Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Best Reads of 2018 Part 1

I read 214 books in 2018 so when I was getting ready to do my Best Reads of 2018 feature, it was very difficult to narrow it down. Some of them were new releases, some were just new to me, and some of them are re-reads but all really stuck with me and found a lasting place in my heart and library.  I finally narrowed it down to 49 books broken into five parts.  Part 1 features my favorite reads from January, February, & March of 2018 each containing my original review.

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Part 2  /  Part 3  /  Part 4  /  Part 5

A Different Light by Morningstar Ashley
January's Book of the Month
Bennett Cole had lived next door to Mitchell “Mac” Campbell, III for eighteen years of his life, in the small town of White Acre. They’d never gotten along, never seen eye to eye, and never understood one another…not that they’d ever cared to try.

But when Bennett’s so-called buddies ditched him at a party in the woods where he was assaulted and left for dead, Bennett pulled through. The emotional scars rendered him too terrified to go back to school and face his “friends” or his attackers. With little choice, his family packed up and left town.

Ten years later—at the request of his mother—Bennett returned to the place he’d grown up and the home he’d once felt safe, to oversee the repairs before his childhood house was sold. The contractor? None other than Mac, the once annoying boy next door, who still lives there in the home his parents gifted him.

Being in such close proximity—working together every day, to repair the Coles’ family home—Bennett and Mac’s contentious relationship goes from bad to worse as their personalities continue to clash. But their heated exchanges may not be as antagonistic as they seem. And when new information is revealed, can the men begin to see each other in a different light?

Original Review January 2018:
Bennett Cole thought his friends were true and would have his back despite what the boy next door, Mac Campbell said.  He was wrong and Mac was right.  After a horrendous and bigotted attack, Bennet and his family leave their home in White Acre but ten years later he returns to fix up the family home so it can be sold.  He wasn't counting on the boy next door still living there and being the contractor his parents arranged to do the work he can't.  Will they still have the same contentious comradre they had as kids or will adulthood mature them into a new relationship?

I always love giving new authors a read, whether they're new to me or to the publishing world as Morningstar Ashley is, the adrenaline rush I get from wondering "will they be worth my time?" always spurs me on.   Well, I can safely say that Morningstar Ashley is definitely worth my time.  Authors are always learning and growing, frankly an author that doesn't think they have anything to learn is not an author I want to read, so when my first experience with one is as wonderful as Morningstar's A Different Light is I am on a natural high just waiting to see what future stories lurk in her imagination.  This is the author's second book and I have not read her first, Letting Go, but I will most certainly be going back and giving it a read in the weeks to come as I wait for her next one.

A Different Light is an emotional ride that will leave you breathless.  I really loved how Bennett is a Sheldon Cooper-like character that is slightly better at the social aspect of relationships/connections.  Having compared him to Sheldon, don't think that this is a straight up romantic comedy.  There is definitely some humorous moments, the camping trip from hell comes to mind.  A Different Light is a story about romance obviously but its also about friendship, overcoming past trauma and misunderstandings, going home, and second chances.  Mostly though it is about life. I certainly wanted to whack the two men upside the heads at times but I also wanted to bundle them up in bubblewrap that I had left over from Christmas deliveries.  Morningstar Ashley writes her characters in a way that will confound you and leave you screaming "UGH!!!!" at their stubbornness but also leaving you sighing "AWWWWW" with all the heart she's put into their journey.

A brilliant must read that I know will be on my re-read list for years to come.


The Boy Next Door by Josh Lanyon
For the last fourteen years, former celebrated Boy Detective Merle Madison has been trying to build a grown-up career for himself as a private investigator. There are just two problems: there’s not a lot of serious crime in the small town of Hayvenhurst—and Police Chief Isaac Ramsay keeps denying Merle’s application for a PI license.

Merle and Isaac have history, some good and some bad, so when someone seems determined to put Merle out of business—permanently—he naturally turns to his former sidekick for help.

But Isaac’s days of playing second fiddle to a Junior Sherlock Holmes are long past. In fact, Merle will be lucky if Isaac doesn’t kill him himself.

Original Review January 2018:
Merle Madison found early fame as celebrated Boy Detective and he's been trying to find the same fame as an adult private detective, too bad his former friend, sidekick, and more Isaac Ramsey has denied his application for a license.  That hasn't stopped Merle though and now it seems someone has taken exception to his skills.  Will Isaac help Merle out before its too late or has the Boy Detective pushed the police chief too far?

First off, The Boy Next Door is a short story and its brilliant.  There was a time when I would never give a short story top marks, it was just instinctual to knock off at least 1/2 a mark if not a whole one just for its shortness.  I had nothing against short stories/novellas but in truth I am a full-length novel kinda gal at heart.  Somewhere along the line I began to realize that I was missing out on many brilliant stories and authors and was shortchanging the ones I was reading.  A tale's brilliance is not in it's length, entertainment is a question of quality not quantity.  Having said all that I reiterate: The Boy Next Door by Josh Lanyon is brilliant and that has nothing to do with my love of everything written by Josh Lanyon. Add in that this completely slipped my radar when it first came out so you can imagine what an after holiday treat this was to jump start the new year.

I never really read any Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew when I was younger, I watched them but never read them.  Merle and Isaac may not be the Hardy Boys but I couldn't help but remember some of my childhood memories of watching them as I read Boy.  I really won't touch on the plot because as it is a short story even the little things can be too much but I will say this:

  1. Thank you, Josh Lanyon for bringing back those Saturday afternoon Hardy Boys memories.
  2. I'm already looking forward to a Christmas Coda or two starring Merle and Isaac.
  3. I know Miss Lanyon probably doesn't have plans for anything beyond a Coda for these boys but if down the road they have another case to tell her about, I'd be first in line to read their next adventure.

Merle and Isaac have this second chance(third or fourth perhaps😉) edge to the story which left me wanting to knock their heads together more than once but it also endeared them to me. If you have never read Josh Lanyon before than this will make a wonderful introduction and if you are like me and already a huge fan, than you will certainly enjoy this little ditty.  The Boy Next Door may be short on pages but its packed to overflowing with friendship, arguments, romance, nostalgia, and of course a little mystery tied all together with just the right amount of humor to brighten any day.  When a book can make you scream "OMG!" out of frustration, laughter, and warmth when you are so NOT an OMG-kinda gal, you know you found a winner.


Two Feet Under by Charlie Cochrane
February Book of the Month
Things are looking up for Adam Matthews and Robin Bright—their relationship is blossoming, and they’ve both been promoted. But Robin’s a policeman, and that means murder is never far from the scene.

When a body turns up in a shallow grave at a Roman villa dig site—a body that repeatedly defies identification—Robin finds himself caught up in a world of petty rivalries and deadly threats. The case seems to want to drag Adam in, as well, and their home life takes a turn for the worse when an ex-colleague gets thrown out of his house and ends up outstaying his welcome at theirs.

While Robin has to prove his case against a manipulative and fiendishly clever killer, Adam is trying to find out which police officer is leaking information to the media. And both of them have to work out how to get their home to themselves again, which might need a higher intelligence than either a chief inspector or a deputy headteacher.

Original Review February 2018:
Adam Matthews and Robin Bright keep moving forward with their relationship and maintaining their homelife with beloved guard dog, Campbell.  Now as they push forward with new positions in the workplace everything is looking up so what could go wrong?  A spot of murder and an unexpected houseguest is what they face, throw in identiyfing Jane Doe, smug suspects, and a police leak to the media and the boys learn that maybe murder and mayhem will always find them.

I just want to start out by saying how much I love Adam and Robin, perhaps not as much as the author's other crime solving duo: Jonty and Orlando, but it's a pretty tight race.  There is just something about Adam and Robin that makes me smile, maybe its their banter, their chemistry, or maybe its how the author makes them so real.  Granted, most couples(no matter their occupation) don't find themselves in situations of repeated chaos like these boys but beyond that they come across as people you would meet filling the car with gas or picking up your weekly shopping.  Whether the author meant for the reader to find this connection to the boys or its just a happy coincidence it still shows the talent and knack she has in bringing her characters to life.  Speaking of chemistry, something that really showed it for me was their use of "Don't forget the milk" to convey "I love you".  Not all couples say the actual "L-word" but they express it a thousand other ways and for me this was just another example of how Miss Cochrane make the boys more real.

Now, as for the mystery you know I won't reveal any spoilers and when it comes to this genre every little tidbit and snippet can be a huge clue so I really won't touch on the plot at all other than to say its brilliant.  On a personal note, I really enjoyed how the author threw references to Midsomer Murders into a few scenes.  Midsomer is my absolute favorite mystery series of all time(a little secret between you and me: I own all 19 seasons on DVD and have most of them nearly memorized😉).  There is just something about the British, the UK as a whole really, and their way with murder, mayhem, and intrigue that sets them above the rest.  I enjoy American mysteries but given the choice I can honestly say that I will pick a UK mystery over one of ours every time.  I said all this because Two Feet Under is a perfect example of why I love mysteries from across the pond and the best way to explain my feelings without plot spoiling.

So, if you have already experienced The Best Corpse for the Job and Jury of One, than you know how lovely the author brings life to Adam and Robin.  If you are new to this series than now is a great time to give it a looksee.  Technically, yes each installment is a standalone as the mystery begins and ends within the pages of each book but personally, I can't imagine not reading Lindenshaw Mysteries in order.  Between character development and references to previous cases it just flows better read 1,2, and 3 but no, I don't suppose it is a must.  Those looking for detailed spicy-ness will probably be a bit disappointed but don't think that means that there is no passion and heat, it's just the author leaves these moments more to the reader's imagination and trust me I can imagine quite a bit 😉😉 So, grab a copy, buckle down, snuggle in and begin.


Seth & Casey by RJ Scott
Seth Wild is a firefighter who has lost everything. Nearly dying in a fire, he is scared and angry and chases away the only good thing in his life—school teacher Casey McGuire.

When a sudden and violent snow storm hits their town he receives a message Casey and ten kids are trapped in an education centre center with no way out. There is no one else who can help, he’s the last fire fighter in town with his bum leg and his icy heart.

He doesn’t hesitate. He always promised he would be Casey’s hero, but will he ever again be Casey’s love?

Original Review February 2018:
When Seth Wild's life as a fireman is at an end due to injury, instead of facing it head on he fights it and in the process he pushes away his rock, his friend, his lover, his husband Casey McQuire.  When Casey walks out hoping Seth will see what he needs to face, he finds himself alone with his nephew and 9 of his students stranded during a blizzard.  Will Seth get to Casey and the kids in time and more importantly will he realize what he's risking with his refusal to accept the inevitable?

💬Reviewer Note: I have never read the previous version of this novella so I cannot comment on the re-editting and how the two versions differ.💬

Now on to Seth & Casey.  Brilliant!  I wish I could leave it at that but you know I'll expand because to be honest I could not put this down. I really just want to say that as a Wisconsinite(and no this is not set in Wisconsin) I absolutely love stories where Mother Nature rears her karmatic head.  Yeah, I know "karmatic" isn't a real word but this is my review so I'm leaving it in😜  For those who have never experienced a true snow storm, I say "good for you because they can be hell on earth", its a prime example of Mother Nature showing her status in the hierarchy of world domination.

So when I find a book where snow is prevalent than I really pay attention to how the author uses it and whether they give it the respect the white stuff deserves.  I don't know how much experience RJ Scott has with snow in the UK but she has clearly done her research and respects its destructive nature.  Distance means nothing in whiteout conditions, you can be two feet away from someone or something and have no clue what direction to travel and the author uses this in this novella in multiple cases and for that alone I say "Thank you."

I've mentioned all that about the weather because its more than just a plot device, it truly is a character all on its own.  As for the main characters of Seth and Casey, well once again I found myself warring between bundling them in bubblewrap and knocking their heads together.  In a short story/novella, especially one that the bulk covers such a short span of time, it can be hard to convey the emotions of the characters, make them believable, and still give the reader an entertaining piece of art.  RJ Scott seems to have mastered the knack of doing just that though.  Would I like to know more about the boys and their life both before and after the pages of this tale? Of course, because for me when a story is this lovely I never want it to end but in truth, I can't imagine Seth & Casey any different than it is and its a no-brainer that this one will definitely be going into my re-read list.


Poke Check by RJ Scott & VL Locey
Harrisburg Railers #4
One scorching summer in each other’s arms could never be enough.

Stanislav “Stan” Lyamin is happy playing for the Railers. The towering goalie is well-loved, respected, and making a home for himself even though that home only contains him, his cat, and his growing Pokemon trading card collection. Stan prefers it that way.

He’d given his heart to a man in a secret affair, and that man walked away, leaving Stan shattered. Now Erik is back in his life, and he has the same tumultuous effect he had on Stan’s heart as before. This time it’s not just a kissable mouth and sweet blond curls that Erik has brought to Harrisburg, there’s a soon-to-be ex-wife and a precious baby.

Despite the vow Stan made to hate Erik forever, he’s now finding it harder and harder to turn away.

Erik Gunnarsson’s dream had always been to play in the NHL, he just never imagined he’d land a contract with the Railers. Who would have thought that fate would put him on the same team as Stanislav Lyamin; the man whose heart he’d callously broken?

Secrets and lies had defined their summer relationship, and the choice that Erik made to end it all haunts him still. In the middle of a messy divorce and with a baby in tow, Erik finds himself back in Stan’s life. Now all he has to do is be the best dad he can be, prove to the team that he deserves the chance to stay on the roster and try his hardest to get Stan to forgive him.

Is it possible to persuade a man who hates you to give love a second chance?

Original Review February 2018:
Stanislav Lyamin is loving his time as the Railers' goalie. He has his team, his cat, and his Pokeman cards and that is enough.  Having given his heart to another and then having it ripped out was enough for him, he's content.  Erik Gunnarsson is trying to make a life for him and his infant son, so when he's signed to play for the Railers not only does it give him the chance to fullfil his dream of playing for the NHL but also the chance at stability for his little boy.  Knowing the team's goalie is the man he left brokenhearted is a double edged sword.  Can Stan and Erik work together to bring victory to the team and will they be able to heal their hearts or is too late?

Followers of my reviews probably recall from the first three entries in the Harrisburg Railers series that I am not a hockey fan.  Again, I don't hate the sport(I actually watched quite a bit of it during the Olympics this month😉) but if all the hockey arenas were to disappear from the world tomorrow I wouldn't miss it.  I'm not trying to insult hockey fans or be disparaging of the sport I just think its worth mentioning because I absolutely LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this series so not being a hockey fan I think it says it better than anything how amazing the authors are in telling these stories.

As for Poke Check, well when I heard that Stan was getting his own story I was beyond stoked.  Stan is the man!  Yes, I went there😉  When it comes to Erik, well I wanted to hate him for breaking Stan's heart but he is just so lovable.  Personally, I don't think there is anything sexier than a man who is taking care of a child, especially when Erik is so loving towards little Noah, so determined to give him a good life and has sacrificed so much to do so.  The pairs' reconnecting is just the right pace to make Poke Check a close second in the series for me.  I don't think any pairing will top Tennant and Jared from Changing Lines but Stan and Erik give them a darn good race.  One more thing about Stan: I've read many an accents in books and I hardly ever "hear" the accents in my head but with Stan, it was like he was sitting right next to me and reading me the book.  Every word, every nuance, every mistaken pronunciation or phrase, that's how I read it in my head so I just want to say kudos to whichever author was in charge of bringing Stan to life.

One more thing: if you are like me and not a hockey fan, don't worry because Scott & Locey add just the right amount of detail to the action of the game so non-fans can follow along and yet not feel like parts of it are from Hockey for Dummies.  Poke Check is a wondrous blend of romance, drama, lust, family, friendship, and love.  If asked should the series be read in order? I am going to say yes.  Each entry is technically a standalone as each is a different pairing but I just find the friendships grow with each one so I definitely recommend in order but it doesn't have to be, you won't be lost if read out of sequence.


Winter Cowboy by RJ Scott
March Book of the Month
Micah Lennox left Whisper Ridge after promising the man he loved that he would never return. But the only way he knows to keep his pregnant sister and nephew safe is to go home. Spending winter in Wyoming opens too many old wounds, but he's on the run from justice which can't be far behind, and this is his last chance at redemption.

After a hostage situation leaves Doctor Daniel Sheridan struggling with PTSD, he returns to Whisper Ridge. Joining his dad in family practice is a balm to soothe his exhausted soul, and somehow, he finds a peace he can live with. That is until he meets Micah in a frozen graveyard, and the years of anger and feelings of betrayal boiling inside him, erupt.

Two broken men fight and scratch for their lives and that of their families, and somehow, in the middle of it all, they find each other.

Is it possible that love can be rekindled and become a forever to believe in?

Original Review March 2018:
When Micah Lennox promised the man he loved he would never return he intended to keep that promise but now he has to protect his pregnant sister and nephew. Whisper Ridge and the family ranch is the safest place he can think of to do just that.  Dr. Daniel Sheridan has returned to Whisper Ridge after a hostage situation has him living with PTSD and a certain level of survivor's guilt.  The last thing he wants to hear is that his former lover has broken his word to stay away.  Will Micah and Daniel be able to leave the past where it belongs and find a new future living in the same community or will the heartache and pain of long ago win out?

First, I just want to say a huge thank you to RJ Scott.  Not only is the book amazing but because of its awesomeness, I had an amazingly entertaining and relaxing trip to the Mayo Clinic.  It turned one of those "routine" days with Mom's doctors(you know the kind where you have to be there at 7am for blood, than 9 for an x-ray and then sit around till 4pm for the doc) into . . . well like I said it was just relaxing and entertaining, I got more than a few sideway glances when I gasped or grinned like a chesire cat but I loved every minute of it, so once again Thank You, RJ for making a long strung out day not so long and not so strung out.

Now as for the story, don't think because I used the term "relaxing" that its all sunshine and unicorns, oh no quite the opposite really.  Winter Cowboy is full of drama, heartache, and tears BUT its also jam packed to overflowing with amazing characters, incredible settings, second chances, and heart.  I'll admit that Daniel grated on my nerves at times with putting all the blame on Micah for the past, which I won't spoil, but I am going to say as a reader hearing both sides if I was in Daniel's shoes I would like to think I would be more honest about the situation but I can't say for certain I would do it differently.  Sometimes fate has their own clock, we may not agree with how its set but it usually gets us where we need to be and when.  I will admit I loved how both Micah and Daniel had issues to deal with and accept, more often than not it comes down to one character with the problem and the other "dealing" with it but not these boys they are both looking for a second chance.

I just want to finish by saying I have read many books and many authors over the years, both as a blogger and my personal reads and I have a small list of authors who continually ingratiate the secondary characters into a story to make them more than just window dressing, page filler, or fodder for the bad guys and RJ Scott is at the top of that list.  Whether its a character that will probably be at the center of a future tale(😉😉hint, hint at Neil😉😉), family that gives the main characters reason to return, or that judgmental couple you really want to knock on their ass.  They all add something that makes the journey better and has left me hungry for more from Whisper Ridge, Wyoming. I can't wait to see what RJ has in store next for this ranching community.


The Quality of Mercy by Ari McKay
Bent Oak Saga #2
Gil Porter and Matt Grayson’s Bent Oak Ranch in Mercy, Texas, is a rare haven for gay men in the nineteenth century, and their friend Carlos Hernandez will need it when a man from his past unexpectedly comes back into his life.

Jules Wingate hopes to start over in Mercy as the schoolmaster after a scandal sent him and his son fleeing their former home. But he discovers he’s left one bad situation for another when he encounters his former student and lover, Carlos. No matter how Jules tries to resist, he yearns for the passionate connection they once shared… before Carlos broke his heart.

Carlos knows his foolish, immature actions hurt Jules, but he desperately wants a second chance and to show Jules he’s changed. But trust so badly broken is hard to repair. While he works to earn Jules’s forgiveness, someone else at the ranch has his sights set on Carlos—and he doesn’t care how many lives he has to ruin to make Carlos his and his alone.

Original Review March 2018:
Carlos Hernandez has found a place where he belongs at Bent Oak Ranch run by Gil Porter and Matt Grayson.  A place where men like him can feel safe.  Jules Wingate and his son have arrived in Mercy, Texas ready to take up his position as the new schoolmaster but when he sees Carlos, a man who broke his heart years ago, will he be able to do his job and keep his heart intact?  Can Carlos prove to Jules that he is a changed man, that the boy who broke Jules heart has grown up?  Trust once broken is hard to recover, will they be able to make a life at the Bent Oak Ranch or has their time come and gone?

I loved Finding Forgiveness, book one in Ari McKay's Bent Oak Saga so when I heard there was going to be another one I was really looking forward to The Quality of Mercy.  Well, I was not disappointed.  Did Carlos and Jules reach my heart as thoroughly as Gil and Matt? No but that doesn't mean I didn't love them because I did.  Carlos and Jules have their own set of demons to overcome and watching their journey unfold is a bit of beautiful storytelling.  From the ranch to the town, the settings are wonderfully written, at times I expected to look out my backyard window to see the Texas landscape of 1890 instead of the endless snow drifts of a 2018 Wisconsin winter.

My heart went out to both Carlos and Jules in this lovely second chance romance, you can't help but want to see a HEA for these men, but will it be with each other? Well, I think you know what I'm about to say: for that answer you have to read The Quality of Mercy for yourself but you won't regret the journey.  Do you have to read Finding Forgiveness first? Probably not.  Would I recommend reading Forgiveness first? Yes.  Does Gil and Matt's story have an impact on Quality? Again, probably not.  It's just a personal preference of mine to read a series in order, even when each entry focuses on a different couple.  I find knowing the journey secondary characters who were main characters in previous installments, took to get their own HEA just makes the story flow better and the friendships understandable and more appreciated.  I would not go so far as to say that The Quality of Mercy is a standalone but neither would you be lost if you haven't read Finding Forgiveness first. A true gem to make you smile and warm the heart.


His Irish Detective by Summer Devon
Victorian Gay Detective #2
Colm Kelly, a popular constable, is happy to be a big fish in his little pond of an Irish village—until his secret sin is revealed by his best friend. Overnight, his happy life is ruined. He loses his job, and even his family, and flees to England.

Colm might get another chance in London as an inquiry agent. His first job: watch the honorable Q.R. Marrill, the next heir apparent to a fortune, who lives under a cloud of family deaths. It’s unclear if Marrill is the perpetrator or the next victim of a killer who has struck before. Colm must discover the truth, and the best way to do that is to act as the man’s valet, a menial job Colm is ill-suited for. Worse, the young gentleman is nothing like Colm’s image of an aristocrat and more like his idea of perfection. He has no desire to ruin his life again with unwelcome passion.

The bookish Quade Marrill, fourth son of a wealthy landowner, has led a contented solitary life in London separate from his family. But as his family members die one by one, he becomes heir. Even as he mourns his dead brothers, uncle, and cousin, he wonders if the deaths were more than bad luck. Someone sinister might be on the hunt, and he would be the main suspect The only way to discover the truth is to allow the alarmingly intrusive Colm Kelly into his life.
* * * * *
This book is the second in a series. Patrick Kelly, a hero in the first His American Detective, is Colm’s annoying cousin—and now his employer. 

Original Review March 2018:
Colm Kelly has fled to England after his life is torn apart when his best friend reveals his secret.  His cousin has given him a job: watch and protect Quade Marrill.  Quade's family has nearly been picked off one by one and unfortunately as he remains one of the few left he lingers between next victim or quilty party. Together they find an unlikely connection and while they search for the true guilty party will that connection blossom or will hearts be broken?

Now as this is a mystery I won't go into much detail of the plot but I will say that it completely hooked me in.  As I often say, I have read/watched so many murder mysteries in my 44 years on this earth that very few mystery plots surprise me anymore.  His Irish Detective, though it didn't completely surprise me it did keep me seesawing between a couple of possibilities right up to the reveal.  I personally can't ask for more but whether you figure out the who done it, the journey getting from point A to point Z is anything but a straight line and will keep you reading to the very end.

Colm and Quade are such lovely characters that I just want to wrap them up in a massive bear hug to keep them safe and feel loved.  That's not to say you won't want to whack them upside the head once in a while to get them to see sense, because you will but the author balances those feelings so well that you can't help but have a smile whenever you set the book down.  Quade losing himself in his work, whether its out of love for what he does or to forget his family situation, is oddly endearing.  Usually when a character is so immersed in what he's doing that he doesn't really see what or who is around him I want to shake the living daylights out of them but not so much with Quade.  As for Colm, well I can't think of a better word than just plain lovely.  He has his faults, his filter between his mind and his mouth doesn't always work but mostly he's just trying to do his job, keep his place in his cousin's company, and do right by Quade.  These three things don't always mesh for Colm but he still tries to accomplish them.

Is His Irish Detective better than or as good as book one, His American Detective? Probably not, but it comes very close.  Is Irish a standalone? Yes.  Would I recommend reading American first? I would.  Does American have to be read first? No.  Having said all that, its just a personal preference to read a series in order even when each installment features a different duo at its core.  The characters from book one are only in a dozen or so scenes and although they have their purpose to the plot their backstory is not a necessity to the case but as I said its just a personal preference of mine to read them in order, I just find knowing their journey enhances the reading experience but it is not a must.  I don't know how many stories the author has planned for this series but any future installments will definitely be at the top of my reading list.


Eyes Wide Open by VM Sanford
Graves Brothers #1
Jason has been in love with Spencer for most of his life, yet there he is, organizing Spencer’s bachelor party because Spencer’s getting married—and not to him.

Spencer wishes he could marry Jason instead of Lydia. He’s loved his best friend for years, but he needs to do the best for his family and their vineyard. Knowing he’s doing the right thing doesn’t make it easy, though.
Jason’s family pushes him to confess his feelings to Spencer, and he wants nothing more, but he’s afraid Spencer will run the other way and that their friendship won’t resist the revelation. But when Spencer gets drunk during his bachelor weekend in New York and tells Jason he loves him, everything changes—or that’s what Jason thinks.

Jason doesn’t want to be the other man, and Spencer doesn’t want him to be. That means Spencer has a choice to make. Will he marry Lydia and help his family, or will he finally give in and choose Jason?

Original Review March 2018:
When the time came for Jason to organize his best friend's bachelor party, he did so with a heavy but determined heart despite how his own was breaking.  Spencer was determined to go through with the wedding to please his mother despite his heart belonging to another.  When the bachelor weekend is over, truths will be revealed but will hearts be broken or fulfilled?  Can Jason's family help the men see sense before its too late?

Not everyone enjoys alternating POV stories but I personally love them, getting to see the inner monologue and turmoil of both characters helps me to connect with them which only enhances the journey.  The settings in Eyes Wide Open are beautifully written and the characters, both main and secondary, are interesting and well written.  Did Jason and Spencer sometimes read younger than their 30s? Yes.  But lets be honest, when our lives are in quandary, when the choice we have to make can be life altering not only for ourselves but those closest to us we all can act out of whack.  So the fact that Jason and Spencer seem to behave more in their mid-20s instead of early 30s is not so unexpected and it certainly was not a downer for me.

As for Jason's brothers, I loved them.  I am an only child as is my dad and Mom only had one brother who wasn't around much so I can't say how accurate their relationship is but I can definitely imagine its pretty spot on in the meshing of teasing and protective behavior.  Don't even get me started on Spencer's mother, all I'll say is she gets no sympathy or empathy from me.

I should add that if you really need on-page sex than this probably isn't a tale for you.  I'm not saying I don't like the on-page stuff because I do but fade-to-black scenes don't bother me either and certainly are not a turn-off when the story is as well written as Eyes is, but I thought I should mention it for those who find it a deal breaker.

VM Sanford is a new author to me and as always in that case I went in with a heart full of anticipation and an open but question-filled mind.  Will this be great?  Will this be good?  Will this be okay?  Will this suck?  Well, Eyes Wide Open definitely did not suck, it was awesome and I look forward to the next entry in the Graves Brothers series.


A Different Light by Morningstar Ashley
Mac was so close he lost his train of thought. So close that Bennett could reach out and grab what he wanted all week, but he was so weak with want, he couldn’t get his mind to cooperate to move his limbs.

“You don’t want a reward for your hard work?”

Mac’s hand came up as if in slow motion. At first, it was just his fingertips, gliding against Bennett’s waist. A shiver rushed through him. Then Mac’s palm touched, warming, moving around his side until it settled at the small of Bennett’s back. Mac slowly pulled him to his chest. He could feel Mac’s heat seep through his own shirt. “There’s nothing you can think of that you’d want?”

Bennett’s breathing picked up. His mind raced. His balls tingled and tightened. He knew Mac had to see the pleading and want through his eyes. Bennett couldn’t hide it, not then, not so close to Mac, feeling his body against his and his breath wisp across his lips as they stared into each other's eyes. It felt big, like Mac wasn’t just staring into his eyes but into him, searching for something.

Then Mac was closer, so close he could feel the words against his lips. “Because I think you deserve a kiss for being such a good boy. You want that kiss, Princess?”

All Bennett could do is close his eyes and nod. Speaking was beyond his abilities at that point. When did Mac become so sensual, so full of sex, and radiate desire so easily? Bennett loved sex, the tease, the lead up to the physical explosion of pleasure. But Mac brought it to a whole other level. Using words and small innocent touches, turning it dirty and provocative.

“B, open your eyes.”

Bennett listened. As hard as it was to not just stay floating in the place of just feeling, he opened his eyes. What he saw made him moan. The want, the need in Mac’s eyes matched what Bennett felt coursing through his own body. He couldn’t think of anything else, because as lost as he was in the sensations Mac had him feeling with his eyes closed, he was just as lost in the heat that poured off the man now.

“What did you think would happen, B? Coming out here all flustered and angry with just a t-shirt and those cute boxers on?”

At first, Bennett had no idea what he was talking about, but then he remembered. He slept in his ‘Particle Physics Gives me a Hadron’ boxers and had been so lost in his anger that he’d never put on pants.

He swallowed, trying to loosen his tight throat so he could speak, but Mac leaned in, lips touching Bennett’s ear, and the only thing that came out was a whimper. He never whimpered. Fuck.

“Nothing turns me on more than you in full on Princess mode with your geek on full display.” And to prove that, Mac pulled them tighter together with the hand that still sat in the small of his back. Bennett could feel Mac’s hard length pressed against his. The barrier of the worn jeans that Mac had on and Bennett’s boxers was like paper between them.

“I’ve been good this week too. Not kissing your sweet lips, not touching your body, not taking you against any and all surfaces when you were so goddamn sexy with the paint splattered all over you and your shirt sticking to your body, soaked from your sweat. So, maybe I deserve a reward too.”

“Oh, god, yes.”

Mac pulled his face back just enough so that Bennett could look into his eyes again. He had that cocky grin playing at his lips but this time it didn’t annoy Bennett, it lit him on fire.

Mac’s eyes dropped and stared at his lips, making his nerves come alive. He licked his lips and Mac moaned. That sound. God, that sound went straight to the center of all that swirled around them.

Bennett remembered his moans from that blowjob, the sound doing just as much that night as seeing Mac on his knees soft lips wrapped around Bennett’s cock. And hearing it again brought those memories flashing through his mind taking an already heated moment and making it hotter and more.

“Please.” He didn’t know what else to say. It’d felt like they’d stood there frozen forever. Simple touches doing more than any amount of foreplay Bennett had ever experienced.

“I like when you beg me, B.”

The Boy Next Door by Josh Lanyon
Warm lips moving on mine, passionately, insistently.

I knew those lips. I knew that kiss.


Moist breath pushing into my mouth, filling my lungs.



We breathed in unison. Quiet. Intimate. Yes.



Isaac, I love you. I really do. I miss you so much…

From down a long tunnel a voice said, “He’s breathing on his own, Chief.”

And I’m really, truly sorry…



And from now on—

Waaaait a minute.


That wasn’t right. I wanted Isaac, not Chief.

“Chief?” Once more the word hollowly echoed down long, empty corridors. “Chief?”

I murmured protest. The mouth fervently pressing mine withdrew.

I unstuck my eyelids, stared dazedly up. Bits of black floated in the evening air. Red embers drifted down like glowing snowflakes. In front of a kaleidoscope of ragged black-edged treetops was a ring of grim faces gazing down at me—and the grimmest face of all was that of Police Chief Ramsay. I thought I could see tiny twin flames dancing in his eyes.

I unstuck my lips. I’m not sure what I wanted to say. I can explain everything?

I probably owed him an explanation or two.

In the distance came an alarming tearing-away sort of sound. The cops all turned to watch in silence as my neighbor Dick Chekhov’s plastic Santa—still sitting in its red plastic sleigh—plummeted in flames from his rooftop.

As Santa’s sleigh crunched nose-first in the frosty grass, Isaac swung back to me.

“Goddamn it, Merle,” he roared. “What did I say? What did I tell you? I’m done warning you. This time I’m throwing your ass in jail.”

I tried to sit up. “On what charges?”

“Malfeasance. Obstruction of justice. How about that? Interfering with a police investigation. That’s a good one. Conducting business without a license. Disturbing the peace. Public nuisance. How about menace to society? That fits. Don’t worry about it. I’ll find something. There won’t be any shortage of charges when I get done with you…”

Two Feet Under by Charlie Cochrane
Chapter One
“And this is our safeguarding checklist. If you’ll just sign it to show you’ve read it and agree to abide by it . . .”

Adam nodded, read the sheet of paper, then signed and dated it at the bottom.

Adam Matthews, deputy headteacher. 10th April.

He fancied writing the job title again, as it had felt so good the first time. His first deputy headship, and a real chance to put a feather in his cap, given that Culdover Church of England Primary School officially “required improvement.” He’d been recruited to help the new headteacher light such a firework under the staff that by the next time the Ofsted inspectors popped their cheery heads round the door, they’d rate the school as at least “good.”

Before any of that could happen, though, he’d have to go through the standard induction procedure, almost all of it necessary, some of it boring, and some elements—like safeguarding and the location of the men’s toilets—vital.

Soon everything was done and he had the chance to familiarise himself with the place, including sitting in with his year-six class, which he’d be taking two days a week and who were at present under the beady eye of Mrs. Daniel, the teacher who’d have them the other three days. The pupils seemed a cheery enough bunch, eager to show their new deputy just how good they were at maths. He sat down at one of the tables, where they were mulling over fractions, although it wasn’t long before they wanted to bombard him with questions, a new member of staff—and that rare thing in primary education, a man—being much more interesting than halves and quarters. In the end, Adam, Mrs. Daniel, and the pupils came to the arrangement of making the last five minutes of the lesson a question-and-answer session, in return for which the children would work like billy-o up to that point. The plan worked.

“Which team do you support, sir?” opened the official interrogation.

“Saracens for rugby. Abbotston for football.”

“Are you married, sir?”

“No.” Until he had an idea of how mature his class were, he’d better keep quiet about the exact nature of his relationship. “But I’ve got a Newfoundland dog called Campbell.”

“Wow! Will you bring in a picture of him?”

“Of course. I’ll put it on the desk so he can keep an eye on you all.” One day perhaps he’d also be able to bring a picture of Robin in to show the class, but that was probably wishful thinking. Children had open minds, yet too often they got filled with an imitation of their parents’ prejudices.

“I interviewed you, sir,” one spiky-haired lad piped up.

“I remember.” The school-council part of the interview process had been trickier than facing the headteacher and governors. “You asked me to sing a song.”

“Yeah. And you made us sing one instead.” The boy chortled, his classmates joining in.

“I remember. No point in getting old if you can’t get cunning.” Adam grinned. “Right, one last question.”

One of the girls—with an expression more serious than normally came with her age—raised her hand among a sea of others. She waited for Adam’s nod before asking, “Which school did you used to teach at?”

Adam forced his grin to keep going. “Lindenshaw. Lindenshaw St. Crispin’s, to give it its full name.”

“Oh.” The girl turned pale. “My dad told me they had a murder there. Is that why you left?”

Adam paused. So the school’s reputation was preceding it?

Mrs. Daniel, obviously flustered, said, “I don’t think we should talk about things like that.”

Adam pursed his lips. “I think I disagree. It’s better to have stuff in the open, and I’d have hoped this class is mature enough to discuss matters like that sensibly.” How best to describe what had happened? Simply stating that there’d been a murder in what had been the children’s kitchen, where the pupils had once learned to make semi-inedible fairy cakes, might put these pupils off cookery for life. “Somebody was killed, which is a really rare thing to happen in a school. None of the children were ever at risk, and the police found the killer very quickly.”

And he’d found a partner in the process, which had been the best outcome from a wretched time.

The spiky-haired lad chipped in again. “My dad says that you probably can’t go anywhere in Culdover without walking over a place where someone’s died. What with the Romans and the air raids and—”

Adam raised a hand. “I think that’s where we’ll leave it. Time for lunch.”

The class left their chairs, lined up at the door, and waited for Mrs. Daniel to let them out to their pre-lunch play. Just another first day of term for the children at Culdover, but for Adam it was that cliché: “the first day of the rest of his life.” He’d miss Lindenshaw school—that went without saying, especially as it was starting to show a real improvement under the new headteacher—but his regrets would be few. The place held far too many unpleasant memories and associations now, and not simply in terms of the murder. Just last term a young teacher had thrown away the chances of a good career because he couldn’t keep his fists to himself.

Worst of all, but predating Adam’s sojourn at Lindenshaw, it had been Robin’s school, where he’d been subjected to continual bullying.

Adam had promised to keep in touch with those of his colleagues who’d become genuine friends, but the building itself . . . The sooner Adam could shake the dust of the place off his shoes, the better.

He decided to spend his lunchtime mingling in the Culdover staffroom, getting into the normal school routine as soon as possible, then he’d give Robin a quick bell, and he wouldn’t need to wander a quarter of a mile to do so. Another thing he wouldn’t miss about Lindenshaw school was the mobile-phone black spot it sat in, which made reception a hit-or-miss affair unless you braved the women’s toilets, where the signal was said to be perfect. Adam had always opted for the quarter-mile walk.

“How’s it going?” Robin said when Adam had done his mingling and reported in.

“Much as expected.” What was there to say about a typical first morning? “Friendly place, good team, interesting pupils.”

Robin sniggered. “Interesting as in potential psychopaths?”

“Do you think of everyone as a potential criminal?”

“Only if they come from Culdover.”

“Don’t let them hear you say that.” Culdover was a typically English small town, one that had been distinctly posh in its heyday although it had gone downhill post-war, and parts of it were looking rather ropey. Regeneration had made a difference in some places, but the preponderance of charity shops on the high street showed there was plenty still to do. “Busy today?”

“Usual sort of stuff. Spate of upmarket car thefts. Case of dognapping too. I won’t tell Campbell.”

“Make sure you don’t. He’ll have nightmares.” At work one of them may report to a headteacher and the other to a chief superintendent, but at home the roost was ruled by a large, black, wet-nosed Newfoundland dog, whose self-estimation had been swelled by his having saved both of his masters’ lives on separate occasions.

“Got to go. Villains to nick. See you tonight.”

“Yeah. Don’t forget the milk.”

“I won’t.”

Adam smiled. Their house was well stocked with semi-skimmed, but “don’t forget the milk” and its response “I won’t,” or some slight variation on them, had become code for “I love you” and “I love you too,” which couldn’t always be used. Even if Robin and Adam were no longer in the closet, sometimes common sense had to prevail.

* * * * * * *

Robin ended the call, finished his sandwich, and got back to his paperwork. He glanced up at the clock, only to find that it wasn’t where he’d expected. How long was it going to take him to get used to this new office and new location?

Abbotston nick wasn’t proving so bad in the wake of chucking out the rotten apples. It was better still, Robin believed, now that he was the acting chief inspector with every prospect of that position being made permanent in the months to come, so long as he kept his nose clean and his clear-up rate healthy. It was a pity Anderson hadn’t come with him, but his erstwhile sergeant had been bumped up to acting inspector back at Robin’s previous station, Stanebridge. He’d miss the man’s spiky sense of humour and his sudden bursts of enlightenment, if not his driving style.

Crime was crime anywhere, from big city to leafy village—the Lindenshaw murders had proved that—but the sheer scale of things came into play at Abbotston. It was larger than Stanebridge, much more sprawling, and so there was extra everything, from industrial estates to coffee shops to drug dealers, even if murder was still thankfully rare. It had grown bigger than Kinechester, which was the county “capital” and had been since the time of the Romans, who’d made their base there and left their stamp in the layout of the streets, although Abbotston lacked the history which had secured Kinechester’s importance. At least Abbotston was a step up from Culdover, which might give Robin some bragging rights over Adam if they were into that kind of new-job-related one-upmanship. But they weren’t.

Campbell would never tolerate that, anyway.

A rap at his door—thank goodness he remembered where that was—made Robin look up from the papers on his desk. “Yes?”

“Got a bit of an odd one, sir.” Pru Davis, also newly promoted and blossoming in her role as his sergeant, poked her head round Robin’s door, her brow wrinkled in bewilderment.

“Go on.” Robin had always had a lot of time for Pru. She’d been a keen-as-mustard and deadly efficient constable at Stanebridge, and when the chance to bring her along to Abbotston presented itself, he’d snapped it up. While the pair of them had to make sure they didn’t form an ex-Stanebridge clique—there was history between the two stations that wouldn’t make for an easy ride initially—she’d be moral support for him. The fact she was so good at her job, not something that could be traditionally said for Abbotston coppers, made her presence a win all round, although it carried the risk of alienating the pair further from the locals.

They had a subtle path to walk and a lot of diplomacy to deliver.

“Got a dead body turned up at an archaeological site.”

Robin frowned. “Is this a wind-up? Abbotston city slickers trying to put one over on the yokels?”

“I wish it was.” Pru entered the room, notepad at the ready. “It came from Lewington, down on the front desk, so I doubt it’s a wind-up.”

Lewington appeared to be an old-fashioned sort of career copper, and he had a reputation of not suffering fools gladly. His son was something to do with the BBC sports department so allegedly always had a bit of inside gossip on who to put your shirt on for the Grand National.

“Added to which,” Pru continued, “I recognised the name of the bloke who rang it in, so it seems legitimate. Up at Culford Roman villa.”

“You’d better take a seat and tell me all about it.” Robin jotted down notes while his sergeant gave a brief but pertinent outline. They’d been contacted by Charlie Howarth, who was the bloke at Kinechester council in charge of historic sites, and who’d apparently pulled Pru’s pigtails when they were both only five, back in Risca.


“Near Newport. Land of my fathers and all that.”

“‘Cwm Rhondda’ and ‘Delilah’?” Robin grinned. “How did you both end up here?”

“Took a wrong turn off the M4.” Pru rolled her eyes. “Charlie was bound to end up by here, given all the history in the area.”

Robin winced at the Welsh argot, which had a habit of coming and going in Pru’s voice. She was right about the history, though; the local area was awash with it. He’d learned back in school that Culdover had been occupied for thousands of years because of its abundant natural resources. Even Kinechester wasn’t as old as Culdover, which had been knocking around since the Neolithic. Like so many places throughout England, it retained evidence of its previous occupants, and many of the local schools made the most of that fact, focussing their trips on both the Iron Age hill fort and Roman villa not five miles from the town centre.

School trips. Please God there’d not be a connection to Adam this time.

Robin refocussed. “What did this mate of yours have to report? It’s not one of those routine ‘found a body; we’re pretty sure it’s from the time of Cromwell, but we have to call it in just in case’ things?”

“Looks unlikely. They’ve had the doctor in.” Pru’s eyebrows shot up. “To declare that this poor soul really is dead despite it being obvious she must have been there months.”

“It’s procedure. Is Grace there too?” Grace was Robin’s favourite crime-scene investigator. If anything had ever evaded her notice, he wasn’t aware of it.

“On route, at least.”

“So what do we know?”

“A routine, planned dig started up earlier today, exploring an area near the villa where somebody reckoned they’d found a new range of buildings. New as in unexcavated.”

“I understand that. I have watched Time Team.” It was one of his mother’s favourite programmes.

“Better you than me, sir, but don’t tell Charlie. He’s at the site, if we want to drive down there.”

Robin fished out his car keys. “Let’s go and hear what he’s got to say.”

There was no easy route directly from Abbotston to Culford; the main roads made two sides of a triangle, and the third was formed of winding country lanes. The old Roman road, which ran straight and true through Tythebarn and other villages and which formed the foundation of Culdover High Street, was the wrong side of the site to be of help.

When they arrived at the car park, Charlie Howarth was already waiting for them, chatting on his phone while trying to sign off some paperwork.

“Sorry about that,” he said in a deep Welsh accent as he ended the call. “Pru, you don’t age, do you?”

“Got a picture in the attic.” Pru’s voice reflected its roots more than normal. “Chief Inspector Bright wants to know all about what you found.”

“Not me who found it. One of the diggers, poor girl.” Howarth—what sort of a Welsh name was that?—winced. “I was going to send her home but thought you might want to interview her.”

“Quite right.” Robin nodded. “Tell us what you can.”

“We started digging the area this morning. Just by hand, nothing mechanical. This is supposed to be a virgin bit of the site, excavation-wise, so we had no idea what we’d turn up.”

“Why here in particular?” Robin asked.

“The university got a grant to do a geophysical survey of the whole area. Do you know what that is?”

“Of course,” Robin snapped. “We’re the Time Team generation. Did you think you’d found a plunge pool?”

Howarth inclined his head. “Sorry. I was being patronising.”

“Apology accepted.” Robin could be gracious when required.

“We weren’t sure what we’d found, to be honest, only that there were signs of underlying structures. Unlike the people on Time Team, we don’t make assumptions until we’ve exposed the archaeology.”

“So what did the digger expose?”

“Part of a mosaic to start with. Bit of a small panel, with some sort of substrate for the tesserae to be embedded in, just lying in the topsoil.” Howarth indicated the size of the thing with his hands. “Very unusual, which is what got Kirsty—that’s the digger I mentioned—so puzzled in the first place. She’d barely raked off anything else when she found black plastic. A sheet or a large strong bag. It was slightly ripped, and hair was protruding through the tear.”

“We’ll get her to supply the details.” Robin couldn’t shake off an instant, and uncharacteristically unprofessional, dislike he’d taken to this witness. “You said this was virgin ground, but if somebody buried a body, then the area must have been disturbed. Did nobody notice?”

Howarth shrugged. “That bit of ground’s been used for all sorts of things over the years, because people didn’t think it was important. There used to be a children’s play area there, but it was taken out. Health and Safety.” He rolled his eyes. “It’s been a right mess since then, so if somebody was careful enough, they could cover their tracks.”

“Hm. How easy is it to get into this place out of hours?”

“The main building’s locked and alarmed.” That made sense, given that the mosaics and hypocaust ruins were in great condition. Culford wasn’t Fishbourne, but it remained impressive. “The rest of the site just has a fence. We weren’t aware of anything that needed protecting.” Howarth gave Pru a rueful smile.

She returned the smile, then adopted her most professional air. “You’ll appreciate there are questions we’ll have to ask you, and statements to be taken, both now and as the details emerge. For a start, are you aware of anyone associated with the site going missing?”

Howarth shook his head. “No, all women accounted for.”

“How do you know it’s a woman we’re concerned with?” Robin interjected.

“Oh, sorry. Kirsty said she reckoned the corpse was female, from what she could see of the hair. Have I spoken out of turn?”

Robin narrowed his eyes. “We don’t make any assumptions about identifying the victim until we hear from our experts.”

“I apologise once more. Thing is, our staff here is predominantly female. We only have one paid employee, Clare, who runs the administration and just about everything else. She gets helped by volunteers so we can have the site open as much as possible.”

“I’ll get a full list of names from Clare, thank you. In the interim, I’d like to talk to the student who found the body. Kirsty, did you say?”

“That’s right. She’ll be up in the staffroom, which is our posh term for that Portakabin.” Howarth pointed towards a dingy green building. “Do you want to talk to her now?”

“After we check in at the scene. Thanks,” Robin added, remembering his manners.

“Shall I take you . . .?”

“No thanks, Charlie.” Pru cuffed his arm. “You’ll be busy enough putting off the school trips and the public. This place needs to be shut to everyone for the time being.”

Howarth’s face dropped. “Hell. I never thought. I’ll get onto it.”

As Robin and his sergeant made their way from the car park to where a white tent indicated the victim’s last resting place, he cast a glance over his shoulder. Howarth was on his phone, talking animatedly. “Is he always like that?”

“Like what, sir?”

“Gets up people’s noses and they can’t work out why.”

Pru laughed. “Yeah, that’s him. Or at least it is if you’re a bloke. They find him a bit smarmy.”

“And what’s he like with women?”

“A charmer. No harm in him, though. He’s always struck me as happily married.” They halted at the point where they’d have to slip on at least gloves and overshoes if they wanted to get closer to the shallow grave. “I suspect if a woman misread the charm and made him an offer, he’d run a mile.”


The appearance of Grace, emerging from the tent with a cheery wave, focussed their attention away from smarmy site directors towards the gruesome minutiae. “Coming over for a look, sir?”

“When we’re kitted up. Want us in bunny suits?”

“Please. Whole kit and caboodle. This isn’t Midsomer.” Grace had no time for television crime dramas and the way they played fast and loose with crime scenes and forensic matters. Shoddy procedures and the depiction of seemingly limitless budgets; both riled her. “The doctor has been, to say that she’s definitely dead. He’ll do the postmortem tomorrow.”

“How long has the body been there?” Robin asked once they were inside the tent and had their first glimpse of the corpse. The dismal sight of somebody’s child, somebody’s loved one, cut off in their prime was one Robin would never get used to.

Grace wrinkled her nose. “She’s been there months, rather than days. I’ll be able to give you a better answer when all the tests are done.”

“Definitely a she?” Pru clarified. She waited for Grace’s nod before continuing. “Any idea how old she was?”

“About twenties or thirties, from what I can see of the body and clothes. Although what I can expose has been restricted by the plastic she was wrapped in. We’ll confirm everything as soon as we can, along with cause of death and all the rest of it. I suspect she’s had blunt trauma to the forehead, but she’s in a pretty bad way. The doctor didn’t like the state of the bit of her face that’s visible.”

“Series of blows?”

Grace shrugged. “Can’t tell as yet. Maybe something that happened postmortem. When I know, you will.”

Robin, with a quickly hidden shudder, glanced at the dead woman again. “Do we have a name for her?”

“Not that I’ve found yet. But it’s going to be a slow process. Don’t want to miss anything by rushing.” Grace sighed. “Poor lass.”

“Poor lass, indeed.” Robin forced a rueful smile. “Get all the information you can. She deserves it.”

“I’ll do my best. And then we’ll see what Greg and his pals can make of it.”

“We’ll leave you to it.” The sooner Grace could collect the samples, the sooner they’d be off to the lab for examination.

Once they’d left the CSI to get on with her job and were heading off to find the digger who’d uncovered the body, Pru—pale faced—rubbed her hands as though ridding the grave dirt from them.

“First corpse?” Robin asked, not unkindly. Death took some getting used to.

“First murder, assuming it is a murder. Seen a couple of RTAs.” Thank God that was still the most likely way the local police came across dead bodies. “I imagined it would be the same.”

“But it isn’t?”

“No, and I can’t work out why.” She halted. “Ditch me if I’m being a sea anchor, sir. There must be some of the Abbotston team who’ve got more experience than I have.”

“There are. And they’ll have plenty to exercise that experience on, especially if there’s no ID on our victim. At least you didn’t puke all over your shoes, like Anderson did.”

“Did he?”

“Do you think I’m lying?” He was, but it wouldn’t hurt for her to believe the story for a while. “Fancy a cuppa? Your pal must be able to rustle us up one.”

“No, thanks.” They’d reached the Portakabin door. “He’d only try to find somebody with two X chromosomes to do it. He wouldn’t know one end of a kettle from another.”

Robin grinned, then immediately changed his expression for one suitably serious for interviewing a witness.

Kirsty—they guessed it was her from the name emblazoned on the back of her sweatshirt—was sitting at a table with what appeared to be a colleague. Both had their hands clenched around mugs which somehow looked far too large for them. The Portakabin was comfortably enough decked out, having—apart from the table and chairs—several more comfy armchairs, a sagging sofa, a tiny kitchenette, and another section which appeared to be set aside for the cleaning and sorting of artefacts. A couple of PCs, surprisingly modern, completed the contents. The windows provided a scenic view of the car park, which could be blocked out by blinds when the sight of school coaches and snotty pupils became overwhelming.

The inevitably edgy introductions were made, and Kirsty’s colleague, Abby, offered to make them all a fresh brew, which Robin readily accepted.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Kirsty said, without being asked. “I mean, I’m used to turning up burials or cremations, especially on the edges of Roman sites, but I knew as soon as I saw it that this wasn’t old.”

“Can we take this from the beginning, please? Assume we don’t know a thing,” Robin said in what he hoped were soothing tones. The girl was clearly nervous, and some important element might be lost if they didn’t go through things logically.

“Okay.” Kirsty gave a little background to the dig, which matched what Howarth had said. She and Abby had arrived that morning as the advance guard of a team from Kinechester University, and they’d barely got a couple of inches down when they’d come to the mosaic.

“Where’s that now?” Pru enquired.

“In a finds tray, up by the trench. We lifted it whole, didn’t we, Abby?” she called across to where her colleague was doling teabags into a pot.

“We did.” Abby gestured with her teaspoon, miming the procedure. “After we’d recorded it and everything. It was obvious it wasn’t in situ, so we thought it must have been backfill from some previous dig we didn’t know anything about, or maybe from when they put the play park in.”

“Yes”—Kirsty nodded—“we knew before we started that the ground had been disturbed time and again, and who knows how careless people had been.”

Robin wasn’t sure that the contractors who put in or took out the play equipment would have been allowed to be so gung-ho with any artefacts they turned up, but he let it ride. “And then?”

“And then we cleared back a bit more and found the plastic. I wondered at first if it was from landscaping. You know, people put down black plastic to inhibit weeds. I made some stupid joke about how it wasn’t typically Anglo-Saxon or anything like that, and then I called Abby over. She spotted the tear in the bag and the hair sticking through, so she said we should leave everything as it was.”

“Quite right.” Pru smiled encouragingly. “Did you turn up any other finds before you shut digging down for the day?”

“No. We weren’t expecting to, given how little we’d got down into the soil. If the archaeology is at the same level as the villa, we’d have expected to go down another three feet.”

“Why didn’t you use a mechanical digger to take off the top layers?” Robin had seen that on Time Team too.

“Because we knew the top layers were likely to have already been disturbed and didn’t want to risk missing artefacts in the topsoil.” Abby brought over the steaming mugs of tea, to a chorus of gratitude. “Just as well, isn’t it?”

“Indeed.” Robin blew on his tea, then risked a semi-scalding sip. “Why didn’t you ring us? Protocol?”

“Lack of phone signal. You know what it’s like round here.” Kirsty, taking a draught, didn’t seem to notice how hot the tea was. Maybe she had it milky enough to counteract the heat. “I came down to the office, where Charlie was. Mr. Howarth. He came up to double-check, then went to ring you. You can get signal in here.”

“What did he double-check?” Pru asked.

The students rolled their eyes. “That we hadn’t made a mistake and misidentified a body that was too old to be of interest to you. As though the Romans used plastic.”

“I thought you had to report all bodies, unless they were found properly interred in a burial ground.” Pru looked to Robin, who both shrugged and nodded.

“Always best to call us in.” He took another sip of tea. “Have you any idea of who the dead woman might be?”

Abby and Kirsty shared a How the hell are we supposed to know? glance before shaking their heads.

“I know, it sounds a daft question.” Robin smiled. “But you’d be surprised. People hear things, about somebody who’s gone missing but not been reported to the police, or rumours about odd happenings. Office gossip that turns out to have a basis in truth.”

“Sorry.” Kirsty shook her head again. “Nothing.”

“That mosaic’s a bit off, though,” Abby remarked. “I took a picture of it to send to my tutor. She reckons it’s totally the wrong design and era for this site. She said it looked like a Victorian antiquarian might have hacked it out of somewhere else.”

“Seems fishy,” Robin agreed. “It was definitely on top of the sheeting? The dead woman couldn’t have been holding it in her hands or anything?”

“I doubt it.” Kirsty frowned. “Not unless the plastic had all been disturbed already.”

“Thank you.” Robin took another swig of tea. He’d never be able to manage the entire mug. “We’ll get a constable up here to take formal statements from you both, as well as anybody else who’s on-site. You’d think somebody would have seen or heard something suspicious.”

Abby snorted. “Don’t count on it. I can think of people in my department who’d notice a flint flake three metres away but not spot a bollard until they walked into it.”

“Let’s hope you’re wrong.” Robin had an awful feeling she wouldn’t be.

Chapter Two
Adam had just put the house phone down as Robin trudged through the front door. Campbell must have heard the approach of his “other” master well before Adam did, as he was ready and waiting to pounce.

“I wasn’t expecting you to be home so early,” Adam said, then gave his partner a kiss.

“Sorry about that. You’d better tell your sugar daddy to skedaddle.” Robin, dog in tow, edged towards the kitchen. “Was that him on the phone?”

“No. The usual ‘We’re from Microsoft and there’s something wrong with your computer.’ I always say, ‘Microsoft? That’s very interesting,’ then clam up. They panic and put the phone down.”

“Good tactic.” Robin yawned. “I told the team to make the most of this evening. Once we have an identification of the dead woman, it’ll be all hands to the deck.”

“Dinner won’t be long. Saturday’s chilli con carne from the freezer.”

“Sounds like heaven.” Robin kicked off his shoes. He’d texted earlier, from the site, to warn Adam a new investigation was afoot, although Adam had already guessed that was the case, as the incident had been on the local news feed. Once the folks from Culford villa had cancelled the school trip which was due the next day, and the characteristic blue-and-white police tape had appeared, word had spread.

“Want to talk about it?”

“Not a lot to say at present.” Robin stroked Campbell’s ears.

“What’s that on your sleeve?”

“Where?” Robin twisted about.

“Left elbow. Looks like oil. Or rust. Or both.”

“That’s because it is oil. Sod.”

“Take it off and I’ll put something on it. There’s a can of Stain Devil under the sink.”

Robin slid the jacket off, grimacing at the smear on what he’d always described as one of his favourite items of clothing. “This cost me a small fortune. Got it in a little shop down an alley in Bath.”

“No wonder it cost so much.” Adam started work on the stain. Little domestic tasks such as this formed part of the process of bringing them closer and keeping them together. It was like being a married couple, only not quite.

“That jacket’s almost as precious to me as Campbell, even if it’s never saved my life.” Robin peered over Adam’s shoulder. “I rubbed up against some rust bucket of a truck in Culford car park. Must have done it then.”

“No wonder the people on Time Team always look like they’ve borrowed their outfits off the local scarecrows. Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard.”

“Don’t you start. I feel like I’ve spent all day fending off daft ‘of course you’ve found a mosaic at a Roman site’ type quips.”

“Mosaic? There wasn’t anything about that on the news.” Adam, having performed first aid on the jacket, opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of beer and one of sparkling water.

“Just the water, please. I’ll keep the beer for when I really need it. Thanks.” Robin took the bottle. “And yes, we’ve kept the mosaic quiet for the moment.”

He gave a résumé of what they’d found out about that morning: the ground-penetrating survey, the possible bathhouse, the university students beginning to dig.

Adam winced when he reached the part about finding the body. “Poor girls. Do you think it’s worse to find a fresh corpse or an old one? Or are they equally gruesome?”

“You should ask Pru Davis that. I thought she was going to lose her breakfast, although she held it together in the end. Anyway, this bit of mosaic was on top of the body, a whole section of it embedded in whatever Romans used to hold their tesserae. I suspect the archaeology mob is more puzzled about that than about the dead woman. Wrong era, wrong place, wrong everything.”

“Sounds odd.”

“Sounds bloody peculiar. And who knows how it links to the murder.”

“It’ll make sense in the end.” Adam began to plate up their food. “Like a jigsaw when you can’t see where a particular bit goes until you’ve got the ones that fit round it. Then you say, ‘Bloody hell, I never realised it went there!’”

Robin grinned. “Are you always so aggressive when you do jigsaws?”

Adam made a face. “You know what I mean. Ooh, and before I forget, your mum rang. Must have heard about the case on the news and knew you’d have your nose stuck in it.”

“You leave my nose alone.” Robin chuckled. “Mum says I’ve got a cute nose.”

“She’d say you had a cute nose if you were Cyrano de Bergerac, though, wouldn’t she? Mums do. Anyway, she sends her love, says she’ll be thinking of you and you’re not to work too hard.”

“Fat chance of that.”

They gave the next few minutes over to eating and preventing the dog from stealing anything from their plates.

“It’ll upset your tummy, young man,” Robin said, fending off a furry snout. “Basket. Go on.”

Campbell grudgingly obeyed, curling up in his basket with a mortally offended look on his face.

“You can have a biscuit in a minute if you’re good. You as well,” Adam added, turning to address Robin rather than the dog. “Sandra got in some Abernethys from Waitrose. And Bonios for ‘himself’.”

“I have no idea how I survived in the past without a cleaner cum Jill-of-all-trades to pander to my every biscuit whim.”

“Oi!” Adam snorted. “What about me? How did you survive without a handsome teacher in your life?”

“I’ve no bloody idea about that, either.” Robin scooped up the last bit of food from his plate with a satisfied sigh. “Good cook, good lover, sympathetic ear. What more could a man want?”

“A quick solution to this case?”

Robin blew out his cheeks. “Too true. Not sure we’ll get it, though. Nothing useful showed up on the initial trawl through missing-persons reports, despite the description we have. Grace says she’s a slim thing, size eight or ten, perhaps, and that the clothes are standard UK brands like White Stuff and Fat Face. Preliminary thoughts are that she isn’t a visitor from abroad. Auburn hair, seems natural.”

Adam cleared away the plates, then put the kettle on. “Now we’ve finished eating, can I ask whether she’s recognisable?”

Robin winced. “Grace has a feeling the body was originally not wrapped in plastic. Something got at the face and had a gnaw.”

“Ew.” Adam raised his hand. “I get the picture. Don’t say any more or you’ll put Campbell off his Bonio.”

“I’ll get him one while you make a cuppa.”

“Deal.” Everything seemed more manageable with a cup of tea in one’s hand. “You said, ‘originally.’ Was she reburied?”

“Seems like it. Grace’s guess is somewhere around six months ago, give or take a bit either way. That supports what the site administrator said—they had a Community Payback group in to weed and dig over some of the tattier parts of the site. That would have been best part of a year ago, and she wasn’t in the ground then.”

“May sort of time?” Adam nodded. “And leaving a nice turned-over piece of ground for somebody to make use of. Who’d notice another bit of disturbance?”

“Indeed. Especially out there. They’d think it was a fox or badger having a poke. Look at the mess Campbell can make if we let him.”

The dog raised his head at the sound of his name, clearly decided there was no food involved in the conversation, and snuggled back down again with the remains of his biscuit.

“What are your thoughts on the mosaic?” Adam asked.

“No thoughts, simply questions, like how it entered the scene. Has it always been with the body? Was it put in the second time, or just lying around in the topsoil and got interred by accident or what?” Robin watched as the dog nibbled his biscuit. “I’ve never seen a hound who eats so daintily when he wants to.”

“He’s smart. He’s learned it makes the food last longer.” Adam couldn’t help but smile at the two beings he valued most. Campbell could easily have been envious of Robin suddenly appearing in his master’s life, but from the start he’d been as besotted with the policeman as Adam had been. “Smart but sentimental.”

“Then he takes after you.”

“Guilty as charged.” Adam kept an old mobile phone upstairs, SIM card intact, because it had saved the last text his grandfather had ever sent him. When he’d first told Robin about it, they’d both been in tears— He should get back to talking about the murder, or he’d be getting sentimental again. “Why did nobody notice that the area had been disturbed twice?”

“It wasn’t necessarily disturbed twice. The body might have been somewhere else the first time and moved because Culford was a better spot. That’s up to Grace and her cronies to work out. I get the impression the area was overgrown and ignored. They’ve had to clear a mass of weeds already.”

Adam nodded. “If you’d enough nous to choose your spot behind a bush and pick your time, I suppose you could get away with murder. Sorry. Didn’t mean to sound flippant.”

“I know. We all use those expressions too casually.” Robin strolled over, put his arms round Adam’s waist, and leaned into his back. “Next few days are going to be busy. If I forget to say ‘I love you,’ you won’t forget that it’s a fact, will you?”

“I promise.” Adam, thoughts heading trouser-wards, caressed Robin’s hand before the arrival of a pair of massive paws and a cold, wet nose broke the romantic moment.

“Yes, and we both love you too.” Robin stroked Campbell’s head. “Now hop it to your basket so Daddy can give Daddy a kiss.”

Eventually the dog got the message, but the kiss had barely started before the unwelcome tones of Robin’s phone interrupted it.

“Oh, hell. Sorry.” Robin grabbed it off the breakfast bar and managed, “Hello?” before heading for the hall. It had to be work, given the snatches of conversation Adam could hear; developments on the case, no doubt. Chances were Robin would have to go in to work again, just as the evening was looking promising. Hopefully the traffic wouldn’t be too bad at this time of the day so he could make a swift journey there and back.

Commuting from their house in Lindenshaw to both Abbotston and Culdover was viable, albeit logic kept telling them that a move would reduce travelling time for both. With the money from the sale of Robin’s flat, they had a sizeable deposit to lay down on another property, although it would have to be exactly the right place to warrant selling up their Lindenshaw home, especially given the house’s history. It had belonged to Adam’s grandparents, and it had been the site of all the significant moments in their romance, even when it hadn’t been an actual romance, simply an illicit longing between detective and witness.

Didn’t people reckon that moving house was a stressful experience at the best of times? So shouldn’t any potential move have to be worthwhile? And, of course, any prospective property would have to pass the most stringent of tests, specifically that of Campbell, who’d need to sniff every bush and tree in the garden to assess its suitability for leg cocking. And the residents of Lindenshaw wouldn’t appreciate having their favourite hound—much petted and fussed over by locals when he was taken out for walks—being relocated to a place where other lucky so-and-sos would be able to ruffle his fur and have his wet nose stuck on their legs.

“Sorry about that.” Robin’s reappearance in the kitchen roused Adam from his thoughts.

“You really don’t need to apologise about work calls any more than I do about the interminable marking and planning. It goes with the job.” Adam wrinkled his nose. “Time for that cuppa before you go?”

“Go?” Robin frowned. “Oh, no, this can wait until morning. We’ve had a report of a missing archaeologist. Right sort of age, although not from this area. London. Somebody saw the story on the BBC news website, remembered the lass disappearing, and got in touch. I’ll have to go up there, assuming that a more local or viable connection doesn’t turn up.”

Adam nodded. “I guess it’s dangerous to assume this poor lass is anything to do with Culdover.”

“I wish you’d tell that to some of the constables at Abbotston. Two plus two always makes five for them.” Robin, sighing, rubbed his eyes. “I hate it when there’s no identification. I’m going to double- and triple-check what we know about the missing woman against what we know about the corpse. Imagine if we go up there and spook her family and it turns out it’s not her?”

“God, that would be awful. They must be twitching each time the phone rings or the doorbell goes. Like she dies again every day, if that makes any sense.” Adam poured the tea—they needed it more than ever. “How can so many people simply go missing?”

Robin shrugged. “They’re not all abducted by loonies, certainly. Some of them must take ill and die when they’re miles from nowhere and don’t turn up for months or years. Thanks.”

They took their drinks and the packet of biscuits into the lounge.

“That can’t be many people, though, can it? To go unfound for so long? Britain isn’t exactly full of unpopulated areas.”

“True, but it does happen. More likely they decide to go off somewhere for whatever reason.”

“Made a break for freedom?” Adam, having got himself comfortable on the sofa, and Campbell comfortable—if a touch peeved—on the floor, managed to open the biscuit packet without too much damage to the contents and without intervention from black canine noses.

“Could be. People are complex. They do illogical things because it seems like a good idea at the time.” Robin dunked his biscuit for the required amount of time, then ate it with evident pleasure. “Maybe it gets to the point you can’t face returning home because of all the fuss and the shame, so you stay put and it just gets worse with every day that passes.”

Good point. Putting off dealing with matters only made them worse, and it would surely get to the stage where it made them impossible. “What if she’s missing and hasn’t been reported, though? That happens, doesn’t it?”

“It does.” Robin’s brow puckered. “Even in these days of social media overkill and constant communication, people quietly disappear or are made to disappear. If this girl was here illegally, we might have the devil’s own job of finding out who she is—was—despite doing facial reconstructions. The fact that she had no ID suggests somebody didn’t want her name coming to light in the event that her body did.”

“Unless she was killed in a robbery that went wrong. Purse and whatever taken for their contents as opposed to anything else.”

“True, oh genius.” Robin took another swig of tea. “They host lots of school trips at Culford, I understand.”

“Yeah. Most of the Culdover schools use the place for trips, and there’s an activity centre near Tythebarn that always takes the kids over for a day.”

“Ever taken your class there?”

“No. Culdover Primary uses it for a year four visit, but Lindenshaw never utilised the place, I’m afraid. Too infra dig, if you’ll excuse the pun. Oh.” The penny dropped. “I get it. You want to know if I have a connection to this case too.”

“Well, I have to ask.” Robin grinned sheepishly. “Just promise me you won’t let yourself get involved this time.”

“You make it sound as though I deliberately try to. I don’t. Your cases want to embroil me no matter how much I attempt to keep out of things.”

Campbell opened one sleepy eye, as though agreeing that Robin’s murder investigations seemed to want to involve them all, him included.

“If you do end up finding you have a connection to Culford, I’m not sure if I’ll want to know. Even if it turns out you dropped a ring pull in the play area and it has your fingerprints on it.”

“You can count that out, for a start. I visited the villa when I was a boy, but I’ve not been there since, and I don’t think any ring pull would be mine. Mum would have killed me if she’d caught me dropping litter. And I didn’t see anyone burying a body.” Adam paused a moment, feigning deep thought. “No teachers of my acquaintance gone missing, either.”

“Pillock.” Robin slapped his arm. “You never went out with any archaeologists? Sat on a committee with one? Did jury service when one was on trial?”

Adam rolled his eyes at the reference to two of Robin’s previous cases, both of which had been a bit too close to home. Even before they met, they’d both derided those television shows where friends of the detective—or his daughter, in one case—were always linked to the corpse or the suspects. Neither had dreamed that could apply in real life, but Robin’s two recent murder cases had disproved that, although technically that connection had been the outcome of the first case. Still, random events clustered, didn’t they? So hopefully they’d had their cluster and could move on safely.

Adam hadn’t expected that murder would never cross their paths again, given Robin’s job and the fact that the villages of England were as full of jealousy and other fiery emotions as the cities. And the prevalence of legitimately held and used shotguns—or golf clubs or any other potential implements of death—gave means as well as motive or opportunity. Probably easier to hide a body, welcome to that, which was just what this case showed.

“No, no, and thrice no. I swear,” he replied at last, hoping that vow wouldn’t come back to haunt him. He’d seen one dead body and was in no hurry to repeat the experience.

“Right.” Robin grabbed another biscuit and held it in mid-air, pre-dunk. “Not another word about this case until we have some proper evidence to go on. And what’s so funny?”

“Sorry.” Adam managed to get the word out despite the laughter. “You reminded me of an old joke. The one about all the loos being stolen from the cop shop, so the police had nothing to go on.”

“I’ll give you bloody nothing to go on.” Robin laid down both mug and undunked biscuit, pounced at Adam, and tickled him mercilessly down the sides of his ribs.

“Hey! Stop! You’ll spill my tea.”

“That’s not all that will spill if I get my way.”

“Promises, promises.” Adam put his mug on the table. Might as well take advantage of the offer because who knew when they’d have the chance again? Murders meant long hours, late nights, and knackered policemen whose thoughts were too tired to descend to their pants. He leaned in for a smacker of a kiss.

“That was good. For starters.” Robin’s lascivious grin could have turned the iciest libido to butter. “What about—”

Once more Robin’s phone interrupted them.

“Sorry,” he said, picking it up off the table.

“I told you to stop saying that.” Adam forced a grin. A second call so hard on the heels of the first couldn’t be good news and surely meant Robin’s return to the station.

“Oh, hi.” Robin halted halfway to the door. “How’s life?” Not the station, by the sound of it. “Yes, if we can. Depends what it is.” Robin turned to mouth what looked like the name “Anderson.” Hopefully this was just a social call from his old sergeant that could soon be dealt with, letting them get back to the matter in hand.

“Bloody hell!” Robin sat down heavily in the armchair. “When? Why?”

Adam, infuriated at only hearing half the conversation, helped himself to a consolatory biscuit. The worried expression on Robin’s face and the way he’d settled into his chair suggested he was in for the long haul. As it turned out, though, the call was surprisingly short, with Robin saying, “Okay, I think that’ll be all right, so long as it’s short term,” then making a helpless gesture at Adam.

“What the hell’s going on?” Adam mouthed, but his partner simply gritted his teeth and rolled his eyes. Things must be bad.

“I guess you got that was Anderson,” Robin said after the call ended.

“Yeah. Sounded ominous, whatever it was.”

“It is. Helen’s chucked him out.”

“What?” Stuart Anderson had been living with his teacher girlfriend for years, and everyone at Stanebridge seemed to regard them as an old married couple, even if they hadn’t actually tied the knot. Although Robin always said he wouldn’t have been amazed if it turned out they’d been married years ago, and Anderson hadn’t mentioned the fact to any of his workmates. Helen never wearing a wedding ring seemed to argue against that, though. “What’s he done?”

“According to him, he didn’t do anything. She’s been edgy for days, and this evening it all exploded.” Robin retrieved his tea, took a sip, then winced. It had no doubt turned tepid. “She says he can pack a bag and hit the road.”

“But surely she gave some sort of explanation?”

“Apparently, she said that if he didn’t know what he’d done, she wasn’t going to tell him.”

“Ouch.” Adam gave Campbell, who looked distressed at the goings-on, a conciliatory pat. “What a mess. What’s he going to do? Ah.” The sheepish expression on Robin’s face answered the question. “He’s staying here, isn’t he? Presumably he cadged a bed, seeing as I didn’t hear you offer.”

“You should be a detective.” Robin patted his arm. “He hasn’t got any family around here, and I suspect we’re the people he trusts most, in this area. It’ll only be for a few days until he sorts himself out.”

“Or works out what he’s done and apologises for it?” Adam remembered the penultimate assembly he’d attended at Lindenshaw school, how it had centred on the Good Samaritan; that’s how they were being called to act. “I’d better get the spare bed ready. You can find him some towels.”

Robin started to clear away the remains of their tea and biscuits. “Sorry about our romantic night in being spoiled.”

“You can make it up to me when he’s gone or when the murder’s solved. Whichever comes first. Hopefully the former.” Adam halted halfway out of the lounge door. “What does he eat for breakfast?”

“Whatever we put in front of him. Beggars can’t be choosers.”

Beggars. Adam shivered. “Maybe that’s how it started with your dead woman. Row with the other half, or with her parents. Sofa surfing until her mates got fed up with it. Nobody realised she’d slipped out of the loop until it was too late.”

“Now who’s putting two and two together and getting five?” Robin edged over to give him a hug, encumbered by mugs and plate—and a dog that wanted to be involved—but a hug nonetheless. “We won’t let him end up on the streets.”

“Good. Only I wouldn’t want him to end up living here permanently, either. I mean, he’s a nice bloke and all that, but three’s a crowd. Four . . .” he added, glancing at Campbell.

Robin grinned. “Yeah. Better get practicing our relationship advice.”

Seth & Casey by RJ Scott
“…New York's LaGuardia and JFK International airports officially closed on Thursday afternoon due to the storm, according to the FAA. Both airports had been open earlier despite significant flight cancellations. LaGuardia resumed operations around 7 p.m. ET, while JFK said it planned to reopen sometime during the course of the night.”

Casey McGuire rinsed the last of the mugs and placed it on the drainer with the rest. For some reason, it was always mugs they ran out of in this house. Seth had this idea that the dishwasher ate them but Casey was convinced that they just needed a system to make sure they brought all the mugs back to the kitchen when they were done. Last week he’d found a mug in the bathroom, inside the cabinet, full of cold coffee.

Seth had sworn it wasn’t him, but Casey knew it had been.

He didn’t make a fuss. After all, what was one full coffee mug teetering on the edge of a glass shelf? In the grand scheme of things, it meant nothing.

The TV droned on behind him as he took a dishcloth and wiped the first of the mugs.

“…states from South Carolina to Maine are under a winter storm warning and the governors of Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey and New York have declared states of emergency. Forecasters say the northeast states can expect hurricane-force wind gusts and blinding snow…”

The news channels had been warning about this storm for a week, a huge dump of snow that would cripple the eastern seaboard, but that as yet hadn’t caused much concern here in Vermont. Casey glanced out of the window at the yard and wished for more snow. That way maybe Seth wouldn’t be able to leave the house, and possibly the two of them could have a rational conversation that didn’t end with Seth leaving and Casey wondering where the hell he was going wrong.

“…the situation is “ugly” and “dangerous,” and people should stay indoors…”

Last night, all Casey had said was that Seth shouldn’t forget about his appointment next morning. Seth left the house, clambering back into bed at some ungodly hour, reeking of beer or worse. In his sleep, Seth tried to pull Casey close, but Casey had deliberately scooted up and away, and left his husband in the bed.

Today, at ten, Seth had exploded, accusing Casey of meddling in things he didn’t understand, telling Casey he was fine and didn’t need a shrink.

Yet another night when one of them ended up on the couch.


Casey stiffened at Seth’s soft, gravelly voice. His chest was tight, he didn’t want to argue. He wanted Seth to admit there was a problem, because he couldn’t handle it anymore. Six months of this had taken its toll. Maybe if Seth had seen the specialists when he should’ve, maybe if he’d seen a counselor, then Casey would see he was trying.

Seth was in denial, and it was destroying their marriage.

He didn’t turn to face Seth; he’d made a decision in the early morning, packed a bag with what he could get without waking Seth, and decided they needed space. If Seth had space he might face up to himself instead of taking it out on Casey.

Seth slid his hands around Casey’s waist, resting his chin on Casey’s shoulder and sighed. He’d brushed his teeth so the only scent was peppermint, which at least was a step up from yesterday when he’d attempted a clumsy kiss with beer still on his breath.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured near Casey’s ear.

Casey could turn now, accept the apology, even offer one of his own for pushing Seth, and everything would be normal for a while. Seth could go back to pretending he was okay, and Casey could go back to walking on eggshells and avoiding conflict.

But what kind of a marriage was that?

What kind of a man did that make Casey?

“I know you are,” he said. Then he tensed because that wasn’t the answer Seth wanted, and Casey knew what would happen next. Seth would go straight onto defensive mode, give some bullshit about how he was a firefighter and didn’t need a counselor.

Meanwhile, Seth not accepting any of what he needed was tearing their marriage apart. Casey had been careful with him for a long time, after all, Seth had nearly died. But when months had passed and he was still refusing to listen to reason, that was when Casey realized he’d been wrong in accepting Seth’s view on what kind of healing he needed.

“I think we need some time apart,” Casey said, and placed the dried mug onto the counter. He eased away from Seth’s hold and moved to the other side of the kitchen table. Somehow, having it between them gave Casey the strength to do what he’d decided was the right thing. Seth had this way of holding him, with a near desperation that never failed to have Casey crumbling.

Seth didn’t answer at first. Casey stopped himself from repeating the words and hoped that Seth was just thinking. The only noise in the kitchen was the news, focusing on Greyhound buses and the routes being cancelled.


Poke Check by RJ Scott & VL Locey
There are many people I would have rather seen standing on the ice of my practice arena than Erik. For example my beloved sister, Galina, my sainted mother, Arina, my cat, Lucy, or my new gay American heartthrob, Zachary Quinto.

Zachary would be wearing only a smile even though it’s cold on the ice.

But no, none of them were standing in front of me wearing a Railers sweater and curls. Those damn golden curls. They’d always tempted me beyond sense. As had his mouth. And the way he would tilt his head when he was trying to understand me out of bed. In bed? There was no language barrier. Our bodies had always been tuned to each other like radio waves to a satellite dish.

Even now, I felt the low hum of his presence in my veins. I had feared this moment would come. From the first time I’d heard his name mentioned as being a new member of the Rush, our AHL feeder team, I’d known he would eventually stand in front of me, tipping his head, with his curls, his eyes and his mouth.

Connor was looking at me as if he expected something from me. Ah yes, words. He wanted me to say something. How did “go fuck a donkey” translate into English?

“We are known to each other.”

I skated to my net, mask perched on my head, and tried to focus. The humming in my blood was unsettling. Closing my eyes, I let the blue ice under my skates talk to me. Opening myself up to the sounds of hockey, the stress of seeing Erik again lessened. I whispered to the pipes as I tapped them. Asked them in Russian if they were going to be my friends during this practice.

“Uh, hey, I know this is a strict breach of protocol and all…but is there a problem between you and Gunner?”

I glanced to the left. Tennant stood there, geared up, his stick casually resting across his shoulders. So Erik now had his American hockey nickname. Why didn’t I have a new American hockey nickname? Pah. I was being petty. It tasted bad on my tongue.

“Gunner is okay person from time back in space.” Was that right? English was hard to speak. It made no sense. How could there be three ways to spell one word? Russian was simple. Strong. Pure. A language of passion and spirit. American was whiney and tied my brain into knots. No, that was not true. American was a wonderful language. It was me who was whiney and unhappy. “Time back. In the back of time. Is bad time to talk. Go away.”

Winter Cowboy by RJ Scott
Chapter 1
2009, Daniel
A figure stood beside Isaac’s grave and I knew immediately who it was.

There was no marker yet for the boy who had died two weeks ago and who would forever be nineteen. Flowers marked his resting place, but snow had long since covered them and softened the raised earth so it wasn’t as obvious against the gravestones around the figure. A car accident had taken Isaac, killed him on impact, and his family grieved for a future that would never be realized.

I’d just left my brother, Chris, in the hospital, broken beyond repair in the same accident. At least we had the possibility of a future with him, even though the road to recovery would be hard. He was still in a medically induced coma, not yet awake to know he’d lost his leg, or that fire had marked his face. But he would wake up. They told us he’d live.

No one had asked me where I was going when I’d left Chris’ room, each of us lost in various stages of shock and grief, and we all dealt with what had happened in our own way. I’d needed to connect with Isaac. Needed the peace to balance the loss and guilt that ate away inside me.

Isaac dead on impact, Chris’ future destroyed, and in front of me, hunched over Isaac’s last resting place, was the man responsible for it all.

The man who left my bed in the dead of night to become a murderer.


He was huddled into his coat, the January ice bitter by the buried, hands forced into his pockets, and his hood pulled around his face. Micah must have heard me, because he glanced my way, startled, grief written on his face. And then his expression changed.

He stepped toward me, his expression full of something like hope.

“Daniel?” he said. “Is Chris okay? No one will let me see him.”

He stopped walking when I didn’t reach out for him and looked at me uncertainly.

“His leg is gone, down from his knee,” I explained dispassionately, and then touched my face, “and his burns are bad, the left side of his face from his temple to his chin.”

“Shit. Shit.” Micah bent at the waist, as if he couldn’t breathe, and he was crying.

“How is it you don’t have a mark on you?” I asked, still eerily calm, and utterly focused.

He took his hand from his pocket, and pulled up his sleeve, exposing bandages. “I was burned,” he began. He dropped his hand when I didn’t comment, forced it back into his pocket, wincing as he did so.

I imagined the burn hurt a little, maybe even a lot, but he was there, as whole and real as when he’d left my bed on that terrible day.

In my mind I saw Chris in the hospital, the covers raised over the cage which protected his surgical site, then dipping lower where his ankle should have been. I saw a clear image of Isaac the day before he died, knocking for Chris and grinning at me as if he had the greatest secret to tell his best friend.

And here was Micah, telling me he had slight burns on his arm? The same man who’d told me in one breath that he loved me and then had stolen my car, driving it into a bridge and killing one boy, leaving another maimed and in a coma.

My fist flew, clenched aggression targeting Micah’s face, his cheekbone, and I heard a satisfying crunch. He staggered back a step, but he didn’t go down, and he didn’t take his hands from his pockets. I was too fast. I hit him again, blood flecking his face, dissipating into the icy air. He moved again, the force of my blows shoving him back.

Still, his hands remained in his pockets, and he was unnervingly quiet, taking my hits as if they were nothing at all. Another punch connected with his lip and split the skin, and this time he grunted in pain. He staggered backward toward the next grave and bent back over the stone marker with the force of that final blow. I stepped closer. I hit him again, connecting with his jaw, but the hit wasn’t hard. There was nothing to it; he didn’t move away.

“You took my car,” I yelled, right in his face.

“You said I could borrow it,” he pleaded.

I raised my hand to hit him again, but he winced, and closed his eyes, and I wanted him to look at me. “Open your damn eyes!”

He did, and he wouldn’t avert his gaze, naked grief in his expression.

“Daniel, please listen.”

“You’ve destroyed Chris’ life.”

“I know.”

“You need to leave Whisper Ridge, and never come back. I don’t want to see your face, I don’t want Chris to ever see you again. You understand?”

“I understand,” his tone low and broken.

“You will never come back here.” I shook him. He was smaller than me, thinner, lighter, and I shook him so hard his head snapped back. “Promise me!”

“I pr—promise,” he said through tears.

I was disgusted by him, hated him, wanted to kill him right there on Isaac’s grave.

“I hope they lock you up and throw away the fucking key!” I was still shouting, and he didn’t move, just stared at me with those pale eyes, red and wet from crying. He wouldn’t stop crying. “Don’t fucking stare at me!”

I shoved him one last time, and then before I could work out what the hell I was still doing there shouting at him, I pivoted and turned my back on him, and on Isaac’s grave, and the entire carnage.

The Quality of Mercy by Ari McKay
Chapter One
Texas, 1890
CARLOS HERNANDEZ stood in the center of Bent Oak Ranch’s largest paddock, with a dappled gray yearling on the end of a long lead rope. Little vegetation grew in the enclosure due to the steady stamp of horse hooves and cowboy boots, and dust settled on Carlos’s boots as he turned in slow circles while the horse galloped around the perimeter of the wood rail fence with a saddle on her back. The September sun was bright and still hot, making both Carlos and the yearling sweat, but the Texas summer heat was receding, and the nights were getting cooler at last.

Carlos’s responsibilities had increased since Gil Porter, the owner of Bent Oak, decided to move away from raising cattle and toward breeding horses. His experience in working with horses had gotten him a job at the ranch, and his hard work and dedication had gotten him put in charge of breeding and training. He had plenty to do to keep him busy, and he ended each day tired but proud of his part in helping Bent Oak succeed. But of late, he yearned for something more.

Gil and Matt Grayson, the ranch foreman and Gil’s lover, had found a way to be together discreetly even here on the ranch, surrounded by other people. Matt had moved out of the foreman’s house and into the big house after his sister Jeanie got married and moved into town. Gil claimed he found it more convenient to have his foreman under the same roof, and no one had questioned him. Now they lived together, happy and in love, and Carlos found himself longing for what they had.

He was lonely. But he wanted more than a warm body to share his bed. He wanted to share his life with someone. He wanted the closeness and connection that Gil and Matt shared. He wanted the love and passion he had known—and foolishly thrown away—once before.

“That filly has a pretty gait,” a voice called out from the fence line, and Carlos glanced over to see Matt tying his own horse, Wendigo, to the railing. Matt was a big, sturdy man, with dark brown hair and hazel eyes, and he leaned on a wooden crossbar, regarding Carlos with a raised eyebrow. “Too pretty for you to be looking like someone done rained on your picnic.”

Carlos gradually brought the yearling to a stop and let her rest while he went to talk to Matt.

“I believe she will be one of our best,” he said, ignoring Matt’s observation about his mood. “We might want to keep her.”

Matt nodded and grinned, but he didn’t take his eyes from Carlos’s face. “I trust your instincts when it comes to horses, so if you say we keep her, that’s what we’ll do. I’m sure the fact that she’s named after your boss ain’t got nothing to do with it.”

In fact, the filly’s name was Gilla, and Gil Porter had assisted with her birth, an event that had helped the Boston-born-and-raised man develop a bond with the ranch.

Carlos tried to remain objective and fair when it came to judging the horses, but he had to admit he didn’t always succeed. He had a soft spot for Gilla, and he knew Gil did too, so he was inclined to look for reasons to keep her at Bent Oak.

“Not a thing. I am always impartial,” he said, although a quirk of his lips gave away his teasing.

“Uh-huh.” Matt’s eyes crinkled at the corners, but then his expression turned more serious. “That’s a little better, but I still miss seeing you smile. Seems like you don’t think you got too much to smile about lately, and I’m getting worried you’re thinking about moving on. I wouldn’t like that, and neither would Gil. So… you gonna talk to me about what’s wrong? I was your friend long before I was foreman of this place. I hope you know you can tell me anything.”

“I am not going to leave Bent Oak,” Carlos said, reaching out to stroke Wendigo’s velvety nose. “I like my job and the ranch. I have no desire to leave when I can work solely with horses as I have always wanted to do.”

There was no mistaking the relief on Matt’s face, and he nodded. “I’m glad to hear it. I want you to feel like your home is here at Bent Oak, and not just because there ain’t no one better with horses than you. Not because we were once lovers, neither. You belong here, just as much as me or Gil or the horses. And me and Gil both want you to be happy.”

“You need not concern yourself about me,” Carlos said. Gilla walked up behind him and nudged his shoulder with her nose, and he pivoted so he could give her the attention she wanted. Gilla had been doted on by Matt, Gil, and José—her dam’s owner—since birth, and she was accustomed to being petted and spoiled. “My wandering days are behind me. Bent Oak is my home, and I am happy here.”

“You may be content enough, but you ain’t happy.” Matt’s tone was certain, and he did know Carlos better than anyone else. “I’ve seen that new hand, Caleb, making eyes at you when he thinks I ain’t looking. Just in case you ain’t noticed it for yourself. Time was that a handsome man casting his eye your way would’ve put a spring in your step and a gleam in your eye.”

Carlos stroked Gilla’s neck as he considered how to respond. He’d noticed Caleb, of course. How could he not when Caleb’s golden curls and big blue eyes reminded him of the only man who had ever captured his heart? But he’d also recognized Caleb’s immaturity. Caleb was much like Gilla: accustomed to getting attention whenever he wanted it. Carlos didn’t doubt that Caleb thought he could get any man he wanted thanks to his pretty face, mainly because Carlos had once been the same way himself.

“I see too much of my younger self in Caleb,” he said at last. “We would not suit.”

Matt’s gaze sharpened, but he only nodded in response. “Well then, if you’re at loose ends this evening, what do you think of coming into Mercy with me and Gil? There’s that reception for the new schoolmaster tonight. I know you don’t get off the ranch much, so this might be a good time to look at what else is on offer, so to speak. There ain’t been nothing big in town since Fourth of July, so I’m thinking there’ll be a lot of people there.”

Carlos doubted there were any more men who shared his preferences in town than there were the last time he went, but he liked the idea of seeing something different for a few hours. He never felt closed in thanks to the rolling plains that stretched out to the horizon, but the flatness of the land also meant the scenery stayed pretty much the same.

“Very well,” he said, inclining his head slightly. “What time should I be ready?”

“Gil and I are taking the carriage, and we’ll be leaving about four,” Matt replied. He reached out, put a hand on Carlos’s shoulder, and gave it a squeeze. “If you don’t see no one to your liking, we can go have a few drinks after the tea and cake stuff is over, if you’d like. Gil won’t mind. Hell, he’d probably want to come along.”

Gil had arrived at Bent Oak as a stuffy Boston socialite who preferred the parlor to the stables. But Bent Oak had liberated Gil from the shackles placed on him by his dictatorial father and by Boston society, and now he was more likely to be outside in jeans and a chambray work shirt like the rest of the hands, far more comfortable in his own skin here than he ever had been in Boston.

“He probably would,” Carlos said, chuckling.

Matt nodded, releasing Carlos’s shoulder with another squeeze. “All right, then,” he said, unwrapping Wendigo’s reins from the rail. He stepped back, then swung up into the saddle with the ease of a natural-born horseman. “Wear something pretty,” he added and then grinned wickedly as he turned Wendigo in the direction of the stables.

Carlos unfastened the lead rope and grasped Gilla’s bridle. She’d had enough saddle training for one day, and Carlos needed to wash off the scent of horses and sweat before going into town. He didn’t expect the reception to be all that interesting, especially since he didn’t have school-age children, but at least he would get the chance to socialize with people he didn’t see often. That alone would make the trip worthwhile.

And if the new schoolmaster was a handsome man who shared Carlos’s preferences, so much the better. Carlos shook his head and smiled at his own foolishness. The schoolmaster was far more likely to be an absentminded scholar with soft hands and a round little wife. But, Carlos thought as he led Gilla to the stables, a man could dream.

Eyes Wide Open by VM Sanford
Spencer checked the office door. If he was fast enough, he’d manage to get out within the next ten minutes, and that would mean escaping his mother’s plans for the evening. If he wasn’t able to leave, though… Well, he’d have to go through the rant he knew she’d spout because he wouldn’t be having dinner with her and his father that evening. He might love both of them, but that didn’t mean he wanted to spend most of his nights with them, not after having to spend his days in their company, too.

He supposed that was one of the downsides of having to work with family. His best friend Jason didn’t seem to want to avoid his brothers, though, and they were co-owners of the company their father and uncle had built in their days.

“Spencer?” someone called from the entrance of the building, and Spencer sighed. His mother was there, and she was going to find him within the next few minutes.

He didn’t answer. He knew she’d come to his office to look for him anyway. She always said she was the owner of the vineyard and that as such, she could enter every office as she pleased. He supposed she was right—the vineyard was indeed hers, even though she shared its ownership with Spencer’s father.

“Spencer, why didn’t you answer when I called out?” she asked as she walked in without knocking, her heels clicking on the floor.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.”

She arched a fine eyebrow. “Your door was open.”

“I must have been particularly focused on what I was doing.”

“Dinner will be on the table in fifteen minutes.”

And there it was. Spencer’s parents lived on the vineyard. Spencer could walk from his office to his parents’ house in about five minutes, which was one of the reasons he’d refused his mother’s offer when she’d wanted to build him a house there. Just the thought of living so close to her made him want to run away.

Not that he’d ever tell her that, of course.

“I’m sorry, Mother, but I already have plans.”

“You do? You didn’t tell me about it. Are you going out with Lydia?”

That was the only acceptable reason Spencer would have not to stay, at least in his mother’s opinion. “No. I’m going to the Graves’ tonight.”

She wrinkled her nose. “The Graves? Why?”

“Because Mrs. Graves invited me.” And because the more evenings he managed to spend away from his mother, the better he felt.

“Of course she did. You’ve been going there for decades. It’s a surprise she isn’t annoyed by you yet.”

Spencer had to remind himself that he loved his mother no matter what she said, and that he probably wouldn’t survive jail, not in one piece anyway. “I’ll stop going when she stops inviting me.”

“I’m sure she’s too polite to tell you she doesn’t want you there.”

Because no one could want Spencer around. Sometimes he wondered why he bothered coming to work and seeing his mother every day. Of course, if he pointed this out, she’d just say that of course she wanted to see him, that she was his mother and that she loved him. That Mrs. Graves wasn’t his family and that he should spend more time with his own parents rather than with Jason’s, as if he didn’t spend almost every hour of every day with them.

He grabbed his messenger bag and his coat. He could put it on in the car, even though he’d be cold on the way there. He wasn’t parked that far away, and he wasn’t sure he could stand one more minute in his mother’s company.

Unfortunately for him, she followed him to the building door, so he paused there to slide his coat on, trying to ignore the puppy eyes she was giving him. “I already cooked for three. And of course, I have enough for Lydia if you want to invite her.”

Spencer didn’t point out Lydia liked her about as much as he did. His mother liked his fiancée well enough, he supposed, or well enough to push him to propose anyway. He didn’t kid himself that she’d done it because she wanted him to be happy, but she was doing her best to incorporate Lydia in their life. She wasn’t as warm and welcoming as Mrs. Graves had been to Spencer since day one, but Spencer knew she didn’t have it in her. Sometimes, he wondered why she’d had children—or a child since he didn’t have siblings. She’d never been motherly, and Spencer couldn’t remember a time when they’d cuddled, kissed, or said I love you. Not that he’d done any of that with his father, either, but still. Mothers should be loving and warm. Or maybe Spencer’s idea of mothers was based on Mrs. Graves, and most mothers weren’t that way.

He didn’t know, and he didn't care. He loved his mother, but most of the times, he wished she were more like Jason’s, and it always made him feel guilty as hell. The puppy eyes didn’t help, but he was used to his mother using guilt to make him do things.

He leaned in and kissed her cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Are you sure you can’t stay? I’ve already cooked.”

“I’m sure. It wouldn’t be fair to Mrs. Graves.”

“And how is leaving me with leftovers fair to me?”

Spencer sighed. He didn’t want to fight, knowing his mother would pout and ignore him until he apologized even though he hadn’t done anything wrong. “You should have asked me before cooking for three. Even if I wasn’t going to Jason’s parents’, I could have had plans with Lydia.”

And really, what man still had dinner with his parents every night at thirty-three years old? Spencer might not have a problem with it if he did so because he actually wanted to be there, but he didn’t.

“But you don’t have plans with Lydia.”

“She could have come with me to the Graves’.”

“But she’s not. She doesn’t like them very much, does she?” She sounded as if the fact that Spencer’s fiancée didn’t like the Graves meant she was right about them.

“She likes them.” Not that Lydia saw them often. She and Spencer might be engaged to be married soon, but they’d never really meshed their lives together. They each did their own thing, had their own apartments, their own lives. She’d met the Graves family, of course, just like Spencer had met her friends and her father, but that didn’t mean they saw each other on a regular basis.

“Why isn’t she going with you, then?”

Spencer hooked his bag over his shoulder and took his car keys out of his pocket. “Because she had plans with her father. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mother.”

He left without adding anything. If he continued standing there, he’d never get to the Graves’ in time. His mother was the queen of arguments and guilt, and while he might have given in any other day, he tried to never miss dinner at the Graves. He didn’t want to disappoint them.

He didn’t want to disappoint Jason.

He felt better when he got to his car, even though he could feel his mother still staring at him. He slid into the car and started the engine, doing his best to appear as if he wasn’t in any haste, waving at his mother as he passed by her.

He relaxed as soon as he passed under the sign that told customers they were at Maureen’s Vineyard—his mother’s name, of course. How else could they have called the family business?

He didn’t want to think about his mother anymore, though. He was free for the night, and he was going to enjoy it.

Morningstar Ashley
Morningstar Ashley is a transplant from the Yankee-controlled territory of New York, and now finds herself in the heartland of cowboys and longhorns—Texas. Armed with her imagination, wit, and trusty sidekicks in the form of her two crazy kids, devoted dorky husband, big lap dog, and rambunctious cats, Morningstar spends her time reading the books she loves, crafting her own characters, and arguing the merits of hot chocolate over the bitter brew known as coffee (Hot chocolate wins, FYI.).

Morningstar loves graphic design, so much so she returned to school for a degree and regularly tromps her exams and maintains a stellar GPA that occasionally leaves her confounded and pleased. She can while away the hours on new designs, and perfection isn’t too much to hope for when it comes to her art.

Her ideal career would be full-time artist and author, and so far, she hasn’t come up against anything to stop her on her journey. A fierce and devoted friend, Morningstar tries her best to always be kind, always be learning, and always improving. Giving up isn’t an option, and her greatest talent may be in her ability to convince others not to give up, either. After a lifetime of trying to get people to realize her first name wasn’t Ashley, Morningstar decided the best way to settle the debate was to put her name on a book cover. An avid reader and fiction reviewer for the blog and site Diverse Reader, Morningstar harbored a dream to one day join the ranks of her heroes, and she sweeps into the contemporary gay romance genre with her debut novel, LETTING GO. With plans to conquer gay, lesbian and LGBTQA+ romance, Morningstar has her gaze set on the horizon, her determination her own guiding star.

Josh Lanyon
Bestselling author of over sixty titles of classic Male/Male fiction featuring twisty mystery, kickass adventure and unapologetic man-on-man romance, JOSH LANYON has been called "the Agatha Christie of gay mystery."

Her work has been translated into eleven languages. The FBI thriller Fair Game was the first male/male title to be published by Harlequin Mondadori, the largest romance publisher in Italy. Stranger on the Shore (Harper Collins Italia) was the first M/M title to be published in print. In 2016 Fatal Shadows placed #5 in Japan's annual Boy Love novel list (the first and only title by a foreign author to place on the list).

The Adrien English Series was awarded All Time Favorite Male Male Couple in the 2nd Annual contest held by the Goodreads M/M Group (which has over 22,000 members). Josh is an Eppie Award winner, a four-time Lambda Literary Award finalist for Gay Mystery, and the first ever recipient of the Goodreads Favorite M/M Author Lifetime Achievement award.

Josh is married and they live in Southern California.

Charlie Cochrane
As Charlie Cochrane couldn't be trusted to do any of her jobs of choice - like managing a rugby team - she writes. Her favourite genre is gay fiction, predominantly historical romances/mysteries, but she's making an increasing number of forays into the modern day. She's even been known to write about gay werewolves - albeit highly respectable ones.

Her Cambridge Fellows series of Edwardian romantic mysteries were instrumental in seeing her named Speak Its Name Author of the Year 2009. She’s a member of both the Romantic Novelists’ Association and International Thriller Writers Inc.

Happily married, with a house full of daughters, Charlie tries to juggle writing with the rest of a busy life. She loves reading, theatre, good food and watching sport. Her ideal day would be a morning walking along a beach, an afternoon spent watching rugby and a church service in the evening.

RJ Scott
USA Today bestselling author RJ Scott writes stories with a heart of romance, a troubled road to reach happiness, and most importantly, a happily ever after.

RJ Scott is the author of over one hundred romance books, writing emotional stories of complicated characters, cowboys, millionaire, princes, and the men who get mixed up in their lives. RJ is known for writing books that always end with a happy ever after. She lives just outside London and spends every waking minute she isn’t with family either reading or writing.

The last time she had a week’s break from writing she didn’t like it one little bit, and she 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 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.

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.

Summer Devon
Summer Devon is the pen name writer Kate Rothwell often uses. Whether the characters are male or female, human or dragon, her books are always romance.

You can visit her facebook page, where there's a sign up form for a newsletter (she'll only send out newsletters when there's a new Summer Devon or Kate Rothwell release and she will never ever sell your name to anyone).

VM Sanford
V.M Sanford has been writing about the paranormal since he was a child but decided to give publishing a try only in his thirties.

He found out he likes writing about more than wolf shifters and already has several plot bunnies lined up, waiting for him to write their books.

He’s lived all over Europe and enjoys cats, ice hockey and reading biographies of kings and queens. He’s still confused about what and who he is even though he’s in his mid-thirties, but he finally decided to come out as a transgender man, at least to his readers.

Morningstar Ashley

Josh Lanyon
EMAIL: josh.lanyon@sbcglobal.net

Charlie Cochrane
EMAIL:  cochrane.charlie2@googlemail.com

RJ Scott
EMAIL: rj@rjscott.co.uk 

Ari McKay

Summer Devon
EMAILS: summerdevon@comcast.net

VM Sanford

A Different Light by Morningstar Ashley

The Boy Next Door by Josh Lanyon

Two Feet Under by Charlie Cochrane

Seth & Casey by RJ Scott

Poke Check by RJ Scott & VL Locey

Winter Cowboy by RJ Scott

The Quality of Mercy by Ari McKay

His Irish Detective by Summer Devon

Eyes Wide Open by VM Sanford