Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Random Tales of Christmas 2018 Part 2

Neutral Zone by RJ Scott & VL Locey
Harrisburg Railers #7
Tennant Rowe has it all, a boyfriend he adores, a loving family, and a career on the rise. He’s sure of his place in the world, and the future can only get brighter. Then one night, in a flash of skates and sticks, life changes forever. Getting back on the ice is Ten’s priority, and experts tell him that it’s just a matter of time.

Jared watches his lover fall in more ways than one, and when tragedy strikes, even the strongest of relationships are tested. Ten is strong, but Jared has to be stronger to help the man who holds his heart. Only, he has to admit that maybe it isn’t just him who can make Ten whole again.

Jared and Ten’s love is forever, but the rocky path to the romantic Christmas Jared had planned may be hard to travel.

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Harrisburg Railers:     Part 1  /  Part 2

When Tennant Rowe finds himself injured with a long road ahead to recovery and regaining his life on the ice, it is going to take everything he has to get there, including patience.  Jared Madsen watches the man he loves battle towards recovery and he realizes that time and patience is needed from everyone but does he have strength to standby and let Ten do this while everyone turns to him for answers without breaking himself?  Can the romantic Christmas Jared has in mind help heal both mens' minds?

Who doesn't love a holiday novella in one of their favorite series?  When I heard that RJ Scott & VL Locey was going to do a Christmas novella in the Harrisburg Railers I knew it would be a winner, how can it not with them at the helm?  Which means I went in with high expectations and that isn't always a good thing when it comes to art and entertainment, you don't want to start something expecting a certain level and then if it doesn't match your anticipation then suddenly you feel disappointed or let down either in the artists or yourself.  WELL!  I need not have worried because there wasn't an ounce of disappointment or let down in sight!  Nope, Neutral Zone is all good in all ways, a definite win-win.

I won't reveal anything about the fight Ten has to come back or what put him in that position to begin with for those who are reading my review and haven't yet read Goal Line(Harrisburg Railers #6) or Ryker, the first in the authors' spin-off series, Owatonna U.  I will say that Ten is still the tenacious and spirited young man we first met in Changing Lines and Jared is still the coach who loves him.  They may find themselves on a path that neither saw coming but at the heart it hasn't changed them, its just made certain things a bit more clear.

One thing I do want to mention on a personal note, as someone who was at my mom's bedside everyday when she was in the hospital for the better part of 8 months back in 2007, the frustrations and inner turmoil that both Ten and Jared deal with are written pretty spot on and done so with respect that can often be overlooked or over-dramatized in fiction and for that I want to say a huge "Thank You" to RJ Scott and VL Locey.

We get to see many of the series favorites pop up here and there and in doing so if you haven't already guessed by this point you will now, the Railers are more than just a team they are a family.  The fact that this is a Christmas novella only heightens the love.  So much goodness from beginning to end.  For those who have not read Harrisburg Railers from book one, I highly recommend starting from the beginning.  Will you enjoy Neutral Zone if you just start with this holiday tale? Of course. Will you be lost? Probably not. Will you be missing huge entertaining chunks? Definitely.  For the most part each entry is a "separate" tale because they are different pairings but as I said, the Railers are a family not just a team so the series is connected by more than just playing for the same hockey team.


Better Not Pout by Annabeth Albert
One hard-nosed military police officer.

One overly enthusiastic elf.

One poorly timed snowstorm.

Is it a recipe for disaster? Or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for holiday romance?

Teddy MacNally loves Christmas and everything that goes along with it. When he plays an elf for his charity’s events, he never expects to be paired with a Scrooge masquerading as Santa Claus. His new mission: make the holiday-hating soldier believe he was born to say ho-ho-ho.

Sergeant Major Nicholas Nowicki doesn’t do Santa, but he’s army to his blood. When his CO asks an unusual favor, Nick of course obliges. The elf to his Kris Kringle? Tempting. Too tempting—Nick’s only in town for another month, and Teddy’s too young, too cheerful and too nice for a one-night stand. 

The slow, sexy make-out sessions while Teddy and Nick are alone and snowbound, though, feel like anything but a quick hookup. As a stress-free holiday fling turns into Christmas all year round, Teddy can’t imagine his life without Nick. And Nick’s days on the base may be coming to a close, but he doesn’t plan on leaving anything, or anyone, behind.

Homemade from the Heart by Bru Baker
Craft store owner Grant has always been a sucker for a pretty face, and that goes double for a pretty face with an adorable sidekick. When seven-year-old Aubrey has her heart set on taking Grant’s already-full holiday craft series, he caves and gives up his one day off a week so she (and her hot guardian, Josh) can take private lessons. Their flirting ramps up week after week, and even though Josh isn’t with Aubrey’s mother, Grant can’t be sure the man isn’t straight. Maybe he’s just being friendly. And Josh, who most definitely is not straight, is afraid of being the creepy guy hitting on the teacher.

Frustrated by their stubbornness and cluelessness, Aubrey takes matters into her own hands. She decides the best gift to give Josh is something homemade and from the heart—a boyfriend they’ll both love.

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

The Werewolf of Grey Lake Inn by Megan Derr
Astor is tired—tired of his family and the way they never listen to his advice, and tired of being in love with his agent, Tennyson, who after a one night stand made it clear he preferred to keep things professional. The only thing Astor's not tired of is his job researching haunted inns and hotels to prove just how haunted they're not.

His latest book is about a notorious inn in the middle of nowhere, and a haunting he suspects has more to do with real werewolves than fake ghosts. It will provide fodder for an excellent non-fiction book, the novel he's secretly writing, and be so distracting he'll finally be able to get over Tennyson.

Except when he arrives it's to find that Tennyson is already there, with every intention of keeping Astor company through the holidays.

Original Review October 2018:
This is only the second book of Megan Derr's that I've read but it has cemented my decision to further check out her backlist in the future.  Astor is a snarky vampire who investigates and writes books on disproving haunted places, not exactly a character you read every day.  Tennyson is his agent who decides to follow along with him on his latest debunking journey into Grey Lake Inn and the surrounding area.  I loved the blend of paranormal, lusty romance, and a little history in the form of the story behind the ghost "sightings".  The Werewolf of Grey Lake Inn may be short on words and pages but long on delightfully fun entertainment.


Snowflakes & Cinnamon Buns by Claire Castle
Cameron Pearce loves to work hard and play hard. Living in New York City, means lots of men and lots of variety. He isn’t looking for love.

When he goes to his small hometown Dickensville for Christmas, food, friends, family and seeing his best friend Levi are what’s on the agenda. He also hopes for some friends-with-benefits enjoyment.

Levi Jones owns and runs his own café in Dickensville. He loves the Christmas season and all that comes with it. Decorating, baking, and snow among other things. Another perk is when Cameron visits home and he gets him all to himself.

What will happen when true feelings are revealed and everything is put on the line. Will their friendship survive? Can best friends go from hooking up to a real relationship? Do they even want to?

This book contains delicious cinnamon buns, a cute westie and sexy hot men to warm up your holidays.

Click to Check Out Previous
Random Tales of Christmas 2018

Neutral Zone by RJ Scott & VL Locey
Karma. It’s a real bitch. Just ask anyone. 

I’d left my man and my team behind in Harrisburg and flown to—get this—fucking Tucson, Arizona, to begin treatment for my traumatic head injury. 

The same city the Raptors played in. 

I could open the blinds in my room here in the Draper Neurological Rehabilitation and Performance Center and see the glistening mirrored sides of the Santa Catalina Arena. Funny shit right there. Four blocks over, the Raptors were on the ice for morning skate, and I was here, trying to get my brain healed enough so I could maybe play my game again someday. 

Shit, right now I’d be happy to be able to speak or read normally.

“Ho, ho, ho,” I growled, closing the drapes, then pulling my sunglasses off and tossing them to the bed. Living behind sunglasses and blinds sucked. Headaches sucked. Slurred speech sucked. Seeing the pity in the eyes of my boyfriend and family and teammates sucked. Christmas with sand and cactus sucked. I wanted to cry. I wanted to be back home with Mads, decorating our tree and shaking my presents. I wanted to be shopping for gifts for my boyfriend, my mother and father, for my brothers, and for Stan and Adler and all the Railers. I wanted things to be the way they had been before that night. Tears threatened, but I held them in. Crying only made my head hurt worse. 

So, I padded out of my room and made my way to breakfast and the first of several rounds of rehab I’d be facing today. I’d been here one day and had come to realize that my brain was now as well-known with the neurologists here as my face was back in Harrisburg. This was the place for athletes to come when they were battling CTE-related brain issues. Most of the men here were older, retired players, lots of football players. I mean lots of them. I’d met three other hockey players so far, all retired, all fighting to keep a step ahead of the disease taking over their brains. Sometimes, late at night, when I was lying in bed, I’d get scared for myself and all the other guys on my team. I worried about Mads. God knows how many concussions he’d had when he was playing. Add that to his heart shit and… well, I worried about stuff now. Lots more stuff than I had before the night my head met the ice, sans helmet. 

The facility held a hundred and fifty people, and not all of us were athletes. Lots of patients had come here after car accidents or other catastrophic injuries. There were head injuries and spinal cord injuries being healed. The staff seemed nice, confident in their ability to nurse me back to my old self or as close as we could get. The halls were bright and airy, the food excellent, and the medical staff top-notch. And yes, it was expensive and elite and the cream of the crop. Which was why Mads had stubbornly pushed me into coming here after my initial rehab had been completed. Two weeks at the facility, a couple of weeks back home for the holidays, then back for another four weeks. Then maybe we’d talk about hockey. 

“Hey, you’re Tennant Rowe, right?” 

I skidded to a halt outside one of a dozen sun-rooms. As though people in Arizona didn’t get enough sun just stepping outside? They needed to make rooms for sun? A tall, burly black man about my age ran at me, hand out. I smiled up at him, trying to pull some information about him from my cloudy memory banks. 

“I’m Declan Fidler, cornerback for the Temple Owls.”

“Ah, cool, hey man.” We shook hands. God, he was cute. Short hair and a flashy smile, big wide shoulders and inkwork all over his arms. “Sorry to see you here though, dude.”

“Yeah, I know that.” He ran a hand over his hair. “First game of the season too.”

“That sucks,” I said, then released his hand. “I was on my way to the dining hall.”

“I could eat if you want some company.”

“Totally. Be nice to have someone to talk to who’s under forty.”

“I feel that.” 

He joined me on the walk to the dining hall, which looked nothing like the hospital cafeteria I’d been expecting when I first saw it yesterday. This place was upmarket. Round tables with cloth covers, thick royal-blue carpeting, windows that ran floor to ceiling, flowering plants in the corners, and a wait staff. 

“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this place,” I murmured as I followed Declan to a table by the windows. 

“I feel the same way,” he said as we took our seats. “I mean, I grew up wealthy, my father’s the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and I was still blown away.”

“That’s impressive. Did he…?” My brain went totally blank, and I scrambled to find the proper word. “Push. Yeah, did he push to get you in here?” I winced at the slip. 

Fuck this shit. Really. Push? How fucking hard it is to recall a word like push? 

An older woman in a tidy uniform filled our water glasses, then asked if she could have our room numbers. All the meals here were prepared by nutritionists with an eye to the patients’—athletes in my case—unique needs. 

“Big-time. He was adamant about me coming here after the initial rehab. Said that this place would do things to counter the damage that no regular rehab could do. You here for CRT?”

“I uhm…” and that skip again. Fuck. “Dude, sorry, I’m like…” I tapped my temple.

He reached over the table to take my hand. “Ten, man, do not sweat it. You should have seen me when I got here. Barely able to string four words together. Sometimes I still trip up, just like that. But it’s all good. We’re tough motherfuckers. We’ll train our brains.”

“Yeah, train the brains. Cool.” 

He gave my hand a squeeze and then released it. “So CRT?”

Our food was served, my platter loaded with scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, a bowl of oatmeal, and chocolate milk. My meds also sat on my tray. Declan’s food was similar, as were the meds in tiny cups lined up for him. 

“Cognitive rehab therapy,” he said before shaking out his napkin and laying it over his lap. I did the same and tossed down the pills. I had no idea what they were pumping into me, and I truly didn’t care. As long as they got me back on the ice, they could be dumping Soylent green into my body via the milk. Man, that old movie rocked. What I wouldn’t give to be curled up on the couch with Mads watching it again. “Speech, occupation, and physical therapy. You don’t have any big physical issues, do you?”

“Some weakness on the left side, my arm, but it’s getting better. I hardly drop anything now.”

“That’s good. Once the swelling goes down, things tend to get better.” He took a bite from a slice of whole wheat toast. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here eating with you. Cup winner, LGBT crusader. Thanks for doing that, coming out, being proud and gay. I know how hard that is. My family and team have been amazing about my being queer.”

“Excellent. Glad they’re… fuck, I just. Give me a sec. Yeah, uhm, glad it’s good for you. I’m sorry. Sometimes I can go, like, whole days and barely fuck up, and then I’ll hit this patch where my brain glitches out and… shit. Fuck. Okay, I’m going to shut up for a minute and let my neurons… fire or something.”

“It’s fine. I understand.” And he did. I could see it in his eyes. He totally got it because he was living it too. 

I wished everyone else in my life could get it as Declan did. We ate in amiable silence, not that heavy, cloaking pity blanket of quietude that my family draped over me every time I fumbled. 

Therapy followed that pleasant breakfast, hours of it. Doctors and nurses, therapists, reading and tests and poking and prodding. Weights and treadmills and medicine balls. Shoving tiny pegs into tinier holes, pet therapy which was actually cool because who didn’t love a dog kiss? Speech therapy was last, and I tanked at it. Totally blew it to shit with my inability to recall one simple phrase. It made me so mad I flipped the table, sending papers and pencils flying. Then, because I had no clue where that outburst had come from, I felt even shittier. 

“Tennant, it’s okay,” the woman, who was some fancy kind of advanced speech therapist, said as we picked up the mess I’d made. “Temper flare-ups are common. It’s frustrating not to be able to express yourself. We see that frequently in stroke victims.”

“That was uncool. Just so uncool. I didn’t… it wasn’t… shit.” I dropped to my ass, hands full of work sheets that looked as if a four-year-old had scribbled them down, buried my face in the papers, and wept. 

Julie. Yes! That was her name. Julie sat down beside me, rubbed my back, and told me all kinds of reassuring things. 

“I’m kind of done for the day,” I told her, and she let me go. I walked the halls, feeling discouraged and sickened with myself. Once I got back to my room, I called home, needing to hear Jared’s voice. As soon as he picked up, I kind of began babbling. A lot of it wasn’t sensible, and it was garbled because I’d have to stop, think, and then restart. But through all of that, Jared listened and never interrupted. When I was done, I fell back onto the bed, exhausted, battling a headache, and sick to death of myself and my stupid brain. 

“Sounds like a rough first day,” Jared said. I rolled to my side, tucking my knees up, my gaze on that shiny arena where the Raptors were playing hockey right now. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come out? I can get a hotel room.”

“No, you need to work. The team needs you.”

“You need me as well, Tennant.”

“No, I got this. You can’t do this for me, Mads. Neither can Ryker or Brady or Jamie or my mother. It’s just…” I exhaled through pursed lips. “It’s so much harder than I thought it would be. I mean, I knew it would be hard but fuck sake, I couldn’t recall simple words. How will I ever be able to play if I can’t…” I stopped and calmed myself down. “I hate that this happened. I hate Aarni so much for doing this to me, Jared. I never thought I could ever hate anyone.”

“I know, babe. I wish you’d reconsider and let me come out there.” 

He sounded as sick at heart as I was. And truthfully, in that moment, I was close to telling him to fly out. I so needed his arms around me. 

“Tell me you love me.”

“I love you.” He drew in a shaky breath. “Do you want me to come out? Just say the word.”

I sat up slowly to avoid a head-rush and the pain that went along with those. “No, I’m good.” I pushed to my feet and went to the window. The sun was setting now, the mirrored sides of the Santa Catalina Arena glowing scarlet and pink. “I’m a tough camper. My Mom said that to me the first time I went to hockey camp.”

“Yeah? How old were you? Five months old or so?”

That made me chuckle. “Nah man, I was like six. And this camp was in Buffalo. I wanted to go so bad. I mean, I can be kind of stubborn when I want something.”

“I’m well aware of that fact,” he replied. Was he sitting down or pacing? Probably pacing because he was tension-riddled over me. “You were persistent about us.”

“Damn right I was. I knew we’d be good.” I touched the pane of glass as a smile of remembrance played on my lips. “I went to that camp, and as soon as my folks dropped me off, I wanted to come home. But Mom wouldn’t let me. She said I had to be a tough camper and that once the homesickness wore off, I’d be glad I stayed.”

“Were you?”

“Yeah, I loved it. Scored my first goal against Tommy Wayfarer. He got mad and cried.” The lights of Tucson began to flicker to life. Someone walked by my door humming Santa Claus is Coming to Town. “I’ll be okay. I just have to score my first goal here.”

“You will.” 

“Yeah, I will. So, tell me about morning skate. How did the lines look?”

We talked about the Railers and about Ryker and Declan, my new therapy buddy. We talked about old movies and new songs. We talked for hours. Darkness had blanketed the city when I dozed off on him. I woke up a second later, phone still to my ear, my boyfriend chuckling. 

“Wow, you snored yourself awake,” Mads said, then groaned, rising to his feet I assumed. 

“Shit, yeah, I fell asleep.” A yawn rolled out of me. I flopped to my side on the bed, my sight on the desert sky over Tucson. 

“I need to turn in too,” he said around a yawn. 

“Yeah, you’re a couple of hours ahead of us. I’ll call you tomorrow at the same time. I love you, Mads.”

“I love you too, Ten. And your mother was right; you are a tough camper. You’ll begin to see improvement, I know you. You won’t stop until you do.”

“Thanks, Coach.”


“I miss our goodnight kisses.” My eyes were so heavy I could barely keep them open.

“You’ll get plenty when you get home.”

“Mm, loving sounds good.” 

“Yes, it does. Get some rest. Heal. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Night,” I mumbled, ended the call, and then fell into an exhausted but fitful sleep. The bed was too hard, too narrow, and far too lacking in Jared Madsen’s big, broad body.

Better Not Pout by Annabeth Albert
The Santa suit didn't fit. It itched. And it tugged against Nick's skin as he drove out of Fort End, heading southeast toward the small town of Mineral Spirits. On the rare occasions he ventured off base into what he still thought of as the wilds of upstate New York, he got on the interstate and went straight to Watertown. He did his shopping or went out to eat and never bothered with these narrow state highways and back roads leading to tiny villages and hamlets, most of which seemed to have Mills or Crossing in their name and were pretty interchangeable as far as he was concerned.

Mineral Spirits was slightly bigger than most of the towns, notable for the covered bridge that his older F-150 creaked over on the way into a downtown that seemed fresh out of the 1950s red- and gray-brick buildings with signs announcing homey businesses such as Nancy's Diner and Pete's Pet Store. And apparently the village was also known for a borderline freaky obsession with the holidays — even now, a week before Thanksgiving, he spied Christmas decorations on more than one storefront and cutouts of turkeys and pilgrims on a few others.

His stupid GPS kept going out — something about the hills around here made cell service spotty — but the Helping Hand Resource Center was easy enough to find, right off Main Street as Commander Grace had told him. The low white building was decorated with giant colorful handprints on the sides and a large cheerful sign that proclaimed its name and All Are Welcome. He parked in the far corner of the lot, backing into the space, as was his habit.

A bitter wind greeted him, but he didn't bother with his jacket. The damn suit was hot enough, the way it clung to his back, plush red fabric anything but breathable. He remembered to grab the beard and wig, but no way was he putting those on until the last minute. He opened the door to the center only to be greeted by an honest-to-God green-clad elf.

"Nick?" The elf grinned at him like they'd been introduced already. And okay, he wasn't a literal elf, just a small young man with curly blond hair in an elf outfit he seemed perfectly comfortable in — green-and-white-striped tights, hat with a bell, curving slippers, and all. "Sergeant Major Nowicki, yes." It had been years since he'd been just plain Nick for someone outside of his own head, and he wasn't about to start with this overly friendly elf.

"Yes, Miriam told us to expect you. I can't tell you how much we appreciate you filling in for Wallace."

Nick couldn't remember ever hearing Commander Grace referred to by her first name. He knew it, of course, but she was his commanding officer first and foremost, even if she had made efforts over the last few months to make sure he felt welcome at Fort End. And when she asked him for this favor, he'd felt unable to say no, mainly because she was kind and generous and wasn't one to abuse her position and ask for special treatment.

"Of course. Everyone at the base is hoping for a full recovery from Mr. Grace." The commander's husband was an elementary school teacher in Mineral Spirits, and they'd made their home here rather than on base as Nick did.

And apparently, every year they'd been stationed at Fort End, Mr. Grace had played Santa for this charity. The job entailed letting the local paper get photos of him in unusual locations around town so it could run a contest where readers tried to guess "Where's Santa now?" And then he'd appear at a couple of different town events over the course of the season as part of a campaign to raise money for the charity's holiday efforts. The Graces loved this season and this tiny town. But Mr. Grace had suffered a heart attack two days ago and had been life-flighted all the way into Syracuse for open-heart surgery. Commander Grace had called him from I-81, worried not about making it to the hospital, but about whether there would be a Santa for this year's fund-raiser. And he, fool that he was, had said he'd handle finding a replacement. Except everyone he talked to was already committed to something this weekend and, somehow, he'd ended up being the one in the suit.

A suit that was far too small, smelled vaguely of mothballs, and had probably seen better decades. But he was here to do his duty.

"I'm supposed to see Mr. MacNally," he told the elf, who was still looking up at him expectantly.

"That would be me. Call me Teddy though. Everyone does." Another broad grin. And, of course, Mr. Casual was a Teddy. Despite his small stature and baby face, he had to be at least twenty-five since he was the director of this charity. Far too old and in-charge to be a Teddy.

"Who's the one taking the pictures?" He was eager to get this show on the road.

"That would be my cousin, Rhonda." He beckoned over a younger woman with similar curly blond hair. "She works for the paper. She's got several locations scouted out already. I thought you might like to start with a little tour of our facilities? Get you up to speed on what we stand for, maybe get you more in the spirit of things."

That wasn't possible as Nick didn't have an ounce of holiday spirit left, if he'd ever had any to begin with. But he wasn't out to be rude, so he nodded. "You've got me for the day."

"Excellent." Another megawatt smile, this one worthy of a dental ad, all perfectly gleaming white teeth and wide, full lips. He really shouldn't be noticing MacNally's mouth, full or otherwise. He wasn't here to get sidetracked by pouty perfection.

One more month, he reminded himself. One more month at Fort End, which ironically really was the end for him. End of the line, the army's refusal to let him re-up bringing a twenty-eight year career to a halt at the nation's most remote, northernmost outpost, a place that often felt like the end of the earth, far removed from his desert deployments and years stationed in Hawaii, California, and other warm states. He still wasn't exactly happy about the army's decision to go all-in on a reduction in forces, but he had a pretty sweet plan B waiting for him if he could just make it through this last month. One month and he'd be in Florida, on a boat, no Santa suit in sight, no obligations or distractions ...

Why that vision kept making his chest hurt, he didn't know. It might be the Army's call, but he'd worked nearly three decades to earn the military retirement coming to him. By this time in January, he'd have his own place on the ocean and a partnership with his old Army buddy, who did boat day trips for tourists and made himself a nice little living.

And there would be no snow in sight. Ten months here had been more than enough for him. Even the summer had been unbearable, all muggy and humid with mosquitoes everywhere, and only two really good months before fall hit. And now the weather people were calling for a big storm this weekend. Not even Thanksgiving, and they were already talking snow days. No, Florida would be far preferable to any more time at Fort End.

"So we're a multipurpose resource center here to serve primarily the low-income folks of the village and surrounding towns." MacNally had an unusually energetic speaking voice, all full of bright inflection and exclamation points where a simple pause might do. "We have a food pantry, clothing closet, heating and electric bill assistance, Holiday Giving Tree for kids, and offer a variety of workshops and classes ranging from parenting topics to food preservation to budgeting."

MacNally took him through the large, airy lobby with older couches that managed to look both well loved and inviting. Like the exterior of the building, the room was colorful with a children's play area and library tucked into the far corner. From there, he followed MacNally down a hallway as he pointed out the clothing closet full of warm coats looking for homes, the offices where caseworkers met one-on-one with families, and a meeting room for workshops. Nick tried to make approving noises as MacNally prattled on and on about the work of the resource center. He was relieved when they finally reached the food pantry that took up the rear of the building.

He was trying to listen to MacNally talk about balanced meals and perishable items when he spotted a slight teenage boy struggling under the weight of a huge case of canned goods. The case tottered precariously, and acting without thinking, Nick lunged to save it from landing on the kid's feet.

Riiiiipppp. An awful, foreboding sound happened at the exact instant he steadied the case. He immediately felt a draft on his ass where there had previously been scratchy material. The teen started laughing before scurrying away under the force of Nick's glare.

"Oh dear." MacNally's mouth opened and shut as if his bottomless supply of good cheer didn't have an answer for this turn of events. He wasn't even subtle in how he twisted around, checking out Nick's backside to verify that yes, indeed, the borrowed suit had split. "I guess you are a great deal ... larger than Wallace, aren't you? But no worries, Santa, I've got you covered." Laughing, he dragged Nick into an office off the food pantry, yelling over his shoulder, "Rhonda, we're going to need your assistance."

"I don't think —" Nick really didn't need even more of an audience for his humiliation.

"It's no bother." MacNally patted him on the arm. "Do you have spare pants in your car?"

"No." He suppressed a groan. On his way he'd dropped his uniforms off at the cleaner's, so he didn't have a spare in the truck as he sometimes did.

"Hmm. No way are you fitting into anything of mine." MacNally sighed dramatically. "Rhonda, can you check the clothing closet for men's XL or XXL anything? Sweats would be perfect."

"Sure thing."

"Now, I know I've got some red thread here ..." MacNally started rustling around a cluttered desk. The small office was busy — desk laden with framed pictures, walls covered with inspirational posters, open box of holiday decorations in the corner, stack of kids' handprint turkeys on the visitor's chair. "And a needle. We don't want to have to staple you shut."

"You are not coming anywhere near me with a stapler." Nick put all his years of MP experience into his voice. As a military police officer, he took no guff, and he wasn't about to start with this ... elf.

But MacNally just laughed. "We'll hope it doesn't come to that." He leaned in close enough that Nick could smell some sort of fruity aftershave. "But I'll be honest, I had to alter my costume to get it to fit, and I totally used a stapler on the shoes."

"Were your feet in them at the time?" he demanded.

"Of course not." MacNally's laugh reminded Nick of the fresh-picked peaches he'd loved when he'd been stationed in Georgia — warm and fresh and far too tempting. "And you're not going to be in the pants either."

Right as he delivered that alarming bit of news, Rhonda returned, hands empty. "Sorry. I couldn't find anything that might fit." Her eyes flashed with appreciation. She didn't make a secret of checking him out, gaze roving over his frame to the point that he felt his skin heat. "It's mainly kids' clothes right now, and Saint Nick here is definitely not in the juniors' sizes."

"Sergeant Major Nowicki," he corrected, even though it felt somewhat like spitting into the wind with these two. "And perhaps we should just reschedule. I can go back to base, change, and then go see if I can find a costume shop in Watertown that might have something more suitable."

"Costume shop there closed after Halloween — the owner retired, and a new one hasn't popped up yet," MacNally said breezily. "And no need for that. Here's thread and a needle. We'll just step out, you'll pass me the pants, and I'll have you done up in a jiffy."

Jiffy? Who used words like that anymore? Nick was forty-six, and he was pretty sure he'd never done anything in a jiffy.

"Fine." He waited until MacNally and Rhonda had left the room to shed the pants. Even with his black boots on, they'd still been a bit short in the leg and the gaping hole in the seat wasn't helping anything. He set the boots aside along with the wig and beard and shucked off the pants, feeling ridiculously exposed in just a Santa coat and his black boxer briefs, which — because it was laundry day — were the ones that probably should have been retired a few years back. Like me. He passed the pants out the door, and then paced the small space, not wanting to sit in MacNally's chair in his underwear and not wanting to move the kid drawings from the other chair.

"Can I get you some coffee?" Rhonda's voice filtered through the door.

"No, I'm good," he said, even though he wasn't. But coffee would mean opening that door again, and he wasn't doing that more times than necessary. He'd held formations, had platoon sergeants under him, trained hundreds of enlisted men and women, and advised a string of commanders as he worked his way up to sergeant major. And in all his years of service, this ranked right up there for most humiliating moment.

"Okay, I think I've got it." MacNally rapped on the door. "I'm no seamstress, but I've put buttons back on coats and closed up rips on donations before."

Nick opened the door just wide enough to stick his arm out for the pants. MacNally laughed, more of that summer warmth hitting Nick square in the center of his chest.

"You are a shy one, aren't you?"

No, I just don't want you seeing my worn drawers. But of course he wasn't saying that, so he simply grunted and took the pants. If possible, they were even tighter now, and they were going to be a devil to get off, but they were better than letting the chilly air continue to batter his bare legs.

"They fit." He opened the door, pulling his shoulders back, straightening his spine, just like he might for an inspection. "Let's go get your pictures."

"Sure. Just let me see —" MacNally craned his neck to see Nick's backside, seeming like he might get in there and inspect his stitches next. Nick quickly moved so that his back was to the poster-covered wall. "Okay, okay. But I'm bringing the needle and thread just in case."

"Where do you want the first picture? My GPS keeps going in and out, so I might need directions, but I'll meet you at the site." Nick was more than ready to get this show on the road.

"Don't be silly." MacNally waved his hand. "I'm parked right out back. My Forrester can easily hold all three of us. Rhonda and I already mapped everything out. I'll drive."

No way in hell was MacNally driving him anywhere, but Nick still searched for some manners. "I don't want to trouble you —"

"It's no bother at all. I cleaned out the car this morning and everything." MacNally grinned up at him.

Fuck. Nick did not want a ride — or anything else, those kissable lips included — from MacNally. However, he was also a realist and wasn't going to waste time arguing or risk stomping all over the other two's feelings.

"Come on." Rhonda led the way through the food pantry.

This is simply another mission, Nick told himself. He'd been on patrols in roasting-hot desert temperatures, conducted murder investigations, dealt with bomb threats and more disorderly conduct than he could even remember. Surely, he could get through one day in this blasted suit with the too-perky elf for company and then be on his way back to base, back to his holiday-free orderly life with its countdown to his retirement.

Homemade from the Heart by Bru Baker
“MAKE AND Take, this is Grant. What can we help you craft today?” Grant held the phone sandwiched between his ear and shoulder, freeing up his hands to gingerly grab the still-wet canvas that had just been thrust at him.

He angled his mouth away from the receiver and smiled at the artist. “Great job, buddy! I’ll keep it back here until it dries, okay?”

Grant received a beaming smile for his compliment, and he offered an exuberant thumbs-up after he’d put the painting on a ledge behind the counter to dry.

The woman on the other end of the phone was still whining when he tuned back in to the call. It didn’t sound like he’d missed much.

“I’m sorry,” he said, trying his hardest to sound like he gave a damn, “but what you saw on the website was correct. Our holiday gift craft series is full.”

The woman squawked. Honest-to-God squawked. Grant rubbed a hand over his temple, grimacing when he felt wet paint smear across his forehead as the caller protested.

“No, I understand. I do. But the classes filled up as soon as they were posted.”

Literally. He’d never had online enrollment go as fast as the one for the three-week Homemade from the Heart holiday craft series. It had been featured on a local parenting blog that apparently had a ridiculous number of followers, given how many calls they’d been fielding about the classes. They’d been sold out for weeks, but the calls kept coming.

Another painting sailed into his line of vision, and Grant snatched it by instinct before it could fall facedown on the counter. He righted it and grinned when he saw the turkey in the painting had battle armor instead of feathers.

“Nice social commentary on the holiday, Ash. I like it!” He accepted a slightly sticky high five from the artist before putting it next to the other painting on the ledge.

The caller was still ranting. Grant bit back a sigh as he listened to the woman go on and on.

“Ma’am,” he finally broke in. “I apologize. I’m truly sorry. We just don’t have any space left.” Grant braced himself for another diatribe, but a loud crash from the other end of the studio caught his attention.

Grant looked up, ready to dash to the back, but he was relieved to see that the instructor for the next class had already arrived and hurried over to help right a fallen easel and the pots of paint that had taken a tumble with it.

The irate woman on the phone offered a very colorful metaphor about Grant’s intelligence, which at this moment he could only agree with. What had he been thinking, starting a co-op art studio for kids? And then letting Krista talk him into doing the interview with the parenting blog—sheer idiocy.

The Werewolf of Grey Lake Inn by Megan Derr
“I don’t care what he does for a living,” Astor snapped, taking a right turn a little harder than intended, his driving suffering for his temper. At least he wasn’t on a highway where he’d be surrounded by even more idiots to further fray his temper. He corrected himself, took a deep breath, and resumed yelling at his stupid cousin. Talking or shouting sense into Amanda was an exercise in futility, but still he had to try. “That man is a trial by jury waiting to happen, and you are only proving yourself to be a nitwit—”

He jerked as she slammed her phone down, hanging up on him. Who even used phones that slammed anymore? Switching his to silent, he threw it on the passenger seat in disgust. May whatever deities existed spare him further family aggravation while he was on this trip. He gave it a month before Amanda went running home in tears because her new perfect, wonderful, wealthy lawyer boyfriend turned out to be scum precisely as Astor had tried to tell her. He could spot bad news at a hundred yards, but did anyone listen to him? No.

Disgusted, fed up, and in sore need of a beer, Astor hit the gas and sped up the mountain, moderately soothed by the growl and purr and smooth motion of his bright blue corvette. He could not wait to reach the inn where he would be spending the next month doing research for his new book. He was going to enjoy every second of not having to manage the rampant stupidity afflicting the rest of his family.

Instead he’d be focusing on ghosts and his own rampant stupidity; it would almost be a nice change.

The parking lot was mostly empty when he reached the inn, and Astor felt more than justified in stealing two parking spaces for his car. If there was so much as a scratch on his corvette when he left there, he’d give the inn some real ghosts to worry about. He put the top up on his car and gathered up his jacket, duffle bag, laptop bag, and phone from the passenger seat. He stalked toward the inn—

—And stopped in his tracks as his eyes landed on a familiar car. He would know that dark blue BMW anywhere, even pretending for a moment that he didn’t have the license plate memorized. What the hell was Tennyson doing there? He was supposed to be fourteen hours away, at home. Astor had picked the Grey Lake Inn precisely because the ‘prime ghost viewing period’ was during Christmas and so no one would bother to visit him or check up on him. He had planned to bury himself in the mountains for a month to work on two things: his new book, and to stop being in love with his agent.

He should have known that the day would be a wash when he woke up to find that Casper had run away. Stupid, useless, ungrateful feline. Who needed the mouthy, troublemaking ball of fluff anyway? Stifling a sigh because sighing would accomplish nothing, Astor slung his duffle over one shoulder, the laptop bag across the other, and trudged toward the inn.

To give it credit, the inn had a horror movie setting that did not seem overly contrived. If he were not all too aware that ghosts did not exist, Astor would be creeped out by the place. It was, however, damned hard to terrify a man with fangs who drank blood to live and debunked ghost stories for a living. But the place made a good showing, he would concede that. Dark stone and old wood, check. Creeping ivy, check. Wrought iron, check. Nothing else around for miles, check.

He was further impressed there were no tacky signs proclaiming the ghosts, no boards spelling out the long, tedious story. Only a single sign on the far side of the parking lot that marked the beginning of the ‘historic’ trail that led to where the infamous cabin had once been located, close to the lake that gave the inn its name—which itself had been named for the woman who had died there, the woman whose ghost seemed to do a hell of a lot of haunting across the damn mountain.

But trekking around the mountain was the next day’s task. Right then, he was interested only in unpacking and finding a beer. He grimaced as he recalled that for reasons unknown, Tennyson was there. His head throbbed, and Astor sighed before he could catch himself.

Pushing open one of the double doors, he stepped into the lobby and was immediately assaulted by an over-enthusiastic use of potpourri. The entire place smelled like the bastard child of a florist and a perfume shop. The inn’s interior continued the outside theme of ‘vaguely creepy’ and he would definitely acknowledge the atmosphere in his book. Dark wood, dark oriental carpets, lamps and electric candles meant to look like more old-fashioned gas and wax candles.

Hell, as he reached the desk, he saw the place came complete with a sour-faced crone. He only barely avoided wrinkling his nose at the dry-as-dust smell of her blood. He fervently hoped there would be better pickings when he needed to drink.

His thoughts slipped dangerously to Tennyson then, and a night he could never forget no matter how hard he tried.

Biting down, arms dragging Tennyson closer, fisting a hand in Tennyson’s hair as he drank, as Tennyson pounded into him, both of them wanting more and more, never sated—

He cut the memory off, hating himself even as his hand curled around the coin in his pocket. He forced a polite smile as he slid his ID and credit card across the desk. “Good evening. I have a reservation under the name Astor Wheaton.”

RJ Scott
RJ’s goal is to write stories with a heart of romance, a troubled road to reach happiness, and most importantly, that hint of a happily ever after.

RJ is the author of the over one hundred novels and discovered romance in books at a very young age. She realized that if there wasn’t romance on the page, she could create it in her head, and is a lifelong writer.

She lives and works out of her home in the beautiful English countryside, spends her spare time reading, watching films, and enjoying time with her family.

The last time she had a week’s break from writing she didn’t like it one little bit and has yet to meet a bottle of wine she couldn’t defeat.

She’s always thrilled to hear from readers, bloggers and other writers. Please contact via the following links below.

VL Locey
V.L. Locey loves worn jeans, yoga, belly laughs, reading and writing lusty tales, Greek mythology, the New York Rangers, comic books, and coffee. (Not necessarily in that order.) She shares her life with her husband, her daughter, two dogs, two cats, a flock of assorted domestic fowl, and three Jersey steers.

When not writing spicy romances, she enjoys spending her day with her menagerie in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania with a cup of fresh java in hand. She can also be found online on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and GoodReads.

Annabeth Albert
Annabeth Albert grew up sneaking romance novels under the bed covers. Now, she devours all subgenres of romance out in the open--no flashlights required! When she's not adding to her keeper shelf, she's a multi-published Pacific Northwest romance writer.

Emotionally complex, sexy, and funny stories are her favorites both to read and to write. Annabeth loves finding happy endings for a variety of pairings and is a passionate gay rights supporter. In between searching out dark heroes to redeem, she works a rewarding day job and wrangles two children.

Bru Baker
Real, relatable romance.

Bru Baker has been writing for Dreamspinner Press since December 2012. She believes in Happily Ever Afters, but she almost always makes her characters work to get there. She and her husband live in the Midwest with their two young children, whose antics make finding time to write difficult but never let life get boring.

Megan Derr
Megan is a long time resident of m/m fiction, and keeps herself busy reading, writing, and publishing it. She is often accused of fluff and nonsense. When she's not involved in writing, she likes to cook, harass her cats, or watch movies (especially all things James Bond). She loves to hear from readers, and can be found all around the internet.

Claire Castle
Claire Castle grew up surrounded by books. She has loved reading for her whole life. Her true love is romance and HEAs. When she’s not reading or writing, she can be found wearing comfortable leggings, drinking mocha and petting her west highland terrier. She loves collecting awesome mugs and paperbacks of her favorite stories.

RJ Scott

VL Locey

Annabeth Albert

Bru Baker

Megan Derr

Claire Castle

Neutral Zone by RJ Scott & VL Locey

Better Not Pout by Annabeth Albert
Homemade from the Heart by Bru Baker

The Werewolf of Grey Lake Inn by Megan Derr

Snowflakes & Cinnamon Buns by Claire Castle