Saturday, October 25, 2008

How to Ruin Halloween for the Grim Reaper by Dahlia Rose and Crymsyn Hart

Harmony stared longingly at the calendar. Only three more days until Halloween, then she would have a day off. She sighed as she stared at the palm trees lining the white sandy beach and the turquoise water lapping at the shore. Already there was a hammock, a good book, a coconut filled drink with a pink umbrella, and some sun tan lotion calling her name. Her bags had been packed for days, but she was getting impatient counting down the time until she could take the day off. After all, as a Grim Reaper, the only time Death got to take a holiday was on Halloween. It was the only day in the year that her office shut down. She could do whatever she wanted from midnight to midnight. Every year, she found herself on a secluded paradise, with a stack of books, and a gorgeous cabana boy who refilled her drinks. She wasn’t the only one looking forward to a vacation. The whole office was. Harmony was only one out of two hundred Grim Reapers. She’d been in her job for almost two hundred years now. The pay was great, the hours were long, but every year their quota increased. If they didn’t have their list cleared by midnight on Halloween morning, they had to work overtime until they could get caught up.

Each Reaper worked alone. It wasn’t a job for just anyone. She’d seen so many of her colleagues burn out after only a couple of years. Afterwards they would get processed like the rest of the souls they handled. Harmony had never seen what was past the waiting room. She wasn’t in any hurry to find out yet either. She liked life too much. Granted, she had died, but dying was the only way to become a Reaper. When the Reaper who had come to collect her soul saw how reluctant she was to leave her body, he decided to give her another option. Harmony smiled as she thought back to the first time she had seen Clem, her mentor, the Reaper who had brought her into the office for an interview.

Clem wasn’t the typical Reaper. All humans saw Death cloaked in a black robe. Sometimes mortals were more perceptive, seeing the skeletal face and the scythe, the symbolic fa├žade of Death. In reality, the preferred dress for her position was all black. Clem, on the other hand wore Hawaiian shirts, torn jeans, and sandals. She’d never seen him when his hair wasn’t a mess, with his beard all scraggly. His entire face was tattooed with leopard spots. Plugs stretched his ear lobes to the size of a small orange. A silver bull ring ran through his lower lip. He had a chain stretching from one ear to a hoop on his top lip. Clem liked to boast that the punk rock piercing craze was his idea. The day he had come to collect her, when she saw him standing there in his Hawaiian shirt with spots on his face, she nearly died all over again from the shock. At first she thought he was a demon come to take her to hell. Once he had explained he was a minion of Death, coming to take her to the great dance hall in the sky, she had calmed down.

Her face burned with the memory of how she had died. She was a burlesque dancer in the mid-1800s. While she was dancing, Harmony had missed a step and slipped. It wasn’t the fall that had killed her. She had stumbled back into one of the sets. A sandbag came off the rope it was holding, landed on her face, smothering her. It was an embarrassing way to die, but ehh, she had gotten over it. She wasn’t showing her skin to make a living, which really made her happy.

“You daydreaming again about where you’re going on your vacation? Let me guess, this time it’s Cozumel, the French Rivera, or how about Jamaica?”

Harmony looked up at Clem through her red hair. Today it was slightly wavy. Tomorrow it could be full blown curls looking like a summer sunset had been painted on the strands. Every day her hair changed texture and color. It seemed to get a life of its own after she died. In life she was a boring brunette, but in death she was a lively red head. Her skin had paled. Her eyes reflected the light like any night creature. Once in a while, she wondered if Reapers were related to vampires, because if she got a whiff of blood, her mouth watered. It was very disturbing. She waited for fangs to grow or bat wings. After two hundred years on the job, it had never happened. Today Clem’s outfit consisted of dark blue khaki shorts, a worn out, holey Jimmy Buffet T-shirt, over which he had an outrageously bright yellow Hawaiian shirt, with his customary sandals. Harmony had never been able to figure out his age. His beard was dark brown, but his hair was salt and pepper. There were no wrinkles on his face, because if there were, the tattoos covered them up. He acted like he was twenty, but possessed the wisdom of Solomon.

“No, I think I’ll make it simple this year, I’m going to Barbados. I haven’t been there in a while. I want to take it nice and easy. I might even try to throw in some gambling this year. I don’t know though; don’t want to press my luck too much.” Harmony smiled, tearing her gaze away from the calendar on her desk. Turning her head she glanced at a picture from last year, when she was taken unaware by a tourist on the beach.

It showed her with big sun glasses covering half of her face, nose buried in a book, with legs that stretched out a mile. Of course the tourist had been aiming for her cleavage, which was quite visible even in the one piece she was wearing. She tried not to think about that. Harmony remembered she had taken off her glasses, giving her Death Stare to the tourist. It hadn’t worked since she was enjoying her well deserved vacation. If the look had worked, the guy would have been dead in half a second flat from a heart attack. Harmony was at the top of the list for harvesting souls, with her Death Stare; at over twenty thousand and still counting. She didn’t like to brag, but she was the fastest, most rewarded Reaper in the history of the office. As soon as a name appeared on the list, she was there collecting the soul before anyone could say “Hey look, it’s Elvis.” Who was actually a Reaper, by the way, often getting in trouble when he made “unofficial” stops. Of course, he was given special treatment because he was such a celebrity. At the office Christmas parties he always sang.

“Well, I can see that you are, as always, way ahead of the curve. You don’t have any backlog. Your list for today seems to be shorter than anyone else’s. You must be going for employee of the year again,” Clem said as he sat on the edge of her desk.

Harmony blushed. She hated being the center of attention, which was odd since she used to dance burlesque. She had become used to the anonymity of Death. It was true, she did excel at being a Reaper. Clem joked about her sixth sense. It seemed she always knew what soul would end up on her list before he did. When that happened, she always appeared to them minutes or hours before hand. Harmony liked to think that this was what she had been fated to do. Now that she was caught up and then some, she could take a few minutes to herself, to file some of the paperwork piling up around her. She hated the paperwork aspect of her jobs. Sometimes there were just those souls who did not want to continue on to the great beyond. They did not want to see what was past the Waiting Room. If that happened, she got a backlog, had to file a ton of papers in triplicate in order to get upper management to understand what happened. At least in the past few years, they had streamlined the form, making it pretty simple. It was known that some humans didn’t want to give up the ghost right away because they didn’t realize they were dead. It was very rare that someone, like she had been, just flat out refused to die.

“Now you know I don’t plan for that. It’s just a knack I have. Besides I learned it from the best there is!” She smiled up at Clem.

Her mentor, and boss, smiled back at her. “Hey, what can I say, I’m the greatest boss in the history of the Reaping office. Now, before your head is filled with frolicking dolphins and way too many Pina Coladas, here is your list of souls that we have so far. Knowing you, you’ll have them all done by lunch time. Remember, we’re meeting Melody tonight for dinner.”

Harmony rolled her eyes. Melody was Clem’s girlfriend from the Supernatural Creatures Division. He had been seeing her forever. Harmony liked her okay, but whenever the three of them got together, Clem insisted they sing karaoke since they had a great Melody and Harmony. It was an awful joke because even though Melody could sing like a lark, Harmony sounded like a dead black cat. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll be there I know. Now shoo, so I can get back to work.”

Clem handed her today’s assignments and headed back to his office. Taking the list, she skimmed over it. There were over six hundred names, but that was a typical day’s work. It only took about two- three minutes for her to snatch a soul and then bring it back to the Waiting Room. After that she was on to the next one. Harmony sighed, while staring at the clock. It was time to get back to work and she only hoped there wouldn’t be any snags.

Illicit Attraction by Zena Wynn

Catrina sat on the backless, oversized, and padded barstool at the hotel bar, sipping a wine spritzer. Behind her was a steady flow of traffic into the steak restaurant next door, even though it was about nine in the evening, a little late to be eating, no matter how delicious the food. Those not going into the restaurant, headed for the Registration desk, checking in for the night.

She’d been in the bar for about an hour, enjoying the jazz trio playing in the lounge around the corner to the right, as they performed one jazz instrumental after another. They were one of the best jazz groups she’d heard in awhile. The hotel lounge was starting to fill, even though it was still early for a Friday night, and while the band was excellent, she doubted the crowd would grow much larger than it was now.

The mellow music was working wonders, and she’d finally begun to relax. The mouthwatering New York Strip she’d consumed earlier followed by a slice of heavenly key lime pie didn’t hurt, either. While being stood up disappointed her, the shower, meal, wine, and music combined to alleviate the stress of the heavy weekend traffic she’d driven in to get here.

Cat noticed the bar and the sign announcing tonight’s performers when she walked through the hotel lobby two hours earlier to check in. After eating her quiet, solitary meal, she decided it was too early to return to her room for the night. The bar come lounge seemed like the perfect solution. She’d have a drink or two and enjoy the music before returning to her room to settle down for a good night’s sleep. She was doing just that when she found her peace interrupted.

A large male body, smelling of Brut—her favorite—crowded into her personal space as he squeezed into the narrow alley between her stool and the one next to it. A deep, commanding voice spoke. “A rum and coke on the rocks—light on the rum—and give the lady here another one of whatever she’s drinking.”

Cat sighed and held up her left hand, displaying the two-and-a-half-carat diamond and gold wedding band set she was wearing. This was the fifth time this night, at least. Why did men assume a woman alone was easy prey? She’d come in here in hopes of some down time, not to be approached by every Tom, Dick, and Harry wanting to test their skills as a Player. After the second wanna-be, she’d discovered the hard way that looking at or talking to the men only seemed to encourage them, so she didn’t even bother glancing at this newest, unwelcome disturbance to her hard earned tranquility.

She flinched when a masculine hand entered her field of vision, mere inches from her face, complete with its own well-aged, worn-looking wedding band. She trailed the arm back to its owner until her gaze connected with a tall, well-built man with black, wavy hair and a piercing set of dark blue eyes. This one was going to be harder to run off than the rest. She could feel it in her bones. “Does your wife know you’re here, in a bar, trying to pick up women?”

The young, male bartender quickly smothered a grin at the evident scorn in her voice before walking off to fill the order. Cat wasn’t amused, annoyed and frustrated, but not amused. Was she going to have to retreat to her room just to get a little peace and quiet?

He grinned, a dazzling slash of straight, white teeth in a well-tanned face, and held his hands out in front of him. “Whoa, you’ve got the wrong idea. I saw you shoot down those last four guys and figured we could help each other. Maybe if we act like we’re together, the men will stop hitting on you and the ladies will leave me alone.”

Cat arched her brow in disbelief, looking around the bar. There were several hungry-looking women giving the ruggedly handsome man at her side the eye, but still… “Is this some sort of new pick up line?”

He shook his head. “No ulterior motives, I swear. I really thought we could assist each other but if you’re not interested…” He picked up his drink and turned away from the bar with an obviously disappointed sigh.

If she could believe him, it could be the answer to her problem.

“Wait!” She laid a hand on his arm. Mmm, nice muscle tone. She resisted the urge to squeeze. “You can’t blame a woman for being cautious. If you’re really serious, that might be nice. The come-ons were starting to annoy me.”

He turned back to her with an engaging grin and held out his hand, “Darius Cornelio, at your service.”

She laid her hand in his and shook it firmly. “Catrina Jackson. My friends call me Cat.”

“Is that an invitation?” He arched his left brow inquiringly, and his blue eyes seemed to sparkle.

Is he flirting with me? Cat was suddenly aware that her hand still enfolded his, and she abruptly pulled free. “More a statement of fact, but you can call me Cat, if you like,” she said a bit brusquely.

“Thank you. So Cat, why don’t we go into the lounge and snag one of the tables before they’re all gone? There’ll be a lot less traffic near the stage, and less chance of interruptions.” His manner was so genuinely nice that Cat was confused. Maybe he hadn’t been flirting earlier. Still, she hesitated.

“Your drinks, sir.”

Darius turned and handed the bartender the money. “Keep the change.”

“Thanks.” The bartender flashed another grin and walked off to serve the three other customers that approached while she debated.

The bar wasn’t that large but well lit. There was only seating for six, and two of the stools beside her own were already taken. With the addition of Darius and the newcomers, it was getting crowded fast. Also, with no wait staff serving the lounge, the foot traffic was extremely heavy as more and more people stopped by.

“Shall we?” Darius took his drink in hand and motioned toward the darkened lounge, while sliding the other drink towards her.

The woman behind her elbowed Cat in the shoulder as she turned to exit. “Sorry,” she muttered before joining the rest of her party, drink in hand.

That decided the matter. “Sounds good to me.” She drained her glass and picked up the fresh drink he’d purchased for her, no sense letting it go to waste. She hopped off the barstool and motioned with her free hand. “Lead on.”

He placed his hand on the skin of her bare back and guided her through the increasingly congested walkway to the room the band was playing in. He paused in the entryway to let their eyes adjust to the darkened interior before leading her to a small, round table in the center of the room, near the stage.

Cat looked around with interest. The center tables were barely large enough for two, the chairs close together for cozy conversations, and there were booths along the side with seating for four. Most of those were already full. The dim lighting increased the feeling of intimacy. The only real illumination came from the entrance where the bar was located, the raised, rounded platform that formed the stage, and the small wooden dance floor in front of the stage. Everywhere else in between was dark.

As they settled, she told him, “I really appreciate your doing this. I thought I was going to have to go to my room.”

Darius smiled. “My pleasure, besides, this helps me as much as it does you. With you by my side, I avoid temptation and stay out of trouble,” he finished with a laugh.

Cat joined in and then sighed. “I don’t understand why I kept getting approached. Doesn’t a wedding ring mean anything these days? It’s not like I was hiding it or anything.” She played with her wedding ring, spinning it round and round on her finger.

He paused with his drink inches from his mouth. “You’re kidding, right?” The look on his face said, you can’t be that stupid.

“No, actually, I’m not. I realize I don’t get out much, but as far as I know, I wasn’t putting out any hey, look at me vibes. I wasn’t doing anything to indicate that I’d welcome their attention.” She sighed again. “I just don’t get it.” Not to mention that she was older than half the men who’d come on to her, but she kept that bit to herself.

He looked her straight in the eye. “Cat, you’re a very attractive, sexy woman. The bare, smooth skin of your back, coupled with the luscious swell of your behind as you sat on that barstool, was enough to get any man’s attention. It certainly got mine, and I’m not hunting.”

She felt her face flush with pleasure at the compliment, which was delivered in such a matter of fact way, she couldn’t mistake it as a come-on. Darius was simply calling it as he saw it. Slightly embarrassed, she muttered, “Thank you,” and took a sip of her drink.

Around and behind, she could hear muted conversations and the occasional burst of muffled laughter from others. It didn’t detract from the music skillfully played by the trio on the stage. The group looked like college students. There was an African-American male on sax, his male Caucasian counterpart on trumpet, and a young Asian-looking woman playing the keyboard. They neither sang nor spoke, just flowed from one instrumental straight into the next.

Cat searched her mind for a topic of conversation. He’d been so nice; the least she could do was try to keep the conversation going. Besides, they were supposed to be creating the illusion they were a couple. Finally, she settled on, “This group’s really good.”

He nodded in agreement. “You like jazz?”

“Love it. What about you?”

“Yeah, it is one of my favorite types of music. Name some of your favorite artist.” He settled back in his chair, cradling his drink.

“Let me see.” She brought her index finger to her lip and nibbled on the tip. She began to tick names off on her fingers. “Najee, Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn, Kirk Whalum, and Yanni. I know he’s not really a jazz artist, but I love his music.”

“Ah, you’re a sax girl. You left out Kenny G.”

“Well, duh! Who doesn’t like Kenny G?” She laughed at him.

“What about Ravi Coltrane?” He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table.

“Never heard of him,” she confessed, relieved to have found a subject of interest on which they could both converse.

“You ought to give him a try sometime. Who’s your favorite Jazz group?”

“Spyro Gyro,” was her immediate answer. “I like Take 6 too but that’s vocals—another category altogether.”

“They’re good,” he agreed. “Great harmony. I prefer the Yellow Jackets myself, but Spyro Gyro’s okay. What got you interested in Jazz?”

“A course I took in college. It was about music that originated here in the States, specifically the blues and jazz. Because my professor was also a musician in the local symphony orchestra, she introduced us to some American classical compositions as well. It really broadened my horizons where music is concerned. Before then, I mostly listened to R & B and soft rock.”

They got into an intense discussion over the different types of jazz, artists, and composers. Cat enjoyed every moment of it. Not only was it intellectually stimulating, it was nice to talk with someone as knowledgeable as he was. Time seemed to fly. Everything faded into the background as they laughed, argued, and debated their viewpoints.

When the conversation finally lagged, Darius laid an arm on the back of her chair and leaned close. “So, does your husband know you’re here alone, dressed like that?”

She drew back in surprise and looked down. “That” was a low-cut, halter-styled dress in electric blue that came to mid-thigh and left her back completely bare. The color complimented her golden brown skin tone. “Is there something wrong with the way I’m dressed?”

He examined her from head-to-toe. “I like it. You look hot. It’s just a little too sexy for a woman claiming not to be on the prowl for her next lay.”

Cat frowned at him. “I didn’t dress this way for any man. I did it for me. I spend so much time being a mom that it’s nice to get out occasionally and dress as a woman.”

Her tone came out sharper than intended, and he drew back at her vehemence. “You don’t look like anyone’s mother, that’s for sure.” He took a sip of his drink, still studying her like a bug under a microscope.

Despite the way he was looking at her, Cat felt a flush of genuine pleasure go through her body. “Six months ago you wouldn’t have said that. I was severely out of shape and ragged looking, a total wreck.” Now she looked good and knew it. She’d worked hard to achieve the shape she had today. While she’d never be a size six, the size fourteen she’d whittled her way down to from a size twenty was very pleasing, with curves in all the right places and muscle tone.

“I’m sure you’re exaggerating.” He examined her from her hair down to where her body disappeared beneath the table, and the expression on his face said there was no way she could have ever looked as bad as she claimed.

“Believe me, I’m not.” She shuddered when she remembered how much she’d let herself go.

“What does your husband think about your new look?”

Cat shrugged her shoulders. “He doesn’t know. He’s in the Navy, out to sea. I haven’t seen him for the last six months.”

Darius whistled between his teeth. “Six months? Man, that must be rough. If what you say is true then he’s in for quite a shock.”

She bit her bottom lip. “I just hope it’s a good one.”

He looked puzzled. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Navy men are a suspicious lot. They’re gone so much and the divorce rate among sailors is so high, he might think there’s another man in the picture.”

“Is there?” Though his voice was bland, the look in his eye was intent.

She shook her head. “I love my husband. I would never betray him.”

“Do I hear a but…?”

Cat turned to the stage, debating her next words. The dark somehow made the confession easier. “We’ve been married six years. Out of the six, he’s only been home three. Sometimes, it seems like he’s gone more than he’s home. There are times when I’m lonely, times when it would be so easy…” She cast a quick glance in his direction to see what he thought of her confession.

In Her Ladyship's Service by Brenna Lyons

Jelise Jackson grumbled a curse, kicking the bars covering the windows and wincing as the spike of pain raced up her leg in response. She limped a step before she felt confident enough to place her full weight on it again.

It was just a lark, her mind argued. She hadn’t stolen a car and taken it across state lines, or snatched a kid or anything stupid like that. It was just a broken window, and that jerk deserved it! So why were the feds after her, instead of the city cops?

She laid her head against the bars, gritting back a scream of frustration. It just wasn’t fair.

Life isn’t fair.

“Oh, shut up,” she grumbled.

What did I do, pick some Senator’s son to tangle with?

“Damn it! Story of my life.”

Shouting and fighting echoed through the abandoned building, and Jelise stiffened, looking at the door in confusion. “What the hell?” she whispered.

Joey and the other guys had run for it. Why wouldn’t they? The feds wanted her. No one else was of interest to them.

So, who would be fighting? She rolled her eyes at the idea of Joey taking on feds. “I’m not that good in bed,” she quipped. The idea of Pete or Steve coming back for her was even more ridiculous. They’d had their asses kicked and their push for sex shut down far too many times to make that believable.

The sounds came closer. Then silence fell—an ominous absence of noise that had her heart pounding in near terror. Jelise shivered from a combination of unease and the winter wind streaming through the broken window at her back.

The doorknob rattled, and a man grumbled words she couldn’t make out. Jelise grabbed the staff she’d set aside.

The door splintered around the lock then swung in. A huge man ducked to enter the room, and she gasped in response. He towered over her five-feet-ten and was built like a dark-haired Greek statue, curls and all. He was a man who would have dwarfed even Joey, and he was certainly better looking than any man she’d ever met.

For a long moment, Jelise gaped at him, for once forgetting the survival skills that had kept her alive this long. She tightened her hold on the staff...then forced her grip to gentle. It was likely she’d need to use it in moments. Whoever this guy was, he didn’t look particularly friendly.

His brown eyes narrowed as he panned his gaze over her body and settled his gaze on her staff. “Jelise Jackson?” he asked, his hand touching then leaving a wicked-looking dagger hung on his belt.

Great! For the second time in a night, some strange man was asking for her by name, but who was this one? She took in his black and silver uniform in confusion. She’d never seen anything like it. The markings at the shoulder and throat didn’t look familiar, though she assumed he was some sort of soldier. “Who wants to know?”

He darkened, and his jaw tightened. “One who would save you from the government men surrounding us—if we move quickly, and you wish to be free.”

“What’s in it for you?” No one gave anyone help like this for free. She’d learned that long before she ended up on the streets. Maybe he wanted sex. Well, that wouldn’t be a hardship, if he had any idea how to use that body.

“Knowing they won’t torture you,” he answered angrily. “Do you want to be free or not?”

“Well, that’s a stupid question, isn’t it?” she snapped. Okay, so he didn’t intend to tell her his price up front. She’d cross that road when she wasn’t in danger of a jail cell.

“Then come with me—now. There’s little time.”

She hesitated. “Right behind you,” she decided. All right. Her survival instincts were still in her skull somewhere. Never turn your back on an enemy.

“As you wish.” Conan turned and led the way down the dim hallway, either confident that he would win a fight with her or insanely stupid.

Jelise let out a whistle of surprise as they passed the feds—looking a little worse for wear and out for the count.

Her would-be rescuer snapped a look at her, one that fairly demanded an answer of her. “Yes?” he asked.

“Gotta learn how you managed that,” she replied smoothly.

“It was not overly difficult,” he dismissed her, turning back to the stairs without missing a beat.

Jelise raised an eyebrow at the boredom in his tone. What a crock of shit! As if four armed feds aren’t a challenge for Captain America here?

Her disbelief melted into awe at the sight of the shimmering doorway in the workroom turned hangout. “Wow,” she whispered, reaching out to touch it.

It looked like water shot through with opals and set up on its side. She couldn’t help wondering what it felt like—and what kind of virtual projectors were needed to make that light effect. Whatever it was, it had to cost a fortune.

The man grasped her wrist and wrenched Jelise away from it. “No,” he ordered.

She swung her staff, but he captured it in his open hand. Her protest stuck in her throat as she met his eyes. There was no anger in those eyes, no superiority. He was terrified. Jelise relaxed into his hold, certain that she’d nearly made a very big mistake.

He nodded. “My apologies, Lady Jelise. You cannot touch the gateway without a band.”

“Band?” she managed. Her voice was strangely devoid of conviction, as if this Adonis had drained her of her will to fight him.

He released her staff and produced a black box on an arm band, much like the one she now noted he wore. She slid her eyes from his arm to her own, watching him thread it carefully over her hand.

Jelise sucked in her breath, abruptly aware of the brush of his fingers through the heavy shirt she wore. “Matches my look,” she noted shakily.

A beeping sound originated from a second box at his hip, something akin to an old-fashioned beeper, and a yellow light flashed on its face. He glanced at it then met her eyes.

“It is time. Are you ready?”

“Through there?” she asked in dismay. “I mean— What if these band things don’t work or something?” This technology had to be new, whatever it was. She pushed away the thought that her odds of this succeeding might not be the greatest.

“They will.”

“But—” Jelise forced her breathing to even, well aware that she was flirting with hyperventilating.

“The moment is almost past, Lady—”

“Here!” another man’s voice shouted.

His head came up, his entire body tensing as if to pounce. Jelise turned, her staff up to fight, and found herself facing down a 9mm.

“Don’t move,” the agent ordered.

The soldier’s arms closed around her waist, turning Jelise into the gateway and launching them through. She squeaked in pained surprise as colors danced around her, vivid colors that hurt her eyes after the dim light in the abandoned factory building. A shot reverberated, seeming to shake the air around them.

Then there was an even brighter light...white light. Stone was under her while her giant’s body covered hers. Something shattered overhead, and someone screamed.

“Loc en pret,” the soldier shouted.

Footsteps thundered over the stone, vibrating the floor beneath her cheek. Voices uttered words she couldn’t understand. The man over her stroked her hair, whispering assurances that Jelise would be all right.

“Jace,” a new voice demanded. “Is she injured, Jace?”

Her rescuer eased off of her, helping Jelise to sit. His fingers brushed her cheek, probably dusting off dirt from the floor. “No, Hi. She is well.”

The second man sighed in relief, offering his hand to help her to her feet. “Welcome to Kegin, Lady Jelise,” he intoned in a heavy accent she couldn’t place.

She eased further into Jace’s chest, wary. All of the men were in uniforms like Jace’s. Some were black like his. Some were blue. The one who spoke to her wore red and gold. “Where is Kegin?” she demanded, suddenly sure that the gateway took her further than she’d counted on.

The man in red—Hi, she reminded herself—shot a look of pure fury at them. “You didn’t tell her?”

“There was no time,” Jace defended himself sheepishly. “Between besting the human pursuers and—”

“Till will be furious,” he shouted.

Jelise’s head spun. Nothing made sense. The word ‘human’ circled in her mind. She had to have misheard him. The alternative was unthinkable. “Jace,” she called weakly. “I think I need to lie down.”

* * * *

Jace scooped Lady Jelise into his arms and vaulted for the door, barely noting that he brushed past Prince Michael in his haste. “Renel,” he barked, calling the head of the local clinic to accompany them to the room prepared for the young lady.

Her cheek nestled to his pounding heart, and her green-flecked choc eyes slid shut. Jace cursed his delay in reaching her aloud. If Lady Jelise was seriously injured, he would never forgive himself for it.

The bed prepared for her was wide and lush—covered in the finest silin and heavy quilts as befit a noble of her status. Jace laid her in the center and waved Renel to them.

Jelise’s eyes fluttered open as the doctor touched her face. She shied in seeming panic, reaching frantically for Jace’s hand.

“All is well,” he soothed her. “This man is a healer.” Wrong term. “Doctor.”

“No,” she breathed, pushing herself toward Jace. Her trembling body pressed to his, making him acutely aware of a primal need to protect her, to hold her closer to himself.

Renel readied a hypocil and injected her upper arm in one smooth movement, making Jace wonder if the doctor had foreseen a need to medicate her. Jelise startled, meeting his eyes, pleading silently with Jace for an explanation.

“What was it?” he asked calmly, knowing the doctor wouldn’t understand English if he spoke it again.

“Garigol and Brekel, to relax her ladyship and bring sleep.”

“Jace?” Her voice was slow and measured, thick in the haze of Renel’s drugs.

“Sleep, my lady. I will stand watch over you. You have my vow.” Jace smoothed her deep choc hair, easing her to the bed.

“Stay,” she requested, her eyes closing and her grip easing as sleep claimed her.

Jace smiled, running a finger along her Felgren-stalk skin. She was enchanting—and so different from any Earth born he’d yet met. Queen Susan had explained the races of Earth, how they went beyond even the hair and eye color differences of the ancient Keen races into a wide array of skin tones and facial features. The first time Jace saw a video likeness of Lady Jelise Jackson, he had known he had to win the right to bring her home.

He sobered, pulling his hand back and straightening. And now he’d done his duty. For a few precious moments, he’d held the woman who’d haunted his dreams for more than two years. He’d trained to win the right to bring her from Earth. He’d learned English for her, and now she’d leave him to begin her introductions to the Keen lords worthy of her attentions. Jace turned away—and stilled.

Prince Michael stared him down, his expression promising a ritual death.

Playing for Keeps by Michelle Houston

Aphrodite looked up from her guest list as Athena walked into her room, her warrior-like movements at sharp contrast to her feminine looks. Although she loved her sister Goddess, the two often butted heads and found it best to avoid each other. For Athena to seek her out, Aphrodite knew whatever it was about must be of some importance.

“Have you finished with your invitations yet?”

Bemused, Aphrodite shook her head, sending her golden curls into a riot of movement. Athena had never before taken an interest in her yearly parties, often disparaging her attempts to help the other deities with their dating experiences. It used to be so much easier for them. Zeus was the best example, his conquests among mortal women still legendary, but many of the Gods and Goddesses had frequently moved among the mortals, sharing their lives and their beds.

In the modern age, with mortals believing in them less and less, quite a few of the Olympians had withdrawn, ignoring the mortal realm completely. Some had found themselves fascinated with it, and chose to completely live among mortals—a few even finding love, which delighted Aphrodite to no end.

Athena was among the third category, living among the mortals with her immortal lover, but returning frequently to Olympus.

“May I ask why it matters? I believe you once called my parties a farce. You even went so far as to claim they only served the purpose of populating the world with demi-gods and goddesses, and providing some of the deities a buffet of willing flesh to chose from.”

Athena glowered at her snotty tone. Her gray eyes narrowed, but Aphrodite couldn’t help it. She had been hurt by the Goddess’ condescending words, and wasn’t willing to let go, no matter how serious Athena must be to seek her out.

“I know,” the other Goddess bit out from between clenched teeth, “but I find myself needing to add two mortals to your list of those invited.”

Aphrodite arched a perfectly styled golden eyebrow and waited, a smirk curling her lips. She couldn’t help it; it was delicious to rub Athena’s words in her face.

“One is a young woman who needs to be taught to trust herself, and her body’s desires, before she withers away.”

“And the other?” Aphrodite asked, sensing Athena was saving the best for last.

Her eyebrow arched higher as Athena appeared too grown uncomfortable. “Let’s just say the other is someone I wish Nike to meet.”

Watching as a flush crept up Athena’s neck, Aphrodite decided to let the other Goddess of the hook—there were other ways to find out what was so interesting about the mortal. With a swish of her delicate hand, Aphrodite held out her almost finished list, and allowed Athena to add two names to it. As the other Goddess stormed out of the room, Aphrodite turned her attention to finding out more about the names Athena had added, particularly the young woman—Alicia. She already had a good idea of two possible Gods to coax into meeting the mortal, but had to decide who would be the best match.

As for the young man, Chris, an inkling of Athena’s plans teased at the back of her thoughts, and Aphrodite smiled at the delicious images that sprang to her mind. Yes indeed, this year was going to be the best party yet. She had already planned everything down to the last detail, booking a private island and setting little touches of Olympus throughout, able to be activated by the whims of the other deities.

Unjustly Accused by Shayne Carmichael

Kenneth drew much needed air into his lungs as he leaned heavily against the wooden structure behind him. He could hear the shouts of the others closing in on him. Desperately, he tried to silence the sound of his rasping, not wanting to give away where he was. He’d been on the run for nearly half an hour, dodging angry citizens of the misnamed Gold City. Clutching a metal box to his chest, he tried to still his trembling body and panicked thoughts. He needed to think clearly to get out of this.

Kenny had only been a clerk at the Gold City Bank, yet the men chasing him blamed him for its collapse and the loss of their fortunes. He held the evidence of his employer Silas Everett’s duplicity tightly to his chest.

Unfortunately, his pursuers were more intent on lynching him than listening to any proof. If he could make it to the Chinatown area on the outskirts, he could more easily elude his would-be murderers. His only saving grace was he knew the town better than any of the others did. Kenny had never been afraid of entering Chinatown, nor did he carry the same prejudice of his fellow townsmen.

“There he is!”

Tension increased at the sudden shout, and Kenny sprinted away from the wall, running deeper into the shadowed alley. An enraged cat hissed at him and darted across his path, forcing him to dodge the animal. The voices behind him grew louder and closer as the men yelled directions to one another.

His heart raced, feeling near to bursting in his chest. He still wasn’t close enough to Chinatown for his own safety, and had no choice but to evade the others in a headlong rush through the streets.

Moments ticked by as he tried to stay ahead of the men. If he could just reach the south edge of town… Darting between two buildings, he ran close to the brick wall then across a small alley. Kenny continued running between two long blocks of buildings. On both sides were several open areas between the businesses. He had to choose one before the others got into the alley.

Sheer desperation rode his heels as Kenny panted heavily, trying to find his escape. Not too far away, a woman stepped out of one of the buildings and screamed when she saw him. With no choice, Kenny darted down the closest opening then burst out through the other side, wildly looking around.

Not too far away. So close. He was only three blocks away from the safe haven of Chinatown. He knew damn well the good citizens of Gold City would never step foot in the one place they feared, regardless of the fact that the fear had never been justified.

The sound of a gunshot spurned Kenny on in a race for his life. Nausea welled up in his throat, and he could barely catch his breath. He forced himself to continue as a bullet whistled past him, way too close to his ear. Another hit him in the back of the shoulder but didn’t stop him. Once he crossed the invisible dividing line between Gold City and Chinatown, he still wasn’t safe. Not as long as he was a visible target. Abruptly, he turned and rushed down another street. Knowledge and instinct guided him, allowing him to hide in the warren of back alleys and dirt roads.

He made it, he was safe for now. Pain burned in his shoulder. He could feel it begin to spread outward and realized he’d been hit with silver. As a werefox, his body could reject a bullet and heal the wound, but not with a silver bullet. Kenny was bleeding profusely and needed a doctor. The only one who would help him wasn’t far away. Stumbling, Kenny barely managed to walk steadily to the door of Mengyao. Collapsing against the wood, he pounded on it, hoping the doctor was still awake. When it opened, he nearly fell into the room.

“Kenneth, what are you doing here? We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow,” Mengyao said as he helped Kenny into a nearby chair then shut the door.

“I’m in trouble, Doc. I’ve been shot. Back shoulder. I can feel the silver burning me.”

Mengyao quickly issued orders to his daughter, who had come into the room. She hurried away a moment later.

Kenny unbuttoned his shirt and tried to get it off as Mengyao moved behind him.

“The bullet is still inside, Kenneth.”

“I know. Go ahead and get it out, Doc. I need to get out of here as soon as I can. They’ll come looking for me once the sheriff calls in more lawmen.”

Daiyu hurried back into the room and laid her father’s tools and medicines on the table. She selected several special thin needles, then took Kenny’s hand. He barely felt a thing as she inserted them.

Mengyao examined the wound as his daughter worked. After a moment, he began mixing a potion.

Closing his eyes, Kenny let them take care of him. His mind seemed clearer even with the throbbing pulses of pain. He needed to work out where he could go to be safe and try to clear his name.

“Drink this, Mr. Kenneth. When you are finished, my father will take the bullet out.”

Kenny took the small china bowl she offered him and swallowed the contents.

“Daiyu, prepare the medicines Kenneth will need to take with him when he leaves. He’s being poisoned with silver. You know what to use.”

She murmured her assent and busied herself mashing several ingredients into a bowl, then used a small spoon to add them to several bottles. Relaxing as best he could, Kenny felt the pressure in his shoulder. There was some pain, uncomfortable yet bearable, far less than was normal.

“Where will you go, Kenneth?” Mengyao asked as he probed the flesh to find the position of the bullet.

“Only place I can think of, Doc. There’s a system of caves back in the town I grew up in. Haven’t been there for years, but I should be safe until everything quiets. Then maybe I can tell everybody the truth, and they’ll listen to me instead of wanting to hang me.”

After he extracted the bullet, Mengyao smeared a thick paste on to the wound, then folded a piece of linen. Pressing it in place, he used another bandage, drawing it up and around Kenny’s shoulder, knotting it. “You’re not healing as you should. You need to be careful for many days, Kenny, but it would be too dangerous for you to remain here.”

“Father, Delun has several horses. I’m sure he would be willing to sell one. Mr. Kenneth will need one to leave town.”

Kenny dug into his pocket and pulled out some money. After counting out several bills, he gave them to her. “If he’s willing, bring the horse back with you.”

Under normal circumstances Kenny wouldn’t have worried about needing a horse. However, the silver in his system and the metal box of papers made it impossible to escape by his usual method. The horse would have to do.

After Mengyao gave him a large bag filled with medicines, Kenny put it in the metal box and closed his eyes, listening to the doctor as he cleaned up. He was weak and could feel himself growing weaker. The use of the silver bullet had been intended to kill him, and Kenny knew exactly who had shot him.

As if reading his thoughts, the doctor murmured, “The medicine will slow the poison down, Kenneth. But you must rest once you’re safe and don’t forget to take a drink of the potion every few hours. It will take time.”

“I’m lucky you know the ways of my kind, Dr. Mengyao.” Opening his eyes, he smiled at him. “I do thank you for all of your help.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“Silas Everett. I’ve got the proof that Silas has been embezzling. That’s the reason for everything. He told everyone that I was the embezzler.”

“Ah, that explains why they are after you. I had heard of the bank’s problems but didn’t realize it involved you.” Nodding sagely, Mengyao stepped closer to him and removed the needles.

“Yeah, and I know exactly who shot me. Silas can’t afford for the were tribe to find out what he’s done.”

After cleaning and putting away his tools, Mengyao sat on the stool near Kenny. “You must be very careful, Kenneth. I don’t believe a man like Silas will give up so easily.”

“The horse is in the back, Kenneth.” Daiyu came back into the room and went to stand beside her father.

“Thank you, Daiyu.” He stood, casting a regretful look at them. “I’m sorry to have to leave so quickly, and I thank you both for everything.”

“We will see you again some day, Kenneth.”

Nodding, Kenny could only pray that they would.