Home Run Cowboy by Gemma Snow Book 1 in the The Sinclair Seven series General Release Date: 4th May 2021 Word Count: 80,535 Book Length: NOVEL Pages: 203 Genres: BONDAGE AND BDSM CONTEMPORARY COWBOYS AND …
Finding Home by Megan Linden Book 6 in the Harrington Hills series General Release Date: 4th May 2021 Word Count: 33,036 Book Length: SHORT NOVEL Pages: 142 Genres: CONTEMPORARY EROTIC ROMANCE GAY GLBTQI PARANORMAL WERESHIFTERS …
Moonshine, Magic & Murder by January Bain Book 3 in the Manitoba Tea & Tarot Mysteries series General Release Date: 4th May 2021 Word Count: 63,850 Book Length: NOVEL Pages: 245 Genres: CONTEMPORARY MYSTERY PARANORMAL …
The moment is rapidly approaching when humanity must choose its future. What appears a simple choice between love and fear is complicated by the desires of two opposing cosmic forces. Artemis Andronikos rushes to discover a message the ancients left in stone ruins around the Earth. Aided by her partner Lucy and the rogue astrophysicist Wolfgang Strang, Artemis assembles a team of brilliant young scientists to decode when, where, and how the choice is to be made.
Convincing the former Harbinger children to grow beyond their Ivy League training and listen to their inner voices is the first step. Preparing them to accept a new version of reality proves more difficult. And Artemis must deal with an existential threat of her own; one that could separate her from her soulmate for eternity.
Theories of consciousness and philosophy battle as the cosmos bears down. How does one select a future when everything one has been taught is wrong? When knowledge fails, only the gods of one’s own heart remain.
The absence of a single speck of light in the night sky was hardly a catastrophe. Except to Dr. Wolfgang Strang. Mystified, the astrophysicist removed his reading glasses and rubbed his temples. Objects, even unexplained objects, did not simply vanish. Suspicious of the sterile numeric data, Strang set it aside and stepped into the yard to inspect the cosmos with his own eyes. The “great river,” as the Inca had called the Milky Way, floated serene and seemingly unchanged in the southern sky. But to Strang the universe was regrettably diminished, and he felt the loss deep in his soul.
Strang turned to find a tall, slender figure emerging from the shadows. “No, my dear. I am merely looking for an old friend.”
He flashed a self-deprecating smile and accepted an affectionate hug in response. The astrophysicist offered his arm to his companion and noted how well moonlight suited her. The pale rays illuminated Artemis’s ebony tresses and lent a violet cast to her pale, intelligent eyes. “What causes your noctambulant wanderings this night, Temmie?”
Artemis closed her fingers about his arm and gently nudged him to walk with her. “You know me, Wolf. I came to commune with the moon as usual.”
Strang chuckled. “Ah yes. Artemis and the moon are legendary companions.”
Echoing the small laugh, Artemis glanced at her friend, noting how the light deepened the lines at his eyes and accentuated the folds on his bristled cheeks. Strang was looking older of late, as if he were struggling with a burden grown too heavy.
“What is it, Wolf?” she asked, pausing their leisurely stroll.
“The object has vanished.” Strang motioned to the lower edge of the Milky Way. There, amid a plethora of unnamed bits of light, a single object had captivated him seventeen years ago. It was the birth star marking the moment the Harbinger had awakened and reality had vaulted into chaos.
Artemis glanced at the familiar stellar formation Strang was indicating and shook her head. “You can’t possibly tell just by looking, Wolf. Perhaps it has merely dimmed once again.”
Strang patted her arm. “No, no. My darling girl, I realized the object has never been visible to the human eye. I am referring to the latest information from the observatory. I assure you there is no mistake. The object is no longer there.”
A chill skittered down Artemis’s spine. She had not expected a sign. The question of the Harbinger’s purpose had faded over the years. A generation endowed with precognition had reached maturity. Gifted. Blessed. Awakened with the ability to foresee events. To most, the Harbinger was considered an evolutionary gift to the human race. And Artemis had chosen to merely let it be. Allowing herself to cease the quest to understand the reason behind the Harbinger, she had put away her suspicions for a decade.
She could feel apprehension in Strang as well. He shared her concern, she knew, just as it had been with the Harbinger’s mysterious awakening, the object’s sudden disappearance presaged an approaching danger.
Artemis closed her eyes and willed a nascent panic to subside. Taking a calming breath, she lifted now darkened eyes to Strang and whispered, “Then it has begun.”
I live in Southern California with my two daughters. I have degrees in English and Psychology from the University of California and twenty plus years of writing experience from technical manuals to short stories. As an executive with a major computer firm, I managed customer documentation and field training and have traveled extensively. I have a passion for history, alternative theories about life’s mysteries life and dolphins. Find Mary on Facebook.
Merridy has always loved music but can’t sing. The only job in the music business he can get is as a security guard for the Bard and Sons, a premier record label. He keeps their secrets and patrols their hallways, always wishing for a big break he knows will never come.
Changeling’s Court is a brand new band struggling to record their first single. Merridy chances upon a scrap of their lyrics without accompanying music notes and can’t help composing a simple melody for them. If he’s found out, he’ll probably get fired.
Instead, he finds himself in a strange new world of magic and faeries—and danger.
Music was embedded in the very fibers of the building.
Merridy took a deep breath as he stepped out of the stairwell and onto the first floor of practice rooms and felt the remnants of the notes played on instruments and sung into microphones swirling around him. They chimed in his ears and seemed to fill the air with a shine he could almost reach out and touch. Merridy wanted to touch it so badly, but instead, he let out his breath and smoothed down the front of his security guard uniform before reaching for the door handle that led into the first private lounge, which belonged to a soloist named Amaryllis.
As he stepped inside, Merridy saw Amaryllis’s bra hanging from the back of a chair. It was lacy across the tops of the cups, the sort of bra that, if the front of her shirt slipped while she was sweaty from singing onstage under the hot lights, might look like a fancy camisole peeking through.
Normally, Merridy didn’t mind the overnight shift as a security guard at the headquarters of the Bard and Sons. There wasn’t anyone else around as he walked through the halls half lit by security lighting and the ambient light that filtered in through the windows from the parking lot outside. He enjoyed the quiet and the solitude—and the music. He couldn’t sing any of the notes aloud, of course, but he could hear each note in his head as if the musicians were still hard at work. Sometimes he took the notes he heard and wrote them down; he had notebooks full of songs he’d heard, of notes that had twined through his mind, all put down onto the bar lines preprinted on staff paper and filed on his bookshelves at home.
He wasn’t used to running into women’s underwear, though. Today, all he had expected coming in was the rather minor suspense of the new band taking over the lone empty practice room. Any sort of excitement to break up the monotony of walking in circles all night was a relief, and finding out what type of band—pop, rock, country—had moved in would be the highlight of his evening. He wanted to know what the remnants of their music would sound like when he stepped into their empty practice lounge, and if it was as good as he hoped, he was looking forward to buying their soundtrack to hear it firsthand.
Of course, what he really wanted was to be playing in his own band in the light of day, rather than sneaking hints of the sounds of other bands as he walked through each room at night, but he was taking what little he could get and trying to enjoy it as best he could.
He quickly checked the rest of the room to make sure it was completely empty, which included looking behind doors and inside the full wardrobe. Merridy closed the wardrobe doors, took one more look around the cluttered lounge, and hurried back into the hallway.
Merridy unhooked his keys from his belt and made sure the lounge door was firmly locked. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small pad of organizer tabs, the ones usually used to keep school notes organized. He chose a red tab and yanked it free of the roll before sticking it to the underside of Amaryllis’s nameplate. It would warn anyone arriving in the morning that this door should remain closed and locked until Amaryllis herself came to clean up her mess. Not even the morning custodian was allowed to go in to vacuum.
A bra was fairly innocuous, but given who it belonged to, it would probably sell for big bucks online. Merridy’s simple red tab would keep anyone stupid enough to try—like the sound mixer who had been selling used drumsticks on eBay a few months back—from having the opportunity.
With Amaryllis’s room done, Merridy continued down the hallway to the next door. It opened to reveal one of the two recording studios on the floor. He wasn’t allowed to touch any of the electrical parts, like the blinking lights or the slides on the sound mixer board. He didn’t know what any of the buttons did, and if he inadvertently ruined a project left unfinished overnight, he would be in major trouble.
He walked past the electronics and into the inner studio, where the instruments and the microphones for the singers were located. He could almost hear what the room sounded like when the instruments were playing—guitars riffing, drums pounding, and the simple note of a piano or bass holding it all together. The melodies would soar, reverberating through the room as a singer crooned into the mesh-fronted mic stand. Merridy knew what that sounded like from the dozens of auditions he had tried out for, and he’d reveled in each and every experience, but it didn’t matter how good he was on keys or strings. Once the band found out he couldn’t sing, somehow he was never actually chosen.
The imagined music faded from Merridy’s thoughts as that harsh dose of reality set in. He quickly checked that the inner studio was also empty of people and continued on. He left the studio door as he’d found it: unlocked and tab-free. There wasn’t anything sensitive to hide there.
Merridy checked behind every door—including the janitor’s closet—for trespassers. Very famous, platinum-selling artists used the studio space or kept practice lounges in the building. Rabid fans and competitors alike would kill and bribe for even the slightest glimpse of what Merridy saw every night. Some things Merridy wished he could unsee. Stars were very strange people, and he didn’t envy the custodians who had to clean up after them.
He finished his round of the floor where he had originally started, at the lone staircase in the corner. There was an elevator on the other side, but Merridy had to take the stairs up to the second floor first to ensure they were clear. He input his code into the keypad on the door to tell the other security guard manning the phones and desk in the lobby downstairs that he had finished the floor before heading farther upstairs.
The next two floors were comprised of more studio space. He had to flag one room on the third floor where someone had left a bong and some weed lying on a table next to a guitar.
He headed to the fourth floor, which was an exact replica of the prior two. Merridy walked to the first doorway and popped it open with a grimace. Soul Sound was a hard-rocking, hard-partying band, and their practice studio still sounded like it. The music floating through the air was a little shrieky, with high-pitched runs of the guitar accompanied by deep-throated screaming into the microphone. There were plenty of people who liked screamer rock, but Merridy just couldn’t find enough of the melody floating through his mind to enjoy it himself. He tried not to listen for as long as he could manage while he flipped open doors and checked behind furniture.
The job of a security guard was boring and monotonous, and often weird. This first walkthrough of all the rooms was the most interesting part of his night, because he never knew just what he would find behind each closed door. After the surprise was gone, the hours slowly trickled by until the sun rose. The daytime security guards, who only had to sit at the desk in the lobby unless an issue occurred upstairs, would arrive, and Merridy could go home to sleep.
He swept all the rooms on the floor like usual, luckily not seeing anything too startling, until he reached the final door. The nameplate he was used to was gone, and the blank rectangle of wall where it used to be was slightly darker than the paint around it. It had been carefully removed; the holes for the screws didn’t look torn or destroyed. Merridy turned and opened the studio door.
The furniture was different, too, as were the instruments scattered across the room. Antiquities and Wine—the country band that the space belonged to—had needed banjo stands, but those were now replaced by an upright piano. A leather jacket, another thing that didn’t fit with Antiquities and Wine’s chosen image, had been carelessly left across the back of the new couch.
Antiquities and Wine had moved to new studio space recently built farther south, Merridy remembered suddenly. That tidbit of information had gone out in the company’s weekly internal email bulletin. A new band had already taken the space. Merridy wondered who they were. The space felt quiet, almost anticipatory, as the old notes in the air faded without Antiquities and Wine there to renew them. The new band hadn’t yet begun to fill the space with their own sound.
He walked farther into the room, seeing four guitars—a bass, two electric, and one acoustic—on stands and a drum snare on top of the new piano. They were probably a pop-rock or rock band. In the back of the room, near the private bathroom, was a desk strewn with staff paper. Many of the sheets had been crumpled into balls and tossed aside. The ones still flat on the desk had dozens of cross-outs, some lines excessively crossed, the pen having cut deep.
Songwriting obviously wasn’t going too well for the new band.
Well. Either they’d figure it out, or they’d get out. That was the way the business worked. They had been given their chance with the nice studio. If the band blew it, too bad. It was more of a chance than Merridy had ever had. He sighed and resolutely pushed his jealousy away before heading into the bathroom to double-check it was empty. Merridy had a good job. Just because he wanted to switch places with someone in the new band wasn’t reason enough to let resentment simmer and ruin his night. The sink, toilet, and glassed-in shower stall hid no one, so he turned to head back out.
There was one piece of regular lined paper on the desk next to the bathroom door that wasn’t crumpled or covered in pencil scratches. Merridy couldn’t help stopping to read the four simple lines handwritten there.
When Mell Eight was in high school, she discovered dragons. Beautiful, wondrous creatures that took her on epic adventures both to faraway lands and on journeys of the heart. Mell wanted to create dragons of her own, so she put pen to paper. Mell Eight is now known for her own soaring dragons, as well as for other wonderful characters dancing across the pages of her books. While she mostly writes paranormal or fantasy stories, she has been seen exploring the real world once or twice.
Babe thought he had done all the right things. He works a respectable job, owns his own home, pays his taxes, and throws jury duty summonses in the trash just like every other fellow American. He even stays faithful to his promiscuous boyfriend. But even through all of the right things, he is unsatisfied with his life.
Chance, an Eminem wannabe, drops his pants low and listens to hip hop to show his alliance with Black culture, but Babe has to learn to accept him as more than the “W” word: a wigger.
Alise and her special-needs son, Rueben, have been evicted and reduced to living in a car when her husband runs out on them. They now have to rebuild their lives after losing all their earthly possessions.
Babe finds that Alise and Chance may represent an opportunity for a fresh start as they navigate the intricacies of race relations, working class disillusionment, and mental health.
The Lark Bar was a decaying local dive on the edge of town. It was the only gay bar that did not require a trek into Philadelphia proper. His nerves were too frazzled for a long drive, but he felt like he would go mad if he sat waiting around in that empty house one second longer.
He waited as the bartender casually, deliberately served every other patron before pretending to notice him standing at the end of the bar, his sleekly muscled arm held aloft like some rare tropical bird, signaling with the only lure that outweighed racism; the cold hard cash held in his fist.
Babe pondered the subtle ways prejudice played out in small-town gay bars versus the clubs in the city. In the city, you were denied entry, waiting while burly doormen examined your photo ID as if the secrets of the universe might be found within. You tamped down on your slowly mounting fury as inebriated white fag hags were nodded past, screeching in your ear as they obliviously bumped into you along the way.
Here, no one carded you on the street. Because they could not run the risk of a public confrontation. The Lark Bar was tolerated, not welcomed, by the conservative county commissioners, bureaucrats, and taxpayers. Bringing undue attention and police involvement were verboten.
He leaned forward and mouthed Grand Marnier, rocks and floated a ten-dollar bill onto the damp bartop, noting the derision scouring the attendant’s face before he turned and plunged a tumbler into a mound of ice. Babe knew that look. He had seen that same expression all through his childhood in the white suburbs of Upper Merion. The expression was designed to remind him that he was a pretender, that he did not belong; his delusions of grandeur had been noted and silently challenged.
Babe acknowledged maybe this time it was true. Ordering a beer would have been a more financially responsible choice. Especially if he planned to follow through on the thing he had vowed to do not more than thirty minutes before, storming out the house in search of a drink to bolster his resolve. But he had to let these gatekeepers know he wasn’t an outsider begging for the scraps of their acceptance. So he ordered top shelf, even when his budget indicated well options would have been the smarter choice.
He tipped 20 percent because he knew they expected nothing. He was aware of the stereotype of Black people being poor tippers. That was another irony that struck him. White servers didn’t seem to grasp that they were poorly tipped because they served poorly. He overtipped even after being made to wait until all other patrons were served. He ignored abrupt behavior and belittling expressions.
He counted out the change handed back to him, peeled off the proper percentage and threw it dismissively onto the bar, turning his back before the bartender could also deliberately ignore the tip, and leaned back with his elbows on the ledge behind him.
The hypervigilant jukebox playlist was another harbinger of the gradations of exclusion. Philly DJs played the current Black divas but remixed and diluted bass, lifted treble, and quickened bpms until most remnants of Africa were obscured to an acceptable approximation of pop (read: non-Black). Here, in the city perimeter, the only divas of color were Diana Ross and the Pointer Sisters fighting amongst a plethora of Patsy Cline, Celine Dion, and Barbara Streisand.
But here, in this small, dark space, with its abysmal checkerboard dancefloor off by the fire escape at the back, only occasionally populated for a rousing two step, and the echoing wail of canned music with its lone, weak strobe waving across dusty walls, the desire of lonely men was far more palpable than hidden amidst the revelry of big-city dance palaces.
It was bleakly evident in every wizened, mustachioed gaze glancing from hooded eyes. It was signaled in the way conversation momentarily froze as he passed, and the tremulous, trepidatious smiles Babe was too distracted to notice.
Babe crossed the peeling linoleum dancefloor to the seating area sectioned off by an ornate metal railing with steps going down like a cockpit. Sitting at the table by the wall furthest to the back, Babe set down his drink with shaking hands. He found this space, away from lustful consideration, with 8x10s of golden age Hollywood stars lining concrete walls somewhat comfortable. The scent of lemon wood polish merged with the orange blossom wafting from his glass. Even through his distraction, he was able to appreciate the gleam emanating from the random width pine beneath his unlaced Timberlands.
If they would tear up that awful linoleum on the dancefloor and show off the natural-random-width wood flooring beneath, he speculated, this place might not be as pathetic as it was. But, he realized, appealing to people like him with his mass of thick dreadlocks and tight wife beater, was most likely not part of the demographic the business model would have been designed to attract.
A loud, braying laugh cut through the din of a Tammy Wynette song. Peering through the smoke, Babe recognized the boy wavering at the bar. Pale and thin, basking in the attention of sad, old men, vaingloriously accepting drink after proffered drink, he swayed and bobbed from one torso to the other like a badminton birdie being hit between two opponents. Babe had occasionally seen him during the course of running errands, grocery shopping, or driving his friend Ricky down to the city to cop. The wan, pale boy always seemed to be sitting out on the cement stoop of a narrow two-story row house on Airy Street, no matter the time of day, in weather both clement and inclement. Ricky would point at the boy as they passed, cackling derisively.
“What?” Babe would ask, looking briefly at the boy as they roared past in a cloud of gas fumes and pumped-up mixtape bass.
Ricky pointed a pudgy manicured finger at the boy slouched on the stoop, wearing sagging jeans and Timberlands with his thin purple hair woven into sloppy wide cornrows.
“Would you look at that mess over there? Who did that head like that? These wiggers always be getting the whole shit wrong, chile. Especially the sissies.”
Then, as now, Babe didn’t find anything terribly wrong about how the guy was dressed. He didn’t find anything even notable about it. He didn’t see how wearing baggy jeans or oversized T-shirts denoted someone aping Black culture. Everybody wore big jeans. He admitted the braids were kind of bad, but he had seen worse.
David Jackson Ambrose is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. He has an M.A. from Saint Joseph’s University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Temple University. He has presented at the National Conference for Teachers of English. His exploration of race and the mental health field was selected for honorable mention for AWP’s 2016 Intro Journals Project. Ambrose was selected as a 2018 Lambda Literary Award finalist for his debut novel, State of the Nation. He describes his work as “a focus on marginalized people and the ways identities are shaped by a confluence of the prison industrial complex, the mental health factory, (both of which he refers to as neo-plantations) and police state apparatus as it collides with gender, sexuality and the construct of race to impose disability and hierarchy as part of the design of American capitalism.”
Orrin and Gordon come from different worlds: Orrin is a werewolf with the New Amsterdam Police, and Gordon is a vampire who likes the quiet of his morgue. Yet, they decided to be with one another even though Orrin’s vampire was at first afraid to commit.
Now, new complications come barreling at the two when Orrin realizes he will have to step up to become a parent to an orphan shifter, while New Amsterdam has become the haunt of a serial killer who targets mixed supernatural and human couples.
Gordon was slow to realize he loves his werewolf mate, but it takes him even longer to figure out he still has his own demons to deal with. A past hurt has left a scar on his soul. Gordon’s werewolf detective might just be what Gordon needs to heal the scars from his past. The only question is whether geeky Gordon is enough for serious and seriously handsome Orrin.
Together with Maxim, New Amsterdam’s bardic vampire hunter, Orrin and Gordon are on the case to save the city from sinking into fear and panic as more murders challenge the peace. Through turmoil and death, Orrin and Gordon must find a way forward.
NOTE: This book contains scenes of assault and kidnapping that may be triggers for some readers.
New Amsterdam Police Station was a nice neoclassical building, and all things considered, it wasn’t a bad place to work. Most of the time, the coffee was even decent.
Orrin had not usually been one to leave the station early, but Bachman, his protégée, was more than capable and didn’t need him holding her hand while she finished her paperwork. Also, Orrin had a hot date at the morgue. He checked the time on his computer, finished one more email, then logged out. Bachman briefly looked up from what she was doing.
“You always look cheery when you are going to see the boyfriend,” she commented, then did a double take and looked straight at him. “Or should I be saying mate?”
Orrin grabbed his bag and stuffed his work tablet into it. “Boyfriend is fine,” Orrin said, because it was, and it also was easier around the station, since most of Orrin’s colleagues weren’t werewolves but were human like Bachman herself. “Also, are you saying I’m usually grumpy-looking, Bachman?”
“Just very, very serious, sir.” She went back to typing. “I think cheery suits you. And I think the mate-slash-boyfriend does as well.”
Orrin couldn’t do anything about the wide grin that threatened to make his cheeks ache. “Well, thanks. I’ll tell Gordon you said hi.”
“Hmm-mmh.” Bachman winked at him as Orrin walked toward the elevators, and even he noticed the spring in his step.
* * *
The worst thing about any morgue was the smell of lingering death. Orrin sniffed the air when he got to the basement hallway in the Forum that housed the forensic labs, though he was hoping to pick up a whiff of Gordon’s dusty rose scent rather than eau de corpse. Yet all he got was vinegar and bleach cleaning solution. Gordon had probably received a fresh batch of New Amsterdam University interns and had set them to cleaning every nook and cranny so they could familiarize themselves with the place.
On the bland-looking wall on the left, a framed, vintage <em>Dracula</em> movie poster added a dose of vampiric cheer in bold print and even bolder colors to the basement labs, and opposite it, Gordon’s office door stood ajar. Orrin peeked around the doorframe to see if Gordon was in there.
<em>What a nice view,</em> Orrin though, watching Gordon hanging a framed piece of artwork, his nimble surgeon’s fingers adjusting the frame this way and that. The view was much helped by the skinny jeans Gordon was wearing. The jeans were a silvery gray, clashing with the raspberry surgical top, but nicely bringing out Gordon’s latest hair color, electric blue that shifted to icy white at the ends. <em>I am very fortunate to have found a mate who looks great in skinny jeans and likes wearing them</em>.
Orrin indulged in a quick fantasy centered on removing said pair of skinny jeans, and in the fantasy, that task was easy, and Orrin’s mate had decided to go commando. Orrin imagined Gordon hard and ready, imagined touching, tasting…
He smothered that fantasy quickly when he felt his own aching physical reaction. Instead, he refocused back on the present: Gordon, tinkering with the frame.
“Hey,” Orrin said.
Gordon jumped, dropped the frame, and cursed as he turned around. “Fucking hell,” he said, his stance relaxing as he saw Orrin. “Make some noise every now and then, will you?”
Orrin chuckled. “Thought I was a living corpse, Doctor?”
“Never,” Gordon said, picking up the frame once more and putting it on its hook with much less fumbling than before. “Those shamble, noisily.” He turned to Orrin again. “And you are sneaky, like a true predator, Detective.”
Orrin walked into Gordon’s office, which smelled of roses, Gordon’s scent. It still had an undertone of morgue, of course. The Lord Helmet cookie jar added the herby flavor of good weed cookies, and all the mint-in-box collectibles came with their own aroma of high-end plastic, but Orrin focused on Gordon. Two more steps, and he was pulling the vampire into his arms and pressing his lips to Gordon’s.
Gordon yielded to being held after a moment, turning fully to Orrin and allowing the werewolf to fuse their mouths and run hands over Gordon’s body, all the way down to his ass.
“Hi,” Orrin said when they broke their kiss.
“Hello, handsome,” Gordon said, and while the vampire wasn’t one to give pet names, Orrin still enjoyed being called handsome, not least because it came out of his mate’s mouth. “Are you here to cuff me and take me away?”
Alexa Piper writes steamy romance that ranges from light to dark, from straight to queer. She’s also a coffee addict. Alexa loves writing stories that make her readers laugh and fall in love with the characters in them. Connect with Alexa on Facebook or Instagram, follow her on Twitter, and subscribe to her newsletter!
What is it they say? No good deed goes unpunished?
Ren is on the run. His people have aligned themselves with every known mage cabal in the country to rise up and overrun the world above. As the head of House Daturi, he’d been expected to follow the other Houses and lead his own into war. Except he has no desire to fight — with anyone. Now he has two choices: fall in line or die as a traitor. Neither seems promising.
Arulas is a wolf shapeshifter who prefers to avoid contact with others, no matter the species. He has a cabin deep in the woods, nestled near the border of the Light Fae realm. He doesn’t bother them, and they don’t bother him. Until now, things were quite perfect. Then he finds a half-dead Dark Fae in the middle of nowhere. Not one to leave a man down, Arulas nurses the Dark Fae back to health, only to find himself square in the middle of a damn war.
Ren smiled against the sweat-slick skin beneath his lips. The young man bent over the workbench moaned with every stroke of Ren’s fingers. Doing this in the back of the blacksmith’s shop was probably not one of Ren’s smartest ideas, but, here lately, he found himself caring less about who saw him.
“Please,” the blacksmith’s apprentice murmured, backing up onto Ren’s fingers even more.
Unable to wait any longer, Ren withdrew them and thrust into the deliciously tight heat of the man’s body. The young man grunted and reached down to jerk himself off. Ren gripped the lean hips tight and rode the sweet ass for all he was worth.
The man beneath him gasped, and then Ren’s cock plowed back in for a final time, filling the man’s ass. Ren moaned and bent to kiss the smooth, muscled back.
“We really should do this more often.”
Ren chuckled. “Agreed. Though, perhaps not here. I’m surprised your master hasn’t returned yet.”
The young man snorted. “He’s probably drunk.” He stood slowly, easing his pants back up. Then he turned and met Ren in a lazy but drugging kiss. “Tomorrow?”
“Mmm…” Ren ran a fingertip down the bare chest in front of him. “I’ll let you know. It depends on how quickly I can get away.”
“You really don’t like her, do you?”
Ren finished dressing and chuckled. “Believe me, the dislike is mutual.”
“Why marry her?”
“It was arranged, I’m afraid.”
The young man shivered. “I’m so glad I’m just a blacksmith’s apprentice and not a noble.”
Ren stole another kiss. “It’s quite overrated.”
“Must you go?”
He smiled. If he had his way, he’d happily drag the man off for a night full of sex and debauchery. He sighed. “I’m expected in the Council chambers soon. But I will let you know when it’s safe to resume this.”
After a final slow kiss, Ren waved and left the blacksmith’s shop and his young, occasional lover behind.
* * *
Two hours later, Ren wished, not for the first time, that he’d been born a peasant. He watched the Council proceedings warily, dreading the outcome. Every House, including his own, waited for the word from their leader, Zerin, and the Council. Every day, more mages filtered into the Council chambers situated in the House Vakeor keep. Ren lost count at over three hundred mages, but he figured there had to be more. The damn sorcerers seemed to be everywhere. Not that Ren cared about magick either way, but it made him uneasy to see any here, especially in such numbers.
Rumors swirled among the peasantry that Zerin was under mage influence, but the pompous ass had been itching to get the Houses unified to take over the world above. Ren didn’t agree with such ambitions, and a part of him feared the consequences should Zerin’s war come to fruition.
“Lord Ren, what of House Daturi? Are you prepared?” one of the Council members asked.
Ren had been dreading the question. “I… yes. House Daturi is ready to march with the others,” he lied.
In truth, he didn’t care if House Daturi did or not. He had no intention of sticking around to watch. He’d packed his things a few days ago, what little he could carry, and only waited for the right time to leave. If he was careful, he could get above ground by morning. Of course, the second he was missed, there would be a price on his head the likes of which no Dark Fae had ever seen. They’d lost a few guards, but never anyone of Ren’s status. He had to do it quickly and quietly. He hated leaving his few lovers, but he couldn’t stay here any longer. Not with his sanity intact.
“Very good,” Zerin said from his dais at the front of the Council chamber. “This meeting is adjourned. We will reconvene in the morning to set our plans in motion.”
Dismissed, Ren and the other lords filed out of the chamber. Ren headed back toward the tunnel leading to his own keep, a good distance from House Vakeor. Each House’s territory branched off from House Vakeor’s, some several days’ journey away. Thankfully, House Daturi was only a few hours’ walk. He’d left his guards at his keep, more out of caution than anything else. He’d long since lost any trust in his own people, even those in his House. If Zerin wanted a war, so be it, but the man would have it without Ren’s aid. House Daturi’s followers could do as they pleased.
Myc has been writing professionally since 2005, solo and with Shayne Carmichael. Genres include pretty much anything (no steampunk yet), though Myc is well known for paranormal stories. When not writing, Myc is usually playing PC games, reading, watching Netflix, and spending way too much time on Facebook. Since the question has come up in the past, pronouns are not an issue. Myc is bio-female, mentally male, and 100% genderfluid, so any pronoun works!
After a tornado drops a feisty fugitive into the arms of a steel-hearted warrior, she must convince him to help her and her not-so-little dog evade a wicked enemy.
When a tornado drops Thea Gale and her not-so-little dog Titan into the arms of a steel-hearted warrior, she has no idea the trouble she is in. Lucky for her, the battle-scarred Navy SEAL who comes to her rescue knows a few things about evading wicked enemies.
Nickolas Steele is certain the right thing to do is to turn the filterless fugitive and her overprotective canine in to the authorities. But is the captivating amnesiac really a threat or is she the one whose life is in grave danger?
Nik can’t shake the feeling Thea’s past has come back to claim her, and discovering who she really is might be more deadly than either of them is prepared for. In order to enlist Nik’s help, Thea must not only confront the trauma of her former life but also penetrate the carefully forged armor protecting what’s left of Nik’s heart.
Newly retired Navy SEAL Nikolas Steele rolled an Atomic Fireball around his tongue as he debated continuing down the highway with a tornado watch in effect. The safe thing to do would be to hunker down for a bit, but Nik’s mood teetered precariously toward danger.
Nik didn’t feel retired. He felt cocked and loaded.
‘You’ve been their weapon, now find your peace,’ his teammate Will’s pregnant wife, now widow, had told him before he’d left Coronado.
Clamping the spicy cinnamon jawbreaker between his molars, he crushed it to get to the sweet. How the hell was he supposed to do this ‘normal life’ thing when he’d rather risk driving into a tornado than be alone in a quiet hotel room?
Sticking a fuel nozzle into his four-door, matte black Jeep Rubicon, he set the handle to fill it with gas. Kansas prairie air hung thickly charged and stale all at the same time. The unstable weather in Goodland amplified his thrumming nerves. He just needed to come down off of this last deployment. After his teammate Will’s death, it wouldn’t be easy, but when was it ever?
He’d been invited to go with his best friend Coop and Coop’s brother Leo out to a private island owned by the reclusive billionaire Coop worked for. A little sun, sand, and sex therapy on Marakata Cay was exactly what Nik needed to detox the past several months of adrenaline and anxiety out of his system. Get clean, so to speak. He just had to get to Chicago, his rendezvous point with the guys, and in a couple of weeks maybe normal wouldn’t itch so badly.
Right now, what Nik really needed was a drink, and if he got a drink, he’d need a room, and if he got a room, he’d need… Well, there was only one reason an insomniac like himself could stand being in an uncomfortable hotel bed and sleep had nothing to do with it.
What was he in the mood for tonight? Sweet or spicy? Hardly mattered really, it’d been so long. But given how bad his anxiety had ramped up over losing Will and leaving the Teams, it’d be a miscalculation to hold out any longer for an exotic islander. A Kansas farm girl would do perfectly fine, thank you very much.
If Nik were the kind of guy who believed in signs, he might’ve considered the base-model, white Ford truck screaming in hot and skidding to a stop at the pumps to be one. A blonde with country-girl braids and gold-mirrored sunglasses swung from the truck and quickly jiggled a gas nozzle into the tank.
Pouring from the pickup’s cracked windows was his teammate’s favorite drinking song—Johnny Cash’s Cocaine Blues. Replacing the graphic images of Will’s death, which had haunted Nik most of the cross-country drive, was the vision of the shaggy-haired, surfer-turned-SEAL passionately belting out the lyrics as if he were the infamous Willy Lee on the run from the sheriff of Jericho Hill. The way Will would’ve wanted to be remembered.
The blonde’s hips shifted to the train-chugging rhythm of the rockabilly song as her fingers combed her braids out. Lifting her arms, she fought a gust of wind as she whipped the waves into a ponytail. The motion pulled her oversized hoodie high enough to reveal one of the best asses he’d seen in a long while.
Despite the jumpy energy of the old-timey classic, the pumps continued to run super slow and her wild ponytail danced as she sprang impatiently on the balls of her feet. She might as well have been Tigger the Tiger from the Pooh books—bouncy, flouncy, trouncy… He definitely wanted to pouncy.
Nik knew enough women to realize Tigger’s antsy energy meant she was probably more batshit than bouncy, but crazy sure could be a hell of a lot of fun for a night. And one night was all he had to offer.
The last trace of sun slipped below the wheat tips on the horizon as the ominous cloud cover turned what should be a dusky blue-gray sky into a nearly black one. Activated by a light sensor, yellow and red station signage flickered and fluorescent white overheads surged to ignite. Tigger jerked the hood of her sweatshirt over her head, casting her high cheekboned profile in shadow. Nik squeezed his brows and dropped his chin. With a little chuckle, he briefly considered opening with, Who knew the Unabomber had such a smoking-hot ass?
Despite the humor of it, he couldn’t get past the hoodie. The jagged edge to the atmosphere no longer bit down, but the humidity still threatened to choke him out. And she was in a freaking sweatshirt. Women. Why were they always so cold?
Leaning back against his Jeep, Nik crossed the Nile croc cowboy boots Coop had talked him into spending a small fortune on the last time he’d visited Texas. He pretended to check his phone while he kept eyes on Tigger, waiting for his opening.
Her attention, however, had caught on a horse trailer in front of her. The rig had pulled in a few minutes before and Nik had quickly determined that offering to pump the elderly driver’s gas while she went inside would likely earn him an earful, as she was not your average granny. It wasn’t just the long, silver ponytail she sported, either. There wasn’t a single thing soft or round on her lean, work-toned body, leaving Nik quite certain not only that the lady had hooked up the six-horse gooseneck trailer she was hauling all by herself but that she’d also bucked the bales of hay stacked on top.
Tigger panned the convenience store parking lot before climbing up on the fender step to stroke the brown and black muzzles poking through the aluminum slats. After slipping something to them—an apple core, maybe?—and a couple of quick pecks to their soft noses, she hopped down with a little bounce before the lady returned to catch her.
Nik’s fingers worked to unwrap another Fireball. The kissing bandit would turn his way soon. Not to be cocky, but it was surprising she wasn’t already showing interest.
Years of working Special Ops made observing people second nature, and he paid extra attention to the ones who didn’t fit perfectly in their boxes. Tigger had definitely bounced out of her box. She was attractive, but didn’t call attention to it with makeup or clothing. Small-framed, but her posture carried her taller. Imitation gold aviators hid her eyes despite night coming on. And she wore that awful baggy hoodie and jeans even though the heat along the dry line crept up to the mid-nineties.
More annoying than the sweatshirt, the hot-blooded Kansas farm girl was more interested in kissing the lips of horses than the cold-blooded American soldier trying to catch her eye.
He wasn’t the only one frustrated. Tigger repeatedly clasped the fuel nozzle, trying to get it to pump faster. Damn, if those delicate pink-tipped fingers were closing around him, neither one of them would be frustrated for long.
Or if she’d only turn his way, he could take care of them both.
Gather some quick intel, disarm her with a grin and maybe a subtle shot of his abs, divert her to one of the dive bars farther off the highway and buy her a round before finding a hotel and going a different kind of round…or two…or four. Simple.
The mission fresh in his mind, and tired of waiting for her to initiate contact, he rocked his body off the Jeep. Discreetly he shifted his concealed carry holster from appendix to hip, because flashing the six-pack with a semiauto sticking out of your waistband tended to send the wrong message. Run, so I can use you for moving target practice wasn’t the look he was going for in this particular application. You live. You learn.
His Sig P365 safely out of sight, Nik strode forward with a good ol’ boy swagger the Lucchese boots lent him. At the first scuff of his leather soles, her mirrored-sunglass gaze snapped his way. One side of his mouth cocked up. Tigger was paying attention after all.
God, having her full focus turned Nik’s blood a little wild, his breathing just south of controlled. His gut flickered with vulnerability. Feelings he was accustomed to having while palming sketchy explosives, but never from a woman.
Damn if he didn’t love things that go boom.
With calculated casualness he stroked his palm up his stomach, bringing the hem of his black T-shirt with it… Just a peek. Okay. It was a cheesy move. Maybe not as blatantly so as the ol’ yawn and stretch, but he’d fully admit it was the male equivalent to pushing one’s boobs together. Like the boob-squeeze, the ab-flash was a seasoned hook when time was limited. Know a good place to get a drink around here? hovered over his tongue, but she held up her hand, ensuring the words never made it past his teeth.
“Save it, cowboy.”
Cowboy? Coop would get a kick out of that.
The sexy curve to her bare, pink lips teased him closer as her patronizing tone backed him off. All he could do was hold position on the oil-splattered pavement. Before he could even ask her if she wanted to save a horse and ride him instead, she cut him off. “From the way you’ve been staring at my ass, you’d only last two minutes, and I don’t even have time for one.”
His bouncy little Tigger was a tiger after all. Even better. “In that case, darlin’, which would you prefer—I wreck your plans for the next several hours defending my stamina or accept the challenge of getting you done in one?”
Her plush lower lip plumped between her teeth, a clear indication she was considering picking the former. But as easily as she threw the nozzle at the pump, she tossed back at him, “Get yourself done in one.”
His speechlessness was rewarded with a devilish smirk as she swung her hot tail into the truck and peeled away. In true Tigger fashion, she bounded over the curb to avoid oncoming traffic. A protest of honking followed in her wake.
Nik chuckled. Sweet and spicy. Yep, she’d be one hell of a tiger to have by the tail. With any luck he’d have another shot at a piece of it farther down the road.
Brooke Taylor lives and writes from her country home in Oklahoma where her pets are a constant, but happy, distraction. When she’s not reading or writing, she enjoys horseback riding, going to the lake, and traveling.
Brooke has worked extensively in the travel industry, from dude ranches to ski resorts to cruise lines. Her many overseas adventures include sky diving in New Zealand, scuba diving with sharks, sailing through hurricanes, and having her tent attacked by wild animals in the Mara game reserve in Kenya. Due to current health insurance rates, Brooke is letting her characters do most of the risk-taking from now on.
BROOKE TAYLOR IS GIVING AWAY THIS FABULOUS PRIZE TO ONE LUCKY WINNER. ENTER HERE FOR YOUR CHANCE TO WIN A LOVELY GIFT PACKAGE AND GET A FIRST FOR ROMANCE GIFT CARD! Notice: This competition ends on 13TH April 2021 at 5pm GMT. Competition hosted by Totally Entwined Group.
Will this runaway royal ever find her place…and true love?
All Princess Catherine Zara of Lysianna wants to do is attend college like everyone else her age. So she’s a royal and requires a security guard to move about in public, but if she goes to university, she doesn’t have to marry the man chosen for her. He’s not her true love, so why torture herself? All she has to do to get her life started is to run away to the US…
And then she meets Luke.
Luke Cobb wants to survive college with a degree in studio art and guarantees that he can show his paintings in the local galleries. All he needs is the right break to get his work mainstream and the right woman to stoke his dormant muse. When he meets Zara, he’s smitten and his creativity sparks.
Except, she’s a princess and he’s a commoner, which could be a big problem…
“I can do this.” Princess Catherine shored up her courage. She was a royal. A princess. She could do anything she set her mind to—except stand up to the king and queen.
She stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her parents, the king and queen of Lysianna, wouldn’t allow her to head to another country on her own. They insisted she be an advisor to her brother, the future king. Charlie could handle himself and he’d be a great king—whenever the time came.
If she didn’t practice what she wanted to say, she’d flounder and this was not the time to lose her nerve. She tucked her hair behind her ears. “Mother, Father, I need to speak with you. I’ve completed two years of online schooling towards a degree in art history and I’m going to Kenton State College in the United States to finish it.” Did she sound convincing enough?
She’d already completed her application for acceptance on campus, chosen her classes for the first semester and landed a good apartment in a building just across from the main portion of the campus. Her plane ticket had been paid for and she’d packed most of her things. All she needed to do was tell her parents she’d be leaving.
She abandoned her image in the mirror and resumed packing the last of her things—her brushes, photos and stuffed rabbit in her bag. She’d come back, but she wasn’t sure when. Sadness filled her mind. Change would be hard—she’d only ever lived in the castle—but she needed to move forward with her life. She’d never be happy living as part of the court. Even if she did nothing more than teach an art class or run a portion of a museum back home, she’d be happy and doing something with her life.
Her lady-in-waiting, Corinne, hurried into the room. “I guess you’re ready to go.” She folded her arms. “Want me to go with you? I should.”
She had plans for her lady and wasn’t about to disclose them now. Corinne was terrible with secrets and would’ve told her parents before the point of no return. “It’s handled.”
Corinne sat on the bed. “What am I going to do with myself? I have nothing to do if you’re not here. They might let me go.”
“They won’t.” She closed her bag. “They like you. If my brother wasn’t gay, they’d have married you off to him by now.”
“But he is gay.” Corinne groaned. “Sucks.”
Her lady hadn’t been shy about her crush on Charlie. In the whole of their time together, Corinne had insisted to Catherine she wanted to marry Charlie. The problem? Besides Charlie being gay, he wasn’t going to marry Corinne simply to make an heir. He refused to change just for the royal line.
“Your parents would rather you marry Duke Elmore. He’s handsome,” Corinne said. “If you’re into older guys.”
Catherine shivered. “Older isn’t the half of it. He’s almost twenty years older than me, he’s not handsome at all and I don’t like him. I don’t want to be married to someone who sees me as a ticket to the good life. He wants a title beyond duke.” Her stepmother would never understand. She’d married the king, despite their ten-year age difference, just to have a title.
“So you’re going to America to avoid him?”
“No.” She simply refused to marry someone out of duty, not love. “I want to finish my degree. Art makes me happy. Him? Not so much.”
“Well, it’s time to talk to your parents.” Corinne walked with her to the corridor. “Need me to do anything?”
“Nope. I’ve got this handled.” Catherine gave her bag to the butler. “Thank you.” She shored herself up again and headed down to the throne room. The car was ready and once she reached the airport, the plane would be waiting to whisk her to the States. Even if her parents said no, she’d left nothing to chance.
“Catherine.” Her stepmother, Eloise, closed her book. “You look determined. Have you made a decision concerning the duke?”
“I have.” She clasped her hands together. “I refuse to marry him.” She stood tall. “I’ve made a choice about my future, too.”
“Oh?” Her father finally looked up from his paperwork. “What have you decided?”
She sucked in a ragged breath, then sighed. “Mother, Father, I’m attending college.”
Her father tipped his head and said nothing. Her stepmother gasped. “Why? You’re a royal. You don’t have to do schooling. Elmore will take care of you and you can play with your art all you want. Royals don’t dirty their hands with studies.”
Her stepmother spit the words out like sour candies. Catherine didn’t care. She had to focus. “I want a degree in art history. I’d like to learn about the art here in Lysianna and around the world—like my mother used to know.”
“Interesting,” her father said. He tapped his pen on the table. “Why do you want to follow in your mother’s footsteps?”
She’d prepared for this question. “I need to have something that’s mine. I love art and I’m dying to continue my studies.” She had to keep her explanation short and sweet. The more she talked, the greater the chance her parents would coerce her to change her mind. “I want something to hold on to that reminds me of my mother. I don’t remember her and this is my private link.”
“She’s gone,” her stepmother snapped.
“Let her have this, Queen. It’s her choice,” her father said. “She’ll get bored after a year or she’ll find this is the thing she wants to do. As for Elmore, he can wait. Or maybe he can’t and he’ll choose someone else. Doesn’t matter to me. He’s a pest.”
She wasn’t going to get bored, but if her father thought Elmore was a pest, then why try to palm her off on him?
“What about Charles?” her stepmother said. “He should be the one to go first. Yes, he deserves a degree.”
“He already has one.” Catherine gritted her teeth. Their parents didn’t know Charlie well. He hated being referred to as Charles and he wasn’t interested in going to college again. Charlie had attained a degree on his own and had his plan for making his own way without their parents to intervene. Now was her chance to do the same.
“Anyway, I’m leaving.” She turned on her heel and left the room. If she looked back, she risked changing her mind. Only forward now.
“You’re what?” Her stepmother chased after her. “You cannot. We need to arrange lodgings and security and everything else. You’ll need handlers and Elmore should accompany you for protection. Or he should set up a security detail so he can keep you safe, but stay here to run his businesses.”
God, no. Catherine headed through the foyer to the waiting car. “Goodbye, Mother.” The idea of calling her stepmother Mother annoyed her. She’d had a mother and the queen wasn’t a very good substitute.
“Catherine.” Her stepmother caught up to her. “We’ll summon Elmore. You cannot make the flight unprotected.”
She sighed. “He’s old enough to be my father and he’s not attractive, so no.” She tossed her bag onto the seat. “I’ll be fine. No one in the United States knows me, so I won’t need the huge protection you’re planning.” She’d have her roommate in her new apartment and a few transplanted palace security guards around, but out of sight.
“Take Corinne, please?” Her stepmother pushed Corinne at her. “You can’t go alone. And don’t forget, you need to have an approved consort by the time of your official portrait reveal.”
“Fine.” Catherine nodded to her lady-in-waiting. “Let’s go.” She ducked into the car without bothering for hugs or kisses from her stepmother. That wasn’t her stepmother’s style. Her father hadn’t left the throne room. Her stepmother glared at her, but didn’t otherwise show emotion. She wouldn’t dare. Any bit of cracking might show she was human and the people of Lysianna didn’t think she had emotions. She wanted to say goodbye to her brother, but he wasn’t even in the country.
Catherine settled on the seat and sighed. “That worked out exactly as I planned.”
“What about me?” Corinne asked. “You said I’d stay here.”
“I lied.” She winked. “I couldn’t go totally alone. They’re right. I do need someone with me that I can trust.” Well, mostly trust. “I packed you a bag and added your name to the charter. You’re flying with me.”
Corinne’s eyes widened. “My princess.” She grinned. “Naughty.”
She sighed again. “I’ve never been naughty a day in my life. Crafty, maybe, but never naughty.”
“You’ve lived in your brother’s shadow for too long.”
“He’ll be king and I won’t hold the throne. Even if something happens to him, they won’t let me be queen, so why not have something that’s mine?” Catherine asked. “I don’t mind.” She didn’t. “This way I’m out from under their thumb and can experience life.” She couldn’t wait for the next chapter to start. There was a great big world out there just waiting for her to explore it.
There was the tricky thing about her needing a consort, but she had plenty of time. The portrait reveal wasn’t for another year. The world wouldn’t wait a year—not when her consort might be out there somewhere.
Wendi Zwaduk is a multi-published, award-winning author of more than one-hundred short stories and novels. She’s been writing since 2008 and published since 2009. Her stories range from the contemporary and paranormal to BDSM and LGBTQ themes. No matter what the length, her works are always hot, but with a lot of heart. She enjoys giving her characters a second chance at love, no matter what the form. She’s been the runner up in the Kink Category at Love Romances Café as well as nominated at the LRC for best contemporary, best ménage and best anthology. Her books have made it to the bestseller lists on Amazon.com and the former AllRomance Ebooks. She also writes under the name of Megan Slayer.
When she’s not writing, she spends time with her husband and son as well as three dogs and three cats. She enjoys art, music and racing, but football is her sport of choice.
WENDI ZWADUK 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 13TH April 2021 at 5pm GMT. Competition hosted by Totally Entwined Group.
Seth and Travis are single parents of junior rodeo competitors. Now their lives are changing, and the two men are fighting for their futures and finding love.
Only a few years ago, Travis and Seth began letting their kids compete in the junior rodeo circuit. Seth’s son is working his way through his final season while Travis’ daughter’s interest in her events wanes. No matter what life throws at them, however, their attraction grows, and the two men become closer.
Travis is the latest generation of ranchers, beginning with his great-grandfather who migrated to the area from Mexico. Now years of drought and dwindling cattle markets have him questioning how long he can keep the ranch afloat. Seth is a city boy by rearing but a cowboy by heart, and when he loses his marketing job, he and his daughter move in with Travis and his son to save money. Keeping their relationship platonic seemed to be a good idea years ago, but sharing a bedroom now reveals the men’s need to revisit that arrangement.
Both Travis and Seth are invested in not only seeing their children succeed but also having their own dreams come true. Unfortunately, even the elements are high on the list of hurdles stacking up against them.
Seth sat on the bleachers in the scorching Texas sun, which made him feel like an overcooked piece of beef. But the day’s brutal heat was far from his primary concern. What made his legs tremble and shake like an alcoholic at the end of a three-day bender? That would be the frenzy of the rodeo arena located only a few dozen feet away. The clang of metal against metal had become part of the symphony he lived for every summer weekend. Yes, that was the source of the uproar, but the cause was the two-thousand-pound bull trying to break free of its narrow confines.
Anyone who witnessed the scene before him understood. Seth’s distilled emotions weren’t over the animal itself but the seventeen-year-old cowboy who would shortly be fighting to stay on for eight agonizing seconds.
To put the cherry on the stress sundae, the bull rider who would be trying to keep his seat was…his son.
His friend Travis slid onto the bench beside him. He turned to Seth with a smile. “Zane’s having a good run. He drew his bull from one of the best stock operations on the circuit. He should build up some points this round.”
Seth studied Travis briefly then shrugged. “I know. We’ve been doing this since he was big enough to throw his leg over the sheep they ride in the mutton-busting competition. But the lambs have morphed into huge ugly bulls who live to break every bone in Zane’s body. It’s been the same for years, but somehow, with each rodeo it’s more of my focus,” Seth said.
“Well, every rodeo puts you nearer to your goal of Zane winning the scholarship he needs to pay for his college education. I can’t seem to get my Amy too excited about anything since my divorce from her mother was finalized.”
Seth’s glance at his friend revealed a troubling change from his typical smart-ass attitude as Travis became lost in his thoughts. The arrangement they had reached years ago when both families had begun competing on the junior rodeo circuit was that they would not be more than supportive friends. He and Travis were in agreement that their kids were the focus, not any potential attraction between the two of them.
With a snort from the bull and the ring of metal against metal, Seth’s focus snapped back to Zane as his ride was about to begin.
Zane cocked his head and double-checked his helmet. That was one of Seth’s unbendable rules, that he would wear all the safety equipment possible, starting with the helmet and vest. The bull rider’s dance began when Zane’s head bobbed his readiness and the gate swung open.
The brindle-colored animal with its massive hump paused for a millisecond to identify its targets before exiting the chute with a single jump. Zane stuck his arm in the air like a proud flagpole on Independence Day. The bull filled his part of the contract with leaps and spins Seth would’ve thought impossible. The animal tang of arena rodeo filled Seth’s nostrils. Seth jumped up and down with enough nervous energy to make a hummingbird proud. Then they reached the part of the performance that drove Seth crazy—the other seven seconds of the ride.
He held on to the bleachers with the tenacity of a pack of winter-starved wolves after an elk. The crowd groaned and Seth cringed as Zane swung wide, almost losing his grip. But he knew his son’s determination only grew with each competition driving him closer to his goal. Seth ground his teeth together and held his laser-focus through the spectacle. Seth had heard rodeo cowboys called ‘modern-day gladiators’. Watching his son, he could see where that came from.
They reached the point where Seth wasn’t sure Zane could go any further and the timer went off. It felt like a reprieve from death row.
Seth glanced down just in time to see Zane hit the ground on two feet with his hands thrust above him. That’s when he realized Zane had stopped paying attention to the bull. Bad mistake. In a split second it had turned and taken aim at his son and was lunging forward with a sound like a diesel engine. Some kind of animal vendetta his son hadn’t watched for came to life. Seth wanted to scream, to run into the arena to protect his child, but none of that happened. Zane would have a record-setting shit-fit if he did, and he wouldn’t have to anyway. That situation was the exact reason the bullfighter was in the arena. Even better, today’s was among the best. Seth was confident everything would turn out fine so long as Shane Neri was in charge. He sprinted toward the bull still wearing some of the clown outfit from his earlier entertainment routine, but this was not a performance. This was life-threatening serious, which was what brought people to the rodeo—to see the rider pitted against the bull and become wrapped in the drama of life and death.
The pickup men charged the bull on their muscular quarter horses, forcing it out of the arena while Shane provided a distraction. It took only seconds. Zane ran for the fence and Shane finished his job.
Travis jumped up and down with excitement while his daughter Amy was relieved that her friend had survived another battle against nature, due in part to Shane’s athletic performance.
“It was a fantastic dismount! You can bank on Zane sticking them every time,” said Travis while pounding Seth on the back. He dodged the blow from his muscular friend with a laugh. “He’s showboating and he knows it. This isn’t gymnastics. There are no more points for sticking a dismount. Hell, it’s not even called a dismount. It’s getting off the bull without being hurt.”
“Damn! Did you see that? Shane’s an amazing bullfighter,” Amy said.
“You got that right, I’m glad he was there when we needed him. I’ll help Zane check everything and make sure he can get through his next ride with as few problems as possible,” Seth said.
The other two nodded in agreement and the trio made their way off the scorching aluminum bleachers. People underestimated the cumulative impact the unending parade of rodeos had on the contestants. Most discounted today’s performance as just another county fair event in Texas. But the competition’s points counted toward the state championship—and a college scholarship.
They left in search of Zane and reached the penning area. It didn’t take long before they found him strutting in his leather chaps, swinging his helmet from his hand. He saw Seth and ran to his father, wrapping his arms tight around him.
“Dad, did you see? That bull pulled every trick it had, and I rode right on the edge. It might not have been a perfect ride, but it was a damn good one,” Zane said.
“Zane! Watch your mouth. What would your mother think if she heard you talking like that?”
He calmed down, but only a little. “She would tell me it was okay occasionally. Sometimes you even have to drop a big one.”
He studied his son and formed a slight smile. “Okay. I’ll let you off on that one. She would give you some slack since that was a nasty bull. I’m just glad you’re not hurt.”
About the time he thought the conversation would end, Travis and Amy chimed in.
“That was amazing. There’s no way they won’t give you a scholarship. Who else would be better competing for Texas than Zane Davis?” Amy said.
Travis added to the support. “It was a great ride, Zane…one of your best in the last few weeks. Keep it up and you’ll win that scholarship.”
A smile grew across Seth’s face. “You two are getting carried away. Let’s get the boy in college and have it paid for with no injuries. That’s the basic goal. Once that’s accomplished, we can talk about him taking over the ranch and raising his own kids on it.” He glanced at Zane, uncertain about what he might see on his son’s face at those bits of information.
Travis lifted an eyebrow but resisted any comments about ranch ownership. “Okay, there’s only a few more contestants left before they announce the winners of the senior boys bull riding. Let’s get a Coke, then we’ll see what happens.”
None of the next contestants came close to Zane’s score, and Travis offered to take everyone out to eat if Zane won. Close by was one of the best taqueria trucks, so devouring tacos might be the activity of the night.
But shortly afterward, it was announced that Zane was the winner for his category, and after the cheering subsided, the teenagers clamored for food, especially the kind that might fill a teenage boy. Travis could remember those days when puberty had left him famished most of the time. They found a favorite truck, not tacos but the best corndogs on the fairgrounds. He’d been waiting in line for several minutes when someone called his name. He turned and smiled at a familiar face in the truck waiting to take his order.
“Hey, Cheryl. It’s good to see you. How did you end up making corndogs?”
“Oh, you know how it is. The kids are in college and we retired the old man. I thought it would be a perfect chance for me to earn extra Christmas money. Grandma doesn’t pay well.”
Travis chuckled, “That’s ambitious…doing everything this early.”
“Yup, that’s me. Now, what can I get for you?”
“Well, I have the whole crowd, so hang on.”
“No problem, ready when you are.”
“We need a corndog for Amy. No, scratch that. Amy wants one hotdog with the neon-green relish.” He shook his head. “She loves those things. I don’t get it. A corndog each for Seth and me. Then, for the champion junior bull rider four—yes, count them, four—corndogs with a side of waffle fries coated in chili.”
She finished taking the last of the order and winked at Travis. “Nothing else? A side of beef? Moose?”
Travis chuckled. “Nope. If he wants dessert, I’m sending him back alone.”
She laughed then disappeared to fill his request.
Soon he was being passed two paper bags full of food. He spotted his group where he’d left them, under the awning with a picnic table that Seth had located after Zane and Amy had joined them for refueling.
The closer he got, the more uncertain Travis was that he wanted to deal with the hungry denizens he traveled with. They looked like extras from Shark Week. But as soon as they ate, especially Zane, life would be better.
He pulled his food out of the sack, sat beside Amy and doused his meal with a couple of squirts of ketchup and mustard. The meal lasted only a few minutes before the young ones had eaten everything and wanted more. This time Travis was not as congenial.
“It’s your turn now. There’s plenty of junk food to eat when you get out on the midway. Just watch out for each other, please,” Travis said.
Amy gave him a condescending glance and patted his head. “Father, Father… We’ll be fine. We are not still the little munchkins from your childhood. Cowboys know how to survive.”
“It’s not a joke, Amy. People are different now than they were when I was your age. Back in the old days, we had a quarter for a call and people knocked on your door to use your phone because they’d had a wreck. We let them in because it was the decent thing to do. Nowadays I’m not sure you’d get anybody to let you in their house unless you were dripping blood—and probably not even then.”
“I was just teasing. Sorry. I shouldn’t have done it. I know how that gets your goat,” Amy said.
Zane finished the last of the fries, adding ketchup and homemade hot sauce to the chili. He wiped the remnants from his face and turned to the adults. “We recognize what you guys went through. It’s not like we don’t think about being careful. We’ll watch out for each other.”
Travis was vacillating—and by the look in Seth’s eyes, he was thinking similarly—as to whether their kids were humorous or obnoxious. In the next few moments, Zane and Amy broke into a spontaneous chorus of We Will Survive, and the choice for ‘obnoxious’ was made.
Travis let out a long, exhausted sigh. Why do I keep trying to educate modern-day kids?Though they don’t seem much like kids anymore. A consolation, if there was one, might be that none of the other parents were in any better situation. Travis’ sixteen-year-old girl was wearing him out just as fast as Zane was doing to Seth.
Travis glanced at his watch and waved to their kids. “Go. Have fun. Take care of each other. Yes, I know I’ve told you the same thing a dozen times. Make your parents happy and pretend to listen—and be back here when we told you to be.”
To their surprise, the kids left with hugs and reassurances, even though they sprinted the last fifty feet before disappearing into the midway crowd. Travis watched for a moment, wishing the pair would revert to five-year-olds and come running back to be protected by their fathers. That wasn’t happening, Travis knew, but he was sure Seth wished the same thing.
Seth gave him a crooked smile. “We can hope for their safety, and we’ll have to keep each other sane in the meantime. I’m feeling too old for the midway, even if it’s like Disney on Ice.”
Travis smiled and did the two-step for a few feet before motioning Seth ahead of him. “Let’s go through the 4-H and FFA exhibits. We can pretend we aren’t parents with blood, sweat and tears invested in our children’s projects.”
“Sounds like a good idea. Maybe it will give us more perspective.”
Seth nodded and Travis tried not to react to his endearing expression. It was times like these he wished they hadn’t agreed to keep their relationship to just friendship. Travis didn’t think he’d mind exploring something more intimate.
Jon Keys’ earliest memories revolve around books; with the first ones he can recall reading himself being “The Warlord of Mars” and anything with Tarzan. (The local library wasn’t particularly up to date.) But as puberty set in, he started sneaking his mother’s romance magazines and added the world of romance and erotica to his mix of science fiction, fantasy, Native American, westerns and comic books.
A voracious reader for almost half a century, Jon has only recently begun creating his own flights of fiction for the entertainment of others. Born in the Southwest and now living in the Midwest, Jon has worked as a ranch hand, teacher, computer tech, roughneck, designer, retail clerk, welder, artist, and, yes, pool boy; with interests ranging from kayaking and hunting to painting and cooking, he draws from a wide range of life experiences to create written works that draw the reader in and wrap them in a good story.
JON KEYS 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 13TH April 2021 at 5pm GMT. Competition hosted by Totally Entwined Group.
When public defender Trevor Ortega finds himself dateless for his ex’s wedding, faking a relationship seems like the perfect solution. Less perfect is his thoughtless impulse to invite Sebastian Greer—friend, federal judge, and former boss—as his plus one. It would be a solid plan if not for one problem: Trevor’s been in love with Sebastian for years, and each fraudulent touch will remind him of everything he can’t have.
Trevor doesn’t know why Sebastian agreed to his scheme, but there’s no backing out now. It’s only one night after all, and what’s a little heartbreak between friends?
As the voice droned steadily in his ear, the only thought in Trevor Ortega’s head was, Too bad a stunning location can’t salvage an interminable evening.
He scanned the rooftop garden, taking in the way starlight and a crescent moon glowed across cement pathways and eerily symmetrical greenery. A high stone wall ran the perimeter of the roof, and past it stretched a downtown cityscape reaching all the way to the river and beyond.
Whoever had coaxed their way into using this rooftop bower as a charity venue had seriously outdone themselves. Understated strings of lights illuminated chairs, white-draped tables, and a long banquet spread, plus a narrow counter where waitstaff served drinks.
The glass of champagne in Trevor’s hand was untouched and likely to stay that way. These events wound him too tight to drink. He’d never understood how his fellow attorneys didn’t share his reluctance. Tonight’s entire tableau felt so starched and formal, so full of people he desperately wanted to impress. After five years settled in as a public defender, he still couldn’t imagine relaxing at a gala like this.
The air had cooled considerably now that the sun had set. Even with the extra weight of his nicest suit jacket, Trevor shivered a little. If he could simply appreciate the atmosphere in silence, he could trick himself into enjoying the party.
Of course, silence was more than he could reasonably hope for tonight.
He smiled blandly at the man still talking to him. Trevor had only fleetingly caught the name offered in greeting. He probably should have tried harder to retain the information, if only to avoid crossing paths in the future. Sharp skinny angles gave his relentless conversational partner an intimidating air, the impression not at all helped by aggressive eyebrows and a sweep of receding white hair. The man’s expressionless mouth had not stopped moving for ten solid minutes. Trevor hadn’t been able to sneak in a single word to excuse himself. Somehow, the other cornered parties had all managed to escape, leaving him the sole recipient of a furious diatribe about the tax code.
Trevor didn’t mind conversations about tax codes, as a general rule. They could be fascinating in the right company. But here in this moment, words flowing over him without clarity or inflection, the topic bored him to tears. He couldn’t decide if having already eaten made the situation worse or better. On the one hand, he’d be cranky as hell if he were putting up with all this on an empty stomach, waiting in vain for a chance to escape to the banquet line. On the other hand, his full stomach meant the steady lull of his colleague’s voice was making him legitimately sleepy.
Trevor didn’t want to be here in the first place. Now that he’d fulfilled his obligation to make an appearance and could discreetly depart in good conscience, he had no graceful way to extricate himself from a one-sided conversation so dull he would prefer a concussion. It would be a different matter if this were a total stranger—Trevor might be willing to risk interrupting him midword—but he vaguely knew the man as a spouse of someone-or-other whom he couldn’t risk offending.
A shadow fell past Trevor’s elbow as someone approached him from behind. Even without knowing who the shadow belonged to, an instantaneous rush of relief cut beneath his skin. Any interruption at all could be enough of an opening to enable escape if he played his hand right.
Then he turned—had to tilt his head back to meet the new arrival’s eyes—and grinned in recognition.
Sebastian Greer stood at his elbow, tall and broad and so handsome it wasn’t fair.
“Trevor.” Sebastian greeted him with a nod, then turned an apologetic smile toward the argumentative tax attorney, who had finally stumbled midsentence. “Mr. Callum, I hope you’ll forgive the intrusion. I’ve got a professional question for Mr. Ortega. Can I borrow him for a moment?”
With difficulty, Trevor contained his grin. If he let it spread too wide, it would broadcast his relief plainly, never mind that he was so grateful for the intervention he could kiss Sebastian here and now.
Thoughts of kissing Sebastian Greer could only lead to incurable distraction and embarrassment if he were caught staring, so Trevor set the notion aside with the efficiency of long practice. He raised his glass in a parting gesture toward Mr. Callum, trying not to appear overly pleased, then let his former boss lead him away.
With every step toward relative seclusion, Trevor tried not to notice how effortlessly gorgeous Sebastian looked in his tuxedo. Wide shoulders filled the dark jacket without straining the fabric. A bow tie sat perfectly knotted under the round line of his jaw, and the crisp white of his collar stood out dramatically against warm umber skin. Sebastian’s eyes glittered in the moonlight, and Trevor clenched his teeth.
It wasn’t fucking fair. An overworked federal circuit judge had no business looking like he just strode out of a fashion shoot. Even the silvering hair at his temples could have been a touch-up for the cover of a magazine.
How was Trevor supposed to keep his composure in front of a knight in shining armor this devastatingly handsome?
Somehow, whether through willpower or desperation, he managed to tamp down the cascade of uninvited feelings as he and Sebastian reached an empty corner of the roof. Trevor hoped his smile was visible through the shadows and that it conveyed a reasonable level of gratitude.
“Thanks for the rescue.”
“Thanks aren’t necessary.” Sebastian wore a distinctly smug expression as he sipped from the drink in his own hand. It could have been a gin and tonic, but it was probably just club soda with lime. Trevor wasn’t the only one who wouldn’t risk being inebriated among a crowd of his peers. “I thought I recognized the flicker of glazed displeasure in your eyes. If I misgauged, I offer my most sincere apologies.”
Trevor snorted at the familiar veneer of decorum in Sebastian’s teasing, then sipped his drink to keep from admitting he would forgive nearly anything for the sake of Sebastian’s company.
When he trusted himself to manage something more measured than longing, he said, “‘Glazed displeasure’ might be an understatement. I’d legitimately started to wonder if I should fake a fainting spell to make him go away. I was scouting for an escape hatch when he cornered me.”
Trevor nearly choked on another half-hearted sip of champagne when Sebastian asked, “Can I join your escape attempt? There’s an excellent bar half a block away.”
Maybe it was silly to be surprised by the suggestion. Sebastian had invited him out for drinks and meals any number of times since their professional paths had parted ways—and in any case, the invitation was never for anything more intimate than a casual evening between colleagues, no matter how fervently Trevor might wish otherwise. They’d never socialized off the clock while he was Sebastian’s law clerk, but the five years since had been different. Trevor didn’t think he’d imagined the way they had slipped gradually across the line from professional acquaintances to friends.
“God, yes, please let’s do that.” He prayed his helpless infatuation didn’t echo too obviously through the words.
Yolande Kleinn may be a shameless dreamer and a stubborn optimist, but she is also a proud purveyor of romance and hijinx. Excitable, fastidious, and a little eclectic, she spends every spare moment writing the stories she wants to read. If she can drag other people into the pool along with her, then so much the better.
How do you get over the love of your life when you can’t even admit you loved her?
Janey has been in the closet her entire life—even when she fell for her first girlfriend, Elise, back in high school. After Elise left their small hometown of Clitheroe to pursue her dreams of becoming a musician, Janey knew that the only thing she’d have to remember her by was the song that Elise had written about Janey.
But that love song soon turned into the biggest hit of the decade, and Elise and her band return to Clitheroe a few years later to pay tribute to their hometown. Janey, still stuck where she was five years ago when Elise left, knows that she can’t let her ex slip through her fingers again.
But she’s still in the closet, and has no intention or idea of coming out to her homophobic family. How can she make amends with the woman she loved when she can’t even be honest with herself or the people closest to her?
I heard Bess’s voice cut cheerily through the quiet of the store, in that specifically slightly-rude-yet-somehow-polite way only women aged fifty or above could get away with. I looked up from the inventory I had been taking and found her beaming at me from the doorway.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “What do you think? Do I need a new haircut? Eyebrows done? Lose twenty pounds?”
“I was thinking more than you could use a good night’s sleep,” she replied briskly, striding over to the desk to loop her forest-green apron over her head. A swirl of the dusty morning air had flooded in behind her, and the tiny store suddenly smelled of the outside—car fumes and coffee and everything else that made up Clitheroe, Massachusetts.
“Okay, well, when you can convince Arnold to stop giving me the morning shifts, maybe I can squeeze one in,” I told her.
“Or you could do this thing that I’ve been hearing so much about,” she suggested. “Going to bed early? Ground-breaking, I know, but still…”
“I’ll look into it,” I promised her. “But it doesn’t sound like it’s for me.”
“Inventory?” she asked, pointing to the battered clipboard I held. I nodded.
“If you can keep from being overtaken by the thrill, I could use a little help,” I replied, and she came over to give me a hand.
Bess was nearly sixty, and after her husband had passed away, she had decided to get out to work for the first time. She had spent most of her life as a stay-at-home mom while her late husband worked to support them and their two kids, Annette and Ben, and she brought an eternally maternal vibe to everything she did. Including working with me at Robson’s Local, the grocery store that served our tiny town. She had only been there for a year, but I had already grown used to seeing her bleached-blonde coif coming through the door every morning, her crisp shirts (of which she seemed to have an unlimited supply) so sharp they could have taken out the eye of an unsuspecting customer. Not that she couldn’t have done that with one lash of her tongue just fine.
I had dealt with enough comings and goings in this store over the years to know a permanent fixture when I saw one—most summers, I had to deal with training up some hopeful high schooler, determined to prove that they were responsible enough for a driving licence by getting a job, most of whom crapped out by the time school came around again and they could show off their new wheels to all their friends.
I didn’t get that luxury, annoyingly enough. I mean, I could show off my car to my friends if I wanted to, but given that most of us were in our twenties by now, I doubted that it would have much of the same impact. Besides, it wasn’t like I ran into a lot of them around town anymore, not since most of them had left for college or careers or other real-life crap across the state. Most of the time, I could fool myself into pretending this had all been my choice, my decision, but in truth, I had been hiding out here for way too long to think about starting anew now.
Twenty-three. Twenty-three, and I was still too nervous to get out of this town. How pathetic was that? Only five years ago, I had been scrambling to figure out how I would fulfil all of my plans, putting degrees on top of international road trips next to careers in everything I had ever even had a passing interest in. If the version of me then had seen the version of me now, she wouldn’t have been impressed. And she would have told me to cut my hair short again, because it looked way better cropped than the long, brown, slightly tangled mess it was at the moment.
“I don’t think you’re going to have much luck getting any sleep around these parts for the next couple of weeks,” Bess sighed, as she helped me stock the shelves with tins of soup and pick an explosion of chips left there by an errant schoolboy the day before off the floor.
“Why do you say that?” I asked. And honestly, I had no clue what the hell was going to come out of her mouth next. If I had, maybe I could actually have prepared for it. I know there’s these moments in movies where the heroine hears some huge news and the whole world comes to a halt for a moment. I had always believed it was a little movie magic to make everything seem more exciting, more romantic, more thrilling and significant. Or maybe it was just that this news really was all that to me.
“That musical group are coming into town soon,” she explained, frowning slightly as she checked the price of the soup against the note on her clipboard. “Here, I think these are meant to be on offer…”
“What band?” I asked with some interest as I grabbed the clipboard on her to check.
“Something about fists, I think?” she replied, shaking her head. “I swear, my memory isn’t what it used to be these days…”
My vision blurred slightly. The words on the page before me seemed to crawl together like bugs.
“Clenched Fists?” I asked, and she nodded, snapping her fingers.
“Oh, yes, that was it!” she agreed. “Did you see the poster too?”
“No,” I replied, shaking my head. I blinked and tried to wipe some of the fuzz from the corners of my eyes. “I just…I’ve heard of them before, that’s all.”
That was putting it pretty fucking lightly. Like I hadn’t been following them for five years straight. Like I hadn’t spent every day trying not to think about the woman who played guitar, the way her fingers looked wrapped around the neck of her instrument, and how they felt wrapped around my…
“Really? I can’t say I’ve ever heard about them,” Bess replied, shaking her head. “Goodness, you know how out-of-date I feel? Maybe they should keep me in the back with the rest of the produce that’s reached its sell-by date…”
She continued chattering away to herself, and I knew I should have been listening, but her words faded out to a blurry buzz in the back of my head as I tried to take in what she had told me. Clenched Fists. Here. In Clitheroe. Elise with them. My brain dredged up a memory of her with her feet planted on the low coffee table of her parents’ house, her big, beat-up boots beside her, and I found myself wondering if she still had them, for some fucking reason.
Probably not. Because, unlike some people I could mention, she had actually been able to let go of the past.
“Are you all right?” Bess asked, waving her hand in front of my face to draw my attention back to the real world. I blinked, nodded.
“Fine,” I replied. “Just tired, that’s all.”
“A good night’s sleep, that’s what you need,” she told me again, but she kept her eyes pinned to me for a moment longer, like she was trying to figure something out. I offered her a quick smile, hoping it would be enough to deflect her attentions for now. Because the last thing I wanted was to have to come clean about what was really going on in my head at that moment.
I made it through the rest of the shift in a haze; I felt like my head was going to straight-up explode with the weight of the news that I’d had to take in. I told myself that I must have misheard or gotten something wrong, and I had just about convinced myself of that until I managed to sneak out to connect to the WiFi of the store across the street so I could check up online. And yeah, there it was—Clenched Fists. Hometown return.
A series of gigs over a couple of weeks, for charity, to raise cash for LGBT youth in the area. I looked at the band photo—the four of them, against that black backdrop, dressed in loose muscle shirts and tight jeans, their instruments slung over their backs and looped over their shoulders like they had hardly noticed they were there. I flicked my eyes over them one at a time—the singer, Melinda, who’d gone to the school one town over; the bassist, Elena, who’d been a friend of a friend in college when the band had started; the drummer who seemed to change out every time I checked in with them…
And then her.
This had been a test for me. A test to see if I had it in me to deflect the rush of blood to the head that came whenever I laid eyes on Elise. She had cut all her hair off not long before she had left Clitheroe, and I had always thought she had looked badass with it short. She had big brown eyes, a big nose, and a strong jaw, and the short hair just drew attention to her powerful features. Her gaze seemed to burn through the camera and straight toward me, the way it always had when we had been kids. Not kids—teenagers. Lovers. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
I clicked away from the page and stuffed my phone back in my pocket. Maybe I could just get a ticket somewhere and go out of town for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t like anyone other than Bess was going to miss me, right? I could have pretended that I didn’t even know they were coming in. Clenched Fists? Never heard of them. No, I just don’t listen to music; it’s not my thing…
By the time my shift finished, I had managed to think myself into a total corner about all of this. I could feel the walls closing in around me, mad at myself for letting it get this far. She was just an ex. Plenty of people had exes, and if I was going to insist on staying in my hometown, there was a solid chance that I was going to run into her. What was I so upset about? She was in my past; I was in hers.
But she wasn’t just an ex. She was the ex. I didn’t much go for cliché where I could avoid it, but if ever there was a time for it…she was the one who’d gotten away. Or, actually, I supposed, I was the one who had gotten away from her. Even though I would have done anything, anything at all, if I could have crafted it to turn out any other way.
I made it back to the studio flat I had that overlooked the one bar in town, just as it was getting dark outside. I would normally have to fight myself about getting takeout from the burger place across the street, but today, I was distracted. Even though my stomach was growling, I hardly noticed it. There was only one thing I hungered for, and that—
More cliché, apparently. I sighed as I closed the door behind me and leaned up against the wood, my head thumping. Not with pain, but with her. With the memories of everything we had done together. Though that was a kind of pain all its own. It had always been painful, even when it had been good—the pain and the pleasure had come wound up in each other until the lines between the two blurred uselessly into one.
Food. And maybe a beer. Yeah, that would make me feel better. I could drink and eat my problems away for tonight, and by the time tomorrow came around, I would be one day closer to putting her behind me again. In the past, where she belonged.
And one day closer to having her back in Clitheroe after all these years.
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