Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Random Paranormal Tales of 2018 Part 6

Stalking Buffalo Bill by J Leigh Bailey
A smitten coyote isn’t the only one stalking Buffalo Bill.

A buffalo walks into a cafe. Sounds like the start of a bad joke, but for coyote shifter Donnie Granger, it’s the beginning of an obsession. Donnie is a little hyperactive and a lot distractible, except when it comes to William. He finally works up the nerve to approach William but is interrupted by a couple of violent humans.

While William—don’t call me Bill—is currently a professor, he once worked undercover against an international weapons-trafficking ring. Before he can settle into obscurity, he must find out who leaked his location and eliminate the thugs. He tries keeping his distance to protect Donnie, but the wily coyote won’t stay away.

It’ll take both Donnie’s skills as a stalker—er, hunter—and William’s super-spy expertise to neutralize the threat so they can discover if an excitable coyote and a placid-until-pissed buffalo have a future together.

When William walked into the coffee shop he found a fan in Donnie and after many staring sessions, Donnie finally works up the nerve to talk to him beyond taking his order.  Unfortunately, its the same day that two strangers come looking for William.  Will Donnie and William ever get a chance to be more than server and customer and will they even survive long enough to get the opportunity to be more?

Stalking Buffalo Bill is a touching story, I hate to use the word "sweet" as there is just the right amount of drama, paranormal, and mystery to only label it "touching".  One element that really made this story stand apart from other shifter tales is William being a buffalo shifter, not an animal often used in the genre and Donnie's coyote isn't often used either.  The originality in their shifter forms really made this story pop for me making it more than just another shifter story to add to my library.  A real plus👍.

William, afraid to open his heart once again keeps Donnie at arms length(or so he tries to) but Donnie won't be deterred too easily, hence the stalker part of the title.  Considering the difficulties the duo face, Donnie adds just the right amount of humor to keep this one from getting too dark.  There is a bit of an age difference but I really wouldn't go so far as to label it May/December in the romance tag but some might so I thought I should mention it.

Stalking Buffalo Bill is the first story I've read by J Leigh Bailey but it won't be the last and I look forward to checking out her backlist and future tales.  A delightfully fun read with just the right amount of mystery and a touch of mayhem to bring the characters alive.


A Mage's Power by Casey Wolfe
The Inquisition Trilogy #1
Built on the bones of an ancient city, modern-day Everstrand is where master mage, Rowan, has set up his enchantment shop. When not hanging out with his werewolf best friend, Caleb, or studying, he dabbles in herbology and the controversial practice of blood magic. A prodigy who has already earned two masters, Rowan’s bound and determined to reach the distinction of grandmaster, a mage who obtains a masters in all five Schools of Magic.

Shaw works for the Inquisition, the organization charged with policing the magical races collectively known as magicae. Recently, it has come under scrutiny as magicae begin to disappear and reports of violence increase. With secrets of his own on the line, Shaw is willing to risk everything to find out just what is going on behind all the locked doors.

When Rowan and Shaw are entangled in each other’s worlds, it becomes evident that their hearts are as much at risk as their lives. They must find the truth and stop a conspiracy before it’s too late.

Twice Bitten by Rayna Vause 
With a new species of vampire stalking the streets, the stakes are high. But that’s not the only reason hearts are on the line.

Danny Reynolds thought Kieran McCade was the one—true love and hot lust forever—until Danny found out Kier’s bloody secret and ran away screaming. Months later, Danny is facing his own paranormal crisis, and he needs Kieran’s help, but are there enough ways to apologize for breaking a vampire’s heart?

Nothing about Danny’s transformation is normal—not the attack that led to it, and not the symptoms Danny’s plagued with—but being in close proximity to Kieran is even worse than becoming a thing that goes bump in the night. Danny and Kieran aren’t the only things threatening to bump each other off, though. Secret organizations and clashing vigilante agendas want to get their hands on Danny. His only hope is to find a fix for his problem before he’s either captured or his abnormal transition starves him to death.

Danny and Kieran might have a real chance to repair their broken romance… but only if they keep Danny alive!

Love, Marriage, and Baby Carriage by CS Poe
Theodore Reinhart is a young man looking for love. In San Diego. At a convention. For penguin shifters. WaddleCon is the go-to event of the year when looking for your life partner, but Theodore isn’t comfortable with the game they’ve turned dating into, nor does the convention provide for the gay community. A mistake in speed dating table assignments puts Theodore in front of Wesley O’Neill, a handsome and confident model who lets it slip that he’s definitely noticed the spark of attraction between them.

A perfect date ends prematurely when Theodore finds an abandoned egg in a bathroom trash can. Unable to leave it behind, Theodore and Wesley play a mad game of cat and mouse across the resort trying to keep it safe, all while growing closer to one another. Wesley may be the forever partner Theodore came looking for, but their relationship won’t work if they don’t make room for a little addition to the family.

A story from the Dreamspinner Press 2016 Daily Dose package "A Walk on the Wild Side."

Love, Marriage, and a Baby Carriage is an awesome short story by the talented CS Poe.  Because of its shortness I won't say too much about the plot other than I found it incredibly fun.  The whole penguin shifter element was just a delight to read.  If you're looking for something super creepy then this might not fit the bill but its definitely worth the time to check it out. Fun, romantic, humorous, and just the right amount of dramatic action to tie Wes and Theo together.  Definitely worth your time.


Alpha Unit One, New York by Chris T Kat
The cat’s out of the bag….

In a world that accepts shifters as normal and thinks nothing of human/shifter couples, baby shifters and small shifters are treated as subpar. They are not allowed into the more dangerous professions, and their mates have legal control over what they can and cannot do.

Nicholas Reed is about to challenge the established rules. At twenty-eight, Nick has just been accepted into New York’s Alpha Unit One—an elite law enforcement team, composed equally of humans and shifters, that specializes in drug crimes. It is Nick’s dream job. But if they find out what he’s hiding, his career could be destroyed.

Enter a huge complication in the form of Sam Black, an older lion shifter who is the leader of the unit… and Nick’s mate. Nick wants Sam, and he wants to keep his job, but he can’t have them both. He also can’t choose between them.

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Random Paranormal Tales of 2018

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Stalking Buffalo Bill by J Leigh Bailey
Chapter 1
“YOU KNOW stalking’s a crime, right?”

I jerked away from the glass display case I’d been leaning on and glared at my friend Ford. “It’s not stalking. I don’t follow him around or anything. He comes here.” I swiped a towel across the gleaming surface of the pastry case. It didn’t need it, but just in case a little drool slipped out of my mouth. “It’s staring.”

Ford filled the espresso machine’s hopper with fragrant coffee beans. “It’s ridiculous, is what it is.”

He would never understand. “But he’s just so… so… so manly.”

Ford snorted. “As opposed to what, girly?”

It didn’t matter what Ford said. The manly man I spent hours every day ogling, and several more hours a day daydreaming about, was worth every stalkerish second. For the last eight months, he’d come into Buddy’s Café every day, sat at the same small table by the fireplace, and read a book or a magazine or fiddled on his tablet computer. He really was a masculine work of art. Tall and broad as a mountain, and I wanted nothing more than to climb him. Dark curly hair, a thick beard. Not one of those unkempt, No-Shave-November deals. It was neatly trimmed, but long enough I wanted to tangle my fingers in it.

“Donnie, you’re staring again.”

Damn it. I dragged my eyes away. I couldn’t help it, though. Today my manly man wore an oatmeal-colored sweater that should have looked bland but instead looked soft and cozy. My inner coyote pup wanted to snuggle into the plush knit and soak up his heat.

“And you have customers.” Ford nudged me, and I had to once again forcibly draw my eyes away from the man.

I tucked one end of the towel into the back pocket of my jeans and helped customers. Luckily I could practically do this job in my sleep since my mind stayed focused on my manly man instead of taking coffee and muffin orders. Things I knew about my little—er, big—obsession: his name was William, he liked his coffee black, his pastries savory instead of sweet, and whatever he did for a living gave him a couple of hours a day to hang out in a cozy coffee shop in Cody, Wyoming. Oh, and he was a shifter, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what kind.

There were a lot of shifters in this part of Wyoming, partly due to Cody’s proximity to Yellowstone. But the town was also home to one of the only available shifter-friendly colleges this side of the Mississippi. Local humans didn’t know it, but a bunch of the students at Cody College were shifters of one kind or another. There weren’t a lot of places where animal shifters could attend school and have access to miles of forests, lakes, and mountains, and where classes could be modified to fit the special needs of the occasionally furry.

As a part-time coyote, my sense of smell was particularly keen. Which meant I immediately picked up the rich scents of musk and something herby, like sagebrush and grass. And, like his cozy sweater, the smell made me want to roll all over him.

I glanced at the clock above the stone fireplace in the corner. It was time. If I waited any longer, he’d get up and leave. “I’m taking my break.” I untied my forest-green apron and tossed it on the counter by the register.

Ford scowled at me. “It’s almost eleven. We have to prep for the lunch crowd.”

“I won’t be long.” I rushed to the back room.

The back room was about the size of a coat closet and held a small desk with a computer monitor, a safe, and a folding chair. There wasn’t space for anything else. I reached under the desk and grabbed the insulated bag I’d brought with me this morning. I pulled out the rectangular storage container, inhaling the distinctive basil-and-parmesan scent. My stomach lurched. It wasn’t the scones—they smelled fantastic—it was nerves. I’d been planning this moment for weeks. Now the time had finally come, and it struck me as stupid, potentially humiliating, and maybe a little dangerous. After all, what did I really know about my manly man?

“Don’t wuss out now,” I ordered myself, gripping the plastic box.

Before I could second-guess myself again, I pushed out of the back room and strode to the dining area with as much swagger as I could manage. Coyotes were good at bluffing, especially among the bigger predators.

William looked up from his newspaper. Jesus, those deep brown eyes should be outlawed. How was a guy supposed to remember anything while drowning in those coffee-colored irises?

He cleared his throat.

After an embarrassingly long pause—yeah, words really weren’t happening for me at that moment—he arched a brow. “Did you need something?”

“Scones.” I cringed. I’d blurted the word out a little too loudly.

He cocked his head. “Scones?” His voice was deep and rumbly, and I quivered at the sound.

I nodded. “Exactly. Scones.”

“What about them?”

I cleared my throat. From the corner of my eye, I saw Ford smirking at me. Damn, I seriously needed to get my shit together. “I made some. I wondered if you wanted any?”

He glanced down at his plate, which held half of an onion bagel with cream cheese. “I’m fine.”

I sucked in a breath. Whatever I’d hoped to accomplish with this little interaction was going to explode in my face if I didn’t get my head out of my ass. “No, I know. I mean, I’m trying a new recipe, and I hoped you’d taste test it for me.” I shoved the box toward him. “I noticed you stay away from our sweeter items, but you like the more savory bagels and such. And, well, I came up with a sun-dried tomato, basil, and parmesan scone recipe I thought you might like.”

He leaned back in his chair, the move showcasing the amazing breadth of his chest. “You didn’t have anyone else who could test them for you?” He was so hard to read. He didn’t seem opposed to the idea. Not standoffish. Reserved, maybe? Like he wasn’t used to people approaching him with savory treats.

“Well, my friend Ford,” I said, bobbing my head toward the front counter, “is allergic to tomatoes. And my family tends to be a bit boring in their tastes. Real red-meat-and-potatoes kind of people. They think they’re being exotic when they eat bison instead of beef.”

William’s mouth pressed into a thin line, and for a second I thought I’d made him mad. Maybe it was the meat comment? “Are you a vegetarian? I know some people don’t even want to talk about meat and food in the same sentence. Too gory for them, maybe.” On the edge of babbling, I snapped my jaw closed.

“It’s fine,” William said after a minute. “I’m a vegetarian, but I’m not squeamish.” He took the container from me. “Thanks. I’ll let you know.”

I shifted from foot to foot. C’mon, Donnie. Say something. Seriously, I was usually better than this. I’ve asked dudes out before. Even dudes I wasn’t sure were gay. I hoped it wasn’t wishful thinking, but I kind of suspected William was of the man-loving persuasion. Sometimes, from the corner of my eye, I was positive I’d caught him watching me. And not in the absent way so many people eyed servers and clerks. No, I’d catch in him a predatory heat that didn’t quite match his studious solitude. That, in addition to my own little crush, was what prompted me to attempt my scone-based seduction. So really, there was no reason for this to be so awkward.

“Is there something else?” He watched me from under thick, straight brows.

I guessed he was older than me by a decade, but I refused to let the possible age gap or intimidating stare put me off. Especially since it kind of turned me on.

“Oh, and I’m Donnie. Donnie Granger?” Shit. Now I sounded like an adolescent girl, all questions and enthusiasm.

His gaze flicked to my nametag, eyes crinkling, and it looked like he tried not to smile. “William,” he said.

“Oh, I know.” Again, I sounded a bit too enthusiastic. I licked my lips, racking my brain for something to say, anything to keep the conversation going. And preferably in a way that wouldn’t make me sound like a junior-high schooler. “What do you do?”

“About what?” William pushed his newspaper aside, and I took the gesture as an invitation. If he’d wanted me to go away, he’d have tried to read it, right?

“You know,” I said, dropping into the chair across from his at the small table. “For a living. A job. For fun. Whatever. You’re here almost every morning. It’s made me curious.” Crap. That made me sound like a stalker, didn’t it? No, not a stalker. An observant customer-service person. Right.

He pushed back from the table far enough he could cross one leg over the other, and his grassy, sagey scent wafted toward me. It was all I could do to stop my tongue from lolling out of my mouth like a dog. “I’m a professor of history and politics over at CC.” He paused. “The special track.”

Ah, that meant he taught some of the shifter-only classes.

“Damn, if I’d had a professor like you, I probably wouldn’t have dropped out.”

He raised his brows.

Double crap. If I wanted to impress a professor, mentioning I was a college dropout probably wasn’t the best way. “How long have you been teaching there?” I kept myself—barely—from adding that I hadn’t seen him around before February. And believe me, if he’d been anywhere near town before that, I’d have noticed. Even if his looks didn’t trip every one of my personal triggers, there was no way I’d miss his scent. But he didn’t need to know how obsessively I tracked him.

“Started with the spring semester.”

“Cool.” Jesus, I was a moron. Cool? Maybe I needed to go back to school after all. Conversation 101 was looking more and more necessary. Then, after that, I could attend Flirting for Dummies.

“What about you?” he asked, thankfully not put off by my abysmal interpersonal communication skills.


“Yes, what do you do?”

“Oh, right.” I pushed my chair back so it balanced on its rear legs. “Well, I work here, obviously. I’m taking a photography class at the community center. I spend a lot of time riding herd on my dozen or so nieces and nephews. I bake a lot.” Realizing I sounded like a college application, or worse, an online dating profile, I produced my toothiest cheesy grin. “And I like long walks on the beach at sunset.”

William’s lips twitched.

“Hey, Donnie!”

I growled low in my throat. The place better be under armed attack or I was going to strangle Ford. Didn’t he see I was finally making progress with my manly man? I turned my head to glare at my soon-to-be-ex-best friend. He glared right back, jerking his head to indicate the long line at the register.

“Damn.” I let the chair drop back into place, then stood. “I’d better get back to work. Let me know how you like the scones,” I said over my shoulder as I headed back to the front counter.

He nodded. “I will. And thanks for thinking of me.” He tapped the container of pastries.

“No problem. Hope you like them.”

A few minutes later, while I was elbow-deep in lattes and danishes, William left the café. When he opened the door, the wind blew in, carrying with it the aroma of fall leaves and sagebrush.

A Mage's Power by Casey Wolfe
Chapter One
The city of Everstrand came into view when Rowan’s dirt bike broke through the last of the forest. The engine whirred as he caught a little air over a bump, wind whipping at his blond hair. He laughed, leaving dust in his wake. Spring was fast approaching and Rowan was enjoying the sunshine and warming temperatures perhaps a bit too much.

The dirt roads leading from the Sacred Timber, where he lived, gave way to the paved roadways of civilization. Rowan much preferred the solitude of nature to the bustle of Osterian’s capital city, so it was just as well he tended to keep his trips there to a minimum.

Not that the city was completely horrible. It was ancient, and a lot of the original structures had been well-preserved as the city expanded over the centuries. The Everstrand Mages Guild was part of the oldest section. It sat on a broken piece of land that was enchanted to float in the air above the Grey Tides—visible even now. Chains kept it bound to the cliffside so that it didn’t drift away.

Rowan needed to stop by the Guild at some point, but he wanted to go to his shop first. One wouldn’t think he’d be able to make a living by being open a few days out of the week; however, an enchanter’s services were always a valuable commodity. Considering Rowan was the sole master enchanter in the entire city offering his services to the public, he wasn’t worried about losing business.

Having timed his arrival after the morning rush, Rowan had no problems getting to the shop. He cut through a few narrow side alleys to the Orchard Street Mall. He loved that it was all outdoors, restricted to foot traffic only, instead of a typical mall complex. It gave the area a certain charm, with the unique facades and plentiful landscaping.

Rowan parked his bike in the section reserved for vendors, permit tag sealed in place with magic to prevent theft. Satchel strap over his shoulder, he made his way down the cobblestone paths, past shops of every size and type.

Nestled between a bookstore and a pastry shop—that he frequented probably more than he should have—was Charmed to Meet You. Even now, the name made him cringe a little. It had been his late grandmother’s suggestion, and with no counter-name in hand, Rowan had relented. It seemed he was stuck with it too—at least his customers thought it was cute.

Once inside, he flipped on the lights and tossed his satchel onto the counter. He shrugged out of his brown leather jacket, hanging it on the rack. The weather may have been breaking, but riding his bike still required protection from the chill. It was nice enough to open the windows, which he did with a flick of his hand. A breeze swept inside, the fresh air swapping out the stale from over the weekend.

It was a small shop, designed more as a work space than a storefront, with all the shelving behind the counter holding his supplies. There were no displays or little charm trinkets lying around. Everything he did was custom. Let them go to a kitschy tourist trap if they wanted some run-of-the-mill good luck charm. He had better things to do.

Already finished with current orders, Rowan decided today was a good day to work on his own projects. He sat on his stool and pulled a thick book from his satchel before stowing the bag under the counter by his parchment, ink, and quills. It might have been old-fashioned of him, but he enjoyed the feel of a quill in his hand and handmade paper under his fingers—his grandmother’s influence, no doubt, as she had been the one to give him his first grimoire filled with parchment. After that, a notebook and pen simply wouldn’t do for anything involving his magical studies.

“Now, where was I?”

One of the few things he’d taken from his grandmother’s cottage was her magic books, but he hadn’t been able to read them until recently. Even looking at them had invoked powerful memories of her, and it was far too heartbreaking to consider. They had sat around, gathering dust, for the last half-dozen years, and Rowan thought it was about time to get over it. Thus, he’d begun pouring over her old grimoires and spell theory books in earnest.

Naturally, no sooner had he gotten settled, his cell phone chimed. It turned out to be his best friend, Caleb, and Rowan wasn’t surprised at the inquiry: “Lunch today?”

Rowan smiled while typing out a reply text: “Of course.” As though Caleb didn’t come out to Rowan’s cottage enough, the werewolf was always on him to hang out when he was in town. “Now hush. I’m studying.”

The returned zipped-lip emoji made Rowan laugh. “Damn wolf,” he said affectionately, shaking his head as he set the phone aside.

Not that the silence lasted long. From the back of the shop, Rowan heard a soft meow. He turned to find the brown tabby cat that roamed the neighborhood, slipping through the window and landing gracefully on a stack of books. “Hey, Badger.”

The cat meowed again, making his way along the shelves before jumping onto the front counter. Badger purred, rubbing his head against Rowan’s arm, demanding attention. Rowan scratched behind the cat’s ears. He certainly was an animal magnet.

Badger had shown up in the shop one day when Rowan had opened one of the back windows to vent the smoke from a failed experiment—not one of his prouder moments. Rowan had no desire for a cat, but he couldn’t just throw the guy back out into the wet snow either. Thankfully for Rowan, the cat didn’t exactly want to be kept.

Badger came and went on his own whims, although it seemed he’d picked up Rowan’s schedule and was sure to drop by to see him. Rowan figured part of it had to do with the fact he was keeping meat treats around. Not that he minded. Badger was a quiet, comforting presence who mostly took advantage of the warm, dry place by curling up on the counter and napping.

Caleb had saddled the cat with his name. Rowan wasn’t planning to name him—after all, he had proven to be his own animal—but Caleb had pointed out they couldn’t keep calling him “the cat.” Badger should have been thankful Rowan vetoed Whiskers.

The bell above the door announced the arrival of a customer, one of Rowan’s regulars. Most of Marian’s requests were idiotic, but he wasn’t about to turn down her money. If she wanted to keep wasting it at his shop, that was fine by him.

“Rowan, hon, there you are,” the older woman gushed, coming up to the counter. “Did you get my message?”

“I actually just got in.” Rowan may have sounded apologetic, but he wasn’t in the least. Marian had the habit of freaking out over nothing and believing she needed magical interference to deal with every little challenge. Think of the money, he reminded himself.

“Oh, I am in desperate need of your help. It’s my neighbor. The old fool has been trying to curse me.”

Rowan had to hold back an exasperated sigh. This was going to take a while. He closed his book regretfully.

“Curses are serious business,” Rowan said. “Are you sure?” Despite his words, he was already moving toward the shelves. They were set perpendicular to the counter, so he was still able to see Marian as he searched for various things he would require.

“I’m certain,” Marian insisted, as Rowan knew she would. “It’s my garden! Everything is just…dying. It was fine one day, and the next…” She threw her hands in the air, which was apparently supposed to mean something.

Rowan hummed in false agreement. “Yes, that does sound serious. Have you thought of reporting it?” Humoring her didn’t mean he couldn’t take a few jabs at her expense.

“Heavens, no. Those fools don’t do a thing. You should know that, dear.”

Rowan rolled his eyes. This is what I got a masters for?

It wasn’t the first time he’d thought it, and not even with Marian’s ridiculous requests. There he was, the youngest mage ever with a masters degree—now two—and he was humoring people who needed to keep plants alive despite their lack of green thumb, prevent a neighbor’s dog from shitting in their yard, or protect from griffin attack—because somebody told them they were rampant in the south of Osterian where they planned to vacation. Money was money, though, so Rowan stomached the inane requests and prayed for those that were a good use of his time.

“Do you think you can help me?” Marian asked, before cooing at Badger. He was thoroughly unamused, relocating himself to one of the shelves near Rowan. “He is such a beautiful cat. It’s so precious how he follows you.”

“Yes, he is,” Rowan agreed, Badger rubbing his head against his shoulder. “And, yes, I can most certainly help you out. If you have more shopping to get done, I can have it ready in about an hour.”

Marian clapped her hands together. “Oh, that’s wonderful. I do appreciate it.”

“No trouble at all.” He kept the fake smile in place until the door shut behind her. “One charm to stop you from murdering your own plants, coming up,” he griped. Looking at Badger, he raised a brow. “Why is everything a curse or whatever with her? I swear I don’t understand mundanes.” He spoke of those without magic.

Badger meowed as if he understood. Rowan smiled at him, gathering up the supplies he needed to make the charm in question.

He turned to another shelf, pausing when he saw the potion sitting there. “I forgot about this.” Rowan had been dabbling with potion-making lately. Despite not being an actual School of Magic, herbology—like divination and runes—was an offered course at many guilds. While anyone could learn such skills, magic could often enhance the effects.

“This…wasn’t exactly the color I hoped for,” Rowan admitted, turning the small glass bottle over in his hand. The sickly green liquid sloshed around, unchanged. “So much for that.”

He may have been something of a prodigy—passing his apprenticeship at eighteen, and earning his first masters at twenty-one—but he was far from great at all areas of magic. Likely, his grandmother would have kept him on track, except she’d died shortly after he opened Charmed to Meet You. She missed his second masters at twenty-four, and without her around to scold him, he’d spent the last four years messing around here and there with all sorts of other magic—including intensive study in blood magic—without truly settling on a new course of study.

Perhaps two masters would have been more than enough for any mage to have, but not him. He was bound and determined to reach the distinction of grandmaster, a mage who had obtained a masters in all five Schools of Magic. First, he needed to get through his next exam.

The cafe Rowan frequented with Caleb wasn’t far, merely a couple of blocks away in a small square. There was no point in taking his bike, especially when it was such a nice day.

He regretted that decision the moment he spotted an Inquisition knight. “What the hell are they doing around here?” he grumbled. In the next breath, he scolded himself. “I’ve been listening to Caleb’s stories too much.”

For the last fifty years or so, most countries had an Inquisition presence. The organization was not technically a part of their governments, rather, an entity authorized by their respective countries. Their purpose was to deal with crimes involving magicae—those races with magic—or to help those in need of rehabilitation.

As of late, various Inquisition temples—as they called their headquarters buildings—were coming under fire. Accusations of cruelty toward magicae were followed by whispers of kidnappings. The way people told it these days, if the Inquisition took someone, they were never heard from again.

Rowan dismissed most of the rumors as folly. If they were really holding so many magicae without cause, the governments surely would have stepped in. The claims of abuse of power, beating suspects, and the like, well, Rowan had no way to explain those away quite so easily. Whatever the case, he would rather avoid the members of the Inquisition.

Apparently, that would be impossible, as Rowan watched the knight’s attention zero in on him when he crossed the street. It wasn’t as if he were an elf or vampire, but his unusual violet eyes still had the habit of giving him away. Any hopes that he would be able to move on without a confrontation were dashed when the knight decided to step in his path.

“Excuse me,” Rowan said, attempting to sidestep him.

“No, you can stay right there,” the knight replied. As the name suggested, the official dress the knights wore resembled the heavy cloth armor of their medieval counterparts. Rowan found it anything but dashing, rather a testament to how backward the organization was. They admired men who used to kill dragons for the hell of it; how was that good for magicae? “Give me your ID.”

Rowan’s brows lowered. “I don’t have to do that.”

“Sure you do. I asked for it, didn’t I?”

Rowan scoffed. Clearly this boy assumed no one paid attention to the law. “Do you suspect me of a crime, Knight…?”

“Dansforth.” He sneered. “And I haven’t decided yet.”

That was it. Rowan was having none of this guy’s haughty attitude. He wasn’t typically a confrontational sort, but when push came to shove, Rowan wasn’t afraid of holding his ground. “Then have a nice day, Knight.” He forced his way past, only to have his bicep grabbed. Nostrils flaring, Rowan spun around, eyes no doubt glowing with the fire that filled his belly.

“Knight Dansforth!” an authoritative voice barked. “Release that man at once!”

“Sir!” Dansforth did as he was told, jumping away like he’d been scalded. He saluted the man who approached—this one an inquisitor. Whereas the knights were the general law enforcement of the Inquisition, inquisitors were their investigative branch. They held the power within the temples and were not to be crossed.

“There a reason you felt the need to put your hands on someone?” He may have been shorter than Rowan by a few inches, but the inquisitor had more mass on him. The cream, long-sleeved shirt underneath the fitted, leather armor of his station didn’t hide his muscle. Currently, all of that coiled power was at least being directed away from Rowan.

“Sir, he refused to—”

“Give you ID,” the inquisitor finished, his voice holding an accent that pegged him a foreigner. “I’m aware.” He turned to Rowan, looking him over. “I apologize on behalf of this git,” he said candidly. Dansforth’s lips pursed, but he wasn’t about to speak out of turn again. “Saying he’s new isn’t an excuse,” the inquisitor continued. “I’ll personally be filing a misconduct report when I return to the temple.”

It didn’t do much to smooth out Rowan’s proverbial ruffled feathers. “Knights like that are what’s giving you a shit reputation,” he pointed out.

“Well, hopefully we can correct that misconception, yeah?”

Rowan felt a prickle against his skin that he knew to be magic. Not everyone—even magicae—could sense it, but being a mage certainly meant he could. Except, that didn’t make any sense. The Inquisition had strict hiring policies. Everyone in their ranks was mundane, which of course, did nothing to dissuade the claims of bigoted behavior on their part.

A calm washed over him, like a soothing touch barely there against his consciousness. “Maybe,” Rowan murmured, meeting the inquisitor’s gaze for the first time.

His eyes were a sparkling blue-green, a few bits of his slicked-back, dark-brown hair falling in front of them. He had a strong, square jaw, highlighted by the scruff of a beard. Rowan was surprised the Inquisition allowed him out like that, but then, the inquisitors always had some leniency.

“As ironic as this is…” the inquisitor continued, “I’m going to need your ID. When I write my disciplinary report, I need to put your name in it. Not that anyone is bound to call you and ask you to verify anything.”

Sighing, Rowan pulled his wallet from his pocket and flipped it open to show the ID in the window screen. “Figures.”

The inquisitor’s lips quirked into a brief smile before he schooled his features and jotted down a few things from the ID into a little notepad.

“Thank you,” he said with a nod. “Again, I apologize. Hope you have a better day.”

It was there again, that sense of ease. Rowan only nodded, pocketing his wallet as he hurried off to meet Caleb before he started to worry.

Shaw watched as the mage left, noting the quick glance over his shoulder at them before he disappeared around the corner. Rowan, his ID had said.

Typically, Shaw didn’t step in when he caught knights pushing the boundaries of the law. As an inquisitor, he was above them in rank, yes, but they were also a separate division. He had enough to worry about without dealing with the overzealous knights in the city.

Something about Rowan had made him react. Shaw’s natural protective instincts flared, and he’d found himself confronting the brash young knight. He could have written it off as saving Danforth’s skin—after all, Rowan had looked about ready to flay him alive—but that wasn’t it at all.

No, it was Rowan’s presence. It had called to him. As cliché as it sounded, that was the truth of it. Drawn in, the feeling intensified when Shaw had looked up into those bright eyes. They’d been glowing at first, easing back into a deep violet once Shaw gained control of the situation.

Now, he had Rowan’s information copied into his notepad, tucked safely away in the pocket of his short-sleeve jerkin. Shaw wasn’t about to pretend it hadn’t been for self-indulgent reasons. Rowan was a tall drink of water in painted-on jeans. His lavender shirt complemented his eyes and his blue-gray overshirt had been left unbuttoned to show off a trim waist. A sharp jawline and a shock of blond hair falling in layers against his cheek had added to the hard stare Rowan had landed him with. Shaw had practically melted into goo right there on the sidewalk—damn it.

Shaw glanced over to find Dansforth standing there, appearing none too happy with his intervention. “Is there a problem, Knight?” he asked, a bit of danger in his tone.

“I was doing my job…sir.”

Shaw’s lips curled into a sneer. The man was being just this side of insolent. “I’d watch your step, Knight. I’m not filing a report on this. But I can change that at any time.”

Dansforth immediately relaxed his stance, leaning in toward him. “I thought you were clear on your next course of action, Inquisitor.”

So, now he’s showing respect. Shaw barely held back from rolling his eyes. “Well, he don’t have to know that, now does he?” He brushed it off, turning to leave. “Continue your patrol, Knight.”

“Yes, sir.”

In truth, if Shaw were to write up the report, nothing would ever come of it. The Inquisition took care of their own, first and foremost. Something as incidental as this would have been thrown in the garbage. If anything, it would create a target on Rowan’s back, and Shaw refused to be the one to put it there. The magicae in the city had enough issues without the constant harassment the Inquisition brought them.

He wasn’t in a position to do anything about it, so instead, he did his job. As an inquisitor, Shaw was afforded more freedom than the average employee, and he wasn’t about to risk that by making too many waves. If he could help magicae in the process, then it was all worth it.

Shaw returned to his issued car, having been on his way there when he’d passed by that little scene Dansforth had caused. He had been out contacting a potential witness for a case and, unfortunately, it was time to get back to the temple.

In his opinion, Everstrand’s headquarters was unnecessarily opulent. It had been constructed nearly thirty years back, but in the style of the castles and cathedrals of old. Its location in the historic Southern District, however, made it blend in rather nicely, as if it had always been there.

Shaw pulled into the employees-only lot behind the building, thankful to avoid the entrance at the front of the massive structure. It was all too much for him: the grand facade, the high-vaulted ceiling, and the paintings adorning the walls. It was easily the most nauseating part of the temple.

There was even a giant tapestry, complete with dragon-slaying, that paid homage to the Inquisition’s roots. From famed dragon killers to experts on all things magicae, it seemed every rising government had a consulting Inquisition presence. However, consulting turned into full-on law enforcement fairly quickly once they proved themselves capable of the task.

The rest of the temple, while still feeling grand and out of time, was far more subtle. Long parapets led to towers at the corners of the building. There was a final square tower in the center, which jutted out above the rest. The inquisitor offices were housed there, along with the rest of the high command.

Slipping through the back entrance, Shaw nodded politely enough to those he passed. He hadn’t exactly been around long enough to make friends. Honestly, he didn’t even want to. Most of the people who worked for the Inquisition were undeniably assholes with a point to prove—bigots just seemed to go hand-in-hand.

He had a job to do, so Shaw would grin and bear the rest of it. He knew he could make a difference, given time. As each day dragged into weeks, however, he wondered if it would be worth it in the end, if anything would come of it.

Vaughn emerged from his office, spotting Shaw in the hall. “Inquisitor Shaw,” he greeted with a faux smile. “Anything to report?”

“When there is, you’ll be the first to know.”

Shaw walked right by. He refused to kiss Vaughn’s ass like the other inquisitors did. Assistant High Inquisitor had gone to Vaughn’s head, in Shaw’s opinion. No, the sole person he would even think to watch his step around was Meredeen—head of the inquisitors, and second only to Zane.

Slowing, Shaw looked over his shoulder to see Vaughn turning the corner. He waited a moment before rerouting to Vaughn’s office. Clicking the door shut behind him, Shaw gave the room a cursory glance. He would have to make this quick.

After kicking the computer chair out of the way, Shaw pulled a flash drive from a small pouch inside his boot. He slotted it into the USB port, waking the computer in the process. He needn’t worry about passwords; the program in the flash drive ran encryption-cracking software automatically.

Shaw let the drive do its job, turning his attention to the rest of the room. There was paperwork everywhere, along with stacks of folders filled with potential information. There was no way Shaw had time to go through it all.

Instead, he pulled a scroll from the hidden pocket inside his jerkin. Unrolling it exposed a spell written in Runic, which translated to “reveal that which is hidden.” A brief glow radiated from the scroll when he pressed it to the wall. Light washed across the floor, ceiling, and everything else within the room.

Shaw looked around, hoping to find any indication that the spell had found something. Unfortunately, he was left with nothing. He pulled the now blank scroll from the wall and shoved it back into his jerkin.

The computer chimed softly, signaling the end of the download. Shaw pulled the flash drive out, reset the chair, and returned the drive to its hidden pouch, before slipping back into the hall completely unnoticed.

Twice Bitten by Rayna Vause
Chapter 1
“CRAP. IT’S after seven.” Danny Reynolds flicked a glance at the wall clock before switching off the last of the fluorescent lights inside the library. He could have kicked himself for losing track of time, but he always got caught up when putting together new exhibits for the library. He still hadn’t settled on next month’s theme, hence the little piles of paper and collections of Post-its all over his office. And maybe he also got a little distracted reading when he should have been working. Still, when you lived in an area trafficked by things that went bump in the night—and not all of them friendly, as evidenced by the latest rash of attacks—you needed to be more vigilant about the time. Most sane people made damn sure they were indoors before nightfall these days, and at this time of year, the nights were entirely too long.

Grabbing his coat, he rushed from his office, flipping up his collar as he prepared to face the colder than usual October temperatures. He rubbed at the knots in his stomach as he reached the door. You’ll be fine, Danny. Keep your eyes sharp and move fast. He hesitated, leaving his hand resting on the cold metal for a long moment. Then he blew out a slow breath, clenched his keys in his fist prepared to gouge any would-be attacker, and pushed open the door that led to the employee parking lot. He stepped out into the windless night, the cold air nipping at his cheeks. Out of habit, he scanned the parking lot and street beyond. Empty. The library hadn’t gotten around to replacing the single floodlight that illuminated the tiny gated lot yet, so he appreciated the meager light the crescent moon offered. Better than walking home in the pitch-black.

Danny shivered, and goose bumps rose on his neck. The cold seeped through his clothes even as the quiet stillness of the night unsettled him. He almost screamed when something thumped in the nearby dumpster. He stared at it, heart pounding for a long moment before yellow glowing eyes stared back at him. He pressed his hand to his stomach. Damn raccoon. He fought back the nervous laugh that wanted to escape. I need to get the hell out of here and head home now before I make myself so paranoid I wind up doing something ridiculous, like spending the night locked in my office, curled up under my desk. He turned to ensure the door had closed and locked behind him. He jerked on the handle once, then started to step away. A body slammed into him from behind, and stars exploded behind his eyes when his head smacked the door. Thin, wiry arms wrapped around him like bands, and his attacker pinned him to the wall. Adrenaline surged through Danny. His body all but buzzed with terrified energy. His breath rasped in and out as he jerked against his captor, struggling in earnest. He couldn’t compete with the inhuman strength of the arm trapping him or wrench free of the hand clamped over his mouth, muffling his scream. Fear knotted his gut as a male voice growled in his ear.

“Didn’t anyone ever teach you not to roam the streets alone at night?”

He suppressed a shudder as the fetid heat of his assailant’s breath wafted over his skin.

“What’s a pretty thing like you doing out after dark?” His attacker chuckled, a dark, ugly sound, as he pressed Danny even harder against the door. Danny struggled to breathe past the crushing pressure.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. Again, Danny tried to kick and fight, but damn, this thing was strong.

“Nothing to say?”

Pain shot through him when his assailant wrenched his head to the side, exposing his neck. He drew his tongue along the path of Danny’s carotid artery. Danny gagged, his eyes watering from the pain of having his hair pulled. Trying to tug free sent lightning bolts of agony through his scalp.

“No matter, sometimes a nice quiet meal is just what one needs.”

Just when he thought his heart would pound out of his chest, the creature struck. Sharp fangs pierced Danny’s skin, penetrating deep. Waves of pain racked him. He went deaf to all but the blood roaring in his ear, breath hissing out of his nose. The vampire moaned in delight as though sampling the finest wine.

I will not die this way. Not at the hands of some psycho vamp.

That one thought resounded in Danny’s mind as he redoubled his efforts, struggling as hard as he could, praying for even the smallest of opportunities to break free. The hand covering his mouth slipped lower, giving Danny the chance he needed. With no hesitation, he clamped his teeth on the exposed flesh, breaking the skin; the coppery taste of the vampire’s blood flooded his mouth. A howl of pain and rage all but deafened him. The viselike grip of the vamp’s arms loosened, but instead of hitting the pavement, Danny found himself airborne as his assailant flung him away. He slammed into the dumpster, both knees buckled, and he slid down into a pile of debris.

Gathering his strength, Danny scrambled to his feet. For the first time since the assault began, he saw his assailant’s face. He was pale, even for a vampire, tall, and gaunt. His sick, skeletal appearance belied his strength. The deep red glow in the depths of his eyes, the wisps of foam about his mouth, and the snarl on his face made him look like a rabid animal.

Please God, get me out of this alive.

“Look, I don’t want to fight you,” Danny said, bracing for a second attack from his wild-eyed opponent, backing away while searching for anything he could use as a weapon. “I just want to go home.”

The vampire’s dark rumble of amusement sent an icy chill down Danny’s spine. “Don’t bank on doing either. You fight like a fucking girl, scratching and biting. You’re pathetic.” The vampire sneered. “I’m going to put you out of your misery.”

Oh shit, oh shit. Think, Danny, think. He scanned for an escape route, or possibly the cavalry riding to his rescue, all the while keeping his eye on the creature who wanted to kill him for food and sport. There was no one in sight. Nowhere to run. Where the hell are the Purity patrols when you need them?

He glanced at the library door. He hadn’t locked it, but there was no way he could outrun this thing. It moved too damn fast.

He saw the creature’s shift out of the corner of his eye, the vampire’s muscles bunching just before he sprang at Danny. He tried to scramble away, but the tackle caught him in the chest, taking Danny to the ground. The vampire knelt, placing his full weight on Danny’s arms. Though he bucked and twisted, he couldn’t budge the demented vamp.

“Now, where were we before you bit me like a fucking pansy? Oh yes, you seemed to want to get a taste of me. Why not have a little more?”

The creature slit his own wrist with one long nail. Then he gripped Danny’s jaw, forcing his mouth open. He cackled as blood poured from his veins into Danny. Though he gagged, spit, and sputtered, Danny couldn’t prevent some of the coppery liquid from sliding down his throat.

“Do you see why we love this? The flavors, the sensations, the power, it’s a real rush,” the vampire said, quirking a dark eyebrow at him and then leaning closer.

“Get off me, asshole,” Danny gasped.

“Dirty talk makes me horny.” The vamp laughed and ground his crotch against Danny.

Danny could feel his erection pressing against him and had to stifle a shudder.

The vampire licked at his still-oozing wrist. “Had enough?” He loomed over Danny, his hot, rank breath huffing in his face. Danny bucked and fought, even knowing the futility of his efforts.

“Doesn’t matter, it’s my turn, anyway.” In a blink, the vampire shifted his weight and struck again, sinking his fangs into Danny’s neck.

The change in position gave Danny the opportunity he needed. Bending his knees and tucking his feet close to his butt, he bridged up, unbalancing the vampire as he rolled, reversing their positions. Danny hissed at the pain of sharp fangs tearing through his flesh, but he kept moving, scrambling to his feet. Momentary excitement at a year’s worth of jiujitsu lessons finally paying off flashed through him and then vanished when the vamp grabbed him from behind and flung him to the ground. He saw stars when he hit the blacktop, but he shook it off and tried to scuttle away.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a piece of a broken cargo pallet just out of reach. He lunged for it, grabbing it just as the vampire launched at Danny. Danny twisted back, armed and prepared to defend himself. Clasping the broken piece of wood, he held it out in front of him like a stake.

Danny saw the vampire’s eyes flare wide with the knowledge that he couldn’t stop his momentum. A wild scream rang out as the vampire impaled himself on the makeshift weapon. With a gasping gurgle and a stunned expression on his face, the life left the vampire’s eyes as his limp form fell on Danny.

Danny lay under the heavy body, breathing hard for a moment before shoving it aside and pushing to his feet. He reached up and touched the torn flesh of his neck. Blood trickled through his fingers as he applied pressure to the wound.

He could only assume the creature was dead, but he didn’t want to take any chances of having to go another round with him. Danny gave the body a final glance, grabbed his stuff, and raced the few blocks home.

DANNY SHOT up in bed, snatched from sleep by a burning pain radiating up his arm. He cradled his arm to his body, his hand throbbing in agony as though he’d been scalded. He flexed his hand to inspect it and blinked, unable to believe his eyes. A reddened, blistered strip of skin ran from the back of his hand almost to his elbow. What the hell?

He swung a leg over the side of the bed. He jerked back when pain like a red-hot needle being shoved in his calf shot through him. His chest tightened. Acid churned in his stomach. He stared at the thin strip of sunlight that snuck through a gap in his blinds and angled across the side of his bed.

Not possible. Danny slid a finger into the beam of light. Again, smoldering pain. Danny gritted his teeth and continued to hold his finger in the light. In seconds his skin began to smoke like paper under a magnifying glass, and the faintest scent of burned hair teased his nose. He snatched his hand back, jamming the finger in his mouth. What the ever-loving fuck is happening to me? His heart pounded and bile rose in his throat, leaving an acrid taste in his mouth.

He reached up to touch the bandage on his neck. Breath dammed in his lungs. “No.” He rolled off the opposite side of the bed and rushed to the bathroom. He turned the tap on full blast and thrust his hand under it, letting the cool water ease the lingering ache.

He glanced in the mirror, and his pale, haggard reflection stared back at him. The gauze taped to his neck was not quite as stark as it had been last night. My God, I’m a hot mess and all because I didn’t pay attention to the stupid clock. He pulled his arm from the water, dried it, and tossed the towel on the counter. His skin remained an irritated pink, but he’d otherwise healed. The angry blisters had disappeared. Impossible. He glanced back in the mirror and again eyed the bandage on his neck. He sucked in a deep breath, reached up, and peeled back the edge of the tape. He hesitated a moment before lifting away the entire covering. His mouth fell open, and his heart sped up.

“No freaking way.” The flesh of his throat, while still angry and red, had almost completely healed. He struggled to pull in a full breath, and he braced himself against the vanity. “It’s fine. I’m fine. The triple antibiotic worked super fast. That’s all.” Yeah, right. The memory of that damn vampire’s blood slipping into his mouth and down his throat rushed through his mind so strong he could almost taste the coppery liquid.

He rushed from the bathroom to the kitchen mumbling to himself. “I need coffee or vodka, maybe both.”

He headed straight for his coffeepot. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee filled the air and for some bizarre reason made him a touch queasy. No. This cannot be happening. That fucking vamp did not turn me. He balled his hands into fists, determined to do one damn normal thing today. He poured himself a cup and got halfway through when his french roast made a break for the exit. Danny lunged for the kitchen sink.

“Milk must have been bad.” His stomach cramped. No, it isn’t. You know damn good and well what’s happening to you. Danny shook his head. Not possible. Not from just a little blood. It didn’t work like that. At least he didn’t think it did.

Still, he went back to the fridge, pulled out the carton, opened it, and sniffed. Not spoiled. With a shrug he took a testing sip straight from the carton and then gagged. He made a dash for the sink and spit out the swallow of milk as his throat revolted against accepting the liquid.

He coughed and sputtered, then sucked down a deep gulp of air. Bracing his hands on the edge of the sink, he locked out his elbows to keep his arms from shaking. He hung his head, squeezed his eyes shut, and continued to draw in long shuddering breaths.

“No. No, no, no. This can’t be happening.” Even as he fought to deny what he knew, his body trembled and his lungs fought to take a full breath. When darkness crept in around the edges of his vision, he slammed a fist down on the counter. He focused on the pain singing up his arm and used it to fend off a full-blown panic attack.

He whirled, determined to do something productive, but what? He couldn’t go see his doctor or to the emergency room. Vampires were treated like monsters. Humans that got turned were treated like lepers. He could lose everything if word got out.

He glanced down at his hand and studied the pink, raw skin on the back. It looked better than it had fifteen minutes ago. He shook his head. Turning didn’t happen like this, not as far as he knew. Turning took longer than this and took more blood than he’d ingested, but he could be wrong. He’d never really looked into it before.

Calm came over him. Research. This he knew how to do. He walked into his bedroom, made sure the blinds were shut, and pulled the curtains closed over them. He grabbed his laptop off his desk and climbed onto his bed. Settling in, he opened then booted the computer. He had access to the library databases and Google to help him. Hopefully he could find answers there, but if he couldn’t….

He blew out a breath and dragged a hand through his hair. If research got him nowhere, well, he knew someone who might have some answers. That is if Kieran didn’t boot him out the door on sight.

“YOU MUST consume the heart of the vampire who turned you? Yuck!” Danny shut his laptop and released a heavy sigh. He’d spent the better part of the day going through site after site, database after database, researching blood disorders, stomach disorders, and anything he could find on vampirism. The pickings on that last topic sucked. Few clear facts about vampires existed. Most of the data he found consisted of myths, lore, and wild speculations. After hours of digging, he knew little more than when he’d started.

He glanced up to find that the bright yellow tendrils of sunlight that kept trying to creep around his blinds had faded, muted. He looked up at his clock 5:30. Wow. Talk about disappearing down the rabbit hole.

He rubbed at his dry, strained eyes and rolled his shoulders, attempting to relax tight, tensed muscles. His stomach grumbled and a gnawing ache settled in, equal parts hunger and worry. He could eat enough to bankrupt a buffet right about now, but he doubted he’d be able to keep it down.

Nothing in his research had even remotely mentioned anything that sounded like his current collection of symptoms. What if there’s no fix for this? What the hell am I gonna do? He shook his head. He knew exactly what he had to do. It’s what he’d wanted to do for a while now, but he’d been stalling. How do you walk back into someone’s life after all but running screaming from them? No choice now. If he had fangs and red glowing eyes in his future, he needed all the information he could get, and he only knew one expert on the subject.

He shoved his feet into sneakers, rose, and then headed for the door. He dragged on his coat and grabbed his keys, but this time when he clasped the doorknob, his hand showed no evidence of injury. Even the faintest trace of redness had disappeared.

He closed his eyes, drew in a breath as he pulled open the door, and prayed that he wouldn’t combust the second he set foot into even the tiniest bit of daylight. He eased his hand into the stream of sunlight. Nothing. He swayed with relief. Finally, something is going right today. He pulled the door open, stepped out into the fading light, and headed for his car and a very uncertain reception.

Love, Marriage, and Baby Carriage by CS Poe

I WAS the hottest of hot messes.

The reflection looking back at me in the hotel room’s bathroom mirror was terrible. My auburn hair had the posttravel appearance: random locks sticking up on end and a headrest indent from sleeping on the plane. Ah yes, very classy. I combed it forward a bit more and frowned. Product would fix it, but that was in my suitcase, and my suitcase apparently forgot to make the connecting flight out of Atlanta. The airline assured me they were “looking into the matter.”

I stared at myself harder.

And this suit! Jesus Christ, how had I ever let the salesman talk me into this shit?

What had he called it? Power clashing, or something.

“It’s not a business event,” I had told him.

“What sort of convention is it?”

“Er—it’s, uh—for single people to… mingle,” I had awkwardly offered.

“Oh honey! And it’s in San Diego, you said? So we’ll throw some bright, beachy colors into this. Don’t worry,” he had told me over and over. “You’ll look so fierce. Your phone won’t have enough memory for all of the numbers you’re going to come away with.”


And at the ungodly hour of six in the morning, before leaving my New York apartment for the West Coast, I had decided to make a good impression as soon as I arrived at WaddleCon and wear the suit on the plane instead of changing after.

I sighed and plucked absently at the jacket. Brown, what was this—tweed? A plaid tie. Blue striped shirt. And these pants… I think the salesman had called them salmon.

I called it the worst decision I’d made since signing up for this stupid event.

“So I have my bad hair,” I said to the mirror while ticking off the points on my fingers. “And my even worse suit.”

And I was attending a singles’ convention for special people like me to find their forever penguin partner. But after I paid the attendance fee, got a hotel room, and booked my flight, I found out it was specifically for guys and gals.

Not that these folks hadn’t read the story And Tango Makes Three, but they weren’t really using their budget to cater to the few gay penguins—er, people—in the community.

I sighed dramatically.

“My name’s Theodore Reinhart, I look like a rainbow puked on me, and I’m a gay penguin—Magell—attending a meet and greet for straight folks.”

Yep. Hot mess. No doubt about that.

Alpha Unit One, New York by Chris T Kat
Chapter One
DEEP BREATHS. Just keep breathing in and out, in and out. Nothing to worry about. Nope, absolutely nothing. Except… well, except pretty much everything.

As I strode up the stairs of one of New York City’s Alpha Unit precinct buildings to start my first day as a detective in one of the city’s top-notch Alpha Units, doubts crowded my mind.

Why the fuck was I freaking out now? This was what I’d always dreamed about—to be part of an Alpha Unit, especially one so well-known and highly regarded. This particular unit consisted of equal parts humans and shifters, and it had one of the highest rates of solved crimes ever.

I showed my identification to the woman manning the front desk. She had to be in her seventies, judging from her wrinkles and her snow-white hair. Was she even allowed to work anymore at her age? Why the hell would they put such an old woman up here as the face of the department?

Sharp blue eyes considered my ID, then me. “Nicholas Reed. Hmm, you’re the new guy for Black’s unit. Human, right?”

Human. Yes, right. Totally human. I forced a smile onto my face, hoping it didn’t look strained. “Yup, that’s me.”

She handed me my card, along with a heavy envelope. “See to it you get all your paperwork filled in by tomorrow. And don’t be so nervous. Black and his goons might look like they’re going to eat you or beat you, depending on their mood, but rest assured they’re actually nice people.”

The smile slipped from my face. Nervous? I wasn’t nervous. Or at least no one was supposed to recognize that little tidbit of information because that could lead to unwanted attention, which could lead to me getting in trouble. Totally not acceptable.

“I’m not nervous.”

The badge she wore identified the woman as Clara Jones. Clara shook her head. “There’s one thing you should know about this station—and Black’s unit—up front. We don’t take bullshit, and we hate liars.”

Ugh. Great. Although I wasn’t a liar per se. I just liked to keep some things private. See, that sounded way better.

Clara Jones was still staring at me as I crumpled the envelope in my sweaty hands. I gave her a sheepish grin, making sure to widen my eyes and show off my dimples. If I had one thing going for me, it was the cuteness factor. When I covertly sniffed the air and detected curiosity, combined with a strong whiff of caring, instead of the slight hostility I’d noticed before, I knew my ploy had worked.

“I guess I am a little bit nervous. But you know, it’s totally uncool to admit that, and we humans thrive on being the coolest shit on earth.”

A small line formed between her eyebrows, but she smiled at me, so I probably hadn’t overstressed the fact of my humanity. My inner voice chided me for lying to her since I was a lot of things—human not being one of them—but I knocked that damn voice unconscious before it could ruin everything for me.

“You’ll get along well with Hayes, then. He’s very taken with himself.”

Yuck. A conceited human on my new team. Maybe I hadn’t really thought everything through.

A large man jostled me as he passed, and my nostrils flared. Male, healthy, around forty years of age, lion shifter—the information flitted through me in a rush. A lion shifter. Of course. There’d be a lot of big cats here. Somehow the big cats gravitated to security work even more than dogs and wolves did. Those types could be way more dangerous to me than anyone else.

Crap. I had to pull myself together, or else people would notice the slight nonhuman scent of distress coming from me. I usually didn’t have much of a scent at all because I made sure to use a rather noticeable cologne. Humans tended to use such things to mask their own scent, and so far, the practice had always worked.

A cleared throat derailed me from my train of thought. Clara Jones tilted her head to the side. For the blink of a moment, she seemed taken aback, but then she straightened and pointed. “Go down the hall, turn right at the end, then go in the third door on your left.”

I nodded. Holding my head high, I followed her instructions, catching a glimpse of my reflection in one of the glass doors along my way. My dark blue eyes seemed to have become the most prominent feature on my face. Those eyes screamed—even at nonshifters—that I was more than a little nervous.

After I pushed through the door and took the next corridor, I ran a hand through my light blond hair. Should I have cut it shorter? Some of the guys I’ve worked with had been real assholes about guys like me who like to wear their hair in a fashionable style instead of a buzz cut. Or maybe they disliked me for being gay. How did they find out about that, though? I certainly didn’t flaunt my sexuality.

Annoyed at my jumbled thoughts and ramblings, I tried to push everything aside and knocked at the door. A deep rumble called out, “Come in!”

For a second, my bravado faltered. What if they found out who I really was? All my hard work would be for nothing, then. No matter how good I was at my job, they’d kick me out before I could utter a single word. Guys like me weren’t supposed to become cops.

I pushed the door handle and walked inside, catching glimpses of a handful of people—mostly large people. That’s how it always was. Everyone had to be taller, bigger, meaner than me. It was like a law or something.

Oh boy, and there I went again with the rambling.

Seven pairs of eyes stared at me, waiting, assessing. After clearing my throat, I gave a small wave with the hand that still clutched the envelope.

“Hi,” I said. My voice came out soft and tentative. Screw that!

Putting more strength into my tone, I tried again. “I’m Nicholas Reed, your new colleague. I’m looking for Sam Black.”

A guy with short black hair, tinged with a few silver strands at his temples, unfolded from a chair. My nose informed me this was the guy who’d jostled me only a minute or so earlier.

Fuck, fuck, fuck! My boss was a lion shifter.

Okay, I could still do this. No stepping back, even though my inner voice screamed at me to leg it. How could I be so stupid as to want to associate with one of his kind?

Black strode toward me—or maybe I should say he swaggered—oozing self-confidence and… intoxicating pheromones. He smiled as he stretched out his hand. For a second, I got lost in his hazel eyes. All my defenses lowered at once. I wanted to rub my cheek against his in the worst way while my inner voice shrieked, filled with too many emotions for me to accurately compute.

I blinked, which effectively cleared my head. Bastard!

I knew what he was doing. He was checking to see if I’d fall for his pheromones and react so he could determine whether I was a shifter instead of a human. I ignored his hand, still held out there waiting for the obligatory shake, and sneered. “What? No conviction in the system?”

He dropped his hand and scowled. “Last guy who reeked of cologne as much as you do was no human. He fooled everyone, and he put the team in jeopardy.”

“So the guy was a shifter. What’s your problem with that?”

“Guy was a goddamn sheep, that’s my problem. First sign of trouble, he ran.” My new boss frowned suddenly. “How’d you pick up on what I was doing?”

Shit. That tiny inner voice yelled something unintelligible at me, but I’ve had years of practice ignoring it. “You sniffed the air, and let me tell you, it wasn’t subtle.”

A lanky man on my right threw a ballpoint pen onto his desk, laughing. “He’s got you there, Sam. Regarding your question about the shifter—that’s just how we roll here, kid. We don’t work with sheep or small shifters. They’re not dependable.”

“Then it’s your lucky day, since I’m simply human,” I stated, wishing I’d stop sweating so much.

Black circled me before his meaty hand landed on my neck. I stood stock-still as he swept my hair aside and whispered, “Then you won’t have a problem with me taking a whiff, right? You know, just to make sure you’re not another one of those lying idiots who could cost my team their lives.”

“Does that mean you’ve had trouble with imposters regularly?” I asked, curious even as a shiver crept down my spine. A huge beast sniffing at me tended to put the fear of God into me.

“Everyone wants to get on this team, but only a few are a good fit,” Black purred. “You’re sweating. Are you scared of what I’m going to find out, and what I’m going to do with you then?”

I had a pretty good idea what he’d do with me if he found out. “You’re sniffing at my neck, dude. Either you want to fuck me or bite me. Neither option sounds incredibly appealing.”

The lanky guy snorted, and his green eyes lit up. “I like you already, kid.”

“I’m not sure if I like you, Gramps,” I retorted, once again wishing my mouth wouldn’t operate quite so independently all the time.

Lanky guy froze while a woman who looked like the poster girl for a tribe of Amazons guffawed. His lower lip twitched upward even as he flipped the woman off. He got up and crowded into my space right next to Black.

“Uh, you guys don’t do well with boundaries, huh?” I muttered.

I cringed when Black inhaled deeply. He cocked his head to the side, a puzzled expression on his face. I held my breath. When he gave an almost imperceptible nod, the lanky guy poked a finger into my chest.

“Welcome to the team. I’m Jesse.”

Black remained glued to my back even as I said, “Thanks. Are you human or a shifter?”

Not waiting for an answer, I whirled around, threw the envelope on Jesse’s desk, then slapped my hands against Black’s chest to push him away. His pecs felt like granite. My attempt at moving him garnered me a haughty grin.

“Fuck off, man,” I snapped.

He regarded me with a lifted eyebrow. “Do you always talk to your team leader that way?”

“Only if he keeps trying to intimidate me. Usually team leaders act more mature than you.”

Jesse’s groan was echoed by some of the other people in the room. Not for the first time today, I wondered if I had a death wish. I was pretty sure I liked my life and wanted to keep living for some decades to come, but this whole situation had me on edge. Too many imponderables for my taste. I’d always had trouble when my surroundings, which included people, weren’t stable. In that area, I certainly acted like everyone else who was similar to me—though I hated to fall into that stereotype. Couldn’t prove every prejudice was wrong, could I?

“You’ve got some balls, Nicholas Reed, I’ll give you that.” Black stared at me for a long time before he lunged at me and crushed me to his chest. Heat, lust, and contentment surged through me at the sudden contact. Black’s deep rumble went straight to my heart—and groin. “You’ll fit in nicely here.”

After releasing me, he bent slightly, and I braced myself for the cheek-to-cheek rub all cats liked. It was a tad archaic for him to put his scent all over me to show I belonged to his team, but whatever. I didn’t mind all that much. Indeed, that little voice inside me purred and soaked up the attention.

Chapter Two
THERE WAS something odd about the new guy, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was that set me off. After I’d doused him in my scent, which he braved without batting an eyelash, he seemed almost stupefied for a second.

“It’s Nick, not Nicholas, okay?” His voice came out soft, as soft as it had been when he’d first entered the room, without a trace of the sass we’d witnessed a moment earlier.

I wasn’t sure which I liked more. The sass was nice, if he could keep it up, because a pushover wouldn’t survive more than a couple of days on the team. But the soft voice did something to me, something I didn’t think I had in me anymore. I wanted to shift, lay him between my forepaws, and cuddle him. I shook off the disconcerting thought in order to introduce him to the rest of the team.

“You’ve already met Jesse. He’s a jaguar shifter.”

Nick’s expression showed wariness coupled with determination. I had to give him credit for that. Even though human and shifter societies had merged long ago, humans still showed a hell of a lot of respect toward the big cat shifters. A jaguar shifter like Jesse was bound to trigger some anxiety.

“Guess you’ll want to rub all over me too, huh?” Nick sighed.

The sudden image of Jesse completely rubbing himself along Nick’s body pushed a growl up my throat. I managed to swallow the sound before it could get out. Jesse winked at Nick. “I’m all for the full-body rub, but I’m not much into an audience for that, so I’ll settle for the cheek rub.”

Nick laughed out loud, a sound that pleased me to no end. What the hell’s wrong with me?

I watched them brush up against each other, and I had to wonder why Nick seemed to like that contact so much. Most humans thought our way of greeting weird and barely tolerated it, while Nick appeared to enjoy it. Well, maybe he was one of those humans who secretly wanted to be a shifter. Although I hoped he didn’t belong to that group, since they tended to get annoying fast.

Jesse took Nick’s left arm and pulled him toward Annie. Nick started to drag his feet as soon as he realized where Jesse was taking him. I didn’t blame him. Annie stood taller than him by several inches, and her gaze tracked his every movement. She threw her long braid back over her shoulder, the light catching in the red-and-blonde strands.

“Uh, ah, y-you… you’re another b-big cat, aren’t you?” Nick stuttered as he tried to loosen Jesse’s grip.

Jesse, the evil asshole, grinned more broadly. Usually I didn’t mind that kind of posturing when we got a new team member. After all, if he chickened out when he met Annie, how could we trust him not to do the same when confronted by a tiger shifter who actually wanted to harm him or someone else on the team?

And yet, uneasiness crept into my belly. I shifted from foot to foot. Christ, what was wrong with me that my first instinct was to pull Nick back into my arms, tuck his head under my chin, and soothe him?

I pinched the bridge of my nose and released a sharp breath. Nick jerked at my admittedly not-so-quiet explosion of air, looking at me with way-too-large baby-blue eyes. He hurried to turn his gaze back to Annie while an epiphany hit me. Baby blues. Yes, that was it. Obviously his eyes reminded me of a baby, which in turn brought out my protectiveness.

Sure, there were rumors that claimed shifters acted like their animal doppelgangers, but none of the lion shifters I knew would ever harm an infant, whether it was shifter or human. Still, there were those shifters who were different—the age of their inner beast didn’t fit their human persona. Whenever they shifted, they did so into the baby form of their animal.

My attention switched back to Annie and Nick. Jesse was standing right next to them, grinning like a maniac. Nick’s lower lip trembled, and he fisted his hands tightly when Annie bent down to sniff behind his ear.

“You really don’t like people sniffing at your neck, do you, sweetheart?” Annie’s smooth voice filled the otherwise silent room.

From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of Jake crossing his arms over his chest, his brown eyes narrowing to slits. Well, this could get out of hand quickly.

While Jake was a human and usually laid-back—when he wasn’t playing conceited macho man, which he did regularly for no apparent reason—he didn’t take kindly to Annie showing interest in another male. I knew my decision to allow both of them to stay on the team after they had become an item might bite me in the ass, but somehow I’d assumed I should be more worried about Annie.

“Given that each of you could snap my neck without me even noticing it, yes, I’m really not a fan of the neck-sniffing,” Nick replied.

Jake snorted, and hostility dripped from his voice. “Maybe you should’ve taken a different job, then.”

Annie lifted her nose from Nick’s neck and sucked in a deep breath. A smile played on her face when she beckoned Jake closer. “Ah, baby, there’s no reason for you to be jealous.”

Jake remained rooted to the spot, defiance pouring out of him. Nick’s gaze flew from one to the other. “You’re a couple? Isn’t that forbidden?”

“No,” I answered. “It’s not encouraged, but as long as they do their job and don’t allow their personal lives to interfere, it’s fine.” I gave Annie and Jake a pointed look.

A blush crept up Jake’s neck, but he gave me a curt nod of understanding. Annie bumped her head against Nick’s, apparently deciding that was enough of a greeting. She stepped back, rolling her eyes at Jesse’s theatrical pout, and held out her arms for Jake. When he didn’t move right away, a low growl rolled through the room, propelling Jake into motion. He rested his head on her right shoulder as she enveloped him in a hug that caused him to wheeze. He reached out his hand toward Nick from the safety of Annie’s arms.

“Sorry about that,” he said sheepishly. “I’m Jake, one of the statutory humans on the team.”

Nick took his hand in a firm grip. “No sweat, man. And don’t worry about your… girlfriend. She’s really not my type.”

“Oh?” Jesse drawled, as he flipped a lock of black hair out of his eyes. Silently he padded so close to Nick he could practically breathe down his neck, saying, “What is your type, then, beautiful?”

Nick’s left elbow flew out, catching Jesse in his side. Jesse hissed, obviously surprised by the action. Served him right for sneaking up behind Nick.

“Not someone who sneaks up behind me and thinks he’s hot shit.”

J Leigh Bailey
j. leigh bailey is an office drone by day and the author of Young Adult and New Adult LGBT Romance by night. She can usually be found with her nose in a book or pressed up against her computer monitor. A book-a-day reading habit sometimes gets in the way of... well, everything...but some habits aren't worth breaking. She's been reading romance novels since she was ten years old. The last twenty years or so have not changed her voracious appetite for stories of romance, relationships and achieving that vitally important Happy Ever After. She's a firm believer that everyone, no matter their gender, age, sexual orientation or paranormal affiliation deserves a happy ending.

She wrote her first story at seven, which was, unbeknownst to her at the time, a charming piece of fan-fiction in which Superman battled (and defeated, of course) the nefarious X Luther. She was quite put out to be told, years later, that the character's name was actually Lex. Her second masterpiece should have been a best-seller, but the action-packed tale of rescuing her little brother from an alligator attack in the marshes of Florida collected dust for years under the bed instead of gaining critical acclaim.

Now she writes Young Adult LGBT Romance novels about boys traversing the crazy world of love, relationships and acceptance.

Sign up for my newsletter for sneak peeks, news, and upcoming appearances.

Casey Wolfe
"Everyone deserves a Happily Ever After."

For Casey, writing equals existence.  History nerd, film enthusiast, avid gamer, and just an all-around geek.  Casey has been known to spend a lot of time dancing around the kitchen to music while cooking.  Add in an unapologetic addiction to loose-leaf tea, and you get the general picture.  Married, with furry, four-legged children, Casey lives happily in the middle-of-nowhere, Ohio.

Rayna Vause
A proud geek somewhat tech obsessed. When she isn’t busy make up stories, she’s likely reading, losing herself in a video game, or planning her next trip to Disney World. She's also a martial artist, a Pop Tart Aficionado, and likes to plan conference just for fun. Rayna Vause loves to craft romances that mix a little action, a little adventure, and, often, a touch of the paranormal. She’s voracious reader and a perpetual student. Rayna has collected more degrees and certifications then she cares to admit and eventually she’ll probably earn a few more just because. She is a proud geek who injects a little bit of her geeky, tech obsessed soul into every story she writes. When Rayna isn’t busy make up stories, she’s likely indulging her love of video games. Why? Because playing through the action, adventure, and romance in a role playing game is as good as reading a romance novel and is sometimes great inspiration for her writing. She’s a martial artist having studied American Kenpo Karate. She is also a Disney fanatic of epic proportions.   Rayna is a member of RWA, RRW, and a founding member of Liberty States Fiction Writers. She lives in southern NJ, just a bit outside of Philadelphia and shares a home with a cat who thinks she’s royalty.

CS Poe
C.S. Poe is a Lambda Literary and EPIC award finalist author of gay mystery, romance, and paranormal books.

She is a reluctant mover and has called many places home in her lifetime. C.S. has lived in New York City, Key West, and Ibaraki, Japan, to name a few. She misses the cleanliness, convenience, and limited-edition gachapon of Japan, but she was never very good at riding bikes to get around.

​She has an affinity for all things cute and colorful and a major weakness for toys. C.S. is an avid fan of coffee, reading, and cats. She’s rescued two cats—Milo and Kasper do their best on a daily basis to sidetrack her from work.

​C.S. is a member of the International Thriller Writers organization.

Her debut novel, The Mystery of Nevermore, was published by DSP Publications, 2016.

Chris T Kat
Chris T. Kat lives in the middle of Europe, where she shares a house with her husband of many years and their two children. She stumbled upon the M/M genre by luck and was swiftly drawn into it. She divides her time between work, her family—which includes chasing after escaping horses and lugging around huge instruments such as a harp—and writing. She enjoys a variety of genres, such as mystery/suspense, paranormal, and romance. If there’s any spare time, she happily reads for hours, listens to Chris loves to write and to read. She writes whatever floats her boat, which means her stories vary from contemporary to paranormal, fantasy, bittersweet dreams or sci-fi. All of her books have a strong romantic element and she's happiest if she can write about shapeshifters. In real life, Chris is a teacher and couldn't have hoped for a better job. She's blessed with a wonderful and supportive family.

J Leigh Bailey

Casey Wolfe

Rayna Vause

CS Poe

Chris T Kat

Stalking Buffalo Bill by J Leigh Bailey

A Mage's Power by Casey Wolfe
Twice Bitten by Rayna Vause

Love, Marriage, and Baby Carriage by CS Poe

Alpha Unit One, New York by Chris T Kat