Saturday, December 20, 2008

Rain at Midsummer by Teresa Noelle Roberts

“Dry spring here,” Dela commented, as if Nikos hadn’t noticed. “Are the crops doing all right?”

Nikos took a deep breath. Dela had grown up on a small farm—she’d be sensitive to the state of the land even though she’d left that life behind for a soldier’s. And he was used to Dela assuming he was a good-natured idiot. For a while, she’d outranked him, and even though he’d been promoted ahead of her, everyone including General Ancius acknowledged that Dela deserved lieutenant’s rank at least as much as he did—but when there was only one promotion to be handed out and two candidates, a lord, even the lord of a small, obscure holding in the Empire’s most backwater satrapy, was going to beat out an equally competent hill-country farm girl.

It was just that everyone was asking him the same questions, as if people who’d been in Thermanae all along wouldn’t know better than he would. Worse yet, everyone was expecting him to do something about it, as being the Lord gave him power to end the drought.

Not Dela’s fault he’d been away from home for the past eighteen months with the Army, or had spent two years at the University in Poldar before that. Or that this was all supposed to be Naso’s problem, Naso who had a feeling for the land and the farmers under their protection.

Naso who died and made him Lord of Thermanae. Gods cradle his soul—and damn him to seven hells for trying to be a hero on the Peshtari front, when everyone knew that was the younger brother’s job, not the elder.

He thought a prayer for patience to gods he wasn’t sure he believed in. “If we get rain soon, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. They’ve been able to irrigate—we had plenty of snow this winter, from what Theos says. But that’ll only last so long.” And their irrigation system dated from before the last Kulchu invasion, meaning it was only slightly more efficient than hauling buckets to the fields by hand. Hells, in one of his villages, they were doing just that because the aqueduct had collapsed after an otherwise minor earthquake and no one had the skills or time to rebuild it. “The headmen of the villages will be able to tell us more today.”

“So, is your betrothed coming to Thermanae for Midsummer and help you bring the rains?”

“First, I don’t believe in that old-fashioned nonsense. The seasonal festivals are just celebrations. Who you fuck or where, or whether or not you spank them while you’re doing it, doesn’t make the crops grow or bring rain or anything. They’ve proven it at the University in Poldar. It may please the gods that we celebrate, but the rain comes when the rain comes.”

Dela raised one eyebrow. Like most country people, Dela no doubt believed the legends about having sex in the fields to bring rain at Midsummer and seeing visions of the gods at Spring Festival if you’d found your true love and spanking women to ensure good spring weather and thrashing men in autumn for some fool reason he’d willed himself to forget—but she politely waited for him to continue.

“And second, I don’t have a betrothed. Yet.”

“I knew you’d have told me, but it’s all anyone’s been talking about since Anat and I got here.” Dela let out a barking, boyish laugh. “Anat says it’s so outrageous it must be true, but who would marry a Thelanese lout like you? Unless the lady had a thing for goats or spankings.”

Nikos wouldn’t have taken it from anyone but Dela, also a native of this backwater satrapy—not to mention his best friend. “Got it in one guess. She likes goats. I’m hoping she may settle for me because the goats are all pining for you.”

“Only the females, my boy, but they can’t have me. Anat doesn’t share.”

She smiled the smile of a satisfied woman before continuing.

“But seriously, Nikos, what’s going on? The servants have been talking of nothing else since we got here, trying to pump me for information. The rumor must have started somewhere. So is this just something your mother dreamed up or have you really set your heart on some rich woman from Poldar, even if it’s not formalized?” She didn’t add that Lalage Thermanae was out of touch enough with reality to invent a betrothed for her surviving son, but her tone implied it.

Unfortunately, it was true.

Nikos forced a smile. “Mother’s eager to see me married. I did meet a woman in Poldar, but…” He shrugged. “It’s nowhere near that point, and it won’t ever reach that point while I’m stuck in this backwater. Sarakia doesn’t see me as worthy of anything but a light flirtation.”

“Seven hells, what is the woman looking for in a husband? If I liked men, I’d at least consider you. You’re not half bad-looking, you’re just stupid enough to be entertaining, and you’re a lord!”

He snorted with laughter, then stifled it. Very uncouth to laugh that way, not the way for a young officer on the rise to behave, even in front of an old friend like Dela. “Oh, the Lord of Thermanae—that’s going to impress a sophisticated woman from the Imperial capital. I may have the blood of seven satraps and a king in my veins, but you’ve seen the villa. The roof has more holes than tiles. All I stand to inherit is an olive grove, a mediocre vineyard, and high expectations. Oh, and three border villages that look to my family for defense against the Kulchu. She’d never want to live here. She’s a spice merchant, a wealthy woman. Refined.”

He sighed, remembering Sarakia’s soft hands, her cultured voice, her elegance, her wit and spirit.

And the way she’d laughed when the gods’ blessings during seasonal festivals were mentioned. “It’s a great excuse to have an adventure with someone you’d otherwise never meet,” she’d said, “but everyone knows it doesn’t mean anything. The priests invented it to make sure we go to the temple at least a few times a year so they keep their jobs.”

No, Sarakia would never fit in here, where people still took the old ways seriously and women, no matter how strong and competent they might be, kept up a veneer of deference to men.

Which was why he had to get out. “I need to make a name for myself, either on the battlefield or in Poldar—maybe take the Thermanae Senate seat that no one’s actually bothered with since the days of Tallius the Unifier and do something impressive. Otherwise she’ll never notice me.”

“And I know that’s where I come in: someone to keep an eye on the defenses while you’re away.”

Even though he was the Lord, and in theory, master of all he surveyed on his own lands, he looked around before answering, to make sure that no one was listening. He just wasn’t ready to reveal his plans to his dependants yet. “To take over the defenses indefinitely, more like. I don’t belong here anymore. Father and Mother raised me to see the world, to be the Thermanae who went to Poldar and made the connections we need to pour some money back into the land—not the one who tends the land. If Naso hadn’t died…”

“But he did, Lord and Lady embrace him. You’re the Lord of Thermanae. You have duties to the land, and to the villagers.”

“Spoken like a true Thelanese.” He said it with a slight, cultivated sneer, the one he’d learned to put on for his more urbane acquaintances.

At the same time, her words tugged at his heart, reminding him that, like it or not, he belonged to this little corner of his harshly beautiful, remote satrapy as much as it belonged to him.

More than it belonged to him. The land and the villages had been there long before his birth, would be there long after his death. He was just the one who, thanks to an unluckily aimed arrow in a far part of the Empire, had the responsibility to steward them.

Seven hells.

He let go of the sneer, knowing it wouldn’t impress her and probably wouldn’t fool her. She was Thelanese to the core—and she knew him well. “That’s why you and Anat finishing your Army term and wanting to come back to Thelana was an answer to my prayers. I can make sure my land and my people are in good hands, do a good turn for old friends, and still keep my sanity.” Anat, the eldest child of her local lord’s steward, could help out their steward Theos until he finally admitted he was ready to sit by the fire and tell stories to his grandchildren, and Dela was the best rough-country scout the Seventh Legion ever had, not to mention the best at training other scouts and skirmishers. And between Dela’s dirty jokes and Anat’s pretty face, even the old curmudgeons were starting to say “those two bossy Army women aren’t so bad.”

Dela and Anat loved Thelana, really wanted to make a life among the goat farmers and vintners even having seen more civilized parts of Sorania, but they couldn’t go to back to their hill village after running away from home together to join the Imperial Army. In Thermanae, if the young lord vouched for you and the Lady Lalage liked you—hells, if she came out of her melancholy and noticed you on a regular basis—you were accepted.

Especially if you could fight off Kulchu raiding parties.

The nomads loved to harass the border villages, carrying off livestock and kidnapping unlucky villagers into slavery. Dela’s job was to whip the villagers, the few men-at-arms, and anyone else she could recruit into a passable border patrol.

For decades, Imperial forces had been stationed here, patrolling the borders, protecting the borderfolk from Kulchu raiders who, if they couldn’t steal back the territory the Empire had wrested their control, were happy to steal from it. But since the invasion of Peshtar, and its attendant troubles, only one legion was stationed in Thelana, and that was spread far too thin to do much good.

“You and Anat are godssends, Dela. Now if I could just find someone to keep an eye on Mother…” He sighed. She was getting worse, more withdrawn from the world, more melancholy. Valaria and Theos and the rest of the staff could manage the day-to-day matters on their own, but Lalage needed someone to drag her from her shell or she’d sink so deep into melancholy she might never find her way out, leaving Thermanae without a Lady until he could wed. And he couldn’t leave home again, in good conscience—and thus couldn’t wed—until he found a suitable person to watch over her.

Which could be a long time. Practically any adult villager knew how to tend someone infirm in body, but afflictions of the mind and spirit were another matter.

And physicians, even frail, elderly, slightly crazy ones, made terrible patients. The person who had Lalage Thermanae in her care would have to be on her toes.

Dela smacked him on the shoulder. “Stop wool-gathering. Let’s see the countryside, meet some of these villagers of yours and see how bad this drought really is. See if we can find us some slavers to beat up.”

“Let’s hope not. I want my visit home to be nice and quiet. No profit in excitement here.”

Shattered Dreams by Mychael Black and Shayne Carmichael

“Kulisael.”

Li cursed under his breath and turned. “Yes? Do I know you?”

The man who spoke was taller than Li’s six and a half feet. Looking at the black and white uniform with red insignia patches, Li knew this demon was high level.

“I thought as much,” the man said dryly. He smirked at Li.

“What do you want?” Li started backing up, and the man advanced.

“You are required to return home.”

“Home?” Li shook his head, not once looking away from the coal-black eyes staring through him. “I no longer have a home.”

The man pulled out a small square card and handed it to Li. “Your service is requested.”

“Something tells me this isn’t a volunteer thing,” Li remarked. The man simply laughed. Then he was gone in the blink of an eye.

“Fuck.”

* * * *

Skulking on the outer fringes of Caeunial, Cody stayed well away from its demon populace. He had his own agenda to take care of, and the thirst for vengeance had led him here. It fucking figured it would be the one place Cody really didn’t want to be. Keeping a low profile in the midst of demons, as a human, wasn’t the easiest thing to do. Sitting in front of the small fire he’d set to ward off the chill of the coming night, Cody stared into the black flames.

“I thought I might find you here.”

Cody didn’t freeze with the sound of the voice, but he refused to turn around and look at the speaker. He knew who it was. “That’s odd. I didn’t think I would find you here.”

“I was on my way to…work.” The speaker emerged from the shadows and knelt across from Cody, on the other side of the fire. “You look worse for the wear.”

“You were called in to deal with the zombie problem, weren’t you?” Cody’s gaze remained on the fire as he reached into the pack near him. Pulling out a can, he opened it and drank his dinner. “Are you going to provide additional incentive from the Counsel to hire me on?”

“How do you know any of that?”

Shrugging, Cody tossed the empty can back into the pack. “They already tried to hire me. I told them ‘no thank you’. I just didn’t think they would bring you into it.”

“I don’t know what they’ve called me in for. And I guess it’s safe to assume that you’re still pissed off.”

“Now why would I be pissed off?” Finally looking over at Li, Cody gave his ex-lover a bland look. Li hadn’t changed one bit. The demon still was one of the most incredibly handsome creatures Cody had ever seen. From the top of his golden blond curls to the innocent looking features of an angel, Li had eternal youth and extraordinary good looks on his side.

“Why else would you storm out?” Li asked him. “Why else would you turn away from everything?”

“Things change. Didn’t anybody ever tell you that? I learned the hard way myself.” Cody had found out in a hard way exactly what Li was. In the lesson, he wasn’t given a chance to choose, either by Li or the demons who’d damn near killed him.

“Fair enough.” He stood and ran his fingers through his hair. “For what it’s worth, I haven’t changed, Cody.”

“That mean you still don’t tell the truth?” Cody stood and went to a pile of small sticks. Picking up several of them, he turned back to throw them into the fire.

“What?”

“Never mind. Water under the bridge, Li.” In a more conversational tone, Cody asked, “So, are you going to wade into the zombie problem?” Internally, Cody cursed the Counsel. Whether it was deliberate or not, sending Li into it would be an excellent way to drag Cody in as well.

Li eyed him dubiously. “If that’s what my orders are, then that’s what I must do.”

“Never one to do what you want to do, or what you really should do, are you, Li?” Cody tried to keep his own personal issues out of it, but it was hard to do. “You’re on your way to the Scarlet Chapel, then.”

“Excuse me?” Li stepped closer and glared at Cody. “I went against laws you have no concept of, just to be with you!”

Those laws had been beaten into his body by a group of extremely angry demons, and Cody had precious little use for them. Reaching back into his pack, Cody drew out two more cans. “Want one?” As he asked he tossed the can to Li.

The infuriated look on Li’s face gave way to sheer confusion. Catching the can, he slumped back against the nearest tree. “I don’t know what else to say, Cody. I’ve spent the past year trying to figure out why the fuck you just up and walked out, but I’m coming up blank here.”

“It was time for me to move on. Why else would I ever have left, Li?” Cody directed a mildly questioning look at him. Yeah, they had some issues. Only Li didn’t know what they were, and Cody wasn’t sure he gave a damn anymore. The thought itself was a lie, and deep down inside him, Cody knew it.

“So you left, just like that,” Li said. “No reasons, no goodbyes, nothing.” He nodded. “All right. I see this is fucking pointless.” He tossed the unopened can back to Cody. “See you around, babe.” With that, he turned and walked away toward the gates to Scarlet Chapel.

* * * *

“Kulisael, you must take him with you.” The older demon was stiff in his demeanor, ever mindful of his own position.

Li whirled around. “Why? Because the Counsel finds it amusing to use me as leverage to get the best mercenary in Caeunial on the roster? I think not.”

The second they turned the corner, however, Li came to an abrupt stop. There was Cody Slate, sitting in the outer office and in clear earshot.

“Didn’t think he’d go for it.” Cody doffed his hat and nodded to the High Lord. Tossing a small velvet bag at the Counsel member, Cody smiled then slid off the edge of the small desk. “If you guys are done with me, I’ll be going back to my own plans now.”

“We know what you have been doing, Cody Slate. Up until now it has been allowed, but that will change unless you remain.” A threatening undercurrent echoed in the High Lord’s words as he stared at Cody.

Altering his tone to a more conversational level, he added, “Now, I’m sure no introductions need to be made between the two of you.”

Cody’s lips compressed in a thin line before he answered with an abrupt nod of his head.

Blinking, Li took in the situation and realized he honestly had no idea what was going on. “Okay,” he said, throwing his hands up, “I give up! What’s behind the charade? What the hell have I missed here?”

“Seems I’m in for the duration. You along or not?” Folding his arms against his chest, Cody ignored the small bag near him.

“I apparently don’t have a choice,” Li grumbled under his breath.

Narrowing his gaze on Li, Cody muttered, “That makes two of us.”

“Excellent.” The High Lord sat at his desk and tossed a set of photos beside Cody. “That’s what you’re both up against.”

Glancing down at the pictures, Cody studied them. The creatures in the photos were humanoid in appearance, or at least that was the impression. Better described as zombies, they fed on flesh and blood, and some on souls.

“What area are they infecting now?”

“East Outlands,” the High Lord said. “We’ve had steady reports on the disease spreading.”

“Disease?” Li moved closer to Cody and leaned in to look at the pictures.

“They’re spreading a disease that seems to attack the central nervous system. When the victim becomes a vegetable, the creatures move in for the kill.”

“How do they spread the disease?” Li asked.

“An unknown strain of bacteria thrives in the creatures’ mouths. It’s transferred to the victim by bite. Our healers are working on isolating the bacteria, and hopefully devising a cure. But as of now, we have nothing to stop the progress of the disease in mortals. In most cases, we’ve contained the flesh eaters, but the soul eaters are swifter-moving and far more aggressive.”

“Sounds lovely.” Li glanced up at Cody and found himself staring into a pair of painfully familiar gray eyes.

“Who else did you con into going along for the ride?”

Ignoring the snide tone of Cody’s question, the High Lord said calmly, “There’s a legion of specially trained demons waiting outside the Chapel. Both of you will lead them. The creatures must be contained.”

Li chose to ignore the pain; it would do neither of them any good. Cody had made it clear there was nothing left. “Then we best get moving,” Li said quietly. And if his damned heart felt like it was ripping in two all over again, well, so be it.

“The consecration will take place when the moon has reached the second line of the Scarlet Tower. I will leave it to you whether or not you’ll attend, Kulisael, but the soldiers are required to do so. Afterwards the legion will break camp.” Settling back, the High Lord looked extremely pleased with himself.

Sliding off the desk, Cody shot the Counsel member a disdainful look before he turned to head from the office.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Santa Please by Jade Falconer

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” muttered Ian, looking at the fuzzy red suit.

“Pardon?” the perky blonde manager said blankly.

“I said, I’m looking forward to this,” Ian spoke more loudly, forcing a smile as he accepted the costume from the woman. He reminded himself that this was a very brief, temporary job, and the money was good. That he would be sitting around at home during the holidays, feeling sorry for himself, if he wasn’t doing this. But a department store Santa...he sighed.

“Awesome! Why don’t you go on into the dressing room and try the suit on, and we can see if it needs any tailoring? You’re slimmer than the last Santa, he didn’t need any padding at all!” the manager enthused.

“Thanks,” Ian said, wondering if that was a compliment or not. He was only fifty, but his hair was a distinguished gray, leading most people to believe he was older. At least he wouldn’t need a wig. Just the beard. Which would hopefully keep anyone he knew from recognizing him. He would definitely need the padding, which was ironic because he went to the gym five times a week to stay in shape. He sighed again and headed for the changing room.

A few minutes later, a young man slipped through the door. “Oh. Sorry, they told me to change in here,” he stammered.

Ian already had the red pants on and was pulling on the jacket over his t-shirt. “Ah, you must be one of my elves,” he said warmly, eyeing the young man, who carried a colorful costume. He was beautiful, slender, and waiflike, with black hair hanging almost to his shoulders, face flushed from the cold outside. With his full lips and the subtle smudge of eyeliner around his pale eyes, Ian could bet that he’d been mistaken for a girl more than a few times. But to Ian, who preferred men, his sex was more than obvious. His oversized sweater barely met clinging, low-slung jeans, and he could have been a model or a rock star easily.

He smiled and extended his hand. “I’m James. Nice to meet you, Mr. Claus,” he said with a boyish grin.

Ian laughed. “Call me Ian. Please.” He shook James’ delicate hand, trying not to ogle him. This job had just gotten more pleasant.

“Ian. Yes. I’m one of your elves.” He dropped a messenger bag on a small desk and hung his costume on a hook. “Have you done this before?” he asked as he yanked the wooly sweater off over his head.

Ian snickered as he buttoned the red and white coat. “No,” he said, his mouth going dry as James began to strip. He turned his attention to the wide black belt they’d provided him. “Have you?”

“Nope. I just got fired from my job, so I was a little desperate,” he said as he kicked off his sneakers and unceremoniously peeled off his jeans. He held up the tights, brow furrowing a little.

Ian nodded. “Understandable. This does pay obscenely well.” He turned toward James, gaze flicking over his body. James was clad only in white Jockeys now. He was thin without being too skinny, and his ass...Ian had to turn away.

“I’m beginning to understand why,” James said as he struggled into the tights. With that accomplished he pulled on a pair of shorts the same color as the tights, and then a green tunic on top that reached mid-thigh. He examined himself in the mirror for a moment, then a goofy grin spread across his face. “God help me if my mom comes to see me.”

The corners of Ian’s mouth quirked up as he tried not to laugh. After all, he looked just as ridiculous. James, on the other hand, looked quite adorable to him. “Oh, but you’ve forgotten the hat,” he said solemnly.

James rolled his eyes. “Oh, please don’t punish me, Santa, for breaking the elven dress code,” he said, fluttering his eyelashes. He grabbed the little cap. It was green with a long red feather sticking out of it, and he put it on his head at a slightly jaunty angle. “Please tell me the shoes are not going to have bells on the toes.”

“They probably do,” Ian chuckled, picking up his own hat and settling it on his head. He would dearly love to punish James, but he decided that the boy surely didn’t know what ideas he was giving Ian. “But truly, you look adorable. I just look ridiculous.” He looked in the mirror at himself. He looked decidedly un-jolly.

James grinned. “Not at all. You look very Santa-like. Maybe smile a little. I think scowls frighten children,” he said, nudging him with an elbow. “What does Mrs. Claus think?”

Ian snorted. “There isn’t one.” He didn’t explain that there hadn’t been one since he’d finally admitted to himself, and her, that he preferred men over women. Surely James wasn’t asking his sexual preference; it was just small talk. “I shall smile when I must, and not sooner.”

James frowned a little and sighed. “Oh well, I’ll smile for both of us.” He reached over and patted the padding over Ian’s belly. “My head’s spinning thinking of all the people who could potentially show up to make fun of me.”

“Just don’t tell anyone,” Ian advised, trying not to stare at the beautiful boy. He couldn’t be over twenty-five. He felt like a pervert. “I know I haven’t.” He couldn’t help himself. “You mean you don’t want your girlfriend cooing over you in tights?”

James snorted a little. “My ex-boyfriend would laugh his obnoxious ass off for a week.” He walked over to the bag with the rest of his costume and bent over, getting out the booties and the belt.

Ian’s eyes widened. This job had gotten even more interesting.

Christmas with Holly by Dana Littlejohn

The next morning she woke to the smell of heaven teasing her senses. Smiling she sat up and took a deep breath.

“Mmm, pancakes and bacon,” she murmured sleepily.

Suddenly her smile disappeared. “Omigosh!” she whispered, urgently throwing the covers back. “Someone’s cooking pancakes and bacon. Someone is here!” She looked around her room and dashed over to the corner where the broom was behind the door. Quietly she unscrewed the broom part from the stick and tiptoed out toward the kitchen. She peeked around the doorway. A man stood at the stove loading a plate with food. Holly stepped closer and he turned hearing the squeak of the floor and ducked just as she swung her stick at his head.

“Whoa! Hey! Wait!” he yelled, ducking and running around the table.

“Who the hell are you? What the hell are you doing here?” Each question accompanied a swing of the stick.

He threw his hands up when he was far enough from her not to get hit. “Okay, will you just stop swinging long enough for me to explain?”

“You’ve got five minutes and do it with your hands on top of your head where I can see them.”

“Okay, that’s fine. I can do that. Can I sit down?”

She stayed in swinging position, gripping the stick as she pondered his request. “Yes, I guess that would be okay, but keep your hands where I can see them.”

“Okay, okay. Well, my name is Logan. I rented this cabin for a few days so I could draw and paint.”

“What? Renting the cabin? I don’t know anything about that.”

“I called Mr. Black when I saw your car outside this morning. He told me you who you were. I can only assume that the troopers turned you around because of the weather. I saw them out when I was coming in last night. I figured you might be hungry when you woke up so I was making enough food for the both of us.”

She relaxed out of her attack stance and looked pass him to the counter where all the food was.

“Can I put my hands down now? The bacon is burning.”

“Oh, umm, yes.” She lowered the broomstick. “You know I’m going to call my father to verify your story.”

He flipped the bacon over and nodded a reply.

She left the kitchen and grabbed her cell phone from her purse.

“Hi Dad.” Holly plopped onto the couch.

“Holly, how are you? I saw Vermont received more snow than they anticipated.”

“Yes, I guess so. Dad, who is this white boy in here?”

“He’s not a white boy, Holly.”

“Well, he looks white to me.”

He chuckled. “I think both your parents have to be white to be considered white, dear. I believe only one of Logan’s parents are white, the other is black.”

“Well, whatever. What’s he doing here? I woke up to breakfast cooking; it scared the crap out of me.”

“He rented the cabin for a few days. He cooked breakfast for you? That was very thoughtful of him.”

“Yeah, well, he almost got his head knocked off for being that thoughtful. Why didn’t you tell me he was going to be here?”

“You said you were leaving. Had you made it home you wouldn’t have run into him at all. I saw no reason to mention it to you.”

She sighed. “Yes, I guess you’re right. So, have you seen the news? When will they have the roads clear enough for me to leave?”

He chuckled. “Sweetheart, they anticipated four-to-five inches and you ended up with ten inches. I’m afraid you’re snowed in for Christmas, sweetheart.”

“What?” she shrieked.

How to Ruin Christmas for a Vampire by Dahlia Rose and Crymsyn Hart

“Jingle bells, Jingle bells, Jingle all the way,” Diana Kringle sang along softly to the music on her radio. It was twenty-two days until Christmas and she was busy in her kitchen making Christmas cookies for the senior citizens center down the street.

God, I love Christmas, she thought as she buried her hands in the dough for gingerbread men. She had already made almost five dozen cookies and she was enthusiastically getting ready to make five more. Diana knew she probably went overboard around the holidays but she could not help it. From the time she could even remember she was bounced around from foster home to foster home. Some of them were definitely not the greatest places to be and some she never wanted to leave. But she always had to eventually. Either the family could not afford to adopt her or when the checks came late they sent her back to the home. One thing always stayed the same, Christmas. Each place she ever lived had some kind of tradition for the holiday and each year whatever she had saved from her meager allowances or what she could earn, Diana bought a Christmas trinket. From an ornament for the tree, to a bobble head Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Where ever she went, they went. Now at twenty-eight years old, she had amassed quite a collection, actually a garage full of Christmas cheer.

She had moved from Philly to New York after she had saved enough to buy a small house in Long Island. She moved to New York for one main thing—this was the place to be on the holidays. It started with the Thanksgiving Day Parade where Santa came to town, Rockefeller Center and the big tree in the center with people ice skating around it, and the picture windows in the big department stores in Manhattan. The whole city seemed to come alive around the holidays. For a long time when she was growing up she pretended that Santa and Mrs. Claus were her real parents that is why she had the last name Kringle. As she grew older and the awful predicaments she was in at some points made her rethink that theory. But she never stopped loving this holiday or what it meant. Good cheer, peace and love to all men. Yeah, Christmas rocked.

Diana dusted her hands against her candy striped apron and went over to the oven when its buzzer went off. Another batch of gingerbread men ready for gum drop buttons, she thought with a wide smile. She happened to pass her window when she came back from her oven and looked out at her decorations. The lights that were strung around her porch glittered merrily. All her new neighbors loved her Christmas montage on her front lawn and most of the other houses had some form of holiday cheer. All accept one, her neighbor directly across the street. Half the time there was no light even at night time and no one saw him in the daytime. On a few occasions she saw him leave his house at night with his long black coat.

He looked dangerous and made her shiver, was it from fear she really couldn’t tell but he intrigued her. She did have the sneaking suspicion he was causing her elves to molest each other and made Santa give Rudolph the finger plus broke a few of her candy canes. She woke up and found a few of her things wrecked but never mind she always had replacements. If anyone ever saw her garage they would think that the North Pole had permanently taken up residence. She replaced the trashed candy canes, fixed Santa’s fingers. Her elves were stuck in that very naughty position so she had to put them away and bring out the spares. Her holiday would not be ruined by a few pranksters who did not know she was the queen of Christmas.

By the time she was done with her first set of cookies, it was time for the Christmas party at the senior center. She boxed up the finished ones and made sure to tie each package with a large pretty bow in red or green. She had made an extra package for her neighbor. No one that young and handsome should be alone or cranky on the holidays. She took off her apron from over her tight wool sweater and even tighter blue jeans and put on her winter coat. It was blue with black feathers around the cuffs and collar. Her dark hair was pulled up in a ponytail. Diana checked her face in the mirror by the door and made sure her shimmer cherry gloss looked particularly luscious against her creamy brown skin.

“Why are you doing this? He probably isn’t even home anyway,” she muttered to herself. She put the rest of her cookie packages in the back of her car before crossing the street.

Her boots crunched on the soft snow and the dim evening light reflected off the powdery substance as she crossed the street. She looked up at the darkened house that somehow reminded her of the ghost houses she had seen in a few horror movies. She felt a chill go up her arms as she opened the gate and it creaked ominously every millimeter she pushed it. She looked up at the window once again expecting to see him looking through the thick drapes because he heard the gate open.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake!” she muttered. “You are a grown woman and there is nothing to be scared of!”

Diana gave the gate one big shove and gritted her teeth against the noise it made. The only sound she could hear was her boots against the gravel and snow. She looked up at the steps, there were only seven but somehow they looked like a whole lot more. “Let’s get this over with,” she said under her breath. The steps were wide and not even cleaned off from the snow. Obviously he did not give a damn if he came out and it was covered in ice and he broke his neck one morning. She reached the fifth step and decided that was enough. Diana reached over to put the box by the door when it opened inward and she was looking at two very large black boots standing there. Her eyes traveled from the boots to the long black coat that hung down to the ankles. It felt like slow motion as her gaze went up to the black jeans on lean hips, past the dark shirt and to even darker eyes.

Diana felt like screaming and running away like kids would when they got a scare. Instead she swallowed the lump of fear in her throat and stood up to her height of five six meeting his gaze and pasting a smile on her face. “Hi! I was going to leave this for you but since you are here, Merry Christmas!”

“What is it?” His short answer made her smile falter for a minute.

“It’s Christmas cookies, gingerbread men to be exact!”

“What am I supposed to do with them?”

Was he serious? Diana looked at him with an expression of surprise. “You eat them of course.”

“Lady, do I look like I eat cookies?” He asked. He leaned against the door jam and folded his arms. “Does it look like I do this whole Christmas thing?”

Diana let her gaze go to his chest. Damn he was rude and didn’t even crack a smile. “I don’t know, but you’ve never tried my cookies! And maybe you didn’t have time to decorate, I could come over and loan you a few of my things…”

“God, no! I don’t want any of that multi-colored crap anywhere near me! So what makes your cookies so good lady?”

“My name is Diana not lady and they are made fresh and with a healthy dose of Christmas cheer.”

“Then I definitely don’t want them…Diana what?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your name, you said Diana. Diana what?”

This conversation had gone completely off course. “Diana Kringle.”

He made a sound of amusement. “You’re kidding? You must have been teased unmercifully.”

“No I wasn’t.” Diana was getting irritated. “Listen, do you want the cookies or not? And since you know my name I should at least know yours.”

“Jarreth.” He supplied. “I’ll take your cookies. Maybe I can find some use for them.”

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Oh Yes, Virginia by Elaina Huntley

Two men dressed in pilot whites boarded the plane and stopped to talk with Chris. They turned and looked at her. Heat crawled across her face until they resumed their conversation. All three men presented a stunning study of contrast: light, dark, tall, shorter, cropped hair, the list went on and on. Her eyes darted from man to man and she perversely tried to choose the one she thought most attractive. The feat became impossible, they all made her teeth ache.

Devastating smiles spread across both pilot’s faces when they caught her watching them. The tall, darker haired man gave an outrageous wink before they turned and entered the cockpit. Her eyes didn’t leave the men until the door closed, cutting off her view.

Chris smiled that all knowing smile of his and heat rushed across her face once more. Was it rude to ogle the men in the presence of her host? The direction her thoughts wandered while watching them would most definitely be in bad taste.

He stopped at a well stocked bar before crossing over to her, holding out a drink. Delight filled her and she beamed in approval. An apple martini, her favorite!

“Thank you,” she said. Her eyelids slid closed as the liquid pleasure caressed her throat.

“One of the perks of a private jet, no rolling cart with tiny bottles.” He smiled and raised his glass in toast. “To fulfilling Christmas wishes.”

Clinking her delicate glass against his, Virginia fought the urge to gulp the remaining contents to wet her parched throat.

“Mr. Ringle?” A voice crackled out of nowhere to break the silence. Chris pressed a small white button above his head.

“Yes, Mike.”

“We are cleared for take off, please prepare for departure.”

“Thanks, Dan.” Chris released the button and set his glass down. Reaching across Virginia’s lap, he grasped the seatbelt and pulled it across her waist, his hair tickling her chin as he fastened it. Virginia inhaled a lung full of his spicy scent. It reminded her of cinnamon mixed with evergreen. Gingerbread? No, that wasn’t it, either. The aroma changed each time she drew in another breath.

By the time he finished adjusting her lap belt, she was convinced he simply smelled of every scent she loved.

The ascent went so smooth that she barely felt a bump as they soared into the dusk filled sky. Minutes passed and the seatbelt sign flickered off. Virginia released hers with a sigh and held out her glass with a questioning smile.

“Of course,” Chris said, as he moved to the wet bar once more and mixed another martini. A man who knew his way around a mixed drink was a bonus in her book.

“Is it okay if I walk around?” Curiosity was killing her and she wanted to make the most of this chance of a lifetime. These kinds of opportunities didn’t happen to Virginia and she was damned sure it would be one to remember.

“By all means.” Chris handed her a fresh glass, before turning and busying himself once more.

She had made round one of the cabin before she caught his eye, laughing in self reproach. “You must think I am a complete hick carrying on like this.”

He shook his head and smiled. “Not at all. I like watching your face light up, it’s delightful. You notice each and every thing little here. I get used to it all and forget to stop and enjoy it sometimes.”

How anyone could get so used to this, they stopped noticing, was beyond her.

“Please, join me.” He indicated a table filled with delicious looking food. Her eyes widened in surprise. How had she missed this elaborate set up during her in-depth perusal?

As a strict vegetarian, she was used to smiling politely and declining well meaning hosts, but when she looked closer, a gasp of astonished delight flew from between her lips. Everything on the table, everything, was her favorite. From the ripe, juicy fruit arranged artfully on a silver tray, to the spinach salad with walnuts, strawberries and crumbled feta.

She looked at him in astonishment. “It’s like you know just what I want. The drink, the food…” God, she hoped not everything, those wicked little thoughts earlier involving him and the hunky pilots could prove very embarrassing.

“A good host always anticipates their guests’ needs.” His eyes burned into hers and she swallowed against the rising tide of desire. How did he do that? Just a glance and her blood turned to warm honey flowing through her veins.

Choosing a plump strawberry and dipping it into liquid chocolate, Chris lifted it to her mouth. Virginia hesitated a brief second before parting her lips, the cool, sweet fruit sliding between them. Her teeth sank into the ripe flesh and a tangy fruit mixed with the creamy sweet chocolate burst in her mouth. A trickle of juice ran down her chin and he brushed it away with his thumb. Electric currents sizzled on her skin even after he pulled away.

Each sumptuous bite slid from him to her waiting mouth, his gesture filled with erotic undertones. Giving in to the urge, her tongue darted out and she licked one of his fingers. It deftly slipped between her lips, gliding in and out, sweet with the liquid of the fruit. Her tongue rolled around it, circling and caressing until he withdrew it.

Chris’ gaze remained on hers as he reached for another strawberry and sank his teeth into the succulent flesh. She parted her lips when he lifted it to her mouth and ran the luscious berry over her lips, coating them in cool, slick juice. Leaning in closer, his tongue teased the sugary wetness from her skin. Virginia tried to coax him closer, to tempt him into the kiss she craved, but he dodged her unspoken request and continued to tease her.

“So charming,” he whispered.

His breath tickled against her sensitive flesh and she fought to remain still. Her breath came in short bursts and she blinked against the fog of desire obscuring her view. She moaned when dizzying heat spiraled outward from between her legs. The low sound filled the small cabin.

She wanted him. It wasn’t the martinis talking. No, it was the craving to find out just what the secret was dancing in his eyes, enflaming her blood beyond reason.

“Please,” she whispered. She was wet from just the touch of his tongue. The ache between her legs centered on the swollen bud pulsing with fire.

“What do you want?” he asked. The hair on her arms stood on end at the husky undertone of his voice.

Virginia’s answer lodged in her throat. She met his eyes and prayed he could read the answer within them.

She wanted him to fuck her senseless all the way to Boston.

No Ordinary Holiday by Marty Rayne

Cam lifted his gaze from Jacob to Devyn. She stood in the entryway, tray in hand, and eyes narrowed as if studying them. It made him uncomfortable. More disturbing was that he was actually attracted to her. And Jacob appeared to be very much interested in her, too.

His best friend was a single bisexual man. Why should it bother him who aroused Jacob’s attention? Ignoring the heavy sense of dismay lining his stomach, Cam smiled warmly at her.

Devyn jerked into action and walked into the room. She set the tray on the coffee table between the couch where Cam and Jacob sat and the two chairs opposite them, one of which she sat in.

“Thanks.” Cam reached for the carafe and poured coffee in all three of the cups. Without thought, he handed Jacob his, black, just the way he liked it, before adding sugar and a lot of cream to his. All the while aware of Devyn’s gaze on him. Did he have some leftover donut powder on his face? Surely Jacob would have told him, right?

“Todd said that you were coming to talk to me about purchasing some of my work, but he didn’t give me any details.” She took a sip of her own coffee. Two teaspoons of sugar and a touch of creamer, Cam took notice. “It’s two days before Christmas. What couldn’t wait until later in the week?”

Cam hadn’t seen the hurry, either, but he wasn’t about to argue about spending some alone time, a.k.a. vacation time—even if was spent working—with Jacob.

“I guess one would call this a working vacation. Cam and I are independent contractors who specialize in decorating several large hotel chains across the country. However, we’ve recently ventured into being partial owners to a group of vacation cabins that are nearly complete in the area. Of course, we’re decorating them, but we wanted to make sure we keep our initial opening date in March.” Jacob paused and sipped his coffee. He was in his businessman mode and Cam couldn’t help but be turned on.

“Ah, yes. The Parkers’ land. That sale really caused quite a stir up here. The community was apprehensive about the company who purchased it.”

“We can understand that.” Cam sat back and cradled his cup in his palms. “But really, the vacation cabins will help the community rather than hurt it. The tourists will bring more revenue.”

Devyn nodded.

“We’ve preserved most of the land, building only six cabins and one caretaker home. They are all state of the art and up to date on all the safety regulations. We’ve minimized the effect this will have on the environment as much as possible.” Jacob scooted forward until he sat on the edge of the couch. Any further and Cam was sure he slide right off onto his ass.

“Cam and I have designed a more rustic décor for the cabins, however each one will be different. We’re very interested in purchasing any of your paintings that would fit the feel of what we have in mind, along with hiring you to create the rest to suit our needs. If you’re interested, of course.” He flashed a downright sexy smile for her.

Cam’s fingers tightened on his cup. Damn. Could the man be any sexier?

“I’m flattered, Jacob. I really am. But how do you even know that you’ll like my work?”

Cam caught the way her gaze flickered from Jacob to him, then back to Jacob. He swore that her eyes wandered down both their bodies in a quick assessment. Was she checking them out? Oh, hell. Surely she wouldn’t be…but then again, why not? They were both single good-looking men in their early thirties. But would she still be interested if she knew they were both bisexual?

Time Again by Jade Falconer

“Hi,” James said a little awkwardly, standing in the doorway of one of the primary restoration rooms. “I’m updating everyone’s virus software.”

The museum was a nice place to work. Everyone was a little nerdy, and of course as part of the IT department, James fit right in with the mega-nerds. The archaeology nerds were a little different than the computer nerds, true, but they all got along pretty well. And James got on especially well with Evan. He was one of the main curators at the museum, and James stood just inside the threshold of his somewhat chaotic domain, trying to be as non-invasive as possible.

Evan stood behind a long table, and he looked up as if startled. “James! Hi! Um, sure, go ahead,” he waved at the computer on his desk with a slightly dirty hand. He wiped it on the apron he wore over jeans and a white tank top. “Can you manage? ‘Cause I’m filthy, sorry,” he grinned apologetically. The table in front of him was covered with shards of pottery of various sizes.

“Yeah, I got it,” James said, walking over to the desk. He pulled out Evan’s chair and took a seat, opening the CD tray. “Sorry for the interruption.” He could see that Evan was up to his elbows in it. The other man had such a look of intensity, passion. Not to mention arms to die for. James sighed to himself.

Evan smiled without looking up. “Oh, it’s no interruption. I won’t be using the computer for a while yet anyway.” He carefully set a piece down and picked up another. “Saves me from talking to myself, anyway. How’ve you been?” He set the shard down carefully and took pictures of it with a tiny digital camera.

James smiled brilliantly at Evan as he slid the disc into the tray. “Good. Well. Okay. What about you?” he asked. Even though he was one of the most renowned archaeologists in the country, Evan was very down to earth. James was always happy to chat with him. It didn’t hurt that he was amazingly easy on the eyes. His dark hair brushed his shoulders, and he had full lips that were quick to smile. His eyes were deep brown and expressive. His body was broad without being too muscular, and he looked solid. Evan was probably twice James’ size, and James wondered what those strong arms felt like.

Evan’s hair fell into his eyes and he flicked it out of the way with a toss of his head. “Only okay?” he asked, sounding concerned. “What’s wrong, James?”

James shrugged his shoulders as he flexed his fingers hovering above the mouse. “Nothing, really. Do you know anything about, well, this is gonna sound silly. But, well, reincarnation.”

Evan raised an eyebrow and set down the camera. He turned toward James, giving him his full attention. “Well, I know that many ancient cultures believed in some form of reincarnation,” he said evenly. “I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff, so I’m never in a hurry to discount something.”

“I went to see a psychic over the weekend. I was a little tipsy, but she said a lot of things she couldn’t have known. And then she started telling me about my previous lives. She suggested I get regressed, whatever that means.” It sounded silly now, but he was grateful that Evan didn’t seem to think he was a complete flake.

Evan’s eyes widened. “Wow. I didn’t take you for the mystical type,” he teased. “Hey, if you think there’s some truth to it, it couldn’t hurt.”

“It was fascinating,” James said, clicking the mouse a few times and leaning back in the chair. “Apparently, I have a soul mate that I keep meeting over and over. But I haven’t found them in this life yet.”

“Wow, that’s really interesting,” Evan said. “Did she give you any clues about how to find this soul mate?”

James shook his head. “She just said that remembering the past was the best way to unlock the future, and that he was nearby somewhere.” Then James bit his lip. He hadn’t meant to say it, though he didn’t really hide his sexuality.

Evan only hesitated a moment, then he said, “So you’re going to get regressed then?”

James nodded. “Yeah.” He looked down, knowing he was blushing, then realized the computer was waiting for him to select something. He looked at the monitor again and clicked through the setup. He was relieved that Evan didn’t seem put off by his slip. “My, um, my ex is dating someone new, and it kinda made me feel sorry for myself,” he said, laughing self deprecatingly.

Evan nodded. “Yeah, that’ll do it,” he agreed. “And if you don’t want drama you have to be all happy about it even though you want to slap someone,” he snickered.

“It’s not that. I mean, it’s not like I’m not over him. But I’m annoyed that he found someone before I did, you know?” he asked. He felt like he could trust Evan, even if he didn’t really know him that well. Evan was easy to talk to.

Evan nodded. “You didn’t want him to be over you so quickly,” he said gently.

James pouted. Well, that was uncomfortably perceptive. “I guess,” he said with another shrug. “Maybe, I don’t know. Maybe it’s all bullshit, anyway. Soul mates and that kinda thing.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Evan said, smiling wistfully. “I think all archeologists are romantics at heart, and I’m no exception.”

James smiled as he closed the completed install window. “I guess that makes sense. But computer geeks aren’t supposed to be romantic.” He grinned a little, and retrieved the disc. “You’re all updated. Thanks for listening to my tale of woe, Evan.”

“Any time,” Evan said. “I mean, I’m all about the past. Do I get to hear about these past lives?”

James paused, tilting his head a little. “Do you really want to?” he asked doubtfully. “I mean it’s all kind of, well, dramatic. If you’re just being polite, don’t worry about hurting my feelings,” he said, grinning.

Evan crossed his arms. “You’d better not get me all worked up about this then leave me in the dark!” he said. “I didn’t peg you as a tease.”

James laughed at that. “If you really want to hear, I’ll tell you, but I’ve got twelve more PCs to update. Maybe, um, when do you get off? We could stop at Starbucks or something.” It was almost like asking him out.

Evan put his hand over his heart. “Who told you about my Starbucks addiction? I’d pretty much agree to anything if it comes with a caramel macchiato,” he laughed. “You have a deal.”

James smiled. “All right. I get off at five PM, ‘cause we geeks only do overtime for more money. Wanna meet there? After five?” he suggested.

“It’s a date,” Evan agreed. “I’ll have to take a quick shower before you want to be seen with me in public.” He nodded toward the bathroom.

James arched an eyebrow. “Oh, I don’t know. You look kind of Indiana Jones like that,” he teased. “I’ll see you there, all right?”

“Right,” Evan smirked. “You know, I have the hat...have fun playing with the computers now.”

James had the momentary vision of Evan in the hat and nothing else, holding a whip. He cleared his throat. “See you at Starbucks.” He slipped out of the lab and made his way to his next stop.

The rest of the afternoon dragged interminably, then suddenly the last twenty minutes flew by. James pulled off his tie, leaving it at his desk as he always did, and fairly skipped out to Starbucks. He lingered outside for a few minutes, smoking a cigarette while he waited for Evan.

Evan wandered up a few moments later, hair still damp where it brushed his shoulders. “Sorry I’m late,” he smiled.

James dropped his cigarette and stamped it out with a smile. “You’re not late.” He opened the door for Evan and followed him inside.

Evan breathed deeply as he walked in and moaned. “Oh, yeah,” he said hoarsely. “I’m so addicted.”

James laughed, although the sound of Evan’s voice was downright hedonistic. “It does smell good.” He stepped up to the counter and ordered an iced coffee, then turned to Evan. “No way I’m gonna remember what you want.”

“Triple venti soy, extra hot caramel macchiato, extra caramel,” Evan rattled off, smirking at James. “Please,” he added to the lady behind the counter.

James smiled. He really did like Evan, but he seemed straight. Anyway, he wasn’t quite ready to take a chance. Not after his last experience. They paid and got their drinks, and found a corner table. “So. Past lives. Are you sure you wanna know?”

“I’m here,” Evan said, sipping at his coffee. His eyes fluttered shut. “Oh, yeah,” he purred. After another sip, he focused back on James. “Okay, I’m ready. Tell me.”

Captive of Love by Wendy Stone

His head rolled against his shoulders, a loud moan coming from his lips as consciousness beckoned him with bright lights and noises whose meaning he didn’t want to know. Opening his eyes, Ryder squinted, lifting his head to take his bearings.

His body hurt all over, a fact that he ignored for the moment as he took stock of his situation. And it wasn’t good. He was naked. The chilly breeze blowing across his chest and loins discerned that fact quicker than his eyes did. His arms were pulled above his head, held securely so that his body was almost hanging by his wrists. His feet barely touched the ground, leaving him stretched in one long line.

Glancing around through the thick tangled locks of dark hair that fell in his face, he saw the rest of the men from the hunting party he’d headed. They were in similar or worse predicaments. Across from him, his older brother was strung up in the same manner, his chest crisscrossed with wide welts that bespoke of a beating from a belt.

“Trace?” he whispered huskily, his throat raw from thirst and disuse.

There was no movement, but Ryder took comfort in the rise and fall of his brother’s chest.

“He’s awake,” said a decidedly feminine voice.

“Katrina will be pleased. She’s been anxious over this one, though I told her his wounds were superficial. She’s worried about him recovering from the drug.”

Ryder turned, his eyes seeking the owners of the voices. Standing near the door, he found them and stared with shock. Two women, dressed as warriors with chain mail specially fitted to their trim and supple forms, stood staring back at him. Their eyes of gold seemed to almost gleam in the light. Helmets rested upon dark heads and their hands rested upon swords, sheathed for the moment.

“He finds us amazing, sister,” one said, doffing her helmet and exposing intricately braided hair that hugged her head.

“As do most men, sister,” the other woman answered, laughing and stroking a hand down the fitted mail of her armor.

“Too true. I should let Katrina know her new slave has awakened and is ready to begin his training. She’ll wish to be present for the initiation.” She started to push from the wall she leaned against when her sister stopped her.

“Katrina plans on doing all this one’s training. She’s taken a special interest. I think she means to keep him to herself.”

Ryder had heard enough. His head hurt and for the life of him, he couldn’t think of how they had gotten here. The last thing he remembered was leaving the hall, passing through the massive gates of his father’s kingdom with Hunter, his favored hawk, on his arm.

“Release me!” he commanded in his most royal tone. His mother, Raven was a healer of her people, a Chee of the West, and royalty in that aspect. His father was Damien, Lord of Daring Castle and the surrounding areas. He was used to giving orders and being obeyed without question. He would take control now.

“Ah,” the woman sat her helm down and strode forward to stand before Ryder, a smile upon her face. “The mighty one speaks.”

Ryder became outraged at the laughter in her voice. No one but family was allowed to laugh at a son of the Lord. “Let me loose and you’ll see just how mighty I am. Release me now and I might allow you to live when my father takes this place apart stone by stone.”

“Your father has no idea where you are or how to find you, Ryder of Daring Castle.” The other woman stepped forward, her voice less amused and more formal. “Nor will he know how to find you until Princess Katrina is ready for him to.”

“How do you know who I am? Where in the hell am I?” He twisted against the heavy leather thongs that bound his wrists to the post above his head.

“I have known who you were for months, Ryder,” another feminine voice said. He turned his head to watch the new woman walk towards him. She was dressed differently than the other two, in a gown of pale gold. Her body was curved and lush with breasts that strained against the fabric holding them bound. Her hair was loose, fiery red with deep highlights that drew his eyes like an insect to flame.

“Who are you?” he asked, more curious than anything else.

“She is your mistress, man,” the last word spit as if it were the worst of curses. “Show some respect!”

Ryder jerked against his bindings as a blow slashed across his chest, leaving a bright red welt on his tanned skin. He glared at the woman holding the wide leather belt in her hands, not noting how the woman in the golden gown glared also, reacting as if she felt his pain.

“Hold!” she commanded. “He is mine to punish. You are not to touch him unless I order it so, Dahlia. Is that understood?”

The woman nodded, bowing before her. “Yes, Princess,” she said.

“Good. Now release his bonds and take him to my chamber. I wish to get to know this pet of mine a bit better.” Her green eyes, large and cat shaped, gazed at him, taking in every bit of his muscled form. From his mussed dark hair, which showed tiny highlights of red as the sun hit it, to the tips of his elegant feet. He was magnificent.

Katrina reached up, tracing a thin white scar that bisected his abdomen. It wasn’t an old wound but it had healed nicely, the scar adding a touch of ruggedness to his masculine beauty. His eyes were amazing against his tawny tanned skin, a blue the color of the sea where it meets pale sand. A hint of green turned them turquoise, a color not found amongst her people. They flashed in anger now as she ran her hands across his body with a seeming familiarity he scarcely felt.

“You shall get used to my hands, pet. Before we are through, you shall even come to beg for my touch.” She said it with a false bravado that had him narrowing his gaze at her. As if to prove her words, she let her palm lie flat against his hard lower stomach, stroking the line of hair that ran down from his navel to where it widen at his groin, brushing over the soft flesh of his cock.

It stirred against his will, twitching as if coming awake. Ryder jerked, trying to dislodge her hand from his body.

“I am no woman’s pet,” he hissed. That this woman could make him feel desire while tied naked to a post in the most humiliating of ways added anger and a surge of hatred to his tone. .

“You doubt me now, Ryder of Daring Castle. But once you are trained, you shall become Ryder, favored pet of Princess Katrina, a high rank that many men would give one of these for.” She reached out and cupped his balls, squeezing gently even as he tried once more to jerk away.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

French Kiss by Missy Lyons

It wasn’t long before the lights grew dim. The emcee came onto the raised dais dressed in an expensive suit with a silk button-down shirt. He explained the rules of the strippers, “You can look, but you can’t touch beneath the briefs without permission.” As if the women wouldn’t be able to control themselves. These men had to be some pretty hunky beefcakes to get those strict ‘no-touch’ rules.

The first male stripper did not disappoint. He was hotter than a five alarm fire. He was clearly enjoying himself, showing off with a few pelvic thrusts, and poses meant to show off his muscular frame. Teasing and torturing, he wiggled his round butt at the audience before sending everyone a wicked grin.

In one graceful motion, he ripped off his shirt, revealing his well-muscled chest. Damn, the man was big. He had to lift weights in his spare time. He flexed his pectorals, posing for the ladies, revealing just how large he was. Even with his pants on, everyone could see he was packing a hard-on.

Sarafina’s eyes were glued to his package. Mr. Fireman was exceptionally large. Everywhere.

Suddenly he was near naked after ripping his pants off, which left him standing in a set of red bikini briefs, a fireman’s hat, and a pair of black boots. Every move he made was to seduce, sexual in nature. Her breath caught in her throat as she imagined his body against hers, and a wave of heat knocked her temperature up a notch.

Every lady in the room was screaming for his attention, and he favored those who had dollar bills waving in the air. They took turns placing some bills in his bikini.

Another stripper joined him on stage. Dressed as a cop, he was dark skinned and handsome, waving a set of handcuffs in the air. Loud sirens overrode the music as he handcuffed the man. The announcer explained that the fireman was in trouble for indecent public exposure.

“Boo!” The ladies didn’t seem too pleased to watch the cop pick up the uniform and begin to mockingly cover up their sexy fireman. The fireman fought playfully, bumping and grinding against the cop. The crowd only grew rowdier, waving their hands in the air, and encouraging the display.

The fireman helped the cop to undress, undoing the buttons on his shirt, despite the cop’s hands slapping at him. The close to naked fireman stopped his struggling by putting his cuffed hands over his shoulders and kissing him. It was unexpected. Steamy. H.O.T. Just watching the two men French kiss was sending liquid fire through Sarafina’s veins.

That heated things up considerably. Within minutes, the cop was just as naked, dressed only in a black bikini with a gold star on the butt. Stealthy as a thief in the night, the fireman used the opportunity to steal the key from his uniform to unlock his cuffs.

Sarafina was content to watch the fun, but her friend Kristen had different ideas. Kristen waved a twenty over Sarafina’s head and by the time Sarafina caught on, it was too late. Mr. Fireman was right in front of her, aiming a seductive smile directly at Sarafina. The cop continued to dance for the rest of the crowd, keeping them all entertained.

Mr. Firefighter was even sexier up close. Shivers of awareness danced across her skin. He was practically in her lap, so close she could make out the fine trail of hair leading from his belly button to his treasure. Under the harsh light of the club, he had a light sheen of perspiration over his skin, a single drop rolled down his chest, and she was tempted to lick it off.

Lick? If she couldn’t touch him, how much trouble would she get in for tasting him? She had to suppress a giggle. Only inches from his manhood, she was tempted to do a little more than taste.

He treated her like every other woman in the room, giving her personal attention so long as her money lasted, until he seemed to notice the red flash of her garter belt.

She had to make a conscious effort to look up. Look at his face, not his body parts. He was still too male to ignore.

“First time here, huh?” It was a whisper meant only for her ears.

God. How embarrassing. He must have realized she was new because she couldn’t take her eyes off the package he sported. She tore her eyes off his red bikini, using an incredibly heroic effort to meet his eyes.

Stunned, she asked, “How’d you guess?”

With a wicked grin, he picked up one high-heeled foot and kissed the inset of her ankle. “You have something of mine. “ His fingers slipped down the length of her leg, and crept under the garter belt, pulling it away and then letting it snap back in place.

“It’s not my fault. The bouncer gave it to me.”

“Then you won’t mind if I take it back.” He teased her inner thigh, tracing tiny circles with the tips of his fingers.

Christmas Stalking by Selena Kitt

She woke up floating on a cloud, her body aching but resting on something so soft it was unimaginable. Her eyes focused and she realized she must be in someone’s home. She was lying on a sofa and there was a television, a coffee table, all the usual living room amenities, along with a Christmas tree in the corner and one stocking hung on the fireplace mantle. She could hear someone talking and, for a moment, couldn’t remember anything that had happened.

“Yeah, I have her here now. I’m gonna see if I can get her to come in without any hassle,” he was saying.

She sat bolt upright, suddenly remembering everything.

She scanned the room for her backpack and coat and found them in a corner. The world slipped a little as she stood. Steadying herself on the arm of a chair, she moved toward her things. She had to get out of here before Patrick showed up.

The stranger had moved further into the kitchen and his voice was muffled now. She strained to hear. Was he calling more cops? Worse, was he calling Patrick? She shivered, sure it was the latter as she shrugged on her coat and shouldered her backpack, easing toward the front door.

“Hey! Hey there! Hold on!”

She heard him call out as she turned the knob. She pulled, but found the deadbolt locked.

He caught up to her in three quick strides, and as she unlocked the deadbolt and pulled open the door, he pressed his hand flat against it and shut it again. “Where do you think you’re going?”

She moved around him, starting toward the kitchen. “Anywhere but here!”

“Listen, you have to stay.” He caught up to her again, moving in front of her and blocking the entryway with his body.

“Like hell I do!” She shoved at him, but it was like trying to move a brick wall, and her head and mouth throbbed with the effort. “What for? So you and Patrick can finish what those two started? I don’t think so, asshole! Now get out of my way!”

“Patrick? Who the hell is Patrick?” The genuine look of confusion on his face stopped her for a moment.

“Do they give you acting lessons in private dick school?” she snarled, turning away from him and running toward the front door.

“We can’t keep doing this running thing all night.” Exasperated, he caught up with her again, stepping in front of the door before she could reach it.

“Then get out of my way.”

“What are you running from? What are you running to?”

She swallowed hard, her throat burning, her voice shaking. “If you had any idea what I was running from, you never would’ve told him where I am. Now get out of my way, before I call the real cops!” She ducked under his arm, pulling at the door, but was no match for the weight of him pressed against it.

“Listen to me!” He grabbed her arms and pulled her toward him. “I’m trying to help you. That’s all I want to do!”

“If you want to help, then let me go,” she pleaded. “Please, whatever he’s told you, none of it is true. You can’t let him find me. I’m begging you.”

The tears were coming and she couldn’t stop them, although she tried hard. She even bit down on her bruised and swollen lip, hoping the pain might be a distraction.

He shook his head at her. “Who? What are you talking about?”

“Oh, come on, you know who!” She pulled away from him and ran, she didn’t care anymore where to. “The guy you were just talking to on the phone!”

This time when he reached her, he enfolded her, wrapping his arms around her from behind, grabbing her wrists and crossing them over. He held her that way for some time, not speaking, just waiting for her to stop struggling. When her breath began to slow a little and she relaxed against his bulk, he spoke, “I’m going to tell you something, and I want you to listen. Then I’m going to ask you a question, and you’re going to answer me. Do you understand?”

He waited for her to nod, which she did reluctantly, before going on.

“My name is Nick Santos. I’m a real cop, not a private detective. The phone call was to the station about the assault I’d just witnessed. Did you see my badge? I assure you it’s quite real. You can call them back to check it out if you want to.”

She relaxed a little at these words, not sure what to believe.

Juicy, Melty, Fun to Share by Augusta Li

Nick passed the next four hours in Darren’s kitchen. To entertain himself he poked around, scrutinizing the appliances and cookware. Everything was top-of-the-line. The original turn-of-the-century cherry cabinetry blended seamlessly with the new marble countertops and island. Even the stainless steel refrigerator and range didn’t look out of place. The set-up was ideal for working, too, Nick noticed. He could imagine himself making breakfast in this room—omelets, roasted potatoes, Belgian waffles with strawberries and lots of fresh whipped cream. Beside the sink sat an espresso machine and a silver tray for carrying food, perhaps to someone waiting in bed.

Halfway through the party, Nick returned to the hall to see if any of the dishes needed to be refreshed. As he lined a plate with more tiny crystal bowls of plum pudding, he looked up to see Darren standing chest-to-chest with a stunning young man with a black ponytail, leather pants and a fishnet shirt. The black-haired man didn’t have the air of one of the slaves sitting at the feet of their masters or mistresses. He held his chin up as he looked at Darren, who was several inches taller, especially in his high-heeled boots. He also had a riding crop swinging from his studded belt. Nick pretended to move the bread cubes around as he waited to see what would happen. The others formed a loose circle around their host.

Darren, a glimmer of amusement in his pale eyes, placed his right hand on the man’s shoulder and pressed down, forcing the man to kneel. When the man didn’t lower his eyes respectfully, Darren yanked his face down by his hair. Next he sauntered around the man in a wide circle, twirling a pair of handcuffs he hadn’t had with him earlier. He crouched and clicked them into place around the man’s wrists, pausing to bite the man’s earlobe before he stood up again.

The cherry bullwhip that had been coiled on Darren’s hip all night was finally freed from the vinyl loop that held it, and unfurled. It dropped at Darren’s feet, forming a ring around him. He caressed the handle, gripped it in his right fist, and let his arm fall slack at his side, so that half of the length of red vinyl curled on the floor like a snake waiting to strike. Again he circled his genuflecting prey, letting the tip of the whip drag leisurely behind him. The room was as silent as the frozen night outside until Darren bent his arm, gripped the braided vinyl in his left hand, and jerked it taut. The crack echoed through the cavernous room, sending a shiver through Nick’s groin and making the man on the floor flinch.

Darren lifted his arm and brought the whip down only an inch from the man’s knee. The man inhaled sharply. It seemed cruel to Nick, like threatening to shoot someone with an empty gun. To prepare for it and have it not come had to be worse than receiving the expected outcome. Nick’s hands gripped the edge of the table until his knuckles whitened. Darren teased his reluctant slave a few more times before his implement actually cracked across the man’s shoulders. Darren was merciless after that, drawing his arm far back behind him and striking with all his might. The blows fell in rapid succession. The man slumped forward, his forehead almost dropping to his knees.

“Sit up,” Darren said. He neither raised his voice nor needed to. The man jolted his back straight, and maintained the position for a few more blows.

“Sit up,” Darren said again. The man tried, but seemed too weakened to straighten his spine.

“Sit up for me, and I’ll let you touch me,” Darren crooned. This made some of the guests gasp softly, and the black-haired man struggled upward. He held himself erect for several minutes more, though he looked like a sapling being battered by a hurricane. Nick saw tiny crimson droplets flying from Darren’s whip toward the ceiling when he arched his arm backward.

“Good boy,” Darren said. He took his time re-curling his whip and snapped the loop that held it by his side. Then he sauntered back around the man’s front, his groin level with the man’s lowered head. To Nick’s astonishment, Darren unzipped his vinyl pants and freed his erect cock. It was long, slender, and as pale as the rest of him. Nick’s body responded instantly. He was glad for the cover of the table.

“You may look,” Darren said. The man lifted his head, eyes wide. Darren stepped a few inches closer so his balls grazed the man’s chin. “Go on,” he said softly. “You’ve earned it.”

Friday, November 21, 2008

Windy City Love Affair by Jane Leopold Quinn

"Ma'am?"

The rumble of the deep, rich, masculine voice with its western twang speared her heart. And lower.

"Ma'am?"

Being a Chicago girl, Lorren Samples at first tried to ignore the stranger's tall, broad-chested body crowding too closely. You had to watch out for yourself in the big city. A man touching you on the street could spell danger. Then she made the mistake of glancing up at him.

Holy frickin' cow! The man was the closest thing to beautiful male perfection that she'd ever seen. Not in the movies, not on TV, nor on stage. Certainly, she'd never seen anything like him in person. A passerby bumped her, throwing her against him. Her hands automatically reached for his forearms, his gripped her shoulders. She stood stiffly, silent and unexpectedly breathless.

Wow. Brown eyes. Rich chocolate. Warm cocoa. All those good, lickable, delicious, sensuous flavors. Burnished dark eyes surrounded by lush long lashes gazed back at her.

A horn blared. She gasped, brushing her breast against his forearm as she turned to see what the hell the problem was. The sound, the brush woke her to the city around her.

"Sorry," she muttered and stepped back to try to establish some distance between them. It was a cab that had pulled in at the curb at Union Station for a pick up. That's when she noticed the luggage at his heels. A soft, black leather satchel.

Heels? Heels on cowboy boots. Tan, stitched-toe cowboy boots. Well worn and slightly scuffed as if he lived in them. Speechless again, her gaze tracked the blue, faded jeans hugging long, long legs up to lean hips and a flat belly. Holy Christ! Her head jerked up. He had a hard on. It was pretty difficult to hide that in snug jeans. Her face flamed hot in embarrassment.

He stared back, a smug, aware expression on his handsome face.

I guess he's not embarrassed about his humongous hard on. That's when she noticed that she still held on to his solid-muscled forearms. Bare forearms. Bare, hairy forearms. Okay, stop it. You're acting like...well she didn't know what she was acting like. She'd never been in this situation before. It was like a scene from a movie. The "meet cute."

* * * *

Jess Croften covered the woman's hand with his. It wasn't like he'd planned on picking up a pretty woman, but he had watched this one all the way from the intersection, willing her to cross over and continue straight toward him. He'd squinted a bit to sharpen his focus, and the closer she got, the more he could see that she was all prime.

He didn't normally think of women in beef-related terms, but he wouldn't mind having this fine lady on a plate and eating her up. Literally and figuratively.

She'd obviously been preoccupied, her expression scowling and smoothing out in turn. Her lips were moving slightly as if she was talking to herself. He was in Chicago on business, but that didn't mean he wouldn't jump on the chance to find a woman. And he had no intention of letting this one go until he knew everything about her.

The brush of her breast electrified the hairs on his arm, heating his blood even as she pushed away from him and looked down toward his feet. His skin sizzled as her gaze roamed up his body to where he wanted it to be—on his...crotch? No secrets there as to how she affected him, were there? He smirked at her wide-eyed response to his arousal.

Whew! God, she's a pretty thing. Her apple-round cheeks were pink and soft, her lips covered in a rosy gloss that he wanted to lick and kiss right off her. She was tall. Her chin could easily rest on his shoulder, and he was six-three. Auburn hair, held loosely back in a ponytail by one of those elastic things, was fluffed up around her head, little damp ringlets plastered to her temples and neck. He couldn't see the color of her eyes because of sunglasses, but he'd get around to that.

"Ma'am?" he asked a third time. "Can you tell me which way to Michigan Avenue?"

She jerked her hand off his arm so fast it was as if his question had broken a spell.

Damn.

"Um, sure." She backed up to put space between them and took a deep breath. "Go to the corner, turn that way." She pointed right. "And go about eight or ten blocks." Then she glanced at his boots. "It's quite a way though. Maybe you should get a cab so you don't lug your stuff around."

"Aw, ma'am, it's not heavy. I've carried more than this." Back home and in the Army.

"Well, okay then. Um...see ya. Have fun." She gave him one of those little girly wiggles of her fingers before she turned away.

Son of a bitch if she wasn't walking away from him. No way, honey. Grabbing up his valise, he sprinted after her reaching her just as she turned the corner. Just as she turned to look back at him. If he would have bet on that, he'd have won.

A breeze lifted her hair, pushed a strand over her lips. She dragged it out of the gloss.

He wanted to see her eyes under the sunglasses. He wanted to find out her name. He didn't know exactly why he was so interested, but her mixture of contradictions enticed him. Tall, round-cheeked, hair just this side of frizzy and wild, but she was dressed in sophisticated clothing—tight skirt and very fitted, man-style white blouse and...fuck-me stilettos. High heeled, open sandals with cherry red toenails peeping out. Whoa, horsie. His hard on just thickened.

"Which way're you goin'?" They'd stopped again in the middle of the sidewalk with aggravated, complaining people streaming around them. He didn't care. He wasn't going to let her walk out of his life. Not that she was in his life, but...

If she'd just take those damn glasses off.

The Fifth House by L.E. Bryce

Dyas struggled to contain his disappointment as the ship's deck on which he stood moved into the harbor. With his snow-white hair, in his priestly blue and gray robes, he knew he was on display, and it would not do to offend people with whom he would be staying indefinitely.

Lachant might be the largest of the Seaward Islands, and its center of administration, but its main port left much to be desired. Built around a natural, crescent-shaped harbor, Thevit hugged the waterfront like the rustic town it was, no match for the city Dyas and his companions had left ten days earlier.

You were warned not to expect too much, he thought ruefully. This is not Sirilon. You'll be fortunate if the priests here can read and write.

Because he had no other choice, Dyas accepted the grim reality before him. Nevertheless, he yearned for the seaport that had been his home since birth: its jostling forest of masts and sails, its many shops and thoroughfares, and most of all the temples crowning the heights. That Thevit lacked these things only magnified the void he felt.

Behind him the first mate shouted. As the ship glided toward the dock, lines were thrown and caught by dockhands, and the anchor dropped. The gangplank descended even before the ship stopped moving. Dyas's gaze went to the dock with its long pier, and the crowd that had formed. Some called out to the crew, asking for news or shouting offers of assistance. Most stared at the ship and its passengers, making no attempt to hide their astonishment.

Dyas frowned at their overt curiosity. In Sirilon and elsewhere on the mainland, people treated the Lady's sacred consorts with deference, which included keeping a respectful distance.

Beside him, his two companions noticed also. "They are staring at us," muttered Elantho.

"Gods, are those three what I think they are?" Lamad did not point. There was no need. Dyas could not fail to notice who was striding up the gangplank, or share the other man's surprise.

The three men boarding with the dockhands wore homespun tunics and trousers, and might have been mistaken for sailors or laborers if not for one slight difference. Dyas had been told by islanders among the Lady's servants that long exposure to the sun often bleached light-colored hair. From afar such people might be mistaken for talevé.

Not this close.

Dyas gaped, then swallowed hard. The men moving toward them were indeed Water-lovers.

Without a word, the foremost man approached the bundles on deck, bent, and hefted the smaller chest containing Dyas's books and writing materials onto one shoulder. He stood tall, as people from the Seaward Islands often were. Strands of white hair, stirred by the afternoon's faint breeze, escaped their braid to frame a face roughened by wind and sun. Full, sensual lips parted in a smile revealing even, white teeth. "We'll show you where you'll be staying," he said, in a deep voice.

"Put that down at once." Elantho, product of a princely upbringing, wielded protocol with rigid authority. "Talevé do not perform manual labor. There are plenty of other men to carry that for us."

Dyas winced at his imperious tone. However those words might reflect his own sentiments, Elantho could have phrased his reprimand more kindly. "What he means is—"

"That he'd prefer to carry his own baggage," finished the man. Glaring once at Elantho, who immediately fell silent, the stranger turned once more to Dyas. His eyes were pale blue, a shade not often seen on the mainland. "My name is Adarrel. The men with me are Teval and Omis."

Dyas caught his breath at the intensity of the man's stare, then, realizing he was being observed, cleared his throat and blinked. He prayed he was not blushing. "I am Dyas Olvyseras," he said. "The one who gets to carry his own things is Elantho né Hethigal, and the one beside him is Lamad. We are talevé of Sirilon, servants and consorts of the Lady of the Waters."

Adarrel snorted with laughter. "Are you always that formal when introducing yourselves on the mainland?"

"No, but it is the custom in Sirilon."

"Maybe so, but here in Thevit you'll have your audience asleep before you're done."

Now Dyas knew he was blushing. Gods, it's those eyes, and that smile. Resisting the urge to bite his lip, as he often did when flustered, he shifted his gaze to the chest Adarrel balanced on his shoulder. "Is it customary for you to come down to the docks whenever a ship puts in and help unload?"

"We help wherever it's needed, and we knew you'd be arriving any day now." Adarrel turned, took a cautious step back down the gangplank, and motioned Dyas to follow. "You don't do the same for your neighbors in Sirilon?"

"Absolutely not," Elantho replied, his voice dripping with disdain. Dyas noticed that he made no move to carry his own baggage, even the manageable leather satchel at his feet, but left it and his trunk for the dockhands. "Where are your priests, and your guards?"

"Why should we need guards?" asked one of the other talevé.

His question met with laughter from the other two. "Why, indeed?" answered Adarrel. "As for the priests, they'll meet you later. There's no need to be so formal when you're only just arriving."

Under the circumstances Dyas judged it wiser not to mention that he and his companions would have welcomed the formality. Priests would have served as a barrier between his group and the onlookers pressing around them. Someone touched his elbow, tugged at the sleeve of his robe. Other hands reached for his hair, his face, their boldness prompting him to sharply gesture them back. Elantho snapped at them, and even Lamad, who rarely spoke, muttered something about the lack of manners.

Whether it was the sudden closeness, the heat and smell emanating from too many bodies, or the sensation of being on land once more, the pier seemed to sway, its rough planks no longer as solid as they first appeared. Dyas blinked back his dizziness, and grasped Elantho's arm to steady himself.

"Move back, all of you!" shouted Adarrel. "You're going to smother them, and they haven't even gotten their land legs again."

Good-natured laughter followed compliance. Dyas felt a hand on his shoulder, heard a voice urging him to catch his breath. Once the nausea passed he found Teval, the talevé who had spoken earlier, standing beside him. "Are you ready to go on?"

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Eye of the Beholder by Jade Falconer

Victor pulled his cell out of his back pocket. He ordered a pizza and a dozen cold bottled waters, and told them to come to the loading dock. He flipped the phone shut. “Done,” he said, lying back. He folded his arms behind his head, stretching, mindless of his shirt riding up.

Ben glanced over at Victor, eyes widening a bit before he turned back to his task. He measured and cut and hammered, then finally said, without looking at Victor, “Am I that entertaining? Aren’t you bored?”

Victor glanced over at him. “Actually, yes and no. You are quite entertaining, and no, I’m not bored. Am I in your way? I could always go to a bar and see if anyone tries to pick me up, and be mysterious and belligerent to them instead.”

Ben snorted involuntarily. “Why do I have no problem imagining that?” He looked back at Victor. “But please. Don’t let me keep you from the ladies. I’m sure they’ll be all over you.”

Victor leaned up on his elbows again. “An interesting assumption to make,” he said, inclining his head. “Women don’t hold my interest much.”

This time Ben turned to face Victor fully. He stepped a little closer, looming over Victor, hammer still in one hand, sweat causing his t-shirt to cling to his powerful upper body. “Oh really?” he said, gazing down at the artist. “Pray tell, what does hold your interest?”

“Sex, liquor, and beauty. Not necessarily in that order.” He looked up at Ben and lay back on the floor, stretching his arms above his head. “You?” he asked, with a sardonic smile.

“A combination of all three,” Ben answered, gaze roaming over Victor. “Which you seem to be the embodiment of right now, I might add.”

Victor didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that Ben was interested. Nor did he need glasses. Ben’s pants hid little. He licked his lips. “Pizza will be here in a moment,” he said hoarsely. All he wanted to do was lock the doors and pounce on the other man. “Have you ever had your portrait painted?” he asked.

“No, I can’t say that I have,” Ben answered.

“Mmm, I think you need to. Desperately. Tonight, in fact. My loft is only a few blocks from here.” The very idea aroused him. Perhaps Ben was something of an uptight prick, but he had biceps that looked absolutely delicious, and the obvious bulge in his jeans was a sure sign that it would be an interesting night.

“Mmm, sounds like fun,” Ben mused. “Let’s just hope I don’t tire myself out before I get finished.” He pulled his shirt up a little, rubbing at his stomach.

Victor sat up slowly. “In fact, perhaps I ought to paint you right now.” He climbed to his feet and shoved his hand down into his pocket, pulling out two twenty dollars bills. “If the pizza gets back before me. I need a canvas.” He grabbed his jacket and winked at the other man.

Ben smiled lazily. His voice was a little hoarse as he answered, “Hurry back now.”

Add a Little Mistletoe by Aliyah Burke

Aspen’s body trembled. This was the only man with the power to turn her into a raving lunatic or a quivering mass of willing woman. Right now, she was the willing woman.

Slapping the bread and cheese down on the countertop, she stomped through her house to pick up dirty dishes, courtesy of his two dogs. Colt blocked her way back into the kitchen.

Arms crossed, he stood looking at her. “It bothers you that I’m here?” His words were quiet, but no less intense than any time he opened his mouth.

“What bothers me, Mr. Larkin, is the fact you planned this.” She waved her hand around, “Whatever this happens to be.” Shoving past him into the kitchen to toss the dishes into the sink, Aspen continued, “So apparently you have something to tell me about that night. Go ahead.” Aspen sank onto a barstool.

Colt faced her. Everything about her posture screamed dejection. Dropping his arms, he leaned across from her at the bar. “That night, Aspen, yes, I was dared to kiss you.” He noticed her hands shaking and covered them with his warm ones.

“Not for the reason you heard.” His hands tightened on hers, drawing her gaze to his waiting one. “The color of your skin had nothing to do with it. Nothing at all. I swear it.”

Aspen stared deep into his eyes, searching for truth. Finding what she sought in his stare, she nodded and said, “I believe you.” And she did.

As if that was what she had needed to hear him say and have herself say in return for the past twenty years, Aspen felt relieved of that burden on her soul. Taking a deep breath, she removed her hands from under his and closed her eyes.

When she opened them again, Colt was staring at her lips and there was burning desire in his eyes. Ignoring the pooling heat in her belly, she spoke again, “I guess I never realized how much anger that had caused me over the years.”

Unnerved by the barely-controlled passion in his unrelenting stare, Aspen began to make them both some food.

“If I had known that rumor was circling, I would have stopped it right away. Whoever said it was ignorant, jealous, or both,” Colt declared, watching her move around the kitchen. Each move she made was elegant and uniquely calming to his desolate soul.

A shy smile was all she gave him, before turning her attention to the skillet and making them both grilled cheese. The soup she reheated.

They ate at the table this time with the dogs at their feet. Colt kept watching her intently until she finally asked, “Why do you keep looking at me?”

“Just admiring the all-grown-up Aspen. You’re really beautiful.”

Aspen got up from the table. This was not what she wanted to discuss with Colt Larkin. Well, she did, but he wasn’t ever going to know that.

Setting her dishes in the sink, she turned on the faucet and began to fill the basin with warm water. “Look, I think we can cut out the cutesy crap, we’re not kids,” Aspen said dryly. “Let’s just get along until you can leave and go back to your life and me to mine.”

Two muscled arms settled around her, entrapping her with their sinewy strength. The sleeves on his shirt had been pushed back so she could make out each rippling tendon. Sweet Jesus, how come he is so strong? Aspen could feel the electricity pouring off his body as it molded to the contours of hers.

“Believe me,” he rumbled in her ear, his warm breath spreading along her cheek. “There is no doubt in my mind...we are way past school age.”

Eyes fluttering against the desire his voice evoked in her, Aspen prayed for strength. “Why are you doing this to me?” Her question was little more than a whisper.

Nuzzling her hair, Colt inhaled the smell of wild berries that surrounded her. “What is it that I am doing to you, Aspen?” he spoke against her temple.

Her body began to quake with need. “You…I…we…I…” Aspen stuttered.

Pressing his hard form closer to her softer one, Colt reached around her and shut off the water that had been filling the sink to full capacity. Then he added some dish soap as well. “You, I, we…what about it?” He put the soap back in its designated spot as the smooth voice of Brian McKnight flowed through the house.

Aspen had to lock her knees to keep from falling. She could feel her body’s wetness increase as each touch from Colt made her receptors cry out for one hundred times more. “I don’t know,” she admitted.

His hands moved to her shoulders and down her arms to tug up her sleeves so they wouldn’t get wet. Ever so gently, he placed her hands in the water. “Temperature okay?” At her nod, he reached for the dishrag.

Together, as one, they washed the dishes. Colt kept his fingers interspersed between hers as they scrubbed each dish. Sharing heat as outside, a storm raged. His body was pressed against Aspen’s so she could feel how hard he was, all over. He kept his firm lips upon her temple, stroking her soft skin.

Each touch was a caress as he assisted her in washing, rinsing, and stacking the dishes. When they were finished, he pulled out the stopper and made sure to clean her hands and arms off of all remaining suds. Then he dried them with just as much tenderness.

“Aspen,” he murmured, turning her to face him.

* * * *

Her eyes were like rich, dark butterscotch in the light. But they were soft and accepting. “Yes?”

Like he had done twenty years ago under the mistletoe, Colt cupped her face in his hands. Hands which were more callused and rough than they had been before. His chiseled features lowered themselves to her as his mouth settled upon hers.

At first it was just lips on lips. He nibbled on her full lips and relearned the shape and texture of her mouth. The second Aspen’s lips parted, his tongue was there to slip inside her mouth.

He watched as her eyes flickered shut and his own followed suit. Slowly, as though not wanting to rush anything, he swept his tongue from side to side in her mouth. Colt caught her whimper and his skin prickled with anticipation. She tasted like grilled cheese and Aspen, a taste he hadn’t forgotten in twenty years.

Aspen danced around his tongue with her own before she sucked it into her mouth. That suck was a jolt to Colt’s groin. He moaned and pressed closer to her body. Her back was against the counter and he spread his legs, settling her body between them. Powerful thighs rested against her and at the middle of them was a hard ridge that pressed against her belly.

She moved her hands up the hardness of his torso to latch around his neck—to do what she had longed to do that fateful night. Her fingers slid into the silkiness of his hair, bringing him closer to her mouth.

Ring. Ring. Ring. Her phone screamed to the house.

They didn’t jump apart. Silver met brown as their eyes gradually opened. Colt drew back slowly, maintaining a hold on her lower lip for as long as he could. She stood there trapped between him and the counter, watching.

“Maybe you should get your phone,” he suggested in a low tone. Her eyes conveyed her thoughts. “I’m not going anywhere, not this time.” Colt stepped away from her tempting body so she could get the phone.