Monday, December 26, 2016

2nd Day of Christmas Author Spotlight: Eli Easton

Author Bio:
Having been, at various times, and under different names, a minister’s daughter, a computer programmer, a game designer, the author of paranormal mysteries, a fan fiction writer, an organic farmer, an avid hiker and a profound sleeper, Eli is happily embarking on yet another incarnation as a m/m romance author.

As an addicted reader of such, she is tinkled pink when an author manages to combine literary merit, vast stores of humor, melting hotness and eye-dabbing sweetness into one story.  She promises to strive to achieve most of that most of the time.  She currently lives on a farm in Pennsylvania with her husband, three bulldogs, three cows and six chickens.  All of them (except for the husband) are female, hence explaining the naked men that have taken up residence in her latest fiction writing.


Puzzle Me This
Luke Schumaker designs computer games, working from his home. Every day he walks his dog in the woods nearby, never suspecting that someone who is completely smitten is watching.

The watcher is Alex Shaw, and he too works from home, designing logic and crossword puzzles. Alex’s options are limited: he’s too shy to approach Luke and his wheelchair won’t let him follow into the woods. His solution? Secret messages for Luke in the crosswords he writes for the local paper.

When Luke decodes them, romance begins, but then they face greater puzzles, like Alex’s interfering sister and what commitment to a man in a wheelchair really takes. And, most puzzling of all, how do you know if love is real?

It’s not easy for a young gay artist like Jordan Carson to grow up in Jefferson, Wisconsin, where all anyone seems to care about in middle school and high school are the sports teams. But Jordan was lucky. He met Owen Nelson in the second grade, and they’ve been BFFs ever since. Owen is a big, beautiful blond and their school’s champion wrestler. No one messes with Owen, or with anyone close to him, and he bucks popular opinion by keeping Jordan as his wingman even after Jordan comes out at school.

Their friendship survives, but Jordan’s worst enemy may be himself: he can’t seem to help the fact that he is head-over-heels in love with a hopeless case—his straight friend, Owen. Owen won’t let anything take Jordan’s friendship away, but he never counted on Jordan running off to find a life of his own. Owen will have to face the nature of their relationship if he’s to win Jordan back.

A Praire Dog's Love Song
Ben Rivers always was a showman. He won awards in 4-H and rodeo competitions from the time he could walk, and he’s happiest in the spotlight. So when he got the chance to be a star—in porn—he took it. He still loves Montana and everything about being a cowboy, but when news of his alternate identity leaks out, he figures he’s lost the town’s goodwill forever. Clyde’s Corner would never accept an openly gay cowboy, even a hometown boy born and bred.

Joshua Braintree always had the notion that he and his best friend’s kid brother, Ben, would end up together. Ben’s always been a diehard cowboy, just like him: they need the land and its freedom as much as they need air. So when Joshua learns Ben moved away from their small Montana town to be a porn star in Vegas, he can hardly believe it. He’s determined to finally declare himself and bring Ben home.

Despite his longtime crush on Joshua, Ben won’t be as easy to tame as Joshua’s “lost cause” horses. It will take a lot of heart and holiday spirit for Joshua to convince Ben that even old prairie dogs can learn new tricks in the name of love.

A story from the Dreamspinner Press 2013 Advent Calendar package "Heartwarming".

Original Review January 2015:
Sometimes novellas can be better if they were longer and sometimes they wouldn't benefit at all with extra.  This is one of those that would not be better if it was longer.  That might be a bit of an over guesstimation on my part but I seriously can't see this being better with more words.  How can one not fall in love with Joshua and Ben?  And what about Henry? So easy to hate him and he's only actually in a couple of scenes and mentioned in passing in a couple of others.  This is an absolutely perfect Christmas tale to add to my growing collection.


How to Howl at the Moon
Sheriff Lance Beaufort is not going to let trouble into his town, no sir. Tucked away in the California mountains, Mad Creek has secrets to keep, like the fact that half the town consists of ‘quickened’—dogs who have gained the ability to become human. Descended on both sides from Border Collies, Lance is as alert a guardian as they come.

Tim Weston is looking for a safe haven. After learning that his boss patented all of Tim’s work on vegetable hybrids in his own name, Tim quit his old job. A client offers him use of her cabin in Mad Creek, and Tim sees a chance for a new start. But the shy gardener has a way of fumbling and sounding like a liar around strangers, particularly gorgeous alpha men like Sheriff Beaufort.

Lance’s hackles are definitely raised by the lanky young stranger. He’s concerned about marijuana growers moving into Mad Creek, and he’s not satisfied with the boy’s story. Lance decides a bit of undercover work is called for. When Tim hits a beautiful black collie with his car and adopts the dog, its love at first sight for both Tim and Lance’s inner dog. Pretending to be a pet is about to get Sheriff Beaufort in very hot water.

The Lion and the Crow
In medieval England, duty is everything, personal honor is more valued than life itself, and homosexuality is not tolerated by the church or society.

Sir Christian Brandon was raised in a household where he was hated for his unusual beauty and for his parentage. Being smaller than his six brutish half-brothers, he learned to survive by using his wits and his gift for strategy, earning him the nickname the Crow.

Sir William Corbett, a large and fierce warrior known as the Lion, has pushed his unnatural desires down all his life. He’s determined to live up to his own ideal of a gallant knight. When he takes up a quest to rescue his sister from her abusive lord of a husband, he’s forced to enlist the help of Sir Christian. It’s a partnership that will test every strand of his moral fiber, and, eventually, his understanding of the meaning of duty, honor, and love.

Unwrapping Hank 
Sloane loves a good mystery. He grew up as the son of two psychiatrists, so he finds most people tediously easy to figure out. He finds his way to Pennsylvania State University, longing for a rural experience, and ends up being lured into joining a frat by Micah Springfield, the hippest guy on campus.

Nothing in Sloane’s classes is as intriguing as Hank Springfield, Micah’s brother and fellow frat house member. Hank looks like a tough guy—big muscles, tatts, and a beard—but his eyes are soft and sweet. He acts dumb, but he’s a philosophy major. He’s presumably straight, but then why does Sloane feel such crazy chemistry whenever Hank is around? And why does Hank hate Sloane so much?

When Sloane ends up stuck on campus over Christmas, Micah invites him to spend the holidays at their family farm in Amish country. It’s a chance to experience a true Americana Christmas--and further investigate the mystery that is Hank Springfield. Can Sloane unlock the secrets of this family and unwrap the heart hidden inside the beefcake?

Original Review December 2014:
I've never read this author before but I can tell you I will be reading her again.  How can you not love Sloane?  And what about the title character?  Hank is definitely a conundrum wrapped in a very bulky package.  Sloane has his work cut out for him trying to figure that guy out.  Micah, Hank's big brother, doesn't exactly help matters either.  This is a very pleasant holiday story, hell it's a great holiday story and really despite it being a Christmas tale it's really quite perfect for anytime of year.


Puzzle Me This
Chapter 1
“COME on, Trevor! Get the ball!”

Luke Schumaker threw a rubber baseball into the woods. The large, shaggy-haired retriever dove after it with unbounded glee. It must be nice to have one thing in life you were born to do and to do it so whole-heartedly.

Luke loved his early morning hikes in the Pennsylvania woods. The trail up Henneman Hill started at the edge of his apartment complex and was its chief attraction, as far as Luke was concerned. August was not his favorite month in the Northeast, with its damp, close heat. But he’d put up with the summers in exchange for fall and winter. He’d spent ten years after college working in California for computer game companies, and he’d been thrilled when his company had announced a work-from-home policy. It meant he could continue to do the job he loved and move back to Pennsylvania, where weather was weather and men wore flannel shirts—even the gay ones.

Gay men, that is, not gay flannel shirts, though Luke had a few of those in his closet.

Luke was pretty sure he had a serious flannel kink.

Back at his apartment, Luke had his key out before he noticed the newspaper propped against his door. It was a Philadelphia paper, the Examiner. When it was still there after his shower, he decided a little neighborly consideration was in order.

His apartment complex was called The Woodsman, and it had thirty separate units, all emphatically rustic. Each unit housed four apartments. Luke knocked on the door of all three of his neighbors, but none of them took the paper. His lucky day, then. Luke sat down to enjoy his breakfast and the crisp feel of actual newsprint.

The Entertainment section had a crossword puzzle. Luke glanced at the clock guiltily. He usually started work by nine, but it was eight forty-five and he never could resist a puzzle. He picked up a pencil and looked down the clue list, tracing his lips with his tongue in concentration. He finished it in twenty minutes.

At lunchtime, Luke made a sandwich. Something had been tugging at his brain all morning, something about the crossword puzzle. He dragged the completed puzzle across the table and looked at the grid as he chewed his sandwich.

19 across – Gospel writer _ _ _ _

It was a four-letter spot, and the crossing “k” in space three made it Luke, not Mark or John. Luke was not uncommon in crossword puzzles. But there was more….

20 across – If it fits _ _ _ _

21 across – Dying to meet your _ _ _ _ _

2 down – Source for kindling _ _ _ _ _

12 across – Don’t run _ _ _ _

18 down – What silence is _ _ _ _ _ _

22 across – Fetcher _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

[Luke shoe maker woods walk golden retriever]

Luke started at the puzzle in disbelief. What were the odds that Luke and “shoe maker,” the Anglicized version of his last name, would appear in the same crossword puzzle and all in the same horizontal line? Add in “walk,” “woods,” “golden,” and “retriever” and the odds had to be off the charts. And then there was the fact that the paper had been left on his doorstep. He looked at the crossword puzzle byline: A. Ecrivain. The name meant nothing to him.

The rest of the day passed in a daze. Luke was, by his own admission, a geek. Once his brain latched onto a problem, it was hard to tear it away. It made him a strong computer game designer, but work suffered when his brain latched onto something outside the bounds of his daily bits and bytes.

Did A. Ecrivain really send him a hidden message in a crossword puzzle? And if so, why?

He Googled the Philly paper but couldn’t find anything about their crossword puzzles on their website. He Googled “A. Ecrivain” and the results were all in French. The word “écrivain” was French for “writer,” he discovered. “A. Writer”—it had to be a pseudonym. Great. He spent an hour with an old stats textbook trying to figure out the odds of seven key words appearing among seventy random ones. He wasn’t great at stats, but he came up with something like less than three percent. At six o’clock he had a Skype chat with his development team, and they discussed the next episode of Saints and Sinners.

By bedtime, Luke was trying to think up a unique idea for a troll/bridge puzzle, and the crossword had been filed away in a mental TBD bin with things like picking up bread and buying Stephen King’s latest e-book for his iPad.

Until the next morning. Luke and Trevor returned from their morning hike to find the Examiner on the doorstep. This time it had an ominous and vaguely teasing presence, like a plot moment in a cheesy horror movie.

Luke’s heart rate sped up. He took it inside.

1 across – Two can play _ _ _ _

10 down – Made it up _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

11 across – Axe to grind _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

20 down – Blue-eyed _____ _ _ _ _ _

31 across – ___ as a button _ _ _ _

32 down – Greeting _ _ _ _ _

[game designer woodsman blond cute hello]

Okay, “cute” might or might not be part of the hidden message, but Luke was blond and he was cute, dammit.

He shivered as if a cold finger had stroked the back of his neck. There was absolutely no doubt the message was for him. Who was doing this?

On the third morning, Luke went for his walk early and was back home by seven. He watched through his peephole, spying on the open-air corridor outside his door in a vigil that was, frankly, damned boring. But at 7:20 a.m. a teenager appeared and lobbed a newspaper at Luke’s door like he was pitching the World Series.

Luke opened the door in a flash. “Hey! You!”

The boy turned and eyed Luke warily, as if he might dance a naked Macarena at any moment.

“I didn’t order this paper. Why are you leaving it?”

The kid pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. “Luke Schumaker, 1750 Wilson Drive, apartment 31C?”

“That’s me.”

“You have a subscription. It started a few days ago.”

“Who signed me up for it?”

The kid shrugged. “Dunno. Call the paper, I guess.”

Luke did and was patched through to the newspaper’s subscription hotline. His daily delivery was a gift, paid in advance for three months. No, they couldn’t tell him who ordered it, because the gifter had checked the “anonymous” box. Company policy.

Luke hung up the phone. A slow grin spread over his face, and his gamer mind rubbed its hands together with villainous glee. Oh, this? This was excellent. He ripped off a piece of notepaper and started making a plan.

There were two possibilities as Luke saw it. “A. Ecrivain” was either someone who lived in the complex or someone he’d met in town who was watching him. He couldn’t rule out women—he didn’t exactly wear a gay tattoo on his forehead. He drew a line down the paper. The left side he titled “The Woodsman” and the right one “Town.”

On The Woodsman list went:

Judy Miller—The complex manager was a fortysomething smoker with a voice like Harvey Fierstein. She said “ain’t” and “yous” a lot. Unlikely.

Mr. Morissey—The groundskeeper was in his fifties, weathered, married, and lumberjack straight. Probably not.

Phil—The maintenance man weighed three hundred pounds. He’d fixed Luke’s showerhead once, but when Luke cornered him for a chat outside 30A, Phil didn’t seem to recognize him. It was a big “no” to Phil, then.

His co-unit dwellers—They included a single mother who was always distracted, a young couple attending the university, and a grandmother who played tennis in hot-pink sweats. They could safely be ruled out.

Luke’s bedroom window overlooked the parking lot. He set up his laptop in there so he could keep an eye on the comers and goers.

A young woman with red hair and expensive suits lived in unit 28. She looked like Pippi Longstocking, if Pippi had grown up and gotten a law degree. She never glanced at his building. In 22B were Jock A and Jock B, who never emerged without sweats and a ball. Jock A had a girlfriend, and Jock B scratched his balls in a manner distinctively het. There was a guy in a wheelchair in the end unit. He was picked up by a van at 10:00 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He was cute, if you found librarian-types cute—which Luke did. But he never looked in Luke’s direction. A hot, intellectual-looking yuppie in unit 27 topped Luke’s suspect list for a while. But one day Luke saw a young woman with a twin baby stroller emerge from the same flat. Not gay, then.

IN TOWN, the only places Luke went to regularly were the grocery store, a coffee shop called Diggits, and Chumley’s, a gay bar. He usually took his laptop to Diggits on Wednesday afternoons and worked there just for a change of scenery.

He went to Diggits at his usual time and surreptitiously cased the joint. The girl behind the counter had blue hair, a bored attitude, and a nametag that said “Jazzy.” She’d never even remotely flirted with him. There was an all-American busboy, but his eyes were so dull with disinterest that Luke figured he’d have to wear a little black dress and heels to get a reaction. Luke recognized a few regulars, but none of them seemed suspicious.

On Friday he hit Chumley’s. He’d decided when he moved here that he and Chumley’s should have a distant relationship. He’d sown his wild oats in San Francisco—or what passed for wild oats for a workaholic nerd. Here in the medium-sized university town of State College, Pennsylvania, Chumley’s was the first, and the last, of the gay scene. Luke was twenty-eight and ready to meet someone meaningful. He didn’t want a rep as a man-ho. So he’d gone to Chumley’s just a few times, when he’d been bat-shit stir-crazy and horny as a goat. He’d hooked up twice, but neither was anything more than a one-night stand.

Chumley’s was a mix of leather, business types, and college students. It was a friendly place that lacked the feelings of judgment that dogged the San Fran clubs, where wearing the wrong shoes could get you treated like pork rinds at a vegan potluck. Luke drank a beer and played detective for a while, but no one was ringing any bells on the suspect hotline.

He got a bit distracted by the heated glances of a man wearing a black leather jacket and a tight white T-shirt. His face was rough but attractive. Luke tried to come up with a good reason for him to be a suspect. But no, it was impossible to see Biker Boy with a dictionary, except possibly as a doorstop.

Then again, there were more things in life than finding his secret admirer.

An hour later, Luke found himself giggling his way up the stairs to his apartment with “James” in tow. The sex was fine, if perfunctory. The lonely stillness of his apartment after James left was depressing. It made Luke realize how unlikely it was that he’d attracted the attention of anyone with substance at Chumley’s. There were too many fishermen there and too much bait for any one small fry to make an impression. Enigma 3, Luke 0.

Saturday and Sunday Luke did the crosswords by “A Ecrivain” with anticipation, but he found no secret message. Then Monday’s edition came.

1 across – Gospel writer _ _ _ _

10 across – RV date? _ _ _ _ _ _

18 down – Fish Fri _ _ _ _ _ _

19 across – Time for bed _ _ _ _ _

20 across – He has less fun _ _ _ _ _ _

20 down – Two-wheeler _ _ _ _ _

35 across – A lonely feeling _ _ _

[Luke hookup Friday night brunet biker sad]

Luke stared at the paper. Suddenly the game wasn’t funny anymore. He’d been watched—or at least seen—the night he brought James home. That was both creepy and made him feel squicky, like he’d cheated on someone and been caught. But he hadn’t even met A. Ecrivain yet!

Luke tried to focus on work, but the crossword puzzle would float to his mind every so often and bring with it an awful feeling. He told himself he didn’t care. But he did. The lure of the puzzle had been great, the cleverness of it. And the fact that someone would do this for him and publish it in a national paper was so, well, flattering.

It had made him feel anticipation and… hope. He hated that.

LUKE was not surprised when Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s papers held no message. But by the time he’d finished the Sunday crossword and found nothing in it, Luke knew he’d been abandoned. He’d driven off his admirer with his floozy ways.

Luke wanted to let it go. He couldn’t.

On Monday morning Luke called the Examiner and asked for the editor of the Entertainment section. “Hi. My name is Luke Schumaker. I’m trying to reach the person who designs your crossword puzzles, A. Ecrivain.”

“And why is that?”

Because they leave hidden messages for me would make Luke sound like an utter loon. “I’m a game designer for City Shark Games, and I thought that maybe he or she would be interested in doing some work for us.” It was a lie, but Luke could probably talk his boss into it, if need be.

“Hmm. I can’t give out that information. But send me an e-mail and I’ll forward it to him. Or you can send a letter to the paper to the attention of ‘A. Ecrivain.’ Those get sent to him unopened. He often gets fan mail and reader suggestions.”

Him. The crossword puzzle designer was a him. Luke felt a flush of hope again. Thing was a damned nuisance.

“Awesome. Thanks,” Luke said. “I’ll send a letter.”

Luke contemplated what to write. What if crossword puzzle man was really scary or hideous? The secret messages hadn’t been blatantly flirtatious but they weren’t not either. Finally Luke went with this:

“Dear A.,

I don’t know you but your puzzles have me dead curious. In fact, you’ve triggered the dreaded obsessive gamer in my soul. Can we meet for coffee? How about Diggits, 6 pm on Wed. the 20th?

Luke Schumaker”

Neutral ground and a tone that implied nothing beyond inquisitiveness. Filled with a heady anticipation, Luke mailed it.

MY NAME is Jordan Carson and this story is about Pin Man, my superhero. The first thing you should know is that I am the biggest, sappiest dreamer in the world. I graduated from high school in Jefferson, Wisconsin. My dad drives a truck, and my mother sells Avon and Tupperware. You’d think I would have grown up with modest ambitions, but no. Since the seventh grade, I’ve dreamt that one day I would live in Manhattan and work as a comic book artist for DC. I’ve dreamt of traveling all over the world, maybe to comic book conventions, where I’d sit at one of those tables signing my name for fans who are as adoring and geeky as I am now. And, sappiest of all, I’ve dreamt about having Wisconsin state champion wrestler, Owen Nelson, as my boyfriend.

I guess I’m an optimist. Then again, I’ve had this lucky thing going for me all my life. I know it’s not going to be easy to become a paid comic book artist, but I was born with a talent for drawing. It’s a gift, the way some people are born with lungs and musical ears that let them wail like an opera star. Others are born incredibly tall, with hands the size of dinner plates, and they’re just made to slam-dunk basketballs. And a few are born with solid, stocky frames that muscle up, a talent for strategic thinking, and a pit bull-like tenacity that allow them to become champion wrestlers. Look, personally I’ve got very little in the physical gifts department, clear? But when it comes to art, I can draw the fuck out of anything. That’s all I’m saying.

Without a doubt, the luckiest thing that ever happened to me was that I became best friends with Owen Nelson.

Second Grade
OWEN and I met in the second grade. Our desks, those little L-shaped wooden ones with plastic chairs, were side by side in our homeroom. The first day of school, when Owen sat down next to me, I couldn’t help but stare. I think I stared at him all day long. Another kid might have smacked the shit out of me or said something like, “See something green? Pick it off!” But Owen was chill. He just looked at me every once in a while and smiled.

Owen was the biggest boy in our class, tall and wide. He was probably twice my body weight then, because I was a dark-haired little runt. He wasn’t fat. He was just a big kid, the kind that could be scary, the kind who could do some damage if he wanted to. But I wasn’t afraid of him. You could just tell by his eyes; Owen wasn’t like that.

He was beautiful, with light blond hair, navy blue eyes, and a square, perfect face. He had this glow about him, this Yoda-like centeredness, like he was cool all by himself and he didn’t care what anyone else thought. That was godlike at our age. Maybe at any age.

Of course, I didn’t know I liked boys then. I didn’t know why I was fascinated by him. I wondered if he was really in the second grade. I wondered if he was the kid of a Norse god or something (I’d just been reading a picture book about them). Or maybe he was the son of a mob boss hiding in our little school, and they just put him in second grade because there was an empty seat.

Wherever he’d come from, I liked Owen. And I wanted Owen to like me. So I, at the ripe age of seven, set out on my very first seduction.

See, I have this cool aunt on my mom’s side who lives in California, Aunt Beth. She makes lots of money at her job in computer games. Every birthday and Christmas she showers me with toys. Get what I mean by lucky? By second grade I had what was probably the biggest, baddest collection of action figures and Matchbox cars east of the Mississippi. Every day I’d bring some of my stuff in my bag and flaunt it in front of Owen, acting like I was perfectly happy to play with all that shiny stuff by myself.

For a couple of days I took notice of which toys Owen looked at the most. He liked the Matchbox cars, and he particularly liked the ambulance. So one day I brought in my fire engine, ambulance, all my cop cars, and a couple of cool racers I had. At lunch time, I sat alone in the play area, unpacked them all and began zipping them around. Owen came over and sat next to me.

“You have really neat cars,” Owen said, watching them yearningly.

“Thanks.” I shrugged. I kept zipping the ambulance around, up and down my legs making a siren sound. I opened the back and took out the little roller cot with the victim on it. I was going for the maximum drool factor.

“Hey, I need help!” Owen suddenly said. He took one of my racers in each hand and ran them toward each other. When he banged them together, he slowed down and was careful not to actually hurt them, which was mighty fine elementary school manners.

I smiled into his blue eyes. Those eyes stared back into mine for a few seconds, then went comically wide with a vacant glaze.

“Help! Help! We need an ambulance!” he said in a high voice. His eyes rolled back into his head, and he shook all over.

I put my hand over my mouth and faked a hissing sound. “Dispatch 9-1-1, please send an ambulance to Jefferson Prince Elementary School. Yes, it’s awful. There’s been a terrible accident. Body parts everywhere. I think… I think I see a glove on the monkey bars—with a finger in it! Please, hurry!”

I rolled the ambulance toward the gruesome scene. Owen lay down on the carpet and began jerking like he was dying. He clutched the two Matchbox racers to his chest and gurgled.

“Oh my gosh! It’s… it’s too much!” I moaned in a deep paramedic’s voice. “We need blood plasma, stat! Call the hospital and tell them we’re coming! Call in all the doctors, and… I’m sorry, but you’d better notify the coroner.” (My mom loved the Discovery Channel.)

Owen peeked at me from under his lashes. He looked very impressed.

We played together until the end of lunch that day. At recess, he came right over. And the next day he brought in a few Richie Rich comics, and I brought in some action figures. We never spent one moment of school time apart for the rest of the year.

From that day on, Owen was my best friend—jelly to my peanut butter, fellow pea in my pod, Sam to my Frodo. And I was his.

A Prairie Dog's Love Song
Chapter 1
JOSHUA BRAINTREE stared at the laptop screen with a mix of shock, arousal, and stone-cold pissed. It was an emotional brew that might have been at home on, say, a badger that’d been lured by female badger scent only to find himself locked in a trap.

Joshua shut the lid of his laptop. Opened it. Shut it. Opened it. He punched the drawer of his desk, which did nothing for his hand and not a hell of a lot for the drawer neither.

Opened it.

There, on the screen, was a video trailer featuring Ben For-God’s-Sake Rivers, his best friend’s little brother, naked, and doing things with a blond god who was hung to put some of Joshua’s bulls to shame. Damn if Joshua’s eyeballs didn’t wanna just plop right out onto the keyboard and maybe crawl around screaming for a bit, though what exactly they’d be screaming he couldn’t rightly say. It was a toss-up between Gimme more! and I need to kill somethin’! and Joshua Ellen Braintree, you goddamn blasted idiot of a fool!

He closed it.

His walkie-talkie buzzed, causing Joshua to jump off the seat of his chair a good inch, scramble to close the already closed laptop, and check in a panic for audio sound coming from the video, even though he’d turned the audio off ten minutes ago and the video wasn’t running anyhow.

Smoothing down his hair in an effort to calm himself, Joshua picked up the walkie-talkie.

“Yup,” he answered, sounding two octaves lower than usual.

“Boss, ’s that you?” It was Charlie.


“Oh, okay. Listen, the kids have started showin’ up, so… ya comin’?”

“Ain’t Nora here?” Joshua grumbled, shirking his job for probably the first time in ten years.

“Well, yessir, she’s here, all right. Ya want I should tell her ya ain’t comin’? ’Cause that Samuels girl is pitchin’ a fit again, ’n’ the Reston boys are tryin’ to climb the fence ’n’—”

The fever that had taken over Joshua’s brain thanks to that damn video now faded to a dull, warmish ache. Charlie’s words pulled him back down to the real and the now and life as it was known on Muddy River Ranch. Joshua pushed a shaky hand through his long, straight-as-sin mess of hair. He grunted into the walkie-talkie, in an assenting sort of way, went to the door of his office to leave, came back, unplugged the damn laptop, and headed out to the stables.

IT WAS mid-October, and the aspens around the stables were covered in leaves that twinkled and shone like gold coins in the sun. The sky was the deep blue that was just about Joshua’s favorite color in the whole wide world. But even the perfect fall day didn’t make him feel any better, ’specially not when the Reston twins were seeing who could bust a leg first by jumping off the corral fence. Nora was busy comforting Lily Samuels, who stood by the corral gently wailing. And Charlie was leading a couple of saddled horses out of the stables, probably in a bid to give Billy and Bobby something to do other than risk their dang fool necks.

Joshua stopped for a second, taking it in—the day, the ranch, the Montana mountains rising in the distance, and the downright miserable start to his Saturday riding class. The thought that hit him hard was Ben should be here. He’d have the Reston boys gigglin’ and followin’ him around like puppies in two seconds flat.

Which was a strange thought to have, because Ben had worked the riding class with Joshua for only a few months before he got “too busy,” and that was over two years ago. But Joshua felt Ben’s absence real hard all the same.

And then he realized that Ben never would be here like that, not ever again.

So he wasn’t in the best frame of mind as he strode up to Billy and Bobby, leaped over the corral fence, and grabbed each one of them with an arm around the waist. Joshua marched toward Charlie and the horses, his arms full of wriggling ten-year-old boys.

“Hey, Joshua!” Billy said cheerfully, going as pliant as an old hound under a belly rub.

“I’m gonna tell!” Bobby screamed, though what he’d tell wasn’t real clear. He struggled against Joshua’s iron-hard arm.

Joshua grunted and, reaching the horses, shoved Billy at Charlie and swung Bobby up onto the saddle himself. Bobby looked down, his mouth opened to complain some. Then he blinked at the expression on Joshua’s face.

“Okay,” Bobby said, suddenly meek as a lamb. “But can I please ride by myself? I ain’t no baby.”

Joshua’s gaze flickered down to the horse, Trisket. She was old and gentle and the look in her eyes told Joshua she wasn’t feeling anything but supremely lazy today. It was Bobby’s second lesson, and they’d already done the leading-him-around-the-arena thing.

Joshua took Bobby’s hand and placed it on the pommel, gripping it hard. “Hang on,” Joshua instructed. “And keep them reins slack. Just let ’er walk.”

“Yessir,” Bobby said politely.

Joshua let them go. Trisket placidly walked the perimeter of the arena, and Bobby didn’t pull on the reins. Joshua’s gaze fell back to Charlie, who was holding on to Dusty. Billy was seated in Dusty’s saddle.

“What’s the matter, Boss? Ya sick?” Charlie asked.


“’Cause ya look a bit peaked. Yer mouth is all set in a line so ya cain’t hardly see yer lips a’tall. And yer sort of flushed like, on yer throat, and ya have these lines—”

“Charlie, I ain’t no heifer, and you ain’t doin’ no health check.” Joshua growled. “Take Billy round once, then let ’im go alone if he wants.”

Charlie grumbled in his cantankerous way. “Sure thing, Boss. Take care ya don’t get stung, what with that bee in yer bonnet.” He started leading Billy around the ring.

Joshua took a deep breath and turned to Nora and Lily. Nora had her hands on Lily’s shoulders now, Lily had stopped crying, and they were both looking at Joshua a bit warily, like they didn’t think he’d bite, but they weren’t entirely sure.

Joshua forced a smile and went over to them. He vaulted back over the corral fence.

“Mornin’, Sunshine,” Nora said sarcastically, looking at him with one eyebrow lifted in a question.

Joshua grunted a nonreply and squatted down on his haunches next to Lily.

“Ready?” Joshua asked the little girl.

She shook her blonde head, her big brown eyes dead serious. She reached out and snagged a fistful of Joshua’s shoulder-length brown hair. Joshua sighed inwardly. She was seven but looked a year younger. She was a fragile thing, and her folks had hoped the riding would be a confidence builder. But last week, at her first session, they hadn’t managed to actually get her on a horse.

“Let’s go find a friend,” Joshua said, carefully tugging Lily’s hand free from his hair—ouch—and then holding those harsh little digits to lead her inside the stables.

Nora followed. “Can we find a friend for you too?” she quipped enthusiastically. “’Cause you sure look like you could use one.” Joshua ignored her.

Joshua had known Nora since they were kids. She’d been a few years ahead of him and Chet in school, and then she’d gone off for four years to college. She came back and bought the town diner with some windfall or another. It kept her busy, but she still came to help with the kids every Saturday morning. When the days were long, she’d sometimes stop by for a trail ride after the diner closed. She said horses were one of the reasons she’d moved back to Clyde’s Corner, and she wasn’t gonna let her business keep her from enjoying them. She was large, blunt, and gregarious, and Joshua loved her to pieces. But sometimes she was a mite too smart and a load too honest.

“How ’bout this horse, honey?” Nora said, going over to the first stall. “This is Jasmine. She’s a real sweetie, just like you.”

Jasmine was an old Shetland. Her owner had wanted to get rid of her, and Joshua took her for just this reason, as the gentlest possible creature for timid new riders, but also because he had a hard time turning down any horse that was about to be put down.

Letting go of Joshua’s hand, Lily passed Nora and Jasmine without a second glance. She went directly to the third stall where a large white horse poked out his nose.

Nora gave Joshua a rueful look. “Women. They always like ’em big.”

Joshua snorted a laugh despite himself.

He went over to Lily. Valmont was one of his rehabilitation horses. Not only was he big, but he could be violent, and Joshua hadn’t worked it out of him yet.

“This is Valmont,” he told Lily. “He’s too big for you. Horses and riders need to sorta fit one other, like clothes. Jasmine’d fit you just right.”

Lily dug into Joshua’s leg with both hands. Her little fingers were surprisingly painful, like cat’s claws. She looked up at Valmont with big eyes.

“He don’ like me,” she said shakily, clearly meaning the horse.

Joshua blinked and frowned. “Uh—”

“I can’t ride him ’cause he don’ want me to.”

Valmont leaned his head down and sniffed at the strange little blonde thing curiously.

“Let’s go pet Jasmine,” Joshua tried, feeling a bit desperate. But Lily just clung to him and to that spot, like she was rooted deep in the ground somewhere, like maybe she was part oak tree.

“No! I wanna ride Valfront, but he don’ like me.”

Joshua looked at Nora helplessly. Outside, there was the slam of car doors as more parents dropped off their kids.

Good Lord, he just couldn’t handle this today, not today, when he barely had a grip on himself as it was.

It was kind of like that badger—the further he got from that video he’d just seen, the less the aroused part of his brain was fired up, and the more room he could devote to being just plain mad as hell. Despite the distractions of the horses and the kids, he felt it creeping up inside him like rising floodwater.

He was mad at the company that made those videos, for luring in gorgeous young boys. He was a mad at Ben for putting all his bits out there without, apparently, giving it a whole lotta thought. He was sure as hell mad at Henry Atkins, who’d leaked the news about the porn all over town like the low-belly snake in the grass that he was. But mostly, Joshua Braintree was spitting mad at himself.

He was mad at himself for waiting too damn long, for getting caught up in the ranch and not tending to a certain business that he should have been attending to. He was mad at himself for letting time slip by like a wolf in the night and steal a prize right out from under his nose while he was no way, no how paying attention. Instead, he’d been off doing numbers and working like a dog to get his horse business running after he took over his daddy’s ranch. He’d thought he had time. He’d thought Ben was still a boy.

Well, the video had cleared up that notion good and proper.

And Joshua was mad, too, for letting down Chet, his best friend, who was in Afghanistan doing a man’s work, and who should have been able to count on Joshua to keep his father and his little brother taken care of in the ways that mattered. And Joshua had fallen down big-time on that one.

Nora must have seen some of that in his face, because she gently pried Lily off his leg and gave him a worried smile.

“I swear, whatever’s eatin’ you sure has one hell of an appetite. I’ll take the little Missy Miss here. You go on and get the Carter kids goin’. They should be easy.”

Joshua grunted. He took a deep breath and turned to lead out two more horses that Charlie, bless him, had already saddled.

BY SOME miracle, Joshua survived the morning class without either killing anyone or sticking a label marked “bona fide asshole” on his forehead. He spent the afternoon with the horses. He had three horses he was rehabilitating at the moment. They needed daily interaction to get used to him and used to the way things were gonna be. And they needed him to be calm and confident. Knowing that helped Joshua push down his own frustrations, for a few hours at least. And it always eased his mind to work with animals. They were so much simpler than people. They sure as heck didn’t do things like run off to Vegas to make porn.

But by the time the day was done and the sun was fading over the horizon, it dragged Joshua’s hard-won calm down with it like it was a daytime critter that hibernated in the dark.

So when Joshua was finally all alone in his house, and it was dark, he closed up the curtains in his office real tight, locked his office door, even though he lived alone, and dug up some earplugs he hadn’t used in two years. He went back to that website, Boys 2 Boys, and this time, instead of watching a preview, he gave them his credit card number, selecting a “one month only” plan. Then he watched every single video that Ben Rivers, aka “Caleb,” had ever made, starting with the first one two years ago.

Every one of them broke his heart a little more as he saw the changes in Ben, witnessed Ben’s first time with a guy caught on camera, his first kiss, first blowjob, first top, even his first bottom. He watched Ben’s expression as he took a man inside him for the first time (being Ben, he looked determined and sort of fascinated by a new challenge). He watched Ben grow in confidence, get fitter and tanner, become a star. And all of it was caught forever in Technicolor.

Those moments, those intimate moments, those firsts, were supposed to be Joshua’s, and they’d been stolen as surely as if cattle thieves had raided his pastures. That made him so angry and upset his teeth ached.

The videos also made him hard enough to drive fence posts.

He cried a little that night, a few old painful, rusty tears. And he came. Three times.

How to Howl at the Moon
Chapter 1
Suspicious Smells
“I’M TELLIN’’ you, the woman was a paragon! A saint! An angel come to Earth!” The old bulldog’s cheeks quivered with emotion. The sadness in his big brown eyes was nearly irresistible. “She fed me for ten years, handed me the choicest morsels from her own plate!”

Sheriff Lance Beaufort grounded his feet more firmly on the floor beneath the diner’s table, calling upon his patience. “I’m sure she was a wonderful woman.”

Gus blinked bleary eyes at him. “Oh, she was! I slept at the foot of her bed every night. We were never apart, except a few times a week when her daughter would take her to church, and even then she always brought me home something special to make up for it. A box of fresh peanut butter treats, perhaps. Or a slice of cake from the church potluck.”

“I know it’s a terrible loss,” Lance said.

He did know, intellectually. But he didn’t really understand. He’d never bonded with a human himself, and certainly he’d never had to survive the death of someone he was bonded to. He signaled Daisy for more coffee, ready to move the conversation along. Normally his mother transitioned the new arrivals, but she’d had a birthing to attend this morning.

“Now, Gus, we need to talk about your situation here in Mad Creek.”

“But I don’t know what to do! I never had to work a day in my life. Mother always took care of me. And now there’s… there’s rent. And food! I should hate to starve.”

“It seems overwhelming now, but we’ll help you. You can stay at Mable’s for the time being and take your meals here.”

“Is there a job I can do? I don’t move as fast as when I was a pup, but my ears and bark are still razor sharp, and I make an excellent companion, truly I do.”

Despite Gus’s sincere and eager words, Lance thought he looked more suited to sleeping on the couch than working a job. “We’ll find you something. For now, just get used to the town and the pack. Enjoy yourself.”

Gus smiled. He was a simple soul, Lance deduced, not one to hang on to his troubles.

Inwardly, Lance sighed. Gus wasn’t the first newly quickened dog to show up in town, and he wouldn’t be the last. It was a common story. Gus hadn’t been born with the ability to take human form. But he’d been so beloved by his owner that he’d gotten the spark. His owner, an old woman, had died. Her relatives, clueless that Gus was no longer merely a dog, had taken him to the pound. Only through great fortune had he escaped and made his way to Mad Creek. Now he was….

Looking at Gus, Lance felt the instinctual pull. Now Gus was pack. Which meant he was Lance’s responsibility.

Daisy brought their breakfasts—eggs and toast for Lance and the breakfast special for Gus complete with eggs, sausage, ham, and toast. She winked at Lance as she put the platters down, a conspiratorial acknowledgment of the extras she’d heaped on Gus’s plate, and his expression of pure joy when he saw all the food.

“Oh, heavens! Oh, goodness, that looks yummy,” Gus enthused.

“Can I get you anything else?” Daisy asked as Gus began to attack his meal in a surprisingly delicate way. “Hon, you want some ketchup or hot sauce with that?” Gus shook his head, his mouth full.

“You, Sheriff?” Daisy smiled at Lance warmly.

“No thanks. I’m—”

His words dried up as instinct overwhelmed him. He felt the presence of a stranger two seconds before the bell over the front door jangled. He perked up—intent.

A guy stood holding open the diner’s glass door. He looked around the room, ran into Lance’s focused stare, and looked away again with a self-conscious wince. He let the door close, wandered over to the counter with his head down, and took a seat.

The stranger was young—probably early twenties. He was tall and gangly, had long floppy brown hair with bangs that slanted over his eyes and ends that curled up into an outright flip at his collar. His face was pale and tired, and he appeared… nervous. Add in jeans, a jean jacket, and T-shirt, all of which had seen better decades, and Lance felt a touch of unease stirring in his belly. He wasn’t a fan of strangers in general. It was an instinct he had to actively fight not to be overtly unfriendly. But lately, with all of the trouble in the neighboring counties, he’d been more leery than ever.

He blinked and focused his gaze back on Gus. Gus was intent on his food, cutting off and savoring one little bite at a time, as if it would be his very last meal. Lance left his own food untouched as he strained his ears to hear the conversation at the counter.

“Coffee and….” The boy’s voice was low, and he seemed to be studying the menu. “A grilled cheese from the child’s menu. Is that alright?”

“It’s okay with me, hon.”

“Does it cost extra to put sandwich fixings on that? Tomato? Lettuce?”

“Not at all! What would you like?”

“Everything you’ve got. And lots of it. Thank you.”

This was definitely a person concerned about money, Lance noted as Daisy went to place his order.

Lance had seated himself facing the door, as always, and he didn’t want to turn his head to gawk at the guy at the counter. But he could see a side view of him reflected in the chrome front of the jukebox. His long legs were bent at the knee, and he tapped the heel of his Converses on the linoleum floor nervously. Tap. Tap. In the reflection, the kid turned his head toward Lance. His heels went a little faster. Lance flexed his shoulders to make sure the guy noticed his sheriff’s department jacket.

Daisy brought the guy his salad-loaded grilled cheese and a big glass of milk.

“I didn’t order—”

“Do you like milk? We had a gallon about to go bad, so there’s no charge if you want it.”

“Oh… thank you,” the boy mumbled.

“Anything else I can get you, hon?”

“Um… Do you know where’s the closest place to get gardening supplies? Plant stakes. Potting soil. Stuff like that?”

Lance was out of the booth before the guy had finished speaking. He could feel the hair on the back of his neck and arms stand up with the kick of adrenaline that shot through him. But he forced himself to look relaxed as he walked to the counter and took the empty stool next to the stranger.

“Daisy, can you get Gus some more coffee?” he asked. Daisy’s mouth was still hanging open as if to answer the guy, or maybe in surprise.

“Uh… sure.” She took her cue and left them alone.

The guy peeked at Lance from under his bangs. This close up, his eyes were hazel and his face narrow, boyish, and somehow both shy and defiant at the same time. Lance found it strangely… appealing. He watched the boy’s Adam’s apple bob up and down as he swallowed. A faint tang of nervous sweat wafted up. Lance tried to be subtle as he leaned forward a tiny bit and sniffed.

The boy carried the scent of gasoline—he’d filled his car’s tank recently. He hadn’t showered in a day or two either—probably slept in his car. Below that was an interesting loamy smell, like the rich scent of earth, but not the soil from around here, someplace near the sea. And… pot. The sickly sweet smell of marijuana was fresh. Denim held on to smoke like a tight-fisted lawyer, but this wasn’t an old smell.

The guy said nothing, just picked up half his sandwich, head down, and took a bite. Lance continued to stare.

“There’s a Garden Center in Fresno,” he said, still staring.

“Oh…. Thanks,” the guy mumbled, chewing as if the sandwich might have ground glass in it and he had to be careful. His bright eyes darted everywhere but at Lance.

“Passing through?” Lance asked.


“Visiting family? Going camping? Taking a sabbatical?”

“I, um, just moved here.”

Damn it. Lance nodded knowingly, his eyes still fixed on the guy’s face. Sweat visible on the lip. Shoulders hunched. Definitely nervous.

“That so. Well, we could always use some fresh blood,” Lance said, not meaning a word of it. Not that he really minded people moving into the area—as long as they weren’t troublemakers. Or likely to dig into the town’s secrets. “Whatcha plan on growing?”

The guy stiffened, and his head swung around to directly meet Lance’s gaze for the first time. His hazel eyes darkened slightly, his pupils narrowing. His nostrils flared and the corner of his mouth wobbled.

That’s fear. Lance’s hackles raised a little more. He tensed, ready for a fight, or to catch this guy if he tried to bolt.

But what happened was the last thing Lance expected. The guy looked down at Lance’s uniform and suddenly barked out a laugh.

“Oh, right! Cop! I get it! Oh, sorry, I thought…. But you…. Here.”

The guy leaned forward and exhaled a long and heavy breath right into Lance’s face.

What the fuck?

Lance blinked rapidly in surprise.

“See? I’m not drunk or anything. Or stoned. Do I look it? I drove through the night, so I’m kinda rumpled. And probably I stink. I saw you sniffing me. But I’m not….” The guy seemed to catch up with Lance’s shocked expression. He turned an amazing shade of red. “Oh. Shit. Oh, God. I just breathed right in your face, didn’t I? People don’t do that, do they? I mean, it’s not like your nose is a breathalizer or anything. That was probably really rude. Oh, my God, I’m so sorry.”

Lance was still processing. The rich scent of the guy’s breath lingered in his nose—no hint of smoke of any kind but yummy with cheese and butter and bread and, below that, something human and sweet, like the smell of a young child playing in the dirt. That scent was incredibly distracting. Lance’s nose wanted to sniff out more of it, wanted to lean forward and bury itself in the guy’s mouth. He fought off this purely instinctual reaction of his dog while trying to logically process what the guy was doing.

Nobody could be that awkward. Was he playing with Lance? Acting dumb? Trying to derail the conversation? Pull one over on the backwater cop?

Lance narrowed his eyes. “What’s your name?” His voice was harder now.

“T-um… T-Timothy. Traynor. Oh, my gosh. Look at the time.” The guy stuffed the rest of the sandwich in his mouth, used one finger to pull up the sleeve of his jean jacket and look at his bare wrist. A hair past a freckle, then. He stood up, mouth stuffed full, made some frantic waving gestures, dug out a wad of bills from his jacket pocket, tossed a five and a one on the counter, and left.

Lance watched this little charade in utter stillness, his eyes never leaving the guy’s face, and then his car—an old, beat-to-shit pickup truck—as T-Timothy pulled out and drove down Main Street overly fast, then too slow, like he’d realized Lance was watching.

Daisy came over as Lance leaned forward to sniff at the guy’s abandoned airspace.

“Good Lord, Sheriff. What’d you say to that poor kid? He seemed really nice.”

“Yeah. If you don’t take into account that every word out of his mouth was a lie.” That, and the smell of pot.

Daisy looked torn between her loyalty to Lance and her natural friendliness. She was a second genner, and had come from retrievers anyway—not a breed prone to disliking strangers. She loved everybody. Which is why she was a waitress at the diner and Lance was the sheriff.

“That guy comes in again, you give me a call, you hear?” Lance said.

Daisy nodded reluctantly. “I was gonna give him some cake on the house. I don’t think he was lying about being broke. Not that he said that, but you could tell.”

No, Lance didn’t think he was lying about that either. But broke people sometimes did desperate things.
* * * * *
Tim pulled into the long driveway that led to Linda’s house, wove through the trees, and pulled to a stop in front of the small cabin. He patted the cracked red dashboard of his truck gratefully.

“You are the best truck in the whole wide world, Bessy. I needed you and you came through.”

He hadn’t expected her to make it all the way from Santa Barbara to Mad Creek—up mountains, no less. She had 120,000 miles logged on her odometer, and that was optimistic. For all Tim knew, it had rolled over at 999,999 and kept going. She was overdue for a tune-up and oil change—a task he’d put off because of a) money and b) time. So then of course when he’d needed to leave town urgently, and with no warning, she hadn’t been ready for the trip.

Neither had he. But here they were.

He’d been so worried about getting stranded in the middle of nowhere, he’d even picked up a young hitchhiker for company. The boy had been harmless but also a stoner. He’d reeked of pot and said ‘dude’ every third word. Big help he would have been if the truck had broken down. Tim hadn’t been sad to drop him off in Fresno.

He sighed, listening to Bessy’s engine tick in relief as it cooled, then got out and started hauling bags from the back. Everything he owned was in six large plastic trash bags. Plus he had one box of old gardening supplies. Those supplies were his personally, from when he’d owned his own gardening service.

You take one clipping, one seed, one plant tab, I will make sure you regret it!

He’d started that service when he was only twelve, and though he’d sold off his mower and leaf blower and some of the larger tools when he’d gone to work for Roots of Life at eighteen, he’d kept the smaller things in case he ever wanted to garden at home. In case he ever had a home.

He put the plastic bags and the box on the porch and looked around to take it all in, sniffed the crisp piney air.

Linda hadn’t been kidding when she’d said her cabin was a bit rough. She claimed a local guy looked after the place—did some basic yard work and maintenance once a month. But it didn’t look like Mr. Handyman had been there in a while. The grass needed cutting—it was probably the first real spring flush of March. There were small dead branches and twigs all over the place from a passing storm. The gravel driveway was holey and furred with clumps of weeds. The cabin….

Tim reached out his hand and ran his palm lightly over the old split logs that made up the wall next to the front door.

The cabin was home. At least for six months. The thought made Tim smile, and at the same time his heart pinged in anxiety. Only six months. He had six months rent-free from Linda in exchange for inventing her a hybrid rose that no one had ever succeeded in producing, six months to set up a profitable business selling what he grew so that once that grace period was up he could pay rent. And he had to do all of that from scratch, with nothing but one old box containing a few pairs of work gloves, trowels, small weeders, and other odds and ends. He had fifteen hundred dollars in the bank. Period.

I hear of you trying to grow and sell anything, and I will sue you so fast your head will spin! You think you can be somebody on your own? You have the social aptitude of a gnat, and you couldn’t run a business if Donald Trump himself was sitting on your shoulder.

Grief and anger blossomed in Tim’s chest, and he blinked his eyes hard. After all he’d done for Marshall… he’d thought they were business partners. Then he’d found out that their partnership consisted of him doing all the work and Marshall keeping all the profits and filing copyrights under his own name besides. Tim took a deep breath and looked around again at the tall pine trees and the big blue peak he could see over them. The Sierra Mountains were stunning.

He was here, in Mad Creek, in this beautiful place. He had a place to stay and work for the time being. He was going to be fine. More than that, he was going to enjoy this place. This was the first place he’d lived in that was his very own. He was going to make the most of it.

Tim felt a frisson of fear, and his thoughts went to the diner. Everything was going to be fine as long as he didn’t run into that cop again. What was with that? That… that gorgeous black-haired, blue-eyed man’s man in a uniform who’d sat down in Tim’s space, smelled him, and stared at him with these weird intent eyes. Tim had never seen a look like that before. It wasn’t a come-on. It was more like: Leave my town, leave now. Bwah-ha-ha. What the fuck? For one paranoid second, Tim had thought the cop must have been sicced on him by Marshall. But that made no sense. Marshall had no idea where Tim was, did he? He couldn’t. Hell, he’d just gotten there. No one knew he was in Mad Creek except Linda.

And then, of course, Tim had spazzed out, like he always did around people. Made an idiot of himself.

He sighed. Oh, well. He was never going to see that cop again, right?

He found the key just where Linda had said it would be hidden, dumped his bags inside, and went off to find the greenhouse.

The Lion and the Crow
Chapter 1
England, 1300
THE FIRST time William saw him, he was riding onto the tournament field on a red horse. His tunic was brilliant blue with a white eagle spreading its wings on the front, identifying him as one of Lord Brandon’s sons. Glinting plate armor covered his shoulders, his arms, and the tops of his legs. Underneath he wore black hose and boots.

It was a warrior’s habit to size up an enemy—or a rival. So William felt no shame in staring as he took the youth’s measure. What armor he wore was polished but functional. It was well used, not that of a mere peacock. A black velvet girdle hung low on his narrow hips. His shoulders were broad for his frame, but his chest was slender and his waist slim. There was nothing of the larder on him. He rode his mount as light as a feather. William’s eyes dropped to his spurs—gilded. He was a full knight. But William knew well enough that such a thing was expected for a son of the nobility and not always hard earned.

The round was archery, and the young knight was dressed for decoration rather than protection. On his head he wore neither helmet, beads, nor braids. His hair was nearly black, chopped shorter than was fashionable, and it was bristled on top in a barbaric style. It was a harsh warrior’s cut, but on him it only made a more open frame for his face. It was the finest face William had ever seen—long, narrow, and delicate, with full, quirked lips, a straight nose, dimpled chin, and broad, arched brows over large dark eyes. His skin was as pale as a bucket of cream. There was a natural rosy cast on the proud bones of his cheeks, which any maiden would kill her own dam for. It was a battle flush, perhaps, in anticipation of the contest.

William could form an impression in an instant, and he rarely changed it. In his mind there were men made for battle, rough-hewn and crude. Those were the men you wanted by your side—if their tempers were not too odious whilst in their cups. And then there were men made for the pleasing of women, as if God had put such men on earth for the sole purpose of warming a woman’s blood for her husband’s bed, thus guaranteeing the spread of the human race. The latter might well claim to be the former—as good in battle as any man, but rarely had William found it to be the case. Perhaps it was a problem of motivation. What man, given the choice, wouldn’t rather be thrusting between a woman’s thighs than thrusting a spear on the practice field? Beauty was most often lazy.

This young knight was definitely a woman-pleaser. He was beautiful in a way William had never seen in a man. In truth, he’d never seen it in a woman. That did little to inspire his trust. He registered the distinctly feminine cheers of welcome the crowd afforded the rider, aptly proving William’s point. And then the young knight rode past William… and looked at him.

It wasn’t a mere glance. The knight met William’s eyes when still ten paces away and held his gaze, unrelenting, as he rode in front of William. He even turned his head as he passed before letting his gaze finally slip away. William did not back down from the stare. He dropped his eyes for no man. But he stood stoically, nothing showing on his face. It seemed to take forever for the knight to pass, eons in which those eyes were locked on William’s. They were a rich dark brown and full of warmth and life. Even with the knight’s face placidly composed, those eyes seemed to speak volumes in a language William didn’t understand. They reached inside him and made his stomach clench hard with feeling.

Confusion? Curiosity? Outrage?

What did he mean by looking at William thus? They’d never met. Was it a challenge? A welcome to a stranger? The admiration of a young warrior to a mature one? Had he heard tales of William’s prowess? Or had he mistaken William for someone else?

William had stopped to watch the procession of archers on his way back from the stables, where he’d taken his tired mount after the last round of jousting. Now he found himself in a crowd of the castle’s laborers. One of them was a blacksmith, his beefy form wrapped in a scarred leather apron.

“D’ya know ’im?” he asked William. “The Crow?”

The blacksmith had apparently noticed the exchanged look. William frowned. “No. Did you say ‘the Crow’?”

The man chuckled. “Aye, poor lad. ’E’s the youngest of seven boys, and ’is brothers took all the more favorable names.”

Another man, craggy and shrunken with age, spoke up. “Lessee, there’s a bear, a boar, a fox—”

“Badger!” a third man said brightly. “That’s Sir Peter Brandon.”

“Aye. Badger. Hawk’s one, innit?”

“’Tis Sir Thomas,” the blacksmith agreed amiably.

“Lessee. Must be one more….” Craggy Face pondered seriously.

“Lion?” the third man suggested.

The blacksmith glanced at William’s tunic knowingly. “Nay. None of the lord’s sons ’as earned that title. And if the first two don’t, you can bet the rest won’t. Elder brothers won’t be outdone.”

“’Ence ‘the Crow.’” Craggy Face snorted.

“Hound,” the third man supplied helpfully. “Sir Malcolm, that one is.”

“’Ound! That’s got it done. He’s the tracker, innit? Looks a bit ’oundish too.” Craggy Face bared his teeth and chomped. A stench wafted on the breeze.

William’s eyes were drawn back to the Crow as he moved away, tall and straight in the saddle. From the back his shoulders looked broader still. They narrowed in a defined V to an almost delicate waist. William could feel his lip curl. “And that one? The Crow? Are all Lord Brandon’s sons like him? In my experience, a man so pleasing to the womenfolk is hard put to raise a sword, much less swing one.”

The blacksmith looked offended. “’Is name is Sir Christian. Aye, he looks fair enow, but ’e’s earned them spurs. Them brothers of his gave him no quarter. ’Ard as nails, every last one of ’em.”

“Aye, ’e’s a goer, Sir Christian is. Let’s go watch ’im shoot.” Craggy Face was all eager anticipation. He and his companion hurried away from William, following the general flow of the crowd toward the archery targets.

The blacksmith paused and gave William a friendly look. “Come and watch? The archery round’s the best o’ the day.”

William was tempted. He was curious to see the Crow shoot, to see if he had any skill to match that noble bearing. But then he thought better of it. He did not know what to make of the youngest Brandon, knew not the meaning behind his look. But an uneasy feeling warned him that keeping his distance was the most expedient course.

“Nay. I’m in search of a meal. Good morrow.”

William headed for the food stalls. He was here for a purpose. He needed to put his cause to Lord Brandon and earn his help. He couldn’t afford to antagonize any of the lord’s sons. And he couldn’t afford to get led astray with wenching, gaming, or fighting, either. His suit was too important—to Elaine and to himself.

As William walked away, the thwunk of arrows and the roar of the crowd rose up loud behind him.

“THE CHAMPION’S purse for archery goes to our own Sir Christian Brandon!” Lord Brandon held up the money pouch so the crowd could see it, and then he handed it to Christian.

Christian made a formal bow. “Father.”

The crowd cheered, and Lord Brandon met Christian’s gaze and smiled. It wasn’t a big smile, not the sort he gave Christian’s brothers freely and often, but it had genuine warmth in it all the same.

Christian’s blood thrummed in a splendid rush. It had been a good day. He’d won the archery competition handily, and the crowd had been behind him. Now this. It was worth the hours and days and years he’d spent practicing with the bow to have a skill that made his father proud.

Lady Gwendolyn leaned forward. Her lips were soft and perfumed as she gave Christian a lingering kiss on the cheek. The crowd’s murmurs turned into hoots of approval and a few cries for more. Christian ducked his head, pretending shyness, which earned him laughs and hearty slaps on the back from his father’s men on the dais. But he didn’t miss the look of disdain his older brothers Stephen and Duncan shared.

Let them be jealous, then. Or let them find him ridiculous. He didn’t care. To prove it, he waved the purse at the crowd and did a mock salute. That earned him more enthusiastic calls. But as he faced them, Christian found himself searching for one particular face in the crowd, one with lips not soft and most definitely not perfumed.

He didn’t find it.

THE KNIGHT wearing the red surcoat with the white lion over his armor reappeared in the late afternoon. He was competing in a joust against Christian’s brother, Sir Peter. The crier announced the stranger as Sir William Corbet. Christian had heard the name before. He thought the Corbets lived some distance southeast. Why had Sir William come so far for a modest tournament? Was he passing through and looking to win a few coins? Or was he possibly looking for a new lord? Would he be staying?

Christian had seen the knight’s face in the crowd on his way to the archery round, and it had stopped his heart and his common sense both, incinerated them in a whoosh like shavings of wood thrown on a flame. Even with his visor down, as it was now, Sir William drew attention effortlessly. He was tall and broad, strong and confident in the saddle. He rode sure and easy, and he handled the lance with restrained power. Peter was built like a stone wall, like most of Christian’s brothers, and he was one of their best jousters. But Sir William ducked Peter’s first charge easily and on the second hit Peter’s shoulder solidly with his lance and sent him tumbling from his horse.

William reined in his own mount and jumped to the ground, despite his heavy armor. He ducked under the center rope and helped Peter to his feet. Peter removed his helm, red-faced and breathless. Christian had a moment of fear. Peter had a foul temper, and he didn’t like to lose. But he acknowledged Sir William’s win with a nod and raised William’s hand to the crowd. William said something, and Peter laughed. The people approved, cheering them both loudly.

William took off his helmet and strode to the dais to receive his acknowledgment from Lord Brandon. He was magnificent.

Christian stood near the front of the dais, and he took in the sight of the Lion like a great draft. William had light brown hair, worn straight to just below the shoulders, serious and kind blue eyes, a square face, full lips, and a closely shaved beard. He looked tough—had the face of a man you wouldn’t want to cross. Yet there was honesty and a pleasing harmony in his expression that said he would never cross you. He was, in short, everything a knight was supposed to be—noble, powerful, and true. Christian had never seen his equal. Desire spiked in him, that dreaded, hot, heady, unwelcome feeling that betrayed and stung him, like an adder in his breast.

Christian realized he was staring openly. He silently cursed and looked around to be sure he hadn’t given himself away.

No one was looking at him.

Lord Brandon tossed the purse to Sir William. William caught it easily and bowed. His eyes flickered to Christian, and Christian dared a small smile and nod. A chill came over William’s face, and he turned his back—deliberately, it seemed—to face the crowd. He waved once more to the onlookers.

Christian felt the sting as if it were the swift slice of a bright-edged knife. He turned his head away in disappointment—only to find that someone was watching him after all. His brother Malcolm’s pinched and disapproving face stared at him from the back of the dais, his eyes hooded and far too knowing.

Unwrapping Hank
“SLOANE, why don’t you get us some more sangria? In the kitchen. On the kitchen table. That’s the good stuff.” Micah Springfield winked at me.

“You know, Hank is—” Brian started.

Micah put an arm around Brian’s neck in a casual stranglehold, clapped a hand over his mouth, and patted it lightly, as if he was joking around. “Sloane?” Micah held out his glass to me.

“Uh… sure.” I took his glass, wondering if this was a pledge thing. If I, as a new member of Delta Sigma Phi, and a lowly freshman, was going to be a community gopher for the foreseeable future.

But so far, Micah and the Delts had been amazingly benevolent. When I and four other freshmen rushed, there were no illegal pranks, panty-on-head wearing, belly-crawling through urine, or naked spanking. Which was good, because I would have laughed, ho ho ho, at least at everything except possibly the naked spanking. Then I’d have made a beeline for the exit.

I never thought I’d be the type to rush a frat. In fact, if my parents knew about it, they’d be lecturing me over the phone on peer pressure, the dangers of codependency in closed social structures, and the effects of one’s social group on GPA in a university setting. They were both psychologists, and I, I was their lifelong patient. Nothing in my life went undeconstructed. But when Micah, a TA in one of my classes, latched onto me and gave me the hard sell, I didn’t resist.

Micah Springfield was president of the Delts. He was that guy who was hipper than you could ever hope to be, even if you took master lessons from Bob Dylan and Will Smith. He was genuinely smart but a thousand leagues from being a nerd, good-looking but lazy with it, you know? He had wild curly brown hair down to his shoulders, with these little braids in it, dread-style, and a remarkably unskeevy soul patch. He wore slouchy low-riding jeans, crazy-patterned shirts, and leather sandals most of the time, even in November. He was a senior in environmental science, of course, because that’s what terminally hip people major in. And he had these insightful brown eyes, eyes that looked right into yours and said I’m touching your soul, brother.

Micah was warm. In other words, the opposite of my parents.

Besides, the Delts lived in a cool old mansion, which was so much better than sharing a dumpy dorm room with my perpetually anxious, tums-chewing, pre-med roommate. I was over all the hair-pulling. He pulled his own hair, not mine, but still. I was definitely ready to move into a room in the Delts house that first weekend in November.

And if I’d had some stirrings of attraction to Micah at first, it honestly had nothing to do with my decision. I figured out in the first ten minutes that he was straight, and that was the end of that. Tiny nubbin of interest nipped in the bud, and we were both the better for it.

“Kitchen,” I repeated, looking pointedly at the punch bowl not two feet away.

“Trust me,” Micah insisted, winking at me again.

I sighed and went off to find the frat house kitchen.
* * * * *
I pushed through a swinging door and saw a refrigerator. I’d found the kitchen. My sense of accomplishment lasted for about two seconds. Then I noticed the guy standing at the sink doing dishes.

The Delts I’d met so far were upscale-looking guys. Even with Micah’s slouchy hippiness, there was a sense of quality about him that shone. And the other frat members, like Brian, tended to polo shirts and button-downs and managed to tread that narrow line between respectable students and nerds. They were more prone to hacky-sack and ultimate Frisbee on the front lawn than video games or football and steroids. It was a zone I felt comfortable in, if not one where I precisely belonged.

But this creature at the sink was something else.

He was a big guy, had to be over six feet and he was broad. He wore old, holey jeans that showcased a perfect, firmly rounded ass. On top, he wore a white tank top and nothing else, which left acres of huge muscles and tattoos exposed. He had a thick buzz cut and a full beard. One bare foot was propped up on the opposing calf as he washed glasses in hot, soapy water.

I clenched the stems of the glasses in my hands so hard it was a miracle they didn’t break. Black began to descend on my vision, and it took me a moment to identify the problem—I wasn’t breathing. Silly me. I gasped in a mouthful of oxygen, and the sound caused Sink Guy to turn his head to look at me.

“Hey.” Sink Guy’s grunt was low and rough like a dog or a bear. He turned around and went back to washing dishes.

I loved a good mystery. In fact, I found it boring how unmysterious life was most of the time. Study the material, get correct answers on tests, get a good grade, eventually get lots of good grades to get a good job. Point A to B to C. And people? Growing up the son of two psychologists, and furthermore being a huge fan of murder mysteries, I had a tendency to analyze people and put them in boxes fairly quickly. For example, the pinch of my mother’s mouth could indicate long-suffering, irritated, or secretly pleased, depending on its exact tension. There’s a look a guy gets in his eye when he’s attracted to you and a different look when he finds out you’re gay and he’s disgusted by that. Most people were open books.

But standing in that kitchen, my head was flooded with a dozen questions.

Who was this guy?

What was he doing in the Delts’s kitchen washing dishes? He didn’t look like a Delt, but he didn’t look like anyone a sane person would hire for catering or cleanup either.

He seemed young, about my age, yet I knew he wasn’t a freshman rushee, because I’d met all of them and we were currently being schmoozed out front in our ‘welcome to the frat’ party.

Why was he barefoot?

If he was a Delt, why was he hiding in the kitchen doing dishes instead of socializing with everyone else?

And why, oh, why did I have an overwhelming urge to run my hands over the plump muscles on those arms, shoulders, and back, when I’d never before in my life been attracted to muscle guys or tattoos? The guys I’d dated had been smart and fairly sophisticated. A guy like this should not move me. But he did, like Mt Vesuvius.

Oh God, was I going to hell? Would I end up living in Texas?

The guy looked over his shoulder at me again. His eyes were dark blue, with what looked like flecks of gold, and he had long, long black lashes. They were soft eyes.

How did a guy who looked like an ex-con have eyes that were that sweet?

“Need something?” he asked me with a slight frown.

Right. Because standing frozen by the kitchen door holding two glasses in a death grip was not weird at all.

I cleared my throat. “Refill.” I spotted the pitcher of sangria on the table and managed to fill up the two glasses. The guy had gone back to ignoring me, gently clinking glasses in the water and being ridiculously noir with the steam from the sink wafting around him like a figure in an old Humphrey Bogart film.

Some snooping was definitely in order. I left Micah’s glass on the table and wandered over to the sink with my sangria.

“Are you a Delt?” I asked, all casual.

He took his hands out of the suds and braced them on the edge of the sink. They were thick hands, flush with veins.

He looked me over critically, and I tried not to betray the fact that I found him incredibly attractive. Playing it cool, I took a sip of my drink.

“Yeah,” he said at last. “I’m Hank. Who are you?”

Oh, God. Oh, no. “Sloane. Greg Sloane.”

“Oh.” His face closed off in a heartbeat. He went back to washing dishes. “Yeah, Micah mentioned you.”

As it happened, I’d heard of Hank too. Hank—the one guy at the fraternity who’d voted against my membership, a fact I shouldn’t know but did because Brian had let it spill. He’d also told me to “never mind Hank. Just stay far away from the guy, and he won’t bother you.” The impression I’d been left with was that bothering me—maybe with his fists—was entirely possible should I accidentally annoy this paragon.

Hank, the one Delt I’d never met but had a vague notion was homophobic and thus hated me on principle.

That’s when I noticed the cross tattooed on his impressive left bicep. Without another word, I picked up Micah’s drink and went back out into the living room. My heart was beating fast, and something like disappointment burned in my stomach.

“Hey,” Micah said. He took his glass and threw his other arm around me. “Come on, I want you to meet Sam Wiser. He’s a junior and in the vet sciences program too.”

“Sure, uh… There was a guy in the kitchen… Hank.”

Micah stopped and looked at me, smiling shyly. “Yeah? What’d you think?”

What’d I think?

“He seemed really… domesticated. You know, for a white supremacist.”

I was being perhaps a wee bit judgmental, but Micah laughed, a big booming laugh that made everyone turn to see what was so funny.

“I guess you know the guy,” I commented, even more perplexed by Micah’s reaction.

“Oh, I know him.” Micah pulled me in by the neck to whisper in my ear. “Hank is my baby brother.”

Puzzle Me This


A Praire Dog's Love Song

How to Howl at the Moon

The Lion and the Crow

Unwrapping Hank