Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Coda 41

Jake and Adrien from The Dark Tide


“You were laughing in your sleep last night.” Jake’s eyes met mine in the mirror over the sink. He was taking his turn shaving in the small hotel bathroom.

I was?”

His cheek creased and the electric razor accommodated the sudden curves in his still half-bristly face.

“Good to know I’m having a good time,” I said.

His brows drew together and he flicked off the razor. He turned to face me. “Aren’t you having a good time?”

“Yes!” I don’t know who was more surprised at my previous comment. Me or Jake. “Yeah. I’m sure as hell having a better Christmas than the last three years.”

“But?” I had his full and thoughtful consideration. Which still caught me off guard sometimes. Jake paid attention to details. No question. Which could occasionally be dismaying when you were used to--and even enjoyed--flying under the radar.

“Are you having a good time?” I asked.

“Yes. I am.” He said it without hesitation. “We’re both here and we’re both healthy. It’s our first Christmas together. I’ve never been happier. That’s the truth.”

Yes. I could see in his face that it was the truth.

“You don’t mind the fact that every minute of this trip is pre-programmed -- that our first Christmas is being spent running from one end of London to the next?”

He lifted a negligent shoulder.

“Or that the rare times we’re alone, my cell phone rings? Or someone knocks on the door?”

His mouth twitched.

I felt obliged to point out, “We’re having our Christmas dinner in a restaurant.”

“I’ve had my Christmas dinner in worse places. I’ve had years I didn’t get a Christmas dinner.”

I sighed.

He reached out, unhurriedly pulling me into his arms. He didn’t kiss me though. He studied me and I studied him. Jake asked, “Are you fretting over the bookstore?”


“Uh huh.”
I amended, “Well, mostly no. I do hope it’s still standing, but I guess we’d have heard if it wasn’t. No, mostly I just…wish we were home. I’d have liked our first Christmas to have been a little less busy. Less crowded. We’re not even moved in yet. You’ve got this very small window of free time and we’re using it up here. I guess in a perfect world--”

Jake interrupted quietly, “Let’s go home.”


“You’ve convinced me. Let’s leave early. Let’s do the Christmas thing with your family this afternoon and then tomorrow let’s see about grabbing an early flight home.”

My heart leapt at the idea. But… I said uncertainly “I…how can we?”

“Your mother didn’t think you’d agree to come at all. She got you here for Christmas. I don’t think she’s going to kick up too much of a fuss if we check out early.”

He was right. Lisa had been as startled as anyone when in a moment of weakness I’d agreed to her plan for a family holiday abroad. I think I’d partly done it because I hoped the change of scenery would help distract Jake from his own family’s struggle to accept his coming out. There’s nothing like Midnight Mass at St. Paul’s to put things into perspective. Provided you don’t mind looking at the world through binoculars. Or possibly opera glasses.

Anyway, Christmas in London with all the trimmings had sounded good in theory--and a lot of it had even been good in practice--but the thing I wanted most for Christmas was to…well, it would sound too schmaltzy to say it aloud, but through the years there had been a few dreams--no, dream was too strong, but there had been some wistful imaginings about spending this holiday of all holidays with Jake. Suffice it to say figgy pudding had not played a big role in the proceedings.

But the fact that there even were proceedings…that might explain why I had been laughing in my sleep. Joy. It wasn’t just for Christmas anymore.

 I smiled up at Jake. His heart was thumping steadily against my own. It occurred to me that he was a comfortable place to lean--not that I had ever wanted to lean on anyone and I didn’t plan on making a habit of it, but for these peaceful moments...

“Let’s go home,” Jake repeated.

I nodded. “Yeah. Okay. Let’s go home.”

His mouth touched mine. Sweet and warm and tasting a little bit of pre-shave lotion. I broke the kiss to laugh.

Jake looked surprised.

“Best part of this,” I said.

He raised his brows.

“Lisa will totally blame you.”








Thursday, December 24, 2015

Advent Calendar - Day 24

Tomorrow is the last day of the Advent Calendar. (Yes, it will be a coda.) Again, thank you for all your kindness and support during the year. There are so many books and so many authors out there; it's really humbling to be able to earn a living from my writing, especially when the latest data from the Author's Guild, Publisher's Weekly, etc. indicate that author earnings continue to wane.

The Advent Calendar is my way of saying thank you for buying my books. Thank you for reviewing and recommending them. Thank you for voting for the books in all these little contests and challenges and so forth. I hope you enjoyed this year's offerings -- both the books and the calendar!

Oh! And don't forget to check back on the earlier posts to see if you won something. We have several unclaimed prizes at the moment. ;-)

Today we have another vintage Christmas cartoon. Happy Holidays to you and yours!


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Advent Calendar - Day 23

I am a planner.

I outline novels. I make Things to Do lists. I check my stats. (And yes, compare them.) And as I reach the end of the year, I make plans for the next year. Hey, it's not The Law, but I do think it's one reason why I'm reasonably successful. I think having a plan is a good thing. A necessary thing. I think knowing where you are in relation to where everyone else in the room is standing is useful. A more useful thing is knowing where you want to be.

But you know what the single most important thing is? Do you like the people you're standing with?

Seriously. The secret to a happy life is LOVING the people you are standing with in line.

As this year winds down, ticking away like a tired clock at the end of her gears, do you have a plan for next year? Do you set goals? Do you make resolutions? Do you at least plan your vacations?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Advent Calendar - Day 21

Five magical things I love about this season:

1 - Mistletoe

2 - Reindeer

3 - Snowflakes

4 - Fragile glass ornaments handed down through generations

5 - Ancient stars burning in the night sky

What about you? Are there five things you find magical this time of year?

Answer below and I'll pick ten, or possibly more, of you to win a print book. Now,  I will not be shipping anything before Christmas. AND I cannot guarantee what title you'll end up with -- I'm not even sure what all I've got here at this point -- but if you let me know what book you're interested in, I'll see if I have a copy. ;-)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Advent Calendar - Day 20

As we get closer and closer to the holiday, I get a bit more sentimental and, er, sappy. Come on! It's not just me.

My dad's all time favorite Christmas movie is Holiday Inn. (My mom's--for the record--is The Bishop's Wife and I do not mean the remake with poor old Whitney Houston.) And I never watch Holiday Inn without wondering what it is that appeals so strongly to my male parental unit. Is it just nostalgia for a times past? I don't know. It's an entertaining movie, mostly, and it's certainly a peek into the popular mindset of the 1940s. It's also the first appearance of Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas".

So...there you go.

Do you have a favorite Christmas movie?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Advent Calendar - Day 19

Oops! I have a little bit of a head cold and so today's offering is a few hours late. But here it is -- a vintage Christmas cartoon for your viewing enjoyment.

Santa has a very nice singing voice, doesn't he?

And there is also...

Friday, December 18, 2015

Christmas Coda 40

Adam and Rob from WINTER KILL



“We could toss a coin,” Rob said. “Heads my family. Tails yours.”

“Let’s just go to your family for Christmas.” Adam glanced at the clock and set his coffee cup in the stainless steel sink.

“If we do go to my family, we’ll for sure go to yours next year. We’ll trade off.”

“Yes,” Adam said with brisk indifference. He was already on his way out the door. In that charcoal gray suit he looked as handsome and stylish as if he was headed for a GQ magazine shoot and not a day of chasing bad guys through the mean streets of Klamath Falls.

Rob put down his coffee cup, following Adam down the stairs that led to the garage.

Adam had been working out of the Bend satellite office for the past four months--which was exactly how long they had been living together.

Rob said, “It’s probably only fair to go to your family. But I can’t deny I’m looking forward to the fun of sharing our meet cute story with the aunts and uncles and cousins. The adorable tale of how a serial killer brought us together...”

Adam, still in motion, threw over his shoulder, “Sure. Up to you.”

Rob stopped midway down the stairs. Adam’s mind was clearly not on the holidays. It wasn’t on Rob at all. He hadn’t even remembered to kiss Rob goodbye. Not that it was a huge deal, but they were both conscious of the fact that they had jobs with a higher level of risk than working in, say, a hardware store.

But Adam was preoccupied with work. Not a big case or anything like that. He was just trying to fit in with his new team, his new boss, his new coworkers, his new partner. The truth was, Bend  was overjoyed to get him, thrilled Adam had opted for their satellite office rather than Portland, but Adam couldn’t see it. He was in high gear all the time. And given the fact that he was by nature an overachiever…Adam giving that extra 110% was frankly exhausting. But Rob got it. Adam had given up a lot--everything--to move to Nearby and be with Rob. Rob was determined to make as much easy for Adam as he could.

Adam jumped in his SUV, hit the automatic garage door opener, and zipped out into the wintry morning. Rob walked slowly back upstairs.

* * * * *


He was digging Jack Elkins' pickup out of the snowy slush and mud when his cell phone rang.


“Howdy.” Rob leaned the shovel against the tailgate.

“Hey.” Adam sounded funny, almost self-conscious. “I think I forgot to say goodbye this morning.”

Rob wiped his forehead, squinting at the white sun through the dark branches of the towering pines. What time was it? Two? Three?

“No worries. You can make it up to me when you say hello.” He was smiling, anticipating that moment. He definitely preferred their hellos to their goodbyes.

“Rob. About Christmas. Whatever you want is fine.”

“Same here,” Rob said. “It’s one Christmas out of all the Christmases we’re going to spend. Who cares whose family goes first?”

There was a sharp silence. Had he said the wrong thing? How could promising to compromise be the wrong thing?

Adam said something gruffly.

“What?” Rob asked.

Adam said clearly, “I just want to be with you.”

Rob’s heart lightened. “Yeah, me too.” A sudden thought occurred. “What if we don’t go anywhere? It’s our first Christmas together. What if we stay home, just the two of us?”

“No, I’m not saying that,” Adam said. “You want to see your family, of course.” He added in that carefully neutral tone that Rob was getting to know meant he cared a lot. “Unless that’s what you want?”

Rob grinned inwardly, but he was touched too. “Hm. I don’t know,” he mused. “What would we do? I mean beyond cook and eat and sleep and…you know, make snow angels.”

He could hear the smile in Adam’s voice. “Snow angels, huh?”

“Welllll, unless you have a better idea.”

“Oh, I have a couple of ideas,” Adam said softly.  


Thursday, December 17, 2015

NEW RELEASE - A Case of Christmas

We interrupt the Advent Calendar to announce the official release of A CASE OF CHRISTMAS. This year's nutty little holiday offering.

Christmas on Catalina Island—it’s just what the doctor ordered.

Injured in the line of duty, FBI Special Agent Shane Donovan is longing for a few days of peace and quiet. Some nice meals, a couple of good books, and maybe a bottle of the best. No family, no friends, no fa la la la la…just a little time on his own to think things through.

But an offshore storm, a geriatric treasure hunter, and the guy who dumped him without a word two years earlier are about to unwrap all Shane’s carefully laid holiday plans.

I like Christmas or holiday stories. I've been doing one every year for the last...what? Six years? They're just a bit of holiday sweetness. No murder, no mayhem. Well...actually sometimes there is a bit of mayhem. But all my Christmas stories are pretty much the same thing -- someone you love pushes you into a snowbank and then jumps in after you to deliver warm hugs and a frosty nuzzle or two. That's it. That's the perfect Christmas story right there. ;-)

You can buy A CASE OF CHRISTMAS at Amazon or All Romance Ebooks. Unfortunately everywhere else it will not be out until the 24th of December--this has to do with a most unfortunate design flaw in the Smashwords preorder system (which is what I use to channel through for B&N, Kobo, Apple, etc.)



Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Advent Calendar Day 16

Today I'm sharing another beautiful photo.

We're halfway through the month of December and the holiday season. If you enjoy the holidays, this month flies by in a blur. And if you don't enjoy the holidays, well, you're probably not reading this blog anyway.

I don't know about you, but I'm vulnerable to sentiment and nostalgia. I used to fight it because I would feel sad that things were no longer the same. And then I realized that twenty years from now these were the very days I would be feeling nostalgic for, and I was spending them struggling with not feeling sad over the past. Do you see what I'm saying? It's okay to be nostalgic,'s a good part of what makes this season such an emotional time of year. But don't forget to enjoy all the happy moments of here and now.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Advent Calender - Day 15

Today I'm sharing "Happy Christmas" performed by Lifehouse. As many of you know, I love Lifehouse. Something about their music sounds like my characters to me (although it's really hard to explain what I mean by that)

. Anyway, Lifehouse doesn't have a holiday album, so our options were somewhat limited. can never go wrong with John Lennon. (At least...I've always thought John Lennon wrote this?)

Do you have a favorite holiday song?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Christmas Coda 39

Peter and Mike from DON’TLOOK BACK


“When were you going to tell me?” Mike asked. He was smiling, his tone wry.

They had reached the pie and coffee stage of their holiday meal. Parkway Grill was Mike’s favorite place to dine--plus there weren’t a lot of options on Christmas evening. Mike’s parents were visiting his sister in Connecticut. Peter didn’t have family--other than Mike. Earlier that day, they’d brunched with Roma and Jessica and thirty other people. It had been fun and festive--but Peter was loving this quiet, private dinner, just the two of them.

“Tell you what?” Peter smiled too, but he was puzzled. Mike’s blue gaze seemed a little somber given the mood and occasion.

“The job offer in Boston. You didn’t think we should talk it over together?”

Peter’s eyes widened. He hadn’t realized Mike even knew about the opportunity in Boston. The museum must have phoned. “There’s nothing to tell. I’m not taking it.”



Why?” Mike seemed floored by this news, which was sort of, well, disconcerting.

“Why? Because of…us.”

Mike continued to look shocked. Not happy, not pleased. Shocked. “You’re not taking this job because of me?”

He was starting to worry Peter. Peter said, “Us.”

“Because you’re in a relationship with me.”

Peter kind of wished they weren’t having this discussion in public. And he kind of wished Mike wasn’t stating these facts in such a brusque, conversational tone, because they were getting a few glances from other diners. Frankly, he hadn’t really expected to have a discussion on the subject.

 “More because it’s not easy to maintain a long distance relationship with anyone.”

Mike shook his head. He said flatly, “You can’t make your decision based on that.”

“What should I base it on?”

“This is a job you wanted. Right?”

Peter stared, stricken. This was not the reaction he would have expected. He thought--believed--things were going well with Mike. That Mike was happy. But maybe, after four months, Mike was tired of supporting Peter, of carrying the financial load, of sharing his space. In the beginning he’d said it was no problem, no hardship and that Peter should take his time finding the right position. And that’s what Peter had done, partly because he didn’t have a choice. The economy might be recovering, but museum curators were still not in high demand.

“If I--if I lived in Boston, this would be the job I wanted.”

Mike nodded like now Peter was on the right track.

Peter said, “I didn’t realize--” He had to stop because the waitress returned to refill their coffee cups. And because he didn’t trust his voice.

There was the usual could-she-bring-them-anything-else? Mike requested the check. The waitress departed.

Peter got control and said quietly, “I didn’t realize you didn’t want--” He broke off because he wasn’t sure how to finish it. He was pretty sure, would have sworn, in fact, that Mike did want what they had. What they had and what they were building. But maybe only Peter thought they were building something. It wasn’t like they had discussed the future.

Their eyes met and Mike’s frown deepened. He opened his mouth, but the waitress was back with the check.

Mike reached for his wallet--which of course he had tired of being the financial default by now and Peter should have realized this--and Peter said, “Excuse me. I’m going to get some fresh air.”

Good luck with that. The cold night air was scented of car exhaust and the restaurant kitchen. It did not smell fresh. It did not smell like Christmas. It smelled like any winter night in any unfamiliar city. Peter took a turn around the parking lot. Second time around Mike met him, footsteps crunching dead leaves on the pavement.

“You feeling all right?” Mike asked, offering Peter a peppermint.

Peter declined the peppermint. “I feel blindsided.”

“I can see that.” Mike peeled the paper off his peppermint. “What’s kind of funny is I was trying not to get worked up about the fact you’d decided to take that job without talking to me. And then it turns out you’re not taking the job. Also without talking to me.”

Peter had to struggle not to say something childish like, I didn’t realize you were so desperate to get rid of me. He knew Mike didn’t want to get rid of him. At least, he thought he did. He was pretty hurt though. Hurt that Mike could seemingly accept-- calmly accept--that Peter might be leaving for Boston. That he didn’t want to stop him, didn’t want to put up a fight for what they had together. In the end he said nothing.

Mike watching his struggle, said awkwardly, “If I seem ungrateful or like I don’t appreciate what you’re trying to do, that’s not my intent. You did this once. Gave up your life for that asshole. You’re not doing it again. Not for me. I don’t want that.”

“I didn’t realize I was giving up my life,” Peter said bitterly. “I thought it was just a job.”

“It’s not just a job. It’s your career.”

Right. And what could be more important than that? Peter drew a deep, shaky breath and said, “I’m cold. We should get back.”

Not we should go home because plainly Mike’s condo was not his home.


* * * * *


The sight of the evergreen wreath on the front door was painful.

“Do you want a drink?” Mike unlocked the door and felt around for the light switch.

“No. Thanks.”

The front room smelled like apples and cinnamon. Comforting and homely, but the holiday fragrance made his stomach churn. He felt stupid for decorating Mike’s place. Mike hadn’t asked for any of that nonsense. The Christmas tree, the fake snow on windows…that was all his idea and it had been a bad one. He was embarrassed at having presumed too much. He felt unwelcome. The sight of the presents they had opened that morning--nothing extravagant or very expensive, but everything chosen with care and affection (on both sides, he had imagined)--made him want to cry.

However, crying on Christmas was not permissible once you were out of the single digits.

It was only eight thirty so he couldn’t exactly announce he wanted to go to bed. Anyway, it was going to be too weird trying to lie on that mattress next to Mike with all this between them. All this being…apparently not that much. He could invite himself over to Jessica’s and Roma’s place, but that wasn’t a very caring thing to do to friends who had already spent the long day hosting a holiday brunch.

“You sure you don’t want anything?” Mike asked from the kitchen.

“I’m going for a walk,” Peter called.

He was two houses down staring unseeingly at a yard full of mechanical reindeer, raising and lowering their light-bulb lined heads to feast on a dead lawn, when Mike appeared beside him.

“Even I can tell something is wrong,” Mike said. “Tell me what I did.” And the heartless bastard put his arm around Peter’s shoulders.

Peter shook his head. Not No, I won’t tell you. More I can’t tell you--it’s too ridiculous.

“Come on.” Mike lowered his head and kissed Peter’s cheek. His breath was warm in the cold night. “Talk to me, Peter.”

How the hell did women manage to cry and talk at the same time? Because it was pretty much physically impossible, with your throat closed up and your sinuses flooding and your breath jerking in and out, to manage anything like a sentence. Let alone an intelligent sentence.

What he wanted to say was so tangled up and complicated. When he’d finally got his memory back, all of his memory, it had been difficult to accept how alone he was, how lonely. He had friends, wonderful friends who made up for the fact that he did not have family. But even that was not the same as having that one special person: the lover who was both friend and partner. Not everyone needed or wanted that, but Peter did. He had hungered for it his entire life. He had wanted it so badly that for years he had put up with the palest imitation. He didn’t even know why.

And then Mike had come along. And Peter had really thought the loneliness was over. Really thought that Mike was the guy he would spend the rest of his life with. He was convinced Mike saw it the same way. But now it turned out that once again he had got it wrong. At least in Mike’s case there was real affection and caring, but the end result was the same. He was on his own.

Mike’s arm tightened around Peter’s shoulders. “Have you already turned the job down? Is that it?”

“Not yet.”


Peter pulled away. “Until an hour ago, this was the best Christmas of my entire life. Maybe the best day of my entire life. I really did think--”

Into that raw and unsteady pause, Mike said very quietly, “I’m not sure why me supporting your decision to take a job you really want somehow spoils that for you.”

“I don’t want that fucking job, Mike!” Peter glared at him. “Or I didn’t. If we’re not going to be together anyway, then I don’t know. Maybe that would be the best option.”

Mike’s head snapped back like Peter had punched him. “We’re not going to…”

“You're talking about job versus career, and I understand and appreciate the difference. And I understand that difference should be as important to me as it apparently is to you, but you  know what I want more than anything? To be wanted. To be loved. For it to matter to someone if I stay or if I go--”

“You are wanted,” Mike protested. “You are loved and of course it matters if you stay or go.”

“That’s not how it feels.”

This time there was no pushing Mike away. He wrapped his arms around Peter--not that Peter was fighting him--and whispered, “I don’t want you to go. How could you think that? I’m trying to do the right thing, that’s all. I don’t want to be like him. All he did was take from you. I want to give to you. I want to give you whatever you need.”

Peter pressed his face into Mike’s. “You already do. You already have. Just waking up together this morning--there will be other jobs. I’ll get another job. I promise. But I don’t want a job that’s going to put the entire country between us. It’s not worth it to me.”

“Then it’s not worth it to me either. You think I’m worried about who pays the electric bill? I don’t care if you have a job so long as you don’t care. All I’m trying to do is show you that you’re free to make whatever decision you want.”

“I don’t want to be that free.”

“I was never talking about ending things! We could make it work long distance.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Neither do I,” Mike admitted. He shook his head. “Did you really think, even for a minute, that I didn’t want you to stay? That the idea of you leaving didn’t hurt like hell?”

“You sure didn’t show it.”

“Didn’t I?” Mike offered the old wolfish smile. “Let’s go home. I want to show you just how much you’re wanted…”













Sunday, December 13, 2015

Advent Calendar Day 13

Good morning! Today's little giftie is another coloring sheet by the wonderful Johanna Ollila. This one is from Murder in Pastel, and it's an Advent Calendar exclusive. We hope you enjoy it!

You can download the coloring sheet right here.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Advent Calendar Day 12

When Strange Fortune was published in 2009 we (Blind Eye Books and I) did a number of little gifties and goodies for those who preordered. One--if not the--very nicest of giveaways was artwork by the unnervingly gifted Dawn Kimberling.

Dawn did a number of brilliant little sketches of Hidush and some of the characters--whatever caught her fancy...which were combined in a PDF file for download.

Well, it's been six years and I feel like those beautiful little sketches should be seen and appreciated again. And since I happened to glance through Strange Fortune the other night when I was writing the coda for it (it's actually quite a neat little story!) I think now is a great time to share them again.

So today's giveaway is the downloadable PDF of Dawn Kimberling's promo art for Strange Fortune. (Psst! It's at the bottom of the book page.)

And if you haven't read Strange Fortune, now's your chance. It's available in print (how I still love that map!) ebook and audio.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Christmas Coda 38

Aleister Grimshaw and Valentine Strange from STRANGE FORTUNE


In the afternoon they had come upon a series of caves in a red rock canyon. Enormous, unsettling black and red drawings marched down the length of the cave. The creatures depicted there were nothing Strange recognized, not man nor beast. They made the back of his neck crawl.

Aleister was fascinated by the ancient scrawls--delighted, in fact--and had made extensive notes and sketches in his journal.

By the time Strange dragged him away the sun had begun to slip from the sky. The sky was clear for the first time in days, though everything was still wet from the biting winter rains.

He would have liked to put greater distance between them and those damned caves, but these lands were unfamiliar and he preferred to face the night with his back against the wall and a goodly fire. Plus Aleister had developed a worrying cough. Which was to say, it worried Strange. If one of them fell really ill or was badly injured, there was no help to be had out here on the wrong side of the White Mountains.

No, not true. If Strange fell ill, Aleister would probably be able to do something for him. He was dosing himself with a horrendously unappetizing juice he’d made from poisonous-tasting berries, continuing to blather away about the caves, cheeks flushed and eyes shining fever-bright. His confidence in the future remained as undiminished as it was bewildering.

“Of course they might offer new information on the former extension of the ancestral abodes of certain clans. I suspect these cliff-dwellers were not a distinct people--”

“Sit closer to the fire,” Strange told him. “That wind is like a knife.”

“I’m boiling as it is.” Aleister smiled widely, eyes shadowy, his teeth very white in the firelight. “Do you know what this night is, Val?”

“I know you’ll tell me, Master Sticks and Stones.”

If Aleister fell ill, really ill, Strange would be able to do little for him. And the thought of losing Aleister was frankly unbearable. He had been fond of him for some time, of course. He had expected that his feelings would temper, ease into a more casual affection, but if anything they had grown more fierce, more intense. It was painful to care this much, for theirs was often a hand-to-mouth existence, and death could reach out to grab one or the other at any moment. If something--any harm came to Aleister--

In the frosty distance something howled. It did not sound like any animal Strange knew.

He glanced at Aleister who was still smiling. Perhaps he had not heard that eerie howl. “It’s the winter solstice.”

The longest night of the year. What the fuck could be better than that?

“Well, we’ve got the bonfire for it,” Strange said.

“We’ve got more than that. I’ve been saving up for your present.”

“My--” But he was speaking to empty air. Aleister hopped up, went to his pack, rifled around and brought back a handful of…dust. He picked up one of the metal plates that Strange had scrubbed clean in the sand, and let the crumbs trickle through his fingers while he spoke a soft incantation.

Strange was silent, watching. Was this fever or was Aleister actually practicing magick? After a second or two, he realized that the dust was, in fact, crumbs. Hardtack crumbs saved carefully for days on end.

The crumbs seemed to jump around on the plate and then suddenly four small cakes materialized, frosted in pink with tiny silver speckled candies. The kind of thing that had been rare even before the revolution. The kind of sweet Strange had loved as a boy. And Aleister the only person in the world who knew that.

Aleister laughed at Strange’s expression. “They’re for you, Val. All four of them.” He was beaming his pleasure at this foolish, extravagant gift.

Strange’s throat closed so tightly no speck of dust, let alone tea cake could have passed his gullet. He said, “You’re a bloody madman, Grimshaw.”

“So they tell me.”

Aleister held the plate out to him and Strange said, “Two for each.”

“Oh!” Aleister hesitated.

“Go on then. Share and share alike.”

Looking torn between guilt and delight, Aleister chose one of the delectable cakes. He handed the plate to Strange who took a cake and bit it what seemed to be a cloud made of spun sugar. The sweetness was almost shocking after months of living on wild game and whatever else they could forage.

Aleister licked frosting off his lips.

They ate their cakes and passed Strange’s flask back and forth. Now and again their companionable silence was broken by one of those long, mournful howls that seemed to issue from behind the giant, silver moon.

“You’re cold, whether you know it or not. Come here,” Strange said holding up his cape, and Aleister gave him an indulgent look and scooted over into the circle of his arm. He leaned against Strange’s shoulder. His lean, hard body was a warm weight down the length of Strange’s.

“Spring is coming,” he informed Strange, wiping the last pink stickiness from his fingers.

And only the entire winter still to get through. But Strange did not say that. He said, “Yes. Happy Solstice.”

“Happy Solstice, Val.”

“Those were the best cakes I ever ate in my life,” Strange said.

Aleister smiled and tilted his head to rest against Strange’s.







Thursday, December 10, 2015

Advent Calendar Day 10

Today I'm going to get you drunk and then steal your pocket change. Okay, maybe not. Today I'm going to share a holiday cocktail recipe with you.

What the hell? That's SOUP!
I can't pretend. I do like to drink. However, time and tide have done their worst--er, work--and these days I'm pretty moderate in my drinking habits. A glass of wine with dinner. A dash of Irish in my morning coffee. That kind of thing. Okay! A cocktail or three at lunch. But I usually skip lunch, so we're FINE. WE DON'T HAVE A  PROBLEM HERE. WE WOULD BE THE FIRST TO KNOW IF WE HAD A PROBLEM.

Anyway. Epicurious lists the Top 5 Sexiest Cocktails right here. THERE. Right where the link is underlined. I'M NOT RAISING MY VOICE. YOU'RE RAISING YOUR VOICE!

Where was I?

Wassail. Is Wassail a cocktail? Who cares! It's a nice traditional holiday bevvie. The first time I tried to make it, I was in junior high and it went...terribly wrong.

But anyway, let's not dwell on the past. This looks like a pretty decent recipe.

Prep Time: Depends on how much you've already had to drink

Cook Time: Forever. Okay, no. Three hours -- which is ridiculous!! Right? Those carolers are liable to turn ugly any minute!

Damn it! That's also soup!

1 Gallon apple cider
2 C. cranberry juice
1/2 C honey
1/2 C sugar
2 oranges
Whole cloves
1 apple, peeled and diced
3 cinnamon sticks or 3 Tbs. ground cinnamon
1/2 C – 1 C brandy- optional (LIKE HELL!!!!)


Set your crockpot (hahahahaha booze in a crockpot!!!) to its lower setting, and pour in the apple cider, cranberry juice, honey and sugar. Mix it up, which you always do anyway even when you're not supposed to. Bring to a smiling boil. That will be you smiling, not the wassail. Anyway, I'm making that up. Stir until the honey and sugar dissolve.  Stud the oranges with the cloves (WHY DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO BRING SEX INTO IT YOU SELFISH BASTARD?)  and place in the pot (they’ll float). Wait. What? Add the diced apple. Add allspice, ginger and nutmeg to taste. Remember, you can always add more, you can't get it out once it's in there. Yeswearestilltalkingaboutwassailyouhaveaonetrackmind. Finally, snap the cinnamon sticks in half and add those as well.

Cover pot and allow to simmer 2 – 4 hours on low heat. SO IT'S NOT THREE HOURS, IT'S MAYBE FOUR About half an hour prior to serving, add the brandy if you choose to use it. OF COURSE YOU'RE GOING TO USE IT!

Right. So there you go. Traditional wassail. Drunken quarrel with guests optional.

Anyway, the truth is, the sexiest cocktail is the one you leave unfinished because you can't wait to be alone together.  ;-)

Wassail cunningly disguised as fruit soup

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Advent Calendar Day 9

Today's holiday morsel is an excerpt from the Adrien English CYOA novel STRANGER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED and you'll notice I'm sharing one of the gorgeous full color interior illustrations by the amazing Catherine Dair.

As you may or may not know, I used Fatal Shadows as the rough guideline for STRANGER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED. This allowed me to embellish and expand a bit on Fatal Shadows for those who can never quite get enough of Adrien and Jake, but the fun part is the multiple alternate possibilities for how that story could have gone. And if you've read STHH, you know that it could have gone very right or VERY wrong.

The illustrations, four in total, are probably the best thing about the book. So thank you yet again, Catherine.

Anyway, I had a lot of fun writing it--the SO tells me maniacal laughter echoed from my office on more than one occasion--but frankly it was the most difficult project I've ever done, and I'm not sure I have the nerve to try another (sorry, those of you who have suggested Will and Taylor are prime for CYOA).

I'm giving away two copies of the print edition that contains the full color illustrations. If you've tracked them down to Createspace (the only place you can purchase them new) you know they're on the pricy side. So let's see...comment on why you feel Adrien and Jake are unique and you'll be included in the drawing for one of these two giveaway copies.

And for those of you who haven't bought the ebook or B&W edition but are a bit curious, enjoy the crazy:

PLOT LINE J If you decide to go with Claude to Ball and Chain, turn to page...

The music is deafening and about two decades out of date. For some reason, that strikes you as the most embarrassing thing so far. Of course, the night is young. A lot of guys are dancing, and you are reminded yet again that it is sadly true that most white guys, even gay white guys, can’t dance.

You avert your gaze from the dreadful spectacle — and who should you spot from clear across the cavern-sized room but Detective Riordan. He’s standing at the bar drinking whisky and staring broodingly into space. Your jaw drops and you walk right into a guy who looks like an extra for Marlon Brando in The Wild One. No, correction. He looks like Marlon Brando in later years trying to force his way back into his costume from The Wild One. Talk about something your best friends won’t tell you.

The guy, who is old enough to be your father — although thinking about your parents in this context kinda makes you feel faint — says something you can’t make out over the music. Claude responds saucily on your behalf and drags you away, Marlon gives your ass an appreciative pat and you jump like you sat on a rocket.

“What is the matter with you?” Claude demands. “Behave!”

It’s hard to picture Robert here. Oh, he’d have liked the general subversive kinkiness of it, but Robert was not a kind or tolerant person when it came to other people’s vulnerabilities, and you see a lot of vulnerability. A lot of soft underbelly, both figuratively and literally.

You rock to a stop, bringing Claude to a halt.

“What are we doing here?” you ask in response to his questioning look.

“We’re detecting!”

“What are we detecting?”

He smiles coquettishly and nods at a blond twink in jeans and a black leather vest. “I can’t speak for you, mon cher, but I detect that!”

You roll your eyes. “I’m going to investigate the bar.”

You knew from the moment Claude suggested it, that this night was a waste of time and money. You turn away, but a hand hooks around your arm. You look up and your heart jumps in your chest. Detective Riordan gazes down at you with a strange half smile.

“Why, look who’s here,” he says in that voice that always feels like fingernails raking the back of your neck.

“Oh. Hey,” you say weakly. It really IS him. Detective Riordan is in a leather club. Detective Riordan is apparently gay. Or maybe he’s undercover? Then you remember the scene in Robert’s apartment.

Detective Riordan was not giving you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation this afternoon, he was kissing you.

Your gaze falls and you take him in, from the gleam of his black boots…leather jeans…studded leather belt…and then bare, broad muscular chest. Nothing else. Not a single extra anything. Severe and elegant. Beneath the gold dusting of chest hair, his pecs look like rocks. So do his biceps. He’s got an abdomen like a washboard. You can’t stop staring. Your mouth is dry, your heart racketing around your chest.

“Come here often?” He’s laughing at you. Well, the line of his mouth is serious enough, but his eyes glitter with amusement. Amusement and…excitement.

He wants you.

Holy moly. Detective Riordan wants you.

“It’s my first time,” you joke. “So be gentle.” At least…you thought you were joking. Maybe not so much.

He blinks. Then his eyes widen.

Anyway, to make a long story short, it’s true what the American Express advertising says. Membership does have its privileges. Before you can say “second thoughts,” you’re in a small, private room marked MEMBERS ONLY. The “members” thing makes you want to giggle, but that’s because you’re strung so tight with nerves you’re ready to blow apart.

How can you be so anxious and so turned on all at the same time?

The room is more like a dentist’s office than a bedroom, but then you’re not there to sleep. There is a long — two-way?! — mirror down the length of one brick wall. There is a battered-looking armoire. Or maybe it’s an entertainment console. Are you going to be filmed? Recorded? Blackmailed? There are a couple of padded benches. Padded walls might be more appropriate. There is also a half table with a frame that looks like a cross between a rack and a baby swing. You definitely do not want to know.

The room is warm and the lights are low. The thump of the bass from the dance floor is like a drugged heartbeat beneath your feet.

“Do you have a safe word?”

You try not to start. Riordan is right behind you, breathing down your neck. Your scalp prickles. Your prick prickles. Your prickles prickle.

“Stop?” you offer.

“You do know how this works, right?”

“Of course,” you lie.

“You need to pick a different safe word.”
“Why wouldn’t stop work? If I say stop, believe me, I mean stop.”

He is not amused. “Pick another word.”


“Periwinkle it is. Now take your clothes off, Adrien,” Riordan orders in a silky voice.

“Oh, right.” You slowly pull your black turtleneck over your head. A black turtleneck. You’re dressed more like a cat burglar than a guy hoping for some action. You fold your pullover and then don’t know what to do with it. You hold it to your chest, in ingénue fashion.

Riordan observes your dilemma. His mouth quirks. “Maybe you better tell me about this fantasy of yours,” he says, breaking character for a moment. Or maybe this is his character. Superior, indulgent, completely in control.

“Um, well, the usual thing,” you say vaguely. How far are you going to take this? You’re not sure.



“You address me as ‘sir.’”

“Right. Sir.” You almost snort, but catch yourself in time. Or do you? Riordan’s mouth quirks again.

He reaches out and his fingers brush the pulse point at the base of your throat. Your heartbeat bangs away like a little blue hammer. “Why are you really here, Adrien? Don’t lie to me.”

Now here’s a crazy thing. You open your mouth to lie to him, and you find you can’t.

You swallow hard. “Robert used to come here sometimes,” you admit. “Claude and I thought…” You don’t finish it because it occurs to you, too late, that Riordan is not a tourist like yourself. He might have run into Robert at this club. He might be a suspect in Robert’s death himself.

You stare at him wordlessly, the pulse fluttering away in the hollow of your throat. Your skin seems to tingle beneath his touch. He stares at you, and you know he can read your thoughts as easily as if they were subtitles at the bottom of a movie screen. In this case, probably a horror movie.

“Go home, Adrien-with-an-e,” Riordan says softly. His breath is warm against your face, and scented of spearmint. “Go home before you get into real trouble.”




If you choose to go home, turn to page 126 


If you decide to stay and get into real trouble, turn to page 142 


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Advent Calendar Day 8

Today we have a nice picture and some good wishes for you. Yes, YOU. Whoever you are and whysoever you find yourself on this blog. Let's call it your moment of Holiday Zen.

I hope you have a lovely day today. I hope something nice happens to you within a few minutes of walking out your front door. I hope you have time for a delicious lunch. I hope you hear from an old friend before you get home this evening. I hope you have sweet dreams tonight. Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Christmas Coda 37

Appendicitis for Christmas.

That was even worse than a lump of coal. A lot worse.

“Ce n’est pas possible,” Colin protested, hand to his right side.

But yes, it was possible. It was probable. According to Monsieur Le Docteur, it was certainement. And if it wasn’t appendicitis, what the heck was making him so sick? Because he was sick. He had done his best to talk himself out of it, but he was feverish, nauseous, and the pain that had started out in his belly had had moved to his side and was steadily getting worse.

“I’m flying home for Christmas tomorrow,” Colin said. “Can you just give me something for the pain, and I’ll see a doctor in the States?”

Yeeeah. No. It didn’t work that way. In fact, what was going to happen was Colin was going to be prepped for surgery. Tout de suite.

“I have to make a phone call,” Colin said, trying not to show his mounting panic.

* * * * *

It took two tries to locate Thomas, who was in New York working a protection detail for an actress mostly famous for playing the love interest of dudes whose real costars were the souped-up cars they drove.

Col, I’ll have to phone you back.” Thomas was regretful but brisk. He did not like personal calls when he was working, and Colin knew better. And as miserable as Colin felt, his face warmed with embarrassment because it was a point of pride with him that he was the first and only one of Thomas’s lovers who got it, who understood about Thomas’s job. Completely. Totally.

But this was an emergency.

“Thomas, I’m not going to make Christmas. You’ve got to let my grandfather know.”

And Thomas who rarely raised his voice and never swore said, “Damn it, Colin. You can’t do this. You cannot do this to that old man. You can’t just change your mind.”

“I’m not! I mean, I am, but it’s not my choice--”

But Thomas wasn’t listening. He said quietly, fiercely, “Do you really not understand what you’re doing? You can’t make promises and then break them.”

“I’m not. I’m--”

“Just because you’re not in the mood or it’s inconvenient or whatever the hell the excuse is going to be.”

The hell. Thomas was so angry so fast. It had to be because he had been expecting Colin to back out. And it was true that Colin was nervous and uncertain about going home again. He was homesick, but he was equally determined that this visit not turn into some kind of surrender, a retreat from all he had achieved since his move to France twelve weeks earlier. He had given his word. He had no intention of going back on it. It hurt that Thomas thought he would.

Well, they hadn’t known each other long. No. That wasn’t true. But they had only been together for a  month--much of which had, in fact, been spent apart. They were still learning each other. And apparently what Thomas had so far learned led him to believe Colin was the kind of man who chickened out from a difficult situation and broke his promises.

 Maybe because Thomas still thought Colin was a boy, not a man.

“What am I supposed to tell Mason?” Thomas was asking. “What excuse am I supposed to come up with?”

The ready anger was not the worst part, but it still rattled Colin. He was sick, scared and now in the middle of an argument he hadn’t seen coming. He had been expecting, seeking, sympathy, concern, reassurance. In the face of Thomas’s disapproval he was ashamed of his weakness.

“Tell him I’m sick. It’s true.”

Thomas made a sound of disgust. “If you’re that sick, you better see a doctor. And then you can make your excuses to Mason. I don’t have time for this.” He clicked off.

Colin slowly replaced the receiver.

* * * * *

He opened his eyes to artificial gloom and a medicinal smell. A hospital room. In the dull light he could make out a tall, motionless figure sitting beside the bed.

Thomas. Recognition should have brought relief, happiness, but something had happened between himself and Thomas. The thought of Thomas was a weight on his heart. The sight of him…

Thomas, gray-faced and weary, asked quietly, “How do you feel?”

Colin closed his eyes. Thomas’s large, capable hand covered his, and he didn’t have the strength to move away.

He took slow and uneasy stock. He felt cold and still queasy, but the pain in his side was gone. Or was different anyway. He knew he’d had the surgery. He remembered…well, not a lot. Not about the surgery. He remembered Thomas hanging up on him. He remembered the things Thomas had said. The removal of his appendix seemed trivial compared to the other things he had lost.

It was weird how you could yearn for someone you never wanted to see again.

Thomas was saying nothing, but there was strength and warmth in his touch. He was communicating, but Colin did not want to hear it.


* * * * *

He was released on Christmas Eve into the protective custody of his grandfather, who had flown into Paris the previous evening. Thomas was there too, of course.

Not the Christmas he had planned, let alone the Christmas he had wanted. But there would be other Christmases. Colin, still feeling shaky and weak, tried to stay stoic in the face of Mason’s unconcealed anxiety.

“Really, I’m okay now,” he must have said a dozen times before they even made it back to his little flat was above the boulangerie. “This would have happened either way.”

“But at home you wouldn’t have been alone.” His grandfather, as fragile as bundle of dried twigs, insisted on helping Colin up the narrow staircase--and Thomas followed close on their heels, ready to head off what must look like the imminent plummet to their deaths.

But they made it safely to the flat, where it turned out Santa and his elves had been very busy. The rooms were fragrant with cooking smells: herb roasted turkey and baking, and very warm--Colin’s heater must have been cranked to maximum for hours on end to achieve that summery temperature. The small kitchen table was piled with delightful wrapped parcels of food and gourmet goodies. Bottles of wine and cheese and nuts and…just so much stuff. Buche de Noel -- a butter cream frosted Yule log on a decorative white platter--and a small roasted turkey swaddled in tinfoil, sitting in an old-fashioned roasting pan. Where had they come up with a roasted turkey at such short notice?

There was a little Charlie Brown-sized Christmas tree too, sitting in front of the window that looked out over the gray slate roofs and rain-shiny chestnut trees. There were many--too many--red, green and silver gaily wrapped packages surrounding that tiny tree.

This was Mason’s work, of course, aided and abetted by Thomas, but Colin felt only resignation. His grandfather should not have done all this, and Thomas should not have allowed it, but he understood that the gifts, all of it, were motivated by love. His grandfather was trying to make amends, ironically by doing all the things that had made Colin feel he must put some space between them in the first place.

But…he loved the old man, and seeing how frightened he still was at what he perceived to be Colin’s close call, Colin did his best to reassure and comfort. After all, had he made it back to the States as planned, it would have gone pretty much the same way. So he faked hunger for food he had no appetite for and delight in presents that made him feel overwhelmed and cornered.

Thomas knew. Thomas knew how Colin really felt about this. Thomas knew Colin so well--and yet he didn’t know him at all. Why did that hurt so much? But it did. And every time Colin looked at Thomas--usually to find Thomas watching him with a serious, hard-to interpret expression--Colin had to look away. He didn’t know what to do about Thomas, didn’t feel strong enough to sort through his troubled feelings. And Thomas knew that too because he stayed very much in the background, hadn’t kissed Colin, didn’t attempt to touch him except to offer unobtrusive and impersonal help with getting in and out of taxis and climbing stairs.

Colin was grateful for Thomas’s understanding--and it made his heart ache.

After their small but sumptuous feast, his grandfather walked around the tiny apartment studying Colin’s paintings. Colin was braced to hear any number of concerns and criticisms. The right teachers, the right training might make the necessary difference. Or…Paris was a dangerous place these days, and Colin spent too much time wandering back alleys and lonely streets sketching the encroaching shadows.

The words he dreaded didn’t come.

When Mason said quietly, “This stay has been good for you, Colin. Good for your painting,” it felt like a huge concession. A corner had been turned, a milestone had been passed.

It almost made up for the fact that things were probably over with Thomas.

At last Mason said it was time for him to leave. Thomas said he would see Mason back to his hotel, helping him on with his coat.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, my boy,” Mason said, hugging Colin very tight.

“See you then,” Colin said. He felt Thomas’s gaze and looked his way.

Thomas said, “I’ll be back in an hour or so.”

Colin said--and even now it wasn’t easy, “I think I’m just going to go to bed. I’m pretty tired.”

Thomas eyed him thoughtfully. “All right.”

He hadn’t misunderstood, hadn’t missed what Colin was actually saying. He accepted it without argument. Colin wasn’t sure if he was genuinely glad about that or not.


It felt like days later, though it was only a little before midnight when Colin woke to the sound of knocking at his door. He sat up and snapped on the light.

He knew who it was. Had been expecting this, had in fact been dreaming of the coming confrontation. An awful dream where he and Thomas said awful things to each other.

But dream or reality, it had to be faced. And now was as good as any time. Colin untangled himself from the nest of blankets and pillows, made his way barefoot across the wooden floor.

Thomas had a key but he always knocked, always gave Colin plenty of warning. It irritated Colin a little, but mostly because he knew in his heart that Thomas was right. If he woke to find someone in his room he would experience a moment of paralyzing panic before he recognized, realized that it was only Thomas.

Thomas, who made a point of not interfering with Colin’s wandering the streets of Paris at night, was absolutely determined to protect him from a few preventable seconds of terror. So…the minor annoyance of being dragged out of bed to admit his lover, which was never really an annoyance. Not even tonight when he was dreading what they would say to each other.

He unlocked the door, opened it, and yes, no surprises. Thomas. Tall, ruggedly handsome in jeans and brown leather jacket, unsmiling

“I know you’re tired, Col, and I know you’re not feeling well, so we don’t have to talk long. But we do have to talk,” Thomas said.

Colin hung onto the door frame. He really didn’t feel up to this. He didn’t know what he felt, beyond hurt and confusion and disappointment. He knew he didn’t want to deal with it now. Knew he was liable to say things he didn’t mean.


“I know you’re hurt. I know you’re angry.”

Colin sighed and turned away from the door. Thomas entered the apartment, closing and locking the door. The heat was fading, and Colin was too cold and in too much pain to try and sit at the table. He went into the bedroom, climbed into bed and braced against the pillows and brass headboard, pulled the blankets up around his shoulders.

Thomas did not remove his jacket. He sat down on the foot of the bed. This silent respecting of the new boundaries eased some of Colin’s tension.

“I’m sorry, Col. I misread the situation and I misjudged you.”

Colin nodded. That was pretty much it. Thomas zeroing in on the heart of the matter so fast it was disconcerting. He had yet to work through what he was feeling and Thomas was already summarizing.

“I didn’t listen and I didn’t give you a chance to explain.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“I apologize. Sincerely. I’m very sorry.”

And he was. That was obvious. There were new lines in his face and his eyes were shadowy with regret and guilt. He felt bad. Clearly.

So…all better now?

Colin didn’t feel all better. He appreciated the apology. But he still felt…chilled and sick. 

Thomas was waiting for him to say something, and he didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t even that he was still mad. The apology defused a lot of the anger. But there was still this big painful emptiness.

He said, “I don’t know. I don’t understand--”

Thomas waited. That was one thing about Thomas. He really did listen. He listened to what you said. He listened to what you didn’t say. That’s part of why he was so good at his job.

Colin’s mouth was unexpectedly dry. The words sticking in his throat. “What feels wrong to me is that you think that I would do that. That I would give my word and then back out.”

Thomas seemed to think his reply over. “I knew you were worried and nervous about the trip. I did think you might come up with a reason not to go.”

“To back out. To break my word.”

Thomas’s gaze was troubled. “Yes.”

Colin gave a short, humorless laugh. “And that’s why I think this is…not easily fixed. Because you don’t know me. The person you think I am is someone neither of us would like.”

No. That’s not true.”

“Yes.” Colin’s sense of the injustice of it all swept him up again. “You think that I could break my promises to you. You think I could hurt my grandfather like that.” He stopped. There was probably more, but that felt insurmountable enough.

Thomas didn’t rush to reassure him either. He continued to regard Colin with that dark, troubled gaze. His face was grave.

“You don’t trust me,” Colin said. That was the full realization hitting him. That was why this hurt so much. Why it felt they probably weren’t going to be able to get past it.

“I do trust you,” Thomas said. But it wasn’t very convincing.

Colin shook his head and stared out the window. Through the glass he could see the moon caught in a net of colored Christmas lights strung through the neighboring chestnut trees. A very old ornament handed down through the generations.

“I do trust you,” Thomas repeated. “But I’m also a realist.”

Colin turned his gaze back to Thomas. “Which means you don’t trust me.”

“No, Colin. It means that I know everyone has their vulnerabilities, their breaking point. And I thought this trip might be difficult for you.”

“Difficult enough that I would break my word and let you and my grandfather down.” Colin’s resentment, his sense of having been wronged was hardening.

Thomas admitted, “Maybe. That’s what this job does, I guess.”

Colin shivered, pulled the blankets tighter around his shoulders.

“All right,” Thomas said with sudden crispness. “But I’ll tell you what. I did think you might panic, but not for one second did I consider that a…a deal breaker.”

That surprised Colin. He hadn’t considered this angle. And his surprise must have showed because Thomas said with renewed certainty. “I underestimated you. I judged you unfairly. But it did not for one second change my feelings for you, change my certainty that together we have something worth fighting for.” He added, “That’s the other side of being a realist.”

He smiled with a wry diffidence Colin had only seen once before: the morning Thomas had missed his plane, stayed behind to tell Colin he might be falling in love.

Thomas said, “I know you could screw up because I screw up sometimes. Like the day you phoned.”

And it should work both ways. Right? Couldn’t Colin accept that Thomas might screw up occasionally?

“But that’s a big one,” Colin protested, still feeling aggrieved, wounded. “If you think I’m someone who could let you down like that--”

Thomas moved--the bedsprings squeaked and pinged--closed the distance, wrapped his arms around Colin. Colin told himself he wasn’t sure he wanted to be held, wasn’t sure they had reached that stage of negotiation. But the fact was, it felt better with Thomas’s arms around him, even if they were going to keep arguing, it felt better to argue like this in the warmth and safety of Thomas’s arms. He could be angry and still find refuge here, that was Thomas’s unspoken promise.

Thomas said against his ear, “Sometimes the age difference frightens me. Sometimes I think you don’t see me like I really am. A middle-aged guy with a job that takes up too much time and too much energy that should rightfully be yours.”

“I don’t think that.”

“And I worry that one day you’re going to wake up and notice that you got the short end of the stick.”

“That’s crazy.”

“I don’t think it all the time.”

“You shouldn’t ever think it.”

“But it could be a little bit of why maybe I was too quick to believe you were backing out on a commitment. Because I wasn’t sure if it was a commitment I had maybe pushed you into making.”

They weren’t just talking about the trip back to the States. Colin said, “I wasn’t backing out. I’m never backing out. I love you, Thomas.” He raised his head, found Thomas’s glinting gaze and repeated, “I love you.”

From across the frosty, chilly distance floated the silvery chime of Christmas bells.