Excerpt from One Night with You
I need a night to remember and forget. Tate Gibson sat in his car in the parking lot of Donovan Apartments and stared at the building. Although he saw the shadows moving in front of the windows, he wasn’t paying any attention. He had too much on his mind. He hadn’t planned on making the detour home and sure as hell not for the reasons he’d come back to where he’d grown up.
He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. His friend Blake had sworn the party would be a good way to get his mind off his troubles. He had to be crazy. Coming to the college for a night of drinking and possibly hooking up with someone wouldn’t take his mind off anything. Still, he hadn’t driven across town to sit in his car.
Tate left the vehicle and hit the lock. In less than forty-eight hours’ time, he’d be on his way back to South Korea. He scrubbed the top of his head with his palm. Jesus. He’d been through too much in the last year. He didn’t mind coming home, but not for a funeral. He was too young to deal with this kind of heavy psychological stuff.
“Get your ass in here,” Blake shouted out of his front window. “Been waiting for you.”
He sighed. Trust Blake to know when he needed to be pulled out of his own head. He strode across the parking lot to the apartment building. Someone had propped the door open and people milled around the foyer as well as up the stairs to the second level. He snorted as he approached the door to Blake’s. A thick rock held the door open and music blasted into the hall.
Blake appeared in the doorway and held a plastic cup. “About damn time.”
“It’s not a good day, okay?” He stuffed his hands into his jeans pockets. “Lay off.”
“I’ve got someone here I want you to meet.” Blake draped his arm around Tate’s shoulders and steered him into the apartment. “He’s sweet and handsome and loves to suck cock.”
Finding a fuck friend for the night appealed to Tate, but he disliked when Blake set him up. “I don’t know.” Blake’s taste in men left more than a little to be desired.
“Bullshit. You do, too. You want someone to make you forget, right? Even if for an hour? He’ll hit the spot.” Blake marched Tate up to a man with blond hair and a tattoo on the side of his neck. The man grinned and folded his arms. The muscles in his upper body bulged.
“This is Lance. He’s up for anything and clean.” Blake pushed Tate into Lance. “You’re welcome.”
Tate eased back a foot and forced a smile. He didn’t mind tats on anyone, but the neck tat of a skull breathing fire turned him off.
“So, I hear you’re in the Army.” Lance nodded. “You’re a runner, too?”
Oh fuck. “Yes, on the runner part. It’s how I blow off steam, but no on the Army part. I’m in the Air Force. I oversee maintenance on the planes and work on them when they break down or are damaged.”
“Uh-huh.” Lance’s eyes widened. “Sounds exciting.” He sipped from his plastic cup. “Uh, do you want a beer?”
“Sure.” Truth be told, he didn’t need the alcohol, but he doubted Lance would keep up the conversation without it. He drifted to the edge of the living room and surveyed the crowd. For only twenty-six, he felt a lifetime older than the rest of the people at the party. Most of the men and women were still in college, worrying about papers, exams and life beyond graduation. Not him.
He’d spent the last two days talking his mother down from her emotional ledge and suppressing his own feelings. He shook his head. He didn’t belong there. He’d been given five days’ leave and should be at home. Christ, there was so much to do. He refused to let anyone down again. What did he think he’d accomplish by going to a party? He could hear his sister’s voice in his head, reminding him to have fun. Fat lot of good that did for her. He’d gone off to join the Air Force and left her behind. She’d told him she’d be all right. Promised him she’d stay out of trouble. He should’ve known from the first moment he’d seen her latest boyfriend, Aaron, she’d be in for a world of hurt. He hadn’t held up his end of the deal. He’d let her live her life and in return, she ended up dead. His mother blamed him and Aaron, despite being the reason she’d gotten into the damn car, swore Tate’s leaving had caused her to act recklessly. Fucking hell. He so did not belong at a party.
Tate kept his hands in his pockets and strode across the room. At the doorway, he collided with a solid body. “Sorry,” he muttered. When he glanced up, he stared into the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. “Whoa.”
The owner of the blue eyes grinned. “Hi.”
“I’ll get out of the way. I was just leaving.” Tate ducked into the hallway and the cooler air.
“Are you okay?” the man said. “You look lost. Did someone slip you something? I told Blake not to have that shit here.”
“Huh? No.” Christ. The last thing he needed was an illegal substance in his body. “No, I’m good. Sober and clean.” He appraised the man and bit back a sigh. Tall, dark hair with a hint of curl. A slight dimple in his cheek and perfect teeth. The T-shirt clung to his upper body like a second skin. So the man was a little thin? He knew how to wear the shirt and jeans. Why couldn’t Blake have set him up with this one? Probably because this guy was already taken.
“Cool.” He extended his hand. “I’m Raine. Like the stuff that falls from the sky.” He shrugged and blushed from his hairline to his collar. “My mom was a hippie.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a little creativity.” He shook hands with Raine. “I’m Tate. I have no idea where my mother got my name.”
Raine grinned. “I take it parties aren’t your thing?”
“Normally, I’m game for a few beers with my friends, but Blake… He knows how to throw a party that can get out of hand in seconds.” Tate leaned on the wall. “He’s one of my oldest friends, so I put up with a lot of his shit.”
“I’ve lived across the hall from him for almost a year. He’s a piece of work all right.” Raine tipped his head. “If you want a little kind of silence, I’m right over here.”
He glanced over his shoulder at the party, then swept his gaze over Raine again. He’d said he wanted to forget his sadness. Raine fit the bill physically. “Got a couple of beers?”
“I do.” Raine opened his door. “Come on in.”
Tate strode across the hall and followed Raine into the other apartment. Once Raine closed the door, the sound from the party lessened. Tate sighed. “Is he always this loud? Blake?”
“Every weekend.” Raine opened the refrigerator and withdrew two amber bottles. “It’s light beer. Blake brought it over and never took it home.” He handed one over to Tate. “What’s your major?”
“Shit.” Raine rummaged through a drawer. “I don’t have an opener. I forgot these aren’t the twist ones.”
“I’ve got a church key.” He pulled the bottle opener from his wallet. “I got this when I got my first promotion.”
“A church key?” Raine tipped his head. “Is your mom or dad a minister?”
“No.” He stared at Raine. “You’ve never heard of a church key?” He held up the credit-card-sized piece of metal. “Back in the day, the deacons at the church had keys and supposedly they looked like this. I don’t know, but that’s what I’m told. Anyway, my old man always called bottle openers like this the church key. It stuck.” He popped the top on the bottle. “Hand me your beer.”
Raine watched him as he opened the second bottle. “Huh. I never knew that.”
“Now you do.” He surveyed the apartment. Where Blake’s was crowded with furniture and usually people, Raine had a minimalist theme going. “Mind if I sit?”
“I’d be offended if you didn’t.” Raine perched on the arm of the lone couch. “So you and Blake. He’s not your boyfriend or anything?”
Tate shook his head. “Blake isn’t the type to settle down and I’m not into guys who can’t keep it in their pants.”
“I’ve never seen him with the same man twice.” He sipped the beer. The tangy brew slid down his throat and cooled some of the fire in his belly. “But he does pick out good alcohol.” Shitty at matchmaking, too.
Raine clinked bottles with Tate. “Here’s to Blake’s lousy taste in men, but decent one in booze.” He rested his feet on the coffee table.
Tate downed more of the beer, then stared at the table. “That’s milk crates and plywood,” he blurted. “Sorry. I’ve never seen such a situation.”
“Oh, yeah. I needed something to put my laptop on when I’m working and didn’t want to buy a desk. This is easier to pack up and move.” Raine crossed his ankles. “Until last year, I had to get a new place at the end of each year. Since I’m going into the master’s program in the fall, I don’t have to move.”
Tate sighed and gripped the nearly empty bottle. He shifted on the seat enough to look at Raine. “You asked me, so I’ll ask you. Where’s your boyfriend?”
“Don’t have one.” The blush returned. “Single and ready to mingle or whatever it’s called.”
Raine waved his hands. The beer sloshed in his bottle. “Strike that. I mean… Christ, I don’t know what I mean. I don’t have a boyfriend. The last time I tried to date, the guy said I was too nerdy and turned me down.”
He placed his palm on Raine’s thigh. “What if I said I wouldn’t?”
Excerpt from Spoil of War
The sky was an iridescent crimson, streaked with the white contrails of seven frigates slowly closing on Rune Station. Forty-eight days ago, there had been three times that number. Without the ceasefire, there would have been far fewer.
Relief at the sight of the battered Valiant overrode Briar’s distaste for the armistice. His heart pounding with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension, he fought the urge to rush ahead of his fellow officers. There were only a dozen of them, far fewer than the hundreds of civilians gathered to welcome back their loved ones, and none of his peers were given over to displays of sentiment.
Flexing his hands behind his back, Briar blinked back the moisture in his eyes.
One after the other, the massive hatch doors of the ships hissed open, disgorging blue uniforms, then gray, then the familiar black of the Expeditionary Forces, more colloquially known as the Executioners. Murmurs rippled over the crowd, cresting into shouts of bewilderment and consternation.
Not all of the men and women exiting the frigates did so on their own two feet. Steel boxes draped in the Federation flag gleamed under the dull morning sun.
Suddenly, the mob rushed the barricades, leaving the infantry guardsmen torn between repelling what was beginning to look like an insurgency and treating inviolable military families as though they were cattle.
A familiar pair of shoulders stretching a black jumpsuit distracted Briar from the budding fracas. Could it be? The procession thinned gradually to reveal the silhouette in its entirety, all six feet two of it mercifully stalking down the landing strip unaided, head down, hair a little longer than Briar had last seen it. His fingers itched to knot in those reddish strands. His chest ached even as the weight upon his heart lifted.
All around him, men and women wept and kissed and embraced, their voices like so much white noise, and yet he stood there, frozen, waiting for Kai to glance up.
Briar knew the precise moment when he was recognized. Kai’s whole frame loosened, his full lips almost twitching into a small smile. Then, shadow, his features darkening. Briar’s first thought was that Kai had been wounded, that something was wrong. He even thought he might be hallucinating. But no, that was very much his partner marching toward him, his broad strides now slightly less purposeful. It took him a long beat to register the silver lead in Kai’s hand, tethering him to the bound wrists of the prisoner beside him.
In the forty-eight days since Kai had left, Briar had imagined and reimagined what he would say when they were reunited. At no point did he expect to begin with, “What have you done?”
He also didn’t expect Kai to look to the handsome stranger on his right and say, “Briar, meet Dallan. He’s—”
Between those dark eyes and dimpled cheeks, even a saint would’ve forgotten himself with the man—never mind a lonely captain in a high-stress environment.
“Ours,” Kai corrected, though it was visibly a technicality.
The cacophony of sobbing and laughter echoing all around them finally pierced Briar’s bubble. “I see,” he said, making himself nod. “The cog’s this way.”
He turned away before Kai could see him grimacing, the pressure on his chest well and truly restored.
* * * *
Nothing’s changed,” Kai breathed, his voice laced with stupefied disbelief as he peered out of the rounded portholes of the cog.
The cinder-gray walls of their compound had been visible on the horizon for some time, but it was only as they approached that the mirage gave way to the solid lines of a twelve-foot-high perimeter wall, clustered domes and slanted rooftops barely visible beyond it.
Briar said nothing. He had envisaged telling Kai about their neighbors’ new pet and the updated policies on rationing and fair use of oxygen, but with a stranger peering over his shoulder he was unwilling to breach such private topics. He drove the cog to the pressurized security checkpoint, where he flashed his wrist for identification, then out the other end, into the square grid of Theta Compound.
Their unit lay halfway between the main entrance and the communal area. Briar guided the hovercraft through at a slightly elevated angle, carefully ascending to their level so as to spare Kai the climb. “Some things changed,” he said, unbuckling. He mustered a smile as he led the way inside.
Per regulations, their unit was minimally furnished and only with items provided by the Federation Corps. A member of the Expeditionary Forces had no more right to luxury than a humble cadet in the Sanitation department. The same thinly padded backrests and low table made up the seating area in the front room, and the same foam mats made up the bedding. Administrations inspectors could be persuaded to turn a blind eye to variations in personal arboretums, but that was about it.
Kai stood before the glass wall of the hydroponic garden with an unreadable expression. “Is that…?”
“Fennel,” Briar confirmed, childishly pleased. “Lettuce and chives. The basil seeds rotted before I could use them, but I’ll try to get more.” All he’d had to do the last time was trade half his month’s ration of water—easily done when Kai was away on a mission.
Of course, it hadn’t crossed Briar’s mind that while he was trying to make ends meet and coping with solitude, Kai had been hard at work taking his pleasure elsewhere.
A press of fingers around his sent a shiver up his spine.
Briar glanced down at their joined hands, Kai’s rough and scarred, his own shamefully soft. It was real. Kai was real.
He had come back when so many had not.
Umbrage dimming slightly, Briar let himself be tugged forward, too weak to deny himself the kiss he’d craved for so many sleep-cycles spent all alone in their bed. His mouth parted for Kai’s as thoughts of the prisoner fled his mind.
Cool glass met his shoulders. Kai deepened the kiss and pressed against him with the full length of his body. He had to stoop a little to slide his hands down Briar’s flanks, but he didn’t seem to resent the added effort.
“I’ve missed you,” he rasped, pulling back for breath.
Briar clasped him at the nape. “Prove it.”
Air left his lungs in a sudden rush as he was lifted by the hips, his legs naturally winding around Kai’s waist to hold him up. He briefly considered a protest—Kai was fresh from the battlefield, where he had surely amassed new aches and pains—but desire got the better of him. He felt more than saw the partition slide open and shut, sealing them into the bedroom portion of their unit.
Kai lowered him down to the bedroll and stretched over him, muscles rippling in the confines of his uniform. Between them, they got the top part of the jumpsuit unbuttoned and shoved out of the way of Briar’s greedy hands. He hadn’t been wrong to assume the existence of new aches. A trio of pink scars showed evidence of surgical intervention on his left shoulder. Dark bruises marred his chest and belly, and a particularly ugly mark, shaped vaguely like a boot, vanished under his waistband.
Briar’s gaze ticked up. “What—?”
“They put up a good fight,” Kai said and sat up to strip off his uniform and underwear. His boots had been toed off by the door. Once his socks followed, Kai was left to kneel, naked, astride Briar’s hips, his expression pinched with worry. “I wasn’t sure—”
Although his post in the Federation’s Propaganda department didn’t exactly lend itself to guessing military strategy, Briar had systematically cleaved doubt from his mind whenever it arose. He couldn’t afford to believe the Valiant might not return. He couldn’t afford dread whenever his office had to spin reports of a new tragic loss into a blessing in disguise.
He curled a hand into Kai’s long hair and yanked him down for another kiss. The memory foam bedroll sighed and squeaked as he reversed them. Briar made a mental note to put in a request for a replacement. His partner was a returning hero. Surely that would carry some weight with the fastidious compound administrators.
“Get these off,” Kai bit out, tugging at Briar’s uniform with very little success. He couldn’t seem to stop arching his back, his arousal evident as a flush crept over his pale skin, highlighting his natural freckles.
Briar bit lightly at the shelf of his jaw. “Can’t go a month without me, can you?”
“A month?” Kai groaned. “It’s been two hundred days for me.”
“Two hundred days of celibacy? Sounds trying, indeed…” The quip was cruel, the loose clasp of his fingers around Kai’s cock doubly so. But if Kai had wanted a fair lover, he would have pledged himself to someone else. Instead he had promised fidelity and to a man wicked enough to take his sweet time before giving him satisfaction.
He cursed a blue streak as Briar took him into his mouth at last, arching off the bedding. His inner thighs tensed and spread wider around Briar’s shoulders, as if in invitation.
Excerpt from Would You Wait for Me
As he kissed along Lucas’s jaw, Kip wished they could stay here in this moment. Freeze time. He didn’t want to leave his lover. But his duffel was by the door and in the morning he’d drive back to the base and be deployed to Iraq.
Lucas pulled him in for a kiss. “Stay with me, babe.”
“I want to,” Kip whispered, gazing at him. He knew Lucas meant in the here and now but he voiced his thoughts. He braced his hands on either side of Lucas’s head. Their naked bodies entwined with the twisted sheets. They were both still half-hard even though they’d just made love.
“I know.” Lucas’s sea-blue eyes teared up. “Promise me something?”
“Come home to me. Make it through this tour and get back here. I don’t… I can’t lose you.”
He moved and wrapped Lucas in a hug. “You won’t.” He brushed his lips to Lucas’s forehead, pushing back his brown curls. “Promise me you’ll wait for me?” He wanted to be everything Lucas needed. And he hoped his promise would be enough.
“I will,” Lucas swore, giving him a small smile.
“Then I’ll do anything I have to so I can get back here to you.” Kip kissed him softly, but the kiss became fueled by need and the desire to not part. He rolled Lucas over so he was on top once again, their cocks languidly sliding together. “I love you, Luc.”
“I love you, too.” Lucas clung tightly to him as they rocked toward their climaxes. They reached it together, falling into pleasure as they held onto one another. Kip wanted to sear this into his memory—this would be a moment he’d remember to get him through the rough and lonely days ahead.
* * * *
The next morning came way too soon. Kip showered and dressed as Lucas ordered them breakfast. They shared pancakes and coffee on the unmade bed. As they ate, Kip wondered when they’d be together again. He had his orders, but he could return sooner or even later. Eight months was a long time. They could write letters, sure, but phone calls would be few and far between to avoid suspicion. And Skyping was out. Any rumors could get back to his father, the base commander, and he’d be forced to come out. He wasn’t ready for that yet. He wanted to openly declare he was in a relationship with the beautiful man beside him, but he was afraid of the risks. There were so many to think about where he was going. He sighed and Lucas looked up from his cup. “What is it?”
He reached over to caress Lucas’s cheek. “Nothing. You know we’ll have to celebrate our anniversary when I get back.” Four years ago, when Jax—Kip’s German Shepherd—had fallen ill, they’d met while Lucas had been doing an internship. They’d just clicked and Lucas had been a good friend when he’d made the difficult decision to put the dog to sleep as he’d had a brain tumor. Friendship had slowly become more, and Lucas had agreed to keep their relationship a secret during his first tour. Since then, they’d fallen in love, but were still hiding it from everyone. And here he was, ready for the next deployment.
“Four years next month.” Lucas smiled. Then he ran a hand through his hair. “I wish I could go with you right now. See you off.”
“I know, but it’s better this way. We can say our goodbyes and I can kiss you all I want.”
Lucas leaned over and gave him a coffee-flavored kiss. “Promise you’ll at least think about me being at the homecoming when you get back?”
“I will.” Kip gazed at him. “I’m really going to miss you.”
“Me too.” Lucas bit his lip. “I’m going to start interviews next week. I’m hoping if I can get a decent job I could get a bigger place. Then we wouldn’t have to come here all the time.”
Kip was staying in the barracks, and they could barely turn around in Lucas’s apartment, so the hotel was a nice place for them both to get away from it all. “Didn’t Brianna say she’d have a spot for you once you got your degree?”
“She did.” Lucas nodded. “And my aunt might be moving to Florida, so there’s another option.”
“Oh, yeah? She’ll give you the house?”
“Not outright, but it could be mine… Ours,” he said quietly.
“That would be great… I gotta go, baby. We’ll talk about this more later, okay?” Kip grabbed his duffel and cap. He checked the clock. “I’m already pushing it.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” Lucas jumped up and walked over to him. He adjusted Kip’s jacket, then cupped his face and kissed him so softly it took Kip’s breath away.
He put Lucas’s hand on his heart. “I’m leaving this here, keep it safe.”
There were tears in Lucas’s eyes and he just nodded. For a moment he was silent, then he said, “I’ll write you every day.”
“And I’ll call when I can.” Kip embraced his lover and breathed him in. It took every ounce of willpower to step away and go to the door. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
“You’d better be.” Lucas gave him a watery smile. “Love you, Kip.”
He turned back and grinned at Lucas, putting on a brave front and feigning confidence he didn’t feel. “Love you, Lucas.” He hefted his bag over his shoulder and walked away, already wishing he didn’t have to leave.
* * * *
Eight months later
Just two more weeks and Kip would be outta this nightmare Away from the hotter-than-hell, bug-infested desert. Away from flying bullets, IEDs and insurgents. He’d be going home. This second tour had been tougher, he was more homesick, more lonely. He couldn’t wait to see Lucas again. Eight months was too long without his smile, his laugh, his touch. He missed how good it felt to be in Lucas’s arms. Kissing him. Making love with him.
It was why he was taking a bit of a risk now and calling him. No one knew he was gay. None of the guys in his unit had a clue. He either claimed he was single or got vague about the details. He was too afraid of how they’d react. What they’d do to him if given a chance. Nate Mathers in particular worried him with his constant homophobic slurs.
Shaking the thoughts away, Kip waited for Lucas to answer. There wasn’t anyone in the small room and it wasn’t like they could know who he was talking to.
“Hello? Kip, are you okay?” Lucas’s soft voice was filled with worry.
“I’m fine. I just wanted to call.” Kip whispered the next part, “I miss you.”
“I miss you, too. How’s it going?”
“I’m ready to come home. That’s why I’m calling.”
“I was hoping you would. I wanted to ask you, can I meet you when you get home?”
“At our hotel?” Kip got excited. They were on the same wavelength. They always met in secret and stayed the weekend at a hotel outside town. In their own little bubble, they would relax, make love and dream of living like that once he left the army. His dad wanted him to stay in, but Kip wanted to go to school. He planned to study law. Lucas had encouraged him to enroll after this tour and he’d decided to. His four years of active duty would be done when classes started and he’d be in inactive reserve.
“No, I was thinking at the homecoming on base.”
“Luc, you know my parents are gonna be there.”
“And we’re best friends, we could make up something. Can’t we? You promised me you’d think about it.”
Kip had thought about it. He could just imagine the fit his father would throw. And there were a few guys he feared would be nasty, he couldn’t expose Lucas to that. Mathers always had something homophobic to say. He didn’t want Lucas hurt. “I did and it’s too risky,” Kip told him. “We haven’t seen each other in so long. I want to be able to hold you and kiss you when we do.”
“So, why don’t you?” Lucas countered. “We’re not kids anymore, Kip. I’ve got a job now at the vet’s office, Brianna hired me. I’m looking into moving into a bigger apartment. I want to start making a future. For us.”
Excerpt from An Interesting Find
Closing his book with a very final slap, Nathan then put it on the coffee table in front of him. He leaned back in his chair. Stretching languidly, he said, “Bloody good, that was. Though, admittedly, I thought it’d last me all week. Wasn’t expecting to get through it on day one.”
Raising an eyebrow, Lee shot Nathan an amused glance. “Not far off myself. Fucking storm. Stupid us, eh, going on holiday in the UK in summertime—not like you can guarantee the sodding weather, is it? Should’ve gone to the Canaries.”
“No, we can’t guarantee the weather, but…” Nathan gave the window a sidelong glance, “I do have some good news.”
“Yeah. The torrential downpour has stopped.”
“Seriously?” Lee slammed his own book closed and scurried over to the window. “Oh, wow, it’s cleared right up, and I can see a rainbow. Wanna head out? Just a little wander down to that pond we saw on the way here, maybe? Get some fresh air. We’ve got loads of daylight left, haven’t we?”
Nathan checked his watch. “Yeah, plenty. Especially if we’re only nipping to the pond. It’s probably only a fifteen-minute walk.”
“Fantastic. I was going a bit fucking stir crazy in here. I’ll grab our coats and shoes.”
Lee had disappeared into the hallway of their rented holiday cottage before Nathan had the chance to reply. Shaking his head with a smile, Nathan collected their empty mugs from the coffee table and took them into the kitchen, then got a bottle of water from the fridge. He doubted they’d need a drink during their short trek along the road, but he could just shove the bottle in his coat pocket and forget about it. At least it’d be there if they wanted it.
When he returned to the living room, Lee was just about to tie up his laces.
“I got water,” Nathan said, brandishing the bottle.
“Cool. Shoes are there.” He nodded to the chair Nathan had been sitting in. Sure enough, his trail shoes were waiting on the floor in front of it.
Within a few minutes, they were headed out of the door. Nathan locked up, pocketed the key, then checked the handle. He doubted very much the place would get broken into—they were in the middle of nowhere, after all. There were farms nearby, but the closest village was about a mile and a half away. So any thieves would have to make a considerable effort to get to the cottage in the first place, never mind attempt to break into it. Rolling his eyes at his own paranoia, he turned and followed Lee, who’d already started walking slowly along the road in the direction of the pond.
After falling into step beside Lee, Nathan pulled in some deep breaths, enjoying the fresh air after being cooped up in the cottage. It was a beautiful and cozy place, but it was supposed to be a base for them to go walking—somewhere for them to eat, sleep and shower, not to be stuck in for hours on end, staring at the walls. Or climbing them.
He admired the rainbow as they walked, its vivid colors painted across the watery sky. It seemed the clouds had literally exhausted themselves—only occasional wispy streaks of white now interrupted the never-ending blue. The sun beamed down, heating up the ground and beginning to evaporate the huge puddles. It would take some doing—one such puddle stretched across the width of the road, and they had to skirt around its edge to avoid getting wet feet.
Nathan smiled. Though the storm itself had been grim, the washed-out aftermath made everything feel fresh, clean somehow.
“You look thoughtful,” Lee said, breaking into his reverie. “A penny for them?”
“Mmm. It’s one of those things that sounds better in your head than said out loud.”
Shrugging, Nathan replied, “Nothing major. Just admiring the rainbow, the sky, the clouds… Thinking how everything looks so fresh and clean after a good storm. Like it’s been purified or something… Ugh, it’s stupid.”
Lee stopped and reached for Nathan’s hand. His green eyes were wide and filled with wonder. “No, it isn’t. Not at all—I was thinking something similar myself. It’s kinda romantic, isn’t it? Purification, rebirth, and all that.”
“In a roundabout way, maybe. I dunno.” He shrugged again.
Lee’s eyes narrowed, and his lips curved into a wicked grin. “We could make it romantic.”
“Come here and I’ll show you.” Still gripping Nathan’s hand, Lee tugged him close and moved in for a kiss. Nathan went into the embrace willingly, the smile on his face soon smothered by Lee’s hot lips.
Twining their arms around each other, they deepened their kiss. Mouths opening, tongues searching, stubble scratching. Nathan moaned, tucking his hands under the back of Lee’s waterproof coat and gripping his firm, muscular arse cheeks. Arse cheeks he’d parted a thousand times, exploring between them with fingers, tongue, cock…
His head swum with erotic images, and he suddenly wished more than anything that they were back at the cottage so they could take things further. Oh, the irony—they’d been in the place all bloody day, eager to leave, and now they’d left, he wanted to return.
Reluctantly, he broke the kiss. “Phew.” He blinked rapidly, trying to reclaim his equilibrium. Blood and adrenaline rushed around his body, making him a little unsteady. “That was…intense.”
“And romantic.” Lee grinned, the mischief and arousal in his eyes blatant.
“Yeah, all right.” Nathan mirrored the grin. “It was romantic. But we’d better carry on walking now, otherwise romantic is rapidly going to turn erotic, and no matter how remote this road is, I don’t think taking our clothes off here is a good idea.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” He briefly tightened his grip on Nathan’s hips. “But it’s to be continued later, okay?”
“You’ll get no arguments from me.”
“Good.” Dropping a much more chaste kiss on Nathan’s lips, Lee released him and took his hand again. “Now let’s get moving, before I change my mind.”
Nathan chuckled as they turned and continued walking along the quiet road, with nothing but the sights and sounds of nature around them, the moorland stretching for miles in each direction. He sighed happily—what could be better than this? A beautiful location, fantastic company, some rest and relaxation—that was what this trip was supposed to be about. The fact that their first day had been mostly written off by shitty weather had made him forget all that. But he’d been reminded now, and he was going to make the most of it, the most of his time with Lee. At home, they didn’t get a lot of alone time—they both had busy careers, and Lee worked shifts, so sometimes they didn’t see each other properly for days. Now, they had a solid, uninterrupted week together, and it was going to be blissful.
Soon, their destination came into view, and they crossed the road again, then walked a little way along a track, before heading off it and down into the dip that held the pond.
“Wow,” Lee said, letting gravity carry him the rest of the way down the slope. He came to a stop beside a bench. “This is cool. Right next to a road, and yet, it feels so remote.” Glancing around, he added, “It’s kinda eerie, actually.”
“Yeah,” Nathan replied, joining him, “I know what you mean. If you ignore the bench, there’s such little evidence of man. Someone could send us back in time a hundred, a thousand years, and I reckon this place would look pretty much the same.”
“Nice to be reminded there are still lots of unspoiled places left in this country, isn’t it?”
“It is. Come on, let’s sit. Our coats should be long enough to keep our bums dry. If not, a damp bum never killed anyone, did it?”
“Nah.” Lee tugged at the bottom of his coat, trying to cover his rear, and sat. “I promise to warm your bum up if it gets damp and cold, though.”
“You’re too kind.” Nathan shot his lover an amused glance as he took a seat. “Likewise.”
They lapsed into silence then, contentedly admiring the world around them—the craggy steel-gray hills in the distance, the undulating grass and moorland between, the steep banks either side of them, and the dark, spooky body of water behind them. Nathan turned one hundred and eighty degrees on the bench to get a better look. It really was spooky—the surface of the pool was completely flat, undisturbed. As though it was utterly devoid of life. He suppressed a shudder, not wanting Lee to take the piss out of him and his often vivid imagination.
Something that didn’t look quite right drew his gaze. Focusing hard on the area on the other side of the pond, he tried to figure out what exactly he was seeing—if anything. The more he looked, the more he was convinced there was something at the bottom of the sheer slope leading up to the road—not that one could tell that from here.
“Um, Lee?” he finally said, unable to ignore his instincts any longer.
“Yeah?” Lee also swiveled on the bench.
Nathan pointed. “Does something over there look…not quite right…to you?”
“Where— Oh. Shit. Is that what I think it is?”
“I dunno. What do you think it is?”
Excerpt from Gods of Vengeance
It rained the day they buried Owen Hazard at the church on Hammerscliffe Peak. None too heavy—just a misty drizzle to match the muted sky and the gray spirits of the mourners who gathered at the church and, later, the graveyard. They laid Owen to rest in the grave beside his grandparents. It was a family plot, and many tears were shed at the sight of his coffin going into it too soon. He was only thirty-three.
Riley Brook held his own tears in check. He had cried enough already—all of this last week. Let the others weep. They needed it now—he didn’t. His pain and grief had been replaced by colder, far harder emotions—anger and the unremitting need for revenge. The cold rain ran down his forehead, over his narrow brow and into his eyes. He didn’t blink it away, didn’t flinch as it dripped from the tip of his long, straight nose. He felt it on his neck and down the collar of his white funeral shirt, but it didn’t bother him. That kind of discomfort was irrelevant now.
The turn-out for the funeral was immense. The farming community came out en masse to honor their dead. Especially the loss of someone so young. A son, a husband and a father—the tragedy of Owen’s death touched every person in that ancient churchyard. Somber-faced men in long overcoats held the hands of wives and girlfriends, unified by the senselessness—a life over too soon.
Owen’s wife, Susan, mother of his three children, just about kept it together. Sandwiched between Owen’s sister, Julie, and Pam, her best friend from the village, her features were a transparent mask of suffering. Riley had never seen grief etched so large on a human face. His mother and father stood close by in bewildered misery—it was every parent’s greatest fear, to see their children buried.
Next to them stood a man who Riley had not seen in almost ten years. Mark Hazard, Captain Mark Hazard, Owen’s older brother. Though he was undoubtedly handsome, Mark’s face was devoid of any emotion. He stood rigid with his shoulders back and spine straight, as if he was on the deck of his ship, ready for inspection. Mark had changed little in all those years. The lean jaw, wide mouth and neat brown hair were just as Riley remembered. Mark looked stronger now. Broader. There were lines around his eyes but they suited him. He’d grown more handsome with age.
Mark had been posted in the Eastern Mediterranean when his brother had been killed. He’d come back yesterday in time for the funeral. Too late for Riley to see him first. He would find the time. Later.
At last, the service was over. Owen’s parents came forward. They scraped up a handful of earth and tossed it into the grave. That was when his mother lost it. Wailing, inconsolable, she was led away by her husband and Mrs. Leaven from the village. The muscles around Riley’s heart tightened. He felt their grief, every painful stab.
It fueled his fury.
None of this was right.
He knew a way to make it better.
But it would take time.
Those less acquainted with Owen stepped respectfully back to allow his family and friends nearer to the grave. More earth and flowers were thrown into the hole. Riley waited until almost the end. Owen had been his best friend, had been since they were four years old, but he waited. An unnatural feeling of calm imbued him. It was so different from the heightened emotional state he’d been in since the terrible news had hit. A tiny part of him was frightened by these feelings. Terrified.
But anger was a bigger emotion than fear and his lust for vengeance was greater still.
As he walked forward to throw a handful of earth into the hole, Riley watched Mark Hazard across the grave. Mark’s opaque eyes stared into his. Time seemed frozen as they held each other. It was a devastating moment.
Something inside Riley shifted—a great impression of relief accompanied by a rush of fear—like a frightened child engulfed by the tide. He knew something with chilling certainty—Mark Hazard was the man who could change everything. No—would change everything.
As he stared into his eyes, he realized Mark was maybe thinking the exact same thing.
* * * *
Riley ran a pub called The Hammerscliffe Peak. It stood at the highest point of the town. Its large terrace and broad windows offered panoramic views of green hillsides, sweeping meadows and majestic mountains. The wake for Owen Hazard was packed. There looked to be more people in the pub than had been in the church.
“Such a waste.”
“He was always a nice boy. Ever since he was small.”
The pub had hosted plenty of wakes, but Riley had not experienced such a strange atmosphere in the place. He’d never had to bury his best friend before. Maybe that was it. He was too close to the deceased on this occasion, it was inconceivable to stay detached. But no, it wasn’t just that. Normally, when the mourners arrived at the bar and raised their first drink to the departed, there would be a shift in attitude. Sorrow often gave way to a more meditative, almost celebratory mood, where the dead would be remembered with fondness—funny stories and memories would be shared.
There was none of that today. The grief was too raw. Owen’s death was too unjust, too soon. His life had been too short to be revered in the conventional way.