Saturday, September 27, 2008

From This Night by L.E. Bryce

It was a delicate subject, one they had carefully avoided for the past eighteen years. “Agamo, this meeting was the last thing I wanted for today,” Khanis slowly began. “Gods, you know I’ve tried to avoid this unpleasantness, but the priests of the Silver Hand have been here. They know about the agreement.”

Agamo stared straight ahead as his host’s servants set out wine and a tray of delicacies. His former rival always set an excellent table. It was a shame he had no appetite. “Of course they know about it.”

“They insist the deed must be carried out.”

“Surely some other arrangement can be made? You simply did not negotiate hard enough with them.”

“Would you prefer to try?” Khanis asked irritably. “And yes, I did ask what other arrangements could be made under the present circumstances—and, failing that, I did throw money at them. It’s just our misfortune that the only honest priests in Bhellin happen to be knocking on our door. The gods stand on any oath taken in their name, they say, and the words were very specific.” He spread his hands on the table. “There is simply no way around it.”

“How could such an oath be binding?” Agamo sipped his wine. Getting drunk was a tempting alternative to this meeting, but he knew better, and drink was what had gotten him into this predicament in the first place. “Look at the result. Surely the gods sent us a sign through the outcome?”

“Do you think I did not try that argument with the priests? All I got were sharp words warning me to keep to my vintages and not presume to speak for the gods.” Khanis sharply gestured for the servants to leave, waiting until the door closed before adding, “You should have been more cautious with your words, Agamo. The next-born child, indeed! Píru of the Silver Hands hears all.”

Agamo wagged a finger at him. “Don’t you start that business with me. You saw nothing wrong with the agreement at the time. After all the girls my wife birthed and not a single boy, how was I to know Suryo wouldn’t be another daughter?”

“You were drunk, that’s what.”

“And you weren’t? You agreed to it.” Agamo rubbed his eyes with one hand. The wine appeared more tempting by the moment.

“I agreed to join my house to yours,” grumbled Khanis. “I never agreed to let my son bed another boy and call it marriage. Glower and fume at me all you like for the insult, Agamo, but you know it’s true. You never entered into this knowing you’d have a son, and you know that no heirs can possibly come of this. Word will get out. We’ll be humiliated. It’ll be utter ruin for us both.”

Agamo already knew that, had sensed it years ago. Grooming Suryo to play this role had proven difficult, as the boy’s recalcitrance only added to his heartache. Somehow it hurt more than all the daughters dead in infancy, because he knew he was losing his only son, his heir, through his own foolishness. “I still have a daughter. Once this business is finished Alasson can have Savira. Tonight I will tell Suryo to prepare.” Agamo spread his hands in an indication of helplessness. “He may sulk, but he will obey.”

Reaching for the decanter, Khanis refilled his cup and drank again. “Alasson has no idea. I’ve never mentioned the oath to him,” he said. “Still, it isn’t as if he hasn’t had his share of pretty boys. He knows what to do, and I guarantee he’ll do as he’s told if he wants his bride.”

“I want a contract drawn up before I leave.”

Khanis started. “What’s this?

“I want it made perfectly clear that Suryo isn’t some painted boy Alasson can use for one night and discard,” said Agamo. “I expect him to be treated well. Roll your eyes at me if you like, Khanis. I know Alasson has a quick temper, very much like you at that age. He’s liable to complain about this whole mess we’ve forced upon him, and insult Suryo while he’s at it. You know I speak the truth. So I want a contract, something you can wave in your son’s face. When the terms are met Suryo goes into the priesthood and Alasson marries Savira and becomes my heir—or he remains your youngest son and inherits only the scraps his brothers leave him.”

Only twenty years ago the idea would have been absurd. Agamo pictured his ancestors groaning in their tombs at the thought of Alasson ké Khanis inheriting the family’s wine business. Then again, twenty years ago he could never have sat across from Khanis and shared a civilized conversation with him, much less demanded a contract. Had the circumstances not been so grave, he might even have smiled.

Khanis huffed, but in the next breath got up to fetch parchment and pen from a cabinet. “Suryo will be an honored guest in my home. You have my word, and I will make certain my son knows it as well.” With a twist he uncorked the ink bottle. “Alasson might be temperamental, but he isn’t a fool.”

* * * *

“I want absolutely nothing to do with this,” said Alasson.

Khanis brought his fist down on the heavy mahogany desk, nearly upsetting his writing materials and the wine cup the servant had just filled. “You’ll do as you’re told and obey your father and the gods, or by the gods I’ll take you over my knee and tan the skin off your ass.”

Youthful bravado gave Alasson a fool’s courage, for he knew his father was perfectly capable of carrying out his threat. Where another son would have meekly bowed his head, he fired back, “This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. How do the gods expect me to father sons with this boy?”

“Stop your pacing, and read the damned contract,” snapped Khanis. The servant quietly moved around him, clearing away linens and platters of food. Alasson did not bother to ask who the guest had been; his father entertained business partners in his study at least four times a week. “You stand much to gain from this.”

Alasson gave the contract a cursory glance. Phrases, freshly scrawled against the creamy parchment in his father’s hand, jumped out at him: for the term of one year...the designated bride treated with honor...ill treatment renders the agreement null and void.... He had no need to reread the document to know what was at stake: his future. And yes, he did want his own business, and knew that marrying Agamo’s sixteen-year-old daughter was the surest way to attain it.

Marrying Agamo’s son in the bargain did not fit in with those plans. In fact, explanation or no, it was the most absurd thing he had ever heard.

On a few occasions Alasson had seen the young man in question, though they had never exchanged words once formal introductions were made. Suryo was comely enough, with dark curls and even darker eyes that observed his father’s business negotiations with apparent disinterest. Alasson was not averse to bedding a pretty boy, but not a peer, and certainly not his future brother-in-law. “There must be some law against this,” he said.

“In this case, no,” replied Khanis. “I argued much the same, and so did Agamo, but in this matter religion apparently supersedes the law, and neither of us wants to involve the civil authorities. The situation is unfortunate enough as it is. Can you imagine the humiliation if it became public record? We might as well sell our assets and leave Khalgar altogether.”

Alasson sat down. “Why in the world would you and Agamo make such a ridiculous bargain?”

Khanis raised an eyebrow. “You think it foolish, do you?”

“Look where it leaves us.”

“At the time it seemed like a good idea. Agamo’s wife had borne only daughters—six of them—and no one really believed the snake oracle’s assurances that this time she’d have a boy. Pay enough money to those charlatans and they’ll tell you whatever you want to hear. I had sons, he had daughters. In hindsight it was foolish, but back then what could have been more sensible than to want to seal our new friendship with the promise of marriage?”

“Waiting until the baby was born,” finished Alasson.

For a moment Khanis did not answer. “There’s nothing to be done about it now except follow through with this arrangement. We can’t afford to alienate the priests of the Silver Hand, or the god will withhold his blessing, and I won’t insult Agamo because you’ve a few qualms about where you put your cock. It would mean going back to the way things were before you were born, and that would ruin us all.”

Alasson made a dismissive gesture. “The old feud—”

“Don’t be so smug, boy. This peace between our families is still a very fragile thing. The only reason we’re not still killing each other in the streets is because Agamo and I have worked very hard to put the old grudges behind us,” Khanis said sharply.

“You don’t know what it was like before. Every week there was cause for some new quarrel. Even our servants brawled in the streets. It was strangling us, destroying our business. I’ve said it before: Agamo and I have both worked too hard to build what we have, so don’t sit there and think for one minute that I’m going to allow some twenty-year-old stripling to defy me.”

Alasson had heard from the cradle the stories of interfamilial violence that had claimed uncles, cousins, and even his own grandfather. He knew how the present king’s father had finally forced peace upon the two families by drafting its last surviving scions, Khanis and Agamo, into military service, where three years of hard campaigning against the Turyar taught them to be brothers-in-arms.

“King Eramen suggested we seal the peace by pledging our children in marriage,” continued Khanis. “We’d just come back from our last campaign and were flush with victory. By silver-handed Píru Agamo swore he’d give his next-born child in marriage to my newborn son. He was in his cups at the time—and so was I.”

“I know the story,” Alasson said irritably. “Agamo was a drunken fool, and so now his son and I have to pay for his colossal stupidity. Tell me, Father, which one of us is supposed to fuck the other?”

Khanis glared at him over his cup before drinking. “I can do without your crude language.”

Now was not the time to point out that whatever expletives Alasson knew, he had learned through his father’s mercurial temper. “I am utterly serious. Have the priests told you, or are Suryo and I supposed to flip a coin on the wedding night?”

“Since Agamo pledged Suryo as a bride, naturally you will play the groom. You needn’t fear for your manhood on that account. Here, drink something. I don’t like to let expensive wine go to waste.” Khanis indicated the untouched cup the servant had set before Alasson before withdrawing. “Suryo has been groomed for this, and by all accounts he will obey his father.

“Now I would like nothing more than to tell you that it isn’t necessary to go into him, but the priests of the Silver Hand have told me that the god won’t be satisfied unless you consummate this union. My advice to you is drink a bit on your wedding night, get yourself hard, and think of your inheritance while you’re fucking him.”

Alasson took the wine and tasted it. A deep red from the orchards of Akkil far to the south, heady enough to make a man drunk if he downed too much too fast, it was just what he needed. Not every merchant could afford foreign wine, and Khanis kept only a small quantity in his cellar. “It’ll have to be strong wine to get me hard enough.”

“Trust me to find the right vintage.” Khanis sipped his wine, then made a face. “It could be worse, son. Suryo could be a pockmarked halfwit. I understand Agamo has had him pluck his hair. He’s now as comely as a maiden, and skilled as a whore with all the courtesan’s tricks he’s learned. You should have no trouble.”

Alasson found this information repulsive. “What happens after the wedding night?” he asked. “Does he go back to his father’s house, or do I have to put up with him afterward?”

“I’ve told Agamo that Suryo will be an honored guest in our home,” answered Khanis. “So, yes, you will have to put up with him. Not bed him again, of course. You need only do that once. After that Suryo will have his own room and his father and I will find some quiet pastime for him.”

Alasson gazed into his cup, started to drink, then thought better of it. Akkian wine was too potent. “This will be awkward,” he confessed.

Loving True by Marie Rochelle

Construction industrialist Hayward Campbell walked across the porch of his newly remolded home and squinted in the bright morning sunlight. It was July and up in the mountains, it means scorching sun and cool breezes. He let his robe hang open, enjoying the breeze across his naked chest and the slight flapping of his green silk boxers against him. He sighed and stepped on the dew-covered grass. It felt wonderful to his bare feet as he sauntered along.

He was in no hurry; the peacefulness of his home was just the thing he needed. Hopefully, in time, it would help to mend his battered heart. Nothing could ever fix the damage that she’d done. If what everyone had said was true, maybe he could learn to live with it.

Hayward slowed his gait. Unconsciously, he caught the edges of his robe and pulled them together. Someone had moved into the house next door because the ‘For Sale’ sign was gone. He felt a burst of anger towards the intruder; this was his piece of heaven. Who would dare invade his paradise?

How could he have not noticed that someone was moving in next door? Was he so isolated inside his house that he not once noticed the sound of a moving truck echo through his ears? Just how long had the ‘For Sale’ sign been missing from the yard? He really couldn’t remember. His real estate broker had made the owner an offer for him, but the guy never accepted it.

He had lost count of how many females had rented the house only to leave after two months. Rural Montana wasn’t a place most women wanted to live in the first place, so he still didn’t understand why so many had moved next door.

There weren’t any clothing stores or restaurants for miles, and he loved that. The unfortunate women who had moved next door had found that out rather quickly.

The further away he was from the fast-paced speed of the city, the calmer his life was. That kind of life had cost him something precious, and he wasn’t about to fall back into the lifestyle again, for anyone, no matter how much his family wanted it.

His brother called him last week and tried to coax him into coming back for a little visit, but he turned him down instantly. He loved his brother; however, it was past time for Clinton to stop trying to heal his wounds. He relished the pain. The memories made him realize that focusing only on the money had shattered his life.

Rubbing his dark blue eyes with the back of his hand, he blinked some of the sleep from them and wondered about his new neighbor. Would it be another woman this time? The last two females who had lived there within six months of each other thought he might need a little ‘extra’ neighborly hospitality, but he shot their ideas down very quickly. He didn’t move out here to find a hot body to warm his bed during the winter months.

Hayward couldn’t wait to find out whom the next person was that decided to take on the challenge of living in that huge house. It didn’t matter if it was a family, a man, or a woman. As long as they left him to his own devices, he would be the best neighbor that anyone could ask for. He was about to turn and go back into the house when the sound of a speeding car coming down the street caught his attention.

A firecracker red mustang pulled into the driveway next door, and the roaring engine became a soft purr before it turned off. Well, his question was about to be answered in a few seconds. Please don’t let it be another lonely female looking for a man, because he wasn’t about to fill that role ever again.

The car door swung open as he watched a pair of well-toned cocoa legs appear followed by a nicely firm bottom encased in blue jean shorts. She crawled out of the car, stretched, took in a long full breath, and his blood warmed at the sight. He would swear a plain white t-shirt never looked so good.

* * * *

True Williams paused in the middle of her new, blacktopped driveway. Her ebony eyes stared at the two story custom-made house, the beige siding completed the distinctive style. Her vision shifted to the forest of trees, blowing lightly in the warm late July air. Can I do this? Am I crazy for leaving all my friends back home?

With a soft sigh, she slid her hands into the back pockets of her snug denim shorts. Turning from her car, she spotted her next-door neighbor staring at her from his yard. His dark eyes traveled the length of her body; a tingling sensation started in the pit of her stomach and worked its way up. He bent over to pick up the rolled newspaper, and he greeted her with a nice view of a tight firm butt pressed against a silk robe. He looked over his shoulder, and she arched one eyebrow at him, his brows drew together as he gazed back. He was gorgeous; his dark eyes flashed with curiosity, and his thick black hair brushed back from his face, enhancing a powerful jawbone. Then she did it; she winked at him. His brows shot up in response.

Without saying a word, he turned away and retreated into his house. She glared at him. He didn’t seem too pleased with her moving next door. She lifted her shoulder, a small snort slipped from between her lips. Well, that will teach him to stare at me. She strolled toward the trunk.

Hell, she didn’t care if he wanted her as a neighbor or not. She was here, so he would have to deal with it. In the last two years, she had moved three times. Every place she moved never felt quite like home to her. Hopefully, living out here in Big Sky Country would change that. At the back of her car, True unlocked the trunk and flinched when the smooth, slick, freshly waxed surface burned the tips of her fingers.

With the tips of her fingers, she lifted the white banker box with the word ‘bears’ scribbled across the side. Balancing the box on her hip, she took small steps toward the front porch so it wouldn’t slip. Her hands held five years of yard sales, thrift stores, and late night eBay searches. Her mother started her collection with her very first bear at her eighth birthday party, and she had been collecting them ever since.

“Okay, Baby, we are almost there.” She rubbed the side of the box with her left hand and glanced down, making sure there wasn’t any kind of debris in her way. “Thank God.” She breathed a quick sigh of relief and raised her foot toward the first concrete step when a noise behind the wicker chair drew her attention. She almost jumped out of her skin when out of nowhere, the flying squirrel from Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons flew over her right shoulder.

The furry-tailed creature hit the ground with a loud thump and dashed across the grass, back into the dense forest. The creature shocked her. Her tight grip on the box slipped and it crashed to the ground then rolled away from her, stopping by the edge of the grass.

“Shit!” True cursed, looking over at the dented box. She sent out a silent prayer that the contents in the box were still intact. She lifted the box off the ground and carried it inside the house. Once inside, she placed the damaged box on the antique, ebony glass table her aunt left her.

“I pray the bubble wrap worked,” True sighed, reaching for the box cutter next to the damaged box. She carefully ran the knife across the packing tape and flipped open the box. Taking out one of the K’ Collection bears, she untaped it and let out a sigh of relief. It wasn’t broken. She unpacked the rest of her bear collection to make sure they were all undamaged. “Thank God none of them broke.” She rewrapped the bear statues and placed the box under the table out of her way.

Standing with her hands on her hips, she surveyed the difference between her new home and the over-priced one bedroom apartment she had rented in California. Four bedrooms with a large master suite and a whirlpool bath was a lot, even for her, but she had the money for it, especially, after the half a million-dollar lawsuit settlement from Starr Technology.

Her eyes narrowed in the spacious living area that her old apartment could have fit in. A residence in the mountains wasn’t her forte. She felt a little out of her element; however, she loved a challenge. Living in a new town, where no one knew her name or the scandal linked to it, left the possibilities for a new life wide open. “Well, nothing will get done if I keep daydreaming.” She wandered in the direction of the four unopened boxes underneath the bay window.

Biting her bottom lip, she cringed at the boxes positioned by the cream-colored walls. It would take her a while to separate the contents. She didn’t mind the extra time it might take, but she still had to go grocery shopping.

Hours later, True brushed the remaining clingy packing peanuts from her hands. Her eyes glowed with satisfaction at the neatly arranged room around her. Family pictures of her parents hung on the walls along with an older, faded picture of her aunt. Several African artifacts covered the area behind her black couch and a medium white shelf displayed her unique bear collection. A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. Finally, she could start on that grocery list and head to the store. She hurried from the living room to her favorite part of the house, the breakfast nook.

She adored how the sunflower wallpaper added a warm, sunny feeling to the spacious room. Taking a seat at the granite table, she pulled the ladybug notepad towards her. The low rumble of her stomach echoed in the kitchen. “I’ll feed you soon so stop all that noise.” Her fingers brushed her empty stomach; she hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

Ten minutes later, she tossed the pen on the table. Her eyes scanned the rose-colored paper for any missing items. Brown’s grocery was a long drive, and she didn’t want to make another trip into town for a small item if it wasn’t necessary. “Well, I guess I better hit the road.” She snatched the car keys off the table in the hall and rushed out the door.

The Collettes: Willa by Dahlia Rose

Willa. The voice called to her from between the mist, and as she walked slowly she could see no one.

“Where are you?” she called out. Her eyes peered through the fog as her name was whispered again like the wind caressing her cheeks.

“I’m here, my love.”

“My love?” Willa questioned. “How can you call me that?”

“Because I have dreamed about you for months now.” A figure approached her out of the mist that swirled around them. “You are Willa Collette, third daughter of vampire blood, and I am your mate.”

She looked at the man standing before her. He was almost a head taller than her. His hair was long and the color of a raven’s feathers. It hung down onto the brown leather coat that covered his shoulders. His face was angular, and behind thin rimmed glasses his eyes—beyond ice blue to the point they were almost opaque—stared back at her.

“How do you know of me, of my family?” she whispered.

“I just do, and for your part of this quest you must come to me, Willa. We must do this alone, without your sisters. To keep them safe, we must find your part of the amulet alone. It is only when we have the final piece that we must all stand together to face Carthos. He has hidden in plain view all this time; his home is in catacombs underneath the mansion. He had them built centuries ago while you were children.

“Oh my God! All these years! I can’t leave them we…we have been betrayed by the one we trusted the most. Together we are stronger, I can’t leave them to fight Jarrod…I mean, Carthos alone.”

“They will be safe; you have to be strong for all of them now. Their spirits are low, you have to be their strength.”

“Where will I find you?” Even as she asked the question, Willa knew in her heart she could trust him. Her gift may have failed her when it came to the traitor in their midst, but she was certain this man was the key for her to find the final piece of the amulet.”

“I am Tyson, come find me, Willa. Let us end this evil once and for all.” His hand went around to the back of her neck. Willa closed her eyes as the warmth of his touch met her skin. He whispered in her ear before pulling away, “Now wake up! Your sisters are worried! Wake up!”

The final words from his lips echoed in her mind as she sat right up. She was no longer lying in Luna’s lap but in a bed, covered with a soft blanket. She touched her chest where the wound was and found it was healed. The burn of garlic and holy water no longer stung her veins.

“Willa, you’re awake!” George exclaimed. She ran to the door of the room and yelled out, “Hey guys, she’s awake!”

While foot steps came thudding down the hall, Willa swung her feet out of the bed and began to rummage through the drawers.

“Whoa, naked vampire!” Gideon said. She turned, just in time, to see him backing out the door and into her sisters who were following close on his heels.

“I’m sure you’ve seen the naked body before Gideon,” she countered dryly. “Where are we? I need clothes.”

“We’re at my safe house. I bought a second apartment off the radar years ago that no one knows about, just in case,” Luna answered.

“I guess this is a just in case scenario if I ever saw one,” Willa murmured. She walked over to what she assumed was a closet door and pulled it open. It was empty except for some boxes on the floor. “Do you have clothes in this place?”

She heard Luna sigh and she crossed the room, throwing open another door. “Here’s what you’re looking for.”

“Why do you need clothes so badly?” Sola asked.

Willa started to pull articles of clothing from the large closet, wrinkling her nose at some of Luna’s choice in outfits. She finally selected a pair of brown soft suede pants, a black turtleneck, and brown jacket to match. She was lucky they all were the same size down to the shoes.

“Well?” Sola queried when she got no answer from her sister.

“I have to go find my mate and the amulet.” It was her simple answer as she dressed. “Do we have weapons here?”

“Honey, we don’t have to think about that right now, you were hurt and we have to figure out a way to deal with Jarrod, I mean Carthos.” Luna made a sound of frustration. “I can’t seem to stop calling him Jarrod!”

“It’s okay, baby.” George walked over to rub Luna’s shoulders gently. “It’s not easy to be betrayed by someone you love.”

“He didn’t love us! He wanted to use us; fate would have it that he played his hand too soon,” Willa said harshly.

“Willa, we need to talk first, we can’t go off alone now. He’ll be looking and his minions will be everywhere with the scent of us in their noses,” Sola explained.

“My mate called to me while I slept. He came to me in my dreams and found me instead of the other way around. I have to go alone!”

“No way in hell am I letting you go off by yourself!” Luna turned on her. Along with her eyes flashing fire, Willa could see intense worry in her gaze. “How do you know it was not one of Carthos’ tricks? You could be walking into a trap.”

“I trust my gift, Luna. I know he is correct. I have to leave both of you and your pieces of the amulet safe. All of us out in the open leaves us exposed to Carthos. The four of you must remain hidden until I come back with my piece. It is only then we can fight the final battle and take that bastard who raised us back to Hell.”

Luna’s voice broke as she spoke. Willa had never heard such emotion in her sister’s voice and saw tears threaten to spill over onto her cheeks. “Do you know what my first sight was in the daylight? I saw my sister’s blood on the grass! All my life, I longed to see daylight. At that moment I hated the light more than anything. These damn amulets almost cost me you! I will not lose either you or Sola! So you are going to have to do a damned good job of kicking my ass to keep me from going with you!”

“I think she said it for all of us,” Gideon said. “Safe or not, we all travel together from now on. We are never going to be caught off guard like that again.”

“Fine, we’ll come up with a plan before I make any decisions.” Willa looked around at each person whom she called family, each of them defiantly telling her in their own way that she was not going to be going alone. She loved each one of them, but she knew in her heart what had to be done.

That night, after all the talking and all of the planning, while they slept in the arms of their mates, she slipped out into the darkened New York streets. Her heart was heavy as she left her family, but she felt her courage build with each step farther away she took. This was her time and she had to do it alone.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Christmas Cake by Victoria Blisse

“I’ll have half a dozen of your mince pies as well, please, Emily.”

“Sure, Mrs. Tanner. You’re starting early this Christmas.”

“Oh, well it’s not that far off now, is it? I’ve got the family coming on Saturday and I’m doing a bit of a spread. Karen wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t put out some of your mince pies.”

I blush, picking out the rest of the order and putting them into a stiff, white paper box.

“Well here we are, Mrs. Tanner.” I look down on the mince pies, the small brown loaf, and the half a dozen oven bottoms. “That’ll be four pound eleven.”

“Thanks, Emily, see you next week.” Mrs. Tanner passes me the cautiously counted out coins and I drop them into the till.

“Goodbye, Mrs. Tanner.” I call then, rearrange the display of mince pies. Looking out of the glass front door, I can see the twinkling lights and tinsel in the window of the fashion shop opposite. I shake my head, it’s only just crept into December, the air has still got the mellow crispness of autumn lingering on it, yet the Christmas display has been out for a month across the road already.

I start selling mince pies on the first of December now, simply because of demand. The fruitcake doesn’t come out until at least a week before Christmas Eve and the gingerbread trees and Santas will be baked for the first day of the children’s Christmas holidays when I will put up my decorations.

When I was a little girl Christmas didn’t start till Christmas Eve and my family were bakers even then, but as the years have passed it’s gotten earlier and earlier, with the big shops starting to sell Christmas gifts as early as October these days. I know I sound like a grumpy old woman, but that’s because I am a grumpy old woman and Christmas doesn’t mean anything to me now.

When Greg was alive Christmas was the most magical time of the year. He loved Christmas. We’d sing Christmas carols as we baked, we’d have this massive meal, inviting all those who would otherwise be alone at Christmas, and it was always a full house. But Greg died ten years ago and I’ve become one of those alone at Christmas.

We never got to have kids. We had plans, but it just seemed that Mother Nature wasn’t keen on helping us along. It wasn’t a burning desire for either of us, but now I’m completely alone and I physically ache with want for a child, someone to remember Greg with. I keep the bakery on my own, I bake what people want for Christmas, but I don’t even put up a tree in my flat above the shop.

The door bell tinkles and I look up.

“Wow, it smells delicious in here.” His rumbling voice suits the tall, imposing body it is attached to.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Oh, call me Jim, please.”

“Okay, Jim.” It is unusual to find yourself on first name terms with a brand new customer, but his open smile and easy manner make me feel as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

“I’m new ‘round here,” he states, his bright blue eyes scanning the shelves before him as he talks. “I just moved in over the road.”

“Well, welcome.” I smile and his gaze flicks from the display of cream cakes and fixes on me.

“Well, thank you, oh, what is your name?”

“Emily,” I reply.

“Thank you, Emily.” He holds out his hand above the high counter top and I reach mine over. He takes it in his strong grip and shakes it, my stomach shakes in time.

“So, have you moved here with family?” I ask, as he continues to visually devour my cake display. “Oh no, it’s just me. I’ve got a new job here, and at my age you got to go where you’re needed.”

“Oh yes. I just hope I can keep this place going, I am far too old to be searching for jobs now.”

His eyes meet mine again and I feel my cheeks pinking on their own accord.

“Oh, no, that can’t be true. A vibrant young lady like you is just in her prime of life, surely.”

“Why, thank you.” I flush more and look down at the cakes in the display before me. “But I am definitely over that hill these days.”

“Well, as long as we’re both on the same side of the hill, I’m happy.”

He grins and I laugh. “Right, I think I’ve finally decided. I’ll have a mince pie, please, and one of those delicious looking vanilla slices.”

“Certainly, anything else?” I ask as I take a breath and try to keep my hand steady as I handle the delicate pastries.

“Oh, and a small tin, please.”

“Would you like that sliced?”

“Oh no, I prefer to cut my own, you know. I’m old fashioned like that.”

“Oh, I’m the same.” I pull a small white loaf from the shelf behind me and wrap it in stiff paper.

“That will be one pound seventy eight please, Jim.”

He passes me the exact change and takes his goods with a wink.

“I’ll see you again soon, Emily. I’ll not be able to stay away from such sweet treats.”

“Goodbye,” I call after him, wondering exactly which treats he was talking about.

The Rapture by Missy Lyons

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Angels followed Him and His Word without question, carrying out His orders and wishes. His angels possessed nearly as much power as He did. They could create worlds, and they could destroy them in a heartbeat. They held a power that is unequaled, even among the magical beings of the earth. But the power wasn’t enough to keep them all happy. There was one angel who did not agree with His Maker, and he disobeyed his God by seducing the first woman ever created, from her husband Adam.

Eve was the first woman to experience the Rapture.

It wasn’t an apple that made her want to go back to the Gardens for more.

Lucifer was banished from the heavens for this act. He was known as the first of the fallen angels, and several more followed him. He isn’t known as an angel anymore, but a Demon, and he lives with his kind—other angels who also thought to experience the pleasures of the flesh for themselves—in inner earth.

The Rapture is an experience that any woman would die for. Humans can’t compare to the sexual fever produced by a Demon lover. There is nothing you wouldn’t do to experience it again. The unique scent sent out by a Demon who wants to bond his lover to him is one that invades your soul. It’s addictive and quickly sets your body on fire with desire. A desperate need to be satisfied. Powerful. Binding. Everlasting desire to please your master. Enslaved, one becomes completely dependent on their Demons for their pain or their pleasure.

No other lover will compare once you have experienced the Rapture.

* * * *

Genevieve cast the spell, chanting in a throaty whisper, letting the words flow in a river of power to center on the object she clasped in her fingers. She held a silver flute loosely in her hands, too deeply entranced to care about anything else but completing the spell. The precious flute already held some power, fashioned by the elves of the Black Forest. Its music could captivate the soul. The music came out pure even when the person playing knew nothing of music, or magic. The music that came from the flute was nothing less than spellbinding, but with her spell on the small silver flute, the music could cause an obsession.

With the last of the spell finished, Genevieve turned the flute over, admiring her new toy. She had given the flute part of herself, and part of her own magic left her when she worked that spell. She would know if it were misused and always be able to sense the flute’s whereabouts, which was a good thing. The spell she just wove around the flute would drive men crazy with lust and an insane desire to please the one who played it. This magic flute was now enchanted with a spell that would be difficult to undo, and would attract men like bees to honey.

It would not be the same for women, they would not be vulnerable, only men. And those men would beg to serve the musician, to please them, or just have one night to love them. They would leave their lovers, abandoning their lives and their familiarities. They would come bearing gifts of diamonds and rubies. Treasured wines and the best of any of their food from their storehouses. And once they had listened to the music of this magical flute, they would be obsessed with pleasing the musician, anything to hear the song once more. This little silver flute could take away the freewill of any man in the world. Kings would be on their knees, warriors would lay down their weapons, and the person who used it could have more power than anyone in this world should.

Quickly the music would become addictive, and it would become an obsession, unless the entire song was wiped clean of their memory. Something easily accomplished. The youngest of Druids could cast a memory spell if they wanted to make its power disappear.

In the wrong hands, this magic flute could be deadly, but for Genevieve and her people the Elisaid, the last of the cursed Druid descendants, the flute would be her salvation. It meant more than she could have ever dreamt.

This flute would help her to get her heart’s desire.

A child that she could love and hold.

Pick of the Litter by Wendy Stone

Marissa screamed, falling backwards as the big cat barreled toward her, its long claws outstretched and almost gleaming in the light. Her hands were held in front of her, little protection against the fangs and claws of the creature.

Time moved in slow motion as she tried to back away from the muscular beast. Her feet slipped on the hard wooden floor, unable to get purchase. Finally, she turned her head, not wanting to watch as her life was ripped violently from her.

Another growl sounded, this one from off to her right. Marissa opened her eyes, gasping. This cat was even bigger than the first, solid with muscle and its pelt gleaming almost blue in the light. A strange golden collar ringed its throat, flashing as it roared again, showing huge fangs. Then it, too, pounced, but instead of coming after her, it hit the other cat, knocking it off its feet and down to the ground.

The second cat stood over the first, its teeth poised at the vanquished throat for what seemed like hours but could have in reality lasted only seconds. Deliberately, he backed away, letting the other cat up. The cat snarled once, looking at Marissa with glowing, evil eyes. The bigger animal growled low in its throat, teeth bared and fangs shining. The smaller cat seemed to bow to the bigger one and then trotted from the room, its tail whipping angrily.

Marissa stared at the big black cat left in the room, watching as it looked at her a moment. Then it moved toward her, a husky rumble coming from its chest.

“No,” she moaned, putting her hand up, only to feel the huge head bump against her palm, rubbing against her like a good natured tabby. It moved even closer, rolling on its back against her sock covered feet, rubbing against her legs.

She was so surprised, she couldn’t move for a moment. “Good girl,” she said hesitatingly, reaching out to rub at the rounded ears.

The cat grunted, giving her a look from its amber eyes that seemed disgusted. It rolled again, this time showing off definite male characteristics before coming back to its feet and standing next to her.

“Sorry,” she said, slipping to her knees. “Good boy.”

It seemed to be waiting for something and she finally realized that it wanted her to get up. She did, watching as the cat took a few steps and then turned to glance at her, impatience in his eyes.

“Okay, okay, I’m coming.”

She followed it back up the long stairs, walking beside the huge beast. He prowled with a feline grace that was poetry to watch. He made sounds in his throat as he walked, a strange noise somewhere between a grunt and a hum. Turning into a door that was partially ajar, he pushed it open with his head, slinking through and then calling to her with that same humming grunt.

Marissa walked into an elegantly feminine bedroom. Rose colored walls contrasted against white molding and wainscoting. Soft watercolors of flowers hung upon every wall. Stylish cherry furniture, including a high four poster bed, had her eyes lighting up in delight. She turned a small circle in the room, amazed to be in it.

Her companion leapt easily to the bed, padding a circle upon the soft floral spread before lying down and eyeing her in what looked like amusement. She moved closer to the bed, hearing the rumble of his purr as she cautiously sat on the edge. “Is this my room or yours?” she asked, feeling foolish. “I wouldn’t think something as magnificent as you would like a room this feminine, so I think I’ll believe it’s mine.”

The cat rose, moving closer to her, rubbing his huge head against her shoulder carefully.

“You’re a friendly one,” she breathed. “Thank God.” She lifted her hand, almost shrieking when the panther opened its mouth, closing it around her hand. He backed up on the bed, pulling her forward and then letting go. Marissa lifted her palm, amazed to see not even a sign of a tooth mark on her bruised skin. If it weren’t for the slight drool upon the back of her hand, she wouldn’t have known he’d touched her. “Next time, just tell me to lie down,” she groused, wiping the drool off on the oversized sweats she wore.

She curled up on the big bed, reaching down and pulling a soft throw out from under her graceful companion. Feeling incredibly safe in the big cat’s presence, she let her eyes close and exhaustion drag her deep into blackness.

* * * *

Hands grasped at her, pulling at her limbs, tearing the clothes from her body. Rank smelling men pawed at her, their faces distorted with lust, ugly and twisted with their perverted desires. Marissa screamed, fighting them off, her body struggling painfully in their grasp. A mouth closed over her nipple, teeth biting down sharply, drawing blood, bringing a shriek of pain from a throat grown closed from panic. “Please, don’t! Stop!” she cried as she was passed from one set of arms to another.

Lukah rose from beside her, shaking off the sleep that had taken him while he watched over her. Her writhing and mumbles had startled him at first and he hadn’t known exactly where he was. But now, he saw her in the grip of a nightmare, and knew what stalked her in her dreams. “Marissa,” he called softly, not wanting to scare her worse. “Come on, sweet one.” He reached out and gently touched her shoulder. “Wake up!”

She did, fighting his hand, striking out against him. He pulled her to him, holding her gently, but not letting her go. “It’s me, Marissa. It’s Lukah,” he said over and over. “You’re safe with me.”

“Lukah?” She pushed back from him, looking into his face. Then she crumbled as sobs shook her shoulders, her hands coming up to cover her eyes. “Oh God,” she wept. “They raped me.”

He drew her gently into his lap, holding her close, his hands rubbing soothingly across her back. “It’s over, sweet one,” he crooned, rocking her slowly. “You’re safe, you’re safe.”

Her sobs lessened and she lay compliantly against his chest. “Oh,” she said, her head coming up to look around the room. “Did you know that…”

“I have panthers in the house?” he finished for her, smiling down at her with a gleam in his gaze. “Yeah. They won’t hurt you.” He slid her off his lap before she realized he was naked. “Go back to sleep, Marissa, it’s still early.”

She curled up against the pillows, looking for the entire world like a teenager in the over-sized clothing. Yawning, she reached out and took his hand. “How many of them are there?” she asked.

“A few, but they won’t bother you. I promise.”

“The big one that saved me had a collar like your necklace,” she muttered sleepily, her hand reaching out to barely graze the heavy gold. “He had eyes like yours too.”

Lukah held his breath as she reached out and touched his face with gentle fingers. His heart tripped in his chest as he waited for her to say more. Instead, she smiled sleepily and curled her hand under her cheek, her eyes closing.

He moved on the bed, scooting toward the edge with a grace that was fluid and lithe. Her soft sigh stopped him and he turned, stroking his hand over her cheek. “Sleep little one. When you wake, we shall talk.”

She rubbed her cheek into his palm, trusting him and making his heart leap. His gaze moved over the perfection of her slim features, marred by the bruise that was forming on her cheek. She was beautiful, there was no denying that. But there was something else that stirred these deeper emotions in him, something under the damsel in distress he’d rescued. She held a core of strength that was not often found in the female of her kind.

Beauty, he thought, staring down into her face, relaxed by sleep. Creamy skin, with a slim nose and large expressive heather-colored eyes that could look into his soul. A high forehead crested with long, curly auburn hair that shone red/gold in the light. Full, soft lips that curled sweetly in her dreams. He longed to know how she would taste, how she would respond to his touch.

With a shake of his head, he stood, an impressive naked specimen. He stretched, reaching up, his hands grazing the ceiling of the room. Tearing his eyes from her, he left the room with a measured tread, closing the door quietly behind him.

“Well, cousin,” he heard the feminine purr, turning his head to glare at the woman standing behind him.

“What do you want, Lucinda?” he asked softly, though his impatience was clearly evident in his voice.

“I can’t just want to talk to my favorite cousin?” she asked silkily, stalking towards him with the inherent grace of their kind. Her black hair was a loose cloud around her oval shaped face. The amber of her eyes glowed as she looked over him, purring to let him know she was enjoying what she saw.

“You’ve never wanted to just ‘talk’ before, Cin,” he sighed. “I can’t believe you’d want to start now.”

Her hand came up, resting against his bare chest. She moved close enough that he could feel the heat of her body through the leather pants and silk shirt she was wearing, her unfettered breasts brushing against his arm. “Well,” she sighed, stroking his hard chest, “perhaps I wish more than just to talk.” She chuckled huskily, sounding almost like the humming grunt of the big black cat. “Just talking was never enough for you before.”

“Cin,” Lukah began, moving her hand off of him. “Not now.”

“Not now?”

Lukah cringed at the sound of her voice, knowing by the anger he could hear that she would be hell to be around unless he could satisfy her in some way. “I’m tired and hungry, Cin. I need a run and something to eat. Until then, go find one of the others to sate your lusts with.”

“You wish for me to go to someone else?” she asked, her voice full of disbelief.

“Yes, go find Ajax or Dimitri. Either would be more than happy to scratch your itch for you, Cin.”

Lucinda stared at him for a moment in disbelief. Then anger flared, flaming in the molten gold of her eyes. She stamped her heeled clad foot heavily into the carpet, a screech of rage coming from between her lips. “You turn me away? How dare you? Do you know who you are insulting with your words?”

Lukah felt his own anger stir, the rage that had taken him last night still needing a worthy outlet. He felt his jaw shift, his teeth lengthen as that rage triggered the change inside of him and fought it. He couldn’t change now. Shaking his head, his long black hair sliding silkily over his shoulders, he pushed back the desperate urge. “Cin, if you know what is good for you, you will leave now. Go find the others, tell them I have a guest here, a human guest.”

“Now you make me into a messenger?” she growled, her own teeth lengthening. “I do not do your bidding unless it is my wish to. Do you forget who my father is?”

“Do you forget who made it possible for you to come here? Do as I say, Lucinda. Else you will force me into actions I do not wish to take.” He narrowed his eyes, a headache pounding behind them from dealing with the spoiled and selfish cat.

She narrowed her own. “You’ll be sorry,” she said softly, before spinning, her hair slapping him in the face as she swung around.

Lukah watched as she strode away, anger in every twitch of her hips. Sighing heavily he turned toward his bedroom once more.