Seventeen-year-old Alisha Howard is having a hard day.
She’s had to rescue her headstrong little brother from getting eaten by a monster from another dimension, her mom has put her on dish duty as punishment for bringing her sword to the table (again), and her lifelong enemy, snarky rich girl Belladonna, is starting to look like both a real human being and someone Alisha would like to kiss.
Oh, and to make matters worse, it looks like the world is about to end.
My brother Jake lay unconscious on the cave floor, his favorite denim jacket torn in three places and his cell phone a cracked mess of plastic on the ground. If we actually survived this, he was going to be pissed.
“All right, look,” I said, giving the giant snarling insect monster my serious face. “I know I don’t look like much, but you should know I am fully capable of kicking your big buggy butt straight back to where it came from, not only for hurting my brother, but for whatever unholy reign of terror you’ve got planned here.”
The monster was nine feet tall, jet-black, and scaly, with hundreds of spindly legs, like a centipede on steroids. Savage mandibles gleamed in the light from the cave mouth, and I tightened my grip on my sword hilt. And because times of stress often led me to incredible feats of word vomit, I kept talking.
“I mean, let’s face it: guys like you don’t generally show up in our world without some kind of nasty plan for world domination, so I think it’s pretty safe to say you’re up to no good. So are you gonna go peacefully, or do I have to start shoving my boot up random orifices until we find the one that hurts the most?”
The centipede monster reared back, its legs fanning out, its mandibles opening—
And then it tilted its scaly head to the side as if regarding me in puzzlement. “You speak great volumes but say very little,” it said in a thin, whistling voice.
Which, okay, was fair. I’d always had a tendency to babble, particularly when I was in imminent danger of being devoured by the Godzilla of centipedes. Generally, the centipede didn’t take the time to inform me of it though.
“I do not wish any harm upon you,” it continued, deviating even further from the Evil Monster Intent on Taking Over the Earth speech. “Nor any human. I came here only wishing to be left alone, but your companion—” It swung its head toward Jake. “—attempted to steal one of my children, at which point I was forced to defend them. I have not seriously harmed him, only caused him to lose consciousness to neutralize him as a threat.”
“He tried to steal one of your kids?” That didn’t sound like Jake.
The centipede-thing tilted its head toward the other end of the cave, where I could just make out the glittering of a number of round, pearly, head-sized spheres. Eggs? They looked like the kind of pretty, decorative objects people would pay a lot of money for, bringing them much more firmly into the realm of things Jake would totally try to steal.
I sighed and slid my sword into its sheath. The magic triggered the instant I did, and sword and sheath shrank to being a decorative golden clasp on my belt. “I apologize for my companion’s rash actions,” I said, bowing my head slightly like we were supposed to do in these situations. “If you’d allow me to remove him from here, I swear to you that he’ll never come near you or your children again.”
The centipede bowed its head too, its pincers snapping and clicking together in a way that I tried not to be too creeped out by. “That would be acceptable. I thank you, Guardian.”
I blinked. “How’d you know I’m a Guardian?”
“Well, for one thing, the sword.”
“But even had you come unarmed, I would have known. You wear your status like a cloak. It seeps from every ounce of your being, every word and action. Though you look a frail female thing, there is power in you.”
“Frail female thing,” I said in a flat voice and decided not to be offended. If the worst thing a giant centipede monster had to throw at me was sexism, I could probably count myself lucky. “Yeah, well, guess I’d better get Jake—err, my companion—out of your hair before he wakes up and starts trying to make off with your kids again.”
I started forward, hoping the centipede monster would move out of the way, but it stayed where it was, its black eyes glittering in the dimness.
“You have shown me respect and kindness, and so I shall do something for you in return. My species have a unique ability that appears only between laying our eggs and the birth of our children.”
“Oh, yeah? What kind of ability?”
“The ability to glimpse the future. It allows us to provide extra protection to our young when they are unable to protect themselves, for instance if a young human is attempting to steal one of them.”
“For instance,” I said dryly.
“Something lurks on the horizon, Guardian. An age of darkness and danger is coming to you and those like you.”
I frowned. “To the Guardians, you mean?”
“To all beings of your world.”
“What kind of danger?”
Its legs rippled, and it dropped down onto them and made its undulating way over to the row of eggs. Its last word hissed through the cave, seeming to echo louder and louder in my ears: “Extinction.”
T.J. Baer is a queer trans author of novels and short fiction. Born in Western Pennsylvania, he currently resides in his adopted hometown of Chicago with two cats and a well-stocked cupboard of tea. When not writing, T.J. can be found either discussing queer media on his YouTube channel or failing to escape from murderous ghosts on Twitch.
We are celebrating the release of Jet (Temple Maze #2) by Anna Fury! This beauty has not one but TWO covers for readers to choose from! Make sure you follow along to see which cover our hosts are revealing this week!
Jet (Temple Maze #2)Expected Publication date: February 28, 2023
Genre: Dark Shifter Romance
Escape from the Temple Maze was only the beginning…
A psychopath tried to break me, and nothing will ever put me back together. I’m detoxing, pissed off and determined to rescue my baby brother before she breaks him too. There’s just one problem—Achaia. The voluptuous human’s sea-green gaze sets my body on fire. She’s a distraction I can’t afford, no matter how hot I burn for her. My only priority is rescuing my brother—everything else is a distant second.
How lucky I am to have two delicious mates—the hulking direwolf, Jet, and his exquisitely beautiful neighbor, Achaia. I simply need them to yield to my blood bond. Unfortunately, duty calls. A maniacal villainess hurt Jet, and that sin will not go unpunished. Lives hang in the balance.
I have no memory of who I am. Maybe I’m a nobody. Maybe I’m a monster. Anything is possible. It doesn’t stop the sensual vampiri next door from declaring that Jet and I are his. Renze alone is intoxicating, but the monstrous duo together are impossible to refuse. When circumstances send them on a journey in search of allies, I leap at the chance to find my own answers. Renze wants to claim me. Jet can’t stop staring at me. And I just need to find myself.
Can we save Jet’s brother and free an entire continent from a madwoman without losing our heads in the process?Add to GoodreadsAvailable on AmazonNoire (Temple Maze #1)Publication Date: July 9, 2022
Genre: Dark Shifter Romance
Welcome to the Temple, the brutal maze where a cunning warlord rules over imprisoned monsters, bending and using them according to her whims. The maze is a dumping ground for souls in need of snuffing out. Got a relative you dislike? Send them in for prompt dispatch. Perhaps a political rival is a thorn in your side? For a price, you can have Rama’s psycho pets kill them for you. Happy hunting.DIANA
I crossed a ruthless woman, and my punishment? Death within the walls of her Temple Maze. The murderous beasts trapped in these dark halls have only one job tonight–to take my life.
The maze is a game, one where the house always wins. But I’ve got a few secrets of my own. The key to my plan is unleashing the maze’s most dangerous monster–Noire. I know what he wants most of all, and I’ll offer it in exchange for revenge, something only he is capable of exacting.
Marks will say anything to save their skins. I’ve heard every possible lie when they’re begging for their lives.
But tonight’s hunt is different. When I reach my mark, I find a stunning woman. Diana’s body calls to mine, creating a blistering, blinding need that compels me. Her offer is even more enticing: freedom in exchange for exacting vengeance on the woman behind the maze’s creation. The woman I hate with every dark and twisted fiber of my being.
Can I keep Diana safe long enough to get us out? Or will the maze destroy us as we risk everything for our freedom?CW:
reference to past SA
knife and blood play
light torture (if torture can be light)
There’s something wicked in the wind on Ambrosia Hill.
Zinnia knows nothing is as it seems in the witching world. Her aunts calling her back to Fern House was not without consequences—for Zinnia and for her mom. Zinnia must embrace her witch abilities and undergo her biggest test yet. Can she learn to rely on her personal magic, embrace the strength of others and trust that what she sees isn’t always reality?
There’s something wicked in the wind this Halloween on Ambrosia Hill and Zinnia must fight for those she loves most.
Being a witch has one certainty—I’ll never have all the answers to life’s mysteries. But one mystery I needed to figure out, and now, was who was Ursula Geist. A strong breeze rustled through the maple trees that towered above me, showering my tree-lined path in a golden hue. I inhaled the aroma of dried leaves, their desiccated scent mixing with dying plants, rotted earth and plump mushrooms, reminding me I was home. My pupils dilated, a sensation green witches experience when our awareness comes alive in nature. Breathing deep, I could taste the crisp cabbage and sweet corn growing free in my aunts’ garden. Closing my eyes, I could sense the very fabric of life coursing through my arms and legs like an electrical current. In Ambrosia Hill, autumn was authentic, unlike the artificial scents of the city.
The world felt mirthful and alive, so incongruent with the fear I had a strong gush of for my mother. It seemed unfair the rest of the world would continue on when mine was so dangerous and unsure. The day was perfect. I could almost forget I was on my way to the local library to search for a clue about a cryptic name, spelled out by my obsidian pendulum. Almost, but not quite.
When I’d googled the name, nothing had come up, telling me that whoever this Ursula Geist was, I’d have to find the answers within Ambrosia Hill. The autumn breeze picked up my hair, so I pulled my beanie down tight over my head and stuffed my hands in my coat pockets, bracing against the wind as I charged down the path leading me to town.
I hadn’t been to the Ambrosia Hill Library in quite some time. I preferred to read the books at my aunts’ house, full of whimsy and witchcraft. The library was conveniently located across the village green from the local hardware store. I checked the time on my phone and flaunted my first real smile of the day. Billie would still be at the hardware store with her dad. I quickened my steps to make a detour inside to see her. She worked behind the counter on Saturdays so her dad could be on the floor to help with customers, and we had made plans to meet up after her shift.
I swallowed a lump in my throat as I debated whether or not to tell Billie what had happened in the garden after she left. She had told me she wanted to be included in my life, and that meant she accepted me being a witch. She had taken the news better than I’d hoped, but was this too much too soon? Do I tell her about Ursula Geist? I don’t know anything yet, but I do know it can’t be good. Magical candles holding secret messages was one thing, but a diabolical spirit trapped inside a pair of old witch boots buried in my aunts’ garden was not second date material.
I sighed, kicking a pebble off the sidewalk. I thought back to an online article I’d read on the train ride from New York—Nine Signs Your Girlfriend Has Toxic Baggage. An evil entity buried in the yard ran circles around each and every one on the list. I’m fourteen, not twenty-five, and here I am dating my first girlfriend with more baggage than a diva in Vegas.
Gathering my courage, I stopped in front of the door beside a wheelbarrow filled with hay. A snarky-looking skeleton holding a trowel smiled at me as I shuffled from one foot to the other. A tall man with thinning hair in an oversized work coat and black boots passed me. I pulled the door open and gestured for him to go in ahead. He shot me a peculiar glance, his eyebrows pulled together as he looked me up and down, as if he knew me and disapproved. Knew my family name, knew my house on top of the tallest hill in this sleepy town. It was a look I was familiar with, what with being a Fern woman in this small town. He rubbed at his thick beard as he stepped through the door, cutting a wide berth around me as if I were contagious. The door closed again, and I watched through the glass as he nodded to Billie’s father Ben, who greeted him in the center of the store surrounded by a horde of shoppers.
Billie leaned over the counter and spied me through the store windows. Laughing, she mouthed, “What are you doing?” before motioning for me to come in. The man paused his conversation with Ben to glance at me through the window, raising his bushy eyebrows in what I assumed was suspicion. Maybe he thinks I’m going to place a curse on the entire store where everyone’s teeth fall out? Whatever it was that was going through his head, I could tell he wasn’t crazy about me.
But now all three of them were watching me, so I bit my lip and headed in. The chime of the doorbell was loud, like a dinner bell calling the cattle home for supper, and I flushed, self-conscious that the rest of the store seemed to turn and was now staring at me. Then the moment passed, and everyone turned back to whatever it was they were doing. Only Billie’s puzzled grin was focused on me. My palms were sweating and I rubbed them down my pant legs.
The hardware store was packed. Customers cramped their aisles with their carts full of carving knives, decorations and large, round gourds. With everything that had transpired over the last twenty-four hours, I had almost forgotten that Halloween was a few days away. Ben caught my eye and shot me a big wave. Tension melted from my shoulders at the sight of his kind face, and I offered a shy wave with a warm smile in return. A line of customers awaited their turn at the checkout counter, and Billie held up her finger, letting me know she’d be free in a few minutes. I nodded and circled around the front of the store, listening as she made small talk with the old timers who praised her on her costume.
I had to agree with them. She looked amazing, and heat rushed to my face when she caught me looking at her and Billie responded with a wink. She wore a green blazer over a black T-shirt, which hit just above her belly button in her high-rise ripped black jeans. She wore a headband with two electrical bolts, making it look like she had sockets coming out of the side of her head, and she’d added stitches to her face and hands. She had topped everything off with black lipstick to match her black nail polish. Billie could pull off an outfit like that and make it look cool enough to wear out to a skateboard park, or even Price Choppers, the local grocery store.
An elderly man with stark white hair and thick overalls sidled up to the counter, tipping his driver’s cap at Billie. “Getting cold out there,” he drawled as he placed a package of light bulbs and a pack of gum on the counter.
Billie rang up his items with a smile. “Sure is, Mr. Johnson. Winter is coming fast this year.”
The old man nodded as he pulled a wallet from the bib of his overalls. “Speaking of fast,” he said as he handed Billie a ten-dollar bill, “which is faster, hot or cold?”
Billie smirked as she leaned against the counter, her eyes tilted up at the ceiling as if in deep thought. “Cold?” she guessed as she handed him his change.
“Hot.” He chuckled, pocketing the money. “Because you can catch a cold.”
Billie’s boyish grin spread wide across her face, and she fist-bumped Mr. Johnson on his way out of the door. “Good one, Mr. Johnson!” she called out to him. “I’ll have to remember that one,” she said as I strolled over to her.
Billie’s dad walked out from an aisle and flashed me a bright smile. “Hey there, Zinnia! Billie told me you were back in town for Halloween. It’s good to have you home, sweetheart.”
My face heated. “Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to be back,” I replied, a trace of bashfulness in my voice.
“Why don’t you take Zinnia outside to visit with Bacon for a bit?” he asked as he slid behind the counter. “She needs lunch. I’ll stay in here to handle the front.”
Billie took off her work apron, tossing it on the counter as her dad wrapped his arm around her neck in a big hug, kissing her on the cheek. “Too much, Dad,” she squealed as she squirmed away, a big smile on her face. It felt like an old routine of theirs, something they did a lot and that Billie loved even though she’d never admit it. With a pain stabbing my heart, I realized how much I missed my dad.
“What?” he asked, taking a step back in mock surprise. “I thought you liked head-lock hugs? Next you’re going to say you don’t even like noogies.” His eyes were twinkling with mischief.
“Yeah, maybe when I was like ten,” she teased, bumping him in the side with her shoulder and I laughed. “And nobody in the history of the universe has ever liked noogies.”
They had an easy friendship between them, so different from my relationship with my dad. Billie had a quality about her—she was real with the people in her life. Billie wasn’t afraid of embarrassment or displaying public affection with those she loved. Even though her dad was her parent, he respected his daughter, and in return, she respected him back. I knew from experience that it wasn’t an easy task to be included in Billie’s circle. She kept that number low, selective. But what she lacked in quantity, she made up for in quality. One friend of Billie equaled a dozen friends. Billie wasn’t shy—she wasn’t afraid to be who she was. If she liked someone, they’d know it—they’d feel it across their skin and deep into their bones. It was an electric charge that ignited the entire body. That was real magic, something no one could receive from even the most powerful spell.
Of course, there was a trade-off. It worked both ways with Billie. If a person ended up on her bad side…their one hope was to run and hide. I admired her ability to be honest and tell it to me straight.
Billie smiled at me and I went weak in the knees. She was so pretty it made my head spin, and it was hard not to stare as Billie brushed her arm against mine, and all the tiny hairs on my skin shot straight up under my sweater. A tingling sensation ran up and down my arm as if electricity were running through me, as though Billie had flipped on a switch inside of me.
“Come on, City Girl. Let’s go out back.” My heart quickened at my nickname, coined by our first encounter over the summer at the lake. She reached for my hand as I followed her out through the back door and into the frigid air. I watched her from the corner of my eye. How does she have that effect on me?
Billie’s pet pig Bacon snorted, and Billie crouched down to give her a cuddle. I curled my now-vacant hand into a loose fist, already missing her warm touch. Bacon waddled over to me, wagging her spiral tail. I squatted down and gave her a huge hug. It felt so good to be back with them. I loved animals, and part of the reason I’d fallen so hard for Billie was her sensitivity toward all living creatures. Her strong vegan roots acted like a moral compass for her.
Billie studied me and Bacon, her emerald eyes locked on my every movement. I let out a slow, shaking breath. I liked her looking at me and she knew it. Billie offered me a teasing wink. She stood up, brushing the loose dirt from her jeans as she picked her way to a storage container and scooped out Bacon’s lunch—a mixture of grains and leafy greens. Her tail swinging like mad, Bacon pulled out of my arms, snorting as she ran over to her food bowl with what I could only assume was pure gluttonous joy. I plopped backwards onto the ground with a giggle. It was impossible not to smile as I watched the two of them interact. Billie’s entire face lit up around her pig.
“What are you up to today? Any big plans with the aunts?” Billie raised her eyebrows at me. “Perhaps an afternoon sacrifice, or maybe raising the dead?”
I laughed with an uneasy head nod. She wasn’t too far off. I countered with, “Ah, nothing that gruesome for us green witches. More like calling the corners. Maybe I’ll conjure up a small storm, like a tornado.” I pressed my lips together as if I were thinking. “Just over your store, though.”
Billie threw her head back and laughed. “I see you haven’t lost your spunk, City Girl.” And she threw me another wink. My face responded as it always did—I could feel the color rising in my cheeks and I pictured myself turning a deep red. The same color as the beets growing in my aunt’s vegetable patch.
“Okay, in all seriousness though, what are you up to?” She tilted her head. “Still able to hang out when I get off, right?”
I got to my feet and toed a pebble around in the dirt with my boot. Billie scrunched her eyebrows together and stepped closer to me. “Zinnia, is everything okay?”
My gaze met hers. Her face was etched with genuine concern. I took a deep breath, knowing I couldn’t hide the truth from her. Somehow protecting her with a lie seemed like more of a betrayal than dumping my witchy teen drama on her. I bit my lip.
“I’m on my way to the library to look up a strange name that I can’t find on the internet, but my pendulum told me that’s where I need to start looking if I want to figure out who and what is hurting my mom.” Billie’s jaw dropped, and I gripped her elbow, allowing some of the fear I’d been feeling to spill into my voice.
“Billie, her reflection moved backwards in the mirrors. And she can’t eat cinnamon—it flipping burned her!” I wrung my hands together as I continued to verbally vomit on my girlfriend. “Do you know how serious that is?” I paced as Billie stared at me with wide eyes. “She’s in trouble. Something is wrong, and my aunts aren’t here to help me, Billie.”
I stopped my frantic pacing to gauge her reaction. She was staring, an open-mouthed, blank expression on her face, her willowy arms dangling limp at her sides. Even Bacon paused mid-chew to watch my freak-out. Girlfriend of the Year award goes to…um, yeah, not me. More like Baggage Accolade of the Decade goes to the complicated and never-ending string of commotion girlfriend…yep, I’ll take that one, thank you.
I inhaled a long breath before continuing. “They left for Conjure Lake and I’m not sure when they are coming back. I can’t get in touch with them because there’s no cell phone reception in the mountains, and all I have to guide me is this.” I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the divination board. Billie gasped, then reached out for it. I gave it to her and she turned it over, studying the rows and symbols, being careful while examining the board before handing it back to me.
“So to answer your question—yes, I’d love nothing more than to see you this afternoon. You’re the main reason I came back to Ambrosia Hill. I want to be with you.” Tears filled my eyes, and I blinked them back. “But I have to find answers, Billie. And fast.” I shook my head, closing my eyes. “I can’t leave my mom to face whatever this is alone. Something is wrong, and I’m afraid of what might happen to her.”
Billie stood mute beside me for a long moment, examining my face with the same care she’d shown the divination board. “Well, you are never boring,” she said as she wrapped an arm around my back, pulling me into her. She held me in a tight hug, and I huffed a laugh as I melted against her, my head resting on her shoulder.
“It’s okay, Zinnia, I’m not going anywhere. I meant what I said last night. I’ll support you, no matter what. We will figure this out together.”
I sighed, hugging her tighter, “You honest to God—or should I say Goddess—don’t care I’m a witch?”
Billie laughed, rocking us back and forth. “Omigod, no way. The biggest problem most girls have is a surprise pimple. Not you. You’ve got monsters crawling out of the dirt in your garden.” She pulled back to grin at me. “My girlfriend is a witch. How many people get to say that?”
We both laughed, and I sighed again. “Not many,” I said with a shrug.
Billie’s dad called from the back door. “Hey, kiddo, another wave just hit! Come inside as soon as you can, okay? Bye, Zinnia! See you soon!”
I yelled goodbye back as I waved, standing on my tiptoes as if the extra height would make my goodbye more sincere. Billie offered me an apologetic shrug.
“I’ll meet you at the library when I get off. Find out as much as you can and we’ll go from there. What’s the name?” I told her, and Billie looked back at the store. “I’ll ask around today and see if anyone recognizes that name.” She leaned forward to give me a quick peck on my lips, and my eyes bulged out of their sockets like Buzz Lightyear. First, I’m her girlfriend, and now we can kiss freely? It was like a fairytale, and I was loving every second of it…minus the spooky entity stalking my mom.
Every fairytale has something creepy, but mine’s the one with Billie.
Rebecca Henry is an American author living abroad in England. She is a devoted vegan who gardens, practices yoga, crafts, travels the world, and bakes. Rebecca’s favorite holiday is Halloween, and she is obsessed with anything and everything witchy! Besides writing fiction, Rebecca is also the author of her vegan holiday cookbook collection. Her love for animals, baking with her family, having a plant-based diet and cruelty-free food all came together in her holiday cookbook collection.
Enter for the chance to win a $50.00 First for Romance Gift Card! Competition hosted by Totally Entwined Group.
This is my stop during the book blitz for My Favorite Story by Hilary Dartt. In this new contemporary romance book sparks fly between a bull rider who hates reporters and the reporter assigned to cover his three-month bull riding tour.
This book blitz is organized by Lola’s Blog Tours. The book blitz runs from 13 till 19 May. See the tour schedule here.
My Favorite Story (Mint Creek Ranch Series #1) By Hilary Dartt Genre: Contemporary Romance Age category: Adult Release Date: 13 May, 2022
When reporter Tessa Kincaid sees a job listing for a mysterious three-month assignment with bonus pay, she applies immediately. It doesn’t matter what it is—she needs the money. The first night in her new town, she spends several sensual hours dancing with a sexy cowboy she believes she’ll never see again.
The next morning, she discovers that man is bull rider Cody Davis, whose comeback tour she’ll be covering for the next three months … and that he hates reporters.
The last thing Cody Davis needs is a distraction—especially one as hot (and as great of a kisser) as Tessa Kincaid. Strict focus is the only way he’ll win the championship this year.
The two of them develop a tenuous professional relationship, their chemistry simmering just below the surface. When Cody finally begins to trust Tessa, though, she starts disappearing every night.
As the championship approaches, Cody must decide whether their relationship is an unwelcome distraction, or exactly what he needs to win the title, and Tessa realizes she’s in danger of losing everything—including the man she’s falling in love with.
For a small town, Prescott, Arizona sure knew how to throw a party. The rodeo dance was set up in the big parking lot of the feed and supply store. A chain-link fence surrounded the dance floor and bar. String lights zigzagged across the top of the chain-link. Montana insisted they show up an hour after it started, “to make sure things were really in full swing,” and sure enough, the place was teeming with people. After an afternoon under Montana’s tutelage, Tessa could already spot the difference between the real cowboys and the fake ones, and between the genuine cowgirls and the one-night wannabes chasing after the real cowboys.
As soon as they paid to get in, they made their way to the end of yet another line—the one for the bar.
That’s when Tessa saw him.
Old, worn boots. Jeans that looked like he spent the day out on the ranch. A white T-shirt that looked like he put no effort into dressing up, but proved that he put a lot of effort into something: the cotton stretched across his muscles — forearms, biceps, pecs — in a way that made Tessa’s mouth water. Definitely a real cowboy. He wore a black cowboy hat, so Tessa couldn’t really see his hair, but his dark sideburns ended where his 5 o’clock shadow began. His face was rugged, chiseled. And when he made eye contact with her, Tessa saw that his eyes were a startling, piercing blue.
She noticed, just for a split second, that his expression was bored, like he didn’t want to be there. But once their eyes locked, it took on an interest, an awareness.
And as she saw that, a burst of energy shot right down between her legs. She felt her face flush even though no one could have known.
“What are you —” Montana made a groaning noise. “Oh. Those are the Mint Creek Ranch boys.”
Tessa broke eye contact with the cowboy and became aware that he was flanked by two other guys. Well. They sure made ‘em good-looking in Prescott.
“That’s Sawyer.” Montana jutted her chin toward the trio. Tessa swallowed. She detected a note of wistfulness in Montana’s voice. She hoped to hell Montana wasn’t talking about the one in the black hat.
Feigning simple curiosity, she said, “Which one?”
Montana sighed. “The one in the red shirt.”
What a relief. “And who is this Sawyer?”
“Only Sawyer Nelson, the past future father of my children. The man I was going to marry.”
Tessa had so many questions, but now it was their turn to order drinks.
“I’ll get this round,” Tessa told Montana. “What’ll it be?”
“Seeing as those three are here, I guess I’m going to need something a little stronger than beer. Get me a shot of tequila, will you?”
Tessa ordered two shots for each of them. They took the first one then and there, slamming their shot glasses down on the counter before making their way to the edge of the dance floor. Once they found a spot where they could watch the electric sliding and two-stepping and dipping, Montana threw back her second shot and said, “I’m heading to the bathroom. I’ll be right back.”
Alone, Tessa sat down on a hay bale and began to take in all the detail she could. Wasn’t the whole point of this exercise to get a feel for the town’s atmosphere? Again, she noticed how friendly everyone was. Just like they had on the plaza earlier that afternoon, people greeted her with smiles and hellos. Although she should, she didn’t feel like a stranger there.
That is, until a pair of jeans, filled out in the best possible way, obstructed her view. She had to lean back to look up and see who the muscular legs belonged to, and she couldn’t quite fight the quick shot of pure lust that ignited in her belly when she realized it was the blue-eyed cowboy from the bar.
Now he was smiling at her, and the effect was so disarming, she smiled right back. Then she realized she probably looked like an idiot, so delighted to be smiled at by this extremely handsome man. She tried to tone it down, but then he said, “Would you like to dance?”
So many questions rushed through Tessa’s mind in that moment. Where was Montana? Where were the other two cowboys? Who was this guy? Did she even know how to dance?
“I’ll admit, silence isn’t the response I’m used to.” His eyes twinkled, and Tessa laughed out loud.
“It’s just — I came with someone, and I —”
“Oh.” He looked disappointed. “If I’d known you’d come with someone …”
“Oh! Not a he someone, a friend. A colleague. It’s not —”
“Well, that’s a relief. I guess you don’t have any excuse not to dance with me, then.”
Tessa held up her full shot. “I haven’t finished this yet.”
“Well, get to it. And then we can dance.”
Tessa didn’t even bother trying to resist. What better way than dancing with a real, actual cowboy, from a real, actual ranch, to experience Prescott life? She tossed back the tequila, stood, and threw the empty shot glass in the trash.
The cowboy held out his hand and she took it, immediately noticing the feel of his calloused skin. Suddenly, an image of his rough palm against her stomach, making its way up to cup her breast, flashed itself on the front of her consciousness. She shivered.
“It’s June in Prescott! Are you cold?”
“No,” Tessa rushed to say. “Just got a shiver, that’s all. Probably the tequila.”
“The cowboy turned to face her and took her other hand in his, backing up, pulling her with him onto the dance floor. His eyes locked on hers, he said, “Somehow I don’t think it’s the tequila.”
Then he winked and pulled her close, just as a slow song started. He settled one hand on her waist and with his other, he held her hand. Although the position was old-fashioned, Tessa found that she liked it. His mouth was just next to her ear, and when he spoke, his voice sent a skittering of goosebumps over her skin.
“You’re not from around here.”
Tessa didn’t miss the fact that it was a statement, not a question.
“No.” She didn’t know how much to say. She was a woman, traveling alone. She would be hanging out around town and returning alone to a hotel room every night for the next week until they left on tour. Yes, maybe she had the hots for this guy, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t a serial killer. As she’d done many times in her work, she decided it was best if she took control of the conversation.
“Born and raised.”
“This is my first rodeo dance,” Tessa said. “You come to them often?”
“Nah. When I do, it’s because my friends drag me along.”
“Why do they have to drag you?”
Just for the briefest of moments, she felt his shoulder tense under her palm. “Not really my thing. I’d rather be at home, watching the sunset from my back deck.”
Well, Tessa thought, that sounded pretty pleasant. “Is that what you do to unwind?”
Although the conversation had been flowing so nicely, Tessa’s new companion stiffened. Then he seemed to remember they’d never met, and therefore, the question was purely innocent.
“Do I look like I need to unwind?” His voice held a little humor, but also real curiosity.
“To be honest,” Tessa said, “Yeah. When I saw you standing there with your friends, you looked bored. Like you’d rather be somewhere else. And, honestly, you looked stressed.”
Quite to Tessa’s surprise, he threw his head back and laughed. “You got all that from one look at me?”
Tessa wasn’t sure what to say. There was an edge to his voice. She sensed she had better step carefully. She wanted to keep dancing with him. For some strange reason, even though she’d just met the guy, she wanted to be the one to relieve that stress.
Besides, at this point, her body might revolt if she tried to walk away.
In an effort to keep the mood light, she leaned back so they could look at each other, and she smiled. “Yeah.”
“Well,” he said, smiling widely back at her, “I guess you’ve nailed it. I’d say that’s an accurate representation of my attitude tonight. Most nights, actually.”
He pulled her close again and she said, “I do have a keen sense of observation.”
She felt him laughing. They didn’t speak again.
As the slow song faded out, the drummer threw in a few quick beats and the music came back to life with a rousing tune that had people pouring onto the dance floor. Tessa figured this mysterious cowboy would want to call it quits with her, so he could head out into the crowd and find another woman to dance with. But he surprised her by grabbing one of her hands and twirling her around before pulling her back into the same slow dance position.
“I don’t really know how to dance to this music,” she said.
“Lucky for you, I do. I’m an excellent leader.”
True to his word, the cowboy twirled her and swung her and dipped her in time with this fast music, and by the end of the song, she felt herself gasping through her laughter.
“Pretty good for a newbie,” he said.” But it looks like you could use some water. I’ll get us some.”
Tessa figured this was it: his out. She told herself she’d wait on the edge of the dance floor for a couple of minutes, and when he didn’t come back, she’d return to observational mode and write this off as a moment she’d remember for the rest of her life.
But before he’d taken more than four or five strides towards the bar where the self-serve water cooler sat, he turned around and came back.
“Want to come with me?” He pointed toward the bar and said, “I don’t want some other dude to snatch you up while I’m gone. I think I’ve got at least another dance or two in me.”
Teenage-girl excitement swelled up inside Tessa’s torso, and she found herself grinning again. “Sure.”
Sure, like she didn’t mind either way. Sure, like she hadn’t just been imagining him in her hotel room bed. Sure, like she hadn’t gone so far as to consider what he’d want for breakfast. Even if she was never going to see him again.
He gestured for her to go ahead of him and she tried to walk without sashaying. Somehow he managed to beat her to the water cooler, where he poured them each a cup of water.
Maybe it was the tequila, or maybe it was the state she was in, but Tessa started talking and couldn’t quite seem to stop.
“You know, I never liked country music much. But listening to it here, tonight, it does have some pretty good stories, doesn’t it? It really has a good beat, too,” she said. “And you’re right, you’re an excellent dancer.”
Then she giggled, a bona fide girly giggle. The cowboy seemed amused by this. Tessa didn’t know if amusement was what she was going for. But he did look more relaxed than he had a little while ago. She sincerely hoped it was thanks to her.
“So what else do you do, aside from sitting on your back porch watching the sunset?”
His expression turned serious. “I like riding my horses. Trail rides, sightseeing. You know.”
“Actually, I don’t know. I think I’ve only seen maybe three horses my entire life. They’re so big and powerful. They kind of scare me.”
She saw him catch the innuendo, and her face burned. A movement behind the cowboy caught Tessa’s eye. It was Montana, waving wildly, motioning for Tessa to come over. She didn’t look upset, though, and Tessa couldn’t bear to tear herself away from her new dance partner. So she waved back and when the cowboy said, “Then what are you doing here? You know Prescott is pretty much the Old West,” she gave him her full attention.
Tessa didn’t feel quite ready to reveal the truth about why she was here. People didn’t often trust reporters. They assumed journalists were always looking for secrets that they’d store up to spill to the world at the most inopportune time. Which wasn’t true. But still. She decided to keep it simple. “I’m here for work.”
He looked like he wanted to ask her something else, but the music changed again. This time it was a song even Tessa recognized.
“Take one more drink,” the cowboy said. “You’ve gotta dance with me to this one.”
A few seconds later, they were back on the dance floor, bodies pressed together. Tessa could feel the heat of his skin through the thin fabric of her dress. Desire, hot and fierce, made her body vibrate with unmet need.
It couldn’t be love. Certainly not after less than an hour and a few country songs. It was tequila, and atmosphere, and being in a new place.
At the same time, Tessa knew it was something special. She decided then and there that she would commit every single detail of the night to memory.
* * *
One song melted into the next and into the next, and Tessa danced with the cowboy through every single one of them. She didn’t think she had ever had this much fun in her whole life. She couldn’t wait to call her mom and tell her all about it.
The evening passed so quickly that Tessa couldn’t believe it when the band’s singer announced, “All right, Prescott! You’ve been a great audience tonight! One last song. Let’s close it out with a bang!”
“Is it midnight already?”
“Why, is your carriage going to turn into a pumpkin?” He looked at her with such tenderness she couldn’t believe they’d met only a couple of hours ago. It was as if he, too, was memorizing every detail of the evening, knowing it was all they had.
But maybe … this would be her home base for three months, after all. She hadn’t told him as much, but maybe she should.
“Last dance?” he said, and even though it was another exciting, fast-paced tune, he pulled her in as if it were slow and lilting. They swayed, so close together Tessa swore she could feel him breathing.
In that moment, everything seemed to fall away and it was just the two of them on that dance floor under the stars.
Then, quite suddenly, Tessa felt tears stinging the back of her eyes. Did this have to end? She willed herself not to cry over what was obviously a one-night experience.
She was a city girl and he belonged here, in the country. In three short months, she would return to her normal city life, covering city things like council meetings and budgets. If it were possible, that thought made her even more sad.
After what felt like a snap of the fingers, the last song ended. A pair of floodlights in each of the corners flicked on. This should have immediately zapped the romance out of the moment, but he was looking at her again, sadness mixed with the tenderness she’d seen before.
Suddenly, Tessa remembered Montana — it was time to go, and she hadn’t seen her since the waving. Now, the dance floor was almost empty, and there was no sign of her.
“Your friend?” The cowboy said. Tessa nodded. “I’ve seen her off and on throughout the night but I don’t know where she ended up. And we didn’t exchange numbers.”
“You came with your friend but you don’t have her phone number?”
“Well, really, we just met. I didn’t expect for us to get separated. And it’s been a whirlwind of a day. I don’t think either one of us even thought about it, since we were attached at the hip all afternoon.”
“What’s your friend’s name?”
“Montana,” Tessa said. “I forget her last name.”
“Hart,” the cowboy said.
“Right,” Tessa said. “That’s it.”
“I’ll bet I know where she’s gotten to.”
“You know Montana?”
“Sweetheart, in a town like Prescott, everybody knows everybody. Nobody’s a stranger. Which means,” he added, tapping his temple as if she should remember this, “no privacy, either. I’ll bet you a hundred bucks Montana’s run off with my man Sawyer.”
The infamous Sawyer. That made sense, based on the way Montana was looking at him earlier, like being near him was equally torturous and rapturous.
“Where are you staying? I’ll see you home, and I’ll call Sawyer to check on Montana.”
Again, Tessa stalled, uncertain about whether she should reveal where she was staying. He didn’t seem like a serial killer … but they rarely did … What if he sneaked into her hotel room in the middle of the night —
His laugh, loud and deep, interrupted her thoughts. “I’m not going to follow you up to your hotel room and pull out a knife, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’ll drop you off at the door, make sure you get safely inside. My offer to see you home is pure chivalry.”
This had her laughing, too. “Okay. And I’d really appreciate it if you’d just make sure Montana is okay.”
He pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed. When he didn’t get an answer, he said, “That son of a gun. Glutton for punishment, that one.”
“What you mean?”
But he didn’t answer. He was too busy typing what Tessa assumed was a text message.
“We’ll give him two minutes and then I’ll call him again. You drive here?”
“Montana and I walked. I’m staying over at the Saint Michael.”
It was an old brick hotel on one corner of the downtown plaza.
The cowboy nodded. “I know the place. Shall we?” He offered his arm and Tessa put hers through, noticing the way his bicep felt: warm and hard and — she had to stop thinking this way, immediately.
The feed store was two blocks from the downtown plaza, and Tessa wished it were farther. She wished they could walk all night.
“So what was it like to grow up here?” she asked as they started off.
“Quiet, mostly. I had the best childhood. Riding, frog catching, fishing. Like I said, everybody knows everybody, so there’s no privacy. My mom knew everything before I had the chance to tell her any of it. She knew when Sawyer and I got in a fist fight in sixth grade and I broke his nose. She knew when we got in a fist fight in eighth grade and he broke mine. I loved it, though. Still do. I guess that’s why I’ve stuck around all this time.”
Tessa wanted to ask him if he’d like to raise his own family here, but she thought that might seem too forward. So she said, “You and Sawyer are brothers then?”
“Practically. For all intents and purposes, yes. We grew up on the ranch together. Our parents’ properties are adjacent. His parents owned a farm and our parents did lots of trading. Including the kids.” Now he chuckled. “Growing up, that was just the status quo. But now I realize it was a special, special thing. And then there’s the other guy you saw tonight. His parents had the property on the other side of Sawyer’s. So the three of us, plus my sister Annie, were constantly running around Prescott like a bunch of ruffians.”
By now, they were back at the square, and they stopped at the corner across from Tessa’s hotel. They turned to face each other. Tessa could picture him as a little kid, a dusting of freckles across his sunburned nose, mischief just behind his smile at every turn.
“I’ve never had a night like this, though,” he said.
“I haven’t either.”
She wanted to tell him so many things: that she’d never danced with anyone like that before. That she never imagined tearing off all her clothes in public, just to get closer to him. That she doubted she’d ever experience something like this again. In his eyes, she could see the reflection of the crosswalk signal turning to illuminate that it was their turn to cross. But he didn’t say anything, just kept looking at her.
“Do you think you’ll ever come back to Prescott?” he asked.
She nodded. The streets around them were deserted. This scene was so picturesque.
“It’s a really cute town,” she said. “Plus, maybe I’d run into you.”
He smiled. “I sure hope so.”
They walked across the street. The lights were on in the hotel lobby, and Tessa could see the receptionist behind the desk.
“Well, I guess this is good night,” he said.
Again, they stood facing each other, holding hands. Tessa let her eyes roam over his face, doing everything she could to ensure she would remember the precise color of his eyes, the exact shape of his chin.
“May I kiss you?”
Tessa glanced toward the hotel lobby, and Cody laughed. “I know. I said there are no secrets in Prescott. But don’t worry. That’s old Mrs. Meyer. She’s about as old as they come, and blind as a bat.”
“Then I would love for you to kiss me.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.”
He turned, rotating their bodies so Tessa was against the brick wall. He brushed her lips with his, gently at first. Tessa’s body responded. She grabbed his waist, pulling his hips against hers. She swore she could feel him through the denim. Her nipples hardened and she felt a rush of heat in her lower belly. A moan—completely involuntary—slipped out as she wrapped her hands around the back of his neck and deepened the kiss. His tongue slipped between her lips, tasting, teasing, and the kissing became even more passionate.
If they didn’t stop this now, she’d be inviting him up to her room. And if it were true that everyone knew everyone else’s business, word would get out. That would put her new assignment, and maybe even her whole career, at risk. Then, she’d be saying goodbye to all that money.
She ended the kiss, but her body wanted more. Her heart pounded and her lips felt swollen. She put her forehead against his chest and said, “I think I’d better go.”
He tilted her chin up, so they were eye to eye and said, “This has been a really special night.”
She couldn’t bring herself to respond. If she did, she might cry. So she nodded, and as soon as he gave her the space, she ducked under his arm and through the doors of the hotel lobby.
About the Author:
Hilary Dartt loves great adventures, whether she’s writing, reading, or living them. The author of nine women’s fiction novels, Hilary lives in Arizona’s high desert with her husband, their three children, her Weimaraner and running partner, Leia, a failed barn cat, and a flock of chickens. She loves camping, exploring in the Jeep, and dance parties with her kids.
My fate as a woman is to become bed sport. If I’m lucky, I’ll die quickly.
The world of Protheka is not kind to the humans who were brought to it. Dark Elves treat us as objects for their basest pleasures. We exist to fulfill their darkest desires. Out of this filthy existence, I come to feel a forbidden emotion.
It is dangerous to love in this nightmare world. But I can’t help loving the Archduke Karl Ishiraya who purchased my existence with the wave of his hand. He can do with me as he pleases. Treat me in any way he desires. I am prepared for the pain. I have steeled myself for the suffering.
But the one thing he seeks for both him and I may be the hardest to attain and the cruelest to bear in this twisted nightmare world.
First, let me say if you’re a fan of Ms. King’s orcs, this one starts out a little darker. The way the fae treat their humans is beyond horrible, and some of the scenes may bother some readers. The dark fae are way worse than anything the orcs have ever done.
That being said … I really liked this book. I couldn’t stop reading once I started.
Kral is feared among many, but for some reason, Amelie is drawn to him. And Kral, a dark elf who hasn’t felt emotion since he was a small child, feels a spark for the first time in ages… but only in Amelie’s presence.
This unlikely duo has more in common than they realize, and the passion between them burns brightly. Once they give one another a chance, the relationship that blossoms between them is full of so much emotion. The journey isn’t easy, but it’s beautiful. And I seriously love the way Kral comes to Amelie’s defense, even when she isn’t around.
If you’re looking for a fantasy romance that treads a darker path but ends with a hopeful, bright beginning for Kral and Amelie, then you’re going to love this book.
*Disclaimer: The review is only my opinion. I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review via Booksprout.
Author Darcy Caldwell is launching a spicy romance series called Lunchbreak Love, and Me and My True Love is one of 12 steamy stories you can read over your lunch hour. Read on for more info!
Me and My True Love (Lunchbreak Love)
Expected Publication Date: April 7th
Genre: Contemporary Romance/ Serial Publication
She is done waiting for some guy to come along – she is taking her happy ever after into her own hands. He is gun shy after being hurt too many times – but when he lays eyes on her, he knows that the risk is worth it…
New girl in town
On the midnight train to Scotland… fairy tales come true.
I’m done with love. Or at least, I’m done waiting for love. I am taking my happiness into my own hands. I booked a one-way ticket to London and I’m ready for the adventure of a lifetime – the last thing I need is some grouchy Scotsman who acts infuriated by my very existence.
I can’t do this any more. I open my heart so often, hoping that this time, it might just be Her. But I have been hurt too many times and I am definitely not going to let myself fall for the stunning American. Even if I can’t take my eyes off her…
Darcy Caldwell writes steamy ever afters with a few twists and all the feels! When she’s not dreaming up great passions, she’s often to be found climbing mountains in Scotland or attempting yoga poses that are far beyond her physical capabilities.
One soldier home from training. Two best friends secretly in love. A plan to fake a romantic Valentine’s weekend. Will it be happiness or heartbreak?
Chad Anderson is a proud soldier with a promising career. He has almost got the perfect life, but for one small snag. Chad has been holding a candle for his best friend since he was seventeen.
Gareth Jenkins lives with him, along with his rescue dog. It’s the perfect arrangement and almost as good as the real thing—but it isn’t the real thing.
To make matters worse, it’s Valentine’s Day, and Chad will be returning from training for the holiday. It would be the ideal time to confess—but it has been nearly ten years. It’s long past the time to say something.
But he isn’t the only one with a candle.
Gareth might be a confident hairdresser with a flirtatious manner and easy-to-love personality, but it doesn’t help him where it counts. Because Gareth’s first love is his sexy soldier best friend, and one of these days, Gareth is sure he’s going to ruin everything with an unwanted kiss.
And if things aren’t bad enough for both of them, Chad comes up with an idea that might spell the end for their secrets. Because, instead of spending Valentine’s alone, he suggests they spend it having the weekend they’ve always wanted.
To do it, they’ll fake being a romantic couple.
When what they want is playing out right in front of them, can both men keep their feelings contained?
On paper, Chad Anderson had the perfect life. He had a promising career in the military. He got along well with his fellow soldiers and the officers at his base. He had good financial stability, which had allowed him to buy a nice home in the suburbs and he had a loving and supportive family and a best friend whom he’d known since high school. His friend even lived with him, looking after the house while he was training or traveling with the army.
Everything seemed ideal. The people who didn’t know him might joke that the only thing missing was a loving wife for him to come home to.
But that was the heart of his problem. He did have someone to come home to, only unlike Chad wished, his best friend was not his spouse.
Gareth Jenkins had been his friend for many years, and despite all Chad’s attempts to stop it, he had fallen thoroughly and completely for the man. He couldn’t even say he’d turned around one day and realized Gareth was everything he’d ever wanted. No, it had started on day one.
They’d never really shared the same social circles in high school. In fact, they could have gone without ever speaking two words to each other if Chad hadn’t been leaving late one afternoon and found the shorter, scrawny teenager being cornered by bullies.
Chad had immediately leaped into the fray to protect the smaller teen. He’d already been training to prepare for the army, and despite being outnumbered, the other boys had stood no chance. Once they’d fled, he’d turned to Gareth and offered a hand. Gareth had flashed a bright, grateful smile, and Chad’s stomach had twisted and developed butterflies.
He hadn’t known it at the time, but that had been it for him.
At seventeen, Chad had blamed his pounding heart on the fight. He’d mumbled about Gareth staying safe before leaving the scene. The next day, Gareth had been waiting out front of the school. He’d thanked Chad again and hung around talking to him.
Almost overnight, they’d become close.
Chad had started spending all his spare moments with Gareth, his crush growing until it was a constant warm feeling under his skin. But Chad had wanted to bury his head in the sand. He hadn’t wanted a crush, especially not on another guy. He’d struggled to accept it for a long time, but the tipping point had been Gareth confessing a crush on someone in his class.
Gareth had admitted it on the way home from school. He’d been nervous but trying not to show it as he came out about his sexuality and infatuation. Chad had felt his stomach drop and his heart crack. It had left him with the knowledge that Gareth liked guys, but didn’t like him.
Chad had gone home and taken to his punching bag with vigor, trying to work out his pain and anger. His mother had found him, and with a few careful words, had prompted him to spill his truth.
To this day, Chad still appreciated that. She had pulled him into a hug, uncaring of the sweat coating his body. She’d accepted him without a moment’s pause.
Six months later, he’d scrabbled together enough confidence to tell the rest of his family and Gareth. But by that point, Gareth was already dating his crush, and Chad had taken to burying his feelings. He’d focused all his attention on the military and sworn that to walk into his new career with all his focus, he’d have to do it without a boyfriend by his side.
Nine years later and recently turned twenty-six, Chad was still repeating the same thing. He used it like a mantra to try to forget what he felt and explain why he didn’t date anyone.
The handsome gay lawyer in the corner? He wasn’t interested because he didn’t have the time.
Gareth’s last boyfriend? Chad didn’t like him because he’d looked down his nose at Gareth’s hairdressing career.
Advertise for a roommate? Why would he do that when Gareth was struggling to find a place to stay, and they could just share?
But denial only went so far. After long years in and out of training, surrounded by men and women who had all accepted the grim truth about the uncertainty of war, he realized the only person being fooled was him.
He’d spent close to ten years falling in love with his best friend. It now left a continuous but familiar ache over his heart. Most of the time, he could cope with it. Even coming home to Gareth’s bright smile after long months away didn’t strain his control.
But for the first time since they’d started living together, Chad worried. Normally, returning home from training was the highlight. He was eager to see his best friend and return to the ease and relaxation of civilian living.
But he was going to be home for Valentine’s Day.
If that weren’t problematic enough, for the first time in years they were both single and would be spending the weekend together.
It could have been the perfect set-up. He’d only need to admit what he felt, and the life he wanted could be at his fingertips.
But you’ve had nine years plus of hesitation. Do you really think the risk is any better now?
He’d run his fair share of scenarios about him and Gareth. He’d lie awake in bed at the base, thinking about his best friend’s smile and trying to imagine how the man would take his open-hearted confession. Chad had rarely finished the scenarios to the end. It always took a turn for the worst. He wasn’t interested in spending his downtime crafting new ways to break his heart.
But he didn’t want Gareth dragging him to a club on the most romantic day of the year, either. Gareth often messaged him while he was away, regaling him on the nightlife and dating disasters he’d gone through in Chad’s absence.
Gareth wasn’t a party animal, but he easily attracted people into his orbit. People wanted him at their gatherings. He would always have a funny story to tell and never minded being the butt of the joke. Chad believed Gareth could make the sun shine on a rainy day just by smiling at the clouds.
It was something Chad could appreciate after the strict, intense environment he’d come from. Gareth made the first twenty-four hours easier, and his friend always tried to have the day off to spend it with him.
This time, he was arriving in the afternoon. Chad had taken a taxi from the airport, having persuaded Gareth that he didn’t need a lift. He felt certain that if he became swept up in the emotion of an airport greeting, he’d do something foolish like kiss Gareth. A taxi ride was safer. It gave him time to calm his thoughts.
When he arrived outside the house, he paid the driver and grabbed his bag. He stood on the pavement admiring his two-story home. The lawn had been recently mowed and there wasn’t a fleck of scratched paint or a curtain out of place. Gareth often joked he was the perfect househusband. Chad had never remarked on the subject. Just because he agreed, it didn’t mean he wanted to imagine Gareth maintaining a home for anyone else.
Walking up the path to the front door, he smiled at the sight of the open garage door. He could see their cars as if they were waiting for him to return. Gareth’s was a simple red Subaru while his was a silver Toyota pickup.
He reached the front door and could already hear the excited barking from Gareth’s rescue dog. Gareth had been volunteering at a local animal shelter when he’d fallen in love with her. He’d sent Chad a picture of them both looking up at the camera with puppy-dog eyes. He’d agreed within moments of reading the text about her needing a good home.
Grinning at the familiar, joyful sounds, he dropped his bag, braced his legs and opened the unlocked door. Helga was on him in a moment. He laughed as the two-year-old German Shepherd’s weight hit him full force. She was up on her hind legs, her front ones on his chest as she tried to lick his face.
“Hey, girl,” he greeted fondly. “I’ve missed you, too.”
He heard footsteps over her excited yipping.
“I’ve heard it’s nice to come home to a good woman,” Gareth teased.
Chad didn’t stop running his hands over her head, but he flicked his gaze up to find Gareth leaning against the doorframe. He was in low-slung blue jeans, barefoot, wearing a faded green shirt. His brunet hair was artfully blow-dried and brushed back from his face. He had in his familiar nose ring rather than the diamond stud he sometimes wore.
He looked gorgeous. The perfect sight to come home to.
“I’d rather it be a good man,” Chad replied, “especially one who makes dinner.”
Gareth laughed. “Luckily, I have been well taught by my fabulous grandmother. Lasagna is already in the oven.”
Chad smiled. He gave Helga one more firm pat before gently pushing her off him. She complied but looked unhappy about it. Chad walked around her to greet his friend. Gareth pushed off the doorframe, and Chad wrapped an arm around him, pulling him into a hug. Chad closed his eyes and enjoyed the moment that truly meant home to him. He breathed in Gareth’s floral hair products and felt Gareth hug him back tightly.
His fellow soldiers pulled him into hearty backslaps and friendly embraces, but Gareth hugged with his entire being. He leaned completely against Chad and seemed unwilling to let him go. It often felt as if Gareth missed him just as much.
But since he was the only one hopelessly in love, he knew it was only wishful thinking.
All too soon, the hug broke, due to Helga’s persistent whining and the snout she tried to shove between their bodies. She also scratched his leg with her paw. Chad pulled away but kept one arm around his friend. He looked down at the enthusiastic German Shepherd. She was jet black all along her spine, the top of her head and her ears. Her chest and legs were a light brown, like sand. She was a beautiful dog, and he still couldn’t believe someone had so callously abandoned her. After he held out his hand, she bumped it with her nose, and he ruffled the top of her head.
Gareth sighed, and Chad glanced over. He was sending Helga a mock glower.
“You know, when I adopted her, I didn’t realize I’d become second place to my best friend.”
Chad chuckled. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
Gareth snorted. “Bullshit. I could leave for a week, and she’d barely notice I’d returned unless I had dog bones.”
Shaking his head, Chad removed his arm from Gareth. He snatched up his rucksack, and when he straightened, Gareth had stepped inside, giving him a clear path into the house. Helga followed so close that she almost pressed against his leg. The living room was immaculate, just as Chad had expected. They were both fussy with presentation. Chad had developed the discipline almost instinctively as a part of his training and Gareth was just naturally tidy.
“Here… Pass me that,” Gareth said, holding out his arm. “I can start a load of washing.”
“Thanks,” Chad said, handing his pack over.
It was almost routine at this point. Gareth would head to the laundry, leaving him to spend a few minutes reacquainting himself with the quiet and familiarity of home. Chad wandered through the living room, noticing a few new books that Gareth had bought. He picked one up, unsurprised to find it was a romance novel. There were a few new chew toys for Helga. Otherwise, apart from a few small rearrangements of items, nothing had changed.
The kitchen was off the living room with the laundry farther down the way, along with a bathroom. Upstairs had another bathroom and three bedrooms. Gareth’s room was to the left of the stairs, his was to the right while the middle rooms were the bathroom and one filled with gym equipment for him to keep up with his training.
Breathing in the scent of cooking lasagna, Chad closed his eyes and enjoyed all the sounds that spoke of home—the birdsong, the occasional sound of a passing car and the low hum of the TV from whatever Gareth had been watching before he’d arrived.
Yet, despite feeling grateful for the reprieve, Chad didn’t feel like spending time without Gareth. He opened his eyes and followed the path Gareth had taken to the laundry. Helga was at his heels the entire time. When he reached the door, he found Gareth muttering under his breath as he pulled out clothing and sorted it into two piles.
One was for his civilian clothes and his simpler pieces, like his tan shirts. The rest needed a separate wash and a more thorough checking of pockets and removal of Velcro. The latter always took a lot longer, and he’d tried to insist he could do it, but Gareth had always taken on the job since moving in.
It was one more way Gareth acted like that joked-about ‘househusband’. The sight always had Chad’s heart flaring with warmth. It was above and beyond what Gareth needed to do as a friend, but Chad wouldn’t stop him when it felt so nice.
When Gareth gave one of the shirts a cautious sniff, it was the perfect opportunity to announce his presence.
“I do wash my clothing while I’m gone,” Chad remarked.
Gareth looked over his shoulder, seeming surprised by his presence, before smiling.
“You mean it’s not just a bunch of sweat-slicked army men wrestling on the ground half naked?”
“Sorry to spoil your fantasies,” Chad drawled.
Gareth sighed loudly. “And the romance novels made it seem so realistic.”
Chad shook his head. He also crouched down to help Gareth with the sorting. There was an immediate problem when Helga tried to shove her nose in the way. Gareth laughed and ended up batting away Chad’s hands.
“I can handle a bit of sorting. You make sure Helga doesn’t rip something in her enthusiasm.”
Lowering to the floor, he put his back to the wall and spread out his legs. Helga immediately dropped between them. Her paw went over his thigh, along with her head. He patted her soothingly while keeping his gaze on Gareth.
The man was always a sight to behold, even while doing something so mundane as filling the washing machine. Chad itched to touch his friend. He wanted to slide a hand over his back, cup his neck and gently duck in to steal his lips for a kiss.
He wanted the soft sweetness of greeting his lover with a tender embrace.
Many of his fellow soldiers had joked or bragged about their plans to return home to their wives or girlfriends and make up for lost time. They had been without sex for too long and wanted to get their spouses on the first available surface.
Chad wanted Gareth. He couldn’t deny it. He’d spent lonely nights guiltily fantasizing about his friend. Chad had also woken up from too many dreams where he’d taken his aching cock in hand. He’d closed his eyes and muffled his groans with his pillow, desperate to keep from moaning his friend’s name.
But for all that he wanted to strip Gareth bare and take his time learning Gareth’s body and making him moan, it was the softer moments he craved when he came home from training. A bright smile, a tender kiss…
It was what would make Valentine’s Day all the harder to get through. It was the day of lovers, secret admirers and showing exactly how much you loved someone. Gareth might read ridiculous romance novels, but Chad was the one who wanted to buy his partner flowers and hold the door for him when they went out to dinner.
“Are you zoning out on me?” Gareth questioned.
Chad jerked from his thoughts to find Gareth watching him with amusement.
“Do you need a nap before we eat?”
“I’m fine,” Chad denied. “Thinking.”
“Uh-huh,” Gareth said, throwing the last of Chad’s civilian clothes in the wash. “Well, since we’re looking at things to wash.”
He sent Chad a pointed look. Chad glanced down at his clothes. They weren’t that dirty, but Chad knew it for the routine it was. Normally, he had a shower and changed out of anything relating to the army. It allowed him to relax entirely, as if he were washing away his training.
He hoped it would help him get his head back into the game. Weeks away from Gareth always made him maudlin and prone to wishing for things he didn’t have. He couldn’t afford to stay in the same headspace. There couldn’t be anymore fantasies about Gareth naked—or about cuddling and kissing him the way a partner would.
He had to return to best-friend mode. The shower was the best way to start.
“Good idea,” he said.
He had to shake his leg and push Helga gently away. Chad ignored her betrayed look and stood. He stretched, feeling his muscles pull pleasantly. When he lowered his arms, he looked down at his friend. Gareth was still kneeling on the floor. Chad couldn’t ignore the connotations of their positions, and he swallowed. He wanted to cup Gareth’s cheek and thumb at his perfect lips. Maybe draw him close so Gareth’s hands could rest on his thighs before unbuttoning his pants.
Chad turned away forcibly.
“Back in ten,” he said, keeping his voice level.
He left the laundry with measured steps. He still felt rattled. It wasn’t what normally happened on returning home. It was always hard, and he never stopped wanting Gareth, but he felt more on edge than usual.
It’s Valentine’s Day soon. It’s never a good time. You always spend it thinking about Gareth.
Climbing the stairs with heavy limbs. Chad knew better than to deny the truth. He’d spent too much of his youth burying what he felt for Gareth. But he’d admitted it long ago. He was in love, and the most romantic day of the year was going to hit him hard.
You’ve survived nine years. Don’t blow your cover, soldier.
Stiffening his shoulders, Chad reached the landing and turned down the hall to his room. He opened the door to find nothing was out of place. The window was open but there wasn’t any dust. He knew Gareth routinely gave his room a cleaning while he was gone. It was why he never left out anything incriminating about his feelings.
Opening his chest of drawers, he pulled out some of his most comfortable house clothes. As he did, heavy paws hit the stairs. Whatever Gareth had done to keep Helga at bay had failed. She pushed into his room, her tail wagging. He grinned and gave her another pat.
She trailed after him easily as he went toward the bathroom. He paused by the door, blocking the path.
“Sorry, girl,” he apologized.
You’re not the one I’d be inviting in here…if I could.
Shutting the door quickly, but carefully, he locked her out. She immediately scratched at the wood. When it didn’t illicit the right response, she gave a mournful whine. Chad put his clothes on the basin, chuckling at the assortment of haircare products taking up most of the space. He knew Gareth’s many accessories and devices would fill the drawers.
By comparison, he had a toothbrush, shaving cream, a razor and deodorant. Despite the avalanche of objects, Chad wouldn’t have it any other way. He opened one cream and took a small sniff. It was like pressing against Gareth’s hair.
Once, at his first posting, Chad had almost stolen one of Gareth’s jars of haircare products, wanting something to remind him of home. It had been a ridiculous flight of fancy, and he was glad he’d never done it, but he couldn’t help checking the products every now and again. They always brought a smile to his lips and sent a wave of fondness through him.
Putting the tub back where he’d found it, Chad turned on the shower’s hot water and stripped from his clothes. Helga continued to huff and whine at the bathroom door. Chad knew she’d either leave or Gareth would drag her downstairs.
The familiarity and sense of family was everything he’d tried not to miss while away on training, but now that he was back, he could let it seep into his bones. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t perfect and that Gareth would never be his life partner. If this was as close as he ever got, Chad would be happy.
Because despite the imperfections, this was still home, and he was glad to be back.
Hi, everyone! Just to give me a few days to catch my breath and take a short break before 2022 gets here, I’m taking a few days off, which means no new posts at Books+Coffee=Happiness from today through December 29th.
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