Thursday, January 10, 2019

Best Reads of 2018 Part 3


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 3 features my favorite reads from July & August of 2018 each containing my original review.

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Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 4  /  Part 5

A Dangerous Dance by Davidson King
Summary:
July Book of the Month
Haven Hart Universe #3
Finally working for a man he can trust has given Bill a new purpose. His boss, Christopher Manos, commands respect and absolute loyalty, and Bill has proven himself worthy of a seat at Christopher’s table. Becoming best friends with Christopher’s husband, Snow, has further proven his allegiance and cements a place for him in the Manos family. When Snow’s life is in danger, Christopher places his full trust in Bill to destroy anything and anyone that poses a threat to his husband. But hunting and wiping out the enemy for the safety of everyone Bill cares about means partnering with the one person he has vowed to never see again.

Mace wears a mask of vain cockiness and uses his model good looks to his full advantage. Known to many as Without a Trace Mace, he’s a deadly assassin well known for wiping out whole families and getting away without a trace. With a dangerous past and an unknown future, Mace uses his veil of conceit to keep others at a distance, rarely trusting anyone. When his boss, Black--the one man he trusts above all others—gives him his next assignment, he learns his newest partner is none other than Bill, the man he’d do anything to avoid.

With the safety of the Manos family on the line at the hands of a brilliant maniac, Bill and Mace begrudgingly put their differences aside to ensure Snow, and his loved ones, are protected from harm.  With their lives in grave danger and the clock ticking towards zero hour, they navigate deathly perilous situations and uncertain outcomes, hoping they survive long enough to keep the Manos family safe.

Bill and Mace’s traitorous hearts draw them closer together no matter how hard they fight the inevitable. With the lives of their loved ones hanging in the balance, they find themselves in the middle of a dangerous dance. But when the music stops, will they both be left standing?

Original Review July 2018:
When Bill found himself working for Christopher Manos he not only found a job and position suited for him but he finally found a home and a  family in his friendship with Christopher's husband, Snow.  "Without a Trace Mace" has spent a long time carving out a name for himself in his business of death and he couldn't have done it without the help of his boss Black.  When Snow's life is threatened, Christopher cashes in a favor with Black and now Bill and Mace find themselves once again having to endure each other's company to get the job handed to them done.  When all is said and done, will anyone be left standing? And more importantly, will Bill and Mace's hearts be left intact?

Let's get it out of the way right now: there will be no spoilers in this review.  As to what I will touch on the plot: HOLY HANNAH BATMAN!!!  If you thought Bill and Mace got on each other's nerves in Hug it Out then you haven't seen anything yet.  The animosity is so thick, well as the cliché goes: you could cut it with a knife.  But, as thick as the tension is the passion is even more intense.

Okay, so that was all you'll get out of me in regards to the plot so onto the characters.  I just knew Bill was going to be special when we met him in Snow Falling but I had no idea just how much I would love him.  Did he burrow deeper into my heart than either Snow or Teddy? Probably not but I wouldn't want to try and measure the difference.  As for Mace, he is a conundrum.  You want to hate him because he is able to detach himself from his work, or at least it appears so, but he too has a soft side(don't let him know I said so😉).  As much as I loved Snow/Christopher and Teddy/Riordan in books 1 & 2, I think that Bill and Mace blossomed the most so far in Haven Hart.  Did they "grow"? No because I think that they have always been passionate people but they finally let someone else in and that is something they spent their lives keeping very limited.

Now that I've talked about the book let's talk about the author for a minute.  I said in my review for Hug it Out "when their debut novel is as amazing as Snow Falling was, one wonders will their follow-up be The Empire Strikes Back caliber or go the way of Speed 2?  I can safely and honestly say that Hug it Out is a TESB-quality sequel" and I can now say that Davidson King has continued with her amazing storytelling prowess.  I would say that A Dangerous Dance is Return of the Jedi awesomeness but as ROTJ was George Lucas' concluding entry in the original Star Wars saga and Miss King is no where near done with Haven Hart I hesitate to make that comparison but for only that reason.  The emotional and passionate WOW-ness Dance invoked was just as powerful as anything Mr. Lucas brought with ROTJ.  Some might say I'm stretching that comparison a bit, well perhaps but when I reached the final page of Dance, the sense of satisfaction and entertainment is very similar to what I feel every time the heroes are left celebrating in the Ewok village.

Now one final note: A Dangerous Dance like all the entries in Haven Hart Universe are technically a standalone because each one centers around a new pair and their paths but I find it just flows better if you read the series in order.  There are enough secondary characters and plot points that travel throughout to keep it connected.  Will you be lost if you start with Dance? Probably not, but I highly recommend starting from the beginning, trust me you won't be sorry.

RATING: 


The Bone Orchard by Abigail Roux
Summary:
After leaving a trail of terror and death in his wake, the notorious “Missouri” Boone Jennings finally meets his match in San Francisco when US marshal Ambrose Shaw catches up to him. The story of his capture, and the marshal’s bravery, has already become legend back east by the time Pinkerton inspector Ezra Johns gets off the train from New York City to testify in the murderer’s trial.

When Ambrose is unable to give witness to the evils he’s seen, Ezra becomes their lone hope for putting Jennings in a noose. But if Ezra thinks that’s his biggest problem, he’s got plenty to learn about life—and the afterlife—in the spirited West.

Fortunately, Ambrose is there to assist, and more than happy to oblige Ezra—in the courtroom or the bedroom. He spent his life bringing justice to the Wild West, and if he has a say in it, that’s how he’ll be spending his death too.

Re-Read Review July 2018:
I'm not sure what took me so long to re-read The Bone Orchard and I'm not sure what more I can say that I didn't say in my original review over 3 years ago.  I grew up watching westerns(I still watch plenty actually😉) and even though Hollywood never shined a light on same sex connections of the era, Abigail Roux really helped me to remember what I loved about those old movies: good guys vs bad guys.  Now for those who haven't read The Bone Orchard, I won't give anything away but I will say that Jennings may win a few battles throughout the pages but never count a US Marshal or a Pinkerton agent down, especially the ghostly variety.  Despite Jennings evil ways that brought him to the hangman's noose, Orchard is a fun read that entertains.  This is one I'll be re-reading for years to come.

Original Review April 2015:
In this Abigail Roux creation we have lawmen, outlaws, hanging, shootouts, all the elements of a great western and then of course we also have ghosts.  Oh and for Roux fans, we also have a great little surprise treat near the end of the story.  Knowing her work as I do and I never saw it coming, afterwards, I realized I should have had more of an inkling that it might happen, but I didn't and that made it all the more sweeter.  Ezra and Ambrose have an instant connection that goes beyond their common lawmen occupation and it's just fun to watch unfold. In Marshall Ambrose Shaw you have the quintessential old west lawman, in Inspector Ezra Johns, you have the apparent bookish Pinkerton agent and you really don't expect their commonalities to go beyond the badge but boy does it ever.  Throw in the evil ways of the outlaw Boone Jennings and you have the workings of a great western and of course love story doesn't go unnoticed.  A perfect addition to your bookcase.

RATING: 

Daniel by RJ Scott
Summary:
Legacy Ranch #3
Daniel worked hard at college, using coping strategies to shut himself off from any situation that might hurt. But, persistent nightmares and fears for his future drive him to revisit the past. Now Legacy might be the only place to give him a chance at peace.

After the tragic loss of his parents, Corey is head of the family now, and the welfare of his three younger sisters are what matters the most. Corey is desperate to find Daniel, tell him the truth and somehow convince him to keep secrets. Even if this leads to heartbreak.

When the world crumbles around Corey, and Daniel is running scared, Legacy ranch is their only hope.

🤠A new story set in the world of Jack and Riley Campbell-Hayes and the Double D Ranch, Texas.🤠

Original Review July 2018:
Daniel has worked very hard to learn to cope with, or to bury, his past so he can move forward but the nightmares won't stop.  After losing his parents and uncle, Corey is left to raise his three sisters but when he uncovers a secret he sets out to learn the truth and to help those who were hurt by it.  Sometimes the past just won't let go until fate steps in.  Will Legacy Ranch be able to help Daniel? Will the ranch offer answers to Corey?  Does fate's plan have Daniel and Corey's paths leading to happiness?

HOLY HANNAH BATMAN!!! The tears, the smiles, the heartaches, the healing, and of course a cameo or two of Jack and Riley Campbell-Hayes never hurts.  If you are looking for a happy, fluffy, romantic comedy than Daniel is not for you.  That's not to say there isn't happy moments or a HEA because there is but the journey getting there is far from fluffy and humorous.

Daniel's life has not been easy, he tries hard to overcome it but the past is always right outside the gate like the evil rabbits trying to get into my garden and eat my flowers.  I think of the three men in the Legacy Ranch series: Kyle, Gabriel, and Daniel, Daniel appears to be at a better place than either Kyle or Gabriel were when Jack's ranch is the next stop on their journey.  Appearances can be deceiving though.

As for Corey, his experiences pale in comparison to Daniel's but that doesn't mean they aren't heartbreaking and difficult to move on from.  Learning the truth about a loved one can be a very difficult thing to overcome, especially when you repeatedly find yourself choking on foot-in-mouth syndrome.  His heart is in the right place even if his words are not.

What I loved most about Daniel, isn't the HEA but the journey the boys went through to get there.  Some might find it hard to feel Corey's pain because he didn't suffer the pain, humiliation, and degradation that Daniel and other boys went through at the Bar Five.  I knew he didn't have that pain to cope with but he had the lies he discovers to accept so for me, Daniel is the perfect example that horrific events are like ripples in a pond and that there are those who are effected beyond the point where the stone hits the water.  Heartbreaking but uplifting at the same time, survival takes many forms and no matter how hard it can be you have to keep going.

RATING: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 

Gray's Shadow by KA Merikan
Summary:
August Book of the Month
Kings of Hell MC #4
--- There can be no shadow without the man to cast it. ---

Gray. Lost his twin. Will never be complete. Works alone.
Shadow. Monster? Human? Exists to be Gray’s one true companion.

After losing his twin brother, Gray has devoted his life to the Kings of Hell MC. He will do anything to protect his family and that means anything.

Even sell his own shadow to the devil.

Following a fire that left him without one arm, Gray feels pushed to the sidelines. In order to prove to his club that he is still capable of completing dangerous tasks, he will have to team up with the strange creature from the Other Side. Tall, inhumanly strong, and menacing despite the handsome exterior, Shadow is just the tool Gray needs.

The moment Shadow lays his eyes on Gray, he wants to crawl under Gray’s skin and make the human his.

Gray on the other hand isn’t willing to get attached to a monster destined to do the devil’s bidding and disappear once his time is up. Rejected, Shadow has to do everything in his power to convince his human that they belong together.

But as the clock ticks away precious minutes of Shadow’s existence, Gray will have to choose between his loyalty to the Kings of Hell MC and responsibility for the creature he brought into this world.

*****

“Do you feel me running through your veins?”
Gray nodded.

*****

POSSIBLE SPOILERS:
Themes: motorcycle club, alternative lifestyles, demons, monster, tattoos, secrets, crime, gothic, grief, mourning, enemies to lovers, forced proximity, fish out of water, opposites attract, demisexuality, gentle giant
Genre: Dark, paranormal M/M romance
Erotic content: Scorching hot, emotional, explicit scenes
Length: ~150,000 words (Book 4 in the series)

WARNING: This story contains scenes of violence, offensive language, and morally ambiguous characters.

Original Review August 2018:
Gray's had a bit of a rough time lately: he lost his twin brother, his arm, and made a pact with the demon, Baal.  Because of Gray's pact, Shadow has been given the chance to live inside a human form but does that make him human or monster?  Gray has devoted his entire life to the Kings of Hell but now with only one arm he finds himself having to prove he is still worthy of his position.  Reluctantly Gray finds that Shadow may be his chance to keep his place amongst his brothers but will he be willing to give his heart to him nowing the clock is ticking against Shadow?

OMG!!! I say that with complete honesty because I am so NOT an OMG-kind-of-a-gal.  I enjoy a good motorcycle club story but I'm the first to admit they aren't exactly what I'd classify as my go-to-trope so when I first had the opportunity last year to read Laurant & the Beast I thought it sounded interesting so I decided to give it a go.  It was amazing and one of the best books I read in 2017.  Each entry in the Kings of Hell MC series has been amazing and although I don't think any of the pairings quite reached me as much as Laurant and Beast, I have loved them all.  Well, Gray and Shadow are no different.

So lets take a look at our two main guys.  I knew Gray's story was going to be emotional just because he seemed to be a bit of a conundrum throughout the first four.  You could tell he had a warm loving heart but he was also ruthless and determined when it came to getting the job done.  Having formed that opinion of him already I knew he was going to be a tough one to find happiness especially with what he lost.  I wanted to hug him and tell him he was still the same Gray he always was and having lost his arm didn't change that but then I also wanted to kick his ass with how he first treats Shadow.  Okay that's not entirely true because Shadow is here because of Gray's pact with Baal and that makes him suspect and he does some not-so-good stuff but he's also new to his human form and needs guidance.  I guess what I'm saying is even though I wanted to give Gray a knuckle-rap to the head more than a once I also understand his thought patterns.

As for Shadow, well I won't give too much away but I will say that his innocence is endearing even if some of his early actions are not.  I have read vampires, shifters, demons of all kinds who survive on pretty much anything imaginable but I have never read a character(demon or otherwise) that survives on rats, creepy crawlies, and rotting, moldy food and still want to wrap him up in a huge bear hug because he's so adorable.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Shadow is adorable.  How Gray is able to stay away for so long is beyond me.

In Gray's Shadow, we get to see the characters that we have come to love in the previous installments, to see where they are and how they are adjusting to their situations which sometimes can take away from the main story but not in this series.  KA Merikan has created a world with Kings of Hell MC that is unforgettable and will grab you from the very first page.  If asked whether you can start with Gray's Shadow, I would have to say no.  Yes, each entry features a different couple with their own troubles but each one is a part of an ongoing journey but personally,  I would not recommend starting anywhere but the beginning, not too mention these are some of the most amazing and well written stories I've ever read, you don't want to miss them.  If you haven't started Kings of Hell yet but don't like to wait between books than you might want to wait until the concluding story, In the Arms of the Beast, is released but I highly recommend placing this series on your TBR list and near the top, but if you are like me and have been reading them as they come out then you don't want to wait another minute to read Gray and Shadow's journey. This is literally an edge-of-your-seat kind of story.

RATING: 

In Other Words . . . Murder by Josh Lanyon
Summary:
Holmes & Moriarity #4
Death reveals all secrets.

Mystery author Christopher Holmes, now comfortably married to sometimes rival, sometimes nemesis J.X. Moriarity, is starting a new career as a true crime writer when threatening anonymous notes start arriving.

Even worse, Christopher's ex also arrives--asking for help locating the man he left Christopher for!

It's life--and death--as usual at Chez Holmes. In other words... Murder.

Original Review August 2018:
Christopher Holmes has settled into his new home and living the domestic life with his partner JX Moriarity, if he could only get his writing mojo settled everything would be in order.  As thoughts turn toward happily ever after for the pair, Kit receives news he never expected, a body was discovered on the property of his former home and with it comes communication in the form of accusations of murder from the last person he wanted to hear from: his ex.  Will this body be just another day in the life of Kit and JX or could it be one body too many?

There's just something about Christopher "Kit" Holmes that makes him special.  Perhaps it's his wit, his take on life, his love for his creation Miss Butterwith & Mr. Pinkerton, or perhaps its just his dumb luck when it comes to murder and finding bodies.  Who knows?  But I don't really need to have an answer as to why I love Kit, I just do and I look forward to more.  As you know I won't touch on the plot or the whos, whys, and whats of the body found in Kit's old yard but I will say that its brilliantly mapped out from the first phone call to the reveal.  There may not be as many twists and turns that Kit usually stumbles upon with his bodies but the author kept me at the edge of my seat from beginning to end.

Murder mysteries are often riddled with dark moments to balance out the romance or relationship element and yes there are scenes that bring on nailbiting in this entry but Kit has a way about him that makes even the dark, light and comical.  That's not to say he's not to be taken seriously or that the mystery is overshadowed by comedy. What I mean is In Other Words . . . Murder is a delicious blend of mystery, drama, romance, and comedy which in my experience are four elements that can be hard to make the right balance when it comes to murder.

If you haven't read the first three books in Josh Lanyon's Holmes & Moriarity series I suppose you can start with this one as each entry is a new case but the relationship between Kit and JX will make more sense and flow better when read in order.  Trust me, you won't regret giving this series a read and if you are already a fan than this is one you can't miss because even though it may not be the best in the series it does have everything that makes Kit, well Kit.

RATING: 

Twisted and Tied by Mary Calmes
Summary:
Marshals #4
Deputy US Marshal Miro Jones finally has everything he ever wanted. He’s head-over-heels in love and married to the man of his dreams, his partner Ian Doyle, he’s doing well at work, and all his friends are in good places as well. Things are all tied up nicely… until they’re not.

Change has never been easy for Miro, and when situations at work force the team he’s come to depend on to break apart, and worst of all, his and Ian’s individual strengths put them on two separate paths, he’s pretty certain everything just went up in smoke. But before he can even worry about the future, his past comes for a visit, shaking his world up even more. It’s hard to tell what road he should truly be on, but as he learns some paths are forged and others are discovered, it might be that where he's going is the right course after all. If he can navigate all the twists and turns, he and Ian might just get their happily ever after.

Original Review August 2018:
Miro Jones has everything he's ever wanted with his marriage to his partner Ian Doyle.  Their strengths and weaknesses have made their personal and professional lives mesh but now it seems that those same strengths and weaknesses are leading their professional lives on separate courses.  When Miro's past resurfaces, it gives Miro, Ian, and the rest of the team a huge jolt.  Between the past coming back, the team's new paths, and married life will Miro and Ian find time for their happily ever after?

I can't believe it's over.  With the end of the Marshals series at hand in Twisted and Tied, maybe its no surprise that it slipped down my TBR list till now, perhaps it wasn't just a blip of unforgivable forgetfulness on my part but a subconscious need to prolong saying goodbye to Miro and Ian?  Who knows.  I have now read Twisted and hate the idea there won't be any more Miro Jones and Ian Doyle, however something tells me they may not be front and center any more but I doubt we've actually seen the last of them, after all we've seen Sam and Jory pop up once in a while so I'm sure Miro & Ian will be seen around the water cooler again.

So onto Twisted and Tied, well as you know I don't do spoilers but as this is the final entry in Mary Calmes' Marshals series I'll touch on the plot even less.  I will say its a wonderfully written tale of love, drama, mystery, family, friendship, moving on, and of course it wouldn't be Miro and Ian without some heat.  Married life has not dampened their spirit, if anything the manic bickering is even more charged now that they have that piece of paper tying them together.

If you haven't started Miro and Ian's journey yet, there is no better time to get your feet wet because you can experience their journey from beginning to end without the dreaded "waiting" between entries😉😉  But seriously, you won't regret it.

RATING: 

Fire and Granite by Andrew Grey
Summary:
Carlisle Deputies #2
The heat is growing from the inside, but danger is building on the outside. 

Judge Andrew Phillips runs a tight ship in his courtroom. He’s tough, and when he hands down a sentence, he expects to be obeyed. So when a fugitive named Harper escapes and threatens his life, Andrew isn’t keen on twenty-four/seven protection… especially not from Deputy Clay Brown. They have a past, one that could cause problems in their careers.

But with Clay assigned to Andrew and the two of them together every minute, there’s nowhere to hide from their attraction—or from the fact that there’s much more than chemistry blooming between them. As the threat intensifies, Clay knows he’ll do anything it takes to protect the people who are taking their places in his heart: Andrew and his young niece and nephew.

Original Review August 2018:
When a transfer leads to escape Harper isn't content with freedom.  When Judge Andrew Phillips receives threatening calls and texts, its up to Carlisle Deputy Clay Brown to protect the judge.  When all three men meet, will Clay be able to protect the lives of Andrew and the judge's niece and nephew? Will the connection the deputy and the judge form be safe too?

Once again the law enforcement of Carlisle comes to the rescue.  Well, rescue might be a bit overdramatic, but they definitely do what they do best: protect, serve, and open their heart.  I have to admit that after going up against a dirty judge in Fire and Flint, I was a bit skeptical about having a judge be one of the two main characters.  That's not to say I expected all the judges in Carlisle to be dirty but I guess it was just so fresh in my reader's mind that I was leery.  I needn't have worried(okay I wasn't worried I knew Andrew Grey would do the judge justice) because Andrew Phillips is definitely the kind of judge you want on the bench.

Speaking of the judge, Andrew is a complex man or at least he appears so at first because he is so "no nonsense" in the courtroom but he isn't quite as strict once he takes off the robes.  Don't even get me started on how he is once his young niece and nephew enter the story. There is just something about a man who cares for children that gets me warm and fuzzy all over.  Clay has his own family troubles that I won't go into because I don't want to spoil anything but I'll just say this: his deputy training definitely gets put to good use.  I wouldn't tag Andrew and Clay's journey as "enemies to lovers" but they certainly don't fit the "friends to lovers" tag either, perhaps "butting-heads to lovers" 😉 Whatever tag you decide fits the duo best, it becomes pretty clear that the attraction they share fits the "Fire" part of the title.

If you are asking whether you need to read Fire and Flint or the author's Carlisle Cops series before Fire and Granite, my answer is probably not.  There are mentions to what transpired in Flint but its done so if you haven't read it prior to starting Granite, you won't be lost.  Personally though, I have to say I would highly recommend reading this series in order and maybe even Cops first.  There is no real ongoing storyline other than being in the same area but the other characters and couples do appear from time to time and for me each new installment just flows better knowing their individual journeys but technically each one is a standalone.  Whatever order you read these tales in, I can't recommend doing so enough because they are fun, entertaining, heartbreaking at times but always heartwarming and will put a smile on your face. What more can a reader ask for?

RATING: 

A Position in Paris by Megan Reddaway
Summary:
Paris, 1919. World War One is over, and wounded hero James Clarynton is struggling to face life without one leg, one eye, and the devilish good looks he had before the conflict. Now he must pay for affection, and it leaves him bitter. He’s filling the time by writing a book—but it’s the young man who comes to type it who really intrigues him.

Edmund Vaughan can’t turn down the chance to be secretary to the wealthy James Clarynton. He’s been out of work since the armistice, and his mother and brother depend on him. But he has secrets to hide, and the last thing he wants is an employer who keeps asking questions.

As they work together, their respect for each other grows, along with something deeper. But tragedy threatens, and shadows from the past confront them at every turn. They must open their hearts and trust each other if they are to break down the barriers that separate them.

A heartwarming romance with some dark moments along the way.

Original Review August 2018:
In Paris 1919, the war is over and for James Clarynton he faces not only adjusting to civilian life again but he must do it minus a leg and an eye.  Without his devilish good looks he finds himself paying for affection but it leaves him feeling empty so when a friend suggests writing a book he dives in but needs a secretary.  Edmund Vaughan needs work that has been lacking since the end of the war as his mother and brother depend on him so when the need for a secretary becomes available he jumps at the position.  Trust and respect between James and Edmund begins to grow into more but when trust is challenged will the pair find peace together?

This is my first Megan Reddaway read and as always a new author can be scary for some but for me its exhilerating.  Not only do I have the anticipation factor of each new page but I had the added thrill of will this be an author to watch for or a one-time-wonder?  Well, Megan Reddaway is definitely not a one-time-wonder for me, she has definitely found a place on my authors-to-watch list.  It probably helped that the first time I read her it is a post-WW1 era story, in my honest opinion there is just not enough of that time period in M/M romance genre so I tend to grab all I come across.  A Position in Paris was well worth the grabbing.

Let's take a look at our duo.  You can't help but fall in love with both characters, James because he is dealing with a whole new level to living and Edmund because he is caring for his family the best way he can.  They both have amazing characteristics that certainly make them adorable, loveable, and just plain likeable but they also both need to be honest with each other.  Course, if they were honest with each other about everything then this would have been a very short and not too exciting story so I can forgive the not-so-honesty elements😉😉. Plus, I have no idea what its like to be a gay man in post-WW1 Europe but I imagine that added a separate level of secrecy to their lives as well.

I really won't say too much more for risk of spoilers but I will say that I found it to be refreshing that the book James is writing and Edmund is helping him with is not fiction so it is not a catalyst for their attraction.  Yes, their working together helps fan the flames but the content they are writing does not, anywho I just found that to be a pleasant idea.  As for the historical element, it is clear that the author has a healthy respect for the era with her attention to detail and that only heightened the reading experience for me.  From beginning to end, A Position i Paris is a lovely read with just the right amount of drama, attraction, historical, and romance that kept me completely entertained.

RATING: 


A Dangerous Dance by Davidson King
The night before, I left Mace sleeping on the couch. I’d never admit it to him, but I ended up foregoing the end of The Fifth Element in favor of watching him sleep. He was a gorgeous man. Too beautiful for a mere mortal, almost.

I remembered when we were staking out a place we thought Lee was in last year, Mace was so bored, he ended up watching cat videos. He had laughed like he was afraid of being caught. It was then I began wondering why he’d felt that way. Of course, it had only taken him opening his mouth to remind me why I didn’t give a shit.

People like Mace fucked men like Snow. Ethereal, stunning, pristine men. Men that when they rubbed up against you made you shine brighter. I fucked whoever showed me even a little interest. I wasn’t picky.

When I had worked for Roy, I never fucked the underage boys like he did. Never raped anyone like he did. I slipped into gay clubs, fucked a stranger in a bathroom, and rushed back before anyone knew I was gone. Sex for me was never a beautiful thing. It was a necessary thing. Something I did so my balls wouldn’t explode.

“We leave in ten,” Mace shouted through my bedroom door, where I was getting dressed to blend into Wet and Wild Night at Joker’s Sin. I didn’t have clubbing clothes, so I opted for a white t-shirt, black jeans, and my boots. It was getting colder outside and often a flurry would pop up out of nowhere, so I was glad I had my leather jacket.

When I stepped out of the bedroom, Mace was leaning against the wall, scrolling through his phone. Most likely a message from Black. I was able to take a moment to appreciate the physicality of the man. Long legs that would wrap nicely around my waist. The white shirt was so sheer, I could see the shadows of lean muscles I wouldn’t mind painting with my come. His dark, layered hair was longer than I’d ever seen it and my fingers twitched with the need to grip it as I thrust into his tight…

“Why are you staring at me? Do I have a stain or something?” He frantically began looking over every inch of fabric. I decided to put him out of his misery.

“Nothing’s wrong. I was just wondering if I was underdressed. I don’t want to stick out, I need to fit in.”

Mace took me in. His gaze was both welcomed and dangerous. Lust danced in his eyes and I suddenly wondered how this even happened. I hated this man, everything he stood for, and his better than thou attitude. Why was I suddenly wondering what he tasted like?

Had I not seen the want in his gaze, I wouldn’t have believed he’d find someone like me appealing at all.

“You look good.”His voice was rough and when he turned away, I felt the loss like ice water thrust over me. “Jones is driving us. He’ll watch the entrance. Zagan is unpredictable, so we need all the eyes we can get.”

The Bone Orchard by Abigail Roux
Chapter 1
Marshal Ambrose Shaw shoved through the doors of the Continental Hotel, squinting into the dim interior. He headed for the rowdy saloon, following the sound of the piano, and gave the patrons a once-over before moving toward the bar and the dapper tender behind it.

The man greeted him with a nod, tossed a rag over his shoulder, and came over. “What can I get you, sir?”

“Top-shelf,” Ambrose said, jutting his chin toward the row of bottles above the mirror on the back wall. Anything from below the bar, even in an establishment as fine as the Continental, was sure to make a man blind. As the bartender moved away, Ambrose reached into his vest and pulled out a cigarillo he’d rolled the night before. He placed it between his lips, then patted himself down, looking for a light. He found none, which was why he hadn’t smoked the damn thing earlier. With a sigh, he reached in again for a folded-up piece of paper he’d been carrying with him clear across the country.

He spread it out on the bar, smoothing his fingers over the creases.

The bartender set his glass and bottle beside the paper, then silently lit Ambrose’s cigarillo for him.

“Obliged,” Ambrose said around the cigarello. He tapped the drawing of the man on the paper. “You seen this man hereabouts?”

The bartender raised both brows, then met Ambrose’s eyes again. He shook his head slowly, but his eyes darted to a dark corner of the saloon, to a table that was shielded from the doorway by the player piano.

Ambrose sighed deeply, smoke wafting from his lips. “Is that right?” he murmured.

The bartender’s eyes darted toward the corner again, and he moved away, putting as much distance between himself and Ambrose as the bar back would allow. Leaning to his left, Ambrose could see “Missouri” Boone Jennings in the mirror behind the bar, and he tracked the man’s movements. He took the cigarillo from his lips and set it down, then pushed back his overcoat, revealing the pommel of the six-shooter at his hip.

The saloon cleared almost by magic, with gamblers, grifters, miners, traveling businessmen, drunks, and dancing girls scrambling for cover or slinking away to safety in corners and behind solid tables. Even the piano had gone silent. Ambrose didn’t turn around; to do so would have been deadly. Instead he watched Jennings in the mirror, trying to judge the distance of the reflection.

Jennings stood from the table he’d been drinking at, his feet spread apart, his jacket pushed back to reveal twin sidearms. His fingers tapped the ivory butt of one gun. “You come to take me, Marshal Shaw?”

“That I did,” Ambrose answered. He kept his back to Jennings, almost a dare for the wanted man to shoot him down like a coward. Jennings wouldn’t do that, not in front of people who would tell the tale.

“You been on my dust since St. Louis. Took you long enough, Shaw; I hit the damn ocean before you found me.”

Ambrose smiled sadly. “Had a handful of funerals to attend. You been collecting quite the bone orchard.”

“You find any witnesses to testify to my . . . ownership of that bone orchard?”

“Not any left alive.”

Jennings’s shoulders relaxed. “Then you’re wasting your time, ain’t you, Marshal?”

“Last one I saw buried was nothing but a boy.” Ambrose took a gulp of whiskey, then set his glass back down with a clink. “I decided I ain’t going to let you get in front of a judge.”

Jennings moved, his muscles tensing, his hands merely a flash. Ambrose pulled his gun and turned, firing. Bottles behind the bar popped and exploded. The glass in Ambrose’s hand burst into a million fragments. The mirror shattered, filling Ambrose’s vision with glittering shards of light like quartz dust on a sunny afternoon.

Jennings went to his knees, though Ambrose couldn’t say where he’d hit him. Then warmth and pain began to spread through his belly, and the shards of refracting light surrounding him turned blindingly white, brighter and warmer until he could see and feel no more.

*****

Ezra Johns was hot, dusty, and sore. It had taken five rail days to make his way from New York City to San Francisco. After the chilly peaks of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada range, with stars so large and bright Ezra thought he must have been taken to another world, the heat of the California coast was enough to knock him back.

He stepped out of the carriage in front of the Continental Hotel and Saloon. Down the street, he could see the monstrous frame of the Palace Hotel, where the trial would be held. Just two years old, it was arguably the most luxurious building west of the Mississippi, built in 1875 with all the modern fineries of the time. The Pinkerton Agency would never pay for a room there, though, so Ezra would make do with the Continental.

It would be but a short walk each morning to get there for the trial. Ezra had been summoned to testify against one “Missouri” Boone Jennings, a man wanted for murder as far back east as New York. As many as eleven deaths had been pinned on Jennings, who was notorious for his cruelty and violent nonchalance. None of those eleven murders, and there were probably even more than that, could be proved. None but the Irish dockworker Jennings had beaten to death in the streets of New York City.

Ezra had investigated that murder. He had a leather satchel full of evidence and witness statements. Proof beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jennings was the killer. And it would ultimately be Ezra’s testimony that would put Jennings in a noose.

That was what his superior had told him, anyway, to justify dragging him across the country.

Ezra entered the Continental. The saloon appeared to be under construction, with workers hanging an ornate mirror behind the bar. Ezra gave the dining room and saloon another glance before heading for the proprietor’s desk.

“We have one room available,” the attendant told him, casting a hesitant glance at his ledger.

“Is there a problem?” Ezra wiped down his spectacles so he could read the book.

The man winced and looked around, as if making sure no one else could hear him. “An injured lawman died in that room some time back. Our guests complain of there being . . . spirits.”

“Spirits?” Ezra couldn’t keep the amusement out of his voice. He smiled and gave the attendant a nod. “Well. I’m not opposed to double occupancy, so I’ll take it.”

He received his key and turned down assistance with his luggage, considering he only had his small canvas bag and the leather satchel full of evidence. He didn’t intend to let anyone handle that until it reached the court.

He trudged up the flight of stairs to his room, sighing in relief when he was finally able to close the door behind him and shrug off his frock coat. He’d not been prepared for the warmth out here; he might have to find a mercantile to purchase a summer coat.

The room was a nice one, almost comparable to his accommodations back east. It had a bed large enough for two, a washbasin and a private entrance to a water closet, not one but two armoires, and a sitting area. It was possible this room was the honeymoon suite. Considering the affordable rate, there must have been some powerful lore to keep it from being rented nightly. Ezra didn’t put much stock in spirits or hauntings, but he was grateful for the discount.

He set his bag on the end of the iron-framed bed, but before he could begin unpacking, he heard a scratch at the door. He turned, frowning as he watched the doorknob rattle. After a moment, the door creaked open, and just as Ezra was beginning to second-guess his belief in the afterlife, a man pushed the door open.

He was handsome. Blond, with a well-groomed mustache, a tan that gave evidence of many days spent in the sun, and blue eyes so clear they seemed almost silver peering out from under the brim of his hat.

“Can I help you?” Ezra asked, flustered from the intrusion.

“Name’s Ambrose Shaw.” He pushed the door open wider. His saddlebag was draped over his shoulder. “Man at the front desk said you might not mind sharing a room.”

“Oh. Oh! Of course not.” Ezra gestured to the room, then walked forward and offered his hand. “Ezra Johns.”

Ambrose looked down at his hand and nodded, but he didn’t take it.

“Right.” Ezra backed away to allow Ambrose into the room. He wasn’t sure if the lack of a handshake was supposed to mean something in the west or not, but he was too distracted to be offended. “Ambrose Shaw. You’re a US Marshal, aren’t you? You’re the one who finally brought down Boone Jennings?”

“I suppose I am,” Ambrose said, gravel in his voice. “Where’d you hear that?”

“The telegraph wire. News reached the east two weeks ago; it was huge. I work for the Pinkerton Agency.” Ezra fumbled in his pocket for his badge and showed it to Ambrose. He’d heard about the steely-eyed western lawmen with their unflappable demeanors and six-guns strapped to their thighs, but he’d not been prepared to meet one. Or room with one. “I was brought in to testify against Jennings.”

“For the murder of the Irishman, right?” Ambrose nodded and tossed his saddlebags onto the delicate rocking chair in the corner. Dust rose around it.

“That’s correct, yes. I was told there was no one else to testify, that all the witnesses . . . But you tracked him across six states and two territories.”

“I did.” Ambrose grunted. “Man shot, strangled, beat, knifed, and poisoned victims all across the damn country, but I never could prove it was him.”

“But you were involved in a gunfight with him, were you not?”

“That’s what I’m told.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I don’t remember.” Ambrose gestured vaguely to himself and gave Ezra a crooked grin. “I certainly can’t testify to it.”

Ezra frowned in confusion, but nodded anyway, not wanting to appear inexperienced in front of the legendary marshal. “If you can’t testify, then why are you here?”

“To watch,” Ambrose growled. He glanced over his shoulder, his eyes catching the light from the hurricane lamp and glinting dangerously. “I came to see him hang.”

Ezra’s mouth was suddenly too dry for him to swallow. “I . . . I suppose that’s a good reason.”

Ambrose removed his hat and set it on top of the washbasin in front of the dainty mirror as he walked past. “You’re the prosecution’s golden bullet,” he told Ezra. They stood on either side of the bed, staring at each other. Ezra’s heart was beating harder than was healthy. Ambrose studied him from under lowered brows, his eyes magnetic, his jaw clenched. “Best not miss,” Ambrose said before turning and walking into the washroom.

Ezra put a hand to his heart and sat heavily. The bed squeaked beneath him. It wasn’t hot in here at all. In fact, he was shivering.

“God help my aim,” he whispered.

*****

When Ezra awoke, it was to the chirp of birds outside the window, the creak of wagon wheels and shouts of merchants, and the gentle, husky breaths of the man sharing the room with him. Ezra sat up, rubbing his eyes as he reached for his spectacles.

Ambrose was sitting in the rocking chair in the corner, watching him.

“Good morning,” Ezra mumbled to the marshal. He received a grunt in return. “Did you sleep there?”

“I don’t sleep,” Ambrose told him. “Best get ready. I intend to see Boone Jennings hang today.”

Ezra swallowed hard, nodding as he fumbled out from under the bedcovers. He splashed tepid water from the washbasin on his face, shivering even in the heat of the summer morning. He glanced in the mirror at the rocking chair, but Ambrose had moved. The chair was still rocking, but the marshal was nowhere to be seen.

Ezra turned, eyes sweeping the room. How the hell had he done that? It must have been a western lawman thing, like an Indian in high grass. The marshal’s saddlebags were nowhere Ezra could see either. Ezra shrugged and proceeded to dress, muttering to himself about the heavy frock coat he would be forced to wear through the first day of the trial.

As if he wasn’t going to be sweating already as the only witness capable of putting Boone Jennings in his grave.

“You seem nervous,” Ambrose said, his gruff voice just inches away from Ezra’s back.

Ezra jumped and turned, wide-eyed and blinking. “I am now, thank you! Do you make noise when you move?”

Ambrose pursed his lips and frowned. “Not really.”

“Could you try?” Ezra snapped as he shrugged into his vest and wrapped his tie under his collar.

Ambrose’s lips were still pursed, but one eyebrow slowly raised, and he nodded as if giving the request real thought. “Sure.”

Ezra turned to fix his tie in the mirror. He glanced up, expecting to see the marshal’s reflection, but the man was gone again. Ezra rolled his eyes and returned his attention to his appearance once more.

Once he’d finished, they made their way downstairs, Ambrose falling in step with Ezra. Ezra was clutching his satchel with the evidence for the trial so tightly his fingers were beginning to ache.

“You okay?” Ambrose asked. For some reason, he seemed to be fighting a smile, as if he found such serious business as life and death amusing.

Ezra gave him a tense nod.

“Still nervous,” Ambrose observed.

“You’re not helping,” Ezra said through gritted teeth.

“Sorry.”

Ezra gave him a sideways glare, then glanced toward the desk and offered the attendant a pleasant smile. “Good morning.”

“G-good morning, sir.” The man gave Ezra an odd, questioning look. What western custom had he violated now? “Is your room to your satisfaction?”

“It is, thank you.”

Ezra gave him a second glance as they walked past, then looked Ambrose up and down. “A little haughty of him not to speak to you.”

“I get that a lot,” Ambrose said with a shrug. He waved a hand at himself. “Folks don’t speak to the likes of me.”

“Really?” Ezra almost tripped over the doorway when they reached it. He turned and pushed the large wooden door open, holding it to let Ambrose walk out into the bright sunshine before following him. “Do people not recognize you as the law?”

Ambrose turned and squinted at him, his silver eyes sparkling in the sunlight. He laughed and headed off down the sidewalk. “That must be it,” he said over his shoulder.

Ezra stared after him, frowning for several moments before hurrying to follow.

Chapter 2
The trial itself had drawn quite a crowd of onlookers, and though Ambrose seemed to have no trouble slipping through the rabble of curiosity seekers, journalists, and possible vigilantes standing outside the building shouting for Jennings’s head, Ezra could barely squeeze by.

He was jostled and pushed, and he held closer to his satchel of evidence. A hand reached out of the crowd and gripped his shoulder. Shivers wracked his entire body, and he closed his eyes against the inexplicable chill. But it was only Ambrose, who dragged him through the crowd, holding tightly to him as people complained and were shoved out of the way. Ezra tried to offer apologies, but he was hustled along too quickly.

He headed up the steps of the Palace Hotel, glancing sideways at Ambrose with a disapproving scowl. “That was quite rude. Do you make it a habit of dragging people along by their collars?”

“No, I usually use shackles.” Ambrose hooked his hand in his belt, tapping the butt of his gun with his index finger as he sauntered toward the doors.

“Please never do that again!”

“Sorry, did you want time to go put your bustle on?” Ambrose stopped at the doors to the hotel, turning to cock his head at Ezra and raise an eyebrow. His manner was still gruff and imposing, but his oddly silver eyes shone like he was amused.

Ezra was still clutching his satchel to his chest with both hands. He glanced down at the crowd, who were being held back by wooden barriers and two overwhelmed constables. Ezra straightened his shoulders and raised his head, jutting out his chin. “This is a more rowdy environment than I’m accustomed to,” he admitted. “Thank you for your assistance.”

Ambrose nodded, then reached out and fixed Ezra’s collar, which had gone askew. He patted Ezra on the shoulder, knocking him sideways. Then he stood waiting for Ezra to get the door.

Ezra couldn’t help but laugh as he pulled the heavy wooden door open and gestured for Ambrose to enter first. “For a big tough western lawman, you sure do have some feminine sensibilities,” he said as he followed Ambrose in.

Ambrose merely laughed as he led the way to the courtroom.

They seated themselves on the left side of the room, in the only empty spaces in the very back row. The room was packed, and the heat was almost as oppressive as the tension in the room. When the side door shoved open and “Missouri” Boone Jennings shuffled in, chains rattling, two armed US Marshals following him, the room fell silent and still.

Jennings was dressed in a suit, his long hair slicked back and tied at his neck, his left arm in a cotton sling. He was clean-shaven and rather handsome—not at all the dirty, disheveled outlaw Ezra had been expecting.

A low hum started in the back of Ambrose’s throat, and Ezra glanced at him worriedly. Ambrose’s sharp eyes had gone cold, his shoulders tense. The mere presence of the murderer in the courtroom had caused all movement to cease, the temperature dropping by some trick of the mind. The man at Ezra’s side shivered.

The loudest sound in the room, other than the clanking of Jennings’s chains, was Ambrose growling.

Ezra patted his arm. “Be calm,” he whispered.

The man on his other side chuckled. “Ain’t nothing to be calm over, not being in the same room as that snake.”

An hour later, Ezra was called to take the witness stand. He carried his satchel up and placed it on the floor beside the chair.

“State your name and occupation for the record, please,” the judge requested.

“My name is Ezra Johns, of New York City. I’m a special investigator for the Pinkerton Agency.”

“How do you know Boone Jennings?”

Ezra took a deep breath, then described in detail the vicious assault he’d investigated a year ago. He pushed his satchel toward the prosecuting attorney. “All the evidence I collected is in there, including witness statements authorized by the district court of New York State.”

“Is there any doubt in your mind that Boone Jennings was the perpetrator of that murder?”

“There is none. He fled New York by rail, heading west to Chicago and then St. Louis. The US Marshals were brought in to track him down.” Ezra’s eyes strayed to the back of the room, where Ambrose sat, silent and stoic, his face enveloped in shadow.

The prosecuting attorney nodded, then retrieved a stack of telegrams from his table. He handed them to Ezra. “Can you tell us what these are?”

Ezra flipped through them. “These appear to be telegrams sent by Marshal Ambrose Shaw.” He glanced up at Ambrose again. The man had tracked Jennings clear across the country, sending out a telegram every time he found another body. A chill ran through Ezra. No wonder Ambrose was so invested in this trial.

“Can you find the last three, please, and read them for the court?”

Ezra nodded and paged through them, coming to the final telegrams. He cleared his throat. “Silver City. Victim thirteen years old,” he read, struggling with the telegram’s shorthand. He paused and glanced up, blowing out a breath of nerves. “Eighteen men, women, and children now in the orchard. Believe Jennings heading for California. Watch the ports.”

“Those are the words of Marshal Shaw,” the prosecutor said quietly. “The last telegram was sent from right here in San Francisco, a fortnight ago. Please read it, Inspector Johns.”

Ezra nodded, swallowing hard. He didn’t understand why they were having him read the telegrams with Ambrose sitting right there. The marshal would make a much more effective witness with his gruff drawl and haunting silver eyes.

He held the final telegram up. “Jennings in San Fran. I do not aim to let him leave. I bury him here, or they try him for . . . for my murder.”

The finality of those words echoed through the rapt courtroom, and Ezra shivered. He raised his head, staring at Ambrose with his lips parted in shock.

“This was a hardened US Marshal,” the prosecutor was saying to the judge and jury. “A man who saw war, a man who tracked murderers and thieves over deserts and mountains. The atrocities he witnessed in the aftermath of Boone Jennings’s wake drove him to forgo the due process of the law he had upheld all his life, to risk his life to take Boone Jennings off the face of this earth so no one else could be hurt by him.”

Ezra’s mouth went dry as he stared out at Ambrose, trying to imagine what would drive the man to such action.

The prosecutor stopped pacing, his hands behind his back as he stood before the jury with a grim set to his jaw. “Marshal Ambrose Shaw died of his wounds the same night he confronted Boone Jennings. He gave his life to bring this man to justice, to end his reign of terror. You the jury must be just as brave in your convictions as Marshal Shaw was in his.”

Ezra’s heart stuttered, and his gaze shot to the back of the courtroom. Ambrose was still sitting there, his face hidden in the shadow of his hat. He raised his hand, and tipped the brim toward Ezra.

Boone Jennings began to chuckle.

*****

“You’re a ghost!” Ezra shouted at Ambrose as soon as they were in the lobby of the Palace Hotel, the trial left to carry on without them once Ezra’s testimony was over. Ambrose was quite proud of him. He wished he could have sat up there himself, but he would settle for a front row seat to Boone Jennings’s hanging instead.

People stopped and stared at Ezra as he continued to rant at Ambrose, their scandalized murmurs growing louder the longer Ezra spoke.

Ambrose glanced around. “Most folks can’t see me. You might keep that in mind when you’re shouting at me.”

Ezra coughed and covered his mouth, glancing at the nearest hotel patrons. “Hello,” he said with a polite smile. He pointed at Ambrose. “He’s a ghost.”

The couple stared at him, and then the gentleman grabbed his wife’s arm and led her away in a hurry.

Ambrose laughed.

“I’m glad you find this funny, because I certainly don’t,” Ezra hissed. He stopped and narrowed his eyes. “Why can I see you and they can’t?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you got that second sight thing. Ain’t Pinkertons supposed to be all-seeing?”

“That’s not funny. Why did you choose me?”

“You were in my room, remember?”

“Your room?” Ezra spat. “It’s not your room, you’re dead!”

Ambrose reached for his arm, taking it in a pale imitation of the iron grip he’d once employed in life. “People are going to think you’re crazy, son. I’ll be damned if your testimony gets struck because you’re talking to air. Come on.” He dragged Ezra with him.

“Your hands are cold,” Ezra grumbled as he followed along.

“Of course they’re cold, I been dead for two weeks.”

“I’m dreaming right now. I’ve been slipped opium, and I’m in some sort of drugged daze.”

“Stop muttering to yourself, goddamn.” They got to the doors of the lobby, and Ambrose stood staring at them. Then he glanced at Ezra, who raised his eyebrows at him.

“Go ahead,” Ezra said, crossing his arms over his chest. “Open the door.”

“I . . .”

“You can’t, can you?”

Ambrose sighed at the grand doorway with its ornately carved wood and lead glass. “They’re awful heavy,” he said.

“Heavy,” Ezra echoed. His expression became more sympathetic. “I see,” he whispered, then opened the doors and let Ambrose walk through first.

The crowd was still waiting in the streets, but it had calmed. The rowdier element had drifted off to the saloons or the docks, and the curious had grown bored. The people waiting now were all silent, standing as if at a vigil. Ambrose’s hair stood on end, the air around him going colder despite his own state of ghostliness. He recognized every one of them.

“What’s wrong?” Ezra asked, finally remembering to speak under his breath so no one would notice him talking to nothing in the middle of the street.

Ambrose waved at the crowd. “You see them?”

“See who?”

Ambrose merely nodded. “I ain’t the only one he killed who’s been drawn here to see him hang. Guess that answers why I’m still here. They can’t get in. They’re left out here to wait.” He smiled sadly at Ezra. “Thanks for opening the door for me.”

His meaning seemed to hit Ezra suddenly, and the man looked out at the street again, going pale. “You mean . . . there are more of you? Spirits?”

“Men and women he killed.” There was a feeling in the pit of his stomach, the same one of helplessness and desperation that had driven him to sacrifice himself in a gun battle he’d known he couldn’t win. “A few little ones too. They look . . . they look confused.”

Ezra put both hands out as if to ward off the image of Boone Jennings’s victims wandering lost in the streets of San Francisco. “Oh this . . . this is so beyond my experience,” he said, then headed down the steps, still muttering to himself.

Ambrose watched him wade through the crowd, even walking through a few people. They shivered violently when he contacted them, then disappeared into the ether as if smoke to Ezra’s touch. The ones who remained didn’t seem to notice, all of them staring at the hotel, waiting. One by one they began to fade, pulled back to wherever they were doomed to spend their afterlives, just as Ambrose was sure to return to the bar of the Continental.

Ambrose glanced back at the doors, then lowered his head and followed after Ezra. For some reason, Ezra’s presence allowed him to travel off his tether; if he let Ezra get too far away, he’d surely be pulled back to the Continental and get stuck there again. He’d been trying to get out of there for two weeks now, but the damn doors were as solid as walls.

“Stop following me,” Ezra barked when Ambrose appeared at his side again.

“I’m not hurting anything being here.”

“Except my sanity!”

People on the street took pains to avoid Ezra, whispering or darting their eyes at him.

“You got to stop talking to yourself,” Ambrose reminded.

Ezra growled and gritted his teeth.

“Look, I don’t know why, but I can follow you out of the Continental, see? It’s the first time I’ve been able to leave the place where I died.”

“What about all the people you said you could see in the street, hmm? How’d they get here if you’re attached to me?”

“I don’t know! I don’t know the damn rules, I’ve only been dead a couple weeks!”

Ezra snarled and stopped in the middle of the street, shooing his hands at Ambrose, heedless of the attention he was drawing to himself. “Stop following me! It’s . . . it’s unsettling! I don’t wish to know there are ghosts roaming the streets, I don’t wish to know what happens after death, do you understand? I don’t need to know these things!”

“But—”

“I don’t wish to know this!” Ezra shouted. “I gave my testimony, I even read yours for you, and there’s no chance Boone Jennings will be anything but hanged at the end of this. I did exactly what you wanted, so stop following me.” He turned on his heel and stalked off.

“Thank you, Ezra,” Ambrose called after him.

Ezra didn’t turn around.

*****

Ezra shoved through the doors of the Continental so hard that one of them banged against the wall, rattling the frames hung there. People turned to stare. He cleared his throat, straightening his coat.

Aside from the fact that he’d just learned his roommate for the evening had been dead, he wasn’t sure why he was so upset. Yes, befriending a ghost was the most unusual thing that’d ever happened to him, but at least Ambrose had been pleasant company. It was the fact that he was here at all that was rocking Ezra’s normally placid mind. Was that what happened when you died? No Heaven? No Hell? Just . . . an eternity of hoping someone could see you?

Ezra shook his head and rubbed his eyes. “Good Lord.”

He didn’t head for his room, instead making a beeline for the saloon. If ever a drink was warranted, it was now.

The new mirror behind the bar had been hung, and the bartender was busy stocking bottles above it. It hit Ezra that this must have been where Ambrose had finally tracked down Boone Jennings and challenged him. Bullet holes littered the lower part of the bar, and one in the back wall must have gone right through a bottle of whiskey. This was where Ambrose had been shot. This was where he’d died.

“Best to order top-shelf,” Ambrose said to him.

Ezra jumped, holding a hand to his heart to calm its frantic beating. Ambrose was leaning on the bar, sipping from a shot glass and staring into the mirror on the back wall.

“You almost frightened me to death,” Ezra hissed.

Ambrose chuckled and took another sip of whiskey. “It’s not so bad, you know. Being dead.”

Ezra drew closer to him, still exasperated by his presence but beginning to truly ponder the implications of his being there. He stepped up the bar beside Ambrose and turned his attention to the mirror. Only his own reflection stared back at him.

He lowered his head sadly, glancing sideways at Ambrose. Was he stuck here? Doomed to forever haunt this hotel where he’d lost his life? If no one else could see him, was Ezra his only company? The thought made Ezra cringe at his earlier reaction on the street.

“What can I get you, sir?” the bartender asked him. Ezra tore his eyes away from Ambrose and gave the man a weak smile.

“Top-shelf,” Ambrose said. “Order top-shelf.”

“Top-shelf, please,” Ezra managed to say.

The bartender nodded and turned away. The smell of tobacco smoke wafted through the air, followed by a whiff of gunpowder. Ezra glanced around, frowning. The saloon was nearly empty, and no one had lit a cigarette.

“You here for the trial?” the bartender asked.

“I am.”

“They going to hang him?”

“I believe so, yes,” Ezra said, a hard edge creeping into his voice.

“Good.” The bartender set a glass and a bottle in front of him. “He killed that marshal right here in front of me.”

Ezra had to force himself not to glance at Ambrose. He nodded instead. “Why wasn’t Marshal Shaw’s murder prosecuted? His case seems far more compelling than the one being tried.”

“Self-defense,” the bartender grunted. “Marshal didn’t draw first, but no one who saw it was willing to say that. And the only other man still alive to tell it is Jennings.”

“What about you?”

The bartender smiled sadly. “Boone Jennings is a devil. Takes a brave man to stand toe to toe with him. And if I’ve learned one thing of myself, it’s that I am not cut from the same cloth as men like Marshal Shaw. I just serve the drinks.”

He took his leave then, stocking new bottles at the other end of the bar. Ezra turned his attention back to Ambrose, who was staring at the bar top.

“Are you here to protect me?” Ezra asked. “Is that why you won’t leave me alone?”

Ambrose spoke quietly. “I don’t know why I’m here. You left me standing in the street; next thing I knew I was sitting here.” He put his glass down and narrowed his eyes at Ezra. “Maybe you’re the one following me.”

There was a hint of amusement in his features, and Ezra found himself fighting a smile. He poured himself a glass of whiskey, then set the bottle between them. They sat in silence for some time, drinking together.

“I’m quite sorry you’re dead,” Ezra finally offered.

Ambrose laughed. “Me too, partner.”

It made Ezra chuckle. At least the man wasn’t a morose ghost. Ambrose pulled a cigarillo from his vest and frowned at it.

“I keep smelling those,” Ezra said. “Is it you?”

Ambrose shrugged. “Alls I know is it’s damned hard to light one when you can’t hold a match.”

He placed it on the bar. A moment later, it was gone. Ambrose stared dejectedly at the empty space, then reached in his vest again and pulled out the same cigarillo.

Ezra watched in fascination. “All you have on you is what you died with, isn’t it?”

Ambrose nodded. “I keep finding myself here, saddlebag over my shoulder. Pulling out a smoke. No one will light it for me though.”

Ezra wanted to reach out to console him, but he had the presence of mind to know that he’d likely reach right through him. He licked his lips instead, looking away. “I’m sorry I shouted at you. I was distraught by the thought of the afterlife you describe.”

“Yeah, well . . . I’m sorry I haunted you.”

They both chuckled softly. Ezra studied him, thinking of the sacrifice the man had made, the guts and bravado it had taken to walk into this saloon knowing he might die and not caring as long as Boone Jennings went with him. Ezra nodded. “I’ll open your doors until he’s hanged, Marshal Shaw.”

Ambrose tipped his hat, lips quirking. “Much obliged, Inspector Johns.”

Daniel by RJ Scott
Chapter 1
Eight Years Ago
I want to go home.

Daniel Chandler trudged miserably down the long black ribbon of road, tears burning his eyes, and hopelessness tightening his chest. The heat of an August Texas day had subsided to a slightly cooler evening, and the sky was a brilliant mass of stars, but he couldn’t bring himself to look up at them anymore.

How had everything gone this badly wrong? Brett had promised that he would take Daniel somewhere far away from his foster family, but one weird question from an inquisitive cashier at a gas station and Brett had panicked. He’d refused to go any further, and said he was going home.

Daniel didn’t want to go back to San Antonio. He wanted freedom, and the ability to decide for himself where his life was going. He’d overheard his foster parents talking about how he was a liability; that he costed them more than they made, and he knew it was only a matter of time before they got rid of him anyway.

So he refused to leave with Brett and got out of the car.

Brett didn’t care, and he drove away, leaving Daniel stranded.

Daniel kicked a stone, stumbling a little when he misjudged the curve of the road. He’d eaten the cereal bars that Brett had tossed him and used up all the water. Which left him in the heat, without food or drink, and carrying a backpack with limited clothes. He also had books—his favorites, and a wallet which contained nothing more than a couple of hundred dollars he’d saved from his gardening job. The only official thing he had in the bag was his ID.

He’d left his most recent home at six-thirty a.m., with no real idea of where he was going or what he was doing, only knowing he wasn’t going to spend another minute in a house where he wasn’t wanted.

Hunching his shoulders against the weight of his backpack, he carried on. Sometimes he hummed to a song in his head. Other times he counted the steps he took, but most of the time he stared ahead, not counting or humming at all.

A car pulled up alongside him. No, a truck, and at first his heart leaped. Brett was back. He’d changed his mind and returned to help Daniel.

A female voice called out. “Can we give you a lift somewhere?” she asked through the open window.

Daniel saw she wasn’t much older than he was, long blonde hair swept up into a ponytail, her smile wide, her expression kind. A man sat in the driver’s seat, but he was in the shadows, and at first, Daniel couldn’t make out his face until he leaned forward. The first thing Daniel noticed was the dog collar, then the same kindly smile as the girl. They were clearly related, both fair, with light eyes and an angular balance to their features.

“Hello, young man. My daughter and I are heading to Laredo. Would you like us to take you?”

He smiled at Daniel, this man in black with the white collar. This was an average family. They probably thought he was a hitchhiker and were offering genuine help. If Daniel couldn’t trust a man of the cloth traveling with his daughter, then who could he trust? He scanned the road behind him, waiting for Brett to suddenly appear and pick him up, but he was tired, hungry, and verging on desperate.

“Thank you.” Daniel opened the back door. He’d never hitchhiked before, didn’t know what the etiquette was, but he felt like he should offer to pay. “I can cover gas,” he said.

“No need for that,” the dad said and extended a hand awkwardly over the seat, which Daniel shook. “Father Frank Martins and this is my daughter Andrea.”

Andrea glanced back at him and grinned again. “Hey.”

“Daniel,” Daniel replied, as mute as usual around a girl as he was with boys. She turned back to the front, and Frank put the truck in drive.

“Buckle up,” he said.

Daniel did as he was told. Then settled back for the ride.

“Where are you from?” Frank asked after a few moments of silence, filled only with the soft sound of tires on blacktop.

“San Antonio,” Daniel answered.

“Really? What brings you this far south?”

Andrea shushed her dad, “Stop asking him questions, Daddy.”

Her dad huffed a gentle laugh. “Sorry.” He used the mirror to see Daniel. “You like music?”

Daniel nodded, thankful to Andrea for running interference.

Frank fiddled with the stereo. Country music filled the cab, and Frank hummed along. Andrea was on her phone, as evidenced by the glow of light as screens changed, and Daniel regretted leaving his phone at home. In his mad, stupid, anger, he’d wanted no way for his foster parents to keep tabs on him, but right now, he kind of wished he could phone them. He should pluck up the courage and ask Andrea to borrow hers. Maybe give his foster-parents a quick call, apologize, get them to pick him up, or at least arrange a bus.

They would help him. He didn’t doubt that. Even if he’d been an idiot and they wanted to hand him off to the next family, they would never leave a fourteen year old kid stranded miles from home.

“You thirsty?” Frank asked, and before Daniel could answer, Frank had unlocked the glove box and pulled out a bottle of water, passing it back to Daniel.

He took it with grateful thanks and downed a third of it in thirsty gulps. They reached the outskirts of a small town, and the car slowed to a stop outside a cookie-cutter house, a pretty place with manicured lawns.

Andrea turned around to look at Daniel.

“This is where I get out,” she announced. “Nice to meet you, Daniel.”

I thought they were both going on to Laredo?

Frank turned around as well. “I can take you all the way into the city. It’s only another ten minutes or so to the bus station or somewhere like that? A hostel?”

“I’m not sure—”

Frank interrupted, “Or you could stay the night here or a motel. We have one a few blocks down from here.”

Andrea shut the door and jogged up to the house, vanishing inside.

“Could I just borrow your phone?” Daniel asked.

Frank smiled, nodded, and pulled out his phone, tutting as he did so. “Oh my, the phone’s dead. You want to use my house phone? Or shall I just get you to the city? The bus station, right? They have public phones there.”

So many decisions. So many difficult choices, he thought and yawned.

“Yeah.” Daniel just wanted to get home.

“Yeah, what?” Frank prompted.

Daniel blinked at him. He was tired, and everything felt kind of hazy. “Yeah, home.” Back to his pretend parents and his pretend family, but back to a warm bed.

“Come on. Get in the front here.”

Daniel did as he was told, his limbs feeling heavy, and his coordination shit. Finally, he was belted in the front, and he closed his eyes briefly, exhaustion washing over him.

“That’s a good boy,” Frank murmured. “You sleep now.”

The country music got quieter, Frank’s humming was louder, and the journey to the city took a long time, the car swaying, and Daniel’s head thicker, full of softness and a weird kind of peace. He saw fields and signs, but none of them made any sense. Finally, he couldn’t fight the overwhelming lethargy, so he slept.

And woke up in hell.

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

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

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

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

“How are you settling in?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Family is difficult, sometimes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s addressed to you,” he said.

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

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

Gray's Shadow by KA Merikan
Shadow opened one eye, watching the water as if it were toxic waste, but in the end he followed Gray’s request, and stepped in with one foot. His slouching shoulders rose at once, and the ruby eyes glinted in wonder. “It’s warm,” he said and packed his massive body into the tub with no lingering hesitation.

Gray shut his eyes when scented drops hit his face. “Well, yeah. And it smells nice, doesn’t it?” he asked before mentally chastising himself for talking to the creature as if he were a child.

Shadow gathered the water into his hands and poured it over his head time and time again until his thick hair ran straight down and into the water. He seemed to love splashing about, but while soaking in scented water was a good start, he still needed a wash. “It does. I was scared it would be freezing like last time,” he said with a genuine smile.

Right. Last time. When Gray had blasted Shadow with an icy shower as punishment for the attack. Being alone with Shadow had Gray on pins and needles, but he had since decided Shadow’s behavior shouldn’t be measured against that of humans. Still, it was hard to comprehend that a creature who killed two men less than an hour ago could be ‘scared’ of a cold bath.

“Back then, I was angry at you. Needed you to cool off,” Gray said.

The red eyes were pinned to Gray’s face, hungry for knowledge. “Why?”

Gray leaned on the edge of the tub, watching the strands of hair float close to the surface. He was glad he’d chosen to use the bath milk, because it gave the water a tint that obscured details of Shadow’s anatomy that he shouldn’t be wanting to see.

In Other Words . . . Murder by Josh Lanyon
Chapter One
“Murder.”

“That’s one word,” J.X. objected.

“Hm?” I was studying the colorful travel brochures littering my lap and the raw-silk ivory comforter. Walk in the footsteps of the Colosseum’s ancient gladiators! Cruise canals in a golden gondola! Live La Dolce Vita! read the cover of the brochure I held. I could practically feel the venerable blue of the Roman sky beneath my fingertips.

There was a bewildering array of options. Everything from private guided tours with personally tailored itineraries to culturally themed coach tours. We could do an eight-day Adriatic cruise or a fourteen-day grand tour by rail.

The only option not available to me was staying home.

“Kill. Slang. Three words,” J.X. said. “First word starts with D.”

It was eleven o’clock on a Friday night in late October, and we were cozily tucked up in our master bedroom at 321 Cherry Lane. J.X. was doing the San Francisco Examiner crossword, and I was figuring out our spring vacation plans. It really doesn’t get much more domesticated than that.

“Oh. Do away with.”

He was silent as his pencil scratched on paper. He made a disgusted sound. “Elementary, my dear Holmes.”

I glanced at him. “Bad clues, my dear Moriarity. Do away with isn’t slang. It’s a phrasal verb.”

“Right?” He regarded me for a moment, then nodded at the scattered brochures. “What do you think? What looks good to you?”

“I don’t know. They’re all pretty expensive.”

“Money is no object.”

I snorted. “It might not be the object, but it should be a consideration.”

He got that dark-eyed, earnest look he always wore when applying the thumbscrews. “I want to do this for you, Kit. I don’t care about the money. I want us to have this. We’ve never gone away on vacation together.”

“Yeah, I know. Possibly averting an international incident.”

His mouth quirked, but he said coaxingly, “Think about it. You and me. Hot, naked sex in a gondola.”

I gave him a look of horror. “They have gondoliers, you know!”

He laughed. “Okay, then how about a gondola ride at sunset and candlelight dinner on the terrace of our private villa—and then hot, naked sex. Beneath the stars?”

I cleared my throat.

Spotting weakness in his prey, J.X. moved in for the kill. “I’m serious, though. Just you and me. Together. Doing whatever we want. No conference, no convention, no meetings with agents or editors, no deadlines. We could explore Rome’s catacombs—or just visit a few museums and galleries. We could see the Pantheon and the Colosseum. We could go to Florence and see the Ponte Vecchio. Or spend a couple of days swimming with dolphins off the Isle of Capri. Or we could do nothing but sleep and eat and fu—”

“I get the picture,” I said.

Despite the fact that I don’t like to travel—hate to travel—a lot of that did sound appealing. I said, “Private villa, huh?”

“Whatever you want, Kit.” He was suddenly serious, gaze solemn, the line of his mouth soft. Such a romantic guy. Especially for an ex-cop. Well, really, for anyone.

“It sounds…nice,” I admitted. It sounded better than nice. Maybe even kind of lovely.

His smile was very white in the lamplight. He tossed the newspaper and pencil aside and drew me into his arms. We fell back against the mattress. The brochures whispered and crackled beneath us as his mouth found mine. He kissed me deeply, sweetly, whispered, “Maybe we could make it a honeymoon…”

My eyes popped open.

Before I could reply—not that I had a reply ready—the bedroom door pushed wide, and a small voice said, “Uncle Julie?”

J.X. sat up. “Hey, honey.” He only sounded the tiniest bit flustered, plus got bonus points for not flinging me aside and springing completely off the bed as I had done to him the first few times this happened. “You’re supposed to knock, remember?”

“I forgot.” Gage said huskily, “I had a bad dream.”

Gage was J.X.’s five-year-old nephew. Actually, it was more complicated than that, but the point was the kid was spending the weekend with us, as he did a couple of times a month.

“A bad dream, huh?” J.X. opened his arms, and Gage climbed into bed between us, snuggling against him. “We don’t have bad dreams in this house.”

I threw him a look of disbelief. He meant well, but come on. Everybody has nightmares. Him included.

“What did you dream?” I asked.

Gage rolled me a sideways look. Over the past four months we’d forged a truce, but he still largely took me on sufferance. Which was okay because frankly, I’m an acquired taste: best consumed with cream, sugar, and, yeah, a generous heaping of sufferance.

“Monsters,” he said tersely.

“Hm.”

“Monsters?” J.X. repeated thoughtfully. “There are no monsters here. This is a monster-free zone.” He gave Gage a comforting squeeze. “You know what we do to monsters in this house?”

Gage shook his head, his gaze wary.

He was right to be wary because J.X. pretend-growled, “We tickle them,” and pounced.

Gage squealed, and the two of them rolled around on the travel brochures, Gage wriggling and kicking—managing to land a few well-aimed blows at me in passing—before finally sitting up and resettling themselves against the pillows bulwarking the headboard.

J.X. winked at me. I shook my head resignedly.

“What you want to think about is all the fun we’re going to have tomorrow when you and me and Uncle Kit—”

“Christopher,” I interjected.

“—Uncle Christopher go to the Halloween Hootenanny.”

Gage and I eyed each other in complete understanding. He knew I did not want to attend this Halloween Horrorama any more than he wanted me there. He knew, as did I, we neither of us had any choice. It was in these moments that we could actually walk a mile or two in the other’s moccasins—though I admit fuzzy bunny slippers were a tight fit for my ethos.

J.X. continued to extol the ordeals—er, delights—of the day ahead, which was scheduled to conclude with the movie Smallfoot and dinner at Rosario’s Pizzeria.

“So, no more bad dreams, okay?” he concluded.

“Okay,” Gage said doubtfully. And then, “Can I sleep in here?”

J.X. wavered but stayed strong. “No, honey. You’re getting too big to bunk in here. There’s not enough room for all three of us. Uncle Christopher and I would fall right out onto the floor!”

And then the monster that lives under the bed would get us.

But see, I was getting fond of the little cheese mite because I didn’t say it. Gage, however, had no doubt who the villain of the piece was. His bleak and beady gaze fell on me.

“What about a night-light?” I suggested.

His face brightened.

“Nnn.” J.X. grimaced. “I don’t think we want to get into that habit, do we?”

He seemed to be asking Gage, who looked to me like a kid who very much hoped they could maybe get into that habit.

“As habits go,” I began. I remembered I was technically only an honorary uncle and should not be debating Gage’s real uncle’s child-rearing decisions in front of him. I shrugged, but couldn’t help adding, “It’s a big house, and it’s still strange to him. I had a night-light when I was his age.”

J.X. frowned. “Did you?”

“Sure.”

“Night-lights can disrupt sleep patterns. Maybe that’s why you have these bouts of insomnia.”

“You know what disrupts sleep patterns? Being scared there’s a monster watching you from the closet—or waiting under your bed for you to step onto the floor.”

Gage gulped. J.X. exclaimed, “Kit.”

I said hastily, “Not that monsters do that because monsters aren’t real, and anyway, this is a monster-free zone. Like J.X., er, your uncle Julie said. He’s the monster expert of the family.”

Gage was still goggling at me, and J.X. was giving me the full-frontal unibrow in silent censure. Oh please. Like I hadn’t voiced exactly what the kid was already thinking?

“Okay, I know what you need.” I threw the bedclothes back and swung my legs over the side of the mattress, thereby demonstrating there were no monsters under this bed. “How about a nice warm cup of cocoa?”

Gage considered his options and nodded grudging approval. J.X. smiled, pleased that I was taking an avuncular interest, and suggested, “Make it three?”

“Sure. You want brandy in yours?”

“I want brandy,” Gage offered.

“It won’t mix with the sleeping pills,” I said, and J.X. inhaled sharply. “Kidding,” I told him.

He shook his head, though fondly. “Are you doing that Nutella thing again?”

“I can if you like.”

“I like Nutella,” Gage volunteered.

“That’s a little rich before bed,” Uncle Ebenezer Balfour objected.

I said, “Okay, a round of cocoa, one virgin and two nuts.”

Gage giggled, J.X. looked undecided, and I departed posthaste.





I was thinking about the weirdness of my life, absently stirring the milk, Nutella, and four tablespoons of cream in a small saucepan, when the kitchen phone rang.

I tore my gaze from Gage’s latest artistic efforts pinned to the refrigerator door—a frantic-looking stick figure was racing away from two other stick figures wearing Jack-o’-lantern heads. The Jack-o’-lantern people were brandishing what appeared to be very pointy knives.

Yikes. No wonder he didn’t want to sleep alone.

Back when I lived on my own, I always used the answering machine to screen my calls. But J.X. was different. He liked to answer the phone and did so regularly. He looked forward to hearing from people. He enjoyed chatting. I don’t think he even truly disliked telemarketers. I, on the other hand, agreed with Ambrose Bierce when he said the telephone was “an invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.”

It had taken a couple of months to teach him—J.X., not Ambrose—that I was rarely at home to random callers, even when I was at home, but eventually he got the message. Or at least permitted my callers to leave theirs.

But phone calls around the witching hour are never good news, and after the first startled-sounding ring, I picked up the handset.

“Hello?”

There was a hesitation—like someone had to pause to catch their breath. As slight as that sound was, I felt my heart drop through the cage of my rib bones and land with a thump on the black-and-white parquet floor. I too had to stop to catch my breath, as though picking up the phone had required monumental, heroic effort, and had I known who was on the other end, it would have. In fact, I wouldn’t have answered.

“Christopher?” That deep baritone had once been as familiar as… Well, choose your favorite domestic simile. That voice had once been as familiar as J.X.’s because that was the role in my life the owner of the voice had played.

“David.” My own voice was surprisingly flat, given the way emotions were zinging up and down my nervous system, emergency flares sparking into life—and promptly shorting out.


“I had a visit from the police a few hours ago.” His voice was shaking. “They told me they found a body in our backyard. Our old backyard. Your backyard. You killed him, didn’t you? You killed Dicky!”

Twisted and Tied by Mary Calmes
Chapter One
SURREAL.             
                      
My day had gone from being moderately normal by deputy US marshal standards to insane in a matter of seconds, all because the one person I counted on to always make rational choices had done the exact opposite.

He wasn’t supposed to jump off buildings.

In the movies people always talked about seeing their whole lives flash before their eyes when they thought they were going to die. I always sort of figured that for bullshit, but the moment I saw my boss, the chief deputy marshal of the Northern District of Illinois, Sam Kage, leap after a suspect into nothing, there it was, whoosh, me in a freaky-fast montage that brought me to the moment where I was sure I had no choice but to follow the man into the sky. Who knew that shit actually happened?

It all started that morning when SOG, the Special Operations Group—the marshals’ version of Special Forces—led the way into an enormous warehouse on 48th Place. They were followed quickly by TOD, Tactical Operations Division—our badass SWAT-style guys covered in body armor and Kevlar, toting serious firepower—with the marshals behind them, then uniformed Chicago Police Department bringing up the rear. Just with that many guys, the opportunity for a clusterfuck was already a possibility.

The point of this operation was to apprehend or stop Kevin and Caradoc Gannon, neo-Nazi pieces of crap who had gotten their hands on a small quantity of VX gas, and so SOG was deployed to execute the men responsible for threatening the civilian populace of Chicago. With TOD there was a good chance of survivors, and nine times out of ten, everyone came out in one piece. The SOG guys would make the decision right there on-site whether to put people down. It didn’t happen often. Unlike how it was in the movies, capturing a fugitive normally went fairly smoothly. The marshals rolled up somewhere, and some of us went around back while the rest of us went in hard through the front. Sometimes we even knocked.

My partner and now husband, Ian Doyle, went in with the first wave alongside SOG—how, I had no idea—because we’d rock-paper-scissored for who would take point in our group and who would hang back and keep an eye on our boss. Ian and I were stuck watching him because we were last on the scene. That was the agreement among the investigators on Kage’s team: whoever rolled up behind the big man had to babysit. Not that we would ever say that to his face, none of us being suicidal or insane, but it was simply understood.

So Ian was inside the warehouse with the rest of the guys and the tactical experts, and I was keeping an eye on my boss. When Kage saw a guy drop out of a second-story window onto the top of a delivery truck and then down onto the pavement, he shouted and gave chase, and I followed.

This was not supposed to happen.

There were good and bad things about being Kage’s backup. The positive part was if I was the one charging after him, then I was in the best position to protect him. I would be the one to guard him, and make sure he went home to his family that night, and stayed at the top of the food chain in charge of an entire team of deputy US marshals.

The flipside was exactly the same. Being his backup meant if I fucked up, not only was I screwing up the life he shared with his family, but also luck of the draw said the next man in his job would be worthless by comparison. Kage carried all of us on his shoulders, above the shit of red tape and politics, and he also provided shelter and protection, so losing him was not an option. For that reason, I liked him safe in his office. But Kage was on-site because it was his circus. He was the top stop of information for the marshals service in Chicago, as his boss, Tom Kenwood, had to travel back and forth a lot to Washington as well as all over the great state of Illinois. So when something big went down and the press got wind of it—as they always did—then Kage had to be there to do his voice-of-God thing and give short answers to reassure the public without confirming or denying squat.

At the moment, however, the man in question was flying down the sidewalk in front of me, his long legs eating up the concrete in pursuit of an escaped felon.

I had no idea Kage could run like that. He was fiftysomething, definitely not the thirty-three I was, so I was honestly surprised that not only could he run, but run pretty fast. Plus he was six four, with massive shoulders and a lot of hard, heavy muscle, really big, so his speed was even more shocking. He not only kept pace with the much younger fleeing fugitive but was gaining on him as well.

A parked car didn’t stop our suspect; he did an impressive parkour leap over it, completing a maneuver that had him using his hands to go down on all fours for a second before he vaulted the ancient Oldsmobile. Kage didn’t stop either, doing the classic Dukes of Hazzard slide over the hood that all the men in my life had perfected.

Ridiculous.

“Why is going around the car so difficult?” I roared after him.

“Jones!”

Because apprehending the fugitives was a coordinated strike, I had a stupid earpiece in from when the breach happened, and we were all connected. But after things got squared away afterward, everyone else dropped off except the guys I worked with on a day-to-day basis. Normally I was the only person in my head, but because I was chasing Kage and they were all thinking they were being helpful, I had my entire team of deputy US marshals not only checking on me but shouting directions at the same time.

“Can you see him?” Wes Ching yelled.

“Pull your gun, Jones, just to be on the safe side!” Jack Dorsey suggested loudly. “But don’t shoot him, for fuck’s sake.”

He was being a dick. “I’m gonna shoot you when I get back!” I growled. We never ran with our guns out. That was a rookie move.

“You gotta stay right with him!” Chris Becker barked into my ear.

Like I didn’t know that?

“If he slows down, don’t leave him!” Mike Ryan insisted with a snarl.

Because I couldn’t stop or mess with my momentum in any way, there was no time to reach up and pull out the tiny earpiece to silence them. “Will you guys quit with the screaming already? Fuck!”

“Yeah, don’t leave his side, Jones!” Ethan Sharpe demanded, ignoring me.

“I know,” I roared to everyone in general. “For fuck’s sake!”

“Make sure you yell for people to get out of his way!” Jer Kowalski instructed.

“Really?” I snapped. “‘Yell for people to move’ is your advice?”

“Somebody’s pissy,” he commented snidely. “I suggest more running, less talking, Jones.”

“Keep up with him!” Ching cautioned.

I needed all these orders because clearly I’d only been a goddamn marshal for one day.

“Are you close enough to shoot anyone who tries to touch him?” This from Chandler White, who normally didn’t try to boss me around but was clearly making an exception this time because, again, I was apparently some kind of newb who couldn’t tell his ass from a hole in the ground.

“You have him in your line of sight, right?” Eli Kohn wanted to know.

“Fuck, yes!” I shouted.

“You gotta get close, but not too close,” Sharpe felt the need to tell me.

I growled.

“Try and get in front of him. That would be better,” Kowalski suggested.

“I swear to fuckin’ God, you all—”

“You know he can’t do that,” Eli objected. “Since Kage is the first one in pursuit, Miro can’t—”

“Kill the chatter,” Ching broke in angrily. “You’re all lucky Kage doesn’t have an earpiece in, or we’d all be dead.”

It was true, but since Kage was in the command center during the initial breach and was only allowed to come out when we got the all-clear, he never put in an earpiece like the rest of us.

I saw the guy turn into an apartment building and Kage follow right behind. “No, no, no,” I grumbled under my breath.

“God fucking dammit, Jones, you better not let any—”

“Will you guys all lay off!” Ian warned gruffly, and his rough whiskey voice was a welcome relief. “You know Miro’s got this covered. He’s not stupid; he knows what he’s doing. Give the man a little fuckin’ credit!”

It was good to have someone on my side who didn’t doubt my mental or physical ability and who would champion me to the others. But that wasn’t surprising; I could always count on Ian. The moment of silence that followed his outburst was soothing.

“But you can see him, right?”

“Ian!” I howled, utterly betrayed.

“I’m just asking!” he yelled back defensively.

“You can all go straight to hell!” I bellowed before I tore through the front door of the apartment building after Kage, going up the stairs right on his heels, one level after the next, Ian in my ear the whole time along with everyone else.

“You’re very sensitive, M,” Eli commented.

“Kiss my ass,” I said, careening around a corner as I followed Kage up and up.

Funny how much Eli and I had changed in the past five months. From November to March, Thanksgiving to St. Patrick’s Day, our friendship progressed, and he’d evolved from Kohn to Eli, a permanent shift in my head.

“And Ian, you can—”

“Are you still on the street?” Eli pressed.

“Where the hell is Ian?”

“He’s offline. The SOG team made the secondary interior breach,” Dorsey informed us. And while I wasn’t crazy about that, he was one of many, not leading the rest of the men.

“Miro, where the fuck are you, because GPS is showing you now at—”

“Shut the fuck up,” Dorsey griped at Eli, who’d spoken. “Miro, did you turn in somewhere? Because it looks like we lost you on the last corner.”

“The fuck do you mean, you lost—Miro, where the hell are you?” Becker yelled.

But I’d run flat-out after Kage for at least eight blocks, and we were on the fifth floor now. I was done being able to form words.

I heard Kage hit the door that led to the roof—it had a panic bar, and that sound, like a giant rubber stamp, was hard to miss—and charged out into the open after him. From where I was, maybe ten feet behind him, the sound of leather-soled shoes scraping over the rough concrete sounded like nails on a chalkboard, and the noise added to my quickly ratcheting fear the closer they got to running out of roof.

I thought Kage was going to stop.

There was no way he wasn’t going to stop.

As many times as he had said to me, “Marshals don’t jump off buildings, Jones,” I would have bet my life on the fact that when the other guy took a running leap toward the next building over, Kage would come to a stop. He didn’t. He followed, and I was so astonished that I found myself sliding awkwardly, my feet slipping on the gravel, arms windmilling for balance, out of control for a moment as I finally came to a bracing halt at the edge of the building I too would have had to hurdle as I’d just watched Kage do.

And then came that second, my life in a blur up to that moment when I realized the one person I knew I could always count on… was gone.

No one but Ian could ever understand what Kage meant to me. It was cliché, yes, but I’d never had a father; there was never an older man who took me under his wing, never one who was both mentor and guardian, not just because he had to but because he wanted to. I would never be the same from this second on.

What was worse was that I knew him even better after just one awkward, ridiculous, scary dinner in February. One weird Valentine’s Day, and everything was different. It wasn’t like we were buddies or that I understood at all how his mind worked, but I did know how much he loved his husband and what lengths he would go to keep him safe. It wasn’t every man who took a bullet for someone he loved. Ian and I knew a secret others didn’t, because he hadn’t even told the rest of the team he’d been shot. Instead he simply showed up for work the following Monday, having taken the two days of vacation already on the books, like nothing remotely interesting had happened. Since he liked to look bulletproof, Ian and I saw no reason to muck around with that perception.

I knew the loyalty I saw him give his men, give me and everyone else who worked for him, extended to his friends as well. He worried about his family, his friends, his team, and honestly, just seeing him grounded me. But now….

My heart clenched, my stomach sank, and my breath caught as I closed my eyes for a second and tried to reconcile what I believed in—his invincibility—with what I’d just seen—his death—before I stepped up to the wall and peered over the side.

There, braced on a thin lip of what could only be called an ornamental flight of whimsy on the architect’s part—no more than molding on the building—was Kage, dangling by a one-handed death grip over a fifty-foot plunge, holding on to the guy he’d been chasing with the other.

I nearly dropped dead.

“Take him,” Kage growled while heaving the guy up to me.

I couldn’t have done it. Ian couldn’t have done it. It required muscles neither of us possessed and the ability to deadlift at least two hundred pounds. And he was doing it from basically the shoulder alone.

I was strong, but not like that, and I couldn’t imagine the concentration needed to keep the guy from falling in the first place.

I grabbed the fugitive, realized I was looking at none other than Kevin Gannon—which was why, of course, Kage took off after him in the first place—hauled him up over the edge, and then cuffed him. “Don’t move,” I warned. Normally I put a knee on a suspect’s back when I had them on the ground, but this guy wasn’t fighting or squirming. He just lay there, limp.

“No,” he said between gasps, “not moving.”

Bending back over, I saw Kage had both hands on the top edge of the roof. I leaned forward to offer him a hand.

“Secure your prisoner, Jones,” he ordered gruffly before he pressed himself onto the ledge, turned to sit and swing his legs around, and then stood.

I stepped back, watching as he gave himself a quick dusting, straightened his navy suit, adjusted the tie, and then faced me.

I couldn’t stop staring.

He scowled.

I had no clue what to say.

“Don’t tell anybody,” he instructed before turning for the door of the roof.

Don’t tell anybody? Was he fucking kidding? I could barely breathe!

Holy motherfucking hell.

I had to concentrate on not hyperventilating.

Once I could move air through my lungs again—because Jesus Christ, I thought Ian was good at stopping my heart—I finally turned to look at my prisoner.

“That man is insane,” Gannon said.

I nodded in earnest.

“But, yanno,” he said on a sharp exhale, “kind of awesome.”

He got a wan smile from me that time.

Kage waited for us at the bottom of the last flight of stairs and then opened the door to seven uniformed CPD officers. Because his face was now recognizable, along with those of the mayor, the police superintendent, and the state’s attorney, they straightened, holstered their drawn weapons, and waited for his order.

He only glowered and told them to move so we could get through. When we got closer to the warehouse, I saw Ching and Becker waiting for us along with Dorsey and Ryan, plus Sharpe and White. I didn’t see Ian anywhere, which didn’t concern me since the area of operation was swarming with law enforcement. Kowalski and Eli weren’t there, instead back at the office on desk duty, running warrants and playing liaison to those of us in the field. Technically it was Ian’s and my day to do it, but Eli had his cousin Ira coming in from San Francisco, and he didn’t want to be stuck in the field when he was supposed to be picking the guy up at O’Hare. I understood. With our job, it could go off the rails at any time. It was best to simply not engage than to try to get away.

“—secured, and all the VX gas canisters have been recovered.”

My mind had been drifting, so I was lucky the glut of information was not directed at me.

“But SOG was called to an emergency in Hyde Park, so they’re gone.”

“We need to run warrants on all these men,” Kage began, indicating the people lying on the ground, facedown with their hands zip-tied behind their backs. “Run everyone through NCIC and then—”

“Is that really necessary?” asked Darren Mills, the new supervisory deputy who took over Kage’s spot after he was promoted.

First, holy God, he interrupted Kage.

Second, not only did he question our boss, his boss, but what he asked was stupid.

I glanced at Ching, who shot a look over to Becker, who winced. It was not the first time Mills, who had been chosen by a committee without the benefit of endorsement from Kage or Kage’s boss, Tom Kenwood, had opened his mouth and inserted his foot. He had also missed a filing for Asset Forfeiture, so we missed the monthly auction where we got the cars we drove, or sometimes didn’t want to drive but got stuck with anyway—a horrific carnation-pink Cabriolet came instantly to mind—and he still didn’t know who did what in our building.

Over the years, I’d come to realize there were two kinds of transfers, which was probably true of all workplace environments. There were people who came in quietly, got the lay of the land, and worked really hard to make sure everyone saw they could be counted on to do the job. Then there were others like Mills, who swaggered in, put on airs, and pretended to run the place and direct the team. In his defense, the investigator team normally did report to the supervisory deputy, as we all did to Kage when he was in that position, but when he moved up, Kage changed the reporting system so the lead investigator, currently Becker, remained in direct contact with him—basically circumventing Mills. In response Mills had spoken to Kenwood, US marshal in charge of the Northern District of Illinois, one of the ninety-four men appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, to complain that Kage hadn’t relinquished all his duties.

That was the gist of it, anyway, and I only knew that much because Dorsey and Ryan had been in the office processing a fugitive when Mills barged into Kage’s office without an invitation.

“Really?” I’d deadpanned over wings, eating one after another, licking my fingers and listening while we sat at Crisp on Broadway. Ian was shoved up beside me, laughing as he watched me but also listening. “Mills just rolled into his office without checking with Elyes?”

Kage had needed an assistant for as long as I’d known him, and he finally got one in the form of small, slender, hyperefficient Elyes Salerno, easily one of the most beautiful women I’d ever met in my life. She had a pixie cut, dark tan skin with bronze undertones, and huge chestnut-brown eyes with the thickest black lashes I’d ever seen. She had fantastic fashion sense, and as many compliments as I gave her, she gave me the same back, telling me often that if only her husband had my shoe collection, she’d have no complaints. The fact that she could be midsentence with me, check her email, and answer a question for Kage if he popped his head out of his office all at the same time told me she was absolutely on top of all facets of her boss’s life, from remembering when he was supposed to be somewhere to intuitively knowing what report he needed. Elyes only left the office when Kage did. So the fact that Mills disregarded her and walked past her into the office was, I was sure, his first mistake.

“Yep,” Dorsey reported, sighing when the server put the next basket of wings down on the table. It was always good to go to Crisp with Dorsey and Ryan because they ate the same wings as me and Ian: the Seoul Sassy and the Crisp BBQ. The others liked to mix it up, but I never saw the appeal of straying from the tried and true. “Mills yells at Kage and says he’s got Kenwood on the line, and he’s about to slam the door when Kage leans out, apologizes to Elyes, and then closes the door behind him.”

I couldn’t control my smile. “Ohmygod, I can’t believe Mills is still breathing!”

“Right?” Dorsey chuckled.

“So what happened?” Ian asked, smiling as he wiped the side of my mouth. “Jesus, I can’t take you anywhere.”

I waggled my eyebrows at him as Ryan snapped his fingers between us. “Listen, this is about to get good.”

“It is,” Dorsey promised, smiling evilly. “’Cause alluva sudden Mills straightens up like you see people do in the movies when they’re freezing or turning to stone or something.”

Kage’s office was a wall of windows, so the show had to have been a good one, from where Ryan and Dorsey sat in the bullpen.

“Yeah,” Ryan agreed, grinning with his deep dimples and the glinting blue eyes that explained how he had so many women hanging off him when we went out. He was one of those guys you didn’t realize was handsome until he smiled. “Mills goes rigid, and his face turns this bright red, and then Kage does that thing where he turns and looks at you like you’re the stupidest fuckin’ thing on the planet.”

“I’ve seen that one,” Ian and I said in sync.

Dorsey scoffed. “We all have. It’s the one Phillip—”

“Call me Phil, there, buddy,” I chimed in, and Dorsey, Ryan, and I all made gun motions at each other instead of pointing.

“I think I missed something,” Ian commented, squinting.

Ryan gave a dismissive wave. “You missed nothing. Tull was the nozzle who sent us all over the fuckin’ place when you were deployed and Kage was on vacation.”

“Oh, when you were in San Francisco.” Ian made the connection, wiping my mouth again and running his thumb over my bottom lip in the process.

The heat in his eyes made me shift a bit in my seat, my chinos suddenly tighter. He had a very decadent effect on me. “Yeah,” I croaked.

“Tull was a fuckin’ douchebag,” Dorsey assured Ian, “and Kage made sure he understood that his time with the marshals service had come to an end, and when he was doing it in front of all of us, he gave him that same look, like, you are such a fuckin’ fucktard, how are you even in my goddamn office right now?”

Ryan was laughing and nodding because, just like the rest of us, he was familiar with the Kage glare of disapproval.

“He wanted to go back to JSD, but those guys work too hard to have to deal with assholes like him,” Dorsey went on, mustering up even more disdain for Tull.

“Agreed,” I said as Ian curled a piece of hair around my ear. I had been letting it grow out for a while and was still waiting for Kage to say something. “Judicial security doesn’t need a guy like Tull any more than we did.”

“So what happened with Mills?” Ian asked, wiping his hands before draping an arm around the back of my chair.

Dorsey chuckled. “He stands there for a second, looking back at Kage, and then he whips around and almost runs out of the office without closing the door.”

“Oh shit,” I breathed. “Then what?”

“Then Kage walks over to the door, gives me and Mike a head tip, and then slowly closes the door,” Dorsey wrapped up. “I mean, I don’t know what Kenwood said in there, but I’m betting things didn’t go down how Mills thought they would.”

Ryan cackled. “What a dick.”

So now even after that debacle—when Mills knew his decision to try to go over Kage’s head so epically failed—still he asked him, in front of all of us, if checking warrants was necessary when every marshal on the planet knew that was procedure. Kage said it because he was programmed to say it, not that he didn’t think it was our first step. He was like a parent reminding a child to put something away, habit and nothing more.

“Yes,” Kage said with a huff, the annoyance rolling off him. “We must.”

Mills coughed nervously.

“Where’s Doyle,” Kage snapped.

“Oh, uhm, he left with the SOG team,” Mills answered, clearly flustered, fidgeting, shifting nervously from one foot to the other.

“On whose authority?”

“Mine,” he said, darting his eyes to Kage’s face.

“Do you have his earpiece?”

He cleared his throat. “I do.”

Kage tipped his head at me. “That’s his partner. Give it to him.”

“Oh, yes,” he acknowledged, passing me the earpiece Ian should have turned back in the second he finished the operation. “SOG lost a man on the breach. He’ll be okay but had to be taken to the hospital, so Lieutenant Saford asked for Doyle, and I gave the okay.”

I glanced at Kage, whose clenched jaw told me he was not happy with that.

“Between Doyle volunteering for their ops, Saford requesting him, and you approving it—I think maybe I should look into reassigning him.”

I realized, horrified, that he was looking at me. “Sir?”

Seriously, why the hell was I in trouble? Guilt by marriage?

“Jones?”

I had no idea what I was supposed to say.

“May I make an observation?” Mills asked.

Kage didn’t answer, but he gave him his attention.

“You know as well as I do the command of SOG here is vacant, and a former Green Beret, who’s also a marshal, would be a great fit for that office.”

Kage crossed his arms, giving Mills, who looked as though he was actually shrinking before my eyes, a look that would have peeled paint. “Really? He’d be a good fit, you think?”

I could tell when it hit Mills that maybe he’d overstepped. Like his boss hadn’t come to that same conclusion a long time ago, eons before.

“But of course you know that already, sir.”

Kage made a noise like an irritated grunt and then turned to me. “Run warrants and prints on everyone. You and the others are here until it’s done.”

Why he said it again, I had no clue, but I didn’t dare groan—he’d gut me—so instead I nodded and turned away, tugging my prisoner with me, walking with Becker and Ching.

“So Captain America bailed again, huh?” Ching taunted as soon as we were out of Kage’s earshot.

I flipped him off.

“So touchy.” Becker snickered before pointing at the end of the twenty-four-man line.

“Jesus,” I muttered, looking at all of them, wanting to find out where Ian was—and more importantly, how he was—but instead I was stuck running fingerprints and checking warrants for what looked like hours yet.

Earlier that morning before work, when I’d been making breakfast and he was reading his email, he’d suddenly asked me what “upcycled” meant.

“What?” I asked, turning away from the eggs in a basket.

“You don’t know what that is either?”

“I have a guess, but gimme some context.”

“Well, Josue says he’s getting an Etsy shop, and he’s going to upcycle vintage jewelry,” he answered, looking up at me, squinting. “The fuck does that mean?”

Josue Morant, who used to be Josue Hess, was a witness I had brought back from Las Vegas last November. He had become, like Cabot Kincaid and Drake Palmer before him, more than a witness. He was like a ward to Ian and me. The fact that he was emailing Ian meant he was trying to circumvent me for some reason, and I could hazard a guess as to why.

“Etsy is an online site where artists and folks like that sell stuff they make,” I explained.

“Okay,” he said as if I hadn’t helped in the least.

“And I’m guessing ‘upcycling’ means repurposing.”

“Whatever,” he said dismissively, done, I could tell, discussing things he didn’t give a crap about. “I just reminded him that he can’t use his real name, can’t use any name remotely attached to his former life, and can’t post a picture of himself, or one he created, so we’ll see what he does from here.”

“Poor kid. He was supposed to testify in February.”

“Yep.” Ian yawned and stretched. “That’s what happens when rich criminals get good lawyers. Trials get pushed back.”

“I think that—”

“Hungry,” he whined petulantly, “need food. How long does it take to drop eggs into a hole in a piece of bread and fry them? I would’ve had this done hours ago.”

I scoffed, turned back to the eggs looking good at the center of the sourdough bread, and put the red peppers I’d sautéed earlier on top.

“And not that I’m complaining, because you cooking for me is very domestic and all, but we usually just have coffee, so what gives?”

“I just—I’m worried that something will come up and you won’t get a chance to eat,” I answered, and a second later was surprised to find him there at my back, mouth on the side of my neck, biting gently. “Knock it off. You’re gonna turn me into a giant goose bump, and I’m trying to make the presentation on the eggs perfect, which is why it’s taking so long.”

He didn’t listen, instead nuzzling my hair and then kissing my ear, his warm breath making me shiver as he wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled me against his hard body, my ass pressed to his groin.

“Jesus, Ian,” I groaned, going boneless in his arms, my head back on his shoulder, as always loving the feel of him, his strength and heat, the power in a simple hold.

“Let’s move this off the burner so I can get what I really need,” he rumbled, one hand on my belt buckle, tugging my dress shirt out of my pants with the other.

“You need to eat,” I managed hoarsely, the way my voice cracked not hot in the least. It wasn’t my fault, though; Ian could make me forget my name with not much work on his part. He had a drugging effect on me that was utterly sinful. “I want to feed you.”

“Well, I wanna—”

“Eat,” I asserted, grinning.

“Eat something,” he assured me before he turned me around, moving the pan off the burner at the same time, then laid a kiss on me that left no doubt in my mind about what he wanted. If his stomach hadn’t picked that moment to growl so loud it startled us both, I knew we would have been late for work.

I chuckled as he stepped back.

“Shut up.”

“Maybe you should eat, huh, baby?”

He grunted.

“What do you think?”

“Maybe,” he allowed, coming clean. “And don’t smile at me.”

I couldn’t help it. Just looking at him made me stupidly happy.

Minutes later, as he was inhaling his food, I got a begrudging smile coupled with flashing eyes that made my knees wobble as I clutched at the counter. There was no doubt about it. Ian Doyle had me wrapped around his finger.

“Jones!”

Brought back sharply to the present from my wandering thoughts, I saw Kage gesturing to me, and I looked back at Becker.

“I got him,” he said, taking hold of my prisoner’s arm. “Go.”

I bolted over to Kage, and he put a hand on my bicep—which he never did, not a big touchy-feely guy, my boss—while still listening to others standing in a semicircle around him but clearly about to give me directions.

He turned his attention on me, and I saw the concern there in his eyes. “You remember the marshal from Alabama who came in last week, the one working out of the Middle District in Montgomery?”

“Yeah, uhm.” I had to think a second. “Juanita Hicks. She was looking to talk to the couple from Madison who were put into WITSEC here.”

He nodded. “Well, it turns out that wasn’t Hicks. She was killed two weeks ago, and that woman is Bellamy Pine, Dennis Pine’s wife.”

“Oh shit,” I sighed, suddenly glad I’d put her off because of protocol. It was simple dumb luck: because I had put the adorable young couple into witness protection in Chicago, I had to be the one to go with her to see them. Since I hadn’t had time until this week, she’d had to wait, much, I recalled now, to her annoyance.

They were a nice couple, a ballet teacher named Jolie Ballard and her website-designer husband, Brett, who did not deserve to have Dennis Pine in their home at three in the morning along with three other men toting two witnesses. How they managed to witness Pine killing three people—the two he planned, plus one of his own who’d grown a conscience—and get out of the house with their two dogs was a miracle. They did it with misdirection and, apparently, as Jolie told me, a well-timed leap—or grand jeté, as she called it—over a smallish sinkhole in their backyard. Jolie could do it, years and years of intensive ballet training, even carrying her Pomeranian, but Pine went down, and that was that. Brett told me the county was supposed to fix the sinkhole, and he’d never been more thankful for red tape in his life.

As it turned out, Pine’s trial was in two weeks, and if Jolie and Brett took the stand, Pine would get the needle. His wife, Bellamy, was trying not to let that happen.

“Jones?”

“Yeah, I-I was supposed to call her today.”

He nodded. “Well, you need to keep that meeting. We’ll monitor you because Hicks had a partner, Christopher Warren, and he’s missing as well. They discovered Hicks’s body this morning behind an RV park in Mobile, but no sign of Warren.”

“So they want to take Bellamy alive.”

“That’s the plan, yes.”

“Okay.”

“Did Doyle go with you to meet Bellamy? Will she think it’s odd that you come alone?”

“No, sir, Ian went with Sharpe and White on the fugitive pickup out in Skokie last week, the guy who busted out of that prison in California—I forget which,” I told him honestly. “But that’s when I met with her, when most everyone else was out.”

“Okay, then,” he said, meeting the eyes of everyone else there, some in suits, some in tactical gear. “We need you to call her and meet her, and we’ll do the rest.”

“Yessir,” I replied, reaching for the phone in my back pocket.

He put a hand on my arm to stop me and then glanced around the circle, making sure everyone understood he was talking to them. “All eyes on my man, you understand?”

And everyone listened to him, like always.

Fire and Granite by Andrew Grey
“YOU’RE LEAVING already?” Briggs asked with a wry grin.

“Just got back from a transport to jail. Why—you need something?” Clay Brown asked, stopping as he climbed the steps of the sheriff’s station. He checked his watch. It had been a long shift and he was tired already. “I don’t have anything else this afternoon, unless Hunter has something special he wants me for.”

Briggs—a seasoned officer with years on the job that seemed to have etched a low-relief map in his face—shook his head. “I need another man for a transport team.”

“Tell me when,” Clay said without thinking too much about it. He understood they did what was needed to keep the public safe. That was the job, and Clay loved it, even if it meant long hours.

“Ten minutes. I have to get the paperwork finished, and we need to go over the procedures for this guy.” Briggs hurried down the steps toward the parking lot.

Clay went inside and headed to his desk to check his voicemail. He returned his work calls to keep things current. It would be nice if his family would call occasionally, but other than that….

“You about ready?” Briggs asked as he passed. Everyone called him by his last name, and Clay had wondered why until he found out his first name was Wilton. Then he understood. Briggs it was.

Clay headed to the conference room and took a seat. Briggs sat across from him as two other deputies, Smith and Jared, came in as well. That was quite a team for a simple transport.

“What’s the deal?”

“We are transferring Harper Grange to the courthouse today,” Briggs said.

Clay sat up straighter. “Should I be on this team?” he asked with a sigh. “We’re related.”

Briggs leaned across the table. “I’m aware of that. Is it going to be a problem?”

Clay shrugged. Harper was his cousin, the son of his father’s weird brother, Uncle Fester—Fredrick—and sister-in-law, Aunt Marlene. His family rarely had anything to do with that side of the family. Clay’s dad hated Marlene with a deep-seated passion, and he wasn’t too fond of Fredrick either, so even as kids, Clay and Harper hadn’t had much interaction. Other than being his cousin in name, Clay barely knew Harper, but he wanted to be aboveboard.

“I’m not going to have a problem. I probably only know him as well as any other prisoner we’d transport. I just wanted to be up front about it.”

“Good. Now, Grange is high risk and dangerous and he’s unpredictable. If he’s docile, don’t assume anything. Like any prisoner, he can become violent at any second. We’re using one of the SUVs for this transport.”

“Shackles?” Jared asked.

“Yes. Handcuff joined to leg irons. We aren’t taking any chances whatsoever. He’s a huge flight risk, and he’s threated both Judge Phillips and Judge Fortier just in the past week. You probably saw the uproar in the papers about it.”

Clay had. A reporter had arranged to visit under the guise of being a family member, and all hell had broken loose. Clay had to give the reporter credit—he’d used the fact that they had the same last name as an angle. After that debacle, which Clay was glad he’d been far away from, procedures at the jail had been changed and severely tightened.

“There will be no repeat of anything like that if I can help it,” Clay said.

Briggs nodded, relaxing a little. “Good. We’ve done transports every day. Stick to the book, don’t rush, but keep him moving. The biggest exposure is from the jail to the car and the car into the courthouse. I will be staying with him at the courthouse and providing security in the courtroom, along with the bailiff and the courthouse team. Be methodical and don’t take any chances with this guy. Any questions?”

There were none. All of them had done transports like this before and knew the drill. They stood when Briggs did and got busy. Clay was assigned to the second car, which would travel behind the one carrying Harper. That was probably best, as he wasn’t particularly keen to have any interaction with his cousin.

They all supervised and provided a show of strength while Harper was shackled and then walked slowly out to the loading area. Clay hadn’t seen his cousin in person in a few years, but he was menacing as hell. He was huge, broad-shouldered, and had his hair shaved and his head covered with demonic-looking tattoos. Everything about him, from the way he carried himself to his aloof, almost imperious demeanor, was designed to intimidate everyone around him. It wasn’t working on the deputies, who spoke very little as they guided him to the car. Clay breathed a sigh of relief when the SUV door closed with Harper safely inside the inner security cage.

The deputies got in, and Clay and Jared climbed into the second car. They pulled out of the Cumberland County jail complex and onto the road, heading toward town and the courthouse. Clay drove, with Jared manning communications.

“I really hate this guy,” Jared said as they rode.

“He gets to you, huh?” Clay said. “Imagine that”—he pointed forward—“showing up at your family reunion. It’s a real joy, I can tell you that.”

Clay drove at a safe speed, approaching the first intersection, but the lead SUV slowed and pulled to a stop. The road was blocked by an accident.

“I’m calling it in.”

“There are people on the road, and they look injured,” Clay said, though he had no intention of getting out. This was too dangerous for them to…. “Holy shit!”

One of the injured people raced up to the door of the SUV and collapsed against it.

“We need more vehicles out here.”

“I’m already on it.” Jared relayed the situation over the radio and then got out of the car. The others weren’t going to help, not with a prisoner in the car.

“Step away from the vehicle,” Clay said through the car speaker. “We have called for help. Please step away.”

The person continued leaning on the car, and Clay could see what appeared to be blood on the white SUV. Jared raced up, and Clay opened his door. As soon as he did, the bloodied black-haired woman leaning against the car straightened up, brandishing a gun, and shot Jared in the leg. He went down near the side of the road, and the woman turned to the SUV, shooting at the windows.

Clay grabbed the radio, his heart racing. This whole thing had gone to shit faster than he could take a breath. “We need assistance on Claremont Road near Army Heritage Drive. All available units, officer down… I repeat, officer down.” Years of training took over. He grabbed his weapon and crouched low, using the car door as cover in an effort to get a better and safer view of the scene. “Stand down!” Clay yelled, not knowing if the deputies in the other vehicle were alive or not. Smoke poured out of the broken window, and Clay wondered what had been shot into the vehicle.

The woman reached inside and opened the back door. Harper got out of the car as two men approached. They grabbed him, and Clay shot at the fleeing group. He hit one, who whirled but kept going. They climbed into one of the cars involved in the “accident” and sped off.

Clay raced up to where Jared lay on the ground.

“The son of a bitch,” Jared swore when Clay reached him. “I’ll be fine. They got me in the leg and it isn’t too bad. Check on the others.”

The tear gas inside the SUV had dissipated, but Clay’s eyes watered anyway as he got the doors open. Briggs lay on the steering wheel, groaning. Smith was shot in the head, leaning back in the seat, with blood running down his face.

“What the hell happened?” Sheriff Hunter asked as he raced up. Who knew a man that big could move that fast?

“It was an ambush. They were made up like accident victims. One shot Jared and then Smith.” Clay kept his wits even though he wanted to chase after the bastards. “They took off in a light blue Corolla, I’d say 2010 or so, heading south. License PAC376.”

“I’ve already alerted the Carlisle PD. They’re assisting.” Sheriff Hunter called in the information on the car as ambulances arrived.

Clay stayed out of the way of the other officers and emergency personnel, answering questions from every angle, it seemed. He turned to the sheriff as his head caught up to the rest of him. “Have you alerted the state police? He’s most likely heading for the freeway.”

“Already done,” Sheriff Hunter said.

Clay felt like shit. Three of the men with him were injured, and Smith looked like he was in really bad shape as they got him out of the car. Briggs was awake and pissed as hell, jawing away as they loaded him in the ambulance. Briggs, who was in charge of the motor pool, among other things, was probably angrier that they’d messed up his cars than about his own injuries. Jared seemed like he was going to be okay. It was Smith who worried him most. He wasn’t moving as they loaded him in the ambulance, and his was the first to race away.

“I should have wrung that bastard’s neck when we were kids,” Clay swore as Sheriff Hunter approached again. “He was always an asshole.”

He nodded and let the remark go. “Carlisle PD has the car. They found it in the Giant parking lot. It seems they ditched it and stole another,” Sheriff Hunter said. “These guys had this planned, and they were sophisticated.”

“You think they’ll leave the state and keep going?” Clay asked.

“I don’t know.” Hunter turned to him, his expression drawn in a way Clay had never seen before, though he understood and felt the same way. The guys he worked with were like brothers. They had one another’s backs. Clay wondered what else he could have done as guilt started taking root.

Other teams of officers arrived, and Clay let them work the scene and check the accident vehicle, which also turned out to be stolen. Just great. Hopefully it would be covered in prints and they could identify some of the men who had pulled this thing off. Clay leaned against his car and surrendered his weapon when asked so it could be examined. He explained the shots he fired and that he’d injured one suspect.

“He didn’t even seem to feel it,” Clay said absently. “I saw the blood and the hole in his clothes, but he kept moving like it was a mosquito bite. I’m going to guess the guy was hopped up on something, but I sure as hell have no idea what.” He lifted his gaze as a man in a Carlisle police officer’s uniform came over. “Hey, Red. What the hell are you doing here?”

“Carlisle jurisdiction, technically, and Sheriff Hunter thought it best to get some outside help,” Red explained.

“Good.” This was going to rock the sheriff’s department, so having investigators who were a little more removed was probably a good idea. Clay went over what happened so Red could get a statement. “What else can I tell you?” He turned at movement to his left. “Hey, Carter.”

“Sorry about this, Clay.”

“Me too. The bastards had this well planned,” Clay explained.

“I understand Harper Grange is a relative of yours,” Red prompted, and Clay explained how they were related.

“I don’t even think he’d recognize me now. But I certainly know him.” Clay provided all of the family contact information that he was aware of. “I doubt he’ll be stupid enough to contact anyone.”

“Why do you say that?” Carter asked while Red continued making notes.

“Whoever did this went through a lot of effort to get Harper out. There has to be a reason, and whoever they are, they aren’t going to let Harper or anyone else blow all their hard work by making a phone call to Mommy.” Clay knew that for damn sure.

The Carlisle team gathered physical evidence. Clay found he hated being on the other end of the investigation. He was usually the one asking the questions.

“Any word on any of the injuries?” Clay asked Sheriff Hunter once Red and Carter were done with him. “How is Smith?”

“Being prepped for surgery. The best they can tell us is that he’s alive. Briggs is conscious and going to be fine. Jared was damned lucky, with just a deep graze.” A lot of the wind had gone out of Sheriff Hunter’s sails. The man was usually imperturbable. Sure, he yelled and stuff, but things didn’t seem to get to him, deep down, very often. This definitely had. “They’re almost done here, and then we need to get back to the station.” He turned and strode toward his car.

Clay stayed until the wrecker arrived to haul away the second car. He also checked with all the officers to make sure there wasn’t anything they needed before he returned to the station. There would be an investigation for many reasons, one of which was the discharge of his weapon. Granted, that was pretty minor given the overall circumstances.

Once he was free to go, Clay turned the sheriff’s vehicle he’d arrived in around and drove the short distance back to the sheriff’s station next to the jail. He parked and walked inside to a very subdued atmosphere, though a few people approached him with questions.

“I don’t know much more than you do. It happened fast. Jared was trying to help the others when he was hurt.” That was all Clay was going to say at the moment. His legs had been knocked out from under him, but he wasn’t going to spread gossip. “What’s important is that the guys are getting the help they need,” he told Lawson, who had the decency to nod and go back to his desk.

“It will be all right,” Pierre Ravelle said as he came over to Clay’s desk and perched on the corner. “This wasn’t your fault.”

“I know that,” Clay answered quickly—too quickly. He felt like snapping but kept his voice under control.

“Do you?” Pierre crossed his arms over his chest, but his tone was soft and gentle, without accusation. “This is unprecedented in the department, and three of your colleagues were hurt before your eyes. You don’t need to be gruff about it. Everyone here understands.”

“I know. I keep wondering what I could have done to stop it.”

“You thought it was an accident and you were cautious,” Pierre said.

Clay nodded. “I thought the woman was bleeding out against the car. Jared had to have thought the same thing.” He sighed softly. “They were waiting for us. They knew when we were transporting Harper.”

“That probably wasn’t hard to guess. His trial has been in the papers, so they knew we would have to transport him with two cars together. But that doesn’t explain how they knew to be in the exact right spot at the exact right time, other than by the time of his trial. It’s suspect, but they could have had help from inside.”

“I hope not.” This was going to be bad enough, but turning it into a witch hunt inside the department would make things so much worse.

“Me too. But sometimes information is a lot easier to get than any of us would like to think.” Pierre stood. “No brooding or getting it into your head that this is your fault. It isn’t. It’s the assholes who broke out Grange, and we’re going to nail their asses to the wall.”

Clay loved the way Pierre could give a pep talk out of nowhere. Sometimes it was just what he needed.

“Yeah, we are. But in the meantime, Grange is out there once again.” He cringed at that thought. Before he’d been apprehended, Harper had assaulted at least eight people and murdered one more. “He’s smart, and now we know he has a pretty in-depth organization if they can pull this together.” This situation was going to get ugly as hell, especially once the story hit the media.

“No kidding. I thought we had this mini-Manson off the streets.” Pierre patted him on the shoulder. “We’ll get him,” he said, then went back to his desk.

Clay tried to get his head on work, but his thoughts kept wandering to the guys in the hospital.

“Brown,” Sheriff Hunter said as he passed his desk. “Jared is being sent home. Briggs is in a regular room. They have him stitched up and are watching him for a concussion.”

“What about Smith?” Clay asked.

“He’s out of surgery and still unconscious. They say the next couple days will tell the tale, so we wait. I spoke with his wife. She’s with him now. She said all we can do is pray.”

“Thanks.” Clay hated the part where he was helpless to do anything. That really sucked.

“Go on home. Your shift is almost over and you may as well get some rest. There are reporters already gathering out front. I’ll handle them. Don’t make a comment. Just go on home.”

“You got it.” Clay was anxious enough to put this day behind him. He gathered his things, left the station, got into his car, and headed for town and home. He pulled into his small garage and went through the yard to the back door of his town house.

“Hey, Petey,” he greeted, letting the tail-wagging corgi outside. They had a routine: when Clay got home, Petey went outside right away, then ambled back in for his greeting, plenty of scratches, and a treat. “Did you keep all the burglars away?” He handed Petey a rawhide, and the pup raced off to the living room and ducked under the coffee table to devour his treat.

Clay changed his clothes and then went to his office to check his email. He was finishing up when his phone chimed.

You okay? It was from his mother.

Clay called her back. “I’m fine, Mom.” He needed to reassure her. He didn’t want his mother calling him all night because she was scared for him. She tended to be a little dramatic and took things to heart sometimes, especially when it related to her only son.

“I hear your cousin is at it again,” she said immediately. “He’s all over the news, and your aunt has called twenty times, like I had anything to do with raising that son of Satan.” That was his mom. No sympathy from her for anyone. She was a no-nonsense kind of person, and Clay liked that about her. “Of course, I had to be nice to her because her son is a wanted criminal and will probably go to prison for the rest of his life….” She took a breath, and Clay tried to get a word in, but she continued on full steam. “The escape is all over the news. They said that three deputies were hurt, so I had to check to make sure you were okay.” Finally she paused a second.

“I’m okay. I was on the team transporting him. I saw the whole thing. And I can’t go into any details. But I’m fine, and one of the deputies is already home and another is doing well. The third, we don’t know yet. And for heaven’s sake, don’t share any of this with Aunt Marlene. It’s already bad enough.” His mother and his aunt had a weird relationship. They didn’t like each other, but they called each other on a regular basis. He thought it was a “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” sort of thing. Personally, his aunt made him a little crazy, so Clay avoided her as much as possible.

“Well, it’s awful, but I’m glad nothing happened to you. Let me know if I can do anything for the families of the other deputies. Maybe I could bake something and you could take it over to them.”

Clay cringed. His mother loved to bake, but no one ever willingly ate what came out of her kitchen. Her baking could best be described as experimental. The woman believed she could hide ingredients that were supposed to be healthy in what she cooked, but Clay knew there was no way in hell that mushrooms ever belonged in an apple pie.

“Mom, your good wishes are more than enough. We may need to take up a collection for their families because, no matter what, this will be a hardship for them.” And if Smith didn’t make it…. Clay shuddered. Smith had a family and two kids. The thought of them losing their father really twisted Clay’s gut. He knew what that felt like, and no kid should have to go through it. He wiped his eyes and stopped the sniffle that threatened. “Mom, I need to go and make some dinner. I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know if anything changes.”

“Okay, honey. I love you.” She ended the call, and Clay set down his phone. Petey had finished his treat and sat at his feet, looking up at him.

“Do you want to help me make dinner?” Of course, Petey’s kind of help was eating anything that fell on the floor. Petey’s tail wagged, brushing back and forth like a doggie dust mop. “You’ll get yours when I have mine. That’s the deal.”

Petey whined at the injustice.

Clay went to the kitchen, got a container of pasta and sauce that he’d made up over the weekend, and popped it into the microwave. He wasn’t in the mood to cook, and an evening on the sofa in front of the television sounded like a good idea. Clay also made up a small salad and dressed it with ranch. He fed Petey and settled in front of the television, eating while watching the news, changing the channel as soon as the escape story came on.

Petey joined him on the sofa, curling up next to him, his head resting on Clay’s leg.

“I know, buddy. You’re just what I needed.” He patted Petey gently on the head and stroked down his back. Petey blinked up at him with his big brown puppy eyes, and Clay was able to let go of some of the stress of his day. Few things were as relaxing as just spending some quiet time with his dog. Petey never yelled at him and didn’t expect much from him. He just loved him without judgment. There hadn’t been many people in his life that Clay could say that about.

Clay’s phone rang, and Petey barked, then growled. He hated the phone, especially when it interrupted back-rub time. Clay checked the number and answered. “Sheriff, what can I do for you?”

“I wanted to call and tell you that Smith is awake and responding to treatment. The bullet didn’t enter his brain, but it did a lot of damage. They still have him on monitors, but I went to see him and his eyes were open and he squeezed my hand. He can’t talk because of tubes and things, but he’s improving. Briggs will go home tomorrow, and Jared’s wife said he’s resting and grumpy.”

“I suppose that’s the best we can hope for,” Clay said, breathing a sigh of relief as he continued petting Petey.

“Yes.” Sheriff Hunter hesitated. Clay figured he’d called for more than just to give him an update on his fellow deputies. He had to give him a chance to say what he wanted to say. “With the department down three deputies for a while, we need…. You know Grange is on the loose, and apparently that isn’t enough for him. Judge Phillips received a call threating his safety about an hour ago.”

Clay groaned, realizing where he was going with this. “Sheriff… I….”

Sheriff Hunter sighed. “I know you and Judge Phillips don’t get along. The man could be a royal pain in the behind to Jesus Christ himself, but he needs protection. We know Grange has threatened Phillips in the past, and he’s done it again. Now he’s on the loose, and God knows where he is right now. We have everyone trying to find this asshole, but until we do, Judge Phillips needs to be kept safe.”

“All right. When is he expecting me?” Clay asked, knowing he had little choice.

“Tomorrow morning at eight in his courtroom. I told him I couldn’t have anyone before then. He went to a hotel for the night and will go directly to court from there. He’s going to need around-the-clock protection, so you’ll need to figure out how to secure his home as well. My suggestion is to make a visible presence. Let anyone watching know that you’re there to try to discourage them from making a play for the judge.”

“All right.” He wasn’t thrilled about doing this, but it was his job, and he could get along with anyone for a few days. God, he hoped it was only that long. “I’ll protect Judge Moody-and-Superior.”

“Great. And for goodness’ sake, don’t let him hear you call him that or he’ll probably hold you in contempt.”

“We’re supposed to tell the truth in court,” Clay retorted, and Sheriff Hunter snorted.

“You’re also not supposed to piss off the judge. Just behave yourself until we catch this guy. I’d really like to not have to transport one of my deputies to jail.” He hung up, and Clay sighed loudly enough that Petey lifted his head.

“I know, boy. I’ve got an awful assignment with a picky judge who thinks he’s God’s gift to everyone. The man is a pain in the ass.”

Petey climbed onto his lap and lay over his legs. Clay petted him gently, and Petey sighed, soaking in the attention.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you while I’m gone. I can’t take you to Mother’s. She’ll keep you on her porch because you get hair on her furniture.”

Petey huffed again, as though he understood and didn’t have any answers either.










Davidson King
Davidson King, always had a hope that someday her daydreams would become real-life stories. As a child, you would often find her in her own world, thinking up the most insane situations. It may have taken her awhile, but she made her dream come true with her first published work, Snow Falling.

When she’s not writing you can find her blogging away on Diverse Reader, her review and promotional site. She managed to wrangle herself a husband who matched her crazy and they hatched three wonderful children.

If you were to ask her what gave her the courage to finally publish, she’d tell you it was her amazing family and friends. Support is vital in all things and when you’re afraid of your dreams, it will be your cheering section that will lift you up.

Abigail Roux
Abigail Roux was born and raised in North Carolina. A past volleyball star who specializes in sarcasm and painful historical accuracy, she currently spends her time coaching high school volleyball and investigating the mysteries of single motherhood. Any spare time is spent living and dying with every Atlanta Braves and Carolina Panthers game of the year. Abigail has a daughter, Little Roux, who is the light of her life, a boxer, four rescued cats who play an ongoing live-action variation of 'Call of Duty' throughout the house, a certifiable extended family down the road, and a cast of thousands in her head.

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.

Jordan L Hawk
Jordan L. Hawk is a non-binary queer author from North Carolina. Childhood tales of mountain ghosts and mysterious creatures gave them a life-long love of things that go bump in the night. When they aren’t writing, they brew their own beer and try to keep the cats from destroying the house. Their best-selling Whyborne & Griffin series (beginning with Widdershins) can be found in print, ebook, and audiobook.

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

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

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.

Mary Calmes
Mary Calmes lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband and two children and loves all the seasons except summer. She graduated from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, with a bachelor's degree in English literature. Due to the fact that it is English lit and not English grammar, do not ask her to point out a clause for you, as it will so not happen. She loves writing, becoming immersed in the process, and falling into the work. She can even tell you what her characters smell like. She loves buying books and going to conventions to meet her fans.

Andrew Grey
Andrew grew up in western Michigan with a father who loved to tell stories and a mother who loved to read them. Since then he has lived throughout the country and traveled throughout the world. He has a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and now writes full time.

Andrew’s hobbies include collecting antiques, gardening, and leaving his dirty dishes anywhere but in the sink (particularly when writing)  He considers himself blessed with an accepting family, fantastic friends, and the world’s most supportive and loving partner. Andrew currently lives in beautiful, historic Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Megan Reddaway
MEGAN REDDAWAY lives in England and has been entertained by fictional characters acting out their stories in her head for as long as she can remember. She began writing them down as soon as she could.

Since she grew up, she has worked as a secretary, driver, barperson, and article writer, among other things. Whatever she is doing, she always has a story bubbling away at the same time.

For news of Megan’s gay romance releases and two free stories, visit her website.


Davidson King
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  FB GROUP
AUDIBLE  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS

Abigail Roux
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TUMBLR  /  GOOGLE+  /  GOOGLE PLAY
AUDIBLE  /  B&N  /  KOBO  /  iTUNES
EMAIL: abiroux@gmail.com

RJ Scott
B&N  /  INSTAGRAM  /  TUMBLR
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BOOKBUB  /  KOBO  /  SMASHWORDS
iTUNES  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: rj@rjscott.co.uk 

Jordan L Hawk
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  FB FRIEND
WEBSITE  /  BLOG  /  NEWSLETTER  /  DSP PUB
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iTUNES  /  AUTOGRAPH  /  CAFE PRESS
SMASHWORDS  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: jordanlhawk@gmail.com

KA Merikan
EMAIL: kamerikan@gmail.com

Josh Lanyon
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
BLOG  /  NEWSLETTER  /  KOBO  /  B&N
INSTAGRAM  /  TUMBLR  /  PATREON
CARINA  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: josh.lanyon@sbcglobal.net 

Mary Calmes
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
BLOG  /  B&N  /  KOBO  /  AUDIBLE
BOOKWORLD  /  AMAZON  /  iTUNES
EMAIL: mmcalmes@hotmail.com

Andrew Grey
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
NEWSLETTER  /  iTUNES  /  B&N
KOBO  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: andrewgrey@comcast.net 

Megan Reddaway



A Dangerous Dance by Davidson King

The Bone Orchard by Abigail Roux
B&N  /  KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  AUDIBLE

Daniel by RJ Scott

Balefire by Jordan L Hawk
B&N  /  KOBO  /  SMASHWORDS

Gray's Shadow by KA Merikan
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  GOODREADS TBR

In Other Words . . . Murder by Josh Lanyon
B&N  /  KOBO  /  SMASHWORDS

Twisted and Tied by Mary Calmes

Fire & Granite by Andrew Grey
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  GOOGLE PLAY

A Position in Paris by Megan Reddaway