Title: A Sacrament of Sin Series: The Midnight Agency #4 Author: Matthew Angelo Publisher: Self-Published Release Date: October 15th, 2021 Heat Level: 1 – No Sex Pairing: No Romance Length: 30k Genre: Fantasy, Horror, Science …
Love’s Gamble by Hayden West Book 2 in the City of Fountains series General Release Date: 12th October 2021 Word Count: 15,774 Book Length: NOVELLA Pages: 68 Genres: CONTEMPORARY EROTIC ROMANCE GAY GLBTQI MYSTERY Add to …
Basic Witch by Katy Hunter Book 1 in the Half Blood series General Release Date: 12th October 2021 Word Count: 15,310 Book Length: SHORT STORY Pages: 68 Heat Rating: Sizzling Genres: ANGELS AND DEMONS CONTEMPORARY …
Drew and Cleevs love hockey, but they love each other more. How can the men find a way to save what matters most?
Todd Cleever and Drew Simon are crazy about each other. They started dating three years ago when “Cleevs” was a rookie defenseman for the Chicago Ice. Drew, the team’s captain, was a few years older than Cleevs. Both men were deep in the closet, but it didn’t take long for them to fall in love.
Cleevs was traded to the Bethesda Barracudas a year later, causing a heartbreaking separation. Ever since, they’ve skated around the problem with occasional stolen nights together and brief vacations under the guise of “friends,” but two years of living apart have taken their toll.
As the holiday approaches, Drew and Cleevs decide things have to change. Still, with their careers and two professional hockey teams in the way, how can they score the game-winning goal and save everything they cherish most?
If you like fierce love, a smallish age gap, exciting hockey, and a steely determination to make things work—not to mention enough steam to fog up all your windows and a fantastic HEA—this is the book for you. The novella contains about 43,000 words of sparkling holiday romance.
About the Authors
Ryan Taylor and Joshua Harwood met in law school and were married in 2017. They live in a suburb of Washington, DC and share their home with a big, cuddly German shepherd. Ryan and Josh enjoy travel, friends, and advocating for causes dear to their hearts. Ryan also loves to swim, and Josh likes to putter in the garden whenever he can. The romance they were so lucky to find with each other inspires their stories about love between out and proud men.
Working as a paranormal private investigator has its trials. I’m busy, which is excellent, but there are more people, alive and otherwise, after me than ever before. The Other Side has stepped up their game. The Fallen are trying to strong-arm me into joining their ranks; they feel I’m the perfect person to aid in their eventual rise to world power, and they don’t give a damn what I have to say about it. Then there’s the Catholic Church. Apparently, they’ve painted a giant bullseye on my back. That keeps you looking over your shoulder, I’ll tell you.
Oh, and did I mention the bastard who abandoned my mother and me when I was born wants to repair a relationship we never had in the first place?
Just another day in the life of Rian MacCaren—that’s me, by the way. I solve mysteries, and I see things… things other people don’t. First, dreams plagued me. Now they’ve escalated to visions. Aside from keeping myself alive, my next step is to use my gift, or curse however you want to look at it, to figure out who killed the woman we just discovered in the basement of an abandoned house. Who was she, and why is she dressed in a wedding gown?
I heard laughter from the other side of the screen. It wasn’t the kind that speaks of madness, but the evil supervillain type. While I love the sound of truth, this sound chilled me to the bones and left me unclean.
“Sister Catherine…I should’ve known. As for you, my little angel, I’ll send you back to heaven.”
“Not today, buddy.”
A ripping sound hit my ears as a clawed hand burst through the screen and wrapped around my neck. It pulled me through the wall that divided the confessional. I tried to struggle out of its grip, but the preacher held on for all he’s worth.<em> Yeah, that’s gonna leave a mark</em>.
I kicked at his face in the hope he’d release his hold over my throat. “Sorry, but choking isn’t my thing.”
The priest slammed me against the wall, knocking what air I did have out of my lungs in one exhale. I switched the safety off my gun and tried to raise it. Let me tell you that trying to fight for your life while being choked wasn’t that easy. I tried, though. <em>Look at me being all optimistic and shit</em>.
The father saw the gun. His eyes widened in anger as if the weapon was an insult to the sanctuary of the church. I may have had a gun, but I wasn’t a pedophile molesting kids and stealing their life force from them. Nope, I was a simple angel trying to get by in the world. By get by, I mean shoot the bad guy and rescue the children, thereby being the hero that saves the day.
Whoever the priest had become gripped me harder and threw me through the confessional door with one movement. The cracking of the wood against my back hurt, and the sound of screaming reached my ears. What hurt the most was hitting the floor and sliding across the carpet. I also heard the sound of my gun as it fell from my hand, bumping into something.
Movement from in front of me caught my attention. I attempted to get up, but the ceiling above me spun like a top, and vertigo kept me from moving too much. Massaging my neck, I could breathe easier, but the joy of still being alive didn’t last long.
There he stood. The possessed priest looked like a devil out of a bad <em>CW</em> series. Both his arms stretched longer than natural and ended in clawed, veiny hands. The skin on his face looked tighter and a bit like leather. The look someone gets after they tan in one of those cancer coffins too long.
Matthew Angelo is a part-time writer, dog trainer, and photo enthusiast in the Northern Colorado area. In his free time, providing he has any, he practices Krav Maga, reads, and continues writing. He has written fantasy, science fiction, and urban fantasy stories amongst others.
With the help of technomage and hacker Theo, rare snake shifter Robbie escaped his mother and clan, who planned to use him as breeding stock. While still working to break through the conditioning and mind control of his past, Robbie is enjoying exploring a new relationship with the worldlier Theo.
But their fight isn’t over yet.
A trip to his aunt’s house for Thanksgiving is highjacked by political intrigue, leaving the couple wondering who their friends really are. They cannot help but be drawn into larger plots while trying to find justice for Robbie at his mother’s trial. When clan rivalries turn deadly, they’ll need their allies—and each other—more than ever.
This is the second book in the Crossing Nüwa series and a continuation of Robbie and Theo’s growth and struggles.
Enjoying the weightlessness as the plane lifted into the air, I studied my boyfriend as he excitedly watched the world shrink below us. His enthusiasm for everything sent sympathetic thrills through me, and I was soon grinning.
It had been an unexpectedly blissful couple of months with only one small hiccup. A week after Robbie moved in, for some strange reason I felt the need to define the parameters of our relationship. It was a first for both of us. Many firsts. I was his first everything; he was my first boyfriend. I can’t remember how the conversation started but vaguely recall me saying that I’d like to get some clarification.
“We haven’t really talked about us.”
“What do you mean?” he had asked, his lips naturally curved curiously. One of the things I learned was that Robbie is never plagued with the same doubts about relationships that it seems like the rest of us have. Or at least that I have had my entire life. He’s wholesome, and I know how that sounds, but it’s true. His very nature is one of trust and acceptance.
He had never experienced any doubt until I stupidly said, “Well, exclusivity, monogamy, I don’t know. Just curious what you want.”
“I don’t understand. You’re my boyfriend…” Though his curiosity had turned to confusion, I pressed on.
“Yeah, but that’s for now. I just don’t want you to feel held back. You know, if you want to bang someone and—”
He shook his head, his confusion intensifying and darkening into something else. “Why are you saying this?”
“I just don’t want to break up over—”
“Break up? Why…Why would we ever break up?” His emerald eyes had shone with tears that had made my heart immediately ache. I had done that to him. If I live to be a thousand years old, that look will always haunt me. That with a simple and quite stupid misspoken phrase I could hurt him so much.
“Why are you frowning?” Robbie took my hand, his voice colored with concern as he lifted me out of my reverie.
I chuckled. “Ah, sugar…just remembering how foolish I was.”
“You’re gonna have to be more specific,” he said with the sweetest smile that had me falling back laughing. My boyfriend had quickly caught on to sarcasm and the importance of a good burn.
I shook my head at myself. “You remember that conversation we had when you first moved in? The one about monogamy?”
“Yeah, when you pointed out that I’m only eighteen and had only…how did you put it? ‘Boned one guy’? That you thought you were holding me back?” he asked, relaxing as he settled.
“Yeah. That’s it. And you turned it around and asked if you were holding me back.”
“And you said no, because you’re a slut who was settling down.” Robbie was on a roll.
I laughed again. “Not…quite. Anyway, I was just remembering that.”
“I thought your talk with Kat had fixed all that?” he asked curiously.
I sat up so quickly I almost gave myself whiplash. Robbie just smiled knowingly. “Oh yeah, I heard the whole thing.”
I guess Kat had watched me mope after I left Robbie. I had brought my laptop to the comfortable bucket chair of the custom outdoor patio and plopped down. And I had had no clue Robbie was around.
Kat had just settled into the adjacent bucket, tucked her legs up under her, and gave me one of those serene “I’m here to listen” expressions.
“Look,” I finally grunted out. “I broached the subject with Robbie that he would probably be moving on from here, from me someday, and wanted to let him know I was fine. Had just… I don’t know, fuck, wanted him to know I’d rather have him bang someone else and not break up.”
Her look had mirrored Robbie’s to an extent. Confusion. Sadness. But also compassion and understanding. “You’re afraid of losing him.” It was clearly stated and absolute truth that had cut to the bone.
“She told you to get your head out of your ass,” he reminded me of the exact words she went on to say, and I realized he was still holding my hand.
I chuckled and tilted my head to him. “Indeed, she did. She said a lot of things…”
“Like how your first boyfriend broke your heart?” he said so softly I barely heard it.
“We were kids. I thought it was more than it was.”
“She pointed out that you were scared of me leaving too,” Robbie said, swallowing hard. A shadow crossed over his eyes.
“Yeah,” I admitted lamely. Kat and I had talked about how amazing Robbie was, and she had made me come to terms with the fact that I was a big scared baby. Hell, he had heard all that?
“Theo, I know that I’m not worthy of being with you, but I’m glad we’re together,” Robbie said earnestly, causing my heart to drop.
“Not worthy—what are you talking about?”
“You and Kat. You talked about how amazing you thought I was, but I’m not. I don’t feel like that at all. You’re the amazing one.” Robbie’s eyes lit up, and he gave me that radiant smile he saves just for me. A smile that would often disappear into something more reserved if someone else was around.
Patting his hand, I said, “Guess we can both think the other is perfect, huh?”
He nodded eagerly, joy returning to his eyes when he leaned over and gave me a small kiss on the cheek. I turned my attention to the window, tilting my chin to it, silently acknowledging he should continue his enjoyment of the world outside so I could continue my internal mental review of the last couple of months.
Sean Ian O’Meidhir is a psychologist who lives in San Francisco, California. Sean is a hedonist who believes in living for today, living every day to the fullest, and enjoying as much as possible. Sean has been gaming since adolescence and has written about and played hundreds of lives, reveling in the chance to take on new personalities, dramas, even disorders.
Connal Braginsky is a software engineer who lives in San Diego, California. Diagnosed with high functioning autism, Connal sometimes struggles in social situations, but has an inner world that is always incredibly rich. With an insatiable thirst for knowledge about many esoteric things, Connal brings a lot of personal philosophies and interests to writing.
What begins as one anonymous night with a stranger swiftly becomes more to retired parajumper Deacon “Lobo” Williams. Back home, he has an intimate and powerful encounter with a man he doesn’t even stop to learn the name of. Unable to keep it just one night, he comes back for more.
Blackjack dealer Joe Chavez is far more comfortable with his sexuality than the man he has begun seeing. There are plenty of demons for them both, but if they want to make this work, they will have to decide if love’s gamble is enough.
Reader advisory: This book contains mentions of PTSD, violence, attempted rape and reference to suicidal thoughts.
“Yes! Come on, Ben. You got this!”
Deacon “Lobo” Williams cut his gaze to his sister as she jumped up and down, screaming as her blonde hair bounced. The last thing he’d expected to be doing on his first night home was hanging out with Debra at a National Rodeo event in their town.
Smiling at her, he shook his head. “Know him, do you?” He turned his gaze to one of the few black men who was participating in this event. Ben Mooney was a steer wrestler and was the favorite to win this event.
“I do. His sister and I have been friends for years. She wasn’t able to come tonight so wanted to make sure he had some support.” She turned her baby blues to him. “Are you mad I made you come?”
He wasn’t mad, but he had been hoping for a quieter venue. He was edgy and knew it was from the lack of sleep he’d been getting. Nightmares and PTSD were shit and since he’d ditched his therapist, it was something he was wading through on his own.
I don’t need help.
Or so he continued to tell himself.
The crowd roared and she whipped back to the arena and screamed even louder. Pumping her fist in the air, she chanted, “Ben! Ben! Ben!” She put her fingers in her mouth and whistled.
He’d taught her that when she’d been in middle school, how to put two fingers in her mouth and release a piercing whistle. He had been so proud of her for that and, damn it, he still was. Her joy was contagious and he cheered along with her, not quite with as much enthusiasm, but loudly.
The moment the score populated on the marquee sign, the crowd got louder. When they settled down, the event continued. “Nope, not mad.” He never wanted her to feel like crap because his life had fallen into the shitter. “When did you meet his sister and where?”
She nudged him with her shoulder. “I met her in college and like I said, years ago.” Debra yanked his drink from him and indulged. “We worked the same late shift at a shitty gas station and grew close. I met Ben the first holiday I went to her house.”
He remembered the year she spoke about, one where he hadn’t been able to come home. As it was just the two of them now, having lost their parents three years apart after he’d reupped with the Air Force, he’d felt horrible.
“Is she coming here this year?”
“I don’t know, we typically head to Vegas together to watch him in the finals. I can ask her. Are you sure you’re going to be home this year?” She applauded the latest competitor before looking at him once more. “It would be pointless for me to invite her to meet you if aren’t going to be there.”
He pushed back the bitterness and forced lightness into his tone. “I’m sure I’ll be home.”
There must have been something in his tone, for she angled her body toward him. “Deacon? What aren’t you telling me?”
How he’d hoped to have this conversation over a tumbler of scotch or a few beers. More like both. Not here at a rodeo. And he needed it to be his version. He opened his mouth and closed it the second she shook her head.
“Don’t lie to me, Deacon. I’m your sister. I, of all people, deserve to know the truth.”
He brushed his hand along her face, allowing himself to remember it was okay to be soft and gentle. If there was one person in the world who could bring that out in him, it was his baby sister. His only sister. “I know. But can you wait until after we get home? It’s not really a discussion I relish having here.” And it would give him time to get his lie straight in his head so it fell from his lips in a plausible fashion.
She didn’t speak for a bit, just stared at him. Holding still, he waited until she found what she sought. If she insisted on doing this here, he would, he just didn’t want to. The truth wasn’t coming out. That was going to be his own private hell. The bad landing, the surgeries, the loss of his career. Nightmares and more. Yeah, no thanks, he wasn’t about to open up that can of worms because someone wanted to share.
That was it. Debra faced the arena once more. He loved her. After everything had finished and people filed out, she put her arm through his and together they headed down from their seats. He watched her interact with people as they made their way to wherever she wanted to take him.
There were cameras and people milling around. She pushed up on her toes, waved and called out, “Ben!”
The lanky but fit black man walked up, an inherent swagger in his step that wasn’t something anyone could have taught him. It was natural.
Ben’s smile grew as he looked at Debra. “Debbie-girl.”
Deacon cocked an eyebrow at that. His sister had always told him how much she hated nicknames. But this one seemed to make her glow.
He watched his sister launched herself into Ben’s arms. Brotherly instincts flared at the thought of a grown man holding her like that. It didn’t get better when he kissed her cheek.
When Debra stepped back, she retained hold of his hand. Deacon noticed how her entire being sparkled.
“Ben, this is my big brother, Deacon. Deacon, Ben Mooney.”
His smile never slipped, nor did his hold on Debra’s hand. Ben offered his other hand. Deacon shook it, pleased with the grip.
“Nice to meet you.”
A brilliant smile showed off a slightly crooked smile. “And you. Your sister mentions you a lot.”
Debra blushed. Behind them, other women looked at Ben and his sister with a mixture of expressions. He ignored them, focusing on the two before him.
“She’s a good sister, I guess.”
Ben laughed, full-bodied and true. “I get that. God do I. I have one too. But this one has joined in all the trouble my sister causes. I look at her as my own sister now. Hope that doesn’t bother you.”
“Not at all. She can always use more eyes on her.”
“Hey,” she protested.
“We were going to grab some dinner. Do you have plans or would you like to join us?” The affection between his sister and Ben was blatant. They could talk later if she wanted, but right now, he was enjoying the sparkle in her eyes.
“If you’re sure it’s not an imposition, I would love to. Kind of a thing we do, but I know you just got back.” Deacon raised an eyebrow. Ben shrugged. “My sister, the other one, told me. I think she and Debra talk daily.”
“Sometimes more than once,” she snarked.
“Let’s go then.” Deacon liked him already and looked forward to getting to know him better.
Cal has problems…man problems. A torrid affair with Travis, a six-foot sex demon, has the celestial beings in a tizzy and she has been forced to make amends.
That’s the issue with having an angel for a dad. There are certain expectations—not to mention the fact that she’s also sharing her bed with a rather delicious warlock, Max. All she has to do is round up a few troublesome vampires and a rotten demon here or there and her work is done.
Or so she thinks…
Reader advisory: This book contains a brief scene of violence.
He slammed my slender wrists against the cold, hard wall, closely followed by my back. “You like it rough, huh?” I growled. “Me too.”
Lifting my legs into the air, I wrapped them around his impressive waist, gripping on as tight as I could and thrusting his crotch into mine. The guy is already hard? This was going to be easier than I thought.
“I like it quiet.” It was the first time his voice had even given a hint of who—or rather what—I was dealing with. It offered a tinge of menace, a heavy serving of control. We were definitely in demon territory.
He slammed his lips onto mine, the familiar feeling of a forked tongue snaking its way into my mouth.
He raised my wrists above my head, so he could hold them with one hand, and he started to undo his belt with the other.
I relaxed my grip around his waist and pulled my mouth away from his. This was going way faster than I’d thought. I wasn’t averse to a little demon dick, but my own personal demon was quite against me sleeping with his brothers.
“Not yet.” What would work? He could take me right here, right now, but I needed just a couple of more minutes. “Uh, I want to be punished. Punish me first.”
His fiery red eyes lit up and I swear the cock that was pushing into my pelvis grew another five inches. “Have you been very, very bad?”
“So bad.” Like you wouldn’t believe.
Swinging me around, he flung me onto the bed and grabbed his backpack. Lord, don’t let it be teeth. I could handle whipping, pinching, slapping—even the odd candle burn didn’t break me—but oh God, I hated it when they went for the teeth.
He pulled out a leather three-tiered paddle. Oh, bless him. He must be new at this. I put on my most innocent face. “It won’t hurt too much, will it? I know I’ve been naughty, but I’ve never done anything like this before.” Where are the boys? If that thing hit my butt in just the right spot, I’d be coming in seconds and begging for more.
I hadn’t actually planned on sleeping with this guy, but he was pushing all my buttons. It would be too hard to resist.
He rolled me over onto my stomach, brushed his hand up my thigh, grazing my stockings, and pushed up my skirt. Swirling his hand around my butt—preparing it for action—he slid his finger slowly under the gusset of my thong, brushing my clit.
“You like that?” His voice was tender, almost gentle.
Fuck. This big old hulking hellboy was actually a bit of a romantic. Now I knew his lineage for sure.
“Not yet… I don’t want to come yet. I don’t deserve it.” I was really working the naughty voice tonight. A shiver of disgust went down my spine. When I was at someone’s mercy, it was generally on my terms, not theirs.
Not that I was complaining… There were worse missions than getting a little action with a sex demon.
He grabbed a pair of handcuffs from his bag, the familiar clinking sending a jolt of excitement up my pussy. When did I get so hot just at the idea of a little bondage? It wasn’t like my sex life was in any way boring. Quite the contrary. Maybe I was craving simpler times.
He leaned forward, attached my hands to the iron headboard and hovered over my body, the bulk of his cock rubbing against my naked butt.
The sound of hulking footsteps approached the door. I braced myself. A loud boom knocked the door straight through. The gang was finally here.
Travis grabbed hellboy by the throat and pushed him against the wall. He muttered a Latin word or two and, within seconds, the infernal fires had reclaimed their runaway.
A warm, smooth hand slid between my legs and a finger entered my pussy.
“What the hell, Cal? You’re wet enough for me to take you right now,” said Max, still breathless from charging into the room.
“Max, sweetheart, be a dear. Take your fingers out of me and undo these cuffs before you fuck me.”
Travis muttered something about being the only one who did any work and sauntered out of the room.
The cuffs unlocked themselves and I rolled over to face my beautiful Max, my Mediterranean magic man. He fluttered those long, dark eyelashes at me and bent down to peck me on the lips.
“You took your time,” I mumbled through his kiss.
“You’re on a fucking yacht, Cal, in St. Tropez.”
“What?” How the hell did I get here?
He closed his eyes and shook his head in despair. “You know how Trav gets in small boats. I had to row us here myself.”
“We really need to teach that man to teleport.”
He grinned, maliciously. “We need to get ourselves a decent demon.”
“You’re just jealous.”
“Not right now, I’m not.” He clasped my thighs. A few mumbled magic words and my thong was gone. “Right now, I’m about to finish what some other demon started.”
I glared at her over the metal of my fork that I was using to push the food around on my plate.
There she went again, always trying to sound more and more like a mother every day. But she would never sound like my mother. No one ever would.
At least I had gotten through the green beans on my plate, which was something. But they had been shaken in a dish of brown sugar, making them taste like candy, and I’ve never had a problem with candy. I couldn’t help but go over and over again in my head how many calories were in each cut of that steak that they had chosen to waste on me.
There was no way I could eat it.
My photographer had told me I was perfect just the way I was. He had come to my door that night, gone inside to find me, and died, along with everyone else I ever loved and cared about.
The nightmares haunted me do this every day.
I still imagined this guy being with me, but I had never been in love, so I don’t know where that one thought in particular came from.
There I go again, losing track of what I was thinking about.
“It’s Kaitlyn,” I corrected her for the jillionth time, finally putting my fork down to look at her fully. She thought she knew me, but she didn’t.
“Hun, no agency is going to offer you a job unless you take proper care of yourself!”
“You don’t know that!” I growled. She didn’t even know what I wanted anymore.
“Katie, please.” She stood up straighter so she wasn’t leaning across the table, just as she was always telling me to do. “I’m your aunt and I love you, but there’s only so much I can put up with… Katie, you used to be such a kind girl before all this, what happened to you—”
She came to a dramatic halt at the end of her sentence, as if only by speaking those words aloud did she realize what they meant.
“I guess it’s too bad I didn’t love you, even then.” That was cruel and I knew it. But I didn’t care or regret it.
I pulled the plate off the table until it fell and shattered at my feet, making a mess of foods and their juices over the gray tiled floor. Giving her one last icy glare, I stormed up to my room.
My aunt was knocking on my door again. And this time I didn’t know of how else to make her go away but to swing the door open as fast as I could while yelling back, “What?”
The action was too fast and made my head spin, but I pushed through the dark spots that swam through my vision just to hear what she had to say.
“Katie? Sweetheart, you’re sick. Please, we need to talk about this some time.”
I rolled my eyes and went to slam the door again, but the breeze from having shut the door so quickly made the door shut slowly and gave her enough time to put both a hand and foot in the way.
“No.” Her voice was firm, done with my bullshit. But she wasn’t as fierce as she thought she was with tears trickling from the corners of her eyes. It gave me a small, strange glee that kept me going. “I am not just going to sit around and watch you starve yourself and waste away into nothing!”
I shrugged. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. Just leave and stop caring, and you won’t have to watch.”
If I wasn’t “sick” as she liked to call my disorder, auntie Stephanie would’ve slapped me,
right across the face, but she held herself back for more of her own sake than for mine.
“Katie? I’m only going to say this to you once. The doctors are coming tomorrow on the bus. And if they agree with me that you’re sick? You’re going with them so they can help you get better.”
Letting go of the door, I crossed my arms. “I’m sorry, but was that a question? You wanna fight me on this so badly? Fine. But if they come and they see how paranoid you are? I’m not the one going to the funny farm.”
“It’s not that kind of place, Katie. They’re there to help you, not cage you.”
I wished I could’ve found fault in what she was saying, but I really couldn’t.
So instead of fighting, I lessened my scolding view of her and reached out to shake her hand. “Deal.”
As I sat in the tub, my blood colored the water. This was the third time I had been caught trying to kill myself in four months, and no one could understand why.
As if having to stand outside of your family home at fifteen and watch as everyone you love inside cries out and burns alive isn’t reason enough to want to die yourself.
I had refused to eat since then and had to be medically forced through a tube surgically placed to feed nutrition into my stomach, but no one expected me to want to die so badly that I would go through the pain of pulling it out myself.
As I languished in the water, arms reached down to drag me from the bathtub.
“Pirouette! Pirouette! Pirouette!”
Mrs. Heather clapped in time to the music as I turned.
She was midway through adding another pirouette to her chanting when my ankle gave out beneath me, and I was spinning and falling at the same time toward the hard dusty floor of the stage.
I must have fainted after having hit the floor, although I hadn’t banged my head or anything, but by the time I came back to, I was in the hospital with a hardened cast set around my foot.
The first thing I noticed was the pretty blue signature written across the cast, which made me fall back onto the bed with laughter.
People scurried into the room at the sound, mistaking it for crying. They only relaxed when they came all the way over to see my face.
“Micky! You scared us half to death!”
Charlotte—Mrs. Heather’s daughter and one of my only friends— was in the room. Not that I knew how that had occurred, since she was neither there when it happened, nor was she any family of mine.
“Sorry, I thought I had it—”
She jumped in all angry again before I could go on to tell her why it was that I thought I had messed it up. “Not the spinning, stupid! The doctor said you were dehydrated, and there wasn’t enough muscle in your ankle to support your weight!”
I wanted to yell back, to tell her she didn’t have to be so loud and so rude, but even my eyes were lighting up with moisture that burned every time I blinked.
She stopped when the first tear fell to walk closer and wrap her arms around my neck. I squeezed back, but I barely ruffled the fabric of her sweatshirt.
“You need help,” she cried into my hair, then a sad sound, something akin to laughter escaped me, as she added, “Or we’re never going to get to go on that road trip we’ve been promising Sammy all our lives. Got it?”
I noticed Mrs. Heather then, standing just at the foot of the bed with a hand resting on the cast. She had given me so much since the fire. If I could give her, and Charlotte, anything back, it would be this.
Jennifer Claire is a debut author from Ontario, Canada. She enjoys writing dark urban fantasy along with romance contemporary, and when she’s not reading, can usually be found reading YA or Epic Fantasy novels.
Dare used to be the kind of person everyone wanted to be around, the man friends begged to attend their events and relished in his company. However, that was when he was a prince. Now that he’s been captured and confined to the prairie, he’s become the person everyone hates, and it’s a hate he believes he deserves.
But he can’t help hoping he might find at least one friend.
Magic has a convoluted way of answering wishes, and unfortunately, the answer to Dare’s wish might destroy the prairie and every last thing he still holds dear.
Dare hadn’t been given a choice about living on the prairie, but he was doing his best to embrace the life he had. Admittedly, he admired the way of life the villages had created over the last ten years he had been living among them, traveling from village to village. They had grown from separate entities to a cohesive whole that worked together to ensure their survival on the harsh prairie. His life now was completely different from his pampered childhood.
Oakville was the only village on the prairie with access to a forest. The trees were tall and stately and had a nasty habit of lifting their roots out of the ground to trip people as they were walking by. Over the last three weeks, while visiting Oakville, Dare learned to automatically raise his feet high as he walked so he didn’t faceplant.
The villagers were only allowed to cut down a few trees a week with the permission of the prairie. Dare had become part of a very convoluted dance. Every spring, the villagers collected seedlings that had been blown out onto the prairie the previous fall. Those seedlings wouldn’t survive the summer buried underneath the tall grass. Then, before chopping down anything in the forest, the villagers asked the prairie which trees were suitable. Cutting the trees could be harrowing in a forest that had been known to fight back on occasion. The villagers planted one of the seedlings where each old tree used to stand, where they would grow to replace the trees the villagers took.
All the cut wood was eventually distributed throughout the villages in the prairie so they could continue building whatever new homes and businesses they needed. In return, Laketown and Farmtown sent the food they produced. Every village had a purpose on the prairie; as long as Oakville continued to send wood out to the other villages, they would in turn receive the things they needed.
If only the villagers had chosen to be equally pragmatic about Dare’s presence.
“Here’s the rations you worked for,” Olaf said as he ambled into the cleared area. He was careful not to step on any of the seedlings Dare had just planted. Dare took the bag Olaf was holding out to him. A quick glance inside showed a large loaf of bread, a smaller wheel of cheese, and some leafy green things poking out below that.
Dare wasn’t surprised there wasn’t any meat in the bag. Livestock were needed to pull the heavy trees; there weren’t any whose meat could be sacrificed for food. A new village was in the process of being constructed where all sorts of livestock—oxen for the plows and wagons, chickens for eggs, cows and goats for milk and cheese, and sheep for wool—would be kept. With an active surplus from that village being sent out to all the villages, more animals could be used solely for the meat. Until then, Dare and the rest of the villagers lived on a vegetarian diet.
“I was hoping to spend the night and leave in the morning,” Dare began but stopped when Olaf shook his head in denial.
“It’s past time for you to move on to another village, boy,” Olaf said firmly. He turned and walked away, leaving Dare alone in the forest. The rest of the people he had been working with had snuck off while Olaf was talking.
Dare let out a heavy sigh. He would never get used to this. The feelings of abandonment, the churning in his stomach, and the tightness in his chest every time he thought he might be welcomed but was sent away instead. It hurt so very much, but at least he had learned not to cry about it.
Of course, he understood why. He had been a terrible little shit his first year on the prairie. He may have been eighteen years old at the time, but the way he had acted, he might as well have been a child. He had somehow managed to grow up during the last ten years, but the damage had already been done.
Dare was a prisoner of war. Before that, he had lived a life of luxury with his every want and need catered for him. As the prince and heir of the throne of Ammet, the kingdom to the north of the prairie lands, he had been spoiled horribly. Political machinations by the Wizard’s Council that helped rule Ammet had convinced King Mitchell, Dare’s father, to include Dare with the invading troops sent to subdue the prairie. The invasion had failed with terrible consequences. Nearly a thousand men and women had been eaten by the prairie, but Dare had been saved to be a pawn in his uncle Russell’s revenge plan and abandoned in First Village.
Going from luxury to learning how to earn rations had been completely lost on him. When food wasn’t delivered at regular mealtimes, he had thrown tantrum after tantrum until he’d almost starved to death. George, the leader of First Village, had literally tied him to a chair and spoon-fed him soup until Dare recovered. Then George had put a small, palm-sized basket, woven from thick grass, into Dare’s hands and told Dare to fill the basket with precious stones. One full basket meant three meals each day.
Dare had done it, not realizing that leaving the village to walk in the wild prairie was one of the most dangerous jobs in the entire village. He had gotten food and he had watched and learned the way the village worked. Everyone had a task to accomplish each day to earn their keep. No one, George included, was simply given anything for free.
Learning the ways of the prairie was a painfully slow process, but Dare had eventually done it. His airs and spoiled attitude had taken years to throw away. He had felt freer ever since, but by the time the lessons had hit home, it was far too late for him to be accepted. His poor behavior early on had ensured that.
The younger kids in First Village used to dare each other who could prank Dare the worst. Stealing his clothes on washing day and forcing him to return to the village naked. Running into him when he had a full basket, often stealing the basket and the gemstones he had filled it with and ensuring he wasn’t eligible for food the next day. Eventually, they had grown in both age and ability, and Dare had to learn how to defend himself against knife attacks. The dares grew worse and worse until Dare had fled from First Village in desperation.
Yet, the stories of his terrible attitude had spread. He took a new name—he was no longer Prince Michael, even in his own mind, and calling himself Dare seemed poignant after all he had suffered—but people still knew him regardless of what he called himself. He traveled from village to village, staying in each one for only as long as his extra pair of hands and strong back were useful, until he was sent on his way again. After five years living in First Village and five years wandering, Dare wasn’t welcome anywhere.
If Dare had thought he could survive on his own, he would have abandoned the villages well before now, striking out into the prairie, but there was no food in the prairie, so he needed the villages.
Well, Dare thought firmly to himself as he tucked his bag of food into his pack with his other personal belongings. That’s life now. Where should I go next? He pulled his sword belt down from the low branch he had hung it on that morning and settled it into place around his hips. The last vestiges of his previous life hung in his sword. He wasn’t trained to use a knife, and his magic wasn’t offensive in nature, only defensive: a sword kept him safe so Dare held on to it.
He hadn’t been east in a while. Over a year had passed since he had last worked for a few short weeks at the village near the Great Bone Canyon. Hopefully, they would be ready to stomach having him nearby for a while again.
Dare took a deep breath, then turned so his back was to the setting sun and started walking
When Mell Eight was in high school, she discovered dragons. Beautiful, wondrous creatures that took her on epic adventures both to faraway lands and on journeys of the heart. Mell wanted to create dragons of her own, so she put pen to paper. Mell Eight is now known for her own soaring dragons, as well as for other wonderful characters dancing across the pages of her books. While she mostly writes paranormal or fantasy stories, she has been seen exploring the real world once or twice.
Far from Home is a collection of twelve short stories, taking the reader on a journey from the desert sands of the Middle East to a forbidden Caribbean island, and many points in between.
Though two of the stories are set in the U.S., others find gay people dealing with gayness in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Spain, Turkey, Cuba, Mexico, and the Netherlands, places where the characters are physically and psychologically far from the comfort of home. Most of the stories focus on Gay men suffering alienation, confusion, violence, and loss in the eternal search for love while they travel or live in other cultures.
The overall focus is on LGBTQ people as they venture out into the world.
It’s a coffee-colored afternoon: thick, murky, unsweetened, bitter, poured in a long stream from a dallah, hot but cooling rapidly. The air is the color of cardamom seeds, their skin, their eyes. This time of day the same dull brown coats the inside of his head after a rising time of 4:30 a.m., fumbling in darkness to strangle the alarm. He sees the days, weeks, months stretched out in front of him, a path paved in riyals, leading him through the wan desert and, he hopes, toward an oasis. Or is it only a mirage? How much longer does he have to be in the Kingdom? He glances at his watch, calculating the amount of money he has made in the last hour, a pittance compared to the CEO of the international company he works for, though for him and his pre-Saudi life, a fortune.
A thunderstorm that morning flashed out of the murky sky, pummeling this flat wide expanse of beach with a long rain. Rainstorms in the desert are a new phenomenon for him. For days a ceiling has pressed down lower and lower, alternately dropping and holding back its holy water, instantly sullied by its touching of the land. A chain of dirty puddles formed upon a resistant ground, hurrying to stagnation, calling mosquitoes to come perform their pagan rituals of breeding. Garbage, carried by the wind, strewn across the sand, has summoned flies and maggot producers of all types. He steps gingerly toward the sea, avoiding broken bottles and rusting cans, happily less vulnerable in his sneakers than the Saudis in their sandals.
His eyes squint against the gritty air, and pluck from this soiled landscape a man of fine features, an apparition, his white shalwar kameez fluttering in the breeze, bushy dark hair uncovered, not Saudi, Urdu speaker most likely by his attire. But he is real. His beckoning smile cleans the air and calms the American’s rancor, transforming it to the far more dangerous trap of desire. What had he been angry about? He doesn’t remember. No doubt a minor annoyance due to an inexplicable part of his host country’s culture.
“Hello,” the man says, tugging lightly on his thick mustache. “Where you from?”
“American, and you?”
“Pakistani. I am Adil.”
They shake hands. “I’m Mark.”
Adil releases his hand and touches his heart. “Nice to meet you,” he says in a beguiling accent. The sun attempts to burn its way through the cloud cover, but the Pakistani’s black eyes are already shining, providing light. “What you do?”
“Me, too. Watch out.” He points out a piece of glass. He’s wearing dressy black boots. “My day off I come here to visit friends.”
“Jubail. I work there. And you?”
“I’m at the Navy base. I teach English.”
“Oh, maybe you help me with my English.” Eyebrows rise high above his smile, white teeth, suggesting an exchange of some sort. “We go have coffee?”
“Yes, but please, no Arabic coffee.”
“Ha ha. Maybe you like it sweet.”
They walk back to the corniche and cross to the shopping center on the other side. Just inside the entrance to the bustling center with a lofty roof of skylights is a café, tables between planters filled with lush plastic plants. They order cappuccinos and sit in the male section separated from the smaller family section where several women sit, black shadows of human form you can see through the latticework dividers if you are so inclined.
Adil glances toward the family section. “Are you married?”
It is always one of the first questions. Trick question. Mark wonders what the correct answer is. He can say he was, but he’s divorced now. Or never married. He decides on a simple no. “And you?”
“Not yet. I work here to finish my contract, then I go back and get married.” He shows his pearly white teeth again. He’s old enough to have crow’s feet, a few strands of gray in his hair. He wears the kameez open halfway down, his hairy chest peeking above his tank top.
A man in Western clothes, Mediterranean looks, passes by, looks up, and shouts an angry threat. The pigeon takes flight as do several others who have been cooing on the rafters. The man goes to the counter and asks for a napkin, brushes his shoulder. Adil laughs. “Maybe is good luck for him,” Adil says. “Let’s go for a drive. Prayer call is coming.”
“You have a car?”
“Yes. You surprised?”
“No. That’s cool.” Mark, despite being much higher in the hierarchy of foreign workers, relies on public transportation. As they exit, Adil puts his hand lightly on Mark’s lower back, entreating him to go first out of the cool into heat. The sun has made a brief appearance but is dropping behind the layer of haze, perpetually lounging on the horizon. They walk side by side. High in the minaret a speaker crackles and a voice begins. It is the Asr prayer call.
“You don’t go to the mosque?”
Adil turns to Mark with a smirk. “Not today.”
“Why not today?”
“Because I meet a new friend.”
Movement surrounds them as shops close. Screeching metal doors slide down tight tracks cutting through the damp air, sounding like screams until they are drowned by the sudden shot-like explosion of the fully extended doors striking the pavement. From across the street comes the clang of gates brought together and the eerie rattle of a chain joining them in a clumsy embrace. The sounds echo up and down the block as a car speeds by on the corniche, honking at each intersection sending shadowy figures scurrying, gripping more tightly the plastic shopping bags dangling from their wrists. Men duck into cars and alleys as the scarves on their heads flap with the sudden haste.
“Come on,” says Adil as he picks up the pace, and a short time later stops at a car. “Ta da!” It is not pretty. The white Nissan is several years old and suffering from the sea air. “This is my baby. Don’t laugh.”
They get on the road out into the desert. Mark has no idea where they’re going or if he’ll ever make it back, something he tries not to think about as he sits in the death seat with a mad Pakistani at the wheel. Adil reaches over and opens the glove compartment. “Look in there. Poems I wrote. Go ahead. Look.”
Vincent Traughber Meis started writing plays as a child in the Midwest and cajoled his sisters to act in performing them for neighbors. In high school, one of his short stories won a local contest sponsored by the newspaper. After graduating from college, he worked on a number of short stories and began his first novel. In the 1980’s and 90’s he published a number of pieces, mostly travel articles in publications such as, The Advocate, LA Weekly, In Style, and Our World. His travels have inspired his five novels, all set at least partially in foreign countries: Eddie’s Desert Rose (2011), Tio Jorge (2012), and Down in Cuba (2013), Deluge (2016) and Four Calling Burds (2019). Tio Jorge received a Rainbow Award in the category of Bisexual Fiction in 2012. Down in Cuba received two Rainbow Awards in 2013. Recently stories have been published in three collections: WITH:New Gay Fiction, Best Gay Erotica Vol 1 and Best Gay Erotica Vol 4. He lives in San Leandro, CA with his husband.
Partying with a demon isn’t just fun…it’s practically devilish. So grab your broomstick and polish your horns—it’s going to be a wild night!
Without a date for the Halloween ball, Periwinkle Took uses her witchy skills to cast a sexy spell. She can’t believe her luck when the most handsome demon she’s ever seen struts her way with the promise of a Halloween to remember.
His Royal Infernal Highness Prince Gilderoy Asmodeus is the sort of satanic prince whose horns always match his outfit. From his hellish steed to his lusty appetites and his angelic good looks, he’s a Halloween A-lister.
Peri and Gil realise that their evening of passion just isn’t enough. There’s just one catch. If Gil wants to have more than one night on Earth, he has to fall in love and be loved in return. But this particular prince just isn’t the type…is he?
Peri sat cross-legged on the floor in the middle of her chalked-out pentagram with Grizelda, her sleek black cat, on her knee. Supposedly this made looking for a boyfriend more effective, but all she was doing was swiping left on the app, with Grizelda occasionally intervening to swipe left for her. Why did none of the men on Spellr look even vaguely appealing? Some weren’t too bad. In fact, some were quite handsome, but they all lacked that certain something.
And Peri had no idea what that something was.
All her friends were getting married, one by one, and Peri’s wardrobe was bulging with bridesmaids’ dresses. But there seemed to be no sign of her ever adding a wedding dress to her collection.
Her friends had tried to pair her off, usually with their own brothers or their husbands’ friends. They told her she couldn’t keep hunting for the perfect man, because he just didn’t exist. But Peri couldn’t help it. Life was too short to settle for second best.
But the Assistant Great Wizard’s Halloween ball was that evening and Peri still didn’t have a date. She could have turned up as a merry spinster, but she just wanted to be able to sweep up the grand steps with a devastatingly handsome man on her arm.
Is it too much to ask for?
She got up to her feet and paced back and forth across the room. Spellr was hopeless. Her friends’ matchmaking attempts had been hopeless. Then her gaze fell on the pentagram.
What if I—?
She’d once found a spell that would conjure a demon who would materialise in the form of the most perfect man one could ever meet. He would exist for the night, then by morning would be gone—much like Peri’s last experience with the opposite sex. But at least he’d be her demon for a few hours, because after she’d summoned him, he would be hers, to follow her bidding. At least, within a carefully defined set of rules, because no one wanted to upset a demon.
Peri switched on her computer and flipped through a folder of photographs she’d taken on her various visits to the National Witchcraft Archives. She found the image she wanted, of crabbed handwriting on a page of parchment. A very rare spell, one that had been assumed lost, or known only to sorcerers of rank like the Assistant Great Wizard, until Peri had found it.
It hadn’t been in the grimoire’s table of contents, and had looked like nothing more than a blank page to start with. But slowly the words had appeared, as if bubbling up from the parchment beneath, and quite by accident Peri had found herself staring at Ye Spelle to Summune A Daemon Lover.
Or, as it had been whispered about at university, The Sex Demon Spell.
Peri hadn’t photographed the page with any intention to use the spell. It had been more of a trophy find. But that was then. Now she needed the perfect man for the party, and if that meant summoning a demon lover for the evening, so be it.
She made her preparations, lighting candles at the five points of her pentagram and sweeping the space with a bundle of lavender. She set up her cauldron on a trivet in the middle of the pentagram and added the vast number of ingredients demanded by the spell, including an Eve root and an Adam root in a pouch, rosemary oil and red rose petals, all stirred with a length of unicorn horn.
Which would have been easy had Grizelda not decided to help. She rubbed herself around Peri’s legs and nearly knocked her over. She sent a candle flying, spilling wax onto the floorboards. She climbed up the shelves of grimoires and ingredients and batted at the jars. She leapt with no warning over Peri’s head, hell-bent on catching a spider.
And brought down a shelf with a clatter.
“What are you doing?” Peri folded her arms as Grizelda nonchalantly rolled about on her back, tummy uppermost, and proceeded to have a wash. “Some witch’s cat you are!”
Peri crawled about on her hands and knees with a dustpan and brush, trying to clear up the mess. At least the jars were old and sturdy—none had broken, even though some had lost their lids, spilling their contents all over the floor.
But Grizelda continued in her efforts to be as unhelpful as possible. She walked through powdered centaur tears and chased a bead of quicksilver.
“Griz!” Peri picked the cat up and Grizelda slipped out of her clutches, purring as she slunk onto Peri’s shoulders and draped herself there. “Right, let’s hope you behave now.”
Peri carried on clearing up, balancing the cat as she worked. But when she went back to the cauldron, the ingredients had turned into a revolting soup. Peri gave it a stir, trying not to inhale the rancid stench.
Will this work?
She intoned the words of the spell anyway, hoping things might not be quite as bad as they seemed.
Lightning cracked overhead and she stepped back, holding the unicorn horn aloft and chanting the last line of the spell again over the motorboat roar of Grizelda’s purr.
“Demon I summon thee! Asmodeus, come!”
Peri fully expected the room to fill with the smell of scorching, swiftly followed by her perfect man.
But nothing happened.
Rain battered against her windows now, the storm growing keener all the time.
No demon appeared.
As Peri blew out the last candle, Grizelda hopped down from her shoulders and twined around her legs.
Eleanor Harkstead likes to dash about in nineteenth-century costume, in bonnet or cravat as the mood takes her. She can occasionally be found wandering old graveyards. Eleanor is very fond of chocolate, wine, tweed waistcoats and nice pens. Her large collection of vintage hats would rival Hedda Hopper’s.
Originally from the south-east of England, Eleanor now lives somewhere in the Midlands with a large ginger cat who resembles a Viking.
Catherine Curzon is a royal historian who writes on all matters of 18th century. Her work has been featured on many platforms and Catherine has also spoken at various venues including the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, and Dr Johnson’s House.
Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, writes fiction set deep in the underbelly of Georgian London.
She lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.
For some, it takes a lifetime and a mystery to find each other.
Successful businessman Leonard Day’s life revolves around his work until a call from his mother summons him back to his family home in Drayton, Norwich. His father has died.
With a past he would rather forget, builder Adrian Lamperton prefers to live alone. But when Lenny Day arrives in town, feelings of attraction resurface.
Leonard learns he has inherited a Welsh farmhouse, something nobody knew about, and employs Adrian to help inspect the property. But tragedy and mystery surround the house and very soon they start to unearth things that others would prefer remain buried.
Reader advisory: This book contains references to suicide, attempted murder and religious bigotry. There are mentions of drug use, prostitution, child abuse and abandonment, and homophobia.
Sunday morning, Leonard Day lowered himself into the plush black leather chair at his sixteenth-floor office desk. Still wearing his warm grey tracksuit and saffron Bluetooth headphones, he sank back into the soft padding, pressed a button to boot up his laptop, then placed his phone and car keys alongside the mouse mat designed to resemble a Persian rug.
Issuing a bark of laughter only he could hear, he ripped off the two fluorescent-pink Post-it notes, one stuck in the middle of each of his monitors. Both carried warnings in vivid purple felt-penmanship—one to ‘Go Home!’ and the other to ‘Get @ Life!’ Shaking his head but still grinning at being caught out again, he dropped the notes into his wire wastebasket as his gaze trailed to the day outside the room.
Framed by the tinted office windows, a beautiful spring morning had woken to life. Sunlight glistened off the rain-slick roofs of regimented rows of South London terraced houses. From a music app playlist on his smartphone, the opening strains of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5 in D major provided the perfect soundtrack to the tranquil morn.
Naive perhaps, but he used to think none of his staff knew about his habit of slipping into the office on Sunday mornings. He went there not so much to check figures and plan the week, but to avoid being at home on what had once been his favourite day of the week. The easiest way to change a habit is to create a new and better one, his late Qigong teacher had once advised. So after performing a regular morning routine of gentle moves and stretching exercises in the back garden and after locking up the house, Leonard escaped to his office, the perfect distraction and a familiar sanctuary in his otherwise solitary world. And his team were none the wiser.
Until the day Kieran had rumbled him.
His young, energetic marketing manager, who had impeccable attention to detail, had caught Leonard out a few months ago. Kieran—dropped off at the office each weekday morning before anyone else arrived—had noticed reports on Leonard’s desk on Monday morning, ones that hadn’t been there the previous Friday because Leonard had been travelling. Confronted, Leonard had confessed but had tried to fob off the action as a one-off urgent business need. Kieran hadn’t bought the excuse, and, like the Post-it warnings this morning, he often booby-trapped Leonard’s desk. ‘If you insist on everyone having a work–life balance,’ Kieran had stated aloud at a staff meeting, ‘then you should set an example and live by your words.’
Had Leonard listened to the office designer’s recommendations, he would now have a lockable corner office. But ever since taking the floor space, Leonard had insisted on open-plan for everyone, the only enclosed spaces being a fish tank—glass conference room—at either end of the office. Leonard’s desk sat in the middle of the open space, the same size as everyone else’s, surrounded by a team he considered his surrogate family. And he loved being in the thick of things. None of his team just worked for him. They contributed, not one of them complaining about extra effort when business ramped up, not one having anything but positive things to say about their working environment. Leonard preached work–life balance—even if he didn’t exactly live by his own ethos—and made sure nobody stayed beyond five-thirty every day unless absolutely necessary. And every Friday, to show his gratitude, he either prearranged snacks and drinks in the office from four-thirty if he happened to be away or took them to a local wine bar. In the office, at least, Leonard found smiling effortless.
But Kieran didn’t miss a trick. On his day off, he’d brought his Cockapoo canine rescue called Ed into the office—a fiery red bundle of havoc—and had tried to persuade an amused Leonard to get a pet dog himself. Leonard blamed his schedule, which meant him being regularly away from home, travelling to various parts of the country for a week or more, assessing listed buildings or attending antique shows or car auctions. Kieran hadn’t bought the excuse.
‘Sorry, Len,’ he’d said one Friday evening as the whole team had gathered around a wine bar table for drinks. ‘But I’m calling bullshit for three very distinct reasons. First off, you can employ a dog sitter for when you’re travelling. I can even provide names. Second, did you or did you not employ Izzy here as your assistant director for the sole purpose of reducing your workload?’
Only Kieran dared challenge him publicly this way, always in a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek manner. He’d wanted intelligent, creative, personable Kieran as his number two. But when Kieran and his husband Kennedy had added twin boys to their family unit, many of their priorities had changed.
‘You already know the answer to that.’
‘Then let her. She’s more than capable of hunting out grubby antiques around the country, or looking over run-down, borderline derelict properties.’
Isabelle had sat smiling down at her glass of Merlot and said nothing.
‘Remind Kieran again what they’re called, will you please, Isabelle?’
‘Listed buildings,’ Isabelle had said, laughing along with the rest of the team.
‘We call them listed buildings, Kieran. But thank you for your advice. Your point has been made and will be taken into consideration.’
‘Then I rest my case,’ said Kieran, folding his arms and sitting back.
‘Hang on, you said three reasons.’
‘Ah, yes. Thirdly—and most importantly—Ed needs a playmate.’
‘Of course he does. Let me think about it.’
Leonard raised his gaze to Kieran’s haphazard workspace and smirked. The monitor had been plastered randomly with an assortment of colourful Post-it reminders in his distinctive handwriting while trade magazines lay open across the keyboard. Pride of place on his desk sat a large, framed photo of him, his husband and their kids. Another showed their cheeky-faced mutt with what looked like a television remote control in his mouth. Thirty-two years old and Kieran had surrounded himself with so much love. The quiet young man Leonard had first encountered on a cruise ship had blossomed into a doting husband and father. Leonard turned forty-seven in May, and what did he have? A handful of successful businesses, but there it ended. At home? Not even a goldfish. Then again, perhaps he’d already had his time in the light.
The real reason Leonard had not followed through on the dog plan was because he didn’t share Kieran’s affinity for pets. During his childhood he’d broached the subject once only—he must have been seven or eight at the time—and both parents had stated their disgust at domestic animals, dismissing them as unruly and unhygienic. There the conversation had ended. Both accomplished scientists—microbiologists—they’d lived in a simple semi-detached a few miles away from the university campus. Work had been their lives. His father specialised in mycology, the study of mushrooms, toadstools and other fungi, and particularly how various species can kill or cure. At the same time, his mother, more interested in classification, had concentrated her efforts on microbial taxonomy—the naming and classification of micro-organisms. As couples went, they could not have been a more perfect match.
For a few seconds, he stared at his Cisco desk phone, toying with the idea of ringing them. Usually the call entailed dull generalities and awkward silences, neither party having much of any interest to share. Both parents had retired from university life. Heaven only knew what they talked about at home.
Being an only child, Leonard wondered if he had been an experiment rather than a child born of intimacy. Neither parent had demonstrated the kind of tactile warmth or fondness he had witnessed in other families. Not that his were uncaring or cruel in any way. Nutrition and learning had been equally valued in their house. As academics, they had encouraged his studies, praising him for good grades while trying hard to mask their disappointment when he failed at any subject related to the pure sciences. Their frustration had been mitigated when he’d excelled at mathematics, social sciences and, in particular, business studies.
After a quick check of message headings in his inbox, most of which he had already opened and drafted replies to—he never sent his team emails over the weekend—he returned to the one containing attachments sent by his finance officer. Spreadsheets often proved too long and detailed to open on his home laptop but displayed adequately on his two monitors. End-of-month figures popped up on his screens, much as Leonard had expected except for the incredible numbers on their latest venture, the online auction. Between the two of them, Isabelle and Kieran had come up with the idea as an extension of their antiques and artisans site. Traffic had increased tenfold, but more importantly, sales in both had skyrocketed. He folded his arms, sat back in his chair and allowed himself a private moment to gloat.
Fortunately for him, a single-minded determination to focus in the field of business management had allowed him to study for his undergraduate degree in Bournemouth, far enough away that his parents only deemed the occasional visit home necessary. When the time had come to leave at the age of nineteen, he had been able to fend for himself, had learnt to appreciate his own company. A more challenging lesson had been in realising he had developed a singular attractiveness in his late teens. One female college student had referred to him as the sexy lone wolf, but despite getting plenty of offers from girls, his heart hungered only for other boys.
After scanning other columns of figures, and satisfied all of them headed in the right direction, he checked the time on his phone—ten o’clock. An hour before he needed to set off for the hotel in York to spend two days in business meetings and viewing potential properties around the area. Far enough from home he might even try for a random hook-up using the app he had recently discovered and downloaded. Kieran had been right about one thing. At some point, he needed to get himself a life.
Although made in jest, a quip about him by a male friend on a cruise holiday still stung. Thinking Leonard to be out of earshot, someone had asked this friend why he’d nicknamed Leonard ‘Any Day’. He had replied, ‘Because any day is better than Lenny Day. The man is a walking misery.’ Overhearing this, he had been shocked to the core. When had he changed from being a sexy lone wolf to a ‘walking misery’? Naturally Kennedy had stepped in to defend him even though, in fairness, the friend had less-than-respectful names for all of their acquaintances. The main problem? Leonard had sensed the truth behind the quip. Maybe he needed to make more of an effort to be cheerful outside of his day-to-day.
As he closed down programs on his laptop and pulled off his earphones, he raised his head and froze, his attention drawn to a distant sound.
Barely audible beyond the building’s thick glazing, somewhere out there in the suburbs, cutting through the constant hum of traffic, came the peal of church bells. For as long as comfortably possible, he held his breath, squeezing his eyes shut and absorbing the simple melody.
Church bells, like Sunday mornings at home, reminded him of Kris. And without warning or witness, he was overcome by the kind of immobilising grief that he had hoped would have receded after the death of his lover ten years ago. He rarely allowed himself to wallow in thoughts of their time together, but the memory blindsided him and filled him with such warmth and love and togetherness. And when those tender recollections inevitably melted away they would leave him emotionally desolate, standing alone in the stark coldness of reality. But for now he would allow himself to listen to the bells, and wallow and remember…
Until the shrill ring of his desk phone drowned out everything.
For a moment, he sat there, appalled at the intrusion, glaring at the device, deciding whether or not to answer. Eventually, after several rings, he relented.
“Days-Gone-By Enterprises,” he answered gruffly, ripping a tissue from a box on his desk and dabbing at his eyes.
“Leonard,” came his mother’s stern voice. Although no explanation had been forthcoming, she no longer called his mobile phone. “I tried you at your house but you weren’t answering. You need to come home. Your father passed this morning, and I need your help arranging things. When can you be here?”
“What?” said Leonard, caught off guard. “Oh, God, Mum. Dad died? I’m so sorry. What happened?”
“Not now. When can you be home?”
“I—I can come now.” He had a case in his car for the business trip. By some stroke of fate he had even packed his black Hugo Boss suit for meetings. With a few clicks of his phone he could cancel the York trip. “I suppose I could be there around three or four. Traffic willing.”
“I’ll get your room ready.”
Before he had a chance to probe any further, she ended the call.
Annoyance bubbled in him. Most of the time he accepted his mother’s natural candour, and admired her ability to view and deal with the world dispassionately. Right now, he wished he had a parent who could be sensitive to the emotions a son might be feeling at the passing of the only father he would ever have. Perhaps she knew without asking that he considered grief an old friend.
As he left the office, he did something he hated and called Isabelle on her day off to hand over the reins for the week ahead. At home, his own house, everything would be fine.
Striding across the empty car park, Kieran’s words came back to him and cemented inside. He needed to find a life. At the moment, he seemed to be surrounded by too much death.
Brian Lancaster is an author of gay romantic fiction in multiple genres, including contemporary romance, paranormal, fantasy, crime, mystery, and anything else that tickles his muse’s fancy. Born in the sleepy South of England where most of his stories are set, he moved to Southeast Asia in 1998, where he now shares a home with his husband and two of the laziest cats on the planet.
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