Saturday, September 6, 2008

Rites of Mating by Brenna Lyons

The schente giggled. “What are you doing, Highness?”

Joseph growled in frustration. If the schente found it amusing, he wasn’t doing it right. He’d have to consult the text in his father’s library, which explained the ancient Keen seduction technique again. Learning the bel tro was essential. Joseph would have to win his bride, and Berel was worth nothing less than the rite of kings.

“Have I displeased you?” A touch of panic edged her voice. The schente would fear that.

Joseph had never admitted disappointment in a schente, even when it was true. The women had no greater prospects than a life of service or carrying cross-bred children, their genetics too shattered to make an advantageous marriage and produce viable children of their own. Joseph would never think of putting a woman out of service when it was obvious that they lived to fulfill their contracts.

He flopped onto his back, pulling the schente with him. “Never,” he assured her, drawing her mouth to his.

The schente relaxed against his chest. Joseph groaned, as she worked her way down his body, taking his length in her mouth. He wound his hands in her hair, guiding her movements as she pleasured him.

Joseph closed his eyes, imagining another woman, the only woman he wanted but couldn’t have—yet. Some days, Joseph wished he could turn the clock back a year to escape his adulthood, but the madness of adding another year to his waiting would not be worth the relief in other areas of his life.

He turned his mind back to Berel. Joseph was an adult, but Berel was still three years from that blessed day. Until then, the schente would be his only comfort.

Berel was in her sexual maturity. Joseph could take her with Walla teas, if she were willing, but Joseph wanted more than sex from Berel; and though lowborn could use the teas before their twentieth year, it wasn’t suggested medically that they do so. He couldn’t touch her and not take what he craved most from her. He knew himself that well.

The schente drove his body on. In his mind, it was Berel who teased his length with her tongue, Berel who sucked him deep into the wet heat of her mouth.

Joseph groaned. “Come on top of me,” he breathed.

She swung a leg over, encasing him in a slice of the soul’s reward. Joseph drove up into her, drinking in the scent of her arousal. It wasn’t perfect. Berel would be virginal.

He tightened his grip on her hips. If Berel took another before she was his, he would curse himself as a fool forever. If Joseph didn’t wait for Berel, he would break laws in claiming her. If he lost her in waiting—

The schente squealed in delight, as his thrusts became more fevered. A new understanding of how Michael could go insane for want of his mate seared him. Some nights, Joseph wasn’t much better than his infamous uncle.

Her body contracted around him, and Joseph followed her over, filling her with seed that would find no purchase, locking into a band that would stimulate no egg for him. When he lessened, she left him as the rules stipulated she must.

Joseph lay on his bed for long moments, staring at the ceiling and listening to the heavy snow pelting the windows, alone as he always was when the schente left him. He bathed and dressed slowly, dreading the night to come.

He met Jenneane in the corridor. His older sister by a quarter hour looked as nervous as he felt.

“Ready for the crowds?” he asked.

She fussed with her gown. “Do I look ready?” she managed, her hands shaking.

Joseph squeezed her hand. “No. You look positively ill.”

Jenneane smiled weakly, a smile that didn’t light her green eyes. She wound her arm through his. It was a sign of solidarity, a promise that they would survive yet another night of being pawed and propositioned by the hopefuls. “I never could lie to you.”

He led her down the main staircase and through the entryway to the ballroom. The cheers started as they stepped through the doors. The nightmare started a moment later. Suitors pressed in—his on one side and hers on the other, all vying for their attention.

“A dance, Princess?”

Jenneane shook her head.

“Highness, my father is—”

Joseph shook the hand off his elbow.

“Princess Jenneane, my name—”

One of Panor’s men pushed back a few suitors, giving Jenneane room to take a calming breath.

“I’m certified virginal, Prince Joseph.”

Jenneane shot a startled look at the speaker, turning deep crimson at the lengths the suitors would go to. Joseph urged her on, ignoring that one with all of the other comments and offers thrown his way, sickened by the spectacle they made.

“Would you care for a walk in—”

Joseph dragged Jenneane to his side as the overbearing young lord grasped her arm and pulled her to a halt. He sent a warning scowl. The man fell back a step, and Panor’s men stepped to the hopeful to hold him back. Joseph led Jenneane on, praying that the fervor would die down. The mob typically gentled, as the hours wore on. Tonight should be no different.

“The dais,” she whispered.

Joseph nodded curtly and led the way to the seats set up for them at their parents’ sides. It would mean only a momentary reprieve. The suitors dared not follow them onto the stage, but eventually Joseph and Jenneane would have to leave that safety and tend to their duty. They had to get to know the hopefuls and actively seek out one who would be a suitable mate.

He growled in frustration. The hopefuls. They were hopeful of little but the prestige of being chosen, of joining the ranks of the royals.

Their mother offered them weak grins, as they settled into their seats. Susan hadn’t intended this life for her children when she gave them life. She'd apologized for that more than once.

* * * *

Joseph bit back his rage. He reminded himself that his patience was worn thin by hours of dealing with grasping hopefuls. Still, he wasn’t about to sit still for this.

Berel inched away from the noble who crowded her. Her smile was strained, and she flicked a glance at the dais.

He was on his feet and striding through the crowd without a coherent thought of why he was acting this way. Only one thought registered clearly in his mind. Berel was Joseph’s, and no other man would touch her, especially one she so obviously didn’t want.

Joseph brushed off the suitors with barely contained disdain. He would make it seem that he gave consideration, but unless Berel refused him, he wouldn’t choose another. Joseph grimaced. She could refuse him. Despite the looks of interest Berel shot him, he might be misreading her intent.

Berel looked up, as Joseph reached her side, gratitude in her eyes. “Joseph,” she greeted him in a husky voice that sent tremors of pleasure through his gut.

Joseph smiled and offered his hand. “I believe you promised me this dance,” he commented smoothly.

She took his hand and accompanied Joseph to the center of the floor without a backward glance at the upstart young lord who had been hounding her moments before. Joseph pulled Berel to his chest and wrapped his hands around her waist, thankful that this was an Earth celebration with Earth-style dancing.

Berel wound her hands around his neck, her body pressed close to his. “Thank you for saving me,” she breathed.

Joseph pushed back his anger again. “Any time. It gave me an excuse to dance with you.”

She blushed, moving her body against his fluidly. “I love this song.”

He nodded. It was a ballad from Earth, a traditional Christmas song, one of hundreds his mother had brought with her from her world.

Berel listened to the haunting tones. “Said the evening breeze to the tiny kit,” she translated smoothly.

Joseph grinned. Her translation wasn’t perfect, but it was nearly so. “I love that you speak English.” He offered the comment in English, thankful that he and Berel could be alone, even in a crowd.

“How could I not? Being raised in a household that spoke it?”

He took a calming breath, a thousand Earth endearments coming readily to mind. It was too early for that. Berel wouldn’t be an adult for three years. When she was—Joseph hardened at the thought of claiming her.

Berel gasped, meeting his eyes in surprise.

Joseph offered her a sheepish grin. “I am undeniably male, Berel. A beautiful woman in my arms...”

She smiled, her eyes making offers she wasn’t old enough to fulfill, her body brushing by his, firing him into a fierce state of arousal. He wasn’t misreading her. Berel wanted him as desperately as Joseph wanted her.

The ballad ended and another commenced, a song about lovers curled before a fire while the snow mounted outside the windows. Visions of hanging a gola sprig over her and kissing every inch of Berel’s body came unbidden but not entirely unwelcome to his mind.

“May I claim this dance, Highness?”

Joseph scowled at the lord over his shoulder, then at the lord’s sister. He’d seen this treatment before. The lord would dance with Joseph’s current partner, while his sister cornered Joseph.

“I’m sorry, Lord Byen, but I promised the lady to see her back to her family. Captain Tyrel is protective of his daughter.”

Byen bowed, red-faced. “Of course, Highness.”

Joseph threaded Berel’s arm through his own and returned her to her parents with a warning to Tyrel to guard her from the more unscrupulous elements in the crowd. He took his leave, claiming fatigue. In truth, fatigue wasn’t what Joseph felt. He ached for Berel. His nerves were ragged.

“A schente,” he barked at the guard who held position at the door to his rooms. There wasn’t typically a need for guards in the royal chambers, but on celebration nights, things got crazy. Until the young royals chose their mates, it would be like this.

Joseph had stripped by the time the schente came to him. He had balked at the schente at first, accepting them only when he was told that the heir apparent would be expected to keep them. Joseph was glad that he’d agreed to the schente on nights like this. A willing woman he could momentarily relieve tension in might be the only thing keeping him sane for his chosen mate. Berel.

A Little Taste of Red by Beth Wylde

Lance knew the woman was close by. Along with the increasingly overwhelming scent of fruit and blood, he could see the first tendrils of smoke as they crept out from between the thick, viney undergrowth up ahead. The smell of fire and peaches grew stronger, newly tinged with a harsh chemical undertone, and he knew the scene was going to be a bad one. It was too late for him to turn his back on the woman, but he could still protect his nephew from the sight.

“Jacob, run home and tell your mom there’s been an accident. There’s a woman hurt. She’s human and bleeding badly. It may already be too late.”

The boy caught up, shaking his head vehemently. “I want to come with you.”

“No. You need to do what I tell you. Get your dad, too. Tell him there’s a fire. We can’t risk having someone call the fire department. A lot of people prowling around here at night wouldn’t be a good thing after what happened to the Collins family last month.”

Jacob was trying hard to hide the fact he was terrified, but Lance could smell the fear rolling off the adolescent in waves. “Don’t make me go back alone.”

Lance paused for only a moment to address the boy, knowing he needed to be firm but hating it all the same. “I said go home! Now, Jacob. RUN!” He despised himself for sounding so harsh, but it had taken the voice of authority to make the teen listen when he was so frightened.

Lance quickly regained his focus, listening intently for some sign of life. The lack of sound frightened him to the core of his soul. Panic rose swiftly inside him at the thought that she might already be dead and he cringed at the feeling. He did not need to bond with the woman before he even met her. His future was looking bleak enough as it was.

Lance moved faster, bursting into the ravine at a dead run. When he came upon the accident site, he stopped dead in his tracks. The woman looked like a corpse and, if not for the fact that up close his sensitive hearing could still detect her shallow breathing and the sluggish pump of blood through her veins, he might have started digging a grave instead of attempting a rescue. Based on what he saw, he knew burying her was still a possibility. Her chances for survival looked grim at best.

He shook off his gloomy thoughts and got down to business. At present, she was still alive and he needed her to stay that way. His inner wolf had already made his choice clear, so he needed to rescue her and quick. His first priority was getting her out of the cold and away from the steadily growing fire. He could smell gas now, too, which was a really bad sign. Gas and fire did not mix well, and he knew from recent experience that burnt werewolves smelled especially gross.

Lance bent down on one knee, noticing for the first time how critical the woman’s injuries actually were. She was completely unconscious and he had no idea how long she’d been that way. Her body lay motionless on the ground and where her skin was visible it was nearly bone white in color. Her lips were tinged blue and her broken leg was still oozing blood. Death seemed almost imminent.

His hands reached out, almost of their own will, needing to touch her in order to assure himself she was real and not just a figment of his imagination. As he smoothed the tangled mass of red hair back off of her forehead, he gasped. She was tiny and delicate and so damned beautiful it made his chest hurt. With her fiery red hair and alabaster skin, she looked like she’d stepped directly out of a children’s fairytale book. The image of her lying battered and broken on death’s doorstep made him want to howl in outrage.

The sudden sound of a deep male voice cut through the haze of Lance’s thoughts. “Lance! What’s going on?”

“Over here, Thomas. Hurry.”

Lance sighed with relief as his older brother stepped out of the trees. Even through there was almost fifteen years difference between them, the two men looked almost like twins. They were both tall and devastatingly handsome, and even though it was freezing outside, they were dressed in faded jeans and sleeveless T-shirts, as if the cold didn’t affect them at all. They each had the same amazingly long, golden blond hair and sharp cheekbones. Thomas’ golden mane was streaked through with gray, but instead of making him look aged, it lent him an air of distinction that fit perfectly with his title as the Alpha. Both brothers even had blue eyes, but Lance knew his were a startlingly odder shade, nearly aqua in color.

* * * *

The sudden heat and feel of a man’s hand on her body startled Tinsel so much that she opened her eyes. She was busy staring up into cerulean orbs when the second man coughed to get the other’s attention.

“Hmmm, looks like she likes you, Lance.”

“Shut up, Thomas. This is serious. The car is on fire and we need to put it out before someone calls the police. Her leg is also broken and I’m afraid to move her before I get it splinted.”

“I’ll go find something suitable to use for her leg until we can get her back to the house. Dalenna is setting up the guest room with whatever medical supplies we might need.” Thomas paused long enough to give the injured woman another quick once over. “She’s shaking. She needs to be heated up fast or she’s not going to make it.”

Tinsel giggled as her blue-eyed Adonis leaned down and buried his face against her neck.

“She’s going into shock. Don’t worry about the splint. We need to get her to your house and get her warmed up.”

The two men came to an easy compromise. “I agree, you take her back to Dalenna and I’ll take care of the fire.”

In Control by Ava Rose Johnson

She shouldn’t have come.

Annabelle clutched her purse in her lap, closing her eyes as the negative thought echoed in her mind.

In her history of bad decision-making, this was the worst. Definitely the worst.

Hell, even before the plane landed, she’d known this was a bad idea. The gray skies and the turbulence had been the first signs. Only now, with minutes to go until she reached the hotel, she was finally realizing how bad an idea this really was.

She turned her head to look out the window but it was pointless. The grime-covered glass only hinted at the Dublin City buildings they were passing by. She leaned back in her seat, catching the cab driver staring at her in the rear-view mirror. Quick as lightning, the man’s eyes returned to the road ahead. She almost laughed. The man’s embarrassment at being caught looking was something she rarely encountered. People tended to stare at her outright, shamelessly gawping at the world-famous movie star. This poor guy was blushing fiercely in the front as if he’d somehow offended her. She almost wanted to reach out and pat his hand, a sign of assurance that it was okay. Except, she didn’t touch cab drivers.

Maybe he wasn’t sure if it was really Annabelle Lawson who was sitting in his back seat. Even she knew it was damn crazy that a two-time Oscar winner would be riding in a Dublin taxi that smelled like baby sick instead of traveling in her usual limo. Nevertheless, her decision to jump onboard the plane and fly to Ireland had been made too fast to think about ordering a fancy car to pick her up on arrival. Hell, she wouldn’t have been able to do it anyway. Susie, her long-time friend and publicist, did all that crap.

Yet, Susie didn’t know she was here, and Annabelle sure as hell didn’t want to tell her.

“Here we are, Miss.”

Annabelle was so taken with the soft Dublin accent that reminded her so much of Liam that it took a second for the cab driver’s announcement to sink in. They were here.

She lifted her head, and her breath caught at the sight of the Dublin Park Hotel looming before them—Liam’s hotel. He was inside, no doubt. Merely meters away from her.

“Will I take your bags out of the boot, Miss?”

Gathering her composure, Annabelle gave a sharp nod before stepping onto the sidewalk. A cool breeze hit her immediately, reminding her that the Irish May was very unlike the Los Angeles one. Pulling her coat firmly around her shoulders, she marched up the hotel steps, not stopping until she was in the warmth of the foyer.

She let out a long breath, the surrounding luxury taking immediate effect. Renaissance paintings decorated the walls, crystal chandeliers hung from the high ceiling, and a massive fireplace created a stunning centerpiece. Even though, only a few feet from the city streets, she felt as if she’d stepped into another world; the ostentatious world that she lived most of her life in.

Annabelle’s heels clicked along the expensive marble floor as she approached the reception desk, then she stopped. In the midst of the luxury, she’d almost forgotten why she was here. However, finding herself standing in the presence of Liam O’Brien was a strong reminder.

For a moment, her heart seemed to stop, and her world ceased to spin. Liam stood at the reception desk, chatting with a guest. Three years gone by and he hadn’t changed a bit. He still had that shock of black hair curling above his collar, the same charming smile that turned her legs to jelly, and the confident stance that made his six-foot frame appear even larger and more intimidating.

She was vaguely aware of the bellboy taking her bags from the cab driver, and somehow, she managed to pay the driver, complete with enormous tip, her eyes never leaving Liam.

Finally, Liam shook the guest’s hand and turned in the direction of the bar, but just as he was about to walk off, he appeared to hesitate. Hardly breathing, Annabelle watched his body twist, as if in slow motion, until he faced her, and his dark brown eyes found her own.

She stayed in that same spot, her feet rooted to the marble floor until the receptionist caught her attention. Forcing her eyes from Liam’s, Annabelle drifted to the welcome desk. The shock of seeing him after all this time had her so dizzy that her feet didn’t seem to touch the floor.

“Name, please.” The receptionist looked at her expectantly, and Annabelle knew exactly what she was thinking. Nobody on the planet had to ask for Annabelle’s name.

“Annabelle Lawson.” She opened her purse to find her credit card. “I don’t have a reservation.”

“Oh.” The receptionist tapped a few keys on her computer. “I’m not sure if we have any rooms available.”

“What?” Annabelle blinked at the young woman. It had been years since she checked into a hotel by herself, but she’d never have believed that she’d be turned away just because she had no reservation. She was Annabelle Lawson, for Christ’s sake.

Deciding now wasn’t the time to cause a fuss, Annabelle gave a polite smile. “I’m sure you’ll find something.”

“Well, we do have a single.”

“I’d prefer a suite.”

The girl shrugged. “I’m afraid we have no suites available.”

An argument was on the tip of Annabelle’s tongue but it froze there when she sensed him move up behind her.

“Ms. Lawson can take the Medallion Suite,” Liam told the receptionist, his deep voice that sent little shocks down Annabelle’s spine. “The Mitchells will be out of there by noon.”

As the girl typed the information into the computer, Liam turned to Annabelle. “For now, you can join me for lunch in my suite.” He looked back at the girl. “Have Johnny take Ms. Lawson’s cases to my rooms.”

Without another word, Liam took Annabelle’s elbow and led her to the elevators. She didn’t speak—she couldn’t. The heat of his hand on her arm had her speechless. The familiar masculine scent of him was already consuming her senses. Being so close to him had every nerve in her body alive, vibrating with excited anticipation.

“Where are your rooms?” she finally croaked out when the elevator door slid open.

“Top floor.” He nodded to the couple coming out of the elevator then led her inside. “Your suite won’t be ready until the afternoon.”

She nodded. Under any other circumstances, she’d be very pissed off to be kept waiting for a hotel suite, but here with him, she’d be on her best behavior. Liam didn’t like drama.

The higher the elevator rose, the more anxious Annabelle became. Her face heated; her palms sweated. She crossed and uncrossed her arms. Her eyes darted from the elevator ceiling, to him, and back to the ceiling.

She swallowed, dropping her eyes to study her feet. Her throat was dry. She hadn’t had anything to drink since the plane, and for the first time in about ten years, she had no Evian in her purse. There’d been no one to get a bottle for her.

Liam shifted beside her, making her jump. Her eyes shot to his, but all she saw was a hint of amusement.

Oh hell, he’s laughing at me.

Her nails dug into her palms as she fought to pull herself together. She badly wanted someone to hand her a script, to tell her exactly what she had to say. It was as if she’d had a shock of stage fright and forgotten all her lines.

She jumped again when the elevator doors slid open. Feeling her cheeks grow even redder, she stepped past Liam into the suite. In an effort to take her mind off him, she studied the décor. This suite was nothing like what she’d seen downstairs. Instead of luxurious furnishings and rich colors, there were sleek lines and monochrome. Pieces of abstract art speckled the living area, while a very modern kitchen stood behind a breakfast bar; very masculine in its simplicity, very Liam.

She’d almost managed to lose herself in a painting when he spoke.

“Sit down on the sofa. I’ll get you a drink.”

“I’d rather stand.”

His eyebrows lifted but he didn’t argue. “Suit yourself.”

Not knowing what else to do with herself, she followed him to the kitchen area. He reached into the fridge, retrieving a bottle of wine.

“Is white okay?”

She nodded. The thought of a crisp white wine made her throat itch.

While he poured, she turned to look out the floor-to-ceiling window. From this high up, she could see right across the city to the bay. Tall buildings mixed with old-fashioned, red brick houses, a combination of two worlds: the modern and the quaint.

“This is quite some—” her breath hitched as his body came up right behind her, and he placed the wine glass in her hand. Steadying her voice, she finished the sentence. “This is quite some view you got here.”

“It’s just buildings and water.”

Annabelle shivered as his breath tickled her ear. “You never were able to see the beauty in your surroundings.”

Behind her, Liam snorted. “Sometimes, there’s fuck-all beauty to see.”

Taking a sip of wine, Annabelle struggled to relax. The heat of his body was enveloping hers, pulling at her very core. Between her legs, wetness surged to her pussy. Just feeling him breathe on her shoulder turned her on more than any sex she’d had in three years.

“You cold, Anna?”

She closed her eyes, his intimate tone hitting her with full force. Lord, she’d missed the sound of him saying her name.

“No. Why do you ask?”

“You keep shivering.”

As if to prove his point, Annabelle shivered. It wasn’t the cold that affected her, and judging from the quiet satisfaction in his voice, he knew she didn’t shiver from the cold too.

Without saying anything, he moved closer. So close, she could feel his erection pressing against her ass. She bit her lip to stop a moan from escaping. Her clit thumped, aching for what was coming. She knew it was coming. It was just a matter of waiting for Liam to touch her.

The waiting hung heavy between them, thickening the air, stretching the tension. To stop herself from losing it, Annabelle focused on her breathing. Still, no amount of “breathe in” and “breathe out” could take her mind off him.

Eventually, he made his move. His large hands settled at her hips and Annabelle gasped, the heat of his palms searing through the thin material of her blouse. For a few seconds, he kept his hands there, sitting on her hips. Then, with controlled movements, he slid his hands upward, tracing the curve of her waist.

“Did you have a good flight?”

Annabelle nodded wordlessly. His touch was so potent, she just wanted to bend over.

Unable to stop herself, Annabelle pushed back, pressing her buttocks into Liam’s groin. He didn’t respond. His hands kept stroking her waist, up and down, until she thought she might go mad. Then he loosened her blouse, pulling it out of her skirt and slipping his hands underneath.

She whimpered as his hands made contact with her bare skin. Goosebumps rose along her arms while her pussy clenched in anticipation. His hands stroked upward until they met the underside of her bra. A sweat broke out on her forehead as he brought his hands around to cup her breasts. His thumbs flicked over her nipples, stiff and throbbing beneath the lace of her bra. He circled them, teasing them, bringing them out further.

“Was there a lot of traffic coming from the airport?”

“Uh huh.” Actually, she couldn’t remember if there had been traffic. She couldn’t think right now.

Biting down hard on her lip, Annabelle reached out to grip the edge of the breakfast bar. With one hand, Liam continued to play with her nipples while the other slid back down over her belly. In one quick moment, his hand was slipping under her skirt and his fingers were tracing the silk edge of her hold-ups. She moaned as his hand ran over her bare thigh, stroking the flesh. He was so close to touching her; just not close enough.

Annabelle ground back against Liam’s cock. What in the hell was up with him? He knew she’d never had any time for patience, and this wait for gratification was going to send her insane.

Liam seemed to take the hint. His hand rose until he cupped her pussy and his middle finger pressed into her. She moved against it, riding his hand, only the thin material of her thong acting as a barrier. Liam pushed the scrap of material to the side so that his fingers pressed against the bare skin of her pussy.

“Christ, you’re wet, Anna,” he muttered. “All this, for me?”

Unable to answer, she nodded, grinding against his fingers. She could feel his cock swell at the small of her back and ached for him to put it inside her. Nevertheless, she knew she had to do this his way.

Liam’s thumb and forefinger squeezed her clit, and she fell apart. Pressing into his hand, she came hard, spasms shaking her body, tearing the strength from her limbs. Liam held onto her until the tremors stopped and she could stand again.

“That was amazing,” she whispered, straightening her skirt.

“Glad you enjoyed it.”

She smiled, hearing the self-satisfaction in his voice and knowing that there was a smug grin on his face. Just as she was about to twist in his arms to give him his turn, he pulled away.

“I think we should eat now, don’t you?”

She blinked, watching as he picked up the phone; calm, controlled, and completely together. He did not look like a man who’d just given a woman an orgasm or a man who had a raging hard-on. Hell, she could still see it. Though, looking at his face, no one would ever guess he was turned on.

The Liam she remembered had let nothing get in the way when he wanted to fuck. He’d never thought about ordering food or getting a drink. So what was going on now? Why had he suddenly turned into Mr. Control?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Santa's Helper

"So, Nicole, I guess I'll see you at the house." Steve Marco stepped around the perfume counter and walked toward her.

Steve made her skin crawl. As the floor manager, he ensured everything ran smoothly and every customer's needs were satisfied. A good-looking man, Steve stood an even six-foot in height, with thick black hair and brown eyes. Numerous times, he'd try everything from stroking her leg during an appraisal, accidentally brushing her breast when supposedly reaching for something, or Steve's all time favorite move of removing lint and strings from the back of her outfit, using the opportunity to grope her ass. No matter what Steve did, it turned her off. He was nothing like David. David was a gentleman. He never touched her or stared at her until she thought her clothes would evaporate. His voice always held gentleness and kindness when he requested something, not filled with innuendoes as Steve's did. David always gave her just enough attention to want more--like the butterfly kiss.

She walked around the stock boxes, placing a barrier between them. "Yes. I'm just going to finish putting up the colognes, then I'll be leaving."

Moving closer, he leaned on the top box and placed his face directly in front on hers. "I could stay and help you. I'd be happy to put things wherever you asked. Wherever you wanted," his voice dropped, hinting at his blatant meaning.

"No, thank you, Mr. Marco." She gave him the same singsong voice she had placed upon his mother earlier.

"Steve." Reaching his hand out, he slid his fingers down her arm.

Nicole snatched her arm away.

Not deterred, he continued, "When are you going to give in, Nicole?"

"Never." She turned away from him and began shuffling the bottles of perfume around on the shelf, knowing when he left she'd move them all back. However, she was willing to trying anything to get him to go away. "Our relationship will always remain professional." Unlike the one you're having with the rest of the saleswomen. More than one time she'd overheard the subtle sounds of sex going on in his office when one of the other women was supposed to be taking her break.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him gaze at her long candy cane, stocking covered legs underneath her green skirt.

"How can you say such things to me dressed like that?" Steve's hand attempted to grab the hem of her skirt.

Nicole smacked it away. "Oh, it's very easy."

"Be careful, Nicole, that you don't bite the hand that feeds you." He gave her a leering smile.

She placed her hands on her hips and told him, "Be careful, Steve, that you don't get yourself a lawsuit."

He staggered back with his hand over his heart, pretending she had pierced him. "Oh, darlin', you said my name."

Nicole rolled her eyes at his antics.

"Steve."

A deep menacing voice called from behind her, sending heat sliding along her spine. Turning around, she gazed at David across the glass countertop. Her heart felt as if it almost stopped. David looked angry and another look settled deeper in his eyes, but she couldn't read it. She wondered if he thought the way his mother did, that Nicole had her eye on his older brother.

"Let's go, Steve. I need to stop by my house and pick up my gifts before we head over to Mom and Dad's." His gaze shifted away from Nicole as he looked past her shoulder to his brother.

He didn't even acknowledge me.

"No problem, baby brother."

"Ahh!" Nicole squeaked as she felt the sting of Steve's unexpected swat on her backside. Whipping around, she gave him a fierce look.

"See you later, sweet cakes." Heading toward the door with his brother, he called out, "Maybe we'll finish what we started."

"In your dreams," she mumbled as she watched the two brothers walk out of the store and lock it from the outside.

Sanctuary by Jade Falconer

Scott woke, felt for the lamp, and lit it. It flared to life, and everything was as it had been. They were safe for now. Daniel slept on, and Scott knew from experience that he wouldn't wake today. He didn't want to leave Daniel, but he needed to feed, and find out what had happened the night before.

The feeding was harder than it seemed, the streets were deserted. Scott didn't even see any vampires. He finally gave in and ventured near the building where the vampires had rested, and from a block away he could hear the voices. Hunters, going through the place with torches and crossbows. He'd been right not to bring Daniel back here. They would have been killed.

Scott retreated, and just before dawn he gave up and caught a rat. He drained it, wincing at the aftertaste, but it did satisfy his hunger. He made his way back down to the basement, after stopping in Daniel's apartment for more blankets and some water to wash up. He was still covered in Morgan's, Daniel's, and his own blood.

He crawled back into bed with Daniel, who still slept like the dead.

* * * *

The following night, Scott looked at Daniel and could tell he would soon wake. The pressing problem of feeding his lover was upon him. The city was crawling with hunters, so it would be dangerous. But Daniel would be hungry when he woke, mindless and ravening.

Scott finally located a group of men who were pillaging a wrecked house. He caught the slowest one and fed from him, just enough to satisfy him, and render the man unconscious. Then he carried him back to a building nearby to Daniel's basement. The building would not be proof against the sun, but they would be long gone before then. He found some rope and bound the man securely to an old pipe, then went back to check on Daniel. As soon as he entered the basement, he could hear a stirring.

Daniel was awake.

San Francisco Surrender by Will Belegon

I've arrested people for less than this. Arrested them, told the story in court, and made damn sure they were off the streets for years. Removed the threat to society and felt damned good about myself for doing it. So how have I come to be standing on a street a couple thousand miles from home and planning the type of breaking and entering I've worked so hard to prevent?

I look at the letter in my hand again. There can be no doubt the handwriting is hers. The subject is something that frequently comes up in our conversations, both online and off. I know it is genuine. This is the invitation. The chance I've prayed I would have. Combine it with the timing, and there can be no further argument that it is what she wants.

Yet even so, I hesitate as I climb the stairs and reach her door. I have never done anything like this before, and I am still not sure I can pull it off. I know that this may be the only way I will ever have her. It's crazy the way everything fell into place over the last week. I have to take advantage, or else I will always wonder what might have been.

* * * *

It was so hard when we first met. I'd never met someone and instantly felt that connection, that magic portrayed in John Cusack movies. It was as though we could finish each other's sentences. A look and we knew what the other was thinking. A touch, even for an instant, and both our pulses raced. The elusive thing called chemistry was there in quantities I had never even dreamed of experiencing.

The only thing I have ever been able to prove about God was strong evidence in this case. Unfortunately, that thing is the macabre sense of humor the Almighty seems to possess. Satan, I believe in. The existence of evil is not a matter of opinion in police work. But proof of God's benevolence has always been limited to the rare impossibility of a victim's survival and that sense of humor. My relationship with Jen always seemed the perfect example of a divine joke, full of mocking temptation.

Jen was more computer wiz than cop, part of the new generation of law enforcement. With her degree, she would never ride in a squad car, let alone walk a beat. You just don't put a sweet young thing with that kind of potential out among the animals. She knew about the evil of the world through studying it rather than experiencing it. At least, that's what I thought at first.

Like me, Jen was married. She married the college boyfriend rather than the high school prom queen, but there were similarities. Both of us were happy in our relationships; we even liked each other's spouses. Neither of us had any desire to be a home wrecker. Neither of us felt any desire to leave our marriages in the dust. Yet every time I was alone with her, I felt more alive than ever before.

We both knew it was hopeless. When her husband was transferred to San Francisco, I was somewhat relieved. I know Jen was, too. There was never any question about whether she would go with him. Every department in the country needed someone with her skills. She'd even get a raise.

I would miss the sweet torture of her scent and the stolen moments when we hugged in a deserted office. We both knew we could never consummate our passion without destroying our lives. A police department is like a small town, where everyone knows everybody's business. Add the fact that I'd been there twenty years, and there's no hiding a blessed thing. But our need for each other was so desperate, it tempted us constantly. We fought hard to keep things platonic in the eighteen months we worked together, but we were always teetering on the edge of an abyss.

Still, I never kissed her until the last day we worked together. That one moment was almost enough to kill us both. She caught me coming around a corner and pulled me to her. When I felt her lips on mine and her hands around my waist, I couldn't resist. I drank her passion in like any junkie who's been denied a fix. And when we heard footsteps coming, I finally understood the pain of withdrawal. I asked her why now, after all this time, why take the risk? She got a sad, hard look on her face before she answered.

"Because I knew you wouldn't.

Ritual Passion by Emma Wildes

Richard Terrance stumbled and almost fell. Jerked upright by unseen hands and propelled forward, his low curse echoed through the cool night. His booted feet crunched through crisp leaves and all around him he could hear the eerie sighing of the wind through the trees, soft as a whisper.

What the devil is going on?

He tested the bonds around his wrists once again, trying to free his bound hands, but whichever of his captors had tied the knot had done a surprisingly effective job. The blindfold, too, stayed firmly in place and he didn't have the slightest notion where he was being led. "Look," he said once more, trying to control the simmering anger in his voice, "I--"

"Quiet. You have been told the price." The response was both authoritative and implacable, the voice definitely female.

He sure as hell had. He closed his mouth, the bizarre situation making him feel like he'd fallen into some bad dream. However much he wanted to demand an explanation for being summarily ambushed, tied up, and apparently abducted, he felt positively ill at the incredible notion of being castrated. Just the possibility of the threat being sincere made him reluctant to say another word.

From somewhere the low sound of singing came, the sound growing louder with each step as he was prodded forward. Something brushed his cheek, the earthy fragrance making him realize he'd undoubtedly barely avoided a low hanging branch. It didn't take honed deductive powers to discern there were many voices chanting in a language he had never heard before, because as they got closer, he could also feel people lightly touching him and the warmth of bodies as he was pushed through the crowd.

Women. All of them, he guessed, for if there had been men available, surely they would have been sent to kidnap him. Instead he'd been in the act of undressing for bed when the door of his room had burst open. He'd been taken by surprise, his astonishment over having a dozen oddly robed figures pour through the doorway, making him waste valuable time, trying to demand an explanation for the invasion rather than defend himself.

It was a little humiliating, in truth, to be tied up by a band of marauding females, but apparently that was the case.

"Stop."

He obeyed the command promptly, mostly because the rope tied around his wrists was jerked with insistent force. Standing there, he could smell the fecund scent of damp earth and forest, and hear the odd melodic cadence of the voices around him, wondering wildly just what the bloody hell came next. He felt someone fumbling with his blindfold in a mixture of relief and intense curiosity, blinking as it slid away.

A full moon had risen earlier hung over the dark tops of the trees, illuminating a large clearing. Richard could see there were a fair number of robed figures, probably sixty or seventy, standing in a semicircle. The group that had abducted him still stood guard, effectively hemming him in, though the tallest of them barely reached his shoulder. Directly in front of him sat a low stone structure at the top of a small platform, the symbols carved into the front unreadable even with the brilliant moonlight. Shallow steps led up to it, the entire thing maybe four feet high.

It looked, he realized grimly, for the first time feeling a real glimmer of fear, like an ancient altar. With his hands tied behind his back he probably wouldn't get far, but trying to escape seemed like a good option suddenly. The whole gathering seemed intently focused on his presence, and he could feel their interested stares.

One of the women surrounding him broke away and walked to the steps, turning to face the crowd. Raising her arms, she spoke and the chanting stopped with uncanny abruptness. Her hood concealed her face too much for him to actually see her features clearly, but she was roundly built, he could tell even in her shapeless garb. She spoke some words in a sing song voice, none of which he understood, and the group responded in kind. Then in very clear English, she commanded, "Bring her."

Relationships by Piers Anthony

Lieutenant Nuria White was bored, restless, and angry, not necessarily in that order. Nothing Atoll, as the island post was unfondly nicknamed, was a stockade for non-violent military transgressors, and there was no associated town or countryside. All around it was bleak sea, its monotony broken only by the daily visit of the supply ship and occasional inspection helicopters. There was nothing to do outside of her job, and that duty was strictly routine and hardly demanding.

She knew why she was here. She was, by all accounts (and her mirror), a beautiful young woman. Her superior officer had gotten persistently fresh, and she had finally reported him for sexual harassment. She had made her case, with notes and witnesses; he had been reprimanded and shipped out. But not long thereafter, she had been reassigned here. She couldn't prove it was retaliation, but of course it was. This was the way things worked, in real life.

In fact, many, perhaps most, of the personnel here at the atoll had suffered similarly. This was, in fact, if not in name also a stockade for the administrative personnel. Make things uncomfortable for the Army, and it made things worse for you. Everyone knew it. But, she was stuck here for a tour of six months, or a year, or until her enlistment expired, depending on how angry or forgetful the brass were. Women were not supposed to stand on their rights. They were especially not supposed to embarrass the service by making a stink. If she had not properly understood that before, she certainly comprehended it now. She smoldered, but understood.

She fathomed also that a fair number of the prisoners had been railroaded or had taken the hit for miscreants higher in the chain of command. It wasn't that they were stalwart citizens, but neither did they deserve to be confined. The true wrongdoers remained in power. Yet the convicted were stuck with their sentences. Who would believe them, anyway? Aside from hapless folk like her.

Reality being what it was, she tended to retreat mentally into her private realm, where she was her alter ego Nuance, a person respected for what she was. Nuance would not simply accept retaliation; she would find clever ways to make the world serve her needs. Nuria masked the assets of her body, for example; Nuance gloried in them. Nuance would not have protested sexual harassment directly; she would have found a way to harass the man back, making him sorry he had tried, without complicating her own career. Somehow. Nuance was competent, but subtle. Unfortunately, Nuria was competent but straightforward. That was her tragedy.

There were things she did not understand about this dull reality, though. Such as the daily Happy Hour, when the post virtually shut down and almost everyone who wasn't physically confined disappeared. Where did they go? What were they doing? She had inquired, but others evaded answering. Obviously, something was happening, but the personnel here did not trust her to appreciate it. Her curiosity had almost reached the point of dampening her anger, but as a straight-laced lower echelon lady officer, she was unable to fathom the riddle.

Well, maybe it was time to let Nuance take over. Nuance would do what it took, and damn well achieve respect in the process. Nuance always found a way, with few if any regrets.

She made her routine morning inspection of the women's barracks. They were in order, as usual. There was surprisingly little prisoner unrest here; most of them seemed to be on chronic good behavior. She knew that wasn't normal. That was another minor mystery. Surely, the prisoners should be even more restless than the administrators. Certainly, they weren't saints. She had seen their records--that was part of her business. Petty thefts, prostitution, bad checks, drug abuse, or just plain bad luck. A number were chronic offenders, yet here they behaved like stalwart citizens. She had even seen some walking the premises outside the stockade, playing on the limited beach, swimming, seemingly unsupervised yet taking no advantage of it. She had inquired, and been gruffly advised that trusties were granted privileges. Sensing the resistance, she had not pushed it. She would surely find out in due course.

But she knew that not all of them were trusties. Their records indicated that some should be kept closely confined, yet they were not--and they behaved. She had mentioned this to a fellow lieutenant. He had glanced at her obliquely and inquired, "So what are you going to do about it--blow the whistle?" It wasn't really sarcasm; he had blown the whistle on financial improprieties, and been sent here. He understood her situation perfectly. And told her nothing. No one would. She knew she would have to fathom it for herself. Now she was ready to do so.

She spied a female convict she had seen at the beach. Suddenly, she had a small inspiration. If the supervisory personnel wouldn't tell her, maybe the prisoners would. If she inquired appropriately.

"What does it take?" she asked, standing just outside the high wire fence.

The woman gazed at her a moment. "You have been here a month, ma'am."

"And am stir-crazy," she confessed.

"See Famish."

"Who?" But the woman had already faded into the throng. Still, it was a significant response. Had there been nothing, the woman would have been confused. Instead, she had reacted as if expecting the question.

RazorTime by N

It was her fortieth birthday.

A milestone, an event ... and a caution. This was the point in her life when--if she wasn't strong, if she wasn't careful, if she wasn't confident enough--she would start to believe the subversive propaganda suggesting that her life was effectively over, that the best years were behind her, that...

Yes, she had the distinct impression she was in danger of being bamboozled by a pernicious media into accepting that, in the space of twenty-four hours, she had been somehow diminished, that she was less of a person, was of less value, than she had been just a day before.

A young thirty-nine mutating into an old forty.

It was difficult not to be depressed, not when she found herself assailed from every side by images that celebrated the wonders of youth, demeaning those who didn't quite fit--either temporally or spatially--into this obsessive, zero-sized template. How, the magazines and the movies and the adverts seemed to sneer, could a woman like her--slim, attractive, vivacious, intelligent, successful though she was--ever imagine she could compete with the callow, super-thin, fifteen-year-olds they held up as paragons of womanhood?

Yes, it was very depressing.

She shook her head. In fact, the question should really be how could these callow, abnormally super-thin fifteen-year-olds possibly hope to compete with her? They had no sophistication, no experience ... no imagination. They were unformed and pliant, and surely a lover required more than that?

The really annoying thing, though, was that this birthday coincided with a ramping up of her interest in sex, which was, unfortunately, accompanied by a corresponding diminution in her husband's interest in all things sensual.

Terrific.

Hers, she described as a pepperoni marriage--one where the good, meaty, spicy bits were being sliced thinner and thinner. By his disinterest, her husband was unconsciously reinforcing society's stereotyping of the over-forty woman as being less desirable than the gaunt teenagers parading along the nation's catwalks.

She sighed, a long exasperated sigh ... she shouldn't be so censorious. Her husband might not be an exciting or a passionate lover, but he was sensible and reliable.

Sensible ... reliable ... such disappointing words.

But he was sensible and reliable nevertheless, and, thus, would never forget her birthday.

So it came as no surprise when the package arrived that afternoon. It was, after all, her birthday. And despite her husband being away at a sales conference in deepest, darkest Scotland, she knew he would not forget: he was ... reliable. Never had he forgotten an anniversary or a birthday: he had dutifully sent her a dozen--never more, never less--red roses on Valentine's Day and always taken her, her mother, and the children to lunch--always to the same local steak house--to celebrate Mother's Day.

With another heavy sigh she unwrapped the package, expecting--knowing--that inside she would find the usual, safe, conservative brand of perfume, her enthusiasm dampened by the predictability of it all.

Give it another ten years and he'd be sending her gift tokens.

But she was surprised. There was no perfume in the parcel. Instead the package contained a selection of beautifully wrapped and really very expensive clothes. Unveiling them from their golden tissue paper, she found a slight wisp of a blouse, a long PVC kilt, a pair of shadowed hold-ups, a collection of very outré jewellery and, most intriguingly of all, a black mask made of intertwined strips of leather. It was a very strange and a distinctly disturbing collection. But it wasn't though the strangeness of the gifts which was the most disturbing thing about them ... no, it was the familiarity of it all.

It was all so very, very, very familiar.

What on earth has gotten into her husband?

No way could he have bought these at Harrods where he did all of his gift shopping; not, that is, unless Harrods had formed a strategic alliance with Cathouse Creations.

At the bottom of the box she found a card and a sealed envelope. The card read:

I know you. I know the real you ... the secret you. The 'you' that you hide from the world, the 'you' that inhabits only your fantasies. Tonight I offer the opportunity to live out these fantasies, to satisfy these secret hungers and to make your dark desires flesh. Come to me tonight at midnight and become that which you have always dreamed of becoming. Come where you will be safe from daylight's savage censure, come where it is never dawn, come and experience the Principles of Pleasure. Come ... I know you.

There was no signature on the card, but she knew it was from her husband, who else could have sent it? She giggled: this was so silly, so ridiculous. But, she had to admit to herself, she was pleased. This was her man at last making an effort to put some of the intrigue, some of the mystery, back into their relationship.

Better late than never.

Raleigh in Rio by Cassidy Kent

Revival. Raleigh sensed it in her every breath and movement.

She had been dead to the world for years, but finally, at age thirty, she had come to life. She grinned broadly as the frenetic pulse of the samba buzzed through her veins, invigorating her sedated body. A year ago, she would not have imagined this moment: Raleigh Campbell, dutiful wife and socialite, surrounded by the revelry and spectacle that is the Brazilian Carnival.

She glanced around to the women at her sides, the best friends a girl could have. Robin Jones wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling Raleigh along as she swayed to the music.

After finding her unfaithful ass of a husband in their marital bed with his co-worker, Raleigh had walked out of his life and crawled onto the couch of her ever-supportive best friend. Robin had reacted predictably to the demise of her friend's marriage, her long ebony braids swinging furiously when she heard the gory details, her kind, liquid onyx eyes set into hard lines of jet-black wrath.

In fact, all of her friends had made the whole experience as painless as possible, willing to listen to Raleigh endlessly discuss Richard's betrayal until one morning last week. Robin had made up some ridiculous story about an ex-girlfriend who needed help moving. Known for her kindness toward past loves, Raleigh had believed Robin right up until the moment they pulled up to valet parking at Miami International Airport.

* * * *

"Robin!" Raleigh squealed as her friend ran around to the trunk of her car. "Where are we going? You have to tell me!"

Robin grinned mischievously, her expansive smile revealing a row of straight, pearly teeth. "Hold your horses, girl! You've been moping around my place for six months, and suddenly you're all impatient for action? Uh-uh." She offered Raleigh the handle of her packed luggage.

"You packed for me?" She gave a skeptical glance at the suitcase and then back at Robin. "Did you remember my--"

Robin whirled around from her path to the airport entrance. "You'd better hush. I know your little worrying self likes to be told everything that goes on, but this is a surprise, damn it."

Raleigh gave her a sheepish smile, sufficiently chastised. "Lead the way, boss." She trailed Robin through the airport to the check-in counter, thrilled to see her friends Freesia and Diana waiting in line. They waved frantically to her and little goosebumps of excitement covered her arms.

Raleigh giggled with anticipation. "We're almost to check-in, ladies. Come on, give me a hint."

Freesia and Diana exchanged impish looks, and then raised their eyebrows at Robin, as if to ask her permission. "She's going to see it on the ticket in a minute, anyway," Freesia pleaded.

Robin wordlessly pulled out four boarding passes and waved them under Raleigh's nose.

"Rio?!" Raleigh gasped. "We're going to Rio!" The women laughed, jumping up and down and throwing their arms around Raleigh.

"Happy birthday, Raleigh!" Diana cried, her perfectly bobbed auburn hair bouncing with excitement.

"Oh my God, thank you. All of you!" She looked around at the happy faces of her friends. "How long have you been planning this?"

Freesia looked her friend steadily in the eyes. "For only six months," she complained, her well-known reputation as a planner preceding her.

Don't cry, Raleigh told herself. It's only the nicest thing anyone's ever done for you.

"Enough blubbering," Robin interjected, knowing Raleigh to be on the verge of happy tears. "Let's get a drink, girls. I've got a burning thirst that only a Bloody Mary will quench."

After checking their baggage, the women gathered around a table in the airport lounge to await their flight's arrival. Raleigh could only marvel at the varied nature of her inner circle. Freesia Taylor and Robin Jones had been her college roommates, and oil and water got along a hell of a lot better than the two of them. Free couldn't even accept a date before checking her day-planner and making a list of pros and cons, while Robin's Saturday nights would sometimes end up double-booked like some kitschy sitcom episode.

She giggled to herself at the thought. Her eyes flicked from Robin's hot cocoa skin to her rounded cheekbones and flashing smile. A warmer, bolder, more beautiful lesbian had never lived. Raleigh had always counseled Robin on her string of failed relationships, so her turnabout with Richard was only fair play.

A severe clip held Freesia's ponytail of chestnut frizzies at bay. Her well-shaped nose turned up slightly at the end, leading down to her pert, little mouth. A similar story bound the well-starched woman to Raleigh. During her freshman year, she had spent so much time helping Free get over a bad breakup with her boyfriend, Zach, that by the time their wedding rolled around almost nine years later, Raleigh felt as if she had known him all her life. Freesia's natural inclination to plan and worry appealed very much to her, as she had a lot of the same qualities.

A polished redhead with impeccable taste in all things, Diana Simmons had been introduced to Raleigh during a dinner party with Richard's colleagues and their wives. One well-placed witty comment from Diana about the boring conversation and the two had become fast friends.

"This is the beginning," Robin said. "The beginning of a new Raleigh."

"Or the continuation of the old Raleigh," Freesia interrupted. "Before Richard."

"Leigh," Robin continued. "You might not realize it yet, but in a little while, you are going to feel better than you have in years."

"That's right," said Freesia. "All you need is a five-year plan, and you'll be back on track."

Diana hooted out a boisterous laugh, cutting through Freesia's advice with her trademark candor. "I say, all you need is a wild romp with some Brazilian stud to get you feeling right as rain."

Raleigh took a sip of her daiquiri and glanced around hesitantly. "I'm not sure I'm ready for that, Di. I mean, I'm still technically married. And Richard and I hadn't ... you know, for a while--"

"Figures!" Robin scoffed. "Leave it to a man to let his woman go unsatisfied while he makes it with some floozy from the office."

"It's not men that's the problem. It's just this man," Freesia countered. "Zach would never do anything like that."

"We can't all have perfect marriages with our childhood sweethearts, Free," Diana airily replied. "But it's true. Richard is nothing but a dick." The girls laughed at the pun, used many times during the past six months as they discussed their favorite whipping boy.

Freesia held her margarita aloft, a conservative drink for a conservative girl. "To Raleigh," she said. "May you have the happiest of thirtieth birthdays--"

"And the happiest of divorces!" Robin finished. A gale of laughter greeted her exclamation, and Raleigh surprised herself when she joined them.

Pushing the Boundaries of Reality by Angelia Sparrow

The fusion of hardware and wetware, which began in the late twentieth century, reached its art form in the early twenty-second. Cyberspace, long the playground of anyone with a computer, now became accessible at a mere thought--no more clumsy keyboards or virtual reality visors--to anyone with the ready cash for a jack and a running program. Many of the technocrati logged out only to tend to their bodies' most pressing needs. Anyone could get around the forty-hour safety limit with a little thought.

Ariel benEzra, CEO of LedaTech, turned the small case containing the newest program over in his hands. It was meant to take the virtual reality a step farther, into true reality. His long fingers turned it over one more time, as if tantalizing himself. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror by the door and noticed he was smiling, full mouth curving up over very white teeth. Oh yes, this little piece of technology was going to change everything, for Leda and for him.

Zara Broine's running program was state of the art and fully integrated in all senses. As with most programs, it created a street scene of her desiring, translating the bits and bytes into images the human brain could more easily process. Right now, she moved through the crowd on her way to the great cathedral, the Church of Christ, Programmer. Her sable cloak fell only to her knees, keeping the fur from the cobbled street. Her black silk gown, embroidered in all shades of green from peridot to emerald, fluttered about her ankles as she pressed through, listening to the bell peal out the call to worship. A silver cross, haloed with an antique circuit chip, gleamed on the dark bosom of her dress.

Zara might have scandalized seven generations of atheistic ancestors, but the Technomancer looked perfectly at home in the great gloomy virtual gothic cathedral. Her own brother mocked her belief. She found him easy enough to ignore now. She listened quietly, making all the correct responses.

"In the name of the Artificer, Programmer, and Debugger, go in peace." The priest blessed the congregation, making the Sign of the Monitor and Cross.

"And all the people said, 'Amen,'" they responded, crossing themselves with a square added in.

Technomancer rose smoothly from her seat in the virtual cathedral. She moved out into her perception of the Net: a faux-medieval village scene of thatched huts and street markets. In the distance, she could see castles and towers and cathedral spires that marked major corporations and public services.

The congregants milled around her. Her program let her see them as their avatars, but dressed them to fit her reality. This made for oddities like the anthropomorphic lion in a houppeland and a tattooed Maori warrior in hose and folly bells. She took in the street for a minute and then planned her travel.

Technomancer made the jump to her fortress, an instantaneous translation between net-coordinates. She smiled at her reflection in the seamless obsidian wall of the tower.

Intrusion Countermeasures, ice in common parlance, sounded a warning beginning a data point away from the structure. More aggressive ice, including a couple of pieces that could flatline the best hacker, arrayed itself nearer the tower.

Technomancer herself gave off proper recognition codes and frequencies, so the forest of thorns parted for her and the drawbridge lowered to let her cross the alligator-filled moat. The red-hot iron caltrops scurried off on their newly animated legs, letting her pass. A door appeared for her, swinging open in the glass wall of the tower.

She puttered about the tower for a time, replacing a damaged section of the thorn coding where some cowboy had tried breaking in on a dare. She had ice that could kill and maim, and all the runners past their third run knew the Technomancer's Tower held nothing of value. But some always had to learn the hard way.

Purr For Me by Skylar Sinclair

Panteara arched her shoulders back and purred as she ran her hands down along the sleek, graceful lines of her feline enhanced body, reveling in the soft fur covering and the lean muscles defined beneath it. She loved being in this form. This was just one type of beast-shifting--that of half human and half panther. The females of their kind could only achieve this particular shift change on their day of birth--in which case for Panteara was Halloween--or after they mate. For twenty-four hours she could revel in this animalistic state, sinuous and sultry. Slating the sensuous feline creature that would dominate her.

Turning thirty-two and being a beast-shifter made her smile. Life got better and better with each passing year for her.

She was going to a Halloween party in full costume, so what if she really wasn't wearing one? A deep-throated, purring laugh slipped through her full, lush lips. Fooling everyone at the party was her own birthday present to herself. When she was little, she would trick or treat in this form, and people told her how cute she was. They were especially delighted when little Panteara would growl and hiss at them. It was all such a hoot for her.

To others that saw her, she would look like she had worn a dark pelted, skintight bodysuit that hugged and accented her every curve, line and shape, complete with panther ears, long fingernails, and a sexy swinging tail. Panteara was the ultimate cat woman--meow!

She thrived on all the attention she got wherever she went, and tonight would be no exception.

Derek, her old friend from high school, threw the best parties and the ones at Halloween always drew a big crowd. She planned to strut her stuff and find a good, hard male body to roll around in the sheets with later tonight. She loved men, but only on her own terms.

Before heading out the door and to the party, Panteara gave her animalistic appearance one quick glance in the hallway mirror. Grinning wickedly, long canines gleamed pearly white, giving her a sinful and feral look against a deep red backdrop of her glossy lipstick. Soft, feathered whiskers fanned out on either side of her cat-like nose and facial features. Straight dark brown hair streaked with thin strands of golden highlights swung freely about her shoulders.

Her favorite feature was the petite panther ears perched upon the topsides of her head. Twitching them first backward and forward, she'd needed to remember not to do that little number in front of anyone tonight. Vivacious golden-green slanted eyes, with a thick fringing of long eyelashes batted back at her with flirty devilish amusement.

Panteara dripped sexuality from her perky fur-tipped nipples to the red stiletto heels adorning her feet, which matched the color of her long, curved fingernails and lush lips. She hissed, flicking her wrist while clawing at the air in an exaggerated catty gesture, laughing at her feline fatade. Panteara might look feminine and harmless, but she could rip out a man's throat without breaking a sweat.

Tonight was definitely going to be a one for the record books. She could feel her sex tightening up in anticipation of the male attention she would no doubt encounter.

"Show time," Panteara purred deliciously as she reached behind herself, keys in hand and closed the door to her apartment, locking it and headed out for a spook-tacular night of hopeful carnal proclivities.

Proving Santa Exists by Victora Blisse

"Have you seen the new guy yet, Jenny?" Susan from Accounts giggles, as she joins me in the queue to use the coffee machine.

"Oh, yes. He's just by the door, a couple of cubicles up from me," I reply, not wanting to say too much to the office gossip generator.

"He's from America, you know? Transferred over from the Texas branch." Susan beams proudly all over her thin, narrow-nosed face as she offers me this well-nibbled bone of information.

"Really?" The tone of my voice is a verbal pat on the head. "I didn't know that!" I did, actually, but there's no use upsetting her. I can't bear to see the disappointment in her eyes.

"Well, yes. I wonder why he ended up all the way over here, in cold, wet Manchester and so close to Christmas, too?" Her eyes float off, a wistful hint to their blueness. I know she's hoping for a drop of juicy gossip from her out loud wonderings. I shrug, then slip my silver coins into the machine, select tea, milk, no sugar, and wait for the appliance to do its business.

"Do you think he's been demoted--like, big time demoted--or he's pissed off the boss and has been deported to this God forsaken place?" She's desperate for more gossip to spread, but even if I did know something, I'd not tell her.

I shake my head as I pick up my tea. "Maybe he just wanted to see England. Who knows?"

Susan sighs, shakes her head, and wanders off to find riper pastures. She's probably not even thought to talk to the new guy. No, she might be in danger of finding out the mundane truth that way. I walk past the new guy's cubicle on my way back to mine, and I smile at him.

"Hiya." I stop for a moment, and he looks up from his monitor.

"Hi!" he replies, smiling nervously.

"I'm Jenny. I'm in the cubicle just over there." I point diagonally over to my little square of space. "You can just see the back of the monitor from here, and the tinsel that surrounds it. You've probably seen my elbow at some point this morning, at least."

He chuckles, his cheeks flushing soft pink and his dark, coffee bean eyes shining. "I probably have," he replies, his deep American accent very apparent. "Oh, my name's Jonathan. Nice to meet you, Jenny." His hand reaches out and I clasp it. His fingers are thick and strong but soft. We grip hands for a second, then pull apart.

"So, is this your first day at Computers, Incorporated?" I ask, and he nods his head.

"Well, this one anyway. I was at the Texas branch for--what?--six years before moving over here."

"Do you like rain then?" I giggle, and he looks kind of confused--very politely confused, mind--his thick lips holding a tentative smile and his cheeks pinking up further. "It rains a lot in Manchester. People often make jokes about it. That was a lame attempt at humour."

"Oh, I see." His eyes light up, and I'm rewarded with some more of his rolling chuckles. "I wanted a change, really." His face settles into a more serious a shape. "And I've always wanted to see England. So, when this IT position came up, I took it. I mean, why not, huh?"

I smile, nodding my head, then taking a sip of my just warm tea. "Has your family come over with you then?"

"No. Well, I've got no family really. I'm an orphan."

"Oh, gees. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry."

"Don't worry," his hand waves in front of his face. "I know you were just making small talk. No, don't worry. Don't worry yourself at all."

"Okay, then." I grin and he grins back, his smile lighting up his whole countenance. "You'll find that we British folks are very polite. Oh, yes, we hate to be seen prying into someone's personal business. We're too dignified for any of that nonsense."

This time he picks up on the joke, and laughs. "I'm used to it. Everyone gets a bit flustered when I first tell them. I've just found it better to be up front with it, y'know?"

I nod vigorously, then notice the time on the office clock. "Blimey! I'm sorry Jonathan, but I'm going to have to get back to work. The damn boss seems to think that's what I'm here for!"

He chuckles once more. "Oh, I know. Damn strange, ain't it?"

I nod, my green eyes sparkling with mischief. "What lunch shift are you on?" I ask as I turn to walk away.

"One o'clock." he replies, and I stop and turn to address him once more.

"Oh, so am I. I'll see you then, then." I answer awkwardly, and he nods.

"See you later."

Yes, Jonathan is a lovely chap: funny, polite, interesting, and damned good looking, too. His eyes! Boy, oh, boy, they're beautiful, and those lashes so thick and luscious. Many women will be jealous of them, that's for sure.

Anyhow, I can't afford a crush right now, and I know he'd not be interested in me like that anyway. No one ever is. I'm Jolly Jennifer, everybody's friend; no one's lover. I'm pretty short, plump, and have a well-developed mothering instinct. I take care of people: keep them smiling, encourage them, and help make them laugh. That's all. No use dwelling on the situation. I could sit here and mope about it all day and all night, but why? There's nothing I can do to change the fact. I'll just get on with being friends with him.

He's on his own, and it's very nearly Christmas. It's a terrible time of the year to feel lonely. I know, because I do everything in my power every Christmas to keep busy, surround myself with people, and attempt to forget how lonely my life actually is. It works to an extent, but I have to go to bed each night in an empty house, and it's then the loneliness really hits me.

Potent Spirits by Aurora Black

The clock struck eleven as Vivian yawned and burrowed under the blankets she'd arranged on the sofa. Cradling a hot toddy in her hands, she silently cursed the fates for the apartment's heater being on the fritz. Just my luck, she thought. As if she didn't hate this time of year enough, she had to freeze as well.

She carefully sipped her drink, a tiny smile curling her lips. It could be worse, she thought as she glanced at the television. She could have lost the electricity.

Vivian finished the toddy, sighing as the warmth pooled in her belly. She placed the empty mug on the coffee table and reached for the remote control. Absentmindedly flicking through the channels, she quickly dismissed the special Christmas episodes of the sitcoms, cartoons, and the billionth broadcast of It's A Wonderful Life.

She shuddered and changed the channel again. After another few seconds of channel surfing, she stopped in her tracks when she noticed that A Christmas Carol was starting. Normally she didn't care for old movies any more than she did holiday ones, especially old holiday ones, but this time she felt drawn to the dance of pale light and shadow on the TV screen.

She reached for the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels beside the couch and began to drink as she was sucked into the story. Vivian grew warm and relaxed as the time passed, so much so that it didn't matter when her thoughts drifted away from the movie and onto more pleasant territory. Caleb Blackwell, the man always on her mind. He was gorgeous, kind, brave, passionate ... and completely out of her reach.

Vivian's sigh was a mixture of yearning and self-directed frustration as she put down the bottle and turned over onto her back, staring at the ceiling. She first met Caleb over a year before, on the night her house burned down. The fire had been accidental, and within minutes everything was engulfed in flames. The overpowering stench of smoke jolted her awake, but the sight of everything around her catching fire paralyzed her. She was terrified of sharing the same fate as her mother, but she couldn't move to save herself.

Her eyes watered at the memory. She closed them as she remembered Caleb charging through the flames to save her, the blazing fire complimenting and accentuating his red hair and golden brown eyes. They were lion's eyes. She remembered the strength of his arms as he lifted her and carried her out of the charred ruins of her home, the bottomless depths of his eyes, the smell of his masculine sweat, and the feel of his body against hers despite the heavy fireman's gear.

Vivian wanted him from the first moment she saw him, but she was afraid to risk being hurt again. Their paths crossed several times after that night, and he'd always been friendly and concerned with her, asking how she was and what she was up to. But Vivian never allowed herself to read much into it, convincing herself he was only being polite; that he wouldn't be interested in her when he could have any woman he wanted.

"Ebenezer Scrooge!" The television droned on, but she didn't notice.

Her hands trailed slowly beneath the layers of blanket and flannel to cup and squeeze her bra-less breasts as she imagined what she would do to him if he were in the room with her. Shove him down onto the couch, rain kisses all over his face and neck before reaching for the buttons of his shirt...

"Tonight, you will be visited by Three Spirits..."

Vivian cried out as she pinched her nipples, twisting and pulling them slightly before releasing them. Her breathing was harsh as she sank deeper into her fantasy. In her mind's eye, she pulled Caleb's shirt free of jeans that fit him like a glove, attacking buttons one by one until the cloth parted to reveal his mouthwatering chest. She leaned down, gently capturing a dusky male nipple between her even white teeth, lashing the tip of it with her tongue briefly before switching to the other...

"At the stroke of midnight, the first one will come..."

One of her hands pressed between her thighs as the other continued its breast play. She carefully inserted one, then two fingers into her dripping wetness as the images and sensations of Caleb tantalized her. She could almost hear his rough groans as she licked her way down his chiseled abdomen before dipping her tongue into his belly button. She felt his large hands run through her raven curls, cradling her head to guide her mouth to where he needed it the most.

Vivian added a third finger to the mix, curling them slightly inside her as she moved them faster. She brought her thumb to stroke her clit as she imagined herself smiling seductively at him before teasingly rubbing his erection through the thick layer of denim that kept it prisoner. She saw her hands tugging forcefully on the button fly until his briefs were revealed, and then she yanked them down before taking him into her mouth.

Pink Ribbon by Jude Mason

Rick knelt in his cage. The bars running from front to back dug into his knees and shins, but he was used to that. Even the cool air didn't bother him like it did the first few times she'd sent him into the punishment room and locked him in. What did bother him was why.

His knees hurt terribly, but he dared not move. Cass, his lovely sweet Cass, would be upset, and he knew she watched him sometimes. He didn't even dare raise his eyes to see if the camera's little red light was on or not. He'd learned not to do that, months ago, when she'd caught him masturbating guiltily, while she watched from the comfort of the living room. He shuddered at the memory.

She'd been upset with his dinner preparations that evening, the gravy had been lumpy, and the salad warm and wilted. So, angry at his lack of attention, she'd sent him to his cage. He'd gone willingly enough, thinking it would be an easy way out of some punishment he knew he deserved. He'd thought nothing of stripping down, and crawling into the four-foot square steel cage. When she'd locked the door and reminded him to behave, he'd smiled and replied, "Yes, Mistress."

She'd no more than walked out the door and closed it, than his hands were reaching for his privates. Never mind the rules, or that he hadn't asked permission to touch himself. What did that matter? She wasn't there. She'd never know.

He'd lain on his back, stretched his legs up the bars on the opposite side, and was madly pumping away at his erection when he'd heard the door. He was too far gone to stop, or so he'd thought. The bucket of ice water had changed his mind, instantly.

"Slave," she'd roared. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Shivering, frustrated, he'd lumbered around until he got his knees under himself, and his head bowed respectfully. Dripping wet, freezing cold, he'd tried to come up with a reply that wouldn't make it worse. "Mistress, I ... I," he'd stammered, his mind racing. He knew he had to answer with something, but his mind was blank. Finally, he'd said, "Mistress, I was thinking of you and ... well, one thing led to another. I'm sorry. I didn't--"

"Stop, right there. Not one more word." Her tone left no question as to her indignation. "You dared think of me in that manner? And then you masturbated, stroked that puny, little cock and no doubt, fingered your balls, without asking my permission to do so."

Rick hadn't been sure if he should answer or not. His erection had still strained from between his legs; his balls pulled up tight to his crotch. The excitement of being caught, plus the attention of his lady and his own exhibitionistic tendencies had all conspired to keep him painfully hard. He'd decided to keep his mouth shut, and to quickly comply with whatever she said.

Wrong decision.

"I asked you a bloody question, slave boy," she growled.

Rick remembered how he'd cringed and the reply he'd made didn't help matters. "Yes, Mistress. I'm terribly sorry. I just couldn't help myself. You're so lovely. I just couldn't keep my mind off you. It's been over a week since I came, and--"

"Shut up!" she'd cried, and he'd immediately shut his mouth.

He'd been worried then. She'd never seemed so angry before, and he wondered what kind of punishment he'd have to endure. As it turned out, he was wise to be concerned.

"Dinner was horrible," she'd said. She paced around his cage, her stiletto heels doing a light tap, tap, tap as she leisurely circled him. "And you have the balls to complain about not coming for a few days."

Something had struck the cage behind him, and he'd nearly cried out. He'd blurted, "No, Mistress. I mean, yes, Mistress." Confused, he'd clamped his mouth shut and prayed for it to end. Prayed she'd just punish him and get it over with.

"Yes mistress, no mistress. Damn, you don't even know what you're trying to say, do you?"

Cringing, he'd opened his mouth to answer, knowing he was going to say the wrong thing, but also knowing he was supposed to reply to a question she directed at him. Luckily, she didn't give him the chance.

"Never mind." She returned to standing in front of him, and said, "Keep your eyes downcast, but lean back. Put your hands on the floor behind you."

Rick quickly got into the position she'd requested. The bars grated against his knees, even more so against his shins, but that didn't deter him as he'd maneuvered his long, lanky frame into the desired pose. He made sure to keep his eyes focused downward along the length of his body. Hairless, at her command, his chest and belly rippled with muscles that he'd worked hard to maintain. His erection pointed accusingly at him.

"Spread your knees," she'd said, and again, he'd complied eagerly. He vividly remembered the feeling of his balls dangling between his widespread thighs--how defenseless he'd felt, how excited and horny. The cool air and cold water made each testicle shift closer to his body.

"Now then, it's lesson time," she'd said and, reaching down, unlatched his cage door.

He'd known better than to move, but the temptation was definitely there. Instead, he'd gritted his teeth and remained still. The tension had mounted in him. When he'd thought he couldn't take the silence, the anxiety, and the excitement another moment, she spoke again.

"Keeping in position, come out of your cage."

It was awkward, and it took a little time, but finally, he'd emerged from the cage on his knees and hands. His shins ached where the bars had dug into them, but the minor pain was acceptable.

"Here," she'd said, pointing to a spot in front of the chair she'd crossed the small room and settled into. "Hurry up, I don't have all day."

It had taken him some few minutes to get to the spot she'd picked, but again, he didn't complain. When he'd stopped before her, he'd been extremely apprehensive, but more than willing to take the punishment he knew was coming.

"Push your hips up, show me what you've been diddling," she'd said in a voice as sweet as liquid honey.

He'd pushed his hips upward, displaying his rampant erection and his tight balls. His stomach muscles strained, the backs of his thighs tightened, and moments later ached from the forced posture. He felt his inner thighs quiver with tension.