Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Random Paranormal Tales 2016 Part 2

Across the East River Bridge by Kate McMurray
Winner of the 2012 Rainbow Award for Best Gay Paranormal

When historian Christopher Finnegan walks into a new museum in Brooklyn, he's chagrined to learn its curator is his old academic rival, Troy Rafferty. Worse, Troy is convinced the museum is haunted and wants Finn's help learning more about the ghosts. Finn and Troy have never gotten along and Finn wants to run screaming, but then Troy offers him an intriguing proposal: Troy will help Finn with a research project for his overbearing boss if Finn will help Troy solve a mystery involving two men who died in the building under mysterious circumstances in 1878.

Finn and Troy piece together the two men's lives--and the quiet romance that grew between them--through diaries, newspaper clippings, and police reports. They're both soon convinced the men were murdered. They're also convinced the ghosts are real even Finn witnesses paranormal phenomena he can't deny--and that they're capable of affecting thoughts, feelings, and actions. When Finn and Troy start falling for each other despite years of animosity, Finn worries he's being manipulated by the ghosts to stay with Troy and solve the case. Troy is convinced the love between them is real, but he'll need to figure out how to get rid of the ghosts in order to prove it.

I completely fell in love with the blend of historical, contemporary, paranormal, romance, and mystery, the balance hit every one of my reader heaven buttons.  Troy and Finn may be acquaintances that have done the horizontal tango more than once but it's pretty obvious Finn views their connection more adversary than friendly.  Work brings them together once again, add in an interesting ghost story with intriguing ghosts, work and personal history may be the last thing that is on their minds.  Another great book for my paranormal library.


Half a Million Dead Cannibals by Kari Gregg
All that's keeping Riley from the man he's falling in love with is the ruins of a city filled with half a million dead cannibals.

Strangers, Riley and Graham sheltered together in a basement storage unit when the zombie outbreak slammed into the world three months ago. They lived through the first blast of the plague, but they may not last much longer among survivors scrambling for dwindling resources. They agree to hike from the city and to the safety of the mountains.

They don't count on the storm they hoped would cover their exit developing into a Nor'easter, though, and they sure don't think their visibility will shrink so badly that they'll have to hike into the leading edge of a zombie swarm, either. In the chaos of escaping the ravenous horde, they are separated, with Graham racing toward feral dog packs to the east and Riley sprinting to hostile survivors hunting them to the west.

Nobody said finding and keeping a quality guy (alive) during the apocalypse would be easy.

Oracle: The Complete Collection by RJ Scott
Oracle #1
Love, adventure, an empath & an ancient relic that could destroy the world.

Alex Sheridan is a thief, able to steal even the hardest to reach antiquities. Luke MacKinnon is a professor of ancient languages.

When they come together to locate the Oracle, it is because both men have targets on their backs. Can love blossom when each day could be their last? And, how can they survive the evil that wants the Oracle?

Book of Secrets #2
Kidnapping, adventure, drama and the fight for eternal life.

Alex is making good on his promise to put things right; retrieving items he had stolen, and returning them to their rightful owners. It's dangerous work, especially since he lost his most useful Oracle-given powers.

When Luke is kidnapped by a man intent on finding the secrets to eternal life, Alex has to make a bargain with the devil and break steal an item from the private library at Windsor Castle. Will Alex be too late to save the man he loves?

To followers of my reviews it's no secret how much of a HUGE fan of RJ Scott I am, well the Oracle duology is no different.  Alex grabbed my heart immediately with his mixture of shyness, determination to his "job", and the obvious devotion to and from Edward.  I found Luke's nerdiness and passion for his work to be incredibly endearing.  When fate brings the two together, the sparks fly, literally at times.  Throw in Luke's new Army bodyguard Chris and Chris's new lust/boyfriend Griff and you have quite a quad to be reckoned with.  I know that this is actually two separate stories, hence the term duology, but to me it's just one story that had me hooked from beginning to end.  The enemies the four face may not be totally from this world or plane of existence but they are definitely  real and will leave you screaming "WOW!" and "WTF?" more than once.  Okay, maybe Oracle is more mythology than paranormal, but for me there is just enough of a creepy/eerie factor to add it to my Halloween shelf.


Wolfsong by TJ Klune
Ox was twelve when his daddy taught him a very valuable lesson. He said that Ox wasn’t worth anything and people would never understand him. Then he left.

Ox was sixteen when he met the boy on the road, the boy who talked and talked and talked. Ox found out later the boy hadn’t spoken in almost two years before that day, and that the boy belonged to a family who had moved into the house at the end of the lane.

Ox was seventeen when he found out the boy’s secret, and it painted the world around him in colors of red and orange and violet, of Alpha and Beta and Omega.

Ox was twenty-three when murder came to town and tore a hole in his head and heart. The boy chased after the monster with revenge in his bloodred eyes, leaving Ox behind to pick up the pieces.

It’s been three years since that fateful day—and the boy is back. Except now he’s a man, and Ox can no longer ignore the song that howls between them.

Control by Mary Calmes & Cardeno C
Vy Aleknos is the leader of a hawk shifter flock. Openly gay since he was a teen, Vy is proud and self-assured on the outside, while secretly worrying he’ll be forced to spend his life alone because two males can’t be mates. When bear shifter Robert Cimino appears in Vy’s small town, Vy realizes his concerns were unfounded — he has a male mate, and a sexy, dominant one to boot.

Robert is a bear shifter who refuses to shift. Immediately attracted to Vy, he deviates from his normal pattern and seeks more than a one off with the powerful, bristly hawk. But Robert’s affections are rooted in his human form, and when Vy discovers Robert doesn't recognize him as his mate, he pulls away. If Robert wants to stay with Vy, he must convince a man deeply ruled by his animal instincts to give their relationship as humans a chance.

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Random Paranormal Tales 2016 Parts

Across the East River Bridge by Kate McMurray
“What the hell are you doing here?” Finn asked, letting his gaze travel over Troy’s infuriatingly handsome face. He rubbed his temples gently, trying to get the ache to ease.

Their gazes met briefly. Troy was still hot in a Clark Kent kind of way, his broad chest hidden under an eggplant-colored button-down shirt and matching tie, dark-rimmed glasses sitting on his nose, dark hair neatly combed. Finn silently lamented that his enemies had to come in such attractive packages.

Troy laughed. “It is lovely to see you again too. As it happens, I curate this house.”

Finn knew that Troy was working for the KCHS these days, but this promotion was news to him. “You’re kidding, right? I made an appointment with a woman named Genevieve.”

Troy’s grin was unnerving. “Genevieve is my assistant. She has been doing the tours lately, but when I saw that she’d made an appointment with one Christopher Finnegan, I decided I had to follow up myself.” He straightened the cuffs on his shirt, drawing attention to his big hands. “How are you, Finn?”

“Oh, just dandy. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were stalking me.”

“You give me too much credit.” Troy motioned for Finn to follow him into an office off the lobby. The room looked like the relic of the past that it was — given the ornate wallpaper, the thick curtains, and the severe-looking man in the painting on the wall — if you overlooked the brand-new laptop sitting on the intricately carved desk. There was a lot of clutter too; Troy had never been terribly organized. He clucked his tongue. “Or maybe you’re right. Obviously, I knew that you would one day be researching a project on nineteenth-century Brooklyn, so I quit my job at NYU to take a low-paying assistant curator job at the Kings County Historical Society in the hopes that one day I’d curate the museum in an old house the KCHS just acquired three months ago, knowing you’d want an appointment.”

“Shut up,” was the best witty rejoinder Finn could come up with. He blamed the headache.

Troy picked up a file folder from his desk and extracted a few sheets of paper. “This is the fact sheet,” he said, handing the paper to Finn. “That has all the same information as went into the press release we put out when we announced the museum’s opening, plus a few other facts that I thought the public might find interesting. The other two pages are a brief history of the building that I wrote up for the Historical Society. Was there something in particular you’re looking for?”

“My boss is researching Victoria Woodhull.”

Troy pursed his lips. “Are you sure you’re not stalking me?” He shook his head. “Right time period but otherwise wrong tree. Woodhull never lived in Brooklyn, as far as I know.”

Finn already suspected that this trip out to Brooklyn was a dead end. Woodhull had spent most of her years in New York in the same house in East Village, and the date Finn had been given for Woodhull’s supposed residence at the Brill House conflicted with the date she’d left for England to start over after she’d been ruined. Still, Loretta had insisted he check it out. Plus he didn’t want to waste the trip. “She spent time in the area. She gave speeches in Brooklyn, for sure one at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and it’s pretty well known that she befriended Theodore Tilton. He lived a few blocks from here, right? As did Henry Ward Beecher.”

Troy appeared to consider this. “I’ve spent the better part of the last two months poring over almost everything ever written about this house. If Victoria Woodhull had ever been here, I’d have run across her name. I’m pretty sure I haven’t yet.” He shrugged. “You want the tour anyway?”

Finn had come all the way into Brooklyn. “Sure, what the hell?”

Troy grabbed a small notebook from his desk. “Let’s go.”

He led Finn down the hall. Finn took a moment to check Troy out again; looking at him certainly stirred something in Finn. Troy had always been classically handsome, but whether it was his good looks or their long history together that got Finn’s blood pumping, it was hard to say. Probably a little of both. Finn found that frustrating; this would be so much easier if he could just get the information he needed and leave without having to think about all of this.

“We’re setting up exhibits on the first, second, and third floors. The fourth floor is the library, and the fifth floor is mostly storage. The third floor has a portrait gallery of famous residents of Victorian Brooklyn and a gallery of mediocre landscapes by Brooklyn artists, mostly the cast-offs of the main KCHS museum. Do you care about those?”

“Not especially.”

Troy nodded and continued walking toward a stairwell. He mounted the first step and said, “I want to add a photography gallery, but I’m still sorting through several boxes of prints from the KCHS archive. I’ll keep an eye out for Ms. Woodhull.”

“Thanks. What’s on the second floor?”

Troy smiled. “This is the real highlight of the museum, as far as I’m concerned. We’ve recreated what a building like this would have looked like in the 1870s. A lot of this furniture was in storage at the KCHS or other museums in the city, waiting for a home. Some of the pieces are really extraordinary.”

When they got to the second floor, Finn followed Troy into what looked like a bedroom. There was a grandiose four-poster bed off to the side with heavy green damask draped all around it. The bed was made of oak, Finn guessed, as was the ornate chest of drawers on the other side of the room.

“The building was originally constructed in 1868,” Troy said, flipping through pages in his notebook. “It was intended to be a single-family residence according to the plan, but from very early on, before 1872 at least, the owner rented out rooms on the upper floors. My guess is he needed the income from the boarders. At any rate, this was the master bedroom. It’s been many other things over the years, too, and this whole building was converted into apartments in the sixties, but this is our best guess for how the room would have looked when the first owner lived here. We had some floor plans and even a fuzzy photograph.”

Finn wondered if he should be taking notes. “You’ve had to do a lot of work on this room.”

“Yeah, in its last incarnation, this was a studio apartment with a kitchen and everything. We took out the kitchen. It’s been kind of fun, watching this house devolve into its original form. Like backward time-lapse photography.” Troy walked over to the bed and ran a finger up one of the posts. “The house is said to be haunted too.”

“Oh, please.”

“I’ve seen enough weird stuff that I can’t stay completely skeptical, let’s just say. There have been a number of documented ghostly occurrences here. A woman who lived here briefly in the forties kept a journal detailing her encounters with the spirits. Most of it’s classic haunted-house stuff. Strange noises, cold blasts of air, doors suddenly slamming shut. Interestingly, almost every account of paranormal activity here indicates that the ghosts are two men.”

“Okay.” Finn had run into many ghost stories over the years he’d been working as a researcher and thought most of the stories were pure nonsense. He humored Troy, though, who seemed to be enjoying himself. “Do you know anything about who the ghosts might be?”

“No one has ever specified, but I have a guess.” Troy’s eyes practically sparkled with excitement.

“Did the previous owners know?”

“No, but I don’t think they bothered to find out.”

Troy enjoyed drawing things like this out, Finn knew. He held out a hand and motioned for Troy to keep talking. “What’s your guess?”

“The first owner of this house was Theodore Cummings Brill. He was the youngest son of a large and moderately wealthy family. He and another man, George Washington Cutler, were found dead in this very bedroom in 1878.”

A shiver went up Finn’s spine. Someone had died in the room in which he was standing. “So that’s who you think is haunting this house?”

“Yes. The facts fit, given when the sightings started.” Troy walked closer to Finn. “I’m working on digging up causes of death. There was a story in the Times, but it was vague, saying only that the circumstances of their deaths were unusual. I’ve been piecing together other evidence, though.”

“And you have a theory. You always have a theory.”

“Suicide. Possibly murder-suicide, but I’m pretty sure they both took their own lives. Because they were gay.”

Finn rolled his eyes. “You always think everyone was gay. You bought that horseshit about Lincoln being gay. Sometimes there’s a simpler and much less biased explanation. What makes you think murder-suicide?”

“I can’t remember offhand. Something I read, a contemporary account of the crime, I think. It makes more sense than any other theory of the crime I’ve seen.” Troy rocked on his heels. “Some of the flooring is original. If you squint, you can still see the blood stains in the wood paneling on the floor.”

Finn shivered again. “Show me something else.” He left the room.

Troy’s shoes squeaked on the floor as he caught up to Finn. “The theory has merits.” He led Finn across the hall to another room. It had an elaborate sofa and a couple of chairs, everything Rococo revival. It was not a style Finn especially liked, but he knew it was popular in the 1870s. The upholstery on all of the pieces was beautiful, almost like new, except for a chaise longue in the corner that looked faded and worn.

Finn bent to take a closer look at the scrollwork on the sofa. Troy said, “This is the parlor. The furniture is mostly from the 1850s, but we had everything reupholstered, save for the chaise, obviously. The upholstery on the other pieces had disintegrated, but, I don’t know, I kind of like the old faded quality on the chaise. What do you think?”

“I agree. It looks kind of…soft and homey.” Finn meant it. He bet that chaise would be an excellent place to take a nap. Of course, thinking about that made Finn think about beds, and he had a sudden flash of Troy, hovering over him, naked. That certainly got his blood pumping. He coughed, trying to keep his body’s reaction to the memory at bay. He reminded himself that he didn’t like Troy much.

Half a Million Dead Cannibals by Kari Gregg
This wasn’t the first morning Riley awoke to Graham’s cock, carefully shielded behind twin layers of boxers, pressed into Riley’s ass. This wasn’t the first morning Riley had swum up from sleep to the prickle of Graham’s hand on his belly either. Graham usually woke eons before Riley did. Riley guessed the early hours were a carryover from Graham’s other life when he’d reported to job sites to pour concrete at dawn. Riley had been a waiter at Geo’s before the world ended. His flirty smile and pert ass had yielded bountiful tips from charmed customers, but those tips meant working late shifts at the club. The old Riley had rarely dragged his butt out of bed before noon.

Sometimes, Graham huddled with him under the blankets. As the days got shorter and colder, Graham wasn’t in a rush to exit a warm tent any faster than Riley. Spooned together, they shared body heat. The basement storage unit that sheltered them was insulated against the worst of mid-January’s arctic blast, so Riley and Graham were better off than other survivors in the city. As conventional heat sources ran out, people had foolishly and fatally risked exposure in search of scarce supplies to fight off hypothermia and secondary illnesses. None dared to build fires; smoke would draw zombies for miles. The emergency radio that consumed precious battery life to monitor every day had nonetheless crackled with pleas for medical supplies and fuel. Meanwhile, Riley and Graham snuggled together under toasty warm layers of sleeping bags.

It was three months after the plague. Neither of them talked about how little the radio chattered anymore.

And Graham lingered longer and longer in the cocoon of their bed.

This was the first morning Graham nuzzled Riley’s neck, though.

Riley squirmed, earning Graham’s open palm and splayed fingers at the top of his neatly trimmed treasure trail to hold him in place.

“You smell good.” Graham resumed sniffing Riley’s throat. “Why do you always smell so good?”

Because Riley made it his business to look good and smell fantastic, that’s why. As soon as they’d secured their shelter and acquired a source of fresh water on the roof of the building, Riley had started hoarding. Recon missions to forage supplies were fertile with opportunities to feel human again. A bottle of nail polish wasn’t much weight to carry, and once Graham acclimated to his survival buddy being gay, he’d tolerated and then indulged Riley’s quirks. That first sly bottle of nail polish had been followed by lotions to soften his dry skin, eyeliner, and shower gel that smelled like spice. What else was he supposed to do to fill the hours except shiver?

Graham read. For a blue-collar construction worker, the guy plowed through books like crazy--everything from spy thrillers to romance novels. Whatever books they’d found in the building, Graham read. And read. And read.

Riley invested his time in manicures, pedicures, and whatever else might consume the quiet hours. Anything to feel normal again.

“It’s the new shower gel,” Riley said. “You can use it too, if you want.”

Graham snorted, his hot breath tickling Riley’s neck.

Yeah, Riley hadn’t thought so either. Graham was the cake-of-soap kind. While Riley had been ecstatic at the home waxing kit he’d discovered in the apartments in the building above them, Graham had skipped shaving altogether. The bristle of his beard scraped Riley’s hypersensitive skin in the most delicious ways.

“You going to let me borrow your nail polish next, Riley?”

Graham wasn’t mean about it. Even in the beginning, his voice had never been cruel or cutting. He didn’t sneer like other men--especially gay men--had, even before the world went to hell. He’d been alternately fascinated with and mystified by Riley, and that was exactly how Riley liked it. “No. The nail polish is mine.” Smothering laughter, he elbowed Graham’s stomach. “Get your own.”

Graham grunted and continued those slow, steady strokes across Riley’s abdomen guaranteed to make Riley’s morning erection leak. He just petted Riley and held him, never pushing it further. Though Riley had repeatedly offered Graham his mouth and his ass, the man didn’t grope. Disappointing but not entirely surprising. Graham was straight, after all.

Riley never stopped hoping.

“I was up earlier,” Graham said. “Heard movement on the street when a crowd of them went after a stray dog.”

Riley shuddered. Abandoned by their owners when the plague hit, dogs were more dangerous than zombies these days. Packs hunted the streets for rats and other vermin after dark when the undead were less active, taking down whatever prey they cornered. Riley and Graham hadn’t dared leave the shelter after sunset in weeks. One less dog was great news. “Okay.”

“Walkers are slower now that it’s cold. They aren’t decomposing anymore, so most are still mobile, but even the newer zombies can’t run. I watched them take that dog down. A month ago, no problem, but they wouldn’t have managed to corner the dog today if it hadn’t been injured.”

Anxiety coiled in the stomach Graham caressed. “We’re too close to the harbor,” Riley said, returning to the same tired arguments. “There are too many of them between us and the suburbs.” Which would be worse. At least in the city, they had more places to hide. “We’ll never make it.”

“We can’t stay here.” Graham sighed into Riley’s neck. “If zombies don’t get us--”

“I know.”

And Riley did know. He’d spied the city with Graham from upper-story windows and watched occasional roaming herds of undead pack the streets below. He too had seen zombies swarm a shelter two blocks away. He and Graham had realized other survivors were nearby weeks ago, just as those survivors had doubtlessly been aware of them. They’d known, for instance, that those survivors had included kids, because a mom-and-pop grocery a block east had shelves denuded of crayons and cheap toys. Though Riley and Graham had searched, they hadn’t pinpointed the survivors’ location until zombies had massed around a bakery storefront last month. More and more infected had lurched from surrounding neighborhoods until they’d gathered hundreds if not thousands deep. Wood had cracked under the relentless pressure, and the sharp rat-a-tat of gunfire had joined the thunderous moaning of the infected. Then the screams.

That could’ve been him and Graham. If they stayed in the city, one day it would be.

Graham and Riley had learned to stay quiet. Neither of them had recognized how lucky they’d been when they’d scrambled down the basement stairs in the alley last fall. Riley had initially joined a group of survivors sprinting toward the harbor in hopes a boat might carry him out of the city. He hadn’t crossed more than a dozen blocks when he’d spotted columns of smoke billowing to spoil the sky above where the docks should be.

The harbor was lost.

Staying with that group would’ve only gotten him dead faster. The others made too much noise, attracting zombies like a clamoring dinner bell. So he’d split away, fleeing down a side street. Riley had squeezed into a skinny opening between buildings to escape, and once the horde had cleared, he’d shuffled side to side in the tight space until the opening widened.

A six-and-a-half-foot mountain of a guy had crushed the skull of a lone zombie while Riley stumbled from the narrow gap into an alley. That man--Graham--had pivoted at the new threat, crowbar already swinging.

Unlike other survivors whose clothes had been splashed with blood and gore, Riley’s Sweet & Sassy work T-shirt had gleamed white, and that was what had saved his life. Zombies weren’t clean. Zombies were bloody, gruesome, and gross. Survivors too. They fired guns and pummeled with weapons, which spattered blood swimming with contagion that seeped into the slightest paper cut. Graham avoided infection by wearing countless layers of clothes, hats, and gloves that covered him from head to steel-toed foot, and he stripped off any contaminated layers as soon as he destroyed a zombie he couldn’t flee from. Riley was smart. He didn’t fight. He ran, and because he was quick, he hadn’t been infected by a bite or spattered in gore battling the undead.

Graham had shifted off-balance to deflect the blow he’d directed at Riley. They’d both winced at the clang of metal hitting the brick building inches over Riley’s undented skull. The racket was sure to attract zombies moaning on the main thoroughfare.

“Here.” Graham had jerked his chin at a pair of Dumpsters partially blocking a set of gritty steps leading down.

They’d scrambled for the stairs and hunkered there. Panting, hearts pounding, they’d waited, but easier prey on the street kept them safe. Graham had used the crowbar to pry open the door at the bottom of the stairs, and they’d crept warily into the dark of the basement.

They’d never left it.

Why leave? The basement was dirty and dank, but also defendable. The space had been sectioned into compartments accessible by a hall with all the doors locked with sturdy dead bolts. The section they’d found was the storeroom of a bar. Cases of beer and boxes of liquor reached as high as Riley’s shoulders, and at six feet, Riley wasn’t short. A narrow path through the boxes led to a walk-in cooler. Someone--something--pounded on the door to get out, but the door to the bar upstairs had been barricaded. All was quiet on the other side. No zombies streaked down the hallway leading to the other rooms after they’d pried the door wide to explore the rest of the basement either.

Best of all, the few windows and doors to the dangerous outside world had been boarded up, an oddity Riley had puzzled over until they’d cracked open the residential storage unit at the center of the basement. Armed with a baseball bat fetched from the bar’s storeroom, Riley had swung at the flash of motion that emerged. The unit’s thick, insulated walls had hidden a family of five, each of them infected. He and Graham had fought for frantic minutes, but no matter how close they both had come to dying, Riley had been grateful for that doomed family for three solid months. Their disaster preparations had saved his and Graham’s lives. Once they’d caved in the family’s heads and taken care of the zombie in the walk-in cooler, they’d stripped and disposed of the clothes they’d fought in. Better safe than sorry. Then they’d examined one another for contagious blood spatter. They’d doused their hands and splashed their faces with liquor from the bar.

They’d both already learned the wisdom of paranoia.

But they’d avoided infection. The area was secure--better than secure. They had a fortified shelter. The family’s storage unit had been outfitted with camping gear to operate as an inner bunker. They had cisterns on the roof to collect rainwater with cases of bottled water as backup. They had an emergency radio and food. They even had a gun and boxes of shells. Noisy gunfire attracted zombies for miles, of course, but Graham still kept the 9 mm tucked into the waistband of his jeans. Just in case.

They’d lasted three months thanks to that infected family’s small stock of supplies, but also because they’d stayed quiet. Deathly quiet. When herds of zombies shambled into their block, climbing through broken windows in the bar and the souvenir shop occupying the building’s street level, he and Graham closed the door on the storage unit and waited the swarm out. Same for the survivors who’d broken in to steal liquor last month.

They were surrounded and outnumbered.

So they stayed silent and invisible.

It was the only way.

“Leaving the city is our best shot,” Graham said.

Riley knew that too, but he wriggled against Graham’s crotch anyway.

Graham’s grip halted him. “You gotta piss?”

Riley scowled over his shoulder. “No.”

Graham’s lips curved. “Then stop.”

When Graham smacked his ass, Riley jerked. “Hey!”

“Always thinking with your dick,” Graham grumbled, but he didn’t move away. He never did.




“Focus, Riley.” Graham snickered. “We need to leave the city.”

Riley scowled because Graham also looped his arm tighter around Riley’s stomach. How could the man expect Riley to be capable of rational thought while those fingertips played with the springs of hair that he had left after painful hours of manscaping? Graham hadn’t toyed with his body hair until Riley had removed most of it, so the temporary hurt had been worth his trouble, at least. The man was attracted to him. Just not attracted enough. Trying to distract him too. Trying? No, succeeding. Graham was no fool. He knew how to sway Riley to get what he wanted.

Too bad Riley wouldn’t make it that easy. “If we wait another month,” he mumbled, arching into Graham’s warm hand, “when it’s colder--”

“The others will find us by then.” Graham patted Riley’s abdomen. “They’re foraging more thoroughly and in our direction now, building by building.”

Riley’s breath caught.

“They don’t accept intruders in their territory. Or squatters. You saw what they did.”

No, Riley hadn’t seen. He’d refused to see. He’d slapped his hands over his ears and squeezed his eyes shut when a blond just a few years older than him had been tossed, bound and naked, into the street--their street. He hadn’t heard the taunting catcalls and shouts to draw the zombies to the fresh prey either.

He most definitely had not heard the blond’s agonized screams.

He would go right on not hearing it for the rest of his life.

“So,” Graham said, fingering the hair on Riley’s stomach, “you’re going to pick your favorite nail polish and lip gloss. Stash them and one other luxury item in your pack. You’ll dress in formfitting layers, nothing loose that zombies can grab. We’ll leave in half an hour. All right?”

Riley gulped. The last thing he wanted to do was hike open ground. What if Graham was hurt? Killed? What if they met friendlier survivors, and Graham decided Riley was too much trouble and didn’t want him anymore? But life had stopped asking what Riley wanted when the plague struck three months ago. They’d done well to make it as long as they had in the city, where other survivors competing for dwindling resources had become as dangerous as the undead. No matter how much his gut knotted at leaving the basement that had sheltered them, Riley knew Graham was right. Leaving was their only chance.


Oracle: The Complete Collection by RJ Scott
Oracle #1
When he was nine, Alex Sheridan, the boy with new parents and no memories, disappeared.

The bullying had started on hour one, of day one. The new boy with the curious accent and stilted English carried strange scars on his body. Some said he had gotten them in a fire. Others suspected that he had done them to himself. Alex never deliberately showed the scars to anyone, but physical education and the changing rooms meant even he couldn't keep all his secrets hidden.

There was a group of boys—bigger, stronger, and crueler than Alex could ever be—that made his life miserable. Their favorite torture was to corner him and taunt him and pinch him and he would cry. He was crying for the pain and the humiliation and for the utter terror that coursed through his thin body. He never told anyone; his new mom and dad could well send him away and he didn't remember where he even came from. What if it was worse than here? What if the scars were from some terrible monster that clawed and bayed and wanted his blood?

"No sense in hiding in here, freak." Tim was the eldest and by far the meanest of them all. He was broad and tall for a ten-year-old and he thrived on the attention that making Alex cry got him.

"Which stall is he in?"

"Did he run in here?"

"Try the end one."

Alex curled into a smaller space, his feet up on the toilet, the door shut and locked. The lock itself was loose and could not actually keep out a group of kids intent on finding their target. He was crying so hard that there was no sound, only soul-destroying shaking that wracked his body.

Please. Please. Help me. Leave me alone.

He chanted over and over.

Someone find me and help me.

They were coming closer. Alex hadn't thought of what door to enter but it was the farthest point and the last cubicle.

They found him.

"You in there, freak? Gonna make sure you don't run again." Tim's voice was backed up with boisterous laughter and Alex could picture every single one of them banging on the door. The burning in his stomach was so painful he pulled his legs up tighter hoping to make it disappear, but instead the intensity increased. The prickle of pain travelled down his legs and through his arms and his vision blurred. He couldn't see anything properly, and his fear grew and grew as everything turned hazy and grey. He was dying here in the bathroom. Dying as sure as being hit by a car or falling out of his bedroom window. His head pounded as the door rocked and the lock started to loosen from its tiny ineffectual screws.


Alex rocked and shut his eyes tightly as the lock splintered from the flimsy wood and suddenly the boys were there. Tim and his friends who made Alex's life a living hell were far too close. Forcing his eyes open to see them, he braced for the first blow. But nothing came. Instead Tim was peering into the cubicle with a puzzled expression, and behind him his friends were looking over his shoulder straight at Alex.

"Where is he?" One of the less timid friends thought it a good idea to question Tim. Not a good idea as Tim swiveled on his feet and pushed the boy back.

"Fucking freak locked the door and crawled out under it."

"So where is he?"

"We'll find him."

The noise of the boys, a bickering laughing group of hate, dissipated and finally Alex was left alone in the cubicle. The heat in his skin and the prickle of pain in his veins was manageable now.

Why didn't they see me? They looked straight in at me, but right through me, as if I wasn't here.

He checked his arm, the faint scar that wrapped its way down to his wrist and the shapes of letters or designs that stretched when he flexed his muscles. The burning wasn't inside him, it was in the scars.

Was he invisible? Why didn't they see him? He could see himself, so why couldn't they?

"Something inside me," he murmured. It kept me invisible to them.

He clambered down from the toilet, grimacing at the dampness on the seat of his pants. He crossed to the mirror and stared.

There was nothing in the mirror. No gangly young kid with snot and tears marking his face. Nothing.

Slowly he breathed. In. Out. In. Out. And gradually his form returned. Not in a freaky way where his face appeared then an arm, no this was slow and steady and one minute he wasn't there, the next he was.

Years later, his first lover, Edward, would ascribe a name to this party trick that left Alex exhausted. He called it phasing and said Alex was almost stepping into another time stream for a while, into a different plane.

So that explained that.

What it didn't clarify was the way Alex could alter physical processes or mess with mechanisms. Neither did it give reasons for how Alex could see inside people, into their heads and their hearts and perceive what was really inside them.

Through touch he was able to feel them.

Which was why, besides Edward, he never really touched anyone unless he could put into place mental barriers strong and steady enough to stop the overwhelming flood of information and emotion.

Because this flood? It terrified him and it hurt.

Chapter 1
"She's beautiful," Alex said. He looked up at the façade of the British Museum and couldn't help smiling. Whenever his work took him away from the US to England he was struck by the splendor of the place in front of him and the nature of its design. There was a comfortable familiarity in its white columns whenever he stood there in its shadow.

"She is," Edward said softly. He moved to stand beside Alex and waited. He was always happy to allow Alex a few minutes with the view in front of them. Alex didn't need to have empathic senses to see his lover was still firmly focused on the plan for tonight in his head. Edward was the worrier, the one who ensured plans were intricate and timed to perfection. What Edward saw when he looked at the museum differed greatly from his own view. Where Alex noticed beauty and architecture and glimpses of dreams that plagued his sleep, Edward observed opportunity and thievery. Not that Alex didn't also appreciate how much money could be made from a well-timed lift of an artifact. He was, after all, one part of the two-man team that was responsible for the removal of many a relic from behind glass. Thievery was his livelihood. He wondered if the criminal streak ran in his family, his real family, like it did in Edward's.

Edward's own great-great-uncle had been responsible for the removal of artifacts from all over the world to place in the cold halls of the museum, including being part of the team responsible for the Elgin Marbles debacle. It was a point of controversy whether museums should be allowed to possess artifacts taken from other countries, and the British Museum was a notable target for criticism. A point Edward chose not to focus on in his determination to get the job done.

"Are you ready?" Edward asked.

Alex flexed his thoughts and scanned the façade once more, and with a blink he nodded. Yes. He was ready.

Alex knew the exact positions and security measures surrounding the Elgin Marbles, the Benin Bronzes, and the Rosetta Stone, three of the most disputed objects in the museum's collections. He and Edward would both have liked the high of lifting any of those items but thievery on that scale simply wasn't practical. Fencing high profile goods such as those would be fraught with the problem of getting caught, something neither Alex nor Edward cared to entertain. He cast a quick look at Edward who was looking directly at him with fondness clear in his expression.

Edward de Chauncey, Earl of Enstone, was dressed to the nines to blend in with his contemporaries, and he looked stunningly handsome in the black and white. Slim and spare, he was the epitome of sophistication and British reserve. He fit in well at these gatherings where people with money paid a premium to attend private viewings.

Where Edward was comfortable in his tux Alex was just plain miserable. Damn thing was killing him. Tight and restricting, the jacket felt maybe a little too snug across his broad shoulders, the trousers stiff and unyielding. He wasn't born to wear these things; he was born to wear jeans and T-shirts in hot Californian sunshine, not penguin suits in the frigid English weather. It wasn't as if the getup kept him warm either as he stood and stared at Edward.

"Alex. Quit with the staring. Freak," Edward said. The words were uttered under his breath with little heat, and he grinned that wide grin that Alex was so fond of. He turned almost immediately to mingle with other wealthy patrons who were waiting to move inside, slipping effortlessly into the role society placed on him. Alex smiled at his lover's words and pulled himself out of his musings. Slipping a socially acceptable expression firmly down over his face, he moved to stand at Edward's side, the faithful partner, the other half of the successful antiquities company Azure.

He was fiercely proud to accompany Edward, his lover was so handsome, so confident, and so very clever. Tonight Edward's short hair was spiked and gelled to perfection and his dark brown eyes, framed with sooty lashes, were alive with expectation. They were a team in life and a team at work. Alex always deferred to Edward in matters of social niceties; he was the expert at getting them into places, using his name and his connections. It was once they were inside that Alex took care of the rest.

As the crowd of patrons moved into the museum, Alex followed Edward's example; he nodded and air-kissed, laughed flirtatiously with society matrons, blushed when people commented on his cute American accent, and all around sold himself as slightly simple and wholly innocent. Every second that he talked though, he catalogued things in his head, things people would never consciously realize, let alone categorize. Details of jewelry and its worth shuffled into discreet sections in his mind even as he skimmed the rooms for cameras and security, already completely aware of escape routes, windows, and obstacles. There was an ability ingrained in him to know at every given instant the way his surroundings were laid out.

Edward had always envied Alex's skill in that arena, commented on it, and called it Alex's special ability, with the emphasis on 'special', which always earned him a shove when he said it.

Edward's position in the complicated British aristocracy gave Alex that all-important social 'in' that a smart boy from California didn't automatically have. After all, it wasn't everyone who had after-hours access to the British Museum, nor, in particular, to the reading room and the new exhibition that was the evening's centerpiece and target; The First Emperor exhibition. Dedicated to China's Terracotta Army, it was a special showing, a one-off, for a limited time. The object he and Edward had been tasked to obtain was only in the building for two occasions; yesterday's royal visit, and the evening champagne reception for those who could afford it, in other words, for people who knew people.

"Edward, my dear boy, how the devil are you?"

Alex stiffened at the words from behind him and sighed inwardly. A florid, portly man who always looked down at Alex like the young American was a bad smell under his nose, Lord Arriseth was something akin to Alex's nemesis. The old aristo certainly disapproved of his godson Edward's relationship with this 'foreign man', as he described Alex, and never failed to remind Alex of the fact. What concerned Alex was that even with the distinct superiority complex Arriseth held like a blanket around him, he still spent an inordinately long time staring at both Alex and Edward. Alex couldn't get a true or clear sense of why the man did. Alex had long ago consigned it to the fact that the older lord was well and truly in the closet and lived vicariously through his godson and the hick lover from California. Alex tensed, but then caught Edward's pleading gaze for peace just before the older man determinedly placed himself between Edward and Alex, effectively cutting Alex off.

Alex really didn't know why Edward worried that he would rise to Arriseth's goading, he would never actually say his piece to the blustery old fool. Especially considering that Edward was Arriseth's godson. Added to which Arriseth was actually the one who had supplied the couple with the rare-as-gold tickets for the evening's event. What made Alex smirk was the fact that Arriseth's family had risen fewer than three generations ago from its roots in Greece and Spain, which made him one of the foreigners he so detested. Thoughts like those kept Alex amused during boring receptions and stuffy teas. Those, and the tingle of excitement at what he was going to achieve when the time was right, while the stodgy and unknowing milled and preened. He could feel the energy sparking inside him, the focus he needed to accomplish tonight's lift coiling tightly along his spine.

Alex tuned back in to what Arriseth was saying. "So I said no, because, really it simply isn't done, you know. Oh, and some chap with some Scottish surname is here tonight, some kind of expert on ancient languages. Bennington says he's here to do some translations on the location manuscripts sent over from the Chinese embassy."

Half listening to Arriseth and his name-dropping, Alex scanned the crowd on the steps around the exhibits, finding the usual people: a few celebrities, London's elite, and him. The absurdity of the situation made him laugh; if they only knew the real Alex they would throw him out, way out, of this rarefied air. Curious about what others might be discussing he moved toward a group standing in a side aisle, a shadowed alcove filled with statuary and artifacts. He had an hour to kill, may as well find out what was happening around him, see what information he could pick up, drink his glass of champagne, and flirt a bit with society matrons.

He'd taken only three steps when something struck him as not quite right. A sensation started as a prickle at the back of his neck, a singular pressing awareness that someone was watching him. Alex settled his breathing and placed the champagne flute on the nearest table. Using the action as a cover he looked carefully around him. Alex had grown accustomed to being watched, since he didn't tend to blend into crowds.

Somehow though, this felt distinctly different; this was that kind of speculative observation that made Alex's awareness rise as soon as he sensed he was the center of someone's attention. He caught Edward's gaze; Edward who was staring at Alex with concern, a nervous-looking Edward who frowned at the faint uneasiness that Alex was sure showed on his face. Alex shrugged and smiled; don't worry, both his expression and his body language relaying reassurance to his partner, and continued his inspection of the room.

His gaze finally focused on the shadows flanking, and partially obscuring, the last exhibit in the tour. A tall figure leaned against the column two to the left of the exhibit case. The same prickle of expectation slid across his shoulders even as Alex made his way toward the person observing him, picking up two champagne flutes from a passing waiter and sliding into the shadows easily. He nodded in recognition of the other's stare and offered his counterpart the second flute of champagne. Without a word the man nodded, placed the empty glass he had been holding on the rear corner of the display table, and accepted Alex's offering. Not a word passed between them as they each sipped a measure of the Brut, appraising each other as they did so.

"Good turnout," Alex offered neutrally, endeavoring to get some sense of the man who stood there, attempting to decipher what caused the tingle of awareness inside him. He was tall, maybe only a few inches shorter than Alex's six-two, and broad-shouldered. He had loosened his tie and there was a disheveled look about him. Alex sensed some discomfort in the man, but other than that there was nothing. It was confusing. He couldn't get a proper sense of the man in front of him, couldn't see more than vague shadows of the person he was. There was no chance of getting any more specifics without touching him. Because he was intensely primed to finish the evening's task swiftly and successfully, he knew it wouldn't be a good thing to distract himself by attempting to get a clearer reading. Instead he focused on the physical and on the man's expression. With deep brown eyes, smoky eyelashes, and skin kissed by the sun, the man was stunning to look at. He had nicked himself shaving and the small mark marred his otherwise flawless skin. His nose held a small indentation where Alex assumed glasses usually sat, and he was staring right back at Alex throughout the entire appraisal.

"Very good turnout," brown-eyes returned, just as carefully, sipping at the champagne and leaning back against the column again, his face in the shadows. The voice was as American as apple pie and had the lazy tone of a southern boy. Interesting.

"Alex Sheridan." Alex took the initiative, holding out his hand in greeting, automatically raising and strengthening his barriers to the potential overload to his senses a casual handshake was likely to cause. The man didn't hesitate; his gaze focused on the proffered hand, moving slightly out of the shadows to take it firmly.

"Luke MacKinnon," he introduced himself, grasping Alex's hand. He paused in the handshake then twisted Alex's wrist to examine the beginnings of the markings peeking out from under the white shirt cuff.

"Interesting tattoo, Mr. Sheridan," he commented, releasing Alex's hand.

Alex shrugged, allowing his shirtsleeve to fall over the worst of the black lines. He wasn't ashamed of the tattoos climbing and twisting across his skin. Far from it, they were stunning in design and a part of him. However, Luke's soft American voice had sounded far too interested, indeed, almost possessive. Now was not the time for Alex to be making a show or to draw attention to himself. That single touch during the handshake was enough for Alex to feel a small amount of something about this Luke.

A hesitant mix of suspicion and questions hovered inside the brown-eyed man. Then when he'd twisted Alex's hand and had examined the very end of the tattoo as it rested on his wrist bones, it was a sensory shock. Alex could almost taste the suspicion rise in the man. It was unnerving, and Alex went for the same answer he gave anyone who commented on his tattoos.

"College pledges," Alex said, tapping his little finger against the crystal flute. Not that he had actually ever attended college for any more than a year. "Misspent youth," he added as the other man leaned back against the pillar, retreating once again into the shadows. Luke MacKinnon's gaze had moved from interested and alert to closed.

"You should come see me before I leave London," Luke said. He inclined his head, indicating thought. "I can suggest many more tattoos in the same ancient Greek vein. If you want to relive your misspent youth, that is?" His voice was colder than the cautious civility he had displayed before, his eyes still in shadows, and his mouth set in a straight line.

Alex felt a shiver run down his spine; this guy had seen what—three inches of the tattoo that wound around his entire torso, and with only those to go on he had pinned the language as Greek, and added to that, actually identified it as ancient Greek?

Not only that, but as a touch empath, Alex had felt the change in MacKinnon's demeanor like a cold thud against his chest. What had caused MacKinnon's posture to stiffen and his beautiful deep brown eyes to narrow? It wasn't a reaction Alex had seen before in others he had touched, no one usually flinched when he came in contact with them.

"If you will excuse me, I need to find my partner," Alex offered.

Luke nodded. Evidently he wasn't saying anything else.

After placing his still-full flute on the display table alongside MacKinnon's empty glass, Alex pulled himself to his full height, murmured a polite, socially neutral good evening, and left without a backward glance. He could sense Luke's gaze following him and he frowned slightly. He needed a clear head and within ten seconds Alex refocused on the task at hand. He had a job to do.

Looking down at his watch, the tail of his arm and wrist tattoo touching the platinum band, he snapped his concentration back into the room and away from the very perceptive man in the shadowed corner. He had fifteen minutes to achieve what had taken days to plan; the item he intended to 'acquire' was particularly well protected with security measures that could prove difficult. The inevitable 'crowd mingle' at events such as the current one provided an excellent opportunity to slip away unnoticed. He rejoined Edward, made his excuses to search for the men's room and, seeing the spark of amusement and excitement in his lover's eyes, hesitated for a heartbeat.

A successful 'relocation', as Alex termed it, was guaranteed to result in a night of heavy lovemaking. The passion for the edge, both of excitement and of fear that Alex possessed, translated well into lust. Edward knew his part, did his bit, leaning in to bite a kiss into Alex's lips, and as Alex pulled back he saw excitement mirrored in Edward's eyes. With a soft smile that promised much, Alex patted Edward firmly on the chest and left the main hall. For a moment he rested against a wall, clearing the last of the crowd's noise from his perceptions and trained his attention ahead.

He successfully navigated the labyrinth of corridors linking the main hall to both the restrooms and the quiet, distant room that held the items he had really come to see: the manuscripts found in the tomb of the emperor. In particular Alex was interested in the scroll detailing the building of the tomb. It lay hidden away in a safe in side room 104A, awaiting translation. Alex came to a halt outside of the restrooms, both looking and listening for the sound of anyone approaching. Then he focused his internal energy on the camera that was scanning the hallway in sweeping, regular movements. Tracing back he could envision the wires inside that connected it to the wall. He nudged gently with his mind and watched as the camera turned away from him on a slow arc. Cautiously, he eased down the corridor and around the corner to the end door, marked Authorized Personnel Only, with its palm print-activated entry keypad.

Carefully, Alex placed the flat of his hand against the keypad, feeling the tension of awareness in the small of his back and the pit of his stomach as energy surged from him and into the mechanics of the door, overriding alarms with binary assurances his handprint resided in the appropriate database. The snick as the door opened sounded loud in the empty corridor. Alex froze, listening again in case someone had heard and was rushing to arrest him. Since he heard and sensed nothing he slid inside and pulled the door shut behind him.

Locating the safe took exactly forty-three seconds, then several more to disengage the security, maybe ten seconds to view and withdraw the item. The precious jeweled carvings and other items inside were ignored. As he left the room he half folded then slid the flat papers in their protective covers into his inside jacket pocket, hiding them in a fake lining that meant no one could see them at a casual glance. In exactly five minutes and seven seconds, if anyone had been counting, Alex Sheridan returned to his place at Edward's side, insinuating himself into small talk and smiling and nodding in all the right places. Only the quick squeeze of Edward's fingers around his betrayed his lover's emotions.

Within half an hour the couple had made their excuses and had embarked on the trip home. Alex smiled as Edward let out a 'yes' of complete excitement as Alex floored their small convertible and sped away from the museum. Alex felt little guilt at what he and Edward did; ninety-five percent of their business was legitimate, inside the law. As for the final five percent: the 'relocations', the acquisitions, the items not for public display, to be spirited away to private collections, well, if he used his strange powers to make money, sue him. Alex had everything he wanted, money, a fantastic home, and the love Edward gave him.

One day Alex might be able to lower his barriers and love Edward as deeply and completely as Edward loved him. He wished he thought of Edward as more than just a friend he loved.

One day.

Listening to his lover talk at him over the noise of the engine was calming and wrapped him in security, and he felt the lust build inside him as the high of adrenaline started to flood his body. He took a hand from the wheel, grabbing for Edward's hand and returning his smile. Life was good, damn good.

"Do you know how much I want you right now?" Edward said with a low growl, moving a hand to rest on Alex's thigh, his fingers close enough to put pressure on Alex's already hard sex.

"Jeez." Alex squirmed as Edward played with the zipper of his dress pants, slipping those damn clever fingers under the black material, smiling as he found Alex commando.

"Tonight, I am gonna make you scream, Mr Sheridan."

Book of Secrets #2
Chapter 1
"The best way to remain in the museum after it closes to the public is to be inside before it closes," Alex Sheridan said. He paused for a moment to allow Chris to have his say but the other man said nothing. Alex was relieved Chris didn't immediately argue but he also wasn't entirely sure how he was going to manage the feat he had just stated as fact. He just had the feeling that if he said the words convincingly enough then he would be able to find a way to make this happen. Chris Samuels, his friend, ex-US Army lieutenant, and now mastermind of their little team, probably imagined every worst-case scenario possible. That was just what he did.

Chris sat back in his chair and crossed his legs at the ankles. Tapping a rhythm on the table in the restaurant, he narrowed his gaze.

"I've done the Ashmolean before, you know," Alex added helpfully. Griff snorted a laugh and Alex turned to look at the man sitting next to him, wondering if he should issue a snappy comeback. How else was he supposed to say it?

Griff shook his head and looked away at the waiters walking quietly between tables with plates of cakes and sandwiches and pots of hot water for tea.

"You've done it?" Chris said. His tone was derisive and his voice carried a note of laughter. "Is that what you call stealing from one of the oldest museums in England? And was that before or after you fell in a pit of fire and lost all your freaky powers?" Chris asked the questions casually but there was a hint of warning underlying them.

"Chris has a point," Griff added. "You may well have 'done the Ashmolean before' but we keep coming back to the fact that if you go for this today you will be going in blind."

Alex turned back to look across the street from their table in the Randolph Hotel. The Ashmolean Museum was a gorgeous building, almost as pretty as the British Museum in London, with columns inspired by ancient Greece. Tourists of all nationalities grouped around the museum, the hotel, spilling onto the busy road and posing for photos while chatting excitedly. Alex couldn't hear them, merely see their wild gesticulations and the smiles on their faces. Here inside the hotel everything was subdued and quietly respectful with a rarefied air. Around twenty people sat scattered in informal groups around the high-ceilinged room. There were no more than one hundred steps between here and the museum, and Alex could picture each footfall in his mind. The carved marble in his jacket was a heavy enough weight to remind him of what was at stake to make his observations of distance and obstacles acutely relevant.

"Can't you, just this time, walk in and simply place the thing where someone in authority can find it?" This came from Griff who, based on the tone of his voice, still couldn't comprehend what drove Alex to do what he did.

"I took it in stealth, I want to replace it the same way," Alex said. He was completely aware of how stubborn he sounded. Not even Luke completely understood why Alex pushed himself into situations like this. How could he explain that he felt alive when he danced with danger and the risk of discovery? Or that, at the moment of replacing the item he had originally stolen, the flood of memories of how he used to be was like the high from some drug.

"So what do you plan to do?" Chris interrupted his thoughts. He and Alex had talked about everything at length. Quite possibly he was the only other one who really got the rush of adrenaline. As a black ops soldier he'd been in war zones where even breathing was damned dangerous. He knew.

"Play it by ear. Visit and decide where it goes, then hide." Saying the words made everything appear so matter-of-fact.

"You make it sound so simple. You're six foot two and it's not like you blend with the crowd. They have extra security on Guy Fawkes Night and probably some kind of watch list."

"I've never been on any watch lists. Whatever I stole no one ever knew it was me," Alex defended. That was true. Still, before the fire and the loss of all his 'powers', for want of a better word, he could have walked into any museum and moved cameras, played with people's heads, even disappeared into what Edward had called 'other space'. Now he was stuck just being normal and no one outside of his head could understand the frustration.

Griff stood in a flurry of motion and with a barely hidden sigh of exasperation. "Let's just get on with it," he said.

At a more leisurely pace Alex stood and stretched tall. The restaurant was set up for afternoon tea and it was quiet enough for their small corner to be private but it was a different matter outside the old building. Stepping out into St Giles, dodging buggies and camera-wielding tourists, they finally managed to get across the road when the lights changed and ended up at the bottom of the steps. Even though some daylight remained, there was the hint of smoke in the air and the autumnal wind carried with it the expectation of the firework displays that would be widespread tonight.

The last time there had been a great theft from the Ashmolean had been New Year's Eve night over ten years ago. Alex couldn't claim responsibility for that, but he knew who had carried out the audacious theft of the Cézanne. Even to this day Alex agreed that using the noise of fireworks to drown out the sounds of the theft was ingenious. He'd never had to employ tools like that before. The very fact thefts existed, executed by people without the abilities he used to have, meant he had a template he could work from if he needed. The security would probably be tighter tonight; the museum would have learned from their loss. On the flip side they would not be expecting anyone to try the same thing again, let alone someone replacing a missing artifact.

Alex glanced across at Chris, who nodded in return. There was a way of doing this. Chris and Griff visited, Alex staying a little behind, and they simply walked the museum, enjoying great artifacts of the past. They touched what they were allowed to, and stood and admired what they couldn't. Chris and Griff gathered intel, but mostly they were just there to case for escape points if Alex were to need a way out. Alex wandered around by himself, deliberately avoiding the Greece display where the tablets were held until very close to the end of his tour. He was adept at making it appear he was part of a group, always tagging along with others and even initiating conversation. All the while he watched and learned.

A new display of Roman pieces found in a field just outside Bicester made him curious, and he leaned in to check out the arrangement of it all. Coins, a helmet, and several knives without hilts were shown to their best advantage in glass presentation cases and his fondness for all things Roman made it easy to linger a while until the next group swept by and took him with them. He considered the taller glass cabinets under the bridge that connected the art displays with the atrium and the marble statues, and imagined the way down from that height in the staggered cases. They formed a natural staircase that dropped three feet at a time. He was a fit, agile man, and even without his powers he would be able to make very short work of getting down to floor level. Much better than the security teams he had scouted the previous night, all of whom appeared to be fit and healthy but maybe a little complacent with the routine of it all.

Alex made his way through the middle area until finally he arrived in the area labeled Ancient Greece and stood directly in front of a beautiful display of various Grecian artifacts. The glass of the surrounding cabinets was lit in a muted glow and the tablet itself hung suspended by near-invisible clear plastic hooks that encased it from top to bottom. What was left was stunningly beautiful and intrigued the greatest minds. The part in Alex's jacket had been the fifth piece of five that was a special order. He had never understood why the man who bought his and Edward's skills only wanted one part of the five-part puzzle but his was not to reason why. They had stolen it six years before and no one had anything linking it to them. Nor had the museum publicized the theft, not after the loss of the Cézanne a few years before.

The plaque explained the history of the piece and he was engrossed when he caught movement reflected in the glass; someone stood behind him. He imagined from the invasion of his personal space that it was Chris or Griff. There had to be a reason why they had broken protocol and connected with him, and with a wash of concern he turned to face the person to his side.

"Alex Sheridan," the man acknowledged. Alex didn't immediately react. He couldn't. Shorter than Alex by five or so inches, the man was dressed casually in jeans and a jacket with a backpack slung over his shoulder and his eyes hidden behind shades. To all intents and purposes he appeared nothing more than a tourist strolling the corridors of history. Just like Alex.

"Dragan," Alex replied softly. For a second they simply stared at each other then Dragan pushed his glasses up into his scruffy hair. Piercing amber eyes looked at him and a flood of memories pushed Alex back a step. The last time he and Dragan Jovanovic had met it had been Alex with the upper hand. Alex who left with the artifact. Alex who made the money. Dragan had been the one left with nothing but the bitterness of being defeated by a man he had nicknamed 'Ghost'.

"Ghost." He inclined his head. "It's been a long time." His voice was that curious mix of Serbian and American that was a product of a European birth and an education at Harvard. An ex-member of the Serbian art theft team known as The Pink Panthers, he was, to Alex's knowledge, one of the only ones who'd outlived their mafia supporters. He'd been gone a long time. Five, maybe six years. Alex had thought him dead.

"Why are you here?" Alex asked quickly. The group he had attached himself to was exclaiming in loud voices over the perfect physique of a carved marble statue of Apollo and was steadily moving away. Too soon Alex would be standing on his own in the middle of the room talking to someone Interpol had on their art theft list. Not good. Really not good. A sharp pain travelled from one temple to another and he tensed at the familiar sensation. Now was not a good time for one of his regular migraines to make an appearance.

"Same as you I imagine," Dragan said with a smirk.


"Firework night. Quite a precipitous night. Don't you agree?"

The chatting from Alex's retreating cover group was lessening and Alex had to move if he wanted to stay firmly under the radar. Rooted to the spot he couldn't move nor take his eyes off Dragan.

"I'm replacing everything I stole," Alex said quickly.

"So I heard. You and your Lord and your soldier and the man who knows languages. Luke MacKinnon? Some kind of anti-thieving team I think? And he is your partner, this Luke?"

"He has nothing to do with what I am undertaking here."

"I am sure he doesn't, but I think he soon will." With this cryptic statement and a civil nod of his head, Dragan walked away as if he had all the time in the world and as if he wasn't carrying a pistol under his jacket.

Shit. How do I know he was carrying a gun? Why can I visualize the gun? Why can I sense the shape of it when it's hidden? Why does he have a gun? Why does my head hurt?

Hell, why didn't the Ashmolean have some kind of anti-terror security scanner? Dragan wasn't the kind of man who had a gun without the intention of using it. Didn't the Brits take anything seriously? Calming his breathing, Alex considered his options. Dragan being here, in the vicinity, with a gun, and some kind of intention to carry out a theft, was a very large spanner in the works. The attention of the police could be raining down on them, especially if Dragan used the damned gun.

What do I do? Stand here? Carry on with what I was planning? Do I call the whole thing off?

Thoughts ran and twisted in his head and the pain knifed again. This time it hurt enough for Alex to move the hell away from standing there like an idiot. He consciously followed the direction that Dragan had taken but when he rounded the corner the man had disappeared from view. Instead he caught a glimpse of Chris and Griff walking toward the exit and glanced at his watch. Thirty minutes to closing and the place was still busy enough to hide whatever he was doing. If he stayed and did this thing tonight then he needed to pull himself the fuck together and stop worrying about what ifs and maybes. His plan consisted of a quick 'in and out' and pushing thoughts aside that could rock his equilibrium, he focused.

Striding confidently past exhibits, he took a left then a right out to a door marked Staff that Chris had cleared as the best entrance, and pushed it open. He already had the words at hand if he was spotted but the luck of the gods remained on his side and he ended up heading down the back stairs to the basement and the dry storage area. Down here everything was covered in protective packaging and was storage for a mix of items rotated into display and new exhibit contents.

After standing still for a second he then turned on his heel and headed to the back of the large labyrinthine area. Dodging behind a pile of large gray crates to avoid two chattering staff members, he finally found himself in an area full of ancient Egyptian artifacts. Happy that he was safely out of sight and earshot, he settled with his back against the wall and his ass pressed on the cold floor. He was prepared for the cold. The cold was nothing, nor was there fear of where he sat or why. No. This time his head was full of Dragan. What the hell was the man doing in broad daylight in Oxford, jeez, in England at all? How had he stayed alive after the great mafia showdowns of 2008? So many families turned on each other and the hired help often went first. The Pink Panthers, named for the diamond in the eponymous series of movies, was not only disbanded but ruthlessly hunted down by rival families and authorities alike. Dragan was, to all intents and purposes, the last of his kind.

Alex flicked through what Dragan had said then he remembered the almost throwaway line about Luke. Something about Luke soon being part of this? This what? The retrieval and replacement scheme he worked on? What?

His headache subsided as he calmed his thoughts and lost himself in memories and finally he arrived in a place in his head where he could relax and wait until the dark and the fireworks. Luke was in another University town, Cambridge, delivering a lecture on translation and Alex had been the willing audience as Luke practiced his speech.

God. He wished Luke was here. Now.
* * * * *
Luke wrapped up his speech with a flourish of his hands and a summary that he had practiced over and over for many long hours. The applause was deafening in the acoustics of the medieval university hall and for the first time since he had agreed to talk fourteenth century translation he was pleased he had said so.

He wasn't the best at standing in front of people and talking. It didn't matter that he was an expert in what he was talking about or that he had experience in ancient languages that a lot of the professors and students alike would sell their own grandmothers to own. Of course he couldn't talk about what had happened with Alex, or the crazy connection the two of them had, or even the fact Luke's name was carved into Alex's skin as part of some gods against man battle. Keeping Alex a secret was as vital to him as keeping hold of Alex's heart.

"Thank you so much," Professor Jameison said. He pumped Luke's hand so hard that Luke had to rub his fingers when he finished. The short, balding, bespectacled man was a master of ancient Greece and was one of those that, if only they knew what Luke had seen, would be pinning Luke down for information. To know the Oracle. To have slept with the Oracle. That was some pretty intense and heavy stuff.

"You're welcome," Luke replied. He gathered together his papers and the notes he had prepared but not actually read from, and pushed them all into his case.

"We would be honored if you could join us in the refectory for a drink?"

"I'm so sorry. I promised I would be back home for later tonight, so I really need to think about battling through the traffic." Nothing anyone said could get Luke to stay away from Six Pillars tonight. Alex was coming home and after one of his jobs he always needed Luke as his center.

"A pity. But I must say I would appreciate the chance to discuss the scripts in more detail at a later point. Should I have my assistant contact yours for a time?"

Luke smiled. An assistant? Wouldn't that be nice. He may know a few languages, he may well have an instinctive need for learning, but he was still a low-paid researcher working on his own papers. Taking on jobs like this one in Cambridge where he was paid a pretty decent fee made it at least feel like he contributed something financial to his and Alex's life. Of course, Alex being left a large part of Thanos's billions did make life a little easier, added to the fact that they now shared an apartment in Griff's family home for half of the year.

"Please get her to email me and I will be very pleased to come back."

Making his excuses and accepting both congratulations and questions on his way out, he realized that the November sky, redolent with the scent of bonfires, was so dark he couldn't immediately find his car. Evidently medieval buildings didn't have outside lighting as a given. Finally in the car, he checked his cell. There were no messages from Alex although Luke had an insistent nagging at the base of his skull that he really needed to get home soon.

Nothing will go wrong. Alex knows what he is doing.

"It's okay, Luke." Alex's voice echoed in his head and Luke smiled. It was just wishful thinking that it was actually Alex's voice and not just a thought that manifested as if it were planted there. He missed that connection they had experienced in Greece. The connection hadn't lasted long but he had just gotten used to it when Athan had left Alex. He'd only noticed how much he had grown used to it when it had completely gone.

Just short of three hours driving and he headed up the winding road to Six Pillars and parked on the wide drive. After grabbing his papers and bags he hurried into the house and without hellos was intent on finding either Griff or Chris and hearing how Alex was getting on.

"And?" he asked. Griff looked over at him from stirring something that smelled vaguely Italian and tomato-y on the gleaming stainless steel stove.

Griff knew exactly what to say. "Everything's fine. He went in. He hasn't contacted us. Security was light and the crowds were heavy."

Luke deflated a little as the worry left him then he winced as a band of pain squeezed his temples. Rubbing at the offending areas he cursed. The pain had been on and off all afternoon.

"Okay?" Griff asked, looking concerned.

"Fighting a headache; the motorways were hell. I just need some pain meds and a shower."

"He'll be back by two," Griff offered. Luke managed a smile. However much he smiled though, Griff could see straight through him. "Someone phoned and left a message for you." Griff turned back to the pot. "Chris wrote it on the pad."

Lord and Lady Morgan had left the house mostly empty when they spent their usual six months in Monaco, and just the four of them lived here. Him and Alex in the west side of the building, Griff and Christopher in the east part. The fact that four men lived here was easy to spot to an untrained eye by the piles of notes and takeaway menus that littered the side counter. It never failed to amaze him that pizza was still delivered to a house as grand as Six Pillars or to a man as titled as Griff.

"I cooked pasta," Griff said. "It's this bake thing if you're interested."

"You cooked?" Luke said. "Are you feeling okay?" He rummaged through the notes until he discovered one in Chris's handwriting in among the clutter. A single name: Smith, and a contact number.

"Ha bloody ha," Griff deadpanned. The very British swearword sounded so damn dry.

"This was it? Just a name and a number?"

"You need to ask Chris, he took the message. Dinner's in twenty."

"I'll be down. Where's Chris?"

"The usual."

Luke wandered out of the kitchen and down the long hallway to the room off the study where he knew he would find Chris. When Alex was out doing his thing, Chris could be found in the empty room doing his. The ex-soldier worried just as much as Luke did. Luke knocked and entered just as Chris finished a roundhouse kick to the punching bag hanging from the ceiling. He was sweating and concentrating and Luke hesitated to interrupt his friend for a moment. He took a step back to leave but words stopped him.

"You need to talk to him, Luke." Chris held on to the bag to stop its swaying and pushed his other hand through his short, sweat-damp hair.

"To Griff?"

"No. To your idiot boyfriend. He's gone into that place with no fucking plan, no backup, and a wish for his crazy-assed powers back again."

"I'll talk to him," Luke said. He meant it. He would talk to Alex for all the good that would do. Recently Alex had become more and more reckless in the way he approached his retrievals and replacements and Luke fought very hard to keep his worry on the down low.

"I'm just…" Chris stopped and stepped away from the bag. He used a shrug to punctuate the unfinished sentence and Luke knew exactly what he was trying to say. He was worried. Luke was worried. And now he had a freaking full-blown headache.
* * * * *
Alex opened his eyes and then checked his watch. He hadn't slept but he had relaxed and the plan for what he was doing was very set in his head. The headache was getting worse and he felt a sick dizziness as he clambered to stand. Settling his breathing, he let his newly opened eyes become accustomed to the dark and debated using the small flashlight in his pocket. He had a pretty clear idea where he needed to go and he visualized a path. The security cameras only started outside of this storage room and he knew enough to avoid every single one on the route he needed to take. Opening the storeroom door led him to a darkened corridor and, pausing for a moment, he took the way he had come in back out to the museum. The guards patrolled every so often, there were the cameras, the Ashmolean wasn't stupid—they had enough to protect everything that could be taken. They just hadn't planned on someone putting something back.

The museum was silent, no one near him. For a second an overwhelming feeling of want washed over him. He hankered for the ability to play with the cameras—to turn them to another source. Pointedly he stared up at the nearest camera, one focused away from him, and flinched when it shook slightly. It didn't move completely but Alex frowned. He was losing it, thinking anything about moving cameras.

Quietly he made his convoluted way in the direction of the exhibit and in a few minutes the missing piece of stone had returned to its place. For a second he watched it, back where it should be, and some emotion flooded through him. Luke. Alex was proud of what he was doing because it was what Luke wanted. Did that make him a pushover? Was that why he stood in the museum in the gently lit hall staring like a calf-eyed idiot with a feeling of pure peace inside him? Closing his eyes briefly he shook his head to clear the thoughts. Luke would listen to what Alex said and would just give that damn enigmatic smile. This particular piece of marble had been hidden from the public eye for quite a few years now and Luke wanted people to be able to see and touch these links to the ancient world.

Nodding at the marble, silently admiring its placement, he turned and made his way to the only egress that Chris had identified as a safe and easy way to leave. Attuned to the silence of the museum, it was easy to hear approaching footsteps, and quickly Alex slid behind the nearest sculpture big enough to hide him. When the footsteps passed he moved across the glass bridge and with agile grace that belied his size he used the tops of cabinets to reach the ground floor in seconds. Clearly one guard prowled the first floor and that left two other guards somewhere in the building. Waiting for a second, he listened carefully and frowned when he heard voices.

"It came from here," one guard said.

"It's probably some damn computer glitch," the other replied. He sounded way past annoyed and straight on to pissed.

"We can't always blame this stuff on computers." Guard one laughed as he said this.

Alex watched as the two walked the very corridor he needed to use to get to the skylight in the Civil War hall. Anxiety knotted in his chest and he breathed through the issues.

"Jesus Christ!"

Alex couldn't work out which guard was exclaiming but he hugged closer to the sculpture. Something didn't sound right.

"There's glass everywhere. Look. Up. The skylight. It's been smashed."

"There's a bag. A red one. Wait. Sound the alarm."

Alex's stomach sank. A red bag? Dragan had been holding a red rucksack. He wouldn't have made this mess though. He was an expert. The alarm was a shrieking cacophony of discordant notes and the museum lights came on full and bright. Alex winced. Fuck. Two guards blocked his only exit, thinking was difficult with the noise in his head, the light burned, and Dragan was somewhere in the freaking building. What the hell was he going to do now?

"Police are on their way. Five out." This was a third voice. Probably the guard Alex had evaded coming across the bridge.

"I'm going to check north."

"I'll take south."

"They could be armed. Stan, stay here at the skylight."

"You said they could be armed. Should we be splitting up?"

If Alex weren't in shit up to his neck he might even think the whining was funny. Not many art thieves actually went around with heat. Except, it seemed, Dragan. In that freaking red bag. Think. Think.

Scrolling through possibilities to get the hell out was messing with his head. There were several potential exits but most of them left him exposed once he left the building. The roof wasn't an option. Fuck. Pain banded his head and he winced again. Then the burn started. As fear edged into his normally calm thoughts, heat began to build inside him. He held up a hand and the sleeve of his black polo neck fell back to expose his wrist. Blue. Sparking just under his skin, a cerulean blue that squirmed and formed into shapes. In disbelief he watched as it coalesced into recognizable letters. The same letters that had been carved into his skin. The same that had disappeared in the fire. Concentrating the burn until it sat in the center of his chest, he inhaled and exhaled deeply. The burn cascaded through his body and he welcomed the hurt it spread along its path.

This was Alex with the power of the gods under his skin, and closing his eyes tightly he concentrated on his Self. Athan wasn't inside him. There was no trace of the boy who had been so much a part of him for so long. This was all Alex and it was frightening and exhilarating at the same time. When the gray hues of images burned inside his eyelids he opened his eyes. Everything around him was blurred and faded as if he were looking through dirty, cracked glass.

Could he have sidestepped into his other space?

Taking an experimental step away from the carvings, he inhaled and then moved directly into the line of sight of a very nervous Stan. The guard was jumpy and looking between the room around him and down at his watch.

"Come on… come on…" he muttered.

Alex stopped right in front of him but the guard looked right through him. Fuck. This was real. This was happening. Not wanting to waste a single moment, he moved behind the guard and lifted the red bag. It would vanish into the other space with him—something he'd never been able to explain to Luke, or even understand himself. In a smooth movement he climbed two cases until finally he reached the last display and stood under the broken skylight. Seconds later and he was out on the small side-extension roof. One minute more, with sirens sounding right outside the museum, and he was running at a fast pace back to where he had left the car. Halfway between the Ashmolean and his car he shifted back to the now. Not consciously. It just happened. He hoped to hell no one spotted that freaky-ass trick.

Dropping the red bag on the passenger seat he belted himself into the car, started the engine, and drove away as sedately as he could. The buzzing in his head sounded familiar. Something was happening inside him.

How the hell was he going to explain this to Luke? They'd only just settled into a routine of being normal. Well, as normal as it got between an ex-thief like him and an academic like Luke.

How the hell he was going to explain to Luke what had just happened?

Wolfsong by TJ Klune
motes of dust/cold and metal
I WAS twelve when my daddy put a suitcase by the door.

“What’s that for?” I asked from the kitchen.

He sighed, low and rough. Took him a moment to turn around. “When did you get home?”

“A while ago.” My skin itched. Didn’t feel right.

He glanced at an old clock on the wall. The plastic covering its face was cracked. “Later than I thought. Look, Ox….” He shook his head. He seemed flustered. Confused. My dad was many things. A drunk. Quick to anger with words and fists. A sweet devil with a laugh that rumbled like that old Harley-Davidson WLA we’d rebuilt the summer before. But he was never flustered. He was never confused. Not like he was now.

I itched something awful.

“I know you’re not the smartest boy,” he said. He glanced back at his suitcase.

And it was true. I was not cursed with an overabundance of brains. My mom said I was just fine. My daddy thought I was slow. My mom said it wasn’t a race. He was deep in his whiskey at that point and started yelling and breaking things. He didn’t hit her. Not that night, anyway. Mom cried a lot, but he didn’t hit her. I made sure of it. When he finally started snoring in his old chair, I snuck back to my room and hid under my covers.

“Yes, sir,” I said to him.

He looked back at me, and I’ll swear until the day I die that I saw some kind of love in his eyes. “Dumb as an ox,” he said. It didn’t sound mean coming from him. It just was.

I shrugged. Wasn’t the first time he’d said that to me, even though Mom asked him to stop. It was okay. He was my dad. He knew better than anyone.

“You’re gonna get shit,” he said. “For most of your life.”

“I’m bigger than most,” I said like it meant something. And I was. People were scared of me, though I didn’t want them to be. I was big. Like my daddy. He was a big man with a sloping gut, thanks to the booze.

“People won’t understand you,” he said.


“They won’t get you.”

“I don’t need them to.” I wanted them to very much, but I could see why they wouldn’t.

“I have to go.”


“Away. Look—”

“Does Mom know?”

He laughed, but it didn’t sound like he found anything funny. “Sure. Maybe. She knew what was going to happen. Probably has for a while.”

I stepped toward him. “When are you coming back?”

“Ox. People are going to be mean. You just ignore them. Keep your head down.”

“People aren’t mean. Not always.” I didn’t know that many people. Didn’t really have any friends. But the people I did know weren’t mean. Not always. They just didn’t know what to do with me. Most of them. But that was okay. I didn’t know what to do with me either.

And then he said, “You’re not going to see me for a while. Maybe a long while.”

“What about the shop?” I asked him. He worked down at Gordo’s. He smelled like grease and oil and metal when he came home. Fingers blackened. He had shirts with his name embroidered on them. Curtis stitched in reds and whites and blues. I always thought that was the most amazing thing. A mark of a great man, to have your name etched onto your shirt. He let me go with him sometimes. He showed me how to change the oil when I was three. How to change a tire when I was four. How to rebuild an engine for a 1957 Chevy Bel Air Coupe when I was nine. Those days I would come home smelling of grease and oil and metal and I would dream late at night of having a shirt with my name embroidered on it. Oxnard, it would say. Or maybe just Ox.

“Gordo doesn’t care” is what my dad said.

Which felt like a lie. Gordo cared a lot. He was gruff, but he told me once that when I was old enough, I could come talk to him about a job. “Guys like us have to stick together,” he said. I didn’t know what he meant by that, but the fact that he thought of me as anything was good enough for me.

“Oh” is all I could say to my dad.

“I don’t regret you,” he said. “But I regret everything else.”

I didn’t understand. “Is this about…?” I didn’t know what this was about.

“I regret being here,” he said. “I can’t take it.”

“Well that’s okay,” I said. “We can fix that.” We could just go somewhere else.

“There’s no fixing, Ox.”

“Did you charge your phone?” I asked him because he never remembered. “Don’t forget to charge your phone so I can call you. I got new math that I don’t understand. Mr. Howse said I could ask you for help.” Even though I knew my dad wouldn’t get the math problems any more than I would. Pre-algebra it was called. That scared me, because it was already hard when it was a pre. What would happen when it was just algebra without the pre involved?

I knew that face he made then. It was his angry face. He was pissed off. “Don’t you fucking get it?” he snapped.

I tried not to flinch. “No,” I said. Because I didn’t.

“Ox,” my daddy said. “There’s going to be no math. No phone calls. Don’t make me regret you too.”

“Oh,” I said.

“You have to be a man now. That’s why I’m trying to teach you this stuff. Shit’s gonna get slung on you. You brush it off and keep going.” His fists were clenched at his sides. I didn’t know why.

“I can be a man,” I assured him, because maybe that would make him feel better.

“I know,” he said.

I smiled at him, but he looked away.

“I have to go,” he eventually said.

“When are you coming back?” I asked him.

He staggered a step toward the door. Took a breath that rattled around his chest. Picked up his suitcase. Walked out. I heard his old truck start up outside. It stuttered a bit when it picked up. Sounded like he needed a new timing belt. I’d have to remind him later.

MOM GOT home late that night, after working a double in the diner. She found me in the kitchen, standing in the same spot I’d been in when my daddy had walked out the door. Things were different now.

“Ox?” she asked. “What’s going on?” She looked very tired.

“Hey, Mom,” I said.

“Why are you crying?”

“I’m not.” And I wasn’t, because I was a man now.

She touched my face. Her hands smelled like salt and french fries and coffee. Her thumbs brushed against my wet cheeks. “What happened?”

I looked down at her, because she’d always been small and at some point in the last year or so, I’d grown right past her. I wished I could remember the day it happened. It seemed monumental. “I’ll take care of you,” I promised her. “You don’t ever need to worry.”

Her eyes softened. I could see the lines around her eyes. The tired set of her jaw. “You always do. But that’s—” She stopped. Took a breath. “He left?” she asked, and she sounded so small.

“I think so.” I twirled her hair against my finger. Dark, like my own. Like my daddy’s. We were all so dark.

“What did he say?” she asked.

“I’m a man now,” I told her. That’s all she needed to hear.

She laughed until she cracked right down the middle.

HE DIDN’T take the money when he left. Not all of it. Not that there was much there to begin with.

He didn’t take any pictures either. Just some clothes. His razor. His truck. Some of his tools.

If I hadn’t known any better, I would have thought he never was at all.

I CALLED his phone four days later. It was the middle of the night.

It rang a couple of times before a message picked up saying the phone was no longer in service.

I had to apologize to Mom the next morning. I’d held the handset so hard that it had cracked. She said it was okay, and we didn’t talk about it ever again.

I WAS six when my daddy bought me my own set of tools. Not kid’s stuff. No bright colors and plastic. All cold and metal and real.

He said, “Keep them clean. And god help you if I find them laying outside. They’ll rust and I’ll tan your hide. That ain’t what this shit is for. You got that?”

I touched them reverently because they were a gift. “Okay,” I said, unable to find the words to say just how full my heart felt.

I STOOD in their (her) room one morning a couple of weeks after he left. Mom was at the diner again, picking up another shift. Her ankles would be hurting by the time she got home.

Sunlight fell through a window on the far wall. Little bits of dust caught the light.

It smelled like him in the room. Like her. Like both of them. A thing together. It would be a long time before it stopped. But it would. Eventually.

I slid open the closet door. One side was mostly empty. Things were left, though. Little pieces of a life no longer lived.

Like his work shirt. Four of them, hanging in the back. Gordo’s in cursive.

Curtis, they all said. Curtis, Curtis, Curtis.

I touched each one of them with the tips of my fingers.

I took the last one down from the hanger. Slid it over my shoulders. It was heavy and smelled like man and sweat and work. I said, “Okay, Ox. You can do this.”

So I started to button up the work shirt. My fingers stumbled over them, too big and blunt. Clumsy and foolish, I was. All hands and arms and legs, graceless and dull. I was too big for myself.

The last button finally went through and I closed my eyes. I took a breath. I remembered how Mom had looked this morning. The purple lines under her eyes. The slump of her shoulders. She’d said, “Be good today, Ox. Try to stay out of trouble,” as if trouble was the only thing I knew. As if I was in it constantly.

I opened my eyes. Looked in the mirror that hung on the closet door.

The shirt was too large. Or I was too small. I don’t know which. I looked like a kid playing dress-up. Like I was pretending.

I scowled at my reflection. Lowered my voice and said, “I’m a man.”

I didn’t believe me.

“I’m a man.”

I winced.

“I’m a man.”

Eventually, I took off my father’s work shirt and hung it back up in the closet. I shut the doors behind me, the dust motes still floating in the fading sun.

Control by Mary Calmes & Cardeno C
MRS. CHOI didn’t bother looking up when I walked in the store again, even though the bells over the door jangled like mad. The shopkeeper, who had gone to school with my father, was purposely ignoring me. I couldn’t very well blame her. I had been in and out a total of six times in the last seven, maybe nine, minutes.


Walking right by her, I strode quickly to the back of the store, which I had been in more than a thousand times in my life. It was the local hardware store, and being in construction—demolition—it was a place I frequented often. So it was crazy that I had flushed hot and cold within seconds and then had to grit my teeth through a surge of adrenaline only to feel an absolute sense of peace roll through me in the very next moment.

What the hell is going on?

“What are you doing?”

I snapped my head up and looked at Louisa Maberti, the ahir of the kettle of hawks, or the second of the flock, that I lead. The fact that she was also one of my best friends—so I trusted her not only with the ket but also my sanity—was a big fat bonus. At the moment, though, watching her lift one of her thick, dark eyebrows as she crossed her arms, I knew she was very concerned about what I was doing. I knew she’d have questions when I passed her for the sixth time in my back-and-forth madness.

“It’s like watching a pinball from my cruiser,” she said snidely. “What can you possibly need in here, Vy?”

I always thought of myself as short, but compared to the five-foot-four deputy sheriff, at five foot nine, I was huge.

“Vy?” she pressed.

Inhaling deeply, filling my lungs with the rich, smoky scent that was hovering around me, I closed my eyes a second and breathed it in.

“This is where you do that thing called speaking and don’t make me dig,” she said.

What to say?

“I hate digging. You know that,” she said.

I did.

“Vy,” she said, her voice rising shrilly. “I have a taser, and I’m not afraid to use it.”

As hawks, if we weren’t careful, sometimes we got a little screechy.

Clearing my throat, I looked her straight in the eyes and said, “I think I smell my mate.”

Her mouth dropped open, but no sound came out. She looked good and stunned.

“Crap,” I grunted.

Still nothing.


She huffed out a breath, obviously trying to pull herself together. “I…. Your mate?”

“I think so,” I said forlornly, feeling worse than I sounded.

She rushed up to me, grabbed my biceps, and stared up into my face. “Vy…. Kuar… you sense your mate… I’m so happy for you.”

“No,” I snapped at her, yanking free. “You feel the same way I do about it—like shit.”


I made the sound in the back of my throat, the scolding call all predatory birds made.

Taking a step back, she winced. “We knew this day would come. We did. And we’re both, well, you’re—” She gestured at me. “—prepared. I don’t know if I ever will be.”

Squatting down in front of her, I raked my fingers roughly through my hair.

“God, you’re a mess,” she said, chuckling, trying to divert me, using her hand to tousle my hair, trying to shake some of the dust loose. “You can’t even tell there’s blond under all this. What were you doing today?”

“We gutted the Coleman house; then we had to load it up and haul everything out.”

She started picking tiny pieces of gravel out of my hair.

“Will you stop?” I pulled away, irritated at the whole world and knowing she was going to bear the brunt of it because of geography: she was closest. “You’re driving me nuts.”

She stepped back and crossed her arms again, which emphasized her muscle definition, the utility belt, and gun. The woman was not big, but people always forgot that. Criminals remembered Louisa Maberti as being tall and big and tough. They were always surprised when they saw her later and found she was not.

She could bring down a man twice her size. She knew pressure points, was a black belt in tae kwon do, and Lord help you if she drew her gun and had to shoot at you. Game over. In our small town of Elk River, Colorado, she was much scarier than Sheriff Davis, her boss. There were three employees in the sheriff’s office altogether, but they called Lou when things got dicey. The sheriff was a pacifist, and Zach Westerman, the other deputy, was great as backup but not so scary out front. Lou did all the heavy lifting. What helped was that people never saw it coming before she had them in a choke hold on the ground. At first glance, the woman looked fit, but not fearsome.

When Lou wasn’t in her uniform, she looked like the toned, buff Pilates instructor she also was. Every other weekend, at nine, eleven, and one, she taught class at Mike’s Gym on Main Street. Her husband worked two weekends a month on a hotshot crew, battling forest fires. Instead of sitting home, waiting, worrying herself to death, Lou got out and did something. She knew going into the marriage that being a firefighter’s wife would mean a life fraught with worry, but added to that was the man himself. He could have easily graced a month in a beefcake calendar if his wife would have allowed it. Fortunately, no woman in town was stupid enough to make a play for Carlo Maberti; not when his wife could kill them and make it look like an accident.

“… and don’t take this crap out on me!” Her snarl brought me back from my drifting thoughts. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” she groused, throwing up her arms in resignation. “Were you even listening?”

“I am now,” I sighed, smiling at her, standing up. “And sorry for being a dick. It’s just, you know, I—I always thought when I met my mate I’d still be me.”

She nodded, brows furrowed, trying to keep it together for me.

“I told you. We’ve talked about this a million times,” I said.

“Yes,” she croaked.

“What would you have done if your mate was a woman?”

“I don’t know.”

“Not that that could have happened, because why would it? Mating is about the natural order of things, and two women or two men—” The shot to my shoulder hurt. “What the hell?”

She pointed at me. “Don’t you dare start quoting Sophia Aleknos. I don’t like it. We both know your folks won’t like it, and—”

“You can just say my grandmother,” I grumbled, rubbing my left bicep where she’d hit me. “You don’t have—”

“Sophia Aleknos ceased being your grandmother when she called the ket together and tried to have you first removed and then jointed.”

I came out to my parents when I was fifteen. They had both announced that they had known for some time and were pleased I’d told them, but, really, beyond that, they couldn’t have cared less. The similarity with the rest of my family stopped there. Because someday I was going to be kuar, or leader, of our flock, my grandmother and my Uncle Peti—my father’s brother—his wife, my cousins, all of them said I owed it to the ket to try and be cured of my affliction. I was stunned. My parents weren’t; they were livid.

When my mother stood up at that Thanksgiving dinner, incensed, ready to defend me, looking like she was going to rip peoples’ heads off, my father slowly rose beside her. He took her hand in his, squeezed it gently, and smiled. I saw the tension drain out of her as my father gave his attention to the rest of the table. I had never seen his eyes turn hawk gold in his human face. I had no idea that could happen. Everyone, including me, went mute.

“My son will be kuar after me,” he announced, and his voice was trembling with razor-thin rage. “And anyone who does not think him fit may leave my table and my ket… now.”

The man had always been the strong, but very silent, type. The windfall of words from him, the way his voice stayed low and yet filled with anger, had been amazing.

Two weeks later, at our normal conclave, my father’s ahir reported that his mother had called the ket together in secret, under false pretenses, and tried to rally the ket to turn on me. She wanted my father to replace me with my cousin Adomas and have him become kuar instead. And her plot only grew more sinister after that. Not only would I be removed from the line of succession, but my wing joint would be cut through as well. It would render me flightless in hawk form, and when I transformed back, my arms would be severed at the elbow. I was horrified and hurt. My father was furious.

He stood up in front of everyone, and his voice rose with his anger, seething, boiling, until it finally became a sharp, whiplike cry.

No, I would not be sent to a conversion therapy program!

No, the youth minister would not be asked for help!

No, the matter was not up for discussion!

And finally, anyone who had anything to say could shift and meet him in the sky for an individual challenge.

No one even breathed in the room. I had no idea two hundred people could be that quiet.

“If you joint him,” my grandmother said, breaking the thundering silence, “then he would be disfigured. If he were, then perhaps men wouldn’t want him, and I would never have to live through the horror of having a gay grandson.”

“It could kill him,” my father stressed to her.

“Better dead than gay.”

And with that, he sent her from his ket, his house, and his sight forever. On the way home in the car, I had apologized to him, because she was his mother, and because of me he didn’t have one anymore.

He stopped the car, got out, opened my door, and ordered me out. I stood on the side of the road, unsure of what was going to happen, and he grabbed me tight, crushed me to him, and kissed my hair.

“Your mother and you—that’s all that matters to me. Never forget it. You will lead the ket. You love your family. We’ll never speak of this again.”

We never had.

Jecis Aleknos, my father, paid for my grandmother to go live with her sister in Philadelphia as well as for his brother Peti and his family to relocate to New Mexico. I knew, not from my parents but others, that they hadn’t wanted to leave my father’s flock. He was a good leader, a strong one, and there were benefits to being related to the kuar. But their feelings were known, and just looking at them made him sick. He was raising his heir and the child he loved; no one was allowed to be near me who could poison my vision of myself.

I never heard from any of them again, and my folks acted like they were dead. I missed having an extended family, but we had our ket, and my parents were beloved. Friends became family, and it was enough. My mother wished often that her folks had lived to see me, and I wondered if they too would have turned their backs on me for being gay. My mother was certain they would not have, and I liked to believe she was right.

“You’re not listening to me!”

Again, my mind had drifted. I forced myself to focus on my best friend.

“I know you… wait.” I watched her swivel toward the front door of the shop.


Slowly, she turned back to me. “You said the scent you’re picking up in here, you think that’s your mate?”

“No. I have never felt anything like this in my life. The first time I came in here I was instantly furious, and I only now figured out why.”


“Because this whole place reeks of pheromones and—”

“It does?”

I gestured at her. “You see? You can’t smell it because she’s my mate and no one else’s, so I’m the only one who’s picking up her scent.”


“So that’s why I don’t think I’m scenting my mate; I know.”

“Walk me through it. First you were mad and then?”

“And what? You gotta delve?”

“Yeah, I gotta.”

“My body is betraying me. Are you fuckin’ happy?”

“Oh.” Her eyes got big.

“Yeah,” I snapped angrily, my emotions all over the place and impossible to control with the adrenaline pounding through me.

Being an out and proud gay man, my logical human side was confused, wary, and defensive. I no more wanted a mate than I did a hole in my head. I wanted to pick the people who shared my bed based on desire and compatibility. But the shifter in me, the hawk, the animal, had no interest in logic. The hawk wanted his mate, and nothing else mattered. I would go out of my mind if I didn’t claim what was mine.

Her smell was everywhere in the back of the store, and I was incensed that my choices had been stripped from me, buried under an avalanche of lust, need, and hunger. I had never guessed such an intense animal craving could take up residence in my chest. I was the kuar. I was in charge. People lived and died on my word. But I was suddenly a slave to an ancient thirst that lived deep inside my blood.

“The irony here is if my grandmother had just waited, she would have had a straight grandson after all. Tell me that shit isn’t funny.”

Lou squinted at me.


“Remember when I said I was out there in the cruiser watching you come in and out of here like a madman?”

“Yeah, so?”

“Well, I’ve been out there for an hour, and I only saw one other person come in, and that was not a woman.”

I froze.

Lou’s gaze locked on mine.

“What are you saying?”

“I think you know what I’m saying.”

Brushing by her, I charged up to the front of the store and leaned over the counter to look at Mrs. Choi.

“I like your father, not you,” she said bluntly, glaring at me from where she was sorting bolts on her desk.

“Yeah, I know,” I placated her. “But, Mrs. Choi, I gotta ask: Besides me, who’s been in here today?”


“Ma’am,” Lou said pointedly, giving her the cop stare. “Please let’s just answer his question.”

Mrs. Choi took in Lou’s dark eyes, the hard line of her pressed-together lips, the severe tight bun her hair was pulled into, and her crossed arms. “That biologist—botanist—whatever he is. He was in here to get a hammer and nails and some chicken wire. He said he found some wounded birds and didn’t want anything to get at them while he was out collecting rock samples or water… I don’t know. I wasn’t really listening. He talks a lot. Smiles too. I don’t like him.”

The only important part of what she’d said was “him.”


Suddenly my life made sense again.

“Do you know where he’s camped?” Lou asked Mrs. Choi.

“No. But he said he needed a hammock, so I sent him to Ursula’s.”

The town was so small no one said the real name of anything. It was Mr. Sandoval’s or Mrs. Choi’s or Mr. Desmond’s or Ursula’s, who was on a first-name basis because everyone knew her. Ursula Bailey had been a bit wild when she was younger, and her overly solicitous reputation had followed her into adulthood. It might have been the five husbands that did it.

“Okay. Thank you,” Lou said quickly. She turned me around and shoved me out the front door.

On the sidewalk, in the early October air, we stood and stared at each other.

“So,” she said after what felt like several minutes. “Go over to Ursula’s and see if you can find your mate.”

“How weird does that seem?” I asked breathlessly.

“Who cares?” She sounded just as excited as I did. “If this is real—holy fuck, Vy… your mate. And he’s a guy.”

I patted her arm hard, and she nodded.

“You know,” I said, my mind suddenly all over the place, “I really appreciate you always having my back, even when I’m a dick. It means a lot.”

She shook her head. “Well, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it, but I will always be on your side. Good luck trying to get rid of me.”

Between her, my folks, and my small, tight circle of friends, I was very blessed.

“Go find your mate, you idiot,” she snapped.

After wheeling around, I started to cross Main Street toward the store where the man destined for me was supposed to be. My hands got sweaty and cold, and I flushed hot as I made my way there. I stopped halfway, frozen, my gaze riveted on the man in front of me.

He was loading the bed of a beat-to-crap Ford truck, and watching his muscles ripple under his shirt with every movement was an absolute treat. Never had I seen a more breathtaking man. His towering height, the breadth of his shoulders and back, the way his denim jeans hugged his long, muscular legs…. I was entranced. But more intoxicating than any other part of the man was how I knew, just at a glance, that he was mine.

It was hard to move, but I made myself, took steps, and closed the distance between us even though it felt like that weird thing that happens in the movies where the hall is suddenly stretched out, and the faster you run the longer it gets. His scent hit me before I could reach out and touch the truck. I stopped, watched him, and waited. Still loading supplies, he looked up, glanced around, saw me, and went back to what he was doing. Suddenly, he jolted and locked his gaze on mine.

I thought about oxygen, about making sure I was breathing, in and out, slowly, calmly, even though everything else in me was shutting down. Certainly if someone needed multiplication done at that moment, I would be useless.

“Hello,” he said after a moment, his voice husky and low.

He had gorgeous deep-set brown eyes, short, tousled brown hair that was curling at the moment because it was damp, thick eyebrows, high cheekbones, and the kind of sharp jawline usually reserved for animated superheroes. I had never seen anything like him.

He cleared his throat and came around the back of the truck, inhaling deeply as he moved. His eyelashes fluttered a little, like he was enjoying whatever he was smelling, and I really hoped it was me.

“Hi,” he greeted me for the second time, putting his hand out as he neared. “I’m Robert Cimino.”

I nodded, getting angry with myself for how I was acting. I was the kuar of the ket, and no one had ever reduced me to such a weakened state.

“And you are?” he asked, stopping inches from me.

I took his hand harder than I needed to, and from the surprise on his face, I could tell he wasn’t expecting it, wasn’t thinking that a man easily seven inches shorter than his own six foot four would be so strong. He would learn that I wasn’t some twink he could manhandle. I was his equal in all things.

He smiled kindly, laugh lines crinkling in the corners of his eyes. “I can see a whole inner dialogue going on.”

I clenched my jaw so I wouldn’t yell.

Gently, he slid his other hand over our clasped ones, took another step closer into my personal space, and breathed me in. “I thought… I was at the hardware store earlier,” he began, “and I… you smell like juniper.”

“What does juniper smell like?” I asked, the first words I was able to get out.

“It’s like a woodsy, sort of sweet smell,” he explained, his gaze all over my face. “It’s nice.”

He had a warm, earthy, crisp fall scent that I wanted to curl up next to. It was odd; my protective instinct had been triggered, but also something unfamiliar that resulted in a vivid image of me in the back of his truck, pinned under two hundred pounds of hard, muscled man. What the hell?

I did not submit; others submitted to me. So why was I suddenly breathless thinking about his hand knotted in my hair, about begging while I was bent over with my ass in the air?

“Can I—” he whispered, and then he bent forward, tipped my head sideways, and pressed his nose to the side of my neck.

I jerked back, scared of myself, not him, terrified of giving up control.

“Sorry,” he said quickly. “I’m a bear, and even though I don’t shift—ever—my base nature comes out sometimes.”


“I get a little handsy.”

“You shouldn’t touch people,” I scolded sharply without thinking.

“I know.” He looked down, ashamed.

“Hey.” I stepped toward him and put my hand on his shoulder. “I didn’t mean it like—”

He glanced up and stared at me.

“Your eyes.”

I wrinkled my brow, the change in topic taking me off guard. “What about my eyes?”

“That gold sure is pretty.”

Gold? My eyes didn’t turn—

“Can I get your name?” He slid his big, strong hand around my neck, holding gently but firmly, making escape impossible.

“Vytautas Aleknos,” I answered. My chin snapped up involuntarily, and I felt my feathers puff up on the inside.

“Wow,” he rumbled as he gently massaged the back of my neck and drew me closer. “That’s a lot of name there. You got a shortened version?”


His grin fired his eyes and showed canines longer than the others, a sort of lopsided toothy grin that sent a sliver of arousal directly to my cock. His smile was warm and sexy. The vise on my heart and the knot in my stomach both eased.

“Vy,” he repeated. “I like that.”

He smoothed his hand down my forearms and over my hands. When I flipped my wrist and tangled my fingers with his, he gasped and then made a noise that sounded equal parts surprised, pained, and just plain horny. The next thing I knew, he yanked me sharply, almost off my feet, and dragged me around the side of the building. Once there, he rounded on me and shoved me into an exposed-brick wall.

“What are you—”

“I’m not sure what’s happening, Vy, but you look… or smell familiar.”

“I don’t—”

“Why is that?” he growled. “Who are you?”

“I’m the one asking the ques—”

“Never mind,” he huffed before slipping his hand under my chin and tipping my head back. “It doesn’t matter. You can tell me later. Right now I want to kiss you.”

And I would have argued because I was the one who said what something was or wasn’t—no one else, just me. But then he bent and sealed his lips over mine and nothing else mattered but kissing him back.

Author Bios:
Kate McMurray
Kate McMurray is a nonfiction editor. Also, she is crafty (mostly knitting and sewing, but she also wields power tools), she plays the violin, and she dabbles in various other pursuits. She’s maybe a tiny bit obsessed with baseball. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with a presumptuous cat.

Kari Gregg
Kari Gregg lives in the mountains of Wild and Wonderful West Virginia with her Wonderful husband and three very Wild children. When Kari’s not writing, she enjoys reading, coffee, zombie flicks, coffee, naked mud-wrestling (not really), and . . . coffee!
RJ Scott
RJ Scott has been writing since age six when she was made to stay in at lunchtime for an infraction involving cookies and was told to write a story. Two sides of A4 about a trapped princess later, a lover of writing was born. She reads anything from thrillers to sci-fi to horror; however, her first real love will always be the world of romance. From billionaires, bodyguards and cowboys to SEALs, throwaways and veterinarians, she writes passionate stories with a heart of romance, a troubled road to reach happiness, and more than a hint of happily ever after.

T.J. Klune
When TJ Klune was eight, he picked up a pen and paper and began to write his first story (which turned out to be his own sweeping epic version of the video game Super Metroid—he didn't think the game ended very well and wanted to offer his own take on it. He never heard back from the video game company, much to his chagrin). Now, two decades later, the cast of characters in his head have only gotten louder, wondering why he has to go to work as a claims examiner for an insurance company during the day when he could just stay home and write.

He lives with a neurotic cat in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. It’s hot there, but he doesn’t mind. He dreams about one day standing at Stonehenge, just so he can say he did.

Mary Calmes
Mary Calmes lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband and two children and loves all the seasons except summer. She graduated from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, with a bachelor's degree in English literature. Due to the fact that it is English lit and not English grammar, do not ask her to point out a clause for you, as it will so not happen. She loves writing, becoming immersed in the process, and falling into the work. She can even tell you what her characters smell like. She loves buying books and going to conventions to meet her fans.

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.

Kate McMurray

Kari Gregg

RJ Scott

TJ Klune

Mary Calmes

Cardeno C

Across the East River Bridge

Half a Million Dead Cannibals

Oracle: The Complete Collection
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  ARe