One Last Try ~ Available NOW!

Oh happy day, a new book!

When Nox was fourteen, his brother Joth murdered a their older brother, their mother, and a human girl. Nox survived, but the attack wrecked his womb. Shattered, Nox rejected the pack who fumbled helping a barren, grief-stricken omega cope. He built a new purpose for himself as a master craftsman. Mating? No thanks. He’s better off alone.

Humans studied Joth in prison until his father’s death ended the weekly visits. Joth demands Nox in their father’s stead in exchange for resuming therapy and tests… thereby risking the destruction of Nox’s carefully ordered world. Again.

The pack drafts alpha fixer Dio to untangle the mess. One sniff of the wary omega convinces him Nox is his mate. New medical treatments offer a slim possibility Nox could bear children, but if the past years taught shifters anything, it is an omega’s value is greater than his fertility. Reconciling Nox with his pack is more important. Laying to rest the ghosts haunting Nox is too. Learning to trust? Vital.

Dio just needs to coax Nox into one last try.

Content Warning: Omega mpreg and fertility themes, dubious consent, shifter knotting, an omega who rejects labels, and a bewildered alpha who wouldn’t have it any other way.

43,915 digital words

Scroll below for a sample!

Available at:
Amazon
Smashwords
and PayHip

Coming soon to Kobo, Barnes & Nobles, and other vendors!

Wait — What’s PayHip?

PayHip is a way to save YOU money by purchasing my books directly from me (credit/debit card transactions handled through Swipe) and side-loading or emailing your books directly to your device. Use coupon code 25OFF at checkout on my PayHip page on any and all of my indie and reissued books to get those titles 25% off. So, for One Last Try, instead of paying $3.99, you’ll pay $2.99 with the coupon which will save you a buck and you’ll be able to download all three formats of each book (mobi/prc, epub, and pdf) you buy via my PayHip page too. Once you’ve downloaded the files you want, just email those files to your ereader or transfer them from your computer to your ereader via USB cable.

Happy Reading!

Kari

Chapter One

Six months later…

“You grew up.”

My brother’s voice had deepened during his years of incarceration. Gaze lowered to the metal table, I shivered at the mix of strangeness and familiarity. Part of me rejoiced. I hadn’t seen or spoken to Joth since we were boys, but despite what he’d done, the wolf inside me stirred with excitement at a reunion with my kin, any kin. The rest of me knew better, and I kept my attention the fuck down, my numb fingers grasping the telephone humans had provided as our means of communication. A thick pane of reinforced glass separated us, one I’d been assured could not be pierced by the claws of a shifted wolf and, in separate rooms, he couldn’t smell me through the overbearing prison aroma of cleaners and sweat. I was safe. Completely safe.

I shuddered anyway.

Joth chuckled at this visible sign of weakness. “You always were the runt of the litter. A year older than me, but still the smallest.” His chair squeaked, and when I cautiously peeked, he’d leaned forward, his massive body edging closer to the reinforced glass window. Only the barriers humans had erected prevented him from looming over me. “You grew, though.” He flashed a smile full of teeth. “So did I.”

When my heartbeat fluttered, I hoped the telephone wasn’t sensitive enough for him to hear it. I glanced at the video camera filming my side of the visiting room, hardly comforted by the flashing green light that told me the humans were recording and monitoring us closely.

“Won’t you look at me, Nox?”

I couldn’t. I sensed the humans and my alpha urging me to raise my stare from the table, to do as my brother bade me. When our father died, Joth had suspended the test regime and counselling that human authorities had instituted to study him. Humans were such contrary creatures. Their laws prevented the gathering of evidence and otherwise assessing a murderous shifter without the shifter’s permission. Joth had denied them that for months. No taped transcripts with human psychiatrists, no MRIs. Nothing.

“You can look at me, you know. I won’t hurt you.”

Oh, how I wished that was true.

Fingers tightening on the telephone, I stiffened my spine and forced my stare up. From the identical metal table on the other side of the visiting room window. To the faded blue chambray shirt our father had provided so Joth wouldn’t have to wear prison orange. Pulse racing, I looked from his chest to his thick forearms, ropy with muscle under a dense coat of dark wiry hair. Black, like our father’s. It contrasted the pallor of his skin, the hand gripping his telephone receiver unnaturally pale. I squirmed in my plastic chair, a jolt of anxious dread shooting through me at this reminder my brother rarely saw the sun. Steeling my resolve, I peered under my lashes at the broad stretch of his shoulders, then at the white glare of his undershirt peeping from the vee of his shirt at his throat. Pride at my audacity swelled my chest upon reaching the stubbled column of his neck—he hadn’t bothered to shave for my visit. But neither his patience nor my determination could prod my gaze higher. I could not meet the stare of an alpha, even one as disgraced and stripped of power as my brother.

“You have Mom’s blue eyes,” Joth said, his voice a low purr of satisfaction. “I don’t know how I could have forgotten that.”

I didn’t know how he could have forgotten it, either. Whereas he and Kinessa had taken their dark coloring and muscular bulk in both human and shifted form from our father, I’d resembled our mother from the first—blond, lean, and surprisingly agile. Not nimble enough to evade attack when it had come, but I was physically as much an omega as she’d been.

Joth tapped his fingers on the table, drawing my wary attention back to him. “Dad brought pictures a few years ago.” He sighed. “The warden let me see them eventually, but you didn’t directly face the camera.”

If our father had taken pictures of me, he’d done it without my knowledge, but that didn’t surprise me. We’d been ghosts, he and I. We’d shared the same address, but while Dad had haunted the house, I’d built a den in an outlying shed. We hadn’t talked. We’d barely noticed each other. I hadn’t realized our father remembered I existed until the freeway wreck had claimed his life on my twentieth birthday. Some believed it an accident, but I knew better. He’d waited to join his mate and his oldest son in death until pack law would deem me an adult and not a single day more.

I gulped, swallowing down a knot of grief. “I’m surprised the humans allowed pictures of me.” I resembled my dead mother. A lot.

“They wanted to assess how I responded.” Shrugging, Joth relaxed into his chair. “It was a test.”

Foreboding tensed my shoulders. “Did you pass?”

“I have no idea. They don’t tell me much.” Joth blew out a long breath. “I didn’t shift, though. Or cry.” He straightened in his seat. “I was happy to see you grown up. At least I knew you were hale and healthy. Dr. Bennet calls that a positive sign.” When I glanced up, Joth smiled at me. “I’m glad I didn’t rape you.”

My stomach flipped.

I jerked my gaze down so fast my head took a dizzy spin. Sick terror flooded me and the muscles in my body clenched in alarm as fight or flight endorphins dumped into me. Only my tight clasp on the telephone receiver anchored me in place. Human authorities and my alpha had sent me into the visiting room for this, insights and information they’d hoped I might pry free.

“Oh?” I said through numb lips. “No one told me you’d considered rape.”

“Of course they didn’t tell you.” Joth pressed his lips into a thin line. “I couldn’t admit it to anyone. You were a kid.”

He’d been one too, my brother a year younger than me. My belly twisted at the painful realization my then thirteen-year-old brother had… had…  “Why?” I asked the monster who was my brother.

“Why didn’t I tell them before? Or why didn’t I rape you?” he prompted.

When I glanced up, his brow furrowed. “Either,” I said. “Both.”

“I didn’t lie about killing the little girl. Or murdering Mom and Kinessa. Knowing humans would lock me up for the rest of my life, I confessed. I don’t hide from what I did.” He shook his head, ruefully. “I’m glad I didn’t rape you, though. I think I would’ve regretted that.”

 

Humans escorted Joth from his side of the visiting room later. My stomach churned, acid burning the track of my throat while they shackled him for the walk back to his cell. He winked. Smiled. Then, he vanished through the metal door.

The hour with him had passed quickly. My brother could be charming when he wanted, and he’d made a concerted effort to draw me out after revealing the bombshell detail of my endangered virginity the day of the murders. With his message—warning?—delivered, he’d invested the rest of our hour together mining my memories of happier times. With an ease that astounded me, a laughing Joth reminded me about the persistent stench of Kinessa’s farts lingering in the bedroom we three boys had shared. He spoke of pancake Sundays, our frequent camping trips, and past holiday mornings too.

After the murders, I hadn’t wanted to remember. Thinking about Mom, Dad, and my brothers had hurt me deeper and more grievously than the coma Joth’s blow to my skull had induced. Our father, for instance, had stepped up as coach when we’d enrolled in little league. Comparing those sunny afternoons with him at the ballpark to the dark tormented shell of a man Dad became short years later ripped open festering wounds I’d hoped had scarred over.

By the time humans strode through the door to return my brother to his isolation cell, a smile had curved my lips despite the pain, though.

Grief was a funny thing.

Still as marble, I waited in the uncomfy plastic chair on my side of the visiting room until my escort slipped to my side and, with a hand at my elbow, urged me to stand. She led me through the labyrinth of security checkpoints to the prison parking lot where a black Cherokee idled. My escort passed a flash drive to the driver through the window while I opened the rear passenger door to climb inside. As soon as I safely buckled into my seat, the driver gunned the gas. The vehicle shot forward like a rocket.

Little unsettled shifters more intensely than cages.

“All right?” the driver called over his shoulder as he steered to the main road.

I met his gaze in the rearview mirror and nodded.

My tense nerves unraveled as the scenery changed from city to suburbs, then to the green fertile woodlands promising home wasn’t far. The stress squeezing my chest loosened, allowing me to draw my first easy breath in what felt like decades.

Though he must surely scent my distress, the driver ignored me. He was only my guard, a beta selected to ensure I made the trip to and from Westfield Correctional Institute without incident. I didn’t know his name. One of the shifters the new alpha had brought with him when he’d assumed leadership of the pack, I guessed, though I’d kept away from my kind for so long he might’ve been someone I’d known before, now unrecognizable as an adult. The information hadn’t been offered and I hadn’t asked.

My heartbeat thudded loud in my ears when the Cherokee passed the road to my den without slowing and instead continued toward the center of the pack’s territory. Anxiety screamed inside me until I realized the new alpha would expect a report of the visit. Him, I’d met. Farron, my old alpha, had brought his replacement to my den before my father had died. Surprisingly young, even for a temporary fixer, Dio had towered over me, but when he’d spoken, his voice had been gentle, his words kind. He’d smelled of the pine forests of his previous pack and the bitter coffee he’d drunk while travelling on the road. He’d brushed his bent fingers across my cheek before taking his leave and accepted my submission to him as new alpha with only an acknowledging dip of his chin.

Dio was a hard man. He’d sent me to Westfield, but I’d seen his soft center, experienced it when he took care with me in the crude workshop shed, which was also my den.

We pulled up to a log cabin only a few hundred yards past the white farmhouse from which Farron had run the pack when he’d led as alpha. Once we’d parked, I unlatched my seat belt and hopped from the vehicle without prodding, curiosity overriding my caution. The pack had built the cabin after I ran with them as a boy, the absence of fresh wood scent, sawdust, and construction debris proving the place wasn’t newly constructed. A lot had changed, so many new things to see. I didn’t often desire or notice the world outside my den and didn’t venture far from it as either a man or my wolf, but the new homestead of the pack piqued my interest. I didn’t jolt at the driver’s hand splaying at the base of my spine to urge me to the porch steps, my senses too preoccupied with birdsong, buzzing insects, and the riot of fanciful colors in flowerbeds edging the front walk. My fingers curled at my sides upon spotting a swing hanging from the porch rafters, some horrible contraption manufactured from cheap labor and cheaper wood. The porch swing was serviceable, but hardly the mark of an alpha with a craftsman at his disposal.

Dio had assumed leadership of the pack months ago. Why hadn’t he ordered me to build a swing?

After the driver ushered me through the front door, I scowled at the bench lining the wall inside next. I sank onto it when my driver gently pushed my shoulder down. Irritation bloomed when the bench rocked, balance awry with my added weight.

“Stay here.” The driver marched through a doorway, deeper into the house, while I recalled the dozens of benches I had already built as trade goods for my pack. I was no lazybones, nor slacker leeching off the charity of the others. I worked hard and, after six years of practice, with skill too. I knew the pieces of furniture I made fetched a pretty price in the towns. Farron had told me.

I glared at the knotty wood. Clearly, this bench was unacceptable.

“Heya, Nox. You remember me, right? Asa?”

I jumped, startled from my disgruntled distraction and then blinked, uncomprehending, at Asa. We’d been close as boys, teammates in Little League and frequently assigned as camp buddies in scouts. He’d shot up several inches since and filled out with dense muscle. His hair was darker, his face leaner. When I pushed to my feet, instead of standing chin to chin, I tilted mine up to gape at him. He’d grown that much.

“I know you.”

“We were best friends. I knew you’d remember.” Smiling, Asa waved at the empty doorway. “It’s okay, I swear. C’mon, follow me.”

I’d left my only surviving kin, a brother who was a notorious mass murderer, in a human prison. Demonstrably, nothing was okay, but I shuffled toward Asa anyway. He led me into a great room. My nerves prickled at the trio of shifters gathered around a laptop on a desk on the other side of the wide space. The warm steady cadence of Joth’s voice reached my sensitive ears despite the low volume. Panic streaked through me, making me tremble until I spotted the flash drive sticking out of a USB port on the machine. I didn’t own a computer or any other digital device, but I remembered what technology was capable of when I’d attended Chester Run Middle School with Asa what felt like twenty lifetimes ago. My own quiet voice responding “I don’t know” to my brother confirmed Dio and his betas watched a recording from the prison. I managed to breathe again.

Stupid with relief, I followed Asa to a pair of wingback chairs placed before a fireplace in the corner innermost to the cabin. I sank gratefully into one of the chairs at Asa’s nudge.

“Wait here.” His mouth quirked into a sad smile. He lifted his hand from my elbow to card the hair at the top of my head. I usually kept it tied back and away from my face with scraps of string, but before climbing into the Cherokee for the drive to Westfield, the taller beta now screening the video of the visit had dressed me for the occasion. Gone were the gray sweatpants and flannel shirt my old alpha had brought for me when I’d outgrown the clothing I’d worn as a fourteen-year-old. Blue jeans now hugged my hips, ass, and thighs. A white cotton T-shirt and hoodie had replaced the flannel. New sneakers had been swapped in place of my sturdy work boots. The beta had shaved off the wild scruff of my beard as well. I’d expected a haircut too, my first since the murders, but other than yanking it free of my ponytail, he’d left my hair alone.

Considering how tenderly Asa petted me, maybe my hair at least had passed muster. I hadn’t bothered to ask then and didn’t now either. I simply basked in the heat of the fire, staring at the flickering yellows and oranges while Asa’s fingers stroked me. I tuned out the sounds of my visit with Joth—I was good at wiping my mind clean—and my bones soon melted under his touch. I forgot everything. The video. My brother. The antiseptic smell of the prison underlaced with the pungent stink of urine and despair. The new shoes pinching my toes inside glaring white socks I’d pulled up my calves that morning. The fire’s warmth and the casual hand in my hair felt wonderful, almost drugging me. My eyelids grew heavier. I might have fallen asleep had the recording not ended and Dio strode from the desk to crouch at my feet, his stare sweeping my lax form. He brushed my knee and I spread my legs, making room for him to edge nearer. His arms twined at my neck, a jerk of his chin ordering Asa away before plowing his fingers into my hair in his stead. His hand fisted, holding me fast as he leaned into me, brushing his cheeks over mine to mark with his fresh pine scent.

“You did well,” he said on a throaty growl. “Very well.”

I shuddered, my dick plumping inside scratchy denim at his praise.

“Seeing you pried loose a fresh detail about the murders. The human authorities are excited at this development.” He drew back, his nostrils flaring. He stared at me, his eyes as black as sin while he lowered one hand from my hair to pluck at the button at my fly. “I’m impressed.”

When my arms moved restlessly, Dio glanced at Asa still standing above me. “Get out.”

“No.” When I glanced behind me, Asa crossed his arms. “If he wants me to go, he’ll have to tell me himself. I won’t leave him.”

Shock exploded inside me. One of the pack daring to defy the order of the new alpha? On my behalf? I wasn’t alone. Maybe… maybe I never had been.

Capitulation became easier then. “It’s fine, Asa.” I drew my wrists over my head, anchoring my hands to the tall back of the chair. I froze in place. “I’m fine.”

“You sure?” He regarded me with steady dark eyes, brow raised quizzically. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want.”

I shook my head. “Go.”

“Yell if you need help.” With a disapproving glare at Dio, Asa pivoted and marched away.

“Asa is a loyal friend. And a good man,” Dio said, but the scritch of my zipper lowering reverberated through me, catching my breath. Farron had never wanted me for this, and truthfully, I didn’t tolerate the company of others. Maise, another school friend, stopped at my den at each full moon to load the furniture I’d built as my offering to the pack. She distributed the pieces to other shifters or shipped it for sale in the human towns. I didn’t know or care which. All that had mattered to me was the lamp oil Maise left in trade and the supplies she brought to aid my work. I didn’t talk to her. She didn’t touch me. I made myself scarce, darting into the woods in my wolf form as soon as I heard the rumble of a truck engine as Maise bounced down the rutted driveway of my father’s house. I’d watched her from the shelter of the trees more than once. Maise was as small as I was and an omega too, a mated omega no less. She wouldn’t hurt me, but even her company, I could not bear. I’d occasionally put up with talking to Farron, but only because he was my alpha, so I had to.

Farron had stepped down as leader, though. Now, there was Dio.

Smothering the urge to squirm in my seat, I schooled my heart to stop racing and my limbs to cease shaking. I gasped as Dio spread the fly of my jeans wide and tunneled his hand inside. Strong hot fingers wrapped around my cock and squeezed, dizzying me. My lips parted on shallow pants as he drew my dick from the stiff denim, my length growing when his grasp tightened. He gave me several lazy pumps.

Dio didn’t smile. He didn’t try to soothe me with silly words or kiss me.

Instead, he bent over my crotch and kissed my cock.

My back bowed. A whimper climbed up my throat. I couldn’t have prevented my body’s reflexive response to Dio’s gentle attention to the head of my dick if my life had depended on it. Fortunately for me, my new alpha seemed well versed in controlling unruly omegas. He swallowed my dick down in one deliberate and greedy gulp. The wet heat of his mouth staggered me, the skillful dance of his tongue along the length when he bobbed magical and consuming. Tingling pleasure concentrated at my groin, swamping me. I groaned in equal parts joy and sorrow. His growl, smothered by my dick in his mouth, vibrated up my cock in unsubtle warning.

I couldn’t think.

I couldn’t breathe.

The trill of his tongue enraptured me. I whined, moaned helplessly. Every lick was beautiful agony, the pressure on my cock as he sucked shattering. I reveled in the sensations he wrought in me and hated it. Hated him for this callous seduction and despised myself for surrendering to him.

But of course, I submitted. What else could I do? I could no more resist the siren’s call of his talented mouth working my dick than withstand the regular flux of air into my lungs that demanded I continue this life of wrongness, of brokenness and misery. Still, I longed for the orgasm Dio built within me, gathering at the base of my spine. I yearned for release, struggled against it. Fought for it.

I cried out when he tore his wonderful mouth from my cock. Dazed, drunk on pleasure, I stared at his red swollen lips as he jacked me once, twice…

The world splintered. My muscles clenched. My vision grayed. My dick spurted, wet and thick. My alpha stripped my defiance from me as readily as he drained semen from my aching balls. I could only hold on for the ride. Sated, defeated, I collapsed into the chair.

Dangerous and magnetic, Dio studied the wreck he’d made of me. He didn’t smile or gloat. I wished for the proud curve of his lips because at least a grin might signal his own appetites appeased, but I didn’t lie to myself. I hid all the time. From what I’d lost and what I was, especially from those who claimed to love me, but I didn’t lie.

Still, my stomach jittered when Dio shuffled back from between my legs. I yelped when he grabbed and turned me in the chair so that my face pushed into the cushions and my ass tilted high. I trembled as Dio stripped my jeans down my thighs, baring me for whatever he desired. I expected him to fuck me. Being bedded by an alpha was my fate, after all. Before my brother had ruined me, before he’d destroyed our family, my future and my role in my pack had been set. This was what I had been knit in my mother’s womb to do. My terror was irrelevant. My weakness and rebellion didn’t matter. Dio had been brought into the pack as a fixer and among the many failures that required addressing was the stubborn virginity of a damaged omega: me. After half a year of the new alpha leaving me alone, I’d thought—hoped—Dio shared as much sexual interest in me as Farron had, but demonstrably, I’d been mistaken.

Despite my frightened wail, I didn’t feel the spongy tip of my alpha’s cock pushing against my hole. Dio pried my ass cheeks wide to expose the vulnerable part of me that would be his, but he didn’t open me for his dick.

He spread my crack for his tongue.

Wet. Hot. Slippery and agile, the tip danced over my hole, the warmth of his breath when he chuckled fanning my ring as it clenched. I shouldn’t have wondered at his laugh. As an alpha in his prime, he probably knew my body better than I did, but the frightened keening that climbed from my throat stuttered to a shocked gasp at his mouth on me, kissing me, sucking me there. The satisfaction that had dissolved me into a gluey puddle sparked with new hunger, pleasure whirling with the lap of Dio’s tongue on my hole. Wanton arousal tore through me, nigh painful in intensity. Dangling between my legs, my flagging dick stirred.

Horrified, I moaned out my anguish, but I still widened my thighs as much as I could, which wasn’t a lot, trapped as I was in denim. Dio’s control over me was absolute. He enticed my response with gentle nips and voracious suckling at my ring. Darting licks lit me up and obliterated everything else. My senses narrowed. My thoughts scattered. He taught me to want, to give in to him, and my blood heated with wicked delights I had never imagined. I pushed my greedy ass back to his mouth for more and whimpered brokenly with each avid swirl of his tongue.

So lost was I in my debauchery, I hardly cared when Dio finally withdrew his face from my ass because, though I mourned the loss of his sinful mouth, I knew what would come next and needed it.

He draped his body over mine, the warm silk of his skin astonishing me. I arched my back to welcome the stab of his dick in my crack and cried out when he slid from my hole in a heavy layer of spit.

“Shh,” he murmured on a throaty snarl, his grip on my hips a steadying vise sure to leave bruises. “Shh.”

I hushed, inhaling a lusty breath of air as his ass pumped, bringing his glorious dick to my opening again. This time, he pushed and with a painful snap, the head of his cock lodged inside me. I stiffened beneath him, a shocked yelp slipping from me. The intrusion didn’t hurt much. My alpha had roused me too expertly, softening my ass for his dick. The stretch burned a little, though, the sweetest of stings. I clenched my fingers and bit my lip as the sense of fullness intensified with every inch he pushed into me. He simply overwhelmed me. The musk of his lust teased my nostrils while his teeth sank into my nape. I welcomed the hurt as eagerly as my ass sucked his dick into my body. I wanted the taking and my chest heaved at the first gulp he stole of my blood.

He growled, ferocious and husky with menace, as the bulge of his knot pressed to my already stuffed hole. The spinning in my head and feral glee in my heart urged me to relax, to accept. I feared the knot he slowly shoved past my ring but not as fiercely as I desired that part of him. I shuddered with my relief when my ring snapped around the swelling, holding him captive inside my ass as certainly as his iron grasp on my hip and his teeth stabbing into my neck.

With me locked in place, Dio’s taut muscles unbunched. He’d tied me. I wasn’t going anywhere. Neither one of us would until he’d emptied inside me. Fixer or not, Dio was an alpha through and through. He lowered his hand to my desperate cock. He laughed into my bloodied nape as he fondled me. Orgasm would open my womb to him and to the seed that would soon race up his iron-hard dick.

Jaw clenched, ass tingling, I held out as long as I could, as much because I never wanted such pleasure to end as from my blind terror at the impossibility of Dio breeding me. Helpless, hopeless, I could not resist the deft skill of his stroking fingers. Tears I refused to shed burning my eyes, I spilled for him. Semen jetted from my dick to paint the floor and the chair in sticky ropes.

With my womb now opened, my alpha released the clench of his teeth in my neck and tossed his head back, howling as my tightening ass wrung his seed from his body. Moist heat flooded me as his cock pulsed, shooting his semen deep. The strength of my climax triggered his and best stacked the stingy odds of planting his pup within me.

Tired, sweaty, I moaned at his cum spurting into me. Filling me.

I blearily wondered how long it would take to confirm my brother’s claws had left me barren six years ago. Either way, the life I’d known was over. Again. I would never be the same.

My virginity was gone and the omega wolf inside me finally ran free.

*

One Last Try is available at Amazon, Smashwords, and Payhip!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Once More Into the Breach: Surviving Publisher Implosion

Many moons ago, I wrote an anonymous post at the Chicks & Dicks blog about coping with publisher asplosions and all the flavors of WTFery therein. Current events prodded me to go looking for that, see if the post was still live. Nope. Well, I don’t read what looks like maybe Chinese so who knows, it might still be there in another language, but I seriously doubt it, LOL. I thought the post might be helpful, though, especially for authors for which the ARe closure is their first rodeo so I went a’huntin’ through my files. Turns out I still had a copy in my 2012 folder. (Digital hoarding occasionally pays off, dudes.)  I copy/pasted the post in its entirety below.

Some of this won’t apply to current circumstances. ARe was primarily a vendor/distributor so, for most of us, the rights to our books were never in peril, for instance. They also closed rapidly, didn’t string us along for months or even years.  I’m not editing the post and I haven’t checked the links, either. But…I hope this helps.

Colleagues and friends — I’m right there with you. Let’s keep swimming, aye?

Kari

*

Most of us are familiar with some names, cautionary whispers around digital campfires of rampant WTFery, royalties gone awry, and spirals of spectacular fiery death as yet another publisher crashes and burns. The horror. The carnage. The tabloid entertainment. But we’re too smart for that…right? It couldn’t happen to us…right?

Maybe it won’t.

But maybe it will.

You’ve done your research. You’ve spoken to authors on that publisher’s roster and examined the publisher’s inventory before hitting send on your submission. You’ve checked the publisher at Absolute Write and Predators & Editors. You’ve reviewed the contract and thoroughly understand each contract term, seeking legal counsel for those terms you may be a little fuzzy on. You know what you’re getting into.

Foolish, foolish mortal.

I live by the FISH tenet — Fuck It, Shit Happens.

In the sparkling seas of M/M, FISH bait is everywhere and some of the sharks have sooper seekrit cloaking devices — you never see those bastards coming. Even with the aid of your uber pro x-ray vision.

So what do you do if/when the unthinkable swims into your end of the pool?

Take a deep breath. You’ve every right to be upset. Drink irresponsibly. Cry. Scream. Drown in chocolate. Vent to your husband and your BFF both. Do not under any circumstances approach your laptop or make any decisions while under the influence of OMFGness. This disaster didn’t develop overnight. It won’t resolve overnight, either. Every time a new issue crops up, take a minimum and mandatory twenty-four hours to breathe and to process what happened. Rash decisions are not your friends.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. You aren’t the first or the only author to be snared in a publisher implosion. Other authors have waded through the same sewer you’re knee-deep in and emerged with their dignity intact. Look at authors in previous implosions who you believe handled themselves well and DO WHAT THEY DID. If you have trusted friends who have gone through it before, ask their advice. If you have a mentor, talk to him/her too. You are not alone. Let the conduct of more experienced authors be your guide.

Document everything. Keep every email you send to your publisher and every email you receive (to the author roster as a group or individually). Maintain copies of every delayed, inaccurate or missed royalty payment. Keep every reader complaint about substandard formatting, embarrassing covers, books the publisher failed to distribute to vendors, etc. Did your publisher promise readers a prize to promote your title and then fail to deliver that prize? Include that in your work papers. Everything. Especially any case in which you were compelled to pay out of pocket due to your publisher’s negligence. You probably won’t be able to use those records, but you should always be prepared for the possibility.

Polite and professional costs you nothing. Ranting at your publisher might make you feel better, but even cold, emotionless ranting could cost you everything in the long term. Who do you think the publisher will be most willing to deal with and will deal with first? The author with a stream of angry, belligerent, threatening, and demanding emails/letters/calls? Or the author who is professional and polite? You are one step ahead of other writers on the roster who can’t or won’t approach the publisher with calm professionalism, maybe several miles ahead of a few. The publisher has something you want — rights reversion. Poor behavior is much more likely to push you to the end of that very long line, not to the front.

Find out what you don’t know. Our contracts typically define the process by which contract breaches are governed as well as the legal jurisdiction, but the contract doesn’t tell us when we should pursue that course (if ever). The contract doesn’t tell us the difference between a material and immaterial breach. The contract doesn’t tell us what comes after we send our breach of contract notice via certified mail and the publisher fails to resolve the breach(es). The contract doesn’t tell us how to find an attorney licensed to practice in the proper jurisdiction, how much that attorney will cost us, or if we can reasonably expect our investment in legal fees to be worth the probable damages recovered in the event of a lawsuit. FIND OUT. Take no action until you understand the process and are fully aware of the ramifications of taking that action. Think and act strategically.

Don’t become a horrible warning. That your publisher may be imploding, spectacularly, for the entertainment (and horror) of the writing & reading world doesn’t obligate you to become a featured player in the freak show. Some writers can parlay the shit sandwich they’ve been served into a brand-building buffet (Brian Keene carrying the spear during the debacle at Dorchester is an excellent example), but sorry, we aren’t all Brian Keene. We may not have his loyal fan base, his street creds among other authors, his platform, his leadership skills, or his finesse. Or, frankly, his financial resources to lead the charge into legal action. Unless you are Brian Keene (and some of you very well may be), I recommend a heavy dose of STFU in the public space. You don’t want your name and brand associated with the imploding publisher’s WTFery or tainted by the fubar disaster in any way. When other publishers think of you, you want them to remember your work and success — not the scathing series of blogs you wrote (regardless of how true) airing another publisher’s dirty laundry. When other writers think of you, you want them to associate you with talent and professionalism, not angry or woe-is-me remarks at Dear Author. When readers think of you, they should think only of your books. When they ask you for sequels you can’t deliver because you are trapped in behind-the-scenes publisher crap? Be vague. They don’t need to hear the gory details about how your publisher (who has the rights to that sequel) is being a dick or how it’d be smarter and less painful to staple your left testicle to the floor than write another GD word for that publisher again, ever. Never talk about the publisher or the implosion in public. Post succinctly & anonymously at Absolute Write, etc, if you feel you must, but trust me, other writers will get the word out. Publishers don’t implode in a vacuum.

Misery loves company. Stay in touch with other authors trapped in the implosion to share news and tips. As a publisher devolves into WTF, communication can be sketchy at best, so information sharing could save a lot of wasted time and frustration. You may also get advice on obtaining legal counsel, etc. Class action lawsuits don’t happen because we avoid other walking wounded, either. Contact other authors involved — outside the publisher’s control. You may not know the other authors very well. You may not like or even respect every author on the publisher’s roster, but you have a key issue in common — you’re all being screwed. Cooperation, thy name is self-interest.

Walk away. A publisher implosion can eat away your emotional energy. Day after day, week after week, month after month…It’s exhausting. Publishers rarely close their doors without warning. You have likely been dealing with delayed/partial/missing royalty payments & unfulfilled promises for quite some time. Sadly, the frustration is cumulative. Each new instance of WTF rakes all that stress, anger, and bitter disappointment back up. Don’t let it become the focus of your life. Write and submit new projects to other publishers. Network with authors uninvolved with the mess. Promote. Spend time away from the computer with your family and friends. The WTFery will still be there when you get back, I swear.

THAT’S entertainment! Laughter truly is the best medicine. The road ahead isn’t easy. You’ll curse a blue streak at your computer screen. You’ll cry. You’ll ask yourself why in the name of God you ever decided to get into this business to start with. And sometimes, it’ll get so bad, the only thing you can do is laugh. So c’mon. Laugh. As horrifying as an implosion can be, it genuinely is funny at times. Enjoy the absurdity. If your publisher (helpfully) is a moron who insists on making a fool of herself in public, all the better. Learn to roll with it or this thing will roll OVER you.

Tomorrow is another day, Scarlet. Hot damn, you’ve got your rights back! Now what? Don’t you think it might be a good idea to start planning for that eventuality? I’m not talking about contacting other publishers right away. Most aren’t willing to reprint unless your titles were very good sellers and only for those authors that the publishers already have a good working relationship with. So…do you have a good working relationship with a publisher who might be interested in a reprint? No? Start working on it. Or you can begin looking into the nuts and bolts of self-publishing. Truthfully, it could be years before you get your rights back. The publisher may linger in infamy for years, dolling out WTFery like rose petals to scent your path. The publisher could also close its doors, file bankruptcy…Do yourself a favor and create a goal to work toward, something to look forward to. If nothing else, your term will expire someday, right?

Publisher implosions are a train wreck. Nobody comes through it unscathed, but with a little luck and a few sanity-checkers, you’ll hopefully emerge less bruised and bloodied than you might’ve been otherwise. Although it may sometimes feel like it, this isn’t the end of the world — or your career. I promise. Hold your head up and in the immortal words of Dory (from Finding Nemo, you cretin), just keep swimming.

FISH.

* * *

Links:

Absolute Write: Bewares, Recommendations and Background Checks: http://absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=22

Predators & Editors: http://pred-ed.com/peba.htm

BOYCOTT DORCHESTER (with updates and timeline at bottom) by Brian Keene: http://www.briankeene.com/?p=6140

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

FREE and on Kindle Unlimited for a limited (ha!) time only

Sadly, I don’t have a new release, but this deal was so good I had to share.

I’ve been considering an experiment with Kindle Unlimited (KU) for quite a while and because I’m a go hard or go home kind of woman, I selected THREE books for my test. If you aren’t a KU member, no worries — the following titles are absolutely FREE October 9th & 10th. Otherwise, the three books listed below will be available inside KU through the end of the year. If it works out, great! I’ll consider rotating other books in and out of the KU program. If not, oh well, I gave it a fair try. Once the 90 day exclusive required by Amazon is over, though, these three books will be removed from KU and return at all other vendors so get them while the getting is good!

In the Red

InTheRead_front

Forensic accountant Brian Foster was a rising star at TFOS — the FBI’s Terrorism Financing Operations Section — until he was abducted, “questioned,” and left for dead. His nine days of captivity broke him. Brian retreats to the mountains of western Maryland where he amasses enough weaponry to hold off a zombie hoard and enough lamps to pinpoint his location from the International Space Station. He’s losing the battle against paranoia. Too bad TFOS needs him. Brian stumbled onto something big when he vanished last year and TFOS needs that case resolved. Now.

The FBI tasks Special Agent Zachary Murdock with gluing Brian together and returning him to TFOS. Brian will steady once he focuses on work instead of his neuroses. As Zachary nudges Brian back into the career that cost him dearly, Brian’s paranoia escalates. Personal and professional lines blur. Zachary isn’t sure which presents the biggest complication anymore: Brian’s peculiar brand of crazy, the case they’re working, or the closeted submissive’s surprising — and enthralling — kink.

Zachary and Brian both know, when the case heats up and they’re forced to run, they’re operating at a loss, though: they are in the red.

Content Warnings: Dubious consent, lotsa kink, and an embarrassment of smokin’ hot m/m riches!

NOTE: This is a previously published work.

Available at Amazon

I Don’t: A Christmas Wish

IDont

At least he isn’t pregnant.

Seth Murphy campaigned for Maryland’s Question Six, wildly celebrating the Election Day victory for marriage equality. Divorce attorney and live-in boyfriend Owen, however, believes just as passionately that the gay community should focus on a plurality of equal rights protections instead of allocating so many resources and man-hours to one hot button issue.

Owen won’t marry Seth.

Relationship deteriorating, the couple visits the Murphy farm outside Brunswick for Christmas. Seth’s family never considered that Seth and Owen wouldn’t be first in line for a marriage license as soon as same-sex marriage passed. When they find out there won’t be a wedding, their season of miracles is invaded by pornographic gingerbread cookies, frowning church ladies, and a determined father with a tactical assault shotgun.

Neither Seth, Owen, nor their love may survive the family holiday circus to say, “I don’t.”

Available at Amazon

Lovely Wicked

Lovely_Wicked

Mitch McAllister and Liv Winslow grew up in the same squalid trailer park, turning to each other for comfort as scared kids. When they meet there again while visiting their dysfunctional families as adults, Mitch and Liv escape the ghosts of their past in sexual excess. They ultimately include Mitch’s neighbor Sam Lawson in their giddy, extravagant play. It was only supposed to be sex: hot, dirty, spine-melting sex. None of them wanted to fall in love. If life has taught Liv, Mitch and Sam anything, though, it’s that we don’t always get what we want. But if we’re very lucky, sometimes we get exactly what we need.

NOTE: This book was previous released under the same title by another publisher.

Available at Amazon

Happy Reading!

Kari

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Act Two: New Beginnings AVAILABLE NOW!

The series interrupted by my breast cancer fight is interrupted no more!

newbeginnings200x300

Who is seducer and who the seduced?

Kellan Fik raced to Nitcha when a master seer scried his rival’s fosterling as his destiny and his mate. Becket was a bibelot—devoid of magic. But the man wasn’t the shy, submissive virgin Kellan expected. Ponderously tall, outspoken, and a shockingly skillful lover, Becket intrigued Kellan and inflamed his desires. Becket was also the key to unraveling the puzzle of Becket’s guardian and Kellan’s chief competitor, Theodore Douglas.

Kellan courts Becket with powerful charms and the dizzy wonder of their every caress. His hope? Convincing his wily lover to share his secrets and cement their bond. Becket isn’t what he seems, but neither is Kellan. Together, they must learn to trust despite the lies and intrigues… before it’s too late.

A 31,004 word novella

Available at:
Amazon
ARe
& other vendors soon!

Scroll below for the New Beginnings excerpt.

Wait. Did you miss Safe Travels, the book in which we meet Becket before New Beginnings? Where Becket and Kellan share their first kiss? GOOD NEWS! I am temporarily lowering the price of Safe Travels on Amazon and ARe to 99 cents. Grab while the grabbing is good!

SafeTravels

Becket built his life around unbelief in the magic Theo, his uncle and guardian, had devoted his all to…until Theo vanished. Grief-stricken, Becket followed Theo’s clues, sending him through a stone grid to Ket. With no magical ability, Becket must find Theo in a land where dragons roam the lowlands and magic evolved in men and women who aren’t apex predators and have settled in high aeries to survive.

Locating his uncle, however, is the easy part. Becket is a bibelot – non-magical. And Theo is recovering from a wild magic storm that hit his expedition to the lowlands. He can’t control his power.

They can’t go home.

Elders will permit a second expedition and Theo’s sole hope of obtaining frequency stone to stabilize his magic, but only if he allows seers to scry Becket’s sentinel first. Too bad the protector scried for Becket is Theo’s rival in this strange otherworld, another caster named Kellan Fik. And Kellan knows Theo and Becket aren’t what they seem.

Handfasting his enemy may be Becket’s best and only chance.

New Beginnings excerpt:

Come here.” Kellan funneled every trace of his magic into the order. Desire gnawed the base of his spine and made him shake. He channeled as much of his power as he could. “Come to me.”

Rather than racing to Kellan, Becket halted. A shudder worked through his delectable body, enticing Kellan almost more than he could bear.

“You stopped. Why?” Kellan asked. “You must sense how I want you and how good we’ll be together.”

“I wasn’t expecting—you startled me,” Becket said in a low and endearingly nervous hush.

“You see I spoke true: I can’t force you.” Kellan smiled his satisfaction. “Your desire drew me from my bed and lured you from yours. This is your power at work, not mine. Yours.”

Becket shook his head. “I don’t have any magic.”

“Lacking magic doesn’t mean you lack power. You have that by the plenty,” Kellan said, though he didn’t expect Becket to understand. His understanding wasn’t required, though, or preferable. Not until Becket had learned to wield his weapon with care. Still, Kellan knew enough of sentinels and bibelots to flash the heart stone he’d charged at Becket, taunting him with it. Whether or not Becket understood his hunger for Kellan’s stone was irrelevant, because his bibelot’s instincts would lead him true.

Becket did not disappoint him. He stepped closer, near enough that Kellan could see the dark circles of his pupils swallowing the brown of his eyes as Kellan’s scent swamped him.

Fate—or the gods, to whomever one ascribed one’s destiny—hadn’t left Kellan helpless at the hands of his mate. Bibelots possessed not a stingy sniff of magic, but nature had made up for this lack in the wealth of sensory receptors in Becket’s nose. Becket’s pupils dilated wider at the first deep whiff of Kellan’s body, which had obediently intensified its production of lust-laden sweat upon meeting Becket. Were Becket’s delicious tremble—and the answering, though no less eager, leap in the pit of Kellan’s stomach—a matter of physical processes as the heretics said? Even in Melaeum, Kellan had heard them speak of mating as an evolutionary adaptation of skin, viscera, and the nervous system to hasten couplings that increased the odds of survival. Kellan hadn’t reported the troublemakers for spreading their blasphemies, but he had listened. Now, he believed none of it.

Because this? The attraction staggered his mind and bewildered his senses. His need for Becket and the corresponding desires of his bibelot could not be ascribed to mechanical processes or biological urges.

It was magic.

The jittery buzz of arousal arcing between him and Becket wasn’t a magic Kellan could scry in a pool of water or mix inside a witch’s bottle. It couldn’t be conjured with herbs or focused with stones, candles, or heartfelt pleas to the four powers. The attraction that drew Becket a stumbling step closer was more primal. Elemental.

“Toreth suggested I seduce you,” Becket finally said, voice husky as he drew nearer. Almost within Kellan’s reach. Almost. “You don’t strike me as a man who can be led by his dick,” Becket said, “and sex is bound to make circumstances more complicated.” He moved closer still. Grinning, he shrugged. “Maybe fucking would help work this maddening… whatever it is… out of my system.”

Relishing the thrill of victory, Kellan struggled to keep his body loose. The temptation to grab Becket and pull him down to Kellan’s nest of blankets ate at Kellan, but aggressive maneuvers wouldn’t win Kellan his bibelot. Becket must come to him. Slinking to Kellan with every hesitant footstep, Becket was coming to him. Instead of leaping on his mate, Kellan relaxed his muscles and enjoyed the whirl of lust escalating higher. Unable to smother the flash of predatory teeth he knew must signal his longing, he smiled instead. “Would you like to seduce me?” he asked on a warm purr. “You could, easily.” He widened his thighs. His blanket gapped farther, and the silhouette of his hard dick jutted more prominently in the feeble light. “I would enjoy the attempt. I’m eager to place myself in your hands.”

Becket’s chest rose and fell in uneven gasps. “Toreth swore sex would wrap you around my finger.”

A bubble of laughter worked up Kellan’s throat, his endless fascination with and joy at his bibelot consuming him as readily as his arousal. “You can try to use our lust to manipulate me. We both can try.” He spread his arms and shrugged his blanket off his shoulders. It pooled at his hips and revealed the full expanse of his chest. “I imagine we will both fail. We are each too strong and proud to be coerced.”

Kellan wasn’t even sure Becket heard him anymore. His eyes glazed as he sank to his knees on the floor next to where Kellan lay. Becket parted pink lips Kellan couldn’t wait to taste again and pushed out a shaky breath. He lifted a trembling hand. He reached for Kellan and for the black rock of Kellan’s heart stone. Kellan’s pulse quickened, but Becket’s finger did not touch the sorcerer’s stone at Kellan’s throat. Becket’s hand hovered, achingly.

“You may have it if you want,” Kellan somehow mustered the steadiness of mind to say, though his desire rapidly swamped him. “After.” He shifted closer to the beautiful man who would be his.

*~*~*

My twentieth book. How the ever living fuck did that happen? LOL

Hope you enjoy Kellan and Becket’s journey…and their New Beginning!

Kari

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Stray ~ Available NOW!

It was a long, hard slog, but I’m finally back on my feet after chemo, surgery, and radiation. I’m breast cancer free, WOO HOO! I’d like to thank everyone who contacted me and offered supportive woots while my brains were addled from treatment. Whether you  contacted me by email, on Facebook or Goodreads, or by leaving comments right here on my website, I can’t begin to tell you how much your kindness and compassion meant to me and continues to mean to me. My readers are the best. Absolutely and completely.

Considering how excruciatingly terrible my 2015 was, I also can’t begin to describe how happy and excited I am to announce a new book!

Stray E-Book Cover

With a lycan father, a human mother, and the human side of his genetic makeup dominant, Luke left his birth pack to try living among humans, but he felt awkward and uncomfortable isolated from the culture that raised him. He’s still searching for where he fits in.

After losing his family in a vicious attack, Dean rebuilt his pack by accepting loners, rejects, other survivors, and even ferals. He and his ragtag group of strays made a warm and welcoming home.

Luke believes he’s finally found where he belongs. Meddling parents and a neighbor who isn’t as human as he seems won’t sway him. Luke wants Dean to take in one last stray…him.

Content Warning: Shifter knotting/tying, mating heats (yes, plural), and jerky!

A 40,643 word short novel

Available now at:
Amazon
ARe
and other vendors!

TGIF, y’all — and happy reading!
Kari

Excerpt:

Chapter One

Including the attic, the farmhouse towered three floors. Two additions had been haphazardly built onto the main structure in recent years, one stretching to the left and another shorter stub to the right. The white paint on the newer sections didn’t quite match. Still, the place looked ordinary. Big, but nothing special.

That fooled no one, least of all Luke.

Nate pulled his Jeep next to a Chevy truck that was more primer than paint in the scrap of bare ground that passed for a driveway. After shoving the gearshift into park, he retrieved the keys from the ignition.

“Don’t be nervous,” he said.

Easy for him to say. Nate was lycan. Nate had also been a member of this pack—best friends with Dean, the head of their makeshift family—for the last ten years. Luke, a human, hadn’t belonged to a pack in a decade plus another four years.

Luke’s damp palms smoothed wrinkles from his khakis. His heartbeat sprinted and his stomach balled to an anxious knot. Getting today’s introduction right was vital. He’d invested two years studying the pack and Dean from a wary distance. He’d needed to be sure. Not just that the pack was safe for him, but that maybe he’d found the place he could call home.

“I’m not nervous,” Luke said. Nervous? No, he’d sailed passed nervous months ago. He was petrified.

As if Nate could hear his thoughts rather than the slight stutter of his heartbeat signaling Luke’s lie, Nate chuckled, but it wasn’t a mean sound. Neither was the sparkle in his eyes or the brilliance of his smile.

“You’ll do fine. Better than fine. Come on.”

Luke wanted to argue only a lycan could be that confident, but worry froze the air in his lungs. Didn’t lock his leg muscles, though. He climbed from the jeep and followed Nate up the stairs to a wide front porch and the screen door of the house. Gaze down, only daring to peek through his lashes, he shuffled through the door when Nate opened it and waved him inside.

The house’s appearance of normalcy, human normalcy anyway, ended once he gathered the guts to glance around the entry. Oak flooring gleamed, nice if he ignored the scratches in the wood. He shuddered at the lack of furniture and the absence of decorations on white walls marred with thin gouges that hadn’t been puttied over yet. The shiver was partly at the chill of the room—lycans kept their homes cooler because their body temperature ran a little higher—but mostly he shook in longing.

He clenched his shaking hands.

He’d forgotten how much he missed this.

Missing the cold was crazy. He liked his neat apartment, the paintings he’d picked for it at the college art fair last summer, and the few pieces of furniture he’d selected from flea markets to re-purpose or restore. He hated stark white walls with a passion and had bid farewell to his security deposit by painting his rooms in a sunny yellow. He’d set his thermostat for his comfort and no one else’s. He never fretted that shifting whelps might break the desk he’d painstakingly refinished… or him. He didn’t even own a bucket of drywall compound, a staple in any pack house for endless repairs to walls painted white for no-fuss maintenance.

Nate threaded his fingers with Luke’s and squeezed. “It’s all right. You’ll see,” Nate said, his grin wide.

That look, the feeling of belonging and comfort, was what he’d missed and would never get enough of. God knows he’d tried to live without it. He’d wasted years trying to fit in human society. After the disaster of his last relationship, Luke had refocused on himself for a while too. He’d learned to live alone, seeking out his place among neither humans nor lycans. No sharing a house with a dozen or more temperamental lycans, no timing everything by the phase of the moon. He’d made his own decisions. By himself. He’d experimented with going vegetarian, unsuccessfully since Luke hadn’t been able to give up bacon, but he’d experimented. He’d explored. He’d tried.

Living as a human hadn’t been all it was cracked up to be, but trying to make it on the fringes of both worlds had been pure hell. Some might argue the dormant lycan half of his genetics motivated him to be with other lycans. Although Luke would never shift or exhibit any traits common to his lycan father’s heritage, part of Luke was nevertheless lycan, and lycans were social animals who didn’t cope well alone. Others would likely point to his upbringing. Raised inside a pack, Luke hadn’t simply acclimated to lycan culture and its unique rules and mores—he’d been conditioned to it since birth.

Nature or nurture didn’t matter. Luke didn’t care anymore. He’d stopped questioning what he needed and why.

When Nate tugged, Luke submitted to his lead. His knees might have jellied and the rest of him trembled in equal parts fear and anticipation at how readily he’d fallen into the old habit, but he somehow kept pace behind Nate stalking into the pack house’s meeting room. Luke glued his stare to the floor, this room’s hardwood protected by a thick rug in a geometric pattern of overlapping rectangles. He didn’t miss the bared feet and naked legs of the others, though. With the full moon rising tonight, Dean had gathered his pack—the lycan strays he’d adopted to replace the birth family humans had slaughtered a dozen years ago.

The pack Luke had studied wouldn’t kill a human with his pedigree. Might reject him, but Luke didn’t think so. When necessary, Dean worked with humans from town, and if he had reason to hate anyone, Dean would despise them most. He definitely wouldn’t kill Luke when his best friend Nate vouched for Luke. Vince, another lycan who worked in town, liked Luke too, but Nate’s opinion mattered most. Dean respected Nate.

If nothing else, his last relationship had taught Luke the income he earned and his family connections appealed to lycans. Useful enough to prod Dean to tolerate a human on his pack lands rather than run him off? Luke would soon find out.

The collected lycans fell silent one by one as Nate guided Luke to the far end of the room… and as their noses told them what Luke’s nose never would and what they probably thought could not be possible. A human? In the pack house? This close to the full moon? Luke strolled right in, pulse racing, scared out of his mind his plan would work but also terrified it wouldn’t. When Nate finally stopped, Luke stared at Dean’s feet.

Strong feet. Sleek, sexy feet. Neatly trimmed nails tipped slender toes. Tan skin. A light dusting of dark hair grew in thicker as Luke’s glance strayed from feet to ankles and up to calves so dense with taut muscle Luke’s body ached.

Luke nipped those errant thoughts in the bud, before the whole room scented arousal on him. Or embarrassment. Even on the East Coast, where human integration with lycans lagged, humans didn’t need to mate inside a pack to join it. He knew that. Everybody did. He’d welcomed a lycan lover to him once, in desperate hope the affair would lend greater security to his standing with the rest of the pack, but he wouldn’t repeat that mistake.

He’d make brand new ones.

“This is Luke. His human mother mated and bonded with a lycan father out West. They reared him inside his father’s pack. He left home to explore the world after he became an adult,” Nate told Dean. “He wants to ally with us.”

Luke had been specific about his goals: ally. Asking to join outright might push too hard and ask too much. Permission to visit pack lands between full moons and the freedom to get to know the family would be enough. He’d learn to be happy on the edges of Dean’s group until he proved his worth.

“Oh really?” Dean asked, his voice low and sultry. It made Luke shiver in all the ways the leader of a pack should make one of his own shiver, with an unmistakable sense of kinship and attentive interest. Luke’s eyes snapped shut with his relief at feeling that again.

“He handles payroll for several businesses in town, including the construction crew Vince and I work for,” Nate continued, his grip on Luke’s hand steadying him.

“An educated human,” Dean said on a growl. “How… predictable.”

Luke struggled not to fidget, feeling the slow stare Dean swept up and down him like a body search. It wasn’t his fault lycans couldn’t go to public schools with humans and were homeschooled instead. Luke wasn’t to blame for the fact lycan education wildly differed from what students were taught from human books, either. He’d learned pack lore too! His father had included him with his brothers for oral history lessons, and he’d tutored Luke particularly in lycan culture and law. As part human and his human side dominant, Luke couldn’t claim the instincts his brothers and cousins did, and Luke had needed to know. For his own safety.

“His uncle paid for college,” Nate said. “Luke repaid the pack after he left.”

Despite himself, Luke shifted his weight from foot to foot. See? He wanted to say. Humans are capable of honor too. Instead, he pressed his lips shut.

Dean grunted. “Can he speak?”

Trembling, Luke slipped his free hand into a pocket of his khakis for the scrap of paper he’d placed there for this moment. He offered the note on an upraised palm. “My father’s cell number is the first. My lycan father,” he said, gaze yet pasted to the floor. Non-allied humans didn’t meet the stare of a lycan on his home territory without invitation unless the human wanted trouble. “The second number belongs to my uncle, Ty Warren, my family’s patriarch.” Only ignorant humans referred to lycans as alphas, betas, and omegas. “Dad and Uncle Ty will confirm everything I told Nate.” No lycan would baldly accept the word of a human, not on something that could endanger his pack, but they’d listen to fellow lycans. Luke would be thoroughly vetted.

“The Warrens,” Dean said, husky voice considering. “Never heard of them.”

“My family is in Oregon, sir,” Luke said. “On the outskirts of Portland.” Which was the other side of the country, because when Luke had won the freedom to run, he’d run far. His ambition to live as a regular human would’ve been doomed if he’d stayed where he or his pack lineage could be recognized. “The Warrens are a big family, large enough to accept my father bonding with a human.” Small packs forbid contact with humans to remove the risk of producing offspring like Luke. Lycan population numbers were scant, especially in the more urbanized East where human suspicion of and hostility toward their kind lingered. Packs barely hanging on couldn’t afford to divert precious resources and attention to mixed lycan mutts. Groups larger than a single-family unit routinely accepted humans as lovers and allies now, however, including in the contentious Northeast. “My birth pack boasts several breeding pairs. My parents and two other bonded mates have raised children alongside Uncle Ty and Aunt Miriam. The Warrens are highly regarded on the West Coast.”

Such things were significant to lycans, and Dean didn’t disappoint him. When Luke glanced up, Dean’s eyebrow had arched. “Is that right?”

He forced his gaze back down before replying. “Yes.”

“Large packs don’t guarantee safety. More of us isn’t always smart.”

Luke gulped at the reminder of the family Dean had lost. Humans here mostly ignored the pack on its border these days, but a few locals had been willing to talk about times when too many lycans had roamed the hills outside town.

“My mother provides a bridge between the pack and the neighboring human community. Uncle Ty allied with several humans in Portland who act as ambassadors too. Problems are discussed and resolved before townspeople hunt us.”

Dean snorted his contempt. “You don’t know what it is to be hunted.”

Luke’s shoulders bunched. “No, I don’t,” he admitted. “But humans would kill me too.”

The pack leader’s lips thinned to a grim line. “Because you’re part lycan?”

“Because I’ve committed the unpardonable sin of leaving human society to go where I belong: with lycans.” Luke pushed out an anxious breath. “Hunts aren’t inevitable, though. Compromise isn’t easy, but resolutions avoiding bloodshed are attainable.” He glanced up to meet Dean’s unflinching stare. “When packs accept humans among them and those humans speak for the pack when issues arise, peace is much more likely and with peace comes better odds for survival. After years of searching, I haven’t found evidence of hostility against lycans from locals—attacks appear to be a danger of the past in this area—but a human ally would make you and your family safer. I could be useful to you.” As soon as he finished his plea, he jerked his stare down again, to the floor. To Dean’s sexy feet.

No challenging Dean. Luke didn’t have a death wish.

He didn’t stop quivering until Dean blew out a slow breath. “Dinner should be ready. Take him with the others out back. I’ll make some calls after.”

Luke’s heart leapt with hope.

“Thanks, Dean,” Nate said.

“I said I’d call,” Dean said on an ill-tempered snarl. “No promises.”

“He understands.” Nate’s grip on Luke’s hand tightened in silent reassurance.

“Go on.” Dean jerked his chin toward a wide doorway across the room. “The moon will rise soon.”

Relief crashed through Luke as Nate guided him into the pack’s kitchen and then on to a spacious backyard. No deck or patio disrupted the carpet of grass—natural grasses, at that. Careful stewards of their environment, lycans would never abide non-native plants. They kept it mowed closer to the house and patches of bare earth framed logs strategically placed around a fire pit. A sheet of plywood rested on a pair of sawhorses off to one side to provide a table for platters of meat surrounding a partially carved boar.

Smart. Lycans with full bellies didn’t hunt for food during the full moon, only for sport. Luke had noted a comforting excess of human vigilance when the lunar cycle peaked. People stayed in town then and in their homes. Traditionally outnumbered, wise lycans nevertheless seized every precaution and hungry lycans roamed more.

With the pack streaming through the back door, Luke sank to the ground the moment Nate shifted a hand to Luke’s shoulder and pushed down. He made no comment when Nate headed toward the food, nor did Luke let slip a solitary sound as the others went to eat too. Even the whelps, three of whom weren’t tall enough to reach Luke’s waist, ignored him, but his surveillance had already convinced Luke of Dean’s mastery of pack discipline. None of the family would approach Luke without Dean’s approval.

After Dean had served himself and nodded his okay, the rest of the pack piled stainless steel plates with succulent chunks of pork. Luke’s mouth watered at the scent of cooked meat. His stomach grumbled, but he kept his yap shut.

Lycans weren’t humans. Guest or not, Luke would eat if and when Dean said he could and not one second before.

At least his proximity to the central fire warmed the autumn chill a little.

Hands resting on his thighs, heels digging into his butt where he sat, he waited as the lycans took their respective places on logs and stumps dotting the yard. He didn’t watch them eat, instead fixing his gaze on the flickering red and oranges of the fire. He listened, though. Dean thanked Vince and two other lycans for catching the boar as well as two others—men, not the lone adult female in the group—for roasting it. Luke had realized Dean didn’t assign chores by gender roles last year, but extra confirmation never hurt. Two of the three kindergarten-aged whelps squabbled, fluidly shifting into their animal forms to fight it out until a pair of lanky teenagers pried them apart. Dean, rather than the kids’ parents, chastised the kids for disrupting their meal, belatedly adding that undisciplined shifting also risked “the human.”

No one mentioned or discussed sensitive business, unlike other gatherings preceding the full moon, Luke was certain. Lycans came together to resolve problems and decide issues while united for their full moon runs. Luke had chosen tonight to come forward for that reason. With any kind of luck, once Dean had checked Luke’s references, he’d poll his family about the potential alliance. Luke needn’t agonize for days anticipating Dean’s answer. Dean could reveal his decision as soon as the night’s run concluded.

None of the collected lycans spoke to Luke, but they were all aware of him. Luke sensed it in the deliberate circling around his position kneeling in the dirt and the leery glances, darting from him whenever Luke noticed the attention. In human terms, Luke was the elephant in the room. Every lycan, to a man, tried too hard to pretend he wasn’t there. Painfully, at least to Luke.

Luke pretended too.

He schooled his face to an unconcerned mask and forced his body to remain loose, but his heart raced when Dean slipped away, returning to the house. Humans combed references for jobs, leases and mortgages to buy their homes, but they didn’t know the first thing about background checks, not really. Luke had every confidence his father and Uncle Ty would back him up. Luke had left his birth pack, yes, but before he’d ever landed a job to help with pack expenses, he’d performed chores like this pack’s teenagers in rearing younger whelps. He’d also washed laundry, cleaned dishes, and repaired gouged drywall. He hadn’t simply completed chores assigned to him. He’d done any odd job capturing his notice, whatever his family needed. He’d been a contributing member of his pack. Regardless of how often his last lycan lover had beaten him or how severely, Luke had been a contributing member of that pack too.

Human or not, Luke pulled his weight.

His dad and uncle would confirm his diligence, which this close to the full moon might possibly save Luke’s life since lycan patience for treacherous humans thinned most at the height of the moon cycle. Those reports would also go a long way toward persuading Dean to give Luke a chance. That’s all he needed. If they’d let him, Luke would prove he could earn his place.

He was already proving he could fit here. Nate hadn’t shoved him to sit on the ground because he was human. A lycan seeking to join the pack would’ve been treated the same. It was their way, Luke’s way, the lycan way. Luke hadn’t resisted. He’d lowered his gaze to show he meant to issue challenges to no one. He hadn’t spoken until Dean had addressed him, and although his empty stomach rumbled, despite the enticing smell of roast boar, Luke hadn’t shifted from his spot. As patriarch, Dean ate first and the rest of the pack shared the meal only with his permission. Luke, an uninvited stranger, might not eat at all, and he certainly wasn’t free to wander.

He knew the rules. Living among humans the last many years hadn’t erased that.

He had to demonstrate to Dean and the rest of the pack he remembered, show them he could and would honor lycan customs. He understood those laws were for everyone’s benefit and safety, including his.

Luke’s muscles didn’t unbunch until he spied Dean slinking back to the bonfire from the farmhouse. As always since Luke’s youth, he took his cues from his pack leader—Dean ambled around the campfire, his smile relaxed as he chatted with his people. So Luke relaxed. The phone calls must have gone well. If not, Dean would have marched to Luke immediately and removed the threat—Luke—from the family Dean loved. Instead, Dean stopped to exchange a few words with the teenagers tasked with keeping an eye on the younger kids. Moving on, he placed a familiar hand on the shoulder of one of the lycans Luke hadn’t been introduced to yet. Dean squeezed lightly, with affection.

Lycans were tactile creatures, constantly rubbing shoulders, stroking arms and bellies, palming cheeks. Sleeping together in piles. Hugging.

Smothering an optimistic spark he couldn’t afford, Luke suppressed his yearning. None of them had touched him since Nate had released Luke’s hand and none probably would for weeks, perhaps months. Lone humans weren’t supposed to grow starved for touch like a lycan would. It’d been four freaking years since a pack leader had grabbed his nape, though, like Dean did with the woman he laughed with now. Luke’s need for that caress ached to the marrow of his bones.

He shrugged off his hunger for physical affection and stayed where Nate had planted him. Quiet. Obedient. Respectful. Dean would work his way around to Luke eventually. The lycan had a duty to reassure his family, and if the weakening light of the setting sun melted into darkness and the clock ticked closer to the rise of the moon, Luke had to trust Dean. He’d already chosen to trust Dean with his life, or Luke would have never approached Vince and Nate to start with.

He waited as patiently as he could—no fidgeting—and studied his hoped-for pack leader beneath his lashes, reveling in the once-forbidden treat of being near enough to clearly see him. Dean towered a couple inches above everyone. Most lycans were tall and brawny, but as head of the family, Dean seemed especially so, wide through the shoulders, with a broad chest that tapered to a flat stomach and trim hips. Wiry hair sprinkled over acres of taut muscle, black hair to match the thick pelt on Dean’s head. Someone had cut it short, which was a pity. All the men and the lone woman in this pack sported short spiky hair, leaving only the children flaunting the heavy manes notorious of lycans. Luke’s unruly mop of brown hair, which he’d grown to brush the tips of his shoulders since he’d gone into business for himself, fell several inches longer.

Surprisingly, Luke’s fingers still itched to sink into Dean’s hair.

He’d never wondered at the silkiness of a packmate’s hair before. How odd.

The pack might have turned its back on customary hair length, but the rest of Dean screamed pure lycan. He had the proud straight nose and the lantern jaw. A stubborn chin. His brows were heavy, lashes dense, and his forehead high and wide. The eyes caught Luke’s breath, though. They were as dark as soot, but this close to the full moon? Luke shivered at glints of lycan yellow in them.

He’d be magnificent in his animal form, as his wolf.

Though the autumn night chilled Luke, lycan body temperatures were higher and lycans cared little for physical modesty. The pack, Dean included, had stripped prior to the feast. Clothes were a human convention. Thermostats in pack houses were set low to conserve resources and for the comfort of the many rather than the few humans who might require extra warmth. Growing up, sweatshirts and jeans had warded off the cold and subtly set Luke apart as different. He’d developed a shyness with his body that his brothers and cousins never had.

Luke could look at Dean, if he wanted. All of him. The light of the campfire flickered. Shadows danced, but the darkness wasn’t so deep Luke wouldn’t be able to make out the curve of the pack leader’s ass or the length and girth of his cock, permanently erect thanks to a bone in lycan penises that was absent in human dicks. The slight bulge at the base of Dean’s cock was different too—the knot swelling during sex to tie Dean to his lover. These readily discernible variations in human and lycan sex organs served as species identifiers in mixed litters at birth. Lacking a nascent knot and an erection had marked Luke as human since he’d drawn his first breath. While the physical discrepancies between human and lycan were no big deal to lycans otherwise, they endlessly fascinated humans.

It mesmerized Luke. Taunted him.

No one would consider looking at Dean’s dick strange or be offended by it, least of all Dean. The temptation to steal a quick peek ate at Luke. He averted his gaze, though, snapping his eyes shut when Dean crouched to talk to another member of his pack.

Explaining blushes to lycans never worked.

Erections, they understood. Human dicks might operate differently than lycan ones, but lycans were tutored in the mechanics of sex, be their partner human or lycan, male or female, as soon as whelps sexually matured at puberty. After witnessing the misery humans suffered before and after coming out to their parents as gay or bi, Luke had become extremely grateful agonizing over his family’s rejection had never been a problem for him. Impossible to hide the reaction of a human teenage boy’s body to what he liked. Luke’s family had known he was gay before Luke had figured it out for himself. With the survival rates of females low, most lycans—bisexual by nature—chose men as their lovers too. No one had cared that Luke only desired men.

Blushes, on the other hand, confounded them.

The issue wasn’t that lycans couldn’t experience embarrassment. They did. Prey escaped them more often than not, including during the full moon when their affinity with their animal forms ruled strongest. Adults had taken failed hunts in stride in Luke’s family. There were plenty more deer in the woods or so Luke’s dad had said, but neglecting to bring down game had humiliated his brothers, particularly when the younger generation began hunting without adults to guide them. Uncle Ty was right, though. As embarrassed as his brothers and cousins had been to return empty-handed, they’d learned to work together as a group.

His last lycan lover had exploded with rage when his prey got away, not embarrassment, but Luke wouldn’t think of Neil now.

Lycans knew embarrassment. They just didn’t connect that emotion with physical appearance and didn’t understand anyone who did. For lycans, nudity was a natural state and the body given to them a gift, be their form human or wolf. Lycans didn’t scar as readily as humans, but such imperfections were a badge of honor, worn with pride. Whatever had hurt them, they’d survived. Lycan metabolism also burned calories mercilessly fast. Few packed on extra pounds and, unlike humans, they considered fat instead of lean muscle a sign of a prosperous pack. Short, tall, thin, bulky, all were beautiful to lycans.

Luke wished he could share their sentiment. He was a thirty-six year old gay man who already needed bifocals and carried twenty extra pounds around his middle the doctor in town wasn’t happy with despite Luke’s very lycan-like robust health otherwise. Despite the extra weight, his knees were knobby and he was short. Not only by lycan standards, either. At a couple inches over five and a half feet, he was dwarfed by most human men and a lot of women too. Enormous ears stuck out from the sides of his head, his eyes a human blue instead of lycan brown, and a ridiculous dimple dented his chin. He’d also taken after his mother’s fair skin, which hadn’t been helped by Luke working indoors. His chest was broad, but he’d never sprouted more than several stingy brown curls on it. And freckles! They scattered over his chest, shoulders, and biceps, tiny dots unhidden by the body hair he’d failed to grow. Luke sometimes wondered if he connected the damn freckles right, they’d spell out how awkward he felt.

That lycans prized physical diversity as precious and endlessly appealing made Luke’s discomfort worse. He didn’t want the others gawking at him. As much as he craved touch, he didn’t want the pack tracing with their fingertips the freckles lycans weren’t born with or rubbing the subtle pooch of his belly. He didn’t want them admiring his appendix scar, either.

How badly he wanted to examine the length of Dean’s uncut cock and spy the shape of his butt embarrassed Luke too.

Giving the pack leader any indication of how much Dean turned Luke on would humiliate him. Not here. Not now. Dean was lycan, with a lycan’s acute sense of smell. He’d sniff out Luke’s attraction sooner or later. Luke hoped later. Much later. Preferably after the pack leader had accepted his presence in the group. Once Luke mustered more confidence in his place in the pack, he’d better cope with Dean’s rejection—or worse, Dean’s seduction of someone he considered an intriguing novelty, at best.

Luke startled at fingers tunneling through his hair at the crown of his bowed head, swallowing a gasp when those fingers clenched and jerked his gaze up.

“You grew it out. Why?”

Dean’s black eyes didn’t glint with censure, just curiosity. Luke gulped and answered him honestly. “Humans expect short hair in business settings. I cut it for work, but I grew up with long hair next to my brothers and cousins. As soon as I hung my shingle as an independent accountant, I stopped trimming my hair. I didn’t like it short. Never felt natural.” Luke shivered. “Made me feel colder.” And more naked. “Why do you cut yours?” He sucked in an alarmed breath, his eyes going wide. His heartbeat trebled.

Would Dean consider that a challenge?

“Relax.” One corner of Dean’s lush mouth kicked up. “I won’t rip your throat out for asking a reasonable question.” His eyebrows rose, forming a vee. “Doesn’t mean I’ll answer it. I won’t punish you for asking, though.”

Luke’s shoulders drooped with his relief. His eyes slipped shut.

“We adults cut our hair because it makes us seem less strange to humans. More like them. It’s safer.”

“I didn’t know. I—I wasn’t sure.” Luke opened his eyes, the burning in his cheeks telling him a demand to explain blushes would be soon forthcoming. “I’ll cut mine tomorrow.”

“You will not.” The fist in his hair gentled from a controlling grip to a caress. “I like it. Besides, none of the townspeople would ever consider you dangerous.”

Luke couldn’t stifle his wince.

“That isn’t a criticism.” Dean chuckled. “You’re a skittish little thing for a pack-born human.”

“Nervous,” Luke corrected.

“You should be nervous.” Dean released him and stood to his full height. “Undress.

********
Stray is available at:
Amazon
ARe
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
and other vendors!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sightings ~ Available NOW

1 Sightings E-Book Cover

Love longer than forever.

Quinn Laramie moved to Mill Valley to care for his sick Aunt Betsy. After her recovery, he invested hours once spent in hospitals hiking and exploring the surrounding hills rather than returning to an empty apartment in the city.

Patrick, a photographer and self-proclaimed paranormal expert, saved Quinn from tumbling into a flooded creek where a bridge had washed away years ago, taking a pair of doomed lovers with it. Quinn and Patrick meet for other creepy jaunts thereafter: a derelict one-room schoolhouse, an abandoned cemetery, the burned-out shell of a home… Quinn hasn’t seen any ghosts yet, but Patrick’s shy kisses haunt him after each paranormal adventure ends.

Quinn wants more, and with their next spooky tour set to begin, Patrick is finally ready to give in. But what surprises wait them in the eerie manse atop Warner Hill?

A 11,219 word novelette

Spooky stories. I cannot resist the spooky stories and a haunted house story? Oh my stars, compadres. It had to be done. For those who are a tad (and justifiably) squeamish, I promise Sightings isn’t remotely OMFG-What’s-WRONG-With-You scary like my other Halloween-ish stories (Mating Season, Half a Million Dead Cannibals). It’s a ghost story. Lightly spooky, but mostly romantic. And smexy. Trust me, the sex is worth the price tag alone, LOL.

So…Now that the leaves are turning color, when the wind’s started kicking up and the temps are cooling, are you ready to enjoy a night in? Grab your favorite comfy fleece throw and a mug of hot cocoa with mounds of whipped cream (or mulled cider if you swing that way, which btw I do — YUM). Turn down the lights. Because woo boy, do I have one hell of a story for you. 🙂

Available at:
Amazon
ARe
and coming soon to B&N!

Excerpt

Chapter One

“Fuck. Shit, shit, shit!” Teeth gritted, Quinn drove into the skid, his foot pumping the brake pedal of his rattletrap Mazda. Time slowed. Terror jolted down his spine. The screech of the car, the rumble of thunder from the torrential storm, and even the musical clamor from his iPod faded. Only the quickening thud of his heartbeat echoed in his ears as he wrestled the steering wheel. He screamed when his wipers cleared the flood of rain from his windshield long enough to reveal a cluster of thick sturdy oaks in his path, but then he was spinning… spinning… spinning…

Between one blink and the next, his car straightened out on the single lane blacktop. Still gliding on water sluicing off the hill. Quinn fought to point the car down the road. He shook, hands trembling despite his tight grip on the steering wheel. His nuts crawled inside his body, but miraculously, astoundingly, his tires gripped asphalt. The Mazda shot down the deserted country road like a bullet.

The laws governing motion and centripetal force pushed Quinn’s body against the driver’s side door when he cornered the next curve and he prayed he wouldn’t hydroplane again. Pulse racing, he glanced through the late afternoon’s stormy gloom in the rearview mirror to try to catch a glimpse of the slick stretch that had almost cost him his life, but between the downpour, tree limbs whipping in the wind, and the mountain the road curled around, he couldn’t make out anything. Blowing out a shaky breath, he eased off the gas and slowed the hell down. Delayed by bad weather or not, Patrick wouldn’t be pleased at Quinn risking an accident to reach the manse faster.

The wide turn-off Patrick had described in his directions to Warner House appeared through the sheeting rain a couple miles after Quinn’s near-catastrophe. He edged the Mazda off the road, hoping the tall grasses his fender mowed down were a promising sign he wouldn’t need a tow from the muck later. Climbing from the car, he grabbed his bulging backpack and pulled on a disposable poncho he’d picked up when he’d stopped for gas. Frigid rain drenched him before he’d finished unfolding the cheap plastic, long before he pulled the rain gear over his head, but keeping the contents of his pack dry was more important. He reached into the Mazda for the scrap of paper upon which Patrick had neatly printed the directions. He tucked that under the poncho too.

Spying the trail Patrick had mentioned, Quinn took off into the woods. Wet, dripping vegetation swallowed him. Mud caked Quinn’s boots, the path as slick as the road had been, but the hike settled nerves that still jangled from almost hitting the trees head-on.

Quinn loved the woods. The slow incline of the flat valley creeping up and into the mountains got his blood pumping, warming him despite the arctic rain. Forest critters stayed in their burrows during storms and mist shrouded wild greenery the farther up Warner Hill he climbed, but it was still a pretty hike.

In the year and a half since he’d moved in with Aunt Betsy, he’d never explored past the city limits on this side of town, only going as far as the ruins of the old covered bridge—replaced by an ugly, though sturdier, steel bridge decades ago. Why come out here when spooky riches filled the western woods? He’d liked the derelict one-room schoolhouse where a teacher had murdered her lover and then hung herself from the rafters. He’d spent weeks in an abandoned cemetery where many swore another murder victim, this one headless, roamed. Quinn had never seen the ghost, no matter how much time and sweat he’d invested in righting the disintegrating tombstones and clearing weedy overgrowth. He hadn’t seen the school marm’s corpse swinging from a noose at the schoolhouse, either. That failure hadn’t stopped him from climbing into the burned-out shell of a home—bricks scarred with black soot—where a mentally disturbed young man had nailed the doors shut one night and set fire to the place, killing his entire family including an aunt, two nieces, and his grandfather. That time, he’d experienced something. He’d heard the creaks and groans of the wrecked house and sly whispers that could have only come from the murdered young girls—just as the locals of Mill Valley had reported.

Mill Valley, with a population of a scant few thousand, hadn’t been overrun with ghost hunting teams and paranormal adventure tours because locals shunned outsiders. Plus, the valley was prone to flooding and a deluge in 1984 had destroyed most of the town’s historical records. Residents of Mill Valley alone knew the old stories now and they didn’t talk to anyone they didn’t consider one of their own.

Luckily, Aunt Betsy had gone to bat for him these past weeks. Quinn hadn’t been raised in Mill Valley, hadn’t even been born in Pennsylvania, but when his single and childless aunt had been diagnosed with lung cancer, he’d moved to the rural isolated town to help in whatever way he could. His job as a medical transcriptionist allowed a flexible work-at-home schedule, which had adapted to appointments for chemo treatments and to otherwise tending to his aunt’s needs. The valley had become home to him. He’d learned to love his compassionate yet stubbornly independent neighbors and the beauty of the mountains. After Betsy’s lung cancer went into remission, neither one of them had talked about him returning to the city.

Instead, Quinn had shifted the hours he’d once spent caring for his aunt to exploring the haunted places the townspeople had started mentioning to him once he’d met Patrick.
His heart thudded, and though Quinn panted a little, the sprint of his pulse had little to do with exertion from the steep path up Warner Hill. His blood heated. His cock hardened. The cold rain stopped annoying him and he quickened his pace.

Because Patrick waited at the end of this hike.

Patrick had saved Quinn’s life when Quinn had gone to the old covered bridge on his first hike in Mill Valley. Sure, the state had put in a new bridge after the historic landmark had washed away during a flood in the 1970s, but stubby remnants of wood buttresses, which had made the Valley Bridge an historical oddity, still speared from the shores of the creek if you knew where to look.

How was Quinn supposed to know the hillside to the creek was prone to sliding?

Patrick had grabbed him and pulled Quinn from a perilous tumble into the rushing water. Patrick’s camera had dangled from a strap around his neck and had repeatedly clocked Quinn while Patrick had hauled him from danger. When they both had reached the safety of the road, Patrick pointed an angry finger at a triangle-shaped caution sign that had escaped Quinn’s notice, as well as the extra sign bolted beneath: Slide Area.

“It’s rained for the last three days and the creek is at flood stage. The bank’s eroding. You can see it crumbling and falling into the water! And you, genius, decided to climb down?” He planted his hands on his hips and glared at Quinn. “Are you suicidal? Or stupid?”

Rubbing his abused head, Quinn had peered up at him. “Er…stupid?”

A shaken and distraught Patrick had berated Quinn for a solid ten minutes—Patrick could be the king of paranoia when it came to safety and taking every precaution—but they’d become friends.

Patrick had told him about the legend of the covered bridge over a thermos of coffee fetched from Quinn’s pack. “They probably told you in town the bridge washed out in the seventies,” he’d said, arching a devilish eyebrow while his lips curled in a hint of a smile, “but I bet they didn’t mention the two men driving across the bridge when it let go.”

Quinn had felt like his eyes would bug out of his head as he’d gulped his coffee. “No shit?”

Patrick had nodded. “One of the men is said to haunt the road here.” His lips had quirked. “Sightings are sometimes reported after storms, while the creek is flooding.”

Nobody loved spooky stories more than Quinn did so he’d angled his head and squinted at the buttresses he’d glimpsed from afar. “To warn other drivers?” He glanced up and down the road. “Maybe if I hang around, I’ll catch a glimpse of him.” He returned his attention to his goal: the buttresses.

“You’d better hope not. Only those who have been marked for death can see him …or so the story goes.” Nose wrinkling, Patrick had lifted the camera strap over his head and passed the camera to Quinn. “Here. Use the zoom lens to look.” When Quinn reached for the camera, Patrick held on. Tight. “No climbing down to see the buttresses yourself until the weather dries out and the ground stabilizes. I mean it. You could’ve been hurt. Maybe killed.”

Quinn had liked Patrick’s hand beneath his on the camera, the strength and warmth of his grip. “All right,” Quinn had said in immediate agreement. Whatever Patrick wanted was okay by him. Without letting go of the camera, Quinn had thrust out his other hand and introduced himself. “Quinn Laramie, medical transcriptionist and newly-intrigued paranormal investigator.”

“I’m Patrick.” He’d shaken Quinn’s hand, his grip neither weak nor crushing. Patrick’s chin had lifted toward the camera. “Photographer.” He’d grinned. “And paranormal expert. Are you genuinely interested in ghosts and hauntings?”

Before that moment, Quinn would’ve said no. He’d seen the shows on TV and thought they were bullshit. People with questionable acting skills scrambled around abandoned prisons, condemned mental hospitals, and other predictable sites of urban decay with video cameras and various whacky gizmos. If Quinn were a ghost, he’d stay the fuck away from rude intruders and their unwelcome spotlights, thanks. With Patrick staring at him with eyes the color of jade, though, Quinn had decided he wanted another ghostbusting day with Patrick and if he had to lie to get it? Oh well.

“Yeah, I like ghosts.”

Patrick had chuckled. “Okay.”

That had been four weeks ago—four perfect, arousing, frustrating, and ultimately romantic weeks. Quinn hadn’t known for sure Patrick was gay at first. The valley could be as good as time traveling back a few decades—discretion was smart, but even the day Patrick had yelled at Quinn at the bridge, Quinn had caught him staring at Quinn’s mouth. Patrick hadn’t kissed him at the bridge and Quinn hadn’t worked up the nerve to try. Their first magical kiss hadn’t happened until Patrick had met Quinn to show him where to find the schoolhouse later in the week.

“She shot him,” Patrick had said inside the grayed wreckage. The door had been gone as well as all the glass in the window frames, but aside from spots of splintering wood and a few missing floorboards, the structure had seemed basically sound when Patrick had insisted both he and Quinn stomp on the stairs and floor to test them. “After she killed him, she returned here and hung herself from the rafters.”

When Patrick had shone his flashlight beam toward the decaying ceiling, Quinn had shuddered.

Patrick cocked his head at a curious angle. “Can you see her?”

Squinting at the darkness inside the ruined schoolhouse, Quinn shuffled to the front of the single room, where Patrick’s flashlight beam shone.

“Careful.” Patrick had grabbed Quinn with a steadying hand. “We didn’t check that part of the floor. You could fall through.”

“I thought a shadow shifted in the rafters—Probably just a bat.” His shoulders had slumped with disappointment. “No ghosts. I don’t see anything.”

“You will. One day.” Patrick had wrapped his arms around Quinn. He’d pulled Quinn against him. “I promise.”

When Patrick’s lips had brushed Quinn’s, something beautiful and right had settled deep in Quinn’s bones. Patrick’s warmth had seeped into Quinn’s body where their chests had brushed. The softness of Patrick’s kisses had dizzied him. Patrick had tasted of cinnamon and the coffee they’d shared from Quinn’s thermos. He’d tasted like home.

Quinn hadn’t been able to get enough of Patrick’s kisses since.

In his old life in the city, Quinn would’ve assumed a man who hadn’t touched his cock in a month of dating—and the spooky jaunts were dates—was either a tease or disinterested. Moving to Pennsylvania must have changed Quinn, though, because he’d realized from the moment their mouths had first met, Patrick was definitely interested and he wasn’t a tease. He was just shy. Painfully shy and awkward. When he had his hands on his camera or spoke of the histories behind the haunted places they visited, Patrick stood tall, his broad shoulders squared with unshakeable confidence. The man was very much in his comfort zone when he discussed his area of expertise, Mill Valley’s ghosts, but the moment Quinn caressed him, Patrick’s self-assurance evaporated. Instead of boldly meeting Quinn’s gaze, he glanced under his lashes. His fair, freckled face colored a bewitching pink that highlighted copper streaks in his choppy brown hair. He trembled when Quinn twined his fingers with Patrick’s. Patrick topped Quinn’s six foot height by a couple inches, but when Quinn kissed him, Patrick seemed more delicate somehow. Fragile.

The hunger in Patrick’s returning kisses might be nervous, but Patrick had been far from disinterested these past weeks. Shifting the weight of his pack on his shoulders, Quinn hurried up the slippery path in renewed determination to faster reach Warner House—and Patrick.

They’d planned the daring trip after they’d finished cleaning up the forgotten cemetery on the other side of town. Warner House wasn’t abandoned. Though no one lived in the manse, fully paid property taxes year after year proved its continual private ownership. Not by locals. A wealthy family from Philadelphia had bought the land and built the place as a vacation home ages ago. The parents had left the house, clothes still hanging in the closets and a teacup allegedly resting on a table in the sitting room, the day their child had disappeared. Neither they nor their son had ever returned. Like Mill Valley’s version of the Mary Celeste, the eerie manse squatted empty and derelict atop Warner Hill and peered down onto the town, which was why Quinn had to sneak up the back of the property. If he and Patrick were caught inside the house, the cops wouldn’t be amused.

Patrick had sworn the house wasn’t in ruins. Aside from dust easily wiped away, he’d said the place was comfortable if a little spooky, still outfitted with furniture, kitchenware, linens, and everything else a family might need.

“Warner House is a popular trysting spot for brave teenagers from the Valley,” he’d said, blushing tomato red when he’d suggested the manse for their next ghost adventure.

Quinn had been pushing for a real date. Well, a more traditional one anyway. Dinner at the steakhouse by the highway, maybe a movie. He wanted Patrick on every level. He’d enjoyed crawling around the woods with him, gleaning details about the reticent Patrick along with the tales of doom and death crowding this patch of ground. He’d loved Patrick’s shy kisses too, the tentative dance of Patrick’s fingers over Quinn’s stomach, and the salty flavor of Patrick’s neck. But he wanted more.

“The manse has… b-beds,” Patrick had stammered, staring at the leaf-strewn ground rather than Quinn as he spoke. “I can change the linens.” He’d gulped. “The candles are all gone, though. Kids steal them.”

Quinn had stuffed his backpack with candles. Wine. An army of his aunt’s Tupperware filled with what he hoped Patrick would consider a romantic dinner as well as one of Betsy’s handmade quilts, in case his skittish soon-to-be lover was wrong about the sheets. Nothing could keep Patrick from Quinn tonight. Not the presence or absence of furniture at the manse. Not the wild storm that had blown into the valley the night before and lingered, swelling the creek and pouring rain down in torrents. Nothing. Patrick was his.

Rounding a bend in the path, Quinn marched from the tree line and into an overgrown yard. He’d made it to Warner House.

The place truly was a mansion. Despite the downpour from the storm, he slowed to assess the place—he hadn’t studied architecture, but he thought the style might be Tudor? The house rose three floors high at the crest of Warner Hill, a pair of gables from the steeply pitched slate roof vanishing into the stormy mist at both ends of the structure. The long stretch between featured a wattle and daub pattern of crisscrossing wooden beams that might be teak, interspersed with tall windows, each’s small diamond panes glinting off distant flashes of lightning. As Quinn neared the back of the house, he frowned in consternation at the windows, or rather the very intact windows. None of the panes appeared to have been broken during what must have been decades of neglect. Wild grasses grew up to Quinn’s waist in the backyard, and he’d circled around a cement birdbath and a stone bench hidden by the overgrowth. Ivy grew up the side of the manse, smothering half of the house. When he drew closer, he crossed from the jungle of the yard onto a brick patio with spongy moss growing between the stones under his hiking boots. He passed a rusted wrought iron table, chairs still gathered around it. A shiver ran up Quinn’s spine.

The place looked and felt hollow, vacant, like a dried out husk. Yet, not one pane of window glass had even cracked.

“The kids alone…” Quinn muttered under his breath. Partying kids would’ve broken something, torn up a lot probably, but as Quinn walked around the ivy-covered right wing of the house, examining the house instead of making for a surprisingly undamaged back door, he recalled Patrick had mentioned teenage lovers. Not parties.

Stepping close, Quinn pushed heavy vines aside to peer into one of the many windows and shuddered at hulking shadows of furniture draped by filmy sheets. No debris marred the room, though. No mold or water stains defaced its pristine walls. With a little cleaning, the house would be habitable once the dust cloths were removed.

Why wouldn’t local kids take advantage of a dry place to drink and get into trouble? For that matter, why wouldn’t vagrants strip the copper wiring for extra money?

The manse was empty, felt almost skeletal, but the house, if not the yard, had been maintained. Cared for. Someone had made sure the roof didn’t leak and the unbroken windowpanes continued to keep out the elements.

Mindful of the mud, Quinn worked his way around the house, goose bumps that had little to do with the storm’s chill raising on his skin under his wet clothes. Something was wrong, very wrong about this place. Quinn couldn’t put his finger on what. If he hadn’t spotted a flicker of light through a window, inside where Patrick waited, Quinn might’ve boosted his pack higher on his shoulders and hiked back to his Mazda. The sense of utter wrongness was that disconcerting. The light beckoned him, though, called to him. If Quinn concentrated, he could almost hear Patrick whispering to him and feel Patrick’s shy fingers exploring Quinn’s body.

Spooky house or not, Patrick was in there. Waiting. Wanting him.

Stiffening his spine, Quinn stalked to the front door. He reached for the knob… and screamed when the door jerked open.

The old woman inside screamed, too.

# # #

Amazon / ARe

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Safe Travels/Heart Stone AVAILABLE NOW and…Fight like a girl!

Current events IRL changed my 2015 game plan so…Act One: Safe Travels of For Whom the Heart Stone Burns is AVAILABLE NOW at Amazon and ARe (& soon at Barnes & Noble)!

SafeTravels

Becket built his life around unbelief in the magic Theo, his uncle and guardian, had devoted his all to…until Theo vanished. Grief-stricken, Becket followed Theo’s clues, sending him through a stone grid to Ket. With no magical ability, Becket must find Theo in a land where dragons roam the lowlands and magic evolved in men and women who aren’t apex predators and have settled in high aeries to survive.

Locating his uncle, however, is the easy part. Becket is a bibelot – non-magical. And Theo is recovering from a wild magic storm that hit his expedition to the lowlands. He can’t control his power.

They can’t go home.

Elders will permit a second expedition and Theo’s sole hope of obtaining frequency stone to stabilize his magic, but only if he allows seers to scry Becket’s sentinel first. Too bad the protector scried for Becket is Theo’s rival in this strange otherworld, another caster named Kellan Fik. And Kellan knows Theo and Becket aren’t what they seem.

Handfasting his enemy may be Becket’s best and only chance.

I’m currently working Act Two: New Beginnings so that’s still coming on or very near my original plan to release Act One at the end of May. (Basically, I shifted the timeline for this project forward a couple months). Act Three will roll out when it’s ready, my target for that being this fall since it’s so dreadful long. For all of you who’ve wondered if I’m capable of producing a sequel? I’ve discovered that when I work a minimum of one book ahead and throw in an abundance of glorious woo-woo, I’m all over that shit, LOL. Those of you not pleased about getting this in three acts…Honestly, the story is so massive I couldn’t do it in one go without entering the Land of Precious and reining as queen. Heart Stone was always going to be divided, just a matter of how I split it, where, and why. As Heart Stone has been plotted, these manageable chunks were logical to me, creatively on point, and avoided the story becoming pretentiously long and unwieldy.

So! I hope you enjoy the start of Becket’s journey with Kellan!

In other news and very much on the personal front…

I want to emphasize I AM OKAY. I’m not in pain or anything like that. I’ve been doing extremely & shockingly good and that’s the God’s honest truth. That said…I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, a very aggressive one, so my treatment (which I’m well into at this point) is likewise aggressive. My BC showed up during self-exams between regular mammograms – plain old bad luck, guys. That’s all this is. Everything that can be done is being done, though, and my chances are G-R-E-A-T! I’m still me too. Upbeat. Scrappy. Cracking jokes and looking for the adventure in every single day. I don’t – and won’t – give up. Ever. Don’t you dare give up on me, either. I WILL BEAT THIS!

While I do, if you’d add me & my family to your prayers and wing positive energy & kind thoughts my way, that would mean the world to me. Please don’t be sad. If I can be positive, you can too, I promise. I’ve officially declared myself a YOU CAN DO EET zone of upbeat happy! Fun socks, purple wigs (!!!with dreds!!!), and all manner of random absurdity abound! I will be – and already have been – the most fabulous patient my medical team has ever seen. Same ole Kari: SHAMELESS FUN IS MINE, ALL MINE. 😀 😀 😀

As for work…I’m not disappearing. This is not goodbye. I’ll still be around, writing and updating as I can. In the meantime, I’m fighting like a girl – a redneck girl who fights dirty. And cheats. ;-p

My love to you all,
Kari

p.s. If you want to do something for me, seriously, prayer and kind thoughts are numero uno on my list. I don’t like to be preachy, never thought that was appropriate for me in this space, but IRL, I’m quite devout. Liberal, LOL, but devout. Prayer and positive energy – my daughter’s Pagan boss has been doing some sort of altar thingie for me and I’m sure not too proud to say HELL YES to any perky boost I can get! – all of that genuinely does mean a great deal to me. Otherwise…The best gifty you can give me is to schedule any overdue mammograms and self-examine every month without fail. Mark this day on your calendar, if that’s what it takes, but GROPE YOUR BOOBS, LADIES! I’m laughing, yeah, but not really joking here. Do it now. Do it TODAY. Learn what is normal for you and if you notice anything even slightly amiss, I want you to leave skid marks on the asphalt on your way to your mammo clinic. You are never, ever, ever too busy to (potentially) save your life! I should know. Zero bullshit, routine mammos & self-exams just saved mine.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Heart Stone, Chapter Four

SafeTravelsClick on the fabulous cover Lou Harper created for me above or click here to jump to the Heart Stone hub page on my website to catch up on chapters 1-3!

Chapter Four

The room Becket entered was as barren and lifeless as Toreth’s room lower in the aerie, this space remarkable only for the entire opposite wall, which opened to a smaller version of the terraces Becket and Toreth had scaled to reach Theo. Standing columns dotted this far narrower lip of jutting rock, each pillar alive with sprouting herbs. A slight breeze brought the zesty fragrance of basil to Becket, a chill whisper that rustled the hair at his temples.

Becket furrowed his brow and narrowed his eyes. He squinted. No, not herbs. Not an assortment, as in a kitchen garden. Only two varieties, rosemary and basil, filled the scant space with green. A crop then and no one was in a better position than Becket to comprehend why certain herbs tended to be grown in such abundance. The hairs on Becket’s arms stood on end at the evidence of witchery—Theo’s stubborn magic. And beyond the columns, the sheer drop of the mountain’s face revived Becket’s earlier vertigo in the span of a heartbeat.

No power in heaven or on earth—or Ket—could compel him to go farther.

Disconcerted, he stepped to the side, shuffling to the right with his spine pressed to the rear wall. Brazen, Toreth stalked in and jerked short when his grip on Becket’s hand yanked him to a halt. He glanced over his shoulder and then rolled his eyes. “Is it cold? Like before?” Toreth asked as Master Seer Hannick followed them into Theo’s quarters.

“No,” Becket replied, puzzled because he’d been on terraces like this one only moments ago. The exertion of climbing the spiral staircases had warmed him, but even with the rising of the sun, the outside temperatures still should’ve been bone-chilling, not this cool draft. He studied the missing wall separating the interior space from the lush herb towers. “Not glass,” he decided.

“Ignorant of permeable barriers. That’s shocking, even for the lowlands.” Hannick smiled rapaciously as she perched on what looked like an extremely uncomfortable stone chair sculpted from the underlying rock floor.

Ignoring the seer, Toreth tugged Becket from the safety of the rear wall. “You know these plants, yes? They are powerful, but benign,” he said, voice cajoling. “These terraces are for the use of private casters and so are narrower than farming terraces below. That can be unsettling, but I’ve your hand. I promise not to release it. You won’t accidentally fall through.”

“I’m not scared,” Becket said, but he resisted Toreth’s pull.

“Of course, he won’t be allowed through. No one without the caster’s heart stone can breach that barrier,” Hannick said, tone waspish and then her breath caught. Her lavender eyes widened as she peered from Becket to another doorway leading deeper into Theo’s quarters. “That’s what I sensed, the warble from Douglas’ heart stone…and nothing else,” she said slowly. “Interesting.”

Toreth didn’t smother his wince fast enough to escape Becket’s notice. “It’s all right,” Toreth said to Becket, his assurance quavering only a little. “Come.”

Becket shivered, not from the cold this time, but from the predatory scrutiny of the seer. He stiffly allowed Toreth to guide him to a couch formed from the underlying rock several comforting yards from whatever separated the interior room from the outside cold and the herbs inexplicably thriving in it. Never relinquishing Becket’s hand, Toreth sat and Becket sank down beside him. Fat cushions and swaths of a thick, silky fabric draped the stone, relieving the ascetic severity of his seat.

“How old are you?” Hannick demanded, her intent regard fixed squarely on Becket.

“We await Caster Douglas.” Squeezing Becket’s hand, Toreth smiled at the seer. “As elder kinsman, formal introductions are his right.”

“Not if the boy is a bibelot past his majority, it isn’t.” Hannick leaned forward, strange eyes sparkling malicious delight.

“Becket?” a shocked gasp rang out.

Becket sprang to his feet, pivoting to face the source of that voice, so dear to him. Uncle Theo gaped from the doorway leading deeper into his quarters. His hair, always shaggy, had grown in the past year, a wealth of skinny russet braids surrounding his unnaturally pale face and falling just past his shoulders. He’d lost weight, a lot of it, the sacrifice bringing forward sharply angled cheekbones and amplifying the jut of his dimpled chin, his pallor painting the freckles across his nose in stark relief. Becket had never believed he resembled his uncle, consoling himself instead by the thought of vaguely favoring his father, but with the extra padding gone, Becket couldn’t deny gazing at Theo was as good as looking in a mirror.

An opulent mirror.

While Becket’s clothing, stolen from Theo’s last consignment, boasted the embroidered flourishes Toreth’s plainer wardrobe lacked, Becket’s ill-fitting tunic and leggings were rags compared to Theo. Citrines glinted at the collar, cuffs and the waist of a supple yellow tunic cinched with a stamped leather belt. His leggings were a richer shade of gold studded with chips of blue agate along the outer leg seams. Intricate loops and curls in white and chocolate brown thread ornamented spacing between the gemstones of both garments. Beneath the tunic, Theo’s shirt—silk rather than linen—glared white as snow, sleeves billowing at his biceps and narrowing to a point where circlets of twined rosemary hugged his wrists.

Despite the strange dress and the worn lines etching his face, this was Theo, though.

Alive!

As giddy relief consumed Becket, his uncle swayed slightly. A woman a full head shorter emerged behind Theo from the other room and grasped Theo’s elbow to support him.

“Uncle,” Becket said. Toreth, too, stood and angled his body, placing himself between Becket and Theo, to Becket’s exasperation. “Are you okay?” Becket asked around Toreth’s intruding bulk, though Becket could see Theo wasn’t okay at all. “Theo?” he asked when his uncle just gawped at him. Becket stepped forward to cross the room to him. Would have if Toreth hadn’t halted him with an iron hand at his bicep. “Damn it, let go,” he told Toreth.

“No, he’s right,” Theo’s companion said, looping an arm around Theo’s waist to guide him to a thick pile of pillows mounded on the stone floor next to the doorway. She lifted her mouth to whisper in Theo’s ear and round-eyed gaze never faltering from Becket, Theo nodded.

“I thought you were without kin or hold?” Hannick said suspiciously.

“A necessary subterfuge,” Theo said, words stilted as he allowed the dark-haired woman to seat him near the distant doorway. “Thank you, Analise,” he said to her and squaring his shoulders, faced the seer. “Life for my ward is dangerous and travel without an escort especially so,” he said to Hannick. His hard stare abruptly focused on Becket. “Fraught with hazards he is hardly capable of understanding.”

Becket’s spine stiffened. He refused to be cowed by Theo’s glower. “I—”

“—cautioned him to remain silent of our connection,” Theo said in a growled warning. “My journey to the aeries was necessary to make my fortune and thereby secure his future, but protected only by my heart stone, he didn’t dare reveal our kinship, nor could I. Until we reunited, Becket was safe only as long as he stayed unknown and hidden.” Theo laughed dispiritedly. He rubbed his eyes. Shot Becket a frustrated glance. “Didn’t I tell you not to follow me?”

“You vanished, Theo,” Becket said, his irritation seeping into his voice. Still, Theo was here, heart beating, blood still pumping. Annoying, pushy, arrogant. But alive. “I was coping with it,” he said, the aching loss of that yet sharp within him. “I would’ve coped,” he said, swallowing the lump forming in his throat, “if I hadn’t found the second set of stones. Once I realized…suspected you might not have been…You aren’t dead. As long as you aren’t dead, you don’t get to ask me to stay away.”

Theo snorted. “I didn’t ask.”

“How old is he?” Hannick demanded again.

Toreth’s grip on Becket tightened.

“Tell her,” Theo said, shoulders bunching.

Vague alarm coiled inside him, but Becket turned to the seer. “Twenty-three.”

“The season?”

Baffled, Becket glanced at Theo who gritted his teeth and said, “He was born in the spring.”

She smiled gloating satisfaction. “Perfect.”

Something forbidding and feral glinted in his uncle’s eyes, a flash Becket had never seen before. “He isn’t ready,” Theo said. “He’s going home.”

“The first bibelot Nitcha aerie has produced in nine seasons squandered on the lowlands?” Hannick laughed. “Hardly.”

Theo pushed to his feet, his body vibrating with anger.

Toreth shoved Becket behind him and carefully back-stepped, herding Becket from the brewing confrontation that had balled Becket’s gut. “If I tell you to drop, don’t question it,” Toreth hissed to Becket. “Hit the floor.”

“I said he’s going home,” Theo said, fists at his sides.

The air seemed to have been sucked from the room, replaced by an electric zing of menace, but the seer calmly stood. “Master your magic, Caster Douglas.”

“Yes, do sit down, Theodore. You’ve destroyed this room twice already and I tire of clearing it,” Analise said, returning with a tray bearing four squat cups smelling strongly of pine and honey. ”Also, I suspect you desire to keep the boy intact and losing control of your power would needlessly risk him. Fyrre?” she asked sweetly, presenting her tray to the seer.

Theo grimaced.

Hannick, however, preened and accepted one of the cups. “Your minder is a treasure,” she said, admiration lacing her voice. She sipped the drink and hummed in gratification. “Truly a credit to her craft.”

“Minding a caster so powerful is my honor and pleasure,” Analise said, black braids colored with crimson streaks briefly veiling her serene features when she dipped her head in recognition of the compliment. “The aftereffects of his brush with wild magic, while troubling, are temporary—and fading if Caster Douglas is not vexed apurpose.” Her smile charmed the sting from the subtle rebuke. With both parties thus chastised, she crossed the room to offer the tray to Toreth. “Set yourself to minding the boy, have you?”

Chuckling, Toreth selected a cup from the tray and deftly passed it to Becket behind his back. “When his time comes, the caster—and bibelot—chooses his minder. It doesn’t work the other way around,” Toreth said, taking his own cup. “Everyone knows that.”

“And he’s chosen you,” she said. Heat leached from the contents, warming the thick stone cup in Becket’s hand while Analise nodded to Theo, seething on the other side of the room. “He’ll appreciate the significance once he’s calmed.” She ducked around Toreth to smile at Becket. “Drink up, sweetling, and don’t let your kinsman’s bad temper taint your reunion. Theodore worried for you and missed you terribly.”

“But what—?” Becket started to ask, but was silenced by another tightening of Toreth’s hand over his.

“Hush,” Toreth murmured.

“Fuck you,” Becket said. “I want answers.”

Toreth glowered, his grasp on Becket’s wrist like steel manacles. “Then, listen. Pay attention.”

Snickering, Analise rushed to serve Theo.

“You are too much under the sway of wild magic to be properly matched. Of that, we are of one accord,” Hannick said, her spine rigid but her tone measurably more conciliatory. “But the boy is ripe, his majority perilously close. Obviously, he’s chosen his minder—Don’t begrudge me my desire to scry his sentinel; I didn’t write the covenants.”

“No, you merely take advantage of them,” Theo said, drinking from his steaming cup.

“Let’s not waste time on lies. You represent the elders.”

Hannick arched an eyebrow. “By the horn, you are blunt,” she said. “But I’ve been told that of you. Very well.” She lifted her cup to her lips and sipped. “You know I cannot leave your quarters without winning your guarantee…” She smiled waspishly. “…to Nitcha, of course.”

Theo grudgingly saluted her with his cup. “To Nitcha.”

“Which the elders serve,” Hannick averred. “As do we all.”

Foreboding shivered down Becket’s spine.

“Drink,” Toreth urged him. “Fyrre will warm and steady you.”

“I don’t want it,” Becket objected.

Toreth scowled at him, as though the implied importance of Becket’s wishes confounded him.

“Your magic is too erratic to be joined to an appropriate helpmeet so we must have the boy. The covenants require him to be handfasted by spring, anyway. In making his announcement now, you will declare Nitcha as your adopted home and the elders will be content,” the woman said, intractable. “We are not, however, without sympathy for your plight. Or lacking in generosity.” She drained her cup. She settled it at her feet and the smile she offered Theo didn’t reach her eyes. “In exchange, the elders will grant your petition to mount another expedition. But your hearth must be declared with Nitcha first.”

Theo jerked to attention. “A second expedition? You’ll support it?”

Shoulders squared, spine ramrod stiff, Hannick nodded. “With no less than four support casters under your supervision and a company of heroes, each fully blooded.”

“What?” Becket demanded at Toreth’s swiftly indrawn breath.

“Drink your fyrre,” the man irritably said. “It grows tepid.”

“I want to know what’s going on. I’m not a child.”

“Then stop acting like one. Drink.”

He pushed the cup into the small of Toreth’s back. “You drink it.”

“For God’s sake, Becket, it’s just pine tea and an excellent source of Vitamin C, which—if you’ve been here long—your body sorely needs. Unless you’d like to add a case of scurvy to the complications heaped on my plate,” Theo said and then returned his wary gaze to the seer. “What’s the catch?”

“Aside of handfasting your ward to his sentinel?” the seer primly asked.

Theo waved a delusory hand. “Yes, besides that.”

Handfasting? Sentinel? Becket hurriedly gulped his tea, elbowing Toreth. “What’s a sentinel?” he whispered.

Toreth’s glance at Hannick was glacial with contempt. But also leery. “Later.”

Unaware—or uncaring—of Becket’s quiet exchange with Toreth, the seer leaned back in the chair, fingers steepling at her waist. “A trio of scouts to forage and gather seedlings will accompany you, headed by Caster Farendel.” She licked her lips. “She was quite perturbed she didn’t number among your last exploration party.”

Theo laughed. “She should be glad of that, considering how the expedition ended.” He curved the corner of his mouth to flash a wry grin, his first genuine display of emotion to the seer thus far. “Farendel’s no fool. If she’s determined to bear the risks and is willing to leave mineral discoveries to me, all right. Done.”

Only the jolt of Hannick’s hands in her lap betrayed her surprise. “Truly?”

“I have conditions as well.”

Hannick twisted her mouth to a polite smile. “Go on.”

“I lead the team.”

“Naturally.”

“Including the heroes,” Theo added, his gaze guarded but resolved. “They follow my command and no other.”

The seer inhaled a deep breath, released it. “That can be arranged.”

“Caster Douglas,” Toreth said. Just that. Only that. His call was even, his voice modulated and smooth. His grip on Becket even loosened.

Theo nodded, as if he’d anticipated Toreth’s interference. “I know,” he said to Toreth, giving Becket scant attention before refocusing on Hannick. “I have conditions for scrying Becket’s sentinel as well.”

Her mouth pursed. “Elder kinsman traditionally do,” she said, though the tightening of her jaw proved her far less eager to barter matters pertaining to Becket than those involving whatever adventure his uncle had set his heart on.

Smile cagy, Theo leaned back and regarded the seer over his cup with frank calculation. “I swore promises to his sire before he and the boy’s mother crossed over, when Becket was just a child. Blood oaths.”

Challenge lit Hannick’s lavender gaze. “No seer would risk the ill luck of defying such a vow.”

Theo grinned his triumph. “As Becket chose his minder, he must also select his sentinel.”
Her lips pressed into a thin, disapproving line. “Of course, he’ll choose of his own volition. We aren’t lowland outlaws or Rithuan savages,” she said, voice tight. “No bibelot—or any citizen of Nitcha—opposing his or her handfasting has ever been forced.” She shuddered, but Becket interpreted it as a signal of her outrage at her questioned professional integrity rather than abhorrence of what she protested. “Scrying for the strongest possibilities of a successful match is a very specialized skill, an art…” She squawked, hands rising in ire.

“Becket chose his minder outside his home and hearth in the lowlands, independent of his kinhold,” Theo said. “He must be permitted to choose his sentinel free of such obligations as well.”

Hannick chopped a hand through the air. “I’ll open the candidate pool to one or more of our allies, but only if a suitable mate isn’t found for him at Nitcha first.”

Becket’s eyebrows winged up, shock exploding inside him.

Mate?

“I disagree.” Theo lazily tipped his head. “A sentinel from Melaeum, for example, would be most fortuitous.”

“M-mate?” Becket mumbled faintly, pulse buzzing in his ears.

“Shh,” Toreth said.

The seer angled her head, regarding Theo with new appreciation. Her blonde hair and purple wrapped braids caught the first beams of the fully risen sun through the non-window wall. “Yes,” she said on a long drawl. “They are rather put out about your trade in herbs, aren’t they?”

Theo spread his hands. “Confirming the Melaeum alliance with a handfasting of my kin to those whose business I may have damaged could soothe those ruffled feathers.”

“The elders will be pleased with your cooperation and forethought in this matter.” Hannick shot to her feet, her excitement demonstrated by her sly wink at Theo. “I must at least try to match him at Nitcha. The elders would expect that, but I’m sure I’ll find more fertile ground for him elsewhere.” She marched to Toreth and held out her hand, palm up. “His heart stone.”

Toreth pivoted to Becket.

“Oh hell no,” Becket said, hands raising to press the rose master stone into his sternum under both shirt and tunic.

“Take it. Quickly,” his uncle said. He nodded at the windowless wall to the terrace. “We’re losing the light.”

* * *

Becket was young, but he was healthy. Fit. And taller than every person in the room. So it took all four of them to wrestle the milky rose master stone from him. Panting, glaring at Theo for his betrayal, Becket brushed himself off as he pushed up from the floor while Hannick dropped the heart stone into the sunken pool of water. “Get away from me,” Becket said, slapping away the supporting hand Toreth offered him. He glowered at Toreth when the man had the audacity to look hurt by his rejection.

“Shut it, kiddo,” Theo said and then peered down and into the water with the seer.

“Mugwort?”

“Also camphor and catnip,” she responded, drawing out a small leather pouch tied to the belt cinching her tunic. “I’ve already mixed the herbs.”

“Fresh is better,” his uncle said. “Analise?”

Theo’s companion returned from the next room with a bowl filled with sprigs thick with green leaves. She passed the herbs to Hannick who quickly assessed each, rejecting some and crumpling others in her fist before casting them into the water with Becket’s stone. “Releases the plant’s essence,” Analise said in an undertone to Toreth who, abandoning Becket, had approached the others kneeling at the pool.

The seer, Toreth, Analise, and Theo leaned over the water expectantly.

More woo woo. Fantastic. Becket pressed his lips firmly together and examined the tear in his leggings, originally rented as he’d scaled the terraces to the top hold, now ripped wider after the scuffle over the stupid stone. The scrapes on his palms hurt too.

“The outcomes aren’t as clear as I’d like for him in Nitcha in any case,” Hannick said. “No need for subterfuge about widening the search, after all.”

“Melaeum?” Theo prompted.

“Melaeum,” she answered and reached for more herbs.

“This is bullshit,” Becket said, raising his hand to hook a finger into the fairy stone Toreth had tied to his throat.

“Don’t,” the man shouted and jerked upright, as though he felt the danger of the second stone’s removal like the throb of a phantom limb.

“Why the hell not?” Becket snarled, fed up with all of it. With Theo and rock climbing. Uncomfortable clothes and foods he only partially recognized. But especially with infernal God damn magic. He anchored his finger in the cord fastening the fairy stone to him and tugged the cord taut in threat. “This isn’t for good luck, is it?”

“No, it isn’t.” Color draining from his face, Toreth shook his head. “At least, not entirely.”

“Why?” Becket persisted, ignoring Theo and the seer at the pool. “Why bother with a lie to convince me to wear it in the first place?”

“You’re a bibelot,” Toreth said, pushing to his feet. “Bibelots don’t understand magic.”

Becket gritted his teeth. “Try me.”

“All right.” Toreth blew out a stuttered breath. “Without my sigil, you would’ve never been able to pass through the wards my kin cast around the farm terraces below to keep out intruders,” Toreth said, palms raised as he inched toward Becket. “I share their blood so the wards accept me, but not you. With that stone, my kinhold’s magic accepted you as an extension of me and let you pass.”

“Bibelots must not be as stupid as you believe because I comprehended that.”

“You are very strange. Even for a bibelot.”

“Remember that.”

“Release my sigil and I swear I will.”

“But I’m not on the lower terraces anymore.” Becket tightened the pressure, the cord biting into the meat of his finger. “I shouldn’t need your fairy stone and your borrowed magic now.” Satisfaction bloomed when Toreth halted, strain stiffening his body. “You still aren’t telling me the truth.”

“You have more than enough power, as is.” Toreth glared. “And you are shockingly perceptive for a bibelot.”

Yeah, he was so powerful, he hadn’t even managed to hang onto his other stone. “I want answers.”

“Carrying a trace of his magic—accepting his gift—shows you’ve chosen him as your minder,” Analise answered, shifting to stand by Toreth. “He wouldn’t have been able to enter these quarters without it.”

Replaying the win/win deal he’d struck with Toreth in his mind, Becket appraised Analise. “If I remove it, you’ll kick him out.”

“Caster Douglas will.” At Becket’s incredulous stare, Analise shrugged. “Theodore has been ill, but he’s not without his resources. If you wish your minder gone, take off his sigil and he will be no bother to you anymore.”

Still exerting pressure on the cord holding the fairy stone to his throat, Becket transferred his attention to Toreth whose returning stare and the proud set of his shoulders reflected only steady resolve. Wasn’t the man still a little concerned that Becket might renege on his end of their bargain now that Becket knew? “You lied to me.”

“Only by omission,” Toreth said. “I fulfilled our agreement by delivering you to your kinsman. As I said I would.”

“You were guaranteed a position in the top hold as soon as you put the rock around my neck. Why did you let me believe I had any sway over that? Or anything to barter with you for bringing me to Theo that was of real value?”

“You have sway. You can remove my sigil whenever you please,” Toreth said, “and trust me, its presence around your neck is very valuable to me.”

Behind him, Theo and Hannick talked in quiet voices, their business with the water apparently finished. Becket’s rosy stone lay in a puddle on the edge of the small pool. “I’ll fly to Melaeum and if Caster Fik is agreeable, return with him as quickly as possible,” the seer said.

Theo squared his shoulders. “I’ll need time to procure him a proper wardrobe—”

“You have until tomorrow,” Hannick said, rising from her knees. “If Caster Fik a disagreeable or doesn’t appeal to the boy, I’ll widen my cast to other potential sentinel matches, but the elders will accept no further delays. No need to rush the handfasting—a troth announcing the joining of your ward with Fik will suffice.”

“I won’t force a decision he’ll have a lifetime to regret,” Theo said.

“Troths have been severed before.” The seer fluttered indifferent fingers. “As long as the pledge declares your hearth with Nitcha, preparations for your expedition can begin immediately thereafter.”

Becket reappraised Toreth, who at least wasn’t setting him up with a mate. Becket lowered his hand from the fairy stone, disgruntled when Toreth appeared not surprised in the least by this move. The man had gotten Beck to Theo. “A deal’s a deal,” Becket said.

Master Seer Hannick beamed at Becket. “Exactly.”

Theo glared at the seer and Toreth both. “A deal is a deal only when the terms continue to benefit all parties.”

While Analise and Theo escorted the woman to the door, Toreth joined Becket by the rock couch. He frowned at Becket’s injured hands. Stripping off the fingerless gloves, Toreth guided him to the pool of water to rinse the shallow scrapes. He dropped the string weighted by Theo’s stone over Becket’s head and tucked the still-damp rock under his clothes to return it to the naked skin above Becket’s heart while his uncle made his polite farewells to the master seer. “What is a minder?” Becket finally asked.

Toreth glanced under his lashes at the exiting seer before returning to his task of setting Becket to rights, now rolling Becket’s gloves back down his hands and forearms. “A partner, of sorts. Minders care for and support casters in all things. Bibelots too.” His lips curved to a small grin. “As your minder, my duty is to you and to you alone. I ensure your well-being and the most advantageous circumstances for us both.”

“And a sentinel?”

Bemused, Toreth shook his head. “The same.”

“Liar,” Becket said. “You’re laughing at me.”

“Yes, I’m sorry.” Supporting Becket’s injured hands, Toreth rose and helped Becket to his feet as well. “Amusement is a much more comfortable response than fear.”

Becket blinked at him, consternation replacing his irritation. “Fear?”

“You terrify him,” Analise said, rejoining them.

Toreth squeezed both of Becket’s wrists, a self-castigating smile gracing his lips. “Utterly.”

“Good.” Theo said, stalking to them, the frailty he’d shown the seer replaced by rigid ill temper now that she’d gone. He glared at Toreth. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t throw you over the edge,” he demanded, a tip of his chin indicating the narrow terrace planted with basil and rosemary.

“He chose me?” Toreth said, his own sneer returning. “Or does a bibelot’s free will count for nothing?”

“Lay off, Theo. He knows,” Becket interrupted, glancing pointedly at Toreth. “About me. He knows.”

“Suspects,” Toreth corrected.

“All the greater motive to toss him down the mountain,” Theo replied, startling when Analise intertwined her fingers with his. “What?”

“Your magic,” she said with a tight smile. “Your control is slipping.”

Toreth had already guided Becket several steps in retreat.

Theo watched Toreth again angle his body between Becket and Theo. “Oh,” he said, his brow furrowing as he considered Toreth again, his green eyes glittering with curiosity instead of hostility. “Well. Hm.”

Becket shoved Toreth aside, though he only managed to dislodge Toreth’s surprisingly steady bulk a little. Enough to spy his uncle staring at Toreth, at least. “He brought me to you. I owe him,” Becket said, ignoring the nervous jangle in his stomach when Toreth clasped Becket’s hand. “We do.”

“The bibelot chooses his minder,” Analise said.

“Or hers,” Theo grumbled.

Analise calmly nodded. “Or hers.” She winked at Toreth. “He is your Becket’s choice.”

Theo grunted. “He can fetch the kiddo decent clothes to wear to meet his sentinel then.”

“And my trunk,” Becket said. “I brought things from home.”

“Gods help us,” Theo said and arched an eyebrow at Toreth. “I suppose, if I have to put up with you, I should know your name.”

Hand clasped with Becket, Toreth bent formally at the waist. “Toreth.”

“Your kinhold?”

“None that claim me.”

“Of course not.” With his free hand, Theo rubbed his temple and winced. He glared at Becket rather than Toreth, though, which was somewhat of an improvement. “Be glad I like you. Very glad.”

“Or you’ll taunt me into joining your woo woo,” Becket said, his stunned disbelief at where the past days had taken him overriding everything else, “where you’ll mate me to some stranger I’ve never laid eyes on so you can go look for more fucking rocks?”

“Oh, I do like him.” Analise laughed, her unencumbered arm holding her stomach as she guffawed. “He’s not as stupid as he looks.”

“Thanks,” Becket said in wry acknowledgment. “I think.”

* ~ * ~ *

A little early, but didn’t think anyone would mind. 😉

Hope you’re getting on your Irish (or by all means, borrow some of my Irish) and enjoyed Becket’s adventure and discoveries on Ket! Chapter Five will come at Easter — or if I get busy during that holiday too, Easter-ish, LOL.

HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY!

Kari

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Heart Stone, Chapter Three!

Happy Valentine’s Day! If you’ve missed the first 2 chapters of Act I: Safe Travels of For Whom the Heart Stone Burns (aka “The Opus”) you’ll find them posted in the Heart Stone Hub.

Since we last visited Becket, I pleaded most shamelessly for the highly talented Lou Harper to create a lovely, Lovely, LOVELY cover for my beloved opus, which she did, delivering something completely fabulous, just lookee!

SafeTravelsI’m in lurv — LOL. Thanks again, Lou! You are truly one in a million. 😀

And because I went to the trouble of begging and pleading for the cover, I’d figured I’d best get off my duff about slapping together some sort of blurb for my beloved opus so:

Becket built his life around unbelief in the magic Theo, his uncle and guardian, had devoted his all to…until Theo vanished. Grief-stricken, Becket followed Theo’s clues, sending him through a stone grid to Ket. With no magical ability, Becket must find Theo in a land where dragons roam the lowlands and magic evolved in men and women who aren’t apex predators and have settled in high aeries to survive.

Locating his uncle, however, is the easy part. Becket is a bibelot – non-magical. And Theo is recovering from a wild magic storm that hit his expedition to the lowlands. He can’t control his power.

They can’t go home.

Elders will permit a second expedition and Theo’s sole hope of obtaining frequency stone to stabilize his magic, but only if he allows seers to scry Becket’s sentinel first. Too bad the protector scried for Becket is Theo’s rival in this strange otherworld, another caster named Kellan Fik. And Kellan knows Theo and Becket aren’t what they seem.

While Becket travels to Kellan’s home in the tree canopy of Melaeum, Theo ventures to the lowlands for frequency stone, but reports of disaster come quickly.

Handfasting his enemy may be Becket’s last chance.

Goodness gracious alive, this set-up business is taking FOREVER. Okay, here’s the deal. I’m uploading the 6 chapters of Act 1: Safe Travels of the opus (oops, sorry, I mean, For Whom the Heart Stone Burns) on my website on holidays leading up to Beltane, May 1st. Chapter One was uploaded Christmas Day. Chapter Two was uploaded New Year’s Day. So if you haven’t caught either of those yet, just click on the links cause otherwise, Chapter Three below (and now included in the Heart Stone Hub here) might be a tad confusing. You can look forward to Chapter 4 on St. Patrick’s Day. Chapter 5 will be uploaded at Easter and finally, Chapter 6 and the end of Act 1: Safe Travels will go live on Beltane, May 1st. That’s about 32K of free altogether, but I’ve been in a very wtf-ever mood lately so…why the hell not? LOL.

All that said, here’s the next bits of Becket’s adventures (and misadventures) — I hope you’re enjoying your holiday and this trip of mine into freebie crazytown. 😉

My love to you all,
Kari

Chapter Three

A day passed while Becket waited for Toreth to scheme a means of sneaking Becket from Toreth’s room in the burrows of Nitcha to Theo in the top hold. “I can’t march you through the aerie and unbind the entrance of a top holder’s quarters,” Toreth grumbled into a bowl of thin soup flavored with chunks of unidentifiable root vegetables, a pebble-sized grain that tasted strongly of pine nuts, and crumbled basil Becket had shared from his trunk. “Even had I the power to gainsay a top holder’s protective wards, you can’t appear in public areas.” Toreth glared at him, as though all of this was Becket’s fault. “No low holder could resist the temptation. You would be handfasted or dead before we climbed the first spiral.”

“You resisted,” Becket pointed out.

“I am no typical low holder. Your presence proves that. I can cast.” Toreth’s brows lowered, a thunderous growl working from his chest. “You fouled the summoning at the last, but I managed the necessary magic.”

“You pulled me into your circle,” Becket agreed, focusing on his dinner. “I wouldn’t be here, if not for you,” he added to ensure Toreth knew exactly where Becket assigned the blame for his predicament.

“Goddess knows where you would’ve presented if I hadn’t cast widely.” Toreth flicked his braid over his shoulder, irritated lines bracketing both side of his mouth. “And you were supposed to be a demon.”

Becket’s total void of demon ancestry had been an endless source of annoyance to Toreth, almost as problematic as Becket’s lack of magic. “Get me to Theo and I’ll guarantee your entry to the top hold, no matter whose fault the wrecked summoning was.”

Over the past day, Becket had learned a great deal about his host. For one, until Becket had intruded into Toreth’s circle, Toreth had worked as a miner, the lowest strata of the social hierarchy here and the young man’s lone alternative after leaving the security of his kinhold, which Becket had eventually surmised were extended family groups. He hadn’t been able to shake loose why Toreth had parted from his family. About that, Toreth remained tight-lipped, but of the mines, he spoke with loquacious contempt. Only those incapable of casting or lacking kinhold connections to an appropriate craft were relegated to digging stone from the mountain.

Toreth’s determination to cast proved his ambition. “No more tunnels, I promise,” Becket said.

Toreth rolled his eyes. “Without magic, you can swear no oath, bibelot.”

Becket’s nose wrinkled at the epithet, yet unsure whether this designation for one devoid of magical power was grave insult or high honor. Toreth’s attitude when he referred to Becket as a bibelot went either way, depending on his mood. Just now, Toreth was playful so Beck elected against taking offense, instead pressing harder. “Theo will be grateful.”

Snorting, Toreth returned his attention to his meal. “He abandoned you.” His critical tone relayed his estimation of Becket’s uncle. “And I’ve word of your kinsman as well.” He frowned as he picked at his food. “Caster Douglas has been secluded in his quarters since leading an expedition to the lowlands last season.” He glanced at Becket, growling in disgust at Becket’s blank stare. “At least pretend you know the dangers of which I speak.” He pounded the floor with a fist. “Have you no sense of self-preservation?”

Becket’s heart pounded. “Theo’s hurt?”

With a sharp wave, Toreth dismissed Becket’s concern. “Lowland storms,” he said through gritted teeth. “Your kinsman’s party is rumored to suffer the aftermath of wild magic from one of these storms. And I’ll wager Nitcha’s entire supply of dragon’s teeth you’ve no notion what that means.” He stabbed an accusing finger at Becket. “Physically, he is said to be fit, but if you don’t soon learn guile, you won’t long be—despite my efforts. Or his.”

Relief at Theo’s well-being jellied Becket’s knees. When he opened his mouth, Toreth lifted his palm to quiet him. “No! Listen and heed me. He can’t protect you,” Toreth said. “Not won’t. Can’t.

Becket bristled. “Theo knows what he’s doing.” If nothing else, Becket’s presence here proved that. “And I can take care of myself.”

Toreth grimaced. “Such claims only confirm you are in more trouble than you understand.” The room abruptly darkened, not just the night Becket was accustomed to on earth with its array of starlight and the moon’s waxing or waning glow, but the utter black of quarters deep in the guts of a mountain. “Charge the light stones,” Toreth commanded, voice implacable. “If you can fend for yourself, producing light should be no small task.”

Becket fumbled inside his tunic and thanks to his Bic, he produced some God damn light. In the flicker of the lighter, he smirked at Toreth.

Who snarled ill temper. “Swing open my door then. Leave. Try.” Toreth laughed, a bitter sound rather than one of genuine mirth. The light stones perched in shallow depressions along the walls of Toreth’s quarters suddenly flared, returning the room’s brightness. As Becket’s pupils adjusted, Toreth waved at the pool of water at his quarter’s center. “Go ahead. Scry your kinsman. Let him know where you are.’

“That’s not fair,” Becket grumbled, replacing the Bic in his tunic. “You can’t scry him, either.”

“I’m not his kin. Or his fosterling.” Toreth crossed his arms over his chest. “As your elder kinsman, your heart stone should link you to him. It does not.” He tapped a foot. “You have no magic. Nor, apparently, does your kinsman, at least not reliably. How can you not grasp your peril?”

Oh, Becket appreciated that. “Just get me to Theo.” Everything would be okay, as long as he made it to his uncle. “He’ll vouch for you. You win your promotion to a higher level of the aerie. I win my uncle back.”

“Caster Douglas solicited a master seer before his expedition last autumn. The elders would never have permitted a foreigner to assemble a team of lowland explorers otherwise. The disturbance of his powers caused by the wild magic storm that overtook the expedition stalled the seer’s search, but the top hold’s patience is at an end.” Toreth blew out a long breath. “I can smuggle you into the top hold with the seer’s visit, but what then?”

“When?”

Toreth pinned him with a cold, assessing stare. “How old are you? Why is your hair shorn if your kinsman lives? From whence have you come? And why has there been no rumor of your existence until now?”

Becket waved the questions away. “When can you take me to Theo?”

“I have never met anyone so much a menace to himself.” Rubbing his temples, Toreth sighed. “Barring, perhaps, me. Fine. We’ll leave before dawn.”

* * *

Overruling Becket’s vehement protests, Toreth had left Becket’s trunk in his room when they crept from Toreth’s quarters while the rest of the aerie was largely still abed. “By the horn, stop fidgeting,” Toreth hissed in the quiet of a terrace in which they’d taken refuge after a terrifying but thankfully brief race through a series of narrow twisting corridors and cramped staircases.

“I’m not fidgeting. I’m shivering,” Becket whispered, teeth chattering as he crouched behind Toreth who, for all his arrogance and censure, was a good foot shorter than Becket. “You’re not much of a windbreak. Is it always so cold here?”

Toreth tossed an incredulous glance over his shoulder. “Yes.” He turned back to the towering cliff face in front of them. “If you swear to never again ask what conditions are normal, I’ll obtain a cloak and gloves for you on our way.”

Becket rubbed his palms together for warmth. “Done.”

Chuckling, Toreth shook his head. “Stay.”

While Becket shuddered in the chill morning, Toreth crawled into a maze of pillars dripping with the husks of dead and withered plants, all that separated them from the towering cliff wall. His shadowy form blended into the pre-dawn gloom. As soon as Toreth disappeared in the dark, Becket reached for the stone necklace Toreth had given him before opening the door to leave his rooms and, indeed, fidgeted. “Fairy stone,” the man had said, tying the necklace close to Becket so the rock, pierced by a weathered hole just off center, nestled in the hollow of Becket’s throat. “It’s the only sigil I have, save my blood, to disguise you as of my kinhold.” He flashed a tight smile. “Guards the bearer against ill fortune too.”

Becket hoped so. He had a feeling he’d need all the good luck he could scrounge.

When he spotted a Toreth-shaped silhouette scaling the cliff moments later, he changed his mind—Toreth needed the charm more than Becket did. Especially if Toreth had the insane idea that Becket would follow him up that wall. Uh uh. Not a chance. Heart stopped, breath locked in his lungs, he watched Toreth’s rapid ascent, like a spider scrambling up the sheer rock Becket would’ve sworn hadn’t the shallowest of fingerholds, but as the horizon blushed on the cusp of sunrise, he realized the escarpment had been smoothed only at the terrace’s level. Ten feet up, just out of reach, jutting edges and cracks gave Toreth leverage to heave himself upward. Becket’s heart didn’t start beating again until Toreth scooted over the top.

He craned his neck, staring up the dim mountain, where the tip of the aerie disappeared into wispy clouds. Theo was up there? How far? With the horizon lazily brightening as day chased away night, Becket’s gaze hopscotched upward right and left, tracing black lines of similar terraced gardens chiseled from the mountain marching skyward.

He jumped, startled, when a coil of rope flew over the side of the high crag beyond which Toreth had disappeared. It unraveled on its way down, one end anchored with Toreth and the other puddling scant yards from Becket. Toreth’s head emerged over the side of the cliff. He waved Becket to the rope.

Becket shook his head. He wasn’t climbing, even with a safety line.

Toreth pointed an adamant finger down to the rope’s end.

“No way.” Becket flashed a finger of his own.

Apparently, the fuck-you finger required no extra interpretation on Ket. Toreth’s soft though no less furious snarl filtered from above. “Do it. Now.”

After two years of training and three more working a full roster of clients as a massage therapist, Becket was strong. He didn’t have the physique of a weightlifter and his back injury from the wreck still occasionally troubled him, but constant exercise of his hands and arms had developed muscle by the plenty. Wending slowly through the rows of pillars to the rock wall, he trailed his gaze along the rope from the bottom to Toreth waiting above him and knew he could physically handle the climb. He hadn’t hesitated because of anxiety that his body wouldn’t pass the test.

He’d said no because he was afraid of heights.

Well. Fear was such a strong word, wasn’t it? Not entirely accurate. He wasn’t afraid. High places just made him dizzy. And a little short of breath. Sometimes, his heart sped up and he broke out in a cold sweat. A panic attack halfway up a cliff didn’t strike him as an especially smart risk to take.

Closer up, though, he could see that Toreth had tied Becket’s end of the rope into a makeshift harness, which was a good deal more comforting than a simple safety line. When he glanced up, surprised, Toreth’s shadowy figure pantomimed threading his legs through the variously knotted loops and Becket’s relief warred with pride.

Relief—and his desperation to reach Theo—won.

He pulled the tangle of ropes to his hips, heeding Toreth’s exaggerated motions showing him how to cinch the harness tight. Positive he’d fastened himself in as best as he could, he gave Toreth a thumb’s up and the other man again disappeared above. Seconds later, the rope pulled taut and Becket lifted from the ground as Toreth hefted him upward.

Stupid, really. Becket was bigger than Toreth. Becket thought he had a fair shot at beating Toreth in a fist fight as long as magic wasn’t involved in the scuffle. Toreth was lean, fit, a body that had filled out with compact muscle from mining. But Becket was stronger. Toreth would wear himself out hauling Becket up terrace after terrace and Becket needed Toreth at one hundred percent. Becket certainly had no idea what he’d face in the top hold or how to gain access to Theo.

At the same time, the notion of scaling the hard granite unaided churned Becket’s stomach. Or maybe being so far from the ground had done that. He snapped his eyes shut, hoping if he didn’t see how high he was, then he might hold onto to his hurried breakfast of bland grains. Since he was no coward, he opened his eyes, though. Don’t look down. Skin crawling, he braced his feet against the rock, straightened his legs, and helped Toreth by rappelling up the wall.

Toreth must have been stronger than Becket had given him credit, because the man yanked him over the lip of the precipice fast. Becket abetted Toreth’s tug by digging his feet in and pushing while his fingers scrabbled at the hard unforgiving rock. At the top, he rolled to his back, stared up at the lightening sky, and willed his stomach to settle while he sucked in gulps of oxygen.

Toreth materialized above him. “Three more climbs,” he whispered. He made short work of stripping the harness down Becket’s thighs and his suddenly wobbly legs. “Thrice more and we’ll be high enough to access the interior spirals unimpeded.”

Shuddering, partly from the cold stone leeching into him through his thin clothes, Becket dragged himself to his feet. He staggered after Toreth who had already winded the rope around his torso. He reached up to begin his ascent. “Three,” Becket said, swallowing sour bile as Toreth scaled the next terrace’s cliff face like Spiderman. “Yeah. Right.”

He’d deal with it, though. If only to prove to Toreth that he could. No whining.

Becket almost broke that oath at the top of that escarpment. He’d scraped his hands and torn the leggings over his right knee on the way up. His palms stung, alarming Becket since he made his living with his hands. He would have complained then—if he’d managed to catch a lung full of air before Toreth scrambled up the next cliff’s face.

He definitely would have bitched about the last ascension, but Toreth thrust a hooded cape at him as soon as Becket joined him at the top. “We farm these outcroppings and workers occasionally leave items behind,” he said. “Don’t let the fabric billow during your climb.”

Becket hurriedly donned the promised garment, grateful for the extra warmth. The mindless panic during his ascents had gripped him so fiercely he’d little attention for the cold numbing his fingers. “Thank you,” he said…to Toreth’s shadow. The man was already several feet up the wall.

Did he not tire? He must be exhausted after hauling Becket’s dead weight up several hundred feet. Becket wasn’t a big guy, but at two hundred pounds, he was no dainty flower, either. Even recalling and imitating rappelling scenes in action/adventure movies, Becket’s efforts couldn’t have helped Toreth much. When he reached the top this time, Becket heaved to his hands and knees more quickly, fast enough to catch Toreth’s rapid untangling of the rope’s other end from a pulley.

Huh.

“My forebears designed and carved these terraces from the mountain,” Toreth said under his breath as he gathered the rope. He wedged the coil behind the pulley gears and snatched long gloves abandoned on a stone shelf beside it. He tossed the gloves to Becket. “My kinhold has been farming them ever since.”

His disparaging tone and the grim set of his jaw didn’t invite questions so Becket, shaking from nerves and the frigid temperatures, simply pulled the gloves up his forearms, frowning when he encountered two holes at the tip—a smaller one for his thumb. His fingers fed through the larger gap, as a grumbling Toreth demonstrated. “Roll the fabric down your fingers to warm them,” Toreth instructed and then eyed Becket balefully as sunlight finally glinted on the highest surrounding mountain peaks. He yanked, ungently, the hood of the cloak over Becket’s head and secured it at Becket’s throat. “Volunteer nothing inside. Say nothing. Do nothing unless I have done it first.” He gave the cloak a final jerk. “Follow my lead. As much as your kinsman’s seer may suspect you are not what you seem, she will not know unless you confirm it.”

Becket frowned. “You said Theo’s stone would mask my lack of magic only superficially, that I couldn’t hide that long.”

A corner of Toreth’s mouth curved. “I didn’t mean your status as a bibelot.”

“The only other thing that makes me different is coming through your circle,” Becket said, confusion swirling inside him. “Theo came through the stones and nobody—”

“—can ever know,” Toreth smoothly interrupted. Snickering, he clapped Becket’s shoulder. “Come. A seer’s power is strongest at dawn and dusk, when the influence of the sun on the physical and the moon on the spiritual intermix. We’ve no time to squander. Just do as I say and we will both finish this day with our positions considerably improved.”

* * *

Becket fretted over Toreth’s revelation so intently he barely noticed the path Toreth forged to the top hold, Toreth’s hand firmly gripping Becket’s and forcing Becket to keep pace. True, Becket only had Toreth and the sparse accoutrements of Toreth’s quarters to judge, but he’d believed all on Ket possessed the powers Becket had denied and Theo had coveted throughout Becket’s entire life. Technology had been noticeably absent. Becket had furtively tried his cell phone only once and hurriedly turned it off to conserve his battery before burying it in his trunk after he’d confirmed the phone was useless. Toreth’s magic powered everything, from the light stones perched within shallow depressions in the walls to speckled heat stones upon which Toreth cooked meals. Magic triggered the release of Toreth’s door. It activated the pool of water—a scrying pool, Toreth had explained, for communication and divining—in the middle of Toreth’s quarters.

Magic was everywhere.

Toreth calling him into his circle hadn’t struck Becket as extraordinary, not here and in this context. Theo travelling through his stones to Ket, either, for that matter.

But that was a big deal. Toreth’s warning that Becket should not speak of it testified to that. What could that mean?

They winded up stairs cut into stone and corkscrewing steeply within the mountain, each stair’s edge weathered by the march of countless feet over time. After Toreth dragged him up what felt like thousands of spiraling steps, Toreth led him through an arched door and into a higher level of the aerie. The stairway’s exit opened into an airy hall, astounding because wide spaces with cathedral ceilings had been noticeably absent in the burrows below. Instead of cramped, gloomy corridors, the hallways branching off this boundless chamber stretched wide enough to comfortably receive several men and women side by side. Lifting his gaze in amazement as Toreth shepherded him through the cavernous space, Becket mentally contrasted the elegant stone flourishes that detailed the area against the sparse lines in the burrows from which they’d come. Here, too, the people strolled, some in purposeful marches but most ambling lackadaisically. The haste of below wasn’t in evidence in the top holds. Becket blended in with the embroidered trim on his tunic. Others, like Toreth, in basic clothing meandered through the hall, but damned few.

“Let me do the talking,” Toreth said as he steered Becket to a side corridor. “Master Seer Hannick,” he called ahead to a woman dressed ostentatiously in a purple tunic and leggings, the color as vivid as Toreth’s startling eyes. Unlike Toreth and many of the others they’d passed in the hall, her honey blonde hair hung freely to her waist, with only thin braids at either side framing her face. Purple threads, intermittently wrapped around the slender braids, caught the morning’s first light. “Master Seer Hannick,” Toreth said again.

She slowed, whether to greet them or in surprise to be hailed, Becket didn’t know. Toreth slipped by her side, his sure grip tugging Becket along. “You are to the quarters of Caster Douglas? We’ve business there as well.”

“Have we met?” The seer narrowed her eyes—also purple, if more a pale lavender—on Toreth. “I’d been told Caster Douglas has received no visitors since his return from the lowlands.”

Smiling, Toreth raised the hand he’d clasped with Becket’s. “We aren’t visitors.”

Hannick’s eyebrow arched. “Indeed?” At Toreth’s nod, her chilly scrutiny shifted to Becket. He resisted the urge to straighten his clothes at the critical line wrinkling her forehead and the frown that thinned her lips. “The elders and seers have not been apprised of kin to Caster Douglas.”

Toreth deflected the criticism with a beaming smile bright enough to melt the rock under their boots. “It’s a surprise.”

Becket snorted. You bet. But he kept his yap shut, belatedly mirroring Toreth’s manufactured smile when the seer stared at him. “Well, he’s the look of Caster Douglas and his power, though not as strong, shares the same strange warble…” She scowled, leaning toward Becket. She flicked the hood from his head with a darting finger. “Whatever has he done to his hair?” Hannick glared at Becket and Toreth both. “If Caster Douglas presumes a death in his until now non-existent kinhold will delay our long-deferred consultation—”

“Not at all,” Toreth said, the wooden smile increasing its wattage to supernova intensity. “Hearing tales of the expedition and believing his kinsman had crossed over, the boy cut his hair as his mourning sigil. As is proper.” He stopped at another arched doorway and bowed to Hannick. “Mistaken, of course. Caster Douglas survived the disaster and now, here we are.”

“Yes, here we are.” Toreth’s effusiveness didn’t fool the seer, judging by her frown. Nervous flutters stirred in Becket’s stomach when Hannick pinned her assessing stare on him. “He doesn’t know you’ve come, does he? Nor want you in Nitcha. He hasn’t sent for you. I’d know.”

Becket gulped, shifting his glance to Toreth for guidance, but the man just smiled. “Uh…No,” he admitted, shifting on his feet in the uncomfortable boots made for Theo. “But he’ll be glad to see me.”

The seer chuckled. “I sincerely doubt that, but his reaction will be entertaining nonetheless.” She nodded at the door, which swung inward. She waved to the unbarred entrance. “By all means, after you.”

* ~ * ~ *

You can look forward to more of Becket’s adventures (and misadventures!) on Ket on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th so…mark your calenders! 🙂

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Available NOW ~ Tame a Wild Human!

TameAWildHuman_1800x2700HRDrugged, bound, and left as bait on the cusp of the lunar cycle, Wyatt Redding is faced with a terrifying set of no-win scenarios. Best case: he survives the coming days as a werewolf pack’s plaything and returns to the city as a second-class citizen with the mark—and protection—of the pack. Worst case: the wolves sate their lusts with Wyatt’s body, then send him home without their protection, condemning him to live out the rest of his short life as a slave to the worst of humanity’s scorn and abuse.

Wyatt’s only chance is to swallow every ounce of pride, bury his fear, and meekly comply with every wicked desire and carnal demand the wolf pack makes of him. He expects three days of sex and humiliation. What he doesn’t expect is to start enjoying it. Or to grow attached to his captor and pack Alpha, Cole.

As the lunar cycle ends, Wyatt begins to realize that the only thing to fear more than being sent home without the pack’s protection is being sent home at all.

READER DISCRETION ADVISED.

“I really enjoyed this book. Parts of it are brutal, there is lots of violence, lots of forced sex. Wyatt needs to decide if he will be safer with the wolves or back with humans. I found this book really well written, with a fantastic storyline that stretches the imagination to full and a very blunt plot. There is no insta love that you often find with shifter books. Yes this is a book about shifters but it has a very different take on the paranormal world…” (5 Stars, Queer Town Abbey)

“…She writes great animal shifters – they usually don’t play by the rules, they do some filthy, squeamish things and revel in their nature. Was this dark? I guess? My scale is pretty warped so it wasn’t scary or extremely dark to me, as more hot and cool. Because the beast in this story is the human…” (4 stars, Boy Meets Boy Reviews)

Tame a Wild Human Book Tour Hub

Available at:
Riptide
Amazon
ARe
Nook
Smashwords

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment