Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Random Paranormal Tales of 2018 Part 1

Guardian Spirits by Jordan L Hawk
Spirits #3
Psychic medium Vincent Night and his lover Henry Strauss have spent months striving to uncover the dark secret harbored by Vincent’s dead mentor, James Dunne. Their only clue comes from a journal: Dunne was seeking to restore the Grand Harmonium, an artifact meant to breach the walls between life and death.

Fate seems to intervene when Henry and Vincent are offered a job investigating the haunted orphanage where Dunne lived as a youth. But the ghosts of the orphanage don’t rest easily, and the lovers soon find themselves in a battle to locate the Grand Harmonium before it falls into the wrong hands—and unleashes evil upon the world.

Saturday Series Spotlight: Spirits

Original Review June 2018:
After months of searching, Vincent and Lizzie are no closer to discovering what their mentor, James Dunne, was planning prior to his death.  With the aid of Henry and his cousin Jo, the only clue they have is a journal where Dunne mentions the Grand Harmonium but just what that is they have no idea.  When a job comes up, Henry is hoping to take their minds off the lack of progress but will this job be the distraction Henry hoped for or will it take the foursome into the lions den?  Will the love and family unit the four have become be enough to pull them out the other side unharmed or will it be the end?  And will they ever discover what the Grand Harmonium is or the true intentions of James Dunne before its too late?

Guardian Spirits is absolutely amazing!  Quite possibly the best of the trilogy and that's not something one often says.  Series very rarely get better with each entry, not saying they get worse but rarely better.  Spirits' main characters may be Vincent and Henry but Lizzie and Jo are not exactly what I would classify as "secondary", perhaps "main characters with less page time" but not "secondary".  I just love the dynamic between the four, they really have become a family.

As for the mystery well I think you know what I'm about to say: I don't do spoilers and so many small details really do play a part so I'll just say this: WOW and DOUBLE WOW!!!  We finally get to meet the man who set Henry on his path to put science into the worlds of mediums and clairvoyants.  We meet a few new characters, some are good, some are bad, some you just aren't sure of till the moment of pure terror hits but each one definitely has a place in the story.

I will say this: if you haven't read Restless Spirits or Dangerous Spirits then don't start with Guardian first.  In my honest opinion there is just too many tiny(and some not so tiny) details in each installment that plays a part in the journey.  Would you be lost if you started here? Probably not but it just will make more sense and help you understand character motivation to read from the beginning.  I'm sorry to see the end and wished there would be more to come but since this was a trilogy, I can't think of a better way to close it out.


A Ferry of Bones & Gold by Hailey Turner
Soulbound #1
When the gods come calling, you don’t get to say no.

Patrick Collins is three years into a career as a special agent for the Supernatural Operations Agency when the gods come calling to collect a soul debt he owes them. An immortal has gone missing in New York City and bodies are showing up in the wake of demon-led ritual killings that Patrick recognizes all too easily from his nightmares.

Unable to walk away, Patrick finds himself once again facing off against mercenary magic users belonging to the Dominion Sect. Standing his ground alone has never been a winning option in Patrick’s experience, but it’s been years since he’s had a partner he could trust.

Looking for allies in all the wrong places, Patrick discovers the Dominion Sect’s next target is the same werewolf the Fates themselves have thrown into his path. Patrick has been inexplicably attracted to the man from their first meeting, but desire has no place in war. That doesn’t stop Patrick from wanting what he shouldn’t have. Jonothon de Vere is gorgeous, dangerous, and nothing but trouble—to the case, to the fight against every hell, and ultimately, to Patrick’s heart and soul.

In the end, all debts must be paid, and Patrick can only do what he does best—cheat death.

A Ferry of Bones & Gold is a 115k word m/m urban fantasy with a gay romantic subplot and a HFN ending.

Paw Prints on My Heart by LJ Hamlin
Paw Prints #1
Holden loves his twin sister, tattoos, wild hair colors, and love. The first three are easy—his sister loves him, he's training as a tattoo artist, and hair dye is a store away. But love is another matter. Scoring an evening of fun takes no effort, but getting someone to stay? Impossible.

Then a hot werewolf cop shows up for a tattoo appointment, and Holden's interest seems mutual. But just as things seem to be going well, his sister collapses at a club and Holden's world falls apart.

Just Jack by Meredith Russell
Can two broken men find love in the chill of Winter?

Leo is having a bad day. Finding his boyfriend in bed with another man was one thing, being the subject of office gossip another, but falling on his ass in the snow in front of a gorgeous man was the final straw.

Jack has existed in a solitary life of ice and bitterness after betrayal. He swore no one would ever break his heart again, gave up on love, and became something else; Jack Frost.

As Jack and Leo get closer, Jack is left torn and confused. Jack yearns for anything that reminds him of his humanity, but the truth is, he feels nothing, not warmth, not love, and he knows he might never be able to love Leo the way he deserves to be loved.

When the line between fairy tales and magic, and the real world become blurred, can love conquer everything?

**Be sure to check out Everything: A Just Jack Christmas Short on Meredith Russell's Blog**

Original Review January 2018:
I'm not sure which character I fell for harder, Jack Frost who feels his heart is cold or Leo who has his heart finally broken when he finds his boyfriend in bed with someone else.  It's pretty obvious that Jack's heart is not as frosty as he believes just from his friendship with Abe and his family but when he meets Leo there is whole other level of not-cold he is about to discover if he only lets himself.  Leo has not been completely blinded by his boyfriend's wandering but its this first-hand discovery that opens his eyes and lets him finally break free.  Just Jack is so much more than a Christmas story, actually its really not a holiday tale at all and yet Christmastime seems the perfect opportunity to give it a go.  Sometimes the coldest hearts have the most room for love.  Just Jack is fun, loving, and full of heart.


Hex and Candy by Ashlyn Kane
Strange Bedfellows #1
Dreamspun Beyond #26
True love’s kiss can break the curse. But then what?

Cole Alpin runs a small-town candy store. He visits his grandmother twice a week. And sometimes he breaks curses.

Leo Ericson’s curse is obvious right away, spiderwebbing across his very nice body. Though something about it worries Cole, he agrees to help—with little idea of what he’s getting into.

Leo is a serial monogamist, but his vampire ex has taken dating off the table with his nasty spell, and Leo needs Cole’s companionship as much as his help. When the hex proves to be only the beginning of his problems, Leo seeks refuge at Cole’s place. Too bad magic prevents him from finding refuge in Cole’s arms.

Cole’s never had a boyfriend, so how can he recognize true love? And there’s still the matter of the one responsible for their troubles in the first place….

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Random Paranormal Tales of 2018

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Part 5  /  Part 6  /  Part 7  /  Part 8
Part 9  /  Part 10  /  Part 11  /  Part 12

Guardian Spirits by Jordan L Hawk
Chapter 1
The dead man refused to answer.

Vincent rose out of a trance with no foreign taste on his tongue. Only the lingering traces of the cinnamon cachous he used to cleanse his palate of more ghostly flavors. The air against his skin was merely cool, a crisp fall evening, rather than the icy cold indicative of a spirit drawing energy from the atmosphere. Hands gripped his from either side, both firm; if they had succeeded, he would have expected Lizzie’s to tremble.

“I failed,” he said, and opened his eyes.

He sat at the séance table in the upstairs parlor of their little shop. The curtains had been drawn against the gaslights illuminating the Baltimore street outside, leaving them in near-total darkness.

Even so, he felt the presence of the living in the room with him. Elizabeth Devereaux, his fellow medium, held his right hand. Jocelyn Strauss, seventeen years old and a genius when it came to machines and mathematics, sat directly across from him. And Henry Strauss, inventor—and Vincent’s lover—gripped Vincent’s left hand tightly.

“You didn’t fail,” Henry said. “He simply chose not to answer.”

“We could try again,” Lizzie suggested, though she didn’t sound at all pleased at the prospect.

“No.” A weariness more spiritual than physical weighed on Vincent’s bones. “He isn’t going to answer us. Neither of them are.”

“Cowards,” Henry said staunchly. “Jo, could you open the curtains?”

The circle broke apart, and Jo tugged back the curtains while Henry lit the lamps. Warm gaslight soon filled every corner of the slightly shabby room, gleaming off the apparatus Henry insisted on setting up at every séance: Franklin Bells, which would ring when the presence of a spirit charged the air, thermometer, barometer, and even a copper grounding rod should the summoned spirit turn violent. Not to suggest they had expected the spirit they sought tonight to be dangerous, but Henry always insisted on being prepared.

Since Vincent had spent most of his life drifting along with the currents, Henry’s tendency to plan ahead came as an unexpected comfort.

Jo glanced from Vincent to Lizzie, her brown face drawn with worry. “I’m sorry you couldn’t contact your mentor.”

“The spirits are under no obligation to answer us,” Lizzie said. She ran a tired hand over her jaw, frowned slightly as her fingers encountered a trace of stubble. Her shaving and plucking regimen was immaculate, even when it was only the four of them, and her gesture now told Vincent how heavily the situation weighed on her.

“I’d say Dunne damned well owes you an explanation.” Henry folded his arms over his chest.

“Pardon my language, ladies,” he added when Lizzie cast him a stern look, “but it’s true.”

James Dunne hadn’t just been Lizzie and Vincent’s mentor—he’d plucked them from the streets as children and given them the first home in which they’d ever been welcome. Taught them not only how to be mediums, but how to be decent people. By the end of their apprenticeship, he and Lizzie would have done anything for him. Or for Sylvester Ortensi, who had been like a kindly uncle to them.

Bad enough a malevolent spirit had possessed Vincent and used his hands to kill Dunne. But then Ortensi revealed to them that he and Dunne had hidden things from them. They had been  searching for something, and were desperate enough to turn to necromancy to find it. Desperate enough to murder anyone in their way.

Ortensi died before he could give them any answers. Hence the séance to contact the one person who might: Dunne himself.

Henry held out the silver amulet Vincent had entrusted him with at the start of the séance. The amulet guarded against involuntary possession; after his encounter with the dark spirit which had killed Dunne, Vincent seldom went without it. Unfortunately, channeling spirits required temporarily lending them his voice and body, which meant he had to take the amulet off for séances.

“Thank you,” Vincent said, and fastened it around his neck again.

“Is there anything else we can do?” Jo asked. She perched on one of the chairs, her lower lip caught between her teeth as she pondered. “Perhaps if we used the Wimshurst Machine? Added more energy to the air?”

“I don’t think it’s lack of energy that’s the problem,” Lizzie said with a heavy sigh. “Dunne has surely passed on. If he lingered on this side of the veil, perhaps…but he didn’t. And we can’t compel him to come back and give us answers, no matter how badly we might want to.”

“As I said before, the man is a coward.” Henry gave a little sniff, even as he began to clear away his instrumentation from the table. “If he withheld things from you, he should put forth a little effort. Set the record straight, rather than leaving you with such uncertainty.”

“Dunne wasn’t a coward,” Vincent said, almost reflexively. Even knowing what he did, even suspecting what he did, the instinct to defend his mentor still remained.

Lizzie pressed a hand to her forehead. “I don’t know what to think. We’ve tried spirit writing, psychometry, and now channeling, all to no avail.”

“We have to keep looking.” Vincent rose and went to the writing desk against the wall. Pulling open a drawer, he removed the journal they’d found among Ortensi’s things at the hotel in Devil’s Walk, after he’d died. Unfortunately, it had been a relatively new journal, started just before he’d departed Europe for the final time. If they’d had more money in the bank, perhaps they could have traveled to France, where he’d spent the last several years. Maybe his earlier journals were still there and would have yielded answers.

Most of the journal offered nothing beyond the ordinary details of a medium’s life. It confirmed what Ortensi had already told them. The murderous spirit of Devil’s Walk had been summoned by a necromantic talisman. Rather than destroy such an abomination, Ortensi had hoped to take it for himself. The only real clues lay in his final entry, made the day they’d arrived to assist him.

It’s so good to see Lizzie and Vincent again. I still can’t believe James is gone. He understood the operation of the Grand Harmonium far better than I. Vincent’s account of the spirit that killed James troubles me. It wasn’t like James to be taken so unaware. Some spirits conceal their true nature, but those usually have a motive of some sort, even if only to spread chaos and fear. This one slew James and simply…left.

As for James…I try not to mourn him. The impulse is foolish—death is but sleep, and as easy to wake from. I just need a little more time, and I’m sure I’ll be able to recreate the Astral Key. Then the Grand Harmonium will be restored, and James returned to my side. But it is hard not to miss him.

What might our lives have been, if Arabella hadn’t betrayed us? Damn her! We would have made the world a paradise, instead of the mire it is.

No matter. My youth might be gone, but once the Harmonium is restored, surely such things will be of no consequence. James might be temporarily beyond my reach, but at least I still have Vincent and Lizzie. They’re strong.

They passed every test.

They won’t fail the way Arabella failed.

I must separate Vincent from Mr. Strauss. Strauss represents the worst impulses, is possessed of the lowest of natures. He is filled with ambition and greed. If Strauss learned of the Grand Harmonium, he’d wish to take it apart and sell off the pieces for profit. He sees only the parts of a thing, not the wonder of the whole. Vincent’s tendency toward loyalty may prove inconvenient in this instance. I’ll observe them both closely tomorrow, and think on how best to drive a wedge in between.

The entry ended there. Vincent shut the journal with a snap. “What the blazes is the Grand Harmonium?” he asked aloud, just as he had again and again since first reading the words on the train back from Devil’s Walk. “What is the Astral Key he meant to recreate? And who is—or was— Arabella?”

“As for the Grand Harmonium, presumably Ortensi didn’t travel the world in search of the means to perfect a musical instrument.” Henry took off his spectacles and began to clean them with a handkerchief. “I still maintain it sounds like some sort of machine.”

“Ortensi didn’t seem very pleased with our machines,” Jo pointed out. “Or you, Henry.”

“I’m heartbroken to have garnered his disapproval,” Henry said dryly.

“He said it would return Dunne to his side.” The corners of Lizzie’s mouth turned down into a tight frown. “That sounds like necromancy.”

Vincent shook his head. Necromancy—the forced summoning of the unwilling dead—might be wrong, but that hadn’t stopped people from studying it thoroughly. “‘Death is but sleep, and as easy to wake from.’” He’d stared at the journal entry so often he had memorized the phrase. “That doesn’t sound like any necromancy I’ve ever heard of.”

“Besides,” Jo added, “If he meant to simply compel Dunne’s ghost, he could have just used the necromantic talisman he took from Mr. Fitzwilliam in Devil’s Walk.”

“Precisely.” Vincent ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “Some other means of contacting the dead, perhaps? A more reliable means than a séance, but without the compulsion of necromancy?”

“We could speculate endlessly,” Henry said. “At least it doesn’t sound like the Grand Harmonium is in a state to be used. Not without this Astral Key, whatever it might be.”

“There must be answers, somewhere,” Lizzie said. “If only Dunne had kept a journal. If we still had his house, or the shop in New York…”

“Well, we don’t,” Vincent said. “And honestly, I doubt it would help even if we did. We lived and worked with him for years and never suspected him of keeping secrets. He wouldn’t have left anything where we had a hope of finding it.”

“There must be something.” Lizzie stared out the window, as though the answers might appear on the glass. “We just have to keep searching.”

Henry frowned at her words. But he only said, “It’s late. We should get some sleep. Take my bed, Lizzie, so you don’t have to walk back to your apartment.”

“The sheets might be a little dusty,” Jo added with a sly grin.

Henry shot her a quelling look. Not that she was wrong. Ever since Vincent had moved into the little room above the workshop out back, he and Henry had shared its bed every night. Henry kept a few things in what had previously been his bedroom, for the sake of space, but for all practicalities he and Vincent lived together.

Which wasn’t something Vincent had ever envisioned for himself. But then, he’d never envisioned meeting someone like Henry, either.

Lizzie hesitated visibly, her gaze going again to the darkness outside the window. It was too late to find a cab, even if they’d had the money to spare, which meant either Vincent or Henry would have to walk her home. “Very well,” she said at last. “I’ll leave at first light, then return for Mrs. Burwell’s spirit writing session tomorrow afternoon. Hopefully her departed mother will be more amenable to contact than Dunne.”

~ * ~ 

Henry followed Vincent across the darkened yard to the workshop. He’d originally used the small building to conduct experiments which needed more space than was available in the store’s back room, or which produced smells that might drive away customers. And he still did; the downstairs was a single open space packed with tables and equipment. He and Vincent had converted the upper floor, however, into a cozy apartment.

They ascended the outside staircase to the apartment’s door. Once inside, Vincent didn’t bother to light the sitting room’s lamp, instead walking straight through to the darkened bedroom. Henry winced—this wasn’t like him. Ordinarily, Vincent would stay up to absurd hours, reading poetry or novels while he lounged on the couch in his oriental robe. Then he’d sleep until noon, before spending another hour choosing his clothing and pomading his hair. For him to retire to bed at such a relatively early time didn’t bode well.

While Henry lit the night candle, Vincent began to disrobe, his movements quick and efficient.

A flash of anger coursed through Henry, directed not at Vincent, but at the accursed Dunne.

When he’d first met Vincent and Lizzie, they’d been desperately trying to save the occult shop that had belonged to their dead mentor. They always spoke of the man in tones not just of affection, but awe. As though he were somehow more—better—than human. Flawless as an angel.

No doubt all of his treatment of them hadn’t been a self-serving lie. But their stint in Devil’s Walk made it clear the man had concealed a great deal. Lied to them about fundamental things.

No wonder they’d both been adrift ever since. Desperate to reconcile the things Ortensi had told them, with the idealized memory of their mentor. They were haunted…though not literally, in this case.

Henry would have some strong words for Dunne, should they ever manage to contact the scoundrel. How dare he put Vincent and Lizzie through such pain? If he had truly cared for them, he should have included them in whatever grand scheme he and Ortensi had worked toward.

But anger wouldn’t help Vincent. Henry pushed it down and stepped behind Vincent, putting his hands lightly at Vincent’s waist. “I’m sorry,” he said. “What can I do?”

For a moment, Vincent held himself stiffly. Then he sagged back, letting Henry take some of his weight. He was the taller of the two, so Henry pressed his cheek into Vincent’s shoulder. The citrus and musk scent of Vincent’s cologne filled his nose, and the warmth and heft of his body quickened Henry’s blood.

“If I knew, I’d tell you,” Vincent said. “You must think us fools, to let ourselves be so obsessed by this.”

“Not at all.” Henry slid his arms around Vincent’s slender waist, pulling him closer. “He was like a father to you. I know how badly losing him hurt.” Henry’s own father had died when he was but a youth, and God knew he still missed the man. At least his memories hadn’t been tainted by post-mortem revelations. “I can only imagine how you must feel now. Afraid you’re being disrespectful of his memory by doubting him, but worried your doubt is justified.”

“Exactly.” Vincent turned to face him, then bent for a kiss. “I’m sick of thinking about it.”

“Shall I give you something else to think about for a while?”

“Yes,” Vincent said fervently, and wound his arms around Henry’s shoulders, hauling him close.

Their kiss began leisurely, before deepening. Vincent’s warm mouth tasted of cinnamon. He’d already removed coat, tie, and vest, so Henry set about unbuttoning his shirt an inch at a time, slowly exposing the sienna skin beneath. Henry paused to make sure he paid Vincent’s dark brown nipples proper attention with his lips and teeth, and was rewarded with a soft groan.

Henry shoved down Vincent’s bracers, then peeled off his shirt, pausing just long enough to carefully hang it up. He’d learned early on that Vincent’s clothing was an armor of sorts. Whites expected an Indian to look a certain way; when confronted with the impeccably dressed Vincent,  they tended to offer more respect than they would have otherwise. It was a bit of stupid thinking Henry had fallen into himself, when they’d first met.

Henry made sure to brush his hand against Vincent’s erection more than strictly necessary as he unbuttoned Vincent’s trousers. Drawers came next, and Henry sank to his knees to take Vincent’s cock in his mouth. His taste, the heavy feel of him against Henry’s tongue, sent a rush of blood to Henry’s own prick, and he moaned as he took his lover to the root.

Vincent’s hands tangled in Henry’s hair, tightened—then pushed at him. “Not like this. I want you to come in my mouth at the same time.”

Henry slid off reluctantly, giving a last lap at the slit as he did so. “Get on the bed.”

Henry undressed quickly, but when he turned back to the bed, he stopped just to admire the sight. Vincent sprawled against the pale sheets, his cock dark with desire, his black eyes shining with lust. God, he was beautiful, all long legs and shapely muscles. He wore his thick black hair cut long, in imitation of the style Oscar Wilde had set on his American tour, and it spread across the pillow in a halo.

Henry in no way deserved him, but was grateful every day to have him anyway.

“I love you,” Henry said.

Vincent’s expression softened. “I love you, too. Now come here and let me show you how much.”

The sensation of Vincent’s bare skin against his never ceased to send a thrill through Henry.

For so long, his only encounters had been of the sort done in back alleys, quick and furtive, removing only as much clothing as necessary. The luxury of having a lover and a bed still felt new and exciting. Vincent’s arms snaked around Henry’s chest, pulling him tight, their thighs and cocks pressed together. Henry kissed Vincent thoroughly, moving his hips in a slow grind, sending slow shocks of pleasure through them both.

Vincent drew back just a bit. “I want you in my mouth.”

“Mmm.” Henry grinned and nuzzled what he knew to be a sensitive spot on Vincent’s neck, drawing a gasp from him. “I’m not going to refuse such an offer.”

He reversed his position on the bed, and they lay on their sides. Henry kissed Vincent’s strong thighs, then caught his cock between his lips once again. The slow, teasing lick of Vincent’s tongue along his own prick made Henry whimper.

“Impatient,” Vincent said, his lips moving against the very tip of Henry’s erection. Then he slid down, engulfing him in wet heat.

They clung to each other, hands roaming across whatever skin they could reach, mouths fastened on one another. Vincent’s tongue was clever with more than words, and soon Henry found himself fighting to hold back. He tried focusing on the prick filling his own mouth, but Vincent’s taste and feel, his little moans, only added to Henry’s arousal. He let out a muffled sound of warning, balls tightening, and Vincent groaned around him as he came.

He tried to keep sucking as he spent, rhythm lost, until Vincent’s thighs trembled and bitterness flooded Henry’s throat in return.

They lay silent for a moment, breath coming in short gasps. Despite the cool night, a light film of sweat slicked their skin. Henry pressed his lips to Vincent’s thigh.

“Come here, Henry,” Vincent murmured sleepily.

Henry didn’t want to move, but he clambered around until he was facing the right way in the bed again. Vincent had rolled onto his back, eyelids already drooping shut. The tension had eased from his handsome features, at least for the moment, and a rush of emotion shook Henry, so strong it threatened to cut off his breath.

“I’d do anything for you,” he whispered.

Vincent’s generous mouth turned up into a smile. “Then salt the door.”

“You just don’t want to get up,” Henry teased. But he rolled out of bed and did as asked.

Vincent hadn’t always slept with a line of salt across the windows and door. But after the malevolent spirit had possessed him and killed Dunne, Vincent feared it was still out there, somewhere. That it might return, despite the passage of time and distance.

Perhaps it wasn’t the most logical of fears, but if pouring salt across the doors and windows each night made Vincent feel safer, that was what Henry would do.

Once finished, Henry blew out the candle, then pillowed his head on Vincent’s chest. Within moments, Vincent had slipped away into sleep. Henry listened to the beat of his lover’s heart beneath his ear. The edge of the silver amulet pressed against his forehead, a silent reminder, along with the salt, of the lingering damage the spirit had done to Vincent’s soul.

Had Dunne known there was something unusual about the poltergeist he’d taken Vincent to confront? Vincent insisted there had been no warning, but Henry was less certain of Dunne’s honesty in the matter.

The man’s other apprentices had died somehow, after all. The ones Dunne had never seen fit to mention to Vincent and Lizzie. They would never have known, if Ortensi hadn’t told them.

They weren’t the first. They were just the ones who had survived.

Assuming Ortensi hadn’t lied to further his own ends. At least they could take the writing in the journal, intended for no one else’s eyes, as honest.

Perhaps it was just as well they’d failed to raise Dunne’s spirit tonight. The idea of never learning the truth irked Henry…but maybe it was time to put all of this behind them. To let go of the fear and guilt and doubt chaining them to the past. To focus instead on the future of their business, of their family.

Vincent and Lizzie needed something to distract them. The only clientele they’d had as of late had been the ordinary sort: weekly séances, some spirit writing, a few people who wanted them to come investigate odd sounds or cold spots in their houses, none of which had turned out to be due to ghosts. There had been nothing to demand their attention for more than an hour or two at a stretch, leaving them with far too much time to brood.

Well, then. Henry would simply have to find something for them. What, he didn’t know, but if he put his mind to it, surely he could come up with some project to allow them to focus their minds and energy, and let go of Dunne once and for all.

Paw Prints on My Heart by LJ Hamlin
“I want another tattoo,” Holden says, leaning back in his chair. He’s behind the front desk with Dawn, like he is every Saturday morning. Without a hangover, surprisingly. He’d had his first of many outings for his twenty-first birthday the night before.

“Do you even have any room?” Dawn asks. She hasn’t fared as well and is hiding behind a large pair of dark sunglasses. Hiding light grey eyes, just like Holden’s own. It’s one of their most similar features.

“Of course, I have room.” Not a lot, but he has some spare skin. Holden’s a little addicted to tattoos. He has them everywhere, except his face. He doesn’t like face tattoos, personally.

“What are you thinking of getting? Do you have an actual idea? Or do you just have the urge for a new one?” Dawn asks. She has plenty of tattoos herself, just fewer than him. But she has enough to understand the addiction.

“I was thinking of a paw print near my ankle. Like a coyote print. I don’t have anything to represent my animal side, and I’d like that. I don’t think it needs to be fancy. Simple gets my point across,” Holden says, picking up his coffee and taking a sip. It tastes great, but he has no idea what it is. Dawn always orders it for them. It has some impossibly long name, like caramel-mocha-froca-fomachino. It might have a stupid name, but it tastes great.

“I like that idea.” Dawn would tell him if she thought his tattoo idea was stupid. She wouldn’t let him make a permanent mistake like that.

Shifters need to use a different kind of ink than humans when they get tattooed. If they use regular ink, the tattoo will heal, taking the ink with it. So they have special ink and needles on the tattoo machine, laced with silver and other chemicals. They make the tattoos stay on a shifter. But whatever makes them stay, also makes it impossible to have them removed.

“Think Zack can do it soon?” Holden asks.

“He has some free time soon. I have an idea though,” Dawn says, putting down her cell phone.

“What?” Holden tends to like his sister’s ideas, even the ones that get him into trouble.

“We could both get paw prints. We’ve always said we’ll get something matching.” Dawn smiles.

“That’d be cool. We should do that. It can be our matching tattoo, our shifter tattoo, and our birthday present to each other,” Holden suggests excitedly.

“Perfect. I’ll go through the appointment book and pencil us into Zack’s next free slot.” Dawn reaches under the desk and pulls out the appointment book and starts flicking through it.

“Zack’s next appointment is due,” Dawn comments, nose buried in the book. And like they’ve been summoned by Dawn’s words, the door to the shop opens.

Holden breathes in, and his breath catches slightly as his whole body responds to the man’s scent. Holden tries not to be obvious as he checks the man out. He’s tall, at least six foot, with broad shoulders and thick thighs. He clearly has a strong body, but not like steroid-big. He’s handsome too, with dark blue eyes and short golden-blond hair. His chiseled jaw is covered in a few days’ worth of stubble, and his clothes look a little dirty. But he smells clean. He looks rough around the edges, but Holden doesn’t get a bad vibe from him, and Holden is used to trusting his instincts.

The man looks a little familiar, but Holden can’t place him. Maybe it’s the beard throwing him off. Holden knows he doesn’t know the customer well or intimately. He’d remember, from scent alone. He knows this werewolf somehow.

“You must be Zack’s next appointment, mister…?” Holden looks to Dawn.

“Grant,” Dawn fills in.

“Call me Seth,” the man offers, and his voice—it’s like whiskey and honey, rough and smooth all at once. Holden has to tell himself firmly not to imagine that voice whispering dirty things to him. Their boss, Jeremy, has said it’s fine for him and Dawn to flirt with the customers, but to keep it harmless. Flirting with this butch, manly man… Well, that could cause trouble, the kind Jeremy doesn’t want in his shop.

“Hello, Seth. Zack should be with you in a second. If he’s not, Holden will go get him to move his ass,” Dawn says with a smile. Sometimes she has it easier than him. No one seems to get offended if a hot girl flirts with them, even if they aren’t interested. But Holden knows—with guys, anyway—he’s taking a chance.

But at the same time, he knows Dawn has to deal with other problems. Like, she can smile, just being friendly, and a guy will take it to mean more, and she’ll get hassled. They each have their own dating problems, and Holden knows neither of them would swap them.

“Why will Holden get him? Why won’t you get him?” Holden asks.

“It’s your turn,” Dawn says simply.

“You kept count?” Holden snorts.

“Siblings?” Seth Grant asks.

“Twins,” Holden and Dawn say in unison.

“I thought so.” Seth looks amused.

“Let me guess, big family?” Dawn asks.

“No, I can just tell,” Seth says. He looks distant as he says it. Holden wonders why.

Just Jack by Meredith Russell
Chapter 1
“Not again.” The man gritted his teeth and pulled on the handle of his car door. The door wouldn’t budge, and the man, looking to be in his fifties and carrying a little weight, grew red in the face and wiped at his brow with the back of his gloved hand. “Denise,” he called toward the house and then walked, far more delicately than a man of his build should, down his driveway.

Winter in Maine was gloriously frosty. A layer of snow had settled on the tops of houses and cars, the trees looked magical coated in white, and it was easy to imagine them shivering in the chilly morning air. Every warm breath taken that cold morning caused a white mist to hang in the air.

Jack leaned against the lamppost on the opposite side of the street and enjoyed his new game. He didn’t know who the man was, what he did for a living, or care who Denise was to him. For Jack, the man was entertainment on yet another wintry January morning. This was the third morning in a row Jack had walked the street before sunrise, tormenting the man by freezing the door of his seventy-plus-thousand-dollar car. Another day or two and Jack would get bored with his mischief and search out new acts of trickery to see him through the day. Every day so far, the man’s reaction had been priceless and something to call on when Jack’s day needed brightening. But today Jack was left disappointed when the man made his way to the house and back unscathed.

Yesterday had been far more fun. The man had ended up flat on his back, having slipped on the ice. He had lain on the ground like some up-ended turtle, rocking around in his thick winter coat, unable to bend his limbs in such a way to get himself the right way up.

Jack grew tired of waiting for something comical to happen. “Maybe tomorrow,” Jack said in a low voice. He pushed off the streetlight, eyed the icy handprint he had left, and then carried on his way.

It was seven in the morning, barely light. The early risers heading for work were up and out in their driveways, complaining about the cold as they defrosted their cars. The sidewalk was covered in fresh snow, which glistened beneath the man-made lights and was, as yet, undisturbed by human feet, just a spattering of prints from birds and what was possibly a cat. Jack loved the cold, and he smiled as a chilling breeze circled him, carrying with it the fresh scent of the day and the crisp brown leaves that had fallen from the trees. The prickle of cold against his skin was one of his favorite feelings, like a thousand icy fingers pinching at his arms and face. God, how he loved it.

Opening the top button of his jacket, he savored the cold against his chest and gently traced his fingertips over his chilled skin. He breathed deeply, content with his icy touch and the feel of the cool air whipping up around him. What he wouldn’t give to be wrapped up in a blanket of cold. To slip inside the deliciously chilled wind and zip it up as if it were a sleeping bag made just for him.

Holding out his hand in front of him, Jack encouraged the breeze into a spiral that wrapped around his arm and caused a delightful shiver to pass through him. The air glowed the most beautiful shade of blue as it danced around Jack, and his chest ached from the knowledge this beauty was only for him—and those like him—to see. Anyone watching would think he was mad. They wouldn’t see the dance of blue and silver, nor would they hear the wind’s angelic song reverberating in the air.

Jack stroked the breeze as it snaked through his fingers, gently drawing moisture from it and into the palm of his hand. He rotated his fingers, spinning the moisture into a sphere, and then gently teased it with his icy breath until the sphere hardened. The size of a tennis ball, the sphere became a ball of ice, and Jack flicked it into the air and caught it.

“Perfect,” he said.

The ball was smooth, flawless, and transparent. He reached out his other hand and dragged his fingers over the hedge he passed. The leaves of the hedge crackled and curled in on themselves beneath his touch, which left them coated in wintry white frost. All he needed now was someone to have a little fun with. He grinned at the thought.

A dog barked, and Jack looked ahead. “Perfect,” he said again and teased the ball between his finger and thumb.

A large German shepherd was standing several yards in front of him. The dog was on a leash, and on the other end of that leash was the dog’s owner, a petite woman dressed head to toe in pink with matching accessories. She was talking on her cell phone and looked to be in her forties, dressed in winter clothing, each item seemingly edged in white fur.

Too old to be playing at Barbie, Jack decided.

He blew on the ball of ice and watched as frosty patterns formed across its surface. He admired what could only be described as art. Spirals and symmetrical branches merged together in raised icy paths, very much like patterns etched into Christmas tree ornaments. It was all about the details for Jack. If he was going to do something, then it should be perfect and beautiful.

Content with his creation, he pulled back his arm and bowled the ball toward the dog. The sphere rolled along the sidewalk, leaving only a small line in the snow as it seemed to weightlessly skim its surface. Jack watched and waited, merely encouraging the sphere along its chosen path.

As if it had a mind of its own, the sphere steered to the left, and as it neared the dog, the ball skipped off the sidewalk and into the street. The dog barked loudly, pulling at its leash as it sought to chase the ball of ice. The woman struggled to hold the large German shepherd and stumbled forward as the dog darted after the ball and into the road. She performed some poorly crafted acrobatics routine as she desperately held onto her dog. But the dog’s desire to chase the ball was greater than any strength she might have had to hold onto him. It was as if she weighed nothing as she was dragged forward by her pet and into the road. Cursing, she eventually gave in as she tripped up the opposite curb. With a yelp, she let go of the leash and landed on her face in the snow-covered grass of a neighbor’s lawn.

Jack laughed as the woman lifted her head. White covered her cheeks and forehead, and she rolled over to sit on the frozen ground. Her mouth curled down with a pathetic whimper, and she slapped the ground in a halfhearted tantrum.

“Caesar,” she called after the dog.

The German shepherd pricked up its large ears and glanced back at his owner. The dog’s tongue hung out the right side of its mouth, all wet and shiny as it panted excitedly. White puffs of the dog’s warm breath filled the air around the animal’s head, and choosing to ignore the woman, the dog ran off down the street.

“Caesar!” She lowered her head and brushed the snow from her coat.

Had she seen him? Jack wondered. Jack didn’t know whether she had or hadn’t, and though he claimed to not care, there was always a pang of disappointment in his chest, a need to be noticed.

Turning away, he walked down the street. He didn’t look back or stop to help her. He never did. It was not in his nature to worry about the misfortunes of humans. They were just something to pass his time.

A short way down the street, Jack spotted the escaped German shepherd sitting on the sidewalk, seemingly waiting for him. The animal held in its mouth the ball of ice, though the ice was already melting from the dog’s breath. As Jack got closer, the dog placed the ball on the grass and sat upright. Jack smiled and held out his hand, running his fingers over the dog’s coat. He frowned as he stroked the soft fur. Though he knew there should be something more, he felt nothing but the cold.

“Get away from me,” he said to the dog. “I’m no good for you.”

The dog simply looked up at him through large amber eyes.

“Go on. Get.”

Jack narrowed his gaze and looked down at his hands. The prickle of ice played in his palms. He could show the dumb animal exactly what he was capable of.

The dog licked his hand, and Jack tempered his desire to strike out. The dog, clearly oblivious to Jack’s nature and wanting nothing more than to have him throw the ball again, just sat and stared up at him.

“Okay,” Jack said softly.

The dog nudged at his hand.

“I said, okay.”

Jack bent down to pick up the ball of ice. He wrapped his hand around the slippery lump and squeezed. It only took a second and the sphere was solid again, a frosty layer coating its surface once more. He looked over his shoulder in the direction of the German shepherd’s home. The dog had done him no wrong, and as much as he liked to mess with the lives of the humans in the town, he never meant them any real harm.

“Go home,” he said and threw the ball back up the street.

Happily, the dog bounded off, its leash trailing on the ground as it chased the ball. Jack worried his lower lip and waited until the dog was out of sight. Hopefully, the animal would be reunited with his owner.

Cramming his hands in his jacket pockets, Jack looked at the ground, and with the toe of his boot, he drew a circle in the snow. Adding eyes and a smile, Jack admired his masterpiece for a moment. It wasn’t quite right. He crouched and held his hand over the simple drawing. Slowly, he pulled back his hand. The soft flakes quivered. He teased the snow, rearranging the picture, then straightened up. The image’s smile was gone, replaced with a frown.

“Hello, Jack,” he said to the drawn face.

With a heavy sigh, he dragged his foot across the image, wiping the sidewalk clear. If only it was that easy to wipe away the morose feeling from inside him.

He rubbed a hand over his face and took a deep breath. There was a smile on his lips as he looked ahead at the elderly gentleman making his way toward him.

“Too cruel?” he asked himself.

Maybe. Jack smiled. Or maybe not. He wiggled his fingers and felt the cold air surge between them. This was who he was—the bringer of mishaps, ice, and mischief, and of the frost on the window panes.

He was Jack Frost.

Chapter 2
“This… this isn’t what you think.”

Leo Marsh stared at his boyfriend in disbelief. Not what I think? How was catching the cheating bastard with his dick in another man’s mouth anything but what he thought?

“This, here. There’s no explanation you can give me that makes this okay.”

“Baby, listen to me,” Mac Donovan said as he pushed the other man away and got to his feet. He quickly pulled up his pants. “This is nothing. This is a mistake. This is—”

“Over,” Leo finished. “You asshole. You’re a fucking liar.” Leo had never hit anyone in his life, but right then, he wanted to slam his clenched fist into his lying asshole of a boyfriend’s face, break his perfect nose, dislocate his manly square jaw.


Leo had done Mac a favor. He’d been in the office since six a.m. organizing paperwork and displays for a presentation Mac was supposed to be giving to the company directors tomorrow. He’d wanted nothing more than to help when Mac had called in sick. Mac was supposed to be home, suffering and pathetic, taken to his bed. That’s what he’d claimed when he had phoned at one in the morning. Had this other man already been with him when he called? Some little piece of ass Mac had picked up in a bar for a sleepover?

“It’s so over.” What the hell had he been thinking? For some reason Leo believed bringing his sick boyfriend an early lunch was a sweet, romantic gesture. Finding Mac with his pants around his ankles and some shirtless man nuzzling his crotch wasn’t on Leo’s to-do list for the day.

“No, no. Don’t say that.” Mac was on his feet and at Leo’s side before Leo’s brain could engage enough for him to plan an escape. “I love you. You and only you.”

Leo looked at the young man who had stayed kneeling beside the bed. He could have been Leo’s double—short wavy blond hair, the same straight nose and high cheekbones. The only difference between them seemed to be ten years or so in age. Was this some trade-in scheme? Had he really just been cheated on with a younger version of himself? Fuck, he suddenly felt more like fifty than his actual thirty.

Leo met the young man’s eyes. The man remained unmoved by Mac’s declaration of love for Leo. So, this kid was just a fuck. A morning screw while Leo was at the office. Was that supposed to make him feel better about this whole messed-up situation?

“You said never again,” Leo reminded him. Yes, Mac had done this before. Twice, in fact, that he knew of.

“I know. I know. I’m weak. You know that and how hard I fight these feelings because I love you.” He had his hands on Leo’s chest and ran them upward to squeeze his shoulders. “But maybe, maybe it’s time to stop fighting. Maybe this time we could both… You know?” He looked at the young man and directed the next part at him. “I mean, you would be up for that, right? The three of us?”

The young man pursed his lips as he shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

Mac cupped Leo’s face and held him fast, forcing Leo to look at him. His hazel eyes darkened and he looked serious. “See. It’d be good for us. Maybe it’s what we need.”

Leo closed his eyes. So, he wasn’t enough for Mac anymore? Had he ever been? “No.” He wasn’t going to have sex with some stranger. How the hell would that fix anything?

“Please.” Mac kissed him, but the kiss left Leo cold.

Leo stared at Mac’s mouth. How he used to long for Mac’s kisses and his touch. He was everything Leo had ever wanted, and foolishly he’d thought Mac felt the same about him. Now all he felt was repulsion.

“What’s his name?” Leo asked. Why he wanted to know, he wasn’t sure. He just felt like he should ask.

Mac opened his mouth but said nothing.

“You don’t even know his name?”

“Sure I do. It’s…” He looked at the other man, who was on his feet and getting dressed.

“Chris,” the young man said and pulled on his T-shirt. “Look, if this isn’t happening, then I have somewhere to be.”

“It is,” Mac insisted and held up his hand to stop Chris from leaving. He looked at Leo. “It is.”

Leo shook his head. “No, it isn’t.” He focused on Chris. “You should leave now.”

Chris nodded and gathered his things. This time Mac didn’t stop him and simply glanced at him as he passed them on the way to the door.

As soon as the door shut, Leo freed himself from Mac’s hold and put some distance between them.

“Is this the first time?”


“Here with him?”

Mac nodded. “Of course. He came onto me. I’m weak.”

Leo closed his eyes. He didn’t know why he asked, maybe out of some twisted way to punish himself further for being such a fool, but he did. “How many others?” He opened his eyes and stared into Mac’s. Mac’s eyes clouded with guilt. Leo had really hoped he’d been wrong, that Mac would say this was one little slip.

“Did you use protection?” he asked. He was angry as hell and wanted Mac out of his sight. But he needed to know.

“Of course.”

Leo took a deep breath. He needed to get out of there.

“We can talk about this.”

Talk? He wouldn’t give Mac a chance to worm his way out of it this time. The silver-tongued asshole didn’t deserve another chance.

“I’m done. We’re over.” He made to leave, but Mac had him by the arm.

“You don’t mean that.”

“I do.” Leo wished he sounded stronger, but he was tired. He hadn’t gone back to bed after Mac had called that morning, too busy worrying about getting everything right and in place for the meeting tomorrow, in place for Mac. “I’m sick of putting up with your crap.”

Mac gripped his arm more tightly. “Please.”

Leo dared to look up into Mac’s eyes. He had always adored the color of Mac’s eyes, a warm toffee flecked with emerald green. There was always such passion and heat in the way Mac looked at him, and before, one glance from Mac would cause Leo to melt. He held Mac’s gaze. He felt nothing now.

“What do you want me to say? Anything. I’ll do anything.”

Leo stayed silent. He’d invested three years of his life into their relationship. But enough was enough. Mac wasn’t ever going to change. It had finally come down to this moment, and Leo needed to make the decision that was right for him. No more second chances. Not this time.

“Move in with me,” Mac said quickly.

“What?” Had the kid literally fucked Mac’s brains out?

Mac released Leo’s arm and took both his hands in his. “It’s what you wanted, right? The two of us? Living together?” He leaned forward for a kiss, but Leo turned his head, Mac’s lips making contact with his cheek. He continued, “You can move in here.”

Once upon a time, Leo would have done anything to hear Mac say those words. How he had longed for them to be more than a toothbrush and a few toiletries in each other’s bathroom. They had been close once. Mac had even gotten him a key made, but then Mac had blown it, just like he had now, and it was like a reset had been hit on their relationship. He never would have expected it, but Leo was actually glad Mac had kept him at a distance. At least this way, Leo could walk away.

Shaking his head, Leo snatched his hands back. “No. I’m not doing this.” So many times Mac had talked his way back into Leo’s heart, and Leo into his bed. But not this time. This wasn’t Mac confirming Leo’s suspicions and the office gossip about what Mac had done behind his back. This time he had seen it with his own eyes. He’d seen the other man. He’d seen the lies and the cheating. They were done.

He took his keys from his jacket pocket. Never had the pile of metal felt so damn heavy. Looking into Mac’s eyes, he turned the keys over in his hand.

“Don’t,” Mac said.

If only Mac had been able to keep it in his pants. Leo had been happy in his little oblivious world. In his mind, he had been enough for Mac and they had been enough for each other. But he deserved better than this.

“I love you.”

“If you really loved me, this wouldn’t be happening. We wouldn’t be standing here having this conversation.” He separated the key to Mac’s apartment from the rest. Was he strong enough to go through with this? He looked at Mac. I deserve better than you. Pressing his mouth in a line, he freed the key from the keychain and held it out to Mac.

“Keep it,” Mac said.

Leo looked between the key and Mac. If he stayed, then what? How long would it be before Mac cheated on him again? He had to stick by his decision. For his own sake.

“I don’t want it.” As Mac wouldn’t take the key, Leo bent over and placed it on the floor. He let his fingers linger for a moment before he straightened up.

Mac rested his hands on his hips and eyed the key. “You’re giving up on us?”

“There is no more us, Mac.” He stepped forward and studied Mac’s face. God how he’d loved the man. Mac had been his Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome. Where had they gone wrong? “It wasn’t me that gave up.” He kissed Mac on the cheek. “Goodbye,” he said, then turned on his heel and walked away.

“Leo, wait,” Mac called after him. “Leo. You know you need me, right? You’ll be back.” He paused. “Leo!”

Leo didn’t stop until he reached the bottom of the stairwell. He glanced upward over his shoulder and listened. To his relief, he didn’t see or hear anything or anyone. If Mac had followed him out of the apartment, he wasn’t sure what he’d have done. His heart and head were all over the place. Three years. Three fucking years he’d just walked away from. Where had they gone wrong? Deflated, he sat on the bottom step. Was it him? Was he unlovable?

This was all Mac’s fault. Leo needed to remember that. So maybe he wouldn’t win any prizes for being the perfect boyfriend, because who the hell was perfect, but he had never lied to or cheated on Mac. Hell, if anything, he could be accused of trying too hard. With a sigh, he gazed out the apartment building’s doors. Through the glass he could see it was snowing again. Shivering, he rubbed at his chest. He felt like there was a block of ice clamped on either side of his heart, painfully squeezing the organ. Could someone die from a broken heart? Pressing his palm flat, he felt the gentle thump of his heartbeat.

Not completely broken.

The pulse beneath his hand reminded him there were worse things that could have happened to him today, not many, considering how he felt right now, but there were certainly some. A door opened and closed above him, and he heard voices on the stairs. The voices were female, and Leo guessed they belonged to Mac’s neighbors, a mother and daughter who lived across the hall.

He eyed the entrance. He couldn’t sit here all day, despite the sudden urge to curl into a ball and be damned with everything. He was only supposed to be on his lunch break, and he’d already spent a good amount of time thoughtfully selecting his ex-lover the perfect sandwich and standing in line for his salted caramel mocha. Ex-lover. That sounded pretty damn final.

I should have taken back the damn sandwich.

He blew out a heavy breath and got to his feet. He’d save the self-pity for the evening and have a full-on Bridget-Jones moment with a tub of ice cream and a breakup playlist. He straightened his tie. Not really his style. More likely popcorn and horror movies. As much as he’d love to see Mac chopped up into little pieces right now, it was never going to happen.

I’d never get away with it. He sniffed a laugh. Watching Freddy or Jason hack up a few people might help a bit, he figured. He sighed. He needed to get a grip, get back to the office, and hope to God nobody asked him how Mac was doing.

Fastening the button on his suit jacket, Leo prepared himself for the rush of cold. He pushed open the door to the block and stepped outside. Fresh air swirled around him, and he took a moment to appreciate how invigorating the sensation was. Breathing deeply, he stood tall. Despite the solid feeling still lingering inside his chest, he felt somewhat comforted by the chilled world before him. He rubbed at his chest and took the three steps down to the sidewalk. There he stopped as a cold shiver worked its way up his spine toward his collar and beneath his hairline. It was a strange feeling, but one he welcomed. For some reason, it felt right.

People walked past him, wrapped in their warm coats, hats, gloves, and scarves as they hurried through the snow. A gust of wind caused the white flakes to twist and turn, and Leo narrowed his eyes as a flash of blue spiraled in front of him. Rubbing his eyes, he dismissed the spark of color. He was tired, but he still had lots to do back at the office. If he could, he’d have ditched the presentation in favor of something else, but as it was, not only was the presentation important to Mac, Leo’s future at Harding’s Toys also rested on it.

He glanced up and down the sidewalk and settled his gaze on a man walking toward him. The man stood out from the other people on the street. He didn’t rush like the people around him, who looked as if they were running from the cold in search of a hiding place. In fact, he seemed to enjoy it. He wore a short coat open over a pale blue shirt and dark jeans. His skin was fair, even more so set against his dark hair, and softened by the trimmed growth across his jaw. Something familiar leapt in Leo’s chest, but he was sure he had never seen the man before. He watched as blue spirals seemed to dance around the man, then their eyes met ever so briefly.

Clearly, Leo was imagining things, because the icy cold that had gripped his heart since leaving Mac’s apartment made way for sparks of heat. This didn’t happen to him, not like this. Sure he’d ogled plenty of handsome men, some had been downright fuckable, but never had a reaction been so strong to a simple stranger on the street. He was well and truly in lust.

A smile curled the man’s full mouth, and he looked over his shoulder. Leo’s attention was drawn beyond the man as someone seemingly slipped in the snow. The man’s smile widened as a second person fell on their ass behind him, then a third. Others stopped to help the fallen people, but all the man did was simply glance at Leo as he passed him. Intrigued, Leo stepped out. What happened next was a blur as his feet slipped from under him and he fell forward. His head hit the ground and all he remembered thinking was how shitty his day was turning out.

Hex and Candy by Ashlyn Kane
Chapter One
“COLE, I need three pounds of lemon drops!”

Cole Alpin paused with his finger just above the surface of his tablet and considered the frequency at which one might vibrate if one consumed three pounds of lemon drops. Then he tapped in his sugar order, set the tablet on the shelf, and poked his head around the corner into the storefront. “Three pounds?”

Amy flipped her planner closed and gave him a frazzled smile. “It’s for a baby shower. Mom-to-be wants a candy bar with everything lemon.”

How many people were attending this shindig if she needed three pounds of one kind of candy? “When do you need it?” He gestured toward the lemon drop bin, which held only a few sad handfuls. “Back-to-school cleaned me out, but I can do up a batch tonight if she’s set on those.”

“I was kidding. Let’s do the usual assorted mix with a lemon theme.”

Thank God. Cole had an urgent date with his couch and this week’s Dancing with the Stars. “Done.” He made a note on the pad beside the register. Then he frowned. “Are you okay?” She was a little green under her perfect makeup.

“I just had a lunch meeting with someone suffering from acute morning sickness. Morning sickness that didn’t stay in the morning.”

Amy was a sympathetic vomiter. “Why…?” Cole started and then decided it didn’t matter. He opened the jar of special mints next to the register and used the tongs to pull one out. “Never mind. Here.”

But then his curiosity got the better of him again and he blurted out, “Okay, no, seriously. Why would she ask for a lunch meeting?”

Amy popped the mint in her mouth and shrugged. “Hope springs eternal?” She shook her head. Her color was already returning to normal, and she stood a little straighter. “I swear to God these candies are magic.”

“Secret recipe,” Cole said, projecting the very image of innocence.

“Well, your secret recipe has saved my day. I have a two o’clock at the golf course about a fundraiser dinner.” She stood on tiptoe, and he leaned over the counter so she could kiss his cheek. “Can I pick up on Friday?”

The bell above the door jingled, and Cole looked up automatically and forgot how to breathe with his mouth closed.

Amy followed his gaze over her shoulder, then turned back toward him, smirking. “Friday, Cole. I’ll call and remind you.”

She collected her planner from the countertop and sashayed out, turning as she did to give the newcomer a once-over from another angle. Wow, she mouthed at Cole.

The door closed behind her.

Cole swallowed hard.

“Uh, hi.” The guy who’d entered was probably six two, with shoulders like Atlas and a physique that suggested he’d never even looked at a piece of candy. “Are you Cole?”

And he was asking for Cole by name. Was Cole dreaming? Had he slipped into an alternate dimension? “Yeah, yes, hi. I’m Cole.” Belatedly he stuck out his hand to shake.

“Leon,” said the absolutely radiant human being. Cole would have sworn the sunlight coming in the shop window glinted off his blinding smile. His warm hand practically dwarfed Cole’s, and Cole wasn’t exactly dainty. “Um, Leo. I’m—a friend of mine told me you might be able to help me?”

Cole owed this friend a fruit basket. “I will do my best to be your sugar daddy.” His eyes went wide and his face went hot and he could feel himself going blotchy all over. “I mean! Uh. I sell candy, obviously. And I will sell some. To you.”

A hint of strain crept into Leo’s smile. “Actually I didn’t come here to buy candy.”

Cole blinked. He didn’t sell anything other than candy. “Okay?”

Leo let out a miserable sound. “I’ve got this—problem.” He scrunched up his face. “Like a… man problem.”

What did that mean? Was he looking for a hit man or a pimp? “I’m sorry to hear that?” Cole offered, having no earthly idea what else to say. He could offer himself up as a sacrifice, maybe, but that seemed a little forward.

He didn’t think a guy who looked like Leo really needed that kind of help from him anyway.

“Or not exactly a man problem,” Leo continued. His ears had started to turn red. “More of a, um, performance issue?”

Oh wow, no wonder he looked uncomfortable. “That sucks, man, but you really need to see a doctor about that. I just make candy.” Sure, some of them had… extramundane properties, but they’d only treat a symptom, not a cause. Erectile dysfunction was no joke, especially at Leo’s age. He should have that looked at.

Leo groaned and slumped onto one of the stools at the fifties-style counter, nearly dislodging a glass jar of jawbreakers with his forearm. He put his head in his hands and muttered something indecipherable at his elbows.

This guy was not having a great day. Cole grabbed the jar of bubble pops and used the tongs to pull one out. “Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.”

Leo lifted his head. He was even more beautiful close up, and he smelled good, like citrus and lavender.

Cole swallowed hard again. “Lollipop?”

Leo took it with a sigh and pulled off the wrapper.

Cole realized his mistake when Leo shoved the thing in his mouth and then stuffed it inside his cheek. He needed to think about… burning sugar or something. And not the flash of pink tongue curling around the end of the bubble pop stick.

Yeah, good luck with that. With great concentration, Cole replaced the lid on the jar.

There was a sucking noise—Cole almost died—and then a surprised-sounding hum of satisfaction, which was worse.

Then Leo muttered, “Victoria better be right about this, I swear to God. I feel like an idiot.”

Hey, look at that—they already had something in common! They should get married. Cole could totally work with Leo’s issue, whatever it was. But before he could open his mouth and put his foot in it, Leo lifted his head and looked him in the eye.

“I don’t need a doctor. I need a holistic cursebreaker.”

FOR A few seconds all Cole could do was stare at him. Not that it was a hardship. Holistic cursebreaker, he’d said. Well, now that Cole knew to turn his power on and look with more than just his eyes—now that Leo’s damnably handsome face wasn’t distracting him—he could sense the threads of some kind of spell: the vibrant green threads of it bound his lips and throat and hands, and maybe more that Cole couldn’t see with the counter in the way.

“Boy did you piss someone off,” he said before he could help himself. “What’s the damage?” He could take a guess, but it would be easier if Leo told him.

Leo seemed to wilt with relief. “You don’t think I’m nuts?”

“Please.” Cole’s family were adepts going back generations. “I’ve known you for like thirty seconds. But witchcraft, yeah, that’s real, and so’s the curse you’re under.”

“And you can undo it?”

That was trickier. “Sometimes. But not during regular business hours. I don’t charge for that stuff. Gets too complicated on my taxes.”

“I can come back?” Leo offered. “What time do you close? I could meet you here.” Apparently he was desperate.

Special candies aside, Cole didn’t keep metaphysical tools in the store. “Better idea.” He tore a page from his memo book and scrawled his address on the back. “Meet me here. Six o’clock. Bring a pizza or something, this could take a while, and it’s hungry work.”

Leo took the paper. “So you’ll help?”

As if Cole was going to let this hottie go around cursed for the rest of his life. Besides, he could always use the good karma. “I’ll help.”

When Leo left, it was quarter to four. That gave Cole fifteen minutes to do some research before Danielle came in for the closing shift. He grabbed his phone and hit speed dial.

“Cole! Slow day today?”

“Well, not anymore.” He plopped himself on the barstool behind the counter and spun so he had a clear view of the door in case a customer came in. He was about due for an influx of kids needing their after-school sugar rush. “Have you had anyone interesting in the shop lately?”

“Oh, so it’s a business call.” There was a soft thump as, presumably, Kate sat in the overstuffed rolling armchair behind the desk in her yarn-cum-magic shop across town. Phoenix Fibre carried all kinds of magical paraphernalia, but only if you knew how to look for it. If anyone were shopping around for curse items locally, she’d know. “Why do you ask?”

Cole took a slow breath and attempted to clear all inflection from his voice. “A guy came in today,” he began.

He didn’t fool her for a hot second. “Uh-huh. On a scale of one to ten, how bad do you want to fuck him?”

“Fourteen,” Cole answered promptly. He didn’t have time to equivocate, and Kate was his cousin and knew him better than anyone. He wouldn’t fool her anyway. “But that’s not the point. He’s got a curse. A nasty one, from the look of it. Any idea who could have done it?”

“Haven’t had anybody new in,” Kate said. “Not the witchy type, anyway, just your generic crafty sorts. What kind of mojo are we talking?”

Cole was prone to catastrophizing and didn’t want to speculate. “I don’t know yet. Keep me posted?”

“I will if you will.”

A handful of kids trickled in, the bell above the door jingling merrily. “Promise,” Cole said and hung up the phone.

Jordan L Hawk
Jordan L. Hawk grew up in the wilds of North Carolina, where she was raised on stories of haints and mountain magic by her bootlegging granny and single mother. After using a silver knife in the light of a full moon to summon her true love, she turned her talents to spinning tales. She weaves together couples who need to fall in love, then throws in some evil sorcerers and undead just to make sure they want it bad enough. In Jordan’s world, love might conquer all, but it just as easily could end up in the grave.

Hailey Turner
Hailey Turner is big city girl who spoils her cats rotten and has a demanding day job that she loves, but not as much as she loves writing. She’s been writing since she was a young child and enjoys reading almost as much as creating a new story. Hailey loves stories with lots of action, gritty relationships, and an eventual HEA that satisfies the heart.

You can keep up with Hailey's future projects by joining her newsletter, where you can instantly download the free Metahuman Files short story A Distant Devotion and the Soulbound short story Down A Twisted Path.

LJ Hamlin
LJ Is a disabled queer writer in her late twenties, she’s been writing for many years and loves to share her stories she’s never without a few projects on the go and writes as much as her body allows. She is a lover of animals which often shows in her books and her social media.

Meredith Russell
Meredith Russell lives in the heart of England. An avid fan of many story genres, she enjoys nothing less than a happy ending. She believes in heroes and romance and strives to reflect this in her writing. Sharing her imagination and passion for stories and characters is a dream Meredith is excited to turn into reality.

Ashlyn Kane
Ashlyn Kane is a twentysomething writer, editor, and (temporarily retired) teacher. Occasionally she does laundry. Mostly she stares at her computer screen. When inspiration strikes, she's usually either in the shower or about to go to bed, which is probably par for the course where romance writers are concerned.

Ashlyn was born and raised in small-town Ontario, Canada, where she met and married the love of her life. She now lives with her husband in Dresden, Germany, where she drinks too much wine, eats too much chocolate, and tries not to watch football.

Jordan L Hawk
EMAIL: jordanlhawk@gmail.com

Hailey Turner
EMAIL: haileyturnerwriter@gmail.com

LJ Hamlin

Meredith Russell
EMAIL: meredithrussell666@gmail.com 

Ashlyn Kane

Guardian Spirits by Jordan L Hawk

A Ferry of Bones & Gold by Hailey Turner
Paw Prints on My Heart by LJ Hamlin

Just Jack by Meredith Russell

Hex and Candy by Ashlyn Kane

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