Santa is coming…SOON!

How did this happen? Well… Someone posted a thing on Twitter and I said I would as a joke but I was almost done with All Is Bright and the idea pretty much devoured my brain. It’s practically writing itself and I’m having too much fun. How about an oh-so-unedited peek since I’m wrapping up writing in the next few days? Here you go:

“And the very lonely snowman wasn’t lonely anymore,” Marcus whispered and shut the book. He leaned and his neck stretched as he peeked to make sure she was sleeping. A soft swear of relief escaped from him as he eased off the bed. He slipped off her elf ears and Sam’s eyelashes made Marcus’s heart squeeze. He glanced at the clock on her bedside table and smiled. 11:27. It took three hours and a stack of books but she was finally asleep. “Merry Christmas, princess,” he mouthed as he caressed her cheek then went to turn off the light. It was a touch early but he made the rules, right?

Marcus’s feet dragged down the hall and he yearned for his bed but he headed downstairs because he still had hours’ worth of work to do. He yawned as he flipped on the kitchen light and grabbed the milk from the fridge as he passed it. He poured a glass and picked the best two gingerbread men from the pan and arranged them on a plate. Marcus swiped Sam’s letter off the fridge and chuckled at it as he hurried through the living room and set everything out on the mantle. Marcus took a bite out of the gingerbread man’s leg to make it look like Santa had a nibble then dusted his hands off and went to get the gifts and the tree.

Sam was an angel and cut Marcus a lot of slack but he had to get his shit together. It was his second Christmas as a single father but this year was harder than the first. He was so determined to make last year perfect he overcompensated and got way ahead of the game. This year, depression hit him like a freight train and work fell to pieces so he doubled-up on editing jobs so he could work from home. He should’ve had plenty of time to wrap presents and decorate but Marcus was in the weeds because he turned the living room into a tent fort and gained ten pounds living on takeout and cupcakes.

“The carrots!” Marcus gasped and headed back to the kitchen. Sam thought the reindeer would appreciate them so he bought the kind with the long leafy bits. He pretended to be a reindeer and munched on one of the carrots as he waited for the coffee maker. “That’s enough of that,” he decided and tucked the bundle of deceptively nibbled carrots under his arm and was dunking a cookie in his coffee as he headed back to the living room. “Time to drag out the beast,” Marcus decided. They inherited the tree from Rick’s parents and dreaded pulling it out because he didn’t want to get bogged down in memories. He went to the basement and ignored the tattered old box with the frazzled plastic tree. Wisps of memories taunted him but Marcus ignored all the old jokes and duct tape repairs. He had hid Sam’s presents and stocking in the washer and dryer and there was another squeeze but this one hurt his heart. Sam asked Santa to bring Grandma and Gramps but the storm had flights canceled around the country. She also wanted a Switch but Marcus had to cut his rates because everyone was struggling.

The alarm on his watch told him it was midnight so Marcus sucked it up and grabbed the old rolls of wrapping paper on his way up the stairs. He managed to shut the basement door as he juggled the gifts and wrapping paper then tripped when his heel bumped into something heavy. Marcus grabbed the wall and frowned at the massive red bag. It appeared to be made of very thick velvet and tied tight with a thick gold rope and the bag didn’t budge when Marcus pushed it with his toe.

“What the fuck…?” He whispered under his breath and craned his neck as he made his way past the kitchen and the stairs. He glanced at the front door and it was closed and appeared to be locked so he peeked around the living room wall. “Oh…my God,” Marcus said and dropped the bags of gifts and rolls of wrapping paper. A very large man in a red velvet suit with fluffy fur trim was bent over the coffee table. “Ummmm….?” Marcus squeaked and the other man turned. “Holy shit,” Marcus said then clapped his hands over his mouth to hold in a scream.

“Oh! Hello, Marcus. I hope you don’t mind,” Santa said as he waved the hobbled gingerbread man at him then took a bite. “You’re getting really good at this,” he said encouragingly.

“I’m sorry. What?” Marcus rasped and stomped on his toe but Santa was still there.

“These are just about perfect,” Santa said then took another bite. There was absolutely no doubt that he was Santa. He was just a touch too large to be a mortal man—he was at least seven-feet-tall—and the heady scent of cookies and peppermint radiated from him. His beard was silver and his eyes sparkled with cheer. “Thank Samantha for these!” He said as he tucked the carrots into his coat pocket. “The reindeer always appreciate a snack.”

“The reindeer…” Marcus repeated breathlessly and the room began to spin around him.

“Easy!” Santa laughed as he caught him. “Let’s go over by the fire,” he said and put an arm around Marcus.

“Thanks,” he said weakly.

“Why don’t you have a seat,” Santa offered and pulled the armchair closer to the fire but Marcus shook his head.

“I don’t want to,” he said. Santa’s head pulled back before he laughed.

“You are a delight!” He declared and slapped his knee. “But we should get to work. You’re exhausted and Sam’s going to be up in six hours,” he warned. Marcus choked on a laugh and his brain finally kicked back on.

“A delight? Not on my best day,” he promised and shook his head. “What is going on?” he demanded. Santa’s clear blue eyes glistened as he reached for Marcus’s cheek.

“I promise you, my boy. You’re on the Nice List and it looks like you could use some help.” He gave Marcus’s nose an gentle flick. It tickled and the tingle danced down his spine. Marcus laughed softly because he knew it was going to be ok. It was a soft, warm thing that spread through him and the muscles in his shoulders that never, ever unkinked let go and he felt like he was melting.

“I’m on the Nice List?” He babbled and Santa nodded firmly.

“Of course, you are. You’ve always had a kind, open heart and look at all you’ve done to help me make Christmas magical for Samantha.”

“Really?” Marcus asked but Santa tapped a gloved finger against the side of his nose.

“If anyone would know, it would be me.”

“Right.” Marcus turned and it was still his living room and was sure he was awake. He was also completely sure he was talking to Santa… “I’m awake?” He asked. He could have fallen asleep while he was reading to Sam. It happened pretty regularly. Marcus decided to check again and gave the underside of his arm a pinch then gasped when it stung.

“You’re awake! And we’ve got work to do!” Santa scolded with a chuckle as he opened his coat and slid out of it. Marcus’s eyes widened as Santa tossed it at the armchair. Santa’s ripped? He thought in confusion. Santa was wearing an oatmeal-colored Henley and suspenders and while he was pleasantly thick around the midsection, his arms and shoulders made Marcus feel a little too warm. It didn’t help that the two buttons on Santa’s collar were open and offered Marcus an intriguing peek of snowy white chest hair. Jesus. Get your shit together. It’s Santa! 

“It might be time to start dating again,” he whispered to himself. 

“What was that?” Santa asked and Marcus shook his head quickly.

“Nothing! Just realized it’s been too long since I…” His head bobbled as he wondered if he was actually going to tell Santa that it had been more than four years since he’d touched another man like that. “Since I got out. I haven’t been this close to another adult human in months and it’s warping my brain,” he confessed.

“Ah.” Santa nodded knowingly. “You must be lonelier than usual,” he said gently as he gestured at Sam’s gifts and the rolls of wrapping paper. “Let me take care of those.” He tapped his nose and there was a poof of snow and glitter.

“What?” Marcus laughed as he waved in front of his face and the gifts were perfectly wrapped with big curly bows. “Wow!” He picked up the biggest box and shook his head in disbelief. “I don’t know if I’m more dazzled or relieved that I don’t have to stay up all night wrapping these myself,” he admitted.

“That’s why I’m here!” Santa said then gestured for Marcus to follow as he went to his bag. “I was thinking a fresh tree would be just the thing.” He gave the gold cord a tug and it unraveled easily and a swirl of snow and glitter rolled from the bag and down the hall.

“Seriously?” Marcus asked as he hurried back to the living room and a startled laugh burst from him. He clapped his hand over his mouth and spun to make sure he hadn’t woken Sam.

“Don’t worry. She won’t wake up. Look at the time,” Santa said and Marcus glanced at his wrist.

“Holy…” He slurred. It was still midnight. Marcus blinked at his watch in shock then pushed his gaze to the fully lit and decorated tree. There were so many presents and a Switch was set up and waiting beneath the television. “That’s so… Thank you!” He cried as he threw himself at Santa.

“You’re very welcome!” He said as he held Marcus. He smelled like a Christmas tree and a little like marshmallows and Marcus sighed as he rubbed his cheek against Santa’s chest.

“That’s really nice,” he said dreamily then flinched and jumped back. “I’m so sorry! I don’t know what’s wrong with me!” He whispered loudly. Santa just laughed and threw a hand at Marcus as he went to sit by the fire.

“It happens all the time,” he said as he lowered into the armchair and Marcus winced. The seat was just able to accommodate him as he got comfortable and propped his elbow on the armrest. Marcus was momentarily distracted by Santa’s thick thighs and gave his head a shake to clear it.

“With children, not adults, though. And you can’t even begin to know how wrong it is in here,” Marcus argued and gave Santa an apologetic wince as he pointed at his forehead. Santa laughed and his head fell back as his chest shook.

“I don’t come across a lot of children on Christmas Eve! But I do meet a few parents in my travels and some stops get a little x-rated,” he confided. Marcus’s jaw dropped in shock.

“Really? What about Mrs. Claus?” He whispered, as if he didn’t want to get Santa in trouble. He laughed again and gave his thigh a pat.

“I told you, you’re a delight! Why don’t you come and have a seat, lad?” He offered tenderly. Marcus’s head pushed forward in confusion but his feet still carried him across the room and there was a mortifying heaviness to the front of his pajama pants.

“A seat?” He asked weakly and Santa winked cockily at him.

“You can have a lot more than that if you’ll tell Santa what you really want.”

“Oh.” Marcus looked at the hall and remembered that Sam wouldn’t hear them or wake up then rubbed his lips together nervously.

“Have a seat and don’t be shy.”

“You’re sure Mrs. Claus won’t mind?”

“She’s had just about an eternity of me. We find that a little adventure keeps things fresh and makes coming home even sweeter,” Santa explained as he held out his hand.

“That’s…confusing,” Marcus murmured and his brows pulled together. But he rose on his toes so he could slide an arm around Santa and pull himself up. Marcus was 5’11 but he felt small on Santa’s lap. 

“A strange thing happens when you’ve been alive for as long as we have. You grow up. And she’d want you to have a little fun, Marcus,” Santa said gently and kneaded Marcus’s shoulder. It was firm but affectionate and all the tension drained from Marcus as he became fixated on Santa’s beard and lips. He was as enigmatic and charming as you would expect but there was a frisky quirk to his smile that drew Marcus in.

“Me? Why would she…?” He mumbled as he stretched toward Santa’s lips.

“We’ve both been worried about you. That’s why I’m here,” Santa said.

“What?” Marcus frowned and swallowed hard. “This is nuts,” he whispered to himself and Santa shushed him.

“Go ahead and give it a try,” he urged so Marcus shut his eyes and touched his lips to Santa’s.

“Oh!” Marcus’s lips throbbed and a current of pleasure zipped down his spine and he shivered. “That’s…nice,” he breathed and licked tentatively. “Wow!” He giggled and there was another shiver. Santa’s lips tasted like vanilla and peppermint.

“Don’t lose your nerve now. Take what you want. You deserve a little joy,” Santa crooned as his hands cradled and rubbed Marcus’s back soothingly.

“Joy?”

“You outgrew toys a long time ago but I can still put a smile on your face,” Santa said and angled his head so his lips could nudge Marcus’s. His breath was sweet and minty and Marcus’s mouth watered as his tongue swept into Santa’s mouth. Santa groaned encouragingly when Marcus’s fingers twisted in his beard and the kiss became desperate. “Slow down. You can take all the time you need,” he reminded him but Marcus shook his head and kissed Santa again.

“You taste so good!” He said and pushed against Santa’s chest so he’d sit back. He was starving and Marcus couldn’t stop his hands from wandering Santa’s broad chest and round belly. His hands drifted to the front of Santa’s trousers and Marcus squeaked when he found an alarming bulge in the red velvet. “I guess you brought the North Pole with you,” he teased and Santa snorted in amusement.

“You can climb it, if you’re brave enough,” he challenged. Marcus sat back and his chin tilted haughtily.

“You’ve gone and brought my honor into it,” he replied then slid off Santa’s thigh.

“See what I mean?” Santa laughed softly and flicked the end of Marcus’s nose. “Delightful,” he observed but Marcus’s face scrunched dubiously before he shrugged.

“Not as delightful as this,” he said as he braced his hands on Santa’s thighs and kissed him again. “I want to know if the rest of you tastes this good.”

He’s coming December 1st! Pre-Order NOW:

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Santa is coming…SOON!

It’s time to go back to Blackhurst and solve a mystery.

If you’ve been following along, you’re probably about out of patience and ready for answers. The wait is just about over my loves. All Is Bright will be available November 10th. Here’s the first chapter to tidy up that cliffhanger from the last book. Pre-Order now and make your holiday just a little brighter!

Chapter 1

“This better be important,” Denver grumbled and scrubbed his face before pulling his hair into a ponytail. “You know how much I need my beauty sleep,” he said then offered Toly and Wilder a wave when they appeared on the screen. They were bleary-eyed on their sofa, across the street, and Denver was in an armchair by the fire in a t-shirt and flannel pajama pants.

“Not important enough to warrant a dress code,” Lavender scolded but Denver made a pffft! sound.

“You couldn’t pay me enough to put on something like that in the middle of the night for no fucking reason. Not that I’m getting paid. I don’t know why I’m even in on this call,” he replied. Lavender made a thoughtful sound as he checked his watch.

“Blink says someone tried to assassinate him while he was taking a bath tonight. He should be here any moment now…”

“That doesn’t explain why we’re here,” Wilder said and Toly nodded along but he was busy hunting and squinting through the lenses of his glasses.

“Couldn’t we just get a memo in the morning?” Paul asked as he trudged into the living room.

“Where’s Reginald?” Lavender asked and his neck stretched toward the hall and the guest room. Another window appeared on the screen and Cyril glared back at them from his study at Blackhurst.

“Thank you for joining us, Lord Marston,” Cyril said dryly when Reginald hurried in.

“Right here,” he said with a harassed wave. There was none of his usual effervescence or mirth as Reginald hugged one of his laptops against his chest and dropped onto the sofa. “Sorry, I’m a newlywed,” Reginald added. 

“At least he didn’t order you to attend in-person,” Casper said from somewhere behind Cyril.

“We’ll get to that shortly,” Cyril said as he paced. “You’ve all been briefed on the earlier events. Have any of you found anything that might shed some light on who’s targeting us?” He growled at them. Lavender’s head cocked and he gave Cyril a stern look.

“We’ve shared the little we’ve learned. We agreed we’d share whatever we found,” he reminded him pointedly and there was a terrifying wildness to Cyril’s eyes as they swept across the screen.

“That was an impossible shot!” Cyril accused as he pointed at them. “I don’t know of many people who could have made it.”

“Is that why you assembled us? To make sure we were accounted for?” Denver asked and clearly shared Lavender’s amusement at Cyril’s horror. Cyril hated the idea that there was someone dangerous out there who wasn’t on his payroll.

“Excuse me,” Reginald said as he pointed at his camera. “Could you ask him to come in,” he said and Lavender noticed Professor Elliot. He was peeking into the study and Cyril was startled and furious as he spun.

“You weren’t to be disturbed,” he said tightly and Elliot nodded as he edged into the study and waved at the screen. 

“I wasn’t until I tried to go to my room and change,” he replied sheepishly. “I mean, I was obviously disturbed when that bullet almost killed me but I was fine until your pet robots tried to keep me prisoner,”

“Hold on…” Lavender felt a tickle of a glee. Cyril was obviously smitten with his art expert, judging by the nonverbal battle happening in his study. How delicious… “Didn’t you say someone tried to kill you in your bathtub, Cyril?” Lavender asked and it was one of those moments of karmic ascension. He finally had proof that Cyril Blink was human and just as weak as the rest of them.

“Watch yourself,” Cyril growled and Lavender hummed happily as he studied Professor Elliot. He was delicious as well. He reminded Lavender of Sage, actually… He glanced at Sage and hoped Cyril wouldn’t keep them too much longer.

“What was that you said about my husband?” Lavender asked then looked to Reginald. He had been snooping about that evening at Blackhurst and had overheard their conversation. Reginald smirked like a shit from the sofa.

“I believe it was something about him being a pretty fucktoy, if I recall correctly,” he murmured.

“He did indeed call him a ‘pretty fucktoy,’” Toly confirmed as he searched for something through the lenses of his glasses. Elliot laughed sarcastically at them and Lavender’s brow cocked. Hot under the collar. Delicious, indeed.

“First of all, kiss my pretty ass. I do my best to make sure he has as little fun as possible,” he replied as he sat on the arm of the sofa. Cyril was livid and Lavender was ecstatic. Oh, well done, Cyril, he snorted inwardly. “Sorry for the interruption. Pretend I’m not here,” Elliot added as he crossed his arms and Lavender almost clapped in delight. Do begin as you mean to go on or you’ll just be another gem in that dragon’s vault.

“Oh. I see. He’s a funny arsehole. Excellent choice, sir,” Reginald muttered. “If I’d known you were into that I… Ouch!” He gasped after Paul elbowed him and Lavender nodded in approval. “I’m just saying, if that’s all he was looking for,” Reginald whispered loudly and Cyril turned to Casper thoughtfully. Lavender’s hackles went up as Cyril’s smile tightened.

“Just as a fun thinking exercise, how would you kill Lord Marston?” He asked and Casper was ecstatic as he considered.

“Well…!” He smothered a hissing giggle as he mentally picked through the poisons and weapons in his arsenal at Blackhurst. His hand swept through the air and trembled as he reached for something only he could see. “O’Malley was on the right track when he meddled with Marston’s drugs but I would have fiddled with his party drugs, not his work drugs. We all know how much our dirty little lord loves his chem sex. I’d have him shitting blood and introduce him to a very different kind of dragon,” he mused and Paul was ready to throw Reginald’s laptop but only pointed at the screen. His eyes were hard with rage and fear but it spread around the room and Lavender stretched his neck. He tightened his fists behind his back, keeping a firm grip on his emotions. Casper wouldn’t do it but Cyril…?

“I don’t know how you know about that but I’m coming for you if he gets a runny nose,” Paul vowed and Casper laughed.

“Relax, agent. It was just a thinking exercise.”

“And a good reminder, I’m hoping,” Cyril added and they all became alert. Lavender was tired of Cyril’s meddling and ready to know what this was about. “As no one’s been able to find anything and the attacks appear to be escalating, I think it’s time for me to call all my generals to Blackhurst,” he announced. Lavender nodded and Reginald seemed inclined to agree that it was probably best to keep matters as far away from Lake Cliff as possible. 

“Sounds like a good plan… I don’t understand why you needed all of us for this Zoom meeting,” Wilder said tactfully. Cyril smiled and winked at Wilder, ruffling Lavender’s feathers again. It was calculating and Lavender hated that Cyril was always ten steps ahead of him.

“You’ll understand soon enough. Please pack your things, Messieurs Lavender and Marston, the younger Mr. Martinez and Captain Walsh. A jet is being prepared as we speak,” he commanded. “We also have questions for the elder Mr. Martinez, Dr. Sharp and Mr. West and are extending the invitation to stay as well.” Cyril watched Lavender closely so he remained still and unblinking but he didn’t like the idea of taking Toly to Blackhurst and would prefer to keep Lane and Aiden in Lake Cliff.

“I’m going too,” Paul stated firmly and Lavender held his breath. He didn’t want to get in a fight with Cyril over Paul. He’d have no choice but Lavender silently prayed that Cyril wasn’t in the mood to pick a fight with a hard-headed federal agent.

“Of course, Agent Sloan,” Cyril said tightly. I didn’t think so. Must be serious, indeed.

“There you are.” Hawk was exasperated as he walked into Cyril’s study and waved at Elliot. “I was told to check on you but you vanished.”

“Hey, Hawk. How’s it going?” Wilder said dismissively but he pointed at Cyril. “Toly doesn’t work for you and it isn’t safe for him to travel,” he argued but Cyril grinned as his eyes slid to Reginald. Lavender hated the cold chill that crawled up his spine.

“Bugger it all!” Reginald slouched and hid behind his laptop as he scrubbed his face with his hands.

“I think it’s time to let them in on your brilliant little plan,” Cyril murmured but Reginald shook his head. Paul pushed out a hard breath as he sat forward and nudged Reginald.

“He’s right. Time’s up,” he urged gently. “Don’t worry, I’ll go down with you if they take it badly.”

“What the hell is he talking about?” Denver demanded from his box on the screen.

“What have you done, Marston?” Toly whispered. Cyril sighed wearily and held up a hand.

“I gave Marston an extremely important task several months ago. I asked him to put together a team to design a new physical security plan for Blackhurst and upgrade the house’s entire security system,” he said and reports, blueprints, threat assessments and diagrams appeared on the screen as Reginald’s fingers hurried across the keys of his laptop.

“Jesus fucking…” Denver whispered as he quickly processed everything he was seeing until the diagrams and assessments began to disappear.

“What in the hell is…?” Reginald complained as he worked faster. “What the…!” His brow furrowed in confusion and Lavender tensed and looked toward Toly and Wilder’s house as his nerves fluttered. “Fuck!” Reginald cried when his laptop went dark and he disappeared from the screen on the wall. “That fucking…” Reginald jumped to his feet and raised his laptop to hurl it. “This is why I keep backups,” he stated and Lavender grabbed the gun in his coat as the door burst open. It was Toly so Lavender froze. His instincts told him that death was imminent but it was Toly.

“Marston!” Toly was pure fury as he raised his hands and Lavender covered his head and ducked as sparks rained from the lights, and screens and speakers around the room keened. The wires in the walls smoked and there was a loud hum as Toly overloaded the voltage coming into the house. Lavender was scared but his only thought was that he couldn’t get Sage out in time.

“Toly, stop!” Lavender begged.

“How could you?!” Toly screamed at Reginald as  his finger pointed and twisted. Reginald yelled as he pulled out his earbud and the hum grew louder and the walls shook.

“I only did it to protect us! I was trying to help you!” Reginald cried as he held up his hands but Toly’s eyes were huge with indignant rage and they all swore and covered their heads as a small drone swooped in through the open door. It cut through the room and Reginald dove as it buzzed him. “Listen to me!” Reginald begged.

“No!” Toly shook his head and pushed back his sleeves. “I didn’t need any protection! I was free and you sold me to Blink!” He pulled back his fist as the drone circled around to take another pass. He was about to hurl it at Reginald but Wilder slipped through the door and grabbed his wrist.

“No!” Wilder yelled. “Calm down for a moment, güero!”

He’s ruined everything! They thought I was dead but now they know and we’ll never be safe!” Toly’s nostrils flared and his hands snatched, poked and swept through the air and the drone whipped through the room.

“Please!” Lavender yelled over the loud hum and drone’s propellers as he edged a little closer but Toly shook his head stubbornly.

“I risked everything so I could start over and be free and he ruined it!

“I wouldn’t do that to you!” Reginald promised quickly as he stepped around the coffee table then yelped and shielded his head when the drone sped past his shoulder. “For the love of… Toly! Let me explain!” 

“I’m not a fucking child, Marston! You didn’t ask me if I wanted to build that for him! I’m not a toy you can amuse yourself with!” He demanded and Reginald nodded quickly.

“Yes! I know! But who’s going to touch you if it hurts Blink? Who’s going to risk his wrath if something happens to one of his hackers?” He asked suggestively. Lavender groaned as he rubbed his temple.

“I know what you were thinking but your plan’s clearly got a big weakness. What happens when someone wants to hurt Blink?”

“We were attacked because we know his secrets,” Denver said from one of the phones in the room.

“See!” Toly howled. “He sold us all to Blink and none of us are safe now!”

“Wait!” Lavender barked and pointed hard. “No one in this room belongs to Blink. Especially you. I’ll clear that up with him myself, if he’s confused,” he swore and Toly stepped back and lowered his arms. “You’re free, Toly. I won’t let anyone take that from you again.”

“You’ll protect me from Mr. Blink?” Toly asked and it was trembling and unsure. Lavender silently cursed Reginald for shaking Toly’s faith.

“With my life, if I have to,” Lavender said sincerely and the humming and keening stopped. Paul sensed that Toly was listening and it was safe so he took a few cautious steps closer and held up his hands.

“There’s a good chance the attacks against Reginald, Toly and Denver were someone tripping Blink’s security protocols to see how Lake Cliff and Blackhurst would react in the event of an attack or a distraction in order to pull off a Trojan horse maneuver,” Paul explained carefully as he stepped around Reginald so he was between him and Toly. The drone swooped and Paul swung and slapped it at the wall. There was a pop! and a spark as it burned the wallpaper then crashed to the floor.

“No!” Lavender cried then threw up his hands. “Whatever.”

“Reginald’s paying for every bit of this,” Sage promised as his finger circled overhead. “And you better believe he’s fucking grounded.” He glared at Reginald but he made a pfffft sound.

“I’ll pay for it but I don’t work for you and you’re not my father.”

“No. But you work for me. You’re under house arrest—if we survive this—and your husband’s going to be personally responsible for your every keystroke,” Lavender said and Paul nodded.

“His internet is going to be severely limited. Like, he can order sushi and text me. That’s it until Toly figures out how to build a pen for him,” Paul decided. Reginald gasped as he pushed Paul out of the way.

“You’re all taking this to such a ridiculous extreme!” He begged as he raised his hands pleadingly.

“Extreme?” Toly held up his right hand. The skin was still pink and looked tender from the wires in his hand melting after he was shocked. Lavender shook his head.

“You’re under house arrest until Toly’s forgiven you and feels confident that he can keep you corralled,” he said as Paul nodded in agreement and crossed his arms over his chest.

“I’m sorry but we’re going to have to earn their trust back and make it up to them,” he said.

“This is…bloody wonderful,” Reginald said as he sank onto the couch and his arms hung limply between his knees. “I got us all the best insurance policy in the business and this is the thanks I get. And I can’t do anything to fix it,” he added and his lip pushed out as he wilted. Lavender felt a whiff of pity then snorted.

“You’re lucky we didn’t let Toly light you up. I’ve got to go wake Lane so he can break it to Aiden. Get packed everyone, we leave for Blackhurst in an hour,” he said then swept from the living room so he could call Lane.

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It’s time to go back to Blackhurst and solve a mystery.

Welcome To Blackhurst. Mr. Blink has been expecting you.

Tell me, reader, have you had misgivings and concerns about Mr. Blink? If so, you’re not alone.

“When I read Grim’s book, I didn’t like Blink. 
I thought he was authoritarian and just plain not worth it. He was the typical villain. I didn’t think he’d be able to get redeemed.”

“We’ve seen glimpses of Cyril in some of the other books and in the eyes of others and what we’ve been shown is a ruthless, cold control freak who isn’t liked by anyone. With a property is as unreachable as his heart…”

“You’ll be aware of his capricious nature, his dark soul, his impersonal manner and you’d be hard pressed to feel that he’s all that likeable to be honest. A difficult man, persnickety, paranoid about his safety, set in his ways, and obsessed with his wealth and his connections and his art work…”

“In Grim’s story, I positively grew to hate him with a major intense burning desire to set him on fire and watch him go down in flames.”

Behold my delight. I wanted Cyril Blink to send a chill down your spine and make your lip curl. Because it’s more delicious when the love conquers the hardest hearts and brings ruthless men to their knees. And I promise, Cyril’s fall is absolutely worth the wait.

How about a tour of Blackhurst and an…intimate peek at Mr. Blink? How about all of Chapter 4?

“I’m sure that feels much better,” Farris said as he settled the delicate sheet of vellum in the protective mat then carefully shut the frame. He traced the vivid ink colors through the glass and told himself he was lucky. How many people got to touch a Carolingian manuscript made in 816? Monks wrote bibles and liturgical documents by hand, decorated with intricate illustrations, and some of the most exquisite examples came across Farris’s table. There was a Cézanne on the table across the platform and a pair of $400,000 Tacca bronze figures were being delivered by a team of mercenaries in a few days. Farris curated and maintained the sort of collection his peers fantasized about. Blackhurst rivaled any gallery or museum in the country and Farris’s budget eclipsed the Smithsonian’s. “It doesn’t feel better,” Farris said and pulled in a deep breath. “Let’s give Blink the good news.”

Farris tucked the flat case under his arm and grabbed his coat off one of the leather armchairs. He dimmed the crystal lamps and chandeliers with the touchpad on the wall on his way out. He took the elevator to the foyer and used his foot to shut the ornate wrought-iron door before he jogged across the marble tiles and up the wide staircase. It was just after 10:00 p.m. and Farris decided he’d change and go for a swim after he delivered the manuscript. He might as well take advantage of a rare early night and sublimate some of his frustrations with laps. Blink didn’t hold Farris to a grueling schedule; he didn’t actually care as long as he continued to make a fortune. Farris sublimated his conscience and his bitter disappointment with work. He considered the selections of decanters in Blink’s office as he turned toward the master wing and shook his head. Blink often invited Farris to help himself but drinking before a late night swim wasn’t a good idea in his current mood. Just drop off the manuscript and get out.

The double doors to Blink’s private rooms were shut but Farris let himself in. Blink had no expectations of privacy or any modesty. He ignored the staff as they came and went and he was just as unconcerned about Farris. So Farris wasn’t surprised to hear a throaty moan when he opened the door and he kept his eyes on the silk Persian rug as he hurried to leave the manuscript in Blink’s private office.

“Ohhhh! Cyril!” It was breathless and shaking and Farris risked a glance at the bed as he passed the open bedroom doors. Blink growled drowsily as he crawled over a woman’s body and sucked on her nipple before he gave her ass a slap and rolled from the bed. He was naked, save for a condom, and Farris quickly averted his eyes as Blink strolled into the bathroom to dispose of it. Farris dismissed the rush of heat that washed over him and plunged into the darkened office and forced out a silent breath as he set the manuscript’s case on the desk. He turned and kept his head down as he rushed through the suite’s foyer. His hand reached for the door and Farris was almost free.

“Stay for a moment, Elliot,” Blink called and Farris groaned as his head fell.

“Can’t it wait until tomorrow morning?” He asked and squinted at the door hopefully.

“Cyril!” The woman pouted. It was a sultry invitation but Farris winced awkwardly. She was nothing. Blink had no interest in pursuing a romantic relationship, preferring to pay for companionship. And he never used the same escort—male or female—twice. 

“I’m done. Pull yourself together and get out,” Blink told her as he tied his robe. He cocked his head at the office and gestured for Farris to follow him. Blink turned on the Tiffany lamp on his desk and went to the sideboard. “Want a drink?”

“I was going to hit the pool for some laps,” Farris said and pointed over his shoulder.

“Have a seat,” Blink ordered as he poured but Farris shook his head.

“I’ll stand. You said it would just be a moment and I’d really like to get in a swim before it’s too late.

“You look tired, Elliot. Stop being difficult for the sake of being difficult and have a fucking seat.” Blink went to his chair and turned the manuscript’s case as he sat. He took a drink then rested his elbow on the desk as he inspected the manuscript through the glass. “I want you to hire another assistant,” he murmured absently but Farris frowned as he lowered into one of the seats opposite Blink.

“Why? I’m not working fast enough for you?” He asked and Blink shook his head as he sat back.

“You work too much and you’re going to burn out. Find someone to fetch your coffee and do your busywork. I thought that was the point of Matteo but you’ve just made more work for yourself because you’re teaching now, too.”

“I’m fine. I don’t need anyone to get my coffee.”

“And I’d rather pay someone fifty or sixty grand a year to keep you from losing your mind,” Blink said and Farris’s head pushed forward.

“You can hire a whole conservation and restoration team for what you pay me,” he pointed out then hissed. “Forget I said that.” He flashed Blink a wide smile and he laughed.

“I have a raw, uncut diamond that’s the size of a doorknob in one of my vaults. I’m not taking it to the mall and asking them to cut it for me, am I?” He asked and Farris shook his head. “The only person I trust is Sam. He’s been handling my diamonds for almost thirty years because he’s the best and I know I can trust him to find the perfect shape and cut and make me the most money. You have dual PhDs in Art History and Archeology and you’re a better than decent chemist. That’s a worthwhile investment for me because I have a very expensive obsession with art and history. This manuscript, in the wrong hands, could be ruined with one wrong stroke or the wrong solution. You have an excellent eye and I know I can trust you. Not to mention the time and worry it saves me, having my own in-house art and antiquities expert. Find yourself an assistant who doesn’t have to be trained,” he repeated firmly. Farris opened his mouth to argue but decided against being difficult for the sake of being difficult. He had a better idea. 

“Fine. I’ll hire an assistant.” A wide smile spread across his face. A little help would be nice but Farris could teach again. “I’m keeping Matteo,” he said and Blink’s brow slid up his forehead.

“Fine. Make sure you train him well so he can take your place once you’ve burnt out.”

“That’s always the point,” Farris stated. He couldn’t wait to find another student and Blink gave him a knowing look.

“You’ve already found yourself a student. Do something that makes your life easier this time.”

“Maybe,” Farris said dismissively. “I could hire an experienced art conservator but then I’d have to teach them how to do everything my way. I’d rather train them myself,” he stated and Blink held up a hand.

“I’ll fire them both if you fall behind or have a nervous breakdown,” he threatened and tapped his fingertips together. Farris snorted defiantly as he pushed off the armrests and stood.

“Watch. We’ll stay on top of things and they’ll be just as good as me in a few years. Maybe not as good. I don’t want to make myself that replaceable,” he said with a wink. “Matteo’s nineteen and he’s hungry to learn. He wasn’t going to work for his grandfather in your gardens for very long. I wouldn’t let him get away. I’ll start looking for another assistant after the new year,” Farris said. “Are we done here?” He asked and Blink chuckled as he rose. 

“We’re done. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He adjusted the front of his robe but he could have been naked. Farris looked away but he knew what was beneath the black silk and velvet and Blink was a striking man. He was tall and broad-shouldered and his body was lean yet well-muscled because he spent hours in the gym with a personal trainer and Alon. Blink lived and traveled with a security team and Blackhurst was a fortress because he took his personal security very seriously. A lot of people wanted Blink dead. For good and bad reasons. 

But, it wasn’t just his body. Blink was in phenomenal shape for a fifty-two-year-old man —he was in phenomenal shape for a thirty-year-old man—but it was the whole package, for Farris. If anyone had cared to ask Farris what his type was, he would have told them that older men with silver or salt-and-pepper hair, a little fur and a lot of gravitas got him hot. He would have laughed at the thought of sex with a student, if anyone bothered to ask Farris.

I might have risked it all for a man like Blink, he admitted to himself as he left. The escort was gone, when Farris passed the bedroom. He wondered if he’d have the nerve to ask her if they crossed paths. He passed a young man on the stairs, once, and walked in as Blink dismissed two women who looked like they might have been twins. Farris wanted to ask what it was like fucking Blink. All that power and experience… All that history. The streaks of silver in his jet black hair and at his temples and the creases at the corners of his eyes drew Farris, even when he didn’t want to look. The dark dusting of hair on Blink’s chest and thighs made Farris’s shirt stick to his body and made him anxious in a way a smooth twenty-year-old never could. And Blink was…impressive in other ways. Farris tugged at his tie as he made his way down the hall and recalled Blink as he dropped his robe as he strode into the bathroom. His semi-flaccid cock swayed and bounced against his thigh and Farris’s mouth watered as he imagined swallowing it.

“Gross,” Farris muttered under his breath. He turned toward his suite and his lip curled. It wouldn’t be gross until the next morning—he corrected—when Ferris had to look himself in the mirror and face Blink in the vault.

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Welcome To Blackhurst. Mr. Blink has been expecting you.

Are you ready to meet Cyril Blink?

If you’ve been following along through See How They Run and Like Grim Death you might be wondering and possibly worrying. Is Mr. Blink a bad guy? Is he secretly a good guy? If you’ve learned anything about me, you know the answer is definitely both. Mr. Blink is a hard, hard man but there’s a lot going on, once you see behind the curtain. For instance, here’s a whole glimpse of Chapter 7, where Cyril’s discovered a very different kind of treasure’s been hiding right under his nose. He’s not one to let something precious and enticing slip through his fingers but he’s deeply conflicted when it comes to a certain cranky professor…

Chapter 7

“You cannot go down there,” Cyril whispered to himself. He already made a complete ass out of himself during his video conference with London. Elliot walked past the study on his way to the elevator and Cyril wandered away from the camera and nearly followed him. He was so desperate to get another look at Elliot’s ass. His coat was draped over his arm and Cyril hurried into the foyer to get a look before Elliot got in the elevator.

“Did you need something?” Elliot asked but he didn’t wait for Cyril to respond before he slammed the gate closed and jerked the lever to the right.

“An explanation would be nice,” Cyril grumbled as he reclined in his seat and steepled his fingers. “It seems like the sort of thing I should know about,” he said under his breath and another shocked gasp burst from him.

Apparently, the professor—Cyril’s professor—was utterly breathtaking beneath his itchy suits. Literally breathtaking, even. Cyril slipped into the pool and found Elliot on his back and panting. He snuck closer to make sure Elliot didn’t need assistance and Cyril was winded as he stood over him. Jesus fucking Christ and the motherfucking apostles. Cyril’s hands dragged down his face and his eyes went to the foyer. His feet longed to carry him to the elevator and his body ached. I would have had him right there on the floor.

Elliot had the kind of body Cyril could really dig into and lose himself in. Cyril stood over Elliot, mesmerized and starving as his brain struggled to get his head around it. Elliot’s chest and ribs stretched and rose as he fought to catch his breath and he was beautiful. His skin glistened in the moonlight and drops of water caught in the stubble along his jaw and the thin dusting of hair on his chest. Elliot’s body was sleek, lean and tightly muscled and Cyril yearned to taste him. Sprawled on his back with his arm thrown over his eyes, he looked like temptation incarnate. And that bright orange bikini…

“Fuck!” Cyril spat and bit into his knuckle. He dreamt that Elliot stuffed it in his mouth and rode him like one of the Furies. Cyril rarely dreamt about sex and assumed it was because he had so much of it, so often. But that dream was hotter than anything Cyril could recall doing with any of his past partners. Then again, he couldn’t remember any of his past partners. The woman from two nights ago was named… Cyril rubbed his lips together as he strained. “Jocelyn? Jasmine? Josephine?” She had dark olive skin and long black hair and her pussy tasted soft like melon. She moaned like a fire truck and Cyril pulled out and came on her breasts but he couldn’t remember her name. The boy the night before was named Simon. Or Silas. He babbled about his student loans and wanted Cyril to pee on him. Cyril sprayed him down in the shower then fucked his throat. Cyril liked variety and he liked forgetting names because sex had its time and its place and that was after dinner and until he said goodnight. Sex didn’t interfere with Cyril’s routine or his work. It certainly didn’t interfere with Blackhurst and Cyril’s other great passion: collecting.

“Was something wrong, sir?” Alon asked as he hovered behind Cyril’s shoulder.

“Why would anything be wrong?” Cyril replied and his attention sharpened. Alon’s head canted and his brows pulled together.

“I heard an expletive,” he said.

“Right…” Cyril nodded and waved vaguely over his shoulder. “Release the dogs,” he said. Alon raised his wrist and paused.

“Should we warn Mr. Grim and Dr. Hawkesworth? They complained after last time,” he murmured but Cyril waved dismissively.

“They don’t pay rent.”

“Fair enough,” Alon replied and his lips tilted into a grin. “Tell Hector to let the dogs loose for a run,” he whispered into his sleeve. “Is there something else I can do to help?” He asked hopefully but Cyril shook his head.

“Everything’s fine. Do you know if the professor’s had a chance to look at the bronzes?”

“According to the logs he accessed his safe an hour ago and left a note stating that he was taking them out for an initial inspection,” Alon said and punctuated it with a nod. He admired Elliot but Cyril wondered how much of that was due to a shared love of logs and procedure.

“I think I’ll see how his initial inspection went,” Cyril decided loudly as he sprang to his feet and Alon’s head pulled back. Why do I sound like I’m up to something suspicious? It’s my house and those are my bronzes. Cyril stuck his nose in the air and gave the front of his coat a tug. “I’m very interested in those bronzes.”

“Of course.”

“Did the oysters arrive for dinner?”

“Of course,” Alon repeated as he bowed and exited through the hidden door behind the suit of armor.

“What the hell am I doing?” Cyril groaned and squeezed the bridge of his nose. He had a very strict policy about fraternization. It didn’t necessarily apply to him specifically but he had one and it stated that employees were not to engage in anything that might be considered sexual congress on the grounds of Blackhurst. They were free to do whatever they wanted off the property on their own time but not while they were on Cyril’s property, while he was paying them to protect it. And Elliot was a consummate professional, despite his extremely prickly demeanor. His taste was unparalleled and his instincts were impeccable. The Blackhurst Collection was renowned and Cyril was getting a better return on investment with Elliot’s picks than with real estate and much of his portfolio. “It won’t hurt to look,” he reasoned. He ignored his brain as it berated him and stepped into the elevator and swung the gate shut then pulled the lever. The antique elevator jumped before it carried Cyril down and he forced his face into a bored mask. The elevator stopped and Cyril took a deep breath before he wrenched the door open and stepped out. His footsteps should have echoed on the marble and bounced off the rows of bookshelves and the tall columns but it was lost as Beethoven filled the cavernous hall while Cyril slowly prowled to the platform in the center. Elliot still heard him coming and Cyril saw him stretch his neck and shoulders. Elliot mumbled something to himself and Cyril bit back a smile. The constant edge of hostility was a turn-on, if Cyril was honest.

“They were worth every penny,” Elliot said but he stayed bent over his table with his eye pressed to his magnifying glass, oblivious to Cyril’s gaze as it clung to the sharp corner of his jaw before it skated down his back. It settled on Elliot’s ass and Cyril licked his lips as he recalled a tightly muscled cheek, dripping and wrapped in garish tangerine.

“I thought so as well,” Cyril said as he drifted closer.

“The detail…” Elliot murmured. Cyril nodded and his head fell to the side as he appreciated the way Elliot’s trousers hugged his ass as he leaned over the table.

“Exquisite.”

“I think so,” Elliot said as he turned and Cyril’s mouth pulled into a dreamy smile as he remembered how well he filled out the front of his Speedo.

“Delicious.”

“What?” Elliot asked as his head pushed forward. “Don’t lick those things!” He scolded as he pointed at the table. “The oxidized metals…! And the acids in your saliva…! Ugh!” He spun back around so he could search the sculptures with his magnifying glass. Cyril bit down on his lips and shook his head as he begged himself to get out before he said something truly stupid.

“Sorry. I was just thinking of a certain prime minister’s face once I told him how much these are going to cost him,” Cyril said brightly. Elliot’s face fell and he sighed as he went back to his inspection.

“If there’s nothing else, I’ll get back to it. I suppose you want these dusted and polished but you want the patina intact,” he said and Cyril hummed as he backed away.“I trust your judgment.” Cyril replied as he turned the prospect over in his head. It might be worth putting the idea to Elliot. Later.

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Are you ready to meet Cyril Blink?

Welcome to the world, Casper Grim. We’ve been waiting for you!

Tomorrow (October 2nd) is Casper Grim’s book birthday! In honor of it being officially Spooky Season I’m giving you a look at one of my favorite “spooky” chapters from Like Grim Death.

“Smnermalnipsh…” Hawk mumbled in his sleep before he rolled onto his back. The duvet slid off the bed and Casper’s head popped up. His brow arched and he silently pushed off the mattress, hoping to get a better look. Hawk scrubbed at the hairs in the center of his chest and shifted restlessly. He slept in his boxers but Casper couldn’t be caught looking as Hawk got ready for bed. You can look now…

He smirked and crawled off the mattress on his hands and his good knee, careful not to make a sound. He slowly made his way across the floor and listened for any change in Hawk’s breathing, aside from the occasional indiscernible mumble. Hawk’s bed was higher off the ground so Casper didn’t have to stay too low as he dragged his dying leg behind him. He carefully reached and pulled himself up with the nightstand so he could rise on his good knee and the breath caught in Casper’s throat.

There were names tattooed on Hawk’s wide, firmly muscled chest. Casper’s head tilted as he read them. There were a dozen and most of them had ranks. Two of them were women. Casper glanced at Hawk’s face but it was relaxed and his breath huffed softly. Casper’s eye clung to the salt-and-pepper scruff on Hawk’s jaw before it traveled down his chest and the tight ridges of his stomach. Casper’s mouth was dry as his gaze lingered on the front of Hawk’s boxers. Mother of God. Casper licked his lips but it didn’t help when he reached Hawk’s thighs. He wanted to bite them so desperately, it made him dizzy. He swayed forward but caught himself and touched the mattress so he wouldn’t bump it. Hawk’s hand streaked across the bed and pushed beneath the other pillow before he rolled and Casper found himself face-to-face with a SIG Sauer. There was a hard, loud click as Hawk’s other hand slid across the top of the SIG as he charged it, and Casper’s lips pulled into a wide grin.

“I need to empty my bladder but it’s nice to see that it’s still working.”

“Give me a second,” Hawk sighed as he released the slide and flicked the safety back then let his hand fall onto the pillow. He dropped the pistol and scrubbed his face before he sat up. Casper scooted out of the way as Hawk threw his legs over the side of the bed.

“Wait!” Casper screeched as he was unceremoniously scooped up and carried around the bed.

“What the…” Hawk said as he noticed the blood pattering onto the rug then swore at the puddle from the dripping IV line on the floor. “Why did you rip it out?” He complained loudly as he swung into the hall.

“I told you, I needed to pee.”

“What did you do with the urinal bottle?” Hawk asked.

“I threw it out the window. It was full.”

“You should have woken me up so I could empty it and take the line out.”

“I’m tired of being hooked up and I don’t want to pee in a bottle. Am I allowed a little dignity?” Casper grumbled but he got the light switch for Hawk as he leaned against the bathroom door. 

“Fine. But don’t be a fucking creep. Wake me up next time,” he scolded. Casper’s eye flicked upwards before he shook his head.

“I don’t like being carried like a fucking baby or a bride either,” he told Hawk and Casper’s lips pulled into a disgruntled scowl as he was lowered onto the toilet seat. Hawk pointed threateningly then ran from the bathroom and returned a moment later with gauze and tape for Casper’s hand.

“Can you manage from here?” Hawk asked and Casper held up his middle finger.

“I can manage to find my way around this fucking gown,” he said bitterly. Hawk pushed out a hard breath, as if he’d just finished counting to ten.

“I’ll be out here if you need anything,” he replied blandly then turned on his heel and left. Casper leaned so he could watch Hawk’s ass and it was almost as tempting as his thighs. He gave his head a shake and decided to go ahead and relieve himself while he was there. Casper used the wall and got himself to his feet and peed then leaned and hopped to the sink. Hawk came in as he was washing his hands and Casper reached behind him to close the back of the gown. “Ready?”

“No,” Casper said but he held up his arm so Hawk could lift him.

“I sent Blink a message and asked him to send over a set of crutches. I don’t think I can trust you to stay out of trouble but I know it’s hard for you to sit still,” Hawk said as he carried Casper back to the bedroom. He set Casper down on his good leg then gave the center of his chest a shove. Casper’s shocked gasp turned into a laugh as he fell onto the mattress and Hawk smirked as he went back to his bed. “I left something on your pillow for you until Blink can have something better sent over,” he added. Casper sat up and felt around his bed in the low light and found a pile of folded garments. He held them up and all the heat in his body dropped to his ass as he stared at a pair of Hawk’s boxers and one of his white v-neck t-shirts.

“Uhhhh…” He swallowed the knot in his throat and looked to Hawk. He held up a hand then ruffled his hair. Hawk showered before bed and his hair looked soft and fluffy and Casper could almost smell it.

“I know they’ll be big on you but that works in our favor, actually. It’ll be easy for you to get in and out of my boxers without bothering your leg too much,” he said quickly then squeezed his eyes shut. “Whatever. If it’s weird or you don’t like them because they’re not black…or whatever, just throw them back.”

“No.” Casper clutched them against his chest and shook his head. “I’ll wear them.” He bit down on his lips and hoped he wasn’t blushing. There was a slight warmth to his face and Casper wondered if he was even capable of blushing. It wasn’t the sort of thing he’d do before Hawk.

“Cool,” Hawk said and tossed his chin at Casper as he bent to fix his duvet. “Just yell if you need something. I don’t want to accidentally shoot you.”

“No?”

“No. If I’m going to go to jail for murdering you, it’s going to be because you gave yourself another infection or broke another bone,” Hawk replied and it turned into a yawn as he buried his face in his pillow. “Goodnight, Casper.”

“Goodnight,” Casper said softly. He retreated into the shadows and huddled against the wall with Hawk’s shirt and boxers. Casper stretched his neck to make sure Hawk couldn’t see him then raised the boxers to his face and inhaled. They were clean and smelled like fabric softener but he’d worn them and they were Casper’s now.

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Welcome to the world, Casper Grim. We’ve been waiting for you!

Something Wicked This Way Comes… Ready to meet Mr. Grim?

It’s just about that time of year, spooky readers!

I’m tired of being hot and sticky and I’m ready for cardigans and foods with copious amounts of gravy. It’s almost October so I decided it was time for a creepier “hero” to have a shot at UnHappily Ever After. Are you ready to meet Casper Blink? The first chapter of Like Grim Death is included at the end of See How They Run. Here’s ALL of chapter 2:

“Welcome to Blackhurst,” Mr. Blink declared as the driver got out and went around to get the door. It opened on Blink’s side and Hawk leaned so he could see and immediately spotted the armed footmen and guards in tuxedos as they waited at the door and on the stairs. Blackhurst was a massive, elegant Beaux-Arts Gilded Era mansion but it was being guarded like a fortress. Hawk was warned but he was still thrown as Blink stepped out and murmured something to the driver—who was also armed. Blink turned and bent so he could see inside the car.

“Will you be joining me or should we bring the patient to you?” He asked. Hawk’s tongue pushed against the inside of his cheek. He didn’t like Blink and the feeling only grew, becoming an overwhelming desire to break his nose. Hawk couldn’t quite explain it but remembered that they were surrounded by Blink’s personal army and got out of the limo. “I thought we’d walk so we could discuss a few more…sensitive matters,” Blink said and gestured for Hawk to follow him as he strolled away. Hawk frowned as they left the gravel drive and crossed the front lawn. A young Hispanic man in a lab coat jogged to intercept them as they came around the side of the massive house and headed for the woods, beyond a row of stables.

“Sir! He stopped screaming but he hasn’t come out. I tried to get a look but he threw something at the door and threatened to burn the cottage down if I didn’t go away.”

“Thank you… Matteo?” Blink asked and the young man grinned as he nodded. He was gorgeous and he blushed as he ducked his head at Hawk.

“That’s correct! I work with Professor Elliot,” he stated quickly and waved at Hawk. “My uncle said someone heard screaming from the Widow’s Cottage and sent me to look. He’s in charge of the grounds,” he added excitedly and Hawk smiled as he offered his hand.

“Dr. Hawkesworth, Matteo,” he said, since it appeared Blink wasn’t in a hurry to introduce them. The younger man’s face fell.

“You’re going in there?” He realized, his face paling as he looked behind him at the woods. Hawk remembered Lavender’s concern and slid Blink an expectant look.

“That will be all, Matteo,” Blink said dryly and Matteo’s gaze darted to Hawk’s then to the main house.

“Is he going in alone?” He asked in a hushed whisper, as if he was urging Blink to reconsider.

“That will be all, Matteo,” Blink repeated a touch more firmly and Matteo flinched before he took off for the house. Blink cleared his throat and turned back to Hawk. “Please,” he said and his arm swept out elegantly. “It isn’t too much of a walk,” he murmured then pushed his hands into his pockets as he strode for the woods. Hawk’s shoulders tightened with tension and the hairs on the back of his neck stood as he followed. He was wearing a pea coat and pulled it tighter around him as the chilly darkness of the woods swallowed them. Blink appeared immune and whistled softly as he stepped over a gnarled root. “There’s a road but I enjoy these woods at night. It’s almost a straight shot from the kitchen terrace, if you choose to walk,” he told Hawk and he hummed as he looked behind him. He could see the house’s lights through the trees.

“You said we needed to talk about something sensitive,” he said. “We were alone in the jet and the car. What was so sensitive it had to wait until it was too late for me to turn back?” He didn’t like the way Blink chuckled as he stopped in a shaft of moonlight. The shadows made the hard angles of his face more severe and the grey at Blink’s temples more pronounced. He was even more ominous but it was the calculating sharpness in his black eyes as they read Hawk that rubbed him the wrong way, he realized. There was no doubt that Blink was as brilliant as he was rich but Hawk didn’t like the blatant way the man wallowed in his omniscience. Blink didn’t hide that he knew everything about Hawk nor that he minded finding leverage wherever he could.

“More than a gifted surgeon, I see. I appreciate a man who sees the forest for the trees but mind your step, doctor.” It was just smug and patronizing enough to flick Hawk’s temper. He barely had a temper but the one thing that was always sure to trigger it was rich pricks.

“You didn’t go to boarding school, did you? You’re the petty, resentful kind of rich because you were so poor it almost killed you,” Hawk guessed as he held Blink’s stare. Blink smiled as he stepped closer.

“And you’re the boring kind of rich. You didn’t care about all that money and privilege until you had the good sense to be embarrassed by it,” he drawled then gave his head a dismissive shake. “We’re not here to discuss all the reasons why you don’t like me.”

“I didn’t have to get out of bed to do that but I don’t care how powerful you are or where you keep your giant laser. You’re still a bully beneath your smooth new manners and none of that’s going to work on me,” Hawk explained. “Tell me whatever it is I need to know and don’t ‘warn me’ to keep whatever’s going on here to myself. I’m not going to sell you out because I don’t need the money and I’ve learned the wisdom of minding my own business.” He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled back at Blink. There was just a quick twitch of his eye before Blink turned on his heel.

“Let’s hope that your visit will be limited and brief,” he agreed and avoided a branch as he signaled at the clearing ahead. “You’re going to see many things while you’re at Blackhurst and I’ll trust you to keep them to yourself. But the most sensitive of the things you’ll encounter will be Mr. Grim. He is held together with whatever the medical equivalent of duct tape is and is absolutely mad. Homicidal, obviously. I chose you because of your impressive surgical abilities and your combat background. You’ll need to stay on your toes and on guard. Your SIG Sauer isn’t a bad call and while I hope you never have to use it, please don’t kill him if you can avoid it. Casper Grim is an extremely dangerous man but he is also staggeringly gifted and I see very big things in his future. I’ve invested a great deal of money in him and it would be a shame to see it go to waste because he’s destroyed himself.”

“Destroyed himself? Is he suicidal?”

“Regularly,” Blink replied.

“Jesus,” Hawk groaned and blew on his hands as he rubbed them together. “Will I be able to finish his leg before he kills himself?” He asked and Blink swatted vaguely.

“I don’t think he’s planning to off himself in any specific way. But he’s never been particularly careful and one gets the idea that Grim wouldn’t mind if he accidentally blew himself up,” he explained. He nodded and they stepped over large stones and fallen branches until they reached the clearing and Hawk shivered.

“Are we still on your property?” Hawk asked as he spun and squinted. He could barely see the main house’s lights through the trees…

“Yes!” Mr. Blink hissed and gave Hawk’s arm a hard jerk. “I just had this historic house refurbished two years ago and he did this in weeks,” he grumbled as he waved but Hawk’s nose wrinkled. It used to be a charming cottage with a wrap-around porch and stone path but now frayed sheers fluttered in cracked panes and the front door hung on its hinges.

“Really?” Hawk cringed at the scorched corner of the front porch and the busted bow window. “What happened there?” He asked. Blink sighed and it was weary.

“I sent repairmen to fix the window and he threw Molotov cocktails at them.”

“Really!” Hawk laughed in shock. Grim didn’t sound like he’d be a willing patient, if he didn’t like the window guys. “And you said he was amenable to getting his leg fixed?” He asked and Blink’s lips pulled into a grin.

“He didn’t really have a choice,” he finally confided. “Grim’s hip’s dislocated and he can’t escape. He can either die at the bottom of the stairs or let you fix his leg,” Blink explained and Hawk swore as he ran for the porch. He carefully bounded up the burned and busted steps and negotiated the broken planks on the sinking porch with Blink at his back.

“I doubt he went very far,” Blink mused before he grabbed Hawk’s arm. “It might be booby trapped.” He raised his brows at Hawk in warning but he snorted.

“I remember reading something about that. The briefing was thorough,” he chuckled but it was true. At Mr. Lavender’s insistence, their hacker, Reginald, provided Hawk with the dossier he’d built for Casper Grim. It was all digital but it was still a hefty stack of autopsies, investigative reports and a partial psychological profile by Dr. Aiden Sharp. “But he might be dead,” Hawk warned and Blink’s head cocked.

“It was just his leg. And possibly a few broken ribs and a twisted arm,” he guessed but Hawk shook his head.

“And rhabdomyolysis and kidney failure,” he scolded and held Blink back as he stretched for the handle.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Blink murmured. “If it helps, I didn’t have any trouble with that door six hours ago. Aside from its…state,” he said as he waved at the cock-eyed door, hanging from the jamb. Hawk held his breath as he turned the handle and leaned back as he pushed it open. It creaked before it snapped off its hinge but Hawk was able to peek around it and see a clear path. He squeezed through and took a cautious step as he looked for any wires or triggers but all he saw were chunks of crumbled plaster, cracked walls and soot-stained upholstery and wallpaper. What Hawk didn’t see was any sign of Grim. Well…aside from the general state of the house. But there was nothing at the bottom of the stairs but a crumpled rug and a stain on the field stones. “Fuck!” Blink whispered as he carefully stepped around Hawk. “Grim?” He called and swayed forward as he listened. Hawk tiptoed behind him and hunted for anything that looked suspicious but all he saw was destruction. Every chair was smashed and the table legs were ripped off and stacked in and around the hearth in the living room.

“Get out! I don’t want his help!” It was a furious shriek from upstairs but it was thready and shredded.

“Up there!” Hawk whispered as he pointed and skipped through the foyer to avoid the mess. He took the stairs two and three at a time and avoided the broken planks. Hawk noted the deep gashes in the wood and the smears of blood on the posts. A rope was looped around the banister and a massive hunting knife was lodged in the top step. “He climbed this!” Hawk said and Blink shook his head in disgust.

“I offered to carry him to what was left of the sofa but he told me to fuck off, so I went to find help,” he muttered and they peered around the corner once they reached the top. “I didn’t think he’d be able to go anywhere on that leg and he was bleeding profusely from the head,” Blink explained and gestured vaguely.

“Jesus!” Hawk spat at him then ducked when they heard a large crash.

“He’s in his lab,” Blink groaned and waved at the door to their left.

“Stay out! I don’t need help!”

“You don’t sound well and you can’t work if you’re dead,” Blink called as they edged closer. Hawk glanced back at the other door and spied a bedroom but it was dark and didn’t appear to be in use.

“I came all this way, Casper,” Hawk said loudly as his neck craned and he reached for the door. It was cracked just enough for him to slip around it and glass crunched under Hawk’s boots as he eased into the room.

“No! Get out!” Grim roared and Hawk didn’t have a chance to find him before glass shattered by his right shoulder.

“Damn it!” Blink yelled but he stayed behind Hawk. “I told you, I’ll have you scooped up and dumped into the sea if you don’t get that leg fixed!”

“Do it, you meddling piece of shit!” Grim dared and Hawk’s eyes watered as he bit into his cheek to keep from laughing.

“Grim!” Blink screamed then held up a hand and took a cleansing breath. “Don’t tempt me. I’m only doing this because I want what’s best for you. Dr. Hawkesworth knows how to rebuild legs. He’s one of the best,” he added. Hawk snorted at Blink before he sidestepped into the center of the room.

“I’m the best but I’ve got a lot of baggage. I can fix that leg and anything else that’s broken, though,” Hawk said as he scanned the shelves and counters around the room. He could make out microscopes, beakers, tubes, bottles, scales, and all the other usual lab detritus as he searched the shadows then dodged to his right as something flew past his ear. Blink gasped as it smashed and green gel oozed down the wall behind them.

“What was that?!” Blink demanded as he pointed at the shadows and they heard a soft hum from the far-right corner.

“Ummm…” It was a raspy growl that made the hairs on Hawk’s arms stand but he finally saw Grim. He was bent and shrouded in soggy, soiled rags as he spilled over the edge of the counter. His dark hair was greasy and clung to his forehead and cheeks with perspiration as he panted and gasped for breath. Hawk didn’t like how chalky his skin looked or how grey Grim’s lips were but he didn’t know how much of that was just him. According to Aiden’s profile, Grim viewed himself as an object of scorn and had severe masochistic tendencies. He was described as pale, emaciated, scarred and caustic so there was no telling what was new or normal for Grim. He searched the jars, tubes and Petri dishes around him and Hawk saw Grim’s thin, wide lips pull into a grin. “Just soap. But this…” He laughed as he swiped another bottle off the table.

“No!” Blink barked; it was sharp and pierced the air like a gunshot. Grim raised one of his thin, dark brows and Hawk caught a peek of a glowing red eye beneath his stringy black hair.

“No?” Grim challenged but he was almost drunk with fever and Hawk suspected that he was being deprived of oxygen as his kidneys struggled to clean his blood and fluid filled his lungs. He swayed and set the bottle on its base and laughed as he tripped toward the opposite counter and reached for a hammer. Hawk saw his chance. He dove and crashed into him and immediately regretted the way they slammed into the floor but took advantage of Grim’s shock and his weakened state. They writhed and wrestled for several moments but Hawk was mindful of Grim’s brittle, straining limbs as he bucked beneath him.

“Just…hold…still!” Hawk huffed and used his forehead and pelvis to pin Grim down as he swiped at his arms and their legs kicked and tangled.

“Get off!” Grim howled. He thrashed and sputtered but his body trembled as he went into muscle failure. Hawk found Grim’s loose hip and his hand curved around it. He bucked hard, keeping Grim’s groin immobile as Hawk rotated the flaccid leg until he felt resistance and grinding. He gave Grim’s hip a hard jerk and he jumped and gasped beneath Hawk as the joint popped.

“You need an IV with Ringer’s and X-rays so we can see how much we can salvage,” he advised. Their breaths mingled as they panted and sized each other up. The sodden clumps of hair fell away from his face and Hawk finally saw the shimmering pink ripple that spread across Grim’s left cheek and jaw. His ear was a shriveled curl against the side of his head and Hawk understood why Grim didn’t want anyone to touch him, why Grim didn’t trust anyone. “I’ll take that other room. Send someone to clean up and replace the furniture,” Hawk told Blink but his eyes held Grim’s. One was raging, red and lidless. The other was wide, wary and grey like a winter’s day as Grim stared up at Hawk.

“That’s a terrible idea,” Blink replied and shook his head. “I said I couldn’t guarantee your safety but I hoped you’d survive the night, at least.”

“I’ll be fine!” Hawk said and winked at Grim. “That hip is going to hurt like hell for days and he needs to stay off of it. I’ll make him a bed on the floor in my room and I’ll shoot him if he moves during the night,” he offered then tossed a grin over his shoulder at Blink.

“No!” Grim protested as he began to thrash again.

“I’m almost sad I won’t be here to watch this…” Blink murmured before he shrugged and turned to leave. “You have my permission to shoot him if he doesn’t listen. Good luck, Dr. Hawkesworth.”

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Something Wicked This Way Comes… Ready to meet Mr. Grim?

A Special Sneak Peek For A Very Special Book!

This one’s a wild ride, my loves! I won’t waste time being indulgent since we’ve got a lot to cover and new characters to meet but I will warn you that See How They Run is just the beginning of a bigger mystery. Expect to see more Lake Cliff over the next few months, including Adjacent romances for Mr. Grim and Mr. Blink! Ready for the FIRST THREE CHAPTERS of See How They Run? Buckle up and hang on.

Chapter 1

“Let me try that again,” Ezra said as he grabbed Denver’s wrist and pulled it toward his mouth. 

Try your own.” Denver yanked his cone away as Ezra’s neck and tongue stretched and they laughed as they wrestled and danced into the alley. Denver checked to make sure they were alone before stealing a kiss. They often cut through the alley after visiting the market on the weekend or while walking home from dinner. The neighborhood was posh and popular with hipsters and older wealthy liberals so they could let their guard down and flirt and occasionally kiss, whenever they found a moment of privacy.

“I think I like yours better,” Ezra murmured and groaned as Denver’s lips covered his. Ice cream dripped over their fingers and onto the pavement as Denver licked Ezra’s lips and it was surreal, that a night could be so perfect. Ezra stepped into him and his free hand slid under Denver’s coat. Their breaths plumed around them as a busker’s guitar picked out “Stairway To Heaven” in the distance. He tasted like pistachio ice cream and Denver ached as he sucked on Ezra’s tongue but his senses prickled and his head snapped over his right shoulder as two men wandered into the alley. Ezra looked and Denver felt him tense. “Let’s go,” he said and gave Denver a shove. Denver nodded as he glanced behind Ezra and four men ambled into the alley and did their best to look casual as they made eye contact with the men behind Denver. He looked back and snarled as a van blocked the alley and the door was pulled open. “Oh, fuck…” Ezra whispered as he used his arm to shield Denver but he laughed.

“I’ve spent years hoping for another shot at this. Whatever happens, don’t let them take you. Call Reginald for help and get away,” he ordered under his breath and his eyes were hard as they pinned Ezra’s. “Don’t argue. Help me by getting away,” he urged and waited until Ezra gave him a quick nod but Denver knew he was panicking.

“I can’t let them take you!” Ezra whispered urgently but Denver smirked.

“It’s part of my plan. Trust me,” he said and pressed a quick kiss to Ezra’s lips. Ezra squeezed him tight then dropped his cone.

“Go!” One of the men called as Ezra pulled his phone from his pocket and Denver spun as they were surrounded.

“We’re in trouble!” Ezra yelled into his phone before it was slapped out of his hand and he was pushed against the wall. Two men grabbed each of Denver’s arms and he roared as he swung his torso and shoulders as hard as he could and shoved the man on his right into the bricks. He let go and Denver snatched the man on his left by his hair and drove his knee into his face before he heard the whine of a Taser.

“No!” Ezra screamed as he got loose. He dove at the men crowding around Denver and tackled the first one he could reach. There were muffled curses but Denver couldn’t get to Ezra as the shouts and grunts around them got louder and closer. Denver was elbowed in the ribs as his arm was twisted behind him and he swung and punched as hard as he could.

“Stay down, Ezra!” Denver ordered and jumped and kicked off the body in front of him, sending it flying and creating an opening so he could find Ezra. He was pinned to the ground and thrashing until the men holding him let go and quickly stepped back. Denver heard the Taser just before Ezra arched and howled. “You fucking…!” Denver growled before the back of his head exploded with sharp, bright pain. Denver’s legs buckled but he stayed conscious as his arms were caught and he was dragged away from Ezra, which was exactly what Denver needed. He gave his head a quick shake to clear it and willed Ezra to cooperate. 

“We’ve got him! Let’s go!” Someone yelled in French and there was a loud whistle just before Denver’s legs were picked up and he was rushed through the alley. Denver saw the open door of the van and he flashed the driver a promising grin as he was thrown inside. Bodies fell in, on top of him, and Denver waited for the door to slide shut and the sound of the tires peeling. He took a quick count—two in the front and six in the back—and Denver laughed as he reached for the closest man. He easily snapped his neck and pushed him into the man blocking the side door. Denver heard the Taser warming up and kicked the man holding it, sending him crashing into the back of the van as Denver was punched hard in the ribs. He heard a gun cock next to him and Denver rolled and grabbed the arm holding it and pointed it at the man with the Taser. Denver forced the finger around the trigger to squeeze then elbowed the man holding the gun in the face. The hand around the gun loosened and Denver slipped it from the man’s grasp and shot another man in the chest before he could fire his gun. Denver was tackled and pushed onto the floor but he rolled, so they couldn’t pin him. He hit the side of the van as it swerved and Denver grunted as a boot crushed his chest. He wound his arm around the ankle and jerked hard and blindly fired into the torso as it swung toward him.

“Pull over!” The man in the passenger seat yelled as he pointed his gun at the melee in the back. “He’s gonna kill us! I can’t get a clear shot!” He screamed and Denver grabbed the last conscious man. He locked his arm under his neck and used him as a shield and put a bullet between the eyes of the man in the passenger seat. Denver gave his shield a quick jerk, breaking his neck before he pushed him away, and launched himself at the driver. Denver slammed his fist into the driver’s face and wrapped himself around the seat and held on tight as he pulled the wheel hard. The van slammed into a parked delivery truck and Denver braced as the front crumpled and he was sprayed with bits of glass, metal and plastic as the driver’s airbag burst from the steering wheel. He swore as he was thrown forward and pain radiated from his right. Denver shook it off and made sure everyone else was down before he lurched at the sliding door and flung it open. He scrambled over bodies as they spilled out and hobbled over them. Denver squinted at the lights and the street signs and smiled. They didn’t get very far.

“Hey! Are you alright?” Someone called but Denver kept his head down as he dragged himself away from the wreck as fast as he could. He spotted Ezra as he came sprinting around the corner and waved with his good arm.

“Holy shit! You’re alive!” Ezra cried as he reached for Denver then swore.

“Is it that bad?” Denver chuckled but it was strained as he hugged his side and did his best to keep Ezra moving away from the van.

“You look like hell but what about…?” Ezra asked as he looked behind Denver. “Holy shit,” he whispered at the crushed, smoking wreck and the battered bodies. “We better go. Reginald said to get to Lake Cliff and that they’d be ready for us.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Denver said as they heard sirens and people began to gather on the sidewalks. “We’re definitely in trouble.”

Chapter 2

“This should cover the basics and we can get anything we’re missing here by tomorrow morning,” Wilder said and Toly snorted as he stepped back and made sure the screen was level.

“Unless Denver needs a transfemoral procedure, we should be fine.”

“I have to make sure we’re ready for anything. I can’t carry you into Lake Cliff’s clinic or an ER in Chicago. And you never know, mom might want to stay with us more,” Wilder argued as he arranged fresh boxes of gloves, gauze and pads on the counter. Toly hummed softly as he touched the switch on the side of the screen and frowned when it stayed dark.

“I am always happy when your mother visits but I believe she enjoys working in the garden and cooking with Sage. She might visit more if you stopped asking her to give me checkups and run my labs.”

“I know. But I worry about your blood sugar and cholesterol and who knows how much radiation you’ve exposed yourself to. I’m going to talk to Hawk, after he’s checked Denver out. He’d be cool,” Wilder said and Toly gave him an impatient look. He was hoping to make a good impression, when he met Dr. Hawkesworth. His resume and credentials were impressive and he was a decorated veteran. His experiences were featured in a bestselling novel about a Special Forces unit’s deployment to a particularly hostile province in Afghanistan.

“I don’t need a doctor,” Toly stated pointedly. “I’d like to pretend I’m normal and he’ll have his hands full with Denver. He insists he’s fine but Ezra said it’s very likely that he’s got a concussion, broken ribs, several deep lacerations and he is severely bruised.”

“He’s pretty tough,” Wilder argued and Toly blinked at him.

“Ezra said he has an open head wound and will need stitches in several places,” he informed him and Wilder’s eyes tightened as he stared over Toly’s shoulder before he held up a finger.

“Sutures!” He whispered as he went to the cabinet and began pulling out anything else Hawkesworth might need. “I know that you, Ezra and Sage won’t like hearing this, but Denver’s been through worse. He’d probably consider it a typical day in the field. I’ve seen his X-rays. He looks like a fucking appliance and all Denver cares about is whether he got the job done. He whooped their asses and Ezra’s safe. He’s not feeling any pain. Yet,” Wilder added with a wince. Toly pushed out a disgruntled breath and shook his head as he checked the cord then unplugged it. He grabbed the reader and checked the outlet.

“Odd,” he noted then raised a shoulder. “I need to check the fuse box,” he told Wilder and he nodded as he tossed a pack of sterilized tools next to the pads.

“Need help?”

“I think I can find the box and flip the proper switch,” Toly replied tartly and Wilder held up his hands apologetically.

“I know. I just like going with you,” he said and Toly groaned as he hurried across the breakfast nook/clinic.

“We might not have time later,” he whispered as he reached for Wilder’s eyes and he laughed as he captured Toly’s face and kissed him.

“I love you and Denver’s going to be fine,” he promised. Toly’s cheeks puffed out as he nodded.

“I believe you but I have a feeling we won’t have a moment like this again for a while,” he said then shut his eyes and rose on his toes. He stole a quick kiss and hurried off to check the fuse box. He whistled and wondered how far out Hawk was and squinted through the lenses of his glasses then rolled his eyes. They were off because he’d disconnected himself before working with the house’s electricity. But he checked Dr. Hawkesworth’s ETA just before he went dark. Hawk was on the northeast side of the city when Wilder called and based on his phone and car’s last location, Hawk was approximately seventeen minutes out. “I know that you and Denver won’t like hearing this, but you are not invincible and we will always be hurt when you are hurt. Poor Ezra,” Toly murmured as he passed through the garage. He grabbed the side door and paused when he heard a twig snap in the woods. He leaned and checked the trees but everything was quiet so he skipped down the steps. The fuse box was next to the door and Toly clicked his teeth when he checked the switch for the breakfast nook’s north wall. It was still on so he shut it off and went back in to check the outlet. Wilder was still doing his mental checklist and topping off the soap dispenser. Toly frowned as he recalled saying they didn’t need a breakfast nook that could convert into an operating room. The table’s legs collapsed and locked beneath the top and it was mounted against the wall to make room for a hospital bed and the chunky retro-style chandelier hid adjustable surgical lamps.

“I think we’re ready,” Wilder said to himself then glanced at Toly. He laughed wryly under his breath as he lifted the monitor off its brackets and Wilder hurried to help him lift it.

“I don’t need your help!” Toly protested. It was a large screen but it wasn’t that heavy.

“Sorry. I’m right here, though,” Wilder said as he held his hands out and spotted Toly as he lowered the screen and rested it against the wall.

“Thank you,” Toly said and ducked his head. “I will let you know if I need assistance.” He pulled the screwdriver from his hoodie pocket and waved it at Wilder thoughtfully. “It doesn’t matter, if you’re used to broken ribs and busted noses. Those are my ribs and that’s my nose now and you’ll take better care of them, because I need you. Same goes for Ezra, Sage and the rest of them,” Toly added and poked Wilder in the chest with the screwdriver’s handle. Wilder laughed softly as he pulled Toly close for another kiss.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’d do, if I was in Ezra’s shoes but it sounds like he held his own,” Wilder said and Toly made a dismissive sound as he went to check the wires in the outlet.

“Of course he did. Ezra’s not a soldier but he’s observed soldiers in war zones and I suspect protecting Denver was his only priority.” He shook his head again as he removed the outlet cover. “I would have died before I let them take you. They tased Ezra and he sounded so scared when he called us back and told us they had Denver.”

“I know!” Wilder said soothingly as he rubbed Toly’s shoulders. Toly held up a hand and gestured for him to move back. Wilder’s head cocked and he gave Toly an amused look. “We wired this house ourselves. If anything’s failed, it’s that junction box or the circuit breaker’s defective,” he guessed but Toly raised a shoulder.

“I don’t play with electricity. I’m an appliance,” he reminded Wilder as he slid the junction box out of the wall and let it hang. He touched the red, positive wire and his vision filled with bright, flaring light and heat exploded in his arm as he was thrown back, into the china hutch.

“Toly!” Wilder screamed and everything went dark.

Chapter 3

“You’re sure we can trust this Dr. Hawkesworth?” Reginald asked and Aiden exchanged a loaded look with Paul.

“We can trust him,” Paul said as he watched the windows. “Wilder said he’s seen him pull off miracles on the street and I’ve read his file.”

Sage chuckled wryly as he arrived with an armful of pillows and throw blankets. Ezra said Denver was in rough shape so everyone was settling in for a long night.

“Sometimes, Chicago’s as dangerous as Kabul and Hawk’s the kind of guy who lives for that. He hangs around emergency rooms looking for gunshot wounds but he just got his operating privileges revoked at half of Chicago’s hospitals for assaulting a chief of medicine,” Sage explained and Paul snorted.

“I looked into that. They wouldn’t let him operate over a billing issue and he lost a patient.”

“Sounds like he won’t give us any trouble over the odd unexplained gunshot wound or laceration…” Lavender observed as he strolled past the windows and checked behind the curtains. Sage gave him a hard look before shaking his head at Aiden.

“Let’s not make this a habit,” he said and Lavender bowed his head in agreement.

“Of course. I don’t know who Denver’s pissed off but we’re putting a stop to this right now,” he insisted and widened his eyes at Reginald. Aiden couldn’t tell if there was more to that look but he pushed out a hard breath as he dropped into an armchair.

“We just got back. It was so quiet at the cabin and Lane’s still got a little vacation time left. We were going to do S’mores with Robin and Rose, when they got back this weekend. I don’t melt my marshmallows or eat them with anything but I like Hershey’s bars now.” He crossed his arms over his chest and Reginald snorted as he lowered onto the sofa and opened his laptop.

“I was expecting trouble but I can’t see why Denver would be caught up in this,” he said as he interlocked his fingers and cracked them then reached into the front pocket of his sleeveless hoodie.

“That sounds like something you should share with the group,” Paul said. He checked the clock and his cheeks puffed out as he turned on his heel and went to do another lap down the hall. 

“I’m not sure if there’s anything to it, yet. And we have our hands full with Denver, now,” Reginald said as he found a small baggie of powder and frowned at the laptop’s screen. “What in the hell?” Reginald muttered to himself as he tapped powder onto the back of his hand, along his thumb, then swung toward Toly and Wilder’s. Lavender and Aiden looked and saw the last of a flash of light and glanced at each other then at Reginald. “He’s gone silent. That can’t be good,” Reginald said then sniffed loudly as he dragged his nose along his thumb. He raised his head and his brows pulled together. “Oh. No…” He swatted at his face as he rose and pitched toward Paul. “Wrong,” he said before his eyes rolled and all the color drained from his face. He tried to grab the arm of the sofa but went limp and spilled onto the floor.

“Fuck!” Paul gasped and bounded over an ottoman and tore down the hall, to the guest room.

“Reginald!” Lavender called as he rushed around the coffee table and Reginald’s shoulders twitched hard as his body convulsed. Foam trickled from his mouth and Lavender swore as he rolled Reginald onto his side and patted his cheek. “Stay with us!” He ordered. Aiden hurried around the sofa and kneeled next to Lavender. He recognized the symptoms of an overdose and Aiden quickly compiled a list of the drugs that would cause this type of immediate reaction and how to provide emergency care.

“Make sure he still has a pulse!” Aiden ordered and Lavender nodded as he checked. It took a moment for him to find it as Reginald thrashed wildly. His eyes were rolled back into his head and he made gurgling, wheezing sounds. Reginald’s phone rattled on the table and Lavender swore.

“My phone’s ringing too,” he said as he pulled it out of his pocket and tossed it on the table. Wilder’s face and number flashed on Reginald’s phone but Lavender couldn’t help him. Aiden grabbed Reginald’s hand and it was clammy but it looked like he was fighting hard to hang on. His jaw was clenched as his neck stretched but his lips were turning blue.

“I’m here!” Paul said as he slid next to Lavender and Aiden fell back and scooted away. Paul checked his pulse then bit the cap off an injector pen before he stabbed Reginald in the thigh. “Hold on!” He begged as he found Reginald’s other hand and pulled it to his lips.

“Narcan?” Aiden asked and Paul nodded as he watched Reginald.

“I have an epi pen,” Sage said but Aiden shook his head.

“His heart hasn’t stopped yet and he’ll keep overdosing until the Narcan knocks out whatever this is,” he said as he gestured at Reginald. He suspected very high-grade heroin. Possibly cut with fentanyl or fentanyl cut with heroin.

“Can you see what Wilder needed?” Lavender asked tightly. Sage nodded as he pulled his phone out of his back pocket. Lavender looked furious and concerned as he held onto Reginald’s shoulder, as if he was willing him to shake it off and get back up. “I’m sure this was an accident,” he stated as his eyes flicked to Sage’s.

“I hope so,” Sage said quietly and Paul threw him a disgusted look.

“He said it was coke, so he’d be on his toes. He wouldn’t do anything that would take him out while Denver needed him.” He tugged on Reginald’s eyelid and swore under his breath.

“Yet you’ve got Narcan on hand,” Sage pointed out as he held the phone to his ear and Aiden shook his head.

“Reginald’s too controlling to enjoy heroin and he prefers uppers when he’s working,” he recalled and Lavender pointed.

“I told you, it was an accident,” he repeated and Sage winced then became alert.

“Hey, Wilder. Is everything ok? We’ve got a serious situation over here and…” He threw Lavender a startled look. “Oh, God. I’ll tell Jeremy and someone will be right over to help.” He was pale as the phone fell from his ear. “I don’t think it was an accident,” he said and swallowed hard as he looked at Reginald. “Toly’s hurt. He was getting everything ready for Hawk and Denver and shocked himself. Wilder said the fuse box must have been tampered with and Toly’s hurt pretty bad.”

“Jesus Christ!” Paul whispered as he looked over his shoulder, toward Toly and Wilder’s. Lavender’s nostrils flared and his eyes were hard with fury. Aiden swallowed hard and fought back a snarl as he put the pieces together. “We’re blind,” Paul realized.

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A Special Sneak Peek For A Very Special Book!

Our favorite duo is back and they’re in trouble. Of course.

I’ll cut to the chase. We’re all hanging on by a thread because the world is in chaos. And this is the thread that holds my sanity together. Nothing makes me happier than writing my Lake Cliff lunatics and sharing them with you. So, that’s what we’re doing for the rest of the year and into 2021! Kiss And Tell (Lake Cliff 10!) arrives on August 4th and is available for PREORDER NOW! It starts with a bang! Well. Almost a bang. Here’s the first chapter:

“Are you sure you can do this?” Lavender asked and searched Lane’s face to be sure he was sober enough to decide. Lane nodded and his fingers curled around Lavender’s as their hands rested on the table. Coltrane’s saxophone was soft and sensual amidst the low chatter and hum of the waning clientele and the bartender’s banter with the waitress. 

“Yeah. I can do this.” His lips tilted into a drowsy grin and he chuckled as the tip of his middle finger teased Lavender’s palm. “Can you? I know where my head’s at but what about yours?” He licked his lips and Lavender was distracted for a moment, as he watched Lane’s tongue.

“I know where my head is at,” he said then glanced over Lane’s shoulder to see if anyone was paying too much attention. No one seemed aware of them as more tables around the hotel’s bar cleared. “It’s getting late but we could use a little fresh air.” He raised his brows at Lane and swung his head toward the doors.

“I think that would be a good idea,” Lane replied in his laziest drawl before he slid from his bench. Lavender took one last look around before he followed. He watched and there was a slight drift as Lane walked so Lavender put his arm around his shoulders and pulled him against his side.

“How are you feeling?” He asked and Lane laughed softly as they stepped out, onto the sidewalk. It was Tuesday and almost midnight and the street was nearly deserted. Lane pulled away and turned so he could walk backwards. His eyes were heavy and full of mischief as he tangled his fingers with Lavender’s and gave him a tug. Lane was always charming in an easy, confident way that Lavender appreciated but he was dangerous as he smirked and shrugged.

“It’s been a hell of a day. I wouldn’t mind getting in a little trouble,” he murmured and Lavender hummed in agreement. He considered heading away from the hotel but he knew they’d be courting even more danger if they wandered into the shadows.

“Come here,” Lavender commanded as he reached for Lane’s lapel and pulled him under the streetlight. He fell against it and Lane growled as he danced into him. He braced his arm on the post, over Lavender’s head, and he was enthralling as their cheeks brushed. Lavender slid an arm around Lane’s neck and fisted his hand in his coat. “I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about it.” He felt different than Sage. A little broader and more solid, where Sage was leaner and more lithe. It had been so long since Lavender felt another man’s body pressed against his. It was surreal but also alluring. Because it’s wrong?

“I guess we’ve always had some chemistry,” Lane mused. He sniffed deeply, filling his sinuses and goosebumps spread down Lavender’s neck. “You even smell perfect.”

“Thank you. It’s my own blend. Bergamot, pink pepper, jasmine, heliotrope…”

“Lavender,” Lane added. Lavender nodded slowly, letting Lane’s stubble scrape his jaw. He was warm and aroused, he smelled clean and there was a subtle whiff of rye whiskey and mint.

“Of course. The notes compliment my pheromones, my body’s natural chemistry. We have chemistry but it’s not the sort of thing that would last for more than a few nights. I’m too…”

“Fussy?” Lane offered. Lavender felt it against the corner of his lips and they curved.

“Come on, we both know you like it. You tease me about the suits and my fussiness because you like it. You want to mess all of this up,” he purred and Lane chuckled as he rocked against Lavender.

“Maybe a little, now and then. But, a little bit more at the moment,” he admitted and Lavender hummed.

“I can tell.” Lane was hard but Lavender was hard too. I am a man, after all.

“Chemistry is a hell of a thing,” Lane said as his hand pushed beneath Lavender’s coat and glided over his holster’s straps. “So, your room or mine?” He asked and Lavender’s heart slammed as his pulse raced.“We’d better make it mine.”

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Our favorite duo is back and they’re in trouble. Of course.

The most beautiful story you’ll ever read about a $20 bill.

Of all the animals we meet in Beautiful Animal, the story of Arlen Woods is one of my favorites but it was also the hardest to write and go back to. His chapter still haunts me. Especially when I open my wallet, but in a beautiful way. I thought I’d share Arlen’s chapter with you because he’s the kind of romantic hero we often forget about and just one of the many beautiful clients we meet as Darby follows Channing.

Chapter 11

Rendition

Featuring: “Thanks for the Memory” by Bob Hope

Channing didn’t throw himself into Arlen Woods’ arms as soon as he opened the door and there wasn’t the immediate, familiar intimacy —like a lover coming back to bed— that Darby was coming to expect with Channing and his clients. Arlen was a very small, elderly man and he was frail and bent and Darby didn’t hide his confusion when Channing introduced him to the older man. Darby’s eyes were wide and blinking and his brows shot up his forehead but Arlen didn’t seem to care or notice as he shuffled through the living room.

Channing drove them to a modest two-story colonial home almost an hour outside of the city. He parked in the driveway and he was absurdly out of place but he slid his hand in his pocket and whistled softly as he walked up the path and climbed the porch steps. An envelope was clothes pinned to the mailbox and Channing unclipped it and tucked it into his coat pocket before softly tapping on the door.

“Arlen?” He called as he pushed it open and leaned inside then nodded when the older man turned off the television and rose from his recliner. He needed a cane and Darby’s mouth opened and closed as he debated asking Channing and Arlen if they were completely sure this was appropriate. Then, he saw the hospital bed in the dining room and he raised his Leica as his feet carried him past the sofa. She was so, so tiny and her eyes were so far away. Her mouth was open and slack and there was a shiny spot of saliva at the corner as she dreamed. There was nothing to her, her body was jagged lumps beneath a faded quilt.

“That’s my Rosamund,” Arlen rasped and Darby turned to find him leaning on his cane and holding onto the door. The dining room table was pushed against the wall to make room for the bed and Arlen’s hand shook as he pointed at it. “She’s there,” he said and urged Darby to look at one of the framed pictures among the pill bottles on the table.

“This is her?” Darby asked. His voice wavered and he cleared his throat softly as he picked up one of the frames. Darby’s eyes stung and his nose burned as an energetic and dapper Arlen and his young bride posed on the porch of the house they were standing in. “Well, she’s stunning,” Darby said as he touched the glass. Rosamund was gorgeous with her victory rolls and polka-dot dress.

“She’s the only girl I’ve ever kissed,” Arlen said. He was wearing a wool cardigan over his pajamas and his hair was still wet from his bath. Darby hummed thoughtfully as he picked up another picture of Rosamund. She was seated on the edge of a stage and she was laughing.

“If you had to pick just one…” Darby said then whistled appreciatively.

“She was in the chorus and I played the piano and they almost fired me because I couldn’t keep my eyes on the music. I asked her out every day for a month but she kept telling me she didn’t date musicians. So, I finally broke down and swore I’d never touch a piano again if she’d let me take her to the movies and maybe hold her hand.”

“That’s some Excalibur level shit, Arlen,” Darby said in awe and he heard Channing’s rumbling chuckle as he hovered behind Arlen. “What did she say?”

“She said it was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard and that I could pick her up at 7:00 p.m.,” Arlen recalled and Darby gasped as he turned to the bed.

“You just knocked him clean off his feet, didn’t you?” He asked her. She didn’t blink or move but he could see her now. He saw the laughing girl on the stage and had to clench his jaw and breathed very carefully so Arlen wouldn’t catch on behind him. Darby waited until he could trust his voice then smiled as he turned. “Is it ok if I take some pictures in here? I won’t take any of her face or your pictures…”

“Take pictures of her. She loved to have her picture taken and I know she’s hoping you will,” Arlen told him, knocking Darby clean off his feet. He nodded jerkily as he turned and his hands were shaking and tears rolled down his cheeks as he wound the film.

“Our tea should be just about ready,” Channing said softly and his hands hovered around Arlen protectively. He helped lead Arlen away and Darby set his hand on the bed and breathed through another tremor of sadness. Darby’s head fell to the side as he stepped closer to Rosamund and carefully brushed her hair away from her face. It was fine and white and fluttered softly with the mist from the humidifier on the bedside table. Darby curled it around her ear and used a tissue to wipe her lip then straightened the collar of her nightgown. The quilt was pulled up to her chest and he gave the edge a careful tug so there weren’t any wrinkles.

“There,” he whispered then held up the camera. “You look lovely, Rosamund.” The flash popped and he watched through the lens for any response but she was still. Darby watched her pupils and pressed the shutter button but there was nothing and it hurt in his chest. He almost touched the back of her hand but her skin was like crepe paper and he was afraid it would tear so he took a picture of the tiny wrinkles and the smudgy purple stains then the jagged lumps in the quilt. Darby focused on the roses on the other side of the bow window then looked at the pictures of Rosamund on the table and noted the roses. He had a feeling she was living in the dining room to make her care easier for Arlen and because of the roses. A single cut rose stood in a drinking glass on the bedside table and Darby smiled. “How about one for Arlen?” He asked as he tapped the water off the stem and broke it so he could slip the end behind her ear. He did his best to mimic a victory roll with her hair but it was too limp and thin so he settled for more of a swoop. He stepped back and considered then raised the camera and took the shot. “I won’t tell Arlen so it’ll be a surprise,” he said then turned when he heard a few soft notes from a piano. Darby followed it into the living room and around the stairs and past the kitchen. He found a small den and Arlen and Channing were at the piano with their tea cups.

“I thought you didn’t like Bob Hope,” Channing said and his fingers crawled over the keys and playfully hopped over Arlen’s so he could hit a higher key with his pinkie. Arlen shook his head as he gave him a teasing shove with his elbow.

“You know I hated George Burns. He stole a cab from me. He called me ‘kid’ and threw a nickel at me like I wanted to shine his shoes and then he stole my damn cab. I missed a job interview so I had to go into the Navy,” Arlen complained. Darby hung along the wall and moved in so he could get their tea cups and their hands on the keys. They talked and laughed in hushed tones and a bit of a song would drift from the piano every now and then. Channing was rapt as he sat next to Arlen and listened to his memories. He set his elbow on the piano and propped up his chin and Darby envied Arlen for a moment. He was the sole focus of Channing’s undivided attention and anyone would believe that he was utterly smitten and Arlen was the most fascinating man on the planet.

“I met Bob Hope when I was in the Navy,” Arlen said and Channing nodded.

“It was one of his USO tours and you got to meet him and he pissed you off,” he recalled. His eyes sparkled and his lips pulled at the corner as he watched Arlen. Channing gave every client his undivided attention, to the exclusion of everything else in the room, but he was a tamer, more soothing seductive with Arlen.

“They needed a piano player and I got volunteered and I was so damn excited and ready but he just ran his mouth and did his bit and he never even needed me. I was ready and praying that he’d tell me to play ‘Thanks for the Memory’ but I just sat there like a dummy for twenty minutes,” Arlen muttered. Channing shook his head and clicked his teeth.

“Absolutely unforgivable,” he said then tipped his head toward Arlen. “Would you play it for me?” He asked but Arlen shook his head.

“I don’t think my fingers or my voice are up to it,” he said.

“Then I’ll play for you,” Channing decided. Arlen clasped his hands together in delight then sat back so Channing could have the keyboard. The keys tinkled and Channing leaned toward Arlen. “Thanks for the memory of rainy afternoons, swingy Harlem tunes…”

“Motor trips and burning lips and burning toast and prunes,” Arlen attempted but it was a faint rasp so Channing kissed him softly.

“How lovely it was,” Channing crooned smoothly then touched his forehead to Arlen’s. “Thanks for the memory.” He laughed softly and pecked at Arlen’s lips. Darby held onto the camera and held still because he didn’t want to interrupt them with the flash. He found it was hard to watch Channing go back in time with Arlen so he distracted himself by staring at the dust motes as they caught in the setting sun as it filtered in through the blinds and the pulled-out sofa bed. The bed was made and there were two pillows but the one by the end table with the pill bottles, Kleenex and another quietly whirring humidifier had a round divot in the middle while the other pillow was propped and waiting with a perfectly smooth pillowcase.

“I think I’d like to lay down for a bit,” Arlen told Channing, pulling Darby back to the piano. Channing laughed tenderly as he kissed his cheek.

“I think I would too.” He took a quick sip of his tea then swung his legs around the bench and stood. He gave the lapels of his coat a dashing tug then smoothed his sleeve before he offered Arlen his arm and helped him to his feet. Channing took Arlen’s tea cup then patiently strolled with him to the sofa bed. He helped him lower and sit then set Arlen’s cup on his end table. Channing dropped a kiss on Arlen’s forehead then shrugged out of his coat as he turned to Darby. “Not too many pictures of this, all right?” Channing said quietly as he draped his coat on the piano and Darby nodded as he backed away. Darby leaned against the wall by the door and braced himself as Channing eased off Arlen’s cardigan. He folded it and set it on the coffee table at the foot of the sofa bed then stood in front of Arlen as he slowly pulled off his tie and unbuttoned his shirt.

Darby took one picture. Arlen’s hands rested in his lap and his eyes were full and glowed as he stared up at Channing and watched him undress. Darby took a picture of Arlen as he went back in time and adored Channing with a younger man’s heart and eyes.

Channing took his time removing his shirt and trousers and set them next to the cardigan on the coffee table. It wasn’t a sultry strip-tease or particularly sensual. He was just a shockingly handsome man slowly undressing but the rise and fall of Arlen’s chest became more rapid as Channing stepped close. Arlen was old and frail again as Channing supported his arms so they could slide around his body and hold him. Then, Arlen shut his eyes and hummed drowsily and he was young as he rubbed his cheek against Channing’s stomach and breathed him in. Arlen kissed around his navel and nuzzled his semi-hard cock then sat back so Channing could help him to his pillow. Channing went around the bed and eased onto the quilt, facing Arlen, and scooted close, until their noses were touching. He took Arlen’s hand and guided it to his lips and kissed his fingers.

“You’d better not be thinking about the shoes,” Channing said and Arlen laughed as he cradled his face and kissed him. It was clearly an inside joke and Darby wanted to catch it with his camera but he knew it would be too intimate and hurt in the darkroom. He knew the whole roll would hurt but he made himself watch and suspend the moment with his eyes so it would hang in his head.

Channing guided Arlen’s hands to his erection and they murmured and teased each other until it was hard and straining. Channing waited until they were both restless and impatient then slid his hand into the front of Arlen’s pajama pants. Darby understood that this was how Arlen remembered sex with men. It was the hands in pants and hushed laughs and kisses of a close quarters rendezvous in a secluded corner of a battleship or the backseat of a car. It probably wasn’t as breathless and urgent as Arlen remembered but his breath turned into frantic hisses as he came and he gasped and giggled as Channing’s cum spilled over his fingers.

Then, Arlen was too tired to be young and he was heavier and drowsy as Channing discreetly cleaned the mess in his pajama pants then lovingly tucked the quilt around him. He took his time and sat on the edge of the bed as he dressed and Channing rambled quietly about baseball as Arlen drifted off to sleep. A nurse was coming in, just as they left.

“How’s your father feeling tonight?” She asked Channing and he grinned easily as he held the door for her.

“He’s sleeping in the den,” he said and she nodded and made small talk as she took off her coat and went to check on Rosamund. Channing wasn’t relaxed and he didn’t whistle as he walked to the car and Darby felt heavy as he lowered into the passenger seat.

“How?” Darby’s voice cracked and he had to turn his head away as the pressure built in his chest. He knew what the sob would sound like if he released it and Darby did his best to hold the door shut. He knew what he was afraid of and why it hurt but he mentally pressed both of his hands against the door and pushed back as hard as he could.

“His son found me,” Channing said and Darby’s head swung around.

“His son?” He wished he hadn’t asked and he knew Channing was struggling with his code and his grief as the muscle in his jaw twitched and his nostrils flared.

“Rosamund and Arlen made a pact,” he whispered and there was a pause as his chest shook. Channing checked the rear-view mirror and changed lanes and his cheeks puffed out before he continued. “I think most couples make a similar pact, in the event that something should happen to one of them. Rosamund knew it was taking her and she had a very honest talk with her son. He said…” Channing’s knuckles turned white around the steering wheel. “He said the only thing she was afraid of was leaving Arlen alone. She knew Arlen wouldn’t be able to hold up his end of the pact but she didn’t want him to be lonely. So, she told her son that if Arlen couldn’t date again, to do what he could to help him find some kind of comfort. Arlen’s son agreed but he didn’t bring it up or even think about it until he started to get scared. He saw Arlen slipping away from him too as his grief became steady and unrelenting. It’s all around him as he waits for the love of his life to die the slowest death imaginable.”

“But why did he pick you? Why a man?”

“He let Arlen pick. He gave him two numbers and told his father that it didn’t matter to him, as long as Arlen found something that helped.” His voice caught again and Darby nodded in agreement and used his sleeve to wipe his cheek.

“He chose a man because he didn’t want to replace Rosamund?” He guessed but Channing sighed.

“I think he chose me because he could connect to the young man who went into the Navy when he was nineteen, before he came back and lost his heart to Rosamund. He can keep her as the core of his emotional and sexual self and still find pleasure by connecting with his past and dwelling there for a bit. I think it helps him, feeling young again. He’s not the fading hopeless man I met, when I arrived for our first appointment,” he said and Darby nodded again. He didn’t take the pictures but his photographer’s eye catalogued the wet hair, the fresh pajamas, the crisp pillowcase and the tea cups that were definitely the “good china”. Arlen prepared for their date and it would have been the highlight of his week.

“What about Rosamund? Why didn’t they prepare for that?” Darby asked and Channing held up his hand.

“I don’t know and I’ve left it alone. I can’t begin to imagine how I’d cope with watching the man I love slowly die.” His hand remained in the air as he looked at Darby and their gazes clung for a moment before Channing looked back at the windshield. “I don’t know what the hell I’d do if I was in his shoes so I just do whatever I can to help. And I hope that she’s exactly where Arlen thinks she is, and that she’s young and waiting for him to join her,” he said then reached into his coat and pulled out the envelope then handed it to Darby. It was light and flat and Darby’s fingers were shaking as he looked inside.

“There’s only twenty dollars, Channing.”

“I know,” he whispered and Darby grabbed his hand and they cried for much of the drive back to the city.

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The most beautiful story you’ll ever read about a $20 bill.

About Aiden Sharp and writing an autistic romance hero.

“Granted, I have a strong suspicion that the representation of Aspergers Syndrom wasn’t at all accurate (and I feel like that is a term not used anymore). But I also don’t feel like it represented people with Aspergers in any sort of derogatory way. So I chose to accept that this is a fictional book with a fictional representative.”

I guess now is a good time to bring this up. Again. I just released the ninth book in my Lake Cliff series and there’s a lot of reflection in it about Aiden’s childhood and his life, in general, as an autistic man. Which is, in itself, an important but subtle point in the book. When I first wrote Aiden Sharp, he described himself as a man with Asperger’s Syndrome. Now, he describes himself as an autistic man because our understanding and the use of these terms has changed. Please don’t take this as me saying I am an expert or am using the most current and accurate terms. I’m merely saying that like our understanding of autism, Aiden’s is evolving as well. Just as mine, as the parent of a young autistic man, changes daily. More than books and medical journals, Alex is the source of most of what I know about autism. For better or for worse.

I do bristle at the criticism that Aiden isn’t “accurate” or that he’s not “autistic enough”. Do the dukes in regency romances act like “real” dukes? Are the cops in other romantic thrillers portrayed with more than a nod to accuracy? Of course not. Why the weird standards for a character with a spectrum disorder? If you’ve met one autistic person…you’ve met one autistic person. Whose standards are you judging this fictional character in a romance novel by? What kind of book are you looking for, if this character isn’t disabled enough?

I’m not arguing that the representation of disabled people shouldn’t be taken seriously. Not even a little. Please don’t write a disabled character if you haven’t done the research and you’re not writing them with a deep love and respect. Be VERY careful about the story you’re going to tell and make sure it’s your place to tell it. It was very important to me to portray Aiden as an autistic hero without exploiting his disability for book sales. I wrote him because I have an autistic son and while he’ll never learn to drive, go to college, fall in love or have a family of his own, I wanted to read stories about people like him doing those things. At the time, I couldn’t find books with heroes like Alex, so I wrote one myself and I gave Aiden many of Alex’s “ticks” and “isms” and made him say the sorts of things I’d think Alex would say, if he could. He’s a very dry and funny guy, my Alex.

But, the most important key to writing Aiden—the thing I put the most nuance into—was his agency. It’s not a haphazard thing at all, when writing his mental and emotional capabilities. He has to be aware and capable of complete consent. That’s the bottom line. And when I see criticism that Aiden isn’t “autistic enough” I cringe because I fear what the reader wanted, there. I didn’t want him to be childlike or overly naive because I hate that stereotype and it makes for a really icky situation when you pair that person with a neurotypical adult. Instead, I focused on how his sensory and communication issues affected him as a forensic psychologist and made falling in love a little trickier but also heartwarming. Because I wasn’t ready to turn Hide And Keep into a Swiss Army knife of a romance novel, I didn’t explore Aiden as deeply as I could have and I kept the other non romance elements of the book simple. But, I’ve used the series to grow—as a person and a writer—with Aiden, and he becomes more and more of a living, breathing autistic man with each book. Like me, he’s far from perfect and not intended to be a textbook representation. He’s a character in a romance novel, and a fine one at that.

If you haven’t read my Lake Cliff series and met Dr. Aiden Sharp yet, find him here: https://amzn.to/3fVsN4a

About Aiden Sharp and writing an autistic romance hero.