Jaya’s relationships never last more than six weeks. Austen wants to be her forever.
Six weeks is the outer limit for one of Jaya’s relationships. When men find out there is no future with her, they tend not to stick around for long.
She’s gotten into the habit of leaning on her cousin Austen to get over each breakup. Who better? Austen is six feet three of solid sympathy. Both adopted into the same extended family at young ages, they’ve been friends their whole lives, with a mutual taste for good food and expensive whisky. But when Jaya takes her latest failed romance to him, Austen makes it clear his interest in her is far from cousinly.
“Think about me,” Austen tells her, and Jaya starts to do just that. No doubt, Austen is incredibly attractive, and she can’t say she’s not curious to find out what he’s like in bed, but can their bond survive this new test?
Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of light bondage.
Austen answered his phone on the first ring.
“What do you need, kiddo?”
Jaya paused, taken aback by the curt greeting. After a moment, she realised that he always answered his calls from her in the same way. “What do you need?” As if she could never just be calling for no reason at all.
“Is that any way to greet your favourite cousin?” she replied, forcing a bright note into her voice. “You’re my favourite, you know.”
“As far as you know, you might have any number of cousins,” Austen said coolly. “How could you possibly claim to know I would be the favourite?”
Because you’re the only one I’ve actually met, she wanted to tell him, although she understood the crude point he was trying to make. By blood, she was no cousin of his.
Jaya wished she owned one of those old-fashioned phones with the long curly cord so she could twine it between her fingers. Instead, she shifted her mobile from one sweaty hand to the other.
She wasn’t about to tell him that she couldn’t bear her own company tonight. She’d left work early, needing to get away from the high-energy actors she was constantly surrounded by, only to find that the so-called peace of her apartment was too oppressively quiet.
“I thought we might grab a drink tonight,” Jaya said, still striving to maintain her cheerful tone. “It’s been a while.”
“Six weeks,” Austen said. “Right on schedule.”
She remembered what he’d said the last time they’d met up. That she only called him when she broke up with someone. That, to her, he was no more than a shoulder attached to a man. A shoulder for her to cry on, presumably, although she never did cry. She merely got drunk.
“Ha ha. Do you want the drink or not?” Jaya demanded.
“I have to get up early tomorrow,” Austen told her, sounding uncharacteristically reluctant.
What is wrong with him? Jaya wondered, pulled out of her own problems for a brief moment. It had to be bad if he was turning down liquor. They both fancied themselves connoisseurs of the hard stuff. Neither of them drank wine or, shudder, beer.
“I’ll get you home early, granddad,” Jaya told him. “So how about it? Nine o’clock at The Cat’s Whiskey?”
“All right, kiddo.”
Shaking her head, Jaya hung up. He didn’t have to sound so bloody glum about the prospect.
Nan Comargue is a romance and erotic romance writer who has been reading romance novels all her life. She prefers sexy confident heroes who win over slightly introverted heroines (read: nerdish types) but she writes about everything from angel-warriors to cowboy ménage.
Nan blogs about her writing journey and other interesting topics (zombies!) here but lately she tweets more than she blogs (and sometimes more than she writes).
Nan is Canadian, eh?
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Pretending to date your best friend is always a good idea…right? Wrong.
Greta Aske has a lot on her mind, and a string of bad dates has her giving up on men, at least for the time being. Her life contains a little too much drama, meaning she needs a break and to save money and get good grades. The perfect solution presents itself—pretend to date the campus playboy. That’ll keep the guys away for sure.
Aaron Hill is desperate to save his baseball career because, with his dad fighting cancer, he damn well knows he can’t ask for a single penny from his parents. Baseball is his past, present and future, so when a scandal threatens his chance in the MLB, he turns to his best friend for help. A fake relationship will keep him out of trouble. It’s perfect, really. Greta’s taking a break from dating and Aaron needs to focus on training.
Nothing could go wrong…as long as neither falls for the other. But when lines are crossed, what’s real and fake blurs and the two are forced to face their fears. Could Greta be the game changer Aaron needs?
Reader advisory: This book was previously released by Finch Books.
Action movies are full of shit, feeding us fake information our entire lives. For instance, when a fight breaks out in a bar, there’s no Mark Wahlberg look-a-like to rescue the damsel in distress. Second the sound of flesh hitting flesh is repulsive and meaty. There are no wooshes or bangs or ka-pows. Nope. It’s just disgusting.
I cringed at the smack and crashing of a fist meeting the face of my date. That’s right. I always picked the best of the best when it came to dating and tonight was no different. Todd, who had blood dripping down his eye, chin and nose, had made the bold decision to ask me out. I’d accepted, like a fool, and would live to regret this night for all eternity.
“Where is my money, Todd?” The broad-shouldered man with a beard longer than my hair pummeled his meaty fists into my date’s face. “Where the feck you keepin’ it?”
No response. Burly Guy didn’t like that. He grunted, swung his arm back past the table and hit Todd square in the nose. What happened in my past life for me to witness this?
No one got up to help. No one moved. They all watched with half-smiles on their faces and I knew in the pit of my stomach I needed to get the hell out. Like, ten minutes ago. I slowly slid my trembling hand into my purse to find my phone, but Mr. Burly heard me. He whipped his face toward mine, the terrifying glint to his eyes making me gasp. I gulped, the fear suddenly very real.
“You know this fecking asshole?” he barked at me. Countless gazes followed his voice and now stared at me. They wanted a show and I was so not the person for the role. My chin trembled as I shook my head.
“N-n-no. I j-just met him tonight.” I clutched my phone to my chest. I would use it as a weapon if necessary, although I had no fucking clue what damage I could do on this beast of a man.
He ran his fat tongue over his lips and studied me. I stood stock-still, my spine straight as a rod. “I think it’s time for you to go, doll. My boss ain’t gunna like me lettin’ ya leave, but your blonde hair don’t fit in here. Get the feck out and don’t come back.”
I nodded, glancing one more time at Todd. My gut screamed to get out, but I had been raised Catholic. Do I leave my epic failure of a date to get killed? Do I call the cops?
Mr. Burly thought I took too long and put his grimy fingers around my wrist. I squealed, yanking it out of his touch.
“Get gone, girl.” He kicked open the door and threw me outside. I stood on a rundown street with one streetlight working correctly. The others flashed and made a high-pitched buzzing sound that sent chills down my spine. “Fuck. Fucking. Fuck.”
I called my best friend with shaking fingers and snot running down my face. Oh, did I mention I had blood on me that wasn’t my own? I gagged, looking at the splatters. The phone rang and rang again. I loved Callie to death, but if that bitch didn’t answer right then, I would get her for it. Big-time. Because what the fuck? It appeared the downward spiral my life had begun a month ago still had a way to go before hitting pure rock bottom. Nothing topped this story, as long as I got home alive.
“Give me my fecking money!” A booming voice traveled through the closed door. My longtime sixth sense had sent warning after warning all day and I’d chosen to ignore it. This is my own damn fault.
I gripped my phone tighter and took a deep breath. Count to eight. Make a box with your breathing. It did me no good and my fingers still shook. After three failed calls to Callie, I called the other number I knew by heart. Aaron Hill answered after the first ring with his obnoxious and playful voice.
“G-spot, what’s crackin’? Finally calling me for a booty call?” His voice had the power to make me smile and roll my eyes simultaneously. This was not that time.
“I need you to come get me.” My voice shook as the shouting picked up. Why had I let Todd convince me this place was cool and a ‘real biker bar’? Standing alone on the dark country road made it feel more like a place where girls went missing than a legit biker hangout. I fell for it. Dumbass.
“Where the hell are you?” His good-natured tone shifted and I imagined his steel eyes going dark. “It’s past midnight. Shit, G, are you alone?”
“Uh, pretty much.” I sent him the address while still on the phone. “I texted you the place. I’m calling in my favor.”
“Jesus, Greta.” He let out a string of cuss words. “Why the fuck are you all the way out there?”
“A date gone bad.” Shame filled my chest, regret chasing it. The feelings had my throat closing. Tears weren’t far behind.
“Goddamn it. I’m on my way. Stay on the phone with me. I swear, I’m going to wring your neck. I hate this shit.” A door slammed—he’d just gotten into his car. After a minute of silence, he sucked in a breath. “Are you at Dirty Matt’s? Please say no. Tell me no, right now, Greta.”
The neon signed mocked me, Dirty Matt’s, blinking over and over. “I’m at Dirty Matt’s.”
“Jesus Christ.” His deep voice got so low, so calm, I made a vow to end all my plans for dating. His anger and disappointment in me were well deserved.
I gulped. Ever since my childhood best friend Callie had found love the year before, I’d wanted to try it. She’d fought it, but seeing how damn happy she had been all year and how she’d grown into herself had motivated me. I was damn happy for her and in no way jealous. I just yearned to have the closeness she had with her boyfriend, Zade.
Okay, so all the longing and searching had led me to a series of bad, awful and miserable dates. Not one had clicked. Not one had ended with the promise for more. And, not one has ended with a guy acting like a gentleman. Apparently, I had a stamp on my head that read, I tend to date losers. And, now, I could add I dated felons. It was the only explanation I could muster why Todd had brought me here, and why they’d beaten the shit out of him.
“I’m twenty minutes out and I’m beyond pissed at you. You know the rep this place has? Do you?” His deep voice held nothing but rage and worry. I closed my eyes and leaned against the wall. I had known about the reputation, but I’d wanted an adventure. Todd rode a motorcycle. He had tattoos and looked as good as sin. I wanted, even an inkling if possible, of the happiness Callie felt. Is that so bad?
Yes. I shivered.
Aaron’s shaking voice pulled me from my self-pitying thoughts. “Greta! Did you know and still go there?”
Shit. He was past mad. “Yeah.”
“Why? Tell me why. I know shit hasn’t been great for you recently, but stop with this self-destruction crap. I can’t watch you do this.”
The squealing tires informed me he was close. His dark SUV sped down the road on a mission, the headlights showcasing how wretched this place looked. He pulled up to the spot right in front of Dirty Matt’s and threw open his door. He stormed out, his anger evident on his handsome face.
“You asshole,” he said, yanking me into his arms. “You worried the hell out of me. I lost ten pounds on the drive here.”
“Aaron,” I managed to squeak out before he pressed my face into his chest. “I’m okay.”
“Just, let me be.”
So, we stood like that for at least three minutes. His ridiculously large frame towered over me, but not in the way Mr. Burly back there had. Aaron was different. His body was sculpted from hours and hours in the gym. My arms barely fit around his middle, but I tried anyway. He squeezed me one last time and broke our hug. His gray eyes still held on to some anger, but relief took over. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, G.” His lips turned white while he glanced at the sign. “Now, get in the car.”
I obeyed, not foolish enough to piss him off even more. He opened the passenger door and glared at me until I buckled myself in. Without a word, he shut it and pinched his nose walking to the driver’s side. His cologne clouded the car, the pleasant aroma of wood and leather comforting my nerves.
My body shook, the adrenaline wearing off. Aaron must’ve seen, because he turned on the heat despite the high July temperatures. I understood him well enough to let him stew. We had been close for over two years, but last year things were different. His dad being diagnosed with cancer had made the Aaron we all knew and loved change and we had grown closer and closer. Callie was my girl for life, but I couldn’t envision a future without knowing Aaron would be there. He understood me, respected me and pushed me to be better. He was allergic to feelings and emotions while I was forever giving up on men. Our friendship worked.
He drove the silent, dark path back to campus, one hand on the wheel and the other repeatedly making a fist. I blamed myself for his anger. He had enough to worry about and now picking me up… Remorse filled my chest and my eyes stung. “I’m fucking sorry. I’m an idiot. I don’t know why I went there. I wanted to have an adventure or something.”
He nibbled on his bottom lip, keeping his expression blank. Shit. Instead of remaining silent and letting him deal with it, I’d decided to ramble. Rambling was a favorite sport of mine and I couldn’t stop.
“He had a motorcycle…”
“I thought he would be a winner…”
“I want what Callie and Zade have…”
“I didn’t realize he was a felon or something and would get the shit beat out of him…”
“I had no fucking clue I would get manhandled…”
“Excuse me. What did you just say?” His jaw tightened.
“I didn’t have a clue—”
“No. You said manhandled. Someone hurt you?” His grip on the wheel tightened and I swallowed, loudly.
“Not hurt, no.” I tucked my arms further into myself. A bruise had already formed and Aaron was in no state to know that. “Forget I said anything.”
“I swear to God, Greta.” He pulled off the road and stopped the car. He shook, his large frame tight with pent-up rage. I wanted to crawl into a hole. Pissed-off Aaron could scare the boogeyman into retirement. “Don’t fucking lie to me. Are you hurt?”
Jaqueline Snowe lives in Arizona where the ‘dry heat’ really isn’t that bad. She enjoys making lists with colorful Post-it notes and sipping coffee all day. She has been a custodian, a waitress, a landscaper, a coach and a teacher. Her life revolves around binge-watching Netflix, her two dogs who don’t realize they aren’t humans and her wonderful baseball-loving husband.
Most college girls ‘swipe right’ to meet the right guy—Callie meets All-Star pitcher Zade while he’s buying tampons. College is all about learning, right?
How often do you meet your dream guy buying tampons at Target? Never, right? For Callie, a baseball-loving, hardworking college student, it happened just once. The magic was too real, too fast and too much, so she left the store without exchanging names.
But fate works in wonderful ways, right?
Zade Willows, the All-Star pitcher rumored to be drafted his senior year, gets what he wants. He has a fan club who follow his every move, but when he meets Callie, the game changes. She knows all his plays and that the game always ends—in heartbreak. But Zade doesn’t back down and is willing to try anything.
He’ll eventually get the girl, right?
Reader advisory: This book was previously released by Finch Books.
“Get your gorgeous ass in here and give me a hug.” Greta slammed the door open with her foot and jumped into my arms. She smelled the same as she had done in high school—floral and sweet. God, I had missed the hell out of my girl. She’d always been a violent hugger and the tradition continued. My lungs were gasping for air by the time she let go.
“Sorry I’m late.” I lugged the suitcase into the apartment and grinned at her motherly expression.
“Unless the reason is some hot guy or some awesome story, then I’ll remained pissed at you for another two minutes. I got afraid—”
“That I backed out? Me?” I held up my hands in surrender. “I wouldn’t back out of our pact from ten years ago. I wouldn’t dare.”
“Glad you learned something from your year off,” she mumbled loud enough for me to hear. We both had a mutual hatred of the deal my parents had forced me to accept and I understood her anger disguised the worry about this not happening. We’d dreamed about living together since we’d become best friends in fifth grade—when two kids get caught cheating on a math test, it forms a bond that’s hard to break.
“I learned, like, two things,” I replied to her comment and she skipped to my bedroom for the next year. “This is my room?”
“Yes!” she cheered. I’d expected the room to be small and I gasped when I saw a dresser, a built-in desk and a twin bed. “Wait here, I have a present for you.”
I obeyed her command and set my cases on the floor. I could fit every piece of clothing I owned in the closet, and maybe a little more. It could even serve as an extra bedroom if needed. I’d lived in my childhood home my entire life. The last year…it had been hell taking a year off to prove to my dad I could make it on my own. Pure hell. But I’d made it and it pleased me to be on my own for the first time.
“Here. I bought it for you.” She waltzed back into the bedroom with a package wrapped in sparkly paper. Greta would buy sparkly paper. “It’s nothing big, just a welcome present.”
“You didn’t have to get me anything, Greta. Come on.” I frowned at the gift, damn well knowing her kindness knew no bounds. She shoved it into my hands, despite my reluctance. “Fine.”
I opened it up to find the very first picture of the two of us, taken when we’d been in our band in high school. I met her eyes and we shared a smile. “Good lord. Why did we name ourselves the Crazy Gals again?”
“Because our names start with C and G. Obviously that made sense when we were fourteen.”
“I regret the name choice, but still dig the outfits.” Closing my eyes in shame, I swallowed down the memory of gaucho pants, clogs and popped-collared shirts.
She shuddered. “Oh, lord. Not me. I regret the outfit, not the name.” Greta’s legs had more style than I had in my entire body. She’d won best dressed in high school. Even now, she wore a trendy sundress with a hat while I was wearing ripped jean shorts and a vintage band tank top. “I have another gift for you, but you cannot get mad.”
“That’s a great opener. No promises, G.”
“It’s kind of small.” She bit her lip and pulled out something from her pocket. What the hell? Sundresses have pockets? A shadow of apprehension crossed her face and I worried what the fuck she’d gotten me.
I took the sticker from her hand, already planning where to put it. “I freaking love it.”
“I know you really don’t play in bands anymore, but you still have the same case.” She motioned her head to the guitar case I’d set down earlier.
“Of course I do.” I collected stickers from everywhere I went or from any large moment in my life. I peeled back the paper and placed the new college sticker on the front of the case, right in the center. Big. Freaking. Deal. “Thanks, Greta.”
“Phew. I’m super happy you love it. I’d been nervous, like, what if you hated it and used your guitar to beat me senseless? Or, what if you assumed we were getting back in business?”
“Greta. Am I crazy?”
“I’ve seen you punch two girls in the face. At the same time, I might add.” She bit back a grin and pointed down the narrow hallway. “Kitchen is down the hall to the right. I already know your first question.”
“Obviously.” I eyed the tile and large counters, sighing in pleasure. They were perfect. “Those girls deserved it, though. Sure, we were in a mosh pit, but they pushed a girl in a cast.” I smiled at the memory.
“Your smile alone is why you’re crazy.”
I flipped her off and she closed the distance between us with open arms. “I’m damn glad you’re going to be my roomie. I’m proud of you. You beat your dad at his own game and I love you more because of that.”
“Love you, too. Now, that’s enough affection. I need to paint my room black or something.” I blinked away the emotions that bubbled up. Those words, coming from her, meant much more than she might ever realize.
“This is going to be hella fun!” she squealed and squished me for another hug.
I loved that Callie not only enjoyed baseball, but was extremely knowledgeable of the sport. There aren’t enough Tom boys in romances. She was feisty, determined, and best of all, she didn’t give in to Zade. She made him fight to be with her, to prove he was worth her time.
Zade didn’t mind his playboy reputation until it nearly cost him the only girl who’s ever fascinated him. He’s driven, focused, but he’s never let himself fall in love… until now.
Both characters were complex and completely real. They had doubts, insecurities, hopes, dreams… just like anyone else.
I enjoyed the slow burn romance between Callie and Zade, but I especially loved their banter. Challenge Accepted is a true gem. Ms. Snowe knocked this one out of the park.
Jaqueline Snowe lives in Arizona where the ‘dry heat’ really isn’t that bad. She enjoys making lists with colorful Post-it notes and sipping coffee all day. She has been a custodian, a waitress, a landscaper, a coach and a teacher. Her life revolves around binge-watching Netflix, her two dogs who don’t realize they aren’t humans and her wonderful baseball-loving husband.
Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQIA+, contemporary, friends to lovers, multicultural, geeks, nerds, marriage of convenience, green card marriage, demisexual, bisexual, family drama, inheritance, work drama, money problems, adulting, one-bed dilemma
Mariana Mitogo is struggling to make ends meet. Then, out of the blue, she learns she’s to receive a huge inheritance that would erase all her debt. The problem: she has to be married for six months to receive it, and her dating life is nonexistent.
Santiago de los Reyes, Mariana’s Internet friend, has drained his bank account to support his family. Desperate to get his mom the heart surgery she needs, he interviews for a better-paying job that would take him from Madrid to Virginia. When he’s offered the position but can’t get a work visa, Mariana offers a solution that benefits both of them—a fiancé visa and a quick wedding.
If anyone finds out it’s a green-card marriage, Santiago will be deported. Mariana would face a colossal fine and jail time. Good thing they’re committed actors.
But as Santiago and Mariana pretend to build a life together, the lines blur between charade and reality. Will they dare to choose the love that feels more honest every day?
Border Ctrl+Esc is a lighthearted friends-to-lovers marriage of convenience between LGBTQ+ Internet friends (a demisexual woman and a bisexual man).
Mariana Mitogo scanned the faces filtering through both the escalator and the stairs into the Arrivals area of the airport, hoping Santiago de los Reyes Martínez hadn’t changed his appearance since his last selfie. She had assumed he wore his glasses all the time like she did, but did he? Maybe they were only for the aesthetic. What if he didn’t have them on, or he cut his hair, and she didn’t recognize him? What if his plane had come in somewhere else and this wasn’t even the right flight?
Announcements squawked over the speakers; conversations murmured around her as a fresh wave of people came from the gates. The crowds swirled, heading to the luggage conveyors and the restaurants and the exit. She sidestepped travelers on their phones. She almost passed over the man who stepped off the escalator next—and then she couldn’t look away.
Thick, mussed black hair curled over the edges of his ears and down the nape of his neck, too long to look professional. His naturally tawny complexion had darkened with exposure to the sun, and she could see those big, dark eyes from here, even with his oversized hipster glasses. The edges of him were soft, not harsh with muscle, but something about the angle of his shoulders and the way he filled out his simple T-shirt and jeans scrambled her insides.
Please don’t be him, she prayed, ready to barter her health and wealth against her need to not have to deal with a cute guy friend. She hadn’t been interested in anyone since she was sixteen—she didn’t want to start now. Life was simpler that way.
As she stood there, appalled at her potential bad luck, he turned to meet her gaze, and he pulled back. No wave, not even a smile. He just pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, shoulders tense, lips pressed together.
Her throat prickled. Of course I look different. Cheeks hot, she smoothed her palms over the front of her yellow dress. I guess I didn’t expect to…to disappoint him.
He hadn’t even waved yet. She swallowed her embarrassment and, with a smile, did jazz hands.
A grin split his face, and it clicked.
She’d seen that grin in enough goofy selfies.
Santiago raced to her, dropped his suitcase, and swept her into a bear hug. For a split second she froze, not having expected outright affection—but then she relaxed and hugged him back, and her concern about attraction faded.
This is him, her heart and mind seemed to sigh, this time in relief. This is Santi. They already knew each other inside and out. Having him here in person, at long last, fit a piece into place she hadn’t realized was missing.
When he finally let go, she tapped him on the chest. “I’m not sure I know how to talk to you face-to-face. Let’s go sit somewhere so we can text.”
He snorted with laughter, as she’d hoped. “Maybe we can turn around and pretend to talk to our phones.” The lilt of his native language softened his English, prettier than her own slight Virginian drawl. Poor guy, having to practice his second language with a Southerner. He was going to end up with two different accents blended into one. Not to mention a propensity for the word y’all.
“How was your flight?” It seemed like the appropriate first question to ask.
He shrugged and rubbed his butt. “It was fine. Long.”
This response, though, made his forehead crinkle. “I said that right, didn’t I? Sorry about my accent.”
“Yeah, you said it fine.” She bounced on the balls of her feet. “Do you want any coffee or anything before we start the drive home? It’s gonna be another two hours until we get there.”
Santi glanced around the waiting area, probably looking for a coffee shop.
“Not here. There’s a Starbucks a couple miles down the highway.”
He half grimaced at the word miles. “And that’s…?”
“Oh.” She struggled to remember the correct ratio of miles to kilometers. Two to one? One to two? Ugh, math. She gave up. “About five minutes.”
They both stared at each other, looking a little blank, until they shared a self-deprecating laugh, and he picked up his suitcase. “Yes, let’s get some coffee. I’ll still be able to sleep when we get home.”
Ivy L. James wrote her first story on Post-it notes as a child. Since then, she has graduated to regular paper and enjoys writing inclusive, heartwarming romance as a way to counterbalance the negativity in the world. She lives in Maryland with her partner and their corgi, cat, and two snakes.
Life is a series of little moments. From the rising sun to the sweet smell of freshly cut grass to the discovery of a beautiful baby girl. Abandoned like forgotten garbage, it is up to me to keep her safe, even if it’s from her crime boss grandfather. I’m in a constant state of fear and anxiety with each passing day. Until Pennington James breaches my world and my soul.
When my grandfather left me his house and asked me to take care of the home next door, he failed to mention anything about the woman who owns it. From the first time I met her, I knew BellaRose is beautiful with a caring heart. It’s that caring heart that has her hiding from the dark underbelly of our town. Keeping Bella safe is the perfect cover for my investigation. Falling in love with a baby and her savior is the last thing I wanted, but the heart is the ruler of love and mine wants Bella.
AEGIS is written in New York Times Bestselling author K. Bromberg’s Everyday Heroes World, which is one of two KB Worlds projects that launched in August 2020. With over 100 authors, who were selected by and are working with K. Bromberg, these stories will be fan fiction at its finest—and sexiest. Devoted fans of the Driven and Everyday Heroes series will have the opportunity to revisit their favorite characters and settings. You can find out more about K. Bromberg and the KB Worlds at kbworlds.com.
Hollis Wynn is a thirty-something gypsy who lives for adventure and calls home anywhere that she lays her head.
On her wandering she can’t live without three things… music, books and her yorkiepoo Boston.
Hollis has been writing stories for years and after successfully running the White Hot Reads blog, she finally gave in to her passion and took the publishing leap!
When she’s penning stories where life and love collide, you’ll find her desk covered in empty wine glasses, gluten free cupcake crumbs and multiple drafts of her latest WIP covered in ink (pink of course)!
Award-winning photojournalist Scott Rowe is struggling with the physical injuries and emotional scars caused by the terrorist attack that killed his interpreter, Omran Saleh. A long succession of doctors and surgeons have put his body back together, but to Scott, his mind seems beyond repair. Panic attacks ambush his days, and nightmares haunt his fitful sleep. He can’t bring himself to touch his broken camera, let alone consider returning to work. His only sanctuary is the darkroom, where he can escape the secret he carries surrounding Omran’s death.
Dr Jason Andrews is determined to bring Scott back from the brink. His alternative healing methods are like nothing Scott has ever seen, and at first, Scott feels foolish lying on Jason’s table with hot rocks in his hands or acupuncture needles in his skin. But one thing keeps Scott coming back: the detailed visions that appear like movies in his mind, of himself in other times, cultures, and continents, and Jason himself, whose relentless hope steers them through the storms of Scott’s recovery.
As his health improves, Scott begins to wonder what his visions mean. Are they vivid daydreams, figments of his exhausted mind? And why does he only have these visions when he is with Jason?
Scott hopes the answers will give him a reason to make peace with Omran’s death and begin to truly live again, instead of merely surviving. But what if they also give him a reason to love?
Scott opens his eyes slowly as he steps out of the darkroom. The small lamp on his bedside cabinet provides only a shadowy glow over the flat, and he shuffles toward it with a yawn, finally ready for sleep.
When he’d started renting this place in Camden three years ago, it was meant to be somewhere to crash between jobs, a glorified storage locker with a shower. It’s square and plain, his bed on one side and galley kitchen on the other, decorated only with photos and trinkets from his travels. After the accident, when it became clear he’d be grounded for a few months, he transformed the bathroom by draping a blackout curtain around the door and setting a plank over the bathtub for his chemical trays. There, he can flip on the fan and work for hours, just feet away physically but miles away mentally from his bed, where insomnia and nightmares crowd out any hope of sleep.
His darkroom habit is his only connection to photography these days. He hasn’t picked up his camera since he left the hospital in January; it’s in pieces, after all, his £3,200 digital Canon collecting dust in his cupboard. Scott never did find out who collected it from the scene and sent it along with him in the ambulance. They shouldn’t have bothered; he can’t bring himself to touch the thing, even to throw it out. Instead, he finds solace in the undeveloped film from his 35mm Leica.
Film is reserved for London, family, and home, where there are no publishing deadlines to meet or editors to please. He has compiled quite a collection of undeveloped rolls over the last few years; being home only a day or two at a time had given him a chance to take pictures but not develop them before he’d be on his way again, so his desk drawer holds a grab bag of birthday parties, impromptu picnics, and London day trips. He never knows what will appear on the long strip of film, but he knows what won’t. There will be no Ukraine, no Kabul, no Delhi; no plane crashes, no war zones, no children dying in poverty.
Last night, the roll he processed had turned out to be all Olivia and Thomas, two years ago at Christmas. Scott’s heart clenched pleasantly when the images appeared, remembering how he and his sister had sprinkled jelly babies and crisps in the garden for reindeer food because Thomas thought that’s what they’d like. Tonight, Scott picks out a few frames to print for Olivia, of their mum filling stockings and Thomas’s astonished reaction to his new toy train. He spends time printing the images, making sure the contrast is perfect. His eyes finally get heavy as he places the last few photographs on the drying rack.
The sky is not yet lightening. Scott picks up his phone from the bedside cabinet to check the time. Thursday, the 19th of May, 4:07 a.m. An appointment reminder lights up, and shit, today is his first session with the new guy Dr Coulter wants him to see.
At least the appointment isn’t until two.
After he crosses the day off his calendar with his black Sharpie (he’s up to day one hundred fifty-nine) and sends a quick goodnight message on WhatsApp, Scott arranges himself in bed, flat on his back with his bad arm propped up on pillows. He’ll get a few hours of sleep after all.
Cynthia’s love of romance began in eighth grade when she chose to read Jane Eyre instead of Huckleberry Finn. Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and Daphne du Maurier shaped her passion for love stories that feature mysterious plots and unforgettable characters. At thirteen, she couldn’t have imagined a world where books appear on screens at the touch of a button, but decades later, romances of all genres fill her (digital) shelves while her dog-eared, well-loved copy of Jane Eyre still lives on her bedside table.
Cynthia’s art history degree landed her a museum job in New York, but she left the Big Apple when her own love story took her to the prairies of the Midwest. She now lives a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, and you can find her poring over art books, reading tarot cards, taking nature walks with her family, and reading and writing love stories.
Robbo is broken. He’s split up with his girlfriend. Given up on love. Forever. And now he must pretend to be happy for a friend’s week-long birthday celebration.
Daniel’s boyfriend refuses to go to the celebration with him. Another nail in the coffin for their relationship. So he brings his best friend, Sam. They notice the heart-broken straight guy has attractively filled swimming shorts and a body to draw their sunglasses-obscured gazes.
If Robbo can put aside how he thinks others will see him if he comes out and if Daniel can escape the history of his dead relationship, maybe they have chance.
When Robbo Met Daniel is a stand-alone gay romance with a curious man who’s only ever been with women and a flamboyant gay man who’s looking for someone to be kinder than his useless boyfriend. A dash of well-meaning friends and forced proximity could mean a happy ever after.
Robbo stood back so he could stare at his suitcase, resting on the not very comfortable pull-out futon he’d been sleeping on. He threw four T-shirts, three pairs of shorts, and flip-flops into the case.
There was a knock on the door.
“All right,” Robbo replied.
Caspian opened the door. “Nearly packed?”
“Yeah. Some Lynx Africa, my shaving kit and I’m done.”
Caspian pushed the clothes into the suitcase. “And sun cream. Maya’s been on about factor fifty for weeks.” He rolled his eyes.
“I’ll borrow yours if that’s OK.” Robbo was already borrowing his friend’s spare room and bed, so what harm would a few squirts of sun cream be?
“’Course mate.” Caspian smiled weakly.
“Thanks.” Robbo turned to face the bed, his back towards Caspian. “Still think I’d be better off here. Don’t feel much in a party mood.”
“Lulu wants you there. Shaun told me. Said he’d told you.”
“Haven’t heard from him.” Robbo thought it worth trying one last time to get out of the trip. After the upheaval with Becky, he could have done with a week of work and of being alone in Caspian and Maya’s spare room. Just himself and his thoughts moping quietly on the futon.
“He told me he’d called you,” Caspian said. “Still, you know what he’s like. Probably didn’t know what to say.”
Robbo turned and perched on the bed.
“Shaun won’t mind if I don’t go. Lulu’s not going to miss me.”
“Shaun will mind, because Lulu will mind. Forty is a big deal.”
“Ancient.” Robbo let out a small laugh and rubbed his hands on his thighs. “Lulu’s a bit of a cougar, isn’t she?”
“Shaun loves her. That’s all that matters, mate.” Caspian’s stern stare told Robbo all he needed to know.
“Sorry. I’m not myself. Bit cynical about couples, you know?”
Caspian manfully patted Robbo’s shoulder.
“It’s easy to pack. All I’m doing is moving stuff from that suitcase—” He pointed to the large one in the corner. “—to this one.” He indicated the small one on the bed. “Every cloud…”
“Won’t be long till you’re back on your feet. Best this way. You did try.”
Robbo felt the familiar sadness building in his eyes. He didn’t want to dissolve into another snot and tears covered heap like he had when he’d called Caspian, asking if he could crash in their spare room after leaving the flat he’d shared with Becky, his girlfriend. He swallowed, blinking the tears away from his eyes. “I tried. Lots of things. Lots of times.”
“Enough of this. Or I’m gonna have to hug you again, and we know how awkward that gets. Do you want me to bring out the big guns and hug you?” Caspian held his arms out, waggling his fingers comically.
Robbo shook his head. “Fuck off. I’ll live.” They stood in silence for a moment.
A woman’s voice floated from the far side of the flat, telling them the taxi was booked for an hour, and if they weren’t ready, she’d be leaving without them. But not Robbo. Maya—Caspian’s wife, could have organised her way out of any situation—including making sure Robbo wasn’t allowed to wallow in his sadness. On their futon.
Caspian raised his eyes, gesturing towards his wife’s voice. “Best get on.”
Robbo let out a long, exhausted sigh, knowing he had to put a brave face on things and that staying here being miserable wouldn’t do him any good. He collected his razor and shaving gel and pushed them into the duffel bag, squashing everything else in the process.
Caspian said, quietly now, “Mate. I’ll lend you my gel if it helps with the packing.”
Without turning to face his friend, Robbo removed the can of gel, nodded, then said, “Ta mate.”
“Lads weekend. Like before. Do you good. Trust me.” Caspian closed the door behind him.
Robbo turned back to his packing and focussed on the friends he’d soon be seeing, mentally ticking off their names in turn, then wondering why that didn’t sound quite right. And then, with a heavy heart, he remembered he’d excluded their wives and girlfriends. The pairing of names that meant they had someone. Caspian and Maya sounded much better than simply Caspian.
Robbo and Becky.
Maya’s voice, louder now, carried through his closed door, “Twenty minutes. Taxi. If you’re not ready in ten, I’m packing your case, and don’t think I’m beyond rifling through your pants.”
Robbo—knowing Maya meant every word she said, and once he was in the sun and swimming in the pool in Spain, he would indeed feel better than stewing in his own sorrowful juices in this box room alone—threw his phone charger, headphones, and a paperback into his case. “Packed and ready!” He zipped up the bag and carried it to the living room where Maya and Caspian stood next to theirs.
Daniel had been trying to persuade his boyfriend, Terry, to start packing for most of the last week. He had, at this point, already resorted to begging, bribing, and finally offering sexual favours. None of which had changed Terry’s opinion. Daniel fixed a stare at Terry. “The change of space will do us good.”
“Why?” Terry stuck his bottom lip out.
“I’m sure we can work things out. Bit of sun, some swimming in the pool. A beer in our hands and we’ll soon remember why we love each other.”
“You might,” Terry shot back, without humour or eye contact.
“Come on. Meet me halfway,” Daniel said, now kneeling at Terry’s feet.
Terry turned his head away. “I’m done. I can’t talk about this anymore. In fact, despite your romantic ideas about us sitting in Spain and working it all out, I don’t think there’s anything to discuss. Nothing of any value at any rate.”
Daniel slowly stood. “I’ve told you before; I’m not happy with this.” He gestured to Terry.
Terry’s legs were crossed, his arms folded, and his bottom lip still remained resolutely stuck out almost as far as his nose. “I knew it was a mistake when you started seeing that counsellor for your fear of flying issues.”
Daniel bit his tongue, considered his next move carefully, then said, “You’re not used to me telling you how I feel.”
“Fuck me gently. Daniel, it’s all you ever fucking well tell me. You’ve written me a letter. I’m expecting an interpretive dance routine next to make sure I understand how you feel. There’s nothing more to say. I’m done. We’re over.”
Although it bristled slightly, Daniel forged on. “So why don’t you want to do anything about it?” Quietly now, he added, “If you love me.” Didn’t Terry love him?
“We’ve been through this. Besides, I’m doing nothing wrong. It’s you who’s changed since getting these stupid ideas from that stupid woman.” Terry pouted, then checked his nails ostentatiously. “Better for you to fly alone, get used to flying and living without me. No point hanging on to me being by your side when I won’t be afterwards. We’re done. Really done. I’m sure your fear-of-flying woman would approve.”
Daniel realised he wouldn’t get any further with this line or argument since it hadn’t worked before and hadn’t worked now; they’d had this “we’re over” discussion before. So instead, he thought he’d appeal to Terry’s loyalty to his friend. “Lulu’s been planning this party for months. She picked the dates based on your availability. She’s always saying she doesn’t see you often enough. Come, if not for me, for her. Promise I won’t talk about any of this us stuff out there. Come for Lulu.”
“I’m done with this. Us. This conversation. We’re finished. Fuck Lulu, I’m not coming. She’ll live. Plenty of other uni friends there. Doubt she’ll notice I’m not there. I’ll text her now.” Terry, in a huff, large even for him, left the room.
Well, that had been Daniel’s best shot. That had taken everything he could muster and had still failed. Still, another new thing to discuss with the fear-of-flying woman next month, but now he had to call Sam. Going alone was the biggest challenge, getting used to flying, to being, without… But although he thought he should be, Daniel was far from ready for that. Far from ready to give up on him and Terry. Because surely Terry still loved him, didn’t he?
He scrolled through his phone, his thumb hovering over the S while Terry banged and crashed in their bedroom.
Liam Livings lives where east London ends and becomes Essex. He shares his house with his boyfriend and cat. He enjoys baking, cooking, classic cars and socialising with friends. He has a sweet tooth for food and entertainment: loving to escape from real life with a romantic book; enjoying a good cry at a sad, funny and camp film; and listening to musical cheesy pop from the eighties to now. He tirelessly watches an awful lot of Gilmore Girls in the name of writing ‘research’.
Published since 2013 by a variety of British and American presses, his gay romance and gay fiction focuses on friendships, British humour, romance with plenty of sparkle. He’s a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, and the Chartered Institute of Marketing. With a masters in creative writing from Kingston University, he teaches writing workshops with his partner in sarcasm and humour, Virginia Heath as http://www.realpeoplewritebooks.com and has also ghost written a client’s 5 Star reviewed autobiography.
Christian Diaz grew up as the best friend and unofficial bodyguard to the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Corazón. After an incident left him questioning his place in the castle, Christian joined the military and didn’t return for ten long years.
Now he’s been assigned to the castle as Royal Military Liaison to investigate the source of some recent threats against the crown. The annual Midsummer’s Ball is the perfect place for the anti-monarchy group to make their next move, so that’s where Christian will be too. If it gives him a chance to reconnect with his friends in the castle and make a play for the man he has compared all others to, it’s even better.
Max Ramirez is now the head chef for the castle. He started as a sous chef at age twenty when Christian was just an awkward teen. Now that Christian’s back at the castle, all grown up and interested in Max, the chef is determined not to let an opportunity with Christian pass him by.
When someone tries to sabotage the Midsummer’s Ball, Max and Christian need to work together to track down the people determined to make this event their last.
Reader advisory: This book contains mentions of drug use, obsession, references to parental abuse, drink spiking, violence, attempted rape, and attempted murder.
The royal family of the Kingdom of Corazón greeted their guests for the Midsummers Ball as Christian watched. He ran a hand down the front of his dress military uniform to straighten it while he waited for his turn to be announced. This was his first formal duty as the newly appointed Royal Military Liaison, and he needed to make sure he looked his best. He shifted his feet to find some relief for his ankle, which was still sore from him standing for a long time. His last mission had not gone to plan, and a broken ankle had been the result. Although the cast had come off a couple of weeks prior, it still wasn’t one hundred percent.
“Royal Military Liaison Lieutenant Diaz,” the herald announced. Christian caught the eye of Crown Prince Sebastian toward the end of the greeting line and his best friend’s eyes widened in surprise before his face lit up with happiness at seeing him. As the only child of the Castle Commander, Christian had grown up here, but he’d been in the service away from the castle for ten years. At thirty, Christian was the same age as Crown Prince Sebastian. They had been best friends from the time they had been in diapers, and even though Christian and the prince still got together when their schedules allowed, it wasn’t the same as seeing and being with him every day. Christian had missed him fiercely.
The royal children of the kingdom were usually paired with a young playmate from the age of about ten. Christian had started earlier than age ten as Sebastian’s companion, since he was always with him anyway. As Castle Commander, his father was the head of the guard slash castle security. He’d taken the companion idea a step further and trained Christian to be as good as he could be in martial arts and marksmanship. In his father’s eyes, Christian was to act as another line of defense for the Crown Prince. While Christian had not carried a gun—that was the role of the actual bodyguards—he was trained in case he ever had to use one.
With a nod to the herald, Christian stepped forward to greet the Queen of the Kingdom of Corazón. Queen Tania reached out both hands to Christian, and he clasped them and raised them to his lips while bowing over them. “My Queen… It is a pleasure to see you. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Lieutenant Diaz, it is a pleasure to see you as well. Ten years is way too long. We have missed you.”
“I apologize for the lengthy absence, Your Highness. I needed a change, but I am assigned here for the foreseeable future, so you will have time to get sick of me again.”
“So my husband has told me. I am excited to have you home, although in a different capacity as the Royal Military Liaison. I look forward to catching up.”
“As do I.”
The queen turned a stern eye on her eldest daughter, who was standing to her right. “Princess Zia, isn’t it wonderful that Christian will be back with us for a while?”
Christian tried to mask his sneer as his gaze went to Zia, who was not at all happy this evening. Of course, she wouldn’t be, since she wasn’t the center of attention. She wasn’t a very nice person and never had been. She was also part of the reason he’d left and joined the military. What she did… No, he wasn’t going to think about it. It was in the past. He was stronger and even more deadly now. It was time for him to face his demons. The military had finished the training his father had started, turning him into a true weapon. At twenty-eight, Christian had hoped Zia would have grown up and stopped being so self-absorbed, but the affliction seemed to have gotten worse instead of better in the time Christian had been away.
Christian gave Princess Zia a shallow bow. “Princess Zia.” That was all he could manage. He wasn’t going to lie and say he’d missed her.
Princess Zia tossed back her hair and gave him her haughtiest look. “Mr. Diaz.”
“It’s Lieutenant Diaz, actually, Your Highness.” Christian didn’t wait for her to respond, instead turning to greet the king of the Kingdom of Corazón. A striking man, even in his fifties, King Raul Hart exuded a sense of calm authority that Christian had always admired, making him seem larger than life. “King Raul.” Christian bowed low in front of the man. When he straightened, Christian was shocked to realize that he was now taller than the king. When they had met briefly the day before, the king had been busy on a phone call and had just waved him into his office and into a chair. Christian had experienced another surprise growth spurt after he had joined the military at age twenty and was now six-three, but he hadn’t realized that made him taller than the king.
“Hello again, Royal Military Liaison Lieutenant Diaz.” The king’s eyes twinkled at him as he ignored protocol and pulled Christian into a hug. “I didn’t get a chance to do that when we met yesterday. I wanted to correct that error.”
“Yes, sir.” Christian returned the hug before stepping back and offering him a crisp salute. “Lieutenant Diaz reporting for duty, sir.”
“As you were, Lieutenant. Now I think there’s someone here who can’t wait to greet you. It was hard keeping this a secret from him.”
“I know. I talked to him earlier, and I almost spilled the beans.”
Christian moved down the line and tried to keep a stern expression on his face as he saluted before grinning at one of his best friends. “Crown Prince.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were being assigned to the castle as Royal Military Liaison?”
“I thought you would like the surprise of it. It just happened a few days ago.” Christian once more ran a hand down the front of his military uniform. “First mission, the Midsummer’s Ball. It’s a very tough assignment.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re here. I can’t wait to see more of you, and as a bonus, now I won’t have to drive to visit you.”
Christian scoffed. “Like it’s that far to the base or my house from here.”
“When I was used to you being always at my side, it’s too far.”
“It’s been ten years, Bas.”
“Too far. Too long.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Christian couldn’t help the eye roll at the end. It was good to be back with friends.
Prince Sebastian just grinned in response.
“My turn. My turn.”
Christian turned his head to the left to see Princess Katarina waving him down the line. “Princess Katarina, it is a pleasure to see you again.”
“I am so excited you made it and that we will get to see more of you.”
“Me too, Your Highness.”
He leaned forward to kiss her cheek and she took the opportunity to whisper in his ear.
“I think you have broken our Head Chef.”
“What?” Christian pulled back so he could look in her eyes, as if that would somehow make what she’d said make sense.
“He is standing over by the hors d’oeuvres table and has been staring at you since you were announced.” Katarina giggled. “He looks like someone has struck him.”
Christian shook his head at her, although his heart sped up at the thought of seeing his old crush, but he tried not to show that her words had affected him. “I will leave you to greet the rest of your guests. We can catch up later.”
“Save me a dance, please, Lieutenant.”
“It would be an honor, Princess.”
Christian glanced over at the hors d’oeuvre table to find Max Ramirez indeed staring at him. The eye contact must have startled him because he jumped then looked at his shoes for a moment and clasped his hands behind his back. Christian strode across the room to greet him, determined not to make an ass of himself. He pulled Max into a quick hug in greeting, before holding him out at arm’s length so he could get a better look at him.
Max had been his older teenage crush and was the epitome of everything he had ever dreamed of in a man. I obviously still have it bad for the guy. At six-foot-five, Max was a giant—but a gentle one. Christian was still leaner than Max, but along with the growth spurt, he had put on a lot of muscle and his frame had filled out a lot since the last time they had seen each other, making them more equal in stature. There was something about the man that had always called to him.
“Max! How are you doing?”
“I’m doing great. Head Chef now.”
“I heard. Six years ago now, right? Everyone was talking about you being the youngest to ever get the job.”
“Yeah. They told me on my thirtieth birthday. I did not see it coming.” Max had started as an apprentice to the head chef, Howie Klein, straight out of culinary school. The twenty-year-old had met the chef’s cranky, militaristic style in the kitchen with a smile on his face. Which, as the last apprentice had stormed out of the kitchen after throwing a pan at Mr. Klein’s head, had been important.
“Yeah. It’s too bad about the arthritis in Mr. Klein’s feet. I still talk to his son Ryan frequently. He told me his father was gutted to have to retire but happy to have you to move into the position. Good for you. It was a well-earned promotion.”
“He still stops in from time to time to give his opinion on things, so I still get to see him. Thank you. I’m proud of their faith in me. I’m assuming this is a promotion for you?”
“Yep. Going to be assigned to the castle for a while.” There was an awkward pause in the conversation. Christian turned so he was standing shoulder to shoulder with Max and could have a better view of the room. He waved a hand indicating the greeting line. “I can’t believe Princess Katarina is eighteen already.”
“Right? She was, what? Eight when you left? She seemed pleased to see you. I’m surprised she remembered you.”
“I was assigned to be her personal guard when she visited colleges last summer. We spent eight weeks together. We got to know each other pretty well.”
“Oh. No one said. What about Prince Sebastian?”
“We still hang out and talk as often as we can. I inherited my grandmother’s cottage on the west side of the island. Sebastian usually visits me there when I’m on-island.”
“What about Ryan? You said you still talk to him frequently?”
“I still consider him one of my best friends, along with Prince Sebastian.” Christian laughed self-deprecatingly. “We bonded over our unrequited crushes. His on Prince Sebastian and mine on you.” He gave Max a quick wink before turning his attention back to the room. “I visit him as often as I can in Boston, and we try to talk at least once a week, when possible. He’ll be here tonight, actually, along with his best friend from college and her husband.”
“Yep. Princess Katarina insisted. We stayed with Ryan while touring colleges in Boston, and she got to know all of them.”
“Ryan is almost a full-fledged doctor now, right?”
“He’s actually done already. Four years as an undergrad at Harvard, then four years of medical school. He finished up his residency a few weeks ago. Speaking of…” Christian elbowed Max in the side, ignoring the tingle where they touched, and nodded toward the entry. Christian made sure to be watching Prince Sebastian’s expression, when first the Surgeon General of the Island, Doctor Guttschein, was announced, then Ryan Klein was there with his friends Emma and Ian Robinson.
“Wow. He’s definitely grown up.” Max chuckled. “The prince obviously thinks so too.”
He couldn’t help but chuckle as he watched Sebastian’s jaw drop in astonishment. Ryan had changed a lot over the years, going from gangly and coltish to becoming a well-proportioned hunk. Yep. He’s just Sebastian’s type now. He followed Ryan and his friends with his gaze as they made their way through the greeting line, chuckling to himself as he noted Sebastian’s impatience as he waited for his turn to speak to Ryan.
Princess Katarina waved a hand in Christian and Max’s direction as she finished greeting them. Ryan’s face lit up as he saw them, and he hurried over to embrace Max after shooting Christian a grin.
“You are certainly a sight for sore eyes, Ryan.”
“Thanks, Max. It’s great to see you.”
“Gah.” Max slapped Ryan on the back then gave him an assessing look. “You are way too thin. We need to work on fattening you up a bit.”
“I was busy learning. Didn’t have much time for cooking. Let me introduce you to my friends from America. Emily and Ian, this is the chef you heard me going on about. Emily is also a doctor in the Island Doctor program and will be working with me here on Corazón. Ian is her husband and a very talented carpenter. Ian did his best to keep us fed, but sometimes it was a decision between sleep or eating,” Ryan finished with a shrug.
“It is an honor to meet you, sir.” Ian extended his hand for a shake. “This one”—with a thumb point back to Ryan—“talked about yours and his dad’s cooking all the time. Memories of food and the kitchen were like his happy place when he was particularly stressed.”
Ryan grinned widely at Ian’s comment but didn’t deny it. “The kitchen was my happy place. Max did a great job of making sure there was always something available for Christian, Prince Sebastian and me during those starving teenage years.”
“Yes, I couldn’t wait to meet you. I feel like I know you already.” Emily stepped up and hugged Max instead of shaking his hand.
Max looked shocked for a moment but gently hugged her back. “It is great to meet you as well.”
“Christian,” Emily gushed, “how are you? Ian has missed you.”
“I did.” Ian nodded. “It’s great when I have someone to talk to about something non-medical related or who isn’t zombie-level tired.”
“Yes, dear, I know we have treated you so badly.” Emily patted his cheek in a condescending but loving manner before turning back to Christian. “Anyway, all that’s behind us. Ryan and I start at the hospital in August. They are giving us a few weeks to settle in and reset.”
“I look forward to hanging out with all of you. You’re staying with Ryan in his cottage, right?”
“Just for a short time. Surprise! We bought the cottage on the other side of Ryan from you.”
“Really? The Svenson place? I heard Mrs. Svenson passed away a couple of months ago but didn’t even think about it.”
“Yep. We bought it. It needs a lot of updating, though.”
Christian cringed thinking about the last time he had seen inside the very dated house. “I remember the avocado appliances.”
“Yeah, but it’s all ours.”
“How’s the ankle? Glad to see you are out of the cast.”
“What happened to your ankle?”
Christian looked at Max in surprise when he heard the note of panic in his voice. “I broke it about eight weeks ago on my last mission. Just got out of the cast a few weeks ago, so it’s light duty for a few more weeks until I can finish the physical therapy. Should be good as new after that.” Christian held his foot out and rotated it in a circle to show it was fine.
“Why didn’t you let me know? I could have come to help—or at least sent food, wherever you were. I’m assuming you were here on the island for at least part of your recovery.”
“Why would I have called for help? It’s just an ankle. I’ve had worse.”
A look of shock crossed Max’s face. “When were you hurt worse?”
Christian gave another one-shouldered shrug. “It comes with the job, Max. You know that.”
They were interrupted by the arrival of Christian’s father before the discussion could go any further.
“Christian. Ryan.” No hug. No smile. Just their names and a head nod. “I heard you were back.”
“Yes, sir. On light duty for a few more weeks, but the powers-that-be thought it would be good for me to represent them at this shindig.” Christian waved a hand to encompass the ballroom and all the people as he finished speaking. If Christian had expected the great Juan Diaz, head of the royal guard, to be happy to see him—which he hadn’t—he would have been hurt by his father’s reaction.
“Huh. And here I thought you’d actually smartened up and were ready to come back full-time and accept your responsibilities here.”
“I am coming back to accept my responsibilities here. I’m a lieutenant in this country’s army and I am doing my duty as assigned.”
“Don’t take that tone with me, young man.”
“I’m not, sir.” Christian squared his shoulders and faced his father, looking him directly in the eye and lowering his voice so the other people around them wouldn’t hear. “I am living my life the way I want to—not your plan for my life…mine. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have some appetizers to eat and friends to catch up with. I’ll let you get back to your duties.” Christian made sure to put as much emphasis on the word ‘duties’ as he could.
He had heard enough lectures growing up about the importance of performing his duties—how he had to be at his best at all times, how he had to be serious. There had been no time for play in the Diaz household.
Juan Diaz’ only reaction was a clenched jaw. Christian swore he could almost hear his father’s teeth creak from the pressure. Without another word, Juan turned on his heel and strode away.
Christian closed his eyes while pinching the bridge of his nose for a moment to get his emotions under control. He’d done it. He’d stood up to his father. Ryan wrapped his arm around Christian’s waist and gave him a side hug.
“Good job,” he whispered.
“Thanks,” he whispered back. “Why are we whispering?”
Ryan squeezed him again. “Because I know you don’t know how to take a compliment. Not sure if he actually heard you, but you said what you’ve been wanting to say, so that’s good.”
Christian wrapped his arm around Ryan’s waist and gave him a quick squeeze in return before raising his voice to normal levels. “Yeah. Well, let’s forget about it for now and focus on the wonderful food Max and his crew have made for the ball.” He turned toward the chef. “You have truly outdone yourself, Max.”
“You know I love to do stuff like this. It’s been a blast working with Katarina. I love the tradition where the royal gets to plan the Midsummer’s Ball as their first adult event-planning after they turn eighteen. I think everyone is really going to enjoy everything she has come up with for this event.”
“I don’t think that’s what my father said when he was working with Princess Zia when it was her turn,” Ryan said dryly.
“Well, Zia’s event was a bit different. She wanted to make hers an exclusive event only for certain people, and that was her choice of how to use her budget. Katarina has been more about including as many people as possible. It’s been great to see her operate. She is well-loved—and look at how great everything is.”
Everyone turned to inspect how the room was decorated for the event. Princess Katarina had gone with a fairy garden party theme. Flowers in a rainbow of colors were distributed throughout the room, with small, twisted grapevine sculptures of different fairies sitting on beds of petals serving as the centerpieces. Christian was especially impressed by the artistry of the Fairy King and Queen ice sculpture over by the drinks table. The whole effect was warm and yet classy. The doors were open to the outside, where the garden was decorated with lights, and more grapevine sculptures were hidden in the branches of the bushes and trees.
Christian chuckled. “As I told you, I can’t believe she’s eighteen already and doing stuff like this. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was feeding her a bottle and changing her diaper.”
Ryan scoffed. “If memory serves me correctly, you avoided diaper issues at all costs.”
“Only because I had very important duties to handle with the prince.”
“Uh-huh. Like sneaking out to go for ice cream?”
“We only did that once!” Christian’s feigned outrage made Ryan laugh, which had been his intention.
Ryan reached out and cupped Christian’s neck. “I’m glad you’re here right now. I’ve missed you. Hopefully now that I’ve moved here permanently, we will be able to hang out more.”
“We will. I only have a few months left on this enlistment. I’m not sure if I’m going to re-sign or not. Don’t know what I would do next, but I think I’m ready for something new. Right now, I’ve actually been reassigned as the liaison to the castle for the foreseeable future.”
“Wait. You’re going to be around more?” Ryan sounded truly pleased with the idea.
“Yep. Anyway”—Christian rubbed his hands together while looking over the food on the tables—“I’m starving. I know the dinner isn’t for another hour, so let’s dig in. I have definitely missed Max’s cooking.”
Max grinned at all of them. “I look forward to having you all around, both old friends and new. I have missed the two of you. Now, I must get back to my kitchen. Who knows what crisis is lurking?” With a wave, Max turned and disappeared through the door leading into his domain.
Christian couldn’t help watching Max’s ass as he walked away, only to be interrupted by Ryan clapping him on the back. “You’ve still got it bad, man.”
“Like you can talk,” Ian said as he threw his arm over his wife’s shoulders. “Did you see him drooling over the prince?”
“I did. I also saw the prince doing his own drooling.”
“I can’t deny it. Prince Sebastian is still very fine.”
“Agreed,” Christian said. “Now to put operation Come to Daddy in action.”
“For the last time, we are not calling it that.”
“Operation Nookie Time?”
“No.” Ryan gave Christian a shove. “Let’s just get some food, dork.”
Christian laughed as he grabbed a plate and started loading it up with a little bit of everything…except the fish. Christian hated fish in any form. Always had. Max had tried for years to find a fish dish he liked. As they were an island country, that made it difficult for him sometimes. Luckily, the island also had sheep, poultry, some beef and he was okay with different kinds of seafood, but not fish.
Christian and Ryan talked and joked with everyone in the group, in between speaking to all the people who came up to welcome them home. Ryan introduced Emily and Ian as they talked and everyone made sure they both were included in the conversations as much as possible. Ryan snagged the hand of a sneak thief trying to steal a shrimp from his plate.
“Sorry, Your Highness,” Ryan quickly released Sebastian’s wrist, when he realized who it was. “You do know there’s a ton of food right there, don’t you?” Ryan pointed at the still-full tables of appetizers.
“Yep, but stolen treats taste better. It’s been scientifically proven.”
“Has it now?” Ryan queried dryly. “And where can I find the results of this scientific study?”
“It’s well known. You can find it anywhere,” the prince responded.
“Whew,” Emily interrupted fanning herself with her hand. “Is it getting hot in here or is just me?”
Christian shook his head in mock disgust. “The two of them have always been that way. Although it’s nice to see that the prince finally bought a clue and understood what is right in front of him.”
The prince whipped his head around so he could stare at his long-time friend. “What?”
“What? Ryan is one of the few people who can challenge you intellectually and keep up with you physically as far as training. I am one of the others, but there has never been any chemistry between the two of us. The two of you, on the other hand? You start talking and it’s like the rest of the world ceases to exist.”
“Really?” Ryan said. “That’s interesting to hear. I always thought my crush on the prince was hopeless. In fact, I believe the prince even told me he didn’t see me as anything but a friend.”
Christian pretended to lower his voice and spoke in a stage whisper. “Plot twist, spoiler alert. He lied.” Christian switched his voice to normal. “Especially now that Ryan has grown into”—Christian paused to wave a hand in Ryan’s direction, indicating his body from top to bottom—“all this. Ryan is everything Sebastian ever said he wanted.” Christian watched with amusement as the prince squirmed.
“Not to change the subject or anything, but what are you doing here? You didn’t tell me you were coming to the ball.” Prince Sebastian stepped forward and pulled Christian into a quick guy-clench.
His friend’s laughter and joking eased something inside Christian. Man, it’s good to be home.
Ann Marie James is fluent in two languages, English and sarcasm. She believes that you will never learn anything new if you don’t read as much as you can, and/or talk to every stranger you meet. She always looks for the best in people and to treat people the way she wants to be treated. Above all Ann Marie believes in love, whatever form it takes. Relationships are hard, love is the glue that keeps it together.
It’s been six weeks since Halloween. Six weeks since Grace stumbled into the ER, almost dead and begging for help. Six weeks since she lost every single memory, including her own name.
Taken in by the mysterious Sisters of the Order of Saint Raphael the Healer, Grace’s wounds are dressed and she is assured her memories will return—in time. But does Grace want her memories back? Maybe she’s chosen to forget them, maybe there’s a reason. The sisters hide things from her. They whisper things about her.
When a demon forces its way into the convent, it declares that Grace is a demon too. Grace demands answers. Answers that may reveal not only who she is, but that the sisters might not be who they say they are, either.
Grace knelt on the kneeling bar, whatever it was the sisters called it, and folded her hands together behind the pew in front of her. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Sister Monica.”
The novice nun kneeling beside her shook her head a millimeter, her curls almost bursting through her headscarf, and clenched her hands tighter. Her lips moved over a prayer, her eyes squinched closed.
Grace grinned and scooted closer. She did close her eyes, though, making a clumsy sign of the cross over her shoulders. An approximation, at least. Her inability to get it right exasperated the sisters on a damn near hilarious level. “Are we doing your coming-of-age ceremony today?”
Monica’s lips stopped moving, and she pressed them together. They didn’t disappear into nothingness the way the mother made hers do, but by the time Mon was Mother Mary’s age, she’d be able to do it better. She leaned, her umber skin mellow in the low light of the sanctuary, and whispered so quiet Grace had to listen with all she had to catch it. “Either shut up and pray or leave and meet me in your room.”
Grace swallowed, the blood rushing to her cheeks. “Sorry, Mon. I didn’t mean to upset you. I just wanted to take communion with you, if you were going to take your vows.”
Mouth dropping open, Monica turned to her. “Why would you want to do that?” Her voice echoed off the vaulted ceiling, the walls, and the windows, including the lone stained-glass window in the sanctuary.
One of the other sisters, Eliana probably, shushed. The shush was so sharp it may have cut the air as it sped across the cavernous room.
Monica stood, stuffing her rosary under her robes, and grabbed Grace above the elbow. She tugged, not unkindly.
Grace held her abs with one hand and stood. The twinge as she did brought back her first memory with force. The splat-splat-splat of her own intestines as they hit the floor of the hospital emergency room. Everything before that moment, including how she’d been gutted, was a deep well of nothing.
Her next memory, which was much nicer, was of Monica, sitting next to her hospital bed and assuring her that her full memory would return in time.
As the sanctuary doors closed, the chilly hallway enveloped them. The morning sun hadn’t had a chance to penetrate it yet, and the walls radiated last night’s cold.
Grace shivered and shook her head to clear it of the slapping sound her guts had made when they hit the tile. For all the good it’d do. “Sorry. I thought you were going to get your habit today and stuff. Take your vows. All that.”
Monica shook her head with a frown. “Mother Mary told me I’m not ready yet. I guess I have more study to do.” Still walking, she looked Grace up and down. “How’re your wounds?”
“You’re a fast healer.”
“Only because you help me.” She rubbed the scar below her stomach. “Glad we finally got the bandages off. How long have I been here again?”
“The Order took you in from the hospital about”—she drew out the u, squeezing her eyes closed—“six weeks ago?”
“Weird. I feel like I’ve known you a lot longer than that.”
They turned a corner, bright sun flooding the next hallway—Grace’s favorite hallway—dust motes dancing along the shafts, and stopped before the only other stained-glass window in the place.
Raphael the Archangel stood outlined in pinks and blues, gold shining all around his head and shoulders, what the sisters called his halo. His glowing hands rested on the heads of two penitents who knelt before him, their eyes bleeding.
Monica smiled. “The feeling’s mutual.” Cheeks tinged red, she crossed herself, curtsied to Raphael, and continued down the hall.
Grace cast a glance at the window. Raphael’s face wore an out-of-place expression of serenity while blessing two people who cried tears of blood. Despite the eyes, she found peace in the scene.
She caught up to Monica, running her hand through the two inches of hair on her head, the healing scar a line slashed through it. “That library is the darkest room in this convent. You’d think they’d want windows so you could actually see the words in the books.”
“The books are old, Grace. They’d react badly to sunlight. We’ve had this conversation.” She stopped, one hand on an enormous door handle. “Did you want to keep me company today?”
“I was serious about the communion, Mon.” Grace bit her lip. Six weeks’ worth of changing bandages and chatting and following her around the convent made Grace feel close to Sister Monica. Like a real friend. This ceremony was a Big Deal to Mon, and Mon was a Big Deal to Grace. It only seemed right to do it with her, even if she wasn’t Catholic.
Monica eased the creaking door open. “I’ll speak to Mother Mary.” With the hand not holding the door, she brushed her fingertips along Grace’s cheek.
Grace’s heart tripped a beat. Something about the way her fingers moved like butterfly feet made Grace lose her breath.
“Thank you. You’re a good friend. I hope you’re still here when I take my vows.”
Brows knit, Grace peeked into the library. She lowered her voice. “Where would I go? I don’t even remember who I am, much less where home is.”
Monica shrugged, her robes shifting with a soft sigh. “If your memory comes back, you’ll probably want to leave.” She sucked a sharp breath over her teeth. “Not that I don’t want you to get your memory back. I just meant—”
“I know. I hope I’m still here too.” Grace smiled, lips stretched tight. “If I remember who I am before then, I’ll come back just to share your communion. Okay?”
Frowning, Monica lowered her eyes. “I’d like that.”
Bethany is a southern transplant in the west, where she’s made her home with her kids, partner, pets, and several hostages…er…houseplants she hasn’t killed yet. Poetry was her first love, and she’s been writing since she could hold a pencil. Horror is her sweet spot, but all things sci-fi and fantasy are also deeply entrenched in her heart.
High school classmates, Josh Livingstone who’s gay, and his straight friend Simon LePage, hatch a plot to improve their status at school by creating new images for themselves. But their efforts ultimately blow up in their faces, leading to both comical and heartbreaking results, as they learn lessons in life and love the hard way.
I was born working class, so you might say I didn’t experience the finer things this world had to offer, not as a boy anyway. I grew up in Pinellas Park, Florida, a place mostly populated by working stiffs and their families, coupon-clipping retirees, and trailer park dwellers.
We had our own high school, but every year our football team sucked, due to lousy coaches, indolent linemen who wouldn’t hit too hard, and lack of a decent place kicker, since we didn’t have a youth soccer league in Pinellas Park. Some folks tried to start one once, but only three kids signed up. That’s right—three.
Are you surprised I actually know the meaning of a word like “indolent”? Well, I’m not stupid, as you will soon see.
Back to my early life…
Here’s an example of our pitiful Pinellas Park subculture:
When I was in fourth grade, our school principal, Lyman Reddick, got himself suspended for arriving at school with a loaded deer rifle hanging from the rack in his truck cab, the dumb shit. Even at age nine, I’d have known better. I mean, bringing a gun to a school full of kids—how stupid is that? He’s lucky the school board didn’t order his nuts cut off.
My daddy was a plumber. For a time, he worked for Sonny Saunders, snaking clogged sinks and sewer lines, fixing leaky faucets, and installing new toilets for folks who couldn’t or wouldn’t do that sort of work themselves. But Daddy was an independent cuss; he didn’t like the crap Sonny dished out to everyone who worked for him; plus, Sonny didn’t pay worth shit.
So, Daddy quit and started his own plumbing business. He had little cards printed up, calling himself “Rodney the Sunshine Plumber,” and he sent me and my older sister, Sarah, from door to door, handing out the cards offering new customers a 15 percent discount on their first service call. And it was kind of scary knocking on doors and ringing doorbells, especially at houses with Beware of Dog signs in their yards. I could hear the barking inside when I approached.
Sometimes, grouchy men or women would answer their doors; they’d tell me to get lost and leave them alone. But most folks were nice enough. They’d take a card and turn it over in their fingers while diddling their lips, and more than a few would say something pleasant like “It’s sweet you’re helping your daddy with his business.”
I believe there are many good people in this world, I truly do. It’s just the asshole minority who ruin everything for the rest of us.
About my parents…
Daddy’s from a village called Poverty Hill, South Carolina, right across the Savannah River from Augusta. His parents still live there in a double-wide trailer, off in the woods, with a deep well, a septic tank, four dogs, and a leaky roof. The nearest Walmart’s in Belvedere.
We only stayed in Poverty Hill once, when I was ten. What I remember best about that visit was Daddy and Grandpa getting into an argument after drinking too much George Dickel on Christmas Eve. Around midnight, Momma and Daddy rousted me and Sarah from our beds. They threw all our shit into the trunk of Momma’s car—suitcases, wrapped Christmas gifts, and even a turkey we’d brought from Florida. Then we drove all night, with Momma behind the wheel while Daddy snored in the passenger seat. We arrived in Pinellas Park just when the sun came up.
I’ll tell you, that was one crazy Christmas at our house. When we got home from Poverty Hill, everyone went to bed and slept till noon, and I don’t know who was in a worse mood when we all got up, Daddy or Momma.
Momma’s one-quarter Cherokee, and when she gets angry, you’d best look out since her blood takes to boiling and then all hell breaks loose. You know Momma’s mad when she starts throwing things: dishes, saucepans, ashtrays, you name it. And that Christmas afternoon, her target was Daddy. She kept pelting him with household items; I think she even threw a vacuum cleaner at him.
Daddy didn’t try to stop her. He just lay on the living room sofa, nursing his hangover and sheltering his head with a throw pillow while Momma hurled insults and tangible objects.
“Rodney, you sonofabitch,” she hollered after heaving a coffee can at Daddy. “That’s the last time you’ll drag me and our kids up to godforsaken Poverty Hill. And if I never see your folks again, it’ll be too soon.”
Momma didn’t get the turkey into the oven till three that day, so we had to eat dinner at eight. At least by then, Momma had settled down. She made Daddy get off the sofa and head for the bathroom to shower and shave.
“You’re not going to look like a bum at the table tonight,” she told him. “Set an example for your children, why don’t you?”
Momma was a fine cook, and dinner was very good, despite everybody’s soured holiday spirit. The turkey meat was moist, and the bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, and fresh green beans were all tasty, especially when I drowned them in gravy. Halfway through the meal, we all started smiling a little, and Daddy even laughed a few times when describing his quarrel with Grandpa.
“The dumbass squandered most of his November social security check on lottery tickets, so he didn’t have any money to buy Christmas gifts for my momma, nor for Josh and Sarah.”
My name’s Joshua by the way, but everyone has always called me Josh, even my schoolteachers.
Like always, Momma and Daddy went overboard on presents for me and my sister. Sarah, who was eleven and getting to the age where her appearance mattered to her, received mostly clothing items and face makeup, while I got a Nintendo with several games, and also a BB gun, something I’d requested the past two Christmases but didn’t receive.
“You’re old enough to own one now,” Daddy said. “Shoot at cans and bottles in the backyard, by the garage, but leave the birds and squirrels alone. If I catch you taking shots at living things, I’ll take the gun away. Understand?”
Anyway, Daddy’s plumbing business did okay. He had a way with people; he could talk to a perfect stranger like he’d known the guy all his life. At first, he got business mostly by word of mouth, and then a general contractor started using him on jobsites to run sewer lines, hook up sinks, and install toilets. The money rolled in, and Daddy bought a new Silverado king cab. It looked so pretty and shiny, sitting in our driveway, but then the contractor went belly-up.
Without the contractor’s flow of business, Daddy fell behind on his truck payments, and eventually the bank repossessed the Silverado. It was a sad day, I’ll tell you, when they towed that truck away. Daddy had to borrow money from his brother, Vernon, who lived in Cocoa Beach, so he could buy a used truck, a beat-up F-150 with oxidized paint and missing its front bumper. The poor thing looked so forlorn, and I’m sure my folks felt embarrassed when the neighbors saw it, but a plumber has to have transportation. He has to carry his tools and all to wherever he’s working.
Momma was a dynamite seamstress; she did work for others in our part of town, making drapes, altering dresses, and letting the waists out on men’s trousers. Again, most of her work came via word of mouth, and it was all cash business. IRS never knew about income Momma generated from her sewing.
Looking back, I realize our circumstances were modest by most folks’ standards. Okay, our house had three bedrooms and two baths, but the floors were bare linoleum and the furniture looked like it came from a thrift store. Thank god we at least had central air-conditioning, a blessing in central Florida’s sweltering climate.
Sarah and I were both good students, although Sarah was smarter and more popular than me. She always got straight A’s, while I earned a mix of A’s and B’s.
And god forbid if I got assigned to the same teacher Sarah had been taught by the previous year. It happened fairly often, and when it did, on the first day of school when the teacher called roll, things always went something like this:
I’d raise my hand.
“Are you related to Sarah Livingstone?”
“She’s my sister.”
The teacher would cluck her tongue while shaking her head. “You’ve got some big shoes to fill in my classroom, mister. I hope you’re up to it.”
Great. Just great…
When I reached seventh grade, I attended Pinellas Park Junior High, a one-story brick structure with exterior corridors and a basketball gymnasium. PE was required for all students, and on my first day at school, I met with my instructor, Coach McCullough, and my male classmates in the gym, where the students sat on bleachers and listened to McCullough acquaint us with his expectations. A gruff, barrel-chested man with a mullet haircut, he wore football shorts, leather sneakers, and a T-shirt damp in the armpits. A whistle hung from his neck by a braided cord.
“Unless you’re sick, I expect each of you to dress out every time class meets, no exceptions.”
Momma had already taken me shopping at J. C. Penney for my PE uniform: a T-shirt with the school’s name on it, cotton shorts, a jock strap, athletic socks, and tennis shoes. We had to buy a combination lock for my gym locker too.
McCullough led us into the locker room, where odors of mildew and human sweat hung in the steamy air. Rows of lockers lined the walls, except on one end of the room, where the tiled gang showers were located.
“You’ll change in here each class period and lock your belongings in your assigned locker. At the end of class, you’ll have fifteen minutes to shower and get dressed before dismissal bell. Showers are mandatory for all students. Again, no exceptions.”
My heart raced and I swallowed hard.
I have to get naked in front of all these guys?
I glanced here and there. Some boys blushed and several more chewed hangnails or wagged their knees. So, I wasn’t the only one in the room who felt nervous about bathing with others. But it seemed we had no choice, and I figured if the older guys at our school had managed to survive gang showering, I could too.
Jere’ M. Fishback is a former journalist and trial attorney. He lives on a barrier island on Florida’s Gulf coast, where he enjoys watching sunsets with a glass of wine in his hand and a grin on his face.