Thursday, December 15, 2016

Random Tales of Christmas 2016 Part 6

Hopes and Fears by Rowan Speedwell
Finding Zach #2
Brian McCarthy is a cynic who hates Christmas, doesn't keep in touch with his family, and likes quick hookups and faster goodbyes. The only real relationship he's ever been in was with the subject of his best-selling book, "Caged," a young man held hostage for five years. Unfortunately, it was entirely one-sided, since Zach was already involved with someone else.

So the last thing Brian expects when he goes in for treatment for an injured knee is to develop feelings for his physical therapist. But Jerry seems intent on either avoiding Brian or demanding more than he is willing to give, and Brian doesn’t know if he has the courage to face his past to forge a future.

A nice little Christmas novella to warm the heart with just the right amount of heat to pack a punch.  I've never read this author before but I'm certainly looking forward to checking out Rowan Speedwell's backlist in the new year.  I read this not realizing there was a story before this one but I wasn't lost, I wouldn't say Hopes and Fears is a standalone but at the same time I didn't feel like I was missing a huge chunk of the story for not having read Finding Zach first.


Freckles by Amy Lane
Carter Embree has always hoped to be rescued from his productive, tragically boring, and (slightly) ethically compromised life. But when an urchin at a grocery store shoves a bundle of fluff into his hands, Carter goes from rescuee to rescuer—and he needs a little help.

Sandy Corrigan, the vet tech who helps ease Carter into the world of dog ownership, first assumes that Carter is a crazy-pants client who just needs to relax. But as Sandy gets a glimpse into the funny, kind, sexy man under Carter’s mild-mannered exterior, he sees that with a little care and feeding, Carter might be Super-Pet Owner—and decent boyfriend material to boot.

But Carter needs to see himself as a hero first. As he says good-bye to his pristine house and hello to carpet treatments and dog walkers, he finds that there really is more to himself than a researching drudge without a backbone. A Carter Embree can rate a Sandy Corrigan. He can be supportive, he can be a hero, he can be a man who stands up for his principles!

He can be the owner of a small dog.

Stardust by Andrew Grey
Duncan is an ocean from home over the holidays and expects to spend them alone. To his pleasant surprise, one of his European co-workers, Georg, befriends him and includes Duncan in the holiday traditions of his homeland: cutting a Christmas tree under starry skies at Georg’s country estate, decorating it at the family’s city home, and shopping at the Christmas market in Munich. Both men are lonely and realize they have much in common. But Georg’s life is in Germany and Duncan’s is in Boston. With the project they’re working on nearing completion, any chance for more than a holiday fling seems as elusive as stardust. 

Stardust is a well written pleasant Christmas novella that leaves you with all kinds of heartwarming feels.  I have yet to be disappointed in the tales Andrew Grey brings to life and Stardust is no exception.  A great addition to my holiday library.


In Another Life & Eight Days by Cardeno C
Eight Days: Childhood friends start a long-distance romance but need a holiday miracle for a happy ending. In Another Life: Shiloh will find the strength to confront his fears and build a life worth fighting for with the help of EMT Travis.

At age eighteen, Shiloh Raben is tired. He no longer has the energy to deal with mean classmates, inner doubt, and fear of familial rejection, so he takes a razor to his wrist. When he wakes up in the hospital, Shiloh meets Travis Kahn, the EMT who saved him and didn’t leave his side.

Travis is handsome, smart, and funny—the type of guy Shiloh would never be brave enough to approach. But his near-death experience has an unusual side effect: the life that flashed before his eyes wasn’t the one he had already lived, but rather the one he could live. With visions of a future by Travis’s side, Shiloh will find the strength to confront his fears and build a life worth fighting for.

Childhood family friends, Maccabe Fried and Josh Segal have always gotten along despite having nothing in common. Maccabe is an athlete with dreams of playing professional baseball. Josh is an aspiring architect with dreams of being with Maccabe. Despite all odds, both dreams come true.

Maccabe and Josh fall into a long-distance romance, which is everything Josh thought he wanted. But after years of hiding from the world, Josh wants to bring their relationship into the open. When Maccabe refuses, Josh is faced with a tough decision: stay with the man he loves or live the life he deserves. No matter the choice, somebody’s bound to get hurt. Thankfully, in the season of miracles, there’s always hope for a happy ending.

Love Ahead: Expect Delays by Astrid Amara
Austin thinks driving a 1989 Geo Spectrum fourteen hundred miles in the middle of winter is a bad idea. But he would never forgive himself if the man he loved, Zach Roth, got himself killed in Idaho, so he agrees to go.

Besides, he has something to prove. He wants Zach to know it's more than just Zach's deliciously wicked body he adores. And if it takes spending Hanukkah in Zach's grandma's old hatchback to prove it, then so be it.

Ever the optimist, Zach believes everything will turn out for the best. But bad weather, robberies, blown gaskets, run-ins with the police, and motel bedspreads of questionable cleanliness seem to conspire against them, and they may need eight days of miracles just to keep each other...and their romance...alive.

Publisher's Note: This book contains explicit sexual content, graphic language, and situations that some readers may find objectionable: Male/male sexual practices.

Holiday road trips are an often used cliche in the world of fiction but when done right, cliche is the last word you think of when reviewing.  Well, Love Ahead: Expect Delays is just one of those "done right" stories that warms the heart and brings a smile to your face.  That's not to say Austin and Zach don't have a few problems along the way but watching them not give up is what makes this story enjoyable.  Another great addition to my holiday library.


Random Tales of Christmas 2016 Parts

Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3  /  Part 4

Hopes and Fears by Rowan Speedwell
I hate Christmas. I really do. People hear that and they’re all “oh, you don’t really hate Christmas” or “you’re just depressed, take a Xanax” or something. Well, yeah, it depresses me, but I really, really hate it too. Hate everything about it: the crowds, the Muzak carols, the forced jollity, the fact that you can’t stop at the grocery store to pick up a fucking bottle of white wine without having to plow through three hundred people waiting to check out with carts piled high with too fucking much stuff. Americans eat too much the rest of the year; the holidays bring pigging out to a whole new level. The whole Norman-Rockwell-Currier-and-Ives crap. Peace on Earth, good will toward men. Fa-la-la-la-la. Hate it.

Except fruitcake. I do love fruitcake. Kind of ironic, isn’t it?

But the red and green? Come on, people—red and green is a horrible color combination. It’s like purple and yellow. Or blue and orange, although considering my current city of residence, that combination is okay. They’re Bears colors, and I do love me some football. And the Bears can be a pretty decent team, some years. But red and green? Yuck.

Admittedly, Christmastime in Chicago can be pretty. The city does a nice job of decorating downtown—a little heavy on the fairy lights, but that’s okay. But the crowds are still there, and drivers are even crazier than usual, and by mid-December we’d gotten a dumping of snow, which turns quickly into ugly gray-and-brown slush and ice. Considering that by the time I’d gotten to the physical therapy place I’d already been soaked by a city bus, slipped on some ice and wrenched my bad knee again, and stood in the cold for twenty minutes waiting for another bus—cold, wet, and miserable—it was amazing I wasn’t postal by the time I got to the RehabiliCare place on Michigan. I was close, though, and for a minute before going in, I stood on the sidewalk across from the skating rink in Millennium Park and thought about picking off the determinedly cheerful skaters one by one. I closed one eye and pointed my finger. Bang. Bang. Bang. “Insane Journalist Slays Forty Before Being Wrestled to the Ground. Film at Ten.” Not “Eleven,” though that’s how the joke is supposed to go. Because I was in the Midwest now. Central Standard Time. Everything an hour earlier—I guess because the farmers have to get up earlier? Except I’d been living here nearly a year and hadn’t seen a farm yet.

I was procrastinating. I really didn’t want to walk through that door, into more weeks of therapy and pain. Shit. I sucked it up and limped inside.

They were playing ’80s rock on the speakers, not Christmas carols, for which I was decidedly grateful. The place was done in soothing blue and cream, nothing cold, nothing harsh, and nothing red and/or green. The sole concession to the season was a blue-and-silver snowflake hanging on the wall behind the front desk.

A perky dark-haired girl smiled up at me. “Hi,” she chirped. “How can I help you?”

“I have an appointment for an evaluation,” I told her. “Brian McCarthy.”

She did something on the computer in front of her and said, “Oh, sure, here you are. Have a seat. Jerry will be with you in a minute.”

I limped over to the row of chairs by the window and sat down. There was a copy of Chicago Magazine on the table; I picked it up and flipped it open to an article about a salmonella scare in eggs. No big surprise, that. Too much unregulated food processing goes on in this country, and the FDA doesn’t have the time or resources to deal with it…. I recognized the train of thought that usually led me to taking on some damn story or other and shut it down quickly. I was here to teach, and that was it. I was done with investigative journalism, at least for the next year or two.

“Brian?” a voice said.

I glanced up and into a pair of chocolate-brown eyes fringed in the thickest, darkest lashes I’d ever seen on a guy. You don’t think of brown eyes as sparkling, but these were, reflecting the wide, white grin. “Hi. I’m Jerry Abruzzi.”

I took the hand held out to me and shook it. Nice grip; solid and strong, but despite the obvious muscle development in the arms, no muscular posturing, no tough-guy squeeze. Just solid. “Brian McCarthy.” I stood up, put too much weight on the knee, and winced.

His hand closed gently around my elbow. “Okay?” he asked.

“Yeah. I slipped on the way over and twisted it again.”

He made a face and said, “Crap. That sucks. Well, we’re not going to start with any actual therapy today. It’s just an eval so we can figure out where we need to go. So you’ll have a day or so for the knee to feel better before you start putting it to work. Come on, this way,” and he gently guided me toward one of the doors that stood open on the far side of the room.

The eval started out with the usual things: height, weight, medical history. He didn’t have a Chicago accent, no hard R’s or nasal N’s; it sounded more East Coast, maybe Bronx or Brooklyn. Made me wonder how he ended up here, but I didn’t ask, just answered his questions. He asked how I hurt the knee originally, and when I told him, he stopped making notes and stared at me blankly. “Seriously?” he asked. “You fell off a cliff?”

“Yep. You ever see that old movie Romancing the Stone? The one with Michael Douglas when he was young and….” I started to say “hot” but thought better of it. I was just going to substitute “athletic,” but Jerry laughed and finished the thought for me.

“Hot?” he supplied with another one of those white grins. God, he was pretty. His skin was a gorgeous honey tan, his hair a tumble of shiny black curls, and though lean, he was just as ripped as one might think a physical therapist should be. He didn’t set off my gaydar overtly, but the way he grinned when he said “hot” made me think I needed to adjust it.

“Yeah. Hot.”

“I sure did.”

I tried to remember my initial question, then got it. “Remember the scene where Kathleen Turner falls down a cliff in the jungle? Kinda like that.”

“Only without Michael Douglas following after and ending up with his face in your crotch,” Jerry said.

“I should be so lucky,” I said. “No, I got a bunch of torn ligaments in my knee instead.”

“So, was this also in Colombia, like in the movie?”

“Close enough. Venezuela.”

“What the hell were you doing in Venezuela?”

“Chasing a story.” I sighed. “I’m a journalist. Was a journalist. I’m a professor now. I teach at Columbia College.”

“‘Was’? Because of this?” Jerry touched my knee and I got a shiver, but not from pain. No; his fingers were warm and gentle and it had been a hella long time since anyone had touched me like that.

“Not exactly, though it’s connected. No, I wrote a book—”

He stepped back as though my words were poisonous. The smile slid from his face and he held up a hand. “Wait a minute. Brian McCarthy. Venezuela. You wrote Caged.”

From his expression, he wasn’t a fan. It was kind of refreshing; usually I got the squeeing “Oh my God, you wrote Caged!” kind of reaction. “Didn’t like it?” I said dryly. “I’ll give you a refund.”

“No—no, it was good. Really good. It’s just… it was a hard book to read.”

“It was hard to write. Just imagine how hard it was to live,” I retorted.

“I can’t,” he said. “That’s why it was so hard to read.” He hesitated, then asked, “So… you ever hear from that guy?”

“Zach? Sure. I was at his graduation from MIT two years ago. He’s in graduate school in California now, I think.”

“All better, huh?”

“Are you nuts? After what he went through? The guy’s totally fucked up. He’s got more scars inside than he does outside. But he’s functional, if sometimes a bit freaky. Helps that he’s a genius. People expect geniuses to be weird.”

It hurt talking about Zach. I’d been inside the guy’s head a long time, and it wasn’t a pretty place to be. And then there was the whole falling-in-love-with-your-subject thing.

“Anyway, I put three years into that book even after it was finished, what with the marketing crap, and between that and the knee, I decided a change of career was in order. Ran some workshops and stuff, and eventually Columbia made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

“Then over Thanksgiving I took a bad step off a curb and fell, and so here I am.” I held out my arms.

The grin was back. “Here you are,” he said. “And here I am, ready to put my hands all over your body.”

“I should be so lucky,” I said again.

The grin turned into a full-fledged laugh. It was a great laugh, deep and rolling. “I should really watch that,” he said. “I could get into a lot of trouble, coming on to my patients.”

“Are you?” I didn’t think I would mind.

He blushed then, his honey-sweet cheeks turning a deep rose. It brought deeper color to his mouth too, and I realized it wasn’t that I wouldn’t mind. It was that I really, really hoped he was.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t had sex with anyone in a long time or anything. I’m only thirty-three, and though that’s kind of old for the kind of pickups I specialize in, I’m in really good shape (except for the knee) and look younger than I am. But I hadn’t felt any kind of connection to anyone in, what, five years or so? And even then… well, let’s just say it wasn’t really any kind of relationship. I don’t do relationships. But Zach was… well, Zach. Fucked up as he was, he was still a hard act to follow.

I guess my face showed something other than interest, because he looked away. “Sorry,” he said. “It was unprofessional. Okay, so, moving on,” and he went on to ask more questions. His hands, when he had me get up and do things like stand on my toes and heels and other preliminary physical things, were strong but impersonal, and when we were done, he had me sign off on his notes and said, “Okay, then, we’re done for today. Now we’ll go out and look at the schedule and see who’s available during the time you are.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I thought you would be my therapist.”

“No, I just did the eval. We assign therapists based on your schedule and theirs.”

“When do you have available?”

He blinked. “You want me to be your therapist?”


Again, a blink; this time it was slow and thoughtful, and when those lashes came up, he was looking straight at me. A warmth started low in my gut. “Well,” he said, “I have an hour from four to five on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

“That works for me,” I said. “And what kind of time do you have today?”

“I’m off at five.”

I smiled. “It’s four forty. If I hang around, you wanna go for a beer?”

“I shouldn’t.” He bit his lip.

I slid off the padded exam table, careful not to jar my leg again, and crowded up against him, closing my hand around the hem of his green polo with RehabiliCare embroidered on the breast. “Or we could just skip the beer,” I murmured. He was just about my height, and my mouth was really close to his when I said it.

And when those lips whispered “fuck,” the movement brought them close enough to touch. I leaned forward just that extra little bit and kissed him, feeling his breath catch and his mouth soften, so that I could lick inside, my tongue curling around his and drawing him in.

He was warm, and the kiss felt intimate, and while sex is always easy, intimacy’s a lot harder to come by. It felt good. Real good.

Which made it a shock when he jerked back and stepped away, tugging his shirt out of my grip. “Jesus,” he said, “with that mouth you should only be labeled as dangerous.”

“Brooklyn,” I said, “right?”

“Yeah. Bensonhurst. It’s that obvious?”

“I grew up in Jersey—Livingston. Practically New York.” I cocked my head at him. “What’s wrong?”

“Too quick,” he said. “I don’t do hookups. If you want to do the beer, that’s okay, but I don’t do hookups.”

“You said that. But that’s too bad. I don’t do anything but.”

“Let’s see who we can set you up with for therapy, then,” he said, and his smile was tight and humorless. His face wasn’t made for that kind of expression.

“We’re set,” I said. “I got no problem with you as my therapist. Long as you don’t mind if I occasionally pop a woody.”

He laughed then, that rolling sound. “You wouldn’t be the first.”

Freckles by Amy Lane
Chapter One
Free Gerbils
Yeah. Greg was gone.

Carter Embree gazed around the house and tried hard to find a trace of the man he’d brought home three months before.

Greg’s DVDs and CDs had been surgically removed from the wooden shelves by the entertainment center, and his clothes had been taken from the top of the dresser. His phone charger was no longer plugged into the strip on the meticulously clean gray marble counter in the kitchen.

It’s been fun, Carter, but I should have left the morning after. Trying to be a couple was an exercise in futility—good luck, though.


The incriminating note sat in the middle of the kitchen table, and Carter just stared at it, dumbly.

He barely felt the ache in his chest—but the silence was driving him mad.

Body on autopilot, he hung his suit jacket over the kitchen chair and set his briefcase down on the glass-topped table. He’d already left his shoes on the shoe tree in the hallway, and now . . .

Well, it was after nine o’clock. He hadn’t done takeout, because he hated it for one and he’d been planning to cook for another. He was starving. Okay. There you go. Refried beans, some cheese, a tortilla—burrito. A trip to the bedroom to put on black pajama bottoms and a white T-shirt, and to hang up the suit, which had at least two more wears before it needed a trip to the dry cleaners.

Which was how he came to fall asleep sitting in front of the TV, eating a minimalist burrito, while the Lifetime channel rebroadcast Two Weeks Notice and he dreamed that Hugh Grant would suddenly become dependent on his opinion and want to take him away from it all. He’d neglected to even remove his glasses.

His phone alarm pinged in the charger at six in the morning, and while he was flailing for the thing to make the noise stop, he forgot.

“Greg?” he mumbled. “Greg? I’ve got to go. This case, man . . . I’m sorry . . . when it’s over, we’ll take a vacation . . .”

He rolled from the black leather couch and onto the floor, sliding on the tan-chenille throw and ending up sprawled between the couch and the coffee table, for a moment too disoriented to even get up on all fours.

And that’s when he remembered Greg, with the sunny smile and the careless blond hair, and that unspoken promise to take Carter away from his job, away from his ambition, and to make him a better person, a happier person, a person who would put his boyfriend first and not let him slip away.

All that was left of Greg was a slip of paper and the horrible sense of failure in the pit of Carter’s stomach.

Carter ignored the shrieking alarm for once, took off his glasses, buried his face in the carpet, and cried.

He still arrived on time for work.

Brenda, his paralegal, updated him on his to-do list that day and finished with, “You don’t look so good, Mr. Embree. You gotta step up your game, or Jacobsen is going to eat you for lunch!”

Carter looked at the brief on his desk and grimaced. “Jacobsen needs to be careful,” he muttered. “What he’s having me do on this case—it’s barely skirting misconduct.”

“Why?” Brenda asked, concerned. Well, she fed a family on this job. “I mean . . . this is the settlement for the woman whose dog escaped the fence, right?”

Carter nodded, hating this case. Civil law could be nastier than criminal law. The fence had been shoddily made and shoddily installed by Hausen/Hufsen, and Carlene Clayburgh and her husband, Jed, had been trying to get the fence company to pony up and fix their work. Unfortunately, while Hausen/Hufsen had been dithering about their own incompetence, the Clayburghs’ ten-year-old Labrador retriever, Bowser, had escaped, and the next-door neighbor had shot the dog, claiming he was spooking the man’s horses.

The Clayburghs were suing the fencing company for both a replacement fence up to specs and for pain and suffering, and Carter really thought they would have a chance.

If Carter’s boss were representing them, that is.

As it was, Jacobsen was representing the fencing company, because they had more money. Because they cut corners. Because Marc Jacobsen was a douche bag of the highest order, which was why his firm was on the rise.

God, Carter hated his job.

“This is a settlement cheating the woman with the dog.” Carter hated to disillusion poor Brenda. “If she had a competent lawyer, she could get ten times what we’re offering.” Why? Because the fencing company had sent somebody over to try to fix the massive amounts of incompetent broke that made up the warped boards and mangled carpentry in that multi-thousand-dollar disaster. In fact, they’d sent somebody on the same day the dog had escaped. And yes, Mr. Hausen, the fiftyish, flinty-eyed man who was running the company into the ground, had spoken in no uncertain terms about how his inebriated nephew had probably left the fence open and let the poor animal out—but that had been in confidence, to Mr. Jacobsen and Carter.

By law, they weren’t allowed to tell the Clayburghs any of that. And if the couple could afford a lawyer of their own, their lawyer might have put together the date of fence inspection with the date Bowser had gone missing, and kicked the lawsuit into high gear.

But the Clayburghs were in late-middle age, happy to finally have their youngest out of college, and in that stage of life where they wanted to improve their big stretch of horse property so they could someday move off of it and into an apartment, wherein they might never have to mow another lawn for as long as they lived.

And, Jesus, had they loved that dog.

Carter didn’t get it, himself. He’d grown up an only child of parents who’d had him in middle age. He’d been groomed to be a good boy, to have ambition and steadiness and aesthetic pleasures, like his parents had. His childhood consisted of museums and libraries and parks and gardens, but never the zoo. Just not in his folks’ purview, that was all.

So he didn’t get the attachment to the dog, but Jed and Carlene had struck him as nice people, and Jacobsen’s client had struck him as a complete and total asshat. He loathed that he had to exploit some nice people’s innocence of the law to benefit an asshat.

He really loathed that this was the case that had cost him his boyfriend.

And telling his paralegal that they were the bad guys was icing on the fucking cake.

“Wait.” Brenda’s eyes searched his face. “All the time we just put in researching—my Christmas money overtime—that came from . . .”

“From finding a way to not tell the Clayburghs that Hausen/Hufsen let their dog out,” Carter confirmed, ripping off the Band-Aid. “Yeah.”

Brenda wasn’t really a pretty woman—she had a broad face with hair she scraped back from her forehead into a sparse ponytail bobbing at the back. She wore no makeup and basic Walmart office clothes—big, boxy ones, that did not scream “sexy” any more than her hairdo.

But she had three kids—three—and each one of those kids had some sort of furry creature. Even the husband had a fat house cat that camped out on his chest during TV time—she had the picture on her desk. The family vacationed with the dogs and found a sitter for the cat, and at least ten times a year she had to leave early to take some living, breathing creature from her household to a vet’s appointment or a groomer’s or an orthodontist appointment, or to stock up on Ritalin.

And he’d just told her that her place of business was shit-stomping someone much like her—someone who could care for an animal as much as a human being, and care for a human being enough to make them want to stay around her.

It was a skill Carter had never mastered. Sometimes he daydreamed about offering Brenda grooming tips if she could only show him how to make a man stay. He’d seen her husband come in to pick her up sometimes. That man gazed at his wife like she was J-Lo and Gwyneth and Angelina all rolled up in a polyester skirt with sensible shoes.

Carter would settle for a guy who wouldn’t desert him like a rat deserting a plague ship—who would look at Carter like he didn’t have the plague.

Sort of like Brenda was looking at him now. “But Mr. Embree,” she said, almost near tears. “They really loved that dog! You don’t have to talk to these people like people, but they sit in reception and make conversation with me!”

Carter closed his eyes. “Yeah,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry. They . . .” He wasn’t supposed to make judgments—he was supposed to let the law do that. “They got a raw deal,” he said, hating himself. “And I didn’t say it, and you didn’t hear it.”

“If you loved something,” she said, voice wobbling, “something not yourself, you wouldn’t be able to do this.”

Carter grimaced. “I wish I was a good enough person to do that.” He left her before he could see her homely, sincere face crumpling and growing blotchy with tears.

* * * * * * *

“God, what’s Brenda blubbering about?” Marc Jacobsen demanded.

“I have no idea.” Carter avoided eye contact. Jacobsen was actually a good-looking guy—blond and blue-eyed, like the name implied. He had a pool and a tan, and liked to brag about making money by the pool while tanning. Since it had been in the eighties right up until the end of October, he still had evidence of making money on his face, and a lovely smile to glint against it too.

He was possibly the most amoral man Carter had ever met.

Oh, he worked within the letter of the law, it was true. But Carter once watched him take a full fee from a dying woman who was suing her doctor for not spotting her cancer sooner. The suit was bogus—the cancer had simply moved very fast and poor Mrs. Sandford would never live to see trial—but Jacobsen took the retainer and then forgot about the case until the funeral notice.

Carter had refused to put his name on any of her documents, and refused any money that came as his due for the research he’d done on the case. Jacobsen had been careful after that—Carter was reasonably sure Marc had kept his most morally bankrupt files off of Carter’s desk since then.

As it was, Carter would never be a lead courtroom attorney or, really, anything better than second chair, because Jacobsen didn’t trust him enough.

I gave up Greg for this?

Greg had wanted a cruise. He’d asked for one for Christmas. Greg waited tables, and Carter had enjoyed giving him things. Apparently, giving him the wrong things.

Maybe you should have given him a blowjob once in a while.

Carter thought wistfully of the last time he’d had sex. Maybe it would have benefited both him and Greg if it had been recent enough to recall.

“Well,” Jacobsen said irritably, “whatever it is, could you make her stop? I mean, she keeps looking at me with cow eyes, and it’s pissing me off.”

“Our client killed the plaintiff’s dog,” Carter said, not able to keep the truth to himself on this day. “I think you need to invest in a thicker skin.”

Jacobsen smiled at him with smarmy charm. “Why wear a thicker skin when you can invest in a better suit?”

Carter rolled his eyes—but he didn’t say anything.

He didn’t say anything for the rest of the day, in fact, and the weight of what he didn’t say, coupled with the weight of getting little sleep the night before, tripled with hating Marc Jacobsen with all his heart, sent him to the grocery store after work that night for Advil and antacids, and maybe for some chicken soup and possibly for a soul.

He felt as though his own soul had been sucked out of his body, and the grocery store was his last recourse.

Until he saw the boy, the box, and the thing inside.

The boy was sitting outside the grocery store, huddling in a windbreaker made for an adult. He was a basic, late-model, white suburban child—brown hair, brown eyes, freckles, uneven teeth in unfortunate sizes. He wore an orange baseball hat with Giants emblazoned on the front, and until he saw Carter’s approach, he’d been slumping disinterestedly against the stucco wall of the Safeway, engaged in some sort of electronic game.

But the long November shadow hit his feet, and boy did that kid pick up his shtick.

“Hey, mister, do you want a dog?”

Carter blamed what happened next on the distraction of his miserable day.

“Do I want a what?”

The kid jumped up then and reached inside the box, retrieving something so small his hands hid everything but white wisps of fur. On God’s bones, Carter would have sworn the kid was selling gauze and other medical supplies.

“A dog! It’s part Chow, part Samoyed, and it’s gonna be about forty pounds. It’s my last one and . . .” The kid’s eyes grew limpid, and his lower lip began to tremble. “My dad, he says if I don’t give away the last puppy, he’s going to send her to the pound.”

“Puppy?” There was a puppy in the kid’s hands?

“Here, we call her Tuffy, but you can call her whatever you want, just stick out your hands and—”

Carter put his hands out automatically, and the thing that landed in them started to drag something warm and wet along the inside of his wrist.

“Puppy?” he said again, incredulously. If not gauze, he would have assumed it was a gerbil. He tried to look the thing in the face, only to be hampered by a long set of dog-bangs that completely obscured any visual ability whatsoever.

Startled and puzzled, he wrapped his hands around the thing’s body and held it up so he could actually see its face.

It gazed back for a moment, black rubber nose wiggling in its squashed little snout, little beard vibrating with every breath.

Like magic, a pink tongue came out and swiped across his lips. He gasped in surprise and it swept inside.

“Oh, ew! Dog! What have you been eating!”

The kid’s voice came from far away. “Probably cat shit—I wouldn’t let her do that!”

Carter looked up in time to watch the kid jump into the passenger seat of a sky-blue Mustang Fastback, puppy box left behind.

“Oh my God!” Carter muttered as the car took off in a rumble of smoke. He looked at “Tuffy.” “Oh my God!” he said again.

His reward was a more cautious lick on his nose.

“Oh,” he said, mesmerized by the wide-set dark eyes darting under the dog-bangs. “My God.” He pulled the bangs back and fondled the little ears. “Lookit you. You’re not a gerbil, are you?”

The dog started licking his cheek again, and he swallowed. Then Carter spotted it, the tiny, brown six-legged nightmare crawling underneath the fur.

Chapter Two
Attack of the Bloodsucking Fiends
Sandy Corrigan hated the evening shift at Banfield Pet Hospital.

Morning shift was okay—you got older folks who were retired, people on the way to work, the occasional hausfrau in rumpled jeans, rumpled hair, and yesterday’s bra. All of them dropping their pets off at the beginning of their day, or going shopping while it was still early. The schedule was nice and pretty, the animals with their appointments were on the board—

And the crazy had not yet reared its ugly head.

The guy in the snazzy suit and shiny oxfords was part of the crazy.

Sandy took a deep breath and tried to put that crazy in a bucket. “Sir, sir—your dog appears to be fine.”

The guy’s hazel eyes—wide and sort of limpid, with black lashes—gazed at him with a wild hope. “She’s not my dog,” he said earnestly. But he was clutching the thing to his chest like it was his last, best prayer for salvation, so Sandy was just going to ignore that.

“Well, she appears to be fine.” The picture of health, actually, complete with wiggling black nose, speed-hazard tail, and pink tongue.

“How do we know it’s a she?” the guy asked. And then, sort of despairingly, “How do we even know it’s a dog? I saw guinea pigs when I walked in here—they seemed to be bigger.” He had brown hair and brown stubble—probably used to be blond as a kid. Sort of average in a good way—a nice, strong chin and a decent, medium-sized build—but his eyes remained his most redeeming feature. Big, hazel, dependable, and perhaps a tad shy. His eyes seemed to project someone solid and kind who didn’t make loud noises or bite.

Unfortunately, they were the things also projecting the crazy. Well, his eyes and his mouth. His mouth was definitely projecting the crazy.

Sandy smirked and looked at the little dog, who gazed back, as if to say, Well, yes, but he’s new.

Okay, fine little dog. Sandy would give the crazy guy the benefit of new pet ownership and see if he couldn’t calm the situation down some.

“Okay, sir, I assure you this is a dog,” Sandy said, his patience only a tiny bit exaggerated. “Now here—give her to me.”

Sandy took the creature from the man’s hands, noting that (a) the guy seemed reluctant to give her up, and (b) the dog seemed to really like this man. Sandy trusted an animal’s judgment—he decided to cut Crazy-pants some slack.

“’Scuse me, miss,” Sandy said solemnly, “this here’s a violation.” And with that he turned her around and pulled up her tail. “Yup. She’s a she.” Oh, gross. He saw them now—bloodsucking fiends crawling across her fuzzy white ass. “And she has fleas.”

“Fleas?” Mr. Crazy-pants said, his voice rising. “My dog has fleas?”

“I thought you said she wasn’t your dog,” Sandy told him, amused. He handed the dog back—bloodsucking fiends and all—and Crazy-pants took her without a flinch, even though the irritating monsters were probably infesting that snazzy wool suit.

The dog seemed important to him. Sandy’s estimation of Crazy-pants rose a few notches.

“Well, sir, it’s been a warm fall—the little bastards, I mean pests, propagate in warm, moist weather. So, yeah, fleas. You didn’t notice?”

“I just got her . . . I mean, she was sort of shoved into my hands and then the kid just took off and . . .” Crazy-pants looked at Sandy beseechingly. “He left the box. He said, ‘Here, she’s a Chow/Samoyed mix and—’”

Sandy couldn’t help it. He burst out laughing.

“What?” Crazy-pants sounded so absurdly helpless Sandy almost—but not quite—managed to control himself. “What’s so funny?”

“This dog?” Sandy wiped tears from the corners of his eyes—real tears. Not imaginary. “This dog is a Chow/Samoyed?”

“She’s not?” Crazy-pants asked, calming down for the first time since he’d walked into the PetSmart. “She’s not a Chow/Samoyed? What would that be, anyway? A Chow-moyed? A Sam-Chow?”

“A Who Cares?” Sandy shook his head. “Because those dogs get to be around forty pounds—Chows can get to be eighty or more. This dog will never be more than eight pounds.”

“Eight pounds?” Crazy-pants asked, looking at the dog. The dog looked back. Sandy could swear she nodded.

“I shit you not,” Sandy told him soberly. “If I’ve learned anything from the last twelve years, it’s how to spot a breed, even when they cross. For example, this is a cross between a Shih Tzu and a Chihuahua.”

Crazy-pants blinked and stared at him in bemusement. “That seems really specific.”

“Well, she has the big head and the dish face and the big eyes—it’s sort of a giveaway. But even more important, you see what she’s doing when you hold her?”

Crazy-pants shifted his attention to the dog—who stayed tucked into the palm of his hand as though this were her usual palanquin. “What’s she doing?” he asked blankly.

“Not a goddamned thing. Shih Tzu’s are bred to be lap dogs—which means they’re bred to be still when you hold them. They just sort of . . . sit on your lap.”

Crazy-pants looked at the dog and the dog looked back at Crazy-pants. “So, this is as big as she’s going to get?”

“No, she’s going to quadruple in size. She’s about two pounds now.” Sandy frowned and guestimated. “And I would imagine she’ll be between six and ten pounds when she’s grown. Ten if you feed her too much crap, six if she’s older now than I think she is.”

“Eight pounds.”

“Yes.” Was he deaf? “That’s what I said.”

Suddenly Crazy-pants melted. His lower lip thrust out and trembled, and his eyes got super big. “They said they would send her to the pound,” he whispered. “I mean . . . she’s tiny. How could they?”

Sandy’s heart began to feel a little squishy. “Sir, have you ever owned a dog before?”

The expression that he sent back was so honest in its self-deprecation that Sandy could hardly call the guy Crazy-pants anymore. “I haven’t even owned a goldfish before. I am so lost.”

Ah hell. “Okay. Sir, I’m going to make a couple of suggestions here. Are you game?”

The guy nodded and practically lolled his tongue. “Yup. I’m ready. Hit me.”

Good boy, Crazy-pants. Listen to the experts on this one.

“Okay—first of all, you’re going to want a health plan—now don’t freak out on me, it’s just like people insurance, but cheaper, okay?”

The guy nodded studiously—this one must have been the straight-A suck-up who would have done anything the teacher said. Well, there were worse things.

“I’ve got some options here—the one I’d suggest is for a new puppy.” Sandy grimaced. “It’s a good plan, but you have to pay it all the way through the year even if . . .” Well, hell, this part sucked to say. “Even if the puppy doesn’t make it. We can apply it to another dog if you’re ready for one before the end of the year, but . . . you know. You should know.”

Crazy-pants clutched that dog to his chest like the ghost of the grim reaper had appeared over Sandy’s shoulder. Wow. Love at first sight—Sandy had seen it happen a lot on kitten adoption day, but it was still good to know it happened with other species as well.

“Okay,” Crazy-pants said, voice wobbly. “So, pet plan. What does it cover?”

“Immunizations, spay and neuter, wellness checkup, flea prevention, anal gland expressing, pedicure—”

“Grooming?” The new dog owner pulled the dog’s bangs back from her face and peered into her eyes. She peered back, but Sandy could see where he was going with that. Yeah, not making eye contact was disconcerting.

“No, sir, but the groomers are right there.” He pointed to the window that separated the groomer’s office from the store. An actual Samoyed was standing in the halter as they watched, getting his fur brushed and fluffed and tinted pink. The new dog owner’s mouth compressed into a full little bow as he obviously thought about somebody making the thing in his hands tangle-free and—possibly—pink. “As soon as she has her immunization cycle complete, you can take her there. In the meantime, invest in a small brush—we sell some in the store.”

“Okay, then.” Crazy-pants took a fortifying breath. “A health plan and a vet visit—where do I sign up?”

Sandy broke out the paperwork and offered to hold the dog while he filled it out.

“So, uh . . .” Sandy squinted over the standing counter so he could read upside down. “Mr. Carter Embree, what are you going to name your new friend here?”

Carter Embree glanced at him and then studied the dog. Delicately, with one finger, he moved the doggie bangs aside so he could see her eyes again, and he smiled.

“Don’t you think she looks like she has freckles?” he asked, smoothing the fur under her eyes. “Or, you know, like she would if she was human.”

“Yeah, sure.” Sandy didn’t see it, but he was starting to feel like the extra guy in a threesome, the one who was just there to make one of the other guys jealous. “Freckles.”

“Exactly.” Carter smiled up at him, a sort of joy suffusing his average, everyday features, and illuminating his plain hazel eyes until they seemed like limpid pools of infinite possibility. “Freckles. That’s what I’m going to call her.”

“Yeah,” Sandy muttered, his throat suddenly dry. “I’ll put her at the end of the day. Dr. Martin can check her out.” Carter pushed the paperwork at him, and Sandy gave him back his dog.

“How long will that be?” Carter pulled Freckles to his chest protectively and looked around the waiting room, seeming dismayed to find it was full. “I wasn’t really expecting this to sort of devour my night.”

And abruptly the appeal vanished, swallowed up by the ghost of Sandy’s career-obsessed ex-boyfriend.

Well, so sue Sandy—he was falling behind in running pets from their appointments in the back to the full waiting area in the front. He had in fact, been taking all his time with this asshole.

“About an hour, I’m afraid,” Sandy said shortly, wishing desperately that all of the cute ones weren’t so self-absorbed. “But if you like, there are some books on owning dogs over there—” he pointed to the rack with How To books on it “—and you can find a checklist and go shopping with your new friend there. She’s going to need a halter and a lead and all sorts of stuff—so how about you go shopping, and when you’re done, the doctor should be ready to see you.”

Carter looked around the waiting room again and nodded, sheepish. “You’re really helpful,” he said sincerely. “Should I pay you now or—”

“No, no—I’ll be here when your appointment is over. We’ll go over the invoice then.”

Carter addressed Freckles. “So, uh, shopping? You think we can make this work?”

Freckles licked his hand.

Stardust by Andrew Grey
Chapter One
THE MACHINE made large, slow circles, liquid sheening on top of the glass that was being shaped, slowly, atom by atom. At least that was how it seemed. The process was exacting and would take a very long time. Every curve had to be perfect. I knew it was loud in the room below where I watched through panes of glass. It had to be, with all the machinery that moved and gleamed in the bright lights. People in white cleansuits moved around the huge mirror. No contamination could be allowed in the room; nothing could be allowed to spoil the glass. It had taken weeks of work to get it this far and there would still be many more.

“Did you volunteer for this?” an unfamiliar voice asked from behind me. I turned and nodded automatically. “What were you thinking?” he asked in a pleasing German accent.

“I had nothing else to do, and by agreeing to come here, it allowed the other members of the team to spend Christmas with their families.” I smiled, and he did the same. A nice smile, more sincere than the polite ones I was getting used to seeing. His smile went to his eyes and was genuinely warm. I’d seen him around the plant the past few weeks, but he’d never approached me, and I’d done as instructed and remained in the area set aside for me to do my work. “I’m Duncan Haversmith,” I said, extending my hand.

“Georg von Mittelbach,” he said. I’d seen his name plate on an office, and in my mind I’d pronounced it “George,” but he said it like “Gay-org” and it fit him really well. He was tall with dark hair, precisely cut, and deep brown eyes. I assumed he was one of the managers, since he had an office. “I have been asked to act as your liaison to make sure you have everything you require.”

I was confused. “What about Hans?” I’d been working with him for the past two weeks.

“He went on paternity leave. His wife had a baby.”

“Oh,” I said, resisting the urge to turn back to watch the grinding process. I probably should have, because it would have given me a chance to cover my surprise. Hans and I had been working together for two weeks and he’d never mentioned anything about it.

“Sometimes—” he began and then paused. “I traveled to the US on business a few years ago for a few months, and you are much more open about your personal lives in the office. We tend to be a little more… private.”

I nodded. I had noticed that. “I guess I’m sad I never had a chance to offer my congratulations.” I’d been working as the liaison for the consortium that had contracted the mirror while it was being ground for a new-generation space telescope. The project was led by NASA, but a number of universities were also taking part. As an astronautical engineer, I led the team back at MIT that had designed the mirror and its housing.

“Please.” Georg smiled again. Dang, he was beautiful when he did that. No, beautiful was the wrong word—he was stunning, and his deep eyes shone in a way that reminded me of the shine of the water that both lubricated the mirror below as well as carried away the microscopic material ground away. “It’s his fourth baby. He should have it down to a science by now.” His smile brightened, showing off perfectly white teeth. My stomach did a little flip. It was brief, but a slight jittery feeling remained, one that told me Georg might be gay. Of course the way his gaze lingered a little longer than was necessary was also a clue. “How long will you be here?”

“I’m scheduled for another six weeks at this point, but I’m supposed to remain until the mirror is finished and packed for shipment.” I motioned to one of the chairs around the small table that filled the tiny room I’d been given as a work area. Since it was only me, it was fine. I rarely had visitors—only Hans, and now Georg. Most everyone else went about their business with little concern for me.

“There isn’t going to be a lot to see in the next few weeks.” Georg began setting a file on the table. “We are on schedule, and barring some hidden flaw in the glass itself, which isn’t likely, given our quality standards and the testing that was done before the process began, we should finish grinding and polishing on December 30. Then we can complete the packing process and we’ll fly it to the US and make delivery. I will admit, it seems excessive to have you here the entire time. There will be very little to see.”

“I understand,” I said. I really did. “This seemed like overkill to me, but they wanted someone here to communicate back and relay any issues. You are aware that this is the second mirror. The first one got halfway through the process and had a flaw. That was a different company, of course.”

“Of course,” Georg said with another smile, this one with a hint of pride. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Not that I can think of,” I said. “Except maybe recommend a few places to visit this weekend. I’ve been here a few weeks and have explored a little of the tourist section of Munich, but I’d like to do something different.” It was harder than I expected to be able to get around and see things since I didn’t speak much German. As long as I stuck to the areas frequented by tourists, I seemed to be fine, but I had been hoping to see other areas.

“Of course,” Georg said, growing quiet. “If you like, I can show you around a little.”

The offer took me slightly by surprise, given how standoffish most people had been. “That would be very nice.”

“What would you like to see?”

“Whatever you’d like to show me,” I answered. It seemed like the right thing to say. “I haven’t been here before, so everything is new.”

“Is your wife along with you?”

“I’m not married and I’m here alone.” I sighed, and I knew I should have done a better job of suppressing it. Georg shifted his gaze slightly. “The plan was for my boyfriend to join me for a few weeks—at least that was the original plan. He decided his interests lay elsewhere a few months ago.” That was putting it mildly, but going into the gory details wasn’t appropriate. Hell, I wasn’t sure if what I’d already said was appropriate and wished that I’d kept my mouth shut. What if Georg was a huge ’phobe and I’d just talked myself out of someone to spend a little time with?

I had found that the weekends could be surprisingly long. There was a lot to do right nearby, but not having anyone to do things with made the hours crawl by and made most things a lot less fun. I was already beginning to tire of my own company.

“So you are gay,” Georg said matter-of-factly. “I am the same.” Maybe that explained why Georg was being so friendly. Not that I thought Georg was hitting on me or anything. But everyone else had been rather standoffish, and Georg was so relatively forward.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” I asked, hoping it was okay to ask.

“Not at the moment,” Georg answered, his smile brightening. “I have a meeting shortly, but I wanted to make sure you were up-to-date. I’ll come in each morning and brief you on the current status and any issues we encounter.” He checked his watch. “Tomorrow I’ll have more time and we can firm up plans for Saturday.” He gathered up his papers and left the room after a nod and a small smile.

Once I was alone again, I turned back to my view of the mirror. For the first time in a while, I smiled and really felt it. Maybe I’d made a friend and would have someone to do things with occasionally. I was going to be here for another six weeks or so, and I needed to make the best of it.

A few minutes later, I turned back to my computer and decided to get back to work. I had other projects I could work on and figured I should make progress on those. After all, I hadn’t been sent here on an extended vacation.

After working the rest of the morning and afternoon refining my design for the cradle that would hold the mirror in place on the telescope, I went to my hotel. I had the choice of watching television—mostly shows I couldn’t understand—reading, or surfing the Internet. Thankfully, the rate negotiated for my stay had included Wi-Fi access. Unfortunately the service wasn’t robust enough for me to stream video, so I ended up reading some before turning out the light.

“HOW IS it going?” I asked when Georg entered my work area the following morning. I had been looking forward to seeing him and firming up plans for the weekend. I needed to get out and spend some time with other people—the solitary life was starting to get to me.

“Very well. The mirror is still on schedule with no issues. Right now we are using coarse material to shape the glass and that is going just perfectly. There was a power issue during the night, just before the men came in this morning.”

I sat up a little straighter. Any sort of interruption to the process could be catastrophic. The glass had to be so precise that if the machinery stopped and rested for too long in one spot it could create issues in the surface of the glass.

“It was not an issue. We have backup systems and the process was largely uninterrupted. It moved more slowly for a few minutes, but there was nothing that would impact the lens.”

“Very good,” I said with a smile. Exakt Optik apparently had contingency plans for most every situation. I had recommended that we use them up front, but the powers that be had chosen another vendor. That choice had cost months of delays when they encountered issues, and I had been able to convince management that the second attempt should be undertaken by Exakt. It looked like I might just be proven right. “I knew Exakt was right for this job.”

“Why were we not chosen the first time?” Georg asked as he took a seat.

“Politics,” I answered. The real answer was that a US firm had professed to have the capability to complete the job and there had been pressure to choose them. Unfortunately, their claims weren’t up to their abilities. Georg nodded. “But it will work out in the end.”

“Yes,” Georg said. “What did you do last night?”

I colored slightly. “I got something fast to eat and spent the evening in my hotel.” I was not going to admit that I was so tired by the end of the day that I ate American fast food. It sounded terrible even to my ears, and I vowed not to do it again. I knew there were many much better things to eat nearby. The problem was I didn’t necessarily know where they were. This was an adventure, and I needed to treat it as such rather than being so timid all the time.

“Where are you staying?”

“At the Hotel Jungen.” It was just a few minutes away and made my commute very easy.

Georg smiled. “Good. I will meet you there tomorrow morning at nine o’clock, if that is okay?”

“Of course,” I answered excitedly. I gave him my phone number, just in case. “That would be great.”

“Some of my colleagues and I are also going for lunch today. If you would like to join us, you would be welcome. It’s just to a small restaurant in town here, but it will allow you to see the place, and you can eat there if you like after work sometimes. It will be better than ‘something fast.’” I got the idea Georg knew what I’d meant. “Food should be savored and enjoyed. This is a nice place serving good German food. It will keep you warm when it gets colder.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ll come here and get you at twelve o’clock.”

I expected him to stand and leave, but he sat back in his chair, watching me for a few minutes. Then he reached back and closed the workroom door. “May I ask a question? If you do not want to answer, it is okay.”

“Sure.” What was I going to do? If he wanted to talk, I could spare a few minutes. Otherwise it would be back to designs or watching the progress on the mirror, which was quickly losing its fascination.

“What is it like to be gay where you come from? I have heard stories of people being hurt. Can you get married where you live? It’s very confusing to us here.”

“Well, I live outside Boston now, and I can get married there. Massachusetts was the first state to fully legalize gay marriage. And I suppose there are places where it isn’t safe to be openly gay. Where I live is perfectly nice. People are supportive and understanding there. ‘Live and let live’ and all that. What’s it like here? Do you have any issues?”

“Most younger people do not care. They accept it,” he said with a shrug. “Older people, like my grandfather, have a more difficult time. They cling to the older ways and beliefs.”

“Does your family know about you?”

“Yes. It took a while for my grandfather to… agree to disagree about it?” I nodded because he’d used the term correctly. Georg’s English was very good, and I wished my German was a quarter as proficient. I could understand more than I could speak. I knew I was relying mostly on gestures and body language as well as picking up other clues. But I tried as best I could, and most people were helpful.

“Is he still alive?”

Georg shook his head. “He died last year.” It was obviously a painful subject, and I wished I hadn’t asked. “I like to think he began to understand. He was very… or it was very important to him to have someone carry on the family name.” Georg shifted in his chair, which seemed a little strange. He impressed me as a confident man in control of things whenever possible. He was also incredible to look at: dark hair, strong jaw, full lips. If you changed his clothes and put him in another setting, he could be a model, or put him in jeans and a heavy shirt, on a horse, with a day’s beard growth, and he’d fit in as a cowboy. Georg had obviously been active much of his life.

“I’m sorry. It’s hard to lose people we love.” I knew that feeling all too freaking well. “You still have your parents, right?”

“My mother.” This discussion seemed to be making Georg uncomfortable, and though it had seemed like a natural progression, I wasn’t sure how we had gotten onto this topic. “My father died when I was very young.”

“Are you an engineer?” I asked, trying to change the subject.

“I’m a senior project manager. Usually I would be involved in the initial bid and then manage everything down through delivery. Hans did part of that with your team. This project is a little unusual for us. We like the same people to see things through to the end. But in this case it couldn’t be helped. I take it from the file that you helped design what we’re making.”

“Yes. I got my doctorate a few years ago, so while I’m a full-fledged member of the team, as opposed to one of the graduate assistants, I’m not one of the most senior members.”

“You said you volunteered to come here,” Georg said.

“I did. They wanted another member of the team, but his wife is expecting her first baby in a few weeks, just in time for Christmas. I volunteered so he could stay with her.” There was no way I would have let Hildebrandt sit over here, worrying for weeks about his wife. The guy was nervous enough as it was and that would probably have sent him over the edge.

“That was kind of you.”

“Thanks.” I wasn’t so sure how kind it was. He had someone important to enjoy the holidays with, and if he’d have come, it was likely the project would have ended up flying him back and forth multiple times. I could simply stay here for the duration and save expenses. My neighbor would watch my place for me, and other than that there wasn’t much to keep me in Boston now other than my work.

“I need to get back to my desk, but I’ll come get you for lunch.” Georg stood and opened the door. He said a brief good-bye and then left, once again leaving me alone. I should have been getting used to it by now, but after having Georg stay and talk for a while, the feeling of being alone had intensified. I wasn’t normally a very outgoing person, so I didn’t know why I was so forward with Georg, but it had seemed to pay off. Maybe I would try to be forward more often rather than trying to blend in with the woodwork.

My phone beeped, and I picked it up, glancing at the message from Dr. Harper, the project director. The man rarely seemed to sleep. I texted him a brief update that everything was going well so far, and I got a smiley face in return.

GEORG RETURNED precisely at noon, and I followed him out of the plant and to his blue BMW coupe. I got in the passenger side and buckled up as Georg went around to the other side. “The restaurant isn’t far,” he explained and started the car, then pulled out and headed off through town.

“I love the way this area looks. People have lived here for thousands of years, and it feels like it.” Everything felt solid and unchanging, a lot like Boston. “I was raised outside Dallas, and everything there seems like it just sprang from the ground yesterday.”

“Are you an adventurous eater?” Georg asked.

“Yes. I like good food, and I’ll try just about anything.” That had been one of the appeals to coming here. I’d sort of forgotten that and ended up eating fast food way too often, for convenience. I smiled excitedly and saw Georg look across at me and smile back. “How old is the town? Was it destroyed during the war?”

“Bobingen is more than a thousand years old, and unfortunately it was damaged. Some of the important buildings were spared, while others were bombed. They’ve done quite a bit of restoration work over the years, and it is hard to tell what’s been rebuilt. I doubt there are many tourists out this far, and I understand there was a lot of talk about just rebuilding in the modern style.”

I watched as we drove down through the old center of town. It looked like a fairy-tale place, with brightly painted half-timbered buildings, windows with overflowing flower boxes in holiday colors, and a city hall with a clock tower at one end of town and a stone church at the other. I wanted to lower the window and stick my head out so I could get a better view.

“You haven’t been here before?”

“No.” I sure as heck would have if I’d have known what awaited me.

Georg chuckled softly. “If you like this, then I can’t wait until I show you around tomorrow.”


“What for?” Georg slipped his car into a parking space and turned off the engine.

“I have this tendency to bounce a little when I get excited.” I had to remember not to do that. It had been okay when I was a kid, but now it came across as childish. I knew that. But there were times I still forgot and my natural energy took over.

“Bounce away,” Georg said, still chuckling slightly. “It’s nice that you’re excited.” We got out, and Georg watched me over the roof of the car, and I got this fluttery feeling in my stomach. For a few seconds Georg’s gaze darkened. It might have been attraction, or I could just have been seeing what I wanted to see. Georg was attractive, to say the least. Of course his attraction to me was probably my imagination. It wouldn’t be the first time I had misunderstood someone’s attention. I turned and looked up and down the street, taking it all in even as I still felt Georg’s gaze on me.

I turned back and saw Georg turn away. Suppressing a smile, I closed the car door and followed him toward a small restaurant. I suppose that during nicer weather, tables would have been set up out in front, but now the space was empty. We entered and were shown to a table. “I thought others were coming.”

“They had other plans,” Georg said, coloring slightly. I wondered if that was true. If he had told a fib, it was flattering. “We usually have lunch on Friday afternoons, but things seemed to fall apart.” Georg took a seat, and I sat across from him. He ordered a beer when the server approached the table, and I figured when in Rome… so I got one as well. Things were different here, I was learning.

“We would never have beer with lunch back home. Drinking on the job is frowned upon.”

“I remember. Americans are very hung up on alcohol as I remember.”

“To say the least,” I agreed. When the beer came, the server left menus, and I sipped from the glass. “Man, that’s good.” I took another drink, the smooth, slight bitterness captivating my taste buds.

“Every town has their own brewery, and each kind of beer is served in a glass designed to enhance its flavor. Although there are some nationally produced beers, like in the US, beer is still very much a local and regional art.”

I took another sip. “So in the next town….”

“You’ll probably get a completely different beer made by a different brewmaster.”

“That’s cool,” I said. I figured I could only have one beer, so I didn’t want to drink it too quickly, no matter how good it tasted. Georg handed me a menu, and I looked it over. Of course I could read none of it. I knew a few of the dishes, but not well enough to be comfortable. Georg helped me a little, and I settled on the Schweinsbraten with potatoes and salad. He explained that pork was the main meat served in Bavaria, and their roast pork was simply the best.

Georg placed the orders, and I sat looking around the restaurant. It seemed to have been there for hundreds of years. The woodwork had darkened from thousands of hands touching it over many decades. “What’s Christmas like around here?”

“Here in Bobingen, the town will put up their Christmas tree, and on market day it is transformed into their version of the Christkindlmarkt, the Christmas market where traditional Christmas crafts and foods are sold. They’re very special. There are some more common items, like the wooden or wax ornaments, but the craftsmen in each town have their own traditions and they make unique things. You’ll have to come in a few weeks. They’ll set up down at the end of town around the church.”

“I’ve heard of markets like those, and a few places in the US have them, but I suspect here it will be different.” After all, this country was the birthplace of the Christmas tree, and I knew a lot of our Christmas traditions originated here.

“It will be,” Georg assured me.

As quiet settled between us, I wondered what else we could talk about. We weren’t out together on a date; this was a business lunch. But from the way Georg kept watching me, it was starting to feel like something else. I actually turned around to make sure he wasn’t looking at someone else. His gaze was soft, kind, and yet it didn’t waver from me for a second. What it meant, I wasn’t quite sure, but I wasn’t ashamed to admit that I liked the attention.

“Can I ask you how long you’ve been single?” Georg asked.

“Officially, three months, but emotionally longer than that. Jay was an interesting guy, but after dating him for a while I found out we didn’t agree on some things. Like monogamy, for example. He didn’t believe it was necessary.” I sighed. “The last straw was when I came home from the university and found him in our bed with some stranger. I guess I knew he might be up to something, but seeing it…. I kicked his sorry butt to the curb.” I didn’t tell Georg that Jay had said his cheating was my fault for being so boring in bed. Jay had actually said that he had to force himself to stay awake when he was with me. I was dull and uninteresting, at least according to Jay, and it still stung. I knew I shouldn’t let it get to me, but it had, especially the way Jay had said it in front of the guy I had just walked in on him screwing, both of them screaming and yelling at the top of their lungs.

No matter how many times I had tried to forget the whole incident, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

“Your boyfriend wasn’t worth your time.” Georg didn’t smile, but met my gaze steadily, his voice low and private. “Wipe him from your mind. He isn’t worth thinking about or remembering.”

“I agree.” Our plates arrived, and my stomach rumbled as the scent of butter, fried potatoes, and roast pork reached my nose. Damn, it smelled like heaven. “I can’t believe we’re talking about this. I’ve known you two days and I’ve already spilled the beans about my useless ex.” I couldn’t remember feeling so open and easy with someone so quickly. Georg touched something in me, and I felt comfortable with him.

“It’s all right. I like talking with you.” Georg sipped from his glass and left his knife and fork where they were. “You’re refreshingly open and honest. It’s nice.” Georg’s smile was so warm it touched my heart.

“I’m just me,” I told him.

“Well, then, this Jay couldn’t see what he had,” Georg said as he picked up his knife and fork and slowly began to eat. I watched him and mimicked his movements. Georg moved with practiced grace, so I felt like a country bumpkin at the table with him. We ate our lunch, and I tried to figure out how Georg could like anything about me. He was probably just being nice. I smiled and continued eating.

We grew quiet as we ate our lunch.

“Is it good?” Georg asked.

“Delicious,” I answered between bites. “How is yours?”

“Very good,” Georg said.

I cleaned the plate and finished my beer, then sat back, almost completely content. Georg continued glancing up at me as he ate, and I began to wonder what I could have done to capture his interest. I tried to think of the last time someone had been so attentive. I cringed when I remembered that Jay had acted much the same way, at least when we’d first met. A shiver ran through me as I wondered if events were repeating themselves.

Georg motioned, and the server brought the check. I pulled out my wallet, but Georg waved it off and handed the server some cash. He left and returned a few minutes later. Georg took his change, and we got up to leave the restaurant, putting on our coats before walking out to the car.

“Thank you,” I said as we got in the car. “It wasn’t necessary for you to buy me lunch.”

“It was my pleasure,” Georg said and then started the engine. We retraced our route and ended up back at the office parking lot. He shut off the engine and the heat inside the car dissipated as the cold from outside worked its way in. Georg didn’t move. I wasn’t sure what was going on and slowly opened my door.

“Thank you again for lunch.” I got out and waited for Georg, and we walked inside together. I felt his gaze on me as we walked up the stairs and to my small work area. “It was very nice of you to keep me company.” I wasn’t sure what else to say.

Georg stood in the doorway. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.” He said the words as though they had some deep meaning rather than simple pleasantries. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” I said and sat down to try to get some work done. Georg didn’t leave right away, and after a few seconds I looked up as he turned and left the doorway.

I couldn’t help wondering what this sudden attention was all about. Georg seemed like a nice guy, but what could I have possibly done to warrant this kind of interest? It was nice to think that he might be interested in me. Actually, it was really flattering. But I would be leaving in a few weeks, and after the mess and heartbreak with Jay, I didn’t want to go running down any road that could lead to heartache. And getting involved with anyone over here was a recipe for disaster, even if he pushed every button I had in the attraction department. I suppose I was drawn to what I didn’t have, and I’d always liked bigger, stronger, and darker men. Georg fit that bill perfectly.

I shook my head and pushed those thoughts out of my head. I was getting way ahead of myself. Georg was being nice, and I was jumping in, like I always did. I checked the clock and decided to get back to work. Maybe some rational thinking would help clear things up.

In Another Life by Cardeno C
Shiloh, Age 18
You know how they say when you’re about to die your whole life flashes before your eyes? Well, as it turns out, it’s true. But it’s not like what you think. At least, for me it wasn’t. Because the life I saw as I lay in the bathtub taking my last breath wasn’t the one I had lived during the eighteen years I’d been on this earth. Instead, the life I saw was the one I would be missing for the next eighteen.

Funny how I had wanted to die for years, had been gathering the courage to do it, and then when the moment was finally upon me and I felt the last bit of life drain from my body, well, that was when I realized there had been something to live for all along. Or maybe I should say someone.


Chapter 1
Shiloh, Age 36
“Do you have a light?” a deep, disembodied voice asked when I stepped out of the gymnasium to get some fresh air.

I squinted at the dark corner where he was standing. I couldn’t make out his features, but I could see that he was tall, broad, and holding a cigarette.

“No, but you should give those up anyway. Smoking’s bad for you.”

“That’s brand-new information.” He coughed. “Thanks for enlightening me.”

He put the cigarette behind his ear and patted his pockets—front of his pants, back of his pants, shirt—and when he came up empty, he grumbled something angry-sounding under his breath. Then he stomped out of the corner and said, “I bet I have a lighter in my car.”

When he walked by me, I grasped his arm, looked up at him, and said, “Tobacco products aren’t allowed on school property, so even if you don’t care about your health, you can’t smoke here.”

“What about liquor?” he barked and shook off my hand. “Because I’m going to need a smoke or a drink before I can go back in there.” He drew in a shaky breath and tilted his chin toward the gym, which was at that moment full of teenagers enjoying the Halloween Dance.

I couldn’t hold back my chuckle. “I take it this is your first time as a parent chaperone?”

It was the Friday after Halloween, but dances midweek were against school policy, so we usually celebrated on the closest Friday night. If the turnout and elaborate costumes were any indication, the kids didn’t seem to mind, but I could understand how someone new to the tradition could find it a bit overwhelming.

“Uncle chaperone, and yes, it’s my first time.” He paused, dragged his gaze down my body and said, “Why? You come here often?”

My brain knew the comment was intended as funny banter, but my body trembled in reaction to the perceived come-on from a gorgeous man. And he was gorgeous. We were standing close enough by then for me to see his muscular body, strong jawline, emerald-green eyes, and sandy-blond hair.

I forced myself to stop lusting after the built, handsome stranger and said, “Afraid so. I’m the guidance counselor, so it’s part of the job description.”

“I don’t know how you do it.” He glared at the building. “I couldn’t stand being around high school kids when I was in high school. If I had to spend all day with them now, I’d lose my mind.”

“They’re not so bad most of the time,” I said with a shrug. “The masks seem to make it worse. So what put you over the edge? Was it the soulless music, the inane chatter, or the inappropriately flirtatious teenage girls?”

“Uh, none of the above.” He scowled. “It’s the pissant boys who think their teasing is funny.”

“Are they teasing your nephew? Is it serious? Is this the first time or do they tease him regularly? Are they fixating on something in particular? Has it escalated to threats of violence? Have they ever laid hands on him? What’s your nephew’s name?”

“Whoa! Slow down there, hot rod.” He rubbed his large hands up and down my arms. “Breathe.”

Heat flooded my cheeks, so I looked down and tried to get my emotions under control. At age thirty-six, I’d long since graduated from high school, but the memories of how hard it had been, how wrong I had felt, and how often I had wanted to stay in bed and avoid the world were still piercingly strong. I didn’t need a therapist to tell me that was why I had chosen a career designed to help kids that age. Of course, a therapist or three had told me that very thing, but I hadn’t needed them to say it.

“Sorry,” I said without making eye contact. “I didn’t mean to jump all over you, but I take the emotional and physical safety of our students very seriously.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” he said, his voice sounding soft for the first time. “You know, I just realized I didn’t catch your name.” He held his hand out. “I’m Travis Kahn.”

“Oh.” I looked at his hand, then shook it as I raised my gaze to meet his. “I’m Shiloh Raben. Nice to meet you.”

“Shiloh?” He smiled at me, a huge one that reached his eyes and made my knees go weak. “That’s a gorgeous name.”

“Thank you.” I bit my lip, lowered my chin, and looked up at him from underneath my lashes. “That’s very…uh, thank you.”

“You’re welcome. And in answer to your questions, my niece’s name is Jessica Zinn.”

“Oh.” I didn’t know who Jessica was, which surprised me, because even though we had a student body nearing two thousand, I prided myself on being at least somewhat familiar with all of them. “I don’t think I know Jessica,” I said as I knit my brow and tried to place the name. “Is she new?”

Travis nodded. “Yes, she’s a freshman.”

I remembered my own introduction to high school. I’d managed to hide in the middle of the crowd for a while, but eventually, the older, bigger kids found me and after that they seemed to seek me out. I had been too ashamed and too scared to ask for help, so I’d suffered through in silence. I didn’t want any of my students to endure that type of existence.

“I’d be happy to work with her,” I said. “I think I can help stop the teasing, but she needs to talk to me.”

Travis grinned. “The teasing wasn’t aimed at Jessica. It was aimed at her possibly overprotective uncle.” He dragged his hand through his hair. “She’s been dating seniors, which scares the hell out of her mother and has added a lot of tension to their house.” He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “That’s why I’m here, actually. I agreed to play the part of chauffeur and said I didn’t want to sit in my car waiting for her to be done at the dance, so I might as well volunteer to chaperone.”

“And she believed those were your only options?” I asked curiously. “There are all sorts of restaurants and coffee shops around here. You could have—”

“She’s fourteen,” Travis reminded me. “She doesn’t have great judgment about what to believe, which is part of what we’re worried about. Besides, she doesn’t spend much time thinking about anything any adult says. The salient points to her were a ride to and from the dance and the absence of her mother.”

The fact that this man had to explain the teenage mind to me was a testament to how distracted he had me. I earned my living working with teenagers, and I considered myself quite good at it.

“Right.” I nodded. “That makes sense.” I breathed in deeply. “Well, I better get back in there. I’ll make sure to keep an extra careful eye on Jessica, and if you tell me who these senior boys are, I’ll watch them too.”

“I’ll make sure to do that,” Travis said. “Listen, I know right now you’re busy working, and I’m busy planning the start to my life of crime by way of cigarette consumption, but I’ve enjoyed chatting with you.” He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, glanced down at me, and said, “Any chance you want to give me your number?”

“Of course,” I answered. “I’m happy to discuss the situation with Jessica anytime. My number—”

“Is that the only reason you’d want to hear from me?” he asked.

I furrowed my brow in confusion. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Can I still call you even if it isn’t to talk about my niece?” he asked as he peered into my eyes.

I felt like I was missing something obvious, but I wasn’t sure what it was.

“Why would you—” That was when I realized the handsome stranger was coming on to me, or at least wanting to get in touch so he could come on to me later. “Oh.”

He curled his lips up in a small, sexy smile and arched one eyebrow. “Yeah. Oh.”

I concentrated on keeping my knees stiff so they wouldn’t buckle, which made me sway. Travis grabbed my shoulders and steadied me.

“Shiloh?” My name in his whiskey voice had me swooning again. “Are you okay?”

I gulped and bobbed my head. “Yes.”

“Yes, you’re okay, or yes, I can call you?”

“Either. I mean both. I mean—” I shook my head, hoping to clear it. “You can call me, even if it’s for unprofessional reasons.” I didn’t realize how that sounded until Travis arched an eyebrow and smirked. “Uh, I mean, uh, if it’s for reasons not relating to my profession. Not unprofessional meaning unprofessional.”

“Got it.” His smile broadened. “I’m glad we have that straightened out.”

I gave him my number and managed to keep my voice mostly steady and my gaze mostly raised. Then I went back to work and said a silent prayer that he’d call.


Saturday I stared at my phone almost nonstop.

Sunday I managed to pry myself away from it, but I constantly thought I heard it ringing so I’d run in from whatever other room I was in and pick it up only to see a black screen.

Monday and Tuesday I had my phone turned off all day because I was working, and I was a believer in the theory that we should lead by example, and that meant staff following the “no cell phone during school hours” rule we had in place for students. That didn’t stop me from scrambling to turn the phone on as soon as I got into my car and being disappointed when there weren’t any messages.

By Wednesday night, I’d come to the conclusion that the hot guy who had asked for my phone number either never had any intention of calling or had changed his mind. I was more disappointed than I should have been, but not terribly surprised. The reality was, Travis Kahn was out of my league.

I was thirty-six years old with a job that kept me indoors and mostly sedentary. That meant my muscle definition wasn’t what it should have been, my skin tone was pasty, and there were more lines than I would have liked next to my eyes. My brown hair was still full, which was good, but I’d started getting some gray in my sideburns, which wasn’t great. Plus, at five foot ten inches tall and one hundred seventy pounds, I was at least half a foot shorter than Travis, and based on the width of his shoulders and the way his shirt stretched across his chest, I guessed I was quite a bit rounder and softer.

Anyway, all of that was to say that I wasn’t bad-looking, but I wasn’t a match for the tall, strapping, blond-haired, green-eyed man who probably had guys tripping over themselves to spend time with him. That brought me to Friday morning, when my thoughts of Travis were down to a low simmer in the back of my mind.

I had hit the snooze button a time or three too many, and the next thing I knew, the roar of a loud truck woke me. I blinked my eyes open and tried to focus on my surroundings. The clock told me I’d barely have time to shower and eat a piece of toast before I had to leave the house to make it in to work on time. Then I heard the loud sound again, and the realization hit me—it was trash day. I did a mental inventory of the previous evening and couldn’t remember having taken the can out to the curb. I’d had the same lapse the previous three weeks running, so by that point, the can was almost overflowing.

I jumped out of bed and sprinted to my front door, remembering only after I opened it that I was wearing my Simpsons boxers and nothing else. “Dammit!” I hurried back to my room. Putting on pants would have taken too long, so I shoved my feet into my slippers and tugged on my bathrobe, tying the belt while I hustled out the door.

Having just gotten out of bed, my hair stuck up at all angles, my face was unshaven, and I probably had pillow creases on my cheeks and dried drool on my chin. Also, I should mention that my robe was bright yellow with a huge picture of SpongeBob on the back and my slippers were each adorned with a stuffed Scooby-Doo on top. In other words, I looked crazy sexy. Or just crazy.

My trash can was on the side of my townhouse, behind a fence. I held the gate open with my foot while I dragged the overfilled can behind me, making it to the curb just as the garbage truck turned around at the end of my street. I didn’t know whether they’d picked up my side of the street or the other side, and I wanted to make sure to put my trash can in a spot where it’d be emptied.

As luck would have it, there was another can sitting on the curb. The townhouse next to mine had been empty for months, and because the “For Sale” sign was still out front, I hadn’t realized anybody had moved in. Grateful for the availability of a clue, I opened the lid on the neighbor’s can, hoping the absence or presence of trash would verify whether I should leave my can where it was or drag it to the other side of the street.

Good news—my neighbor’s can was full, so I was set as far as trash collection was concerned.

Bad news—as I was looking into the trash can, I heard a coughing sound and saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I glanced up, and there, on his front porch, was my new neighbor. At least I assumed he was my new neighbor, because he stood right by the front door with a cigarette in one hand and his phone in the other. And he was watching my classy trash-picking display with his jaw hanging open.

Did I mention that I recognized this particular neighbor?

“Uh, Travis, hi!” I said, sounding way too loud and high-pitched. The lid slipped from my fingers and banged shut. I flinched and then started walking toward my door, trying to keep my pace not too fast but not too slow. Nothing to see here, folks. Just a guy going for a walk. Wearing a robe and slippers. “How’ve you been?”

Making small talk in that particular situation would have been awkward no matter what. I mean, the man had blown me off and then caught me digging through his trash. Transitioning smoothly to a discussion about his well-being took more social skills than I had at my disposal that early in the morning.

But then things went from bad to worse when I reached my front step, tripped over my Scooby-Doo slippers, and grabbed on to the post in front of my house to steady myself. As it turned out, my robe wasn’t tied securely enough to withstand that kind of limb extension, which I realized when it flopped open. I jerked my head up and stared at Travis, trying to think of what I could say to salvage some portion of my dignity.

“Wow,” he said as he ground his cigarette into a bowl on the porch railing and flicked his gaze up and down my body. “You’re wearing three different cartoon characters right now, which is particularly amazing seeing as how you’re barely dressed.”

“Why didn’t you call me?” I snapped. Because apparently, my humiliation wasn’t complete enough, and I wanted to add desperate and whiny to my list of attributes, right after trash-obsessed, well-dressed, and impeccably groomed.

“I was actually doing that very thing just now.” He cleared his throat, held up his phone, and waved it at me.

“You were?” I asked, my voice cracking as I once again took in his ruggedly handsome face and felt my heart flip over.

“I wanted to call sooner.” He started walking toward me. “Usually I have weekends off because I’ve been on staff the longest, but everyone was celebrating Halloween last weekend, which meant we needed all hands on deck to deal with everything from skin rashes and oxygen deprivation in people who don’t realize spray paint and body paint aren’t the same thing, and heart attacks in men who had the wrong types of nurses in their beds.” He kept moving in my direction. “After that, I had my normal schedule, which is four twelves, but that turned into more like four eighteens because half the medical staff came down with the flu.”

He dragged his gaze from my Scooby-Doo-covered feet, up my Simpsons-covered groin to my unshaven just-woke-up face, and stopped when he was inches away from me. “Either I finally collapsed from exhaustion and right now I’m passed out in the hospital having the best dream ever or”—he grasped the sides of my robe and pulled it shut, then tied the belt more securely as he gazed into my eyes—“the cute guy I haven’t stopped thinking about just got even more adorable.”

“You think I’m cute?” I whispered as I blinked up at him.

He smiled softly. “I think you’re adorable.”

“Oh.” I scrunched up my nose and squinted. “Why?”

Travis threw his head back and laughed, and then he coughed, cleared his throat, and tried to look serious as he said, “I almost never see an adult wearing character slippers.”

“They were a present from my parents,” I said defensively. Technically, the present was a gift card, and I had chosen to spend it on slippers, but my money didn’t pay for them, so that still counted as a gift.

“Is that right?” He arched his eyebrows and crooked the side of his mouth up.

“Yes.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “For Hanukkah last year.”

“Lucky you.” He curled his lips over his teeth as if he was holding in a grin. “All I got was a new otoscope.”

“What’s an otoscope?”

“It’s something for work. I use it to look in patients’ ears. Pretty fun present, huh?” He chuckled.

“Are you a doctor?” I asked.

He looked down at the scrubs and white coat he wore; then he slowly raised his head and smirked. “Were you listening to anything I said? Or have you been too busy checking me out and having dirty thoughts?” He shook his head and smiled fondly. “Never mind, I think I like the second option better, so let’s go with that.” He cleared his throat and straightened my robe, flattening the fabric over my shoulders and chest. “In answer to your question, yes, I’m a doctor. Emergency medicine. I work at Southeast Medical Center.”

“Oh, uh,” I stammered, feeling foolish. “I didn’t think doctors smoked. But, uh, in that case, an otoscope sounds like a very, uh, practical present.”

Travis snorted. “Come visit the smoking area outside of a hospital sometime, and you’ll see one of our favorite ways to deal with stress and sleep deprivation. And, yes, my parents are really practical. When I was a kid, they used to give me socks and underwear for Hanukkah.” He paused and leered at me. “But they were always tighty-whities. Not like those super-sexy Simpsons boxers you’re wearing.”

I blushed at the reference to my embarrassing underwear, and then the rest of what he said sunk in. My jaw dropped. “You’re Jewish?”

He nodded. “Yes. Is that a problem?”

“Only if you were hoping to avoid meeting my mother, because when I tell her I’m dating a Jewish doctor, she’s going to start cooking up a storm and planning a wedding.” Once I stopped babbling, I noticed that Travis was giving me that raised-brow, crooked-grin look again.

Had I just told a man who affirmatively hadn’t asked me out that we were not only dating but also were on our way to becoming engaged? At that moment, I created a new rule for myself: no talking to anybody until after my first cup of coffee. Clearly, my uncaffeinated morning brain couldn’t be trusted.

“Uh,” I said. “I need to go or I’ll be late for work.” Then I turned on my heel and rushed to my door.

“Shiloh!” Travis called out after me.

“Yes?” I asked without turning around.

“I’ll pick you up tonight at six thirty.”

I looked back over my shoulder. “Pick me up?”

“Yes. For our date.”

“Our date?” I repeated dumbly.

“Yup.” He nodded firmly. “I think it’s important we get to know each other before the wedding, don’t you?”

“I didn’t… I mean, that’s not what I—”

“Six thirty.” He waved as he started walking back to his townhouse. “And feel free to wear those boxers.”

Love Ahead: Expect Delays by Astrid Amara
The 1989 Geo Spectrum was not a car of beauty.

Neither roundish nor boxy, it had a blunt-nosed front and a saggy-diaper back. Despite being a hatchback, it lacked storage space, and as a two-door, it proved difficult to get in and out of the rear seats.

It was, frankly, an embarrassment to drive, which was why it had ended up in the ownership of Zachary Roth’s eighty-seven-year-old grandmother. The problem was Zach’s Bubbie didn’t want to drive it cross-country to Zach’s parents’ new home in Boulder, Colorado. She wanted Zach to drive it.

The car smelled like Pine-Sol, decaying foam rubber, and World War II. The brown seats were sun bleached, which Zach hadn’t known was possible with vinyl. The entire car was immaculate in that grandmotherly way that meant it was clean, but brittle and old. Even the fabric on the roof seemed crackled and stretched too thin.

Zach’s boyfriend, Austin Jenker, didn’t know they were going to be traveling in the Spectrum. It was one of the facts Zach had strategically omitted while presenting the idea of the road trip. All Austin knew was they were driving to Colorado to visit Zach’s family for Hanukkah. But when Austin emerged from his apartment complex, duffel stuffed and swung over one large shoulder, backpack over the other, and in his hands the toolbox he seemed to take with him everywhere, he did not look pleased.

“You’re kidding me, right?” were his first words.

Zach leaned against the car door and crossed his arms, trying to look tough. It was hard. The car was tiny and white. It had crocheted beige seat covers, and a dream catcher hung from the rearview mirror.

“There’s no way we’re going fourteen hundred miles in that piece-of-shit car.” Austin glared at the small tires as if they were to blame.

“Come on,” Zach said, giving Austin his most winning smile. “It’ll be an adventure.”

“This is your grandmother’s car, right?”

Zach nodded, surprised Austin had noticed such an insignificant detail the one time he’d been around when Zach’s grandmother stopped over. But then again, Austin was always attentive to detail, especially when it came to anything on wheels.

“That engine barely turns over,” Austin said.

“And because you know things like that, you’ll be a perfect companion.”

Austin gave him a sharp look. “You just want me along because I’m a mechanic.”

“No,” Zach said. “I want you along because I like your company, I like screwing in cheap motels, and most of all, I want my parents to meet you.”

Austin studied Zach’s expression carefully. He still had his duffel bag slung over his shoulder. He looked tired, rough, and angry, and if anything, it added to his roguish attractiveness. His dirty-blond hair was getting too long, so he pushed back his bangs to better glower at the vehicle.

His skin was red, no doubt from the vigorous scrubbing he’d just given himself in the shower. Austin owned an automotive shop. He came home oil stained but was adamant about appearing clean anytime he wasn’t at work.

Zach didn’t care either way. Austin was different from anyone else he’d ever dated; the oil stains only added to his charm.

“Last month you said you wanted to spend time away from the city,” Zach reminded him.

“I was thinking somewhere sunny. With gay bars.”

“I bet Boulder has a gay bar,” Zach said, although he wasn’t 100 percent sure about that, because he hadn’t been there before. He knew Boulder had environmentalists. It also had strict development policies and a city planning department that had the kind of power land-use planners like Zach could only envy.

Zach shook his head. Progressive zoning enforcement was not going to win Austin over. “Look, I have to take the car to my grandmother. I’m just hoping we can make something enjoyable out of the burden.”

“Your parents know you’re gay?” Austin asked at last.

Zach rolled his eyes. “Of course.”

“Just checking.” Austin frowned. “I don’t feel like being the announcement. That’s all.” He threw his duffel into the back of the car. He turned Zach by the shoulder and kissed him. Zach wasn’t used to public displays of affection, but he liked how Austin never gave a shit. Austin pushed Zach against the car and ground his hips into him as he kissed him deeply, then let go.

“We’d better go now if we’re going to avoid traffic.” Austin sauntered over to the passenger side, and it took Zach a moment to recapture his equilibrium before he sat behind the wheel.

Austin studied the dashboard. “There’s no CD player?”

“Yeah, only a cassette player. I hoped you’d bring your iPod. We can use one of those cassette adapters. Otherwise we’re stuck with” -- Zach fumbled through his grandmother’s cassettes in the console -- “Million Dollar Polkas.”

Austin groaned. He rustled through the backpack between his boots. “When was the last time the old lady had the oil changed?”

“I’m sure exactly when scheduled,” Zach assured him. “Bubbie is a firm believer in regular maintenance.”

Austin pulled out his iPod and hooked it to the cassette adapter. He shook his head. “You know, it wasn’t easy taking eight entire days off work. I left everything up to Rick. And Rick is a moron. I wouldn’t be surprised if my shop is burned to the ground by the time I get back.”

“Your shop will be fine. I trust Rick.”

Austin raised an eyebrow at that. “If I’m going to miss this much work, I should be heading somewhere warm. California. Florida.”

“I’ve never seen you in a Speedo,” Zach said.

“Yeah, well, I look fucking hot.”

“I believe you.” Zach grinned. “Next holiday, sunshine it is.”

Austin yanked at the seat belt, which creaked as it stretched around his broad chest. He had to push the seat all the way back and recline it in order to fit his large body in such a limited space. “We live in a rain forest, and we go on vacation somewhere colder.”

Zach’s heart hurt a little at all the complaining. “Then why’d you agree to come?”

“Because I love you,” Austin said. “And I’d never forgive myself if you went alone and got beaten up in Idaho for being a Jewish homosexual in a Geo Spectrum.”

“Ha. Everybody knows Geos are popular in Idaho.” Zach laughed, but he felt light-headed every time Austin mentioned he loved him.

Zach turned the key in the ignition. After a few weak revs, the engine burst to life.

“There’s a present for you behind my seat,” he told Austin.

Austin was still frowning when he reached back and deftly raised a blue cooler from the floor. Zach had stocked it with all his favorite Austin bait: summer sausage, sour-cream-and-chives potato chips, salsa, tortilla chips, spinach dip, pretzels, even crackers and a canister of spray cheese, not to mention a collection of soda and beer.

“No way, baby!”

Zach smiled. Food made it easy to win Austin’s heart.

Austin, momentarily content with a bag of potato chips, didn’t complain further, and Zach pulled out of the apartment complex and headed east to the freeway.

He’d planned the trip with time to spare, in case they wanted to spend an extra night somewhere along the way. It would take three days to get to Boulder, leaving five days to spend with Zach’s family before they flew back to Seattle.

At first Zach hadn’t relished the prospect of driving cross-country in winter either.

“It isn’t safe for me to take the car!” Bubbie had screamed over the phone. Having lost her hearing, she’d resorted to shrieking everything.

“If it isn’t safe, then why would you want me to drive it?” Zach had argued. He had imagined many ways of visiting his parents and his grandmother in Colorado, but in a white Geo Spectrum was not part of even his darkest imaginings.

“You’re young!” Bubbie had reasoned.

“How does that help the car?” Zach had countered.

“This is the kind of adventure you young boys love, anyway,” Bubbie had told him.

Zach had many rebuttals. He was not, technically, a young boy anymore. He’d busted into the third decade the previous month.

And he had also never been one for road trips. The last time he’d taken one, he’d ended up stranded in Bakersfield after the high school band bus drove off without him. He’d had to hitch a ride carrying his tuba. A man had solicited him for oral sex, and a woman who might have been a prostitute had stolen his fanny pack.

Zach no longer played tuba, and he’d sworn off fanny packs years ago. He’d matured. Matured in the kind of way that made the idea of driving an old car from Seattle to Boulder in December sound less like an adventure and more like a plain old bad idea.

But then he’d thought about Austin and changed his mind.

After all, it seemed like the kind of undertaking the two of them needed at this stage in their relationship. It was a good way to test things, see if the overpowering affection Zach had for Austin was strong enough to hold up to the tensions of, say, a road trip through snow.

For the last month, Austin had been pressing for them to move in together. It had started as casual joking, but with every repetition, Zach had realized Austin was completely serious. Austin had even started looking at condos in Zach’s part of town that would be big enough for two.

But every time domesticity raised its head, Zach politely and firmly beat it back down. It was too soon. They had only known each other for six months.

And Austin had a temper. He was brash and outspoken and didn’t care what others thought about him. Nothing seemed to frighten him, which had the strange aftereffect of frightening Zach. What trouble could a man like Austin get into?

So in many ways this road trip was a consolation prize for Austin. Zach knew Austin’s feelings got hurt whenever Zach casually shot down the idea of domesticity. So Zach hoped Austin would see that, even though he wasn’t ready to commit to moving in, he was serious about their relationship, that this wasn’t just a casual fling.

Besides, Zach was thrilled his parents were finally going to meet a guy worthy of being taken home. He could prove to them he was capable of making good decisions when it came to his personal life. He’d struck out too many times for them to trust his judgment.

And that was another reason Zach worried about moving in with Austin. With others, he’d grown so distrustful, jaded by all but the moment of lust that drove him and left him careless and, later, regretful.

Zach knew it was partially his hang-ups that had made past relationships difficult. Too many men had assumed his self-effacing sense of humor and slim build meant he was a pushover. Maybe he was. Zach had never learned how to defend himself physically. He preferred joking his way out of situations.

But many of the men who were attracted to his dark hair and long, thin body seemed to take his passive nature for granted and push too far.

After a string of disappointments, the last thing Zach wanted to do was move in with another tough guy.

But Austin was different. Even though he was a big man -- six feet five, two hundred and fifty pounds, all muscle and hair -- Austin was unexpectedly affectionate, a man who loved to touch and be touched, with a hungry need for closeness, making his broad chest even more inviting. And despite his hulking presence in bed, Austin was a polite and selfless lover who saw to Zach needs first, even to extremes. It had become Zach’s obsession of late to see Austin get off first, but Austin showed remarkable self-control and never pushed his requests until Zach was sated.

And besides being surprisingly kind, Austin was an all-around different type of guy than Zach usually dated.

He didn’t own a single suit, for one thing.

He’d gone to the technical college and was a skilled mechanic. He worked out religiously, watched football obsessively, and spent the rest of his time taking comalike naps that alarmed Zach with their death-resembling intensity.

In the beginning, their opposite lifestyles had worried Zach. He didn’t know anything about cars other than how to drive them. He worked for the local government as a city planner. Zach read a book a night and had a penchant for sad Asian movies. His exercise routine was designed to be as brief and painless as possible and existed solely to ward off threats of developing the Roth-family gut, which perched on spindly Roth-family legs like a terrible, round goiter.

But despite their differences, Zach and Austin had lasted six months. Apparently he made Austin laugh, and that was a good thing. Austin’s laugh was one of those honest, happy sounds that was contagious. So Zach kept Austin laughing.

And Austin made Zach feel safe. Safer than he had in a long time, since those bad months with Ed. Once, at the movies, a drunk had accosted Zach. Austin had turned and punched the assailant so fast that Zach hadn’t even realized what happened until the other man clutched his jaw and writhed on the parking-lot cement.

There was something to be said about having a tough guy on your side.

But most important, they trusted each other, and with that trust had developed a relationship Zach truly felt excited about. They had the prospect of being something amazing together as long as Zach didn’t ruin it by rushing into domesticity, or as long as Austin didn’t screw it up by becoming a bully. It was a relationship worthy of gentle coaxing, something built with care and consideration.

Author Bios:
Rowan Speedwell
An unrepentant biblioholic, Rowan Speedwell spends half her time pretending to be a law librarian, half her time pretending to be a database manager, half her time pretending to be a fifteenth-century Aragonese noblewoman, half her time… wait a minute… hmm. Well, one thing she doesn't pretend to be is good at math. She is good at pretending, though.

In her copious spare time (hah) she does needlework, calligraphy and illumination, and makes jewelry. She has a master's degree in history from the University of Chicago, is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and lives in a Chicago suburb with the obligatory Writer's Cat and way too many books.

Amy Lane
Amy Lane dodges an EDJ, mothers four children, and writes the occasional book. She, her brood, and her beloved mate, Mack, live in a crumbling mortgage in Citrus Heights, California, which is riddled with spiders, cats, and more than its share of fancy and weirdness. Feel free to visit her website or blog, where she will ride the buzz of receiving your e-mail until her head swells and she can no longer leave the house.

Andrew Grey
Andrew grew up in western Michigan with a father who loved to tell stories and a mother who loved to read them. Since then he has lived throughout the country and traveled throughout the world. He has a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and now writes full time.

Andrew’s hobbies include collecting antiques, gardening, and leaving his dirty dishes anywhere but in the sink (particularly when writing)  He considers himself blessed with an accepting family, fantastic friends, and the world’s most supportive and loving partner. Andrew currently lives in beautiful, historic Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Cardeno C
Cardeno C. - CC to friends - is a hopeless romantic who wants to add a lot of happiness and a few "awwws" into a reader's day. Writing is a nice break from real life as a corporate type and volunteer work with gay rights organizations. Cardeno's stories range from sweet to intense, contemporary to paranormal, long to short, but they always include strong relationships and walks into the happily-ever-after sunset.

Heartwarming Stories. Strong Relationships. Forever Love.

Astrid Amara
Astrid Amara lives in Bellingham, Washington. She's a former Peace Corps Volunteer, an advocate for animal rights, and a bureaucrat by day. After work she can usually be found writing, riding horses, hiking, or else sleeping. Her novel The Archer's Heart was a finalist for the 2008 Lambda Literary Award.

Rowan Speedwell

Amy Lane

Andrew Grey

Cardeno C

Astrid Amara

Hopes and Fears



In Another Life & Eight Days
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Love Ahead: Expect Delays by Astrid Amara

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