Monday, December 11, 2017

Monday Morning's Menu: The Mature Man's Guide to Surviving Change by Chris Scully


Summary:
In the sunny playground of Palm Springs, growing up was something confirmed bachelor and bad-boy chef Joel avoided at all costs—until a close friend’s death made him reevaluate his priorities. Ever since, he’s been dedicated to helping his widowed friend Perry get back on his feet by teaching him to cook and providing a shoulder to cry on. But when Perry announces that he’s ready to start dating again and then begins receiving gifts from an anonymous secret Santa, Joel is forced to confront the feelings he’s suppressed for so long.

As Joel struggles with jealousy and guilt amid the holiday season, he must decide if he’s ready to grow up and reach for what he’s always wanted but never thought he could have.

A story from the Dreamspinner Press 2017 Advent Calendar "Stocking Stuffers."


Joel has avoided serious relationship commitment all his life but now that his friend has passed away and he's been looking out for the husband left behind, has his thoughts changed on love?  Having harbored feelings for the grieving husband for years will he take the leap now that Perry has decided he's ready to start dating again?

I'm going to jump right in and start by saying I loved that Joel and Perry are older and more mature than the norm in romance tales.  I'll admit that I haven't really reached the point where I want to read that generation on an every day basis but its refreshing when you find one so well written.  Add in the holiday element and Chris Scully has brought a wonderful, loving novella sized journey of friendship, second chances, and new beginnings.  Throw in secret Santas, jealousy, and some self-denial and you are looking at a lovely holiday gift from the author that will warm your heart and leave you smiling.  What more can a reader ask for?

RATING: 


WHEN CHANGE arrives, it may unfortunately come as a shock.

“I THINK I’m ready to start dating again.”

Perry’s bombshell almost made me drop the tray of crispy samosas I was pulling from the oven. I blamed my misstep on the hot baking sheet and pretended I hadn’t heard him. Not a stretch given the music and the laughter that rippled like a warm breeze across Simon’s million-dollar backyard to the outdoor kitchen.

“How would you feel about that, Joel?” Perry probed, raising his voice a little. The mirrored glass of his aviators caught the afternoon sun and blinded me with the reflection.

I blinked. “About what?”

“About me dating again.”

“Looking good, Perry,” someone called from the pool. “Come on in—the water’s warm.” My heart sunk as Perry waved his hand in acknowledgment. He was looking good, and I wasn’t the only one noticing how the turquoise polo shirt set off his thick silver-threaded hair and the camel-colored chinos hugged his ass. He’d regained most of the weight he’d lost while Dale was sick, and since he’d started jogging again, he glowed with good health.

“So,” he said, returning to our conversation.

Head down, I arranged the golden triangles onto the serving platter next to the potato croquetas and dusted them with a pinch of finely chopped coriander. “Why ask me? You don’t need my permission.”

Silence. “Well, because you were Dale’s friend first. It might be weird for you.”

What I wouldn’t have given to strip off my clothes, hop in the crowded spa with a drink in my hand, and avoid this conversation. But it was my first time working one of Simon’s parties in a professional capacity, and I wanted to make a good impression. After a year of struggling, my personal chef business was finally taking off, and Simon’s recommendation would take it even further. I just wished he hadn’t elected to go with the menu of hors d’oeuvres and small plates. It was far more complicated than a sit-down dinner, and I was already tired and stressed.

“Here.” I thrust the plate of appetizers into the hands of a tanned waiter who materialized at my side, barely glancing at the Santa hat and matching red bikini he wore.

“Do you think they’re cold, dressed like that?” Perry murmured in my ear. “Or should I say undressed? It’s barely seventy degrees today.”

“Who? The waitstaff? Judging by the size of that guy’s package, he’s not cold in the least.”

Author Bio:
Unique characters. Heartwarming stories. Chris Scully lives in Toronto, Canada and grew up spinning romantic stories in her head. When the tedium of her corporate day job grew too much, she took a chance and found her escape in writing. Now she longs for the day she can make writing a full-time career. Her stories feature everyday characters falling in love. She hopes to write across multiple genres, but you can always count on a happy ending.

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Release Tour: The Holiday Package by Leigh Lennon

Title: The Holiday Package
Author: Leigh Lennon
Series: Jake Davis Novella #1
Genre: Adult Holiday Romance
Release Date: December 8, 2017
Summary:
Ten days in the Cayman Islands should put a smile on my face but it becomes the reminder of what I lost. It didn't take long for me to come face to face with the sassiest and hardest of women, who may be able to make me forget all I left behind. In that moment, I realize I want her!

This vacation is about moving on, getting past what I can’t have. The saucy little ginger flaunting her perfect curvy body in her next to nothing bikinis can be the distraction I need to forget it all. Her fire and brimstone attitude is one reason I am in constant arousal. When she proposes a holiday affair, will I be able to say good-bye in the end? Will my heart allow this, even when my mind keeps on saying this is a hell of a risk?


Now, we sit in silence as I continue to feel her observation fall upon me, over and over again, while she doesn’t hide the fact she’s looking at me up and down like I am a mannequin.

Finally, being direct, I say, “Um, is there something I can help you with?”

Taking a sip of my coffee, I’m expecting her to sidestep but no, I should understand her candidness at this point, as she says, “I was just thinking what it would be like to fuck you.” My coffee makes its way out of my mouth. It would get all tens if this were a spitting contest.

“Oh, I shocked you?” she asks, almost timidly but with the little cocky smirk that is both behind her mouth, and moving up to those caramel-amber eyes of hers, she’s not attempting to be shy, not in the least.

“So, tell me,” I begin. “What have you come up with?” I ask.

Pursing her lips together, Sasha finally answers. “Um, let me really imagine this in my mind as I describe it. First, you have a long dick, like super long. It is thick and will fill me up just fine.” Instantaneously, my super long dick she’s describing aches. “Next, I would say you love pussy. However, mine is incredibly delectable.” Fuck, I try not to moan. “Next, I imagine you holding yourself up with one hand while you’re over me, licking my pussy, bringing me to a really good orgasm, all while you jerk yourself off. And by the way, if I had to guess, you’re really good with your tongue.”

I smile because I’ve been told this on many occasions but at the same time, my balls ache. She doesn’t say anything and I realize she’s finished. I respond, “I think that is a possible scenario.”

Standing up, she gives me a throaty little laugh. “Who knows, this may just be a long ten days.” She winks then leaves me aching in pain when she retreats to her bedroom.

Ah, fuck! This woman might be the death of me.


The Last Breath
Summary:
Loss is not foreign to Julia Barnett. To the outside world she is the epitome of the perfect mom. That is, until the doors of her impeccable life are closed and reality hits her square in the face. Once the leading lady in her own epic love story, she can only look back at what used to be. With an absent husband, an intrusive father, a troubled child, and an ex-fiancĂ© that is still tied to her life, it’s no wonder Julia is grasping for air in her chaotic world.

The bruises that Julia lives with are invisible to those closest to her. She lost so much early in life, more than most could survive. Now, she grapples with resentment towards her husband because of all the empty promises he’s made. In the midst of this turmoil, test results reveal an illness she is not sure she will survive.

For Julia, it is not her life that may be cut short that consumes her, but how her family will endure without her there. As everyone rallies around Julia while she fights like hell to live, she learns that family, along with love, comes in many shapes and sizes. It is her family that gives her the strength to fight the biggest battle of her life; one she doesn’t want to lose.

Leigh Lennon
Author Bio:
Leigh Lennon is mother, veteran and a wife of a cancer survivor. Originally with a degree in education, she started writing as an outlet that has led a deep passion as she wrote twelve books. Now ready to publish all of them, she lugs her computer with her as she crafts her next story. She can be found drinking coffee or wine, depending on the time of the day.



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A Holiday Package

The Last Breath




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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Week at a Glance: 12/4/17 - 12/10/17














































Random Tales of Christmas 2017 Part 4


In Case of Emergency by Keira Andrews
Summary:
Former stepbrothers find Christmas romance under the tree.

After years alone, Daniel Diaz is finally ready to shake up his orderly, solitary life. He's about to leave for a cozy Christmas getaway with his new man when he gets the call from the ER that his former stepbrother has been admitted with a concussion and a broken hand—and Cole put him down as his emergency contact. Why the hell would he do that? Daniel barely knows the guy. After all, their parents' marriage lasted less than a year and it was a decade ago!

But Cole has no one else to look after him and strict doctor's orders not to be left alone. So fine, Daniel will bring him along on vacation to make sure he doesn't starve or fall into a coma. This is supposed to be Daniel's chance to explore romance again after locking down his feelings for too long—except it turns out his could-be boyfriend is more interested in partying and being an obnoxious jerk. Daniel sends him packing, and now he's stuck with a virtual stranger in an isolated mountain cabin.

Cole Smith crushed hard on cranky Daniel when they were teenagers. Alone with him in a romantic winter wonderland, those feelings roar back to life. Glimpsing the caring, vulnerable man under Daniel's frosty shell, he yearns to get closer. Christmas is a time for surprises, and Daniel and Cole discover a scorching connection that just might melt their hearts.

This fluffy gay Christmas romance from Keira Andrews features former stepbrothers reconnecting as adults, sexy hot-tub shenanigans, cuddling by the fire, and of course a happy ending.


Daniel Diaz has decided to step outside of his norm to try and shake up his life by getting away for the weekend with the new man in his life.  Fate has other plans.  Cole Smith wasn't expecting to break his hand and wind up with a concussion but it happens and his former stepbrother gets called and decides to watch over his concussion protocol when he finds no one else is around.  So Daniel's weekend getaway has an extra passenger.  What happens when he gets to the cabin and finds his new man has a surprise of his own?  Will Cole's longtime crush on his former stepbrother finally lead to something?

I've read a few tales by Keira Andrews and never have I been disappointed.  In Case of Emergency was just as good as I have come to expect from Miss Andrews and to make it even better, its wrapped in a giant Christmas bow.  Most of us want to shake things up at one time or another so its easy to understand Daniel's desire and his fears.  Its easy to tell someone to do something different but its not so easy to do so yourself.  Its equally easy to understand Cole's longtime crush, most of us have that one crush from our younger years that never really faded and if they were to come back into our lives hints of that crush would quickly return.

With In Case of Emergency, its really no secret where Daniel and Cole's journey will end but its the getting there that is fun, heartwarming, and entertaining.  If you're wondering about Daniel's new man that he's to spend the weekend with, well for that part of the story you'll have to read for yourself but I will say that even though this is fun and full of holiday heart there is some drama that fits perfectly with the characters and the setting.  I may not be adding this one to my annual re-read list but I will definitely be looking forward to revisiting  Daniel and Cole again.

RATING: 

'Tis the Season by Lisa Worrall
Summary:
Isaac didn't do the cold. He didn't do singing either. So trudging through the snow in minus temperatures, freezing his balls off to sing Fa lala to complete strangers, was not his idea of fun. Until the tall, dark and handsome who opened the final door changed his mind.

Popcorn Garlands by Ariel Tachna
Summary:
Carlos Mendez spends all year working hard at his Houston-based landscaping business, and he sends every spare penny he earns back to his family in Mexico. By the time the holidays roll around, he doesn’t have much patience for the unadulterated greed and consumerism paraded past him. But a chance meeting with his neighbor, Ned Williams, and Ned’s cancer-stricken daughter, might help to remind him of the real meaning of the season—something beyond the gaudy lights and extravagant displays—something he wants to be a part of.

A story from the Dreamspinner Press 2016 Advent Calendar "Bah Humbug."

Light One Candle by Keelan Ellis
Summary:
Nerdy, struggling graphic novelist Josh Reben expected to work at his comic book store job all through the holidays. The only thing he had to look forward to was a possible hookup with a guy who—let’s be honest—didn’t seem that into him. So when his brother Ben calls to tell him he’ll be flying home for Hanukkah, along with his wife and new baby, Josh pleads for the day off for a family visit.

With the best of intentions, Ben also invites their former neighbor Marc Birnbaum to dinner. Only, he didn’t know that Marc bullied Josh for years when they were children. Josh approaches the evening with the idea of getting some closure, but when he finds Marc to be completely changed from his childhood self, things get a little confusing.

Family drama and personal baggage make for holiday tensions, but during the Festival of Lights, the Rebens and their guest just might find their way to some new understandings.

Santa's Naughty Helper by Ari McKay
Summary:
Lawyers In Love #1
Shy lawyer Kevin Anderson is presented with an unexpected opportunity when he draws hunky litigator Erik Wilson’s name for their office’s secret holiday gift exchange. Kevin has pined for his friend for a long time, but he fears ruining their working relationship if Erik doesn’t return his feelings. The anonymity of the exchange gives him the chance to let Erik know someone is interested, so Kevin turns the gift into a game: twelve days of presents, each more suggestive, culminating with a Christmas Eve meeting—if Kevin finds the courage to see it through!

Erik is intrigued by his secret Santa, who has given him something to look forward to during the holidays for the first time in years. But as Christmas approaches, he realizes he doesn’t want a mystery man; he wants his best friend, Kevin. When his attempts to instigate something with Kevin fail, Erik accepts the dinner invitation of his secret admirer. Little does he suspect that Santa’s naughty little helper might be just the man to make all his Christmas dreams come true in a holiday friends-to-lovers romance that progresses from sweet to spicy for two sexy lawyers.

First Edition published by Torquere Press, 2012.

Click to Check Out Previous
Random Tales of Christmas 2017

Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3


In Case of Emergency by Keira Andrews
Chapter One
Daniel wasn’t sure how many ways he could say it, but he tried again. “I don’t know a Nicholas Smith.”

The woman on the other end of the line somehow persisted. “But this is Daniel Diaz?” She rattled off his number.

Daniel took the cell phone from his ear for a moment to glance at the screen. It definitely said Carleton University. Was this some student prank? Did people even make crank calls anymore? He said, “Yes, that’s the correct number, but there’s been some mistake.”

“But you are Daniel Diaz, aren’t you?”

He sighed. “Yes, but as I said, I don’t know a Nicholas Smith.” Ugh, he just wanted to get home so he could pack and get back on the road. He was actually taking an honest-to-God vacation. With his new, maybe-could-be boyfriend. Which might be a complete disaster. Stomach tightening, he pushed away the unease as the woman spoke again.

“I’m so sorry to bother you, but he’s one of our students. He’s had an accident. Your name and number are listed as his emergency contact.”

“I don’t know what to tell you. I have no clue who this guy is.” He switched his wipers to the next setting, the rubber squeaking a little faster as it cleared the wet snow on the windshield.

Traffic crawled along the slushy 417 toward Kanata, a sea of red lights in the December darkness. Normally Daniel came home after eight and missed rush hour. He usually would’ve ignored the call while driving, but at five kilometers an hour, he figured he was safe. He really needed to get Bluetooth set up, but most of his communication was by text anyway, even for work. These days the only person who called him was his mother—

“Shit,” he muttered with a sinking sensation, gripping the steering wheel, the heated leather warm under his fingers.

“Uh, excuse me?”

“Sorry. It just hit me. Is this Cole Smith? Our parents were married for, like, five minutes. It was a million years ago, but a few months back my mom mentioned he was moving to Ottawa. Grad school, or something.”

“Yes, Nicholas Smith is enrolled in our master’s degree in environmental engineering.”

“Why the hell would he put me down for his in-case-of-emergency person? We haven’t talked in years.” He did the math. “Ten years.”

“Well, I’m not sure. But he’s been taken to the hospital, and it’s policy that we inform his emergency contact. That would apparently be you, Mr. Diaz.”

The woman didn’t sound that worried, so it couldn’t be a big deal, but… “He’s okay, right? It’s not anything serious?” He barely remembered nerdy, knobby-kneed little Cole, but he didn’t want anything bad to happen to the guy.

“All I know is that there was an accident, Nicholas was injured, and an ambulance was called. But, no, I don’t believe it’s a life or death situation. However, the campus is closing now for the next three weeks, and I imagine Nicholas’s classmates are already gone. Yours is the only contact number we have.”

Shit, fuck, fuck. As the traffic came to a complete standstill, he closed his eyes for a moment and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“I guess it’s up to you whether you go to the ER or not.”

Daniel groaned internally. He still had to pack and finish up a couple of hiring reports, even though the office had just closed for the holidays. “God, I hate hospitals.”

“Doesn’t everyone, Mr. Diaz?”

She had a point, and guilt attacked like a punch to the gut. “Which hospital?”

Of course it was back the way he’d come, and the next exit would take a good ten minutes to reach in the bumper-to-bumper procession. After hanging up, Daniel quickly dialed his mom. She answered on the third ring, and he said, “Hey, Mom. Look, I got a weird call to go to the hospital.”

“What? Are you sick?” Her voice squeaked out at a pitch close to something only dogs could hear.

“No, no. I’m fine. Mom? Listen to me. I’m a hundred percent fine. It’s about Nicholas Smith. Is that your ex’s son?” Not that “ex” narrowed it down. He added, “Cole?”

She sucked in a breath. “Is he hurt? What happened?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m on my way. Carleton called me because he had an accident on campus. Do you know why he would have put me down to contact?”

“Because I told him to, darling. He doesn’t know anyone else in Ottawa.”

“Uh, he doesn’t know me either! I haven’t seen him in forever.” Not since the rebound marriage between Daniel’s mother and Cole’s father predictably imploded after only six months.

“Of course you know him. He’s family. Oh my goodness, what do you suppose happened? Please let him be all right.”

“I’m sure he’s fine. Don’t get worked up.” He pushed the heat button on the Audi’s dash, turning it down. “And Mom, he is not family.”

“You don’t divorce children, Daniel.”

“You got that from Clueless, didn’t you?”

She huffed. “Regardless, it’s accurate.”

Daniel wasn’t going to argue with her about it. “How’s Puerto Vallarta treating you?”

“Divinely! I’ve already had four mango margaritas and it’s not even dinnertime. I wish you could come down, sweetheart. It doesn’t seem right spending Christmas without you.”

“Mom, you know I’ll see you in the new year. Besides, it’s a girls’ trip with your friends. No men allowed, remember?”

“Yes, true. And at least you’re actually taking time off work—although I know you wouldn’t if you had your way. Thank goodness Martin believes in work-life balance. You need to learn from your boss, sweetie.”

Martin Bukowski, the CEO of AppAny, insisted on being called by his first name, wore flip-flops in Ottawa in January, and had installed a massive tube slide between the floors of his headquarters. The work itself—creating apps for small businesses—was actually rather staid. Lots of back-end web development and whatnot. But Martin was determined his company would be edgy and cool, with playgrounds for offices, flexible work schedules, and a staff with a median age of twenty-five.

“Speaking of work-life balance, Cole is a lovely young man. Assuming he’s all right, and pray that he is, maybe you could spend some time with him in the next few months? I’m sure he’s been lonely, on his own in a different city.”

“I barely have time to see my own friends, let alone some dude I don’t even know.” He finally reached the off-ramp and circled around to get back on the highway heading into Ottawa. At least there was less traffic going that way.

“As I always point out, you work far too much.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. Mom, I have to hang up now. I can’t talk and drive. I’ll let you know what’s going on with Cole as soon as I can. Love you.”

“Love you too, my darling.”

He’d heard it a million times that he worked too much, but she didn’t understand how important his job was to him. Not many twenty-eight-year-olds made HR director. Granted, he was one of three HR directors working under a VP at AppAny, but it was still an accomplishment.

So what if he worked damn hard? How was that a bad thing? And he was taking a vacation, wasn’t he? At the last minute, even!

Daniel thought wistfully of the hot tub waiting. It was outdoor and boasted a view of the mountains and the frozen lake. Mont-Tremblant in Quebec already had a couple feet of snow, and it would be perfect to cuddle up in the steamy water with a glass or three of merlot. Oh, and Justin. Right.

With a mix of excitement and trepidation, he thought of free and spontaneous Justin. He was so handsome, with his strawberry-blond hair, blue eyes, and mouth that didn’t quit—in more ways than one. Daniel usually preferred to make plans well in advance, but Justin loved the thrill of doing things on the fly. So Daniel had rented a whole chalet for them last-minute thanks to a cancellation. He could be fun too, damn it.

“It’s going to be great,” he muttered. “CYC.”

It’d been his friend Pam who’d pleaded with him to accompany her to a self-help workshop called CYC: Change Your Cadence. Of course he’d flatly refused at first. He tried to keep Sundays completely free to cook and watch all the mindless TV he’d recorded. Crowding into the Kanata Best Western ballroom with a bunch of unhappy people and paying a hundred bucks to some con artist who promised to change their lives was not appealing in any way, shape, or form.

But tears had glimmered in Pam’s eyes as she’d whispered that no one else would go. She and her wife, Christine—make that ex-wife now—had lived in the condo next to Daniel’s rental, where he’d lived for a few years before moving into his new house.

Pam had always been so stoic and practical, the yin to Christine’s flighty, over-emotional yang. When it fell apart, Christine took custody of most of their friends in the divorce, and at thirty-three, Pam had found herself starting over.

Daniel had never seen her cry before, so of course he’d gone with her. The guru was an ex-Marine sergeant from the States who’d made a new career for herself after being shot in Afghanistan and then abandoned by her loser husband in the same month. Her philosophy wasn’t exactly groundbreaking—if what you’ve been doing isn’t working, try something different—but her delivery captured people’s imaginations.

As the other attendees, mostly women but some men, had hopped and twirled and even crawled over the burgundy-and-gray-checked carpet during one of the exercises, literally changing their cadence, Daniel had sat straight-backed in his chair.

Yet Sergeant Becky’s message had permeated his consciousness—he still hadn’t ruled out brainwashing—and later, after the workshop was over, he found himself often attempting to CYC.

Like with this trip.

He wasn’t sure how much he and Justin had in common, but cuddling up together in the hot tub in Mont-Tremblant would be his chance to find out. Before CYC, Daniel would never have agreed to go on a date with someone as…exuberant as Justin, let alone go away with him for a week. And he’d definitely never date anyone in the staff group he managed. Luckily, Justin was under one of the other directors.

Besides, Justin had been so enthusiastic about Daniel, obviously into him and not ashamed to show it. How long had it been since anyone had been interested in that way? It’d been way too long since Daniel have even been willing to attempt a relationship.

Wonder what Trevor’s doing for Christmas.

Grimacing, Daniel tried to banish the memories, acid flooding his gut. He’d simply been too busy to date the last few years. Okay, six years. But he was changing that, wasn’t he? CYC. He’d committed himself to doing things differently, so that was that.

He jabbed a button on the steering wheel with his thumb and turned on the radio, an obnoxiously cheery Mariah Carey Christmas song filling the car. He lifted his thumb to change the station, then left it to prove to himself how open-minded he was being.

Justin had pursued him relentlessly at the office over the past month. He worked for AppAny’s marketing department as a graphic designer and was fresh out of art school. Justin’s attention was flattering, and although Daniel had put him off time and time again, he couldn’t deny it was fun to have someone flirting with him. Of course Daniel insisted they keep it strictly professional at the office.

Except for when Justin had blown him in the Audi in the parking lot the previous week.

Usually Daniel could manage his own sexual needs quite handily—so to speak. But it had been an extra-long day and the lot was almost empty. Justin had smiled so prettily and practically begged to go down on him. Daniel hadn’t been able to resist. CYC and all that.

They hadn’t even actually kissed, but now they’d have a whole week at the chalet to get to know each other. After Daniel dealt with this Cole situation. He took the exit for the hospital, the blue and white neon H on the main building beckoning. What if Cole was really hurt?

“Fuck,” he muttered. It was the last thing he wanted to deal with right then, but obviously he had to at least make sure his former stepbrother was okay.

He took a ticket from the machine, the mechanical arm lifting to admit him to the visitor parking lot. The concrete hospital was brightly lit against the dark sky, and Daniel shoved his hands in the pockets of his knee-length Burberry coat. The temperature hovered around the freezing mark, which was balmy for Ottawa in December. He hadn’t had to bust out his Canada Goose jacket yet, but he’d bring it to the mountains.

As he walked up to the ER, sirens approached, and by the time he neared the door, he was blinded by red lights and had to jump out of the way as paramedics shouted about a GCS of twelve and a head lac and wheeled in a bloody man on a stretcher.

Daniel followed in the stretcher’s wake, stopping in the fluorescent-lit enclosure of the gray waiting room, where a chorus of coughs greeted him. One woman, who was hacking up a lung by the sounds of it, jiggled a wailing baby on her knee. A drunk-sounding man spoke too loudly, evidently to himself, the chairs next to him empty despite the mass of people in the small space, some leaning against walls.

Disinfectant seared Daniel’s nostrils, but not enough to cover the stench of—yep, horribly pink vomit being mopped up in the corner. Sad little red and green Christmas decorations hung from the reception desk; one end of the garland trailed onto the floor. A brown-edged poinsettia sat in front of the clerk’s computer.

Daniel didn’t want to touch anything.

A middle-aged woman with a brunette dye job that showed an inch of gray at the roots glanced up as he reluctantly approached the desk. “Can I help you?”

“Yes. I’m here to see Cole Smith? Nicholas, I mean. He was apparently brought in by ambulance this afternoon.”

She tapped her keyboard. “You’re family?”

To avoid red tape, he nodded and told a big, fat lie. “He’s my brother.” Working in HR, he knew just how long it could take to deal with privacy regulations.

“He’s in curtain seven.”

Daniel exhaled. “Does that mean he’s okay? Since he’s not in the operating room or whatever?”

“Uh-huh. He’s just fine.” She read from the screen. “Broken hand. Mild concussion. He’ll be ready for discharge.”

Thank Christ. “Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome. Go through the double doors to the right.”

Another child’s wail joined the baby’s. Daniel shuddered. “Is it always like this?”

The woman smirked. “Only on a full moon. Fa-la-la-la-la.”

Daniel gave her a smile and followed her instructions, pushing through the doors and into the ER itself, where another reception desk sat. The doors shut behind him with a whoosh, mercifully dulling the cacophony. A young woman looked up, and Daniel asked, “Curtain seven?”

“Take your first left and look up for the numbers.”

In the long, narrow room, machines beeped and someone moaned behind their curtain, but it was mostly still. He felt like he suddenly had to tiptoe, his leather loafers silent on the linoleum anyway. Some curtains were drawn, while others were open, revealing patients on stretchers.

Electrodes dotted the sunken chest of one older man. A silver-haired woman who was likely his wife sat in a plastic chair beside him, gripping his hand. She glanced up as Daniel passed, and he gave her what he hoped was a sympathetic smile. She returned it, then looked back to the man, who snored lightly.

Curtain seven was drawn, and Daniel stood there for a few moments. There was nothing to knock on, so finally he cleared his throat and said, “Uh…Cole? Are you in there?”

Popcorn Garlands by Ariel Tachna
CARLOS MENDEZ backed his trailer into its spot in the apartment-complex parking lot and climbed out to unhitch it from his truck. He had a second spot for the truck, an expense he justified as necessary for his business. Most of the year the trailer was loaded with yard equipment—mowers, edgers, trimmers, rakes, and more—but for the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was all ladders and Christmas decorations.

God, he hated Christmas. He made good money installing Christmas lights for people in Pearland and farther south who had no time or the wrong equipment to hang lights from second-story rooflines, but it all served to remind him of just how far from any real meaning they’d gotten.

Still, it paid the bills and let him give his team nice bonuses that they relied on to make Christmas special for their own families. The fact that Carlos came home to an empty apartment was no reason to deny them those treats.

Finished unhitching the trailer, he parked the truck in the next spot and made sure everything was locked up. He kept the extra decorations in a storage unit off-site and just picked up what he needed for each installation, but even the trailer and ladders had to be secured in Crestmont Park, or he ran the risk of them not being there in the morning.

One of these days he’d move to a nicer area where he wouldn’t have to worry as much, but right now this was all he could afford and still send money to his mother to help her out. He had his head above water, if not by much. He would make sure his younger sisters had a better chance than he’d had, if it killed him.

He trudged across the cracked concrete of the terrace around the pool area, toward his apartment. Someone had put weed killer down recently, an improvement over the usual mess of dandelions and thistle that grew there pretty much year-round. All around the courtyard, Christmas lights twinkled on apartment balconies. They were less gaudy than some of the installations he’d put in over the past two weeks, but that didn’t make them less of a reminder. He consoled himself with the few dark balconies, including his own and his neighbor’s. As he got closer, he saw his neighbor’s balcony might not be garishly lit, but it was still decorated. Were those popcorn garlands?

Madre de Dios, they were. This was a disaster in the making. They’d attract birds and bugs, even if they didn’t attract squirrels and rats and worse. He hated to rain on anyone’s parade, but if he didn’t ask them to take the garlands down, someone else would complain and then his neighbor would end up with a complaint in his records with the apartment complex. Carlos didn’t know how many of those a tenant had to get before they got evicted, but it shouldn’t happen over something as stupid as Christmas decorations.
He’d take a shower and knock on the door with a little neighborly advice.

Light One Candle by Keelan Ellis
Josh eyed the crowd waiting outside the glass doors of Origin Story Comics, while Amy, the assistant manager, put the tills into the registers. “Every year I tell myself I’m going to find another job so I won’t have to go through this for another holiday season,” he grumbled.

“Yeah, right.” Amy slammed the money drawer shut and rolled her dramatically made-up eyes at him. “Good luck finding another job that lets you work on your graphic novel behind the counter when it’s dead in here.”

Josh sighed, knowing she was right. He was in the middle of his third one at the moment, the first two having been published to very little fanfare. He didn’t even like telling people anymore, because they always seemed so shocked that an artist with two published books would still need to be working retail. They had no idea.

“And anyway,” she continued, talking over her shoulder as she walked to the front of the store, “you’ve been here nine years. You must not hate it that much.” She unlocked the doors and stepped aside to let the hordes of Christmas shoppers stream in.

Josh and Amy were the only employees in the store that morning because the part-time kid they’d hired for the holidays had flaked after two shifts. The place was chaos during the holidays, as always, packed with people who had never set foot in a comic book store in their lives. About two hours into his shift, Josh’s phone buzzed while he was trying to help a middle-aged woman who couldn’t remember whether her son had asked for Midnighter or Moon Knight. The woman stood there with the two volumes in her hands, looking back and forth at them.

“I can’t remember,” she said. “Should I get both?”

Josh knew he should probably just say yes—that’s what his boss would want him to do—but he felt a sort of affection for the lady. She was trying to get something her kid would really like, and she’d actually made the effort to come into the shop rather than buy it on Amazon, but still. His hand itched to pick up his phone and glance at it; he thought it might be Brandon, who he’d hooked up with twice last week, but who hadn’t texted him since. Josh wasn’t about to let pride get in the way of getting laid. Besides, after the day he was having, he needed something to look forward to. As he stood there, the buzzing stopped, but there was another short buzz indicating that a voice mail had been left.

“I’m going to call his sister and see if she knows,” the lady said.

“Good idea,” Josh said. He reached into his pocket and put his hand on the phone, squeezing it in frustration. He looked over at Amy, who had just finished ringing someone up. The crowd, miraculously, had thinned out for the moment, and when he caught Amy’s eye, he mouthed help.

She was visibly annoyed, but came over to where he was standing. The woman he’d been helping had wandered a small distance away to make her phone call. “What?”

“I just got a call, and I think it might be that guy from last week. Do you mind if I go outside for a minute?”

“Wouldn’t it be better to make him wait? I mean, at least, like, until your lunch break? You’re going to look desperate.”

“I don’t give a shit. He’s out of my league anyway, to be honest, and if I don’t call him back, he’ll just go on Grindr and find someone else in like two seconds. Please.”

“Fine,” she huffed. “Five minutes, and then get your ass back in here. What’s the deal with her?” She jutted her chin in the mom’s direction.

“She’s trying to figure out which of those comics her kid wanted. I’d recommend a gift card.”

Josh walked outside into the biting Philadelphia December air and up the street to the alley, which afforded a tiny bit of respite from the wind. He pulled out his phone, already anticipating a fun night with Brandon, and opened up the voice mail.

Santa's Naughty Helper by Ari McKay
“KNOCK, KNOCK!”

Kevin glanced up from the brief in front of him and smiled as he saw Shelley, one of the office paralegals, hovering at his door. It wasn’t even Thanksgiving yet, but she wore a Santa hat and a pair of shiny earrings shaped like a menorah.

“Isn’t it a little early for so much holiday cheer?” he asked, raising one eyebrow at her.

“I’m on official business.” Shelley grinned as she crossed to his desk and held out a Kwanzaa gift bag. “I’m Santa’s helper. The big bosses decided to hold the holiday party early this year because of when Hanukkah falls, so we’re having people draw names for the secret gift exchange before Thanksgiving. That way they have time to think about what to give their lucky recipient.”

“Ah, that makes sense.”

The law firm, Caldwell and Monroe, was big on the holidays, and the party was always an elaborate catered affair, complete with a champagne fountain and ice sculptures. The gift exchange was a highlight of the party, and everyone hoped to be the lucky person drawn by the senior partner, Cal Monroe. The previous year Cal had given his recipient season tickets for the Yankees, and while not everyone could afford that kind of extravagance, everyone in the firm enjoyed the exchange.

Shelley shook the bag and held it out. “I envy whoever you get. Anne wears the watch you gave her last year every day.”

“Hey, isn’t this supposed to be secret?” Kevin gave her a mock glare as he reached into the bag and ran his fingers through the slips of paper. He selected one, pulled it out, and held it closed within his hand.

“We have our ways of knowing things,” Shelley replied airily, waving away his protest.

Chuckling, Kevin shook his head. “It figures. You guys are too good at research to miss a trick, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely!” Shelley looked pointedly at his hand. “Aren’t you going to open it and see who it is?”

“Not until you leave! I don’t need the Sherlock Holmes of the holiday elves figuring it out before it’s even December.”

Shelley shrugged, a gleam of amusement in her eyes. “Don’t think I won’t!” she promised with a wink. “You’re a thoughtful man, Kevin. Your recipient will be very grateful you drew their name.”

“Well, I’ll do my best.”

Shelley nodded, and then she turned and headed out, presumably to spread more cheer. Kevin looked down at the piece of green paper dubiously. He liked giving gifts and making people happy, but it wasn’t always easy. He’d barely known Anne, one of the legal secretaries, when he’d drawn her name, and it had taken more than a little covert research of his own to figure out what she might like. He knew he could have just given her a gift certificate, but he’d always felt they were a form of cheating.

The whole point of the exchange was for the firm’s employees to get to know one another on a personal level, but unlike most of the other lawyers, Kevin was shy. He wasn’t a flashy criminal attorney; he preferred the relative peace of corporate law, drawing up contracts and investigating patent disputes. He’d been in court often enough over the years, but he wasn’t the lead attorney when it came to litigation. He didn’t care for the spotlight, the television interviews, or the notoriety that sometimes surrounded the cases. Just doing his job well brought him a great deal of satisfaction.

As a result, he wasn’t exactly thrilled with the thought of having to ask subtle questions about a relative stranger to determine what they’d like, so it was with more than a little trepidation that he opened the paper and read the name.

Erik Wilson.

“Oh.” Dumbfounded, Kevin stared at the paper, relief warring with unease. In one way, drawing Erik’s name made things simpler for him. Erik was his closest friend; they worked out together at the gym, and they met up regularly, whether it was to try a new restaurant or relax with a pizza and a movie. They shared a love of art, especially the classics, and had visited a few special exhibits together over the years. Kevin knew Erik’s tastes well, which should have made choosing a present easy.

Unfortunately, he was also madly in love with Erik, which meant he had to figure out what to give Erik without making his feelings all too obvious. It would take a Christmas miracle to make a man like Erik ever look at him. Erik had it all: he was smart, sexy, and outgoing. He was tall and broad-shouldered with dark hair and bedroom eyes, and half the women in the office would have been vying for his attention if he weren’t gay. Where Kevin was shy, Erik was friendly, and while Kevin disliked having to stand up and speak in court, Erik thrived on it. They worked together because their expertise and skills sets meshed well, but Kevin knew it was Erik who had the drive to win their cases that went to trial. Kevin didn’t resent it in the slightest, because he was a background kind of guy. Erik could have any man he wanted, and he’d never given any indication that he saw Kevin as more than a friend.

Kevin knew he could play it safe and get Erik something nice but not terribly personal, but part of him wanted to use this opportunity to get Erik’s attention and maybe make him notice Kevin as more than just a buddy. If he were a different man, he would have done it out in the open, but he couldn’t bear it if Erik rejected him outright. No doubt Erik would be nice about it and let Kevin down easy, but there was no way Kevin wanted to face that kind of scene. With the anonymity of the exchange, however, maybe he could let Erik know there was someone who was interested in him, and perhaps Erik would notice Kevin’s quiet dedication. Even if he didn’t, maybe Kevin could get past his insecurity enough to say something to Erik directly.

He’d have to think about it and come up with a plan. Fate had handed him an opportunity, and he knew he’d never forgive himself if he wasted it.


Keira Andrews
After writing for years yet never really finding the right inspiration, Keira discovered her voice in gay romance, which has become a passion. She writes contemporary, historical, paranormal and fantasy fiction, and—although she loves delicious angst along the way—Keira firmly believes in happy endings. For as Oscar Wilde once said:


“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

Lisa Worrall
Thank you for reading and taking the time to review and/or rate. It's jaw-dropping to me that you would do either. I feel a bit like Sally Field in her famous Oscar speech "You like me - you actually like me"

I live in a small seaside town just outside London, on the South Coast of England that boasts the longest pier in the world; where I am ordered around by two precocious children and a dog who thinks she's the boss of me.

I've been writing seriously for three years now and love giving voice to the characters warring to be heard in my head, and am currently petitioning for more hours in the day, because I never seem to have enough of them.

I like nothing more than bringing together two people in interesting and sometimes bizarre ways, and hope that the readers enjoy the characters' journey as much as they and I do.


Ariel Tachna
Ariel Tachna lives outside of Houston with her husband, her daughter and son, and their cat. Before moving there, she traveled all over the world, having fallen in love with both France, where she found her husband, and India, where she dreams of retiring some day. She’s bilingual with snippets of four other languages to her credit, and is as in love with languages as she is with writing.

Keelan Ellis
Keelan Ellis is a true crime enthusiast, a political junkie, and a comedy fan. Despite a compulsion to sometimes wallow in the depths of humanity’s corruption and sadness, she considers herself a romantic at heart. The stories she really connects with are about love that’s been twisted into hatred, and she believes that with honesty and forgiveness, love can overcome. Keelan loves good bourbon and classic country music, great television and well-prepared food, especially shared with like-minded people. She’s not a fan of parties and large groups of people, but there’s nothing she loves more than a long conversation with friends. Her favorite part of the writing process is the collaborative stage, hashing out plot and characters with smart and talented friends. It’s where she truly comes to understand the people she’s writing about, and often falls in love with them. With the support and encouragement--as well as some serious editing help--Keelan has found the writing niche she’s always searched for. Sometimes she gets blocked, and when that happens, there’s only one thing she knows to do. Just like Inigo Montoya, she goes back to the beginning, writing about the characters who inspired her so much in the past.

Ari McKay
Ari McKay is the professional pseudonym for Arionrhod and McKay, who collaborate on original m/m fiction. They began writing together in 2004 and finished their first original full length novel in 2011. Recently, they’ve begun collaborating on designing and creating costumes to wear and compete in at Sci Fi conventions, and they share a love of yarn and cake.

Arionrhod is an avid costumer, knitter, and all-around craft fiend, as well as a professional systems engineer. Mother of two human children and two dachshunds who think they are human, she is a voracious reader with wildly eclectic tastes, devouring romance novels, military science fiction, horror stories and Shakespeare with equal glee. She is currently preparing for the zombie apocalypse.

McKay is an English teacher who has been writing for one reason or another most of her life. She also enjoys knitting, reading, cooking, and playing video games. She has been known to knit in public. Given she has the survival skills of a gnat, she’s relying on Arionrhod to help her survive the zombie apocalypse.


Keira Andrews
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Lisa Worrall
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Ariel Tachna
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Keelan Ellis
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Ari McKay
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In Case of Emergency by Keira Andrews

'Tis the Season by Lisa Worrall
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N

Popcorn Garlands by Ariel Tachna

Light One Candle by Keelan Ellis

Santa's Naughty Helper by Ari McKay