Title: Queen of Hearts Series: From Sappho, with Love, Book One Author: Elna Holst Publisher: NineStar Press Release Date: 06/21/2022 Heat Level: 3 – Some Sex Pairing: Female/Female Length: 18400 Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQIA+, island holiday …
Hyperventilating by Tanith Davenport Book 1 in the Rock My World series General Release Date: 21st June 2022 Word Count: 17,258 Book Length: NOVELLA Pages: 80 Genres: CELEBRITIES CONTEMPORARY EROTIC ROMANCE Add to Goodreads Book …
Drifting by J Calamy Book 1 in the Diving In series General Release Date: 12st June 2022 Word Count: 45,970 Book Length: SHORT NOVEL Pages: 188 Genres: CONTEMPORARY EROTIC ROMANCE GAY GLBTQI Add to Goodreads Book …
Badge by Ellen Mint Book 4 in the Coven of Desire series General Release Date: 21st June 2022 Word Count: 80,841 Book Length: SUPER NOVEL Pages: 305 Genres: ANGELS AND DEMONS CONTEMPORARY EROTIC ROMANCE MÉNAGE …
In the summer of 1972, twenty-one-year-old university undergrad Annette Thornton, aka Thorny Netty, finds herself on a coerced holiday with her younger sister Fiona, expected to spend two long sweltering weeks babysitting said sister on the island of Gran Canaria. To say she’s peeved would be an understatement. But when she catches a glimpse of a stranger on a balcony, impulses long buried begin to surface—impulses that sorely put Thorny Netty’s much-touted self-possession to the test.
From Sappho, with Love is a new series of standalone stories held together by a common theme: a chain of postcards sent from sapphic travellers across space and time.
Peering out across the glittering Atlantic, Annette Thornton—or Thorny Netty, as she had been called since childhood—forced herself to quit chewing her biro and return it, with the stamped and addressed postcard, to her drawstring bag. She had noticed a postbox outside a tourist shop on their short walk from the hotel to the beach and had made a mental note to post her card when she made her way back.
Which would be shortly. Even though she knew the only reason their elderly parents had finally caved in and permitted Fiona Thornton, their youngest daughter, aka Fin, to go off on a package holiday to the Canary Islands was that she would be in the company, or rather, under the supervision of her dependable older sister, Netty couldn’t be expected to spend every waking minute of her day babysitting her nineteen-year-old sister.
It was exhausting. They had landed at the aeropuerto two days ago and been at each other’s throats constantly since. Originally, Fin had wanted to go on this trip with Vicky-something-or-other, the latest in a long procession of best pals, a bar-hopper and pleasure-seeker to match Fiona’s own ‘fun-loving’ lifestyle. Netty, for her part, hadn’t wanted to go at all. Fin expected Netty to be grateful, as she was the one who paid for both their tickets out of her Mancunian ice-cream parlour waitress’s salary. As far as Thorny Netty was concerned, Fiona owed her, and then some, for agreeing to come and thereby making this whole escapade possible in the first place.
“You’re a bloody bore, you know that? You always were, and you always will be.” Tears had been glistening in Fin’s much-too-pretty baby blues as she passed her judgement—tears of anger, mainly, but of hurt as well, Netty had to admit to herself as she went back in her mind to the scene of last night when she had point-blank refused to go to another club, or bar, or—God help her—disco.
Sighing, Netty brushed the itchy, sticky sand off her irritated skin. She was sweating like a pig. She was annoyed, uncomfortable, sore-eyed, and sleep-deprived. She was not enjoying herself. And she still had twelve days to go.
Hoisting her bag onto her shoulder, Netty stood and scanned the area of the beach for a certain eye-catching shade of peroxide blonde, coupled with a petite yet shapely form in a shockingly revealing spaghetti-strapped bikini. How Fiona had sneaked that particular enhancement to her outrageous travel wardrobe past their mother was beyond Netty. But—as she was well aware—her sister had her ways.
“Fin!” she hollered as she spotted her, deep in conversation with a particularly tan and well-oiled specimen of young, ultra-masculine male. Netty swore under her breath. Trust Fiona. Wherever she bloody well went.
Her baby sister glanced over her shoulder at her but made no move to break away from her new, already fawning admirer. Netty thrust her feet into her sandals and placed the straw hat she had snapped up at a roadside market stall on her head.
“I’m going back to the hotel,” she shouted. “See you back there for lunch, yeah?”
Fin rolled her eyes and waved her away. Mr Macho grinned—spitefully, lasciviously? From this distance, Netty couldn’t tell. She’d had it, though. Kicking at a mound of sand—an infantile gesture, she realised even as she was doing it—she turned and traced her way back to the non-descript block of concrete, the third in a row of dizzyingly similar edifices, that was their base for the upcoming two weeks. Fin could suit herself. See if Thorny Netty cared.
Often quirky, always queer, Elna Holst is an unapologetic genre-bender who writes anything from stories of sapphic lust and love to the odd existentialist horror piece, reads Tolstoy, and plays contract bridge. Find her on Instagram or Goodreads.
Monica’s relationship with her father is falling apart, made more obvious when her return to Madison after years aboard results in him throwing her out of the house. Lisa Carson, her BFF and old college roommate, takes her in. Turns out Lisa has her own issues with her parents – they’re pushing her to date despite her lack of desire. So when Monica joins a Carson family dinner, she lies and says it’s starting a relationship with Lisa that brought her back to America.
Lisa goes along with the rouse – it gets her parents off her back and it’s only until Monica repairs her relation-ship with her father and moves out. What Monica failed to take into account however is that crush she had on Lisa in college? Yeah, that didn’t go away.
The bustle and urgency of O’Hare Airport calmed Monica’s nerves as she stepped off the plane. Colder-than-wanted air conditioning, people sitting on the floor next to outlets, automated announcements, and large blue signs. After five years of almost constant traveling, bus stations, train stations, and airports were familiar enough to be second homes.
Ay Dios, it’d be nice to not jump around for a bit. From October through December, she’d be home and nestling into her childhood pillows.
She took a deep breath, pushing aside her rising anxiety, and made her way to baggage claim. As much as she knew she had to come, the thought of spending the next three months with her father made Monica bite the inside of her lip. Their past five calls had ended with him yelling at her. For the past year, their relationship had been on edge, and she hated it.
So she came home to fix it.
Waiting for her bags, she logged into the airport Wi-Fi. WhatsApp filled with messages from friends wishing her a safe flight. She typed landed!, then flipped to Instagram. She recorded a short video, complete with an ear-popping yawn, to inform her followers her flight had been screaming baby free.
A soft thunk turned Monica’s attention to the now-appearing luggage. Ten minutes later, she pushed a trolley out the door with one hand and called her father on the other. Eric Ubach picked up on the first ring. “Hey, Globetrotter. Almost there.”
Monica sighed. He’d answered with her childhood nickname. That had to be a good sign, right? “¡Hola, Papi! I’m by the D door.”
“You remember the car?”
Monica rattled off the license plate and Eric laughed. “How you remember things like that, I wish I knew. See you in a bit, mija.”
She hung up and took a deep breath of Chicago air, the cold burning her lungs compared to the Mediterranean warmth she’d left. He hadn’t raised his voice. He sounded happy throughout their entire, though brief, conversation. Coming back had been a good choice. They’d spent too long apart for being each other’s only family.
A red Saturn Astra caught her eye, as did the tall, dirty-blond man cramped behind the wheel. Monica waved to get her father’s attention. Eric waved back and cut to the curb. They went into action—opening doors, throwing in suitcases, exchanging brief hugs—to a soundtrack of horns and traffic guards shouting at cars to move. Within minutes, Monica plopped into the passenger seat, grinning. She held up her hands to the car’s heat vent and rubbed her hands together.
Eric patted her thigh and started driving. “How was the flight?”
Monica filled him in, from her mad dash to the gate to the small rivalry she developed with a username on the in-flight trivia game. The conversation made Monica feel younger. Younger than twenty-seven, or twenty-one, or even eighteen. She slipped back to middle school, safe and warm in the car as her father drove her home from school and asked about her day.
She must have fallen asleep during the two-hour trip to Madison because the next thing she knew her dad was shaking her shoulder in the garage. “Come on, Globetrotter. Up to bed. Gotta sleep off that jet lag.”
Monica groaned. “I want to take a shower first. Get the travel dust off.”
“You remember where the towels are?”
“I used to live here, Papi. I doubt it changed too much.”
They lugged her bags into her bedroom. It looked just like she left it heading off to college: high school posters on the walls, the bookshelf full of Baby-sitters Club books, the nest of pillows and stuffed animals on her bed.
She grabbed her stuff and headed to the bathroom.
Ah, American showers. She’d gotten used to older European showers, showerheads above drains with a small lip made of tile to contain water if she was lucky. Now, she relished standing in a basin and not having to worry about water all over the floor or keeping her elbows in. Monica hummed to herself, lathering her hair, when Eric burst through the door.
“Papi!” she shrieked. “¡Lárgate!”
“Just getting something,” he said, opening the medicine cabinet.
Before the shampoo dripped into Monica’s eyes, her dad grabbed whatever he needed and left. The door clicked shut.
Ay Dios! Who cared if the glass was frosted? Her dad should never have come in! Fuming, she scurried to the door, locked it, and stepped back under the spray.
Warm from embarrassment and the steam, Monica quickly finished. Before heading to her room, she took a detour to lean over the railing at the top of her stairs. She heard her father in the kitchen, and as much as she wanted to scold him—it’s not like he hadn’t known she was showering—she couldn’t imagine facing him without blushing scarlet.
“In case you need anything else from the bathroom,” she called down the stairs, “I’m out.”
She hoped her indignation was obvious, but the apology she expected never came. She debated demanding one, but that seemed petty. Plus, who wanted to draw out mutual embarrassment?
Monica crawled into bed. Lying under the sheets, she browsed Instagram and responded to comments. Keeping an active profile kept her followers engaged, which in return increased the likelihood of brands wanting to pay her for a bit of publicity. She never imagined using her business degree more for her side hustle than her day job as customer support for a travel agency, but oh well.
She got a ping from Lisa on WhatsApp.
Lisa: Ah! You’re in America again! How was the flight?
Monica: long, but okay
Monica: what’d you do today?
Lisa: Did some work, then had a lunch date.
Monica: Oo, la la. anything happen?
Lisa: He was cute, but not cute enough.
Lisa: We still doing brunch Sunday?
Monica stared at the screen for a moment, wondering if it was worth the fuss of bringing up her dad’s earlier behavior. Probably not, she decided. It’d been awkward, not something she’d ever expect considering how courteous he’d been when she was a teen, but not malicious. For the majority of the past nine years, Eric had been living alone. He simply had to readjust to sharing the house.
And relearn manners? Monica shook her head. People made mistakes, and there were worse ones than barging into an in-use bathroom. No use going all reality-TV-drama over it.
She texted Lisa good night and slipped her eye mask over her eyes.
With her, he can reach the stars—but can she reach his heart?
Amber Blake is fleeing a terrible betrayal in her past by touring with rock band Puppetmaster as a make-up artist with her best friend Elyse. Knowing the band is struggling, she hopes to use her make-up skills to reinvent their image, but when a member of the crew drops out, Amber finds herself asked to contribute in a different way—in the form of heated sexual conversations with hot lead singer Cassian Marsh, to put him in top form before every concert.
Despite her past, Amber is unable to resist Cassian’s charm and raw energy, and enjoys knowing she can drive him wild with just her voice, but their increasingly passionate meetings leave her longing for more. Can she move past the betrayal she suffered? And can she convince a man as commitment-phobic as Cassian to break his no-dating rule and let her into his heart?
A flash of light, the howl of guitars and the air filled with anticipation. The show was about to start.
Shielded from the crowd’s gaze, Amber Blake stood in the wings, carefully positioned to be just behind the line. This was her favourite part of the evening—that build-up, that moment when excitement was at its peak, just before the crash of drums and the burst of noise that preceded Cassian’s entrance onstage.
The intake of breath before the scream.
At the far end of the stage, Max, the lead guitarist, appeared under a spotlight, guitar at the ready. At the back, Eric and Nate were behind their keyboard and drum kit, respectively. All it needed now was—
Then, accompanied by a roar of amplified sound, Cassian launched himself into view, striding confidently onto the stage towards the microphone.
“Nate’s smudged his fucking mascara again,” Elyse commented from behind her, and Amber reluctantly turned to face her.
“How can you even see that from here?”
“He’s just rubbed his eye. I spent ages getting his make-up right and he’s ruining it.”
Amber shook her head in amusement and returned her gaze to the stage. Elyse could curse her boyfriend out all she wanted, but Amber’s attention was firmly on the ass of the man currently driving the crowd wild.
Tall, slim and tattooed, he was the epitome of a rock star, long, blond hair framing his square-jawed face, leather trousers clinging to his legs as he moved across the stage. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand without even opening his mouth—then the first note of their opening track Never Moved On cut through the air, and Cassian began to sing.
His raw rock voice rippled through Amber like fire.
There were days when she sincerely wanted to do nothing but listen to him play, listen to his voice arc through the air, watch him embody the music.
At the edge of her attention, she was dimly aware of her phone vibrating in her pocket. She ignored it, dragging her gaze away from Cassian to the other band members, her practised eye checking for any issues in costume or make-up.
“Eric’s lost a button on his waistcoat,” she commented to Elyse.
“I thought you fixed that yesterday?” Elyse glanced away from Nate to see where Amber was looking. “Oh, it’s a different one.”
“I don’t know what he does with them. I’ll sort it out in the morning.”
Elyse shook her head indulgently as she turned her eyes back to her boyfriend. Amber allowed herself a wry smile. They had been on this tour for three months now and it seemed none of the guys could keep their costumes straight for five minutes.
Despite what many of the band’s fans often thought, Amber and Elyse weren’t professional groupies. Amber had been told by many a grouchy fan that she wasn’t cute enough to be with the band. She was too elfin, too skinny, her short dark hair and ice-blue eyes gave her a pixie look which apparently didn’t translate as sexy to the starfuckers in the crowd. Combined with her pale skin and bright red lipstick, she looked more like a black-and-white wedding photo than a groupie.
As for Elyse, tan and athletic, long hair and eyes in shades of dark brown, she was often mistaken for a technician—not that she minded that. But theirs was a different role.
Being make-up and costume artists for Puppetmaster was a thankless task, but it was worth it to be able to see the show every night.
There was nothing in the world like a rock concert, nothing at all. The electricity in the air, the rush of the music, the sheer energy of the performance as Cassian strutted across the stage, leaping onto platforms, posing. And above all else the thrill of his voice, his movements, the way his lips formed the words and his hips beat to the rhythm.
He was spectacular.
Puppetmaster had started touring to promote their second album Thunderclap, their first album Velvet Glove having started to fall out of the charts. They were popular in rock circles, but their relatively minor chart success—Never Moved On had been in the top ten, but other tracks had fallen lower—meant they could only command comparatively small concert venues. Amber knew Cassian was already writing a third album, hoping for better sales to mean better publicity, but whether that would happen was open to debate.
She heard the shuffle of footsteps behind her, but didn’t turn.
“Look at him.”
Martin, their manager. Amber raised an eyebrow at his words. She was looking at him.
“He’s not on form at all.”
“He looks fine to me.” Amber kept her eyes on Cassian, who was striking a pose at the far side of the stage.
“No. He’s off his game tonight.” Martin sounded deeply annoyed. “I could murder that photographer.”
Amber kept silent even as a slow chill built in her gut. She knew what he was hinting at, and she wasn’t about to answer him. Not yet.
The music changed to a darker, heavier track and Amber felt goosebumps rise on her skin. If You’re Cold. This was one of their best ones.
Watching Cassian perform was definitely the best part of her job. During the day she never allowed her gaze to linger on him—at night was a different matter. At night she could hide in the shadows, no longer having to deal with the masks they wore every day.
Cassian behind his mask was just so…real.
But she had had enough musician boyfriends to know getting involved with another would be a bad idea, even if the men of Puppetmaster hadn’t been perpetually unavailable. Nate’s relationship with Elyse was considered a blip. Cassian hadn’t had a girlfriend in years.
And Cassian, she knew, was well out of reach.
But, God, was he worth looking at.
His lean, muscular arms exposed by his leather waistcoat, his slim hips, the tattoos that decorated his taut stomach, tempting her to follow their lines with her tongue. The way his sweat glistened on his skin as he moved, catching her eye with every motion.
But Amber knew, even if it were possible, it would be a very, very bad idea.
And she had had enough bad ideas to last a lifetime.
But as the show went on, she found herself reluctantly agreeing with Martin.
Cassian was off his game tonight.
He had opened strong, but by the end of the third song he had begun to lose…something. As if he had lost all his passion for the show. His movements had lost their flamboyance, the comments he directed to the crowd were briefer, as though he was barely interested. As though he was barely there at all.
He was phoning it in, and she knew why.
Which meant that, despite Cassian’s unavailability, she was going to have to rock his world.
I first started writing seriously when my tutor on a creative writing course pointed me towards the Romantic Novelists’ Association and their New Writers’ Scheme. Thanks to them, my debut novel “The Hand He Dealt” was accepted by Totally Bound in 2011 and was nominated for the Joan Hessayon Award for 2012. I haven’t stopped writing since.
Last year my short “Spiritwalker” was released as part of the “Some Like It Haunted” collection by Totally Bound. This year I’m working on two new shorts plus the upcoming release of my back collection as audiobooks.
When I’m not writing, I love to read historical fiction and non-fiction as well as anything paranormal. I love to sing, watch horror movies and go to rock concerts. I also have two cats who like to hide all day and then destroy the house at night.
Two men starting over, and the discovery that could shatter their worlds.
Artist and antiquities expert Cole Hadley is in a good place. Assistant Cultural Attaché to the US Embassy, Cairo, he’s over his divorce, rebuilding his confidence after years of fat-shaming and misery and checking off the first of his bucket-list items, SCUBA diving in the Red Sea.
Hank Ashton, bearded, built, the best—and meanest—divemaster on the Sea, is stranded in the dying town of Al’Shahin. He owes a local gangster a pile of money and is stuck teaching basic classes at a failing hotel to pay the debt, the dream of his own dive shop slipping further away every year.
Cole’s joy and wonder at Hank’s world cracks his carefully constructed shell, forcing him to realize how lucky he is. In turn, Hank’s lust for Cole’s body and care for his happiness go miles toward healing Cole’s bruised heart. Their shared passion for the marvels of the undersea world spills over into a sizzling affair…one they both know has an expiration date.
Until, in exploring the sea, they make the discovery of the century, one that could change both their lives. But their very different plans reveal just how little they know each other. Cole and Hank have to decide exactly what’s important to them and be brave enough to get it, if they’re to have any hope of resurfacing together.
Reader advisory: This book contains mentions of bullying including fat-shaming and homophobia, as well as reference to gangster activities.
It wasn’t fair to be this cold on the shores of the Sahara. Despite the broiling heat trying to claw its way through the cracks under the doors, the air conditioning of the Hotel Grande Al’Shahin was arctic, setting Cole’s teeth chattering and chilling his clammy shirt to his back. Hugging himself, he didn’t catch the concierge’s spiel.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Our pool has a dance show every night at six o’clock.” She pressed a stack of brochures into Cole’s hands then glanced at his belly…again. He managed not to tug at his shirt this time as her voice dropped into a conspiratorial murmur. “We have the best in-house gym, and the spa has an amazing detox wrap. Takes inches off. Incredible results.”
How delightful. Cole couldn’t muster a single response, his mind clicking like a car with a dead battery. None of his canned responses, perfected over the last two years, were coming. Only his therapist’s “You don’t always have to educate people. Sometimes it’s okay to ignore them.”
“I’m more interested in diving lessons,” Cole said, trying not to clench his teeth. “But thank you.”
Her face went blank, but not before assuming a brief look of incredulity that didn’t help with the teeth clenching at all. “Diving? We have a full-service dive shop,” she said. “They do intro classes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and twice on Saturday. If you…know how to swim?”
“Sounds great,” Cole said, sliding away. That was enough BS for one day. The flight from Cairo had been short but brutal—he didn’t need this on top.
Despite his grand-sounding title—and the State Department loved titles—as the Assistant Cultural Attaché to the United States Embassy, Cairo, Cole had flown in a middle seat. On the return flight I’m upgrading. Never letting the morale office book me a flight again. He’d pretended to be asleep to avoid seeing the faces of his row-mates. Legs and arms clenched tight, seatbelt cutting his hips despite the extension, Cole had barely breathed the whole flight.
The heat and salt marsh air of Al’Shahin had slapped him the moment he’d staggered off the plane onto the shimmering tarmac. Clean air, to be sure, but also hot. Broiling, unbelievably hot. And humid! Trapped against the Sinai, Al’Shahin stewed in the evaporation off the Red Sea. Less than a year in Egypt, and he thought he had mastered the heat. Humidity had not even occurred to him.
Neither had freezing to death in a hotel lobby. It was eleven a.m., and he was exhausted. A backhanded insult about his weight wasn’t the welcome he’d imagined. Three years ago, he would have broken down in tears. A year ago, he would have given her a lecture. But present-day Cole shrugged it off, making for the doors. They always mean well, don’t they? And maybe I’ll get the fucking wrap anyway. Maybe I wanted to before she even said anything. So there.
He took a deep breath before pushing out onto the patio. The heat clawed him with greedy fingers, sun blazing cheerfully away overhead. Three steps, and he could feel the heat in his mouth. Five, and he could sense it through the soles of his shoes. The back of his neck burned, and he looked around, trying to shake off the feeling of being watched. Stared at. You are being paranoid. It’s just the heat.
The pool shimmered, a mirage of blue. Darker sunglasses, they were first on the shopping list. Christ, and he thought Cairo was hot? Still feeling eyes on him, he tried to walk quickly but not too quickly, ignoring the rattle of his suitcase wheels over the pebbled walk. The sweat on his lower back itched. A shower. A shower and a nap then I can reassess. Hands slick, he bobbled his phone, dropped it and his sunglasses both. Someone laughed. Cole flinched, even as his brain registered the sound was happy, flirtatious laughter. Not look at that loser laughter.
“You are not a loser,” he muttered, gripping his phone and straightening his sunglasses. He gave his shirt a sharp tug over his belly. “You have never been a loser. Those were Donnie’s words.” He hadn’t needed that mantra in a while. Cairo was…good. Busy, interesting, professionally validating and really fricking good. Living in a cramped Cairo apartment? Not so much. But who cared? It was Cairo! The geography and antiquities nerd dream.
But now here he was, thinking of his ex, feeling eyes watching him, hurt and slipping into intrusive thoughts. Why? Just because people were laughing?
“All right, all right, quit messing around,” a rough voice barked out, making Cole fumble his phone again. The happy laughter cut off in a chorus of groans. “I don’t care how tired you are! You clean your gear, then you can relax.”
A small building squatted on the far side of the pool, with a thatch roof and an open central arcade, shaded and tiled in blue. The dive shop. The sign over the opening was faded, a shark curled dimly under the Grande logo. One of the million old pickup trucks littering Africa was backed up to the arcade, and a group of young people passed equipment back and forth like hurrying ants.
The bark belonged to a tall, scowling man standing in the bed of the truck with his hands on his hips and glaring straight at Cole from behind a pair of mirrored aviators.
Tanned from the sun, with wide shoulders, he wore a wetsuit unzipped to the waist and hanging around his legs. He had a shaved head and short scruffy beard, brown heavily threaded with gray. The harsh lines of his face made art deco angles with his jaw as he shouted at the divers scrambling around the truck. Whoever this pissed-off jerk thought he was, he was staring at Cole.
Taking a slow deep-oven-hot breath, Cole straightened his sunglasses, glancing back over out of the corner of his eye. His championship record of making a fool of himself in front of hot straight men made him cautious, but he didn’t miss the way the guy in the truck glanced his way again. Busted.
“It ain’t complicated, doll.” The divemaster sneered at a pretty blonde girl with her hands on her hips. “You rinse the salt off your gear, you hang it up, and then you can eat.”
What an absolute dick. Cole knew trouble when he saw it. Hopefully that guy wouldn’t be the divemaster for Cole’s certification. Cole was in no mood. He kept walking.
His room was one in a long row of little villas. Did a one-bedroom with en-suite count as a villa? The brochure certainly said it did. And for Cole, who only intended to use the room to sleep after days of adventure, it was pure luxury. A quick walk-through revealed air conditioning, a huge bed piled high with blue pillows and a tiny bathroom. Bright and cheerful, it was certainly bigger than his airless shoebox in Cairo.
The back door opened onto a small limestone courtyard, high walled and full of plants. The back of the house blocked the blazing sun. Stepping onto the tiles, Cole gave a whoop of joy, seeing an outdoor shower, the showerhead as big as a tennis racket. Cole had no trouble ignoring the rust and the slightly crooked pipes. He turned on the water and after some screeching rattles, it gushed a monsoon. Cole needed no further prompting. He stripped right there, laying his clothes on the shelf by the towels and toiletries.
The blue sky, the reaching plants, the patter of water on the stones… Cole took the first relaxed breath of his leave. Shampooing absently, he realized the sound that had been in the background wasn’t air-con—it was the sea!
I’m here! I’m on the Red Sea! The Sinai! Six years in that dank basement office at Smithsonian, trying to get a Foreign Service posting, and now I’m on the Red Sea!
So why was he so jittery? Letting the water flow over him, cooling his sweat-itch skin, he took a moment to assess. Why had the hotel clerk bothered him so much? To the point that he’d nearly had an anxiety attack by the pool?
“I am tired as hell,” he said. “I worked like crazy to be able to take a whole two weeks.” Not enough sleep. What else? “I’m hungry. I missed dinner, and only had airplane coffee.” It made more sense when he thought in those terms. His therapist always insisted he run through basic logistics as a first step to challenging negative thoughts. Hungry, dehydrated, sleep deprived, not enough time outside—these were all things that had to be taken care of before he could work on emotions.
“Three triggers at least didn’t help.” Flying was always difficult for him. Then the clerk. Then the mean-faced guy staring at him. His reactions put into perspective, he could finally loosen his shoulders. Relief and gratitude, those glorious balms, filled him as he took three breaths in then gave a long slow exhale, over and over, rocking side to side under the water. Better. Much better.
Running soapy hands over himself felt taboo under the open sky. He gave a brief thought to the big scuba instructor by the pool. He was hot and probably wasn’t staring. Thinking about Donnie threw me off. Three years, give or take, since the divorce, and Cole sometimes went a whole month without thinking about his ex. This seemed like the perfect place to continue that trend.
“I am about to cross something off my bucket list. This is going to be the best vacation of my life, and I am sure as shit not letting him spoil even a minute of it.”
Him could be Donnie or could be the mean-faced divemaster. Either way. Under the blue sky with the sea calling? Cole’s spirits soared. This trip was about adventure, and he was not wasting any of it.
After a bottle of water and a protein bar from his bag, Cole didn’t need a nap. He was ready to explore. He threw on clean clothes and, grabbing a hat this time, headed back out to the patio. He wanted to see the water. A whole year in country before his first vacation, he hadn’t seen the Red Sea since he’d arrived in Cairo. He tucked his dive paperwork into his back pocket. Since his path took him by the dive shop, he would sign up while he was there. Adventure was calling!
A cascade of wide sandstone steps led to the sea. Umbrellas and chairs dotted the beach in neat rows, broken up by a large bar with a thatch roof. A jetty divided the beach and led straight out into the blue. Nearer shore were a mix of reef and sandy stretches where people could swim and snorkel. Could swim. But were not currently swimming. Only one couple used the chaises. A family peered at the reef from the end of the jetty, their voices echoing off the stone walls. The rest of the sandy spar was deserted. Even up on the pool deck, there were only a handful of people. A man sunbathed with an armed bodyguard standing discreetly apart, watching everyone, though there was no one to watch besides some college kids and an elderly couple. Tinny music played over speakers mounted to the dusty palm trees. It echoed strangely, cheerful in the near silence.
The Regional Security Chief had warned him about this. “You’ll get a great deal—you can stay in a really big resort for the cost of those little places a couple years ago. They’re in a hard patch. Arab Spring, then the terrorist attacks a couple of years ago, and the economy tanking—there is a lot less business. It’s a great time to go. But I worry about those guys. Tourism is everything and that coast is a gem.”
The Chief had been right. Spread out before Cole was a perfect deep blue sea, surrounded by red and brown mountains dropping all the way down into the water. The waves were small, crashing against the reef rather than the moon sliver of sand. Overhead, a wavering dome of white-blue barely tinged to pink as the sun arced to the mountains behind him. Cole did a slow turn, wonder bubbling up. The resort was an oasis of carefully cultivated green cupped in the barren hills, dotted with clean rows of white buildings, his own little villa among them. A gem.
Was this much happiness possible? Physiologically speaking? Would he burst into flames? He had a sense that just out of his peripheral vision, or maybe just beyond his fingertips, was a new stage of his life. If he turned, or reached for it, it would disappear. It danced on the tip of his tongue. Laura said I needed to fill my well. Despite the torrent of jokes that followed about what he could fill his well with, she’d had a point. I’ll never paint again if I don’t slow down.
That might be what he was feeling, the itch in his fingers, the change standing just behind him. Maybe it was a muse. The headlong rush into the foreign service was done. He was settled. It was time to breathe. To be still long enough for his muse to find him.
J Calamy is a queer, disabled veteran and foreign service wonk who spends a good part of the year bouncing down dirt roads in the back of range rovers with men with guns. Coffee, romance novels, and embassy scuttlebutt are her last remaining vices.
Layla’s life is a mess. Thanks to Ink’s big mouth, Cal knows that she knows about the big red wolf, and he is pissed. She can’t find a way to bring Daniel back from death and even worse, Ink seems to think that’s the perfect time to dissolve their bond. Naturally, the second she’s abandoned by her guys, the witch hunters strike.
After yet another argument between his bond and her wolf, Ink’s grown exhausted with their arrangement. He has every intention to break their bond and return to his old hunting ways, until Layla goes missing at the hands of his greatest enemy. If they harm her, he’s on a one-way trip back to hell. Enraged, Ink enlists the help of both wolf and ghost to try and track her down. But the cursed hunters have learned. Anti-demon wards cover every surface of their underground lair. His only hope to save her is by wearing a cloak of mortality.
For the first time in his existence, Ink not only knows pain but the true threat of death.
When Layla arrives in the Witch Hunters’ bureau, Detective Stone comes to her not with a torch, but a job offer. If she doesn’t agree to work with them, then she’ll die. How will she escape from a trap-filled dungeon crammed with already captured monsters? Are her guys hunting for her, or is she truly alone? And why does Stone make her blood boil in all the wrong ways?
If she gets out of this alive, there will be hell to pay.
Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of violence, and a dream scene including dubious consent.
Enter to win this awesome ‘Coven of Desire’ giveaway containing over $70 worth of amazing witchy goodies!
A hand pierced the grave, shattering the witch’s pentagram as it strained for the sky. Lightning crackled through the dark clouds above, the fully emerged arm somehow perfectly lit despite the night around it. While the sorceress cackled in glee, the dirt fell away, revealing a face of ashen pallor with minor skin inflammation and a withered nose.
“Ah, he suffers from the great pox,” I said aloud, and a shushing broke from the blubbery lips beside me. There was no doubt a person was attached to said flopping skin bags, but I could not discern them in the darkness. The air bulged with barely coherent desires, the shadow in the chair beside me wishing only for my death.
A shame, for after two thousand years I had yet to ascertain any way to cause such an end. I began to lean over the divider keeping us separate, when a palm graced my knee.
The chasteness of the touch nearly caused me to chuckle, when my bond whispered, “Watch the movie.”
I folded my arms. Having already dispatched the box of chocolate balls, I had grown bored of this display of flickering images ten minutes in. I tipped my head to her, spotting the blond locks of the wolf to her other side. He seemed to be enraptured with the tinny trite, a full fist of popcorn raised to his mouth. I intended to tell her I’d had my fill, when her eyes darted to me.
Please let me enjoy this.
Her desires did not require my talent of reading through the colored fogs surrounding the gray mass of humanity. I felt her request singing through every nerve and a smile replaced my smirk. Taking her hand, I raised it to my lips and whispered against her knuckles, “As you wish.”
She rubbed my knee once more and left her palm upon my thigh. The greens and purples of the giant screen reflected off her fingers, each digit delicate and also hard as stone. She’d chipped a nail recently, no doubt the damn specter’s doing. I clasped my hand over the back of hers and held tight when a finger jabbed into my shoulder.
The wolf had raised his hand from Layla’s shoulders in order to prod me. “This is the best part,” he said in a harried but exuberant voice.
I jerked my gaze to the grumbling guardian of silence beside me, but it remained resolutely still. I see, so Calvin can speak whenever he wishes, but I must be held to a higher standard. Humans never could wrap their minds around the concept of justice.
Rather than pick a fight, I turned my gaze to the screen. The syphilitic man was moaning, no doubt from the pain he now found in urinating. Around him circled the sorceress, her silver cloak flapping in a wind that did not move the trees in the background. She spoke gibberish Latin and lightning lit up the white sky. In an instant, all of the graves cracked open like elevator doors and people climbed out.
“Is she attempting to build an army of undead?” I scoffed. “No villain worth their salt would waste time with such a foolish plan. You have, at most, three days before rot causes your army to bloat, then explode. Even less in the summer.”
“Will you shut the hell up?” My neighbor greatly disapproved of my logic, even if it was sound. Humans were basically walking candles—one light and the whole of the army would go up in smoke, leaving the sorceress alone and awkward on the battlefield.
“Ink…” Layla leaned closer to me when the man with the pox leaped forward and bit off the sorceress’ nose. As I said, a very foolish endeavor. My smug righteousness only lasted a moment when Layla gasped and clung tight to my leg.
My heartbeat increased with hers, a flush of those endorphins she devoted her study to rushing from her to me. While the undead man crunched on the offscreen sorceress’ body, my bond turned to look at me. Pink tinged the soft tan of her cheeks, the dark depths of her eyes wide in shock.
She glanced to where her nails tried to dig through my flesh and blanched. “Sorry,” Layla said, but before she could retract her hand, I pressed it tighter.
“You need never apologize for that,” I said, catching her chin. I pulled her closer and whispered against her lips, “I am built for your punishment.”
The kiss sent a wave of spicy pink desire through me. It radiated down my tongue, encouraging said nimble organ to toy with Layla’s lip. As I plunged deeper and tasted of her mouth, the desire pulsing from her transformed to a sultry fuchsia. I let my touch land on her shoulder, all manner of horrific undead attacks forgotten. Each traipse of my fingers winding down the ribbons on her blouse toward her breast sent a touch of satiety through me. It was little more than a bite, a nibble really, but the fuel fed my fire.
Layla’s wily hand had found itself trailing up my thigh then retreating. She fought the internal war far too many of my prey carried the mantle for. What I desire versus what society deems proper. Ever at odds, never satisfactory. The whole concept of morality had been invented to keep people anxious, unsatisfied and in search of a cold bath. But within my bond, the electric desire was winning out.
I took her breast in my hand and Layla bit down to silence her moan. That seemed to shatter the mood and she froze, causing my elaborate dance to pause as well. “Ink, we should…”
“Take advantage of the flickering ambience of mutilated corpses in this foreboding dungeon?” I whispered, tucking back her hair and tracing around her ear. She closed her eyes, lost in the simple pleasure of my touch.
Alas, it was my neighbor who once again could not cease to thrust himself into my affairs. “Will you shut your fucking mouth already?”
I scoffed and shook my head. “No. I do not believe I shall, and you are the better for it.”
The man, for his visage grew more evident in the rising light of the screen, folded his hand into a fist. He popped it up as if he intended to knock my teeth out, which only caused me to smile. Whatever nerve he thought to have had fled, and the man rose and abandoned his seat in the back of this darkened theater. As he stomped his feet and cursed under his breath, his shadow cast over the screen, hiding away the funeral march.
“Down in front,” I called to his retreating form.
“Now you’ve done it.” The cursed specter slipped into the vacated seat, proving I was never afforded a moment of peace in this world. He managed to look smug despite being without a body and forced to stand in the aisle.
“What? You think he will challenge me to a duel? Even with two of his sturdiest gentlemen at his side, it will be nothing more than a jumping behind the pub.”
The ghost only stared ahead, not saying a word to me, but his eyes flickered to Layla who was quickly losing the thread of desire. That would not do. I had seen little of her in the past week, though I’d had more than my share of the vagrant ghost we’d acquired. Whenever I would reach for her, either the wolf or the dead man would be there first. Typically, I could work with such a scenario, but the ghost was without form and the wolf…
I sighed, staring askance at the man doing his best to ignore his own animalistic urges and the tenting in his trousers. What everyone needed was to break this tension with a day-long celebration of the joy only three bodies could bring. The ghost could sit and watch for all I cared.
“My bond.” I pulled aside her spirals and breathed heavily in her ear. That sent the heat rolling once more and she clenched her fingers tighter to my thigh. “Why hesitate?”
Her deep eyes opened wide and she stared as if in shock that I could yet read her mind. “I know…” Gently, I dropped my finger to the top of her cleavage.
“What you truly…” I swept it down between her breasts and over her belly.
Where her thighs split, I clutched onto her skirt, and began to raise it. “Desire.”
Layla squirmed in her seat, her eyelids heavy as she succumbed to my logical charisma. I abandoned any prelude of remaining in my seat and turned to press my cock against her thigh. She struggled to fight a gasp and I drew my touch up the hot spread of her underthings. I never needed to test if she was wet, but I quite liked the glide of the proof of my pull and how she flexed to let me in.
As I tugged aside the edge of her panties, I leaned into her ear. “Go on,” I whispered, toying with the succulent lady lip at my finger. “Tug on him.”
The wolf turned, his eyes blazing with a hunger I knew he too was fighting and failing to ignore. For him, it ran either burning red or muted yellow. Tonight, it burned hotter than the flames of Hades. Cal took Layla’s cheek and pulled her in for a kiss just as she reached for the waistband of his jeans…and slipped under. His groan trembled through my hunger, smelling of a feast but failing to satisfy. I paid it barely any heed, Layla’s response to him far more delectable.
Her body burned with a rising tide of desire, and my innocent little flick of the bean wouldn’t do. I abandoned the seats entirely and took a knee to the floor. The wolf was trying to not thrust his hips in his seat even as he rolled a hand over Layla’s breast and panted. Their deep kiss broke and she looked at me in shock.
“What are you doing?”
“I’d think it’d be rather obvious,” I answered. Her heart thundered like a rain of timpani. I wrapped my hands under her thighs, clenched her hips and pulled her to my mouth. The underthings meant nothing to the slip of my tongue or the press of my lips. I licked and sucked around, under and over them, soaking her already drenched panties to total saturation. Layla raised her leg and placed it on my shoulder. As she did, Cal reached over to run his hand over her thigh and lift it higher.
Her hand worked fast under his jeans, bringing the unresolved tension to a proper crescendo. I too felt the swell inside, the only way I knew sex to feel. The slumbering hunger sharpened its fangs, my metaphorical mouth drooling while my literal one supped upon the beautiful woman’s clit. She arched her back, pressing more of herself to me and pulling her head down the chair.
I glanced up a moment, delighted by the response, when I spotted the ghost standing behind watching. No, he was whispering words to her, no doubt ones stolen from better men. But they seemed to be working to bring Layla to a frenzy. I dipped deeper, every pulse of my tongue filling my body with the strength of a dozen men.
When she began to clench, nearing her climax, my first instinct was to stop. Not in pleasuring her—that I could do for days without end. No, I nearly paused in pulling her energy lest I take too much. But that was the joy of taking a witch to bed—there was never an end. Her magic fed me, letting me feast without risking her loss.
“Ink…” Layla whimpered. With one hand, she clung to the wolf’s impressive John Thomas. With the other, she wrenched on my hair, ordering me to finish her off. Gladly.
I dipped back for the last taste that’d fill me to bursting when a bright light blinded me. Blinking against the harsh rays that highlighted the nearly empty theater seats ahead of us, I turned to find a man not yet old enough for a hair on his chin dressed in a crimson uniform with his arms crossed and a glower on.
“Hello, my good man,” I said, rising to my feet. He flinched as I held my hand out to him. “Would you care to join us?”
Ellen Mint adores the adorkable heroes who charm with their shy smiles and heroines that pack a punch. She recently won the Top Ten Handmaid’s Challenge on Wattpad where hers was chosen by Margaret Atwood. Her books, Undercover Siren and Fever are available at Amazon as well as a short story in the Lucky Between The Sheets anthology. Married, she lives in Nebraska with her dog named after Granny Weatherwax. Her hobbies include gaming, painting, and halloween prop making. The basement is full of skeletons because they ran out of room in the closets.
He’s got far too much nerve. He can blow things up with his mind. Yeah. The world should probably brace itself for this one.
When Rex Nova was four years old, he became one of the world’s first superhumans.
When Rex turns twenty, he feels the drive to use his scientifically given abilities to protect the world. He leaves home to become a member of the Secret Superhero Security team, alongside three of his friends and Danger City’s own superhero, Polaris.
Rex fights murderous Mages, evil organisations, criminal mafias, his agency appointed psychiatrist, his own weird brain, and the most frightening of all, his attraction to a certain blue-eyed superhero.
Right then. Let’s kick this off with some hardcore exposition and a whole lot of bizarre shit.
My name is Rexley Xander Nova.
Yeah. I know. Just. It’s a weird name. I have a weird name. I have weird friends. I have a weird family. I have a weird existence. No lie, this is pretty much how things are gonna be all the time going forward. So. For the sake of full disclosure. Beware.
Fun fact number two, I live in a little seaside town named Colbie.
Colbie is small, like barely there tiny. We have one school, one church, one town hall, one strip of shops, and one park. The rest of Colbie is cottages and beach. It’s the kind of place you get lost in because Google Maps has it out for you, not somewhere you’d go on purpose. The most memorable thing about Colbie is probably the town’s residents. You’ll understand what I mean by that later.
Fun fact number three, a lot of people are raised by the subspecies known as parents. I ain’t got those. I do, however, have a Roux and a Lady Mars.
Roux is my uncle, and, I gotta be honest with you, he’s one of the strangest men alive. He’s also very annoying. Prepare yourselves. Mentally. Emotionally. Possibly physically if you’re one of life’s throwers. Like, if you tend to throw things when you’re frustrated. Or afraid. Or hungry. I don’t know. Emotions are hard. And yeah, I hear you, “hungry” isn’t an emotion. But. I can’t be alone in thinking it really should be.
Maybe part of you is worried this is gonna be the start of me whinging about my bothersome parental figure. I get why you’d think that. I’m twenty and a person and, regardless of age, I think it’s just how we do sometimes. But nope. That is not it, I swear. You haven’t met him yet. And now I feel bad for you. Because if you keep going with this whole thing then you will have to meet him. So. I mean. Good luck with all of that noise, you masochists.
The other half of my parental unit is Lady Mars. She and I aren’t family in the traditional, biological sense. But we are family in all the other ways that matter.
If I tried to really, properly, describe the pure personification of epic that is Lady Mars to you, then we would probably be here forever. So, I’m gonna knock it down to the basics for now.
Lady Mars is the local “eccentric” woman who lives in the scary looking cottage and who everyone secretly thinks is a witch. The town hag if you will. Those are her words by the way, not mine. The old hag part I mean. Lady Mars isn’t old or a hag. She is a witch though. Or at least, she comes from a family with magic in their blood.
Magic runs in bloodlines, and most magical families call themselves Mages.
The existence of Mages is a secret. Not a lot of people know magic is a real thing, which is probably just as well.
Roux isn’t fond of magic. He says people cause enough of their own problems without throwing something as unstable as magic into the mix.
Lady Mars doesn’t mind people calling her a witch. I think she enjoys having everyone fear her a little bit too much. On Halloween, she dresses up like a “normal person” and tells everyone Halloween is the witch equivalent of a bank holiday. She also likes to do stereotypical witchy things like collecting crystals and wearing hooded cloaks and using made-up words when she does magic even though she doesn’t need to.
As for me, I’m not a Mage. I’m the dramatic result of a science experiment gone very right or very wrong, depending on who you ask.
I have powers. Superpowers. Most of my close friends also have abilities as a result of the same science experiment.
My father was Dr Alexander Nova. He was a massive dickhead. And also a mad scientist. He created a superpower chemical that was eventually given the name Liquid Onyx. Genuinely. Liquid Onyx. No joke, I’m basically a Powerpuff Girl.
Alex started out by experimenting on adults. Every single one of those people either died or succumbed to extreme levels of mental instability within days of being injected.
It wasn’t until he accidentally experimented on a child of fourteen that he reached a turning point. The boy’s name was Tyler Kane. He was a runaway foster kid who happened to look a lot older than he was.
Tyler survived the initial injection of Liquid Onyx, and it took nearly a month before the first signs of mental and physical sickness began to show.
Maybe some people would have seen this as yet another failure. But to a man like my father, a truly brilliant scientist, progress was progress.
Alex determined Tyler’s youth was what made the difference. With that discovery fermented in his mind, he kidnapped and injected a load of children, including his own son, with the highly dangerous and potentially lethal substance.
He discovered children under the age of ten were more likely to survive. Moreover, children under the age of five were more likely to avoid the insanity that had overtaken his previous subjects.
Some of the children died. In agony. Some of them didn’t. I’m one of the lucky ones who crawled away with my body intact.
My mind, on the other hand, is something we could argue about all day.
Those of us who did survive Liquid Onyx found ourselves able to do impossible things. Superpower type things.
Along with an individual superpower of our own, all Liquid Onyx survivors have enhanced senses, superior physical capabilities, and accelerated healing.
My father went full-on supervillain, and now I’m a superhuman who can blow things up with my mind.
I’m a character from a bloody comic book. And not a particularly good one either.
So. Yeah. That’s my baggage. Well, part of it. Definitely the biggest suitcase on the trolley anyway.
BL Jones is a twentysomething British author who spends all her free time reading and writing and taming her three much younger brothers. She works as a BSL interpreter in Bristol and lives with a temperamental bunny named Pepsi. She’s been writing stories since she was five, rarely sharing them with anyone except her numerous stuffed animals. BL has had a difficult journey into discovering and accepting her own queerness, and therefore believes that positive, honest, and authentic stories about queer people are very important. She hopes to contribute her own stories for people to have fun with and enjoy.
Nobody leaves Queen. On the tidally locked planet, a vulva and an authority problem are the only immigration requirements. Emigration is banned.
Ember spends her days cruising Queen’s endless sand dunes, hunting sand pirates and wallowing in memories of her dead wife. After an ambush, Ember is dragged to the pirate camp and learns her wife’s biggest secret—before her death, she’d joined the pirates, built an illegal spaceship, and plotted to leave the planet.
Ember, Nadia, and the sand pirates must take back the planet and expose the corrupt New Earth mining. Taming giant beetles, wrestling stinkhorn fungi, and enlisting Queen’s rabbit population in a high-stakes aerial battle are just part of the hijinks that will determine Queen’s fate as a galactic player, as well as the futures of all its conscripted inhabitants.
The newly minted outlaws must also grapple with Queen’s narrow concept of “womanhood” and where trans and intersex people belong in its future.
Mornings on Queen always looked like blood. Ember stood at the edge of the habitable zone of the tidally locked planetoid. She scanned the crimson and rust horizon all the way to the perpetual sunrise. Her wife’s body was out here somewhere, buried in the coarse red sand. Desiccated, mummified, likely stripped naked by the roaming packs of sand pirates Ember was out here to track.
Well… Track. Kill. The line was blurry when it involved a spouse, and it wasn’t like the presidium—the administrative body of Queen—really cared one way or the other. Ember had cared, once, but she was on day seventeen of perimeter duty, and her whole plan of dealing with Taraniel’s death by shooting grave robbers was starting to look a little thin.
A rabbit shot across her field of vision, registering in a halo of blue inside the face shield of her envirosuit. TOPA—the suit’s AI—scrolled data across the screen, but Ember ignored it. Without thinking, she yanked one of the wide, flat stones from her exterior right thigh pocket (they were supposed to keep her calm, according to Nadia) and threw it at the flash of white, fluffy tail with precision honed from years of dealing with Queen’s nuisance rabbit population.
The rabbit’s hind legs skittered out from beneath it as it slipped on the sand. Ember wrapped her fingers around another stone, preparing to hit the head this time, when the damn thing started digging with its front feet, sand funneling around it, so that Ember lost her clean shot.
She stepped forward, grinding her teeth with an adrenaline surge that would again see no release if the little shit got away. She wiped sand from her face shield with a gloved hand, smearing red across her vision.
The area where the rabbit had dug settled flat with a slight pock. Tiny fans on the outside of Ember’s face shield blew the particulate from her vision.
The rabbit was gone and her stone along with it.
Ember cursed, the words bouncing around the inside of her rabbit-hide envirosuit, wasted on recycled air and a generic TOPA. Queen didn’t have stones like that—perfect for skipping over lakes that didn’t exist on the barren planetoid. Those she carried in her pocket were some of her last reminders of Earth. And the rabbit… Ember knelt at the soft indent in the sand. It’d descended into one of Queen’s giant beetle galleries. Of course, it had.
TOPA pinged as she reached a gloved hand into the depression. Ember debated the possibility of Queen’s native beetles—approximately the height of a small school bus and twice the length—grabbing her wrist and pulling her down in pulp-era sci-fi fashion. She dismissed the idea. If beetles hadn’t accosted her yet at this site, it meant the gallery was abandoned and being used by the feral European domestic rabbit population. They’d been brought over as food stock on the colony ships. Some had escaped. Big surprise.
Please read your notes, scrolled across the interior of Ember’s face shield, in lettering so large it blocked most of the landscape from view.
“The rabbit got away. I was stupid for throwing a rock that can’t be replaced. I wasted oxygen on the exertion. That about cover it?”
TOPA didn’t respond directly, but it did fire up a series of reports.
Landmass stability: within ten meters radius: moderate.
Sand for at least three meters below the surface with scattered hollow tunnels reinforced with clay from the temperate zone. Sand transitioning to silt loam noted in geographic surveys, with increasing occurrence toward the colony dome.
Silica content of the air: unbreathable.
UV index: ten point five.
Ember snorted. That did explain the suit smell.
She balled her hands as tightly as she could in the double-layered leather of her gloves wishing, not for the first time that day, that Gore-Tex was still a thing. Leather didn’t breathe, though both the buffer and the electrical linings of the suit were supposed to. Nothing from Earth breathed outside the habitable zone, and as much as the filters of her suit tried, they couldn’t filter out the smell of human, slowly marinating in her own sweat.
Awaiting input. Continue scan?
“Yeah. Sure. Why not?”
Ember stood, swallowing the dry air the suit pushed at her. The AI had a newly installed personality patch, but Ember would need to get a lot more bored before she turned it on. Instead, she pivoted on her right foot, keeping level with as much of the horizon as she could see, and let the suit feed data into the AI. Dunes and small valleys surrounded her, and TOPA disassembled each for content.
Suggest moving 1.7 chains northeast for better visibility.
“Picturesque view?” Ember asked TOPA. Maybe a body?
The red dunes faded into a semitransparent image of her sister, Nadia, displayed on the interior of the face shield. Ember clicked her right canines together to increase volume. The winds were too fierce outside the colony dome to hear much of anything without enhancement, even when the sound came from inside the suit. That wind was the same reason the damn rabbits tended to stay in the beetle galleries. Wind screwed with everything out here.
Nadia’s transmission showed her just outside the dome, her image picked up by one of her suit’s sleeve cameras. Sand licked her calves. Her goggles were up but her face shield down, and red soil caked her envirosuit. The only parts of her skin visible were her lips, chapped but grinning as she tapped the front of her shield and instructions scrolled across the inside of Ember’s own face shield. At the bottom of the message was a clear add-on from Nadia.
Your sentry duties now extend to Outpost Eight. Leave immediately.
Hope you enjoy the sand. I’ll make you dune-nuts when you get home. Extra sprinkles. Served on a tablecloth of rabbit hide since you love the little shits so much.
Ember read the short message and scowled—a facial contortion Nadia would see in detail from the camera inside Ember’s suit. Puns and throwaway comments about the excess rabbit population had no place on an official director request. If Nadia was willing to deface government messages, it meant she was worried. But she wouldn’t say she was worried because, historically, the sisters’ ability to communicate was right around “bug and speeding windshield.”
“Leave for Outpost Eight? I’m supposed to be here for another three days.” Ember cinched her mouth into a caricature of a frown. “TOPA will be heartbroken. It hasn’t cataloged every dune within a one hundred-chain radius.”
“There’s been a change. Director Narkhirunkanok thinks the mella pirates are going to hit one of our storage units, the one where we keep sticking all the glassware we probably don’t need but can’t get rid of. We need a sentry. You’re the closest.” The wind whipped her words away, but the auditory sensors on Nadia’s suit caught them anyway.
This time, Ember did frown. It was one thing to watch for the mella and daydream about shooting one so you could avenge your wife, who didn’t actually need avenging because she’d been about to die from cancer and had chosen to walk into a sand dune. Chasing the mella to one of their targets, even if only to spy on them, so they could shoot you, was something entirely different. She didn’t have a death wish, just a need to see her wife’s body and maybe punch someone.
J.S. Fields is a scientist who has perhaps spent too much time around organic solvents. They enjoy roller derby, woodturning, making chain mail by hand, and cultivating fungi in the backs of minivans. Nonbinary, and always up for a Twitter chat.
Three years of mourning. One night of pleasure. It might be a new beginning, but only if he is willing to submit.
Three years ago, Lani McMillan lost her submissive, and she has been running from her heart ever since. She may rely on the occasional scene to scratch the itch, but no other has come close to arousing her dominant instincts to claim them as her own.
That is, until she meets The Playgrounds’ latest security contractor, Nathan Pelletier.
He is everything she didn’t expect—ex-military, ex-cop, a fighter, a leader and very much confused by why submitting to her fulfills his deepest desires. So why does she want nothing more than to wrap her hands around his tie and pull him closer?
But time is running out for them to explore their new, tenuous bond, as the demons of both, real and imagined, emerge from the shadows and threaten to consume them. Now they must decide what they are to each other if they are to survive their pasts and their own desires.
Because it takes more than the will of a Dominant to lead.
Reaser advisory: This book contains kidnapping and scenes of violence and torture. It is best read as book three in a series.
Lani McMillan curled her lips into a smile of amusement when the town car the hosts had hired for her pulled up to her destination. A masquerade party to celebrate a renewal of vows… She had been to enough weddings and celebrations in her lifetime, but this was a new twist. As she emerged from the vehicle, she smoothed the long black dress with a thigh-high slit and adjusted the teardrop diamond pendant hanging on a white gold chain just below her collarbone.
Her stilettos clicked against the stone steps of the venue as she walked. The happy couple had rented a sprawling heritage estate thirty minutes out from the city. Laughter spilled out from the opened windows, lights illuminating the entire place against the setting sun. As she approached the door, she settled the Colombina mask over her face, covering her eyes and cheeks. She brushed her fingers over the midnight lace, trailing over a row of black and silver beads before she tilted her chin up. With a last check to ensure that her red curls remained pinned in a loose knot above her head, she readied herself. Showtime.
“Good evening, Ms.”
“Evening.” With inherent grace, Lani presented the invitation to the suited gentleman at the door who was sporting a much plainer version of her own mask. In fact, most staff seemed to wear the same face covering, like it was part of the uniform.
“Excellent. Welcome to the party, Ms. McMillan.”
Lani gave him a polite smile and dipped her head before entering. The hosts, prominent members of society, had spared no expense in celebrating their renewed love for each other in the most public way possible. A large crystal chandelier dominated the expansive foyer. Below it, water gurgled from a fountain.
To both her left and right were smaller reception areas, each lit by their own rows of mini chandeliers. Music from a string quartet drifted from the distance, and it was what helped Lani decide which direction to go.
An abstract ice sculpture stood as a centerpiece, hinting at two figures embracing. Lani’s lips curved into a bittersweet smile. When the couple had arrived at her office all those months ago, they could barely tolerate sitting next to each other, with nothing but betrayal and hurt wedged between them. They had come a long way, and it made her happy to have had a hand in that as their relationship counselor. Since the accident three years past, she had dedicated herself to helping people find second chances, something she herself had never gotten. Death was the cruelest Mistress of them all.
Lani tore her gaze away from the sculpture to flash the waitstaff a small smile and took the glass in hand. Most other guests were already in masks, enjoying the additional air of mystique the costume pieces provided. As she sipped her bubbles, savoring the sweetness, she scanned the room then stopped as she beheld a particularly delicious specimen. He wasn’t towering tall, perhaps half a head or so more than her and her four-inch heels. Powerful muscles strained against the black suit he wore. Although the plain staff mask covered a part of his face, it only brought out his square jaw and chiseled features further. With dirty blond hair spiked up and faded down on the sides and back, he could almost pass as a male model.
Their eyes met, her hazel to his steel gray, and Lani inhaled. Something sparked between them, and though he dressed like any other security staff at the party, Lani knew she would have no problem picking him out of a crowd anywhere. He held her gaze, neither of them willing to look away first until he reached for the wire and earbud in his right ear. With a polite nod of acknowledgment toward her, he moved aside. Duty called.
Lani suppressed the urge to seek him out so that she could twine his tie around her fingers and pull him close. She shook her head. If only this was that type of party instead.
“Oh my, is that you, Lani?”
She turned to the older woman, readying her professional smile. “Diane,” she greeted and accepted the hug that followed. Another one of her clients. This social circle had made her business very lucrative over the years and funded the move to the new office she adored, not to mention her growing shoe collection. Soon, she had amassed a small group of men and women around her.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you will, the ceremony is about to begin.” Another staff member ushered them deeper inside the house, where they had set up the hall similar to a more traditional wedding venue. Lani had to admire the bouquets of flowers that lined the aisle. Although lavish decorations adorned the room, nothing was over the top. If she had to design her wedding, though, she would have it more subdued, smaller. That chance, however, had long passed. Commitment was not for her anymore.
The couple exchanged their vows with beautiful heartfelt speeches, and soon all the staff herded the guests upstairs once more to another banquet hall. Out of the corner of her eye, Lani glimpsed that same security guard from before. When he stayed within her field of vision, she realized with a start that he was hovering.
Seated with the same group she had been speaking with at the reception, Lani made polite conversation but, to be frank, she was growing tired. From the beginning, she’d had no illusion that this was anything but a work function, an opportunity to network. These people with their yachts and mansions were not her kind. She worked for a living, for one thing. Still, what she wanted was to curl up at home with a mug of tea and process the melancholy mounting within her, to stare at the photos of the last man she’d ever seen a future with—a man who had passed away three years before.
Perhaps coming here was a mistake.
At least dinner was delectable. From the appetizer of crab and shrimp cakes molded into heart shapes to the aromatic lobster bisque then to the main course of miso-based black cod, the seafood option she chose took her on a journey of oral delight. Then there was the chocolate mousse… Lani had to refrain from retrieving her phone so that she could take photos. Her close friend, Luna, would have wanted pictures.
Soon, dinner gave way to more festivities as the doors opened to a dance hall with a band set up on stage. Lani’s eyes lit up before she remembered she had brought no date with her. Had she known, she might have cajoled Darryl or Jacob to come with her. A small sigh of regret escaped her lips as the music began.
Others at her table had already excused themselves to join the growing company of dancers on the floor as the band struck up their first song, a stately number. Left alone with her thoughts, she cast a longing glance at the door.
Great. With another smile plastered on her face, she rose from her seat to find the hosts approaching. She allowed Sharon to pull her into a hug.
“Oh, don’t you look fabulous!”
Lani smiled. “Thank you. Nothing compared to you, though. Just like a beautiful blushing bride.”
“Isn’t she?” Eric wrapped an arm around his wife and pulled her to him. “We’re glad you could make it tonight.”
“Of course. I’m so happy for you both.” Lani wasn’t sure if it was a shot of envy that twisted her gut.
“We wouldn’t be here without you. Thank you.”
Pride came with swiftness to replace that envy—pride in her work, pride in having been able to help.
“I may have guided, but you two put in all the effort.”
The couple turned and beamed at each other before another woman approached Eric. It was the perfect opportunity. Lani smiled and inclined her head. “If you’ll excuse me.” With the soft murmur, she made a quick escape.
Five steps. That was as far as she got.
The deep baritone came from her left, and she spun on her heels to face its owner full on.
He kept a respectful distance, but up close, his gaze held an intensity much more than the one they had shared earlier across the crowd. The impulse to pull him to her, to fist his hair this time, returned, and she had to clamp down on her dominant instincts. This was not the place for the Domme in her to come out and play.
“Perhaps,” she replied instead, accompanied by an enigmatic smile.
He stepped closer, and she quirked a brow in response. This one was bold. She liked it.
“A dance before you go?” He offered her a calloused palm. As far as pick-up lines went, he lacked sophistication, and Lani wondered if it was something that the man may not be used to. Still, she had been lamenting the lack of a partner earlier.
“Sure, why not?” She gifted him with a brilliant smile, placed her hand in his and allowed him to lead her to the floor.
It was the kind of dance that had him place his hand on the small of her back, and for her to put hers on his shoulder. They held each other’s gaze, neither willing to back down again, as if resuming their earlier interrupted contest of wills. Lani registered the subtle tension in the muscles rippling under the suit.
“So, how much time have you bought yourself, sneaking off duty?” She could not help but tease. He seemed so very serious.
A slight rise and fall of shoulders. “My shift for the night ended fifteen minutes ago. If they need me, they’ll call.”
“I see. And yet you’re still here.” Lani found her smile growing wider.
“So are you, despite not being in the mood.”
At that, she raised a brow in question but allowed the silence to stretch on.
Her mysterious partner sighed before turning them around in a spin in time to the music. He was a skilled dancer and led well enough. Lani had not expected that for a man of his size and demeanor. And that she let him lead at all was a bit of a miracle in itself.
“You smile and play their games, but there’s something you’re sad about…like you’re in mourning.”
Her heart skipped a beat, but neither her steps nor her smile faltered. Instead, she followed his lead, allowing him to twirl her again. Only when he caught her in his arms once more did she give a small laugh in response. “Very perceptive, Mr.…?”
“Nathan.” He nodded at her praise. “It’s my business to be.”
“If I may, since both of us have a lack of reason to stay, would you like to get out of here?”
Lani thought she heard a tinge of hope in his tone, but the desire she saw smoldering in his eyes overshadowed any hints of it.
Bold indeed. But the prospect of spending the night sulking alone did seem rather bleak. Lani knew what Nathan was offering and found it to be palatable—maybe beyond just palatable. It had been a while since she had scratched that itch, even if it wasn’t to play as a Domme. Besides, she was curious about all those lovely warm curves she felt beneath his suit.
“Mm-m, I believe I can be persuaded.”
“This way then,” he whispered in her ear, then stepped back to lead her out of the party into the darkening night.
P. Stormcrow has always been an avid reader across the fantasy and sci fi genres but early on, found herself always looking for the love story in each book. Coming to terms with her love for love later in life, she now writes steamy romances that examine social norms and challenge conventional tropes of the genre, usually on her phone. And yes, she has walked into walls and poles doing so.
When she’s not reading or writing (or even when she is), she enjoys copious amounts of tea, way too much sugary treats, one too many sci fi / fantasy / paranormal TV shows (team Dean all the way) and every otome game she can possibly find.
Kel, a former prince turned gravedigger, serves the Unknown God. Bitter about the gods’ neglect of their people, Kel’s limited patience with the divine is tested when his former lover, now a famous general, shows up in the tiny town of Farport. Done with being the gods’ plaything, Kel quits the priesthood—only to discover that the unknown god has plans for him and his ex.
Iscar’s shocked to discover that the prince who was too good for a lowly soldier now follows the god of outcasts. He’s even more shocked when the unknown god declares himself to be War and claims Kel as his high-priest. Having experienced all war’s horrors, Iscar is determined to free Kel from the god, escorting him to Celestial City in an attempt to win Kel away.
Kel fights his attraction to Iscar and struggles with his duty to his god. Iscar’s belief that the gods are just, and reward those who are deserving, is challenged by their journey. His allegiance is no longer to the gods, but to his love. But Kel, consumed by doubt, cannot see what a man—or a god—would want in him.
The dead man’s eyes reflected the chill grey sky. The wind dragged at his tunic, giving him, for an instant, life. But the gods, though cruel, had yet some mercy. Kel was alone in the burning village.
“Earth Mother…” The words stuck in his throat. They meant nothing to him. They meant even less to the corpse.
Kel’s dirt-caked hands locked around the handle of the shovel. None but him saw the observations made; none cared. The man’s family would not return to the village until the death rites had been completed—if they returned at all.
Smoke stung his eyes. The fire was dying now, too, burning itself out in the ruined house at his back. Beside it lay the two yet to be buried.
The accusation in their dead eyes was too much to bear. “Earth Mother. From clay, you made us.” It was not as if she listened. As if any of them listened. “Sky Father. You breathed us into life.” Bile rose in his throat. Burying the dead was the lowest task anyone in the Nine Lands could do, and he couldn’t even do that right.
“The dead need no counsel.” His cheeks burned. Two years on, and Jayna’s words still stung. He’d confessed his doubt in the gods to the head-priest, and this had been her solution. “Go tell Samel, the gravedigger, you relieve him of his duty.” His horror must have shown on his face because her expression softened. “Serving the Unknown God is not easy. Other gods reward their servants, but we must find reward in our service. Make your work your purpose.”
Kel drew a deep breath. Digging graves was all he had. “Mighty Sea. You bestowed on us the life fluids. From three, we are one in life. In death, we become three again.”
There was something in the familiarity of the words. He scattered a handful of soil into the grave. “Rest peacefully in the embrace of Mother Earth.” He’d found a knife nearby the man’s body and cleaned it. He placed it on the man’s chest so he might cut free of his shadow. “May your shade descend without obstacle to Gentle Death’s kingdom.” Finally, the three tin coins. “May your spirit soar, free of earthly debts, to join the gods in perfect communion.” He shut his eyes. “I ask this, in the names of the Eleven and the one as yet Unknown.” The secret names of the gods came easily to his lips, sealing his prayer.
Kel began filling in the grave. A priest without faith was good for one thing at least. Maybe in time this would be enough…
How many deaths would it take for him to be satisfied with his fate? Kel saw the years stretch out ahead of him, a succession of empty graves to fill, until he was as numb inside as the dead were cold. The shovel slid from his grip.
The distant thunder of hooves was a relief. The North raiders back to finish the job. Kel looked over the waterlogged rice fields to the riders, distant but steadily growing closer, the cloudy sky flashing on their weapons.
Mechanically, he reached for the shovel. He searched within himself for fear but found only resignation. Had he known this was coming? Ever since news of the attack had reached the Farport temple, he’d felt a strange sense of dislocation, as if his shadow and breath already strained to leave his mortal body. Being struck down suddenly was no hard thing.
If it was sudden. Kel’s legs tensed. The godless North raiders took special delight in torturing priests. His death would not be quick, nor would it be final. No one would bury him.
Well, that’s just fine. Kel pushed his shoulders back, hefting the shovel. Grave dirt still clung to it, coating his grey cloak, now his funerary garment. He took a deep breath, beginning his recitation of the funeral rites again. There was one comfort at least. His existence could not possibly get any worse than this.
But as Kel raised his gaze to the rapidly approaching horsemen, he glimpsed gold on blue. His blood chilled. He licked numb lips, blinking, but there was no denying the burnished copper of their breast plates. The North raiders rode out draped in animal pelts. Armour meant soldiers. Blue and gold meant—
Kel’s chest pounded painfully. Sky’s soldiers—in this deserted village? He looked around, but there was nowhere to hide. The raider’s destruction had been thorough.
Do not be a fool. Kel drew a breath, forcing himself to hold it. That they were Sky’s soldiers meant nothing. Iscar was a general. Would Sky send his war-maker to protect a few peasants? Hands shaking, he pulled the grey hood of his tunic low to mask his face.
One of the riders outdistanced the others, dark hair streaming out behind him as he urged his rowan forward. The cloud danced on the tip of his raised spear.
Not long now. Kel gripped the shovel.
With a clatter of hooves, the horse stopped before Kel. The spearhead pressed against his chest. “What brings you to land raided by the Northmen? Do you have treaty with them?” Less than half Kel’s age, the soldier radiated a confidence Kel would never possess. “Speak!”
“I serve the Unknown God.” His voice trembled. “I bury the dead.”
The other soldiers reached them, horses and riders milling on the edge of Kel’s vision. He did not dare look. Sky’s servants were notoriously arrogant.
His interrogator narrowed his eyes. Hazel like Kel’s own, but lit with a fire Kel had long since lost. His features were regal, naturally warm skin toughened by years of service beneath the sun’s rays. “What proof can you offer?”
“Proof?” Kel gulped. “I have only myself.”
“Only an uncommonly brave man would spend time alone in the company of the dead or territory so recently visited by the North raiders.” This voice was older, but no less powerful. Every word revealed the iron will that formed them. “Or one with uncommon dedication to the gods. Respect the robe he wears, Sol.”
Iscar! Kel’s world spun. A thousand needles pierced his chest. Heat rushed to his face and then drained just as abruptly. He could not breathe.
His interrogator scowled, leaning his spear against his shoulder. “Uncommon is right. Something is strange about him.”
“Sol.” Iscar had never had to raise his voice to exert control. His subordinate bowed his head, urging the rowan onwards.
Kel stared at the dirt-stained edge of his robe. Implacable Death, claim me now! Take me to your kingdom of shadow where none might recognise me!
Over the thundering of the pulse in his head, Kel realised Iscar was speaking to him. “News can you give us?”
“None.” His voice wobbled. The humiliation to come made him sick. “The Northmen departed as suddenly as they came.”
“Leaving only death.” Iscar’s tone was grim.
Kel risked a glance. Iscar surveyed the surrounding land. His profile was unchanged, its new lines accentuating the mighty set of his jaw. His dark hair was cut short like that of all Sky’s soldiers, and any grey hairs were not immediately apparent. He moved as one yet in his prime, countenance alert and assured.
Sol snorted, his horse flicking its ears. “Little here to tempt a raiding party.”
“Indeed.” Iscar swung himself off his horse. Tossing the reins to a second soldier, he looked down at the grave without flinching. “These people do not have enough even for themselves.”
Was it possible—he hadn’t recognised him? Kel licked his lips, scarcely aware of what he said. “The harvest was poor. Rain rotted the root vegetables in the ground. If the Northmen hadn’t claimed these villagers, the winter may well have.” There had not been a day, a single day, in which he had not thought of Iscar. He could not have failed to know him. That he did not know Kel…
It was well. He dug his fingers into his skin, trying to regain command over himself. Better unrecognised than have his shame uncovered.
But to be forgotten… The pain was all-consuming. He’d not believed he still had the capacity to hurt so much. But then, no one had ever hurt him like Iscar.
Gillian St. Kevern is spending Christmas in her native New Zealand, where the seasonal festivities include pavlovas, walks on the beach, and a distinct lack of sweaters, seasonal or otherwise. She will almost certainly get sunburnt at some stage.
Gillian reads and writes a variety of genres. She’s a huge fan of paranormal with an emphasis on vampires. The third and fourth books in her vampire series, Thorns and Fangs, are due for release in January and February 2018. She also explores Welsh Mythology in the on-going Deep Magic series. In 2018, she plans to explore another beloved genre―vintage mysteries. She loves discovering new books and authors, so please get in touch if you have any good book recommendations to share!
When a cop falls for a suspect in her latest case, she has to look into the abyss of her own desires.
Sharon Richards, a cop working for the NYPD, has to investigate a murder in one of the city’s BDSM clubs. A young woman was shot. No one heard a thing, no one saw a thing. A difficult case, complicated further by the instant attraction between her and the club’s owner, Simon Carter. Who is this man who’s not only attractive and intelligent but challenges her on every level?
It’s hard for Sharon to resist the temptation of this man, even harder not to give in to the urge to fulfill her curiosity. Why do people frequent a place like this? Can pain equal pleasure? She’s afraid to find out, yet unable to stop herself from falling deeper and deeper into a world where new desires threaten to destroy life as she knows it.
Will she solve this case and be able to protect her career as well as her heart?
Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of murder, past CSA and murder of a child, and the HIV diagnosis in a minor character.
Suppressing a sigh, Sharon Richards wondered why she hadn’t decided on a different job.
Murder was always a grisly affair, but some days it was harder to deal with than others. This time the location, more than the crime itself, had her on edge.
Surrounded by the sights and scents of death, she scanned the place where a young woman had lost her life only a couple of hours earlier.
The room was decorated in deep shades of red and black, advertising the fact that it wasn’t a common bedroom, but a place meant for seduction. Although she wasn’t sure that seduction had played a large role in the murder.
If it weren’t for the two spotlights brought in by crime scene technicians, the lighting would be dim, with only a small chandelier on the ceiling and a lamp on a bedside table. There was no daylight, the window hidden behind heavy burgundy drapes. She suppressed a snort. Of course there wasn’t. She couldn’t imagine the people coming here wanting any spectators. Although who knew, really?
Scanning the room’s contents, she tried not to let her uneasiness show. The last thing she needed was her colleagues thinking she was squeamish. Anders and Jones, the two crime scene technicians, were nice guys. She had worked well with them on previous occasions. Still, if she showed too much of a reaction, word would spread throughout the precinct at the speed of light.
Turning her back to them, she focused on the rest of the location instead of the people crowding it right now. Even though the space was bigger than her living room, there was scant furniture. Well, cabinets for the fine china and a coffee table with a vase of fresh flowers weren’t needed in a room like this. Not when its sole purpose was to help people find release. Release of a special kind.
Why? Why do it this way? She twisted a lock of her hair around a finger before she realized what she was doing. She crossed her arms over her chest and hoped Anders and Jones hadn’t seen her.
She couldn’t let her feelings get in the way of what really mattered—the victim.
Looking over at the victim for a moment, Sharon tried to ignore the pang of sorrow in her gut. She pried her eyes away.
The murder itself must’ve happened quickly, as everything inside this place seemed to be untouched, especially the four-poster bed. That didn’t show so much as a crinkle on the sheets. Sharon’s hands, sweating inside the cursed latex gloves, itched to touch the sheets to find out if they were indeed satin, as she believed. Ridiculous.
The bed was sturdy, with an upper panel but no curtains. There was no pillow, no extra sheet for warmth, nothing to indicate any measure of comfort. It was so damned impersonal, almost a caricature of what a bed should look like, in her opinion. At least the lush carpet underneath the bed—black again—looked comfortable.
Instead of giving in to impulse, she looked at a bench on one side of the room and the pair of rings attached to the wall behind it. Rings to shackle someone. Who would want to lose their freedom to another man or woman, to be helpless in front of somebody promising not to hurt them? Still, isn’t pain the main part of the experience? a tiny voice inside her mind piped up.
A selection of what Sharon assumed were toys was placed on a rudimentary wooden table next to the bench. She counted several paddles, a whip and some other things she couldn’t place quite as easily. Well, she could always ask. Yeah, right.
As she took a deep breath, the coppery smell of blood permeated the air so strongly that she fought the need to retch. The first and last time she’d thrown up had been when she and her partner had investigated the death of a prostitute, Cindy. The woman had been stabbed to death and left to bleed out beside a dumpster. The mixture of scents had been too much, and she’d only been able to take a few steps to the side before she’d thrown up.
Reining in her wayward thoughts, Sharon walked over to the victim, kneeling down in front of the body. So young, so beautiful and so untimely deceased.
Making sure she didn’t touch the corpse, she focused on the gaping wound caused by a bullet, tearing skin and ending a life within seconds.
The shot which had taken Marlene Davis’ life had left a barely discernible pattern of blood on the dark red wall. If it weren’t for the fetid air, the woman lying like a broken doll on the floor and her glassy eyes, nothing would’ve said this was a crime scene.
Sharon crouched down in front of the wall next, trying to see the crime, to understand what had happened. She looked closely at the blood spatter. It wasn’t hard to interpret. She’d seen patterns like this one often enough to know the shot had been delivered from close range. Most likely from a person Marlene had trusted.
She got up and walked a few steps around the body. It was easy to imagine how somebody had stood in the spot she was now, close to Marlene. Had Marlene and her murderer laughed, argued? One thing was clear—at some point the perpetrator had pulled the gun and fired it at the unsuspecting woman. The bullet entering Marlene’s chest had gone right through her body, spraying the wall behind her with her blood. It would’ve been a quick death, at least. The bullet was still stuck in the wall, waiting for the crime technicians to remove it. A small caliber, most likely a semi-automatic, if Sharon had to guess.
So they knew how it had happened, but had to answer the question of why next.
They could do it, and they would do it. While a crime like this always caused drama, suffering and pain for those left behind, in a twisted way, it was routine for Sharon. Eight years of working in homicide had dulled the edge of walking into a crime scene. There would always be a moment of pity, but she’d learned to be objective, to see the crime scene first and foremost. She had to detach the emotional part of herself, or her work would consume her.
Hell, it was the job. Her job. Every murder was a puzzle she was hell-bent on solving. She would solve this one. The only question was when.
She smiled, almost calm once more. Her work had led her to a lot of places throughout the last years, but in all her years in this city, she’d never been in one of the city’s BDSM clubs—not for work reasons and certainly not for private ones. There really was a first time for everything.
At the end of the day, this was just another workplace. A place where a murder had been committed. How ironic that the victim had been shot when so many weapons had been so readily available.
She walked over to the table and picked up one of the paddles. Pictures had already been taken, so she didn’t have to worry about mixing up anything. The paddle was heavier than she had expected. How much pain would it cause when it touched human skin?
At that moment, Sharon sensed him behind her again, and the fine hairs on her neck stood up.
He was watching her—she didn’t need to turn around to confirm it. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt such an instant disquiet in the presence of someone else.
There was only one thing for certain. When a main suspect was such a distraction, it was a sure sign of trouble. Putting the paddle down, she turned.
As she’d known, Simon Carter, the subject of her musings, was watching her process the scene, his dark eyes following her every movement. As the owner of this club, he had a vested interest in her investigation, yet she’d have preferred it if he had let her work in peace.
She couldn’t afford to let herself be perturbed. Trying to focus on the crime scene instead of the man, she hoped the effort wouldn’t prove futile.
Carter radiated charm and danger in equal measures. One look and she had understood he wasn’t someone to mess with. She shouldn’t find him attractive either, but she couldn’t ignore the way his deep blue shirt didn’t quite hide his muscles, how the dark pair of jeans fit his otherwise lean frame.
Carter’s eyes twinkled. Hell, he didn’t even try to hide his amusement. From the very first moment of meeting him, his knowing smirk had told her he knew about her discomfort.
In his business, Carter needed to know how to work people, how to charm or placate them. He wouldn’t charm her. She wouldn’t let him.
In contrast to her, he stood there calmly, as relaxed as anybody could be in the face of such a tragedy.
No, she didn’t like him, if only for the fact there had been a spark of interest the moment they had shaken hands. Not that she had to like him. She was here to investigate a murder, and he could be the killer. As the owner of this establishment, he was at least a main suspect.
Ignoring him for the moment, she concentrated on the medical examiner who’d entered the room and had just called out to her.
“Hey, Richards. I’d like to bag her now. If that’s okay with you.”
She returned his smile. He looked tired, and she wouldn’t be surprised if he’d had to pull a double shift again.
“Sure. When do you think you’ll have first results?”
“Whenever I’ll have them.” He raised a hand to forestall the complaint he knew would come. “I know you need answers and need them quickly, but there are two autopsies before this one. I’ll call you, okay?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Amaro.”
She stepped aside so he could do his work. She’d seen enough. Looking at the body for the last time, Sharon silently promised Marlene she’d find the one who had killed her.
She turned around again and faced the man still watching her. “Mr. Carter, I need to ask you some questions. Standard procedure. Do you have an office where we could talk?”
Sure, they could talk here, or she could let him come to her office for a formal interview, but truth be told, neither place held any appeal to her. She didn’t have time to waste.
He gave her a look that was longer than necessary, sending a shiver down her back for no good reason. As he passed her, his arm brushed against hers, and she bit down on her bottom lip. Damn, had it really been that long since she’d gotten laid?
It was either that or the man itself, a notion she didn’t like to entertain.
He led her to a different part of the house. Hearing someone scream—a man—she stopped, but Carter didn’t break his stride. Another scream—it lay on the tip of her tongue to speak out.
“No one’s getting hurt. Not in this club. Not in a way that’s unwanted. What you’re hearing is a vid someone forgot to turn off. We’re closed for today, after all.”
She hurried to keep up with him.
“Do you think Marlene Davis was of the same opinion? That no one gets hurt here unless they want it?”
“Marlene Davis is dead.”
“And there you’ve just made my point.”
“Whatever happens here is consensual.”
People meeting to inflict and enjoy pain. She shook her head, put her hands in the pockets of her blazer. It took all kinds. They reached the end of a long hallway and opened the last door on the right. He gestured for her to enter.
Again, Sharon was surprised. In contrast to what she’d seen of the rest of the house, this room was all about business. It wasn’t sumptuous. It didn’t scream sex. Dark, sleek furniture ruled its center. There was a desk sporting a phone, a laptop and other accessories to run a business. Along the wall were filing cabinets and a print of a city alleyway. It was a spartan room, one that echoed her own basic tastes.
Carter rounded the table and sat down, gesturing to the seat on the other side of the desk.
“Can I offer you something to drink? Water? Coffee? Something stronger?”
The smell of fresh coffee tempted her to accept his offer.
“This is not a social call, Mr. Carter.”
“Call me Simon.”
It was unsettling how his eyes rested on her. His gaze was piercing, focusing on her in a way that made her think he could see right through her.
“I don’t think so, Mr. Carter. And the sooner we start, the sooner we’ll be finished, and I’ll be out of your hair for the time being.”
“Interesting. You really don’t feel comfortable here.”
She took a deep breath to steady herself and made a point of holding his gaze. She’d been a cop for too many years to be easily intimidated, even if her poker face needed some work.
“Did I say that? And what I feel or don’t feel is not the point. Marlene Davis is. Was she a regular customer?”
“What unsettles you about this business?”
She didn’t snarl, but she came close to it. This man had missed his calling. He should’ve become a cop. They always needed more detectives with good intuition who knew how to corner someone in interview. Only this wasn’t his interview, and she didn’t like being cornered.
“Just answer the question, Mr. Carter.”
“Yes, she was what we call a regular customer. She didn’t visit on a regular basis, but she was here about a dozen times. I’d have to check our appointment book to be sure. We’re not the kind of club that you can just walk into.”
Appointment book? It made sense, but the thought of people scheduling sexual activities of this kind as they would a dinner date was hard to grasp. She’d been aware that there were people with rather specialized tastes. It didn’t mean she’d taken the time to think through the details.
Carter’s eyes still rested on her. Although she was proud to keep his gaze, it was as if he could still read her. It was disconcerting, to say the least.
“If you could check the dates and get them to me, it might help. Did she always prefer the same company?”
“You mean, did she have her own personal Dom?”
“A Dominant. The male equivalent of a Dominatrix. Davis was masochistic. To answer your question, no, she didn’t meet with one of our employees. She only used our premises and scheduled her own appointments. At least for the last few times.”
At her questioning look, he elaborated. “Her first few times here, she had appointments with Marco. That’s why I know she was a sub.”
“Sub as in submissive?”
He nodded, a slight smile grazing his lips that was gone as quickly as it had appeared.
“But even so, you must’ve seen who she was with. Her…Dom. I saw the security camera at the entrance.”
“It doesn’t work that way. We have another door at the back of the house. Only someone already in the house can let you in through the second entrance. This door only works one way. It’s not covered by a security cam. Our clients value their privacy. Everything happening in the back of this house is private.”
He was one of those who had an answer to everything, wasn’t he? She held his gaze for a long time, remaining silent. It didn’t faze him. He didn’t so much as twitch. Nobody was that calm. They all had cracks in their armor. The only question was, what was his weakness?
“Doesn’t mean you can’t have a hidden security cam, or cams for that matter,” she finally spoke.
“If anyone gets wind of a secret cam, our credibility will suffer.”
“Having someone murdered on your premises won’t help business either.”
His lips curled upward in a slow smile. “Touché.”
“So do you have any kind of security cam covering this area?”
“No, we don’t. When I started the business, I didn’t plan on anybody being murdered here.”
“All right, let me get this straight. Davis booked a room and met with someone she let in herself.”
“Did she come in through the front entrance or did she have someone let her in?”
“I already checked our cam. Yes, she came in through the front. You’ll get a copy of the data.”
“Thank you. But tell me, aren’t you worried that your customers could let in more than just their personal guests?”
“Are you asking if I’m worried our clients have big orgies or let in thieves?”
“Thieves, murderers, yes. If it were my property, I’d make sure I was protected. It’s one thing to ensure people’s privacy, but I’d also make sure it’s not my butt in the sling if things go south. I’d be the one in control.”
Another smile and her pulse sped up.
“Control can be a burden. One reason for places like this one. But this will only be a sanctuary if people can trust us. If they can’t, they won’t be able to let go.”
“They need a safe environment, knowing there’ll be no pictures of their naked glory in the paper next morning,” she mused. She had to admit it made sense.
“Yes. It doesn’t mean there aren’t safety measures. Each room has a panic button. If something’s happening that the client isn’t comfortable with, or if there’s an intruder, the client can summon help.”
“I didn’t see one in the room we found Davis in.”
“Under the bed. Davis knew that, and one of the crime scene techs dusted it for prints when I checked earlier.”
Sharon was annoyed she hadn’t spotted this herself. A slip like that was unacceptable. She ignored the thought. She could beat herself up over it later.
“Davis knew how to call for help,” Carter repeated.
It was a nice concept, in theory. But help was not in the cards for guests that found themselves literally tied up. She focused on Carter again and relayed the thought to him.
“Everyone tied up is in control of his Dom at all times. And if a Dom breaks the rules and actually hurts his sub, they’ll be banned for life and, depending on what happened, we’d file a report with the police.”
“Has that happened before?” She would check, and he had to know it.
“No, it hasn’t. But I wouldn’t hesitate a second.” His face got hard. “Safe and sane are the key words here. And if I find out who did this—”
He left the thought unfinished. So he didn’t like when something, someone, slipped by his control. His chink in the armor.
“Someone got around your security measures.” She shrugged. “There was a hole and he or she used it.”
“Only known guests, or guests cleared by them, are permitted outside the private rooms. We have bouncers to ensure no one wanders the premises.”
“You still trust your system?”
A smile made his lips curl. It was as enticing as it was dangerous. “Our business is all about trust.”
She shouldn’t take the bait. Although when had she ever done what she should do? “Trust? Didn’t Marlene trust your system too much? Someone used her, killed her.”
“No offense, Sharon. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He shouldn’t use her first name, and it shouldn’t affect her that it had.
“It’s Detective, and I think I know enough. I know a woman got killed here, and it’s my job to find out who. You don’t have to like this investigation. Just know, I won’t rest until I have answers to my questions. Speaking of which—where were you for the last five hours?”
She hadn’t shaken him or his composure. If anything, his smile had become a bit more taunting. For a second, she contemplated how his lips would feel pressed against hers, then she snapped out of it. She hoped her face hadn’t shown her struggle. It was bad enough the thought had been there in the first place.
“I was right here. Before you ask, during that time I spoke to various employees, wrote emails, took calls and made some calls myself. In short, I worked. I suggest you check for yourself. But you’re smart enough to have figured it out on your own. I could have snuck out to meet Marlene. It wouldn’t have taken long to kill her, but I didn’t. Sorry to disappoint.”
“You sound pretty relaxed, Mr. Carter.”
He leaned back in his seat. “Well, that’s because I am. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sorry about Marlene, and I’m pissed that someone killed her. This shouldn’t have happened. I’d do anything to undo it, but I can’t.”
His eyes had narrowed, but then he took a deep breath, his smile back in place. “I might not be able to prove I didn’t kill Marlene, but you won’t be able to prove I did it, either. I’m innocent, at least when it comes to that.” His dark eyes sparkled with challenge. “It’s your task to find out who murdered her. I can only offer you my help. If you want it, that is.”
Something told Sharon they weren’t only talking about the case. She didn’t like it. Not one bit.
Sira Banks is an European author who is utterly in love with reading and even more so with writing. Always daydreaming, she began writing short stories as a young adult as the characters occupying her mind didn’t stop poking her until their stories were told.
Participating in NaNoWriMo one year, she started her first novel, and after a lot of hair-pulling, too much coffee and chocolate, she finished it some time later. Finding out that writing longer stories is addictive, she’s not quite sure she could quit it now.
She likes strong female characters with flaws who are not afraid to tackle their problems head on and male characters who are actually willing to listen and communicate.
When she’s not writing, she works as desk jokey and manages her small family, consisting of a preteen daughter and a cat aspiring to become the world’s most efficient hunter.
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