Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Random Tales of Christmas 2016 Part 10

One Wish by Caitlin Ricci
Christmas is supposed to be a time of happiness and family, but after a tragic accident the year before, Callen is left feeling the complete opposite. He's sad, miserable, and angry at everyone and everything.

Harry is an elf sent to bring Callen some joy. It's one thing when a child stops believing in Christmas—that happens all the time—but Callen loved everything about Christmas, and Santa needs him back. Harry is there to grant Callen one wish in the hopes of making him feel better. One wish to bring Christmas back to a man who hates the very thought of it.

It's Christmas Everywhere But Here by Liam Grey
Christmas brings dreams of peace, love, and family time for most. Sadly, Russell Moore isn’t so blessed. Since his coming out and marriage prompted a less-than-joyful reaction from his religious parents, Russ has kept his distance to avoid their conservative disapproval. With his husband David deployed overseas for the second Christmas in a row, Russ gives in to the loneliness and takes his stepchildren to meet his parents for the first time, hoping the “goodwill toward men” spirit will overcome his mother’s zealotry.

But Russ’s Christmas joy is too quickly deflated by his mother’s unmet expectations, leaving Russ to ponder if peace, love, and perhaps matricide go hand in hand.

The Ghost of Mistletoe Lock by Amy Rae Durreson
After lonely divorcé Isaac leaves his job as a banker to work as a conservationist on a country river, he gives up on finding the love he always wanted. Then he meets flirty jeweler Ryan and assumes Ryan's out of his league, but Ryan's just as lonely as Isaac. Ryan also has the housemates from hell, and when he storms out of the riotous Christmas party they forgot to warn him about, he soon finds himself lost in the snow.

Ryan passes out in front of the lock cottage where Isaac lives, and once Isaac brings him in from the cold, they finally have a chance to get to know each other. But when their insecurities get in the way, it's up to the ghost of Mistletoe Lock to ensure they give love a chance.

Original Review June 2016:
A beautifully written little holiday romance.  Some might not feel the insta-love between Isaac and Ryan but I did.  I found their connection very believable and enjoyable, afterall this is fiction and I'm not looking for a true to life story but even if I was, insta-love can happen so for me that is not an issue at all.  This is a just a wonderful holiday romance that is entertaining any time of the year but will be a special treat this Halloween.


New Year's Eve Unzipped by JC Long 
Colby, a caterer, is working New Year’s Eve at the Crestview Hills Country Club, a place full of rich, uppity people, promising a boring night. The night becomes a lot more interesting when he starts receiving erotic messages on Unzipped, a hook-up app, from someone who happens to be at that very party.

If you are looking for something a bit flirty or sexy, then New Year's Eve Unzipped is definitely for you.  Watching Colby's anticipation build is fun and passionate with a holiday flair.  It may be short on length but it's most certainly not lacking in appeal.  I look forward to reading more from JC Long, another new author for me.  A wonderful addition to my library shelf.


Snowball in Hell by Josh Lanyon
Los Angeles, 1943
Reporter Nathan Doyle had his reasons to want Phil Arlen dead, but when he sees the man's body pulled from the La Brea tar pit, he knows he'll be the prime suspect. He also knows that his life won't stand up to intense police scrutiny, so he sets out to crack the case himself.

Lieutenant Matthew Spain's official inquiries soon lead him to believe that Nathan knows more than he's saying. But that's not the only reason Matt takes notice of the handsome journalist. Matt's been drawn to men before, but he must hide his true feelings—or risk his entire career.

As Nathan digs deeper, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay one step ahead of Matt Spain—and to deny his intense attraction to him. Nathan's secrets may not include murder, but has his hunt put him right in the path of the real killer?
Re-Read Review 2016:
When you can enjoy mysteries and noir even better the second time, that takes talent because going in remembering who did it normally would take a little away but not here. STILL LOVE IT!!!  Add in the fact that it's set during the holidays just makes it that much better.

Original Review 2014:
Amazing! More! Vintage! Noir! These are just some of the words that come to mind when I think of how to describe this book. The characters are very vintage, intriguing, and burrow their way into your heart. I don't do spoilers so that's about all I'm going to say other than just WOW! and definitely MORE of Doyle & Spain is needed to be written.


Random Tales of Christmas 2016 Parts

Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3  /  Part 4
Part 5  /  Part 6  /  Part 7  /   Part 8

One Wish by Caitlin Ricci
Callen hated Christmas. He hadn’t always, but things changed. He hated the music that started right around Halloween, and he hated that every grocery store he went into smelled overwhelmingly like cinnamon. It was two weeks before Christmas and he had a hard enough time getting motivated to go outside. Everyone with their holiday cheer and the stores all catering to the materialistic masses, and he was pretty much done with it all until Valentine’s Day rolled around. Maybe not even then because, being single, he hated that holiday too.

His nurse aid was late by ten minutes, so when his cell phone started ringing, he didn’t look at the caller ID. He was expecting Yvonne to tell him why she was late, again. Instead he got his sister, Annette, and he instantly regretted answering the phone as soon as she gave him a cheery “Hey, little brother.”

He tried, and failed, not to groan. “What do you want?”

“To make sure you’re getting out of the house. Timothy and I are taking the kids to the cemetery this weekend. Want to come? Might do you good to see them.”

He rolled his eyes. He hated that his sister talked about going to visit their parents’ graves in the same way she had when they were alive and she was telling him he should join them all for Saturday night dinner.

“No.” Their parents weren’t there. The cemetery wasn’t a place anyone needed to visit. If it made her feel better to go and talk to some marble slabs, then so be it, but she needed to keep him out of it.

She sighed angrily. “They were my parents too, you know. You weren’t the only one who lost people you loved last Christmas,” she snapped at him.

He was about to yell back at her when she’d hung up, denying him the satisfaction of hanging up on her first. She was right; she’d lost her parents too, but he’d lost them and so much more, and none of it was fair or right. She hadn’t been driving the car. She hadn’t been distracted. She hadn’t caused the crash that had killed their parents, and Annette needed to get that through her head really quickly because Callen was tired of trying to make her understand.

Someone knocked on his door, and Callen pressed the button to open it. “You’re late,” he called out to Yvonne.

“Sorry! I couldn’t find a parking space in your building’s lot.”

Callen frowned up at the ceiling. He couldn’t do much more than that. He didn’t exactly have a lot of range of motion left anywhere below his chest.

“Who are you?” He heard footsteps and turned his head to see a guy probably no older than his own twenty-three standing in his bedroom doorway. He had on gray scrubs with a black long-sleeved shirt on underneath, and his hair was black as well. It was unruly as it fell haphazardly around his face.

“Harry,” he introduced himself. “Yvonne’s sick, so I’m your fill-in. You ready to get out of bed?”

Callen eyed him warily. He’d had Yvonne for months, and even though he didn’t like her, or the fact that he had to have a nurse aid at all, at least she knew him and his routine. And she was in her fifties and not at all attractive to him. Harry was the kind of cute Callen would have lusted after a year ago, and he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of him doing the intimate and highly embarrassing things to him Yvonne had to. “How much experience do you have with paraplegics?”

He shrugged easily. “About twelve years’ worth. My cousin was in an accident when he was a kid. He’s seventeen now. I started taking care of him when I was a teenager. What are you afraid of?”

A lot, and Callen also didn’t like how direct Harry was being with him. Yvonne was quiet and thoughtful. Harry hadn’t stopped smiling yet. Callen glared at him. “Nothing.”

“Everyone’s afraid of something,” Harry challenged him. “I’m afraid of not being able to pay my rent, and I kind of need these four hours with you that I’m covering for Yvonne today, so let’s get moving and you can tell me all about why you’re upset when I have you in the shower. She said you had an attitude, but I’m not that worried about you making me cry or anything like that.”

He was being completely ridiculous and inappropriate. Callen wanted nothing to do with him at all. “I’d rather wait for them to find someone else.”

“Okay. Might take a few hours.”

That was fine with Callen. “I don’t mind.”

“Might take a few days.”

That couldn’t be allowed to happen.

It's Christmas Everywhere but Here by Liam Grey
December 23
THE EXCITEMENT of the ringing phone turned into a groan when Russ saw the caller ID.

“Emily? Go with Uncle Max, please. Can you get some chocolate for Austin?”

“It’s not Daddy? On the phone?”

Russ smiled at his stepdaughter and shook his head. “No, it’s Grandma Doris. You may have a bar for yourself too.” Russ brought the phone up to his ear. “Hi, Mom.”

He heard Austin in the background, wailing.

“Honey, I’m so sorry to call you, but, well, you can probably hear him. What do I do?”

Russ pinched the bridge of his nose. Emily squeezed his hand, and Russ opened his eyes as she and Max vanished around the end of the aisle. “What happened?”

“Nothing! He just started howling!”

“Mom. Be honest with me. What happened?” Russ moved his cart over to the side of the aisle. Two days before Christmas the store was packed with holiday shoppers, and none of them needed him standing in the way.

“Don’t talk to me like that, Russell! There is no reason. He just started wailing.”

“Austin doesn’t just start wailing. He always has a reason.”

“Well, it wasn’t anything I did.”

“Okay. Well. Without being there, I would guess that either your dog spooked him, or his game unit ran out of power.”

“Paulie would do no such thing!”

“Then check the batteries in his DS.”

“I don’t know how to do that.”

“Then ask Dad.”

“Russell, you need to come home and quiet him down.”

“I’m going to finish my shopping, actually. We should be back in about forty minutes, depending on how long the checkout takes.”

“But—listen to him! How am I supposed to handle this?”

“Look….” Russ glanced up and tried to lower his voice. “I need you to listen to me and do exactly what I tell you, okay?”

“Russell, you need to come back and deal with this.”

“Mother. I am twenty minutes away. The shopping is nearly done. There is one vehicle. I am not abandoning Max and Emily here because someone couldn’t follow directions and leave Austin alone. Are you ready to listen now?”

The frosty silence from the phone warred with the chill from the frozen food section. “What did you want me to do?”

“First, tell him calmly that Papa will be home in forty minutes. Do not make it a threat. If you figure out what happened, have whoever did it apologize, again, calmly and matter-of-fact. That will sometimes get him to snap out of it. If not, he usually doesn’t flail around when he cries, but make sure he’s not hurting himself, and otherwise leave him the fuck alone like I told you to in the first place. Any questions?”

“No, but….”

“See you in a bit.” Russ hit End on the call. He wanted to turn off the phone, but that was where he’d made his grocery list.

“What’s wrong?” Emily was the one who asked, placing her items in the cart. Hadn’t they just bought that silly shirt? The sleeves were already several inches above her wrists.

“Austin’s crying.”

“Oh.” Emily’s mouth twisted. “I got him peanut butter cups.” The tone in Emily’s voice was hopeful.

“Thanks, Ems.” Russ reached out to ruffle her hair. “C’mon, let’s go this way.”

He let Ems drive but directed her back past frozen foods. “We were already in the bakery, Papa.”

“I know, Ems, but wine just got added to the list.”

“Grandma and Grandpa don’t drink wine.”

“Nope. But Papa does, and he’s going to need some.”

She turned back, looking at him with sad eyes. “I don’t like Grandma, you don’t like her, and she made Austin cry. Can we go home?”

“Emily.” Russ dropped to his knees and pulled her into a hug in the aisle between the hot dog buns and the wine.

“Is this like eating brussels sprouts? It’s good for us, but we hate it?”

Russ pulled back to look into her face, brushing her thick blonde hair out of the way to do so. “Yes, but let’s go with asparagus, because I’ll actually eat that.” The joke prompted a small smile. Russ kept one arm around her as he surveyed the wine offerings. He was glad she was still willing to hug him in public places. But she was only ten; that would probably be changing soon enough. “Teen” was far closer than he wanted to think about.

“There’s the merlot you like.” Emily pointed but didn’t touch.

Russ shook his head and reached for the bottle. “Teen” was too close, but “little mother” was already upon him.

“Why do we have to visit? Grandma Doris doesn’t like you and Daddy being together.”

“Grandma asked us to. Possibly because she realized you’re the only grandkids she’s going to get for a while.”

“So, if Uncle Max got married and had a baby, we wouldn’t have to visit?”

Russ couldn’t tell if that was the child’s logic or the reasoning miniature adult talking. He was saved from deciding when Max came around the corner, arms full of what he’d been sent off to get.

“What’re you guys talking about?” Russ’s younger brother was all smiles and smooth moves in designer jeans and a light Henley. Max had always had the easy charm and good looks that would have taken Russ hours he didn’t have to attain. “What?” Max straightened after dumping his armful in the cart.

Russ glanced at Emily, who was glancing back up at him. Her arms crossed over her chest as her eyes slid back over to Max, decidedly unimpressed. Russ gave his brother another once-over. Why couldn’t the stupid hot idiot have a girlfriend and kids? He was in his midthirties.

Russ ignored the fact he’d been thirty-eight when he and Dave got married, grabbed a second bottle of wine, and turned his back on Max to direct the cart back toward frozen foods.

“What? What did I do?” Max followed after them. “Russellllll….”

AUSTIN WAS still going full force when Russ, Max, and Emily hauled the groceries through the door, the sound immediately audible when they entered the house. Russ smelled the sugar cookies before he saw them, neat lines of pale dough against the brown paper bags covering the kitchen island. Russ eyed the rows and rows of unfrosted cookies and the old highchair-slash-stool perched nearby.

“Russell, he’s still going….” Doris, was a plump, rosy-cheeked woman in a red-checked apron. There was white flour dusted over the red fabric, some on her cheek. He had never liked the smell of flour on his mother.

“Ems, please help your Uncle Max bring the groceries in and put them away.” He ignored his mother, set his bags on the table, and went into the living room.

Austin’s DS lay on the far couch cushion where he’d been curled when they left for the store. Russ picked it up and hit the power button. It came on, the indicator showing the battery almost full.

“Russ.” His father, Randall, stood in the hall, the taller, gray-haired version of Max. The source of Russ’s height and Max’s lean build, Randall’s midsection was thickening now, hence his new interest in jogging. “He’s just sobbing. Has been for half an hour at least. He always like that?”

“When he gets upset. Did Mom have you check the batteries in this?” He gestured with the DS.

“No.” Randall shook his head at the toy.

“Mom try and get him to frost cookies?”

“I don’t know. I was outside raking the yard. Heard him start crying. Time I made it in, they were standing by the couch, your mom had him by the shoulders, and he was howling.”

“Where was the dog?”

“Outside with me. Paulie and Max’s dog both.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

Randall stepped out of the way so Russ could move down the hall, following the sound. Austin hunkered in the corner of the guest bedroom Russ used, practically in his suitcase. Russ pushed the door shut, sat down on the floor, and hauled the bawling seven-year-old into his lap.

Austin’s howl went up another few decibels. “It’s okay, buddy. It’s Papa. And I promise I won’t leave you alone again while we’re here.” Russ rocked slowly, rubbing and patting the shaking back. He tugged the hoodie up into place over the dark hair, so unlike his own that went gold at the slightest touch of the sun. “Sissy got you peanut butter cups, buddy. We can have those later, if you want.”

Austin unwound enough to throw his arms around Russ’s neck, the thin legs around Russ’s waist.

“I know, buddy, I know.” Russ leaned back against the bed and got comfortable, wishing he’d thought to take his shoes off. This could be a long one.

IT WAS just under an hour later when Russ finally felt comfortable leaving Austin for a moment. Well, until Austin would let him stand up without starting to howl again.

Russ popped two aspirin in the bathroom before braving the front of the house. It didn’t feel like Christmas. Not with the clear blue sky and bright sunlight blazing in through the windows. It was cooler at home, enough you might want a sweater in the house. Here, a long-sleeved shirt was almost a bit much.

He followed voices and the Christmas music into the kitchen.

Nearly the entire batch of cookies had been frosted, and Ems was looking peeved.

“Emily, where are Austin’s peanut butter cups?”

“Grandma took them.”

“Excuse me?” Russ looked up at his mother.

“She took my crunch bar too.”

“They’ll spoil their appetites.” Doris wiped her hands on her apron and kept her eyes on the cookies.

“Where are they, please.”

“Dinner is soon, Russ.”

“Mom, where did you put them?”

“Russell, they don’t need to be eating those—”

“Emily,” Russ cut his mother off, “please go in the other room with Grandpa.”

Ems dropped the frosting knife on the counter, set down the half-frosted cookie, and strode off, licking her fingers.

“Russell! I was frosting cookies with her!” That got her to look him in the eye.

“Which always involved eating them, as I recall. So, she can eat your cookies but not a candy bar?” Russ kept his gaze on her face and took a few defiant steps closer.

“It’s not the same.”

“Where did you put the candy bars, Mother?”

“Russell, they don’t need—”

“They are my children. The candy was purchased with my money, and you will tell me where it is, right now.” Russ jabbed a finger at the counter in time with the final two words.

“You’re being childish, Russell.”

“And you’re being passive-aggressive and controlling, hiding things from me that I purchased.”

Doris glared at him. “They’re in the tin on the shelf. But I really don’t think they need them, Russ.”

Russ popped the tin, found all of the candy unopened, and extracted it. “This conversation isn’t finished,” he tossed over his shoulder as he strode into the living room. “Ems.” Her face lit up, and she abandoned her position next to Randall’s chair and scurried over as he knelt down. “Please give Austin his cups, and you can have as much of your candy bar as you want now.”

“Thanks, Papa.” She pecked a kiss on his cheek before disappearing down the hall.

Randall scowled at the book he was holding, a pencil in one hand.

“She solving your sudoku puzzles for you again, old man?”

“Crossword,” Randall grumped.

“New interest. Peachy.”

Russ strode back into the kitchen. In what he hoped was a sign of truce, he took Emily’s vacated chair and resumed frosting the cookie she’d dropped.

“They do not need candy before dinner, Russell.”

“And I’ll repeat the question about eating cookies instead.”

Doris’s mouth clicked shut with an audible sound.

“Did you try and get Austin to frost cookies?”

“Russell! How could you ask that!”

“Because the dogs were outside with Dad, Austin’s DS has plenty of power, and he didn’t have an accident.”

Doris dried her hands on the dishtowel, threw it into the corner, picked it up, and began scrubbing again.

Russ sighed, putting the cookie down before he threw it against the wall. “I told you.” He kept his voice soft and even. “I told you to leave him alone and let him play his game.”

“I didn’t do anything!”

Russ took a deep breath and let it out before speaking. “I used to get paddled when I lied to you.”

“Russell Edward Moore! Are you calling your mother a liar?”

“You’re sure as hell not telling me the whole truth. There are still sins of omission, aren’t there?”

“I can’t—believe….” Doris had tears behind her glasses. She turned her back on him to wipe them away. “Christmas is supposed to be about family! And you won’t even let me spend time with my grandchildren.”

“Mom. You have this preconceived notion in your head of how Christmas with your grandkids is supposed to be, and you’ve got to get rid of it. Austin is not a typical kid. Neither is Ems, for that matter. Austin needs his routine; he needs expected parameters. We are 300 miles away from his routine, okay? So when I tell you that he needs to sit and play his video game? I mean just that. That’s how he copes. And when you try to force something on him outside his expected? He screams for two hours.”

“But I just wanted—”

“No.” Russ made chopping motions outward with both hands. “What you want? Doesn’t matter. You have to get over what you want. Just like you had to with me.”

Doris’s mouth screwed up, fresh tears welling up in her eyes.

“You have to accept Austin for who he is, right at this moment, and accept that you trying to change him isn’t going to work. It’s going to result in more screaming fits.”

“He’s seven, Russell. Allowing him to have two-hour screaming fits is not good parenting.”

“Way to take the focus off you, Mom.”

Her mouth gaped this time, but Russell pressed the conversational advantage.

“Also, nice of you to insinuate that you, having raised two neuro-typical children and having spent less than four days with Austin, are still more knowledgeable about parenting him than someone who’s spent four years caring for him. Thanks.”

“That’s not what I meant, Russell!”

“Then you shouldn’t have said it.”

“Austin behaving like that, honey, it’s just not right.”

“Mom.” Russ stood up, hands flat on the island. “You never liked having to repeat yourself when you were raising me. I don’t really care for it either.”

“Russell, I—”

“Let me finish. And try to actually listen this time.”

Doris opened her mouth, then snapped it firmly shut. “I’m listening.”

“Austin has Asperger’s. So all this right and wrong business that you think is how parenting is done? Throw it out the window. Austin is a whole other ball of wax. You need to ditch what you think ‘should’ be, you need to take my lead on dealing with him, and when I tell you to or not to do something concerning him, you need to fucking listen to me.”

“Language, Russell!”

Russ squeezed his eyes shut. “Did you even hear what I said? Or did you just focus on the word ‘fucking’?”

Doris got close enough to smack his arm. “Don’t talk like that! Your daughter is listening.”

“Probably. Were you listening?”

Doris backed off, wiping flour and frosting off onto her apron. “Listen to you when you tell me how to deal with him.”

“Yup. Now put it into practice. He probably won’t eat dinner tonight. Do not try and force him to the table or force food on him.”

“He’s so skinny, Russ.” She stopped at the look he gave her. “Okay.” One corner of the dishtowel went up to dab at her eyes.

“I don’t want to fight you on this, Mom, but don’t you dare try and make an end run around me. Ems and I work really hard to make sure he doesn’t have days like today, and don’t you dare tell me I’m coddling him.” Russ lowered his finger once her mouth had closed. “He has a—pathological need to know the rules and know what to expect. And I am the one who sets the rules.” Russ tapped at his chest. “If I tell him he can have a candy bar? He can. If I tell him he can sit on the couch and play his games until I get back? That’s what happens. Just because it’s different than how you parented? Doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

“It’s your house, but he’s my kid. If you go against what I tell you and do something that sets him off again? I will take him home to protect him.”

“Protect him? Home? It’s Christmas, Russell! And you’re acting like I’m some sort of—criminal! Protect him? From his grandmother?”

“No matter what your intentions were earlier? You caused him emotional distress today. Enough that he cried. For two hours.”

She deflated at that, staring at her fingers on the counter.


“Yeah, Ems?”

She stood in the doorway, the pink-striped socks shifting with the nervous movement of her feet.

“Aussie’s getting snively again, but he wouldn’t leave the bedroom to come be with you.”

“Okay, Ems. Thanks. Did you want to help Grandma finish the cookies?” Russ moved away from his mother. He bit back the laugh at the look on Emily’s face.

“Uncle Max said I could help him play fetch with Kaylee.”

“Okay, if that’s what you’d like to do, then have fun.”

Russ gave her shoulder a squeeze in passing and didn’t look back.

The Ghost of Mistletoe Lock by Amy Rae Durreson
Prologue: Emily
EMILY had drowned on a day like this, when the snow fell softly from the steel-gray sky and the water roared through the weir. Her husband had pulled her from the ice-flecked water, the tears cold on his ruddy, honest face.

She still missed him, her Harry. When he courted her in the spring, he had been a laughing boy. He had married her in the summer as the happiest man she knew, and every barge on the river had escorted them home through the warm dusk. Their first son had been born in autumn the next year, dear solemn Alfie, and Mary the year after that, her pretty girl.

The baby had cried for hours while Emily floated in the water, on that long ago winter’s day when she had left her darlings forever. The echo of those tears still held her here, kept her wishing, hold my child, somebody hold my child, even now after Mary had grown and birthed pretty babies of her own, and aged and died and gone away.

“Love,” Emily sighed, over the cold water. There had been so much love in that little cottage by the lock, in her time and the years afterward. She had watched Harry grieve and heal, his sad heart given comfort by a bargeman’s pretty daughter. Mary had kissed handsome boys beside the sweeping willow and married the plainest and kindest of them all. She’d seen Alfie love a boy and let him go, and she’d witnessed the courtships of grandchildren and great-grandchildren for two centuries.

It was her only comfort, caught here above the cold water. Love, in all its forms, was all that mattered.

There were no more barges, and no one kept the lock. Her home was too small for families, the last keeper had said, even as she wept to see him leave, her tears dissolving into the swift water. It had been so lonely the last few years, until the new man came.

He was trudging home now, along the river bank with the snow catching in his dark hair. His shoulders were bowed and he looked so tired. So lonely, this latest man of hers. When would he bring love home?

“Love,” she reminded him, her voice thin in the quiet hush of falling snow. “You must find love.”

Chapter One: Isaac
AS HE stomped up the ironstone path, shaking the snow off his boots, Isaac felt even more remote from the world than usual. On the step of the old lock-keeper’s cottage, he turned and looked along the river, watching the snow sift onto the lock gates and the covered boats on the bank.

He’d wanted isolation, wanted to get away from everything that had made up his life before. Now he had it, he just felt even more tired and sad.

The surroundings suited his mood—the river was gray, its edges dull with ice. The snow was steadily weighing down the trees and blanketing the heavy, tangled balls of mistletoe that grew so abundantly here. In the distance, the sound more muffled than usual, he could hear the low groan of traffic heading into Guildford, but it seemed like a noise from another world.

Then, woven between the noise from the road and the whisper-soft sigh of the snow, he heard a woman weeping.

It came from the other side of the lock, where the water tumbled endlessly down the stepped weir. Shivering, Isaac squinted through the swirling snow, wondering if he’d see her this time. There was nothing out there, though, just snow and water and the sound of tears. The other lengthsmen who tended the river had told him stories when he first took the job. She had been a lock-keeper’s wife. Only children ever saw her, watching over them as they played.

She made the lock gardens flower for a wedding.

“Come inside, Emily,” he said softly. “It’s too cold for anyone out here.”

The sound of her tears followed him as he unlocked the door and stepped inside, shrugging off his heavy overcoat. It got thrown onto the polished wooden coatrack at the bottom of the stairs, and Isaac leaned back against the door, surveying his small domain.

He couldn’t blame the ghost for weeping at this time of year, not if this had once been her home. It was pristine, in his defense—he had polished the antique Aga range until he could see his face in its red veneer, waxed the old wooden floors, and spent long evenings bringing the brass fire surround and tongs back to their original sheen.

There was no sign of Christmas, though. He’d got as far as bringing the boxes down from the spare room, but his heart hadn’t been in it.

Last year his tree had been so huge that he’d struggled to get it into the lift of their expensive apartment building. He’d festooned every wall of the sleek flat with specially ordered evergreen garlands. Subtle lights had twinkled discreetly around the windows, and the tree had been laden with expensive ornaments. A playlist of cathedral choirs singing carols in soaring voices had played quietly in the evenings. He’d bought a mulled wine kit and spent Christmas Eve breathing in the rich scent of it, dreaming about Christmases yet to come. He’d even started thinking about children, about creating perfect memories for them.

It had been too soon, of course, only the first Christmas of their marriage. He had wanted that life, though. The thought of Amelia round with his child was somehow more attractive than any other thought of her.

He must have realized at some level, he thought bitterly now. Why try so hard to create the perfect fantasy Christmas if he wasn’t already aware that she was slipping away?

She’d been very nice about all his efforts, very kind. Then, on New Year’s Eve, she had asked for a divorce and told him about the other man, the soldier she thought she should have married in the first place.

He’d stumbled back to his parents’ house. There, in the bustle of their New Year’s celebrations, he’d sought solace in copious amounts of whisky and the boy next door, a pretty pouty-lipped undergrad who’d been only too willing to sneak into the garage and suck him off to the strokes of midnight.

Which would have been all very well, had his mother not walked in just as he was coming down the throat of a boy he’d once babysat.

As if the thought had summoned her, the phone began to ring.

He was a bad son, Isaac thought glumly. A good son wouldn’t be wishing this fervently for a double-glazing salesman. A glance at the caller ID told him he wouldn’t be that lucky.

“I’ve been calling all morning,” his mother said. “Where have you been?”

“Working,” Isaac said patiently. “We cut back the vegetation around the towpath in winter.”

“On a Saturday?” His mother’s tone conveyed her opinion of any job that required working, let alone manual labor, on weekends. “Right before Christmas too. Really, Isaac, there are better things you could be doing with your life.”

“It’s the National Trust,” he tried. Usually, that mollified her a little. She’d probably have disowned him if he’d started working for English Heritage. When it came to preserving the English countryside, after all, venerable charitable institutions were clearly more respectable than mere upstart government bodies, at least in the eyes of his mother’s cream tea and church fete set.

He could hear the sniff all the way down the line and closed his eyes in response. He loved his mother, he really did, her drive, sharp wit, and overprotectiveness. He just didn’t love failing to live up to her expectations.

“Now, about Christmas,” she continued briskly. “You’ll be here in time for Midnight Mass, of course. You should know that I’ve invited Amelia—”

“You’ve done what?” Isaac asked, startled into interrupting.

“Invited Amelia.”

“You’ve invited my ex-wife for Christmas?”

“You know I’m very fond of the poor girl, and her family is so far away—”

“She hates me.”

“Well, you can understand why, darling, given your lifestyle choices—”

“She left me first!” Isaac yelped. His mother always made him feel like he was twelve again. Making an effort to claw back the intervening two decades, he took a breath and said, as calmly as he could, “If she’s there, I won’t be.”

“Oh, be reasonable, Isaac.”

“I hardly think I’m the one being unreasonable, Mother.”

“You never do,” she accused and then took a breath. “Jonathan, speak to your child.”

Isaac heard his father grumbling in the background, but then he came on the phone to say, “I’m on your side, son. I told her it was a bad idea.”

So why didn’t you stop her? Isaac thought as his mother protested faintly. Then he reminded himself that wasn’t fair. Nobody could stop his mother once she had an idea in her head. Instead he said, “I’d really rather not see Amelia again. We’re never going to reconcile.”

“Your mother did hope,” Jonathan Cobbett began, and Isaac groaned.


“So are you bringing some chap along? That would set the cat among the pigeons,” he added with a slight chuckle.

“Don’t give the boy ideas, Jonathan!”

“Not this year,” Isaac said, and his father sighed. That made him feel worse than talking to his mother. Dad had been astonishingly supportive, even though he was the sort of vicar who winced faintly at the very word “reform.” He heard his father walking away and the click of the study door. “I’m sure your mother will come round. She wanted grandchildren.”

“I know,” Isaac said and tried to hide how that made him feel. He’d wanted children so much, enough that he ignored the way he liked the girls he dated well enough, but looked only at men as he sat on the Tube or walked down the street. No women had ever made him hunger for their touch.

“I’ll talk to her. A good present wouldn’t go amiss, either. Now, how’s the job? Any winter weather yet?”

New Year's Eve Unzipped by JC Long
If something sounded worse than catering the Crestview Hills Country Club’s seventy-third annual New Year’s Eve gala, I didn’t know what it was. It was bad enough that I’d been busting my ass all of December with different holiday parties, but to have to work on what was guaranteed to be the worst night of the year? I would have quit the moment Sylvester told me if I didn’t desperately need the money.

So here I found myself on what should have been a fun night, the last—and first—big party of the year, in uncomfortable tuxedo pants and a black cummerbund and bowtie, carting around a tray laden with champagne glasses.

It was ten seventeen, and every minute felt like an hour. I shouldn’t be here, I thought gloomily as I faked a smile and offered drinks to stuffy rich people in clothes that cost more than my yearly rent. I should be drunk out of my mind right now. Or at least getting laid. There were real injustices in the world.

Once I offloaded my tray of drinks, the last to some lady wearing the ugliest pink chiffon mess I’d ever seen, I made my way back to the club’s kitchen. Access was via the narrow hallway that allowed the humble servants to come and go without being seen by their betters. I heaved a sigh of relief and dropped the fake smile as soon as the hall doors swung closed.

Jerome, one of my favorite coworkers, patted me on the shoulder as he came through behind me. A whipcord-thin black guy, Jerome had a round, handsome face and full, seductive lips. More than once, I had imagined what those lips would look like wrapped around my cock, or what hung down between his legs. “Yo, Colby, did you see that fat bastard in the tan suit three sizes too small?”

I laughed. “How could I miss him? He was throwing cheese balls back as fast as I could take them to him.”

I leaned against the wall, holding the empty tray under my arm while I pulled my phone out of my pocket. Jerome arched an eyebrow at me. “You know Sylvester’s going to pitch a bitch fit if he sees you with your phone.”

I shrugged nonchalantly. “Wouldn’t be the first time he did. Won’t be the last.” I flicked to the Unzipped app on my phone. The icon was a zipper, halfway down. Classy. But it was an effective dating app, and it was a good time killer. Maybe I’d get lucky and line up a hookup for after the party—even though that wouldn’t be until three or so.

The first thing I noticed was the bevy of unread messages I had. Forty-nine—fewer than normal. I opened the mailbox, just to see if anyone interesting had messaged me. The most recent message had no profile image—really annoying; my profile specifically said no pic, no chat. My first instinct was to delete it, but I decided to read it. Anything to delay going to the kitchen and grabbing another tray to cart around.

You’re one hot piece of ass. I would love to shove you against a bathroom wall and bury my tongue deep inside you. God, that ass looks perfect in those tuxedo pants.

I stared at the message in shock. It wasn’t about what this guy wanted to do to me—that part sounded great, to be honest; I loved getting rimmed—it was the last line, about how good my ass looked in tuxedo pants. How did this guy know what I was wearing? None of my profile pictures showed me in my work clothes.

Feeling a bit nervous, I clicked on the pictureless profile. The basic stats were there—forty-three, brown hair, six feet, one hundred ninety pounds, furry chest, athletic build, top. And then there was the location. 0.01 miles away. This guy was basically right on top of me! Does this mean he’s here, at the party? Given the size of the Crestview Hills Country Club property, it was a good shot.

Maybe tonight will be a little more interesting than I thought after all. With this idea in my head, I typed a short response: No pic, no chat, and followed it up with a wink face to show that it wasn’t an outright rejection. I didn’t expect anything to come of this, but it would be a fun distraction from the drudgery of the evening.

Snowball in Hell by Josh Lanyon
"Hell of a thing," Jonesy said for the third time.

Matt agreed. It was a hell of a thing. He turned his gaze from the gaggle of reporters smoking and talking beside the grouping of snarling cement saber-toothed tigers, and returned his attention to the sticky, bedraggled corpse currently watching the birdie for the police photographer.

Whoever had dumped the dead man had counted on the body sinking in the black ooze of the Brea Pits, and in the heat of the summer when the tar heated up and softened...maybe. But it was December, a little more than a week before Christmas, and it had been raining steadily for two days. No chance in hell. The body had rested there, facedown in the rainwater hiding the treacherous crust of tar beneath, until the museum paleontologists excavating the site for fossils had made the grisly early-morning discovery.

"Looks kinda familiar," Jonesy remarked gloomily, as the plastered hair and drowned eyes were briefly illuminated in the white flash of the camera.

Matt bit back a laugh. "Yeah? Must be the fact that he's dead."

Jonesy looked reproachful, although after thirty-three years on the homicide squad, he'd seen more than his share of stiffs. They both had, though Matt had seen more violent death and destruction during his seven months in the Pacific than he had in his eleven years on the force.

"No identification on him at all?"

"Nope. Even the label was cut out of his jacket. No sign of his hat or shoes."

Matt considered this. Soaking in water and tar hadn't done John Doe's clothes much good, and they'd have to wait 'til everything dried before they could hope to get much from an examination. How much they would get then was doubtful, but that suit didn't look particularly old or worn, and the tailoring was the kind that showed its worth even in the worst conditions—which these were.

Laughter drifted from the circle of statues where the reporters and a couple of photographers waited impatiently. Matt knew most of them: Williams from "The Peach," Mackey from the Times, Cohen from the Mirror and Tara Renee of the Examiner. The only one he didn't recognize was the slim man lighting Tara's cigarette. Thin brown fingers cupped the lighter against the damp breeze; lean, tanned cheek creased in a smile as Tara flirted with him. Tara flirted with everyone, but she was a good little crime hound.

"Who's that?" Matt asked Jonesy, and Jonesy looked up from the meticulous diagrams he was making of the crime scene and followed Matt's stare.

"Doyle. Tribune-Herald. Heard he was with the Eighth Army in North Africa 'til he picked up a case of lead poisoning." Jonesy grinned his lopsided smile. "Got hit by machine-gun fire in Tunisia."

"Yeah, well, there's a lot of that going around." But Matt's interest was unwillingly caught. "So he's English?"

"Nah. Hometown boy, Loot."

"Doc's here, Lieutenant," one of the uniformed officers said as the police ambulance bumped its way over the grassy verge.

Matt nodded and then nodded again toward the reporters. "Tell 'em I want to see Miss Renee and..." He thought it over. "Doyle."

Author Bios:
Caitlin Ricci
Caitlin was fortunate growing up to be surrounded by family and teachers that encouraged her love of reading. She has always been a voracious reader and that love of the written word easily morphed into a passion for writing. If she isn't writing, she can usually be found studying as she works toward her counseling degree. She comes from a military family and the men and women of the armed forces are close to her heart. She also enjoys gardening and horseback riding in the Colorado Rockies where she calls home with her wonderful fiance and their dog. Her belief that there is no one true path to happily ever after runs deeply through all of her stories.
Liam Grey
Liam Grey is a numbers and data nerd by day, an aspiring author and hopeful romantic by night. Both his parents and his teachers fostered an early love of books, though it's doubtful any of them imagined it leading to him writing gay romance. He currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, and is in love with the mutable weather and landscape (though his sinuses politely decline to comment.)

Amy Rae Durreson
Amy Rae Durreson is a writer and romantic, who writes m/m romances. She likes to go wandering across the local hills with a camera, hunting for settings for her stories. She's got a degree in early English literature, which she blames for her somewhat medieval approach to spelling, and at various times has been fluent in Latin, Old English, Ancient Greek, and Old Icelandic, though please don't ask her to speak any of them now.

Amy started her first novel nineteen years ago (it featured a warrior princess, magic swords, elves and an evil maths teacher) and has been scribbling away ever since. Despite these long years of experience, she has yet to master the arcane art of the semi-colon.

JC Long
J. C. Long has had a long love affair with words, writing stories from a very early age. When not writing J. C.'s time is spent teaching English as a foreign language. J. C.'s second longest love affair has been with theater, a passion that comes through and shows in his first published story, Broadway Babe.  He is also quite passionate about Welsh corgis and is convinced that anyone who does not like them is evil incarnate. J. C. currently lives in Japan, but has also lived in various parts of the United States and also South Korea.

Josh Lanyon
A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author JOSH LANYON has been writing gay mystery, adventure and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English series, including The Hell You Say, winner of the 2006 USABookNews awards for GLBT Fiction. Josh is an Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist.

Caitlin Ricci

Liam Grey

Amy Rae Durreson

JC Long

Josh Lanyon

One Wish

It's Christmas Everywhere But Here

The Ghost of Mistletoe Lock

New Year's Eve Unzipped

Snowball in Hell

Acquired Asset by ZN Willett

Title: Acquired Asset
Author: ZN Willett
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: November 6, 2016
In the business world, Christopher Colby is a force to be reckoned with—admired by many, he's an intelligent, confident, smooth-talking COO who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

To Quinn Cordell, Christopher is a demon reincarnated—a sexy, self-centered, cocky bastard who is trying his damnedest to take over her family's company.

Normally, Quinn handles men like that very well—with precision and tactics of her own.
Quinn understands Christopher's type.

But what Quinn doesn't understand is, why she allowed Christopher to grope her in a supply closet?

He leaned in farther, pinning my back to the wall, as his face hovered over mine. “You can keep telling that to yourself sweetheart, but we both know under that beautiful exterior, there is a hungry beast inside that would stop at nothing to get what she wants.”

Christopher swept his nose over my face and inhaled; I almost lost it. I hated what he did to me and I fought to keep from grabbing him closer and dry humping him raw right there on the floor of the elevator. When the demon breathed out, the most intoxicating spell came over me.

Christopher pulled back and looked into my eyes. “You can’t blame me for going after what I want.”

He pulled away and hit the elevator button, starting it up again. We both stood there, looking at each other, but saying nothing until the door opened on Christopher’s floor.

As he stepped out, and before the door closed, he turned to me. “Eventually we are going to want the same thing.”

What Others Are Saying:
“A love story involving two strong personalities who clash repeatedly, both personally and professionally. If you love a story filled with passion and drama, this is the book for you.” - Melanie Moreland New York Times/USA Today Bestselling Author

Author Bio:
Z.N. Willett is the girl who has seen more than she has ever wanted; yet decided to add to that world by writing Hollywood romances. A northern girl, but a southerner at heart, loving anything and everything about love and romance. So much that once upon a time she had a career as a wedding and events coordinator. When Z.N. decided to do something she was passionate about, she added her love for travel to the mix. An avid shoeaholic, deep down she's a sappy romantic who happens to believe that love can truly conquer all.



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Midnight by Kristy Centeno

Title: Midnight
Author: Kristy Centeno
Series: Forgotten Divinity #2
Genre: New Adult Paranormal Fantasy
Release Date: December 21, 2016
A past shrouded in darkness.

A mission that can mean the difference between life and death.

One week to find the answers they need.

With the memories of her historical love for the Soul Broker who was once commissioned to harvest her soul, eradicated from her mind, Daya must embark on a perilous journey through dangerous territory to find those who might shed some light into the mystery that surrounds them. But what she uncovers along the way may prove too daunting for her to come to terms with.

Trapped in a loop she can’t get out of, Daya’s only tool for survival is trusting Mason. But will betrayal be a determining factor when they both have something to gain by giving up on each other?

NOTE: This book is the continuation of the short story featured in the anthology, Blood in the Shadows. Midnight picks up right where Shadows left off.

The demon growls in frustration, shaking the wounded hand as if to clear it of pain. His midnight eyes glance up at me with undisguised menace.

“Hunter,” he manages to growl.

I pay attention to his face, spotting a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth and two sunken eyes with dark circles underneath, and a jaw that juts forward in an abnormal manner as he glares down at me. He’s ominous and pissed off. Not a good combination.

“Get out of here, Dex,” I shout at my informant, not once ungluing my eyes from the figure five feet from me.

“Daya.” The demon’s lips curve up into the most sinister grin I’ve ever seen. “The fallen Angel.” He laughs, but the gesture lacks mirth. “You know what I find ironic?”

I hold off on replying, not really interested in anything he has to say.

“The hunter has become the hunted.” He closes and opens his fist, making his discomfort apparent.

He knows who wants me dead. This has my attention.

* * * * * * * *

“Do you honestly believe what we felt for each other was a mistake?”

“It was. That’s why we were castigated.” It was a sin of the worst kind.

Mason shakes his head. “I refuse to believe that. I may not remember what happened, but there’s one thing I’m sure of.” He draws me to him and wraps his arms around my waist, anchoring me to him. “What we felt for each other wasn’t wrong. Anything so right couldn’t have been immoral.”

His lips are on mine before I can think to oppose or argue that his point of view is wrong. The fighter in me urges me to knee him in the groin and follow with a beat-down, but I end up struggling for a moment before relenting. He’s determined to seduce some sense into me and I’m running out of will to keep from trapping myself in this mind game. Whether his intention is for me to trust him or he simply wants to help me through the monster of doubt eating away at me, I don’t know. Nor do I care.

I allow him to take me beyond my grief and into a sweet, almost painful harmony. The fight goes out of me and what few reservations remain melt away with a quick stroke of Mason’s tongue. Every feeling of helplessness evaporates with each term of endearment that escapes his half-open lips as he alternates between kissing my mouth, face, and neck. I yield to him, our caresses becoming more fervent and urgent with each passing second.

Blood in the Shadows #1
Two dark worlds...One night that will change their lives forever...Where evil lurks, only goodness can prevail.

Acclaimed author Kristy Centeno, and Bestselling author of The Star Child series, Stephanie Keyes, bring you two stories "Shadows" and "The Boy In The Trees" that prove love and light can overcome the pain and shadows. With secrets hidden in the night, and dangerous creatures prowling the woods, trusting the enemy can mean either life or death.

Author Bio:
Kristy Centeno is the author of the Secrets of the Moon saga and Keeper Witches series.

She has always had a passion for books and after years of being an avid reader, she decided to transform her desire to write into a reality and thus, her first novel was born. When she’s not busy taking care of her five children or holding down the fort, she finds time to sit and do what she loves the most: writing.


Midnight #2

Blood in the Shadows #1
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