Eight years ago, Kyle Stafford had everything a seventeen-year-old kid could want — the latest gadgets, the best clothes, the newest sports car, and a palatial home. A single lapse in judgment changed everything. Now he’s lucky if he eats once a day. Taking refuge in a small cave to avoid a torrential downpour, he’s hoping for a safe place to sleep. What he gets is far from restful… and definitely not safe.
Roen of House Vakeor takes his job as a guard very seriously. When his patrol leads him to one of the hidden portals to the humans’ side, he stumbles — quite literally — into a young human male sleeping right at his realm’s front door. Whether the human knows where the entrance is or not, Roen’s duty requires him to take the young man prisoner — back to House Vakeor.
Kyle Stafford huddled under the tattered awning of a decrepit old general store. Rain pounded the dirt, turning it into a lovely mass of mud. Kyle sighed. He couldn’t stay here. He needed sleep — desperately. The city shelters were too far away, and, honestly, he had no desire to go to any of them. The shelters were always overcrowded and stank of piss, body odor, and only God knew what else. No, he needed somewhere out here, a cave maybe.
The mountains loomed in front and behind him. Surely, he could find a small nook to take refuge in, at least until the rain stopped. He shivered and pulled his battered coat tighter around him. The poor thing was threadbare, but it still kept him reasonably warm. His stomach growled, and he glanced over his shoulder at the abandoned store. Nothing perishable, but maybe a can or two of something? He looked around, then picked up a broken piece of wood and finished busting an already half-broken window. Then he cautiously climbed in, wood still in hand. No telling what else decided to check out the place.
The inside seemed to have weathered time far better than the exterior. Most of the shelves, while empty, still stood in place. Judging by the various product signs hanging on the walls, the store wasn’t quite as old as the outside appeared. Thankfully, no creatures — animal or human — jumped out at him. Kyle scanned the aisles, but the place had been picked bare. He exited the same way he entered and figured his best bet stood straight ahead.
By the time he slogged through the rain and muck, he swore even his bones were utterly drenched. He ignored the cold ache sweeping up from his waterlogged feet and made his way to what appeared to be a small cave opening. It wasn’t big, but it was dry. Wood in hand, he explored it to the back, satisfied nothing else called it home. It wasn’t warm by any means, and even starting a fire the primitive way would be futile with the rain soaking every bit of wood outside.
Kyle found a relatively smooth spot and lay down. Hunger gnawed at him, but he could deal with that later. Right now, he wanted nothing more than to sleep. On his side, pillowing his head on his arm, he closed his eyes, feeling safer than he had in a long time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Myc has been writing professionally since 2005, solo and with Shayne Carmichael. Genres include pretty much anything (no steampunk yet), though Myc is well known for paranormal stories. When not writing, Myc is usually playing PC games, reading, watching Netflix, and spending way too much time on Facebook. Since the question has come up in the past, pronouns are not an issue. Myc is bio-female, mentally male, and 100% genderfluid, so any pronoun works!
“Black’s work is poetic and haunting. Nobody can pull off smoldering sex alongside holler-deep, soulful characters like Mychael Black.” –Sara Jay
Since her divorce, Mara has been moldering. Or at least that’s what her best friend tells her when she drags Mara to Cancun for a pick-me-up.
Mara finds more than a pick-me-up. On the beach, she meets two beautiful men who, though they’re obviously into each other, are very much into Mara, too. And when they invite her into their unique world, it’s an experience unlike anything she could ever imagine.
“Do you know what your problem is? You don’t know how to have fun. Plain and simple. You are funless.”
Mara gaped at her friend Cor, offended. “I am not funless. I’m… funful. I have lots of fun.”
“No, you don’t.” With a slight flip of her shoulder length chestnut hair, Cor looked pointedly at Mara’s Diet Coke. Cor herself was drinking a margarita. “Seriously, when was the last time you had fun?”
“I went to the movies last weekend,” Mara shot back, defensive.
“Wow.” Cor’s voice was deadpan. “Really daring.”
Mara sank back in the booth, annoyed and chagrined at the same time. “Well, what would you suggest, Miss Ultimate Fun?”
Cor looked smug. “That actually is my name, you know.” She drew something out of her purse, holding it hidden under the edge of the table. “So of course I have ideas.”
“Of course you do.” Mara stared at the edge of the table as if she might suddenly develop X-ray vision and be able to see what her friend was hiding. “So what are these ideas? Should I be scared?”
“Of course you should be scared. I’m going to push you right out of your comfort zone.”
“I like my comfort zone. It’s comfortable. That’s why it’s called a comfort zone.”
Cor leaned over the table, a conspiratorial gleam in her eyes. “You know what else is comfortable? Hot guys fucking you senseless” — she revealed the envelope she held — “on the beach at Cancun.”
Mara stared, then reached out to take the envelope. “You didn’t.” She opened it hesitantly, as if a poisonous snake might leap out and bite her. Inside the envelope were two tickets to Cancun, one for her and one for Cor. Mara sighed. “I hope my passport’s up to date.”
“It is. I checked.” She grinned brightly and snatched the tickets back. “You’ve been moping around for eight months, ever since the divorce was finalized. This will do you some good. Trust me.”
Mara looked mournfully at her Diet Coke, then Cor’s margarita. “I guess I’ll have to.”
Cor’s grin turned to a smirk. “Damn straight.”
* * *
The sand between her toes and the mojito in her hand helped a bit, but Mara still felt out of sorts. This just wasn’t the kind of thing she did. It wasn’t a Mara thing.
That’s the point, her little voice said. Doing Mara things isn’t going to get you anywhere. Mara things are boring.
She took another sip of the mojito, enjoying the tang of mint and citrus. Maybe that little voice was just the rum talking. Maybe she should quit worrying so damn much about it and just enjoy herself. She might not break down and have a crazy sexual fling, as Cor insisted she should, but at the very least she could relax for the weekend. God knew she could use some relaxation.
She took another sip of her mojito, then leaned back in the beach chair and closed her eyes. The sun was warm, the breeze off the ocean vaguely cool, and the rum was working its way into her system, leaving her nicely limp and relaxed.
Mara wasn’t sure why that particular sound, out of all the sounds around her, caught her attention. She wasn’t alone on the beach, after all. There were couples all around, lotioning each other, running up and down the beach, smooching, doing God only knew what under beach blankets, kids tossing beach balls and squeaking like kids do — but that giggle rose above everything else and set something off in her brain. Maybe because of the incongruity. It wasn’t a woman giggling, or a kid. It was a man, the sound of the giggle strange when paired with the deepness of his voice.
The sound came again, this time a bit more toward the laugh end of the spectrum than the giggle end. Mara turned her head and zeroed in on the source.
Two young men were sprawled over a blanket not far away. The giggling seemed even more incongruous now; the giggler was a big, lanky man, easily six feet three. And young. He’d be lucky, Mara thought, if he’d seen his twenty-fifth birthday yet. The other man looked to be a few years older and a few inches shorter. He sat bent forward a bit, a wry smile on his face, while the younger man slathered suntan lotion over his wide, muscular back. The younger man’s hands were huge, engulfing the older man’s broad shoulders. As Mara watched, he leaned forward to kiss the hollow of his friend’s shoulder, then laughed again. The sound was deep and melodious, and made Mara strangely warm. Friend, hell. Lover, more like. The older man reached up to cup his friend’s face, smiling, and Mara gulped down more mojito.
They were just so… pretty. Unselfconscious, relaxed, obviously enjoying each other’s company. She remembered feeling that way once on a beach with David, curled up into his wide body on a beach blanket while he combed his fingers through her wet hair —
She pushed that thought back. No sense thinking about that right now. She was here to have fun, to forget about the divorce and everything having to do with David.
The men moved closer together, the taller one draping his arms over his friend’s chest. They looked happy to her.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Faith Talbot has been a body double, a prima ballerina, and a forklift driver. In her spare time, she likes to knit and play the zither. Sometimes she can be found at rock concerts not being the least bit stalkery at all.
Released from Evernight Publishing December 8, 2020
Twenty-five year old Oliver Honeycutt has no idea how handsome he is. He’s creative, brilliant at his job, and underused in the designer fashion store where he works. Behind the scenes, Oliver takes special care with orders for customer, rock star, Zane Highwood. When Zane is to be the main attraction in the store’s Christmas party, fashion show, Oliver hopes Zane will notice him.
Multi-millionaire, twenty-five year old, Noah Somersby, made his first million before he was twenty-one and now owns a number of casual-chic menswear stores. He’s a designer, gorgeous, and desperate to find a man who will love him for himself and not see dollar signs as they kiss.
Noah doesn’t often take the train into the city, but one rainy day he does, as he settles into a seat opposite Oliver, the two men exchange interested glances.
In fact, Noah is super attracted to Oliver and Oliver thinks Noah is gorgeous.
As the store holiday season party approaches, can serendipity bring them together?
Read a sweet, sexy teaser
Noah felt Oliver shift in his arms as if to pull away, but then he winced, bent his head, and leaned on Noah.
Concerned, Noah tightened his hold on Oliver. “I’m worried about you.” A tingle of surprise raced along Noah’s body as Oliver raised his face to gaze at him with open desire in his eyes.
“I think I need another kiss … to make it all better.”
Noah smiled before he kissed Oliver, not even feeling a sliver of guilt at kissing a possibly dazed man.
This time Oliver returned the kisses.
Noah drifted in sensation. He lingered on Oliver’s lips, kissing him, then breathing, then kissing him again. His eyes closed and his mouth only a sigh away from Oliver’s, he rested his forehead on Oliver’s and murmured, “I wanted to kiss you the other morning on the train. I’m sorry I hurt you, but not sorry I jumped on you, because I want you … want to know you … get to know you.”
Oliver stirred in his arms again and Noah opened his eyes.
Oliver placed a soft kiss on Noah’s mouth. “I … feel the same about you. I wanted the kiss—craved it, in fact. Noah, I should probably go home and check my bruises, get cleaned up—if the ride is still on offer.”
Noah forced himself from the languor of Oliver’s kiss. “What if you stay here and I’ll race off and bring my car back? I’ll only be a few minutes.”
“I’m really okay, just sort of achy.”
Noah shook his head. “I’d feel better if you rested here.” He left Oliver leaning against the wall and dashed along the street to his store’s delivery space. Happiness shielded him from the cold, foggy night. Lingering delight from Oliver’s kisses protected him from the fine rain that drenched everything. Elated, Noah sped back for Oliver. He turned up the heat in his car, parked in the no-parking zone, and helped Oliver into the passenger seat.
Oliver smiled at him in the dim glow of the streetlights. “Thank you.”
The seasonal fairy lights in the adjacent store window penetrated the fog with hazy dots of color. The drizzle put a ring of sparkles around Christmas lanterns hanging from the decorative rope lights strung across the streets. Noah leaned to Oliver and kissed him gently.
After observing the mistakes made by his fellow Huntsmen, Arcas, the Bear, refuses to follow their example. He immediately claims his mate, a descendant of the cat goddess Bastet. Their pairing will be powerful and his mate is courageous, wise, and sexy as hell. Too bad they have to bring down the remnants of a murderous cult and stop a demonic disaster from being let loose on the world.
Marshal is no fool. From the moment they met, he has been drawn to the red-haired Bear. He didn’t think world ending events would ensue to make their developing relationship a bit more difficult to navigate. But now The Hunt was on the move and nothing would stop them from achieving their goals: rescue Kern’s mate and save the world.
“Fuck.” Arcas paced in his room, fighting the urge to heal the many bites, bumps, and bruises he’d received as he kept trying to purge the insidious drugs from his system. That those bites and bruises had come from one he considered his sister just made him… What was he feeling? Angst? Frustration? Anger? Well, yes, there was anger. A whole lot of anger, but there were more underlying emotions that refused to process.
He was angry. That he was sure of. In fact, one could say he was way beyond incensed and approaching furious at a rapid pace and there was nothing he could do to stem the tide of righteous anger that filled him to overflowing.
He remembered each one. He remembered their faces, their nasty little comments, how they treated him as a beast, something less that human… less than the animals they had gathered for this modern-day travesty of a gladiator sport. They had treated him like he was an object. Brave in the face of the drugs they had constantly injected into his veins and blew in his face. He remembered them, each and every one of them from the time he opened his eyes in that piece of shit van after they dosed him the first time to the time when they applied electric cattle prods to his back in an effort to make him shift… because there was no way he would ever forget that no matter how hard he tried.
So now he paced as he tried to process what it felt like to be knocked completely off the food chain. They didn’t even want to steal his life energy, they just wanted him dead as if he didn’t matter, as if he didn’t live and breathe and think. They just wanted him dead, almost as an afterthought. And what was worse, they’d made him attack his sister.
He remembered her wolf form screaming at him as he lunged at her, unable to stop the cursed animal within him from acting on instinct and trying to obliterate any threat that would do him more harm. He was grateful that he was incapacitated enough not to clearly think or he surely would have done more harm to his sister than he had actually managed. He shuddered as he remembered the feel of not being in control of his own body, of being a visitor in his own mind, screaming in futility, as the world turned into madness around him.
And he remembered his taste…
It was the taste of him, of his blood that gave Arcas the final push to take control of his own body and its actions once more. By then, it had almost been too late. He had been moving in for the kill and Caille, no matter how powerful she was, would not have been able to fight off the power of a god who was still being actively worshiped every time someone looked into the night sky. He would have snuffed her back to her component parts. It would have taken her centuries to re-form and it would have all been his fault.
So, yeah, add guilt to the pile of emotions threatening to drive him insane now, thank you. Guilt for not being fast enough, for not being strong enough, for not being wise enough… just for not being enough. Because of him Kern’s mate had been taken to parts unknown because when he opened his eyes in that rocking van, Thomas hadn’t been there. He could add nothing to the hunt for Kern’s mate, but he did remember each and every face that had hovered over him, had lorded over him, that had spit in his face and applied their boots and shoes to his body. He remembered each and every one and they would pay.
And there was him… How could he ever be good enough for Marshal? He himself was weak and useless… and… and… his blood.
Gods above, Arcas had never tasted anything as sweet… Marshal tasted of sunshine, of desert sands and of lotus petals. He had tasted of his forever and that was such a travesty that it almost brought tears to Arcas’ eyes because he had almost killed the man.
Caille, a goddess in her own right, would have survived. But The Cat… he was not being worshipped, had never been worshiped because Arcas could taste that in his blood. He was immortal but not invulnerable, and if he hadn’t acted when he did, Arcas would have been responsible for the destruction of his own mate.
That was something that Arcas could not abide. So he paced in his room, withheld the healing he could have so easily done to his human form, and he did his best to stick to the story that The Raven and The Wolf, along with help from his mate, had constructed. It was laughably easy how eager the police were to accept their convoluted tale. The story had all the hallmarks of a movie of the week. There were rich assholes to blame, an insane group of homophobic cultists who had access to poor, abused animals, and there were guns and drugs, lots of drugs. Hell, in this world where people cared more about animals than their own brethren, it was so easy to play the sympathy card. To add to the human interest angle, there was an obvious blended family, a person of color, and the sexual orientation of the one still missing man that guaranteed that in the right reporter’s hands they were looking at a Pulitzer. Exotic animals were just the icing on a journalistic cake that was going to be served up on all media platforms, and with today’s sentiment about eating the rich… well, companies and stocks were going to be dropping like flies after a judicious application of bug killer.
Yet now, here he was, pacing ineffectually in his room, feeling his blood pressure rise as he sought to find some outlet for his wrath.
Yes, wrath was the perfect word for the emotions that he was now feeling. Wrath and rage were coursing through his body, heating his blood, and making him want to explode.
But it was an impotent wrath for the moment for there was no clear target to aim his ire at, no one single person to blame… but himself.
And fuck, he had never been so angry in his long, never-ending life.
A knock at the door drew him away from his mounting self-anger, and as he spun around, a snarl on his lips, ready to tell whatever well-meaning sycophant disturbing his solitude to fuck off, he froze as a familiar scent suddenly filled the room.
It was — it was The Cat… his mate… and he smelled concerned.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie is a USA Today Best Selling, multi published, multi award-winning author, Master Costumer, handicapped, wife and mother of two.
From sex-shifting, shape-shifting dragons to undersea worlds, sexually confused elemental Fey and homo-erotic mysteries, all the way to pastel-challenged urban sprites, Stephanie has done it all, and hopes to do more.
Stephanie is an orator on her favorite subjects of writing and world-building, a sometime teacher when you feed her enough tea and donuts, an anime nut, a costumer, and a frequent guest of various sci-fi and writing cons where she can be found leading panel discussions or researching varied legends and theories to improve her writing skills.
Stephanie is known for her love of the outrageous, strong female characters, believable worlds, male characters filled with depth, and multi-cultural stories that make the reader sit up and take notice.
Jackie Vasquez knows he needs to submit to a Dom he can trust—just as much as he needs to manage his own life. He found the right Dom in Brian Harrison, and then romance beckoned them both beyond bindings and safewords. They take the first steps toward a life together in London, where Brian is pursuing his dream career at Scotland Yard, and Jackie is working toward a master’s degree. Their private hours deep in the night brim with both heat and beauty as Brian’s artful vision for bondage makes a masterwork out of Jackie, body and soul.
But time together becomes scarce as a series of horrific gaslight crimes keeps Brian at work and out of reach for Jackie much of the time. Though Jackie is faithful, he isn’t the type to sit and wait for his lover’s attentions. His self-assured ways and his geocaching hobby lead him to a dangerous discovery—all is not as it seems at the University. Trapped in the Gaslighter’s web, he’ll need to use every trick he knows to stay calm and buy time. But will Brian unravel the knot of mystery in time to save the man he loves?
Lou Sylvre loves romance with all its ups and downs, and likes to conjure it into books. The sweethearts on her pages are men who end up loving each other — and usually saving each other from unspeakable danger. It’s all pretty crazy and very, very sexy. As if you’d want to know more, she’ll happily tell you that she is a proudly bisexual woman — a mother, grandmother, lover of languages, and cat-herder — of mixed cultural heritage. She works closely with lead cat and writing assistant, the (male) Queen of Budapest, Boudreau St. Clair. She lives in the rainy part of the Pacific Northwest, and hearing from a reader infallibly brightens the dreary weather. Find her through her links listed here, or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Derek never wished to inherit his title as a result of a bloody battle. With the old count dead and the truce dependent on his marriage to the rival duke’s son, Derek has no choice but to agree to the victor’s terms in order to bring peace to his homeland. When he learns of the sinister rumors surrounding his intended groom, Derek begins to have doubts—but there can be no turning back from saying I do.
After the death of his wife, Callan of Mulberny never expected to be forced into another political marriage—especially not to someone like the new Count of Camria. Seemingly soft and meek, it’s only fitting that Derek’s family crest is a flighty sparrow, worthy of nothing but contempt.
Another war with the seafaring people of the Outer Isles looms on the horizon, and the reluctant newlyweds must team together to protect those caught in the circle of violence. Derek and Callan slowly learn to let go of their prejudices, but as they find themselves enmeshed in intrigue fueled by dark secrets and revenge, their tentative bond is all that keeps their world—and their lives—from plunging into chaos.
It’s Christmas, and Justin’s life is fraying at the edges. The family business he took over instead of going to art school is bleeding money, and his boyfriend of seven months cheated on him. Under these circumstances, family gatherings can be rough, but Justin believes he has everything under control. That is, until Elliot, his former best friend (and the first guy to ever break his heart) unexpectedly shows up at the holiday dinner party.
With both of them still nursing the wounds of the past, it might take a real Christmas miracle for Justin and Elliot to learn to appreciate the art of second chances.
The Rowel family home greeted Justin with familiar smells of cinnamon cake and fresh pine. In his mind, these scents had always been associated with the holiday season and long evenings spent around the dinner table or playing Scrabble in front of the fire. They were enough to ease some of the ache in Justin’s chest, softening his mood a tiny fraction.
“Justin!” His father clapped him on the shoulder and pulled him into a hug, which Justin carefully returned. “I’m glad you could finally make it.”
Despite the long remission, his father still appeared frail—or so it seemed to Justin, who, like most children, had grown up with the illusion his father was invincible until the universe proved him wrong.
“Of course,” Justin said. “You know me; I can’t say no to mom’s cooking.”
His father raised his eyebrow skeptically, undoubtedly recalling the string of last-minute cancellations and half-hearted excuses for not coming over in the last few weeks.
A familiar wave of guilt washed over Justin. With everything that had been going on, he knew he’d be hard-pressed to withstand his parents’ well-meaning inquiries into his personal life and into the state of the family business, which had become Justin’s sole responsibility. He couldn’t bring himself to tell them just how badly both those things were going.
He cranked up his smile to a new level of dissimulation, but thankfully, his mother emerged from the kitchen before his dad could challenge his statement.
His mother wiped her hands on her apron and reached up to plant kisses on Justin’s cheeks.
“Everybody is already here,” she told Justin as she led him by the arm into the living room as if he’d forgotten the way. “I love it when the house is full.” Her tone was a touch wistful as she gave his arm a gentle squeeze before returning to the kitchen.
Justin supposed having them all together was a rare occurrence these days. He lived in a one-room apartment above their hardware store, and his sister Trish had recently moved in with her fiancé. Nowadays, only the holidays presented an opportunity for Kelly Rowel to gather all of her loved ones, and, despite having to close the shop early on Monday to attend the day-before-Christmas-Eve family gathering, Justin was glad he could do something to make his mom happy. But as soon as he entered the brightly lit living room, he came to a screeching halt.
A fire already crackled merrily behind the grate. Huge red and white socks adorned with hand-embroidered names hung off the mantelpiece, decorated with a fake holly arrangement making its yearly appearance in the Rowel household. The TV showed a romantic comedy set in the Swiss Alps, as far as Justin could tell at a cursory glance. His sister Trish, her fiancé Dave, and Aunt Marnie sat glued to the movie while Uncle Tony fiddled with his iPhone.
None of them, however, had the dubious honor of grabbing Justin’s attention. That belonged to the young man wearing trendy gold-rimmed glasses and the blandest Christmas sweater in existence, sitting ramrod-straight in Dad’s old armchair and seemingly engrossed in Anne Hathaway’s foreign love affair.
No way. What was he doing here?
Justin didn’t know how long he stood in the doorway, transfixed, until his father, coming up behind him, gave him a slight nudge.
“Look who I have here!” he announced, and everybody, including the young man and Uncle Tony, raised their heads and turned his way.
“Hey, Justin!” Trish got up to meet him and give him a vigorous hug.
They sure were an affectionate lot, he thought absently as he hugged her back. Once, all that warmth was what kept him going. Now, it seemed almost…superfluous.
“Hi, Trish,” Justin said when she let up, and nodded to the rest. “Aunt Marnie, Uncle Tony, Dave. Elliot.”
“Oh, right.” Trish finally seemed to recall there was someone else present. “Mom invited Elliot to spend the holiday with us. You remember Elliot?”
Justin nodded curtly, unable to tear his eyes away from their guest. He definitely remembered Elliot Turner.
The man in question stood up, vacating his seat for Justin’s dad, and extended his hand in greeting.
“It’s nice to see you again,” he said.
Elliot’s voice was deeper, more mature than the last time Justin had spoken to him. Somehow, he seemed taller too. His gray eyes behind the shiny glasses regarded him seriously.
“Sure,” Justin said politely, shaking his hand. “It’s been a while.”
“Five years,” Elliot said.
“I was sorry to hear about your parents,” Justin said.
An awkward silence, accentuated by the chatter from the TV, settled around the living room at the mention of the tragedy. Trish and Aunt Marnie exchanged a nervous look. Really, did they expect Justin to just ignore what had happened?
When he’d heard of the terrible car accident last year, he tried calling Elliot in Los Angeles, but Elliot never picked up the phone or responded to Justin’s email in which he offered his condolences. That, above anything else, made it perfectly clear Justin was no longer welcome in his life.
So what was he doing back, standing in Justin’s parents’ living room?
“Thank you,” Elliot said gravely.
Suddenly, Justin was aware he was still holding Elliot’s hand and let it go, taking an involuntary step back. He wasn’t prepared for all the half-repressed memories dragged to the surface by Elliot’s touch—and he certainly wasn’t prepared to deal with them in front of his notoriously meddlesome, if well-meaning, extended family.
Elliot stepped away as well, dropping his eyes. The sudden loss of contact felt like…well, a loss.
“Is Mark coming?” Trish asked, peering behind Justin’s shoulder as if expecting to find his boyfriend loitering in the corridor.
“No,” he said curtly.
“Oh, that’s too bad. Maybe he’ll join us tomorrow, then?”
“I don’t think so. How are your studies going?” he asked Trish, desperately trying to divert her focus elsewhere.
“I’m doing great. Passed all my midterms.”
“With flying colors,” Dave said.
He rose from his seat to shake Justin’s hand as Elliot stepped aside to make room for him and plopped back down, taking over half the couch in a casual sprawl. Dave was a big guy, tall and built like a quarterback. Trish was taller than Justin by an inch, and nearly as broad in the shoulders, but Dave made her seem petite in comparison.
“That’s terrific,” Justin said, his voice warming.
His plan of going to art school had gone up in flames and then slowly fizzled over the years as other considerations took precedence over the illusions of youth, but at least it hadn’t all been for nothing. With her athletics scholarship, Trish had been accepted to UIndy, and as long as she got to achieve that dream, he was happy to do anything he could to support her.
“I can’t believe you got even paler, though,” Trish said, casting a critical eye over him. “And thinner. Are you auditioning for the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past?”
“You’re the one to talk, Trish,” Aunt Marnie observed primly. “That’s the trouble with young people today. You can’t be bothered to take care of yourselves. Eating sandwiches in front of the TV instead of sitting down for a proper meal, chugging all those soft drinks, always on your phones instead of having a nice long conversation over the dinner table.”
She glanced disapprovingly at Uncle Tony as she said it. Justin couldn’t tell whether her dissatisfaction stemmed from his being effectively absent from the proceedings, or that his preoccupation with his own mobile device undermined her point of it being the affliction of solely the younger generation.
Justin rolled his eyes and caught a glimpse of Elliot doing the same. He pretended not to notice.
“Oh, shush, Marnie.” Justin’s dad, John, tsked in annoyance at his sister-in-law as he settled comfortably in his shabby armchair. “Leave the girl alone. The last thing she needs is your dieting advice.”
“Just so you know, I eat healthier than all of you,” Trish said, sitting back down on the sofa beside her fiancé. Thankfully, she wasn’t ruffled by her aunt’s comment. Unlike Justin, she had always boasted a sunny disposition and staunchly refused to let bullies of any variety upset her. “And I drink nothing but fresh juice and water. Carbonated for special occasions.”
Dave snickered and petted her arm lovingly.
“Yes. Well. You must be tired, dear,” Aunt Marnie said, changing the subject and addressing Justin. “Why don’t you sit, put your feet up for a bit? Now, are you sure your young man isn’t coming? I had such a nice chat with him when you brought him over for Thanksgiving. Did you know—”
“I’m sure,” Justin interrupted her. Elliot’s gaze was like a laser beam trained on him, but he refused to meet it head on. “Actually, I think I’ll go see if Mom needs any help in the kitchen.”
Justin beat a hasty retreat before they could all start bickering again—and before he had to explain his current heartache in front of the man who was the first to ever break it.
A voracious reader from the age of five, Isabelle Adler has always dreamed of one day putting her own stories into writing. She loves traveling, art, and science, and finds inspiration in all of these. Her favorite genres include sci-fi, fantasy, and historical adventure. She also firmly believes in the unlimited powers of imagination and caffeine.
Ren has always wanted to leave, to escape his quiet village life. He wakes up from gold-tinged dreams with his heart pounding and a yearning for something he can’t name, can’t hold. He longs to experience something magical just once in his life.
Nico’s monsters don’t lurk under the bed. They walk in daylight. They haunt him every day of his life. He’s possibly the strongest magician of his time, yet he’s trapped. All he wants is an out.
At a magical carnival in the middle of a forest, Ren and Nico collide. They’ve been on this collision course their entire lives, always hurtling toward each other. For both men, escape is now. They have no choice but to flee together. Monsters and betrayal hunt them across strange lands. They find themselves on a journey to save each other—and possibly the world. All they have is one another, Nico’s magic, and a lifetime of half-remembered dreams. But finding each other, finally having someone to rely on, might be the strongest magic of all.
The lake was on fire. Ren dipped his oars into the water and swept himself closer to the blaze, each stroke an exultation. He’d been waiting months for this, counting down the hot summer weeks to autumn and rain and flames.
He was ready to throw himself into the burn.
The fire came on time, as it did every year. The first rainstorm of autumn brought them down from the sky. Or so the story was told. Ren couldn’t quite bring himself to believe they rode through the skies on storm clouds and dropped to the ground between thunderclaps, stealing their impossible power from the lightning.
Then again, they were magicians. Anything was possible.
Ren’s village, Klein, lay huddled in the dark at his back. On the opposite shore, half the forest flickered red. The low clouds caught and held the glowing light from below. The spectacle could be seen from every village in the surrounding valley, a beacon: come, step into the heat, play with us, burn with us.
For the first time in his life, he was going to see it up close. From the quiet safety of Klein, the spectacle always gave the impression of a town set aflame. So near to it, it wasn’t like that at all. More like the whole world had ignited. His fingers around the wood paddles twitched with anticipation. This was it. Finally. Finally.
By the time Ren reached the middle of the lake, half of it alight, a bright crimson flared across the surface and leaped like waves in wind. Reflections set the rest of the lake ablaze so that it seemed to Ren he was sitting in the very middle of the conflagration. So far, he had avoided the areas of the lake that had caught flame.
Magic. God, yes. He could practically taste it in the air, and he wanted more of it. He’d dreamed of magic for years, a gold thread of it always in his mind’s eye. Since childhood, magic remained a ball of yearning lodged in his chest. Ren had to see it for himself. Touch it. Experience it. He wanted to drink it, have it sear his throat.
For years, he’d heard whispers of this from people in nearby villages, those who had gotten close to it over the years.
Those who’d walked through it—and come out on the other side.
Ren paused in the middle of the lake to take it all in. He would be seeing fire in his dreams that night.
His turn had come to walk into this wild world.
He dug his oars into the lake, his reflection rippling away from the boat with each stroke. Ren pushed himself closer to the ruby burn, a moth drawn to the dangerous lure of light.
Emme C. Taylor can be found wandering stormy beaches with a pen and notebook in hand, waiting for inspiration or lightning to strike. She believes the atmospheric environment helps her to write the grittiest parts of her stories. Crochet and dark chocolate ease her mind when her characters aren’t cooperating. Emme will happily talk about almost anything to avoid having to talk about herself. How about this weather, huh?
Rivals to friends to lovers and more — there’s much ado about you, you, you.
Open Cover Before Striking: Davis Carmichael doesn’t do love. He’d rather strip naked and crawl through a field of broken glass than give anyone that much control over him. The only thing he cares about is his journalism career. That is, until he meets Cristian Baranov, a die-hard Romeo with an uncanny knack for making connections and taming cranky wordsmiths. A man who breaks down Davis’s resistance with a sweep of his hand for just one night. Neither expected they’d ever meet again, but fate has other plans…
Best Laid Plans: Jefferson’s a serious-natured soccer star, and Teddy was born to party till the wheels come off. But they have more fun fighting with each other than they would kissing anyone else. Maybe — maybe — they’re falling in love. But when everything turns topsy-turvy, is their new alliance strong enough to save the day?
Teddy retraced his path backward, down the three shallow porch steps and onto the sidewalk in front of 1514 Saltman Street. Dandelions and crabgrass grew through cracks in the pavement, and someone named BIG JOE had signed the concrete before it dried back in — Teddy squinted — 1983.
Teddy pressed the fingertips of both hands to his mouth as he craned his neck for a good look up at 1514. Two blocks away from the University of West Ioannes campus. Near enough to walk; far enough for independence. Red brick — the kind of red that made him think of sunsets and abattoirs — battered and chipped at the corners. Faded black shutters at every window. The wooden porch boards had been painted a dull slate gray and had gaps between them big enough to lose a quarter down. Straight-up house on the bottom floor, divided into two doll-sized apartments on the second floor. Climbing vines draped lushly over the walls. And it had balconies.
Yes and yes again. Teddy’s grin grew behind the lattice of his fingertips. He jigged in place, three steps of a Cossack kick that made his mop of coppery hair bounce over his forehead. It’s perfect.
He shaded his eyes to squint up at the balconies. Those were what had really sold him on the deal — well, he would have signed up no matter what to get out of the dorms, but anyway. When he’d been offered a chance at a different arrangement, he’d jumped at it. He’d imagined it would be nice, but this was the cherry on top. His own private balcony, where he could cozy up in a blanket in winter and leave his flip-flops wherever he pleased during the summer months. He’d bet it got great natural light. He’d been born to bask, and his full-body dusting of freckles proved it.
Did the balcony already have a chair, or would he need to scout one out at the Army Surplus? Teddy stood on his tiptoes, but he couldn’t be sure. The sturdy vines growing up the sides of the house made it difficult to see past them in places, so thick and verdant green that they had their own personality.
Hmm. I wonder…
Teddy kicked off his shoes and wiggled his bare toes on the pavement, right over BIG JOE’s signature. The vines looked strong enough to climb, and he was a small guy. They ought to hold five-four and a buck-twenty-five. He tugged at a trailing green tendril to check and made a pleased noise in the back of his throat when they didn’t give way. They barely budged except to rustle at him in annoyance.
“Let’s see what we can see,” he said, reaching for a double grip on the vines over his head. “Up, up, and away!”
He almost made it halfway to the second story — not bad, personal record — before his left foot skidded off. Oops. He’d forgotten to account for natural skin oils on his soles and slipperiness from the warmth of sneakers in summertime. If it hadn’t been for that, he thought, he would have made it all the way.
The body-to-body collision jarred the fillings in Teddy’s molars, and the pair of sinewy arms that wrapped around his chest made his ribs squeak in protest. He flailed and kicked his legs backward and got his ass dropped on the sidewalk for his pains. Right on JOE. Oh, the humanity. “What the hell?” he yelped, looking up again at six feet of indignation framed in chestnut hair and bright-blue eyes.
“Jefferson?” Hastily, Teddy flipped his leather kilt down to hide the goods. “What are you doing here?”
“Saving your ass. Don’t bother to thank me.”
“I wasn’t going to,” Teddy said. He rolled to his knees and got up, dusting himself off. Jefferson! Of all the people. To say they didn’t get along — and never had — was like daring to suggest water might be slightly wet or that fire had the potential to burn. And they couldn’t ever seem to avoid each other. He was besties with the boyfriend of Teddy’s bestie, Noelani, which was just all kinds of swell. Everywhere he went, Jefferson poked his giant soccer head up, with his jock buddies in tow and his utter, absolute lack of a sense of humor and his stupid cologne-ad face.
Jerk. Teddy picked a stubborn dandelion fluff off his elbow. “What are you doing here? It’s summer session. You’re at soccer camp.”
Jefferson arched an eyebrow. He leaned his hip against the porch, his Ioannes tank clinging tightly to his pecs. Unlike Teddy, he tanned instead of burned. Freckles had never dared show their faces on his skin, no matter how much time he spent kicking little white balls around, broiling on a practice field. “Am I really? Look again. Unless you think I’m a figment of your imagination.”
“My imagination can do better than that,” Teddy said. Okay, maybe not much better. He could admit to an aesthetic appreciation for the benefits of good nutrition and plentiful exercise, and maybe some good genetics, but that was it. There, he drew the line. He lifted his chin. “Are you playing hooky or what?”
Jefferson ignored the question. He reached out to take one of Teddy’s hands, the move so surprising that Teddy actually let him do it — until Jefferson flipped it from back to front and wrinkled his nose. “Nice manicure. You and Noelani go to the same place to get your nails done?”
Teddy bristled up. He might be small, but he was a redhead, by God, and he had the temper to match. And it was a nice manicure. He jerked his hand back and flashed the nails, neatly shaped and trimmed and painted a sparkly blue, at the… the… oaf, finishing with the middle ones up. “I can get you a discount if you want. Nail Me Spa on Maple. I don’t know if they can do much for athlete’s foot.”
Jefferson chuffed a short breath through his nose and glowered at Teddy. “I was just saying. Jeez. Why do you always have to get all fired up?”
Teddy ignored his question with what he hoped was grand aplomb. Ooh, Jefferson always got him wound so tight. “What are you doing here?” he asked again, planting his feet on the sidewalk.
“What do you think?” Jefferson turned to pick up a duffel that’d been hidden in his shadow and hitched the strap over one shoulder. “I’m moving in.”
Willa Okati is made of many things: imagination, coffee, stray cat hairs, daydreams, more coffee, kitchen experimentation, a passion for winter weather, a little more coffee, and a lifelong love of storytelling. She is definitely one of the quiet ones you have to watch out for.
Charlie Rourke is an ultra fabulous human whirlwind on a mission to launch the next biggest band in the world. However, he might have taken on more than he could handle when he signed on to manage Zero. Promoting a rock band and finding gigs shouldn’t be hard. They’re a talented group with a ton of star power. If Charlie can find the right record label, he’s sure he can help them get to the next level. The only problem is the skater boy slash bassist with a quirky sense of humor. He’s annoying and silly, and he’s exactly Charlie’s type. Except he’s straight.
Ky Baldwin isn’t afraid to switch things up. He loves a challenge as much as anyone, but Charlie doesn’t make things easy. Zero’s manager is a force of nature with a razor sharp tongue, a quick wit, and a no-nonsense attitude. Ky can’t stop thinking about him. Winning over Charlie becomes Ky’s pet project. But when the ice between them thaws, neither is prepared for the intensity of going from enemies to lovers. They’ll have to decide if they’re willing to start from scratch and take a chance on the unexpected.
“I know that was random, but it’s not a bad idea if you think about it. Want something to drink?” Charlie asked as he moved toward the kitchen.
I grabbed his wrist before he got anywhere. “Hang on. What are you doing?”
He cocked his head curiously but didn’t pull away. “I’m being practical. If you read any further about Virgos you probably found out we’re known for being sensible. And polite. So, I’m politely asking if you’d like a beverage while sensibly suggesting that I help out with your skating lessons.”
“Okay. First up…I don’t want a fuckin’ snack and second, it’s not a skating lesson. We’re skateboarding,” I said, glowering at him.
“I’ve heard it said both ways. Skating, skateboarding. I looked it up in Urban Dictionary too, so I’m pretty sure I’m right.”
“No. There’s something in your tone that makes it all wrong. Like you’re purposely trying to sabotage this.”
Charlie opened his mouth in a perfect O. “Gasp! I wouldn’t do that!”
“Cut the crap. You’re doing it now. You don’t want to learn, and you don’t want Oliver to either. It’s a control thing. But you can’t control what you don’t fuckin’ get. So take a seat and let me teach him without you freaking out or—why are you looking at me like that?”
“I don’t know. You’re doing something weird with your eyes, though. You look spaced out.”
“Mmm. I’m trying not to swoon. You look so fierce and you’re holding my hand, Ky. You should feel my heart. It’s beating out of my chest. Seriously.” He fluttered his lashes a few times and bit his bottom lip.
I chuckled softly and stepped closer. “Are you flirting with me, Char?”
“No, it’s the other way around. You’re flirting with me. Big macho displays really get my motor running. Medium-sized ones do too. I love it when…”
Okay, so I lost myself. I tuned out the sound of his voice and concentrated on him. The mischievous glint in his eyes, the proud set of his shoulders, and the way his mouth curled at the corner. He was doing it again. Owning the moment. Taking it over. Charlie looked for weakness in any form, then slyly made adjustments before moving in for the kill. No doubt he thought I’d back down fast and run away. I wasn’t going anywhere.
I fixated on his bottom lip and inched closer. He kept talking…something about dick size or muscles…I wasn’t sure, but I liked the cadence of his voice. The teasing lilt and easy humor. I let go of his wrist, brushing his fingers before setting my hand on his hip. He went perfectly still.
Before he could ask me what the fuck I was doing, I kissed him.
It was more of a press of lips than a grand gesture. And though it might not rank as the kind of kiss that would change the world, I immediately knew it would change mine.
Everything in me went on high alert. I’d never been so in tune with a moment. The flutter of his eyelashes, the brush of his nose, and the soft sweetness of his lips against mine. Fuck, it was amazing. Like mind-blowing amazing. He tasted like cherries and smelled like sunshine mixed with something exotic.
I couldn’t be sure over the roar of my heart attempting to beat its way out of my chest, but I thought he hummed in approval, so I angled my head slightly to deepen the connection and pulled him closer. If he was anyone else, I probably would have stuck my tongue between his lips and let my hands roam all over his body. I wanted to, but I didn’t want to scare either of us. So I stayed where I was until the need for oxygen became an issue.
Then I jumped back two feet and stared at him with my eyes bugged out. “Holy fuck.”
Charlie set his fingers on his bottom lip and blinked like he was coming out of a daze. “You kissed me,” he said softly.
Lane Hayes is grateful to finally be doing what she loves best. Writing full-time! It’s no secret Lane loves a good romance novel. An avid reader from an early age, she has always been drawn to well-told love story with beautifully written characters. These days she prefers the leading roles to both be men. Lane discovered the M/M genre a few years ago and was instantly hooked. Her debut novel was a 2013 Rainbow Award finalist and subsequent books have received Honorable Mentions, and won First Prize in the 2016 and 2017 Rainbow Awards. She loves red wine, chocolate and travel (in no particular order). Lane lives in Southern California with her amazing husband in a newly empty nest.