American Royalty by Antonia Church General Release Date: 21st September 2021 Word Count: 80,050 Book Length: SUPER NOVEL Pages: 307 Genres: CHICK LIT CONTEMPORARY EROTIC ROMANCE MEN IN UNIFORM MULTICULTURAL ROYALS Add to Goodreads Book Description …
Hunt by January Bain Book 2 in the Sin City Wolf series General Release Date: 21st September 2021 Word Count: 52,745 Book Length: NOVEL Pages: 212 Genres: BILLIONAIRE CONTEMPORARY EROTIC ROMANCE MÉNAGE AND MULTIPLE PARTNERS THRILLERS …
In Deep by Bailey Bradford Book 1 in the Hooked on You series General Release Date: 21st August 2021 Word Count: 57,279 Book Length: NOVEL Pages: 257 Genres: CONTEMPORARY EROTIC ROMANCE GAY GLBTQI PARANORMAL Add …
Jordan Price is used to the boring wait in airports, given that he practically lives on business trips. He’s all set for this to be more of the same, until he meets a self-described power bottom on Unzipped—a guy who happens to be in the same airport. It seems like a perfectly good way to kill time until his flight, but soon Jordan realizes that Heath, his newfound friend on Unzipped, will be taking the same flight, and the wheels in his head get spinning. Jordan is determined to test Heath’s bottoming skills himself, and if he has his way, the flight will be anything but boring.
Jordan didn’t bother formulating a reply; it would just be a waste of time. He sat around, catching up on his fantasy football team until they called for boarding. It was pure luck that Jordan spotted Heath going to join the boarding call, wearing a T-shirt and khaki shorts. Jordan had priority boarding—one of the few benefits his job actually provided on his work flights—but he decided to forgo the slightly quicker boarding in order to fall in line behind Heath.
“Hello, 7-D,” Jordan said softly, enjoying the way Heath jumped a little before glancing back at him. “You’re pretty handsome in person—though you look better without your clothes on, if you don’t mind me saying.”
The back of Heath’s neck turned pink, along with his ears, and Jordan felt a devilish grin coming on. It looked like his dirty app pen pal blushed easily. There were so many ways he could have fun with that, if only they were seated together.
That same regret ran through his mind on repeat as the line slowly progressed. When it was his turn to present his ticket and photo ID to the attendant, he did so without taking his eyes off Heath’s ass as he went before him. It was a damn fine ass.
Once Jordan entered the plane, he was greeted by the sole flight attendant, who, with a big fake smile plastered on her red-painted lips, said, “Thank you for flying Alliance Air.”
Jordan languidly made his way down the aisle, gaze raking over Heath as he loaded his luggage into the overhead compartment above row seven.
He didn’t know if it would work—didn’t even know if Heath would appreciate it or go along with it—but he decided to give it a try. The overweight businessman who had taken the bench next to him while waiting at the gate was currently seated in seat 7-E, the window seat.
“Excuse me, sir,” Jordan said, leaning around Heath and ignoring the What the hell are you doing? look Heath shot him. “Sorry to disturb you, but I was wondering if I could persuade you to switch seats with me?” Jordan put his hand companionably on Heath’s shoulder. “My friend here and I are flying back home for his brother’s wedding—he’s the best man—and we were supposed to work on bachelor party plans, but we’re sitting apart. I know it’s inconvenient, but could we trade? I have an aisle seat.” Jordan showed the man his ticket.
The man heaved a great sigh, like Jordan was asking him to do something truly inconvenient and not just move to a seat a few rows farther back in the plane. He was fully prepared for the guy to say no, but he didn’t. Instead he got up and shuffled past Jordan and Heath, reaching up and removing his carry-on from the overhead bin.
“Enjoy your wedding,” he said in a wheezy voice before he took Jordan’s ticket and waddled back along the aisle.
Excitement building, Jordan tossed his carry-on in the overhead compartment and took the window seat, grinning cheekily at Heath when he got situated. “You just going to stand there holding up traffic, buddy?”
Blushing once more, Heath finished putting away his bags and took his seat, shifting uncomfortably as he buckled his seat belt. Jordan spread his legs a little and let his knee touch Heath’s, almost laughing when the other man nervously moved it away.
“What are you doing?” Heath asked in a low voice.
“Nothing,” Jordan said, face innocent even as he lowered his hand to his crotch, giving it an obvious squeeze. As he expected, Heath’s gaze followed his hand right to where he wanted it. “I figured it’s going to be a boring three-hour flight, so might as well make it more interesting.”
J.C. Long is an American expat living in Japan, though he’s also lived stints in Seoul, South Korea—no, he’s not an army brat; he’s an English teacher. He is also quite passionate about Welsh corgis and is convinced that anyone who does not like them is evil incarnate. His dramatic streak comes from his life-long involvement in theater. After living in several countries aside from the United States J. C. is convinced that love is love, no matter where you are, and is determined to write stories that demonstrate exactly that. J. C. Long’s favorite things in the world are pictures of corgis, writing and Korean food (not in that order…okay, in that order). J. C. spends his time not writing thinking about writing, coming up with new characters, attending Big Bang concerts and wishing he was writing. The best way to get him to write faster is to motivate him with corgi pictures. Yes, that is a veiled hint.
Khoram is an enforcer, a bodyguard, but his boss has just betrayed him. Now he’s stranded on a desert planet he’s never heard of, chained to the only other human around.
Atash grew up in the cracks of Dulia’s complex social structure, where dominance and submission are a man’s worth. He’s struggled for years on a lower caste but Khoram could be his ticket to a better life if they can find common ground.
Atash wants to teach Khoram the art of submitting by choice and maybe make a name for himself along the way. Khoram, however, isn’t here to play Atash’s political games. He’s going to escape, if his former employer doesn’t see him killed first.
Khoram couldn’t help testing his bonds. The metal chain between his hands and feet rattled, laughing at his attempts. The line of slaves shuffled forward one space, and Khoram was dragged along whether he wanted it or not. A lot of things were happening whether he wanted them to or not. The food he ate, the beer he drank, the clothes they took, the hands that verified he was in working condition. He flinched at the memory.
To distract himself he looked up and tried to count the days. Four behind bars on Elliot’s ship thanks to good-for-nothing Nik, six on the small space hopper, three in the holding cells while he and the Ohiri waited for another connection, two in the transport that left them here on Dulia, five—no, six now—at the auction house. Twenty-one days for Nik to cover his tracks. Almost a full cycle for the trail to go cold. Khoram grit his teeth. At the very least something different was happening.
The slave line shuffled forward.
Here, off stage, they kept the rooms mostly dim. It didn’t diminish Dulia’s oppressive heat in the slightest, but the closer Khoram was guided to the glowing roll-up door of the slave block, the more he longed for home. His fitful dreams tortured him with visions of Avois’s wet jungles and waterfalls. He hadn’t actually been home in over a decade, too busy making his fortune as an enforcer and bodyguard, but he was starting to see the error of his ways. Or at least the error of Nik’s.
Khoram licked his lips. He pressed them together, already regretting it. They’d been chapped dry for days. His wrists and ankles chafed under the iron. These were better discomforts than the lingering slick between his legs and exactly what lay on the other side of that bright doorway.
A Dulia lizardman flared the red frill around his neck as he walked the slave line, clicking orders in his native tongue and emphasizing them with a small electric prod. Khoram had tested the prod’s worth enough times to know it could knock him on his ass without much effort. He looked away from the mercenary and shuffled forward with the line.
He wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. The group he was chained to consisted largely of Ohiri natives: light-skinned, five-foot average, and generally docile. They were just as likely to stay in line without the chains and prod. Khoram stood out among them: a tall, dark, massive human furious in his captivity. Khoram was highly trained and just waiting for a chance to show it. In a fair fight, the lizardmen would fold like paper and they knew it. He’d never been unchained, left alone, or handled by fewer than four, and they were always armed with their electric prods. Always on alert.
Khoram grit his teeth. From capture to sale, he hadn’t managed a single successful bid for freedom, and he’d tried more than a few times. Now he took a breath and let his patience steady his hands, let the line of slaves tug him along. If the lizardmen couldn’t be overcome, whoever purchased him could be. Khoram wasn’t entirely familiar with Dulia’s customs, but if the easily dominated Ohiri were slaves of choice, Khoram wasn’t going to fetch much interest or profit.
The slave in front of him was unleashed from the line and yanked out the bright door. A lizardman pointed at the vacated spot, and Khoram shuffled forward to occupy it. The heat pulsed through the door in bright waves, bringing scents of sand, sweat, and a light spice that was unfamiliar. He could hear voices, now: the auctioneer yelling in rapid Duliana, the crowd barking their bids in turn, the sound of rhythmic smacking, a chorus of cheers. Another winning bid.
Then Khoram’s chains were unleashed and, flanked by two lizardmen with prods, he was led through the door. Hot metal rattled under his feet, and the blinding sun limited his view of more than the circular platform onto which he was pulled. A lizardman unhooked his wrists from his ankles, instead latching the chain to something that hoisted his arms suddenly overhead. His breath whooshed out. They tightened his ankle chains to the platform, and with a metal screech, it slowly began to rotate. They were showing him off. A tingle of awareness tripped over his skin and exposed groin—the attention of a hundred eyes.
Khoram squinted. The auctioneer espoused in Duliana for several minutes, likely explaining why the hell this bear of a human was on the block instead of a lithe Ohiri, spinning his assets to garner the crowd’s favor. Khoram knew a snake-oil salesman when he saw one, even if he didn’t share their language.
The platform turned him, and he faced the crowd. More of a species mix than he expected. Lizardmen were not the primary slave-owners if this was a decent selection. Mostly tall Frea, in fact, their black scales draped in white gossamer. They were members of Dulia’s refined upper caste, and other than video, this was the first he’d seen them. They weren’t known to ever leave Dulia, though they profited from the wider galaxy’s trade gladly. Pockets of Slone-dogs made the most noise in the crowd. They barked in their hybrid dialect, likely obscene things Khoram didn’t want translated. He curled his lip at the closest pack, and they yipped at each other.
The werewolf said, “Race you to the road.” It was the last thing Tovin heard before his life became uncomfortably complex.
Before that night in the forest, Tovin was the type of guy to play it safe. Happy wearing the same shoes, buying the same deodorant, and eating the same meals day after day, he thought his simple existence was pretty great. At least until his boyfriend dumps him for being boring. Heartbroken but on a mission of vengeance, Tovin decides to start a new life filled with excitement, danger, and maybe a meal from a questionable food truck.
A date with Garvey would start it all. Handsome, sophisticated, the man is everything Tovin thinks he needs. It’s a pity he turns out to be a werewolf on a mission to save his pack from destruction.
Now Tovin is caught up in Garvey’s world.
Abducted and forced to be the bloodservant of a powerful Alpha, he lands right in the middle of a brewing conflict that threatens to destroy humanity.
City people came to the forest with heads full of Whitmanesque romantic notions. Most didn’t discover themselves there. Rather, they were found by search and rescue, cold and shivering from disenchantment. And sometimes pneumonia.
Garvey seemed to fall into that camp. At least he sounded that way when he said, “The forest is magical, right?”
Carpenter ants bit his arms and legs, rocks dug into his butt cheeks, pine needles stung the palms of his hands, and droplets of deer poo splattered around the area gave the air a musky odor. The forest sucked. It was about as non-magical as a place could get, the very definition of earthy. But his date’s ass was spellbinding, so Tovin remained agreeable. “Sure,” he said, “this is great.”
Tovin wasn’t dumb, only horny. He’d heard countless stories about people having sex in the woods that all turned out okay. Kids in high school talked about little else, each locker room story was the start of a cautionary tale that ended in sexual conquest, not anything terrible. Even adults did it. His co-workers met women out here. All of them were fine. Just fine.
“…and that’s why I’m here.” Tovin was done explaining himself to Garvey.
Garvey turned. “So you’re here because you finally decided to take a risk and treat yourself?”
Garvey chuckled. “Oh dear.”
Nervous, Tovin fiddled with the edge of the blanket and sipped at overly sweet wine as his companion fussed to secure the backpack he brought with him. Garvey insisted on lugging the junk with them to, as he said, do it right. A blanket, some cheap wine, a few candles. Tovin wasn’t exactly dazzled. His date was as cheap as he was weird.
Once settled, Garvey was right down to business—taking off his shirt, his shoes, and undoing the top button of his pants. “Too much too soon?” He didn’t wait for a response, only browsed through Tovin’s facial features. “Pants it is. To be clear, we did come to the forest to screw, yeah?”
Tovin nodded. “Fantastic, then. Let’s get on with it.” Given the precipitous nature of the man’s undressing, Tovin expected a rough, demanding mouth upon his, taking what it wanted. Screwing, basically. Instead, Garvey traced the lines of Tovin’s face with soft kisses. He used the back of his hand to tenderly follow the same path. Noses bumped. Brown eyes continually met his as if asking, Is this okay? Do you like this?
Tentative, Tovin reached out to touch the nest of hair at the nape of Garvey’s neck, drawing away when the man arched his eyebrow at the gesture. “Sorry.” Tovin mumbled to his lap.
“I’m sorry, too, sweet treat. I want you to touch it, just not like that. It’s not going to kill you.” Garvey presented his head, shook it slightly so that the hair tussled and realigned itself around his crown.
Tovin stammered out a quick reply, “No, it’s made of keratin. Keratin would not kill you. Unless it’s in horns. Or nails. Then, I guess it could.” Inwardly, Tovin sighed at himself when Garvey tilted his head and once again raised his eyebrow. “Sorry, I’m a little nervous.”
“Noted,” Garvey quipped. “Touch my glorious mane of non-lethal keratin, then. It’s the best type of keratin, I say.”
Tovin was in the process of reaching for the second time—faster, slightly more confident—when two howls interrupted. He jumped at the noise, once again pulling back his fingers. He withdrew to the edge of the blanket. “What was that?”
Garvey smiled his same swagger smile, the right side of his mouth curving so that one lone incisor poked out of his lips. “Feral dogs.” He bent again to kiss at the corners of Tovin’s mouth. “And just when I thought you were going to make your move at last. You are so much work.”
“Feral dogs? What are they doing?”
“Being feral dogs. Hunting. Don’t worry. They’re not hunting you, sweet treat.” A reassuring hand traced the length of Tovin’s jaw. “They probably got scent of a rabbit, a squirrel…a something.”
“How do you know? They sound close.”
Garvey’s eyes darkened. “I know,” he paused slightly to bring Tovin’s mouth level with his, “because you’ve already been caught.”
Jacqueline Rohrbach is a 36-year-old creative writer living in windy central Washington. When she isn’t writing strange books about bloodsucking magical werewolves, she’s baking sweets, or walking her two dogs, Nibbler and Mulder. She also loves cheesy ghost shows, especially when the hosts call out the ghost out like he wants to brawl with it in a bar. You know, “Come out here, you coward! You like to haunt little kids. Haunt me!” Jackee laughs at this EVERY time.
She’s also a hopeless World of Warcraft addict. In her heyday, she was a top parsing disc priest. She became a paladin to fight Deathwing, she went back to a priest to cuddle pandas, and then she went to a shaman because I guess she thought it would be fun to spend an entire expansion underpowered and frustrated. Boomchicken for Legion!
After a successful first scene together, Daniel and Ryan explore the possibility of continuing their relationship. Negotiating likes and dislikes in BDSM play is one thing, but can Daniel, who likes to keep his life ordered and free of mess, loosen up enough to let the relaxed and uninhibited Ryan deeper into his life?
Daniel wakes up to the first chime of his alarm, and he gets it turned off and his feet swung over the side of his bed before he realizes something isn’t quite right. The mattress is too soft to be his, and the walls are the wrong color. There’s a half glass of orange juice on the bedside table, and that’s what gets last night trickling back to him in bits and pieces.
He’s in Ryan’s apartment. Ryan-from-work’s apartment.
At least he’s not in Ryan-from-work’s bed.
Daniel eases out of the guest bed, glad that he’s not in yesterday’s work clothes, but he frowns when he sees them strewn haphazardly on the floor. He picks up his slacks and shakes them out, even though getting rid of wrinkles isn’t that easy. He’s going to have to take them to the dry cleaner.
He has his overnight bag from the car so he changes into his running clothes. Ryan’s bedroom door is closed, and Daniel doesn’t hear any signs that he’s awake, so Daniel doesn’t feel bad for going for a run. He does leave a note saying where he’s gone in case Ryan wakes up and is alarmed to find either his houseguest or his keys missing.
When Daniel comes back from his run there are still no signs that Ryan’s awake so Daniel takes him time in the shower. It’s more difficult to luxuriate in the shower than in a bath, but Daniel makes do, lathering up with the soap from his toiletry bag until he smells like sandalwood rather than sweat.
His cock, half-hard since he woke up this morning, takes interest in in the smooth slide of skin against skin as he washes his calves and then his thighs. His scene with Ryan ended last night. Daniel’s body is fully his again. If he wanted to knock out a quick one, or even take his time, he could.
He doesn’t want to, though.
Either he and Ryan will do something before Daniel leaves this morning or he’s going to go home and think about last night. In either case, it’s too early for anything.
He finishes his shower and changes into the pajamas from his overnight bag for lack of anything else better to wear. Then he goes to make breakfast.
It figures that it’s the brewing coffee that finally lures Ryan from his room.
He stumbles into the kitchen, covering a yawn with one hand and scratching his belly with the other. His hair is sleep tousled and his cheeks are pink from being under all his blankets. Daniel has a hard time reconciling this image with the man that put Daniel on his knees last night.
“Breakfast?” Ryan asks, coming over to peer over Daniel’s shoulder. “What’s wrong with the eggs?”
“I took out the yolks,” Daniel says. “Healthier for you that way.”
He moves the eggs to one unused burner to cool and Ryan takes that as his cue to wrap an arm around Daniel’s waist and pulls him in for a brief hug. Well, a hug and—
“Did you just sniff my hair?” Daniel asks.
“Did you bring your own shampoo?” Ryan counters.
“It was in my bag.” Daniel leans back into Ryan’s embrace, then adds, “If you want me to smell like you then you need to get better shampoo.”
Ryan’s arm tightens briefly across Daniel’s waist, and Daniel allows himself a brief, triumphant smile.
Tamryn studied English and Creative Writing in school but has been writing since she could first hold a pencil. Recently, she’s turned her focus towards writing erotica. She enjoys writing stories where sex comes first, then feelings, because doing things out of order can be fun.
Tamryn has spent the past few months writing the Daniel and Ryan series with a lovely view of mountains out her window, and she’s now searching for a new mountain range to serve as her backdrop as she begins her next project.
Eric Schuster is a successful guy. He’s part owner of a highly successful tech firm, he has a supportive family and a great group of close friends. But something is missing. Or maybe he’s reacting to his business partner and ex’s wedding news. He knows his former lover is making a big mistake but he also knows it’s time to move on. And hopefully avoid falling for another friend.
Zane Richards is an avid sailor and surfer with a laid-back approach to life. He firmly believes there’s a time and place for everything if you’re willing to take a chance. Like letting his best friend know he’s interested in being much more than friends. Eric has always been half in love with Zane but going from friends to lovers isn’t an easy sell for someone protecting his heart. Eric will have to decide if he’s willing to risk it all by leaning into love.
INCLUDES BONUS CONTENT
Zane refilled my glass and returned it to me with a naughty smirk. “You get kinda corny when you’re tipsy, Schuster. It’s cute.”
“Yeah. You get goofy. Your ears turn red and it makes the freckles on your nose stand out. Then you do that thing with your hair where you swipe your hand through it so many times that it looks like you just rolled out of bed.”
“Uh…okay. That’s embarrassing.” I searched for a reflective surface as I attempted to pat my unruly brown hair into some semblance of order. “I was going for debonair and I got bar mitzvah kid chic,” I grumbled.
Zane leaned forward and gave me an intense look I didn’t understand.
“You don’t have to be anyone but yourself with me, Eric. I like you just the way you are.” He sat back again and cocked his head. “So let’s talk about this stupid engagement party. What’s the dress code?”
“Um… it’s probably dressy casual,” I replied with a furrowed brow. I wanted to back up a sentence or two and analyze his words and dissect the meaning of “I like you just the way you are”.
“The usual oxymoron,” he snarked. “You are going with me, right?”
“Sure. If you want.”
“I want. It’ll save us both the trouble of finding some poor unsuspecting sucker to drag to a fancy shindig.”
“True. Speaking of suckers, don’t you have a date tonight?”
Zane glanced at his watch and then stretched his legs out on the bench so his shoe nudged my thigh. “I’ve got time. Talk to me. What else have you been up to lately? I noticed there’s a new exhibit at the Modern Museum. Have you gone? I think it’s a midcentury retrospective with Motherwell and de Kooning. I know you like the scribbly art and…”
His conversation was easy. The gentrified version of his former surfer dude accent had a lilting quality I could have listened to for hours. I felt myself truly begin to relax and let go of the invisible hold I’d had on my emotions, like a swimmer grasping onto a ledge who finally realizes he can reach the bottom of the pool. Being with someone who knew quirky details about me and accepted them without judgment or reservation was a gift.
I treasured all of my friends, but Zane was special. Our friendship was rooted in geography and history and now time. He wasn’t making a romantic advance when he asked me to attend Nick’s engagement party with him. That was latent wishful thinking on my part. Zane was simply being who he always was. My oldest and best friend.
Lane Hayes is grateful to finally be doing what she loves best. Writing full-time! It’s no secret Lane loves a good romance novel. An avid reader from an early age, she has always been drawn to well-told love story with beautifully written characters. These days she prefers the leading roles to both be men. Lane discovered the M/M genre a few years ago and was instantly hooked. Her debut novel was a 2013 Rainbow Award finalist and subsequent books have received Honorable Mentions, and were winners in the 2016 Rainbow Awards. She loves red wine, chocolate and travel (in no particular order). Lane lives in Southern California with her amazing husband in an almost empty nest.
The Black Sheep and the Rotten Apple is the kind of book that just needed to be written, despite our already tight schedule. The idea first came to us when we watched a documentary about highwaymen, but we promised ourselves to wait. And then we went to Cornwall for a month, and initial plans collapsed. As we walked through the woods, watching the lush nature and the old stone cottages peppered on both sides of a valley where we were staying, the characters and story steadily came to us. Our aim was to write a historical book that provides as much excitement as readers learned to expect from our contemporary romance.
RELEASE DATE: 7th February 2017
If you want to see our inspiration photos for this book, check out the ‘Black Sheep and the Rotten Apple’ Pinterest board:
The Black Sheep and the Rotten Apple is our baby. It’s been a year since we started working on this book, and to celebrate its release, we’re organizing a quiz for readers who follow The Black Sheep and the Rotten Apple blog tour. Answers to all questions will be provided in the blog posts, and we will then randomly pick the lucky winners. You can win:
a signed paperback of The Black Sheep and the Rotten Apple + a selection of Cornish treats (main prize – for one person)
3 ebooks of choice from our backlist + a surprise treat from Cornwall (will go to 3 more people)
For a chance to win, follow the instructions in blog posts and solve the quiz, which will be published on our website on 1st February 2017. Please, send answers to email@example.com with ‘Black Sheep Quiz’ in the subject line of the email.
Winners will be randomly chosen from readers who sent us correct answers by 17th February 2017.
“How does one start a relationship with another man when it is forbidden?”
“One needs to decide that the other man is worth dying for.”
Sir Evan Penhart. Baronet. Highwayman. Scoundrel.
Julian Reece. Writer. Wastrel. Penniless.
No one forces Julian Reece to marry. Not his father, not his brother. No one.
When he is thrust into a carriage heading for London to meet his future bride, his way out comes in the form of an imposing highwayman, riding a horse as black as night. Julian makes a deal with the criminal, but what he doesn’t expect is that despite the title of baronet, the robber turns out to be no gentleman.
Sir Evan Penhart is pushed into crime out of desperation, but the pact with a pretty, young merchant’s son turns out to have disastrous consequences. Not only is Evan left broke, but worse yet, Julian opens up a Pandora’s box of passions that are dark, needy, and too wild to tame. With no way to lock them back in, rash decisions and greedy desire lead to a tide that wrecks everything in its way.
But Julian might actually like all the sinful, carnal passion unleashed on him. How can he admit this though, even to himself, when a taste of the forbidden fruit could have him end up with a noose around his neck? And with highway robbery being a hanging offense and the local constable on their back, Julian could lose Evan before he can decide anything about the nature of his desires.
The sun was high up in the sky by the time the desynchronized orchestra left Julian’s skull. There wasn’t enough space to properly lie down anywhere in the carriage, but he managed to obtain a comfortable position by resting his legs up the wooden wall while his upper body occupied one of the benches. He still felt like the filling of an enormous rattle as the carriage bent in all possible directions on the uneven road leading away from the coast.
Horace didn’t even make an attempt to hold back his disapproval, but after delivering several biting comments and a lengthy speech about duty, he at last leaned against the side of the carriage in the seat across from Julian and closed his eyes. It was difficult to say whether he was truly in need of a nap or if it was Julian’s face that he didn’t wish to look at.
With his headache out of the way yet not quite well enough to read, Julian opened the curtains in hope of amusing himself with the views, but so far, he merely got to see the side of a narrow gully—all dirt and grass.
He couldn’t understand why Father was being so implacable about having his youngest son marry a title. Couldn’t it wait a fortnight so that Julian could finish that new novel he came up with last night? This one could truly be the breakthrough Julian had been waiting for, the one that would make the Reece family known for more than fabric trade.
Inspiration was a moment in time when Julian’s friend Martin emerged from the darkness of an alley behind the tavern. In that very second he had not resembled himself but a man made of bronze, dreamlike and yet of substance, with strong hands that could crush Julian if they wanted. The novel would start with a similar encounter somewhere in the narrow back alleys, just off the Colosseum. Haunted by the ghost of an ancient gladiator, the protagonist would be believed to be slowly descending into madness, when in reality his awareness of the supernatural would become a vehicle for truth.
Julian was not yet certain of the exact message he wished to convey, but the events would be presented from several points of view, through letters written by the protagonist, his friends, and an official of some sort who’d represent the stale world order.
He’d already had several beautifully evocative ideas for metaphors describing the gladiator himself, but they became somewhat blurry after a night of cards and drink.
Oh, if only he could travel to Rome to let the atmosphere of the city soak him all the way to the bone—without a wife fighting for his attention and pulling him away from work because of feminine fancies.
He looked out of the window with growing disdain. Who in their right mind traveled on Sunday, and so early at that? Julian would have much preferred listening to a sermon at church to spending the day in what was effectively a hearse carrying one of the brightest literary talents just waiting to be discovered.
Now that Julian was feeling better, he was upset with himself about not asking for a day’s delay on religious grounds. He’d never been as devout about prayer as he was about his art, but if the Christian faith could postpone his commitment to a woman he never met, he would gladly kneel and pray. And Miss White wasn’t even a woman but a girl of fifteen, quite pretty in the portrait Julian had been shown, and a viscount’s only daughter at that, but surely as hungry for her intended’s attention as the bawdy house wench who’d become sweet on Julian some years ago.
Back then, he still visited Madame Canard’s establishment to do what everyone else did when they visited a school of Venus. These days, Julian had neither the overwhelming desire nor patience to handle a cunt, no matter how lovely the lady it was attached to. He still enjoyed having a drink with the harlots, and no card table within twenty miles was as lively as the one at Madame Canard’s, but at twenty-five he’d much rather handle needs of the flesh in solitude.
Sweet perfume made his nose itch, the act itself made him unpleasantly sticky—with his sweat and hers—and while he would not dare to ask, it was his suspicion that the friends who usually accompanied him to the brothel were only whoring so much because of pride and bravado. It was a sign of status to be able to afford women and decent wine daily, and so fucking and gambling was the thing you did as a social activity.
Julian’s eyes darted to Horace, who slept with his head thrown back and leaning against the side of the carriage. His wide-open mouth was asking for a distasteful prank, but Julian was far too upset to think of amusing himself at Horace’s expense. So far, the day’s joke was on him.
In the years past, he’d been mocked by his father and siblings over not taking on a profession that they deemed worthy of a gentleman, but with the family being very prosperous, Julian saw no reason to divert his focus from his one true calling.
Despite frequent threats, he’d hoped that Father—having four willing sons and three daughters—wouldn’t push Julian into marriage, but it seemed a lost cause. Soon it would be a wife nagging Julian to stop wasting his time following intellectual pursuits and instead turn his attention to practical matters. As the head of his own family, maybe he’d even be pushed to join the family trade, one step farther from traveling abroad to meet the great artists of the continent.
The carriage started a steep climb up a hill, and Julian cursed, pushing the soles of his boots against the wall to keep his body from rolling off the narrow bench. How long would it take for them to reach London at this pace? It was over two hundred miles away, so a week perhaps? The last time Julian had made the journey, he was so intoxicated most days that he couldn’t properly count them.
But out of nowhere, as the slope of the hill became gentler, the ugly dirt and grass that had been Julian’s only source of entertainment for the last half an hour were replaced by lush greenery of tree tops. He grinned and glanced at Horace, but the fat sod was too busy snoring to notice the change in scenery.
A wicked plan was starting to take shape in Julian’s head, and he quietly removed his feet from the side of the carriage and lowered them to the floor. Pulling himself upright was easy enough after that, and he stalled, eyes transfixed on the permanently flushed face of his brother that was an unappetizing contrast with the white wig he wore, and made him look like a man many years his senior. Julian might be less inclined to business, less sedate than his siblings, but at the very least he had good taste and flair most of Julian’s family lacked, buried deep in the stern world of pretense and money.
Horace didn’t even stir. The old pig was fast asleep, and if that wasn’t Julian’s chance to save his life, he didn’t know what was. Careful not to make any sound, Julian gathered his valise and the coat he’d earlier taken off because of the heat, stilling when the carriage came to a halt. His eyes immediately darted to Horace, but his brother only smacked his lips in his sleep. Hunt could have stopped to relieve himself. What an opportunity this was!
Julian could feel his heartbeat in his throat when he softly pressed on the door handle. Still distinctly aware of his brother being close enough for their knees to touch, were Julian not careful enough. He opened the carriage and left it in a soft stride before closing the door with care.
A warm breeze combed through his hair, wiping away the unpleasant wetness of sweat, and his lungs filled with fresh air, but he didn’t get to enjoy it.
The shining muzzle of a pistol was grinning at him from inches away.
Despite the warm weather, Julian’s whole body was shaken by a chill when his gaze met a pair of eyes so dark they might as well have been lacquered coals. The man had a tricorn hat pulled low over his forehead, and a black scarf obscuring the lower half of his face.
This can’t be happening.
“Don’t try to scream, or I will blow your brains out.” The man squinted and lowered his gun to Julian’s pupil. “Through the eye.”
Julian opened his mouth as his throat closed, robbing him of breath. He wanted to look back, suddenly wishing Horace weren’t such an easy sleeper, but Hunt was nowhere to be seen either. Heat washed over Julian’s body, making him stiffen as if he were made of clay. Had this man hurt their coachman? If so, where was the body?
“What do you want?” Julian whispered, resting his hand on the door handle when his knees softened.
“These.” A hand in a leather glove gripped Julian’s sweaty fingers and slipped off his rings. “And all your other valuables.” The man didn’t even blink, his voice dark as if dragged through tar.
Julian stared, and his mind finally came up with the answer for what this was. “You’re a highwayman…”
“And you’re cork-brained to travel on a Sunday when the roads are empty.” The man’s gaze drifted away to Horace for a split second, but he must have judged him as no threat, and when Horace snored from inside the carriage, the highwayman chuckled quietly.
Julian’s lungs emptied, and a silly grin emerged on his face, encouraged by the highwayman’s amusement. “Ah, I should have gone to church after all.”
The smile died on his lips when the robber poked Julian’s temple with his gun.
“Your valuables,” he urged.
Julian clenched his teeth when they threatened to clatter. He needed to keep calm. His father believed his friends to be villains, so he could handle one. “I’ve been taken out of the tavern this morning with nothing but the clothes on my back. I lost everything at the tables. You should try my older brother. He’s Father’s heir. He should have a healthy sum on him.”
The highwayman gripped the front of Julian’s waistcoat and pulled him forward so hard Julian stumbled straight into the man’s arms. He was much taller than Julian, with wide shoulders that were so strong their size couldn’t be just padding. His clothes smelled of leather and horse sweat, and Julian found himself staring into the eyes above the black scarf.
Before he could say a word, the man turned him around, and pressed the gun to the side of his head.
“Go on, wake up your brother.”
Julian breathed in and out, stiff with discomfort at the warm body pressed against his back as if the highwayman was seeking warmth. The gun provided some relief against heated skin. Its presence made Julian’s blood speed through his veins. It wouldn’t go off. Murder wasn’t in the robber’s interest, but if that was the case, then where the hell was Hunt?
Then an idea illuminated Julian’s mind. “I have a proposition, Mister—”
The highwayman stilled. He’d be lying. Of course. “Noir,” he said in the end. “What kind of proposition can you have, pretty boy? With no money in your pockets.”
Something about Noir’s tone sent a hot shiver through Julian’s ribcage, but he ignored the condescending words and slowly looked back into the blackest eyes he’d ever seen. “I don’t have much on me, but you must know my father. He’s William Reece, the cloth merchant. You could take me and ask for ransom. We could split it between us like two gentlemen,” he whispered and gave Noir a polite nod. Appealing to the highwayman’s self-importance should do the trick. His kind were known for a love of opulence and status they didn’t deserve.
He must have managed to surprise the thief, because Noir’s grip on him faltered. “How much could I ask for a son who hates his father?”
Julian exhaled in relief when he felt Noir’s aggression turn away from him. “A lot. He needs me. I’m worth more than you can imagine,” he said with a small smile.
Noir stole another glance at Horace sleeping in the back of the carriage, and his gloved hand slid to Julian’s neck, squeezing around his nape in a way that had Julian rising to his toes. “You better be. You scream, or try to run, and I will kill you.”
Julian swallowed against the warm, soft leather. It felt surprisingly expensive. Might have been snatched from a gentleman. “I don’t doubt that,” he lied. “However, we share a common goal, friend.”
“Call me ‘friend’ once this is all over.” Noir shook his head and pushed Julian behind the carriage, where a gloriously jet-black stallion awaited its rider, and watched Julian with eyes as dark as Noir’s.
“I hope you haven’t hurt our driver. He’s a good fellow,” said Julian, smiling at the huge beast in front of him.
“He’ll live. Your brother will find him once he wakes up.”
Julian was sure there had to be a hint of a smile under that black scarf. When Noir put the gun inside his coat, Julian tried to assess the man more thoroughly.
The black leather riding coat was worn but of good quality. Could have been stolen too, but the clothes underneath, as black as everything the man wore, were clean, suggesting the highwayman wasn’t sleeping rough somewhere. Unless he dressed up for robbery.
Julian opened his mouth to comment on the beauty of the horse, but Noir spun Julian around and pulled back his hands.
“Good heavens. We’re partners,” Julian whispered with distaste. Hot and cold sweats were hitting him in rapid waves, and he couldn’t tell whether he was scared or excited about this new development. Once he got out of this, he could write a novel about the peril of travellers attacked by rogues while driving through a dark, rainy forest, and with a bit of poetic license, call it a true story.
“I haven’t decided on that yet,” said Noir, and a cold shiver went down Julian’s back at the proficiency with which the man tied his hands. A former sailor perhaps? That wouldn’t bode well, as those types rarely possessed the intellectual capability for complicated schemes. His speech was also far too refined to have been only recently acquired. Damnation!
“Mr. Noir. I’d much rather ride with my hands free. You see, I’ve been incapacitated by gin just this morning, and I don’t feel secure enough without my hands to assist me yet. I assure you, I am harmless.”
Once Noir had tied Julian’s hands, he turned him around. “Now you are. Up.” And just as Julian was wondering how exactly he was supposed to climb atop the tall beast, the scoundrel grabbed his legs and picked him up. Julian barely refrained from screaming. It was no way to handle a gentleman, and yet he couldn’t help but be amazed by Noir’s physical prowess.
Definitely a sailor. A naval officer, perhaps.
Julian’s face flushed with heat when he imagined his bottom sticking out like a whore’s ass at a party. Good grief, what had he gotten himself into? What was next? Being kidnapped by pirates?
His foot found the stirrup, and he exhaled with relief, pushing his other leg over the horse’s hindquarters until he straddled its back. “I see no reason for this kind of treatment, considering it was I who came up with a most lucrative opportunity for you.”
“Keep that up, and I will gag you.” Noir was quick to get on the horse himself as soon as he’d attached Julian’s coat and valise to the saddle. Julian felt completely overwhelmed when the man reached for the reins, all but embracing him.
Julian shuddered and curled his shoulders to not be in the way, though no matter what he did, the shape of the saddle brought them close together. “You’re a scoundrel. Another man in your profession would have treated me right.”
Noir laughed darkly. “You are correct, sir. How could I have forgotten.” Even though the mockery had him exaggerate the polite accent, Julian was becoming certain that Noir’s natural speech was not that of someone uneducated.
Before Julian understood what was happening, Noir pulled a burlap sack over his head.
“I will scream,” whispered Julian, staring through the dots of light in the smelly thing. He squeezed his hands into fists and pushed them hard against Noir’s stomach. His mind was rattling again, as if the drunkenness returned with full force.
“No one will hear you where we’re going.”
“Julian?” came a sleepy voice from the carriage.
Noir’s thighs tensed, and he must have urged his mount to rush, as it went almost straight into gallop.
Julian screamed at the top of his lungs. “Horace!”
The stallion flew forward, and without the aid of his hands, Julian was forced to hang on to it with his legs alone, shaken like a rattle. The rapid gait moved him back and forth over the front of the saddle, making Julian stiffen and push back against the firm chest behind him. Without seeing where they were going, Julian tried to hold on to anything he had on hand, and as it happened, it was probably Noir’s waistcoat. If the horse tripped, at least they would stumble and break their bones together. Or maybe the villain would cushion Julian’s fall in a well-meaning act of God.
It was Sunday.
Meet the Author
K. A. Merikan is the pen name for Kat and Agnes Merikan, a team of writers, who are mistaken for sisters with surprising regularity. Kat’s the mean sergeant and survival specialist of the duo, never hesitating to kick Agnes’s ass when she’s slacking off. Her memory works like an easy-access catalogue, which allows her to keep up with both book details and social media. Also works as the emergency GPS. Agnes is the Merikan nitpicker, usually found busy with formatting and research. Her attention tends to be scattered, and despite being over thirty, she needs to apply makeup to buy alcohol. Self-proclaimed queen of the roads.
They love the weird and wonderful, stepping out of the box, and bending stereotypes both in life and books. When you pick up a Merikan book, there’s one thing you can be sure of – it will be full of surprises.
The long-suffering crew of the Prayer have found a home. They’ve got a harvest. Now it’s time for a holiday. But while the captain was looking forward to a day spent lying on his back, he’d wanted it to be as a result of a prolonged food-and-sex coma, not arthritis…
His hands trembling with anticipation, Thomas held the warm brown loaf up to his face and breathed in, sighing as the smell of real bread made with real flour flooded his nostrils.
It’s slightly burnt on the underside, said Echo, who stood by the oven, watching his reaction closely. Do you want a knife?
Shaking his head, Thomas set the loaf down and tore off a chunk from the corner, shivering at the sound of the crust cracking open. He stuffed it into his mouth and waited a second before he started to chew. As the warmth and flavour spread over his tongue, he made the sort of noise he generally reserved for when Khurshed hit his prostate dead-on. Bread had been one of the many, many things he’d taken for granted back on Earth, only eating it when it was so loaded down with strawberry jam and peanut butter he didn’t even notice its taste or texture. What a spoiled idiot he’d been.
So? asked Echo.
Swallowing and smacking his lips, he said, “I’m starting a new religion. We’re all going to worship this bread now.”
Echo blushed, bowed, and allowed Thomas to kiss his forehead. It was a shade browner than it had been the last time Thomas’s lips had touched it; finally, after almost a year living on Yusra’s surface, Echo’s milk-white skin was beginning to tan.
“Where’d you learn to make something like that, huh? Did you go to a fancy cooking school?”
I wanted to when I was a teenager. The only culinary academy on the Moon was expensive, though. I learnt to bake while I was working as a waiter in a pastry café; the manager let me experiment in the kitchen after-hours.
“You’re so talented, babe. And cute. And smart. And nice.”
No, you can’t have the whole loaf to yourself. It’s our first, and I promised everyone a slice.
Thomas mewled disappointedly as Echo took it back and set it down on the tray before adding, I’m making more loaves for Thanksgiving. You can gorge yourself then.
“We aren’t celebrating Thanksgiving,” Antoine huffed, striding into the kitchen. “Our first official holiday on this planet is not going to honour that tasteless American celebration of colonialism, gastronomic excess, and wanton cruelty to animals.”
As he spoke, he washed his dirt-covered hands in the sink and then poured himself a glass of water. He was wearing a grimy shirt and shorts that exposed his legs and knobby knees to the world, so he’d probably spent the morning foraging for specimens or visiting the nearby ruins again. His legs were building up some decent calf muscles, Thomas noted, and his biceps were getting more defined from all the time he spent lugging his equipment around. He still wasn’t Thomas’s type―pretty face or not, men that skinny just didn’t do it for him―but Thomas was sure Zachery and Khurshed appreciated it.
Thomas shrugged. “It makes sense, Ant. We’re celebrating food.”
Specifically, they were celebrating Rick’s successful harvest and the resultant fact that bread was making its long-awaited re-entry into their diets.
“There are plenty of harvest-related holidays that aren’t as thoroughly appalling as Thanksgiving,” Antoine said, his nostrils twitching as Echo passed him the still-warm loaf. He picked up a knife and cut himself a dainty slice. “The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, the Slavic Saviour of the Apple Feast Day, the Igbo New Yam Festival…”
He paused to take a bite, and then another. “The… That other one… Dear God, Echo, this amazing.”
I still think celebrating Halloween would be fun, said Echo, after prying the loaf from Antoine’s grasp before he could devour it whole. Everyone likes costumes and ghost stories. And it’s also historically related to the harvest, so it’s appropriate.
“Echo, you just want an opportunity to use your morbid cookie cutter collection again. I’ve ingested enough decapitated gingerbread men for one lifetime, thank you. Besides, you know as well as I do that our captain would take it as an excuse to wear that lewd pirate costume of his, which would hardly be appropriate for a social gathering.”
Nodding, Thomas added, “Yeah, plus Rick and Zachery would both want to be the pirate queen, and we’ve only got one skirt.”
“Debates about the name of our celebration aside, how are preparations going?” Antoine asked, leaning on the table. “I know Mehtab and Khali are festooning the mess hall with hideous decorations.”
“I’m helping Echo with the cooking, Zachery’s handling the music, and Rick said he was organizing ‘entertainment’.”
“You don’t know that. It could be dodgeball. Or card games.”
“It’s weed, Thomas.”
The entertainer himself barrelled into the kitchen, almost knocking Antoine over. “Oops! Sorry. Hey, guys, guess what I found to make our Thanksgiving complete?”
In response to their blank stares, Rick showed them what he’d been hiding behind his back. “A turkey!”
“Gobble,” said Rux solemnly.
“Oh good grief,” Antoine muttered as Thomas snickered into his hand.
“Rick, you’re fucking twisted.”
“I am pleased and honoured to have been invited to participate in your festivities,” said the enormous green bird, fluffing out its feathers. “Rick told me this form would be most appropriate.”
Looking thoughtful, Echo signed, I don’t have a big enough pot.
Long ago, the Gods came back to earth and banished all science from Earth. When Prome finds an amulet in the ruins of an ancient city, he doesn’t expect it to take him and his friend Malia on a quest to discover the long forgotten secret of the Technologists, to meet someone who awakens feelings of love in him, nor to defy the Gods themselves.
I’m crouching behind the wall of a half-collapsed building. I usually don’t taunt the Fates like this, but my hiding place seems safer than the arrows of my pursuers.
I hear footsteps outside. I take a peek, just long enough to see a dozen hoplites marching down the street, their bows at the ready. They’re scanning, surrounding, searching. As they come nearer, my heart beats faster. I flatten myself on the ground. If I could sink into it, I would, but the only thing sinking is a painfully sharp stone into my ribs.
The Goddess Tyche has blessed me with her luck: I hear them move away at a brisk pace.
When I’m sure they’re far enough away, I sit, propping myself against the wall in a more comfortable position. I massage my ribs to ease the pain. Only then do I muster the courage to look at my leg. It’s still shuddering from the electric arrow, but luckily, the arrow missed, only grazing the flesh. Had the arrow really hit me, I would already be dead. I know how it works. I’ve seen it before.
A few years ago, during a search, a Technologist hiding in our village tried to run away. The hoplite shot him in the arm. The man jerked but kept running. He snatched the arrow out of his limp arm. The hoplite then shot several arrows as fast as he could without even aiming. The arrows flew, veering toward the Technologist midflight. None missed.
Though the arrow missed me, it still hurts like hell, from both the wound and the aftereffects of the jolt. I take off my neckerchief and improvise a bandage to stop the bleeding.
Why did the legion attack me? Scavenging in the old city isn’t forbidden.
I used to come here as a child and climb inside the deserted skyscrapers, looking for objects to trade on the market. Today, I’ve found some kind of amulet. It’s a small, flat, metallic rectangle with geometric signs on it. It’s probably not worth a bowl of soup, but it looks nice. I’ve put a leather string through a small hole and kept it around my neck to offer to Malia. She’ll like it.
I look at the sky. The sun is already halfway down the horizon. I have to move if I want to make it home before nightfall. My leg doesn’t feel much better. I take a tentative step and wince at the pain. I won’t be able to run, but I can walk.
Walking back should usually take me a couple of hours, but not today. I have to move carefully between the buildings, hiding at suspect sounds, checking for movement in every direction before crossing a road. Two hours walking only brings me to the outskirts of what used to be a great city. Here, the last remnants of houses are swallowed by the first trees of the forest.
“Fuck!” My outburst sends a few scared birds flying away. It has taken me far too long. The sun is already sinking behind the highest ruins. Now I really have to hurry, despite my leg.
I scrutinize the nearby trees. I don’t see anything moving. I walk to them and find a broken bough to use as a crutch. I come back swiftly to the safety of the road.
During the day, traveling on the road is usually safe enough. But the forest… Only parties of adults enter it. Sometimes, one goes in alone. And sometimes, they don’t come back.
During the night, forest or road, no one goes out. Too many things lurk in the dark.
Alec Nortan is a French social services worker. Though he learned English at school, he chooses this language to write in. His works are gay-related fictions, varying from young adult, science fiction or fantasy adventure, to romance.
Cillian Kelly can look into people’s eyes and see their fates. He’s running from a past filled with mistakes, lying low and selling his services on the sly. When he learns that Sören Egilsson, a man who sacrificed himself so Cillian could escape imprisonment two years ago, is somehow still alive, Cillian has to find out how. What he gets is the body of the man he loves possessed by an ancient spirit who draws Cillian into a battle to the death for the right to control Sören’s fate, and the power that comes with it.
My phone buzzed, interrupting my musing. I frowned as I pulled it out of my jacket pocket. Only a dozen people had this number, and I wasn’t expecting to talk to any of them any time soon. I unlocked it and looked at my new message.
Move ten paces to the right.
My feet were moving even before my brain caught up, obedience was so instinctual. Two seconds later, I was out of the mouth of the alley, and three seconds after that, a beat-up silver sedan coming down the road was clipped by a delivery van and veered straight into the corner of the building. It wasn’t moving fast, thankfully, but the crash was plenty loud, especially since I was just a few feet away from the point of impact.
A memory flashed through my mind, one of my personal rare and painful gems. I was in the backseat of an old Lincoln, and I was very small. My feet wouldn’t have touched the floor even if I hadn’t had my knees squished to my chest, and my face was pressed to the knobby joints so hard they were leaving red blotches on my cheeks. The man driving was on a phone—an old-school cell phone, clunky in his hand, distracting. He wasn’t paying attention, but I knew the moment before the car was hit and covered my head with my hands, so when I went flying into the door, it didn’t hurt as much. Metal crunched, and bright spots flashed across the darkness behind my eyelids as the car spun and spun…
I shook my head and took a deep breath, focusing on the present. The van hadn’t stopped, but I didn’t bother trying to catch its license plate number―there were plenty of people exclaiming and getting on their phones. I headed over to the driver’s side and opened the door, but didn’t reach in to touch the woman who had been driving. She was moving under her own power, picking her head up off the remains of her airbag and whimpering softly. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god…”
“It’s all right,” I said gently. I might not be a martyr, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t feel compassion for another person, especially one who’d just been thrown into a wall. “You’re okay. Just a little accident. There’s an ambulance coming to help you.” I could already hear it in the distance. We were only a few blocks from a major hospital. “Can you look at me for a moment?” She blearily turned, and as soon as our eyes met, I sighed and backed out of the way. One of the employees at the auto-painting store took my place, and a second later—bam. The fucking Ace of Cups moment. Who found true love as a result of a car accident? This wasn’t exactly the heartwarming scene I’d envisioned getting me through the day earlier.
“Are you all right?” the newcomer asked frantically. “What’s your name? I’m Felix. I’m gonna stay with you until the ambulance gets here, okay? Oh Jesus, are you all right?”
“I’m…I think so?” the woman said, her voice gaining a little bit of strength. “I’m Paula.”
“Paula, hey.” He smiled at her, and she smiled back. I rolled my eyes. “Nice to meet you.”
For fuck’s sake. Well, at least the settlement from the trucking company would give them a nice nest egg to get their new place together. I turned away and walked to the end of the block before getting out my phone again and making a call.
She picked up on the second ring. “Hi, baby.”
“What, you can see me getting smeared across a wall, but you don’t bother to let me know about having a gun pulled on me?”
“Cillian.” My mother sounded half apologetic, half resigned. “You know it doesn’t work like that.”
Yes, fine, I did know that, but I didn’t feel like being reasonable right now. “So you didn’t see that this morning, then?”
“Did you need me to see it?”
I wasn’t about to go down the self-sufficiency road with her. It meant a surefire argument, and I was still buzzing with adrenalin from being so close to the car crash.
Captain Matt Spears learns this the hard way after a mysterious employer hires his ship to hunt down an ancient alien artifact but insists on providing his own pilot. Ryce Faine is handsome and smart, but Matt has rarely met anyone more obnoxious. With tensions running high, it isn’t until they are attacked by the hostile Alraki that Matt grudgingly begins to respect Ryce’s superior skills, respect that transforms into a tentative attraction.
Little did he know that their biggest challenge would be reaching their destination, an abandoned alien base located on a distant moon amid a dense asteroid field. But when Matt learns that Ryce isn’t completely who he says he is and the artifact is more than he bargained for, he is faced with a difficult choice. One that might change the balance of forces in the known galaxy.
Matt doesn’t take well to moral dilemmas; he prefers the easy way out. But that might not be possible anymore, when his past comes back to haunt him at the worst possible moment. When faced with a notorious pirate carrying a personal grudge, the fragile connection Matt has formed with Ryce might be the only thing that he can count on to save them both.
The low hum of music and the loud voices threatened to swallow his response. The Blue Giant was like any other canteen on any other small-time maintenance space station, offering cheap drinks and free talk, catering to drifters, smugglers, freelance pilots, and the dregs of every known society. The strong smell of synthetic spirits enveloped the crowded room in an almost tangible cloud. It really wasn’t the best location for conducting business, even over interstellar communications channels, but one could stand being cooped up in a spaceship for only so long.
Matt ignored the noise best he could as he squinted at the commlink screen. This wasn’t a regular type of job, but then again, freelancers didn’t exactly have regular jobs. As it was, this one promised to be very well paying. His potential client had introduced himself as Mr. Ari, though Matt suspected it wasn’t his real name. They usually weren’t. At the moment, he was more concerned with Mr. Ari’s terms and conditions than with his identity, fake or otherwise.
“This is nonnegotiable,” Ari said firmly. There was no image on-screen, just his computer-altered voice in the earpiece. “I require that my own pilot navigate your ship to destination. He’s the only one who will know the exact route and the details of the mission. I’m merely hiring your ship to transport my man and provide him with assistance.”
“It’s my ship and I’m the only one flying her,” Matt said indignantly. “No way I’ll just let some stranger take over. Now, a passenger, that’s another matter. I’ve nothing against passengers, so long as they’re nice and quiet.” And good-looking, but he wasn’t about to say that to the client’s face, or to the lack thereof, as the case was. But another pilot? This was ridiculous. If the only thing this guy needed was a ship, there were much simpler alternatives than hiring Matt’s services.
“As I’ve said before, Captain, this job requires subtlety and a very specific set of skills,” Ari said. Even with the distortion, he somehow managed to make “Captain” sound like an insult. “Which, with all due respect, I doubt you possess. This is a salvage mission, and the location must remain a secret until you get there. To put it simply, you sit back, let my man do the job, get back safely, and collect the cash—as long as you keep your mouth firmly shut about any of this. I’ve been told that your ship is fast and well equipped, and that you are discreet. I’d hate to think that I’ve been misinformed.”
Matt took a long sip of his beer to stall for time. The beer had a distinct sour artificial aftertaste, but at least it was cold. “What kind of salvage?”
“An abandoned alien site. I’m afraid I can’t divulge further information at this point, other than it would require a jump to another sector.”
“Huh,” Matt grunted. The guy was definitely too well-spoken to be a scavenger; on the other hand, off-world archaeological salvage (if that was indeed Ari’s intent) was usually done for strictly academic purposes and required government permits. Any other form of salvage, whether human or alien, was considered theft and was absolutely illegal. That and some other guy had to fly his ship? There was no way in hell he’d agree to that. This Mr. Ari could either fuck off or pay him way more than he was offering. “Well, you make it sound very tempting and all, but still. A pilot has his pride, you know. No one takes my seat, twenty thousand Fed-creds or no.”
“Name your price,” Ari said tersely.
“One hundred thousand,” Matt said, testing the waters.
“Done,” Ari said with a finality that left Matt a little dizzy. He was sure Ari would balk at the asking price. He wondered belatedly whether he could have gotten away with being even bolder. “My pilot will meet you at Dock G5 in two hours. You’ll get twenty percent of your fee now, and the rest when the job is done.”
“Agreed,” Matt said. How did this guy know exactly where his ship was? Shit, he could hardly back down on the offer now. “I’ll send you the account number.”
“Now, Mr. Spears, I must stress again how delicate this assignment is.”
“Of course,” Matt said. Really, this was tedious. Every client thought they were the only one in the galaxy who had dirty secrets. He wouldn’t have been in this line of work for as long as he had if he couldn’t keep his mouth shut and his eyes averted.
“You might encounter…competition,” Ari said. “While this is unlikely to happen, there is a chance that other parties might try to intercept you.”
“What do you mean, ‘intercept’?” Matt asked suspiciously. “Just to make it clear—I’m a runner, not a mercenary. If it’s something dangerous—”
“The reason I’m not willing to be more specific is precisely because I don’t want any information to leak out and pose a threat to your mission,” Ari said, sounding a bit too vague for Matt’s comfort. “However, you should be on alert, and report any incidents to my agent.”
Now he wanted him to report to the guy? Matt was utterly and completely done with reporting to anybody for the rest of his life. He was more than capable of handling any situation, and he wasn’t about to play the chain-of-command game with his client’s representative. However, he kept it prudently to himself. You didn’t sass somebody who was willing to shell out all those credits.
“Got it,” he said dryly. “I’ll be on alert. Anything else?”
“You may discuss further details with my man, and he’ll be handling all future communications. Good luck, Captain.”
“My pleasure,” Matt said. He disconnected the call and sagged back into his chair, pushing away the beer. He had a very, very bad feeling.
A voracious reader from the age of five, Isabelle Adler has always dreamed of one day putting her own stories into writing. She loves traveling, art, and science, and finds inspiration in all of these. Her favorite genres include sci-fi, fantasy, and historical adventure. She also firmly believes in the unlimited powers of imagination and caffeine.
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