Whispers by Jayce Carter Book 2 in the Larkwood Academy series General Release Date: 20th September 2022 Word Count: 77,834 Book Length: SUPER NOVEL Pages: 285 GENRES: CONTEMPORARY EROTIC ROMANCE MÉNAGE AND MULTIPLE PARTNERS PARANORMAL REVERSE …
Various Intentions by AE Lister Book 3 in the Persuasions series General Release Date: 20th September 2022 Word Count: 57,484 Book Length: NOVEL Pages: 240 Genres: BONDAGE AND BDSM CONTEMPORARY EROTIC ROMANCE GAY GLBTQI MÉNAGE …
Unkinked by M.C. Roth Book 2 in the It’s a Kink Thing series General Release Date: 20th September 2022 Word Count: 74,785 Book Length: SUPER NOVEL Pages: 275 Genres: BONDAGE AND BDSM CONTEMPORARY EROTIC ROMANCE GAY …
Title: Listen: The Sound of Fear Author: R.B. Thorne, Lauren Jane Barnett, E.E.W. Christman, Eule Grey, Ridley Harker, Jon James, T.S. Mitchell, Alex Silver, A.R. Vale, Edited by Elizabetta McKay Publisher: NineStar Press Release Date: …
Title: Death at Bayard Lodge Series: The Mary Grey Mysteries, Book Two Author: Winnie Frolik Publisher: NineStar Press Release Date: 09/20/2022 Heat Level: 2 – Fade to Black Sex Pairing: Female/Female Length: 67800 Genre: Historical, …
Escape or die—Larkwood Academy isn’t for the weak.
When I first arrived at Larkwood Academy, I was sure someone would rescue me. After months here at the mercy of the guards, the other residents and even the Warden, I’ve realized the only person who can save me is myself.
In order to escape, I’ve teamed up with three other shades—Wade, a young and carefree void, Knox, an incubus afraid of his own powers, and Brax, a berserker who seems to hate me as much as he wants me. Meanwhile, we have to hide our plans from Deacon, a guard who isn’t quite human or shade, and Kit, an adjunct professor with a terrifying power and far too much connection to the Warden.
Even as I uncover the truths behind the secretive and dangerous North Tower, as the Warden takes an ever-increasing interest in me and my powers and as I search desperately for a way out, I realize there is only one option.
Escape or die, and I’m not ready to die…
Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of incarceration, violence and assault. There are also references to inadequate parenting.
I never missed my voice more than when Deacon touched me, when I opened my mouth and wanted to moan his name.
Sure, there were other times it annoyed me—when I wanted to tell someone off, when I wanted to explain myself, when I just wanted to be heard. Those times irked, but the loss never bothered me as much as when Deacon teased his lips over my breast, when the lack of noise from me made it feel incomplete.
Not that Deacon seemed to mind—or perhaps it was better to say he could make up for it easily. He might not have been the most vocal man in his normal life, but that all changed in bed.
I looked around for a moment, noting the quiet corner of a shed in the yard where we’d tucked ourselves away. Maybe bed is a stretch…
We couldn’t risk people catching on to us, which had left us finding out-of-the-way spots like this for our little rendezvous. Neither of us wanted to turn into a weakness for the other.
“I missed you,” Deacon whispered in his low, rough voice against my skin, his breath warm and rapid.
I loved these moments, how he lost that composure he usually had, how he seemed like anyone else. Normally Deacon was bigger than life, a guard at Larkwood Academy who even the other guards feared and distrusted.
In these moments, though, he wasn’t any of that. He was just mine.
I set my hand on the back of his neck and brought him closer, pulled him to my body until I could use my lips to try to tell him the things I couldn’t say with my kiss.
He groaned against my lips, then grabbed my thigh to pull it around him. My ass pressed against the small table I sat on, but I didn’t care about anything. Not splinters, not discomfort, nothing but drowning myself in these rare moments of happiness.
I’d lived at Larkwood for months and had mostly accepted the brutality that made up my world now, but that made these moments even more important. When Deacon touched me, when he growled into my ear, it made the rest of the ugliness of my life drift away.
He sank his cock into me, and I dug my nails into his back. It always gave me this wonderful burn when he took me, when I could feel entirely filled by him.
So I lost myself in him, in his strength, in the rough whispered praise he offered. Too soon, it ended. Too quickly, I wiped off and pulled my sweats back on, brushing my hair with my fingers to appear presentable. We never had much time, never got to indulge in the quiet happiness normal people could when they enjoyed languid motions and gentle kisses through the night.
Deacon buttoned his pants, his expression having shifted back to the usual closed-off one he showed to everyone else. No doubt that was one reason I so cherished the times we had, because they were the only chances I got to really see him.
“You need to be more careful,” he muttered.
I turned toward him, furrowing my brows.
The zipper of his pants was loud in the quiet shed. “You’ve got guards watching you. Warden put out a memo to keep a close eye on you. You think they don’t know you’ve been meeting up with those delinquents you seem to think are friends?”
I pressed my lips together and narrowed my eyes. Of course Deacon didn’t care for the other connections I’d made—he considered all the shades dangerous, so he saw any other resident as a risk to me.
What he didn’t understand was that everything was a risk to me. The whole damned world seemed to want to take me apart, to pull me to pieces until nothing was left.
He came forward and set his hand on the back of my neck, angling my face so I looked right into those bright purple eyes of his. Those eyes had ushered me into my new life at one time, but they meant so much more to me now. “I don’t want to lose you, Hera. You can’t trust anyone, can’t let your guard down. Whatever they’re talking you into, it’ll get you killed.”
I set my hand on his chest and pushed. He didn’t move because of the pressure I applied, but because he chose to. I could have used my powers, my ability to control sound waves, but I tried my hardest to keep that hidden. I’d finally gotten to where I didn’t do it on accident, so I kept it on a tight leash. While he’d witnessed that skill, he had no idea of the extent of it.
“Nothing to say?” Anger flashed across his features, but I didn’t fear him. I knew him too well already, knew he’d never hurt me, at least not on purpose. Sure, he was a guard at the very place holding me captive, but he did all he could to protect me.
“No one makes me do anything,” I signed to him.
“You’re too naïve,” he snapped. “You think I don’t know they’re trouble? That they’re looking for some magical way out? Look, this place has stood for a long damned time, and no level-one shade has ever escaped. A lot of them have died trying, though. I don’t care how good a friend you think they are, they’ll let you take the fall if it benefits them at all.”
Deacon’s words were callous but not unexpected.
We’d done this for weeks, ever since I’d left solitary after being caught breaking into a file room. Deacon was smart enough to know I was up to something, but pushing too much might just end up making me a bigger target. It had driven a wedge between us, one that hurt more than I liked to admit.
I hated having to separate my life, to keep things from all the people around me, but I didn’t have a choice.
Deacon couldn’t find out about the plans I had with Wade, Knox and Brax, and the three of them couldn’t know the extent of my relationship with Deacon.
Though I had a feeling all the men in my life had made wrong guesses about one another. It was in the looks, in the aggression they all showed when talking about each other. No doubt each of them assumed I was sleeping with all the others in my life.
Which wasn’t true.
Though…not because of lack of effort on my part.
It just turned out romance was as foreign a concept to me as the economics of other countries and how football worked. Getting people into bed was much more difficult than I’d have ever imagined. I recalled all the times I’d heard as a teenager how boys were animals who only wanted one thing, how I had to be careful as a woman or I’d get taken advantage of.
Yet most of these men were not taking advantage of me in the way I wanted them to, no matter how I tried to tempt them.
Not that telling them that would matter. Deception was a way of life here at Larkwood, and we all had our secrets.
“Don’t fight with me. We don’t have long.”
“I’m not trying to fight,” he assured me, despite the aggressive tone of voice that he used almost exclusively for fighting. “I just worry about you. I’m afraid I’ll open my email and see your name on the North Tower list. I don’t want that.”
To be fair, neither did I. Despite the fact that the North Tower seemed my only real escape option, I wasn’t ready to face that horror just yet. I needed a better plan, more information—anything to give me an edge.
But it wasn’t as if I could admit any of that to Deacon. If he discovered any plan for escape I had, he’d just ruin it to protect me.
So I had to keep that all close to my chest and play dumb. “You don’t need to worry about me.”
He made a soft sound low in his throat, as if he couldn’t believe what an idiot I was. “Of course I do. You’re trouble, Hera, and you attract trouble like a fucking magnet. Don’t forget, I was the one who saved you that night when you changed. I saw it all. I know exactly how much you need someone worrying about you.”
I dropped my gaze at the painful reminder. If it wasn’t for him, I’d have died on that parking structure floor. I’d have bled out because of the man who had slit my throat, the one who had taken my voice.
Instead, Deacon had heard my scream, had come and saved me.
Then he’d brought me to Larkwood…
It was a complicated relationship.
He reached forward again, but he didn’t touch my cheek. Instead, he touched the scar at my throat, the whole reason I couldn’t speak. “You almost died. This happened because the world didn’t like what you were. I saved you that time, but I’m terrified I won’t be able to the next, that you’ll do something stupid and end up in a situation I can’t do anything about.” His words were so soft, so sad that they took me aback.
I forced myself to stare into his eyes, to witness the pain and fear there. For all Deacon’s faults—and there were a lot of them—he wasn’t a bad man. He wanted the best for me.
We didn’t agree on what was best. He wanted me alive even if it meant losing everything else. I wanted freedom, even if it meant risking my life for it.
It was an impasse I didn’t know how to fix.
“I don’t want to see you get finished off because you want to escape,” he whispered.
I forced my hand up so I could sign back. “I’m not planning anything.”
Jayce Carter lives in Southern California with her husband and two spawns. She originally wanted to take over the world but realized that would require wearing pants. This led her to choosing writing, a completely pants-free occupation. She has a fear of heights yet rock climbs for fun and enjoys making up excuses for not going out and socializing. You can learn more about her at her website.
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When best-laid-plans fall apart, all you can do is pick up the pieces—and host a gallery exhibit.
Nic Walker and Vincent Blake lead charmed lives—or so thinks their neglected friend Juno. But when Juno’s plans come crumbling down, it’s their boyfriend Charles who reaches out to get Nic to help. Nic, Vincent, Matteo and even Taylor are there with solid plans for assistance, including an emergency art exhibit called Electric Dreams.
Amid an unexpected revelation about Matteo’s past, a surprising romantic development in Daphne’s life and a personal challenge of Nic’s, the gang comes together to help their friends and demonstrate what real loyalty looks like. Nobody ever said life was easy, but sometimes a challenge can bring out the best in people—and remind you of the true meaning of friendship.
Reader advisory: This book contains public nudity. It is best read as book three in a series.
Staking out your pseudo-child on their last day of exams for their final year in high school was a parental right-of-passage. And if it wasn’t, it should have been.
“Has he texted you?” I asked Vincent, as we waited in the car for Taylor to emerge from the red brick building.
“Not yet,” Vincent said, leaning forward to keep an eye out. “He was planning to catch the bus home, so I want to make sure we don’t miss him.”
“There he is,” Matteo said with composure from the back seat.
Taylor had burst forth from the double doors of the alternative secondary school and bent down to tie his shoe, his puffy blue jacket unzipped.
“I can’t believe he wears runners in winter,” I said. “He’s going to fall and break his little neck.”
I reached past Vincent and slammed the middle of the steering wheel, causing the horn to blast and Taylor to spasm and glare at the source of the alarming sound.
Vincent had lowered the window and now leaned his head out. “That was Nic. Blame him.”
Taylor made a gesture of resignation as he stood and ambled to the car. “What are you doing here?”
“Why aren’t you wearing boots?” I asked. He ignored me.
Matteo leaned forward from the back seat. “It’s your last high school exam, Taylor. We’re taking you out for supper.”
I leaned over Vincent, ignoring his long-suffering expression. “We have reservations at Moxies. Not super fancy, I know, but the servers are hot and I know you—”
“Yes! I love Moxies!” Taylor pumped the air and opened the back door of the car, passing his backpack to Matteo then sliding in beside my other romantic partner. “Hi, Dad. I mean, Dads.”
“I’m not your dad,” Vincent said, starting the engine and pulling into the road. Vincent was Taylor’s cousin and my live-in boyfriend. Matteo had insinuated himself into the relationship just after Taylor had joined the household to escape his uber-religious parents.
“You act like my dad. And it’s just easier to call all three of you ‘Dad’.”
“Fine.” Vincent shrugged. “Whatever.”
“But who’s your Daddy, Taylor?” I said, waggling my brows. Taylor and I had a weird relationship.
I smirked at him. “You used to be intrigued by me and what I got up to with the other dads in private. What happened?”
He made a face. “I got a glimpse of the reality. God, I almost threw up in my mouth just now, thinking about it.”
“Careful,” I said.
“Why? You gonna punish me?”
“I’m sure I can think of something not sex-related to make you watch your tongue, brat.”
“Matteo, Nic is being mean to me,” Taylor said, opening a bottle of water he’d pulled from his bag and tipping it to his lips.
“Don’t bring me into this,” Matteo sighed.
“You’re in this car, aren’t you?”
“Yes, and I’m starting to wish I wasn’t.”
“Nice. That’s really nice. Don’t you want to wish me a happy graduation?” Taylor said, snuggling into Matteo, who put an arm around him and kissed the top of his head.
“Of course. Happy graduation, Taylor.”
“That’s assuming you passed the exam,” I pointed out.
Taylor narrowed his eyes at me in the rearview mirror. “I passed. You think I want to spend another minute in high school? I’m already finishing six months late.”
Vincent glanced at his younger cousin in the back seat. “You’ve worked hard, and you should be proud of yourself.”
Taylor blushed and smiled shyly. “Oh, pish. You know, I don’t want to live with you all forever.”
I put a hand to my heart. “Taylor, you wound me.”
“No offense, but I’d like to move out on my own at some point. Not yet, though.”
“Of course. But you’d better plan to come for dinner with your dads once a week, at least,” I muttered. I’d been the last person to think I’d want a teenager in the house, and now I couldn’t imagine our lives without Taylor.
Taylor cuddled up next to Matteo and kissed his cheek. “For Matteo’s cooking? You bet. Even if Vincent cooks. But if Nic cooks…”
“Watch yourself, little one.” I laughed, because he was right about my failed attempts at putting together appealing meals, on the rare occasions I’d tried. Most days Matteo cooked dinner, and if he couldn’t, Vincent or Taylor did. I was last on the list for a reason.
Matteo had come to us when Vincent had injured his hand, and Daphne had suggested someone to help with the cooking and domestic duties. We’d then invited Matteo into our bedroom and things had progressed from there. Now the three of us were in a committed poly relationship with Taylor to look after, and I’d never been happier.
“Oh please, you’ve been threatening to give me a spanking since I moved in. But I think you’re worried you’d like it too much.”
“Taylor,” Vincent warned.
“There are many different ways I can make your life miserable, Taylor. Don’t tempt me.”
Verbally sparring with Taylor had become a daily diversion, and I’d miss it when he finally did move out.
Moxie’s had a booth waiting for us. We took off our winter jackets and hung them on the nearby hook. Just before Vincent slid onto the bench, I nudged him in the ribs. “Hey, remember what we did in the bathroom the last time we were here?”
As I’d expected, a blush rose in his cheeks, and he glanced at the others to see if they’d heard. Matteo avoided his gaze while fighting a smile, and, to my amusement, Taylor looked shocked.
He leaned over the table, his eyebrows raised. “A public bathroom?”
I shrugged. “We were alone for most of it.”
“Most of it?” Taylor sputtered and sat down, shaking his head. “God, you guys are turning me into a prude. I’m the one who’s supposed to be fucking people in bathrooms. I’m eighteen and horny and—”
“I didn’t fuck Vincent in the bathroom,” I said calmly.
“Oh. Okay,” Taylor said. “Good.”
He pretended to focus on the menu, but he kept glancing up at us, and I knew it was killing him to pretend he wasn’t curious as hell.
“Can we order, please?” Vincent said, with some embarrassment.
I scanned the menu. “Of course. I’m going to order extra aioli with whatever I’m getting—because there’s two of you, now.” I winked at Matteo.
Taylor stood up. “I’m going to the bathroom.” He pointed a finger at me. “You stay where you are.”
Matteo and Vincent glared at me while Taylor headed for the men’s room.
“This is supposed to be a celebration of Taylor finishing his high school credits,” Matteo said gently. “Not a confessional for all the kinky things you’ve done to Vincent.”
I shrugged. “I mean, all the kinky—”
Matteo pushed his knife forward slightly. “But please do share the details with me later.”
“Oh, God,” Vincent moaned, covering his face.
I finger-gunned Matteo. “You got it.”
When Taylor came back, I apologized and offered to have his guitar restrung as penance.
“Don’t be dumb. It’s fine.” Taylor nodded at Vincent. “It’s kind of worth my own cringe to see Vincent so embarrassed, when I know the kinky bastard was fully on board with whatever happened.”
“Oh, and, Taylor?”
I pointed out of the window. “See that silver Honda?”
Taylor focused on the car that sparkled in the late evening sunshine. “Yeah?”
“That’s your real graduation present.”
“Oh, that’s hilarious,” Taylor said, turning back as Matteo placed a Honda fob on a rainbow key ring onto the table in front of him.
He looked at it and scooped it up in his fingers. “What the fuck is this? Is this some kind of a joke? I’m going to kill you guys.”
“It’s not a joke,” Vincent said.
“The car’s yours,” I confirmed, sitting up straighter. “It’s a couple of years old, but there’s barely any mileage on it. Vincent had it detailed so it’s shiny and clean, inside and out, although it won’t stay that way with all the winter slush on the roads.”
Taylor stared at the fob in his hand. Then he looked at the car through the window. Then he looked at me with shining eyes and a tremulous lip.
“Really?” he whispered, as if he couldn’t quite believe it.
Matteo put an arm around him and kissed him on the cheek. “You deserve it. You’ve worked hard and you’ve helped out at the house, too. You’re almost as good a cook as me, now.”
Taylor stared at the Honda device for another few seconds. “Oh my God. What! A car? A car!” He slid out of the booth and started leafing through the coats for his jacket. “I want to see it!”
“I’ll take you,” Vincent said. “Nic, can you please order for me? You know what I like.” He took his jacket from the hook and passed Taylor his.
“I certainly do. What do you want to eat, Taylor?”
“I don’t care. Order me anything,” he said, shoving his arms in the sleeves of his blue puffer jacket and racing out of the restaurant with Vincent on his trail.
“That was a success,” Matteo said, smiling and pretending to look over the menu, although we ate here so often that I was sure he already knew what he was going to order. “It was a good idea, Nic.”
“Honestly, having only my car between the four of us was becoming a problem, even though you don’t drive. Now that Taylor has his own, we don’t have to worry about not having a means of transportation while he’s out galivanting.”
We watched Taylor circle the car while Vincent pointed out certain things, then he opened the driver’s door and slid inside. Vincent leaned on the door, laughing and grinning. He glanced into the restaurant and gave us a thumbs-up.
“He’s worked so hard, and now he’s graduated high school. He’s got a job lined up and a plan to attend college in the fall. He’s a good kid, Matteo.” I put my chin in my hand. “I never thought I wanted to be a dad, but it seems to come naturally with Taylor.”
Matteo grinned. “It’s nice that we can split the responsibility three ways.”
“It is. Absolutely. I’m starting to think poly relationships should be the standard, especially in this economy.”
When Vincent brought Taylor back inside, the kid slid onto my lap and gave me the tightest hug, regardless of the audience. “Thank you so much, Nic. I love it. It’s perfect.”
He was rosy and cold from being outside. I hugged him back, then nudged him off.
“I’m glad you like it. You deserve it. But we have to sit down and go over some rules when we get home.”
“And you need to give your other daddy a hug, because the car is from all of us.”
Taylor hung up his jacket again, slid into the booth beside Matteo and wrapped him in his arms. “Thank you, Favorite Dad. You are the best.”
Matteo chuckled, and I pretended not to hear the endearment. Matteo was probably Taylor’s favorite. He was just so ‘Dad-like’—forthright and steady—whereas Vincent and I were more scattered and impulsive.
Taylor worked hard to contain himself through the meal, because he was dying to drive his ‘new’ car. So we didn’t order dessert, and Vincent went with Taylor in the new car while I drove Matteo back to our place.
We beat them home and waited outside the front door for Taylor to pull in. When he got out of the driver’s side, he was beaming.
“So? How does it drive?” I asked.
“Like a fucking dream,” Taylor replied. “Thank you, guys, so much. It’s amazing.”
I wagged my finger at him. “No driving drunk or high. And you still have to be home by midnight if you’re not sleeping at Riley’s.”
“And no texting while driving.”
We went inside, and Matteo put on a pot of tea while Taylor phoned his boyfriend.
“Hello, babe,” Riley answered, on speaker.
“I got a fucking car for graduation!” Taylor yelled into the phone.
“What? No way!” Riley replied. “You lucky ass.”
“New car?” Riley said.
“Nah, second-hand. But almost new. A Honda Civic. Silver. Wait, I’ll show you.” Taylor got up and headed out of the door.
“Put on a jacket!” I said, as the door slammed behind him. I rolled my eyes. “Well, the car was a hit,” I said, leaning back on the sofa.
“Were you worried?” Vincent said with a smile.
“Not really. Cars are generally an impressive gift.”
My phone vibrated, and I fished it out of my pocket, knowing who it was by the tones of Sympathy for the Devil that invaded the silence.
“Hey, Daf. What’s up?” I said, bringing it to my ear.
“Did you give Sparky his car? What did he say? Was he surprised?”
“He was surprised. Didn’t expect it at all. He repeated himself a lot. It was cute.”
“Nice! I’m so glad he’s happy. He’s worked hard.”
“Yes, he has.”
“Look… I need you to meet me for coffee. Soon!”
I recognized a certain something in the tone of Daphne’s voice—the same something that had been there when she’d called to persuade me to meet this ‘cute as shit’ client of hers who’d turned out to be Vincent. “Why?”
“I can’t explain it over the phone.”
“Well, Jesus. That’s a first.” I snorted.
“Very funny. Can you meet me tomorrow?”
“Well, I have to work…”
“You get a lunch, don’t you?”
“But I have marking to do.”
“Oh, come on. I’ll buy you lunch.”
“Well, in that case.”
“I’ll come to your office. See you around noon.”
“Sure. See you. Bye.” There was no point arguing. I’d end up agreeing anyway.
Matteo brought in the tea and placed it on the coffee table.
“What did Daphne want?”
I stared at the phone, wondering that myself.
“Well, I’m not sure. Wanted to know how Taylor reacted to his gift. But she’s making me meet her for lunch tomorrow for some reason.”
Daphne was my longtime friend who worked as a professional Domme, had introduced me to Vincent and reamed out my ex-boyfriend after he’d started dicking me around. I loved her so much and would do anything for her, such as letting her set up a sex dungeon in my basement for almost a month the previous year.
Daphne had a flair for the dramatic and intense, even outside of her lucrative business.
Matteo, who had been a member of our rather unconventional relationship for a good eight months now, had gotten a promotion at his job. He was now a senior-level market researcher for a well-known software company. That kept him busy during the regular work week, but his evenings and weekends remained free so that he could come home, cook dinner for us and help with domestic chores.
Vincent, who had been a full-time domestic service person for me since we’d moved in together, received a regular wage on top of his room and board, as well as enjoyable bonuses from Matteo and me, so that we made quite the spectacular and functional family unit.
Taylor, who added to the overall atmosphere with his dry wit and explicit humor, had thrived under our admittedly neglectful care. He was a young adult now and disappeared most evenings into his room or went out with his boyfriend and other peers. But when he did grace us with his presence, he was respectful and cheerful, and I wondered how we had lived without him. We knew it was only a matter of time before he moved out on his own, or in with Riley, but now that he had his own car to take back and forth, he seemed content to keep things as they were, which made me happy in an unexpected way.
I’d never wanted children, but falling into a vague parenting schema with Taylor had been so natural and organic that it didn’t seem strange at all and fulfilled me in some obscure way. I tried not to second-guess it.
AE Lister/Elizabeth Lister is a Canadian non-binary author with a vivid imagination and a head full of unique and interesting characters. They have published 10 books, one of which received an Honorable Mention from the National Leather Association – International for excellence in SM/Leather/Fetish writing.
Two broken men. One secret addiction. No turning back.
When Derreck stumbles upon Maddy, who is sitting in his car and nearly sweating to death under the summer’s sun, he is at his breaking point.
But Maddy is just as lost, searching for a Dom he only knows by name and waiting in his car outside the club Unkinked on the tiny chance that the Dom might find him. When it is revealed that Derreck is the man Maddy has been searching for from the very beginning, it seems fate couldn’t get any sweeter.
Derreck invites Maddy into Unkinked as his guest, with the promise of the pain that Maddy so desperately craves. A scene that should have been simple opens Maddy’s mind to a new world and community that aren’t riddled with guilt or judgment.
Derreck knows he can’t let his sub slip away, but Maddy is keeping secrets from his new Dom—secrets that could change their relationship forever
Reader advisory: This book features pain play, edge play and knife play. One character has a history of addiction and self-harm.
Derreck killed his car’s engine, letting his eyes fall shut as he leaned back against the leather seat. He could barely keep his eyes open as exhaustion pulled at him, sinking into his weary bones until his frame was thinly stretched.
The seat was comfortable enough that he could almost imagine himself drifting off to the sound of gentle ticking as the Mustang slowly cooled. The air conditioning faded, draining his hope for restful peace as sweat beaded on his forehead. Wiping it away, he let out one last sigh before he opened the door.
Even warmer air coated him as he stepped onto the pavement, his sweat drying under the sun almost instantly. A single shriveled maple on the street hung limp, its leaves barely managing to hold on as the sun baked them black. He rubbed his eyes as his shoes kicked up enough dust to blind an army within a few steps.
Stumbling on the curb, Derreck managed to catch himself on the lamp post that jutted out of the edge of the sidewalk. His palm burned as it touched the heated surface, a gasp pushing through his lips.
Usually it wouldn’t bother him—the pain. It was a part of life that he could easily ignore or twist into something much better—but not when he’d gone weeks without a decent night’s sleep.
He’d thrown himself into his work, pulling more hours than anyone else, all to avoid the enthralling eyes of the sub that haunted his dreams. If only it had worked.
“Are you okay?”
He turned toward the voice as it trickled into his thoughts. The street was empty. Even the plant that hung from the lamp post was nothing more than a few dried twigs and a bunch of dehydrated pansies. He paused, raising his hand to block his eyes from the sun’s glare.
The voice had sounded close, but he couldn’t spy anyone as he looked around before noting the white door of his destination and the Office Depot across the street. I must be worse off than I thought.
There was usually no one to see him coming and going in this part of town, which was exactly how he liked it. There were a few other cars parked along the curb, and he recognized them all except the red Toyota next to him.
He huffed, ready to turn away, before something caught his eye. The Corolla’s windows were down, the sun baking the exposed gray-cloth interior with heat waves escaping through the openings. It wasn’t a car that should have had its windows down in a place with nobody around.
Derreck took a step toward the car before peering through the passenger window. In the driver’s seat was a man who must’ve been one step away from heatstroke, especially with his black sweater that probably soaked up warmth that much quicker. The interior was tidy, except for a few empty bottles of water stacked on the passenger seat.
Derreck had chosen a baby-blue tank top and jeans himself, but he wished he could pull his tank over his head and dunk himself in the nearest swimming pool.
Leaning over the side of the car, Derreck touched the hood, hissing as heat lanced over his palm. I am going to be useless tonight. Shaking his hand, he leaned down to get a better look at the driver.
The driver was flushed, his face a healthy pink and his brown hair soaked with sweat so thick that it looked nearly back. His sweater clung to him, the fabric dark in almost every spot on his rail-thin body. The man gave Derreck a broad smile, sending a small wave as Derreck peered into the steaming interior.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” said the man, leaning back in his seat and adjusting the strap over his chest. “I saw you stumble and wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Okay? Derreck couldn’t keep the disbelief off his face. He didn’t even have the energy to turn the question back at the guy who was sweating his ass off in a car when it was sweltering, even in the shade. He didn’t want to know.
“I’m good, thanks,” said Derreck, slapping the top of the car as he turned away. You should ask him if he’s okay. Derreck bit down on the urge as it rose behind his teeth. He had too much on his plate, and he couldn’t take one more ounce of anyone else’s shit before he exploded.
But how many times had he stopped things just before they had been about to go to shit? Too many to count.
“You waiting for someone?” Derreck asked, clenching his fists as he paused on the street. The sun soaked into his shoulders, fresh sweat gathering at the base of his neck. Sweet air conditioning was only a few steps away, but this man was so much worse off than him—sitting in his car…in a fucking sweater.
“Uh, yeah.” The man looked up and down the street once before he settled his gaze on the familiar blank door that called to Derreck like the sweetest siren. Beyond those doors was relief and relaxation that couldn’t be rivaled by anything else in the world. Too bad there wasn’t a bed meant for just sleeping.
The door to the club Unkinked had never been labeled, which kept a lot of pointed fingers from finding it. This man seemed to know what was inside the same way Derreck did.
Someone’s sub? The guy didn’t look like a Dom, although looks were as deceiving as book covers. Derreck had seen twinky Doms control guys twice their size—putting them on their knees and making them beg usually did the trick.
Derreck had it easier. He looked his part of ruthless Dom, and no one in their right mind would ever ask him to be their sub. It would have been their last question with their own teeth in their head if they did.
He turned away, heading to the door and pressing his hand against the cool surface. He could already feel the stress draining from his body, seeping into the beams of the place where his mind and body felt safest. All he needed was a bit of play and he would be set for the next week. If it were good enough, the high might even last a bit longer and he would be able to catch a bit of sleep.
But his highs were becoming few and far between, and the last one had left him wanting—wanting to never step foot in his place of solace again, wanting to leave the lifestyle behind for good, wanting to be vanilla. He shuddered at the thought.
After pulling his key card from his pocket, he tapped it against the door’s sensor, the light taking much too long to flip over to green before the lock slid back with a clunk. The security was necessary, as was the bouncer on the other side of the door and the dungeon master who was patrolling the club. It kept curious seekers from sneaking their way inside the place where people laid their hearts and souls out in the open.
He nodded at the unfamiliar bouncer, giving him a quick once-over before thoroughly dismissing him. Derreck didn’t care if a sub was burly and thick or lean, because he’d long since mastered hitting a target with a touch of jiggle. But he couldn’t pull the bouncer away from his duties.
The bouncer was the third fresh face he’d seen in as many months. The owner of Unkinked, Clint, must have been outsourcing his help for there to be so many unfamiliar faces—either that or maybe they got sick of hearing people fuck and not being able to join in.
Derreck let out a sigh as the cool air trickled over his skin, his sweat turning into goosebumps as the summer heat was sucked away. He let his eyes fall shut as he took a deep breath. Earth and mold that always clung to him gave way to sex and desire, dredging up memories in an instant. He had thousands of memories of Unkinked, and some of them were the best days and nights of his life.
The pull of desire lured him a step away from the door. The sharpness of vodka and rum tickled his nose as he stepped to the curtain. Am I drinking tonight? A drink meant no scene, and a scene was everything he needed.
There was a subtle staleness to the curtains as Derreck trailed his fingers over the fabric, finally opening his eyes. He pushed them aside, taking in every detail of the dark interior.
Three of the booths were occupied, all by Doms and subs whom he recognized. A few looked up as he entered, one sub blushing and looking back to the floor. Derreck kept his smirk to himself as he nodded to their Dom, Selina. She had allowed him to borrow her sub, after all. It hadn’t been nearly as interesting as he had hoped, but he’d still cherished the submission.
The inside of the club was clean and still bright in the early hour—and was likely different than any newbie expected. There was a touch of nudity in the main area, as well as some rocking leather, but the best parts of the club were out of view. Hidden near the back was the entrance to the main stage and open play area, and tucked around the corner were nine private rooms that made even the most stoic Doms salivate.
From the entrance, though, it could have been any other club, with booths along the wall and a bottle-rich bar with wooden stools for those who wanted to socialize and grab a few drinks. The virgin menu was even more robust than the alcoholic one, catering to the couples who wanted to play.
He stepped to the bar, slipping into an unoccupied stool. Brennen was in the next stool over, bent over a shot glass that reeked of vodka and whiskey—a killer combination that Brennen usually stuck with. There were three more glasses strewn around him and his eyes were already glassy.
He wouldn’t be playing, and he was a Dom anyway, which was something Derreck never tried to push. He had no desire to change a person’s identity, whether it was Dom or sub. Both positions demanded respect.
“Hey, Derreck. It’s a hot one today,” said Brennen, looking up from his glass just long enough to ask.
Derreck grunted, tapping the bar top. His nails were still crusted with dirt and clay. No matter how hard he scrubbed, they never seemed to come clean. Even the potato scrubber from the discount store hadn’t done the trick, although it had stung.
He leaned against the bar as another wave of exhaustion settled over him. The murmur of voices was almost enough to send him straight to sleep, and the ease that always settled over him in Unkinked had him even closer.
“You drinking tonight, Derreck?” asked Clint as he worked his way through the half-dozen others at the bar.
Clint had started Unkinked with his husband, and after his husband had passed, he had taken full responsibility to keep it going. Derreck couldn’t imagine keeping the hours Clint did, along with bartending, organizing events and schedules, giving lessons in first-aid and the mountain of paperwork he must have.
Besides the bouncer and the volunteer dungeon master, Clint worked alone, although there were many subs who offered volunteer service as well.
Derreck blinked as he dropped his gaze to Clint’s hips when they swayed with each sauntering step when he moved closer. He was attractive and strong, with a wicked smirk that had caught Derreck’s eye more than once.
Nodding his head, he peered back over his shoulder. Clint was so far off limits that Derreck shouldn’t have even been looking. One drink. One drink before the fun starts.
Clint gave him a quick smile before reaching for a bottle of Jameson. “The usual?”
Derreck shook his head, eyeing Clint up as he passed under the bar’s light. Clint looked tired and from more than just lack of sleep. He looked the way Derreck had felt for the past few weeks. It was another thing that Derreck just didn’t have the energy to fix.
Clint was his friend. Maybe not in a traditional sense, but Clint had been there for him more than once. In return, Derreck usually had his back. But it had been weeks since Derreck had stepped inside the bar. Things had obviously not changed while he had been trying to convince himself he could stay away.
“Give me a shot of Jäger.” Derreck leaned his elbows on the bar top, sagging as he took in his surroundings. Ask him if he’s okay. He looked back to Clint and to the tightness around his eyes. Not here.
“Must’ve been a shit day,” said Clint as he set the bottle of Jameson down and reached for the Jägermeister instead. His grip was steady, and the liquid didn’t slosh over the side as he poured Derreck his shot. Maybe I’m just projecting.
“Shit week,” said Derreck, surprised that Clint didn’t mention his absence. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Clint was one of the most intuitive men he knew, and he must’ve seen the strain in Derreck’s every movement.
Derreck’s callused palms were red and blistered, his skin dry and still dirty-looking, despite his lengthy shower. His muscles burned, even as he raised his glass to his lips and tossed back the shot. The liquid seared a path down his throat, turning him inside out as it sank into him. It eased the ache in the rest of his body for an instant. A bit of rain would have gone so much further than the shot, though.
“You starting a tab?” Clint grabbed the empty shot glass, setting it on a tray beneath the lip of the bar.
“I’ll stop at one.” Derreck pushed off the stool, heading deeper into the club without looking back at Clint. If he’d stayed any longer, he would have had to ask Clint if he was okay. Letting two people down in one day. Must be a record. He grimaced as his gut throbbed with every movement. Jäger had probably been a poor choice.
He scoped out the bar a second time, slowing his stride until his stomach calmed. His gaze lingered on a couple—two subs—as they kissed over their table. Kristie and Katie. It was too bad that they weren’t his type, because two subs were better than one. They needed a soft Dom, but he needed a sub to torture the fuck out of.
There were a few other couples, despite the early hour. After dark was when the real sadists started to emerge from the shadows, but the lifers didn’t care what time of day it was. Derreck was a lifer, too, he supposed, and after more than fifteen years, he should have known that his life was nothing without kink.
He circled the bar area again. There was nothing happening on the main stage or open floor, and he had no desire to just watch if one of the kink room doors were open. He spied a Dom who was reclined in the seating area outside of the rooms, her sub at her feet with his head across her shoe. From the blissed-out look on his face, he was still floating.
Derreck needed something more than that. He needed them sobbing with euphoria in his arms after he fucked them up. It was the only way he was going to get a certain sub out of his thoughts.
He clenched his hands into fists, the calluses on his palms like pebbles over his skin. His hands could do a lot of damage to a person, then dig a grave on a moonlit Tuesday. The damage was always consensual, but the grave…not so much.
He slipped down the hallway of doors that led to kink rooms, which held more implements than any Dom or sub could ever ask for. He slid his hand over the engraved gold letters on his favorite room. Impact. Even the name made goosebumps burst over his skin and sent a shudder of need to his core. His cock stayed soft, as it usually did, except for those rare occasions when a sub managed to surpass his expectations.
Like Nav. He closed his eyes, letting his hand rest against the carved surface.
Nav had been introduced to him by a fellow Dom, and after their first scene together, he had gone straight home with his hands still aching from holding the flogger tight. Stepping in the shower, he had dropped his hand to his cock, jerking himself to hardness with Nav on his mind.
But Nav wasn’t his in the loosest sense of the word, even though he still managed to haunt Derreck’s dreams. Nav had safeworded during their second scene together, then had fled back to his true Dom, Trick. The call of “yellow” still sounded in his ears as if it had only been yesterday.
Sex was so rarely a part of life for Derreck, but during their first scene, he had watched Trick come as Nav had shot against the wall from Derreck’s beating alone. He wouldn’t have been a gay man if he hadn’t felt something.
But Nav had belonged to Trick before the two of them had even realized it. Derreck had seen their looks and had chosen to ignore them, despite his better instincts. It had been a miscalculation that had added to his sleeplessness and had prompted him to steer clear of the club for weeks.
He gritted his teeth, turning away from the closed door and pushing his way down the hall.
He’d come to the club so he could forget his mistake and move the fuck on.
The private rooms were all closed as he passed them, tracing his fingertips over each name. Play, Spoil, Calm, Wet. He wasn’t sure whether or not there were couples on the other side of each door, but the closed door meant that voyeurism was not welcome. I’m not welcome.
He circled back to the main area, sliding into an empty booth, despite invitations from several tables that he passed. He didn’t pause for conversation, just tilted his head before he moved on to his own space. Rapping his knucks against the polished tabletop, he leaned back to survey the room once more.
There was no one for him yet, but he was patient. He could spend hours staring at the same spec of dirt, letting his mind drift until he was content. Sitting in a comfortable chair with the hum of music and the smell of sex in the air was paradise in comparison.
He looked up as the curtain to the entrance slid open and another couple stepped off the street and into his world. Derreck got a flash of the bouncer and a few others before the curtain fluttered back into place. The hum of conversation lulled against his eardrums.
His chest did not squeeze when he spotted Nav tucked under Trick’s arm as they entered the club together. Trick’s tanned hand glowed against Nav’s pale, naked shoulder, a pair of tight boy shorts the only thing on Nav’s body.
It wasn’t that Derreck was jealous of his friend, but there was a certain longing at seeing Nav that summoned his darker side. It wasn’t very often that Derreck could take himself in hand and come quickly, and a treat like Nav would have made any man salivate.
Trick spotted him first, nodding from across the room before he gripped the back of Nav’s neck and pushed him to the ground.
Nav had come a long way since Derreck had last seen him. Dropping to his knees, Nav didn’t seem to care how hard he struck the ground or how rough Trick jerked his head back by his hair. His eyes glazed over immediately, going deep without resistance. He was something special.
Derreck shifted in his seat, trying to ease the tension in his gut. Nav—no, Trick’s sub—stayed on the ground as Trick strolled toward Derreck, giving him a smile as he approached.
“Derreck.” Trick stopped at the edge of the booth, holding his hand out in an offering. Derreck took it, accepting the handshake at face value. Trick had grown a few calluses on his palm, the surface rougher than Derreck remembered. Working his sub hard. Good. Nav deserved someone who would put the effort in.
“Maverick.” He squeezed once before he broke contact, smothering the urge to wipe his hand on his pants. Trick’s sweat on his palm was like a raw nerve, his touch buzzing under Derreck’s skin.
“My slut has something to say to you, if you are agreeable to it,” said Trick, glancing back at Nav. Trick’s eyes were hard, despite the languid way he moved. He traced the room, eyeing someone up as they moved from a booth to the bar, passing close to Nav. Too close, apparently. Trick clenched his fist, his jaw going tight.
Derreck paused, looking back at Trick’s sub. Nav had lowered his eyes to the floor, unmoving, despite the way his knees had to have been aching on the hardwood. Perhaps he had done something to not deserve a pillow—or perhaps he preferred it like that.
Nav wasn’t beautiful in a traditional sense—too pale and soft to meet the stereotypical desires of most men—but Derreck had seen first-hand how alluring he was after a scene. Derreck valued that more than any beauty.
He inclined his head, sliding his hand over the tabletop as he looked to Trick. “I’m agreeable.” His voice sounded more strained than he would have liked, but he’d buried too many people in one week to feel normal. Trick gave him a sharp look, probably seeing straight through him. I must look worse than I thought.
Trick didn’t say anything, though, which made him a better friend than Derreck gave him credit for. Instead, he called his sub over, Nav crawling on all fours with his head lowered as he approached.
Derreck slid his hand over the tabletop, Trick’s sweat on his palm spreading over the surface until he could no longer feel the edge of it sinking into his skin. It left a streaky mess on the polished surface, his fingerprints blatant beneath the light.
Derreck looked up as Nav finally stopped his crawling and kneeled at his feet with his head bowed. His dark hair shone in the low light of the club, looking almost black against his pale skin. A purplish welt peeked through the waist band of his low-riding shorts and Derreck fought the urge to reach forward and press his fingertip to the bruise.
“Speak,” said Derreck, keeping his voice quiet. Nav had a very particular brand of humiliation that he desired, and that brand name was Trick. Derreck was nothing to him.
“I wanted to apologize, Sir,” said Nav, keeping his gaze pointed to the floor, despite his steady tone. “I was lying to myself, and to you, when I asked for a second scene. I should have never disrespected you, and I’m sorry for my behavior.”
That…was unexpected. Derreck tilted his head, not fighting the smile that tugged at his lips. It was also a huge fucking relief. It had been a mistake, but maybe it hadn’t been his alone.
A smidge of his exhaustion uncoiled, his lungs filling easier than they had in a long time.
“Forgiven,” said Derreck, fighting the urge to keep his hands to himself for a second time. Trick, having no need to hold back, threaded his hand through Nav’s hair, tugging him so he had to crawl a step closer.
“Thank you, Sir,” said Nav, tension visibly draining from his body.
So good. Derreck turned his gaze away, swallowing down the words that started to rise. Nav was one of a kind, but Nav was not his.
“Clint will be joining us for our scene,” said Trick, patting his sub on the top of his head. “You are welcome as well, of course.”
Trick’s eyes darkened as he looked at his sub, and it wasn’t because of the low light. Derreck shook his head. That was not the type of torture he was after tonight. He had no desire to string himself along, gaze at Trick’s sub and imagine.
“Slut, go get ready in our room. You know which one,” said Trick. Nav scurried away on his hands and knees, the bottom of his ass cheeks peeking through the hem of his shorts. Another small bruise caught Derreck’s eye and he licked his lips before forcing his gaze back to the table. Trick was staring at him, his eyes hard.
“You’re my friend, Derreck, but I’ve never seen you this distant before—not with me, anyway. You haven’t been here in weeks and tonight…you aren’t yourself. I know you won’t ask for help, so I’m offering it.”
Shit. Am I really that obvious? He swallowed the lump in his throat that had formed as soon as he’d seen Nav walk through the curtain. “It’s nothing. I just need to find myself a sub and let off some steam.”
But will that be enough? It had been before, but Trick was right. He wasn’t himself and hadn’t been for some time. Even before Nav, things had been…off.
Trick hummed before looking around the bar. “There’s only one sub who can take what you have to give right now. The offer stands. You can come, watch or get involved again if that’s what you need. I’m sure Nav would be open to the idea, too. He’s been kicking himself for weeks about what he did to you.”
Not his fault. “He’s good for you,” said Derreck, turning his gaze back to the table. Maybe he wouldn’t stop at one shot tonight. His stomach churned at the idea, goosebumps breaking out over his skin.
A smile cracked Trick’s face, his blue eyes glowing with the glee and something more. Trick had never looked at his previous partner like that, but Derreck had always wondered how their partnership had lasted so long when their kinks hadn’t aligned. Compromise maybe?
“He is. He’s a good man and a good slut,” said Trick.
“The best of both worlds,” said Derreck, his voice flat. Maybe Trick was right. There was no one in the club who could take what he had to give. And on a Wednesday afternoon, that wasn’t likely to change.
His patience snapped and exhaustion settled over him again like a weighted blanket. He stood abruptly, leaving Trick behind as he headed for the door. Hopefully, the blond would understand. He’d seen enough of Derreck to know when to take it personally and when not to.
Pushing the curtain aside, he grabbed the doorknob without acknowledging the bouncer who had jumped to his feet, sliding his cell phone back into his pocket. The bouncer opened his mouth once before snapping it shut, taking a step back as he looked at Derreck.
Stepping outside, the sun instantly soaked into his skin, blanketing him in warmth and urging sweat from his body in seconds. The sun had barely moved in the sky, blazing down with what must have been record-breaking heat.
He could barely feel his feet as he stumbled his way along the sidewalk to his car, stopping at the lamp post and leaning on it as he took a deep breath. The post seared through his shirt, heat bursting over his flesh until he thought he might erupt into flames. It did nothing to quell his exhaustion.
He’d never let it get quite that bad before, but he’d never stayed away so long, either. He hadn’t wanted to face Trick or Nav or anyone else. He just wanted relief. The apology had given him a touch of respite but not enough to calm the restless energy in his core.
“You sure you’re okay?”
Derreck looked up and his gaze followed the sound of the voice.
The guy was still sitting in his car, as if it hadn’t been almost an hour. He had pushed up one sleeve of his sweater, one thin and delicate wrist exposed, but the rest of his upper body was still covered with thick, black material. The flush on his cheeks and the sweat in his hair told of how hot he must’ve been, but he was making no move to remove his sweater.
“Still waiting?” asked Derreck, looking back at the club entrance. None of the couples had been missing a third that he knew of. And no Dom would leave their sub in a hot car like he was some sort of oven-baked dog.
No responsible Dom, at least.
The man nodded, flicking his gaze to the door and back to Derreck quickly. His eyes had gone shiny, as if he was just managing to hold back tears. How long had he been there before Derreck had come to the club? How long would he wait?
It pulled at what few heartstrings Derreck had, but it also spoke to his Dominant side.
It pissed him the fuck off is what it did. He clenched his hands into fists, crossing his arms and staring down at the man in his car.
“Who are they? I’ll go get them for you,” said Derreck. There was no way he was walking away with this guy still sitting in his car as he got closer and closer to heatstroke.
“Oh.” The man dropped his gaze, the pureness of his submission pulling Derreck deeper into the strange thrall. His cheeks flushed brighter, sweat beading under his eyes.
Perhaps it had been the wrong question. Some Doms insisted on titles, and Derreck would have no luck if the guy simply said ‘Sir’ or ‘Master’.
“Describe what they look like,” said Derreck, taking a deep breath to keep the anger out of his voice. He was definitely kicking someone’s ass tonight—just not in the way he’d hoped.
“I—I don’t know,” said the man, his gaze still fixed on his lap. “I only have his name. Someone—a friend online—gave me his name and said that he might be able to help me. They said he comes to this club, but I can’t get in without an invite.”
“You can if you’re a guest,” said Derreck, letting out a sigh. This was just getting stranger and stranger. “Your friend can invite you as a guest, and you’ll have a temporary pass.”
“Oh, they aren’t a member,” he said, finally looking up, but only for a moment. “They went to an open house event here years ago, but they don’t live in the city. I don’t know anyone with a membership.”
It was a conundrum that had always bothered Derreck. Privacy came with the price of inaccessibility and exclusivity, especially for subs who were heartbreakingly shy. He would still take his privacy, though. The one-and-done kinksters could fuck off.
He ran a hand over his scalp, scratching the short, tight curls. It was too fucking hot to think, and he had to get off the street before he passed out.
“What’s the name, then? I can tell you if they are here,” said Derreck. He wouldn’t give away much, because if this guy was a stalker, which was quickly becoming a possibility, then he didn’t want to encourage him.
“Oh, it’s… Let me grab my phone. I have it in there.” He fumbled with his pockets, finally sliding his phone out from the pouch in his sweater. Why the hell was he wearing so many layers? Derreck was getting warmer just looking at him. “I saved it in here, ’cause I’m terrible with names. The guy’s name is Derreck.”
Derreck almost choked on his spit when he heard his own name. Cocking his head to the side, he dragged his gaze up and down the guy’s form one more time. His first impression had been pure madness, but he never was one to hold on to a first impression for long. He usually waited until the sixth before he really made up his mind.
The guy was in shorts and flip-flops, which Derreck hadn’t noticed before. It couldn’t have been great for driving, but at least he wasn’t insane enough to wear long pants along with his sweater. His clothes were good quality but well worn, so he probably wasn’t out to try to kidnap Derreck. He didn’t stand a chance either way, unless he had a gun in his pocket.
The man fiddled with his thumbs as Derreck watched him, the chewed edge of his nail vibrant with fresh blood. All his nails were like that—bitten past the quick to the delicate pink flesh beneath.
“How did your friend say he could help you?” asked Derreck, eyeing the guy’s cell phone. It was a new model, fresh out of the store with a custom case.
“I…” The man trailed off, bringing his thumb to his mouth and catching the vermillion edge with his teeth. A fresh droplet of blood oozed up, shining against his lip until he slowly dragged it away with his tongue.
“I heard he could hurt me,” said the man, so quietly that Derreck had to strain to hear him. “I need someone to hurt me.”
Pushing away from the post, Derreck circled around the car and pulled the door open with a jerk. The man’s eyes went wide and he drew back, shrinking into his seat as Derreck loomed over the car.
“What’s your name?” asked Derreck, lowering himself into a squat. It left the man with a slight height advantage, hopefully easing some of his fear that had sprung up. Derreck reached for the man’s hand, pulling his thumb from his mouth. The flesh was burning beneath his palms, slick with sweat and clammy.
“Maddy,” he said, letting out a sigh at the touch.
There was no buzzing under Derreck’s skin or desire to wipe his fingers clean. It was the rare perfection that always seemed to elude Derreck when he needed it most.
“And why do you want me to hurt you, Maddy?” asked Derreck, watching as Maddy’s eyes went wide with realization.
M.C. Roth lives in Canada and loves every season, even the dreaded Canadian winter. She graduated with honours from the Associate Diploma Program in Veterinary Technology at the University of Guelph before choosing a different career path.
Between caring for her young son, spending time with her husband, and feeding treats to her menagerie of animals, she still spends every spare second devoted to her passion for writing.
She loves growing peppers that are hot enough to make grown men cry, but she doesn’t like spicy food herself. Her favourite thing, other than writing of course, is to find a quiet place in the wilderness and listen to the birds while dreaming about the gorgeous men in her head.
A knocking. A ringing. A steady drip-drip-drip. These are the sounds that haunt us. Drive us mad. Draw us in like the songs of sirens, hypnotic and deadly. And we must either give in, or resist with everything we have…and hope it’s enough.
Listen: The Sound of Fear offers ten stories written exclusively by trans and nonbinary authors that explore the chilling, perplexing, terrifying nature of sound.
Kill Your Darlings. When two shop workers in 1894 New York discover a haunted phonograph, they must race to solve the mystery of its tragic past before it’s too late to save their budding romance—and their lives.
Exhibition. A performance artist inspired by the inhumane treatment of refugees finds her gallery transformed into an equally inhospitable environment. Trapped inside the confines of her Plexiglas box, she struggles to piece together what is happening—and how to keep herself alive.
On the Other Side of Sound. A ringing in the ears; a coded message from beyond explanation. It will only ruin your life if you let it.
Her Little Joke. When Mave Kitten is asked to investigate a creepy phenomenon, little does she know to what depths the trail will lead: Ghosts, a haunted well, ignorance, a flapping bird. What of the woman in green?
M/other. I am alone. I do not know exactly how long I have been alone. My husband and child are…gone. Aren’t they? As a storm rages outside my decaying house, I begin to hear and see things that cannot possibly be there. Or can they?
Holy Water. Adolescence can be hell. Adolescence in an all-girl’s Catholic school as a trans teen surrounded by mean girls is a special kind of hell—especially when your school is haunted.
Snipper-Snapper. Cats make the best pets—loving, thoughtful, and loyal. Amour even brings home his own takeaway meals. Except for the stains, and damage to the shag pile, Mummy couldn’t be happier. Everyone needs a playmate.
The Knocking Bird. Knock three times to keep yourself safe. Follow your love across the sea. Obsession threads through nearly every aspect of Steffi’s life. But what happens when it drives her to do the unthinkable?
Bride of Brine. Sylvie hasn’t heard the song of the siren in years. But when she’s called home to help her estranged father find her brother, she’s faced with an impossible choice: save him, or save herself.
Haunt. When Kevin inherits his family home and decides to fix it up with his partner, he quickly discovers that the past can haunt you in more than one way—and he must choose, once and for all, exactly who he is.
When district nurse Mary Grey and her lover Harriet accept an invitation to visit the latter’s godmother in the beautiful Lake District, they’re hoping for a relaxing outing. But from the very start, they find themselves pulled into a web of intrigue, resentments, deceit, and violent passions.
Young newlywed Rachel Florry is found on the lawn with her skull smashed in and there’s no shortage of suspects. From the girl whose fiancée Rachel stole, to a sinister vagrant, to Rachel’s own mystery lover.
Mary calls on her old friend and partner, private detective Franz Shaefer to come down to Bayard Lodge and help solve the case. But as they unearth buried secrets and hidden agendas, they themselves are at risk.
The horrific events of the previous winter, when the notorious beauty and heiress Harriet West had lost her brother, her uncle, and her fiancé, had yielded one unexpected benefit. She was suddenly free of any and all social obligations. After all, nobody could expect a girl who’d been through such heartache and trauma as Harriet to attend anyone’s coming-out ball or go somewhere for a spot of shooting, much less throw any parties herself. It was perfectly understandable she would wish to keep to herself and see only a few very close friends.
It made perfect sense for her to settle in a flat in the city rather than stay in the Newcastle mansion that was really far too big for one or even two single women. Nor was it so surprising she chose to have a flatmate. Many perfectly respectable unmarried women these days preferred to live with female companions rather than be completely alone. True, that Harriet’s live-in companion, Mary Grey, was a district nurse was rather unusual, but there was little harm in it. And it really was quite a nice little flat, located in a most modern building in a fashionable neighborhood with on-site service. The flat had a tidy little kitchenette and main living area. The plumbing and heating were quite modern and state of the art. Harriet had an excellent time furnishing the place in the Art Deco style, with sleek lines, metallic finishes, and walls hung with photographs and modern art. Some of the experimental abstract pieces Harriet gushed about looked to Mary’s eyes like things a child could have drawn, but it was Harriet’s money. She did at least like one piece: an extraordinarily colorful and vibrant tableau featuring flowers, monkeys, and birds done by some Mexican artist named Frida.
Ahab, the ginger cat Mary had inherited from a deceased patient, settled into his new surroundings quickly and would spend hours sunning himself on the window ledge. The building had a regular charwoman on staff to handle the cleaning. This had at first bothered Mary; unlike Harriet she wasn’t used to being waited on, but as Harriet pointed out, if they didn’t let the woman clean the place, she would be out of a job. And she had both a crippled husband and two children to support. Mary conceded the point. Besides, over time she came to admit it was nice to be able to come home to a neat and tidy space without exerting oneself.
Harriet had purchased a bar trolley which they kept faithfully stocked with her favorite brand of sherry. They had a little icebox, and Mary could whip up the occasional meal. (Harriet was hopeless as a cook and had once started a fire attempting to make toast.) Other times they’d go out to one of the many little cafés in the area where they were becoming steadily known to the point where they could address a number of servers by name.
Occasionally, Mary and Harriet would quarrel over money; the latter did not see why the former insisted on paying her share of the groceries and rent.
“It really isn’t necessary,” Harriet would protest.
“Oh yes, it is,” Mary insisted. “If nothing else to help maintain appearances.” Nor, much to Harriet’s frustration, would Mary allow her to buy her expensive things. But otherwise, theirs was a life of domestic tranquility. For the sake of appearances, they had picked a place with two bedrooms, but in practice only one was ever used. In the early stages of their relationship, there had been considerable confusion, excitement, and laughter in determining how to make their bodies fit together well. Fortunately, Mary had many years’ experience in such matters and had been more than happy to put her knowledge at Harriet’s disposal. The latter had proven a most adept pupil, and together they had achieved new heights of sapphic pleasures. To Mary, it seemed for a time the two of them had created their own little Garden of Eden.
Then came the summons from Mrs. Diana Allenby.
It arrived in a thick blue envelope. A formal engraved document in beautiful calligraphic script addressed to Miss Harriet West. Requesting the pleasure of Harriet’s company at a country house party at Bayard Lodge, held by Mrs. Diana Allenby on the final weekend in August. She was asked to RSVP at once.
‘Well, surely you can just tell them you can’t attend,” Mary reasoned when Harriet handed her the invitation. “You’ve done it before!” For although Harriet had the perfect excuse for not going out, people still invited her. The people in question were to Harriet’s mind a load of vultures who just wanted an excuse to revel in last winter’s scandal. She’d taken grim satisfaction in turning them all down. This, however, was a different thing entirely.
“You don’t understand,” Harriet told her. “Read this.” She passed over a handwritten letter that had been included with the invitation, and Mary dutifully read aloud.
My beloved goddaughter,
At that, Mary looked up. “Wait, is she really your godmother?”
“She is,” Harriet confirmed.
“And I haven’t heard of her?” Mary wondered.
“Well, she stays at her own place most of the time,” Harriet explained, “and I haven’t been down there for ages. But I’ve known her all my life. She and Mother were very close. Indeed, for many years I called her Auntie Di.”
At this Mary involuntarily bit her lip. Given the familial relationship, it would be far harder for Harriet to bung off Mrs. Allenby the way she did others.
I’ve heard you’ve quite dropped out of society these past nine months. Now after all you’ve been through, my poor child, I certainly don’t blame you for wanting your space. But I do worry about you. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you last! As you know, your late mother was like a sister to me, and I have always considered you family as well. And I worry about you, my child. I truly do. It cannot be healthy for you to hide yourself away from the world like some cloistered nun of old.
This, thought Mary, was stretching things a bit. Living in a very nice city flat with a roommate and a cat was hardly a hermitage. Nor did Harriet’s situation with Mary truly resemble that of anything allowed in a convent. At least not any convent Mary had ever heard of! Though, really, who knew what went on behind closed doors? And as Mary knew full well, there was more than one reason for a woman to voluntarily swear off the company of men. It would be an interesting area for ecumenical investigation. She didn’t get the chance to share these musings with Harriet, though, as the latter continued to read aloud.
Which is why, my dear, it would mean so much to me for you to attend this outing. I’ve deliberately kept it to a smaller gathering, and you already know the Florrys.
“Who are the Florrys?” Mary wondered aloud.
“Raymond and Rachel Florry,” Harriet responded. “Raymond works in London at some big banking firm. I’ve seen him at other gatherings, but the one I’m really familiar with is his wife, Rachel. She and I were schoolmates together, along with her cousin Lily.” She paused momentarily as if uncomfortable. “Actually, Lily was with Raymond first. They were even engaged. But then Raymond broke things off at the last minute. Practically left her at the altar. And not long after he started being seen publicly with Rachel. Which of course led to people wondering if something hadn’t happened between him and Rachel while he was still with Lily.”
“Oh my,” Mary commented. “So, Rachel stole her cousin’s fiancé?”
“Apparently. It was quite the scandal at the time. They say Lily had a complete breakdown and hasn’t spoken to either one of them since. Anyway, Rachel and Raymond just got married this past March. I haven’t seen her in ages either.” Harriet looked sad at the thought as Mary read on.
And some other young people as well. The fresh air will do you good and the new cook is superb! And you know there’s not a more beautiful place in England to come visit in autumn than here!
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Library in Oakland was always my second home. I was diagnosed as being a high functioning autistic in college. I hold a useless double major in English literature and creative writing. I’ve worked at nonprofit agencies, in food service, and most recently as a dog-walker/petsitter but the siren song of writing keeps pulling me back into its dark grip. I have co-authored a book on women in the US Senate with Billy Herzig, self-published The Dog-Walking Diaries, and in 2020 my first novel Sarah Crow was published by One Idea Press. I live in my hometown Pittsburgh with my better half, Smoky the Cat. Find Winnie on Facebook.
She thinks she might be losing her mind…but she knows she’s losing her heart.
Poised. Elegant. Lovely. The local press loves to write glowing stories about Lana Fitzhugh, the youngest sibling and only sister of the famous Minnesota Fitzhugh family. But Lana’s past holds secrets, pain and shame…so much that she’s unworthy of a relationship with any good man, especially her brother Fitz’s close friend Mac. Keeping her distance from him is the right thing to do, so why can’t she stop thinking about him?
Finally settling into his first new job after long months of recovery from a severe injury, when Joe ‘Mac’ MacKenzie meets Lana Fitzhugh, the former Navy pilot thinks things might finally be looking up for him. His friend’s little sister is gorgeous, kind and makes his heart and body come alive again. But after they share an explosive embrace, she pushes him away so hard he’s still reeling.
When tragedy plunges Lana into the unexpected role of guardian to a preschooler, odd coincidences begin to happen…and grow increasingly more sinister. As Lana begins to fear that she herself might be the source of the danger, Mac doesn’t hesitate to return to help her. The only thing better than the joy they discover as a makeshift family is the passion they find in each other’s arms, but the unknown menace still grows closer every day. Will they be able to move beyond the past to grab for a future together?
“I have to admit that I’m impressed by how well you handled all the questions from the police about Brock Templeton,” Lana said grudgingly. Joe ‘Mac’ MacKenzie was already much too cocky, and his ego hardly needed any stroking. Watching him with the officers, though, had been like watching a master. She could easily see how he’d earned so many promotions and honors as a Navy pilot.
He shrugged, not taking his hands off the wheel, but the small smile he gave—and why couldn’t he be a little less handsome?—was self-satisfied. “It’s the accent,” he answered, really laying it on thick. “Like my daddy said, a Southern man tells the best jokes and is always welcome at any dinner table or gatherin’.”
She snorted, and not the usual elegant sniff that sometimes escaped but a full-on nasal rattling noise. “You sound like Tom Hanks’ cousin from the deeper South—like, the Mariana Trench of Alabama.”
“Oh, no, ma’am, not Alabama—perish the thought! My family’s pure Georgia. How did you guess I was from Mariana Trench, though?” he teased. “My granddaddy was mayor of Mariana Trench, as a matter of fact.”
She raised one skeptical eyebrow. “Matter of fact, eh?”
Her heart felt like it beat double-time at Mac’s charming grin, flashing like the Cheshire Cat’s as it was lit periodically by the streetlights they passed. Lana Fitzhugh, you of all people know better than to get your head turned by a handsome, charming man, she scolded herself. He’d shown himself to be overbearing, jealous and possessive when he’d fired one of the caterers on the spot earlier in the evening without even consulting her. But you didn’t disagree with his decision, the annoyingly honest voice in the back of her head forced her to acknowledge. The caterer had actually been making her uncomfortable, but it had been her problem to deal with, not Mac’s.
“Would I lie to such a stunning creature? You wound me, ma’am, straight to the core.” He pretended to be hit by a bolt to the heart, and she couldn’t help the burble of laughter that she tried to stifle. He was just so ridiculous. He was smart, funny and seemed truly dedicated to helping other men and women who’d recently left the service. Several times over the past few weeks as she’d worked closely with him to plan that night’s fundraiser, she’d found herself liking him in spite of her better judgment.
The party had been an unqualified success for the worthy veteran’s charity that Mac and Fitz, her second-oldest brother, had become very involved with. Well, she mentally amended, it was practically perfect until Brock Templeton, Fitz’s fiancée’s ex-boyfriend, made a scene, insulted Clara and drunkenly confessed to trying to cause her to ‘accidentally’ lose their baby. Brock had clammed up when they’d gotten to the police station, but, thank goodness, Mac had already recorded everything on his phone.
“I know that Fitz and Clara will really appreciate your getting the police to agree to take their statements tomorrow. They don’t like to leave baby Hope for too long,” she answered, sobered by the recollection of the night’s events.
“I’m certain they’ve checked in on Miss Hope, but I do believe they may be doing some, uh, private celebrating of their engagement, too—or, at least, on behalf of lonely single dudes everywhere, I hope they are. It’s not every day that a man gets the woman he loves to agree to marry him.” Mac’s voice was light, but there was something sad behind his tone, just below the surface.
“No…no, it’s not,” she agreed, snapping her mouth shut when she realized she sounded wistful. She had plenty to be grateful for, especially now that Fitz had returned to their lives, bringing the lovely Clara and Hope, shaking up the household and breaking their oldest brother, Drew, and Lana herself out of the cold, boring routines they’d fallen into. “Clara is just lovely—and Hope, too. I couldn’t be happier for them,” she enthused, perhaps a bit too heartily.
Mac quirked one side of his mouth up in a wry smile. “You’ve convinced me…but are you sure you’ve convinced yourself?”
His insight surprised her.
“I suppose you’re right…but please don’t think it’s about Clara, because she really is wonderful. I truly am happy for them.” She paused, forcing herself to be truthful. “Maybe a little envious, too. A long time ago—God, when I was so young and arrogant, self-assured to the point of naiveté and convinced of my own completely irresistible self—I made some really awful decisions.”
If he’d said anything, she probably wouldn’t have continued, but he remained silent, waiting.
“I ended up with a badly trampled heart—let’s call it pulverized instead of broken—and it cost me my best friend and years of my relationship with Fitz, too.” Suddenly uncomfortable with just how much she’d revealed, she gave a weak laugh. “I’m sorry I said that…burdened you with that. You didn’t ask for my life story.”
Mac touched his hand to her thigh for an instant before returning it to make a hard turn with the steering wheel. “Whatever happened, it sounds like you learned a lot from it, although I’m sorry it sounds like it caused you so much pain,” he replied in a low, earnest voice, so different from the light, teasing tones he usually used with her. “And, Lana, nothing you could ever tell me would be a burden,” he finished, clearing his throat. She wondered if he was equally uncomfortable with what she’d revealed.
Taking pity on him, she deliberately lightened the tone. “I bet you say that to all the young debutantes,” she answered. “Does it ever work?”
Mac’s laughter was a surprised bark. “Touché, Miss Fitzhugh. It might shock you to learn that I have, indeed, known my fair share of debutantes, including my two sisters.”
“Now, that is unexpected,” she agreed, although now that she pictured it, she could definitely see Mac all dressed up in a gray afternoon suit, flirting shamelessly and fetching lemonade for some pretty young thing. “Does that mean you can dance? You never asked me once tonight.”
They stopped at a signal so that his face was half in the light and half out, but the expression on the half she could see was distant. The silence between them became thick and uncomfortable. Lana knew she must have mis-stepped, but she wasn’t certain how.
“I don’t think I can dance anymore—or at least not like I used to,” he answered at last, his voice gruff. “I lost my right leg below the knee about eighteen months ago now.”
Lana sucked in a sharp breath. She’d known Mac and Fitz had met in a military hospital, and she’d noticed that Mac walked with a limp, but she’d never wanted to pry, figuring that Mac would tell her about his injury if he wanted her to know. She’d never imagined he’d lost part of his leg entirely.
“Horrified? Tempted to feel sorry for me?” Mac sounded defensive. “I’ve had to deal with just about every type of reaction.”
She touched his shoulder gently. “Nope, just surprised, since I didn’t know,” she answered quietly. “I can’t even begin to understand how difficult recovering from an injury like that would be, and I admire your charity work even more now.”
The enclosed space of the small front seat of the car felt suddenly intimate, especially so late at night, as if the two of them might be the only people awake in the city—or maybe in the world.
They pulled onto the long driveway—well, really a small, private lane—that led to the main house of her family’s compound—Fitzhugh’s Folly, as it was widely known, given how outrageously expensive and ostentatious it had been when her grandfather, Pat, had built it.
Tonight, it looked cavernous and dark…forlorn. Or maybe that’s just me, Lana thought, but recognizing the source of her melancholy didn’t make her feel better. Her oldest brother, Drew, had opted to stay at his high-rise apartment downtown to save time before his morning meeting. Her grandfather and Roger, who was ostensibly their butler but really a member of the family, along with being her grandfather’s long-time companion and probably his closest friend, had gone to bed early, so the lights had likely been out in their wing since ten o’clock or so.
Fitz and Clara were staying in the large separate guest house—which was actually the original house on the property—so Lana would be alone in the north wing of the main house. She should have been comfortable with it—in fact, she was very used to it, since at least three or four nights a week she had the mansion practically to herself, with its multitude of bedrooms, sitting rooms and other various spaces for practically every conceivable purpose. She often relished the solitude, after needing to be ‘on’ for so much of her charity work, which was no easy feat for a natural introvert who would have been happy just reading and drinking tea. Tonight, though, she felt a pang of loneliness.
Before she knew it, they’d pulled up to her front doors. They were tall, made from a thick, dark wood, and the whole impressive entryway looked forbidding, shrouded in darkness.
“They don’t leave the front lights on for you?” Mac asked, breaking the silence and some of the tension.
Lana wished they did, but they weren’t that kind of family. “I often get home late, and my grandfather is surprisingly frugal, so…” She shrugged, looking away. “I’m accustomed to it.” She could feel Mac’s gaze, but she refused to turn toward him. “I go in the side door, anyway.”
Before she could tell him not to, Mac had gotten out of the car and come around to open her door, offering her his arm. He still looked impossibly handsome in the fading moonlight. It was so cold at the tail end of mid-November that his breath puffed out of his mouth in white clouds, but he looked unruffled in his pristine dress uniform.
“Let me walk you there?” he asked. When she hesitated, with one leg on the ground and one still in the car, he spoke again. “So I’m certain you’re safe.”
With a swift bolt of comprehension, Lana realized he must be doing this—ensuring her safety—for Fitz, as a favor to her brother, which made total sense. They hadn’t totally repaired their relationship as brother and sister, since that would take a long time, but they’d made some good headway, and Fitz had always been protective of her when they had been younger. So why do I feel so disappointed? she wondered.
“Since you insist,” she agreed, unable to keep the snap of annoyance from her voice entirely. Still, holding onto Mac’s solid, warm arm, inhaling his distinctive scent, so smooth and comforting, like masculine soap and cinnamon and detergent, she wasn’t sorry not to be alone. No…it was more than that. She wasn’t sorry that Mac was the specific man she walked with.
Across the lawn, she saw a light come on in the guest house, which she recognized was in baby Hope’s room. Silhouetted on the shades, she saw a curvy woman’s figure rocking a child, and a larger outline as a man came up behind her, enveloping them in his shadow with a hug and leading them away from the window. The peace and serenity of the domestic scene, along with recollections of the love that she’d seen on their faces every time Fitz and Clara looked at each other and at tiny, perfect Hope, made her heart hurt, because she knew she would never have anything like it—and didn’t deserve it, anyway. Tears filled her eyes. As their steps slowed when they neared the side entrance to her area of the house, she kept her face averted from Mac so he wouldn’t see.
“I’m here safely, so you can report back to Fitz that you did your duty,” she answered, more coldly than she’d intended.
“Hey, now,” Mac answered, turning toward her in front of the side steps and urging her chin up with one strong but gentle finger so he could look at her face. “I never do anything I don’t want to do—not anymore, in any case—and I wanted to see you to your door safely for myself, so I wouldn’t worry.” He studied her, and she had the uncomfortable sensation that he saw much more than she’d wanted. “Are those tears, sugar?”
“No,” she denied in a thick voice, but her body immediately betrayed her as two droplets fell from her lashes and traced icy paths down her cheeks.
“Oh, darlin’, I’m sorry. Not quite sure what I did or said, but I never meant to make you cry,” he murmured in a deep, sincere voice, and Lana thought that she could have forgiven him just about anything, if there’d been something to forgive.
“It’s not you,” she answered. “It’s just that I feel so…alone sometimes, you know?” she admitted.
“God, yes,” he replied, with feeling. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close into his body, so tightly that something he had pinned to his uniform pressed into her cheek. In spite of the tiny prick of pain, she felt safer and warmer than she had for a long, long while. “You’re not alone now, Lana.”
She tipped her head back, and she wasn’t sure whether she pushed up toward him first or he lowered his head, but somehow he closed his mouth over hers, and it was sublime. At first, his lips were gentle—surprisingly soft for such a brave, tough ex-military pilot—but when she moaned, he deepened the kiss, and she savored his spicy taste, a little like the coffee they’d drunk at the police station, but mostly just his own unique flavor.
She pushed herself against him, feeling his hardness rise, thick and long, against her stomach, and he tangled his hands into her updo, dislodging bobby pins, which made tiny metallic pings as they landed on the steps. He caressed her tongue with his, claiming her mouth in bold strokes until her nipples tightened against his chest as she imagined how he would claim her with other parts of his body.
When he finally raised his mouth from hers, his breathing harsh and uneven, she noticed they must have walked together right up to the wall of the house, and her back was cold against the bricks. The rapid puffs of her breath mingled with the clouds of his, and he leaned his forehead against hers.
“I’m sorry… I got a little carried away,” Mac said, and they still stood so close that she could feel the quick rise and fall of his chest against her breasts.
“No, no…I was just as into it, maybe more,” she said, then flushed with embarrassment. “I didn’t mean…well, you know. I’m sure you could tell that I was enjoying it, but of course we shouldn’t have done that.”
Mac took a step back. “What do you mean?”
Lana bit her lip, feeling like she wished the ground would swallow her up. Where was some handy quicksand when you needed it?
“Well, like you said, I’m sorry, too.”
Mac shook his head. “No, darlin’, I’m not sorry it happened…only sorry we went so fast.”
When she looked up into his face—so handsome, perfectly formed with strong lines and eyes that she couldn’t make out clearly right now in the low light but that she knew were a startling deep green and probably blazing with emotion—she wished she dared to trust herself again with a good man, a kind man, a true friend like Mac. Being with someone like him wasn’t in the cards for her, though. That kind of man wanted more than she could give—more than she was capable of giving anymore.
She put her hand on his chest. “Mac, there can’t be anything more between us. I can’t be with someone like you.” She tried to be gentle, but she rushed her words as thick tears rose in her throat.
Mac took another step back, breaking all contact between them. “Someone like me, huh? Why did I think you were different?” His voice was hollow, resigned…but the tone was underlaid with hurt.
“That’s not—” she started to explain, but he cut her off.
“You know what, Lana? Don’t say anything you might regret. I’ll stay away from you, and you can stay away from me from now on, but no matter what, we’ll still have to see each other sometimes, and I don’t want it to be any worse than it has to be.”
Lana felt as if he’d slapped her, but she forgave him for lashing out. He didn’t understand, but explaining might make it more painful. As Fitz’s closest friend, he was bound to cross her path in the future at important events.
“If that’s what you want,” she agreed, her voice low and sad.
“Does it matter what I want?” Mac’s laugh was mirthless, and he started to turn away. “No, hold on. I’m gonna say one more thing first, because I vowed that if I ever started to feel for someone again, I would say the words out loud—not leave confusion or doubt.”
Lana braced herself for whatever he was going to say, but his words were more surprising for their tenderness than anything else.
“It sounds like we don’t feel the same way and maybe you won’t thank me for saying this, but no matter how you feel, I care about you. I was beginnin’ to think I might be able to care pretty deeply and that maybe you could, too.”
She winced at the raw tone of his voice.
“That doesn’t change overnight. Truth is, for a man like me, that doesn’t really change, period. So if you’re ever in trouble or hurting—no matter everything we said tonight—you can call me and I’ll be there. That’s it.”
His offer stunned her, and letting him turn around and walk away, back into the darkness that was beginning to streak gray with the first light of the coming dawn, was one of the worst things she’d ever forced herself to do. He’d be better off without her, though. She knew it, and he’d recognize it, too, in time.
She’d thought her sad, shredded heart was incapable of feeling anything anymore, but now she learned—too late—that she must have been mistaken. If it had truly been destroyed, it couldn’t hurt so darn bad now. She hurried inside the massive house, her steps echoing off the walls and floors of the empty rooms, and cried for everything that might have been.
Aurora is originally from the frozen tundra of the upper-Midwest (ok, not frozen all the time!) but now loves living in New England with her real-life hero/husband, two wonderfully silly sons, and one of the most extraordinary cats she has ever had the pleasure to meet. But she still goes back to the Midwest to visit, just never in January.
She doesn’t remember a time that she didn’t love to read, and has been writing stories since she learned how to hold a pencil. She has always liked the romantic scenes best in every book, story, and movie, so one day she decided to try her hand at writing her own romantic fiction, which changed her life in all the best ways.
You can find out more about Aurora at her website here.
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The right cut, the right style and a dash of love.
James Mason has everything he could ever want—his salon is the most famous in town, and he’s got his health and his best bud, his dog Doob. But he’s lonely. James has a knack for pairing everyone up, except himself. He’s been interested in Paul, the sweet man who helps at the salon, but will Paul be interested in him, too? Then there’s the elusive JP Henderson, the owner of the salon building. James has created an image in his mind that this man could be the one.
Jonathan Paul Henderson has lusted after James since the moment he met him. James acts unaffected by wealth and seems drawn to character. He’s adorable, funny and welcoming, too. He also doesn’t seem to mind that Paul wears makeup. Paul feels the connection and knows he wants this man, but will James still accept him after he finds out the truth—that Paul’s his landlord?
Two men, one truth and so much attraction they burn up the sheets. Is theirs a love for now or one meant to last?
“Looks like it’s you and me tonight, Doob.” James Mason petted the dog and settled on the floor with him. Dye Hard Style had closed for the evening and he’d locked the doors, but he wasn’t ready to head home—not yet. He’d rather give the dog attention and listen to the silence.
Christ, he was worn out. He spent most of his days packed with appointments for his styling services. Opening to closing, he had someone wanting his attention. He’d worked hard for his reputation for excellence in hair styling, but that didn’t help when he wanted a break.
Other than his job, he had little else to show for his work. He had no social life outside of the salon. No boyfriend and few actual friends. He didn’t even have the energy to try to pair himself with anyone, not like he did with the guys who came in wanting dates.
The one thing he did have was Doob, his black mutt with a heart of gold. From the moment Doob had shown up at the salon, he’d become James’ constant companion. He’d been more loyal than most everyone else in his life. His ex-boyfriends certainly weren’t loyal.
But he wanted a date. James supposed he could leave Doob at home and call a friend to go out, but he wasn’t in the mood for drama. He’d have plenty of drama tomorrow when he met with Jonathan Paul Henderson, the owner of the salon building and the Annex next door. He’d never actually seen Mr. Henderson. When Lester McCann had sold the building and the one next door, he hadn’t asked James his opinion—not that he’d had to—and never bothered to introduce James to the new owner.
But that was Lester. If he could get away with doing nothing, he’d do even less.
At least James didn’t have far to go in his commute home. Having his apartment in the Annex next door meant all he had to do was walk through the door joining the two buildings. Sometimes living next to the salon did have some perks.
He left the floor and checked he’d locked the front doors, then turned off the main lights. The security ones came on, bathing the space in dim yellow glow. Once satisfied, he patted his hip for Doob, then collected the cash from the register.
The dog had been a lumpy, furry godsend. Doob stuck by him when his depression hit and knew how to make him feel better. The dog was the sweetest thing, too. Whoever had been his family had been lucky to have him.
Part of James wondered why no one had ever claimed Doob. He’d put out what seemed like a thousand fliers, letting the public know he’d found the lost dog. Surely, Doob was missed. He had his name on a metal plate on his collar—wouldn’t a family or someone who cared about the dog do something like put his name on an engraved plate on the collar? If Doob had run away, then why hadn’t anyone come looking for him?
What if they hadn’t wanted Doob? The dog was a good boy and so loyal. How could someone not want him?
If they didn’t want him, James did. He checked that the rear doors to the former theater building were indeed locked and secured, then returned to the salon portion of the building.
He clicked the leash onto Doob’s collar. “It’s been almost a year. If you haven’t been claimed by now, then finders keepers. You’re officially my dog.” He’d already bought Doob’s tags and had him to the vet for his shots. Unfortunately there hadn’t been a microchip in Doob then, but there was now.
Doob circled around James’ legs, catching him up in the leash.
“You’ll trip and kill me, you know. If I’m dead, then you won’t get puppy food.” James slipped the memory card from the register into the cash bag, then zipped it shut. He tucked the bag under his arm and allowed Doob to lead him to the door out of the salon. He appreciated being able to go straight from the salon to his apartment building without having to go outside with a cash bag.
He carried the money to his third-floor apartment, then locked the bag in the safe in his bedroom. He’d worry about the numbers later. Right now, he needed to feed Doob. He unfastened the leash, then added kibble to Doob’s bowl. When the dog settled for his evening nap, that was when James would wrangle the numbers on the ledger.
Doob greedily munched on his dog food and James admired his gusto. Doob never seemed lonely. Just happy to be loved. James wanted to be loved by the dog, sure, but a boyfriend would be nice, too.
“We’ll find someone, Doob. Someone we both like and who will like us as a package deal. Think we can manage as a threesome?” Saying it like that sounded odd, but whatever. Doob was good as a companion, but James needed someone human to warm his bed.
Once Doob finished his dinner and got a drink, half of which he seemed to leave on the mat around his water bowl, James clicked the leash on him again. He and Doob left the apartment for their evening walk.
Doob seemed to love the four laps they usually took around Norville town square and James liked the exercise. Some days he and Doob ventured away from the center of town to the park by the school. Although James liked the excitement of the salon, right now, he wanted peace and quiet.
Doob walked proudly in front of him and sniffed at whatever he found. Once he and James encountered other dogs, Doob fell in line beside James, but seemed to pay no attention to the canines. James wondered if he should socialize the dog more. What if he and Doob were becoming too solitary for their own good?
James stopped to let Doob do his business. As he waited, he considered his life. He loved doing hair and making people beautiful. Helping someone find their inner glam made him happy. But he didn’t want to be single forever.
Maybe he could visit Club Jester. He’d helped enough other guys find true love there. Why not try for himself?
He cleaned up after Doob and tossed the baggie into the receptacle for dog waste, then sanitized his hands.
His thoughts turned back to clubbing. Who would he meet at Club Jester? The same old-same old most likely. Those guys were good, but they were either in a relationship or never going to settle down.
He spotted a jogger coming toward them and stepped off the path to give the athlete space. As soon as the man grew closer, James recognized him. Pauly. He’d chatted more than a few times with Pauly at the salon when the man stopped for haircuts or just to hang out. He liked Pauly, but never got the feeling Pauly wanted a boyfriend. He seemed like too much of a free spirit. He was a whiz with makeup and always managed to make himself handsomely beautiful. James wished he had the same skills with foundation and eyeshadow.
Pauly jogged up to him and stopped. He mopped his brow with his shirtsleeve and grinned. How could one man, jogging no less, look so on-point all the time? Even now, he had makeup on, without smearing it much, and a slight beard. Unreal, but gorgeous.
“Hi, you.” Pauly took a swig from a small water bottle he had wrapped around his hand. “How are you?”
“Hi, yourself. You look fantastic.” He held on to Doob’s leash. “I haven’t seen you at Dye Hard Style in forever. Have you been working out to make yourself chiseled and handsome without telling me?”
“That’s partly true. I’ve always jogged, but I’ve been out of town.” Pauly smiled. “I missed seeing you.”
“Likewise.” A tingle ran the length of his spine and James wondered if the glint in Pauly’s dark eyes was because of him. He stared at the man’s lips and wondered what he tasted like…and when did he get such kissable lips?
“Are you planning on going to the Jester tonight?” Pauly asked. “I hear it’s singles night.”
Singles night could be good, but it could also be awful. “Oh?”
“They brought in a new DJ and are having games to get the singles to mingle.” Pauly rolled his eyes. “If you want to go, want to go together? Then we don’t have to play the singles games.”
He hadn’t wanted to go, but he also hadn’t considered going with Pauly until now. “I should take Doob home and change, but I wasn’t planning on going out.”
“No big deal. I need to finish my jog and would have to shower,” Pauly said. “If you want, I can pick you up. It was my idea, so I can drive. You’re in the Annex, aren’t you?”
James blanched. He didn’t tend to tell people where he lived and only a few people referred to the building as the Annex. “Yeah, I am. I didn’t think you knew that.”
“Oh, I’d heard it.” Pauly blushed. “Sorry.”
He wanted to go out tonight and with Pauly, but something about the situation made him want to hold back. “Why don’t we exchange numbers and I’ll text you when I’m free. We can plan a date for another day.”
“I’d like that.” Pauly offered up his phone. “Do you have yours?”
He patted his thigh. Shit. He’d left his phone at home. “I don’t, but I’ll give you my number.” When Pauly handed him the device, he inputted his work number, then offered the phone back to him. “See you around at the salon?”
“Sure.” Pauly slid the phone back into his armband holder. “I’m sorry if I came off too pushy.”
“Don’t take it personally. I get kind of funny when I go out. I don’t do it often. I’m not a clubbing kind of guy.” He wasn’t any longer. He had been when he was younger, but now that he’d been around…clubbing had lost its luster.
“I get it. You’re more of a stay-home-and-chill kind of guy.” Pauly nodded. “Can’t blame me for trying.”
“Nope.” And maybe one day he’d go out with Pauly. Just not today. “See you?”
“I’ll be around the salon here and there. Maybe next week we could try going for coffee.” Pauly tapped his phone and an album cover filled the screen. “See you.”
James waved and headed with Doob back to his apartment. Maybe he should’ve gone with his instincts and gone out. He’d just inwardly complained he spent too much time alone and the chance to be with someone arose, but he’d chickened out. Or maybe he needed to know Pauly a bit better.
Once in the apartment building, he checked that his car was still safe in the warehouse space, then went upstairs.
He herded Doob to their apartment and unleashed him. “I spent too much time with just you, but you’ve never cheated on me.”
Doob sneezed, then trotted off to his dog bed.
“You can ignore me like a champ, though.” Silly dog.
James removed his makeup and showered, then dressed in a pair of sleep shorts. He made himself a snack of yogurt and granola before turning on the radio. Almost everyone he knew listened to playlists. They curated the hell out of those lists, making the selections of music perfect.
Not him. He loved dance radio and the oldies channel. Why not let the spontaneity of the channel come through? He liked not knowing what would be playing next.
He sat on the window seat and watched the evening traffic below while eating and listening to music.
Tomorrow, he’d meet with JP Henderson finally. He’d explain why Doob needed to stay and probably accept his fate when reminded of the no dogs rule. The rule wasn’t subject to change, the landlord would probably say.
James didn’t like the idea of starting a new salon at another location, but he loved Doob. If he had to leave the old theater, then he’d do it for his dog. He loved the publicity Doob brought, too. People recognized the dog, the salon and his unique style.
Maybe the infamous JP Henderson would be willing to work with him. He had to give it a shot if he wanted to keep Doob.
He’d never met JP Henderson and finally learned his last name three weeks ago. Would the man be amiable? Curt? All business or friendly? Would he be an older gentleman or a sexy younger one? Maybe a sexy silver fox. What if he wasn’t gay, though? What if he was? What if he wasn’t interested in James? James’ imagination kicked into overdrive. What if JP Henderson secretly wanted to have a wild, torrid affair with him and was looking for the right moment to make a move?
Romances like that didn’t happen in Norville and they didn’t happen to him. He was a simple guy with simple tastes. Men of mystery didn’t fall for him.
He held on to his yogurt cup and let the Donna Summer song wash over him. Tonight, he had no cares. No worries, either.
Tomorrow was another matter, but first he’d enjoy tonight.
Megan Slayer, aka Wendi Zwaduk, is a multi-published, award-winning author of more than one-hundred short stories and novels. She’s been writing since 2008 and published since 2009. Her stories range from the contemporary and paranormal to LGBTQ and BDSM themes. No matter what the length, her works are always hot, but with a lot of heart. She enjoys giving her characters a second chance at love, no matter what the form. She’s been the runner up in the Kink Category at Love Romances Café as well as nominated at the LRC for best author, best contemporary, best ménage and best anthology. Her books have made it to the bestseller lists on Amazon.com.
When she’s not writing, Megan spends time with her husband and son as well as three dogs and three cats. She enjoys art, music and racing, but football is her sport of choice.
Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQIA+, children, cleric/priest, coming of age, coming out, college, established couple, friends to lovers, humorous, hurt/ comfort, in the closet, over 40, psychic/medium, religion, religious extremism, reunited, soulmates, tearjerker, therapist, slow burn
David Sterling lives the suburban life. He has been married to Carrie for fourteen years and they have two daughters. To the onlooker, life behind the Sterling’s picket fence looks perfect, and in many ways it is—save for the fact that David carries a burdensome secret…one that he has guarded well since he was a teenager.
David’s life is unravelling and he cannot carry the burden any longer. To make peace with himself and his world, it is time to tell the truth, a gamble that may lose him all that is precious. But he needs to be released from the shame, the guilt, and the fear.
In the pain and hurt of the aftermath, this deeply personal journey is driven by David’s desire to hold on to those he loves, while at the same time revealing who he really is to them and the world.
My heart was beating in my throat. I was terrified and while time seemed to stand still, the digital clock on the opposite end of the room carried on counting the minutes. I planned to drop the bomb at around eight o’clock. It was now heading for nine and the evening was running away. Oblivious to my fear, Carrie was engrossed in the movie—unaware of how her world was about to change.
As the clock jumped from fifty-four to fifty-five, I knew I needed to seize the moment. I sat up straight—too quickly almost. Adrenaline pumping in my veins, everything seemed to go into slow motion.
“Carrie,” I sputtered—my voice quivering, “please turn down the TV, I need to talk to you.” I turned myself around and sat at the foot of the bed facing her. I looked into her startled eyes and I felt the tears welling up in my own.
“What is going on?” she asked. I took a deep breath and I began to babble.
“You know things haven’t been great between us lately?” I asked and stated at the same time. “I think you might suspect that I’ve been having an affair,” I continued, “… I’m not… I would never.” The colour ran away from Carrie’s face and her eyes were frozen. “I feel so bad, seeing that you don’t look happy,” I explained. “I know you’re hurting… and more than anything in the world, I don’t want to cause you any more pain. I’ve tried hard to fight this, but it won’t go away.” My babbling came to an abrupt halt and I took a deep breath. I knew I had rambled on for too long and what I had wanted to say hadn’t come out as I had planned. Carrie looked stunned; she didn’t say a word.
I took another deep breath—I needed to get the words out, they were strangling me from the inside. Then, somehow, they escaped hurriedly and with some trembling.
“Things are not as they should be because I’m gay.” The air in the room felt heavy and dry. I had just dropped a secret… my secret! One which I had harboured in my head for at least 30 of my 44 years. A secret I had carried, protected and nurtured—and a secret I was ashamed of.
I said the words with both a feeling of liberation and a huge sense of fear. I felt unshackled because the secret was out of the dark and it had no more power over me, but I was also afraid because it was uncaged and I was no longer its keeper. Equally, I was terrified at how Carrie would respond to the unexpected revelations. I had no idea of what awaited me on the journey that I had just begun.
A few moments of silence followed and staring directly at the confusion and pain on Carrie’s face bore no comfort.
“How long have you known this?” she asked. Anger and bewilderment were evident in her eyes. I hadn’t anticipated the question, but I knew I needed to speak the truth.
“Probably since I was teenager,” I spluttered, clenching my hands tightly together.
“Then why the fuck did you get married?” she barked. The f-word and a raised voice always meant I had crossed the line with Carrie. She didn’t use it often, but I guess I had crossed the ultimate ‘line’—there was no going back now. I also needed to be cognisant of the fact that this was an issue I had been processing and mincing in my head for the better part of my entire life. In a few moments, I had thrown it all at her… she needed time to unpack it.
I looked over my shoulder to make sure that the girls hadn’t stirred and made their way to our bedroom door. Why had I gotten married?
“I married you because I love you, Carrie.” My trembling words were calm and sincere. I hadn’t planned to launch into this detailed explanation, but it seemed appropriate and I had spent many of the fourteen years we had been married trying to make sense of the journey in my head. “When we got married, I believed I had overcome this sexuality issue,” I took a deep breath, feeling clumsy, “I honestly did.” She seemed disorientated and who could blame her. “I loved you and thought—and hoped—that those urges would be gone forever.”
“What urges?” she scowled.
I didn’t answer the question and continued.
“At the beginning, I thought they were gone, and I have fought them really hard for many years.” Carrie didn’t seem convinced by this answer and a few minutes of silence followed. The torturous still felt like a lifetime. Carrie’s anger broke the quiet:
“Why did you choose me to do this to?” she scorned. A relevant question, but there was so much else I needed to say. It was difficult not being in control as my secret took flight, but I knew I needed to let her lead the process. I had already given up the control.
“I didn’t choose you to do this to,” I replied. “This was not planned, nor premeditated—I love you and I love everything that we have created and established. I know that you don’t feel loved and cherished because it doesn’t come naturally to me. I can see that you hurt every day.” Carrie’s eyes were distant in the aftermath of the shock.
Born in Zimbabwe and raised in Zambia and then South Africa. John now lives in Henley-on-Thames in the United Kingdom.
John started out his career first as a primary and then as a secondary school teacher. After twelve years of teaching, he moved into the education development sector where he continues to manage a variety of education programmes that support teaching and learning in underprivileged communities. He holds a PhD in Education.
John loves chocolate and travelling… sometimes he likes running and walking. He always likes telling stories, with the characters based on his own personal experiences and interactions. Human relationships are super important to him and his family is the centre of his universe.
Abused and used like scrap, Golem has never known anything but pain. He exists to serve the Oracle’s whims and needs. After escaping the Monastery, he hid himself away where no one would be able to use him again. Then one day a child falls asleep in his lap…
Marl is nothing special. He’s low in the Earth Caste, set to watch over the Caste’s problem child, Lichen. In search of the errant Lichen one day, he unexpectedly comes across Golem hiding deep in the mountains. Unlike his usual behavior, he desires to see Golem again.
Then Marl learns why Golem is hiding, and he realizes he must make a choice: the Oracle or Golem.
The boy standing eagerly in front of the Oracle was still young—too young for the power she could see in him and the future he would endure. She ought to wait another year or two to hold his testing. It would be kinder for him.
One such future coincided with waiting just a little longer to test the young man in front of her. She had seen great things in his future if she did. He would emerge from the testing chamber as the Dragon of Earth and would protect cities, save lives, and accomplish great deeds. Her Dragon of Earth would live up to his title with utmost strength and morality. Yet, while he was off doing those great deeds on the other side of the world, the world itself would come to an end. The ability to prevent that from occurring was possible in her time; therefore, it was her duty to do everything she could to prevent it.
Two nearly identical men sat on their thrones: the king and regent of Altnoia. Next to them sat a man she did not recognize. The third man was of the Fire Caste—that much the Oracle knew—but she also knew it would be her successor’s task to send him there. Underneath the three chairs, hidden from view, was a green shadow. It boiled with hate and resentment, deadly in intent and caustic as it began to sicken everyone in its vicinity. Eventually, the green shadow would rise again, beaten but not broken by the battle that had won King Edan and Regent Egan their throne.
This time, in this particular version of future events, the shadow would win. While the Dragon of Earth was doing great deeds on the other side of the world, the very world he was trying to protect would die.
There were other futures possible as well. There always were. In a second version of the story, a child, her child, approached the green shadow and vanquished it with love. This future had a happy outcome, but an unhappy beginning. She would die, her Hatchling would suffer, and the Dragon of Earth would wither in pain. He would do no great deeds across the world, but in turn, the world would not end. All that was required was for the eighteen-year-old, too-young man standing in front of her to test as soon as possible. Once he was the Dragon of Earth, she would use him to create her child. The combination of his power with hers would breed a hatchling strong enough to save the world.
In the end, she had no choice. It was both her duty and the duty of every Dragon to do what they could to keep the world turning.
“You will test first,” she said finally, aware that a lengthy space of time had passed since she had first placed her hand upon the young man’s forehead. “Come to the testing chamber in an hour.”
He was so happy, her Dragon of Earth. His hair had turned the deep brown of freshly picked nuts, his eyes the vibrant green of growing plants nourished within the earth. Emblazoned in full glory on his body was the Dragon of Earth tattoo. Wingless, yet still as elegant as any dragon. The head rested on his chest, long rootlike whiskers circling his pectorals while the strong, scaled neck covered his entire left shoulder. The body of the dragon, with its four short legs ending in sharp claws, was so large that barely any clear skin remained on his back. The tail trailed down one leg, ending in a spade shape at the very tip. The dragon itself was beautifully shaded from the brown of the deepest earth to the green of the highest tree.
The Dragon of Earth had his entire future in front of him, or so he thought. The celebration party held in his honor went well into the night, and the Oracle watched as the young man drank and enjoyed. When no one was watching or was sober enough to care, she approached her Dragon of Earth. His eyes were vacant, the spirits in his stomach taking his brain elsewhere. It was easy to seduce him, even easier to draw him away from the party to an unused room where she could use him to conceive her child.
Nine months later, the Dragon of Earth watched as the child he’d helped create destroyed her body. He was also present five years later when her body finally failed and a new Oracle was born. She had seen the despair in his eyes and the belief that his incompetence and callous actions had caused her demise. So she had shown him the truth, hoping to console him just the slightest. Instead, she saw his pain grow at the knowledge that she had purposefully deceived him for her own ends. The Dragon of Earth had been slowly withdrawing from the Monastery during the last five years of her life. On the day of her death, he, too, may as well have died.
The Dragon of Earth vanished into the mountain. He became the very rock of his element, abandoning his humanity as much as he was able. There would be no great deeds for her Dragon of Earth, but one day she hoped he could forgive her.
The Oracle had tested dozens of children. There was absolutely no reason she should hesitate over this one. He was bright-eyed and eager, no doubt imagining the great things he would do once he became a high-level Caste member. Like all of the children destined to be ordinary, this child would suffer disappointment. He wasn’t going to test high at all; in fact, he was going to test so low into the Earth Caste he would become an afterthought.
There would be no great deeds for this Child of Earth. No abilities would set him apart and make him notable despite his low status. Should she have him test now or in five years, nothing would change.
Yet, the Oracle still hesitated.
She was experienced enough to know that in her craft, there were visions and there were murmurs, but each one could portend equally important events. This time, there was a murmur in her mind, something that told her this child might be more than just a lost Earth Caste one day. Decision made, she removed her hand from the child’s forehead and spoke.
“You will test second. In three days, come to my chambers.”
Her newly crowned Dragon of Fire would be off celebrating by then, unknowing of where his future would lead him. This unremarkable child would enter the testing chambers and emerge as nothing. But he could be something, someday. Perhaps. The murmur had quieted with her declaration, but one day it would return, and this unremarkable child would answer its call.
He emerged from the testing chambers already knowing his fate—the Oracle saw it on his face. The child turned, and on his back lay a tattoo of a serene field. Empty of all, save unplowed dirt, it looked bland. The others in the room, scoffing behind their hands, agreed that the child had tested poorly. Not even the smallest blade of grass grew on the plain tattoo—only brown dirt covered the entirety of his back—from buttocks to neck.
The Oracle stood and reached upward with her small hands until she touched the middle of Marl’s back.
“There is a seed here,” she whispered for his ears only. “It may grow, or it may not. That is entirely up to you.”
Marl turned and bowed to her. His face hid his pain well, but she could see it in his heart.
“I will endeavor to be the very best Earth Caste I can be,” he replied in a firm voice.
“Then go, Marl of the Earth,” she answered strongly. “I expect to see great things from you.”
Marl left, followed by his new peers in the Earth Caste who would see him start his advanced training. He was of little power or importance, so they would leave him be soon enough. The Oracle knew that one day Marl would walk back into her chambers and surprise them all. She just couldn’t yet see what that surprise might be.
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.
In a dark futuristic Earth, the Triad must take a mate. But their pet has other ideas…
Mating the Triad (The Outcasts 1): Exiled to the Outlands, Mia’s sheer viciousness in defending herself catches the notice of one of the most powerful triads in the Outlands. Not one to simply be taken care of, Mia refuses to be treated as anything other than an equal — even in times of battle. How can she prove to three powerful warriors she’s not only the one for them, but an asset in every aspect of their lives?
The Triad’s Pet (The Outcasts 2): The only reason Arryn’s allowed to continue to live in the village is because of her exceptional talents in both healing and engineering. When danger is deliberately brought into their midst, it’s up to Arryn to direct her men. But how can a pet convince three stubborn warriors to trust in her unique abilities?
Publisher’s Note: The Outcasts Duet contains the previously published novels Mating the Triad and The Triad’s Pet.
“Mia Cook. For the crime of theft from a noble house, your punishment is banishment to the Outlands.” The pious judge looked down at me from his throne. With a sneer, I spat in his general direction, expecting to get backhanded by one of several guards surrounding the dais. When nothing happened, I did it again for good measure. The judges always looked at us lowborns with contempt and superiority. I wanted to do some <em>real</em> lawbreaking. Like ripping off the guy’s nuts. With my teeth.
I didn’t resist when two guards dragged me to the center of the great room where court was held daily. Once an accused had been judged guilty, he or she stood in the ceremonial circle for all to see. Maybe it was me, but it seemed like they were just looking for reasons to banish any lowborns in the city. My crime? I’d stolen a bowl of bread. Granted, it wasn’t just any bowl of bread — it was spoonbread. A Kentucky Outback delight. At least it had been back in the day. Earth hadn’t always been so medieval. There had been a time when whole festivals were dedicated to Kentucky spoonbread. Now, a dish like that was a delicacy, available only to the wealthy. Nobles. It was also my very favorite thing in the whole goddamned city.
Spoonbread is a “wet” bread dish made of cornmeal. You bake it, serve it with real butter, and eat it with a spoon. Like a pudding or custard, only not hardly as moist. In my opinion, the punishment was worth getting to eat the entire bowl — which I had, fighting for the last spoonful after I’d been caught. Especially since it had been a couple of days since I’d had anything to eat. I knew when I stole it what my punishment would be if I were caught. But, honestly, you should try this shit. It’s worth the ordeal.
Which means the damned guards got to parade me through the whole of the middle- and low-born sections. Naked. After my little “spat” with the judge, I doubted I could conjure enough sympathy to get one of them to cover me with a cape until we got to the gate.
“You will be sent forth into the wildness beyond the walls of our hallowed city. Such is the way of all heathens. May the Heavenly Father in all his wisdom give you what you deserve in the Outland where He punishes all heathens.”
As the bastard spoke, the guards stripped the clothing from my body. When my outfit proved too difficult to remove easily, they simply cut the material, throwing everything into a great fire pit next to the circle. There was no way I could simply snag something on the way out to cover myself.
Just to be contrary, I stood proud, refusing to cover myself with my arms. Lifting my chin, I looked into the eyes of the man who’d passed judgment on me. He was old. Like <em>really</em> old. Thin hanks of long gray hair hung all over his head. His look was kind of comical since he was balding in places. If he’d been intelligent, he’d have cut it neatly, or simply shaved the shit off. What hair he had did little to cover the age-spotted skin. I knew my fucking with him was working when a most unbecoming blush splotched his already splotchy skin. Am I a bitch for loving the fact that he was old, ugly, and probably couldn’t get it up long enough to enjoy a woman? Probably a good thing. He was the kind of man to take advantage of his position.
As if he’d heard my thoughts, the judge leaned forward in his chair behind his desk. “The little bitch still has no respect for her betters. Why not show the little thief what she’s in for? Show her what happens to thieves who don’t learn their place.” An evil smile should have graced his less-than-perfect features, but, of course, the little bastard kept his pious expression firmly intact. How he managed that when he’d just ordered his guards to rape me was beyond my understanding.
“I will kill you,” I bit out.
He sat back, a small smile on his face. “I imagine you will. At least, in your dreams, between bouts of torture.”
One of the guards sneered, looking as if he’d been hoping for this development. A second guard muscled his way around the first one, growling a little. He was the clear Alpha there. No one challenged him as he took his place next to me, gripping my upper arm tightly. Obviously, he intended to be the one to carry out my extra punishment.
He was thickly muscled and stood over a head taller than me. His battle-scarred face seemed to match his body, if his heavily muscled arms were any indications. Scars crisscrossed his skin as if he had taken many blows. By not covering them as most men did, he signaled he was proud of his badges of honor. None in the guard challenged him. At present anyway.
As the guy pulled me closer to him, he whispered, “I’ll make this pleasurable for you if you’ll not fight. If you do, one of the others will challenge me. If they manage to take you, they won’t even try to be gentle, let alone give you pleasure.”
“So it’s either fight and get hurt or submit and not get hurt. Either way, I’m fucked. Literally.”
He fisted my hair, tilting my head back so I had to look up at him, then whispered for my ears alone even as he bared his teeth menacingly. His actions and expressions seemed more for the surrounding crowd — and the judge — than anything else. Despite the rough handling, he didn’t really hurt me. “You’re strong. You fought well when they took you. If I hadn’t been there, you might even have escaped.”
Erotic romance author by night, emergency room tech/clerk by day, Marteeka Karland works really hard to drive everyone in her life completely and totally nuts. She has been creating stories from her warped imagination since she was in the third grade. Her love of writing blossomed throughout her teenage years until it developed into the totally unorthodox and irreverent style her English teachers tried so hard to rid her of.
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