Currently viewing the category: "inspirational"

Christmas Crush by Mickie Sherwood

Christmas Crush

by Mickie Sherwood


[ Inspirational Romance ]

Home for a Christmas wedding, Ashley Wagner feels like Scrooge after a run-in with her womanizing ex rips open old wounds. Then, Craig Johnston wheels to her rescue. Will Ashley spend Christmas brooding over bitter memories? Or will Craig, a dynamic paraplegic, present her with a gift she can’t resist?

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Chapter One

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Wind's Aria by Tessa Stockton

Wind’s Aria

by Tessa Stockton

Soul Mate Publishing

eBook ASIN: B00B1FEC2A

Elected as the Songstress, Aria takes her place on the sacred platform to sing before every dawn. As long as she does so, peace and abundant life belong to her people. One morning, amidst a strange wind that brings with it a curse in its eerie howl, Aria loses her ability to make music. But the encroaching death that transpires isn’t her biggest tragedy. It’s that she adores the cause of her blunder, for he’s a magnificent winged creature who’s stolen more than her voice.

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A Brush of Wings
edited by Anne Regan

Dreamspinner Press

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61581-345-2
Print ISBN: 978-1-61581-344-5

Guardian spirits walk among us. They are heavenly beings who grant courage, unknown benefactors who offer help, best friends who lend their strength, and celestial beings who embody inspiration. You might not recognize these everyday angels or messengers of mercy, but the men in this anthology are touched by their purity and light and sometimes blessed by love.

Note: This is a collection of short stories with no chapter breaks. Presented is the first scene.

First Scene from “Sariel” by Mary Calmes

Out of the blue, I had been asked to go. Desmond Pierce, the Director of Antiquities, invited everyone, but as I was the most recent addition to the exhibition department, it came as a surprise to be included. The entire experience seemed like a dream, first the thrill of being chosen for the position, assistant to the exhibition designer, and second, being invited to travel to Italy along with the rest of the museum staff. Dr. Pierce, the man responsible for giving me my job, owned a villa in Gubbio, Italy, and he had extended an invitation to everyone who worked in his department to visit his home after we attended the unveiling of his family’s donation to the Piazza Museo Nazionale. I felt honored at being asked to accompany my colleagues, but I had declined the gracious overture. I couldn’t afford the plane fare and I didn’t even have a passport. Being the son of hippies who owned a health food store in Petaluma, California made me the opposite of worldly. There was no way I was going first to Naples and then on to Gubbio.
My new boss, the exhibition designer, Amanda Bennett, was insistent that I go. She said that Dr. Pierce especially wanted all the new hires to attend. She got my passport application expedited and my ticket paid for by an anonymous benefactor. When I thanked her, she was embarrassed, told me it was all Dr. Pierce’s doing and none of her own, and told me to get out of her office and have a good time, since I would be working night and day when I got back. She herself had declined the invitation, not wanting to be away from her family. As I boarded the plane in Chicago, I could not remember ever being more excited. It wasn’t until we landed in Rome that I started to have a bad feeling.
I had been excited to make the trip, happy to be included, and, being an art major, I had wanted to see the Gabinetto Segreto, the Secret Gallery, in the museum desperately. But when I was told that there was a change, that we would be going to Gubbio first and it would be just Dr. Pierce and I making the trip along with his friend, Armand Oren, I became uneasy. It made no sense that we would be leaving the others, even though the unveiling was not for two more days. When I questioned him, I was told to relax and enjoy the trip.
An hour later, when we stopped to pick up two other men, I started to panic. I was alone, very far from home, and I had no way to call anybody in case I needed help. The men spoke rapid Italian, which I didn’t understand at all and only added to my unease. I had opted to learn Mandarin instead of a Romance language, as the art I wanted to study resided not in Europe but in Asia.
“What is your name?” the larger of the two men asked me after several more minutes, his eyes raking over me in a way I was not comfortable with.
I squinted at the man sitting across from me in the back of the limousine. “Jake.”
“Jake what?”
“Jake Gray.”
“Jake Gray,” the man repeated my name, leering at me. “Tell me––have you ever been raped?”
There was no time to think. On instinct, I dove for the door, ready to jump out of it even as fast as we were going, but a sharp pain in my leg stilled my motion. Looking down, I saw the syringe buried in my thigh and, turning my head, saw Mr. Oren shaking his head at me. “Normally we just pick up a prostitute in Rome and bring him along, but my friend Desmond here got a taste for you the second you walked into his office.”
Everything was blurring, getting fuzzier by the second, and my body was so heavy, so hard to move.
“We’re all going to have a taste when he’s done,” he whispered in my ear.
I couldn’t lift my arms. When Dr. Pierce leaned in close to me, I wanted to recoil, but instead I fell back against the seat.
“Isn’t his face magnificent?” he asked the others, and I felt hands on me, pulling and tugging, my clothes being loosened. “I’m sure the body will not disappoint.”
I wanted to fight, but I was frozen, barely able to see him at all, my vision a long tunnel that was closing quickly.
“As I suspected… you’re gold all over. I will enjoy seeing your smooth, golden skin flayed off, Mr. Gray… I have to see you flogged, have to see the knife cut into you, see your face contort in pain… have to see you raped. I must hear you scream… I really can hardly wait. You are by far the most beautiful man I have ever seen, and watching you cry and beg and bleed… my Lord, I think I’m salivating at the very thought.”
I saw his smile, and my stomach lurched at the same time everything went black.
Frigid water hitting my face woke me up. I gasped and lunged away from the hands that were groping me, running across my abdomen and fondling me through my jeans. As I scrambled away, I looked up and saw three men above me, advancing on me.
I turned toward the voice, and so did everyone else. Directly across from me, across the torch-lined space, wearing long, red ceremonial robes, was Dr. Pierce.
“He has to be given a choice. He has to choose the torture over the beast, or the covenant is broken. Let him see and decide.”
I lunged backward, but I was still drugged and sluggish and slow. The two strangers from the car and Mr. Oren grabbed me and dragged me across the dirt floor to a thick wooden pole that had been driven deep into the ground. It didn’t give at all when they threw me into it.
“Many others have stood where you are now, Mr. Gray,” Dr. Pierce called, advancing toward me, his eyes catching the light from the flames, his pupils completely dilated, huge and black as he advanced toward me. “And they all chose to let us rape them and cut them and gut them instead of being consumed by the beast. You, too, will make the same choice, I know it. You’re weak. It’s why I chose you, along with your beauty.”
He didn’t know anything about me, about the kind of man I was, but maybe, in this instance, that would work to my advantage.
I watched and listened as Dr. Pierce began chanting, and I saw Mr. Oren walk backward away from me. He was smiling. The other two men stepped back, and I straightened up, the cold, as biting as it was, helping to clear my head. Taking in my surroundings, I realized that I was in an enormous cave, an underground catacomb, and the only light at all was coming from the oil lamps that my boss was blowing out one by one.
“Mr. Gray,” Desmond Pierce called over to me, his voice low. “Do you want to give up now?”
I shook my head.
“Are you certain? You will hear the beast come, and if you cry out, if you make any noise at all, even a whisper, we will light the torch and claim you, and yes… your death will be slow and agonizing, and you will howl. Still, in the end, it will be death, and the pain will stop. With the beast… I can’t say how long it will go on, and the horror….” He smiled suddenly. “And the pain… and maybe, with us, if you’re very good, maybe, just maybe… we’ll let you live. Think about it, Mr. Gray,” he cackled as he blew out the second to last lantern. “Think about what you truly can and cannot abide.”
The light went out, and I was plunged into primordial darkness. I took a breath and shivered hard, wrapping my arms around myself before I started to jog in place. If I was already moving, there was less chance of being startled and crying out. I had to be silent, whatever happened. I couldn’t utter a sound; that was the game.
A second later, I wanted to scream. The flutter of insect wings made me break out in goose bumps; there were sharp clicking sound like cicadas, and something spiky and hard slid over my shoulder. It stung, but still I was quiet. I remembered how my boss had looked, the twisted desire in his eyes and the leering faces of the other men, and so I stayed silent instead of begging to be saved.
“Be still,” a deep, guttural voice commanded me.
Keeping my eyes shut tight even though it was dark anyway, I froze in place. When I swayed, there were several bristly strokes up my side, abrading my skin painfully as I was kept from falling. When I felt the pressure on my back, I stepped forward.
The sound started as a hum, but in seconds it was as though I was standing in swarm of flies. There were insects crawling in my hair, over my skin, tickling my ears, my nose, the image in my mind so much worse because I could not open my eyes to see. I fought hard not to gag, even when the smells overwhelmed me. I breathed through my nose, took small sips of air, before there was the sharp scent of kerosene.
“The torch is lit, Mr. Gray. Come, open your eyes and behold the beast.”
But there was no rule about that. I didn’t have to look if I didn’t want to.
“Mr. Gray!”
“By your oath,” a voice snarled out, “it made no sound, so it’s mine!”
“No!” I heard Dr. Pierce scream.
I was grabbed roughly, jerked off my feet, and crushed in a vise-like grip. I trembled hard; the sound of rising breath, snarling like an animal, hot and wet, made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. There was pressure, what felt like claws digging into my skin. It hurt, but my brain could not fixate on that as needles of ice suddenly began hitting my skin. I heard the roar of wind in my ears, and when I opened one eye, there was a scream, a horrible, high-pitched scream. I wanted to cover my ears even as I felt the reverberations through the creature’s body. The beast was shrieking, whether in pain or glee I had no idea. I wanted to howl, but I clamped my jaw down tight, never uttering a sound.
It was like being on the down drop of a rollercoaster and just stopping all at once. The jerk was simply too severe. I felt pain like a knife in my right eye and then cool, consuming darkness.

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Books Within Collection:

Sariel by Mary Calmes

Jacob Gray is on the trip of a lifetime with his employer only to have it turn into a nightmare. Drugged and taken to an underground catacomb, Jake is forced to make a life or death decision: face torture by the men who kidnapped him or confront a ferocious beast. Much to his captors’ surprise, Jacob casts his fate into the hands of an unknown creature instead of surrendering himself to sure death, with only hope as his salvation.

Morning Glow by Taylor Lochland

Benjamin and Alan have been friends since high school. Though they often drift apart, Alan always seems to come back when Benjamin needs him the most—like when Ben is grieving over a bad breakup. As always, Ben feels better just from spending time with Alan, but then he realizes he’s in love with Alan. This time when Alan takes off again, Ben isn’t going to let him go without a fight.

A Trail of Feathers by Sarah Ann Watts

Alone on New Year’s Day, Daniel is more aware than ever of the self-destructive despair consuming him since his lover’s death. Then he meets a stranger shedding feathers in the street, and despite the risk, he takes Leo home with him. But Leo is not the hustler or drug addict Daniel suspected him to be. He’s there to give Daniel a gift—a gift Daniel might not know how to accept.

Heart’s Salvation by Réve Garrison

After losing his wife and daughter in a car accident, a distraught Nathaniel approaches the church for comfort, seeking the statue that is said to heal emotional distress. When the angel embodied in statue feels the depth of Nathaniel’s pain, he makes the unusual decision to assume human form and comfort the grieving widower. But soon the angel must decide between returning to the statue to comfort others and retaining his humanity for the hope of love.

In the Hands of the Gods by Jana Denard

The only business that concerns Tiberius Aelius Rufus is how to extend his olive oil trade from Pompeii to Rome and how to sort out a family when his tastes do not run to taking a wife. Expanding his oil trade is easy enough, but a man of his station can’t exactly dally with another man. But when he meets Marcus Lartius Priscus at a party, Tiberius is enchanted and falls hard, hard enough to consider risking his business and his reputation to follow Priscus to Rome.

A Voice in the Darkness by Patric Michael

Landon Hargrove wakes in darkness and pain to find he and his unconscious husband Bryce are trapped in their car after a landslide. With no help but the moral support of a man named Dan who can speak to him but not reach him, Landon must find a way to rescue them both before the rest of the mountainside breaks free and crushes them… along with their dream of adopting a son.

Some Comfort by S. Blaise

Dale is having a hard time adjusting to everyday reality after returning from combat when he runs into Mal, a fellow soldier who’d saved his life during a missile attack. Mal seems determined to continue to watch over him even though Dale knows very little about the other man. Why does Mal have such faith in him? And will it be enough to drive the darkness inside Dale away?

Ascension by RJ Scott

When Sabrael visits Adam Riley, the last remaining descendant of the family under his protection, the angel finds a man consumed with grief after the death of his father and the decision to sell the family bookstore. Sabrael is surprised by a connection to Adam strong enough to redefine his entire purpose, something Sabrael has never felt for any mortal in his charge. Now he wonders if it is part of the Divine plan—if his time to live a mortal life has come. A mortal life with Adam.

The Platypus Learns Astrophysics by Matthew Vandrew

Hardworking businessman Jonas Mason is the last person expecting a visit from an angel. Yet Micah, angel of the Divine Plan, shows up in his office, absolutely certain of his mission: to enlighten Jonas’s days and fill his heart with love… all by simply touching him. And when nothing happens? Micah will have to wing it: act human, rein in the grumpy and generally unpleasant Jonas, and figure out how to bring Jonas—and himself—lives full of joy.

The Angel Blues by Cornelia Grey

It’s a nondescript, depressing night when Morgan, a seasoned cop, finds a witty stranger perched on his windowsill who shares his appreciation for the blues. Worried for his own sanity, Morgan mostly ignores the man who insists on materializing at the most inappropriate of times… until a life-threatening experience forces Morgan to see just how much the stranger who claims to be an angel means to him.

Redemption by Clare London

Ziba is a fallen angel, working as a sponsor of lost men, helping them find genuine repentance after a life of sin. Banished to the Arrivals Hall between worlds, he offers them work during their journey to a better afterlife. But for him, personally, that option is closed. His position was so exalted, and his sin so great, that he is imprisoned in Arrivals forever. Until he meets Abdiel, an angel who also fell from grace – but whose love and self-sacrifice offers both of them a new hope of redemption.

Herbal Tea by H.J. Brues

Douglas, a world-weary, cynical agent of a very special kind of law enforcement, is sent to recruit Justin, a young herbalist, for a unique assignment. Considering the lies and betrayal in his past, Douglas can’t help but look for hidden intentions behind every selfless act, and he doesn’t trust easily. But Justin will show him that a simple man can have the courage to offer his protection, his love and even his life for those he cares about, because it’s not the wings that make the angel, but the readiness to reach out to others with your whole heart in the tips of your fingers.

The Tenth Avatar by Roland Graeme

When a relative dies and bequeaths to Arun a family heirloom—an old bronze statue of Kalki, the tenth avatar, or incarnation, of the Hindu god Vishnu—the delivery of the statue coincides with the arrival of a new man in Arun’s life. Jack is everything Arun has ever desired in a lover, and Arun will have to face his parents’ pressure for marriage and Jack’s unknown opinion on commitment to move forward to a loving future.

Santangelo by Zahra Owens

Michael isn’t the type of man who needs rescuing, but after he’s attacked by a group of skinheads, he’s glad Gabriel Santangelo is there to help. Four stitches in his forehead later, Michael is introduced to Gabriel’s severely disabled baby daughter and jumps at the chance to get to know Gabriel better. But Gabe has more issues than he’s willing to share and when he keeps Michael at a distance, Michael starts wondering who is rescuing who.

The Archangel of Castro by Diana Copland

What do you get when you mix a former real-estate agent turned diner owner; a sweet, unassuming, movie-star handsome runaway; selfless generosity; and unrequited love? You get Nick at Nick’s on Ninth, his live-in friend Brian, a treasured friendship, and two very nearly broken hearts… until the unlikeliest Archangel ever notices the need for a bit of divine intervention.

Testament to Love
by Ariel Tachna

Dreamspinner Press

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61581-178-6

An angel and a mortal find salvation in each other’s arms, but are they willing to live with the consequences?

Chapter One

For as long as I shall live, I will testify to love, I’ll be a witness in the silences when words are not enough.
‘Testify to Love’ by Avalon
“Alimon! Calliel!”
The Voice boomed out of the shadows, causing the two angels’ wings to agitate in alarm before they flattened in submission. They did not look up, did not seek the face that belonged to the Voice. No one did. No one dared.
“Yes, Lord?” they replied in unison.
“Where is Emmanuel?”
“I … we…” Alimon stuttered.
“We haven’t seen him in weeks, Lord. He never returned from his last assignment,” Calliel interrupted.
“I know,” the Voice replied. “He is hiding his face from Me, and I want you to find out why. You have been his best friends for millennia. He needs your help.”
“If You are sure, we will find him,” Alimon promised.
Calliel elbowed Alimon. “You heard what the Voice said. Come on. Let’s find Emmanuel.”
The two angels stretched their wings and their senses, searching their domain for signs of their friend. They glided swiftly between heaven and earth, seeking all Emmanuel’s favorite haunts, but he was not perched on the towers of Notre Dame in Paris, nor atop the spires of the Canterbury Cathedral. The Sistine Chapel bore no sign of his presence, nor did St. Peter’s in New York. He was not hiding in the Dome of the Rock, nor in the Jama Masjid in Delhi. Far and wide, they searched, among the grandest churches and temples, mosques and shrines, in the world, all the hallowed ground where angels sought rest, but they found no sign of their missing friend.
“What was his last assignment?” Alimon asked when they grew tired.
“That painter in Montana,” Calliel replied. “The one who had forgotten to look at the beauty around him.”
“The one who had forgotten how to love,” Alimon added. “I remember now. Do you suppose we should try there? Maybe we can pick up his trail.”
“We can try,” Calliel agreed, “although that has never been my forte.”
“Do you have a better suggestion?”
“No. Let’s go.”
And off they flew, searching for a painter in Kalispell, Montana whose life needed the grace of an angel.
They knew what it felt like when a soul rediscovered grace, for there was much rejoicing in heaven when that happened, but they felt no such joy as they hovered on the outskirts of town. Alimon frowned. “Why did Emmanuel leave?” he asked. “He obviously did not complete his assignment.”
“I don’t know,” Calliel replied, equally surprised, “but I think we had better find out. Let’s find that painter.”
They flitted through the streets, invisible to mortal eyes in their angelic form, searching for any sign to guide them. They were about ready to give up when Calliel saw a rough placard above a run-down door. Anderson Painting, it read.
“Let’s try in there,” he suggested.
They floated to the ground and folded their wings, folding them gracefully against the line of their coats so that anyone looking at them, visible now, would see only two ordinary men. Calliel knocked at the door, frowning at the peeling paint. It was not much of an advertisement. When there was no answer, he tried the knob, and finding the door unlocked, pushed it open.
“Hello?” he called. “Is anyone here?”
Silence greeted him first, then an icy chill he recognized all too well, having fought it off before.
“No!” he shouted, springing forward, his wings coming unfurled as he prepared to fight one of his own kind. “You won’t take him.”
Alimon was at his side, a second behind, eyes searching for the cause. His gaze landed on a prone figure, huddled limply on the floor. Leaving Calliel to struggle with the Adversary, Alimon went to the man whose hand clutched a small gun. “Put it down,” Alimon said softly. “I don’t know why you think this is the answer, but it’s not. I promise you, there is a solution.” He used every ounce of persuasion at his disposal to convince the man to talk to him, to surrender the gun.
The blue eyes opened slowly, focusing through the tears that flooded them and stained the stubble-covered cheeks. “He’s gone,” the red-headed man said in a dull voice. “He forced me to live again, to come out of the misery of my existence. For a few short weeks, he showed me I could be happy again. He made me believe it, and then he left, and it all went with him. I can’t go back to that. I won’t. Without him here, there’s nothing left to live for.”
“There’s always something to live for,” Alimon answered softly, reaching slowly for the gun. It could not hurt him, even in mortal guise, but he did not want it to go off and injure the man. When he had pried it from the man’s grip, he looked at the pathetic figure in front of him. He could hear the shrieking of the Adversary in the background as he lost the battle, at least for the moment, though he knew the sounds would not transfer onto the mortal plane. Alimon had no illusions. Calliel might have won this battle, but if they did not act quickly, the Adversary would still win in the long run.
“Who left you?” he asked. “Maybe we can find him again, convince him to come back. Will you tell me his name?”
Alimon lost his balance, the shock of the man’s revelation sending him reeling, mentally and physically. It went against everything they were taught to let a mortal depend on them to that extreme, yet it appeared as if that was exactly what had happened.
‘Don’t jump to conclusions,’ Calliel’s voice admonished him, his voice sounding only in Alimon’s head. ‘Keep him talking. You don’t know the whole story yet.’
Alimon guffawed inwardly, sending his disbelief back at his friend. Emmanuel had been sent to help a painter. A painter was on the verge of suicide because someone named Emmanuel had left him. It was too much to be a coincidence.
“Tell me about Emmanuel,” Alimon said. “Where is he from and where does he live? We can search for him, try to find out why he left,” Alimon asked, following Calliel’s advice.
“I don’t know,” the man replied. “He showed up here a few weeks ago, looking for a job. I can barely support myself. I can’t afford an employee, but he looked so down and out. I offered to let him stay for a day or two.”
‘I’m getting a sense of his trail,’ Calliel’s voice interrupted. ‘Stay here and learn what you can. I’m going after Emmanuel.’
“I’m Alimon,” the angel said, introducing himself. “What’s your name?”
“Cameron,” the red-headed man replied. “Do you really think we can find him?”
“We’re certainly going to try,” Alimon promised, inwardly grim. They would try, but he feared the outcome if they succeeded. The situation had gotten unexpectedly complicated. He rose and offered Cameron a hand. “Come on. Let’s get you cleaned up so we can look for your friend.”
Cameron accepted the extended hand, letting Alimon pull him to his feet. “I live upstairs,” he said, pointing redundantly toward the stairs. Alimon followed Cameron, unwilling to leave the man alone, in case thoughts of suicide returned.
“So you’re a painter,” Alimon began, trying to keep Cameron talking.
A cynical laugh greeted his comment. “I used to be,” the man replied. “Now I’m just a slave.”
“What do you mean?” Alimon asked, sure that part of Cameron’s problem lay in that comment.
“Look around you,” Cameron said as they reached the top of the stairs. Alimon did as he was instructed, amazed at the murals that covered every inch of the walls.
“It’s beautiful. Did you do this?”
Cameron nodded. “I used to paint like this all the time. I even sold a few canvases. I wasn’t getting rich, but I was getting by.”
“What happened?” Alimon asked.
“My ex-wife decided I wasn’t providing for our daughters well enough. She demanded more and more money, so I had to find another source of income. I paint houses all day. Roller and brush, up and down, no creativity, no passion. Just make the homeowner or resort owner happy, get my paycheck and send it all to her.”
“You could still paint for yourself in the evenings,” Alimon suggested.
“No inspiration,” Cameron said dully. “What’s there to paint when there’s no joy in my life?”
“Paint the darkness.”
“There isn’t even that,” Cameron replied. “There’s just nothingness.”
Alimon approached the walls. “These look fresh. You must have found something to give you inspiration.”
“I did,” Cameron agreed. “For a few short weeks, I did. My routine didn’t change, when Emmanuel showed up. I still went to paint other people’s houses all day, but he went with me. I couldn’t pay him, but he said it didn’t matter. It was his way of repaying me for a place to stay and some food. And at the end of a few days, I found I wanted to paint for myself again. So he sat there, on that couch, and watched. And then a few days ago, he disappeared. No note, no goodbye, just gone. I looked everywhere, but no one remembered seeing him. Ever. They think I’ve gone mad, that I’ve created him out of my imagination to fill up the emptiness in my life, but I know I haven’t. I know he was real.”
“How do you know?” Alimon asked, curious. They were trained to leave nothing behind, to let those they helped go on without them, until they were a faded memory, only the lesson learned staying fresh.
Cameron reached into his pocket and pulled out a little box that could be used to hold brushes. There were no brushes inside, though, only a few dark brown hairs. “These were on the couch where he slept,” Cameron explained. “No one ever comes up here except me, and I don’t have brown hair. They’re his.”
Alimon’s eyes flickered over the tatty red couch that was the centerpiece of Cameron’s living room. He was getting more and more confused. It sounded like Emmanuel had made progress, had even succeeded for the most part in helping Cameron rediscover himself. So why had Emmanuel left before he was sure Cameron was stable?
“Did something happen before he left?” Alimon asked. “Something that might, well, have scared him?”
“I … I don’t know,” Cameron said slowly.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened the night before he disappeared. Maybe we can figure it out,” Alimon suggested, using all his power of persuasion to keep Cameron talking. He was quite sure the painter was not usually so forthcoming with a stranger, but he had no time to win Cameron’s trust the conventional way. Something was terribly wrong, if his gut feeling could be trusted. He only hoped Calliel found Emmanuel quickly.
“We’d been working at one of the resorts up near Glacier National Park. We finished it, and I offered to take Emmanuel out to dinner to thank him for his help…”
The memory was crystal clear to Cameron. They were both covered in paint splatters, but the euphoria of finishing a job was as evident on Emmanuel’s face as it was in Cameron’s heart. Not only had they finished the resort lodge, Cameron had finished the mural in the living room at home, inspired to paint for himself again for the first time since his divorce, five years before. He had tried once or twice to thank Emmanuel, to give him credit for the transformation in his life, but Emmanuel had always demurred, insisting that it was all there within Cameron, and that Emmanuel had nothing to do with it.
That was what Emmanuel thought, but Cameron knew the truth. Emmanuel had opened his heart again, had made him see the beauty that surrounded him every day, and in the process, Cameron had fallen in love with the young man. It had happened so simply, so effortlessly, that Cameron had not even been aware of it. When he looked into Emmanuel’s laughing brown eyes as they left the lodge they had been working on all week, though, Cameron understood that he had everything he needed to make himself happy right there. He could deal with the drudgery of painting houses if he could have Emmanuel at his side. He could accept having no money because his wife took it all if Emmanuel was there to laugh with him and remind him that money wasn’t important; happiness was. It was time to start his campaign to convince Emmanuel to stay forever.
“Let me take you to dinner,” Cameron suggested as they left the house.
“Like this?” Emmanuel asked, laughing. “No decent restaurant would seat us.”
“I meant after we’ve cleaned up,” Cameron explained.
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” Emmanuel teased.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Cameron pointed out. “Will you let me take you to dinner?” His voice was earnest, his heart on his sleeve. He hoped Emmanuel would not be turned off.
“I’d love to have dinner with you,” Emmanuel replied.
They went home and cleaned up as quickly as they could. Cameron knew Emmanuel did not have much in the way of clothes so he did not pull out his suit, settling instead on a comfortable shirt and slacks.
They had gone out to a simple restaurant that served simple food, but it was not the locale Cameron was interested in anyway. He was only interested in the company. He made a point of opening the car door for Emmanuel and then the door to the restaurant. He could see his companion looking at him strangely, since he had not bothered with those niceties before that evening, but that did not deter him. Cameron was determined to show Emmanuel how wonderful it could be if only he would agree to stay. Cameron would indulge his every whim, treat him like he was the center of the universe, because in those short weeks they had been together, Emmanuel had become the center of Cameron’s universe.
At the restaurant, Cameron encouraged Emmanuel to order whatever took his fancy. “We’re celebrating,” Cameron insisted.
“But the bill … your wife…”
“Ex-wife,” Cameron corrected, “and tonight I don’t want to think about her. I only want to think about us.”
“Us?” Emmanuel asked slowly.
“Yes, us,” Cameron replied. “We’ve worked so well together that I was wondering if you would consider staying on.”
“I thought you couldn’t afford an employee,” Emmanuel reminded him.
“I can’t,” Cameron admitted, “if I have to pay minimum wage, but I can afford to have you stay with me. I can afford to feed us both. If you’re willing to keep helping me, at work and at living, I know we can do it.”
“I don’t know,” Emmanuel hesitated. “I hadn’t planned to stay very long.”
“Do you have someplace you have to be?” Cameron asked. “You’ve never mentioned any family.”
“I don’t have any specific plans,” Emmanuel admitted.
“Then stay,” Cameron urged.
“I suppose I could, at least for a while longer,” Emmanuel answered after a considerable pause.
“Wonderful!” Cameron exclaimed. The longer he could keep Emmanuel here, the harder it would be for the young man to leave. He would get used to being with Cameron, to working together, and to all the little signs of love that Cameron would shower on him. Cameron would win him over, day by day.
Alimon frowned silently when Cameron recounted this part of the story. Emmanuel should have realized what was going on. He should have diverted Cameron’s attention, found a way to focus his excitement inward rather than on Emmanuel. Something was terribly wrong.
Cameron recounted how the rest of the meal passed in easy conversation as they discussed their next project and what he was going to paint next. He talked about doing the walls in another room. Emmanuel suggested that he do a canvas instead. “That way, you can take it with you if you ever move.”
“Is my place too small for you?” Cameron asked, half teasing, half apprehensive. He could not afford anything larger, but he would do his best to find a way if Emmanuel insisted.
“Not at all,” Emmanuel replied smoothly. “Your couch is more than enough for me. People move sometimes, is all.” As he spoke, Cameron smiled at the thought of the worn velvet that welcomed Emmanuel’s weight each night. He wanted desperately to change places with the couch.
Looking across the table into the coffee-colored eyes, Cameron knew that on his couch was not where he wanted Emmanuel. He wanted the young man in his bed, as his lover, his partner, his mate. That would take time, though. Emmanuel had given no indication that he was interested in Cameron on that level. Even if that interest was never reciprocated, Cameron would be happy, simply having Emmanuel there. It did not mean, though, that he would not try.
When they were done with dinner, Cameron had escorted Emmanuel back to the car, letting his hand settle on the other man’s lower back, guiding him, subtly caressing him. When Emmanuel did not pull away, Cameron was incredibly heartened. If Emmanuel accepted that caress, he might be willing to accept more. They had driven home and settled on the couch as had become their habit. They had talked a little longer before Emmanuel had started yawning. Cameron had teased him about it, a little, before rising to give Emmanuel room to sleep. He lingered as Emmanuel settled himself on the couch, blankets hiding Emmanuel’s slim form and the ornate carvings on the legs of the couch.
Right before he went to his room, Cameron leaned over Emmanuel’s reclining form and kissed him, a gentle brushing of lips. A soft moan greeted his ears at the almost innocent touch, and Cameron could not stop himself from bending his head again. Emmanuel’s lips moved pliantly under his, encouraging Cameron to deepen the kiss. He lapped softly at the seam of Emmanuel’s mouth, urging the other man to let him inside. It had taken a moment, but Emmanuel’s lips had parted finally, letting Cameron’s tongue through, letting his mouth be taken. The kiss stayed gentle, even as it grew more passionate. Finally, knowing that he was losing control, Cameron had raised his head and smiled down at his soon-to-be lover. “Sleep well,” he whispered before going to his own room for the night.
“And when I came out in the morning, he was gone. I kissed him. That’s all. There’s no harm in that, is there?” Cameron asked with a pleading look on his face.
Alimon did not know how to answer that question. If Emmanuel had been simply a young man, like Cameron believed, there would have been no harm, since it certainly sounded like Emmanuel had been willing. The problem arose because Emmanuel was not what he appeared, and he had broken the cardinal rule in allowing Cameron to fall in love with him. Alimon wondered briefly if the emotions were reciprocal. That could explain Emmanuel’s disappearance.
“Is there?” Cameron repeated.
“I don’t know,” Alimon answered finally. “I guess that depends on Emmanuel.”

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