Wednesday, December 28, 2016

4th Day of Christmas Author Spotlight: KC Burn

Author Bio:
KC Burn has been writing for as long as she can remember and is a sucker for happy endings (of all kinds). After moving from Toronto to Florida for her husband to take a dream job, she discovered a love of gay romance and fulfilled a dream of her own--getting published. After a few years of editing web content by day, and neglecting her supportive, understanding hubby and needy cat at night to write stories about men loving men, she was uprooted yet again and now resides in California. Writing is always fun and rewarding, but writing about her guys is the most fun she's had in a long time, and she hopes you'll enjoy them as much as she does.


Cop Out
Toronto Tales #1
Detective Kurt O’Donnell is used to digging up other people’s secrets, but when he discovers his slain partner was married to another man, it shakes him. Determined to do the right thing, Kurt offers the mourning Davy his assistance. Helping Davy through his grief helps Kurt deal with the guilt that his partner didn’t trust him enough to tell him the truth, and somewhere along the way Davy stops being an obligation and becomes a friend, the closest friend Kurt has ever had.

His growing attraction to Davy complicates matters, leaving Kurt struggling to reevaluate his sexuality. Then a sensual encounter neither man is ready for confuses them further. To be with Davy, Kurt must face the prospect of coming out, but his job and his relationship with his Catholic family are on the line. Can he risk destroying his life for the uncertain possibility of a relationship with a newly widowed man?

Original Review September 2013:
I read this one second but it didn't really make any difference to the story. I enjoyed this one immensely. Loved the way Kurt came to accept his orientation and his interaction with Davy and really loved the few scenes with Davy's openly gay friends.


MIA Case Files #1
Agent Lachlan Carmichael has a job to do. A portal is open in Rothburg, and this time the Umbrae passing through it are creating werewolves. He needs to close the portal, even if it means losing two-thirds of the people possessed by the Umbrae.

So what if Adam Farelli, the town's screw-up, is the sexiest man he's ever seen? Carmichael's been content to live with 'don't ask don't tell' for most of his life. A gorgeous, shiftless layabout isn't going to convince him to step out of the closet.

But when Carmichael needs Adam's help to close the portal, he's unable to resist the temptation Adam represents. But his lies and lack of trust put Adam in danger when one of the werewolves, obsessed with Adam, kidnaps him. Even if Carmichael can save the man he's grown to love, he's going to have to convince Adam to forgive him.

Tartan Candy
Fabric Hearts #1
Finlay McIntyre (aka Raven) is a successful adult film star with a penchant for kilts, until an accident cuts short his stardom and leaves him with zero sexual desire, lowered self-esteem, and no job. He knew his porn career wouldn’t last forever, but he wasn’t prepared for retirement at twenty-eight. While trying to figure out the rest of his life, Raven agrees to attend a high school reunion. That’s when a malfunctioning AC unit in his hotel room changes everything.

Caleb Sanderson, an entrepreneur with his own HVAC business, has no idea what to expect when he steps into Raven’s hotel room to fix his AC unit. They’re attracted to each other, but Caleb, closeted, can’t afford a gay relationship, not with his mom pressuring him to produce grandchildren. If he wants to keep Raven—who no closet could hold—he’ll need to tell his family the truth. But Raven has a few secrets of his own. He refuses to reveal his porn past to Caleb, a past that might be the final obstacle to Caleb and Raven having any kind of relationship.

Original Review April 2016:
This is a great tale of coming to terms with the unexpected and triumphing over the hurdles that life gives us.  Raven and Caleb are nearly perfect together.  When I think of "perfect" in terms of relationships, I don't think of Utopia kind of perfect that most of us have in mind.  I think of the good and the bad for both parties that just fit together, they fight, they kiss, they understand, they misunderstand, but at the end of the day they faced it together even if it does not always run smoothly.  This is another great read by KC Burn.  I never thought I had much of a kilt fetish but after Tartan Candy, it is certainly among the possibilities.


Illusion of Life
Newly single Tyler Williams ought to be out partying every night, sampling the buffet of gay men Toronto has to offer. Carefree and casual has never been his style, even less so now that he was tenure track history professor approaching thirty, but he has a better chance of finding Mr. Right in a club than on an app.

Distraction from his dismal love life comes in the form of a housewarming gift – a life sized portrait of a gorgeous naked man, complete with a mystery.

Maxwell Friedland, a Depression-era artist, went missing shortly after posing for the portrait, presumably murdered by his lover. Finding out more about Maxwell and his disappearance plays right into Tyler’s love of both history and murder mysteries, but before long, Tyler finds himself obsessed with the man in the painting. It’s not long before he starts treating Max like a silent companion and sounding board. Max doesn’t judge or tell him he’s a failure at dating or cheat on him. Everything he learns about Max makes him yearn for a man long dead.

Trapped in the painting by a curse, Max has spent decades longing for oblivion. Until Tyler. Tyler is everything Max would have wanted for himself, and it doesn’t take many of Tyler’s one-sided conversations for Max to start caring more than he should. For all that Tyler has friends and family, there’s a deep-seated loneliness in him, one that Max wants to erase. But the thickness of canvas trapping him might as well be miles of stone for all that Max could be with Tyler for real.

Falling in love might be the worst curse of all.

North on Drummond
Sandy Bottom Bay, Florida--Come for the Haunts, Stay for the Beaches!

Drew Drummond might call himself a psychic tarot reader, but he doesn’t believe in the supernatural. The business was left to him by his grandmother, and seemed the best way to rise above the chronic criminal behavior of the Drummond family. Despite his efforts, few of the townspeople consider him a good romantic match. Being gay only makes finding love more difficult.

When Cliff Garcia, Drew’s teenaged crush, moves back to town and joins the police force, Drew doesn’t think he has a chance. After all, the skeptical cop considers Drew’s profession on par with professional conmen, and Cliff had spent his entire school career feuding with Drew’s volatile brothers. Despite the obstacles, Drew and Cliff begin a fiery relationship.

Just when Drew starts to believe they might have a chance, he suffers a head injury and begins having visions of the future. If Drew tells Cliff the truth, he’ll lose the man he’s falling for, but keeping his new ability a secret is no longer an option. If he can’t convince Cliff he’s for real, a murderer will walk free.

Original Review October 2015:
Just when you think Cliff's blinders to the possibilities of the existence of the paranormal were ruling his life, in walks Drew Drummond and suddenly everything is turned upside down.  Watching Cliff's inner belief system on the paranormal is heartbreaking at times but it is just one of those things he has to work out for himself.  Luckily he has found an old friend as his new partner on the force and a very interesting psychic as his new lover.  A great all around read that has mystery, romance, paranormal elements, and a huge cast of intriguing characters that captured my heart from beginning to end.


Rainbow Blues
Having come out late in life, forty-three-year-old Luke Jordan is at a loss about how to conduct himself as a gay man. As a construction manager, he’s not interested in being out at work, but he’d like to find a boyfriend or at least some gay friends. Two years after his wife got all their friends in the divorce, he’s no closer to the life he wants.

Zach, Luke’s adult son, takes charge and signs him up for the Rainbow Blues, a social group for gay blue-collar workers. At an event, he not only finds friends but meets Jimmy Alexander, part-time stage actor and full-time high school biology teacher. Jimmy loves the stage but wishes potential boyfriends weren’t so jealous of the time he devotes to it. When he meets Luke and finds him accepting of his many facets, he thinks it’s a dream come true.

Their relationship quickly moves into serious territory, but their connection is tested to its breaking point by the offer of a juicy movie role that takes Jimmy to the opposite coast and into the path of a very sexy costar.

Cop Out
Chapter One
KURT hunkered down behind the car, waiting for Ben’s signal. How bulletproof were these cars? Thirty years ago, they were built like tanks. His father still had one, called it an antique land yacht. Now… well, they sure as hell weren’t titanium.

The sun blazed, heating his face, making sweat drip down from his short hair and into his collar. His navy-blue shirt was already drenched—Kevlar vests were hot and heavy, but they were a necessary evil. Last Tuesday in May, but the temperature rivaled the middle of July. He fucking hated midday busts on sunny, summery days. The sunshine meant they had no visibility advantages, and a sudden glare could blind someone at a critical moment.

He swiped the back of his hand across his forehead. At least if he were undercover, he could be wearing a bandana to soak up the sweat. The acrid scent of the tar heating in the asphalt battled with rotting fish and garbage from the nearby market district. He wished they’d waited for backup. But he’d only been a detective for three years—Ben had been doing this for a lot longer, and he had to bow to Ben’s greater experience. His partner might be taciturn and reticent, but he was a dedicated and effective officer. Kurt trusted him with his life.

As it should be.

Ben slipped into position by the front door of the building and gave him the signal he’d been waiting for. Tugging the collar of his vest one final time, Kurt crept around to cover the rear of the building, holding himself close to the wall, out of any of the windows’ sight lines.

Gustav, one of Ben’s informants, had contacted Ben with a tip about a suspect. Ben said they had to follow up immediately, and Kurt trusted his partner to do what was best, even though the tip was for a case that wasn’t even theirs. But Ben had contacts everywhere, and it couldn’t hurt to get a few kudos from the drug squad.

Glock poised, the familiar grip kept him grounded while he waited for the inevitable dash for the back when an officer announces himself at the front. He stretched to peer through the dirty window. There were no people. No movement. Nothing to suggest the room he observed had been used in a long time. A layer of dust coated the table and chairs.

Ben demanded entrance loudly enough for Kurt to hear, bringing his attention back to the door. Almost simultaneously, Ben booted in the front door and the building exploded, throwing Kurt backwards.

THE light hurt his eyes, but Kurt couldn’t shut them any farther than they were. He wished he could scrunch his ears shut, too, against the infernal beeping.

“Are you awake?” a strident female voice asked.

He cringed.

“Come on now, it’s time to wake up.”

The beeping was regular, rhythmic… like a heart monitor. Right. The harsh smell of cleansers should have given it away. He was in a hospital. The monitors must have alerted someone of his return to consciousness.

“What happened?” God. That didn’t sound like him—that sounded like someone who’d swallowed gravel for breakfast. Talking hurt like a bitch too.

“Can you open your eyes, Detective O’Donnell?”

No fucking way. “Too bright,” he managed to say. A throbbing heartbeat of pain started in his temples. Other body parts threatened to chime in, which he wasn’t looking forward to, but hell, it meant he wasn’t dead.

The light level dropped, and Kurt cracked open his lids. A nurse with—he strained to focus—teddy bears on her scrubs, stood over him, holding a clipboard and scratching out a few notes with the loudest pen ever created.


Despite her glass-cracking voice, the woman smiled down at him in sympathy. “I know. But you can’t have anything until the doctor sees you.”

She patted his shoulder gently and left the room, rubber soles squeaking, making him wince.

What the hell had happened?

He tried moving each limb, gingerly, testing for soreness. Nothing screamed as loud as his head, but there were issues with his left arm and left leg. Glancing around the room, he couldn’t see anything with the date, or even the time. The last thing he remembered was getting into the car with Ben after receiving a tip. Did they have a car accident? Had he been shot? Trying to remember sent spikes of red-hot agony into his head. Heaving out a sigh, he relaxed as much as he could on the granite slab the hospital claimed was a mattress.

Although he wanted nothing more than to rip out his IV and storm out into the hallway, demanding someone tell him what was going on, in truth, he was afraid doing so would only make everything hurt worse. He’d never felt this horrible in his life—he didn’t want to know how much shittier it could get.

The unmistakable sounds of an irate Irish couple arguing in the distance wafted into the room. He relaxed even further. If his parents couldn’t convince the doctor to hurry up and see him, as soon as his brothers and sisters descended, the hospital staff would do whatever they could to get rid of the raucous brood as soon as possible.

“That’s my baby in there!”

Uh. They were getting closer, and Kurt hoped they’d either calm his mother down or let them in, because his mother was working herself into a fine state, and her voice tap-danced in his brain.

“Mrs. O’Donnell. Mr. O’Donnell. The doctor’s on his way, I promise. Come with me to the waiting area, it won’t be long.”

The firm voice belonged to his boss. What was he doing here? Did that confirm whatever happened had been related to the bust they’d been heading to? Why couldn’t he remember what went down? And where the fuck was Ben?

Kurt brought his right hand to his head, and rubbed gently. God almighty, he needed some narcotics, or hell, maybe a beheading wouldn’t be so bad.

“Detective O’Donnell.” A tiny white-coated woman entered his room. “I’m Doctor Sarwa. How’s the head?”

“Hurts.” There went that croaking voice again. “What happened?”

“In a minute. Any nausea?”

“No, not really.” Not a lie, but he wasn’t ready to eat anything, either.

Dr. Sarwa gave a curt nod and made few notations on a clipboard before she set it down and flipped back the covers on his left side. Kurt peered down, despite the strain it put on his eyeballs, and saw a huge long bandage over his arm. Was it broken?

The doctor peeled back the bandage, revealing a number of black stitches along a jagged cut extending along the inside of his arm from mid-bicep to wrist.

“You’re lucky, Detective O’Donnell,” the doctor murmured as she gently probed at the… he couldn’t call it an incision. No self-respecting surgeon in the world would make a cut that ragged and random. “You didn’t break any bones.”

That was her definition of lucky? Having seen the damage, his arm began throbbing in time with the pounding in his brain.

Kurt took a deep breath. His throat was so dry, he didn’t want to say one more word than necessary. “Leg?”

She snorted. “Just a twisted knee, not serious at all.”


“I’ll tell the nurse when I leave. You can have a little juice.” She retaped the bandage. “Looks good. Okay, quick rundown. You conked your head, and shrapnel sliced open your arm.”

Kurt laughed, but shut it down after a second when it upgraded the tap-dancers in his head to a steel drum band. “Professional opinion?”

Dr. Sarwa smiled faintly at him. “I could get technical with you, but you’ll remember this easier once the grogginess wears off. The shrapnel was dangerous—you had to get into surgery immediately or you were going to bleed out. But it could have been a lot worse. I’ll be back later.”

He might have drifted for a few minutes, but a nurse showed up almost immediately with a cup of juice, followed by his mom and dad.

“Baby, oh, baby!” His mom flew to the side of the bed opposite the nurse. At the moment, he was more interested in the approaching bendy straw. The crisp bite of apples hit his nose, and his parchment-dry mouth salivated in response.

His mom grabbed his hand and squeezed lightly. Tears wet the back of his hand. This was the first time he’d been… certainly not hurt. With six elder siblings, he’d had his share of breaks and contusions. But this was the first time he’d been hurt on the job, because why else would he have a shrapnel wound, even if he couldn’t remember how he got it.

With his thirst eased, if not slaked, he turned his head to his mom. The nurse left, to be replaced by his dad.

“Kurt, baby….”

“Mom, I’m okay.”

“No you’re not.”

Kurt winced, and his father spoke softly. “Deirdre, not so loud. Remember what the doctor said.”

“But he’s not okay, Sean.” She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “I’m sorry, baby.”

“How are you feeling, Son?” His father’s hand hovered over his bandage, and finally settled on his shoulder.

“Sore.” But now that he was more awake, he was ready to go home. The pain was beginning to dull, settle, now that he knew what was physically wrong. “Dad, what happened?”

His parents exchanged a glance. His mother started weeping.

“What?” They were never at a loss for words.

“Baby, you could have died.” His mom’s voice broke.

The decibel level rose outside his room. The rest of his family must have arrived. Shit, this wasn’t any worse than when Ian dared him to climb that rotting tree in their backyard. He’d broken an arm and a leg, then. This was a bad cut, a knock to the head and a twisted knee. Really not cause for all the histrionics. But they still acted like he was a baby, even though he was thirty-one. Why did he have to be his parents’ last kid?

The door opened, but it wasn’t one of his siblings who entered. It was his boss.

“Sir?” Nausea boiled in his gut, and the throbbing in his head accelerated.

“O’Donnell. Glad to see you’re awake. I’m afraid I have some bad news.” Like the somber expression hadn’t given it away.

“What, Sir?” His mother’s grip tightened, and his father stepped away, looking out the window.

“Do you remember what you were doing when the explosion occurred?”

Explosion? Now the shrapnel made sense. Nothing else did. “I don’t remember an explosion. Just getting the tip from Gustav, before I got in the car with Ben. Did the car explode?” Why wasn’t Ben telling him this? The nausea had transformed to a sharp, burning pain in his gut.

“The building your informant directed you to was rigged. We’re almost positive that one of the guys Ben put away while he was on the drug squad—guy who goes by the name of Novi, the Russian Bear—was behind the explosion. He was released on parole a couple of months ago.”

Novi. Kurt remembered stories about him—drug runner and dealer, among other things. But he could tell by Inspector Nadar’s expression that there was more to come.

“I’m sorry, Kurt. Ben didn’t make it.”

Dead? He sucked in a breath. Shards of memories filled with heat and noise assaulted him.

“Honey, I’m so sorry,” his mom whispered. His parents had met Ben a couple of times. Ben had been a loner, and even after three years, Kurt didn’t know a lot about his personal life, but Ben was his partner. They’d worked well together, and he’d considered them friends. The almost fifteen-year age difference hadn’t mattered in the least.

His eyes filled, and he broke the gaze with Inspector Nadar, facing his mom. She pulled a tissue from her purse and dabbed at his damp face.

Pulling in a deep breath, he directed his gaze back at his boss. “How long ago? Have you informed his family?” As far as he knew, there was only Ben’s mother. He wanted to be there; it was his responsibility.

“I did that while you were in surgery. I don’t have any details yet, but the funeral will likely be on Saturday. If you want to be there, you need to concentrate on getting well.”

“Yes, Sir.” He’d be there, no matter if he had to drag an IV stand along behind him. Later he’d worry about getting the Russian Bear behind bars.

“Good day, Mr. and Mrs. O’Donnell.” Inspector Nadar nodded sharply before he spun on his heel and left the room.

“That’s right, baby. You need to get better. I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you.”

His brothers and sisters boiled into the room, all appropriately sympathetic for his loss, and glad he was mostly okay. Every one of them hugged him, awkwardly to be sure, but it wouldn’t be his family if there wasn’t any hugging or kissing. One of them had to be responsible for intimidating the nursing staff, because he believed most hospital patients weren’t allowed eight visitors at a time. He truly appreciated his family, and he hoped Ben’s mother had someone to help her, if she was having a lucid day and was able to comprehend the loss she’d suffered.

“Mom, I want to go home.”

“I know, baby. The doctor wants to keep you another day, then your dad and I will take you back home with us. Erin prepared the spare room for you while we rushed right here. We’ll take good care of you.”

He’d thank his sister later. Stupid to want his mom to take care of him at this age, but the thought of going back to his sterile apartment made him want to cry more. He didn’t have a girlfriend; he didn’t have anyone he even dated regularly. But he had his big, comforting family.

THE chapel was small, but already his leg protested the trip from the taxi. Ben wouldn’t care if he sat at the front or the back, so he slipped into an empty seat in the very last row. Drawing attention to himself, when he survived but Ben hadn’t, made him uncomfortable.

He should have let his parents come, but for some reason he’d wanted to do this alone. Stupid. The cane wasn’t quite enough support, not when he had to use the wrong arm. He scanned the attendees for anyone who looked like Mrs. Kaminski. He needed to pay his condolences to her, if nothing else. Most of the pews were filled with dress uniforms—very few in civilian dress.

The minister strolled out, appropriately somber, to start the ceremony. There was no casket as there had been at Granny O’Donnell’s funeral—the only other person close to him to have died. Kurt hoped the lack of casket was due to choice and not necessity, but he’d been so exhausted from his injuries he hadn’t thought to inquire about the details. The service began, but didn’t hold his attention. No minister could have anything to say to comfort Kurt. Not now.

Memories of the hours they’d spent in a department-issued car together flitted through his brain. Ben may have been reticent about his personal life, but he’d imparted years of wisdom to a green detective and Kurt had soaked it up, becoming better at his job every day because of Ben.

Two people, neither of them in uniform, were seated in the front row, but off to the far right. The entire front row was open, reserved for family that either didn’t exist or wasn’t going to arrive. From where he sat, only the woman’s profile was visible, but she was around Ben’s age. So, not Mrs. Kaminski. Who was she? He could see no physical similarities between Ben and the strange woman—it didn’t seem possible that she was family, despite her position in the family pew.

Under his gaze, she wiped at her eyes with a tissue and offered another one to the man beside her. He took it, but clenched it in his fist instead of using it. The woman moved slightly, and the man’s profile became visible. Kurt didn’t recognize either one.

The congregation rose for a hymn, blocking his view. He didn’t want to tax his leg any further by constantly standing and sitting, and he even had his mother’s blessing not to. She’d been adamant he not do anything to reinjure himself.

When the inspector stood to deliver the eulogy, a small stab of regret pierced his heart. If it wasn’t one of Ben’s friends from outside the force, it should have been him giving it. Shame made him accept the inspector’s offer to speak, and shame made him squirm in his seat while he listened, trying not dishonor his dress uniform by crying. But Nadar hadn’t spent nearly as much time with Ben as Kurt had, and his words reflected that distance. He watched the strangers in the front row, expecting one of them to rise to speak when Nadar was done. But neither of them moved, except for the woman who again blotted tears from her eyes.

Fuck. Could he have worked with Ben this long and not known he had a girlfriend? The woman could be family—maybe—but Ben had never mentioned anyone besides his mother. The woman’s hand fluttered to her face, moving a strand of dark hair behind her ear, and this time he caught sight of something he should have noticed immediately. A wedding band.

What the fuck?

Why hadn’t Ben told him? Granted, Kurt probably talked more about his personal life than his partner had wanted to hear, but Ben deflected almost all personal questions. Kurt thought them friends, but he didn’t even know Ben had been married, let alone recognize the woman he should have at least met in the three years they’d spent partnered. Hell, most of the married cops he knew hung out with their partners off the job, frequently with their wives as well. Sure, he and Ben had never done more than eat lunch together, but Ben had met his parents and all of his siblings at least once, when they’d stopped by the station.

A burning pain lanced up his arm. Looking down, Kurt realized he’d rested the cane across his lap and was squeezing the shit out of it with both hands. Fine for his right, but definitely too much activity for his still-stitched left arm. Taking a deep breath, he unclenched his fingers. He’d talk to the two strangers after the service. He had a duty as Ben’s partner, and he needed to know. As long as he could keep his bitterness contained. Why hadn’t Ben asked for a transfer if he hated Kurt so much? Because Kurt couldn’t imagine any other reason for him not to mention a wife, even an estranged one, to his partner.

He couldn’t talk to Ben’s previous partner, find out if Ed had known. Ed had died of a coronary, after which Ben got partnered up with Kurt. The ache in his heart, knowing his partner hadn’t trusted him—at all—rivaled the emptiness inside where a friend had lived. It may have been a one-sided relationship, but Kurt missed his friend. God. Why hadn’t he known? Had he been too self-absorbed, or had Ben deliberately hidden the information from him? Guilt ate through him like acid, the burning pain in his gut returning. He had to have been at fault.

The service ended abruptly, or so it seemed, since Kurt hadn’t paid attention at all. The two people slipped out a side door almost before the minister had finished speaking. Without thinking, Kurt was up and out of the chapel, hobbling as best he could around the side of the church, to try and catch up to them in the parking lot.

“Wait! Wait!”

Two dark heads swiveled toward him, the man murmuring something to the woman, who nodded.

“Thank you,” he puffed out. God, he hoped he got his strength back soon. He stood before them, and shifted his cane to his left hand so he could shake their hands at least. They were undoubtedly siblings, but the woman was several years older and had that slight puffy cast to her jawline his own sisters had displayed in early pregnancy. Ben was going to be a father? He wasn’t sure if he could find words beneath the bitter guilt drowning him.

“I’m Kurt O’Donnell. Ben’s partner.” The man gasped slightly and turned away. His sister elbowed him in the arm.

“It’s nice to meet you, Kurt. I’m Sandra. This is Davy, my brother.” She would have made an excellent witness on the stand. Her words gave him only a modicum of data that he didn’t have before.

“I’m very sorry for your loss.” Kurt took her hand and gently squeezed it. Her eyes were red-rimmed, and her face had the yellowish pallor he associated more with illness than with grief.

“I’m sorry for yours,” she replied.

He stretched his hand out to Davy, glad that Sandra at least had a brother to aid her through this, but their body language warred with his expectations. Sandra had her left arm around her brother’s waist, shoulders tilting toward him in a protective gesture. It should have been the other way around.

Davy turned red-rimmed eyes, like his sister’s, to him. But that was the only similarity.

Sandra was sad. Davy was devastated. Davy’s chocolaty eyes were filled with all the desolation in the universe. The scleras were more than bloodshot, like he’d been crying for days, and his nose was as swollen and red as his eyelids. His face had the deathly white hue of shock that Sandra’s should have had, and he didn’t appear to be focusing too well.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, Davy’s hand in his, shake forgotten. He had a sudden urge to hug Davy, but he was too busy trying to keep the shock and betrayal off his face. The world spun dizzily as all his preconceptions and conclusions vaporized, to be replaced by the new information now in his possession.

Davy’s mouth worked, but nothing came out. He dropped his gaze, but he left his hand in Kurt’s. Sandra separated them.

“We need to go now, Kurt. Thanks for introducing yourself.” She tried to smile.

They got into a car, Sandra behind the wheel.


Sandra twisted around in her seat.

“What about Ben’s mom?”

“Oh, well, she wasn’t having a good day. Sunshine Manors advised against bringing her.”

Kurt stood back and let them—there was no other word for it—escape. He steadied himself on his cane while the taillights receded. Assuming Ben hadn’t lied about his mother, it was entirely possible she’d been too ill or too disoriented to attend the funeral. But Sandra had been lying. He’d been a cop too long. He knew.

Adam hummed to himself as he walked into the coffee shop. He grinned at Susie, the girl with whom he shared his shift today. He didn't have any true friends left in Rothburg, but Susie was a decent person. They got along rather well, and she didn't treat him like the village idiot, the way most of the townspeople did.

Susie smiled back. “Hey, you're in a good mood,” she said as she lifted the counter to let him into the back room.

“Yeah, doing okay,” he replied as he set his skateboard out of the way. He had a few minutes before his shift started, and he wanted to contemplate his elated mood. Technically there wasn't a good reason for it. After all, he'd come close to being squished. Not for the first time, by any stretch, but this was the first time he'd been buoyant, excited. The guy behind the wheel—the reason for his euphoria—couldn't have been as good-looking as he'd seemed through the tinted windshield. Probably wasn't gay, anyway.

If anyone who lived or visited this parochial, hidebound little town was gay, they'd hidden it well. Better than Adam did. Of course, Adam hadn't tried to hide at all after high school.

It was one of the reasons he'd left and why a number of the inhabitants treated him like a leper. Like the gayness would rub off or something. They tolerated him for the sake of his parents, but Adam knew damn well that some of them had entertained the notion that his parents' affliction was somehow his fault, that he'd brought it on them by being a deviant.

So even if the sexy yet shitty driver lived up to the promise of good looks live and in person, it wouldn't matter. Adam would be left to gape from afar. If he didn't want to get beaten up, that was.

Adam slipped his apron over his head and smoothed it down. Good thing he was wearing jeans today, because he was still half hard from his encounter. He'd heard adrenaline sometimes did that, but having his dick sproing after his near-death experience was unexpected. Probably had more to do with the guy behind the wheel than anything else.

Since it would be an hour or more before the rush began, Adam took his time in the back room, hoping that his erection would subside more before he had to go out and face the public. What he needed was a distraction. Otherwise he'd never stop thinking about that guy long enough to deflate.

The bell above the door tinkled as he emerged from the back room, but he didn't pay any attention. Susie could handle whoever walked in. Or so he thought until he heard Susie gasp. Had her ex showed up again?

Adam looked up, and he couldn't even get a gasp out.

Him. The guy from the SUV. The guy who'd almost run him over. The most heartbreakingly gorgeous man he'd ever seen. If anything, the windshield had protected Adam from that devastating sight. Sexier and better-looking than anything Adam could have imagined, Susie's reaction was no surprise.

Tall, much taller than he'd expected, and muscular. Six-two, at least. Black cotton encased a spectacular torso like a second skin. Bright blond hair, a touch too long to be military, topped the square face.

Oh. Oh my. Adam's breath came back. He bit his lower lip to hold in the whimper wanting to escape. Desperate to take a peek at the package surrounded by black jeans, but given the disparity in their sizes, Adam didn't dare. The blond could kick his ass without spilling his latte if he caught Adam checking him out. Instead he glanced at the other man. The sharp suit gave the older man an official air, but an official of what, Adam couldn't quite guess.

However, neither man was from Rothburg—he hadn't spent enough time away from town to lose that innate sense.

“I'll take this one, Susie,” Adam said, unable to help himself.

“You don't say,” Susie said with a smirk. “They're kind of out of place here. Friends of yours?”

Oh, if only.

“Nope,” Adam replied. But that didn't stop a guy from hoping. His cock twitched as he watched the two men scan the interior of the coffee shop and its patrons as they casually made their way to the counter. Neither of them had looked his way yet, and Adam prepared to paste on his most gracious customer-service smile, all the while telling his overeager prick to ease off. He really didn't want to be sporting wood at work.

Who were these two, anyway? The blond hunk's demeanor screamed military, but his companion's didn't. Yet they both had the same indefinable quality that told Adam they were there for a common purpose. Which wasn't to get a coffee.

Adam didn't much care why they were there. He'd get the sexy bastard coffee and whatever else he wanted. As his cock leaped up to agree, Adam clutched the counter. A raging hard-on might be a little more friendly than most people expected from good customer service. He felt his smile get a bit tighter and hoped Susie hadn't noticed his reaction.

The other patrons eyed the two strangers as well. Anyone would think they'd never seen a stranger before. Unless lust punched everyone here in the gut like it had Adam. Somehow he couldn't quite see old Mrs. Jenkins overcome by lust. If he ever did see that, he'd have to scrub his eyes out with acid, because yuck.

Okay, good. That horrific thought made his jeans less constricting.

Finally the two men completed their lazy approach to the counter.

“Good afternoon. What can I get you today?”

The good-looking, older man ignored Adam while perusing the menu overhead, but the gorgeous blond dropped his gaze down to Adam and opened his mouth to order. Adam was able to pinpoint the exact moment when recognition struck in those…oh, God…stunning blue eyes, the exact shade of lapis lazuli, Adam's new favorite color.

An adorable flush stained prominent cheekbones, and kissable, mobile lips worked around words that wouldn't come out. Adam stared, mesmerized. Am I drooling? His unintentional yet self-imposed celibacy had now lasted about a year and might account for his lust. Or was he in the presence of a mind-blowing specimen of manhood?

“Large coffee,” the blond stuttered.

“Anything in it?”

“Like what?”

Oh, nice. Adam had flustered him. He hoped it was for the same reason he flustered Adam. Could he—should he—hit on this guy in front of his companion?

“Cream, sugar?” Adam made sure his tone was devoid of sarcasm, tempting as it would have been with anyone else. Wasn't enough to save the blond from further embarrassment, as the blush heating his cheeks got stronger.

“Oh, sorry. No. Black is fine. And, uh…I'm sorry about earlier.” Big-and-Sexy was having difficulty meeting Adam's eyes.

“No problem. It's forgotten. Anything else?” Jesus. Had that sounded as suggestive to anyone else as it had to Adam's ears? Maybe it had, given that the blush somehow intensified. Apparently his mouth had already decided to try a gentle come-on, without his brain's consent. While Adam wondered if he should be more overt, the blond's friend broke the moment.

“A medium latte, please.” The older man gave him a pleasant smile and a nod. He'd clearly recognized Adam, but then, he'd already apologized for the near mishap and undoubtedly didn't feel the need for any further discussion of the matter.

“I'll go get a seat,” the blond said before he slipped away, still unable to look at Adam.

“I can bring you your drinks,” Adam said as he made change for the older man.

“Thanks. That would be great.”

The older man followed his companion to a table in the corner. Both appeared relaxed, but Adam was sure that wasn't the case.

His curiosity stabbed him. Something odd was going on here.

Susie returned from busing a few tables. “Serving them too?” She winked. “Find out what they're doing here. Or, better yet, how long they're staying in town.”

“They're staying in town?” Adam strove for nonchalance but feared he'd failed miserably. “How do you know?”

“The bed-and-breakfast was expecting two visitors today, staying for an unspecified length of time. Maybe they're businessmen looking to invest or something.”

Just a week ago, Rothburg had been crawling with strangers, and the only accommodation within the town proper, the Sleepytime Bed-and-Breakfast, had been filled to capacity. Most of the surrounding area motels, as well as the campground of the nearby park, were too. The sensational riot of color during the autumn turning of the leaves brought tourists flocking every year. But the season was over, and the town was bracing itself for winter's onslaught.

Summer and fall might be busy tourist seasons, but they meant more money for Adam. The slowdown in work would be nice if it didn't mean tightening his belt. Grateful as he was for the job in the café, it could never make up for the hours he worked in the park and campground. In the off-season, even the hours available at the café were reduced.

The two men weren't tourists, for damned sure. Purpose coiled through them, and Adam was certain they weren't harmless businessmen. He couldn't believe Susie had made the suggestion, but then, maybe he was seeing things that weren't there. Adam shook his head. He had a job to do. Hastily he prepared the two beverages and took them over to the men.

Deep in conversation, the older man said something the younger was not pleased by. As soon as Adam approached the table, they stopped midsentence. The only thing he'd had a chance to hear was the blond telling his companion, “No,” in an emphatic manner. Well, that wasn't going to satisfy any of the town gossips. Adam couldn't work up any remorse, though, since he'd spent so much time as the subject of gossip. Besides, he had other things to worry about—his dick was paying too much attention to the blond, more than was healthy.

Adam pasted on another bright smile as he placed drinks on the table. He made sure to make eye contact with both men as he did so, although those sexy blue eyes didn't meet his for more than a second before avoiding him. Well, that told the story right there. Not interested. Too bad Adam could—oh shit—smell him. Clean, musky male under the scent of soap. Irish Spring, maybe.

The wattage of his smile dimming, Adam spoke again. “If you two gentlemen will be in town for any length of time, we have great lunch specials every day. And we're open until eleven each night.”

Blond-and-Handsome looked at him, finally, an unpleasant expression marring his handsome face, blue eyes challenging Adam to…something. “Why? What do you mean by 'in town'?”

Uh, gee, what could he possibly mean by that?

“Carmichael! Enough.” Apparently his companion thought he was out of line too.

Carmichael. Interesting name. First or last, Adam wasn't sure, but now he had a name to go with the face. Also interesting was the way Carmichael subsided under the exasperated scolding. His gaze dropped away, and he studiously ignored Adam once more. One more indicator Adam wouldn't be keeping this one company while he was in town. Too bad. The best ones were always straight or taken. Time to beat a strategic retreat.

“Well, if you need anything else, let me know. My name is Adam.” He couldn't resist giving Carmichael one last bright smile, but the effort was wasted with the man refusing to look in his direction. Adam shrugged and returned to his post behind the counter, hoping he could ignore his attraction until the men left.

“What the fuck was that about, Cardoso?” Carmichael was pissed but retained enough decorum to keep his voice low. He might be the junior partner, and younger, but that didn't give Oliver the right to talk to him like a bratty kid.

“You can't antagonize the natives, you know. We're going to need their help.”

“Not his.” He was certain. The kid had to be too young and irresponsible to know anything useful. Carmichael really, really didn't want him to know anything useful.

“You don't know that. In fact, he might be just what we need.”

Need. Yes, need. Carmichael curled his fingers into fists. “What? No! How can you say that?”

“It's like I told you—we stick out. That's what the kid meant. Look around.” Oliver flicked his gaze over the rest of the people seated in the café. Unwillingly Carmichael copied him, even though he'd assessed every single person in there as a potential threat as soon as he walked in.

“Every person here knows damn well we don't belong,” Oliver continued.

Yeah, Carmichael knew it too. Feeling all those eyes on him had made him uncomfortable, which was saying something, considering he was having inappropriate, lustful thoughts about the barely legal kid who'd not only served them coffee, but whom he'd almost flattened in the road not ten minutes ago. Guilt, lust, and embarrassment combusted into a volatile mix of emotions he hadn't experienced since he'd left home to join the army ten years ago. Felt like he was back in basic training, wondering if he had what it took.

Carmichael stole a peek at the kid—Adam—out of the corner of his eye and was treated to the sight of him laughing at something his coworker said. At the twitch in his groin, Carmichael brought his attention back to Oliver. No way was this kid going to break him.

“Fine. Sorry. How did you want to start?” Most times he got the answers he needed by roughing people up. This time, and in this place, that tactic wasn't going to work. But he didn't know if he had the finesse to get answers any other way.

“I told you this wouldn't be easy. No one's going to want to give us the answers we need. I think we could use Adam's help, if he's willing.”

Carmichael's jaw locked. Oliver couldn't be serious. Why Adam, of all people? There had to be someone—anyone—else. He looked suspiciously at his partner, wondering if Oliver had come up with this ridiculous suggestion to torment him. Maybe he hadn't hidden his attraction as well as he'd thought. No, that couldn't be it. There was no good reason for Oliver to want Adam's help if he thought his presence would prove a distraction.

“Why him?” Carmichael knew there was only so much resistance he could put up before he had to come out and tell Oliver why he didn't want Adam's assistance. God help him, if Oliver didn't know he was gay, Carmichael wasn't going to tell him.

“Because he's the only one who, despite knowing we don't belong, hasn't given us any weird looks.”

“Well, he should! We—I almost ran him over!” The effort required to keep his voice low became greater. “He should be more suspicious and hostile towards us than anyone. And if he's not, he's an idiot.” Hmmm. That might be true. Adam had done nothing but smile at them. Carmichael couldn't believe anyone with their full faculties could shrug off an incident like that so easily. Someone a few cards short of a deck wouldn't be of any help to them.

“Stop,” Oliver warned him. “Listen up. We need to get to the bottom of these disappearances, and soon. A friendly contact is the best start. There's nothing to say we won't find someone else, someone more appropriate for what we want. But right now a kid working in a coffee shop might like to make a few more bucks, you know?”

Carmichael bit his lip. Oliver was right. Everything since they'd arrived in Rothburg had thrown him off balance. He was so far off his turf, he was surprised he hadn't drowned. They did need help, but spending time with Adam was going to test his control like nothing ever had, not even the communal showers in basic, filled with wet, fit, naked men.

An image of Adam, dark hair slicked back, water streaming down his lean torso, slipped unbidden into his mind, and Carmichael let out a rather undignified squeak as he crossed his legs to hide the sudden bulge in his jeans. At least Oliver ignored the sound, because the reason behind it didn't bear explaining.

“Fine, do whatever you want.” Carmichael gave in, not at all gracefully.

Tartan Candy
“OOH, I just love a man in a kilt.”

Raven smiled at the newcomer, pretending he hadn’t heard the phrase a million times since he’d walked into the ballroom. Normally he didn’t mind being the center of attention, but tonight the overwhelming interest in him crawled over his skin like a swarm of fire ants.

No denying, he looked hot. His bright red plaid kilt matched the thick red streaks in his black hair perfectly. It was one of the reasons he’d bought the kilt in the first place, a few years ago. He had about a dozen kilts that matched various hair dyes, but he liked the classic red Royal Stewart. Unfortunately, all the sexy outer trappings weren’t enough to make him forget he wasn’t getting naked with anyone ever again.

Jeremy, Raven’s purported date, stepped closer to him. Close enough to almost slay Raven with his nearly lethal cloud of body spray.

“Jeremy, is that you?” The newcomer was not the first person who’d been surprised by the change in Jeremy since high school. Like every high school reunion Raven had seen on TV and in the movies, a giant poster board at the entrance to the ballroom displayed everyone’s yearbook photo. While Jeremy signed them in, Raven had taken the opportunity to inspect Jeremy’s image. Dude had had a shitload of good plastic surgery done. It was almost cliché: the geeky underdog who’d made it big coming back to his old stomping ground to revel in his new wealth and surgically enhanced appearance. Unfortunately, Jeremy hadn’t let the past go, and his personality bordered on rancid.

“Rebecca? It’s so lovely to see you again.”

Oddly, Rebecca appeared genuinely pleased to see Jeremy, and she coaxed the first happy smile Raven had seen on Jeremy’s face. If he didn’t know Jeremy was gay through and through, he’d have suspected Rebecca to be an old girlfriend or crush.

Rebecca gave Jeremy a hug. “I hear you’ve done well for yourself. You look fantastic.”

When Jeremy slipped an arm around Raven’s waist, he had to work at not flinching.

“This is Raven.”

“Nice to meet you, Raven.” Rebecca seemed nice, around the age his mother would have been, and was fond—perhaps overfond—of pink glitter. Maybe that was only natural, since Rebecca’s name tag proclaimed her head cheerleader. How she was even aware of Jeremy’s existence, Raven didn’t know.

“Raven’s my date. Gorgeous, isn’t he?”

Almost buckling under the strain, Raven managed to keep a pleasant smile on his face while Rebecca chatted, even though Jeremy was treating him like a slab of meat. It wasn’t the first time a guy had done that, and it wouldn’t be the last, but Raven badly wanted to correct the “date” misnomer. For a hefty sum, Jeremy had purchased Raven’s companionship—minus any sex—for the duration of his high school reunion weekend retreat. Raven wasn’t in the business of offering the “boyfriend experience.” Even if he had ever been planning to have sex again, there wasn’t enough money in the world to get him to sleep with Jeremy.

Jeremy’s grand plan had backfired in an unexpected way: he’d thought people would be impressed he showed up with an attractive younger man. He hadn’t anticipated Raven would garner more favorable attention than the changes in Jeremy’s appearance. Hence, his treatment of Raven as if he were an expensive possession.

Raven extricated himself from Jeremy’s clinging embrace and tipped the last of the beer in his bottle into his mouth.

Rebecca smiled brightly—or perhaps drunkenly, it was too early to tell—at them both. “He certainly is. I’m glad you found someone great, Jeremy.”

Sputtering, Raven managed to swallow his mouthful without choking to death or embarrassing anyone.

“Are you okay, honey?” Rebecca’s smile faded into concern.

“I’m good, thanks. Just swallowed wrong.”

Jeremy snorted, and Raven barely refrained from slugging him. Jeremy’s mind was in the gutter—again.

Rebecca patted him on the back and turned her attention back to Jeremy. “We’re seated at the same table for dinner.”

“Lead the way, Rebecca. I’m starving, although if this place is like most conference hotels, we’ll still be starving after our plate of rubbery chicken.”

Raven cringed, but Rebecca just giggled.

“Hey, baby.” Rebecca kissed the temple of an imposing man who was already seated at one of the round tables set for ten.

“I got you a glass of Chardonnay.” Big and beefy was pretty hot, even with the severely receding hairline. Raven peered at his name tag. Yet another cliché come to life. Bret was the quarterback of the team. Would Raven’s own high school reunion be so predictable? Not that he’d ever consider attending, outside of his nightmares.

“Bret, honey, you remember Jeremy, right?”

“Nope,” Bret grunted, and Jeremy looked like he’d swallowed a bug. Dealing with Jeremy’s ruffled ego for the whole weekend, and trying to calm him without encouraging any advances, was going to make this “date” last for-fucking-ever. Raven wasn’t quite at the point of counting down the hours, but he wasn’t far off.

“One too many hits to the head, eh, Bret? I guess what they say about multiple concussions is true.” Jeremy’s tone was jovial, but Bret’s face flushed a dark red.

Rebecca patted her husband’s arm. “He’s the one who tutored me in calculus.”

Oh. Now the Rebecca-Jeremy relationship made sense.

“Right. Him.” With those two words, Bret instantly dismissed Jeremy as a threat, and as a person. If this was how everyone had treated Jeremy in school, then maybe Raven had a smidgeon of sympathy. A nanosized morsel of sympathy. High school could be sucky.

They were saved from too much discussion as the rest of the guests at their table seated themselves and made introductions. Another football player and his wife, a drama club member and her husband, and a couple who were now teachers at the same school from which they’d graduated made up the ten at their table. Most of them, like Jeremy, had moved away from Orlando after graduation and hadn’t seen each other since. Dinner began, and throughout the meal there were a number of awards, announcements, and commemorative videos, so it wasn’t until the meal had been cleared away in preparation for dessert that any real conversation sprang up.

Rebecca’s cheeks had pinkened from the effects of three glasses of wine, and she smiled blearily at him. “Raven, what do you do for a living?”

“He’s in school right now,” Jeremy jumped in before Raven could answer. There were worse things he could have said, but he made it sound like Raven was still in high school.

“Uh, yes. I’m almost finished my business degree.” One last semester in the fall, and he’d be done.

“And how did you two meet?”

With a leer, Jeremy slung an arm over Raven’s shoulders. “Raven here likes to be taken care of. And I was just the man for the job.”

Horrified, Raven felt his jaw drop as heat flashed into his cheeks and an awkward silence fell over the table. With that one statement, everyone at this table either thought Raven was a gold digger or guilty of atrocious taste in men. Or both. He shouldn’t care what these people thought, and he rarely told people how he made a living, but he was proud of what he’d accomplished all on his own.

Raven smiled weakly at the other diners and extricated himself from his seat. “I’m going to go have a smoke.”

Amanda, the drama club member, spoke up. “I love your kilt. Is your family Scottish?”

“Nope. But it sure is easy access,” Jeremy answered for him and slid his hand under Raven’s kilt to grab his ass.

Raven barely held in a yelp of surprise and glared down at Jeremy.

“What?” Jeremy’s eyes widened in overly theatrical surprise. “I had to check to see if you were wearing your kilt properly.”

Raven glanced around the table. Forget awkward silence; Jeremy had just made almost everyone uncomfortable. Amanda looked as mortified as Raven felt.

“Don’t be long, you’ll miss dessert.” Rebecca giggled drunkenly, too soused to notice the undercurrents of tension.

“Eh, skipping dessert will help him keep his weight down.”

Amanda gasped at Jeremy’s cruel words, and Raven’s nostrils flared as he considered if decking Jeremy was worth it. Jeremy seemed completely oblivious to the censure.

When he was able to unclench his jaw, he spoke again. “Feel free to eat my dessert. I’ll be back soon.”

He detoured by the bar to grab a beer before leaving the ballroom. He wasn’t the only one ready for a refill, and there was a line, dammit.

Raven should never have agreed to this stupid job, but it had been good money. Despite the large number of women wanting to touch his chest or just plain ogle him, it would have been bearable if it weren’t for pompous, self-important, and passive-aggressive Jeremy.

The touching was a bit much. Overwhelming in a way it wouldn’t have been a year ago.

There had been a lot of touching—by everyone, not just Jeremy. For an ex–porn star, casual touching shouldn’t be such a problem, but it had been over a year since Raven starred in his last movie. Over a year since he’d had sex. Aside from doctors, nurses, and physiotherapists after his accident, he’d not been touched by anyone in all that time.

He had no family, no boyfriend, just his friends from the studio, but Raven had pulled away from everyone after the accident, and he saw them only rarely. Raven’s colorful appearance had invited a lot of casual touching from people he’d been introduced to at the reunion, which hadn’t much thrilled Jeremy either. Perhaps that was why he slapped a virtual brand on Raven’s ear the moment anyone demonstrated the least bit of interest.

Jeremy had also done about half a dozen underwear checks so far this evening. Bastard. Raven clenched his hands into fists, struggling to keep a neutral look on his face. Happy was too much to ask of him, but Jeremy was footing the bill for more than a couple months’ mortgage, and Raven couldn’t tell him to fuck off. He couldn’t ditch him, either.

Finally, finally, he got his beer and headed out of the ballroom.

His smile came easier and felt less like a mask the farther he got from Jeremy, and he moved with enough purpose that no one stopped him.

Motion-sensitive doors to the back garden whooshed open. Muggy, humid air slapped Raven in the face as he stepped out into the hot Florida evening. Almost immediately, sweat sprang up on his skin. At least his tight-fitted dress shirt was black; no sweat stains would show.

His haven was close. He took a tiny path, ducking the overhanging greenery. The resort treated smokers like lepers, hiding them well out of sight. Not that Raven was a big fan of smoking—it stank up his hair, and he’d seen what it could do to someone’s stamina—but it was a fantastic escape, especially from a handsy client with asthma.

He’d learned a long time ago that pretending to be a smoker gave him an out, a viable, believable reason to hide out that he’d used on more than one occasion. Leaning against a lamppost, he pulled out a battered pack of smokes and a lighter from his sporran and lit a cigarette without inhaling.

Raven held the cigarette down by his hip, tilted his head away from the smoke curling upward, and enjoyed the silence.

Illusion of Life
Chapter One
Tyler Williams's sister bounded into his apartment with a sickening cheerfulness, considering he and his best friend, Craig, had been hauling boxes and furniture for the past eight hours in the sweltering heat. The A/C window units were taking a damn long time to start working, although Ty hadn't bothered turning them on until they were almost finished moving.

Mandy's glossy black hair was normally tamed, but the humidity had it swirling about her head in reckless waves, much like Ty's own did on a daily basis. Most people thought they were twins, but Mandy was three years older than his almost thirty.

"Hi guys." Mandy swiped Ty's beer from his hand and took a swig.

"Hey!" Ty tried to take the bottle back but Mandy danced out of the way. "There's more beer in the fridge."

"Then go get one." Mandy stuck her tongue out at him.

"So help me, sis, you do that again and I'll grab that tongue," Ty threatened as he walked the short distance to his new kitchen. This apartment suited him much better than his previous modern suburban atrocity. In spite of the weird dimensions from cutting one old house into six apartments, he loved his new place. For a change, he could now walk to work or the subway, and he'd never have to drive in the winter again. The place was perfect.

"Ooh. I'm so scared."

"Bring me another one, Ty," Craig called out.

Ty smirked and handed bottles around, having anticipated the request. Craig, a big, sexy Italian cop, had been his best friend since grade school, and Ty knew what he wanted. If the man weren't straight, he'd be perfect.

Mandy leaned down and kissed Craig on the cheek. "How are ya, big boy?"

Craig shrugged. "Same old, same old."

"Okay, Tyler, show me around, quick-quick, because I got you the best housewarming present. Although this house doesn't exactly need any more warming. Did you get a break on the rent because your apartment's in hell?"

Craig snorted from his corner of Ty's brand-new couch. "Air-conditioning, my ass. June's too fucking hot to move."

"I just turned on the A/C a few minutes ago. And I wasn't going to break my lease just for you, Craig." Ty turned a mock glare on both of them. The truth was, sticking it out until the end of his lease had been monstrously difficult. Preston had fucked him in every room and on every surface, before finally fucking him over. By Christmas, everything had gone to shit, and he'd wanted to run. He was no longer in love with Preston, if he ever had been, but the memories of his foolishness were hard to handle.

"Can you pop down to my car and bring up Tyler's housewarming present?" Mandy dangled her car keys at Craig.

Warmth spread in Ty's chest. They might torment each other like any other siblings, but he and Mandy had always been close. She'd stuck by him when his parents hadn't, but he still hadn't expected a housewarming gift.

"What does it look like?" Craig asked.

"You won't be able to miss it." Mandy pasted on her version of a mysterious smile. Ty reminded himself to avoid that one—it made her look like a demented imp, and might look similar on him.

This better not be a setup. His sister had super-shitty taste in gay men. 'Course, so did he, as evidenced by Preston. They probably shared a genetic defect.

"So, show me the place. I want to see the den of loving." Mandy waved her hands imperiously.

"The what?" Ty knew he shouldn't ask, but if he didn't, Craig would as soon as he stopped choking on his beer.

"Hey, when you signed the lease on this place, the master bedroom was all you could talk about. I figured you were planning on hosting crazy orgies or buying a sex slave or something."

Blood rushed to his cheeks. Mandy was the crazy one, judging from her extremely uncensored stories, which had gotten even more graphic after she married Craig's partner on the force. Jake would have been helping with the move too, but he'd dislocated his shoulder a week ago in a tussle with a suspect and couldn't do any heavy lifting.

"A sex slave?" Craig finally caught his breath. "Yeah, that sounds like our Tyler." The sarcastic tone was a bit insulting.

Were they saying he was repressed? He'd had a boyfriend and his share of one-night stands. So what if his share could be counted on one hand? He was single, one hundred percent out of the closet, and ready for lots of sex—as soon as he got up the courage to go out and get some.
"Why are you both picking on me?"

"Mmm, just because you're you, little bro. C'mon. Show me the sex cave."

Ty let loose a chuckle. Sex cave. That had a nice ring to it.

After a quick tour, they stood in the master bedroom.

"Oh my God, Ty, this place is awesome! I thought it was weird you weren't making the second bedroom into an office, but you've got tons of room here. And when you mentioned a whirlpool tub, I thought you were talking about a bathtub with jets. You could swim laps in that damn thing. I'm insanely jealous. Put a fridge in here, and you won't have to let your sex slave out of this room for days."

"Shut up about the sex slave!" Embarrassment colored his laugh because it was true. Find the right man, and they wouldn't have to leave for anything except to eat. Stupidly, the romantic idea that the apartment was designed for a couple had been the deciding factor for taking the apartment. But how could he trust another man after Preston? Love 'em and leave 'em—that was safer for his heart.

"This is perfect. I can't believe how awesome my gift will look in here."

"I can take a hint." Craig left, jingling Mandy's car keys.

"Modest much, Mandy?" Inside, Ty was quaking. She hadn't gotten him a prostitute, had she? Was that what all the sex-slave talk was about? Shit. He wasn't ready. Not for the one-night stands he hoped to have, not for a paid date. Nothing. He hadn't had sex since...well...since weeks before his breakup with that cheating bastard.

"Hey, when you're as good as I am, modesty is just a ridiculous lie." Mandy grinned at him.

"Uh-huh. Let's see it. It better be good." It also better not be a man, or he was going to kill his sister. He was sweaty and hot, and his hair was plastered to his head. None of which did a thing for his self-confidence.

Ty flopped down on his bare mattress and thought about looking for sheets. Nah, he didn't have the energy right now.

"Seriously, how are you doing?" Mandy perched on the edge of the mattress next to him.

"I'm okay. Great apartment, great job."

She inspected his face as though searching for a lie. He wasn't lying, much. But it had been over six months since his life fell apart, and he was getting tired of reassuring people.

Craig's heavy tread alerted them to his return, and Ty wanted to see what Mandy had gotten him, if only to keep her from looking at him with that pitying expression.

Ty sat up as Craig wrestled an enormous rectangular package wrapped in brown paper into the bedroom.

"Holy shit, sis. It's bigger than Craig." No exaggeration—it had to be six and a half feet long, and Craig was only six foot one. Nor was it some random man his sister thought he should hook up with. "What is it?"

Mandy ignored him as she peered at the wall beside the bed. "Here. Right here." She pointed, talking to Craig.

"Here, what?" they both asked in unison.

"Hang it here. It's perfect."

Craig propped the package against the wall and retreated, presumably to locate Ty's toolbox.

"Let me see." Anticipation was making Ty twitchy. Mandy slapped his hand as he reached for the paper covering.

"Just wait. It'll be like one of those fancy unveilings."

"Uh-huh. Right." Ty fell back on the bed while Craig began measuring and hammering. "So, you got me a painting? What is it? Paint by numbers? Black velvet? One that only shows its best features under black light?”

"Shut up, Tyler. Just wait a few more minutes, okay?"

Ty shut up. As long as it wasn't a picture of a six-foot-tall clown, it didn't matter much what it was.

Finally the painting was hung to Mandy's satisfaction. Craig sat down beside him on the bed while Mandy reached dramatically for the brown paper cover.

"I give you Maxwell Friedland." She ripped the paper away, leaving Ty speechless.

"Holy shit," Craig muttered beside him.

The man in the painting was breathtaking. Ty didn't know a lot about painting, but he didn't think he'd seen one as lifelike, almost like a photograph. The mop of blond hair, highlighted with honey and gold, looked soft and real enough to run his fingers through. The bright blue eyes glowed like star sapphires. Tyler's cock flexed slightly, and his face flushed between the conflicts of lust and embarrassment. Lust whispered in his ear that the "painting" was hung to Tyler's satisfaction and then some. He wasn't aware artists painted life-sized portraits of naked men who were...blatantly aroused.

Ty found his voice. "Mandy, what the hell?"

"Isn't he gorgeous? What better way to celebrate your new life?"

Ty bit his lip. He understood Mandy's motivation. He was finally out—to everyone—and it was a relief not to hide anymore. But the process of coming out had been painful and humiliating. Hell, this way he'd never have to announce it again. Anyone who saw this painting would know.

North on Drummond
Sunlight flashed off the ocean on Cliff Garcia’s right as he drove along the two-lane road toward Sandy Bottom Bay. Salty air rushed into the car as he opened the window, and he drew in a deep breath, the scent making his homecoming seem more real than it had until now. He’d lived in Los Angeles for the past eight years, and despite frequent trips to the beach with friends, for some reason the Pacific just wasn’t the same as the Gulf Coast of Florida, where he’d grown up. Maybe it was because he couldn’t shake the stink of smog out of his nostrils, even at the beach. Maybe it was the aridity of California. Most people didn’t enjoy the thick, muggy humidity of a soggy Florida summer afternoon. Cliff didn’t much either, not when he was enduring it, but strangely, he found he’d missed even that while he’d been in California.

Not that he’d been perpetually homesick. The big city had taken some getting used to, for sure, but he’d made great friends and enjoyed the nightlife LA had to offer, when he wasn’t working. He’d left Sandy Bottom Bay as soon as he could after high school graduation and hadn’t ever expected to return, despite the fact that being a cop in LA hadn’t been what he’d expected.

Florida had a different vibe, a different scent, a different way of life. One that wasn’t always congruent with being gay, at least not in his tiny hometown. But then, he hadn’t been out on the LAPD either. The cynicism and nonstop threat of violence had worn him down in four short years on the job and turned him into a jaded, world-weary man at the tender age of twenty-six. It hadn’t taken long before he’d begun to wonder if he’d made a mistake living in LA. Cliff wasn’t entirely sure small-town life suited him, but here he was, back again, for the foreseeable future. Maybe there was nowhere he truly belonged. Nowhere he could be himself. Nowhere he could be happy.

Statistically, there had to have been other gay people in Sandy Bottom Bay, but Cliff had never known any of them. Instead, as one of his high school’s best athletes, he’d pretended to be straight, counting the days until he left for university.

California had seemed ideal, for a while. He’d been close enough to visit his dad in Pasadena; he’d had boyfriends, one-night stands, a job he both loved and hated, and his best friend, Pete. When the boyfriend cheated, the job became less satisfying, and Pete died in an accident, the allure of California vanished. A shiver ran through Cliff. Maybe he was only running away. Again. Maybe he didn’t have the strength of character to suck it up and stick it out when things got tough. His stomach churned. Was he a coward? Weak?

He wasn’t going to hide, though. Not this time. He was tired of hiding. If Sandy Bottom Bay didn’t like him as he was, he’d soon be on his way again. Hell, he’d flown in three days ago and found a long-term rental motel about ten minutes out of town, then spent the intervening time stocking up on supplies and relaxing in front of the television. He hadn’t set foot in Sandy Bottom Bay yet, nor had he told his mother he was returning. There would be plenty of time for that, for finding an apartment, getting his stuff shipped from California, and changing his driver’s license. Despite taking a job with the SBBPD, he still had one foot ready to run from this place.

A rueful chuckle escaped, the sound rusty since Cliff hadn’t spoken to anyone outside of requesting the room at the motel and ordering food for delivery. He couldn’t quite escape the knowledge that, as much as he hadn’t ever intended to return to Sandy Bottom Bay, events in LA had sent him running just as surely as when he’d run to LA in the first place. Where would he run to next? Would he even recognize a place he could make his home?

A billboard framed by palm trees caught his eye. White sandy beach, glistening blue water, and the words Visit Sandy Bottom Bay! Voted Best Beach in Florida.*

Cliff slowed his car, since there was no one on the road with him, to read the asterisked disclaimer, written in small enough font that most people wouldn’t be able to read it as they tore down the road at sixty-five miles an hour--or more, depending on whether they were defying the posted speed limit.

The disclaimer made him cringe. It represented everything he despised about his hometown, which wasn’t their probable lack of acceptance of his sexuality. This was the reason his parents had broken up. This was what his mother loved more than his father, more than him, more than anything in the world, as far as Cliff could tell. His mother’s delusions were not only accepted in Sandy Bottom Bay, they were actively encouraged. If it weren’t for the crackpots, con men, and charlatans who lived in and flocked to Sandy Bottom Bay, maybe his mother would be able to accept that she needed professional help. That she was only driving away people who cared about her and welcoming people who only wanted to exploit her wealth, status, and position.

Visit Sandy Bottom Bay! Voted Best Beach in Florida.*

*By readers of Paranormal Broadcast Weekly

A lengthy honk pulled Cliff’s attention from the billboard, and he realized he’d come to a full stop right there in the middle of the road. He quickly got back up to speed, but he couldn’t deny that the billboard, which looked brand-new, had soured his mood even more than having to venture into the town where he’d accepted a job. Where he’d have to find an apartment if he was going to stay for any length of time.

The next billboard, right at the city limits, made him let loose a growl.

Sandy Bottom Bay--Come for the Haunts, Stay for the Beaches!

This was going to be harder than he’d thought. He might resent his mother for what she’d done to his family with her belief in the supernatural, but he still loved the woman. This town and its delusions of ghosts only bilked the unsuspecting or gullible into parting with their hard-earned cash, in ways that seemed innocuous. His mother was the matriarch of the town, her family having lived in and supported it since the area had been settled. However much she bought into the occult crap, he wasn’t going to let her get taken advantage of by the townspeople. He didn’t give a shit about the money, except that he didn’t want his mother to give it away to people who pretended to buy into her delusions, in the hopes of financial gain.

Quaint buildings in faded corals and yellows came into view as the thick foliage on either side of the road thinned out. His hometown made him want to run away again. Leave his new job, leave his boss in the lurch, and drive as far away as he could. Cliff had never felt more divided in his life, not even when he pretended to be straight, dating one of the hottest girls at SBB High. A heavy sensation weighed down his stomach. He had an uncomfortable hunch that he was going to be a resident for a long while.

A glance at the clock confirmed he was going to be very early for his first shift. He wasn’t ready to start working yet, so he pulled into the parking lot of the Publix. Might as well grab something for lunch at the grocery store’s sandwich counter while he had the time. There were far more cars in the parking lot than he would have expected for that time of day.

Before he got out of the car, a flash of bright red hair, gleaming in the early morning sunlight, had him staring.

A simply gorgeous man, a few years younger than his own twenty-six, walked out of the store, clutching a loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter. Tall and lanky, he moved swiftly through the parking lot. Cliff didn’t know who the hell the red-haired man was, but he was going to find out...and also find out if by chance Sandy Bottom Bay had another gay resident. Because not even the frown that pulled fair eyebrows together could change the fact that Cliff had spied one of the best-looking men he’d seen in a long time. Cliff had never been with a ginger before, but he loved how they looked, this one more than any.

From the number of people waving at him, and the fucking gorgeous smile he returned to them, the guy was undoubtedly a Sandy Bottom Bay resident, although he must have moved to town sometime after Cliff left. The smile made him hotter and sexier, with a hint of innocence Cliff hadn’t seen on any of the men in California.

With another big smile, the ginger stopped by an old Chevy, where an elderly woman was attempting to put her groceries in the trunk. After placing his peanut butter and bread on the roof of the car, he made short work of loading the groceries for her, then stood for a moment chatting. Cliff wasn’t parked close enough to get a hint of what the guy’s voice sounded like, but the sweetness of watching him do a good deed was a turn-on even while it warmed something inside that had become dark and cold in LA.

After a few minutes, the guy nodded and strode away to return the cart. When he continued to walk in the opposite direction of the elderly woman, Cliff unsnapped his seat belt, intending to call out, let him know he’d forgotten his own groceries, but was too late. The woman called to him, but not loud enough for Cliff to catch the guy’s name, and he rushed back, cheeks reddened in embarrassment. A few more words were exchanged before he grabbed his stuff and headed for the sidewalk.

The almost shoulder-length hair was practically aflame, and as the guy walked through the parking lot toward the sidewalk, heading for the main strip in town, Cliff continued to stare. Between the hair, the adorable blush, and the round, peachy ass enclosed in thin, faded jeans, Cliff might actually weep if the man wasn’t gay.

Unlike many of his friends, Cliff had never been interested in straight men. There was no magic to “gay for you,” no cachet to turning a straight man. In his opinion, a straight man who got seriously involved with a gay man had only been lying to himself until then and either wanted to keep his orientation a secret or had a mess of baggage Cliff didn’t have the time or patience to deal with. Not that Cliff hadn’t had more than a few guys call him a hypocrite for not being openly out at work, but he just hadn’t been comfortable putting his life on the line and trusting his fellow officers would do what was right when the chips came down.

If this man were bi-curious or straight, though, he might change Cliff’s mind about GFY, although the more Cliff watched, the more the guy pinged Cliff’s gaydar. Or maybe that was just Cliff’s wishful thinking.

The slow, steady throb of his cock, filling to full hardness in his uniform pants, surprised him. He was beyond--or so he’d thought--the unruly, unwanted erections that had plagued his younger years. The gorgeous ginger had gotten him all hot and bothered with nothing more than peanut butter and a good deed. For a few minutes, Cliff let himself picture stripping the red-haired hottie down to nothing, kissing skin that was amazingly pale for anyone who’d spent time in Florida.

But Cliff’s mental vignettes were only making his cock more eager for relief, and he wasn’t about to spend his first few minutes as an SBB police officer jacking off in the station bathroom, fantasizing about some guy who could be straight or taken.

Rainbow Blues
Chapter One
LUKE JORDAN opened the door to his apartment and walked in, slinging his keys on the counter. The door slammed shut behind him, echoing in the empty silence. He hung up his heavy winter jacket and ditched his work boots in the rubber tray by the entrance.

As he did every day, he stripped off his dirty, sweaty clothes and popped them in the washing machine. His apartment might be small and shoddy and located in an area of questionable safety, but it had a washer and dryer that he loved. His affection for his washing machine and the way it allowed him to avoid the Laundromat possibly bordered on unnatural, but then again, his social life was sorely lacking, aside from weekly visits from his son. His relationship with his washer and dryer was an unholy trinity that might be the best relationship he’d had since his divorce.

A quick peek into the machine told him he could wait another day or two before it was full enough to run. Naked, he strode into the bathroom and turned on the shower.

With a groan, he stepped under the steaming spray and stood there for a few minutes, letting the heat and the pattering of the water ease the muscles bunched and knotted under his skin. Every day, it seemed, the weight on his shoulders got heavier, and he didn’t know if the tension would ever go away.

He slicked soap over his skin by rote. His soapy hands slid down to his groin, but after a few halfhearted tugs, he sighed. He was only forty-three. Life shouldn’t make him so weary he couldn’t even be bothered to masturbate. Should it?

Without any other detours, he cleaned up quick, got out of the shower, and walked the short distance to his bedroom. The drawer on his dresser stuck, and he rattled the handle to get it to slide free. The thing was a piece of shit, bought on clearance from Walmart… or Target…. Sears? He didn’t recall. Furnishing his apartment after the divorce had been a necessity, but not a memorable one. He should have spent more. It wouldn’t have put too big a dent in his bank account, but at the time he hadn’t seen the point. And now, it seemed a waste to replace his almost serviceable furniture for something better. No amount of fancy furniture would turn his apartment into anything other than a squat concrete bunker. No decor could disguise the bleakness of his life.

He pulled on a pair of flannel pajama bottoms and a T-shirt before slouching back into the kitchen. He opened the freezer door and eyed his selection of cardboard boxes masquerading as meals. Once upon a time he’d cooked regularly for his tiny family of three. But the effort of cooking was too much for just himself.

After selecting Salisbury steak—again—he slung it in the microwave and grabbed a beer from the fridge. One a day was all he allowed himself. At least while he was alone. Bleak was one thing. Drinking himself into a weeknight stupor was a whole different story.

A few minutes later, his “gourmet” dinner was ready, and he placed it on the coffee table in front of the couch. With a practiced hand, he flipped on the television. NCIS reruns first, then at eight there were other things on. Nothing new, unfortunately. This close to Christmas, everything was on hiatus.

He didn’t even have to check the guide to know when to change to which channel. Was this what he had to look forward to for the next forty years, or however long he had left? Appetite gone, he shoved his half-eaten meal away and laid his head back on the couch. Was this all there was for him? Could he put up with this… monotony for the tiny weekly bright spot of Zach’s visits?

The divorce had seemed like such a good idea. He and Kelly had been growing apart for years. Hell, they probably should never have gotten married in the first place, but with Zach on the way, and both he and Kelly still teenagers, it seemed the thing to do. He and Kelly were still friendly, but she’d been the social one of the pair of them. Once they’d split, Luke discovered most of their friends were her friends, but since their separation had been completely amicable, he hadn’t noticed the loss. Not until Kelly married and got pregnant in short order. Her new husband had been a widower with two kids under ten, and Kelly’s whole life changed. Suddenly, Luke’s entire social network, however peripheral he’d been in it, was gone. And he didn’t know how to build a new one.

Luke’s entire social interaction was watching various crime solving teams on TV do their stuff. Kelly and Zach knew why Luke had divorced Kelly, but he hadn’t told anyone at work the real reason. He didn’t dare. None of those guys were his friends. They respected him as their boss, but if they knew the truth, he wouldn’t even have their respect. So Luke never accepted any invitations to bars or parties or dinners, not even when he’d been married. After all, he’d been grappling with the truth for so long, and he was afraid if he got too close to anyone, they’d figure it out. The truth would likely be career suicide.

And what did he have to show for his carefully kept secret? A miserable lonely apartment and a miserable lonely life. He was too young for this, but he was too set in his ways to change now.

Not even the sexy DiNozzo’s antics were engaging enough—the fourth time I’ve seen this episode—to distract him. It wasn’t even eight, but maybe he’d go to bed.

His breath gusted out in a heavy sigh. He didn’t even the energy to hoist himself to his feet.

The phone rang—the landline. Luke glanced over in surprise. He’d only bothered getting a landline because it was the only way the front door buzzer would work, but once he gave his son a key, he hadn’t used it. In fact, the phone had a thin layer of dust on it.


“Uh, hi, LJ?” Despite the hesitation, Luke had no difficulty placing the voice. Only one person called him LJ. “It’s me, Ryan? Zach’s friend?”

Panic stole his breath. Why was Ryan here? Had something happened to his son?

“What’s wrong, Ryan?”

Luke took the handheld receiver to the closet and had one arm in his jacket before Ryan spoke again.

“Nothing, just Zach wanted me to meet him here, and he’s not here yet. Can you buzz me up? It’s cold out here.”

Luke paused, letting his parental concern ease away while he took a few breaths. “Uh, sure thing.” He barely remembered which key to press to activate the front door release, but he waited until he heard the familiar squeak of the hinges before he hung up.

It was Wednesday. Sure, Zach had skipped the past weekend’s visit to study for exams—it was his last year, and he was poised to get his bachelor’s degree in the spring with a great grade point average—but Luke hadn’t expected him to visit midweek.

Nor had he expected Ryan to join him. Ryan and Zach had been inseparable for years, but Luke hadn’t seen him much since the house was sold two years ago.

He hung his jacket back up and quickly cleared away the detritus of dinner. Already this was more exciting than any weeknight he’d had… pretty much since he moved into this apartment.

A few minutes later, he poked his head out the door. Ryan hadn’t come up yet, nor had he buzzed again. It didn’t take that long to get to his apartment, he didn’t think. Luke shut the door again and paced. Although he wanted more than anything to give his son the benefit of the doubt, Zach showing up midweek with Ryan as a buffer likely meant bad news. After all, when Luke admitted he was gay and that was the impetus for divorcing Zach’s mom, he’d half expected Zach to hate him. When the opposite occurred, he’d been so grateful, even though Kelly had told him it wouldn’t be a problem. Despite their youth when they had Zach, they still managed to raise a good kid between them, which was why this midweek visit was so disturbing.

Frowning, he shut the door again. Maybe he’d just fallen asleep on the couch and dreamed the whole thing. Odd for his subconscious to add in Zach’s best friend, but there was no accounting for dreams. Hell, if his brain had any sense, he’d have been dreaming about having sex with a hot guy—and not Zach’s best friend. He shuddered.

He flopped back down on the couch, wondering if he should flip over to a Law and Order rerun, just to mix things up a little.

THE CLICK of the deadbolt turning sent a spike of adrenaline through Luke, and his pulse picked up. The door swung open, and Luke leapt to his feet, fists clenching in the absence of anything that might be considered a weapon.

“Hey, Dad!”

Luke blinked at the talking pine tree in his doorway, which then waddled its way into his apartment. Like an overly cheery Christmas special, a grinning head appeared from either side of the tree. Zach was a taller, lankier version of Luke, right down to the reddish brown hair, ruddy complexion, and hazel eyes. Kelly’s contribution to their son was to make Zach’s features and build sharper and more refined, so Zach looked a lot more elegant than Luke. Elegance would be wasted at Luke’s job on the construction site anyway.

Ryan, on the other hand, had sprouted some blue streaks in his black hair that hadn’t been there the last time Luke had seen him. He was shorter than Zach, and he’d been past the age of majority before he stopped looking like an underage kid.

“Hi, LJ! I found Zach before I came up.”

“I figured, Ryan. What are you two doing here? Aside from apparently delivering me a Christmas tree.”

The two young men propped the tree against the wall, and Zach dragged in a big cardboard box from the hallway.

Zach peered around Luke’s apartment with a frown, and Luke had a moment of satisfaction that he’d at least cleared away the remains of a dinner that positively screamed lonely and pathetic. Otherwise his place was clean.

“I knew it.” Zach’s frown hadn’t disappeared.

“Knew what?” Luke still suspected this might be some sort of weird dream.

“You haven’t done anything to decorate for Christmas. Just like last year.” Zach got up in his face and squinted. “You’re not spending Christmas alone are you?”

Luke put on his most innocent face. “Of course not.” The first Christmas after the divorce was final, Kelly had graciously invited him over. She knew better than anyone how uncomfortable he’d be with anyone else. Unfortunately, he’d been even more uncomfortable than he’d ever guessed. Interacting with Kelly’s new husband and getting to know Zach’s new siblings had been awkward and just plain fucked-up. Like he’d been dropped in another dimension and everyone except for him was completely different.

Instead of going through that again, he’d told Zach he was spending last Christmas with friends, when he really spent it with a bottle of Jack Daniels, the twenty-four-hour marathon of A Christmas Story interspersed with the Die Hard movies, and more than a few tears. Not so much because he thought the divorce had been a mistake, but somehow he thought things would be better. Instead, he’d only been able to mourn the comfort of a cordial, shared parenthood and the presence of his kid, which he hadn’t realized how much he relied on.


Luke’s eyes widened. “Zach!”

“Sorry, Dad, but I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.”

Probably he shouldn’t be surprised. After all, aside from the big secret of his sexual orientation, he’d made it a practice not to lie to his son or wife. Granted, keeping the gay thing under wraps for so many years was a pretty big secret, but the weight of it made any other lies completely untenable. And since he never had sex with men while he was married to Kelly, it made his conscience mostly clear. Last Christmas was the first time he actively lied to his son, but it had been so very necessary to his sanity.

“You should. I’m perfectly capable of keeping myself occupied.”

Ryan squished himself into a corner as far away from them as he could, in an attempt to give them some privacy, but Luke didn’t really want to discuss this now or ever, whether Ryan was there or not. Ryan’s home life made him extra sensitive to tension, and Luke had spent many of Ryan’s younger years trying to make sure Ryan was comfortable.

“Oh, really? And how do you keep yourself occupied in this place? Gonna cook a turkey dinner with all the fixings?” There was a hint of something pained in Zach’s tone that Luke didn’t quite recognize. Luke was the better cook between him and Kelly, and holiday cooking duties had fallen to him as well. Since he’d waited until Zach had moved into an apartment near the university campus before he and Kelly had moved forward to dissolve their marriage, he hadn’t realized that maybe the new family dynamic wasn’t any easier on his son than it was on him. But he wasn’t given a chance to respond before Zach stalked over to his refrigerator and flung open both fridge and freezer doors.

Boxes of no-name frozen dinners glared reproachfully from the freezer while the entire contents of his fridge consisted of beer, milk, cold cuts, mustard, and some limp lettuce. No hint of any of the groceries that should be in there, although at two weeks before Christmas, the only thing he’d have bought if he was making dinner was a turkey. At least Zach hadn’t looked in the cupboards as well. He had cereal, bread, and maybe a couple old cans of soup.

Zach’s shoulders slumped, and he turned back, his eyes glittering. Even at the grand old age of twenty-four, Luke couldn’t bear it when his son hurt. And for whatever reason, Luke’s new life hurt Zach in some indefinable way. His burgeoning irritation with Zach’s intrusion disappeared in a flash, and he wrapped a hand around his son’s neck and pulled him into a hug.

Scrunching down a few inches, Zach laid his head on his shoulder and squeezed Luke with unexpected strength.

“It’s okay, it’s okay. I love you.” It had been a long time since he’d comforted Zach like this, but over the years there had been many, many occasions thanks to skinned knees, split lips, broken bones, and broken hearts. And despite the fact that it was all his fault, Luke couldn’t suppress the frisson of pride that Zach still needed his dad.

After a few minutes, Zach rubbed his eyes against Luke’s T-shirt and pulled away. Just like his dad, Zach couldn’t cry without the whole world knowing, not with those red-rimmed eyes and glowing red nose. Luke was glad that Zach’s friendship with Ryan was such that he didn’t mind showing emotion with him around.

“Dad, you can’t do this. The whole point of the divorce was so you could be happy.”

“I was happy with your mother. You have to believe that.”

Zach snorted and wiped a sleeve across his still-wet eyes. “You know, I used to believe that. You might even still believe that, but I’ve seen Mom with Mark. Neither of you were truly happy when you were together. Not the happy that comes with being in love.”

Luke tilted his head. “Are you seeing someone?” Zach hadn’t mentioned dating anyone seriously during his entire post-secondary schooling, but despite several crushes that had come to nothing in high school, he didn’t think his son had been in love for real. He almost hoped he hadn’t, because it would kill him to realize he’d missed such a milestone in Zach’s life.

Zach slammed the fridge and freezer doors shut.

“No. Jeez, Dad, this isn’t about me. But I’m an adult, and I’m not stupid. Mom is almost a completely different person. The way she looks at Mark and the way he looks at her….” Zach couldn’t hide embarrassment any better than he could hide crying and a blotchy red flush colored his cheeks. “Well, I’ve never seen you and Mom look at each other like that. Not ever. You always looked at each other the way… the way… Ryan and I look at each other.”

Lifelong friends. Yes, Kelly was definitely that, even if she’d moved on to a new life filled with babies, while Luke was slowly turning to middle-aged dust in a barren apartment. Luke darted a glance at Ryan curled up on the couch with his legs tucked under him. Luke had almost forgotten he was there, observing. Ryan gave Luke an abashed little grin. Since Luke didn’t exactly know how to respond, he turned back to Zach.

“It’s going to take time to get used to living on my own.” Luke didn’t know what to say to make this better.

Zach rolled his eyes. “But that’s the whole point. You’re not supposed to be living on your own like a damned secluded, celibate monk. It’s not like you have to mourn your relationship. You were both more than ready to move on, and although it came as a shock to me at the time, I should have seen the signs a long time ago. You and Mom were… are… friends, but the divorce was right for both of you. But you haven’t moved on, and there’s no good reason for it.” Zach’s voice climbed louder at the end, his frustration growing and amplifying Luke’s own frustration with his pathetic new life.

“I… I….” Luke didn’t want to admit to his son that he just didn’t know how to move on to a new life. Right after the divorce, he’d hit a few gay clubs. But they made him every bit as uncomfortable as Christmas at his ex-wife’s. The flash and sparkle of the clubs didn’t suit him, and he had no idea how to go about finding dates.

“Zach, I’m a construction manager, for God’s sake. No one is particularly gay friendly at work, and even if they were… they’re not my peers. How am I supposed to find a date? I tried clubs, but I hated the music, I had nothing in common with anyone, and most of them were your age.”

Luke supposed he wasn’t like most men, who’d feel pride getting sexual attention from younger people, but it had only made him vaguely ill. Not to say he hadn’t managed a few encounters with a few guys closer to his age. They weren’t entirely satisfactory, but he still hadn’t had anything in common with them aside from a love of dick and the need for a shared orgasm; he wasn’t about to share that information with his son.

With a sad smile, Zach gripped his shoulder and a sudden burning in his own eyes caught Luke by surprise.

“I want you to be happy, like Mom is. So, we’re here to decorate for Christmas, get you into the spirit. And I want to know you won’t be alone on Christmas.”

Luke didn’t choose to be alone. Never had, never would, but the alternative was worse. Spending time with Zach’s newly reconstituted family only made him feel more alone than his solitude.

“Zach, I appreciate the tree and all. It’s a great idea, and it will definitely cheer the place up. But I will be fine on my own.” No point in claiming to be visiting friends again. Zach wouldn’t believe the lie.

Clearing his throat, Ryan stood. “I’m just going to pop out for a smoke. I’ll be back in a few.” He grabbed his coat, gave Luke a comforting pat on the arm, and left before Luke could say anything.

Luke turned a frown on Zach. “Since when did he start smoking?”

Since Zach grew up without siblings, Ryan, who was also an only child, had become as close as a brother. Or as close as Luke assumed brothers being. Ryan didn’t have a very good home life, and he’d almost been like a second son for him and Kelly. They might have made a lot of mistakes, becoming parents so young, but Zach had always come first. Unfortunately, Ryan’s parents never had that same attitude.

Zach waved a hand in the air. “You worry too much, Dad. He’s just giving us some privacy. If he was going to take up smoking, he’d have started earlier than twenty-four.”

If Ryan had been hoping to spare any of them embarrassment, he was about ten minutes too late for that “smoke.”

“Look, I’ll be fine on my own. Really.” He might feel like an old man some days, but he certainly wasn’t at the point where his son needed to look out for him. His social issues weren’t Zach’s problem.

“I worry about you, Dad, and I don’t want you to be alone. You and me, we’re going to spend Christmas together.”

“No! Your mom will miss you, and you’ll have a traditional Christmas with them.” Luke couldn’t take that away from his son. Kelly would be pissed if Zach wasn’t there.

“Dad, this is what kids from broken homes do.” Zach put a little whine in his words, like a petulant teenager, to let Luke know he was joking, but Luke didn’t quite understand the joke.

“Your mother would kill me.”

“My mother would kill me if I let you drink yourself stupid again this year.”

Shock made Luke’s eyes widen. “How did you know?”

“Dad.” This time, there was no joke in Zach’s exasperated my-parents-are-stupid tone. “Adult, remember? I came over the next day, and it wasn’t hard to see the signs. I understand why you don’t want to go to Mom’s. I do. But kids alternate homes for the holidays with divorced parents all the time, and I don’t care if it’s not totally traditional. I don’t need that. I’m not a kid. We can have a great time, you and me.”

“What about Ryan?” As soon as Ryan had been old enough to leave his own home, he hadn’t ever returned, to Luke’s knowledge, and started joining their small family celebrations. Then Luke realized how the question sounded. “I mean, obviously he’d be welcome to come, too.”

Zach smiled that genuinely happy smile that he and Kelly had strove to keep on his face without spoiling him with material goods they couldn’t always afford.

“Good. So, it’s settled. The three of us bachelors will hang out and have a man Christmas.”

Luke rolled his eyes. He’d have to have a personality transplant before he’d call it a “man Christmas.”

“Guess I’d better start making a grocery list.” Luke wanted to laugh. Spending Christmas with his son and his almost-son would be fantastic. But he couldn’t rely on Zach forever; he needed to find a life of his own that didn’t involve conversing with television detectives or waiting for whatever scraps of time Zach could afford to throw him. “Aren’t you going to text Ryan, tell him to come back in? I think it’s a little cold out there for him.”

Zach’s gaze slid away like Luke was covered in Teflon.

“What? What have you done that I’m not going to like?”

His son bit his lip and pulled a folded sheet of purple paper out of his pocket and handed it over.

Luke opened it, the sight of a rainbow flag making him cringe ever so slightly. Advertising his orientation didn’t seem like something he’d ever want to do.

Are you working in a blue collar profession? Do you find it hard to meet people? Do you feel uncomfortable being honest with your coworkers about your orientation?

If so, Rainbow Blues might be for you. Rainbow Blues offers a safe environment where you can be yourself and meet other men like you.

Yearly membership $100.

“Merry Christmas,” Zach said.

Luke sucked in a lungful of pine-scented air. The traditional scent evened out his fury a bit, but not entirely.

“You signed me up for a dating service? Zach, that is not your place. Cancel it. Immediately.”

Zach finally looked at him, chin thrust out and spots of color appearing high on his cheeks. Luke groaned. Zach was his son, through and through, and he could be stubborn as hell when he set his mind on something, and Zach was wearing his stubborn face. Which meant Luke needed to give in to whatever this was, or he and Zach were going to have a huge argument.

“No. I won’t. First off, it’s not a dating service, it’s a social group. They specify quite clearly on the website that their purpose is for blue collar workers to find other gay friends. Because, Dad, you need some fucking friends. You probably also need to get laid, but getting laid is a hell of lot easier than making friends.”

Luke’s face heated up. The truth didn’t just hurt, but it could humiliate too. He also was a little worried that Zach was too naive to recognize a sleazy hookup site masquerading as something reputable.

“I also paid for you to go to their holiday party, which is their next scheduled get-together. It’s Saturday night, so you’ve got plenty of time to find something nice to wear.”

“Zach, what the fuck?”

Luke wanted to bite back the words as soon as they escaped, doubly so when his son paled. Luke didn’t swear at his son, not ever. But right before his eyes, his son proved he was a man. Instead of caving or running away, Zach merely narrowed his eyes and pulled his shoulders back, staring Luke right in the eyes.

“I would never presume to know what you’d look for in a potential boyfriend. Maybe if I’d ever seen you date, I’d know what you liked or what you didn’t. I checked out the website. I checked out reviews. I checked to see if they’d had complaints with the Better Business Bureau. This isn’t some skanky meat market because, ew, I wouldn’t send you to one of those, even though it might get you to loosen up a bit.”

The silence lengthened as a calculating look appeared on Zach’s face and a thread of panic wove its way into Luke’s belly.

“No. I don’t know what you’re thinking, but no. I’ll go to the holiday party, just forget whatever you’re thinking right now.” Luke wouldn’t put it past him to figure out a way to send Luke to an orgy or hire him a rent boy or something. The last time Luke had seen that particular look, Zach had ended up overdosed on caffeine. That particular brainwave had been a combination of a late term paper and a sleep-deprivation study with himself as the only subject, which he’d managed to get an A on. The time before that, he and Kelly had ended up with a tub full of lime Jell-O and had to explain to Ryan’s parents how both their kids ended up with matching black eyes and split lips because they’d thought the idea of a pool full of Jell-O was cool and a bathtub was the nearest they could manage.

“You promise to go to the holiday party?”

“I promise. I swear.” Besides, if it was a skanky hookup, well, maybe getting laid wouldn’t be so awful. It had been… months since he’d gotten off with a hand that wasn’t his own, and pretty much the only time he’d gotten laid since his divorce had been in seedy club hookups. He’d find a way to tell Zach he’d never be going again, without letting him know his Christmas gift was a fairly expensive cock.

Luke got another big, happy smile for his capitulation. “Good, because if you didn’t agree, I was going to tell Mom how you spent last Christmas.”

Zach pulled a phone out of his pocket and started texting while Luke tried to breathe. His breakup with Kelly might have been mutual and amicable, but he sure as shit didn’t want her to know he was a pathetic asshole. No one wanted their ex to know that. Bad enough that his son and probably Ryan were fully aware.

Moments later, Ryan bounded back in the apartment, and the three of them settled into setting up the tree. This close to Christmas, the decorating selections were limited, or so Luke had to assume based on the eclectic mix of colors and styles Zach had purchased for his tree. Or perhaps his son had suddenly become color-blind or just plain blind.

They ordered pizza in, Luke’s barely touched frozen dinner nothing more than a bad memory.

The finished product came together beautifully, and he’d have died rather than tell Zach anything different, but the cheery addition only illustrated how dismal his life had become.

LUKE STOOD outside the community center. He might have to rethink his conclusion that this was a skeevy hookup party. Surely that would be held at a club of some sort, wouldn’t it? He wedged a finger under the unfamiliar collar and pulled, trying to make the new shirt comfortable. At work and on his personal time, he was much more a T-shirt and jeans sort of person. At least he’d been able to talk Zach out of a tie. He hadn’t worn a tie since his wedding… no, wait, there’d been a couple of funerals over the years. Nevertheless, there was no way he could possibly manage socializing with complete strangers while being strangled by a fancy strip of silk.

He’d promised to give it a shot, and Zach had spent good money to give him this opportunity. Even if the purple flyer had caught his eye, it’s unlikely he would have bothered looking into it further.

Another deep breath and he walked in, trying to pretend he wasn’t completely out of his depth.

The interior was decorated like a high school Christmas dance. But the room was filled with a bunch of men. He’d half expected to be the youngest guy in a room full of dinosaurs, but there was a substantial age range; he was neither oldest nor youngest. Hovering in the doorway, he wasn’t sure what to do. Going straight for the food—or the cooler that he prayed contained bottles of beer—seemed a little rude. Surely he wasn’t supposed to just walk up to a random person and start talking, was he?

Sweat popped out on his forehead, and his breathing got shallow. The room wasn’t huge, but there probably weren’t more than thirty guys here. Not an overwhelming number and certainly no reason for his panic, except he hadn’t tried to make friends with strangers since he’d been in school. Kelly had been his social committee for so long.

“Hey man, no passing out.” A strong hand clamped down on his shoulder, and Luke suppressed a startled yelp.

Luke cleared his throat. “Uh, hey.” A slight turn to his left and a dark-haired guy, who was probably about ten years younger and carrying about thirty pounds more muscle than Luke, came into view.

“You’re new here, aren’t you?” The guy was also wearing a dress shirt, but he seemed far more comfortable in it than Luke was in his.

"Uh, yes."

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