Saturday, July 25, 2009

West of the Moon by L.E. Bryce

“Sir, we have entered Rhodeen,” said the captain of the guard.

Sephil nodded his acknowledgment, though he had no need to be told. More than once he had come this way, and knew that when the barren, rolling hills of Ottabia gave way to greener, more level country the people would no longer owe allegiance to Khalgar. Captain Assuras would lead the party down the rough track into nearby Meduin, where in the town inn Sephil would be able to enjoy a proper bath for the first time in several days and sleep in a real bed, rather than a cot in a drafty tent.

Comfort came with restrictions, however. Wherever he went, Sephil did not insist on preferential treatment, but in Rhodeen he was a king. The more he tried to downplay his royal status, the more others honored him.

I remember a time when these people neither knew who I was nor cared. Had his father-in-law not ordered him to ascend the throne alongside his son as a living link to the dynasty that had ruled before the Turya interregnum, Sephil might have remained happily in Khalgar as a prince and high priest of Abh, a king’s son and king’s father, and free from the duties that came with wearing a crown.

Since then, no one forced him to stay in Rhodeen and rule. Unlike his son, he had never been groomed for power.

The inconveniences of a journey to Rhodeen, with its backward system of roads and citizens clamoring for his attention, seemed a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing his grandchildren again. In his baggage were gifts for his two grandsons, and he intended to remain in Shemin-at-Khul until the queen was safely delivered of her third child.

As his small party approached Meduin, people paused in the fields and streets to watch him ride by. Curious children followed behind, lingering even when the Turya sentries waved them away. Others called out greetings. Here Zhanil would have grinned and waved back, even ridden over to exchange a few words with the townsfolk. Never as outgoing, and thoroughly embarrassed by the attention, Sephil managed a polite smile as Assuras led the way toward the inn.

The elderly innkeeper met him on the porch. Two boys led by an unusually dark young man came forward to tend to the horses, while several Turya women, jangling with silver and amber jewelry, jostled forward with gifts.

“Deros,” Sephil said to the innkeeper, “I do not recall sending word ahead about my arrival.”

Grinning through the gap in his front teeth, Deros nodded. “The sentries see everything, sir.” Gnarled fingers made a cursory gesture toward the mounted Turya archer who had trailed the party into town. “Go on, Shamash!” he shouted. “They’re all right here.”

As Shamash rode off in a cloud of dust, Deros chuckled at Sephil. “There’s a good room waiting for you upstairs, sir, and the wife will have hot water for your bath, no extra charge.”

“You know I will pay my bill,” said Sephil. “But these gifts…” Embarrassed, he indicated the fine blankets and jars the straw-haired women laid at his feet. “I could not possibly accept them.”

“Oh, that’s nonsense, sir.” Deros led the way inside, while the women picked up the offerings and followed. “Just be careful your men don’t get too deep in the jars. It’s been more than one Khalgari visitor who’s spent the next day sick after drinking too much kumiss.”

For form’s sake, Sephil sampled the kumiss at supper, taking care to smile through the bitter taste. It truly does taste like horse piss, he thought. Turya cuisine and trappings did not appeal to him. Years earlier, Zhanil had sent him a beautifully embroidered coat, which he only wore once. One look in the mirror, with another from his wife, convinced Sephil that he did not cut a flattering figure in Turya garb. In fact, he thought he looked rather pathetic. “Next he will try to send me one of their bows,” he had muttered.

Turya healers matched the priests of Abh in skill, so he could not offer his services in payment for the hospitality he received. After a meal of boiled potatoes and roast lamb, he found the woman Uzhena, who had healed Zhanil of an arrow wound, and presented her with a packet of medicinal herbs. Each time he passed through Meduin he remembered her with a gift, however much she demurred and claimed that any debt incurred was long since paid.

“You do not travel like a king,” she observed. “The older east-landers complain you should be loaded with gold and silver, and have more servants and guards. They say they have seen a king travel this way before.”

Sephil nodded. “That is my father they remember. As a priest I am not accustomed to such ceremony, and I know my son does not care for it, either.”

“With turkan Kalmeku you are right,” she agreed. This was the name the Turyar had given Zhanil, which meant ‘little star’ in their language. “Too many servants and too much baggage slow a man down. His wife does not even come with him, or his children.”

“Ardal and Thanol are still young,” said Sephil, “but I know they are already learning to ride. As for my son’s wife, I do not believe she knows how.” Not only that, he knew, but like any properly bred Tajhaani royal woman, Saraji did not attend court or even venture far from her apartments. Zhanil had enough to do to get her to remove her veil before company.

Uzhena answered with a most unladylike snort. “This is not a fitting wife for a turkan.”

Sephil offered a wan smile in agreement. Uzhena was the first Turya woman he had ever met. Since then, others had assured him that most women from the Turya-lands were as bold and outspoken as she. Therefore it did not surprise him to hear such criticism of the queen, especially when his own sentiments toward her were lukewarm.
That night, in a dark, narrow room smelling of dried herbs, he slept uneasily.

Exhaustion meant nothing whenever he crossed the border into Rhodeen. Even the air tasted green, redolent with memories and regrets.

Earlier in the day, he had noticed the young man with uncommonly dark features who took his horse. Something in the man’s black eyes reminded him so strongly of Adeja that it gave him a start. “Are you Tajhaani?” he had asked.

The groom shook his head and smiled, revealing perfect white teeth. “I am Samnos. My mother was a woman of Rhodeen, sir. My father…” Here he shrugged. “She was married to one soldier and bedded another, or so I’ve heard. It’s nothing to me. I make my own way.”

So like Adeja it made Sephil ache to hear it. Even without a Tajhaani accent, the man’s father might have been looking back through those deep, dark eyes and smiling as if to say, I’m still here. Or was the resemblance merely the product of a bereaved lover’s fancy?

Sephil said nothing more to the man with his Rhodeen name and accent, and tried to put the matter out of his mind. For everywhere he turned in this green country, he yearned for some glimpse or reminder of his lost love, and the precious months of intimacy they shared before intrigue and dynastic duty pulled them apart.

He wrapped his arms around his torso, seeking the warmth only memory could now grant. He could not fool himself into believing Adeja was there with him. Not even summoning Samnos to his bed would complete the illusion. No matter the truth, and Sephil had no doubt how it had come about; those strong arms around him and that firm body pressed against his back would not be the same. Samnos would never understand what his king needed, or care what his nameless father had once been to an unwanted scion of the royal house. Not even Arjuna, Adeja’s legitimate son, too busy with his military career to spend much time with his mother, would have understood.

Sephil squeezed his eyes shut, but could not stop the tears leaking from the corners of his eyes, or the ache threatening to turn his next breath into a sob. In this way, he finally fell asleep.

After a hot breakfast, Sephil set out in the chilly dawn. Meduin’s Turya sentries accompanied his party until the next settlement, then turned back. Sephil did not pause in this town or the next, nor did he announce his coming. Anyone who noted his passing saw only a high priest of Abh traveling under Khalgari escort.

Another, larger town awaited him that night, with fewer Turya residents and proportionately more fuss once Sephil was recognized. The mayor, a florid old gentleman, hobbled out on his cane, bellowing at scores of grandchildren and great-grandchildren to get out of his way so he could greet the king. Then came the usual compliments, and the formulaic recitation of which kings had passed through the town when.

“I had two grandsons already when Brasidios last slept here, and just newly married when his father rode this way,” the man announced.

Sephil patiently listened to his account, smiling blandly when other, even older townsfolk interjected with their recollections. One ancient crone, her milky eyes staring unfocused into space, called forth the memory of Sephil’s great-grandfather, Ardahir III. But to Sephil, these were not people or even marble effigies in a crypt, only names in books—or, with his father, a collection of humiliating episodes he preferred to forget.

His audience, he quickly noticed, did not mention the previous ruler, the Turya turkan Arzhati. No one had to tell him that there were many in Rhodeen who preferred to pretend that the Turya interregnum had never taken place.

Word of his approach spread faster than he could travel. In each town, Sephil, tired and hungry from the day’s ride, encountered throngs of people who turned out to greet him. With a gracious smile belying his exhaustion, he sat through long-winded speeches and hastily-arranged pageants before he was finally able to dismount. While his progress during the day remained unimpeded, Sephil knew the closer he got to the capital the more ceremony he would have to endure.

After a sleepless night spent tormented by second-rate musicians serenading him outside his lodging, Sephil drooped in the saddle. A rider with greater skill might have slept along the way, but he feared the moment he nodded off he would find himself on the ground.

Beside him, his groom Piras sympathized. “River travel would be less burdensome, my lord.”

Less burdensome, yes, but not yet possible. Sephil had seen his son’s ambitious plans to modernize Rhodeen. One of these was a project to dredge the estuary of the Tham, the major tributary of the great river that bisected the kingdom, and establish a port town to welcome sea traffic. Merchants from distant Juva and Thrindor, and even the continent across the southern sea could more easily do business in Shemin-at-Khul, while a journey from Khalgar that now took weeks might be accomplished in less than a fortnight.

Such projects, however, required money, manpower, and support, none of which Zhanil possessed at the moment. Bringing Khalgari engineers in to repair the damage done to Shemin-at-Khul during the Turya occupation had proven difficult enough. Four years later, he still aimed to train native engineers to expand and improve Rhodeen’s antiquated system of roads. His efforts regularly met with resistance from the local nobility who resented foreign intrusion, and from Turya chieftains who failed to see the necessity.

Sephil agreed with Piras. “Yes, but sadly I think it will be many years bef—”
Shouts erupted in the fore and rear of the train—the hue and cry had been raised. Sephil looked around him, yet saw nothing to warrant Assuras’s sudden wariness. Why is he balking at shadows? Typically a man of good common sense, the captain should have known better. We are in no danger this far into Rhod—

An arrow suddenly whizzed out of nowhere, barely missing his cheek, and lodged in the captain’s throat. As Assuras grunted and fell, his twitching hands still clutching at his spouting carotid artery, Sephil felt Piras seize him around the middle. His strangled cry vanished amidst a cacophony of shouting men and the neighing of agitated horses. More arrows cut through the air. Sephil heard the dull thuds as they pierced the earth all around him, but by then he was facedown in the grass with Piras draped protectively over his back.

Baggage carts toppled, sending trunks and bundles tumbling onto the ground. A jar shattered, spraying wine, and the draft horses struggled in their traces. Sephil froze in terror, waiting breathlessly for the arrow that would find his sleeve, his head, his exposed arms. Who would do this? This was Zhanil’s kingdom. “What is going on?” he choked. Piras’s body over his meant he could scarcely breathe.

“I—” Piras’s reply terminated in a grunt and shudder. Sephil called out again, this time yielding no response.

“Piras!”

Hooves trampled the earth nearby, then heavy footfalls. Sephil heard jingling harnesses and rough voices. A pair of boots halted beside him. He smelled the oil used to keep the leather supple, and churned mud and horse dung. Suddenly the weight lifted off his back, but before he could brace himself on his arms and get to his feet, hands seized his shoulders and hauled him upright.

He blinked, gasping for breath, for some support amidst the chaos. It took him a moment to realize the men crowding around him were neither his attendants nor his rescuers.

Everywhere he looked he saw carnage. Bodies riddled with arrows lay prone in the grass, some pinned under their fallen mounts. Wounded horses struggled in the turf, ceasing only when a club or quick knife to the throat ended their suffering. Sephil glanced down at his feet to where Piras sprawled on his stomach, an arrow protruding from his back, his eyes staring sightlessly.

Sephil started to bend down to close the groom’s eyes, but the restraining hands only tightened their grip, eliciting pain. “You have no time for that,” said a voice.

A balding, massively built man came toward him, trailed by several archers and swordsmen. All were light-haired, all native Rhodeen. Staring at him, Sephil could not grasp at what had just occurred, only that the man now looming over him looked like a mercenary, a thug. “Do you know who I am?” he asked shakily. In another moment, he thought he would vomit.

To his utter amazement, the brute executed a perfect courtly bow. “You are King Sephil Brasides,” he said. “Yes, we know who you are.”

“Then why have you attacked my escort?” While he spoke, channeling every ounce of his failing nerve into remaining calm, Sephil could not help but stare at Piras. His groom had served him faithfully for more than twenty-five years, remaining by his side long after he could have retired. A knot formed in his throat. What am I going to tell his family? “We were on our way to Shemin-at-Khul.”

The mercenary merely laughed. “And so you are,” he replied. “Except now we will be your escort.”

Schooled by RaeLynn Blue

Harper Perry despised the annual parent-teacher conference. A ten year veteran of the open warfare between students and parents, to which the United States government had declared those in her profession Public Enemy Number One, Harper groaned at the prospect of getting into a skirmish tonight. The battle of blame had been marked on her calendar in red. She’d had plenty of warning and time to prepare. Nevertheless, she could feel the knot of tension and stress take refuge in the base of her neck and throb to a rancorous rhythm all its own. She knew with absolute certainty that by night’s end, it would emerge like a monster, tearing through her usual calm and tranquility with scary accuracy and deadly consequences.

Like the loss of her professionalism.

Harper fidgeted and awaited the first hurling verbal assault bomb to begin the start of a long night. Her feet ached and her back hummed in soft agony. She’d been at the school since six-thirty that morning and now, she had an additional three hours of school-related engagement to contend with.

“You’re hoping against hope, you know,” Carlita advised. “His parents don’t ever show. Kids like him don’t have parents who get out of their beds and drive to visit the likes of us.”

Harper sighed from behind the table. She watched the scores of students clutching their portfolios and walking to the bleachers. The sprinkling of parents slipped into the gym. Whispers and nervous twitches moved through the warm forced air, and Harper suppressed the grimace threatening to sour her face. She sipped her bottled water, washing the hunk of anticipation back into the pit of her stomach.

“Scott Pearson’s parents show up yet?” Mark Shoemaker asked, sliding his metal folding chair over to their table with a screeching scream as a soundtrack. The special education teacher, Mark co-taught classes with Harper, the team’s language arts teacher, and Carlita, who taught math. Despite co-teaching the two content areas, Mark’s actual caseload came to a whopping twelve students.

Dwarfed by the paper box crammed with Harper’s and Carlita’s folders, Mark’s student portfolios sat latched together by a thick rubber band.

Harper bit back a bitter retort. She had sixty-five students to his twelve.

“It’s only two minutes after five,” Carlita snapped, rolling her large ginger eyes.

“Come on, Mark, at least pretend you think the kid’s parents are coming.”

“Why give false hope?” he replied, stretching like a lazy cat. His blonde hair had begun to lose its sun-kissed highlights, turning instead to the dirty dishwater shade of his other strands.

Carlita actually snorted.

Teachers at the surrounding tables shot them warning glances and one even shushed them. Somber tones and fake laugher drifted among the pockets of three-teacher teams spread throughout the gym. Harper and Carlita also had a science/social studies teacher, but she was out on maternity to leave. The long-term substitute had opted out of attending the event, leaving their team down to two-and-a-half team members.
Harper sighed as one of her star students, brightly scrubbed and expensively dressed, bounced over to their table with parents in tow. The daughter presented a complete copy of the father, down to the dimple in their right cheeks.

“Come for the report card,” the father said, way too happy for Harper’s taste.
She erased the scowl on her face and muttered some polite noises. The student’s mother joined in, and thus the game began.

For the next hour of her life—to which she would never ever get back—Harper flashed the high-wattage, no-warmth smile and shook hands with people she’d only see once this year. Students snatched their report cards and scampered to the outlying edges of the gym, far from the teachers’ tables tucked in its center. The students hopped around with their parents tethered behind them, attempting to corner them long enough for explanations and congratulations.

“God, I hate this,” Carlita sighed as a temporary reprieve arose from the lack of fresh parents. “Come on, seven-thirty.”

“And to think we get to do it all again tomorrow,” Mark added, reclining in his folding chair as if at the beach. “Back here at seven-fifteen in the morning.”
Carlita snorted again, and Harper pressed her fingertips to her temples where the ball of stress had split and crawled painfully up to these new locations. She opened her eyes, and through thin slits she could make out the doorway of the gym. More people had arrived.

Why do all the parents seem to wear that same smile? The plastered-on-with-glue-stick farce that they believed hid their pain. Why? Show the whole world you hate this shit as much as I do. Don’t fake it. They’re not paying you to sham it up. Be real.

“At least it doesn’t smell like wet socks or feet in here like last year,” Mark was saying as Harper tuned back in to the conversation around her. His fingers drummed in absolute boredom.

“What?” Harper coughed out.

Mark rolled his eyes. “Never mind.”

“Oh, did you hear about Scott’s latest attack against education today?” asked Carlita with all the suspense of one who enjoyed gossiping immensely. “Down in art class?”

Harper screwed up her face and said, “Not really, Car. The boy is always in trouble. No home training, respect for authority figures, or any responsibility. His homework is nonexistent, and contacting his parents…” She shrugged unable to finish. Talking about Scott only managed to make her blood pressure high and the cadence of the headache at her temples pound.

“It’s like trying to find a virgin on prom night,” Mark concluded for her. “I know. Social worker has been trying to pin down the mother for weeks. No luck.”

“Anyway, Ms. Turner told me that in art today, Scott—”

“I need a break,” Harper confessed and scooted her chair back with a loud scrape on the gym’s once-polished wood floor. Finding her water bottle empty, she seized the opportunity to flee. She didn’t wait to hear the story or even want to engage in any more conversation about Scott Pearson’s deviant behavior. The boy should be locked in a group home if his parents were so damn inconsiderate as to allow him to rear himself.

Waving politely to the other teachers, Harper took out a small pill container from her pocket. Not normally a medicine taker, this pill case came out only once a year—for conferences. The bottle contained the sweet nectar of surviving the next hour and a half, pain reliever.

She had stopped at the water fountain, tossed in the two ivory capsules, and sucked in a bunch of water to send them on their way, when she spied a man emerging through the front doorway.

Wow.

The word smacked her psyche like it owned it. A male with tousled honey-brown hair, a body rippling—literally—beneath a tight, slightly dusty white tee-shirt, and hardened thighs that threatened the seams of faded, well worn jeans. The baseball hat cast a disturbing shadow over his face, hiding his eyes. Harper swallowed hard, so noisily she thought the little sixth grade student who scuttled by heard her. As the hunk passed her, reeking of sweat and musk and raw masculinity, Harper eyes attached to his ass so quickly, her neck complained. Her heart, hell, her clit didn’t. She suppressed a squeal as his ass, snugly clad in those tight, terrific jeans came into view. That perfect ass would feel hard in her greedy hands.

Hmmm, damn, that’s a photographic ass right there. What is a man like him doing at a thing like this?

She shook her head and sighed. If only she could latch onto something perfect like the delicious man in the tight jeans and dusty tee-shirt. He didn’t seem old enough to have a child in middle school, but stranger things had happened. Moreover, he probably was either married to one of those Teach for America wannabe teachers.
Yeah, her luck ran like that, from bad to horrid to atrocious.

The Question by Zena Wynn

“Will you have my baby?”

Gail Henderson abruptly began to loudly choke on her iced tea. All around her conversations ceased as they became the center of attention. As she coughed and wheezed with tears streaming down her eyes, she squinted at her best friend Crystal who was sitting there, calm as you please, as though she hadn’t just dropped what amounted to a nuclear bomb into the conversation.

They were seated at a table in Golden Corral, sharing lunch after a hectic morning of Christmas shopping, which was only a few weeks away. The place was packed as usual. The other diners slowly turned their attention back to their own business when Gail glared at them for being nosey.

“I’ve given this a lot of thought. You know I can’t have children. If you had one for me, I would have the best of both worlds—a child from the man I love more than anything—and my best friend, who is more like a sister to me,” her friend continued.
Crystal had been pregnant several times. Each one ended in miscarriage, the last almost taking her life. After that, her husband Rashid put his foot down. No more pregnancies. Crystal told Gail that he’d threatened to get a vasectomy before he’d allow her to risk her life in another pregnancy attempt, and she’d reluctantly complied with his decree. Gail thought Crystal had resigned herself to her barren state, but apparently not.

“What do you mean, have a baby for you?” she cautiously asked as she blotted the tears from her eyes and face.

“I want you to be my surrogate. I’ve been looking into it. Rashid would be its father and we’d use your eggs. Once the baby was born, I’d adopt it, making me its mother and as my best friend, you’d naturally be its godmother.” Crystal looked at her with a hopeful expression on her face.

“Isn’t this kind of drastic? I thought you were considering adoption,” Gail asked a bit desperately.

“I did, but that’s not for me. I want a child of my own. At the very least, I want a child fathered by Rashid. You know how important family is to him. Do you really think he’d be satisfied with an adopted child?”

Rashid Al Jabbar was as Arabic as his name. Because of his heritage, family and children meant a great deal to him. “Crystal, you know that’s not fair to Rashid. He loves you. If you wanted to adopt, he would go along with it just because it made you happy.”

A brilliant smile lit Crystal’s face. “Yes, he does love me, doesn’t he? That’s why I want this so much. I need to give him the child he so desperately desires.

Hopefully, it will be a son to carry on his family name. Gail, please. You’re my best friend in the world. There’s no one else I would trust to do this for me.”

“Crystal, look at us. We look nothing alike. Don’t you at least want someone who is similar in appearance?” Crystal was a short, curvy, natural blonde with pretty brown eyes. Gail was tall and slender with skin the color of nutmeg. Not only did they not look alike, they were from two different ethnic groups. Crystal was Caucasian while Gail was African-American.

“Pshh. You know I don’t care about things like that. Besides, who would know? Rashid is almost as dark as you.” It was true. Rashid’s complexion was the dark, olive-brown of a man from the Middle East, though he was as American as she.
Gail could feel herself caving. It’s not that she didn’t want to help her friend. She just had a bad feeling about this, and over the years, she’d learned to trust her instincts. She took in Crystal’s pleading expression. “Have you discussed this with Rashid?” It was a last ditch effort to avoid the inevitable. She’d never been able to say no to Crystal and Crystal knew it.

Crystal leaned forward, determination showing in her eyes. “He’ll agree. Don’t worry. How could he not? This is a win-win situation.”

Win-win for whom? Gail wondered. Then she sighed, knowing Crystal was right about Rashid. Crystal had him wrapped around her little pinky. “I’m not saying yes, but I’m not saying no. Let me look into it. Do a little research. This is too big of a decision to make on the spur of the moment.”

Crystal squealed, causing other diners to turn and stare—again. She got up from her seat and ran around to hug Gail. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Gail returned her hug but inwardly a feeling a dread was growing. She was going to say yes. She always did but she sensed this time, the results would be disastrous.

* * * *

As promised, Gail spent the next few weeks researching Artificial Insemination and Surrogate Mothers. She had a much better understanding of what she’d be getting herself into if she was crazy enough to agree to Crystal’s scheme.

The problem was she and Crystal had a long history together, going all the way back to junior high school when they’d first met in Mr. Peterson’s third period gym class. They’d clicked, despite their obvious differences. Gail was the studious one, always with a book in her hands. She’d been on the debate team and student council, and even spent time working on the student newspaper. Crystal was a social butterfly who coasted through life on her looks and charm. She’d been a cheerleader and won prom queen two years straight in high school. She’d done just enough studying to keep her grades high enough to cheer without being placed on academic suspension.

Somehow they’d maintained their friendship, despite attending two different colleges, several hours away from each other. It was happenstance that they both ended up relocating to the same city after graduation. Crystal married first, having met Rashid in college. Gail met and married Jason a couple of years later. The two couples had interacted closely, mainly due to the close friendship of the two women.

Crystal rejoiced with her when Gail discovered she was pregnant, and cried with her three years later when she’d lost both her husband and their son, Marcus, in a fatal car accident. That was two years ago. She and Crystal had supported each other through every crisis, sharing the laughter and the tears. Crystal had always been there for Gail in her time of need. How could she do any less for Crystal now?

* * * *

Gail traveled home to Alabama to spend Christmas with her parents, still no closer to a decision. The holidays were always rough. She couldn’t help thinking about Jason and Marcus, and what Christmas morning would have been like if they were still living. Having family around helped her get through the season without depression overwhelming her.

Christmas day was boisterous as usual. All of her brothers managed to make it home with their wives, the last one arriving early that morning just in time to exchange gifts. Later that evening, when everyone finally left, her father, Frank, pulled her into his study. “So, you want to tell me what’s bothering you, baby girl? You’ve been mighty quiet all day.”

She debated for all of a second the wisdom of saying anything, but her father had always been her confidant. “Crystal asked me to be a surrogate for her and Rashid, using my eggs.”

“Well, now…” Her father settled his large, burly frame back into the recliner and stroked his chin. “That’s quite a favor to be asking. Which way you leaning?”
Gail settled on the floor next to him and laid her head on his knee. He immediately began stroking her hair. “I don’t know. I feel for her, Dad, wanting a child so desperately, but I’m not sure this is the way. My gut tells me doing this would be a terrible mistake.”

“But…?”

“We’ve been friends for so long. She’s always been there for me. Can I honestly deny her?” Gail looked up at him.

Her father brushed her bang off of her forehead. “True, you two go way back, but sometimes, you have to trust your instincts and look out for number one. You’ve already lost one child. Can you handle losing two?”

“But this baby wouldn’t really be mine,” she protested.

“Blood will tell. It will grow in your body and have your DNA. And what about your mother and I? You weren’t the only one affected by the loss of Marcus. He was our first, and only, grandchild. Now you’re considering giving away another.”

She hadn’t considered that. Gail thought for a minute. “So you’re saying I shouldn’t do this?”

“I’m saying it takes a strong woman to give away her own flesh and blood. Maybe your
love for Crystal will carry you through. I don’t know, but think very carefully before committing to do this. Some decisions, once made, can’t be undone.”

His words stayed with her a long time.

Man to Man by G.A. Hauser

His lungs were aching. Josh Elliot leaned over, hands on knees, gasping for air.

Salt water ran down his skin and his body felt numb from the exertion.

“Well done.”

Barely acknowledging the pat on the back, Josh forced himself to stand straight and place one foot in front of the other on the wet sand. All that mattered was he’d done it. Finished in the top eighty so he could qualify. No, I finished in the top fucking five! Holy Christ.

“You all right?”

Another hand touched the small of his back. Josh looked up at one of the permanents, the lifeguards who held full-time positions. With his chest still expanding with the compelling need for air, Josh felt his breath catch in his throat.

Sky blue eyes reflecting the sunlight and seawater, over six foot in height with short cropped, dark brown hair, this man was a fucking god.

“Yeah. I’m all right.” Josh licked the salt water off his top lip.

“That was an amazing time. Impressive.”

“Was it?” Josh lit up as the man’s broad smile glowed, set off by his golden skin.

“Yes. You should be proud of yourself. What’s your name?”

“Josh. Josh Elliot.” He held out his hand.

“Nice to meet you, Josh. I’m Tanner Cameron. You’re through the toughest part. The next step is the classroom training. I wouldn’t worry. You’ll do fine.”

“Thanks.” Josh released Tanner’s hand slowly, allowing his gaze to wander down Tanner’s broad chest and six-pack abs. Tanner wore the “medal of honor” as far as Josh was concerned. Red swimming trunks. A genuine lifeguard.

“Are you going to be full time?”

“I want to. I’m taking some time off from my job and I’d like to not have to go back.”

“Your real job?” Tanner smiled knowingly.

“Yes.” Josh had fully recuperated from the thousand meter swim and felt his breathing ease.

Another man caught Tanner’s attention. He nodded in acknowledgment. “I have to go. Great job, Josh. I hope to meet up with you again very soon.”

“Me too.” Josh watched as he walked down the crowded beach, admiring his strut and tight ass. “Holy shit. I wouldn’t mind a piece of that.” Someone shouting, gathering them together for instructions on getting their certificates and beginning the academy shook him out of his dreams.

* * * *

Finally home, Josh dragged himself to the shower as the day’s events caught up to him. Dropping his paperwork on the kitchen table of his four-room apartment, he stripped off his shorts and bathing suit and stood outside the shower door, waiting for the temperature to heat up. Looking back at the mirror, he noticed his shoulders were slightly singed even though he had coated himself with sunscreen. His ass was pure white compared to his darkly tanned back and legs. Stepping into the spray, Josh moaned with relief at washing the saline off his body, and the sand that seemed to get everywhere, including his ass crack and balls. Shampooing his hair, scrubbing his skin with a loofa, Josh floated over the day’s events and the prospect of holding a lifeguard job over the summer. It was hard work. Not only was the physical training demanding but also the first aid American Red Cross certification, CPR, rescue techniques, the works.

He was ready. More than ready. After a four-year degree in business administration, he felt stuck in a lousy desk job.

He needed a change.

Josh shut off the taps, allowing the water to drip off his body, his head drooping with his weariness. He smoothed his hands down his chest and abs to swipe the water away. He brushed over his pubic hair and soft cock, considering jacking off. He couldn’t. He was exhausted.

Wiping his face with a towel, he stepped out and continued to dry off catching his green eyes in the mirror’s reflection.

“I don’t know why you won’t give me another chance.”

“Because you went out on me behind my back, Luis.”

“It didn’t mean anything.”

“It did to me.”

“Josh, don’t do this.”

“Forget it, Luis. Forget it.”

“But where will I find another man with eyes that green?”

Josh threw his towel over the shower door, leaned his palms on the sink, and stared at himself critically. Ending a six-month relationship sucked. No one was in his bed at the moment. Maybe it was another reason he had made the change in careers. He needed to get away from Luis. Seeing the man every day at work was killing him.
Josh heard his phone ringing and opened the bathroom door, hurrying to grab it.

Standing naked in his kitchen, glimpsing the window with its partial view of the San Gabriel Mountains beyond the buildings across the street, Josh covered his groin in modesty as if a peeping tom in the apartment house opposite would be using binoculars.

“Hello?”

“Josh.”

“What, Luis?”

“We need to talk.”

“We do not need to talk.” Josh was too tired to argue again.

“It was one time. One.”

“What do you want from me? I just got back from the tryouts and I’m wiped.” Josh
scratched his balls gently.

“Oh. How did that go?”

“Fine.” Josh wanted to hang up.

“I miss seeing you in the office.”

“Come on, Luis, why are we going over and over old ground? I just stepped out of the shower and I need to eat something.”

“Are you naked?”

Josh tugged on his soft cock and moved away from the window. “You need to stop calling me.”

“I can’t.”

“You can. Believe me, you can.” Josh opened the refrigerator for something to eat.

“Why won’t you forgive me?”

“It wasn’t working out anyway, Luis.” Josh removed a bottle of water from the shelf and used his teeth to open the top, swigging it down. “Which is probably why you went out on me in the first place.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is true.” Josh wiped his mouth with the back of his arm. “Let me go. I really have to eat and lay down.”

“I know once you become a lifeguard you’ll have so many hard bodies to choose from I’ll never cross your mind.”

“That’s the idea.” Josh pictured Tanner instantly.

“Oh, screw you.”

Smiling, Josh replied, “Now, that’s the Luis I know and used to love. Goodbye, Luis.” Josh disconnected the line, stuck the phone back in its cradle, and sucked down more water. Peering back at the window, he placed the water bottle on the counter and headed to his bedroom to put on a pair of shorts. Once he did, he sat on the bed in exhaustion and rubbed his face. Even though he was hungry, he dropped back on the spread, closed his eyes, and fell asleep.