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. 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 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 Hispanic boy 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 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. He didn’t hide that he knew everything about Hawk and Blink didn’t mind 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 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 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. Your briefing was thorough,” he chuckled but it was true. At Mr. Lavender’s insistence, 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 away 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 and over the mess. He took the stairs two or 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 dark 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 and 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 to 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 right 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.”

Available October 2! Pre-Order Like Grim Death NOW: https://amzn.to/3hHomKL

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.

Welcome back to Lake Cliff, gentle reader. You’ve been warned.

Tension.

We’re all feeling it. Sometimes, it feels like we’re on the verge of snapping. All at once, in one universal Crack! of frustration, dread and rage. This tension, it’s getting to all of us and it got to me. I broke and retreated from the world and went to my happy place but the tension followed me. Instead of bending my brain away from the tension, I reveled in it and purged it. But, in my own dark but “healthy” way.  I wanted to give you a ticket out of reality–to someplace better–but I still wanted to make you gasp and sit on the edge of your seat because sometimes, the best way to relieve stress and purge your frustrations is to laugh, cry and lose yourself someplace dark and a little twisted.

As this is book #9, I knew I had to give you something fresh and smart, not just dark and tense. I can’t drag you back to Lake Cliff and turn my boys’ lives upside down unless I’ve got something really exciting to share. I’ve got my beta and ARC readers sworn to secrecy because this one’s a thriller and not at all what you’re expecting but so far, they’re shook.

“I still shiver thinking about it. Incredible thrill!”

“I actually felt a threatening breath on the back of my neck and a sense of impeding doom in the pit of my stomach. It was thrilling, from the first pages up until the surprising finale!”

“Always pushing boundaries, this time you can feel the T-Rex testing the fence, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat waiting for it to escape.”

“What an exciting ride and what a fun twist.”

Ready to take a look? How about two whole, very tense chapters?

 

Chapter 1

 

“Fuck, I really wanted it to be you,” Paul muttered as he squinted at the pistol. His pinkie was looped around the trigger so he could sniff the end of the muzzle. It wasn’t a Walther PPK and it smelled like it had been fired recently. He set the weapon back down then stood and scanned the office. The killer came in fast and hit the victim at his desk.

“I just talked to the housekeeper, Helen, and she was the last one to talk to Jeffrey Goodwin. She said Mr. Goodwin didn’t have any holes in his forehead or his chest when she left at around 10:00 p.m. last night. The cook came in at 4:00 this morning and found him,” Agent Burley said and Paul nodded along but he was barely listening. He saw Lavender with his own eyes and he was in Lake Cliff at midnight, chatting with Reginald from his kitchen.

“The Bureau appreciates you giving up your career in comedy to serve your country,” Paul said distantly. He turned and estimated the killer’s position and location and it looked like a quick, clean hit. “He came in through that door, surprising Goodwin…” Paul looked at the wound on Goodwin’s forehead and frowned. Based on the angle and bullet trajectory, Goodwin had to be standing or the killer was almost a foot shorter than Lavender, unless he was sitting by the door.

“I never had a career in comedy,” Burley noted.

“Clearly. Stick to your day job; you might have a career with the FBI if you knock it off with the shitty jokes. This was staged,” Paul added as he waved at the desk.

“How can you tell?”

“Look at the gunshot wound in the forehead.” Paul went around the desk and crouched next to Goodwin’s chair. According to his position and posture, Goodwin raised his arms defensively and was thrown back, suggesting he was looking up at a taller killer. “He looks like he was startled by someone at the door, right?” Paul asked as he waved at the door and Burley nodded. Paul stood and curled and pointed his fingers, as if he was holding a gun. “Now, look at the way the bullet entered the forehead. It’s almost straight, right?” He asked as he aimed his invisible gun at Goodwin’s forehead. “According to the position and the angle of the wound, he was looking lower and straight, at one of those chairs, not up. And he should have fallen forward, face-down onto the desk. Or, slumped and off to the side,” Paul explained. “Unless…” Paul stepped around the desk and lined up his invisible pistol with the wound. He had to raise his arm awkwardly and aimed from over his shoulder, by his ear.

“The victim was shot then posed to look like the killer came in through the door and surprised him,” Burley realized. Paul hummed flatly then tossed the invisible Smith & Wesson by the wastebasket. 

“I think the killer was sitting in one of those chairs or he was short and standing behind them, or close to the door.” The killer was too short to be Lavender and the narrow window of time made it highly unlikely. Lavender could have made it to New York from Lake Cliff in less than four hours but Paul suspected that the coroner would put time of death closer to midnight. “He doesn’t play with the crime scene and the gun’s wrong.”

“Who?” Burley asked.

“The Murder Fairy. I wanted this to be him but it looks like something worse.”

“The Murder Fairy?” Burley laughed. “Is that like the Tooth Fairy?”

“Yup,” Paul said with a grim smile. “Just like the Tooth Fairy. Nobody’s sure the Murder Fairy’s real but we’ve got someone working at night, taking credit for his work and trying to convince us he exists.”

Chapter 2

 

Sweet sand verbena. Lavender closed his eyes and breathed deep, wondering if he was truly smelling it or if he was remembering its scent. Could you smell something if it wasn’t truly there? But, I’m not here, he reminded himself. He opened his eyes and the desert was as brutally wild and endless as he remembered as well. The night sky was clear and glittered with more stars than he could ever recall seeing. Lavender appreciated the harsh beauty and admired the view before he drew his gun and climbed the steps. The high desert of southwestern Arizona wasn’t flat and bare like White Sands or the Salt Flats of Utah. It was more rugged and rocky with low mountains and the wind was still damp from an early evening monsoon. It wasn’t hard to understand why Martin Caldwell chose this spot in the middle of nowhere to hide.

The arid wind ruffled his hair but Lavender felt a chill, despite its warmth, as he considered the modern adobe mansion. He shrugged and rubbed his ear against his shoulder then clenched his fist, attempting to ease his nerves but they itched and twisted tighter. Everything was right and the night was perfectly calm yet his senses recoiled and his stomach clenched.

“You know why this feels wrong. Aside from the obvious,” Lady Lucy murmured softly, from over his shoulder. Lavender snorted then scratched his temple with the end of his gun.

“I do but why do I keep coming back?” He asked, then turned. “And why haven’t you returned my calls?” He raised his brows at her and she was serene and smirking as her long ash blonde locks swayed with the breeze.

“I’m returning your call now.” She raised her brows back at him and he narrowed his eyes at her.

“The goats keeping you busy in the vale?”

“It’s not my goats or my business disturbing your beauty sleep,” she replied and Lavender humphed dismissively.

“Why do I keep coming back here?” He asked as he scanned the door. The house was meant to look like an old mission but it had a modern security system that was already disabled.

“Something about this haunts you.”

“Of course, it haunts me. Everything about this haunts me but I didn’t know what else to do. This isn’t what you were referring to in London, is it? Your premonition?” He asked her. Lucy’s brow furrowed as she considered and Lavender held his breath, hopefully. She shook her head and his shoulders drooped.

“I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you more.” She reached and brushed the hair away from his brow then cupped his cheek. Her soft green eyes sparkled as they searched his. “This does feel like it’s woven from a similar thread or part of the same cloth, if that helps,” she offered then she winced. “It doesn’t, does it?”

“No.” He shook his head and turned back to the house. “I did what I had to do. I had to keep this away from Lake Cliff away from them.”

“Did you really think you could make a deal with the Devil and win? This monster was always going to come back and bite you in the arse,” she said. Lavender cringed sheepishly and swayed toward her.

“There’s only room for one monster in Lake Cliff and I’m afraid he’s become rather comfortable. I have it under control.”

“What if you’re wrong? What if this is about to devour the things you hold very dear?” She argued. Or is that another warning? He wondered.

“What would you have me do? It was an impossible situation,” Lavender said and she hummed sympathetically.

“I don’t envy you but I can’t help wondering if this was avoidable…”

“Now, look,” Lavender said as he held up his other hand defensively. “I’ve been good since our first meeting, in London, thank you. And I’ve been very helpful,” he added. She grinned knowingly at him.

“You were here for very bad reasons,” she said and he sighed and hung his head.

“He was a very bad man and he met with a very bad end,” Lavender replied then stretched his neck to stifle a shiver. Lucy’s eyes tightened and the smile fell from her face.

“But not at your hands and you’re afraid of what’s behind this door.”

“I know what’s behind this door. It’s terrible and it terrifies me but I don’t understand why I’m here again. I see terrible things all the time,” he pointed out.

“You know it’s coming and you can’t stop it,” Lucy whispered then nodded at the door. Lavender’s nose wrinkled as he stared at the rustic wooden panels and iron bolts.

“What if I didn’t open it?” He asked but she was gone. “Wonderful.” Lavender sighed and shifted his shoulders again but they didn’t loosen and his stomach was sour. Is it? Probably. His stomach always turned when he thought of Martin Caldwell. Lavender’s cheeks puffed out as he grabbed the handle and eased the door open. He leaned over the threshold and his heartbeat slowed and became heavy and his blood ran cold as he stepped into Lane and Aiden’s house. “No!” Lavender gasped and covered his mouth. His stomach heaved at the blood dripping off the counter and the front of the cabinets. There was a pattering sound and he spun then bit back a sob. A tattooed arm reached from the hall and a bloody hand hung limply over the top step. “No!” Lavender cried as he sat up and his chest heaved as he searched the room around his bed.

“What is it?” Sage asked groggily as he pulled Lavender down and into his arms. Sage shushed soothingly and sifted his fingers through Lavender’s hair. “What’s wrong? It’s not like you to have bad dreams.”

“It’s not like me to dream,” Lavender murmured. His mind and his conscience were rarely troubled. “Everything’s going to be fine,” he promised. He wound his arms around Sage and rubbed his cheek against his hair. Sage yawned in agreement as he patted Lavender’s back and nuzzled into his neck.

“I know. We can survive anything as long as we have each other,” he babbled. Lavender chuckled softly and cherished the absolute peace and stillness of the night and Sage’s naked body as it wrapped protectively around him. He locked out the vision from his nightmare and vowed he’d do whatever it took to make sure Lake Cliff—and everyone in it—remained perfectly peaceful and safe.

 

Welcome back to Lake Cliff, reader.

You’re in for a wild ride.

 

Available 6/4 for $2.99 on Amazon and KU.

Pre-order NOW!: https://amzn.to/3cfOMkh

SOTFCover

 

 

Welcome back to Lake Cliff, gentle reader. You’ve been warned.

Want to meet a Beautiful Animal?

AnimalPromo

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I’ve never done anything like that before, have I? I have to make it very clear: this book is different from my previous books and it’s not going where you’re expecting. But, it’s still me so it’s going to be beautiful and feel like real love. Promise. It might feel like the realest, deepest love story I’ve ever written, by the time you reach the epilogue.

I’ve been vague and weird since I began writing Beautiful Animal because I didn’t want to have to explain or defend it. But I did want to warn or prepare my readers that this wasn’t going to be remotely like a Lake Cliff or an Alfie and that there are some heavy moments in store for us. It’s so lovely and worth it, though. Carys Channing is, to me, a dream of a romance hero and possibly the best I’ve ever written. Darby Randolph is also a dream in that he’s so much like many of us in his head and his heart that he easily becomes our passport to follow Channing on an adventure we can all learn and grow from. Here’s an excerpt from Beautiful Animal that gives us a revealing peek at our heroes:

 

Expectation

 

She did it slowly. She took her time, tracing the edges and the dip in a bright shade of coral that glowed against the warm brown of her skin. It was a bright shade of coral and Carys marveled that there could be thousands and thousands of names for something he’d never give a damn about. He’d never felt even the slightest temptation to kiss one, but lipstick on a woman never failed to arouse him. It was just the lipstick, turning Carys on as he pretended to browse perfumes so he could watch the young woman at the MAC counter. She knew he was watching and her pout grew fuller as her eyes held his and she became even more deliberate as she traced her lips, taunting him.

It was the flash of color, so vulgar and distracting in the dusty dim of his father’s waiting room. Carys was small then and she didn’t see him with his knees pulled to his chest, sitting in the corner, by the water cooler. He peeked over his book as she came in, smelling of jasmine and cigarettes, a siren in bright red with her purse tucked under her arm. Carys was entranced as she took out a mirror and meticulously lined her lips in ruby red lipstick then inspected her neatly styled hair. He felt a tickle as she rubbed her lips together and wondered why. Why did they do it? Why did it tickle?

The door opened and Carys ducked behind his book as his father greeted his patient then invited her into his office. A low murmur and a soft laugh and Carys stayed still until the door shut and the lock clicked. He turned and slid out of the chair and tiptoed to the door and into the hall. He quietly eased open the door to the storage room and slipped inside. He pushed aside the box next to the vent and crouched so he could see into the office.

“That’s it!” His father whispered encouragingly as he made a mess of her hair and held her face against the front of his trousers. Carys couldn’t see everything but he knew what they were doing. He knew why she was gagging and he knew what his father was doing when he bent her over the tufted arm of the leather sofa and Carys knew what her keening moans and the rough grunts meant. He also knew that his father was done when he gave her ass a gentle pat and stepped back so Carys quietly slid the box in front of the vent and returned to the waiting room. He was hiding behind his book again when his father opened the office door and murmured dryly about her next visit before sending her on her way. Carys wondered why she didn’t care that her lipstick was smeared all over her face or her hair was a mess as her driver helped her into the car and drove her home to her husband. Why did they do it? Why did it tickle?

“I’ll take it,” Carys told the girl at the MAC counter. Her name was Aja, according to the tag on her white blouse. She set one hand on her hip and her neck pulled to the side, inviting him to study her name tag closer but his eyes followed the little black tube of lipstick in her other hand.

“This?” She asked coyly and raised it so she could chew on the cap. Carys’s grin was wicked and laced with lust as he enjoyed the phallic shape of the tube with her lush coral lips. He didn’t care about her tongue or her teeth as she nibbled suggestively. “Is there anything else…you want?” Her voice dropped so it was low and husky and her pupils were wide as she leaned over the counter. Carys clicked his teeth as he pulled his wallet from inside his coat.

“Just the lipstick, please,” he said and her face fell and her shoulders drooped. “Not because you aren’t stunning!” He reassured her quickly and set his elbow on the counter as he held up his card. “I’m very gay,” he whispered and her eyes widened as her jaw hung.

“Oh…! Ok!” She nodded quickly and was flustered as she spun and rang him up. “Do you want me to help you match your foundation or…?”

“I don’t wear makeup. I just like lipstick,” he explained simply then thanked her and went to find Darby.

There was an extra kick of arousal as Carys wandered out of the department store and through the crowded mall. Carys could fuck just about anyone and enjoy it because he generally got off on what happened inside of a man, instead of his body or his face. Arousal for Carys lay in the bliss and relief he found in his partner’s eyes, in the knowledge that he was in the presence of something deeper and far more sensual than just physical sex. It was the quenching and the rebalancing that did it for him. For the times Carys didn’t care about his clients and couldn’t touch that higher plane, he turned to lipstick.

Oh, but he wanted Darby Randolph. Carys wouldn’t need the lipstick with Darby in the limo but he was a creature of habit and he was already at the mall. He was relaxed as he strolled but warmth swirled in his groin and Carys hummed softly to himself as he recalled his surprise when Darby opened the door. It was rare for Carys to be starstruck or nervous, and certainly not with a client, but he audibly gasped when Fawn called and told him Randolph had made an appointment for the evening. Art and photography were one of Carys’s passions and he had a few of Randolph’s photographs in his homes and followed his work for magazines like Time and Shout

Carys thought he’d be older, eccentric, unkempt…have a paunch. He wasn’t expecting Darby to be tall and broad shouldered or have big brown eyes and that wild, dirty blond hair. It fell around his jaw and Carys became warmer as he remembered Darby’s tattooed hands sweeping through his hair as he became panicked or when he laughed. His arms were covered with tattoos and Carys was still distracted by a glimpse of ink under Darby’s shirt as he bent over.

He did his homework and studied Darby as he would any new client, despite already being a fan, and Carys wanted him before he even opened the door. It was rare for him to be starstruck or nervous but it was even rarer for him to feel immediate physical attraction so Carys was momentarily stunned and legitimately swooned over Darby’s doe-like eyes, tattoos and bashful smirk. Carys’s delight and anticipation turned to concern when he saw the state of Darby’s life and he was sincerely disappointed when he realized there’d been a misunderstanding. He wanted to taste and touch and fuck Darby in every possible way but Carys was even more determined to save him. There was a starving, lonely soul trapped in there and Carys wanted to help him find his way back. Carys found Darby where he told him to wait, by the merry-go-round. He was taking pictures of an elderly couple sitting in a small coach, pulled by a team of pastel-colored horses.

“What’s their secret?” Carys asked quietly as he stepped behind Darby. He froze as he watched the couple through his camera. The older man teased his wife with an ice cream cone and Darby smiled as she laughed.

“They’re still on their first date,” Darby murmured and went back to shooting.

“Isn’t that beautiful? Fifty, sixty, maybe as much as seventy years of happiness,” Carys noted. Darby mumbled something in agreement as he drifted to his right and Carys was fascinated as he followed him around the merry-go-round.

“Now, it’s a different story, with the kids in line, waiting to get on the ride,” Darby explained when he finally lowered the camera and stepped back. He nodded at where they started, on the other side, then waved at the crowd. “It was just them before and we could tell they’d gone back in time. They didn’t change or move but we did and our perspective changed so now there’s a line of kids, waiting to get on the ride of a lifetime,” he said, dazzling Carys. Who broke you, you brilliant, brilliant boy? Carys wondered and vowed he’d make Darby whole. Darby shrugged and turned away from the merry-go-round and raised his brows at Carys. “So, what’s the plan? Are we shopping for a client?” He guessed, shaking Carys from his thoughts and he sighed as he checked his watch.

“I have what I need and Newt should be along soon,” he said then waved at the exit. He pushed his hands into his pockets and idly toyed with the lipstick as he fell in step next to Darby. “You should put in a fresh roll and be ready to go. You’ll be shooting inside a limo and you’ll have to work fast,” he warned as they stepped out into the crisp coolness of an early fall evening. The sky was full of oranges, purples and pinks and Darby took a few fast shots before his hands swiftly wound and flicked at buttons, levers and caps. “Here we are,” Carys said as a black limousine came around the corner and cruised along the sidewalk. “Ready?” He asked and Darby nodded and his neck stretched curiously as the car parked and a driver jumped out to get the door for them. Carys stifled a weary sigh then dove through the door and fell into the seat next to Newt and waited as Darby stuck his head in to make sure it was safe. Darby gave Newt a quick nod, acknowledging the smaller, much older man’s pinched indifference before he slid onto the seat across from them. The door shut and Carys cleared his throat as he unbuttoned his coat and got comfortable as the car pulled away from the curb.

AnimalFull

Available for PRE-SALE on Amazon and KU NOW!: https://amzn.to/2xiLJsD

Want to meet a Beautiful Animal?

You’re Invited To K. Sterling’s Hottest Adventure Yet!

ShotInDarkPromo2

There. I said it.

I’ve had a few readers complain that the last few books were lighter on the sex than they were expecting so I decided to give those old horndogs something extra naughty this time. I love anonymous sex. There. I said it. It’s a little like being Cinderella, if you’re really good at fooling yourself. Think of it like a dance with a stranger who thinks you’re a princess. It’s just enough magic for one night and you only need the darkness of a hotel room or the backseat of a car to make it happen. You can take the metaphor even further if you’ve got poppers or a party drug to play your fairy godmother. Or a few extra footmen, if you’re really serious about being a princess.

Which brings us to Ellis Harper and his shot in the dark. I wanted to have fun with anonymous sex and see how messy I could make it so I asked myself when would be the worst time to open a hookup app and get brave. A room full of men you can’t have seemed like the best-case scenario, for our purposes. So, I took Ellis to a wedding and figured out how to raise the Disaster Factor without making him a cheater or a jerk.

I regret to inform you, dear Reader, that Ellis’s best friend Alli has gotten them into a spot of trouble. She’s pregnant and the father is a cheater and a jerk so she may have given everyone the impression that Ellis is the father in order to save herself from a weekend of lectures and dire predictions. What could possibly go wrong?

 

**WARNING! Adult language and content ahead! Be an ADULT who enjoys adults doing very adult things. WARNING!**

 

If Ellis had to guess, he was just one of a handful of men in the hotel’s bar impatiently biding their time until they could find a safe place to check their phones. He glanced at the men’s room and snorted harder as three men pushed through the crowd, in their haste to “relieve” themselves. “You’re overthinking it, guys,” he said then swiveled his stool so his back was to the wall, so no one could see over this shoulder, and pulled out his phone. He found his texts and opened the last one from Alli.

Ellis

This reception just got a lot more interesting. Someone here is cruising on Grindr…

Alli

See what you can find out. I’m on my way.

Ellis

I’m in the bar. I’ll take a look and meet you by the fruit trays in ten minutes.

“Can I get you anything, sir?” The bartender asked and Ellis shook his head then stopped when he thought of Alli.

“Just a bottle of water, please,” he said then turned his attention back to his phone. He looked like he was still texting, if anyone was watching him. He opened Grindr and found a collage full of mostly picture-less profiles but his eyes caught on wide, hard pecs, nicely defined abs and Adonis belt, and a tempting trail of dark hair that pulled Ellis’s attention to a pair of straining grey boxer briefs. “Holy shit,” Ellis breathed.

“Here’s that water,” the bartender said and Ellis opened the bottle and took his eyes off his phone just long enough to make sure he didn’t miss his mouth. He took several loud gulps then gasped loudly.

“I’m going to need another, please,” Ellis called then swore as he looked at his phone. “How dare he look like the man of my dreams and be at this wedding?” He hissed angrily. There was no age but Ellis could tell by the posture, body hair and general…solidness, that Discreetly Yours definitely wasn’t younger. He had a thing for older men and Ellis’s instincts told him he was looking at someone in his ideal range of mid-forties to mid-sixties. The face was obscured by a grinning purple devil emoji, so Ellis had absolutely nothing else to go on. “It’s my favorite emoji too,” Ellis pouted. The bartender returned with another bottle of water for Alli and Ellis thanked him and left a tip before heading for the rendezvous point.

“There you are!” She said and he offered her a glum nod.

“Here I am,” he agreed then pushed the bottle at her. “Drink this and eat something, you’ve been on your feet all day,” he said and she took a quick drink then pointed the bottle at him.

“What’s wrong? You recognized him and it’s someone bad?” She guessed and Ellis shook his head.

“No. He’s perfect but I’m afraid I’ll recognize him and he’ll be someone bad,” he said and she hissed.

“How perfect? Let me see,” she ordered and gestured impatiently. They often browsed Grindr when they were bored and he usually asked for her opinion and approval, when he did use it to get laid.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, if making a smart decision is the goal, here,” Ellis mused but Alli pulled a face then shoved her hand into his pocket.

“Quit stalling! Aside from our happy little scandal, this reception has been way too dull,” she said then cheered as she pulled out his phone.

“Speak for yourself. It’s been a circus for me. I’m going to be a father, Jamie hit on me, Colin’s a mess, and I’ve just discovered that someone in your family is bi or gay and the man of my dreams,” he complained and Alli’s jaw dropped.

“Leave Colin to me. Get out about Jamie, though!” She whispered loudly and Ellis rolled his eyes.

“Why are all the men in your family so hot? All of them,” he said and her brows jumped.

“Even Large Gerry?” She said and Ellis nodded. There were three Geralds among the Landrys and their spouses. Short Gerry, old Gerry and Large Gerry.

“Even Large Gerry. He’s large and in charge. I like when big men carry themselves like they’re in charge,” Ellis said and she made a thoughtful sound as she considered.

“I could definitely see that. He’s got that Landry swagger,” she murmured as she swiped at the phone then grabbed Ellis’s sleeve. “This definitely isn’t Large Gerry. Oh! I think he noticed you!” She whispered giddily and swiped again.

“Stop!” Ellis hissed as he snatched the phone from her but it was too late. “What did you doooo?!” He bit his knuckle to keep from screaming and throwing his phone. She tapped Discreetly Yours back with the purple devil emoji —indicating that Ellis just wanted to fuck— and was typing a message.

“I see you kept the name,” Alli said then laughed maniacally as she pointed. Ellis’s eyes dropped to his phone and the color drained from his face. He hadn’t opened, let alone used Grindr, in…months. He fell into a regular thing with a guy from his yoga class for a few months but that ended last fall and Ellis couldn’t remember how long it was since his last hook-up, before Yoga Matt. It could have been over a year-and-a-half ago, but about three months earlier, Alli had dared Ellis to change his profile name on Grindr from the much more fitting “Mr. Perfectly Adequate” to “The Cumback Kid.” It was after Margaret’s birthday party. They were drunk and snuck off to smoke a joint and Alli decided Ellis needed something more confident that implied he would be unforgettable and that he was also a fan of raunchy but safe sex.

“This baby is going to be the Doom of Man,” Ellis muttered.

“I sure hope so. Type something! He’s waiting!” She said with several hard pokes.

“Fuck!” Ellis spat and pushed his brain to do something. Anything, really.

The Cumback Kid

So… Come here often?

“Clever. Acknowledge the elephant in the room and see if he gives us any clues,” Alli said and Ellis shook his head.

“I am giving zero consideration to his identity. The only out gay men at this wedding are married and maybe Jamie. I’m not trying to get anyone in trouble. Especially myself,” he informed her then wrinkled his nose as he looked around. “Hurry up and make a plate so we can move.” They piled a plate with fruit, little pastries and cheese then relocated to an abandoned table on the other side of the room, farthest from the dance floor. “Hopefully, he’ll find someone more interesting and move on,” he said as he got Alli’s chair then pulled his close to hers and sat. She leaned against him as he checked his phone and he groaned as a response posted.

Eeek!” Alli squealed and Ellis gave her a disgusted look then read the message. 

Discreetly Yours

Cute. Are you stuck at this reception too?

“Uh oh…” Ellis shook his head. He wasn’t giving himself away like that.

The Cumback Kid

What reception?

“Smart. Figure out who he is first,” Alli said. Ellis shook his head even harder.

“Trust me. Neither of us wants to know if one of your uncles or cousins is lurking on Grindr. What do you do with that kind of knowledge?” He explained and she winced. “Exactly,” Ellis said and they both lowered their heads when another reply popped up.

Discreetly Yours 

I get it. I am so mad at myself for not turning off the notifications.

“Awww… It’s cute when guys are clumsy with technology,” Alli said and Ellis hummed in agreement.

“It shows they’ve got too much going on to waste a lot of time on their phones.”

The Cumback Kid 

If it helps, I think only a few of us noticed but the other guys are still too scared to check.

“That’s nice. Some people are so quick to make fun of others for their little fumbles. It’s such a turn-off,” Alli murmured and Ellis nodded.

“I can’t get into guys who have to be right and like to laugh when other people make mistakes.”

Discreetly Yours 

Cute and brave. Your picture’s really hot.

Alli whistled loudly as Ellis turned off the app and set his phone on the table. They were quiet for several moments before Ellis shook his head.

“Now look at what we’ve done,” he complained.

“Normally, we’d be celebrating and warming up the clippers,” Alli noted and her nose wrinkled. “Just for the sake of ‘What if…’ are you appropriately shaved and ready, in case the opportunity should present itself?” She asked and gestured airily. Ellis sat back and crossed his ankles and his arms over his chest then snorted.

“I’m wearing a tux and I knew I’d drink until my face fell off tonight. I haven’t had anything with dairy or meat in the last forty-eight hours and I ate a fistful of fiber supplements every morning this week. I had big plans but I imagined I’d be falling in love with one of the waitstaff for the weekend,” he explained then sneered at his phone. “I would never get this far with a man like that if I wasn’t surrounded by men I can’t have sex with.”

“Nonsense but it does seem like fate is having a bit of a laugh tonight,” Alli said as she tapped her chin then jumped. “I think you should go for it. I’m going to look for Addi. My feet hurt and she’s got cute flats in her bag.”

“Go. You’ve already caused me enough trouble tonight,” Ellis said as he shooed her off then offered his cheek.

“Try to get into some trouble. I’ll check on you in a bit,” she said and kissed him loudly.

 

Boy, does he, Reader. Ellis isn’t able to help himself and one text leads to another and this happens:

 

Discreetly Yours 

I’m getting a room and I’ll send the number once I’m ready. I’ll keep the lights off and if you’re feeling really brave, you can join me. I don’t want to know who you are and I’ll trust you to respect my privacy. I just want to fuck you, thoroughly and completely. I’ll have condoms.

“If you’re feeling brave?” Alli said then looked at him. “That’s got to be a sign. You have to do this.” She gave Ellis’s shoulders a shake and he nodded but there wasn’t a lot happening inside his skull. There was a lot happening in his pants. His body definitely wanted him to do it. And his heart was telling him that he needed to get fucked, thoroughly and completely. He’d been under an intense amount of stress at work and Ellis skipped dinner with his parents because they were being especially persistent about his plans for the future. Now, he was facing the daunting prospect of fatherhood and a long weekend with Alli’s family.

“I have to do this,” Ellis agreed. Alli’s hand clapped over her mouth to smother a shriek and Ellis grimaced as he looked at the door. “I did promise to take care of you tonight,” he recalled then grunted when she gave his arm a hard shove.

“I have cake and two plates of food in the fridge. I can call housekeeping if there’s anything I don’t have and I’m a grown woman. I can take care of myself for a night. Go, be brave and do crazy, filthy things,” she said then rose on her toes and kissed his cheek.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this!” He whispered as he typed then bit back a scream as he hit Send.

The Cumback Kid 

Give me an hour.

“I have to take a shower; my boxers are already soaked.”

 

Which brings us to this:

 

“Wow. All the usual anxiety of an anonymous hookup plus the possibility of personal and social catastrophe. What could possibly go wrong?” Ellis asked himself as the elevator doors shut then pushed the button. It was a short ride and the doors opened a moment later. He glanced at the hall guide then checked to make sure it was clear then cautiously made his way to room 142. His eyes jumped from room number to room number and he slowed as he approached a junior suite at the end of the hall. The door was cracked and the room was dark. Ellis swallowed loudly then pushed out a hard breath as he reached for the handle. He blocked his face with his other hand as he eased it open. He leaned so he could peek around the door but he could only make out the bed and a chair as he waited for his eyes to adjust.

“I’m over here,” a voice whispered and Ellis followed it to a tall, dark figure leaning against the dresser. Is that Jamie? Ellis wondered. He couldn’t tell by the whisper and Discreet’s head was down. All Ellis could see was that he was shirtless and appeared to be drinking a cocktail. He also appeared to be alone so Ellis slid into the room and shut the door. It was too dark for Discreet to make out more than his shadow so Ellis lowered his hand and edged a little closer to the bed. He was still turned on but Ellis didn’t know who was supposed to make the first move if the top got the room. Was he supposed to just get on the bed? A lot of “straight” guys liked to get straight to it. Married men also liked to hit and run. Not that Ellis knew that much about the few men he met on Grindr or what Discreet was into, his profile was light on details. Probably for a reason, Ellis reminded himself then jumped when the ice cubes in Discreet’s glass clinked as he drank.

“Right! I’ll just get naked and get on the bed?” Ellis said quietly and his hands trembled as he fumbled with his belt buckle.

“Wait. Come here,” Discreet whispered but it was deep and there was an alluring command to his tone that sent a shiver down Ellis’s spine. His feet carried him across the room and Ellis’s heartbeat became a maddening throb at the smell of scotch and his cologne. “Let’s see if this is going to work, first,” Discreet murmured before his hand curved around Ellis’s jaw and he was pulled close. 

“Ok,” he said softly then braced his hands on Discreet’s chest as their lips touched. His breath tasted like scotch and his lips were firm and warm and Ellis moaned as he leaned into Discreet. Fingers pushed through Ellis’s hair and heat burst under his skin as their tongues swirled. They became bolder and hungrier and Ellis went limp as Discreet’s hand locked around his ass. Discreet angled his head, taking the kiss deeper as their hard-ons were crushed then bucked against Ellis. It was frantic and euphoric as they became wild with lust. Most importantly, Ellis had no clue who Discreet was. “It’s working!” Ellis gasped breathlessly. He swallowed a moan as Discreet sucked on his chin then dragged his teeth along Ellis’s jaw and found his ear. 

“It’s definitely working,” he panted. Ellis nodded and attacked the buttons on his shirt then moved his hands out of the way when Discreet ripped it open. Buttons pattered onto the floor and Discreet hissed but it didn’t sound very sincere. There was a drowsy rumble as his lips dragged over Ellis’s skin. “Sorry. I need to touch you,” he murmured then groaned as his hands slid beneath Ellis’s shirt and around his chest.

“Fuck it. I have lots of shirts,” he said as he shook his arm free and flung it at the door.

“You feel perfect. Tell me what you want,” Discreet purred in the dark before his tongue washed up Ellis’s neck, destroying what was left of his inhibitions.

“This!” Ellis said as he gripped the hard-on straining against the front of Discreet’s trousers. His self-respect was gone as well, Ellis noted, as he lowered to his knees. He rubbed his face against the bulge and Discreet swore as his hands swept through Ellis’s hair.

“Jesus, Kid, you’re killing me.” It was a strangled whisper and Ellis felt an intoxicating swell of desire and power as he gave Discreet’s trousers and boxer briefs a swift tug. 

Ellis would have dropped his pants and hugged his knees and allowed Discreet to take whatever he wanted. It would still be hot but knowing Discreet gave Ellis the reins when he was clearly used to being in command was exhilarating. Discreet’s power and pride were as obvious to Ellis as the beat of his own heart and the desire coursing through his veins. But Discreet was ready to play with fire and was waiting for Ellis to light the match. Ellis prayed he wouldn’t get burned then jumped into the flames. His hands spread as they pushed up Discreet’s thighs then wrapped around this thick length. He pushed his nose and lips into Discreet’s sack and Ellis was rewarded with a gasp as the fingers in his hair twisted. Discreet’s balls were smooth and heavy and Ellis made a delighted sound as he lapped and sucked. Ellis’s vision was limited to outlines and shapes in the dark so he shut his eyes and wallowed in the clean, crisp taste of Discreet’s warm, aroused flesh and his tortured whispers. The air filled with Discreet’s strangled pleas and curses as Ellis’s tongue lashed at his shaft greedily. He teased the slit and Ellis moaned as pre-cum burst on his tongue. Ellis swallowed the head and his lips burned as they stretched around Discreet’s shaft. “Holy fucking…!” Discreet whimpered as his hand slapped onto the dresser behind him and Ellis could hear his fingertips clawing at the wood. He tasted like heaven but Ellis wanted Discreet to let go. Burn with me.

“I came to get thoroughly and completely fucked,” Ellis whispered silkily as his lips teased the end of Discreet’s cock.

“Goddamn it!” Discreet growled as Ellis was pulled to his feet then thrown onto the bed. Discreet’s hands and lips were everywhere as they writhed and kicked out of their clothes until they were slick, naked and tangled. “You taste so fucking perfect!” Discreet said as he slid lower and bright bursts of color filled Ellis’s vision as he blinked at the ceiling. Discreet was ruthless as he sucked, licked and stroked. He bathed Ellis’s cock in lush, scorching heat then stole his breath as Discreet’s tongue swept beneath his sack and washed over his hole. “Fuck!” Discreet hissed then held Ellis open and angled his face so he could gorge himself. He sucked and his tongue thrust and probed as his fingers pushed into the tight ring of Ellis’s ass. Discreet fingered him slow and deep, stretching and twisting as Ellis arched and moaned deliriously.

“Please!” Ellis urged. He clutched the duvet and his feet kicked and his toes curled as he fought off the driving pleasure building in his groin. Ellis whimpered in relief and pushed out a shaking breath as Discreet climbed up his body. Then, he laughed in surprise when Discreet crashed into his lips and kissed him. He was tender but possessive as his hand curved around Ellis’s jaw and he groaned.

“I’m going to dream about drowning in your lips and your ass,” Discreet complained and Ellis swore in frustration as he grabbed his face and kissed him hard.

“Do not make me fall in love with you. This is already a mistake.” There was a ragged chuckle as Discreet’s arm stretched for the nightstand.

“I don’t think I have a choice,” he teased but a tremor passed between them, as if they felt the same sense of foreboding. His lips hovered over Ellis’s, as if he was pausing and having second thoughts.

“Don’t think,” Ellis suggested. His fingers trailed down wide, flat, hair-dusted pecs then over the hard ridges of Discreet’s abs and around his side. Ellis moaned as his hand spread around the tight globe of Discreet’s ass and he bucked impatiently beneath him. “You’ll never know you fucked me and I’ll never know it was you.”

“What if we can’t forget?” Discreet huffed against Ellis’s lips. He kissed Ellis before he rose and rested on his elbow. There was a weak glint of foil in the dark and the sound of a wrapper ripping. Discreet quickly stretched a condom over his length and Ellis might have fallen in love when he heard the clicking of a cap before slick fingers traced his passage.

“So thoughtful,” Ellis observed and there was a soft snort.

“We’re going to need it,” he warned then forced the air from Ellis’s lungs as he filled him with hard, steady heat.

 

Who’s Discreet and what happens when a weekend fling with a mysterious stranger turns into a habit Ellis can’t quit?

 

Get Ellis Harper’s Shot In The Dark NOW for $3.99 on Amazon or FREE with KU!:

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Also! If you’re not a member of The Sterlings’ League of Extraordinary Perverts over on Facebook, hurry up and join us for lots of sneak peeks and fun extras! We’re having a special giveaway at the end of the month for our group members and we’d love to include you! We’re a closed group, for your privacy, so you’ll have to answer two simple questions so we know you’re not going to be a creep to other members, but that’s all it takes! Look at what we’re giving to one lucky Pervert!:

 

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Join The Sterlings’ League of Extraordinary Perverts HERE:

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AND:

Join us for Scott’s Sexy Instant Serial! We’re sharing The Perfect Cover on audiobook in a FREE series on Soundcloud. Check it out and subscribe so you never miss an episode and stay for fun commentary and nonsense with me and Scott!

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Have you tried Scott’s Sexy Instant Serial?

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Did you know we have a FREE audiobook series on Soundcloud?
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The Perfect Cover and the perfect cover

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I was in a brave, optimistic place this summer. I survived a gall bladder attack and a subsequent surgery and realized I could work in the pool while drinking White Claws and Trulys. There was also an open call from Avon for unagented manuscripts so I decided to shoot my shot, since this was Sarah’s summer. “What are my strengths, self?” I asked and my response was “Antiheroes and underdogs?” I knew I wanted an agent of some sort and to pair him with someone who wouldn’t be impressed, or interested, really. I decided a very tired suburban father would be fun but the more I learned about Grant, the more I realized that his story would be a tough one and that he was the real hero of the book. How does a man end up a single father? There aren’t a lot of good reasons, are there? I decided this was a good time to introduce a character who was beautiful and heroic in a very different way. Grant is a lot like me, and I suspect a lot of my readers, in that he suffers from depression and anxiety. He isn’t depressed or anxious because his husband died or because his neighbors are spies. He’s always struggled with depression and has terrible anxiety, like the hundreds of millions of people around the world who struggle with mental illness in their daily lives. As a result, I told on myself a whole lot, in writing Grant. I even gave him a big goofy dog for a best friend, named Edgar. But, I promise, this isn’t a sad book. Grant’s story is a sad one but our dashing agent sees the hero in him and makes it his mission to make the shy but secretly kinky widower laugh again. There’s also the matter of the Chinese spies living next door and Grant’s daughter, Audrey, and his sister-in-law have matchmaking schemes aplenty. I lost my best friend just as I was finishing The Perfect Cover. My Milo passed away and it was hard to edit a book about a depressed man with a big goofy dog, being a severely depressed woman without her dog. Then, Avon passed on The Perfect Cover and while I was disappointed, I was glad that I could finally share what I think is a sexy, fun and very honest book with my readers. What I wasn’t excited about was the title and the cover. For months, it was called “Hopkins Creek” because I hoped Avon would want it and someone more savvy might help with a decent title and I didn’t even think about covers. God, I hate titles and covers. But once they passed, I had a book to self-publish and sell so I stopped crying and put on my thinking cap. I’ve been on the fence about illustrated covers on romance books but since “Hopkins Creek” wasn’t like my Lake Cliff books I wanted something that would signal that to readers so a different cover made sense. I found some cute illustrated guys and an extremely adorable dog among the stock pictures and my spirits lifted as I tinkered on Photoshop. I used The Perfect Cover as a place holder because I thought I was being cheeky and meta but Melissa loved the title and pointed out that it worked, so I left it! What do you think of the final result? And how about a whole chapter excerpt from The Perfect Cover?

“Don’t ignore the alarm when it goes off. You’ll forget to take your pills,” Audrey scolded absently as she typed on her phone and Grant snorted.

“I think I can remember to take my pills,” he replied and she hummed in agreement.

“I like pretending you weren’t puffy and covered in hives when you picked me up last month too,” she said dryly. “Just take your meds when the alarm goes off or you’ll forget.”

“I will,” Grant promised. It wasn’t just his allergy meds, he got behind with his Effexor and caught up with his depression and anxiety. He spent the last half of the month on the couch watching old family movies and eating ice cream in the dark. “I’m glad it’s just three days this time. A month is way too long,” he complained.

“I’ve got bad news, dad. College is significantly longer than a month and then I’m never coming back,” she said then flashed him a sweet smile. “I’m kidding. I’ll miss you and come home so I can do my laundry at least once a month,” she promised. Grant glared at the windshield. He hated that she was sixteen.

“Why can’t you wait and go to college when you’re eighteen?” He asked and she sighed as they turned into the high school parking lot. Grant parked next to the bus and Audrey unbuckled her belt then hugged his arm.

“It’s just a two-hour hour drive and I’ll call you all the time,” she said gently. He shushed her as he gave her a squeeze and kissed her hair.

“Don’t think I’m not proud of you or excited, just because I’m falling apart. I’ll figure out some way to survive on my own,” he teased.

“I know,” she said as she sat back then waved at her best friend, Ashley, before her eyes flicked back to Grant and narrowed. “You better do something cool this weekend,” she threatened. Grant started to smirk before she pointed. “With someone other than Edgar,” she stipulated and his face fell.

“Why can’t I hang out with Edgar? That’s cool,” he argued and she shook her head.

“Hang out with Walter or Aunt Marcy or… I don’t know, meet a guy,” she suggested nonchalantly and Grant’s face twisted. “Come on!” Audrey begged. “Think about how much better I’d feel!” She protested. “I wouldn’t have to feel guilty for leaving you alone and someone else can remind you to take your pills every morning.”

“Shouldn’t you be going?” He asked flatly and she pulled a face as she leaned in to kiss him.

“I love you and I want you to do something this weekend. You don’t have to do anything radical like go on Tinder, if you’re not ready. But you have to do something nice for yourself or talk to someone other than Edgar. And not on the phone, please,” she added as she gave him a loaded look and he held up his hands.

“I will do my best but I can’t promise my idea of cool will be as exciting as you’re hoping,” he warned but she waved if off.

“Don’t spend the next three days at home, alone. And running by the post office and grabbing coffee doesn’t count. You see the same people and have the exact same conversations every day. Go get a haircut or a pedicure or buy yourself something nice. Whatever. Just don’t stay home,” she ordered.

“Fine. Get out or I’ll throw you out,” he said then kissed her loudly on the forehead. “I love you. Check in when you get there and send me a text goodnight.”

“I will and I love you too,” Audrey said then pushed open her door and hopped out of the passenger seat. Grant waited as she grabbed her backpack and duffle bag from the back then loaded her things into the bus.

“Stay safe, Jelly Bean,” he murmured softly as Audrey and Ashley got on the bus and took their seats at the front so they could help supervise the younger campers. He made a weak attempt to shake the guilt during the short drive from the high school to the town center. It was a lot easier to trick Audrey into thinking he was happy when she was younger, but she noticed and worried more as she got older. Grant parked in front of The Six Beans Coffee Co. and waved at Vanessa as he passed the window then frowned as he reached for the post office door. He didn’t even look, he just waved because he knew she’d be there.

“Morning, Grant! Got your mail right here. Looks like a beautiful weekend,” Rhoda predicted as she handed Grant his mail. He nodded as he took it and she pointed as he tucked it under his arm. “You’ve got the new Pottery Barn catalog there! They’ve got those cute lamps I was telling you about again.”

“Great!” Grant said loudly. He pretended he knew what she was talking about and that the déjà vu wasn’t severe. Marcy put his address and email on Pottery Barn’s mailing list to get a coupon, he suspected. But Rhoda loved Pottery Barn so he went along with it every time a new catalog came in. “I’ll keep an eye out for them when I’m flipping through it.”

“Oh! How’s Edgar?” She asked solemnly and Grant shook his head.

“It wasn’t that serious. The big baby got his foot pinched in Marcy’s fence because he was trying to catch Lola so they could be friends. He needed a few stitches and a few days in a cone to reflect. He’s not too thrilled about it so I let him stay home to preserve his dignity,” he explained and she laughed.

“Poor guy, that cat’s just a hateful thing.”

“I keep telling Edgar but he’s determined to be her friend,” Grant sighed then tapped his mail against his brow. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Rhoda.”

“You have a lovely day, dear. Tell Edgar I missed him and let Audrey know I enjoyed her little article in the paper,” she said as she hurried around the post office counter and got the door for him.

“I’ll tell them,” Grant replied absently as he studied the Audi parked next to him, in front of the coffee shop. Hopkins Creek was full of luxury vehicles but most were SUVs and crossovers. Something about the sharp little sports car made the hairs on the back of Grant’s neck stand.

It took Grant all of two seconds to find the Audi’s owner after he stepped into The Six Beans. He was thanking Vanessa for his coffee then smiled at Grant before he went off to add sugar to his cup. Grant quickly noted the perfect hair, flawless smile, square jaw, expensive suit and the other man’s tall, lean and probably sculpted body and moved along. Like the other mortals in the coffee shop, Grant pretended to be unaware of the walking cologne ad obliviously perusing the display of travel mugs and smiled at Vanessa as he stepped up to the counter.

“How’s it going? Just my usual,” he said. He pulled out his wallet and Vanessa hissed urgently as she waved for him to come closer. Grant frowned as he leaned over the counter.

“He’s definitely single but I can’t tell which one of us should make a move!” She whispered then cocked her chin at the other man.

“A move? Who…?” Grant asked quietly and cluelessly. Vanessa cleared her throat loudly and pointed at the man as she rubbed her nose.

“Him!” She coughed and Grant flinched before he chuckled and shook his head.

“I can’t tell either but I doubt he’d give me his number,” he said dismissively as he slid his card into the reader and punched in his PIN.

“I’d love to give you my number,” a smooth, warm voice murmured from over his shoulder and Grant wanted to shove his face right in his wallet. Grant’s fingers were numb and trembled as he found a $5 for Vanessa.

“Yikes!” She whispered and her eyes were wide but sparkled with delight as they met Grant’s. She giggled as she hurried off to make his coffee and Grant swallowed the giant knot in his throat as he stuffed the bill in the tip jar. He was sweating but he managed a humanlike smile as he turned and Grant was stunned as bright, seeking blue eyes trapped his.

“Sorry to eavesdrop but she whispers loud,” he said then winked at Grant.

“She does,” Grant agreed as his head bobbled. “But the coffee’s really good so we overlook her lack of subtlety.” He laughed weakly then pressed the back of his hand to his head to check if the flop sweat had begun yet.

“Do you come here often?” The impossibly gorgeous man asked as he swayed a little closer and Grant almost looked around to see who he was flirting with. But he knew that aside from Vanessa, Edgar and the Davis sisters, it was just the two of them.

“Just about every day,” Grant said then glanced at Vanessa and silently begged her to hurry. “The post office doesn’t deliver here so I stop in and say hi to Vanessa after I see Rhoda for my mail. I like to take my dog, Edgar, to the park afterwards,” he explained. Why? Grant asked himself and his nose scrunched as he wondered if he could find anything blander to tell the most beautiful man he’d ever met. “Unless the weather’s really bad. Then we just go home,” he added. There you go.

“I’m devastated to see you didn’t bring Edgar with you today. I love dogs,” the most beautiful man replied as he reached into his coat and pulled out his phone.

“Dogs are great,” Grant replied woodenly and his eyes widened in panic.

“Here’s your coffee, Grant!” Vanessa chirped and Grant gasped in relief as he turned and grabbed the cup like it was a life vest and the coffee shop was going under.

“Thank you! I’ve got to go!” He said and her head pushed forward in shock.

“Grant!” She protested.

“Not before I get your number, I hope,” the other man said and Grant shook his head quickly as he backed away from the counter.

“I left my phone in the car,” he mumbled as he gestured over his shoulder then turned and escaped. He pushed open the door and almost ran to his car as he pulled his keys from his pocket. Grant fumbled with the mail and his coffee as he opened the door and ducked into the driver’s seat but he made an otherwise clean getaway. “I left my phone in the car?” He yelled at the windshield in disgust then sneered. “And what was that even about? Asking me for my number…” he complained then waved at the windshield. “That guy would never be interested in me.”

There was a very brief time in Grant’s life when he considered himself “hot”, it was right after college, when he and Chris got their first place together. They still had abs and jawlines and groomed obsessively because they didn’t have Audrey yet. But not even then. The guy in the coffee shop probably dated men with diplomatic immunity and private jets. He wasn’t sure what the dashing younger man was doing in Hopkins Creek but Grant severely doubted he was hunting for a broken forty-two-year-old soccer dad.

“God, he was beautiful, though. And he smelled incredible,” Grant sighed as he turned into his driveway. Edgar was standing on the couch and watching through the window. His whip-like tail swatted excitedly as he waited and Grant’s mood lifted as he got out of the car. He was still disappointed in himself for acting like a total ass but at least he got to spend the rest of the morning teasing Edgar about his silly collar.

The Perfect Cover will be available on December 17th but you can PRE-ORDER it NOW on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2YDQ2bG

 

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The Perfect Cover and the perfect cover