Saturday, April 12, 2008

Enslaving Heaven by Michelle Houston

Lyssa flexed her hand, working the kinks out of her aching wrist while she watched the procession of subjects up for auction with a morbid fascination. The women tended to huddle together, trying to hide from the throng of buyers examining them. Many of them sobbed quietly when led, one by one, to the center stage to be sold off to the highest bidder.

"Your hand still hurting?"

Ignoring the question, she gazed around the town square of the mining colony. Moments after the hatch of the ship had dropped open, the thick stench of the shipyard turned her stomach. Standing in the open air was no better.

Continuing her survey of the area, she kept half her focus on the shifting crowd, instinctively looking for possible threats. Most of the people were simply trying to make a living on this miserable excuse for a planet. However, she knew some of them, standing out in their finery and flash, were here just long enough to participate in the slave auction.

DV65 was many things: mining colony, a haven for smugglers and thieves, but tourist destination it wasn't.

She allowed herself a quick scratch at her newly repaired skin—the implants were driving her crazy. Whoever thought that attaching metal to human skin was a good idea needed to try being on the receiving end. She wouldn't mind being the one performing the surgery—without pain killers, of course. As a soft burn replaced the itching sensation, Lyssa stopped. The skin around her upper arm was bright red from the scratching, further highlighting the difference between the artificial skin and what was naturally hers.

Ignoring the discomfort, she turned her attention to her pilot. Crossing her arms over her chest, she glared at the other woman. "Why are we here again, Nita?" Watching women forced into slavery wasn't what she'd call a good time. Ever since the laws banning the sex trade were passed, the prostitutes who plied their trade in the four colonies suddenly found themselves without jobs. Many of them had no marketable skills, other than lying flat on their backs and spreading their legs. Most of them still owed debts to their pimps or madames. Those who weren't in debt were turned out to fend for themselves. When they had more debt than they could pay off, they were sold to the highest bidder to cover their bills—like the women huddled on the platform in front of her.

"We're here because we have time to kill before we meet our next contact, and I, for one, don't want to back myself into a corner by being in one of these hovels they use for various businesses."

Lyssa knew it was true. Being a mercenary did have its drawbacks, specifically people trying to kill them, and keep them from taking or completing a contract. "So, for appearances, we're watching a slave auction?" Lyssa rotated her shoulder, trying to relieve the pressure. It didn't work. Her fingers tingled with the motion.

"If you want to go back to the ship and rest, I'm sure the others and I can handle things here."

Despite the soft tone, and the genuine affection from her pilot, the words made Lyssa's hackles rise.

"Shut the hell up." A reminder of her own limitations didn't set well in her mind. Then again, thanks to her last contract and its disastrous results, her body wasn't well any more. Almost a quarter of it wasn't even her own body.

"I remember the doctor saying you needed to rest, and let yourself adjust to the implants. You're lucky to be alive, you know."

"I. Said. Shut. The—What the fuck?"

The auctioneer's booming voice caught her attention as he led a petite woman to the front of the stage. "...our next beauty for sale is a pro from the Syndi House of Pleasure. She's been trained extensively in the field of woman-to-woman sex. As a plus, she's been well broken and will submit to your every whim and desire."

"Lyssa?" Nita whispered.

Lyssa shook her head at the pilot, holding up her hand. She suddenly had to hear every word the auctioneer said. She couldn't explain it, but something about the woman captured her attention. All the others had a desperate look in their eyes as they were dragged onto the auction block. This one seemed to accept, even revel, in her sale. She held herself with the quiet grace of a well-trained submissive. Her head was tipped at just the right angle, her face down to avoid eye-contact, but up enough she could still see some of what was going on. Her shoulders and back were straight, and she was almost motionless, not even her breath betraying her. She wasn't broken—she thrilled in being a sub.

"We'll start the bidding at five hundred credits for this highly trained slave. As you can see, she is a true bargain."

Lyssa mentally calculated how much she had to spend from her share of the last job. Most of her funds were going to upgrades on the ship and paying off the debt for her surgery, but there would be a bit left over. Several other bids drove the price up to six-eighty, before slowly dropping off.

"Going once. Going twice…"

"Seven hundred!" Lyssa heard herself bellow.

Nita gasped. The previous bidder, a short woman with a cruel twist to her mouth, turned and glared before offering a counter bid of seven hundred and twenty credits. They continued to counter each other until price reacted eight hundred. There the bidding turned to Lyssa's favor.

"Would the lady in red like to bid eight hundred and ten credits?"

She shook her head and turned away, shooting one last malicious glare Lyssa's way. Lyssa could almost see rage coming off the woman. She obviously didn't like to be beaten at anything.

"No…anyone else?" The auctioneer scanned the crowd, then said, "Going once. Anyone? Going twice." He pushed a button on the remote in his hand and a light flashed red, signaling the end of bidding, then he pointed toward Lyssa, "Sold to the woman in the back row. Come to the side of the stage and pay for your property. Now, our next piece is a shy little slut from..."

Lyssa tuned out the murmuring drone of the crowd and pushed her way to the corner of the stage. Her crew followed close behind her, Nita hot at her heels.

"Are you out of your mind?" Nita tried to stop her by grabbing her shoulder. "You just bought a slave. A slave!"

Lyssa shrugged away, ignoring her. Arrogantly, she approached the woman she now owned. Sex workers were illegal, but forcing indigents to be slaves wasn't. Seems they had gotten it in their heads that owning others and forcing them to provide sexual servitude wasn't immoral, but people choosing to sell their bodies to survive was. The minds and values of governments baffled her. It also explained why so many of her marks were politicians.

Holding out her hand, she allowed the auctioneer's assistant to scan the barcode tattooed on her forearm, deducting the cost of the purchase from her account. While she signed the paperwork, the slave girl was brought to her.

Handing a packet to Lyssa, the bald-headed man said, "Here are her papers and the key to her chains."

Suddenly, the enormity of what she'd done hit Lyssa. She'd just bought another person, a human. She could do anything to her, short of killing her, so long as she fed her and provided for any medical attention she needed. Hell, she could beat her half to death, provided she paid to fix her back up. She had seen several slaves on the outlying planets in just that condition, and it had always twisted her stomach into morally indignant knots.

"Look at me," Lyssa said to the women who stood in front of her with her head tipped down, her eyes downcast. As her head lifted, her shoulders straightened with pride. Lyssa couldn't help but feel a flash of admiration—the girl was in an unfamiliar situation, and she met it head on.

Soft brown eyes met hers. She imagined looking into them while slowly fucking her, listening to her moans and whimpers as she thrashed beneath her. Lyssa's pussy clenched. The little bitch would have been perfect, if only the circumstances were different.

Shaking her head to clear the images, she turned and walked away. Unfortunately, the auctioneer's assistant didn't know when to shut his mouth. "We have a selection of whips if you're in need of one, as well as plenty of other slave-taming tools, including the newest neuro-blockers, guaranteed to force her to do whatever you want. It easily attaches to her collar and burrows into her brain stem."

Spinning on her heels, Lyssa grabbed the little weasel under his chin and hoisted him up like a rag doll. "If you value your miserable life, you'll shut the fuck up." Giving him a shake to emphasize her point, she tossed him to the ground.

Looking at her crew, she gave a dismissive wave. They spread out, making sure no one else got in her way. She stalked off, lengthening her stride, eager to get away from the auction before she killed someone. Behind her, she heard the slave girl pant, racing to keep up. It was the slave's own fault anyway, being so perfect, yet so unattainable. If they had met in a prostitute house, she'd have collared the wench so quick her head would have spun. Then she'd have bought out her contract and taken her back to her ship.

Nita wisely remained silent, walking beside her toward the docks, which gave Lyssa much needed time to think. She knew she couldn't keep the girl, not as a slave. It went against everything she believed. Yet, the thought of keeping her was so tempting, if only for one night. The girl had a luscious body and her submissive nature would make her the perfect bedmate.

As the ramp to the ship lowered to admit her, Lyssa focused her attention on Nita, ignoring the slave. "Go ahead and arrange the pickup with our mark. Make sure you get our agreed upon price."

"Yes, Captain." Nita turned and strode away.

Lyssa watched her go, knowing she'd get an earful later. The only time Nita called her Captain was when she was in a royal snit.

"Fuck!" Running a hand through her blond hair, Lyssa turned and headed up the gangplank, her newest possession in tow. Leading the way to her quarters, she worked out just what she was going to say. When the door closed behind them and she turned around to face the girl, she froze. The girl dropped her robe and knelt, head bowed.

A Crown of Stars by L.E. Bryce

Prologue

Zhanil barely noticed the man entering the nursery. From the pile of painted soldiers, animals, and blocks, he picked up the wooden horse that was his favorite toy—white with a red saddle—and gave his friend Arjuna the horse with the blue saddle. Both horses were chewed around the ears, and the paint was peeling from the hooves and underbellies. These were the signs of well-loved toys that had belonged to the boys for as long as they could remember.

Zhanil saw the flash of metal from the corner of his vision, but did not turn or realize something was wrong until Arjuna cried out.

Arjuna fell to his knees on the carpet beside him. Zhanil saw the man, whom he did not recognize as one of the servants, and the blood dripping from the knife in his hand. Bewilderment kept him from moving or crying out, even though Arjuna bawled on the floor nearby, and the man inched toward him.

A figure, disheveled and wild-eyed with rage, appeared in the doorway behind the man. Zhanil's only coherent thought was a name: Adeja. Open-mouthed, he watched his guardian—whom he knew was ill with a fever—seize his would-be assailant, shove him into the hallway and fall upon him with terrifying violence.

Shadows told the rest of the story. A knife rose and fell, and droplets of blood spattered against the wall in time to the sounds of one man pummeling another until there was only silence.

The next thing Zhanil saw was Adeja, covered in blood, looming like a nightmare before him. Adeja stared at him, then steadied his wobbling frame against the doorjamb and lurched forward to gather Arjuna into his arms. "It is only a scratch," he rasped, his throat sore. "Stop crying. He's gone now."

Arjuna buried his face in his father's chest and sobbed. Zhanil looked from him to the pool of blood spreading in the doorway, then heard the alarm spread through the household. "What happened?" he asked.

Adeja, still hugging Arjuna close, looked at him. "Someone tried to kill you."

Part One: The Sun at His Back

Chapter One


"This is a terrible idea," said Adeja. "I hope you realize that."

Standing by the window with his arms crossed over his chest, Zhanil presented an impressive image: dark-haired, tall, and strong, much like the uncle for whom he had been named. At eighteen, however, he was also stubborn and naïve. Age will cure him of this foolishness, thought Adeja, if it doesn't kill him first. "Your grandfather put you up to this, didn't he?"

"Why must you think my every thought or action comes from him?" Zhanil asked irritably. "You think he tells me what to do, yet whenever I speak to him, or to my parents, they think you're the one leaning on me. No one gives me credit for having my own opinions."

"I'm not about to give you credit for such a ridiculous idea," said Adeja. "Ampheres has military ambitions. I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if he intends to start acting on them."

Zhanil moved away from the window to take a seat behind a desk cluttered with papers. While he kept his weapons, armor, and riding gear in good order, his clothes and other belongings were a different matter altogether; it was a habit which his parents deplored, and which Adeja overlooked once he realized he could not do anything about it.

"Whenever I visit, Rhodeen is usually the topic of conversation—it's either that or marriage—and Grandfather wants me to be present whenever he receives Turya ambassadors. Father doesn't like his meddling, and neither do I, but I assure you this was my own idea. I think I should at least see the kingdom I might be asked to invade before I agree to anything."

"Under normal circumstances, that would be a wise decision," said Adeja, "but if the Turyar discover who you are, they'll kill you at the border."

"Of course they would, which is why we're going in disguise." Zhanil shuffled through some papers and found a scrap of parchment. Adeja could not see what it said, but guessed the prince had made yet another of the lists of which he was so fond.

"We, my prince?" asked Adeja. "I never said I would come with you."

"I hardly think you'd let me go alone," replied Zhanil. "Then again, I'm not convinced there'll be that much danger, not if we plan correctly. Khalgari travelers cross the border and conduct business with the Turyar all the time. A small party of, say, four men in plain clothes wouldn't attract notice."

Stepping forward, Adeja tapped the list with his forefinger. "In all this meticulous planning, did it once occur to you that the Turya embassy might have spies watching your every move? If you leave Bhellin, you'll be followed, and if you try to cross the border, armed men will be waiting for you. It's suicide."

Zhanil remained unmoved. "Not if we go through Ottabia," he said. "My great-uncle has an estate there, and there's a sanctuary of Abh very close by. We can travel openly to see Olmor and visit the sanctuary with a larger party, then a few of us can slip out as pilgrims. Father is on good terms with the chief priest, so Bedren can help cover our absence in case any Turyar come looking for us."

Adeja paused, realized Zhanil was absolutely set on this course of action, and sighed. Damn you for being so sly, he thought. Then again, teaching the prince to be deceptive was his own fault. "I'll think about it," he said, "but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to go along with it."

* * * *

After leaving the prince, Adeja took lunch with members of the palace garrison, ignoring their conversation to contemplate his next move. Zhanil had acquired his headstrong nature from both parents, so it was only natural that he would insist on having his own way.

"Hey, you, soldier."

A pewter spoon tapping the edge of his plate brought him back to attention, and Adeja found himself staring at Kendro, one of the guards from the inner plaza. "You want something, ugly?"

Kendro nodded toward his soup. "You gonna eat that, or sit there moon-faced while it goes cold?"

Sephil would want to know what Zhanil intended to do, and he would not want to hear it from a secondhand source. I'll have to be the one to tell him. Adeja waved Kendro away, dunked a piece of bread into the soup, and finished eating.

At the outer gate, Adeja signed himself out of the palace, tucked his entry chit into a pocket, and walked the short distance to the temple precinct. Khalgar shared many gods with Tajhaan, which would have reassured Adeja had he felt the urge to pray; his lapses were a bad habit for which his otherwise soft-spoken wife reprimanded him. "How will your son learn reverence for the gods if you don't teach him?" she asked.

"Better Arjuna learns to watch his own back, rather than rely on some god to do it for him," he answered.

Tucked amid the larger temples was a small compound devoted to the worship of Abh, the god of healing. Adeja walked unchallenged through the gate and into the main courtyard, where several servants and a priest recognized him. He approached the nearest man, offered the ritual greeting, and asked, "Where is the prince? I need to speak with him."

"In the kitchen," said the groom. "Should I let him know you're here?"

Adeja waved his refusal. "No, I'll find him myself."

These days, Sephil spent most of his time in the sanctuary, living there four months out of the year, leaving only for important festivals or personal emergencies. Sephil's interest in the priesthood had brought him much credit over the last nineteen years, negating most of the slurs and rumors of past indiscretions. Yet while he enjoyed a favorable public image, he also had a genuine vocation, finding contentment through prayer, meditation, and charitable works.

Adeja found him in the sanctuary kitchen, helping the cooks fill bowls of soup to feed the destitute who came seeking succor. "My prince, I need to speak with you."

Sephil glanced up, clearly surprised to see him. "Is it urgent?"

"It's about your son."

"These days it usually is, Adeja. What has he done now?" Then, seeing Adeja did not share in the joke, Sephil changed his tone. "Has something happened to him?"

"Not yet, but I need to speak with you before something does."

Handing his ladle off to another priest, Sephil removed the apron he wore over his robes and followed Adeja into the corridor. Once he confirmed that they were alone, he asked, "Now tell me what is wrong?"

"Zhanil is talking about going to Rhodeen."

Sephil's eyes widened. "What?"

"He intends to go in secret," explained Adeja, "with three or four men for protection. He claims he wants to see what Rhodeen is like."

"Was this his grandfather's idea?" asked Sephil. "Gods help him if it was. He will get himself killed crossing the border."

Adeja shook his head. "No, he claims it was all his idea. I've warned him against going, and done everything else I can, but he won't listen to reason."

"But you cannot stop him," finished Sephil. Suddenly he seemed much older and frailer than his thirty-nine years, and Adeja had to restrain the urge to place a comforting hand on his shoulder. "He will not listen to me either, Adeja. He thinks I am too much the pacifist."

"Young men are foolish," said Adeja. "Most of the time only experience can cure them of their delusions. Zhanil's set on this expedition, and he's old enough to do as he wishes. If he goes, I'll go with him, of course, just to keep him away from Shemin-at-Khul and Cassiare. There's plenty of interaction between the Turyar and Khalgari travelers on the frontier, so he might be perfectly safe there as long as he maintains his disguise."

"But you are Tajhaani, Adeja," said Sephil. "People will notice you."

Adeja smiled to reassure him. "I lost my accent twenty years ago, my prince, and my coloring isn't much different than most Khalgari. If it makes you feel better, I could stay at home and have Amset and Nahar go with him, since they both speak Rhodeen, but I think you'd rather I went along."

Sephil put his face in his hands and slumped against the wall. "If anything happens to him, Adeja," he began, "I do not know what I will do."

Ignoring the risk, Adeja placed a steadying hand on his arm. "If anything happens, then neither one of us will come back. It'll be all right, my prince. As long as he listens to this old soldier and doesn't do anything foolish, I think it'll be all right."

Sephil nodded, yet looked no less apprehensive than before. "I do not want to have to explain this to his mother."

"No doubt he'll tell her himself," said Adeja.

"Will Arjuna be going with you?"

"No, he goes to the academy in two days."

"Give my love to him," said Sephil, "and tell Zhanil I wish to see him before he goes. If he hesitates or says he is busy, tell him it is not a request, and that I will come looking for him if he does not."

Sacred Spots by Selena Kitt

"Sacred spots." He whispered it like he was revealing something secret.

I laughed. "Like polka dots?"

When he turned his face toward the window, I could still see his reflection, how tightly drawn his mouth and brow were now. He was so strange, wearing his three-piece suit and sneakers and carrying an old leather briefcase that he kept tucked between his legs and the seat. I was tempted to end the conversation there, but I had to admit that I was getting bored with this cross-country trek, even armed with a slew of paperbacks and my journal. He was strange, but he was interesting.

"I'm sorry." I put my hand on his arm. He turned at my touch. "I was just kidding. What do you mean, sacred spots?"

"Places of power." His voice was conspiratorial again. "Extraordinary things can happen there."

"Really?" I couldn't help smiling, and all I could do was hope it looked friendly and interested rather than mocking. "So, has anything extraordinary happened to you at one of them?"

"Well, not yet," he admitted.

"Where have you been?"

"So far, the Monk's Mound in Cahokia, Illinois, and the Angel Mounds in Indiana."

"Never heard of them." I slipped a piece of gum out of my purse. "What's next?"

"The Bear Mound in Iowa."

"Iowa has a sacred spot?" I nearly choked on my gum in an effort not to laugh.

"Yes." He looked very earnest. "Most of the sacred spots in the U.S. are actually native in origin."

"You mean they were made by the Indians?"

He laughed, and when he did, there were creases next to his eyes that made them seem even kinder. "Oh, not the Indians you study about in school. Native peoples from far, far back."

I nodded like I knew what he was talking about. "Before Sitting Bull and all those guys?"

He was still smiling at me. "The Effigy Mounds were constructed somewhere around 500 B.C."

"That's a long time ago." I stated the obvious as I offered him a piece of Juicy Fruit.

"They are truly ancient." He eyed the gum for a moment, and then slid a silver-foiled stick carefully out of the pack. "They are the belief system of a whole people built up right there on the landscape."

"So, wait, effigy, that's like a symbol, right?" I watched him carefully unwrap his gum and inspect the beige rectangle before putting it into his mouth.

"Correct." He looked pleased that I knew that. "Effigy mounds often look like certain objects."

"So let me guess, the Bear Mound—"

"Looks like a bear, yes." He nodded, and I watched with interest as he started to fold his little silver wrapper into some shape on his thigh. "Although you might not be able to tell at first glance. The one in Iowa is one hundred and thirty-eight feet long and sixty-five feet wide."

"That's huge!" I tried to figure out what he was doing with the gum wrapper.

"You can see it better in aerial photos." He paused in his origami project to set it on the window ledge and reach under his seat for his briefcase. He unlatched it and pulled out an eight-by-ten photo, handing it to me. I studied it. Someone had outlined the mound with white, and it looked like a child's drawing.

"Are they sure it's a bear?" I handed it back over. "It looks like a bloated coyote to me."

His hand touched mine as he took the photograph. That's when he saw the scars on my arm. It was too late for me to hide them. He frowned and grabbed my wrist, yanking my shirt up to my elbow, revealing even more of them. Shocked at his audacity, I gasped, jerking my arm away, my jaw tightening.

"Excuse me." I pulled my shirtsleeve down and stood. His eyes followed me, concerned, and I cringed at the look of compassion on his face. "I need to use the bathroom."

In the tiny cubicle, I rolled up my sleeves, looking at the scars on my arms that matched the set on my thighs. I never wore shorts or short-sleeves anymore. I hid them fairly well, most of the time. Most folks didn't even ask. I'd seen them glimpse the angry red marks below my shirt cuffs, but they just looked away. People were too polite, believing it none of their business.

What was he thinking, pulling my sleeve up like that? I wondered. It had surprised me, but the look in his eyes had jolted me more. There was too much honesty there. I pulled my curly brown hair back into a thick ponytail and washed my face in the little sink. I made sure to roll my sleeves down and button the cuffs so they couldn't be pulled up too far.

When I got back, I found a folded, silver bear sitting on my seat. It was the gum wrapper. I picked it up and sat down without a word, digging my book out of my pack and opening it.

"I'm sorry."

I looked over at him. His eyes told me he really was sorry. I sighed. "Thanks for the bear." I rubbed my finger over the shiny surface. "It's really neat."

"Can I ask what happened to your arm?"

I sighed, closing my book. "I happened."

He gave me a puzzled look.

"Do you really want to know?" I asked as I turned the silver bear over and over in my hand.

He nodded. "I don't ask questions that I don't want to know the answers to."

I believed him. Biting my lip, I looked at the bear in my hands. "I cut myself."

He paused. "It clearly wasn't an accident."

Taking a deep breath, I unbuttoned my other sleeve, pulling it up to show him the scars there. Some were still an angry red. Others had faded to a silvery-pink.

"It must hurt." He touched my arm, fingering a few of the more prominent marks. His touch was gentle, almost a caress. I couldn't remember the last time someone had touched me with such kindness. It made me want to cry, but I swallowed that feeling, putting on a happy face.

Shaking my head, I gave him a smile as I buttoned my cuff. "Not anymore."

"No, I mean the reason you cut yourself in the first place." His eyes were on mine, dark and knowing, and I looked away.

My Deepest Love: Zack

Traci Wells stared in disbelief at the cell phone in her hand. "I can't believe she canceled on me again," she huffed, shoving the phone back inside the gym bag. "She knows we work out together three times a week. How could Cherise schedule another meeting?"

Getting out of the car, she slammed the door and stormed into the fitness club. She stopped at the desk, signed in on the clipboard, and then headed for the workout room. Pausing in the doorway, Traci watched the other club members as they sweated to the beat of their own music.

At her left, a family was using the bikes as part of their cardio workout. A young woman in her twenties hurried past them towards her step class at the end of the hall. Traci noticed a couple of body builders through the window using the weights behind the bikes. Why would they want to have that much muscle on their bodies?

Sighing, she made her way over to the mats so she could stretch before her aerobics class. If she didn't love potato chips so much, the gym wouldn't ever be a part of her life. But she needed a way to work off her favorite snack, so here she was. Her best friend suggested the low-fat kind, but what was the thrill of eating a tasteless chip? If she was going to cheat, she would do it the right way. Tossing her bag to the side, Traci fell to the mat, already hating the night ahead.

After class tonight, she would pay a surprise visit to her sister's job and give her the riot act. Cherise always found a way to back out at the last minute. It was supposed to be a sisterly outing, but her sister wasn't keeping up her part of the deal.

Sure, she knew that Cherise stayed busy with the antique shop, but she needed more than that in her life. How did she ever expect to find a man? She was always hiding out in that damn shop of hers.

Pushing her sister to the back of her mind, Traci folded one of her legs in front of her and reached over to touch her opposite toe. She loved stretching before her class. It made the routine so much easier to follow, and it calmed her nerves. The step aerobics class she signed up for was extremely fast paced, and it could break a weaker person in the same day. However, she had been taking it for almost two months now and she loved it.

Moving her legs around, she reached for the other leg and felt the pull of her muscles getting ready for another night of fun. Honestly, she didn't know if she really like working out as much as she loved staring at all the gorgeous guys that came here. This gym was the hot spot for the best looking guys in town. Taking a quick glance around the crowded room, she noticed the one particular guy she usually stared at wasn't here tonight.

She had never been into picking up guys at the club or the gym, but after taking a glance at him in those tight black gym shorts, she changed her mind quickly. However, she didn't have enough nerve to approach him, so she stayed back and stared at him from afar. Anyway, Cherise would have a fit if she knew she even glanced at the guy in the first place.

* * * *

Zack Drace was coming from his nightly kickboxing class when he spotted his mystery woman. She was in her usual place on the mats, stretching her sexy body. He knew he should leave, but he couldn't resist sneaking a peek at her. Glancing at his watch, Zack noticed his class had ended early, which meant he had at least ten extra minutes to observe her. Tonight her shoulder-length, brownish-black hair was pulled into a tight bun, shoving off her tempting neck. A white sports bra and matching shorts highlighted her brown skin. It showed off all her delicious curves.

Striding over to an empty table, he found a seat where he could examine her without being detected. His interest in this one specific woman shocked him because of all his brothers, he favored redheads.

Leaning back in the chair, he pulled his water bottle from his gym bag and took a quick drink. He loved coming to the gym and working out at a high intense pace. Screwing the top back on his water, he sat it on the table and watched the object of his interest finish her stretching and then stand.

It didn't go over his head that he wasn't the only man checking out her sexy body, and for some odd reason that bothered him. However, she seemed totally oblivious to him and the other men running their gazes up and down her body. She adjusted her sports bra, picked up her sky blue gym bag off the floor, and turned in his direction.

Resting his back against the seat, Zack tried to think of a way to get her into a conversation. He didn't even know if she would be interested in dating a white man, but he could at least test the waters with a quick hello. He noticed that she was getting closer to him and he coughed to clear his throat. He didn't want his voice catching while he was trying to impress her.

"Hi," he said the second she was within hearing range.

She paused in mid-step and stared down at him. Her whiskey brown eyes blinked, and then a smile spread across her full mouth. "Hi," she whispered back in a soft sultry voice, and then she continued to the step class behind him.

Turning around in the seat, he noticed how the shorts hugged her well-defined bottom. Yes, there were some definite possibilities there, if he could go by the look he saw in her eyes. The alarm went off on his watch and Zack cursed under his breath. Lee was going to kill him. This was the second time this month he was going to be late for the Drace brothers' weekly Wednesday night dinner.

Zack got up from the chair and snatched his gym bag off the floor. Oh well, he didn't care because he finally got to speak to the goddess in the white workout outfit. He hoped that she would be back tomorrow. Maybe then, he could introduce himself and see where things could go from there. Whistling, he strolled towards the front entrance and went out with thoughts of her in his mind.

* * * *

"I know the reason you're late has to be a woman," his brother Lee accused the second he got his food and headed for the dinner table. "You know we have dinner together every Wednesday and you're always late." Pulling out a chair, Zack took his usual place between his two younger brothers, Richard and Brad.

He poured some ice tea into his glass, took a sip, and then answered his brother. "I got tied up at the gym," Zack answered, avoiding his brother's intense, ocean blue stare. Lee could make the strongest man shake in his shoes with that one look. He hated when his brother glared at him. Lee perfected that stare in his late twenties and he had used it ever since.

"Yeah, you got tied up at the gym flirting with some gym bunny," Lee sighed. "I thought you were going to look for a more stable woman to have a relationship with."

"I remember that is what you told us," Richard chimed in next to him.

"Will you shut up?" he snapped at Richard. "Lee doesn't need any extra help from you to lecture me."

"Richard is right. I was here last weekend and I heard you say those exact words," Brad added, then took a bite of his grilled salmon.

Zack couldn't believe how his brothers were ganging up on him like this. Why is my love life always an open book? "Why don't we stop talking about me and someone else volunteer to be in the hot seat?" he said, twisting around in his seat to stare at Richard. "What about you, Richard? How is it going with that new manager you hired at the restaurant? Is she still getting you all hot and bothered?"

Richard glowered at him and mumbled. "Dawn Summers isn't doing anything of the sort to me. Anyway, we weren't discussing me. We were talking about you."

Zack smirked at his brother's discomfort. "No. I don't want to be the center of attention anymore. How about someone else jumping into that seat and letting me off the ride?"

"Okay, Zack. I'm sorry I even brought it up," Lee muttered at him from the head of the table. "I shouldn't have said anything at all, because you were only ten minutes late instead of your usual twenty."

"Well, thanks," Zack snickered, picking at the food on his plate.

He couldn't keep the grin off his face. Without a doubt, he was always the one that got under his older brother's skin. He didn't mean to do it, but it was so much fun when he did. However, if Lee was in a bind and needed his help, he would be there—no questions asked. It was that way with any of his brothers. They were like the Four Musketeers.

"I'm sorry that I was late," Zack apologized again to Lee. He knew how much these family dinners meant to him. "I'll try my best to be on time next week."

"Richard, how's everything going at the restaurant?" he asked, turning his attention back to his calmer brother. D4 was his brother's pride and joy, but he was constantly having problems keeping staff members.

"Our chef quit because he couldn't work with Dawn. I mean, she's gorgeous, but that chick has a temper and forever has an opinion about something."

"Why don't you fire her?" Lee asked, beating him to the question. Zack hated how Lee always found a way to cut him off in mid-conversation.

"I don't know why I haven't fired her. There's something about her that makes me want to help her out," Richard shrugged next to him.

Zack couldn't believe how one minute Richard was talking about Dawn in one breath and in the next he was defending her. He wasn't about to say a word, though, because the dinner conversation was finally off of him for once.

"Oh, are you thinking about letting her replace Emily?" Zack knew Richard was getting tired of his current overly-clingy girlfriend.

"Emily and I are just friends," Richard replied, squirming uncomfortably in his seat.

"Well, I think she might think you're more than that," Lee interrupted.

Zack could tell the conversation was heading down the wrong road. Richard didn't like Lee telling him what to do. Whenever Lee took that big brother attitude with him, it pissed Richard off to no end. Zack knew that he had to stop this conversation before Richard got up and stormed out of the house. Richard and Lee were like oil and water. They just didn't mix well when one tried to boss the other one around.

"Lee, are you still planning to help me with that property I want downtown?" he interjected, cutting off Richard.

"Things are still up in the air on that one, so don't talk about it with anyone else until I know for sure," Lee answered.

He was dying to own and redo the quaint little shop he spotted several months ago. It was located in a very lucrative section of town and would be the perfect tourist attraction, but the owner was stubborn as a mule and wasn't about to sell. It didn't matter how much he offered, the answer always was no. Since Lee owned his marketing firm and knew more about that part of business world than him, Zack enlisted his big brother's help with this problem. Hopefully, together they would be able find a way to get the building for a good price. The spot would be beautiful for what he had in mind for it.

Beautiful…that one word brought the woman from the gym instantly to his mind. He wondered what she was doing. Was she out with some friends or home with a husband and a couple of kids? He shouldn't be fantasizing about someone that may already maybe be taken, but he couldn't help it.

Zack wondered if she would be at the gym tomorrow. Because if she was, without a doubt he would go up and strike up a conversation with her, then maybe ask her out.. What do I have to lose, he thought.

Homecoming by Sabrina Luna

The crisp autumn air with its occasional flurries of amber and red leaves is like no other season. It's Homecoming, my favorite time of the year. I'm Jack MacDonald, teacher of World History at Eastmore Academy. It's a private school, well-known for academics, and noted for its strict codes of behavior and discipline.

At forty-one, I'm one of the youngest male teachers on staff. I still have a full head of hair, even if it's gone salt-and-pepper gray. Thanks to regular visits to the gym, I've also managed to keep lean and fit. And, even though I'm hipper, cooler than the other staff members, my pupils know I'm certainly no pushover. Sure, I'm aware of what they call me behind my back.

Mr. MacDiscipline.

I've been known to reprimand those unruly ones, the ones who don't behave, just as well as some of the older staff members. I've earned my nickname for enforcing Eastmore's codes as I've instilled my own type of discipline on the more difficult ones. The reason I chose the teaching profession was to help shape the future of the next generation ... and it's a decision I'm proud of.

It was a couple of days until the Eastmore Homecoming Alumni Day. This special day was a longstanding tradition at the school. A day for our former pupils to return and lecture to the senior classes. It was also an opportunity to discuss their career choices and what they had been doing for the past years since their own graduations.

As the head of the Homecoming Alumni Day committee, my planner was already packed with guest speakers. I was surprised when Harriet Goldman, mother of one of my former pupils, telephoned my office late in the afternoon.

"How are you and Mr. Goldman?" I inquired politely with the phone cradled on my shoulder. I was, as usual, multi-tasking, sorting through papers on my desk while I chatted.

"We're very excited. Jimmy has come home from Iraq," she chirped merrily into my ear.

"Oh? I didn't know he had been stationed overseas," I responded casually. "Last I heard, he was in the Army, but I didn't realize--"

"Yes, he told us that his unit had a few close calls, but at least he's back and safe." I could sense the relief in her voice.

"That's wonderful news," I acknowledged. "I'm very happy to hear he's arrived back home."

"Yes, well, that's why I'm doing him a favor and calling you."

"Me? Why's that, Mrs. Goldman?"

"Jimmy will be leaving on a trip soon," she continued. "But, first, he'd like to come to the Homecoming Alumni Day and be a guest speaker for your senior class."

"I don't know, Mrs. Goldman. I'm pretty booked up with guests."

"He's always spoken very highly of you, Mr. MacDonald. I'm sure it would mean so much to Jimmy to come speak to your classes. Would you please try to work him into the schedule?"

Even though I repressed my enthusiasm, I was eager to see how James had turned out. It had been five years and, as much as I didn't want to admit it, I was curious too.

"Well, let me look at the schedule here." I flipped open the notebook and scanned the well-organized time table. Thankfully, I could squeeze him into an opening for my final class of the day.

"Alright, I'll pencil him in. Tell him to be at my class at two o'clock sharp tomorrow afternoon. I'm sure the senior class will be delighted to hear him speak." I too was secretly looking forward to his visit.

"Thank you so much!" Ms. Goldman gushed. "Jimmy's going to be just thrilled that you've managed to work him into the schedule!"

After we exchanged 'goodbyes', I placed the receiver back into the cradle. With a soft sigh, I sat back, closed my eyes and let the old memories wash over me. James Goldman. Jimmy. I recalled him as an unruly, poorly disciplined boy with a sharp tongue. But he also had a keen wit and a charming smile that made my cock hard just thinking about him.

Bad boys like James were certainly more of a challenge. And I certainly liked a challenge. I had been firm, but fair with the young man. It had taken several after school reprimands to put him on the straight and narrow path towards graduation. I was glad that, after he'd graduated from Eastmore, James had joined the Army.

I'd kept my infatuation with James carefully concealed during the years he was my student. I didn't want to lose my job or worse. But, I must confess, I lost my composure one rainy afternoon.

His Private Dancer by Penelope Russell

Dina tapped her pencil with nervous energy on her desktop calendar, the dull thump echoing through her already aching head. Shifting in her chair, she uncrossed her legs and stood to stretch her five-six frame from the position she had maintained the last half hour while speaking on the phone with an irate client. Reaching for her glass of ice water, she was sorely tempted to throw it at the empty cubicle next to hers.

"Jerry Egan, I have half a mind to take this to the boss," she hissed under her breath.

Working at her father's large tax firm, Dina usually kept a low profile, not wanting to ruffle the feathers of the other hard working employees who might think any favors, promotions, or rewards came her way due to her relationship to the Branson Miles. But today, one of their larger and long time customers had discovered an ongoing error in their account, all due to the ill figured paperwork of Jerry. Now that account was in jeopardy, and Dina hoped she had handled the situation to their satisfaction by sending them directly to the vice president, Mitchell Bowens, her father's long time friend as well as business partner.

Just as she wiped a drop of water that had fallen from the condensation on her glass onto the rich, mahogany surface of her desk, the light on her phone flashed, alerting her to the fact that she was wanted in her father's office. Shrugging on a black, pinstripe blazer over her ivory, lace-trimmed cami, Dina hurried up the carpeted hallway to massive oak doors leading to the main offices of her father's partners. The secretary greeted her warmly from her desk.

"Yes, Dina?" Mary Hankins looked over her bifocals as she finished copying a message from a phone call.

"Mr. Miles paged me?" Dina was timorous.

The silver-haired lady nodded and smiled. Mary had been with her father's company as long as Dina could remember. Years of sneaking under Mary's desk and sitting at her feet as a toddler while the secretary passed her homemade oatmeal cookies, or sitting at the desk as a precocious ten-year-old, pretending to take phone calls, flashed through Dina's mind and she returned the smile in kind.

Mary motioned with her head. "Go on in. He and Mr. Bowens are waiting for you." Dina entered through the double doors without knocking.

"There's my Sugarplum." Miles used his favorite nickname for her when out of earshot of others. "Thank you for handling the Robston account efficiently. Miles here will be meeting with them Monday to straighten things out. Would you like something to drink?" Branson hugged her tightly and Dina felt the strength in his fifty-five-year-old arms, the same strength as the day she was born and all the years later that carried, tossed her in the air, and rocked her to sleep.

Dina brushed a few errant strands of blonde hair out of her eyes as she declined the offer. "What did you need to see me for, Daddy?"

"As you know, our firm is hosting a benefit auction for the Children's Regional Hospital."

"Yes?" Dina was well aware, having helped her father organize it for the last six months.

"Well, our hostess backed out at the last minute and we need someone familiar with what we've put together. You, logically, came to mind."

"But, Dad! I'm not good at getting up in front of an audience," she cried. "Why don't you do it?"

"Bah! Those rich men don't want to see an ugly old fart like me up there. And don't tell me you can't get up in front of an audience. How did you manage to dance all those years?"

"That was ballet, Daddy, something I liked to do. This is different!" Dina's mother, Teri, ran a dance studio in which Dina grew up. She could practically plié before she could walk. A tear formed in Dina's eye and Branson was quick to soothe her with a kiss.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought that up."

Dina shook her head, her silky, long blonde hair swinging over her back with a soft caress. "That's all right, Daddy, it's been a long time and I have resigned myself to becoming your next partner." She attempted a smile for him, but knew he could see right through her with his deep blue eyes.

"Forever is never long enough for a dream to die, Sugarplum," he commented.

Dina was a prodigy at her mother's dance studio, and no wonder. Helping Dina launch her own career in ballet was Teri's goal from the moment she gave birth. It was only after the accident that severed Dina's foot from the ankle, when their dreams shattered.

Doctors worked diligently to reconnect her foot in a ten-hour long operation, but it took years of therapy, and a few more surgeries, to get her to the point she was today. For the most part, she could do ordinary activities without too much trouble, but dancing for long periods was out of the question. Dina glanced down at her foot now, wrapped in an Ace bandage from this morning when she woke with it swollen and throbbing.

"Daddy, the benefit is next Saturday! How am I supposed to be ready by then?"

"As I stated before, you are the only one who can be ready by then. I was hoping you would be able to do this for me." Branson gave her his best "make me proud" look, which had Dina melting.

"Oh, all right, Daddy," she pouted. "But you owe me big time for this one!"

"You are right, I really do," he laughed. "Now, one other thing. Next Friday night is when the contributors will drop off their items for donation. I have a list here of who will bring what for donation. You should be there Friday to see what items are up for bid. You can do a little PR with the clients."

Dina started to panic. "Won't you be there?"

"Oh, well, yes, of course. I just wanted you to be there as well."

Dina took the proffered list and nodded as she looked it over. "Shredding? Fencing service? Stud service?" Dina looked up from the list, her own blue eyes mirroring questions back at her father's.

"It's a benefit for the children's hospital, but being held during the next cowboy breakfast. You know, ranchers, farmers?"

Dina disguised a snort of contempt as she folded the list. "So exactly where am I meeting you on Friday?"

"At the campgrounds of the cowboy breakfast, of course!" He laughed as she raised her eyebrow and turned to leave the room. Giving a curt nod to Mr. Bowens, she shut the door behind her with a smart click.

Back at her desk, she unfolded the list once more and perused the contributor list. Stopping on a familiar name, she reread it. "Chase Bowens, hmmm. Any relation to Mitchell Bowens, I wonder?" She picked up the phone and dialed Mitchell's number.

"Mitch here," came his gruff voice.

"Yes, it's Dina. I was wondering if you knew this Chase Bowens by any chance?"

"Yeah, that's my brother's eldest son. He runs his maternal grandmother's ranch now, the Rocking B outside of Kerrville."

"I see he is donating stud service from his champion Brahma bull, Death Warrant?"

"Yeah, should bring a good auction price on that one." He laughed.

Dina wrinkled her nose. "I'm sure." Sarcasm laced her voice. "Well, I was just wondering. I guess I'll be meeting your nephew next Friday, then."

"I'm sure he will bring the bull Saturday morning for display, but I'm not sure who will bring the packet of information on Friday night. Maybe a ranch hand. Chase is a busy fellow out there."

"All right then, Mr. Bowens. Thank you." Dina placed the phone in its cradle with a frustrated thump. She would never have believed her dad roped her into this charity benefit. She snorted in derision as she realized the irony of her thoughts. "Roped into this, yeah, I surely was," she said out loud as she packed her briefcase before heading home for the day.

The early October sun hid behind a blanket of thick gray clouds, like it usually did this time of year, as Dina got behind the wheel of her sedan. She looked in the rearview and freshened up her lipstick before backing out. Pursing her ruby red lips in approval, she pulled a brush quickly through her hair as she made her way across town to surprise her boyfriend for dinner.

Mark Grey ran his own highly successful bar and grill in the fastest growing part of the city, and was getting ready to launch another just like it across town. She knew Mark had spent most of the day with the contractors at the new location, and the last time she had spoken with him on the phone, he told her he expected to be tied up there for a bit longer.

Dina smiled widely as she thought about the surprise she had planned for him. Lately, Mark seemed extremely preoccupied and their intimate moments had begun spiraling to a few stolen moments that usually ended up leaving her frustrated and unsatisfied. More and more, Mark seemed to use her to relieve his frustrations and didn't seem to care whether she had any satisfaction while they made love. In fact, Dina never even had the pleasure of a climax with him, but kept hoping the shining moment would happen just like all the magazine articles and books explained. Mark had been her first and only sexual partner.

She had met him attending college courses in the local community college shortly after her accident. She had still depended on a cane at that point, and Mark had been chivalrous enough to carry her heavy load of books whenever he could. Now, after dating for seven years and not any closer to getting a marriage proposal or a satisfactory night of pleasure, Dina became more and more disenchanted with him. However, she couldn't bring herself to break it off with him. He was like an old, comfortable shoe--worn, a bit loose of a fit, and just a little too easy to slide into rather than break in a new pair.

But tonight, she was willing to pull out all the stops to make the magic happen. Armed with a bottle of Shiraz, soft music by Enya, and the preparations she had made earlier, Dina hoped to surprise him into a night of endless passion.

As she lifted her foot to press on the brake, her skirt slid up her thigh a few inches. Cool air from the air conditioner wafted its way to her panty-less crotch, which caused her to smile secretly at a stoplight. A man in the next truck looked down and smiled. Of course he didn't know what she smiled about, but Dina thought he'd probably go wild if he knew what was not under her skirt. Her nipples hardened and she knew the thin material of her blouse could not disguise the fact that she had no bra on, either.

The longer the man ogled her, the longer the light seemed to take and Dina started to feel a bit self conscious. When the light turned green, Dina mashed the accelerator. Praying she wouldn't be followed, she made a quick right turn on the next street. Glancing in the rearview mirror, she didn't see any sign of the truck. Mark's new restaurant loomed into view and she pulled in next to his car, the only one left by that time of evening.

Grateful he had not locked the door, she tried her best to sneak in without being heard. She turned the knob and stepped quietly across the wooden floor in her stiletto heels. When she arrived at his private office space, she nearly laughed. She could have stomped like an elephant and he wouldn't have heard. He had fallen asleep in his desk chair, sitting upright.

Walking up to him, she placed a knee on either side of his and kissed him on the forehead. He startled slightly, then smiled as she sucked gently on the corner of his lip.

"Mmmmm, darling, what a nice surprise," he whispered, running his hand down her back and across the curve of her bottom. As his hand ran down her thigh and back up under her skirt, Dina ran a trail of kisses across his jaw. She liked the reaction she got when his hand came into contact with her bare skin under the skirt. "Oh, now what's this?"

"A little surprise for you," she whispered, kissing him on the lips. The kiss deepened for several long moments as his hand sought the moist slit between her legs, causing Dina's passion to intensify quickly. His fingers pressed deep within, then started a long and agonizingly slow stroke as he thrust his tongue into her mouth with the same deliberate slowness.

"So my girl is needing something from me," he groaned, pulling his belt loose.

Dina put a hand on his. "Oh, no, sweetheart. First, we go to dinner where you can sit next to me and think about what is under my skirt. Dessert!" She laughed as she stood up and walked across the room, realizing how much the heels hurt her ankle. But she knew she had to wear them for only a couple more hours.

"Oh, you kill me," Mark whined, but rose from the chair with a glint of delight in his eyes. "I don't think I'll be able to eat as I think about you sitting there with no panties or," he stepped close to her and grazed her nipples with the tips of his fingers, "the fact that you have very little on at all." He grabbed his keys and escorted her quickly to his car.

"Where to, when we get done with dinner? Did you want to take your car and go to your place?"

"No, sweetie, I was thinking we could initiate your new business tonight. What do you think?"

"I like the way you think." He kissed her roughly, pressing her between him and the car, his erection pressing into her lower abdomen as he spent a few more moments kissing her. His thumbs flicked over her nipples, which would be her undoing if he continued, and both of them knew it.

"Keep that up, and you will miss dinner," she moaned as his hand went under her shirt to tease her nipples more. She reached between them to stroke his bulging tumescence.

"How about right here and now?" he groaned, lifting her skirt slightly.

"And get arrested for a public display?" She laughed, suddenly realizing that several cars had stopped on the street with the occupants watching. She smoothed her clothes before getting in his car as Mark held the door open.

On the way to the restaurant, he repeatedly ran his hand up her thigh and back down to her knee. Each stroke grew closer to her blonde down that was shaved carefully into the shape of a heart. Lifting her skirt slightly, she held his hand back as she slid her own finger down across her wet slit and slowly pushed into the slick and satiny folds.

"Oh, baby, you are killing me," he groaned, attempting to keep the car on the road as he stole glances from time to time. She slid a second finger in and began a slow in and out motion, throwing her head back as she allowed herself to experience the pleasure. Several times Mark tried to move his hand, but she smiled and shook her head as she drew her fingers down the sides of her full breasts and back up to circle the peaked buds.

Dina immersed herself into giving herself pleasure and only allowing Mark to watch. Time and again she brought her finger from the depths of her molten heat to suck on it suggestively then sent it back down to stroke her swollen and throbbing clit that ached to be released of pent up passion.

"Baby, let's go back to my apartment." Mark leaned over after parking the car to kiss her. His kiss felt cold and uninviting, as if he had nothing to give in the way of passion, yet drew every ounce of vibrant energy Dina had to offer. His hand slid under her shirt to pinch a nipple, causing an electric shock of pain to run through her.

"Ouch!" she cried, trying not to let her irritation show.

"Sorry, babe," he growled in her ear. "You get me so hot, I can't help but be an animal."

She had chosen Luigi's Italian restaurant, a small, intimate setting known for its romantic, candlelit dinners and dark corner booths for lovers to woo each other. The waiter showed them to a table in the middle, but she declined, requesting a small corner booth. Dina slid into the corner, leaving Mark to sit with his back to the rest of the restaurant. Tall walls sheltered them from the rest of the world and she nodded her approval at the waiter.

"May I show you the wine list?" he asked.

"We will take a bottle of your best Merlot," Mark answered.

Minutes later, the rich burgundy liquid was being poured as Dina smiled at Mark, running her bare foot up his pant leg.

When the waiter left, Mark turned to face Dina as she snuggled up to him, sipping her wine. "Now where were we?" he asked. "Oh, yes, I believe we were here." He pressed his lips below her ear and she smiled as she ran her free hand over his growing erection. Mark's hand slipped up her skirt to explore her slit, parting the secret curtain roughly and driving his fingers in she slid her hand over the bulge in his slacks.

"Mmmm, baby, I could take you right here," he growled in her ear.

"You probably would, and with enough wine, I might even let you." She laughed, then drained her glass. The warmth of the liquid simmered a fire within her very veins as it freed her inhibitions. She wasn't even a little chagrined as the waiter announced his presence moments later. She knew the lengthy tablecloth hid their hands and the direction of their movements, but closer examination would reveal all. She furtively moved her hand to her lap and pulled her skirt down a fraction as she ordered the fettuccini. Mark ordered the eggplant parmigiana, his voice thick with excitement, and she could tell he was anxious for the waiter to take his leave.

Wine glasses refilled, Mark showered her neck with soft kisses as she resumed her epicurean role of stroking him into a climatic frenzy. He allowed her to unfasten his pants and reach inside. He was hot and practically throbbing, so swollen with lust that the head of his shaft was a deep blue-red. Dina stroked him as he rubbed her clit. She could tell he was getting close to the edge, for in his excitement, he pressed into her soft flesh a bit too hard. Time and again in the past she would tell him that the sensation was not pleasurable at all, but rather painful, yet he never seemed to understand.

Feigning a climax would push him over the top, so Dina squirmed and whimpered softly in his ear as she increased the intensity of her stroke.

"Baby, I want to cum in your mouth," he whispered.

Dina stole a furtive glance across the room then bent over to slide her painted, red lips over his swollen member. His hips thrust his swelling cock deep into her mouth for just a few strokes before his warm, salty cum exploded. Dina wanted more than anything to spit the bitter tasting fluid out, but she swallowed, knowing it would leave a recognizable mess if not. After cleaning the residue with his napkin, she sat up and drained her glass of wine to wash down the taste.

Mark zipped his pants and sat with his head propped against the back of the booth, apparently satisfied with life in general. Dina snuggled up to him where he let a limp hand rest on her shoulder.

"Babe, that was hot," he gloated.

"Yes, that would have to be the most creative we have gotten, ever," she agreed, wishing she could share in his passion-sated bliss.

She pulled her skirt down and he tucked his shirt into his pants moments before steaming hot plates of food arrived. As they dined, Mark chatted with heated animation about the completion of his new business. Dina tried to follow attentively, but kept thinking about how their entire relationship revolved around him.

She knew she harbored unhealthy resentment that would soon fester into something worse, but talking about it was of no use. Mark would say he listened when she had a concern, but the issue never seemed to resolve. He never could remember things important to her. Dina was pretty sure he had never even been to her office, and had barely stepped foot into her apartment.

By the time they finished dinner, Dina had pretty well had enough of Mark for the evening. When they arrived back at his new business, Dina grabbed her car keys and gave him a chaste kiss.

"Is that it? Sure you don't want to come in for a bit?" he asked, a hint of a pout in his voice. "Play a bit?"

"No, I'm not feeling well," she said, pressing her forehead with the back of her hand. "I need to go lie down and get some sleep."

"Goodnight then, sweetheart. Thank you for the surprise. It was fantastic."

Dina winked before closing her car door. The drive to her apartment seemed to take forever this time. When the door loomed into view, she exhaled heavily. Bottle of forgotten Shiraz in one arm, she locked the door behind her and headed to the kitchen to pour herself a glass.

Sipping it as she stripped her clothes and washed her face, by the time she finally lay down in between the cool, crisp sheets, she began to feel the warm and woozy effects. Television held nothing of interest as she flipped through the channels until she came upon an ad for a late night adult pay per view channel.

"What the heck?" she giggled, almost blushing as she hit the "pay" button. She drained her wine glass as the show loaded, but had a change of heart and turned the set off. Remembering her frustrated state earlier in the evening, Dina impulsively mashed the "on" button again. The screen jumped to life to show a naked, large breasted woman dancing in front of a man in a business suit.

Dina frowned, thinking how voyeuristic this was of her, but when the woman leaned over the man and he began sucking on her nipples, Dina felt a sudden flash of desire and began caressing her own bare nipples. The man's hand slid down to the woman's shaved mound and fingered her slit. Dina slid her hand down to imitate him, suddenly immersed in the scene, living it as if she were the woman.

The man quickly undressed to reveal a huge penis. She sat mesmerized for moments, staring at him, wondering how it would feel to be penetrated by something so big. She had to admit, she never had sex with anyone other than Mark, so she had nothing to compare. She figured the man on the screen had to be at least a good eight to nine inches, and the girth of him incredibly twice as big as Mark.

Dina watched in amazement as he bent the woman over and seemed to enter her with ease from behind. The camera caught every glorious inch of him slowly sliding in, then the wet glisten of her juice on him as he slid back out with agonizing slowness. This pace kept up for long moments, intensifying the raw desire that built in Dina. She slid her fingers in, trying ever so hard to find that elusive "G" spot that everyone spoke of and she had yet to find. Letting her legs fall open, she pressed into her wet recesses, becoming increasingly slick as the woman on the screen moaned with each stroke. Dina felt her wet tunnel swell around her fingers, yet the big "O" evaded her.

Resorting to the old fashioned "fast-burn" orgasm, Dina slowly slid her finger over her clit, matching pace with the couple on the screen. Spreading her legs wider, she put herself there with him, taking that huge cock into her wet cunt. Sweat beaded her forehead as she felt the first wave of pleasure building quickly, her legs quivered as the first spasms hit her.

"Oh yeah, baby," the woman groaned. "I'm going to cum." The pace quickened, the huge cock ramming into her, plunging deep into her hot, molten recesses.

She was so close, her heart racing as she pinnacled and hovered there for moments. Pushing two fingers into her pussy as deep as they could reach, she felt her insides clasp her fingers in waves as her warm juices flowed in abundance.

With wide-eyed wonder, she watched the man spread the woman's legs wide and dip his face into her mound. The camera angle moved, assuring a full view of his tongue caressing and laving every recess between the woman's legs. Dina wondered what it would be like to have a man go down on her. Mark had never once tried it. Dina suddenly became extremely resentful of the relationship she had with him, knowing that she must find a way to move on.

The woman on the screen writhed on the bed as the man flicked his tongue over her clit repeatedly. Dina had remained with her legs spread wide, wishing she could feel that huge penis sliding inside her. She played with her nipples until she was nearly in a frenzy of desire, and as the large member pounded the woman's wet slit, Dina pushed herself over the edge again as she pleasured herself with her hands. Soon after, she faded into a deep and blissful sleep, and the couple on the screen moved on to their next adventure.

Healing Hearts by Monique Lamont

"Jeannie..." Jason spoke, breathless as he pushed the intercom button on his desk. Over the past hour, he had been experiencing chest pains. He had brushed them off originally, thinking maybe he was experiencing a bout of indigestion. That feeling had been happening a lot to him lately, but it came after he worked out so he figured he had just overexerted himself, but today there was something different about it.

He had just finished a meeting with his divisional staff in reference to a new project they would be launching against their competitors. In the last six months, Coleman and Weary Advertising, the company he worked for, hadn't been doing so well and had lost some prominent accounts to their competitors. Even though they were still above water, all of the divisions had been hit more than once. He personally had been sleeping and eating advertising promo ideas. There was a major contract coming up and he wasn't going to miss it.

Jason stood up, barely keeping himself upright from a wave of dizziness that overtook him. Not only did it feel as if there was a weight pushing down on his chest, but he was also beginning to sweat. He loosened his tie and the first two buttons of his shirt as he shuffled toward the window for some fresh air. The sweat on his hand was making the window latch slippery and he was unable to open it.

Giving up, he leaned his head against the pane that was kept cool to the touch by the chilly early spring morning temperature outside, and began to rub the spot on his chest where the pressure persisted, praying it would abate.

"Mr. Richardson, you needed me for something?" Jeannie questioned.

Jay was relieved when he finally heard his secretary's voice. It had seemed like hours since he had buzzed her.

"Mr. Richardson ... are you okay?"

"Hel..." was the only thing he got out as he turned toward her and everything went black.

* * * *
One

Yasmine's day was starting out all wrong. Her alarm clock never went off so she woke up thirty minutes later than normal, which meant she had to count out breakfast. Her hair dryer decided it wanted to die on her, so now she'd have to contend with the poodle look--which meant the cute little chic hair cut she'd paid forty-five dollars for looked like she was in need of a refund. When she'd gotten home last night, her driver side door was slightly ajar so the light had remained on all night, causing her battery to die, and she had to wait an hour for the roadside assistance service to arrive. This was not her morning.

Finally, Yasmine arrived at work. Two hours late and missing three morning appointments, she rushed into Leigh's office. "This day couldn't possibly get any worse."

Yasmine and Leigh had become close during their first year of college. Like Yasmine, she was in her mid-twenties, but that's where their similarities ended. Leigh was a Virginia native. Her best friend was a happy, single white female who loved her black men, five-ten and flamboyant--evident in the flaming red hue of her hair. It was an all-natural color, but even if it wasn't she'd have dyed it that way. Leigh was built voluptuously, with hazel eyes and a come-hither smile most men fell for immediately. She was outgoing and outspoken, but had a heart of gold and had no problem with sharing her love for life with everyone she came in contact.

Yasmine, on the other hand, was mixed--Black and Portuguese. She was petite, standing a slim five-four, with a smooth hazelnut complexion and a set of expressive light brown, almond shaped eyes. She could care less what color the man was she dated, but was pretty much through with dating for as long as possible.

"Don't say that, because you know things will start to happen just to prove you wrong." Leigh turned around from the filing cabinet where she was standing. "You know how scared you are of that supposed 'black cloud' you always say is following you."

"Como isso pode acontecer?" Yasmine questioned in Portuguese. Switching in and out of the two languages was a frequent habit of hers. "At this point, even I can't see how that could happen." She walked further into the room. "Thanks for seeing my clients this morning. How upset was Mrs. Crandall?"

"Not very, she just kept telling me about the angel food cake she had spent her evening making from scratch for you and her church picnic tomorrow."

"Let me guess, she didn't bother to leave the cake, though, did she?"

"She claimed it was in the car."

A smile graced Yasmine's face at the thought of the older woman. Mrs. Rose Ann Crandall was seventy-six years old and resided at a local elderly high-rise apartment complex. Three months ago her doctor had written her a consult to see a dietitian for her diabetes because it was getting out of hand. But, no matter what plan she put her on, the next week Mrs. Crandall would give some reason why she couldn't stick to that one.

"If you would've asked her to go get it, she'd find some reason why she couldn't bring it up, or you can't come get it. This only happens when I tell her something she doesn't want to hear about her health, then she'd wasted her time making or baking me something."

"If she isn't following her doctor's or your orders, why are you still seeing her? You know I would've dropped her for services a long time ago." Leigh returned to her desk, curiosity etched on her face.

"She's lonely. I just don't have the heart to stop her appointments or recommend to her doctor to send her somewhere else."

"You're a dietitian, not a therapist."

Yasmine rolled her head back, briefly looking toward the ceiling in a short prayer of guidance. "I know I'm not, but it's so much easier to handle the small problems she has when she comes instead of dealing with my own."

"Yassi, your only problem is you don't get out."

"Com boa razão," she spoke in Portuguese. "For very good reasons." She repeated in English, before Leigh began to lecture about her lack of social life. "I've got to get going to Memorial, I'd hate to keep this class waiting."

"Run away if you wish, Yassi, we will be returning to this conversation."

Not commenting, Yasmine walked out of the office, shaking her head.

He Came Upon a Midnight Clear by Cat Johnson

"Virginia! This is your mother. Where are you? Call me back."

Ginny stared at the answering machine, not breathing. Afraid her mother would somehow sense she purposely would not pick up once she heard that all too familiar, and far from melodic, voice over the device.

She heard the click as her mother hung up and Ginny dared to breath, until the loud ringing of the phone began again, making her jump. She waited through her own voice delivering the outgoing message and then heard, "Ginny. Where the heck are you on Christmas Eve? Where could you possibly go up there in no-man's-land where shopping malls don't exist?"

Ginny dove for the receiver. "Hi, I'm here. Sorry."

She heard her friend Molly laugh. "Screening again?"

"Yeah. Thank goodness for answering machines."

"It's Christmas Eve. The least you can do is talk to your mother on the phone."

Ginny shook her head violently back and forth even though she knew her best friend couldn't see the gesture. "I can't take her rehashing how I should get out and find a man and give her grandchildren, or how I'm crazy for moving away to begin with and that I should move back in with her and Dad and get a real job."

"You'd think the fact that you moved two hours away to take a job that pays almost nothing rather than live with them for free would give her a hint," Molly suggested.

"My mother doesn't take hints." Ginny blew out a frustrated breath and glanced out the window at the falling snow. "She is really going to freak when she hears I probably won't be able to make it home for Christmas dinner tomorrow, not with the way this snow is falling."

Ginny could practically hear her friend's pout. "It's snowing by you? There's not even a hint of a flake here. Oh, you're going to have a white Christmas. I'm jealous." That coming from a woman who lived in a condo where some nice hired maintenance man shoveled, plowed and salted the walkways for her before she even woke up in the morning.

A white Christmas, yippee. Had she been eight years old, Ginny would be jumping for joy and getting out the sled and the makings for a snowman. Being twenty-eight, she realized with dread that she would be breaking out the shovel and bag of ice melt instead.

"It's snowing like crazy up here, but you know she'll think I'm making it up to get out of dinner with her and Dad." The few thousand feet increase in elevation made Ginny's weather dramatically different than that of her hometown only a hundred miles to the south. Admittedly, sometimes Ginny used the difference in weather as an excuse to get out of driving home to visit her mother for the day. Just little fibs, things like 'the wind knocked a tree down and the road is closed' or 'the parkway is flooded', but not in this instance. She always knew eventually, just like with the boy who cried wolf, her little white lies would someday come back and bite her in the ass. Tomorrow would probably be the day.

Molly laughed. "You're right. She won't believe you. Maybe you better have the local weather man or highway patrol on the phone to back up your story for your mom."

Snow now totally covered the ground and the thick wet flakes stuck to every tree limb and rooftop. Quite the makings for a picturesque scene until Ginny considered there might be a good chance she'd lose electricity along with the heat and hot water unless she could get the generator working. At times like this she actually did regret not having a man in her life or at least a hired handyman. But when she took the position as caretaker for a family living in London for a year, she'd become the handyman. It gave her the time to pursue her writing, but in light of the broken generator and current storm, she probably should have thought over taking the position, and moving in all alone, a little bit more.

She sighed and turned her mind to brighter thoughts. "What are you doing for Christmas Day?"

"Marco is taking me to the city to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, then back to his place for a romantic dinner."

Now it was Ginny's turn to be jealous. Her friend not only had a great job, a fabulous condo in the suburbs, and parents who lived in Florida and only called once a week, but also a hot new boyfriend with an Italian accent to go with his expensive Italian sports car. "That sounds perfect. You better call me and tell me what he bought you for a Christmas gift the minute you have a chance." Might as well be completely green with envy and get it all over with at once.

"I will. Are you going to be all right up there by yourself if you can't get home tomorrow?"

"Sure. There's food in the fridge and I've got dry firewood stacked on the porch and plenty of candles in case the power goes out." Ginny sounded more confident than she felt.

"I'll make sure I keep my cell phone on in case you need anything."

Ginny didn't know what Molly and Marco were going to be able to do for her from Manhattan. If the roads proved so bad she couldn't drive south, they wouldn't be able to drive north either, but she did appreciate the offer. "Thanks, Mol. I'll keep that in mind."

Ginny considered that maybe she should find a replacement caretaker for the rest of the year and move back to civilization. Then she thought of her mother's smug 'I told you so' expression and quickly dismissed the thought. No way would she give up and move back in with her parents again. She'd only go back when she could do it as a successful published author, able to afford her own great apartment. That decision made, she groaned as the lights flickered.

She said goodbye and quickly hung up with Molly, then went to find candles and a flashlight in case the electricity did go out. Even at only four in the afternoon, on a cloudy December day, it was nearly dark as night already. Best to be prepared, that's what Ginny always said. Well, she never actually said that, but it sounded good.

Luck was on Ginny's side and the power remained on, for the moment at least. After making herself a quick bowl of canned soup for dinner, she changed into her pajamas and chose to ignore the fact the clock showed the time only to be a little after five. What good was being a caretaker/writer if she couldn't work in her pajamas when she wanted to? With that thought in mind, she sat down at her computer and found the file for her novel, still there, looking exactly how she'd left it--unfinished, stalled halfway through the first chapter.

She blew out a breath. Ginny had heard of writer's block, but her experience seemed more like writer's amnesia. Nothing spilled out of her brain and onto the screen and she started to suspect that what she'd already written might be crap.

A colonial era, historical mystery novel sounded like a good idea when she'd originally come up with it and done the research. So why wasn't it working? She had no idea, but sitting and staring at the screen didn't help either her mood or her novel. Finally giving up, she logged off the computer, flopped on the couch and flipped on the television. When all else failed, there was always TV.

Hat Trick by A.J. Bray

When I got downstairs, she was looking at me quizzically, her head cocked to one side. "I don't think it's Mr. Torontofan," she said, disappointed. "I think it's just a friend of yours."

I didn't know what she meant, so I looked out the small window in the front door. There, staring back at me, was my husband's best friend's little brother. And, man, did he ever look amused. "Oh, shit," I murmured, but Maggie was already opening the door.

He brushed past Maggie into the foyer and dropped a very large bag with a heavy thump. He didn't even turn around before he said, "Hey, Emily, how's it going?" Having been to my house before, with Mike, it didn't exactly take a lot of brains to know I was there. Busted.

I tried to act cool and play it off, hoping deep down inside that he just dropped by to say hello. He was now facing me, a grin plastered over his face. "Ummm ... hi, John. So, you wanted to see Dave?" I asked, cringing at the sound of my own nervous voice.

"Ahh, no, Emily, but funny you should mention him. So, where is the Big Guy? I thought he was working today," John said, looking around mockingly. "Someone really should tell him how much you love that new wireless network he just had installed. You sure do like to surf the 'Net, eh?" he added with a wink.

My stomach dropped into my knees. He was going to tell on me. Rat me out before I ever even had a chance to have my fun. I narrowed my eyes at him, glaring as hard as I could, which only seemed to make his grin widen. "Don't you threaten me," I growled, but he just laughed.

"I'm not here to do anything of the sort. I just stopped by on my way from the school library, and since I don't have to be at the firehouse until six, I thought we could all have some fun."

I looked over at Maggie, who stated, as if reading my own mind, "I didn't know you are a fireman."

"Yup. And I'm also an EMT, but I don't do that too much any more. But, I try to stay busy. That's why I still play hockey every weekend," he said, as he stooped to unzip the mammoth black bag at his feet. He pulled out a helmet, not a little worse for wear, and a blue and white jersey. I looked past him into the bag, and saw it was crammed full of gear: gloves, hockey pants, shin guards, stockings, skates, shoulder pads. Everything a dedicated player would need, except one thing.

"Where's your stick?" I asked, reflexively.

He looked thoughtful for a moment, and just as I was going to ask again, he stood up with an athlete's agility and looked me straight in the eye. He looked so serious, his jaw squared and set, giving his handsome face an impassable air. "Right here," he said softly.

Halfpipe Romance by Kate Burns

"Snowboarding? Have you lost your mind, Molly?" The voice was scandalized-and loud-and she held the slim silver cell phone away from her ear and winced.

Lost my mind? Maybe.

"I don't think so but really, who can ever tell when they lose something like that?" Molly asked, grinning. She parted the row of basic black clothing in her tiny city apartment closet, searching for something even remotely snow-ish. "What the hell do you wear to go snowboarding, anyway?"

"Full body armor. That is, if you don't want to come home in a full-body cast," said Kaylee. "How would I know what to wear to slide down a hill on a board? I haven't done it before, either-remember? And honestly, it's one of those things that, along with a full-body waxing, skydiving and taking Chinese cooking lessons, I plan to never attempt. So really, what do I care what anyone wears to go snow-sliding."

"Snowboarding. How hard can it be?" Molly maneuvered a winter white wool sweater out from behind a stack of nearly-identical black silk turtlenecks. The white sweater had been a gift from her aunt two Christmases ago but had been worn only once since she was allergic to wool and the damn thing made her itchy. But still ... it was snowboard-ish. Sort of.

"Hard. It can be hard."

"That's what I'm hoping for," said Molly, putting the white sweater on the small pile of items that she intended to take along on the first romantic getaway with Seth. "Hard. Very hard. So hard that Seth won't even want to go near the snow, he'll be so busy making hot, steamy love with me. Snow? Who needs snow? All we need is each other, Kaylee. Nothing more."

"Still, what if he wants to go snowboarding, even if it's only once, for an hour. What'll you do then?"

"Oh, don't be such a pain in the butt! Don't you remember that time during our sophomore year when we spent spring break at the beach?"

"So?"

"Boogie boarding? Really, how much different could it be on the snow?"

Molly examined, and discarded, a pair of outrageously expensive designer jeans.

They make my ass look like I'm wearing an inflatable raft.

"You're kidding, right? That time in Daytona we rented that board and you sucked at boogie boarding. Or have you forgotten that little fact?"

Molly scowled at the phone before she answered. "Sucked? I didn't exactly suck, thank you very much. Damn, you're supposed to be my best friend, remember? You're not being very friendly about this, let me tell you."

There was silence from the phone for a long moment before Kaylee spoke. Her voice was calm and measured, as if she was speaking to a child or a mental patient. "It's because I'm your best friend that I can say these things. And really, saying you sucked was an understatement. You trashed that boogie board so badly that we had to pay for it when we tried to return it, remember? And you didn't manage to stay standing on the thing once. Not once! So listen, Moll, I don't think snowboarding is going to be your thing, either."

Seth is my thing-or at least he's going to be after this weekend. So I'm going snowboarding, no matter what anyone says. But first, I've got to go shopping.