Currently viewing the category: "Publisher: Amber Quill Press"

The Siberian by Carolina Valdez

The Siberian

by Carolina Valdez

Amber Quill Press/Allure

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61124-603-2

Serge’s a Russian university recluse. This protects the secret of who he is and what he becomes when the moon is full. When the sexy biology professor storms his quiet citadel, Sergei must decide if loving him is worth the risk that he might kill this man he loves.

Note: Prologue omitted.

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Healing by Stevie Woods

Healing

by Stevie Woods

Amber Quill Press

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61124-369-7

Injured, Audin desperately needs a healer, is shocked to discover Tener, who he hasn’t seen since their argument years earlier. Learning Audin’s life is at stake from an implant placed inside him by the government, Tener confesses his involvement with an underground organization fighting to bring down the dangerous regime.

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Choices by Stevie Woods

Choices

by Stevie Woods

Amber Quill Press

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61124-359-8

Best friends since kindergarten, Ben and James separate after college due to different choices. Ben stays in their hometown while James heads off to New York. Ben works to make his life follow the path he wants, dreaming of the day James realizes he made a mistake and comes home.

Note: Prologue omitted.

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Stone By Stone by Stevie Woods

Stone By Stone
by Stevie Woods

Amber Quill Press

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61124-167-9
Print ISBN: 978-1-61124-945-3

Can two men build a relationship when one must tear down each stone the other has worked so hard to build? Brother Mark, a monk toiling as a stone mason at Tavistock Abbey, is irrevocably drawn to Andrew, who’s sent by King Henry to audit the monasteries prior to closure.

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More Than Chains To Bind by Stevie Woods

More Than Chains To Bind
by Stevie Woods

Amber Quill Press

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61124-134-1
Print ISBN: 978-1-61124-954-5

When Prince Liander and his Guardian, Hollis, are captured during a raid on the south coast of Tesla, they realize they’re prisoners of their country’s ruthless enemy. They are chained and kept separate in training halls fearing the day they may have to fight each other for their very survival.

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Night Train To Venice
Night Train, Book 3
by Carolina Valdez

Amber Quill Press

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61124-290-4
Print ISBN: 978-1611249088

Someone is robbing and killing diamond couriers. When his Italian lover, Dante, is assigned a delivery in Venice, Alexandros insists he and Malcolm, the other staff immortal, go as body guards. Malcolm and his train steward reignite an old romance, but all are plunged into a maelstrom of danger none may survive.

Chapter One

Ostiense Railway Station
Rome, Italy
Someone was robbing and killing couriers throughout the western world. Where and when they would strike next was the big unknown.
Dante didn’t seem to be aware he’d re-tightened his grip for the umpteenth time on his carry-on—a small, black sports bag containing a minor fortune in gold, diamonds and other precious stones. It made Malcolm, standing behind him in line to guard his back, nervous. Like a secret service agent protecting the U. S. president, the middle-aged vampire scanned for signs of a threat. There had been none. At least not yet. Still, he wouldn’t drop his guard until this assignment was over and they were safely in Louisiana’s New Orleans once again.
With quick efficiency, a man dressed in royal blue livery with gold braid trim and a matching cap stood behind the reception stand checking tickets and passports. Beside him, gleaming like a monogrammed silver bullet in the evening light, the train awaited its passengers. As he completed each check-in, the man waved the next person to its steps with a smile.
Alexandros had his arm around Dante’s shoulder, and as Malcolm turned around again he noticed Alex’s gentle squeeze. He and Dante looked at each other and smiled. There was a glow to those smiles, and Malcolm imagined the nostalgia they must feel. He figured the glows were because Dante and the vampire Alexandros had met on the night train from Rome to Naples, and here, a year later, they were traveling once again on Italian rails—as lovers and co-workers this time, no longer rivals for new business for separate diamond couriers.
They’d risked danger in Naples and later in New Orleans. Now they risked it again. To insure Dante’s safety when he left New Orleans with a major delivery and return pickup, Global’s CEO had assigned the two immortals on the staff as his bodyguards.
Watching Alex and Dante interact caused a downturn in Malcolm’s spirits. Not for the first time in recent months he felt hollow inside because there was no one to share special memories with him. There hadn’t been for a long time, but until he’d been exposed to the feelings his friends shared it hadn’t bothered him. These days he felt something vital in his living death was missing, and it was beginning to get to him in a big way.
The sound of the stamp and a small rrrip as the receptionist cleared their passports and tore their roundtrip tickets apart brought Malcolm’s attention back to the task at hand.
Presenting their documents, the smiling man in the uniform said, “Enjoy your visit, gentlemen. We hope you’ll choose the Simplon-Orient-Express again soon.”
Malcolm lifted one eyebrow as Alexandros dropped his arm and slid his hand with sexual smoothness over Dante’s butt. Then his feet hit the steps first, providing an advance shield for the more vulnerable human Dante. Malcolm closed in tight on Dante’s back. They boarded…and stepped into an Art Deco world of the nineteen twenties and thirties, where insets of Lalique glass figures in back-lighted bas-relief rested between wooden panels in warm, inviting tones.
The chairs were upholstered in brown cut velvet. Small lamps with fluted, rose colored shades cast a warm glow on tables in booths, and round balls of incandescent lights followed the line of the car just beneath the ceiling.
After the bracing evening air, the car felt almost hot against Malcolm’s cool skin. It wasn’t heat created by the lights, but was the response of his cold vampire nature in the warmer environment. It felt good, and he smiled.
“Quite a step up from the night train to Naples,” Dante whispered back to Malcolm.
Malcolm stifled a chuckle. “I’m not familiar with that one, but leave it to Nicolaides to choose one of the classiest historic trains in the world for our assignment.”
“‘The train against which all other luxury trains are measured.’ Or so their ad quotes Vanity Fair.”
“Wanna bet Global didn’t cough up the complete cost of our tickets?”
Dante’s smile was broad. “No bet there. It’s a given.”
Malcolm’s house in New Orleans was more than nice, but Alexandros, who’d had several hundred years more after his turning than Malcolm in which to build his fortune, had filled his French Creole home with expensive antiques and objets d’art of other eras. It all fit his elegant style. This train to Venice had a history all its own, with over thirty restored vintage cars. Alex would have paid the difference in fare just for the experience of riding it, and to take Dante with him would only add to his pleasure.
“Mister Nicolaides? Signor Rocco?” A mature steward dressed in the blue and gold livery greeted the immortal in English and Dante in Italian. His expression was courteous.
They nodded, and Dante replied in Italian that he spoke some English and Mr. Nicolaides a little Italian. “But our companion is more comfortable with English.”
“I’m happy to speak English. My name is Raimundo, and I’ll be your steward for the journey. If you’ll follow me to the sleeping car, I’ll lead you to your cabin suite.”
Malcolm hoped the cabin was well insulated for sound because he was certain Alex and Dante would celebrate with some bed romping this evening. Again, the sense of something missing washed through him.
A second steward in blue—as Aryan as Alexandros was not, despite his flowing blond hair— stepped up to Malcolm. His deep blue eyes danced with pleasure and a smile teased his lips as if welcoming Malcolm had made his day. Taking a cue from Raimundo, he said in English, “Herr Müeller? I will be your steward. My name is Nick. Follow me, please. Your cabin adjoins that of your fellow passengers.”
The reserved but cheerful welcome sent warmth washing through Malcolm as he followed.
His first impression of Nick was that he could have modeled on Project Runway or for Calvin Klein or posed for photo shoots for major magazines. What he was doing on this train as a steward when he could have the world at his feet and big money in its pockets, was a puzzle. Malcolm almost drooled over the sudden sensations he was experiencing in the presence of this genial and striking younger man. He frowned as a memory he couldn’t quite pull up tugged in the recesses of his brain. Maybe Nick actually did model and Malcolm had seen photos of him. Then again, maybe he had a twin. Or a doppelgänger…a double. And wouldn’t that be fun?
Raimundo led the way into the next car, where they walked on thick carpet in royal blue and scarlet along a corridor lined with rich woods with beautiful grain. The door he produced a key to was decorated with a floral pattern of inlaid wood.
“You’ll find your private lounge and sleeping cabin are connected.” He opened the door, and they disappeared inside.
Not far down the corridor, Nick inserted a key in the lock of the adjoining cabin. Turning, he smiled and ushered Malcolm into a suite where the carpet and upholstery matched the colors and pattern of the luxurious carpet in the corridor. It was attractive, but it was a tight fit for the two of them, and he couldn’t imagine the sizeable Alexandros in a room this small with Dante, who wasn’t small either. Position wise, any sex they’d be having would have to be ingenious—a la Kama Sutra. He smoothed his wrinkled brow into an amused smile at the thought. He had a feeling he was going to enjoy this trip despite the serious nature of its objective.
His lounge had a small banquette sofa and footstool against one wall. His backpack, which he used as luggage, was on a wire rack above the sofa. A small table and a lamp with a fluted rose shade were positioned beneath the wide window, which covered most of the end wall. Stepping through the door to the sleeping area, Nick pointed out the wardrobe. “Ordinarily, I would have unpacked for you, but since your trip is short, I have only removed your sleepwear. If you wish to have your shoes shined, a suit pressed, or something laundered, leave them in this plastic garment bag outside the door. They’ll be ready for you tomorrow morning when I bring your breakfast.”
Malcolm nodded.
“This,”—the steward continued as he opened what looked like another wardrobe—“is your wash basin, with hot and cold running water, mirror and towels.”
Malcolm noted a bar of French milled soap in a closed container and a fancy glass water bottle and glass securely fastened next to the mirror. A crystal vase holding red and blue flowers was next to them.
The double bed almost filled the area. You could barely open the wardrobes.
“Usually the suites include bunk beds so you have more room, but Mister Nicolaides requested this bed for you.”
Malcolm looked around and noted that was the extent of the amenities. He opened his mouth, but before he could speak Nick anticipated his question. “The lavatory is at the end of the car. Not exactly like home, is it? But it does give a taste of how the wealthy traveled in those days.”
“It does. It’s beautiful.” Knowing the cost of their accommodations, Malcolm thought it was also how the wealthy traveled these days.
Nick pointed to a small hook on the wall. “In the train’s heyday, men wore their watches tucked in their waistcoats or pockets. They were attached to a chain with a small medallion which hung on the outside,”—he paused—“but then, you’d know about that, wouldn’t you?” His wide blue eyes looked straight into Malcolm’s dark ones.
Malcolm hadn’t traveled in this kind of luxury, but he’d worn waistcoat watches. The chain with an ornament was known as a fob. The thing was, these cars had been built in the early eighteen eighties and the watches had fallen out of favor with men by the end of that century, over a hundred years ago. How could Nick know he was familiar with them? This made him wonder if the steward realized Malcolm’s paleness indicated he was one of the undead and not just seriously anemic or undergoing chemotherapy. He’d puzzle that out later.
“I’ve heard of them,” he said, playing it safe and not giving his age away.
“When they restored the cars, they left these hooks on the wall as an historic feature because you hung your watch fob here at night and could check the time first thing in the morning.” As they returned to the lounge door to the corridor, Nick said, “Press this button if you wish me to come. I’m available for anything you need during your journey.”
Wish him to come? Available for anything he needed? Having sex on his mind already, Malcolm almost threw his head back and laughed at the interpretation one might make to those phrases. Before he could stop himself, he folded his arms across his chest and teasingly let his eyes roam the photogenic man from head to toe, lingering in the groin area for less time than it took to inhale fully. “For anything?”
Instead of the blush and stammer he expected, Nick looked him right in the eyes. “Anything.”
As he handed Malcolm the key, one side of his mouth tightened a bit—as if to control a smile fighting to respond to the tease. At the door, he paused. “Dinner is at eight.” He walked out and the door closed behind him.
Malcolm sank on the banquette, shocked at his behavior. “Hell’s bells, what’s the matter with me? Flirting with the staff! I must have lost my mind.”
***
No sooner had Raimundo stepped into the corridor and closed the door than Alexandros reached around Dante’s waist from behind and drew him in close. Dante let himself relax into the cool hard body. Alex’s lips kissed Dante’s neck and lingered on his throat below his ear. “Bring back memories?”
In the elegance of the historic carriage, in the arms of the elegant being whose lips he wanted to taste even as the deep tone of his voice evoked images of how they’d met and what incredible, fucking sex they’d shared that first night after a harrowing evening of danger. Dante tipped his head for greater access to the sensitive skin of his neck and opened himself to it all. He placed his arms over those around his waist and let memory flood his senses. “Feeling nostalgic, vampire?”
“I could hardly wait to get you in here to celebrate the anniversary of our first train ride.”
Dante’s laugh was low and throaty. “Which you’ve chosen to celebrate in great style. It’s just like you.”
“We deserve it.” Alexandros’s teeth scraped across the pulsing artery in Dante’s throat with the promise of what was to come and one hand massaged his belly just above his cock. He sighed. “Even after a year, your blood still calls to me.”
Anticipation sent goose flesh cropping up on Dante. “Eager, are you?”
“Aren’t you?”
Dante turned to face him and planted his hands on each firm butt globe as he rubbed his swollen cock against the rigid bulge in Alex’s slacks. “What does that tell you?”
A low grumble echoed in Alex’s throat as his mouth pressed Dante’s. Dante opened to him as a cold, seeking tongue swept inside. His arms crept around Alex’s neck, his body and mind focused on what they were doing to each other and how good it felt. 
A rap sounded at the door. A voice announced, “Dinner is served.” Muffled footsteps moved along the corridor on the lush carpet.
Dante moaned in disappointment. They released each other. Alex ran a finger from his temple to his neck and said, “To be continued.”
“I would hope so.”
Dante washed his hands and face in cold water, giving his rigid cock time to soften and subside. In the mirror, he saw Alex removing the gems from his carry-on and feeding them into the secret pocket of his leather belt. The last thing he pulled from the bag was the emerald and diamond necklace set in heavy gold. It was the most valuable of the treasures Dante carried.
Brilliant flashes from the diamonds and emeralds reflected in the mirror, almost blinding him. The provenance of the necklace determined it had been designed in the early nineteenth century as a birthday gift from an emperor for his mistress. It had disappeared after the fall of that small empire, resurfacing only thirty years ago in America. Now an Italian who owned a palazzo in Venice had purchased it at a Christie’s auction. Global was under contract to Sotheby’s and Christie’s to make some of their deliveries, and the Venezian palazzo was their destination.
Alec ran his white fingers reverently across its fire, his expression serious. “Did you know the only couriers robbed or killed were delivering items similar to this— whose value mirrored that of these gems?”
For the first time on their journey, Dante felt a small stab of alarm. “No, I didn’t. I wonder why Jim didn’t pass on that little bit of information.”
“Our boss is good at omitting important things if he thinks it’ll bring a reaction. In fact, he is strategic about it. He only told Malcolm and me so as not to alarm you unduly.”
“He seems to have complete faith in the two of you guarding me.”Now Alex’s face broke into a smug smile. “Oh, yes.”
He’d never seen Alex smug before. He smiled, remembering their hair-raising adventures in Naples and New Orleans. “I do recall some of your work,”
He watched Alex’s nimble fingers zip the hidden belt compartment. Dante threaded the leather strip through the loops on his slacks and fastened the buckle. His shirt and jacket hid the belt. After running a comb through his hair, they were ready to go.
Alex opened the door and peered out, then signaled the all clear. Dante felt a little silly because he’d never been afraid when he carried precious metals and stones. He was always cautious, but he’d never been afraid. Now he wondered if he should be. Although he knew it would be rare if he were to be attacked in as safe a place as Venice, he wasn’t eager to be roughed up. And certainly not to die. “So I’ll be patient,” he told himself. “I’ll play this charade of being in danger even if it doesn’t seem quite real.”
Dante stepped out first and Alex followed because the corridors were too narrow to walk side by side. Dante knocked on Malcolm’s door, and the three of them walked in tandem to the dining car. Despite their relaxed postures, Dante knew his friends. Knew the vampires were on full alert.
The minute they stepped into the cramped dining car, the smell of foods roasting and baking mingled with the scent of wine, coffee, whiskey and liqueurs caused Dante’s stomach to growl. They each ordered a la carte, the vamps pretending to eat while surreptitiously slipping their food to Dante, who planned to clean every plate.
“Is everything in place for tomorrow morning?” Malcolm asked as he held a fork of pulled pork poised to go into his mouth. Of course it would never make it there. It would end up on Dante’s plate and in his stomach instead.
“Sun block, makeup, dark glasses, gloves and hats with wide brims,” Alexandros answered. He toyed with a fluffy pudding slathered with red cherry sauce and topped with a snowy dollop of whipped cream. His laugh was light, as if Malcolm had said something humorous. Dante’s laughter joined in, but they were all play acting.
“Mmm, this food is excellent.” Dante meant it. “I was starved despite the wonderful breakfast and lunch we had aboard the company jet from London.”
“A top French chef is in charge of the cuisine here.” Malcolm lifted his head, nostrils flaring, to fully enjoy the scents. “The food does smell wonderful. A pity swallowing it would make me so ill.”
“Malcolm and I must send our compliments to the chef,” Alexandros said.
Dante almost choked on his dessert. Their laughter was no longer an act.
“I’m a little worried about tomorrow morning,” Dante admitted in a low voice once they’d composed themselves. “Can you stay awake until we reach our hotel?” Once sleep hit the two vampires it was difficult to wake them before late afternoon.
“We’ll have slept enough to guard you. No one’s going to pass out on you. The dark glasses and wide brims will help fool our natures into thinking it isn’t day time.” Malcolm’s voice had a reassuring tone to it.
Dante looked out the window. The train rocked along, its ride rougher than that of modern trains. The faint clickety-clack of the wheels on steel rails formed a rhythm section all their own. The train swayed over a rough patch. A passenger walking down the aisle grabbed the back of a booth to steady herself.
For a moment, Dante didn’t know if he was being manipulated into feeling confident all would be well or if Malcolm was saying what he believed—or wanted—to be true. Either way, he decided he’d have to be on full alert tomorrow to keep his guards awake until they were safely ensconced in their hotel suite. Since Venice was reportedly safe except for an occasional pickpocket, his concern wasn’t about being attacked; it was what in hell he’d do if the two vampires collapsed in a deep sleep on the street.
Also, Alexandros had almost died from sun poisoning in Naples, and he couldn’t allow that to happen again.
Getting real, he admitted if he were actually in danger—if his delivery had been noted and leaked to criminals—there was a slight risk tonight because Malcolm had a separate cabin. Judging from how small their quarters were, it hadn’t been possible for all three of them to get any rest in one cabin. The double bed in their sleeping cabin filled almost the entire room, and Dante looked forward to sharing it with Alex even though they’d be crowded. But Malcolm would’ve had to sleep on the lounge floor if he’d stayed with them.
If Malcolm was with them, Dante couldn’t have sex with Alex.
“You’re smiling,” Alexandros said in a soft voice.
Dante looked into eyes as green as the emeralds Alex had let sift through his cool, white fingers in their cabin suite. Like the inclusions in natural emeralds, his eyes held layer after layer of depth. One could study his eyes for days and not discover every mystery they held. Dante nodded without speaking but reached under the table and ran his hand along his lover’s thigh. He was smiling because his thoughts had been on those few seductive moments before dinner was announced. It had been the only time they’d been alone together since they’d flown out of Los Angeles two nights ago.
His hand crept toward the juncture of Alex’s legs, and the instant he caressed the stiff boner there a cold hand stopped him.
Alex grinned and whispered in his ear, “Patience, Signor Rocco. Do not start something we cannot finish.”
His breath was cool and smelled fresh and clean. Considering his meals consisted of drinking blood, this never failed to amaze Dante.
Malcolm stood. “Shall we go?”
Their meals were included in the cost of their tickets and tips were prohibited. Dante and Alex rose together, and this time Malcolm took the lead.
Alexandros put his arm around Dante’s shoulder and followed. Whereas Malcolm would have been looking around for anything menacing, Alexandros had the uncanny ability to sense danger sight unseen.
“We can play chess in the lounge car,” Alex suggested. “A pianist will be playing music appropriate to the era there this evening.”
“You two play. I’m going to read the Italian newspapers.” His spoken English was good, but not so much his reading of it. Now that he was back on Italian soil, homesickness filtered in. Reading a paper he didn’t have to struggle over would be a sweet treat and more absorbing than a game of chess.
While the pianist’s fingers flew over the keys with muted renditions of jazz, swing music and the blues, the two vamps sat and studied the carved ivory pieces on the chess board in silence. Alex’s seat was near Dante because he’d know danger was coming before it happened.
At first, Dante was aware of the music and the occasional tick of a playing piece tapping the board as it was moved or toppled, and then he concentrated only on his newspaper. He read every page, every ad, and loved it.
He felt a cold touch on his shoulder and fingers that squeezed without hurting.
“Time for bed,” Alexandros said.
“Who won?”
Alex looked up at Malcolm, emerald eyes dancing, and bowed slightly from his waist . “Herr Müeller, of course. He usually does. As a former officer in the Prussian army, he’s a consummate strategist.”
Dante looked at his watch. Almost midnight. The witching hour. For him it signaled the hours when he would be bewitched by the hands and mouth of an ancient Greek immortal, whose strategies in the art of fucking couldn’t be surpassed.

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Latin Boyz
by P.A. Brown

Amber Quill Press

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61124-256-0

Twenty-one year old Gabe will do anything to keep his family safe. In his struggles, he meets LAPD patrol officer Alejandro Cerveras. Tragedy strikes and Gabe’s rage spirals out of control, leading to tragedy and the greatest loss of all.

Chapter One

I barely drifted to sleep when tires screeched outside. The harsh blast of a car horn followed. It was all the warning I got. The first shot blew through the bedroom wall over my head. Drywall dust puffed out, at the same time my sister, Nattie, screamed.
I bolted through the door to her bedroom in the back of the house and grabbed her around the waist. Dragging her off the bed, we hit the floor, the pink ruffles of her Disney bedskirts wrapped around both of us. I took the weight of our fall on the hard linoleum floor and my shoulder jolted under the impact of her plump, fourteen-year-old body. I rolled over, and pinned her under me.
She screamed again and smacked me. Her fist hit my back and shoulders. One slammed into my ear. My head rocked sideways and light flared behind my eyes. More shots. The living room window shattered, and the battered, twenty-one inch TV my Uncle Tio and I salvaged from the dump last year imploded.
Under me, Nattie whimpered and shivered. I stroked her hair and whispered soft nonsense words to her. Nothing penetrated her terror.
“Mami!” She flailed at me and screamed for our mother.
“Mami. No.”
All this brought back way too many memories. Memories of another day when shots took the life of our mami and left Nattie permanently brain damaged. All my work to protect her, lost in a new hail of bullets.
More shots hit the front of the house, including the room which had been my mother’s until her death three months ago. The room I refused to give to Nattie, even though Tio said it was only right. I knew in my gut I didn’t want her in the front of the house.
The screech of tires signaled their departure. Nattie’s renewed moans and guttural grunts broke the fragile silence.
Familiar feet shuffled down the hall. I didn’t look up when Tio entered the room. His weak, old man’s voice quavered. Once he‟d had a cumbra’s voice. Now he was a broken man who looked to me to protect all of us, when I couldn’t protect myself.
“Who is it, Gabriel?” he cried. “Who is doing this?”
I couldn’t look at him while I tried to calm Nattie. Tio knew as well as I did who it was. Gangsta assholes from Locusts XIII Crew, trying to clean up the business they started three months ago.
“Go, Tio. Call 911.”
“Gabriel—”
“Go. I’ll take care of Nattie.”
He left and shuffled to the kitchen where our single working phone hung on the wall.
Nattie clung to me. She no longer screamed for our dead mother. Now she only whimpered. I stroked her back through her worn flannel pajamas. I didn’t need light to know it would be the ones with Winnie the Pooh and Tigger all over them. The ones she put on every night since our mother had been shot by the same gang bangers who tried to kill us again tonight. She did so many little things to give herself comfort in a world which must seem mad to her.
It took half an hour to calm her. I didn’t put her back to bed.
The pigs would come soon, and they would insist on seeing her, even when they were told how useless their questions were. The sight of them, with their guns and their dark uniforms would freak her out all over, and I knew I would have to calm her again, once 5-0 left. I led her into the living room where we waited.
Dust from the walls hung in the air, the tattered curtains rippled in the breeze which moved through the broken windows. Outside, I could hear the distant wail of sirens. Too few and too late.
I settled my sister on the sofa, sat beside her and smoothed the soft hair off her face. Her eyes, when they met mine, were glazed with fear. I wanted to tell her everything was okay, but I knew the cops would be here soon and make me a liar. It wasn’t ever going to be okay.
Another ten minutes passed before a pair of black-and-whites rolled up in front of our small bungalow on Merced Street. Strobes of red and blue lights flashed like they actually thought the choloz would still be hanging, waving their chrome around.
Nattie and I sat in the living room with hot cocoa that Tio made. I reread her the Pooh story to calm her. She was too big to sit on my lap, but she tried. She curled against my side, her thumb tucked firmly between large lips. Her eyes widened when car doors slammed outside and footsteps climbed the cement steps to the front door.
She paled when Tio opened the door. She knew who was out there, and they scared her almost as much as the choloz.
The first cop through the door was an old regular. I had no idea what his name was, it didn’t matter, they were all alike. This one was a grizzled panzón gabacho, with his fat belly hanging over his gear, and looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here on this fine January night.
But the other one, the one who followed him into our tiny, bullet-strewn home, was one I‟d never seen before. If I had, I would have remembered. He was raza. Smooth, clean-shaven. A strong face. High cheek bones from his Aztec ancestors. His uniform was sharply pressed and stretched tight across his broad chest and thighs. A thick belt across his hips covered with all the things I was used to seeing on 5-0. Dark eyes under his peaked cap met and held mine. I caught my breath.
Beside me, Nattie stiffened. Her eyes widened and I knew she saw their weapons. Even with her soft mind she recognized guns.
I tried to stem her panic with gentle words. But she was beyond that. I broke eye contact with the younger cop and stroked my sister’s sleep-matted hair. I pressed her face against my chest, whispered to her and dried her tears.
The older cop talked. After a while I realized he had introduced the two of them. Officer Adam Donnelly and Alejandro Cerveras.
“Can you tell me what happened here tonight?” The brown cop spoke Spanish. Was that supposed to give us common ground?
I didn’t answer him right away. I needed to deal with Nattie first.
“Mami,” she whispered.
“Mami’s not here right now, bebé,” I said.
“I need you to talk to me,” the cop said like it was only him and me in the room. “I can help you. But you have to tell me what happened tonight.”
He must be new in the area. Otherwise he‟d know it didn’t matter what happened. He wasn’t going to be able to do anything about it.
“In a minute,” I snapped.
I knew my anger upset Nattie, but I found it hard to hold it in check. I looked up when Tio slipped back into the room. “Tio, take Nattie to her room. Read to her.”
“We’ll need to speak to everyone in the house,” the Latino cop said.
“You talk to me. No one else can tell you anything.”
I didn’t look at either cop when I passed the book over and urged Nattie to follow her uncle. My obedient sister did as she was told. Her bunny slippers flopped on the cracked and yellowed linoleum floor with its curled edges.
I watched until they were gone, then swung around to face Cerveras.
“Took you long enough to get here. We called over an hour ago. For all you knew, we could have been lying here, bleeding out.”
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“A car full of G’s got busy on us.” I looked at the wall behind the cop’s head where the bullets had torn holes in the already old wallpaper. Then I looked at the destroyed TV and sighed. “Again,” I added.
Cerveras’s eye brows went up at that. “This has happened before?”
“Pendejo, don’t you people talk to each other? Write reports?” I spun around. Both cops tensed at my sudden movement. I slowed and spread my arms to calm them. Last thing I needed were nervous cops in my living room. “We’ve been over this already. Every time I call you, it’s the same fucking thing. I’m always calling, and it’s always the same.”
“Always calling about what? Other drive-bys?” Cerveras said.
His calmness infuriated me. “I wasn’t aware of any recent gang activity in this area —”
“I keep calling to find out what you guys are doing to find my mother’s killers.”
“Tell me about that, sir. When did it happen?”
“Thanksgiving, last year. Mami—my mother—and my sister, Natalie, were sitting outside.” I jerked my chin toward the front step. “Taking a break. It gets hot in here when you cook. No air.” My hands tightened into fists to stop them from shaking at the memory. My fingernails dug into my flesh. It didn’t do any good to know even if I had been here, it wouldn’t have mattered. I would probably be dead, too. “I wasn’t here. I was in the backyard.”
“And what happened?”
“Vato next door was rumoured to be White Fence. The Locust Crew sent a couple of soldiers after him. One cabrón hit the wrong house.” I rubbed my bare arms, which were crowded with goose bumps. That had been Sadboy, P-Bull’s idiot brother. Sometimes I wondered how accidental it had been. Sadboy knew I didn’t run with his brother anymore. He had never liked me when I did. “My mother was killed. My sister…my sister wasn’t.”
Donnelly wrote something down. He looked bored. Cerveras faked his sympathy real good. As though anyone would believe he felt sorry for a couple of ‘hood güisas.
“You guys were pretty useless then, too,” I added. “Nobody sees anything and you don’t do anything.”
“I’m sorry. Sometimes our resources are stretched thin.”
“Especially when the ones calling you are brown, right? Then they real thin and scarce.” I brushed aside the denial I saw in his eyes. “Forget it. It’s old news. Question is, you gonna do something this time?”
Cerveras looked puzzled. “If they had the wrong house last time, why are they still harassing you?”
I didn’t tell him my history with the Locusts. Not his fucking business. Instead I said, “They don’t like the noise I been making about them. Been trying to get you guys to do something for the ‘hood, shut them down. I’m bad for their business.”
“Did you see the shooters tonight?” Donnelly asked.
“Sure, I raced out the front door and wrote down their plate number while they drove off. I’m bullet proof, vato.”
“No need for sarcasm, sir.” Donnelly seemed genuinely put out.
I rolled my eyes. “No, I did not see them. I was lying on the floor in my sister’s bedroom, trying to keep us from getting our heads blown off.”
“We’ll canvass the neighborhood. See if anyone saw anything,” Cerveras said. He had a strong voice. Strong, but surprisingly gentle. Something I would never have expected from an LAPD cop. He seemed regretful when he said, “We’ll do what we can. But without an ID or a lead on the shooters, or their car, we have no one to approach.”
“I give you an ID. But you don’t do nothing with it.”
“Who?”
“P-Bull. Him and his brother, Sadboy. Their real names are Jesus Acosta and Tomas Acosta. They used to live next door.”
“How do you know it was them?”
“P-Bull always had a hard-on for me.” At least he had since P-Bull got jumped in to the Locusts and I didn’t.
“But you never saw him tonight? Either of them?”
“No.”
“We’ll talk to them, sir, but with no witnesses, it’s hard.”
It was about what I’d expected. Still, for the first time, I felt disappointed, and that was stupid. LAPD weren’t going to stop the Locusts, no matter how good their intentions were, and I wasn’t always too sure their intentions were much of anything. LAPD cared about Westside. Not South-Central. Not Cypress Park. I had to hope the Locusts got bored and found fresh targets. Leave my family alone.
Like that was going to happen.
What I really needed was to find a way out of Cypress Park.
And since I‟d just started community college, and worked a part-time, minimum-wage gig at a local car wash, that was about as likely as winning the state lotto. Some nights I dreamed about skating my way out. Years ago, there had been one carnal brother who had won some contest and got himself a bunch of sponsors, and he‟d moved to Hollywood, where last anyone heard, he had his own line of boards and was riding in style.
“It must be hard on you, having to fill in your mother’s footsteps.”
“Listen, what’s gonna happen here? I really need to see my sister gets to bed.”
“A detective from the gang unit will meet with you. See if they can find anything the shooters might have left behind.”
I pointed at the wall behind him where several bullets had sunk into the cheap plaster. “Feel free to collect their brass. Save me digging them out myself.”
“Start by telling us your name. We’ll need it for the official report.”
“You sure there’s gonna be one?”
Cerveras was insistent. “Your name.” His hand poised over a note pad with a pencil.
“Gabe.”
“Your full name.”
“Fine. Gabriel Torres Aguila. My great uncle is Marco Aguila, and my sister is Natalie Magdeline.”
“Those are the only members of your household?”
“Yes,” I ground out. My home life wasn’t any of this cop’s business, no matter if we were both raza. “That is all I have. My father died years ago.” I didn’t mention Jaime, my older brother, serving fifteen to life in Tehachapi. The last kite I got told me he was a full blown carnales for the Eme. He had let me know he had my back from inside, and every time one of his got out he sent them to me with messages. Stay cool, he always said, stay safe. I got your back.
I guess the Locust Crew didn’t have a connection to Eme. They didn’t know my brother. They missed the memo I was protected.
If this basta needed to know all that, he could find out without my help. Bad enough the assholes think we’re all bangers or chronics no matter what they see. I wasn’t gonna give him my family’s dirty history.
He didn’t give up. He wrote down everything I said. He ignored his partner, who had gone past bored and was desperate to leave. Outside, the lights from the patrol cars still pulsated. The neighbors, the ones who didn’t see anything earlier, would be watching the cops like garbage rats and would know exactly when they left.
“What’s your date of birth, Gabriel?”
When I told him, his eyebrow went up. “You’re twenty? How old is your sister?”
Almost twenty-one, I felt like telling him. Instead I muttered, “Fourteen. What’s it to you?”
“What’s wrong with her?” he asked softly and his tenderness jolted through me. I pulled away from him, hating his pity. I took a deep breath and clenched my fists at my side.
Fuck that shit. This asshole didn’t know dick and he wanted to pretend he cared?
“The bullet that killed our mother went into Nattie’s brain,” I said. Even now, three months later I still grew nauseous at the memory of finding my baby sister on the ground beside our dead mother, her head bleeding, her skin so pale I thought she had died, too. “By the time anyone answered our 911 call, Nattie was in shock and damn near died in the ambulance.” I didn’t tell him that sometimes I thought she might have been better off if she had. She would never fulfill the goals Mami had driven us to so relentlessly.
She wanted us all to go to college, but especially Nattie. We all knew she had the brains in our family. Instead, she would be a child all her life and someone would have to take care of her that long, too.
That someone, apparently, was me.
“I’m sorry.”
I pinned him with a look. “You keep saying that. Why’re you sorry? You pull the trigger? You know who did? If you do, don’t be sorry, go out and cap their ass. It won’t bring my family back, but at least you‟d be doing something, which is a lot more than the rest of 5-0 doin‟. Now if that’s all, I have to see about getting Nattie back to bed.”
I turned to leave and Cerveras stopped me with a touch on my bare arm. A burst of electrical heat went straight from his fingertips to my groin. In horror, I realized I felt the stirrings of an erection. I jerked away from the touch, but not before Cerveras’s eyes widened and I knew he felt the same rush of desire. Neither of us spoke for a long time. He broke that silence.
“We’ll let ourselves out. If you think of anything else, Gabriel, please, don’t hesitate to call.” He handed me a pale purple card with his name and Northeast Community Police Station on San Fernando. I couldn’t help staring at his hand, the fine black hairs on the knuckles, the smooth, trimmed fingernails. Surprisingly soft-looking hands. I dropped the card on the end table, planning to toss it the minute they left.
With one last, slow look, Cerveras tipped his hat, and followed his partner outside. I locked up, and stood in front of the door for several seconds. I listened to their footsteps, the muffled voices as they talked with the cops who had stayed outside, and the slam of car doors. After a while there was only silence. Still, I stood there, mind filled with unwanted thoughts that whipped back and forth.
What the hell just happened? I‟d always knew I had an unholy attraction to men. I fought the desires, but I‟d never been able to stop my urges whenever I saw a fine-looking man. I wasn’t sure what it was I wanted to do with them, but there had been more than one night I woke to find my sheets stained with shame, and my balls empty. So far I didn’t think anyone knew about my sinful thoughts, but if I kept on like this, it was only a matter of time.
Then the Locusts would have a real reason to greenlight me and even my brother wouldn’t be able to keep me off their listas. What the hell was I gonna to do about it this time? Because I knew I hadn’t seen the last of Alejandro Cerveras.
Rubbing sweating palms on my pant legs I took a deep breath, then I walked slowly back through the living room, down to Nattie’s bedroom, where I heard Tio reading to her and telling silly jokes which had her giggling. It struck me that Tio and I had conspired between us to protect Nattie in a world which would be happy to eat her alive. Not bad for a twenty-year-old punk.
“Everyone decent?” I called out, part of our ritual that always made Nattie laugh and me smile. No smiles tonight, though I forced my lips into a fake one. I walked in and found the two of them on Nattie’s narrow bed, the covers neatly back in place.
Tio smiled at me. Half his teeth were gone, the ones he still had were brown and crooked. The three tattooed dots beside his left eye looked odd in his wrinkled face. Mi vida loca. My uncle had that once. But his crazy life was over. “Are they gone, Gabriel?”
“Yes, Tio. They’re gone. You can go to bed now.”
Tio kissed Nattie and shuffled off to his room.
Even after he left, and I had tucked Nattie in with a kiss of my own, my thoughts wouldn’t leave Cerveras. What had happened between us tonight? And what was I going to do about it?
Because I was fucked if I couldn’t figure out a way to stop these sinful desires before I did something stupid, like act on them.

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Loving Someone Extraordinary
by K.M. Mahoney

Amber Quill Press

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61124-210-2

Kevin knows Alex’s flaws better than most-after all, he’s been the man’s sidekick for two years now. And he’s been lusting after the hero for nearly as long. When Alex is abducted, it’s Kevin’s turn to play hero. But taking on that role means risking everything for the man he loves-his friends, his career, and quite possibly his sanity.

Chapter One

“Good God, where are you sending me? Western Albuquerque?”
Kevin sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Stop being so dramatic. You’re almost there.”
“Says you. I think you just want to watch me wander around in hopeless confusion.”
Kevin glared, but the effect was completely lost on the computer screen. He settled for trying to put every ounce of the irritation he felt in his voice.
“I see that all the time,” he snapped. “I don’t need to seek it out. Now focus, Butterfly.”
“Call me that again and I’ll… hang on.” Enthusiasm bled into the tinny sound of that oh-so-familiar voice coming through the direct communication line. “I do believe I spy the lovely sight of my prey. Most excellent.”
God. Some days Kevin wanted desperately to put in for a transfer.
“Right, going in.” All joking vanished, the carefree attitude gone as if it had never been. The harsh resolve sent shivers up Kevin’s spine.
And that, right there, was the reason he’d never followed through with his transfer threat. Because while some days he wanted to vanish, most days he spent trying to hold on tightly. Just proved what an idiot Kevin was, of course, because only an idiot would cling to something they’d never actually had.
Violent sounds filtered through Kevin’s computer speakers and he snapped himself back to the job at hand. His fingers moved rapidly over the keyboard, monitoring Alex’s vital signs. Damn, but he would be glad when he was able to get the video link back up. If the blasted idiot would just stop jumping into lakes without a wetsuit…
Curses rang out over the audio line, followed by the distinctive sound of flesh hitting flesh. Several crashes made Kevin jump. A loud screech had him letting loose a curse of his own.
“Bloody thrice-damned–”
Kevin yanked the earpiece out before the feedback succeeded in deafening him. Rubbing his ear in a vain attempt to ease the buzzing, Kevin watched the colorful spikes dance across his computer screen.
“Shit!” Kevin sat straighter and punched a couple of keys, fitting the headset back in place. “You’ve got company,” he barked. “Too many, get your ass out of there.”
“Can’t.” Alex sounded out of breath, grunting low in the brief pause. “I haven’t found the target yet.”
“You don’t have time,” Kevin practically yelled into his headset. “Satellite gives me at least a dozen grunts headed your way.”
Alex’s curse was heartfelt and not in English.
Kevin sympathized, but the heat signatures didn’t lie. The information beaming from the satellite system into his linked network told the story with one hundred percent accuracy.
The Bastard was going to get away again.
“Find him for me,” Alex snarled.
“You need t–”
“I’m not leaving without him again!”
Uh oh. Kevin knew that tone. He diverted more power to the scanning software, the mainframe actually whining a bit in protest.
“Come on, come on,” Kevin urged the machine. “Shit. Alex, I don’t think he’s even there. I’m not getting–”
“Fucking piece of–”
A loud grunt cut Alex off mid-curse.
“Get. Out.”
Kevin knew the exact instant when Alex decided to retreat. The profanity would have made his ears singe if it was in English. A couple of loud crashes followed the litany.
“I really, really need that video link,” Kevin muttered. It was killing him, not being able to see what was going on down there.
Alex’s voice came through clearly, no more outside interference muffling him. “I’m out,” he said. “Heading back your way. The Big Bosses aren’t going to be happy.”
Kevin tossed his headset aside, rubbing his eyes. “They never are,” he muttered to no one in particular.
Shit. Three times they’d had the guy. Three times they’d lost him. In less than a week. Maybe they were slipping?
No, Kevin told himself firmly. The Bastard was just good. Very, very good.
Kevin mechanically went through the familiar shut-down procedures, mind racing over different plans and strategies, discarding them as quickly as they popped up. All too soon, his hands ran out of busy work. His specially modified programs ran smoothly, providing a never-ending scan through satellite feeds, police scanners, and high-security computer systems that he wasn’t supposed to have access to. Someone killed a bug in the wrong place, and Kevin would know about it.
So why couldn’t he find one stubborn Russian mob boss?
Kevin sighed and rubbed his forehead. Alex was not going to be in a good mood when he got back.
He was right. Alex stalked though the door a far too short fifteen minutes later, tossing his gloves onto the counter.
“You told me he was there,” he accused.
Kevin couldn’t meet his eyes. “Intel said he would be there. He must have pulled out at the last minute.”
“This is the third time in a week,” Alex muttered, raking a hand through his spiky dark hair. Light glinted off the plain metal rings decorating three fingers. “He’s playing us.”
Kevin felt Alex’s frustration, mixed liberally with his own.
Julian Gridenko. The Bastard. And, when Alex was really annoyed, Julie Darling. One of the biggest crime bosses in the city. Unfortunately, since Gridenko had his own set of superpowers, that meant he fell under the jurisdiction of the STF. After three separate teams had failed to capture Gridenko, the file had landed on Kevin’s desk and become their problem. An entire month later, it seemed they spent most of their time chasing rumors, whispers, and their own tails.
The STF, or Superhuman Task Force, was a contract organization with local and state law enforcement agencies. Kevin could say, without boasting, that he and Alex were one of the best teams available. Unfortunately, being the best came with a price. Namely: they were given the toughest cases, sent after the utter dregs of the world.
Kevin probably should have followed his mother’s advice. He’d be an IRS agent now. Life would be infinitely easier and far less complicated.
Kevin was getting the evil eye again, so he sighed and stood from where he’d been perched on the edge of the couch.
“I’ll run some more scans,” he muttered. “See what I can find.”
Alex shook his head. “Let’s call it a night. Start over tomorrow. Maybe something will come to me.”
Kevin decided now really wasn’t a good time to mention that their supervisor had called. Again. The brass that oversaw the STF teams were getting impatient. Damn bureaucrats. Kevin would like to see one of them try to track down a slippery-ass bastard like Gridenko. See how fast they changed their minds.
“Want some pizza?” Kevin said instead. “Because I want pizza. I’m starving.”
“So make a sandwich or something.”
“Have you seen our lunchmeat? It’s sporting some kind of alien fungus. I think it’s older than this apartment.”
“Probably.”
There it was, the smile Kevin had been waiting for. He hated to see Alex stressed out and obsessing. They’d catch up to Gridenko eventually. Kevin wasn’t about to let the Bastard break their perfect track record.
“Fine,” Alex stated. “But I want mushrooms.”
Kevin wrinkled his nose but didn’t argue. “I’ll call it in. Why don’t you go take a shower or something?”
“You saying I smell?” Alex demanded, scowling in mock offense.
“No, but you look like you’ve been wrestling pigs.”
Alex looked down at his mud-spattered clothes. There was a rip in the knee of his pants and some unidentifiable gunk on his shirt. “You don’t think I could start a new trend?”
“In your dreams.”
Alex flipped him off and disappeared down the hall. When he was gone, Kevin let his smile blossom. Bantering with Alex was familiar, felt right.
He wandered to the kitchen of the apartment they shared, found his cell phone, and called for pizza. The sound of water filtered down the hall and Kevin closed his eyes.
“Don’t go there, don’t go there,” he lectured himself. It didn’t help. Images of wet, glistening skin, rock hard muscles…
Kevin shut his brain down with vicious force. His pants felt too tight, his head was buzzing, his body flushing with heat. Two damn years, and he would have thought the wanting would get better. It didn’t, though. If anything, it grew more intense. God. He remembered the first time he ever saw Alex, the memories sharp and so real he could taste them. The attraction had been instant… at least for Kevin.
* * * *
The man who opened the door wasn’t anything like what Kevin had expected. Dreamed about? Yes. Actually expected? No way in heaven or hell.
Piercing green eyes raked him up and down, full, sensuous lips quirking in derision.
“So, you’re the geek, huh?”
Kevin scowled. “Your new partner, yes.”
“I don’t need a partner.”
“Too bad. STF says you do.”
“Well, STF doesn’t know half of what they think they do.”
“I’ll give you that one.”
A full smile bloomed on the sculpted face, cheeks denting on either side of the wide mouth. A low, rumbling laugh had Kevin shifting uncomfortably, arousal heating his body.
“I like you,” the man said cheerfully. “I’m Alex Hofland, and you must be Kevin Bergson. Come on in.”
Kevin followed the embodiment of all his wet dreams into… well, he supposed it qualified as an apartment. Barely.
“Okay,” Kevin declared. “I think you’ve taken the whole bachelor pad thing a little bit too far.”
Alex stopped and appeared to study the room with deep consideration. “You think?”
“Oh hell yes.”
The man didn’t have a couch, just a futon. The apartment was in a decent building, the rooms big. Kevin dropped his backpack near the door, in one of the few spots where he could see floor, and began exploring. A nice kitchen that looked like it had never been used. A bathroom that desperately needed cleaning, but had a big shower and a double sink. And three bedrooms that were completely barren.
The living room, on the other hand, was a wreck. The futon–which Kevin realized with dawning horror Alex must sleep on–faced a nice, shiny entertainment set-up. But there was a pair of briefs dangling off one of the speakers and the floor was littered with food wrappers and piles of dirty clothes.
“What do you do?” Kevin asked with reluctant curiosity. “Buy new clothes when the others get dirty?”
Alex cocked his head.
“Oh, God, you do!”
“Only when I don’t have change for laundry,” Alex defended.
Kevin groaned. “I’m going downstairs to direct the moving guys,” he stated. “I expect there to be, at the very least, a path when I get back.”
“Yes, Mother.”
“Then we’re going to IKEA and buying actual furniture.”
Alex gasped in mock dismay. “But my futon!”
“I don’t give a damn if you want to keep sleeping on that ratty-ass thing, but you’re not doing it in the living room. I’m claiming that big bedroom on the end for the command center. You can move the futon into one of the other bedrooms if you’re that attached to it.”
“Command center? Wow, you really are a geek.”
Kevin just rolled his eyes. “Ten minutes, stud. Move it, we’ve got work to do.”
His order earned him a speculative look, head tilted to one side, overly long brown hair flopping into his eyes.
“This should be interesting,” Alex murmured.
* * * *
It had been, too. They’d butted heads more than a few times in that first week. Nearly constantly, as a matter of fact. But for all their arguing, there’d never been any heat or friction between them. More like brothers, squabbling and settling. Except for the part where Kevin had feelings that were anything but brotherly every time he looked at his new partner.
Kevin had hoped, desperately, that proximity would help. It hadn’t. If anything, the more he got to know Alex, the more he liked. The man wasn’t just nice to look at. He was one of the good guys, to the core. Alex’s morals and values mirrored all the comic book superheroes Kevin had grown up panting over. A geek with his very own superhero. Was it any wonder he’d fallen, and fallen hard?

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Profound In His Silence by G.R. Richards

Profound In His Silence
by G.R. Richards

Amber Quill Press, Allure

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61124-173-0

Will an opera novice snag the leading role…or the leading man?

Rehearsals are hell with merciless director Jean-Luc, but Charles’s co-star Bo makes the days bearable. When Charles gets nervous about the blossoming relationship with his co-star, can Bo assuage Charles’s fears or will the director need to take charge?

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Chapter One

[Continue Reading...]

Lucky
by K.M. Mahoney

Amber Quill Press

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61124-135-8
Print ISBN: 978-1-61124-951-4

Alli is minding his own business when life quite literally throws Michael into his world. Michael, a bear shifter, is stubborn, attractive, and everything Alli can’t have. But Michael isn’t listening to logic. When someone begins threatening Alli, it’s Michael to the rescue. Now Alli has to figure out how to fit Michael in his life, keep the shifter from getting hurt, and explain to Michael that Alli isn’t exactly human. Easy, right?

Chapter One

Alli sighed in relief as he stepped outside into the chilly evening air. One more Friday gone. Of course, being the owner of his own shop made tomorrow a work day, too. Took a bit of the fun out of the end of the week.
That was okay. He hated Fridays anyway.
He yanked the door shut. The bells, which had jingled merrily for everyone else all day, tumbled free. They hit the floor with a symphony of discordant jangles. He glared at them.
Locking the door while juggling an umbrella and an oversized tote bag full of books presented something of a challenge, but Alli did it and dropped the bag on his foot only once. Not too bad, all things considering, although it didn’t make his toes throb any less. At last count that made four boxes, six piles of books, and two bags that had landed on that particular foot today. And it was six o’clock. He had the whole evening ahead of him.
He stepped out from the relative shelter of the awning, pulling up the hood of his jacket. The trickle of rain promptly became a torrential downpour.
Alli’s resigned sigh would have knocked over a sign. He slung his bag over one shoulder, wincing at the pinch of the weight, and struggled to pop open his umbrella. A sudden gust of wind made him stagger.
He watched with a distinct lack of emotion–achieved over many, many Fridays–as the umbrella, now inside out, flopped its way down the street. He didn’t bother to chase after it. No point. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his windbreaker, hunched his shoulders, and accepted the fact that he was going to get wet.
He really, really hated Fridays.
Absently, he scanned the area for any sign of his friend Chris. A local deputy, Chris made something of a habit of walking Alli home. Protection, he claimed. Chris had altered his patrol route shortly after Alli had arrived. There had been an incident, a kitchen fire when Alli was sleeping. The fire department couldn’t find any cause. Chris had kept hounding Alli, and Alli had finally broken. Chris was well-educated in the paranormal world. Alli said “Fayte” and Chris caught the implications immediately. Now he kept an especially close eye on Alli on Fridays, the day of the week when Alli’s magic bubbled over and bad things happened.
Chris wasn’t anywhere in sight, so Alli looked both ways with exaggerated care before stepping out onto the crosswalk. Jack Bower, owner of the local newspaper, called his name. Alli looked over to wave. When he looked back, a large van was barreling down the formerly empty street right toward him. He stared, transfixed, at the large vehicle and knew a collision between them was imminent.
He knew who would win, too, and it wasn’t him.
“I hate my life,” he whispered.
* * * *
Michael Lakkis kicked the tire of his truck in frustration, knowing he had only himself to blame. Here he was, two hundred and eighty-three miles from home, with a rust bucket heap of a truck that just had to die. He should have spent his last paycheck on a down payment for a new vehicle, not bought a blasted hunting cabin in Northern Wisconsin.
Michael still didn’t know what trouble-making imp had possessed him. He didn’t even hunt, for crying out loud.
Then again, maybe he did know. He’d been living in Madison for too many years. He could practically hear his older brother’s voice in his ears. “Cities and shifters don’t mix.”
Michael wasn’t going to tell Evan that he had been right. The press of humanity was starting to get to Michael, make him itchy. Make Bruce itchy. His shifter half had started popping out at weird times, Bruce impatient with the confinement and the lack of greenery. Weekends by the lake didn’t cut it.
When Michael had stumbled across the ad for a place in Putman County, it had seemed perfect. Not a paranormal species on earth hadn’t heard of the place. It had become something of a haven for the supernatural, somewhere they could be themselves without fearing discovery. Not that it meant Michael could wander down the street in animal form, but perhaps he wouldn’t have to lock half of himself away quite as often.
Michael kicked his tire again, but it was more for form than actual emotion. After all, the day was temperate, the sky overcast but not–okay, that was a rumble of thunder. Maybe he’d better get his ass in gear. At least he didn’t have far to walk.
The sign next to his truck read, “Putman County. Things are different here.” He’d made it to his destination before losing his transportation. That was something, anyway.
He peered around the sign and to the town a quarter of a mile beyond. He glanced up and down the nearly deserted street, squinting through the pouring rain. There, at the far end, he saw a mechanic. He grabbed his wallet off the passenger seat, slammed the door shut, and began the long, wet trek to find help.
A panicked shout caught Michael’s attention and his head shot up.
What on earth?
Someone buried in an enormous jacket stood in the middle of the road while a very large van barreled right toward them.
Michael cursed and began to run. He almost literally flew the last feet, body slamming into the smaller figure. He felt the bumper of the van brush by his leg. The slight impact sent them hurtling toward the side of the road. Michael tried to twist sideways.
He didn’t make it. He landed solidly on top of the other man. In a very large puddle.
Oh, well. At least they weren’t dead.
The man groaned and stirred. “I think you broke my back.”
“Hey,” Michael replied, struggling to untangle them. “Look on the bright side. You aren’t a road pancake.”
“Easy for you to say. I’m not sure this is an improvement.” The man grunted when Michael’s knee slammed into his hip.
“Hold still, will you? You know, people usually respond to life-saving heroics with a little gratitude.”
“You’re squashing me!”
“If you would quit moving–”
“Need some help, boys?”
Michael tilted his head back, blinking against the rain. “Ah, please. We seem to be stuck.”
The burly man with a badge clipped to his belt helped them sort themselves out. Once Michael’s feet were released–somehow, they had become wrapped up in the straps of an enormous canvas bag–he was able to stand with relative ease.
The man rose to his hands and knees, moaning. Michael winced in sympathy. All right, so maybe he could cut the guy a little slack. The stranger didn’t have Michael’s weight or bulk, and they had landed pretty hard. Poor guy was probably going to be black and blue on both sides.
The man stood, staggering sideways until the police officer steadied him.
“You need the doc, Alli?” the officer asked.
Alli grunted. “Nothing’s broken,” he replied, testing his body out gingerly. “At least, I don’t think so.”
“Mark went after the guy,” the officer offered helpfully. “Bastard was doing sixty-five in a thirty.”
“No offense, Chris, but that doesn’t really make me feel any better.”
“Don’t imagine it does.” Chris turned, chuckling. He held out his hand. “Chris Owens, Putman County Deputy Sheriff. The man you blind tackled is Allegro Romani, resident florist. I’ll say thank you, since he seems to have his head stuck in his ass.”
“Not funny, Chris.”
“Wasn’t meant to be, Alli.”
Swear to God, Allegro actually stuck his tongue out at the officer. The officer just laughed.
Michael had fallen through a vortex into a strange new world. He wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it.
So, he did what he always did. He smiled back, shook hands, and jumped in with both feet. “We landed hard,” he said. “I imagine he’s going to be pretty sore tomorrow.”
“I’m right here,” came the grumble. “And I’m sore now.”
A speculative look lit the deputy’s eyes for reasons beyond Michael’s comprehension. The big guy studied Michael with an intense regard that Michael found distinctly disquieting. His mind started ticking through paranormal possibilities. The deputy clearly wasn’t quite human, but Michael couldn’t put his finger on–
“Oh, no!” The anguished howl had Michael’s gaze swinging back to Alli. Gray eyes were staring mournfully at the bag on the ground. Several paperbacks had tumbled out onto the sidewalk. They were now quite thoroughly ruined.
“Better you than the books,” Chris pointed out.
From the look on his face, Michael thought the man would have rather been sporting tire marks up his back.
Alli leaned over to scoop the books back up.
“Here, let me–”
Michael didn’t even get to finish his sentence before the man keeled over and did a faceplant onto Michael’s tennis shoes.
* * * *
Michael wrinkled his nose at the scent of ammonia and that nasty smell peculiar to all hospitals, wondering how in the hell he had ended up sitting in an uncomfortable plastic chair in the waiting room of Putman County General Hospital.
The now-familiar bulk of Chris came around the corner. He guessed the local PD didn’t go in for uniforms, because the man certainly seemed to be on duty, despite the jeans and Wisconsin Badgers sweatshirt. Michael stood.
“Our boy is getting a couple of stitches put in his shoulder, then he should be good to go. But the doc is making grumbly noises about that concussion. I told him you would wake Alli up a couple of times tonight, make sure he wasn’t dead.”
“Me?” Michael gaped. “How did I get involved in this mess?”
“You’re the one who tackled the guy.” Chris pointed that fact out like it made everything else completely reasonable.
Michael wondered if everyone in this town was freaking nuts, or just the ones he’d met. When he’d been introduced to “Doc,” the man had shared a significant look with Chris. Chris had waggled his eyebrows. The doc had giggled. Giggled. Like a teenage girl.
This place was straining Michael’s “go with the flow” philosophy to its limits.
“Your truck won’t be ready until tomorrow afternoon, earliest,” Chris pointed out.
Michael didn’t even ask how Chris knew. It was Michael’s truck, and he hadn’t even talked to the mechanic yet. Hell, he couldn’t remember telling Chris about his mechanical troubles in the first place, let alone arranging for transport with the local garage.
“In the meantime,” the deputy continued, “you can sack out on Alli’s couch. Save you the cost of a hotel and that way Alli won’t have to stay here overnight.”
A crash from behind the double swinging doors made them both wince.
“I think everyone would be happier,” Chris added.
Michael made a little noncommittal sound. He’d been sucked down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. It was the only explanation that made any sense whatsoever.
The doors flung open and Alli burst out. Well, if you could manage a burst while weaving like a drunk on a week-long binge.
“He’s going over!” yelled a nurse.
Chris and Michael both reached for Alli at the same time and collided. It was the doctor, following right on Alli’s heels, who caught the injured man by the shoulder before he could take out any innocent bystanders.
“Hold on there, Lancelot,” Doc ordered. “That’s the maternity ward.”
“Right,” Alli drawled. “Don’t need that.”
“Hardly.”
Michael rolled his eyes. “Will someone please get the man a wheelchair?”
A second nurse appeared with the requested item before he’d even finished his sentence. Efficiency. Had to love it.
It appeared to be something of a rare commodity in this area.
Doc pushed back on Alli and Alli dropped into the wheelchair.
“Man the torpedoes!” Alli yelled, thrusting one hand in the air.
“He’s been on a naval biography kick,” Chris said in an aside.
Michael completely lost it. Here he stood, in the middle of a hospital in a Podunk town in the middle of the Midwest, surrounded by strangers, and, man, was the situation just the most…
Hell, he couldn’t even begin to describe it.
Michael laughed until tears streamed down his face and he had to lean against the wall for support. Most of the surrounding staff ignored him. Chris and the doctor looked on and heck if they didn’t look almost…indulgent.
“Come on,” he finally said, wiping the tears away. “Someone needs to give me and the admiral here a ride.”
It was Wonderland. And he kind of liked it.

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