Thursday, November 22, 2018

Random Tales of Christmas 2018 Part 1

The Mystery of Nevermore by CS Poe
Snow & Winter #1
It’s Christmas, and all antique dealer Sebastian Snow wants is for his business to make money and to save his floundering relationship with closeted CSU detective, Neil Millett. When Snow’s Antique Emporium is broken into and a heart is found under the floorboards, Sebastian can’t let the mystery rest.

He soon finds himself caught up in murder investigations that echo the macabre stories of Edgar Allan Poe. To make matters worse, Sebastian’s sleuthing is causing his relationship with Neil to crumble, while at the same time he’s falling hard for the lead detective on the case, Calvin Winter. Sebastian and Calvin must work together to unravel the mystery behind the killings, despite the mounting danger and sexual tension, before Sebastian becomes the next victim.

In the end, Sebastian only wants to get out of this mess alive and live happily ever after with Calvin.

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Snow & Winter

Original Review September 2018:
When Sebastian Snow comes into his antigue shop one morning he can smell something isn't right and when a heart is found under the floorboard, suddenly his life is changed.  When Calvin Winter and his partner are sent to Snow’s Antique Emporium to investigate a heart under the floorboard he never expected to find his life changed.  Will Snow and Winter find a connection beyond the murders straight out of Edgar Allan Poe and will they even survive?

I'm just going to jump out of the gate and say WOW!!!  How this series has slipped my reader radar I have no idea but now that I found it I am loving it!  I'll admit that Snow & Winter may not make my annual re-read list but I do know that I will pay them another visit down the road😉 They may not be at the top of my Top 10 Crime-Fighting Duo list but they certainly made the list and to be completely honest the notches between numbers 4, 5, & 6 are so small I would never want to place a bet on something so minute.

Edgar Allan Poe has been the basis for many book mysteries and I have yet to read any that aren't uniquely done.  The books and stories the writers use may have been used before but there is so much room for interpretation with Poe's work that they are always originally done and CS Poe has put her own intriguing spin to it.  That's all I'm going to say towards the mystery side of The Mystery of Nevermore except I will add that I was guessing all the way to the reveal and that alone makes this a keeper as I am rarely surprised right up to the end anymore because I have been reading/watching mysteries for nearly all of my 44 years on this earth.

As for Snow and Winter themselves, well what's not to love?  Sebastian Snow is an antique dealer that has an unlikely(or not so unlikely in fictional settings) ability to find himself in the middle of trouble.  Who knew antiquing could be so dangerous? I love his respect for history and his determination to discover what's going on.  As for Calvin Winter, he may not be out of the closet yet but he knows that Seb is a special person even if he is a trouble magnate who doesn't exactly listen.  Together they have the potential be extraordinary.


Pining for Perfect by Ki Brightly
Stokely leads a solitary life, trying to do all the right things. He has a solid, respectable job, a properly decorated, respectable apartment, and goes to work every single day, no matter what. But it’s Christmas, and he hates Christmas, especially since his one guilty pleasure, listening to Asher Banks on the radio, is ruined with upbeat, holiday garbage.

Asher is the polar opposite—he loves Christmas to a fault and schedules himself into the ground with fundraisers to help the local community. When Asher and Stokely meet during one of the holiday spectacles Asher has thrown together, sparks fly, but neither one of them has ever had a real Christmas—or a real home. Will they be able to make one with each other?

A story from the Dreamspinner Press 2017 Advent Calendar "Stocking Stuffers."

Boy Toys by AE Wasp
Hot Off the Ice #3
10 siblings, 7 fish courses, 6 hockey players, 5 cousins, 4 calling birds, 3 spouses, 2 houses & 1 night that changes everything.

Betrayed by first his body and then his girlfriend, Liam O’Reilly, assistant coach of the Seattle Thunder, is not having a very merry Christmas. So when a smoking hot hockey player in a Santa suit offers himself up like a present begging to be opened? Well, it’s a freaking Christmas miracle.

If only the man in question wasn’t hockey’s own bad boy, Joey ‘the Looch’ Luciano, his best friend’s little brother and the same kid who used to trail behind Liam like a loud, mouthy shadow.

Whatever. Wrong as it might seem, a one-time hookup with Joey is exactly what he needs to make the yuletide gay. By tomorrow, he’ll be back in Seattle, Joey will be in New York, and his troubles will be miles away.

But as Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day, Joey weaves his way past all Liam’s defenses, and Liam starts to see the sensitive, caring man behind the cocky smirk.

When the last present is opened and the Christmas lights go dark, will Joey and Liam's night together be just another Christmas memory or can the holiday magic they made survive the pressures of the real world?

Boy Toys is a heart-warming Christmas story featuring the inappropriate use of a Santa suit, sibling bribery, and ninety separate instances of the f-word.

Knitting a Broken Heart by Ari McKay
When a Christmas shopping expedition brings Tomy Peralta into Jason Winters’s yarn store, both men feel an immediate and intense spark of attraction, but dance instructor Tomy intends to propose to his boyfriend, Sean, at Christmas. Unfortunately for Tomy, marriage isn’t on career-minded Sean’s agenda. Heartbroken, Tomy throws himself into his work until his mother convinces him that learning to knit might help take his mind off his failed romance.

Jason falls hard for Tomy, but he knows Tomy needs time to heal and to trust in love again. As Jason teaches Tomy to knit, Tomy teaches him to dance in return. Just when it seems Tomy is ready for a new romance, Sean shows up, wanting Tomy back. Will Tomy give his heart to Sean once more, or will Tomy finally see Sean for who he truly is, and choose the man who helped him knit his heart together again?

Just Jack by Meredith Russell
Can two broken men find love in the chill of Winter?

Leo is having a bad day. Finding his boyfriend in bed with another man was one thing, being the subject of office gossip another, but falling on his ass in the snow in front of a gorgeous man was the final straw.

Jack has existed in a solitary life of ice and bitterness after betrayal. He swore no one would ever break his heart again, gave up on love, and became something else; Jack Frost.

As Jack and Leo get closer, Jack is left torn and confused. Jack yearns for anything that reminds him of his humanity, but the truth is, he feels nothing, not warmth, not love, and he knows he might never be able to love Leo the way he deserves to be loved.

When the line between fairy tales and magic, and the real world become blurred, can love conquer everything?

**Be sure to check out Everything: A Just Jack Christmas Short on Meredith Russell's Blog**

Original Review December 2017:
I'm not sure which character I fell for harder, Jack Frost who feels his heart is cold or Leo who has his heart finally broken when he finds his boyfriend in bed with someone else.  It's pretty obvious that Jack's heart is not as frosty as he believes just from his friendship with Abe and his family but when he meets Leo there is whole other level of not-cold he is about to discover if he only lets himself.  Leo has not been completely blinded by his boyfriend's wandering but its this first-hand discovery that opens his eyes and lets him finally break free.  Just Jack is so much more than a Christmas story, actually its really not a holiday tale at all and yet Christmastime seems the perfect opportunity to give it a go.  Sometimes the coldest hearts have the most room for love.  Just Jack is fun, loving, and full of heart.


The Mystery of Nevermore by CS Poe

I didn’t mean in a figurative sense. I meant something smelled like it was decaying.

“Shit,” I muttered. I stood at the door of my antique shop, hand to my nose.

Tupperware. It had to be an old lunch.

It was a wintry, miserable Tuesday in New York City, two weeks’ shy of Christmas. The snow was coming down heavily at seven in the morning, blanketing the city and producing an eerie, muted effect. I had shown up early to my business, Snow’s Antique Emporium, in downtown Manhattan, with the intention of going through some newly acquired inventory. Instead, I was dripping melted snow onto the welcome mat and trying to pinpoint that god-awful stench.

I quickly hung up my jacket and hat and changed out of my boots into an old pair of worn loafers beside the door. I ran my fingers through my unruly hair and smoothed the front of my sweater while walking down the tiny, crowded aisles. I stopped to turn on old lamps as I followed the smell. The glow of the lights was subdued, creating a cavernous look for the shop.

At the counter that had an old brass register on it, I took the step up onto the elevated floor, scanning the shop. It smelled even worse here. I reached into my sweater pocket and replaced my sunglasses with black-framed reading glasses. Turning on the bank lamp, I winced and looked away from the light.

I stared at the door standing ajar to my right. It was a tiny little closet that served as an office, with a computer and chair and mini fridge all tucked away for my use.

Does forgotten Thai food smell like death after two days?

I walked in, opened the fridge, and hesitantly sniffed a few cartons. Okay, I needed to do some serious cleaning, but what seemed like a half-eaten burrito was not the source of the odor.

I walked back to the register, groaning loudly as I looked around. Something had to have died—a rat, perhaps? I cringed at the thought of finding a New York City rodent in my shop, but I crouched down and started shoving aside bags and boxes used at checkout while I looked.

The front door opened, the bell chiming overhead. “Good morn—what’s that smell?” my assistant, Max, called. “Sebastian?”

“Over here,” I grumbled.

Max Ridley was a sweet guy, a recent college grad with an art degree he realized rather too quickly wasn’t going to pay his rent. He was smart and knew his history. I’d hired him the same day he’d come in to fill out an application. Max was tall and broad-shouldered—a handsome young man who was maybe bisexual or maybe just out to experience it all. I’d heard enough stories over morning coffee, reading mail, and pricing antiques to know Max’s preference seemed to be mostly anyone.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m a one-man sort of guy.

“God, the weather sucks today. Do you think it’ll be busy?” Max asked as he strolled through the shop.

“Usually is,” I said, looking up over the counter.

“What did you leave sitting out?”

“Nothing. I think a rat died or something.”

“Can I turn on more lights? It’ll be easier to find.”

“I already have a headache,” I said absently. I crouched back down to finish moving out the supplies from under the counter.

I was born with achromatopsia, which means I can’t see color. We have two types of light receptor cells in our eyes, cones and rods. Cones see color in bright light, rods see black and white in low light. My cones don’t work. At all. The world to me exists only in varying shades of gray, and I have a difficult time seeing in places with bright lights because the rods aren’t meant for daylight purposes. Usually I wear sunglasses or my special red-tinted contacts as an extra layer of protection….

“I forgot my contacts. And the snow was too bright.”

“Even for shades?”

“Yes. Damn, where is that smell coming from?” I asked while standing.

Max motioned to the register. “Smells the worst right here.”

“Yeah.” I walked back to the steps and promptly fell forward when the creaky floorboard underfoot skidded sideways.

Max lunged out and grabbed me before I could plant my face on the floor. He held me tight, my face smooshed against his armpit. “Did you have another fight with Neil last night?”

“Why?” I asked as I pulled myself free from his hold.

“You’ve got some bad mojo following you around this morning.”

“It wasn’t a fight. It was—you know, I’m not talking about it while the smell of rot continues to permeate my shop.” I turned back to the step and bent to examine the floorboard that had become free.

Bad idea. The stench of decay filled my nostrils, and I fought back the urge to gag.

“I think you found it,” Max muttered, looking down over my shoulder. “I’ll get a bag.”

I nodded silently, holding my nose while I looked into the opening under the floor. It—the thing—wasn’t dark, like a dead rat. It didn’t appear to have fur, but I’d be lying if I said I had great vision when it came to close-up details.

“Max? Come here.”

“What?” His voice came from the office before he joined me with a garbage bag. “What’s up?”

“Look in there.”

“Oh come on. You don’t pay me enough for that.”

“No, I mean, I don’t think that’s a rat.”

Max got down on one knee and glanced inside before quickly pulling back. “What the hell!”

I stared at the floor. “Tear up the planks! Here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

“What is that?”

“Poe,” I replied.

“God, you’re so weird, Seb,” Max muttered.

“What else am I supposed to say?” I asked, pointing at the rotting flesh. “It’s a heart.”

“Who did you kill?”

“I’ll call the cops.”

HAVING TO explain to the dispatcher that I needed police not because of a dead body, but there was a body out there missing an essential part, was certainly the strangest thing I’d done in some time. I’ll admit the situation piqued my interest, but there are 101 things in life I simply don’t have the patience for, and finding someone else’s rotting heart in the floorboards of my shop just about topped the list.

Max sprayed nearly an entire can of air freshener while we waited after the phone call. “Smells like fresh laundry,” he stated while reading the can.

“Oh good,” I said.

“Laundry and death,” Max corrected after a pause. “Sometimes I want to die instead of dragging my dirty clothes to the Laundromat.”

“Max.” I sighed.


I crossed my arms, looking toward the back of the shop at the piles of boxes that had been left there. When new inventory arrived, it needed to be carefully inspected, priced, and arranged in the shop. If it was too priceless for the shop, it needed to be listed for auction, not sitting in a damn box on the floor. Those and several more were collecting dust in my apartment. So much for finally getting around to it all this morning.

There was a rap at the door, and I walked over to unlock it. “Good morning.”

“Sir,” one of the uniformed officers said. “We got a call—”

“There’s a body part in my floor,” I quickly answered, leading them through the aisles toward the register.

It was pretty clear they’d been sent to dispel whatever fear or confusion the dispatcher thought I was experiencing, yet they followed without complaint or comment. The first officer removed his cap as he bent down to the opening I pointed at. He only glanced inside before shaking his head and rising.

“Brigg,” he spoke to his partner, and the woman approached.

I watched them confer briefly before she got on her radio. “So,” I said, “do we need some hazmat team or something?”

“Can I get your name, sir?” the officer replied as he removed a notepad from his belt.

“Sebastian Snow.”

“And do you run this business?”


“Own the building?”

“No. I wish.”

He looked up. “Approximately when did you suspect something was in the store?”

“You mean—that?” I asked while looking down at the floor. “When I opened the door this morning, I could smell it. It was about seven.”

“Does anyone else have access to the store?” The officer looked over my shoulder at Max.

“Max has keys, but only I and—only I have access to the security code,” I explained.

The truth was, my partner of four years, Neil Millett, also had keys and the code, but mentioning his name around cops was a bit tricky. He was a detective with the NYPD’s forensic investigations unit, and very much in the closet. So much so that the only people who knew we were living together were Max and my father. Neil didn’t want other officers knowing he was gay, and when I was twenty-nine with a heart all aflutter for a sexy detective, I didn’t mind. Now I was thirty-three, and it was wearing me out.

The officer wrote down a few notes. “Do you have cameras? You have a lot of expensive-looking items in here.”

“I have one, but it’s been on the fritz for the past month.” I had been suffering from a lack of mental stamina lately and just hadn’t found the energy to give a shit about a number of things, camera included.

It wasn’t like me. I knew that.

Neil made a point of bringing up my recent attitude. A lot. It only pissed me off more.

The officer continued taking down my contact information, then asked for Max’s as well. A few more basic questions followed, and then Brigg led two plain-clothed cops from the front door toward us. Glancing around the now congested aisle, I saw yet another woman entering, carrying some sort of medical kit.

The overhead lights, which I never used, were switched on without warning, and the entire room was washed out of sight. I hastily covered my eyes and turned away, stumbling and reaching around the countertop. Max went to the other corner to avoid the police and the heart, grabbed my sunglasses, and handed them over just as someone spoke my name.

“Mr.… Snow, is it?” a woman asked.

Turning as I put on my shades, I was confronted with the two new cops. The woman who spoke was maybe my age and couldn’t have been an inch over five feet, with a strong build and closely cropped hair. The other, a man, was tall and big and filled out his suit with nothing but muscle. He looked older than Neil, who was thirty-seven. His hair was light, so I guessed it was what I have been told is blond.

I squinted to better study him. He had freckles. A lot, actually. I kind of had a thing for guys with freckles. Cheeks, nose, forehead—he had freckles all over, and it gave him a sort of sweet look initially. Maybe his hair was red instead.

“Sebastian Snow,” I agreed.

The woman took the lead, extending her hand to shake. “I’m Detective Quinn Lancaster, and this is my partner, Detective Calvin Winter.”

“Uh, hi.”

Lancaster smiled. “How’s business been, Mr. Snow?”

“Fine,” I said, confused. It was strange to be looking down at such a short figure of authority, but she had an air of confidence I wasn’t willing to question.

“What can you tell me about your clientele?” Lancaster continued.

I shrugged while crossing my arms. “Regular folks, some with big money, some looking for curiosities. Corporate types, hipsters—I get a little of everyone in here.”

She nodded. “Would it be all right if you removed your sunglasses, sir?”

“I can’t.”

Lancaster looked up at Winter briefly before asking, “Why’s that?”

“I have a light sensitivity. If you turn the overheads off, I will,” I said while pointing up.

Winter turned away and gave an order to one of the uniformed officers. The lights died and the shop was once again illuminated by the strategically placed lamps.

“Better?” Lancaster asked, her tone not mocking or unkind.

I pulled the sunglasses back to rest on my head as I put my regular glasses back on. “Thank you,” I said briskly.

“That’s called photophobia, isn’t it?” she asked.

“I have achromatopsia.”

“I see.” She didn’t bother for more details. “Has anything out of the ordinary happened in the past few weeks?”


Lancaster frowned. “Who found the body part?”

“I did, when I came in. I smelled something awful and started looking for it.”

“Have there been any break-ins or stolen items?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “What’s this about? I’m assuming something bigger is at play here, otherwise you two wouldn’t be grilling me.”

“Why do you say that?” Lancaster asked.

“I live with a cop” was what I wanted to say. Four years of stories from Neil had, admittedly, given me an unhealthy interest in whodunit mysteries.

Instead, I just shrugged.

Winter spoke for the first time. “Do you know Bond Antiques?”

“Yeah, on Bond Street and Lafayette,” I confirmed.

“How is your relationship with the owner?”

“I fail to see what that has to do with anything,” I responded. “Mike Rodriguez and I have known each other for a while.”

“How do you get along?” Winter asked.

“He’s competition,” I stated. “What’s going on?”

“Sebastian!” called a familiar voice.

Ignoring the towering mountain that was Detective Winter, I looked around him to see Neil walking through the shop, shaking snow from his coat. I was immediately both happy and frustrated to see him, which didn’t seem like the right response. I hadn’t called to tell him what happened, so there should have been no reason for his appearance.

I turned to the counter. Max raised his hands up defensively and shook his head.

“What’s going on?” Neil asked upon reaching us. He looked at the two other detectives and removed a badge from inside his coat. “Detective Millett, CSU.”

Lancaster didn’t seem interested. “Detective Lancaster, homicide,” she replied with a nod. “My partner, Winter. We haven’t requested forensics yet.”

“Homicide?” I echoed. I mean, sure, I guess technically a heart without a body could mean something more sinister was at work besides a medical cadaver showing up to class and some poor student flunking when he had no heart to dissect.

I looked at Neil. He seemed concerned and maybe nervous, and for a minute, I was happy because he was worried about me. The annoyance I had been harboring toward him all morning suddenly washed away, and I had the urge to reach out for a hug.

“Sebastian is—a friend,” Neil said.

“Friend,” Winter repeated in a tone I didn’t like.

“He called me.”

Goddamn it, Neil. He was so convinced he’d lose his shield for having a life outside his job, that after four years I was still just his friend in public.

“We’re in the middle of asking Mr. Snow some questions,” Winter said before looking back at me. I swear his gaze was intense enough to strip me down to bare bones. “Mr. Rodriguez’s business was broken into Sunday night.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I answered, turning away from Neil. “Was anything stolen?”

“The investigation is still underway. He pointed a finger at you, though.”

“M-Me?” I asked in surprise. “What—Mike thinks I broke in?”

“Why would he say that?” Winter asked.

“I have no idea,” I quickly answered.

“Where were you Sunday night?” Lancaster asked. “After eight.”

I could feel Neil’s desperation rippling off his body. I had been at home with him. I believe around eight we had been fucking, which had ended prematurely and dissolved into an argument until about nine. That’s where I had been.

“Home,” I said simply. “Look, I’m not answering any more questions without a lawyer, if that’s what I need. I called because I found a human heart in my shop, and now you’re accusing me of robbing someone.”

Neil’s hand was on my elbow next, and he was excusing us while dragging me away. Stopping near the back of the shop, he let go and turned to tower over me. “What the hell is going on?” he whispered.

“What’s going on?” I repeated. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m a cop, Sebby—”

“Don’t call me that.”

“What human heart? Why didn’t you call me?”

I honestly hadn’t thought to ring Neil. Maybe a year or two earlier, the first reaction I’d have had would be to call my cop boyfriend to come solve this peculiar little problem. Now, he hadn’t even crossed my mind. It was disconcerting.

“Nice lie you told, by the way,” I said instead. “I called you? Why the hell did you come if it wasn’t to be here for me?”

“Stop it,” he ordered in a harsh whisper. “We’re not having this argument again.”

“Go back to work, Neil. Everything is fine,” I said stubbornly.

“You didn’t….” He hesitated.

“Tell them about you? No. I know the drill.”

Neil gritted his jaw. He looked angry. He turned back to the other detectives before saying, “Is that Calvin Winter?”

“What? Yeah, why?”

“Be careful what you say to him.”

“Why, Neil?” I repeated.

“Because I hear he’s a homophobe,” Neil said.

Without thinking I replied, “You’re a homophobe.”

Neil looked back at me with a strange expression I couldn’t place. “Real nice, Sebby,” he said after a moment.

I couldn’t take it back, but when I stared up at Neil, when all of our recent arguments over the past month came rushing back, I didn’t care and didn’t want to take it back.

“Go back to work,” I said again. “We’ll talk at home, behind locked doors.”

I was making him angry, and I couldn’t stop myself. I don’t know what had gotten into me lately. Neil and I had been at each other’s throats for weeks. I provoked him, or something he said got under my skin in ways it never did before.

Neil didn’t say another word. He turned while zipping up his coat and brushed by the other detectives in silence on his way out.

I took a breath. It was shaky. I was being cruel to the most important man in my life.

I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose as Lancaster left the woman with the medical supplies and walked toward me with a smile.

“Good news, Mr. Snow.”

“Oh boy.”

“It’s not human.”

Who, Neil? “The heart?”

“It’s a pig’s heart,” she replied.

“A minor relief.” I took another breath, working harder than necessary to calm myself. “So can I open for business?”

She spread her hands. “There’s been no foul play, although it seems like someone wanted to pull a prank on you. I highly suggest you invest in some tighter security.”

No foul play. My gut said otherwise. Two detectives—from homicide, no less—had shown up right away, and I played twenty questions regarding the unfortunate pig and Mike Rodriguez, the latter of which I found extremely strange. Why would time be wasted to send out detectives for something that proved to be nothing? And it still didn’t explain how the pig heart ended up in my shop to begin with.

Lancaster thanked me for my time, to which I muttered some pleasantry. She turned to leave with the medical examiner.

Winter, however, approached me. “Your friend seemed upset.”

I frowned while looking up. I was on the shorter side, only five foot nine, and both Neil and Winter stood a good half a foot taller. Neil was a leaner build, like myself, which was a stark contrast to the brick body that was Detective Winter. He was close enough again that I could study his freckles—which to me actually looked like gray blemishes. They’d be clearer if I invaded his personal space or looked at his skin with a magnifying glass.

Neither of those do I recommend doing to someone you’ve just met.

In comparison, his light-colored eyes were so brilliant and sharp, it was almost unnerving. They reminded me of minerals on display at the Museum of Natural History. They were gorgeous, but also maybe just a little weary. They looked like they’d seen something that had hardened and tired him considerably.

Winter swallowed up the air around me. He was both intimidating and somewhat comforting to be in the presence of. He smelled nice too. Some kind of spice—really different from Neil’s cologne.

“I didn’t break into Mike’s shop,” I said again. For the record.

His gaze shifted slightly to the boxes behind me. “What’s all this?”

I looked over my shoulder, then back at him. “New inventory.”

“From where?”

“Bond Antiques,” I retorted. “Jesus. It’s from an estate sale.”

He reached into his suit coat next, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he pulled his gun with the way I was shooting my mouth off. Instead, he handed me a business card. “Should you conveniently remember something.”

“Like slaughtering some pigs?” I shoved the card in my pocket.

“Have a good day, Mr. Snow.” He turned and walked out of the shop.

THE STORM seemed to have scared off the day’s foot traffic, which on any other afternoon would have worried me, being so close to the holidays when the sales are needed. But I couldn’t concentrate on anything business-related. My salad sat beside me at the register, half eaten and getting soggy as it settled into the pool of vinaigrette dressing. I held a magnifying glass to the mail as I read.

“Why not get bifocals?”

I looked up to see Max staring at me, pulling up the spare stool to sit. “What?”

“The magnifying glass is sort of silly. You pull them out of pockets like you’re an old-timey detective.”

“I tripped down the stairs wearing bifocals when I was younger,” I answered while setting the glass aside and stacking the junk and bills together. “Broke my arm.”

“Yikes.” Max reached out to push my salad around with the fork. If he planned on scalping my meal, the sogginess must have changed his mind. “So why was Neil here?”

“I don’t know.” I stood, brought the mail into the office, and dropped it on the desk.

The morning had been resting heavily on my mind. Usually I was closed on Mondays, but holiday demands often changed my schedule, so I had been open yesterday. When I closed the shop last night just after six, it gave someone a thirteen-hour window to break inside. Max and I had spent the remaining hours of the morning going through the Emporium, and from what we could tell, not a single item had been misplaced.

It was that concept that puzzled me the most. Why break into an antique shop, get past the security alarm, only to steal nothing?

So someone came in, put a decaying pig heart under the floorboards, and hightailed it without taking so much as an old button?

More upsetting was the matter with Mike Rodriguez. I had worked for Mike for a few years before going into business for myself. I respected his knowledge and the success of his shop—he’d been in this line of work for over twenty years now—but he was a cranky old fuck. He hadn’t liked me all that much when I worked for him, and I’m certain he felt slighted, to say the least, when I took everything I had learned to open the Emporium.

Mike specialized in higher-end antiques. Georgian and Victorian furniture, clothing, paintings, and other works of art. It wasn’t where my interests were, and the Emporium was cluttered and stuffed instead with books and old documents, maps, photos, and every little gizmo and gadget from another century. People enjoy the odd and bizarre, like Victorian glove stretchers or tear bottles. The Emporium was doing very well after only a few years of business, and I suspected Mike was insulted.

I walked back out of the office, leaned against the doorframe, and crossed my arms. Mike and I weren’t exactly on friendly terms these days—we certainly weren’t mailing each other Christmas cards—but how the hell had he come to the conclusion that I should be looked at as a possible suspect? Had he waited three years to seek revenge against me? And it wasn’t even revenge so much as insulting my integrity and character.

“Man, look at it coming down,” Max murmured as he stared out toward the front door, watching the storm continue.

“Jingle Bells” started to play on the shop’s speakers. Dashing through the snow, all right. The city was getting buried.

“Why don’t you get out of here early, Max.”


“Yeah. The subways are going to be a wreck, I bet,” I said while walking to the counter.

“Are you leaving?”

Honestly, I wanted to swing by Mike’s place and ask him what was going on, but it didn’t seem like the smartest idea. Maybe I’d give him a call. That was less threatening. As much of an asshole as he was for accusing me of doing something like breaking into his place of business, we had a long history and I did want to make sure he was okay.


“I’ll walk out with you, then,” Max replied as he stood and started cashing out the register for me.

The shop phone rang, and I reached to take it off the receiver. “Snow’s Antique Emporium.”

“It’s me.”

Neil. I collected myself. “Hey.”


“We’re closing up early. The weather’s getting bad, and Max has to take the subway to Brooklyn.”

“I’m ducking out,” he replied. “I’ll swing by for you.”

“I can walk home.”

Neil took an aggravated breath. “Sebby, please don’t argue with me just once this month, okay? Let me pick you up.”

Why was I getting angry at him for wanting to drive me home instead of making me walk in this nasty weather? “All right. Thanks.”

“Want me to grab anything for dinner?”

“I thought I’d cook,” I said offhandedly. I was getting sick of takeout. Neil couldn’t cook to save his life, so it was up to me if we wanted a homemade meal.

“That sounds great,” he replied happily. “I’ll be there in twenty, tops.” He hung up, and I put the phone down.

“Neil’s coming to pick me up,” I said to Max. “I’ll finish closing. Why don’t you get out while you can.”

Max laughed and finished his counting. “Thanks, Seb.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow if the weather looks like we may have trouble opening.”

“I’ll plan to come in unless I hear otherwise.” He was out the door within moments, disappearing into the storm.

I locked the front door and collected my belongings. I packed my laptop into my messenger bag. On the off-chance we stayed closed, I could at least start cataloging the inventory I had at home. Of course, I’d been telling myself that for two weeks and never seemed to have the energy for it.

By the time I’d shut off the lights, secured the shop, and changed into my winter attire, Neil’s black BMW was parked out front.

The car had been another source of aggravation between us. I don’t have a license because of the amount of work those with achromatopsia have to go through in order to be permitted to drive. It isn’t worth the headache when I live in a city with such incredible public transportation. That being said, I had agreed to buy a car with Neil and pay for it together so we could vacation out of New York every once in a while.

Neil has expensive taste. He wouldn’t settle on anything less than a new luxury coupe. I didn’t understand the point—we’d save so much money with a decent used car. That argument had ended with me saying that I’d refuse to help with the payments, to which he had stubbornly agreed and told me to fuck myself. Out of childish spite, I had tried to refuse every ride offered thus far.

The car was warm when I opened the door and sat in the passenger’s seat. The windshield wipers worked hard to keep the heavy, sticky snow off the glass. Neil was listening to some Christmas tunes and looking like his cool, sexy self. I had to admit he looked good behind the wheel of this car.

He smiled. “Ready?”


Neil pulled back onto the road, taking it slow down the streets already buried in snow and brown slush. “You may get snowed in tomorrow if this keeps up like the weather predictions claim.”

“Will you have to go in?” I asked.

“Public servants don’t get snow days. Warm enough?”

I muttered a response and fell silent. We lived in a cramped, too-small-for-two Manhattan apartment not far from my store. It wouldn’t usually take so long to reach, but the road was completely buried, and cars ahead were already slipping and sliding. Neil wasn’t taking chances by driving fast.

I looked at his profile, seeing the same handsome face I’d known for years. He told me he had brown eyes and sandy brown hair, comparing it to coffee with too much cream in it. Whatever the color, he had always been attractive to me, and he aged wonderfully. I saw the man I had fallen in love with, staring at him.

Why had we been fighting so much?

My good old dad said it was because I was losing my mind being shoved back into the closet for the sake of Neil’s paranoia. I had denied it for years, that it would eventually make me nuts, but lately it seemed like Pop had been on to something. I had been out since college, and I was proud of who I was. Neil had been my first serious relationship, and it had thrown me for a spin to learn he wasn’t out.

It still threw me.

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.

“For what?”

“For giving you attitude this morning.” I stared at my hands. “Why did you come to the Emporium?”

He sighed. “I was in the right place to overhear detectives being dispatched to the address. I thought something was wrong—something happened to you.”

“Thanks for being worried.” I snorted and shook my head. “That sounds weird.”

“I get what you mean.” He removed one hand briefly from the steering wheel to pat my thigh.

NEIL DROPPED me off on our street and went to find a place to park. I let myself into the building, hiking the three floors of old, rickety stairs to our one-bedroom apartment. The pipes were clanking loudly as the water heaters were turning on. I hung up my coat and hat and put my boots in the closet. I dropped my bag on the foot of our bed before turning on a few lamps around the apartment.

I know Neil didn’t like living in such a dark home, but he was polite and dealt with it without a word of complaint so I didn’t need to wear sunglasses inside. I had tried to keep my condition a secret from him for a long time. It got really hard when he’d ask something like “Could you grab my navy blue button-down for me?” or “Pass the green salsa?” while eating Mexican. It ended up coming out when he found my collapsed walking stick in my bag one evening while searching for a condom.

I laughed quietly to myself, opening the fridge in the kitchen. That had killed the mood. I thought then and there he’d break up with me. Both boyfriends I had had before left me because of my condition. It wasn’t life-threatening, but it was a burden, I guess. Neil had stayed with me, though, and that mattered.

I heard Neil at the door, removing his coat and shoes while I was chopping onions and peppers in the kitchen. I tossed the diced veggies into a pot to let them cook while I opened two cans of tomato sauce.

“Spaghetti?” Neil called, the smell familiar.

“We need to go shopping,” I answered. “Not many other options.”

He stepped around me and opened the fridge. “Want a beer?”


He popped the tops off two bottles, set one on the counter beside me, and leaned back against the opposite side. “So tell me what happened this morning.”

I recited the story again for what felt like the hundredth time while I doctored up the sauce with salt, pepper, Tabasco, and whatever spices I could find deep in the cupboard. “But it wasn’t human. It was a pig heart.”

“What did the detectives say?”

I shrugged. “Lancaster told me to open for business and get better security.”

“And that Winter fellow?”

I looked over my shoulder. “Why don’t you like him?”

“I told you why.”

“He let the questioning about Mike drop and left.” I had turned back to stir the sauce, but paused and looked at Neil. “You haven’t heard anything about that, have you? Mike’s break-in?”

Neil shook his head before taking a swig of beer. “Someone else’s case, not mine.”

“Why do you think Mike would accuse me of breaking into his store?”

“Because he’s a prick.”

“Yeah, but—”

“But nothing,” Neil interrupted. “He’s always had it out for you, Seb.”

Taking a drink of beer, I considered my next comment. “I was thinking about giving him a call tonight.”

Neil stared at me as if I’d grown a second head. “You’re not stupid, are you?”

“Excuse me?”

“Sebby, stay the hell out of it. Let the police investigate what happened to Mike, and don’t be an idiot and harass him.”

“Who said anything about harassment? I was just going to see if he’s all right.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Neil replied. “The police don’t need to see you’ve been contacting him after he pointed his finger at you in the first place, okay?”

Neil had a valid point, of course, and who would know better what a cop would think than another cop?

Taking a drink and giving dinner my full attention, I zoned back in when I heard him saying my name.

“Seb, promise you won’t stick your nose where it’s not supposed to be.”

“Why do you think I will?”

That question made Neil laugh. “Because you like the thrill. The two hundred mystery novels on the bookcase in the living room say so.”

“I don’t have two hundred,” I said defensively. But so what? I liked a good brainteaser.

“Seb,” he said again, more sternly.

“I won’t,” I insisted, getting annoyed. “I get it.” Before Neil could say another word, I said, “How the heart ended up in the shop has yet to be explained.”


“How’d a pig’s heart get under the floorboards, Neil?” I asked while turning. “I didn’t put it there, and I was the one to close up last night. I didn’t forget to lock the gate or set the alarm.”

“It was probably a prank,” he said simply, shrugging.

“A prank?” I echoed. “By who?”

“I don’t know. Kids—teenagers. Someone sick in the head. Come on. You’ve been busy as hell at the Emporium. You and Max can’t keep an eye on everything all the time.”

Again, what Neil said could have very easily been true. Minus today, we had been slammed since before Thanksgiving. There was always a handful of customers roaming about at one time, inventory coming in, items going out for auction—I couldn’t always watch everything.

“But what’s the point?”

“What’s the point of a hotdog-eating contest?” Neil countered with a laugh. “People do stupid things sometimes, Seb.”

“I guess. It’s a little dramatic, though. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’”

“The what?”

“Poe,” I said. “It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

“Oh, yeah, I think I remember reading that in school,” Neil replied thoughtfully.

“An old man with a blind eye is murdered and cut up. The murderer thinks he hears the heart under the floorboards where he put the body,” I explained. “He goes mad with guilt while the police are there looking into a possible disturbance.”

“Well, damn.”

“Good thing I’m only legally blind,” I said sarcastically.

NEIL AND I watched some police procedural drama while we ate, which really was just Neil complaining for forty-five minutes that the forensics team was handling the scene incorrectly, and no one got DNA results back that quickly. Disgruntled, he ended up channel-surfing before finding Home Alone and settling on that.

“I always wanted to do this,” he said as we sat in the dark, sipping wine later in the evening.

“Be Macaulay Culkin?”

“Catch bad guys,” Neil replied.

“You do,” I pointed out. “Just with big-boy toys. You’re a little too old for tar on the stairs and BB guns.”

Neil wrapped an arm around my shoulders, and I got comfortable in his embrace. It was nice to be enjoying the evening together and not fighting about stupid shit. Neil must have been thinking the same thing, because he leaned close and kissed the top of my head.

“Hey,” he murmured.

“Hey, what?” I responded, looking up. Believe it or not, my vision was considerably better in the dark. Neil’s finer details were easier for me to see here.

“Why don’t we hightail it out of here?”

“To where?” I laughed.

“The next room over.” Neil leaned forward, setting our glasses on the coffee table before getting to his feet.

I stood, taking Neil’s offered hand, and let him lead me into our cramped bedroom.

He stopped to put my bag against the wall and shut the door.

“Afraid someone will see?”

He paused before turning to look at me. “To keep the cold air out, Seb,” he corrected in that voice I’d come to learn as the Sebastian, you’re being irrational tone. I did not like it, because he used that tone on me whenever a discussion of his sexuality reared its ugly head.

Neil reached out, grabbed my waist and the back of my head, and kissed me hard. He tasted a little sweet and a little bitter, which about summed up our relationship. He had lost his suit coat and tie since arriving home, but I quickly helped with the remaining shirt and trousers. Neil was busy tossing aside my slacks and sweater when he laughed against my mouth.


“You dress like a grandpa,” he whispered.

“I like that sweater.”

“It’s older than you.”

“I’m not trying to win a fashion contest.”

Clothes shopping was stressful for me. Department stores were so bright, and there was apparently a concept of clashing colors. My idea of adding new options to my wardrobe was heading out to secondhand shops with Pop, letting him grab a dozen items in dark colors he says won’t hurt anyone’s eyes if I mix and match, then we’re out in ten minutes.

“We’ll get you a nicer sweater,” Neil said, kissing my neck.

“I like that one,” I replied.

“It’s from Goodwill.”

“So? I don’t need some three hundred dollar Ralph Lauren sweater when that one does a fine job of keeping me warm,” I said defensively.

“Are you done, Sebby?” Neil asked, pulling back to stare at me. “Do you really want to argue right now?”

I didn’t, of course not. I was sick of fighting, tired of every conversation ending in one of us getting frustrated with the other. Staring at Neil in the near dark, a familiar and awful thought came to mind again.

I wasn’t what he really wanted.

It was stupid shit like the sweater. What did it matter if I wore something a little frumpy? He wanted to have me wear something chic and fashionable, like the damn car.


I shook my head, wrapped my arms around his neck, and kissed Neil, trying to get back into the mood.

When was the moment our relationship turned?

He pushed me down onto the bed, kissing and sucking down my chest and stomach.

When we moved in together, maybe.

I was turned onto my belly, and the snap of a bottle preceded a warm, oily finger pressing into me.

When had I grown so defensive? So bitter and resentful toward my partner?

Neil’s hands were on my hips, raising me up before he pushed in roughly.

I gritted my teeth as he started thrusting.

I didn’t like who I had become.

Pining for Perfect by Ki Brightly
FIGHTING A yawn, I snap on the radio near my computer. The tinny blare of the music from the early morning news show bounces around the career search room, which is a glorified computer lab at best. Beige walls, gray-tiled floors and ceiling. It’s bleak, and there’s not much I can do to make it better other than keep it clean and organized.

I walk along the rows of computers, hunching down to wake them up, pushing in chairs to make them orderly like abandoned toy soldiers. I go back around to lay out piles of scrap paper, and I’m arranging the last sharpened pencil when I hear his voice. My skin prickles. Anticipation buoys my stomach, perking me up a little. The warm slide of his voice hits my ears like an audible ray of sunshine.

“Good morning, Erie! This is Asher Banks.” He laughs, light and free. It’s the best sound—every good noise in existence condensed into one shining moment. It tingles through me. I close my eyes, smiling. “Everyone better have their Santa hats on because there aren’t many more shopping days left before Christmas!”

“Oh hell no. I forgot,” I complain, even though it’s still too early for anyone to have wandered into the career center yet. Even running, I don’t make it in time. The joyful blast of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” fills the room. “All I want is to hear him talk. Why do they have to do this holiday garbage every year?” I blindly spin the dial until non-holiday music pours out of the speakers.

There’s a laugh behind me, not nearly as nice as Asher’s. “Want to walk by the radio station on our break this morning? We can stop at the bakery after.”

I swing around, hands up, ready for… I don’t know what. It’s stupid, really. I barely know how to throw a punch. My assistant, Iman, strolls in about twenty minutes late, as usual. His long, tan face nearly vibrates with his amusement. He has on one of those terrible Christmas sweaters with dancing reindeer and flashing lights sewn in, simply to torture me. He looks good despite the sweater, black hair brushed professionally to the side, black dress shoes shined to a high gloss. His smile turns cajoling. For someone who barely comes up to my nose, he has an impressive capacity to irritate.

I huff a sigh at him. “One of these days, I’m going to report you for being late.”

Boy Toys by AE Wasp
Merry Christmas, Kiss My Ass – Joey
The front door slammed open with a bang that Joey Luciano could hear over the raucous laughter and loud voices of the combined Luciano-O’Reilly shared family Christmas party going on all around him. A cold wind carrying with it the faintest hint of the sea and the promise of more snow before nightfall shoved rudely through the room, slipping icy tendrils down the back of the cheap polyester Santa suit Joey wore.

But the shiver that slid down Joey’s spine wasn’t from the wind. Only one thing – one person – ever had that effect on him.

Fucking Liam O’Reilly.

Even with his back to the door, Joey knew Liam was standing behind him.

Who knew why? Maybe it was his physical presence that pushed its way into Joey’s subconscious. Tall and broad-shouldered with the bright copper hair he shared with his four siblings, Liam stood out even on the ice with a helmet on.

Or possibly it was the massive crush Joey had on Liam that kept his entire being locked on Liam whenever they were in the same space.

“Fucking hell!” Liam bellowed drunkenly over the crowd of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, significant and insignificant others.

Or maybe it was that.

“What in the name of all that is holy is she doing here?” Liam yelled, pointing at the blonde woman who was, as far as Joey knew, was Liam’s girlfriend. At least she had been when she’d left to pick Liam up at the airport

Come to think of it, hadn’t she left hours ago to pick Liam up at the airport? Joey knew she had because he had low-key fought with for the opportunity, but she’d insisted she had to pick Liam up because they had to talk.

But it was three in the afternoon already. She’d been back for at least an hour, and this was the first he was seeing of Liam. That must have been some talk.

“I live here, fucktard,” Michelle yelled right back.

“Yeah, and now I know why you didn’t want to fucking move to fucking Seattle!” Liam’s eyes flashed.

“Language!” Liam’s mother said with the air of someone who knew she was wasting her breath.

Luciano and O’Reilly siblings converged from all corners of the huge dining room/kitchen/living room combination that made up most of the first floor. There were benefits of having six professional athletes, a cop, and an ER nurse on hand for a family gathering, not the least of which was their catlike ability to move quickly through a crowd.

Natalie, Liam’s little sister, was closest to Michelle. A professional goalie used to reading large groups of people, she moved to put her body between the fighting couple.

“Why is she here?” Liam yelled at his mother. “I can’t believe you let her under your roof!”

“Michelle is like a daughter to me, Liam O’Reilly. I see her more than I see you,” Kathleen O’Reilly said, standing next to the crying blond and wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

Joey made his way discreetly through the crowd towards Liam. It was slow going due to the fact that he was wearing a Santa Claus costume and getting stopped every six inches by a kid demanding a present from the sack over his shoulder.

“I live in fucking Seattle, Ma! Where she’s supposed to be living, too! Do you have any idea what she’s done?” Liam threw his arms up in the air, knocking a drink out of the hand of a random Uncle in an Adidas tracksuit. Joey thought it was one of his Luciano relatives, but he wasn’t sure.

“Hey, watch it!” Random Uncle bitched.

Liam glared daggers at the guy.

The man held up his hands like he was calming a wild animal. “No problem, buddy. How about I get us both another one?”

“What, Michelle?” Liam yelled. “I’m no good anymore now that I’m not a player? I lost my salary, so you jump to the next guy?”

“Fuck you!” Michelle yelled back across the room, attempting to launch herself at him. No stranger to family arguments, Kathleen gripped her arm tightly.

Carrying a giant pot of deep-fried calamari so fresh it had been swimming happily in its tank this morning unaware of its destiny as the most popular appetizer of the night, Jean Luciano pushed her way through the door past Liam.

He swayed on his feet as she did, grabbing the doorframe to stay upright. Joey couldn’t help noticing his black leather gloves.

“Liam, shut the damn door. Your father isn’t paying to heat the neighborhood.” Jean tilted her cheek up to Liam who dutifully laid a kiss on it.

“Hi, Mrs. L. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas.”

Liam kicked the door shut without looking at it. His face was red from the effects of the cold and whatever alcohol he must have drunk. He’d tugged the knot of his purple tie down, but the vest of his three-piece dark gray suit was still tightly buttoned across his broad chest.

“Whatever she did,” Liam’s mother said, “I’m sure you can work it out. Quietly. After dinner. In private.”

Joey pushed through the crowd, but a small but strong hand yanking at his Santa shirt stopped Joey in his tracks.

“My turn!” said a kid in jeans and Joey’s Rangers jersey. Joey didn’t recognize her, but he appreciated the support.

“Who’s kid even are you?” Joey asked unslinging the pack from his shoulder. “Who let you in?”

“Michelle’s got as much right to be here as you do,” Joey’s older brother Nico growled from across the room. Joey’s head popped up at the tone of his voice.

A natural mediator and a baseball player in a family full of hockey players, Nico was usually the voice of reason in an argument, but right now he sounded ready for a fight.

Leslie, Joey’s sister Sophia’s wife, caught his eye. He jerked his head in Nico’s direction, and she nodded. A veteran Statie, she’d handled more than one drunken asshole in her days on the force. She could handle Nico without even pulling her gun. Probably.

“I’m Maria’s best friend,” said the kid in front of him, drawing Joey’s attention back down.

Joey must have looked confused. In his defense, he knew like a thousand Marias.

“Your niece?” the girl said raising her eyebrows and crossing her arms across her chest. Her expression clearly said she thought Joey was an idiot. The girls in his family came out of the womb knowing how to make that expression, and apparently, this kid did too.

“Her mom is your sister Gina? And she said you’re overpaid and that the Rangers are overrated.”

“Who said that? Gina or Maria?” Joey crossed his arms over his chest and glared down at the kid.

The kid raised one eyebrow. “Both.”

Joey peered across the room, eyes narrowed as he tried to find Gina in the crowd. There she was, leaning against the kitchen doorway, her two-year-old son, Pookie, on her hip.

“Gina!” he barked.

“Yeah?” she called, hearing him clearly over the crowd. The ten combined Luciano-O’Reilly kids always kept one ear out for each other.

At thirty-three, Gina was still a knockout. Five-foot-two barefoot and with wet hair, the heels and hairstyle she was rocking added a good six inches to her height.

Joey flipped her off with a smirk. “Kiss my ass.”

She laughed silently, pointing at him. She knew damn well what he was talking about. “Kick your ass?” she asked with a faux frown. “Gladly.” She handed the baby to the nearest person and mimed pulling her large hoop earrings off.

Joey laughed and blew her a kiss. His sisters were the best.

Liam, Michelle, and Nico were cursing and yelling at each other as the rest of the party watched with undisguised interested. Liam was a hothead, like all the O’Reillys, and Michelle wasn’t one to back down from a fight either. But there was some pretty harsh language being tossed around, and when the word slut got tossed across the room like a grenade, Joey knew this was a more serious problem than the normal arguments that happened all the time in their loud, opinionated families.

Time to end this.

“Girl toy or boy toy?” he asked the kid in front of him. Before the kid could answer, Joey shoved a wrapped box into their hands. “Just kidding. All my toys are for boys and girls alike. Merry Christmas.”

The kid grunted a reply as she tore into the box, and Joey pushed forward through the gathering.

“Someone get me a fucking drink!” Michelle spit out.

Liam’s voice cut across the noise of the crowd. “You can’t drink because of the baby.”

Oh, holy hell.

“Baby?” someone asked. Joey thought it was Nana Brigit. She liked to play deaf, but Liam’s grandmother didn’t miss a thing.

Joey sped up, not above throwing elbows to get to Liam more quickly.

“Yeah, a baby,” Liam said, shaking off the hands trying to restrain him.

A murmur rippled through the room.

Even the impending disaster didn’t stop Joey from taking in the way Liam filled out his charcoal gray overcoat and wondering how soft the black leather gloves Liam still wore would feel on his skin.

“Congratulations!” Joey’s grandfather said, handing Nana a glass of whiskey. They shared a quick clink of glasses.

“It’s not mine,” Liam said, coming to a halt in front of Michelle.

All conversation in the room stopped. You could have heard a pin drop.

Oh, shit, Joey thought.

“I said we’d talk about kids. Soon.” Liam struggled to get his overcoat open. “But apparently she couldn’t fucking wait!” With a growl of frustration, he yanked at the buttons. “Now she’s trapped some other poor,” Liam scowled at her, “well, rich probably, sucker.” With a grunt, he gave up trying to open his coat.

“Are you calling me a fucking gold digger?” Fire flashed in Michelle’s eyes. At just over five feet tall, she was more than a foot shorter than Liam, but she was ready to kick his ass.

Nico moved quickly to Michelle’s side. He was standing awfully close to her; hovering protectively even, Joey would say. Oh, that could not be good.

“You told him?” Nico said, putting himself between Liam and Michelle.

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” Liam stopped, raking a hand through his hair. “Fucking Nico?”

“Oh, shit!” someone near Joey whispered in horrified amusement.

Michelle slapped Nico across the back of the head. “I didn’t tell him about you, you moron! Jesus Christ, time and place, Nico.”

Leslie reached Nico at the same time Joey reached Liam.

“Hey, buddy,” Joey said, slapping a hand on Liam’s chest.

Liam glared down at him, using the six-inch difference in their heights to his advantage. The hurt under the drunken haze in his eyes undermined his anger.

Quick as he used to be on the ice and with the same strength, Liam swung his fist around Joey’s head, aiming for Nico’s face.

Michelle’s scream was a little overdramatic in Joey’s opinion.

Natalie stopped the flying fist with a perfect glove save, and Leslie yanked Nico away, keeping his arms locked behind his back at the same time Joey pushed Liam backward towards the door. “Okay, big guy. Time to get some fresh air.”

Knitting a Broken Heart by Ari McKay
Chapter One
TOMY PERALTA opened the door of the yarn shop, feeling a little out of place as the cheerful ringing of the bell announced his presence in this unfamiliar territory. Stitchin’ Time was one of Mama and Lola’s favorite stores, but Tomy had never been here before himself, only heard about it when they gushed and cooed over the hand-dyed yarn they’d bought there.

The shop itself was large, and the rent in the fashionable Lenox Square area of Atlanta must have been enormous, but it had a surprisingly homey feel. Rather than traditional retail metal shelving, whoever had designed the interior had opted for wooden storage units, woven baskets, and what looked like enormous pasta racks dripping with hanks of yarn instead of spaghetti. There were also finished knitted and crocheted pieces displayed on the walls and on hangers at the ends of the shelves. There were the expected sweaters and scarves, of course, but also stuffed animals, knickknacks, and one intricately cabled afghan draped over the sofa where a group of gray-haired women were gathered, chatting and laughing. Several of them looked up when he entered, but he was greeted with friendly smiles rather than surprise.

The sales counter was visible from the door, a large wooden affair with more baskets of yarn and other knitting supplies stacked neatly around it. Behind the counter sat a man, square-jawed, blond, and broad-shouldered, working a set of knitting needles with amazing speed and agility. He, too, glanced up, smiling, and called out to Tomy in a deep, smooth Southern drawl.

“Hey! Welcome! Feel free to look around, and let me know if you need any help.”

Tomy gave the man an appreciative once-over. Sure, he had a boyfriend, and he hoped to be happily engaged after Christmas, but he could still look. Then he glanced around, briefly considering whether he ought to muddle through on his own, but he dismissed that thought. He was way out of his depth here, and he didn’t even know where to begin. Best to ask the professional rather than waste time wandering around utterly clueless.

“Actually, I do need some help,” he admitted, offering a sheepish smile as he approached the counter. “I want to buy something for my mother and sister, and I know they shop here a lot, but….” He looked around again and shrugged. “I have no idea where to start.”

The blond put his knitting aside—Tomy didn’t know what the item on the needles was, only that it was deep forest green—and stood up. He was tall, at least four inches over six feet, and up close, Tomy could see his eyes were a soft blue.

“I know that feeling,” he said. He moved out from behind the counter, walking with a slight but noticeable limp. “Who are your mother and sister? If they’re regulars, I can definitely help you with things I know they’d like.”

“My mother is Ana Lucia Peralta,” Tomy replied, trying to ignore the zing of wayward attraction he felt for the hunky knitter. He’d always been drawn to tall, burly blonds, much to his boyfriend’s dismay. Despite being tall, blond, and hot himself, Sean got jealous easily. He wouldn’t even let Tomy watch any of the superhero movies with Thor or Captain America in them when he was around. “My sister is Lola Barrett.” He picked up the tasseled end of the navy blue scarf he wore, which was an elaborate pattern of cables and bobbles. “Mama made this for me, if that helps. Lola made the hat,” he added, gesturing to the slouchy hat he wore, which had wide abstract colorwork stripes.

Hunky Knitter stepped closer and looked at the hat, smiling slightly, then picked up the end of Tomy’s scarf, running his fingers over the cabling. “Ah, yes. I remember when your mother bought the yarn for this. It was a special order. She wanted a particular shade of blue, and I dyed at least four batches before I managed to get the color she was picturing.”

“You dyed the yarn yourself?” Tomy gazed up at Hunky Knitter, impressed by his crafting skills. “Thanks, I really like the color. She wanted it to go with my coat, and I think it’s a perfect match,” he said, holding out his arms to show the pea coat he was wearing.

“So it is. I’m Jason, by the way.” Jason held out his hand, his eyes crinkling at the corners as he smiled.

“Tomy Peralta,” Tomy said, enunciating his name to make it clear it was pronounced like Tony, not Tommy. “Nice to meet you.” He clasped Jason’s hand, which was warm. Jason’s grip was firm, the touch sending little tingles along Tomy’s arm, and he felt his knees wobble just a little. I have a boyfriend, and we’re very much in love, he reminded himself sternly.

“Nice to meet you too.” Jason released his hand with what Tomy thought might be a tiny bit of reluctance. “Yes, I dyed the yarn. I do custom work for people who want it, and I like to try out the various dyes and yarns just to see what they look like. I prefer not to sell or recommend things to my customers that I haven’t tried myself.”

“Are you the owner?” Tomy asked. He didn’t know many men who were into crafts, much less enough to own a shop devoted to crafting.

“Yes.” Jason’s grin became a little sheepish. “I know I don’t look like the kind of guy who’d own a yarn store, and to be honest, never in a million years did I think this is what I’d be doing, but I love it. I majored in marketing at Vanderbilt, but I was a football player. After graduation, I played in the NFL, but in my second season with the Falcons, I blew out my knee.” He slapped his right leg. “Had to get an artificial replacement, so it was goodbye, NFL. I started knitting during my rehab, and one thing led to another and… here I am.”

Tomy didn’t hear any trace of self-pity in Jason’s voice, only a matter-of-factness that implied he’d had to explain his situation before. Tomy imagined an ex-football player turned yarn shop owner got a lot of questions about his life choices.

“Who taught you to knit?” he asked, voicing the first question that popped into his head. Of all the therapeutic exercises in existence, he wondered how knitting ended up being Jason’s choice. “I know it has a lot of therapeutic value, but not for knees.”

Jason laughed. “It was mental therapy, mostly. Moving hurt, but sitting almost hurt more. My mother got tired of me always moving restlessly whenever I was in a room, so she taught me how to knit as a form of distraction. If I had something in my hands to occupy me, I tended not to dwell on the pain in my knee as much.”

“That makes sense.” Tomy nodded, and then he noticed the ladies on the sofa were watching them with avid interest. He knew matchmakers when he saw them, and he cleared his throat and took a step back so they wouldn’t get the wrong idea. “Anyway, presents? I’m open to suggestions. I have no idea what they might want or need, but I want to get them something they’ll really like this year, not just a gift card.”

“Of course.” Jason nodded, suddenly all business. “I know there’s a set of knitting needles your sister has had her eye on for a while. They’re rosewood. Your mother has indicated she’d like to knit an afghan for her sofa, and so perhaps a pattern and the yarn for it? I recently dyed a batch of a bulky superwash wool in tonal greens I think she’d like. That might run a little more than you’d like to spend, though.”

“Sounds perfect!” Tomy smiled widely, pleased with the suggestions. “Do you know which pattern she’s interested in, or is there a pattern book she might like? I don’t care how much it costs.” He gave a sheepish shrug. “I don’t mean to sound like I’m bragging or anything. It’s just that I want this to be a special Christmas. I’m planning to propose to my boyfriend, and I want everyone to be as happy as I am. I guess that sounds silly, but joy to the world, right?”

Just Jack by Meredith Russell
Chapter 1
“Not again.” The man gritted his teeth and pulled on the handle of his car door. The door wouldn’t budge, and the man, looking to be in his fifties and carrying a little weight, grew red in the face and wiped at his brow with the back of his gloved hand. “Denise,” he called toward the house and then walked, far more delicately than a man of his build should, down his driveway.

Winter in Maine was gloriously frosty. A layer of snow had settled on the tops of houses and cars, the trees looked magical coated in white, and it was easy to imagine them shivering in the chilly morning air. Every warm breath taken that cold morning caused a white mist to hang in the air.

Jack leaned against the lamppost on the opposite side of the street and enjoyed his new game. He didn’t know who the man was, what he did for a living, or care who Denise was to him. For Jack, the man was entertainment on yet another wintry January morning. This was the third morning in a row Jack had walked the street before sunrise, tormenting the man by freezing the door of his seventy-plus-thousand-dollar car. Another day or two and Jack would get bored with his mischief and search out new acts of trickery to see him through the day. Every day so far, the man’s reaction had been priceless and something to call on when Jack’s day needed brightening. But today Jack was left disappointed when the man made his way to the house and back unscathed.

Yesterday had been far more fun. The man had ended up flat on his back, having slipped on the ice. He had lain on the ground like some up-ended turtle, rocking around in his thick winter coat, unable to bend his limbs in such a way to get himself the right way up.

Jack grew tired of waiting for something comical to happen. “Maybe tomorrow,” Jack said in a low voice. He pushed off the streetlight, eyed the icy handprint he had left, and then carried on his way.

It was seven in the morning, barely light. The early risers heading for work were up and out in their driveways, complaining about the cold as they defrosted their cars. The sidewalk was covered in fresh snow, which glistened beneath the man-made lights and was, as yet, undisturbed by human feet, just a spattering of prints from birds and what was possibly a cat. Jack loved the cold, and he smiled as a chilling breeze circled him, carrying with it the fresh scent of the day and the crisp brown leaves that had fallen from the trees. The prickle of cold against his skin was one of his favorite feelings, like a thousand icy fingers pinching at his arms and face. God, how he loved it.

Opening the top button of his jacket, he savored the cold against his chest and gently traced his fingertips over his chilled skin. He breathed deeply, content with his icy touch and the feel of the cool air whipping up around him. What he wouldn’t give to be wrapped up in a blanket of cold. To slip inside the deliciously chilled wind and zip it up as if it were a sleeping bag made just for him.

Holding out his hand in front of him, Jack encouraged the breeze into a spiral that wrapped around his arm and caused a delightful shiver to pass through him. The air glowed the most beautiful shade of blue as it danced around Jack, and his chest ached from the knowledge this beauty was only for him—and those like him—to see. Anyone watching would think he was mad. They wouldn’t see the dance of blue and silver, nor would they hear the wind’s angelic song reverberating in the air.

Jack stroked the breeze as it snaked through his fingers, gently drawing moisture from it and into the palm of his hand. He rotated his fingers, spinning the moisture into a sphere, and then gently teased it with his icy breath until the sphere hardened. The size of a tennis ball, the sphere became a ball of ice, and Jack flicked it into the air and caught it.

“Perfect,” he said.

The ball was smooth, flawless, and transparent. He reached out his other hand and dragged his fingers over the hedge he passed. The leaves of the hedge crackled and curled in on themselves beneath his touch, which left them coated in wintry white frost. All he needed now was someone to have a little fun with. He grinned at the thought.

A dog barked, and Jack looked ahead. “Perfect,” he said again and teased the ball between his finger and thumb.

A large German shepherd was standing several yards in front of him. The dog was on a leash, and on the other end of that leash was the dog’s owner, a petite woman dressed head to toe in pink with matching accessories. She was talking on her cell phone and looked to be in her forties, dressed in winter clothing, each item seemingly edged in white fur.

Too old to be playing at Barbie, Jack decided.

He blew on the ball of ice and watched as frosty patterns formed across its surface. He admired what could only be described as art. Spirals and symmetrical branches merged together in raised icy paths, very much like patterns etched into Christmas tree ornaments. It was all about the details for Jack. If he was going to do something, then it should be perfect and beautiful.

Content with his creation, he pulled back his arm and bowled the ball toward the dog. The sphere rolled along the sidewalk, leaving only a small line in the snow as it seemed to weightlessly skim its surface. Jack watched and waited, merely encouraging the sphere along its chosen path.

As if it had a mind of its own, the sphere steered to the left, and as it neared the dog, the ball skipped off the sidewalk and into the street. The dog barked loudly, pulling at its leash as it sought to chase the ball of ice. The woman struggled to hold the large German shepherd and stumbled forward as the dog darted after the ball and into the road. She performed some poorly crafted acrobatics routine as she desperately held onto her dog. But the dog’s desire to chase the ball was greater than any strength she might have had to hold onto him. It was as if she weighed nothing as she was dragged forward by her pet and into the road. Cursing, she eventually gave in as she tripped up the opposite curb. With a yelp, she let go of the leash and landed on her face in the snow-covered grass of a neighbor’s lawn.

Jack laughed as the woman lifted her head. White covered her cheeks and forehead, and she rolled over to sit on the frozen ground. Her mouth curled down with a pathetic whimper, and she slapped the ground in a halfhearted tantrum.

“Caesar,” she called after the dog.

The German shepherd pricked up its large ears and glanced back at his owner. The dog’s tongue hung out the right side of its mouth, all wet and shiny as it panted excitedly. White puffs of the dog’s warm breath filled the air around the animal’s head, and choosing to ignore the woman, the dog ran off down the street.

“Caesar!” She lowered her head and brushed the snow from her coat.

Had she seen him? Jack wondered. Jack didn’t know whether she had or hadn’t, and though he claimed to not care, there was always a pang of disappointment in his chest, a need to be noticed.

Turning away, he walked down the street. He didn’t look back or stop to help her. He never did. It was not in his nature to worry about the misfortunes of humans. They were just something to pass his time.

A short way down the street, Jack spotted the escaped German shepherd sitting on the sidewalk, seemingly waiting for him. The animal held in its mouth the ball of ice, though the ice was already melting from the dog’s breath. As Jack got closer, the dog placed the ball on the grass and sat upright. Jack smiled and held out his hand, running his fingers over the dog’s coat. He frowned as he stroked the soft fur. Though he knew there should be something more, he felt nothing but the cold.

“Get away from me,” he said to the dog. “I’m no good for you.”

The dog simply looked up at him through large amber eyes.

“Go on. Get.”

Jack narrowed his gaze and looked down at his hands. The prickle of ice played in his palms. He could show the dumb animal exactly what he was capable of.

The dog licked his hand, and Jack tempered his desire to strike out. The dog, clearly oblivious to Jack’s nature and wanting nothing more than to have him throw the ball again, just sat and stared up at him.

“Okay,” Jack said softly.

The dog nudged at his hand.

“I said, okay.”

Jack bent down to pick up the ball of ice. He wrapped his hand around the slippery lump and squeezed. It only took a second and the sphere was solid again, a frosty layer coating its surface once more. He looked over his shoulder in the direction of the German shepherd’s home. The dog had done him no wrong, and as much as he liked to mess with the lives of the humans in the town, he never meant them any real harm.

“Go home,” he said and threw the ball back up the street.

Happily, the dog bounded off, its leash trailing on the ground as it chased the ball. Jack worried his lower lip and waited until the dog was out of sight. Hopefully, the animal would be reunited with his owner.

Cramming his hands in his jacket pockets, Jack looked at the ground, and with the toe of his boot, he drew a circle in the snow. Adding eyes and a smile, Jack admired his masterpiece for a moment. It wasn’t quite right. He crouched and held his hand over the simple drawing. Slowly, he pulled back his hand. The soft flakes quivered. He teased the snow, rearranging the picture, then straightened up. The image’s smile was gone, replaced with a frown.

“Hello, Jack,” he said to the drawn face.

With a heavy sigh, he dragged his foot across the image, wiping the sidewalk clear. If only it was that easy to wipe away the morose feeling from inside him.

He rubbed a hand over his face and took a deep breath. There was a smile on his lips as he looked ahead at the elderly gentleman making his way toward him.

“Too cruel?” he asked himself.

Maybe. Jack smiled. Or maybe not. He wiggled his fingers and felt the cold air surge between them. This was who he was—the bringer of mishaps, ice, and mischief, and of the frost on the window panes.

He was Jack Frost.

Chapter 2
“This… this isn’t what you think.”

Leo Marsh stared at his boyfriend in disbelief. Not what I think? How was catching the cheating bastard with his dick in another man’s mouth anything but what he thought?

“This, here. There’s no explanation you can give me that makes this okay.”

“Baby, listen to me,” Mac Donovan said as he pushed the other man away and got to his feet. He quickly pulled up his pants. “This is nothing. This is a mistake. This is—”

“Over,” Leo finished. “You asshole. You’re a fucking liar.” Leo had never hit anyone in his life, but right then, he wanted to slam his clenched fist into his lying asshole of a boyfriend’s face, break his perfect nose, dislocate his manly square jaw.


Leo had done Mac a favor. He’d been in the office since six a.m. organizing paperwork and displays for a presentation Mac was supposed to be giving to the company directors tomorrow. He’d wanted nothing more than to help when Mac had called in sick. Mac was supposed to be home, suffering and pathetic, taken to his bed. That’s what he’d claimed when he had phoned at one in the morning. Had this other man already been with him when he called? Some little piece of ass Mac had picked up in a bar for a sleepover?

“It’s so over.” What the hell had he been thinking? For some reason Leo believed bringing his sick boyfriend an early lunch was a sweet, romantic gesture. Finding Mac with his pants around his ankles and some shirtless man nuzzling his crotch wasn’t on Leo’s to-do list for the day.

“No, no. Don’t say that.” Mac was on his feet and at Leo’s side before Leo’s brain could engage enough for him to plan an escape. “I love you. You and only you.”

Leo looked at the young man who had stayed kneeling beside the bed. He could have been Leo’s double—short wavy blond hair, the same straight nose and high cheekbones. The only difference between them seemed to be ten years or so in age. Was this some trade-in scheme? Had he really just been cheated on with a younger version of himself? Fuck, he suddenly felt more like fifty than his actual thirty.

Leo met the young man’s eyes. The man remained unmoved by Mac’s declaration of love for Leo. So, this kid was just a fuck. A morning screw while Leo was at the office. Was that supposed to make him feel better about this whole messed-up situation?

“You said never again,” Leo reminded him. Yes, Mac had done this before. Twice, in fact, that he knew of.

“I know. I know. I’m weak. You know that and how hard I fight these feelings because I love you.” He had his hands on Leo’s chest and ran them upward to squeeze his shoulders. “But maybe, maybe it’s time to stop fighting. Maybe this time we could both… You know?” He looked at the young man and directed the next part at him. “I mean, you would be up for that, right? The three of us?”

The young man pursed his lips as he shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

Mac cupped Leo’s face and held him fast, forcing Leo to look at him. His hazel eyes darkened and he looked serious. “See. It’d be good for us. Maybe it’s what we need.”

Leo closed his eyes. So, he wasn’t enough for Mac anymore? Had he ever been? “No.” He wasn’t going to have sex with some stranger. How the hell would that fix anything?

“Please.” Mac kissed him, but the kiss left Leo cold.

Leo stared at Mac’s mouth. How he used to long for Mac’s kisses and his touch. He was everything Leo had ever wanted, and foolishly he’d thought Mac felt the same about him. Now all he felt was repulsion.

“What’s his name?” Leo asked. Why he wanted to know, he wasn’t sure. He just felt like he should ask.

Mac opened his mouth but said nothing.

“You don’t even know his name?”

“Sure I do. It’s…” He looked at the other man, who was on his feet and getting dressed.

“Chris,” the young man said and pulled on his T-shirt. “Look, if this isn’t happening, then I have somewhere to be.”

“It is,” Mac insisted and held up his hand to stop Chris from leaving. He looked at Leo. “It is.”

Leo shook his head. “No, it isn’t.” He focused on Chris. “You should leave now.”

Chris nodded and gathered his things. This time Mac didn’t stop him and simply glanced at him as he passed them on the way to the door.

As soon as the door shut, Leo freed himself from Mac’s hold and put some distance between them.

“Is this the first time?”


“Here with him?”

Mac nodded. “Of course. He came onto me. I’m weak.”

Leo closed his eyes. He didn’t know why he asked, maybe out of some twisted way to punish himself further for being such a fool, but he did. “How many others?” He opened his eyes and stared into Mac’s. Mac’s eyes clouded with guilt. Leo had really hoped he’d been wrong, that Mac would say this was one little slip.

“Did you use protection?” he asked. He was angry as hell and wanted Mac out of his sight. But he needed to know.

“Of course.”

Leo took a deep breath. He needed to get out of there.

“We can talk about this.”

Talk? He wouldn’t give Mac a chance to worm his way out of it this time. The silver-tongued asshole didn’t deserve another chance.

“I’m done. We’re over.” He made to leave, but Mac had him by the arm.

“You don’t mean that.”

“I do.” Leo wished he sounded stronger, but he was tired. He hadn’t gone back to bed after Mac had called that morning, too busy worrying about getting everything right and in place for the meeting tomorrow, in place for Mac. “I’m sick of putting up with your crap.”

Mac gripped his arm more tightly. “Please.”

Leo dared to look up into Mac’s eyes. He had always adored the color of Mac’s eyes, a warm toffee flecked with emerald green. There was always such passion and heat in the way Mac looked at him, and before, one glance from Mac would cause Leo to melt. He held Mac’s gaze. He felt nothing now.

“What do you want me to say? Anything. I’ll do anything.”

Leo stayed silent. He’d invested three years of his life into their relationship. But enough was enough. Mac wasn’t ever going to change. It had finally come down to this moment, and Leo needed to make the decision that was right for him. No more second chances. Not this time.

“Move in with me,” Mac said quickly.

“What?” Had the kid literally fucked Mac’s brains out?

Mac released Leo’s arm and took both his hands in his. “It’s what you wanted, right? The two of us? Living together?” He leaned forward for a kiss, but Leo turned his head, Mac’s lips making contact with his cheek. He continued, “You can move in here.”

Once upon a time, Leo would have done anything to hear Mac say those words. How he had longed for them to be more than a toothbrush and a few toiletries in each other’s bathroom. They had been close once. Mac had even gotten him a key made, but then Mac had blown it, just like he had now, and it was like a reset had been hit on their relationship. He never would have expected it, but Leo was actually glad Mac had kept him at a distance. At least this way, Leo could walk away.

Shaking his head, Leo snatched his hands back. “No. I’m not doing this.” So many times Mac had talked his way back into Leo’s heart, and Leo into his bed. But not this time. This wasn’t Mac confirming Leo’s suspicions and the office gossip about what Mac had done behind his back. This time he had seen it with his own eyes. He’d seen the other man. He’d seen the lies and the cheating. They were done.

He took his keys from his jacket pocket. Never had the pile of metal felt so damn heavy. Looking into Mac’s eyes, he turned the keys over in his hand.

“Don’t,” Mac said.

If only Mac had been able to keep it in his pants. Leo had been happy in his little oblivious world. In his mind, he had been enough for Mac and they had been enough for each other. But he deserved better than this.

“I love you.”

“If you really loved me, this wouldn’t be happening. We wouldn’t be standing here having this conversation.” He separated the key to Mac’s apartment from the rest. Was he strong enough to go through with this? He looked at Mac. I deserve better than you. Pressing his mouth in a line, he freed the key from the keychain and held it out to Mac.

“Keep it,” Mac said.

Leo looked between the key and Mac. If he stayed, then what? How long would it be before Mac cheated on him again? He had to stick by his decision. For his own sake.

“I don’t want it.” As Mac wouldn’t take the key, Leo bent over and placed it on the floor. He let his fingers linger for a moment before he straightened up.

Mac rested his hands on his hips and eyed the key. “You’re giving up on us?”

“There is no more us, Mac.” He stepped forward and studied Mac’s face. God how he’d loved the man. Mac had been his Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome. Where had they gone wrong? “It wasn’t me that gave up.” He kissed Mac on the cheek. “Goodbye,” he said, then turned on his heel and walked away.

“Leo, wait,” Mac called after him. “Leo. You know you need me, right? You’ll be back.” He paused. “Leo!”

Leo didn’t stop until he reached the bottom of the stairwell. He glanced upward over his shoulder and listened. To his relief, he didn’t see or hear anything or anyone. If Mac had followed him out of the apartment, he wasn’t sure what he’d have done. His heart and head were all over the place. Three years. Three fucking years he’d just walked away from. Where had they gone wrong? Deflated, he sat on the bottom step. Was it him? Was he unlovable?

This was all Mac’s fault. Leo needed to remember that. So maybe he wouldn’t win any prizes for being the perfect boyfriend, because who the hell was perfect, but he had never lied to or cheated on Mac. Hell, if anything, he could be accused of trying too hard. With a sigh, he gazed out the apartment building’s doors. Through the glass he could see it was snowing again. Shivering, he rubbed at his chest. He felt like there was a block of ice clamped on either side of his heart, painfully squeezing the organ. Could someone die from a broken heart? Pressing his palm flat, he felt the gentle thump of his heartbeat.

Not completely broken.

The pulse beneath his hand reminded him there were worse things that could have happened to him today, not many, considering how he felt right now, but there were certainly some. A door opened and closed above him, and he heard voices on the stairs. The voices were female, and Leo guessed they belonged to Mac’s neighbors, a mother and daughter who lived across the hall.

He eyed the entrance. He couldn’t sit here all day, despite the sudden urge to curl into a ball and be damned with everything. He was only supposed to be on his lunch break, and he’d already spent a good amount of time thoughtfully selecting his ex-lover the perfect sandwich and standing in line for his salted caramel mocha. Ex-lover. That sounded pretty damn final.

I should have taken back the damn sandwich.

He blew out a heavy breath and got to his feet. He’d save the self-pity for the evening and have a full-on Bridget-Jones moment with a tub of ice cream and a breakup playlist. He straightened his tie. Not really his style. More likely popcorn and horror movies. As much as he’d love to see Mac chopped up into little pieces right now, it was never going to happen.

I’d never get away with it. He sniffed a laugh. Watching Freddy or Jason hack up a few people might help a bit, he figured. He sighed. He needed to get a grip, get back to the office, and hope to God nobody asked him how Mac was doing.

Fastening the button on his suit jacket, Leo prepared himself for the rush of cold. He pushed open the door to the block and stepped outside. Fresh air swirled around him, and he took a moment to appreciate how invigorating the sensation was. Breathing deeply, he stood tall. Despite the solid feeling still lingering inside his chest, he felt somewhat comforted by the chilled world before him. He rubbed at his chest and took the three steps down to the sidewalk. There he stopped as a cold shiver worked its way up his spine toward his collar and beneath his hairline. It was a strange feeling, but one he welcomed. For some reason, it felt right.

People walked past him, wrapped in their warm coats, hats, gloves, and scarves as they hurried through the snow. A gust of wind caused the white flakes to twist and turn, and Leo narrowed his eyes as a flash of blue spiraled in front of him. Rubbing his eyes, he dismissed the spark of color. He was tired, but he still had lots to do back at the office. If he could, he’d have ditched the presentation in favor of something else, but as it was, not only was the presentation important to Mac, Leo’s future at Harding’s Toys also rested on it.

He glanced up and down the sidewalk and settled his gaze on a man walking toward him. The man stood out from the other people on the street. He didn’t rush like the people around him, who looked as if they were running from the cold in search of a hiding place. In fact, he seemed to enjoy it. He wore a short coat open over a pale blue shirt and dark jeans. His skin was fair, even more so set against his dark hair, and softened by the trimmed growth across his jaw. Something familiar leapt in Leo’s chest, but he was sure he had never seen the man before. He watched as blue spirals seemed to dance around the man, then their eyes met ever so briefly.

Clearly, Leo was imagining things, because the icy cold that had gripped his heart since leaving Mac’s apartment made way for sparks of heat. This didn’t happen to him, not like this. Sure he’d ogled plenty of handsome men, some had been downright fuckable, but never had a reaction been so strong to a simple stranger on the street. He was well and truly in lust.

A smile curled the man’s full mouth, and he looked over his shoulder. Leo’s attention was drawn beyond the man as someone seemingly slipped in the snow. The man’s smile widened as a second person fell on their ass behind him, then a third. Others stopped to help the fallen people, but all the man did was simply glance at Leo as he passed him. Intrigued, Leo stepped out. What happened next was a blur as his feet slipped from under him and he fell forward. His head hit the ground and all he remembered thinking was how shitty his day was turning out.

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

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

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

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

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

Ki Brightly 
Ki grew up in small town nowhere pretending that meteor showers were aliens invading, turning wildflowers into magic potions, and reading more than was probably healthy. Ki had one amazing best friend, one endlessly out of grasp "true love", and a personal vendetta against normalcy.

Now, as an adult, living in Erie, Pennsylvania, Ki enjoys the sandy beaches, frigid winters, and a wonderful fancy water addiction. Seriously, fancy waters...who knew there were so many different kinds? It's just water...and yet...

Ki shares this life with a Muse, a Sugar Plum, and two wonderful children.

AE Wasp
After time spent raising children, earning several college degrees, and traveling the world with the U.S. State Department, she is returning to her first love - writing.

A dreamer and an idealist, Amy writes about people finding connection in a world that can seem lonely and magic in a world that can seem all too mundane. She invites readers into her characters’ lives and worlds when they are their most vulnerable, their most human, living with the same hopes and fears we all have. An avid traveler who has lived in big cities and small towns in four different continents, Amy has found that time and distance are no barriers to love. She invites her readers to reach out and share how her characters have touched their lives or how the found families they have gathered around them have shaped their worlds.

Born on Long Island, NY, Amy has lived in Los Angeles, London, and Bangkok. She currently lives in a town suspiciously like Red Deer, Colorado.

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

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

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

Meredith Russell
Meredith Russell lives in the heart of England. An avid fan of many story genres, she enjoys nothing less than a happy ending. She believes in heroes and romance and strives to reflect this in her writing. Sharing her imagination and passion for stories and characters is a dream Meredith is excited to turn into reality.

CS Poe

Ki Brightly 

AE Wasp

Ari McKay

Meredith Russell

The Mystery of Nevermore by CS Poe

Pining for Perfect by Ki Brightley
Boy Toys by AE Wasp

Knitting a Broken Heart by Ari McKay

Just Jack by Meredith Russell