Ghosts, corpses and four hot men—what’s a girl to do?
Abandoned at three—whose parents want a kid who sees ghosts?—I learned the world is quick to punish misfits. I try my best to be a normal, boring human, but the call of the supernatural just won’t be ignored.
When a stranger shows up on my doorstep in the middle of the night, it’s no sexy tryst. Instead, I’m off to the graveyard, digging up the corpse of a murder victim at the demand of the local vampire coven—and that small felony is just the start.
The spirit of the woman has gone missing—something that shouldn’t be possible—and everyone is looking to me for answers. There’s Kase, a vampire who’s both terrifying and secretive. Grant, a mage with a bad attitude and a lot of power. Troy, the possessive werewolf-detective next door and Hunter, a mysterious bad boy who isn’t even close to human.
It’s a race not just against time but against everything to figure out where the spirits are going, who’s behind it and if I can trust the men who now share my bed.
And all because of a little grave robbing…
Reader advisory: This book contains violence, bloodshed, and death. There are references to parental abandonment and tattooing a child, as well as vague references to pedophilia and the threat of child sexual abuse by a foster parent.
I wished a floating, nearly headless body at three in the morning were an unusual thing for me, but this was the fourth time this one had visited me in as many weeks.
A squinty gaze at my watch made me groan. At least she’s punctual.
“Avenge me!” the apparition demanded in an over-the-top ghostly voice.
I pushed myself upright to offer an annoyed look. “Don’t pull that scary crap with me, Melinda. I’m not some kid trying to contact spirits at a sleepover.”
The spirit shimmered then crossed her arms and gave me the same dirty look back. Ghosts have the worst attitude. “Well, if you did what I wanted the first time I asked, I wouldn’t have to keep bothering you.”
“You want me to kill a teenager.”
“He killed me. How is that not a fair reaction?”
“You ran a red light because you were trying to get your caramel macchiato to mix while complaining the barista didn’t make it right. Can’t really blame him for that.”
She pursed her lips as though she’d blown out a huge sigh, but with her being incorporeal, no actual air escaped. “If he hadn’t been driving, it would have been fine. Isn’t this your job? To make things right? You were given this gift for a reason.”
“I don’t know why I was given this gift, but I know I won’t be using it to murder innocent teenagers.”
“Can I talk to someone above you? Like your boss?”
I groaned and rubbed my eyes as it became clear I wasn’t going to be getting back to sleep any time soon. “Did you really just ask to speak to my manager? Look, if you can find whoever is responsible for me, please, be my guest and speak to them. While you’re at it, tell them I’d like to quit.”
Melinda jammed a bony finger at me. “Do you know who I am?”
“Someone who has ruined my sleep for four weeks.”
“And I’ll keep doing it until you agree to help.”
The threat was good, as far as threats went. Most ghosts tried to scare me into doing what they wanted, but after a person had seen as much as I had, those tactics fell flat. The worst an apparition could do was annoy me until they lost their hold on this world and went to the afterlife. A poltergeist could do some damage, but they were few and far between, luckily.
Melinda’s outline had already lost its sharpness. She’d dimmed until she was more of a shimmer than a clear picture. Another week—maybe two—and she’d drift to a whisper, then to nothing.
“And I’ll keep ignoring you until you’re no longer in this realm.”
An entitled huff came from her. “Look at me! I can’t believe I’m sitting here being ignored by some short, frumpy girl with bad hair.”
I considered pointing out that my hair didn’t normally look quite so wild, but she had woken me up in the middle of the night.
“Make peace with what happened,” I told her as I rolled over, my back to her. “Because I’m not going to help you.”
The bed didn’t sink, but an electric feeling that said she’d neared ran along my back. “It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” she whispered, some of that sureness missing. “I wasn’t supposed to die like this.”
“Well, that’s how it always goes. Everyone thinks their death will be some great sacrifice, some noble leap, but that isn’t what it is.”
“Harrison already moved his mistress into our home.”
Okay, so I wasn’t entirely jaded, because an ache ran through my chest at that. Being dead sucked, I was sure, but being forgotten so quickly? Replaced? Far worse.
“The world keeps moving. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that no matter what, no matter who dies or how, the world doesn’t stop for any of us.”
“Then what’s the point? Why does any of it matter if as soon as we’re gone, it all goes away?”
I cuddled into the warmth of my bed, unsure what to tell her. She wanted to be reassured. She wanted me to tell her there was some great plan, that at the end of the day everything, made sense. I would have loved to tell her that because I’d love to hear it—to believe it.
The reality was that despite having spent my life surrounded by death, I had no stunning pieces of wisdom about it. I didn’t know why we were all here, or what the great purpose was, or why any of it meant a damn thing.
Instead, I told her the only thing I could. “Make your peace, Melinda, because you don’t want to end up where you’ll go if you don’t.”
She wailed, the screeching of a soul that few could hear and even fewer could survive. It made my ears want to bleed, so I grabbed my headphones and cranked up the music to cover it.
She’d be gone soon, since she only ever stayed for twenty minutes or so. I’d done this long enough to know which ones would cross over and which ones who would get stuck. Melinda?
She’d get stuck. She’d cling and try to bargain until the last moment, when she faded to nothing and ended up in purgatory. Even I didn’t like to think about that, about the place I’d glimpsed a handful of times that sent a creeping, gnawing terror through me.
The deep bass and rhythmic drumming drowned out her wailing, and I fell back to sleep. Eventually.
Jayce Carter lives in Southern California with her husband and two spawns. She originally wanted to take over the world but realized that would require wearing pants. This led her to choosing writing, a completely pants-free occupation. She has a fear of heights yet rock climbs for fun and enjoys making up excuses for not going out and socializing. You can learn more about her at her website.
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If Leo marries his best friend, they’ll inherit a fortune. The only trouble is, he’s already fallen for her father.
Yacht captain Leo’s never stayed in one place long enough to fall in love. That all could change when he’s left £1,000,000. But there’s a catch. Leo can only inherit the money if he takes a bride before the year is out. And Leo’s the kind of man who’s only interested in taking a husband.
So Leo and his best friend hatch a plan. She’ll be his pretend bride, and he’ll use his new-found wealth to support her animal sanctuary. What could possibly go wrong?
Archie’s the closest thing to perfect that Leo’s ever seen. Dashing, mature and sexy as hell, after one hot night in a London hotel, Leo can’t stop thinking about the legal eagle who’s stolen his heart.
When Leo meets the father of his bride-to-be, he’s in for the shock of his life. Can Archie and Leo join forces to give themselves and a stricken seal pup a second chance, or will a grasping lawyer with a chequebook in place of his heart scupper the happiness of the captain and the father of the bride?
Leo held Liv’s hand as he watched the solicitor flick through the file on his large mahogany desk. Leo had never been to the reading of a will before, never been inside a solicitor’s office before, and Liv had gamely agreed to come with him for moral support.
He was amazed to see the green-shaded lamp on the solicitor’s desk, as Leo had only seen them in films, yet it seemed that here they were a perfectly normal part of real life. The room was so quiet, all sound muffled by the thick carpet that ran through the wood-paneled offices. Leo’s breathing and his own heartbeat sounded twice as loud, and although they were in the middle of London, he could barely hear the traffic or pneumatic drills that had been so ear-piercing when he was outside.
The solicitor shuffled some papers. It wasn’t even as if Herr Schreiber, captain of Cologne industry and the most colorful man ever to leave North Rhine-Westphalia for a life on the ocean waves, had been Leo’s relative. He had merely been a client whose yacht he had skippered around the Mediterranean. A very rich, rather eccentric client, but a client nevertheless. And in his own way, a friend.
Gunther Schreiber’s death, coming as it did in the arms of his cabaret-singing lover in the eighty-first year of his life, hadn’t been unexpected. In fact, rarely did the platitude he died doing something he loved ring so true, but for Gunther Schreiber, being in the arms of his latest muse was exactly how he would have ended his own final chapter. Leo had no doubt about that, and for the same reason, his sadness at the death of his late client was tempered with a sense of satisfaction at a life well-lived and filled to the brim with the fizz of champagne and the hum of the super yacht’s engine.
The last thing Leo would have expected was to find himself sitting in this vast office with its scent of leather and wood polish, his best friend at his side as they waited for the last attendee to arrive. What could possibly be in the will of Gunther Schreiber that would concern Leo Maxwell? Perhaps a little token to mark their happy sailing. One of the handmade yachts from Gunther’s salon, or perhaps one of the paintings that had decorated the walls. Leo hoped it wasn’t that, because he doubted he’d be able to afford the insurance premiums to protect those priceless works.
This is probably a mistake. Or he’s left me something completely random, one last prank to send me on my way.
Yet Mr. Brockett of Brockett, Brockett and Holliday had been very clear in his letter that Leo should attend the meeting in person. A meeting to discuss the last will and testament of Gunther Jost Schreiber, said the neat type on the thick ivory paper with its green and gold lettering, at which you will learn something to your advantage.
Mr. Brockett tapped his pen on the cover of a buff file on his desk. He looked over his half-moon spectacles to the door and pursed his lips. Leo was surprised by the frames of his glasses as well—was the office furnished entirely from the contents of an antiques shop?
Telling himself the experience was fun and not terrifying, Leo grinned at Liv.
“All right?” he whispered, his voice absorbed at once by the deadening effects of the muffling carpet. She nodded, the high brunette ponytail on top of her head bouncing with the motion. Then she smiled and squeezed his hand.
“I am sorry,” Mr. Brockett offered. “I’m sure Mr. Beaucock will be here very soon. I understand he’s a very busy man. A fellow solicitor, you know.”
Trying to avoid laughing, Leo asked, “Is he Gunther’s nephew or…? He told me he’d never had any children.”
“A very distant connection,” he replied. “Herr Schreiber’s only living relative.”
Leo nodded. “I see. Are any other of Gunther’s friends coming? Those ladies on the yacht…”
Leo hoped Mr. Brockett would know what he meant by that. The ladies came and went, and Gunther had always been very fond of them. Surely at least one of them would trot in on their patent-heeled shoes and inherit Gunther’s villa in Cannes?
“I’m not at liberty to disclose any details, but I can assure you that Herr Schreiber has been most generous in his provisions. He stipulated that the parties each be informed in a strict order and according to strict instructions.” Brocket chanced a thin-lipped smile. “I’m sure you understand.”
Liv gave a little snigger and murmured, “So all of Gunther’s girls don’t bump into each other?”
Leo put his hand over his mouth, trying not to laugh. “I’ve seen that happen! Someone called Heidi threw someone called Marisol into the sea!”
“Oh God, we saw it all when we were crewing for Gunther,” Liv told Brockett. “He got more action than any of—” She was silenced by the sound of the door opening, the gesture ushering in a cloud of potent aftershave ahead of the new arrival.
“Jesus Christ, this place is out in the bloody boondocks!” a voice announced. “Hardly the beating heart of legal London, is it? Beaucock. Pleasure to meet one of the real old guard!”
Leo turned in his seat. There before him was a man dressed in pinstripes, a sneer taking up most of his long face. Leo instinctively held Liv’s hand tighter. He gave the new arrival a polite nod, even though he would much rather have run away. He’d met people like Beaucock before, monied pillocks who would hire him to skipper their eye-wateringly expensive yacht and treat Leo with contempt as the hired help.
“Morning,” Leo said to Beaucock. “How do you do?”
“I’ve had a hell of a morning in the very best way.” Beaucock planted his feet a shoulder-width apart and held out his hand to Leo. “Let’s just say that’s one more Premier League player whose license won’t be snatched away by the so-called forces of law and order for a tiny bit of harmless speed. They see a Ferrari and they think it’s payday. Well, not today!”
“Mr. Beaucock specializes in motoring cases,” Brockett explained as Conrad waited for Leo to take his hand. “High-profile ones.”
“Teflon Con,” Beaucock said with obvious pride. “Conrad Beaucock.”
Leo shook Conrad’s moist hand. “I’ve never met one of Gun’s relatives before. Nice to meet you. I’m Leo Maxwell, but some people call me Max.” Leo grinned at Liv. Some people being Liv. “And this is my friend Liv.”
Conrad gave Liv the sort of look a man might give a new car, appraising her in one glance.
“Good to meet you, Leroy.” He released Leo’s hand. “And great to meet you, Liv.”
“It’s Leo,” he prompted. Yes, Conrad really was that type, the kind who consigned people to a bin marked inconsequential human being within seconds of meeting them. And Leo had bought a smart tweed three-piece just for this meeting. His oilskin jacket and wellies hadn’t seemed quite the thing to wear. He didn’t even have to look at Liv to know that she wouldn’t be impressed. Men like Conrad were all too easy to come by in the yachting world, and they were as far from Liv’s cup of tea as it was possible to get.
“Capricorn,” Conrad replied as he took a seat. “Don’t tell me you’re into that bullcrap?”
“Leo is my name.” Is this guy for real? “I can’t even remember what my star sign is. I don’t particularly care.” Leo glanced at Mr. Brockett and the file on his desk. Conrad rubbed his hands together, then looked at his watch with such theatrics that Leo knew he was waiting to be asked what was on his wrist.
So Leo wouldn’t ask.
“Let’s get this baby read,” he told the solicitor. “My Rolex tells me I can give you an hour.”
A Rolex. More like a load of Bolex.
Leo shook his head. Conrad Beaucock, you are a tosser. “I’m sure Gun would be over the moon to know you’ve managed to squeeze the reading of his last wishes into your busy schedule. It’s not very respectful to the old boy.”
“It’s not like he’s here to complain, is it?” Conrad sniggered. “Get over yourself. Who are you anyway?”
“Mr. Beaucock, this is Mr. Maxwell. He skippered Herr Schreiber’s yacht around—” Brockett began to explain.
“So you’re a taxi driver without a taxi, yeah?”
“I’m RYA Yachtmaster Offshore certified, actually.” So there. “And, more importantly, I was Gun’s friend.”
“We both were,” Liv said, taking Leo’s hand again. “And we miss him.”
Leo grinned at her, the days of larking about in the sunshine rushing back to him. “Life’s going to be a lot quieter without Gun around!”
“Not mine, mate.” Conrad sneered. “My life’s going to be a lot louder once I bank that check!”
“Why, are you buying a drum kit?” Leo quipped. Was that a childish riposte? Oh, tough titties, I don’t care.
Brockett cleared his throat and opened the file.
So this is the moment, then.
The mystery of the meeting was about to be solved and Conrad Beaucock was about to inherit everything Gunther hadn’t given to his girlfriends. And after five minutes in his company, Leo knew that he didn’t deserve a penny of it.
Gunther had kept an exquisite ship in a bottle on board. He’d spotted Leo admiring it and had waxed lyrical about it. Maybe that was Gunther’s bequest?
“Now,” Brockett began, “this is a rather complicated matter. Herr Schreiber’s posthumous wishes have been carried out by a will, as you might expect, and a trust. Due to the sensitive nature of some of the bequests, it’s been necessary to be rather…exacting. To ensure that the documents could be sealed, as Herr Schreiber wished. I hope you’ll understand?”
Leo glanced to Liv, who gave him an encouraging smile. He listened intently as Brockett began to read, the will and trust documents a dense tangle of legalese and arcane wording that soon had Leo lost. Conrad, Teflon Con, looked as though it was all old news to him, the flash lawyer in his pinstripes and pointed shoes. He was a world away from Gunther, white-bearded and lounging in kaftans and silk slippers, like a cross between a hippy and Father Christmas.
“And now we reach the bequests,” Brockett said eventually. “There’ll be time afterward for questions, but I’d appreciate it if you would allow things to proceed. The ladies were somewhat ungoverned during this portion, but do try to cooperate.”
“Of course,” Leo said.
Heidi, Marisol, Anook and Tjitske came to his mind in a flurry of big hair, long nails and metallic bikinis. They had always been ungoverned on the deck of the yacht, so Leo couldn’t imagine them being any different in Mr. Brockett’s office. What a scene that must’ve been.
Brockett reached down beneath his desk and, to Leo’s surprise, produced a laptop. He lifted the lid and danced his fingers across the keyboard, then turned the screen to face his audience. There was Gunther again, large as life and beaming with happiness on the deck of the Aphrodite. Behind him Leo could see the crystal-blue ocean, a horizon stretching off into infinity.
Leo sniffed back a tear. He missed that wide smile. He glanced at Liv, knowing she would feel the same. “There he is, Gun the man!”
Eleanor Harkstead likes to dash about in nineteenth-century costume, in bonnet or cravat as the mood takes her. She can occasionally be found wandering old graveyards. Eleanor is very fond of chocolate, wine, tweed waistcoats and nice pens. Her large collection of vintage hats would rival Hedda Hopper’s.
Originally from the south-east of England, Eleanor now lives somewhere in the Midlands with a large ginger cat who resembles a Viking.
Catherine Curzon is a royal historian who writes on all matters of 18th century. Her work has been featured on many platforms and Catherine has also spoken at various venues including the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, and Dr Johnson’s House.
Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, writes fiction set deep in the underbelly of Georgian London.
She lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.
He was looking for an escape. In her, he found his home.
Contractor and Handymen host Nick Zorn needs a change. He’s been feeling listless, and when his ex-girlfriend embarrasses him in a viral post by sharing private details of their sex life, he’s downright ready to escape. When an opportunity to reinvent his career arises, Nick takes it, even though it might mean the end of Handymen. However, the team has one more project to tackle together first—a struggling cat sanctuary in dire need of renovation.
When Nick arrives at the shelter and meets its owner, a lovely widow named Claire, his life is once more thrown into disarray. Neither of them is looking for a relationship, but the attraction is fierce. As he helps Claire fix her workplace, he realizes he wants to help her in other ways too. Their flirtation sizzles, flaring into a friends-with-benefits arrangement.
But the more time they spend together, the more reluctant these ‘friends’ become to fight their deepening connection, even though they know their inevitable break will devastate them…
Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of cyberbullying and harrassment, mentions of animal hoarding, bereavement and mourning. There are also references to male impotence and erectile dysfunction.
Nick Zorn opened the coffee shop door and paused at the entrance, waiting for the now-familiar giggles of ridicule. Releasing his death grip on the door handle, he took a hesitant step.
Luckily, no one noticed him.
Letting out a quiet sigh, he hurried toward the back of the café, and sat at a table in one of the darker corners.
Maybe it was time to start holding his head high again. He was Nick fricking Zorn, beloved TV star, businessman and friend to all.
A young woman at one of the other tables glanced in his direction. Her eyebrows shot up and she stifled a grin.
Beloved TV star. Yeah, right. And maybe it was time to start wearing dark sunglasses everywhere he went.
Seeing as his brothers hadn’t yet arrived, he pulled out his cell phone but didn’t turn to any social media apps. He just bowed his head and stared at his home screen, trying to appear busy.
Within minutes, Michael and Eli arrived.
“What took you so long?” asked Nick.
“Uh,” said Michael. “We’re right on time.”
Only when they sat, providing a buffer between him and the rest of the café customers, did Nick relax a little.
“You good?” asked Eli.
“Yeah. Just dandy.” Change the subject. Pronto. “Hey, did Lacey tell you what this meeting was about? She was vague with me.”
“Me too,” said Eli.
Lacey was typically the first to arrive for meetings. Of course, they usually held their meetings at the Inspiration Network offices.
For the last few years, Nick and his brothers had been hosting the Toronto-based TV show Handymen, as well as operating their own contracting business. On their show, they helped families realize their home renovation dreams, suiting them up with new appliances and teaching them how to tackle difficult renovation projects.
It wasn’t unheard of for Lacey to pull the brothers in for a meeting, rather than involving the whole crew, but there was an unusual air of secrecy about this tête-à-tête.
“What about you?” Nick asked Michael. “She must have told you something.”
Michael grunted. “Why would she tell me anything that she didn’t tell you?”
Nick and Eli just stared at him.
“For God’s sake. I don’t have any more of a direct line to Lacey than you fools do.” Michael frowned. “Although she was acting cagey the last time I saw her.”
Michael liked to pretend he and Lacey Styles didn’t have a special bond, but they did. Or at least, it was a different sort of bond from the one Nick or Eli had with her. Not only was Lacey their director on Handymen, she and Michael had had a relationship. It had been some time ago, and Michael was now very happy with his wife, Emily. His only present connection to Lacey was a solid working relationship, one based on trust and mutual respect.
That didn’t mean Nick and Eli hadn’t teased him about his ill-fated tryst for a good long time.
Not anymore. Nick had recently made a vow not to tease anyone about their relationship status, especially since his last one had ended up being such a clusterfuck.
Besides, they all cared about Lacey. She’d been good to them. She’d singlehandedly guided their TV careers, coached them on navigating the press and even taught three Neanderthal builders how to develop their presence on social media.
In Nick’s case, she’d also recently taught him the merits of keeping a low profile when needed.
Of course, most importantly of all, she had turned Handymen into a popular home renovation show. Their success was mostly in the Canadian market, but they had big plans. From day one, Lacey had made it clear she aimed to get the team a coveted timeslot on the Create Network, the biggest home improvement network around. It hadn’t happened yet, but Nick was hopeful. He knew they had the chops to break into the American market.
The shop door opened. Lacey spotted them and walked over. Dressed in her customary heels, a slim skirt and a frilly blouse, the brunette turned a few heads as she made her way to the table. “Gentlemen.” She sat down next to Nick and smiled. “I appreciate you meeting me outside of our regular venue and time.”
“No sweat,” said Michael. “What’s up?”
That was Michael. He never wasted a word, if he could help it. Nick stifled a chuckle.
“Anyone want coffee?” asked Eli. “I could use one.”
They all gave Eli their orders and held off on the official part of the meeting until he returned with four steaming cups.
Lacey grabbed her usual soy latte, took a sip and put it down. “I have great news. Life-changing news, actually.” She paused, looking at each of them in turn, creating suspense.
It only took a few seconds before Michael began to tap his finger on the table. “Put us out of our misery. Please.”
“All right, all right. So, guys, what has been my number one objective with Handymen?”
“Has Create picked us up?” asked Nick.
“Not quite,” said Lacey. “But it’s almost as good. As you know, I’ve always been focused on getting new viewers. A plan is in place to help us find a wider audience than ever before. A couple of days ago, I got called into a meeting at Inspiration. The executive producers were all there. They want to take Handymen in an exciting new direction.”
Nick bit his tongue. The last exciting direction the producers had suggested involved the Zorn brothers wearing tank tops during their tapings, ones that would show off their muscles. Luckily, they had all ixnayed that idea into oblivion.
“Basically,” continued Lacey, “they want us to take the show on the road.”
“Okay.” Eli had a note of caution in his voice. “Define on the road.”
Lacey’s smile grew tight. “I mean, on the road. Traveling. Visiting new cities. Tackling renovation projects in places like Vancouver, Montreal, New York, Boston. All over North America, frankly. The idea is that we would concentrate on a new city each episode. It would give us a chance to work with different styles of architecture, different gardening zones, even some historic properties. It’s a huge opportunity for some great exposure. Isn’t this wonderful?”
Nick kept a careful eye on his brothers. He didn’t need to hear them speak to know what they thought.
They hated the idea.
And he couldn’t say he blamed them.
Michael, for one, would never do it. He was married. Not only did Emily have a thriving business in downtown Toronto, he would never walk away from Zorn Contracting. It had been his idea to start the business, and he still saw it as his baby. They all did, of course, but Michael had always made it clear it was just as much of a priority to him as his work on Handymen.
Then there was Eli, who had just gotten married. His wife, Bernadette, known as Bernie, worked for a local not-for-profit agency. Her big project was to help administer a camp for children in cottage country, a couple of hours outside Toronto. It had become a passion project for both her and Eli, and because the camp only had one summer under its belt, Eli wasn’t about to ditch it.
Nick already knew neither of his brothers would take significant time away from their wives or their businesses. The first couple of years in a new business were crucial.
“Well?” prompted Lacey. “This is the part where you say, ‘This is amazing. Thank you for sharing this incredible news.’”
“But we’ve already filmed next season’s episodes,” said Nick.
“This would be for the following season, which we have to start working on soon,” explained Lacey. “As you know, our contracts only take us through the coming season. We haven’t been renewed yet beyond that, and it was a chance for the executive producers to make some changes. Change is good, guys. Tell me what you think.”
Eli began, his face pinched. “Lacey, I can’t. There’s no way I’d leave Bernie for that length of time.”
“It’s not like we’ll be gone for years. Just, you know, a few weeks here, a few weeks there. In total, maybe a few months out of the year. And you can travel back and forth as much as you’d like.”
“I’m sorry,” said Eli. “That’s not something I want.”
She looked to Michael. “And you?”
He shrugged. “No can do.”
“It’s out of the question. Lacey, you know Em and I are settled here.”
“Look, I understand that the logistics will take getting used to, but it can be done,” she replied. “You could talk to Emily every day, thanks to that handy smartphone I taught you how to use. It’s not like you’ll be communicating via carrier pigeon. And, guys, if we want to hit the big leagues of TV, we need to break out of Toronto. You know this. I hear what you’re saying. It would be hard at first, but it would be so worth it.”
“Worth it for the network,” asked Michael, “or worth it for us?”
“Worth it for all of us.” She turned to Nick. “I guess you feel the same way?”
Nick’s face heated as the others scrutinized him. Of course, she’d assume he’d toe the Zorn party line. Sometimes, people didn’t credit him for having thoughts independent of his brothers, but he did.
Did he want this?
What did he want? Truth be told, he’d been considering it a lot lately, agonizing over it.
Frankly, the only thing he’d wanted for the last couple of months was a chance to escape.
Rosanna Leo writes contemporary and paranormal romance. She is the First Place Winner of the 2018 Northern Hearts Contest (Contemporary Romance) for A Good Man.
From Toronto, Canada, Rosanna occupies a house in the suburbs with her husband and their two sons, and spends most of her time being tolerated by their cat Sweetie. When not writing, Rosanna works for her local library, where she is busy laying the groundwork to become a library ghost one day.
ROSANNA LEO IS GIVING AWAY THIS FABULOUS PRIZE TO ONE LUCKY WINNER. ENTER HERE FOR YOUR CHANCE TO WIN THESE FABULOUS SEMI-PRECIOUS EARRINGS AND GET A FREE EBOOK FROM THE AUTHOR! Notice: This competition ends on 4TH May 2021 at 5pm GMT. Competition hosted by Totally Entwined Group.
The Vampire’s Witch welcomes readers back to the world of vampires, witches, and magic.
Jaret Bachmann’s life spins out of control after a handsome stranger saves him from an attack along the bike path on Lakeshore Drive. His estranged high school sweetheart stalks him, the enraged ghost of his ancestor destroys his family, and his bike path savior-cum-lover abandons him after learning Jaret is a powerful witch.
A horrific family tragedy sends Jaret into deep depression. Struggling to find his way afterward, Jaret searches for comfort in the unlikely friendship of a secret vampire community.
Over time, Jaret’s friendship with the vampires strengthens and he forges a new family connection with Xavier, Thomas, and Catherine. But he and Anthony are estranged, and though their souls are entwined, their hearts are another matter.
Xavier, Thomas, Anthony, and Catherine return in this, the third book in The Realm of the Vampire Council series and a sequel to The Bachmann Family Secret.
Even after three years, living in a big city still creeped Jaret Bachmann out. He hated his fear of dark corners and alleys, not to mention his concern about getting beat up as a gay guy. Straight guys, no matter how peaceful they looked, worried him. In broad daylight, he felt more secure as long as he watched where he went, kept his head up, and stayed in populated areas. And he loved living in the Rogers Park neighborhood. Being in a metropolitan area was so much better for him than small town Colorado. Still, he only had a little light available before the sun went down tonight.
He giggled at himself to release some tension. His mind went to some weird place about the sun setting, like a vampire might jump out and attack him. As if.
Heading out to meet his best friend, Brady, Jaret relaxed once he got to the path along Lake Michigan. He passed several joggers, almost got hit by a bike, and meandered his way south. He contemplated taking the “L” but had plenty of time to walk. The spring weather warmed up Chicago, still a comfortable seventy degrees, even as the sun slowly descended in the west. The weather was perfect. Besides, he could always use the exercise.
Jaret felt safer and got his iPod out to search for music. He loved Lady Gaga; why not a little monster love? Or Train’s latest CD rocked. Still, he paused at “Relax” and grinned. That song totally kicked ass. Totally. And, he hadn’t listened to much of his favorite singer’s first album in a long time. If he loved Lady Gaga, then words couldn’t describe his adoration for Mika.
He popped in his earbuds and picked up his pace. He even danced a little, despite being in public and seeing the few passersby glancing his way as if he’d gone insane.
The path grew darker with the setting sun and the trees lining both sides of the trail. This dance mix steeled Jaret’s nerves. He wiggled his butt, jumped to the side, and smiled at a little old lady and her dog as they walked by.
A few yards later, he was alone. He fretted a little but cranked the music to ignore the world around him. To comfort himself, he reached into his pocket and rubbed the ruby necklace he always brought along for protection. All the Bachmann heirloom jewels empowered his witchcraft and kept him safe, and he loved the beautiful rubies most of all. In a pinch, he could always use his magic to ward anyone off. He’d never had to use his ability to defend himself, except from ghosts, but knew he could if needed. Being a witch had its advantages.
Jaret almost missed the group of four guys sitting off to the side, watching the lake or something. He slowed when he glimpsed a bright-red shirt and thought of his boyfriend, Steve. He’d seen Steve earlier in the day, wearing this totally hot red T-shirt that clung to his chest and showed off his gorgeous biceps. He couldn’t remember the shirt exactly, though he thought it had a University of Nebraska logo on the front.
Jaret lurched to a stop when he bumped into someone. “Uh, oh. Sorry. I didn’t see you.” He glanced up to see another guy with a pretty big belly, yet tons of muscle, not to mention a wicked scowl.
The guy yanked out Jaret’s earbuds and glared down at him. “Fuckin’ fairy. Watch where you’re walkin’.”
“Sorry,” Jaret barely whispered and started shaking. He’d heard about gay bashings but had never experienced one. In fact, he had never been in a fight. He could see this dude meant him harm by the way he loomed over him.
Jaret reached into his pocket for the necklace. His shaking hands got the better of him, and his finger got stuck in the little coin pocket instead.
Growing more afraid, Jaret stepped to the side to continue until the guy moved with him and blocked his way. Jaret stared at the familiar logo of Northwestern football on the purple T-shirt. He often saw the very shirt on Steve. This guy was enormous. Not good.
His heart racing, Jaret scanned for anyone nearby watching. He spotted the group of four guys out of the corner of his eye. Any chance for help evaporated when two of them moved closer, and he saw they, too, wore Northwestern football gear.
One of them grinned and clapped. “Caught yourself a little fag, Mikey? What you gonna do with him?”
Mikey laughed and crossed his bazooka-sized forearms over his chest. Then he reached down and petted Jaret on the head like a dog. Jaret had little time to act to protect himself. There was no time to get the necklace out. He shot to the side to move around the asshole, but the guy put out his leg and tripped Jaret. He sprawled onto the path, skinning his elbow.
Jaret’s heart pounded as fear almost overwhelmed him.
Damian Serbu lives in the Chicago area with his husband and two dogs, Akasha and Chewbacca. The dogs control his life, tell him what to write, and threaten to eat him in the middle of the night if he disobeys. He has published The Vampire’s Angel, The Vampire’s Quest, and The Vampire’s Protégé, as well as Santa’s Kinky Elf, Simon and Santa Is a Vampire with NineStar Press. The Bachmann Family Secret is scheduled for release July 2020. Keep up to date with him on Facebook, Twitter, or at www.DamianSerbu.com.
The world is changing quickly for Chris now that he’s part of the Immortal Community. With the events of his past finally behind him, he’s still having visions and true magic is gradually taking hold in the world. Chris is still new and has no real standing in the Immortal Community, but he is learning that nothing is what he thought.
Old enemies must work together and longtime friends may not be trustworthy. With Juliet, Amanda, and Kirtus by his side, they have to prevent the immortal and witch community from being exposed.
New friendships are made, and longtime alliances are called into question. How will The Called defeat these latest threats, and what does it mean for the world?
The question of death returned to me as I reflected on recent events. You die and your body no longer functions. I was wrong. You die and your soul leaves, and what’s left turns to dust. That wasn’t the case.
Everything I thought was no longer my reality.
I sat with a glass of brandy between my hands, focusing on the fire in Juliet’s office. The oranges, reds, and yellows of the flames danced around the logs, releasing a warmth that barely penetrated my worried exterior. The crackling of the fire tickled my ears as the scent of burning pine lingered in and out of my consciousness. A knot tugged the back of my neck. What was this new vision? Worse yet, what did it have to do with me? Not to mention Juliet, Kirtus, Gregor, and the other Immortals.
“Chris.” Juliet’s gentle voice pulled me from my fog of apprehension.
How long had I been like this? A minute? A day? A year? I wasn’t sure. I turned from the fire. Kirtus sat next to me on the sofa, his coat removed, replaced by an air of worry. His red hair, green and gray eyes typically so intoxicating, brought me no joy. Gregor’s tall solid frame blocked one of Juliet’s bookcases, his rugged face a shadow of concern. All of Juliet’s tomes and books, several of them personal journals of her long life, sat there taunting me. Would they be able to unravel this new vision? This new mystery? They were next to no help with the witches, or my father. The monster. I sipped my brandy, hoping it would take the chill from my soul.
I caught Juliet out of the corner of my eye waiting for me to speak. She was patient as always. She sat with her ivory pant-clad leg crossed and a glass of red in her hand, but deep in her stunning eyes there was unease. Despite her apprehension in moments like this, she appeared so young. Nevertheless, behind that façade of youth was the power of an Immortal who had been around for 1650 years. No one should ever underestimate her.
My eyes narrowed on the red, and my stomach flipped, not from hunger or desire but from this new burden I was meant to carry.
“Would you like a glass?” she offered. Her dark blonde hair, normally combed out, was in a ponytail, making her appear all the younger. I caught a whiff of vanilla and roses, her signature scent. I inhaled deeper, hoping it would soothe me.
I shook my head.
“I realize it’s difficult, but please can you tell us the vision again.” Juliet’s voice was a whisper, but the request rang in my head. How many times would I have to retell this story?
I put the half-full brandy glass on the coffee table, recalling the images to me. “I’m standing in some kind of chamber, but it’s not anyplace I’ve been.” I scanned their three faces. “It’s not here.” My heart pounded louder in my chest. I focused on my breathing a bit more before I continued. “In the center, there is what appears to be a formal table of polished stone with nine ornately carved chairs around it. On the wall…” I kept my eyes closed and focused on the wall. “There’s a mural. You’re in it, Juliet; so is Sybil, Garrett, Fernando, Rahim, all the members of the Council of Light.”
“The council chamber in Egypt.” Juliet tapped her finger on the edge of her glass, the noise echoing throughout her office.
The sentence was barely spoken before all the images of my vision flashed back. It was too much, and my eyes flew open. Juliet, Gregor, and Kirtus surveyed me. Considering their strained expressions, they are worried about me. I waved off their unease and shook my head.
“What else?” Gregor’s deep voice cool and calm, but the glance he shared with Juliet betrayed his composure. He didn’t understand what to do with this information any more than I did.
I pulled the vision to my thoughts and continued, “The wall with the mural began to crack and crumble and I smell smoke. The chamber is on fire…” I focused on Juliet. “The stone table crumbles. The chairs burn and everything is in shambles.”
Juliet nodded and sipped her red.
“Something or someone destroyed it, but I didn’t see them.”
“Who could do such a thing?” Kirtus rubbed his hands together. “Only the Council of Light knows the actual location.”
“What else do you see?” Juliet’s peaceful aura melted my worry and fear. After a moment my thoughts cleared. Normally I would be upset at her for using her gift on me, but I needed it. Especially after all that had happened these last few weeks. My mother’s sacrifice to save me and kill my father still haunted me. My father’s death came after we discovered he was in charge of a coven of witches who wanted to destroy the world. It was a battle we had to fight to stop the witches from releasing true magic into our world.
We failed at that. True magic had still seeped into our world before we cut it off.
I had hoped it was all behind us. I wanted things to return to normal, but my gift of being a Seer had other plans. I focused once more on the brandy, wanting a sip but not taking it; my gaze returned to the fire. More of the vision came forward. “As the room fell to ruin and the mural burned, a large carved wooden chair with inlays of gold and decorated with jewels pushed the debris away.” I closed my eyes again. “There was a shadow figure sitting in the chair.”
“Who is it?” Kirtus asked.
“I’m not sure, but I hear his voice.” I pushed my eyes together tighter to help me hear.
“I’ve stayed out of the way of history, but it’s time to return and bring what is right and just back to this world.” I took a breath. “That’s what he said, but I don’t sense malice from him, but I don’t know. Sorrow and pain, maybe. Sacrifice?”
“What does he look like?” Juliet called me to focus.
“He’s tall and he’s wearing some kind of toga with deep crimson and white stripes. I can’t really see anything else.” My eyes fluttered open.
Everyone was silent. The crackle of the fire might as well have been the rumble of a train going through the room. It was unbearable, and I was about to speak.
Kirtus beat me to it. “Why don’t we take a break?”
I shook my head. “It’s fine. After the man vanished, I was standing on a grass-covered pasture. In front of me was a hill with a young girl sitting there laughing and clapping her hands. She had long brown hair and her gaze planted on an oversized full moon. It was impossibly big.” I sighed. “I’m sorry but that’s all.” I slouched deeper in the couch, focusing my own gaze on the ceiling and the rich wood inlays and trim. “I have no idea what any of it means.” The square patterns offered my brain a relaxing, ordered shape.
“That’s okay.” Gregor’s voice was stronger now as if he realized what needed to be done.
Maybe he did. I couldn’t be sure.
“You’ve given us a lot of information to go through. Add that to the reports of magic both Victor and I have seen. There is a lot happening we still have to address,” Gregor continued. “Once we begin to break it down, perhaps more will come to you.”
I faced him. “Maybe. I hope so, because right now, it feels like a whole lot of nothing. Especially when you are already dealing with these other problems.”
“We’re all new to this Seer business.” Kirtus’s hand rested on my leg.
His touch caused a shiver to rush through my body, and right now, all I wanted to do was take him to me, hold him, and get lost in his arms and warm body.
“Plus, it’s not like you haven’t been through a whole lot of hell over the last few weeks.” Kirtus offered me a grin, the single dimple on his left cheek popping out. It melted away more of my worry.
“Is it possible it’s another witch?” Kirtus asked. “Especially if magic is involved.”
He must have already known about the reports of magic being seen both in San Jose and up in San Francisco. Either way he didn’t seem surprised by this news. Or, he could have an amazing poker face.
I turned toward Juliet, who had left the chair she was sitting in and walked over to her office windows to look out. Her ivory pants and jade-green shirt somehow still looked as crisp as the moment she had glided into my bedroom only a few hours ago.
“I doubt it’s a witch, especially given the comment about staying out of histories way and setting things right.” Juliet’s voice was tight. “The clothing Chris describes is a Roman Senator, I think.” She turned to me and the others. “Another Immortal, maybe, one from the fall of Rome.”
“That doesn’t narrow the list down.” Gregor pulled at his goatee. “Especially if we include the Dark.” His frown stretched farther across his face. “Perhaps we need to talk to Victor.”
“I can ask him,” Kirtus offered. “He mentioned he wanted to see me this week.” He tried not to grimace.
Was it about the lieutenant position and the posting as his representative to the Council of Light? What he mentioned to me earlier tonight? Was that what he wanted to speak to him about?
“Thank you.” Gregor offered a slight bow of his head. “Juliet, is there anyone you know who can help with this?” He walked over to the golden cart with the bottles of alcohol and red on it. He poured himself a glass of red. “What about the witches you know here? What about the local coven? You have a good relationship with them. What about the one who charmed this estate?”
Juliet’s lips pulled into a small frown. She crossed over to the cart and poured herself another glass of red.
“I could have gotten you that.” Gregor’s tone was gentle.
She waved him off before she sipped her drink. “He’s a Healer, not a witch, and I’m not sure if he will assist us; we have an unfortunate history.” She held her drink in one hand and pulled a book from the shelf. She turned to her desk and walked to her seat, a quiet, far-off look about her.
I peeked over at Kirtus. “We should go.” I stood and glanced over to Juliet. “You have a lot on your plate with the reports of magic. I’m sorry I’ve added to the burden, but with this new vision I figured you needed to know.”
“Chris, if you see anything else…” She trailed off.
“Thank you, Chris.” Gregor extended his hand. “This new vision and perhaps the magic we’ve seen may be related.”
“I hope not.” The pull of Kirtus’s body helped me realize he was by my side. “I’ll see if I can track down anyone on my end.” He glanced over to Juliet. “My network isn’t nearly as broad as yours, but you never know.”
“I think we’ll need all the help we can get,” Gregor affirmed.
I spared a worried glance at Juliet. Something was bothering her, and it wasn’t just my vision or the reports of magic. I didn’t recognize what it was, but I understood my creator well enough to leave her be. She would tell me once she had processed her thoughts and all my vision information.
She met my gaze. “Yes, we’ll speak more. Thank you for understanding.”
“Of course.” I took Kirtus’s hand, and we walked out of her office for the second time tonight.
M.D. Neu is an award-winning queer Fiction Writer with a love for writing and travel. Living in the heart of Silicon Valley (San Jose, California) and growing up around technology, he’s always been fascinated with what could be. Specifically drawn to Science Fiction and Paranormal television and novels, M.D. Neu was inspired by the great Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, Stephen King, Alice Walker, Alfred Hitchcock, Harvey Fierstein, Anne Rice, and Kim Stanley Robinson. An odd combination, but one that has influenced his writing.
Growing up in an accepting family as a gay man he always wondered why there were never stories reflecting who he was. Constantly surrounded by characters that only reflected heterosexual society, M.D. Neu decided he wanted to change that. So, he took to writing, wanting to tell good stories that reflected our diverse world.
When M.D. Neu isn’t writing, he works for a non-profit and travels with his biggest supporter and his harshest critic, Eric his husband of twenty plus years.
Devid Khandelwal desperately wants to experience the supernatural. After years of studying everything from crystals to tarot to spellcasting, nothing has happened that would tell him the Shadow Realm is real. And that kills Dev. As a last-ditch resort, he purchases a summoning board, an occult tool that will grant him his ultimate desires.
Cameron Habersham is Dev’s best friend. Cam loves Dev like a brother and will do anything for him, as long as he looks good doing it. So when Dev asks him to perform the summoning board’s ritual, he reluctantly agrees, but he knows nothing will come of it. Nothing ever does.
However, within a day, Dev and Cam’s lives are turned upside down as wishes begin to come true. They discover the existence of a supernatural world beyond their imagination, but peace between the species is tenuous at best.
Dev finally gets to see the Shadow Realm, meets the man of his dreams, and is inducted into the local male coven. But for all the desires that were summoned into existence, Dev soon realizes the magical community dances the line between good and evil, and Cam ends up on the wrong side of everything.
The old adage is true: Be careful what you wish for.
“It’s how much?” Cam scoffed, glaring at Damien behind the counter.
“$299.99, plus tax.” Damien’s tongue piercing got in the way of the ‘s’, and the word came out more like ‘pluth’.
“Ignore him, Damien. New piercing? I like it.” Dev tried to ameliorate his best friend’s rude comment, then turned to scowl at Cam. “Honestly, why did I ask you to come?”
“Because you love me.” Cam tapped a finger on the box Dev clutched in his hands. “Dev, your parents are going to kill you if you spend that much money.” Cam cocked an eyebrow at Dev. “And seriously, man, how are you going to pay for…whatever that thing is?”
“With this.” Dev pulled out his wallet and flipped the black leather cover open to extract a brand new, slick, and shiny, never-been-used MasterCard.
“And where the hell did you get that?”
“Special offer for impending university graduates.” Dev sneered. If all went well, he’d be graduating in the next couple of weeks. Cam, however, had dropped out the previous year to figure himself out as a rebellion against his parents’ divorce. His mother had fiercely argued against the idea for two months until she gave up and agreed to Cam taking the year off.
“Oh dude. Just say no.” Cam had never been supportive of Dev’s interest in the occult, but this was going to be the last purchase.
Unless this purchase worked. And Dev knew it would.
It had to.
Dev placed all his hopes and dreams on the fact that this was going to work.
Dev couldn’t wait to open up his latest acquisition.
When he and Cam had arrived at Dev’s house, all he wanted to do was rush up the stairs to hide out in his bedroom, tucked away from any distractions or family drama, intent on inspecting his newest possession. Well, any distraction other than Cam, who had accompanied him home.
Instead, as Dev started up the stairs, looking back over his shoulder to ensure Cam was following, he careened into his sister Amna.
“Ugh, you oaf!” Amna shoved him backward, pushing him into Cam. “Oh! Whatchya got in the bag? It looks like it’s from that witchy store you like!” Amna slid a finger into the bag to pull it towards her to inspect. Dev pulled his prized possession towards him.
“Cam, come on, let’s go.” Dev snarled at Amna.
Cam, however, wasn’t keeping up. He’d wandered into the kitchen. Cam was playing nice.
“Hi, Mrs. Khandelwal.” Dev’s mom loved to cook and proudly fed her family traditional meals. Tonight’s fare, from the smell of things, was Rogan Josh. Dev hated curry with a passion. He wasn’t fond of lamb either and the two together were wretched. He decided going out for fast food was a better alternative.
“Cam,” Dev ground up his face with displeasure, “let’s go.”
Cam shot daggers back at Dev. He shook his head, rolling his eyes as he returned his attention to Dev’s mom. “Nice sari!” Cam smiled. “Later, Mrs. Khandelwal.”
Upon entering Dev’s room, Cam flopped onto the bed and began examining his too-long fingernails, preening them while lying on his back. Cam’s shoulder-length sandy-brown hair, which had a slight wave to it and a multitude of natural blonde and auburn highlights, splayed out behind his head, making his pose look model-esque. His three-days’ worth of stubble added to that. Dev would never have used the description of “male model” in front of his lifelong pal. The last thing Dev wanted was to feed Cam’s ego. Cam’s head filled most spaces he inhabited.
“Get your damn boots off my bed.” Dev slapped Cam’s feet.
“Oh my god. Yes, Mom.” Cam toed off the designer rainbow-snakeskin boots. The thud, thud ricocheted in the tiny bedroom.
“What are those things made of? Lead?” Dev quipped in response to their noisy removal.
“That’s the sound of a quality product, bitch.” Cam gave Dev the side-eye. Dev caught the glance. They glared at each other for all of a second, then burst into laughter.
He continued to stare at Cam, who returned to plucking away at some unseen dirt beneath a thumbnail. He had to admit, Cam was too handsome for his own good. They had known each other since grade school and had been, for the most part, inseparable. Dev had stood by idly as Cam used his good looks to get what he wanted. Not that Dev would describe himself as ugly. Far from it. But between the two, Cam always got the good-looking guys first, and that encouraged Cam to parade around, flaunting his beauty.
Dev had invited Cam to tag along on his afternoon shopping excursion. The out-of-the-way pagan store, Magix & Mystix, held all sorts of goodies, most of which Dev couldn’t afford, hence the credit card, but he’d had his eye on this particular object for the last couple of months and had squirrelled money away like a miser in order to afford it. All that saving, though, still hadn’t amounted to the amount of cash required.
But his luck had changed when a kiosk from a local bank had opened in the Student’s Lounge at the University. The handsome, bicep-bulging booth occupant, wearing a shirt obviously a size too small, promised an enticing introductory percentage rate on the credit card, stating the bank offered the cheapest one in the city. And with this purchase from Magix & Mystix in mind and the desperation to get his hands on it, Dev signed the credit card contract in a heartbeat.
All the way downtown, and during their short walk to the store, Cam had proclaimed he was being led through the seediest parts of Edmonton’s dark alleyways on their way to make the purchase and complained often about how they were going to be robbed, stabbed, or murdered in some grisly fashion.
None of that had happened.
But Dev had finally got his paws on the summoning board, and as he pulled the rectangular box out of the store’s signature black paper bag, his stomach tensed with excitement. The coveted item had a silver pentacle stamped in the center with one word superimposed over top.
Quinn’s mistake wasn’t killing Leo Ashwood; it was bringing him back. Now in a cat and mouse game with a monster she created, Quinn learns what her powers are truly capable of.
Brought together by a vision, Cecelia and Quinn are entangled in the chase for Leo Ashwood. Cecelia, a seer who is known for sticking her nose into other’s business for their better good, is now sent into a world unknown to her with no defense against the monster, her own powers, and the budding feelings for Quinn. Maggie, however, was merely at the wrong place at the wrong time and left with no other choice but to join forces. An up and coming YouTube superstar struck down by sickness, her voice is both her magical survival and death wrapped in one.
These three young, untrained witches will have to lean on each other if they want to survive. Navigating the world of humans, the new reality of witches, and the horror of magic, they might just make it… if they can keep their secrets to themselves.
10-39 at 37 E street, suite 1802, back-up required.
“Quinn Gwenevieve Foster, age 16, born Idabel, Oklahoma… you sure are a long way from home.” Pressure built up at the back of my head as the voice of the detective clawed at the insides of my ears. The pressure dulled but never released as I opened my eyes, which was an effort in itself. My eyelids were the weight of cement bricks.
The windows fogged in the frosty interrogation room. The only light came from the sharp halogen bulbs and the long, thin window along the top of the wall. A female officer had chained my hands to the table, which forced contact with the harsh steel, stinging my skin.
“I want a lawyer,” I answered, my head hung to the right.
“Of course, and you can have one. While we wait for them, why don’t we talk?”
Tears spilled down my cheeks. Exhaustion bit into my muscles, turning my bones to putty. If I did not rest soon, I would pass out. I wasted too much magic in Leo Ashwood’s apartment. My aunt would not be pleased to hear how recklessly they caught me. The last time I was caught by human police, she yelled my ears raw. Out of love, out of concern and fear, it didn’t matter why she was furious with me. History showed time and time again that humans were not capable of mercy to witches. Granted, the detective had not accused me of being a witch…yet.
“I want a lawyer, sir.”
“It’s Detective Henry Smith, Miss Foster.” His face softened around the cheeks but not near his lips. The way one’s face softens when they are trying to convince someone smaller and more naïve of untrue things. His lips pursed tighter. He reminded me of Officer Blevens, the officer who dragged me out of the graveyard years ago. A man who tried to lie to my face about how much trouble I was in. I was found hip-deep in what looked like an empty grave… Well, it was an empty grave by the time they got to it. The true corpse fell apart piece by piece about thirty yards north of my arrest. Darlin foamed at the mouth when Winestra called her at about two a.m. to come to the police station. Officer Blevens looked me dead in the eye that night and gave me the same face Detective Smith gave me now. ‘It was just a slap on the wrist.’ Liar.
“I want a lawyer.” I learned my lesson from last time.
They didn’t even let me shower. I stank enough to make my eyes water and gag every time I moved. They washed my hands but crusty blood lurked under my nails. My hair was a ball of grease superglued to the top of my skull and left to drape around me. I’d never felt that gross in all of my life, and I once spent six hours drenched in rainwater and coated in graveyard soil. Her gravestone illuminated behind my lids: Melissa Keen, beloved mother and daughter, born in 1981, taken too soon. She had still been fresh; it was the whole reason I dug her up. The fresher the better. If I could bring her back, then I could bring back others…
Born a Marine Brat I moved from state to state for much of my youth. Books were the one consistent thing in my life. Split between the high fantasy and war novels from my father and my mother’s deep love for horror novels, it was only a matter of time. From a young age I would fill up notebooks and word documents. Adaptability came in handy as I’ve worked in many different fields: food service, retail, education, special education, management. I kept coming back to books. In college I fully came out to my friends and family about my Pansexuality. Many were supportive but confused on what being Pansexual even was. I learned representation is key, but I also want to write books about fantasy, adventure, and monsters. My work is best described as a little bit spooky, a little bit magic, and a whole lot of fun.
Aldric Beamer thought working in an antique shop would be safe and boring. He never expected to find his life—or his heart—in danger…
Being the low man on the totem pole is nothing new for Aldric Beamer. The youngest of three siblings, he was always the afterthought in his family, but Aldric’s trying hard not to let the little confidence he has sink any lower.
Aldric loves the job he managed to land at Intrinsic Value, so much so that he often works off the clock—or maybe he doesn’t want to go home to his empty apartment. Just as he’s slowly learning to trust his boss and co-workers, he’s attacked outside the store, and all the security he thought he had vanishes with the force of a blow to the head.
San Antonio cop Darrell Williams takes one look at the beautiful, bruised man he finds in a dingy alley behind an antiques store, and something in his heart melts. This weakness scares him, making Darrell gruff and indifferent when he should have been—and longs to be—compassionate and caring.
Aldric’s no pushover, though. He’s had enough of being ignored and treated like he doesn’t matter as much as everyone else. And he’ll make damn sure Patrol Officer Williams doesn’t dismiss him in any way…
Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of violence and assault. There are expressions of homophobia by several characters, mentions of non-nurturing parenting, references to addiction and a scene of attempted abduction.
The Help Wanted sign in the window stopped Aldric in his tracks. He’d been walking along San Antonio’s Pearl District, somewhat lost in his thoughts and worries, so why he noticed the sign, he couldn’t have said.
Maybe because it stood out in the day of internet-everything. All the job boards that he’d scanned and the applications for employment that he’d sent in had been online. That was just how it was done nowadays…except not at the business he’d stopped in front of.
Aldric stared at the sign for a solid minute while trying to calculate his chances of being hired if he went in and applied before going home and changing. Not that he had any fancier clothes. Jeans, T-shirts and one button-up were all that was in his wardrobe.
What are the chances someone else will apply and get hired by the time I go home, shower, shave, change and come back?
Whatever the odds were, his empty stomach didn’t want to risk them. Blinking away his musings, Aldric pushed his glasses farther up his nose, then caught himself screwing up his face to re-settle them exactly where they’d been. He attempted to smooth down his hair—being thick, it tended to tousle, even though it wasn’t long—and reached for the door handle, which was when he saw the name of the place that was hiring.
Intrinsic Value Antique Shop. At least shop wasn’t spelled all funky. It was a silly pet peeve he had, people adding extra letters onto words to make spellings like shoppe rather than shop. An antique store might have a better reason than most businesses or services to use an old spelling of the word, and he had no reason to be judgmental of anything—something he needed to keep in mind.
Even though he knew nothing about antiques, Aldric opened the door and stepped inside to the tinkling of chimes. He glanced down at the door handle inside and saw strings of silver and copper bells dangling from it.
“Good afternoon. May I help you?”
Aldric pivoted so quickly that he almost tripped over his own feet—nothing unusual for him. Heat rushed to his face, and he gulped as he spotted the older man standing with one hand on an ancient-looking cash register. “Er, yes, I, um, I—” Aldric took a deep breath and exhaled to the count of ten. If he didn’t get himself calmed down, he’d stumble over his words as well as his feet, as he tended to do when he was flustered.
“My name is Elliot Douglas. I’m the owner of Intrinsic Value. Please call me Elliot.” Elliot came around the counter and stopped in front of Aldric.
“Aldric Beamer.” Aldric offered his right hand to shake. “Nice to meet you, Elliot.” His mouth was dry, and a tickle started up in his throat.
“Nice to meet you, too.” Elliot pumped his hand one more time, then let go. “Are you here about the job? I noticed you standing outside and thought you might be considering it.”
Aldric covered his mouth and turned his head before he coughed. He lowered his hand and faced Elliot again. “Sorry, the mountain cedar is kicking my allergies into high gear. Yes, sir, I’m here about the job. Surprised me to see an actual sign in the window. Everything’s done online, it seems. I’ve been told to go home and apply online so often, I’ve quit thinking about actual signs.”
“Ah yes, the internet is an amazing tool for many things, but I prefer to meet people in person first, rather than online.” Elliot smiled, and Aldric realized the older, taller man, with his tawny-brown eyes and thick mane of slightly long, wavy light-brown hair that was just starting to silver, was quite handsome.
“Why don’t you come back this way and tell me what makes you think you’ll be a good fit at Intrinsic Value?” Elliot gestured in the direction of the cash register. “I was cleaning off my baby and would like to finish as we talk.”
“Yes, sir.” Aldric coughed again and wanted to melt into the floorboards.
“Would you like some cold water or hot tea?” Elliot offered. “I have both available.”
Aldric wasn’t sure about hot tea. He’d only ever had Texas tea—cold, with lots of sugar and ice in it. But maybe tea was a thing with Elliot. “Er, tea, please?”
Elliot glanced back at him. “You sound uncertain. Have you tried hot tea before?”
Lying wasn’t something Aldric did if he could help it. “I haven’t, but I thought a warm drink might help with my scratchy throat.”
“That it might. I have a few different kinds, but how about you try the chamomile? It’s good for all sorts of ailments.” Elliot stopped by an elegant-legged wooden table that had a silver tea kettle and several mismatched cups and saucers sitting on it.
A white ceramic dish held glass jars of tea and cubes of sugar, and a clear container was filled with what appeared to be honey. Delicate silver spoons were laid out as well. Aldric tucked his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. Everything on that table looked delicate, not only the spoons, and he was afraid to touch anything.
Which had to mean he shouldn’t apply for the job.
“Aldric?” Elliot arched one thick eyebrow. “Is chamomile okay?”
Realizing he’d more than likely made sure he wouldn’t get hired, because Elliot had to think he was on the dense side, Aldric shook his head. “It’s okay, thank you. I’ll just—” He started to take a step back.
“Just what?” Elliot asked, scooping tea from a jar before he put it into a little oval-shaped strainer. “Are you not interested in the job after all?”
Aldric bit his bottom lip and pondered whether he should stay or not. For one thing, he’d already made some kind of impression, good or bad. For another, Elliot hadn’t run him off. That has to mean I still have a chance, right? Until I tell him I know nothing about what this shop sells. Damn it.
“I’m interested, but I don’t have any experience with antiques,” Aldric rushed out, watching Elliot pour hot water over the strainer holding the tea. Elliot had put a lid on it so the tea leaves didn’t flow out.
Aldric took a step closer, unable to resist getting a better look at what Elliot was doing. He took off his round-framed glasses, polished them and shoved them back on.
“The tea needs to steep for a few minutes,” Elliot explained. “The infuser keeps most of the bits of tea leaves from escaping, but you still might have a few pieces in your cup. Those will usually settle at the bottom.”
“That’s the infuser?” Aldric asked when Elliot nudged the strainer holding the tea.
Elliot smiled at him. “Yes, it is. Do you like honey?”
“I—” Aldric’s stomach picked that moment to let out a rumbling growl. He dropped his gaze and pressed a fist to his belly. “Sorry. Skipped breakfast.”
“Well, that won’t do. It’s almost time for dinner. I’ll order us something to eat, then you and I will sit down for a proper interview—if you’re interested in the job?” Elliot picked up the jar of honey.
“Oh, I…I am, I just thought I’d blown any chance I had at it.” Aldric ducked his head and stared at the worn toes of his tennis shoes. “I don’t have any experience for it. I’ve only worked at fast-food places. I don’t know anything about antiques. I didn’t even know what that thing—the infuser—was.” His ignorance was embarrassing, and he hated that he didn’t know more.
“So,” Elliot drawled, one corner of his mouth curving up. “No experience at all? That would mean I’d have a clean slate in you, if I were to hire you. Wouldn’t have to rid you of bad habits and misinformation.”
Aldric was almost too afraid to believe he might have a chance of keeping his shitty apartment and not going hungry for much longer, after all. “Are you serious?”
“Utterly. Here, let me fix your tea, then I’ll order something from the restaurant across the street. It has a little of everything. I have a menu for it behind the counter. This won’t take a moment…” Elliot took the infuser out, then added honey to the tea.
“Thank you.” Aldric should have refused the offer of a meal, but the truth was, he was too hungry to let pride cost him sustenance. He took the warm cup of tea from Elliot and inhaled the fragrant steam rising from it. “Oh! This smells good.”
Elliot smiled at him, a delighted expression, if Aldric wasn’t reading him wrong. “I hope you’ll like the way it tastes as well. Let me grab that menu, then you can peruse it with me.”
“Okay, thanks.” Aldric took a sip of the tea. It was hotter on his tongue than he’d expected, and he winced as he swallowed. He was glad Elliot hadn’t seen him do that. The next sip he took was slower. The taste was as pleasant as the smell of the tea, the honey sweet but not overpowering.
“Here we go. I haven’t had anything bad from here yet, but then again, I always order the same thing. I’m a creature of habit in many ways.” Elliot’s smile had turned rueful.
“What do you get?” Aldric asked before taking another drink. He could get addicted to hot tea.
“Nothing adventurous, just the grilled salmon with steamed vegetables and mashed sweet potatoes.” Elliot handed him the menu. “I think the burgers should be good, though. Whenever I’m in the restaurant and see and smell them, they remind me very much of the ones my brother used to love.”
“Younger or older brother?” Aldric flipped the paper menu open to scan the selections.
Elliot froze for a second, as though something were wrong. Before Aldric could ask him if he was okay, Elliot drew in a breath, then touched his temples, where he had a few strands of gray. “Younger. Chris is thirty-two, Natty is thirty-four and I’m the old man at forty-something. Do you have any siblings?”
Aldric decided he’d get the bacon burger and sweet potato fries. He’d never had the latter before. “I have two, like you. Twins. They’re almost twenty years older than me.”
Elliot’s eyes widened. “That’s two whole decades!”
“Yeah. I was a surprise,” Aldric muttered. That was a nicer description than his family had called him at times. “Gregory and Simon are forty. I’m twenty-one.” He hoped Elliot wouldn’t ask any more questions about them, or Aldric’s family, period. Hoping to avert such possibilities, Aldric tapped the menu. “Can I get this? The bacon-mushroom burger?”
“Of course, of course.” Elliot moved back behind the counter and picked up something black. He stuck one finger in a silver ring that had smaller holes in it, and it took Aldric a moment to realize Elliot was using some kind of old phone.
Aldric had vague memories of his parents having a landline, but by the time he’d been old enough to care about it, they’d had cell phones. Even so, none of the phones Aldric had ever seen had looked like the one Elliot was now speaking into.
Elliot grinned as if he knew what Aldric was thinking, making Aldric look away and take another drink of his tea. When Elliot had looked at him then, it had occurred to Aldric that his potential boss was not only quite handsome, but very attractive. He’s about the same age as my brothers, so gross. Aldric needed a job more than he needed to get laid, and he’d never been attracted to older men, either—and he wasn’t about to start down that road now.
Not that Elliot would be interested in someone like him. Even though he’d only spent fifteen minutes in Elliot’s presence, Aldric could already tell that the guy was much classier than he’d ever be. There was also the very real possibility that Elliot wasn’t gay, despite the vibes Aldric was reading. Well, it didn’t matter one way or another.
Elliot hung up and tapped the black phone. “It’s an ancient rotary phone. My grandparents and parents had these, way back when, although we’d upgraded to a push-button phone by the time I started school. Want to see how it works?”
Aldric was itching to do just that. “Yeah, I mean, yes, I’d like that.”
The lesson taught him more than how to dial out on the phone—it taught him that Elliot was a patient and kind man. He encouraged and answered any questions Aldric had, which was freeing in a way that Aldric hadn’t experienced before. The old saying about children being seen but not heard had been a rule in his parents’ home.
“You have an inquisitive nature and a good brain.” Elliot propped a hip against the counter. “I think you’ll do well here.”
Aldric blinked in surprise. He was glad he’d set the teacup down, or else he might have dropped it, considering how much his hands trembled. “I have the job?”
Elliot nodded. “You do.”
“But…what about references and work history?” Aldric regretted asking as soon as the words were spoken.
“I like to believe I have excellent judgment when it comes to people,” Elliot said. “Am I wrong in regard to you?”
Aldric shook his head. “No. It’s just, I don’t know anything about antiques, or what I’ll be doing.”
“You can learn. Someone gave me a chance a few years ago and made this”—Elliot swept a hand toward the antiques in the shop—“possible. I’m still learning, one might say. That’s one reason I keep alphabetized cards on every item in the store, as well as those in the back. If someone asks about, say, this…” Elliot walked over to the second row of shelves and pointed to a silver tray. “What does it look like to you?”
Sweat broke out on Aldric’s brow. He knew what the object looked like to him, and it seemed obvious—was Elliot trying to trick him? No, Elliot had been nothing but kind to him. Aldric couldn’t let his own insecurity get the better of him now. “A-a silver tray?”
Elliot’s smile could have lit up the room. “Yes! So you’d just open the gold-leafed book under the register—go ahead and find it. Open it and look up ‘silver tray’.”
Aldric did as directed and was delighted to discover that most of the cards also had a small image of the item on the right corner. “It’s an eighteenth-century silver salver.” He read off the rest of the information, relief coursing through him even as he stumbled over some of the words. He could do this job.
“You won’t be alone in the store often, not at first,” Elliot said. “I’ll be out on the floor with you or, once you’ve been here for a while, in my office. Sometimes I’m away for a day or so, for instance at a fair or auction, or I might have to leave the city, to procure or sell an antique or attend an event, but I close the shop then.”
Aldric’s excitement fizzled out. “Oh. How…how long would you be gone? How often does that happen?” He’d lose out on work, and if he couldn’t support himself—
“I’d have you come in and work in the back while I’m gone. There will always be plenty of cleaning that can be done. I’ll show you how to polish silver and clean antiques—the ones that should be cleaned,” Elliot added before the door opened, and a young woman carrying a box entered. “Meredith! You are an angel of mercy.”
Meredith shook her head, making her brown hair ruffle over her shoulders, and chuckled. “Hardly. I’m just the delivery chick from across the street. Who’s this?”
“Aldric Beamer, my new employee,” Elliot answered, glancing at Aldric. “Right?”
“He’s not sure?” Meredith asked before Aldric could answer. She winked at him. “You should work for Mr. Douglas. He’s cool, and I bet he pays well, judging by the tips he gives me.”
Aldric hadn’t even thought to ask what his wages would be. The whole job-thing had happened so fast it felt like a dream.
“We haven’t discussed his pay.” Elliot took out his wallet and removed several bills from it. “But, of course, I believe in paying a livable wage.”
Aldric knew first-hand that minimum wage wasn’t a livable wage. He’d worked just under full-time and had often skipped meals to make rent. More than once, his electricity had been cut off. No fast-food joint he’d worked at had wanted to employ him full-time—that would have meant offering him health insurance. Then things had taken a turn for the worse and he’d found himself unemployed and hovering at the edge of homelessness.
Aldric lifted his glasses with one hand and rubbed a knuckle of the other into his eye. “Sorry. I sort of drifted off. I promise I won’t do that while I’m on the clock.”
Elliot held out a box and a drink. “I have utter faith in your ability to work well. Here, take this and head to the back. Second door on the left is my office. We’ll dine in there.”
“Fancy,” Meredith said, her brown eyes alive with humor. “Nice meeting you, Aldric.”
“Nice meeting you, too,” he replied, his face heating because he’d mentally checked out in front of her and Elliot.
He found Elliot’s office and was almost afraid to sit down in the plush leather chairs. The whole room looked like something out of an old-time movie, with its shiny wood surfaces, smooth leather seats and framed black-and-white photos from decades ago on the walls.
“Have a seat. Well, scoot closer to the desk if you want to use it for a table.” Elliot came around to the other side of his desk and sat, placing his own food on it. “There’s a coaster for your drink in the wood tray to your left.”
Aldric found the coaster and set his drink and boxed meal down before moving one of the leather chairs closer. “This is a very nice office. Is everything in it antique?”
Elliot began removing his food from the box it had come in. “Yes, except the pens and paper. Although I do have a quill pen!” He pointed at a long white feather. “It’s not quite an antique, but I like it.”
Aldric took a bite of his burger, and his stomach gave a happy rumble. “This is good,” he muttered after he’d swallowed.
Elliot grinned. “I’m glad you like it. My salmon smells amazing, as always. Before I start in on it, though, I want to cover salary, hours and health insurance.”
Aldric almost choked on the sweet potato fry he’d just bitten into. “Health insurance?” No. His ears were playing tricks on him.
But they weren’t. Elliot explained how he’d make sure Aldric was covered, without a waiting period. Aldric would have a full forty hours a week, would be paid at time and a half for any hours over that, and while he wouldn’t get rich working at Intrinsic Value, he’d earn that much-longed-for livable wage. It seemed too good to be true, and Aldric quickly and gratefully accepted everything he was offered, hoping that nothing happened to make this dream-come-true come crashing down around him.
A native Texan, Bailey spends her days spinning stories around in her head, which has contributed to more than one incident of tripping over her own feet. Evenings are reserved for pounding away at the keyboard, as are early morning hours. Sleep? Doesn’t happen much. Writing is too much fun, and there are too many characters bouncing about, tapping on Bailey’s brain demanding to be let out.
Caffeine and chocolate are permanent fixtures in Bailey’s office and are never far from hand at any given time. Removing either of those necessities from Bailey’s presence can result in what is known as A Very, Very Scary Bailey and is not advised under any circumstances.
BAILEY BRADFORD IS GIVING AWAY THIS FABULOUS PRIZE TO ONE LUCKY WINNER. ENTER HERE FOR YOUR CHANCE TO WIN A LOVELY GIFT PACKAGE AND GET A FREE EBOOK FROM THE AUTHOR! Notice: This competition ends on 27TH April 2021 at 5pm GMT. Competition hosted by Totally Entwined Group.
Two strangers running from their dark pasts find redemption in each other.
Harry, a former army doctor, lives in isolation after the devastating war between Rasacara and the Empire came to a bloody and violent conclusion. His lonely life is disrupted by a young, beautiful man surrounded by secrets and suspicion, who would likely destroy Harry if he knew who he was.
Kit, former member of the witch army’s Blue Crows, now on the run from his former master, must keep his identity a secret as his enemy is closing in and Harry, the gruff, mysterious woodsman, is all that stands between him and the man who wants him dead.
Forced together by Kit’s injuries, the two lonely men find comfort in each other, both scarred by the darkness of their pasts, but when Kit’s enemy catches up with him, they are forced to fight, revealing to each other the evils both of them have committed, and testing the strength of their new, fledgling love.
Reader advisory: This book contains reference to child abuse, graphic violence and injury, death, torture, PTSD and slavery. There are mentions of suicidal thought and homophobia.
Sunlight injected the indigo sky with golden threads earlier each day. Spring was drawing near, its sweet scent suspended in the cold air, even as crisp frost from the persistent winter lingered, crystalizing the blades of grass into fields of sparkling emeralds.
Harry surveyed his small patch of land, watching the sun peek over the serene, silent meadows beyond the encroaching forest. It shot streaking bursts of pinks and yellows, shrinking the night sky into a mild blue, pushing back clouds as it rose, a glorious, near-blinding orange orb. Birds in nearby trees were already welcoming the dawn with their delicate song. He would never tire of waking to this peaceful serenity.
Six years. How many sunrises was that?
Shivering out the tense muscles up and down his back, Harry went to work. The cold was not a friend to the scarred muscles of his left arm, which made their complaints known as he picked up his saw. Setting his jaw, he bit the saw’s teeth into the strong flesh of an oak he’d cut down and stripped yesterday.
He cut the trunk down to decent workable lengths. They would do well to replace the rotten floorboards near the fireplace, soaked with moisture from the cellar after it had flooded during the fall. It had taken weeks to dry out and create a soakaway around the house. He shouldered and lugged the timber over to the mounted flat rock he used as a dining table or a makeshift bed when the weather grew warm enough to eat and sleep outside, but right now it was his work bench. It took him most of the morning to saw the wood down to size and most of the afternoon to sand it smooth. The oak was a gorgeous color, clean and creamy for such a strong, unbending timber. It was hard-going work with only one fully serviceable arm, and it took him the rest of the day to make the new floorboards. His muscles soon began to ache, forcing him to take a frustrating number of breaks.
He’d long stripped off his coat, gloves and frayed woolen shirt, but the afternoon was already chasing away the daylight, prickling gooseflesh over his arms and chest. He sucked in his breath and shivered, basking in the cool air before pulling his abandoned shirt over his head and collecting the naked timber. A frosty night was settling in again and he didn’t want the boards exposed to the elements.
He gave a lingering glance at the dying sun disappearing behind the trees, twinkling as branches swayed against their sisters.
But that wasn’t all.
Something else was casting shadows in the forest, a moving silhouette that didn’t belong. Harry squinted, the waning light speckling through the fluttering leaves stinging his straining eyes.
Retreating inside the cabin, Harry gingerly propped the timber against his fireside with his good arm before sprinting upstairs, taking the steps two at a time. Skidding to the floor, he pulled his rifle from under the bed. When he got back into the yard the light had dimmed to a low glimmer. Harry brought his rifle up and aimed his sights on the treeline, ignoring the tightness in his left arm and shoulder, heartbeat drumming in his temples.
All was quiet and still.
Then it wasn’t.
A man emerged from a tight crop of trees and bushes, tripping over the log pile and stumbling gracelessly to the muddy ground at Harry’s feet. Startled, Harry quickly recovered, gritting his teeth to steady his weak arm, his rifle trained on the man’s downturned head. The man moaned and choked, picking himself up out of the mud, brushing himself down unsuccessfully, ignorant of Harry and his loaded rifle.
Harry cleared his throat. The man’s head snapped up. Feral eyes glared at the barrel, then Harry. Harry’s breath caught. Dying evening light reflected in the eerily familiar cobalt blue of the man’s eyes.
The stranger blinked, his lips curling into a poised smile. The illusion broke and Harry glared down at him.
“Tell me, my good man, is that your house?”
He was well-spoken, if a little effete, with a slight lilt disguising an accent. His hair, soaked from sweat and plastered to his scalp, grew past his shoulders, the color of dull gold. His wan complexion did nothing to hide the beauty of his high cheekbones and full, pale lips.
Harry grunted, remembering himself. “What business is it of yours?”
The stranger offered an uneven smile, flashing dimples in his cheeks. “Forgive me. Allow me to introduce myself—”
“I don’t need your name, or any other. What is your business here?”
“I…I am merely seeking shelter, just for tonight. My carriage wheel buckled and the horses ran free of it, leaving me stranded on the road.”
“The village is eleven miles south. Follow the river until you reach Paix.”
The stranger gave a humorless chuckle, his smile collapsing under Harry’s unwavering grimace. “It is close to nightfall. I don’t wish to impose, but I’m rather desperate.”
Everything about this man screamed suspicious. His clothes, though finely made, were well-worn and covered in forest debris. Mud plastered his knees and palms. Bruising blossomed under a bleeding cut on his prominent cheekbone.
Harry continued to eye him. He didn’t want trouble. Yet here it was, scared and attractive and watching Harry with those painfully stunning eyes. But there was more. The way he held himself stiffly, drawing sharp breaths though he tried to hide it. He was in pain.
Harry set his jaw. He lowered the rifle. “One night.”
The dimples were back, the relieved exhale quickly smothered. “Thank you so much.”
“I want you gone at dawn.”
“No, no, dawn it is.” He gestured to the house a little insistently. “Shall we?”
Already calculating over a dozen reasons not to let this man inside his home, Harry shouldered his rifle and led the way.
“Well, this is certainly…rustic,” the stranger said once inside.
“You’re free to try your luck in the forest.”
He said under his breath, “I think I already am.” He turned back to Harry, catching his scowl. “It’s wonderful. Thank you, mister…” He offered his hand. It was trembling. “Surely we can be civil?” he said when Harry continued to stare in silence.
“No ‘mister’. I’m Harry.”
“Harry, it’s a genuine pleasure.” He gripped Harry’s right hand. His shaking subsided a little. His palms were surprisingly rough where Harry had expected soft.
“Just Kit, like you’re just Harry.”
Nodding, Harry released his hand.
“Don’t suppose there is any food going spare?”
“Not spare, but we can share what there is.”
Harry set about lighting a fire and swung the remains of yesterday’s stew over the flames, the blackened pot squeaking loudly with age.
Stepping out of the cold and into the brewing heat inside the small room had brought a blush to Kit’s ashen cheeks. His hands trembled at his sides. “May I?” He gestured to a chair by the fire.
Harry eyed his mud-sodden clothes. “We should get you out of your wet things.”
“No.” Harry flinched at Kit’s vehemence. “They’ll be fine. The fire will dry them soon enough.” He stared into the flames, rubbing his dirtied hands together.
Harry nearly let the subject drop, but couldn’t. “I don’t know what you’re running from, but having you die from cold in my home will bring more trouble than I need. Also, I don’t want muck all over my furniture.”
Kit arched his brow then glanced guiltily at the wet trail he had brought in behind him. “Of course, I apologize.”
“I’ll get you a blanket and something for you to wear.”
“You…you’re very kind.”
Did Kit think him so uncivilized? Harry supposed he couldn’t blame Kit after having a rifle shoved in his face. He didn’t know what Kit had suffered. He didn’t want to know. It wasn’t his business.
With shaking fingers, Kit gingerly plucked open the buttons of his sodden coat, fine beneath the brown sludge and forest debris. He turned to Harry. Harry blinked away, heat rising under his skin.
“Would you mind giving a chap some privacy?”
Harry scowled. “Excuse me, your lordship, would you like me to wait outside?”
“No. Sorry. I just—”
Harry shook his head. “I’ll go get that blanket.” Begrudgingly, he left the warmth and the stranger and trotted upstairs. He tore the one decent blanket from his bed, unwilling, ridiculous as it was, to show the gentleman his moth-eaten linen stash. His clothes would be too big on Kit’s lithe form, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, especially beggars who arrived with nothing but the clothes on their back and suspicion circling them like flies around shit.
Harry shook his head. He’d been on his own too long to easily allow a strange gentleman into his house, into his haven.
A stranger he had left alone while his back was turned.
Swearing, he made his way quietly back downstairs, as though to catch the man in some criminal act.
Instead he caught sight of pale, naked flesh. Harry stopped in his tracks, half hidden by the stair bannister. Blood bloomed under his skin and his breath caught. It was alien for something so rare and beautiful to grace these humble, shabby walls. Kit’s fair skin was marked with numerous scars consistent with sword wounds, silvery lines atop a white canvas, some thicker than others. His chest and stomach were tightly muscled, his hips tapered, swaying a little as he moved out of his trousers and bent to drape them in front of the fire. His legs were sprinkled with a light covering of hair, matching the drying locks curling into loose golden ringlets around his face.
Wetting his lips, Harry knew he should look away. Kit wanted privacy. But he couldn’t bring himself to blink and risk missing a second of it. Kit’s naked ass was nothing short of glorious, small and pert, muscles clenching as he shivered, gooseflesh erupting all over. Old, long-buried sensations stirred, aching inside him. Harry imagined the pebbled texture under his fingers, his tongue, bathing it with warmth until it smoothed. His lame hand clenched at his side.
Kit gingerly lifted his shirt, hissing as he peeled the fabric from his side, and Harry’s unwelcome arousal withered.
Tight scar tissue stretched the skin on Kit’s side just above his hipbone, a white brand in the shape of a ‘W’. Witch. An equally cruel brand, fresh and raw, outlined with inflamed flesh beside the healed scar, branded him with a distorted ‘T’ for tethered, a binding brand cutting off his connection to magic.
Kit pulled the tatty knitted throw off the chair and wrapped it tight around his body. It was too small, full of holes and dropped stitches, but it covered the brands. He clutched it to his body, rubbing his hands up and down his bare legs, wincing with every movement.
Harry breathed out a deep sigh then cleared his throat. Kit whipped around before offering a small, grateful smile. He stared in surprise when instead of offering the blanket Harry draped it around his shoulders, hoping to catch a glimpse of the wounds. Their eyes met. Heat flared and traveled from Harry’s face to his chest.
Don’t get involved.
He shuffled around Kit to the now boiling stew, dropping the bundle of clothes in front of the fire to warm them through. He took it off the fire and moved to a safe distance, searching through the only cupboard not holding books or tools and digging out his two least-chipped bowls. He chastised himself, but couldn’t stop the urge to show this man he wasn’t an unsophisticated lout. He ladled them each a hearty bowlful.
Kit muttered his thanks and hugged the bowl close before abandoning his careful manners and clamping his mouth on the lip of the bowl, gulping it down in great guttural swallows. The stew overflowed and trickled down his chin. He paused for breath only to lick the bowl clean and wipe his mouth, sucking broth from his fingers.
His eyes flicked to Harry’s wide-eyed disbelief, his face growing red. “Forgive my enthusiasm. I have not eaten in days.”
Harry had guessed as much. His cooking wasn’t the worst, but it never warranted such gusto.
“More?” Harry offered.
“Thank you.” This time Kit sipped slowly, giving a satisfying smile, dimples back in place.
They sat in silence as they ate. Kit broke it first. “I am terribly sorry to put you through this trouble.”
Harry grunted. “As long as it’s the only trouble you bring me.”
Kit smiled weakly and lost eye contact, suddenly interested in his bowl. “I’ll do my best on that score.”
Harry finished his food, ruminating, fighting the urge to ask more. Bored curiosity, he told himself. He didn’t need another man’s problems. But his mind once more wandered back to the brands on Kit’s skin, worrying about the fresh wound. He opened his mouth then quickly shut it.
Kit finished his bowl and a third before finally lounging back in his seat, sighing contently. “That was wonderful. Thank you.” His smile was tired, his eyes blinking slowly.
“There’s a bed upstairs.”
Kit tensed. Feral eyes glinted in the firelight.
“I’ll stay down here,” Harry clarified calmly, as though he hadn’t noticed Kit’s discomfort.
Kit attempted a smile, but it looked uncomfortable on his ashen face. “That’s not necessary. You don’t need to give up your bed for me.”
Harry gestured to his rifle. “I’ll keep watch tonight.”
Kit opened his mouth to argue, but Harry was not stupid and offered a skeptical brow. Someone was after this man and Harry would not be caught unawares. Kit nodded. “Thank you,” he said again, his voice small. He blinked tiredly.
Harry offered Kit the clothes as he stood. Kit took them with a tight smile.
Well, better make myself comfortable, Harry thought as he watched the strange man disappear up the creaking stairs in a wobbly daze. Hooking his good arm through the back of his chair, he maneuvered it to the window. He pulled the other chair over to rest his feet on. Not the comfiest bed in the world, but he’d endured worse. He sat and watched the dark treeline, wondering what the hell he was doing allowing this man into his home.
Born and bred in the Midlands, Lucien spends most of his time inside his small bedroom/library/office reading and writing gay fiction, sacrificing his wardrobe space for his bookcases.
Stumbling upon Yaoi in his teens, Lucien’s passion for gay romance/erotica began, starting his once small, now consuming book collection. Not too long after, he started writing his own fiction and never looked back, even writing a lesbian themed short story in his GSCE English exam.
While a fan of most subgenres, he enjoys writing historical, fantasy and BDSM stories.
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Elana denied her special abilities so she could live an ordinary life—until she’s recruited into a top-secret project involving something otherworldly.
The demands of followers seeking answers from Elana Ryan’s special abilities had taken a toll. To feel normal again, she got a job working at Los Alamos National Lab. It worked—until she was recruited into a top-secret project to use the very gifts she’d left behind.
The project’s head scientist, Dr. Cameron Graeme, is pushy and arrogant, but Elana is also inexplicably drawn to him. As her abilities grow, she finds that his presence amplifies her powers. Now she fears her feelings for him and the intentions of the government.
Dr. Graeme finds Elana irresistibly alluring, which conflicts with his responsibilities for her as an asset.
They resist their mounting mutual desires, but something more powerful than either of them has a different plan in mind.
This was the farthest Elana had ever been on the Los Alamos National Lab campus. She unzipped the soft-top window of her 2005 lime-green Jeep Wrangler at the gate and handed her badge to the guard. He inspected it and handed it back with a smile. “Have a nice day!”
Another day, another interview, she thought. She passed several technical area intersections with buildings that resembled prisons fenced in with barbed-wire coils before she turned at the TA17 sign. Ponderosa pines straddled the straight road for the ten-minute drive to a group of one-story concrete buildings marked TA17, at the end of the mesa. She parked in front of building TA17-1, the Weapon Experiments Control Center, refreshed her red lipstick, straightened the barrette holding her strawberry-blonde mane and checked for smudges in her tortoise-shell glasses in the visor mirror. Good to go. She clipped her badge to her blazer, and with her portfolio case in hand, she headed to the entrance. Signs on the door read ‘Q’, which meant ‘Q-level cleared only, no electronic devices’. She inserted her badge into a console, entered a code into the keypad and the door clicked for entry.
At the reception, Elana greeted a young Hispanic woman. “Hi, I’m Elana Ryan, special investigator with the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency.” She flashed her credentials. “I have an appointment with Wayne Fordham.”
“Have a seat. He’ll be right with you.”
Being so official was second nature to Elana after working for the feds for over a year, something she’d never imagined she would do. After traveling the country in her RV, making a living from her book and related sales over the Internet, she welcomed the regularity. She had fallen for the wild, dramatic sweeping skylines of New Mexico, but lots of open space meant it was sparsely populated. The national lab was one of the few significant employers in the area. With a clearance backlog, there was a demand for investigators, and with her communications background, it made sense.
In many ways, the job stood for everything Elana Ryan did not. She told herself that it wasn’t all about weapons. There was important science happening here, great minds working for the future of humanity. After living an unconventional lifestyle, being in the secret city where the atomic bomb had been invented, working for the government at thirty-five was a turn of events she couldn’t have predicted. It’s just another adventure, she told herself.
Wayne Fordham, white-haired with a dry-cleaned dress shirt tucked into plain-front slacks, greeted Elana and ushered her into one of the larger offices she’d been to at the lab that had a view, as was expected for a division leader. Wayne moved a few piles of papers from a round table and gestured for her to sit.
As she’d done for hundreds of such interviews, Elana presented her credentials, checked his ID and opened her portfolio to take notes. She made small talk before running through a standard introduction, such as how being untruthful about any issue more often had a greater negative influence on the outcome of their case than any underlying issue, that Title 18 US code 1001 stated that hiding a material fact was a felony and could lead to fines, imprisonment and so on, ending with him swearing under penalty of perjury under the laws of the United States to tell the truth to the best of his knowledge and belief.
He appeared to be relaxed, this being his fifth clearance re-investigation. He would have done these interviews every five years, so it was obviously familiar.
“Your full name is Wayne Fordham—no middle name—and you have not used any other names?” She looked up from the papers to check his expression through her glasses.
She went through his security questionnaire and took notes of changes or items that needed clarification, glancing up at him periodically.
To lighten the serious tone, she asked about his being from New Jersey and commented on his lack of a ‘Joyzee’ accent. He chuckled but didn’t give an explanation, so she offered, “I’m originally from the only New England state that has no accent but is surrounded by states with strong accents.” She often made people guess which state it was, but she wasn’t in the mood at the moment, so she just told him she was from Connecticut.
Fordham had a pleasant demeanor and conversed with an ease not typical among the socially challenged scientific community, which was likely why he was in management, but he was also a respected scientist, as the awards on the wall and the work history on his form suggested.
There were no red flags on Fordham’s case, so Elana expected to be done before the usual hour. She wrote down the references he gave her to interview and was about to wrap up the counterintelligence questions when there was a knock on the door.
“Excuse me,” Wayne said politely as he got up and opened it.
It was his receptionist. “I’m sorry to interrupt. Dr. Graeme is insisting he speak with you right now. It’s urgent. He’s on the line.”
“Patch him through.” A hint of irritation marked his brow as he shut the door, raised his index finger to Elana and picked up the phone on his desk. “What’s so important, Cam? I’m in a meeting.” He turned to look out at the Jemez Mountains. “Yes.” He turned back to look at Elana. “That’s right. How did you know that?”
Elana organized her papers. In her peripheral vision, she caught Wayne squinting at her as he fiddled with items on his desk. “He says what?” He turned his back to Elana again and exhaled. “Really? Okay. Okay… I’ll get back to you.” He hung up the phone, his forehead furrowed.
He sat across from Elana. “Sorry about that. Where were we? Connecticut, the Northeast. Winters are bitter there, eh?” He feigned nonchalance.
“Yeah. I like the dry climate here.”
“What about Christmas? The traditions—you know, with the farolitos and all—it’s different.”
His question seemed contrived, but she played along. “I don’t put much stock in the holiday anymore.”
“No? Why not?”
His whole attitude had shifted. He was pushing for something and it made her uneasy. She was supposed to be pushing him, not the other way around. Oddly compelled, she revealed, “I was born on Christmas Eve, so it has had a lot of loaded meaning for me, but I left that behind long ago.” Why did I share that personal information?
“So your birthday is Christmas Eve,” he said with a conclusive satisfaction that was a bit creepy and differed from his earlier apathy.
Wayne’s desk phone rang, and he sprang to answer it. “Yes. Okay. Give me about ten minutes.” He hung up and sat back down at the table.
“That was my colleague. He can do my reference interview. You can do it here when we’re finished.”
When they’d concluded the interview, Wayne invited Dr. Cameron Graeme in, introduced him to Elana and left them alone. So this is the Dr. Graeme with the urgent matter. He sat down at the table with Elana. He was at least a decade younger than Wayne, closer to her age. His full head of hair was still more pepper than salt and he was more casually dressed in blue jeans and a pale green button-down shirt that wasn’t perfectly pressed. He’s cute, in a dorky-scientist kind of way, she thought as he peered at her from behind round, metal-framed glasses. She was flustered. Is it his stare or that odd phone call?
She showed him her credentials and asked if he was aware of the Privacy Act of 1974, as was required of her job. He said “Yes,” and she indicated that on her pad. He confirmed the spelling of his name and she asked his title.
She scribbled ‘Sr. Sci.’, and began asking the forty questions that she had almost entirely memorized, starting with, “What has been the frequency and nature of your contact with Wayne?”
“We met five years ago working on a project at the Remote Sensing Lab, and about three months ago I came to work with him in this division. We’ve had daily work contact.”
As she jotted down his answer, she noticed him scanning her intently, like he was taking a grid sample of every inch. Another weird scientist thing? “Is Wayne married?” Cameron folded his hands together. No wedding ring, she observed.
“Yes, to Marge. They have three grown kids, but I can’t recall their names.” He rattled off answers to her list of questions, clearly having done these interviews before. Every position, from janitors on up, needed a clearance to work there. She also noticed he had a remnant accent—not Irish, maybe Scottish.
The fifteen-minute interview felt like an eternity. Something hung in the air between them that slowed time. She tried to ignore it and was relieved when she got to the final questions. “Is there any reason to question Wayne’s loyalty to the United States?”
“No.” He caressed his chin with his entwined fingers.
“Is there anything in his background that would make him susceptible to coercion or blackmail?”
“Not that I know of,” he answered abruptly. Did he even give a thought to the answers? Is he thinking of something entirely different? Finally, the last question. “Do you recommend Wayne continue to have a position impacting national security and hold a clearance?”
“Absolutely.” He leaned back in his chair, his clasped hands now in his lap.
She slipped her notes into her portfolio. “Well, that’s all we need. Thank you for your time.” She was about to get up, but he didn’t move, so she paused.
His gaze penetrated her. “Do you like your job?”
“Sure. I meet interesting people and work from home. It could pay better, but I’ve got no complaints overall.” She zipped her portfolio to hint again that she was ready to go.
He leaned forward. “What other kind of work background do you have?
It’s my job to give the third degree. What’s up? She stood. He did the same but didn’t move toward the door. He was a couple of inches taller than her five foot nine, even with her two-inch heels on. He raised his eyebrows in anticipation of an answer.
“Perfect. We need someone like you in our division. Can you come tomorrow for an interview?” She was surprised at this curt and assumptive invite. She had applied for jobs at the lab, which she’d thought had to be done via proper channels, and had never gotten called for an interview.
“What’s the job?”
“Communications Specialist.” Did he just come up with that in the moment? Employment directly with the lab paid better than her Department of Defense position, so she was intrigued. Weapons division—not her first choice, but somehow she couldn’t refuse. “Okay, why not?”
“Tell Denise at the front desk to give you an appointment in the morning. Email me your resume tonight.” He handed her his business card.
Eilis (Irish Gaelic, pronounced Eye-Lish) has always gone her own way, which has led to an unconventional life full of adventure. She spent many years videotaping whales in Cape Cod, MA and off season she traveled. She has hiked glaciers in Patagonia, kayaked fjords in Norway, and sailed from Key West to Cuba. Eilis lived in the US Virgin Islands for eight years and sailed throughout the Caribbean and in the Mediterranean.
She later spent three years driving across the US in an RV on a book tour and landed in the mountains of New Mexico where she built a natural off grid cabin. After living there for a few years, she ventured across the Sangre de Christo mountain range to Los Alamos where she published a community magazine and worked as a clearance investigator. She fell in love with a scientist there and now lives with him and two lovable cats.
Eilis has always believed in stretching limits. Her greatest joy is found in allowing her imagination to run wild. Since she was a child, Eilis has dreamed up elaborate plots and characters in situations that push boundaries. Much of her writing is inspired by her own experiences, deep thoughts, and her intuitions about human potential and the passions that drive us.
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