Saturday, May 12, 2018

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Bent Oak Saga by Ari McKay

Finding Forgiveness #1
Boston in 1888 is quite urbane, but unfortunately for Gil Porter, that isn’t the same thing as being understanding. When his sexuality is exposed by the scandalous suicide of his lover, Gil is exiled to the small town of Mercy, Texas, by his domineering father, George, who believes life on Vernon Porter's ranch will cure Gil of his “unnatural” desires. Grieving and ashamed, Gil is determined to keep his distance from everyone until he can return home. To his surprise, he finds acceptance at Bent Oak Ranch, especially from Matt Grayson, the handsome son of the ranch foreman. Knowing he must fight his attraction to Matt, Gil courts a local girl, but an unexpected encounter with Matt leads to his discovery of Matt’s feelings for him. Torn between Matt and his desire to be “normal," between returning to his old life and building a new one in Texas, Gil is faced with a choice—appeasing his father or becoming the man Matt knows he can be.

The Quality of Mercy #2
Gil Porter and Matt Grayson’s Bent Oak Ranch in Mercy, Texas, is a rare haven for gay men in the nineteenth century, and their friend Carlos Hernandez will need it when a man from his past unexpectedly comes back into his life.

Jules Wingate hopes to start over in Mercy as the schoolmaster after a scandal sent him and his son fleeing their former home. But he discovers he’s left one bad situation for another when he encounters his former student and lover, Carlos. No matter how Jules tries to resist, he yearns for the passionate connection they once shared… before Carlos broke his heart.

Carlos knows his foolish, immature actions hurt Jules, but he desperately wants a second chance and to show Jules he’s changed. But trust so badly broken is hard to repair. While he works to earn Jules’s forgiveness, someone else at the ranch has his sights set on Carlos—and he doesn’t care how many lives he has to ruin to make Carlos his and his alone.

Finding Forgiveness #1
Original Review September 2015:
I love discovering a new author, or at least new to me.  Ari McKay's knack with historical romance is obvious with their detail to accuracy.  Gil is definitely a fish out of water when he's been banished to his Uncle's Texas ranch, couldn't be further from Boston if they had sent him to Timbuktu.  Watching him discover his true path in life as well as finding a new family is entertaining, at times heartbreaking but also very heartwarming.  Gil has a lot to learn but with unexplained acceptance from his uncle and immediate friendship from Matt, he learns the way of the ranch quickly, unfortunately he doesn't learn the way of his heart quite so easily. A great addition to my historical western romance collection and a definite plus for cowboy lovers.

The Quality of Mercy #2
Original Review March 2018:
Carlos Hernandez has found a place where he belongs at Bent Oak Ranch run by Gil Porter and Matt Grayson.  A place where men like him can feel safe.  Jules Wingate and his son have arrived in Mercy, Texas ready to take up his position as the new schoolmaster but when he sees Carlos, a man who broke his heart years ago, will he be able to do his job and keep his heart intact?  Can Carlos prove to Jules that he is a changed man, that the boy who broke Jules heart has grown up?  Trust once broken is hard to recover, will they be able to make a life at the Bent Oak Ranch or has their time come and gone?

I loved Finding Forgiveness, book one in Ari McKay's Bent Oak Saga so when I heard there was going to be another one I was really looking forward to The Quality of Mercy.  Well, I was not disappointed.  Did Carlos and Jules reach my heart as thoroughly as Gil and Matt? No but that doesn't mean I didn't love them because I did.  Carlos and Jules have their own set of demons to overcome and watching their journey unfold is a bit of beautiful storytelling.  From the ranch to the town, the settings are wonderfully written, at times I expected to look out my backyard window to see the Texas landscape of 1890 instead of the endless snow drifts of a 2018 Wisconsin winter.

My heart went out to both Carlos and Jules in this lovely second chance romance, you can't help but want to see a HEA for these men, but will it be with each other? Well, I think you know what I'm about to say: for that answer you have to read The Quality of Mercy for yourself but you won't regret the journey.  Do you have to read Finding Forgiveness first? Probably not.  Would I recommend reading Forgiveness first? Yes.  Does Gil and Matt's story have an impact on Quality? Again, probably not.  It's just a personal preference of mine to read a series in order, even when each entry focuses on a different couple.  I find knowing the journey secondary characters who were main characters in previous installments, took to get their own HEA just makes the story flow better and the friendships understandable and more appreciated.  I would not go so far as to say that The Quality of Mercy is a standalone but neither would you be lost if you haven't read Finding Forgiveness first. A true gem to make you smile and warm the heart.


Finding Forgiveness #1
Chapter One
Texas, 1888
THE STEADY clack clack of the train wheels provided a soothing rhythm, but it did nothing to quell the turmoil of Gilbert Porter’s mind. He stared out the window of his family’s elegant private car, watching the drab landscape roll by. The lush trees that were just beginning to bud with spring’s arrival back home had thinned out the farther west Gil traveled and turned into sparse clumps of sagebrush. The land flattened out into empty brown plains that went on forever, with fewer towns spaced much farther apart.

Although, calling them towns was overstating the case. They consisted of a few ramshackle buildings not over two stories high, and the streets were nothing but rutted dirt paths. He found it difficult to believe anyone would willingly live like this in 1888, but he was quickly becoming aware that the world he’d left behind was nothing like the world he was going to.

The territory was desolate, and it did nothing to lift Gil’s already low spirits. Being exiled to his uncle’s ranch was a wretched fate, but he couldn’t possibly have stayed in Boston, not with the miasma of a scandal clinging to him. The best thing he could do for his family—as Father had so kindly reminded him every day until his departure—was stay away until the gossip died down and his former social circles had forgiven and forgotten his transgressions enough to admit him once more. Without his presence as a reminder, that might happen more quickly, and it would help the rest of his family avoid being stigmatized by association.

“Vernon will make a proper man out of you.” Father’s eyes had been cold as he uttered those words, condemning Gil to exile in Texas for the foreseeable future.

Gil remembered his Uncle Vernon from the one time they’d met. It had been at his grandmother’s funeral, and Uncle Vernon had traveled from Texas back to Boston for the occasion. At twelve, Gil had been a short and slight boy, and his tall broad-shouldered uncle with the booming voice and strange, uncouth accent had intimidated him. At twenty-two Gil was still short and slender, and he didn’t doubt his burly uncle would find him as unmanly as Father did.

He wasn’t looking forward to being judged and found wanting, but in some ways, it was better than remaining at home where the memories of Jeremy were strongest. More than exile, more than scandal, that was the burden that lay heaviest on Gil’s heart.

When the train arrived in Mercy, Texas, at last, Gil stood and collected his umbrella and valise, then made his way to the exit. He was surprised there was a depot in town, but he’d done a little research before the trip and learned that while Mercy wasn’t a bustling city, it wasn’t the tiny one-horse town he’d expected either.

He looked around when he stepped off the train, wondering if Uncle Vernon had come for him or if they expected him to find his own way to Bent Oak Ranch. Before he’d taken more than two steps toward the station door, however, a tall dark-haired man who appeared to be in his late twenties straightened from where he’d been leaning against the wall and walked over to Gil. The man smiled, teeth flashing white in his deeply tanned face.

“Hey there. You must be Gilbert Porter. Vernon sent me to pick you up and take you back to the ranch.” He held out his hand. “Matt Grayson, by the way. Pleased to meet you.”

Gil shook the man’s hand, feeling a little tingle, which he ignored. He couldn’t possibly let himself be distracted like that again, and he intended to keep everyone at a safe distance—especially handsome, rugged cowboys.

“Yes, I’m Mr. Porter,” he replied, drawing himself up to his full height, for all the good it did. He still had to look up to meet Matt Grayson’s gaze. “You must be the help.”

Matt Grayson blinked in surprise at the formal reply, but then a gleam of amusement sparkled in his hazel eyes. “Certainly, yer lordship,” he drawled. “If you’ll step this way, I’ll take you to the ranch. Maybe we’ll make it back in time for you to wash up before tea.”

Gil bristled slightly at the impertinence. No servant had ever spoken to him that way before, and he was surprised that Uncle Vernon hadn’t fired the man already. But he was too tired from the journey to bother with discipline right now, and so he merely fixed Matt with a disapproving look.

“Did you bring more than that little case with you?” Matt asked, pointing to the leather travel case in Gil’s hand.

Gil lifted his chin imperiously. “Of course. I have a steamer trunk.” He looked around and gestured toward the baggage car. “It appears to be unloading even now.”

“The big brown one?” Matt walked over to where the attendants had placed it on the platform. He bent his knees, grasped the handles, and lifted it up without so much as a grunt of effort. He turned his head to look at Gil. “Follow me, if you’re comin’.”

Gil tried to ignore the little thrill he felt at the show of strength and the flex of Matt’s muscles beneath his shirt, and resolutely followed along.

Matt led the way toward a set of beautiful, matched golden palomino horses, but Gil noticed that instead of a carriage, they were hitched to a wagon with a large bed completely filled with crates and bags. The only place to sit was an uncomfortable-looking board seat across the front.

“Climb on up. I’ll just put this in the back,” Matt said, moving toward the rear of the wagon.

Gil stared at the wagon with dismay. “You expect me to ride on that?”

Matt heaved the trunk into the back of the wagon and closed the tailgate. “I’m afraid the coach and four was taken out by the duchess this mornin’,” he drawled teasingly as he returned to Gil. “It’s this or walk. It’s only about five miles. You could probably make it.”

Gil fixed him with an annoyed glare, determined to speak to Uncle Vernon about his servant’s impudence. “I’ll ride,” he said with as much frosty hauteur as he could muster.

His attitude didn’t seem to bother Matt in the slightest. The big man put one foot on a small step and swung up onto the wagon seat, and then he picked up the reins and waited patiently for Gil to climb up.

Gil climbed up awkwardly, the heat of humiliation stinging his cheeks. He wasn’t nearly as easy or graceful about it as Matt, and he sat down heavily, keep his stony gaze fixed straight ahead once he’d made it up there.

Matt clicked his tongue at the horses, and they started forward, apparently knowing their way without needing much guidance. Gil could feel Matt’s eyes on him.

“You ever been to a ranch before?”

“No,” Gil replied in the most cutting tone he could muster. He didn’t intend to engage in idle chitchat with the help all the way back to Bent Oak.

“Didn’t think so,” Matt said cheerfully. “Just a word of advice, meant friendly-like. Folks here ain’t like those back East. Who your parents are don’t matter so much. A man is judged on his own merits. If you’re nice and fair to folks, they’ll be nice and fair to you. But if you get up on your high horse, so to speak, you might find it hard to make friends.”

“I’m not here to make friends,” Gil snapped, fixing Matt with a quelling glare. He wasn’t at all accustomed to someone like Matt ignoring his rebuffs and refusing to be cowed, and he didn’t like it. He was already far out of his depth, and this wasn’t helping at all.

“No, really?” Matt asked, a trace of sarcasm in his voice. “Then let me give you another word of advice about judgin’ folk by appearances. Like maybe thinkin’ someone is beneath you because they offered to give you a lift since they were goin’ to town today anyway.”

“I don’t care who you are or why you’re here,” Gil retorted, bristling anew at Matt’s implied criticism. “I’m here because I have to be, and I don’t need any advice about how to deal with the ‘folks’ around here because I intend to have as little to do with any of you as possible.”

“Suit yourself,” Matt said easily. “When that big ol’ chip falls off your shoulder and you want someone to talk to, you know where to find me.” Then he fell silent as the horses plodded their slow and steady way away from Mercy and out into the spacious grasslands.

Gil watched the bland scenery go by, feeling overwhelmed by the endless openness. It was too empty and vast here, and he doubted he could ever learn to like it. Matt hummed the whole way, just loud enough that Gil could hear him. Gil was tempted to demand that Matt stop the annoying noise, but he suspected it wouldn’t do much good, given the contrariness Matt had exhibited so far.

It seemed like hours before they passed under a wrought iron arch with “Bent Oak Ranch” spelled out in iron letters across the top. The fencing stretched out as far as Gil could see, and while there was a well-worn dirt road ahead, the ranch house itself was a mere speck in the distance. Father had mentioned Uncle Vernon’s ranch being quite large, but Gil was getting a sense of its scope now that he was here.

When they reached the house at last, Gil regarded it with a critical eye. Built in a simple style, the house was only two stories and appeared to have been expanded since its original construction, as the overall design wasn’t terribly cohesive. Painted white, it had simple shutters and no trim, and it had no landscaping to speak of. Other than two wooden rocking chairs and a spittoon on the front porch, there wasn’t much evidence that anyone bothered with decor.

Gil turned to Matt out of necessity, determined to keep the conversation brief. “Where may I find my uncle?”

“I suspect he’s in the stables behind the house. One of his favorite mares is due to foal, so he’s stickin’ close to make sure nothin’ goes wrong,” Matt said.

Matt jumped down from the wagon seat just as the front door of the house opened and a beautiful girl with light brown hair came down the steps toward them. She was dressed in a pale pink-sprigged muslin dress with a pristine white apron over it, and she smiled widely at Gil.

“Hello, there. Welcome to Bent Oak Ranch,” she said, her voice soft and pleasant. “You must be Vernon’s nephew.”

“I am, yes.” Gil climbed down from the wagon slowly and carefully, not wanting to fall flat on his face in front of Matt. He regarded the young woman, unsure how to greet her. He wasn’t aware that Uncle Vernon had a wife or daughter, which meant she must be the housekeeper, but he didn’t want to assume incorrectly.

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Jeanie Grayson,” she said with a smile, offering him her hand. “Vernon told me to put you in one of the bigger rooms at the front of the house, and it’s all ready for you.”

Either she was Matt’s wife or his sister, but either way she was still part of the staff, which meant Gil wasn’t going to shake hands with her. “I’m Mr. Porter. I’d like to see my room, and one of you may tell my uncle I’m here.”

The smile faded on Jeanie’s lips, and she drew herself up proudly, not seeming to like Gil’s attitude one bit. Her hazel eyes were full of cool censure as she gazed down at him. “You can tell him yourself,” she replied primly. “He’s in the stables around back. Your room is the third door on the left at the top of the stairs, and supper is at six. If you’re late, we won’t wait for you.”

She turned on her heel, and with all the dignity of any Boston socialite, marched back up the stairs and into the house.

Anger and embarrassment warred within Gil, and he whirled away, determined to speak to his uncle as soon as possible. He couldn’t remain here with people like this. Surely even Father wouldn’t expect him to live under these conditions.

He skirted around the side of the house in search of the stables, which he hoped was the large building. Like the house, it was made of wood rather than brick, but it looked to be in excellent condition. The smell of hay and manure assaulted him as soon as he reached the open door, and he stepped inside, confident he’d found the right place. He paused to let his eyes adjust to the cool darkness inside.

“Uncle Vernon? Are you in here?”

“In the back stall!” a booming voice Gil remembered well called out. “’Bout time you got here. Those damned trains never do run on time.”

Gil blanched a little at the strong language as he headed to the back of the barn, glancing around curiously. Most of the stalls were empty, but they were clean and filled with fresh hay, which suggested the occupants would be returning. When he reached the last stall, he found his uncle and another man watching over a sweating mare.

“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Uncle,” Gil said politely, keeping a safe distance from the stall when the mare began to paw the ground and whicker nervously.

“Shh, it’s all right,” Vernon crooned to the mare and stroked her neck to settle her. He turned his head and looked at Gil, and Gil saw that other than being a bit grayer at the temples and even more deeply tanned, Vernon Porter didn’t seem much different from Gil’s memories of him. He looked Gil up and down with frank appraisal. “You got a little taller than when I last seen you, but you ain’t changed much, Nephew. Get settled in up at the house yet?”

“Not yet.” Gil drew himself up proudly, stinging from his uncle’s observation. “I don’t suppose I have grown much in ten years. On that, perhaps you and my father agree, which is why he sent me here so you can shape me into the strong, powerful man he wants me to be. However, I fail to understand how being here can possibly change what nature herself has wrought.”

Vernon gave a snort of amusement and exchanged a look with the other man in the stall—another tall broad-shouldered fellow, wearing jeans and a blue chambray shirt with the sleeves rolled up past his elbows. Then he turned back to Gil and shook his head.

“George and I ain’t agreed on a damned thing since we were children, other than it was a good thing I left Boston,” he said dryly. “Ain’t my place to change what nature gave you. You’re right enough about that, in more ways than one. I was just teasin’ you a little, not trying to get your back up. Relax, son. You ain’t in Boston anymore, and I ain’t your pa.”

Gil stared at him, not knowing how to respond. He wanted to find a place in the world where he could relax without feeling the weight of being judged and found wanting. But bitter experience had taught him there was no such place, and he couldn’t possibly trust his uncle so easily. After all, Father had a reason for sending him here.

“I apologize,” he said stiffly. “As I said, I haven’t been in the house yet. Your staff have all been quite rude so far.”

“Staff?” Vernon looked genuinely puzzled.

“I think he must mean Jeanie,” the other man chimed in.

“Oh!” Vernon chuckled and shook his head again. “I ain’t got no staff, son, and if Jeanie was rude to you, no doubt she took exception to bein’ taken for a servant. She keeps house for me, sure enough, but don’t make the mistake of thinkin’ anyone here is one bit better than anyone else. My home has only had one mistress, and that’s Jeanie. She’s thought it was her job to take care of me since she was five years old.”

The concept of such equality was so foreign to Gil’s experiences that he could scarcely wrap his mind around it. His parents had always drawn a sharp, clear line between those who were their social equals and those who were not, and Gil had grown up in a deeply stratified world.

“But if she is the housekeeper, how is she not a servant?” he asked with a puzzled frown, trying to make sense of the situation.

“You’re gonna need to adjust your Boston thinkin’, son,” Vernon said pleasantly. He moved to the side of the other man and clapped him on the shoulder. “For instance, this here is my foreman, Jeb Grayson, but he’s also my best friend in this world or any other. He gets a wage for workin’ on the ranch, sure enough, but he’s no man’s servant. His son, Matt, works the ranch, too, and will likely take the place over for his pa someday, Lord willin’. I’ve known Matt and Jeanie since they were wee tiny children, and Jeanie would take offense at gettin’ a wage for lookin’ after me. When a man comes out West and ain’t got no kin nearby, he tends to make his own sort of family, and Matt and Jeanie are as close as I’ll ever come to havin’ kids of my own.”

“I see.” Gil nodded his acceptance of the situation. He would have to treat the Grayson family like social equals whether he liked it—or them—or not, but years of experience at masking emotion in favor of social pleasantries would see him through. He only wished he knew how long Father intended him to remain in exile here. He almost considered facing the memories and the fallout of his scandal worth accepting just to be somewhere familiar again. Uncle Vernon’s words had made him acutely aware of how much of an outsider he was here in every way, and he felt the isolation already. “Well, I will impose on you and your family as little as possible. Just tell me what exactly I am expected to do here.”

Again Vernon exchanged a look with Jeb Grayson, and then he crossed over to Gil and rested his large hands on Gil’s shoulders. “I know you feel like your pa shipped you out here as punishment, son, but the truth of the matter is, it was my suggestion. I know how those Boston biddies can rip a man apart for steppin’ over the lines they draw in the sand, and I thought you might like it better here. A man can breathe here, and he ain’t defined by who his family is. It ain’t gonna be easy on you, I’ll give you that, but if you’re willin’ to try, you’ll be surprised. If a man works hard and is fair in his dealin’s, he can be anything he sets his mind to. In Boston, you’ll always be George Porter’s son, one of the Boston Porters. Out here, you can be Gil Porter—whoever he really is. Sure, we have scoundrels, horse thieves, and even snobs aplenty, but you’ll find most everyone willin’ to accept you at face value—so make it a face you’re proud to have people see.”

Part of Gil wanted to cling to his uncle’s words and hope they were true, but he knew better than to think anything could be different for him here. Even if he really could escape his father’s shadow, he wasn’t at all sure who Gil Porter was—and what he did know wasn’t good. He had unnatural desires, and he harbored a secret that would make him as much a pariah here as he was in Boston. He could never be truly accepted or truly free no matter where he went.

Mustering a polite smile, he strove for a neutral response. “Of course.”

Vernon clapped Gil on the shoulders. “You don’t understand, not yet, but hopefully you will. I know your pa told you some nonsense about how I was gonna make a man out of you, but he’s wrong. You’ll make a man out of yourself—or not. It’s up to you. If you really hate it here, I’ll send you back to Boston. All I ask is for you to give it a chance and see if you can find somethin’ about ranchin’ you like.”

Gil didn’t see that he had much of a choice. If he returned to Boston before Father considered his punishment to be over, there would be hell to pay. He had no choices and no control. The only thing he could do was stay here and do as he was told while keeping up a polite face to everyone else.

“Of course,” he said again, for lack of any better response.

With a sigh, Vernon removed his hands. “I need to stay here with Zephyr, but you go on up to the house. Jeanie is a sweet girl, really. You must have gotten her back up. If you say you’re sorry, I’m sure it’ll all be forgiven and forgotten. She’s softhearted and loves to take care of folk, so if you’re nice to her, she’ll be spoilin’ you like she spoils the rest of us in no time.”

Privately, Gil would rather tear out his own tongue than apologize, but outwardly, he pasted on another polite smile and nodded. “As you wish, Uncle.”

With that, he turned and fled the barn, wanting to escape that uncomfortable conversation. His steps slowed when he reached the house, but he stiffened his spine when he went inside, keeping his polite mask in place. As he moved through the house, he heard the low murmur of conversation coming from the back, and he headed in that direction, finding himself in the kitchen—along with both Grayson siblings.

Matt was stretching to get a large kettle from a high shelf, but both he and his sister turned when Gil entered the room. Standing close together, it was easy to see the family resemblance between them, although Matt was smiling and Jeanie frowning as they looked at him.

“Can I help you?” Jeanie asked stiffly.

“Forgive my intrusion,” Gil said as he moved closer to the pair, offering a conciliatory smile. “I wanted to apologize for my earlier rudeness and assure you it will not happen again.”

The siblings exchanged glances, and then Jeanie turned back to him with a slight smile. “Thank you,” she said. “Anyone can make a mistake. Would you like a glass of tea, Mr. Porter?”

“No, thank you, Miss Grayson,” he replied politely. “If you’ll excuse me, I would like to take my luggage up to my room and unpack.”

“I already carried up your case and trunk,” Matt said, handing his sister the kettle. “If it’s in your way after you unpack, I can take the trunk up to the attic.”

Gil nodded an acknowledgment. “Thank you, Mr. Grayson. I appreciate your assistance. If you’ll excuse me?” He didn’t wait for a response before escaping the kitchen and hurrying upstairs.

The bedroom he was assigned was smaller than his room in Boston, with nothing more than the bare basics—a bed, a nightstand with a small lamp, a wardrobe, and a washstand with a plain white bowl and pitcher. There was only one window with the same dark green curtains he’d noticed throughout the rest of the house, and the walls were bare. But at least it was his room alone, and he would have somewhere to go when he needed a respite.

He dropped heavily onto the side of the narrow iron bed, feeling the weight of his grief, loss, and isolation bearing down on his narrow shoulders. At least in here, he didn’t have to pretend to be strong and polite, but he couldn’t let himself indulge in emotion right now. He needed to unpack, and all too soon he would probably be summoned to the evening meal, where he would have to don his armor and his mask once again.

It would be difficult living this way for the foreseeable future, but it wasn’t that different from the armor and mask he’d had to wear in Boston. No matter where he was, he was hiding something. No matter where he was, he was never truly home.

The Quality of Mercy #2
Chapter One
Texas, 1890
CARLOS HERNANDEZ stood in the center of Bent Oak Ranch’s largest paddock, with a dappled gray yearling on the end of a long lead rope. Little vegetation grew in the enclosure due to the steady stamp of horse hooves and cowboy boots, and dust settled on Carlos’s boots as he turned in slow circles while the horse galloped around the perimeter of the wood rail fence with a saddle on her back. The September sun was bright and still hot, making both Carlos and the yearling sweat, but the Texas summer heat was receding, and the nights were getting cooler at last.

Carlos’s responsibilities had increased since Gil Porter, the owner of Bent Oak, decided to move away from raising cattle and toward breeding horses. His experience in working with horses had gotten him a job at the ranch, and his hard work and dedication had gotten him put in charge of breeding and training. He had plenty to do to keep him busy, and he ended each day tired but proud of his part in helping Bent Oak succeed. But of late, he yearned for something more.

Gil and Matt Grayson, the ranch foreman and Gil’s lover, had found a way to be together discreetly even here on the ranch, surrounded by other people. Matt had moved out of the foreman’s house and into the big house after his sister Jeanie got married and moved into town. Gil claimed he found it more convenient to have his foreman under the same roof, and no one had questioned him. Now they lived together, happy and in love, and Carlos found himself longing for what they had.

He was lonely. But he wanted more than a warm body to share his bed. He wanted to share his life with someone. He wanted the closeness and connection that Gil and Matt shared. He wanted the love and passion he had known—and foolishly thrown away—once before.

“That filly has a pretty gait,” a voice called out from the fence line, and Carlos glanced over to see Matt tying his own horse, Wendigo, to the railing. Matt was a big, sturdy man, with dark brown hair and hazel eyes, and he leaned on a wooden crossbar, regarding Carlos with a raised eyebrow. “Too pretty for you to be looking like someone done rained on your picnic.”

Carlos gradually brought the yearling to a stop and let her rest while he went to talk to Matt.

“I believe she will be one of our best,” he said, ignoring Matt’s observation about his mood. “We might want to keep her.”

Matt nodded and grinned, but he didn’t take his eyes from Carlos’s face. “I trust your instincts when it comes to horses, so if you say we keep her, that’s what we’ll do. I’m sure the fact that she’s named after your boss ain’t got nothing to do with it.”

In fact, the filly’s name was Gilla, and Gil Porter had assisted with her birth, an event that had helped the Boston-born-and-raised man develop a bond with the ranch.

Carlos tried to remain objective and fair when it came to judging the horses, but he had to admit he didn’t always succeed. He had a soft spot for Gilla, and he knew Gil did too, so he was inclined to look for reasons to keep her at Bent Oak.

“Not a thing. I am always impartial,” he said, although a quirk of his lips gave away his teasing.

“Uh-huh.” Matt’s eyes crinkled at the corners, but then his expression turned more serious. “That’s a little better, but I still miss seeing you smile. Seems like you don’t think you got too much to smile about lately, and I’m getting worried you’re thinking about moving on. I wouldn’t like that, and neither would Gil. So… you gonna talk to me about what’s wrong? I was your friend long before I was foreman of this place. I hope you know you can tell me anything.”

“I am not going to leave Bent Oak,” Carlos said, reaching out to stroke Wendigo’s velvety nose. “I like my job and the ranch. I have no desire to leave when I can work solely with horses as I have always wanted to do.”

There was no mistaking the relief on Matt’s face, and he nodded. “I’m glad to hear it. I want you to feel like your home is here at Bent Oak, and not just because there ain’t no one better with horses than you. Not because we were once lovers, neither. You belong here, just as much as me or Gil or the horses. And me and Gil both want you to be happy.”

“You need not concern yourself about me,” Carlos said. Gilla walked up behind him and nudged his shoulder with her nose, and he pivoted so he could give her the attention she wanted. Gilla had been doted on by Matt, Gil, and José—her dam’s owner—since birth, and she was accustomed to being petted and spoiled. “My wandering days are behind me. Bent Oak is my home, and I am happy here.”

“You may be content enough, but you ain’t happy.” Matt’s tone was certain, and he did know Carlos better than anyone else. “I’ve seen that new hand, Caleb, making eyes at you when he thinks I ain’t looking. Just in case you ain’t noticed it for yourself. Time was that a handsome man casting his eye your way would’ve put a spring in your step and a gleam in your eye.”

Carlos stroked Gilla’s neck as he considered how to respond. He’d noticed Caleb, of course. How could he not when Caleb’s golden curls and big blue eyes reminded him of the only man who had ever captured his heart? But he’d also recognized Caleb’s immaturity. Caleb was much like Gilla: accustomed to getting attention whenever he wanted it. Carlos didn’t doubt that Caleb thought he could get any man he wanted thanks to his pretty face, mainly because Carlos had once been the same way himself.

“I see too much of my younger self in Caleb,” he said at last. “We would not suit.”

Matt’s gaze sharpened, but he only nodded in response. “Well then, if you’re at loose ends this evening, what do you think of coming into Mercy with me and Gil? There’s that reception for the new schoolmaster tonight. I know you don’t get off the ranch much, so this might be a good time to look at what else is on offer, so to speak. There ain’t been nothing big in town since Fourth of July, so I’m thinking there’ll be a lot of people there.”

Carlos doubted there were any more men who shared his preferences in town than there were the last time he went, but he liked the idea of seeing something different for a few hours. He never felt closed in thanks to the rolling plains that stretched out to the horizon, but the flatness of the land also meant the scenery stayed pretty much the same.

“Very well,” he said, inclining his head slightly. “What time should I be ready?”

“Gil and I are taking the carriage, and we’ll be leaving about four,” Matt replied. He reached out, put a hand on Carlos’s shoulder, and gave it a squeeze. “If you don’t see no one to your liking, we can go have a few drinks after the tea and cake stuff is over, if you’d like. Gil won’t mind. Hell, he’d probably want to come along.”

Gil had arrived at Bent Oak as a stuffy Boston socialite who preferred the parlor to the stables. But Bent Oak had liberated Gil from the shackles placed on him by his dictatorial father and by Boston society, and now he was more likely to be outside in jeans and a chambray work shirt like the rest of the hands, far more comfortable in his own skin here than he ever had been in Boston.

“He probably would,” Carlos said, chuckling.

Matt nodded, releasing Carlos’s shoulder with another squeeze. “All right, then,” he said, unwrapping Wendigo’s reins from the rail. He stepped back, then swung up into the saddle with the ease of a natural-born horseman. “Wear something pretty,” he added and then grinned wickedly as he turned Wendigo in the direction of the stables.

Carlos unfastened the lead rope and grasped Gilla’s bridle. She’d had enough saddle training for one day, and Carlos needed to wash off the scent of horses and sweat before going into town. He didn’t expect the reception to be all that interesting, especially since he didn’t have school-age children, but at least he would get the chance to socialize with people he didn’t see often. That alone would make the trip worthwhile.

And if the new schoolmaster was a handsome man who shared Carlos’s preferences, so much the better. Carlos shook his head and smiled at his own foolishness. The schoolmaster was far more likely to be an absentminded scholar with soft hands and a round little wife. But, Carlos thought as he led Gilla to the stables, a man could dream.

Author Bio:
Ari McKay is the professional pseudonym for Arionrhod and McKay, who collaborate on original m/m fiction. They began writing together in 2004 and finished their first original full length novel in 2011. Recently, they’ve begun collaborating on designing and creating costumes to wear and compete in at Sci Fi conventions, and they share a love of yarn and cake.

Arionrhod is an avid costumer, knitter, and all-around craft fiend, as well as a professional systems engineer. Mother of two human children and two dachshunds who think they are human, she is a voracious reader with wildly eclectic tastes, devouring romance novels, military science fiction, horror stories and Shakespeare with equal glee. She is currently preparing for the zombie apocalypse.

McKay is an English teacher who has been writing for one reason or another most of her life. She also enjoys knitting, reading, cooking, and playing video games. She has been known to knit in public. Given she has the survival skills of a gnat, she’s relying on Arionrhod to help her survive the zombie apocalypse.


Finding Forgiveness #1

The Quality of Mercy #2

Release Blitz: Double Dutch Courage by Helena Stone

Title: Double Dutch Courage
Author: Helena Stone
Genre: M/M Romance
Release Date: May 12, 2018
Ronan Collins has spent most of his life in Dublin hiding who he really is. Coming out would hurt his mother, and Ronan isn’t going to be the second gay man to do that. When he receives news the father he has never known has died, leaving him both a house and a business in Amsterdam, he jumps on the opportunity to get to know the man who fathered him and to discover what he’s been denying himself for years.

Lucas Brandt thought he had it all when Paul Kelly offered him a job and rooms to live in. With Paul deceased he fears he may be about to lose both. He didn’t even know Paul had a son, and now this stranger is on his way from Dublin to pull the rug out from under Lucas’s feet.

The two men don’t expect to like each other, never mind feel attraction. With numerous reasons why hooking up would be a bad idea, why does giving in feel so much better? And is Ronan’s back story really as he’s always imagined it to be?

Sudden changes require great bravery. Can both men find the courage to be true to themselves and each other?

Ronan seemed to search Lucas’s face for something, then lowered his gaze until Lucas was convinced he was staring at his lips. He mused that the sunshine had to be getting to him as the afternoon took on a dreamlike quality. Ronan licked his lips, the tip of his tongue tempting Lucas, teasing him. When Ronan leant forward Lucas wondered what was happening, whether he was imagining things. Surely Ronan wasn’t about to —

The soft press of Ronan’s lips against his elicited a sigh from Lucas. He would have been embarrassed about his reaction if he hadn’t been lost in the moment. It was the second time Ronan had taken him by surprise in this manner, except on this occasion he didn’t appear to have any intention of pulling back.

With so many reasons why this was the worst idea ever, it didn’t make any sense that the overriding thought running through his mind was more.

He cupped Ronan’s neck, keeping the pressure light, barely there. Ronan reacted as if Lucas had used force and pressed his lips firmer against his, parting them in the process.

Lucas was helpless against the onslaught. It had taken him days to stop obsessing about Ronan’s mouth after that quick, shy kiss a week earlier. There would be no coming back from this. He had no doubt he would end up hurt. Even as he had the thought, Lucas parted his own lips, slipped his tongue through the gap and tentatively caressed Ronan’s mouth.

“Oh.” Ronan’s soft exclamation meant his lips parted farther and Lucas took advantage. Fuck being sensible. Fuck worrying about tomorrow, or next week, or six months from today. He was here, now, and the tongue hesitantly exploring his was nothing like what he’d expected and everything he wanted it to be.

The kiss transported him back to his teenage years, to the first boy he’d ever kissed. Clumsy and with clashing teeth, it had been as awkward as it had been exciting. Pretty much as it was now, except this time it didn’t make sense.

He pulled back until the tips of their noses were the only parts of them still touching. Ronan’s lashes fluttered before he opened his eyes. They widened and he lowered his gaze.

“That bad, eh?” Ronan directed his words at the grass beneath their knees.

“Not bad.” Lucas tried to figure out what to say. Not sure what he was reacting to, he didn’t know which words to use either, so the truth would have to do. “It just brought back a memory of something I hadn’t thought about in ages.”


Ronan still wouldn’t look at him and Lucas didn’t like it. He lifted Ronan’s chin with his index finger. “It reminded me of when I was fourteen and me and Hans, my best friend back then, decided to find out what the big deal about kissing was.”

“It was like your first kiss?” Ronan still tried to avoid meeting Lucas’s gaze.

“Yes.” Lucas smiled. He couldn’t believe Hans had slipped his mind. They’d done a lot of exploring together before Hans decided he was interested in girls after all. He got so lost in his reminiscence he almost missed the words Ronan muttered.

“Makes sense.”

It hit Lucas like a ton of bricks. Here was yet another reason why getting involved with Ronan was the worst idea ever. If he was right, he would be Ronan’s first in everything. The thought that Ronan’s inexperience might include kissing hadn’t crossed his mind until this moment. He wasn’t sure he could make that journey with Ronan without getting emotionally involved. He had to know for sure.

“I’m your first?”

The combination of shame and defeat Lucas read in Ronan’s expression tore at him. He didn’t need an answer. He also didn’t need to think about what to do next. Yes, he would end up getting hurt, but he’d deal with it. It wouldn’t be the first time or, in all likelihood, the last. He could be Ronan’s first and make it a good, a memorable, experience.

“I want to be your second, too.” He didn’t wait and pressed his lips back against Ronan’s before he could respond.

Author Bio:
Helena Stone can’t remember a life before words and reading. After growing up in a household where no holiday or festivity was complete without at least one new book, it’s hardly surprising she now owns more books than shelf space while her Kindle is about to explode.

The urge to write came as a surprise. The realisation that people might enjoy her words was a shock to say the least. Now that the writing bug has well and truly taken hold, Helena can no longer imagine not sharing the characters in her head and heart with the rest of the world.

Having left the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam for the peace and quiet of the Irish Country side she divides her time between reading, writing, long and often wet walks with the dog, her part-time job in a library, a grown-up daughter and her ever loving and patient husband.

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Book Blast: Survivors by Jessie Pinkham

Title: Survivors
Author: Jessie Pinkham
Genre: M/M Romance, Post-Apocalyptic
Release Date: May 8, 2018
Cover Design: Jay Aheer at Simply Defined Art
As a farmer Lee Johnson is well-situated to survive in the aftermath of a plague that killed most of humanity. As a gay man in a small community he's resigned himself to the probability of lifelong bachelorhood, at least until his sister returns home with handsome Army veteran Nate Schlessinger.

Sparks fly between the two men but nothing is easy following the collapse of civilization. Nate claims to be celibate despite his clear interest, Lee tries to keep his neighbors from starving, and the threat of attack looms constantly. Can love triumph in the ruins of the world as we knew it?

Nate looks skeptically at the carrots he pulled up. “Are these carrots supposed to be yellow?”

“Yes. You’ve never seen yellow carrots? They’re the best.”

“How many colors do carrots come in?”

“We grow yellow, orange, and purple, but there are red and white too. White carrots don’t have much flavor so I don’t see the point.”

It’s a nice morning for harvesting. Nate and I are working on carrots while Lily is one field over gathering onions. Every couple of minutes the wind carries over a few words of whatever song she’s singing to herself. The dogs are amusing themselves playing tug of war with a piece of rope I knotted for that purpose.

My shoulders are a bit stiff from helping Stan move yesterday, therefore I’m not harvesting carrots quite as quickly as I could. The fact that Nate is new to pulling carrots is a convenient excuse to slow down. It’s not a difficult concept to yank carrots out of the soil and Nate’s doing a fine job, though he’s the first person I’ve ever seen harvest carrots with a handgun holstered on.

“Yellow and purple carrots. Orange tomatoes. What next,” he asks, “red pumpkins?”

The orange tomatoes were an heirloom variety Mom decided to try this year which are worth growing again. I’ve saved a good amount of seeds, plenty for us and the neighbors. Genetic diversity in crops will serve us well.

“The pumpkins are all orange.”

“Good. I like some consistency in my life.”

“Getting up every morning to take care of the animals isn’t consistent enough for you?” Livestock guarantees a certain level of routine in our lives.

“I like plenty of consistency.”

“Farming is good for that.” I make sure I’m quiet for my next question, something that’s been nagging me. “Do you think we have a good chance of defending ourselves?”

“It depends on a lot of factors. We have the advantage over a small, maybe mid-sized gang unless they have really impressive weapons, but we can’t hold off an army. Fortunately, I think small gangs are more likely at this point.”

“Have I mentioned that my dad kept his great-great grandfather’s Civil War sword? It’s in the chest in the living room.”

“Let’s hold that as a last resort, okay?”

“Works for me. Damned if I know how to use the thing.”

“Now, a Civil War cannon might have more potential.”

“I think we’re stuck with the bows.”

“On the plus side those don’t run the risk of blowing up in our faces.”

“That’s a very big plus,” I say. Nate has his first homemade bow complete now, though it doesn’t shoot very far.

“Our biggest advantage, I think, is that I can probably shoot people as they approach. The military helmets will help a lot there.” He ignores the carrots in favor of looking at me, all weighty responsibility. “I’m going to do everything I can to protect us, to protect you and Lily.”

I demonstrate my appreciation with a kiss. “Thank you. Just remember you’re not doing it single-handedly, okay?”

“You’re a decent shot. That will help.”

He’s being generous. I’m a decent shot at close range with a slow-moving target, and my abilities degrade from there. Like I said, I went bird hunting with my dad sometimes, but it was never my favorite and that shows in my skill level.

“Lily can shoot too,” he says. “Even if she’s not a great shot it will create more chaos and give them more bullets to dodge.” Guns aren’t her favorite, but there’s no doubt she’ll do whatever is necessary. “I think we’ll be alright, barring some property damage.”

“I hope we’re alright. And that any property damage is minor.”

“I’m not going down without a fight,” he says, which I already knew. Nate’s just like that. “I’m happier than I thought I could be after Severny destroyed everything. Not that it isn’t hard, and I don’t miss people all the time, but somewhere along the way I realized I need to let myself be happy, you know?”

“Yes.” I really, really do. It’s easy to fall into survivor’s guilt until you realize that nobody who died would want us to spend the rest of our lives miserable. That doesn’t mean I don’t have my bouts of survivor’s guilt all the same. It does make it easier to move forward and feel okay about it when I smile and laugh.

“You’re a big part of my happiness. You do know that, right?”

“I know.” I kiss him again. “And I feel the same way. You’re awesome like that.”

“Keep throwing around adjectives like awesome and I’m gonna get a big head.”

“Which head are we talking about?” I ask with an unsubtle glance at his crotch.

“I was talking about the one on my neck.”

“Past tense. I can work with that. Let’s hurry up and get these carrots harvested so we can go inside, where I can admire your other head.”

“If I didn’t know better I’d say you only want me for my body.”

“Since you do know better there’s nothing wrong with heartfelt appreciation.”

Nate raises his eyebrows. “Sure, pretend your heart is in charge at the moment.”

“You say that as though it’s a bad thing, but you’re picking carrots faster.”

Author Bio:
Some kids have imaginary friends. Jessie grew up in rural Maine where she needed to entertain herself, so she created an imaginary village and she has been dreaming up stories ever since. These days she writes romances which reflect her love of hot guys and a good happy ending.

Married to her own Mr. Right, Jessie gratefully acknowledges his support and encouragement. She enjoys exploring the diversity of the universe and therefore cannot commit to a single subgenre of male/male romance. She’s also a chocoholic, avid reader, and travel enthusiast. Too often she rushes out at the last minute because she lost track of time while writing.

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