Thursday, June 7, 2018

Happy Pride Month 2018: Top 20 Favorite LGBT Reads Part 2


Here at Padme's Library I feature all genres but followers have probably noticed that 90% of the posts and 99% of my reviews fall under the LGBT genres, so I thought what better time of year than June's Pride Month to honor my Top 20 Reads.  I started reading published M/M romances in 2013, I'd been enjoying slash fanfiction for months when I decided to check out the published genre.  I asked half-a-dozen of my reading BFFs who I knew enjoyed the genre and they had so many wonderful recommendations but the only one that they all had on their list was Texas by RJ Scott.  So it seemed the logical choice to jump in with and I was not disappointed. The Heart of Texas will always hold a special place in my library, my lists, and my heart.  So it's understandable why that is at the top of my Top 20 but the other 19 are in no particular order because all of them are so closely ranked I couldn't possibly give them a set number.  I should also mention that in the 5 years I have been reading M/M genre, over 700 books have been reviewed so narrowing it down to only 20 was not an easy task.


Redeeming Hope by Shell Taylor
Home for Hope #1
Fifteen years ago Elijah Langley’s world came to an abrupt halt with the death of his high school boyfriend. He keeps his past—and his sexual orientation—hidden until he attends a fundraiser for The Center for HOPE, an LGBT youth center, where he meets Adam Lancaster, HOPE’s infuriatingly stubborn and sexy founder.

A survivor of a turbulent childhood, Adam understands better than most the challenges his youth face. He’s drawn to Elijah’s baby blues and devilish smile but refuses to compromise his values and climb back into the closet for anyone—not even the man showering time and money on HOPE. Months of constant flirting wear down Adam’s resolve until he surrenders to his desires, but Elijah can’t shake his demons.

When a youth from the center is brutally assaulted, Elijah must find a way to confront the fears and memories that are starting to ruin his life, so he can stand strong for those he loves.

Original Review November 2015:
I don't even know where to start.  First off, for a debut author this book rocks all my emotional sensors and I can't wait to see what she brings us in the future.  At the base of this story is Adam's need to help the LGTBQ+ youth but we soon learn that The Center for HOPE helps not only the youth but also the adults that are involved in the center.  When Kirstin and Kollin come into Langley Lumber with brochures for the center and an upcoming fundraiser, they have no idea how all their lives are about to change including the lives of the Langley family.  Elijah gave up on a part of himself when he lost his boyfriend many years ago, watching him find that part of himself again is an emotional roller coaster that is equally heartbreaking and awe inspiring.  That's about all I'm going to say in regards to the plot because as I often say, "I don't do spoilers" but I will say the characters are perfect.  When most people think of perfect they think of utopian but I think of flaws, strengths, pros and cons and the way the author meshes that all together and Miss Taylor does that amazingly well.  She told me last night that Resurrecting Hope, Adam's story, is due out on Christmas Day - talk about a great stocking stuffer.


A Matter of Time Vol. 1 by Mary Calmes
A Matter of Time #6
Jory Keyes leads a normal life as an architect's assistant until he is witness to a brutal murder. Though initially saved by police Detective Sam Kage, Jory refuses protective custody—he has a life he loves that he won't give up no matter who is after him. But Jory's life is in real jeopardy, especially after he agrees to testify about what he saw.

While dealing with attempts on his life, well-meaning friends who want to see him happy, an overly protective boss, and a slowly unfolding mystery that is much more sinister than he could ever imagine, the young gay man finds himself getting involved with Sam, the conflicted and closeted detective. And though Jory may survive the danger, he may not survive a broken heart.

But For You by Mary Calmes
A Matter of Time #6
Jory Harcourt is finally living the dream. Being married to US Marshal Sam Kage has changed him—it’s settled the tumult of their past and changed Jory from a guy who bails at the first sign of trouble to a man who stays and weathers the storm. He and Sam have two kids, a house in the burbs, and a badass minivan. Jory’s days of being an epicenter for disaster are over. Domestic life is good.

Which means it's exactly the right time for a shakeup on the home front. Sam’s ex turns up in an unexpected place. A hit man climbs up their balcony at a family reunion. And maybe both of those things have something to do with a witness who disappeared a year ago. Marital bliss just got a kick in the pants, but Jory won’t let anyone take his family away from him. Before he knew what it felt like to have a home, he would have run. Not anymore. He knows he and Sam need to handle things together, because that’s the only way they’re going to make it.

A Matter of Time Volume 1(#1 & #2)
2nd Re-Read Review July 2016:
I'm not usually one for re-reads, especially for the 3rd time but Sam & Jory are even better the third time around and will never get boring. Just LOVE, LOVE, LOVE them!!!

Original Review 2013:
I love reading the story of Jory and Sam, an intriguing love story that has ups and downs like a whacked out elevator that really sucked me in. I just couldn't stop reading it. There could be a little more description, as there is a considerable amount of dialogue and sometimes you really have to concentrate on who is saying what but it doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the story.

But for You #6
2nd Re-Read 2016:
As much as I loved Jory & Sam when it was just them, now that they have 2 children, they are even better which I didn't think possible. As for Kola & Hannah, I don't think I've ever read 2 more adorable little kids. They may be adopted but they are definitely their parents' kids.

Original Review 2013:
This was a perfect addition to Jory and Sam's love story. Very interesting to see them in a complete family setting and still never lose a beat of their individual nature. They've both grown so much since their first meeting and yet maintain the fresh passion that brought them together all those years ago. Quite possibly the best in the series.

3rd Re-Read Overall Series Review 2017:
How can a series continue to get better and better with every new re-read?  Sam and Jory are absolutely not meant for each other, well at least that's what some would say considering how opposite they are from each other.  BUT!  Once you reach the second page after they first meet you realize that they are actually a perfect fit.  I say perfect not because their connection is Utopian but because the good and the bad blend and morph into a love that goes above and beyond first impressions.  To me perfect love is laughing, fighting, loving, frustration, inspiration, and everything in between which is exactly what Sam and Jory have, even if takes them awhile to figure it out.  Sam is gruff but he looks out for those in his heart, trust me you do not want to go after his family.  Jory is lovely who simply put, acts before he thinks but his heart is always in the right place.  Never before has a series made me laugh more and it isn't always Jory's antics that cause the giggles, its often Sam's reactions to his man's antics.  Mary Calmes' Matter of Time has definitely cemented its place on my annual Summer Re-Read List, the boys and their family and friends will never get old.


The Boys on the Mountain by John Inman
Jim Brandon has a new house, and boy, is it a pip. Built high on the side of the San Diego mountains by a legendary B-movie actor of the 1930s, Nigel Letters, the house is not only gorgeous, but supposedly haunted. As a writer of horror novels, Jim couldn't be happier.

But after a string of ghostly events sets Jim’s teeth on edge and scares the bejesus out of his dog, Jim begins to dig into the house’s history. What he finds is enough to creep out anybody. Even Jim. It seems long dead Nigel Letters had a few nasty habits back in his day. And unhappily for Jim, the old bastard still has some tricks up his sleeve.

As Jim welcomes his ex, Michael, and a bevy of old friends for a two-week visit to help christen the new house, he soon realizes his old friends aren’t the only visitors who have come to call.

Original Review October 2015:
I don't think I will ever find the words to properly describe how great this story was.  From the very beginning I knew this was going to be a daytime kind of read because it is definitely all kinds of creepy.  Jim's perfect home is filled with mystery and even though it's solved early on, there is still a lot of work for Jim and his friends to do.    This is by far one of the best ghost stories I have ever read and the first work by John Inman, but it won't be the last.  The evil the boys on the mountain faced is not pretty and you will definitely hate Nigel Letters.  That is the best I can say without delving into spoilers that you know I just refuse to do so I'll end by saying, if you like creepy, if you like mystery, if you like paranormal than this is one you will not want to miss and if you throw in the comedic camaraderie between Jim and his friends then this is all kinds of must read.


Redeeming Hope #1 by Shell Taylor
ELI CLUTCHED the glossy eight-by-ten as tears welled in his eyes. He could hardly believe the emaciated, washed-out figure in the picture was the same person he’d centered his entire world around just a few weeks earlier. Eli would recognize that face anywhere. God knows, he’d spent enough time staring at it—running his fingers over those soft lips, sucking on the kidney-shaped birthmark just below the ear. He never imagined he’d see those eyes so lifeless.

“It’s him,” Eli whispered, dropping the picture on the officer’s desk.

His mother rested a hand on his shoulder. “E.J.—”

“Don’t pretend to care, now that he’s dead.” Eli shrugged out of her grasp and clenched his jaw to hold in the gut-wrenching sobs brewing in his chest. “Will I need to identify the body in person too?”

The officer avoided Eli’s eyes, but his voice was kind. “If you’re certain, this is good enough for us. He’ll be released in the next thirty-six hours. Will you be claiming him, or will the city keep him?”

Eli’s eyes widened, and panic ripped through his heart. He’d never expected the search to end with a dead body, and there was no way he’d be able to give his boyfriend the funeral he deserved—the one Eli owed him for his own part in Brian’s death. Prepared to beg, he turned and met his father’s eyes for the first time since Brian disappeared from their house almost three weeks earlier.

“We’ll take care of his arrangements.” Eli’s mother spoke quietly but firmly, and his father dipped his chin in silent agreement.

Relief carried Eli back to his parents’ car, but grief consumed him as soon as he slid into the back seat. Burying his head in his knees, he shut out the rest of the world. Eli didn’t leave the quiet safety of the car until long after he arrived home, his cheeks crusted with salty tears from mourning the loss of the future he’d been so sure of.

Chapter 1
SOMETIMES LIFE just sucked.

There was no rhyme or reason for why good things happened to bad people—or why bad things happened to good people, for that matter. Karma was nothing more than a myth, made up to trick everyone into doing good deeds. Life consisted of a random series of events that would inevitably occur whether you were generous enough to hold doors open for complete strangers or selfish enough to jam the Close elevator button when your boss came running around the corner.

But on days like this, Elijah couldn’t help but wonder what the fuck he’d done to deserve the shitfest that had been dumped on him.

It started on his morning commute when the moron in front of him slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a squirrel—a fucking squirrel—forcing Elijah to swerve off the road and spill hot coffee all over his Dior slacks. Fortunately Elijah kept a spare suit in his office, but as soon as he sat down at his desk, he was assaulted with a list of ten “friendly” reminders from the “former but not quite ready to give it up” CEO of Langley Lumber and Construction—also known as his father. Then the head of his accounting department—the man he’d been training to officially take over the role of CFO so Elijah could cease wearing both hats—put in his two weeks’ notice.

When a conference call ran over, Elijah missed lunch. By the time some environmentalist freak who didn’t think Langley Lumber was doing enough to save the planet showed up in his reception area, he wasn’t even surprised that she’d demanded an audience with “whoever’s in charge.”

Elijah was tired. His nerves were shot, and for the first time in… well, ever… he wanted to cut out of work early, go home, and do absolutely nothing. But it was Wednesday, which meant dinner with his parents, and they always ended the same way—a lecture from his father about everything Elijah needed to do for the business and apologetic looks from his mother while she sipped her wine.

Shoving the cuff of his shirt back to check the time, Elijah saw he still had twenty minutes before his next appointment, and he needed a break to survive his last meeting as much as he needed a quick bite to eat. Shrugging on his suit jacket, he walked down the short hall to reception.

Elijah rapped one finger on his secretary’s desk. “Sherri, I’m heading to Etman’s to get a sandwich. I should be back in time for the four-thirty meeting. If I’m not, tell them to start without me.”

Oblivious to his sour mood, Sherri offered her tight, patented almost-smile and nodded.

Elijah dipped his chin once, a habit he’d only grudgingly acquired from his father, and started toward the door. He stopped in his tracks when the front doors opened and laughter ushered two strangers inside. A young woman, maybe midtwenties, with a pretty, oval face and choppy, shoulder-length blondish-brown hair nudged the kid beside her as if reprimanding him for whatever he’d just said. When she turned her smile toward Elijah, her entire face lit up, making her even prettier than Elijah had first thought. But once he got a good look at the kid beside her, she could’ve been J. Lo and Elijah wouldn’t have noticed. The kid’s hair was different—darker, shorter, and artfully swept to the side—but Elijah would have sworn he was staring at a younger version of the guy he once thought he’d spend his life with.

“Hi,” the woman chirped to Sherri. “I’m Kirsten and this is Kollin. We’re making rounds in the neighborhood, dropping off some information about The Center for HOPE. It’s the LGBT center over on Leftwich. HOPE stands for Healing, Opportunity, Protection, and Equality, and we’re committed to providing a safe place for queer youth to feel accepted and help prepare them for their futures. We’re having a fundraiser in a few weeks to purchase the old Tarboro Inn just down the street from us. We thought it would also be a great opportunity to bring awareness to the community about what HOPE is and what we do.”

She spoke quickly, but Elijah didn’t get the impression it was out of nervousness. He couldn’t say for sure. His eyes stayed glued on the boy she introduced as Kollin.

Kollin shrugged off his book bag and pulled out several information pamphlets. He handed one to Sherri and then turned to Elijah and gave him a curious once-over.

“Nice suit. Dior?”

Elijah nodded once and offered a rare, small smile. “Impressive.”

Kollin raised his shoulder and gestured toward his own outfit—burnt orange pants, a white hippie shirt, and black suspenders he somehow managed to make look good. “I’m into fashion.”

“Ah, I see that,” Elijah replied.

He held out another pamphlet. “You want one of these too?”

Elijah took the paper and glanced at the front page. “You look a little young to work for a place like this.”

“I’m just helping Kirsten out today. She can’t go anywhere by herself apparently.” Kollin raised his voice enough to catch Kirsten’s attention, making her hip-check him in the middle of her conversation with Sherri but not slowing her down at all. “But I’m also one of the impressionable young minds who benefits from everything HOPE has to offer.” He rolled his eyes, but the warmth of his smile told Elijah the kid was grateful for the center.

“You are, huh?” Elijah waved the pamphlet around. “So, what’s the plan for the Tarboro Inn?”

“Adam wants to renovate all the rooms and set up some kind of system so homeless youth can have a safe place to stay. He wants to help them find work and all that. Give ’em a chance to get back on their feet.”

Elijah nodded, once again impressed. What Kollin described was no small undertaking, but if successful… well, his life would’ve been a lot different if something like that had been around seventeen years earlier. He had no business asking something so personal, but as he glanced back at Kollin’s too-familiar face, he couldn’t help himself. “And will you be needing the inn?”

Flashing him a bright smile, Kollin shook his head. When he spoke, the sarcastic lilt was back in his voice. “My parents tolerate me well enough, as long as I don’t wear the suspenders in the house.”

Elijah huffed out a laugh.

“Ready, kiddo?” Kirsten asked, grabbing the back of his shirt.

“Yes, ma’am. Nice meeting you, sir.”

Elijah shook Kollin’s hand and thanked him, purposely not introducing himself. Even if Kollin hadn’t reminded him of Brian, Elijah would have found him to be a breath of fresh air—once he got over the initial shock of staring his past in the face, that is. Kollin was comfortable in his own skin and didn’t seem to give two shits what anyone else thought of him. Elijah didn’t want the kid to know he’d just made one of the most influential men in Cary nearly speechless.

“Mr. Langley, sir?” Sherri stared at him, a questioning look on her face as Kollin and Kirsten left his building. “Would you like me to run down to Etman’s and get you that sandwich? Your meeting starts soon.”

Elijah’s gaze strayed to the clock on the wall. He’d spent over half of his break talking to Kollin. “No thank you. I’ll find something in my office.”

Elijah tapped the pamphlet on Sherri’s desk and went back to his office to review its contents. He showed up at his final meeting of the day almost ten minutes late and still hungry.

IF ELIJAH’S parents noticed how distracted he was at dinner that night, they didn’t mention it. They also didn’t question why he wanted to go through his old room when he excused himself after dinner. His parents had redecorated immediately after he moved out of the house, so it looked nothing like the room he’d grown up in. He found the box he was looking for shoved into the very back corner of his old closet, and briefly considered grabbing the other two as well, but he childishly decided he liked the idea of inconveniencing his parents.

Elijah placed a kiss on his mother’s cheek and assured his father he’d prepared for the quarterly board meeting the following day. He dropped the box in the passenger seat of his Lexus and spent the short drive home wondering what in the hell he was doing. He’d quickly learned that the only way to move past Brian’s death was to pretend he’d never existed. It had been over fifteen years since Elijah locked his past away in his childhood bedroom closet and metaphorically thrown away the key. He knew leaving his past in the past was the smartest thing he could do, but he couldn’t stop himself from plowing forward when he had that old box within arm’s reach.

At home, Elijah poured himself two fingers of scotch from his fully stocked bar and stared at the black and red Air Jordan shoebox on his coffee table. He took a healthy swig of his drink, topped it off again, and sank into the couch. Steepling his fingers, Elijah eyed the top warily and wondered what fresh hell awaited him. As he gently removed the lid, he immediately regretted his decision to take a trip down memory lane.

Staring up at him was the seventeen-year-old version of himself. His smile was huge, and he had a basketball tucked under one arm, but all Elijah could see was the boy tucked under his other arm. Instead of looking at the camera, Brian was grinning up at Elijah, the smile on his face betraying how utterly smitten he’d been. Elijah had always loved that picture. While he’d never considered himself closeted—more like careful—that particular picture told the truth about what he and Brian really were to one another.

The alcohol in Elijah’s stomach swirled around, and he shoved the top back on the box, unable to look into those trusting blue eyes any longer. He pushed it farther away, stood, and ran his hands through his hair. What the fuck was he thinking when he grabbed that box? He hadn’t been able to deal with Brian’s death when he was seventeen, and he sure as hell hadn’t done anything since to change that.

Clearly time didn’t heal all wounds.

Elijah stripped off his suit as he climbed the stairs to his bedroom and carelessly tossed the discarded clothes into a pile outside his closet door. Kollin’s flippant comment about his parents merely tolerating him popped into his mind. Elijah didn’t know the kid from Joe Blow on the street, but he couldn’t help wondering how much truth lurked behind his facetious words. His heart twisted at the thought of Kollin ending up like Brian. Had anything improved? Were there more places like The Center for HOPE? Was it easier to be a gay teenager today than it was fifteen years before? Elijah had no idea, but he was damn sure going to find out.

A Matter of Time Vol 1 by Mary Calmes
After careful thought and consideration I have come to the conclusion that things happen to me for two reasons. First, I have a terrible habit of tuning out in the middle of a conversation. I’ll hear the beginning, start thinking about what I’m going to do later, and then come back in time to hear the end. This gets particularly dicey when I’m getting directions, because you never want to ask someone to repeat something they have already gone over in specific detail. This is why I often end up in some spooky neighborhoods after dark. I’m winging it. Second, I am not the most discriminating person on the planet. So when a friend of mine asks me to do them a favor, I’ll usually just do it without asking a lot of questions. Not that I would be listening to the whole explanation anyway, since like I said, I’m probably the poster child for ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, unless you’re my boss or a really hot guy.

The night my friend Anna called me, sobbing on the other end of the phone, I immediately went into nurture mode and walked out of the club, so I could hear her better. There is no way to hear anything over trance music, so I had her wait to spill her guts. I was happily surprised to hear that she was finally leaving her husband. She had stayed with me or her sister many times, after he’d hit her for the millionth time. It’s hard to watch your friends come to class wearing oversized sunglasses, and makeup that’s so thick it could have been applied with a putty knife. Everyone knew her husband beat her, I just never knew how bad or constant it was. I lost track of her after graduation, when she moved to the suburbs, but when she called I was right back there, instantly in that place where I was ready to help any way I could. I told her that of course, I would do whatever she needed.

In all the movies on the Lifetime channel, which I watched the last time I was home sick—hung over and hurling—the wife always has to go back to get her kid’s stuffed animal from the house of horrors she lives in. But before she can put the pedal to the metal and point the late-model station wagon with the faux-wood paneling into the sunset, she has to return for Boo-Boo Bunny or Mr. Snuggles, or a teddy bear that has been loved so hard and long it now resembles an iguana. Anna didn’t have any kids, but what she did have was her beagle, George. She couldn’t go back, but neither could she leave without her partner in crime. They had apparently executed all manner of petty crimes and misdemeanors against her husband over the years. From peeing in shoes—George’s part—to hiding miscellaneous items—Anna’s part—they had made Brian Minor’s daily existence annoying, in exchange for the abuse he had handed out with fist and word. It had given her some degree of satisfaction knowing that, one day, vengeance would be hers. She knew she’d been a coward to not just leave, but she suspected her husband was far more sinister then he let on. So Anna was finally ready to call it a day with Brian but he would have suspected something, and probably killed her, if she’d tried to take her dog. She needed me to get her puppy to make a clean break of it. Because I wanted her out of there so badly, and because I would have gone back for my own dog were he still alive, there was no way to say no.

After leaving my friends dancing at a club on Halsted, I took a cab and headed out to the suburbs. I tried never to leave the city and had only been outside of downtown Chicago on two previous occasions. On the way over there I tried to remember where in the house she had told me the dog was, but since I hadn’t heard that part it was useless to try and dredge the information from my brain. I figured when I got to the house, which I had only been to once, it wouldn’t be hard to find a beagle.

The problem turned out to be finding the house itself. I forgot the address and I didn’t want to call Anna back and look like I hadn’t been listening. Even though I hadn’t. And by then enough time had gone by that if I had called her she would have wondered why I just didn’t call her earlier, so… the cabbie and I took the tour of La Grange until I remembered the street in an energy-drink-fuelled vision after I made him stop at a gas station. It had only taken two hours to get to her huge three-story apparition. I asked the driver to wait for me and he said he’d rather drink Clorox. I understood. I can be exhausting at times. I watched him drive away before I headed toward the house.

The front door swung open when I went to ring the doorbell. I called for Brian and got no response. When I called for George, I heard muffled barking from a room to the left. It was the study, and as soon as I walked in I realized the noise was coming from behind the curtain. When I checked, there was another door behind it. If you weren’t looking for it you would have never seen it, but there was no missing the high-pitched puppy whining. When I opened the door, George was all over me, whimpering, dancing, his whole little body moving with his wagging tail, trying like mad to claw through my jeans. I bent to pet him, and when I did, without meaning to, without even thinking about it, I stepped into the office. The door was open but behind the curtain, so even though I had never intended to hide, I ended up doing just that. It was only for a second and I was ready to step back out when I heard the crash. George yelped and retreated behind my leg. I peeked around the drape and saw a man lying on top of the remains of the heavy glass coffee table that I had walked by seconds earlier. He was covered in blood and mumbling softly.

There are those moments that seem like a strobe light is going off in your head. You see pieces of things but not the whole picture. I saw the shattered glass, the burnished black leather shoes of the guys standing on the royal blue Persian rug; I saw the polished marble floors and Brian holding a gun on the guy. It doesn’t sound like it does in the movies. When a gun goes off, there’s no boom, it’s more of a firecracker pop. I saw the guy jerk, heard him scream out “no,” and watched Brian unload the gun. It was fast, like a jump cut in a movie, and it was over. All the guys took a turn spitting on him, and it was at that moment that two things happened simultaneously. First, my phone rang, which does “Karma Chameleon,” and second, George bolted through the drape. I lunged for him and caught his collar but not in time to stop my forward momentum. It was like being on stage. I came out from behind the curtain. Like ta-dah!

My eyes swept the room; I saw every face before I settled on the one I knew the best, the guy holding the empty gun.

“Jory!” Brian roared, and because I have no fight reflex whatsoever, I went immediately to flight. I yanked on George’s collar and whipped him back into the other room. As I dived after him I heard the shots and Brian screaming my name. He’d never been all that crazy about me but we were definitely in another place by that moment.

I got my legs under me and ran. I yelled for George and he was running along beside me as fast as his little legs would carry him. I saw a guy in front of me but instead of slowing down I sped up. When he pulled his gun, I dropped to my knees and slid halfway across the polished wooden floor. It would have been very cool if I weren’t running for my life at the time. He fell on top of me, but I got untangled and ran for the front door. When I threw it open, I was faced with Darth Vader.

“Get down,” he ordered me, and what sounded like a baseball hit him in the chest.

I dove for the ground and he stepped on me and then somebody else kicked me and then my arm got yanked so hard I thought my shoulder was dislocated. Outside, someone dragged me to my feet before pulling me into the street where like a hundred police cars were, lights flashing everywhere. It was cold and I registered that before anything else. There were more shots and I got shoved back down to my knees on the ground. I lost my balance because I got bumped and pushed and then somebody covered me in a jacket that weighed like a thousand pounds. I fell back and George was on me, licking my face as I tried to breathe. I was winded and when I finally grabbed the dog and hugged him so he’d stop I realized four men were standing over me. Not one looked pleased. One guy in particular looked like he wanted to strangle me right there in the middle of the street.

“Two years of undercover work blown in seconds,” he told me icily.

What to say? “Sorry?”

“Who the fuck are you?” he snarled at me. The scowl looked permanent.

I coughed twice. My ribs hurt. “Jory Keyes.”

“What are you doing here, man?” one of the others snapped at me.

I tried to take in some air. “I came to get the dog,” I told them, which was really all the explanation I had. It had seemed like such a nothing task at the time.

“The dog?”

Their expressions were priceless and even lying there on the pavement I had to smile.

If I didn’t watch so much TV, real life wouldn’t be so disappointing. As it was, I was expecting the interrogation room from Law & Order and the reality was nothing like that. It wasn’t dark, it was really bright, and the metal table was bolted to the floor. The chairs were cold and metal without any padding, and just basically had no atmosphere or character to speak of. It was just plain anticlimactic and so I was bored. I had an ice pack on the back of my head, a Sprite for my stomach, which had gotten queasy when my adrenaline ran out, and a pen and paper so I could write down everything I remembered. I had recounted what I’d seen to a lot of different people ten different ways. When Anna had come to get George, they wouldn’t let me see her. She was being taken somewhere safe right that second. I couldn’t blame them. I didn’t want her to get hurt either. My head was down on my folded arms when the door opened. So many people had been in and out that I didn’t even look up.

“Mr. Keyes."

I rolled my head sideways and realized that Detective Sam Kage was back. He was, I’d decided, the one that hated me the most. I had screwed up his undercover investigation with my need to be rescued. He and his fellow vice detectives had to break cover, turn their guns on Brian Minor, and save me. The only luck they had all night was that Brian had actually killed a man in cold blood and they had an eyewitness to that… me. He was going to jail for a long time. It was just as good, they said, as racketeering, bribery, blackmail, and extortion. First-degree murder had its own time frame that worked for them.

“Sit up and look at me.”

I lifted my head off my arm and leaned back in my chair, staring at him. He had changed out of his Kevlar body armor and was now in a shirt and tie. He was trying to pull off mild-mannered police detective but I wasn’t buying it. I’d seen the beast inside of him already. The others, his tall but balding captain, his dark sort of eastern-European-looking partner and the two others, who looked like poster boys for the Marine Corps, all of them were nicer than Detective Kage. I wanted anyone else but him in the room with me.

“Mr. Keyes, you—”

“What kind of gun is that?” I asked, pointing to his holster.


“What kind of gun?”


I shrugged. “I was just wondering.”

“It’s a Glock 22.”

“Okay,” I yawned, letting out a deep sigh. That exchange had maybe killed a second and a half. What was next on the agenda?

“Tell me about yourself, Mr. Keyes.”

I looked back at him. “Whaddya wanna know?”

“Where are you from?”

“Kentucky,” I said flatly because I usually said LA or Miami just to make it sound more glamorous, but I figured he was looking for the truth, being a police officer and all.

“How long have you been in Chicago?”

“I moved here when I was seventeen.”

“You run away from home?”

“Nope. I graduated from high school when I was seventeen. See my birthday’s in January so I started school at four instead of—”

“Can we move on?”

Rude much?


“Rude much?” I said out loud instead of just thinking it in my head.

“Sorry, go on.”

“Never mind,” I snapped at him. I hated getting caught rambling on to people that didn’t give a crap. It was mortifying.

“Just talk already, sorry for interrupting.”

He wasn’t sorry, but I figured if I were waiting for actual sincerity I’d be sitting there a long time. I was better off just letting it go. What did it matter to me if he cared or didn’t? “Okay, so I got here and got a job and I’ve been here ever since.”

“Uh-huh. So what, your family’s still there in Kentucky?”

“No,” I breathed out. “There was only my grandmother and she died when I was ten.”

“Where are your folks?”

“I have no idea.”

“You have no idea where your father is.”

He said it like he didn’t believe it. “No. I don’t even know who he is. It doesn’t even say on my birth certificate, and my mother left when I was like three months old or something. Her name was… is Mandy, but that’s all I can tell you. She never came back so I’ve never met her.”

“I see. So you were raised by your grandmother, and when she died, what?”

“I went into foster care.”

He looked straight at me. “Any horror stories?”

“No, I was lucky. I lived in a group home from the time I was ten to the time when I graduated from high school.”

“You close to any of those people?”

“No. Why?”

“Why not?”

“I dunno. You’re acting like I have a character deficit or something.”

“Was I?”

“It was implied,” I assured him.

He grunted.

“It was a group home, Detective. It wasn’t the whole mother/father deal. It was like a dorm. I wasn’t close to anyone. They could have cared less if I was there or not.”

“Did that bother you?”

“I don’t need some bullshit psych eval here, all right? It was what it was, it doesn’t matter.”

He nodded. “So you graduated and what?”

“I bought a bus ticket from Lexington, Kentucky to Chicago, Illinois.”

“And so you got here and then what happened?

“Why is this important?”

“I just need some background, Mr. Keyes, if you don’t mind.”

Did I mind? “Okay, so I got here and got the job I have now. I worked all through college and when I was done I decided to stay instead of doing something else.”

“And where do you work?”

“I work at Harcourt, Brown, and Cogan,” I said proudly.

“By your tone I’m assuming I’m supposed to know what that is.”

I felt my brows draw together.

“What’s with the look?”

“Are you kidding?”

“No I’m not kidding.”

“You’re serious?”

“I said I was.”


“What is whatever you said?”

“Harcourt, Brown, and Cogan… it’s one of the premier architectural firms in the city.”


“My boss, Dane Harcourt, he’s the main architect. Miles Brown does interior design and Sherman Cogan is the landscape architect.”

“What does main architect mean?”

“He designs houses.”

He stared at me a long minute. “Does he?”

“Yes. He’s very famous.”

“If he’s so famous why haven’t I ever heard of him?”

I scoffed at him. “I bet the people you haven’t heard of could fill a book, Detective.”

“You’re a punk, you know that?”

I smiled at him. “Particularly nice comeback, Detective.”

“So that’s it, no family, just you?”

“Just me.”

“This’ll be easy then.”

“What will?”

“Making you disappear.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Protective custody, witness protection… are you starting to get it?”

I shook my head. “Just tell me when I can go home.”

His eyes narrowed more than they already were. “Are you stupid?”

I just waited, staring at him.

“Mr. Keyes, you are never going home again. You are going into the witness protection program. Federal marshals will be here in the morning to transport you to—”

“Yeah, right,” I got up. I was tired of being treated like I did something wrong. “I’m going now. I’m beat and I gotta go to work in the morning.”

“Mr. Keyes, people want to kill you. Do you understand that? Brian Minor is very well connected and—”

“I gotta go,” I said as I got up and headed for the door.

“Mr. Keyes, you are going into protective custody.”

“Uh-huh,” I scoffed at him, stopping at the door only as long as it took to open it and go through. At the end of the hall, Brian was being walked to wherever he was being taken by two uniformed police officers.

“Jory!” he yelled at me. “You’re a dead man! Do you understand me? Dead!”

I smirked at him and flipped him off. He yanked free and came charging down the hall toward me. I had no idea what he thought he was going to do to me, handcuffed like he was, but he came anyway. He’d always been so big and brutish, one of those bull in a china shop kind of guys. A lot of big men were still fluid when they moved, like their size was perfect for them, but Brian had always seemed unaware of how strong he was or the confines of his own shoulders and legs. Plodding like an animal was what had forever come to mind. So when he got to me I ducked and crouched and swept my leg underneath him. He went down with a hard face-plant into the tile floor at my feet. I stood there a second and then very theatrically stepped over him.

“You sonofabitch!” he shrieked at me.

“Shut the hell up,” I said irritably.

“Jory!” he screamed at me as I jumped over his thrashing legs before he was buried under five policemen. “I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you… you fuckin’ faggot! You hear me! Jory! You goddamn cocksucker!”

“Oh, go to hell, Brian,” I groaned, turning to walk away from him. “And that whole faggot crap is so old. Who even uses that word anymore?”

“Jory!” he screamed after me.

“People with pickup trucks and gun racks, that’s who,” I chuckled, my own laughter sounding a little unhinged. I was ready to pass out.

“Jory!” His voice had lost some of its power but he was still shrieking.

I headed toward the stairs.

“Mr. Keyes!”

I pivoted around and Detective Kage was there with his nice captain that I’d met earlier and another of the square-cut jaw/square-cut hair guys who had been on the street with him. He did the two-fingered poke into my collarbone like he was trying to drill through my skin.

“Where the hell do you think—”

“Sam,” the captain cautioned him, putting up his hand. “Let’s not—”

“He’s an idiot,” he gestured at me, “and he’ll be dead this time tomorrow.”

“And who would do that? Brian?” I smirked at him. “Gimme a break.”

He gestured at me again but said nothing.

“Mr. Keyes,” the other detective began, his voice gentle, soothing. “Even though you think of Mr. Minor as simply the sonofabitch husband of one of your girlfriends, you must believe us when we tell you the man is not that benign. He’s a drug dealer, a murderer, and someone you don’t want to cross. There are a lot of people that don’t want him in the position of choosing between jail time or talking about them. You alone have the power to put him behind bars. Without you, he walks. Do you understand that?”

“I get it,” I told him. “I do. I will testify. I will do whatever you need so he never sees Anna again as long as he lives. I promise, but seriously—I have a life. I mean, I get from being here for the last five hours that you guys don’t think being someone’s assistant is important. But I promise you that, to my boss, I actually matter. I’ve got so much shit to do, you have no idea.” I let out a quick breath, finally shaking my head. “Call me and tell me what day I need to appear in court.” I said, heading down the stairs to the exit.

“Mr. Keyes.”

I sighed and turned around, looking up at the captain.

“They’ll come after people you love.”

I shrugged. “Good luck finding any.” I said, before I turned back away from him.

Outside the air was cold. I had forgotten I was still in my dancing clothes, which consisted that night of a black spandex T-shirt, tight, brown, distressed boot-cut jeans and motorcycle boots. So because it was November, I was freezing. It smelled like it was going to rain and the breeze was icy. My teeth started to chatter as I looked for a cab.

A car slowed down beside me and I heard the sound of the automatic window going down. When I turned, a guy was smiling at me from the driver’s side.

I waited for the come-on line.

“Hey, man, you need a lift?”

The whole ick factor of some middle-aged man in a van trying to pick me up in the same ride that he took his kids to school in made my skin crawl.

“I’m talking to you, pretty boy.”

“No thanks,” I said quickly, hoping he’d just drive away. “I don’t need a ride.”

“C’mon,” he persisted, “how much?”

“I’m not hustling, man, I’m just walkin’,” I said, moving faster.

“Sure you are,” he leered at me. “Get in.”

And I thought, it’s the club clothes outside of the club, downtown, walking the streets alone at two in the morning. I couldn’t fault his logic. I had rent boy written all over me. “I.…”

The horn scared us both. I jumped, and the guy was so startled that he gunned the motor and drove away. It would have been funny if my heart weren’t pounding so hard. I shivered in spite of myself and looked up when someone shouted my name.

I saw the enormous SUV then, named after something nautical, black and shiny, and through the lowered window was Detective Kage. He was motioning me over. I shoved my hands down in my pockets as I walked over to see what he wanted.

“Get in,” he snapped at me as soon as I peered in the window.


“Mr. Keyes,” he said sharply, and the exasperation was not lost on me. “You’re this close to being put in the vehicle whether you like it or not.”

The way he said the word vehicle, so clinical, so like the cop that he was. Step away from the vehicle, put your hands on top of the vehicle, get in the vehicle.… it was funny. “Oh yeah?” I baited him because I figured I could move before he got a hold of me. “You think so?”

“Yeah,” he warned me, his gaze level and dark. “I think so.”

And it wasn’t so much the ominous tone or the way he was looking at me as the muscle that flexed in his jaw. I realized I was closer to jeopardy than I realized. He was bigger than me, so the chances that he could hurt me were pretty good.

I opened the door and climbed up into the seat, swinging the heavy door shut hard.

He grunted at me. “Put on your goddamn seat belt.”

“Do you know where I live?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he almost growled. He had one of those voices that was low and husky, the kind that under other circumstances I would have found sexy as hell.

“I don’t live in the city.” I wanted to make sure he knew where he was going. “I live just on the other side of Austin Avenue in Oak Park.”

He didn’t respond so I gave up. There was some cowboy crap playing on the radio but it was low so I didn’t complain.

“Did you hear me?” I asked him, checking.

“I know where you live,” he said fast, clearly exasperated. “It was one of the many questions you answered for me, as you may recall.”

I rolled my eyes as my phone rang. “Hello?” I answered.

“Where the hell did you go?” Taylor Grant asked me irritably.

“To get a friend out of a jam,” I smiled, slouching down in the seat.

“Were you gonna come back or call?”

I chuckled. “I thought that wasn’t our deal. Either one of us could split at any time. It’s your rule,” I reminded him cheerfully.

Long silence.


“Yeah, right,” he said, the annoyance clear in his voice. “So where are you?”

“On my way home.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Tell me where that is.”

“Nah. I’ll call you,” I told him.

“Jory,” he said softly. “Please lemme see—”

“Later,” I yawned and hung up. I wasn’t in the mood for company. I just wanted to go home, shower off the night, and pass out in my bed.

“Friend of yours?”

“Not really,” I told him, “just a guy.”

“You got a lot of guys?”

I turned slowly to look at him.

“What?” he asked gruffly.

“What kind of question is that?”

“Fair, I would say.”

I went back to staring out the window.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-two.” I clipped my answer, trying not to snap.

“Twenty-two,” he repeated.


“How can you afford to live alone?”

It was a weird question. “I told you already, I have a good job.”

“And what else?”

I turned again to look at him. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I think you know.”

“I don’t think I do, Detective. You need to spell it out for me.”

“Fine. Does some guy help you out with your rent in exchange for fucking you?”

That was definitely clear. “No,” I barely got out through my clenched jaw.


“How do you know I’m even gay, Detective?”

He glanced at me, scoffing. “Dressed like that?”

“You know what, just lemme out.”

“Knock it off. Don’t be so dramatic.” He was annoyed and his voice was dripping with it. “All you guys are so goddamn dramatic.”

All you guys? “You mean gay guys?”

“Just drop it, all right? I’m tired and I don’t feel like getting into a pissing contest with you. I’m driving you ’cause if I don’t, you’re gonna freeze to death. You don’t even have a jacket.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“Just sit there and shut up.”

And I granted his request and didn’t say another word to him for the rest of the ride. When he dumped me in front of the old Victorian house that had been converted into four apartments, I got out. I slammed the door and ran across the lawn without a backward glance. I didn’t check to see if he waited.

When I got inside I immediately fell down on my bed, fully clothed, with my shoes still on. I was exhausted. Having people shooting at you as you ran for your life was really very draining.

But For You #6 by Mary Calmes
Chapter One
THE man was a pig, and it wasn’t just me who thought so. Rosa Martinez, who lived on the other side of the Petersons, agreed with me. In fact, all the women who lived on our cul-de-sac were of the same mind. Oliver Peterson, whose wife had just caught him cheating on her—again —was filth. It wasn’t the fact that they already had two children; it was the fact that she was currently pregnant with a third.

Sam, the love of my life, my partner, husband, and the guy who was parenting two small people with me, just shook his head the night before and kissed me breathless after telling me for the nine-hundredth time to please not get involved. Leave the neighbors alone; this was not Housewives of Wherever, we were not on reality TV. I had explained over the McDonald’s that the man had brought home instead of having me cook—which, after the last time, we had both agreed would never happen again—that I was involved because I was her friend.

“No,” he told me as we put the kids down. “You use that word so loosely. She’s an acquaintance, Jory, she’s not a friend.”

“She’s my neighbor, Sam, and her man’s a dog, and if she needs my help with whatever, I’m gonna give it to her.”

“I’m not saying not to be nice to her, but just don’t stick your nose in their business.”

I ignored him.

“Jory Harcourt!”

I gave him the most indignant look I could manage. “So I’m what, nosy now? I’m the busybody neighbor?”

He threw up his hands in defeat.

I gave him a superior grunt because I thought he was on his way out of the bedroom to check the house, make sure all the doors were locked, make sure the stove burners were all off, but then I realized he hadn’t moved. “What?”

“You’re very cute.”

I squinted at him. “Thirty-five-year-old men are not cute.”

“You’ll always be the twenty-two-year-old club kid I saw for the first time lying in the street with a beagle on top of him.”

“I thought George was a Jack Russell.”

“Nope.” He came toward me. “Beagle.”

“Go away.” I smiled at him, trying to shoo him out of the room. “Go make sure the zombie horde can’t get us.”

But instead of leaving, he grabbed me and slammed me up against the wall in our room. With his hot mouth nibbling up the side of my neck, his hands frantically disrobing me, and his hard groin pressed to my ass, my mind went completely blank. There was no way to concentrate when I had 220 pounds of hard-muscled man focused on getting me in bed.

But the next day, as I staggered around my kitchen—I never had been and never would be a morning person—and saw my neighbors on their front porch, Christie Peterson smiling tentatively, her husband scowling, I just wanted to go over and punch him out. I had an idea what I must have looked like: robe on, T-shirt and pajama bottoms under that, bunny slippers looking all bright-eyed and happy, I resembled the nosy neighbor in every sense.

A throat cleared behind me.

“Don’t you have to go to work?” I asked pointedly. It was Wednesday, not Saturday.

The warm rumbling chuckle was next. “You think maybe now since you’ve got one kid in preschool and the other in first grade that you should start thinking about going back to working from your office?”

Obviously my sanity was in question, because I was still working from home. I hoped the look I gave him when I turned and squinted conveyed my displeasure.

He snorted out a laugh.

I all-out scowled at the supervisory Deputy US Marshal standing beside me at the kitchen sink. We had both been looking at the Petersons. “Why would you say that?”

“Say what?”

I growled.

He pressed his beautiful lips together in a hard line so he wouldn’t smile.


“No reason.”

“Spit it out.”

He cleared his throat. “I just think that perhaps you being home during the day is giving you cabin fever, and maybe you need to get back out in the real world and talk to the grown-ups.”

I huffed out an exasperated breath. “Sam, just because I don’t go to the office doesn’t mean I’m starved for adult contact. I talk to Dylan every day, I talk to Fallon every day. They’re my business partners, they need me, and they keep me involved with what’s going on at the office.”


“I send out more e-mails than both of them combined!”

“I’m sure you do,” he said, sliding his hand around the back of my neck, then squeezing gently, massaging, and easing me closer. “I just think that maybe getting out of this house during the day would do you some good.”

I batted his hand away, whirling on him. “I go to the store, to the park, drop kids off at school, pick them up… when do I not see people?”

He grunted, rolled his eyes, and put his coffee cup down in the sink before his dark smoky-blue eyes flicked to mine.

“No,” I almost squeaked, turning to run.

So not fast enough.

You would think that a big man could not move like that, with so much speed, but Sam Kage’s athleticism and strength were never to be underestimated. At forty-six, he was just as powerful as he’d been when I first met him, and I finally understood the whole getting better with age thing. The man looked the best he ever had, and he lived well in his skin, so content, so happy both personally and professionally.

I was so proud of him and told him so often. He was an amazing father, a wonderful husband, a great son, and the kind of friend anyone would be happy to claim. I was biased because I loved him, but still, I saw people look at him and knew the truth. Four years after beginning his new job as a marshal, he was now the supervisor of the Chicago field office, overseeing five other deputies and three clerks. I had thought once he moved up, he’d become a sheriff, but apparently all they did was add the “supervisory” in there. A sheriff was a totally different thing. It made no sense from a Western standpoint. In every movie I had ever seen, the deputy got moved up to sheriff. As usual, Sam had just shaken his head at me.

As I ducked around the island in the middle of the kitchen, I thought for half a second that I would get away from him, but as he grabbed, yanked, and pinned me against the refrigerator, I realized how wrong I had been.

“All I meant to imply,” he began, tilting my head up with a hand on my chin, “was that since you have a six-year-old and a four-year-old now, you can do a half day at the office instead of working full-time from home. It might be nice after you drop them off to pick up a fancy cup of coffee and go to your office and actually see Dylan and Fallon and talk to them face to face.”

I was really far too interested in his mouth to listen to him. He had the kind of lips made for kissing, plump and dark, and when he smiled, there was this curve in the corner that could break your heart. Not that the rest of his rugged features were without appeal. His dark smoky blue-gray eyes with the deep laugh lines at the corners, his long straight nose, the hard square jaw, and the thick copper-gold eyebrows were a treat too. And his voice, over the phone or in person, deep and husky, edged with a growl, could send rippling heat through my entire body. But the man’s mouth, the shape of it, the feel of it… really, I was a fan.

“Are you listening to me?”

I lifted up from my height of five nine to his of six four, and he bent down at the same time. Our lips met and parted, and his tongue slid deep to taste me.

The sounds from the peanut gallery—choking and retching—and the tug on my robe instantly drained the heat from the encounter. Sam snorted out a laugh as he broke the kiss, both of us eyeing the short people standing close to us.

“That’s disgusting,” Kola assured me with a glare that a six-year-old shouldn’t have had, full of judgment and revulsion.

“Why?” I asked snidely.

“Your mouth has germs,” he informed me haughtily. “That’s why you told Hannah not to lick Chilly.”

“No, I told her not to lick Chilly because the cat doesn’t like to be licked by her.”

“He licks his body.”

“He does,” Hannah, our four-year-old, agreed with a nod. “Kola’s right.”

“But he doesn’t want you to do it,” I assured my daughter, directing my comment to her.

“How do you know?” Kola questioned.

“Yeah,” Hannah Banana chimed in again, always her big brother’s backup. “How do you know?”

I had to think.

Kola waited, squinting at me.

Hannah was waiting as well, one of her perfectly shaped dark brows arching. It was new. She had the same way of looking at me that her father did, like I was an idiot.

“Do not lick the cat! Nobody licks the cat!” Sam ordered when the silence stretched for too long.

I started laughing; only my husband would have to make such rules.

He looked down at his son, Mykola Thomas Kage, six years old going on forty, who was full of questions and opinions.

We had adopted him when he was three, from an agency in the Netherlands. When we had made the final trip to bring him home, he had seen us from the window of the orphanage director’s office and run to the door to meet us. We had been there two weeks and he already called Sam Daddy, which Sam was madly in love with hearing. But though Kola had been taught the American word meaning father, it was not his, not the one he had grown up hearing and had been waiting to use for someone who belonged to him. So he had tried out the one he knew on me.


So simple a word but it meant so much.

I had heard it in the streets when we visited, along with the more formal, vader, and seen kids run to their fathers using it. Not the papa I knew, not what Sam’s father was called by his grandchildren, but instead just pa. When Kola called to me, I answered to it, and his face, the way it lit up, the absolute blinding joy, had been a gift.

Sam was Daddy, and Daddy represented Kola’s new life and his new family in the United States, and I was the comfort of the old. I was Pa, and he had named me.

Of course it didn’t matter to me what name he settled on. He could have called me Jory for all I cared; he was my kid, and that was all I gave a damn about. He was legally and completely mine and Sam’s, and that was what mattered. And we were good, the three of us, until the first agency we had contacted back when we’d started the whole adoption process called to tell us that there was a little girl from Montevideo ready for adoption. I had forgotten about them because they had never come through, but that turned out not to be the case. You heard from them when it was time, and it finally was.

I was surprised, Sam unsure, until the professional but not personable and definitely not warm gentleman slid the picture across the desk for us. He needed to know if we wanted the little girl in the photograph.

Yes, we wanted the angel very much.

Our family went from three to four with the coming of the little sister that Kola wanted nothing to do with until we were all home under one roof. He resented all of us going to the airport to pick her up, hated her crying in the car, and was really annoyed that Sam was carrying her instead of him. He was starting to fret, it was all over his face—until Sam knelt and picked him up too. Kids are so funny. As soon as Kola figured out that Hannah was planning on sharing us with him, that she wasn’t there to take his spot, that nothing was changing in the love department, just some tweaking in the time area, he decided he liked her. And now, with him at six and her at four, their bond was noticeable.

They fought like cats and dogs… but only sometimes. She cried, he moped, they chased each other and roughhoused, but nine times out of ten, I found her in his room in the morning. When we were out, he held her hand, he fixed things when she couldn’t, and he was supremely patient when she was trying to impart some tidbit of information. I was like, Spit it out, kid, but Kola just nodded and waited until some incident about a bug on a flower was all communicated in excruciating detail.

He brushed her off if she fell down, made her remember her mittens and hat, and could be counted on to translate her wishes to others if Sam and I were absent. Dylan Greer, my best friend, was really surprised because she was certain that, sometimes, Hannah Banana—or B, as we all called her—spoke in tongues. But Kola would just say that she wanted milk or a crayon or a flashlight. And he was never wrong. He was an excellent big brother, and she adored him.

Hannah Regina Kage—her middle name after Sam’s mother—had the most adorable little button nose on the planet. I would lean in to kiss her sometimes and nibble on her nose instead. It made her squeal with delight. Putting her toes in my mouth was also cause for raucous laughter. Even at a year old, she had a good laugh. It was not timid or soft. She was small, but how she expressed herself was big. People heard the deep, throaty sound and were enchanted. I had been under her spell at first glance.

In our neighborhood in River Park, sometimes people still looked at us when we were out walking. And most questioned Kola when they got close, since with his deep-set cobalt-blue eyes, sharp European features, and dark-brown hair, he didn’t look like either me or Sam. But Hannah, who was half-Uruguayan, was obviously adopted. What was funny, though, was that people sometimes questioned whether Gentry—born with my brother Dane’s charcoal eyes instead of my sister-in-law Aja’s honey-brown ones—actually belonged to his own mother. I always wondered why people cared. If your kid was blue and you were orange, who gave a crap as long as you loved and cherished the blue kid? People still surprised me.


Hannah was looking up at me like I was the village idiot.


“If Kola can’t lick Chilly, you can’t lick Daddy.”

I had a terrible image of giving Sam a blow job just then, and he probably knew it, which was why he grabbed me and covered my mouth with his hand. “Will you two go finish your breakfast, please?”

They left then, but not without casting looks back.

Sam moved his hand but bent and kissed me. I received it happily, and of course, there was more retching.

“Kola Kage!” I admonished him even as I laughed. “Will you knock that off?”

“Ewww,” Hannah squeaked out.

When I looked over at them, Kola was mixing his oatmeal with butter and brown sugar, making it burp with his spoon.

“Just eat it,” I told him.

“I’m making it edible.”

Edible. Damn kid and his damn vocabulary.

“Leave the Petersons alone,” Sam sighed, long-suffering as he was.

“I am.” I bit my bottom lip.

“Jory…,” he cautioned me.

I tried for innocent.

“Daddy,” Kola said, back beside us, looking up at Sam.

“Don’t lick the cat,” Sam reiterated, bending down to one knee as his son stepped into his arms and put his hands on his face. “All right?”

“Okay.” Kola nodded.

“Okay,” Sam sighed, pulling Kola close, hugging him tight for a minute.

“What’s homonic?”

“I dunno.” Sam yawned, leaning back so father and son could look at each other. “Where’d you hear it?”

“Pa told Auntie Dyl that Jake’s parents won’t let him come play at my house ’cause they’re homonic.”

Sam nodded. “That’s homophobic, and that means that Jake’s parents don’t want him to come over because you have two fathers.”

Kola squinted at Sam. “Why?”

“Some people just don’t like it.”


“Well, I think that some people are afraid of what it means.”

He shook his head. “What does it mean?”

“That if you can have two fathers, maybe things are changing.”

His scowl made his little eyebrows furrow. It was adorable. “I don’t understand.”

“I think you will when you’re older, buddy.”

“It’s dumb.”

“Yes it is,” Sam agreed, hugging him again. “But I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay.” He hugged Sam back tight, both arms wrapped around his neck. “Stuart and his mom are coming with me and Pa and Hannah and Uncle Evan and Bryce and Seth and Auntie Dyl and Mica and Mabel and Tess and her dad to the movies next Saturday, so Jake’s the one who’s missing out.”

“Who’s coming again?” Sam teased him.

“Stuart and his mom are coming with—”

“Stop,” I cut Kola off. “Your father heard you the first time.”

Sam grunted and looked up at me. “How come I didn’t get invited to the movies?”

“First”—I smiled at him—“the Chipmunks give you hives, and secondly, won’t you be fishing with Pat and Chaz that Saturday?”

“What Saturday are we talking about?”

“We’re leaving tomorrow for Phoenix, for the reunion, and we’ll come home Sunday.”

“Yes, I know this.”

“Okay, so then I’m talking about not this coming Saturday, since we’ll be out of town, but the one after that.”

“Oh, so that’s right, then.” He smiled brightly. “I’ll be fishing. Sorry I won’t make the movie, babe.”

“Liar,” I said flatly.

He cackled.

But it was going to be fun. I was going with my two kids, my buddy Evan was bringing his sons Bryce and Seth, and Dylan was schlepping her two kids: her son, Mica, who was her oldest, and Mabel, her daughter, who was the same age as Kola. It was unfortunate that they had made another Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, but all the kids were dying to see it, so we were making a day of it. I was still waiting to hear from Aja to see if she was coming along as well. I knew that Robert and Gentry were just as interested in helium-fueled rodents as the rest of our kids, but Aja wasn’t, and she could use a day off.

Aja, who had been in the public school realm when she first married my brother, as first a principal and then assistant superintendent of schools, had found herself unable to enact change at that level. Aja could not amend policy or allocate funds, but instead of growing bitter about what she saw happening around her—the apathy and deliberate ignorance—she decided to do something about it. In her present position as the associate dean of education at De Paul University, training and inspiring the next generation of teachers, she was preparing bright minds for the real world as well as toughening skins. She armed them and motivated them and made sure they knew she would always be a resource for them even after they graduated. All that plus parenting two children, being a wife, attending a myriad of social functions with her husband, and the result was a worn-out Aja Harcourt. I wanted to help lessen her load.

As I was driving back home after dropping off Kola and Hannah—they both went to the same Montessori school close to Oak Park—I called Aja from the car and offered to take her two short people off her hands instead of having her join us. I was immediately called a saint.

“Jory, I need some me and Dane time.”

“How ’bout I pick Robbie and Gen up next Friday after school and keep them until Sunday morning? We’ll all go to brunch and you can have them back. But that gives you Friday night and all day Saturday. Whaddya say?”

I thought she was going to cry, she was so thankful.

“So is that a yes?”

“Ohmygod, yes, that’s a yes!”

“You’re starting to sound like me.”

“Thank you, baby.”

“What is family for?”

“But you’re the only one I trust.”

“That’s not true.” I smiled into the phone as I turned from the side street I was on into traffic on Harlem Avenue, heading for home. I went maybe ten feet before I and everyone else on the street came to a grinding halt.

“Yes, but since Carmen got her dream job globetrotting around the world and my folks fled to Florida and Alex to Delaware, you and Sam are the only family I’ve got here.”

“You have a lot of other girlfriends,” I told her as I tried to see what the problem was around the SUV in front of me.

“I know, but I would check in with the others, I don’t need to check with you and Sam. He’ll kill anyone that comes near my kids, and you worry more than I do.”

“I don’t worry.”

She snorted out a laugh over the phone.

“That was very undignified,” I said as I leaned back in the driver’s seat of the sleek black minivan I utterly adored. Everyone else I knew had SUVs that were, I was certain, helping to destroy the environment. My minivan was not part of Satan’s master plan, and I loved my car that proclaimed me married with children as well as safety conscious. I was looking forward to Kola starting soccer in the spring so the picture of domestic bliss would be complete. I had a sweater all picked out.

“You bring it out of me,” Aja cackled.

“Whatever, I’ll call you when I get back from the reunion on Sunday.”

She started snickering.


“Family reunion.” She was laughing now. “Oh the horror!”

“It’ll be fine,” I told her as I noticed a man striding by my window. It was weird that he was walking down the middle of the street and not on the sidewalk, but since we were in gridlock, he was in no danger of getting run over. “Hey, your kids like Mountain Dew and Oreos, right?”

“They’re staying with you for two days. Feed them whatever you want.”

I was laughing when I hung up, but when the SUV in front of me suddenly reversed, crashing into my front bumper, I yelled and laid on my horn. But the car didn’t stop—it kept grinding metal, and I realized that he, or she, was trying to get enough of an angle to go up onto the curb to the right.

I took a picture of the license plate with my phone, thanked God that my kids weren’t with me, and was about to call the police to report the accident when I saw the passenger door of the SUV open. What was confusing was that the small woman who scrambled out had keys in her hand. It was like she had been driving but had not wanted to get out of the driver’s side door. When she flung open the back door, a little rocket seat was visible: she had a toddler.

I got out fast and went around the back of my van—even as the guy in the car behind me honked, leaned out, and told me to get back behind the fucking wheel—and darted to her side.

She whirled on me with a can of pepper spray in hand.

“Wait! I’m here to help.”

Her eyes were huge as she looked at me, shoved the can into my chest, and told me to look out for the guy so she could get her son out of the car. She had been too frightened to even open her door.

“What guy?”

“I don’t know, some psycho. I think he killed the man in the car in front of me,” she cried. “I think he has a gun or—oh God!”

Turning, I saw a man advancing on us. “Move your fucking cars!”

“Get inside!” I ordered her. “Lock it!”

She climbed into the backseat around her kid, and I heard the locks behind me as the man advanced on me fast.

He had a lug wrench, not a gun, and since I could run if I needed to, I went from terrified to annoyed very quickly. “What the hell are you doing?” I barked at him. “You’re scaring the crap out of this lady!”

“Move your cars! This whole street is just full of fucking cars!”

He wasn’t even looking at me; I doubt he could have told me where he was or what he was doing. Maybe the road rage had made him snap; perhaps something else. I didn’t know and I didn’t care—he was carrying around an automotive tool like a weapon. That was really my only concern. The lady in the SUV was freaked because her kid was in the car and this guy was acting crazy. If my kids were with me, I would have had the same reaction.

“Stop,” I ordered him. “Don’t come any closer.”

He kept coming, and he raised the wrench like maybe he was thinking of braining me with it. I aimed the nozzle of the pepper spray and made sure to get his face.

His scream was loud and wounded, but he didn’t drop the tool.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

It was the guy who had yelled at me earlier, whose car was in gridlock behind mine.

“You just attacked this guy?” he roared right before he hit me.

I went down hard, hitting the van as I bounced off it, but from my angle, I could see the guy I had sprayed coming at him.

Kicking hard, I knocked the guy who had just hit me off balance, and he tumbled to the ground beside me.

“What the fuck are you—”

“Look out!” I yelled as the guy with the lug wrench came after us.

“Oh shit,” he screamed, scrambling back away from me, moving to run.

“Drop the weapon!”

“Get on the ground!”

Normally, policemen—even though I’m married to an ex one—are not my favorite people. As a rule, they catch me doing crap I shouldn’t be but somehow miss everyone else talking on their cell phones, running red lights, and speeding.

But right at that moment, as I saw the uniforms, noted the drawn guns, and heard the orders being roared out, I was comforted.

The guy dropped the lug wrench and went to his knees.

“All the way down, face on the pavement!”

“You saved my life,” the guy who hit me said.


But something slammed the back of my head, and everything went dark.

MY HUSBAND, my brother, family, and friends would say that yes, Jory Harcourt is a trouble magnet, but I think it’s more coincidence than anything else when fate decides to screw with me. Especially this time: I was going home from dropping off my kids, a trip I made Monday through Friday, normally without incident. How was I to know that I would end up in the crosshairs of accidental crazy?

“A what?” the policeman who was taking my statement at the hospital asked.

“Trouble magnet,” I told him as I sighed deeply.

“How did you get knocked out?” he asked me.

“I guess the lady I told to stay in her SUV, she opened the door really fast and I was sitting right beside her car and… you know.”

He nodded. “I see.”

“That’s why vans are better, the doors slide,” I educated him.

His smile was patronizing.


“Jory!” His yell bounced off the walls, and I winced.

The officer looked startled. “Who was—”

“Scooch back,” I ordered, and took a breath to get the required amount of air into my lungs. “In here!”

The curtain was flung open moments later and there was Sam, jaw clenched, muscles cording in his neck, eyes dark and full of too many things to soothe at once.

“Detective Kage?”

Sam turned to the officer.

“Oh, no, marshal.” He tried to smile at my glowering man.

Sam’s attention returned to me, and I smiled as I lifted my arms for him.

Moving fast, Sam closed the short distance between us and hauled me forward and crushed me against him.

It was not gentle; the entire movement was jarring and hard.

I loved it.

“Scared me,” he said as he clutched me tight.

I knew I had, which was the reason for the grab. I leaned into him, nuzzled my face into the crook of his neck, and slid my arms under the suit jacket and over the crisp dress shirt. He smelled good, a faint trace of cologne, fabric softener, and warm male. I whimpered softly in the back of my throat.

“Those calls take years off my life, you know?”

“What calls?”

“The Jory’s in the hospital calls.”

I nodded, and there was a rumble of a grunt before he leaned back and looked down into my face. His eyes clocked me, checking, making sure I was whole and safe.

“I’m fine,” I said as he lifted his hand and knotted it into my hair, tilting my head back as he examined my right eye and my cheek.

“Yeah, you don’t look fine,” he said, and his voice was low and menacing. “Who did this?”

“There was a guy behind me, and he didn’t understand why I sprayed the man with the lug wrench, and he—”

“Stop,” he cut me off, dropping his hand from my hair as he turned his head to the policeman. “Talk.”

I could tell from his change of tone that he wasn’t waiting on me, but apparently the officer could not. “Hello?” Sam snapped icily.

“Oh-oh,” the guy stammered and then recounted to Sam the events of the morning.

“So the lady in the SUV knocked him out when she opened the door?” He was trying to make sure he understood everything.


Sam grunted.

“She’s really sorry about it. She told me that your partner there saved her life.”

That didn’t make it any better, at least for Sam.

“My van is—”

“We’ll take care of the van and get you a rental until it’s fixed. Just don’t worry about it.”

“No, I know,” I snapped at him. Sometimes—a lot of the time—Sam treated me like an invalid. It was happening more and more lately, like I needed to be taken care of, same as the kids, because I couldn’t think for myself or reason things out. “I just wanted to know where my vehicle was towed to… Officer.”

I had turned to the man in uniform, pinned him with my gaze—my question was directed to him—and he was still looking at Sam to see if he should answer me.


“I can find out where the—”

“No,” I shut Sam down, eyes wide as I waited. “Where’s my car?”

“We, um.” He coughed as he passed me a business card from his clipboard. “Had it towed to a garage downtown and—”

“Just stop,” Sam barked at me, snatching the card away. “Sit here while I go find your doctor and figure out if you have a concussion or—”


“After I get you home, then we’ll worry about the damn van.”

“I can—”

“Stop,” he ordered again, and because I didn’t want to have a scene, I went still and quiet and stared at the clock on the wall.

The officer muttered something and left, and Sam told me that he had to go and find out about the other people in the accident and would see about my release at the same time.

I stayed quiet.

“You’re gonna sulk now?”

I turned my head and was about to say something when he lifted his hand.

“I don’t wanna fight with you. Just let me do this.”

“I’m not a child, Sam. I can take care of my own car. I can do—”

“So I shouldn’t be here? I shouldn’t have even come?”

“No, I just… lately it seems to be the Sam Show and not the Sam and Jory Show. You do everything, and I don’t get why that’s happening.”

His eyes searched mine.

“Sam? Do you think I’m helpless?”

The glare I was getting would have terrified most people. But this was the guy who loved me, and as always, when I stopped and actually used my brain, I understood what was really going on.

He was terrified.

I had scared the crap out of him that morning, and because he was waiting for the other shoe to drop anyway… it was almost like he was expecting bad news. And he was—he was expecting the worst.

“You think me and Kola and Hannah could get taken away.”

“What? No,” he said quietly, not a lot of force behind his words. “No.”

He was such a liar.

“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, putting my hands on his heavily muscled chest, unable to stop myself from curling my fingers into his shirt, holding on. Yes, he was being overprotective, but not for the reasons I thought. He didn’t think I was stupid; he just didn’t want to let me, or his kids, out of his sight for any reason. Not ever. And because he was trying not to be suffocating, he was managing the exact opposite. “I wasn’t thinking.”

He took a breath. “What’re you talking about?”

“The more you work, the more you see, the more you realize that this, what we have, is not the norm. Most people don’t get the kind of happiness that we have, the home we have, so you get over protective and smothering.”

He furrowed his brows, and I smiled up at him as I hooked my legs around the back of his thighs. He leaned closer, hands on either side of me on the narrow hospital bed. “You think you know me?”

I nodded, my fingers unclenching from his shirt. “Yes. I know you well.”

He bent toward me, and I twined an arm around his neck to draw him close. His breath fanned softly across my face before his mouth settled over mine.

I loved to kiss him. Whenever, however, for as long as he’d let me or as long as he wanted to. I was his for the taking.

He swept his tongue in, mating it with mine, tangled, rubbed, pushed, and shoved. Our lips never parted, not once, even for air. I felt his arms wrap around me, crush me to his chest, and hold tight. I had a hand knotted in his hair, and the moan I couldn’t stifle was low and aching. When he suddenly shoved me back, breaking the scorching, devouring contact, my whine of protest was loud.

He was flushed and panting, his lips swollen, his pupils blown as he stared at me.

I was breathing hard, my lungs heaving for air as I smiled at him.

“Crap.” He finally managed to get out a word.

My smile was wicked.

“You’re not supposed to kiss me at work.”

“You kissed me,” I reminded him.

“Crap,” he said again and swallowed hard as he straightened up, stepping away from me, obviously fighting to get his body back under control.

“You can nail me in your car.”

His frown came fast, and so did my grin.

“What?” I smiled wide.

“A Deputy US Marshal does not nail his spouse in the car.”

I arched an eyebrow for him. “Are you sure?”

He pointed at me. “I will take you home to our bed and nail you.”

“Oh yes, please.” I waggled my eyebrows for him.

“Just sit there,” he growled at me. “And wait while I get you signed out of here so we can go get the kids.”

“Not today, Marshal,” I told him.

He looked surprised. “You didn’t plan to pick up your children today?”

“No, your mom’s picking them up and then we’re going there for dinner.”

He squinted at me.

“You know she’s a planner,” I said cheerfully.

“Lemme get this straight,” he sighed. “We’re gonna be with them on a plane tomorrow, with them at a resort from Thursday to Saturday, and then with them again on a plane on Sunday coming home, but we’re still eating with them tonight because they won’t see us?”

“Your mom likes to coordinate and you know this, so just let it go.”

“Why?” He was annoyed.

“Why does she like to plan things or why are we indulging her?”

“The second one,” he grumbled. “Why do we do that?”

“Because we love her,” I said like it was obvious.

“No, screw that. I’m gonna call her and tell her we—”

“Why would you rock the boat? Why would you upset the delicate balance of all things Regina?”

I loved his mother, Regina Kage, with absolute abandon, and of everyone—her own children, their spouses, and all her grandchildren combined—she and I got along best. The reasons for that were twofold: first, because I’d never had a mother and craved one like a drug; second, and most of all, because I didn’t ever try to change her. We never fought; I allowed her to rearrange anything in my house she wanted, make suggestions on parenting—because really, her kids came out good, so where was the argument?—and most of all, when she fussed, whenever she fussed, I was at her disposal to lend a hand. We were good.


“Let it go, Sam.”

He rolled his eyes, but we both knew he wouldn’t say a word. No one said a word to Regina Kage. We all did exactly as she wanted. She was the matriarch, after all.

“Seriously, though, we should cancel, you’re in no—”

“I’m fine, and besides, I think she had trip itineraries printed up, and I want to make sure to get mine.”

He was disgusted, but I got the smile I was after with the shake of his head, the you are too much and I give up one that I loved.

“So,” I said softly as my gaze skated over him. God, I loved looking at him. The broad shoulders that the suit jacket accentuated, the snug fit of the tailored dress shirt over his massive chest, and the stubble that covered his square, chiseled jaw even though he’d shaved that morning before work.

“What?” he asked, and his voice was husky as he stared at me.

“You’re gonna take me home?”


“And stay with me?”

“Yeah. I want to make sure you’re okay.”

I stared into those eyes that I loved as much now as I had the first time he’d kissed me all those years ago. “You’re taking care of me again.”

He grunted and it was all male, all growly bear. “And?”

“And it’s nice.” I smiled at him, taking a loose hold of his tie.

He sighed and I got a trace of a smile. “Okay, I’ll be right back.”

“Wait,” I said before he could leave.

“Why? What?”

“Come gimme kiss.”

“No.” He snorted out a laugh and then bent and kissed my forehead before he walked out of the room.

I was lost in thought, every brain cell I possessed absorbed with Sam Kage and what I was going to do to him with an afternoon alone, when my name was called.

“Mr. Harcourt?”

When I turned, there was a doctor there, and I registered almost instantly that it really wasn’t fair. He got to look like that and be brilliant? Normally you were smart or pretty, not both. He even had bright blue-green eyes. I noticed that because they were the exact shade of turquoise that I wanted when I was growing up. I had hated my brown eyes with a passion. Now things were different. My daughter and I had almost the same shade of deep chocolate brown with hints of gold, and the man who woke up in bed with me every morning never failed to mention that as eyes went, mine were his favorite color.

“Mr. Harcourt?”

“Yeah, sorry.” I flashed him a quick grin. “That’s me.”

“Hi.” He smiled warmly as he closed in, offering me his hand. “I’m Dr. Dwyer, and—”

“Jory, you—”


My doctor called my man by his first name.

Sam stood there looking utterly gobsmacked.

Both men, my partner and the doctor, froze as they stood staring at each other.

What the hell…?

Doctor Dwyer had been interrupted by Sam’s return, and Sam had apparently been quite startled to see the doctor when he came charging back into the room.

I kept looking between them, feeling weirder by the second.

“Kevin,” Sam finally said.

The man took a step forward, and the smile, the light that hit his eyes, the shiver that ran through his long, lean swimmer’s frame, was not to be mistaken for anything other than absolute, quivering, pulse-pounding, blood-racing joy. Whoever he was, he was deliriously surprised and delighted to see Sam Kage.

I waited and realized that I had stopped breathing.

Who was this heavenly creature, this doctor who was looking at Sam like he was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his entire life?

“You….” Sam sucked in a breath. “What are you doing here?”

“Jesus,” the doctor gasped and rushed forward, arms lifted, ready to reach out and grab hold, reclaim.

Sam moved faster, meeting him and cutting him off, so basically, with his forward momentum halted, the good doctor was brought up short, almost to a jarring, lose-your-balance stop. Sam leaned, gave him the guy clench, tight-tight, then pushed off and back so Dr. Dwyer was basically left abandoned and bewildered, arms empty, looking lost.

“Nice to see you,” Sam said quickly, stepping close to the bed and taking my hand at the same time. “Jory, this is Dr. Kevin Dwyer. We met in Columbia when I was there working that drug bust after Dom went into witness protection. He was with Doctors Without Borders at that time. What are you doing here in Chicago?”

Years ago, Sam had left me recovering in the hospital to track down a drug cartel in Colombia on a tip from his corrupt partner. We had been apart for three years, and at some point he had met the good doctor.

Dr. Dwyer seriously looked like someone had punched him in the gut or run him over with a truck. It was hard to tell which better described him at that moment. “I,” he started but stopped, and then his eyes flicked to mine. “Jory?”

I smiled at him. “Yes.”

He nodded. “Sam told me all about you.”

And yet Sam had never, ever mentioned Kevin Dwyer to me. “Did you date?” I asked the doctor, because I didn’t mess around.


“No,” he cut Sam off. “We lived together for three months.”

And my world imploded.

The Boys on the Mountain by John Inman
Chapter One
THE DISTURBANCE began with a rattle of curtain hooks tapping the rods on the bedroom window above my head, a sound one might hear during the course of a small earth tremor. But this was no seismic event. My heart would not have leapt into my throat had this been a mere earthquake. I have lived in Southern California for most of my adult life, and nothing the earth might do beneath my feet, short of an eight on the Richter scale, could frighten me any longer.

What this house managed to come up with to frazzle my nerves night after night, however, scared the bejesus out of me.

And I loved it.

The sound above my pillow that jerked me from my sleep was not something I had been expecting. The disturbances did not usually occur so nearby. They were always somewhere in the house but far off. Out of sight and barely within hearing. They were several rooms away or in one of the many walk-in closets, out back in the carriage house or up on the roof. Tonight’s disturbance, coming as it did within inches of my head, had me wide awake and sitting up in bed in less than a second, as stiff as a statue, wildly blinking the sleep from my eyes.

My bedroom was pitch-black and silent but for those clattering curtain hooks above my head. When the drapes were suddenly flung open by invisible hands and moonlight flooded across my bed like a spotlight, I gasped, but still I felt more exhilaration than fear. I may even have allowed a small grin to creep across my face.

When cold, damp flesh touched the side of my neck, however, I flew out from under those blankets like I was shot from a cannon. In my imagination I was out of the house, down the mountainside, and halfway to Los Angeles before my feet hit the floor. It took a moment for me to realize the eerie touch had not come from some sort of slavering, hungry creature fresh from the grave. It came from Rex, my Irish setter, who had just crawled from beneath the covers to see what all the hubbub was about and calmly pressed his damp nose to my neck by way of greeting. He had not intended to stop my heart or send me flying across the room and halfway down the hall before my brain caught up with my imagination. It had not been his intention to give me reason to wonder if I might need to change my boxer shorts.

I could hear Rex following me down the hall, his toenails clicking across the hardwood floor. Now I had done it. He would insist on a potty break, and he would insist I accompany him. I sometimes wondered if maybe Rex was afraid of the dark. At night he would go nowhere inside the house, or out of it, without me trailing along behind him.

When we first moved into this house on a picturesque mountain overlooking San Diego, I thought Rex had taken it into his head to stay at my side for protection. Faithful dog guarding beloved master. That sort of thing. It had taken me a few days to realize this was not quite the case. The protection he was insuring was for him rather than me. Rex was a coward of the first magnitude. I just never realized it until we came here.

I dropped to my knees in the hallway, and Rex walked into my waiting arms like a big red fuzzy car pulling into a garage. If I could have maintained the position, I knew, he would have been content to stand there, wrapped in my arms, until morning.

I pressed my face into his soft neck. “Coward,” I mumbled, my heart still clog dancing.

I reached up to the wall switch beside me and flipped on the hallway light. Rex and I both looked around to assure ourselves that we were alone, and in this dimension, we were. I listened for more noises from the bedroom, but all I could hear was the ticking of an old-school clock that hung on the wall above the flagstone fireplace in the music room. Whatever it was that had woken me and rattled the curtain hooks over my head was gone now, or if not gone, at least silent.

My galloping heart gradually slowed to a canter as I led Rex through the dining room and across the wide living room to the front door, where I grabbed his leash off the doorknob.

We stepped outside, crossed the veranda, and at the broad steps leading down to the driveway, Rex stopped. He would go no farther until his leash was securely snapped to his collar. This was not a matter of training on my part. Rex had picked up the habit on his own, flatly refusing to leave the house without a lifeline between the two of us. We had been separated once. He was not about to let it happen again.

Poor Rex. He really was a most profound coward. The incident with the mountain lion was the beginning of his slide to disgrace. Not that it was a real mountain lion, of course. The house had conjured it up for our amusement. Or at least, I think it had. I hoped it had. The thought of a real mountain lion roaming through the house frightened me much more than the idea of a spectral one.

Spectral, after all, was what I had come here to this mountaintop to experience, not that I truly expected to experience anything more spectral than my own imagination. But the house had surprised me. Surprised the hell out of poor Rex too. Were it not for his inability to dial a phone or leaf through the Yellow Pages, lacking opposable thumbs as he was, or even the most rudimentary of reading skills for that matter, I suspected Rex would have called for a taxi long before this and been back in Los Angeles renting an apartment before the next sunset. I seriously doubted it was his devotion to me that kept him at my side. After all, what other choice did he have? Even the most pampered pets are chained. Whither we goeth, they goeth, whether they like it or not.

His umbilicus firmly in place, Rex tugged me, still clad in boxers and nothing else, down the veranda steps to the drive.

The house was perched high in the stark San Diego Mountains. There was not another structure within three miles of the place and not another inhabited structure within five. Looking at the house now in the moonlight made me recall the first time I had seen it. I knew it was haunted, of course, or purported to be. Everyone said it was. And even though I made my living writing books that scared the hell out of people, or so I hoped, I had about as much faith in the house actually being haunted as I had in my agent giving up his percentage and opting to work on a friend-to-friend basis rather than siphoning off my hard-earned money. Like that’s ever going to happen. And neither, I suspected, would the house turn out to be truly haunted.

In that, happily, I was wrong. Happily for me. Not Rex.

DRIVING UP the long lane that wound around the side of the mountain to the house on the day of my arrival, I had expected the type of house one anticipates when seeking out ghosts. Victorian. Two-story. Towering gables and long, swooping rooflines all cast eerily in shadow, with maybe a hint of thunder and lightning booming and flashing in the background to help set the scene.

The Letters House did not resemble my mental image of a haunted house in any respect. It was not Victorian. It was not two stories, and there wasn’t a gable to be seen. It looked more like an eighteenth-century Mexican hacienda. It sprawled across the side of the mountain, tucked in among the boulders, its plastered arches and balustrades overhung with bougainvillea that brought a riot of color to the otherwise drab and sepia-toned landscape. The air, hot on the summer afternoon of my arrival, was redolent with the cloying scent of sage and desert emptiness. There were no shadows, only a scorching Southern California sun beating down on my head through the sunroof of my Toyota and shimmering off the heat-soft macadam of the driveway.

When I turned off the car, the only sound I heard was Rex, panting in the seat beside me, an insipid grin on his face. No thunder. No lightning. I closed my eyes for a moment, letting the isolation sweep over me, and when I opened them again, I was smiling. Eager as kids, Rex and I sprang from the car and set out to explore our new domain.

I loved the house from the moment I saw it.

That had been a week ago. I had learned a lot in the seven days since. First and foremost, I learned to no longer doubt the house was haunted. It was indeed. And this was a revelation to me. I had spent most of my life writing stories about the supernatural, but deep down I had never truly believed in its existence. This was no longer the case. Stick a translating device down Rex’s throat and listen to him agree with me. He would probably talk for days about the Letters House and the moronic master who dragged him here.

NIGEL LETTERS was a cornball, ham-handed actor in the nineteen twenties and thirties who never advanced beyond the B-horror-movie slot but did, amazingly enough, enjoy a modicum of success in that genre. Don’t ask me how. God knows he was about as talented as a stick of butter and just as slick. He oiled his way across the screen in a string of low-budget schlock fests, usually wearing more makeup than his leading lady and delivering his monotonal lines with all the passion of a near-comatose Kevin Costner, who in my view has never been known to stretch beyond the monotone either.

While I waited for Rex to do his business—and for a dog of very little bravery, he was certainly taking his sweet time about it—I gazed up at the heavens. The night sky seemed so close I felt I could reach up and pluck the stars from it as easily as picking raisins from a scone. Smog did not exist here. Only clear mountain air. And silence. Blessed, blessed silence.

After twenty years as a working writer, Los Angeles was finally wearing me down. Too many people. Too many bars. Too much sickness. I had had my fill of Starbucks’s latte. I was ready to get back to basics. Suddenly, Sanka sounded pretty good.

The silence on this mountain was as alien to me as unprotected sex, which was something else I would like to get back to, but that didn’t seem likely. AIDS is just as prevalent as ever. Of course, the meds are better, so now it takes you longer to die, but die you still do. Not much of a perk.

AIDS aside, I wondered if seventy years ago Nigel Letters might not have felt the same way I did. Why else would he remove himself from the klieg lights and story conferences of Hollywood and build himself a secluded castle way the hell up on the side of this beautiful, stark mountain?

Nigel Letters had died in this house. He died in the very bedroom where I now slept. His death had been just as cornball as any of his movies, the only difference being at the time of his death he was wearing more makeup than usual. He died in high drag, with a red silk scarf wrapped around his throat and tied to a hook on the wall, which slowly choked the breath from his body as he happily masturbated beneath the lovely taffeta evening gown he was wearing at the time. His body was going to fat by then, and his movie career was on the skids. Hollywood had moved beyond schlocky horror movies, and poor Nigel found himself without work.

All he had left was a sizable fortune and his hobbies, the favorite of which was apparently autoerotic asphyxiation, which by all accounts can make for some pretty impressive ejaculations, but precautions need to be taken when practicing it. On the night of his death, Nigel must have been a little careless about the precautions. His housekeeper found him hanging on the wall like a piece of art, pecker still in hand, when she came to deliver his breakfast tray.

Rumor has it the housekeeper laughed so hard upon discovering the body that she dropped the breakfast tray and broke two toes on her left foot when the coffee pot landed on them. But according to legend, even that didn’t wipe the happy grin from her face. She was still giggling like a schoolgirl when she limped to the phone to call the press. Only later would she remember to notify the police as well.

Nigel, it would seem, was not a well-loved employer.

The hook from which he was dangling when the housekeeper found him was still on the bedroom wall. Upon my arrival at the house, I used it to hang an old studio publicity shot of the man taken in his heyday, so even now, more than half a century after his ridiculous exit, the poor guy still hung from that goddamn hook, this time in top hat and cloak from an old Jack the Ripper film he starred in at about the same time Hitler rose to power. I didn’t have a snapshot of Nigel in taffeta or a Rita Hayworth wig, or I would have used that instead.

Nigel Letters may have been an unlikable putz in real life, but I had to give him credit for one outstanding accomplishment. He built this house. I was not ridiculing the man when I hung his 8x10 glossy on the bedroom wall from the very hook on which he died. I thought of it more as a tongue-in-cheek shrine. Nigel and I, after all, had a few things in common. We both plied our trade in Hollywood. We were both gay. We both loved this house. And we both, in our day, owned Irish setters. Nigel’s Irish setter, although male, was named Nancy. Somehow that didn’t surprise me, coming as it did from a man who enjoyed masturbating in taffeta.

I have always been a videophile, even as a child growing up in Indiana and before my first novel led me to Hollywood, where it was made into one of the worst movies ever put on celluloid. I have a Raspberry Award for the Worst Adapted Screenplay to prove it. None of my later novels were put on film, thank God, but by then California had its hooks in me, and I never left. But my love for movies continued. Especially bad movies. The worse they were, the better I liked them. Theoretically, my own movie should have been one of my favorites (yes, it was that bad), but perhaps I was too close to it to appreciate the reek.

So, being a lover of film, all film but my own, that is, the name Nigel Letters was not unknown to me. I had seen most of his earlier work, when he was still handsome, and I had seen many of his later films, when his jowls were more pronounced on screen than his heavily made-up eyes. And I had enjoyed them all, not for the artistry of them, but for their complete lack of artistry. Spooky pulp, I called them, but at the time of their release, that was what the audiences wanted. Stuffy British actors in creepy black-and-white period pieces was the big thing then. The scripts must have been cranked out in a matter of minutes, and not much more time spent filming them, but the popcorn-chomping populace ate them up. Today those films seem absurd, pretentious, and totally inane, but Nigel got rich making them, and by all accounts, in his youth, before his beauty had faded, the popularity of his films made Nigel Letters quite a draw with the male contingent of aspiring actors, street hustlers, gigolos, and starstruck fans that populated Sunset Boulevard during those years. Apparently when not in front of the camera, Nigel’s face spent most of its time stuck in the lap of any good-looking male he could entice into a dark corner. And he enticed quite a few, if half the stories are true.

When my agent told me that Nigel’s house in the San Diego Mountains had been put on the market, I leapt at it. When I heard the house was haunted, I leapt even higher.

And now, after only a few days of living on the property, I knew I would buy it. Rex would not be happy about my decision, but he wasn’t the one writing the checks. And like I said before, whither the master goeth….

After a decade or more of enduring the screaming pulse of Los Angeles, with its crowded streets and blaring traffic, the solitude to be found on this silent mountainside was almost breathtaking. Even nature lent very few notes to the music. Perhaps an occasional night bird could be heard, or the rustle of palm fronds from the trees beside the house when the wind whipped up the side of the mountain before a rain, but that was all. There were no people sounds. No car horns. No boom boxes. No strident voices yelling obscenities at strangers.

The only noise came from myself, from Rex, or from the house itself, or whatever it was that resided in the house with us. For I knew from the first night, as I lay in the unfamiliar bed and savored the newfound silence, that I was not alone here.

On that first night, and for many days and nights afterward, I neither saw nor heard anything to make me think that mine were not the only thoughts at play within these walls. It was just a feeling. A sense of being near something you can’t quite see. A sense that there were sounds to be heard if they were just a little louder. A sense that this house was not quite at rest. But it didn’t frighten me. There was no feeling of malevolence about it. I didn’t feel surrounded by evil. I didn’t feel like a character in one of my books.

Even later, when the disturbances began, I didn’t fear for my life. My heart might leap into my throat at a sudden sound, coming as it did from a seemingly empty room, but I felt no terror. It would startle me, and my heart would begin hammering, but not from any sense of life-threatening horror. I think the heart hammering came as much from exhilaration as anything else. I had spent my life scaring people with words on a page. Now it was my turn to be afraid, and there was nothing fictional about it. Perhaps I had been writing truths all along and simply never knew it.

For a writer of horror, the house was perfect. By the end of the first week, I could not imagine living anywhere else. I phoned my agent and set the wheels of purchase in motion. Then I phoned my friends and invited them up.

NOW, AS I stood in the moonlight in my boxer shorts and waited interminably for Rex to make the earth-shattering decision as to when and where to poop, I thought of my friends and wondered what they would think of the house and my decision to move here permanently. I suspected they would approve of the first and despair at the second, loving the house as much as I did but unable to comprehend how I could ever dream of leaving Los Angeles.

My friends. We had been an entity for more years than I cared to admit. Michael. Lyle. Frank. Stu. From various parts of the country, we had descended on LA in 1997, and somehow we had come together, drawn to each other like shreds of metal to a magnet. Everyone had slept with everyone else at one time or another. That was perhaps what first drew us together, but sex did not keep us together. Friendship did that. Friendship and love and an understanding of each other that allowed us to bare our faults, or flaunt our talents, without resentment or jealousy getting in the way.

We commiserated with each other during the low times, times we all had at one point or another as we were carving our way in the world, and we praised each other for our successes. Michael’s graduation from veterinary school and the subsequent hanging of his shingle on a small pet hospital in Van Nuys. Lyle and Frank’s marriage on a beach in Santa Monica, the only members of our little band who stayed together as lovers, now into their twelfth year and seemingly as happy as the day they swapped vows in the sand. Stu’s first hair salon with his name in neon, and a few years later, a second and third salon, all making money hand over fist. Money was never a problem for Stu. Relationships were. But he made up for it by replacing quality with quantity. There was a different man in his bed every night of the week, and like a kid in a candy store, he just couldn’t decide on the one he liked best, so he tried them all, chewing them up and spitting them out like gumballs.

My friends were there for me during the publication of my first novel, which if not for them would probably not have sold a single copy, and they were there for me during the subsequent disaster of a movie it spawned. My success only came with the release of my second novel, but I will always remember how my friends supported and praised me for the first. We were our own little fan club, adoring each other and making sure each of us knew it.

Now, with time dragging us reluctantly toward forty, the youthful blush in our cheeks has perhaps faded, our faces appearing a bit wiser and less eager in the bathroom mirror in the mornings when we shave, but our zest for life has not diminished. Nor has our devotion to each other. I have very little patience for anyone else in the world, but for my friends there is always an opening in my mental appointment book. We offer little to anyone else, but to each other, we offer everything.

By leaving Los Angeles, I was forming the first breach in our communal front on the world, and I knew my friends were not happy about it. No longer would we all be minutes away from each other. By taking up residence more than a hundred miles away, I would undoubtedly be viewed as the first rat to abandon the ship. I could only hope that after inspecting this house and learning to love it as much as I did, they would come to understand why I chose to live here. Friends, after all, are chained to us as securely as our pets, or should be if they are truly friends. A little distance shouldn’t make a difference.

As I stood in the moonlight with the warm evening breeze blowing across my body and watched Rex finally squat to do his business, all I could do was hope that my friends would see my desertion in the same light as I did. Perhaps the house would convince them. It wanted me to stay. At least, I thought it did. At any rate, it hadn’t tried to kill me yet. Not really.

Looking up at the house from where Rex had led me down the sloping driveway, I saw a curtain move. I had left the front door open when Rex and I stepped outside, so it might have been the night breeze that fluttered the fabric. But I knew instinctively it was not. The house watched us constantly. It was something I had grown accustomed to in the time I had been there. From that very first day, when the house was still new and exciting to me, I had sensed a welcoming presence as I moved from room to room and explored my new domain.

It was a large house, containing fifteen rooms, beautifully constructed with rounded ceilings and wide stone fireplaces scattered around. The teak flooring was polished to a lovely deep brown, almost black. It gleamed underfoot like dark, still water. The sound of my footsteps echoed through the house on that first day, and I could imagine the house soaking up the sounds of life, which had so long been absent, and I immediately felt at home, as if my entire life had been leading me to this one destination.

I felt welcome.

Even later, when I came to realize that I was not the only resident, that sense of welcome did not diminish.

From the first moment I stepped inside the door, the house seemed to envelope me in its arms, making me feel at home. Making me feel needed. But it was a dangerous need, for there was a threat inside this house as well, although I did not consider the threat to be directed at me. Rex would probably argue that point. He had been uncomfortable and wary of the house from the beginning.

But all this I would only come to realize later, after I had spent a few days and nights inside the walls of this splendid house tucked against this barren, magnificent mountain. In fact, it happened only after I had determined to buy the place, which in retrospect occurred about two minutes after I set foot inside the front door.

The house was still furnished with Nigel Letters’s old belongings. Clunky art deco furniture, recently uncovered and cleaned. Cherrywood cabinets, buffed to their highest sheen. Windows and french doors rendered spotless, allowing the Southern California sun to pierce the house like rays of blessed light penetrating a cathedral. The dark teak flooring shone beneath my feet like obsidian. The Realtor had been true to her word when she told my agent the house would be ready for me. It was indeed. It looked as new as the day it was built, over seventy years earlier.

I could almost hear it breathing.

A circular breakfast room, lined with leaded windows and boasting a high cupola ceiling, jutted off the southeast corner of the house. On my arrival it was the only room unfurnished. Built-in bookshelves lined the walls beneath the windows, freshly painted but empty of books. Ornate art deco wall sconces and a brass chandelier supplied the lighting after the sun went down, but during the day the sunlight streamed in from every angle. To me, it was the most beautiful room in the house. Here I would write. Here, with my books filling the shelves and my computer humming to life on a broad cherrywood desk I found tucked away in a corner of one of the bedrooms, I would spend most of my time.

I should have known it was more than coincidence that the only room completely empty was the one I would most need and most love. It was as if the house already knew me, knew what I would require, knew what would make me happiest. This room was a housewarming gift from the house itself, and I immediately went to work preparing it.

Even before my clothes were unpacked, I had scooted a couple of Indian-print throw rugs under the legs of the massive desk and tugged it down the long hallway, across the dining room, and into the breakfast room, placing it at an angle in the center of the room directly beneath the brass chandelier. I found a red armchair in one of the other bedrooms and placed it behind the desk. Then I unloaded my computer from the trunk of my car, situated it on the desk, and hooked it up. With a stack of fresh, white paper placed neatly beside it, I had everything I wanted.

All I needed to do was send for my books. My own furniture, sitting unused back in LA in my tiny one-bedroom condo, I would either sell or put in storage. I needed nothing more than what the house already offered.

I pulled out the red chair, tucked my legs beneath the wide desk, and stared at the desert landscape outside the breakfast-room windows. I could see for miles down the slope of the foothills, with nothing man-made to mar the view. No buildings, no automobiles, nothing. Nothing but pure unblemished landscape.

Now I felt at home. For the first time in years, I was uncrowded, free. With the house for protection and Rex for companionship, I would be content. I could write here without interruption, for hours on end. Day after day.

My fingers itched for the keyboard.

From some far-off corner of the house, I heard the tinkle of broken glass. A fragile sound. Rex, standing beside my chair, perked up his ears and tensed. A soft whimper emanated from his throat as he gazed at my face with his big brown eyes.

I pushed myself away from the desk and with Rex at my heels, set off in search of the source. Something must have fallen. Perhaps we had mice.

We roamed from room to room, searching for the cause of the sound, but we never found it. Soon the incident was forgotten in the bustle of moving in.

The clothes I had brought with me were neatly hung in the deep walk-in closet in the master bedroom. Nigel’s room. I knew it the moment I saw it. Sturdy mahogany furniture filled every corner. Brass fittings sparkled in the sunlight pouring through the bedroom windows. A four-poster bed stood at attention against the wall, cradling the thickest feather mattress I had ever seen. When I laid my hand on it to test the softness, it all but disappeared in the folds of the chintz bedspread that covered the bed.

The feather mattress would have to go. Allergies. I measured the bed and, digging out my cell phone, ordered a firmer mattress to be delivered the following day—after a five-minute discussion with the clerk as to how to find the house. The feather mattress I rolled into an awkward bundle and hauled off to a distant closet. I doubted I would be getting much sleep tonight anyway. I was too excited. If I had to, I would crash in one of the other bedrooms for the night. Sleep and I were infrequent companions anyway. I did most of my writing at night. How else should horror stories be written?

I admired the heavy, dark bedroom furniture for a long time, standing in the center of the floor, the mattressless bed beside me. The room was large. Massive by LA condo standards. A door to the left led to a walk-in closet. Another door to the right led to the master bath, with sunken tub and tall art deco statuettes standing in every corner like sentinels, slim male figures, nude, their right hands reaching upward to cradle crystal globes. I flicked the light switch on the wall, and the globes came to life, emitting soft, velvety light throughout the room. A flattering light. The sort of light an aging movie star would relish. I glanced at myself in one of the full-length mirrors that ranged across the wall and realized I was rather partial to that light myself. I looked pretty darn good in that fuzzy light. Nigel might have been a first-class asshole, but he had taste. I had to give him that.

On that first day, as I left the bathroom, my eyes were drawn to the one thing in Nigel’s bedroom that seemed out of place: a large hook, like a hay hook, attached to the wall facing another full-length mirror on the opposite wall. With a sharp intake of breath, I realized that this was where Nigel had met his less than illustrious end. He had been hanging from that hook when the housekeeper found him, still draped in taffeta, with his cock in his hand. I found myself wondering if, after the life was choked from his body and the blood no longer churning through his system, settled, he might have maintained his erection even after death, like King Tut, whose royal penis was embalmed for all eternity in a happily erect state. Of course, unlike Nigel Letters, young King Tutankhamen wasn’t pounding his pud at the moment of his death, or not that we know of.

I spun on my heel and stalked off to one of the other rooms in the house I had explored earlier. In my mind I had dubbed it the ego room. Here I had found dozens of framed photos of Nigel Letters from his heyday. Publicity snapshots and stills from his many movies adorned the walls. There were no other decorations in the room, only Nigel’s handsome face peering out from photo after photo. And they were all pictures from his younger years. There were no sagging jowls or puffy eyelids anywhere in evidence.

I plucked one from the wall, a still from the Jack the Ripper film I mentioned earlier, and carried it back to the bedroom, where I carefully hung it from the hay hook on the wall, taking a moment to position it squarely. Nigel was back in the place where he had apparently spent so many happy hours whacking off, until the night he got careless and suddenly found himself whacking off in the afterlife.

It seemed a fitting memorial to the man who’d had the bad taste to die the way he had but still possessed the good taste in life to build this marvelous house.

With Nigel back where he belonged, I went back to the mundane tasks of preparing the house for life.

The kitchen was roomy and well-appointed, right down to an ultramodern microwave oven that looked like it belonged on the space shuttle and would probably take me weeks to figure out.

According to the Realtor, there had been a string of tenants inhabiting the house over the years but few prospective buyers, which seemed odd to me considering the beauty of the place. Perhaps the price tag was the main deterrent. The place didn’t come cheap. But my last book had sold well, and I had made some sound investments over the years, so I figured I could afford it. I had another novel due out in a few months. My publisher had received the final rewrites only days before and had assured me it would do well. Since he had never been wrong before, I tended to take him at his word.

Well-appointed the kitchen may have been, but the cupboards were as bare as the day they were built. The only food in the house was the box of Milk-Bones I had brought along for Rex and a dusty tin of tomato paste I found tucked away on a shelf above the refrigerator. Even Emeril would be hard-pressed to concoct a meal from that. I set about jotting down a shopping list, whistled for Rex, who had found a block of sunlight on the living room floor to take a snooze in, and headed out the door to a supermarket I had noticed a few miles away on the outskirts of San Diego.

Rex waited in the car, his nose pressed to the side window, as I spent an hour in the market, roaming the aisles, buying everything from condiments to veggies to meats to booze. Then I remembered Rex and snagged a fifty-pound bag of Alpo to top off the cart. Two-hundred dollars later, I was back on the road.

As I left the city and the car began climbing the foothills of my little mountain, with Rex’s tongue and ears flapping in the wind outside the passenger window, I found myself humming.

For the first time in my life, I felt myself heading toward a place that I truly thought of as home. I didn’t know I would be sharing that home with the others who already resided there, who had, in fact, been residing there for many years. The ones who could not leave.

That knowledge would come later. And it would alter my perception of the world forever.

MY CELL phone rang as I unbagged groceries in the kitchen on my first day inside the house.

Without preamble, a female voice asked, “Are you staying?”

“Squeeze me?” I said in a bad Mike Myers impersonation before I could stop myself. It was a habit I had long been trying to break. Movie lovers sometimes tend to pluck dialogue from their favorite films and plop them down in everyday life, with occasionally disastrous results.

The woman on the phone sounded suddenly confused, not that I could blame her. “I’m sorry? What did you say?”

“I said ‘excuse me,’” I lied.


“What did you say?” I asked.

“I asked if you were staying.”

“In the house, you mean?”

“Yes.” Her voice, whoever she was, sounded more amused now than confused. “I’m asking if you intend to stay in the house. This is Caroline.”


“The housekeeper. I prepared the house for your arrival. I hope everything was satisfactory.”

I did a mental forehead slap. “Oh! The housekeeper. Yes. The house is wonderful. Spotless.”

“You didn’t find my note, did you?”


“I left you a note on the mantle.”

“I’m sorry, Caroline. I didn’t see it. I’m James Brandon, by the way. And in answer to your question, yes, I am intending to stay in the house. In fact, I intend to buy the house.”


“Well… I think so. It’s a beautiful house. I fell in love with it the minute I walked in the door.”

“Did you just arrive?”

I laughed. “I got here bright and early this morning.”

“And you’ve already decided to buy?”


There was a silence on the line for a couple of ticks before she said, “Haven’t you ever read any of those books you write?”

“Squee… I mean, excuse me?”

“If I were you,” she said, “I wouldn’t transfer any funds into escrow until you spend a couple of nights in the house. The place may seem a little different in the dark.”

“Have you ever spent a night here?”

“As a matter of fact, no. But my family has had a connection to that house for many years. My mother worked there as a housekeeper off and on over the years, and before that my grandmother worked for Mr. Letters. She was his live-in.”

“Good Lord, don’t tell me your grandmother was the woman who found him on the day he died!”

“No, but she found him the following morning.”

I had to ask. “Did she really laugh so hard that she dropped a coffee pot on her foot and broke two toes?”

Caroline’s laugh came over the line like a tinkle of bells. I could envision her now. A pretty slip of a girl, weighing in at under a hundred pounds, with pale skin and a no-nonsense outlook on life.

“I’ve heard that story before, Mr. Brandon, but I’m afraid it isn’t true.”

“She didn’t laugh?” I asked.

Caroline groaned. “Oh, she laughed all right. And she did indeed drop the tray with the coffee pot on it. But she didn’t break any toes. Only the pot.”

“Well, that’s disappointing.”

I could sense the woman smiling now. “The story of the broken toes rather appealed to your sense of the dramatic, didn’t it? I’ll let you in on a little secret, Mr. Brandon—”

“James. Jim, actually.”

“Jim. That story appealed to my grandmother as well. Even today, when she tells of that morning, she’ll point to the arthritis in her toes and swear it came about because of that falling coffee pot. But I’m afraid it really is just a story. It never happened.”

“Your grandmother is still alive?”

“Yes. She’s ninety-six, and her mind is as sharp as ever. Her body isn’t. She’s in a nursing home in the city. Has been there for more years than I care to remember. She could tell you things about that house….”

“Could she?”

“She could, yes. But that’s not to say she would.”

“Well, perhaps I’ll meet her someday.”

“Perhaps.” The way she said it made me think that she was humoring me now. She got back to the purpose of the call. “When you read the note I left you, you’ll find that the reason for the note was to offer my services to you if you need someone to clean for you. Just a couple of days a week, mind you. I won’t be spending any nights there.”

Teasingly, I asked, “Are you afraid?”

“Yes, Jim, I am,” she said bluntly. “But that’s not the reason. I have a husband and child at home, and I don’t wish to spend that much time away from them. So if you need help with the house, and I should think you would, then I would be happy to help you. My rates are more than reasonable, I think.”

“I’m sure they are,” I said, roaming around the house with my cell phone to my ear, thinking of all the things that would need to be done on a regular basis if I planned to keep the house as beautiful as it was now. Without a housekeeper I would spend all my time cleaning, not writing. An unpleasant thought. I enjoyed housecleaning probably about as much as I would enjoy rectal surgery.

“And,” she added, “if there is any repair work to be done, my husband is quite handy.”

I was about as handy as Rex.

“Well, that’s wonderful,” I said. “Two days a week it is.”

“I would even be willing to cook for you on occasion, if you wish. But I won’t spend any nights there. Are we agreed on that?”

“Absolutely. No nights.”

“And I must insist that when I’m there, you or someone else will always be there with me. I don’t want to be in the house alone. It may sound silly to you, but those are the rules.”

“And your rules are accepted. I spend most of my time writing, so I will always be here. If for any reason I need to be away, we’ll simply change your day. Is that agreeable to you?”

“More than agreeable. Thank you.”

“Thank you.”

We spent a few minutes discussing wages and what hours she would be willing to work, finally settling on Tuesdays and Fridays from nine to six.

With matters of business no longer hanging over our heads, the conversation took on a friendlier tone.

“When I heard it was you moving into the house I went out and bought a couple of your books.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll need the money.”

She laughed.

“So… did you like them?” I asked, with that familiar trepidation creeping into my voice that I had come to expect every time I asked that question of a stranger.

I breathed a sigh of relief when she said, “Very much. I can’t wait to read your next one.”

“Then you’re in luck. There’s one coming out in the fall.”

“That’s wonderful, but I don’t mean that one.”

“I’m sorry. You lost me.”

“I’m talking about the next one. The one you write inside that house.”

“Oh. Well, I don’t have a clue what that one will be about. I haven’t really thought about it yet.”

“It will be about the house, James.”

“Will it?”

“Oh yeah.”

I began to wonder if Caroline, my new housekeeper, wasn’t perhaps a bit flakier than I originally thought.

“What makes you say that?” I asked.

“Haven’t you wondered why no one has bought the house over the years?”

Miss Caroline, as I had already begun to think of her, seemed to be a fairly perceptive flake. I had indeed wondered about that.

“Well,” I said, “I assumed it was the price tag. And perhaps the remoteness of the location.”

“No, James. It’s the house itself. All those rumors about it being haunted aren’t just rumors, you know.”

“Do you know this for a fact, or are you…?”

“That appeals to you, doesn’t it, the fact that maybe the place might be haunted? Judging by the books you write, I should think that would appeal to you very much.”

Perceptive indeed. “As a matter of fact, it does. But I don’t really believe the stories, if that’s what you’re wondering. The house has a past, certainly, but all old houses do. I’ve been here for a couple of hours now, and a ghost hasn’t popped out of the armoire yet.”

“You haven’t heard any odd noises?”

“Well, I did hear the sound of glass breaking, but I racked it up to an errant mouse.”

She giggled like a schoolgirl being offered her first corsage. “Then it’s started already.”

“What has started?”

“The house. It’s testing you. Feeling you out.”

“Oh, come now. Maybe I should clean the house and you should write the books.”

Her laugh was interrupted by what sounded like a tower of pots and pans crashing to the floor.

“I have to go,” she said. “My son is rearranging the kitchen cupboards.”

“A handful, huh?”

“Several handfuls, actually.”

“You’re more than welcome to bring him with you when you work, if you wish. I wouldn’t mind at all.”

“I would mind, Mr. Brandon. I mean, James. I mean, Jim. I’ll never bring my little boy into that house.”

The intensity in her voice surprised me. “Does it really frighten you that much?”

There was a long silence before she finally answered. “Children are not safe in that house. Please remember that. Children have never been safe in that house.”

Softly, she hung up the phone, and I was left with a dial tone in my ear. The sudden silence of the house engulfed me as I clicked my cell phone shut and went about the task of putting away the rest of my groceries.

“Bit melodramatic,” I muttered to Rex, who looked supremely uninterested. “But she cleans well. That’s what counts.”

I MADE two tuna sandwiches, tossing one to Rex, who wolfed it down in less time than it takes to tell about it, and nibbled on the other one myself as I set out to really explore the property.

Miss Caroline, flake or not, had done her job well. The house, all fifteen rooms of it, was immaculate. The skillful workmanship that went into building the house was an amazement to someone who had spent most of his adult life in formula condos, erected with nothing more than speed and economy of space in mind.

Here I found fragrant cedar-lined closets, all walk-ins, each and every one of them as large or larger than my bathroom back in LA. French doors with hazy leaded windows sealed off the rooms. Built-in cupboards and bookshelves and drawers were everywhere. A grand piano stood proudly in a wedge of sunlight in the music room, the keys polished and shimmering, waiting for nimble fingers to bring them to life. After studying the photographs in the ego room, which was just an archway away from the music room, I learned that the ancient Baldwin was there for more than decoration. There were several pictures of Nigel Letters, in topcoat and tails, his dark hair slicked back from his regal forehead, with his fingers at the keys. In one, his eyes were closed, and I could imagine the music swelling around him.

I plopped myself down on the piano bench and laboriously pecked out “Chopsticks.” The acoustics in the room were good. My playing was not. I gently lowered the fallboard to cover the ivory keys to protect them from the harsh sunlight streaming through the window, and continued my exploration, Rex still following along at my heels.

The two guest bedrooms were as different as night and day. Literally. One was decorated in whites and creams and the other in dark grays and black. I began to wonder what sort of mind would think up something like that. Nigel Letters was becoming more fascinating to me by the minute.

Beside the bathroom situated next to the black bedroom, I found the practical part of the house, a laundry room with massive washer and dryer and a water heater banded to the wall, a concession enforced by state law due to the unstable tectonic plates Southern California rested on. Here I found shelves and cupboards well stocked with cleaning supplies, all the unexciting items required to keep a house livable.

The furnace was here as well, a monstrous beast with cast-iron doors like jaws, huddled in the corner, obviously placed there when the house was first built. I wondered if it still worked, then decided it must, considering all the renters the house had entertained over the years.

I left the laundry/furnace room, stepped through the kitchen and dining areas, and entered the living room. It was huge, with varnished wooden beams spanning the ceiling and a fireplace on one wall that was big enough to land a plane in. The art deco furniture, well tended over the years, still looked new. I would later learn that the furniture had spent much of its time in storage since many renters preferred their own more modern pieces to lounge around in on a daily basis rather than this overstuffed and rather pretentious art deco stuff. Personally, I liked it. It suited the house.

It took me back to that bygone era when movie stars were lords and ladies, always regal—at least in their public lives—impeccably dressed every time they stepped foot outside their royal mansions, hair coiffed, makeup perfectly applied, graceful as swans. Movie stars today are just people. When Nigel Letters reigned, they were gods. Hollywood was Mount Olympus, not a Babel of overpriced shops and drug-infested nightclubs where actors and actresses can be seen frequently falling on their faces and making asses of themselves for the paparazzi. Of course, stars in the thirties did all the ridiculous and self-destructive things that stars of the present do, but there were publicity people back then to keep it quiet.

Stars were a commodity, well protected, their foibles shielded from the movie-going public, who expected nothing less than perfection from these twenty-foot titans they watched every Saturday on the giant movie screens. Today, reality has destroyed the dream that once was Hollywood. Everyone now knows that movie stars are nothing more than regular people. Regular people who oftentimes are not smart enough to realize how lucky they are. We might still be in awe of them, but they are no longer worshipped. Not by anyone with a lick of sense at any rate.

The artwork I found scattered around the house consisted mostly of Erte´ prints and some fairly well-done paintings in a Southwestern motif, most of which displayed cowpokes and Indians in various stages of undress. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Nigel Letters was more than a little enamored of the male body. Not that I minded. I have always been rather partial to it myself.

I had a few decent pieces of art of my own hanging on the walls of my condo back in LA, and I spotted places for each and every one of them here. I would have the paintings shipped up with my books and a few other personal items that I had come to love and did not intend to live without. Other than those few well-loved possessions, I would leave the house the way it was.

I knew I was indulging myself. I spent almost every waking hour sitting in front of my computer. What use did I have for a fifteen-room mansion? I could survive quite happily with a ream of paper, an electrical outlet, and a toilet. I supposed it was my love of movies that made this house so appealing to me. And, of course, the ghosts, if that was what they were. That was a definite draw.

I intended to pick Miss Caroline’s mind the first time I had her under my roof. There were secrets in this house she seemed to know something about. It suddenly seemed likely that she might be right when she said that my next book would be about this house. Ideas were creeping into my head already, and that was always a relief. After one book is finished and another yet to be started, I am always filled with the fear that my well of imagination will suddenly dry up, leaving me a basically unemployed and unemployable middle-aged male with no discernible talents other than writing. I probably couldn’t hold down a real job if my life depended on it. Writing is all I know or care about. Without it, I might as well follow in Nigel Letters’s footsteps and hang myself from that hook in the bedroom, although I can’t see myself doing it in heels and an evening gown or whacking off in the process.

I found Miss Caroline’s note on the mantle in the living room, right where she’d said it was. When I unfolded the note, a key fell to the floor. I picked it up and read the note. After offering her services as housekeeper, Miss Caroline had added a postscript explaining that the key was to the carriage house out back. Since the house was not built in the era of horse-drawn carriages, I assumed the term carriage house was just a euphemism for garage. Nigel Letters seemed like the sort of grand personage with an overly inflated ego who would call a garage a carriage house. And I had to admit, it sort of appealed to me too. Gay men can be pretty darn pretentious at times. Far be it from me to buck the trend.

Rex was snoring like a lumberjack on the living room floor, exhausted, I supposed, from all the excitement of moving, although he hadn’t lifted a single article, so I left him there and quietly left the house.

The veranda spanned the entire side of the house, from back to front. Adirondack chairs and lounges were placed at intervals along it as one might have seen on the deck of an ocean liner back in the days of the Titanic. They too, like everything else in the house, must have been taken out of storage and returned to their original positions. They had been recently restored with fresh coats of white paint. Miss Caroline’s husband’s work, I presumed, being handy as his wife had promised.

At the back of the veranda, toward the rear of the house, a small flight of steps led down to a flagstone walk that led directly to the carriage house.

There was no lawn to speak of. Keeping grass alive on this barren mountainside would have been more trouble than it was worth. Still the area along this side of the house was beautifully landscaped with cactus and jade plants, the only plants, presumably, that could thrive in such a dry environment. The sandy soil had been recently raked into circular patterns like those seen in Japanese gardens. Large stones rested here and there to break the monotony, making the area between the main house and the carriage house a pleasant place for quiet contemplation on a day when one didn’t have anything better to do. There was even a little stone bench tucked up against the side of the house, and I wondered if Nigel Letters ever sat out here pondering the demise of his movie career or perhaps deciding what dress to wear for that evening’s autoerotic asphyxiation party.

It must have been a lonely existence for someone who was used to the fawning attention he had reaped in his youth—to suddenly find himself aging and alone so far from the Hollywood that had once looked upon him as a god. Or did he have friends who made pilgrimages here, visiting him in his seclusion? Was the house once alive with the sound of cocktail parties and laughter? Was the Letters house like a teeny version of Hearst’s mansion in San Simeon, where stars of the day came to play far from the watchful eyes of the Hollywood press, where they could let themselves go without their antics finding their way onto the front page of the trade papers, where they could unleash their baser instincts and not have to worry about some studio mogul eating their contract in front of their faces for embarrassing the glorious institution of moviemaking?

Or did Nigel Letters relish this newfound solitude? It had been his decision, after all, to move here. He must have had a reason for turning his back on Hollywood, although by all accounts, it was Hollywood that first turned its back on him. Had he come here for the same reasons I had? For simple serenity and silence? Was this house he built the fortress he needed to sequester himself from a world that, in his eyes, seemed to no longer require his presence?

Was he happy here, or did he reside within these walls in sadness? It seemed of paramount importance to me that I learn the truth. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps because I had followed many of the same paths he had taken so many years ago. I wondered, suddenly, whether I too would die inside this house. Preferably after many long years of residence, of course. I had no intention of doing it this week. After all, I had just invited friends up. It would be the epitome of rudeness to die before they got here. They had only just received their invitations, for God’s sake, and knowing them, they would be highly offended by such slipshod planning. In the gay world, everything has to be just so. Especially where a party is concerned. Death is no excuse. Yes, I definitely had to stay alive at least until my guests arrived. After that, I could politely drop dead if I felt the urge to do so.

I began to wonder if perhaps the next time I rolled down the mountainside and into town, a brain scan might not be in order, or had my thinking always taken such odd twists and turns?

I decided the latter was probably the case, so I pushed everything from my mind and slipped the key into the little door at the side of the carriage house.

It became quickly apparent that Miss Caroline, in her zealous cleaning, had not wandered this far south. The air inside the carriage house was heavy with must, the earthy stench of mushrooms in dank ground. Dead air. As if the building had not been opened to the outside for a very, very long time.

The place was as dark as the inside of a pyramid, and I groped around for a light switch, finally finding one on the wall beside the door. A ceiling light blinked on and dispelled the shadows, but it did nothing for the smell.

Except for a few dusty odds and ends and several packing crates arranged along one wall, the carriage house was empty.

There were no windows. The walls were red brick. All four of them. I stepped outside and walked around to the front of the carriage house, where I saw two sets of double doors, each entryway large enough to accommodate two vehicles. Four vehicles in all. Then I returned to the little side door, stepped inside, and once again studied those four unbroken brick walls. I went back outside, mumbling to myself, and tried one of the front doors. It wasn’t locked. When I pulled it open, I was faced with the same brick wall I had seen on the inside. The small door at the side was the only access to the building. Had Nigel Letters, for whatever reason, added the inside walls after the carriage house was built? I walked around three sides of the carriage house and counted two wide double doors in the front and four windows, two to each side. Only the side door I had entered through had not been bricked up.

The back of the building rested snugly against a sheer cliff wall that protruded straight up at the back of the property to a height of perhaps eighty feet. It gleamed red in the setting sunlight. Sandstone, I thought. It was a natural wall of rock, carved by nature, not by man.

I reentered the carriage house and stood in the center of the room with my hands on my hips and simply stared at those four brick walls. This was a mystery of mythic proportions. Had Nigel Letters been insane? Moving closer to one of the walls, I realized the masonry was not professionally done. It looked like a homemade job. Did Nigel stack and mortar these bricks himself? And if he did, what the hell was the purpose of it? I gave my head a little shake, walked out of the carriage house, flicking off the light as I went, and closed the door behind me. I couldn’t wait to hear what Miss Caroline had to say about this. I also intended to bring the matter up with the Realtor. I might get a few thousand dollars knocked off the price of the property. After all, if I intended to use the carriage house as a garage, I would need to remove the brick walls, and not being handy like Miss Caroline’s husband, I would have to pay someone to do it.

But those were side issues. My main question was why did Nigel Letters erect those walls in the first place? I sincerely hoped I would not go to my grave never learning the answer to that question.

As I climbed the back steps to the veranda, I heard Rex raising holy hell inside the house. He barked for a few moments, then let out an eerie howl that sent the hair bristling up the back of my neck. I ran to the front door and hurled myself inside. Down the hall, I saw Rex standing in the doorway to the music room. The fur was poking straight up along the ridge of his back. He took one look at me, then turned his gaze back into the music room. His lips rose, exposing every tooth in his head. A menacing growl emanated from his throat. As I drew nearer, I saw that he was trembling.

Trying not to wet myself, I peeked around the edge of the music room door and saw—nothing. The room was exactly as I had left it a few minutes earlier. I followed Rex’s gaze, trying to figure out what he was growling at. He seemed to be focused on the piano. Then I saw it.

The keyboard lid, which I had closed earlier, was pushed back against the front of the piano, the keys once again exposed.

As I stood there staring at the keys that now looked like teeth in the wide mouth of some weird wooden beast, I heard the clear tinkle of a single high note as a velvet hammer struck a string inside the piano. The note was pure and in tune. It seemed to echo through the house, then fade away to silence.

A chill swept through me as Rex plopped his ass down on the hallway floor and looked up to see what I was going to do. So I did what any intelligent person would do. I gently slid the leaded glass door to the music room closed and patted Rex on the head.

“Let’s forget that ever happened, shall we?” Did I detect a tremor in my voice? Hell yes, I did.

Rex thumped his tail on the floor a couple of times and pushed his muzzle into my hand, as if to say ignoring what had just happened sounded like an excellent idea to him.

I motioned for Rex to follow, and he obediently trailed along at my heels as I walked to the kitchen, pulled a Milk-Bone out of the box for him, and got a beer out of the fridge for me. We stood there, each in our separate ways—him chewing, me slurping up beer—soothing our jangled nerves. The beer was gone almost as quickly as the Milk-Bone.

I thought, fuck it, and repeated the whole process again. Another beer. Another Milk-Bone. This beer went down a little slower, although the Milk-Bone disappeared just as quickly as the first, and when the second beer was gone, I dropped into the red chair in the breakfast room with Rex at my feet and clicked on the computer.

I wrote until the sun went down and Rex coaxed me outside for a walk. After Rex relieved himself in the middle of the driveway and I cleaned up the mess with a handful of Kleenex, I returned to the computer and continued to write.

The next thing I knew it was morning, and I found myself with my head on the desk, slumped and drooling, with a stiff neck and a sore back and my face stuck to a sheet of paper. Rex was nowhere in sight. I discovered him in the living room, sacked out on the sofa, with his head tucked under a throw pillow as if to say, “If this house has any more surprises for me, I’d just rather not see them, thank you very much.”

Bleary-eyed and achy, with my hair doing God knows what on the top of my head, I just stared at him in disgust. He really was a most profound coward.

I plucked the paper from my cheek with an audible pop and headed for the shower, groaning all the way, dropping my clothes like litter along the hallway as I went. Naked, I peered into the music room through the open door as I passed. The piano was silent.

It wasn’t until later, while the hot shower massaged the aches from my body, that I realized the music room door should not have been open at all.

Shell Taylor
Shell Taylor is a full-time mother of three exuberant and loving kiddos and one fur baby, a tiny but fierce Yorkie-poo named Rocco. As a Christian who practices love, grace, and humility rather than hatred and judgement, she tries her best to instill these same virtues in her rowdy kids. She just recently learned how to crochet to start bombarding new mothers with matching hats and booties. She is a huge Marvel fan and because of the superhero-plastered tees paired with jeans and Chucks has been told when helping out in her son’s classroom that she looks more like the students than a parent. Her favorite way to procrastinate is to binge watch entire seasons on Netflix. Best of all, she’s been married ten years to a man who’s turned out to be everything she never knew she needed.

Mary Calmes
Mary Calmes lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband and two children and loves all the seasons except summer. She graduated from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, with a bachelor's degree in English literature. Due to the fact that it is English lit and not English grammar, do not ask her to point out a clause for you, as it will so not happen. She loves writing, becoming immersed in the process, and falling into the work. She can even tell you what her characters smell like. She loves buying books and going to conventions to meet her fans.

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.

Shell Taylor

Mary Calmes

John Inman

Redeeming Hope by Shell Taylor

A Matter of Time Volume 1 by Mary Calmes

But For You #6 by Mary Calmes

The Boys on the Mountain by John Inman