennapoeg.”

Steele knew some of his family’s native language, but he didn’t speak fluent Estonian, always ran when his father started up lessons, not wanting to miss a second of having fun with his isa, instead of learning. But he knew the word nephew. It’s how his uncle always greeted him. Steele held on and closed his eyes while his last remaining family member tried to comfort him.

“You’re going to be okay. You will. You’re strong, Vennapoeg. You are your father’s son. You will pull through this.”

“I’m tired of fighting,” Steele whispered painfully, clutching his uncle’s expensive suit jacket in his fists.

“You’ve just begun.” His uncle pulled back and placed his hands on his cheeks, looking him in his saddened gray eyes.

“I can’t fight for that city anymore. I won’t. They let him die… they just ignored his call for help. I know they did.” Steele felt like he wanted to take another drink. The weight of living with his battalion’s death, and now his partner’s death, ate at him. Though he’d never felt comfortable in Oakland and he and his partner never got a chance to form a more definitive bond. Steele knew his partner had been a good cop.

“I’ve done everything I can, Edwin. I can’t prove that unit could’ve got there in time to save him,” his uncle said sadly.

Steele gritted his teeth to keep from cursing up a storm. He’d never humiliate his uncle in his place of business. “Those bigoted bastards,” he hissed. Shaking his head, his voice strong again. “I’m not going back.”

“I know you’re not. Because god help ‘em all if they hurt you too.” His uncle spoke in that fear-provoking tone that all the Steele men were notorious for. “I’ll be in prison for the rest of my life. Don’t let the suit fool you, Vennapoeg.”

“It never has, Onu,” Steele answered. He absolutely knew of the power beneath that suit. His uncle was still a warrior – only now he had to fight from this office because of the metal plate in his hip – he’d fought right alongside Steele’s father in many protests right here in the United States before joining the Marines to fight abroad. It was in their bloodline. His great, great grandfather was a general in the Estonian Defence Forces – a peacekeeper that participated in the 1921 forming of a League of Nations. A man who was loved and respected by his countrymen until he saved the life of an American soldier that was being tortured by Estonian commanders.

Even as far back as Steele could remember, the men in their family stood up for those weaker than themselves, stood for what was right, no matter the cost. It’d not only cost his great, great grandfather his position in the military, but the love of his homeland. It was a blessing his grandfather wasn’t too proud to leave, wasn’t afraid to call America home, that’s why they fought for it.

Steele himself was a third generation Marine Force Recon lieutenant. He performed sixty-two successful black ops missions before taking bullets in the ribs and the thigh, ending his military career. The Navy doctor said he’d walk with a limp the rest of his life and would never be battle ready again.

He may have lost his unit, but he’d never stopped living for them. Living for Ackerman. Until this day, he still hadn’t chased a man that could out-run him. It took him three years, but he did it.

“Why’d you call me here, Onu? Not only to your office, but to Atlanta.” Steele stared out the tall window, looking down on the parking lot full of official vehicles.

“Because I believe you need new surroundings. Because I believe if you stay in Oakland, you won’t stop digging into Ramos’ death. They’ll never admit to stalling on the call, Edwin, and neither you, nor I have any way to prove it.”

“I can beat them until they confess.”

“Now you’ve answered your own question.” His uncle stood next to him, his firm hand resting on his shoulder.

“Ramos had a family. A husband, children, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews who loved him. Now he’s gone. Why? Because he choose to have a husband instead of goddamn wife. He was a good cop. He didn’t deserve it.”

“That type of hate is never deserved, Vennapoeg. But I can’t have you blaming yourself for it all. He was off duty. He tried to stop a store robbery. He lost his life, but he saved two others before he did. He did his job, and it wasn’t your fault, Edwin.”

“I’m still done,” Steele repeated. He wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince his uncle or still trying to convince himself.

“Oh, you’re far from done. Joseph told me what you did when he was pulling up to get you. Your instincts, your reactions, your need to do good is in here, Vennapoeg.” His uncle held his shoulder and placed his other hand over his heart. “There’s no quitting in here. There’s no quitting who you are. You’ll fight until your last breath, and that’s a long time from now. What do you think you’re going to do without your shield or a platoon? Become a Walmart greeter? Or, become an alcoholic?”

His uncle’s gray eyes hardened and blazed with anger, his voice a menacing snarl. “Drowning yourself in the bottom of a bottle is beneath you. You will not disgrace your father… my brother. I won’t allow it. You are not tired, you’re not weak. It’s impossible,” he hissed, close to Steele’s face. “Your last name is Raud. Iron… steel. You think your great grandfather changed the meaning of our family surname… he only translated it to English. You are unbreakable. And I demand you act like it.”

Steele didn’t speak. His uncle was right. He’d let hurt and injustice control his actions.

“Believe me. I understand loss. I’ve experienced my fair share. My biggest hurt was losing my brother. He was a part of me, a part I’ll be without from here on. But I’ll work hard every day to continue fighting for what he believed in. He believed in this country, Edwin. Keep fighting, son. You just need a team you can fight with.”

Steele snorted. “Yeah, right. Who the hell can handle my shit, Onu?”

His uncle smiled that crooked grin, the same way his father used to whenever Steele’d fall into his trap. “I think I know someone. Come over here and sit down. I want to show you something.”

Steele sat on the low back suede couch in the sitting area in his uncle’s large office while he turned on a flat screen television sitting atop a cherry, oak TV stand. Immediately, a black and white grainy video began playing. His uncle didn’t watch the screen, instead he watched for Steele’s reaction.

He saw a column of big SUVs lined up in a row with men – firearms drawn – getting into position for something big. As he watched the video play out, his jaw ticked and his eyes narrowed. He didn’t understand what this was. An execution first… then maybe a hit. Twenty or so men – gangsters – were firing in one direction. “What the hell is this, Uncle?”

“Just keep watching.”

Steele wanted to pull out another little cigar but he knew better. Instead, he stroked the rough stubble on his jaw, looking like he wanted this footage to stop until he saw a huge garbage truck roar up the narrow street and mow down the men that were shooting. “Jesus Christ.” He watched a man appear from the back like Houdini, firing machine guns like he was in Desert Storm. It was two of them. They moved as a synchronistic unit, like they could read each other’s thoughts. Quickly and efficiently, they took out every thug they aimed their weapons at.

His uncle pushed a button on the remote. “This is film taken from the back side, at another angle that was caught by a chopper. It’s pieced together, but check this out.” The image flickered a few times before another feed began. “This is the back side. The gangsters that we just saw were in the front; this is the back of that house.”

There were at least ten to fifteen men back there firing. “All these guys are firing at one house?” Steele said disbelievingly. “They were probably wasting ammo at that point.”

“Nope. The officers inside were still returning firing,” his uncle said with a determined expression. “Only three of them.”

Steele stood up and moved closer, unable to take his eyes off the screen. There was no audio to the video but he could almost feel the chaos of that battle inside him. A silver truck appeared around the corner – taking the curve like a NASCAR driver – with undercover police vehicles trailing it. He watched a man slide out the passenger window and perch his ass on the door, firing an automatic rifle over the top of the truck while the driver spun it in a perfect three sixty, bright flashes of explosions erupting from his own handgun. A Desert Eagle. It was one of Steele’s favorites. He could easily recognize that flashbang in the dark night. The man firing over the hood was an expert, a marksman. Nothing could shake him.

“Goddamn. Who is that?” Steele pointed at the man looking down the scope and knocking off men as the truck spun him in a circle.

“That’s Detective Austin Michaels.”

Steele pointed to the driver, a behemoth of a man that was now darting across the road – he could move fast – towards the house, both arms raised, shooting anything in his path. Wielding those massive firearms like a true beast… like a soldier. “And him. Who the hell is he?”

“That’s your new boss. Lieutenant Cashel Godfrey… they call him… God.”

The Puritan Pirate by Jules Radcliffe
Quinn stepped out of the quarter gallery to see the Black Wolf striding down the passageway. The captain looked surprised to see him, and his eyes flicked down to Quinn’s sketchy attire. Try as he might, Quinn could not wipe the sinful smile from his face. Involuntarily, his eyes darted along the passageway to Perry’s door, shut fast.

The Black Wolf eyed the closed door. “I see,” he said with a wicked grin of his own. “Our Mr. Peregrine is full of surprises.”

“Oh, indeed he is. Quite—er—enchanting surprises, as it turns out.”

“We can trust him, then?”

“Thomas is no conscious part of any mischief, of that I’m sure,” said Quinn firmly.

The captain cocked an eyebrow at Quinn’s use of Perry’s name. He jerked his head toward his stateroom. “Let us discuss this in private. Your presence is fortuitous. Things have moved apace, and I’ve been contemplating under what guise to send for you. ’Tis as well you now have an excellent pretext to be here often!” he added, his merry eyes dancing.

Quinn glanced at Perry’s door again, knowing his lover was eager for him, but both of them must wait on the captain’s pleasure. In any case, Perry had been told to stay; when Quinn gave a command, he expected obedience. He knew a fleeting wish that he had restrained his young lover. The thought of Perry waiting, bound and powerless and expectant, did pleasant things to his cock, and he wondered if Perry would enjoy such things as much as he did. To learn Perry, to make and unmake him, to find that which most provoked him to shake and weep and dread, to enslave him with naught but a touch, was fast becoming an ambition with him.

The Black Wolf closed the door behind them. His stateroom was a large, low-pitched room with a double row of latticed windows at the stern, several of them propped open. Taking up one corner was a large desk covered in papers. Tucked into its alcove, the double berth was rumpled, the velvet curtains that concealed it drawn back and tied open. La Calotte Rouge was not in evidence, but she had left a reminder—a stain on the wall that looked as if a full wine bottle had smashed against it. Recalling the noise of shattering glass last night, Quinn lifted his eyebrows in unspoken question. The Black Wolf grimaced and shrugged. The rumors that the lovers were at odds again did indeed have foundation, Quinn thought.

He was grateful that the room was empty; he would as lief not deal with any of the various moods of his tumultuous captain this morning. She had a distressing habit of appearing indecently clad before him. She knew well he was indifferent to her charms, but it disturbed him even so. If she had been prosaic about it, he would not have cared, but she flirted, flaunting her body, trying to elicit some reaction from him. He sighed. La Calotte Rouge was ever a woman to desire what she could not have.

“It seems this Captain Weedon Mr. Peregrine has been meeting with is a sword master, retired from the army,” said the Black Wolf, waving Quinn toward a chair. “He was one of Prince Rupert’s men, left at Barbadoes after the Defiance sank. He made his way to Port Royal some years ago, and now he takes students.”

“And Thomas has been training with him?”

“Yes. It seems innocent enough, though one can never really tell. Did Mr. Peregrine meet with any other yesterday?”

Quinn shrugged. “No one of consequence. Although as you say, one can never really tell. But he was slipped some kind of soporific at the Ingleside last night. ’Tis a strange coincidence, and I’m not a great lover of coincidences.”

“Nor I,” said the captain thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. “You must be sure of him, then. Or did you think to test his innocence by fucking him?”

Quinn pursed his lips in an attempt not to look as smug as a cat with a bowl of cream. He failed miserably. “Mayhap a little of both. I cannot fathom why he was foisted on us. You suspected he was a radical, but there’s no sign.”

He deliberately said nothing of Perry’s father, neither of his execution nor of his having been an Ironside. The Black Wolf had almost as much reason to hate Cromwell’s soldiers as he himself did. If his friend did not know—though Quinn would be very surprised if that were the case—telling him now would only confuse the issue. There was no profit in digging up the past; Perry was not his father, Quinn told himself firmly. And I am not mine.

The Black Wolf steepled his forefingers and rested them upon his mouth. “He has radical connections, and I’ve heard him myself sermonizing on the evils of demon rum and rampant buggery.”

“I think we’ve seen an end to that prating nonsense,” said Quinn, the self-satisfied grin still on his face. “Rum aside, he was intriguingly rampant with buggery last night. He’s far from regretting it this morning. In fact, he is—ah—waiting for me as we speak.”

The Black Wolf’s lips twisted in his wicked smile. “Anon, Gabe, anon.” He put one booted foot up on the desk, a habit most deplored by his manservant, and tilted his chair back. “I suppose Mr. Peregrine cannot be so very Puritan, then, but he’s overly nice in his habits. He keeps clothes on to swim—even to wash himself, I’m told.”

Quinn’s smile faded suddenly. “He has reason. I believe ’twas only because he forgot himself that I saw what I did.” He passed his hand over his hair, tugging its length tied at his nape. “They abused him, you know, on Royal Covenant. I know not who Captain bloody Killjoy thinks he is, but he had Thomas flogged. He’s shamed by the marks.”

The Black Wolf’s eyes widened. “Faith, ’tis against all tradition to punish a lieutenant thus. Have you any notion why?”

“He’d fain not speak of it, and I had no wish to press him. I’ve a suspicion it was… Well, Thomas is a most attractive man.”

“Perchance it was something different.” The Black Wolf rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “Pobjoy called Mr. Peregrine useless, but someone must think well of him, for he is a commissioned lieutenant. Certes, I’ve found the boy to be capable and effective. The crew may have little liking for him, but they name him a proper seaman, and you know how high a compliment that is.”

“I know what lazy sods they are too! He makes them work hard, to be sure.”

The Black Wolf laughed. “By the by, oftentimes he volunteers for the anchor watches when we port, which has sweetened the crew toward him somewhat.”

“He does? I thought you had assigned him the watch permanently, to curtail his activities.”

“Nay, I’m not Pobjoy, to treat my crew thus! And how shall we discover whether he’s an intelligencer if we don’t give him the freedom to betray us? You know I’ve been watching him closely since he came to us. When we were in Baracoa, he met with another retired soldier. I found nothing sinister about the old man, bar that he was overfond of rum. He was no teacher, but he had a reputation for knife fighting in his day. Mayhap our lieutenant persuaded the man to give lessons. It makes sense when you consider Mr. Peregrine’s prowess with a blade.”

“That was a surprise. I thought we’d be nursing his arse through battles. The navy lads I’ve known are proper sailors, but not true fighters. I’ve not seen him in battle myself, but the men tell me Thomas is a genius with a rapier and swift with his daggers.”

“He is. Hand to hand, only Polly and Ty accounted for more of the enemy, and you know a fighting pair takes exponentially more men than a single fighter. Notwithstanding, Mr. Peregrine was somewhat altered in mood these last few days, and last night was the first night he has gone carousing. Had I not been summoned by the governor to attend his damned soirée, I’d have followed him myself instead of asking you to.”

Quinn was thoughtful. “You know he lost his cabin mate. Thomas has few enough friends, and Nick Watson’s death hit him hard.”

“I see. I’d not considered that. He was as cool as a glacier when he carried poor Nick from the enemy ship.”

“Sure, he’s not as cold as we thought, Kit.”

“Evidently not!” The Black Wolf’s expressive eyes danced.

Quinn’s eyes gleamed in answer. “He was seeking old-fashioned comfort last night. I thought he had gone to the Ingleside in error, but I was quite wrong about his—er—appetites.”

“That, too, is evident! I had no notion he was disposed to men.”

“He managed to get entangled with Peter Forker. I was rather surprised when I saw the man loll on him like a lover and Thomas smile upon him.” Quinn’s lips thinned, and he knew a stab of irritation when he recalled seeing the young pickpocket with his hands all over Perry.

“To my knowledge, Forker is but a petty thief. Forsooth, there is the odd murder he is rumored to have knowledge of, but I cannot imagine anyone trusting him enough to employ him as an agent. You don’t think Mr. Peregrine met with him deliberately to pass a message?”

“I doubt that, the little cogger tried to drug him. ’Tis hardly his usual style; he hits his victims over the head. Perchance he is trying a new method.”

The Black Wolf pursed his lips, thinking for a moment or two. “Or it could be someone is trying to get rid of our lieutenant.” He gave Quinn a speculative look. “I did not tell you, but I have an additional reason for keeping a close watch on him. It may be that he is in danger. Pobjoy gave me a mouthful of shit about a change in naval policy toward the Brethren and then handed me Mr. Peregrine. I know perfectly well that no other buccaneer captain has been given a ‘naval liaison’ as he puts it, which means he’s been very clever or very stupid. However clumsy Pobjoy is, he’s not stupid. He must know that I know.”

“You mean no man but Thomas was reassigned?”

The captain nodded. “I had thought Pobjoy had sent someone to spy on us; what if, instead, he fears he is being spied on? And he has deliberately put his suspect in harm’s way by telling a patent falsehood and putting him on a ship filled with men who’d think nothing of hitting him on the head and dropping him over the side.”

Quinn’s hand resting on the desk curled into a fist as he stared into space. “Devil roast the cods off him!” he said softly. “The toad-spotted scut thought we’d dispose of Thomas and keep his accursed hands clean.”

“I can think of no other reason for the foolishness of the story the man gave me.”

“But if Thomas is spying on Killjoy, that would signify he is on our side, so to speak.” Quinn looked at his friend, who grimaced and shrugged. “Mayhap we should just ask him.”

“Nay! We cannot show our hand—there are more than two sides in this game of politics, Gabe. I confess Mr. Peregrine greatly puzzles me. I fear I cannot read him at all.”

“Kit, you’re seeing shadows where there are none. Thomas is innocent of any treason, I assure you.”

The pirate captain stroked his chin, his eyes staring into the distance. “If he’s innocent, ’tis safer for him to know nothing. And we are safer too, for he cannot betray our secrets all unknowing.”

Slowly Quinn gave a reluctant nod, and another thought occurred to him. “The incident at the Ingleside—perchance Killjoy thought he could make Thomas disappear, and we’d still be blamed.”

A calculating smile slid onto the Black Wolf’s face. “If so, Mr. Peregrine has not made it easy for his old captain. With the exception of last night, he never stays ashore after dark, nor carouses in the manner of a sailor and thus renders himself vulnerable. He is an excellent fighter—I wonder if he has fended off attacks in the backstreets before now? Mayhap you can find a way to ask him. If Pobjoy has been frustrated in such an endeavor, you may have judged last night’s attempt aright.”

Plaid Versus Paisley by KC Burn
DALLAS GREENE turned off the car and slumped over the steering wheel. This wasn’t how life was supposed to be. He’d been on the road for twenty-four hours, including a couple of naps at rest stops. Please don’t let this be a mistake. All he’d done recently was make mistakes like they were his greatest skill, compounding each error with another bad decision. But sitting in the car would only delay the inevitable.

With trembling fingers, he pulled the keys from the ignition and got out. A couple of joints popped, and his muscles protested. Surely other twenty-four-year-old guys didn’t feel like they’d been run over by an eighteen-wheeler, but then, he hadn’t been at his best for two years now.

He stared at the house. It wasn’t what he expected. Bigger. Nicer. Then again, he knew for a fact his parents had been lying when they’d told him his half brother, Stefan, was destitute, diseased, depraved, and at death’s door. It had been a surprisingly lyrical rant, what with all the alliteration, but this house wasn’t any different than any of the others he’d passed on his journey from the interstate. No pickets or protestors. No slanderous graffiti. No junkies or thugs. Just a house like any other in an affluent suburb, although not nearly as affluent as his parents’ community.

After locking the car—it and its contents comprised the entirety of his possessions—he trudged up the drive. Each step made his stomach twist and roil. If he’d eaten anything in the past… oh… day or so, he’d be worried about puking.

The bright midafternoon sun beat down on him, the humidity almost brutally oppressive after the chill of the A/C in the car. It had been months since he’d felt warm all the way to his toes, though, so he wasn’t going to complain. Maybe he should have rethought wearing a suit for his impromptu drive to Florida in September. Who would have thought it would be this hot, when part of his drive down had been through fall foliage?

Most of his wardrobe consisted of business professional, and he wanted to make a good impression. And also because he’d left Connecticut yesterday wearing one, not having realized when he woke up that he’d be making an eighteen-hour drive plus stops because his life had taken yet another turn toward the shitter.

He rang the doorbell. There was a wide window to the left of the door, with decorative and functional bars curling throughout the glass. Opaque white fabric sheathed the window from the inside, and Dallas suspected that under no circumstances would anyone be able to even spot shadows of people moving within.

Antsy and anxious, he smoothed his hands down the sleeves of his gray suit jacket before he glanced down at himself. His suit was as wrinkly as a bulldog’s face.

If he had the energy, he’d sprint for his car and drive away, change into less wrinkled clothing, but odds were against him getting to the car before someone answered the door. Hell, he might just faint first.

After a minute or two, he rang the doorbell again. Then he frowned.

Shit. It was Thursday. Stefan had a job, unlike Dallas himself. Not that Dallas had a lot of details about Stefan’s business, but it stood to reason he wouldn’t be at home right now.

Fuck. Dallas leaned against the window with its protective iron curlicues and slid to the concrete. What was he supposed to do now? Go to a coffee shop and haunt it like a ghoul until evening? And what if Stefan was out of town or on vacation or something? He was so fucking stupid.

Dallas stared out at the bright afternoon. Florida was too fucking cheerful for his state of mind. His eyes started stinging, and he scrubbed at them with the back of his hands. He looked rough enough without adding red eyes to the mix; if he was going to haunt a café, he didn’t think a drugged-out meth head look would encourage anyone to let him loiter for the price of a cup of coffee.

Beside him, the door swung open, and a dark-haired man stuck his head out.

Dallas froze. Double shit. How had he fucked up enough to end up at the wrong house? Perhaps if he didn’t move, the guy would close the door and Dallas could escape this fresh humiliation with no one the wiser.

Someone from inside the house called out, “Who is it?”

“Don’t know, darling, but they left a fully packed piece-of-shit car in the driveway.”

Although his cheeks flamed in embarrassment, Dallas couldn’t bring himself to say anything. But he must have made a sound or something, because the guy glanced down and raised his eyebrows.

“Hello there.”

“Uh, hi.” Not the most stellar response Dallas could have given, but how exactly did one extricate oneself gracefully from a situation like this? If his mother had ever mentioned the appropriate etiquette, he hadn’t been paying attention.

“If you’re here for a job interview, this isn’t a good time. You really need to go to the office.” The man paused, giving him a more intense perusal. “And I’m not sure you’ll have enough stamina for this job, honey.”

Dallas’s cheeks got hotter; he knew he looked like hell. As for the other part of the man’s statement, well, it hardly mattered. The judgment in the guy’s tone gave him enough energy to get to his feet.

“Who is it?” The voice inside was closer, but muffled. “What job interview?”

Another man, wrestling a T-shirt over his head, stumbled across the threshold.

Dallas cleared his throat. “Sorry. I’m going.”

The second man’s head cleared the neck of the shirt, and despite the sandy hair swirled into bedhead and freckled skin sporting serious beard burn, he was clearly recognizable.

“Stefan?” Dallas asked.

Stefan blinked. “Dallas? What are you doing here?”

Dallas opened his mouth, but there were no words to be found. One small hiccup broke the dam. Between the relief at having found the right place and the sheer hopelessness of his life, he lost control over the tears he’d been suppressing for hours.

“Oh, jeez.” Stefan just grabbed him and wrapped him in a tight hug, letting him cry soundlessly.

The other man retreated into the house, leaving them to whatever privacy could be had on the front porch of Stefan’s house in the middle of the day.


WHEN DALLAS had finally cried himself out, Stefan pulled back. “Come inside.”

Dallas glanced back at his car, an eyesore in the upscale neighborhood.

“Your stuff will be fine. Don’t worry about it.” Stefan guided him inside, like he was infirm. The assumption wasn’t far off the mark, and Dallas was content to let someone help him. He’d been balancing on a tightrope over a moat filled with alligators for far too long.

In a modern, airy kitchen, Stefan guided him to a chair at the table. “Sit down. It’ll be okay.”

The dark-haired man was nowhere to be seen, for which Dallas was unendingly grateful. He had to look even worse now, and he wasn’t up to making small talk with a stranger. Bad enough that he barely knew Stefan.

Dazed and exhausted, Dallas obeyed, too tired to argue that it couldn’t possibly be okay. Once he mustered enough nerve to explain, Stefan would agree.

Stefan sat in the chair next to him, placed a bottle of water on the table, and handed him a cool, damp cloth.

Blinking heavy, swollen eyelids, Dallas couldn’t quite decide which one he wanted to use first. At the moment, he didn’t have the coordination to do both. Stefan took pity on him and took the cloth back.

“Drink half that bottle.”

As soon as he did, Stefan slapped the cloth back into his hand. Dallas didn’t need any instruction for that and covered his aching eyes. If he had enough moisture left in his body, he might have started crying again. Instead, he let the chill ease the swelling, and like a kid, pretended that if he couldn’t see anyone, then no one could see him either.

Unfortunately, his reprieve lasted only until the cloth became room temperature. With a sigh, he dropped it onto the table and dared a look at his brother. He drank some more water, because even in what had to be the humidity capital of the world, the pressure in his head indicated impending dehydration.

“You look like shit.”

Dallas half laughed, half winced at the blunt assessment. “I know.” His voice didn’t sound like his own, scratchy with disuse. He cleared his throat before he tried again. “I didn’t know where else to go.”

It had been close to three years since he’d seen his brother in person, and at least six months since he’d even spoken to him on the phone. He’d been so stupid, afraid of letting anyone know how badly his life had devolved into a shitstorm. Now he didn’t have a choice about explaining, unless he wanted to sleep in his car tonight.

“I… I….” Dallas didn’t even know where to begin, but Stefan shook his head.

“Don’t, Dallas. I can guess at some of it, but when I said you looked like shit, I meant it. You look like you’re ill, and although I wish you’d let me know before things got this bad, I’m glad you’re here.”

Dallas frowned. Glad? He had to have misheard. “But I… don’t have a job.”

Stefan smiled gently. “I figured. No apartment, either, judging from what I saw in the back of your car.”

“Uh. No.”

“Boyfriend?”

“No.” Not anymore, and he wasn’t about to explain his failed relationship with Hugh on top of everything else.

“Sorry about that. What about Mom?”

Dallas shook his head. “I was supposed to move back home. Then Dad found out I was gay too.”

Stefan’s expression darkened. He had to be biting back sour words about the stepfather who’d kicked him out for the same reason when he was sixteen and Dallas was nine. At the time, no one had explained to Dallas why his older brother was no longer around. Dallas had been too young and too scared by the whole thing to ask questions. When he’d later found out the truth—right around the time he started wondering about his own sexuality—he’d prudently decided to stay in the closet, but deep in his heart he’d assumed that his dad would give him a pass that Stefan never earned, since Stefan was the child of their mom’s previous marriage. But the genetic connection hadn’t been enough, and Dallas hadn’t seen the catastrophe coming.

He should have, though. Everything else in his life had gone down the shitter; getting kicked out was the metaphorical last straw.

Instead of losing his temper, though, Stefan squeezed his arm. “We’ll unpack your car tomorrow, but for now, go grab whatever’s got your toiletries in it, and a change of clothes, while I set up the spare room.”

Crying must have fucked up his ears, because no way was this going to be that simple. A few questions and Stefan was giving him access to his house?

“Unpack? Are you sure?”

Stefan adopted a stern expression and stared into his eyes. “You know I’m still running Idyll Fling, right?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Starting up a porn studio had been the breaking point for the Greenes. Stefan had been disowned as officially as it was possible to get. Five years later, and starting to question why boys were more appealing than girls, Dallas had cowered even farther back in the closet; his father had been in a black temper for months as he tried to prevent Stefan from using his grandmother’s inheritance to start up Idyll Fling. Dallas hadn’t even had the courage to check out any of the videos Idyll Fling produced, partly because he didn’t know if his brother performed in any of them, and that would have been cause for substantial mental scarring.

“I’d like to pretend porn is a profession just like any other,” Stefan said. “But I can’t deny I’ve seen more than my fair share of guys who turn to it because they’ve simply run out of other options if they want to keep themselves fed and sheltered. With some of them, it’s easy to tell all they need is a hand to get back on their feet, and I’ve let those guys stay in our spare room. If I’d do that for employees, why wouldn’t I do that for my little brother?”

“Half brother.”

Stefan rolled his eyes. “You know I’ve never cared about that.”

“Me neither,” Dallas whispered. “Are you sure?” Relief made his eyelids droop, and he wondered if he was going to fall asleep right here at the table.

“Of course I’m sure. I’d like you to tell me the whole story sometime, but right now you need sleep more than anything else. C’mon.”

Fair Chance by Josh Lanyon
Chapter One
"I knew you'd come."

Andrew Corian, dubbed "The Sculptor" by the national press, was smiling that same old smile. Supremely confident and a little scornful. For a moment it was almost as if he were seated at his desk in his office at Puget Sound University and not in this sterile interview room at The Federal Detention Center in Sea-Tac.

"Sure you did," Elliot said.

Corian's powerful hands, thick wrists handcuffed, rested on the resin table. He spread his fingers, palms up in a "be my guest" gesture as Elliot took the plastic chair across the table.
He had been second-guessing the decision to meet with Corian from the minute he'd acceded to SAC Montgomery's request, and Corian's supercilious attitude just confirmed his doubts. They were not going to get anything useful out of the Sculptor.

"How could you resist?" Corian was saying. "A chance to play hero one last time. A chance to convince yourself you got the better of me."

"Sounds like you've been hitting the library psych shelves pretty hard." Elliot folded his arms on the tabletop, glanced casually around the room.

He'd been in plenty of these interview cells back when he'd been with the FBI. Neutral colors. Durable furniture. Stainless-steel mesh over the bulletproof frosted windows. A guard outside the door. Generic right down to the two-way mirror, behind which stood Detective Pine of Tacoma Homicide and FBI special agent Kelli Yamiguchi.

Just in case Pine and Yamiguchi missed anything, cameras overhead were recording the interview.

Corian's eyes, a weird shade of hazel that looked almost yellow in the harsh institutional light, narrowed at Elliot's gibe, but his broad smile never faltered. He seemed to be in a great mood for a guy looking at multiple life sentences.

"I don't need to read a psychology book to understand you, Mills. There's nothing complicated about your psyche."

"But enough about me," Elliot said. "Let's talk about your favorite subject. You. Or more exactly, why you wanted to see me."

The rough material of Corian's prison khakis rustled as he sat back in his chair. He looked a bit like a cartoonist's idea of the devil. Gleaming bald head and immaculately trimmed Vandyke. He was a big man and prison had made him bigger. Leaner. Harder. He looked like he ate steroids with every meal and spent all his free time bodybuilding. Maybe the bodybuilding wasn't far from the truth. There wasn't a hell of a lot to do while sitting around waiting for trial. Not when you'd been caught red-handed, as it were, in a series of brutal slayings and mutilations spanning more than fifteen years.

He said, "I didn't want to see you. I gave you permission to visit. That's all."

"Two letters in two months? We're practically pen pals. Come off it, Corian. You want me to sit here and listen to you explain in detail how brilliant you were. How brilliant you still are compared to the rest of us."

Corian's smile widened. "That wouldn't be the only reason."

"It'll be the main reason. You're sure as hell not interested in bringing closure to the families of the victims."

It was quiet in the interview room. On the other side of the heavy soundproof door a symphony of discordant sounds were reaching crescendo level: guards yelling, televisions blasting, prisoners shouting, the incessant thunder of an industrial-strength plumbing system, the chatter and buzz of walkie-talkies, the jangle of keys and slamming of steel doors.

"You've never understood me, Mills."

"You're right about that."

"But you're afraid of me."

Elliot sighed. "No, Andrew. I'm not."

They had never been on first-name terms. Corian replied, "You should be, Elliot."

"This is bullshit." Elliot made sure to keep his tone bored, indifferent. The last thing he wanted was for Corian to know just how tense he really was. "If the idea was to get me here so you could practice your bogeyman routine, you're wasting both our time." He pushed his chair back as though to rise.

Corian sat back and expelled an exasperated sigh. "Goddamn. Can't you at least buy me a drink before you screw me over?"

The indignation was almost funny.

"Look, you wrote me. I'm not looking to continue our relationship--if you want to call it that. I don't need closure. I got my closure when they slammed the cell door on you."

That wasn't completely true. Like everyone else involved in the case, Elliot wasn't going to truly breathe a sigh of relief until Corian was tried and convicted. He wanted the reassurance of knowing Corian was locked up in a maximum facility until the end of time. The numerous court date postponements were wearing on everyone's nerves.

Corian had the gall to look wounded. It was only partly an act. Being a psychopath, his own pain and his own frustrations were very real to him. It was the suffering of other people he was indifferent to.

"You want something from me. So be it. I'd appreciate a little courtesy. A few minutes of intelligent conversation. Or as close as you can manage."

Elliot eyed him without emotion. "All right. But we don't have all day. If you've got something to say, you'd better spit it out."

Corian leaned back in his chair, smiling. "How's the fall session shaping up? Have they hired someone to replace me yet?"

"Oh, no one could replace you."

"True." Corian merely grinned at the sarcasm. "How's Rollie? I read his book. When you think about it, it's pretty ironic. The only child of a celebrity sixties' radical joining the FBI."

"Yep. Ironic. Are we done with the chitchat?"

Corian's smile faded. "All right. Ask your questions."

"As of this date, sixteen bodies have been removed from the cellar of your property in Black Diamond, bringing the number of victims to twenty-three. Is that it? Is that an accurate head count? Or are there more?"

"Head count." Corian's smile was pure Mephistophelian. Partly he was acting. Partly he was simply...evil.

An old-fashioned concept, but what else did you call someone who was technically--well, legally--sane and yet a ruthless, remorseless predator? Maybe the problem was with the way the legal system defined insanity, but mostly the problem was how society dealt with monsters like Corian once they were identified and captured. Elliot had grown up believing the death penalty was barbaric, an anathema in a civilized society. But was warehousing monsters really a better plan?

"If you want to go there," Elliot said. "What did you do with the heads of your victims?"

"That's an interesting question. Why do you think some of the bodies were buried and some were used in sculptures?" Corian was equally aware that they had an audience, both human and mechanical.

"No clue. Like you said, I've never understood you. Why did you only target young men? You're not gay. Why did you never target women?"

"Where's the sport in that? Besides, I like women." Corian didn't wait for Elliot's response. "My turn. Why do you think all the bodies were headless?"

A game. That's all this was to Corian. Another game. "To make it harder to identify the victims."

Corian tipped his head as though considering this. "I wonder. Maybe. Partly, no doubt. But you're a student of history. You understand the possibilities and precedents."

The theory of ritualized cannibalism had certainly occurred to Elliot before that moment, but his stomach still gave a queasy roll of revulsion.

Watching him, Corian said, "You're horrified, yes, but you're fascinated too."

"Mostly I'm troubled. My concern is for the families who deserve to know whether their missing child is one of your victims."

"I don't know that they deserve anything. After all, their children wouldn't be missing if they hadn't failed as parents."

"Yeah, that's right," Elliot said. "It's the fault of the parents that these young men were captured and butchered for your...art. Did you have some method, some system of record-keeping that would make it possible for you at this late date to identify the remains?"

"What remains? Who says there were any remains?" Corian was grinning. "Waste not, want not."

It wasn't easy, but Elliot kept his gaze level, his expression emotionless. "I'm speaking now of the sixteen previously mentioned bodies recovered from your cellar. Do you have any means of identifying them?"

"This is deal-making territory," Corian said. "We both know you're not in a position to offer me any deals."

"Then why am I here?" Elliot gestured at the mesh-covered window. "What's the point of this?"

Corian pretended to give this serious thought. "Several reasons. First and foremost, your being here annoys the hell out of your boyfriend. Special agent Tucker Lance."

The bastard was right about that.

"Okay," Elliot said evenly. "You're having your laugh now. But the joke will be on you after the jury listens to all that evidence. It'll be too late for making deals then."

Corian's eyes gleamed. "Don't you want to ask me why? Why I did it? Why I killed them?"

"I know why. You're a sick sonofabitch."

That was the truth. As far as it went. But even Elliot, who knew there was no possibility of understanding a brain like Corian's, sometimes found himself questioning, puzzling over why. Certainly the families wanted to know, wanted some explanation, wanted to be able to make sense of these multiple tragedies.

How could such things happen?

Was there anything worse than losing a loved one to a random act of violence?

Probably not. But even if you could understand the pathology of one serial killer, you were essentially starting from scratch with the next. At least as far as prevention went.

Apprehension was another matter. But apprehension was moot in this case.

Corian's lip curled scornfully. "That's not worthy of you."

"No? It's the truth though. The why doesn't matter." Elliot's chair scraped noisily as he rose.

"You're leaving?" Corian couldn't conceal his surprise.

Elliot had turned away, but he glanced back. "Yep. Things to do and places to go. I'm not interested in providing the audience for your insanity plea test run. And since you don't plan on telling me anything I don't already know..." He shrugged.

Corian was not used to being walked out on. His smile was slightly forced. "Are you so sure?"

Elliot smiled. He headed for the door.

As he reached for the buzzer, Corian spoke.

"Mills. About earlier. I didn't mean you have anything to fear from me personally."

The guard opened the door. Elliot spared Corian one final look. "No, of course not. You're worried about my karma."

"No." Corian grinned, looking more satanic than ever. "No, you should be worried. But not about me. My work is done."

"It sure is," Elliot replied. "And wait till you see the retirement package we've got for you."

* * * * *

"He's in a good mood," the guard observed as the door to the interview room settled into place with a heavy and final-sounding click.

The guard was probably in his mid- to late twenties. Medium height, buff, boyish. Corian's preferred type, if he only knew it.

"Never happier," Elliot agreed. "But then who doesn't like having company?"

By the time he made it over to the viewing room, SA Yamiguchi, Tucker's second on the multiagency task force responsible for bringing Corian to justice, had already taken off--no doubt in a hurry to get back to the Seattle field office and deliver her "I told you so!" to SAC Montgomery.

She wasn't alone in that sentiment.

"That was a waste of time," Detective Pine commented. He and Elliot had history, but this time they were on the same team. Pine was short, dark and ambitious. A few years younger than Elliot. Young enough to believe he had everything under control--young enough to believe in the concept of control.

"Pretty much," Elliot agreed.

"Why do you think he wanted to see you so bad?"

"He's lonely?"

Pine's laugh was sour. "Maybe it's your sparkling conversation. I nearly spit my coffee out when you started to walk out the first time."

"I might as well have walked out, for all we got out of him."

Pine shrugged. "You opened up a dialogue. Maybe that's worth something." From his tone, Pine didn't believe it.

"Maybe." Elliot didn't believe it either.

"Do you think he's serious about trying to claim he had an accomplice?" Pine asked a short time later as they were walking to the parking lot.

It was a relief to be outside. To fill his lungs with fresh air and feel the sunlight on his face. Elliot had nearly forgotten that stale, metallic, disinfected scent unique to correctional institutions. The blur of chemicals was intended to mask sweat and urine and the inevitable odor of way too many people packed into too small a space for too long a time.

Pine added, "That had to be what he meant by "my work is done.' Why would he wait till now to play that card?"

Elliot shook his head. It was definitely late in the game for that move. But then Corian was playing his own game. And making the rules up as he went. "An apprentice? An acolyte? Who the hell knows?"

"That's for sure. Homicidal freak," Pine muttered.

Corian was an aberration, true enough, and nothing would have made Elliot happier than to never have to gaze into his odd tiger eyes again. But declining Corian's invitation was a luxury he didn't feel he had a right to. Not with so many grieving people waiting for answers.

Wednesdays were not regular visiting days for the detention center, and the large sloped lot was largely empty. Elliot had parked in the shade of a spindly maple, leaves already starting to yellow in the September sun.

"He can't plead not guilty," Pine said. "Not with the mountain of evidence we've got against him. He can't imagine--"

"Hell yeah, he'll plead not guilty." Elliot was almost touched by Pine's naivetÈ. "They always plead not guilty. His lawyers have already laid the groundwork for not guilty by reason of insanity and they'll keep hauling witnesses onto the stand to testify he's nuttier than a fruitcake. Which he is. Though not in the eyes of the law. Not so far. So yes, I think it's entirely feasible he'll try to play that card. What does he have to lose?"

Nothing. And they all knew it. Including Corian.

Pine gave a curt "See you at the briefing this afternoon."

Elliot raised a hand in dismissal and peeled off, striding toward his silver Nissan 350Z.

Pine stopped. Turned back. "Mills."

Elliot looked up from unlocking his car door.

"If he's not lying about an accomplice..."

Elliot nodded. "Yeah. The thought occurred to me."

Here for Us by AM Arthur
Chapter 1
I need to fucking get laid.

The thought followed Cris Sable through the heavy industrial door that hid the throbbing interior of Big Dick’s, the most popular gay nightclub in Harrisburg. The place was hard to find if you didn’t know where it was, or if you didn’t know the big muscle bear sitting by the entrance was a bouncer. Cris hadn’t been to the club in over a year, mostly by choice, but tonight he needed something.

Definitely a drink, although he’d have to limit himself now that he was functioning with one kidney. And, if possible, he wanted to leave with a willing ass to fuck. It had been a long dry spell.

A dry spell of his own making, but still, a guy had needs, and he wasn’t looking to get his needs met by a woman tonight. Tonight he needed dick.

He eased his way over to the bar and ordered a margarita on the rocks. Something he could work his way through slowly. The club was in full swing, bodies gyrating on the dance floor, men dry humping their way through the evening. Soon early morning. At the rear of the dance floor, six go-go dancers were on risers, each decked out in one color of the rainbow. Barely-there briefs in a solid color, sparkle body paint all over their chests and legs, and some dancers even had colorful streaks in their hair. Monday was theme night for the go-go dancers, which explained why there were so many. On the other nights of the week that Cris had visited, the club usually only had three dancers.

Cris zeroed in on the dancer in blue. He loved the color blue, and this kid was pretty fucking hot in a royal blue thong, with blue swirls across his pecs and shoulders. Something kind of tribal and arty. He spun around to shake his ass, showing off very taut blue-painted cheeks. Even from the distance, he was cute. The kind of cute Cris liked to wrangle around in bed and fuck through the mattress.

Occasionally, a hand would rise from the crowd with money in it, and the blue dancer squatted low enough for the money to be tucked away in their underwear. Very strip club-esque, but Big Dick’s had a strict policy about not touching the dancers for longer than it took to tip them.

He scanned the other dancers’ faces and froze solid at the guy at the end. Despite the yellow paint, Cris knew that nearly naked body intimately enough to see past the costume and recognize Colby. Not his real name, and Cris didn’t know what it was, but they’d filmed together at Mean Green Boys roughly two years ago. Colby was only with the company for a few months before he quit to be with his boyfriend.

Cris had been intensely jealous at the time. At twenty-eight years old, he’d failed to find and maintain a serious relationship for longer than six months. And even that relationship had imploded when she found out he did gay porn. Okay, so he shouldn’t have kept that a secret for so long. He’d been so damned happy to find someone who understood and accepted he was bisexual that he’d been scared to destroy it too soon by admitting to the porn.

But secrets never did a relationship any good, and Lily had dumped his ass hard.

He’d taken a two year hiatus from porn after that, hoping to try and rebuild his flailing love life, before returning to Mean Green. The studio owner, Chet Green, was one of his closest friends—hence the very secret reason for his single remaining kidney.

“Hello, gorgeous.” A slinky number in leather pants and a silver mesh shirt slid up to Cris at the bar. Cute, kohl-lined eyes, plump lips that promised they knew how to suck a dick.

Cris grinned. “Who, me?”

“Oh, honey, we both know you’re the sexiest thing in the club tonight.” A warm arm draped over his shoulders. “Name’s Luke.”

“Cris.”

“Hmm, I think you look more like a Vincent.”

Cris tensed. No fucking way could this random guy know who he was. There was no hint of malice in his easy grin, no sign the name was anything other than a really good guess. Cris came from an Italian family from Long Island, and the genes were pretty strong. He’d rid himself of his identifying accent years ago, though, thank Christ.

“Or Vincenzo, or Anthony,” the kid said, oblivious to Cris’s racing thoughts.

“Well, it’s Cris.” Rude, fine, but he’d lost any interest in Luke. Cristian Sable was his identity now. “See you around.”

Cris pushed away from the bar and eased his way into the crowd occupying the fringes of the dance floor. A few blatant offers came his way, but Cris turned them all down. He didn’t realize he’d inched closer to the risers and his blue dancer until the guy was less than ten feet away.

Blue had a face that was both easygoing and sharp. He was enjoying himself without totally letting his guard down. And he was hella cute. Fuckable for sure.

Bodies danced frenetically all around him, allowing Cris to stay close to the wall and shift nearer to Blue. Someone held up a bill between two fingers. Blue wiggled his hips and squatted low so the money could be tucked into his g-string. The triangle of blue material held a very promising package for a smaller guy.

Blue blew a kiss to his patron, then spun in an ass-wiggling circle. His dark gaze roamed the crowd, then paused on Cris. An unexpected thrill shot through him. Some sort of instinctive acknowledgement of the man on the stage, as if they’d been waiting to meet. Blue held eye contact; Cris drew out a long, lazy smile. Blue cocked his head, winked, and then kept dancing. Cris stayed in his spot. Every few minutes, Blue glanced his way. Right into his eyes.

Target acquired.

The dancers came and went from the risers, likely taking breaks in between sets. When Blue winked again and disappeared, Cris had half a mind to try and find him. Except he didn’t work at the club, and he had no real excuse to get backstage. Cris sipped his watered-down margarita and watched the eye candy on display. The gorgeous men, the throbbing music, and the heady scents of sweat and sex worked their magic on Cris, and he was half-hard by the time a brown-haired kid with a smear of blue under both eyes sidled up next to him.

Cris studied the familiar face, now scrubbed clean except for those two very appealing smudges. His hair maintained hints of blue glitter. He’d covered that amazing body with jeans and a white sleeveless tee, but this was Cris’s dancer. Blue.

“You off the clock?” Cris asked.

“Yup.” He grabbed Cris’s glass and finished it off with a smirk that did funny things to Cris’s balls. “Damn, I think I owe you a drink.”

He laughed. “Cris.”

“Jake.” He snagged Cris’s belt and tugged him toward the bar.

The forwardness was a huge fucking turn on, and Cris’s cock was at full mast by the time they reached the bar. An older man in a sparkly vest smiled at them.

“Two margaritas on the rocks,” Jake said. “My tab.”

“On it,” the bartender said.

Cris rested one hand on Jake’s lower back, and he was surprised by the tiny thrill that vibrated up his arm. Jake pressed into his touch, eyelids fluttering as if he’d felt something similar. Cris leaned in to whisper in his ear, “Blue is my favorite color.”

Jake looked up, big brown eyes glimmering with mischief. “Oh yeah?”

“Definitely. It looks good on you.”

“Know what else would look good on me?”

Cris saw the flirty line coming, but he played along. “What’s that?”

“You.”

He nuzzled Jake’s ear with his nose. “I agree.”

The bartender slid their drinks over. Jake gulped his, while Cris only sipped. And studied his future sex partner. A good six inches shorter than him, and slimmer all over. Dance-honed muscles. Tight jeans that did nothing to hide his erection. A very One Direction boyish hotness about him that made Cris want to fuck him senseless.

“I’d ask if you want to dance,” Jake said, “but you didn’t bust a move all night.”

“Not much of a dancer.”

“No good?”

“I’m plenty good.” Cris put a little leer into those words. “But I don’t like using dancing as foreplay. I’d rather play in private.”

Jake pressed his hard dick against Cris’s thigh, amusement dancing in his eyes. His voice was crazy sexy in a way that Cris couldn’t describe, but he liked it. “So I’m guessing you aren’t a fan of the bathroom with the favors?”

Big Dick’s had two bathrooms for its patrons, and rumor had it that the bathroom on the left had a bowl of condoms and lube sachets for patrons. Folks interested in a quick—and safe—fuck with a stranger. The bathroom on the right was for regular business.

“Nope.” Cris slid his hand from Jake’s lower back to grab his ass. “I prefer a nice big bed where I can have my way with someone for a few hours. Upright in a bathroom stall is over too fast.”

Jake swallowed hard, his cheeks pinking up. “Sounds like an adventure.”

“You up for it?”

“What do you think?” He ground his dick into Cris’s thigh. “Think I’m up for it?”

“I might need more convincing.”

Jake grabbed at Cris’s erection and squeezed, the contact sending happy sparklers down Cris’s spine. He really liked Jake touching him. “I’d suck you right here but Richard frowns on public displays of fellatio.”

Cris didn’t know who Richard was, and he didn’t care. Owner or manager, probably. His only priority was getting Jake naked in his bed. He pushed his mostly full glass away. “Then let’s get out of here before you get in trouble with your boss.”

Jake gulped his margarita, then plunked his glass on the bar. “Lead the way.”

He did.

The cool night air did nothing to ease his throbbing dick, nor did the long walk to his car. Jake kept close, their arms brushing, but otherwise not touching. The city was still alive and well all around them, and while Cris was big and imposing enough that few people ever bothered him, Jake walked with purpose. Aware of everyone they passed. He’d danced the exact same way: wary of the world.

Cris silently promised to help Jake forget those shadows that made him walk through life like it would turn against him at any moment. Even if only for a few hours.

The instant they were in his car and Cris had it aimed toward his apartment, Jake reached over and undid his fly. Stunned at the kid’s brazenness, Cris didn’t protest. He kept three-quarters of his attention on the road, while the rest watched—and felt—Jake tug his dick out of his boxer-briefs. Jake’s touch felt like a brand on already sensitive skin.

“Uncut,” Jake whispered. “Very nice.”

Cris’s pulse raced at the compliment. Most of the chicks he’d slept with had been initially turned off by his foreskin. They were used to seeing cut dicks. Dudes were way more appreciative.

Jake played with his dick, sliding the foreskin in a slow, lazy way that barely kept Cris from driving them into a telephone pole. Jake kept hold the entire ten minute drive, a long descent into madness that nearly had Cris demanding Jake suck him off already. His orgasm teetered on the edge without getting close enough to tip him over.

He pulled into the underground parking and into a space between two SUV’s. The vehicles would provide great camouflage for a blow job, but Jake proved just how sadistic he was by letting go. He flashed Cris a wicked grin. Wicked and challenging.

This is going to be fun.

Cris tucked himself back in, which was not an easy feat thanks to Jake’s teasing. Even in the privacy of the elevator, Jake stayed hands-off. Cris led him down the corridor to his apartment, unlocked it, and let them inside.

The moment he locked the door behind them, Jake spun and yanked his head down. The faint taste of lime and tequila filled Cris’s mouth. A very insistent tongue stroked past his lips, teasing and seeking. The spark was immediate and dizzying, electric everywhere they touched.

Cris spun them. He pushed Jake against the door, holding him there with a thigh between his legs. Jake humped his thigh while he devoured his mouth with a very talented tongue that Cris couldn’t wait to feel against his dick.

The desperate kiss softened by degrees. Cris dragged his lips along Jake’s jaw, tasting sweat and soap, then down to nibble at his earlobe. Jake shoved his hands past Cris’s belt to grab both cheeks. The small huffs and groans encouraged Cris to play with Jake’s ear some more. Suck the lobe. Lick the delicate shell.

“Fuck,” Jake said.

Cris chuckled. “Soon.”

“Bed.”

That he could do. He untangled them, grabbed Jake’s wrist, and led him across the small living room to the single bedroom. Flipped the light on. Jake gazed around. Cris wasn’t big on useless objects, so the room had furniture and a mirror. A lamp. A TV and blue-ray player. Little else beyond some dirty clothes he hadn’t put in the hamper.

Cris fished a condom and lube out of the nightstand and tossed them up near the pillows. Jake followed their trajectory, then toed off his sneakers. Cris did the same, shucking his clothes as expediently as possible, because hot, cute boy. Near his bed. Also getting naked fast.

This was the fun kind of sex. Chemistry, intent, no cameras or director reminding him not to block the come shot. Cris had every intention of coming inside Jake tonight.

Before Cris could haul Jake in for another kiss, Jake dropped to his knees and licked up the length of Cris’s cock. The slick touch spread a wonderful warmth through his belly and chest, that only intensified when Jake nibbled on his foreskin. He bit and played until Cris almost couldn’t stand it, before sucking him down onto wet heat.

“Fuck.” Cris sifted his fingers through Jake’s soft hair, holding on without hurting, because damn. Jake’s tongue dragged up and down the underside of Cris’s cock, an amazing sensation that made Cris’s eyes want to roll back in his head. Except he couldn’t stop watching Jake. His stretched lips and hollowed cheeks. The intense way Jake went about blowing him. Cris could watch this all day long and never tire of it.

He’d never been so mesmerized by a sex partner sucking him as he was with Jake, and he didn’t ponder the meaning behind that. Only that holy damn, it felt good.

Too much, too fast had Cris’s orgasm teetering too close. He nudged Jake off, then ran a thumb over his glistening lips. “Your turn. On the bed.”

Jake grinned, licked his thumb, and then did as told. He spread out on his back, hands behind his head, so perfectly wanton that Cris wanted to devour him. To lick every inch of skin, tease every curve and plane of muscle. He also desperately wanted in that taut little ass, and that took priority over exploration tonight.

Maybe Jake would be up for a repeat.

Cris knelt between his spread legs, admiring the boy on his bed. He rubbed his palms up Jake’s legs, from calf to thigh, enjoying the perfectly smooth skin. The way muscles jumped beneath his touch. Jake’s cock lay flat against his stomach, long and hard with a lovely mushroom head. Fun to play with and play Cris did. Licking around the glans, nibbling up and down the shaft, nosing at the root. Putting Jake’s scent and taste everywhere.

Jake’s thighs trembled. Hands in Cris’s hair kept trying to direct him, get him to suck already, but Cris was stronger. He flattened Jake’s hands to the bed on either side of Jake’s hips, then returned to his oral assault until Jake started cussing at him.

He looked up into frenzied eyes that dared him to keep teasing. Cris winked, then sucked Jake’s length down. Jake hollered, and Cris nearly crowed at the sound. He loved making his partner fall apart, frenzied with need, long before the fucking began. Hard pulls up and down, sometimes scraping with his teeth. Jake pumped his hips, trying to fuck Cris’s mouth.

“Fuck, please,” Jake said on a gasp.

Cris pulled off. “Not yet.”

He released Jake’s hands so he could push his legs back, tilting Jake’s hips and exposing his hole.

Jake made a desperate noise. “Yes.”

“You like getting your asshole licked?”

“Fuck yes.”

Cris flicked the tip of his tongue against the puckered muscle, the barest touch.

Jake’s hips jerked. “Bastard.”

He bit Jake’s left cheek, earning a surprised yelp that settled into a long moan. A second flicker of his tongue. Another hip jerk. Cris entertained himself with the tease, alternating long swipes with short flicks, playing Jake’s body for all he was worth, because damn, the kid was responsive. Jake never stopped making noise, never stopped thrashing and begging for more, and each little sound made Cris harder. Sent him higher.

Cris snagged the lube without missing a beat. Slicked up a finger while he ate Jake’s hole, softening him for the surprise. He lifted his head to watch Jake’s face as he pressed that finger inside. Jake’s eyes went wide, mouth falling open in a long, desperate gasp. He humped Cris’s finger, so Cris fucked him with it, slow at first. A gentle tease, waiting for a sign from Jake.

The moment Jake lifted his head high enough to meet his gaze, brown eyes simmering with lust and need, Cris fucked him harder. Jake’s eyes rolled back when he added a second finger, fucking him to the last knuckle, driving Jake higher with only his hand. No sounds beyond Jake’s gasps and cries and the slip slap of skin on skin.

Jake raised his head with effort, cheeks stained red, and gasped, “Another one.”

Something inside of Cris twisted up tight at the absolute trust shining in Jake’s eyes. The need for more, to climb higher, believing Cris could take him there. Three fingers took a little work and a lot of patience. He watched Jake’s face for any sign that it was too much, too painful, but Jake panted and gasped and pushed down. Urging him. Precome smeared Jake’s belly where his cock dragged on every thrust.

Cris’s own cock was painfully tight, desperate to relieve the pressure building deep inside.

“Oh fuck,” Jake said. “Oh shit.” He grabbed his dick and hadn’t pulled three strokes before he clamped down hard on Cris’s fingers and shot across his own belly and chest. A blob of white even landed on his chin. Cris stilled his hand while Jake came down from his high, thighs trembling with aftershocks over what looked like a doozy of an orgasm.

Cris gently removed his fingers and wiped them on his thigh, uncertain if he could still—

“Fuck me.” Jake held his legs back, keeping position, sleepy-eyed but determined. “You can.”

Cris didn’t need a second invitation. He gloved up and pushed inside in one smooth stroke that made Jake moan. So good, so loose and ready for him, and it took maybe a dozen hard thrusts for Cris to fall over the edge in a blast of pleasure that lit him up from his toes to his scalp.

He had enough sense to pull out and put Jake’s legs down before collapsing on top of the smaller man. Jake draped loose arms around his waist and tucked his head beneath Cris’s chin. Warm breath tickled Cris’s sweaty chest, cooling the skin. Some guys didn’t like to cuddle after sex, but Cris did; especially if he felt an actual connection to his partner. And boy howdy, he felt something with Jake. And judging by the way Jake had burrowed in close, he felt something, too.

“You can stay,” Cris whispered, the room too quiet for full volume.

“Okay.”

Cris reluctantly left Jake’s embrace. In the bathroom, Cris wiped off, then brought a warm washcloth and clean towel into the bedroom. Jake was still boneless, so he let Cris clean off his chest, then roll him over and gently do the same for his ass. Cris kissed each butt cheek. Then Jake’s mouth, where he lingered for a long time.

Eventually, they ended up under the covers with the light out.

Jake curled up against him, head resting on Cris’s shoulder, one arm slung across Cris’s chest. All kinds of compliments rattled around in Cris’s head, but the easy silence didn’t require them. The sex had been mind-blowing for them both. That much was obvious.

Maybe he could talk Jake into another date over breakfast. He dozed on that happy thought….
….only to wake with morning sunshine streaming in through open curtains. The other side of the bed was empty and cold.

Jake was gone.

And an hour later, Cris realized, so was his wallet.

The Case of the Guilty Ghost by RJ Scott & Amber Kell
Chapter 1
Sam took the stairs two at a time, all one hundred and sixty of them, to the top of the tower, leaving him gasping for oxygen. He’d seen Bob heading that way, or dreamed it, or half woke and imagined it. He didn’t know what exactly, only that somehow, he knew he would find Bob at the top of the black tower. He ducked the low lintel, slid to an ungainly halt on the stone floor, unbalanced and grabbed at the wall to hold himself upright.

“Bob?” he called into the dark corners of the tower, but there was no reply. His vampire lover didn’t step from the shadows with a smile or words of love. The place was empty, and the only presence Sam sensed was spiders. Knowing his luck, they were man-eating spiders.

“Sam!”

Sam winced at the shout up the stairs, and then heard huffing and cursing as the owner of the deep voice appeared in the doorway. Jin, who had never quite gone home, citing that he was responsible for Sam, was way past pissed. At least Jin, being a dragon shifter, could light up the room. Then Sam recalled he could light up the room just by thinking about it.

“I want there to be light,” he murmured, and then held up his hand to block his eyes as a pure white light exploded in the center of the room, filling every corner before receding back to a steady glowing orb.

He blinked, the light burning his retina. He closed his eyes tight, willing the spotted vision to go.

“What are you doing up here?” Jin asked. He sounded wary, like everyone else tiptoeing around Sam these past two weeks.

“Bob,” Sam said. When he opened his eyes again, he could see the entire room. An elaborate altar took up the far side of the circular chamber, built into the wall and covered in years of dusty cobwebs, likely from the imagined killer spiders. He stepped toward it, a low humming drawing his attention. Jin moved to block his way.

“Leave it, Sam,” Jin said. His hard tone left no room for discussion.

The noise of more footsteps stomping up the stairs, then Lambert, Sam’s vampire liaison, appeared at the top. Lambert, a tall stretched-skinny vampire with eerily cloudy eyes, had a propensity to follow Sam everywhere, spouting fear at everything and anything.

“Sire, you can’t be in here,” Lambert said, waving his hands ineffectively.

Sam spun back around to face the altar. “Stop calling me sire,” he muttered under his breath. He was getting pretty sick of how people treated him in the damn castle. Half the vampires lauded him as a ruler of supernaturals, the other half wanted him either locked up or gone. The first group assigned Lambert to him. They felt Sam needed an escort in the vampire kingdom because he was, in their words, special. Lambert was the kind of paranormal stuck firmly in the past. The historian kept talking about the old days like they were better times.

Sam wasn’t sure why Lambert had been so accepting of him given he was A, human, and B, with Bob.

Jin held up a hand, glowing with the remnants of dragon fire magic and placed it flat on Sam’s chest. It didn’t burn, only fizzled, and popped sending a small shock through his body.

“Sam, talk to me,” Jin demanded.

The humming from the altar intensified, and a voice in Sam’s head was saying the same things over and over, Sam, I am here, and I need your help.

“I can hear Bob in my head, he called me up here,” Sam repeated.

“No, you can’t have heard him,” Lambert corrected. “The mate link is blocked in times of mourning. You are hearing something else, dark magic maybe. You need to come back down to your chamber where you are safe.”

A mixture of exasperation and fear crossed Lambert’s face when Sam stepped back toward the altar.

“I want to see him.” He’d been too long without Bob. Their separation was causing cracks in his sanity.

“It’s not much longer until he’s done,” Jin reassured.

“Please come away, Sam,” Lambert pleaded. That was new. Lambert never called him Sam.

“Just take my hand,” Jin said, holding out his hand.

Sam stepped backward, more toward the altar, and he heard Lambert let out a small curse.

“Take my hand, Sam,” Jin said. “This is stupid and dangerous.”

Sam turned on Jin, sparks flying from his fingers. Jin stepped back from him, narrowly avoiding the biting magic. “Stay away from me.”

He shook his fingers, electricity passing up his arm. Usually when that happened, Bob was there to hold his hands, settle him and take away the pinpricks of pain.

“Come away, Sam,” Jin said.

“Listen to the dragon,” Lambert added, his voice thick with fear.

“You and Jin do what I say,” Sam snapped, not knowing where the superiority in his voice was coming from.

Sam fought his loss of control. So much for me being a higher supernatural. Every day without Bob felt like torture, and Sam was lost without his vampire lover next to him. The headaches, the sparks of energy from his fingers, and the pain in his chest grew more intense with each hour that passed. He knew Bob was in mourning. Hell, Sam respected the traditions, but right then, all he wanted was his lover by his side.

Hurry up, the voice in his head said. I need your help.

He shook off the words and concentrated on Lambert. “Take me to the Sanctum, let me see Bob, convince me he isn’t calling for my help, and I will come with you.” He wasn’t being unreasonable, they were.

“This is an ancient rite.” Lambert seemed stunned that Sam was asking this. “No humans.”

“Something is wrong.” With me? With him? Something is terribly wrong, but no one is listening.

“What is wrong? Is it your head?” Jin asked, his voice low, and his expression concerned.

Yes. No. Hell, I don’t know. I know Bob loves me, and I love him. I just need to kiss him.

Instead, he said, “I have to help Bob with his grieving. We can’t be apart like this.”

Sam didn’t know what made him say it that way; he wasn’t needy, it wasn’t a normal need for lovers to be together. His instincts had been screaming at him that he and Bob shouldn’t be apart.

Ever!

Lambert gasped as he did every time Sam suggested he should be part of any ancient vampire rite. “A non-pureblood cannot help with the rituals of grieving.”

Sam knew Lambert was winding himself up to that whole vampire purity speech and he sighed. Jin must have sensed his irritability because he rounded on Lambert and roared, fire sparking around him. Lambert stumbled back in shock.

“Wait for us outside,” Jin ordered.

Lambert looked torn between staying to keep an eye on Sam, his job, or evading the dragon fire that Jin was breathing all around the room.

Lambert’s eyes narrowed. His calculating gaze flashed from Jin to Sam and back again a few times before he sketched a small bow and left the chamber. “I will go down exactly the seven steps of Aset Ka,” he announced over his shoulder. He was kind of stuck on numbers and more than a little obsessive about the freaking vampire god.

The same god who had made a bargain with Bob’s brother Ettore before returning Bob to Sam, and taking Ettore to some kind of hell, or heaven, or whatever.

“Bob needs me,” Sam said, firmly. “I was asleep and heard him calling me. He must be out of mourning.”

“Sam, you have to stop, he isn’t up here.”

“He must be, he called me.” Maybe if Sam said it enough times one of them would listen.

Jin shook his head. “You heard that through your mate link? In your mind. You can’t have because the link is muted when Bob is mourning.”

Sam shook his head, confused. “No, it was like an image of the stairs, and this room, and there was an altar, only it wasn’t this old. It had gold all over it, a chalice in the center, and Bob was examining it, and he called me over, and there was magic….” Sam pressed his hands against his temples, attempting to ease the tension building from that incessant humming. “He needs me.”

“Sam, it was just a dream. You’re tired. Let’s go get some sleep, and we’ll re-examine this in the morning.” Jin took his arm, encouraged him back to the doorway, but Sam wrenched away and shoved Jin to the side, and with a flick of his hand there was a thick wall of ice between them. Sam stood on the side of the altar, and Jin beat on the ice trying to get through.

Bob needed him, and nothing or no one was stopping him. He’d felt Bob’s grief, through their bond, for four long days and then without warning; the bond was severed. He’d been told that had to happen as part of the rituals of mourning.

Sam was lost. Not even his daughter Mal arriving had helped. At that moment, it didn’t matter that she was the light of his life, he wasn’t whole without Bob. There was no family without Bob.

“Watch Mal,” Sam spoke clearly through the ice, which wasn’t giving way, and Jin snarled at him. “Please.”

“Don’t do anything stupid, Sam! We’ll go down and find Bob.”

But Sam wasn’t doing anything stupid. He was doing what he should have been doing all along, finding Bob and making sure he was okay. Something had happened, someone had come into the castle, stolen Bob from his mourning and only Sam could help. He turned his back on Jin to face the altar. Something there was calling him. Help me, help me.

Bob’s voice? Or was it softer the closer that Sam got to the altar? A whisper of a voice?

He stepped closer, the hum louder, and then another step, and as he neared the low resonating noise stopped, and for a moment he was motionless.

He reached a hand toward the altar, expecting a barrier, or magic, or some booby-trap that would whisk him to killer spider land or some other awful, horrible place.

A crash behind him had him looking back. Jin was nearly through the barrier, melting the ice as fast as he could with his dragon fire; in seconds he would be through. Sam flicked his hand to create another level of ice, but nothing happened.

“Just when I need magic, it isn’t there,” he murmured.

Something inside him began to hurt, an insistent tug at the base of his neck that ran down his spine then back again. The sensation was weird, moving his feet, guiding him, and he had no control over his own body. He was a marionette, and someone else was pulling the strings.

Fear began to spread in the pit of his stomach, Jin screamed his name and the heat of dragon fire warmed his back, but none of it mattered.

Because his hand touched the altar.

And everything went to hell.


Louise Lyons
Louise Lyons comes from a family of writers. Her mother has a number of poems published in poetry anthologies, her aunt wrote poems for the Church, and her grandmother sparked her inspiration with tales of fantasy. Louise first ventured into writing short stories at the grand old age of eight, mostly about little girls and ponies. She branched into romance in her teens, and MM romance a few years later, but none of her work saw the light of day until she discovered Fan Fiction in her late twenties.

Posting stories based on some of her favorite movies, provoked a surprisingly positive response from readers. This gave Louise the confidence to submit some of her work to publishers, and made her take her writing “hobby” more seriously.

Louise lives in the UK, about an hour north of London, with a mad Dobermann, and a collection of tropical fish and tarantulas. She works in the insurance industry by day, and spends every spare minute writing. She is a keen horse-rider, and loves to run long distance. Some of her best writing inspiration comes to her, when her feet are pounding the open road. She often races into the house afterward, and grabs pen and paper to make notes.

Louise has always been a bit of a tomboy, and one of her other great loves is cars and motorcycles. Her car and bike are her pride and joy, and she loves to exhibit the car at shows, and take off for long days out on the bike, with no one for company but herself.

Josh Lanyon
Bestselling author of over sixty titles of classic Male/Male fiction featuring twisty mystery, kickass adventure and unapologetic man-on-man romance, JOSH LANYON has been called "the Agatha Christie of gay mystery."

Her work has been translated into eleven languages. The FBI thriller Fair Game was the first male/male title to be published by Harlequin Mondadori, the largest romance publisher in Italy. Stranger on the Shore (Harper Collins Italia) was the first M/M title to be published in print. In 2016 Fatal Shadows placed #5 in Japan's annual Boy Love novel list (the first and only title by a foreign author to place on the list).

The Adrien English Series was awarded All Time Favorite Male Male Couple in the 2nd Annual contest held by the Goodreads M/M Group (which has over 22,000 members). Josh is an Eppie Award winner, a four-time Lambda Literary Award finalist for Gay Mystery, and the first ever recipient of the Goodreads Favorite M/M Author Lifetime Achievement award.

Josh is married and they live in Southern California.

RJ Scott
RJ Scott is the bestselling romance author of over 100 romance books. She writes emotional stories of complicated characters, cowboys, millionaire, princes, and the men and women who get mixed up in their lives. RJ is known for writing books that always end with a happy ever after. She lives just outside London and spends every waking minute she isn't with family either reading or writing.

The last time she had a week’s break from writing she didn't like it one little bit, and she has yet to meet a bottle of wine she couldn’t defeat.

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.

AE Via
A.E. Via is an author in the beautiful gay romance genre and also founder and owner of Via Star Wings Books. Her writing embodies everything from hopelessly romantic to spicy to scandalous. Her stories often include intriguing edges and twists that take readers to new, thought-provoking depths.

When she's not clicking away at her laptop, she devotes herself to her family--a husband and four children.

Adrienne Via has tons of more stories to tell, but she really would like to hear yours. Via Star Wings Books is currently accepting submissions for established and aspiring LGBTQ authors. I've contracted and successfully published a couple authors - whose information can be found on my website - who can tell you that my passion is giving other writer's stories the love and care it deserves so it could be a gift to another. Visit my site to learn more!

Jules Radcliffe
I love to write. I’ve been writing fiction and telling stories–in a good way!–since I was a child.

I tried to write standard romances, but it wasn’t until I discovered MMF and MM erotic romance that I really found my voice. As an aficionado of all thing retro, it made sense to use historical settings. I have no particular favourite era or culture–I often choose my setting and era based on my inspiration for the story.

People often ask me how I think up a story. That’s actually quite a hard question. Sometimes I think of a situation, sometimes it’s a scene, sometimes it’s a character. Whatever it is, I usually plot out some basics, do a bit of research to make sure I’ve picked the right time and place for my story, and start writing!

I’m a bit pedantic about researching my settings and the historical minutiae, such as the brand of margarine available in Berlin in 1920–but I’m the first to admit I sometimes get it wrong. I don’t like being wrong, but no one is perfect after all…

My main focus is on writing believable and unique characters. My central characters always live happily ever after. No exceptions.

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

AM Arthur
No stranger to the writing world, A.M. Arthur has been creating stories in her head since she was a child, and scribbling them down nearly as long. When not writing, she can be found in her kitchen, pretending she's an amateur chef and trying to not poison herself with her cuisine experiments. A.M. Arthur was born and raised in the same kind of small town that she likes to write about, a stone's throw from both beach resorts and generational farmland. She's been creating stories in her head since she was a child and scribbling them down nearly as long, in a losing battle to make the fictional voices stop. She credits an early fascination with male friendships (bromance hadn't been coined yet back then) and "The Young Riders" with her later discovery of and subsequent love affair with m/m romance stories. When not exorcising the voices in her head, she toils away in a retail job that tests her patience and gives her lots of story fodder. She can also be found in her kitchen, pretending she's an amateur chef and trying to not poison herself or others with her cuisine experiments.

NR Walker
N.R. Walker is an Australian author, who loves her genre of gay romance. She loves writing and spends far too much time doing it, but wouldn't have it any other way.

She is many things; a mother, a wife, a sister, a writer. She has pretty, pretty boys who live in her head, who don't let her sleep at night unless she gives them life with words.

She likes it when they do dirty, dirty things...but likes it even more when they fall in love. She used to think having people in her head talking to her was weird, until one day she happened across other writers who told her it was normal.

She's been writing ever since...

Amber Kell
Amber Kell has made a career out of daydreaming. It has been a lifelong habit she practices diligently as shown by her complete lack of focus on anything not related to her fantasy world building.

When she told her husband what she wanted to do with her life he told her to go have fun.

During those seconds she isn't writing she remembers she has children who humor her with games of 'what if' and let her drag them to foreign lands to gather inspiration. Her youngest confided in her that he wants to write because he longs for a website and an author name—two things apparently necessary to be a proper writer.

Despite her husband's insistence she doesn't drink enough to be a true literary genius she continues to spin stories of people falling happily in love and staying that way.

She is thwarted during the day by a traffic jam of cats on the stairway and a puppy who insists on walks, but she bravely perseveres..

She also writes under the name Mikela Q. Chase.


Louise Lyons
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
GOOGLE PLAY  /  PINTEREST  /  WIP
KOBO  /  SMASHWORDS  /  iTUNES
B&N  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: louiselyons013@gmail.com

Josh Lanyon
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
BLOG  /  NEWSLETTER  /  KOBO
INSTAGRAM  /  B&N  /  TUMBLR
CARINA  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: josh.lanyon@sbcglobal.net

RJ Scott
AUDIBLE  /  FB GROUP  /  PINTEREST
BOOKBUB  /  KOBO  /  SMASHWORDS
iTUNES  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: rj@rjscott.co.uk

Meredith Russell
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  BLOG
GOOGLE PLAY  /  SMASHWORDS  /  B&N
PINTEREST  /  INSTAGRAM  /  KOBO
iTUNES  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: meredithrussell666@gmail.com

AE Via
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
KOBO  /  GOOGLE+  /  TUMBLR
B&N  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: authoraevia@live.com

Jules Radcliffe
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
KOBO  /  LOOSE ID  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  B&N
iTUNES  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS

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

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

NR Walker
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  FB FRIEND
WEBSITE  /  BLOG  /  GOOGLE+
AUTHORGRAPH  /  KOBO  /  iTUNES
B&N  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  AMAZON
EMAIL: nrwalker2103@gmail.com

Amber Kell
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  BLOG  /  KOBO
SMASHWORDS  /  EXTASY  /  AMAZON
B&N  /  DREAMSPINNER  /   GOODREADS
EMAIL: amberkellwrites@gmail.com



Regeneration by Louise Lyons
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N

The Curse of the Blue Scarab by Josh Lanyon
B&N  /  KOBO  /  SMASHWORDS

So This is Christmas by Josh Lanyon
B&N  /  KOBO  /  SMASHWORDS

The Road to Frosty Hollow by RJ Scott & Meredith Russell
B&N  /  KOBO  /  SMASHWORDS

Nothing Special V by AE Via
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N

The Puritan Pirate by Jules Radcliffe
B&N  /  KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  GOOGLE PLAY

Plaid Versus Paisley by KC Burn
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  GOOGLE PLAY

Fair Chance by Josh Lanyon
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK
B&N  /  KOBO  /  AUDIBLE  /  iTUNES
GOOGLE PLAY  /   iTUNES AUDIO

Here for Us by AM Arthur

Imago by NR Walker

The Case of the Guilty Ghost by RJ Scott & Amber Kell

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