Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday's Safe Word Shelf: Sentries by Elizabeth Noble

Marked Yours #1
Three hundred years ago, natural disaster reformed the face of North America, and the people who lived in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains would never be the same. Now, the master/slave bond in New Colorado has become a sacred rite of service, protection, and, sometimes, for the lucky, love. Nick and his intended Master, Todd Ruger, a sentry of the territories, have grown up knowing that they were pledged to this bond. They're looking forward to the ritual with both excitement and trepidation-it's something they've prepared for their entire lives. But New Colorado's institution of slavery has made dangerous enemies on a frontier fraught with trouble, and they are unprepared for the trials their new relationship will face. Their bond needs to grow very strong, very fast if it's going to survive the collision of old superstition, new beliefs, and the ever-present danger of the natural and supernatural frontier.

Together Bound #2
Todd and Nick Ruger have settled into their life and work, the master/slave bond in New Colorado tying them together in a sacred rite of service, protection, and—in their case—love. But out of the blue, Todd receives a letter from the vice-chancellor of New Colorado threatening their bond, demanding ownership of Nick under eminent domain.

It turns out Vice-Chancellor Clarke desperately needs the help of the sentries, especially Nick, to investigate a problem involving the Chancellor. With New Colorado on the verge of war with West Caldera, a rift in the government would be disastrous. Todd and Nick agree to help, and Nick enters the orphan slave compound while Todd joins the Estate security force.

They don’t expect the danger they discover. Now the target of an unimaginable threat, Nick and Todd will face terrors that lead to murder, imprisonment, and the threat of separation forever as the hopeless battle escalates into full-scale war.

Chained Hearts #3
Sentries Series Book Three Sequel to Together Bound Todd and Nick Ruger are alive and on the run in the Yellowknife Protectorate, but maybe not for long. After narrowly escaping New Colorado, where they were implicated in the assassination of Chancellor Shaffer, they're running out of steam: Todd is gravely ill and Nick's injured. Just when it seems like the harsh winter will get the best of them, they find refuge with a doctor in the isolated town of Elk's Ridge. On the surface, Elk's Ridge seems the ideal place to rebuild their lives. Nick begins training as the doctor's apprentice, and Todd works in a lumberyard until they're recovered enough to return to their duties as Sentries. They make friends, forge a new life, and most importantly, there's no sign of anyone from New Colorado. They should have known it was too good to be true. Victor Raleigh, the new Vice Chancellor of New Colorado, knows all about Nick's psychic abilities, and he wants them in his corner. When Nick is betrayed and captured, Todd sees no alternative but to head back to the war zone to rescue him. But will Nick be the same man Todd loves after Raleigh's pet psychic vampire is through with him?

Collared Souls #4
Freedom is within reach for Todd and Nick Ruger, but their dreams of Elk’s Ridge are dashed by Vice-Chancellor Raleigh’s troops. With his mate imprisoned, Nick searches for help and finds an unlikely and unexpected ally. But Todd’s release leaves them once again in debt to Chancellor Clarke.

Their mission sends them to the small village of Eldrid in search of a historic record of owners and slaves with unique abilities. Eldrid holds even more secrets from the past—including the origins of sentries—as well as conspiracies of the present that are set to launch a new battle that will turn lover helplessly against lover. Though Todd and Nick know the realities of war are hard lessons, it will be a fight to draw on the strengths of their bond, survive, and learn to forgive.

Tethered Pair #5
War rages across New Colorado Protectorate, and both sides employ normal and supernatural soldiers and arsenals. Sentries like Todd and Nick Ruger have the talents and training to combat such paranormal threats.

When Todd and Nick are sent by New Colorado’s Chancellor Clarke to investigate a group of weapons smugglers, they wind up posing undercover on the riverboat Annabelle. To their horror, they discover the arms dealers are demons—creatures they have no experience facing. Staying alive will take all their skills and abilities, especially trust in the powerful bond they’ve forged.

In the process of trying to stop the flow of illegal weapons, Todd and Nick learn of an assassination plot—targeting Chancellor Clarke. The events it sets into motion will alter the Rugers’ lives forever.

Marked Yours #1
It was close to midnight when they finally stopped to make camp. There were four wagons in all, the other three carrying two or three occupants each, and two men riding on horseback. Nick’s mind drifted back to childhood, watching Todd ride through his village a few times a year, watching him grow from a skinny boy of twelve to the powerful man he was now.A fire was built in the center of the wagon circle, and a meal was prepared. The night air was chilled and damp and Nick’s clothes, more suited for the southern climate, weren’t keeping him very warm. Nick wouldn’t have minded sitting near the fire to eat, even if he had to listen to John Ruger and his friends tell whatever stories they told one another. Todd, however, took his food and headed back to their wagon, so Nick followed.

He tried hard not to shiver through dinner. Everyone else had thicker coats and heavier clothes, much more prepared for the climate they were heading into than Nick. Glancing wistfully at the fire and its warmth, Nick huddled over his plate. He’d never dare ask for another coat. He was a slave. Who cared if he was cold? Slaves didn’t count in this world.

“You have any heavier clothes?”

Shaking his head, Nick murmured, “No, Todd.”

Todd set his plate down hard on the ground and stood abruptly. Nick flinched and looked up. Reaching into the wagon, Todd pulled out a heavy dark green pullover shirt. In his other hand he carried a few bottles and two glasses.

“Here, put this on. It’ll keep you warm enough for now. When we get home you’re getting the right clothes. I’m not spending the rest of my life watching you shiver.” He set the bottles and glasses down and resettled onto the ground beside Nick. Dark, amber liquid was poured from one of the bottles. “You ever had whisky before?” He started to hold the small glass out to Nick, but when Nick shook his head no, Todd chuckled. “Okay then. Not having this right now.” Grinning, Todd downed the liquid himself. Crossing his eyes, he shook his head as he swallowed. “Here, try this instead. We’ll start you off slow and work you up to the really rotgut stuff later.”

Nick laughed and took the small bottle Todd offered. He took a whiff; it didn’t smell bad. Nick took a short sip of the bottle’s contents. He pulled the bottle away and looked at it. “What is this?”

Todd had been watching him the entire time, looking almost boyish and hopeful. “Eh, you didn’t spit it back at me, so that’s good. Beer. You never had beer before?”

“No. Just water.”

“You like it?”

“Yeah, I do. It’s different. Sorta bitter at first.” He’d pulled the heavier shirt over his head; it was thick and made of a woven material that was warm and soft. Breathing in deeply, he was at once surrounded by the combined smells of gun oil, leather, and something he recognized from sitting beside Todd all day that was uniquely Todd. The beer made his throat warm, but it was the scent of Todd all around him that made warmth spread in delicate tendrils from his belly to his chest.

“Good, ’cause I don’t do bread and water. We do what we do and keep the good folks in the towns and villages safe at night, but they’re damn well feeding us good.”

Nick had no idea what it was Todd referred to. He’d thought since Todd and his father, and now Nick, were hunters, they’d simply track down and catch their own food if they needed to. Nodding, Nick drank his beer and finished his food. It was stew—tasty, hot, and filled with chunks of meat and vegetables in a heavy broth.

After mopping the remains of the stew from his plate with bread, Todd leaned back and grinned. “I want more. You want more?”

Looking up, surprised and knowing his face showed it, Nick blurted out, “I am allowed more?”

Todd snorted. “Yes, Nick, you are.” He held out a hand for Nick to pull up on. Once righted, Todd’s hand released his, moved to his neck, and patted gently a few times before he turned and went back to the fire.

The men there snidely asked why Nick was still wearing clothes and why they were wasting time eating. Todd ignored them. As he turned around, heading back to their wagon, Todd’s eyes caught Nick’s. He smirked and shook his head.

They resettled behind the wagon, out of sight of the others, and finished eating in silence. Then, leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees, Todd rubbed at the back of his neck for a few minutes.

“So, uh, you ever been with a woman?”

Nick stared at a point between his feet and shook his head no.

Todd shifted a bit. Nick thought he sounded nervous[A1] . “A man?”

“No.” His voice came out barely above a whisper.

“Got any preference?”

Nick drew in a deep breath and looked up at Todd, who wore that boyish, hopeful expression again. “I like watching girls sometimes, but they’re sort of skinny, no muscle. I think I look at men more.”

Todd nodded and seemed satisfied with those answers. It wasn’t as if Nick had a choice. He’d been bound to another male since he was five years old. Whether he preferred men or women as sexual partners was never a consideration. Maybe he’d always been that way, or maybe he’d just trained himself to like men more. He didn’t know. It didn’t really matter.

When Todd reached out and curled warm, strong fingers around his neck, Nick leaned into the touch. He decided it was something Todd liked to do, touch him that way, and it appeared to Nick the gesture pleased Todd and made him relax. Nick had decided back in the village, the first time Todd had touched him that way, that he liked it. Not even twenty-four hours later and Nick was craving those tiny touches and counting the minutes between them, hoping for another one.

This time Todd leaned closer and pulled Nick toward him. As Todd’s lips brushed the side of Nick’s hair, he moaned soft and low. Pushing his nose through Nick’s hair for a few seconds, Todd pulled him in even tighter, nuzzling his cheek against Nick’s, breathing in deep. “You smell good.” Todd’s hand moved from his neck up into Nick’s hair, turning his head toward Todd.

Todd pressed his lips to Nick’s, gently licking his tongue along Nick’s lower lip. It startled him at first when Todd’s tongue slipped between his lips and into his mouth. Todd’s other arm wound around Nick’s waist and gently, slowly pulled Nick completely against him. Todd’s tongue glided around his own and coaxed Nick’s tongue into his mouth. Todd sucked lightly on Nick’s tongue for a few seconds before pulling away. He looked at Nick, seemed to be memorizing every bit of Nick’s face before pulling him back in for another kiss. This time Nick mimicked Todd’s actions and sucked Todd’s tongue.

When Todd pulled away for the second time, they were both panting, and Nick was whimpering softly. Fingers raked tenderly through his hair and Todd kissed his nose and then his cheek, murmuring in his ear, “You taste so good. I’ve been waiting forever to do that.”

Nick felt a flush creep over him. When Todd’s arm tightened even more around his middle, Nick leaned his head down so his face was pressed to the crook of Todd’s neck. “I don’t… I’ve never….” This was so embarrassing.

“It’s okay, Nicky. You’ll learn. You’ll be just fine. Just us now.” Todd rested his chin on the top of Nick’s head and held him tightly. Nick had never in his life been held—not like this. He’d been held down and beaten a few times, but never had anyone simply held him. When he pressed closer and relaxed more against Todd, the other man drew in a deep breath and let it out slow. Nick liked this and he sensed Todd did too.

Laughter from the direction of the fire made them both start and pull back from each other. Laughing nervously, Todd ruffled Nick’s hair. “We’ll save the rest for when we can be alone.” He stood and stretched, throwing the cover back on the wagon’s opening. “Just us now,” he repeated. Nick nodded because he had the feeling he was supposed to respond somehow. “C’mon, Nicky. Get some sleep.”

Together Bound #2
Geoffrey Clarke wasn’t expecting his guests to particularly like him. He stood and stepped around his desk to greet them, motioning to the chairs, making a point to indicate both chairs. “Please, gentlemen, have a seat.”

When the older of the two simply stopped halfway through the room and politely informed him they were just fine where they were, Clarke knew this was going to be rougher than he’d thought. Taking the coward’s way out he retreated to the far side of his desk.

He knew the slave was young, barely more than a boy, his age being listed in the public sale records. The kid’s master was another story. It seemed there’d been two parties involved in the boy’s purchase. The fact that this man was the obvious owner and not much older than his slave confirmed Clarke’s suspicions they’d been bound as children. Ever since he’d arrived at his office earlier this morning and read the message from Todd Ruger, Clarke had been having second thoughts. Seeing the two of them now fueled his doubts.

The boy dropped to one knee behind and to the left of his master. Clarke saw how the kid curled the fingers of one hand into the hem of Ruger’s pants.

“I’m Geoffrey Clarke.” He purposely left off his title.

“I know who you are and I don’t care, you can’t do this.” Ruger’s left hand dropped onto his slave’s head. Clarke doubted the man even realized he’d done that.

“I understand this is—”

“Hard for me?” Ruger snapped. “He’s…my…mate.”

“I was going to say—”

“He’s my mate.” Todd repeated the words, voice softening. “Do you have a family Mr. Clarke?”

Nodding, Clarke said, “Yes. I have a wife and two daughters.”

“How about you just hand over your wife to me for whatever I want to do with her?”

Clarke winced. The guy had a very valid point. “Look, I’m sorry, but I needed…I asked around and your name came up over and over again as the best sentry…I don’t know much about…shit.”

“So, you wanted to hire a sentry and figured the way to win me over was threaten my mate?” Ruger was spitting words at him again. The man looked positively frightening. His slave scooted farther to the right so he was more behind his master than not.

“It’s a complicated matter, I needed someone who could get the job done, but who I could trust would follow the instructions to never talk about it. Your slave is the only one I could find who had any sentry skills and he does have a special talent.” Leaning his hands on his desk he let his weight shift forward. “I guess I didn’t think this through very well. I’m sorry. I never should have sent that letter. You’re both free to leave.”

Todd’s face softened and his shoulders relaxed by a small fraction. He glanced down for a beat, his slave glancing up, their eyes locking before the slave ducked his head down again. “What do you need a sentry for?” Clarke watched a slow smile spread over the slave’s face, an expression of pride replaced what had been apprehension.

Dropping his gaze to the boy kneeling behind Todd, Clarke waved one hand up and down, “Son, stand up, get off the floor.”

The kid looked up at Todd who tilted his head and nodded. He let his hand slide from the boy’s head to rest against his hip as his slave rose and stood behind him.

“What’s your name, boy?” For the life of him he couldn’t pull the name on the kid’s records out of his head.


Clarke straightened. “Nick, I’m sorry. I had no way of knowing what sort of relationship you have with your master, I’d heard stories that sentries only took slaves to use as weapons.”

“Nick hunts, he doesn’t kill.” Todd said. Clarke couldn’t help the feeling that every sentence the man uttered was some sort of challenge. “I kill.”

Why didn’t Ruger’s last statement surprise him? “As I said, I didn’t think things through very well.”

“No, you didn’t.” Todd was snarling again, not that Clarke could blame him for being angry.

“Please, sit down.”

Todd crossed his arms over his chest and glared.

Shifting so he could look Nick in the eye, Clarke asked, “Is your master always like this?”

The boy, Nick, smiled. It was soft, affectionate and incredibly kind. “Only when it comes to me.”

Chained Hearts #3
Nick’s movements drew Todd’s attention. His mate rolled to his butt, sitting there leaning on one hand, legs half-stretched in front of him and crossed just below his knees. Shaggy, dark hair was brushed away from his face, and sleep-blurry eyes blinked at Todd, making his young mate look even younger… more like a sleep-tousled little boy.

There was no way Todd could, or would even try, to stop the smile from spreading over his face. Scooting closer to Nick, he combed his fingers through Nick’s hair, appreciating how soft it was. He pressed a gentle kiss to Nick’s forehead. “Morning.”

One side of Nick’s mouth twitched up for a second before he yawned.

“Christ, Nick, some days you make me feel like a pedophile.”

Nick yawned again, scratched at his chest, and mumbled out, “Huh?” He inched along the ground until he wedged himself between Todd’s legs and laid his head on Todd’s shoulder, face pressed against the side of his neck. Nick yawned again. His entire body relaxed as he nestled against Todd, ribcage expanding with yet another yawn.

“Lemme see this.” Todd lifted Nick’s shirt and inspected the bandaged wound as he had during the night. “According to the map, there’s a town not too far from here. How about we check it out, see if there is somewhere we can get some supplies? We need more bandaging material and more medicine to put on your wound. I’m going to heat some water and get it cleaned out again.”

“I don’t think it’s ever going to heal,” Nick grumbled. “It’s been almost a month.”

“I wouldn’t mind finding a doctor to take a look at it either.” Todd smoothed Nick’s shirt back into place and took a deep breath. “Nick, you keep having those nightmares.”

“How are we going to explain this kind of wound?”

Tapping Nick’s nose with one finger, Todd warned, “No changing the subject.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t stop them. They keep coming.”

“Don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault. We need to work on stopping them.” Massaging the back of his neck and shoulder, Todd gave some more thought to what Nick had told him last night. “Is there a part of the nightmares, or a certain scenario that bothers you more than the others?” Nick snorted.

“The whole thing bothers me.”

“Nick, work with me, here.”

“Well, it really scares me that there might be a second kelbit, a mate, and that she wants revenge and is tracking us. The nightmares always end with me cutting off your--its—head.”

Nodding, Todd said quietly, “I’ve proved to you there is no mate near here. We’ve searched and checked and not seen a single sign of another one. They can change form to look like someone else but not turn invisible. And it has no psychic power to get into your head. All it can do is take the memories and emotions of the person whose form it takes.”

“I know, and I do try telling myself that every day.”

Easing away from Nick, Todd stood up, at a loss for what else to say that might be helpful. Moving farther from the wagon, he got a fire started and set a pot of water on to heat. Nick wandered off toward the nearby river. Todd grabbed his clothes and headed after his mate.

He’d considered the possibility that Nick was right and the kelbit did have a mate who was somehow able to infiltrate Nick’s dreams. More likely, it was trauma. Nick’s ability to sense evil entities also made him incredibly sensitive emotionally. That trait didn’t always work for them, which strengthened Todd’s resolve to find them somewhere bigger than their wagon to stay. A place more easily defended and sturdier than a wagon would naturally offer a higher sense of security.

Once they were done washing in the cool water, Nick quietly sat by the fire, naked from the waist up, while Todd scrubbed out the round bite wound, smeared some more of the antiseptic cream over it, and applied a fresh bandage. The only sign of discomfort Nick let show was the occasional hissed in breath and a shifting of his shoulders forward. After the cream was smoothed over him, he turned and looked over his shoulder, rubbing at it with one hand. “That makes it feel better.” He offered Todd a sweet, easy smile. “Thanks.”

“How about we get a real meal in town? It should be over that rise. It’s called Elk’s Ridge, and from the looks of it on the map, it’s a decent-sized town. Then we can hit a store if they have one. We’ll need somewhere a little more permanent and stable for the winter. This area is as good as any I suppose. If we want, we can head out again in the spring, but for now, we have enough money to get us through.”

“We can always get work, Todd. There will be lots of our sort of problems kicked up by the war. You know, ghosts to dispatch, monsters to slay, curses to break.” Nick shrugged and grinned. “I sort of miss doing our good deeds.”

“Well, me too, but not until that wound is healed, we can’t. Besides, time to give it a break for a bit, I think, and stay as far away from that war as possible. I hope if they have a store, there’s a post office, too, so we can send our letter to Jimmy and maybe get a newspaper, see what we’re missing.”

Todd saw how Nick’s face softened when he mentioned Jimmy. He knew the tone of his own voice clued Nick in to how much he worried about Jimmy Cantor. He wasn’t only the coordinator of sentries in New Colorado, but he had partially raised Todd and was their friend.

Nick nodded and pulled his shirt over his head, then added the sweatshirt Todd had given him on their first day together and he still insisted on wearing. They dowsed the fire and packed their camp into the wagon before securing the team, choosing instead to ride the saddle horses into town.

“We can’t ride the same horse?” Nick stood beside Obi, looking up at Todd who was already sitting on the other horse. It’d taken Nick a while longer, but he’d come up with a name for the young, buckskin gelding. Todd’s horse had been named Arenite. “What if it’s a problem, me riding on a horse?”

Motioning to Nick to mount up, Todd smiled softly. “It’ll be okay. No law says you can’t ride one as long as you’re with me. I know you like when we ride together better, but we’re going to need both horses and the packs to haul back supplies.”

“No law in New Colorado,” Nick grumbled and swung onto the horse.

“I doubt the laws in Yellowknife are much different, but if they are, we’ll worry about it then. I’m willing to bet the laws here might be looser since they don’t have their own slavery industry, just don’t take the offense to it that West Caldera does.”

Nick didn’t say anything else, simply nodded and nudged Obi into motion, keeping close enough to Todd their legs brushed as the horses moved. It was sunny, with large, puffy, white clouds dotting the sky. The air had a crisp, clean scent to it that always put Todd in a good, mellow mood.

The town, Todd discovered, was a pleasant one. There was maybe around a thousand inhabitants, smaller than the tens of thousands who lived in bigger cities like New Colorado City or Yellowknife City, but not so small that they were totally unaccustomed to people passing through.

On the way into town, they had passed apple orchards and an abundance of maple trees. Farms dotted the area; Todd had seen that on the map. Even as far north as it was, it was a hub for travelers, which was immediately evident by the several inns and variety of shops and businesses. There were also a few cafés and restaurants, a larger sized livery, libraries, and a fair amount of homes scattered around the outskirts and farther out in the countryside. Leaving their horses in the care of the livery, they decided to hike around and check the place out.

The buildings were mostly stone and wood with slate and shingle roofs. The streets were cobblestone or brick-paved with wide, wooden sidewalks on either side. Flowerboxes hung under the windows of the businesses. Many of the houses and the inns had gardens with both flowers and vegetables. It was easy to see treelined, residential streets off the main roads. The houses looked like larger homes perfect for families, and Todd counted two schools.

This was a little oasis of civilization in the rugged, mostly uninhabited, far northern part of the Rocky Mountains.

Their first stop was the Rambling Moose café a few blocks over from the livery. It was the type of place that attracted both people wanting a quick bite to eat as well as those enjoying a relaxing meal out. Inside was a bar surrounded by a dozen or so tables with big, comfortable-looking chairs. A deck ran around three of the building’s sides, affording patrons the opportunity to eat and drink outside in the nicer weather.

Just like they did at the café near what had been their home in New Colorado City, Todd and Nick took an outdoor table. They settled into the heavy wooden chairs and looked over the menu. A waiter came along, greeting them and welcoming them to Elk’s Ridge. He made some small talk while providing them with water and coffee. Todd kept his answers neutral, and the man never acted as if anything were amiss or that he’d recognized them, immediately putting Todd at ease. As soon as he relaxed, he saw how Nick did the same.

The fact that Todd was a stranger, wandering the streets and now sitting at an outside table at the café with a slave, drew little attention other than a few people who’d greeted them on the street. As he’d always done, Nick’s tether was hooked to his collar and then tucked into his back pocket making it easy to grab if needed.

The letter to Jimmy started a few days ago was finished while they sipped very good coffee and waited for their meal. Todd was pleased that people here had slaves. He’d seen several on their trip through, and no one seemed much fussed over how he treated Nick. In fact, this town reminded him of the New Colorado City neighborhood he’d chosen to live in, where most of the owners and slaves were a part of a family.

Todd got a good feeling from the town; people minded their own business and were open to newcomers, not that he was ready to find a real estate office just yet, but this was definitely a place to check out more closely. They would probably be fine if they could find a small cabin or even a cave for the winter, keep an eye on the town, and decide if this was where they wanted to live.

“The coffee here is good.” Nick had finally stopped shoveling food in and was leaning back in his chair, looking up and down the street. He looked content and was smiling; another good sign as far as Todd was concerned.

When they left the Rambling Moose Café, there was a five-pound bag of coffee beans to add to their packs. The doctor, they discovered, lived just west of the town and outside of it on a small piece of property. If he didn’t find something for Nick’s shoulder in town, then Todd decided a visit to the doctor was in order.

They wandered down the street to the next main intersecting street and took a right, walking along. There was a large store not far from the intersection; they’d gotten directions from a waiter at the café. It took up nearly half the block. It was several stories high with a store on the main floor, lodging on the second floor, and whatever was on the third wasn’t open to the public, but Todd suspected it was storage. He could see houses behind the store that were attached to it. Probably whatever family owned it lived in those houses. To one side was a barn that was home to a half dozen horses if the small windows running in a line across the middle of the building were any indication.

In unison, they stopped and looked at the large, wood sign with the words Foxtail General Store carved into the wood. A fox lounged across the top of the letters, while its tail was wrapped underneath. Nick nudged Todd’s side and pointed at the sign, grinning. “People around here like the wildlife. They can’t be so bad,” Nick said.

“Let’s hope you’re right. This is a nice town.” Todd pushed the door open and went inside, Nick a step behind him.

As they walked through, Nick was all eyes, checking out everything, making Todd smile. It’d been a while since he’d truly seen Nick’s insatiable curiosity come bouncing to the forefront, and it gave him hope his young mate would be on the mend if they stuck around this area for a while. Heading toward the back where there was a counter, and looking beyond it, Todd did indeed see that there was someone’s home.

Two small children, a boy and girl, maybe about four years old came running from behind the counter. They were small, blonde, cute, looked like twins, and nearly ran Todd over.

“Whoa, whoa, easy there,” he laughed and scooped one kid—the girl—up, swung her around, and set her on the counter all while deftly sidestepping the little boy plowing into his shins. Nick covered his mouth and snickered.

“Oh my gosh, I am so sorry. Karen, Kieron, you’re both supposed to be in the house helping Nana not annoying our customers. Now go.”

A woman about Todd’s age rushed after them. She was small, equally as blonde as her children, with crystal-blue eyes, and had long, wavy hair that fell to below her shoulders. She offered Todd a dazzling smile. “I am very sorry. What can I do for you?” She skimmed her fingers over his forearm lightly before coming to rest on the counter.

A quick glance back at Nick who was brushing his hair back from his face and looking a little grumpy, and Todd stepped up to the counter after the little girl, Karen, vacated it for the house and her Nana. The woman’s gaze flashed to Nick for a brief instant before landing back on Todd. He hoped he really didn’t look like some kind of pedophile after all. His mate looked too damn young sometimes. Todd resisted the urge to blurt out Nick was twenty-three.

“Do you have any postal service here?” Todd fished the letter out of his coat pocket.

Nick stepped up behind him, dropped to one knee, crossed his arms over the bent one, and looked around the store casually. Todd recognized that for what it was; Nick’s little bouts of jealousy and insecurity hadn’t bothered him since the night not too long after leaving the Chancellor’s Estate that he’d chased after his mate. Nick behaved this way the most when he wanted reassurance from Todd; he understood that and found giving Nick his needed security and letting it ride was his best course of action. He let one hand drop casually to his side and moved it back far enough to skim across Nick’s hair for a few seconds before bringing it back up to rest on the counter. Todd didn’t often demand Nick take a kneeling position behind him, but he wanted Nick to know when he chose to do so on his own, Todd completely understood the reasoning behind Nick’s actions and that Nick would never be reprimanded.

“We do.” She held out her hand, and Todd set the envelope with their letter to Jimmy in her palm. It took her a minute to weigh it and figure the postage, and she chatted away at him while she worked. “I’m Amelia Wilbourne, and you’ve met my children. Are you new in town or passing through?”

He also found out in those few minutes that she was a widow; her husband had been killed in an accident earlier the year before. She lived with her grandparents and children. Her brother and his family ran the local lumberyard about a mile down the road. It was way too much information, definitely way too much hair flipping and touching of Todd’s forearm while she was giving it out.

“Not sure yet.” Todd smiled at her and handed over payment for the postage then gave her a quick handshake when she offered her other hand. “We’re definitely here to pick up some supplies.”

Reaching behind him, he slipped one finger under Nick’s collar and tugged lightly. Nick stood, stepped closer, and waited placidly beside him. “I’m Todd Ruger. This is Nick, my mate.”

Amelia’s gaze barely flicked to Nick who smiled politely and nodded. “Hello.” His voice was soft, and Todd was likely the only person who’d ever hear the note of insecurity in it.

“Well, Mr. Ruger, if you need anything at all, let me know.” She had a sort of predatory sweet smile that made Todd want to shake his head. Nick more glared at her than anything. “I hope we see more of you in here. If there is anything you can’t find, let me know, I’ll have it ordered.”

“I bet you will,” Nick grumbled. If she heard him, she ignored him. In fact, other than the first glance she’d spared Nick, she hadn’t acknowledged his presence at all.

Todd gave Nick a slight bump on his arm, and they grabbed a basket, and walked up and down the aisles. Thankfully, Todd found some medicated cream as well as the rest of the supplies they were getting low on to replenish their stock. Nick finding a book that interested him made Todd happy, and he made it a point to hand it back to Nick after paying for it. Amelia’s looks were making him nervous, and he decided he really wanted her to understand Nick was his mate, and Todd was not looking for any other sort of company.

It was early evening when they left the town and headed back to their wagon. Todd wasn’t comfortable enough to get a room at one of the inns for a few nights. He wanted to watch the town and the area for a while first. That night, a cold wind blew in heavy rains, forcing them to sleep in the wagon. Todd spent the night shifting from one side to the other, trying to ease aches and cramps, never seeming to find a position that allowed him to relax and sleep, all while trying to stifle a cough he figured came from the damp air and not wake up Nick. That turned out to be a nonissue since Nick didn’t really sleep much. If he wasn’t flinching awake from nightmares, he was rousted by Todd’s tossing and coughing.

By early morning, the two of them finally got to sleep. It rained most of that day, making Todd even antsier. He’d decided he wanted to check the area, watch the town, and bad weather was thwarting his plans.

Collared Souls #4
They were taken through the main entrance. The prison wasn’t one single building, but half a dozen set in a horseshoe. Each building was connected by a short wooden breezeway with small windows but no door to the outside. Those were the only places Nick could see that weren’t constructed of stone and iron. From where he was, it looked like no more than two or three people could be in one of the breezeways at the same time.

Their cuffs were left in place, but the ropes lashing them to the horse were removed, as were their packs hanging on the saddle. The mounted soldiers climbed off their horses and began leading them to one of the buildings near the right end of the cluster. It became clear to Nick that these people had been here often. Possibly this was also their barracks.

Larry Witze stood near the doorway of one of the center buildings. Nick’s heart sank a little when he saw the expression on the man’s face. Witze was angry and making no effort to hide that fact from Captain Howard, judging by the glares they exchanged.

Captain Howard wiped her hands on her pants and strode forward, glancing sideways at the soldiers standing on either side of Todd and Nick. “Bring them,” she ordered.

Todd drew in a deep breath and took a long stride forward so he was in front of Nick. Taking his cue, Nick purposely checked his steps for a few feet and moved to the side, dropping behind Todd.

They were led into one of the buildings. Captain Howard going first, she unlocked the door using a key from a ring hooked to her belt, went through, and stopped a few feet inside. She turned and watched as the soldiers, one in front of Todd and one behind Nick, then Larry Witze filed through and into the building.

They walked down a narrow corridor, forced to stay in a line, and were taken into a room, which looked to Nick like some kind of intake area.

“Inform the vice chancellor we’re here,” Captain Howard said to one of the men already inside. It was difficult to tell if they were soldiers, guards, or both since they all wore the same type of uniform.

The man nodded, turned on his heels, and vanished down yet another corridor.

“Take their cuffs off,” Witze demanded.

“Mr. Witze, they’re prisoners. That’s hardly appropriate. Or wise,” Captain Howard said, rubbing the bridge of her nose with thumb and forefinger.

“It’s a prison,” Witze said flatly. “They have nowhere to go and are too smart to try an escape. Isn’t that correct, Mr. Ruger?” He looked pointedly at Todd. Had they not been in cuffs and in it pretty deep, Nick would have laughed at the looks Todd and Witze gave one another.

Todd shrugged and cocked his head to one side. “No reason to be stupid.”

“Ruger.” Witze growled the word, crossing both arms over his chest.

Todd heaved a sigh and turned to meet Nick’s gaze. “No, we will not try to escape. You have my word.”

A nod from Captain Howard, and their cuffs were removed, allowing Nick to rub his sore wrists. Todd dropped his hands to his sides and put on a very neutral expression, making Nick almost feel sorry for these people. When Todd wore that look, usually someone’s ass was going to get kicked--hard.

Vice Chancellor Raleigh picked that moment to arrive. “Well, Todd Ruger, I’ve been looking for you.” Raleigh rubbed his ribs and offered Todd a smug smile. Moving around Todd to Nick, he raised one hand, knuckles almost brushing Nick’s cheek. “And you.”

Nick jerked his head to the side and took a step back.

Todd’s hand came up in a move so fast he was a blur and caught Raleigh by the wrist while he snarled, “Don’t touch him.”

One of the guards took Nick by the arm and pulled him away a few steps. Two others positioned themselves between Nick and Todd.

A quick, almost nonexistent shake of Todd’s head, and Nick stood motionless and tense in the guard’s grip.

Chuckling, Raleigh pulled his hand free and let it drop to his side. He nodded to several of the guards. Standing close, Nick saw how their shoulders and the tense lines of their jaws relaxed only slightly. He stepped away and leaned against a desk with his hands together, wrists resting on his thighs.

“You know this won’t hold up. Chancellor Clarke reverted Nick’s ownership back to Todd Ruger. You don’t have a leg to stand on,” Witze said.

“The papers are in my pack. It’s the black one,” Todd said quietly. He was speaking to Raleigh but kept his gaze focused on Nick.

Raleigh snorted a short laugh. “Those papers were drawn up after Mr. Ruger here left the Chancellor’s Estate with a slave who was government property. Your paperwork doesn’t change that fact, nor the fact that the same slave, while owned by Todd Ruger, may have been responsible for the death of Chancellor Shaffer, as well as another individual, while on the estate falsely impersonating an orphan slave. Legally, your responsibility.”

“You can’t—” Nick jerked his arm away from the guard and took a step forward.

Nick’s words were cut off by Todd snapping a harsh “Nick!”

At once Nick stopped, sucked in a harsh breath, and stood with his fists clenched at his sides.

Raleigh gave him a pained, bored look. “Yes, in fact, I can.”

“So, we’re under arrest?” Todd ground out, glaring at Raleigh.

“No, not at all.” Raleigh smiled at Todd, shaking his head. “I’m arresting you. Nick is being remanded over to the government and taken back to the estate.”

“What? No!” Nick knew he’d already been given an order by Todd to stay put. He was shaking with the effort not to lunge forward at the closest guard. Adam had died in part because of Nick losing control and trying to attack him. He wasn’t giving Raleigh the satisfaction of seeing Nick repeat his mistake.

Raleigh turned a cool gaze on Nick. “Did you really think I’d let you slip through my fingers?”

Witze stepped up, stood beside Nick, and gave a gentle nudge to the back of Nick’s arm. “I’m still in charge of the slave sanctuary. Any slave with ownership reverting to the government, orphan or not, comes under my jurisdiction.”

Nick turned away from Raleigh, looking to Witze. “Can he do this?”

“He’s not technically an orphan slave, though that can be arranged.” Raleigh looked from Nick to Todd and then Witze, evil smirk back on his face. He turned to the guards, motioning with one hand to Todd. “Put him in a holding cell.”

Tethered Pair #5
“Let’s try other music.” This tune wasn’t quite as slow and had a more pronounced beat. Positioning Nick’s hands, then his own, Todd leaned forward far enough to brush a light kiss over Nick’s cheek. He whispered into Nick’s ear, “Listen to the music and try to follow it… and me… and relax… and—”

“Have fun, damn it!” Nick grinned, pressing his head close to Todd’s, his tongue swiping a wet path over Todd’s ear.

“Damn straight!”

“Anyway, launch is in a few hours, and there’s a party in the formal ballroom after that,” Todd said. He snickered when he got his foot out of the way of Nick’s just in time. “Don’t look down.”

Todd hustled Nick out of their suite, and they headed toward the main deck. They could have watched the launch from the small balcony off their room, but Todd wanted to see everything. He’d never understood why launches were always at night, but once they reached the main deck and the companionway that ringed it, he understood immediately.

Slave porters were moving along the deck, lighting small oil lamps and cranking Faraday lights that were hung in strings along the rail. The engines hummed. Todd could feel the vibration under his feet. He glanced sideways at Nick, took his hand, and pulled him closer to the rail so they could lean over and look.

Nick’s face split into a brilliant smile when he looked out. The river was dark, lights from the boat reflecting off the water. He turned and leaned back against the rail, facing Todd and looking up.

“That is worth this whole trip,” Nick said, motioning to the upper part of the boat.

Todd twisted around and followed Nick’s gaze with his own. The steam stacks were ringed with polished metal—it looked like brass, from the coloring. Red and black streamers flowed in the gentle breeze. The horn blared, and Todd could feel how the engines rumbled, their power ramping up.

Nick looked down, then back up at him, and grinned. “Wow.”

“Yeah,” Todd agreed.

“Okay, now I get why you are so fascinated with these boats and wanted to see this for yourself,” Nick said.

Other passengers cheered and waved to people seeing them off on the pier as the paddle wheels came to life and the boat began its journey. As it pulled away from the shore and docks, it picked up speed until, once in the center of the river, Todd could actually feel a slight breeze from its movement on his face.

He twined his fingers through Nick’s and tugged him in for a light kiss. “This is how I always imagined it would be,” he said. He’d dropped his voice so it was low and husky. It had the desired effect on his young mate. Nick sucked in a breath.

Nick pressed close, shivering, his lips curled into a smile against Todd’s mouth. “This is pretty amazing,” Nick said softly.

Author Bio:
Elizabeth Noble started telling stories before she actually knew how to write, and her family was very happy when she learned to put words on a page. Those words turned into fan fiction that turned into a genuine love of M/M romance fiction. Being able to share her works with Dreamspinner is really a dream come true. She has a real love for all things sci-fi, futuristic, and supernatural and a bit of an unnatural interest in a super-volcano in Wyoming.

Elizabeth has three grown children and is now happily owned by three mutts, a foster mutt, and two cats. She lives in her native northeast Ohio. When she's not writing she's working as a veterinary nurse, so don't be surprised to see her men with a pet or three. When at work she meets all sorts of interesting characters who often find their way into some story or another.


Marked Yours

Together Bound

Chained Hearts

Collared Souls

Tethered Pain

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