Monday, October 10, 2016

Monday's Montage Mantlepiece: Creature Feature

Diagnosis Wolf by Poppy Dennison
Thanks to his good-for-nothing brother, Andrew Hughes is up to his eyeballs in debt and needs a job fast. When a nursing position opens up in Myerson, Arizona, Andrew has no choice but to take it, despite a warning about how difficult a patient Caleb DiMartino can be. Andrew can deal with a little trouble—but Caleb’s strange family, the armed guards, and the unknown cause of Caleb’s mysterious illness may be beyond his skill set.

Landslide by Mary Calmes
For three years, paranormal courier Frank Corrigan has been working for incubus demon Cael Berith. Cael knows Frank is his mate, but Frank is pretty sure Cael doesn’t even like him, never mind want to spend the rest of his life with him, so their personal relationship is at an impasse. When Frank’s sister, Lindsey, gets bitten by a werewolf she's sleeping with—and possibly witnesses a murder—Frank rides to her rescue. If he’s lucky, he might just save his love life too.

Diagnosis: Wolf by Poppy Dennison
ANDREW screeched when his phone rang and “Call Me Maybe” began to play at the highest possible volume. The ringtone was set for Shari, the manager of the employment service he used to find work. He raced for the coffee table and snatched his cell up before the chorus ended. “Hello?”

“Andrew, hello! I hoped to catch you today. I have a position you would be a great fit for.”

Thank goodness. Another week without a job and he wouldn’t be able to pay rent this month. Andrew let out a sigh of relief. “Wonderful. What are the details?” Not that he could afford to be picky at this point, but he wouldn’t be doing himself any favors by appearing too desperate.

“It’s a great opportunity. Double your usual rates.”

Andrew groaned and collapsed onto his couch. “What’s the catch?”

“Well,” she hedged, drawing the word out to four or five syllables, “the patient’s father is somewhat difficult.”

“Father? How old is the patient?”


Twenty-five and the father still handled his health care? This could be a disaster waiting to happen.

“Okay, Shari. Lay it on me. What exactly is ‘somewhat difficult’?”

Shari groaned. “That’s the thing. I don’t know. Apparently, no one has gotten past the front door yet. They asked for a female, but I wanted to try sending you.”

It was Andrew’s turn to groan. “Shari, that’s crazy. What makes you think I’ll get through?”

“Hey, you’re my last hope, buddy. If they turn you away, I’m going to have to send them to someone else.”

Andrew bit his lip and considered. It couldn’t hurt to give it a try. He’d be no worse off than he was now if they turned him down. “Okay, what’s the address?”

AN HOUR later, Andrew stood in front of one of the largest homes he’d ever seen. The massive front windows stretched up two and a half stories. Nothing but crisp white stucco and glass. Andrew looked down at his faded blue scrubs with a grimace. Talk about sticking out like a sore thumb. He couldn’t do anything about his appearance now, but Andrew had a feeling he understood why the other nurses hadn’t gotten past the front door.

He reflected on Shari’s description. Somewhat difficult. Right. If the perfection of this home were anything to go by, Andrew wouldn’t last an hour. But at least that would be an hour at double his usual rate. It never ceased to amaze him how much his standards for acceptable behavior had been lowered since he didn’t have the money to back him up.

With a deep breath for courage, he straightened his spine and rang the bell. Not a sound came from inside. No way could something at this impeccable house be out of order. Even the shrubbery bowed down to the perfection of its surroundings. Not a leaf out of place—they wouldn’t dare.

No one answered after a long minute. Andrew fought the compulsion to just turn around and get back in his car. Surely another position would open up soon enough and get him out of this messy financial hole he found himself in? He hated having to take a job based on the money alone. So what if they made him drive all the way out here and didn’t answer the door? Not like he had much of a choice, despite the fact that his potential employers appeared to be rude and inconsiderate of his time. The reality of his situation forced him to keep his feet planted on the front steps.

The problem with having a brother who looked enough like you to be your twin? He sometimes wrote checks with his mouth that his ass couldn’t cash. And he did them using your ID. Which meant that Andrew’s ass couldn’t cash them either. Now he had a mountain of debts and an on-again, off-again job that paid his living expenses and not much else. Andrew couldn’t remember if gambling was one of the seven deadly sins, but if it wasn’t, the vice certainly should be.

Andrew stood impatiently on the stoop, cursing his brother’s addiction and his own trusting heart that had allowed Danny access to his accounts. That heart of his would sink him yet. All he’d have had to do was call the bank or the cops and press charges. The debt would have disappeared, but Andrew hadn’t been able to send his brother to jail.

He pressed the doorbell again and thanked his lucky stars that the weather felt like cooperating. Not that fall in Arizona meant freezing weather, but with the sun shining, Andrew didn’t worry about his scrubs not being warm enough for brisk weather.

The door opened. Finally. The largest man in the world stood on the other side. Dressed in a black suit, he brushed the jacket aside far enough to let Andrew see the weapon holstered under his arm.

Shit balls. What the hell had he gotten himself into this time?

“You the nurse?” tall, dark, and scowly asked, his voice deep and a bit on the creepy side.

Unfortunately for him, Andrew watched a lot of horror movies. This guy had nothing on Vincent Price. “Yes,” Andrew answered with a brief smile of reassurance.

“You’re a guy.”

“Well, yes. I’m Andrew.”

“Whatever. You won’t be here long enough for me to bother learning your name.” With that, he turned and stalked through the foyer.

“Nice to meet you too,” Andrew groused under this breath. He stepped onto the white marble tiles, then bounced right back out to wipe his Croc-covered feet on the doormat. He stayed close to the door and hiked his scruffy black duffel further onto his shoulder. When a strand of his shaggy blond hair blew across his cheek, Andrew tucked it behind his ear. He probably should have made time for a quick trim, but that was something else that required cash, and he was currently tapped out.

“Get in here,” Scowly commanded from a doorway near the back of the huge entrance hall.

Andrew started to snap a salute and say “Yes, sir!” but thought he’d better not. He walked down the hall, the foam resin of his shoes squeaking with each step across the glistening floor. Andrew expected to meet whoever was in charge, but instead, he faced a large stairwell.

Scowly marched up the steps, his perfectly shined black dress shoes not making a sound.

Andrew followed him down another long white hall to the only room with a closed door.

Scowly opened the door a crack and stuck his head inside.

“The nurse is here.” He pitched his voice very low, not quite a whisper with his deep bass. Andrew heard a whispered reply.

“Send her in.”

Scowly jerked his head and gestured for Andrew to enter the room.

Dark curtains shrouded the windows, and a hospital bed sat against a long, empty wall. The only light in the room came from a door at the opposite side of the room from the bed that was open just a crack.

Another Scowly wannabe sat in a chair by the window. Dressed in a similar dark suit, this guy also had the bulge of a hidden weapon under his coat. Andrew took all of that information in and processed it before he turned to look at the man on the bed.

The darkness of the room hid his features for the most part, but Andrew could see well enough to know his patient was a very sick man. His pale skin looked ashen, and his dark hair fell in messy, sweat-dampened waves against his forehead.

No other equipment surrounded the bed, only empty spaces where monitors and IV poles normally stood. Andrew didn’t see any charts around either.

“Where are his charts?” Andrew hissed at the presumed bodyguards.

“You don’t need them.”

Andrew bristled. No Scowly, gun or not, told him how to take care of his patients. “The hell I don’t. Get me his medical files.”

Ignoring his request, Scowly snorted and sat down in the chair.

“Fine, then. Nice knowing you.” Andrew turned and stormed back to the bedroom door.

He heard a menacing growl behind him, like that of a dog ready to attack. Andrew froze and glanced over his shoulder.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Scowly marched up behind Andrew and reached for his arm.

Andrew spun out of the way. “Don’t touch me, asshole. And I’m leaving. I can’t treat this guy if I don’t have his files. Since you won’t give them to me, you’ll need to find another nurse.” Andrew turned to leave again, and the growl sounded from behind him for the second time. “And someone needs to get control of that dog, wherever it is.”

Scowly number two huffed out a laugh.

“I’m out of here.” Andrew slipped into the hall. He froze when he noticed an older man at the top of the stairs. Elegantly dressed in a light linen suit, the man had perfectly styled white hair and the deep olive skin of someone with Spanish, or maybe Italian, roots. As Andrew grew closer, the man grew… shorter. For some reason, he’d appeared to be very tall, but he was actually only five foot five or so. He looked up to Andrew’s six foot height.

Something in the older man’s eyes made Andrew stop and wait. No doubt Scowlys One and Two worked for this guy. The man exuded power.

“I’m Alfonse DiMartino.” He held out his hand to Andrew.

“Andrew Hughes. If you’ll excuse me, I was just leaving.” He gave Alfonse’s hand a quick shake out of politeness and tried to scoot around him for the stairs.

“Andrew. Please wait. I’m not sure what the boys did this time, but I’d like to speak to you before you rush off.”

Andrew stopped and turned around. “I’ll give you ten minutes. I’m sorry to be abrupt with you, sir, but those jerks have crawled all over my nerves. And that damn dog keeps growling.”

“Oh, really.” Alfonse snapped his fingers, and the bodyguards shot through the door. “Monty? Jed? Care to explain why our new nurse is leaving before I’ve had a chance to speak with him? And while you’re at it, perhaps one of you would like to tell me why I shouldn’t put—oh, how did Andrew put it? Oh yes, the damn dog, out of its misery?”

Monty and Jed weren’t scowling now. In fact, the two appeared downright terrified. “Uh, sorry, sir. We were just…,” Jed started to explain, but couldn’t seem to decide what to say.

“Enough. Get out of my sight.”

They skedaddled so fast Andrew wondered just how much hold Alfonse had over them.

“My apologies, Andrew. If you would consider staying on, I’ll take care that nothing like that happens again.”

Andrew thought for a moment and considered the paycheck. He needed this job, and he had to admit that seeing the Lurch wannabes put in their place was a nice bonus. “I’ll stay, if I don’t have to deal with those two any more than necessary.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Now, if you’ll follow me, I’d like to introduce you to my son.”

Andrew followed Alfonse back into the bedroom. The older man opened one of the curtains and allowed light to shine into the room. The patient had dark hair that curled over his ears. Alfonse smoothed a stray curl off of his son’s forehead and placed a gentle kiss on his cheek.

“This is my Caleb. He’s been ill and needs some additional care for a while until I can make things right.”

“Make things right?” Andrew wasn’t sure what that meant, but the young man had clearly been ill for a while. From the looks of him, Andrew couldn’t be sure how much more time his father could take to make things right. Caleb’s skin, although the same rich tan as his father’s, also held a pallid gray tone that indicated a severe amount of pain. Andrew’s fingers twitched to check his pulse, but he stayed back.

“Caleb’s condition is more than just a medical one. I’m afraid it’s difficult to explain, but he needs more assistance than my guards can provide. They resent that fact, unfortunately. Because of my business, I require protection. Needless to say, my guards don’t like strangers in the house.”

“Look, Mr.… uh, Alfonse. I’m not sure I’m the right person for the job. I mean, you can have me checked out or whatever, but I can’t in good conscience agree to take care of your son when I don’t even know what’s wrong with him.”

Alfonse turned to Andrew and smiled. “How about we make a deal? You work with us for three days. If at the end of that time you believe you can function as my son’s caregiver, I will provide you with more information.”

He should say “no” and get the hell out of here. The temptation of three days of work at the rates Alfonse was paying tipped the scales. He’d have over a week’s worth of hours in those few days. Enough to get some unsavory creditors off his back for a little longer.

“Three days?”

“Yes. If it works out, I’ll make sure you have all the information you need.”

Andrew dropped his bag at the foot of the bed and held out his hand to the older man. “Deal.”

Alfonse smiled briefly before straightening his spine and getting back to business. Andrew’s patient’s father was not only powerful, but obviously accustomed to getting his way. He gave Andrew a brief rundown of how they’d been treating Caleb, including the few medications they’d been giving him.

Andrew didn’t have a chance to ask many questions, as Alfonse’s phone gave a shrill ring, and the man left the room after giving Andrew a quick pat on the shoulder. Alone with his patient for the first time, Andrew glanced down at Caleb’s supine form. His stomach fluttered. For someone as sick as Caleb was, the man was still incredibly handsome. He could imagine running his fingers through Caleb’s deep-brown hair, the way Caleb’s stubble would scratch at Andrew’s face when they kissed. Andrew grumbled to himself for his unprofessional thoughts and forced his mind to ignore Caleb’s looks and focus on him as a patient.

He grabbed a notebook and pen from his bag and began making quick notes for the nonexistent chart. With the little information he’d been told, the page remained mostly blank. Andrew grabbed his stethoscope and blood pressure cuff from his bag. Caleb’s pulse rate was high, too high for a man apparently unconscious. Andrew jotted down the time and figure and wrapped the cuff around Caleb’s upper arm.

When he pumped the air into the device, he got his first reaction from his patient. Caleb’s eyes flew open, and he jerked at the black binding on his arm. Andrew laid a hand on Caleb’s chest and spoke in his matter-of-fact nurse voice. “Shh. You’re fine. I need to take your blood pressure. Let’s just take a minute, and you can calm down, and we’ll get this done, okay?”

Caleb frowned and looked around the room. “Father?” he whispered hoarsely.

“He’s downstairs. My name is Andrew, and your father asked me to help take care of you for a few days.”

Caleb’s dark eyes widened, and he seemed to notice Andrew’s scrubs and nursing tools at the same time. “You’re the new nurse?”

“I am. Now, let’s take your blood pressure, okay?”

“Fine. Not that it matters.”

Andrew didn’t respond to the negative tone and completed the test. He jotted down a note and turned back to his patient. “Anything I can do for you?”

Caleb grumbled. “I need to piss.”

“Not a problem. Can you walk or is there a bedpan for your use?”

“I can fucking walk.” Caleb struggled to sit up and then tossed away the blanket covering his legs. After several deep breaths, he slid his legs over the edge of the bed and pushed to his feet. He wobbled for a moment before taking several shaky steps toward the bathroom.

Andrew fought to keep his distance, not wanting to damage Caleb’s pride further. He kept his eyes on him, though, and was prepared to move quickly should Caleb’s steps falter. Caleb stopped at the doorway and rested against the frame for a minute. He rubbed his hand over his hip and winced.

This time, Andrew made a mental note. It might be something worth remembering when he learned more about Caleb’s illness. By the time Caleb used the facilities and made it back to the bed, Andrew had stripped and remade it using spare sheets he’d located in the bureau next to the bed.

Caleb collapsed back onto the mattress with a low groan. Andrew covered him up. “Would you like a drink? Something to eat, perhaps?”

“Ugh,” Caleb moaned. “I haven’t been able to keep much down in days.”

“Hmm.” Andrew scooped up his notebook, and Caleb reached over to grab his arm.

“Do you have to write everything down?”

“Well, I don’t have to, but since no one will tell me what’s wrong with you, I’m kind of flying blind here. I don’t know what’s significant, so I’m tracking anything and everything until I know more.”

Caleb huffed out a laugh. “So, Father didn’t tell you anything. No surprise there. He’d like to keep me isolated and this whole thing a secret until it’s resolved.”

Andrew looked around the dark room. “Seems like he’s doing a good job of it so far.”

“Tell me about it. Would you mind helping me raise the bed? I’d like to sit up for a while, I think.”

“No problem.” Andrew crouched at the head of the bed and adjusted the levers until Caleb was raised enough to be comfortable. “How’s that?”

“Perfect. So where’d Dumb and Dumber get off to?”

Andrew couldn’t hide his smirk at the nicknames. “I assume you’re referring to Scowly and Scowlier?”

Caleb burst out laughing just as the door to the bedroom opened and Alfonse walked in. He stood stunned in the entrance when he saw Caleb sitting up and smiling.

“Hey, Pop.”

Alfonse rushed to Caleb’s side and cupped his cheek. “My son. You look… better.”

“No worries, Pop. Laughter is the best medicine, and Andrew here cracked me up.”

Alfonse sent a look filled with gratitude Andrew’s way before turning back to his son. “Any changes?”

The smile slipped from Caleb’s face. He shook his head and raised his hand to cover his father’s where it rested against his face. “I know you’re doing everything you can. We’ll figure this out.”

Alfonse nodded. “Andrew, would you excuse us for a minute?”

Already feeling like an intruder on the moment, Andrew nodded. He scooped up the soiled linens and backed out of the room, closing the door behind him. Finding his way back to the entrance hall only took a moment, but he had no idea where to go from there.

Deciding to explore, Andrew opened a random door and peeked inside. Another hallway. Sheesh, did this place ever end? He followed the marble tiles to more doorways and checked each one in turn. Finally, he located the kitchen at the end of the hall.

Not seeing anyone else, Andrew poked around the room until he found the washer and dryer in a large pantry. He piled the sheets on top and nearly leapt out of his skin when he heard growling behind him.

He turned around, tensed for an attack, and found two large gray-and-black dogs in cages behind the door. Their hackles were raised, and one bared its teeth and snarled at Andrew. “Good doggie. I’m just going to throw these clothes in the wash, and I’ll leave you alone.”

Andrew kept one eye on the dogs while he flipped open the machine and stuffed the linens inside. He did a quick search for detergent and dumped some in before slamming the lid shut and starting the wash cycle.

The dogs continued their threatening noises until Andrew left the room and closed the door behind him. He let out a deep breath and realized his hands were shaking. He wondered what exactly Alfonse did that he required two hulking bodyguards as well as dogs that seemed ready to chow down first, get commands later.

He couldn’t let that worry him, though. He straightened his spine and went over to the refrigerator to try and find something that might tempt Caleb to eat. He found a bottle of sports drink, some fruit, and a container of yogurt. Grabbing what he needed, Andrew made his way back to Caleb’s room. With a quick knock on the door, he pushed it open while balancing Caleb’s snack. Caleb was alone in the room, his eyes closed. He opened them when he heard Andrew come in and smirked when he saw him trying to balance the drinks and snacks.

“What’s all that?” he asked over a huge yawn.

“Something for you to eat and drink. Gotta have your fluids.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Andrew set everything down on the side table and opened the plastic lid on the drink bottle. He passed it over to Caleb, who took a slow drink. “Orange. Blech.”

“Sorry, that’s the only kind down there or I’d go get you something else.”

“Yeah, my dad likes this flavor. He keeps it handy.”

“Well, let me know what you’d prefer, and I’ll make sure there’s some here.” He carried a bunch of grapes into the bathroom and gave them a quick rinse before setting them on a clean towel and carrying them back to Caleb. “Give these a try.”

Caleb popped one into his mouth and chewed. “I’ll eat the grapes, but I hate yogurt. You can have that.”

Andrew shrugged and sat down on the edge of the bed. He opened the yogurt and gave it a quick stir. “Too bad I didn’t think to look for granola.”

Caleb winced. “That’s even worse. I’d rather have a big steak.”

“Ah, a meat and potatoes kind of guy, huh?”

“Yeah, if you hold the potatoes.”

Andrew shook his head and nibbled on the yogurt while making sure Caleb continued eating and drinking. After a few minutes, his patient visibly drooped. Andrew gathered up the grapes and the drink and lowered the bed. “Go ahead and get some rest. I’ll be here for another few hours if you need anything.”

Landslide by Mary Calmes
Chapter One
THE knock on the front door was a surprise. I grabbed my 9mm before I limped over to answer. My back had taken a pounding earlier, so I was walking a little stiffly.

“Yeah?” I yelled through the door.

“It’s Cael, open up.”

As I leaned against the doorframe, the knot in my gut loosened, and I let go of the breath I was holding. All that calm that came over me simply because I knew it was my boss on the other side.


Resting my forehead against the cool dark wood, I sighed. “What do you want?”

“There was blood on the statue of Ra, and when I tasted it, it was yours.”

Leave it to him to lick dried blood off something. “So?”

“So why are you bleeding? You were simply supposed to pick up the artifact and take it to Topper.”

“I’m your courier,” I reminded him. “I always bleed.”

“No, you—”

“My boss is a demon,” I reminded him, chuckling. “All his clients are monsters… sometimes it gets messy.”

“I would have never sent you out alone if I thought you would be in danger. I would have sent backup or—”

“The last guy you sent as my backup, I ended up having to save him. I think it’s safe to say at this point that I’d rather just go by myself.”


“Fuck no,” I growled through the door. “Just go away. I’m beat.”

“Tell me what happened?”

“Charming was there,” I answered, like that was enough.

I heard him bump against the door. “You’re the only one who calls him that.”

My smile was probably resigned. The claw marks on my left forearm I had not gotten around to wrapping yet were still oozing blood. “No, I’m not.”

“He’s a werewolf. How are you even alive if you tangled with him?”

“He doesn’t want to get shot with irradiated mercury, and honestly… I think he’s getting used to me.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that when we run into each other, when he’s hired to steal something that I’m supposed to pick up or deliver, we don’t draw our weapons anymore. He just throws me around.”


“Which is impressive considering I make,” I paused to think, “like, two of him.”


“But that’s how you know he’s a werewolf. He can bench a guy twice his weight.”


“Maybe three times,” I added thoughtfully.

“Open the door.”

“No.” I had to think. “Three times is stupid, and a bit self-deprecating, but two for sure.”


“Go away,” I said firmly.

“I command you to open the door.”

I snorted out a laugh. “Did you just try and use your boss voice on me?”

His growl would have scared a lot of things: human, demon, shifter, witch….

I laid the XDM 9mm on the shelf by the front door. “Leave me alone, Cael. I’m off the clock.”

“I want to see you!”

“I don’t want to donate any blood tonight.” I exhaled slowly. “I already told that to Charming.”

As I thought about him I remembered our encounter.

He had come at me earlier in the night, fangs lowered and bared, all wolfy, and I had elbowed him in the face.

“Bad dog, no biting.”

My words, combined with the action, made his face shift back as he stopped and gave me the smallest of grins.

“What?” I asked.

“No biting?” he questioned, chuckling.

“I could roll up a newspaper.”

Instead of bantering, he had thrown me across the room onto a table. Honestly, it had hurt when the wood splintered under me, but it had been more of a toss than a hurl, so I didn’t come up shooting. I had stood and waited. When he pulled a knife, I had squinted at him.

“Just lemme have the damn relic. You can have the next one,” he groused at me.

“My boss wants this one, and since he’s the one who bought and paid for it,” I said with a shrug, “you need to back off.”

“But I was hired to take it when you came to collect it.”

“Okay, then,” I sighed. “Come on.”

His yawn had said he didn’t care that much either.


I jolted from the sound, brought back sharply to the present.

“Open the door!”

My groan, I was certain, sounded whiney. “No.”


“I’m fine, Cael,” I assured him. “I will let my very human body do its thing all alone.”

“Frank, I—”

“And I have to pack anyway.”


I had thrown him. “Yeah, I’ve gotta go to an engagement party.”

“What?” He sounded so annoyed I almost laughed.

If he were a friend, I would have opened the door, but he wasn’t, so I kept it shut. And he couldn’t come in without my permission; I had made sure of that. The mage who put the warding spell on my loft had owed me a favor. I had saved his daughter, who was a werewolf. She had been kidnapped, and some guys were forcing her to shift by holding a gun on her boyfriend. Once she had shifted, they planned on hunting her. It was sick and twisted, and I saw to it there was jail for three of the guys and death for one. Hollow point bullets fragmented on impact. When I shot at something, it didn’t live. After I had restored her safely to her father, he was, he swore, in my debt. The binding magic he used on my graystone was extremely powerful. He wanted to keep me safe, wanted to show the depth of his gratitude, so it was not surprising that nothing supernatural could come inside.

The wards had come in very handy when I was running from conjured hellhounds just a week before. I had hurled open my front door and dived through. The dogs had hit the barrier right after me, and I heard yelps of pain and then silence. The two warlocks behind them had stopped and frozen there, staring in at me. I had collapsed, heaving, on my rug. I was lucky that Charming hadn’t been after me at that point. As I had learned the hard way when I tangled with a ghoul in my bathroom, “supernatural” meant anything from another dimension, but werewolves—any sort of shifter—could come and go as they pleased.

When I had inquired of my vampire friend Nancy, who could no longer come over to my place, she said that undead fell strictly in the paranormal category, but because shifters changed back into living, breathing, warm-blooded people, there was no magic to keep them out. The spell that would do that would have to be too precise for the magic to be very powerful. It didn’t matter to me. As a rule, weres or shifters were the least of my problems.


Between the blood loss and the moving around, I was getting dizzy. “My sister’s getting married at home,” I informed him. “I have to fly out to Myerson, and—”

“Where the hell is that?”

“It’s close to Flagstaff in—”

“I know where Flagstaff, Arizona is,” he barked, and a jolt of electricity rolled through me.

I levered off the door fast.

“Open up now. I want to see you.”

But I looked terrible. My shirt was ripped, I was covered in scratches and bites and bruises, my lip was split, and my knuckles were all torn up. Added to that were the deep claw marks on my left forearm that felt bone deep but had probably only gone halfway. I was lucky the werewolf had only swiped at me. Anyone who saw me would figure I’d been in a fight, which was exactly what had happened.

“I have an early flight in the morning,” I explained, making sure he couldn’t reach out with his power and… wait. How could he even do that? He wasn’t supposed to be able to do that.


“Holy shit.”

He grunted.

“Did you just push power through the door at me?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

I growled at him. He knew damn well what. “How did you reach through the wards and touch me with your power?”



“I’ve told you a million times, and you never believe me.”

Not again. “Save the bullshit and just tell me.”

“I have already.”

The magic that kept me safe inside my loft was very powerful. Apparently, a thousand-year-old incubus demon was stronger. “How are you punching though? Tell me so I can have Orion fix it.”

“He can’t fix this because it’s between you and me.”

“Seriously?” I sounded very petulant, but God, I was so tired.

“You don’t listen. You hear—but you don’t listen.”

“Cael, I—”

“You’re mine,” he said, his voice a husky rumble through the door.

My knees went weak because the sound was pure, silky sex.


I cleared my throat, pulling myself together. No matter what he said, I was not his idea of hot. Before we had ever actually met face to face, I had seen him out many times at the clubs, and I was older than the men I saw on his arm and quite a bit heavier. At six two, I was supposed to be around 180 pounds, but while I was working on my physique, I was 230 when I checked the day before. I carried it in my stomach and ass and you could see it in my face, which was why I had grown the goatee and mustache—to give the impression of contour there.

My buddy Jonas, a fitness trainer, was working my arms, legs, and chest, and I was proud of the new definition there, all of it strong and muscular. I had been a chubby kid but dropped all the baby fat playing football in high school. When I joined the Marine Corps, I had been a lean hundred and seventy-five pounds but had put on a good deal of weight since leaving, all the way up to 300 at one point. Having never been the poster child for temperance, I had gone a bit wild once I was free of the military.

A year ago, I had decided to really work on it, hence the time spent with Jonas, rugby on Sundays, and trying to watch what I ate. Despite my commitment, I was still thick and meaty, not a toned gym hardbody. It was my stepfather’s favorite thing to needle me about, being husky, which made the idea of going home less than appealing. My little sister Lindsey, though, she was the one getting engaged, and she was the one who wanted me there to hold her hand through the party. I was not about to be a no-show and disappoint her.


“Just go away, Cael; I’ll call you when I get back.”

“Let me see you.”

“You know, you guys are all so possessive of your people.” I snickered. “Do you know Trathan nearly beheaded me earlier tonight because I said no when he wanted to take some of my blood? What’s with the whole—”

“He wanted your blood?”

“Yeah, but sure as hell, I let him know that I don’t let vampires or any other demon suck on me. And, if I was ever gonna let anyone do it, it would be you.”


“So why is he so territor—”

“You ignorant man! It has nothing to do with being territorial!” he yelled through the door. “He wants your blood because he knows you’re mine! He just wants to hurt me, and he knows, just as everyone does, because you parade your marks for—”

“Listen,” I cut him off. “You’re the one who put all this crap on my skin. You should just make them—”

“They will disappear if you simply sub—”

“Knock it off!” I snapped. I was getting irritated. “We both know you don’t want—”

“You know nothing! I’ve told you a thousand times—perhaps more—that if you would only submit to me, then those marks you carry would vanish and move to your eyes. But you will never know the truth of my words if you do not come to my bed!”

“You just yelled the word ‘bed’ in my hallway.” I chuckled because, really, the whole thing was ridiculous.

“Open the door now,” he demanded, and from the sound, I could tell he was talking through clenched teeth.

“Just stop.” I exhaled sharply. “I’m too tired to fight with you tonight. I have an early flight and I’m beat. I’ll see you when I get back.”

“I want to see for myself that you are well and whole.”

Sometimes, when I was vulnerable from being hurt, it was hard to spar with him. I wanted to surrender instead. But there were two things wrong with that scenario. First, I was a little bit more into being made to do something than I had ever let on. And second, I knew better because I had seen the real Cael once upon a time. His words were one thing, his actions an entire other volume.

“Please, Cael.” I was weary and achy. “I’ll see you when I get back.”

He growled and hit the door, but afterward there was only silence for at least another minute, so I figured he had left.

I walked to my window and looked out to see the vintage motorcycle parked in front of my building. It was a 1976 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide, and really, it was a thing of beauty. Of course, it paled beside the man who threw a long muscular leg over the seat to straddle it.

CAEL, my boss for the last three years, was hands down the most beautiful creature I had ever seen in my life. The thick white-blond hair that fell well past his shoulders was normally pulled back from his face in a queue, the better to show off his dark-blue eyes. Sometimes the sapphire color was all people saw. The first time I had seen him, my gaze had taken him all in: the long, straight nose, chiseled cheekbones, square jaw, and pale, flawless skin. His eyebrows were thick swipes of a painter’s brush, and his lips, full and dark, made me shiver.

When his eyes had met mine, I had nearly swallowed my tongue in anticipation. We were both standing at a bar close to Melrose, waiting to order drinks, and I had opened my mouth to say hello. But his expression had changed instantly, and I was faced with startled disgust. It was sharply evident, and I had pivoted and walked away. Even if bears weren’t his thing, he had no right to sneer at me like I was revolting.

I wanted to not care, but my eyes kept following him with slavelike devotion. I stared at him from across the club, keeping my distance, watching as he rejected hot young twinks, perfectly sculpted gym bunnies, and every other stud that cruised by him. I had no idea the model of beauty he was seeking, but it was interesting that I danced more than he did. My weight had never been a detriment socially. I knew I had a lot to offer friendshipwise, personalitywise, and I actually knew what I was doing in bed. Yes, I kept the lights off, and some guys I’d been with had complained. They wanted to see me, but I wasn’t comfortable even in candlelight. In darkness, I was a sex god, and I was not a tease. I put out.

My last serious boyfriend, Doug Greene, had loved that I was a pushy bottom and said that spanking my ass was one of the great joys of his life. I had kept the man laughing almost constantly, but also, because he was a journalist and well read on a whole variety of subjects, I had made a point to challenge his intellect and keep him on his toes. We could talk for hours, and that, too, was a source of happiness for him. But when he got reassigned to Paris, asking me to go with him apparently never even crossed his mind. He didn’t think we were serious enough for me to cross the Atlantic with him. I was ready; he wasn’t. When I saw a picture of him and his new boyfriend on Facebook, I understood that while the inside of me was fantastic, it was the outside packaging that didn’t work for Doug long-term. The new man was stunning; he was an actor with many suntan oil commercials to his credit.

But it was okay. It had taught me that when I found the guy, the one, I could be brave and jump in. The problem was that after Doug, I had decided that I really didn’t want to compromise anymore. I couldn’t pick up a guy, take him home, throw him down on my bed, and pretend that I didn’t want to be the one being held down instead. No one considered me, with my height and weight and build, and thought I bet he wants to be manhandled. It was the twinks, the guys who resembled Abercrombie & Fitch models, that other men drooled over and thought about doing bad things to. Everyone assumed I was a top; I was too big and snarly to be anything else. Normally, the pretty boys were the ones coming around me wanting to get pounded, and I was after the guys cruising them. It was a mess, and I was tired of trying.

So the fact that my being big had so repelled the stunning man I tried to speak to was not a surprise. There was a definite type that appreciated the way I was built. I had no doubt that the guy for me would actually enjoy love handles as much as he would value my protective, nurturing nature and brown eyes. And even though I wished the gorgeous man with the rippling muscles had a soft spot for burly bears, it wasn’t enough to ruin my evening. By the time I was ready to call it a night, I was over being rebuffed. What came as a surprise was that when I was on my way out, the guy who had blown me off came after me.

“Are you Frank Corrigan?” he inquired, hand on my bicep.


“You work for Balam, right?”

Oh. This was why I was suddenly good enough to talk to. Of course. Everything became clear.

I eased my one arm free, crossed both over my chest, and then ordered him to show me his eyes. It was what you did with demons.

The midnight blue quickly changed, and I was shown hot, bright, burning yellow. It was the mark of the snake on every fallen being and was not a color you ever forgot once you saw it. Any demon playing around outside the planes of hell had the gold snake eyes, and though the first time, I had been surprised, I had seen too many to startle at that point.

“What kind of demon are you?”

“Incubus,” he answered, his eyes searching mine.

“Okay,” I said, running a hand through my short brown hair. “So, whaddya need?”

His perfectly shaped dark-blond brows furrowed. “You don’t belong to Balam? You can do other jobs?”

“I’m a freelance courier,” I answered.

At least I understood the interest. The man with the hard, toned chest, rippling abs, and long thick muscular legs had no interest in me sexually. He just needed something picked up or dropped off. Demons didn’t trust other demons to come and go from their homes, haunts, or places of business, so they used regular people—semiregular—to do that kind of work for them.

I HAD first been introduced to the whole paranormal wonderland when I went to a house party with a new friend from school. I had just finished serving eight years in the Marine Corps, leaving with the rank of gunnery sergeant, not wanting to stay in any longer, and was ready to start the rest of my life. I had been honorably discharged and started college that fall. I planned to be a psychologist, even though I was just starting at twenty-six. When a few of the guys from class had reached out to me—one in particular, Reggie—and invited me downtown to the warehouse district for a rave, I had agreed to tag along.

After we were there maybe half an hour, after the cocktails were passed out and the pharmaceuticals consumed, I realized from the fangs everywhere that I was actually at a bloodletting party. All the humans were allowing vamps to have their way with them. I was not into the whole “hold me down and fuck me while you bite me” scene, so I had excused myself and walked back out the door.

Everyone knew that vampires and shapeshifters existed. They had come out to the world years before I was born. Seeing them up close, even though I didn’t have a lot of first-hand experience with them, was not alarming. It was the orgy atmosphere that was bothering me. I was not an exhibitionist; it was not within my comfort zone, and so being there, watching people screw in front of everyone, on display, was just not my idea of fun.

When I decided to bail, there were, of course, some vampires that didn’t like the idea of that. But I was an ex-Marine for crissakes, so they were not going to keep me there. Regardless of how glamorous Hollywood made it out to be in movies or on TV, in real life, whatever stage of life you were in when you got “made” into a vampire—or “brought over”—was how you remained. So even with heightened vamp strength and senses, a changed lawyer or a gardener or an accountant was still no match for a trained Marine. Vampires were strong and fast, but I moved to the exit at my leisure. No one was keeping me anywhere against my will.

It was fast: some grappling, some quick self-defense moves thrown in, and the final vampire between me and the door I put face first on the ground. As I reached for the metal bar to slide the warehouse door open, a man stepped in front of me. He was tall, dark, and handsome, his Italian suit fit well, and his smirk was a little sinister. I kind of liked that. A hint of danger in a guy was fine by me.

“Excuse me,” I said as I tried to maneuver around him.

His brows furrowed.

I crossed my arms and waited.

After a moment, I realized he was surprised.


“I just tried to glamour you.”

“Huh.” I shrugged. “How’d that work out?”

“Not well, I don’t think. Did you feel anything at all?”

I took inventory of my mental faculties. “Nope.”

“Remarkable,” he said, moving closer.

It was hysterical that he was standing there in front of me as if I were a significant point of interest in the den of iniquity. There were people humping and grinding, and vampires sucking, all around us. It smelled like sex and pot, and with the copper scent of blood thrown in, it was making me a little nauseous. But he was observing me and nothing else.

“Are you a mihr?”

“What is that?”

“A kind of human who is not susceptible to any sort of glamour,” he explained with a smirk.

“I have no idea,” I answered. It was not a question that had ever been posed to me in my life.

“Have you ever had magic cast on you?”

“Not that I know of,” I assured him. “Can we talk outside because, seriously, I’m gonna puke.”

He stepped sideways, and I opened the door and we moved outside into the chilled night air to stand in the packed parking lot under some old fluorescent lights.

“Okay.” I inhaled deeply. “Better. Now g’head. I’m listening.”

His scowl was dark. “You’re not afraid of me?”

“No. Why? Should I be?”

“No.” He shook his head. “But do you know if you can be spellbound?”

I could by a hot man. “Not sure, but I doubt anyone has ever tried.”

He studied my face. “I get no sense of you at all, so I suspect that you’re a mihr.”


“But you’re not a courier?”

“No, sir, I’m not a courier or a mirror or anything else.”

“Mihr, there’s an h in it,” he explained.

“It sounds like you’re sayin’ the same word.”

The way his face lit up, you would have thought I had just presented him with a check for a million dollars or something. “You are human, aren’t you?”

I smirked at him. “Last time I checked. You can’t tell?”

“As I said, I sense nothing at all. It’s why the inquiry.”

“Well, I am human, I promise you. I bleed red.”

He was excited. “I don’t need the blood; I need some papers delivered. Could I hire you to do that for me?”

“I just let you know I wasn’t a courier.”

“But you could be. You could be mine. It’s so seldom any of us in the community come across a mihr.”

“I don’t think you’ve got the right guy,” I said, ready to leave.

He stepped back around in front of me. “Oh, I think I do.”

“Lemme get this straight: you want to hire me to deliver something for you.”


“Is it illegal?”

“No, just a property contract going to a vampire.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“You’re sure.”

“Oh, yes.” He nodded. “You can read through it before it goes into the envelope if you prefer. Very standard stuff.”

“But why do you need me to do it?”

He made a face. “It’s problematic for different paranormal species to allow another kind anywhere near them, and especially not into places of business or homes.”


“It makes us vulnerable. A shifter, or a were, in a vampire’s home is just not a good idea. There’s too much room for conflict or misunderstanding. Just cultural norms that are odd to the other could prove disastrous.”


“Well,” he said, “for example, weres like to sniff the back of the neck in greeting, but going anywhere near a vampire’s neck or throat is cause for alarm. A demon, which is what I am—we need blood on documents, but vampires won’t open a vein in our presence. But to a human, the blood is either revolting, or simply part of things. There is no visceral reaction. That’s the difference.”

“May I pose just a real quick question?”


“What’s the difference between a were and a shifter? I always wanted to know.”

Surprise flickered across his face. We were having what seemed like such a normal conversation. “Well, a shifter can change into any animal, whereas a “were” is a specific kind: werewolf, weretiger, werelion, whatever.”

“Got it,” I grinned. “Thank you.”

“No, my pleasure.”

We were silent a minute.

“Okay, so.” I shrugged. “Sure.”

“Sure what?”

“Sure, I’ll deliver something for you. Why not?”

“Really?” He seemed so pleased. “Do you think you might handle more than one?”

“I take it you do a lot of deals?”

“Quite a few, yes.”

“Own a lot of property, do you?”

“Why yes, I do.”

“That interspecies trust is a bitch, huh?”

“It is.”

“But everybody trusts humans?”

“Everyone trusts mihrs. There’s a difference.”

“Because why?”

“Mihrs cannot be mindfucked.”

He could not have been any clearer. “Okay, so, is it dangerous?”

“At times,” he admitted. “But you will be well compensated. I promise.”

“How well compensated?”

“Six figures.”

That would work. “Can you give me an idea of the level of scary?”

He seemed pensive. “I’m sure a man like you will have no trouble at all.”

“A man like me?”

He tipped his head back at the door we had come through. “You handled that vampire who thought to have you for a snack. I’m guessing you’ve had some kind of training, yes?”


“Well there you have it. I can’t imagine that, once armed, you will find this line of work any problem at all.”

“And why would I need to be armed?”

“At times, it can get a little dicey.”

The word he should have used was deadly, not dicey, but I only found that out later. “Okay, so, when do you want me to start?”

He grabbed my arm so tight I thought for a second he was going to dislocate my shoulder, but he only pulled me after him and led me to his car.

I was, I discovered, a mutant. And while I wasn’t a cool one like Magneto or Cyclops, what my DNA gave me was what was called passive insusceptibility. Big words for exactly what Balam had said: mindfucking was off the table. I was immune to all the parlor tricks of vampires, shifter and were pheromones had no effect on me whatsoever, and any and all spells were simply futile. Poisoning me, internally screwing with me by normal pharmaceutical means, was absolutely possible. Slip me a roofie, get me wasted, drunk, not a problem; I was done. But if you were imbuing a liquid or a powder with magic to mess me up, my body simply didn’t react.

Glamours and hypnotism did nothing but annoy me. When my new employer had me tested by a vampire, a werewolf, and a witch, I was bored out of my mind. He was thrilled. A mihr was highly prized as well as moderately rare. He had been hoping to find one or acquire one, lure one away from another’s employ through deceit, avarice, or whatever else he could come up with. The demon I had crossed paths with was named Balam, and he wanted to be my boss.

I had ended up working for the man for a year, and though lots of other entities had tried to lure me away, Balam was the most powerful, so I was safest in his employ. But that all changed when I met Cael.

BALAM, being a summoning demon, the kind people traded their souls to, was powerful until you moved a little further up the food chain. He was no match for an incubus demon.

People thought that incubus demons only attacked you while you were asleep, mojoing their way into your dreams, fucking you and basically doing whatever the hell they wanted to you. Not the case. Incubus demons were basically pure seductive lust. They wrapped both men and women around their fingers so tight sometimes people killed themselves when they discovered that once the passion cooled, the demon did not remain. One horror up from that was discovering you were the property of said incubus. They would make eye contact, and in that instant, marks would appear on your flesh. And the marks weren’t delicate, scrolling calligraphic whorls; it was more George Clooney’s tribal art in From Dusk Till Dawn: thick, heavy lines that no one could miss. So that night, at the bar, when Cael had stepped in front of me, once his eyes changed to the special-effect yellow from every horror movie I had ever seen, my back, legs, arms, and chest all felt as though they had been doused in boiling oil. After the initial searing heat, it dulled to what I imagined a bull felt like when it was branded. In the end, I was not far off.

I winced as I stared at him. It hurt, whatever had crawled over my skin, and I was really curious to know what the hell it was. “Shit.”

His eyes widened and again became the cobalt I would get used to. “You’re mine.”

“Technically, I’m Balam’s.” I fidgeted because I really needed to get home and get naked so I could see what the hell was wrong with me. “And I gotta go.”

But when I moved to leave him, he barred my path. “No, I don’t mean you’re my mihr. I mean you belong to me. You are the seat of the soul, my mate.”

This was news. “You blew me off a while ago and now I’m your mate? Are you high? Do demons do that? Get all fucked up and screw with humans?”

He growled. “Don’t be insolent. Do you think I would choose for my mate one who—”

“Fuck you,” I yelled, shoving him back so I could walk by. What a douche.

At the door, I had to stand a second and recall where my car was. Once I remembered that I’d taken a cab, I headed up the street to hail one. He caught up to me before I made it even twenty feet.

I was grabbed hard and whirled around, which was impressive since I was a big guy.

“Human,” he said like we were still having a conversation. “I did not expect a human mate, you idiot! I would not have picked one that was so decidedly fragile, who would die and leave me alone in pain and grief. Even when we spoke earlier, my only thought was that I have so much to do; I cannot be distracted by such an earthy creature, so full of life. You thought me disgusted but… I was not.”

“Okay,” I said, hoarse like I was winded, my mouth dry.

He shoved me backward into the wall, and whereas he was hard, rippling muscle, I was softer. I was still solid underneath, and some guys liked that. I had not thought that he would be one of them, not from my reception earlier. But he inhaled sharply and licked his lips, both actions, I was betting, involuntary.

I myself had missed that the man was taller than me, but now, as I was smashed between him and the wall, I noticed. I wasn’t short, but he had two inches on me, so for once I was looking up just a little. It made my knees wobble.

His hand lifted to my neck, and his fingers closed gently around my throat. “You need to come home with me so I can claim you. Only then will the marks recede from your flesh and move to your eyes where they belong.”

I had no clue what the hell all that meant. But he was talking like demons did sometimes. I had a theory that they were so used to trying to trick people with doublespeak, they had no idea how to have a real conversation.

“I thought you wanted me to deliver something.”

He glowered. “You are my mate.”

“I’m a courier,” I reminded him. “A mihr. And you said that you had a lot to do, so why don’t you just tell me what you need me to do so we can both get to it.”

“I have plans for you.”

I grunted.

He stepped back. “You don’t believe me.”

“No,” I said flatly.

“I have nothing to gain by lying to you.”


“You’re very odd.”

I was odd? “What’s the job?”

Cael stood there, staring into my eyes.

I waited.

“We need to talk.”

“No.” I shook my head. “If you don’t have a job for me, just say and I’ll go home and—”

“Stop,” he rasped, and I could see his mind working things out, weighing the business he needed done with whatever else he wanted from me. He was practical, after all. “Do you own a gun?”

“Several.” I smiled back because by that time, I had one to kill whatever I came up against, though as a rule, I tried not to shoot anyone.

I had found that demons, vampires, werewolves, and all the other varieties simply needed to be dealt with in very specific ways to make things go smoothly. It was a matter of learning a different culture.

For example, crossover demons didn’t like to be eyeballed; you could actually invite a vampire to dinner because they liked to watch people eat, even though they themselves couldn’t; and to a werewolf, shaking hands when they first met you was considered tacky because skin to skin was sacred to them. I had been a courier for four years, and in that time, I had gotten a reputation as being honest, punctual, and more of an ask questions first kind of guy. I hardly ever had to resort to all-out violence.

That night in the street three years ago, I had given Cael my phone number, once he stopped with the mate bullshit, and then walked away. Why he had gone all psycho on me, I had no idea. At home I had discovered that I was indeed covered in a heavy black tattoo from head to toe. The appearance of the pattern was disconcerting at first, but several friends explained that it didn’t mean what Cael said. It was simply a way that an incubus demon marked his property. Balam was not pleased to see the marks, as they represented a sort of paranormal claiming. The mate part sounded like crap, but Balam could not argue the appearance of the scrolls on my skin. I belonged to Cael, and since the marks covered the right side of my neck, even in a shirt and tie, everyone who saw me knew it.

Author Bios:
Poppy Dennison
Add two parts sass and one part sweet and you have Poppy Dennison to T—sweet tea that is. Raised by a gaggle of Southern women who love reading and have backbones of steel, Poppy was brought up to see the best in people but always speak her mind. Mix it all together, like Grandma’s famous cobbler, and you get a sassy, Southern lady with a quick wit and loads of charm, who will soften any blow with “Bless your heart.” Her books reflect her small town roots, are filled with all the comforts of home, and come with side dish of spicy, because that’s the way she likes it.
Mary Calmes
Mary Calmes lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband and two children and loves all the seasons except summer. She graduated from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, with a bachelor's degree in English literature. Due to the fact that it is English lit and not English grammar, do not ask her to point out a clause for you, as it will so not happen. She loves writing, becoming immersed in the process, and falling into the work. She can even tell you what her characters smell like. She loves buying books and going to conventions to meet her fans.

Poppy Dennison

Mary Calmes


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