Thursday, January 5, 2017

12th Day of Christmas Author Spotlight: Charlie Cochet

Author Bio:
M/M romance author by day, artist by night, Charlie Cochet is quick to succumb to the whispers of her wayward muse. From Historical to Fantasy, Contemporary to Science Fiction, no star is out of reach when following her passion. From hardboiled detectives and society gentleman, to angels and elves, there’s bound to be plenty of mischief for her heroes to find themselves in, and plenty of romance, too!


Hell & High Water
When homicide detective Dexter J. Daley’s testimony helps send his partner away for murder, the consequences—and the media frenzy—aren’t far behind. He soon finds himself sans boyfriend, sans friends, and, after an unpleasant encounter in a parking garage after the trial, he’s lucky he doesn’t find himself sans teeth. Dex fears he’ll get transferred from the Human Police Force’s Sixth Precinct, or worse, get dismissed. Instead, his adoptive father—a sergeant at the Therian-Human Intelligence Recon Defense Squadron otherwise known as the THIRDS—pulls a few strings, and Dex gets recruited as a Defense Agent.

Dex is determined to get his life back on track and eager to get started in his new job. But his first meeting with Team Leader Sloane Brodie, who also happens to be his new jaguar Therian partner, turns disastrous. When the team is called to investigate the murders of three HumaniTherian activists, it soon becomes clear to Dex that getting his partner and the rest of the tightknit team to accept him will be a lot harder than catching the killer—and every bit as dangerous.

Roses in the Devil's Garden
Fallen Rose #1
In a city overrun by lawlessness and corruption, best friends and lovers- Prohibition Agents Harlan Mackay and Nathan Reilly, are fighting a losing battle. With bootleggers running amuck and countless speakeasies materializing every day, how can two men possibly hope to make a difference? Especially when they can't even trust their own bureau?

If dealing with hoodlums wasn't enough, a ghost from Nathan's past threatens to destroy everything Harlan and Nathan hold dear.

Original Prompt:
Dear Author,
Please tell me why this man is armed and dangerous and who it is he belongs to. I really would like to know if he is defending his beloved or about to shoot him for cheating.

Photo Description:
A rugged, muscular man provocatively holds one arm up beside his head as he looks down at you. His other arm is across his chest, and in his hand is a gun. The words I am my beloved’s are tattooed across his forearm. He looks sexy and dangerous.

***Download the story, read it online or find it in Love Is Always Write: Volume 8.***

Original Fallen Rose Series Review January 2016:
I fell in love with Harlan and Nathan in Roses in the Devil's Garden, originally written for a story prompt in the Goodreads M/M Group, and it is amazing!  Then in A Rose by Any Other Name, we get to see Julius, who we were briefly introduced to in Devil's Garden, in his glorious element as Eros at the Pantheon.  Then there's Edward who is not exactly comfortable in his own skin since returning from the war.  Put them together and WOW! the chemistry is explosive, throw in Edward's friends as well as Julius' and my Kindle practically combusted on the spot.  I asked the author if there were going to be any more in this series and she said there are plans but right now her foreseeable plate is a bit full.  Well, whether it's a day, a year, or a decade I will be first in line to check it out and I highly recommend giving Fallen Rose Series a chance, historical lover or not it will capture you from beginning to end.  And by the way, Other Name might be Edward and Julius' story, Harlan and Nate make a very memorable appearance.

Forgive and Forget
Dreamspun Desires #7
He's hot. He's dangerous. And he can't remember anything.

As the owner of Apple’n Pies, Joe Applin leads a quiet, uneventful life, content to spend his days serving customers who come from all over to eat his delicious homemade pies. Along with his motley crew—Bea, Elsie, and Donnie—Joe couldn’t be happier in his little kingdom of baked goods and java.

Experience has taught Joe that love is overrated—and at times dangerous. He has no intention of repeating past mistakes. But then he meets a mysterious, handsome man with amnesia, and Joe can’t deny something sweet is in the works. He isn’t one to take risks, not with his heart and certainly not with his life, but the more time he spends with the man he knows as Tom, the closer he is to losing both.

Love in Retrograde
Enthusiastic, play-it-safe Kelly Sutton is an American intern at the Photonic Royal Society in New London. He’s been working on Project Mars for over a year, a mission kept so secret by the society even Kelly doesn’t know exactly what it is. What Kelly does know is his contribution to the task will benefit mankind, and that’s enough for him.

Kelly’s world turns upside down when concerns over his mentor's behavior lead Kelly to investigate and stumble upon a wicked truth. What is supposed to be a project to advance human life turns out to be an endeavor capable of mass destruction. The terrifying reality forces Kelly to choose between looking the other way to keep his job, as he’s always done, or risking his career and even his life to do the right thing by saving the man who’s captured his heart.

Original Review June 2016:
Another novella that surprised me how deeply involved my heart got.  I had a little hard time getting into the first chapter but that had more to do with me not ready to let go of the previous book's couple than with Love in Retrograde.  By the time I was halfway into chapter two, I was hooked with Kelly Sutton and when he learns the whole truth behind Project Mars, I couldn't put it down.  I have only read a few of Charlie Cochet's books but I have her entire Thirds series on my Kindle but haven't got around to it yet but if they are half as good as Love in Retrograde & Between the Devil and the Pacific Blue, they'll be bumped up on my TBR list more than a few notches.  It isn't always easy to blend science fiction and romance so warmly and not lose the sci-fi factor, but Miss Cochet has done just that.  Kelly and Mars play off each other perfectly all the while being wrapped in sci-fi mojo from beginning to end.

The Soldati Prince
Soldati Hearts #1
One moment Riley Murrough is living a normal life working in a coffee shop, and the next he’s running for his life from demons, learns he bears the mark of a shape-shifter king from a magical realm, and—worst of all—he’s destined to become the mated prince to the arrogant tiger shifter he would rather strangle.

Khalon, the shifter king, is equally distraught at the idea of being bound to a human prince, and along with his Soldati warriors, he sets out to return Riley to his own world where he belongs. On their journey they might discover why the priestess brought them together—if they can escape the demons and make it to her alive.

First Edition published as The Soldati Prince in Charmed & Dangerous by JCP Books LLC, 2015. 

The Auspicious Troubles of Chance 
The Auspicious Troubles of Love #1
Chance Irving is a young man with a gift for getting into trouble-not surprising, as trouble is all he's ever known. After losing everything he held dear one fateful night, he decides to leave New York and his past behind, and joins the French Foreign Legion. But even in Algiers, Chance can't seem to shake his old ways, and he ends up being transferred to a unit made up of misfits and rabble-rousers like him-a unit he finds just in time to be captured and thrown into a cell with his new commandant, Jacky Valentine.

A highly respected commandant with a soft spot for hard luck cases, Jacky is the kind of guy who would go to war for you, and the three equally troubled youths from his unit he's more or less adopted feel the same way about him. Suddenly Chance starts to think that his life doesn't have to be as desolate and barren as the wastelands around him.

But even after their escape, with the promise of a future with Jacky to buoy his spirits, or maybe because of it, Chance can't stop making mistakes. He disobeys orders, lashes out at the boys in Jacky's care, and blazes a trail of self-destruction across the desert-until someone makes him realize he's hurting more than just himself.

A Timeless Dreams title: While reaction to same-sex relationships throughout time and across cultures has not always been positive, these stories celebrate M/M love in a manner that may address, minimize, or ignore historical stigma.

Original Review March 2015:
The title says it all!  Chance is definitely trouble.  I couldn't even begin to guess what kind of man would be able to handle him.  Well, the author has done a perfect job when she created Jacky because he the only one who could possibly tolerate Chance.  We all know where the two will end up and that's together, but the story is how they get there.  And what a ride it is.  This is the first I've read Charlie Cochet but it most certainly won't be the last.


Hell & High Water
DURING THE Vietnam War, the use of lethal biological warfare led to the spread of the Melanoe virus, infecting millions worldwide and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Although no country would take credit for releasing the virus, the world’s top scientists came together to create a cure. The vaccine known as Eppione.8 used strains from animals found to be immune to the virus, but one year after distribution, the course of human history was forever changed. A dormant mutation within the virus was activated by the vaccine, resulting in the altering of human DNA, and giving birth to a new species: Therians.

When the first infected Humans began changing in the late seventies, some didn’t survive. Their Human bodies were unprepared for the shift. Others died of cancer or infections due to weakened immune systems, while others vanished. Rumors ran rampant about governments trying to clean up their mess. When it was clear the “problem” wasn’t going to go away, the US government tried to regain control of the masses, creating the Therian database and quickly passing new laws that would force all surviving Therians to register and get marked, supposedly for their own safety and that of their fellow Human citizens.

The government had been treating the first wave of Therians as a side effect of the war, one that would eventually die out. Then in 1976, scientists discovered what was really happening. The first generation of purebred Therians had been born. The mutation had perfected itself. Solidified, inside these First Generations. Suddenly, there was an advanced new species and along with it, a whole new set of fears.

In an attempt to restore social order, the US government quickly put new regulations and laws into place, along with a Therian branch of government. In 1990, Human and Therian legislators launched the Therian Human Intelligence, Recon, Defense Squadron A.K.A the THIRDS, an elite, military-funded agency comprised of an equal number of Human and Therian agents and intended to uphold the law for all its citizens without prejudice.

As long as Humanity continued to repeat the mistakes of the past, organizations like the THIRDS would be needed to ensure Humanity had a future, even if they had to stumble along the way to get there.

Chapter 1
FUCK. MY. Life.

Dex closed his eyes, wishing this was nothing more than some freakishly vivid dream where any moment now, he would wake up and everything would go back to the way it was. Of course, when he opened his eyes, nothing changed. He splashed more water on his face in an effort to ease the tension, but it didn’t help. Not that he’d been expecting it to. After wiping the excess water from his face, he paused to glare at the man in the mirror. The guy staring back at him looked like shit, pale with reddish-brown circles under his eyes that made him look as if he’d either been crying or using crack. There were definitely a hell of a lot of sleepless nights involved. Dex didn’t like the guy in the mirror. What an asshole.

“Are they out there?” His voice came out rough, as if waking from sleep—deep or otherwise—had been out of his reach for some time.

A hand landed on his shoulder, offering a sympathetic squeeze. “Yes. Remember what we talked about? As soon as you’ve had enough, you walk away.”

Dex let out a snort. It was way too late to walk away. Had been about six months ago. He straightened and snatched a paper towel from the automated dispenser. It was like drying off with newspaper, the same newspapers that had his image plastered all over their pages. Images that had been run through some Photoshop douchebag filter to make him look like even more of a prick. He chucked the paper into the wastebasket and stood there, finding it difficult to face his lawyer.

“Hey, look at me.” Littman stepped up to him and patted his cheek. “You did the right thing.”

Dex looked up then, searching for something, anything that might help the pain go away even for a little while. “Then why do I feel like shit?”

“Because he was your friend, Dex.”

“Exactly. And I fucked him over. Some friend.” He went back to leaning over the sink, his fingers gripping the porcelain so tightly, his knuckles hurt. “Goddamn it!” That son of a bitch! What the hell had Walsh been thinking? Obviously he hadn’t been, or neither of them would be in this mess. Or worse, maybe Walsh had thought it through. Maybe he’d been so certain Dex would have his back that he thought “fuck it.”

Dex closed his eyes, trying to get the man’s face out of his mind, but he could still see it clearly. That face was going to haunt his dreams for a long time coming. The mixture of anger and pain when the verdict had been given—anger directed at Dex, and pain brought about by what he’d done—had been there for the world to see, especially Dex.

“No,” Littman insisted. “He fucked himself over. All you did was tell the truth.”

The truth. How could doing the right thing turn out so goddamn bad? Had it even been the right thing? It had seemed like it at the time. Now he wasn’t so sure. Regardless, he couldn’t hide out in the restroom all his life.

“Let’s get this over with.” A few deep breaths and he followed Littman out into the corridor. The moment he stepped foot out there, the locusts swarmed him, microphones buzzing, recorders and smartphones at the ready, flashes going off, cameras rolling, a litany of questions flying at him from every direction. It was as if he were underwater, hearing everyone outside the pool yelling and screaming as he sank to the bottom like a stone, no discernible words, only muffled sounds. Littman stepped up beside him, one hand behind Dex’s back in assurance, the other held up to the crowd in a vain attempt to bring order to chaos.

“Detective Daley will do his best to answer your questions, but one at a time, please!”

A tall, gray-haired man in an expensive suit pushed through his gathered comrades, ignoring their murmured grunts of displeasure, to place a microphone in front of Dex. A half a dozen more swiftly joined it.

“Detective Daley, what would you say to all the Humans who believe you betrayed your own kind?”

At least he’d been prepared for that one. Dex buttoned up his suit jacket, the gesture allowing him a few seconds to calm his nerves and collect his thoughts. Smoothing it down, he met the reporter’s gaze. “I joined the Human Police Force to make a difference, and sometimes that requires making tough calls. I chose to tell the truth. No one is above the law, and my job is to enforce it.”

A blonde woman in a tailored navy blue pantsuit swiftly jumped in. “Is it because your brother is Therian? Are you a LiberTherian Sympathizer?”

It was hardly the first time he’d been accused of such. Having a Therian brother was the sole reason the Human Police Force had taken longer than necessary to consider him when he’d applied ten years ago. If his father hadn’t been a respected detective on the force, Dex was certain he never would’ve been considered, much less hired. Knowing what they thought of his brother should have been enough to make him walk away, but it was those same close-minded individuals Dex had wanted to reach. That was why he’d joined the HPF, to continue making a difference from the inside, like his dad once had. It turned out to be a whole lot harder than he’d imagined, but that only succeeded in strengthening his resolve.

“My brother and I share the same beliefs when it comes to justice. Our fathers taught us to treat both Therians and Humans as equals. I may be liberal-minded, but my strong belief in justice for both species hardly makes me a sympathizer.”

An auburn-haired man with a shit-eating grin shoved his smartphone in Dex’s face, almost hitting him in the teeth. His expression told Dex he didn’t much care if he had. Dex calmly pulled back, his jaw muscles tightening. “Detective Daley, why haven’t you joined your father and brother over at the THIRDS? Is it because you didn’t qualify?”

Dex returned the asshole’s grin. “Whatever you’re paying your sources, it’s too much. I never applied to the THIRDS.”

“But you did go through their training.”

“I was offered the opportunity to take the three-week training course in the hopes I might reconsider becoming a candidate. I complied as a courtesy to my family, and I admit, a part of me wanted to know if I was up to the challenge.” And damn, had it been one hell of a challenge! Three weeks of intense physical training and skill-building exercises, rappelling, fast roping, room entry procedures, building searches, close quarter combat, and tactical weapons training. Dex had been pushed to his limits, and when he thought he couldn’t give any more, he was forced to reach deep down and give an additional 10 percent. It had been the most grueling, demanding, psychologically stressful three weeks of his life. Nothing he’d ever done had come close to what he’d been put through in those three weeks, not even the HPF training academy.

The THIRDS were the toughest sons of bitches around, and Dex had wanted to prove to himself that he could hack it. But join them? That was something else altogether.

“Did you pass?”

Dex couldn’t help his pride from showing. “Top of the class.”

“Will you be applying now?” another journalist asked.

“I intend to continue offering my services to the HPF.”

“What if they don’t want you? Do you think they’ve lost their trust in you, knowing you helped send a good man, one of their own brothers, to prison?”

And there it was.

Dex turned his head to whisper Littman’s name. His lawyer smiled broadly and held a hand up. “Thank you all for coming. I’m afraid that’s all Detective Daley has time for. Please respect him and his family during this difficult time.”

“What about Detective Walsh and his family? Have you spoken to them? How does his family feel about what you did?”

Dex waded through the toxic pool of newspersons, refusing to think about the hurtful and hateful phone calls, texts, and messages from Walsh’s family. People he’d once had barbecues with, whose Little League games he’d attended. He’d never wanted to bring them so much pain, to take away their son, husband, father. Being on the receiving end of their anger was the least Dex deserved.

“Detective Daley! Detective!”

He ignored the onslaught of questions, from what his boyfriend thought about the whole thing to whether his career with the HPF was unofficially over, and everything in between. He wasn’t going to think about any of that now. All he wanted was to get home to said boyfriend and maybe cry a little.

Dex walked as fast, but calmly, as he could, with Littman at his side, making a beeline for the north entrance of the Supreme Court Criminal Branch. Outside, the news teams tried to crowd him in, and officers did their best to control the growing mob. The railings on either side of the exit only proved to be a nuisance, corralling him as he tried to push his way through. The steps were blocked, so Dex grabbed Littman’s elbow and hurried him down the makeshift ramp to the sidewalk. Thank God they had a car waiting for them.

Dex tried to be nice about getting the journalists to step back so he could get into the backseat. When a couple of jerks tried to cram in, Dex was left with no choice. He grabbed their smartphones and tossed them into the crowd behind them.

“You’re going to pay for that!” one of them called out as he scrambled to retrieve his device.

“Bill me!” Dex climbed into the car and slammed the door behind him. The town car pulled away from the curb, and he slumped back against the pristine leather, letting out a long audible breath. Finally, it was over. For the time being anyway.

“You sure you don’t want to be dropped off at home?” Littman looked nearly as haggard as Dex felt.

“Nah, the parking garage is fine. I need to drop off the rental anyway.”

“You know I would’ve been happy to pick you up at your home and drop you off.”

“I know.” Dex stared out the window as they drove up Centre Street, made a left on White, and then drove down Lafayette. When they made a right onto Worth, the Starbucks on the corner had him pining for some frothy caffeine goodness. “I needed to drive around a while before court. Listen to some music, try to relax a little.” He’d made sure to rent a car with the darkest tinted windows on the lot and a slamming sound system. Music was probably the only thing that had kept him from going crazy through this whole ordeal, what with his boyfriend’s busy schedule. It would have been nice to have Lou there with him, but he understood the man couldn’t drop everything for him. They both had demanding careers and sometimes sacrifices had to be made. Still….

“I understand. You should lay low for a while until this blows over. There’s talk of that heiress—the one who’s been having a not-so-secret affair with her Therian personal trainer, being pregnant, and Daddy’s not taking it well. That should keep the vultures busy for a while. I suggest you take some vacation time, maybe surprise Lou with a nice little penthouse suite in the Bahamas or something.”

In no time, the car pulled up to the curb in front of the deli next to the parking garage, and Dex mustered up a smile, holding his hand out to his father’s old friend. “Thanks. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”

“You know I’m always here if you need me.” Littman took his hand in his and gave it a pat. “Dex?”


“He would have been proud of you.”

The thought brought a lump to his throat. “You think so?”

Littman nodded, the conviction in his words going a long way to assure Dex. “I knew your dad a long time. Believe me. He would have been proud. And so is Tony. He’s left me about ten messages asking about how you are. Your brother’s probably worried sick as well.”

Dex pulled his hand away to remove his smartphone from his pocket and chuckled at the fifteen missed calls from his family. He held it up. “You think?”

“Call your family, before Tony hunts you down.”

“I’ll give them both a call soon as I get in. Thanks.” After saying good-bye to Littman, Dex once again thanked him for helping him keep his sanity throughout all this and what was surely to come. Dex headed toward the rental in the parking garage. He wasn’t stupid enough to drive his precious baby to the courthouse. It was hard to lose the media in an Orange Pearl Dodge Challenger. If they weren’t in the city, he’d leave them eating his dust, but since he was in the city, it would make him a sitting duck.

As soon as he walked around to the rental’s driver’s side, he was doubly grateful he hadn’t brought his car, though he was no less pissed. Someone had slashed his back tire.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

He kicked the tire, as if doing so might magically repair it. Goddamn it, he should have let Littman drive him home. All he wanted was to get indoors, get something to eat, and vegetate on the couch. Thank God for auto clubs. He reached into his pocket for his phone when someone across the lot called out.

“Detective Daley!”

Instinctively, he looked up. A split second later the air rushed out of his lungs when something solid struck him between his shoulder blades. He stumbled forward, a blow to his thigh forcing him onto his hands and knees with a painful growl. Around him, three large Humans in black ski masks and black gloves crowded him. Damn it, where had they come from? Dex moved, intent on pushing himself to his feet when someone kicked him in the stomach, leaving him once again winded. He landed roughly on his side, holding onto his bruised ribs and stomach, his teeth gritted as he breathed heavily through his nose.

“You fucked up, Daley. You shouldn’t have testified against your partner.”

“Fuck you,” Dex spat out. Another kick confirmed mouthing off wasn’t appreciated. They obviously didn’t know him. With a groan, he leaned slightly to take in the sight of their neat attire. Maybe they did know him. “Who sent you?” He didn’t need to know. What’s more, he didn’t care. All he needed was enough time to figure out who he was up against.

“The Human race,” one of them snarled.

Dex let out a laugh. What an ass. It hadn’t taken him long to piece things together after noticing the gang’s black dress slacks and shiny black shoes. With a curse, he rolled forward to press his forehead against the asphalt. The only surprising part of this whole encounter was the fact it hadn’t come sooner. At least they weren’t going to kill him, just make him bleed a little. “Well, I got the message, so you can all go home now. You did your duty.” He received a blow to the arm with the shiny steel baton; most likely the same object they’d used to hit him in the back. Man, he was going to be sore tomorrow.

They dragged him to his feet, one holding on to each of his arms as the third came to stand before him. Dex closed his eyes and braced himself, his mind chastising him for being such a coward. The punch landed square across his jaw, snapping his head to one side and splitting his lip. Fuuuck, that hurt. He ran a tongue over his teeth to make sure nothing was loose. Nope, nothing there but the tangy taste of his own blood.

“Hey! HPF! Hands where I can see them!”

The Humans bolted and Dex’s knees buckled beneath him. Strong hands caught him, helping him stay on his feet. His back stung, his arm, thigh, and face throbbed from the blows, and his stomach reeled at the knowledge he’d done nothing.

“Daley, you okay?”

Dex recognized that voice. He looked up, puzzled to find fellow Homicide Detective Isaac Pearce holding him up, concern etched on his face.


Pearce helped him to the rental and propped him up against it, performing a quick assessment. Seeming confident Dex could stand, he surveyed the parking garage, but the perpetrators were long gone. His attention landed back on Dex. “You all right?”

“Yeah. Wish I could say the same about my suit.” Dex straightened, wincing at the sharp pain that shot through his body. “What are you doing here?”

“The usual summons, but my guy never showed. It was a nice day, so I figured I’d walk it. Glad I left when I did.”

“Yeah, me too.” Dex let out a small laugh then winced at the sharp sting it brought his lip. Tony was going to lose his shit over this.

“Any idea who they were?” Pearce asked worriedly.

Yep. “Nope.” Dex shook his head, wiping his hands on his slacks. “Just some pissed off Humans.” He had enough on his hands without bringing a whole new level of crap down on himself. “To be honest, right now, I just want to get home.”

“Don’t blame you.” Pearce motioned toward the slashed tire. “Need a lift?”

If he called the auto club now, Dex would have to wait for someone to come out—because he sure as hell didn’t have the strength or will to change the tire himself, wait for them to swap it out then drive the rental back to the lot. Or, he could accept Pearce’s offer and worry about the rental later.

“A lift would be greatly appreciated.”

“Great.” Pearce beamed at him. “I’m around the corner.”

With a murmured “Thanks,” Dex accompanied Pearce to his car, a silver Lexus that was more befitting a homicide detective. At least that’s what his old partner Walsh would have thought. The guy never did approve of Dex’s tastes. Come to think of it, Walsh was always making snide comments about what a “special snowflake” Dex was. He’d never paid much attention to the remarks, but in light of recent events, it was possible Walsh had always been a judgmental prick. Had Dex simply turned a blind eye to all of it? What if Dex had called him out on it sooner? Could they both have been spared all this?

“You okay?” Pearce asked again as soon as Dex was settled into the passenger seat beside him.

“Yeah, sorry. I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of this.”

“Why don’t you put on some music? Relax a bit. I’ll even let you choose the station.”

Dex gave a low whistle as he slipped on his seatbelt. “You’re going to regret giving me that kind of power.” He turned on the radio and navigated through the touchscreen to Retro Radio. Dex grinned broadly at Pearce, wiggling his eyebrows when Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” came blaring through the speakers. Pearce stared at him as if he’d lost his mind and Dex laughed. “I told you, you’d regret it.”

With a chuckle, Pearce drove out of the parking garage. “Where to?”

“West Village, Barrow Street.”

Despite Bobby McFerrin advising Dex a few minutes later not to worry and be happy, Dex was finding it difficult. If it were only that easy, Bobby. If only.

The ride down Sixth Avenue was quiet, filled mostly with power ballads and electro pop from the era of neon spandex, mullets, and shoulder pads with a wingspan to rival that of a Boeing 747. Dex appreciated Pearce letting him zone out instead of trying to make idle conversation. It was odd, being in Pearce’s car with him. They’d never offered more than the usual office greetings despite both working homicide from the HPF’s Sixth Precinct. Then again, Pearce had retreated into himself after losing his brother over a year ago, and no one at the Sixth could blame him. Having a younger brother of his own, Dex could imagine how hard it must have been on the poor guy.

Traffic wasn’t too bad this time of day, slowing down mainly near Tribeca Park and a few pockets down Sixth Avenue. Less than ten minutes later, they were driving onto busy Bleecker Street. Maybe he could convince Lou to pick him up a burger and fries from Five Guys on the corner. It was dangerous, having that place so close to his house. They pulled up in front of Dex’s brownstone, and Pearce turned to him with a smile. “Well, here we are.”

“Thanks for not kicking me out of your car,” Dex said, shutting off the radio.

“I’ll admit I came close when Jefferson Starship came on, but then I saw you tapping your hand in time to the music, and you had this sappy smile on your face… I didn’t have the heart.” Dex gave a snort and leaned back in his seat, smiling when Pearce started laughing. “You are one weird guy.” Pearce’s smile faded, and he suddenly looked a little embarrassed. “Want to get a coffee sometime?”

“Sure.” Dex tried not to let the surprise show in his voice.

“I know we’ve never said more than a few words to each other, but you’re a cool guy, Daley.” His brows drew together in worry, making him appear older than he was. Dex wasn’t more than a couple years younger than Pearce, but their job didn’t exactly allow for aging gracefully. “Be careful. I’d hate—” Pearce’s voice broke and he cleared his throat. “I’d hate for you to get hurt over all this. My brother, Gabe, believed in what he was doing and look where it got him.”

Dex frowned, trying to drum up what he remembered from the incident. He remembered it had been especially hard on Pearce, not having access to the case. But since Gabe had been a THIRDS agent, the HPF had no jurisdiction. “I thought the guy involved had been a Human informant?”

Pearce shook his head. “He was an HPF informant, but he wasn’t Human. He was Therian. A kid.”

Shit. Pearce’s brother had been killed by a Therian informant and here he was, coming to rescue a guy who’d testified against his Human partner in favor of a young Therian punk. “So, why aren’t you kicking the shit out of me too?”

A deep frown came onto Pearce’s face. “If your partner was stupid enough to let his personal prejudice affect his judgment, he deserves what he got. The truth is I admire you. Not everyone would’ve had the balls to do what you did. What happened to Gabe… was different.” He sighed, his expression troubled. “I’m just saying to watch your back. There are a lot of zealots out there looking for any excuse to carry out their own justice and things have been getting worse since that second HumaniTherian was found dead a few months ago. Some of these Humans are out for blood.”

Pearce wasn’t wrong on that. Two HumaniTherian activists had been murdered in the last six months and the evidence was pointing toward a Therian perpetrator, which meant jurisdiction fell to the THIRDS. Although the organization was doing its best to reassure the public, a storm was brewing between Humans and Therians, especially if they didn’t catch whoever was behind it soon. Dex’s testimony against his partner couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“Thanks for the warning, Pearce.” Dex stepped out of the car and closed the door behind him, taking a step to the side to wave at Pearce as he drove off. As soon as the guy was gone, Dex let out a sigh of relief. He loved his quiet little treelined street. With a smile, he painfully climbed up the steps to his front door. Finally, he was home. He stuck the key into the lock, turned it, and pushed the door open, baffled when it went thump halfway. Christ, now what? Something heavy was wedged up against it. With a frustrated grunt, he forced it open and carefully stuck his head in, frowning when he saw the large open cardboard box filled with DVDs, CDs, and a host of other things that should have been in his living room. His initial thought went to burglary, except he’d never run into thieves who stopped to bubble wrap their stolen merchandise.


Dex locked the door behind him and wandered into the living room, his jaw all but hitting the floor at the near-empty state of it, along with the many cardboard boxes littered about in various stages of completeness. Something banged against the floor upstairs and Dex took the stairs two at a time.

“Babe?” Dex found his boyfriend of four years upstairs in their bedroom throwing shoes into empty boxes. “What’s going on?”

“I’m moving out.”

The words hit Dex like a punch to the gut, a feeling he was growing all too familiar with these days. “What?” He quickly maneuvered through the obstacle course of boxes and scattered manbags to take hold of his boyfriend’s arms, turning him to face him. “Sweetheart, stop for a second. Please, talk to me.” He went to cup Lou’s cheek, only to have Lou move his face away. Ouch. Double sucker punch. Tucking the rejection away for later, he focused on getting to the bottom of this. “Lou, please.”

“The nonstop phone calls, the reporters knocking on the door, the news reports on TV calling you a disgrace to your species. I can’t take it anymore, Dex.”

Guilt washed over him, and he released Lou. How many more casualties would there be as a result of his doing “the right thing”? “Give it some time. This will all blow over. What if we go somewhere far away from this, the two of us, huh?”

Lou shook his head and went back to packing. “I have a life to think about. I’ve already lost half a dozen clients. I can’t afford to lose any more.”

“This is New York, Lou. One thing you won’t run out of is parties to cater. It’s almost September, next thing you know it’ll be Halloween and you’ll be knee-deep in white chocolate ghosts and tombstone ice sculptures, telling your clients how throwing a party in a real graveyard is a bad idea.” When his lighthearted approach failed, Dex knew this was serious. Of course, to most people, the packed boxes would have been a dead giveaway, but Dex wasn’t most people. He refused to believe Lou would walk out on him when he needed him the most. “What about me? Aren’t I a part of your life?” Dex was taken aback when Lou rounded on him, anger flashing in his hazel eyes.

“You sent your partner to prison, Dex!”

Unbelievable. It wasn’t bad enough he was getting it from everyone else, now he was getting it at home too? Dex was growing mighty tired of being treated like a criminal. “I didn’t send him to prison. The evidence against him did. He shot an unarmed kid in the back and killed him for fuck’s sake! How am I the asshole in this?” He searched Lou’s eyes for any signs of the man who’d wake him up in the middle of the night simply to tell him how glad he was to be there with him.

“It wasn’t like you’d be able to bring the kid back. Not to mention he was a delinquent and a Therian!”

Dex’s anger turned into shock. “Whoa, what the hell, Lou? So that makes it okay? What about Cael? He’s a Therian. You’ve never had a problem with him.” At least Lou had the decency to look ashamed.

“He’s your family. I had no choice.”

This was all news to him. Dex loved Cael. He would never push his brother out for anyone. He’d been upfront about his Therian brother when he and Lou had first started dating. If his date couldn’t accept Cael, he couldn’t accept Dex. “Where is all this coming from? Since when do you have a problem with Therians?”

“Since one ruined my fucking life!” Lou chucked a pair of sneakers at one of the boxes with such force the box toppled over.

“Your life?” This conversation grew more astounding by the minute. Dex thrust a finger at himself. “Have you seen my face? I got the shit kicked out of me in the parking garage, thanks for noticing. If a fellow detective hadn’t come along, I’d probably be in the hospital right now. And you know what the most fucked up part of that is? They weren’t even street thugs. They were fucking cops!” Dex had known the moment he’d seen their attire and the telltale signs of an ankle holster on one of them. The bastards had probably been at the trial.

Roses in the Devil's Garden
Chapter One
“This story has no moral, this story has no end, this story only goes to show, that there ain’t no good in men…”

Why wasn’t he surprised the dance floor was flooded by couples shaking a leg to a tune about murder? It said a hell of a lot of about the times they were living in. More than he cared to admit. It was ironic, really. All this trouble to cleanse the country of its depravity and heathen ways, and instead, the line between law-abiding respectability and delinquency had become blurred to the point of near extinction. Nowadays, even granny was making a mint from the nice young boys running a Gin mill from her basement—something which would have been a step up from this joint.

This particular saloon was an old house converted into a sanctum of illicit activity, where everything from bootlegged liquor to prostitution was not only available, but encouraged. There were thousands of joints like it throughout the city, and for every one that closed down, three more popped up. In basements, flower shops, bakeries. No place was sacred, not churches, or funeral parlors, the latter being the worst of them.

The limited amount of space around them was occupied by a makeshift stage, overcrowded dance floor, and a chipped wooden bar that stretched from one end of the room to the other. Shoved out of the way into darkened corners and gaps, were little square tables dressed in white tablecloths—a poor attempt to add some class.

Plenty of well-to-do society folks had come out slumming, dancing the Charleston and the Bunny Hug in fancy beads and frilly feathers. The dames in their Louise Brooks bobs and rouged knees drank nearly as much as their beaus, who in their bright colored shirts and silly bowties were no doubt bursting to share their scandalous exploits with their less-adventurous fellows at the office come Monday morning.

If they only knew.

On stage, the pansies and lady-lovers danced, hugged, and kissed. They mingled and teased the crowd in a way that only years ago would have had them all thrown in a wagon and carted off to the hoosegow. If they even made it that far.
America had become the devil’s den, and New York City its garden. Most of the time, Agent Harlan Mackay didn’t know what to make of it.

“Why do I let you talk me into these things?” He peered down at the questionable looking liquid in his glass with a deep frown. Granted, it had been a long time since he had had whiskey of any discernible value, but he was pretty certain it wasn’t supposed to be the unsettling yellow-green concoction before him. Casting a glance over at his partner—Agent Nathan Reilly, his frown deepened. Nathan appeared too amused for his own good.

“Because you love my sense of adventure,” Nathan replied with a cocky, lopsided grin. He enjoyed his job far too much, in Harlan’s opinion.

“Is that what we’re calling it?” Harlan grumbled, bracing himself as he took a sip of a drink that set him back as much as a week’s worth of dinners at the automat. “Dammit.” He coughed and sputtered, dribbling a good portion of the stuff on his vest.

Nathan didn’t bother holding back his laughter. “That good, eh?”

“Tastes like piss water,” Harlan grunted, slamming the glass on the table and swatting it away from him in case the fumes alone did him harm.

“That’s probably because it is,” Nathan said with a grin before tossing back the contents of his own glass and shuddering. “Jesus, Joseph, and Mary Pickford’s momma, that’ll put some hair on your chest.” The pained look on his face brought a chuckle from Harlan.

Putting the empty glass on the table, Nathan blinked a few times, shuddered again, and called the waiter over to order another. Harlan just shook his head. Well, he could hardly let Nathan one up him, so he tossed back the remaining liquid in his glass.

“So how’d you hear about this one?” he wheezed.

“Arty down at Union Square,” Nathan replied, his head tilting to one side as he watched the spectacle on stage. Harlan followed his gaze and upon further inspection, noticed the fella sporting a pencil-thin mustache and tuxedo was a dame, and the beautiful blond in the flowing, lavender gown twirling a parasol was a fella.

“The blind guy who’s always sitting around George Washington?” Harlan’s gaze remained on the stage where the dame was singing Sweet Lady to the rosy cheeked boy.

“He wasn’t always blind.”

That captured Harlan’s attention and he shot an accusing look at the empty glass on the table. “You mean…”

Nathan nodded somberly. “It wasn’t piss water, I can tell you that much.”

“Son-of-a bitch.” It was no secret that Harlan didn’t give a damn about temperance. That’s not why he was here. It was about the innocent folks who were paying the price set by a bunch of high-society bastards sitting atop their high horses. Meanwhile, good, hardworking men like Arty were dropping dead, going blind, or being left brutally debilitated by those looking to make it rich. Uncle Sam had picked up his Bible for the cause, but not before carving inside the pages to leave room for his bottle of whiskey. Sometimes Harlan wondered if Nathan was right. Maybe this was one war they would never win, especially when most of their own men were no better than the hoods they put behind bars.
He had been so lost in thought; he hadn’t even realized they had company until Nathan smacked him in the arm and snickered.

Harlan’s gaze traveled up a deep blue suit, noting the slender curves and the purple rose tucked in the front breast pocket. There was a lighter blue shirt and lavender tie. Above that, pouty lips and even further up, the biggest, brightest blue eyes he had ever seen. It was the southern belle who’d been up on stage only moments ago, except he had traded in his dress for a three-piece suit. Harlan opened his mouth and when nothing came out; the kid dropped himself down onto Harlan’s lap and threw an arm around his neck.

“Hey, Daddy. How’s about wetting my whistle with a little giggle water?” The kid’s fingers caressed the stubble on Harlan’s jaw before they trailed down to his chest. Instinctively, Harlan put his hand over his pocket watch just in case. He cast a sideways glance at Nathan, who looked about ready to burst into a fit of laughter. Damn him.

“You know, alcohol’s illegal,” Harlan told the young man matter-of-factly. That earned him a pleasant laugh and a slap to the chest that nearly knocked the wind out of him. This had to be a first. Not many folks had the grit to get this forward with him, not even the boldest of ossified flappers.

“You slay me,” the blond giggled, before biting down on his full bottom lip. It was well rehearsed, but no less seductive. He was young, but not overly. Early twenties maybe, with the kind of brightness in his eyes that said he was far too smart to be in a dive like this, which meant only one thing. The kid was a worker.

“Listen, um…”

“Julius,” the young man purred. “Wanna dance, handsome? You can bring your meat. The more the merrier.” He turned his attention to Nathan, where he gave him the up and down, approval evident in his gaze. “I don’t usually go for petting parties, but I’d be happy to make an exception for you fellas.”

Harlan arched an eyebrow at that. “I beg your pardon?”

Julius leaned in and smiled knowingly, his voice low. Not that it was necessary with the brassy Jazz number the small orchestra was spewing out. There was also plenty of petting going on around them. No one was going to pay them any mind. They would soon enough, but not for the young man sitting on Harlan’s lap.

“Don’t worry, handsome. Your secret’s safe with me.”
Harlan’s eyes narrowed and he caught the hand that was making its way down to his stomach. “Alright, that’s enough of that.” Julius looked both surprised and tickled. He turned his smile on Nathan who damn it all, had yet to say a single word.

“So it’s like that?” Julius asked Nathan.

Finally, his so-called partner spoke up, a goofy grin on his face. “Yeah, it’s like that.”

Julius nodded and Harlan couldn’t help but notice how the brightness in the young man’s eyes dimmed a little. “Guess I should stick to the Parisian. Fewer husbands there.”
Grabbing his shoulder, Harlan pulled the kid close and whispered in his ear. “Get out.”

With an endearingly puzzled look, Julius looked from Harlan to Nathan and back. “I wasn’t razzing you, if that’s what you think.”

“No. I mean you gotta go. Now.” Harlan took the kid’s hand and slipped it inside his suit jacket.

“What are you—” The smile fell off Julius’ face as soon as his fingers slid over the cold steel. He swallowed hard. “Prohis?”
Harlan nodded.

“Can I take my friends? There’s only the two, I swear. They’re good fellas,” he pleaded, genuine fear in his big blue eyes. It was no secret how these things usually went. Finesse was hardly a requirement in joining the good fight. Neither was honesty, a clean record, a reasonable temperament or a dozen other virtues.

“You’ve got ten minutes,” Harlan warned.

Julius nodded and quickly slid off his lap. He started to turn then hesitated. Turning back, he gave Harlan’s cheek a quick kiss before hurrying off.

“That was real sweet, Harley.”

“Dry up,” Harlan grumbled. When he saw Nathan’s tender expression, the heat shot all the way up Harlan’s neck and into his face. Embarrassed, he suddenly didn’t know what to do with his hands, so he just fiddled with his tie. “Ain’t nothin’. You know what Mel and the rest of his bad eggs would do if they got their hands on Julius and his friends.”

Nathan’s expression sobered up considerably. “Yeah, I know.”
There was movement by the cloakroom and Harlan was relieved to see Julius with two other good looking young men hurriedly putting on their overcoats as they headed for the door. Julius paused, looked through the crowd, and caught Harlan’s gaze. With a small smile, he gave Harlan a curt nod and ushered his friends out. There was no guarantee that Julius wouldn’t find himself in trouble again, especially working a place like the Parisian, but at least Harlan had managed to keep him safe this one time. It was all he could hope for these days.

“Ready to go to work?” Nathan asked, interrupting his thoughts.

That drew a wicked grin from him. “Aren’t I always?”

They stood and made their way through the unsuspecting crowd to the cloakroom. Once they had their overcoats and hats on, they stood in front of the saloon’s only exit. Harlan removed his handgun from inside his suit jacket, followed by a black leather wallet. With Nathan ready at his side, Harlan aimed his semi-automatic at the ceiling and fired a round. The blast echoed through the room like an explosion, bringing the music to a halt along with everything else.

He held up his badge and shouted across the room, “Prohibition Unit! This is a raid!”

And then all hell broke loose.

Forgive and Forget
Chapter 1
“JOE! YOU’RE killing me!”

The low growl melted into a moan of satisfaction, bringing a hearty laugh from Joe. “It’s just apple pie, Mr. Richardson.” He refilled the wily old man’s coffee mug and received a bushy-browed scowl in return.

“The hell it is, son. If it was any old apple pie, you think I’d bother walking eight city blocks to get here? You’re too damned modest, Joe. Everyone knows you make the best damn pies in the city, probably all of New York State!”

Joe didn’t know about the entirety of New York, but seeing how happy his pies made Mr. Richardson was more than enough for him. Apple’n Pies wasn’t big or fancy, by any means. It was a cozy little hole-in-the-wall six blocks from Times Square, free of all the fancy coffee machines, exotic flavors, or overpriced merchandise. It was all his, and it was home.

Wiping his hands on his apron, Joe took a moment to survey his little kingdom of baked goods and java. The wooden floorboards and medium-sized counter were scuffed, the old oak frames of the booths just as worn, but solid and polished, the red upholstery always clean and without tears. What little chrome there was came from the stools at the counter, which had been installed a couple of years ago after one of his regulars had gone straight through one of the old ones. He could hardly have customers falling through the furniture now, could he?

The silver of the stools matched the shelving units of the back counter, which housed the tableware, and in the far corner was Rusty—a cash register that looked like it belonged back in the Civil War days. Bea was always telling him to get rid of it, but Joe didn’t have the heart. Besides, Rusty was still as sturdy and reliable as ever, even if the drawer did stick sometimes and Bea had taken a baseball bat to it on more than one occasion. Of course, the dinged-up baseball bat always came out of the scuffle worse off than Rusty.

The place was reminiscent of one of those old vintage cafés. It was old-school, but it was spotless, tidy, and most importantly, filled with happy customers treating themselves to his pies. In the corner, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face with Sunshine” floated up from the old radio.

Some men wanted to be doctors, lawyers, movie stars, or millionaires. Joe was happy baking pies, and when his customers were happy, he was happy, and they were happy with a little help from him. What more could a guy ask for?

The little brass bell above the glass-paned door jingled, and Joe cheerfully went to meet his new customers. Outside, the world was moving at rocket speed, with no time to spare for those who hadn’t the means or the heart to keep up. Apple’n Pies provided a quiet, safe haven for anyone who needed it, from Hollywood movie stars to youngsters down from the local Y. Everyone was welcome at Joe’s.

Joe greeted a young couple with a cheery “Good morning” before showing the couple to an empty booth.

The handsome pair looked like they’d stepped out of a fashion magazine. Their gazes darted around the place with noticeable uncertainty. It was pretty obvious it wasn’t their typical coffee stop. Joe never took offense. Instead, he smiled warmly and got busy making them feel at home.

“I’m Joe Applin. Welcome to my little corner of pie paradise. I’ll be happy to get you anything you like. While you’re under my roof, you’re in good hands.”

The young woman’s face lit up as her companion helped her out of her long expensive coat. “Oh! Applin, as in Apple’n! That’s you!” She giggled, and Joe felt his dopey grin get dopier. He never tired of people’s fascination with his name and how it suited his profession. Of course, it had been his family name long before he’d ever learned what a pie was.

“I hope apple is your favorite,” she chirped, clapping her hands joyously when he nodded. It was actually cherry, but who was he to burst her bubble? The pair slid into the booth and didn’t bother with the menu. “Father says your coffee’s almost as good as your pies. He comes in here all the time. Works just down the road at Jameson and Rotherford’s. It’s a law firm.” The young man at her side simply smiled fondly while his sweetheart held the reins on the conversation. “His name’s Allan Rotherford. My father, that is. Do you know him?”

“Of course, miss.” Mr. Rotherford came in every afternoon to take a slice of pie back to the office with him. After the fifth time, half the firm was in during various parts of the day, sneaking confectionary goodies back to their desks. “He’s particularly fond of the apple and cinnamon.”

“I tell you, Joe—may I call you Joe?” she asked hopefully. He nodded and she squealed with delight. “Well, Joe. Father’s been going on and on about your pies for weeks! I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about. He was driving me and my poor mother absolutely crazy. So,” she said with a decisive nod, “two apple and cinnamon pies, and two coffees.”

“Right away, miss. And when you’re finished, I’d love to hear if you enjoyed it as much as your father.” That seemed to make her even happier, and she nodded enthusiastically.

As he walked away, she chatted to her boyfriend at full speed, bringing a smile to Joe’s face. The guy was obviously smitten, seeing as how he wasn’t the least bit concerned about getting a word in edgewise. Removing the heavy glass dome over the apple and cinnamon pie dish, Joe cut out two generous slices and moved them onto two immaculate, white ceramic dishes. He dropped them off at the table along with their coffee, exchanged a few more pleasantries, then excused himself so the pair could enjoy their food. He barely made it to the counter when a loud crash echoed from the kitchen out back.

Here we go.

The door slammed open and Donnie scrambled out, nearly tripping over his own feet before he made a dive behind Joe. There were a few curious glances from some of the newer patrons, but the regulars were used to the daily disturbances brought about by the terrible trio Joe called family. Soon everyone’s attention returned to their newspapers and coffee.

“Joe, she’s trying to kill me!” Donnie’s voice went higher in pitch with every word uttered, and he clutched Joe’s forearms in what Joe assumed was meant to be some kind of death grip. In reality it was about as deadly as a kitten swatting at a ball of yarn.

Looking at the kid, it was hard to believe he was eighteen years old. Donnie stilled, most likely knowing Joe’s broader, six-foot frame would eclipse him. When Joe felt Donnie remove his hands, he knew the eclipsing was complete, and none too soon either. The kitchen door swung open, and Bea stomped out in all her gray-haired glory. Joe couldn’t blame the kid for hiding. He wanted to hide too.

“Where is he,” Bea demanded, folding her arms over her heaving bosom. She peered at him with her sharp green eyes. Joe knew better than to risk his life by incurring the old woman’s wrath, but he just couldn’t find it in him to turn the kid over. Bea was in her sixties, stout, hair pulled back tight in a bun, and had the power to command more fear than a military general. Not to mention, her batting average was probably better than any major league player’s.

“Bea, angel, what can I do for you?” Joe moved slowly in the opposite direction, and with every step she took, Donnie moved with him.

“Don’t you angel me, Joe Applin. I know you’re hiding him. If you’re not looking to get a good butt whooping yourself, you’ll hand him over.”

Joe knew full well she’d do just that. He’d been on the receiving end of her flaring temper more than once. Bea would chew Donnie up and spit him out like a piece of gum. “What’s he done now?”

“He’s been dissecting the pumpkins again,” she huffed, narrowing her eyes as she craned her neck to peer around him. Every time she moved, Joe moved. He desperately wanted to laugh, but Bea’s menacing glare kept him from giving in to the urge.

“He’s just curious, Bea. You know how excited he is about learning medicine. He wants to be a doctor, so he can help people.” Joe gave her what he hoped was his most charming smile. Her scowl deepened. Apparently, his most charming wasn’t charming enough.

“If he thinks that’s helping, he’s got another think coming. And you! You really think those puppy eyes are gonna work on me after all these years?”

Joe smiled hopefully. “Yes?” No. With a sigh, he let his head hang low. “You’re right. It’s my fault. I’m too soft on him.” He heard a few chuckles from around the room and knew everyone was waiting to see whether Bea would give in or Joe would end up flat on his face.

Mumbling a few unintelligible words under her breath, Bea stalked back into the kitchen. A light round of applause broke out in celebration of his victory, and Joe bowed with all the grace and grandeur of a Shakespearian actor.

“Thank you, thank you. You are too kind, my lords and ladies.” He straightened and spun around to the cowering young man, donning his best Groucho impression. “I got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.”

Donnie snickered, the tension seeming to ease from his boney shoulders. The kid always did like his Groucho impressions.

Being an only child, Joe learned from an early age to rely on his overactive imagination to keep him company on the days his parents were out working hard to earn a decent living—which meant Joe had been pretty much alone most of the time, but he’d been too busy to let the loneliness settle in, what with all the castles to conquer, jungles to explore, and cattle to round up. While most of his school friends were throwing pixelated barrels at big pixelated monkeys, Joe was building forts and labyrinths with the couch cushions and bedsheets.

Living in his own head had been such a part of his existence, when Joe grew up, he had trouble keeping his thoughts in there. Most people figured he had a few screws loose, but he didn’t mind. Sure, sometimes he felt a little embarrassed after getting caught having a rather animated conversation with himself, but never ashamed. It was just the way he was.

“I’m sorry, Joe. I didn’t mean to cause any trouble,” Donnie muttered. His bottom lip jutted out as he stared at the floor, kicking up imaginary dust. Wow, the kid was good.

“Say, that’s my bit. Go on, get back to work. And stop dissecting our groceries or you’re gonna be getting an early lesson on broken bones from Bea. Elsie will be here soon, anyway.”

At the mere mention of the young woman’s name, Donnie’s cheeks went pink and he shot back into the kitchen. Elsie was part of their motley trio, also eighteen and just as lanky as Donnie. She was a sweetheart and loved to fuss over Joe as much as Bea did. Donnie was goofy over her and everyone knew it; they were just waiting for Donnie to finish locating his backbone.

Someone called Joe’s name in a singsong voice, and he turned to Miss Rotherford, bowing politely at her table. Before he could open his mouth, she sprang out of her seat and flung her arms around him, squeezing the air out of his lungs.

“That was the best pie I’ve ever tasted! And your shop is amazing! I’m having a little shindig in a few weeks, and I was hoping I could pay you to make some of your delicious pies. Everyone will just die!”

“I hope not,” Joe gasped in mock horror. “I’d never get any return customers.”

She giggled and slapped his arm playfully. “Oh, I knew you could bake, but I had no idea you were so charming.” Her boyfriend paid the bill before he helped her into her coat, still smiling brightly. “So, do you think you could whip up five of each pie for me?”

“Five of—” Joe choked. “That’s ninety pies!” He had expected a dozen or so, maybe even two dozen. His mind quickly went through the practicalities of it, thinking about how long he’d have to get the extra ingredients, the added expense, and how he would have to ask Elsie and Donnie to put in some extra hours. Sensing his hesitation, she opened her tiny purse and took out bill after bill, shoving them into his hand. It was more money than what twice that number of pies would cost, and he quickly attempted to give some of it back. The more he put back into her little purse, the more she shoved into his hand.

“Oh, no, please, Miss Rotherford, that’s not necessary…,” he began when Bea materialized like a ghoul from the mist. While his heart slowed to a more nonapoplectic pace, Bea took the money from his hands and stuffed it into her apron pocket, smiling brightly at the couple—which was more frightening than her ghostly reappearing act.

“Don’t you worry, Miss Rotherford. Joe’s just a little shy. Of course we’ll make those pies for you. Your party will be the talk of the town.”

“Fantastic! I can’t wait. I’ll have my assistant call with all the details. I’m going to have to keep everything locked up. If Father finds out, there won’t be anything left by the time the guests arrive! Thank you so much.” She squeezed Joe’s hands, and before a single word could escape his gaping mouth, they were gone. Elsie skipped in just as the couple left. His expression must have said it all, because she looked about ready to turn and make a run for it.

“Is everything all right?” She looked from him to Bea with big brown eyes.

“Fine,” Joe replied through his wide grin and gritted teeth. “Would you mind helping Donnie see to the shop? I need a word with Bea.” He turned to the iron maiden and bowed regally, motioning toward the kitchen. “After you, your majesty.”

Bea said nothing as she marched into the kitchen with Joe following quietly behind. Once they reached the back storage room, like a gunslinger from the Old West, Bea drew first.

“Don’t even think about it. I know why you were trying to turn down that job.” She pinned him with a stare that could quake Hades itself, but Joe wasn’t about to back down. Of course, Bea had no intention of letting him get a word in edgewise until she said her piece.

“And don’t you give me any baloney about not enough ovens or ingredients or whatnot. You were gonna say no ’cause that’s the biggest order we’ve had yet, and you’re afraid it won’t be up to snuff for all them rich folks. That’s a load of nonsense and you know it. You saw that girl’s face. She loves your pie. Her daddy loves your pie. What’s more, his whole office loves your pies. So, you’re gonna make those pies, same as you always do, everyone’ll love them, and soon you’ll need to hire more help because you don’t pay me enough to look after the place, cook, clean, babysit you and them two kids, and I swear if that boy keeps dissecting my pumpkins, I’m gonna knock him into next week!” She took a deep breath and released it slowly. “I’m done.”

Damn. “Apparently, so am I,” he muttered. Once again, she’d fired first and hit him dead between the eyes. He never stood a chance.

“That’s what I thought.” Bea’s expression softened, and she brought Joe into a hearty embrace that left him struggling for breath. Sometimes—most of the time—it drove him nuts. But he knew everything she did was out of concern for him, so he couldn’t be too hard on her.

“Joe, you’re a good man. What’s wrong with letting anyone else besides me and the kids know it too, huh? How else are you gonna find yourself a nice man?”

“Oh no,” Joe groaned, shaking his head and gently pushing away from her. “We are not having the ‘you need a good man to take care of you’ conversation again, and we’re certainly not going to have it in the kitchen. I’m a grown man, Bea. I can take care of myself just fine. You don’t see me trying to fix you up with every old codger that walks in here.”

“Well, maybe you should.” An unsavory twinkle came into her lively eyes, making Joe take an instinctive step back. “I could use a good man to keep me warm at night, rubbing my feet, getting cozy….”

“Oh, dear God. Stop, please.” Joe shuddered at the images that stampeded into his head. Thankfully, they fled when Bea whacked him in the arm.

“Don’t be such a prude. That’s probably why you ain’t got no man keeping you warm. Lord knows enough of them try.”

Unfortunately, that was also true. On a daily basis there were plenty of guys dropping subtle hints, and some not so subtle. He supposed it had something to do with that age-old expression about the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach. As much as he wouldn’t mind having someone to keep him warm—as Bea put it—he just couldn’t find it in him to accept any offers, or even flirt back. The fear of losing what had taken him so long to rebuild was too great. He’d tried once. Thought he’d found his happily ever after. It had cost him dearly. He wouldn’t take that chance again. His heart couldn’t take it.

“Joe, you’re a good-looking man, what with all that pretty blond hair and those gorgeous eyes. Like the ocean, that one man said, remember? Not to mention strong and strapping. Plus, you have a mighty fine ass.”

Joe’s eyes widened, and he scrambled to cover his ass with his apron. “Please tell me you don’t go around looking at my butt, because I think I just might be sick. And don’t call my hair pretty. Men don’t have pretty hair. You wouldn’t tell Russell Crowe he’s got pretty hair.” Then again, this was Bea they were talking about. Her eyes lit up, and Joe backed away slowly.

“Oh, now there’s some meat you can sink your teeth into.”

Joe studied the apron in his hands, and nodded absently as Bea prattled on about the handsome actor. Wrapping the two sashes around his neck, he slowly pulled on the ends.

“He’s about your age, isn’t he? Thirty-three or somethin’?”

“I don’t know how old he is,” Joe replied casually, still pulling on the sashes. “I’m thirty-eight. Thank you for remembering.” Then again, she had written “Congratulations on turning 40!” on his birthday cake a few months ago. He’d initially believed she meant it as a cruel joke. Now he wasn’t so sure.

Bea laughed and patted his back so heartily it almost sent him staggering. “I’m just pullin’ your leg, Joe. Of course I know how old you are. If you start thinking I’m going senile, I’m gonna whack you one.”

Joe let out an indelicate snort. “Like you need an excuse.”

Taking the sashes from him, she unwound them from his neck, shaking her head in amusement. “I’m just saying, honey. You’re quite a catch, and they know it. It’s about time you knew it too. Not everyone’s gonna be like that jackass, Blake. Hell, his name alone should have been enough to warn you off.”

Joe cringed. “I thought we decided never to speak of him again?” He was not going to think about Blake. Goddammit, now he was thinking about Blake. Bea wrapped him back up in her embrace, petting his hair, and he let out a resigned sigh. Arguing with Bea was like stepping in quicksand. The more you struggled, the quicker you sank.

“You can’t let him ruin your chances of being happy, Joe. Don’t spend your life alone because of that ass. He didn’t deserve you.”

“I’m not alone,” Joe said with a smile. He rubbed his face against Bea’s shoulder, purring like a cat. “I got you, and I already know how you feel about my butt.” He pulled away and dodged another smack, laughing as he ran back out into the safety of his shop.

“Everything okay?” Donnie asked, his brows drawn together in concern.

“Yeah.” Joe grinned and leaned over, whispering loud enough for most of the place to hear. “Keep an eye on your butt. Bea’s on the prowl.”

The look of sheer terror that crossed Donnie’s face was too much, and Joe doubled over with laughter. Bea came out to see what all the fuss was about, and when Joe couldn’t answer on account of being too busy guffawing, she looked over at Donnie. The kid flew from the room like it was on fire, and Joe ended up leaning on the counter for support. The rest of the place erupted into laughter, and Bea looked around as if everyone had just lost their marbles. Maybe they had. Joe had that sort of effect on people.

“WELL, THAT was some mighty fine work, partners.” Joe waved good-bye to the last customer before turning the shop’s sign around to declare the end of another good day. “Donnie, bring the garbage around, will you?”

“Sure thing.”

Joe headed to the front door beyond the counter, and a few minutes later, Donnie returned dragging two large black bags behind him. He really needed to start feeding the kid some more meat and potatoes. The squirt couldn’t lift a dust bunny. Joe grabbed the bags from him and carried them the rest of the way to the front door and outside onto the sidewalk. Once inside, he locked the front door and headed for the side door to check on the garden between his shop and the fancy shoe boutique next door. It was a strange spot for a memorial garden. Decades ago, before the boutique was a boutique, it was a fancy hat shop owned by Mrs. Lowe. Although the shop had been sold long ago, Mrs. Lowe still owned the building, along with the garden she had made in honor of her late father, who’d died during World War II. Although there was an iron gate at the front that remained closed, as well as one at the back, sometimes kids would sneak in to make out or get up to things they shouldn’t be getting up to, so Mrs. Lowe asked Joe to keep an eye on it for her since getting around had become difficult after her hip replacement. Joe didn’t mind. When he needed a little break he would sit out here on the stone bench and just enjoy the trees and flowers. It was also where his fire escape was.

They had been busy from open until close, and thanks to Bea, they’d gotten the Rotherford order. The more he thought about it, the more excited he became. He’d never catered a party before. If it was a success, he might have to listen to Bea and think about hiring more help. If things went really well, there was plenty of room in the back kitchen for an extra oven or two, and if he sacrificed some of his savings, he’d be able to manage without too much damage to his finances. It wouldn’t be anything fancy, but a bit more space, new furniture, more staff….

The question was, could he do it? He’d thought about having a bigger place once, with a bakery inside. That had been before everything had fallen apart, including him. His business had been steadily growing over the years, and with the economy being what it was, more people than ever needed somewhere affordable to eat, and Joe’s shop fit the bill.

Jesus, what the hell was he thinking? His shop had barely changed in fifteen years. He was nearly forty. Was he really going to start taking such risks now?

Outside in the garden he noticed the place was a whole lot darker than usual. The black iron stairs leading up to his apartment were shrouded in shadows thanks to the burned-out bulb underneath it. Great.

“Donnie, grab me a bulb and the ladder, please. Damn wiring’s blown out the lights again.” He heard Donnie’s “okay” and went to check the gate to make sure it was still secure. He picked up a few pieces of stray litter, grumbling to himself. This was the third time in two weeks he’d had to replace the damn bulbs.

Seconds later, Donnie scurried out and set the ladder in place for him. “I thought Pete fixed it?”

“Me too.” Seemed every time Pete fixed one thing, another broke. Joe handed the litter to Donnie and was about to climb up the ladder when he heard a low wheezing sound. He froze. “Did you hear that?”

Donnie listened, then shook his head, but Joe had definitely heard something. He stared down at the damp ground and listened. This time the sound was louder, coming from the shadows farther down the garden. He glanced over at Donnie, and the kid’s bulging eyes told him he’d heard it too. Making quick work of changing the bulb, Joe swore under his breath. The light didn’t quite extend to the far end, but there was enough illumination between it and the moon where he could just about make out various shapes through the shrubbery.

“What do you think it is?” Donnie whispered.

Joe rolled his eyes as Donnie’s breath tickled the back of his neck. “You get any closer and you’ll be piggyback riding.”

“Sorry,” Donnie said sheepishly, backing away.

“It’s probably just a cat.” Please let it be a cat and not a couple of horny teens getting it on. Joe slowly edged toward the darkness with Donnie once again breathing down his neck, though Joe imagined the kid’s bout of courage had more to do with Elsie watching from the doorway rather than any desire for derring-do. He listened closely for more sounds, but aside from those of the city and Donnie’s breathing, he heard nothing. Then he saw it: a big, dark lump on the ground, highlighted by the soft glow of the moon. Whatever it was, it was moving. Just about. “Jesus, it’s a person.”

“Maybe we should leave him, Joe. It’s probably just some homeless guy who’s had too much to drink.”

“That’s no better. We can’t just leave some passed-out drunk in Mrs. Lowe’s garden.” Joe carefully inched closer until he stood over the figure curled up into a tight ball. “Expensive-looking leather jacket for a homeless guy. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen a lot of homeless walking around in leather biker boots, either.” He crouched down and shifted one side of the man’s black jacket. “Designer too.”

“Joe, look!” Donnie pointed to the stained grass just under the man’s head.

“Damn, is that what I think it is?” Joe carefully turned the guy’s head, finding the black hair at the back matted with blood. “Looks like someone got him good. We need to call an ambulance.”

Donnie hesitated before his instincts kicked in, and then he checked for breathing and signs of a pulse. “His breathing’s shallow, but he’s alive. He’s probably got a concussion, so it’s not good for him to be out.”

“I don’t know anything about head wounds other than the kind Bea gives me, and luckily, they’re not enough to get me concussed. Not yet, anyway.”

“If he’s got a concussion and he’s out, it could damage his brain. Problem is, we don’t know how long he’s been out for. We should—”

The man shot out his hand and grabbed a hold of Joe’s wrist, causing Donnie to shriek and Joe to nearly jump out of his skin. “Sweet Jesus!” Joe was about to tell Donnie to run and call an ambulance when he realized the injured man was trying to talk. “It’s okay. We’re going to get you to a hospital, just hang on.”

The man made a noise that sounded an awful lot like “no,” but that couldn’t be right. Maybe the poor bastard was out of his head. Joe leaned in when the guy lifted his head. “No cops,” he slurred, tightening his grip on Joe’s arm, his voice so low and gravelly Joe wouldn’t have heard him if he hadn’t been so close. “No hospital.”

“What?” Joe shook his head and did his best to remain calm. “Listen, buddy, someone knocked you over the head. You need medical attention.”

“Please, no cops. Help me.”

“I’m trying to help, but the best I can do is get you to a hospital. I’m not a doctor.”

“They’ll… kill me. Cops… dead…. No hospital. Please.” With that, the guy collapsed back onto the ground.

Well, those were certainly words he didn’t care to hear in the same sentence.

Love in Retrograde
Chapter One
KELLY SUTTON still couldn’t believe it.

No matter how many times he walked across St. James’s Park, he still couldn’t believe he was interning at the Photonic Royal Society in New London.

Early in the twenty-first century when the great nations of the world collapsed under the weight of their governments’ greed and economic failings, desperation turned them to the greatest scientific minds of their time. A mass release of both tested and untested technologies was ejected into a world already struggling to keep up with its accelerated pace, and the result was the Photonic Revolution—an oversaturation of biotechnology, nanoelectronics, and ever-growing personal interfaces.

And this was where it all started.

The sleek two-hundred-floor skyscraper of glass and nanoalloy was a testament to a world better united through science and human advancement. On the top floor, Project Mars was undergoing its final tests.

Entering the building through the holographic security doors, Kelly cheerfully waved a greeting to a host of security agents and reception personnel. He made his way to the restricted-access elevator at the end of the expansive marble hall and pressed his hand against the glass panel, his lips spreading into a silly grin when the glass doors slid open. Once inside the elevator, he pressed his hand against yet another reader and stood exceptionally still as the holographic security panel scanned his retina and asked for voice identification, which he promptly gave.

Every morning for the past year he’d stepped into this elevator, and he got a kick out of it each time without fail. The thought alone of where it was taking him had him so excited he didn’t even need coffee to keep him wired. Not that he’d given it up. He wasn’t completely crazy.

Thanks to his hard work, he’d been one of the few foreign interns to become part of Project Mars, a top-secret project. He was like a kid who’d been invited to play with all the shiny new toys in the toy store and get paid ridiculous amounts of credit for it. It was a shame he couldn’t tell anyone about it. Not that he had all that many people to tell. A year living in New London, and his closest acquaintances were the nanobots he spliced and diced on a daily basis and his lab partner. At some point he should really consider taking the time to make some friends.

After reaching the Biotech and Biomechanics Research Wing at the front of the two hundredth floor, he headed straight for the interns’ and assistants’ locker room. One day soon he’d be putting away his bag in his very own lab. He was hanging up his suit jacket when he heard it.


The cheerful squeal made him smile, and he turned in time to get poked in the belly by Pepper.

“Someone’s happy this morning,” he said with a laugh, giving the petite blonde’s hand a playful smack away from him. Pepper started working on Project Mars two years before Kelly joined the team, and then Kelly had been partnered with her for initial training. They’d quickly become close after she covered for him on his first day when he’d been so nervous he’d caused one of his experiments to spontaneously combust. Quite a feat even for him, considering there had been no combustible substances in it. He was still trying to figure that one out.

“So what’s got you so excited?” Kelly asked, slipping into his lab coat. He tapped at his breast pocket, turning on his holographic ID.

Her big blue eyes shone with excitement. “After all our hard work, we’re finally going to see the end results.” She clapped her hands gleefully and followed him out into the hall toward the lab headed by Dr. Lucius Bryant, the lead scientist for the Biotech and Biomechanics Research Wing .

Kelly wanted to believe Pepper, but the fact remained that as an intern—even one already guaranteed a position—he wasn’t privy to the kind of information Lucius or even Pepper was privy to. Kelly had worked his way up from performing countless inventory checks to researching anomalies, administering microinjections, and taking charge of several other important duties. Each had been assigned without so much as a hint to its purpose, only that it was directly related to Project Mars. Granted, the project was top secret, but Kelly hadn’t expected it to be so secret even he wouldn’t be told about it.

At the end of the hall was a steel door, and somewhere beyond that door was the Biotech Wing, where Project Mars was located. Every day a good deal of commotion and chaos seemed to emanate from behind that door, with it sliding open only for the briefest of moments. Today, as Kelly took a seat at his workstation and tapped on the glass surface to wake up his interface, it appeared things were no different.

A thunderous boom nearly caused him to jump out of his skin. His head shot up in time to watch a chair soar past the lab and down the hall, where it inevitably ended its journey by smashing into something expensive. This was the third time in four days. One would think they’d stop replacing whatever had been fated to relive a constant state of destruction.

Just as the chair left the wing in a hurry, so did two security agents. They landed in front of the lab and managed to gain control over their limbs long enough to scramble to their feet and limp quickly away. No matter how many times Kelly witnessed it, his jaw still became unhinged. He swiveled in his chair, further unsettled by the fact that, yet again, no one in the lab seemed to have noticed. Lucius tapped away at the glowing holographic information before him, preoccupied with an inventory check of that morning’s delivery. The man paused long enough to nudge his silver-rimmed spectacles up his nose.

Kelly gaped at him. “Did you see that?”

“How many times have I warned those lads?” Lucius glanced over the rim of his glasses at Pepper. “How many?”

“This week?” She placed a dainty finger to her rose-colored lips, her T-bar shoes tapping thoughtfully against her chair. “This would make one hundred and thirty-nine.”

“So we’re just ignoring it. Again.” No reply tended to mean Kelly had either asked a stupid question that didn’t warrant Lucius’s waste of breath, or it was yet another piece of information Kelly didn’t need to know. Dr. Lucius Bryant was in his late forties, possessing unruly brown hair interspersed with gray, a permanent five-o’clock shadow, and an impressive deadpan expression. Everything he said was in the same tone. Most of the time it wasn’t until Lucius was near the end of his reply that Kelly realized the man was being sarcastic.

Kelly donned his best English accent in an attempt to mimic Lucius’s posh tone. “It’s perfectly all right, Kelly.” He patted his own shoulder in assurance. “Nothing to worry yourself over. Just another day at the lab.” Kelly turned back to his station, ignoring Pepper’s amused chuckle and Lucius rolling his eyes at him.

“Have you finished that report? Dr. Skye’s expecting it to be done by this afternoon.”

Kelly swiveled in his chair to face Lucius. “Yeah, about that. I recorded all my findings, but I’m concerned by the anomalies I discovered in the nanocells under section MNB-Scan2308. If I could have a day to work through them, I—”

“No.” Lucius raised his head, his disapproving frown once again dashing Kelly’s enthusiasm at the chance of getting to dig deeper into the research and the strange surge of recent anomalies. “Your job is to report your findings, not analyze them.”

“I know, but—”

“Unless you want to go back to inventory checks, you’ll submit your report and move on to your next assignment.”

Kelly bit his tongue. Why was it every time he had the chance to do something important, Lucius pulled the rug out from under him? Lucius was Kelly’s mentor. Shouldn’t he be mentoring?

Reluctantly, Kelly gave Lucius a nod and resumed his work. Another long afternoon of mindless data transfer. This sucked. He was part of the Photonic Royal Society. The most prestigious and exhilarating place for a scientist to be. Why was Lucius treating him like he didn’t know his ass from his elbow?

“I know you think I’m being an unreasonable arse, but….” Lucius came to stand beside Kelly, his troubled expression unexpected. “Trust me. It’s for your protection.”

Before Kelly could ask what he meant, Lucius walked out of the lab.

“Don’t take it personally,” Pepper said with a sympathetic smile. “Lucius has his reasons for everything he does.”

“For my protection? Protection from what? Advancing my career? Securing my new position as an esteemed scientist and upcoming talent rather than a nameless drone destined to remain at the bottom of the food chain for the rest of my career?” Kelly pressed his lips together before he said anything he’d regret. “Six months ago, he was teaching me how to look beyond what was in front of me, to dissect and deconstruct information, and now that I am, he’s shutting me out. I just don’t get it.” He leaned into Pepper, his voice quiet. “You’re his assistant. Have I done something to piss him off? Did I do something wrong?”

“He hasn’t mentioned anything.” She worried her bottom lip with her teeth. “To be honest, he hasn’t brought you up at all.”

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Kelly couldn’t tell anymore. Then again, Lucius was a tough guy to read at the best of times. It was still beyond Kelly’s capabilities to know whether the man was being serious or not.

Pepper’s smile was apologetic. “I wish I could help.”

“Thanks anyway.” A thought occurred to him. “Today’s Thursday. Lucius works late in his office on Thursdays, right?”

“Yes.” Pepper’s eyes widened. “Whatever you’re thinking, don’t. Lucius will have your security clearance if you disturb him. Thursday evenings are incredibly critical for him, and whatever he’s working on is exceptionally confidential.”

“Got it.”

Kelly didn’t want to worry Pepper, though she didn’t look all that convinced by his reply. Regardless, she went back to her station.

Kelly had no intention of disturbing Lucius’s important work tonight. He’d try and catch Lucius before he locked himself in his office and ask him a couple of questions. Just a few minutes of the man’s time. Nothing more. It’d be fine.

The Soldati Prince
Chapter 1
WHO WOULD be slaughtered next?

Riley studied his prey, his eyes narrowed and focused on his first potential victim before he moved his gaze on to the next one. He had to choose. Or did he? He curled his lips into a wicked grin. Who said he couldn’t have both?

“Sorry, fellas. Looks like you’re out of luck.”

Riley stuffed the remaining slice of lemon cake into his mouth, moaning in delight as the frosting melted on his tongue. God, these were so freaking good. He washed it down with the frothy cappuccino he’d made himself while cashing out the register. Once the lemon cake was no more, he moved on to the old-fashioned glazed donut. He could never choose between the two.

The café’s front doors opened and Riley swallowed the remainder of his donut. He took a quick sip of coffee before addressing the two men in dark jackets and jeans.

“Hey, guys. I’m real sorry but we’re closed.” Hadn’t he locked the door? He was pretty sure he’d locked the door. Maybe he should’ve been paying more attention to his closing duties and less to stuffing his face. It wasn’t like his manager, Clara, minded if he took the leftovers home. Getting rid of the remaining stock at the end of the day was one of his many responsibilities at Tiger Tails Café. If he had to eat a few tasty cakes in order to perform his duty, well, that was a sacrifice he was willing to make.

The men came toward the counter and Riley straightened. Maybe they were tourists and didn’t understand English very well. Riley motioned politely to the door.

“I’m sorry, we’re closed. Tomorrow. We open tomorrow.”

“Are you Riley Murrough?”

So much for not understanding him. Riley eyed them warily. “Um, yeah. Can I help you guys with something?” His gut twisted and he casually removed his orange-and-black apron. The taller of the two smiled, his lips spreading and curling freakishly far up the sides of his face before they opened wide, releasing a horrific, gurgling shriek.

“Holy fuck!” Riley reeled. What the hell? The glass display case shattered, followed by the shop’s windows and doors. The shriek intensified, forcing Riley to cover his ears, the noise piercing his skull. A black tar-like goo leaked from the men’s eyes and ears, their faces elongating and contorting, their skin growing veiny and ashen. Riley had no idea what he was seeing, but he wasn’t sticking around to find out. He’d watched enough horror movies in his lifetime to know not hauling ass when freaky stuff happened got you dead.

He tossed the apron at their faces and bolted into the back end of the café, forgetting about the trash bags he was supposed to have taken out half an hour ago. He tripped over a bag and hit the linoleum tiles hard. Oh my God, he was that guy. Behind him the men—or whatever the hell they were—appeared, their eyes nothing but hollow sockets.

The putrid smell of decay and filth made Riley gag, and he scrambled to his feet, covering his mouth to keep himself from throwing up. The smell made his eyes water and he tried his best to breathe through his mouth as he threw open the side door. The alley was plunged into near darkness. The lights were working just fine last night when he closed. What the hell was going on?

Riley’s attempt to make it to the street was quickly thwarted by the appearance of another shadowy figure. Maybe it was a regular guy and not some decomposing monster. Riley considered asking the man for help when hebegan oozing the same black tar-like substance as the others. Nope. Riley spun on his heels and bolted down the alley, hoping to make it to the other side of the street. He was halfway there when he made the mistake of looking up.

“Oh Jesus.” He came skidding to a halt, his heart leaping into his throat as terrifying creatures that resembled corpses in various stages of putrefaction scurried down the sides of the brick buildings like roaches. What the hell where they? Besides disgusting.

They came out from the shadows, from trash cans, and from the very ground itself, shrieking and hissing, fangs dripping with tar, eye sockets empty voids, and long mouths emitting a rancid stench. Riley turned but they were closing in on him from every direction.

This couldn’t be happening.

Riley snatched up a discarded trash can lid, and held it out in front of him. It seemed like an absurd move, but there was nothing normal about this whole situation. Where were all the people? At this time of night, there was plenty of foot traffic, people heading home from work, or on their way to dinner. Riley hadn’t seen one person walk by. He was on his own.

Slowly he backed away from the closest mass of screeching creatures and swung the lid in front of him in hopes of staying out of their reach a little longer. By the looks of them, he would hazard a guess being touched by one of these things would lead to unpleasant results. He screamed for help but a ferocious roar that echoed through the alley drowned out his voice, scaring the hell out of Riley.

What in the…? Did I just hear a tiger roar?

From out of the depths of who knew where, four huge tigers appeared ahead of him. They bared their fangs and roared. Now there were tigers? Had they escaped from a zoo somewhere? Was he losing his ever-loving mind? He inched away from the huge cats lined up across the alley, their eyes on him. Gingerly he crouched down and attempted to hide as best he could behind the trash can lid.

Wait, tigers had a really good sense of smell, didn’t they? Crap. He was a dead man. Not like they didn’t know he was there. Another roar froze him to the spot. Holy shit, their roars were terrifying! He peeked around the trash can lid, and his eyes widened as he stared, helpless as the largest of the four tigers broke into a run, heading right for him. Riley screamed, brandishing the trash can lid like a shield as the tiger leaped. To Riley’s disbelief the tiger soared over him instead of at him.

Dumbly Riley turned. The tiger jumped into a throng of screaming creatures, its fangs bared as it slashed with razor-sharp claws. Holy shit, they were fighting! Before another genius revelation crossed Riley’s mind, the other three tigers joined the battle. They fought viciously, tearing and clawing at the dripping, rotting corpses. Their claws left behind strange colored lights as they tore gashes into their enemies. Riley had never seen anything like it, not during any number of late-night National Geographic marathons or any of his favorite geeky TV shows. Man, he really needed to get out more.

Riley gingerly moved away from the battle, hoping to slip away unnoticed. Maybe he could make a break for it now that everyone was busy. There was a good chance the lemon cake he ate was somehow laced with LSD and he was high as a fucking kite, grinning like an idiot and sitting on the café counter stuffing baked goods into his mouth. One could only hope.

The alley darkened and Riley gasped. More creatures emerged from the shadows, scurrying toward the tigers. How the hell were four supposed to fend off hundreds, maybe more? For every one that was dispatched, ten more appeared. The tigers roared and leaped. They twisted their muscular bodies to lash out at their attackers with massive paws, their ears flattened back against their big furry heads. It was both mesmerizing and terrifying.

Riley breathed through his mouth to avoid smelling the creatures, and as he slowly retreated, one foul creature turned its empty eyeholes in his direction. How the hell did they know he was there?

“Shit.” Riley took off, glancing behind him as the monster shrieked, calling to the others.

A mob of the things abandoned the fight to chase after him, several blocking the end of the alley and bringing him to a halt. Something solid slammed into him from behind and he hit the ground hard, but it didn’t hurt as much as the burn that seared his flesh when one of the foul things grabbed his arm. Riley cried out at the pain, a tiger roar soon joining his shout. He rolled onto his back as a shadow moved over him. This was it. It was all over. Riley shut his eyes tight. He regretted not having been able to clear his browser history. Sorry, Mom. I wasn’t disturbed, I swear. Okay, maybe a little.

The burn disappeared from his arm and he felt the heat of a heavy mass over him. His eyes flew open and he was met with orange, white, and black fur. The larger of the tigers stood over him, fighting off the approaching creatures. Its green eyes vanished, replaced by a glowing white light. It snarled and opened its jaws, a blinding light burst out, forcing Riley to squint. The light flared, exploding through the alley before fading. Then silence.

The tiger stepped away and Riley sat up, stunned. The alley was empty. Every last foul-smelling creature was gone. The tiger turned its large head in his direction and Riley gave a start. Its eyes were once again green. It stared intensely at him, as if it could see into his very soul. It was weird and a little bit creepy. With a series of roars and mewls, the tiger began to contort itself, its fur drawing inward and its body changing. Now what? This wasn’t possible. Not outside of Hollywood, anyway. Several heartbeats later the tiger was gone and Riley found himself staring into the intense green eyes of a man.

The man’s muscles twitched and flexed as he slowly stood. His jaw was chiseled, his brows thick and as pitch black as his hair. There were several nicks on his tanned skin. Riley had no idea where the black boots, black leather pants, and tight black T-shirt came from, but they made him look even bigger, more menacing. Both arms were covered in tribal tattoos, from the patterned bands around his wrists and forearms to the more intricate designs disappearing under his shirtsleeves.

“Please don’t kill me.”

The man’s eyes widened. “You see me?”

Shit. “Um, no. Didn’t see a thing.” Riley got up and held a hand up in front of him. Two equally muscular men and Wonder Woman joined their friend. The others had changed too. This was crazy. Riley backed away slowly. “I’m, uh, I’m gonna go check myself into a hospital about my, uh, not seeing you guys. Excuse me.”

“Khalon, look!” The fair-haired man pointed to Riley’s arm. Riley followed the man’s gaze and cursed under his breath. There were four bands of tribal tattoos around his left forearm where the creature had grabbed him. Had it somehow marked him? If it had, why did the marks look like a tattoo? Wait, the patterns looked just like the ones on this Khalon dude’s arms.

“What is this?” Riley looked up and nearly jumped out of his skin. The one they called Khalon towered over Riley. He took hold of Riley’s wrist and held his arm up to inspect it.

“It can’t be.”

Just when Riley thought this night couldn’t get any weirder. Khalon shook his head before releasing Riley. His jaw muscles clenched as he grew pensive, narrowing his eyes.

“We’re taking him with us.”

“What?” Hell no. He hadn’t just survived whatever the hell that was back there to get kidnapped. Riley tried to make a break for it, but Khalon threw his arm around Riley’s waist and pulled him up against him. “What the fuck? Who the hell do you think—”

“Sleep, human.”

Khalon waved his hand over Riley’s face and everything went black.

The Auspicious Troubles of Chance
Chapter One
Buckinghamshire, England
WHAT a bloody mess. Emphasis on the bloody.

Before you say anything, I know what you’re thinking. How the hell do you get yourself into these situations? It’s a good question. I’ll let you know when I have an answer. A guy in my position should have known better, considering my experience with this sort of thing. Even without said experience, the sharp pain in my gut should have been my first clue. Oh no, it was the familiar feel of blood seeping between my fingers that finally triggered that little voice in my head saying, You’ve been shot—again.

Only after my little realization did I start to feel the flames lapping my side, as if it were trying to set me ablaze from the inside out. I hated getting shot. Then again, what sap didn’t? I shrugged out of my jacket with a groan, then unbuttoned my vest and cast it to the floor alongside my tie. This was what I got for not packing heat. Since when had firearms become a prerequisite for a morning stroll through the woods? On my own lands, no less? That ought to learn me. Weren’t people who lived in the country supposed to live longer? I was obviously the exception to the rule.

Well, time for the verdict. I ripped open my shirt and looked down at the crimson pool spreading through my clean white undershirt. Jeepers creepers, I had a belly full of lead. I had turned into a bad movie cliché. Well, I’d be damned if I was gonna end up dying like one. This ain’t no Warner’s picture, and I ain’t James Cagney. You want to know who I am? I’m the guy who ends up getting plugged so the real hero can learn some poxy life lesson, grow wiser from the experience, and in turn redeem us all. Like hell. The hero of this story ain’t in the habit of learning lessons. He’s in the habit of giving them. I should know. I’ve got the scars to prove it.

I’m the right-hand man, the Watson to his Holmes, the Jekyll to his Hyde, the Laurel to his Hardy, the—you get the picture.

This explains a lot more about my current situation than you might think, but we’ll get to that. First, I had to do something about all this blood. I tore up my shirt and wrapped it around my torso, giving it a good tug and gritting my teeth at the sharp pain that rippled through my body like a pebble in a pond. At least that should keep some of my blood inside me for the time being. Goddamn it, I was getting too old for this. At the age of thirty-six, I had truly believed my days of finding myself face to face with the barrel of a gun were well and truly behind me. Not the first time I had been wrong.

What a way to go, waiting around for a mug whose idea of a good time is dragging me through a string of pubs and starting brawls in each one, but only after half a dozen pints and a scone with enough strawberry compote and clotted cream to give him a coronary. Who am I to gripe about it? It won’t be the first time he’s seen me shot up. Or punched or smacked or—well I’ve got a list. One so long I doubt I have enough time to tell you about it. In fact, thinking back on it, I realize I’ve spent most of my young adult life willingly taking some form of physical or mental pounding on account of him. But why, you ask? Who is this man continuously accompanied by chaos and some form of deep-rooted lunacy? And why the hell would I voluntarily allow myself physical and mental harm over and over on account of him? Just who the hell is he? Well, believe it or not, pal, you’re about to find out.

But I thought you said you didn’t have enough time?

No, I said I didn’t have enough time to run down the list of everything he’s ever done to me. I have more than enough time to tell you how I had the fortune or misfortune—depending on the mood I’m in, which, as I make myself comfortable in some woodland creature’s home in the forest of a town whose name I can’t pronounce with a bullet hole in me, I’m leaning more toward misfortune—of meeting him. What I can say for certain is that he changed my life in more ways than I care to admit. So here goes— What, another question? What are you, some kind of newshawk? Spit it out. If you haven’t noticed, I’m not exactly oozing with hospitality here.

Aren’t you scared?

Scared? No.

Bored? Yes.

Annoyed? Most certainly.

I’ve approached Death so many times over the years the guy’s become a close personal friend of mine. I drop in occasionally, we have a few laughs, then he tells me to scram. In my line of work, especially with him around, my life is in grave danger a good seventy-five percent of the time. The other twenty-five percent of the time is spent in moderate danger. Now, I ain’t so good at math, but if my sums work out, that means I spend a hundred percent of the time in some kind of peril or high alert. Right now, I’m wondering if my pal Death ain’t getting a little too accustomed to my company.

Don’t go buying me any daisies just yet. One thing you need to know about Jacky Valentine—that would be him, not me. My name’s Chance. Well, actually, my real name is Chauncey Irving. I know. Who names their kid Chauncey? My no-good parents, that’s who. That’s why I stick to Chance. A name bestowed upon me by the man himself many moons ago. Where was I? Right. Jacky. One of the most stubborn men you’ll ever meet. If he doesn’t want me to die, then God almighty himself ain’t gonna get in his way. Help is coming, and I should be back at Hawthorn Manor, tickling the ivory in no time flat, but not before I beat on his head like a couple of bongo drums for getting me into this fine mess in the first place. I can see I’m losing you. Stick with me, kid. I’ll explain.

When I met Jacky, I wouldn’t have traded places with him for all the tea in China, and considering who the guy was and who I was, that says a lot. The fella really had his work cut out for him. I know for a fact that in the whole of Jacky’s career, I was his biggest challenge, and when you do what we do for a living, that ain’t no compliment. Back then I wasn’t the man I am today. Far from it. A multitude of events in my life had led me onto a path of vice and self-destruction. You name it, I had done it. I was on a fast train to the end of the line, and that train had no brakes.

Now, I ain’t gonna sit here and feed you some sappy story about how my circumstances were to blame for what I became. How society had a hand in my creation, how I was really just a good kid unloved and misunderstood, blah, blah, blah, because frankly, that’s a bunch of baloney. I became who I was out of my own anger, self-loathing, and bad choices. I could have taken the higher path, decided to learn from my experiences, become focused and determined to get myself out of the desolate hole I found myself in, but instead, I chose to be a hazard to myself and everyone around me. Why? Because I could. Because it was easy.

From the age of seven, I had had various jobs, none of which lasted longer than a couple of weeks. I was told countless times I was insubordinate and beyond the pale. That was partially true. I did lack discipline and was indeed deplorable, but that’s not why I couldn’t hold a job. It was because I hated every job I had. I thought they were beneath me, and if I didn’t want to be somewhere, heaven help the poor sap who tried to make me stay put. I didn’t really consider the rights or wrongs of being put to work. I didn’t really know any better. What I did know was that I didn’t like it, and if I didn’t like it, why should I do it? My other problem came from being told what to do. Which is, of course, ironic, considering where I ended up. But I digress….

Hell & High Water

Roses in the Devil's Garden

Forgive and Forget

Love in Retrograde

The Soldati Prince

The Auspicious Troubles of Chance