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Little Match Girl
Christian can’t help himself. He’s fallen in love with the sweet, sometimes effeminate guy who’s been coming into the sandwich shop for the past several months. But Dani is also the Little Match Girl, the ragged queer selling candles on the street corner Christian’s been avoiding all year, going so far as to cross the street to avoid walking by him. Ashamed, he wonders if Dani can ever forgive him.
Losing his mother to cancer, Dani has spent the last year in a haze of grief and loneliness, selling Mother’s candles like they always had, giving himself to any man who can pay, saving him from having to go home to his father’s brutality. Desperate for a place to belong, he sets out with Christian to find his mother’s family. Christian helps, wanting Dani to be happy, though the cost might be losing his sweet lover forever.
The door chimed, but Christian finished wiping down the coffee machine. He wouldn’t appear too eager.
“Hey, Christian, isn’t that your fairy?” Jordan mocked in a stage whisper from where he was adding wood to the fire. Asshole.
Christian leaned a hip on the counter, his gaze intent on the guy sliding into the corner booth. He came to the sandwich shop almost every night right before closing time to order a coffee, rain or shine. Or like tonight, when it was beginning to snow. None of the other waiters would deal with him. Not that Christian blamed them. Dani never tipped more than fifty cents, if that much.
That didn’t bother him. The man was beautiful, wispy blond hair cut in a pixie style around his sweet face. Big gray eyes full of shadows. Christian gave him a minute to count out his change on the glossy tabletop like he did each night and then made his way toward him around the scattered tables and sofas. The fireplace warmed the cozy seating area, empty now since most of the students from the nearby college had gone home for winter break. Wind howled at the windows, but they were snug enough inside.
“Hi, Dani. How’s it going?” he asked like he always did.
“I’m good,” came Dani’s standard reply in a lilting voice that made Christian’s pulse jump. Dani peered up at him, his expression somehow softer tonight, his spectacular eyes less fierce. He bit a plump lip, betraying his nerves, and Christian stifled a groan. He’d dreamed of those lips swallowing his dick only the night before.
As if guessing his thoughts, Dani lowered his gaze, pretty color flooding his cheeks. Christ, he was gorgeous, his features neither masculine nor feminine. If Christian didn’t know for a fact he was a man, he would have thought Dani a girl tonight, despite his rough clothing. There was something decidedly sweet about him, a definite change when he showed his gentler side. Christian wondered what it would be like to have Dani in his bed in this mood. The thought of him, soft and yielding, in direct contrast to a hard cock, had Christian stiffening inconveniently. He took a seat opposite Dani in the booth to hide his interest.
“Hi,” he said again when Dani gave him a tentative glance. “Coffee and sandwich, as usual?”
Hunger flashed over Dani’s face, but he dropped his gaze and moved the coins on the table around with a fine-boned finger. “Only coffee, please.” His voice cracked, and he covered his eyes with a shaking hand. “I’m sorry. I barely have enough money for that. Nothing for a tip.”
“I don’t care about that,” Christian said, leaning forward. Only then did he notice how pale Dani appeared, face pinched with cold. Surely his jacket was too thin for December? “Did you eat today?” he asked with concern and stared when Dani shrugged, noncommittal. Appalled, remembering that Dani hadn’t come in yesterday, Christian unconsciously raised his voice. “Did you eat yesterday?”
Dani made a violent movement as if to stand. “I’ll go—”
“Sit down, please. I’ll get your coffee,” Christian assured him, heart squeezed by the guy’s distress.
He rose to his feet and crossed the room. Rounding the counter, he called into the tiny kitchen where his coworker was washing dishes while he pulled a mug from the cupboard over his head. “Jordan, I’m taking my break. Can you bring me a sandwich and the leftover soup?”
Jordan looked up from the sink and sauntered over to him, drying his hands on a dishtowel. He glanced at their only customer and frowned. “What? You’re going to feed the little queer now?”
Anger burned through Christian, and he stepped up to Jordan, lifting his chin when Jordan stared him in surprise. “Just what’s your problem with Dani?”
The redhead blinked, and then a slight sneer curled his lips. “Sorry, man. I know you’re gay and all, but at least you’re a guy. I don’t know what that is.” Jordan flashed Dani a scowl.
Christian balled his hand into a fist. “He’s a fucking human being, asshole. That’s all you need to know. Now, get my dinner.”
He turned back to making the coffee, relieved when Jordan huffed but returned to the kitchen. Jordan was a big guy and could probably snap him in two, but Christian was so over the homophobic crap he dealt with in this small town. He needed to seriously consider moving back to Portland.
Coffee made, he added steamed milk and chocolate. Dani usually had his coffee black, but he definitely needed the calories. He peered across the room and smiled. Dani was undeniably lovely in the glow from the fireplace. What was his story? Christian couldn’t remember seeing him around town, though he’d lived there almost two years, attending the local college.
He joined Dani at the table, delighted when his eyes widened as Christian pushed the mug in front of him, mounded high with whip cream.
“Just drink it,” he warned when Dani opened his mouth as if to protest. The color deepened in Dani’s face, but he obediently picked up a spoon. Christian watched, mesmerized, as he brought a dollop of cream to his mouth, the spoon passing those exquisite lips. Dani’s eyelids instantly fluttered, bliss suffusing his face, starting an ache in the pit of Christian’s gut. He imagined Dani would look like that lost in orgasm. Something he keenly wanted to see.
Can Ashton let go of his jealousy and be the friend and lover that Lance needs?
Ashton has been in love with his best friend for years, watching him grow from a pretty high school boy to the gorgeous erotic dancer at the club where they both work. The problem is that Lance enjoys the attention of a variety of men while Ashton wants him for his very own.
After a day spent denying his attraction for Lance, standing by while their friend Trey openly flirts with him, Ashton decides it’s time to make his move or risk losing his man forever. Once Lance knows how he feels, he’ll realize they should be together. Or is it already too late?
“Fuck!” Ashton shouted in a mixture of anger and ecstasy as Lance swallowed again, then let Ashton’s softening cock slip from between his perfect lips. Ashton leaned on his elbows, his chest heaving while he caught his breath. With a last kiss on his thigh, Lance climbed off the bed, sleek-limbed and graceful, and walked to the dresser with a sassy sway of his hips.
Ashton stared after him and groaned, not sure if he wanted to pull his friend’s ass back into his arms or punch him in the face. It would be incredible to wake up with Lance every morning and make love to him. But he sternly reminded himself that they were only friends and Lance needed to stop climbing into his bed at night uninvited.
“You do remember you have a bed of your own?” he asked, more sharply than he’d intended.
Lance gave him a smirk over his shoulder, making a show of licking the last of Ashton’s spunk off his swollen lips. “You told me to wake you at seven.”
“I didn’t mean… Oh hell.” Ashton fell back on the pillows and threw an arm over his eyes. He swore in exasperation when the mattress dipped and Lance’s familiar scent surrounded him. “Damn it—”
Soft fingers touched his mouth. “Don’t be mad, baby. I didn’t mean anything.”
Ashton peered at him through the dark curls that had flopped into his eyes. The guy looked positively forlorn, and Ashton sat up, giving him a one-armed hug. “I’m not mad. But you don’t need to keep doing that, either. You’re my friend!” He kissed Lance’s cheek, the velvet skin warm with a blush. “You make a terrific roommate, and I like the company.”
“And I like you.” Lance walked his fingers up Ashton’s leg.
Ashton laughed and shooed the hand away, but couldn’t help staring at the enticing evidence of his friend’s arousal between his legs.
“Can I take care of that for you?”
“Not at all.” Lance stood up, waving off Ashton’s offer. “I’ll deal with it in the shower. You have to save your attentions for Mister Man.”
“Who are you talking about…? Wait!” Ashton rolled off the bed and trotted after Lance as he crossed the apartment.
Lance giggled, slipping behind the bathroom door but holding it cracked open an inch. He smiled at Ashton with his pouty, kissable lips. “You know, the boss. Mister Kent.”
“I’m not saving myself for—”
Ashton blinked at the closed door. Why in the world would Lance think he was interested in his boss? Sure, the man was handsome as sin, but he was also an egomaniac and tyrant. Why only yesterday, he’d…
Hot blood scorched Ashton’s neck and face, his arm tingling where Morgan Kent had gripped it, towering over him. The man had bent to his ear, swamping Ashton’s senses with subtle cologne and a hint of sweat as he’d whispered, “If you can’t type a simple letter without mistakes, I’ll find a secretary who can.” He’d tightened his hand almost painfully on Ashton’s arm. “Or maybe I should just bend you over this desk and smack your ass for each mistake?”
In 1780, Scotland, following a harsh year of drought, Callum Mackenzie is forced from his father’s farm in the hopes of finding work.
But as fate would have it, Callum is lured onto the moors by the will-o-the-wisp. Lost in the dark, he falls into enchantment, encountering faeries and nymphs, until he stumbles into the arms of a licentious Barrow-Wight who lays claim to his soul.
Hearing his silent pleas, Donal sends Liam the gruagach (faery) to rescue Callum and bring him to his farm, a place of refuge from the Fae.
Callum is happy working on Donal’s farm, slowly falling in love with the beautiful, silver-haired gruagach.
Yet there’s something wrong in the nearby forest….
Despite Donal’s warnings, Callum is lured into the forest and becomes tangled in its magic, easy prey for the Barrow-Wight.
Will Liam be able to strike a deal with the Barrow-Wight to save Callum’s life, or has Callum found his last resting place instead?
Callum ran until his lungs burned, every breath ragged and painful. Fear spurred him on, though fog began to cling to the rough mounds of the barrows, making such flight dangerous. Stones stabbed through his worn boots with each footfall, but he daren’t stop. There had been voices in the shadows…
Exhaustion slowed him, his chest heaving as he fought for air. Dusk spread its dark mantle on the landscape, and he shivered as a finger of dread traveled up his spine. Perilous to be on the moors at night without shelter. He cursed the misfortune that had sent him this way, but he was hungry and ill. He’d followed the will-o’-the wisp, thinking they were the lights of a farmhouse. His brothers would crudely have called them swamp gas and continued on the road, but Callum had always been the fool.
An owl hooted in the semidarkness, making his skin crawl. “Sweet Lord,” he muttered, heart thumping. “Protect me—”
He stumbled on a loose stone and fell heavily against a dark mound of earth. Oh, God! The ground caved in under him, and he dropped into the barrow in a shower of dirt.
“Save me!” he sobbed as he scrambled to his knees.
Sinewy arms reached up from the blackness and twined around him. Callum screamed, but no sound escaped his throat, choked with terror. He was yanked against a hard chest and hands ran over him, disembodied in the darkness.
“Soft. Sweet,” a voice sliced the silence, and a cold breath washed over his face. He gagged on the waft of rot and decay. The tip of a dry tongue scraped along his jaw, and he shuddered against the body under him. “Nice strong bones to gnaw,” the voice continued. “Sweet marrow to suck and swallow. Shall I eat you, my lovely one?”
Callum whimpered as the low tones wound through his head. The mists parted, and moonlight filled the barrow, showing him the creature. He gasped at the cold beauty of its face. Eyes dark as pitch burned into him and brushed against his soul. Lush lips, dripping honey, overripe, took his mouth in a kiss that sent his pulse into a riot of hunger and desire.
William Wilkerson leads the life of the privileged rich. Head of his father’s shipping business, he indulges to his heart’s content in the pleasures of the flesh with Boston’s finest young men.
That is, until he reunites with Fredrick: his former tutor and the one man who captured his heart.
But William’s father has declared Fredrick off limits. And Fredrick, himself, believes he’s beneath the attention of the Wilkerson heir.
After having lost his current pupil to graduation, and with no prospects of a replacement, Frederick is homeless, hungry, and easy pickings for the men on the docks.
When Frederick is shanghaied into service on William’s own merchant ship, will William discover his plight in time to rescue him?
Fredrick held up his glass and stared at the candle’s flame through the amber liquid. He took a sip and savored the rich, biting taste on his tongue, welcoming the burn down his throat. This was the very last drink he could afford, and he had to enjoy it.
A giggle erupted from someone out of sight on the back staircase, and a smile tugged his lips, despite the dire state of his wallet. The laugh had been carefree, joyous, naughty. Fredrick shifted on the cushioned bench. The lunch hour had passed, and he was the only customer in the dining room. He wondered if the innkeeper up front would notice if he adjusted his cramped cock as it throbbed in sympathy with the bright laughter that reminded him of his own ardent affair.
Rather than risk it, he watched the fruit vender outside the window beguile a customer. Another giggle and stifled moan floated down to him and he grinned, even though the laughter emphasized his own loneliness. It had been far too long since he’d had someone in his bed.
Fredrick looked up at the clatter of footsteps, distracted from his memory of lush lips, white skin, and wide hazel eyes. He caught a glimpse of red hair and an embarrassed cheek before the gentleman crammed a hat on his head.
“Damned Wilkerson,” the man muttered as he passed him, face averted.
With conscious effort, Fredrick loosened his hold on his glass, but he had no way to stop the wild hammering of his heart. Wilkerson? Could it really be…? Perhaps not, but the Wilkerson family he knew had strong ties to Boston. At least, the father often traveled there. But did William come now? He had to know. Before he lost his courage, he stood and swallowed the last of the brandy and then crossed the room to the staircase.
He shook his head at his eagerness. It had been three years, after all, and they’d parted in anger. Would William acknowledge him? A man stepped onto the landing and Fredrick allowed his gaze to travel up the white spats and checkered trousers. Blood heated his face when he found the silk vest and shirt open at the throat to expose soft white skin.
A sigh brought his gaze up to the attractive face that stirred his dreams. Rich brown curls surrounded lovely hazel eyes and full, pouting lips. Panic swept the pretty face, and then a delighted smile revealed the even white teeth that had nipped his collarbone on more than one glorious occasion.
“Freddie, is it you?”
Valentine has been watching Preston date man after man with never more than a brotherly hug for him. Finally, despairing that Preston will ever love him in return, Val moves from Vancouver, WA to Portland, OR to finish college, hoping the distance will take him out of Preston’s orbit. He ends up renting a room in a house near Portland State, and meets the glorious Silver, a man with problems of his own, who just might be his answer.
Unexpectedly, Preston follows him to Portland, leaving his lover Julian behind. Heartbroken, Julian and a friend hit the night clubs in Portland, hoping for distraction. Dressed as a woman, Julian turns lots of heads, but when Preston shows up at the same club and steals his heart yet again, Julian wonders if he should give Preston a second chance.
Silver and Valentine are at the same club, where it finally comes home to Val that Preston will never return his love. And the enigmatic Silver has disappeared onto the dancefloor. Alone and hurting, Val meets a group of men, who, after hearing his story, declare him the king of their broken hearts club. As Val toasts with them, he wonders if he’ll ever find a love of his own, or will his life become as tragic as any of the Shakespearean plays he loves so well.
Val took a long drink from the thermos, enjoying the cool bite of lemon and vodka on his tongue, the alcohol content exactly enough to send a pleasant tingle along limbs already lethargic from hours in the sun and sea air.
“Sure.” Val handed over the bottle, his gaze lingering on his best friend, his heart rushing. Preston’s skin was bronzed from months in the summer sun, his board shorts hugging muscular and the large cock Val knew lay hidden under the bright fabric. He wanted to lick a path down Preston’s glistening chest, knowing he’d taste of sweat and sea salt.
Preston swallowed a mouthful of the Lemon Drop and sputtered, laughing as he licked the stray drops from his lips. “Shit! That stuff’s potent.”
A shiver ran through Val. If he moved only a few inches he could be kissing the mouth that had been driving him wild all summer. And by the gleam in Preston’s brown eyes, he wouldn’t object, either. A shout on the still air shattered Val’s dream and he pulled away, scowling at the bottle Preston handed back to him. Julian approached them up the beach; Preston’s latest boyfriend, lithesome, lightly tanned, with gorgeous blond hair cascading to his shoulders.
Val hated him. Problem was, Julian was great, always laughing, genuinely kind. If it wasn’t for the fact he was fucking Preston, they would most likely be good friends. Julian plopped down beside Preston and Val sighed. Probably for the best he was moving from Vancouver to Portland in the morning. The two cities were only nine miles apart, but it would take him out of Preston’s orbit.
A wave crashed with force on the shore and Val turned his attention to the ocean, shining golden with the setting sun. A hot guy jogged by, seagulls cried on the still air. Still not enough to distract him from the couple chatting beside him. When they began to kiss, he’d had enough. Climbing to his feet, he strolled down to the water’s edge. A wave broke and he watched the foaming water climb the beach, shivered when it reached his toes. It had been a fantastic day; warm and lazy, hours spend in idle conversation or contented silence with his best friend while the sun crossed the sky. Now he felt tired and achy, with a two hour drive home ahead of him.
“They do not love that do not show their love,” he murmured, and scowled at the lowering sun.
How can Robin find true love without accepting himself first?
Sweet, shy, gender fluid; Robin hides who he is, molding himself into what society views as ‘normal’, finding solace in the intricate pattern of scars he carves into his arms.
That is, until he starts dating Jase, the new man at his father’s construction company and the one who seems to want Robin for who he is, dresses and all. Jase even stands up to his own parents for Robin’s sake, risking his father’s anger and his chance to go to college. Robin is poised on the edge of happiness, ready to step into Jase’s open arms. Yet how can he believe in Jase’s love without first learning to believe in himself?
Robin leaned closer to the mirror, widening his eyes to apply liner and a touch of mascara. Careful. Jase had really torn into a girl at the club last night, reducing her to tears with his snide remarks to wash her clown face off, for God’s sake. She had overdone the eyeshadow and rouge, but really…
His hand shook and Robin took several deep breaths before coating his full lips with gloss, cherry crush. He thought it was Jase’s favorite. At least his kisses seemed more heated when he wore it.
Tossing back the dark ringlets he’d made in his hair, Robin checked their affect. Super cute. He added a few more curls to his bangs with the iron, pulling them down to brush against his eyelashes and saw the worry creasing his forehead. It’s going to be okay.
His gaze flicked to the neat rows of scars marching down the inside of his arms. The deeper gouges on each forearm had been inked into rose vines, but feathery wisps of scars still showed around them. Nevertheless, he hadn’t cut in years. Didn’t need to. He looked up. “It’s going to be all right,” he said more firmly to the image staring back at him with scared brown eyes. Robin stood and smoothed the white sleeveless sundress over his chest, flicked his thumbs over the hint of nipples. A shiver of pleasure traveled his body, making him grin.
He twirled, feeling pretty, desirable, femme. He adored the way the cool nylon caressed his skin and clung to the slight bulge of his dick. Robin’s smile slipped. What would Jase think of him, dressed like this? Doubt slithered into his dream of a happily ever after and his stomach churned with worry. It had taken months to capture Jase’s attention. He’d just had the best three weeks of his life with his insatiable boyfriend, full of laughter and crazy sex.
But what if Jase wasn’t ready to see this part of him? Fear touched his heart. What if Jase was never ready? He drew a quivering breath, not sure he could handle his rejection.
The slam of the front door made his heart race a thousand miles an hour. Oh, shit. Robin’s gaze darted frantically around the overturned bathroom. No place to hide.
“Babe, where are you?”
Fuck! Why did he have to put on this fucking dress? Everything was ruined. Robin backed against the sink, miserable as the door swung wide.
Jase’s gaze burned over him and something flickered in his blue eyes. “What’s this shit?”
Robin’s heart clenched, anguish knotting in his throat. Making a strangled sound, he pushed passed Jase and fled their bedroom. He had to get away. He ignored Jase’s shout and darted across the living room and through the opened sliding glass door, escaping outside.
Sprinting across the lawn into the trees, he hid behind a tall maple when the tears made it impossible to see. Oh, Jesus. Oh, fuck. Jase would throw him out and he’d be alone again.
“Fucking little queer,” he muttered, just then hating who he was. Why did he have to be this way?
“Hope you’re not talking to me.”
Is a gift of love enough to open Aiden’s heart and let Tris back in?
After the car accident that killed his parents and left his sister paralyzed, Tris is left with nothing. His family is destroyed. His reputation is shot. And all he has is the guilt of knowing it was all his fault. People in town know he’d been drinking that night, and know he should never have gotten behind the wheel. And even Aiden, the man he thought he’d be with forever, blames him too much to stay.
But Tris can’t let him just disappear. After months of loneliness and isolation, Tris brings Aiden a gift on his birthday, a hawk he’s carved from a chunk of wood they’d found in the forest during an afternoon of love. A small chink seems to open in Aiden’s heart, the first sign of forgiveness. With renewed hope, Tris takes a job renovating one of the older homes in town and tries to rebuild his life. But the townspeople have long memories, and when his sister’s condition worsens, forgiveness—and Aiden—seem to slip even further out of reach…
It had been three fucking months. Aiden had to talk to him, give him a hint of that gorgeous smile he lived for. Shit. What if Aiden wasn’t alone?
Tris locked his bike at the empty stand and tucked wisps of light hair behind his ears with a shaky hand. Aiden’s red Fiat sat in its space outside his apartment door. At least he was home this morning. He could easily be spending his birthday with someone else.
Paling at the thought, Tris slung his pack on his shoulder and walked to the door. He had nothing to lose at this point. He didn’t expect much, but maybe they could talk. Clear the air. Tris missed him. God, he’d suffered hell. Months of empty days and long, achy nights without his lover.
He rapped on the door and his heart sank when he heard voices and a soft laugh inside. Jealousy bit through him, but he shoved it away. Didn’t matter. He’d brought Aiden a gift and he’d be damned if he was leaving without delivering it.
He lifted his hand, then dropped it to his side and laughed without humor. He’d worn his best jacket too. As if Aiden would be impressed with anything he did. He set the backpack at his feet and carefully removed the small tissue-wrapped box.
He hefted it in his hand, heavier than it looked, and gently stroked a thumb over it. Damn. All of his love and yearning had gone into this gift he’d promised Aiden on one of their hikes in the forest outside town. Tris’s breath quickened as he recalled the exact moment, Aiden naked and sweaty in his arms, Tris’s spent cock in his hot ass. He rolled to his back when Aiden nudged him with his elbow. “What…”
“Didn’t you feel that?” Aiden’s hand dove under the jackets they were lying on and came up with the offending knot of wood. He rubbed his side. “Bet I get a bruise.”
“Fuck. I’m sorry.” Tris reached for the chunk, but Aiden shrugged and tossed it with their backpacks.
“Make me something with it,” Aiden ordered. They both looked up at a piercing cry. A hawk swooped over the treetops. “Carve him for me.”
Tris glanced at his darling and his heart flipped over. Aiden’s dark hair stood in wild disarray around his beautiful face. Tris leaned close and sucked the beckoning full bottom lip into his mouth. He groaned, recalling the silver hoop in the luscious flesh sliding over his dick earlier.
Aiden murmured approval and his tongue dove in, the silver ball in its center grazing the roof of Tris’s mouth, sending a shiver of lust through him. He gripped Aiden’s hair, holding him in place as their tongues twined and fenced.
Tris jolted back to the moment when the apartment door suddenly opened in his face. The blood rushed from his heart and roared in his ears. Aiden leaned against the door frame and Tris’s hungry gaze ran over his slim body, his mouth going dry at the soft line of curls disappearing into the tattered shorts sitting low on Aiden’s hips. He jerked his attention back to Aiden’s eyes, meeting his intense blue gaze.
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Darkness is spreading in the world with only the powerful Agenor family to oppose it. In the guise of a stone gargoyle atop the castle walls, Adrian has protected Philip, the young heir, since birth, watching him grow from childhood into a strong but lonely man without love.
When the clan chief, Philip’s father, is murdered by those he trusted, Adrian resumes his human form to better protect his beloved Philip. And finds his love returned. As lovers, their passion is all-consuming, but as they fight against treachery from within, will their love be enough to stem the dark tide sweeping the land? And will it be enough to keep Adrian’s heart alive…
Philip chewed his lip as he watched the storm clouds gather in the leaden sky. The wind picked up, cold and heavy with rain. It whipped the hair from his face and distracted him from the study of the desolate landscape spread below his feet. How he longed for spring! But winter lingered long past when it should have given way to new growth in the valley. He guessed the reason for it, and a cold finger of dread touched his heart.
An icy gust buffeted him on the exposed balcony, and Philip gathered the long strands of his hair and tied them at his neck. He bit hard on his bottom lip to stop its tremble and welcomed the pain against the ache in his heart. “He’s not coming back, is he?” he whispered as the first fat drops of moisture struck his face. He pounded a fist on the stone railing in frustration and impotent fury. “Father should have let them come to us, where we’re prepared.”
But their enemy had thrown down the gauntlet, and in his pride, Philip’s father picked it up. Jonathon Agenor had always been that way, as far back as Philip remembered. He supposed the gravity of being the Agenor Chief had made his father distant. The man kept his own council and wouldn’t listen to Philip’s cautions against a trap. The bait had been a threat against Philip’s life, something the proud man couldn’t tolerate. His life had been the forfeit. Philip closed his eyes and let the grief wash over him.
The rain swept against the walls of the stronghold, and Philip leaned his head against the stone statue on the railing beside him. “I still have you, and that’s a comfort.” He turned his gaze to the familiar face. There were many gargoyles on the high balconies of the castle, but this was his favorite. The onyx eyes glittered as if in sympathy. Distraught, Philip trailed a finger along the crack in the stonework from the creature’s forehead to its muscular chest. He flattened his hand over the cold heart and willed it to beat as he had hundreds of times before. The stone stayed firm under his palm.
“I know one of you is my Watcher,” Philip said, and he searched the stone eyes for any flicker of life. They remained fixed on some distant point, and he sighed. He rested his head on a powerful shoulder, which supported the draping wings and ran his fingers up and down the strong arm nearest him. Philip remembered arms holding him, once upon a time, soft and warm and comforting. He’d felt safe and loved in his mother’s embrace. Philip tilted his head to the creature’s ear. He’d whispered his secrets to this gargoyle all his life and saw no reason to stop now.
“I miss her,” he confessed. “Every day. I’ve been…lonely. But more than that, I could use her wisdom, now more than ever. With Father gone, my enemies will come here. What if I’m not strong enough to hold them back? They can’t be allowed to make a stronghold here.” A frown creased his forehead. “Why are we enemies, Gargoyle? Can you tell me that? Mother explained good and evil to me. Good wants to protect and cherish the earth. Evil would seize power and bend nature to its will. But which am I? I don’t know the earth. I’ve lived my life in these protected walls. Perhaps evil lives in me as well.”
Philip turned his head, hoping to catch a response to his outrageous statement. The stone remained cold, and a fey mood came over him, desperate. “You remain silent?” His gaze swept the heights of the castle. Dozens of statues stared down at him or looked out over the land his family protected. He laughed, and it sounded bitter to his ears. Rain pelted the castle and struck his face, and Philip railed against a fate he had no control over. Was he a mere puppet in this war for power? He had seen his family killed one by one. Would he be next?
In defiance, he climbed up on the balustrade and opened his arms. The storm seemed to increase in fury. Rain pounded against him, the wind seemed bent on pulling him from the wall. He shouted and shook his fist at the sky.
“If I fell, Gargoyle, would my Watcher catch me?” Rainwater poured from the spouted demons on the towers down to the valley far below. Mother had said he had a Watcher, a protector given to him at birth, but he’d never seen him. Never felt his presence. Alone, bereft, Philip wondered if he shouldn’t step off the edge…
At once a blanket of warmth engulfed him. He was cherished, guarded, needed. And beneath that he sensed love, deep and pure. “Come down.” A voiced thrummed inside him, full of fear. Philip climbed onto the balcony and stood with his back to the storm. He hung his head, ashamed of the childish, dangerous act.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. The knowledge that his protector was near was a balm to his sore heart, and he straightened. He took a steadying breath. “Evil is moving in the world, Gargoyle. Father had gone to see the wise woman in the village to see if she knew who threatened me. Perhaps I should go see her myself, when the storm passes.”
He ran a hand over his face, cold and discouraged. He touched the gargoyle’s arm. “I’m young and naive to the ways of the world. I need guidance, and if you are my Watcher, dear friend, then it’s cruel not to tell me.” Philip sighed when he received no answer and retreated to the empty rooms within the thick walls of his home.
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From the moment Taden rescues Nathaniel from the Sutherlin soldiers’ torture, he finds himself caught in the gaze of the most beautiful eyes he’s ever seen; amazing eyes that hold him thrilled and confused. The Sutherlins are planning to invade the beautiful TahonValley, but as Taden secrets Nathaniel from their reach, he finds himself drawn to the young man. Not only does he feel the urge to protect him, but he feels an ache he hasn’t felt in many long years.
Nathaniel claims to be a traveler from a distant continent, saying he comes in peace. True or not, the youth has powers beyond anything Taden has seen—control over men and animals and the very weather. Taden falls hard for the strange traveler, protecting him not only from the Sutherlins but from his own mistrustful people, who don’t understand Nathaniel’s powers and accuse him of being a witch…
Taden edged closer to the men in the clearing, careful not to snag his cloak on the fragrant scrub brush concealing him. The two Sutherlin soldiers had stripped their captive of his shirt and his chest glistened with sweat in the firelight. His head hung heavily, arms stretched between two trees. A mop of blond curls hid his face. Taden’s knuckles whitened on the hunting knife in his hand as a soldier struck the prisoner in the face, making him cry out. Taden could see the dark bruising on his torso. This wasn’t the first time he had been beaten.
The second man slammed a balled fist into the prisoner’s abdomen and laughed at his grunt of pain. It was too much. Maybe he was being a fool for interfering, but he couldn’t stand by and watch the needless cruelty. He eased from hiding and silently closed the distance between him and the soldiers.
The closest man was raising his fist again when Taden reached him. He threw an arm around the soldier’s neck and jerked, exposing the vulnerable throat. The smell of sweat and fear filled his nostrils as he drew his blade in a quick motion across the knotty windpipe. Hot blood spilled over the back of his hand. The soldier wheezed and slumped heavily in his arms.
Taden threw the dead man from himself and started for the other, but his prey had no stomach for a fight and ran into the trees. Taden sprinted after him. He couldn’t allow the man to reach his companions. He caught the soldier within heartbeats with his longer stride and plunged the knife into the man’s back with both hands. Thrown off balance, they both went down hard on the forest floor. Taden scrambled to his knees and straddled the screaming soldier. He jerked the knife free and thrust it again into the blood soaked uniform. The keen blade severed bone and muscle, seeking the heart.
The soldier’s life pumped out around the knife handle and Taden swore bitterly, witness to the terror on the face pressed into the dirt. A boy playing at being a man. “Damn them,” he fumed. The Sutherlins had no scruples about whom they sent out to fight.
He tucked a blond curl of hair behind the boy’s ear as he muttered his soldier’s prayer, stirred to sadness for the one in the young man’s life who would never have the pleasure of that small intimacy again. Taden climbed to his feet, bone weary and heartsick, and tugged the hunting knife from the soldier’s back. A twig snapped as he wiped it clean in the dirt, making his heart pound, but it was only the scurry of a small animal in the brush. He took a last look at the dead soldier then made his way back through the moonlit forest towards the flickering fire and the young man bound to the trees.
The prisoner had his feet planted apart, knees locked to keep from sagging against the bindings, but blood slicked his wrists and ran down his forearms from where the ropes bit into the skin. His head was lowered and Taden wondered if his strength had given out.
“Hello? Don’t be afraid,” he said carefully. “I come without enmity.”
The prisoner lifted his head and Taden was caught in the gaze of the most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen, clear green with a starburst of gold at the pupils, amazing eyes that held him confused and thrilling. The look brushed against the lonely spot in his heart he kept deeply buried. Then the man blinked and Taden felt released, as if he’d been spellbound. His heart lurched at the exhaustion in the oval face.
The captive dropped his head as he lost consciousness and Taden slung an arm around his waist, supporting the dead weight. He groped for the hunting knife at his belt and cut the ropes, finding the prisoner a lesser burden than he’d feared as he carried him through the trees to the horse hidden in a nearby glen.
The stallion snorted at the scent of blood as he approached. Taden spoke softly to him, murmuring endearments and promises of apples as he draped the loose body over the saddle. He stroked the muscular neck and warm chest of his horse, talking quietly as he untied the reins from a low branch. The man roused at that moment and Taden heard a moan, quickly stifled.
“Let me help you,” he said in the same gentle tones he’d used with the horse. The newcomer struggled awkwardly to a sitting position, holding tightly to Taden’s arm for balance. He panted against the horse’s neck, then looked down at Taden, his face shockingly white against the dark hide of the stallion.
Taden waited expectantly, but the prisoner’s heavy lids fluttered and Taden swung deftly up behind him, pulling the young man against his chest before he could fall. The man was shivering and Taden pulled his cloak from his back and dropped it over the prisoner’s hunched shoulders. He nudged the horse into the forest, listening for the sound of pursuit, and frowned, grim at the thought. The men working his fields had claimed they’d spotted Sutherlins slipping into the forest. He now carried the proof of that with him.
He shifted his weight in the saddle to ease sore muscles and pulled the drowsing young man snug against his chest. He checked the position of the moon through the treetops, reassured that he was traveling in the direction he’d send Bryce out to scout earlier.
He glanced at the burden in his arms and smiled, bemused by his beauty. Moonlit caught in his hair, creating a golden fan against a white cheek. Taden moved the reins to his left hand and tucked the silken strands behind a small ear. He noted the bruises under his eyes.
The young man moved against him, seeking warmth. Taden drew his cloak tighter over him, instantly, intensely aware of him. The stranger’s body was an exciting weight against his chest, recalling nights of passion with others, far in the past, none of which had been as beautiful as this man in his arms.
He ran his tongue over dry lips as a hesitant excitement filled him. Could this be the one to break the lonely cycle of his life? His days were spent in service to his family and those dependent on them, his nights alone in an empty bed. He longed for someone of his own, a lover to give him purpose outside the needs of others.
The stranger woke with a soft moan and turned in the saddle to face him. Taden held his breath as the dark lashes flickered and opened. There was confusion in the lovely green depths and a soft breath escaped the pale lips. Taden bent his head, wanting to know their taste.
He straightened abruptly, amazed. Had he almost kissed him? Did the man have him to fear as well? He’d made an oath to himself to protect him, then nearly took the basest advantage of the young man. That made him no better than the Sutherlin soldiers he’d killed that night.
He watched awareness flood the lovely eyes, but before he could reassure him, the man lunged from the saddle with a startled cry. The horse sidestepped, but Taden reined him sharply to a halt.
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