Friday, August 31, 2012

Mate Healer by Amber Kell


Lian Blythorpe avoids entanglements. Nevair Dragonfang is deeply entrenched by them. When they meet, their outlooks change and they forge a bond. But not everyone is happy with that outcome.

His parents' violent ending makes Lian Blythorpe vow to keep things light between himself and any partner. His promise is abandoned when he meets Nevair Dragonfang, the religious leader for an entire planet. One glance into Nevair's intense gaze and Lian melts. It only takes them coming together one time for Lian to find himself captured by his sexy mate to the point where he can't imagine life without him. Unfortunately, not everyone is pleased with their bond and one man's jealousy sends Lian to a trial by fire he may not survive.

Buy Link:

Nevair Dragonfang sat in his large wooden chair and contemplated the wall. As Prime Pontifex of the planet of Dragait, Nevair served as religious advisor for the four planetary kings. Every Pontifex before him had kept the most current picture of the planetary rulers on the wall to keep them humble. To remind the religious heads they served not only the goddess, but also the people.

Nevair needed to update his collection. The kings were finding their mates and they should be added to the wall of pictures. Next to King Raiston, Nevair needed to add the king's mate Joriah Eprion and their third, Duke Klarian. Nevair still had reservations about a triad working out well but as both dragons claimed Jory, Nevair agreed to sanction their relationship and had performed the marriage ceremony himself. He had to approve their bonding despite his personal misgivings because Joriah's mother, the planet's goddess, accepted her son's mates. Nevair refused to go against the will of a goddess. Nothing good had ever come of that.

King Naron's new mate Tor, a duke in his own right, also needed a picture made. The man, bonded with a space dragon, was probably the most interesting person Nevair had ever met. Tor suffered from the restrictions of both his sight and his dragon, but bore it gracefully and still helped negotiate difficult treaties between planets.

Nevair had no doubt King Avin's son Prince Kaemon would find a mate soon and take over the throne. Until then, Avin would remain alone on the wall.

When he came to the last king, Nevair sighed. King Zeir was the only dragon ruler living in a tropical habitat. Desert covered three quarters of the planet of Dragait, with the remaining quarter being tropical forest. Years ago, King Zeir had lost his mate to a terrible accident, sending his dragon into a downward spiral. Under the crushing pain of his sorrow, the king turned feral and took most of his people with him. No one travelled to the tropical forest any more. To enter would be to embrace death.

Because of King Zeir's reaction, many dragon people now hesitated before taking a mate. No one wanted to be like the half-crazed dragon king who lost connection with his humanity over a century ago.

When he'd first come to his position Nevair had tried to seek out King Zeir. The teleportation pad in his office allowed Nevair to go anywhere on the planet in an instant. He'd barely escaped with his life and a particularly nasty scar on his back attested to his adventures. He regretted not being able to help the king and still prayed to the goddess for guidance. Now that Joriah had married his men, maybe she'd be more open to helping him out.

Rolling his head on his shoulders, Nevair looked out over the city. By tradition, the cathedral sat at the point where King Avin, King Raiston and King Naron's territories met. Each of the three kingdoms was represented equally and Nevair always wondered if King Zeir's land had touched the cathedral, too, he might not have lost his way.

A knock at the door distracted him from his solemn thoughts.

"Come in."

Trestair Dragonwing, Nevair's assistant and best friend, entered the room. "Are we having our afternoon mope?"

"I'm not moping. I'm thinking." He refused to mention he'd spent the afternoon fixating on his failures.

"Uh, huh." Tres's blond hair flopped over his face. He brushed it back with a practiced motion.

"Why don't you get your hair cut and stop bugging me?" Nevair asked crossly.

Tres smiled. "Because I'm paid to bug you and I wouldn't be half as sexy without my long hair."

Nevair laughed. "Who said you're sexy now?"

"Every guy I hit on at the bars." Tres gave Nevair a dimpled grin.

Some days Nevair wished he felt comfortable going off to bars to get laid, but he planned to keep himself pure for his mate. Probably a silly conviction, but one he'd decided on at a young age and had never met anyone tempting enough to get him to break that promise.

We are special. We will wait. The soft voice of Nevair's dragon whispered in his head like a quiet dream. Like all the Pontifex before him, Nevair's dragon lived like a separate being inside him. Nevair had a closer connection to his dragon than most dragonkin.

He shook his head as he considered Tres's dating habits. To put it politely, his friend could only be described as a man-slut. Tres considered an empty bed a sign of personal failure. Luckily the Dragait goddess didn't care who her disciples bedded as long as they were happy. Nevair had heard stories from Pontifex on other planets about goddesses who preferred their worshippers pure and insisted they take vows of chastity. Nevair wondered sometimes if he wouldn't do better at one of those planets. Although he didn't know for sure what he wanted in a life partner, when he finally met him, Nevair knew his dragon would let him know.

Tres scowled. "It's romantic bullshit to wait for your one true mate. What if you never meet him? You'd rather live and die alone?"

Nevair smiled. "I know we differ on this, Tres, but if you haven't changed my mind over the past twenty years, why do you think you will now?"

Curiosity had Nevair examining Tres more closely. A plain tailored black suit fit his friend's rangy body and despite its constant flopping, his haircut flattered the sharp lines of his face. Tres appeared as plain as his suit until his smiled. His dimpled grin had tempted many admirers into his bed. Luckily, Nevair had grown up next door to Tres and his friend's expressions had no effect on his libido. Instead of bedmates they'd become good friends and although they each disapproved of the other's sexual habits, or lack of them in Nevair's case, they generally respected the other's decisions.

Tres raked a hand through his hair. "You're a beautiful man moldering in this office. You need to get out and meet more people. Look, I found a conference for you. It's to discuss the latest techniques in dealing with gods and kings. They even named it the Gods and Kings conference." He held out a compad with a scrolling brochure on the screen.

Nevair laughed. "Great name."

"And it's being held on Sizan, the pleasure planet. Gambling, half-dressed men, and all the rich foods you can eat." Tres waved the tablet towards Nevair.

"And the conference," Nevair said dryly.

Tres shrugged. "Yeah, you could go to that, too, if you wanted."

Sighing, Nevair took the device to review the conference lectures. "This does look pretty good. They even have a lecture on goddess persuasion techniques." Nevair knew he didn't try to influence Dragait's goddess as much as he should.

"Ahh, don't be too hard on yourself, Nevair. She likes you better than anyone else."

"That doesn't mean she listens," Nevair argued.

"Yeah, but now you can threaten to tell Jory on her. That boy might look sweet, but he's sharper than a dragon tooth and twice as dangerous," Tres pointed out.

Nevair silently agreed. He wouldn't say something like that out loud. He never knew when the goddess might be listening, and bad-mouthing her son wouldn't win him any points.

Looking around his room, Nevair made a decision. "I'll go. It's past time I stepped out of my comfort zone. The goddess always says to grow you must experience more of life."

"Hmm, she might have meant in bed," Tres teased.

"For you, everything involves the bed." Nevair rolled his eyes.

"There's a reason I'm always in a good mood." Tres laughed. "Take your surly self to a planet of decadence. Maybe you will come back a changed man."

Nevair didn't know that he especially wanted to be changed, but he did want to get away for a bit and refresh his soul. Sometimes escaping everyday life now and then made all the difference.

Amber Kell
Sit down and have a little read

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Unveiling by JC Szot


Disgraced in front of his community, Neil Regal flees. When his car breaks down, he is forced into a blizzard on foot. When Dr. Danielle "Dale" Olson finds Neil the next day on her property, she takes him in.
While recuperating from his injuries, Neil's secretive past haunts him. Living the life of a recluse since her dark days in the film industry also has Dale on her guard. With Neil in her house, there is much to lose—her career, as well as her reputation as a doctor.
Only having experience with cold, hard sex for the purpose of making a good film, Dale is at odds with how to convey her feelings. With a handsome man in close proximity, Dr. Danielle Olson now has to figure out how to help herself after helping so many others, and Neil Regal is just the therapy she needs.
A Siren Erotic Romance
Story Excerpt
The fire crackled. The room was as toasty as a sauna. She’d set up a small table. A glass of water and a steaming bowl of what he’d probably smelled in the crock pot awaited him. Neil's heart swelled with gratitude, but he was afraid to speak. He didn’t want to say or do anything wrong that might scare her. He’d already made a bad move earlier by reaching out to her, a physical gesture of thanks. She sat him down on the edge of the sofa bed. His backpack was on the floor close by, leaning against a brown recliner. He caught her eyes briefly, playing it safe this time.
         “I know I keep saying this, but…I just want to thank you.”
          “No problem. Where are you from?” Her head tilted in question. Neil’s mind spun. He knew the question was coming, but hadn’t prepared for it. He couldn’t lie. This woman had saved his life.
          “I’m from Bucks County.” He held his breath, not wanting to zero in on his exact geographical location. Pennsylvania was a huge state. He wasn’t sure where he was exactly. He’d only been about thirty miles from the Ohio border when the car seized.
  Dale nodded. Her next question had his brow beading with sweat. “Oh, I know where that is. A bit far from home. Were you taking a trip?”
       “I just needed a change, that’s all.” Neil cleared his throat. “Where am I, anyway?” He laughed, hoping any other inquiries that she had would wait. He needed time to figure out just what he would divulge and what he would keep under wraps.
       “You’re in the small town of Fox Run.” Her brow arched. “Don’t worry. You can’t get into much trouble here.” Her laughter was laced with sarcasm. “Does anything else hurt?” Her soft voice had things heating inside of him that would be better off left on ice.
      “I think I’m just sore. I fell down that ditch, or…”
     “You fell into Tillman’s Ravine?” Her misty-blue eyes widened.
   Neil chuckled at his stupidity. “Yeah, I took a tumble, that’s for sure. Tillman’s Ravine got me.” His tone was mocking, admitting to his own stupidity. “I’m sure I’m just bruised up.” 
    She tucked her hair behind her ear. The sunlight streamed through the window, casting streaks of golden light on the dark strands. Dale raised a finger and left the room for a moment. She returned with two Advil. She placed them in Neil’s palm. He tossed them in his mouth and reached for the glass. His parched insides pulled the hydration deep into his body. Neil set the glass down. He glanced up to meet Dale’s gaze.  
    She had unique coloring, her skin the shade of cinnamon. Dale shoved her hands inside the pockets of her jeans, denim that traced every pleasant curve she had. She was about as tall as he was, her legs shapely, her hips just right in comparison to the rest of her. A mustard-colored sweater hugged her long torso, concealing whatever other goodies might lie beneath. Her feet were tucked into a pair of rugged hiking boots. Neil restrained his eyes from taking too long of a tour. He needed to keep himself in check. It’d been ages since he’d dated or had the pleasure of physically possessing a woman.
     “Well, I have some stew there for you.” Dale pointed down to the bowl. “I’m going to go back out and feed Midnight. I’ll be right back.” Neil nodded. Dale turned on her heel and walked back through the kitchen. Unable to help himself, Neil’s eyes landed on Dale’s ass, finding the sway of it favorable. The slamming door yanked him out of his brazen thoughts, ideas he needed to keep a tight lid on. 

Three of Swords by Theo Fenraven

BLURB: Three of Swords, 
Coming September 1, 2012

An old houseboat, a hot young guy, a couple of murders, and more mysterious keys than you can shake a stick at: this is what awaits Gray Vecello after his grandfather, Graham, is killed on his way to pick up high blood pressure pills.
A letter Graham left behind sends Gray and his unexpected ally, Cooper Key, on a journey downriver in an attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding an unknown treasure. On the way, they encounter both friends and enemies, one of which will target Gray and Cooper for death.  One thing working in Gray’s favor: he has the sight, just as Graham had, but will it be enough to save them both?
First book of the Precog in Peril series. 

Chapter 1

It was raining the day we buried my grandfather. I twisted the program in my hands until it started to shred, keeping my eyes down and tuning out the pastor's words about what a great man Graham Vecello had been. He'd never known him, but I had.
Grandpa Graham had been a holy terror to everyone in the family. He never just talked; he sniped and snarked and growled behind his whiskers. They told me he hadn't been like that when Lizzie, his wife, had still been around, but after she died young, he'd gradually become meaner and more distant, and then he sold his farm, bought a houseboat, and retreated into weighty silence.
Mom and Dad continued inviting him to join us for major holidays, but nine times out of ten, he didn't bother showing up, and the infrequent times he did, he sat in a dark corner glowering at the noisy young kids and leaving right after dinner. He scared the shit out of me, and after he disappeared into his watery hermitage, I was glad to forget him.
Mom placed a hand over mine, stilling them, and I sighed and shifted in the hard seat, wondering how much longer this would last. Gramps had been an asshole. I doubted anyone would miss him much, not even my father, who'd been the oldest of Gramps's and Lizzie's three boys.
The turnout for his funeral was small, and those who got up to talk about his life were few in number, so sooner than I expected, we trooped to the graveyard, where the pastor did some more talking, the clod of dirt was thrown onto the casket, and people finally drifted away as the diggers started filling in the hole.
Sharing a bright red umbrella, my parents lingered, and as a show of support, so did I, but I was already thinking about what I wanted for dinner and wondering if I should hit a couple bars tonight, hook up with some friends. Flipping up the collar of my leather jacket, I huddled deeper inside it while slipping cold hands into the pockets. Spring was cool and wet this year, and I was looking forward to the warmth of May.
Mom and Dad outstayed everyone, even the guys who covered the casket, but finally, we were alone, and they decided they could leave without censure. They'd put in their time, they'd shown everyone how much Grandpa Graham had meant to them, even if the last time they'd seen him had been four months ago.
Hell, how could they have known he'd get shot picking up his blood pressure pills at the drugstore? Wrong place, wrong time. They hadn't caught the guy yet, either, and chances were good they never would. No witnesses, no weapon at the scene. Instant cold case.
We reached the cars, and I stopped beside mine, one hand on the door. "I don't need to come back to the house, do I?"
They gave me matching frowns, and Dad said, "You haven't been by in a while."
Mom said, "You have to eat and there's plenty of food." Her eyes swept me critically. "You're too thin, Gray. Have some dinner, talk with your relatives. Harper will be there."
I liked cousin Harper. We were only a year apart in age; she was twenty-eight and I was twenty-seven. She came out my last year of high school. It took me somewhat longer.
I could stand to see Harper. "Okay." I unlocked the door and pulled it open.
Mom had gone on with the umbrella, but Dad tarried. "You okay? Is there anything bothering you?"
I refused to meet his eyes. "Not a thing. See you at home."
I slid behind the wheel and brushed rain-wet black hair out of my eyes, watching through the windshield as Dad joined mom in their sensible Toyota hybrid.
The last thing I wanted to talk about was that I'd known for two weeks Grandpa Graham, after whom I was named, was going to die, and I hadn't done a single thing to stop it.

"I like the earring," Harper said. "Real diamond?"
I fingered the stone in my right lobe self-consciously. "Yeah. Too much?"
"Please. It's great with your hair." Standing on tiptoe, she kissed my cheek. "Grrr…scruff. So sexy. Not that it affects me that way."
She laughed, and I laughed with her. "You look great. DC agrees with you." She'd moved to the murder capital of the country a few years ago and was happily settled into busy urban life. "Did you skip the funeral on purpose?"
"Oh, don't beat around the bush, get right to the point." Taking my hand, she led me out to the front porch. The rain had stopped, but it was still chilly, and the sky was full of scudding gray clouds. "I couldn't get a plane out. You're lucky I made it at all." Reaching into the breast pocket of her jacket, she pulled out a cigarette and lighter. "Want one?"
"Nope. Gave it up some time ago."
Scowling, she lit up, inhaling deeply. "Wish I could." Exhaling a long stream of smoke, she gave me an impish look. "How's your love life?"
Why was that always the first question she asked me? Didn't matter how long it had been since we'd seen each other, that was what she wanted to know. I turned it back on her. "How's yours?"
She laughed one of those throaty, sexy, cigarette-darkened laughs. "I met Sian last year, and we've been together ever since."
"It's serious?"
"As a blizzard in January." She took another hit off the cigarette. "She didn't come with me. Had to work. She's an emergency room nurse."
I smiled. Harper was definitely out and proud and didn't care what others thought of her. I admired that about her. I was more low-key. I didn't make an issue out of being gay unless you counted the diamond earring, but even straight guys were wearing them these days.
She smoked a while in silence, looking at the street where nothing much was happening, inclement weather keeping the kids indoors. I watched her, remembering how close we'd been when we were kids. She was the one I'd confided in when I'd realized I liked guys and didn't know how to tell the folks.
She dropped the butt to the floor and stomped, twisting the toe of her expensive boot on it. "Do you still lay the cards?"
I shivered, and it wasn't due to the temperature. "Why do you ask?"
She shrugged. "I'd like a reading. I'm thinking about changing jobs, and it'd be nice to know it was the right decision."
"How does a lawyer do that? Aren't you, like, sworn in for life or working until you get disbarred?"
"Har har. Changing jobs, not professions, dickhead. I've been offered a position in another firm, at a third more money."
I leaned against a post, closed my eyes, pointed an index finger at one temple, and intoned, "I see… I see a shower of golden coins in your future." She shoved me hard, and I grinned and said in my normal voice, "Take it."
She gazed at me speculatively. "You don't like reading cards, do you? I never really thought about it before, but I can't remember the last time you laid the Tarot."
Two weeks ago, I thought, averting my eyes. My stomach cramped, and I blamed it on not having eaten breakfast.
I opened my mouth to say something―I had no idea what―and was interrupted by Mom sticking her head out the door.
"Food." She shivered and her eyes went past us to the dripping eaves. "What a miserable day."

Harper didn't bring up the Tarot again and the subject was dropped. We loaded our plates at the impromptu buffet laid on the dining room table, and then stood or sat in the living room, sharing memories of Graham when he was with Lizzie. I'd been a baby when she died and only knew her through their memories and the few pictures I'd seen of her, which showed her to be a pretty girl with a shy smile. Everyone agreed Gramps had not been the same after her death at age forty-three.
It started raining again. I listened to it dancing on the roof and bouncing off the windows.
Dad said, "Graham left a will. His lawyer contacted me yesterday. We have an appointment at his office day after tomorrow, three o'clock."
Harper shoved a leg against mine, and I heard her snicker, a totally inappropriate reaction in the circumstances and so like her, I fought a smile. I pushed back, balancing my plate precariously across my knees.
Dad's gaze swung to me. "You're coming." It wasn't a question.
"Can't, gotta work."
"The lawyer specifically asked that you attend."
"What about me?" Harper asked.
"Nope, sorry."
"Oh, well. I was never all that fond of the old coot anyway." She cut her eyes at me. "Maybe he left you his rare and priceless collection of antique coins."
"He didn't have one," Dad said.
Harper forked three-bean salad into her mouth. "Then I guess he didn't."
After I hurriedly chowed down on brats and potato salad, chased by a couple of beers, I escaped with hugs, kisses, and promises to return soon. I never spent much time with the relatives, not that there were a lot. Dad had two brothers, Sam and Dave. Harper was Sam and Dina's only child, and Dave wasn't married or even living with anyone. My mother was an only child, and her parents lived in California. Not much of a tribe when you got right down to it.

I went straight to work from my folks place. After high school, I'd attended cosmetology school and gotten a job at Sexy Tresses in St. Paul. I was still working there and had built a devoted clientele. Everyone except me and the obnoxious Harper still lived in Red Wing.
Randy, the shop owner, looked up from behind the front desk when I strolled in. "About time! I was tempted to send a search party."
"My grandfather's funeral, remember?" I smiled at my client, waiting patiently with a magazine on her lap. "Be right with you, sweetie."
I went to my station and checked the drawers, making sure I had everything I needed. Raul, another stylist, tended to borrow my scissors and forget to return them.
Randy followed me. "She's been waiting fifteen minutes," he hissed as I arranged the things on the counter.
"I'm here," I shot back softly. "For chrissakes, Randy, I was at a funeral. Most people get a day or two for that. Give me a break." Oh, yeah, like he was going to give me time off to go to the will reading. I slammed a drawer closed much harder than I'd planned, and it bounced partway open again. Lately, Randy had been pushing me hard, and I didn't know why. I brought a lot of money into the shop. He should be kissing my feet, except I knew that wasn't his fetish. He was more into handcuffs and blindfolds.
I started toward the back, and he said, "Where are you going?"
I turned and glared at him, then addressed my client, who was watching with interest. "Hon, mind if I take a piss? I had a couple beers at lunch."
She burst into laughter while Randy glowered. "I'm in no hurry."
Tossing his hair, Randy stalked to the front desk. "Unbelievable!"

The next day, Dad called to remind me about the lawyer appointment, and again, I told him I was working. "My boss has had PMS for the last few weeks, and if I take more time off, he'll fire me."
"Who doesn't give an employee time to settle personal affairs?"
"Randy, that's who. This is a cutthroat business, and there's always some youngster with fresher ideas snapping at your heels." Just the other day, some twink fresh out of school had shown up with a slicked back undercut and tons of attitude, asking about a job.
"Maybe you should get into another line of work," he said, not for the first time. "I could put in a good word for you at the store."
"Thanks, but no thanks." I couldn't see myself working in a liquor store, though the idea of a discount was appealing. "Just tell me what he says."
"Make an attempt, okay? I know you didn't have much to do with Graham, but that man was in pain. He was so alone at the end."
"I know, Dad. I'll try."

The day of the appointment, I woke up with a killer headache. I got them occasionally. They usually indicated I was under stress of some sort, and I'd take a pain pill or two and keep going. My other stress indicator was unpredictable bowels, but those were fine.
That morning, I was cranky and pissed off about Randy and feeling bad about disappointing my parents if I didn't show, and after lying there a while, staring at the ceiling with throbbing temples, I decided I'd had enough. Time for a mental health day.
I called in sick, listened to Randy scream for ten minutes about replacing my sorry, ungrateful ass, hung up, and felt a great weight lift off my shoulders. After a long shower, I dressed in jeans and a dark green shirt and realized my headache had backed off considerably. Refusing to connect the dots, I went out to breakfast at a local café, dawdling over eggs Benedict and continuous cups of coffee while I caught up with the news on my phone. It was so rare when I got a day to myself, I was determined to enjoy it.
The waitress asked if I wanted anything else and surprised me by ducking down and looking at me intently. "You have the most unusual eyes." She moved closer, squinting a little as she studied me. "Gray? No, silver. Silver gray, with a black line around the iris that looks as if it's holding in water…"
I think I blushed a little. "That's very poetic."
It was her turn to color. "Well, I am taking creative writing at Macalester. I want to write someday."
People always noticed my eyes. They were almost colorless, so pale they appeared to be backlit. Sometimes, for kicks and to make my friends try to figure out what was different about me, I'd slip on a pair of contacts colored green or blue.
Back at my place, I cleaned and did laundry, heated soup for lunch, took one of my infrequent naps. Still yawning, I drove to the lawyer's office in Red Wing. A receptionist showed me in. My parents were already there, as were Sam, Dina, and Dave.
All eyes turned to me as I was ushered in. I smiled uneasily. "Not late, am I?"
Dad half-stood, a surprised smile on his face. "You're right on time." He looked for a free chair and found none. I motioned for him to sit and stepped up behind him, resting my hands on the back of his chair.
"This is our son, Gray," Mom said to the lawyer, a woman in her thirties with dark hair pulled back into a severe knot at the nape of her neck. The desk nameplate said she was Karen Clark.
Ms. Clark nodded and shuffled papers. "Let's begin."
I zoned out as she started reading legalese. Looking down at the top of my father's head, I noticed his hair was thinning at the crown and there was a lot of gray mixed in with the black. What was he now, fifty? People always said I looked like my father. I'd also heard I bore a resemblance to Grandpa Graham.
"…And to my grandson, Gray Vecello, I leave the Constant Companion." Ms. Clark looked up, her eyes meeting mine as she held up a set of keys.
I didn't immediately take them. "What's the Constant Companion?"
Dad said, "His houseboat. It's at the Bergen Marina in the west channel."
"I thought he'd leave that to us," Sam said as Dina nodded enthusiastically in agreement.
Dave smiled. "I never thought he'd leave it to me, not that I'd want that old thing. It dates back to the '70s."
And it's probably full of old-man smell. "I don't want it, either. Give it to Sam and Dina."
"Your grandfather's instructions were explicit. You, and no one else, are to have the boat."
She shook the keys, and I leaned over between my parents to accept them. There were four keys of various sizes on the key ring. Dad patted my forearm. "I think Grandpa made a good choice."
"I don't work in Red Wing," I reminded him. "And I already have a place."
"You've wanted to leave that shop. Now's your chance." Dad's tone became wry. "Last time I heard, they cut hair in Red Wing."
I stared at the keys, and a strange feeling moved through me. It took me a few seconds to identify it: quiet elation.
This, I hadn't seen in the cards.

I went straight from the lawyer's office to the marina. It was small, with only ten slips. Half were occupied. Four were fishing and power boats, and the other two were houseboats. Remembering Dave's remark about its age, I tried to identify which of the two was older, but both were well-kept and tidy, and both were painted white, although one had bright blue striping and the other had red.
I stepped onto the dock and walked slowly toward them. The houseboats were in adjoining slips, and it was only the name, Constant Companion, emblazoned across the top area I assumed was called a bridge that identified which one was mine. A small dinghy was attached at the rear.
Except for paddling around in a rowboat when I was a kid, I'd had nothing to do with boats. Staring at it, I was at a loss. What the hell was I going to do with this? Was it supposed to stay tied up or could one travel down the river? The feeling of quiet elation was still with me, but overlaid now with doubts.
I went aboard, expecting the boat to shift beneath my feet. It didn't though; it was like going from one patch of solid ground to another. The boat rocked a little, though. My stomach briefly considered getting upset but then grumpily subsided.
And then the water moved as the waves caused by a speedboat zipping by hit the hull, and I spread my legs without thought, knees bending slightly to absorb the shift as the houseboat rose and fell subtly, riding the lazy swells. I smiled as I noticed the sign posted in the water: No Wake Zone. Looked like someone wasn't paying attention.
I wondered if I could sleep in such an environment. It was like feeling some leviathan breathing beneath me, inhaling and exhaling so gently I was barely aware of it but causing just enough movement to draw my notice.
Before I could take a second step, a young man dropped down to the catwalk from above and marched forward, blocking me from advancing farther. He was a couple inches shorter than me, making him around five nine, and he was thin and lanky in that half-starved way teenaged boys often were before they achieved their final growth. His thick brown hair was shot through with vivid red streaks which glowed in the late afternoon sun. I looked at them with a critical eye. Whoever had done them hadn't done a great job; they were clumpy and uneven. He wore a dirty blue tank top and a pair of black cotton shorts that were unraveling at the hems. His tanned feet were bare, which somehow made him seem vulnerable.
He gave me a surly look. "What the hell are you doing on this boat?"
Oh, it's a boat then, not a ship. "I might ask you the same, as I own it."
Surprise flared in his chocolate eyes. "What?"
It wasn't just the boat that had me unbalanced. "Let's start over. I'm Gray Vecello. And you are…?"
"Cooper Key." He then did the classic double-take as realization dawned. "Oh! You're Graham's grandson!"
Nodding, I waited for him to continue. We stared at each other, and I fought the urge to laugh. Who was this kid, anyway?
"Graham and I…" He averted his eyes for a moment before nailing me with them again. "We're friends. I live here."
The man I'd grown up hearing about, the man I'd been nervous around and avoided forever, had been friends with this young man? I hadn't thought him capable of it.
"He died last week," I said gently. "He was shot outside a drugstore."
Instantly, his eyes filled with tears, which he attempted to blink back. "I know. I was with him. I'd gone down the street to the bakery. They're open late on Thursdays." He drew in a ragged breath. "I heard the shot, but I was too late. I called the ambulance. The hospital wouldn't let me see him, and they wouldn't give me information over the phone, but one of the nurses decided I was okay, and she told me." His lips thinned. "Not family." He glanced sideways, through the glass into the cabin. "He left something for you."
Before I could say anything, he'd vanished through a sliding door. The glare of the sun off the glass kept me from tracking his movements. There were plastic chairs on the narrow open space at the front of the boat. I dropped into one and stared at the shore, waiting. The bar and grill was starting to get busy; people entered, exited, and sat on the patio that faced the water. Thinking about a burger and an icy beer made my mouth water.
Grandpa had lived on this boat for decades. Sitting there with the breeze ruffling my hair, watching a pair of mallards paddling along the edge of the dock while seagulls wheeled overhead, and smelling that peculiar odor that belongs to open water alone―food smells from the restaurant, a slightly fishy odor, the faint scent of gas and oil, and stronger than all of that, a freshness to the air that one rarely smelled on land―I understood the appeal.
Maybe I could live here, get a job at a shop in town, adapt to the slower pace boat living demanded. Weren't houseboats considered cool? I could throw some terrific parties. I might even get laid more often.
Cooper was back, handing me an envelope. "He made me promise to give this to you. He knew you'd come." He paused, biting his lip, his darting eyes revealing his discomfort. "He told me I shouldn't leave until after you read it. It'll only take me a few minutes to pack if, you know...."
I nodded, weighing the contents. There was more than one sheet inside. What the hell did he have to say to me after all these years? "No hurry."
"I'll be aloft. Call when you want me."
When I was alone again, I turned the envelope over. My name was written neatly in the center in blue ink. I couldn't remember the last time I'd gotten a letter. It was all email these days.
Suddenly nervous, I drew in a deep breath and held it until my lungs ached before exhaling. I worked the flap loose without tearing it, removed the lined paper, unfolded it, and started to read.

Released 7/11: Phoenix Rising
Released 6/20: The Blue Paradise
Fen's blog

Stained Glass by Jaime Samms

The violent implosion of Lawrence McKenna’s last relationship left him floundering at the bottom of a bottle. Recently unemployed and struggling with his newly discovered submissive tendencies, Laurie needs his best friend, Jeff, more than ever. One sleepless night of detox and a desperate kiss convince him that the attraction they’ve battled all their lives has become too hard to ignore, but Jeff has other responsibilities that take him far away from Laurie and his self-destructive behavior.

When Jeff leaves, all Laurie wants is to be left alone to wallow. Instead, he finds himself riding herd on his friends who have quit their jobs to achieve their dream of starting their own manga publisher. Those same friends return the favor by riding him: about the booze, talking about what happened, seeing a doctor—and about Jeff, whose abandonment left Laurie bitter and resentful. Laurie knows they can’t have a relationship without forgiveness, but when Jeff returns, can he be what Laurie needs?

Chapter One

YOU know when you want, so bad, the exact thing you don’t want?

Well, that was exactly where he had me pinned. Everything I’d worked for, suffered for, striven to attain, stripped away in that moment, by that cruel whisper. Because I took it. Because I wanted his hands—and his control. The whispers came along with it. I let that poison into my blood as it heated under his touch. I let it in.

And now they tell me not to hate myself. That it wasn’t my fault.

But that poison whisper is in my ear, like it’s a part of me now, and I can’t ever hear anything past it.

“Laurie.” Someone called my name.

I blinked.


Not the velvet whisper in my head mocking me. Not that. Something… someone else.

“Laurie, how much have you had to drink?”

“Wha’?” I glanced at the bottle dangling from my hand. Nope. Not dangling. It had fallen and was lying on my rug in an amber puddle. Wasted. Ruined.

Like me.

“Come on.” Whoever bothered me now tried to lift me off my couch.

“Lemme alone.”

“Can’t, buddy. Come on. Get up. You’re going to have a cold shower, or I call an ambulance and get your stomach pumped. Come on.” That voice was getting more and more angry. “How much?”

“Dunno.” I squirmed out of the tight grip on me. Didn’t like tight grips. Not anymore.

“Oh no you don’t. You’re getting up. Now.”

The hands came back, then arms, wrapping around me, and a fog of everything I’d wanted to drink away crowded out the voice and the whispers came back.

I shut my eyes tight. No. I wasn’t going to give the fluttering voice in my head form. No words. Not this time.

“Make it go away.”

Was that really my voice? That couldn’t be me, pleading like that.

“Okay, Laurie. First things first. Shower. Come on.”

“Want a drink.” So maybe I had a one-track mind. I wanted what I wanted. And I wanted a drink. Even though I knew it wasn’t going to keep it away forever and I didn’t really want to pickle myself. I didn’t want to be this slovenly man passed out on his couch. But there it was again, wanting what I didn’t really want….

“Lawrence, please. Look at me.”

The voice was vague. I still couldn’t place it. But the hand on my chin, lifting my face—that was real. That was….

“Ungh.” I capitulated. Like always. The whispers would start soon enough, but oh God, those hands. My knees buckled. I hit the floor with a painful thud, kneecaps crashing into hard tile.


Alarm. Who was alarmed and why?

It was reason enough to focus, just for a moment, and a face came into view.


“Laurie. Thank God. Focus now. How much did you drink?”

I really, really didn’t know. So I shrugged.

“Did you take anything?”

God. I wish. I shook my head.

“So tired.”

“Mmm.” Jeff knelt beside me and once again took my face in his hands. It didn’t freak me out this time, though. He was gentle. Not like….

“Jeff.” Something was rattling. The noise inside my head was astronomical, and it took me several minutes to realize it was my teeth clanking as I shivered. “What’s happening to me?”


This was not normal. He was sitting on my bathroom floor. I was sitting on my bathroom floor. Freezing. I had no clothes on, and I had no idea why.

“It’s going to be okay.”


“We’ll get you in the shower, buddy. Can you get up?”

“D-don’t.” And there it was. Or rather, there I was, sprawled in his lap, clinging to his shirt and begging him not to get up. Not to make me get up. I didn’t want to move until the floor had swallowed me and I could forget the past two months had ever happened.

“We’ll go slow,” he promised. “I’ll run you a bath.”

“St-stay here.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” Instead of getting up to run the bath, he hauled a thick towel off the bar and wrapped it around me. For a few minutes, we sat there, me shivering, him petting my hair like I was a damn dog. And I liked it. He was my best friend. He was straight. Or might as well have been for all the interest he had in me. And he’d warned me about Nash. Yet here he was, petting my hair and not rubbing my face in the fact that I was a complete disaster.

AWARENESS. I felt as though parts of me had absconded. Not my head. Not my gut, either. Both of those were in hurtful, hateful evidence. But some other, less tangible bit of me had fled the building, and I wondered if I should mourn it. Or even try to figure out what it was.

Sounds slowly filtered into my brain. So my hearing, at least, wasn’t affected by whatever bits of me had fallen away. It took some time to identify the sounds as someone moving about in my kitchen.

No one ever used my kitchen. I certainly didn’t. Wouldn’t know what to do with the pretty appliances lined up along the wall. Nash would never condescend to acknowledge the overpriced food he ordered in even came from a kitchen of any sort. Except once. Way back in the beyond of the beginning of us, when he’d made me hot chocolate. With marshmallows.

Because I’d told him my big brother had always made it for me when we came in off the ski runs.

Pain shot through me. Brian. Brian, whom I’d adored with the worship only a little brother could bestow on an older one. Brian, who made me hot chocolate, bandaged my scraped knees in summer, and taught me to ski in winter. Who’d gone off to fight some war in some desert that shithead politicians wouldn’t even call a war, and who’d never come home.

Nash had taken that memory, that tiny scrap of my soul, swaddled and protected for years, and twisted it, shaped it to revolve around him, to cause pain now that he was gone. He’d tainted everything and I wanted to hate him for it. I just ached because none of it was even his fault.

Groaning, I rolled onto my side, pulled the pillow up over my head, but the sounds and smells from my kitchen continued unabated. Oblivious. Apparently uncaring that I’d shriveled past the point of needing that kind of mundane sustenance.

“You need to get up now.”

Jeff. My remorseless angel of calm and practicality.

“Go ’way.”

“Ass out of bed, piss tank.”

I flung a pillow in the general direction of the kitchen, cursed—silently—my choice of a studio apartment that didn’t have bedroom walls. The pillow sloughed off the side of the bed, mocking my efforts.

For the next few minutes Jeff just ignored me, cooked, and hummed softly. I didn’t know he hummed. Didn’t know he could even carry a tune. For a while I lay there and tried to figure out what he was humming.

“Mean.” My butch best friend was humming Taylor Swift under his breath, occasionally breaking out the words to her song about… about fucked-up, abusive relationships.

I rolled my ass out of bed and locked myself in the bathroom. And reflected that it must mean something that I recognized the song myself. I turned on the shower, but even that didn’t shut the lyrics out of my head or cover Nash’s voice, still whispering through my being.

You. Are. Nothing. Mine to throw away when I tire of you….

Not “if.” He never said “if I tire of you.” Just “when.” And I hadn’t noticed that fine point until it happened.

I shut off the shower again without getting in.

A soft knock interrupted my thoughts. “Laurie?”

My angel. “What?”

God, did I really sound that gross?

“You spent an hour in the shower last night. I think you’re clean, buddy.”

Filthy. Little. Slut.

I closed my eyes. That self-imposed darkness just brought back the ghost memory of Nash’s hand on my chin, holding me still, with my face turned so he didn’t have to look at it, so he could whisper his derision into my soul without ever looking into my eyes.

“Laurie.” Jeff again. Ever Jeff. Didn’t he need to go away to work or something? “Come out here. Eat.”

Reluctant, I opened the door and shuffled out, unable to ignore the conditioning that made me respond to his soft command.

The floor still tilted under my feet slightly, and I had to catch myself on the doorframe.

“You all right?”

“I’m fine.” I swept his hands away. I was not interested in having anyone touch me. But when I swayed across the expanse of my apartment, he was there again, hand at the small of my back, and it didn’t bite into my ego and crush. It simply held me up and warmed that spot of skin under my shirt.

My knees creaked and complained as I lowered into the chair at the table. “Ow.” I touched fingers gingerly to the left one and winced. “Why do my knees feel bruised all to hell?”

They’d felt that way before, but I knew I hadn’t been on them. Not in the past week. Not for Jeff. He’d never want me in such a position, and Nash…

Well, Nash was gone, wasn’t he?

“Oh.” Jeff set a plate down in front of me. “Yeah. That was my fault. I didn’t think. Sorry.”

“You?” I squirmed in my chair. What wasn’t I remembering?

He tilted his head. “You don’t remember.”

“Remember what?” Queasiness invaded my gut, and I stared without seeing the plate of food in front of me.

“Lawrence….” That voice again, so much like Nash’s, but so much softer and deeper and… more.

He watched me. I could see in his eyes he had things to say and no way to say them. No words. No way to breach a subject he knew I would shut down before he got started.

“What is this?” I couldn’t quite center on the food. Not just that my eyes were misting. My mind slid out of focus. Sideways. Skittered away from confrontation.

“Eggs and butter toast.” He gave the plate a tiny shove in my direction. “Your favorite hangover food.”

“I’m not hungover.”

“No.” He picked up my fork and held it out until I took it. “You’re probably still drunk. Get something into your stomach to soak it up.”

“What are you even doing here?” I asked, forking up a mouthful, unable to resist his order. Did he even know what he was doing? How just the timbre of his voice reached inside and turned me to his will without his having to even try? I doubted it. He wasn’t like Nash.

I glanced up at him. He watched me, steady, calculating, waiting for me to take a bite. I did, and he nodded slightly, his lips twitching into a more relaxed expression, and began to eat himself.

“Andy called me. He said you haven’t been in to work all week,” he said after a few minutes.

“I don’t work there anymore. Remember?”

“You didn’t go in to pick up your personal shit.”

I poked at the food. “What do I want with used staplers and hole punches?”

“Or the two-hundred-dollar pen your father bought you—”

“To celebrate my getting that job? Right. How proud he’ll be when he finds out how I lost it.”

“He’s just worried about you, Laurie. We all are.”

“I’m fine.”

Jeff pushed at the side of my face until I turned my head to the kitchen sink and the collection of empty bottles stacked beside it. Dozens of them—beer bottles, whiskey, wine. My stomach rolled over.

“You are not fine, my friend.”

“How many of those did you dump out?” I asked, finally spearing another bit of eggs, which I picked off the fork with my teeth.

“Not as many as I might like.”

“You know me.” I swallowed and plucked another tiny bite off the plate. “High tolerance.”

“No one has that high a tolerance, Lawrence. I should have taken you to the ER.”

“Now you’re overreacting. It’s not like I drank them all last night. Or even this week.”

Jeff shook his head and went to the stove for the dirty pan. “You deny you’ve been drunk for a week?”

I took a nibble of toast.


“What?” I slammed the fork and toast down. “What do you want me to say? Deny it? You want me to lie to you? Or do you actually think you need me to answer?”

He crashed dishes around in the sink for a few minutes.

“Stop acting like you’re shocked or appalled or something.”

“You drink too much.”

The accusation was barely a whisper. Once again, he’d left me with nothing to say in response. He didn’t want me to agree with him, because he didn’t want it to be true. But he was Jeff, and I would never, ever lie to him. So I kept my mouth shut.

“Maybe you need to talk to—”

“Did you check my underwear drawer?” I asked to cut him off. He was the king of therapy. Given his past and the crap he’d lived through, that was probably a good thing. It was probably the reason he was one of sanest, steadiest forces in my life. But not everyone needed to “talk to someone.”

“Stop acting like it’s a joke!” He whirled on me, and suds and water flew everywhere. Some landed on my plate, and I watched the pile of white bubbles slump and spread towards the eggs.

“Who said it was a joke?” God. That stung. He had no idea how deadening it was to spit that out at him just to shut him up. Just to give him what he wanted. Just to let him save me from myself because we both knew I couldn’t do it alone.

For a long moment he stood there, hands on his hips, and stared at me with what I knew was a wounded, frightened, furious glare. I could feel the heat of his anger issuing from his huge brown eyes. I concentrated on scooping eggs away from the encroaching suds and forcing myself to eat.

After a heavy silence, getting nothing else from me but the serious, honest response he wanted, he stormed off to the dresser, opened the top drawer, and rooted around.

He didn’t quite stifle the curse.

I was only giving him what he wanted—the truth. He just wanted the truth to be something else. We made a great pair that way.

“Check my old cowboy boots in the clos—”

He slammed the dresser drawer. “I already got that one.” Hard as flint. Cold. It was easier when he was mad. I could deal with mad. The thud of his feet on the floor echoed hollowly as he stomped back to the kitchen and poured that bottle down the drain too.

I ate a few scraps of toast.

He washed the dishes, then brought the big blue recycle bin from the foyer closet and started piling bottles into it.

I couldn’t eat even half of what he’d made for me without the risk of bringing it all back up again. I carried my plate to the kitchen and began the ritual of composting the food and wiping down the dishes.

“Soon as you’re ready, we’ll go get your things from the office.”

“You really expect me to troop through there and let everyone watch me pack up a bunch of shit I don’t care about? Listen to them whisper and snicker?”

“You’re a jackass. Andy already packed everything. We’ll call him when we get there and he’ll meet us in the lobby.”

“Big of him.”

“You!” He turned on me then, shining green wine bottle held out like a club. “Have no idea, shithead! He called me because he was worried. Because he didn’t want you to have to walk that gauntlet, but this is the last day he can help you avoid it.”

“I’ll go on Monday. He can do it then.”

“He won’t be there Monday!”

“Why?” I put my utensils in the drainer and finally looked up at him.

“Because he tendered his own resignation the day Nash’s brother fired you. So did Sofia and Jeremy. And Reggie. And she is some pissed at you for not telling her what was going on.”

I stared at him.


“Are you a complete idiot?” At least he didn’t look as mad now. Just confused. “After what he did, do you think any of them were really going to stay there?”

“After what I let him do, you mean.”

“You can’t blame yourself because Nash—”

“Can we not, please?” Talking about it was just making me want another drink. And another until the whispers and the memories were obliterated behind the red haze of perma-drunk.

Thankfully, Jeff nodded. “Get dressed,” he said, his voice quiet and that calm, even cadence instilled in me a strange desire to just do what he wanted. “We’ll go as soon as you’re ready.”

WE MADE the drive in silence.

In the lobby, Andy met us with relief. He had boxes and boxes of stuff. Most of it was his. His job as a graphic designer entailed a lot more paraphernalia than mine as a personal assistant had, and he was not the world’s most efficient packer. As we loaded the boxes into Jeff’s trunk, Andy told me the girls, Reggie and Sofia, had tendered their resignations the day they all found out I had been fired, and then had called in sick every day since. Andy and Jeremy had packed up everyone’s desks and taken it all away from the firm over the past week. No one in the office had raised even a hint of complaint.

“So.” He picked up the last box from beside the guard’s desk in the lobby and grinned at me through the forest of T-squares and desk guides bristling from the ill-packed box. “We’re all free and clear. Maybe it’s time to start that graphic novel you keep talking about, huh, Laur? Jeff here can write the story, Reggie can draw, I can color. It’ll be like school, but better. We’ll make some money. Sof’s got the first stages of promotion all worked out.”

“Right. And what do I do?” I mumbled as I ducked into the front seat.

“Huh?” Andy glanced from me to Jeff, then clambered into the back. “You run the joint, asshole. Keep us on schedule. Set deadlines, make budgets. You do what you’re good at.”

What I was good at. I snorted. What I had been good at was spreading my legs. Letting Nash lead me around by the nose while he whispered toxic lies in my ear and I believed him.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Jeff said quietly. He started the car and headed downtown toward Andy’s apartment.

“Yeah, well.” How was that for noncommittal?

We’d talked about it so often. Dreamed about it. There was money in graphic novels, if you did it right. If you hit the right market and had the right skills. Between the six of us, we had all the skills we needed and then some. Reggie was pure talent when it came to the manga art style, and Andy genius at bringing things to life with color and placement. Sofia and Jeremy were a marketing dream team, and Jeff never ran out of ideas for plots and their dangerous and sexy twists and turns. I’d seen it all as we’d worked for Nash and his brother, as we gelled as a team doing ad copy and the mundane crap that went along with corporate advertising bullshit.

I’d watched them all strut their stuff in Nash’s employ and stretch their wings in off hours when we hung out, and I knew they were all destined for way better things than that stink hole of an advertising firm. I’d longed to pull them all together, to make the team last and do something that meant more than selling hotdogs and tampons to people who were going to buy the shit anyway.

I suppose what I’d really longed for was a chance at something more important than being a personal assistant and sex doll for a cocky, demanding, and, as it turned out, psychopathic boss in a midlist ad firm. I wanted more, and they were the talent I could use to get it.

“Think about it,” Jeff said, still soft. Still gentle. He glanced at me to see if I’d heard.

I could only offer a shrug. They would do it anyway. Obviously they had talked about it. They didn’t really need me. I was a tagalong. The sympathy recipient of a pointless job so they could feel like we were all still together, like school. Only school was ten years gone, we were all ten years older, and Jeremy and Reggie had a kid to pay for. Some things you could never get back.

Jeff pulled into Andy’s parking lot, and we hauled all the boxes up two flights of stairs to his dinky walk-up bachelor pad.

“Hey, thanks, guys.” Andy took the last box from me and set it on his table. “Lord knows where I’m going to set any of this up.” He glanced at his drafting table, cluttered with folded laundry and a stack of Superman comics. “Guess I’m going to have to clean this dump up.”

Jeff snickered. “Good luck with that.”

“You guys want to stay for a beer?” Andy went to the fridge and pulled out three brews.

I said, “Hell yes.” at the same time Jeff told him, “No, thanks.”

“Your loss,” Andy said, handing one of the beers to me.

Jeff intercepted it and handed it back. “We have to go,” he said to me, not offering even a nook of opportunity for me to argue. “Get your stuff back to your place.”

“It’s not going anywhere.” I reached for the beer again, but he stepped forward and fixed Andy with his hands-on-hips look that said he was not going to back down.

“I found him on his couch last night,” he told our friend. “Passed out cold. Too soused to fucking know his own name. He’s been drunk for a week.”

Andy nodded and set all three beers on the counter. “I’ll make some coffee.”

“Fuck you both!” I headed for the door.

“I’ve watched enough people drink themselves to death,” Andy said in a matter-of-fact voice. He hauled a few more beers out of his fridge and proceeded to pop all the tops and pour them down the drain. “I’m not helping you, Laur. You want to do it, do it somewhere else.”

“You don’t have to waste your beer.”

He stopped and looked at me. “You know how many bottles I found in your desk and your office and your locker at work?”

In fact, I probably didn’t know the exact number. But that was just proof of what they were both saying.

“If the temptation’s not there, we can’t give in to it,” he said, pouring out the last bottle. Methodically, he loaded them into a case of empties and folded the flaps closed. “There.”


He stood in front of the sink, staring at the drift of foam seeping down the drain, but didn’t say anything or look at me.

“You both are overreacting,” I finally said, watching the tense set of Andy’s shoulders.

Andy didn’t even turn around but remained fixated on the sink for a long, silent moment.

Jeff lifted one of my arms straight out in front of me and told me to hold it there. He let go. “You think so?” His quiet but husky words got Andy’s attention.

We all watched my hand tremble for the few seconds I held it there.

“I AM not going to any twelve-step fucking meeting!” I shouted.

Jeff was carrying my lone box of office detritus—and a large gym bag slung across his chest—into my apartment. I’d tripped rounding the car from my passenger seat to the trunk, and he’d refused to let me carry my own shit. Like I was some sort of useless invalid.

“No one said anything about twelve steps,” he replied, all calm and unruffled. He set the box down and pulled the strap of his bag over his head to drop it on the floor at his feet. “Just that I think it might be a good idea to go see a doctor.”

“I don’t need a shrink.”

Jeff just smiled a smile that might have been considered angelic under other circumstances. “Didn’t say you did. I meant a physician. A GP. You can get something to help you sleep.”

“I don’t have any trouble sleeping.”

“Not when you drink till you pass out, probably not. Where do you want this box?”

“Burn it,” I muttered, flopping onto my couch. I noticed a discolored spot on the hardwood and wondered if he’d had to clean up puke. The realization that I didn’t know sent a cold chill through me, and I studied my shaking hand again. I rubbed my stocking foot over the spot on the floor as he settled beside me.

“Spilled whiskey,” he informed me, as though reading my mind.

I nodded.

“Make you a deal.” He picked up the remote before I could, and held it on his far side. “If you have no trouble sleeping tonight, I’ll drop it. But if you can’t sleep, you come see my doctor. Tell him what’s going on and see if he can help.”

I glared at the blank TV screen. Why was he making such a big deal out of this? It wasn’t like I’d never gone on a drinking binge before, and he’d never said boo about it.


“Fine!” I reached across him and plucked the remote from his hand. “Whatever.”

THERE was no hiding the fact I couldn’t sleep. He was still there, stretched out on my couch while I lay in bed. I could faintly hear the sound of whatever he was listening to on his headset from across the room. If I looked over, I was sure I would see him watching me toss and turn.

I was cold. Not a shocker. My apartment was always cold, and I’d given Jeff one of my comforters. Not that he would accept that as good reason for my sleeplessness.

“You awake?” he asked, his voice drifting over the soft tinkling emanating from the earphones he’d removed.

“What are you listening to?”

“Don’t laugh.”

I sat up, arranging my pillows against the wall at the head of my bed. “As if.” We were far beyond laughing at each other, I thought.

“Taylor Swift.” He reached over and yanked the cord of his headphones out of the iPad sitting on the coffee table. The last few guitar riffs of something rang through the room, and he sighed. The next song was “Mean” again, and he fumbled to turn the thing off.

“Sorry.” He flopped back so I couldn’t see anything but one knee and one elbow peeking over the back of the couch. “Not my favorite song right now.”

“Is that what you think it was like?” I asked him. My breath caught somewhere in the depths of my chest. I didn’t want his answer so very much. “With Nash, I mean?”

“What do you think?”

“I—” I still couldn’t breathe. I closed my eyes. “I didn’t want to think. I got drunk.” Was that an admission of some sort? I wasn’t sure.


There was rustling. I couldn’t open my eyes, though. I still heard Nash’s smooth-as-chocolate voice in the back of my head. Whispering. Condemning.

“You’re not drunk now.”

God. Was he always so relentless?

“I want to be,” I whispered. Maybe he wouldn’t hear it. If I said it quietly enough, maybe it would slip past.

“But you’re not.” I could tell from the tone of his voice, from the way it dug right into me, that he’d sat up and was looking at me over the back of the couch, probably. Assessing.

I hunkered down. Trying to hide, I supposed. Not that there was anywhere to hide or that he’d actually let me.

“What do you want me to say?”

“The truth.”

Jeff walked heavy. His feet thumped on the hardwood-covered concrete, making those hollow, echoing noises as he moved across the room. My bed sank, and I had to readjust my weight so I didn’t fall into him. I was still off-kilter, and I almost did anyway. His hand on my upper arm steadied me.

It was a familiar grip, one Nash liked to employ because, like Jeff’s, his hands were big enough to get a good, tight grip that hurt.

I winced and cringed away before it could. It wasn’t voluntary. There was no way to contain the movement or explain it away. Not to Jeff. He knew that kind of cringing.

“The truth,” he said again. “Laurie, look at me and tell me what he did to you.”

I shook my head.

“It’ll never go away if you don’t.”

“What would you know about it?”


“It wasn’t like that!”

It was his turn to flinch. Raised voices did that to him. Maybe reminders of his violent past did too. It was a shitty thing to do.


“It’s okay.” I felt him move from the very edge of the bed where he’d been perched to my other side so he could lean against the wall next to me. “But that I still flinch, even though it’s been a hundred years since I was twelve, it’s just proof. It doesn’t go away. Not really. You just learn to deal. But that doesn’t happen in a bottle, Laurie.”

“You really think I’m a drunk?” Finally I opened my eyes, turned my head just enough to see his lips move as he spoke. No way could I look in his eyes.

“I really think you’re in trouble. Nash might be gone, but his ghost is still here. I can feel him.” His hands moved, drawing my attention to how he picked at the calluses caused from constantly holding a pen. “I’m not trying to be an asshole, Laurie. I’m not.” A flake of thick skin came free, and he held it between thumb and forefinger, like he didn’t know what to do about it. He didn’t want to drop it in my bed, maybe, or flick it away.

“You’ve seen it all before,” I suggested, handing him a tissue.

“Well.” He took the offering, wrapped up the fleck of skin, and tossed the whole thing in the trash. “You can be flip, or you can agree I might know a little something about alcoholics and watching people drink themselves into doing something stupid. Johnny and me… our foster dad was a perfectly nice guy when he was sober.” He shuddered. “And had a hard-on for Johnny when he wasn’t. Shit goes on in people’s brains they can’t control. I get that. Johnny understood it too, but it didn’t make it any easier to fight the guy off or listen to him yelling at his wife or to my brother crying in the next bed. Knowing it didn’t help Johnny when he had to deal with it all after the fact. Maybe Nash was one of those people—”

“He never set out to hurt me.” I knew it sounded pathetic.

“We’ll never know, Laurie. And it doesn’t matter if he meant to or not. He did it. That’s what’s left. I was too young to help Johnny. It took him a long time to get as bad as he got, and longer to get clean. But he found his way, eventually. It was hell watching him try to kill himself one sip at a time.”

“I’m not—”

“Do you think Johnny ever thought it out either?”

I didn’t know how to answer that. His twin brother had gone through hell and come out a decently strong person, all things considered. Whatever Jeff thought of his efforts to help his brother, I knew without him, John wouldn’t have survived.

“He only started to get better when he finally admitted to himself what he’d been through, Laur. I might have won a few broken bones, but what he got was so much worse. He wanted so badly to believe that man cared for us. For him. That was the only thing that let him allow it. Knowing he didn’t really care—couldn’t—that it had nothing to do with anything but rotten brain chemistry, that was what nearly killed Johnny.”

“That was Johnny,” I mumbled. “He was twelve.”

“And you’re not. So what? You’re also a lot of things he wasn’t, even then.”

I glanced over at him, and he watched me, steady, so very calm and strong. I could have just melted into him and forgotten about everything else under that stare. So easy to let that look on his face be my whole world. The idea sent a shudder through me, and Jeff’s eyes went a little bit darker. There was no chance he’d missed it.

“What did Nash do to you, Laurie?”

Nothing I didn’t want him to.

I swallowed hard. So many answers crowded into my head at once.

Nothing. Everything. Exactly what I wanted him to do.

Until the end, when he turned into a different person and nothing I did was right or good enough and he was never satisfied.

“Either you can’t actually answer the question, or you don’t want to.” Jeff made to get up, but I moved with him, not willing to let him get away. His proximity might not help me sleep, but it was soothing.

I crawled off the end of the bed as he walked around, back toward the couch. I followed.


“Okay?” He dropped onto the accommodating cushions and looked up at me, that nameless strength still backing the curious expression in his eyes. I drew in a breath, nodding, knowing precisely what he wanted to hear, knowing how to turn the curiosity to pleasure. I knew what he wanted from me.

“I’ll go. To the doctor,” I told him. “Whatever you want.”

He eyed me. “Too easy.”

I stopped in my tracks. “You want this.”

“You want to avoid answering my question.”

My heart rate rocketed up. My breath didn’t catch this time, but it rasped through my throat and heaved my chest up and down. I could look around my own apartment and pinpoint every memory Nash had left behind. I wanted one of them to be pleasant, but they were all tainted by the whispered derision of the last few weeks with him. I could never tell my friend any of that. I could never admit any of the things Nash had done had been forced on me. I’d allowed it all.

I retreated. I didn’t deserve the comfort of Jeff, of the angel who kept flying to my rescue when I didn’t merit his efforts. The backing away landed me at the long expanse of living room window, and I froze in place. The cold of the glass penetrated my thin T-shirt and the cotton of my sleep pants, bringing back memories of being pressed against it without even that flimsy protection.

Cold. Bare skin gone beyond gooseflesh and hard hands holding me still while he waited for me to agree with his derision, to say what wasn’t true. I didn’t want to tell him what wasn’t true. Couldn’t. The longer I stayed silent, the angrier he got. I would break. We both knew I would, because he was easier to deal with if I just agreed with him. It didn’t matter that it tore at my soul to take those words in and keep them….

“Come here.” Jeff’s calm penetrated the fog of thoughts gone haywire and left of center.

I swallowed and stood there, frozen, lost in a past that was killing me by increments. One I couldn’t escape.

“I said, come here.” Jeff’s voice took on an edge of command, a deeper timbre that exuded safety and warmth and left me no place to wedge in denial.

I blinked at him.

“Laurie.” He held out a hand. “Come over here to me.” Heat dripped out of the words, and his dark eyes were nearly black in the dim light. His broad chest heaved with his deep, steadying breath, and he opened his hand a little wider.

It was the warmth that finally penetrated and let me see past what Nash had left behind. Warmth from his hands on both my arms, gently drawing me away from the window when I hadn’t even seen him move closer, gave me new focus.


“It’s going to be okay.”

“You don’t know that.” I let him lead me to the couch, and fragments of memories from the night before, ones that didn’t circle around Nash, swirled back to me.

“You want a drink?”

I nodded.

“You got me, instead. Tell me.”

The nod turned to a negative motion. “You don’t want to know.”

“Then let me try and piece a bit of it together on my own. You can stop me if I get it wrong.”

He had me sitting opposite him now, so we were awkwardly face to face on the couch. It should have been odd, the way he was holding one hand, pushing hair off my brow. I couldn’t focus on his face. Rather, I didn’t want to focus on his face, look into his eyes, and know if he had a sympathetic expression plastered across his features. I could stand a lot of things. The entire relationship with Nash proved that. But I could not stomach pity from this quarter.

“He made you feel like you were somebody,” Jeff said.

I closed my eyes. I couldn’t do this….

“At first, it was like you were the center of his universe. He was good to you. He made you believe that was how it should be. You don’t even notice the shift, at first. The little slights. The digs. The way his eyes slant away when you thought he’d like an outfit. The times he pushes your hands away only to demand you do something you’re not into. But you do it because he’ll look at you again if you do, and for a little while, it works. He says the almost-close-enough-doesn’t-matter-it’ll-do right thing. Because by then, you’ll take anything. Any tiny nip of kindness to take away the sting of humiliation.”

“Stop it.”

Jeff’s hand cupped my face. So gentle. So very warm and steady.

I pulled away. It was too close to everything I’d learned meant something else. Something bad.

But the hand returned, curving around the back of my neck, fingers slipping through my hair, and heat wafted across my face. Breath. Soft, whispering words brushing my lips like kisses.

“He isn’t worth this, Laurie.”

“If people knew—”

“They wouldn’t judge you.” His forehead touched mine.

I didn’t need to open my eyes now. He was too close to see anything in them anyway. “I believed him. I was an idiot. Just because I wanted….”

What he did next, I couldn’t have stopped if I’d wanted to. Maybe. Maybe I just didn’t want to. He lifted my chin, and the kisses this time were not mere words. Still soft. Still breath-light on my lips, but those fingers supporting my chin, his lips hot and protective on mine… that was all I knew. All I wanted to know.

I opened when his tongue slid along my lips, moaned when his huge hand closed around my wrist and pulled me closer to him. After Nash, I knew what control felt like. Knew it and welcomed it and melted into it instantly, giving every inch he demanded without question or hesitation.

Because this was Jeff. This was home and safety, and I needed it like air. More than air, because I was panting like a racehorse when he finally stopped, and still leaning into him for more. He could have sucked the life right out of me and carried me around inside himself, and I would have been okay with that. Breathing didn’t matter. Him touching me, kissing me, handling me, did.

“Wanted what?” he asked after I’d gasped and choked on a breath at last.

His voice brought me back into the cool living room. “What’s happening?” I pulled back, hauling in air that wasn’t perfumed by his nearness. “What… is this?”

His eyes went big. Huge, reflecting a kind of inner horror, and I cringed.

“What is this!” I scrambled off the couch. “What? Jeff!”

“I’m sorry!” He jumped up, slammed back down, and covered his mouth. “Oh God, Laurie, I’m sorry. That was….”

I twisted, trying to turn away and not turn away at the same time.


I was shaking for real now. Not the uncontrolled tremors of detox. Full-on shaking of earth-shattering proportions. If he said he hadn’t meant it….

“I came here to help you and I….” His eyes filled and he blinked rapidly. “That is not what you need. I should not have—”

I had started backing away again, and he scrambled to his feet, then collapsed onto the couch, his hands held out like he wanted to grab me and hold me from getting away.

“No, don’t. Listen. Hear me, please. I’m not saying I didn’t mean it. I did. I do.” He got up, and I couldn’t help the comparison to a jack-in-the-box that flitted through my mind. “But… just… not yet. It’s too soon.”

I nodded. “Too soon.”

I changed my course and put the bed between us. “Stay on the couch.”

He agreed, still looking like he’d been bitchslapped.


“Of course.” Back to that quiet calm. The angel voice. The one that hid what he really wanted.

Only now I knew, and there was no carefully constructed box in my universe that fit Jeff the lover, Jeff the dominant lover. Only now the box that should have housed Jeff the friend was startlingly empty, and here in my living room was this wildly out of place entity that I didn’t know what to do with.

THERE was no dawning awareness this morning. I’d never slept, and likely, Jeff knew it. I don’t think he did, either. More than once he disappeared into the bathroom. I’m pretty sure it was just to get away from the silent sounds of me watching the dark and waiting for the next thing to happen, the next shocking surprise from someone I thought I knew but that didn’t have a name or a label.

First Nash had turned on me, and now Jeff was sliding out of the reality I knew into a nether space where I couldn’t quite follow or see clearly.

He rose for good some time before the sun did, and I watched him, listened to his oddly heavy footsteps take him to the bathroom, then back across the apartment to the kitchen, where the sounds of dishes clattering softly told me he was making a pot of coffee.

He was bare, waist up and ankles down, dressed only in his sleep pants. He’d never been heavily muscled. He wasn’t built that way, but there was not a pinch of softness or extra pudge on his frame. Lean, long, ropey, I suppose was what he could be called, and easily a head taller than I was. With the wide shoulders and narrow hips of a swimmer, he wasn’t small, either. In the semidark, lit only by the stovetop light, I couldn’t see the dusting of hair across his chest, though I knew it was there. He was my best friend. We played tennis together, swam laps together, changed in the locker rooms together. I knew what his body looked like.

Now I knew what his lips felt like, tasted like. Tender. Sweet. If care had a taste, it was Jeff. And I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

He leaned on the counter and munched on a few handfuls of Toasted Oat Os from the cereal canister as he waited for the coffee to brew. Two mugs sat on the counter at his hip. A giant blue one I’d bought for him when I’d first rented the place, since before Nash, he’d spent as much time here as he did in his own basement dump. Beside his mug was a pink one he’d given me for my seventeenth birthday. A week after we’d met. It had “16 candles” written on one side in bold black letters and a faded “+1” on the other written in his drunken Sharpie scrawl.

Once the coffee was brewed, he poured his own mug full, emptying half the pot, and left the carafe on the counter next to my mug and the sugar bowl. He settled at the table then, plugged his headset into his iPad, and hauled out his notebook. When it came to his creative process, he was old-fashioned; I’d never known him to type up a rough draft. He’d taught himself to write with his left hand, though, so when his right got sore, he could switch. He had calluses on both of his middle fingers, and an old pen his grandfather had given him that always leaked and left ink stains on his hands.

I saw more of him, there in the dark, writing by the light of an LED reading lamp, than could be explained away by simple friendship. I knew what his lips tasted like. I knew how it felt when he ran his fingers through my hair and the way his voice softened when he saw me on my knees and unraveling.

He was humming again. I didn’t recognize the song this time. Under that soft sound was the scratch of his pen nib across the page and the occasional scrape of his coffee mug on the old wooden table.

Domestic. It felt… comfortable. Like he belonged there.

Winter-gray light smudged across the sprawl of my place, rubbing out the blurred shadows and softening the harsh edges around Jeff. I wasn’t sure how long he’d been working, or how long it had been since I’d had the thought that something fundamental in my universe had changed because he’d chosen to stay. Hours, it seemed like. At some point, he began tapping his iPad periodically, and I eventually realized he was checking the time.

“I’m up,” I told him, just loud enough to be heard through his music.

He glanced over at me. “Coffee’s ready.” He bent his head back to his words.

Shuffle, stumble, shuffle. Best I could do. I was cold and shaky and didn’t think the coffee would help much, but he’d set it all out already—my favorite mug, even remembered I liked brown sugar over white. I fixed a cup and turned to face him.

He had his phone in his hand, waiting.

I shrugged and sipped. “I said I would. Make the call.”

“It’ll be today or tomorrow.”

“Not like I have a job to work around. The sooner I get in to see him, the better, right? Let’s get it over with.”

“It’ll help, Laurie.”

“Telling a stranger I’m such a lush I need a babysitter so I don’t curl up in the bottom of a whiskey bottle and stay there is going to make me feel better?” I took another too-big sip of scalding coffee. “If you say so.”

“Actually, I was talking about the prescription he’ll give you to even your moods out, but yeah, that too.” He turned his attention back to his phone and made the call.

Three that afternoon would mark my official diagnosis: fucked-up drunk asshole.