Illumination

Illumination_200x300

Adam Craig is burned out. Lead singer of the hard rock band Black Varen, he’s tired of the empty life of groupies, paparazzi, and hotel rooms. Worse, a life in the closet. After the final concert of their latest tour, he flees the afterparty, pursuing memories of lost summers and carefree days, until he passes out on the patio of a shuttered lake resort.

Miles Caldwell is a brilliant artist, tied by agoraphobia and social anxiety to his family’s lodge. Alone but for his parrot, he spends his days illuminating manuscripts and hiding from the complexities of life. When he discovers Adam asleep in a deck chair, he’s furious but intrigued. Adam soon charms his way into Miles’s bed, and they lose themselves in a summer idyll, safe from the compromises and claims of reality.

But Adam’s life, with all it demands, is waiting for him. And Miles, uncertain of Adam’s true feelings, is battling demons of his own. Somehow, the man who’s never home and the man who never leaves it must find the strength to fight for a future together.

Preview

Adam Craig worked his way through the crowd in the hotel suite, champagne bottle in one hand, cigarette in the other. Somewhere in this place was a balcony, he was sure; when they’d checked in earlier in the day he’d noticed it. And he was pretty sure this was the same hotel they’d checked into, since their manager had driven them back to the hotel and not that fucking drunk drummer Eddie.

He took a drag off the cigarette and elbowed his way past a skinny blonde who kept moving in front of him. The smoke was thick and the music way too loud and he was way too drunk and stoned. He needed that balcony, needed the fresh air—though “fresh” was probably a lot to ask for more than a dozen stories above Chicago’s Loop. Okay, air that didn’t taste of cigarettes and pot, but good healthy diesel fumes and smog. Yep, that’s what he needed.

“Awesome gig, man!” someone shouted at him over the scream of metal rock blasting from the suite’s high-end sound system. “You rocked ’em tonight!”

Adam waved the bottle at him and squirmed through the crowd. He nearly tripped over a pile of pillows where Eddie was cavorting half-naked with his girlfriend du jour and her girlfriend du jour, and holy shit, was that the lead from Unmet Potential? He’d thought those guys were in Slovakia on tour. No, he was pretty sure that’s who that was; he’d had a bit of a crush on him until he met him and found out what a fucking dick he was. He stepped over someone’s legs and worked his way along the wall to the sliding glass doors.

Fuck. The balcony was every bit as crowded as the room. Any minute now some asshole was going to get pushed over the railing and paint the sidewalk fourteen floors below. No point in going out there and guaranteeing it.

Someone grabbed his arm, and a Lady Gaga wannabe plastered herself to him. “Hey!” she shrieked. “Wanna fuck?”

“No!” he screamed back.

“Okay!” She wriggled away. A minute later, the crowd shifted and he saw her straddling Chuck the bassist’s lap while Chuck fumbled with the buttons on his 501s. Not very discerning, Chuck—but then again, none of them were. It was kind of pathetic, he thought, and took a swig from the champagne bottle. Not one of the women here would turn down a fuck with one of the guys from either the band or the roadie staff, and he would be willing to bet a grand that none of the male hangers-on in the room would turn it down either—at least not from one of the guys in the band. The roadies would have a harder time of it. He snorted in drunken laughter. “Harder” time. Right. Himself—he was the lead singer and the public face of the band—everyone wanted to fuck him. Not that there was a soul here he actually wanted to fuck.

Suddenly the noise and the smoke and the letdown of this being the last concert on the tour, with only a few weeks in the studio to look forward to, all ganged up on him. “Fuck,” he muttered, and this time worked his way across the room to his bedroom, seeking, if not quiet, then some measure of privacy.

There were three strangers fucking in his bed.

“Fuck!” he screamed, then threw the champagne bottle at them, spraying bubbly across the carpet and the bed and the three strangers. They got out of the way fast enough, but there was no way he was sleeping in that bed tonight. Instead, he ground out his cigarette on the marble table next to the door, and stormed out—out of the room, out of the suite, out of the hotel.

The wind from the lake was brisk and cooled the sweat on his neck. He reached behind and patted himself on the ass, checking to make sure his wallet was still in the back pocket of his leather pants, then hailed a cab. By the time one pulled up at the curb, the cool night air had brought a semblance of sobriety to his brain. He slid into the backseat, intending to tell the driver the name of a bar on Rush Street. Instead, he found himself telling the cabbie to drive to Milwaukee.

“Where on Milwaukee?” the cabbie asked.

“Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” Adam said. “You know. In Wayne’s World, when they went to Milwaukee to see Alice Cooper? I wanna go there.”

“They don’t make movies like that no more,” the cabbie agreed, and put the car in gear. “Gonna cost you, though.”

“You take plastic?” Adam handed him his AmEx card.

The cabbie ran it through and gave it back to him. “Cab’s all yours, dude.”

Adam lay back against the cracked vinyl seat and fell asleep.

Categories: Stories.
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Love, Like Water

Love, Like Water

 

Three years undercover with one of the worst gangs in the country left FBI agent Joshua Chastain shattered. Battling nightmares and addiction, he leaves the concrete jungle for New Mexico horse country, hoping to start over on his uncle’s ranch.

Foreman Eli Kelly spends his life rehabilitating abused animals, and Joshua is just another lost soul. But as Joshua slowly begins to put his life back together, Eli realizes that Joshua is a lot more than his newest project.

Joshua’s plan seems to work—maybe a fresh start was just what he needed. Then, just when he has finally found a sense of peace, crime and hatred nearly destroy all his hard work. forcing him to reevaluate what he wants out his relationship with Eli and his own life.

Categories: Stories.
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The Florentine Treasure

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Art history professor Daniel Wollek is delighted to assist the Uffizi Gallery in Florence in cataloguing a cache of Renaissance artworks uncovered by an earthquake. But when a second earthquake pitches him headlong into the fifteenth century, Daniel finds himself more involved than he expected in rescuing precious artifacts from a fanatic’s bonfires. Then he meets Leonardo di Vinci’s assistant, Giacopo di Careggi, and finds in the beautiful young model a treasure even greater than art from the past.

June 1st

Categories: Stories.
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Angel Voices

AngelVoices

On a frigid winter night, college freshman Will stumbles into the shelter of a church during choir practice. His father has just discovered that Will is gay, and has beaten him and thrown him out of the house. But right now Will’s interested only in getting warm.

Will’s college roommate Quinn is a soloist in the choir, which is practicing for a Christmas program. He discovers Will in the church–and his friend’s condition. Will, who has grown up in a repressed environment, including church school, an abusive father and a passive mother, is taken aback by Quinn’s enthusiasm and determination to take care of him.

Does Will have a future after all, especially one that will include Quinn?

Preview

…“No,” he moaned, and something cool touched his forehead.

A soft voice said, “It’s okay, Will. It’s okay.”

He opened his eyes to bright whiteness and confusion. After a moment, he recognized the voice. That was Quinn—they’d been roommates for the last couple of months, his freshman year at college.

Quinn was a music major, and also a freshman. Will remembered his father’s disdain for him and his complaint that Will should have had his own room and not have to share with a “fairy-boy nigger”—but Will was on a scholarship and didn’t have anything to say in the arrangements. The scholarship required he live on campus for the first year, despite his family living in the area—another thing that annoyed his father—and the college gave him no choice as to roommates.

He’d done what his father had told him, though, and kept to himself, watching with envious eyes as Quinn made friends with everyone on the floor and quietly rejecting any overtures of friendship toward himself. It had been so hard: Quinn was witty and outgoing and so damn, damn beautiful, with his creamy café au lait skin and bright dark eyes and silky brown curls, soft, loose, and tipped with gold. He’d never seen hair like that on a guy anywhere before, and he wondered if Quinn’s obviously mixed race was the source or if he colored it that way, like women did.

Those pretty eyes weren’t so bright now; they were dull with worry and fatigue. “Quinn?” It hurt to talk; his head felt stuffy and his throat was sore. And God, his head ached—hell, everything ached.

“Shh. It’s okay. You’re gonna be fine.” Quinn reached out and touched his forehead again, his hand cool against Will’s burning skin. “You’re in the hospital; you passed out at the church last night. Do you remember?”

Will remembered being at the church; remembered Quinn’s worried face and the other, older guy, and talk of calling his parents— Shit! He struggled to sit up, panicking that any minute his father was going to come through that door and he would be so pissed…

Quinn pushed him back down embarrassingly easily. “Hey, don’t go anywhere!”

“My parents! Did they call my parents?”

“No, baby, we didn’t. You freaked out when Bennigan said that, so we didn’t. We brought you here instead. Do you remember that?”

Will shook his head, but the movement only made it hurt worse. He heard a whining noise and realized it was him. “I just remember the church.”

Quinn gently cupped his cheek and said again, “Shh, baby, it’s okay. Can you tell me what happened? You wouldn’t let us call the police, either.”

“I fell,” he said dully. He sort of remembered saying that before.

“Right,” Quinn said, and his voice was flat. It didn’t sound right; Quinn’s voice was part of what was beautiful about him, so lively and expressive. Quinn MacLachlan didn’t do flat. “You fell multiple times on your face and cracked your own damn ribs.”

Well, that explained why it hurt to move. “Oh,” he said.

“Will.”

He opened his eyes again—when had he closed them?—and looked up into Quinn’s face. The shards of anger he saw in Quinn’s eyes faded and were replaced by concern. “Did your father do this to you?”

He didn’t answer. He couldn’t…

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Bitterwood

Bitterwood

Outrunning a winter storm in the north, Captain Faran of the King’s Guard, his men, and a young mage named Meric find shelter at the ancestral home of the Daenes, Bitterwood Manor. Faran and his troops have been searching for six weeks for both a powerful unknown mage, and for a mysterious, lion-like beast that reportedly haunts the uncharted northern woods.

Faran finds the first clue in their quest: the Daene family heraldry—a gold cat on a red field. Meric finds something much more interesting—the son of the house, Eissa. For his part, Faran is fascinated by the powerful figure of Joss, a widower who manages Bitterwood and its environs with a strong, steady hand.

Together they will need to brave the oldest, darkest part of the Bitterwood in the coldest, deepest snows of winter, to find the legendary gold cat and the prophesied mage, for time is running out—for Meric, and for the kingdom.

Preview

…Faran unlaced the sides of the chainmail shirt he wore and took it off, followed by the heavy canvas gambeson. Beneath, his shirt was grimy with days’ worth of sweat.

Apparently the manor’s lord noticed his grimace, and opened the chest again, taking out a linen shirt like the one he wore and handing it to him. “Leave that one,” he said, “and we’ll have it washed. No sense in being uncomfortable.”

Was it his imagination, or did Joss watch him strip with the same interest as Faran had watched him? He flicked his eyes upward, but the lord of the manor had turned back to the hearth, lifting the pitcher and pouring the contents into a cup. He moved past Faran to sit on the bed beside Meric.

Faran pulled the borrowed shirt over his head. The linen smelled like lemongrass and some spice, clean and fresh; the quilted coat, too, smelled crisply clean, and warmed from the brickwork of the wall behind the chest. It was clever, the construction of the wall the hearth was built into: brick was just as fireproof as stone, but transferred heat much more efficiently. The hearth itself shared a back wall and chimney with the one in the room outside, so even if the fire in here died, the room would still be warmed by the fireplace on the other side. A sensible arrangement for a cold climate.

“I’m grateful for your generosity in giving us shelter.” Faran knelt by the hearth to warm his hands while his host fed the contents of the cup to Meric. Eissa sat beside Meric on the bed, his arm behind his shoulders to support him.

“The day Bitterwood can’t shelter a paltry ten men…”

“Eleven,” Faran corrected.

“…ten, and a boy,” Daene said sharply. He eased Meric back onto the pillows and poured another cup from the clay jug on the table. “The day that happens I’ll give it over to my son and be damned to it. Two or three days, no more, and the weather will clear so you can go about your business. Whatever it is.”

“No secret,” Faran said, only marginally untruthful. The mission was no secret, just the purpose behind it. He took the cup Daene handed him and sipped at it. It was merely cider, but spiced with a warm, tangy scent. “What taste is this?”

“Cinnamon. It’s a spice from the western islands. I discovered it when I was in the capital years ago, and still have friends who’ll keep me well stocked. So what is your mission then?”

“We’re hunting,” Meric said weakly.

“Shh,” both men said to him, then exchanged a wry glance. Meric chuckled.

“Hunting what?” Daene asked.

“Rumors, mostly,” Faran sighed. “Of a great golden beast that ravages the countryside, and a ferocious mage that either controls him or holds the key to capturing him.”

The fire popped in the sudden silence. Eidar and Daene shared glances. Eissa stared at Faran with his mouth open. “I take it you’ve heard of them, then?” Faran said wryly.

“Aye, you might say that. The beast, at least,” Joss said. “The golden cat is the family device; there have been tales of it in the Bitterwood since White Andurel’s time.”

“A myth then?” Faran demanded, disappointed. He’d hoped this place would hold more answers than they had already.

“No,” Meric said. He struggled to sit up. Eissa put his arm around him again and held him. “It’s not a myth. It’s real.”

“Many have tried to hunt it,” Daene said neutrally, “and failed to find it. I doubt you’ll be any more successful in capturing its pelt…”

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Hopes and Fears

Hopes&FearsLG

Brian McCarthy is a cynic who hates Christmas, doesn’t keep in touch with his family, and likes quick hookups and faster goodbyes. The only real relationship he’s ever been in was with the subject of his best-selling book, “Caged,” a young man held hostage for five years. Unfortunately, it was entirely one-sided, since Zach was already involved with someone else.

So the last thing Brian expects when he goes in for treatment for an injured knee is to develop feelings for his physical therapist. But Jerry seems intent on either avoiding Brian or demanding more than he is willing to give, and Brian doesn’t know if he has the courage to face his past to forge a future.

A spin-off of Finding Zach

Preview

I hate Christmas. I really do. People hear that and they’re all “oh, you don’t really hate Christmas” or “you’re just depressed, take a Xanax” or something. Well, yeah, it depresses me, but I really, really hate it too. Hate everything about it: the crowds, the Muzak carols, the forced jollity, the fact that you can’t stop at the grocery store to pick up a fucking bottle of white wine without having to plow through three hundred people waiting to check out with carts piled high with too fucking much stuff. Americans eat too much the rest of the year; the holidays bring pigging out to a whole new level. The whole Norman-Rockwell-Currier-and-Ives crap. Peace on Earth, good will toward men. Fa-la-la-la-la. Hate it.

Except fruitcake. I do love fruitcake. Kind of ironic, isn’t it?

But the red and green? Come on, people—red and green is a horrible color combination. It’s like purple and yellow. Or blue and orange, although considering my current city of residence, that combination is okay. They’re Bears colors, and I do love me some football. And the Bears can be a pretty decent team, some years. But red and green? Yuck.

Admittedly, Christmastime in Chicago can be pretty. The city does a nice job of decorating downtown—a little heavy on the fairy lights, but that’s okay. But the crowds are still there, and drivers are even crazier than usual, and by mid-December we’d gotten a dumping of snow, which turns quickly into ugly gray-and-brown slush and ice. Considering that by the time I’d gotten to the physical therapy place I’d already been soaked by a city bus, slipped on some ice and wrenched my bad knee again, and stood in the cold for twenty minutes waiting for another bus—cold, wet, and miserable—it was amazing I wasn’t postal by the time I got to the RehabiliCare place on Michigan. I was close, though, and for a minute before going in, I stood on the sidewalk across from the skating rink in Millennium Park and thought about picking off the determinedly cheerful skaters one by one. I closed one eye and pointed my finger. Bang. Bang. Bang. “Insane Journalist Slays Forty Before Being Wrestled to the Ground. Film at Ten.” Not “Eleven,” though that’s how the joke is supposed to go. Because I was in the Midwest now. Central Standard Time. Everything an hour earlier—I guess because the farmers have to get up earlier? Except I’d been living here nearly a year and hadn’t seen a farm yet.

I was procrastinating. I really didn’t want to walk through that door, into more weeks of therapy and pain. Shit. I sucked it up and limped inside.

They were playing ’80s rock on the speakers, not Christmas carols, for which I was decidedly grateful. The place was done in soothing blue and cream, nothing cold, nothing harsh, and nothing red and/or green. The sole concession to the season was a blue-and-silver snowflake hanging on the wall behind the front desk.

A perky dark-haired girl smiled up at me. “Hi,” she chirped. “How can I help you?”

“I have an appointment for an evaluation,” I told her. “Brian McCarthy.”

She did something on the computer in front of her and said, “Oh, sure, here you are. Have a seat. Jerry will be with you in a minute.”

I limped over to the row of chairs by the window and sat down. There was a copy of Chicago Magazine on the table; I picked it up and flipped it open to an article about a salmonella scare in eggs. No big surprise, that. Too much unregulated food processing goes on in this country, and the FDA doesn’t have the time or resources to deal with it…. I recognized the train of thought that usually led me to taking on some damn story or other and shut it down quickly. I was here to teach, and that was it. I was done with investigative journalism, at least for the next year or two.

“Brian?” a voice said.

I glanced up and into a pair of chocolate-brown eyes fringed in the thickest, darkest lashes I’d ever seen on a guy. You don’t think of brown eyes as sparkling, but these were, reflecting the wide, white grin. “Hi. I’m Jerry Abruzzi.”

I took the hand held out to me and shook it. Nice grip; solid and strong, but despite the obvious muscle development in the arms, no muscular posturing, no tough-guy squeeze. Just solid. “Brian McCarthy.” I stood up, put too much weight on the knee, and winced.

His hand closed gently around my elbow. “Okay?” he asked.

“Yeah. I slipped on the way over and twisted it again.”

He made a face and said, “Crap. That sucks. Well, we’re not going to start with any actual therapy today. It’s just an eval so we can figure out where we need to go. So you’ll have a day or so for the knee to feel better before you start putting it to work. Come on, this way,” and he gently guided me toward one of the doors that stood open on the far side of the room.

The eval started out with the usual things: height, weight, medical history. He didn’t have a Chicago accent, no hard R’s or nasal N’s; it sounded more East Coast, maybe Bronx or Brooklyn. Made me wonder how he ended up here, but I didn’t ask, just answered his questions. He asked how I hurt the knee originally, and when I told him, he stopped making notes and stared at me blankly. “Seriously?” he asked. “You fell off a cliff?”

“Yep. You ever see that old movie Romancing the Stone? The one with Michael Douglas when he was young and….” I started to say “hot” but thought better of it. I was just going to substitute “athletic,” but Jerry laughed and finished the thought for me.

“Hot?” he supplied with another one of those white grins. God, he was pretty. His skin was a gorgeous honey tan, his hair a tumble of shiny black curls, and though lean, he was just as ripped as one might think a physical therapist should be. He didn’t set off my gaydar overtly, but the way he grinned when he said “hot” made me think I needed to adjust it.

“Yeah. Hot.”

“I sure did.”

I tried to remember my initial question, then got it. “Remember the scene where Kathleen Turner falls down a cliff in the jungle? Kinda like that.”

“Only without Michael Douglas following after and ending up with his face in your crotch,” Jerry said.

“I should be so lucky,” I said. “No, I got a bunch of torn ligaments in my knee instead.”

“So, was this also in Colombia, like in the movie?”

“Close enough. Venezuela.”

“What the hell were you doing in Venezuela?”

“Chasing a story.” I sighed. “I’m a journalist. Was a journalist. I’m a professor now. I teach at Columbia College.”

“‘Was’? Because of this?” Jerry touched my knee and I got a shiver, but not from pain. No; his fingers were warm and gentle and it had been a hella long time since anyone had touched me like that.

“Not exactly, though it’s connected. No, I wrote a book—”

He stepped back as though my words were poisonous. The smile slid from his face and he held up a hand. “Wait a minute. Brian McCarthy. Venezuela. You wrote Caged.”

From his expression, he wasn’t a fan. It was kind of refreshing; usually I got the squeeing “Oh my God, you wrote Caged!” kind of reaction. “Didn’t like it?” I said dryly. “I’ll give you a refund.”

“No—no, it was good. Really good. It’s just… it was a hard book to read.”

“It was hard to write. Just imagine how hard it was to live,” I retorted.

“I can’t,” he said. “That’s why it was so hard to read.” He hesitated, then asked, “So… you ever hear from that guy?”

“Zach? Sure. I was at his graduation from MIT two years ago. He’s in graduate school in California now, I think.”

“All better, huh?”

“Are you nuts? After what he went through? The guy’s totally fucked up. He’s got more scars inside than he does outside. But he’s functional, if sometimes a bit freaky. Helps that he’s a genius. People expect geniuses to be weird.”

It hurt talking about Zach. I’d been inside the guy’s head a long time, and it wasn’t a pretty place to be. And then there was the whole falling-in-love-with-your-subject thing.

“Anyway, I put three years into that book even after it was finished, what with the marketing crap, and between that and the knee, I decided a change of career was in order. Ran some workshops and stuff, and eventually Columbia made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

“Then over Thanksgiving I took a bad step off a curb and fell, and so here I am.” I held out my arms.

The grin was back. “Here you are,” he said. “And here I am, ready to put my hands all over your body.”

“I should be so lucky,” I said again.

The grin turned into a full-fledged laugh. It was a great laugh, deep and rolling. “I should really watch that,” he said. “I could get into a lot of trouble, coming on to my patients.”

“Are you?” I didn’t think I would mind.

He blushed then, his honey-sweet cheeks turning a deep rose. It brought deeper color to his mouth too, and I realized it wasn’t that I wouldn’t mind. It was that I really, really hoped he was.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t had sex with anyone in a long time or anything. I’m only thirty-three, and though that’s kind of old for the kind of pickups I specialize in, I’m in really good shape (except for the knee) and look younger than I am. But I hadn’t felt any kind of connection to anyone in, what, five years or so? And even then… well, let’s just say it wasn’t really any kind of relationship. I don’t do relationships. But Zach was… well, Zach. Fucked up as he was, he was still a hard act to follow.

I guess my face showed something other than interest, because he looked away. “Sorry,” he said. “It was unprofessional. Okay, so, moving on,” and he went on to ask more questions. His hands, when he had me get up and do things like stand on my toes and heels and other preliminary physical things, were strong but impersonal, and when we were done, he had me sign off on his notes and said, “Okay, then, we’re done for today. Now we’ll go out and look at the schedule and see who’s available during the time you are.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I thought you would be my therapist.”

“No, I just did the eval. We assign therapists based on your schedule and theirs.”

“When do you have available?”

He blinked. “You want me to be your therapist?”

“Yeah.”

Again, a blink; this time it was slow and thoughtful, and when those lashes came up, he was looking straight at me. A warmth started low in my gut. “Well,” he said, “I have an hour from four to five on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

“That works for me,” I said. “And what kind of time do you have today?”

“I’m off at five.”

I smiled. “It’s four forty. If I hang around, you wanna go for a beer?”

“I shouldn’t.” He bit his lip.

I slid off the padded exam table, careful not to jar my leg again, and crowded up against him, closing my hand around the hem of his green polo with RehabiliCare embroidered on the breast. “Or we could just skip the beer,” I murmured. He was just about my height, and my mouth was really close to his when I said it.

And when those lips whispered “fuck,” the movement brought them close enough to touch. I leaned forward just that extra little bit and kissed him, feeling his breath catch and his mouth soften, so that I could lick inside, my tongue curling around his and drawing him in.

He was warm, and the kiss felt intimate, and while sex is always easy, intimacy’s a lot harder to come by. It felt good. Real good.

Which made it a shock when he jerked back and stepped away, tugging his shirt out of my grip. “Jesus,” he said, “with that mouth you should only be labeled as dangerous.”

“Brooklyn,” I said, “right?”

“Yeah. Bensonhurst. It’s that obvious?”

“I grew up in Jersey—Livingston. Practically New York.” I cocked my head at him. “What’s wrong?”

“Too quick,” he said. “I don’t do hookups. If you want to do the beer, that’s okay, but I don’t do hookups.”

“You said that. But that’s too bad. I don’t do anything but.”

“Let’s see who we can set you up with for therapy, then,” he said, and his smile was tight and humorless. His face wasn’t made for that kind of expression.

“We’re set,” I said. “I got no problem with you as my therapist. Long as you don’t mind if I occasionally pop a woody.”

He laughed then, that rolling sound. “You wouldn’t be the first.”

Categories: Finding Zach.
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Myths and Magic: Legends of Love

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Lose yourself in tales of yore, in myths, fairy tales, and legends shrouded in the mists of time. These are stories of beasts and men from ancient tomes, of gods, sorcerers, and ancient heroes, of fairies and elves, of dragons and unicorns, and almost anything you might dream. Let your imagination take the reins and experience the power of the timeless past as men in many different forms undertake the highest of quests: the search for a love of the ages.

“Night and Day” is the story of a down-on-his-luck singer who finds his way to the strangest Prohibition-era speakeasy he’s ever seen. But it’s just what he needs…

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Finding Zach

FindingZachLG

For five years, Zach Tyler, son of one of the world’s richest software moguls, was held hostage, tortured, and abused. When he is rescued at last from the Venezuelan jungle, he is physically and psychologically shattered, but he slowly begins to rebuild the life he should have had before an innocent kiss sent him into hell.

His childhood best friend David has lived those years with overwhelming guilt and grief. Every relationship David has tried has fallen apart because of his feelings for a boy he thought dead. When Zach is rescued, David is overjoyed—and then crushed when Zach shuts him out.

Two years later, David returns home, and he and Zach must come to terms with the rift between them, what they feel for each other, and what their future could hold. But Zach has secrets, and one of them might well destroy their fragile love.

Preview

“The hostages are secure, Captain. All present and accounted for. Perimeter has been secured.”

Captain John Rogers pushed his helmet back a little on his forehead and regarded his subordinate. “Casualties?”

“Jamison took a bullet in the calf; medic’s with him now. Otherwise, no casualties on our side. Three dead, twelve injured on the enemies’ side so far, not including the poor bastard hanging on the whipping post. Shit.”

“What about among the hostages? Any injuries?”

“One of the men has what looks like a couple of broken ribs. Otherwise, bruises, a sprained ankle. Damn lucky.”

“‘Lucky’ has been what this whole operation’s been about, Lieutenant Pritzker.” Rogers sighed.

“You’re not kidding, Captain. It was a plain miracle that one of the Dutchmen had that experimental personal GPS transponder implanted. Best advertisement for his product you could ask for.” The lieutenant pressed his fingers to his headset. “Barracks secured. Last building is apparently the commandant’s headquarters. Had some fire from there earlier, but it’s stopped; either the shooter’s hit or fled.”

“Or holding out for a more effective resistance,” the Captain said cynically. “Everything’s gone entirely too textbook for my liking. I’d like a team to circle around back; approach the building with maximum caution. I don’t trust this luck.” He glanced at the handful of enemy combatants kneeling a few yards away, their hands clasped on their heads. “Ask one of them where the camp commander is.”

Pritzger went to stand in front of the one man that had been unarmed when they’d nailed him. “You. What’s your name?” he asked in Spanish.

“Ernesto Camillo,” he said dully.

“Where is your captain?”

The man jerked his chin at the far structure. “There, last I see of him.”

“Is there anyone else in that building?”

The man laughed, a brief, humorless snort. “Just his little dog.”

“What did he say?” Rogers asked. “I didn’t get that.”

“Perrito,” Pritzger said. “It means ‘little dog’.”

“He’s got a dog in there?”

“If he does, I doubt if it’s little,” Pritzger said dryly. “The camp commander’s probably the type that likes Dobermans or Rottweilers. These paramilitary types usually do.” He indicated the whipping victim, who was even now being eased down onto the ground by a pair of his fellow soldiers, their activities supervised by some of the combined American-Dutch forces who’d spearheaded this operation. “Fucking macho bastard. Let the teams know there’s the possibility of a guard dog….”

The little man laughed and said something. Rogers said, “What? I don’t understand this dialect.”

Pritzger said, “He said it’s not a guard dog.”

“Still,” Rogers said.

They waited until the teams had secured the building, and then went in. It was a simple two-room structure. The main room where they stood was an office; through the open door to the other room, Rogers could see a neatly made bed and another door already standing open from the other team’s entrance a few moments before. The office contained a desk, a laptop computer, file cabinets, a chair, and a wire dog crate—the big kind, made for large dogs like the Rottweilers and Dobermans Pritzger had mentioned. It was empty. Near the window lay a body that Rogers assumed was the commandant; he had fake gold bullion on the shoulders of his uniform, also typical with these paramilitary types. He’d been garroted with a thin strip of leather. It looked like a dog leash. “No one else in the building, Captain,” one of the guys who had been first in said. “Whoever did this must have cut out the back before we got here.”

“Take the laptop and what you can get out of the file cabinets,” Rogers instructed. “They’ll have all kinds of data on funding, activities, links to other groups, contacts…. The boys at Bragg will be short-stroking themselves over this stuff. They love them some paperwork.”

Pritzger nodded and detailed a couple of guys to start on the file cabinets near the desk. He himself moved around the dog crate to the file cabinets behind the cage.

And froze.

Rogers saw it and went on alert. “Lieutenant?”

“Shh,” Pritzger said. “Everybody just… shh….” He moved slowly, going into a crouch.

Rogers shifted the crate and saw what Pritzger was looking at. He held up a hand to indicate that the others in the room should maintain their positions.

Wedged in between the far side of the file cabinets and the wall, beneath a shelf, in a space that should have been too small for it, was a bony, naked human figure with a thick mop of tangled black hair. It was curled up with its face hidden, its back arched, the spine and ribs sharply delineated and slashed with scarring. It was worse than thin; it looked like a skeleton with skin. Rogers wondered how long the body had been there—not long, he supposed, since there wasn’t any smell of decay….

Then he saw the ribs expand in a tentative breath, and he realized the thing was alive.

“Shit,” he murmured.

Pritzger said in Spanish, “Who are you? It’s okay—we’re not going to hurt you.”

The thing made a sound. It sounded like a dog’s whine. A dog….

Rogers looked back at the cage. “Fuck,” he breathed. “Fuck, Lieutenant. The dog. The commandant’s dog….”

The tangled mass of hair lifted. A gaunt, pale face looked up and whined again. Then it gave a soft bark and tried to cram itself deeper into the corner. “Jesus,” Pritzger murmured, then, again, still in Spanish, “We’re not going to hurt you. Who are you? What’s your name?” He put out a hand; the creature flinched but made no move to bite or resist, even when Pritzger put his hand on its shoulder. “Come on, come out. We aren’t going to hurt you.”

“Is that a human?” one of the men behind the desk asked in disbelief. The creature’s eyes flicked in his direction. In the shadows, Rogers couldn’t tell what color they were, but by the reaction, he saw that he understood.

“He speaks English,” Rogers said flatly. The thing looked at him, a strangely steady, empty look. It was the look of someone who’d long ago forgotten how to care. “He understands English and I’ll bet my left nut he’s the one that killed the commandant.”

“I doubt if he could strangle an overripe banana,” Pritzger objected.

“Never underestimate the power of hate-fueled adrenaline, Lieutenant.”

The thing sighed and put its head back down on the floor. Rogers touched his headset. “Randy?” he said to the medic. “I need you in here. Jamison okay?”

“Yeah,” Randy said in his ear. “What’s happened in there?”

Rogers looked down at the figure on the floor. “You are not going to believe this….”

They found a pair of sweatpants with a drawstring waist; the legs were too short, but the man couldn’t stand up straight for more than a couple minutes anyway. He squatted in the dirt of the compound, his arms wrapped around his knees, staring into space. The T-shirt the medic had put on him hung in draped folds around his emaciated arms. Rogers had seen pictures of people like him coming out of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen after the liberation of the concentration camps in the forties. Pritzger knelt beside the kid, cutting off the studded collar with a pair of shears someone’d dug up. The buckle had been soldered shut. “I’d put his age at twentyish,” Randy Josten said, making notes on his clipboard. “American or European—good nutrition in childhood, luckily for him—healthy bones, teeth loose from malnutrition but all still there, and signs of past dental care. Camillo says he’s been here about five years, give or take. Once we’re back at Bragg we can go through missing persons reports from about then and see if we can figure out who he is.”

“Still not talking?”

“Barks. Whines.” Randy frowned. “Kid’s physically and mentally traumatized, Captain. He’s a fucking basket case. He’s been beaten; a couple of his ribs have been broken and healed badly; from what I can tell, he can’t take a deep breath without it hurting. Had a couple of fingers broken, his wrist, and God knows what else. And,” he said, taking a breath, “he’s been raped. I don’t know how often, but given that the last time was about an hour ago, I’d say pretty damn regularly. He’s got scars all over his legs and ass from the damn wire of that fucking cage, and you can see yourself he can’t even stand up.”

“So figure he’s been in that cage pretty much continuously for the last five years. Fuck.” Rogers shook his head. “Let’s get him back to Bragg and into the hands of the docs there; let the Dutch contingent handle cleanup of the remaining personnel. They know what’s going on and have better contacts than we do locally. Load the kid with the hostages and the computer and stuff we took from the office on the first chopper out of here.”

“Yes sir,” Randy said. Then, “What?” at Rogers’s suddenly arrested expression.

“Something,” Rogers said. “Something about computers. Did you say five years?”

“Yeah, that’s what Camillo said.”

Rogers stalked across the compound to the kid. Crouching in front of him, he tilted up the kid’s face to study it, narrow-eyed. Out of the dimness of the building where he’d been held, the eyes that looked back at him were a cold, crystal blue, their expression hard and wary. “Zach?” he asked.

“What?” Randy had followed him. “Do you know who he is?”

“Zach? Is that you?” Rogers asked the kid again. “Zach Tyler?”

The kid… barked. “Fuck,” Rogers said. “It is. Zach Tyler.”

“Holy shit,” Randy said. “Tyler Technologies? But Tyler’s kid got kidnapped from fucking Costa Rica. We’re in eastern Venezuela—a couple thousand miles from there!”

“So tangos can’t travel?” Rogers asked sarcastically. “But it’s him. I remember the description, the pictures—hell, it was all over the TV, particularly after they paid the ransom and didn’t get him back. Five years. Shit.”

Zach whined. Rogers looked down at him and released his chin. “You said it, kid. You said a fucking mouthful.”

I have forgotten what kindness is. I keep waiting for something to happen, for me to wake up from this oh-so-pleasant dream, but I don’t wake up. It can’t be reality; I know reality—it’s a cage, and table scraps and beatings and pain and rape and hunger. For so long I’ve known exactly what to expect; I’ve kept my sanity by being hard inside, meeting cruelty with indifference when I can, and hatred when I can’t. I haven’t had a lot to be proud of, but every day I was still alive after five years of Esteban gave me a kind of strength to keep going. Hate can make you strong; I know it did me.

But people who give me food and water, who are gentle when they put clothes on me and lift me and carry me to sit in a cushioned chair and even buckle me into my seat confuse me, and I don’t know how to deal with them. This is not reality. It scares me, even if it’s kind of nice.

When they first put the sweats on me, I finger the fabric endlessly, and rub my cheek on my knee. It’s so soft, and clean. It smells as good as it feels.

I don’t like the helicopter ride. I don’t like the noise, or the vibrations, or the way it lurches in the air. It scares me, and I haven’t been scared for a really long time. I’m out of practice. There are other people on the helicopter ride, the other freed hostages and the soldiers to protect them, but they’re mostly excited and happy. I don’t know what to think about them. They don’t know what to think about me, either. A couple of them stare, like they think I’m some kind of animal. I lift my lip and snarl at them softly, just to let them know they’re right.

It seems like I’m scared forever, but finally the helicopter touches down at an airport, then there’s more noise and confusion, but there’s also more of the unexpected gentleness, and pretty soon I’m sitting in the cabin of an airplane.

Again, I’m scared—not because I’m afraid to fly, I’ve been in planes lots before, but all I can remember is that last terrible flight to Costa Rica, landing and walking off the plane and looking for the driver my aunt would have sent to meet me and then nothing until I wake up in the jungle and Esteban is looking at me. I break out in a cold sweat and one of the soldiers nearby asks if I’m okay. I don’t answer him, of course.

I shouldn’t be feeling this way, shouldn’t be remembering like this, because I’m in an Army troop transport, not first class in a luxury jet. The other hostages aren’t on this plane. Just me and a bunch of soldiers; not the same ones as before except the lieutenant who cut the dog collar off back in the compound. He’s standing up near the front of the plane, talking to one of the pilots.

My legs hurt, and my back. I rub my thighs through the grey sweats. It hurts, and I try to hold back a whimper. I’ve had lots of practice at keeping quiet, but for some reason this time I don’t succeed.

“Hey, lieutenant,” the guy who’d asked if I was okay calls. “Your passenger here’s upset about something.”

The lieutenant turns and comes back down the aisle. He smiles at me. “Hey, you doin’ okay, Zach?” He hesitates a little before he says my name, like he’s not sure if it’s right. I’m not quite sure, either.

I rub my thighs again. He frowns, and then says, “You aren’t comfortable in the seat, are you, kid?” He’s more comfortable with “kid.” “Bet your muscles are all wonky from that cage.” He straightens, glances around, then goes in the back of the plane where I can’t see him. A minute later, he comes back and unbuckles me. “It ain’t exactly protocol, but I think you’ll feel better here,” he says, and lifts me out of my seat. “Damn, kid, you can’t weigh a hundred pounds soakin’ wet.” He carries me back a few rows to where he’s folded up some seats on the half-empty transport and put the cushions on the floor. He sets me down on the cushions. “There you are. Is that better?”

I look up at him, meet his eyes for the first time. They’re brown. I feel my lips move, twist, and realize I’m smiling. I don’t think it’s a snarl because he grins back at me.

I curl up on the cushions, so soft and comfortable, and sleep for the rest of the trip. When I open my eyes again, it’s to the lieutenant shaking my shoulder. “We’re about to land, kid, and you gotta be buckled in for that. Sorry.”

I experiment with that smile again and lift my arms for him to pick me up. He does so, laughing. “I got a little nephew does that, but he’s three. What’s your excuse?”

I rest my head on his shoulder. He’s kind, and he smells good. I don’t even mind him waking me from the first good sleep I’ve had in years. I didn’t even know you could sleep in dreams.

He buckles me in and I wait for the plane to land, and stop, and for him to come and fetch me again. This time he only carries me to the front of the plane, where a couple of men in white are waiting with a stretcher. They put me on the stretcher, but when they start to move away, I reach out and grab his sleeve, and whine. He pats my shoulder and says, “I’ll see you at the hospital, kid. Don’t worry.”

His smile is warm and makes me want to trust him. He’s the only one so far, but I trust him. I let the stretcher men carry me away to the waiting ambulance, but now I’m scared again. I don’t know what’s waiting anymore. I knew, with Esteban, what was waiting, but I don’t anymore, and I’m scared. I remember a saying: “Better the devil you know….” but Esteban wasn’t better. Just… familiar.

Nothing is familiar anymore, and I’m scared.

Richard Tyler picked up the ringing phone on the desk in his cubicle. The number on the phone’s screen was the receptionist’s. “Tyler,” he said absently, his attention on the computer in front of him.

“Rich, there are a couple of people here from the State Department,” Abby said. Her voice trembled.

Richard’s stomach dropped. This was it: the news he’d been expecting since the ten-million dollar ransom had vanished into the jungles of Central America five years ago. Numbly he replied, “Put them in the small conference room. I’ll be right there.” He set down the phone and stared at it a moment.

It could be just another one of the interminable interviews that he’d sat through off and on throughout the last half-decade, State Department suits looking for things that might lead to capture of the terrorists that had kidnapped Zach from the airport in Costa Rica, supposedly one of the safest spots in Central America. The abduction had shaken the business world and tightened up security in the little tourist-friendly country, but it had come too late for Zachary. Richard rubbed his forehead and took a deep breath. This time, though, it felt different, and Richard suspected he knew why. This was it. The end of the waiting. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t expected it. Best to get it over with. He closed down the program he was working on and left his cubicle.

Barry Genelli, his vice president in charge of research and development, was in the cubicle next to him—everyone worked on the floor; no corner offices in this company, one of the largest in revenue in the world, but one of the smallest in terms of officer perks—and he looked up as Richard went by. “What’s up, Rich?”

“Another visit by State—probably on the Zach thing,” Richard said dully.

“Maybe not: maybe they’re looking for something like the locator chip Davey designed that that Dutch company bought. Gotta be at least thirty thousand State Department employees abroad; be a hell of a sale.”

“Except that Dutch company bought the manufacturing rights, Barry. They’ll have to deal with them.”

Barry shrugged. “We still own the patents. We’d still make a killing in royalties.”

“Yeah.” Richard nodded disinterestedly. He raked his hand through his graying hair and walked through the maze of cubicles to the reception area and conference rooms.

The pair of men that waited for him weren’t the usual suits. One of them was, with the obligatory briefcase, but the other was a man in an Army uniform with captain’s insignia. Richard stopped in the doorway, his gut hurting. This was it. “Gentlemen,” he said, and closed the door behind him, then leaned on it, his hands in the back pockets of his jeans.

“Mr. Richard Tyler?”

“That’s me. What can I do for you?”

“It’s regarding your son Zachary.”

“Yeah. I kind of figured.” Richard walked across the room to the floor-to-ceiling windows. They framed a spectacular view of the Colorado Rockies in the distance. “You found him, didn’t you.”

In the window, he saw the reflection of the two men as they glanced at each other. The suit said, “Yes, sir. You may have heard about the joint American-Dutch rescue of ten hostages from a Venezuelan paramilitary group last week?”

“Yeah. Yeah. Is that where he ended up? Venezuela?”

“Yes, sir.”

Richard let out a breath. He could not deal with this, not now. He’d thought he could, but no. Curtly he said, “I suppose he’s been positively identified?”

“Yes, sir,” the captain said. “You had registered his fingerprints with that child-protection database some years ago….”

“Jesus,” Richard said over his shoulder. “There was enough left after five years to match fingerprints? No”—he held up his hand to forestall an answer—“I can’t deal with the details right now. Just tell me—when can we bring him home?” He didn’t say “the remains” though that was what he was thinking. But it was Zachary. His pride, his brilliant boy, his loving child. Not some grisly “remains.”

The captain said, “Well, there are health issues that need to be dealt with, both physical and emotional. You’ll need to get a good physical therapist for him, and….”

Richard whipped around, staring at the captain. “Physi… are you saying Zach’s alive?”

“Yes, sir,” the captain said in surprise. “We found him in Venezuela, a prisoner of the same paramilitary group that kidnapped the group from Suriname…. Sir…?”

Richard bent over the conference table, his hands flat on the surface to support him. He fought to keep his breath even, to stop the hyperventilating that had become a regular occurrence in the last five years. But this time—this really was it. The real end of the nightmare. “Oh, my God,” he said, weeping, and drew his hands across his face to wipe away the tears. “My Zachary—my boy….”

“Sir, please sit down,” the suit said. “Can I get you a drink of water?”

“No, no, thank you,” Richard said. He wiped his face again. “God. I’ve got to tell his mother…. Is he all right? You said physical therapy—was he hurt?” His eyes went from the suit’s face to the captain’s. They were holding out on him….

“He walked out of the camp on his own two feet,” the captain said, “but I won’t blow smoke up your skirt and tell you he’s fine. He’s in rough shape, Mr. Tyler. I saw the conditions he was in and they weren’t pretty, plus he sustained some injuries that have healed kind of badly.”

Richard sat down. “What kind of injuries?”

“I think you’ll be better off talking directly with the attending doctor. I don’t know all the details. Zach’s at the civilian hospital in Fayetteville, near Fort Bragg. He’s still undergoing tests; we want to make sure he’s not hiding any bug we haven’t dealt with before. After all, he’s been in the jungle for five years in poor conditions, prime breeding grounds for all kinds of disease. There are psychologists working with him too; he’s been through a lot.” The captain drew a breath. “My name’s John Rogers; I was the commanding officer of the joint American-Dutch task force that went in to rescue the hostages. My men were the ones who found Zach.”

“Captain Rogers,” the suit said, “recognized your son and had him sent directly to Fort Bragg, where he was positively identified by the database we mentioned earlier. Since then, his passport and personal identification were found in the files that were removed from the site. The Venezuelan government, although not on particularly good terms with the U.S. at this point in time, has nevertheless been very helpful in assisting us in tracking down the kidnappers….”

“But ironically enough, the real help was that one of the Dutch businessmen who was taken was implanted with that GPS locator you designed,” Captain Rogers said.

“I didn’t design it,” Richard said shakily. “That was David Evans—my housekeeper’s kid. He was working for us when Zach was taken. He did it for Zach, worked on it the whole summer after…. He was obsessed with it. Said if Zach had had something like this….” He stopped. David. After everything, it had been David who’d made the difference. “He did save him. David. David saved Zach.”

“I’d say so,” Captain Rogers agreed. “Or at least made it possible for us to. We were damned lucky this mission.”

“Captain,” Richard breathed, “I hope to God you’re always so lucky.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Tyler? I’m Dr. Duffey.”

The man held out his hand to Richard; he shook it, as did Jane a moment later. Duffey seemed competent; a man of small stature with a shock of brown hair standing up on his head, too thick to lie flat. “I’ve been working with Zach since his arrival five days ago. Most of that was just trying to get him to relax a little; he spent the first two days in the fetal position, terrified out of his wits. But he’s shown vast improvement in the last couple of days.”

“You’re the psychologist?”

“Psychiatrist, yes. I specialize in trauma victims. Dr. McKinnon is the doctor handling Zach’s physical condition. Zach’s in poor shape, but it’s mostly a matter of severe malnutrition. We’re more concerned at this point with his psychological state. You’ll meet Dr. McKinnon later this afternoon.”

“When can we see my son?” Jane asked anxiously.

Duffey smiled at her. “Soon,” he said reassuringly. “But I need to tell you some things you have to know before you go in there. To prepare you.”

“Prepare us for what?” Richard demanded.

The doctor rubbed his forehead. “They didn’t tell you anything about him, did they?”

“They kept telling us to wait to talk to you. What’s wrong with Zach?”

“Aside from being very emaciated from malnutrition, he’s severely traumatized and nonverbal.”

“What do you mean ‘nonverbal’?” Jane asked.

“He doesn’t talk.”

“We know what ‘nonverbal’ means,” Richard said impatiently, “but what does it mean in Zach’s case? He’s got something wrong with his throat? He ignores you when you talk to him? Makes funny sounds? Doesn’t make sounds at all?”

“He barks.”

There was silence in the little waiting room, then Richard said quietly, “What the fuck do you mean, ‘he barks’?”

“He barks. Whines, occasionally whimpers. He responds as if he were a dog.” Dr. Duffey shook his head. “From what the lieutenant who brought him in says, he was treated as if he were a dog for the last five years. Kept in a cage, with a collar, fed table scraps, occasionally walked with a leash—though not often; his leg muscles are atrophied, and he’ll need physical therapy for a good long time before he’ll be able to walk more than a few steps unsupported.”

“Oh, God,” Jane said, her hand on her mouth. Under his breath, Richard said, “Fuck.”

“There’s worse,” Duffey warned. They both looked at him. “I’d suggest you both sit down.”

“Fuck,” Richard said again, and they obeyed. He reached for Jane’s hand and held it tightly.

“He was raped, wasn’t he?” Jane asked. Richard blinked and looked at her. She looked back and said simply, “He’s beautiful, Richard. Of course someone would hurt him that way. Evil people want to damage beauty—they don’t understand it.”

“Yes. Physical indications are that he was sexually abused over a long period; there is scarring in both the genital and anal areas. There is nothing to indicate permanent damage, though, aside from the scarring; there’s no sign of STDs. Once he’s recovered, he should function normally.”

Richard snorted. “It’s the recovery part that’s the question, isn’t it? How do you recover from something like that?”

“Slowly, I’m afraid.” Dr. Duffey shook his head. “The fact that he’s still not speaking after five days in care is not a good sign. I’m hoping that now that you’re here, his condition will improve considerably.”

“I doubt it,” Richard said savagely. He stood and walked away from them, staring out the window much as he had in the conference room in the suburb outside Colorado Springs. The view was less inspiring here—just the hospital parking lot.

“Richard,” Jane murmured.

“Well, Jenny, it’s true. He has no reason to love us. He was in love for the first time in his life, and how did we deal with it? We put him on a plane and sent him alone into the hands of that bastard that raped and ruined him—all to keep him out of the hands of someone who loved him. Someone who fucking saved him. Jesus, Jenny. We should have let him be with David—at least then he would have been happy and whole.”

“I take it Zach is gay,” the doctor said delicately.

“I thought it was just being fifteen,” Richard said miserably. “David thought so too. He said he cared for Zach, but that he was too young for a relationship; he had told Zach they’d have to wait. I thought it was just… just hormones or something, that he had a crush on David. He’d known him his whole life, he’s older, more mature…. David was just out of high school, saving money for college, working with my company, but he’s the housekeeper’s son and lived on the estate, they saw each other every day. David used to drive him around until Zach was old enough to get his driver’s license… Jesus. He doesn’t even have a driver’s license….” Richard buried his face in his hand and wept.

Jane went to him and put her arms around him, her cheek laid gently on his shoulder blade. To the doctor she said, “My sister lives in Costa Rica, and she’d been asking for Zach to come down and visit her. We thought it would be a good idea for him to spend some time away from David, if it was just a crush, you know? David agreed. He said Zach needed to know his own mind, that he needed to be older before he’d be ready for a relationship with anyone, male or female. We all sent him away. It was all our faults. Richard blames himself, but it was all our faults.”

“It’s not your fault at all,” Dr. Duffey said. “Let’s cast the blame where it belongs, on the shoulders of the man that did this, the so-called General Benito Esteban.”

“Have they caught him? Is he in jail, that bastard?” Richard demanded, wiping his face irritably. “I want to see the face of that foul, stinking….”

“He’s dead,” the doctor said in surprise. “Didn’t they tell you?”

“No. Was he killed in the raid?”

“No. Zach killed him.”

The hospital room door opens and I jerk, startled. I should be used to the abrupt comings and goings of the doctors, but after living so long with only the sounds of human voices and bugs in the trees outside—not to mention the occasional gunshot—I’m finding the banging and humming and squeaking and beeping disconcerting. No, scratch that—downright annoying, irritating, scary….

It’s Fluffy Duffey, my personal shrink. He’s little and unintimidating, with fluffy brown hair and nice, patient eyes. “Hi, Zach,” he says. “How are you feeling this afternoon?”

Same as ever, Fluffy.

“How was your lunch? The nurse said you polished everything off.”

And would have eaten the tray, too, if it had been organic. My stomach shrank, they tell me, so I don’t have much capacity for food, but I’m hungry now. I wasn’t hungry the first few days, but I’m making up for lost time.

He takes my hand and checks my pulse. He’s a shrink, but apparently he’s a real doctor too; he seems to understand the monitors and charts and whatnot. Whatever my wrist tells him he’s apparently happy with. “You have visitors,” he says.

I blink, not understanding at first.

“Your parents are here.”

For a minute, I don’t know what he means. What are parents? Then my heart starts pounding and I’m terrified. No, not them. Esteban told me that they didn’t care about me, that they never sent the ransom he’d demanded, that they’d replied that they didn’t care what he did with me, that they had sent me to him on purpose…. I start hyperventilating, and Fluffy puts an oxygen mask on my face. “Breathe slowly,” he says over the hiss of the oxygen. I can’t breathe. I’m so afraid. This is a dream and I know what happens next: they come in and they’ve got the faces of monsters and they slaughter Fluffy and start eating my feet and then I wake up and it’s Esteban again, only this time he’ll know what I dreamt about and he’ll start telling more stories about my parents and the monsters they are and how they’ve eaten everyone I knew. I’m crying in fear now, when I haven’t cried in years, and I can’t catch my breath and Fluffy’s upset; not as upset as he will be in a minute when they come in and tear his throat out….

They come in and they’re just people, strangers with frightened faces. I suck in a breath and wait for them to turn into the monsters, but they just stand there. The woman is crying and the man has his arms around her. He’s got black curly hair like mine, but there are silver strands in it; his eyes are dark and there are lines on his face that only get deeper when he looks at me. The woman has blonde hair, sleeked back in some fancy knot I used to know the name of, something French, but I can’t see her face because she’s got it buried in his shoulder. “Jane,” he says, and then I recognize him. The silver and the lines confuse me, because my dad didn’t have silver hair or lines on his face. He does now.

I stop hyperventilating; I’m still crying but it’s just tears falling, the sobbing stopped. I take a couple of steady breaths and pull the oxygen mask away. Fluffy goes with it. “Are you all right?” he asks in an undertone. I just look at him, then over at the people. My parents. Dick and Jane. I wipe the water from my face. I’m calm now, that cold, empty calm I’m good at; I can look at them and hope that just this once they aren’t going to turn into monsters and eat everyone.

“Zach?” Dad says uncertainly.

I don’t answer, but I meet his eyes. They’re red and tired-looking, but he’s smiling a little. It hurts, somewhere deep inside, and I blink. I thought I was used to pain, but this is a different kind of hurt, one I don’t know quite how to deal with.

The woman turns then, and I look at her. She has blue eyes, like me, but they’re red and tired, too, like his. Right now, they look more like each other than either of them does like me. Both old and tired and sad. I feel old and tired and sad too. It hurts. I sigh and close my eyes.

Something touches my hand and I open my eyes again. It’s Mom, Jane of Dick and Jane. She used to get so mad at me when I’d call them that. It’s from the old reading books kids got in school years ago—“Fun with Dick and Jane” or something like that. Their dog was called Spot, though, not Zach. Mom’s hand is cold and very small. I can feel little bird bones in it. I could crush those bones without thinking about it, even as wasted as I am. After a few days of food and rest, I’m feeling a lot stronger, stronger than when I choked the life out of Esteban. If I could do that, a few little bones is nothing. But I don’t crush them. She’s so little and frail, much smaller than I remember. I whine in dismay, and her eyes widen. She doesn’t say anything, just stares at me in horror, as if I had been the one to turn into the monster and start eating people’s feet. Maybe she’s right. Maybe it’s me that’s the monster. After all, neither of them has strangled anyone with a leash lately, right?

She starts crying again. “Oh, Zach, my baby,” she says, and she puts her arms around me and hugs me gently, as if she thinks I’ll break. Her hand is cold but her arms are warm, and I feel like a bird in a nest.

God, I wish this wasn’t a dream.

Categories: Finding Zach.
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Kindred Hearts

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Charming rascal Tristan Northwood seems to have it all: an ancient name, a noble inheritance, a lovely wife, and a son he adores. Women love him, men admire him, and it seems there is nothing he can’t do, whether it’s seducing a society wife or winning a carriage race. Little does Society suspect that the name means nothing to him, the fortune is in his father’s controlling hands, and he has no interest in his wife except a very distant friendship. Society bores him, and he takes dares because he only feels alive when he’s dancing on the edge… until his wife’s brother comes home from the wars.

Decorated war hero Major Charles Mountjoy jerks Tris out of his despair by inspiring feelings of passion Tris had never suspected himself capable of. Almost as terrifying as those feelings for Charles are the signs Charles might return his affection—or, even worse, that Charles sees the man Tristan has been trying so valiantly to hide from the world.

Preview

Prologue

1790

THE hand resting on his shoulder felt heavy as a stone. His thin legs, still wobbly from the weeks he’d been ill, trembled from the strain of holding up his head, his body, that heavy hand.

In front of him, the ground was still raw and black and grassless; a fading bouquet of flowers rested at the foot of the headstone, the markings on it also raw. “Alice, Lady Ware,” it read, and some dates. Below that was another name, “Emily Northwood, 1790.” Mama. And Baby Emmy.

“You weren’t well enough for the funeral,” Papa said above him, his voice growly and as physical as the hand on his shoulder.

The words washed over him, meaningless. The only thing he saw was the headstone and the fading flowers. Mama was dead. The last time he’d seen her, she was bending over him, wiping his forehead and telling him to go to sleep, to rest, that she would be there when he woke up. But she wasn’t. And crying for her didn’t help, didn’t bring her the way it always had.

Instead, it had brought Papa, who’d stood at the foot of the bed, frowning at him. Papa always frowned; it had frightened Tris into silence, as it usually did. He was afraid of Papa, but never more so than when he’d come into his room instead of Mama. He didn’t remember Papa ever coming into his room. “Where’s Mama?” Tristan had asked bravely, his voice sounding strange, thin and thready. His throat hurt.

Papa had looked even angrier, but his voice was quiet as he spoke. It scared Tris even more. “She’s gone.”

“Bring her back,” Tris said. He was trying not to cry, but tears were leaking. “Bring her home, please.”

“I can’t. She’s dead. She and the baby died from the fever. It’s just us now.”

Then his father did something horrible. He smiled. Tris had never seen Papa smile. It terrified him, and he screamed and screamed. Nurse came in and tried to calm him down, and sometime during his screaming, Papa went away and didn’t come back until this morning, when Tris was finally well enough to get dressed and go outside.

He looked over the raw headstone toward the vicarage. A large van was parked outside, and Mrs. Vicar was standing directing the men moving furniture into it. “Why are they taking Vicar’s furniture?” he asked his father.

“Mrs. Redding is going back to her people,” Papa said.

“Why? Who will take care of Vicar and Rob and Will and Cressy?” Rob and Will were his best friends. Cressy was only four, and a tagalong, but she was all right for a baby and a girl.

“Vicar Redding and the children died of the fever also,” Papa said. “They were buried near their home parish, not here, though.”

Tris looked up at Papa in consternation. “But—who will teach me? Who will I play with now?”

“You’re going to Westminster in a few months, as soon as you are fully well again. That’s school. I’m sure your mama talked to you about school. You’ll make new friends there.” Papa was quiet a moment, then said, “Pretty soon the grass will grow here, and it will be a lovely place for you to come and visit your mama and Emmy.”

“Why would I visit them?” Tris asked. “They’re dead.” He ducked away from Papa’s hand and ran down the hill to the carriage. When he got there he was too out of breath to climb in, so he stood beside it, crying, until Papa came and lifted him up into the gig and took the reins. They drove back to the house in silence.

Nurse met them in the hall and led Tristan upstairs, where she put him back into his nightshirt and tucked him back into bed. “You’re still not ready to be outside,” she said gently, “but soon you’ll be all healthy and can go out and play again.”

Tristan said nothing, but rolled over and pretended to sleep. He was still pretending when Papa came into the nursery. He stood for a long time at the foot of the bed, and Tris thought he knew that Tris was only pretending, but he didn’t move or say anything, and so neither did Papa. Finally Papa went away and Tris really did go to sleep.

OH, ALICE, James thought, looking down at the tiny, wasted little figure huddled in the bed. What am I to do with him? I don’t know the first thing about children. He sighed, then left the room and went down to his library. In the big family Bible, he wrote the dates of Alice’s and Emily’s deaths, beneath the entry dated less than a year ago for Emily’s birth. Alice had been so delighted with Emily, already teasing him about her future beaus and the awkward Seasons she’d have, flirting and parading her conquests before her doting papa. That future was gone now, erased as completely as snow in spring. His own future was equally gone, with no Alice to share it with.

Theirs had been a love match: he, a second son, happy in his studies at Trinity, vying for one of the hotly contested lecturer positions in mathematics, had had no intention of marrying but had rather planned for a bachelor academic career. Alice, the only child of a wealthy importer, had been introduced to him by a friend of his elder brother, and he had, to his own great shock, fallen desperately in love with her. His courtship had been cut off by her father, who was uninterested in acquiring a mere second son, no matter how ancient the family name. Alice, for her part, had steadfastly refused to marry any of the other suitors her father had dangled in front of her, stating calmly that if she could not marry James Northwood, she would marry no one. For a year, they’d spoken only through letters, hers written and smuggled from the house by a faithful maid; his scribbled in the dark of his scholar’s carrel.

Then Albert had died of a winter fever and suddenly James was the heir. Alice’s papa’s reservations vanished, James was torn from his beloved scholarship, and before he knew it, he was married.

He smiled despite himself and ran his finger lightly over the notation of his marriage ten years earlier, and the birth of his beautiful son Tristan two years later. He’d missed Cambridge, but he wouldn’t have wished it any other way. Only now….

Above the fireplace hung the portrait he’d had painted right after Emily’s birth: Alice, her silvery eyes bright beneath the fringe of dark curls, Emily in her christening gown cradled in her arms, and Tristan, standing at Alice’s knee, looking up at her. The painter, an up-and-comer named Thomas Lawrence, had caught the expression in Tristan’s face exactly: a soft, adoring look that perfectly echoed James’s own feelings about her.

God, how would he live without Alice? He knew nothing about children; all his expertise was in finance. The children had always been in Alice’s purview. He supposed he should consult with Nurse about what to do with Tristan; he had a vague idea that children needed supervision and management, and supposed it should just be approached as any of his other business interests, with common sense and logic. But not today. It was the first time he had visited the graves since the funeral, and he was too exhausted.

Tomorrow, or perhaps the day after. He sat at his desk and made a note of it in his memorandum book, then looked at all the other things he had to do, and sighed. Perhaps the day after….

BOOK ONE

LONDON, 1810

Chapter One

“SIR? Sir?”

Tristan Northwood opened one eye gingerly, feeling the rasp of eyelid across sandy eyeball. An impossibly bright light burned his retina; he quickly shut the eye but not before the flash of light revealed a face he thought he might recognize. Illumination came, though thankfully not the literal kind. “Reston,” he grated, his eyes still screwed shut. “What time is it?”

“Ten thirty, sir,” the valet’s voice said. It seemed to have an unnaturally loud, booming quality. Then the words sank in through the fog.

“Ten thirty? In the morning?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Reston, you’re sacked.”

“Yes, sir. Would Mr. Northwood prefer the green waistcoat for today or the blue?”

“Mr. Northwood would prefer that Reston, along with all waistcoats of whatever hue, go straight to the devil.”

“Yes, sir. Prior to my leaving, however, may I remind Mr. Northwood that he has an appointment with Baron Ware at eleven thirty this morning?”

“Bloody hell.”

“Yes, sir.”

Another attempt at vision was made, this one more successful. Reston was in the process of drawing the drapes against the vicious morning sunlight. When the room was sufficiently dimmed, he picked up the tray he’d set on the table by the window and brought it to the bedside. “Your coffee, sir.”

Tristan sat up, grabbed at his head just as it was about to fall off, and said hoarsely, “You’re not only rehired, Reston, but I’m raising your wages.” He took the cup gratefully.

“Yes, sir. The blue or the green?”

“The blue. No. Where’s that orangish one I bought last week?”

There was silence in the room, then Reston’s sere tones. “I’m sure I couldn’t say, sir.”

“Why not? You’re my damned valet.”

“Yes, sir. However, that was the waistcoat you wore last Thursday evening. You were not wearing it Friday morning when you returned home.” Nor the cravat, shirt, or boots, though the boots were later found where Mr. Northwood had apparently dropped them, in the mews some thirty yards from the stall where he himself had been discovered, dead drunk and wearing only trousers and a greatcoat. Reston privately thought it was only the pickling properties of the immense volume of alcohol that his master had imbibed that had kept him from freezing to death in the chill April air.

“Damn. I liked that waistcoat.”

“Yes, sir.”

Tristan drank his coffee moodily, then said, “Which is more likely to irritate my father?”

“The blue, sir. The—er—iridescent quality of the fabric is quite—eye-catching.”

“Blue it is. I suppose there’s no time for a bath?”

“Not if one wishes to be on time.”

“One doesn’t, but one wants to get this month’s lecture over with, so I suppose I shouldn’t dillydally. Damn. I wonder where I left the waistcoat? I don’t suppose I can advertise for it, after all—‘left in some lady’s bedchamber, one orangish-red waistcoat’.”

“Nor the shirt or cravat,” Reston said mildly.

“All that? I must have been on the verge of being discovered,” Tristan said. “Oh, well, that was last week and no one’s called me out yet, so I suppose I evaded capture that time as well.”

“Yes, sir.”

“It’s not like anyone could identify whose waistcoat it was, anyway—it was the first time I’d worn it, and… Lady Abernathy?”

“No, sir. Sir is accustomed to visiting Lady Abernathy on Wednesdays.”

“Drat. Oh, well. It’s not like I can’t afford to lose one waistcoat. I know—I’ll purchase another of the same hue, then if anyone does suspect, he’ll be flummoxed by the fact that I apparently still have it. Take care of it, will you, Reston?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What would I do without you?”

“I’m sure I couldn’t say, sir.”

Tristan threw off the coverlet to find himself still nearly fully dressed. “Ballocks,” he said irritably and peeled off grimy trousers and drawers and shirt, then strode over to the washstand and soaped up a flannel with the cold water. Reston picked up the discarded clothing and said, “I’ll bring these out and return in a moment to help you shave and dress, sir.”

“Mm,” Tristan replied, staring at himself in the washstand mirror. He looked like hell, unshaven, eyes bloodshot, skin gray. He looked forty instead of his true twenty-eight. Twenty-eight, and still as tightly under the thumb of his father as he had been at eight. Worse—at eight he’d still had his mother to advocate for him. A year later she’d died and his newborn sister with her, leaving Tristan and his father to deal with their grief in their own separate ways. His father had chosen to control every waking moment of Tristan’s life, and Tristan had chosen to defy him just as thoroughly.

He was tired of it. Tired of waking every morning hung over or still drunk, with little or no memory of the night before; tired of rogering endless women with their soft, clinging hands and soft, clinging bodies and pervasive, nauseating perfumes; tired of hours spent in one club or another with the same obnoxious friends. Tired of the rebellion that never seemed to end, never seemed to do more than annoy his father. Not that the old man hadn’t tried everything to rein his heir in, including cutting his allowance. Tristan had merely cut his expenses to compensate, leaning on his friends and drinking cheaper gin instead of brandy, until his father got tired of hearing about it from his own friends and given in. He wasn’t a gamester, at any rate, and had never been a glutton; those activities bored him and did nothing to make him stop thinking. Sex and drink, those were the tickets to oblivion. But they never lasted long enough, and he was tired of waking up afterward. Tired of waking up, period. It was pointless, at any rate—even oblivious, he knew that he was a completely worthless individual, his sole value being that he was the heir to his father’s extensive properties. His father had made sure he knew that. “Ballocks,” he said again, and done washing, he pulled on fresh drawers and trousers just as Reston came back in, hot water and shaving gear in hand.

HIS father was waiting in the library of his town house in Clarges Street when Tristan arrived on the stroke of eleven thirty. The butler showed him in, his face expressionless as usual, though Tris knew he was as much a disappointment to Fulton as he had ever been to his father. It was his role in life, and he was nothing if not consistent. After a moment of his standing in the doorway, his father looked up and said irritably, “Come in, then, don’t dillydally. Awful waistcoat—what made you spend your blunt on that atrocity?”

“The sure knowledge that it would annoy you,” Tristan said casually.

“You look like hell.”

“Thank you, sir. May I return the compliment?”

“Don’t try to be clever, boy. You missed the boat on that one years ago. Your way of life is going to be the death of you.”

“Life is the death of all of us, sir,” Tristan said, and dropped into the chair in front of the desk, lounging back carelessly. His father’s eyes narrowed at him, but he did not address the issue.

Instead, the baron drew a piece of paper from the stack on his desk. “I’ve been hearing things about you far too much lately, Tristan. Your drinking has become an embarrassment to the family name.”

“Everyone drinks,” Tristan said with a shrug, “and everyone drinks to excess. Far be it for me to fail to follow the example of those wiser than I—which I understand from you is everyone.”

“And this business of your womanizing….”

Tristan said lazily, “I have yet to be accused to my face of anything of the sort.”

“God, I hope so!” The baron glared at him. “But there are rumors, and they are growing. You will end up looking down the barrel of a pistol at this rate.”

Tristan shrugged again. “Dueling is illegal, or hadn’t you heard?”

“That doesn’t mean it doesn’t still go on!”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“You will not!” Baron Ware stood and glared down at his son. “You have sown the last of your wild oats, my boy. I’ll not stand by and watch you piss away what’s left of your life without leaving anything behind. I’ve arranged a marriage between you and—”

“Marriage? Me? My God, what poor woman has you so annoyed with her that you’d burden her with myself?”

“Lady Charlotte Mountjoy. The Earl of Chilson’s daughter. She’s twenty-four, and she’s agreeable.”

“I would think so,” Tristan said, “seeing as if she’s twenty-four and unwed and apparently invisible, since I have never met the chit, she must be not only on the shelf but unattractive to an apparently amazing degree. Or is she one of those who prefers the company of her own sex and thereby a womanizing sot who’ll leave her alone is precisely the kind of marriage she wants?”

“You may be a womanizing sot, but you’ll not leave her alone, if you mean leaving your marriage unconsummated. Your legacy—and the freedom you so cherish—is dependent upon getting an heir off this woman, assuming you haven’t caught some filthy pox that has destroyed your ability to do so. Or at least making a fair attempt to get an heir. And to answer your question—or rather assumption—Lady Charlotte is not at all unattractive. She does, however, prefer the country, so has spent little time in town.”

“Well, that’s good, then,” Tristan said. “Since I don’t want her in town anyway.”

“You’ll have her in town until you’ve got an heir on her—preferably two. After that point the two of you can both go to hell, or wherever you choose.” His father flung the document across the desk at him. “Sign it and show up Monday at St. George’s at ten a.m.—sober and not hung over.”

“Don’t I get to at least meet my blushing bride before the wedding day?”

“And have her cry off? Hardly.”

Tristan reviewed the document. He’d expected the usual sort of thing, settlements and whatnot, but this was specifically aimed at him. He was to produce a minimum of two children, at least one of them a boy, after which his father proposed to settle two of his properties and their income upon him personally and one on his prospective bride, for the maintenance of her and her children, with a trust that would increase for each additional child. He would live with his bride until the two children were born and during that time he would continue his usual allowance with the addition of a lease on a townhouse. His wife would receive the same allowance. Between them it was assumed they would be able to maintain a reasonable standard of living.

There was an option for him to refuse—with the result that his allowance would cease, the lease on his rooms at Albany would be canceled, and the only concession to his living arrangements would be the offer of a purchase of a cornetcy in the cavalry. Tristan stared at this last in disbelief. “You’d cut me off?”

“No, but I would insist on your going into the army,” his father said coldly. “I have failed to make a man of you; if you choose not to let a wife make the attempt, perhaps the army will succeed instead. Lady Charlotte’s twin brother Charles has made a successful career as a cavalry officer; I don’t doubt that you’d do equally well. If you put your mind to it.”

“No doubt,” Tristan said, equally coldly. “You’d prefer me to be someone else’s responsibility? Or is it that you’d rather see me dead than your heir? I’m sure that distant cousin would be more amenable to your plans.”

“I am trying to save your damn life, boy! You have pissed away every opportunity I have given you. You have one last chance to turn your life around.”

“One last chance to let you control me,” Tristan said bitterly. “One last chance to show the world that the great Baron Ware can manage his heir just as well as he manages all his wealth and properties and investments and businesses. Well, do you know what, Father? Make your damn arrangements. I’ll be at St. George’s, and I’ll give you your bloody heirs, and may you be damned with them.” He snatched up a quill, shoved it unceremoniously in the inkwell, and scrawled his name at the bottom of the paper. “I’ll fuck your Lady Charlotte until she bursts with children, and then shove her back into the damned country where she belongs and then your ‘rumors’ will seem like nothing in comparison to the mud I’ll drag your precious name through.”

His father’s lips were a thin seam, but he took the sheet wordlessly and placed it in the pile on his desk. Tristan stood, dropped the inky quill on the carpet at his feet, and walked out.

COLLECTING his coat, hat, and gloves from an expressionless Fulton, Tristan stormed out of the building. At the end of the street, instead of turning right toward home, he walked down Curzon Street, crossed Park Lane, and entered the park, abandoning the more traveled paths for a sheltered spot he knew altogether too well. A bench sat on a slight rise beyond the Serpentine, with a view of the water though almost hidden from the strollers nearby. He flung himself onto the bench and covered his eyes with his hands.

Marriage. Not the kind of marriage he’d always sort of dreamed he’d have, with a woman he truly cared about—even if he’d never yet met her—but the kind of marriage he’d made such a career out of flouting. Marriage to a stranger, a woman with whom he shared no interests, no common acquaintance that he knew of, a woman he’d never even seen before. He’d never met the Honorable Charles Mountjoy, but knew what was meant by a “successful cavalry officer”—one who sat on his fat arse while sending his men out to die. Not the kind of man he would find interesting. He knew her brother, the Honorable Daniel Mountjoy, slightly; they belonged to some of the same clubs, but where Tristan and his friends frequented Angelo’s and Jackson’s, Mountjoy’s set preferred the gaming hells Tristan found boring. He wondered dully if Mountjoy’s sister was a gambling sort; if so, he’d soon put a stop to it.

He shook his head wearily. What made him think he would have any more control over his wife’s behavior than he did anything else in his life? Everything he did seemed to be a reaction rather than an action: drink too much because his father disapproved of it, take meaningless risks because he was his father’s sole heir, bed women he couldn’t marry for much the same reason. God knew that at this point he didn’t sleep with women because he got any great enjoyment out of it. Work to get the woman satisfied, then a few minutes of his own pleasure, a moment of blissful oblivion, and then it was over. Barely worth it anymore.

The sound of footsteps, and an automatic reaction; he leaned back, his arms across the back of the bench, his legs crossed and one Hessian swinging idly, the very picture of an idle buck enjoying the April morning. A pair of girls came giggling up the path; they hesitated on noticing him, but when he touched the brim of his curly beaver, they curtseyed hastily, giggled again, and hurried off down the way.

They made him feel old. Did his betrothed giggle? He hoped not—she was twenty-four, after all, and a woman that firmly on the shelf had no right to giggle like a schoolroom miss.

His betrothed. God. Maybe the cavalry was the right choice. But then he thought about having to bow to the demands of one of the officers he knew: arrogant, privileged, more concerned with their own comfort than that of their men, quick to lash out at imagined insult, quicker to punish imagined rebellion. Of the parade of battered veterans begging on every street corner, of the lists of casualties printed in every edition of the Times, the retired officers in his clubs missing an arm, a leg, an eye. He was a coward, he knew it, but the idea of coming back half a man frightened him worse than not coming back at all—perhaps crippled, forever helpless at the hands of a man who hated him…. He felt ill. No, marriage, even to a woman who despised him, would be better than that. And she would despise him, there was no doubt in his mind about that.

He climbed to his feet, shaking his head to clear it. No matter. He had an appointment for lunch with his friend Gibson and after that, a lesson with Henry Angelo. He would keep his appointment with his wedding with the same consistency as those, as unappealing as it was—he made it a point of honor to never miss an appointment, no matter how drunk he might be. He might be a womanizing sot, but he was by God an honorable womanizing sot. He snorted a laugh at the joke, and was laughing still as he headed down the path toward the street.

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