Saturday, November 15, 2008

Eye of the Beholder by Jade Falconer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Add a Little Mistletoe by Aliyah Burke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wish Upon a Djinn by Sammie Jo Moresca

“Why didn’t you tell me Lieutenant Lydia ‘kiss-the-men-and-make-them-come’ Laverty was working at your firehouse yesterday?” Kim’s face heated as her stomach churned. Lieutenant Laverty answering the phone had been a disturbing surprise when she called her husband last night. She turned away from him, adjusting her Coke-bottle thick eyeglasses. Her eyes focused beyond the French door at the cardinals feasting on sunflower seeds in the feeder hanging from a snowy maple.

“It’s no big deal. The transfer list took effect last tour.” Roger rinsed out his commuter cup and jockeyed it into the dishwasher. “Is there hot water in the carafe?”

“Yeah. I’ll make you a cup. So she wasn’t just detailed for one shift? She’s the regular lieutenant at Twenty-Three Engine now?”

He mumbled affirmatively and sat in the green bow-backed chair, fumbling open the morning newspaper on the kitchen table. The slight palsy in his fingers had afflicted him since adolescence.

He smelled of smoke, hadn’t bathed in twenty-four hours, but damn was he handsome. Brown flat-top. Chocolate brown eyes with long, curly lashes. And she loved his whiskers. Too bad he couldn’t grow a beard. Safety requirement. He needed a tight seal on his facemask.

He said, “Her daughter is attending Piedmont Academy. She’s living with Lydia’s parents since they are just a couple blocks away.”

“And this impresses you because her kid is smart? What kind of mother doesn’t even live with her child?”

“You know she’s on twenty-four hour shifts. It’s just easier.”

“Yeah. Eight days a month. Lydia could make other arrangements.” Prying the lid off a cookie tin, she set it on the table for Roger. “She’s single again, isn’t she?”

He grunted again and looked over his shoulder to the carafe.

Kim felt a curl of satisfaction in confirming that the calendar girl couldn’t keep a man, but she was also alarmed that the lovely Lydia was on the prowl again. She scooped instant coffee and powdered creamer into a yellow stoneware mug and poured steaming water into it. It sizzled as she stirred the brew. She plopped it down in the middle of the article Roger was reading. A little slopped out. She smiled.

“Thanks,” he grumbled, grabbing a napkin from the basket in the middle of the table.

Kim brewed her third cup of tea so far that day, and sat across from her man.

“Do you want the last oatmeal cookie?”

“Go ahead.” He picked a green star sugar cookie out and bit into it.

She gobbled the oatmeal. Okay, perhaps I’m blowing this all out of proportion. It’s not Roger’s fault the department transferred the husband-stealing-hussy to his station. It’s all in a day’s work. He’s the sergeant, she’s the lieutenant. She’s his boss now. So he’ll have to kiss up to her. Kim shook her head. No, that was not an image she wanted in her brain.

“How are the roads?” she asked.

“We hardly got any snow in town. I’m surprised how much you got, and yet they didn’t close school.”

“Our three little snow bunnies weren’t too thrilled, either. So’d you get any sleep last night?”

Roger flipped to the next page as he slurped his coffee. “Yeah, slept like a rock. The only run after midnight came in at about four-thirty. Lydia had to kick my bunk to wake me up.” He chuckled. “It was for an unconscious male outside a bar. Another fallen down drunk—”

“Wait a minute! Back the fire truck up, Sergeant. Isn’t there only one room for the officers’ quarters at your station?”

“Yeah. So?”

“And the crew’s bunkroom is upstairs and the officers are downstairs, just two bunks in the back room?”

Roger grinned. “Lydia doesn’t mind.”

“I mind! And with good reason! She’s taken two firefighters away from their wives that I know about. I’m sure there must be other incidents which you have neglected to mention—”

“There’s nothing to be upset about, Kim. Lydia and I…we’re just good friends.”

We’re just good friends. Four words that harbinger the beginning of the end to many marriages. The tea in Kim’s stomach tried to make its way back up past the cookie. “Lydia has every good quality that I’m lacking.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

The look on his face told a different story. Kim had put on nearly thirty pounds since they married right out of high school. She’d spent the last fifteen years rocking babies and chauffeuring them across the county. Doctors, orthodontists, soccer, lacrosse, ballet, guitar lessons, debates and play dates. Her mother’s uniform consisted of sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers. Long, mousy hair pulled into a loose ponytail.

Lydia still did modeling on the side. She was last year’s calendar girl, posed with nothing on but a strategically placed fire hose draped around her. She had a career, was advancing and making a nice chunk of change. So she’d been divorced a few times. It wasn’t Lydia’s fault there were too many hot men out there to sample.

“Don’t they have regulations against a male and female officer sharing the same bunk room? How about the shower? I’m calling Chief Charlie.”

“Why are you acting like this? You’re making such a big deal out of nothing. You don’t trust me, do you? Damn it!” He kicked his chair back and stomped over to the basement door. When he shut it hard behind him, the ornaments on the Christmas tree shook.

Kim stormed upstairs and slammed the bedroom door. Climbing in the unmade bed, she pulled the covers over her head and waited to cry. The tears wouldn’t come. He didn’t appreciate her anymore. They never went on dates or walks or had any couple time. If it didn’t involve the kids, they really were speechless. Nothing left to say. She went over this morning’s awkward small talk. Why had she been so stupid to pick a fight?

Or did he deserve it? She should leave him. March right out the front door and not look back. Then he’d appreciate her. He never complimented her looks or cooking or cleaning or anything. He was quick to point out when she fell short, though. Kim admitted she was a sub-par housekeeper, and she didn’t put much effort into cuisine. Yeah, buddy, I’m just a faded housewife to him. Mother to his three children. We made great babies together. Healthy, happy, smart, thoughtful.

Where would she go? To the arms of a new man who would adore her. Yeah, right. Nearsighted, fat, frumpy and old. She’d have to get a job. No experience, no education. Images of greeting shoppers at the super center caused Kim to shudder.

And lonely days, lonely nights. She’d miss him under the covers. He was so skilled. Knew just what to do to rock her world. No other guy could do that. Well, sure, other guys could. But one urgent element would always be missing. When their souls collided. True love.

Fine. She’d stay for the lovemaking. And the kids, free room and board, clothes, cable TV, Internet, books, and any silly thing she wanted to buy. He never questioned her choices. He was so good to her. Why’d she have to be so childish at times?