Thursday, January 11, 2018

Best Reads of 2017 Part 4

I read 250 books in 2017 so when I was getting ready to do my Best Reads of 2017 feature, it was very difficult to narrow it down. Some of them were new releases, some were just new to me, and some of them are re-reads but all really stuck with me and found a lasting place in my heart and library.  I finally narrowed it down to 44 books broken into four parts. Part 4 features my favorite reads from October, November, & December of 2017 each including my original review.

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Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3

Willow Man by John Inman
Woody Stiles has sung his country songs in every city on the map. His life is one long road trip in a never-ending quest for fame and fortune. But when his agent books him into a club in his hometown, a place he swore he would never set foot again, Woody comes face to face with a few old demons. One in particular.

With memories of his childhood bombarding him from every angle, Woody must accept the fact that his old enemy, Willow Man, was not just a figment of childish imagination.

With his friends at his side, now all grown up just like he is, Woody goes to battle with the killer that stole his childhood lover. Woody also learns Willow Man has been busy while he was away, destroying even more of Woody's past. And in the midst of all this drama, Woody is stunned to find himself falling in love—something he never thought he would do again.

As kids, Woody and his friends could not stop the killer who lived in the canyon where they played.  As adults, they might just have a chance.

Or will they?

Original Review October 2017:
Woody Stiles is forced to face his past when he's booked to sing at a local club but he swore he'd never return.  With his parents gone and despite his determination to never return Woody was never able to let go of their home so to save some money, he foregoes the usual hotel and stays in his childhood home.  The past he wanted to forget has returned, can Woody and his friends defeat what lurks in the canyon or will they be the next victims?

To followers of my blog and reviews it is no secret how much I enjoy John Inman's creative spookiness, Willow Man is my fourth Inman tale this Halloween season and although I am about to temporarily leave behind the freaky tales for tales of Christmas soon I will definitely be returning to read more from his backlist.  One of the things I like best about John Inman is that no matter how creepified I get, I also am left warm-hearted at the love and friendship that he puts into his characters.

As for Willow Man itself, well when dealing with creepy, freaky, and spooky I find it hard to write a review because I just don't do spoilers and when reading these kinds of tales every little element can be a clue or giveaway.  So let me just say this: WOW! DOUBLE WOW! and HOLY HANNAH BATMAN!  If you're wondering what I'm "WOW-ing" and "BATMAN-ing" about well I could simply say "read for yourself"(I am saying that😉) but I am also adding that if you are afraid of the dark than be sure you read Willow Man during the day with all the lights on.

I should add that I know a few people who find flashbacks/back story spread throughout to be a little distracting but for me I find it thrilling and a bit exhilarating.  Frankly, if we learned everything from the past all at once the element of surprise would be lacking and heaven knows that in tales of creepiness, anticipation can be everything.  A definite addition to my spooky library.


The Well
Twenty years after prom queen Cassie Kennedy is brutally murdered, six teenagers break into the house where she was killed to hold a séance. Haven knows his cousin Elise only wants to scare the crap out of him and his friends, but he’s willing to put up with one of her pranks if it means a chance to spend a few hours with the new kid in town, Pierce Hunter.

But when morning comes, Elise has disappeared without a trace.

Twelve years later, Pierce and his twin brother Jordan are professional paranormal investigators, starring in their own ghost-hunting TV show. When Pierce calls Haven, insisting they return to the supposedly haunted building one last time, Haven reluctantly agrees. He’s nervous about seeing Pierce again, but he’s determined to get some answers. Did they really speak to Cassie’s ghost that night? What happened to Elise? And the biggest mystery of all – how did she know the secret of the well?

Original Review October 2017:
One night Haven, his cousins Linsey and Elsie, Linsey's boyfriend Craig, and twins Pierce and Jordan, broke into the home where twenty years earlier prom queen Cassie was murdered in the hope of contacting Cassie to learn what happened to her.  Before the night is over Elsie is gone.  Now twelve years later, Haven is contacted by Pierce who with his brother are paranormal investigators on television, about checking out the house again.  Will they find answers or will they meet the same fate as Elsie and Cassie?

To say that The Well scared the stuffing out of me might be a slight overstatement but to say I was on the edge of my seat from beginning to end is exactly right.  Is there a ghost? Is there lots of coincidences that explain what happened to Cassie and Elsie?  Will the answers come from someone they know? Or will they come from beyond the grave?  You know me, for those answers you have to read The Well for yourself but trust me when I say you will definitely want to check it out.

What I loved the most was how the author blended so many elements together to bring us this story.  The romance might be minimal, paranormal is pretty much left open to the reader's interpretation, mystery is everywhere but throughout there is plenty of heart behind the tale molding it all together.  I highly recommend giving The Well a read and its a great addition to my Halloween library.


The Hike by John Inman
Ashley James and Tucker Lee have been friends for years. They are city boys but long for life on the open trail. During a three-hundred-mile hike from the Southern California desert to the mountains around Big Bear Lake, they make some pretty amazing discoveries.

One of those discoveries is love. A love that has been bubbling below the surface for a very long time.

But love isn’t all they find. They also stumble upon a war—a war being waged by Mother Nature and fought tooth and claw around an epidemic of microbes and fury.

With every creature in sight turning against them, can they survive this battle and still hold on to each other? Or will the most horrifying virus known to man lay waste to more than just wildlife this time?

Will it destroy Ash and Tucker too?

Original Review October 2017:
When Ash and Tuck decide to go for a hiking adventure, there is no half measures when it comes to their devotion to make it fun but they are definitely determined to research it thoroughly, which can only keep them safer, right?  There is one thing they forgot and that is nature is not always predictable.  Will they survive the journey but more importantly, will their friendship survive when it becomes more?

First of all I just want to say that John Inman is King of Macabre.  Holy Hannah Batman!  If you doubt that Mother Nature can be frightening I highly suggest you read The Hike because it will keep you on the edge of your seat in ways you never expected.  "Edge of your seat" may be a cliché but it's cliché for a reason, when a story grabs you like The Hike did me, you know you're reading something special.

I won't go into the plot too much but I will say that if you think the duo will meet furry and fuzzy little creatures along the way then you are reading the wrong book and the wrong author.  Don't get me wrong there is plenty of friendship, love, and heart in this story that will warm your heart but its the anticipation of what is lurking around the next bend in the trail that will keep your page turning(or swiping) finger busy.

I'm just going to say it: if you love Stephen King, well then you'll love John Inman and personally, I will read Inman over King any day.  King is good but Inman will take the most mundane and every day situation and turn it into the most frightening scenario imaginable.  I am no hiker or camper and frankly after reading The Hike, I'm not sure I want to be 😉 This is definitely going in my re-read and my creepy/freaky library.


Hexslayer by Jordan L Hawk
Hexworld #3
Horse shifter Nick has one rule: never trust a witch.

Nick has devoted his life to making his saloon a safe haven for the feral familiars of New York. So when a brutal killer slaughters a feral under his protection, Nick has no choice but to try and catch the murderer. Even if that means bonding with a handsome Irish witch.

Officer Jamie MacDougal came back from the war in Cuba missing part of a leg and most of his heart. After his former lover becomes one of the killer’s victims, Jamie will do anything to solve the case.

Nick comes to Jamie with a proposal: after making a temporary bond, they will work together to stop the murders. Once the killer is caught, they walk away and never see one another again.

It sounds simple enough. But the passion that flares between the two men won’t be so easily extinguished. And if Nick can’t learn to trust his witch, he stands to lose everything—including his life.

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Hexworld Part 1

A Christmas Hex #2.5

Wild Wild Hex #3.5

Original Review October 2017:
Nick has spent his life hating witches, or at the very least not trusting them, not even his brother's witch.  His life's mission is to protect familiars, specifically feral familiars.  Jamie McDougal, one of Roosevelt's Rough Riders, is a witch without a familiar and an uncle who's views on familiars are not the same as Jamie's.  When familiars are being viciously killed, Nick decides he has to work with Jamie to stop the murderer but what happens once the case is solved?  Will Nick be able to let Jamie go and return to his anti-witch stand?

I knew we would eventually get a book in this series about Nick and to be honest I wasn't really looking forward to it.  I liked his need for freedom but his anti-witch stance always grated on me a bit and I was afraid I wouldn't be able to like him as a main character.  Its not that I felt he was irredeemable, he hadn't gone that far whenever he appeared in previous installments but I just wasn't sure I'd be ready to cheer him on.  Well! I'm adult enough to admit when I'm wrong and was I ever wrong! Nick was fun, frustrating, enjoyable, irritating, and yes he still grated on my nerves at times but I most definitely wanted to see him happy.

As for Jamie, well what's not to like?  He is a man with a heart that is "Grinch after finding Christmas spirit" big who wants to find the killer and find happiness all at the same time.  It's easy to say that Nick doesn't deserve someone like Jamie but truth is, they are perfect for each other.  Now, that's not to say everything is smooth sailing for the pair just because I found them perfect for each other, quite the opposite really.  Ms. Hawk really puts her couples through the wringer and Nick and Jamie are no different, most of the time that wringer is Nick but who can blame him considering the feelings he's been holding on to for so many years.

As for the killings, well as usual I don't do spoilers so I won't touch on that aspect of the story too much other than to say I was completely hooked from beginning to end.  Even without Nick and Jamie, Hexslayer would have had me on the edge of my seat with just the mystery alone.  Thankfully, we do have Nick and Jamie so once again Jordan L Hawk has brought us into a world of magic, mystery, mayhem, and just the right amount of mushiness to make this a perfect paranormal package fitting for this time of year.  However, if you don't have the time or opportunity to dive in now, you will be enthralled whenever you do give it a go because even though October is my favorite month to read all things weird and out there, I'll be reading this series whenever the author decides to give us another entry.  Simply put, Hexslayer and the whole Hexworld universe, takes us on an amazing journey of the magic most of us loved as children and gives it an adult flair that lets us delve back into the "what ifs" and "could bes" that we tend to forget as we grow older.  Just brilliant fun from beginning to end.


The Soldier Next Door by Brigham Vaughn
All twenty-seven-year-old Travis Schultz is supposed to do is keep an eye on the kid next door for a few weeks while his parents are out of town. Eighteen-year-old Owen Wheeler has other plans. Newly graduated, with plans to enlist in the Army, Owen wants to get laid before he ships out and he’s had a crush on Travis for years.

The age difference and the responsibility he’s been entrusted with make Travis hesitant, but the attraction is too much to deny. When the casual one-night stand turns into something more, Travis has no idea how to tell Owen how he feels. He misses his opportunity before Owen leaves and is left at home with a broken heart when Owen cuts off all contact.

When they meet again years later, Owen is in the midst of recovery from being injured in the line of duty and Travis will have to decide if he can forgive Owen and try again.

📚Publisher's Note: This book was previously released as part of the Right Here, Right Now anthology with Pride Publishing.📚

💥This book contains brief mentions of PTSD and war-related injuries.💥

Original Review November 2017:
When Travis was asked to keep an eye on his 18 year old neighbor while his parents are away for a few weeks, he never expected it to change his life.  Owen isn't exactly pleased with the idea of having his neighbor checking up on him for the few weeks his parents are gone, especially with him joining the Army at the end of summer but then maybe it won't be so bad when its the neighbor he's been crushing on for years.  When Owen asks Travis for a favor of his own, will Travis comply?  Where will it leave the boys when the summer is up and Owen leaves for Basic?

Followers of my blog and reviews already know how much I love the writing of Brigham Vaughn.  Not only do I consider her a friend and kindred spirit but her writing style and ability to tell a story is amazing and never fails to entertain(that is my honest opinion that would be the same even if we disagreed over everything😉).  The Soldier Next Door is no different, it may be shorter as its a novella originally part of Pride Publishing's anthology Right Here, Right Now but it is definitely not short on heart.  Travis and Owen's journey is a perfect blend of romance, humor, and drama with a healthy dose of lust threaded throughout.

Perhaps the scenario that Travis and Owen find themselves in is something only found in books and television but the way Brigham creates it, I wouldn't be surprised if it happened on my block.  Fiction is where we go to escape our everyday lives but when an author can bring you that escape and still fill it with people you could see walking past your front window, you know you have found something special.  Would I have liked to seen more of the pair and had the future delved into?  Of course, I never want a Brigham Vaughn tale to end but it is a novella after all.  There was a time when I would have taken a half bookmark away automatically just for the "shortness" of the story but it was authors like Brigham that showed me when a story is well written with intriguing characters, length(or lack thereof) is not a factor.

Simply put: Travis and Owen's journey in The Soldier Next Door is a wonderfully fun tale and although its not a holiday story, I can't imagine a better time of year to give it a read.


Count the Shells by Charlie Cochrane
Michael Gray returned from World War One injured, but at least he returned. Others were not so fortunate, including his first and greatest love, Thomas Carter-Clemence, with whom Michael had parted bitterly before the conflict began.

Broch, the Carter-Clemence home in Porthkennack, was an integral part of pre-war holidays for the Grays, the two families drawn together in the wake of their sons’ friendship. Returning to the once-beloved Cornish coast for a break with his sister and her family, Michael has to find the courage to face old memories . . . and dare new relationships.

When Thomas’s brother Harry makes an unexpected appearance, Michael is surprised to find himself deeply attracted to Harry for his own sake. But as their relationship heats up, it unearths startling revelations and bitter truths. Michael must decide whether Harry is the answer to his prayers or the last straw to break an old soldier’s back.

Original Review November 2017:
Michael Gray returned home from the Great War injured but his first and dearest love Thomas did not.  While vacationing with his sister and her family at Porthkennack where so many memories of Thomas reside, Michael comes across Harry, Thomas' younger brother.  Will learning some unknown truths weaken or strengthen Michael and Harry's blossoming romance?

First, I just want to say I have never read any of Riptide's Porthkennack series', contemporary or historical, so I really can't say to how much any of them are connected other than the island itself but since its from a variety of authors and they are tagged as standalones I'm going to believe that the tag is accurate.  As for Charlie Cochrane's Count the Shells, well followers of my blog and reviews will probably remember that I am a huge Cochrane fan especially of her historicals.  Her contemporaries are good but her devotion to detail and blending it into a fictional journey is absolutely amazing in my opinion and Count is no different.

I won't go into plot details because of the mystery aspect with the revelations that Michael discovers but let me just say, even though I had an inkling where it was headed, Miss Cochrane still surprised me and kept me enthralled and turning(or swiping) the pages till I reached the last and when I reached the last I was devastated to find I was there so soon.  This is always an indication for me just how darn good the book was: can't put it down because I need to know what happens and then once reached the conclusion getting mad at myself I didn't read it slower to savor the journey.

Count the Shells is a great post-war story that doesn't linger on the horrors the soldiers witnessed and experienced but nor does it gloss over it and expects us to accept that everything is A-Okay.  From Michael the returning veteran to his sister who waited on the homefront to his young niece and nephew the children who grew up after.  Charlie Cochrane gives us a story that encompasses all of it but never so much that we lose sight of a wonderful heartwarming(and breaking at times) love story.


Texas Gift by RJ Scott
Texas #8
A gift for every single reader needed to know what happened next for to Jack and Riley…

When Hayley arrived on the steps of the D, Riley and Jack knew life would never be the same.

Told through Riley and Jack’s eyes, this is ten years in the life of their family and watching Hayley grow up, fall in love, and start her own life. Hurricanes, illness, babies, happiness, sadness, work, play, the barn, the office, horses, friends, enemies, and above all love.

Saturday Series Spotlight: Texas

Original Review November 2017:
HOLY HANNAH BATMAN!!  And that was just my reaction to finding out there would be a new Texas entry, that we would get to ride along with Jack and Riley Campbell-Hayes to see what's been happening on the Double D.  THEN, I read Texas Gift and there was a whole new level to my excitement: HOLY HANNAH JUSTICE LEAGUE AND AVENGERS!

Texas Gift is exactly what the title says: a gift.  We get to see what the future holds for the Campbell-Hayes family and although its a HEA that doesn't mean it is an easy journey but it is an entertaining one.  I won't touch on details but I will say that you won't be disappointed.  Will we see more of the Double D down the road? Who knows, Texas Wedding was suppose to be the final one and yet apparently Jack and Riley spoke to RJ and said "we have more to tell you".  You won't be sorry giving it a read, lets face it if you are already a fan than you know the amazing-ness that you will find within its covers and if you aren't than boy are you in for a treat.  I re-read Texas every summer and it never gets old so having another installment to add is nothing but good for me.

If you have never visited the Double D crew, here is the perfect time to start because there is a level of "full circle" that Texas Gift brings to the table that makes it something special or even more special.  I feel lucky to call RJ Scott a kindred spirit but if I didn't, if we were at odds about everything I would still be recommending Texas Gift and the rest of the series because there is just something about the Double D universe that she's created that touches my heart and has expanded my horizons.  It was book one, The Heart of Texas, that was originally recommended to me by more than one of my book loving BFFs when I wanted to venture from slash fanfiction to M/M published works.  I can safely say that I loved it and it was the creativity of RJ Scott's Double D that led me to seek out other authors in the genre and in doing so led me to wanting to blog about books so that if I could help just one person find what I did than I would be happy.

I know that this is suppose to be a review of Texas Gift and it is because when you find a book(or series in this case) that can effect you like RJ Scott's Texas has me than that says more about the book and author than anything I can come up with.  So simply put, my review is: Texas Gift is an amazing read and whether or not it is truly the end to the series it will make you cry, make you laugh, and it will touch your heart.


Snow Falling by Davidson King
After running from a past destined to kill him, Snow has been hiding on the streets.

Tell nobody your name.
Tell nobody your secrets.
Trust nobody!
These are the rules of the streets.

His entire life changes when he saves an eight-year-old boy from a violent end.

Christopher Manos is one of the most powerful crime bosses in the country.

Don’t ask anyone to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself.
Secrets can get you killed.
Trust nobody!
These are the rules he lives by.

When his eight-year-old nephew disappears, he never expects the boy’s savior to end up being his own.

A man with a dangerous past and a man with a dangerous future find love amidst murder and mayhem. But with Snow's life being threatened at every turn, will Christopher's best be enough to prevent Snow Falling?

Original Review December 2017:
When Snow comes upon a little boy in trouble and comes to his aid, he has no plans for it to lead to a new beginning he was just doing what he felt was right.  Christopher may be the head of a family that has some questionable tactics but he is an honorable man so when his nephew is saved by a young man in an alley, he offers the man a job.  Will either man let the future take root and grow or will their secrets get in the way?

Snow Falling is a masterpiece!  That is the best way to explain what I read, nothing more, nothing less.  It is a true masterpiece, a gem to be savored.  When you factor in that this is a debut novel by the author, well frankly its hard to believe because its just so great.  Now, I would be lying if I said I am unfamiliar with the author because I consider her a friend and kindred spirit and I have been cheering her on for several years.  I knew her book would be good but even I was overwhelmed at how stunning and heartwarming Snow Falling is.

The characters, from Snow and Christopher to Roy and Bill to Lisa and Maggie, they all bring something to the story and not a single one is "window dressing" or "filler", they all have a part to play in the journey that is found within the covers of Snow Falling.  I mention that because that is a rare thing, in my experience there is usually at least one character that could have been removed from the pages and the reader would not miss them but not here.  Every character is intriguing in their own way and makes the story better.

As you know, I don't do spoilers so all I'll say in regards to the plot is WOW because I was hooked and had everyday life not got in the way I would have easily read this in one sitting.  Talk about an easy read, and don't think I mean "easy" as in simple and short. No, I mean "easy" as in it grabs you from the first page and before you know it half the book is gone and then suddenly you find yourself at the epilogue.  I started this review by saying Snow Falling is a masterpiece and I'll end with saying it has heart, no better way to say it: Snow Falling will break your heart, but it will also warm your heart.


The Heart of Frost by Charlie Cochet
North Pole City Tales #2
At the North Pole, no one is more powerful and feared than the Prince of Frost. As general of the toy soldier army, Jack Frost has been working extra hard to put away the villainous Mouse King once and for all. If that isn’t taxing enough, Jack has to deal with the scandal and gossip brought on by news of his relationship with Rudy Rein Dear, captain of the Rein Dear Squadron, which hit headlines last holiday season. Lucky for Jack, his reputation has managed to deter any foolish attempts to stir up trouble. At least until now.

When someone sabotages Rudy’s plane during a test run a few weeks before Christmas, Jack is determined to find the culprit by any means necessary. The closer he gets to finding answers, the more difficulty he has not falling back to his icy ways. Has the Mouse King stepped up his game in order to throw Jack off his, or is someone a little closer to home behind the attempt on Rudy’s life? Either way, Jack has every intention of delivering a Christmas they won’t soon forget, even if it means losing the newfound warmth in his heart.

Saturday Series Spotlight: North Pole City Tales Part 1

Saturday Series Spotlight: North Pole City Tales Part 2

Original Review December 2017:
Books #1-3 Overall Review:
Blogger Note: This is a combined review for the first three because frankly I can't imagine just reading one of the series, for this reader its all or nothing and as I've broken the series into 2 parts for my Saturday Series Spotlights on my blog I decided that's how I would divide up the reviews as well.

Two Christmases ago I featured North Pole City Tales for my Saturday Series Spotlight, I hadn't read them then and there was only 4 books at that time but when I saw this year the author was going to release the final book in the series I decided it was the perfect time to go back and read this intriguing series from Charlie Cochet.  Then as November approached and I was beginning to plan my holiday posts I thought, "I have plenty of time to read the series".  Then Thanksgiving was here and I was doing my first holiday post but I said "I still have plenty of time to read the series and the final book doesn't even release until December 20".  Suddenly December was here, I said "I'll push North Pole City Tales Part 1 back a week but still plenty of time to read".

Well, after another push back, December 12 arrived and I decided "How will I ever get all 6 read in time?"  After opening book 1, I quickly realized that I had nothing to fear in regards to finishing in time because HOLY HANNAH BATMAN! and WOW! I ended up reading Mending Noel(#1) & The Heart of Frost(#2) in one sitting, I probably would have went on to read more that day but life reared its boring head and I wasn't able to return to Vixen's Valor(#3) until the following afternoon.

Whether you would classify NPCT as paranormal or fantasy doesn't really matter because the important factor is that its brilliant and ingenious.  I have a pretty active imagination and I can't even begin to guess what or how the author created this incredibly intriguing and fun universe and take on the holiday characters that we remember from our childhood.  Rein Dear Squadron, Jack the Prince of Frost, elves, Toy Soldier Army, the evil Mouse King, and Mayor Kringle.  They are all here and they have all got an interesting part to play as well as finding love.  I won't give anything away with this lovely holiday novella series but I will say that it has become the highlight of my seasonal reading this year.  There's a little bit of everything and its all wrapped up in a most intriguing, refreshing, and delightfully fun holiday bow.

If you haven't read NPCT then as Charlie's characters often say: Holy Hollys and for Kringle Sakes! and I'll add: What are you waiting for?  You won't be sorry.


Tried & True by Charlie Cochet
When THIRDS agent Dexter J. Daley met Team Leader Sloane Brodie, he couldn’t have imagined how slamming into his new partner—literally—would shake both their worlds. Now four years later, they’ve faced dangers, fought battles both personal and professional… and fallen deeply in love. Now their big moment is finally in sight, and they’re ready to stand up together and make it official. Unfortunately, as the countdown to their big day begins, an enemy declares war on the THIRDS….

With their family in danger, Dex and Sloane are put to the test on how far into darkness they’ll walk to save those they love. As secrets are unearthed, a deadly betrayal is revealed, and Dex and Sloane must call on their Destructive Delta family for one last hurrah to put an end to the secret organization responsible for so much devastation.

Dex and Sloane will have plenty of bullets to dodge on the way to the altar, but with happiness within their grasp, they are determined to get there come hell or high water…

Original Review December 2017:
The time has finally arrived! Dex and Sloane are ready to make their commitment to each other official but before the big day gets here, someone has declared war on THIRDS and puts the men's family in harm's way.  Will Destructive Delta be able to rally one more time and save everyone in time for the wedding march? Dex, Sloane, and their dearest and nearest have never walked away from a fight and certainly are not about to walk away from this one but will every one make it to the ceremony on time?

This series was amazing when I read it back in October and Tried & True was just as thrilling.  The passion between Dex and Sloane is still as wild and untamed as it was in book one, Hell & High Water, truth is its grown even stronger.  On one hand, T&T is a bit of a sad read seeing how its the end of the THIRDS series but knowing the gang will return in all new adventures has my pulse racing and adrenaline pumping with all the possibilities yet to come.  So much goodness from beginning to end.

Being released around the holiday season put me in a quandary.  I love reading Christmas themed stories and once Turkey Day arrives then its time for all the halls being decked and the trees being trimmed.  But then Charlie decides to tell a little wedding tale mixed with all the ups, downs, humor, drama, claws, fists, and jaw-dropping WOW-ness that we've come to love about the THIRDS universe.  How was I going to put aside my ever growing list of fa-la-la-ing romances to read about Dex and Sloane's latest adventure?  Well, I just had to make myself.  Okay, that's a lie.  There was no amount of "making" me do it because even though I didn't take the time to write & post my review until the week between Santa's visit and saying goodbye to Father Time & hello to the New Year baby, I read Tried & True only days after it appeared on my Kindle, I had to get the tree up and house decorated after all😉.

I'm not going to touch on any particulars but let me just say this: Tried & True lives up to the level of HOLY HANNAH BATMAN that Charlie's entire THIRDS series has reached for me.  There is no amount of clever words that would even begin to express how much I have loved this unique and intriguing universe that she has created and even though we have reached the end of the THIRDS series, there is so much potential for future stories as the team moves on to their new positions.  I for one will be among the first in line to read them.  If you haven't started this series yet, now is the perfect time to begin the journey.  Don't be put off with the number of entries in the series because once you start, you'll just keep going and before you know it you will be reading Tried & True and be singing its praises as much as I am.  Thank You, Charlie Cochet for giving us Dex, Sloane, Ash, Cale, the rest of Destructive Delta, and their trusted friends and family.


Desperately Seeking Santa by Eli Easton
Journalism student Gabe Martin gets his first professional assignment—to write about a Christmas charity dinner that benefits a children’s home. It sounds like a total snooze-fest until Gabe learns that the event’s Santa is a mystery man. He shows up in costume and no one has a clue who he is. Uncovering Santa’s identity sounds like the perfect angle to turn a fluff piece into serious journalism.

Mack “The Mountain” McDonall, at 6’10”, is University of Wisconsin-Madison’s enormous star wrestler. When Gabe first claps eyes on him at a wrestling match, it’s lust at first sight. Gabe’s friend, Jordan, sets up the pair on a date. But when Gabe chatters on about his plans for outing Santa, Mack goes cold, and their first meeting becomes an epic fail.

As Gabe researches the children’s home, he learns that Mack has secrets a guy famous for being a brute wouldn’t want the world to know. Can Gabe find his holiday spirit, write a killer article, win the heart of a surly giant, and give everyone a very merry Christmas?

Original Review December 2017:
Gabe Martin is having quite a week, he's got his first byline assignment and he's going to his first college wrestling match.  Mack McDonnel is a top wrestler in his weight class, truth is he could go pro if he wanted but for Mack its about the scholarship wrestling got him and has greater plans for his future.  When they meet, there is definite sparks but when Gabe's article connects with Mack's past will those sparks be squashed out before they have a chance to light something bigger?

First, I just want to say that I look forward to Eli Easton's Christmas stories every year, they have become a highlight of my holiday reading season.  Frankly, I think she could turn Scrooge into Santa even without those pesky ghostly visits.  Second, I have to admit that as a lifelong Wisconsinite I always enjoy a story even more when I find one set in my state.  We aren't a common setting for novels so when I find one I just gobble it up.  Third, I have never visited the UW-Madison campus, the closest I've come was my senior year in high school when our football team went to the championship and the game was played at Camp Randall.  I have however spent 2 years at UW-River Falls, a Division 2 school in the UW system.  So having Desperatly Seeking Santa by Eli Easton in Wisconsin at the UW-Madison, well it was just icing on the cake.

Now as to the story.  As I said above I look forward to Miss Easton's holiday tales every year and Desperatly was no different and it certainly didn't let me down.  The characters are fun, the story is intriguing and even though I had an inkling who Santa is, it never took away from riding along on Gabe's journey.  Having come from a wrestling town, Mack is the epitomy of the sport and I love how his size was developed.  As a society, unfortunately we are very "sight" oriented, the physicality of an athlete is what we see and not what's underneath.  I just love how the author has meshed first impressions with the reality of who Mack is and what he wants in life.

Desperately Seeking Santa is well written with intriguing characters that most of us probably don't see every day, here in Wisconsin characters of Mack's size is probably more common place because of the sport but even though most might not see them, the author makes them so real that you expect to look out your front window and see them walking down the street.  There's drama, humor, lust, romance, and everything in between making this a perfect holiday read but if you run out of time and find yourself reading this in the middle of summer you will love it just as much.


Willow Man by John Inman
Chapter One
“WOODY? MY God, is that you? How long has it been?”

Woody wasn’t exactly sure just how long it had been, but to his way of thinking, it certainly hadn’t been long enough.

He remembered Crystal, of course. Hell, who wouldn’t? She had been gorgeous once. Still was, pretty much, although she did appear to have considerably higher mileage on the old odometer these days. Woody could still recall the way she used to whisk her pom-poms around at basketball games, wiggle her tight little butt, and aim her perky pubescent tits up at the grandstand as if to say, “Here they are, boys. Come and get ’em.” Well, it looked as if, at some point between then and now, somebody had indeed come and got ’em, and loosened up the chassis considerably in the process. She was a raging airhead then, and judging by appearances, she was a raging airhead now. Maybe some things you simply don’t grow out of.

“High school?” he said, wishing he had been a little quicker getting to the alley for his after-set cigarette.

Tonight, he knew, his set had been a good one. His voice in tune. His fingers adept on the guitar strings. The crowd congenial. They even seemed to be listening to him, which was a nice change of pace for the club he was currently working. Usually they just sat out there in that dark netherworld behind the spotlight, swilling beers and downing shots of tequila until they didn’t know where the hell they were and certainly didn’t give a shit where the hell Woody was or give two hoots for the fact that he was trying to entertain the ungrateful bastards.

No, it had been a good night. Until now.

The airhead squealed like a pig being disemboweled and gave his arm a playful slap, sloshing the beer from his glass onto his pant leg. “Well, of course it was high school, silly! But what year was that? When did we graduate?”

Woody was wondering if beer would stain khaki. He was also wondering how many shots of tequila this broad had poured down her throat during the course of the evening. “You mean you don’t remember?”

She giggled, like being stupid was the asset she was most proud of. “What year is it now?” she asked, looking honestly thoughtful.

Woody dragged up a smile and pointed it at her like a gun. “Doesn’t matter. Having a good time tonight? You don’t seem to be feeling any pain.”

Ha. Ha. She laughed the same laugh a hyena might laugh after finding a nice tasty zebra carcass lying on the savannah. A long series of hoots and haws with a couple of snorts scattered around to give it texture.

“I’m having a wonderful time! But, I didn’t know you could sing, Woody! Gee, I mean, you’re a real singer!”

“The matter is still up for debate.”

Whoosh. He imagined his words flapping across the top of her head like dying pigeons and splattering in a burst of feathers against the far wall, stunned into oblivion, uncomprehended by anything or anyone in between. Least of all her.

“Really?” she asked, suddenly sincere. “Well, I thought you were great!”

“Thanks,” he said, leaving his smile thumbtacked to his face like a poster.

“Buy me a drink?” Crystal asked with a flirtatious leer that promised more than drinking company if he played his cards right.

Woody was used to that look. It was a look he had seen time and again over the years. He supposed he was handsome enough, coming in at a little under six feet and as trim as a runner, with a sprinkling of soft hair across a well-defined chest and sporting long, elegant fingers—a guitar player’s fingers, his mother once told him. No moles, no scars, no Adonis, but with shoulder-length, reddish-blond hair that framed an open, expressive face, which in moments of repose seemed to wander toward the forlorn side, there was something about him, Woody knew, that certain women, and certain men, seemed to enjoy looking at. Sometimes that knowledge amused him. But not tonight.

Woody’s smile faltered. “Sorry, kid. Not allowed to fraternize with the customers. Club rule.”

It took her a minute to absorb this. “Gee, honey, I’m not asking you to fraternize me, whatever that means. Sounds kinky, though. Oh, wait, I think I know what it means.” Rusty wheels turned inside her tequila-glutted brain for all of five seconds before she said, “Well, maybe I don’t. So how about that drink?”

Woody glanced over her shoulder at nothing whatsoever and announced, “Oops, there’s my boss. Gotta run.” And with that, he took off like a bat out of hell toward the back door, aiming a last “Have fun tonight!” over his shoulder at the decidedly disappointed-looking ex-cheerleader behind him.

Once outside, he breathed in the cool night air and then replaced the freshness of it inside his lungs with a grateful puff from a Pall Mall.

Glad to be alone, Woody gazed up at the moon, which hung like a streetlight above his head. Where the hell was he? Oakland? That’s right, Oakland. His agent had booked him this gig right after Del Cerro, with no waiting in between jobs for a change. That was nice. His three days here ended tonight after his next set. Then he had a two week run in a club called Strikers, which was part of a gigantic bowling complex in San Diego—more than a hundred lanes, or so he’d been told—again without any dead time between gigs.

He supposed he’d be singing to the accompaniment of strikes and spares and rumbling bowling balls, but what the hell, he could always crank up the mike. San Diego, he thought. My hometown. Supposedly every entertainer’s dream, playing their hometown. Woody didn’t quite see it that way, but what the heck. The money was good. Or sort of good. And how many of his old cohorts would be hanging around a bowling alley? Not many, or so he hoped.

He knew he should be happy to be leading the life he’d once dreamed of, but somehow his dream had lost a little of its pizzazz when it made the transition to reality. Maybe they always did. Maybe fiction was always better than fact. Too bad, that. It was a good dream. Not that his life now was bad, exactly. It just wasn’t as good as the dream. After all, two weeks in a bowling alley in San Diego didn’t quite measure up to a run at the Palace, now did it? Actually he didn’t even know if the Palace still existed, or if it was still the holy of holies that up-and-coming young performers aspired to. Maybe it was a Kmart now. Wouldn’t surprise him.

He stomped out the Pall Mall and immediately lit another. Damn cigarettes. Not good for his voice. But he wasn’t exactly doing opera here. Sometimes a little cigarette hack in the middle of “Drop Kick Me, Jesus” added depth to the rendering. Or maybe it didn’t. Who the hell cared anyway? And actually, “Drop Kick Me, Jesus,” even by country-western standards, was a bit too banal for his playlist. He stole most of his material from George Strait, George Jones, and Willie Nelson. Not that they would mind, he was sure, since none of those august entities had ever in their lives heard of Woody Stiles, yours truly, or if they had, they had forgotten about him two minutes later.

He wasn’t exactly in the fast lane to stardom, he had to admit. Here he was, pushing thirty. After years of struggle, his gigs were getting closer together and being fairly well received of late, but that elusive recording contract seemed to be nowhere on the horizon that he could see. Against the advice of his agent, he had dumped his band a couple of years back. He had been soloing ever since. Just him, his God-given voice, and his Gibson acoustic. Without a band, his gigs were a little more limited—no dance clubs to be sure—but on the other hand, he didn’t have to split his pay five ways either. So all in all, going solo was a smart thing to do. Lonely, though. Jeez, it got lonely sometimes. He missed getting drunk with the guys after a show and playing till dawn for no one but themselves in some seedy motel room, surrounded by a mountain of takeout Chinese cartons and empty beer bottles, until the neighbors started pounding on the walls and screaming at them to “Shut the hell up, for Christ’s sake, people are trying to sleep over here!”

The band had picked up another lead singer somewhere, he had heard, but what happened to them after that was anybody’s guess. Flying under the radar somewhere, he supposed. Back to hustling for tips in the dives they had worked themselves out of while he was at the helm, maybe. Or maybe they were finally working themselves up again. He hoped so. They were nice guys. Good musicians. A little too dependent on outside stimulants, maybe, but how many working musicians weren’t?

Woody himself had locked his sorry ass in a hotel room in Dallas for two weeks and weaned himself off crystal meth along about the time he’d dumped the band, and it was the best thing he’d ever done for himself. Wasn’t easy, mind you. He still remembered dropping an issue of Variety on the floor and leaving it there for five days before his petrified muscles limbered up enough to allow him to bend over and pick it up. But there’s no point in plucking away at your guitar strings until your fingers bleed and singing every insipid request that the drunken louts in the audience throw at you if you’re just going to turn right around and suck the night’s proceeds up your nose through a rolled-up dollar bill. No wonder so many country western singers were ex-druggies. It kind of went with the territory.

Lately, Woody had even been trying to wean himself away from country as well, going for a more Jackson Browne sound, but he supposed his voice just wasn’t built for it. He could get an audience jiving pretty good with a little Mel Tillis or Clint Black, but when he shot for Billy Joel or Sting, he could see the bar patrons go glassy-eyed and start fiddling with their car keys. Not a good sign.

Woody had a repertoire of almost six-hundred country western songs under his belt, and maybe another couple of hundred of the more mainstream easy rock stuff, but he was bored with every damn one of them. In fact, Woody was beginning to think this line of work wasn’t exactly a manly sort of business to be in. There is a certain panache to being a recording star, someone with an honest-to-God contract with a legitimate industry label, but to just flit around from one town to the next, following his agent’s leads, singing for a bunch of drunken cowboy wannabe’s in their too tight Levi jeans and overblown cowboy hats, which they only drag out of the closets on Saturday night, with their bleached blonde girlfriends hanging worshipfully on their arms like Cissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter being dragged around by Tommy Lee Jones, just seemed a little—well—demeaning.

But Woody loved to sing. That was the problem. When he sang he did it for himself, not the audience. He could lose himself in the lyrics of a song sometimes, and when he did, those were the moments he most cherished, closing his eyes to the crowd and letting the words and the music carry him to a place where he didn’t have to think of anything at all. A place where he could lose all sense of self completely. The meth had helped carry him to that place too, but at the same time, he knew, it was killing him. On meth he could sometimes lose himself so completely inside a song it was hard to let it end. He would find himself repeating verses over and over until the audience started wondering what the hell was going on. Finally, to bring him out of it, his band would play the closing bars right over him, just to get him to shut up.

It had seemed kind of funny at the time, but looking back on it now, he realized it wasn’t funny at all. The euphoric high that kicked in when he snorted that expensive white powder might be making him happy, or at least making him think he was happy, but it was dragging the band down behind him like an anchor tossed over the side of a ship, sinking farther and farther into the depths until it hit the ocean floor with a resounding clunk. Fact was, they were losing gigs. Word got around. Club owners didn’t want to risk their business to a drugged-out singer who might or might not show up for work, a singer who wore Band-Aids across the end of every finger because he had played them down to the bone the night before while on a high that numbed everything from fingertips to brain.

Another problem with meth was that he smoked constantly while on it. It had affected his voice. Did a real number on it, in fact. An occasional cigarette cough in the middle of a lyric was one thing, but when you started bending over the microphone, gagging and spitting and hacking up a lung, the audience tended to notice.

So Woody gave the drugs up for Lent, metaphorically speaking, and he was glad now he had. For one thing, he was still alive. That was a plus. For another thing, as his body gradually tuned itself up again like an engine coughing out the last drops of water from the gas tank, he found he could still, once in a while, find that euphoric state where he lost himself inside the music. It didn’t happen as often now, but it happened.

And it was a blessed relief when it did.

Woody regretfully stubbed out his second Pall Mall—the one habit he could not break, no matter how many times he tried—drained the last drops of beer from his glass, and did a couple of flaps to his trouser leg, trying to speed up the drying process from the beer the dizzy broad had spilt there earlier. Then, after looking down at himself to make sure everything was properly in place, zipper closed, shirt tucked in, no hawks of phlegm on his boot tops, he headed back inside the bar.

Oakland. There seemed to be a whole lot of cowboy wannabe’s in Oakland. Looking out across the dimly lit club was like looking at a Stetson store closing up for the night. Hats everywhere. The name of the club was Diablo’s. He had worked it once, a year or so back. It wasn’t a bad gig. The owner was a decent enough guy who paid nightly without a fuss, and the clientele, although pretty well sloshed at this late hour on Saturday night, were reasonably well behaved. He hadn’t had to duck any flying beer bottles or watch from the stage as the patrons disassembled the place in a drunken brawl, clutching his beloved Gibson to his chest to keep it out of harm’s way as the furniture went sailing past his head, which had happened more than once in other drinking establishments he had been employed in. So on the whole, it had been a good night. A good run.

In a couple of hours, he would crank up the old Chevy Suburban and head south. Maybe stop somewhere along the way to cop a few zees at the side of the road. Find a Laundromat, do his laundry. Pig out on fast food as he drove along, watching the California countryside unfurl before him, carrying him back to the place he was born, the place he had sworn he would never go back to.

He thought of that place now as he climbed the black wooden steps to the stage and settled himself on the barstool behind the two microphones, one for voice and one for guitar. He heard the noise in the crowded bar lower itself by maybe a decibel and a half as the audience turned their faces to him behind the spotlight that always looked, to Woody, like the critical eye of God, appraising him as he worked. There were drunken faces in the audience now, faces a little like his own but still receptive, once again wanting to be taken to that same place Woody always longed for, that place inside the song where mundane reality fell away and euphoria took over.

It was a nice place to be. A nice place to return to. That place inside the song was always safe. Always free from fear.

Unlike home. Unlike San Diego.

Sipping occasionally at another beer, Woody dutifully played his songs and waited for the night to end, dreading the day ahead.

Dreading the trip south.

THE HOUSE Woody grew up in still sat at the end of a dead-end street in an older section of San Diego known as Park Canyon. The area was aptly named, with one great canyon and multiple small ones slashing through the neighborhood, dividing streets, separating one house number from the next by sometimes as much as a mile. The catchphrase in Park Canyon was “never expect hot pizza,” meaning most delivery drivers found themselves lost four or five times, on the average, before they accidentally stumbled on the destination they were shooting for, if they stumbled on it at all. The “under thirty minutes or your pizza is free” rule was automatically cancelled when the phone-in order came from Park Canyon.

Woody had been paying taxes and utility bills on the house for the past ten years, ever since the stabbing deaths of his mother and father in what the police had called a “robbery attempt” of the mom-and-pop store they had owned and managed since before Woody was born. His parents’ murderer had never been found, and this constantly tortured Woody, sometimes causing him to erupt into such impotent bursts of rage it was all he could do to hold onto his reason. But the thought of selling the house he was raised in, the house his parents loved so much, the house he himself had loved so deeply during the years he grew up there, troubled Woody even more. He had no siblings to fight over the property, so the choice he made to do nothing at all about the house after his parents died was an easy one to make. He had sold the store, of course, and that had given him a few grand to get his life rolling, but the house he had left exactly as it was. A time capsule, holding all his memories. Both the good and the bad. But it was the good ones he wished to protect. The bad ones he could live without.

Woody’s grip tightened on the Suburban’s steering wheel at the first sight of the battered Dead End sign perched up ahead at the end of the street. That sign had been there for as long as Woody could remember. His was the last house on the right. Cut into the hillside, it looked like a one-story Craftsman from the street, but at the back, hidden from view by towering plumes of flowering bougainvillea that climbed into the trees and hung heavy from the eaves, the house was two-story. Back there, in an area passersby never saw, was a small lawn bordered by jade plants and roses, and beyond the border the ground plummeted away into the largest of the many canyons that intersected the area. That canyon had been Woody’s playground until his thirteenth year. After that, he never entered it again.

The house on Highview Lane was surrounded by others like it. Built back in the forties, the homes were a little worse for wear but maintained as well as could be expected, considering the fact that most of the people living on the street were older now. Looking at it as he drove up, Woody could see no signs of children anywhere. No bicycles or skateboards dropped carelessly on lawns. No tires hanging from tree limbs like the ones that were popular when he was a kid. No tree houses, no sound of children’s laughter rising up from the canyon beside the house where Woody and his friends had played that summer so long ago, back when Woody’s body was beginning to change, when manhood was a concept he was just beginning to understand. It was during the summer of Woody’s thirteenth year when the horror actually raised its head from the canyon for the first time. It screamed out its fury at the young interlopers who were trespassing on its territory, disturbing its sleep, causing it to waken, causing it to unsheathe its claws and reach out with gnarled, grasping fingers, and in doing so, giving Woody, and maybe his friends too, something to trouble their dreams for a lifetime to come.

Woody wondered, not for the first time, what had become of those friends he had been so close to that long-ago summer. Cathy. Jeremy. Chuck. And Bobby, of course. Just names now. The faces he remembered would not be the faces they wore today. Except for Bobby, they would be all grown up now, like him. All grown up and probably as far away from this place as their adult lives could carry them. Only he would be dumb enough to return here after everything that had happened, he thought. Jeez, he must be nuts.

Woody parked his Suburban on the macadam driveway and stared at the house for the first time in a decade. It didn’t look too bad, actually. The two ancient palm trees, one at either side of the front porch, were still there, reminding Woody, as they had when he was a child, of towering masts flanking a sail-less ship. The yard had been kept up by a gardener Woody paid once a month by mail, and if the windows were dirty and the paint on the stucco had faded to a rather bilious olive color, which wasn’t at all the cheerful seafoam green he remembered, at least the place was standing. Familiar curtains still hung in the windows, limp now with age, deceiving strangers as to the house’s vacancy, and neighbors had kept a continual eye on the place for him without his requesting them to. His parents had been very popular in the neighborhood, probably because of their willingness to extend credit to those finding themselves a little short in the purse when it came time to buy family groceries at the end of every working month. Upon their deaths, many of those neighbors had come forward at the funeral to press an envelope of money into Woody’s hands, paying as much as they could on their outstanding debt to help the boy, not yet twenty, through his grieving period and give him a better start on his own life, a start which his parents were no longer there to help him with.

Woody could have given that start a considerable boost by selling the property his parents maintained with such love through all the years of his growing up, but he could never quite bring himself to do it. It was not a matter of thinking he might one day return here to live in the house. That was something he never intended to do. Ever. For with all the wonderful memories still living like silent tenants inside the house, it also harbored other memories, memories he spent every waking hour of his adult life trying to forget. It was not so much the house that bore these memories to Woody, but the neighborhood. The sloping hills. The sage- and juniper-padded canyons.

He climbed from the Suburban and walked to the front porch, where he paused to take in the view to the south: the Mexican hills surrounding Tijuana, hazy in the distance. Memories flooded through him as he stood there, looking out across the sun-drenched vista spread out before him. It was a vista he remembered so well as seen through much younger eyes than the ones he looked through now.

God, Woody was suddenly so inundated with memories he could barely contain them all. He had always tried to keep those memories buried, hidden away from himself, stashed away in the darkest cellars of his mind, where he hoped they would languish, forgotten, never to see the light of day again. But he could feel them now, trying to claw their way out of the shadows—trying to gain a foothold on his consciousness. If those fears were allowed to show themselves, Woody knew, they would unleash a flood of terror he had spent a lifetime trying to lose inside his music.

Simply looking at the house now forced the truth to well up in Woody’s mind. His fears were not buried at all. They never had been. They were still waiting for him, right here where he’d left them. On Highview Lane. House number 3436. The house of his childhood. The place where he had once learned what fear was all about, and the place he had been running from ever since. Until today.

He slipped the long-unused key into the front door and entered a different world. Stepping from sunlight into shadow, he could almost smell his mother’s bread pudding bubbling in the oven. Could almost hear Lucy and Ricky going at it in reruns on the old RCA TV in the living room. Could almost hear his father calling out from the back bedroom, wondering where the hell his clean socks were. Could almost see his mother coming out to greet a thirteen-year-old Woody as he plodded in from school, his book bag dangling from one arm and his battered skateboard tucked under the other. Giving him a gentle peck on the cheek, ruffling his hair, telling him he needed a haircut, telling him to go wash up, dinner would be ready soon. Asking him how his day went. Making him feel loved and safe and home. Like she did every day of her life.

Woody propped his Gibson inside the front door. He would bring in the rest of his stuff later. For the moment, he stood in the doorway and breathed in the smell of the house. It smelled just as he remembered it. The air was a little staler perhaps, the place having been shut up for so long, but the aromas inside the house were even now, after all these years, as familiar to him as the scent of his own skin.

Everything had been left in situ, as archaeologists were fond of saying. The furniture still placed exactly as he remembered it. The long sofa against the far wall, his father’s brown recliner set at an angle at the end of it. His mother’s piano parked in the corner by the picture window where she would sometimes look out on the street as she played. The old spinet still sprouted a growth of framed snapshots across the top, like those pictures you used to see of some homesteader’s shelter in the Old West, built into a prairie hillside with maybe a garden or a few stalks of corn shooting up from the roof. The fireplace, long bereft of fire, looked dusty and forlorn, desperately in need of a good cleaning. In fact, the whole house needed a good cleaning. Dust was everywhere, sprinkled across the furniture like powdered sugar on a baker’s tray of goodies. His mother would have had a conniption fit if she saw the house looking this way.

In her day it had been kept spotless. Squeaky clean. The windows gleaming. The furniture polished. The carpets vacuumed daily. Everything in the exact same place it had been the day, the week, the year before.

A surge of sadness threatened to bring tears to Woody’s eyes, thinking of his mother slaving away inside this house for the better part of her adult life. But she had enjoyed it, that was the funny thing. Go figure. Woody never quite understood it. It was like she was born to clean and loved every minute she spent with a rag in one hand and a bottle of 409 in the other, cleaning everything that didn’t clean her first, as his father used to say.

What the hell was he doing here anyway, Woody thought, clearing the emotion from his throat. He could stay in a motel somewhere. He had money. Not a lot, but enough for that. Seemed kind of silly, though, wasting money on a motel when he had free lodgings right here at his fingertips. He didn’t have to start the gig until tomorrow night, and he supposed he’d be spending every minute of his time between now and then making the house livable. He wasn’t a clean freak like his mother, but he sure couldn’t live in the place the way it was.

He took a peek down the long, dimly lit hallway and could almost hear Willie Nelson moaning out the lyrics of one of his old tunes from the Motorola radio that used to sit in Woody’s old room, the nasal twang of Willie’s voice echoing sweetly through the shadows of time and memory. “Turn that blasted thing down,” Woody’s mother used to rail. “I can’t hear myself think!” But he never did, and she never seemed to mind.

Woody approached his room now, wondering if it would look the way he remembered it. The Batman bedspread. Posters of X-Men on the wall. Storm was his favorite. She was hot, with her snow-white hair and a body to die for. Woody used to wonder why real women never looked like that. He made the mistake of asking Cathy once, and he could still remember her rolling her eyes like he was a first class nimrod and telling him real women weren’t “drawn, stupid.”

Good old Cathy. He wondered where she was now. Wondered, too, if she still wore those heavy red pigtails dangling off either side of her head. Probably not. Now she probably had a spiky new do with a few streaks of blonde scattered through it like every other young woman on the planet. Too bad. He used to like watching those pigtails swing around her head when she spun quickly, or bounce up and down like Slinkys when she was pedaling her Sting-ray bike, trying, as always, to keep up with the guys, or better yet, outdo them completely.

She was one of the guys, actually. As tough as a cob, and if mad, as apt to swing a left hook as the rest of them. Until the summer of her thirteenth year, at least. After that, she wasn’t quite as tough. Or as fearless. None of them were. That summer changed them all one way or another. Things were never the same after that.

Woody peered around the doorway of his old bedroom and couldn’t believe his eyes. Everything was exactly the way he had left it. NASCAR, he remembered now, had replaced Batman on the bedspread along about his fifteenth year, and there it still was, a little faded, a little musty smelling, but still the same old red NASCAR spread he had conned his mother into buying for him after explaining to her that he was almost a man now, for God’s sake, and Batman was for kids. “God help us when you get your driver’s license,” his mother had said, but she bought him the bedspread anyway. And curtains to match. They still hung on the windows overlooking the canyon.

Woody stepped to the window and gazed out. The backyard looked just as he remembered it. The grass had been recently mown. The roses on the verge of the canyon were properly manicured, adding a riotous touch of color to the landscape. The flagstone path that meandered through the lawn was neatly swept. His old swing still hung from the jacaranda tree in the corner, but the bare patch of earth under the swing, scraped raw over the years by sliding tennis shoes, had been gradually filled in by the encroaching grass until now the lawn beneath it looked as pristine as it had the day the swing was strung up by his father. It was as if nature had erased all memory of the time Woody had spent there, contentedly swinging back and forth, dragging his feet across the ground, chewing Baby Ruths and contemplating his young existence.

Before his eyes could be drawn farther out, past the lawn toward the depths of the canyon, he turned away from the window and, as an afterthought, drew the curtains closed behind him. Still, in a corner of his mind, deep down in a place where nature had not encroached, he heard the voices of the twins, Jeremy and Chuck, yelling out to him yet again from the stand of willow trees deep in the canyon, their voices practically squeaking with fear. “Jesus, Woody, look at the blood! It’s everywhere!”

Then he heard another voice. A voice from the darkness of a summer night long ago. A voice he had once heard in this very room. A calmer voice. A whisper so filled with longing that even now, it tore at his heart like a knife. “Touch me, Woody. Touch me like I’m touching you.”

Woody closed his eyes to that memory. Trying to squeeze those voices, those echoes, from his mind was like squeezing pus from a wound. But even as they faded in the distance, he knew they were not really gone. They would be back. They always came back. Closing a curtain wouldn’t keep those voices out. And closing his eyes only made the voices louder. The trick was to concentrate on something else. Like cleaning. How many hours had he spent polishing his Gibson, or scrubbing the Suburban, or straightening motel rooms before the maid got there, in his attempt to make those voices, those memories, go away? How many times had he stood in front of a mirror and cut his own hair, usually botching it up pretty good in the process, just to have something to do to tear his mind away from the past?

For the first time, standing in his old room, standing in this place he thought he would never see again, he wondered if maybe that was why his mother would lose herself so completely in the job of keeping this house spotless. Was she trying to escape memories of her own? Did she have fears, or regrets, or true terrors of her own that only the reek of Pine-Sol could wash from her mind? Did her cleaning truly make her happy, or like himself, did it merely keep her sane? Had she known of the horrors surrounding this house, this neighborhood? Surely not. If she had, she would never have let her young son set a foot outside the door.

Shaking his head, trying to clear his mind like an Etch-a-Sketch, he strode purposely from his childhood room and headed for the door that led from the kitchen to the garage. The cleaning supplies were there, or had been once. Maybe they still were. Time to get the house in order. He was here. He might as well stay. He would clean away the cobwebs and the dust and open the windows to air out the miasma of all the empty years, and then he would go to the old market and pick up some groceries and beer. He wondered if Mr. Mendoza still owned the place. Woody remembered how the man had come to his door on the morning after his parents’ funeral, hat in hand, offering condolences, and offering money too. Money for the business. Money that Woody had pretty well gone through by now, but money that, at the time, had been sorely needed. Woody had named a price, and the old Mexican gentleman had whipped out a checkbook and paid him in full. And just like that, a part of Woody’s past had been no longer his own.

Amid the solid clatter of his boot heels on the three concrete steps that led from the kitchen to the garage, worn smooth by a million footsteps over the years, Woody all but clutched his chest and gasped at the sight of his father’s old Fairlane sitting there. God, he had forgotten the car was still here. Old, even when Woody was young, the car had survived the ages almost unscathed thanks to Woody’s dad’s tender care. Woody had not sold the car after the funerals, thinking, he supposed, it might come in handy at some time or other. And here it still sat. Woody tested the driver’s side door to see if it was locked, but of course it wasn’t. He eased himself onto the wide bench seat and saw the keys still hanging in the ignition, right where he had left them after driving the car from the store that day after the police had gone. With a hand that seemed to be trembling, Woody turned the key and was met with total silence. The battery was as dead as Caesar, and why wouldn’t it be? He sat there for a moment in the silence and ran his fingers over the dashboard, thinking of the many times his father had driven him and his friends to the library, to the movies, to the park where they would play until dark, until he returned, hours later, cheerfully blasting his horn, to pick them up.

Woody thought of the way his father sometimes, if the traffic was light, let him snuggle up beside him and steer the monstrous Fairlane down the city streets while his dad worked the pedals. He could still remember the feel of his small hands on the wheel and the car’s rumbling power beneath them. Remembered craning his neck to see above the dashboard while his father draped one arm across his shoulders and let the other rest, bent, in the open window beside him. Remembered, too, the comforting smell of his father’s warm body so close to his, the homey mixture of spearmint gum, tobacco, and Old Spice cologne. Scents that would forever remind Woody of the man who raised him with such love. With such gentle kindness.

It was his father, he remembered now, who had bought him his first guitar. His mother had spent hours with him as Woody sat nailed in misery and guilt to the bench beside her, trying to teach him piano, but much to her disappointment, his heart was never in it. His father had seen the boy’s anguish, taken pity on him, and bought him the guitar instead. He had taken to it like a duck takes to water, his father always said, and even his mother had to agree. They paid for lessons from a man down the street, and Woody had gone faithfully to those lessons every Saturday afternoon for more than two years, until the day the man, Mr. Peters his name was, told him there was nothing more he could teach him. The man had taken the last payment of five dollars from Woody’s hand, wished the boy a terse “good day,” closed his front door behind him, and Woody never saw Mr. Peters again. He found out later the man had died shortly after that. Cancer, his mother said. He had been sick a long time. Woody still wondered if the lessons had stopped because the man wasn’t up to teaching him anymore, or if he truly had learned everything the man had known about guitar. It was one of those questions in life that would never be answered.

Now, approaching thirty, Woody had begun to realize that life dealt out a lot of unanswered questions. Questions that simply would never be answered, no matter how much you fumed and fussed and fretted over them.

Woody stepped from the car, ran a hand lovingly along the sill of the door, and heard the solid, satisfying clunk of it slamming shut. Maybe while he was here he would get the Fairlane running again. Take it out for a spin around the neighborhood. Burn out the kinks. His father would like that, if he was still looking down from whichever celestial plane his murderer had sent him to.

The garage was stifling hot on this summer day and stuffy from being closed up so long. Woody released the simple hook and eye that held the garage door closed and peeled it up into the ceiling, creaking and groaning, to let the air and sunlight stream in for the first time in a decade, replacing the past with the present. Airing out the memories. Shedding light on the darkness of old hurts.

Illuminating Eagle, leaning against the wall in the corner.

His old bike. Woody stood there in the breeze blowing up from the canyon, staring at it with a smile creeping across his face. How many hours had he spent perched high on Eagle’s seat, feeling the wind in his hair and the sun at his back, as his bike carried him to all the places his childhood led him? It had been a damn good bike. A Cannondale. His father and mother had bought it for him on his ninth birthday. It had taken a couple of years for his body to grow into the 26-inch racer, but when it did, he and the bike became inseparable. He had named her Eagle because she could fly, dammit! She could really fly! Cherry red and as sleek as a bird of prey, she had sped him down these neighborhood streets like a steed carrying its warring master into battle. Always faithful. Always there. Always ready for the next adventure.

She had even saved his life once. And not only his life, but Chuck’s too, back on the day when the evil in the canyon had reached out to snatch them both from this world, as Woody’s father had been snatched from it years later. He still remembered Chuck’s arms around his waist, holding on for dear life, practically squeezing Woody’s guts up into his throat. Remembered Chuck screaming into his ear, into the wind, “Faster! Go faster!” as desperate, running footsteps rattled the gravel behind them and cruel fingers strove to reach out to pull them from their seats and tear their young bodies to shreds.

The evil had taken human form that day, if you wanted to call it human. Jesus, he and Chuck were both screaming their heads off by the time the Cannondale bounced out of the canyon and onto Juniper Street. But they had made it. The evil did not leave the canyon, and they had known somehow it wouldn’t. When they realized they were safe, that scrabbling fingers and slavering fangs were no longer reaching out behind them, groping and snapping, eager to rip them off the bike and snatch their lives away, they had howled with joy. Their victorious young voices rang bright in the summer twilight, echoing off the houses, sailing down the street. The sound of simple childish laughter that had only moments before been screams of horror.

They had turned then, with Woody still pumping the pedals like a madman and Chuck still all but strangling him, trying to hang on, as the summer-hot asphalt hummed beneath their wheels. Still screaming, in jubilation now instead of fear, they yelled taunts at the terror that no longer pursued them. And in the distance on that day, from somewhere among the sage and juniper and willow trees that stood like proud sentinels at the base of the canyon, they had heard laughter. A wicked gurgle of sound that once again burned fear into their hearts. But for the moment, they knew they were safe.

Chuck and Woody had gone to their separate homes that night, watched TV with their parents as if nothing strange had happened during the course of the day, and later they had climbed into their beds alone, far away from the comfort of each other, and only then did the terror once again raise its head to bring the darkness crashing down around them like cold black water settling over a drowning man.

Woody wondered now why neither he nor his friends had ever gone to their parents with the news that an evil presence stalked the neighborhood; that a demon lurked in the canyon, waiting to pounce from the underbrush and drag their screaming bodies into oblivion. None of their parents would have believed them, of course, because somehow Woody and his pals knew, as well as they knew their times tables, that the horror was never meant to be seen by adult eyes, was never meant to be grasped by adult minds. The terror was real enough, no two ways around that. But it was real only to them. Which didn’t mean it couldn’t still kill you deader than snake shit. It wasn’t their fault there was too much reality in an adult mind to see it, that something about mortgages and paychecks and the rote of daily grown-up living could block out childish visions. And it sure as hell brought Woody and his friends closer together, knowing the danger was directed toward them alone. In battling their fear, they had no one to turn to but each other, and this made them a unit.


Never again would Woody be as close to anyone as he had been to his friends on that hot, hot summer of his thirteenth year when all hell broke loose and fear was no longer something you caught a glimpse of on a movie screen, but a real live rampaging beast, all fangs and snapping jaws and a mind gnawed by malice and madness that was just as goddamn real as you were.

Poor Eagle. She was looking fairly pathetic these days. Her tires were flat, one of her spokes had popped out of the rim, and she was covered with the same patina of grimy dust as everything in the house. A clothespin was still clamped to the frame beside the back wheel but the Bicycle playing card it once held against the spokes had at some time during the course of the ensuing years drifted to the floor. It had all been illusion, of course, but that playing card had given a pretty good semblance of motorized speed when it bbrapped against the spokes, especially when Eagle was fairly flying beneath him. Woody picked the card up now and looked at it. The ace of spades.

Shit. That wasn’t a good sign.

He let it fall from his fingers and, pushing all thoughts of Eagle and that long-ago summer from his mind, continued his search for cleaning supplies, occasionally turning a leery eye to that ace of spades lying on the garage floor.

He found everything he needed, and after peeling off his sweat-stained shirt and tossing it into a corner, Woody walked back through the kitchen door and set about the awesome task of making the house livable.

As always, the act of cleaning cleared his mind. By the time he finished three hours later, he was surprised to hear himself humming. There might even have been a smile on his face as he looked around at the place, freed now from the residue of ten empty years. Once again, the furniture shone. With all the windows open, the stale air had been swept away, leaving behind only the comforting smells of Lemon Pledge and Comet and the sweet scent of roses wafting in through the back bedroom window, as it had in the days of his childhood.

In his parents’ bedroom, he even imagined a whiff of his mother’s favorite perfume, White Shoulders, reaching out across the years to comfort him. But it was just his imagination, of course. It had to be. There was nothing left of his mother inside this house now but her memory.

Yet somehow, at the moment, memory seemed to be enough.

AT SOME point between then and now, while Woody’s youthful dreams were settling into stark realities, his father’s old store had undergone a change of its own. STILES MARKET was no longer painted on the wall above the front door. Now, high above the street, in Day-Glo neon, it proclaimed itself to be JAYCEES. Woody didn’t know what the hell “Jaycees” was supposed to mean, but it certainly wasn’t the store he remembered. As much as he hated to admit it, the place looked considerably better than it had when his father ran it. It even boasted a butcher shop now, according to the sign, something his father had often talked about but never seemed to find the time or money to initiate.

Woody wasn’t more than two steps inside the front door when Mr. Mendoza, considerably heavier now than he was ten years ago, as if maybe he had been hanging around the potato chip aisle too long, came out of nowhere and started pumping Woody’s hand up and down for all of two full minutes while, in his melodic Hispanic accent, he welcomed Woody back to the neighborhood. He dragged Woody through the store, proudly pointing out all the changes he had made over the years. He had added not only a butcher shop, but also beer and wine and a separate little pharmacy area, and the back of the store had been extended out another ten feet. While Mr. Mendoza was obviously proud of the improvements, Woody thought something had been lost in the renovation. It took him a moment to put his finger on what it was, exactly, that was lost, but when he did, he summed it up in one word. Heart.

Jaycee’s was no longer a simple mom-and-pop store, where people could come not only to shop, but to chat. To visit. To show off their kids and gab about the weather. Now, between the electronic scanners at the checkout counters, the sterile, air-conditioned air, and the efficiently laid out aisles, there was only a sense of commerce. All personality had been swept away. Now the place felt like every other supermarket Woody had ever walked through. Cold, impersonal, and slightly desperate in its desire to lure every shopping dollar from the pocket of every patron that was sucked through the automatic front doors. Woody couldn’t imagine any one of these check-out girls in their crisp yellow uniforms reaching out to the customer with a comforting hand and saying, as he once heard his father say, “That’s okay, Mrs. Chen. Pay me when you can. I’ll not go out of business over a pound of bacon and a dozen eggs.”

Mr. Mendoza seemed to sense Woody’s disappointment.

“Times change, hey, son? The days of the little store are over. Now we have to compete with the big boys up the street. If your papa was still here, he would understand.”

And Woody supposed he would. Business was business.

Too bad.

With a final handshake, Mr. Mendoza scurried off to the front of the store, where one of the clerks was screaming over the screeching intercom for a price check on disposable diapers, and Woody set off in search of what he needed. He gathered up enough food to last a few days, grabbed a 12-pack of beer from the massive cooler on the back wall, and after paying for his purchases with a MasterCard, he headed back out into the California twilight.

Away from the store, away from a past that had already left him far behind, Woody steered the Suburban along the old neighborhood streets, and here, in the growing darkness of evening, he felt more at peace. On the surface, the neighborhood hadn’t changed that much. Every house was still familiar to Woody. Even the faces of some of the people he saw meandering along the sidewalks tugged at his memory. They were older faces now, but, like the houses, still familiar. He knew if he put his mind to it he would be able to add a few names to those faces, but he didn’t really try. It was enough to know everything hadn’t changed while he had been away.

As he drove down Juniper Street, approaching his turnoff on Highview Lane, he pointed out to himself every house where his friends had lived that summer. The twins, Chuck and Jeremy, in that white monstrosity on the corner. Cathy in the house right next to it with the three lean cypress trees towering at the edge of the lawn. Those trees always seemed to be swaying, whether there was a breeze or not, as if trying to keep their precarious balance on the planet. And on Highview after he made the turn, only two blocks down from his own, was Bobby’s house.

Good old Bobby. He had been battling his own demons back then. With alcoholic parents who seemed to be at each other’s throats from the moment they woke up in the morning, day after day after day, Bobby had spent as many nights in Woody’s house as he had ever spent in his own. They were almost brothers, him and Bobby. Even Woody’s mother had said so. She would have been shocked out of her socks to learn that he and Bobby had become considerably more than brothers during that summer of their thirteenth year, when puberty raised its ugly head and brought them closer together than they could ever have imagined. Woody still wondered at times, when sadness and memory combined to take him to that place he was always trying to escape, if he and Bobby would still be together today in the way they had been that long-ago summer.

The summer Bobby would not survive.

That summer, awakening manhood and all the rampaging desires that came with it were suddenly replaced by grief and outrage and a sense of loss so stunning it all but swept Woody away in its wake.

Woody’s parents had tried to comfort him through the aftermath of Bobby’s death, explaining to him that sometimes the world was a cruel place to live, where death sometimes reached out and snatched away even the youngest, the most promising. But there was no way for them to know it was not only the loss of friendship Woody mourned that summer, but the loss of so much more. Woody and Bobby had stirred truths in each other that transcended friendship. Love had been born that summer, and as quickly taken away. And Woody still, sixteen years later, ached with the loss of it.

By the time Woody was once again parked outside his parents’ house—he would never think of it as his own, only theirs—his sadness had crashed down around him like a pall. Again and again he was forced to swallow the emotion that threatened to spill out of him, blinking back tears as he stowed the groceries in the kitchen. A weariness of body unlike any he had ever known made him long for sleep, but he knew mere sleep wouldn’t be enough to still the memories. It never was.

He popped a beer and carried it through the darkening house, sipping as he went, surveying all the work he had done during the afternoon, trying to think of himself as the sole proprietor of this fairly expensive piece of California real estate, this house that after only a few hours of cleaning was once again as he remembered it. But in every room, through every shadowed doorway, the sound of his parents’ absence rang out like an empty echo.

This was no longer his home. He was an interloper, trespassing on the past, intruding into a place that was no longer meant to feel his presence.

And as he sat in the darkness in his father’s recliner, drinking his second, and then third, beer, he felt the deepening night outside pressing against the walls, weighing heavily on the roof over his head, gnawing away at the stucco and tile. In his imagination, he could feel the darkness trying to worm its way into his very heart, bringing with it all the memories he had desperately tried to keep at bay for so many years.

But with the fourth beer, Woody’s memories abated. His fear, and much of his sadness, left him. Alcohol, like music, could sometimes take him to a place where old hurts couldn’t enter, and he was grateful for the comforting emptiness it brought him once again.

A full moon now softened the darkness inside the house with tinges of blue. Through the windows, that big fat moon watched Woody roam from room to room, following along behind him like a trailing spotlight, illuminating his footsteps, dispelling the shadows that, without the beer inside him, might have sent him running from the house forever.

Woody stepped through the back door and felt the night breeze on his face. He could hear soft wind rustling the willows down in the canyon, stirring up the smell of sage and honeysuckle and flowering cactus as well. Scents Woody remembered clearly from his youth. How many times had he stood here with his father, watching the sun set and the moon rise, both at the same time? An anomaly of nature, his father once told him, that some people in other parts of the world never got a chance to witness.

Woody awkwardly slipped his adult body into his childhood swing beneath the jacaranda tree. He could smell its blossoms overhead. In daylight those blossoms were a beautiful blue, as deep as an evening sky. In darkness they were only a scent, invisible to the eye, lost in the evening shadows. The swing creaked beneath his weight. What should have been smooth earth beneath him, but was now grass regrown after his years of absence, felt strange and out of place under his feet.

He pushed himself into a lazy arc, gently swinging back and forth in the darkness. The weight and motion of his body brought a gentle fall of jacaranda blossoms raining down around him as his hands clutched the rusted chains that held him in place.

Woody closed his eyes and, as he had as a child, imagined himself in flight. He was a hawk, soaring high above the canyon, looking down on the world splayed out beneath him, surveying this dominion that was his and his alone.

The wind on his face blew away the years, the soothing motions of the swing rocked away his fears, and once again he was thirteen, with Keds on his feet and patches his mother had sewn on the knees of his jeans. It was the beginning of summer vacation. With nothing but freedom staring him in the face for the next three months, Woody thought of all the ways he and his friends would spend their time. Movies. Bike rides. Days at the park, wandering through the museums, exploring the zoo. The possibilities were endless. With no schoolwork to worry about, his days would be filled with only laughter and adventure and the comfort of good friends.

In the moonlight now, years away from that last remarkable summer, a smile lit Woody’s face as he sat swinging in the cool night air. The beer inside him smoothed out the rough edges of memory he didn’t wish to see.

But the other memories, the good memories, were scooped up in his hawk’s talons and carried to that private place where he always kept them neatly laid out, on display, ready to be sorted through and savored whenever the mood took him, like favorite pieces of art or well-loved books.

Jacaranda blossoms continued to drift down around him, shaken from the tree by the weight of his swinging body. They brushed his face in the darkness with the softness of butterfly wings as his mind carried him back to his thirteenth summer.

The summer of best friends and days that never lasted quite long enough. Days when laughter rang through these canyons like crystal bells, until the terror started. When even the nights in the midst of that terror were filled with wonders that pushed the horror of the Willow Man away, at least for a little while.

Nights with Bobby.

They had come together so slowly, he and Bobby. He wondered now how it had all begun. And then he remembered. It was the first week of vacation. Summer lay before them all like an endless, unknown road, waiting to be explored. Cathy, Chuck and Jeremy, and he and Bobby had all stepped fearlessly onto that road and been swept away to a destination that, but for the innocence of youth, might have destroyed them all.

As it was, it destroyed only one. But that came later.

It was the beginning of their journey together that Woody remembered now. Not just him and Bobby, but all of them. It began with the bones Cathy found among the willows. Human bones. Woody still remembered how they shone like porcelain in the sunlight.

They were almost… beautiful.

The Well by Marie Sexton
Chapter 1
Twelve Years Ago
“Don’t be such a chicken, Haven!”

Not for the first time in his seventeen years, Haven wished he had a dollar for every time his cousin Elise had said those words to him. Ever since they were kids, she’d used that little phrase to goad him into all kinds of stupid things. But having a séance in an abandoned house everybody knew was haunted?

That was an all-new level of crazy.

“I’m not chicken,” Haven told her, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt. “I just don’t want to get arrested for trespassing.”

He glanced over at Linsey for support. Linsey was Elise’s sister, younger by three years. The girls shared the same full lips and perfect cheekbones, but where Linsey’s hair was light brown, Elise’s was almost black. Haven was their first cousin, midway between them in age, and felt like an ugly duckling next to them. Sure, he shared Elise’s dark hair and Linsey’s hazel eyes, but features that appeared striking on his female cousins felt boring and unremarkable on him. Sometimes he couldn’t believe they were related at all.

Luckily, Linsey backed him up. “Haven’s right. It’s a bad idea.”

They were at the diner on Main Street in their hometown of Hobbsburg, Pennsylvania, sipping pop while they waited for their hamburgers to arrive. Other teenagers filled the booths around them. Outside, the early August day promised a hot, sticky evening. It was one of those times when it felt like summer vacation could go on forever, even though school would start in less than a month.

Elise sighed in exasperation. “What’s wrong with you guys? You have no sense of adventure.”

Haven shook his head, trying not to laugh. He and Linsey had both grown up hearing Elise’s wild tales and being subjected to her strange pranks. They knew her well enough to predict she’d spend the entire night trying to scare the crap out of them.

“Forget it,” Linsey said. “Mom and Dad would freak.”

“Mom and Dad never have to know,” Elise argued. “We’ll tell them we’re camping out. Then, instead of going into the woods, we’ll go to the old Gustafson house instead.”

Linsey and Haven exchanged another glance, weighing their options. Elise was stubborn as hell. Once she latched onto an idea, it was almost impossible to talk her out of it. It was a no-win situation. They could give in now, or they could argue about it, only to give in later.

“Come on,” Elise prodded, sensing their hesitation. She leaned her elbows on the table, closing the distance between her and her sister. She lowered her voice to a suggestive whisper. “Craig can come too. You guys will get to spend the whole night together.”

Linsey’s cheeks turned red, but Haven knew she was wavering. He had no idea whether she and her boyfriend Craig had gone all the way yet, but it looked like getting a chance to share a sleeping bag with him was enough to overcome her reluctance.

“No way,” Haven said to Elise. “That means Craig and Linsey go off by themselves to make out, and I’m stuck with you trying to scare me to death all damn night.”

Elise grinned at him, and he had a feeling she’d already anticipated this moment.

“The Hunter twins are coming too.”

Haven sat back in the red vinyl booth, his protests forgotten. That changed everything. He’d been prepared to dig in his heels, but he hadn’t anticipated this.

Jordan and Pierce Hunter had moved to Hobbsburg from Ohio two years earlier. For the past few months, Jordan had been like a puppy at Elise’s heels, doing everything he could to get her attention. He was infatuated with her, so it wasn’t surprising he’d already agreed to her crazy plan.

If Jordan came along, of course his brother Pierce would too. And if following Elise into a haunted house meant Haven had a chance to spend an entire evening with Pierce…

Well, whatever Elise had planned couldn’t be all that bad, could it?


Two nights later, Haven found himself in the back seat of Jordan and Pierce’s car, his stomach a knot of nervous excitement as they bounced down a washboard dirt road toward a house everybody knew was haunted. Haven’s new glasses slid down his nose every time the car hit a bump. He’d already pushed them back into place a dozen times.

Jordan was driving. Haven noticed him checking the rearview mirror every few seconds. At first, he assumed Jordan only wanted to check his perfectly styled hair. Then he realized Jordan was verifying that Elise, Linsey, and Linsey’s boyfriend Craig were still behind them in Craig’s car. Jordan’s obsession with Elise definitely hadn’t waned any.

Pierce, who was often as scruffy as his brother was well-groomed, turned partway around in his seat to smile at Haven. “Where’s your book? I hardly ever see you without one.”

His tone was friendly enough, but Haven’s cheeks began to burn just the same. “I figured it’d be too dark to read.” He decided not to mention that he had one stuffed in his bag, just in case. He had a feeling Pierce wouldn’t have laughed, but Jordan might have.

“Do you think we’ll really see a ghost?” Pierce asked.

Haven laughed, shaking his head. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

The Gustafson property lay tucked into a secluded clearing about two miles out of town. Several NO TRESPASSING signs punctuated the dirt road, which finally ended at a makeshift gate. It was only a chain strung across the trail, but between it and the thick trees, it was impossible to drive any farther. Jordan and Craig pulled their cars into the shade of the trees and began unloading their gear. They’d have to hike the last half mile.

They began their walk, arms full of sleeping bags, duffels, and grocery bags stuffed with snacks. Jordan and Pierce each held one handle of the giant cooler slung between them. They weren’t identical twins, but they were similar enough that anybody meeting them knew instantly they were brothers. Both were tall, with broad shoulders, dark blond hair, and a smile that had every girl in school weak in the knees.

And at least one boy too.

The trek to the house took longer than any of them expected. At least it was a relatively cool evening for August. Still, Linsey’s boyfriend Craig was whining and the sun nearly setting by the time they reached their destination.

The Gustafson house sat in the center of a small clearing, like some kind of silent queen on her throne. The powder blue paint was cracked and peeling, but she still seemed regal. Even Mother Nature seemed subservient to the house. No birds chirped. No squirrels chattered. The trees didn’t rustle their leaves in the breeze as they had along the path, and the lightning bugs seemed determined to keep their distance.

Jordan and Pierce dropped the cooler and spoke at the exact same time.

“It’s bigger than I expected.”

“How will we get in?”

Both of them used hushed tones. Haven wondered at that. After all, nobody was close enough to hear them.

Unless the stories of the ghosts were true after all.

But the question of how they’d get in was a good one. The windows on the ground floor were boarded up, and a sign on the front door announced that anybody caught trespassing inside the premises would be prosecuted.

“I don’t know about this,” Craig said. “What if we get busted?”

Craig’s dad was a police officer, so it was safe to assume he didn’t want to be caught breaking the law. Still, based on the way he eyed the house, Haven was pretty sure that wasn’t what had Craig scared. Hadn’t Linsey warned him about her sister’s pranks?

Haven caught Linsey’s exasperated expression and tried not to laugh. Then he saw the wicked look on Elise’s face, and his laughter died in his throat. Craig had just set himself up as Elise’s prime target. Haven almost felt sorry for the guy, but he kept his mouth shut. If he ruined Elise’s game now, everybody might decide to turn around and go home. Haven wasn’t about to let that happen. The twins were leaving for Ohio State University in two short weeks, and after that, he might never see Pierce again.

It was pretty much this weekend or never.

“It’ll be fine,” Linsey said, taking Craig’s hand. “Everybody knows ghosts aren’t real.”

Elise twirled her keys around her finger, her bejeweled “Class of ’03” key ring sparkling in the last few rays of daylight. “You’ll be singing a different tune after our séance.”

At nineteen, Elise was the oldest of the group—another reason Haven knew she was up to no good. Jordan and Pierce were only a year younger than her, having graduated from high school in the spring. Haven and Craig were seventeen, and Linsey was the baby at sixteen. Even if Elise liked Jordan as much as he liked her, why would she hang out with a bunch of high schoolers, if not to get a laugh at their expense?

“Hey, Jordan,” Elise said, hefting a canvas duffel bag and motioning toward the front door. “Come help me with this.”

It was almost comical how quickly Jordan moved to do her bidding. Haven wondered for a moment if Elise planned to recruit Jordan as a conspirator in her little campaign to scare the rest of them. He watched them put their heads together and noted the cunning glint in Elise’s eye. No. She’d leave Jordan in the dark. She wouldn’t give up such a willing victim, especially knowing anything she said to him was likely to reach Pierce’s ears ten seconds later.

Haven dropped his sleeping bag, slipped his backpack off, and rolled his shoulders, glad to be free of the weight. Linsey and Craig had moved a few feet away and seemed to be having a quiet but intense argument. Elise and Jordan were on the front porch of the house, completely engrossed in each other. That left Haven alone with Pierce.

Which was exactly what he’d hoped for when he agreed to this ridiculous plan.

“What do you think?” Pierce asked, coming to stand next to Haven. “Is it haunted?”

“That’s what they say.”

Pierce was two or three inches taller than Haven. Their arms touched, and not for the first time, Haven found himself wondering if those touches were accidental or intentional.

“I know what they say. But do you believe it?”

Haven didn’t know how to answer. Haunted or not, he didn’t care. Standing so close to Pierce, he had the wild, exhilarating feeling that everything in his life had been leading him to this moment with Pierce in this strangely quiet clearing. He was sure this one night would change his life.

Years later, he’d look back and marvel at that surety. He was right. That night did change his life.

But not in the way he’d hoped.

Chapter 2
Present Day
Haven always expected he’d see Pierce Hunter again. He was fairly certain he knew how it would happen too. The only question was when.

After the incident at the Gustafson house, and the frenzied investigation that followed, everything had fallen apart. The last time he’d seen Pierce, they’d argued bitterly over the events of that night. Then they’d gone their separate ways. The Hunter twins had left for college and Haven had returned to Hobbsburg High School for his senior year. A year later, he’d been the one leaving for college. And during the years he spent at West Virginia University, both his parents and Linsey and Elise’s parents had moved away from Hobbsburg.

There were just too many memories there.

Haven had never gone back to his hometown or to the Gustafson house. He didn’t know if the Hunters had ever returned, or if their parents still lived there. The only thing Haven knew for certain was that Jordan Hunter was a murderer. Someday, Jordan would be arrested. And when that happened, both Haven and Pierce would be in the courtroom for the trial, albeit on opposite sides of aisle.

So yes, Haven assumed he’d have to face Pierce again on some dreary, distant day. What he hadn’t anticipated was turning on the TV one lazy afternoon and finding the twins starring in their own TV show, Paranormal Hunters.

As crazy as it sounded, Pierce and Jordan had become professional paranormal investigators.

“Their journey began years ago, in a house everybody knew was haunted,” the voice-over intro began. “One night, one ghostly encounter, and a mystery that was never solved. Now the Hunter brothers are determined to find the truth about ghosts, haunted houses…” Here, there was a dramatic pause in the narration, a crescendo of the spooky music, and a close-up of the brothers standing back to back with their arms crossed. “…and what lies beyond this realm.”

The twins were still gorgeous, and still naturally charismatic enough to draw in fans. Jordan, it seemed, was the believer. Pierce acted as the skeptic, cheerfully debunking as many of their findings as he could. Sometimes the show struck Haven as borderline ridiculous. Other times, it creeped him right the hell out. Either way, Paranormal Hunters was surprisingly entertaining.

An even bigger surprise came in the summer between the second and third seasons of Paranormal Hunters, when Pierce suddenly contacted Haven out of the blue.

It started with an email.


I know it’s been a long time, but I’d really like to talk. Can I call you?


Haven was midway through a round of edits on his latest novel when the email arrived. He’d rented a quaint little cabin in Downeast Maine for the summer, determined to do a bit of research for his next story in between edits, although, in truth, he hadn’t done much more than read and watch the boats move in and out of the harbor. Outside, the day was warm and sunny, but after reading Pierce’s email, Haven was instantly lost in his memory of a dark, chilly room in a house that had long been rumored to be haunted.

Pierce wanted to talk to him. Was it about what had happened that night? Was he finally ready to accept the truth about his twin?

Haven’s fingers shook as he typed a quick reply. He didn’t say much. Just gave his cell number and hit send.

It had been twelve long years. Maybe justice was finally about to be served.


“Hey, Haven,” Pierce said, over the phone. “Long time no talk, huh?”

It hadn’t taken long for him to call, and even though Haven had given Pierce the green light, he’d debated not answering the phone at all once it rang. But now here he was, clutching his iPhone to the side of his face, his heart racing the way it always had where Pierce was concerned. “Yeah,” was all he managed to say. “Twelve years.”

“How’ve you been?”

“Uh…okay, I guess.” But as sucky at small talk as ever, it seemed.

“I’m a big fan, you know. I’ve read all your books. That last one, about the house with the haunted basement? I’m telling you, it scared the crap out of me.”

Nearly every one of Haven’s books had grown from one of Elise’s wild tales. If he had it to do it all over again, he’d have published them under her name. But at the time—back when he’d finished that first manuscript and sent it in to an agent—it hadn’t occurred to him. Sometimes he felt like a fraud for having stolen all his stories from her, but he tried to look at it as his way of honoring her. Every book he published was dedicated to Elise.

Still, the fact that Pierce had read his books surprised him.

And, in that moment, the pieces fell into place. Haven made his living writing horror stories with a paranormal twist. Pierce and Jordan were professional paranormal investigators. And they’d once spent a night together in a notorious haunted house.

He knew now why Pierce was calling.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen our show?” Pierce asked. “Paranormal Hunters?”

“Once or twice.” Actually, he’d watched every single episode, partly just to have an excuse to stare at Pierce, partly in hopes of catching Jordan in some kind of lie.

“Well, here’s the thing…some teenage girl in Hobbsburg recently reported a paranormal encounter at the old Gustafson house. Our producers got wind of it, found out it was the house—you know, the one we talk about in the intro—and now they’re determined to do an episode there.”

Haven’s throat was so tight and dry he had a hard time forcing any sound past his lips. “Oh?” was all he managed.

“We start shooting in two weeks, and the thing is, well… I’d really like to have you there.”


“Officially? Because you were there. And because having the world famous horror author Haven Sage on our show will be great publicity for both you and us.”

“World famous” was probably a bit of a stretch, but Haven let the flattery lie. “And unofficially?”

“Because after all these years, I think it’s time we got some answers.” He paused for a moment, but when Haven didn’t respond, he went on. “The producers are contacting Linsey and Craig too. They’re turning this into a two-part event, centered around finding the truth about what happened that night.”

“What happened had nothing to do with ghosts.”

“I know. You and I can agree on that, at least.”

“And what about Jordan?” Just saying the name made his skin crawl.

Pierce seemed hesitant to answer, and Haven knew why. Pierce knew that Haven blamed Jordan for Elise’s disappearance. “He’s a believer,” he confessed at last. “He has been ever since that night. He thinks Joseph got to Elise.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“I know.”

“Then why—”

Pierce sighed. “Look, Haven…” Haven was surprised at how sad and uncertain he sounded. “I don’t want to argue. Not about this. Especially not over the phone.”

Haven almost laughed. “What? You want to save the arguments for in person? Or maybe for the cameras?”

“That’s not quite what I meant, but yeah. We all have our theories. Jordan blames a ghost. You blame him. I blame Craig. But the truth is, the case went cold ages ago.”

“That special on the ID Network generated a lot of calls to the hotline.”

“But did any of them pan out?”

Haven didn’t want to answer that. The tiny bit of hope the show had generated had resulted in more than a dozen dead ends. “They say they’re working new leads every day.”

“Do you truly believe that?”

It hurt to say it, but he decided to be honest. “No. That’s just what they’re supposed to say.”

They fell silent. Outside, the gulls swooped over the bay, calling to one another. Across the road from Haven’s cabin, a group of teens lounged on the dock in swimsuits and cutoff shorts. Sunlight flashed off sunglass lenses and highlighted smooth, tan arms and thighs as they laughed and flirted, oblivious to how quickly their world could change. Haven closed his eyes, not wanting to see them. Not wanting to remember how young and carefree and clueless he and his friends had once been.

Wherever Pierce was, Haven imagined him running his hand through his hair, trying to find the right words to say.

“You want justice for Elise, don’t you?” Pierce finally asked.

“More than anything.”

“Then meet me in Hobbsburg. Help me finally find the truth. Between us, we’ll figure out what happened to Elise, one way or another.”

“And if the truth is that I was right all along?”

Pierce hesitated, but only for a moment. “Like I said, one way or another. So what do you say? You in, or are you out?”

Haven didn’t hesitate. “I’m in.”

The Hike by John Inman
Chapter One
I STARED at the pile of shiny new stuff in the trunk of my car, then tore my eyes away long enough to gaze—for the umpteenth time—at the two-foot-long sales receipt in my hand.

“Ahem,” I said. “Did we really just spend $637? I mean, seriously?”

“And that’s just the beginning,” drawled Tuck, who was also standing there staring into my trunk. “We have to come back tomorrow to choose sleeping bags and pick up our two three-season tents, which they didn’t have in stock. That’s another $500 and change. Then we have to buy enough supplies to keep ourselves fed for three weeks, not to mention the loss of wages we’ll suffer heading off into the bush and trying to stay alive for damn near a month, or at least long enough to come back and brag to everybody how we bravely faced nature head-on, fighting off wolves and hopping over rattlesnakes every five feet, and at the same time trying not to fall victim to the Zika virus after being stabbed by some asshole mosquito who flew all the way up from Brazil for the sole purpose of expanding his diet by chowing down on us.”

“Lord, Tuck,” I said. “How you do blather on. And just so you know, there’s probably not a wild wolf anywhere this side of Montana.”

“Thank God for that. But what about mountain lions? They scare the poop out of me.”

I reached into the trunk and pulled out a brand-new garden trowel with a seven-dollar price tag on it. “Which is why we bought this,” I preached. “Never forget the trail hiker’s sacred motto: Leave Nothing Behind. Even poop needs to be buried. Remember?”

Tuck blessed me with a vaudevillian shudder. “Yes, I remember, and I’m still horrendously appalled by the idea.”

We stared down yet again at the mound of very expensive stuff crammed into the trunk of my car. Two CamelBaks that held three liters of drinking water each, pots and pans, a skillet, tin plates and flatware, two tiny Coleman lanterns, four walking sticks, new boots, new hiking shorts, several packs of two-ply socks to prevent blisters, sunhats, rain gear, sunblock, insect repellants, leather anklets to guard against snakebite, boxes of baby wipes for bathing, a bag of dog food, a water filtration system, a couple of throwaway cameras, a book on how not to get killed by wildlife on the trail, and a quart of scotch (which I bought in case we almost get killed by wildlife on the trail and need something to calm our nerves afterward). And we still, as Tuck said, had to come back tomorrow and purchase everything else we needed for the trip. In spite of all this, we were having the time of our lives. Go figure.

We slowly swiveled our heads around to stare at each other. Even more slowly, two grins started spreading across our faces. Tuck’s eyes crinkled merrily. My mouth fell open around a gaping smile. We grabbed hands.

“We’re going camping!” we screamed in unison.

Some butch-looking guy in biker boots and a lumberjack shirt, balancing a brand-new kayak on his head, ogled us askance as we stood there in the REI parking lot jumping up and down like a couple of Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. All we needed were pom-poms and tits. Tucker and I ignored the guy. We’ve been stared at before, and for much more egregious offenses. This Paul Bunyan wannabe barely made a blip on our radar.

Maybe this is the point in the story where I should introduce myself. My name is Ashley James. Everybody calls me Ash. My fellow cheerleader is Tucker Lee. Everybody calls him Tuck. He’s my best friend in this cold, cruel world, and not too long ago, by some weird mixture of hormones and alcohol, he became an unexpected bedmate as well.

That sort of sneaked up on us, don’t think it didn’t. Being bedmates, I mean. There we were, toddling along since high school, best chums, each knowing the other was gay but never really acting on that knowledge until one day a few months ago when we drank too much tequila in a dive in Tijuana and woke up the next morning snuggled up naked in a bed inside a Motel 6 about fifty feet north of the US/Mexican border with our clothes strewn everywhere, my ass hurting that good kind of hurt, some very enjoyable memories swirling around inside my head, and Tuck snoring and drooling against my shoulder while one of my hands rested on his furry butt and my other hand cupped the back of his neck, holding him close.

It was a funny thing too. Tuck isn’t my type. I like tall, smooth-skinned, eel-thin guys with brooding eyes and big feet. Tuck isn’t eely at all. In fact, he’s shorter than me and frankly husky. Sort of stocky, you know? He also has a fuzzy chest. Well, no, he’s fuzzy everywhere, except on the top of his head, where with him at the ripe old age of twenty-five, his brown hair is already receding. And his shoes are a size seven and a half. Ballerina feet.

So here I am all of a sudden amorously attracted to my best friend—the last guy I should be attracted to if you judge me by past exploits. Me, the guy who rarely returns calls after one hookup, now can’t seem to be around this husky, short, small-footed, fuzzy best friend enough.

As if all this isn’t truly irksome, I’m also a bit disturbed by the fact that every time Tuck and I get together for some reason or other, which is almost daily, we expend a great deal of energy pretending that night in Tijuana never happened. Not once has Tuck mentioned it. And since he hasn’t mentioned it, neither have I. Now how do you suppose that makes me feel?

By the way, in case you’re wondering, like Tuck, I’m also twenty-five. I stand an even six feet, have reddish-blond hair, a smooth torso—which is in pretty good shape if I say so myself—and I like to surf and jog, work out at my gym, and run an occasional marathon. Tucker likes to sit on his ass and read books. I mean, what the hell kind of a guy does that?

But all that is another story altogether. Right now we’re in the REI parking lot, jumping up and down like morons, and I’m telling myself not to pull Tuck into a bone-crushing hug for the sole purpose of sticking my tongue down his throat.

Yep. I’ve got it bad. And Tuck doesn’t seem to care at all. Although he is excited about the camping trip; I’ll give him that.

He slammed the trunk shut. We were still beaming at each other. If Tuck had any inkling of the thoughts going through my head about how cute I thought he looked standing there, he didn’t let on. He merely reached up and flicked a speck of dust off my shoulder.

“Where to now, bwana? Lunch?”

“Sure,” I said. “Lunch.”

“How about Lettuce Entertain You.”

“That place that serves nothing but salad? Are you nuts? I need grease. I need cheese. I need great flat wheels of dough. I need pizza.”

He frowned but said, “Okay.”

So off we went.

At our favorite wood-fired pizza joint in downtown San Diego, Tuck prissily nibbled away at a single slice while I consumed six slices in the same span of time.

“What the heck is that all about?” I asked, pointing at his empty plate.

Tuck had the cuteness to blush. “I’m trying to lose weight. I look fat next to you.”

Boy, did I have an answer for that. I wanted to say, “Next to me, you look sexy as hell naked and hungover and humping my leg. Period. All other considerations are moot.” But I didn’t. What I said was “What brought this on?”

He blushed redder and shrugged.

I tried harder. “You weigh the same as I do, Tuck.”

“But you’re six inches taller.”

“Okay, but your dick is bigger.”

A smile, finally. “Yeah,” he said. “There is that.”

We were sitting at an outside table with the whole of downtown traipsing past. I felt the weight of his foot against mine under the table. Tuck didn’t seem to notice, but I did. Disconcerted by how much I noticed, I snagged another slice of pizza from the box between us while a crocodile of grade-schoolers marched past single file on their way to kiddy time at the San Diego Public Library, all the while casting envious glances at our pizza, or what was left of it. Don’t they ever feed those kids?

For about the gazillionth time, I opened my mouth to ask if Tuck remembered that night in TJ at all, then chickened out and kept right on eating. I stared at his strong, meaty hand resting on the table in front of me. It had a brush of dark hair sweeping across the back and also a sprinkling of hair adorning the skin between every single knuckle. How sexy is that? I seemed to remember that very hand doing things to me under the covers in that room at the Motel 6 that could get you strung up by your neck from a baobab tree and stoned to death on most of the African continent.

Again I opened my mouth to bare the elephant in the room (or the elephant in the street-front café) but chickened out a second time.

“Should we pack a snakebite kit?” Tuck asked out of the blue.

“We’ll ask the REI guy tomorrow when we pick up the tents.”

“How about one of those foghorn things to scare off the wildlife?”

“Are you expecting an errant T. rex to chase us down the trail?”

“Black bears,” he said. “And don’t tell me there aren’t any of those within a thousand miles, because I know there are.”

“The only bear I expect to see on the trail is you, Tuck.”

At that he coughed up a wry chuckle. “Am I a bear?”

“You’re hairy from the bottoms of your feet to the top of your head.” I glanced at his receding hairline and amended my statement. “Almost. So yes, that makes you a bear.”

I don’t know if it was the way I was looking at him or because he suddenly entertained an unexpected flashback concerning our one and only night of carnal explorations just north of the Mexican border, but Tuck blushed again.

He tried to cover it up by wiping a napkin over his forehead. “It’s hot out here.”

“And getting hotter by the minute,” I said before I could stop myself.

Maybe because he didn’t know what else to say, Tuck grunted, “Fuck it,” grabbed the last slice of pizza out of the box, and poked it into his mouth with one of those hairy-knuckled fingers I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off of. Seeing me watching him, he smiled. It was a good smile too. Very expansive.

“Wow,” I said, honestly startled. “You’ve got dimples.”

Tuck stopped chewing and stared at me. As soon as he could swallow the glob of pizza crust in his mouth without choking to death, he said, “I’ve always had dimples, Ash. You’ve known me for ten years and you never knew I had dimples?”

I came this close to reaching out and stroking his hand, but at the last moment I didn’t. God knows what sort of can of worms that would have opened up. I did, however, allow myself to take a teeny tiny stab at flirting. “Your dimples are nice,” I said. “Very cute.”

Tuck stared at me. His foot nudged mine beneath the table. An accident? He opened his mouth to speak, closed it, then opened it again, but still no sound came out. Finally he said, “We’d better go,” and after checking the bill the waitress had left on the table, he slipped a twenty under it and scraped his chair back so he could stand.

“Let me pay the bill,” I offered.

“Too late. It’s paid.”

“Let me give you half.”

“Stop it,” Tuck said with a dour expression that came out of nowhere.

“What’s wrong?” I said, more hurt by that look on his face than I wanted to admit. “What did I say?”

Tuck shook his head, tapped his pockets to make sure he had his wallet and cell phone and everything else people lug around with them these days, then cast his eyes toward the gate in the fence that led out onto the street.

“You ready to go, Ash? I need to get home and walk Hannah.”

“I guess,” I said. Standing, I did my own pocket patting routine, then followed Tuck as he weaved his way between the tables and headed out into the throng of noontime pedestrians milling back and forth along Broadway.

Since we’d arrived in my car, we headed for the high-rise parking structure where I’d parked. By the time we got there, the awkward moment had passed, and we were joking and kidding around, getting excited all over again about our upcoming hiking trip.

“Are we really taking the dogs?” I asked.

“Hannah and Cho? Hell yes. What else are we going to do with them? They’ll love being in the desert with us.”

Cho is my beagle, named for Margaret Cho. Hannah is Tuck’s Irish setter, named for his old-maid aunt, who died of a fatal bowel blockage twelve years prior. Tuck wasn’t particularly imaginative when it came to naming his pets. Somehow they always ended up being named after a dead relative who had died in some bizarre fashion, which Tuck’s family seemed to be prone to. Poor bastards.

Once settled in the car, I cranked up the engine, but before I could pull out of the slot, Tuck’s hand shot across the space between us and landed lightly on my arm, like a bird.

“We could save money by using one tent on the trip instead of two,” he said softly.

When I turned to him, our eyes met in the way I had been wanting them to meet for a very long time. “That would save us a lot of money,” I said.

For just an instant, his warm fingers brushed through the hair on my forearm, as if he was testing the way it felt. He was still staring at my face, our eyes remaining pretty much locked together.

With the flash of one tiny dimple, he said, “Plus, I’m a city boy. I’ll feel safer having you close.”

My voice wasn’t much more than a squeak. “Really? You’ll feel safer?”

His other dimple made a brief appearance. “Yeah, Ash. I will.”

“Uh, just so you know, I’m a city boy too. I’ll probably be worthless in the wild.”

“I’ll feel safer anyway.”

“Oh, well good, then, Tuck. I want you to feel safe.” I gave him a smile and that was that.

After a tick, he removed his hand from my arm and turned to stare through the windshield while dragging his seat belt over his chest and clipping it snug across his lap. For some reason, he was whistling.

I put the car in gear and started steering it through the confusing tangle of ramps and switchbacks, seeking the exit to the parking structure, shooting off this way and that like a lab mouse working his way out of a maze. Tucker tuned my radio to a country music station, which he knew I hated, and left us to be blatted with an old Merle Haggard hit that set my teeth on edge.

Not that I much minded at the moment.

“I’ll feel safer having you close,” Tuck had said.

“I want you to feel safe,” I’d answered back.

All the way home, I chewed on my lower lip, wondering what the two of us really meant by that little exchange, and what it would be like for the two of us to sleep in the same tent on the trail. Would we be too tired to do anything? Did he even want to do anything? Tough questions, but like I said, all I could do was wonder.

And all the time I was wondering, Tuck kept right on whistling.

The Soldier Next Door by Brigham Vaughn
“Travis, sweetie, can you grab the potato salad out of the fridge?”

Travis glanced up from his phone to look at his mom. “Sure, which one?”

“Oh, I made the mustard potato salad since you’re home. I know it’s your favorite. Your dad bitched and bitched, but I promised I’d make him some of his favorite soon.” Judy Schultz fussed with the flowers one more time, even though they were already perfect.

Travis stood and slipped his phone into his pocket. “No, not which potato salad, which fridge?”

“Oh.” Her hand fluttered distractedly. “The one in the basement.” She yelled after him as he turned to walk away. “Oh, and can you grab the big cooler we always put drinks in? There’s ice in it already. And once that’s up, can you set up the drinks on the deck?”

“Sure, Mom.” Travis chuckled to himself and jogged down the stairs. She was always a little flustered before her annual Fourth of July barbecue. It was a huge party—half the neighborhood came, along with all of her book club friends and their families.

Travis paused when he reached the bottom step. There was a man sitting on the couch, knees spread wide, elbows propped on them, head hanging.

“Hey,” Travis called out in a soft voice, not wanting to startle the guy, but he jerked upright and for a moment Travis would swear there was sheer terror in his eyes.

“Fuck,” he swore. Travis saw him take a deep breath and when he set down the can of soda he’d been holding and placed it on the coffee table, his hand was trembling.

“Shit, sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you, man…Owen?”

“Hey.” He stood and half-turned to face Travis.

Owen was taller now. A hell of a lot more bulked up. His voice was even deeper. And his eyes had the shadowed appearance of a man who’d seen far too much. But he still looked like the guy Travis had never intended to fall for.

Travis swallowed hard and stared at the man who’d broken his heart four years ago.

“You’re home.”

Count the Shells by Charlie Cochrane
Chapter 1
“Count the shells, please, Uncle Michael.”

“As you’ve asked so nicely, Richard, I will. Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq.” Michael Gray smiled indulgently at his nephew as he laid down each limpet shell in turn. He picked them up to lay them down again, one by one. “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco.”

Richard Cavendish scooped them into a pile, dropping them into Michael’s hands with a plea for him to count again. Nothing changed; children throughout time must have enjoyed repetition of their favourite things. Michael tipped his hat forward, shading his eyes against a sun that was beating fiercely down on the beach and performing dazzling dances on the sea. He’d always loved the beaches on the Porthkennack headland, since he could first remember coming here as no more than a toddler. This area had always been a place of refuge, of comfort, of hope.

“Uncle?” Richard tapped his arm.

“Sorry, old man. I was woolgathering. Where was I? Yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp.” He laid the last shell down with a flourish of his hand, like a conjuror performing a trick.

Richard burst into giggles. He always liked the sheep-counting style best of all the ones Michael used. “Again, please.”

“Yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp.” Michael, stifling a yawn, spoke the words slowly and pompously this time, lining up the shells like a colonel inspecting his troops. The mewing of gulls, the susurration of the waves—he’d almost forgotten how soporific sounds of the seaside could be.

“Are you tired, Uncle Michael? Is it your leg?” Richard was the only one in the family who referred casually to his wound, with a child’s typical candour.

“No, the leg’s fine.” He’d come out of things a lot better off than many of his comrades. The thing functioned pretty well, despite being pockmarked where they’d taken all the shrapnel out, although his foot looked a mess where the little toe had gone. He couldn’t—and wouldn’t—complain. “Simply the effect of the local beer I had last night, making me a bit sluggish. Don’t tell your mother.”

“I promise I won’t.” Richard put his hand on his heart while making the vow. “Will you do the ‘Einz vie’ one?”

“Eins, zwei,” Michael replied, automatically. He’d known this was going to happen, and he couldn’t refuse the request, not without having to tell a lie about why it upset him. Just saying he couldn’t use the language of his once-enemy wasn’t enough; it wasn’t true, anyway. The words had acquired new connotations in his mind, over the years, connotations Richard might never understand.

Michael collected all the shells, took a deep breath, then began to lay them down one by one.


Number one was Thomas. Thomas Carter-Clemence. Eins. One. The first. Never to be forgotten, even after they’d parted in such a dramatic fashion, with the mother of all rows, the spring of 1909.


That would be Laurence; Laurie, as Michael had preferred to call him, especially in the heat of passion, when “Laurence” seemed so ridiculously formal. Simple remembrance of those times brought a prickle to the back of Michael’s neck.


Jimmy. No, not him; Jimmy hadn’t been the third. Michael had forgotten Freddie.

Freddie was third. Or maybe third and fifth, because he’d been an extra station on the line of romance when Michael and Laurence had suffered a temporary estrangement. A station which had been passed through and left behind when Michael and Laurence had made things up again, then revisited when their paths had crossed years later. He had no idea where Freddie was now, couldn’t begin to say whether he was alive or dead, or whether he remembered that fleeting, if chilly, night by the river at Maidenhead or the equally fleeting, if warmer, encounter in Brighton.

Time to lay down another shell, before Richard became suspicious of the silence. He might be still a child, but he possessed a startling maturity of awareness and an unnerving habit of speaking his mind.


The fourth one was Jimmy: bright, lively, and first seen pulling pints. Michael had been on a couple of days leave in London and gone for a drink in . . . What had that pub been called? Frustrating that he couldn’t remember, even though he recalled every minute of the night they’d spent together.


Little Wilfred. They’d met in Scarborough, fleetingly, in a stationer’s of all places. Shared a joke, shared a glance, shared an appreciation of a particularly fine pen. Shared a bed, sort of, briefly.


“There isn’t another shell, Uncle.” Richard shook his head indulgently, as though he were dealing with Lily, his three-year-old sister.

Michael jolted. He’d been far away, among lovers, mud, and metal shells.

“Sorry about that, old man. Got carried away. Discount sechs.” Lucky that Richard was too young to get the play on words. No sixth shell and no sixth bloke as of yet. Discount sex indeed, at least for the time being. It would happen when it happened, although how long he’d be prepared to wait was a moot point. Freddie had been an act of desperation, as had Wilfred. Always a dangerous game to play when you weren’t sure of the ground you were playing on.

“Can we paddle?” Richard tugged at Michael’s sleeve.

“Of course we can.” Barefoot already, so they could enjoy the sensation of sand between their toes, they scampered down to the sea as spontaneous as a pair of children, to splash among the shallows.

“Do you like the seaside or the city best?” Richard posed the question as solemnly as a bishop might when addressing confirmation candidates.

“Seaside, naturally. Much more freedom here.” The hustle and bustle of crowded streets no longer appealed. Not like the lapping of the waves at his feet and the mewing of gulls overhead. “What about you?”

“What a silly question. Here!” Richard flicked water with his toes as they walked along the waterline. “I wish I could be on holiday every day, rather than going to school to learn algebra and grammar.”

“It’s a burden that has to be borne, old man. Same for me when I was your age.”

“But why has it got to be learned about? Do you ever use algebra?”

“Can’t say I do, much. But I couldn’t do without grammar. I say. What’s that?” Michael stopped by a mound of rocks, where little pools of trapped water promised boyish delights. He reached beneath the surface of one to draw out something green and glistening.

“A bottle of course.” Richard shook his head at such dim-wittedness.

“Ah, but is it an ordinary bottle or a magic one? If we rub it will a genie come out and grant us three wishes? And how would we divide them if he did?”

Richard frowned; clearly neither algebra nor grammar held the answer to that. “One each and one for mother,” he stated, at last, and with a conviction that could brook no argument. “None for Lily because she’s too young to use them sensibly.”

“You’re probably right.” Would Richard ever regard his sister as being old enough to act sensibly? “I like that way of dividing them. What would you wish for? All the sweets in the shop?”

Richard giggled, looking exactly like his mother when she was the same age. “That’s the kind of thing Lily would want. I’d wish an end to algebra or grammar lessons for any boys forever. What about you?”

“I’m not sure. You’ve taken care of the school stuff, already.”

“I know what mother would wish for,” Richard said, suddenly serious.

“And what’s that?” Michael asked, attention only half on his nephew, the other half considering what he would do if really presented with the opportunity to make that wish. To have such power—the responsibility would be overwhelming.

“She’d wish for all the soldiers who were hurt in the war to be whole again.”

“Oh.” Michael, unable to say anything further, kept his gaze straight out at sea. Maybe if he concentrated extremely hard, he could keep at bay the tears that threatened to unman him.

“Yes, and she’d wish for the dead to come home too.”

The only safe reply was a simple nod. Michael thought of the shells he’d just counted, the parade of names. How could he trust himself not to break down, to blurt out that roll call, then have to provide a backstory to each of them? Richard had the knack of making all his defences too relaxed to work effectively.

“Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”

Michael forced a reply. “I think it’s excellent. What a shame it’s only an empty bottle with nothing in it.”

“Yes. Fairy tales never come true, I suppose.”

“No. That’s one of the sad things you learn in life, alongside the algebra.”

Richard made a disdaining face, although whether that was at the algebra or the fairy tales, Michael couldn’t tell. “It is sad. Otherwise we could have wished home your friend Thomas.”

“Thomas?” Having just recovered his composure, Michael felt unmanned again, the waves beating more violently about him than they’d done previously—or was that simply the rushing of blood in his ears? He steadied himself with a hand on his nephew’s shoulder.

“Are you feeling ill, Uncle? Come on, back up the beach.” Richard took his hand, leading him like a small child.

“It’s only a touch of something. Made me feel odd for a moment. Dizzy.” He managed a smile. “Probably that beer last night.”

“Mother says people shouldn’t drink too much. So does Father.”

“They’re right.” Eric would be giving his professional point of view, being a medical man. “And last night I was a good boy and only had one pint. I probably had a dirty glass.”

“I won’t snitch.”

“Good man.” They’d reached the place where they’d made their little camp of towels, shoes and shells; Michael settled himself on a flat rock, then took a deep, steadying breath. Caroline never discussed the war in his presence, or those who’d been lost in it, but she must be ready to discuss it with her family when he wasn’t there. And mention quite freely those people she never spoke to him about.

“You’ve got a better colour now. You were as white as if you’d seen a ghost.”

“Not quite.” Not seen, merely thought of one. “Thanks for playing nurse. We should get ourselves home or we’ll be in trouble.”

By the time they’d dried their feet and got their shoes and socks back on, Michael had pulled himself together enough to ask, “How did you know about Thomas? Has your mother been talking about the time he yanked her pigtail?”

“No. Did he really?” Richard’s eyes widened. “He must have been very brave to do that.”

“I suspect it was a case of foolhardy rather than brave. He regretted it afterwards.” Michael could just about smile again in remembrance of those fond, silly adventures from that summer of emerging manhood, when Thomas had first come to visit the Gray family and left a never-to-be-erased mark on everyone’s hearts.

“Mother has a picture of you and him, at home. Did he always have funny hair?”

“He certainly did. I never knew anybody who looked more like the scullery maid had upended him and used him for a mop.” Especially after they’d been playing tennis. Or in the morning, after a night in which it had been tousled by passion.

“Was he a good friend? Do you miss him?” Richard was wearing his serious face again, his ever-changing thoughts and emotions plainly displayed.

“Yes and yes.” Michael concentrated on sorting out a nonexistent knot in his laces. “He was my very best friend at school. Like that rascal George you hang around with.”

Richard giggled. “George isn’t so bad. He has three older sisters, poor thing.”

“Then he deserves a medal.”

George was supposed to be with them, but a mysterious rash had struck his family and he’d been quarantined along with his sisters. Once the all clear was given, he’d be allowed to travel down, and until then, Michael was doing his avuncular duty to the best of his ability.

He held out his hand. “Come on. Home. Or we’ll be court-martialled.”

* * * * * * *

At the top of the trail which led up in a zigzag from the bay, a small gate gave onto a path cutting through shrubs and borders to High Top, the house the Gray family had taken for the summer ever since Michael could remember. The views across the bay were stunning, the beach close by, if a bit of a scramble, and the lawns smooth enough for croquet or tennis. There were maturer pleasures close at hand too: the twin delights of dances or dinners down in Porthkennack or Padstow, although Michael had always preferred the simpler things. Nobody could try to pair him up with an eligible girl when he was out on the rocks, sketching.

A party of females emerged from the French windows as Michael and Richard came across the lawn. Caroline, Michael’s sister, holding hands with Lily, and Alice, the nursery maid, close behind.

“I was about to send out a search party, although I suppose they’d never risk missing luncheon, would they, Lily?” Caroline said, as her men folk approached.

“Not in a million years.” Michael winked at his nephew. “Especially as we’ve spent the morning wrestling with giant squids and fending off vicious mermen. It’s hungry work.”

Caroline rolled her eyes. “I guess there’s no chance you’ll ever grow up.”

“I’m afraid not. Beyond hope.” Michael ruffled Richard’s hair. “Let’s hope this youngster turns out more to your approval. Go on, Richard. Hands to wash.”

Richard surrendered to the ministrations of Alice, who whisked him and his sister off to get Lily ready to take her meal and to make her brother presentable for appearing at the table with the adults.

“I’ve never disapproved of you, Michael,” Caroline said, once her son was out of earshot. “I wish you wouldn’t say that in front of the boy.”

Michael slipped his arm through his sister’s. “It was in jest. Richard’s used to my ways, and he knows what’s meant seriously and what’s just fun.”

“He’s only a boy.”

“That’s as may be, but he’s a lot smarter than either of you give him credit for. He notices what goes on. He understands it.”

“Does he? Then he’s taking after his uncle.” Caroline patted his arm. “He thinks the world of you. You’d never disappoint him, would you?”

“I’ll always try my best never to let him down. He’s too important to me. Nearest thing I’m likely to have to a son.” Michael steered his sister towards the flower bed, which lay in full bloom by the steps up to the house, then stopped. “He mentioned Thomas.”

Caroline frowned. “Did he?”

“I wouldn’t have said if he hadn’t, would I? Sorry,” he stroked her hand, “shouldn’t have snapped at you. He did. He said he was highly amused by the state of Thomas’s hair in a photograph you must have of the both of us. I didn’t realise you’d kept one.”

Caroline, blushing, kept her gaze on the petunias. “Oh, it’s an old one. I have it at home. Remembrance of when we were much younger. You and me here, Thomas at Broch, Eric at— Whatever was his uncle’s house called?”

“Cataclews.” It had been a ghastly gothic pile, on its last legs when Eric’s family had used it for holidays. “The only good thing about it was being the vehicle to his meeting us.”

“So he says, as well.” Caroline smiled. “Anyway, that picture kept me going all those long days when the family waited for the next letter from you.”

Michael nodded. Many a photograph must have kept families, wives, and sweethearts comforted over the years. “Not just me, I suspect. You always had a soft spot for Thomas, didn’t you?”

“He was rather handsome. We all liked him.”

Did she know how far Michael’s liking had gone? It wasn’t something they could ever have freely discussed, but Caroline was far from stupid. She must have noticed exchanges of glances, overheard whispers or mysterious laughter, wondered why Michael wasn’t quite the same with Thomas as he was with other friends. Or had she simply assumed that was how men were when they had close friendships? Many people lived in blissful ignorance of what really went on between some couples of the same gender who shared a house or habitually holidayed together.

“Michael?” Caroline nudged him. “Are you feeling all right?”

“Yes. Just lost in memories. I can almost see him here, now. Running along this very lawn with that wretched kite.”

“The one he couldn’t get to fly?” Caroline snorted.

“That’s the one.” They’d have been fifteen, the family holidaying here and Michael introducing Thomas to them for the first time. He’d lived not far away, at a house called Broch, which was apparently some type of ancient Scottish dwelling and had been the brainchild of a previous, Celtic, owner of the property. Thomas had dropped in on the Grays on an almost daily basis, although nobody had complained at the intrusion. As Caroline had pointed out, he had been universally liked. It had been a glorious summer of warmth and light, the two boys teetering on the brink of understanding that their camaraderie was not like that of their schoolmates. “I was glad when that kite broke. I always felt he’d get so enthralled he wouldn’t realise where he was running and he’d go down the path and right over the cliff with it.”

Caroline, sly smile creeping over her face, patted his hand. “I have a terrible confession to make, although I won’t do it until you swear you won’t tell Richard.”

“I swear,” Michael promised, intrigued.

“I was the one who broke that kite. I had exactly the same concern as you did—he was so terribly reckless, so . . .” She shrugged. “I’ve lived with it on my conscience, but it had to be done.”

“And it was well done. I was tempted to do the same, but never had the courage. I wonder if he ever suspected?” Although given that Thomas had such an open, trusting mind, that was unlikely.

“I always feel it’s a shame I couldn’t have taken up all those guns in France and broken them. Such a waste, but you don’t need that particular sermon.” Caroline shook herself. “Come on, luncheon.”

As usual, any mention of the war had been forestalled, although she’d revealed more about herself in these last few minutes than she had in the year. Michael was going to have to reassess his view of his sister.

As Michael finished tidying himself up, the gong announced that lunch was imminent; he entered the dining room to find himself the last to arrive.

“Sorry to keep you. Too much sand to get off me,” he said, with a self-deprecating smile.

“You’re forgiven.” Caroline unfolded her napkin as a sign to begin, the wonderful aroma of freshly cooked fish pervading the air as it waited to be served. New potatoes and peas gently steamed in their bowls, reminding Michael of days when he’d eagerly awaited every meal, desperate for permission to get stuck in. School days, army days, so often things had revolved around filling one’s stomach.

Eric said a short grace—most likely for his son’s benefit—then the maid dished out the trout. At nine, Richard was granted the privilege of taking his luncheon with the grown-ups, an honour his sister was some years short of. The Grays had never believed in children being seen and not heard, and he took his full part in the conversation. It was clear he’d already learned to moderate his talk in accord with the situation, his carefree chatter of the morning made less happy-go-lucky. He asked his father if there had been any interesting stories in the newspaper and was either genuinely interested in the response, or managed to feign a genuine interest, just as impressive a skill.

Eric gave a brief account of what might be of relevance to a nine-year-old boy, finishing his résumé with, “I saw that one of your teachers has got himself wedded.”

“Mr. Grimshaw?” Richard nodded. “We thought that, although we weren’t supposed to know. Not officially.”

“So how do you find these things out?” Caroline gave her son a helping of peas likely far in excess of what he’d have taken for himself.

“Somebody’s mother saw the announcement of his engagement. Word soon spread. Thank you.” Richard gave his mother one of his dazzling smiles.

“You’re like a bunch of old women for gossiping.” Caroline helped herself, then passed the bowl to Michael.

The next few minutes were taken up with little in the way of chat, everybody properly appreciative of what was on their plates, albeit it wasn’t there for long. The trout had tasted as good as the aroma had promised.

After the maid had cleared their plates and before pudding arrived, Richard turned to Michael and, as innocently as if asking whether they’d be fishing later, enquired, “Why have you never married, Uncle? Is it because you don’t like girls?”

Michael, taken unawares by the question, was grateful for having raised his glass for a mouthful of water, and so had time to gather his thoughts. And to pray that his sister wouldn’t leap in and make some comment which made matters even more awkward.

Rescue came, unexpectedly, from Eric. “Just because you’re not keen on the female of the species, don’t tar everyone with the same brush, young man. For all you know, your uncle has left a trail of broken hearts behind him.”

“Sorry, Father.” Richard sounded—and appeared—suitably abashed.

“He’s under the influence of his pal George, apparently.” Michael managed a grin. “George has three sisters.”

“And doesn’t think much of them, or so we’ve been told. His—” Caroline was interrupted by the arrival of the fruit salad. Once the maid had departed again, she continued. “His mother despairs of him at times. Says he’ll end up as a woman hater.”

“I don’t hate women.” Michael could say that with complete candour. “How could I have grown up with an elder sister such as you and not admire the fairer sex?”

“Oh, tush,” Caroline said, with a not-hidden-soon-enough grin. “Don’t swell my head.”

“See, Richard?” Michael winked at his nephew. “Ladies simply require careful handling.”

“Behave. That’s enough about ladies or we’ll turn on you.” Caroline wagged her finger. “Now, tomorrow. If Lily’s tooth is through and she’s not as grizzly, how about a picnic on the beach for all the family?”

And with that skilfully imposed change of subject, talk turned to what were the best provisions to avoid the peril of sand with everything. Sometimes domestic talk was the only safe talk.

Chapter 2
Richard wasn’t too old to be whisked off to the nursery for a postprandial rest, even if he was excused an afternoon nap and allowed to spend the time reading or an equally sedentary occupation. He was likely to be the only one of the family who didn’t slip into the arms of Morpheus, given that Lily still enjoyed her sleep—especially when she was teething—and the adults had reached the stage where it felt like a slightly wayward, and daringly continental, indulgence to take a siesta.

Eric and Caroline headed for the sofas in the drawing room, while Michael sought the harbour of the old orchard, where a capacious and surprisingly comfortable hammock was slung between a pair of gnarled old apple trees. He’d brought a novel, in case he couldn’t get off to sleep; occasionally his leg gave him some jip, particularly if there were storms in the offing or out at sea. The book, a murder mystery, was well written, engaging, and required the minimum of intellectual concentration. He read page after page, but sleep wouldn’t come, the slight twinge which had developed around his knee on the way up from the beach a touch too persistent. He wriggled, turned, wriggled again, but comfort eluded him.

Eventually, he laid down the novel and swung gently, watching the rustle of the leaves, thinking of all the times he’d lain in this spot and the wonderful afternoon when he’d shared this hammock with Thomas. They’d done nothing other than swing and chat and laugh—given the proximity of the rest of the family—but the closeness of their bodies had been intoxicating.

Thomas had stayed with them on and off that holiday, taking the other bed in Michael’s room, but once he’d sneaked across when the rest of the household were tucked up. Then the young men had put into action what they’d only dared dream of that afternoon. Not their first time—that had been in the boathouse on Thomas’s estate, the previous year—although every encounter had been memorable back then.

Michael’s body began to react to the memories, a horribly noticeable reaction should anybody come along at this point. He turned on his side, trying to think of something that might cool his ardour, but his brain kept veering back to well-worn tracks, that list of lovers he’d run down as he’d counted those shells for Richard, and the lack of anybody to warm his bed now. He’d have to admit that he’d not met anybody since his discharge who could hold a candle to the least of those five men. Surely every truly decent man couldn’t have gone the way of all flesh?

How could they have been so naïve as to think it would all be over by the first Christmas of the war? Although Thomas would have welcomed seeing that season, in France or at home; he hadn’t made it through to All Souls’ Day. But, then, he’d been a career soldier, giving up his studies and taking the king’s shilling four years before war had been declared. He’d gone over with the British Expeditionary Force and, like so many of them, claimed a small corner of a foreign field to hold forever for England.

Michael wondered if he’d approached death with the same cheery smile he’d seemed to wear every day, the smile which had lit up Michael’s school years and carried on shining through the university vacs when they’d met up. Either in Sussex or—more usually—Cornwall. Thomas’s family had lived not far from High Top, so the summers had always featured him, with the Grays and the Carter-Clemences forming a friendship that had been rooted and grounded in the two boys’ friendship. Michael vividly remembered the first conversation he and Thomas had had about Porthkennack, and the envy he’d felt that Thomas could live in such a wonderful place all the time. Thomas, naturally, had envied the Grays’ life so close to the delights of London. The grass was always greener on the other side.

Like it had touched so much else, the war seemed to have loosened the bonds between the families, death casting a wide shadow, although the rot had set in earlier, with the terrible row he and Thomas had suffered not long before their last year at university. Without their intense relationship at the heart of the family friendship, the rest of the connection had always been at risk of withering. The others must have known that something had gone badly wrong, but they’d let it pass without comment, far too English in their reserve to make a fuss, and Michael had been up at university for weeks on end. Even Caroline had restrained her normally inquisitive nature when he’d been home; perhaps his pain had been written large on his face.

It had felt like hell—although Michael had gained an increasingly accurate impression of hell during his time in France—and now those feelings were reawakening to torment him. He’d managed to put Thomas to the back of his mind for so long, but Richard’s carefree comment had brought him back in all his golden glory, brown eyes flashing in Michael’s memory like dark stars. He’d never loved anyone so much, nor—he believed—would he ever love so intensely again. Lightning couldn’t strike twice.

Michael opened his book and tried to read, but the dappled light through the trees played on the pages, bringing him to that comfortably drowsy stage at last. Forty winks were called for, although he felt like he’d managed less than half a dozen before Richard’s voice cut into his slumbers.

“Uncle Michael, do you really think girls require . . . what was it?”

“Sorry? Can you say that again, please, old man? I was having a bit of shut-eye.”

“Oh, sorry. Should I go?”

“No, I’m awake now.” He consulted his watch, to find that he’d managed considerably more sleep than he’d realised. “Just as well you roused me. I could have been here until morning.”

“You’d have got all wet with dew.” Richard plonked himself down on the grass. “Girls. At lunch you said they required something.”

“‘Careful handling,’ I think.” Michael tried to stir up his sleep-addled wits.

“Oh yes, that was it.”

It was time to cut off this particular discussion. “Talking of females, have you been let out of jail for the rest of the day?”


“The nursery. I know those bars on the window are there to stop you falling out, but they do make me think of incarceration. I guess you’ve been let out on parole for good behaviour?”

Richard chuckled. “Only until teatime. And only if I promise not to go down to the beach. Alice says there’s a running sea and it wouldn’t be safe.”

“Then we must heed her warning and stick to dry and sandless land.” Michael grinned. “We can find plenty of mischief to get up to elsewhere.”

Richard put his hand to his mouth. “I’d better not tell her you said that. Her reaction might need ‘careful handling.’”

“No ‘might’ about it. I’d be in big trouble.”

Richard nodded, then lay back, letting the sunlight play on his face. The ability to sit in—occasional—companionable silence was one of the qualities Michael found most admirable in his nephew.

“This ‘careful handling’ thing,” the boy continued, eventually. “I wondered if that was why you hadn’t bothered to marry. Because it would be too much hard work dealing with girls all the time.”

Back there again. Well, Michael supposed he couldn’t keep putting off the conversation; Richard was bright, as determined as a dog with a bone, and deserved an answer.

“There’s probably some truth in your theory.” It would have been hard work to force himself to go with a woman, but he could have done it if the circumstances demanded. Plenty of men did, hiding themselves in semi-platonic marriages or the like. Better to tell Richard as much of the truth as possible, despite the fact it couldn’t be the whole truth at this point. Maybe it could never be the whole truth. “I have to admit I find females rather daunting.”

“Maybe you’ll get used to them one day. You’re still quite young.”

Michael grinned at the quite. When he’d been Richard’s age, a man of thirty would have seemed almost ancient. “Maybe.” He could just about conceive of a situation where he might take a wife to give him appropriate cover. At the very least doing so would prevent an interrogation such as he was experiencing.

“I won’t ever get married. Not even to please Mother.” Richard flipped onto his stomach, the better to idly pick blades of grass, then split them lengthwise. “Girls are so silly. Fancy having to put up with that all day.”

“Are you basing your opinion of all females on your little sister? Every three-year-old, girl or boy, can seem slightly daft when you’re five years older than they are, but most of them grow out of it. You did,” Michael added, with a grin.

“I was never daft.” Richard looked up, clearly offended. “Was I?”

“A little bit. You’ve matured remarkably well.” Not that Michael had seen much of him back then; he’d felt rather an intruder in the days when his nephew was small, especially as Caroline and Eric had been so besotted with him. Surely every firstborn was regarded by his parents as the pinnacle of God’s creation? “One day you might find that girls are the best things in the world.”

Richard made a face, showing he didn’t believe a word of it. “Is it five o’clock yet?”

Michael consulted his wristwatch. “Only twenty to. Why?”

“I have to go in then to get ready for tea. Alice says the cook’s making some rather nice sandwiches for Lily and me.”

“Is she? Then we’ll keep an eye on the time—don’t want them to spoil and go curly at the edges.” Michael began to rock the hammock again.

“Doesn’t that make you feel sick, Uncle?”

“Not really. Does it you?”

“Not when I’m watching. When I get in, it’s like I’m in a boat.” Richard chuckled. “I don’t mind a swing, going back and forth, but side to side . . .” He grimaced as though he were about to be sick.

“Don’t let your mother see you wearing that expression. She’ll say it’s not the sort of thing a young gentleman should do in polite company.”

“That’s sounds like what Alice would say.” Richard rolled his eyes. The fact both he and Lily were still under the control of a nursery maid clearly stuck in the boy’s unusually mature craw.

“You should listen to her. And to your parents. Listen and remember.” Michael peered over the hammock, to face his nephew directly. “You’ll have plenty of time to make your own judgements about what’s fitting for a gentleman when you’re older.”

“You never tell me what to do and what not to do.”

“Not my place.” Michael swung the hammock again. “I hope your sandwiches are as good as the fish was at lunch. That was trout par excellence. As good as you’d get at the Savoy. Better, probably, and I speak from experience.”

“I’ve heard Father mention the Savoy.” Richard wriggled on the grass. “Is it posh?”

“Extremely. I’m not certain it’s entirely my cup of tea. Hall in college was better—at least you’re among pals there and don’t have to be completely on your best behaviour.”

“I like the sound of that.” Richard sighed. “I have to be on my very best behaviour at tea.”

“I’m sure there’s a lot of latitude in that ‘best behaviour.’” Michael chuckled. “Maybe Alice will let me come and keep you and Lily company this afternoon.”

Richard sat up beaming, no doubt at the prospect of further time to be spent in male company. “She will if you ask nicely. She likes you.”

“Does she?” Michael had only passed a few words with the girl. “How on earth do you know these things?”

“Oh, I’ve seen the way she looks at you. The same way that Lily looks at a plate of rice pudding.”

The remark left Michael speechless. Richard was going to be an extremely dangerous quantity one day, so long as he learned when to share, and when not to share, the profits of his formidable powers of observation.

“You continue to astound me,” Michael remarked, eventually, valuing that comfortable bond in which constant conversation wasn’t required. He swung his legs over the side of the hammock. “Time to report for duty soon.”

“Yes, sir.” Richard leaped to attention, giving a mock salute.

A sudden, piercing memory of lads seemingly no older than his nephew standing to attention on parade grounds made Michael shiver.

“Are you all right? Is it that beer in the dirty glass playing up again?”

“No. Just someone walking over my grave, I think. Come on.” Michael took the boy’s hand. “We seem to spend all our time dashing off to report to the ladies.”

“It’s part of that ‘careful handling,’ Uncle.” Richard giggled.

“I could grow tired of that phrase.” Michael laughed, then composed himself for his visit to the nursery. Did Alice really look at him like that? And why couldn’t she have a nice brother who’d want to consume him like a rice pudding?

Texas Gift by RJ Scott
Chapter One
Riley needed to apologize. Right now.

He’d fucked up big time, and he should have seen it coming, because everything he did went in cycles. He and Jack hadn’t argued in so long and maybe the tension that had been building inside Riley had needed an outlet; he’d provoked the argument. He’d pushed and prodded and sulked and shoved at Jack until Jack had snapped.

Not in loud, shouting temper, or anything like what Riley deserved. No, Jack had gone deathly quiet.

Absolutely. Utterly. Quiet.

Riley shouted at him, got everything out of his system, felt the weight of it all lessen by throwing it at Jack and what had happened? He’d stood there at first, confused, and then steadily calmer. Weirdly calmer.

They argued; no normal marriage went without arguments over things as important as the kids and as trivial as picking up wet towels. But they resolved things, Jack/Riley was a unit that worked. They sometimes bickered and teased, they shouted rarely, and on the odd occasion there would be sulking. Mostly from Riley. He considered it as thinking time but Jack just called him on his sulking like a child.

Their arguments always ended in love; talking, kissing, complete forgiveness that could only come when two people understood and loved each other.

This morning though, he’d made Connor cry, Lexie scowl, and Max hide under the table with Toby. Jack hadn't even stayed for that. The crying, scowling and hiding had happened after he’d left.

“Why are you shouting at Pappa!” Connor shouted back at Riley. “Stop shouting.” Then he’d started to cry, and Riley’s heart had broken into a million pieces. He’d sat between a crying Connor, and a sullen, angry Lexie and tried to explain that he had a bad headache and he didn’t mean to shout. For headache, read migraine, tight painful migraine that blurred his vision and made him feel sick. He’d taken meds and the sharp edges of the glass in his head were easing, but he couldn’t think straight. Connor stopped crying.

“You were so mean,” Lexie summarized, but she did give Riley a hug and kiss him on the forehead to make it all better.

Max on the other hand, while not angry with Riley and the shouting, was still under the kitchen table with Toby. The black lab, Riley’s black lab, was between Max and Riley in a protective furry wall.

“It’s okay Tobes, I got this,” Riley tried to fold all six-four of himself under the wood. He got caught on a bench, his neck burned, his stomach was in knots, but nothing was going to stop him from getting to Max. Toby did eventually move to one side but not too far. Toby may well have been Riley’s dog at the start, but he and Max were inseparable now.

“Max, buddy?” he began, and Max at least looked up at him for a split second. “You okay?”

“M’okay,” Max said. “You’re noisy.”

At least he wasn’t rocking, or stimming. He was just sitting with his dog in his favorite place under the kitchen table.

“Is everything okay?” Carol said from behind him. He scrambled back and brushed himself off. “Riley?”

“I shouted,” Riley explained simply.

“At the kids?” Carol asked, aghast, as if that was the ultimate sin in her eyes. Which, to be fair, it was in Riley’s as well. He and Jack didn’t shout, they cajoled, and bargained, and ran a happy house. Most of the time, anyway. Just not this morning.

“No, at Jack.”

“Is Max okay?” she peered under the table and smiled at Max. He adored her, the kids all loved their nanny, probably quite a bit more than they loved their dad today.

“He seems fine.” Riley peered out of the window at where Jack had gone. The damage had been done, but Connie and Lexie were chatting to each other, Max was with Carol and he needed to go and make things right with Jack.

“I think we’re okay in here,” Carol said, “Go find Jack.”

Riley shot her a grateful glance, and as he left the kitchen he heard Lexie telling Carol that her Pappa had a headache and that she’d kissed it better. When he closed the door it was just him and the ranch and finding Jack. It didn’t take him long; he was outside their barn, looking up at the siding, with his feet apart and his arms crossed over his chest.

Riley inhaled the fresh morning air and pulled back his shoulders. He could do this; he could ignore the pain in his head now it had lessened a little, he could push back the nausea, and he could go and apologize to Jack for being a fucking idiot.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured, coming to a stop next to Jack, only a few inches separating their arms. Jack didn’t move.

“It’s okay.” Although it didn’t sound okay at all. Okay was one of those words that meant nothing in the context of an argument, it was a word that plastered over cracks in a relationship. Okay was quiet and tight-lipped silences and Riley recalled okay from when he was a kid.

He hated okay.

“It’s not okay, I have a headache and I didn’t mean any of what I said.”

“You didn’t mean to say that life would be easier if you didn’t have to listen to me?” Jack’s voice was low and serious, and Riley winced.

“You were saying too much, and I couldn’t think.”

Their discussion had started in the bedroom.

“I asked if you’d made an appointment to see someone about the headaches.”

“I know—”

“And why you were limping again—”


“And why you weren’t sleeping, and why you spent so much time at the office, and why the fuck have we not used the barn in over a month?”

The barn wasn’t just the barn, it was a euphemism for sex. They hadn't been together in a month, over a month now. How did Riley explain that he’d been at the office, sometimes with the blinds shut, closing out the light, sleeping? How did he explain he didn’t want to see a doctor because the headaches scared him? And how the hell did he tell Jack he was limping because every single one of his muscles hurt, because he was tired, because it was all too much?

“Jack, I’m sorry.”

“You’re not, Riley, because you won’t listen to me.” Jack pointed at the barn. “I’m thinking we turn this into a games room for the kids.”

Riley gripped Jack’s arm. “No, what the hell?” His tension fled and in its place was panic. This was their space. Sometimes they came out here to talk, to hide away from the world, but it was also the one place they had the hottest sex he’d ever experienced. He wanted that again, but he was so tired, every time he turned over in bed his neck hurt, and his head pounded, and his leg ached, and he was fucking tired of it all. “Jack, I’m sorry, don’t…”

Jack turned to face him, and his expression wasn’t angry. “Either you go to the doctor, right here, right now, or I start clearing the place for a pool table.” He looked deadly serious, and Riley couldn’t tell if this was an empty threat. Then Jack softened, cradled his face and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Riley, please.”

Just those two words pierced the fear in Riley, he couldn’t stop the pain, or the threat of being sick, or not sleeping, but whatever was wrong, Jack would be there for him.

“I’m scared,” Riley murmured.

Jack gathered him close. “You think I’m not?”

“Please don’t,” Riley said against Jack’s neck. His words sounded slurred and fear made him sway. What the hell? “Please don’t let me chase you away.”

“I won’t.”

And that was the last thing he heard as his world went to black.

Snow Falling by Davidson King
“Why do you want to know my real name? It’s a name that no longer matters. The day my feet hit the pavement, I was no longer that guy.” I hated that this subject kept coming up.

“I will find out. I have to.”

This was so frustrating. “Why? Why’s it matter?”

“In my line of work, I need to know everything. The more I know, the easier it is to keep my people, my family, and myself safe.”

“I’m not a threat, but if you feel I am, then let me go. I never asked to be here, you haven’t given me a choice. I’ve been tossed plenty of times and each time, I land on my feet.” It was a challenge. A part of me wanted him to let me go so I could sever ties and have the choice taken from me. Another part wanted him to beg me to stay. That need to feel wanted and needed was quickly becoming a problem.

“You’re not a prisoner here. But you and I both know you don’t want to leave, so let’s not do this song and dance.” Christopher approached me. “You said your mother was a nurse. Did you realize you told me?”

“I knew.” Being in a daze never made me unaware. Being unaware was deadly. “It was harmless knowledge. There are millions of nurses all over the world.”

“My mother was a model. It’s how my father met her. They were together from the first day they laid eyes on each other. She passed when I was ten but I remember something she told me once.” He shifted his feet, the show of uncertainty making him seem vulnerable. I wondered if many people got to see this side of him. Was I special?

“What did she tell you?”

“It sounds silly now that I think about it, but in your case, it’s true.” His eyes bored into mine. “We are like a glass. You can have a glass for years, decades even. It will serve its purpose, being filled and drained over and over. Then one day, someone will come along and be a little too hard on it and a tiny crack will form. That fissure will weaken the glass. Every bump and bang. Every mouth that touches it or hand that grips it will contribute to its inevitable shatter.” He stepped closer. “But in its time, it will serve its purpose and when it’s a million pieces of glass, someone will come along and pick it up. They will decide if it should be thrown away or if it’s worth saving.” A tiny smile played on his beautiful lips. “You’re cracked a bit. You feel weakened, but Snow, I think even if you had a million cracks or were a pile of shattered pieces on the floor, you’d be worth saving.”

“Or I’d be trash.” I got what Christopher was saying and it was poetic and poignant, but it wasn’t me. “I’ve been called trash plenty of times. No one looked at my imperfections and thought I was a future mosaic. They looked at me and saw a mess.”

“Until now.”

The Heart of Frost by Charlie Cochet
Chapter One
“ARE YOU determined to ruin the name of this family beyond repair?”

Jack remained stoically in the center of the small, empty ballroom as his father paced slowly from one side to the other, the train of his fur-lined blue-and-silver paisley robe polishing the already gleaming marble floor. Jack’s uncle and twin cousins stood to one side, pretending for all the world they couldn’t hear Jack being reprimanded like some fledgling elf. A faint rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” floated in through the closed doors from the main ballroom. Now there was a thought. Rest. As in, he wished his father would give it a rest.

“It’s a party, father. Society dictates I should bring a guest, and I have.”

“Yes, but not that guest.”

“I wasn’t about to bring anyone else. For Kringle’s sake, am I no longer allowed to have any fun at all?”

His father rounded on him, pitch-black eyes shining dangerously. “Fun? Is that all that matters to you these days?”

Jack couldn’t help his surprise. “I’m sorry? Have you been paying the slightest bit of attention to the last two years? I’ve worked myself to the bone building a case against the Mouse King, doing everything within my power to put him away once and for all. Not to mention attend to the rest of my duties, and you’re dismissing everything over one party?”

“Don’t you take that tone with me—I won’t allow it.”

“Pray tell, what will you allow?” Jack narrowed his gaze as his father continued to pace. Then it struck him. He should have known. Wasn’t it always what these petty arguments came down to? “This has nothing to do with the party. This is about him, isn’t it?”

“It would have been better if he had left you be.”

“Left me a monster you mean. Is that what you want? A weapon instead of a son?”

His father stopped pacing, but he neither confirmed nor denied Jack’s words, bringing a lump to his throat. It’s true, his father had never shown him the same manner of affection his mother had, but could he truly have preferred Jack’s life not been spared? The thought cut deep. “Well forgive me for having a heart and daring to put it to use. Just because you’re incomplete doesn’t mean I should have to live my life the same way.”

The sharp sting left across his cheek after his father struck him wasn’t completely unexpected, but the mixture of anger and hurt in his father’s expression was. What exactly did his father want from him, other than for him to give up the only thing that brought Jack any happiness in his cold and lonely existence? There was no sense in arguing.

“If there’s nothing else, I’ll take my leave.”

“He is unworthy of you.”

Jack couldn’t help his anger or the way it swept through his body. The room drained of its color, leaving nothing but frosty white, due to his eyes doing the same. He could feel the bitter cold spread to the very tips of his toes and the strands of his now-white hair. “I’ll ask you to take care in how you speak of him. I love him and nothing you say will change that.”

“And if I made you choose?” To his father’s credit, it was more question than threat.

“He loves me wholeheartedly without prejudice or fear, and is in possession of a heart so pure he would melt the ice around my own. If you want to cast me out, then do it, because I won’t leave him. Nothing short of death will force me from his side. Do you really think I’d give him up for this?” he growled, gesturing to the ridiculous opulence of the exclusive club’s unused ballroom, one of many in yet another palace owned by his family.

“You youngsters are so bloody dramatic.”

“I’m not a child. I’m four hundred and fifty years old.”

His father scoffed at that. “Still a babe. I have lived since the beginning. You couldn’t begin to imagine the things I’ve seen.”

“And yet you want to deny me the one thing which means so little to you but the world to me. You’ve seen it all, and deep down, it isn’t even his being which upsets you, but the fact you believe he’s beneath me, beneath us and our great name.”

“You are the Jack Frost.” His father’s hands came to rest on his shoulders, father and son’s matching height allowing them to face one another eye to eye. “Your name is legend, and your power is unmatched. One day it shall surpass my own.”

“And when that day comes, I want him at my side, reminding me of my purpose, reminding me I have a soul. I’m more than the power I hold inside me.”

With a heavy sigh, the Frost King stepped away. “I see this conversation is getting us nowhere.”

“At least we agree on something.”

“Return to the ball. Try not to disgrace yourself, and take your cousins with you.”

Jack held his tongue and bowed before marching toward the door, his cousins following silently on his heels. Once he stepped foot out into the glittering ballroom filled with life and music, he felt marginally better, though his mood was still black as coal.

“Jack?” Hollis caught up to him, walking beside him to his left, while Vale flanked him on the right.

“Yes,” Jack grunted, making his way past the throngs of guests dressed in all their finery toward the red-carpeted, marble staircase leading to the second floor, where his private box accompanied the many others.

“The rumors about you leaving the toy soldiers aren’t true, are they?”

“You shouldn’t listen to gossip.” The night had barely begun and already he had been reprimanded by his father. Not even the melodic sounds of the chorus nor the merry echo of jingling bells was enough to buoy his spirits. Christmas was nearly upon them, and Jack was finding it more difficult than usual to feel jolly.

“But are they true?” Hollis insisted, his ice-gray eyes pleading.

Plum pudding. Jack had never been very good at denying his cousins. They were the only members of his entire family he actually liked. He had grown up alongside them, had played in the snow with them when they were all fledgling elves, teasing each other, seeing who could summon the strongest arctic winds. Of course, even when combining their powers, the twins weren’t nearly as strong as Jack, but he always encouraged them to strive for their best, and now look at them. Vale was Lieutenant in the Toy Soldier Army, and Hollis was a Major, both decorated and renowned for their bravery. Jack was very proud of them, and was never shy about expressing it.

“Jack?” Vale prodded gently.

“Not entirely,” Jack replied, unwilling to hide the truth from them. He reached the second floor, nodding a greeting to the prestigious occupants of the other private boxes who wandered out to sneak a peek at Jack and his entourage. Though he had to admit, he could see why they would be intrigued. Not by him. Kringle only knew why anyone would have any interest in seeing him, but his cousins were certainly a sight to behold. They were exceptionally handsome, with the pitch-black hair their family was renowned for. Where Jack and his father had black eyes, Hollis and Vale’s were a pale, foggy gray. They had chiseled jaws, pouting lips, and, in their ceremonial military uniforms, looked dashing.

“Jack, what will the other kingdoms think?” Hollis hissed quietly. He took hold of Jack’s arm and pulled him to a stop, his gaze one of concern.

“Do you mind? I have somewhere I need to be and it’s far more pleasant than standing around arguing nonsense with you. The other kingdoms will think whatever they like, regardless of what I do. It hardly concerns me either way.”

“How can it not concern you? We’re the strongest kingdom next to Alfeim, and you’re our prince. How are we supposed to keep our position if the Prince of Frost abandons his army to frolic in the snow with some Christmas elf? This is a dire situation, and you say it doesn’t concern you?”

“Watch your tone, Hollis. I won’t have my life dictated to me. I also have no intention of abandoning our army. I was simply considering stepping back from a few responsibilities by promoting other soldiers perfectly capable of doing the job.” He pulled his arm out of Hollis’ grip and marched off, finally approaching his private box.

“All for that… pilot?”

Jack pulled aside the red velvet curtain, his heart beating fiercely at the sight before him.

“He has a name,” Jack said quietly, as his gaze met with the most radiant smile of them all. “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long.”

Rudy stood to face him. A more beautiful creature Jack had never known. “You know I would wait for you however long necessary.” His pale-blue eyes shone lovingly in the warm glow of the crystal chandelier hanging above their heads. He was stunning in his red-and-gold frock coat, waistcoat, and breeches. A white cravat was tied elegantly around his slender neck, and his waistcoat accentuated his slim waist, concealing what Jack knew to be a beautifully toned, muscular physique.

Spinning on his heel, Jack gave the twins a gentle shove out of the box. “Get out.”

“Jack,” Rudy scolded playfully. “Manners.” He walked over to Hollis and Vale, offering a friendly smile. “Fellas.”

The twins bowed politely, Vale smiling brightly while Hollis frowned.

“All right,” Jack prompted, giving his cousins a wave. “Now get out. I’ll see you two at the Palace Courts promptly at ten tomorrow morning.” Without another word, he closed the curtain on them. He turned to Rudy with a thoughtful tilt to his head. “Was that rude?”

Rudy chuckled. “Do you care?”

“No.” Jack closed the distance between them in one step, his arms drawing Rudy against him as he crushed their mouths together in an ardent kiss. It was only after he was forced to come up for air that he realized he hadn’t checked that the outer curtain was drawn. The lack of scandalized gasps told him they had privacy. Rudy looked up at him, that starry gaze he held only for Jack reminding him of how lucky he was.

“We should probably open the curtain now,” Rudy suggested, sounding somewhat reluctant, not to mention out of breath. His cheeks were flushed, but the color couldn’t compare to the fiery crimson of his hair. No one in the whole of the North Pole had hair as stunning or as red as Rudy’s. He was handsome, an ace pilot, smelled wonderfully of cinnamon, and most importantly, he was all Jack’s.

“All right.” Jack took a deep breath and came to stand at the front of the gilded marble balcony while Rudy took position at his side. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” Rudy replied, his fingers discreetly lacing with Jack’s gloved ones.

Straightening to his full height, Jack summoned a gust of wind that parted the red velvet curtain before them, revealing the impressive sight of the crowded ballroom beneath them, everything a flurry of white and gold. Applause erupted from the guests attending this year’s Silver Bells Christmas Ball, though he imagined a good deal of them did so because they felt they had no choice. Whether they loved him or loathed him, there was no one in the kingdom who didn’t fear him. Jack felt fingers tighten around his own and he couldn’t help his smile. Well, perhaps there was one.

Jack held on to Rudy’s hand, joining him in waving to the crowd. No matter how anyone felt about his love for the Christmas elf, Jack had no intention of letting Rudy go, and anyone who threatened what he had would come to know true fear. That he guaranteed.

Tried & True by Charlie Cochet
Chapter One
HE WAS on his own.

Dex breathed in deeply through his nose, then let the breath out slowly through his mouth. He steadied his heart, his pulse, his breathing. His body answered to him, not the other way around. It was three against one, though there was only the one he had to worry about. He had to stay on his guard with that one.

“You’re going down.”

Dex opened his eyes, his focus on the huge tiger Therian before him. His dear delusional friend had no idea what he was getting himself into. Seb would be the one going down, but first…. Dex curled his lip up on one side as he moved his gaze to Hudson. The good doctor would be the first down but the last man standing. Dex would make sure of it. His most challenging target, however, slowly circled Dex. He could feel his mate’s eyes burning over every inch of him.

Sloane came back into view, the predator inside him looking out at Dex through molten amber eyes, his pupils dilated. His Felid was awake, ready to hunt, and Dex was his prey, or so Sloane believed. Sloane flexed his fingers, the knuckles stretching the blue wraps around his hands. The black racerback tank accentuated his broad muscular shoulders, and Dex allowed his gaze to travel down the thick biceps to his deliciously corded forearms. The tank was snug against his expansive chest, down to his torso and tapered waist. The loose black yoga pants rested low on his hips, and his feet were bare.

“Holy shit, your eyes.”

Dex ignored Seb and kept his gaze on Sloane and the smug smile now on his face. He knew the change in Dex’s eye color was his doing. Didn’t matter. It wouldn’t change what was going to happen. His mate was going down.

“You boys going to stand around all day?” Dex balled his hands into fists at his sides, the orange wraps shifting against his skin.

As expected, Seb charged first. Dex ducked beneath his right hook, spun, and slammed his hands into Seb’s back, sending him reeling forward. Dex lashed out, grabbed Hudson’s arm, and kicked his leg out from under him. He used his weight to flip Hudson over his shoulder and throw him onto the mat. Seb lunged at him, but Dex was quicker. Much quicker. He dropped and rolled out of the way, then popped up behind Seb and kicked at the back of his bad knee.

Seb roared, and Dex smiled.

That’s it, big guy. Get pissed. But don’t get sloppy.

Seb snarled as he pushed through the pain and came after Dex, his Felid half shining through his green eyes. Dex ducked and dodged. He slapped Seb’s fists away from him. Movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention, and Dex brought both fists down against Seb’s arms, then came up with a fierce uppercut and a kick to the abdomen that sent Seb rolling across the mat. Then Dex spun and ducked under Hudson’s right hook, landing a punch against Hudson’s ribs that left him gasping for breath. Dex pulled Hudson’s leg out from under him and brought both fists down against Hudson’s back, slamming him down hard into the mat, knocking the wind out of him. Hudson inhaled sharply as he writhed in pain. A low growl rose through him, and when he tried to get up, Dex put his foot on Hudson’s back and pushed down.

“You’re not even trying,” Dex growled.

“Dex,” Seb warned.

Dex stepped back and motioned for Seb to advance. “I’m not going to baby him, Seb. You want him to be prepared? You want him to survive out there? Then he has to learn.” Dex moved his gaze to Sloane, who was circling him, a barely there smile on his face.

I haven’t forgotten about you, baby. Your turn will come.

Hudson was still on the mat, his forehead pressed against it.

“Get up, Hudson,” Dex demanded. “Get your ass up off that mat right now.”

Seb and Hudson might have been sworn in and were officially TIN, but they were behind in their training. Sparks arranged for them to start their TIN Operative Training Program as soon as Dex and Sloane returned from their honeymoon. Since their recruitment, Seb and Hudson had been doing the same TIN Associate Training Program Dex and Sloane had been doing for months. The two had a hell of a lot to catch up on, and Dex felt for them; he did. Especially Hudson. As a medical examiner, Hudson had never been put through the training as a THIRDS Defense agent, so he had the most to learn. Making him the most vulnerable. Not to mention the most hesitant. Hudson was a wolf Therian, and although he could be as fierce as any Felid, he was soft-hearted and tended to be a nurturer. Hudson was a logical thinker, which was great, but his new role with TIN required instinct and action.

Dex wouldn’t go easy on them because they were his friends. His family. In fact, it was precisely for that reason he couldn’t go easy on them. Shit was about to get real, and he needed those he cared about to be prepared. If he had to be the one to push, to break them and help put them back together, then so be it.

Hudson glared at him and sat back on his heels.

Dex marched over, grabbed his arm, and hauled him to his feet. He thrust a finger in Hudson’s face. “I said get your ass up.”

Hudson’s wolf Therian growled at him, his steel-blue eyes intense. Good. Hudson had a temper buried deep down behind all that sweetness and timidity, and Dex knew just how to expose it.

Dex took a step back, his attention moving between Seb and Hudson. The two exchanged glances, and Dex grinned. Now we’re talking.

The pair came at him at the same time, and Hudson even managed to land a hit, punching Dex across his jaw. Finally, they were getting somewhere. Dex maneuvered around Seb, making sure none of Seb’s punches landed. If they did, he wasn’t too worried. Not that he wanted to get punched in the face by a tiger Therian, but where it once might have broken his jaw, now he could take the hit and bounce back.

“Why do you keep trying to punch me?” Dex asked Seb.

Seb spun with a snarl. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the fact you’re underestimating me, seeing me as a Human, as someone smaller and weaker than you that you can overpower. Your punching me is not going to knock me out.”

“I never said you were weaker,” Seb replied, his eyes narrowing.

“No, you’re just treating me like I am.” Dex motioned to Sloane. “Would you attack Sloane the same way?”

Seb frowned, puzzled. “Well, no, obviously.”

“Why? Because he’s bigger? Stronger? A jaguar Therian?” Dex shook his head. “Never underestimate your opponent.” Seb took a step forward, and Dex put a hand up to stop him. “Stay there. Both of you. Observe.” Dex turned to Sloane and took his position. “How about showing them how it’s done?”

Sloane ducked his head, his amber eyes almost black as he met Dex’s gaze. “My pleasure.”

Dex readied himself. This was going to hurt oh so good. He’d done it before. Several times. Dex grinned wickedly. Sloane wouldn’t attack first. He never did. His Felid half wanted to stalk, to catch Dex unawares, which was why Dex wouldn’t give him the opportunity. He took off in a run toward Sloane. Sloane was heavier, bulkier, and weighed a fuckton more than Dex, which worked to Dex’s advantage.

Whatever Dex did, Sloane would do his damn best to keep his feet on the mat. The floor was not where he wanted to be. Which was why it was exactly where Dex had to get him. The bigger the Therian, the harder they fell. Sloane took his stance—left leg forward, right leg back, knees slightly bent as he anchored himself. He held up his fists, ready to strike. Dex picked up speed, grabbed Sloane’s shoulder, flung himself up in a flying scissor kick, and wrapped his legs around Sloane’s neck, using the force of his momentum to bring Sloane down, flipping him over onto the mat. Dex kept his legs wrapped around Sloane’s neck. This was where Dex would have gouged out the dude’s eyes, but he wasn’t about to do that to his beloved, so instead, he tightened his hold and smacked Sloane in the face.

With a feral growl, Sloane rolled with Dex still on him so Dex had his back to the mat. He thrust his hands down against Dex’s groin and jerked backward, but Dex only squeezed his legs around Sloane’s neck. He grabbed Sloane’s thumb and bent it back, forcing Sloane’s arm—and more importantly his elbow—away from Dex’s groin area. Had this been a real scenario, Dex would have won by now. Sloane twisted and threw his weight against Dex, thrusting his elbow back and hitting Dex in the balls.

“Fuck,” Dex said through gritted teeth, loosening his grip enough for Sloane to force one leg off him and giving Sloane the room he needed to slip out. Dex rolled away just as Sloane came down elbow first, hitting the mat right where Dex had been. That would have hurt like a son of a bitch. Dex pushed through the pain to his boy bits and got to his feet in time to have Sloane slam into him from the side. Dex landed several feet away, his whole left side throbbing from being bodychecked by a two hundred forty pound—probably more like two hundred fifty pounds now—Therian.

All he could do was push through it and get on his feet quickly. When Sloane lunged at him, Dex dug deep. His eyesight sharpened, and he let out a fierce growl as he threw one arm around Sloane’s waist and grabbed at the back of Sloane’s right leg, jerking it forward so he could lift Sloane off his feet and slam him onto the mat where he brought his knee down against Sloane’s stomach, knocking the wind out of him. He was mindful to use just enough force to hurt but not seriously injure his boyfriend. With an arm pressed to Sloane’s neck, his knee ready to do some damage, and a fist over Sloane’s face, Sloane tapped out.

Dex grinned down at him and kissed him before rolling off. Sloane laughed softly as he lay on the mat, his chest rising and falling in rapid breaths. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his wrapped hand. He turned his head to look at Dex.

“Nicely done.”

“Thanks.” Dex got to his feet and held his hands out to Sloane, then helped him up. He turned to Seb and Hudson, who were gaping at him. “Obviously that would have ended a lot sooner had I gouged out his eyes, but I kind of like his eyes,” Dex said, batting his lashes at Sloane. “They’re pretty.”

Sloane chuckled. He shook his head and wiped more sweat from his brow.

Rolling his shoulders, Dex turned back to Seb and Hudson, his expression stern. “Now, let’s try that again.”

“HOLY….” PANT. “Crap.” More panting.

Sloane dropped onto the mat. He was dripping with sweat, and every muscle in his body ached. He wiped his face with the clean towel, then chuckled at Seb, who dropped next to him and lay sprawled on his back.

“I think… my heart… is going to… explode,” Seb said, breathless.

“I warned you, didn’t I? But you didn’t listen. Your exact words were ‘how strong can he really be?’”

Seb turned his head to pout at Sloane, his brows drawn together. “I was wrong, Sloane. So very wrong. I will never doubt your words again.” He sat up with a groan and grabbed one of the rolled-up towels beside him to wipe the sweat off his face. “I can’t believe Dex took me down.”

“The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

Seb narrowed his eyes at Sloane. “I’m a tiger Therian. Your not-even-two-hundred-pound boyfriend is not supposed to be able to take me down.”

“Except he’s been training his ass off, is no longer Human, and I’m pretty sure he’s still getting stronger.” Every time Sloane sparred with Dex, he noticed an increase in Dex’s strength. It was in minimal increments, but enough for Sloane to see the difference. “It seems to come in little bursts when he gets worked up or pissed off, but when that happens, he’s stronger than I am. If this keeps going, he may even end up stronger than you, or who knows, maybe even Zach. Not even TIN knows what’s going on inside him. The tests are starting to come back inconclusive again.”

“How is that possible?”

Sloane shrugged. “No one knows. TIN’s brought in their top specialists, and every time they run a test for something, whatever they’re looking for, it’s gone, but they know it’s there because they can see it. They did a blood test, and it came back Human, but when they did a different test that wasn’t specifically looking at his blood, it pinged Therian. It’s like his DNA and everything that makes him a hybrid is trying to protect itself by avoiding detection.”

Seb seemed to think about it. “So if someone ran a test to see if he was Therian, they’d get something else?”

Sloane nodded. “Not sure if that’s a good thing or not. My worry is when he’ll need to get treatment. Unless whoever’s treating him knows what he is….”

“Fuck. It’ll be a mess.”

Which scared the living shit out of Sloane. They had Hudson and TIN to provide the best medical attention possible, but what if either wasn’t an option? How the hell did a regular hospital treat a half Human, half Therian? Especially if every test they ran came back screwed-up? Hopefully they’d be able to get to the bottom of it soon. Sloane didn’t like the idea of them not being able to get Dex medical treatment when he needed it.

Seb stared at him. “Shit, Sloane. What the hell is in that DNA of yours?”

“I don’t know, but as long as it doesn’t hurt him, I’m okay with it. Knowing he can hold his own against whatever he faces out there is good enough for me. Hopefully the rest will get sorted out.”

A slew of British curses met Sloane’s ear, and he cringed.

“Your man does not like to lose.”

Seb’s eyes went slightly wide. “Are you kidding me? Everyone’s always surprised when he kicks their ass at pool, or football, or soccer, thinking that he’s this awkward science nerd, but he is ruthless when it comes to competition, and yeah, he hates losing.” Seb drew his knees up and let his elbows rest on them. “He doesn’t get pissed at his opponent, though. He gets pissed at himself. As if his losing reflects how inadequate he is. A complex gifted to him by his asshole father.”

Sloane turned his attention to Hudson, whose brows were drawn together in concentration as he circled Dex. Both had their shirts plastered to their skin with sweat, and Hudson had smartly worn contacts, even though he hated them. Sloane lost count of how many times Dex had dropped Hudson to the mat. Hudson charged, and Dex spun on his heels, ended up behind Hudson, threw his arms around his waist, picked him up, and slammed him down.

“He’s being a little hard on Hudson, don’t you think?” Seb asked, concern etched on his face.

Dex wasn’t holding back, but he had his reasons. “Hudson means a lot to Dex, and he wants to make sure Hudson’s prepared for whatever we face. If that means he pisses Hudson off, then he’ll do it. Dex might be a joker in a lot of respects, but when it comes to the safety of those he cares about, he’s hard-core.”

“I can see that.”

Even though Sloane felt for Hudson, especially every time he hit the mat, he couldn’t help but admire Dex. His perfect posture, his expertly calculated moves, the way his muscles flexed beneath his clothes. The loose black workout pants accentuated Dex’s perfectly rounded ass, and the sweaty shirt stuck to his skin outlined the delicious curve of his spine and the muscles of his finely sculpted torso. He’d wiped the floor with Sloane, and Sloane couldn’t be prouder.

Seeming to have had enough of being floored, when he next hit the mat, Hudson wrapped his legs tight around Dex, and the two crashed down together, thrashing about as each one tried to get the upper hand. They rolled around, grunting, Hudson’s legs wrapped around Dex’s waist, Dex’s head in a choke hold. Somehow, they ended up with their shirts halfway up their bodies, and Seb cleared his throat.

“I know this is probably inappropriate, but is it me, or is this kinda… porny?”

Sloane tilted his head for a better angle as Hudson arched his back to try to budge Dex, but Dex had managed to get out of the choke hold and had Hudson’s wrists pinned above his head.

“Uh, yeah, definitely porny.” Sloane stood at the same time as Seb. “Maybe we should take a break,” Sloane called out. Dex looked his way, and Hudson twisted his body, flipping the tables on Dex and rolling them over so he was sitting on Dex’s stomach.

“Ha!” Hudson threw his arms up in victory when Seb took hold of his wrist and pulled him up. Hudson smiled at his husband. “Hello, darling.” He put a hand to Seb’s cheek. “Your face is so red. Didn’t you get any rest?”

Seb cleared his throat again. “Um, yeah, just, you know, why don’t we hit the showers, and meet up for something to eat later?”

Before Dex could reply, Sloane spoke up. “Great idea.” He helped Dex to his feet, pretending he hadn’t noticed Dex narrowing his eyes at him. They agreed to meet up later, and Sloane took hold of Dex’s hand and quickly led him out of the training bay.

“Um, Sloane? What’s going on?”

Sloane shook his head. “Nothing. Just going to hit the showers.”

“The locker room is the other way.”

Sloane had no intention of showering anywhere near anyone else.


Sloane led Dex back to his new private training bay, and more importantly, his office with the fully stocked, brand-new shower. As soon as they got into his office, he put the room in privacy mode, turned, and pounced.

Desperately Seeking Santa by Eli Easton
Chapter 1
Nov 28, 2017
Madison, Wisconsin

“You want me to write a story about what?”

Visions of cutesy reindeer automatons, paper snowflakes, and cheesy mall Santas danced in my head as I stared in horror at my editor.

Randall glared at me from around the papers on his desk. His whole office looked like it should be on a reality show called Hoarders at Work. There were stacks of newspapers and magazines, enough coffee cups to supply a Mormon family reunion, his commuter biking clothes, and even a small fake Christmas tree resting on a cardboard box. The Christmas tree was not a sign of the impending holidays. It had been there since I started as an intern in August.

“The Elks Christmas Charity Dinner,” Randall said slowly, as if I were hard of hearing. “It’s a city tradition.”

“So is roto-rootering the toilets at the YMCA. But we don’t write about that,” I pointed out.

Randall glared harder. “You’ve been bugging me for weeks to give you a story. I finally give you one, and all you do is complain. What? You got something against Christmas?”

I squirmed inside. He was right. I’d been working at the Wisconsin State Journal for only three months. So far, my part-time internship had been spent editing other people’s work or doing basic cut-and-paste columns like the weather and stocks. I’d begged Randall for a chance to do an original piece and knew I should say “yes, sir, thank you, sir.” But I couldn’t help my disappointment.

“Hey, I love the holidays. It’s a break from classes,” I said cheerfully. “But if I have to write a story about Christmas—”

“Your employment was ‘at will’ last time I checked,” Randall retorted dryly.

“—how about something interesting? Like an exposé about how the bell ringer at the East Towne Mall spent his take on booze? Or black market scams for the most-wanted Christmas toys? Something that can draw more than regional interest?” I added a hopeful and deliberately cheesy smile.

“Oh for fuck’s sake.” Randall wiped his face with his hand. He was in his fifties and had been at this newspaper since his first toddling steps as a journalist. I respected his editing skills and his instincts, not to mention the fact that he still had all his hair and was in pretty good shape for an ancient person, being a big bike rider and all. However, in my humble opinion, he’d lost his hunger. Fortunately, I had plenty of my own.

“Gabe,” he said patiently. “I need a nice, cheerful piece for the holidays. Something feel-good. We’re not the Washington Post and you’re not Bernstein.”

“Who?” I frowned. Honestly, my first association was the Berenstain Bears. Then my history class clicked in. “Oh. You mean, like, Watergate?”

Randall rolled his eyes. “Anderson Cooper then. You’re not Anderson Cooper.”

I made a face.

He sighed. “Okay, then who? Who’s your idol, Gabe? Seriously?”

“Is this a ‘understanding millennials’ sort of question?”

“Yeah, let’s call it that.” He folded his hands on what looked like a stack of invoices on top of a Chipotle wrapper.

I shrugged. “I dunno. Will Ripley. Errol Barnett.” They were two of my favorite international CNN correspondents. In the trenches. Reporting from war zones. Standing firm against hurricanes. That was my future.

Randall’s dry expression said I was naive. “Okay. Well, right now, you’re not Will Ripley. Right now, you’re an intern for a little Wisconsin print newspaper. So we’re not going to do a thing on black-market crimes during the holidays.” He glowered. “Cutesy. Christmassy. Heart-warming. That’s what I want. You have to start somewhere, kid. Christ, I wrote recipes as Mama Llewellyn for three years before I got a break.”

I snorted. “Mama Llewellyn? Seriously?”

He gave me a lopsided grin. “She was a widow from the U.P. Hey, I got fan mail! Even a marriage proposal from a farmer once. Don’t knock it.”

I had a good chuckle over that one before remembering my own predicament. “But… an Elks charity dinner?” I gave him one last pleading look. “Will anyone read about the Elks? Aren’t they all, like, over eighty years old? I’m asking for business reasons. Surely you have subscription quotas to fill.”

Randall jabbed a finger at the door. “The dinner is Saturday, December 16th. So you have two weeks to dig up some background. You’ll attend the dinner and your piece will run the following Monday. If you’ve got that much fire in your belly, Gabe, take this story and make something out of it.”

I walked to the doorway and turned around. “Oh I’ll make something out of it!” I insisted, in a tone that promised I’d show him and his little dog too.

But later, as I slumped at my desk, I despaired. I had no idea how I’d make something out of a bunch of seniors sitting around in some crusty old dining hall eating mashed potatoes and turkey.


John Inman
John has been writing fiction for as long as he can remember. Born on a small farm in Indiana, he now resides in San Diego, California where he spends his time gardening, pampering his pets, hiking and biking the trails and canyons of San Diego, and of course, writing. He and his partner share a passion for theater, books, film, and the continuing fight for marriage equality. If you would like to know more about John, check out his website.

Marie Sexton
Marie Sexton lives in Colorado. She’s a fan of just about anything that involves muscular young men piling on top of each other. In particular, she loves the Denver Broncos and enjoys going to the games with her husband. Her imaginary friends often tag along. Marie has one daughter, two cats, and one dog, all of whom seem bent on destroying what remains of her sanity. She loves them anyway.

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.

Brigham Vaughn
Brigham Vaughn is starting the adventure of a lifetime as a full-time writer. She devours books at an alarming rate and hasn’t let her short arms and long torso stop her from doing yoga.  She makes a killer key lime pie, hates green peppers, and loves wine tasting tours. A collector of vintage Nancy Drew books and green glassware, she enjoys poking around in antique shops and refinishing thrift store furniture. An avid photographer, she dreams of traveling the world and she can’t wait to discover everything else life has to offer her.

Charlie Cochrane
As Charlie Cochrane couldn't be trusted to do any of her jobs of choice - like managing a rugby team - she writes. Her favourite genre is gay fiction, predominantly historical romances/mysteries, but she's making an increasing number of forays into the modern day. She's even been known to write about gay werewolves - albeit highly respectable ones.

Her Cambridge Fellows series of Edwardian romantic mysteries were instrumental in seeing her named Speak Its Name Author of the Year 2009. She’s a member of both the Romantic Novelists’ Association and International Thriller Writers Inc.

Happily married, with a house full of daughters, Charlie tries to juggle writing with the rest of a busy life. She loves reading, theatre, good food and watching sport. Her ideal day would be a morning walking along a beach, an afternoon spent watching rugby and a church service in the evening.

RJ Scott
RJ Scott is the bestselling romance author of over 100 romance books. She writes emotional stories of complicated characters, cowboys, millionaire, princes, and the men and women who get mixed up in their lives. RJ is known for writing books that always end with a happy ever after. She lives just outside London and spends every waking minute she isn't with family either reading or writing.

The last time she had a week’s break from writing she didn't like it one little bit, and she has yet to meet a bottle of wine she couldn’t defeat.

Davidson King
Davidson King, always had a hope that someday her daydreams would become real-life stories. As a child, you would often find her in her own world, thinking up the most insane situations. It may have taken her awhile, but she made her dream come true with her first published work, Snow Falling.

When she’s not writing you can find her blogging away on Diverse Reader, her review and promotional site. She managed to wrangle herself a husband who matched her crazy and they hatched three wonderful children.

If you were to ask her what gave her the courage to finally publish, she’d tell you it was her amazing family and friends. Support is vital in all things and when you’re afraid of your dreams, it will be your cheering section that will lift you up.

Charlie Cochet
M/M romance author by day, artist by night, Charlie Cochet is quick to succumb to the whispers of her wayward muse. From Historical to Fantasy, Contemporary to Science Fiction, no star is out of reach when following her passion. From hardboiled detectives and society gentleman, to angels and elves, there’s bound to be plenty of mischief for her heroes to find themselves in, and plenty of romance, too!

Eli Easton
Eli Easton has been at various times and under different names a minister’s daughter, a computer programmer, a game designer, the author of paranormal mysteries, a fan fiction writer, an organic farmer, and a long-distance walker. She began writing m/m romance in 2013 and has published 27 books since then. She hopes to write many more.

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

John Inman

Marie Sexton

Jordan L Hawk

Brigham Vaughn

Charlie Cochrane

RJ Scott

Davidson King

Charlie Cochet

Eli Easton

Willow Man by John Inman

The Well by Marie Sexton

The Hike by John Inman

Hexslayer by Jordan L Hawk

The Soldier Next Door by Brigham Vaughn

Count the Shells by Charlie Cochrane

Texas Gift by RJ Scott

Snow Falling by Davidson King

The Heart of Frost by Charlie Cochet

Tried & True by Charlie Cochet

Desperately Seeking Santa by Eli Easton