The Montgomery Arrangement by Lori Fayre Book 3 in the Unexpected Mergers series General Release Date: 24th January 2023 Word Count: 50,086 Book Length: NOVEL Pages: 190 Genres: BILLIONAIRE CONTEMPORARY EROTIC ROMANCE FRIENDS TO LOVERS …
Sanctuary for a Surgeon by Jason Wrench Book 3 in the Up on the Farm series General Release Date: 24th January 2023 Word Count: 74,845 Book Length: SUPER NOVEL Pages: 284 Genres: CONTEMPORARY EROTIC ROMANCE GAY …
Title: Off the Record Author: Kelly Rand Publisher: NineStar Press Release Date: 01/24/2023 Heat Level: 3 – Some Sex Pairing: Male/Male Length: 62100 Genre: Contemporary, Canada, journalist, film director/actor, artists, famous people, power imbalance, coming …
He dominates the charts, but can he dominate her heart?
Pop-rock singer Tamsin Keller likes to dominate, but when she breaks up with her cheating ex-boyfriend, she visits BDSM club Dante’s for another reason—to submit.
Her experience is heightened when she locks eyes with a mysterious stranger, who turns out to be rock star and Dominant Aspen LaRoche. Fascinated by Tamsin, he invites her to his holiday home for the weekend and Tamsin accepts, hoping to discover more about her submissive side.
Aspen proves to be an expert tutor, and Tamsin finds herself addicted to the pleasures he shows her. When Aspen also discovers she is a singer, he offers her band an audition with his recording company, and Tamsin jumps at the chance, knowing he can provide opportunities that she has never had before.
But when Tamsin’s jealous ex reappears in her life, will Tamsin’s career and happiness be over, or will this be the start of something for both her and Aspen?
Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of stalking and harrassment, as well as infidelity.
She could hear the phone ringing from the bedroom, hear its shrill call as she stripped off her daywear. Skirt—on the floor. T-shirt—thrown over the back of a chair. Socks—slung under the bed.
Click. The answering machine had kicked in.
“Tamsin. Look, I know you’re there. Pick up.”
Him. She yanked a drawer open, pulled out the components of her outfit, her movements jerky and uncontrolled.
“Look, baby, I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I know you’re angry, I know I’ve hurt you, but please, just talk to me. Tell me what to do to make it right.”
Stockings—on. Suspenders—attached. Her fingers were shaking, and she cursed herself. So stupid. So fucking stupid.
“I swear I don’t love her. I was just saying that. I didn’t mean it. She’s nothing compared to you.”
The ache in her chest made her want to scream. Want to punish him for doing this to her, want to punish herself for letting him. Should have known better. Fucking idiot.
“I’ve broken it off with her. I’ll never see her again.”
Now fully dressed, she pushed her feet into six-inch-heeled black sandals and made her way hastily downstairs, picking up the long coat that hung over the banister. She buttoned it up all the way as she crossed the hall to where her handbag lay by the front door.
“Please, just talk to me. Please.”
Fuck you, you cheating bastard.
Tamsin Keller directed one vicious scowl at the machine, its light flashing with untouched messages, before leaving, slamming the door behind her.
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.
Ricky Morris, ex-cop turned private investigator for the elite Manhattanites of New York’s Upper East Side, came close to ending up on the slab when the St. Valentine’s Day murderer had him staring point-blank down the barrel of their gun.
Thankfully, NYPD officer Timothy Ward was there to save his neck and bring the murderer down. While Ricky and Timothy proved they could work well together in the shadows, their undeniable and dangerous passion for each other is leading to a forbidden relationship—the kind that Ricky promised himself he would never get tangled up in again.
Breaking it off with Timothy is hard to do though, and Ricky finds himself needing his help once again in a new case. The most famous burlesque dancer in Manhattan, Ms. Faye Fontaine—the Parisian Princess—has been receiving letters from a secret admirer…increasingly sinister letters, and Ricky knows all too well how these things play out.
Will Ricky and Timothy be able to work together and find out whose obsession has become deadly, or will the rampant heat of their forbidden feelings bring them down in flames before they can save the girl?
Reader advisory: This book contains period-typical attitudes, including slurs, and toward casual sex (no condoms m/m). There is on-page gunplay, and slow-burn MCs over course of series.
“Where on earth are you taking us, Ricky?”
“Have a bit of faith. I know exactly where I’m going.”
Timothy gave him a skeptical look from the passenger seat of Ricky’s Starlight Coupe. “Are you even allowed to drive down here? Isn’t this private property?”
“I know the fella that owns the building. He’s down in Tampa, enjoying the sun while he waits for the city to get the demolition papers in order for this old shoe factory. Nobody will even know we’re here.”
Ricky drove them through the abandoned parking lot behind the massive, derelict four-story building down by the Williamsburg Bridge in the Lower East Side. The place, Orson’s shoe factory, was right on the East River, facing the waterfront. While the dockyards up the river a ways were bustling with freight ships and hollering longshoremen working the graveyard shift, down here was eerily quiet and empty.
Ricky snuck the automobile through rusty shipping containers at the back of the factory’s parking lot and drove the Starlight down a narrow gravel path that brought them to a small clearing above the shoreline of the river, which was about fifty yards out from them. The water was at its highest, save for when storms blew angry breakers in off the Atlantic, but now the weather was calm, and the sky and water were perfectly clear. The heavy full moon hung low in the sky, beginning its nightly journey across the sky, and Ricky put the car in park and smiled, pleased with himself.
“Not too shabby, huh?”
“Holy moley.” Timothy gasped. He leaned forward in his seat to take in the view. Across the river, the Brooklyn skyline spread out in front of them, lit up with the hundreds of tiny twinkling lights of thriving New Yorkers. The occasional freightliner drifted upriver, making its way to the docks, but the water was nearly calm elsewise, reflecting the city lights like sparkling diamonds floating in the water.
This place was a cute little spot, if one didn’t mind the crumbling eyesore of a building behind them.
“This view is stunning,” Timothy whispered.
Ricky killed the engine and turned to Timothy so he could admire the view he had right here in his own car.
Timothy was neatly dressed in his usual navy-blue winter coat, but his mustard-yellow scarf and mittens were sitting beside him on the seat, thanks to the Starlight’s heaters. March was just ringing in, but the city was still cold and dreary.
In like a lion, out like a lamb. That was the old saying, and Timothy was a sweet little lamb himself. His short brown hair was trimmed and parted neatly on the right side, showing off the delicate, slender features of his face. His straight nose and high cheekbones, clean shaven cheeks and supple pink lips… Ricky admired them all, but perhaps not as much as Timothy’s bright green eyes, which were twinkling with the city lights spread out before them. There was just that refreshing boyish charm that radiated from Timothy that drew Ricky right to him like a moth to a flame, or perhaps a hungry wolf to an innocent doe.
Timothy finally glanced over and caught Ricky staring, so Ricky gave him a wicked grin.
“Yeah, the view’s pretty nifty,” he agreed.
Timothy laughed, shaking his head. He looked back out of the window, but Ricky caught the smile still on his face.
“You are certainly full of surprises,” Timothy said.
“Well, how about another one.” Ricky reached inside the front of his jacket and pulled out a flask from his pocket. “Care for a drink?”
“Do you carry that everywhere?” Timothy asked, chuckling.
“It’s tempting, but no. I just planned ahead for this little nightcap.” Ricky unscrewed the top and handed it to Timothy. “Have a sip, in honor of a lovely night.”
Ricky had been looking forward to getting Timothy out for a night alone, ever since the last time Timothy had visited his office. Earlier in the evening, Ricky had picked Timothy up at his apartment after his shift at the precinct and taken him downtown to a diner beside Washington Square Park to get some hamburgers and coffee. The grub had been decent, tasty and great for only a buck-fifty, but Ricky had been looking forward to this part of the evening, when there weren’t any prying eyes and he could get Timothy out of that timid shell of his.
“What is it?” Timothy asked, taking the flask.
“Just some gin. It’s good for the stomach. Give it a try.”
Timothy took a sip, careful but not stingy. He had a harder time swallowing it, his face pulling into a disgusted look for a second before he managed the burn of the liquor and took a deep breath.
“Was it really that bad?” Ricky asked, trying to keep a smile off his face.
“Actually, now that it’s down, it wasn’t the worst.”
Ricky laughed despite himself and took the flask back from Timothy.
“You know, I was wondering if you really were gonna call me,” Timothy said as Ricky took his own sip.
“Well, after what happened a few weeks ago…” Timothy left it at that, but Ricky read him loud and clear. To say that the circumstances in which Ricky and Timothy had met had been less than ideal was doing the whole crazy situation an injustice.
Timothy Ward had strolled into Ricky’s Upper East Side apartment-turned-office seeking his skills as a private eye a few days before Valentine’s Day, worried that his brother, James Ward, Deputy Chief of the Manhattan North Detective Bureau and Ricky’s old partner, was responsible for the recent string of murders hitting young, single women working for the massive chocolate factory, Darling Confectionaries.
Ricky had been far more interested in digging up the perfect piece of dirt on James than helping Timothy find who was behind the boxes of poisoned Valentine’s chocolates, but in the end, James’s wife, Primrose Darling, heiress to the Darling Confectionaries fortune, had been the sinister mind behind the murders. Ricky had stared down the barrel of her revolver for Christ’s sake, before James and Timothy had found them during the grand Valentine’s Ball, hearing Prim confess to the whole thing.
Ricky had been lucky, damn lucky. True, him planning and bringing his Minifon portable recorder had probably saved his hide and been the last nail in the coffin for Prim’s freedom as an innocent dame, but even he had to admit that it had been a little too close for comfort, coming that close to ending up on the slab himself.
Yet, the insanity of that case aside, his curiosity and fascination with Timothy hadn’t dwindled. If anything, watching Timothy dip his toes into the shady side of private investigating—snooping around in dark alleys and infiltrating an illegal queer club to gather information—had only piqued Ricky’s interest that much more.
That, and the fact that Timothy had been a fucking sight to see in the bedroom. Ricky had been able to get Timothy into bed long enough for him to get his first taste of him, swallowing his cock down until Timothy was a squirming mess and Ricky got to jerk them both off together.
That had been as far as they had gotten. Usually, Ricky was one to rush right to home base. He had a long list of one-night stands in his past, more than he cared to admit if he was honest with himself. But once he had found out that young, sweet, almost painfully innocent Timothy Ward was a virgin, giving Ricky those hungry, eager doe eyes of his in the booth of the queer joint, the Amethyst Lounge, Ricky had wanted him like all the others. Yet he’d also been wary of dragging Timothy down into the pits of hell with him.
Timothy still had his whole career on the force ahead of him, unlike Ricky who had tossed all that away with the foolish mistake of getting caught red-handed behind a similar queer joint, three-sheets to the wind with his tongue down some random John’s throat.
Yet, even knowing all the pitfalls and dangers that could come with it, Ricky had still called Timothy up and asked if he was interested in meeting him for some greasy diner food and to discuss that invoice Ricky had for him. Of course, Ricky wasn’t really going to charge the kid after all that happened, but it had been the perfect excuse for seeing him again.
What could Ricky say? He never was one for doing what was best for him, and when it came to a sexy young piece like Timothy? Ricky was a sucker for the cute ones.
“I’ve been in worse scrapes than that,” Ricky said, passing the flask back to Timothy. “And what about you? I was surprised that you accepted my invitation. Does James know where you stepped out to this evening?”
Timothy frowned. “No. He’s not my mother.”
“I didn’t mean to ruffle your feathers. I just know how overbearing he is.”
“Yeah, well…” Timothy shrugged and sipped the gin. “I guess that’s just how older brothers can be.”
“Sure, I suppose.”
“What about you?”
“Do you have any siblings? Any family?”
“No, no,” Ricky said, shaking his head.
“But what about your parents?”
“I grew up with my old man. He was a real piece of work. My ma skipped town right after I was born supposedly, so he was stuck raising me. He did the best he could really, but he was nearly always gone. He worked all these long hours at the steel mill, down here by Seaport.”
“And where is he now?”
“Over in Queens, in the Calvary Cemetery. He dropped dead on the line, right in the middle of his shift when I was nineteen. To be honest, it was a miracle he made it to the ripe old age of fifty-nine, considering the man drank like a fish every waking hour of the day.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be,” Ricky replied, handing the flask back to him. “I don’t have any family or nothing, but at least I’ve had Liz. She’s been my best friend for eight years. She keeps me in line. Well, as best as she can.”
“And what about boyfriends? You mentioned you had some nasty exes.”
“Yes. At the Amethyst Lounge.”
“Well…to be fair there was mainly only one. Things didn’t end very well between us, but that’s just how the cookie crumbles in the end for fellas like me.”
“Some people are meant to walk alone, I guess.”
“That’s a foolish thought,” Timothy said with a laugh.
“Really? Why’s that?”
“Well, it’s human nature to want companionship.”
“Wanting it and deserving it are two different things.”
Timothy shook his head, giving Ricky the last swig in the flask. “Everyone deserves love.”
Ricky bit his tongue. Love. What did young Timothy, virgin at twenty-four, know of love? Ricky had a feeling Timothy’s head was still full of childish fairytales. Queer guys like Ricky didn’t get to have a happily-ever-after with gold wedding bands and quaint suburban houses with white picket fences.
Those were never in the cards for Ricky, and never would be.
Yet he didn’t want to get into that kind of talk tonight, not when he was feeling good after an evening of cheap, tasty burgers and fine gin with even finer company.
“Here,” Ricky said, handing the flask back to Timothy. “Have the last shot, in honor of our strange meeting, and of our pretty swell evening.”
Timothy took the offer and gave a shy smile. “To us.”
“To us,” Ricky agreed. He watched Timothy drink the last sip, and when he pulled the flask away, Ricky couldn’t help but stare at his shiny lips and the tip of his pink tongue that peeked out to lick his bottom lip. That was the last straw, and Ricky’s polite patience went flying right out the window.
He leaned over and stole a kiss from Timothy, who sucked in a surprised breath through his nose before he melted into the kiss and opened his mouth for Ricky when Ricky’s tongue teased the seam of his gorgeous, supple lips. The empty flask was abandoned somewhere on the seat and Timothy immediately grabbed the lapels of Ricky’s jacket, tugging him even closer.
Ricky was happy to comply. He snuck a hand around the back of Timothy’s neck, scraping his nails teasingly at the base of Timothy’s skull, earning a cute little moan against his lips.
Ricky’s blood felt like it was slowly creeping to a boil, and he couldn’t use the few sips of liquor as an excuse either. He hadn’t had a lick of action since the last time he and Timothy had been together. It had been two long and grueling weeks with just his hand for company, so he had been thinking about kissing Timothy all night. Heck, he’d been thinking about that since their last stolen moment together in Ricky’s office.
The wait was turning out to be well worth it, especially if Ricky could keep getting reactions out of Timothy like that one. One thing was for sure, kissing Timothy was just as fantastic as he remembered. Timothy had been a quick learner and he gave just as good as he got, eager to keep up with the playful exploration of Ricky’s tongue. Ricky was eager himself, trying to taste that lovely mix of gin and Timothy’s tongue and lips and chasing it down until Timothy had to pull back, desperate for a breath.
Ricky wasn’t through with him yet, however. He trailed a line of kisses along the smooth line of Timothy’s jaw until he reached the left side of his neck. He knew very well how sensitive Timothy was there, that particular spot right behind his ear. Ricky tried not to bump his nose against the bit of plastic hearing aid hooked behind Timothy’s ear and went to town, gently nibbling and lapping at the soft skin.
Timothy shivered in his hold, tipping his head to give Ricky more skin to attack and letting out a shuddering breath. His voice was breathy when he whimpered, “Oh God, Ricky. Fuck. Please don’t stop.”
Hearing one of Timothy’s rare curses was like adding fuel to the fire. Ricky wished he could suck a deep red bruise onto the side of his neck, marking him as Ricky’s for the fleeting time being, but even that much was far too risky. Instead, Ricky left Timothy’s neck, though Timothy did let out a needy groan at the loss of attention to his favorite spot, but it changed to a pleased sort of sound instead when Ricky kissed his lips to make up for it.
To his surprise though, Timothy broke the kiss, but he didn’t let go of Ricky’s jacket, nor did he pull too far away. He was staring at Ricky’s lips, obviously torn with wanting more, yet he apparently had something he wanted to say.
“You know,” he began, fingers playing with the edges of Ricky’s lapels. “If you wanted another drink, we could always go back to your place. I can just take a cab back home later.”
That was an interesting idea. It was the weekend after all, and Ricky knew that Timothy was hoping for more than just another drink, which sounded A-OK to him. A shiver ran down Ricky’s spine at the thought of how much further he could get with Timothy tonight.
Oh, the possibilities.
“I could use another drink, if you’re feeling up for it, honey. How about we blow this place?”
The endearment brought a hint of blush to Timothy’s cheeks, but he nodded, nonetheless. Ricky gave him a teasing wink and got the Starlight’s engine going again.
A nagging voice at the back of Ricky’s head tried to remind him that the longer he kept this little affair with Timothy going, the messier it would be to end things. Yeah, he might just be thinking with his prick tonight, he could admit that much, but fuck it. Why couldn’t they have a little fun today, fool around for a while, get their rocks off then call it a night?
That was all this had to be.
Ricky eased the Starlight away from the riverbank, through the lot of the abandoned shoe factory, and back uptown toward his apartment on the Upper East Side. Timothy shifted in his seat, getting comfortable for the drive, and Ricky hoped traffic would be on his side tonight.
Aver Rigsly was born and raised in the Boston, Massachusetts area and spends her days working at a travel agency in Quincy. Some of her favourite places to visit are Washington D.C., Bangor, Maine, and most of all New York City. When she isn’t working a trip or writing LGBTQA+ romance obsessively, she spends her free time relaxing with knitting, needlepoint, video games, or marathoning horror movies with the family.
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Two grumpy bears and a holiday season neither will forget…
So this sexy silver fox rolls into my small New England town and buys a run-down old house in need of renovation. That’s where I come in. My job is to do some basic repairs, so he can write in peace. Yep, the hotshot is a bestselling author, but that’s not why I recognize Cameron Warren.
No worries, I won’t let a one-night stand make things awkward. I could use the work, but is he seriously asking me to help him buy a Christmas tree too?
I’m a good-natured guy all year long, but I have to admit…I hate the holidays.
There. I said it.
This season, I’m hiding away on the opposite side of the country in a picturesque village. My family isn’t excited about my decision, and the only way to assure them I’m fine is to deck the darn halls. Or hire someone else to do it.
The handyman might not be the logical choice for an elf, but his grumpy act makes me smile. Which makes me think the holidays might not be so “bah-humbug” this year after all.
The Humbug Holiday is a bisexual, age-gap romance featuring two grumpy bears who find unexpected magic and learn to embrace everyone’s favorite time of year!
Cam narrowed his gaze. “What do you mean ‘no, thanks’?”
I set the strand of fairy lights on a green plastic bin and scowled. “Do I really look like fuckin’ Santa Claus?”
“My holiday cheer begins and ends at my mom’s bingo deal. That’s it. I don’t own twenty boxes filled with useless knickknacks. I don’t put up a tree or hang lights or…any of that shit for myself. Why would I do it for you?”
“Money. I’ll pay you handsomely to deck the damn halls and take a few photos. That’s in addition to the handyman stuff.” He named an even more outlandish sum than the one he’d proposed two days ago.
I whistled as I crossed my arms. “You do realize that’s insane, right?”
He shrugged. “A little. Look, I need a few Christmassy photos for my aunts.”
“Because…well…it’s a family thing,” he hedged, narrowing his eyes as he cast a wary glance over the array of boxes still littering the entry hall. “And as you can see, it’s complicated.”
I peeked at Tony’s roofing truck through the lacy curtains. “I’m a carpenter or a general handyman. I can’t, in good conscience, take money for something like putting up a tree. I mean…it would be one thing if you couldn’t physically do it yourself, but you seem perfectly capable of putting up a few decorations.”
“Physically yes, mentally…no.”
I stared at him for as long as I could manage without blinking, then let out a heavy sigh. “Is there an artificial tree somewhere in those boxes, or are you going to need a real one?”
“I have no idea. I haven’t looked and I don’t want to. I want to hire you to do all of that for me. Put it up and take it all down…within forty-eight hours. It’s Tuesday. If you get a tree today, it can be gone by Thursday, and then you can concentrate on the rest of the house stuff.”
“Your priorities are kinda whack.” I snorted. “Christmas is in three weeks. Don’t you FaceTime with your family?”
“They’re gonna notice the lack of cheer on the big day.”
Cameron frowned. “Oh. That’s true.”
“Look, I should probably get out there and deal with Tony,” I said, stepping toward the door. “I’m not opposed to taking your money, but I’m no designer and I don’t like the holidays any more than you do. I’ll ask in town. Janie Calhoun owns the Christmas store on First Street and she does some staging for a couple of home boutiques in the area. If you want this done right, she’s a better bet than me.”
“No, thanks. I’ve had my fill of designers.” He waved impatiently and stalked over to the bins. “How about this? Let’s buy a tree, put some lights on it, and throw on a few ornaments. Then we’ll toss the whole thing in the trash before noon on the twenty-fifth and be done with it.”
“And what about all that stuff?” I inclined my head meaningfully at the holiday shit he had yet to unpack.
“Leave the box with ornaments, and put the rest in the basement. Out of sight, out of mind. Or better yet, throw it all away.”
“Wow. You are Scrooge.”
Cameron smirked unapologetically. “I told you so. My youngest cousin is having a baby any minute now, so with any luck, my aunts will forget about me for a while. Just knowing there’s a tree up will make them happy, and that’s what matters. So…what do you think?”
I fixed him with a long, hard stare.
“I think you’re up to something.”
He widened his eyes in surprise. “Such as?”
“I dunno. People who don’t like the holidays wouldn’t go through the hassle of hiring someone unqualified to do their dirty work, even if money were no object. It would be much easier to hole up in your office and hibernate for the rest of December. What do you really want?”
“Is this about sex?”
“Sex,” he repeated with a huff. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to a repeat, but I’m not in the habit of paying for a good time.”
Christ, all he had to say was “repeat” and I popped a boner.
Lane Hayes loves a good romance! An avid reader from an early age, she has always been drawn to well-told love story with beautifully written characters. Her debut novel was a 2013 Rainbow Award finalist and subsequent books have received Honorable Mentions, and were winners in the 2016, 2017, 2018-2019, 2020-2021 Rainbow Awards. She loves wine, chocolate and travel (in no particular order). Lane lives in Southern California with her amazing husband in a newly empty nest.
The fates of an angel’s daughter, a reformed gargoyle and an unrepentant incubus are bound together in a city where a deadly demon is rising.
Abby Stone, a night-shift nurse with healing powers and a secret demon-hunting habit, has been saving victims of demons and their cults ever since she left home to search for her father—an angel turned to stone and trapped in the mystical hotspot of Meridian.
As Abby starts making an unwelcome name for herself in all the local demon haunts, she crosses paths with earnest ex-demon Zekiel, a gargoyle who fights against evil for his redemption, and charming incubus Charles, who calls her nephil offspring—daughter of an angel who has fallen.
Charles’ attempts to convince her that she’s meant to be a demon confuse and infuriate her, but now that an incubus has set his sights on Abby, there’s no denying how tempting he is—and how dangerous.
In the meantime, with a demon prince’s ascension rattling the city of stone and chains, Abby could stand for things to be a little less interesting.
Reader advisory: This book contains BDSM sessions with beating and humiliation, MM interaction, child endangerment, scenes of bloody violence, and sexual coercion.
Abby closed the book, glancing between her two charges. “I think that’s all for now. I’ll be back on Wednesday for chapter four. That’ll be exciting, won’t it?”
There wasn’t enough tea in the world to get her through reading aloud another two chapters, although she loved the young adult fantasy series and wished she could read it forever. Her charges, about the same age as Abby herself, never complained that they were too old for the reading material.
Abby smiled and patted the two hospital beds on either side of her. Two young women—one of them quite pregnant—reclined supine, their monitors beeping softly in a steady rhythm. Neither of them could tell her if they enjoyed the books, but it wasn’t about the stories so much as the women knowing someone was there to do more than give them sponge baths and prevent bed sores.
The pregnant woman’s baby was getting more human care than the woman herself, out of the belief that Maggie wasn’t really there anymore after the car accident that had put her in the extended care ward. Then there was Kara on Abby’s right, who had simply lost consciousness one day and never awakened, cause unknown.
Coma patients still experienced the world around them, just not in the same way that they did when conscious or even when asleep. Like infants in the womb, the lost sometimes remembered it like the shadow of a dream, but it was still something. They knew the difference between caring and concern versus the cold, clinical indifference and abandonment they often experienced in a hospital environment. Just as most people didn’t like the reminder of mortality from the elderly, they didn’t like the stark blankness of the comatose.
But Abby felt their presence in the way some sensed the passing of a ghost—except she experienced it as warmth on the back of her neck instead of a chill. And that warmth was the reason she came to the hospital several times a week in the middle of the night to read to her two friends, although they’d never formally met.
No handsome doctor was going to wake them up with a kiss. All they could really depend on within the mortal realm was divine intervention and an overworked, underpaid woman who wanted to give them some kind of connection, even though she couldn’t help them any more than that.
Abby was tired, always tired, pulled between day life and the night shift, making money and helping people. There weren’t nearly enough hours in the day for everything she needed to do, so she depended far too often on free coffee refills in twenty-four-hour restaurants. There were other things more important to her than sleep, and it was easier to get out of the house more often when her bedroom—which was actually just the storage closet under the stairs—barely held the bed, and she shared living space with two other girls who didn’t share her hours.
Still, life could be so much worse. She could be trapped in her own head like Kara and Maggie. Abby tried never to forget what she’d been blessed with. She’d been born with so many gifts, gifts she couldn’t keep to herself, even if she tried. Volunteer hours and night shifts meant she didn’t have much of a life, but Abby could live with that if she could give other people the life she didn’t allow herself.
And here in Meridian, she felt like she could finally put down some roots after these last two years of seemingly aimless wandering from city to city.
She felt like she might have finally found what she’d been looking for.
“Life could be worse,” Abby whispered into Kara’s ear before kissing her cheek. Kara’s skin was cold from the hospital air, but underneath the surface was the heat of life, and within that life, there was still hope.
She sent that hope to Maggie as well, and to Maggie’s eight-month pregnant belly and the baby within. “Stay safe.”
Abby carried mace and a switchblade in her purse to go to and from her night shift at the Cemetery Grove clinic downtown, but just because Kara and Maggie were in a bright hospital ward and supervised by security cameras didn’t mean that they were safe, even if the only thing they weren’t safe from was their own minds—what dreams and nightmares haunted them, the kind of horrors that machines couldn’t measure.
Aurelia T. Evans is an up-and-coming erotica author with a penchant for horror and the supernatural.
She’s the twisted mind behind the werewolf/shifter Sanctuary trilogy, demonic circus series Arcanium, and vampire serial Bloodbound. She’s also had short stories featured in various erotic anthologies.
Aurelia presently lives in Dallas, Texas (although she doesn’t ride horses or wear hats). She loves cats and enjoys baking as much as she dislikes cooking. She’s a walker, not a runner, and she writes outside as often as possible.
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She’s going to Holiday Falls to close him down, but will he open her heart?
When Lori Lawrence arrives in the quaint town of Holiday Falls just before Christmas, her task is to assess whether the town’s underperforming bookstore deserves to be kept open. There’s no room for sentiment in the company she works for, yet she finds herself strangely drawn to the bookshop’s manager, the handsome and idiosyncratic Henry Cole. He doesn’t believe in loyalty schemes and hi-tech innovations, but he’s created an inviting space for everyone who loves books and reading.
This should be a straightforward job, but the heaviest snowfall in years leaves Lori stuck in town, and as the days go by and it seems like she’ll never be able to leave, she begins to see Henry’s way of running things with new eyes.
It’s not long before their feelings for one another deepen, but Henry has no idea of Lori’s true intentions. What will happen when he discovers the real reason why she’s in Holiday Falls?
“Holiday Falls?” Lori scrolled across the map on her laptop screen. She prided herself on knowing the location of every store in the Becker’s Books chain, and it irked her that she couldn’t immediately place this one. At last, she found it, right at the other end of the state from where she sat in her boss’ office looking out over Harvard Yard.
“It’s one of a handful of stores we’ve been keeping an eye on.” Simon Becker paused at the sound of a knock on his door. When he called out, “Come in,” his PA, Donna, entered carrying a tray. She placed a coffee cup in front of Lori, then handed another to Simon and set a plate of cookies shaped like snowflakes and decorated with white frosting in easy reach of them both. Just another reminder that Christmas was almost on top of them, and Lori still had so much to do before the company closed for its brief holiday break.
Simon reached for a cookie and offered the plate to Lori. When she made a polite refusal, he went back to what they’d been talking about before the interruption. “You’ve seen the physical sales figures across the company, and they’re holding up well despite more customers than ever choosing to buy their books online. But the stores in Madison and Little Rock are really struggling, and much as it hurts me to let good people go at this time of year, I’ve made the decision that when they close their doors on Christmas Eve, they won’t reopen.” He took a sip of his coffee, letting Lori digest the news. “And then there’s Holiday Falls.”
“What’s the problem there?” She leaned forward in her chair.
“Well, the town is such an important part of the whole Becker’s story…”
Lori knew as much as anyone who worked for the chain about its history. How Simon Becker’s grandfather, Daniel, had opened the original Becker’s Books here in Cambridge in 1973. It had mostly sold textbooks to the students at Harvard University, but it had done so well that within a year, Daniel Becker and his business partner, Anthony Hill, had opened a second store in nearby Boston, catering to a more general clientele.
“Anthony Hill’s mother lived in Holiday Falls. She loved to read, but she was always complaining there was nowhere in town she could go to buy books.” Simon helped himself to a second cookie as he spoke. “So, he and my grandfather took the decision to open a store there, too. It’s always had a special place in the Becker’s story—hell, it’s the reason we came up with the advertising slogan ‘books for the people you love’…”
Lori sensed there was a ‘but’ coming. “Sales there are slipping?” She called up the document with the figures from the last quarter in order to check, but Simon shook his head.
“No, they’re doing quite well, actually, considering the size of the town. But you know how we always send secret shoppers to our stores on a regular basis, to see how they treat awkward customers and find out if there’s anything they can do to make the place more inviting? Well, the report we got back from Holiday Falls…” Simon sighed. “According to our shopper, they couldn’t have been more helpful. No, they didn’t have the book she wanted, yes, they could order it for her, no, it wouldn’t be a problem to have it gift-wrapped… But they didn’t try to sign her up to the loyalty program, didn’t ask if she wanted to join our mailing list so we could keep her up to date with offers and promotions. She said the whole store felt like she’d gone back thirty years in time, as if it wasn’t even part of the Becker’s chain. Lori, we need to enforce company policy, and that’s where you come in.”
“What do you need me to do?”
“I want you to go there and check it out, then report back to me. If standards have slipped in Holiday Falls, I want to know why. The manager there is a”—he consulted his computer screen—“Henry Cole. You need to make him aware there’s a Becker’s way of doing things, and if he can’t comply with it, then I’m afraid we’ll have to replace him. If that doesn’t work out, then we’ll have no choice but to close the store. I’ll let him know you’ll be there tomorrow. Shall we say lunchtime?”
“Oh, I have that meeting with the regional manager in Boston at eleven. We’ve had to reschedule twice, and if I cancel on him now, I don’t see him being available again until the other side of Christmas.”
“No problem. Go over to Holiday Falls after the meeting ends, and I’ll get Donna to arrange for you to stay there for the night, rather than driving straight back. It’s the least I can do after dumping this on you at such short notice. But we can’t afford to keep carrying the lame duck stores.”
Lori nodded. She knew exactly why she’d been chosen to make this visit. She had a reputation within the company for being unsentimental, ruthless even, when it came to business decisions. She’d acquired the nickname of the Ice Maiden around the office, though no one had ever used it to her face. If anyone could make the decision to close a bookstore that clearly meant so much to Simon, it was her. “You can count on me to give the place a fair assessment. And I’ll get my report to you as soon as I’m back in the office. I know you want to make a quick decision on this.”
“Thanks, Lori.” Simon pushed the almost empty plate toward her as she rose to leave. “Now, are you sure you won’t have a cookie?”
Elizabeth Coldwell is a multi-published author and editor whose stories have appeared in a number of best-selling anthologies. She has written novels in a variety of different genres, from paranormal to BDSM and contemporary romance. She is the former editor of the UK edition of Forum magazine and the proud winner of an International Leather Award. When she is not busy writing, she is an avid supporter of Rotherham United Football Club and can be regularly found on the terraces at weekends, cheering her boys to victory (hopefully!).
Psychic medium Harlan Brand wants to be the bridge between the living and the spirits of Toronto.
Tired of dealing with ghosts reactively through the Toronto Police Service, psychic medium Harlan Brand starts his own paranormal investigation business, Laid to Rest Investigations. He wants to help ghosts before they become problems and help the people and ghosts who slip through the official cracks. His former police partner, Hamilton, joins him as his associate.
Harlan’s personal life is becoming just as complicated. He’s just moved in with his boyfriend, Charles Moore, and he’s been contacted by a man he saved from possession, Michael Clark. Despite his love for Charles and the commitment they’ve made to one another, Harlan immediately finds himself drawn to Michael. However, after Charles meets Michael and they hit it off, they decide to invite Michael into their relationship.
As his business grows and Harlan adjusts to his new role, solving cases and helping spirits leads him closer to the heart of a mystery that hits very close to home.
“Where do you want this box?” Morgan asked.
“Um, anywhere over there is fine.” Harlan gestured vaguely in the direction of the kitchen. He had no idea what was in the particular box they were holding, but he was feeling too flustered to check. He knew his ‘system’—or, rather, complete lack of one—would bite him on the ass later when he was actually trying to unpack and organize, but putting it off felt better than dealing with it at the moment.
“You know you don’t have to help with this part, right?” he told them. “Moving my stuff, not the business stuff? I mean, you didn’t really have to help with that, either. It’s not part of your job description—”
“Please. The ‘business stuff’ was like three boxes. And I write my own damn job description—unless you’ve come up with a written statement of what my duties entail?”
Wide-eyed, Harlan shook his head.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so,” they laughed, setting the box down on a pile.
Charles swooped in and glanced at it. “Mm-m, that’s a bathroom one.”
Morgan frowned at him.
“I’ll take it,” he assured them.
Harlan sighed. Of course Charles could keep track of everything.
Harlan knew it was stupid to move his business out of his apartment—all three boxes of it, as Morgan had just pointed out—immediately followed by moving in with Charles. But that was how the timing had worked out with renting an office and Charles’ lease on his old apartment running out. Technically there was no hurry on his end—Harlan’s apartment was his as long as he wanted it—but it had seemed silly for Charles to move all his things and get them all unpacked, only for Harlan to dump a fresh pile of boxes on some nebulous future date. Not that Harlan had that many personal possessions… At least he’d thought he didn’t, but there had been a surprising amount to pack up and load into the truck Charles had borrowed from a friend.
“Hey, does that mean I didn’t have to help, either?” Hamilton—now Harlan’s business partner at Laid to Rest Investigations—laughed.
“Hey.” Hamilton clapped him on the shoulder. “Sorry… I was just kidding. I’m happy to help you two out. Matthew would have been here, too, but he had to work.” He hurried back outside, probably to grab more boxes.
“Are you okay?” Charles asked, setting down the plastic tote he was holding.
Harlan noticed that Morgan was also giving him a concerned look. “Yeah. Sorry. I’m fine. It’s just—a lot.”
Charles nodded, giving Harlan a quick hug. “I know. But the end is in sight!” He turned in a slow circle, taking in the boxes covering every horizontal surface. “Well, the end of moving. Then it’ll just be unpacking—and we can go at our own pace.”
Yeah. As long as we don’t want to sit on the couch or find anything, Harlan thought.
He just nodded at Charles, doing his best to smile.
“I think it’s just a few more, then we can go for beer and pizza.”
Harlan nodded again. He turned to leave the apartment to at least get some air and pretend to be useful by carrying something back inside, but his path was blocked by Hamilton, who was carrying a stack of boxes.
“Did I hear beer and pizza?”
“You did,” Charles agreed. “As soon as the truck is empty.”
Hamilton set the stack haphazardly by the door. “Then it’s beer and pizza o’clock. These are the last boxes.”
Charles whooped, grinning at the room. “Good work, team! I thought it would take us at least a few more hours.”
Morgan snorted. “It would have gone a lot more quickly if you didn’t have so many BDSM toys.”
“Ha. Just be glad Harlan hasn’t really started collecting his own yet or there’d be twice as many.”
Harlan found that difficult to imagine. Charles already had one of every kind of whip, flogger, paddle and cane imaginable—if not multiples.
Charles mimed dusting his hands together. “All right, if that’s it, let’s get out of here. Why don’t you just take one car?”
Harlan’s stomach sank. He was already feeling really peopled out—which was sad, because these were the people he was closest to in the world—and there would only be more people at the restaurant. He’d been looking forward to at least driving over with just Charles.
“You guys go ahead. I’m gonna drop the truck off. Phil can give me a ride, and I’ll meet you there. Harlan, you can order for me, okay?” Charles gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze.
Great. Now he wouldn’t even have Charles in the car with him? And he would have to order not only for himself but also for Charles as well? Usually, it was the other way around. It made him feel like an immature jerk and a hot mess, but their system worked for them.
“Don’t worry.” Charles leaned over to kiss his cheek. “I wrote my order down for you.”
Well, that’s something, anyway.
Charles did that magical thing Harlan still couldn’t figure out how to do that sent something directly from his phone to Harlan’s.
“We can take my car,” Morgan offered. “Hamilton’s smells like thirty-year-old Tim Hortons.”
Harlan wrinkled his nose. They weren’t wrong.
Hamilton laughed. “Hey, I’ve spilled lots of other kinds of coffee in there! I don’t think the stuff at the precinct is even ‘no name’. It’s…somehow even sketchier than that. It’s probably not even real coffee.”
“Yeah, you probably shouldn’t be drinking that.” Morgan shook their head, laughing.
Harlan found himself swept out the door and into Morgan’s car. He barely had a chance to wave goodbye to Charles before he was gone.
T. Strange didn’t want to learn how to read, but literacy prevailed and she hasn’t stopped reading—or writing—since. She’s been published since 2013, and she writes M/M romance in multiple genres, including paranormal and BDSM. T.’s other interests include cross stitching, gardening, watching terrible horror movies, playing video games, and finding injured pigeons to rescue. Originally from White Rock, BC, she lives on the Canadian prairies, where she shares her home with her wife, cats, guinea pigs and other creatures of all shapes and sizes. She’s very easy to bribe with free food and drinks—especially wine.
One year ago, Vince Knight walked away from his role as crime lord of Port Knot. In his absence, the gangs he founded went to war, and frightening new factions have risen from the ashes to tear at the town’s throat like hungry wolves.
Now Vince is back and has taken command of the Watch—working side-by-side with the very people who spent years trying to put him behind bars. Unbeknownst to him, Captain James Godgrave has been given his own team to deal with crime in the town, but while he and Vince share a common goal, they are not allies.
The murder of one of James’s crew puts Vince in a delicate position. Facing pressure from the council, the townsfolk, and the Watch itself, Vince must find the killer because if he doesn’t, James will, and Vince’s tenure as Watch Commander will be the shortest in history.
As Vince and James clash in their public and private lives, Vince starts to understand the damage caused by his abdication as crime lord, James sets about putting down the gangs once and for all, and the mysterious power behind the new factions exacts a terrifying plan that will change Port Knot forever.
He clicked his pale, meaty fingers twice, sending Crabmeat running along the narrow Entry while he hurried up the dry, cobbled road. He readied himself at a corner and stuck out the tip of his octopus-handled cane. A young man with a thatch of blond hair slammed into the cane at full speed, turning head-over-tit onto the cobbled road. A necklace and a handful of coins spilled out of his pockets, splashing into a horse-made puddle. Crabmeat—a tubby, short-nosed little bulldog—darted after him, barking furiously.
The young thief rolled onto his back, holding his shin and crying out, before being lifted wholly off the ground and slammed against the nearest wall. Vince Knight spoke with a voice like rolling thunder, “Assume you know the way to the Watch House?”
No one in the town of Port Knot could remember a warmer October than that of 1781. As the hazy sun rose in a saffron sky, the harbour stretched its cranes like waking arms and prepared for another day. Already several tall ships had docked and become targets for hungry gulls searching for scraps.
The briny air, awash with the stench of yesterday’s catch, stung Vince’s nose in a familiar and welcoming way. With his bag over his shoulder, he took the thief by the scruff of his neck, and marched deeper into town.
The crowds of traders, dockworkers, and sailors sundered themselves before him and fell quiet when he drew near. He kept his head down and carried on walking. He no longer needed the aid of his cane but thought it added some sophistication to his appearance, especially given his newest acquisition of a patch over his left eye.
Had he not already towered over the townsfolk, his clothing would still have set him apart. Sartorially speaking, he never truly overcame his brawler beginnings. His cream-coloured top shirt had seen better days and his black trousers had long ago begun to fray their edges. Yesterday, he’d attended his brother’s handfasting on the nearby island of Merryapple, and he’d accidentally left his favourite claret overcoat behind. Not that he needed it that morning. His tricorne cap, cracked and scaly in places, covered his snowy white hair and kept the morning sun from his lone icy blue eye.
Port Knot’s sole Watch House sat at a crossroads on the west side of town. Three storeys tall, it had a low front door painted in cornflower blue and a single window set with rusted iron bars. Above these, the sand-coloured bricks rose to an arch and then to a gable, in a wholly unnecessary architectural flourish. Like most buildings in town, thin copper pipes ran across the surface like veins under sallow skin.
The bridges of Port Knot infested the town like rats. Long, short, arched, flat, and each one different from the last. Lickbeer Bridge connected the road above Vince’s head to the first floor of the Watch House and protruded from the side of it like a hernia. The arch had been carved to resemble the open mouth of a bearded man, swallowing all who travelled through.
As with the rest of the town, the Watch House had been built too close to the surrounding premises, and indeed the entire street had the appearance of an overstuffed bookshelf. Within, Vince found a grimy pit of browns and mustards. The Watch House saw hardly any sun, so a plethora of lanterns fought bravely against the gloom.
Vince all but threw the thief onto a chair. “Stay,” he said, pointing. “Or else.”
Crabmeat sat in front of the thief and growled.
Vince let his bag of clothes slump to the dusty floor. He tapped his octopus-handled cane on the knotted wooden floorboards. “Anybody in?”
A voice from a backroom called out to him and presently a slim, dark-haired woman in her early twenties greeted him. She wore oversized tan trousers held up by braces, a striped shirt splattered with oil, and a pair of goggles perched on top of her head. She gripped a hammer in one hand and scowled.
“Got you a present,” Vince said, nodding to the thief.
“Ah, sure that’s very kind of you, altogether.” She raised the hammer a little and steadied herself. “And who might you be, now?”
Glenn Quigley is an author and artist originally from Tallaght in Dublin, Ireland, and now living in Lisburn, Northern Ireland with his partner of many years. His first novel, The Moth and Moon, was published in 2018. When not writing, he paints portraits in watercolours and tweets too many photos of lighthouses. He maintains a website of his latest work at www.glennquigley.com.
Word Count: 42,729
Book Length: SHORT NOVEL
ACTION AND ADVENTURE
MEN IN UNIFORM
THRILLERS AND SUSPENSE
The sexy secret operative gave her unforgettable pleasure, but will he return to kiss her under the mistletoe?
When Rose Abbott took the position as a nurse at a charitable clinic abroad, she imagined she’d be saving lives, but instead she’s running for her life as a surprise insurgent uprising at the American embassy throws the country into chaos. In order to save a patient, she misses the last of the evacuation transports and has to make her own way to find her brother. She’s only prevented from walking into a trap by the massive soldier who rises out of the sand like a sexy specter.
T.J. Browning, known as Hook to his select special ops crew, has been growing jaded, so that each new sensitive, dangerous mission has become just another day at the office. When he sees a lovely young woman clutching her American passport as she tries to sneak across the open landscape, he knows he shouldn’t risk revealing himself, but he can’t help but save her.
Passion ignites between them as they shelter overnight in a small cave, but T.J. has secrets and responsibilities. He can’t make any promises, but he leaves her with the hope that he will be able to meet her for Christmas. Doubts creep in for both of them in the months of separation, and the road to a potential reunion is made even rockier by circumstances beyond their control. Still, T.J. remains determined to be Rose’s secret Santa…if she’ll still have him.
Aurora is originally from the frozen tundra of the upper-Midwest (ok, not frozen all the time!) but now loves living in New England with her real-life hero/husband, two wonderfully silly sons, and one of the most extraordinary cats she has ever had the pleasure to meet. But she still goes back to the Midwest to visit, just never in January.
She doesn’t remember a time that she didn’t love to read, and has been writing stories since she learned how to hold a pencil. She has always liked the romantic scenes best in every book, story, and movie, so one day she decided to try her hand at writing her own romantic fiction, which changed her life in all the best ways.
You can find out more about Aurora at her website here.
Twelve Secrets of Christmas by Amelia Foster
General Release Date: 13th December 2022
Word Count: 30,448
Book Length: SHORT NOVEL
A workplace connection gets murky when the heir to the company is involved.
Leah Carson’s four-year relationship exploded on New Year’s Day and soured her toward all holiday-related activities. She no longer excessively decorated her home and office for Christmas, choosing the grinchy path instead. Working for a media outlet forces her into some semblance of holiday cheer, especially when the up-and-coming channel sets its sights on making a mark with a New Year’s Eve special to rival all the standard offerings—something thrown into question when the host of the broadcast is put in jail, and Leah and her team are scrambling to fill the slot.
Brendan Lanza is heir to the throne of Lanza Broadcasting, but he has to earn his seat by learning every department within the company at his father’s orders. His term with the marketing team offers the unexpected bonus of getting to know Leah better. The respect his father holds for the woman becomes an understatement once Brendan sees how her clever brain easily handles issues, something only rivaled by the temptations her body creates in him.
But her less-than-festive spirit and the threat of losing their highly anticipated special lead Brendan to appoint himself as her Secret Santa, sending twelve anonymous gifts to Leah. Their office flirtation ramps up as Leah begins to receive presents from a secret admirer, creating a bit of conflict as she believes that she is torn between two men, and Brendan is left to decide if he’s betraying their blossoming bond by withholding the truth behind the packages she finds on her doorstep each night.
Books, coffee, and chocolate make up both the heart and body mass that is better known as Amelia Foster. She has been a lifelong lover of the written word, both as a reader and an author, and completed her first manuscript at the ripe old age of five, complete with illustrations. Sadly, her art was a medium that never improved over time, although thankfully her writing has.
From sweet to salacious, the only requirement Amelia has in books she reads – and definitely in the ones she crafts – is an excessively satisfying happily ever after… and then a little bit more.
Word Count: 32,013
Book Length: SHORT NOVEL
ACTION AND ADVENTURE
THRILLERS AND SUSPENSE
Secrets refuse to stay buried.
Pulled in for an op he never wanted, Michael Little knows it won’t be a hardship to pretend interest in his target. What does prove difficult is knowing that when it’s over, he’ll have to walk away.
Radek Dionne has busted his ass to keep his name away from the shady dealings his family is involved in. Used to people wanting him either for those connections or due to him being a player in the NHL, he keeps to himself. Until one night when he meets someone who gets to him on a level he’s never expected.
But family has a way of showing up when you least want them to and his is no exception. Secrets are exposed and loyalties tested. Will they be together by Christmas, or has this last secret ruined any chance of a happy ever after?
Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of violence, sexual harassment, blackmail, and kidnapping. There is mention of child abuse, domestic violence, drug abuse, human trafficking and child trafficking.
Word Count: 49,206
Book Length: SHORT NOVEL
CRIME AND MYSTERY
MEN IN UNIFORM
THRILLERS AND SUSPENSE
Jacob would move mountains to spend Christmas with someone special. A suspicious death and Park Ranger Cody Spencer will help him do just that.
Special Agent Jacob Miles was looking forward to spending Christmas with someone special, but the job always gets in the way—or so his FBI agent ex keeps telling him. So, it’s looking like another lonely holiday at home.
But first, he’s got to get to the bottom of a suspicious death in the picturesque mountain town of Silveridge, Colorado. A local drug dealer has been killed, and the local sheriff’s minimal investigation seems to suggest that something’s not quite right.
Jacob isn’t thrilled to be sent undercover a week before Christmas to look into what he is sure is a case of country-cop incompetency, but then his local contact, Park Ranger Cody Spencer, has him looking at his trip, Christmas and the case in a whole new way.
Can Jacob decide which matters more, the case or his heart, before the holiday is over and one—or both—are lost?
S. J. Coles is a Romance writer originally from Shropshire, UK. She has been writing stories for as long as she has been able to read them. Her biggest passion is exploring narratives through character relationships.
She finds writing LGBT/paranormal romance provides many unique and fulfilling opportunities to explore many (often neglected or under-represented) aspects of human experience, expectation, emotion and sexuality.
Among her biggest influences are LGBT Romance authors K J Charles and Josh Lanyon and Vampire Chronicles author Anne Rice.
Asher Brock’s last summer of youth is far from ideal. His hopes for the future, including an escape from his constricting Ozark Mountains hometown, seem increasingly fragile as he faces hurdles of poverty and abuse, all while coming to terms with being gay. Raised by an alcoholic single mother, he clings to his noted intelligence as an escape to a better life. But it will take more than brains—namely, strength of character and aspiration—for him to navigate the months leading to his senior year of high school.
The pregnancy of his recent girlfriend, the heightened aggression of his long-time bully, and the increasing presence of his long-absent father create a season of turmoil, spurring unease and self-doubt. But with support from family and friends, an opportunity for love, and the shedding of generations of secrets, Asher sees beyond preordained fate and starts to realize the opportunities in his grasp.
Asher’s nose wrinkled and his mouth sagged into a frown as the acrid stench of cigarette smoke and cheap vodka greeted him. A comingled foulness with a source that needed little investigation, as left in an untidy manner on the coffee table were his mother’s cracked plastic ashtray and an empty bottle of vodka—the remnants of her previous evening’s activities. A disheartened sigh escaped him. At least she practiced consistency, with the only variation to note this morning being the absence of a glass, which had probably made its way to her bedroom so she could finish it off as a nightcap.
He picked up the vodka bottle and peered into its bottom, drained to the last few drops. The ashtray was the opposite, overflowing with twisted butts and ash. He carried the pair of containers into the kitchen and set them on the counter. Finishing cleaning the mess now made the most sense, but doing so in his current mood would leave him seething with frustration. That could wait, he told himself, and returned to the living room. He collapsed onto the sofa, a loud sigh escaping as he did so, then reached across to the coffee table, straightening the pile of months-old fashion magazines, souvenirs from the recycling at his mother’s HairStylez job, then wiping the lingering ashes and water spots off the table.
The night before, as always, he left the room tidy. Disorder made him uneasy. But, also as usual, after an evening at the bar, any notion his mother had of good housekeeping vanished once she stretched out on the sofa with her smokes and cocktail, ready to enjoy her recording of that day’s episode of General Hospital. Sometime around midnight, she likely staggered off to bed, obliviously leaving behind the mess. There she contently dozed away the next eight hours until her alarm woke her for another day of providing cheap haircuts. He hoped that, as she passed through the living room on the way to her car, she paused a moment at the mess from the night before and felt a pang of guilt for leaving it to her son to clean.
The thought of the bottle and ashtray on the counter gnawed at him, appealing to his growing compulsion for cleanliness, so he pushed back to his feet and returned to the kitchen. Being careful not to tip out any of its waste, he lifted the ashtray to eye level, examining the twisted and charred cigarette filters, ensuring no red glow remained and he could safely dump the remnants into the trash can. After nine hours, they were always burned out, but his overabundant sense of caution insisted he verify each morning. The overwhelming scent of burnt menthol clogged his nose, giving his stomach a start. How could an odor he had known every day of his life, which all but permeated his home, nearly prompt him to puke?
He dropped the vodka bottle into the trash can, glass clinking as it hit against an identical bottle emptied three days prior. Another exasperated sigh escaped him as he pushed the trash can against the kitchen cabinet, so he could brush a handful of stale potato chips and a puddle of pickle juice into it—the last of the mess she’d left.
The immediate disorder now abated, Asher felt enough ease to return to the sofa for a little TV time, his morning relaxation before heading to his summer job of bussing tables and washing dishes at the diner.
A collection of annoyingly gleeful faces appeared on the screen, clueless morning program personalities bobbing their heads up and down in affirmation of the segment’s slick promotional guests. It felt so fake. How could anyone act so endlessly excited unless they were popping pills or snorting coke in their dressing rooms? He had never done either pills or coke so he could only assume the effect of those drugs mirrored the idiocy he saw on the television. He slid his hand up and down the left side of the sofa cushion, finding nothing, then leaned over to the right side and dug in, snagging the remote from its hiding place. His mother always seemed to misplace it following her nightly soap opera viewing parties. He punched in the number for the classic movie channel, and the iconic face of James Dean appeared, a troubled young man pulling off a bloody T-shirt while the actor playing his father, who Asher recognized as Mr. Howell from Gilligan’s Island, coddled him. Who did he feel sorrier for, the angsty and misunderstood son or the father who tried too hard while not trying hard enough? He had watched Rebel without a Cause ten times previously and still could not decide whether Dean’s Jim Stark ever found happiness.
A digital chime chirped at him from his pocket. A text, and one he did not need to look at it to know who sent it. It wearied him to think of a response. He shifted his attention back to the movie, James Dean revving a car’s motor in preparation for tearing out to the edge of the cliff. The phone chimed again, guilting him into pulling the device out. On my way over, it announced. Sent, as expected, from Jessica, his girlfriend of the last two months. He had known her nearly his entire life, most of it as friends of coincidence, as the margin between friends and enemies felt slim in a high school with less than three hundred students. Three months earlier, feeling self-conscious about going stag to the school’s junior-senior prom, he’d asked her to it as his date. Then, almost overnight, she installed herself as his girlfriend, despite no conversation passing between them to signify the upgraded status.
He wanted to text her back and tell her not to come, but that would only speed up her arrival, and darken her increasingly sullen attitude toward him. In the months since the relationship started, she had shifted from friendly conversations to something more controlling, with her personality becoming notably more demanding and tense. He originally planned to bring an end to the pseudo relationship in the days after the prom, but with the introduction of some alcohol to tear down inhibitions, they ended up having sex the night of the event. Then, two days later and back at school, it became common knowledge what they had done, though not from him, and it suddenly felt cruel to end the relationship with that gossip so fresh.
Now, a month later, he continued to fill the role of reluctant boyfriend, with her coming over several mornings a week, always after his mother headed to work. And, unfailingly, once she arrived, they repeated the clumsy coupling that took place on prom night in the back seat of the car he borrowed from his grandmother.
“OK,” he texted back, wishing he could watch the rest of the movie without distraction before he needed to shower and head to work.
A sparse ten minutes had passed when the doorknob rattled, followed by a loud and impatient knocking. “Open up,” Jessica yelled from the porch while continuing to beat her fist against the door. His mother must have remembered to lock it when she left, or Jessica would have opened it without warning and strutted right in while glaring at the threadbare furniture and shabby walls. Why did she want to date him when she judged his home so openly?
“Hey,” Asher offered in a muted greeting as she brushed past him and stepped into the living room.
“Your mom’s been smoking in here again,” she proclaimed, her nose crinkled in displeasure.
Though it irritated him that his mother smoked in the house, it angered him when someone else commented on it. “It’s her house,” he replied in a stony tone.
Jessica shrugged her shoulders. “Glad it isn’t mine,” she countered while rolling her eyes. Then she flashed him a wide, seemingly forced smile. “Come here. You haven’t given me a kiss yet,” she scolded him. He stepped close and gently slid his arms around her, which she countered by pulling him tight, pushing her mouth hard against his. It always happened this way. She took charge, getting angry if he showed a bit of assertiveness. But despite her aggression, he always noted a melancholy look in her eyes as she did it, as if doubting herself, or compensating for some personal flaw.
She eased up a little, though still maintaining an unyielding embrace. “Do you have to go to your gross job today?” she asked before allowing him to break free.
“In forty-five minutes,” he lied, cushioning in an extra hour of freedom from her.
“I thought you worked at noon,” she countered, her eyes darkening with mistrust.
“Normally,” he sputtered. “They asked me to come an hour early today; breakfast crowds have been bigger than usual.”
She shrugged her shoulders, her most common use of body language. “We better hurry,” she instructed as she started peeling off her clothes.
Is it like this for everyone? Asher wondered. Neither of them seemed to enjoy it. She acted as if she was forcing out some pent-up aggression while he simply complied. How could a girl who always outwardly seemed polite and gentle prove so demanding and isolated during an act as intimate as this?
As always, it occurred on the ungraciously sagging old sofa, him continuing to watch the movie that played in the background, and her either not noticing or caring. Is this really what everyone was so excited about? Sure, the first time proved arousing, even the first few times after that, but now it felt more akin to a chore, such as doing the dishes or laundry. How did that happen for something that itself felt so good?
“I need to get ready for work,” he told her afterward as they sat on the sofa, considerable distance between them. The movie neared its end, and she ignored both him and it, instead texting her friends and, he suspected, sharing with them her just concluded intimacy.
“Fine,” she muttered as she stood up, straightening her bra beneath her shirt in the process. He grunted a response, glad to see her go, but also uneasy about her nonchalance. Before they started dating, they frequently chatted about everything going on around them, but the relationship had spurred a callous silence.
“See you later,” she offered as she rushed out of the house, not looking back.
He stayed inside the screen door, not following her out onto the porch, watching as she trotted down the steps, then darted across the yard before vanishing down the street. His eyes drifted to the summer foliage that crowded the yard, unkempt bushes clustered against the porch and half a dozen clumps of peak bloom irises in the sunnier corners of the property, ragtag remnants of his great-grandmother’s once prized garden.
As a child, he’d toddled through this same yard amazed by its never-ending carnival of color, a splendor spanning March to October. From the initial spring burst of vivid azaleas to the more subtle hues of asters and chrysanthemums in the cooling months, some blossoming beauty could always be found. But in the decade since the gardening matriarch’s death, Asher’s mother’s apathy had all but obliterated the previous beauty. And while he regularly mowed the grass to provide at least a semblance of maintenance on the house’s exterior, he felt shame for not doing more to revive a little of the past graciousness.
Jeff Billington grew up on a farm in the Ozark Mountains of Southwest Missouri, surrounded by animals, family, and local lore. His adult life has included stints as a journalist, communications director for a member of Congress, and working for environmental and advocacy nonprofits. He currently lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC but hopes to return to the Ozarks someday.
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