Thursday, October 18, 2018

Random Paranormal Tales of 2018 Part 7

Soul Bond by JS Harker
Stealing his heart.

As a thief and a warlock, Noah survives by using his wit and charm to prey on the privileged. His dangerous criminal boss wants an enchanted dagger belonging to a family of wealthy mages, including their pampered—but handsome—son, Ben. Failing to complete the job will be hazardous to Noah’s survival.

Noah bumps into Ben at a lavish party, and as soon as they meet, the connection’s undeniable, and it goes much further than ordinary attraction. Their bond reaches into their souls, entwining and changing their magic.

Which Noah thinks he can use to get to the dagger. After all, he isn’t sure this soul bond Ben seems so obsessed with is even real.

He also doesn’t count on being caught red-handed…. Or falling in love.

Balefire by Jordan L Hawk
Whyborne & Griffin #10
Whyborne’s Endicott relatives have returned to collect on the promise he made to help them take back their ancestral manor from an evil cult. In exchange, they’ll give him the key to deciphering the Wisborg Codex, which Whyborne needs to learn how to stop the masters.

To that end, Whyborne, his husband Griffin, and their friends Iskander and Christine travel to a small island off the coast of Cornwall. But when they arrive at Balefire Manor, Whyborne must not only face the evil within the ancient mansion, but the painful truth about his own destiny.

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Whyborne & Griffin:  Part 1  /  Part 2

Original Review July 2018:
It's time for Whyborne to make good on his promise to help his Endicott relatives recover the family manor and once that is done he will recieve the key that will help him decipher the Wisborg Codex so he can defeat the masters.  With Griffin, Iskander and Christine at his side, Whyborne makes the trip but what he learns on this mission may not be what he expected.  No one knows what the future holds but destiny on the other hand may already be written but will it bring happiness or heartache?

I really don't know what I can say about Balefire that I haven't already said in reviews for the other entries in the Whyborne & Griffin series, but I'll try.  I really love how both boys have grown throughout their journey.  Whyborne has become more confident without losing his quietness, I hate to use the word "innocence" because he has seen so much evil but he still retains that part of him that borders on naivete.  As for Griffin, well he has always been the more outspoken of the two but he has become more accepting of Whyborne's powers and embraced his own gift.

As for Christine and Kander, well they just keep on trucking with their friendship to the boys, love for each other, determination to help good prevail over evil, and all the while doing it with wit and wisdom.  I can't imagine anyone not loving Christine's pluckiness but one scene that really stood out for me was even in the face of possible death she was livid over Whyborne's reckless destruction of an archeological find.  I don't think her outrage even lasted a full page but it stood out and was a perfect example of what makes Christine tick and why she has become a fan favorite.  She may be a secondary character with sidekick aspects but there is nothing secondary or sidekicky about her.

Heliabel is along for the journey as the ketoi "ambassador" which I thought was a delightful touch.  She's been around the whole series but I don't think we've ever seen this much of her in one entry.  Watching her step into a motherly role to everyone was lovely, especially Christine.  Now, their talks may not be something we seen on page all the time but you just know they were emotional, straight to the point, and exactly what they both needed.  I'll admit I missed Persephone and Miss Parkhurst but it was only right that they stayed in Widdershins to "hold the fort" as it were.

Balefire is a brilliant entry in Whyborne & Griffin series and the idea that there will be only one more breaks my heart but I know that Jordan L Hawk will bring it to a conclusion we'll never forget.  So if you haven't started Whyborne & Griffin's journey than there's no better time to start and if you are a W&G follower than you certainly don't want to miss this one.


A Tender Curiosity by Charlie Cochet
Take a journey into the past and meet the men who laughed, lived, and loved in a bygone era. This collection includes three short but sweet tales of infatuation, adventure, humor, and even a dash of the paranormal.

When Love Walked In
Private investigator Bruce Shannon’s cases of missing persons and infidelity don’t inspire warm feelings around Valentine’s Day. Luckily Bruce is quite happy with only his cat for companionship—until handsome Jace Scarret wanders off the street and into Bruce’s life.

In His Corner
Former world heavyweight boxing champion Jessie “the Demon” Dalton needs a cornerman, and Eli jumps at the chance, hoping for answers about why Jessie broke his heart years ago. It soon becomes clear that Jessie needs Eli in his corner—and in his life. Now all Eli has to do is convince Jessie.

Believe Me, Beloved
Robert Bradley dreams of singing on the radio, and when he attends the masked ball of handsome station owner Gabriel Chase, Robert has no idea his dream is about to take an unexpected paranormal turn.

In His Corner originally published by Torquere Press, Inc., September, 2012.

When Love Walked In originally published by Torquere Press, Inc., February, 2012.

Believe Me, Beloved originally published in Masks Off Anthology by Top Shelf, An imprint of Torquere Press Publishers, 2012.

Blogger Note:
Only the 3rd of this 3 story collection is paranormal but it is just so delicious I had to include it in my Paranormal Tales of 2018.

Original Review August 2018:
Followers of my blog and reviews have probably long ago noticed I am HUGE historical lover so when I saw this collection from Charlie Cochet I jumped at the chance to load it into my Kindle.  It was well worth the jumping😉😉 Sometimes with collections, authors are re-releasing short stories in one book for dozens of different reasons and in doing that the reader has sometimes previously read one or two.  This time I have never read the three tales Charlie Cochet has collected in A Tender Curiosity, so they were all brand-spanking-new to me and I loved every page.  Below is a few words about each tale but as a whole Curiosity is brilliantly fun.

When Love Walked In
Considering Valentine's Day is a holiday that encompasses love it can actually be a very lonely day for some.  I can understand why when Bruce Shannon is asked to remove a vagrant sleeping on the stairs leading to his apartment, he finds himself intrigued by the man.   Talk about a story that can change the lives of men because of a simple act of kindness.  You can't help but fall in love with Bruce and Jace, they are prime examples of what we need more of in this world.

In His Corner
Jessie "the Demon" Dalton needs a new cornerman for his next fight, his trainer's nephew comes back in the picture.  Stories of second chances have always been a favorite of mine and Jessie is in need of one in both his professional and personal lives.  Eli is a breath of fresh air to Jessie if only he would let himself see it.  I loved that even though this is a short story the author doesn't leave anything out, by that I mean she manages to convey what both men are feeling now and during their first meeting, she doesn't pull any punches(pun totally intended) by rushing through the drama, we feel every ounce of doubt they had in their hearts.

Believe Me, Beloved
Robert wants to be a big a radio singing star and when he's invited to a party at the home of the station owner his hope is raised.  I don't want to give anything away but this one is a brilliant blend of historical and paranormal that may seem out of place in relation to the others in this collection but truth is, it fits perfectly.  Sometimes what we think we want the most may not be what we get but it gets us what we need.

One final note about A Tender Curiosity as a whole:  Historical settings may seem to be what connects these three tales but what I found to be the bridge between them was HOPE.  We all have hope for what we want, what we need, what will make us happy and that's what I got from this collection.  Now that sounds like the author is trying to teach us a lesson but she isn't, she is bringing us tales that are entertaining, interesting, romantic, and fun.  She succeeded because I smiled so much while reading them and highly recommend this collection even if historicals are not your usual genre of choice, you won't regret it.


Stung by KA Merikan
Zombie Gentleman Series
--- If you want honey, prepare to get stung. ---

October 1907, Honeyhill
Twenty years into the zombie Plague

Victor is a man of delicate sensibilities, not fit to do backbreaking labour on a farm ran by the mob. Upon arrival in Honeyhill, he decides he needs an anchor, an alliance with one of the guards, if he wants to survive. That anchor comes in the form of Crunch, a hunky ex-sailor with a pair of tight leather trousers and a ruggedly handsome face.

But from day one, Victor knows he won’t last long with the hard physical work assigned to him and the torment he suffers at the hands of a sadistic guard. He needs to run, and his new alliance might prove to be a burden instead of solace.

If Crunch wants Honeyhill liberated, he needs to focus on his job, not on protecting Victor, one of many new arrivals on the farm. Distraction is the last thing he needs after months of undercover work. But it’s hard not to get seduced by Victor's big brown eyes and fingertips that don’t know work. Hundreds of people depend on Crunch keeping his identity a secret, revealing it could be fatal for both him and Victor, and a failure of his mission. Thankfully, Victor would never be dumb enough to try and escape through a forest that's swarming with zombies. Would he?

“Stung” is a standalone book and a part of the “Zombie Gentlemen” universe.

Themes (may contain SPOILERS): zombies, prisoner/guard, beekeeping, gore, deception, undercover agent, captivity, romance, brutality, forced labour camp, murder, farm, torment, forbidden romance, Victorian

Erotic content: explicit m/m sexual scenes (including dubious consent)

Natural Instincts by M Raiya
Most people would consider near perfect recall, an ability to crunch numbers that rivals a computer's, and an uncanny knack for predicting the stock market to be remarkable gifts. But for Kyle, those abilities also curse him to recall every moment of his horrible, abusive past. Searching for an escape, he takes his therapist’s advice and leaves his finance job behind for a weeklong camping trip on a remote lake in Vermont. He’s not sure how a week in seclusion with nothing but his own thoughts for company will be the reprieve he needs. Then he stumbles across a man engaged in a pagan ritual and is drawn into mysteries he never dreamed existed, and realizes nature is more distracting than he thought.

With Natural Instincts being another short story I won't go into too many details but it was a lovely read.  As the blurb tells us, Kyle remembers everything in great detail and for that I just want to wrap him in a huge bear hug and never let him go.  As for the paranormal element?  I loved the intriguing way the author blends paranormal with hints of mythology, or at least a certain view leaning towards it.  I really won't say more other than that this is a lovely read, though not creepy or spooky in its paranormal factor it is still a fitting addition to my "out there" shelf.


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Random Paranormal Tales of 2018

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

Soul Bond by JS Harker
DISHES CLATTERED against metal, adding more noise to the shouts and jabbering of the catering staff. Noah sidestepped a waiter on their way out, ducked under a platter that came at his head, and grabbed a fresh tray of drinks. The champagne barely swished as he took hold of the silver tray from the prep table and twisted back toward the door. He navigated through the chaos without tipping a glass or ramming into anyone.

Once out in the hall, the staff had plenty of room to maneuver, and the raised voices from the kitchen were abruptly muted by an enchanted archway. Heaven forbid the high-and-mighty mages heard the staff bickering or saw them scramble to complete a task. Their world was like an undisturbed sea, motionless and weightless. Everyone outside their circles existed only to serve—or like Noah and other warlocks, simply weren’t meant to exist at all.

Noah took a deep breath and adopted a neutral expression. Step one was almost over. After step five, he’d be the rich bastard who insisted on having his whims fulfilled.

The massive ballroom glittered from the mages’ finery and the dust dropped by the fey who chose to mingle among the elite mortals. In the center the young, the beautiful, and the eligible did their best to display grace, poise, and expensive dance lessons. Count the attire and jewelry along with the price of that education and Noah would have been set for three lifetimes if he continued living on the cheap.

So tempting to lift a few high-end accessories as he moved through the crowd. But these were mages of the Enduring Circle. Any piece worth taking would have a locater enchantment. The last thing Noah needed was some pissed-off mage showing up at his apartment and dropping him in the Chicago River. Besides, he had a mission, and Felix Hughes did not tolerate fuckups.

Keeping his hands to himself, his tray up, and blank face on, Noah distributed the bubbly flutes until the last piece of crystal disappeared. Finally the party swelled to a few hundred people, and the security guards didn’t notice as he bypassed the kitchen hall for the restrooms. Noah grinned as he pushed open the door to the men’s room. Step one done, on to two.

In a low, quick sweep, he ensured the two stalls were empty. No one had followed him down the hall, so he had at least a few precious seconds. He hopped onto the marble counter and lifted the large round mirror away from the wall by an inch. Ostentatious taste worked in his favor, as the frame perfectly concealed the serving tray. Noah eased the mirror flat again before sliding back to the floor. He ducked into a stall and locked it just as two men entered.

“Greer isn’t going to change his damn mind. We need Snyder,” a nasal voice said. “We need proof of a threat.”

“Pendragon is running that neighborhood. That’s proof enough,” a gruff man complained.

Noah undid the buttons of his white waiter’s jacket and flipped it inside out in near-silent motions. Sliding on the now-black tuxedo jacket and fussing with the collar, he cocked his head to the side as the men continued talking. No one else at the party had mentioned Pendragon, his master. He slipped tiny wand cufflinks into place and worked on his red-and-copper bow tie.

“Anytime we talk to the warlocks, Pendragon is absent,” Nasal Wonder said. “We can’t afford to storm their territory of who-knows-what for no result—or worse.”

“They’re a bunch of pissants,” Grumble replied. The dual sounds of zippers and accompanying bathroom noises made Noah want to swear. These assholes had to leave the bathroom before he completed his disguise. “A real show of force, and the warlocks would trip over themselves to get away.”

“Pendragon was set to become a magus.”

“From a weak house.”

“You haven’t seen the way these warlocks fight.”

“I have,” Grumble said. “No honor and in packs, like rats. Maybe we should get a good dog. Snap some necks.”

“You’ll never convince Snyder with that kind of talk. If we move without him and it backfires, Greer will oust Hyde from the Council, and then it’s you and me against three. Knowing Greer, he’ll bring Pendragon on and start making those warlocks legitimate.”

“Annoying upstart bastard.”

Greer was a rarity. Noah had never heard of any mage, other than Pendragon, willing to stand up for the warlocks. He’d chosen the Warren House colors for the sake of his master, but maybe he should have done a little more research.

“What we need is an assassin,” Grumble continued. “Pendragon dies and the rest will scatter. The whole ‘community’ will go underground.”

Nasal Voice laughed, a skin-crawling sound. “They’d go back to teaching themselves useless parlor tricks, crying that they really do have power.”


Noah rolled his shoulders, took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. These assholes weren’t going to distract him from the mission. He only had to keep his calm a few more minutes, and they’d leave. Sounds of rushing water and grabbed paper towels were a freaking blessing at this point. The men started up some other conversation, but their voices faded as they left the bathroom.

Finding the headspace to meditate on his magic was hard with the conversation echoing through his thoughts. Wounded pride made for a poor anchor. Spite, on the other hand, cemented his will. Noah lightly grabbed his spell’s focus item, a brass ring on his left index finger, and dove into the mental space where his magic waited. A plunge like into water, though breathing became easier. His magic was a chilled bath, soaking him down to the bone. It wanted out, to shape reality to his desire. When his bones had that familiar ache, he murmured the spell’s quick chant.

His scalp tingled—a good sign—and the smell of burnt ozone filled the air. That was why he’d done it in the bathroom. No one would suspect an unpleasant smell in there meant someone had cast magic. After all, only a warlock thief who needed to change his hair from brown to blond would be bold enough to perform a spell at a party. Everyone might carry a wand, but like so many other things at a mage’s celebration, they were all for decoration.

Noah opened the stall door and caught his reflection in the mirror. He played with his blond hair a little to recapture the tousled style. His illusion held up under a slight touch. Good. He’d be able to move through the crowds without worrying about the strength of his spell.

“Take that for ‘useless parlor trick.’”

Affecting a practiced sycophant’s smile, he headed back to the party. He grabbed a crab puff and a champagne flute. Step two finished. Three was trickier. He had to engage in the party without sticking out. Just another face in the crowd.

Though these faces weren’t forgettable. Mages produced an endless line of handsome men. Noah resigned himself to updating his mental catalog of fantasy material, rather than risk flirting. The less information he gave away, the less likely anyone would remember him. Rewards would come after the job. He’d buy a whole case of the champagne he didn’t dare drink. Maybe two if he continued behaving himself.

Mages refused to show that level of restraint. Women wore extravagant gowns in their houses’ colors. The dresses were more amazing upon closer inspection, but Noah’s gaze kept wandering over the men. Coldwell blue and gold dominated many of the ties while Greer gray, Hyde brown, and Snyder black and silver were interspersed among the crowd. No surprise the Coldwells had such a showing. This mansion was the seat of their power in Chicago. Elias Coldwell, their magus and head of house, was the one throwing this expensive party.

Noah swirled the champagne. Just out of reach was the brightest gold bracelet he’d seen all night, and the owner didn’t seem particularly sober. If he nabbed it, he could get a couple hundred bucks, easy. And the diamond ring on that man’s hand could net over a thousand with the right fence.

Looking wasn’t the same as taking. He could evaluate all night. Better than the fantasies about the men since he didn’t get quite as riled up over jewelry.

“You must be one of Victor’s friends,” a smooth male voice said in Noah’s ear. Intimately close, the man’s breath played along Noah’s hair and over his neck, as if a kiss would follow.

The resulting involuntary blood rush downward was so quick that Noah shivered. His tingling scalp—meaning the illusion of blond hair was still holding—didn’t ease the teasing sensation. He replastered his partier’s smile on his lips and turned around to politely tell the man to fuck off.

Holy pentacles, what a man. Just over six feet, broad shouldered, and brown eyes so warm Noah swore some part of his heart thawed, the handsome stranger was every bit the model for the Enduring’s wealthy and attractive. He had a bright, shining smile and a strong jawline. His tie was Coldwell blue and his tux impeccably tailored to his perfect form. Noah wondered if he was as muscular as he seemed, or whether that was another of the night’s deceptions. If they were both naked and Noah was pinned up against a wall, begging in anticipation, he wasn’t sure he would care.

Suddenly his throat was too dry, his well-cut pants too tight, and he couldn’t make his mouth move. Shit. Gawking would draw more attention. He downed the champagne. Bubbles burned the back of his throat. With a wince he set the glass on a passing tray and prayed the gorgeous man beside him hadn’t seen the micro moment of pain. Mages probably drank like that all the time. He needed to act like he belonged, not like some lusty teenager discovering his first glorious porn image.

He cleared his throat. “I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“Makes sense. I don’t see Victor or any of his friends trailing after you. Where are you visiting from?”

“New York.”

“Endless or Immortal?”

Double shit. The Warrens didn’t belong to either of those East Coast circles. Either this was a test, or the man was ignorant.

Noah grinned to cover the nerves crawling in his stomach. “Golden Light.”

“I thought the Endless absorbed them last year.”

A mild panicked voice in the back of Noah’s mind looped warning signals. He had been discovered. However, the man wasn’t hauling him out yet. He couldn’t bail after a few potentially wrong words.

“There’s always talk,” Noah said. “I think Hyde assumed they would because of the wedding two years ago.”

“Were you there?”

“Unfortunately no.”

“Didn’t think so. I would have remembered bumping into you.” The gorgeous stranger flashed a grin. “What drags you to our humble abode?”

Humble. Sure, in some places four giant chandeliers in the ballroom alone would seem humble. “The unveiling of the legendary Ross Weldrick collection, of course.”

“It’s brought more people than I anticipated. I hear mages have come from as far as India tonight.”

“A magus rarely reveals his treasures in such a public setting,” Noah replied.

“What else would you do with the original master’s collection but gloat?” The man took two champagne flutes from a passing waiter and held one out to Noah.

Refusing a gift in this company was almost as bad as slapping them. Noah grabbed the drink, and his fingers brushed against the stranger’s. His magic rushed to the surface. The warm bath pulled him under, deeper, wider. He was dropped into a lake—no, an ocean of comforting confidence. Warm and willing.

The crash of magic continued as Noah took the glass and broke physical contact. Maybe the man’s eyes were keeping him under. He bit his cheek and lowered his gaze, metaphysically breaking his head above the water. Magic ruined the world as much as it made life worth living. His companion was attractive. He didn’t need his magic to be compatible with him.

“I didn’t catch your name,” the man said.

“Noah.” For once he was glad of a mage custom. A good practitioner could mimic a cadence after hearing a full name once. To prevent foes cursing them, mages only shared first names and dressed in their house’s colors to show family. “And you are?”


“You’re a local?”


“You must be proud of your magus and his collection.”

“Oh, definitely,” Ben said as though the collection was about as interesting as three weeks’ worth of laundry.

When Noah brought his gaze back, he found Ben staring at him like Noah were the Most Interesting Man. Their height difference bordered on comical, but it gave Noah an excuse to stop looking directly into those beautiful brown eyes while he finished his drink. Someone else must be willing to plaster themselves against that broad chest. He glanced around to discover they had somehow gotten a small bubble of personal space.

Noah swallowed the rest of his drink, then set the empty glass on a passing tray. The waiter frowned and studied him for a moment too long, as if trying to place him. So much for blending in. At his current rate, Noah might as well rip the pearls off the elderly woman standing nearby and wave them around like a lasso.

“I’m not used to splitting attention when I’m flirting with someone,” Ben said.

“I bet you aren’t.”

“Handsome men hitting on you must be commonplace.”

“Come on, have you seen my ass?”

Ben had a glorious deep chuckle. “I wouldn’t mind seeing more of it.”

Damn it. This guy wasn’t going to move on. Noah could try for boring, but he doubted that would shake him. He took a deep breath, preparing some bullshit line in a dull voice, and made the mistake of glancing up into Ben’s eyes.

When their gazes met for the second time, magic pulsed over him. Stories whispered late at night mentioned reactions this strong, but that possibility was too terrifying to entertain. And completely implausible. Ben must have cast a charm spell, except his eyes widened in surprise as well.

Distancing conversation. Right. Noah slid his hands into his pockets. “I heard the Enduring is having trouble with Pendragon.”

“Only because the Council gets a perverse kick out of picking on the less powerful. If we leave him alone, he’ll do the same for us.”

Hot and a warlock sympathizer. Damn Lady Luck for bringing Ben into his life on this particular night. Screw being forgettable or pushing him away. Noah deserved a little fun. “Does your Circle really power itself through orgies?”

Ben laughed, a loud, bright sound that was better than the previous chuckle. “Been a while since anyone brought that up.”

“It’s true?”

“No one has done that for a long time.”

“Define ‘long.’”

Ben leaned closer still. He smelled of sandalwood and something sweet, honey or syrup. His voice was a caress against Noah’s ear. “Would a visualization help?”

That was a welcome invitation. Noah couldn’t help himself. “Wonder if it’s as big as your ego.”

“Mm, bigger.”

“Amazing that your movement isn’t hindered.”

“Let me show you how graceful I can be.” Ben held out his hand.

Crap, he moved fast. Ben was a Coldwell and probably knew the mansion well enough to find a place for a quick screw, but out-of-bounds territory was risky.

Turning Ben down went against every hopeful fiber in Noah’s body. Hell with it. He couldn’t pass this up. He put his hand into Ben’s.

Swifter and surer, his magic rose again. If touching was this strong, screwing might drive him insane. Noah’s pulse raced, and he tightened his grip. A single note of music pushed through him, then another, so that Noah wasn’t sure if their magic was singing at each other or the orchestra was striking up a waltz.

Instead of leading them through some door, Ben drew him farther into the party, lightly pulling him into the dancing masses. Somewhere along the line, he disposed of his champagne flute and placed his free hand on Noah’s waist as they joined the other dancers. They eased into the pattern, which meant the music was external. Good, though Noah was still breathless.

Mages taught their students ballroom dancing as a form of concentration and meditation. Trust, tempo, balance, and environment were the important elements to completing a spell. Pendragon instituted the same practice in his makeshift school, and Noah was one of the few students who caught on early in his studies and enjoyed learning.

That had to be why he fell into rhythm with Ben despite being caught off-guard by the dance. With muscle memory, Noah took the part of follower, engaged far more with Ben than watching where they were going. Maybe it was the magic, maybe it was having a hot man look at him with something other than immediate lust in his eyes, but doubt over Ben’s ability to lead never crossed his mind.

Noah was not lovesick for a man he just met. No one swept him off his feet. He changed the step at the start of the next dance. If Ben couldn’t follow every once in a while, he wasn’t worth the effort. Instead of fighting, Ben switched fluidly, without a word, and matched Noah’s every move. They swapped again at the start of the next song.

Noah’s vision never strayed far from Ben’s face. He switched his hold over and over, confirming that, yes, that was firm muscle under the fancy tuxedo. Ben’s touches remained as chaste as the dances allowed, only making Noah want to grind upward more. He fought to keep his face and touch as relaxed as Ben. The harder fight was keeping himself from falling for the handsome man.

If mages felt this powerful and wanted all the time, no wonder they looked down on the rest of the world so much.

The music ended, and the room erupted into applause. Ben broke off contact to clap. Noah’s head spun from the sudden lack of his presence, and he fumbled to keep his hands at the same pace as the rest of the room. He checked his watch. Forty minutes had passed. Holy crap.

“You’re good,” Ben murmured in his ear.

Noah turned toward him again. A kiss wasn’t too bold after a dance like that. He slid his hands along Ben’s chest and gripped his lapel, ready to lean up—for once unashamed he’d have to roll onto his toes if he was going to meet a tall man’s lips. Ben tilted his head down.

An older man clapped his hand on Ben’s shoulder, actually dragging Ben back a step. The interloper was a merry drunk, judging by his pink cheeks and unsteady hand. He didn’t appear to notice, or care, that Ben and Noah were having a private moment. He had a self-confident smile only the truly wasted managed.

“Benny! I have been searching for you all night.”

“Uncle David,” Ben said with a curt note. “I thought you weren’t able to make it.”

“No one in Seattle wanted me to mediate after all. Didn’t want to miss all the hard work you and your sister put into this fete.” David grinned at Noah. “Fair warning, little Warren, Elias is a picky bastard when it comes to partners in our family. Magus Coldwell insists on the brightest and most talented, especially for his progeny.”

The blood drained out of Noah’s face, from every part. He was pretty sure it was evaporating straight out of his body and into nothingness because sweet perfect pentacles, he had been dancing with one of Elias Coldwell’s children. Noah had seen Alyssa, the daughter, which made Ben the son. The one the staff whispered and giggled about. The heartless playboy who had banged his way through the Enduring’s eligible—and a few times not-so-eligible—men. Out of all the people at the party, Noah had been dancing the best moment of his life with Number Four of his Do-Not-Engage list.

Noah stepped away and hid the shake of his hand. “Excuse me, I think I see—”

“Noah, wait.” Ben pushed David’s hand off and reached for Noah.

Another touch and he would be caught under the swell of their magic. Noah slipped away into the crowd and resisted the urge to run for the nearest exit. He still had a job to do and a boss he couldn’t afford to disappoint.

But God, he should have known better than to spend time with Ben. He should have stalked social media until he found a picture of every family member instead of shrugging it off and counting on the large crowds. Lady Luck was a fair-weather friend. He never should have trusted that one in six or seven hundred was decent odds to avoid him.

Familiar with overpopulated streets and busy train stations, making his way through the party was no challenge. By the time Noah reached the hallway leading to the bathrooms, he had gained a sizable lead. He rammed through the bathroom door and slammed each stall door open. No one inside. At least luck hadn’t completely forsaken him.

Noah pulled a pendant from under his shirt and clasped his hand around it. An invisibility spell would take too much energy to maintain, but the focus was good for a look-away spell too. His pulse pounded in his ears. He dropped the spell for blond hair, getting a small rush of comfort at seeing his natural brown. He needed to be himself now, not the flirt who managed to get the attention of the absolutely wrong man.

One breath, two, three. The easy tempo of a waltz. A step in a dance through his power. Ben’s hands on him. Wrong thought. Noah cleared his mind and called on his magic, expecting the shallow dip.

His power crashed over him, nearly choking at first. Mentally he twisted with it, finding the course in the metaphysical tides. He channeled the next wave into his look-away spell. After one chant, he felt the magic coat him. He opened his eyes. Usually a thin film settled over his senses, as if he had to experience the world through gauzy fabric. This time he had no more than a spiderweb’s disturbance, light and airy.

Touching Ben had made him stronger. People in the neighborhood whispered about this kind of power. Some practitioners said the response was more than simple compatibility. This was something else, something older.

But he could wonder about its meaning later. With the supercharge running through his magic, he wasn’t weary or fatigued by the ongoing spell. A minor consolation since he might be giving up his soulmate to steal some old dagger.

Balefire by Jordan L Hawk
Chapter 1
There were monsters in the woods.

I stood in the heart of the Draakenwood, before the twisted tree, in what had once been the seat of Theron Blackbyrne’s power. The place where Nyarlathotep, the Man in the Woods, had taught magic to generations of ambitious sorcerers in exchange for absolute loyalty.

The Draakenwood belonged to him no more. Widdershins had taken it, and the monsters now floating through the boughs and burrowing beneath the soil answered to no creature of the Outside.

The umbrae had placed the entrance to their burrow in the collapsed basement that once underlay Blackbyrne’s manor. Newly churned soil, heaps of stones, and other detritus showed evidence of their digging. The murmur of their conversation thrummed in my skull, like voices halfheard from another room. A worker slithered past, and I stretched out a hand to touch its gelid form.

“How are you settling in?” I asked.

If anyone had told me even as recently as two years ago, that I would stand unafraid among the creatures that haunted my worst nightmares, I would have called them mad. If they’d told me I would willingly invite the umbrae into the forest immediately outside of a populous town, my reaction would have been one of unmitigated horror.

Now, the Queen of Shadows regarded me through a single burning eye with a tripartite pupil.

She coiled in the main entrance of the new nest, her segmented body just small enough to fit inside a freight car. Someday she would be as vast as her mother in Alaska, as long as the train that had brought her here.

Her voice replied in my mind. “This is a good place, Brother. We burrow into the tunnels already here, expand them. Some are blocked; we will excavate them and learn where they might lead. The first gardens are already planted. The first nursery will be ready soon.”

“That’s good,” I said. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“Your brother-by-blood did not come with you today?”

“No.” Jack had accompanied the new queen, her attendant soldiers, and her workers on the long trip from the Alaskan wilderness. The bribes to get the cargo crates they hid in from Hoarfrost to a Whyborne Railroad train in San Francisco had been enormous, but Niles bankrolled the project and put Jack in his pay during the transfer. “Jack is working with me now. I’ve hired him on to assist with my detective agency.”

Money and detectives meant nothing to the umbrae. But they understood family very well indeed, so I let her feel my joy at seeing Jack again, along with my hopes for working with him in the future.

Pressure spiked in my head, and the taste of blood began to seep into my mouth. Human minds weren’t meant to communicate with the umbrae. “He will remain here with us,” she said. “This is good.”

“Widdershins knows its own,” I said ruefully. “And the Draakenwood belongs to Widdershins now. Somehow.” I wasn’t entirely clear on what the maelstrom had done to expand its influence after defeating Stanford and breaking the hold of the Man in the Woods.

A worker—perhaps the one I’d touched before—ventured toward me. This time its gelatinous body glided over my feet, picking away leaf detritus from my shoes, in much the same way as it would have cleaned any debris from the Queen of Shadows.

“All the children recognize you as one of ours.” The Queen of Shadows touched me with one of her feelers, slick and cool against my face.

I should have been horrified by the thought. Or wondered what was wrong with me, that my  adoptive human mother had rejected me, but the Mother of Shadows and all her spawn claimed me as one of their own.

This was the second of her daughters I’d met. The first little queen had hatched prematurely, thanks to the Endicotts, and would never have a warren of her own. The queen before me was her younger sister, laid and hatched later. We’d never set eyes on one another before last week, but that meant nothing to a species which communed directly from mind-to-mind.

The tang of blood grew stronger in the back of my throat. Though I had been changed by my encounters with the umbrae, I could still only remain in telepathic contact for a short time. “I’m glad you’re settling in. I’ll come back soon.”

“You can always use the Occultum Lapidem,” she reminded me. “It will be easier to speak to me through it, than with our mother so far away.”

“I know. Thank you.” I stood up and dusted myself off. “I’ll call upon you if I have any need, trust me.”

“You will have need.” She paused. “When the masters return, we will all have need of one another.”

It was why we had brought her here, to the Draakenwood. And yet, her words threatened to peel back the thin veneer covering my fear. The masters were coming, unless we discovered some method of stopping their arrival. Even if we fought them and triumphed, the thought of what we might lose in the process filled me with dread. The people I loved most in the world would be the first to fight, and I couldn’t allow myself to consider the prospect all of us might not survive.

“You’re right,” I agreed as I turned away. “We most assuredly will.”

Chapter 2
“Done?” I asked my husband as he emerged from the pit where the entrance to the umbrae’s tunnels lay.

Summer had come to Widdershins, which meant my wait had been at least superficially pleasant. The roots of the gargantuan tree overlooking the ruins of Blackbyrne’s house offered a relatively comfortable seat, and a nearby sapling a convenient place to hang my coat and hat. Fireflies danced amidst the dense green foliage, like a thousand fairies tempting incautious mortals to join their revels. Night birds called to one another: whip-poor-wills whistled madly, occasionally falling silent at the hoot of an owl.

The scene would have been perfect, if it hadn’t also been where I’d murdered my brother.

Murdered was perhaps too strong a word. Persephone and I shoved him through a rip in the veil and into the Outside, where he had presumably perished. Though Stanford had a better chance at survival than most, having grafted something of the Outside onto his own body, Nyarlathotep showed no mercy toward those who had failed him.

Griffin approached my perch, dusting off the knees of his trousers as he did so. “Yes. I think the umbrae will flourish here.” The light of my lantern revealed his smile. “I’d never have thought I’d sleep sounder knowing there are monsters in the woods, but there you have it.”

I summoned a chuckle, though I didn’t really feel like laughing. “Agreed.”

Griffin cocked his head. “Is something wrong, my dear?”

“Oh, nothing.” Or everything. I’d settled dangerous creatures beneath the woods adjoining a busy town. There was a very long list of people who wanted me dead. The end of the world was coming, and I didn’t know how to stop it. “I’m fine. It’s a beautiful evening, isn’t it?”

I glanced reflexively at the gigantic trunk of the tree as I spoke. The very spot where we’d tossed Stanford out of our world.

Griffin, of course, noticed immediately. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think. Naturally you have bad memories of this place.” He put a hand to my shoulder. His wedding ring flashed in the lantern light, the white pearl glowing like the fireflies. “I should never have asked you to come with me.”

“I imagine you have bad memories as well,” I protested. “After all, Stanford kidnapped you, locked you in a cage, and threatened to kill you.”

“True, though the umbrae have at least done such extensive remodeling of their new home, I couldn’t even tell you where the cages were.”

I had no such troubles recalling where Stanford had strangled me, demanding Father choose between us. Or where I’d stabbed him with Griffin’s old sword cane.

Or had my last glimpse of his face, distorted in pain and terror as he vanished from our world forever.

Stanford had tried to kill me first, of course. He meant to seize the fragments of the maelstrom within my flesh and that of my twin sister, and use its power to serve the masters. He would have hurt my town, hurt all the people the maelstrom had collected, and reduced Widdershins to nothing more than a tool to welcome the masters back into the world so they could enslave everyone. We hadn’t exactly been close.

“It isn’t that I feel guilty about killing Stanford,” I said.

“Nor should you.” Griffin sat beside me, slipping his arm from my shoulder to around my waist. I leaned into him gratefully. “For heaven’s sake, Ival, not even Niles blames you. Stanford murdered your older sister, he meant to kill Persephone, and intended to sacrifice the rest of us to Nyarlathotep. Not to mention the fact he murdered the heads of the old families, and worked with Bradley Osborne to take over your body, and—”

“I know; I know.” I held up a hand. “Stanford was a terrible person. We loathed one another since childhood. He left Persephone and me no choice but to put an end to him. Believe me, I’m well aware of all of this.”

“And yet you still wish things had been different,” Griffin suggested.

“Of course I do.” I stared down at my hands. My wedding ring bore a black pearl in contrast to Griffin’s white, its surface rich with hidden colors. “Why couldn’t he have just stayed in the blasted asylum? Why couldn’t he have left us alone?”

I’d thought the same thing many times throughout childhood. Bullying me had been Stanford’s favorite sport. If he had just let me be, how different things would have been for us all.

“It’s his fault, not yours.” Griffin’s hand stroked my arm soothingly. “You bear no blame in this.”

“I know. I’m not blaming myself. I’m not—not remorseful, or guilty, or…” I let out a long sigh. “I don’t know what I feel.”

“Family is difficult, sometimes.”

Heaven knew, Griffin understood that. He had a better relationship with the Mother of Shadows than with the human woman who had raised him.

He pressed a kiss into my cheek. “Sitting here won’t help things. Let me take you home.”

I nodded. We rose to our feet, and I put my coat and hat back on. Two soldier umbrae detached themselves from the upper boughs of the great tree, one gliding ahead of us down the path, the other behind. An escort, courtesy of the Queen of Shadows, as Griffin called her to distinguish her from the Mother of Shadows in Alaska. The umbrae served as guides as well; I was no woodsman, and the dense forest remained as confusing to me now as it had the first time I’d set foot in it.

Still, with the help of the umbrae, we navigated the Draakenwood quickly enough. The easiest path out was through the graveyard, and I tried not to look too closely at the mausoleums as we passed. Miss Lester had restored the damage Stanford did to the cemetery when he raised the dead  of the old families against us, but I’d never forget the sight of Guinevere’s corpse lurching toward me, trailing her winding sheet behind.

We’d parked the motor car at the gates. The police, under Chief Tilton, were familiar with our vehicle and knew to let us be. I supposed there were some benefits to my new status.

When we arrived home, it was to find a note wedged into the crack of our front door. Griffin and I exchanged a glance, and he pulled it loose. For a moment, I indulged in the optimistic thought that a potential client had come seeking his abilities as a detective. His business had taken a sharp uptick since February, especially among the old families. The decision to hire Jack to take on some of the simpler investigations had come from necessity rather than simple familial loyalty.

“It’s addressed to you,” he said.

Drat it. I took it from him and unfolded the paper. The stationery bore the imprint of the Widdershins Arms Hotel. Written in an elegant hand, it read:

Dr. Whyborne,
Please join me for a late dinner at the Widdershins Arms at your earliest convenience.
It’s time.
Rupert Endicot

A Tender Curiosity by Charlie Cochet
When Love Walked In
Chapter One
“WELL, THAT’S the last of ’em.”

Bruce Shannon leaned back in his worn leather chair and rubbed his hands vigorously over his face. What a stinker of a day. Not that he gave a hoot over something as off the cob as Valentine’s Day, but having to let dames know the week of said schmaltzy holiday that their beaus had found their way onto greener pastures wasn’t his idea of a good time. Then again, when did being a private dick have anything to do with having a good time? Besides, good times were a thing of the past. When the market had gone to hell over four years ago, the world had gone with it. Good for his business, bad for the soul. FDR had his work cut out for him. The key word there being work—something that was in short supply these days.

A deep purring dragged him out of his thoughts, and he smiled, scratching the scruffy black feline under her chin.

“We do fine on our own, don’t we, sweetheart?”

A slightly louder mew and twitch of the tail made Bruce chuckle. “Yeah, I suppose a tomcat now and then wouldn’t be so bad, would it?” With a sigh he stood and closed the file on his desk. That was something he damn well wasn’t going to start thinking about. This blasted holiday had him feeling enough of a heel as it was, without making him want to board that particular train wreck waiting to happen.

He opened his bottom desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of Old Forester, refilled his whiskey glass, then tossed it back. It wasn’t as if he had far to go to get home, and the brisk walk in the cold would sober him up some anyway. What the hell, one more wouldn’t hurt. After pouring himself another, he carried the glass to the cabinet and cursed under his breath when he found it locked. With a frustrated grunt, he went back to his desk and all but took it apart looking for the key.

“Damn that woman! Where is it?”

He swiped the telephone off its cradle and somehow found the patience not to bark at the operator as he asked to be connected.

A pleasant voice on the other end greeted him cheerfully. “Hello?”

“Gladys, where’s the damn key?”

“Bruce, how lovely to hear from you. It’s been what, a quarter of an hour since we last spoke?”

“Well, if you hadn’t hidden everything from me, I wouldn’t have to call you!” It was his damn office. Was it too much to ask to be able to find what he needed?

“If by hiding everything you mean putting it in plain sight? Then yes, Bruce, I’ve hidden everything from you. Face the cabinet.”

Bruce grudgingly did. “Now what.”

“Look up.”

He looked up and frowned. On a small nail hung a thin black cord with a key tied to the end of it. “Why the hell would I be looking up if I’m gonna be filing somethin’?”

There was a soft titter at the other end. He chose to ignore it. “You’re right, Bruce. How silly of me.”

“You know…,” he began, pouting miserably. “If you hadn’t skipped out on me, I wouldn’t have to ring you a dozen times a day.”

“Bruce, I got married. I didn’t defect.”

He could hear the smile in her voice, and he reined in that petulant child inside him. “The wedding was nice, by the way. You looked… pretty.” There was a long pause, and for a minute there, he thought they’d been disconnected. “Gladys?”

“I’m here. Why, Bruce, that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

“Yeah, well, don’t let it go to your head. I still think you’re a sap for getting yourself middle-aisled. But I’m glad it was to Harold. He’s a decent fella.”

“You’re only saying that because you tailed him.”

“If I was gonna lose the best secretary I ever had to some mug, he better damn well be worth it.”

Gladys laughed. “I’m the only secretary you’ve ever had.”

“Same thing.”

“Not really, but I’ll take it.” There was another pause before Gladys spoke up, her gentle tone making him cringe. He took a swig of his whiskey to fortify himself. “Bruce, please hire another secretary. You spend too much time on your own as it is. Do you have anything planned for Valentine’s Day? Other than work?”

“If you already know the answer, why do you bother askin’? Silly broad.” There was a heavy sigh on the other end, telling him it was time to wrap this up. “You’re a married woman, Gladys. What are you doing callin’ a shady fella like me at this time of night? Shouldn’t you be knitting booties or somethin’?”

“You called me, you pill!”

Bruce laughed at the high-pitched squeal and scratched Mittens behind the ear. “I did? You better get goin’ before Harold starts thinkin’ I’m tryin’ to steal his girl. I got enough mugs tryin’ to give me the Broderick.”

Gladys released the most unladylike of snorts. “Don’t be a bunny. Harold knows how I feel about you. You’re the obnoxious brother I never had. Also, Harold isn’t the type to give anyone any kind of beating. He’s a gentle man.”

Not to mention, Bruce was six foot four and weighed two hundred pounds, leaving poor Harold about a foot too short and forty pounds too light. The guy would need a ladder to whack Bruce over the head. Either that or resort to gnawing at Bruce’s ankles.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Gladys muttered. “Harold might not go down there and clobber you, but I will. Cut back on the cigarettes, put away the whiskey, get something decent to eat that does not include coffee, and a slice of pie, and get some sleep.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied most seriously. At least he could still torment her via telephone.

“Don’t razz me.”

“No, ma’am.”



“You take care of yourself, okay?” she insisted softly.

How did she do that? Now he didn’t feel much like teasing. “Thanks, Gladys. Good night.”

“Good night. Call me if you need anything.”

Ah ha! “Remember, you offered.”

She let out a groan. “I regret it already.”

With an evil cackle, he hung up and made his rounds, straightening his desk and watering the fern before he ended up killing another one. Maybe he should get a cactus. Nah, he’d probably end up killing that too.

After closing the blinds, he slipped into his suit jacket, pulled on his black overcoat, then scooped Mittens up and deposited her on his shoulder.

“Ready to go home, dollface?”

Receiving a mew in response, he turned off the lights, grabbed his hat off the coatrack, and locked up. He gave the reception area a once-over before locking that up too. Overall, the place was in dire need of attention. Maybe it was time he put an ad in the paper:

Cranky private investigator seeks mild-mannered secretary with exceptional coffee-making skills, built-in homing beacon for lost property, and no intention of ever getting hitched. Ever.

P.S. Must like cats.

Yep, he’d get on that tomorrow. For now, he’d pick up some dinner and try to catch tonight’s episode of Amos ’n’ Andy. Maybe he’d even listen to a little Walter Winchell. Turning up his coat collar, then pulling his hat low over his eyes, he reminded himself, yet again, to find his blasted gloves. Three days until Valentine’s Day and it was colder than a room full of ex-wives. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have a lovers’ holiday, say, in July? Not that he cared. In a way it was a relief not having anyone. He wasn’t exactly a warm, fuzzy-feeling kinda guy.

He grumpily crossed the street, then kicked the snow off his shoes outside Clifton’s Café before heading inside.

“Hey, Clif, whad’ya know?” Bruce greeted the handsome blond with a wink as he sat down at the counter. Clifton’s had the best pies in New York City, and Clif was the godsend who made them. Didn’t hurt that the pie was served by a looker like Clif. The two of them went way back—a good portion of that time back on Bruce’s couch, making Clif blush.

“How’s it going, Bruce?” Clif replied with a bright smile, chuckling when Mittens meowed for his attention. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. Hello to you too.” He gave her a little scratch before reaching under the counter, then placing a large brown paper bag in front of Bruce.

“One roast beef sandwich with extra roast beef, a side of potato salad, one slice of pie, one coffee—easy on the cream—and a reminder to go to bed before sunup.”

Bruce glowered at him. “Gladys called you, didn’t she?”

“You bet. She also said to swap out your coffee for juice, but I don’t have the heart to deny a fella his cup of joe.” Clif laughed. The phone rang, and he gave Bruce a wicked grin. “I’ll bet you five dollars that’s her calling to make sure you’re taking home more than just pie.”

“Five dollars? Who do you think I am, Rockefeller? I ain’t got that kinda bank to lose.” Bruce said his goodbyes and high-tailed it out of there before he got another earful. In a matter of minutes, he was at his small bachelor-apartments hotel, picking up his mail. A familiar hiss stopped him halfway to the rickety elevator.

“Mr. Shannon!”

For crying out loud! Just when he thought he was in the clear. Bam! The cantankerous old man appeared like some specter from a Universal Pictures horror film. Pasting on the most pleasant smile he could muster, Bruce turned to face his landlord, a man who couldn’t seem to make up his mind as to whether Bruce was his personal house dick or a reprobate of the lowest order. Last time Bruce checked, he was neither. If push came to shove, he’d rather be the latter.

“Yes, Mr. Moyer. What can I do for you?”

“What happened to the pretty brunette who used to come ’round here? I don’t see her no more.”

Here we go. “She was my secretary, Mr. Moyer. She doesn’t work for me anymore. Got herself hitched recently.”

“Maybe if you didn’t go around stinkin’ of booze and cigarettes and shaved every once in a while, she wouldn’t have given you the high hat and married some other mug. I’m surprised that fleabag of yours ain’t left ya too.”

God, give me the strength not to break that cane over his greasy, balding head. Feeling a twitch in his free hand, he shoved it into his overcoat pocket, just in case. “Gladys was my secretary.”

“What’s the matter with you, boy?” He gave Bruce the up-and-down, as if the old geezer could see anything through those ridiculously thick glasses anyhow. “I don’t want no degenerates living in my building,” he added sharply.

That’s right. Only the best dope fiends, racketeers, grifters, hoods, and pro skirts allowed in this fine establishment. Bruce needed to find a new apartment. “Is there something you wanted, Mr. Moyer?”

“One of ’em hobos got in here somehow, and he’s sleepin’ on the stairs. Since he’s on your floor, you get rid of ’im.”

“Sure thing,” Bruce muttered, wishing the old guy would quit being so stingy and hire a damn doorman. Tipping his hat politely, Bruce headed for the stairs. He glanced over his shoulder to find Mr. Moyer peering distrustfully at him. Did he think Bruce was going to make off with the banister? Relieve himself in the pot of already wilting gardenia? Jeepers creepers.

It wasn’t until Bruce reached the third floor that he heard the old man’s apartment door slam shut. Mittens let out a low grumble, and Bruce joined her. Only then did it occur to him he should have taken the rust bucket of an elevator. After mentally going through every possible scenario for getting away with murder, he finally reached the dimly lit flight of stairs to the eighth floor. Sure enough, a dark lump denoting a bundled-up body lay fast asleep on the top step.

Giving the bum a once-over, Bruce quickly took in the details. Obviously at some point the guy had been better off. Maybe he hadn’t had a lot of dough, but enough to afford the once-decent suit he was wearing and the leather shoes in desperate need of resoling. There was a dusty, dirt-smudged cap pulled low over thick, black hair, which was shadowing most of the man’s face, leaving some of his dark, stubbly jaw visible. Whoever he was, he obviously hadn’t been on the streets long. Then again, how long was long enough?

“Hey, pal. Wake up.” Bruce nudged the man’s shoulder firmly. “You gotta get movin’.”

There was a groan, and suddenly the man gave a start, threw his dirt-stained hands out and grabbed a fistful of Bruce’s overcoat. His eyes were round, wide, and the palest blue Bruce had ever seen. They shone even in the barely there light around them. It wasn’t just the color of those eyes that knocked Bruce for a loop, but the terror and anguish in them. The guy was also far younger than Bruce had expected. It was hard to tell with the unpleasant state he was in, but he was in his late twenties, maybe?

“Whoa there,” Bruce said gently. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”

The young man’s expression soon gave way to wariness as he studied Bruce. His slim shoulders held a sudden alertness, and Bruce figured the kid had seen some trouble. Enough to know Bruce looked like the kind of guy to be mixed up in it.

“Relax. I don’t know you, and no one’s payin’ me to,” Bruce assured him, though for the life of him he didn’t know why. He should be escorting the guy out, not making conversation. “What’s your name?”

“Jace. Jace Scarret,” the young man replied quietly. When he realized he was still holding on to Bruce, he quickly released him. “Sorry.”

Mittens jumped onto Jace’s lap, purring and rubbing her head against him, making Jace smile. And what a smile it was. Despite the beard and shabby state of him, his smile was something else.

Bruce shook his head at his wayward thoughts and his wayward feline. “Mittens, you shameless hussy. Stop twitching your tail for other men.”

Jace chuckled and gave Mittens the attention she demanded. “She’s real friendly, isn’t she?”

“Tell that to all the mugs who ended up pin cushions.” Frankly, he was surprised to see Mittens taking a liking to anyone other than him and Clif. Not even Gladys had the honor. Content with the affection lavished on her, Mittens sprang off Jace’s lap and cantered over to the apartment door to scratch at it. “Her highness is eager to get indoors.”

“I don’t blame her,” Jace replied with a wistful smile.

Aw hell, how could anyone expect Bruce to kick this poor schmo out on his ear? Better yet, when the hell had he become such a sap? Granted, he was known to give fellas a dime or two, fifty cents here and there, a dollar in some cases, but he couldn’t help every bum who ended up at his door. The young man started to get up, but as soon as he was on his feet, he wobbled. Bruce swiftly caught hold of his arm and steadied him.

“Sorry,” Jace groaned, holding on to his head. “I… I need a minute.”

“You feelin’ okay?” Aside from the obvious, the guy looked a little green.

“Yeah, just dizzy.”

“When’s the last time you ate?”


That was taking far more thought than it should. Before Bruce could listen to any of the hundred reasons in his head telling him not to do what he was about to do, he nodded to his door.

“Why don’t you come in, have something to eat, and get cleaned up.”

A fretful expression crossed Jace’s face, making him appear even younger than he was. “Why?”

“You’re hungry, ain’t cha?”

Jace nodded, looking miserable. He glanced over at the apartment door tentatively before moving his gaze back to Bruce. “Your wife won’t mind?”

“Only dame I got is the one meowing to get in,” Bruce said with a smile.

“Oh.” Jace went quiet and got a little fidgety, his gaze shifting to the floor. “Are you expecting me to… repay you?”

“What?” Bruce had no idea what the guy was yammering on about. As Jace bit down on his lower lip and his face colored, the penny dropped. “What the hell? No, no! Of course I don’t expect you to—Jesus Christ, what kinda places you been to?”

Jace opened his mouth, and Bruce quickly put up his hand. “I don’t wanna know. Look, it’s a sandwich. I don’t expect nothin’ in return, got me? Mittens gave you the all clear, so you’re welcome to come in.”

With a relieved expression, Jace allowed Bruce to help him the rest of the way to the apartment. After opening the door, they let her highness in first, then followed close behind, all the while, Bruce wondering what the hell he was doing. What was it about Jace Scarret that had him acting the twit? A part of him wanted to find out. The other part of him was packing bags and getting ready to make tracks.

Stung by KA Merikan
The train stopped. Only this time, no one fell on Victor. He didn’t have to fight his way up to the surface of the crowd that was squeezed into the cattle wagon beyond its capacity. Blindfolded, with his hands bound behind his back, he was fighting for his life like a drowning cat, ready to go beyond all measures to keep his head high so that the foul-smelling bodies wouldn’t choke him. He couldn’t be certain, but judging from the cries and overheard conversations, some people were less fortunate than him. Only a few hours into the journey, a man died of a heart attack at the other side of the wagon, his body now lost on the floor below.

Whenever Victor felt threatened, or his throat dried so much it hurt, he kept thinking about his most prized possession. It was his late mother’s engagement ring, which he managed to hide in a small pouch sewn into the inner side of his shirt by whoever owned the garment before. As long as he had the ring, he would afford hope.

Victor got to his toes, trying to get his chest above the tightness of the bodies around him, so that it could expand more, letting him breathe properly. No use.

Shouting from the outside made Victor swallow. He had no clue where they were being taken, but it couldn’t be anywhere good. He couldn’t believe it was happening to him! He had plans, a home, nice clothes that were ripped off him and replaced with some old rags…

Suddenly, the struggle to raise above the others was gone as the wagon filled with cool air and the crowd moved, carrying Victor with it. He frantically clutched at the fabric of someone’s skirt, but the stream of people came to an abrupt stop with a loud bang that made Victor’s ears ring. The air filled with a new smell, smoky, a bit like fireworks.

He froze with fear, but no one died, and the gun proved useful in keeping the crowd of prisoners from trampling over each other. It was all a chaos of limbs and bodies before someone pulled the piece of cloth off Victor’s eyes, and he was immediately blinded by a flood of light. All the captives were being rushed out of the wagons with shouting and prodding, so he kept his gaze down, on the dirty boots of the man walking in front of him. At least he could breathe properly again. He couldn’t even remember the last time he smelled pine, and the fresh scent of nature blended into a balm for his soul. He kept moving, but tried to look around as much as possible, and what hit him right after the smell, was a constant, sharp buzzing from somewhere beyond his immediate surroundings. He half expected it to stop, or change tune, like in the case of all machines he knew, but as their sad cavalcade advanced along a sun-bathed dirt track, the low tremor in Victor’s ears was a constant companion.

Once his eyes got used to the bright light, he started taking in details. They were unloaded at a remote train station in the woods, or rather, at the end of a track that led to nowhere. As soon as he realized there were no solid buildings around, his stomach knotted, and he couldn’t stop himself from scanning the broad treeless strip for stray zombies. Forests, the countryside, were places he always associated with the presence of the undead, so he tried sliding his hands out of the binds around his wrists, but the rope wouldn’t give. The guard who tied them was certainly proficient at it. Victor’s head emptied when he noticed the familiar open jaws he had only seen in the zoo. The terrain was protected by a tall, iron hedge, something that didn’t seem solid enough to stand between people and carnivorous beasts. But as there was nothing he could do other than obey men with shotguns, he cast his gaze down and marched, even though fear kept creeping up his back, urging him to look out for danger.

As the captives were being herded towards a group of wooden buildings, Victor couldn’t stop looking to the undead walking between the trees just over a dozen yards away. His breath hitched, and he stumbled to the side when one of the monsters crooked its head, trying to bite through the iron bar. He fell out of the row with a yelp, his back immediately covering in cold sweat, but the nearest guard didn’t tolerate any nonsense and roughly pushed Victor back in line, straight into a young, shivering woman whose breasts were uncovered by a torn blouse.

“Watch where you’re going, knobhead!”

“But… there are z–zombies.” Victor tried so hard not to stutter, but his voice was trembling.

“There’s a metal fence. Are you blind or somethin’?” The guard sneered at him, patting the big, black shotgun in warning, a clear sign that weakness would not be tolerated.

Victor’s stomach cramped, and he had to blink to get his eyes back into focus. Everything seemed far too bright after the dark days in the wagon. He had no idea where he was. All he knew from the scraps of conversation he overheard on the train, was that most of the people he was taken with were indebted to the Dals, a powerful family that ruled a whole district of Bylondon with an iron fist. It made him want to cry in rage, as he did nothing that should have earned him a fate such as this.

The sunshine, the delicate rustle of leaves, or even the fresh autumn air could not console Victor. From a dirt road leading through the forest, they went on to one that was neater looking, and led along never ending rows of trees with succulent, red apples pulling the branches down with their weight.

“New transport!” another guard yelled to someone at the front and the half naked woman next to Victor broke into a sob, but he was too stunned to make himself care. This couldn’t be happening to him. He had money, he had a father who ran a successful business.

Between the trees of the vast orchard, he noticed a group of people picking the fruit, their thin bodies tanned by the sunlight that was unnaturally strong for October. To his right, by the edge of the pine forest was a collection of wooden buildings, some of them two stories high. There were also sheds, all circled by an additional row of fence, topped with barbed wire.

Victor rushed to the side of the group, so he could see more of what awaited them ahead, and the glimpse he got, made his heart sink. There was a dozen of armed men, some with crossbows, others with swords or machetes, and none of their faces was even remotely friendly. One stepped in front of the others. From the way he moved in confident strides, Victor assumed he was the leader. The man scratched his bald head and took his time to assess the group with a sneer on his wrinkled face. The grimace showcased an ugly scar across his bulbous nose.

“Welcome to your new home, or as we call it, Honeyhill.”

The guards behind him laughed, and Victor could imagine the place was nothing like the name suggested.

“You have all begrudged the Dal family, and you are here to pay for it. You will work, you will have food and shelter. Behave well and you will live, behave badly and you will die,” continued the leader in a loud and somewhat raspy voice

Victor swallowed. How exactly was his ‘crime’ an insult? If anything, Frey Dal should have taken it as a compliment. And how long would he remain here anyway? There had been no trial, no sentence… Did they really expect him to work in a field like some kind of pleb? He was an educated man. He should be working on developing his talent, protecting his voice, but there he was, on the edge of a forest, in a dirty shirt and a pair of trousers that had been cut off at the knee.

One moment, he was drinking his coffee and reading the paper, the other, two thugs were dragging him out, and no one rushed over to his aid!

The introduction wasn’t long, but he found out the leader was supposed to be referred to as ‘Mr. Dorset’. It made Victor cringe. Dorset was no ‘mister’, but he didn’t have to dwell on that as soon, they were separated into smaller groups, which the guards led into different directions. At first, the shrinking number of captives didn’t bother Victor much, but at some point, he noticed that each time a guard chose his team, he was being overlooked. It was making him wet with cold sweat because he could hardly predict what those people would do with someone they deemed useless.

“Time for the next shift.” A cheerful, raspy voice was accompanied by heavy footsteps. Victor stuck his head out, surprised by the lack of threat in the man’s tone. He was desperate for some kind of anchor amidst the chaos, and whoever it was, provided a shadow of hope for it.

The crossbow at the man’s hip was no less threatening than the other ones he’d seen so far, but with his big frame, wide shoulders and a toothy grin, this particular guard could definitely be an anchor. A heavy, brawny anchor with soft, green eyes that belonged anywhere but in Honeyhill.

It was the glint of the sun reflecting on the smooth length of the man’s machete that brought Victor back to reality and back into the row.

Dorset frowned at him and covered his bald head with a brownish cap. “Yeah, they’re all yours, Crunch.”

Crunch? What kind of name was that?

Victor bit his lip, straightening up and getting to his toes in an attempt to look taller and bigger than he was.

Crunch came followed by a group of prisoners. They were the epitome of tired, with rugged, thin clothes sticking to their bodies. Slouching, with bloodshot eyes and dry lips, they were pushing wheelbarrows filled with apples. But Victor’s focus quickly turned back to Crunch as the man passed his group in a pair of tight, brown leather trousers tucked into well used boots. Victor’s eyes followed the fine arse, but when his gaze crawled up the guard’s back, now only covered by a tight, dirty undershirt, he realized that he was being scrutinized as well. Blood ran cold in his veins when he looked into the man’s clear eyes. From the slightly crooked nose that must had been broken some time ago and the scar that ran across one of Crunch’s brows, Victor deduced the man wasn’t one to mess with.

The group of tired men and women was taken over by another guard, but Crunch didn’t seem to notice, keeping up eye contact with Victor. He wasn’t smiling, but Victor’s heart skipped a beat then he noticed the guard licking his upper front teeth, which was the first fucking thing he understood in this godforsaken place! Victor knew men found him attractive, and apparently this sod was yet another admirer.

Victor’s mouth stretched into a seductive smile before he even thought about it, and when he noticed a flicker of growing interest on the masculine face, it occurred to him that anchoring himself to a man in charge might be exactly the thing he needed. He let his eyes drift down for a second before darting a shy yet promising look at Crunch. He sucked his bottom lip into his mouth and made a show out of it. Just for Crunch.

The man didn’t smile, but he didn’t look away either. Just when Victor was starting to doubt his initial conclusion about him, Crunch yawned theatrically and stretched, showing off that big, muscled body. Victor was tempted to laugh at such blatant peacocking, but he did find the man very attractive, and the display was a promising sign, so he winked instead. With his hands still bound behind his back, there wasn’t much he could do to show interest. The only idea he had was to trace his lips with his tongue before poking it hard into the inner side of his cheek in the well-known suggestion of cocksucking. Crunch’s package looked promising in that department.

The delicious looking guard gave him one more moment of attention before walking over to Dorset to have a word with him. Victor’s stomach tightened when Crunch gestured towards the group of new arrivals that included him. Oh God, what if the guard understood it all wrong? What if they beat him? He wouldn’t even be able to defend himself.

All he wanted was to form some kind of alliance here, maybe get some food because back there, in the train, there were moments when his head spun from hunger. Since he had been taken two days ago, all he got was stale water and bread.

All the guards shared a laugh about something Victor couldn’t overhear, but he stood up straight when Crunch started walking towards him.

“I’m Crunch, you’re coming with me,” he said and pointed his machete to the way down the track, back to the orchard, like he intended to use it for cutting a passage through rainforest. He was joined by a young, blond guard who couldn’t be more than twenty.

“You will pick apples. They’re not yours to eat. No talking. Try anything funny, and you will be punished,” said the second guard, watching them with angelically blue eyes.

Victor swallowed. What about food? Wouldn’t they get any? He was too afraid to ask though. A hiss to his left caught his attention, and when he looked to where it came from, he came face to face with a thin man with a hawk-like nose and eyes so swollen he looked like a victim of a beating.

“What did they get you for?”

Victor bit his lip nervously. “Um… I don’t know… they made a mistake.”

A big man at his other side eyed him up with a sneer. “Yeah right. Save it.”

“No talking!” Crunch’s voice from the back stung as much as the poke of something hard and cold at his back. He tensed, squeezing his mouth shut and shied away from the touch. Maybe teasing the man wasn’t the best idea after all.

Following the blond guard, they entered the vast orchard. A thin girl walked out from a shed at its border and distributed baskets without a word. The constant buzzing was still lingering at the back of Victor’s mind, and he looked around to find its source. He frowned at a shining dome-like structure looming on the top of a nearby hill. Who would have need for modern architecture in a place such as this? He didn’t have much time to dwell on it though as the guards herded them deeper between the rows of trees, past groups of workers who did their job without protest, silent as puppets at the hands of their masters. They seemed to have come to terms with their fate. Then again, what could they do in bright daylight against a bunch of men with weapons and surrounded by a forest full of bloodthirsty undead.


The sun was killing him.

Victor closed his eyes for a moment, hiding in the shadow of the tree in pretense of looking for fallen fruit in the grass. Here, he could still sense the earthy, somewhat wet smell of the ground, mixing with the sweet aroma of the apples. Experiencing such close contact with fruit trees was so alien and new that he wasn’t yet sure whether he liked it or not.

It seemed like it’s been ages since his team started working in the orchard, and they haven’t been given any water so far. His tongue felt like a piece of parched wood, drying out inside the boiling oven of his head. The skin of his forearms and nape was already burning and, despite the raising agitation, he was getting dizzy. He coughed, unable to soothe the thirst that turned his throat into parchment, and his eyes fell to a couple of small apples beneath his feet.

Victor’s whole body ached for the chance to have just one bite, to soothe the thirst for even a moment. His gaze raised just enough to see the two pairs of boots that couldn’t belong to the other prisoners. His heart leapt when he saw that the men wearing them were facing away from him. The guards seemed to be caught up in a heated conversation and with their attention turned elsewhere, Victor reached for a blood red apple. He didn’t even bother to clean it with his shirt and got some grit between his teeth, but the explosion of taste and the glorious wetness of the fruit made it all irrelevant.

He forgot about the surrounding world, engulfed in satisfying his hunger as the skin gave way to his teeth with a crunching sound. Victor hid behind the tree, scooting down with his back against the trunk as he tried to watch his surroundings, but after the first bite, his mind drifted off, and he fantasized about the cottage pie he had for his last proper meal. He should have savoured each bite but used to eating whenever he liked, he just shoveled it from the plate within minutes. Such a shame.

Victor was halfway through the succulent fruit, when a large hand grabbed his wrist and sharply pulled him up. He swallowed a huge gulp of air, looking at the fair hair at the back of it with wide eyes. Terror grasped his heart, squeezing it to the point of pain, just as hard as Victor’s fingers curled around the apple.

Crunch’s bright green eyes stared at him from below bushy eyebrows. “You dumb or somethin’?” he snarled.

“I’m…” Victor had to clear his throat to make it work properly, but he couldn’t keep his teeth from clattering. “I’m so hungry… We weren’t fed since yesterday… I…”

“Do I look like I care for yar sob story?” Crunch’s voice was clearly affected by the smoke from the pipe he was holding in his other hand, low and raspy like fine glass paper.

Victor stared at him, frozen in place. His muscles hurt from the strain of maintaining the same position, but he pushed it into the back of his mind, completely focused on the green irises. He needed one of the guards to help him through this place, he needed Crunch.

“What do you care for?” he whispered, desperately trying to keep himself together. He clung to the hope that Crunch wouldn’t be as hesitant to punish him right away if he had despised Victor’s crude flirting earlier.

Those words did get him more of Crunch’s attention. The man slowly let go of his wrist and took the apple out of Victor’s hand, only to bite into it himself. “What were ya getting at back there?” He pointed towards the buildings, obviously sharing Victor’s thoughts.

Victor’s chest heaved while his mind worked frantically to come up with the best answer. “What do you think I meant?”

Crunch frowned and looked around, taking another bite of Victor’s apple. With his gaze still turned away, he leaned in, resting his hand just by Victor’s head, close enough for Victor to smell the uncovered forearm. “I think ya wanna suck me,” he said with his mouth full.

Victor felt his face flush and with a tingle going all the way down his back, he knew every single hair on his body was bristling in response to that straightforward statement. “Um… I might… want to…”

“Ya don’t sound so sure anymore. Not gonna force ya, ya know.” Crunch kept checking him out as he traced a finger down Victor’s stomach, giving him goosebumps.

Victor frowned. So, it was all right to deny him an apple, yet forcing him to suck a cock wasn’t? He made himself smile despite the rising anxiety and took in the smell of worn leather and sweat. “You’re just a bit overwhelming.”

“I could be less overwhelming after supper, if yar up for it, pretty boy.” Crunch took another bite of the mouthwatering fruit. “This place does get lonely,” he said with a crooked grin and turned the apple to Victor’s lips.

The gesture was enough to make Victor’s eyes water, but he could only nod as he took a mouthful of fruit, shaking slightly. “I don’t know anyone,” he said, while still chewing. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was imprisoned in a camp ran by the Dal mob, he might have been more flattered and less frightened.


Victor swallowed the piece of apple and took another bite, watching the guard’s face for signs of mocking. What if he was just teasing Victor, only to take the apple away? The uncertainty was tightening his stomach. Crunch didn’t seem like a cruel person, but one could never know in a place like this. “I’m already lonely.”

He watched Crunch look to the sides, but as the man leaned in, Victor couldn’t stop the tremble in his body. A gentle brush of dry lips against his juice-stained mouth was enough to drive the fear away. The kiss was soft, nothing more than a touch, yet it sent a jolt of electricity all the way down to his groin.

“I’ll come round later.”

Victor’s eyes got as wide as saucers. “I will be waiting,” he blurted out and practically devoured another piece of the apple, doing his best to finish it before someone else noticed what they were up to. God, he was so hungry.

Crunch finally backed off but left the apple to Victor. “I see ya having one more of those, and ya lose a finger, get it?”

Victor frowned and lifted his left hand, wiggling what was left of his little finger. He’d lost most of it in an accident he had as a child. “Would you at least make them symmetrical?” He knew he was playing with fire, but the way Crunch changed the topic from Victor sucking him off to Victor losing his finger was simply outrageous.

The guard looked at the digit, and his smile widened, revealing a small gap between his top front teeth. “Ya got it.” He patted Victor on the cheek, and the rough touch of his hand lingered as if he couldn’t pull away. Victor bit his lip, leaning into the warmth. Tenderness was the last thing he expected after being thrown into that cattle wagon, yet he had a distinct feeling he would enjoy ‘later’ for reasons other than securing an alliance.

“So…” Crunch prolonged the word as if he were chewing on it.

“I hope we’ll have time to enjoy it,” tried Victor. If he was to actually talk Crunch into some kind of help, time was a necessity. Nothing other than pleasure would be achieved with a fifteen minute blowjob.

“Don’t ya worry. I’ll work it out.” Crunch looked him up and down, reluctantly pulling away. He seemed as hungry for touch as Victor was—well—plain hungry.

Victor gave him his best, innocent smile, the one that should melt the heart of any boylover, even though he could no longer be considered a ‘boy’. “All right, I trust you.”

With Crunch towering over Victor, it was hard to miss the way his Adam’s apple bobbed at that. He didn’t hesitate though and walked away with a dreamy smile that suited neither his image nor the weapons he was carrying. Victor shook his head in wonder but quickly got up to his feet, unwilling to tempt his luck any further. He looked to the broad back of the handsome guard again and let his mind wander. Crunch did show him more compassion than he expected, but maybe it was just a prelude to business? That Victor was determined to find out.

Natural Instincts by M Raiya
Chapter One
I KNEW camping was a bad idea. I thought I might have trouble pitching the tent, but I thought at least I’d be able to find the damn campground. When I got close, though, all my GPS said was “Proceed off road to your destination.” It had a point. Twice the potholes were so bad I chose the ditch as a smoother option than the road.

Long after I’d expected to arrive at Woodland Paradise, I spotted a little tin sign on a tree. It said Camping with an arrow. The rutted tracks I’d been following—the third set I’d tried—ended at a small, dilapidated building with a bare electric bulb hanging over a sign that read “After hours, choose your own site.”

By now it was near midnight, pitch-black, and to my overwhelming joy, it began to rain. I sat there, looking through my mud-spattered windshield at the thick, dark forest I’d been driving through, and wondered what a guy like me was doing here. The road looked less passable beyond the building—I was going to have to go through a mud bogger’s dream before the road went up a steep hill that looked like something out of a motocross rider’s course. This place had no resemblance to its website’s images of happy little tents in a grassy field on the shore of a lake with maple trees in the background. The crowning image for me had been an artist’s rendition of a loon looking over its shoulder, perfectly feathered, its red eye burning, wild and mysterious and free. The campground looked like the perfect setting for an overworked financial analyst who’d never taken a vacation to relax, rejuvenate, and find himself.

A man with perfect recall, but with so much he wished he could forget.

Girding up my fortitude, hoping the website photo would unfold before me after I crested the hill, I shifted into low and gunned the engine as I’d seen people do in four-wheel drive commercials. I hit the mud wallow with a huge splash, and water went flying in all directions. I put the pedal to the floor and prayed. Holy shit! My poor abused car wallowed on the bottom, deciding whether to succumb to gravity and mud or boldly go where nothing without four-wheel drive had ever gone before. It finally chose the bold adventure and roared out of the quagmire with all thrusters firing, slewing up the motocross trail, spraying mud and debris behind like a comet. The hill was so vertical that the headlights shone right up into the sky, two laser beams cutting through the rain and fog.

With a final lurch and bang of the undercarriage on something I didn’t want to think about, I reached the top and drew a huge breath of relief. I had so much adrenaline running through me that I felt like I’d just drunk a bottle of wine. I braked, my headlights panning down from the sky and illuminating the ground again.

The first thing I saw was a statue. It was in the middle of a clearing, probably a picnic area, judging from a scattering of wooden tables. I suspected the place would be sunny and pleasant during the day, but tonight in the rain it looked eerie, with dark trees all around.

The statue was of a man standing on top of a picnic table. For an instant it made me think of a historical site my parents had taken me to years ago on one of their outings meant to convince us all that we were a normal family. There had been a sculpture of several people in pioneer clothing sitting around a table. Real people could sit down around them and have their photos taken. My mother had made me sit on some stupid stone farmer’s lap, as though that would make me look like a happy, wholesome farm kid instead of the scrawny, miserable misfit I was. People had looked at me and smiled. I swore I’d never do that to my own kids, if I ever had any. Which I doubted.

I was taller now, and “scrawny” had turned to what I liked to think of as “sensitive,” but I was still a miserable misfit.

Whoa! As I came to a stop, I realized that families probably weren’t going to group around this sculpture. His pose wasn’t very inviting—his arms were raised to the sky, his head thrown back—and he was completely nude. He was built a lot like the David. Incredibly realistic. What was a sculpture this good doing on a wooden picnic table in a derelict campground in the wilds of Vermont? Completely baffled, I stared. It looked so real it could be breathing.

Oh shit. It was breathing.

The sculpture lowered its arms and looked at me.

I froze, held motionless by a glare so intense I felt like I’d been turned to marble. Whoever he was, he was not happy that I’d interrupted whatever he was doing. Yoga, maybe? Naked, at midnight, in the rain? Whatever—I didn’t care. I was in no shape to judge anyone else’s behavior. But my heart started to pound so hard I could feel it in my temples. What should I do? The road led closer to him. There was no place to turn around. He looked furious enough that he might jump onto my hood and smash my windshield.

Before I could do anything, there was a brilliant flash of lightning on top of a crash of thunder so loud I thought my ears were going to explode. As soon as the lightning was gone, I couldn’t see a thing. When my eyes adjusted again, the sculpture was gone.

Instinctively I hit the door lock button. I couldn’t see him anywhere, but he had to be close. Any second I expected him to start pounding on my car. I would never forget his look of rage. No way was he going to let me drive away alive.

Shit, shit, shit! I hated camping, I hated my stupid GPS, I hated Vermont, I hated my job, and I hated my parents for not having made me normal. But none of that mattered, because I was about to be murdered by the David.

Where was he? Why didn’t he get on with it? Sitting here until my heart exploded on its own was even crueler than strangling me.

Nothing happened.

I’d been driving seven hours and gotten lost on roads that weren’t even roads. My nerves were shot, I was tired, hungry, and exhausted, and I had a brand-new tent that I’d never pitched as my only shelter from what was turning into a thunderstorm. I had every right to be totally frazzled. Why the fuck didn’t he show himself? Maybe he was looking for a boulder to brain me with. Expecting it to come flying out of the woods, I braced myself for pain.

On the other hand, maybe he was long gone. He might be wicked embarrassed. God only knew what I’d caught him doing. Ancient star worship or something. Maybe Vermont was having a drought and he’d brought the rain. Or maybe he was Zeus and I was about to get a thunderbolt upside the head. Or maybe he’d been doing some sexual thing. After all, he’d looked a bit…. I felt myself flushing. My headlights had done a really good job lighting him up. All of him. And yeah, he’d been pretty unmistakably…. Yeah.

I needed sleep. Badly.

I couldn’t stand it. He had to be gone. And I really wanted to see a loon.

Maybe he hadn’t even been there. I was that tired.

Fuck this. I turned left and drove along the top of the hill for a minute or so, watching for the David to leap in front of me. Rain began to fall harder, though there was no more lightning. Soon the road dipped down through the trees, taking a much gentler descent than the motocross trail. After another few minutes, it widened and became gravel instead of mud, and I began to see what were obviously tent sites along both sides—pleasant, level clearings with brick fireplaces. Some were occupied by normal-looking tents with family-sized vehicles parked beside them. Through the trees I saw a light, and as I got closer, I realized it was coming from a discreet, dark brown bathhouse. A perfectly normal-looking mother and a little girl in pajamas, carrying umbrellas, turned in the doorway and waved as I drove past. Finally my headlights picked up the water of a lake.

So the website hadn’t lied after all. I must have come in through a back entrance, a shortcut for people on ATVs, maybe. The statue might have been some local druggie, doing his thing away from people. Starting to feel better, I drove into the first empty site I came to, killed the engine, and turned off my lights.

I became aware of rain on the roof and the soft wash of water against the shore close by. Exhaustion hit me like a train. The tent thing was not happening tonight. I crawled between the front seats, flopped down in back, grabbed a sweatshirt and wadded it into a pillow, and curled up.

From far out on the lake came a long, eerie, haunting call. A loon! Yes! I’d always wanted to hear one in real life. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad.

My therapist had said I’d never be able to forget the past, but I could work toward regulating it so it didn’t matter so much. One way to do that was to make new memories that would serve as a cushion, or a balance, to the old ones. Hence this trip.

Hell, I owed the statue one. He’d completely distracted me for probably ten whole minutes.

I fell asleep waiting for the loon’s mate to answer.

JS Harker
JS HARKER loves stories. She was one of those kids who always had a book in her hands and spent many hours adventuring with her siblings. These days she wanders into her imaginary worlds and conjures up tales of magic, passion, and happily-ever-afters. She currently lives in the part of the Midwest that makes Tatooine look interesting by comparison (not that she’s ever obsessively thought about becoming a Jedi or anything).

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

Charlie Cochet
Charlie Cochet is an author by day and artist by night. Always quick to succumb to the whispers of her wayward muse, no star is out of reach when following her passion. From adventurous agents and sexy shifters, to society gentlemen and hardboiled detectives, there’s bound to be plenty of mischief for her heroes to find themselves in, and plenty of romance, too!

Currently residing in Central Florida, Charlie is at the beck and call of a rascally Doxiepoo bent on world domination. When she isn’t writing, she can usually be found reading, drawing, or watching movies. She runs on coffee, thrives on music, and loves to hear from readers.

KA Merikan
K.A. Merikan are a team of writers who try not to suck at adulting, with some success. Always eager to explore the murky waters of the weird and wonderful, K.A. Merikan don’t follow fixed formulas and want each of their books to be a surprise for those who choose to hop on for the ride.

K.A. Merikan have a few sweeter M/M romances as well, but they specialize in the dark, dirty, and dangerous side of M/M, full of bikers, bad boys, mafiosi, and scorching hot romance.

M Raiya
M. Raiya lives in Vermont and splits her time between a home in the mountains and a camp on a lake, writing full time when she's not taking long walks, swimming, kayaking, or birding, always with a camera in hand. She writes gay paranormal romance. Mostly.

JS Harker

Jordan L Hawk

Charlie Cochet

KA Merikan

M Raiya

Soul Bond by JS Harker

Balefire by Jordan L Hawk

A Tender Curiosity by Charlie Cochet

Stung by KA Merikan

Natural Instincts by M Raiya