Monday, September 4, 2017

Monday Morning's Menu: Sweet Spot: The Petit Mort Stories by Josh Lanyon


Sweet Spot: The Petit Mort Stories by Josh Lanyon(Petit Morts #2, 4, 7, 9, 14)
Summary:
For less than a dollar a piece, sample five deliously bittersweet novelettes, ten to twelve thousand words in length, each story a standalone and complete in itself. The Petit Mort stories are framed around a mysterious Tim Burton-esque chocolate shop known as Sweets to the Sweet, which acts as a catalyst for the unfolding and often peculiar romances.

The Petit Morts are also collected in print in the In Sunshine or In Shadow anthology.


Other People's Weddings #4
Planning wealthy socialite Mallory Dalrymple’s wedding is the coup of the year—maybe of Griffin Skerry’s entire career. If only Mallory wasn’t marrying Griffin’s ex. And if only Joe wasn’t messing with Griffin’s mind by sending all these mixed signals.

Of course, it could always be worse—and before long, it is.

Much worse.

Slings and Arrows #2
Carey Gardner receives an enormous box of chocolates from a secret admirer for Valentine’s Day. Being a pretty straightforward kind of guy, Carey’s not really comfortable with expensive presents from persons unknown, and he’s less comfortable when his friends Ben and Heath tell him the story about a serial killer who once stalked the Hartsburg College campus.

Not that Carey really believes his secret admirer is up to anything very sinister—besides, he’s already got enough problems falling for Walter Sterne, a brilliant but socially awkward grad student. Carey’s friends are warning him against Walter, and even Walter isn’t very encouraging.

Sometimes life really is like a box of chocolates.

Sort of Stranger Than Fiction #7
When Michael Milner opens a dojo across the street from Ethan's bookstore, Red Bird Books, he makes ripples not only because he's a newcomer in the small desert town of Peabody, but because half his face has been horribly scarred. How? Ethan isn't sure. Michael's not exactly the chatty type, which only adds to his allure.

Michael may not be the most sociable person in Peabody, but he's quick to defuse a tense situation when Ethan finds himself cornered by Karl Hagar, fellow writing group member, and creepy author of even creepier serial killer tales. Ethan's sister Erin is convinced that Karl himself is responsible for the bodies turning up lately in the desert—after all, don't all the advice books say, "Write what you know?"

While Erin's idea seems pretty far-fetched, Ethan does have to wonder why Karl's eerie focus has landed squarely on him.

Critic's Choice #9
If there’s one thing film critic Crispin Colley can say about his ex-boyfriend Rey, it’s that Rey likes to remain friends with all his former lovers. Rey’s a friendly guy. Maybe too friendly, judging by the incident that drove the first and last nail in the coffin of their relationship.

But now Rey’s been hired for a DVD commentary on a classic horror flick. In typical Rey-fashion, he’s used his clout as a lauded director to win Cris a spot on the commentary right beside the star of the film, his idol, Angelo Faust.

The recording of the commentary goes about as smoothly as a half-decayed film through a stuttering projector…but that’s nothing compared to the strange scene that unfolds once the tape’s done rolling.

Just Desserts #14
Broken in body and crippled in spirit, Ridge Baneberry sees death as the only way out. Not his death, of course—the death of his obnoxious cousin, Raleigh, the one who was responsible for the accident. It’s not easy plotting the perfect murder from his wheelchair, but when Raleigh’s body is eventually found, who’s going to suspect a cripple? Ridge might not be able to get around so easily, but if there’s one thing he has, it’s time.

Then a painfully cheerful physical therapist named Tug shows up at his front door with an appointment book and an agenda. Tug’s personality is equal measures of patience, optimism, and warm Georgia sunshine.

Since this Tug person won’t take no for an answer, Raleigh decides he might as well put him to good use. Almond candy would be the perfect camouflage for a lethal dose of cyanide, and Tug knows just where some gourmet chocolates can be found…. 


Other People's Weddings
“I’d rather be dead than wear this!”

Griff dropped the latest issue of Elegant Bride as Madeline Dalrymple burst from the dressing room cubicle, shot across the showroom floor, and slammed out the front glass door of Venetian Bridal Gowns. Her exit bore an unfortunate resemblance to a big purple balloon flying wild after being jabbed by a pin.

Mallory, Madeline’s sister, appeared at the mouth of the hall to the dressing rooms, looking exasperated.

Sometimes Griff suspected that brides deliberately picked the worst possible dresses for their bridesmaids and maids of honor. Or maybe it wasn’t deliberate. Maybe it was subconscious, a paying back of old scores, a testing of true devotion. The Watters & Watters strapless sheath of lilac layered over hot pink chiffon would have flattered Mallory’s tall, slim, brunette beauty, but it made short, plump Madeline look like a Purple People-Eater after a good meal.

 “Well?” Mallory said to Griff.

“Well?” Griff returned blankly, with an uneasy look at Sasha, co-owner of Venetian Bridal Gowns. Sasha raised her shoulders infinitesimally.  After twenty years of dealing with brides and bridesmaids, she didn’t bother trying to understand, she rode the whirlwind the best she could -- and cashed in at the end of the ride.

“Go after her,” Mallory ordered. “Are you my wedding planner or not?”

Mallory’s idea of Griff’s job description was a cross between a personal assistant and confidante. By the second week of accepting the job of coordinating Mallory and Joe Palmer’s nuptials, Griff knew he’d made a deal with the devil. Possibly literally. But the Dalrymples were Binbell’s wealthiest family, and Dalrymple-Palmer wedding was going to be the social event of the season -- plus he needed the money. In these days of economic hardship prospective brides might not be willing to cut costs on dresses or cakes or hair stylists, but hapless wedding planners all too often fell under the heading Optional.

This, however, was different. Griff was experienced enough to know Lord help the mister who comes between a bride and her sister. “I don’t think it’s my place --”

“Of course it’s your place,” Mallory snapped. “Whose place would it be? You need to get her in line before she wrecks my wedding.”

“She’s still wearing her three hundred and forty-five dollar bridesmaid dress,” Sasha pointed out mildly.

Now and again co-ownership seemed like more trouble than it was worth. Griff choked back words he would regret once he started juggling utility bills on the space next door, and pushed out through the glass door. The jaunty notes of the Wedding March followed before the door closed and cut them off.

The L-shaped strip mall, locally known as Wedding Aisle, consisted of Venetian Bridal Gowns, Skerry Weddings, and Guy’s Tuxedos. On the hook of the “L” was Betty Ann’s Crafts and Supplies. It was, as they said, a match made in heaven.

Maddy’s blue Sebring convertible was still parked between Griff’s classic red VW Beetle and Mallory’s BMW Z4, but there was no sign of the runaway bridesmaid. He ducked his head inside Skerry Weddings, but Mallory was not hiding out there. He walked around the buildings to the end of the strip mall.

Maddy was walking up and down the asphalt drive behind Guy’s, smoking a cigarette. She looked up with raccoon eyes at Griff’s approach and snorted. She had stopped crying, which was a huge relief.

“Fuck, Skerry. Don’t you have any pride?”

“Look,” Griff spoke awkwardly. “Mallory’s sorry if she didn’t seem sympathetic, but it’s too late to change the dresses. This is the final fitting.”

“She’s not sorry,” Maddy spat out. “She wants me to look like a fucking circus freak. She deliberately picked the dress that would make me look worst. You were there. You saw. She could have picked the dress I liked, but oh no! It had to be something only her and her anorexic friends could wear.”

Griff managed not to sigh. It had seemed that way to him too, but experience had taught him the sister dynamic was a weird one. A decade of organizing other people’s weddings had made him very glad he’d been born an only child.

He said patiently, “Mallory’s wedding is the most important day of a woman’s life, so naturally she wants everything to be perfect. The way she always imagined it. You’ll see when your turn comes.”

Maddy’s tear streaked face screwed into an expression of disgust. “First bullet point: I am never getting married. And if I did get married, it wouldn’t be in one of these big fat geek weddings. Second bullet point: her wedding day is not the most important day of a woman’s life. Do you honestly believe that shit?”

Er…no. Not really. Not exactly. He believed in marriage, obviously. Believed in commitment. A wedding was an important symbol of commitment, a significant milestone, but the single most important one? No. How could it be when most women married men, and most men didn’t consider their wedding the most important day of their lives?

Then again, he arranged weddings for a living so...

He was still trying to think of a compromise answer when Maddy said scornfully, “Don’t you find it ironic that all these people who despised you and made fun of you in high school hire you to do their weddings?”

Griff flushed. He said defensively, “High school was a long time ago. Everybody does things they regret.”

“They don’t regret anything they did,” Maddy retorted. “They thought you were a joke then and they think you’re a joke now. The gay wedding planner. They’re laughing at you.”

This attack caught him off balance -- not least because he and Maddy were not close. There had been three years between them in school, and whether Maddy believed it or not, her family and her money ensured she had never truly been the social outcast she imagined. For a moment he was right back there. Right back in Mrs. Dodge’s tenth grade biology class, struggling not to cry because no one wanted him for a lab partner. No, because Hammer Sorensen had humiliated him once again with a cruel but accurate imitation of Griff’s light voice and slightly affected speaking manner. The horror of breaking down in front of the goggling, giggling class. Like falling in the snow in front of a pack of wolves.

He could practically smell the formaldehyde. Hear the whispers... But he wasn’t fifteen years old anymore, and he hadn’t cried since that day. Griff said shortly, “I don’t think anyone would trust a day as important or an event as expensive as a wedding to someone they considered a joke. Are you coming back inside?”

Maddy raised her brows as though this sudden display of spine was unexpected. She flicked her cigarette to the asphalt and crushed it beneath her kitten heel. “I don’t have a choice. Mommy Dearest will disinherit me again if I spoil Mal’s big day.”

True. Dilys Dalrymple’s tight clutch on the Dalrymple purse strings was the ace up Griff’s sleeve. He was leery of playing it, though, not least because it would require him having to deal with Dilys. She was more alarming than both of her daughters put together.

As she walked past him Maddy said, “You’re good at what you do, Skerry. That’s true. But my sister can afford the best in the entire country. Maybe you should ask yourself why she wanted you?”

Slings and Arrows
It was a cold winter’s night in Hartsburg.

A moon as dry and white as cork shone over the shadowed hills and dales of the Napa Valley, shone like a distorted clockface in the wine dark water of the Napa River. In the small town, shops were closing -- window displays of red and pink hearts, overweight cupids -- winking out. Down wide and shady streets, curtains and blinds were drawn across remodeled Victorian windows to keep out the chill rustling in the eucalyptus trees.

Over at the college, students walked in pairs or singly across the well-lit campus. The blazing buildings in Dorm Row pulsed with a variety of musical beats: The Flaming Lips vying with Lady Gaga for air space.

Carey Gardner, twenty-three, blond, cute, and brighter than he looked, pushed open the door to his dorm room on the third floor in Pio Pico House to find it, as usual, crowded with his roommate Sty’s buddies watching TV.

“Yo, Bones!” Sty waved a beer in greeting.

“Yo,” Carey responded, swallowing his irritation. The “Bones” joke was getting old. It was all getting old. For some reason Sty had taken Carey’s change of major to anthropology personally. Sty was still clinging to his major in management and entrepreneurship, which, granted, was better than the physical education major of a lot of the other guys on the swim team.

“Where’ve you been?”

“Library.”

“Dude.”

There was pity in Sty’s voice. Whatever. They’d started out friends -- technically they were still friends -- and they were rooming together by choice. Or maybe it was more habit. Either way, Carey was not being held prisoner in Suite E (commonly known as Cell Block 8).

The problem was, Sty was the same easygoing, fun-loving goofball he’d been as a freshman. And Carey... was not.

In order to graduate on time, Carey had to make up a couple of classes he’d blown off the first time around. His courseload was heavy and his sense of humor was not what it had once been.

“Make way for Dr. Leakey,” Sty ordered, and the interchangeable frat boy sprawling on Carey’s bed, shifted to the foot of it and gave Carey a glinting look from beneath his shaggy bangs.

Yeah. Like that was going to happen. Like Carey was going to lie down, sheep to the slaughter, in the midst of these assholes.

“You’re blocking the TV, dude,” someone else said irritably.

Carey dropped his backpack under his desk, well out of the way of temptation -- although it was unlikely any of Sty’s pals would be tempted by anthropology books. Or any books that didn’t have plenty of pictures of naked girls.

“Have a beer.” Sty used the remote to turn down the sound on the TV to the vocal disappointment of an audience that didn’t want to miss one single second of Olympic ski jumping.

 “Thanks, but I’m --” Carey hooked a thumb over his shoulder to indicate he was on his way out again -- although it was nine-thirty now and he had to get up for swim practice at five. They both did.

“Wait, wait.” Sty actually bothered to push upright. “Something came for you.” He jumped up and grabbed a large flat box wrapped in distinctive red paper with a black ribbon.

“What is it?”

“It’s from that shop in the town square.”

 “What shop?” Carey asked slowly.

Sty lifted the box and checked the gold label beneath. “Sweets to the Sweet.”

“Candy? I didn’t order that.”

Five pairs of gleaming eyes zeroed on Carey. In fact, he thought he saw a pair of yellow eyes shining beneath the bed. The promise of free chocolate was not to be taken lightly in this jungle.

 “Well, if you didn’t order it, maybe it’s a gift. Maybe your parents sent it.”

“Or your girlfriend,” another of the jerk-offs put in.

Carey ignored him. He reached for the box; Sty handed it over reluctantly.

“You’re not going to eat that whole thing yourself?” he protested, as Carey turned to the doorway. “You’re in training.”

“So are you, dude. I’m saving you from yourself.”

“He’s headed for Little Castro,” someone cooed as Carey closed the door behind him.

On the other side of the sound barrier Carey took a couple of steadying breaths. Not worth it.

He knocked on the door to the left.

“Venido adentro!” The voice behind the door was muffled.

Carey opened the door to Heath and Ben’s room.

Heath Rydell was lying on his bed in paisley boxer shorts reading the CliffsNotes to The Mill on the Floss. He was a tall, languid-looking young man with red hair and wide brown eyes. Ben Scully sat at his desk jotting down notes from a book titled 501 Spanish Verbs.

“Hola.” He was smiling. Ben was blond, broad-shouldered and blunt-featured. He wore jeans and a Hartsburg College tee shirt.

“Don’t those douchebags ever shut up?” Heath inquired. It was a rhetorical question.

Carey held up the wrapped box. “I come bearing gifts.”

At the promise of food, Heath, who looked like a consumptive and ate like a horse, sat up. “What is it?”

“Candy, I think.”

“Where did it come from?” Ben asked, setting aside his book.

“I don’t know.” Carey flopped comfortably down on the foot of Ben’s bed and slid the black ribbon off the box. “I guess someone sent it.”

He ripped open the blood red paper and his eyebrows shot up. He lifted out the heart-shaped box. “Candy for sure.”

“Wow,” said Heath, scrambling over to the foot of his own bed. “Look at that thing.”

“That thing” was an old-fashioned confection of red velvet, pink silk roses, and a black satin ribbon.

“That must be two or three pounds of chocolate,” Ben said, impressed.

“There’s a card.” Heath got up and knelt beside the bed at Carey’s feet, reaching beneath the blue comforter. “It fell when you lifted the box out.” He handed the small white envelope to Carey.

Carey slid his thumb under the flap, slid the card out. He read aloud, “From your secret admirer.”

Heath chortled as Ben inquired, “Who’s your secret admirer?”

Carey shook his head.

The three of them considered the bizarre notion of Carey having a secret admirer.

“No offense, darling, but you’re not the type.”

Ben shot Heath an impatient look.

“It’s true,” Heath insisted. “Look at him.”

They both studied Carey, who stared uneasily back at them.

“If he was any more vanilla he’d come in a bottle.”

“Thanks!”

The other two snickered.

At last Heath said, “Are you going to open that or just fondle the ribbon all night?”

Carey snapped out of his preoccupation and slid the ornamental lid carefully off the heart-shaped box. The smell of chocolate -- good chocolate -- wafted through the over-warm room. He closed his eyes and inhaled. It was unreal, that scent. Like pheromones or something. Weight was not a problem for him, but he was in training, and this was Jesus, that smelled good...

He resisted the temptation to bury his face in the box and graze; instead he bravely settled for a single dark chocolate and almond cluster, handing the rest of the candy around.

“Whoever he is, he has good taste,” Ben said, his mouth full of marzipan.

“He? It’s probably a chick,” Heath objected. “You know who it is? It’s probably that Nona chick from your anthropology class. She’s got the hots for you, dude.”

Carey shook his head. A three-pound box of fine chocolates -- and these were very fine indeed -- probably cost as much as a ten meal card at the cafeteria. Nona was always broke.

“Or what’s her name. Pronzini.”

“Kayla?” Carey said. “No way. She hates me.”

“That’s what you think. I think she’s one of those chicks who acts out her attraction in misdirected aggression.”

“One semester of psychology and he thinks he’s an expert.” Ben reached for the box of chocolates again. “By the way, Skeletor was looking for you earlier.”

Carey nearly choked on his chocolate. “Walt was here? In this suite? What did he want?”

“Walt!” hooted Heath. “I want to see you call Walter Sterne Walt to his face.”

Carey and Ben both ignored that, Ben answering, “He didn’t say.”

“Did he leave a number?”

“No.”

“He didn’t say I should call him at Professor Bing’s office or anything?”

“No. Nothing. He was on his way out when I arrived,” Ben explained patiently. “I happened to catch him on the stairs. He said he was looking for you but you weren’t in. That was it. That was our entire conversation.”

“What time was this?”

Ben looked at Heath. Heath considered while he munched. “Eight? Eight-thirty?”

Carey scowled thoughtfully.

“Are you in trouble or something?”

“Me? No. I...”

“Hey.” Heath sat bolt upright. “Maybe Skeletor left the chocolates for you!”

“Don’t call him that,” Carey said, pained.

“Why not. That’s who he looks like. That’s who he acts like.” Heath quoted in a nasal Skeletor-like voice, “I must possess all, or I possess nothing!”

“He’s been totally cool with me,” Carey said. “I never would’ve gotten into Advanced Ethnographic Field Methods if he hadn’t talked to Professor Bing for me.”

“Gee, that would have ruined your life.”

“It would have kept me from graduating. It’s not offered next semester and it’s a required class.”

 “He likes you,” Ben said with feeling.

“Everyone likes Carey.” There was a tinge of acid in Heath’s tone.

“Holy crap.” Ben stopped, staring down at the box of chocolates as though he’d tasted arsenic.

“What?” Carey asked uneasily.

Ben’s bright blue eyes met his. “Nothing. I mean... I was thinking...”

“No wonder he scared himself,” Heath put in, predictably.

“You were thinking... ?”

“About the Valentine’s Day Killer.”

In the sudden silence he could hear the muffled sounds of TV and voices from the room next door.

“Huh?” Carey said at last.

“You’ve heard that story. Everyone has.” Heath sounded bored, but his gaze was riveted to Ben’s.

“Not me.”

“It’s an urban legend.”

“What’s the story?”

Heath was looking pointedly at Ben.

“This is way back in the seventies,” Ben reluctantly took over. “It was like over a period of five years or something, right?”

Heath nodded.

“Every year, right before Valentine’s Day, a girl on campus would get a big fancy box of chocolates from a secret admirer.”

He stopped.

Carey prodded, “And?”

“The girl would be found stabbed to death on Valentine’s Day.”

“What?” Carey burst out laughing.

“Hand to God, dude.”

“Sure it is.” He waited for Heath or Ben to break the straight faces. Both continued to look solemn. “That is such total bullshit. You totally made that up.”

“Swear to God, dude.” Heath put his hand over his heart. “Swear. To. God.”

“No. Fuck. Ing. Way.”

Heath spread his hands and looked at Ben for confirmation.

“It’s true,” Ben said. Unlike Heath, Ben knew enough not to milk a joke to the last laugh, but he still wasn’t smiling.

“Let me guess the rest. He was an escaped maniac from the local mental institution -- and he had a hook for hand.”

Ben and Heath spluttered into guffaws.

“No. Seriously,” Ben protested. “They never caught the guy.”

“Or gal,” Heath interjected.

“What, he just stopped?”

Ben said seriously, “He probably graduated.”

“To what? Mass murder?”

They all snickered uneasily.

Another blast of laughter and voices from next door filled the suddenly awkward pause.

“So... you two sent this box of candy, right?”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Heath said, and Ben looked blank and uncomfortable. “That’s too pricey a joke for my budget. Although these are probably the best chocolates I’ve ever had.” Heath considered the tray of nuts, creams, and caramels before him and reached for another.

They chomped in silence. From the other side of the suite they could hear music, the thudding of a bass. Sometimes Carey thought that was the toughest part of dorm life. The lack of silence. Although the silence in this room was plenty loud.

He said abruptly, “Right. Whatever. I think I’ll go the library.”

Heath said, “Weren’t you just at the library?”

At the same time Ben said, “Now? It’s ten o’clock.” He was frowning, looking worried.

“The library stays open till three.”

“Yeah, but you’re the guy who can’t stay awake past eleven.”

“So I’ll sleep in the library. I’m sure as hell not going to be able to sleep with those loudmouths in my room.”

“Throw ’em out,” Heath advised nonchalantly.

“Like that’s going to happen.”

“Tell Sty --”

“Look, I’ll leave the chocolates with you.”

“Oh.” Heath subsided, shoving a pecan cluster in his mouth and reaching for The Mill on the Floss CliffsNotes once more. He said thickly, “In that case --”

Sort of Stranger Than Fiction
His name was Michael.

Not Mike. Not Mikey. Certainly not Micky.

Michael.

Like the archangel.

Michael Milner of Milner’s Martial Arts. Two doors down from Red Bird Books and Coffee in the self-consciously rustic Viento Square mini mall. He’d been in business six weeks, which was a long time given the economy -- and a town the size of Peabody. That was two weeks longer than Paper Crane Stationery had lasted. He wasn’t packing them in like the candy shop, but he seemed to be doing all right. He had students. Mostly skinny boys and girls needing to be kept busy during their summer vacation.

Michael looked like an archangel too. He was built like a runner or a knight of old. Tall, lean, wide shoulders and ropy muscles. His hair was nearly shoulder length -- when he didn’t have it tied back -- and of the palest gold. Not that Ethan -- who owned the book store half of Red Bird Books and Coffee and hoped to be a published author one day -- would have normally used that kind of hyperbole to describe Michael, but blond just didn’t seem to cover that particular shade which somehow brought to mind the gleaming tips of arrows or reverberating harp strings. Michael’s eyes were blue, the blue of a cloudless sky or the color you believe water is when you’re a little kid. His face was beautiful. Really beautiful. Elegant, almost exotic, bone structure -- at least on the one side of his face.

The right half of his face had been destroyed at some point. Smashed and burned, it looked like, though Ethan was no expert -- and he tried very hard not to stare. They -- whoever they were -- had tried to rebuild Michael and they’d saved his eye, but the skin looked like it had been stretched too tight over reconstructed bones. It had a stiff, shiny, inflexible quality. Since Michael was mostly expressionless, it wasn’t as noticeable as it might have been if he’d been the smiley, chatty kind.

Ethan figured he’d had about thirty words out of Michael in the weeks since he’d opened the dojo. Actually it was more like one word thirty times -- Thanks when Ethan handed him his change.

It was Chance from next door’s Sweets to the Sweet who had told Ethan that Michael had been Special Ops in Afghanistan.

“How’d you find that out?” Ethan asked through a mouthful of divinity fudge. Chance was generous with his samples. Maybe that was why Sweets to the Sweet had been a hit practically from the moment the doors opened.

Chance raised a negligent shoulder. He reminded Ethan of a cat. Sleek and graceful and inscrutable. Chance and his boutique chocolates seemed even more out of place in Peabody than Michael Milner’s kajukenbo lessons.

“Do you know what happened to his --?” Ethan put a hand to his own right cheek bone rather than complete the sentence. It was probably in bad taste to ask such a question but it’s wasn’t possible to pretend he hadn’t noticed. He found Michael fascinating. He wanted to know everything about him. He told himself it was his writer’s imagination wanting fuel for the fire.

“Why don’t you ask him?” Chance had returned too innocently.

Ethan had retreated instantly from the suggestion. Of course he would never ask -- who the hell would ask that kind of question? Even if his previous attempts to be friendly to Michael hadn’t fallen flat. Michael was unfailingly polite and unfailingly distant. On the rare occasion that he bothered to make eye contact with Ethan, he seemed to see something slightly off center that made him narrow his gaze.

Ethan swallowed the last heavenly bit of white fudge. How was it that everything in Sweets to the Sweet was so delicious?  He half suspected Chance of adding addictive substances. It wouldn’t surprise him. He made Ethan a little uncomfortable sometimes -- like now when he was studying Ethan as though he could see right into the secret corners of his mind. The places Ethan himself was afraid to explore too closely.

“I should get back.” Ethan rubbed his fingers, trying to remove the lingering sugary sweetness. He headed for the door.

“Ethan?”

Ethan glanced back.

Chance smiled that sly smile of his. “He’s not married.”

* * * * *

“What’s the matter with you?” Erin asked when Ethan returned to the bookstore.

Ethan wiped his forehead. “Nothing.”

“You look like you have sunstroke.”

It was hot enough for sunstroke. Summers in Peabody were like vacationing in Hell. Minus the scenery.

“It’s just... hot.”

“Understatement. Here try this.” Erin leaned across the counter and handed over a tiny paper cup with chilled pale green liquid.

Ethan took an incautious sip. He was still badly shaken by the encounter with Chance. It wasn’t that he was closeted exactly. Being the only gay man in Peabody -- the only gay person as far as he could tell -- his sexuality was as irrelevant as if he’d taken a vow of chastity. Erin, his twin sister, was straight and had pretty much the same problem. With a population of 339, there were not many unmarried eligible people of their age in the little desert town.

No, it wasn’t that Chance had correctly identified him as gay. Heck, Ethan had originally wondered if Chance might be gay. It was that Chance had correctly identified Ethan’s interest in Michael. Ethan himself had strenuously avoided recognizing his interest for what it was, but he could no longer avoid the truth. The fact was he, well, he had a thing for Michael.

Had it bad. Bad enough that other people had noticed.

Had Michael noticed?

Ethan nearly choked as the mint green slime slid down his throat.

“What do you think?” Erin asked.

Frozen Nyquil? Chilled hemlock? One could never be sure with Erin. Ethan cleared his throat. “Uh...” He took another sip to avoid having to answer. It seemed to be mostly ice, mint with perhaps a hint of coffee. Whatever it was, it wasn’t very good. But then most of Erin’s experiments weren’t. She was a passionate and spectacularly ungifted barista. Luckily for everyone in Peabody -- and the financial stability of Red Bird Books and Coffee -- she stuck mostly to the premixed recipes.

“Hmm. I don’t know.”

“What do you think it needs?”

 “Chocolate?”

Erin brightened, looking past Ethan. “Here comes Michael.”

Ethan stiffened. A hasty glance over his shoulder offered a view of Michael pushing through the front door of Red Bird Books and Coffee. As usual, when he spotted Ethan, Michael’s face grew more impassive than ever and he got that squint like Ethan was a foreign particle that had flown into his eye.

 If Chance had so easily recognized Ethan’s attraction to Michael, it was more than probable that so had Michael. No wonder he looked pained every time he spotted Ethan.

Ethan mumbled an inarticulate hello and retreated hastily for the back of the store and the comfort of the stock room.

Michael usually came in twice a day. In the morning he ordered a medium house blend. In the afternoon he ordered a fruit smoothie. Sometimes the mixed berry with acacia and sometimes the citrus cooler with passion fruit. Once a week, usually on Friday, he’d buy a book. Those brief Friday encounters had been the high point of Ethan’s week for the last month and a half.

He lurked in the back for a few minutes waiting miserably for the coast to clear. He could hear Erin’s cheerful voice and a lot less frequently, the dark, blurred tones of Michael, and then Erin called, “Ethan, what are you doing back there? You’ve got a customer.”

 Ethan groaned silently and walked out to the front.

“Were you working on your book?” Erin teased.

Ethan scowled at her. Erin found the idea that Ethan was seriously trying to write a book endlessly entertaining. She’d told everyone they knew that Ethan was working on A Novel. He could see their customers laboring over some polite question to ask -- besides how’s it coming?  Except Michael. He had greeted the intelligence of Ethan’s literary aspiration with raised eyebrows and a reminder of no strawberry in his mixed berry smoothie.

Now he stood at the book counter holding a copy of History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood. He looked up at Ethan’s approach.

Usually Ethan couldn’t shut up around Michael, chattering away about a lot of stuff Michael obviously didn’t give a shit about. Today he took the hardcover Michael handed him, rang it up quickly.

 “Twelve seventy-three.” He stared determinedly down at the cover photograph of the English countryside.

Michael got out his wallet and selected the bills. A ten and three ones.

Ethan took the bills, made change, and handed the coins over, trying to avoid physical contact.  He was horribly, painfully conscious of how transparent he’d been all these weeks. God. Like a teenager with a crush. No wonder Michael made a point of being as standoffish as possible.

Michael dropped the coins in the Jerry’s Kids container on the desk next to the cash register.

Ethan realized he hadn’t bagged the book. He grabbed a bag, shoved the book inside, handed the bag to Michael who took it unhurriedly.

“You didn’t read this one?”

Ethan’s head jerked up. He stared at Michael. He couldn’t have been more startled if the Bonsai tree on his counter had addressed him. As far as he could recall, it was the first time in six weeks Michael had initiated conversation between them.

“Who, me?” Ethan said brilliantly.

“You’ve always got something to say about the books. You didn’t read this one?”

The books were all mostly used at Red Bird Books and Coffee. Ethan ordered a few paperback bestsellers, but he actually preferred the old books. According to Erin, the bookstore was just Ethan’s excuse for buying and reading all the books he wanted. She wasn’t far wrong.

“I read it. It’s good.” Ethan made an effort. “You’ll enjoy it.”

Michael nodded politely. He turned and left the store.

“Bye, Michael!” Erin called as the door swung shut him. She looked across the floor. “What’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing.”

“Did something happen?”

“No.”

“You acted like you were mad at being disturbed. Were you working on your book?”

“No I didn’t and no I wasn’t.”

“I thought you liked him?”

“I don’t like him!”

“Come off it. If you were a puppy, you’d be on your back and wriggling every time he walks in here.”

Ethan’s temper, generally mild, shot up like the red strip of fake mercury in the giant thermometer outside the Bun Baby Restaurant. His voice rose with it. “Like him? I’m so sure!”

The door to the shop swung open. Ethan registered the chirping bird, saw out of the corner of his eye that the door was moving, but it was too late to stop the angry words already spilling out. “I think I can do better than the Phantom of the Dojo.”

Erin’s stricken expression told him what he needed to know. He turned to the front of the shop expecting to see Michael, and sure enough Michael stood in the doorway, frozen in place -- just as the scarred half of his face was frozen.

 Ethan swallowed. Even as he was trying to tell himself that Michael could only have heard half of that outburst and no way could connect it to himself -- and that “Phantom of the Dojo” could mean anything, didn’t have to be a reference to a scarred and tragic monster -- he knew he was sunk. If Michael hadn’t heard enough, Erin’s patent horror filled in the necessary blanks.

The longest two seconds of Ethan’s life dragged with agonizing slowness. Neither he, Erin, nor Michael moved. Neither he, Erin, nor Michael spoke. Ethan’s fervent prayers for the earth to open up and swallow him went unanswered.

If he’d been the one to overhear that ugly comment, he’d have backed up, closed the door, and never returned to Red Bird Books and Coffee. Michael stepped inside, closing the door after him, and crossed to Erin’s counter. The wooden floorboards squeaked ominously beneath his measured footsteps. Ethan’s heart thudded heavily in time to the thump, creak.

“I’m working late tonight. I thought I’d get one of your sandwiches.” Michael’s voice was even, without any inflection at all.

It was the bravest thing Ethan had ever seen.

“Sure!” Erin said brightly. Too brightly. “What kind did you want? Tuna fish on whole wheat, chicken salad on sourdough...” She babbled out the options.

“Tuna on wheat.”

Ethan couldn’t stop staring at the uncompromising set of Michaels’s wide shoulders, the straight way he held himself. His throat felt too tight to speak, practically too tight to breathe. He’d have felt sick about anyone hearing him say something that stupid and cruel, but for Michael to have heard it.

Erin was still gabbling away as she got Michael’s sandwich.

Shut up, Ethan willed her. You’re making it worse. But silence would’ve probably been worse. It would have been a dead silence. Michael hadn’t said a word since he’d requested his sandwich. The back of his neck was red. It probably matched Ethan’s face, which felt hot enough to burst into flame. Now there was a solution to his problems. Spontaneous combustion.

  As though feeling the weight of Ethan’s gaze, Michael turned and gave him a long, straight look.

That look reduced Ethan to the size of something that could have taken refuge beneath the bonsai tree. After an excruciating moment, his gaze dropped to the counter. He scrutinized the schedule of California sales tax beneath the clear plastic desk blotter         as though he was about to be tested on it.

When he looked up again, Michael had his wallet out.

Erin waved his money away. “Oh no. On the house!”

Ethan could have put his head in his hands and howled. Why didn’t she just sign a confession in blood? Couldn’t she see that undid all Michael’s efforts to put things back on a normal track?

Her eyes guiltily met his own across the floor. Had she been a mime making sad eyes and upside down smiles she couldn’t have more clearly conveyed distress.

“Thanks,” Michael said. “But no thanks.” He handed her a bill and Erin, her face now the shade of her hair, quickly made change.

Michael unhurriedly took his change and his sandwich. He nodded to Erin.

The bird-bell cheeped cheerfully as the door swung shut behind him.

Critic's Choice
What the hell had he been thinking?

The minute he saw Rey’s car, Cris knew he’d made a mistake.

That 1964 fire-engine red Mustang convertible symbolized everything that had gone wrong between them six months ago.  That was not the car of a guy who planned on settling down anytime soon. That was the car of a player. A player in every sense of the word.

Hey, nothing wrong with that. Unless you were trying to build some kind of relationship -- life -- with the player in question. In which case, if you had any brains at all, you’d pay attention to the signs, which happened to be about as obvious as bad news in a goat’s entrails.

Well, it was too late now.

Cris slammed his own car door shut and walked briskly up the flagstone walk to the house. The landscaping consisted strictly of grass, dark green hedges, and tall Tuscan-style cypress trees. But there all resemblance to sunny Tuscany ended. There were no flowers, no fountains, no color or life at all. It reminded him a bit of Forest Lawn. The estate itself was nearly large enough for a cemetery. Twenty-nine acres set in the hills above Sunset Boulevard.

Cris spared a grim smile for the hunched stone gargoyle peering around the dormer window three stories above.  From the outside at least, the house looked exactly as you’d expect Angelo Faust’s home to look: creepy.

But creepy in a severe and stately way.

The wind, one of those legendary Santa Anas that periodically scoured the Southland in the late summer and early fall, whispered through the maze of hedges. Unease rippled down his spine. He hated the wind. Would always hate the wind.

The mansion entrance consisted of forbidding wrought iron scroll double doors. Cris touched the doorbell and jumped at the sepulchral moaning sounds that bounced off the portico. That got a quiet laugh out of him at both his own reaction and the sense of humor behind the trick doorbell. The Whiterock Estate would have been a huge hit with the neighborhood kids. If there had been any kids -- or neighborhood -- in walking distance.

The doors swung open soundlessly. A very tall, very bony man in black trousers and black turtleneck studied Cris for a few unimpressed seconds.

“Hi. I’m Crispin Colley. I have an ap--”

“Oh, yes.” The tone was more like Oh, no. “Mr. Faust and the other gentleman are in the screaming room.”

Was this human fossil Faust’s PA? Butler? A misplaced zombie from one of Faust’s later films?

“Screaming room?” Cris let the inflection that suggested gentleman was doubtful, pass.

The fossil raised a single disapproving eyebrow. “Screening room.”

Cris had excellent hearing, sharpened through years of listening closely to fuzzy, terrible old movie soundtracks. He began to be amused.

“I didn’t catch your name.”

“I didn’t throw it at you. I am Neat.”

“I’m sure you are.”

Neat didn’t crack a smile. “This way, Mr. Colley.”

Cris followed Neat down the vast center hall. Three tall archways adorned by carved woodwork and decorative moldings offered a glimpse of a grand staircase and two corridors leading east and west.

Baguès crystal chandelier, wrought iron wall sconces, a marble bust of Louis XIV, a large marble-topped table, silver candlesticks, cloisonné boxes, and marble benches it was nice to see that Faust had fared better financially than some of his contemporaries.

Neat, sounding like a bored tour guide, said, “To the west is Fhillips’ Grand Ballroom, the Garden Retreat, Gentleman’s Study and Salon d’Art. The east corridor leads to the Library, Drawing Room, Morning Room, Solarium and the Salon de Thé.”

“Impressive.”

“Possibly.”

Cris bit back a smile, but his amusement faded as he realized he was going to have to face Rey in a minute or so. It was irritating to realize how nervous he was. He’d known when he accepted the offer from Dark Corner Studios that Rey was the other commentator on the voiceover of the legendary The Alabaster Corpse. The film’s director, Paolo Luchino, was long since dead, so Rey would be offering his insights along with Faust, who had starred in the film. Cris wasn’t sure why the studio thought they needed a third opinion, but he wasn’t about to turn down the project. If it wasn’t a problem for Rey, it sure as hell shouldn’t be a problem for Cris.

“The theater is this way.” Neat turned off another hallway, this one lined with framed posters of Faust’s most famous releases, starting with 1956’s The Island of Night.

There was no poster for The Alabaster Corpse, but then it wasn’t one of Faust’s major works. It was a cult favorite, having caught the critical attention of film historians and reviewers in recent years.

Cris knew all Faust’s films. He’d seen them all many times growing up, and he’d watched them all again before he’d written Man in the Shadows, the one and only filmography of Faust’s work. The filmography Faust had declined to authorize or even be interviewed for.  In fact, given how steadfastly Faust had refused to contribute to the filmography, Cris had been more than a little surprised to be invited to take part in the project. Surprised but thrilled. Dark Corner was repackaging and releasing Faust’s early films in a sumptuous five disc collection. The studio must have backed Rey’s choice, which underscored just how much clout Rey had these days.

Rey, on the other hand, was an obvious choice for the project. The critics -- with the exception of Cris -- were hailing him as the new Wes Craven. There was even a rumor that Rey might be luring Faust back to the big screen.

Good for Rey, if it was true. Cris didn’t grudge him his--well, maybe he did a little. Better not to go there.

Speaking of going places, they had apparently reached their destination.

An open door led into a home theater papered in old-fashioned red and gold stripes and complete with slanted floor. Thirteen plush theater seats were arranged in a half moon. Crimson draperies hid the screen.

 “Mr. Colic,” Neat announced.

“Colley,” Cris corrected automatically. Though he was looking straight at the elderly man who rose and came to greet him, his focus was on the room’s other occupant.

Rey.

Cris’s heart sped up just as though he’d received a bad shock, just as though he hadn’t known the whole time that he was going to see Rey again. He was not looking at him, not even watching him out of the corner of his eye, really, and yet he was painfully conscious of Rey’s motionless figure. Cris suspected that even if he closed his eyes and turned around three times he’d be able to pinpoint Rey’s exact location in any room. Reydar.

He forced himself to concentrate on the man before him. There had been a time when the opportunity of meeting Angelo Faust would have wiped out all other considerations. That needed to be true again if he was going to get through this afternoon.

Even at seventy-something (assuming the age on his official bio was close to being correct) Faust was unnervingly handsome, almost angelically so. The surprise was that he was so much smaller than he looked on the screen. Of course, people did shrink with age, but Faust couldn’t have been much over five eight even in his youth. He was about five six now. His hair was still -- well, no, that was a wig, actually -- was thick and black and curly as it had been in his youth. His eyes, those wonderful expressive light eyes, were still bright, still so blue they made you blink.

 “So you’re Crispin Colley.” Faust didn’t offer his hand or a smile. He scrutinized Cris with those amazing eyes, and his expression suggested skepticism.

“It’s an honor, Mr. Faust,” Cris said, and he meant it. To finally meet Faust… -- all his intentions of playing it cool, keeping a little professional distance, went flying right out the window. He offered his own hand. “I’ve been a fan since I was -- gosh. Forever.”

Oh God. He was gushing. But maybe it wasn’t a bad thing because Faust unbent slightly and shook hands, albeit briefly.

“Christ, you’re young.”

He wasn’t really. He was thirty-three, but thanks to genetics and a very fast metabolism Cris looked younger.  Sometimes it was an asset. Sometimes it was a pain in the ass. Not as much of a PIA as it had been in his twenties.

He opened his mouth to make some disclaimer, but Faust waved it aside. “No, no. I merely expected... someone different.”

Who? Cris managed not to ask the question. He probably didn’t want to hear the answer.

 Faust turned away. “I think you know Mr. Starr.”

“Rey,” Cris said automatically.

Not for the first time, Cris wondered what it was about Rey. He was good-looking, but not in a Hollywood way, not in a stop-you-in-your-tracks way. He was a little over medium height, square-shouldered and compact. His face was strong and sensual. His eyes were a very light hazel, his hair dark. His hair was longer, but other than that he looked disconcertingly unchanged. What had Cris hoped to see? Shadows and pallor? Some sign that Rey had suffered a little over their breakup? Suffered as Cris had?

“Cris.” Rey was holding out his hand. It seemed a little formal, a little weird to be shaking hands with someone you’d once -- but really he didn’t want to start thinking like that. Did not want those images in his mind any more than he wanted to slo-mo through Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Cris pressed his palm to Rey’s, tightened his fingers. The mechanics of a handshake. The last time he’d touched Rey it was to take a swing at him. The swing had not connected. Rey had grabbed him and then let him go, and they had never spoken directly -- let alone touched each other -- again.

It was strange to hold hands, to feel that warm, strong grip, even for a few fleeting seconds. Strange, the memories that seemed to be waiting in the wings to rush the stage of this moment.

It was Cris who let go. Cris who stepped back.

“How do you like the setup?”

“What?” A second later it dawned on Cris what -- duh -- Rey meant. “Nice. Very nice. It will be great to see this on 35mm at last.”

Rey turned to Angelo, though he was still addressing Cris too. “Okay, just to run over the basics. The plan is to record this as a feature-length, screen-specific commentary in one session this afternoon. The studio is hoping for an extempore but informative audio track. They’ve been slammed for the commentary on some of the other releases in the Tales from the Vault series, so they’re hoping to recoup a little credibility here.”

“Once again looking to me to bail them out,” Faust said.

Rey didn’t even blink. “Angelo, you’re doing anecdotal stuff and reminiscences. Cris, you’re doing the film background, significance to the genre, et cetera, and I’m talking about the film from a technical aspect. Is that pretty much what everyone expected?”

Cris nodded.

Angelo said, “No drinking games?”

Rey laughed. “Maybe later in the film.”

Angelo winked at Cris. Cris smiled back with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. Everyone liked Rey. He was easy to get along with. Sincerely charming. He liked people and they liked him. The fact that he was a two-timing, cheating adulterer was beside the point. It really was, because other than the fact that Rey couldn’t keep his pants zipped, he was a great guy -- and a very good director. Including Crispin in this project had been typical of him. He liked to stay friends with his ex-lovers. Hell, when it was possible he liked to stay friends with people he’d fired from sets. He was a nice guy. A nice but tough guy. That was the word in Hollywood.

They weren’t in Hollywood now, though.

“We have two options. We can watch the film first, make notes, and then record our commentary on the second viewing. Or we can just view it cold and say whatever pops into our heads.”

“I haven’t seen this film in over thirty years.”

“It’s a great film,” Cris couldn’t help saying, and that time Angelo actually beamed at him. Yes, it looked like the ice was breaking. Too late for Cris’s book, but it would make for a better audio commentary.

“Personally, I think it’d be great to get your first reactions on seeing this film again after all that time.” Rey turned to smile at Cris. “And knowing Cris, he’s already viewed the film a couple of times and made his notes on it.”

Given the fact that Rey was smiling, and that making digs wasn’t his style, he probably didn’t mean that in a derogatory way, but Cris was nettled all the same. It just underlined the difference in their styles. Cris liked to do his homework and Rey liked to wing it. Or, in other words, Cris was staid and uptight and boring and Rey was creative and innovative and exciting. No news there.

“If it’ll float your boat,” Angelo said breezily.

Cris recognized that too-grave expression on Rey’s face and his own mouth twitched in an automatic, quickly repressed, grin.

“Anybody have any other questions?”

Cris shook his head.

“Then let the curtain rise."

They took their seats in the front row behind three mic stands. Rey sat down next to Cris and began to explain how to use the high-powered mics. Angelo sat on the other side of Rey.

It was too cozy with all of them lined up in the front row; Cris would have preferred they spread out a little, but it would have entailed repositioning the mics and in any case, would have surely looked ridiculous. Why weren’t they doing this in an editing bay at the studio? Not that he seriously objected to getting to visit Angelo in his lair.

Angelo pressed a button on the remote control. The overhead lights dimmed.

He pointed the remote and the crimson velvet curtains slid slowly open to reveal a 130-inch screen.

Rey settled back and stretched his long legs out. His arm brushed Cris’s on the rest. He asked quietly, “You have enough room?”

Cris moved his arm away. “Yep. I’m good.”

Rey smiled at him.

Don’t. Just don’t. Cris smiled politely back and stared straight ahead.

 Angelo pressed the remote again.

Anticipation of the movie relieved some of Cris’s uncomfortable awareness of his proximity to Rey. Whether he liked it or not, it did feel very natural sitting here like this. They had watched a lot of films together.

Angelo pointed the remote again.

The screen before them stayed gray and blank.

Angelo swore and pointed the remote behind him at the light in the small projection room behind them.

Still nothing.

Rey began, “Is there something I can do?”

“No.” Angelo hit intercom in the center console. “Neat!”

Silence.

“What the hell is he doing?”

A rhetorical question if there ever was one.

“Why don’t I take a look?” Rey began. “I have a lot of experience with everything from projectors to--”

“No. No. Absolutely not.” Angelo punched the intercom button again. “Neat!”

With an exclamation of impatience, he rose and left the theater.

“Run, Neat,” Rey murmured as Angelo disappeared down the hall.

Cris acknowledged with a little huff of amusement.

A couple seconds passed. It was so quiet he could hear Rey’s wristwatch. How weird was it to sit here side by side alone in the dark? But to get up would be obvious. Cris forced himself to relax his limbs, to at least offer the illusion that he was at ease and perfectly comfortable -- and wasn’t jumping every time his arm brushed Rey’s.

It wasn’t easy.

And it didn’t help that he was trying to present this picture of ease to the person who knew him better than anyone else in the world.

“How’ve you been?” Rey’s voice sounded abrupt.

“Fine. You?”

Rey nodded. He turned his face and Cris caught the gleam of his eyes. “You look good.” The glimmer of his smile was rueful, flattering. “You look great.”

“Thanks.” Grudgingly, Cris added, “Congratulations on the Saturn Award nomination.”

“Thanks.” Rey rubbed the edge of his thumb against the tip of his nose. One of his little mannerisms when he was bored or nervous.

He clearly wasn’t nervous, so good. Polite chitchat out of the way. Cris slid lower on his spine and stared up at the in-ceiling speaker system.

“I heard you’re working on a book about Hammer Film Productions.”

“Just Hammer Horror. The gothic films.”

“You’ll be going to England for research, I guess?”

Cris nodded.

“When? I’m going over in October for the British Horror Film Festival.”

“I haven’t decided.” Cris continued to study the shadowy ceiling with its decorative moldings and seven mounted speakers.

Hopefully Rey would get the message. It probably wasn’t very sophisticated of him, but Cris didn’t want to be a good sport about their breakup. He appreciated being included in this project, but he didn’t want to be friends with Rey. He didn’t want to let bygones be bygones. Rey had broken his heart and maybe that was a cliché, but it still hurt like hell. He still wasn’t over it. He was still angry -- although that probably wasn’t rational. Like being mad at a cat for chasing mice.

They could work together. Cris was a professional after all. A grownup. But they weren’t going to be pals. He wasn’t going to be another Teddy or Evan or Mark or Phil.

He couldn’t handle it. He wasn’t built that way.

The speakers suddenly crackled and ominous organ music poured from the sound system overhead. Both Cris and Rey jumped -- and then laughed sheepishly.

A hooded figure flickered on the screen, time code numbers burned in at the bottom of each frame. The figure began pouring potions from jeweled flasks. The camera panned slowly to skulls littered on the floor of a tomb. The hooded figure hurried past and spared a kick for one of the skulls.

Cris had always loved that shot. It was so outrageous. Especially for 1963.

Rey reached the remote control as the credits flashed up. He pressed and the screen froze on the image of the hollow-eyed flying skull.

Angelo returned. He was a little out of breath but impressively spry for a man of his age. He took his seat. “What did I miss?”

“We’re fine. We can re-sync the audio. I just want everyone to remember that the mics are hot. So if you don’t want it potentially on the audio track, keep it to yourself.”

“Got it,” Cris said.

Angelo waved a lazy hand.

Rey pressed the remote. The credits began to roll, the jagged graphics looking like the black and white embodiment of a migraine.

Just Desserts
Murder had its drawbacks of course, but once the idea came to Ridge, it was hard to get out of his mind.

It began with the argument over the cable bill. Raleigh objected to paying for cable when he was never home to watch TV or use the internet. It didn’t seem to dawn on him that the only reason Ridge was stuck home watching TV and surfing the net was because Raleigh had been driving the car that plowed into the tractor and left Ridge in a goddamned wheelchair.

Ridge reminded Raleigh of that fact—in words of one syllable so Raleigh could understand—and Raleigh turned the usual shades of red, white, and blue and then agreed to pay Comcall their exorbitant rates before he stormed out leaving Ridge to sit at the study window watching his cousin fling himself in his Mazda MX-5 and blast off down the cracked and weed-rutted drive.

There was sour satisfaction to be had in winning their latest skirmish, but some of Raleigh’s barbs had hit home. They worked their way in deep.

You’re not a prisoner. It’s your choice to sit here all day. If I was the one that got crippled, I’d try to show some dignity.

Ridge’s sense of injustice swelled and burst. As luck would have it, he was working on an In Sympathy design at the time. He stared down at the purple and blue line drawing of a Black Prince water lily, and the idea seemed to float into his mind.

The idea that the world would be a much better place without Raleigh Baneberry.

The world, in general—and Ridge’s world, in particular.

For long moments he sat there, his hands shaking with adrenaline and anger, and he realized with a flash of dazzling clarity that he was right. Not only right but reasonable. Plus, this was something still within his power to achieve. He could do it. He could get rid of Raleigh.

No. No euphemisms. He’d had enough of greeting card sentiments.

He could kill Raleigh.

He could murder Raleigh.

Ridge tested the words, tasted the concept on the palate of his conscience. He found it delicious. Delicious after the months of indignity and pain. Mental pain, of course. Oh, blah, blah, blah. But more to the point, physical pain. Physical pain like Raleigh could never imagine, let alone bear.

In fact, for a few pleasant seconds, Ridge toyed with the fantasy of not killing Raleigh at all, simply leaving him somehow helpless and tethered and in excruciating, agonizing pain from his waking moment to the first troubled dream of the unending night.

But no. Totally unrealistic. Besides, Ridge wanted his inheritance. The inheritance that was now Raleigh’s because he had murdered Uncle Beau when he crippled Ridge. Or as good as. It was when Uncle Beau had received the terrible news that his two nephews had been in a possibly fatal car crash that he’d suffered a massive heart attack and died that very night. Died with his new will—which was, in fact, his old will—unsigned.

And though Raleigh knew the old man had fully intended to make Ridge his heir once more—and even old Mr. Maurice of Maurice, Maurice & Morris had tried to shame him into doing the right thing—Raleigh had clung tight and tenaciously to the letter of the law. Raleigh had prevailed.

And he was going to die for it.

But how?

How?

It had to be something that couldn’t be tracked specifically back to Ridge.

Fortunately, all kinds of people would be happy to see Raleigh out of the way. Ridge had the best motive, no doubt, but he’d likely be dismissed as a serious suspect. He was a helpless cripple, after all, and he’d had three weeks to see how a man in a wheelchair was generally overlooked and dismissed.

Of course, his disability did limit his options. He couldn’t drive, so he couldn’t run Raleigh down in a hit-and-run accident. He couldn’t walk, so he couldn’t disguise himself as a burglar and overpower Raleigh.

Hadn’t he once seen an episode of Columbo where a fragile invalid had pretended to mistake her victim for a prowler and shot him through the heart?  That might work. The drafty halls and broken windows of Baneberry Castle would help sell that one.

Complicated, though. And messy.

No—shooting, stabbing, and blunt instruments were probably out. An accident would be best, but given Ridge’s physical limitations, an accident might be hard to arrange.

Which left... ?

Ridge backed his chair from the desk and wheeled it over to the ceiling-high bookshelf. There it was. Eight shelves up. Poisons: Their Properties, Chemical Identification, Symptoms, and Emergency Treatments. He set the brake on his wheelchair, gripped the thick mahogany shelf with one hand, used the other to push himself up. He sucked in a sharp breath at the burning sensation of ground glass at the base of his spine. The pain radiated up through his back and down his legs. But he only needed to stand long enough to snatch the book from the shelf. Prize in hand, he lowered himself again to the padded seat.

He nearly shot out of his chair as the doorbell rang.

Unexpected as it was, the feeble tinkle sounded like the heavy chimes of Big Ben. Boom. Boom. Boom. The sound of the old-fashioned bell rang through the long and crooked halls, sprinted up the peeling staircases, and cannonballed out the cracked and broken windows.

The shock of it held Ridge immobile for a long moment.

They did not get visitors.

The last visitor who’d rung that bell had been the coroner.

They rarely got deliveries. Most days they didn’t even get mail. Long ago, Ridge had set the local post office straight on the irresponsible filling of their mail slot with junk letters and catalogs for things no one in their right mind needed.

The doorbell chimed again.

Ridge wheeled vigorously across the room, down the hall to the door. The simplest things were a pain in the ass when you were in a wheelchair. You couldn’t just yank open a door without banging it into the footrest of the chair. Whatever it was you were doing, you had to position the chair. You had to consider whether you needed to set the brake. You had to remember to keep your hands, arms, elbows and feet within the framework so you didn’t pinch them between the chair and another object. When reaching or stretching or leaning, you had to consider whether you were in danger of overbalancing the chair. Or tipping yourself out of it. You had to consider whether you were rolling yourself into a position you wouldn’t be able to roll out of. That was one of the big things to remember in Baneberry Castle.

So Ridge opened the door partway, using his free hand to back the chair while hanging onto the handle.

A young man in khakis, a navy polo, and tennis shoes stood on the doorstep squirting Binaca into his mouth. The peppermint scent drifted on the breeze. Ridge sneezed.

“Oh. Hi.” The young man leaned over and offered a self-conscious smile through the door opening.

“Yes?” Ridge asked sharply. He had never been fond of the golly-gee school of charm.

On closer inspection, the young man wasn’t quite as young as Ridge had thought. He was probably in his early thirties, no more than a couple of years younger than Ridge, though Ridge was looking a hell of a lot older these days. Chronic pain did that to you.

“I’m Tug Gilden.” When Ridge frowned more deeply, Tug said uncertainly, “From our house therapy services?”

Ridge scowled. “Whose house?”

Tug seemed to think it was a trick question. He said cautiously, “Our house?”

 “Who are you?”

“Tug Gilden.” Tug smiled hopefully. He was very cute. Not tall but compact and well-made. Tanned, muscular arms, muscular thighs, untidy blond hair cut in crisp waves, wide eyes that matched that expensive shade of Ralph Lauren blue, a smattering of adorable freckles across a boyishly snub nose.

Ridge was pretty much thinking hate at first sight. “Are you insane or am I?” he asked coldly.

“Well…” Tug seemed to give it his full consideration. He said slowly, “Neither, I guess.”

How delightful. Huckleberry Hound had come to visit.

“Go away.” Ridge slammed the door shut.

He gave the wheels a long, hard shove backward, which caused the front of the chair to fishtail to the right, spinning nearly around in a complete circle. The book fell off his lap. Ridge swore. He kept forgetting to use short strokes when reversing. It was a lot harder to propel a chair backwards because the chair’s center of gravity was in front of the casters.

The doorbell chimed again. Tug’s voice said distantly through the thick wood of the gothic design door, “I think we got off on the wrong foot, Mr. Baneberry.”

The wrong foot? This idiot was a natural.

The desire to tell him so to his face got the better of Ridge. He shoved the right wheel, twirled left, and yanked for the door handle. The door opened and naturally banged into the chair, rolling Ridge back a few inches.

“God damn it to hell!”

Tug cautiously poked his head in. “Mr. Baneberry, your insurance is paying for this.”

“If they’re paying for this, I think I’ll sue them!”

Tug craned his head around the edge of the door, spotted Ridge and chuckled.  “This is like that who’s-on-first thing, isn’t it? Let me try this again. I’m from Our House Therapy Services. Your application for in-home physical therapy was finally approved by your cousin’s insurance company. So here I am.”

That was excellent news, of course, but somehow it didn’t feel like excellent news. “When did this happen?”

Tug wrinkled his cute little nose. “Last week?”

“And you just show up here? Without a word of warning? You don’t call and set up an appointment? You just show up here.” He seemed to be on a loop. Ridge stopped talking.

“But I did call. I called and spoke to your cousin a couple of days ago. He set up this appointment.”

Ridge opened his mouth. He could think of nothing to say. Well, not to Tugboat Danny anyway. He would have plenty to say to Raleigh when he finally stumbled home in his usual drunken stupor. “I’m sorry you’ve had a wasted trip,” he managed. Once upon a time he’d been a polite, even occasionally charming person, and he still vaguely remembered how it was done.

Tug—and what kind of a name was Tug?—appeared unreasonably disappointed. “I’m sorry. Did I catch you in the middle of something?”

Ridge remembered what he’d been in the middle of when the door bell rang. Why no, I was just plotting to murder only living relative. He threw a quick look at the book now blocking his left wheel. “I... er.. .”

Tug said quickly, persuasively, “You know, this first meeting is just fifteen or twenty minutes. Not long at all. We’ll just introduce ourselves and talk about how you’re feeling and then we’ll set up your regular treatment schedule.” As Tug spoke, he inched the door open a bit at a time so that by the time he finished he was all the way inside the house and smiling down at Ridge.

That was one of the things Ridge hated most. Having to look up at everyone. He was six feet tall when standing, but he couldn’t stand for more than a few seconds nowadays. He frowned at Tug. Tug smiled confidently down at him, and Ridge noticed he had dimples.

Of course. Because Tug was apparently designed for maximum annoyance.

Uneasily, suspecting that it might be no use, Ridge said, “I’m very busy. I’m working.”

Tug noticed the book still lying on the floor. He stooped, picked it up, handed it to Ridge without glancing at the title. “Well, then, we should get going,” he said. “You do want to get better, right? Your doctor filled out that prescription, you filled out all that paperwork, and the insurance company finally shifted their lazy asses and put it through the system. We’ve lost enough time already.”

That was all perfectly true. It was just that after the shock of Uncle Beau’s death and three agonizing months in the hospital and three weeks of Raleigh being master of Baneberry Castle, Ridge had given up on…pretty much everything. It was disconcerting to have the possibility of hope thrust back at him.

But Tug continued to smile down at him with all that bright and shining certainty, and Ridge felt a tug—ha!—of something he hadn’t ever expected to feel again.

“Oh very well,” he said ungraciously.

To which Tug replied, “Great. Why don’t you show me to your bedroom?”

* * * * *

“This is some room!” Tug stared up at the marble gargoyles leering from the nine-foot-tall fireplace façade. His gaze traveled to the ceiling with its ornate carved moldings and medallion. His brows rose in wonder.

They were all “some rooms” at Baneberry Castle. The place had been designed in 1901 by the architect Bradford Lee Gilbert. Originally, nearly one thousand surrounding acres of meadow and forestland had guaranteed the Baneberrys their privacy, but by the 1940s most of the land was gone. Now only the moss-covered castle, ringed by a dense swath of tall, ancient trees and wild grass, remained. Remains was about right. Ruins might be closer to the facts.

Tug turned to observe Ridge lift himself from the wheelchair and take two shuffling steps to the bed. He didn’t try to help, didn’t say anything, just watched as Ridge eased himself onto the bed and pulled off his tee shirt.

Ridge got himself spread eagled on the faded gold coverlet and waited. He was already regretting the impulse that had led him to agree to this examination. Maybe it was being in his bedroom—this bedroom—with another man, maybe it was the fact that the other man didn’t look or sound like a doctor. But this felt too weird, too intimate. And Ridge felt too vulnerable.

“I’ve seen your charts and your X-rays. You should have more range of movement than this.”

The bed dipped, box spring objecting, as Tug sat down on the edge of the mattress. He rested his hands on Ridge’s scarred, tender back. Ridge tried not to jump, but it was startling to be touched with anything but clinical impersonality. Tug’s touch was... kind.

It made him angry. Angry to be grateful for kindness.

“I’ve got an advanced degree in physical therapy and I’m licensed by the state of Georgia to practice. I specialize in musculoskeletal injuries, in particular injuries to the spine.” Tug was still talking, but all the time he talked he was gently, carefully stroking Ridge’s back.

“How’s that feel? Pain?”

“Course there’s fucking pain.”

“On a scale of one to ten?”

Ridge snarled, “Eleven.”

“Well, that’s not good,” Tug said as patiently as if humoring a cranky little kid.

He continued to run his hands in smooth rhythmic strokes from Ridge’s lower back to his neck, where the pressure gentled as he circled around and returned to the base of Ridge’s spine. “We got to do something about that.”

Under Tug’s ministrations, Ridge’s knotted muscles relaxed, and some of his tension eased. This was supposedly an examination, but Ridge had had plenty of examinations, and none of them had been as pleasant as this.

“Would you like to ask me any questions?”

“Like what?” Ridge asked.

“Like how much experience do I have?”

“How much experience do you have?”

“About five years.”

“Great.”

Tug made a sound too quiet for a laugh but too loud for a smile. “Okay, well, why don’t I just answer the questions you should be asking me? We’re going to try some different things, massage and hydrotherapy and ultrasound, and if those don’t work, we’ll try other things. I’ll give you some exercises to do on your own, and we’re going to work together as well. Don’t worry about the equipment because I’ll bring most of that with me. You’ve got a swimming pool here, right?”

Ridge almost laughed at that. “Nobody has used that pool in years. It’s a swamp.”

“Yeah? Well, you’re going to want to get the swamp cleaned up because you need to start swimming.”

“Swimming!” Ridge tried to laugh. “I can’t even walk.”

“You don’t need to walk to swim. Anyway, we’re going to get you back on your feet.”

 “Are you saying I won’t need a wheelchair anymore?” He wanted to scoff, but his voice came out thick and husky.

Tug stroked his back in that calming way. “I’m not going to bullshit you, Ridge. You’re still going to need the chair, especially when you’re tired or have to travel any distance. But we’re going to get you a lot more mobility and a lot less pain.”

Ridge considered this silently. He felt winded by hope. It was almost worse having something to look forward to.

“One thing we need to see about is getting you a walker. And better wheels. Although pushing that old clunker around is probably one reason you’ve got such nice upper body definition.”

It was just an observation, not flirting, of course, but Ridge’s face warmed. It was difficult to believe there was anything attractive about him now.

Tug was still chattering about different kinds of wheelchairs, like it wasn’t a sensitive subject. Ridge said shortly, “There isn’t money for a better chair. This is all we can afford.”

“We’ll see about that.” Tug said with annoying assurance. “So you’re probably wondering how often we’ll need to meet and how long each session will last. Right?”

“Right,” said Ridge who was only thinking how nice it was to be pain free for even a couple of minutes. Tug’s hands were not particularly large, but they were warm and strong and agile. Ridge couldn’t help wondering what it would feel like to be touched by Tug in other ways.

Just academic curiosity, because, despite the fact that Tug gave off a subtly gay vibe, he didn’t seem like the brightest bulb in the box, and that relentless cheerfulness was bound to drive someone to murder. Even if they weren’t already at that point.

Ridge gave a smothered laugh.

“See, you’re starting to feel better already,” the clueless Tug said. “Just making the decision to take action makes you feel better, right?”

“You bet,” Ridge replied.

In Sunshine or In Shadows: Short Stories Volume 1(Paperback & Audio)
Summary:
A print reader's delight. Thirteen short stories, five never before collected in print, written between 2007 and 2013. Sexy, sweet, and occasionally strange, these brief but emotionally powerful stories encapsulate everything readers of Male Male romance have come to love most about Josh Lanyon's work.

The collection includes the five Petit Mort stories written for JCP Books: "Slings and Arrows," "Other People's Weddings," "Sort of Stranger Than Fiction," "Critic's Choice" and "Just Desserts."

Arranged to flow thematically and stylistically are "Perfect Day," "A Limited Engagement," "In Sunshine or In Shadow," a lightly rewritten version of "The French Have a Word for It," "In a Dark Wood," "Until We Meet Once More," "Heart Trouble" and the new and exclusive "In Plain Sight."


Original Review for In Sunshine or In Shadows: Short Stories Volume 1 which includes Petit Morts October 2014:
How can you go wrong with a collection of anything by Josh Lanyon? The answer: you can't! Each story is an enjoyable read. All together they manage to take the reader on a spectrum of emotions. In a Dark Wood was probably my favorite, of course it was nearing Halloween so that might have influenced my preference of it over the others. A Limited Engagement managed to take me from frightened to happily ever after in only 13-14 pages, quite a feat for a short story. In Plain Sight had me on the edge of my seat as Nash tried to find Glen and discover what his priorities were all at the same time. And I loved the way Chance and his Sweets to the Sweet shop always knew exactly what his customers needed in the Petit Mort stories.

RATING:

Bittersweet Candy Kisses by Jordan Castillo Price, Sean Kennedy and Clare London
(Petit Morts #1,3,5,6,8,10,11,12,13,15,16,17) will feature on Padme's Library later this month


Author Bio:
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.

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Sweet Spot
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In Sunshine or In Shadow
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Bittersweet Candy Kisses

Cover Reveal: Picture Winter by Amy Aislin

Title: Picture Winter
Author: Amy Aislin
Genre: M/M Romance
Expected Release Date: October 6, 2017
Publisher: MLR Press
Summary:
Do something new today.

Why he looks at his horoscope every day, Elias Hood doesn’t know. It’s all garbage, and no nickel fortune ever helped him climb all the way up the corporate ladder. He’s about to make Vice President. Rocking the boat with “something new” is the last thing on his mind.

But there’s this guy.

Ty Green can make friends with a tree and Elias can’t help falling for his easy-going vibe and his perfect smile. He’s a fellow Capricorn, like Elias, but that’s as far as their similarities go. Ty works to live—he doesn’t live to work. When Elias takes his horoscope’s advice and asks Ty out, both men are in for a shock. But as Elias’s walls start to come down, they might just realize that they have more in common than they think. In fact, they might even want the exact same thing.

Who knows? Maybe horoscopes aren’t just trash after all.

Author Bio:
Amy started writing on a rainy day in fourth grade when her class was forced to stay inside for recess. Tales of adventures with her classmates quickly morphed into tales of adventures with the characters in her head. Based in the suburbs of Toronto, Amy is a marketer at a large environmental non-profit in Toronto by day, and a writer by night. Book enthusiast, animal lover and (very) amateur photographer, Amy's interests are many and varied, including travelling, astronomy, ecology, and baking.

Amy loves connecting with readers! You can find her on Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Twitter or sign up for her infrequent newsletter.


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