If you were losing your humanity, how hard would you fight to hold on to it? What would you be willing to do, to give up, to make sure you remained the human you were, rather than the demon you seemed to be turning into? Hope McKinley, former advertising student turned newly undead, finds herself wrestling with these questions and so much more.
Blood Harvest delves into the depths of the human psyche and grapples with the struggle between light and dark in all of us as seen through the eyes of one forced out of the human race and fighting to return.
“Shh.” He trailed the finger down my chin and rested it in the crook of my neck. I suppressed a shudder. He leaned in, too close for comfort, hands gripping my hips tighter and guiding my pelvis toward his while his lips grazed my neck. My stomach flipped. My insides felt like they were on fire.
Did he just sniff me?
“Ian, what’re you—”
“Quiet.” He kissed me once, twice, his lips caressing, teasing, the heat in me rising, then turning into a sharp, stabbing pain. A pain that shot through my shoulder, up my neck, and exploded into the back of my head. My eyes widened and then closed tight, mouth open in a silent scream as I tried to breathe. I forced myself forward, trying to push against him, but he was heavier than me, and all it seemed to do was aggravate him. Ian slammed his weight against me, and I yelped as the bricks dug into my back. The way he had me pinned, I couldn’t even shift enough to get a knee in his groin.
Shit, now what?
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had people bite me in a kinky sort of way, but this was so much more. He was drawing blood, my blood, his mouth hot and wet on my neck. The gentle motion of his lips sent waves of electric heat through me, cascading down, the pain giving way to a pleasurable numbness, and I thrust my hips against him hungrily as his teeth sank deeper. I groaned, my body slumping against his as my legs started to give out. It hurt like hell, but it felt so good. I just didn’t want to fight anymore.
Everything began to blur and melt away as I succumbed to the bliss. It felt like falling; you know the end is coming but you just don’t know when. Is this what it’s like to die? What a way to go.
Before I was able to let myself completely go, something hot and sticky pressed against my lips. It smelled of old pennies and leather and cologne. Smelled like Ian. Without warning, a hand fisted into my hair, forcing my mouth on the warm liquid. I had no desire to taste it, but something inside compelled me, drew me to it. It smelled so good.
The liquid burned the whole way down, igniting my throat and stomach. I was torn between wanting to throw up and wanting to drink more. This was insane. What was I doing?
The mingling of pleasure and pain was almost too much, and soon I was seeing white. Still, I refused to let go.
Wait. Let go? What am I holding?
I finally blinked bleary eyes open to find myself sucking on Ian’s bleeding arm, my fingers clutching him like a vise. I still refused to let go. In fact, I started sucking harder, drawing more of his blood into my mouth, throat convulsing, burning, as I gulped it down.
After what seemed like several excruciating hours, he pulled away, and I whimpered like a kicked puppy. He knelt and kissed me gently, licking the excess blood from my mouth.
“I’ll be back, Hope. Until then, take care of yourself.”
I felt him run his hand through my hair and then the cold cement as I hit it hard.
I know what you’re thinking, but this isn’t your typical vampire love story. In fact, love is a laughable concept for me, especially after the shit I’m about to get dragged through.
But you can see for yourself. Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?
Meghan Schubert, born in 1985 in the greater city of Philadelphia, has always been a nerd at heart. Dubbing herself an “elder millennial,” Meghan grew up with a love of video games, horror, and Goosebumps books. In high school, she wrote short stories for the school newspaper before working her way up to editor. That love turned into a passion when she took up Video Game Design in college, where the premise of her first novel came to light. Her pursuit of game design was short-lived, however, when Meghan realized that programming was not her forte; the stories behind the games were. Thus, a writer was born.
A knocking. A ringing. A steady drip-drip-drip. These are the sounds that haunt us. Drive us mad. Draw us in like the songs of sirens, hypnotic and deadly. And we must either give in, or resist with everything we have…and hope it’s enough.
Listen: The Sound of Fear offers ten stories written exclusively by trans and nonbinary authors that explore the chilling, perplexing, terrifying nature of sound.
Kill Your Darlings. When two shop workers in 1894 New York discover a haunted phonograph, they must race to solve the mystery of its tragic past before it’s too late to save their budding romance—and their lives.
Exhibition. A performance artist inspired by the inhumane treatment of refugees finds her gallery transformed into an equally inhospitable environment. Trapped inside the confines of her Plexiglas box, she struggles to piece together what is happening—and how to keep herself alive.
On the Other Side of Sound. A ringing in the ears; a coded message from beyond explanation. It will only ruin your life if you let it.
Her Little Joke. When Mave Kitten is asked to investigate a creepy phenomenon, little does she know to what depths the trail will lead: Ghosts, a haunted well, ignorance, a flapping bird. What of the woman in green?
M/other. I am alone. I do not know exactly how long I have been alone. My husband and child are…gone. Aren’t they? As a storm rages outside my decaying house, I begin to hear and see things that cannot possibly be there. Or can they?
Holy Water. Adolescence can be hell. Adolescence in an all-girl’s Catholic school as a trans teen surrounded by mean girls is a special kind of hell—especially when your school is haunted.
Snipper-Snapper. Cats make the best pets—loving, thoughtful, and loyal. Amour even brings home his own takeaway meals. Except for the stains, and damage to the shag pile, Mummy couldn’t be happier. Everyone needs a playmate.
The Knocking Bird. Knock three times to keep yourself safe. Follow your love across the sea. Obsession threads through nearly every aspect of Steffi’s life. But what happens when it drives her to do the unthinkable?
Bride of Brine. Sylvie hasn’t heard the song of the siren in years. But when she’s called home to help her estranged father find her brother, she’s faced with an impossible choice: save him, or save herself.
Haunt. When Kevin inherits his family home and decides to fix it up with his partner, he quickly discovers that the past can haunt you in more than one way—and he must choose, once and for all, exactly who he is.
This book is two short stories with one thing in common—the stars in space shine brightly, whether you’re on planet or soaring on a ship.
Cole’s star is rising like a rocket as his band tours the galaxies to sing to their adoring fans. Except, Cole’s real job isn’t lead vocals—it’s espionage.
Tarle’s star fell long ago after a horrific accident during a mecha showcase event for his new robot. Then he meets Aster, a porn star on the run. Hiding away together is far more appealing than being alone, but no one can hide forever.
“They’re definitely building something dangerous,” J said to begin the meeting as he walked into the spacious, albeit bland, room. There weren’t any windows, and the only ornamentation on the white walls was from the holoprojector across the room. He faced a long table with six chairs around it. All six were filled with stone-faced men and women who turned toward J when he stopped walking at the head of the table.
J touched the control panel for the holoscreen to turn the machine on and pointed out the building construction clearly visible from the spy satellite holograph that appeared seconds later.
“Planets have new construction all the time,” P cut in as she pushed her glasses higher up her nose. “With growing populations it’s inevitable, and planet 501b is certainly growing.”
“Look here,” J said as he pointed to the upper right-hand corner of the three-dimensional picture. The projector obligingly zoomed in to the location.
“Ah,” P murmured as she sank back into her seat. “Building a crono-generator is another thing entirely. But what could it be for? They’ve never been a particularly peaceful people,” she said, referencing 501b’s penchant for starting wars over the merest of slights, “but they’ve never been crazy enough to build a crono-bomb before. That could create a black hole large enough to engulf an entire galaxy!”
“How long have you had this picture?” Y asked slowly while he carefully studied the crono-generator.
J sighed. “Long enough that officials on 501b have already captured and executed six of our spies during their investigations of this issue. That’s why this task force was called to meet today. We need to find a way to infiltrate 501b to figure out if they have any plans to attack.”
“They did threaten the galaxy president two months ago in response to the president’s comments against their most recent war,” P mused.
“It’s more dire than just that,” Y said in his slow and contemplative voice. “As you all know, 501b is not actually a planet. Planet 501 was uninhabitable; only its second moon, known by the locals as Kamura, could sustain human life.”
“Moon settlements are always in desperate need of water resources.” P gasped as the full picture finally came clear for her.
“Exactly,” J cut in. “Our planet, 214, also known as Lacustrine, is almost entirely comprised of freshwater lakes, which 501b dearly needs, and our intelligence says they’re interested in acquiring. I’m afraid they don’t have any qualms about what methods they use either. So, the question remains: How do we infiltrate Kamura in order to find more information and, if necessary, destroy their crono-generator before they’re capable of building the bomb?”
P’s phone went off, a pop song currently topping the charts sounding into the worried and contemplative silence left after that final statement. One frequency was all that could reach through the protections built into the meeting room, and P’s phone only went off in an emergency anyway, so no one begrudged her the time she took to walk into the corner and answer her phone.
She didn’t turn on the holograph card to speak face-to-face, which was no surprise considering the nature of her clients, and everyone in the room tried not to listen in when she murmured into the phone. They all had something much more important to think about anyway: the answer to J’s question.
After a few seconds, P returned to her seat. J looked around at the assemblage, waiting for someone to finally say something.
L slowly tapped her finger on the table, and everyone’s attention turned to the elderly woman. L didn’t speak often, but when she did, they listened. This time was no different.
“We must use an unconventional means to sneak our spy in, and I do believe P’s impromptu phone call has given me an interesting idea. Popular music stars are welcomed across all galaxies. Often, they are begged to hold a performance on various worlds. We should put together a band, make them famous, and arrange for them to travel to 501b.”
J joined the others in giving L perplexed looks, but a smile slowly began to grow across his face. The idea was extremely farfetched, yet the very thought of how crazy a plan L had come up with decided him. If he didn’t think the idea viable, then how could anyone on 501b have plans to prevent it?
“That…” He paused to savor the idea a little further. “That is the most perfect plan I have ever heard.” He turned to the other members of the council. “What do we need to do to accomplish this?”
“A band, first of all,” P murmured. “That means at the very least a singer, a guitar player, a bass player, and a drummer if we want something conventional.”
“They’ll need a hit song,” Y added. “And a full album.”
“And good publicity,” P agreed. “I can get them a spot on the Morning Mumble, which will put them into the limelight, but the band has to be capable of proving their abilities, or they’ll go nowhere afterward.”
“So first we need a band,” J stated. “Any suggestions on who we could hire? We need people with musical talent, so we may have to go outside our regular recruits for this one.”
P nodded immediately. “The Star Slashers recently broke up and their drummer is pretty good. He also played for the Black-Hole Surfers,” she added when she received only blank looks. The Star Slashers had never been destined for greatness, but the Black-Hole Surfers had been legendary up until their singer and lead guitarist had overdosed on poorly cut and excessively laced Star Shine and the band dissolved. “His name is Kingsley,” she finished with a smile, “and he’s from this galaxy, so he’d probably be willing to work with us.”
J hummed thoughtfully. “We’ll start background checks on this Kingsley. Any other suggestions?”
L leaned forward with a groan. “I have a grandchild who promised me he would become a rock god by the time he turns thirty,” she said with quite a bit of exasperation in her voice. Her son worked for the agency, and she evidently expected her grandchild to do so as well. That didn’t seem to be in her grandson’s plans. “Solomon plays guitar and his mother tells me he’s quite good. I suppose if the ambition is present, we could give him this opportunity.”
“We have guitar and drums,” J said. “Any suggestions for the other roles? Can you think of any trained recruits we could call in to take the major roles in this operation?”
“It’s not a suggestion,” P cut in, “but we have to find a singer who is pitch-perfect without modifications or he won’t make it. We can’t just pull anyone from our basic training program and implant electronic vocal cords.”
“This is going to be an interesting search, then,” J said with a sigh. Not only did they need a band, but they also needed to find someone who could infiltrate the secret facilities on 501b without getting caught. It wasn’t going to be easy.
The meeting broke up soon afterward. P was the first person to rush out, her phone in hand. Whatever emergency she’d been called about must have been important. Considering P’s clients…well, J hoped there wasn’t a galaxy about to implode somewhere.
Z was J’s colleague from the same agency. He hadn’t spoken during the meeting, but Z was notorious for pulling J aside later to voice his thoughts. J wasn’t surprised when Z joined him in his walk down the empty hallways of the building.
“I might have an idea for a bass player,” Z murmured in his usual half-audible tone. “She’s a spitfire though. Barely passed her basic training before she quit, so I’ve no idea if the girl would like the idea, or if she’s what we want for this mission.”
“Submit her name and have a background check run,” J replied. “We’ll find some way to convince her and…” He paused, his head cocked to the side. One hand flashed upward to grip Z’s arm. “Do you hear that?” he asked excitedly.
Z tilted his head to listen and slowly nodded. “It’s probably a radio someone left on.” He sighed. “But it won’t hurt to go see.”
They both turned the corner, following the sound of someone singing. The door to the men’s locker room was left partially ajar, and J pushed it open the rest of the way so he and Z could walk into the space. J expected to see a holodisk left on inside one of the recruits’ lockers, so he was surprised when a young man, fresh from the showers with his back to J and Z, had his head tilted back and his mouth wide open as he sang.
His tone was pure and clean—perfect.
He was drying his brown hair with a towel, his eyelids closed. His naked back was thin but well sculpted, although the loose pants he wore hid his lower body from J’s perusal. A pair of old-fashioned Coke-bottle glasses sat on the bench next to him.
There were two gyms attached to the locker room, one for the regular staff and one for the special recruits. This far into after-hours, only the special recruits had access. Whoever the man was, he piqued J’s interest.
J glanced over at Z and saw that Z was just as mesmerized by the beautiful singing. Z finally glanced back over and nodded. Whoever the recruit was, he was about to be given a new mission.
The singing stopped as the young man finally finished drying his hair. He put his towel down and patted his hand across the bench until he found his glasses. Then he turned around to find his shirt and jumped when he caught sight of J and Z.
“Sorry,” the young man said, his face rapidly going red as he ducked his head. He got to his feet in a hurry, finding parade rest with his feet even though he was staring at the ground instead of facing straight forward.
“Not at all,” J replied. He stepped closer to the recruit, studying him closely for a long moment, which only made his face grow even redder. “What are your vitals, recruit?” J finally asked.
“Name: Cole! Just finished basic training two days ago, sir!” Cole said sharply, even though he still wouldn’t look J directly in the face. He had been trained well, if not perfectly. “I haven’t been assigned to a vector yet, sir.”
J glanced over at Z after that admission. Normally recruits knew their vector location a good few months before the end of their training. He was also still using his full name rather than a code name, which he would have been given as part of his first vector assignment. Z nodded discreetly. He would start a background check on Cole to figure out what had prevented normal procedure in his case.
“Thank you, Cole,” J said with a dismissive nod. “We’ll be in touch.”
J and Z walked off, leaving behind the man who was to become their lead singer.
When Mell Eight was in high school, she discovered dragons. Beautiful, wondrous creatures that took her on epic adventures both to faraway lands and on journeys of the heart. Mell wanted to create dragons of her own, so she put pen to paper. Mell Eight is now known for her own soaring dragons, as well as for other wonderful characters dancing across the pages of her books. While she mostly writes paranormal or fantasy stories, she has been seen exploring the real world once or twice.
Celebrated concert pianist Nüwa Zhou had it all. Until she didn’t. Forced out of the closet while testifying at the kidnapping and murder trial of her obsessive former assistant turned stalker, she retires from the high-pressure world of performing to recover at her parents’ estate.
Stone mason, and frustrated sculptor Julia Johnson, spends her days stone building walls and patios while dreaming of quitting her day job.
After a chance encounter with Julia leads to more, Nüwa imagines a life with Julia. When her stalker returns, determined to kidnap Nüwa and end anyone who stands in his way, Nüwa will do whatever it takes to keep Julia safe, but will it be enough?
“Who is Father talking to?” Nüwa Zhou stared out of the sliding door at the woman standing on the terrace, her short auburn hair a mass of curls that brushed the tops of her broad shoulders. Her stance was confident. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt tight enough it drew Nüwa’s attention, she rested her hands on her hips across from Gerald Zhou. Her wide shoulders and sculpted arms tested the limits of the fabric of her shirt. Afforded the opportunity to stare openly, Nüwa savored the view, admiring the curves the woman’s loose jeans failed to conceal. Slightly taller than Nüwa’s father in her thick-soled work boots, the woman glanced back at the house. Nüwa held steady, confident the reflective window coating would hide her gawking.
“Former student. Inquiring about the cottage,” her mother called from the kitchen bar.
Nüwa tugged the belt of her robe tighter. “Early for a meeting.”
The not-so-subtle sound of her mother’s scoff drifted across the kitchen. Nüwa rested her chin on her chest. The unspoken scolding for sleeping late pricked Nüwa’s heart. A night owl born to a family of larks. Her sleep patterns had been her curse since childhood.
She lifted her gaze back to the scene outside.
Gerald Zhou stood close to the woman, occasionally gesturing to the yard and the firethorn maze covering the lower half of their estate. Wind pushed dark heavy clouds across the sky and a gust rattled the sliding door in its dull aluminum frame. He turned and pointed to the house. Nüwa stepped back and away from the glass into the shadows of the living room. She walked to the counter dividing the kitchen from the rest of the house.
“Have you eaten?” Her mother glanced up from her laptop screen.
Nüwa took a breath and blew it out. “Not hungry.”
A frown creased her mother’s sculpted eyebrows. “Don’t forget to eat.” Her gaze shifted to the window. “Your father needs to wrap it up. I don’t like the color of the sky.”
Nüwa perched on one of the stools at the counter and glanced at the sky. A green hue tinged the dark clouds. “It’s ugly.”
Fat drops of rain hit the glass as the peal of a weather warning spit out of her mother’s ever-present phone. Nüwa’s stomach twisted as adrenaline surged in her body. Storms were the worst. Lightning flashed. Nüwa placed her hands flat on the counter and started counting silently.
“Four. Not far away.”
The click of the computer keys increased. “I need to get these figures to Rowan.” Her mother continued to pound the keyboard as another flash of lightning lit up the kitchen with a sick yellow glare.
The skin on Nüwa’s arms prickled. The grate of the sliding door in its tracks sounded in the room a second before a crash of thunder rattled the house.
“Three.” Nüwa turned to the sliding door. “It’s moving toward us.”
“It’s crazy out there. Wait it out with us.” Gerald touched the arm of the woman from the terrace. “You remember my wife, Lian Tan? I don’t think you’ve met my daughter. Nüwa, this is Julia.”
“Hi Ms. Tan, nice to see you again. Nice to meet you, Nüwa.” Julia inclined her head to greet Nüwa’s mother before she turned and met Nüwa’s gaze.
Nüwa stared at Julia, the thin wet fabric of the T-shirt even more distracting now Julia was standing in front of her. “You’re wet.” Her face burned as soon as the words were out of her mouth. “I mean—” She scrambled around the end of the counter, snatched a clean dish towel from the basket next to the sink. “Here.” Nüwa held the towel out with both hands.
The tips of Julia’s fingers brushed the back of Nüwa’s hand as she took the towel from her. “Thank you.” She held Nüwa’s gaze for a moment, the hint of a smile twisting her lips before she dried her face.
Nüwa studied the tops of her house shoes and knotted her hands together as an awkward silence sucked the ease out of the moment. She crossed her arms over her chest, hugging herself, knowing she was acting weird, helpless to stop it.
The faint sound of a tornado siren spared Nüwa further torment.
“Basement.” Lian stood, tucked her laptop and a thick folder under her arm, before she walked to the end of the counter. She pressed the series of buttons under the countertop. The end of the cabinet slid aside revealing a stairwell. Gerald followed Lian.
Nüwa slid off the stool and followed her parents down the stairs leading to the storm cellar. She ducked her head as she entered the stairway. “Watch your head,” Nüwa called over her shoulder.
Heavy tread on the stairs behind her and the faint scent of lavender and sunscreen tickled Nüwa’s nose as Julia followed her to the safe room. Halfway down the steps, the lights flickered out, plunging the stairwell and room below into blackness.
“Damn it. Gerald, where did you put the lantern?”
“Use your phone.”
“Left it on the counter, and didn’t we talk about this? Use your phone.”
Her parents shifted their bickering to Mandarin. Nüwa prayed Julia didn’t understand as they devolved into one of their ongoing arguments.
Nüwa extended her hand behind her, and her fingers bushed the soft denim of Julia’s jean. “Take my hand. Stay close. The stairs turn here.”
Julia clasped her hand. Her broad callused palm rested against Nüwa’s hand. Nüwa led Julia down the stairs and toward the sound of her parents arguing. As they reached the bottom of the stairs the harsh light of an electric lantern flared to life, throwing twisted shadows over the walls.
Gerald closed off the door leading to the rest of the basement, sealing them in the long narrow windowless room. “There. Nüwa, lock the door behind you.”
Nüwa threw the deadbolt and sealed the door leading up to the kitchen.
Lian stood at the far end of the room, the glower on her face matching the ferocity of the storm. Arms crossed, she lifted her chin as she observed Nüwa and Julia. Her gaze landed squarely on their clasped hands.
Julia squeezed Nüwa’s hand once, then released it. “Thank you.”
Lian turned away from Nüwa, picked up a yellow wireless radio, and shoved it into Gerald’s hands. “Get the weather radio working.”
The echo of hail pelting the house increased in volume and drowned out Gerald’s reply. A roaring sound filled Nüwa’s ears, a steady hum. The hairs on her arm stood on end. Pressure in her ears increased to the point of pain and she swallowed, trying to clear them.
The ceiling over their head creaked and groaned as the vibration intensified. The house shook, rattling the shelves holding the food and water they kept stored in the small room. Nüwa wrapped her arms around herself to stop her trembling. Cans of food vibrated off the shelves and crashed to the floor, wrenching a cry from her, and she covered her eyes.
A warm hand settled on the middle of her back. Nüwa jerked away from the touch and bit down on her lip to stifle her yelp. The roaring increased, as if a train was bearing down on them. Nüwa dropped to her knees, covered her head with her arms, and folded herself into the smallest ball possible. The thin carpet over the concrete did nothing to ease her knees and sharp pain lanced through her. Her breathing was rough in her ears as her fear turned in on itself and drove every other thought from her mind. In the space of seconds, the patter of the hail softened, and the roaring stopped, leaving a heavy silence behind.
Brenda Murphy (she/her) writes erotic romance. Her most recent novel, Double Six, is the 2020 Golden Crown Literary Society winner for Erotic Novels, and Knotted Legacy, the third book in the Rowan House series, made the 2018 The Lesbian Review’s Top 100 Vacation Reads list. You can catch her musings on writing, books, and living with wicked ADHD on her blog Writing While Distracted. She loves sideshows and tattoos and yes, those are her monkeys. When she is not loitering at her local library, she wrangles twins, one dog, and an unrepentant parrot
I hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Nobody leaves Queen. On the tidally locked planet, a vulva and an authority problem are the only immigration requirements. Emigration is banned.
Ember spends her days cruising Queen’s endless sand dunes, hunting sand pirates and wallowing in memories of her dead wife. After an ambush, Ember is dragged to the pirate camp and learns her wife’s biggest secret—before her death, she’d joined the pirates, built an illegal spaceship, and plotted to leave the planet.
Ember, Nadia, and the sand pirates must take back the planet and expose the corrupt New Earth mining. Taming giant beetles, wrestling stinkhorn fungi, and enlisting Queen’s rabbit population in a high-stakes aerial battle are just part of the hijinks that will determine Queen’s fate as a galactic player, as well as the futures of all its conscripted inhabitants.
The newly minted outlaws must also grapple with Queen’s narrow concept of “womanhood” and where trans and intersex people belong in its future.
Mornings on Queen always looked like blood. Ember stood at the edge of the habitable zone of the tidally locked planetoid. She scanned the crimson and rust horizon all the way to the perpetual sunrise. Her wife’s body was out here somewhere, buried in the coarse red sand. Desiccated, mummified, likely stripped naked by the roaming packs of sand pirates Ember was out here to track.
Well… Track. Kill. The line was blurry when it involved a spouse, and it wasn’t like the presidium—the administrative body of Queen—really cared one way or the other. Ember had cared, once, but she was on day seventeen of perimeter duty, and her whole plan of dealing with Taraniel’s death by shooting grave robbers was starting to look a little thin.
A rabbit shot across her field of vision, registering in a halo of blue inside the face shield of her envirosuit. TOPA—the suit’s AI—scrolled data across the screen, but Ember ignored it. Without thinking, she yanked one of the wide, flat stones from her exterior right thigh pocket (they were supposed to keep her calm, according to Nadia) and threw it at the flash of white, fluffy tail with precision honed from years of dealing with Queen’s nuisance rabbit population.
The rabbit’s hind legs skittered out from beneath it as it slipped on the sand. Ember wrapped her fingers around another stone, preparing to hit the head this time, when the damn thing started digging with its front feet, sand funneling around it, so that Ember lost her clean shot.
She stepped forward, grinding her teeth with an adrenaline surge that would again see no release if the little shit got away. She wiped sand from her face shield with a gloved hand, smearing red across her vision.
The area where the rabbit had dug settled flat with a slight pock. Tiny fans on the outside of Ember’s face shield blew the particulate from her vision.
The rabbit was gone and her stone along with it.
Ember cursed, the words bouncing around the inside of her rabbit-hide envirosuit, wasted on recycled air and a generic TOPA. Queen didn’t have stones like that—perfect for skipping over lakes that didn’t exist on the barren planetoid. Those she carried in her pocket were some of her last reminders of Earth. And the rabbit… Ember knelt at the soft indent in the sand. It’d descended into one of Queen’s giant beetle galleries. Of course, it had.
TOPA pinged as she reached a gloved hand into the depression. Ember debated the possibility of Queen’s native beetles—approximately the height of a small school bus and twice the length—grabbing her wrist and pulling her down in pulp-era sci-fi fashion. She dismissed the idea. If beetles hadn’t accosted her yet at this site, it meant the gallery was abandoned and being used by the feral European domestic rabbit population. They’d been brought over as food stock on the colony ships. Some had escaped. Big surprise.
Please read your notes, scrolled across the interior of Ember’s face shield, in lettering so large it blocked most of the landscape from view.
“The rabbit got away. I was stupid for throwing a rock that can’t be replaced. I wasted oxygen on the exertion. That about cover it?”
TOPA didn’t respond directly, but it did fire up a series of reports.
Landmass stability: within ten meters radius: moderate.
Sand for at least three meters below the surface with scattered hollow tunnels reinforced with clay from the temperate zone. Sand transitioning to silt loam noted in geographic surveys, with increasing occurrence toward the colony dome.
Silica content of the air: unbreathable.
UV index: ten point five.
Ember snorted. That did explain the suit smell.
She balled her hands as tightly as she could in the double-layered leather of her gloves wishing, not for the first time that day, that Gore-Tex was still a thing. Leather didn’t breathe, though both the buffer and the electrical linings of the suit were supposed to. Nothing from Earth breathed outside the habitable zone, and as much as the filters of her suit tried, they couldn’t filter out the smell of human, slowly marinating in her own sweat.
Awaiting input. Continue scan?
“Yeah. Sure. Why not?”
Ember stood, swallowing the dry air the suit pushed at her. The AI had a newly installed personality patch, but Ember would need to get a lot more bored before she turned it on. Instead, she pivoted on her right foot, keeping level with as much of the horizon as she could see, and let the suit feed data into the AI. Dunes and small valleys surrounded her, and TOPA disassembled each for content.
Suggest moving 1.7 chains northeast for better visibility.
“Picturesque view?” Ember asked TOPA. Maybe a body?
The red dunes faded into a semitransparent image of her sister, Nadia, displayed on the interior of the face shield. Ember clicked her right canines together to increase volume. The winds were too fierce outside the colony dome to hear much of anything without enhancement, even when the sound came from inside the suit. That wind was the same reason the damn rabbits tended to stay in the beetle galleries. Wind screwed with everything out here.
Nadia’s transmission showed her just outside the dome, her image picked up by one of her suit’s sleeve cameras. Sand licked her calves. Her goggles were up but her face shield down, and red soil caked her envirosuit. The only parts of her skin visible were her lips, chapped but grinning as she tapped the front of her shield and instructions scrolled across the inside of Ember’s own face shield. At the bottom of the message was a clear add-on from Nadia.
Your sentry duties now extend to Outpost Eight. Leave immediately.
Hope you enjoy the sand. I’ll make you dune-nuts when you get home. Extra sprinkles. Served on a tablecloth of rabbit hide since you love the little shits so much.
Ember read the short message and scowled—a facial contortion Nadia would see in detail from the camera inside Ember’s suit. Puns and throwaway comments about the excess rabbit population had no place on an official director request. If Nadia was willing to deface government messages, it meant she was worried. But she wouldn’t say she was worried because, historically, the sisters’ ability to communicate was right around “bug and speeding windshield.”
“Leave for Outpost Eight? I’m supposed to be here for another three days.” Ember cinched her mouth into a caricature of a frown. “TOPA will be heartbroken. It hasn’t cataloged every dune within a one hundred-chain radius.”
“There’s been a change. Director Narkhirunkanok thinks the mella pirates are going to hit one of our storage units, the one where we keep sticking all the glassware we probably don’t need but can’t get rid of. We need a sentry. You’re the closest.” The wind whipped her words away, but the auditory sensors on Nadia’s suit caught them anyway.
This time, Ember did frown. It was one thing to watch for the mella and daydream about shooting one so you could avenge your wife, who didn’t actually need avenging because she’d been about to die from cancer and had chosen to walk into a sand dune. Chasing the mella to one of their targets, even if only to spy on them, so they could shoot you, was something entirely different. She didn’t have a death wish, just a need to see her wife’s body and maybe punch someone.
J.S. Fields is a scientist who has perhaps spent too much time around organic solvents. They enjoy roller derby, woodturning, making chain mail by hand, and cultivating fungi in the backs of minivans. Nonbinary, and always up for a Twitter chat.
How can Blake and Sako get past mutual contempt and old wounds to find their perfect happy ending?
When winger Blake Conti signs with the national champion Bethesda Barracudas, he isn’t looking to get involved with anyone. Still bruised from an old relationship, his focus is on playing hockey. But when one of his new teammates turns out to be the hottest man he’s ever met, Blake wonders if he should reconsider his aversion to romance.
Mark Sakamoto—Sako—one of the Barracudas’ rising young stars, is immediately smitten with Blake. Deeply closeted because he fears revealing his sexuality to his family, Sako resists his attraction by using scorn and insults to push Blake away. Hurt by Sako’s behavior, Blake reacts in kind, and the two men are soon at war.
Just as their fighting threatens to disrupt the team, the unexpected happens, and Sako and Blake bond over a silly prank. Their newfound camaraderie soon develops into a relationship, and the men become inseparable. With “ice in public, heat in private” as their motto, they keep things secret, but as they fall for each other, Sako knows he has to tell his family the truth. He dreads their reaction, but it’s the only way he and Blake can live happily ever after.
Ice Devils is an enemies-to-lovers romance featuring scorching athletes, light-hearted comedy, riveting hockey, sweet-steamy romance, and a beautiful HEA.
Excerpt from Ice Devils
By Ryan Taylor & Joshua Harwood
The locker room was empty when I got back there, and I dressed quickly. I was standing in front of my stall, buttoning my shirt, when someone called my name. Looking around, I was surprised to see Sako standing in the doorway. His hair was a mess, his face was sweaty, and his eyes were wide. The tank top he had on was soaked, and the way it stuck to his torso emphasized the hard muscle underneath.
I looked away, determined not to stare. “I didn’t know you were still here. Been in the gym?” I slipped on my loafers.
“Yeah.” His voice was low and husky. “I needed to ride the bike and clear my head.”
“Did it work?” Unable to resist, I turned my gaze back on him.
“No.” His hands were at his sides, and he opened and closed them repeatedly while his eyes darted around the room. “Anybody else still here?”
“No. You all right, Mark?”
Instead of answering, he rushed toward me and grabbed my hand. “Come here.”
He tugged, but I stayed put. “What?”
“Come with me.” He tugged harder, almost pulling me off my feet. I was too shocked to say anything as he dragged me into a small room used to store spare equipment and closed the door. Meager light filtered in through ventilation panels, and after he turned to face me, I looked into dangerous dark eyes while his thick musk filled the air.
He licked his lips and smiled. “I’m glad you’re still here.”
“Yes.” He leaned forward and brushed his lips against mine before backing his head away to look at me again.
I was too shocked to move. “Mark?”
“I’m really glad you’re still here.” He caressed my cheek and smiled again.
“What’s going on?” I whispered.
He wrapped his arms around me, and my legs turned to jelly. “What the hell are you doing? This isn’t—”
He shut me up by pressing his mouth against mine. I wanted to tear away, to yell at him to go to hell, but I wrapped my arms around him and kissed him back instead. I didn’t understand what the fuck I was doing. Sako and I weren’t even friends. In fact, we were probably enemies. We certainly weren’t the kind of people who kissed each other.
Pulling away from my lips, he licked the corners of my mouth. Even as my brain cried foul, I hugged him tighter, not wanting the moment to end. He kissed me again, but when his tongue probed against my lips, I pressed them together. I didn’t want Sako’s tongue in my mouth. But if that was true, why did I relax enough for him to sneak inside? I may have hated the bastard, but the thrill of him possessing me that way shook my world.
I deepened the kiss, and my tongue dueled his until I found my way inside. His smell, sweaty and sharp with need, ignited an explosion of desire, and I shoved him into a wall of boxes stacked against the storage lockers. Trapping his hands, I probed every corner of his mouth while he moaned. Time stood still until he grunted and jerked his hands free. He swiveled me around like a rag doll until I was the one pinned against the boxes with my hands clamped under his. Fire shot through me when he moved his hips against mine and our cocks ground together.
“Stop!” I yelled. “I hate you!” Just as quickly, I called out again, “Don’t stop! Please!” He didn’t react at all, and I realized the voice had been in my head. We were locked in a kiss that had my mind doing somersaults, and I wondered if we’d keep playing bump-and-grind until we both came in our pants.
Ryan Taylor and Joshua Harwood met in law school and were married in 2017. They live in a suburb of Washington, DC, and share their home with a big, cuddly German shepherd. Ryan and Josh love to travel, and hockey is practically a religion in their house. Ryan also enjoys swimming, and Josh likes to putter in the garden whenever he can. They began writing to celebrate the romance they were so lucky to find with each other, and the sharing soon developed into a passion for telling stories about love between out and proud men. Ryan and Josh love to hear from readers anytime.
In a world where everyone has magic coursing through them, legend says magic itself craves a mate. Legend says those with opposite magics have the greatest chance of forming the unbreakable Bond it desires.
A.B. Cerise is an obsessive-compulsive pop star with the ability to turn invisible. He’s an out bisexual with absolutely no belief in Bonds. He has a love-bruised heart, thinks dating in the spotlight is a hassle at best and a nightmare at worst, and has no intention of going through it all over again.
Matthew Hellman-Levoie is the NHL’s number one goalie prospect, the youngest in a hockey dynasty, and one of the rare few who can see the unseeable. He’s a straight man who wears his heart on his sleeve, has grown up searching for a Bond, and dreams of finding the love of his life.
Their magic is magnetic. Their touch is electric. They’re the textbook case for Bonding. But legend never said anything about what to do when sparks fly between people opposite in more ways than magic.
AB Cerise is a disaster. He’s an obsessive-compulsive ball of barely checked anxiety surrounding his Invisibility being discovered and used against him. He has no rational reason for it. None at all. The fear is annoying, unreasonable, absolutely nonsensical, considering the whole world is full of magic. Like, AB knows no one would care about him being a Concealer beyond him cracking after years of dodging the particularly bold interviewers’ questions of where he falls on the list of categories.
But the real kicker, what makes this obsession of AB’s so much worse, is the absolute lack of proof to support the possibility of someone being able to manipulate him and his Invisibility just by Knowing he is. In fact, his Invisibility has always been tied to his emotions, so the obsessive way he fixates on being controlled and the compulsive way he avoids ever turning Invisible only further destabilizes his magic. Again, AB knows this. He does.
When it comes to magic, AB is his own worst enemy, but he can’t stop. He’s spent nearly five years in therapy, and he’s still plagued by the same insidious hell his mind has created for optimal torture. His intrusive thoughts are a terrible inconvenience that AB has spent an inordinate amount of time wallowing over, but despite her best efforts, AB can’t accept what Dr. Barnes says. Her end goal, since the beginning, has always been for AB to publicly Divulge and rob his intrusive thoughts of their power. Unfortunately, AB can’t even think about Divulging without breaking out in a cold sweat.
But therapy hasn’t been a useless waste of time. He is trying and he is making progress. Sort of. He hasn’t made as much progress as he should, but he’s made enough. He can now stay present when he’s anxious, no longer getting lost in his emotions to the point he has to run off and hide before he Conceals in front of people he’s never Divulged to. Hell, AB even survived a strange, and frankly traumatic, case of the Frits from two years ago that resulted in him Concealing the moment he stepped on stage at a sold-out Madison Square Garden.
Sure, the whole ordeal led to a spike in anxiety, a tightening of the grip the fear of being Known and controlled had over him, but the very thought never got the best of him. He never turned Invisible because of it. Which, in AB’s opinion, is a significant achievement, considering how Displaying in front of tens of thousands of strangers would’ve been a catastrophic, debilitating event at the start of his therapy journey.
AB thinks about going Invisible often. Thinks about the only indication he even had the Frits was the split second of spontaneous Concealment. About the two full weeks he spent monitoring for other symptoms that never appeared. About his Invisibility always coming with a spark and how the sensation at the Garden was wild and electrifying. How much more exhilarated he was on stage—as if the dial had been turned all the way up, maxed out. But mostly, AB thinks about the random times the same sensation has prickled beneath his skin while he wanders New York City—fast and intense but never as substantial as the one at the concert, never enough to bring on the Frits, not even a tiny blip of Invisibility.
He’s at brunch, smiling awkwardly as people recognize him on his mimosa-soaked trek to the bathroom, when the same electricity makes another appearance. This time, the sensation is accompanied by a sharp tug at his heart, and AB knows, deep in his bones, Invisibility will be inevitable no matter how hard he tries. He speeds to the bathroom; thankful the sensation doesn’t reach its peak until after the door shuts; annoyed as he checks to find his hand the same transparent purple he always is while Concealed.
Personally, AB thinks a lap full of mimosas is enough inconvenience for the day, but the universe doesn’t seem to agree. Not only can he not push the Invisibility down, but when he leans against the door to stop anyone else from coming in, and lets out a soft, frustrated groan, something clatters to the ground in front of him.
Because of course someone was already in here. Of course, AB couldn’t be spontaneously Invisible in peace. Of course, he already ruined his chance of getting out of the way without making a noise. Of course, this guy is staring at AB with wide bewildered eyes.
That’s not possible.
“What the fuck?”
Is AB shrieking? He’s definitely shrieking. But… “You can see me! You can see me? Can you see me?”
Not only can this absolutely beautiful man—no, this bro—see him, but he’s staring at AB with absolute wonder in his eyes. He opens his mouth but then shuts it with a click of his teeth; instead, he looks AB up and down with such a methodical intensity AB begins to fidget. AB wouldn’t consider himself a blusher, but every sweep of this guy’s eyes leaves AB burning. His gaze settles back on AB’s face before speaking, and when he does, AB thinks he must be hearing things—there’s no way.
Mr. Omnivision over there—because what else could he be?—purses his lips, then repeats, “I know this sounds ridiculous, but I think you’re my future Bondmate.”
AB might be short-circuiting. What the actual fuck! This guy, this gorgeous guy with his ridiculous sweatpants and his ridiculous backwards snapback and his ridiculous smile, can’t possibly be standing in front of him claiming they’re Bondmates. At brunch. While AB is covered in mimosa. This has to be fake.
Did he make an enemy of an Illusionist who’s messing with him? Is he seeing things? He must be seeing things. This guy has to be an Illusion.
“I can assure you I’m real,” Mr. Omnivision says, looking at his pants with bemusement before stepping forward with his hand outstretched. “Hi, I’m Matthew.”
Oh, great. He’s been thinking out loud.
AB knows he’s being rude—can faintly hear his mother’s voice chastising him in the back of his mind—but he can’t stop staring. Despite his awful outfit, which AB has apparently insulted to his face, Matthew is stunning. He has dirty-blond hair and a ridiculously strong jaw and a dusting of freckles. Which really isn’t fair—freckles are his kryptonite. How could he not stare?
“This isn’t going the way I’ve always imagined.”
Matthew drops his hand and awkwardly rocks back on his heels. The downward slope of his mouth knocks AB’s brain back online.
He thrusts his hand out. “Shit. Sorry for staring. And insulting you. I’m AB.”
“You also called me gorgeous, so I’ve decided to think of it as balancing out,” Matthew says, his mouth quirking as he takes AB’s hand.
AB is making a fool of himself, and he’d absolutely die of embarrassment if shit didn’t get downright weird when he takes Matthew’s hand in his. Simultaneously, bright golden light bursts from where their palms meet, and AB pops back into view.
“What the fuck?” AB squawks, snatching his hand away.
Even after breaking contact, the heat of Matthew’s hand burns against AB’s skin, and while he’s no longer Concealed, none of the electricity produced by their touch has dissipated. Instead, they’re encased in an invisible crackling bubble of it, as if the light of their handshake shocked the air surrounding them.
“So, that was weird,” Matthew says, after AB fails to add anything constructive to their conversation. He bites his lip, an indecipherable emotion flickering across his face, and then adds, “Uh. I kind of have to go? But I’m serious about what I said. And considering all of this—” He motions between them, pointedly staring at AB’s hand. “—I’m hoping you’ll give me a chance to explain?”
“Uh, like, can I…maybe get your number or…shit.”
Matthew fidgets with his hat, the tips of his ears burning. “Look, I don’t live under a rock. I know who you are and how this could…I don’t know, come off as some sort of ploy to get your attention? You mentioned this could be an Illusion, which I’m not, obviously, but I absolutely understand if you’re not comfortable giving me your number, but I’d really like to explain myself when we’re not in a bathroom and my impatient friends aren’t ten seconds away from storming in here to drag me out. Or maybe your email? Or—you have Twitter, right? Who doesn’t have Twitter? Well, I don’t have Twitter, but uh…Instagram? Or if you’re into face-to-face chats we could agree on a time and public place to meet up again? I’m running out of ideas here. What else is there?”
Matthew blushes, turning his sun-tanned skin an adorable shade of ruddy pink, and all AB can focus on are the freckles, darker on his nose than anywhere else. He’s staring again. Or maybe he never stopped staring, and really, AB should be mortified, but this has been such a strange encounter he doesn’t think Matthew can judge him. He’s running through all the ways entertaining Matthew’s declaration is a terrible idea, how he clearly caused the one thing AB is so obsessed with happening, how he should be running far, far away, when everything clicks into place.
“Were you, by any chance, at my concert when I played Madison Square Garden a couple years ago?”
Matthew furrows his brow. “Yes, but what does—wait. It wasn’t actually the Frits? You think I caused your Concealment? Or, well, our magics Reacting made you Invisible?”
“Wait, sorry… How can you possibly tell what type of Concealer I am?”
“A guy’s got to keep some secrets,” Matthew says with a slow, crooked smile. “Maybe I’ll tell you one day.”
The smile tips him over, and AB makes a decision Carson might actually murder him for.
“I’m not sure about Bondmates, but you’re certainly affecting my magic. Which intrigues me almost as much as it pisses me off. So yeah, give me your number.”
AB unlocks his phone and brings up a new contact page, then hands it to Matthew. “I’ll text you once I’ve decided whether or not meeting up with you is a dangerous idea or just recklessly irresponsible.”
Matthew snorts when he reads the name AB put him in as.
AB shrugs. “Well, aren’t you?”
Matthew’s face is dazzling when he smiles. “Yeah, you got me there.”
Thematically, Stephanie likes magic and spies and magical spies. Aesthetically, she likes glitter and gold and pineapples. She wants to put more soft, sweet bi representation into the world so that people like her teen-self can see themselves in their favorite genres and know that who they are is nothing to be ashamed of.
She currently lives in the Great White North (Wisconsin) with her husband, daughter, and three dogs. The only thing getting her through these Midwest winters is the soothing sound of Tim Riggins saying “Texas forever” and the prospect of one day moving back there.
She loves a good astrology twitter but ultimately only believes in it when her husband calls her stubborn and then her response is: “Well, I am a Taurus.”
Lionel, necromancer and police consultant, finds himself closer to the Devil than he ever wanted to be. But even for a necromancer, life goes on, and murder happens. The next crime scene is just around the corner, and Lionel will do his job… ideally without Lucifer looking over his shoulder.
After a traumatic experience, Lucifer knows he has to protect his necromancer, mostly from the other man’s own stubbornness and ignorance. Lionel is not quite as human as he likes to think, and to Lucifer’s great annoyance, Lionel hasn’t given up on his bad habit of running into situations without thinking.
Lionel doesn’t know how he feels about the Devil, and he doesn’t know what he wants in his life. Lucifer knows what Lionel needs, but getting the necromancer to accept that is the difficult part. And of course, there is murder happening in town, and it is not the boring human-on-human kind of violence. This time around, it looks like immortals are involved. Solving the case will require Lionel to accept who he really is while Lucifer wants his boyfriend to embrace who he truly can be. Lives may depend on it.
The Devil’s body on top of mine, his mouth stealing my breath, his woodfire smoke-and-spices scent all around me — that was not something I ever thought I’d get used to. Yet here I was, Lionel Hawkes, consultant for Brunswick PD and accomplished necromancer, my cock rubbing against Lucifer’s belly and his own erection as he was doing his damnedest to kiss me senseless. My lips were already tender, but the soft lighting dipped his bedroom in an amber glow, and that made me care less about the state of my lips somehow… as long as he kept coming back for more kisses. I wanted to bury my fingers in his baby-cat hair, but Lucifer had my wrists crossed over my head, his hand holding me there. I could struggle, but he wouldn’t let me go. I’d tried that before, and he’d kindly informed me that I got to move my hands when he wanted me to. He fucking owned me.
I bucked up to get more friction and heard his deep voice break into a chuckle that made my entire body tremble.
“Sweet Nelly, is there something that you want from me?” he said with laughter smoothing around his words like warmth around a fire.
That fucking asshole. He knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted to come. He’d put me on my back in his too-large and weirdly round bed with the super-soft cotton sheets about an hour ago, and then he’d started with kisses, with touch, with friction that was just never enough.
“I have work in the morning. I just want to come and go to sleep,” I said. I’d been off for three weeks after that thing with the crazed serial killer, a.k.a. No Longer Quite So Sexy Mitch, who’d drugged and abducted me. But tomorrow was my first day back. “And you seem to have one hand free, so if you would, Lucy?” I looked down to my leaking cock. Damn, my belly was slick from our combined precum.
I wiggled under him, feeling the soft sheets I was lying on. I tried looking away as if this whole lovemaking thing bored me. Lucifer had drawn the curtains, but I didn’t really think they were thick enough to hide what he was doing to me. Obscure it, yes, but if anyone with a daring heart got to his wilderness of a home on this cold-ass November night and peeked up, they’d know exactly what was going on in the Devil’s bed. I’d complained about it two weeks ago. Lucifer had smirked and said, <em>If anyone does dare to come here, they should be rewarded by getting a glimpse of your face, writhing in ecstasy because you have my cock deep inside you. It will serve them well to think of it while I punish them for the transgression</em>. So typical — boisterous Devil-speak.
And that was just so Lucifer, but since the room was partially lit, I saw him pull back and look down at me as if he were a cat and I a canary, caught between his claws with my wings splayed. He wanted to fucking torture me, I could see that in his sapphire eyes. Not actual torture, but he wanted me in a writhing puddle of need, so desperate I begged for his cock.
Heavens knew he’d fucking gotten me into that state before.
Before Lucifer could make another noise, before I could try to get a wrist free to jack myself after all, my phone rang. Lucifer’s eyes darkened. “I told you to turn that off,” he said. He didn’t raise his voice. Lucifer didn’t have to. He was the fucking Devil. His voice carried.
“And I told you I need to be reachable,” I said as the <em>Jaws</em> theme music grew louder. “Let me up, I need to go answer that.”
Of course, the Devil his own damn self didn’t move a fraction of an inch. “You do not need to be reachable when you are in my bed, when I have you and am in the middle of figuring out how exactly I will make you feel me — what exactly I will make you feel once my cock is buried deep in you.”
Oh, damn his stupid sex talk. It got me in entirely the wrong mindset to achieve my current objective — answering the phone. And I would bet a spell he’d stolen that line from one of the countless romance novels he read. There was currently a pile of them near his reading armchair by the window wall. He got up to two or three a day sometimes. That one weekend, when I’d told him I just needed quiet and hot cocoa after escaping the fucking basement a psycho killer had dragged me in to kill me, Lucifer had actually complied. He’d made me sit on the couch in his rich-people house where he let me stream just whatever sappy thing I wanted to watch without comment from him. In fact, Lucifer had refilled my mug with hot cocoa whenever it was empty, and sat there as close as I would allow it like some classical statue, reading through a stack of those damn novels. He had taken a reading break every couple of hours, and his breaks had only consisted of getting me off. If I allowed it.
I had allowed it. “You just read about that in your damn book?” I had asked after he was done with one of his breaks, my naked back pressed against his chest, my spent cock still in his sticky hand.
He bit my earlobe before he answered. “The things I want to do to you, Nelly… They aren’t in any of those books.”
Alexa Piper writes steamy romance that ranges from light to dark, from straight to queer. She’s also a coffee addict. Alexa loves writing stories that make her readers laugh and fall in love with the characters in them. Connect with Alexa on Facebook or Instagram, follow her on Twitter or TikTok, and subscribe to her newsletter!
Religious eroticism and queer emancipation meet in a claustrophobic monster-romance about divinity, sexuality, and freedom.
When Diego López is guilted by his mother into taking a low-key construction job in New Mexico, he doesn’t expect to be the only helping hand at Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. But the church is abandoned, decrepit, and off the beaten path, and the only other person for miles is its handsome caretaker, Ariel Azevedo.
Together, Diego and Ariel refurbish the old church, sharing stories of their heritage, experiences, and desires. But as the long days turn into longer nights, Diego begins to see past Ariel’s human mirage and finds himself falling into lust—and maybe something else—with one of God’s first creations.
Diego López gnawed his lip as he leaned against the rusted tailgate on his father’s busted Chevy.
He cradled his phone against his ear and tried to focus on his mother’s voice, exhausted and cold, rasping through the speaker. The gas station was quiet—nearly abandoned—but his attention darted to an oasis floating above the highway and a napkin tumbling across the empty lot. He pitched his shoulder upward to steady his phone and smacked a pack of Lucky Strikes against the heel of his palm.
“I can find a way to pay you back,” he said and pulled a cigarette free with his teeth. “I don’t need another handout, and I definitely don’t need to play carpenter at some bullshit church to—”
“Cállate,” his mother snapped. “You listen to me, mijo. You get in that truck, you drive to that church, and you make this right. No one put you behind the wheel of that car—my car—and no one put the… the drugs in your wallet, and no one—”
“I know.” He sucked smoke into his lungs and switched his phone from one ear to the other.
“This isn’t about the money. This is about honor—familia. You go, understand? Go, work, get paid, come home. Do your community service and fix your life. This man, this Ariel, he’s giving you a chance. Take it before he changes his mind and hires someone else.”
“Yeah, because every able-bodied worker in town is trippin’ over themselves to go rebuild a church in the middle of the desert, Mamá. Sure.”
“You made your choice. Go.”
He angled his mouth toward the sky. She wasn’t talking about his fourteen-hour stint in jail or the cash-bail she’d worked double shifts at the diner to pay for. She was talking about the sickle-shaped scars beneath his shirt, the choice he’d made three years ago—eighteen and able to say, Yes, do it. Same vague guilt trip, same acquiescence. You’re like a coyote, she’d said to him once. Halfway to a wolf but still something else. He thought about that as she breathed on the other end of the line and imagined her sitting in the recliner in his childhood home, rolling a slender joint, watching fútbol while a pork shoulder braised in the crockpot. Sometimes she tripped over his name, her tongue unused to making the sound, but when she’d met him at the door after he’d been released from El Paso Detention Center, she’d said Diego with her full voice. Cracked every syllable like a bone.
“Yeah, okay.” He sighed. “Do you want me to call?”
She huffed. “Eres mi sangre.”
He shook his head and finished his cigarette, then crushed it beneath his boot. “Sé.”
“Tomorrow, then. You’ll tell me about the church?”
“Sure, yeah. Tomorrow.”
“Drive safe,” she said.
Diego ended the call without saying goodbye. He stood with his thumbs tucked through his belt loops. Endured the heat. Watched the road. Pictured himself elsewhere, across the state, settling in Austin. He’d bartend to make ends meet. He’d never touch narcotics again. He’d rent a studio apartment, and fill it with houseplants, and learn how to cook. He’d send money to his abuela, and he’d visit her more, and he’d grow the fuck up. Becoming another disappointment on the López family tree wasn’t an option anymore.
It never had been, but stealing the car, crashing the car, getting caught… Yeah, that changed everything.
Early summer rippled through the dry air. He scanned his phone again, reading and rereading the address his mother had sent him—coordinates, actually—before he hoisted into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition. According to Google, Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe was located in Luna County, New Mexico. He pulled his lip between his teeth again. Seven grand to help rebuild a decrepit church in the middle of the desert? Camming paid more. He’d found that out after getting hit with top-surgery bills. But now that his mother knew about the Vicodin, he certainly didn’t need her to know about the porn too. He manifested the future he’d imagined—bartending in Austin, visiting his grandmother, making pozole in his apartment—and drove toward a city called Sunshine.
I really enjoyed the perspective on religion. The part that resonated with me the most was Ariel’s belief the things we see as wrong or sinful aren’t necessarily God’s thoughts, but are instead man’s version. I’ve often felt that way.
The description of Ariel’s true self had so many parts I had a hard time piecing them together into an image I could “see” as I was reading. I did like that he wasn’t the typical angel we see depicted.
Diego had his flaws, but he also had a hidden strength. Despite his rocky past, he wanted a second chance to do something with his life. I admired him for dusting himself off and trying again.
For me, the ending felt a bit unfinished. I realize this is a shorter story so there’s less room for a more in-depth storyline, but I guess the romantic in me wanted a more definitive HEA for Diego.
If you’re looking for a quick steamy LGBTQ read that will also resonate on a deeper level, you can’t go wrong with Exodus 20:3 …
*Disclaimer: I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review. The review above is only my opinion.
Meet the Author
Freydís Moon (they/them) is a biracial nonbinary writer and diviner. When they aren’t writing or divining, Freydís is usually trying their hand at a recommended recipe, practicing a new language, or browsing their local bookstore.
Long before Jay McClintock and Brad Garza were music industry royalty, Jay was an ambitious intern and Brad was an awkward farm boy. But the ladder to the top was anything but smooth and anything but legal. And their relationship? That was anything but HR safe.
Getting ahead in the cut-throat world of the Los Angeles music industry means making some dark deals, and Jay was so eager to make his client (and crush) shine, that he was ready to make them all. As some bold moves have Brad’s popularity taking off into the stratosphere, Jay is digging himself deeper and deeper into the hole. If only he had known that the shovel belonged to the same men who ran his father off the road all those years ago.
Second Chance is the second book in the Fighting Chance series, following Jay McClintock’s career from an unlikely intern to a star writer, Brad Garza’s career from a humble farmer to a musician for the ages, and the trials that brought them together and tore them apart. If either man wants any chance of finding their Happily Ever After, they’ll have to face the past that made them head-on.
“So what’s up, Jay Jay? Did you suddenly get a new idea for my next album?” Brad Garza sat across from me at Roast of the Magi, a trendy new coffee shop off Sunset and Vine. He wore sunglasses over his dark eyes and a ball cap over his short, dark brown hair, hoping he might disguise himself just enough to dissuade the usual onslaught of fans. Though that exquisite voice and Latin charm could hardly be contained by a few well-placed accessories.
“Not quite.” I handed him the manila envelope full of photos. He pulled out the pages one by one, examining each image as though he was auditioning for a lead role as a forensic scientist. Once he reached the last page, he slid the photos back into their envelope and sat back in his chair.
“Where did you get this?” His voice had lost its usual playful luster.
“Someone left it on my doorstep and rang the doorbell. They were gone before I managed to answer.”
“Couldn’t get dressed fast enough, I’d wager.” Brad rolled his eyes. “I can still smell him on you, you know. You couldn’t have at least showered first before coming to see me?”
“This felt too urgent.” I heaved a sigh. Poor judgement on my part. Where was my head? “Whether you approve of my relationship or not is hardly the point right now.”
A smile returned to Brad’s lips, and he relaxed into his chair. “Of course, of course. I guess I can’t be too mad if your first thought was to come see me.” His arrogance never faltered. Though he wasn’t wrong. I’d known Brad for the better part of ten years. The better part of my life after the crash. And just through the better parts of my life. He was a constant who I could always rely on, his support never even wavering in the harshest parts of our breakup. Our relationship might have been over, but our friendship never would be.
Roland was who I wanted, now and in the future, but I didn’t want to include him in my past if I didn’t have to. I would tell him everything once the coast was clear. I knew that was selfish, and he would see it as unfair, but…I would rather be selfish than put him in danger. Though perhaps getting involved with me has already put him in danger.
I shook my head to dismiss the thought and returned my attention to Brad. “‘All debts must one day be paid.’” I recited the final note from memory. “I barely even know what counts as debt anymore. I think we’ve both racked up enough to file for bankruptcy.”
“Bankruptcy…or maybe a really nice pair of coffins.” He chuckled, an inappropriate amount of amusement in his eyes. “You know, our contract is still valid even into the afterlife. Don’t think you’ll get to slack off if this turns sour.”
“I’m not sure which one of us should have gotten a better lawyer.” I laughed. “So what do you think it means?”
Brad stroked his lightly stubbled chin. “I was wondering that. I’m not sure if I’m more unnerved by the pictures of a mob boss with Jonathan, the ones with your dad, or the pictures that include the kid. I kind of expected to see myself in there, but the rest… I guess you weren’t exactly good at staying out of trouble even after you got put in witness protection.”
“I never did find out what kinds of debts my father had wracked up to justify running him off the road all those years ago. The detectives weren’t terribly forthright.”
“Clearly,” Brad said while peeking into the envelope again. “I don’t know what he owed them, but I know what we do.”
“Right.” I frowned.
“Honestly, I haven’t thought about those times in quite a while. Well, not the bad parts anyway.”
“Do you still think about the good parts?” I knew what he was implying, but I admittedly blocked just about all of it out of my mind. The good parts seemed far and in between in hindsight.
“Of course.” Brad shook his head. “You can never forget where you came from.”
You can never forget where you came from? Maybe that’s true, but I could still try.
Whether she’s racing motorcycles faster than a RomCom lead’s beating heart, or scuba diving deeper than the pit of love they fall into, Anni Lee is always down for an adventure. She was born and raised in Los Angeles with four siblings and a single mother, which is probably why she has such a penchant for writing big city love and tenacious (albeit dysfunctional) heroes.
When she’s not typing away behind her laptop, she’s living out of a tent off the back of her motorcycle on her quest to ride around the world. The wilderness is the best place to catch up on reading, after all!