Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Random Paranormal Tales 2016 Part 6


A Frost of Cares by Amy Rae Durreson
Summary:
Military historian Luke Alcott leaps at the chance to live in the seventeenth-century country mansion of Eelmoor Hall, home of the Royal Military School of Medicine, after being offered a job cataloging the school’s archives. Luke believes he chose the perfect place to start a new life and put his broken past behind him. But soon after settling into the old house, he hears strange noises—like footsteps—and he begins to suffer from terrible nightmares.

The only person Luke can turn to for help is the taciturn caretaker, Jay, a veteran of the Afghanistan war who carries an old battle wound. Together they try to understand Eelmoor Hall’s history and decipher what could be causing the haunting. As the weather grows colder and snow dusts the countryside, a child goes missing. Luke needs to deal with his own demons and learn to trust in love again if he hopes to face down the angry spirit and find the missing girl.


A Frost of Cares has a little bit of everything.  Paranormal, gothic, mystery, romance, history, ghosts, all tied together with a certain level of creepiness that will definitely keep you on your toes.  Halloween may be months away but it's a great read for any time of the year, however if you only read paranormal in October, you must put this near the top of your spooky TBR list.  I always find tales of mystery the hardest to review because I just do not do spoilers so I guess, I'll make this short and sweet:  I highly recommend this creepy romance!  This is the first Amy Rae Durreson story I've read but it most definitely won't be the last.  I know that not every one is comfortable when it comes to new-to-them authors but I find they fill me with almost as much anticipation as opening a new book and Durreson is no different.

RATING: 

Johnnie by Cardeno C
Summary:
A Premier lion shifter, Hugh Landry dedicates his life to leading the Berk pride with strength and confidence. Hundreds of people depend on Hugh for safety, success, and happiness. And at over a century old, with more power than can be contained in one body, Hugh relies on a Siphon lion shifter to carry his excess force.

When the Siphon endangers himself and therefore the pride, Hugh must pay attention to the man who has been his silent shadow for a decade. What he learns surprises him, but what he feels astounds him even more.

Two lions, each born to serve, rely on one another to survive. After years by each other’s side, they’ll finally realize the depth of their potential, the joy in their passion, and a connection their kind has never known.


Time After Time by JP Bowie
Summary:
Bewildered by a series of erotic dreams, Michael Ballantyne, a young graphic artist living in Los Angeles is eager to uncover their meaning. When he is informed that he is the sole beneficiary in an unknown man's will and is now the owner of a large estate in Hertfordshire, England, Michael feels that somehow he has been given a key to unlock the dreams' mysteries. This feeling grows stronger when he comes face to face with Jonathan Robertson, a handsome Englishman, who more than just resembles the man in his dreams.

Together they attempt to solve the mystery that surrounds the disappearance and apparent murder of Jonathan Harcourt, the son of the previous owner of Bedford Park.

The mutual attraction they quickly feel for one another is hampered by the sudden arrival of Michael's jealous boyfriend, Steve Miller, and by Jack Trenton, a formidable and uninvited presence who has occupied the lodge by the estate gates.

When Michael, along with his now ex-boyfriend, Steve, is held hostage by Trenton, it becomes clear that Bedford Park holds many more secrets than anyone ever thought. Michael and Jonathan are soon to discover that the keepers of those secrets are dangerous men, willing to stop at nothing in order to make an ancient oath come to pass.

Fight the Tide by Keira Andrews
Summary:
Book #2 of Kick at the Darkness Click Here to Check Out Book #1

Adrift in a post-apocalyptic world, they only have each other. Is it enough?

A virus that turns the infected into zombie-like killers spreads through a burning world thrown into lawless chaos. Lovers Parker and Adam have escaped to the open sea when they hear a message over the airwaves from a place called Salvation Island—a supposed safe haven.

Orphaned as a child, werewolf Adam has always longed for a pack. He’s eager to investigate the island, but Parker doesn’t think for a nanosecond that the voice on the radio can be believed. He doesn’t trust anyone but Adam and is determined to keep it that way. They don’t need anyone else complicating their struggle to survive. Or do they?

Danger on the high seas can surface in a heartbeat, and if Parker and Adam aren’t careful, the current will drag them under.

This gay romance is a dystopian adventure featuring a werewolf, his boyfriend, and their struggle to find a place to call home.

A Demon Inside by Rick R Reed
Summary:
Hunter Beaumont doesn’t understand his grandmother’s deathbed wish: “Destroy Beaumont House.” He’s never even heard of the place. But after his grandmother passes and his first love betrays him, the family house in the Wisconsin woods looks like a tempting refuge. Going against his grandmother’s wishes, Hunter flees to Beaumont House.

But will the house be the sanctuary he had hoped for? Soon after moving in, Hunter realizes he may not be alone. And with whom—or what—he shares the house may plunge him into a nightmare from which he may never escape. Sparks fly when he meets his handsome neighbor, Michael Burt, a caretaker for the estate next door. The man might be his salvation… or he could be the source of Hunter's terror.


First off, the fact that most of this story is set in Wisconsin was a real upside for me.  As a Wisconsinite, it's always a thrill to read stories set in my state, it's not one often used and on top of that, one of my college advisors has written many books about haunted Wisconsin, we even have one here in my hometown.  Now, back to A Demon Inside,  this is the first book by Rick R Reed that I have read and well, let's just say it won't be the last.  To say Hunter Beaumont's life will never be the same when he doesn't follow his grandmother's dying wish to destroy Beaumont House is an understatement.  A Demon Inside is creepy, weird, and just plain scary but there's also a little romance which may seem out of place in such a dark story but truthfully, it only heightens the freak out factor.  Along with the Wisconsin connection, I'm a bit of an introvert myself so I felt for Hunter immediately and understood so much of what his inner monologue was saying.  A great addition to my Halloween/paranormal shelf.

RATING: 

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Random Paranormal Tales 2016 Parts

Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3  /  Part 4
Part 5



A Frost of Cares by Amy Rae Durreson
Chapter One
IN A way this story begins with me standing by the window of my London flat on Boxing Day with a cricket bat in my hands, seriously considering smashing every bloody fucking pane of glass in the bloody fucking flat into bloody fucking shards. The thing that stopped me, in the end, was the handle of the bloody bat, wrapped in a fraying green grip. The end of the grip was peeling up, and that tiny imperfection, that little spike of lighter green, by being out of place, threatened to tear open the whole grip. Staring at it, I realized that I didn’t know whether the bat was mine or Danny’s.

Well, fuck, I thought. You’ll have to excuse the paucity of my vocabulary at this point in the story. Obviously I was drunk as the proverbial skunk, and several of its cousins as well, and I never was much good at talking about my (bloody fucking) feelings.

The bat could have been mine. For two brief summers as a gangling teenager, I had been a proud but somewhat unlikely member of my school’s second eleven. It hadn’t lasted, and I couldn’t remember if I’d kept any of that once treasured kit or whether it was in Mum and Dad’s loft with the other detritus of our childhoods.

Danny, on the other hand, was keen on every sport going: cricket, rugby, tennis, golf, football, anything that can be discussed in arcane and passionate depth with complete strangers —or as he used to put it, I like anything with a nice set of balls. And there was the dilemma. If this was Danny’s bat and I damaged it by using it on the windows…. It was unthinkable. What if he came home and found out I’d wrecked his stuff and so turned back round and walked away again?

Of course, by then I was 90% convinced that Danny was never coming home. He’d been missing for almost a decade, after all.

And that was why I didn’t break any windows. Instead I put the bat down, poured myself another drink, and decided to get the fuck out of London.

And by “another drink,” I mean the rest of the bloody pack, obviously.

Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best place to start this story, because I’m pretty sure right now you’re just thinking about what a sad and lonely fuckup this loser narrator is. Was. I’ve changed. Honest. Of course, I’ve no idea who “you” are. Who the fuck am I even writing this down for? I know what happened. I remember every moment of it. The only reason I’m trying to write this is because Jay thinks I’m clinging onto it a little too hard.

“Ten years ago, now,” he said to me yesterday, calmly challenging in that way only Jay can be. “You’re okay. Maybe, y’know, let it go? Let her go.”

“She is gone,” I reminded him. Of that, at least, I’m sure.

“Not if she’s still in your head.” He propped his chin up on his fist and looked at me, calm, steady, and analytical. (I still think of it as his “army face,” though I never knew him while he was still on active duty.)

“I hardly ever think about it.”

He smiled at me, wry and knowing. “Yeah? How many times this month have you slept with the light on?”

“Fuck off. Hardly any.”

“Twelve. I know because I’m in the bed with you.”

Hard to argue with that. “I can’t just switch bad dreams off.”

“You’re not going to be that guy.”

“What guy?”

“Never gets over seeing a ghost. Sits there in the old people’s home trying to scare all the nurses. I’m not letting you.”

“What am I supposed to do about it, then?”

“Get it out of your system,” he said and shrugged. “Write it down. Lock it away somewhere and stop thinking about her.”

I’m not convinced it’s going to work, but Jay asked, and since he did, I suppose I have to try. He doesn’t ask me for much. So I suppose I’m my own audience, or perhaps I’ll do the traditional thing and one day pass on a flaking and dusty, well, Word document to some eager young great-nephew.

Or not.

Jay has just leaned over my shoulder and asked why I’m writing about hypothetical nephews. Fair question, though he blatantly knows the answer as well as I do.

I do like the smell of procrastination in the morning.

Also coffee. I like coffee. Perhaps I need to make some to help me get started. Mmm, coffee. Or tea. A whole pot, brewed from the leaf, slowly strained and served with Rich Tea biscuits. I don’t think we have any Rich Teas. I could just pop out to—

Okay, and that was the point where Jay took my tablet away and made disappointed faces at me. No more procrastinating. I’ll be good.

I don’t want to write about her. What if it brings her back?

My husband is now trying to bribe me with filthy promises. Cheater.

Okay.

Here goes, in proper ghost story style:


The professor first went down to E—— Hall on the 27th December 20—. At the time when he boarded the train at Waterloo, he had little apprehension that—


No, can’t do it. Bit too much of the M. R. James in that, and I never liked old Monty much. Too much prose, too little action, and far too many phobias of damp and hairy things lurking under the bed, poor closeted git.

Truth is, I wasn’t in a fit state to be apprehending anything that day, because I was as hungover as one of those aforementioned skunks would have been if they tried to sleep it off in the bottom of a hop kiln. It was late afternoon by the time I got to the station, and I had to wait ages for a train. I’d managed to stumble over to my estate-agent sister’s that morning, timing it for while Mum and Dad were out taking their Day After Boxing Day stroll across the common, and I’d tossed my key at Katie before I could change my mind. I’d told her to go ahead and do what she’d been begging me to do for years: shove my crap and Danny’s into storage and put the flat on the market.

I’d finally had enough of waiting.

I was regretting it bitterly by the time I got to Waterloo, but I resisted the urge to phone Katie and tell her I’d changed my mind. Enough was enough.

If Danny came back while Katie was there, she’d make sure he stayed around long enough for me to rush back up to town. I trusted her, even though it galled me to ask my little sister to clean up the mess that was my life.

I had enough self-awareness to know I couldn’t do it without help, though.

I actually had a good reason to be leaving London. “Professor” is a bit of a stretch, but I was already steadily on the academic career path. I was a Junior Research Fellow at one of the lesser-known London colleges, specializing in the nineteenth-century development of the British Army. I’d done a lot of work with military archives before, and my PhD supervisor, now my boss, had done considerably more.

At the time I went to Eelmoor Hall, the Army was in a state of quiet upheaval. After seventy years, it had just been announced that they would be withdrawing British troops from Germany. By the end of 2016, the Army claimed at the time, 11,000 troops and 17,000 support staff and family members stationed overseas would be back in the UK. To house them, there needed to be a vast reorganization of British Army bases. Barracks that had long stood empty were being spruced up, and regiments and organizations were being relocated all over the country.

One of the many changes underway was the relocation of the Royal Military School of Medicine from its traditional home in North Hampshire to a cheaper and more modern campus in the northeast. The RMSM had been housed in Eelmoor Hall, between the towns of Fleet and Aldershot, since 1923, and as part of the move, their CO had written to my supervisor to ask if he could recommend a keen young chap who might be interested in spending a few weeks cataloging and organizing their archives and small museum in preparation for the move. They were offering a decent wage, it would get me out of London for a few weeks, and they were putting me up for free in the now empty hall itself.

Jay says I’m waffling again, bloody backseat driver that he is.

Well, that got rid of him, though I’ll have to offer makeup sex later. So, where was I?

Eelmoor Hall.

It was dusk by the time the taxi drew up at the gates, the sort of dull winter dusk that is only the steady fading of a gray day into true darkness. There was supposed to be an on-site caretaker, one Sergeant McBride, who would let me in the gate. I climbed out of the taxi to hit the buzzer on the intercom and started to shiver. The air here was noticeably crisper than it had been in London, and my breath immediately rose in clouds.

Sergeant McBride took his time answering and was curt when he told me to wait until the gate opened. I shoved my hands into my pockets and took another breath of that cold air. It tasted cleaner than London air, and I squinted through the gates to see the grounds of Eelmoor Hall. There were lawns on this side, and a long drive running towards a pillared frontage. The old house had two wings that stretched back from the main front so the hall was longer than it was wide, and I knew there were a number of modern buildings in the grounds behind it—offices, accommodation and teaching rooms—as well as several assault courses and firing ranges. The archive was in the library, in the east wing of the old hall.

Standing there, gazing up at the stark lines of the hall, it looked as dark and tired as I felt, its redbrick frontage turned brown by the fading light. The windows were dark, but I could easily imagine that someone was standing in there, hidden behind the heavy curtains and watching my approach.

The gate whirred open, and I scrambled back into the taxi. When we finally drew up on the front drive, a man was waiting by the front entrance, leaning back against the base of the right oriel window with his arms crossed. He wore a khaki jacket and had a woolen cap pulled down low, although a few fair curls escaped around the back. He didn’t say anything as I paid the driver and lugged my case up the low steps. Only when I put it down at the top did he nod to me. “Dr. Alcott, I presume?”

“Luke,” I corrected him and held out my hand. “You must be Sergeant Mc—”

“Jay. Not in the Army much longer.” His voice was flat. “Was expecting you a little earlier.”

That explained his bad mood. In the emotional tumult, I’d forgotten to phone and let him know I was running several hours late. “Shit, I’m so sorry. It’s been a day, man. I didn’t mean to—”

“Library key,” he cut over me, handing an old brass key over. “Master key for bedrooms and kitchens, passcode for the gate and external doors, which changes on Saturday. You’re in Room 221. The corridor can be accessed from the main stairs or the library gallery. Crates and packing material are in the ground floor store cupboard by the main library door. If you get lost or need something, I’m on extension 445, unless I’m at work.”

“And then?”

“I’m at work. This isn’t my main job.”

“Then I’m even more sorry to have screwed with your day. Don’t the Army pay a proper wage for this?”

He lifted one shoulder in a slow shrug. “They just don’t want the place to sit here empty. I live here and keep an eye on things, and they don’t charge me rent.”

“Oh, the property-guardian thing. Couple of my grad students do that. Always thought it sounded like a bit of a scam, but this looks like a nice setup.” I was babbling, thrown by his grim, unresponsive face. He was handsome, now I looked properly, and that just made me want to talk more. “I mean, it must be good to have a whole bloody mansion to call your own. Or the Army’s own, I suppose, though—” I made a conscious effort to stem the word-dribble. “Um. So. I should be getting inside.”

He didn’t move, but a faint hint of amusement around his eyes salted the grimness. He had an accent, faintly underlaying everything he said with that peculiarly Ulster combination of musicality and muscle. “If you like.”

He clearly wasn’t going to come with me, and I bit back a little irritation of my own. Okay, so I’d inconvenienced him, but he didn’t have to be rude. “Point me in the right direction?”

“East,” he said and pointed. “Thataway.”

“Cheers,” I said and lugged my case inside. I glanced back to see him still leaning against the wall, scowling out over the now shadowy line of the drive where it curled back towards the gates and the lodge.

Look, I never claimed it was love at first sight.

Inside, the foyer had that odd mixture of institutional function and faded grandeur that seems to characterize old schools and posh hotels. It was dark, but lights came on as I moved forward, triggered by some motion sensor somewhere, and I was able to follow signs to the library, the lights rising and fading as I walked. I stopped for a moment at the bottom of a stairway, wondering whether it was a shortcut to my room or whether I should just carry straight on and find the way through the library.

I must have stood still too long for the motion sensors, because the lights went off. It was dark—country dark, not London dark—with no lights outside to shine through the windows, and suddenly the big house seemed even vaster and colder. I could hear a faint rattling in the wall, a distant electronic hum from somewhere, a creak of floorboards upstairs, all the normal sounds of an old and empty building.

And, as you sometimes do in old buildings, I suddenly felt that I wasn’t alone. I thought that someone else was there in the darkness, breathing in perfect time with me, so close that I could have reached out and touched them. I startled, and the lights came back on.

I was alone, of course, in an empty hallway filled with blank notice boards. It had just been my imagination.

I made my way to the library, and once I was there, I forgot all about the creepy hallway and Sergeant Arsehole McBride and got caught up in the work. They had records in there going back to the founding of the school, and the last catalog had been done back in the eighties, when they’d actually employed a part-time archivist and librarian. His neat little cabinet of index cards was still there, although one glance showed me they were hopelessly muddled. Some of the newer material had been added, but that effort seemed to fizzle out in the mid-nineties. There was a computer, a PC old enough that it still had a floppy disk drive and a dial-up modem. A faded Post-it note on the front told me that it was available for half-hourly slots only (“Please do not abuse your extranet privileges”).

So the first step would be to find out exactly what I had in here.

I’ll spare you the details. I find them fascinating, but in the end they’re not what this story is all about. What I do need to explain is what I was thinking about that first night in the library. Jay reckons, and I agree, albeit reluctantly, that if I had been any other type of miserable, I probably wouldn’t have caught her attention in the way I did.

Johnnie by Cardeno C
Over a decade had passed since he’d last experienced the overly-full feeling, so Hugh Langley didn’t immediately identify the cause. He continued thrusting, enjoying the warm bodies, hungry grunts, and musky scents of the lion shifters around him, when suddenly, the pressure in his head and chest swelled and nearly knocked him unconscious. That was when he realized what was happening.

“Where’s the Siphon?” he asked breathlessly as he pushed himself to a kneeling position and darted his gaze around his large bedroom. This was worse, so much worse than it’d ever been. He could barely breathe, barely think, barely move. “The Siphon?” he gasped.

“Hugh?” said Mara Terrence, the shifter who’d been writhing beneath him. “What’s wrong?”

“Premier?” Dennis Jones untangled himself from Percy Milroy and both men approached him. “What’s… Oh, fuck! Mara, hold onto him before he falls.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Mara cried as she balanced Hugh’s considerable weight and lowered him to the floor.

“What’s going on?” Lorena Mansfield said as she rushed out of the bathroom, where she’d been cleaning up before heading home to make dinner for the dozen cubs living in her house.

“The Siphon,” Hugh bit out as he clutched both sides of his head. “Find the Siphon.”

“He isn’t in here.”

“The Siphon can’t be far from the Premier,” Percy pointed out. “Look in his room!”

Within seconds, the door connecting Hugh’s bedroom to the Siphon’s slammed open.

“Oh shit!” Dennis screamed. “I need help! Mara, Lorena, Percy, someone get in here. Hurry! Before he hurts our Premier.”

“What… Dennis! Hugh’s seizing,” Percy said. He cupped Hugh’s cheeks with his clammy, trembling hands and begged. “Hugh. Premier. Please don’t die. We need you. Please don’t die.”

One moment, Hugh had no control over his twitching limbs and useless lungs, and the next, he felt an opening into the tunnel that connected him to the Siphon. With the last of his energy, he shoved his power through it, and finally, blessedly, relieved the disabling pressure tearing him apart from within.

“Hugh?” Percy said, his voice trembling. “Can you see me?”

The darkness cleared from Hugh’s vision and he blinked as he sucked in air.

Percy was crouched over him, his normally tan skin, milky white and his brown eyes huge. “Premier?”

“I’m okay.” Hugh coughed and sat up. He patted Percy’s shoulder, his black hands wildly contrasting with Percy’s unusually pale body. “Everything’s fine.”

“Hugh?” Mara, Lorena, and Dennis rushed over and dropped to their knees beside him.”

A rare Premier lion, Hugh’s power and energy put his pride members at peace and made them strong and confident, which allowed for success in all facets of their lives. The pride adored and revered him, so the sight of him so near death left them shaken.

“I’m okay. I pushed my power into the Siphon.” Hugh looked around. “Where is he?”

“In his room,” Dennis said, his lips curled up in disgust. “How could he do that to you? To our pride?”

“What did he do?” Hugh asked.

“Hanged himself.”

A Premier’s life spanned centuries, his strength and power growing with every cycle of the sun until, eventually, he could no longer contain the force, leading to a painful death for him and devastation to the pride. But a Siphon siphoned off a Premier’s energy. Though he couldn’t use it himself, the Siphon provided storage for the power while keeping it available for the Premier’s use. A Siphoned Premier was nearly indestructible. Nearly because the death of the Siphon would eliminate the energy storage source, leaving the Premier overrun with power until he imploded.

“Don’t worry. We cut him down and used the rope to secure his wrists and ankles.” Mara glared at the connecting doorway. “He won’t be able to hurt you now.”

Hugh had been leading the Berk pride for over seventy years when his steadily increasing power had become too large to contain within his own body. Under his guidance and leadership, the Berk pride and its lions had blossomed. A decade earlier, the small, weak Westgate pride had offered him a Siphon who had just come of age in exchange for taking them all into his prosperous Premier Pride. Hugh’s agreement had saved the Westgate lions from near certain death.

“Hanged himself?” Hugh repeated in surprise. “Why would he do that?”

The blank stares around him indicated that nobody had considered the question let alone determined the answer. Physically drained and more than a little shaken by how close he had come to death and how vulnerable he had been in front of his lions, Hugh needed to regroup and then investigate the situation with the Siphon so he could make sure it never happened again.

“You said he’s secure now?”

“Yes.”

Not wanting anybody to view him as weak, Hugh determinedly climbed to his feet and straightened his broad shoulders. Like all Premiers, his skin, hair, and eyes were black in both human and lion forms. And because his body grew along with his power as he aged, at over a century old, he was seven feet tall and weighed three hundred pounds. That size helped him appear stronger and more in control than he felt at that moment.

“I’ll get to the bottom of it,” he said firmly, making sure his tone allowed for no argument. He walked to his open bedroom door, knowing his pride members would follow him, and said, “We’re done here for the night.”

All four lions said their goodnights and traipsed out of the house without a backward glance. He sighed, relieved his loss of control hadn’t made them doubt his abilities. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for his own thoughts.

He had never come that close to dying, not even before he’d had a Siphon. The upside to the incident was indisputable proof of how much his power had grown over the past decade. The downside, however, was how incredibly dependent he was on the Siphon. Exhausted, Hugh returned to his bedroom and collapsed on the mattress, not bothering to pull back the quilt. He would sleep, rejuvenate his body and his mind, and deal with the Siphon when he could think clearly.
* * * * *
Hugh woke up in a pitch-black room. He rolled to his side and squinted toward the huge picture window. By mid-morning, light inevitably seeped in from around the corners of the rich silk drapes, the sun-blocking liner unable to keep the rays completely at bay. Not an ounce of light came through, so it was either late Friday night or early Saturday morning.

Though he had healed from the physical effects of the Siphon’s action, his worry hadn’t abated. Whatever caused the lapse in judgment had to be addressed quickly and firmly. Needing to regain his emotional footing before dealing with the unexpected and unwelcome situation, Hugh headed toward the bathroom.

Once he was clean, dressed, and feeling more like himself, he marched into the adjoining room, flipped on the light switch, and said, “You need to explain yourself.”

Curled into a ball on the bed with his ankles and wrists bound together, the Siphon remained silent and still. Hugh would have thought he was dead but for the fact that his death would have meant Hugh’s own immediate demise.

When Hugh had taken in the starving Westgate lions and saved them from their fire-ravaged land, they had gained resources, homes, food, and a Premier. With a great deal of work and time on Hugh’s part, those lions had integrated with the Berk lions and they now made a cohesive pride that was even more successful than it had been before the merger. But the Siphon had almost destroyed all of that the previous night.

“Wake up,” Hugh said.

With a resigned sigh, the Siphon moved, seemingly trying to sit up. The bindings prevented him from succeeding.

“I’ll untie you.” Hugh was a foot taller and twice the Siphon’s weight, so releasing him wasn’t a risk. He stepped over, took the rope in both hands and tugged, snapping it with no effort. The display of strength eased the part of him still worried about an ongoing impact from his near-death experience. “Can you sit up?” he asked when he noticed the Siphon still having trouble.

“Yes,” the Siphon croaked and shakily rose to a sitting position. “Are we going somewhere?” He rubbed his trembling hand over his neck and began standing. “I’ll get my shoes.”

“No.” Hugh grasped the Siphon’s shoulder and held him in place. “I came here to talk to you.”

“You want to talk to me?” He blinked in confusion.

“Yes. We need to talk about what you tried to do to our pride.” Though based on that hoarse voice, Hugh doubted the Siphon could do much talking. “You need water.” He flicked his gaze around the room, which was a silly exercise because there was nothing in the space other than a bed, a nightstand, and a dresser, same as always. The only difference was a hole in the ceiling near the dresser, where Hugh presumed the Siphon had attached the rope. “Let’s go downstairs.”

“Oh.” The Siphon climbed to his feet and then swayed. Hugh waited for him to get his bearings and then slowly walked out of the room. Until he knew what had caused the Siphon’s erratic behavior, he needed to be on guard, so he carefully watched him as they made their way to the kitchen.

After getting a bottle of water from the gleaming stainless steel refrigerator, Hugh sat in one of the plush upholstered chairs in front of the magnolia wood kitchen table and waited for the Siphon to get his drink and join him. When the Siphon hadn’t spoken by the time Hugh had drained his bottle, he lost his patience and took the reins.

“We can’t have a repeat of yesterday. You endangered my pride.” Under normal circumstances, Hugh would have killed someone for committing that offense, but the Siphon’s death was exactly what he needed to prevent, so he had to come up with a different solution. “Tell me why you hanged yourself.”

The Siphon raised the bottle to his mouth, tipped it, and swallowed slowly.

Annoyed at the delay, Hugh considered beating the Siphon into submission, but he had no idea what weakening the Siphon physically would do to his ability to carry Hugh’s power. Only one in half a million lions was born a Siphon so there weren’t enough of them in the world to know much about them and Hugh couldn’t risk anything that would damage the person who stored his power.

Growling in frustration, he said, “Answer me.”

“What do you want to know, Premier?” the Siphon asked tiredly. He fiddled with the label on the bottle.

“I want to know why you tried to kill me and destroy this pride.”

“I didn’t.”

Faster than a normal lion’s eyes could track, Hugh grasped the Siphon’s throat. “These rope marks say otherwise,” he roared, his patience eviscerated. “How dare you lie to your Premier?”

Despite Hugh’s show of strength, loud voice, and clear superiority, the Siphon didn’t flinch.

“Answer me.” Hugh shook him.

“I did answer.” The Siphon’s voice was barely audible, both because he spoke quietly and because of the grip Hugh had on him.

“You wrapped a rope around your neck, tied it to the ceiling, and jumped off your dresser,” Hugh accused. The Siphon didn’t deny the statement, so Hugh continued. “That is an attack on me and this pride.” Again, the Siphon didn’t speak. Hugh shook him. “Do you deny it?”

For the first time since they had begun talking, the Siphon raised his gaze, laying his uniquely blue eyes on Hugh. “I don’t deny hanging myself, but I wasn’t attacking anyone.”

That answer made no sense.

“I’m over a century old. A Premier my age has too much power to exist without a Siphon.” Hugh tossed the Siphon away, making his chair tilt sideways. “You know this. Hell, any cub old enough to climb knows this.” He dragged his fingers over his close-cropped hair. “Right?”

After steadying his chair, the Siphon lowered his gaze and nodded.

“And yet you deny that your actions would have left me with no way to contain my energy?”

The Siphon shook his head.

Premiers were rare—one in five thousand lions were born with the black fur and skin marking them as the most powerful lions in existence. But there were a hundred Premiers for every Siphon, making the blue-eyed lions almost unheard of. There was nobody else who could siphon Hugh’s power, and on his own, he would implode from its force.

“No more games!” Hugh shouted as he shoved his chair back and jumped to his feet. He planted both hands on the table and loomed over the Siphon. “Berk is a Premier Pride. You could have hurt fourteen hundred full-grown lions and five hundred cubs with your actions. Did you think of that?”

Again, the Siphon shook his head.

“Aren’t you grateful?”

His eyebrows drawn together in confusion, the Siphon said, “Grateful for what?”

“For what?” Hugh roared. “Look around.” He waved his arm around the room blindly. “You are part of a Premier Pride. We have over four thousand acres of rich land. Our members are well-fed, financially secure, and close-knit. Our homes, businesses, and territory are the envy of most prides. What more do you want?”

“I don’t know.” The Siphon shrugged and hunched lower in his chair. “To live, I guess.”

“You’re a Siphon. You can live forever.”

Where regular lions lived and aged at the same pace as their human counterparts, Premiers stopped aging when they reached their peak condition and, instead, grew larger and more powerful. And a Siphon who carried a Premier’s power aged at the Premier’s pace.

“I’m not living.” The Siphon licked his lips. “But I’m not dead.” Sighing deeply, he whispered, “I want to be.”

The conflicting statements made no sense.

“You say you want to live but then say you want to die.” Hugh looked into the Siphon’s eyes, hoping to find an answer. When he couldn’t figure it out, he asked, “Why did you hang yourself?”

“I’m a Siphon. I can’t live.” The blue-eyed gaze dropped. “Dying’s the only way out.”

A foreboding chill ran down Hugh’s spine. The Siphon dying would mean Hugh’s own death. He wouldn’t allow it.

To carry a Premier’s power, a Siphon had to remain close to him at all times, so Hugh could monitor the Siphon most of the time. But Hugh slept, showered, fucked. He couldn’t watch the Siphon every second of every day. Bringing in pride members to guard him wasn’t an option because it would alert them to Hugh’s vulnerability, which would cause turmoil among the pride, and even worse, it would risk outsiders finding out about it, which would expose a vulnerability that could easily be exploited.

Eight decades of Hugh’s leadership and hard work had paid off—he hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d listed Berk’s attributes to the Siphon. Berk was a Premier Pride, meaning it was stronger, wealthier, and happier than most prides. It also meant other lions desperately wanted what they had, and if they smelled blood, they wouldn’t hesitate to mount an attack. Showing weakness would endanger the entire pride.

Since age twenty-three, Hugh had dedicated his life to protecting the Berk pride. If he didn’t get to the bottom of the Siphon’s issue, his life and the pride would be in jeopardy. He wouldn’t allow that to happen. But to fix the problem, Hugh first had to understand what it was.

Time After Time by JP Bowie
Chapter One
For the umpteenth time in twenty minutes, Michael Ballantyne glanced toward the diner entrance to see if his brother Brad had yet deigned to arrive for their lunch date. “Where in hell is he?” he muttered to himself, sucking up half his iced tea in frustration. He caught the waiter’s eye and ordered a burger. No point in waiting any longer—looked like Brad was a no show.

He tried to shuck off the feeling of disappointment that his brother hadn’t even bothered to call him to say he couldn’t make it, but just as the waiter took his order, Michael saw a red-faced Brad dash into the diner and scan the crowded room. On seeing Michael wave at him, he hurried over to the booth.

“Shit, sorry,” he said, sliding onto the seat opposite Michael. “Had a client who just wouldn’t get off the phone. What’re you having?”

“Cheeseburger…”

“I’ll have the same,” Brad told the waiter, “and a beer.”

“Drinking at lunch time?”

“I’m taking the afternoon off. I’ve been working way too hard lately.”

Michael chuckled. “Who told you that?”

“I told me that, my boy, and it’s the truth. Five closings in one month, two of ‘em utter bastards—I’m exhausted.” Brad slumped in his seat to emphasize his words.

“You should be pleased; everyone else I know in real estate is bitching about how slow it is.”

“That’s ‘cause they don’t know how to play a bad market.” Brad grinned at his brother. “So, how’re you doin’?”

“Okay.”

“Still seeing Steve?”

“I guess…”

“You guess?”

Michael gazed at his brother’s handsome face, his forehead now creased by a frown. “Well, he’s out of town right now on a business trip trying to find new clients. I haven’t seen very much of him lately. I think he’s losing interest.”

Brad raised an eyebrow. “What a clown. Losing interest in a good looking dude like you—if you weren’t my brother, I’d be putting the make on you myself.”

Michael laughed softly. “You’d have to turn gay too. I don’t think Miranda would approve, do you?”

“Probably not.” Brad touched Michael’s hand. “He’s not good enough for you, bro. Miranda and I both agree on that.”

Michael shrugged. “Steve’s all right. He’s just a businessman first.”

“Huh…” Brad fell silent as the waiter delivered their burgers and his beer. “So, you said you hadn’t been sleeping too well lately. What’s up with that?”

Michael hesitated. Did he really want to tell his brother about the strangely erotic dreams he’d been having? Dreams that would wake him in the middle of the night and keep him awake with the memory of how incredible they were—how incredible the man in his dreams was. He felt his face flush as he remembered.

“What’s wrong?” Brad was staring at him with concern.

“Nothing. It’s just that I’ve been having these strange dreams for the last three weeks or so. It’s a bit embarrassing…”

“How so?”

Michael shifted in his seat and couldn’t meet his brother’s eyes as he answered. “Um… they’re kind of erotic…” He cleared his throat. “You don’t want to hear this.”

“Try me.”

“Well, there’s this guy, and he’s making love to me.”

“And it’s not Steve, I take it,” Brad said through a mouthful of burger.

Michael shook his head. “No, it’s not anyone I know, or have ever known. I’d like to know him,” he added with a shaky laugh. “He’s English, and he’s quite, uh… incredible.”

“English, huh? So what’s the problem?”

“There’s no problem. I’m just a bit confused as to why I should have the same dream about the same guy night after night.”

“Some kind of wish fulfillment maybe,” Brad suggested. “I mean, it sounds like your relationship with Steve isn’t going anywhere, so you’re compensating by dreaming of a guy who’ll love you unconditionally.”

Michael stared at his brother. “Okay, when did you become a budding Freud?”

Brad chuckled and picked up a napkin to wipe his mouth. “Nothing very complicated there, Michael. You’re horny, so getting off in your dreams works like a charm.”

“Brad!”

“Well, doesn’t it?”

“Trust you to take it to the lowest common denominator.”

“And trust you to make more of it than it is,” Brad said, grinning. “Every guy has a wet dream now and then, Michael—especially when they’re not getting any.”

Michael groaned and shook his head. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you about this. Now you’re going to give me shit about it every time we’re together. Don’t tell Miranda!”

“Are you kidding? She’ll love this. She’ll think it so romantic that her brother-in-law has a dream man in his life.”

“That’s the problem—he’s not in my life.”

“Nor is Steve by the sounds of things. You know what I think?”

“No, but I know you’re about to tell me.”

“I think you should tell Steve to go to hell. He keeps you dangling there for his own convenience. You know, Miranda and I have talked about this—”

“Oh great,” Michael moaned. “My brother and sister-in-law sit around talking about my love life.”

Brad chuckled. “Or lack of it. But seriously, I haven’t said this before, but Steve’s not the guy for you. He’s just way too self-centered…”

“Well, he’s got a lot on his mind. Running your own business is a full-time commitment…”

“Yeah, yeah,” Brad made a dismissive gesture. “But that night we all had dinner together, I couldn’t get over the fact that every time the conversation strayed to something that didn’t directly concern him, his eyes sorta just glazed over, and he lost all interest in what we were saying. I mean, what d’you guys talk about when you’re together? Is he remotely interested in what you do?”

“Of course he is.” Michael looked away from his brother’s searching gaze. “Well, I think he is…”

“Well, he should be. Graphic art is… is art for Chrissakes. You’re a talented guy. What does he do? Sells computer parts—no talent needed for that, is there?”

“Brad, you’re being very judgmental all of a sudden.”

Brad’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Michael. “I don’t want to see my little brother get hurt, that’s all. It doesn’t take an analyst to see you’re unhappy. Dreaming about getting laid instead of getting the real thing means you’re compensating for what’s lacking in your life.”

Michael sighed. “Okay, I admit I’m a tad ticked off he doesn’t seem to want to spend more time with me, but I really don’t think the dreams have anything to do with Steve. They’ve just started recently…”

“Because you’re frustrated…” Brad gave him a mischievous smile. “Tell me, how d’you feel when you wake up from one of these dreams? Are you, uh… damp?”

“Brad!” Michael felt his face grow hot. “You really are too much.” He looked around the crowded diner, praying no one could hear their conversation, but the noise level was reassuringly high.

Brad laughed at his brother’s embarrassment. “Michael, you and I have shared just about everything in our lives. There’s not much you and I don’t know about each other—we’ve slept in the same bed, shared the same tent on camping trips, skinny dipped together—and then there was that time when we…”

“Okay, now you’re really embarrassing me,” Michael hissed under his breath. But what Brad had said was true. Unlike a lot of siblings, he and Brad had always been close, with a bond that had grown even stronger after the unexpected death of their parents. Now he gazed fondly at his brother’s smiling face, at the sparkle in his eyes, and knew he could tell him just about anything.

“All right, yes I’m… I’m…”

“Wet.”

Michael groaned. “Yes.”

“And the guy?”

“Incredible, like I said. He’s like a god come to life. Dark hair that falls in curls over his forehead, eyes so dark blue they’re almost cobalt, lips that… Jesus, why am I telling my straight brother all this?”

“Because you want to share, and we always share, remember? You listened to me when Miranda and I were having our problems; and despite the fact that I’m straight, I love my gay baby brother, and I want to see you happy—and laid.”

Michael’s laugh was followed by a smile of real affection. “I love you too, big brother—and you’ll be the first to know when it happens.”

“Well, after you, hopefully,” his brother kidded him.

* * * * *

Later, as he entered his apartment, Michael immediately noticed the flashing light on his answering machine. Steve? He could only hope. He hesitated before pressing the message button. What Brad had said about Steve still bothered him. Was he being blind to Steve’s faults simply because he didn’t want the relationship, such as it was, to fail?

“Oh, come on,” he muttered. “Get a grip.” He pressed the button and sighed with disappointment as a voice rasped in his ears. It wasn’t Steve.

“This message is for Mr. Michael Ballantyne. My name is Ronald Fortescue of Fortescue, Reynolds and Haversham, Solicitors. My office is located in London, England, and we represent the estate of Mr. Lionel Burroughs. Mr. Burroughs, I regret to say, passed away quite recently and has left a will that names you, Mr. Ballantyne, as his sole beneficiary.”

Michael stared at the answering machine in disbelief. “What the hell? Is this some kind of joke?”

“If you would care to phone my office as soon as possible, I will make arrangements to inform you of the exact details of Mr. Burroughs will, along with the conditions of your inheritance. Here is my number…”

Michael had to play the message twice more before his shaking fingers could write the number down. This had to be some kind of a hoax, like one of those emails he got now and then telling him he’d won a million dollars on a lottery he’d never entered. But the man had left a phone number… He glanced at his watch. Six o’clock. London was what… eight hours ahead? No point in calling right then. He’d do it first thing in the morning. Should he call Brad and tell him? No, he’d wait until he’d spoken to this Fortescue guy. Maybe the whole thing was one big mistake; they’d gotten the wrong Michael Ballantyne. Yeah, that was it… there had to be a hundred Michael Ballantynes in the Los Angeles phone book. They’d just picked the wrong one.

Maybe he should call Brad after all. Quickly, he punched in his brother’s number. “Hi Brad, it’s Michael.”

“No kidding. I do have caller ID y’know.”

“Right. Listen, I just got a weird message on my answering machine.”

“Well, this is L.A., Michael.”

“Be serious. Some guy from England is telling me I’ve been left an inheritance or something…”

“Sweet. How much?”

“I don’t know that—but Brad, I’ve never heard of this guy, a Lionel Burroughs. Have you?”

“Burroughs? Nope, can’t say I have.”

“You think he might have been a friend of Mom and Dad’s?”

“I have no idea, Michael. I don’t recall them ever mentioning a Lionel Burroughs. They were only in England that one time, remember?”

Michael remembered only too well. It was shortly after that trip that his parents had been killed in a deadly freeway accident involving multiple vehicles. The memory of that terrible time sent an involuntary shudder through Michael’s body.

“Yes,” he said quietly. “I remember… Anyway,” he continued after clearing his throat, “I have to call this solicitor guy in London tomorrow. I guess he’ll be able to tell me what the connection is.”

“Can’t wait to hear more, bro. Call me soon as you’ve talked to him.”

“Will do… I’ll talk to you later. Tell Miranda I said ‘hi.’”

With another glance at the phone number he’d written on the notepad he kept by the phone, Michael walked through his bedroom and into the bathroom to undress. He had no plans for the evening and was looking forward to lounging in sweats in front of the television with a pizza and beer. He stood for a moment in front of the mirror as he removed his shirt and gazed at himself critically.

What was it about him that Steve found so easy to resist?

He wasn’t bad looking. Even Brad said he was good looking. He kept himself in shape, and he always made sure he smelled nice. But it wasn’t enough obviously, he thought despondently. Sighing, he ran a hand through his chestnut-brown hair and threw his shirt into the laundry basket. As he met his own green-eyed gaze in the mirror, he wondered if Brad had been right about those dreams. Was he simply dreaming this beautiful guy to replace the man he could tell was slipping away from him?

Wow, that’s really pathetic, he thought, grimacing at his reflection. Yet, those dreams seemed so real—the man felt real, warm and hard bodied under Michael’s hands, his skin so smooth, his lips so soft, his kiss a sweet hunger…

Jesus! Michael stepped back from the mirror. He was hard as a rock. “Pull yourself together,” he muttered. The phone’s strident ring brought him back to reality. He picked it up in the bedroom.

“Michael Ballantyne.”

“Mikey, how are you?”

Steve. He was the only one who called him Mikey and got away with it. Michael hated that particular abbreviation, but from Steve he’d grin and bear it.

“Hey, it’s good to hear your voice.” Michael sat down heavily on the bed. “Where are you?”

“Still in Vancouver, but I’ll be back in a couple of days. Wanna get together?”

“That’d be great…” He paused, then said quietly, “I miss you.”

“Yeah… miss you too, Mikey.”

“What are you doing?”

“Right now I’m lying in bed watching Canadian television. It’s even worse than the dreck they serve up in the States. What are you doing?”

“I just got home. Going to kick back and watch some dreck on TV, too.” Michael had a vision of Steve lying on the hotel bed, his muscled, quarterback physique stretched out in all its glory, his blond hair rumpled by the pillow. He was hard again.

“Well, you have a good evening,” Steve said. “I’ll call you when I get back.”

No, don’t hang up yet. Talk to me some more. “Oh, okay, Steve. Look forward to seeing you when you get back.”

“Right… Take it easy. See ya, Mikey.” And he was gone.

“Damn,” Michael muttered, putting the phone down. Why couldn’t he have thought of something to keep Steve talking on the phone longer? Why hadn’t he told him about the call from England? Surely that would have intrigued Steve. His hand strayed to his crotch, gripping the hard flesh through his slacks. He lay back on the bed, but the face that swam before his closed eyes wasn’t Steve’s… it was the man in his dreams.

Fight the Tide by Keira Andrews
Salvation called as dawn whispered along the unbroken horizon.

The voice from the radio beyond the cabin held Adam rigid where he knelt on the bed, staring out the horizontal porthole as the sailboat rocked gently. He looked over his shoulder at Parker sprawled on the mattress on his belly, his lips parted as he murmured in his sleep, the sheet tangled around his bare, lean hips.

“—here. All are welcome. Join us as we build a new home. We can be found on this—”
Static burst from the radio as it automatically switched to the next frequency, and Adam scrambled off the mattress to fiddle with the radio’s settings.

They’d programmed it to scan at ten-second intervals, keeping the volume down so the static was white noise that didn’t bother Adam, even with his acute hearing. But after the warmth of the woman’s voice, the crackling set him on edge, his fangs pressing for release.

He jabbed the button to scan back, goosebumps sweeping over his skin. But there was only more static. Exhaling, Adam peered at the radio’s green-lit dashboard as if he could will the voice into existence again. He switched off the auto-scan and waited, glancing back at Parker and turning up the volume a bit.

Their queen-sized bed was in the cabin at the front—no, the bow—of the sailboat, taking up the whole space but for maybe a foot on either side near the bottom of the bed. Adam’s motorcycle, Mariah, was wedged into the other cabin at the stern.

Parker’s dark-blond hair stood up in clumps, and Adam’s fingers itched to smooth it down. Or to grab his little digital camera and start filming, even though he’d taken a few minutes of Parker mumbling in his sleep the other morning, his hair mussed in ridiculous spikes, the little moles on his pale neck stark in the early light.

Not that there was any point in filming footage at all, let alone a repeat of Parker sleeping. Adam imagined being back in the editing studio in the basement of one of the arts buildings on campus. The musty concrete and tile, rows of private editing bays off the hallway with multiple screens and a control board of the latest equipment, everything digital now. No windows, and time had passed in huge slices.

He’d forget to eat—forget everything else but cutting the footage together, fixing the audio and making it perfect. Making it permanent. Real. There'd been nothing else waiting for him outside that box of a room and building. Aside from Tina, the first real friend he’d ever made, there was only his camera and his footage, observing life around him without touching. He’d held his TA office hours twice a week, and had usually spent them alone. Until the day Parker had marched in.

Parker rolled over and muttered, never able to bite his tongue in sleep either. Smiling, Adam took a quick minute of footage before tucking his camera back away. The battery was super long-lasting, but it wouldn’t hold out forever. And even if it did, there would be no more documentaries. That part of his life was over—that part of the world. But Parker was here, and he was real.

Adam fiddled with the radio. Maybe he’d imagined the voice. Aside from the odd message and conversation between survivors, there was nothing out there but hissing static. The automated emergency messages from the Coast Guard had ceased broadcasting the week before as Parker and Adam had sailed down the coast after leaving Provincetown.

Smacking his lips, Parker mumbled something about peanut butter. It was hard to fathom that it’d only been a couple of months since Parker had appeared at Adam’s office demanding a better grade. Adam wouldn’t have believed that entitled rich kid was going to change everything. Sure, the virus had changed everyone’s lives, but Parker’s impact was just as enormous for Adam.

Despite the horror, the world was a strange, wonderful place.

Parker shifted restlessly, exposing a round ass cheek. Naked, Adam tugged idly on his dick for a few seconds, stretching his foreskin and sending faint tingles over his skin as he thought about licking that skin and dipping his tongue into the shadowed crevice.

Hard to believe Parker was actually still a teenager. Adam sometimes thought he should feel guilty about that although he was only twenty-three himself. But this strange, wonderful, terrifying new world had new rules, and they were a million miles from Stanford and its code of conduct.

They’d covered many of those miles riding Mariah, getting out of California and crossing the desert, traveling into the mountains that split the country, an oasis appearing from the thin air in Colorado.

The memory of waking on a narrow cot under fluorescent lights filled his mind. The only other wolf he’d met aside from his family had betrayed him, and the bruises had gone deep.

He struggled to forget what had happened at the Pines—the powerlessness and terror, made better only by Parker’s presence, his hand brushing back Adam’s hair, voice shaky but determined. Stumbling out of the lab, not going to make it. Telling Parker to leave without him.

“Oh my God, shut the fuck up and run!”

In the darkness, Adam’s smile let him breathe a little easier, and he crawled back to bed, pressing a kiss to Parker’s shoulder, tasting the faint tang of sweat-salt.

The older woman’s voice returned. “This is Salvation Island. We are twenty-nine point-nine-six-five-three degrees north and seventy-eight point-zero-eight-five-seven degrees west.”

“What the fuck?” Parker pushed himself up on one hand, his shoulder blade connecting with Adam’s nose.

“Ow. Shh.” Adam listened intently, rubbing his nose absently, his mouth going dry.

“We have plentiful food and water. We are free from infection and violence. It is safe here. All are welcome. Join us as we build a new home. This is Salvation Island. It is November seventh.”

Low static filled the void as Parker asked, “What did she say? Who was that?”

“I’m not sure.” Excitement thrummed through him, something about the woman’s calm voice plucking a string that vibrated deeply within.

Parker’s breath whistled faintly in his nose, his heart tapping out a staccato, too-quick rhythm that echoed in Adam’s ears. Adam leaned against the pillows of their wide bed, pulling him back to sit between his legs. He smoothed his palm over Parker’s chest.

If Adam’s own heart drummed too sharply too, Parker didn’t need to know.

“What did she say?” Parker whispered. “Something about an island? I thought I was dreaming.”

“Salvation Island. She said it’s safe there.”

Water splashed gently against the Bella Luna’s hull. A gull cawed hungrily, soon joined by another. The sparse hair on Parker’s chest tickled Adam’s hand as he rubbed slowly.

When the woman spoke again, Parker clambered off the end of the bed. Adam followed as Parker cranked up the radio volume. The woman spoke again, giving the same message and date.

As she finished, Parker stood there naked, his hair still sweetly sleep rumpled and brown eyes wide, staring at the radio, which was tucked into a control panel above a padded bench outside their sleeping cabin.

“Wow, do you think…?” He breathed rapidly, mouth working. “That recording is from today. It’s new.”

“It is.”

“Maybe it could…” Parker raked a hand through his hair, making it stick up even more. “But there’s no way. Right?”

Adam ran his hand over Parker’s head and down his back. “We know there are more survivors out there. Maybe it’s a good idea to band together.”

“But they’re not safe.” Parker leaned into him, his breath a warm gust on Adam’s neck. “No one’s safe.”

The woman’s voice had been so calming, though. It still echoed through him, smoothing jagged edges like water over rocks. “We don’t know that for sure.”

“Don’t we?” Sighing, Parker stepped away and rubbed his face. “It has to be a total trap.”

“We don’t know that.”

“Sure we do.” Parker snorted cynically. “How could it be anything else?”

“Her voice just sounds so…soothing.”

His eyebrows shot up. “Totally, she sounds like my mom reading me a bedtime story. Super soothing. And guess what? Next thing we know she’s hypnotized us or some shit.” He flicked off the radio with a snap of his wrist. “Then it’s all downhill from there.”

Adam had to laugh. “You’re so cute when you’re a drama queen.”

Clearly fighting a losing battle not to smile, Parker shook his head, sputtering, which only made him more adorable. “Dude, you were a cinema major. Don’t tell me you never watched zombie movies. The message on the radio calling people to a safe haven? It’s always evildoers. Every. Single. Time.” His smile vanished, a tremble rippling through him. “And you remember what happened at the Pines.”

White light, helpless.

“I know.” He drew Parker close, nuzzling his cheek. Some nights, Parker woke sweating and wild-eyed, his nightmares of the things Adam couldn’t remember rocking him with tremors that lasted until morning.

“Adam, we’re not going near this place and its bullshit bedtime stories.”

Hope still tugged, low and insistent. “But what if they’re on the up and up?”

Parker stepped away with a brittle smile. “Then great. I wish them all the best and many happy returns in building their little community. And when it all goes to shit, we’ll be hundreds of miles away. Safe and sound.”

And alone. The woman’s voice echoed, like a loose thread begging to be pulled. Parker had good reason to be afraid, and he was probably right that they should give Salvation Island a wide berth. But still…

“We have an advantage they won’t expect since I’m a werewolf.”

“Yeah, because that turned out really well at the Pines. No. It’s too risky.”

“How far away are we? Just out of curiosity.”

Parker shot him a skeptical look, but switched on a light and padded over to the map spread on the dining table in the main area of the boat, which he referred to as the “saloon.” There was a little kitchen outside their cabin, and a shower and toilet (or “head,” as Parker insisted) on the starboard side. Soon the sun would beam through durable skylights that gave the saloon an impressive amount of natural light during the day.

It was remarkably spacious, with almost a half foot of clearance above Adam when he stood. Still, as the days ticked by, the boat seemed more cramped. He loved being with Parker, but would this be their life? He missed the solid ground beneath his boots, the purr of Mariah’s engine, the open road.

Of course roads now teemed with the infected, who seemed unable to swim or survive in water. It was safer at sea, especially since Parker wasn’t immune to the virus like Adam.

But he couldn’t help fantasizing about finding a home with Parker somewhere. Maybe even a community. All the years since his family had died he’d hidden himself away, and now he ached for more.

Head bent, Parker examined the map, muttering to himself. “She said twenty-nine and seventy-eight, yeah? That’s…hmm. Too far north for the Caribbean.”

“Have you been?”

Parker’s brief smile was too sharp. “No. Dad and Eric sailed down the winter after Eric graduated college. Dad said I was too young. I followed their progress on a map.” He ran his fingertip down and across to the Caribbean. “Eric loved the Caymans. Always joked that he’d run away there once he made his fortune trading stocks.”

Adam went close and wordlessly rubbed his hand over Parker’s hip. They’d discussed investigating the Caymans when they presumably made the Caribbean. Since leaving Cape Cod, progress down the coast had been relatively slow since Adam still had a lot to learn about sailing.

It was possible Eric was still alive, although Parker rarely talked about it. Adam knew Eric had called the night the virus took hold and had been escaping into some kind of bunker with his billionaire boss in London.

Sometimes Parker would pore over charts, which to Adam looked like maps with extra stuff on them, scribbling notes on a transatlantic voyage. But when Adam asked about it, Parker always scoffed and said it was a daydream—that sailing south in good conditions was one thing, but crossing the Atlantic would be much more difficult. And even if they did, finding Eric would be a challenge to say the least. If he was even alive to find.

Still, Adam often found him staring at the maps, and all Adam could think to do to help was take him to bed, holding him and making him come so Parker could fall asleep.

Parker jabbed a blue swath. “East of Daytona. That doesn’t make any sense. There’s nothing there.”

“How far from where we are now?”

Parker gave him a long look. “We’re not falling for these people’s crap. Right?”

“But why would they try to lure us out into the middle of the ocean?”

“To steal our shit? Take Bella? Eat us for dinner? The possibilities are endless.”

“Or maybe they want to help. We’ve met some good people. It’s possible.”

“My dad always used to say, ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it is.’ And some message on the radio telling us exactly what we want to hear? That there’s a safe, awesome place out there? Is too good to be true. Since when are you gung ho to trust strangers? After what those fuckers did to you—” He clenched his jaw, his eyes shadowed.

“I’m fine, Parker.” Adam tried to draw him close, but he spun away.

“Let’s keep it that way.” He scrubbed at his hair, pulse jumping as he stalked to the kitchen and chugged a bottle of water from the little fridge. “We have to be smarter.”

He was right, but Adam still wanted to find out more. It couldn’t hurt to have more information. “Agreed. I’m just curious how far it is. Just so we know our options.”

“Okay, solely for the record, we’re off the coast of Virginia now.” Parker returned to the table and pointed to a spot on the map. “The naval base is here. Well…was.”

Adam’s stomach clenched at the memory of the acrid smoke choking his senses, still not enough to mask the rancid smell of the swarms of infected on shore, the eerie chattering sound they made so loud even Parker could hear it drifting over the placid water of the bay.

They’d hoped perhaps the navy would be organizing…something. Anything. Some kind of official response. But if there were navy ships at sea that could help, they remained silent.

Parker swallowed hard and dragged his finger lower. “So we’re about here.” He lowered his finger. “Daytona Beach. This supposed island is about here, on the other side of the Gulf Stream.”

Adam peered at the map. “You’ve never heard of any islands there?”

“No.” Parker scratched his belly, and Adam’s gaze followed the trail of dark hair to his groin before forcing his focus back on the map.

“But there could be?”

“I guess so. A private island. I don’t remember ever seeing any mention of it, though.”

“Would you have?”

“Maybe. My dad said when I graduated high school, we’d sail down the coast. I did a bunch of research into it. But when senior year rolled around and it was time to actually plan, he was too busy at work, so.” He snorted.

“I’m sorry.” Adam ran a hand over Parker’s head and kissed him softly.

“Yeah.” Parker’s eyes went distant like they did when he remembered the time before the virus.

Adam understood grief and the waves in which it came and went. It had been more than fourteen years since his parents and sisters had died, but sometimes the pain struck like a two-by-four, merciless and blunt. Other moments it slithered in unannounced, insidious and endlessly patient.

“I’d come out by then, and I think he was terrified of a summer of awkward silences. He tried, but me being gay made him so uncomfortable. It was like he didn’t know what to say, so he basically stopped talking to me altogether except for surface stuff.”

Pulling Parker into his arms, Adam traced the knobs of his spine with his fingers.

“I just wish we’d gotten the chance to…I don’t know. A chance for him to really know me. As a grown-up.” He forced a laugh. “It’s stupid.”

“It’s not. Not even a little.”

Parker clung to him. “I know you understand. And it was so much worse for you, being there in the car when they died. I just—” He sighed. “I’m sorry.”

Screeching tires and shearing metal. Glass exploding. The terrible silence and so much blood he could taste it, choking on death.

They stood in each other’s arms as the cabin brightened inch by inch, until Adam quietly asked, “Have you thought any more about our route?”

Swiping at his eyes, Parker stepped back and returned to the map. “Okay, so there are pros and cons to sticking closer to shore. Another storm could blow in like last week. And that was nothing, not a real nor’easter. Always a risk to go offshore. But if we do, we’re not going near this Salvation Island.”

Adam nodded, but the woman’s low tenor echoed in his mind: It is safe here.

Since taking to the sea, avoiding contact with creepers and survivors alike had been far easier. When the radio did crackle to life with reports from ham radio operators and other watercraft, the news had not been heartening.

The sickness apparently spread unchecked, with more and more people either dead or infected. There were more rumors of the religious zealots who’d allegedly brewed the virus and unleashed it in coordinated attacks across the world. The Zechariahs had apparently claimed responsibility, but Adam and Parker hadn’t heard anything from the group itself.

It was impossible to know what was true, and he supposed it didn’t really matter in the end. What mattered was surviving. Keeping Parker safe.

Adam said, “We don’t have to decide today which route to take.”

“Nope.” Parker yawned, stretching his arms over his head and flexing his lean muscles, his soft cock swaying. He shuffled to the small fridge and took out another bottle of water, passing it to Adam wordlessly before sticking his finger into a bowl of chocolate pudding they’d made with powder and boxed almond milk.

The Bella Luna was equipped with both a hydro generator below the surface of the water and a wind generator high on the main mast. Parker had explained that each one worked best under different sailing conditions while Adam tried to cram the information into his head along with all the other things he was learning.

He was just grateful they had electricity. Out on the deck with a cool breeze over the water and a frosty beer in his hand, sometimes he could forget about the rest of the world.

Sometimes.

Leaning a hip against the table, Adam said, “They might have medicine there. A doctor, even. At Salvation Island.”

Parker exhaled noisily. “And they probably have lies and betrayal and sex slavery. With bonus cannibalism.”

Pulling at the moist label on his water bottle and ignoring Parker’s hyperbole, Adam looked at the map. “If something happened to me and you were alone, you’d need people. Even if nothing happens, it would be good, don’t you think? For us not to be alone?”

His eyes on the pudding, Parker’s heart skipped, reaching Adam’s ears. “What, I’m not enough for you?” He tried to smile.

“That’s not what I meant. Of course you are. You’re everything. But we don’t know what’ll happen. Maybe we could check them out from a distance. With my vision and the binoculars, we could be miles away.”

“Nothing’s going to happen to you as long as we stay smart.” Parker abandoned the pudding and hugged him, pressing his face to Adam’s chest. He was several inches shorter than Adam’s six-one, and he fit so perfectly. Adam held him close, breathing in the salty scent of sea air and sweat from Parker’s skin. “You’re a big, bad wolf, remember?”

Adam chuckled as Parker rubbed against his chest with his stubbly cheek. Parker was like a cat, and Adam his willing scratching post. As he ran his hands over Parker’s back, the woman’s voice echoed in his mind again. It is safe here. All are welcome. “But if we—”

“Dude!” Parker jerked out of Adam’s grasp. “We just went over this. Like, I didn’t imagine the shit-show that went down at the Pines, right?” He stalked to the head and flipped on the shower, waving his hand under the water as if he could will the generator to heat it faster. “Did you wake up with selective amnesia today?”

Adam chugged the rest of his water, biting down a retort. When he swallowed, he calmly said, “No. But there were pros and cons to the Pines.”

Parker yanked the shower curtain closed after him. “I’ll grant you that movie night and the palatial suite were awesome, and the chef knew his stuff. But my fond memories of our time there are just a tiny bit tainted by that part when the batshit scientist guy and Ramon the werewolf and professional bag of dicks held you captive and did tests on you. Aka tortured you.”

“I heal quickly.” When he thought of Ramon, Adam’s anger and hurt was tempered by regret that he hadn’t found out more from him about being a werewolf. There was so much he’d never had a chance to learn from his parents. Would he ever have the opportunity again to meet someone else like him?

“Oh, so what they did was okay?” Parker’s voice rose as he switched off the shower and stormed out, a few curtain rings flying off the rail. “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.”

“No, no.” Adam hugged Parker from behind, wrapping around him tightly as Parker tried to get by. “I’m sorry. I’m not saying it was okay. It wasn’t. I just worry. We might need allies. We don’t know what’s coming. We’re even more vigilant now than we were then. We won’t be fooled.” He pressed his lips to Parker’s damp hair.

Parker relaxed a bit against him. “I want to believe that, but…”

“Shh. It’s okay.” Another day was beginning, and it could be their last. Adam didn’t want to fight. Still hugging him close, he inhaled Parker deeply, holding his essence in his lungs until there was nothing else, the fear and uncertainty fading away.

He rubbed against Parker’s ass, the adrenaline from their argument quickly transforming into desire. Here, pressed against Parker’s warmth, Parker’s heartbeat filling Adam’s ears and drowning out any other voices, nothing else mattered. Here, together, they were safe.

Kissing his way down the side of Parker’s neck, Adam stroked over his chest and lower to his cock, which thickened quickly in his hand.

“No fair,” Parker whined. “You play dirty.”

Growling low in his throat, Adam whispered, “And you love it.”



A Demon Inside by Rick R Reed
Prologue
Stoketon, Wisconsin, 1845
THE WOMAN is alone in the woods, now more than ever. Above her the boughs of naked winter branches clatter together with the force of the wind. They remind her of people whispering as she passes. In the air is the promise of snow by morning, and the dark sky is cloaked with gray clouds. She peers upward, searching for the moon. But it, like so many others, has deserted her this cold night.

She kneels and sets the baby in her arms upon the hard, frozen earth. She looks down at his face, ghostly white in the pitch blackness, and a single tear drips from her eye, splashing the little face, cold and pale as polished marble. Angrily she wipes at her eye with the back of her arm, cloaked in black wool. There have been enough tears and sorrows. Enough cursing them for their neglect and fear. They could have saved him. She will not succumb any more.

Now it’s time for revenge.

She looks up once more and at last locates the moon, a sliver of pewter glowing dully before a cloud rolls over it, obscuring it once more. Bending, she lifts the child and raises him to the moon, as if in offering. She whispers words in an ancient tongue and keeps the child aloft until her arms grow weak. She sets him back down, looks one final time into his eyes, green now turned milky. One last time she strokes the chubby cheeks and runs her finger over the parted lips, which will never draw breath again.

She picks up the shovel lying next to the baby and begins to dig. Her work, damn it, is punctuated by sobs. She digs tirelessly, the shovel breaking into the hard, icy earth with precision and a force of will that is almost beyond human. At the end of her labor, there is a small trench, about three feet long and deeper than that—its sides come up to the woman’s waist. She climbs out of it, picks up her child, and gently lowers him into the grave.

“Punish them for what they’ve done to us both.”

She begins whispering furiously once more, ancient words, ancient curses. She reaches to her right, and her hand wraps around a small vial. She uncorks it and sprinkles the dark liquid on top of the child. It is black, wine-colored when the moon reveals its hue.

She wipes her hands on her coat. “Avenge us, my son.” She picks up the shovel again and begins the hard work of refilling the hole. It’s easier once she can no longer see her boy. By the end of her toil, she is drenched in sweat, no longer cold, even though the first flakes of a winter storm have begun to fall and the sky has begun to lighten in the east.

She stoops to cover the little grave with pine needles and leaves, then stands and wipes her hands on her billowing black coat. In the forest a wolf howls. She hurries away from the grave, passing a sign as she goes.

PRIVATE PROPERTY
CONSTRUCTION SITE. KEEP OUT
Anton Beaumont, Owner

Chapter 1
HUNTER BEAUMONT awakened drenched in sweat, striped sheets twisted around him. His heart pounded, and an irrational fear coursed through him, disproportionate to the calmness of his dark bedroom.

He sat up, rubbing his hand over his slick face, and reassured himself with the same words countless nightmare sufferers have told themselves since the dawn of time: “It was only a dream. It was only a dream.” But it was that same dream again. The one that was part memory, part horror movie. The one where he is camping with his parents and he can see the glow of the campfire flickering on their faces. It’s a lovely scene at first, romantic and warm. His parents’ voices are hushed, his mother’s laugh tinkling as the two of them huddle together, the fire keeping the darkness of the woods surrounding them at bay. But then a shadow falls over his mother’s and father’s faces, and their eyes turn in an instant from contented and adoring to terrified. Then come the screams… and the blood, all the blood. That was when Hunter always awakened.

But this time something more than the nightmare had awakened him. Was someone knocking on his bedroom door? Yes, there it was again, an almost tentative tapping. In his postnightmare state, Hunter imagined the worst—that a monster lurked outside, something needing to be invited in. And once inside it would rip him limb from limb, gorging on his flesh and drinking his blood.

Hunter allowed himself an embarrassed laugh and attempted to pull himself together. He sat up straighter against the headboard and used a corner of the top sheet to dab at the beads of sweat still gathering on his forehead. “Yes?” he called out.

With a creak the door opened, and Lori Schmidbauer, his grandmother’s nurse, peered in. Even backlit, Hunter could see the kindness in the woman’s dark brown eyes and the concern and sadness on her face. She glanced down the hall and then back toward him, gave him a tentative smile.

“Hunter? Honey, I’m so sorry to wake you. Can I come in?”

Hunter pulled the sheet up farther, covering his chest. A new kind of alarm had begun inside, the dread beginning to churn like something alive in his guts. “Is everything okay?”

Lori didn’t respond. She simply tiptoed into the room and sat down gingerly on the edge of his bed. Hunter leaned over and switched on the nightstand lamp. Lori still wore her scrubs, and her curly brown hair was pulled loosely into a ponytail. She looked like the most tired woman in the world. Hunter repeated his question and added to it.

“Is everything okay? Is Nana all right?”

Lori clutched his hand, squeezed it, and let it go. “I don’t think so, dear.”

She stared off at a point over Hunter’s head, and he could see her eyes glistened with tears.

It felt like his stomach dropped a couple of feet. He bit his lip. “Is it time?”

Lori drew in a quivering breath before responding. “Yeah. I think it is. You better come now if you want to say good-bye.”

“Okay,” Hunter whispered, barely able to find breath to put behind the single word. For his whole twenty-two-year life, his grandmother had been his savior, protector, shield, comforter, mother, father, playmate, and teacher. And now it looked like there actually was a monster outside his door, and its name was cancer. Now it appeared that monster was about to rip all he held dear away from him.

Lori waited on the bed, watching him. He could tell she was trying to gauge his reaction, to see if perhaps he would need a hug. Lori was the kind of nurse who was free with her hugs. A good woman. But right now, Hunter needed a moment to himself, and he told her that.

“Sure, sweetheart. Just don’t be too long.” She got up and paused at the door. “I don’t know how much time we have.” Sorrowfully she nodded, her lips coming together in a line indicating sympathy. She took her time leaving his room. Then he heard her quickened pace as she hurried down the long hallway to his nana’s bedroom.

Hunter didn’t know if he could do this. Part of him thought if he just stayed there in bed he could delay or prevent the inevitable. If he could only freeze time at this moment, he would never have to face a world without Nana in it. He shook his head and chastised himself for being weak. To every season, he thought, there is an end.

Feeling numb, Hunter roused himself from bed. He slid into the jeans and sweater he had left on the rocker by the window. He looked outside, where the inky darkness revealed nothing, a void. He knew Lake Michigan was out there, and in the morning it would reveal itself in aqua or gray, depending on the quality of light, but right now it seemed as though the huge body of water had vanished. The night’s darkness pressed against his windows like something palpable, aching to get inside.

Barefoot, he padded down the hall to his grandmother’s bedroom. Ever since he had lost his parents at the age of five, this had been his home, and suddenly the big old house seemed strange and unfamiliar to him, as if he were seeing it for the first time. There was the portrait of his father, painted when Daddy was sixteen, looking young and vibrant and not that much different from Hunter, the same smile and auburn hair. And there was the old Oriental rug, its pinks, blues, and grays faded, leading the way to the door to his grandmother’s bedroom, which yawned open. Hunter stood for a long while, staring at that doorway and breathing in the smell of sickness that emanated from the room. “Go,” he whispered.

He ducked into the room. Nana lay propped up on her old four-poster bed, the one she’d had since marrying Hunter’s grandfather about six decades ago. She looked small and shriveled, vulnerable and nearly lost among the pillows, blankets, and quilts that never could keep her quite warm, not once she took ill. Her hair looked like gray straw, and parts of her scalp peeked through. A few days ago, they had taken her off the IVs and the oxygen, knowing there was no hope. The medical detritus stood in a corner of the room, looking like defeated soldiers.

Lori stood near the bed. When she saw Hunter, she leaned down and whispered to Nana, whose eyes fluttered open at the sound of the nurse’s voice in her ear. Although she had not been really coherent for the past couple of weeks, a combination of the morphine she took to manage her pain and her own failing memory, her eyes brightened when she saw her grandson. She even managed a weak smile, which vanished almost as soon as it arrived, as if the effort to maintain it was just too much for the old woman.

It probably was.

Lori stepped away from the bed and donned a fleece jacket she had left on a chair nearby. She hugged herself and then said, “I’ll leave you two alone. I’m going to run downstairs and call Dr. Blackstock.” She squeezed Hunter’s shoulder as she left the room.

Hunter sat down beside his grandmother on her bed. “Nana?”

“Hunter,” Nana croaked, her voice only an echo of the vibrancy it once had. She tried to lift her hand to his face, and it appeared she didn’t have the strength, letting it drop back down to the bedding. She closed her eyes and swallowed. The latter action looked painful, and Nana winced.

“Don’t talk, Nana. If it hurts, don’t talk.” He picked up one of her withered hands and covered it with both of his, trying to impart some of his own warmth to the frail appendage, feeling now as if it had been made of parchment and bird bones.

She nodded, staring up at him. She licked her lips. “I just want to go to sleep now. I’m ready. Can you tell the nurse?”

“Sure.” Hunter smoothed her hair away from her forehead and leaned in close. He bit his lips, not wanting to cry in front of the old woman. What if she didn’t know this was the end? He couldn’t be so cruel as to reveal that to her. And even as he thought these things, he knew—deep in his heart—that Nana knew perfectly well what was happening.

“Sleep. That sounds good.”

Nana’s eyelids fluttered and closed. Hunter thought she had fallen asleep and simply sat with her for several minutes, holding her hand. Finally he thought maybe he should creep away, hoping against hope that this was not the final moment. Lori could have been wrong, after all.

But then Nana opened her eyes, and Hunter thought he should say what needed to be said while there was still time and before he gave in to the tears and sobs that were clamoring inside to get out. He gathered the old woman up in his arms and pulled her close. Placing his lips close to her ear, he thought for a moment, grasping for something profound to say, but finally decided on only this.

“I love you so much.”

“I love you too,” Nana whispered. He released her and she slumped back against the pillows.

Hunter covered his mouth. Was she gone? But her eyes opened once more, only about half-mast, seeking him out even though his face was only inches from her own.

“Beaumont House,” she croaked.

“What?”

“Beaumont House. Promise me you’ll burn it.”

“What are you talking about, Nana?”

The old woman simply shook her head, and he could see a spark in her blue eyes.

“Promise.”

“Sure, Nana. Anything for you.”

The old woman closed her eyes, and a tremble coursed through her. She turned very pale, and then, as Hunter watched, color seeped back into her cheeks, almost rosy. Had she rallied?

But Hunter knew it was over. He bent to place a kiss on her forehead.

Downstairs the doorbell chimed. Nana’s doctor, Jay Blackstock, had arrived. Not that there was anything he could do now. He gazed down at her, touched her once more, then turned away.

In the hall he passed Lori bringing Dr. Jay Blackstock to his grandmother’s room. The three stopped to regard one another. The young man—who only the year before had replaced the doctor his grandmother had seen most of her life—had worry stamped on his dark features. He was only a bit older than Hunter himself, and Hunter had to wonder if he had seen many deaths yet in his new career. He felt a stab of pity for him.

Lori spoke. “Is she…?”

Hunter wondered where the calm he felt was coming from. Where were the tears? The anguish? Somehow, he thought, they waited patiently for him, gathering together in a round room with dim light, a kind of emotional way station. Hunter exchanged somber glances with both of them. “She just passed,” he said softly, biting his lower lip. He stared into the doctor’s brown eyes for a moment. “You’ll want to verify that, of course. But she’s gone.”

“I’m so sorry.” Lori Schmidbauer came toward him, arms outstretched.

Hunter stepped back, not ready yet for the comfort the older woman had to offer. “I’m okay. I’m okay.” He nodded and smiled but knew the smile for the lie it was, and he was certain Dr. Blackstock and his grandmother’s nurse did as well.

The doctor hurried into the bedroom, and Lori followed. She looked back at Hunter.

“I know. It’ll come.”

She turned and left him standing in the hallway. Purposely he did not glance into the bedroom, not wanting to see them hovering over his nana’s body. She wasn’t there anyway.

He hoped she was in a better place, free at last from the pain and agony of the last six months, free from invasive treatments and drugs that made her sick, most of all free from the beast that went by the name of cancer.

He returned to his bedroom, still feeling next to nothing. When he had imagined this moment coming, as he had over the course of Nana’s illness, he had envisioned hysterical sobbing, choking, a torrent of tears, reddened eyes, and difficulty breathing. When his grandfather had died, many years ago, Hunter had still been a child, and the loss really hadn’t registered. In a way it had been only Hunter and his Nana alone in the word for so long. And now he faced being completely alone in the world—no parents, no grandmother, no grandfather, no one. Nana had seen to it that he led a very sheltered life, and he knew her intentions were good. She wanted to protect him from a world that had murdered his parents.

He sat down heavily on the bed, as if drunk, although he had yet to experience that particular sensation firsthand. The bed itself was a mess, and Hunter realized he must have been thrashing around like a caged wild animal to do this much damage. Besides the sheets and pillows being damp from sweat, the fitted sheet had pulled away, revealing the striped ticking of the mattress below.

The nightmare images paraded through his mind, a macabre circus. The campground. Their tent pitched in the woods, where five-year-old Hunter had lain huddled inside a sleeping bag. The looks of terror on his parents’ faces. The screams. The struggling. Blackness. Dull morning light and his parents lying together, no longer alive, the gory ruins of their corpses….

Hunter gasped. No matter how hard he tried, he could not remember the actual event. Not really, not the details. He had only been five, and he knew shock could block or even erase horrible trauma. But over the years cops, psychologists, and even a professional hypnotist had tried to get him to remember details about the carnage. All to no avail. The memory, as far as Hunter was concerned, was gone.

The case had never been solved.

And Nana, God rest her soul, had never allowed mention of the slaughter in her house, not after the first few weeks, when the police and media had been relentless in pursuing the two of them in and out of Nana’s Evanston home. Nana, over the years, chose not to remember that she’d had a son and a daughter-in-law who had died. Hunter wondered, leaning back on the bed to lie flat and stare up at the ceiling, if she was in denial herself, or if it was all part of her master plan to shield her grandson from further grief and horror.

Whatever it was, she had held Hunter away from the world. He had never seen the inside of a school. Nana had arranged for a succession of private tutors to come to their house. Hunter had never been allowed to play outside unsupervised. Nana had tried to make up for it by being Hunter’s best friend and lavishing him with expensive toys, electronics, and carefully guided tours of world capitols.

And now Hunter was alone. Really, truly alone. And with his grief and despair at the loss of his grandmother held temporarily—he thought—at bay by shock, he had the luxury of wondering just what the hell he would do now.

He was twenty-two years old and—he supposed—rich, an heir to a fortune once made from something as fragile and insubstantial as paper.

The world was his. He thought of a clichΓ©: the world was his oyster. He could do anything. Travel. Go to college. Work. Engage in long overdue rebellion and fall headfirst into hedonism.

He shook his head, and the first tears coursed out of the corners of his eyes to dribble down his face and run into his ears. He sat up and wiped them away. He didn’t know what he would do. He had no idea what he was good for or good at. He didn’t even know what he wanted. He glanced at the window, where the sky was just beginning to lighten, a band of pink at the horizon. The first day without Nana was beginning. The world out there was not his oyster; it was an enigma.

There was a gentle rap, once, twice, at his closed bedroom door. Thinking Lori had come by once again to see if he was ready for a hug or some words of condolence, he said simply, “Come in.”

Dr. Blackstock entered. Hunter noticed for the first time—and he thought how inappropriate this was—how handsome the doctor was, with curly black hair cropped short, an olive complexion, and the darkest eyes. His whole look was Mediterranean, belying the white-bread Blackstock name.

He smiled at Hunter and took only a step or two into the room. “I just wanted to say I was sorry.” The doctor chewed on a corner of his lip, glancing rapidly from Hunter on the bed back out into the hallway. Hunter was touched by the anxiety and overcome by the desire to offer sympathy.

“I appreciate that. Lori has all the information about, um, final details, so if you’d just take care of….” And Hunter hunched over, the onslaught of tears taking him completely by surprise. The grief hit him like a physical blow. It was a sneak attack; he didn’t have any time to prepare.

Dr. Blackstock laid a hand on Hunter’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about a thing.”

Hunter thought that statement was easy for the doctor to say.

What would he do now?


HUNTER AWAKENED to bright sunlight streaming into the room. Last night he’d thought he would never sleep, but Dr. Blackstock had given him an Ambien, and it knocked him right out. He glanced at the clock on the nightstand and saw it was nearly noon.

Outside, the sun was shining in a pure, unadulterated-by-a-single-cloud sky. Hunter got up and stared out his window at the back lawn of the house, a pristine expanse of green leading down to their private beach. Beyond the sand and pebbles stretched Lake Michigan, an expanse of aquamarine that appeared almost tropical. The day seemed out of sorts with what had just happened, as if the sky should be heavy with storm clouds and the lake should be a roiling mass of muddy waters in deference to Nana’s passing.

Hunter sat down on the window seat and stared out at the day, wondering once more what he would do with himself now that the foundation of his whole life had been knocked out from under him.

Author Bios:
Amy Rae Durreson
Amy Rae Durreson is a writer and romantic, who writes m/m romances. She likes to go wandering across the local hills with a camera, hunting for settings for her stories. She's got a degree in early English literature, which she blames for her somewhat medieval approach to spelling, and at various times has been fluent in Latin, Old English, Ancient Greek, and Old Icelandic, though please don't ask her to speak any of them now.

Amy started her first novel nineteen years ago (it featured a warrior princess, magic swords, elves and an evil maths teacher) and has been scribbling away ever since. Despite these long years of experience, she has yet to master the arcane art of the semi-colon.

Cardeno C
Cardeno C. - CC to friends - is a hopeless romantic who wants to add a lot of happiness and a few "awwws" into a reader's day. Writing is a nice break from real life as a corporate type and volunteer work with gay rights organizations. Cardeno's stories range from sweet to intense, contemporary to paranormal, long to short, but they always include strong relationships and walks into the happily-ever-after sunset.

Heartwarming Stories. Strong Relationships. Forever Love.

JP Bowie
J.P. Bowie was born and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland. He wrote his first (unpublished) novel – a science fiction tale of brawny men and brawnier women that made him a little suspect in the eyes of his family for a while.

Leaving home at age eighteen for the bright lights of London, he found himself in the midst of a “diverse and creative crowd” that eventually led him to the performing arts. For the next twelve years he sang, danced and acted his way around the theatres of London and the provinces, appearing in shows with many famous British singers, actors and comedians.

After immigrating to the US and living for many years in Las Vegas where he worked for that incomparable duo, Siegfried and Roy, J.P. found himself entranced by the fair city of San Diego where he currently lives with his partner, Phil.

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.”


Rick R. Reed
Rick R. Reed is all about exploring the romantic entanglements of gay men in contemporary, realistic settings. While his stories often contain elements of suspense, mystery and the paranormal, his focus ultimately returns to the power of love. He is the author of dozens of published novels, novellas, and short stories. He is a three-time EPIC eBook Award winner (for Caregiver, Orientation and The Blue Moon Cafe). His novel, Raining Men, won the Rainbow Award for Best Contemporary General Fiction. Lambda Literary Review has called him, "a writer that doesn't disappoint." Rick lives in Seattle with his husband and a very spoiled Boston terrier. He is forever "at work on another novel."


Amy Rae Durreson
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Cardeno C
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EMAIL: cardenoc@cardenoc.com

JP Bowie
TWITTER  /  WEBSITE  /  KOBO
B&N  /  AMAZON  /  MLR BOOKS
EMAIL: jpbowie@cox.net

Keira Andrews
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE  /  KOBO
NEWSLETTER  /  GOOGLE+  /  ARe  /  B&N
EMAIL: keira.andrews@gmail.com

Rick R Reed
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  BLOG
WEBSITE  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  KOBO
SMASHWORDS  /  ARe  /  GOOGLE+
B&N  /  DREAMSPINNER  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: jimmyfels@gmail.com



A Frost of Cares
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  ARe  /  iTUNES

Johnnie
B&N  /  KOBO  /  AUDIBLE  /  ARe

Time After Time
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK
B&N  /  KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  ARe
MLR BOOKS  /  GOODREADS TBR

Fight the Tide
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK
B&N  /  KOBO  /  ARe  /  SMASHWORDS
iTUNES  /  GOODREADS TBR

A Demon Inside
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  DSP PUBLICATIONS  /  iTUNES
GOOGLE PLAY  /  GOODREADS TBR