Summer Heat and SPLASH!–Review and Giveaway

Hi there! Today I’m sharing an excerpt, review and giveaway for a contemporary M/M New Adult romance from J.R. Hart. SPLASH is an enemies-to-lovers romance that features a lifeguard unwillingly falling for an obnoxious pool patron, and unexpectedly finding the love of his life.

Catch the review, excerpt and enter to win a $10 GC below.
About the book:
Connor Molina’s summer can’t get any worse. He’s stuck in his college town taking summer classes, and he’s got a dead-end lifeguard job he’s too old for and a baby gay who’s thirsty for all the wrong guys.

Even worse? Tristan, a wild patron, won’t leave his section of the pool, splashing him and pulling stupid stunts to get his attention. When Tristan fakes a drowning to get closer to him, Connor’s furious, but he quickly realizes that Tristan’s reckless nature isn’t always infuriating…it’s also intriguing.

Can he let his guard down and let Tristan in, or will he be bound by his own rules and drown in the self-doubt this summer could free him from?

How about a little taste?

I overslept. One week into summer, and I’d already overslept. Showering? Not really an option. Nothing about the summer after my sophomore year of college had gone the way I planned for it to go, so oversleeping? Yeah, not super unsurprising. That was me, Connor Molina, epic fuck-up. I knew why I was stuck in that godforsaken town the entire fucking summer, and almost all of it had everything to do with going to parties more often than going to my 8:00 a.m. classes. Can anyone blame that on me, though? No. The blame goes to anyone who thought morning classes would ever be an acceptable thing for anyone to experience. Whoever came up with that idea should be locked away, key thrown away, all of it.

But summer started all wrong. My ultimate goal had been to go back home. You know, normal summer stuff. Swim laps in the backyard pool, slack off, maybe hook up a few times. I don’t know. Obviously, that didn’t happen. I wouldn’t be saying shit about that summer if it had. Uneventful stories never make for good reflections, do they? But that summer was eventful in ways I didn’t expect it to be. It’s part of what made my summer so, so fucked.

Instead of being home for the summer, I was there, at the Springdale Aquatic Center and Lap Pool, sitting in ungodly heat and staring at unnaturally blue-looking water. You know the kind of blue of skies and oceans and all that? No, this was hyperchlorinated blue, made more intense by the paint at the bottom until it was an intense cerulean. Instead of swimming in my parents’ greenish lap pool, I was trying to make sure no one drowned in this lap pool. Real upgrade there, Connor. Awesome.

You’d think that shit wouldn’t get old after a day and a half, but it did. The only perk was not getting audited in the first couple of days—if no one was checking to see whether I was watching closely enough, then I couldn’t get screwed over and lose my job if I missed the sign. Of course, it would have been no surprise if the summer went like that. Considering everything else that had happened so far, it would have made sense for it to blow up in my stupid face and leave me jobless too. But that didn’t happen. All I wanted was to make it through the summer without someone dying on my watch. That shouldn’t have been too much to ask.

Nothing about the job was worth the money. If you’re thinking about being a lifeguard, let this be your warning. It isn’t worth it. But I couldn’t back out no matter how badly I wanted to. It was on the schedule before we even had the most terrifying meeting ever, and I had no choice but to press on. Never mind that they made it clear the job was life-or-death during that meeting. Never mind that I hated the concept of ever setting foot in the pool again after the stuff their words stirred up in my mind.

Never mind that I was scared to death someone might drown right in front of me because of my own fuck-up or inability to keep them alive. Never mind the added pressure when I was already at my breaking point going into summer. All of it was horrifying, but I didn’t have the luxury of choice. Everything else was full. Literally every single damn summer job…full.

If I wouldn’t have had to be there in the first place, I could have slacked off and loafed around on my parents’ couch and watched shitty daytime talk shows, checked out The Price Is Right and tried to guess the price of a car I’d never own. But no, I had rent to pay. I still do. I had to have something to do. Every pizza delivery position, every law firm secretary job, every retail cashier option, all of it was full. I couldn’t even get a job sacking groceries, not that I would have taken a position clearly made for a high schooler. Any of those had to be better than lifeguarding though. Every job in town, even that, was for teenagers. I was underqualified for the good shit, but I was way overqualified for being a lifeguard.

One summer. I promised them I’d work there for one summer, but after that, I had told myself there was no way in hell I’d ever be caught on that guard stand again. The whole job is complete and utter bullshit. No amount of SPF in the world could have gotten me through it either. I still don’t know how I didn’t lose my entire mind being there. Well, I do, but I didn’t at the time.

Sure, I probably took it a little bit too seriously, a little bit too personally whenever they mentioned, you know…drowning. None of my other coworkers gave a shit if someone were to die in their section. The thing is, they’re all basically kids, lifeguards are. High school babies at best, with a few going into college in the fall. I was the only jackass actually in college when I got the job, so, of course, none of them took it seriously. It made sense that they didn’t give a shit if something happened. None of us ever think it’ll happen to us. No one ever does, do they? But that stuff does happen. It does. I had seen it happen before, and the thought of letting it happen that summer somehow? I was horrified by the entire prospect. Don’t worry, nobody actually drowned over the summer, though the close calls were enough to make me hate the job regardless.

The summer didn’t start great, either. We were down two guards on the second day of work. One of them never bothered to call in, and I’m pretty sure she never showed up all summer anyway. The other one missed the audit ball and got sent home. Greg, the manager, tossed this little ball in the water in your section. Each ball represents someone drowning, and if you don’t jump in and save the ball in time, you get written up and sent home early. I’m not sure why they think sending you home is the right choice there. It’s not like it gives you more practice. To me, you should be buddy-guarding until you get it right, but that’s not how it goes, and it left us shorthanded. Way too shorthanded.

That’s why I scan the water, why I always keep scanning the water. The ball represents a life, someone she would have just let drown because she wasn’t even watching. Getting sent home was the least of her worries. Maybe if it had been a real person, she would have understood. We hadn’t been working together long enough for me to even know her name, and by the third audit she missed in two weeks, she was fired, so I never really got to know her anyway.

I don’t switch off when I’m working. I can’t. You never know who the hell might end up drowning on your watch, and I wasn’t about to have a death on my conscience. I couldn’t fathom the idea of telling someone’s mom, “hey, your kid drowned because I wasn’t paying attention,” or somehow having to deal with the consequences there, the nightmares or whatever else. It’s stuff like that making the job literally the worst in the world. If I looked away, who knows what might have happened? Maybe someone would have died. I don’t know. Maybe I was just fucking paranoid. Maybe I still am.

Or maybe it’s the way my section always attracted the biggest jackasses on the planet. The entire time I was working the first few days, regardless of the section I was in, there was this one guy. One damn kid who had to show off, basically. He and his buddies were there to break every rule, doing flips off the high dive, trying to play chicken. They were old enough to know better and old enough also to set a bad example for anyone younger—if they could do it, the younger kids thought it was safe to do too. It was impossible to watch everyone in my section when he kept pulling my focus, making me watch him and his friends carefully so nobody got killed.

He was there when I was manning the diving boards, attempting cannonballs and flips far beyond his skill level. When I moved on to the wide slide typically reserved for kids to slide down with his parents, he and his friends were shoving each other down and trying to launch themselves off. I’d tell him to sit on his ass (in nicer words) and not on his stomach, but halfway down he’d spin, flipping to skid down headfirst.

“He’s cute, isn’t he?” I can still remember James asking me that question and even now, a huge part of me wants to slap him over it.

“The one with the death wish? No, he’s not.” I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand how half of the guards at this pool could think he was hot. I was there trying to watch, trying to keep track of everyone, and it felt like everyone else was simply there to gawk at the patrons. Being the only one actually there to work sucked, even if I got that they were just kids. You know, whatever, but some of us didn’t need the added distraction.

“You have to admit he’s at least a little bit cute,” James said, elbowing me in the ribs. I was half tempted to break his arm over the way he jabbed me.

“I don’t have to. He’s not being cute. He’s trying to crack his head open on the side of the pool. What are you doing over here anyway?” This wasn’t James’s section right then, not where I was, and I couldn’t understand why he was even where I was at, to be honest. Last I saw, he was supposed to be over by the lazy river, not close to me in the deep end.

“I’m on break,” he told me.

“Oh, so you’re over here lurking and trying to stare at him and everything else, getting in my way when I’m trying to do my job? Cool. Thanks.” I was only half joking. I tried to make myself seem as pleasant as possible, but a large part of me was really annoyed. The last thing I needed was James near me, trying to talk while I was taking this seriously. James was the only other openly gay guard there, and not even a small part of me was surprised he was interested in a dumbass like that one. I never tried to hide who I was, and if a girl at the pool flirted with me, she usually figured out she wasn’t my type pretty quickly. But James? He couldn’t hide it. Anyone could’ve clocked him from a mile away. He wasn’t subtle and it was okay, but it also got him in trouble. The town wasn’t the most open-minded place ever.

My Review:
Connor Molina is a college sophomore on a swim team for his university. He’d usually go back home for the summer break, but he messed up a course or two, and needs to take summer classes to maintain his eligibility and keep on track for his nursing degree. So, he’s taken a job as a lifeguard at a town pool not far from the apartment he shares with a teammate and occasional friend-with-benefits.

At the pool, Connor is plagued by the immature attention-seeking behavior of an otherwise attractive pool patron, Tristan. And, he’s a little bit hounded by an out high school aged fellow lifeguard who would happily toss his virginity at Tristan. Or Connor. James is horny, and not picky.

The more Tristan acts out, the more disgusted Connor is, and he makes no secret of his distaste, especially when Tristan fakes a drowning to trick Connor into kissing him. In the aftermath, Connor tears him a new a-hole and the tension between them skyrockets. Tristan is recalcitrant, and his sudden absence concerns Connor. And, that’s when he starts catching feelings.

Tristan has a precarious home life; raised by a man who isn’t his blood father, a man who’s an alcoholic with a sore temper. They have both had issues since Tristan’s mom died, but the grief plays out in passive-aggressive standoffs and Tristan occasionally couch surfing when his dad kicks him out for a few days or longer. He’s only just completed high school, and he’s planning to go to the local junior college to stay near his dad. He had better offers with schools that had real careers, but his only tie to his mom is through his home and his dad. The more that Connor and Tristan connect, the more that he sees beyond the happy-go-lucky, aggressive demeanor to the isolated young man who isn’t sure what his next move should be.

Connor tells this story, and it’s nice to see his frustration morph through shock, anger and lust into appreciation and love. Tristan’s talent in drawing astounds Connor and he pushes Tristan to look at his prospects in art and design, rather than the lackluster business degree he was pursuing. It’s a bit bittersweet for Connor, because those colleges are on the other side of the country, and he’s losing his heart to Tristan. The summer is coming to an end, and it’s clearly going to be the end of this summer fling turned into a true love story. The pacing was a little slow, for me, as Connor railed about Tristan and what a brat he was for at least the first third of the book. Then, he mooned a lot about the impending move for Tristan, once the arrangements are made for him to seek a new college plan. The love story is nice though, especially once Connor commits to Tristan. There are a lot of sexytimes, and some power games that play out to push Connor and Tristan only further together. The resolution is happier than the lead-up intimated, with Connor’s roomie playing a bit of a trick that rocks Connor’s work in the best way.

Interested? You can find SPLASH on Goodreads, NineStar Press, and Amazon.

****GIVEAWAY****

Click on this Rafflecopter giveaway link for your chance to win a $10 gift code to NineStar Press.
Good luck and keep reading my friends!

About the Author:
J R Hart is a queer 30-something novelist passionate about telling romantic and erotic stories about LGBT+ characters. When J R isn’t writing, you can find her at the science museum with her son, cheering for her favorite soccer team, or at The Bean Coffee Co plotting her next work.

You can find J. R. on Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter.

Dark Side of THE BRIGHT LANDS–A Review

Hi there! Today I’m sharing a review for a contemporary LGBTQ story for new-to-me author John Fram. THE BRIGHT LANDS pulls an out gay man back to his conservative east Texas hometown in search of his teen brother, the star quarterback of the high schoo who’s recently gone missing.

About the book:
The town of Bentley holds two things dear: its football, and its secrets. But when star quarterback Dylan Whitley goes missing, an unremitting fear grips this remote corner of Texas.

Joel Whitley was shamed out of conservative Bentley ten years ago, and while he’s finally made a life for himself as a gay man in New York, his younger brother’s disappearance soon brings him back to a place he thought he’d escaped for good. Meanwhile, Sheriff’s Deputy Starsha Clark stayed in Bentley; Joel’s return brings back painful memories—not to mention questions—about her own missing brother. And in the high school hallways, Dylan’s friends begin to suspect that their classmates know far more than they’re telling the police. Together, these unlikely allies will stir up secrets their town has long tried to ignore, drawing the attention of dangerous men who will stop at nothing to see that their crimes stay buried.

But no one is quite prepared to face the darkness that’s begun to haunt their nightmares, whispering about a place long thought to be nothing but an urban legend: an empty night, a flicker of light on the horizon—The Bright Lands.

My Review:
Okay, when I picked up this story, it DIDN’T sound like anything paranormal or supernatural was going to happen from the blurb. That is NOT the case, y’all.

Joel Whitley escaped Bentley, Texas right after high school and he’s hardly looked back–not for his mama or his younger half-brother, Dylan. They chat on the phone and stuff, but Joel hates that place, where he was pretty much attacked for being gay, and ohoto evidence of his “depravity” was circulated widely. But, a weird phone call from Dylan rouses Joel from his free-wheeling, occasionally substance-fueled life in Manhattan. And, it gets Joel on a plane to figure out what might be wrong.

In that space, Joel senses the darkness of the town and is frustrated by the lack of assistance when it turns out that Dylan is missing in action, a “fishing trip” to the coast being a ruse for way more dangerous activities. The team seems to have a pact set to confound and confuse any investigations, but the behavior of some of Dylan’s teammates is nothing short of bizarre–if not possessed. Joel’s old friend Starsha, who happens to be a Sheriff’s Deputy is interested in getting to the bottom of this mystery, and her professional duty is rivaled by personal interest–her own brother disappeared in much the same way as Dylan years before.

I will be honest and say this book was not my cuppa. There were a LOT of points-of-view and their points of intersection did not always overlap. That, and the supernatural element was slow to develop, so I couldn’t tell if the heebie-jeebies Joel was sensing were just his own misapprehension, or something “other”. I do not want to spoil wants happening in the story, but I will say that I felt the actual situation in the story seemed to vilify homosexual behavior. That giving in to those “base” urges led to feeding the malevolence that has been growing in influence and power for decades. I get that this is a thriller, but the resolution ended up being violent and unsatisfying for me–again because there was so much negativity that was tied into what was seen by the characters as deviant behavior. Dylan’s story does not end well, and Joel takes it badly–which I did understand. He was sad for his brother and felt guilty for not helping out more. And the whole thing ended sadly and negatively for my understanding.

For people who like horror, thrillers and supernatural reads, this might be the right story for you. Just, do not expect a happy ending.

Interested? You can find THE BRIGHT LANDS on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. I received a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

About the Author:
John Fram is a lapsed Texan and debut author of the supernatural thriller THE BRIGHT LANDS, due out in July 2020 from Hanover Square Press. Josh Malerman, author of Bird Box, describes it as “absolutely enthralling,” Christopher Golden calls it “compelling as hell,” and Edmund White (the one and only) calls it “Gothic, Faulkernian…and very, very sexy.” He’s just grateful a childhood spent playing video games and sweating in tall grass resulted in something worthwhile.

An accidental Manhattanite, he spends his free time practicing yoga, sweating on stationary bikes and gasping in movie theaters. He writes, meditates and reads every day, in that order. Follow his Instagram to see screenshots from old movies and excited posts about whatever book he’s currently loving. Follow my Twitter because apparently we still need one of those. And go to my website, where you can sign up for a monthly newsletter about old movies and exciting books, some of which he’s written.

Catch up to John on his website, Instagram, and Twitter.

Thanks for popping in, and keep reading my friends!

Connected by THE LITTLE LIBRARY–A TBT Review

Hi there! Today I’m excited to share a Throwback Thursday review for a contemporary M/M romance from Kim Fielding. THE LITTLE LIBRARY connects a lonely historian with a cop on the mend. I enjoyed A SECOND HARVEST and LOVE CAN’T CONQUER, and I’m a big fan of Ms. Fielding.

About the book:
Elliott Thompson was once a historian with a promising academic future, but his involvement in a scandal meant a lost job, public shame, and a ruined love life. He took shelter in his rural California hometown, where he teaches online classes, hoards books, and despairs of his future.

Simon Odisho has lost a job as well—to a bullet that sidelined his career in law enforcement. While his shattered knee recovers, he rethinks his job prospects and searches for the courage to come out to his close-knit but conservative extended family.

In an attempt to manage his overflowing book collection, Elliott builds a miniature neighborhood library in his front yard. The project puts him in touch with his neighbors—for better and worse—and introduces him to handsome, charming Simon. While romance blooms quickly between them, Elliott’s not willing to live in the closet, and his best career prospects might take him far away. His books have plenty to tell him about history, but they give him no clues about a future with Simon.

My Review:
History professor Elliott Thompson is licking his wounds following the disastrous end of his most recent relationship. His ex is a criminal, and though Elliott was found innocent of conspiring with him, his university decided it would be best if they made clean break. So, he’s returned to his small California hometown, teaching online courses and masking his hurt feelings with an addiction to purchasing books online–particularly paperbacks. His home, however, has only so much physical space to contain these books, so Elliott’s solution to his book hoarding is to build a little library that he posts in his front yard. Elliott’s home is near a popular footpath, so his neighbors are a bit thrilled with the advent of free books just for their own pleasure. Well, mostly. He does have one homophobic jerk who makes more than a stink over it. Elliott takes great pleasure curating his library selection and seeing what books get taken–and what new ones are replaced by other readers!

Simon Odisho is a first generation American, born to Assyrian immigrants. His family is boisterous and caring, but also conservative, and Simon has kept his sexuality secret from them, and the members of the police force–while he was employed there. Unfortunately, a bullet in the line of duty has ruined Simon’s knee and his prospects in law enforcement. He walks the trail near Elliott’s home for his physical therapy, and he admires Elliott’s running on the trail and his little library.

The attraction between Elliott and Simon is mutual, despite the difficulties of their lives. Simon still wants to remain closeted, and Elliott is considering job offers that could take him away from this small town respite. In consideration of these conflicts, they decide to try something low-key and no strings, but that’s a sure-fire way to find the love you’d been seeking all along. There’s a little bit of steam and a little bit of humor–especially the first date scene which is laugh out loud. Through the growth of these characters we get to see how a community of supporters can change the bleakest of moments and experiences. And how books can change all our lives for the better. When I first read this one, I thought the bigoted neighbor was over-the-top and a bit of a caricature, but seeing this character in light of the way some folks are behaving in real life, regarding the pandemic, and racial injustice and being just uncivil in the highest degree, I could fully envision this character anew and recognize him for the danger he poses in our world today.

That said, it’s a pretty low angst romance with a bit of steam and a believable HEA for Simon and Elliott. It was an enjoyable read back when it came out, and again when I delved back for a TBT.

Interested? You can find THE LITTLE LIBRARY on Goodreads, Amazon, and Apple Books. I received a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

About the Author:
Kim Fielding lives in California and travels as often as she can manage. A professor by day, at night she rushes into a phone booth to change into her author costume (which involves comfy clothes instead of Spandex and is, sadly, lacking a cape). Her superpowers include the ability to write nearly anywhere, often while simultaneously doling out assistance to her family. Her favorite word to describe herself is “eclectic” and she finally got that fourth tattoo.

Catch up to Kim on her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Thanks for popping in, and keep reading my friends!

Stories of Hope GAY ALL YEAR–Review, Bonus Excerpts, and Giveaway

Hi there! Today I’m spreading on a new collection of M/M romance short stories from Richard May. GAY ALL YEAR has a story for every month–some sexy, some not, but all are hopeful.

Scroll down to catch a huge BONUS excerpt and enter to win a $10 gift card.
About the book:
Twelve optimistic MM stories, one for every month of the year.

How do men meet? Each story is connected to a holiday or event—Epiphany, Valentine’s Day, Pi Day, Arbor Day, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, summer vacation, a rodeo, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and Hanukkah—but may not be quite the celebration you’re expecting.

Neither may the men, and when these men meet, attraction does not always equal love—at least immediately—but chemistry finds a way.

How about a bonus? Below are excerpts from the beginning of EACH of the twelve stories…

January: “Epiphany”
“I never meant to live in San Francisco again, but here I was. At first, it was just a visit but when I saw how advanced the effects of my mother’s lung cancer were, I decided I couldn’t leave her to institutional caregivers and fly back to Boston, so I took a leave of absence, and then I telecommuted, and finally, my company offered me a transfer to the office in Menlo Park.

I also never expected to be inside a Catholic church again, but here I was. I had successfully avoided them in Boston, which is no easy trick when you’re Irish and raised Catholic. But now, I was back inside Saint Paul’s, fulfilling a deathbed promise to my mother. “Don’t blame God,” she had advised between wheezes and made me agree to go to mass. I wanted to scream. Of course, I blamed God and every fucking priest and every fucking Catholic in the world, but I bit my tongue and said I’d go, thinking her funeral mass would fulfill the promise. “And my funeral mass doesn’t count,” she’d said with the remainder of a twinkle in her eye. Trapped—and I didn’t even get to scream.

I had put it off for six months until I’d run into Mrs. Andreozzi on Tuesday past, and she’d mentioned Saint Paul’s had a new priest. “Very handsome,” she informed me as if that were enough of an inducement for a gay twentysomething male. And perhaps it was because the very next Sunday I entered the building, genuflected toward the altar, crossed myself, and took a seat in a pew.

There was an excellent turnout of ladies and gay men. And Mrs. Andreozzi was right: the new priest was very handsome. He was a tall man, with dark wavy hair combed straight back from his forehead, regular features, and noticeably wide shoulders. Nothing at all like Father Michael, with his thinning red hair, sallow complexion, and sagging jowls. I hoped he was different from Father Michael in other ways as well, for the altar boys’ sakes.

After mass, I tried to slip past the line of parishioners telling the new priest how much they liked this or that, but he stepped away from an older woman in midsentence to intercept me.

“Thank you for coming,” he said, barring my way with his conspicuous body and extended right hand. “Father Adrian Doyle.” I shook the hand hesitantly. Touching a priest was, and probably always would be, disgusting to me. Father Adrian’s hand was warm, but then so had been Father Michael’s.

“Stephen Kinney,” I said. The priest’s bright-blue eyes momentarily ceased sparkling. Apparently, he’d heard the name before. I’m sure he has, I thought with satisfaction…”

February: “Finding Good in Plenty”
“I hadn’t been to Plenty since the funeral but now here I was in the graveyard where Jack’s ashes had been laid to rest. His burial was one of the few compromises Jack’s parents and I had made after his death.

“He wanted to be cremated,” I insisted during our several contentious phone calls.

“He needs a Christian burial!” his mother repeated just as often. I wondered if I were the only one who found it absurd, my partner’s cremains in a child-size casket sitting deep in an adult-size grave. I know Jack would have laughed.

I’d like to say I heard him laugh that day, somewhere in the ether beside me, but I didn’t. I hadn’t felt his presence since his heart stopped beating in the hospital room at the U.T. hospital. I even prayed, but why should God listen to me after all those years? Anyway, he didn’t.

Back in the present, I walked between lines of headstones, careful not to step where a body was likely lying, although the person they had been wouldn’t care. I laughed self-consciously at myself and then shut up. There were other people at other graves with their own memories. They deserved some silence.

One young man in particular caught my eye, which made me hush myself again, although I hadn’t said a word out loud about him. Jack not dead a month and already I’m looking, I admonished.

The man I was trying not to ogle was in his early twenties, a dirty blond dressed in very faded jeans, which only fit because he was young. He wore a light-blue T- shirt that showed off his slender chest, and he held a straw cowboy hat reverently in one hand. The other hand was wiping tears from his eyes. I ducked my head. I had shed enough tears myself to know when to leave people alone.

I found Jack’s stone at the edge of the Carlson family plot, neatly fenced off from its neighbors by twelve-inch- tall iron railings recently painted a sober dark gray. John Clayton Carlson, Jr., the stone read. Born January 17, 1969 Plenty, Texas. Died July 13, 2015 Austin, Texas. He is with the Angels.

I wondered why the “a” in “angels” was capitalized but shrugged it off. I hadn’t been in charge of the memorial stone. Mrs. Carlson wanted a grave and a headstone; she could have her way with the words as well.

I started to step over the inconsequential fence but paused in midstep. If any of the living Carlsons were here, they’d be scandalized for sure. Of course, none of them would be. I’d told them I was coming—warned is more like it. They wouldn’t want to see me. But I put my foot down anyway and walked to the gap between the fancy iron scrollwork.

Jack’s grave was nearly at the end of the third row, one empty gravesite in. Space for me, I thought bitterly. I read the words chiseled in the marble a second time. So few words for such a good life. Both the life and the epitaph were too short. “Healthy as a horse!” he’d always say when he came back from his annual physical. Why had he lied to me the last three years?…”

March: “One Plus One
“My date stared longingly at a man across from us at Aslam’s Rasol. Who wouldn’t, I said to myself charitably. The man had those capturing eyes, the darkest dark, set wide apart in a strong, diamond-shaped face shaded a grayish brown. His hair sprang upward, obsidian black and gleaming, came close at the sides, and elongated down the jaws through deliberate stubble, ending in a Van Dyke beard precisely trimmed.

Because “Hank” gaped so openly, I debated whether to slap the maroon-colored menu down and declare our date officially over, but just then, our server Chanda came back with our drinks and her ready iPad.

“May I take your order now please?” she asked politely, her smile gracious in a pale North Indian face so unlike the handsome man across from us.

“I’ll have the chicken tikka masala,” I said without further thought or any reopening of the menu. The man with the capturing eyes glanced my way, lowered his head conspiratorially to his friends, and spoke inaudibly to them. His perfect lips moved silently, the upper formed of conjoined scrolls and the lower full and ready to be bitten. Now I was the one staring. Hank brought my attention back to himself by going through his resume. It would have been impressive—for a job interview. Happily, our food arrived, which gave me something to do other than listening to my date’s life achievements and impressive financial assets. I tried not to look at the nearby table. In any case, Hank continued looking often enough for both of us during his soliloquy. I was drinking the last of my second glass of wine when we heard the four men request their bill, pay, and rise. Hank stopped somewhere in a catalogue of his forties to stare hungrily after them as they left. I decided enough was too much and extracted sixty dollars from my wallet. I laid it next to Hank’s pale-blue plate, wiped nearly clean with complimentary naan.

“What’s this?” he asked, money apparently able to break his concentration.

“For my dinner. Thanks,” I said perfunctorily, getting to my feet. The quartet of Indians was at the door, playing audience to our drama. Ignoring Hank’s muttered curses, I followed them out of the door. They stopped on the Valencia Street sidewalk, speaking in some musical language. The handsome man shook his head at them and nodded at me. His friends all turned, expressed variations of “Ah!” and left us to it.

“Ganak,” the man said in an unexpected baritone and extended his right hand.

“A.J.,” I said, taking his hand.

He smiled more broadly. “We use that name, too, where I am from. In Malayalam, my language, it means invincible. Are you unconquerable, Ajay?” He flirted pleasantly. “It also means lovable,” he added, not asking whether I was that as well.

Our handshake was interrupted by someone pushing through us. It was Hank exiting the restaurant. He scowled deeply at us both and stomped away south.

“Your friend does not look pleased,” Ganak said with a suppressed smile.

“We aren’t friends. We were on a Zoosk date,” I said, wondering whether I should have. “No loss to me. It wasn’t going anywhere.”

“Yes,” Ganak agreed, smiling sardonically. “He seemed to look more at our table than at you.”

April: “Ripe Fruit”
““Can I help you?” a male voice asked. I turned, ready with my list of questions. A young Chicano was standing behind me, the fabric of his forest- green polo shirt stretched almost to bursting across his chest.

“Sir, can I help you?” his voice repeated. His eyes were laughing at mine, like they’d seen this all many times before.

“Uh, yes,” I stuttered. “Uh, I’d like to buy some trees.”

My eyes shifted rapidly to the brightly colored photos of ripe fruit on tags hanging from a row of trees. Juicy Gravenstein apples. Dangling Anjou pears. Darkest red Bing cherries. Fecund Honey Babe peaches. I felt so embarrassed.

“You are looking for fruit trees?” the young man asked, following my stare.

I nodded yes guiltily.

“What kind of fruit?” he prompted, taking a fatal step next to me. I willed my hands to remain at my sides.

“What do you suggest?” I asked, blushing as red as a Washington Delicious.

“You like Fuji apples?” He moved down the row. My eyes followed his rotating walk, his khakis riding low on his hips, his green shirt tucked haphazardly into his pants. “Produces good if you have a lot of sun,” he informed me. “I have lots of sun,” I confirmed enthusiastically.

He nodded and bent over, exposing brown skin and a glimmer of red underwear.

I wiped sweat off my forehead.

“Here are a couple good ones,” the young man said, straightening up. He held two young trees like dumbbells. My eyes grazed from tree to tree across his chest. His nametag read Alejandro.

“Which one do you like? A thicker trunk is better,” he prompted. Alejandro had a thick trunk and a Mayan face. I thought of museum statues of squat, muscular men, stolen from Mayan architecture. Alejandro would look like that—if he were naked. A film rolled in my mind.

He shook the trees at me to bring my attention back to commerce.

“That one,” I said, indicating his right arm. Alejandro pointed it at me. I accepted the tree. It was heavier than it looked.

“Anything else?” he asked. “Pears maybe. A ripe pear is really tasty.”

I nodded vigorously in agreement.

“Here’s a bosc. It keeps better. Or maybe you’d rather have a Bartlett?” He bent over again, checking tags.

“Bosc,” I managed to squeak out.

“It’s a little more money.” He turned around to look at me. His eyes widened. “Tan grande,” he whispered.

I said I’d take the pear tree, too, without asking how much money tan grande was.

“How about a cherry and a citrus?” he asked, his eyes still focused on my crotch. “Then you will have ripe fruit all year.”

“I’d like ripe fruit all year,” I said in a stronger voice. The longer he leaned over, the more definite I felt about it. Maybe I should… I squashed my maybe like a bug. He was way too young…”

May: “Someone I Didn’t Know”
“I decided not to go home for Mother’s Day even though my sister invited me out to Douglaston. I opted instead to spend the day in the Metropolitan Museum but avoided madonnas, pietás, and all mother and child scenes painted down the centuries.

As I gazed at the muscles of a marble Heracles, a vaguely familiar voice behind me said, “Hello, Dave.” I turned, smile on automatic, and saw someone I didn’t know. Whoever he was, though, he was good looking in a deliberately rough trade kind of way, with the de rigueur two day’s growth of beard covering strong jaws and a jutting chin. Full red lips pouted provocatively at me. Sunglasses hid his eyes. Really? But what I saw below the chin made me forgive and forget. A tight yellow dress shirt open several buttons down the chest displayed a deep tan and deeper cleavage. Jeans formfitting in the crotch and thighs covered and accented the stranger’s own heavy musculature. Heracles had a rival.

“It’s Bruce,” the stranger said, removing the shades. “Bruce Sonnenschein. From high school?” The name evoked memories, which the man in front of me did not. I repeated the name uncertainly and hurt appeared in the dark-blue eyes. I recognized him now.

“Bruce Sonnenschein,” I repeated a second time, still trying to reconcile the present person with the past. The fey voice was gone. So were the fluttering hands and the overly coy pursing of lips. This Bruce Sonnenschein was butch to the nth degree.

The man in front of me put his hand on my shoulder in a consoling way. He said, “I’m sorry your mother’s dead,” and I frowned. If I lived another hundred years, I never wanted to hear that sentence again, but I liked his hand on my shoulder. It did feel consoling.

“Thank you,” I managed to say. “How did you know?”

He dropped his hand and shrugged. “My mom still keeps in touch with some people in Farmingdale. Would you like a coffee? Or brunch?” The segue was abrupt but his tone and look said he was confident I’d say yes. “There’s a cafeteria downstairs.”

“No,” I answered curtly, coming back to myself. I didn’t need that depressing place with its manufactured light and sickly color—especially that day—and anyway, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be with Bruce Sonnenschein. Seeing him again made all the guilt rise up in me, but something else had risen as well, so I agreed…”

June: “The Man in the Photo
“Welcome to the unit,” my new commanding officer said. He stood to return my salute before shaking my hand. I couldn’t believe how much he looked like the man in the photo—or at least like him if he’d lived.

“Take a chair, son. Tell me about yourself,” Colonel Markham said, giving my hand a friendly final squeeze before sitting back behind his desk.

The word son echoed loudly in my ears.

“You graduated from West Point like me, I hear,” he prompted when I didn’t immediately respond.

My brain snapped back to reality. Best to stay in the present tense. “Yes, sir. Nineteen ninety-four,” I said. I was at Fort Riley, Kansas, again. Just another duty rotation: stationed overseas two years, Fort Riley for one or two. The life of a career infantry soldier.

The colonel smiled, just a whisper of one, like the man in the photo. “Nineteen seventy-eight for me. Just missed Vietnam.” He looked regretful. I’d had two wars so far, Afghanistan and now Iraq. I’d give him one of them— gladly.

While I recited my resume, I subtracted 1978 from 2004 and added twenty-two to calculate the colonel’s age. He looked good for forty-eight, very good. His chest swelled nicely inside his khaki shirt. Short sleeves showed off muscular biceps and dark hairs down sinewy forearms. When he stood, I could see he hadn’t developed a gut sitting behind a desk.

For thirty minutes we talked about where we’d served in the army—including how many times we’d been at Fort Riley, what we’d done, and whom we both knew—until a knock on the open door made me jump as if we’d been up to something.

The colonel barked, “Come in!” and I looked around, locking eyes with another captain. I recognized that look. “Excuse me, sir,” the young officer said, crossing the

threshold. He was blond, blue-eyed, and very well-built. “General Cameron is on the phone, sir. I didn’t want to interrupt but—”

“Of course, Captain.” Colonel Markham cut his junior officer off briskly. “The CO,” he said to me in confiding tones, one hand on the receiver and another poised above the extension button. “See you tonight,” he added before taking the call. I saluted although the colonel was already speaking. He returned my salute automatically.

“We’re all looking forward to your welcome party,” the blond captain whispered as he ushered me out of the door, hand firmly on my back. A little too firmly, but I understood where he was coming from. I’d been there.

Outside the colonel’s office, he introduced himself as Captain Jensen even though the insignia on his starched collar and name tag on his ample chest had already told me as much. “Kevin,” he added, waiting.

“Jamie,” I said after a moment’s hesitation. We both carried the same rank, but that wouldn’t be for long. I had passed my board and was finally on the list for major although I’d done my best to avoid it. My buddy Pete said I didn’t want to make rank because my father, James Sr., had died a captain. I told him he had taken too many college psychology courses. Being promoted meant assignment to a staff position. I wanted to be fighting, not sending men to fight for me.

CPT Jensen cleared his throat. “Why don’t I show you around?” he suggested seductively. Hadn’t he heard about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?…”

July: “That July I Learned to Surf”
“Hey brah, you okay?” the stranger asked, a concerned frown temporarily wrinkling his otherwise flawless face. One second, I had been thinking about lunch, and the next, I was looking up into sky-blue eyes and a tan chest abundantly covered with dark-blond hair. I managed to nod yes, and he helped me to my feet. “Jonas,” he said, giving me the waggling thumb and pinkie surfers use.

“Jared,” I responded without the salute, trying to ignore the fact we both were naked and my elbow and ass hurt. A lot.

“Cool! The two J’s!” he said. His voice seemed to blare in the long open space, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to us but us. Jonas high-fived me and went back to showering, chattering away like we were old friends. I tried to listen and not ogle. He said he had just moved to San Ramon. I promised to introduce him to my friends.

However, Jonas Michaels didn’t need social assistance from me and my middling popularity. All he had to do was walk down the halls at Cal High, grin, and say, “Hey brah!” and people fell in love with him. I don’t know where he got the “Hey brah” from, but if you heard it, you knew who was coming and you prepared to be happy.

It didn’t hurt that Jonas had money although money is in very good supply in San Ramon. He had his own car— a BMW z4 hardtop convertible—one key indicator of family wealth. A second was his home. The first time I saw Jonas’s house in the new Bella Vista section of town, I knew the Michaels family had means way beyond their end. It was an Italian villa-style mansion built on three levels against a hillside with terracotta tiled roofs, various balconies, and a bell tower with a significant telescope but no bell. On our arrival, one of three garage doors opened, and Jonas eased the BMW inside. The other two stalls were empty.

The invitation to his house had mentioned a pool. We changed in Jonas’s bedroom, which was as big as my parents’. I turned my back on his shedding of clothing and stepped into navy-plaid swim trunks. When I dared look again, my eyes followed the treasure trail down his abdomen and belly into minimal turquoise-colored cloth and the conspicuous bulge inside it. Jonas laughed at my open-mouthed stare and took off running. I ran after him through the house and into the pool. He parted the water with a competitive dive, and I followed with mine a second or two later.

“You’ve got a good stroke, J,” I heard him say after I came up for air at the end of a lap. “Ever surf?”

“No,” I admitted. “I was on the swim team though,” I offered as an alternate credential.

“Oh, man, it’s so sick. I could teach you,” he responded, brushing aside my varsity swimming experience.

“Maybe,” I said, trying to sound interested before I pushed off for another lap. I was afraid my other interest was showing through my shorts…”

August: “Kachina Dancer”
“My hands fumbled across the bed for Joao’s back. There was nothing but air and rumpled sheets. Had he left already? I opened my eyes. No, he was sitting on the edge of the bed, pulling up his socks. They were always white unless he went out. We had stayed in last night.

I pushed up, twisted onto my back, and sat up against the beige wall of our Best Western Window Rock king- size, feeling sadness creep up on me again.

“Leaving?” I asked, trying not to sound too pitiful.

“Got to, Davi. You know,” Joao said in his soft Brazilian accent. When he stood and stepped into his jeans, I lunged across the bed and tried to pull him back down. “Let go, irmão. I gotta get ready,” he said, laughing and pushing me away but only getting the tight jeans halfway up his thighs. I buried my face in his white underwear. He turned around. “You want some more, baby?” he asked, small dark eyes dancing.

“Yeah,” I said.

He pulled his briefs down and pushed in between my lips and teeth, muttering, “Tão loiro tão bonito” over and over as he moved in and out of my mouth. I knew what that meant because he said it a lot. “So blond, so pretty,” he told me when I asked, looking at me, well, looking at me like he meant it, I guess.“Ooh, Davi. You got the sweetest mouth,” he said in a voice I could barely hear. One arm stretched down my back until fingers found the elastic of my underwear and slid inside. His breaths grew louder and heavier, and he started muttering in Portuguese. “Chupa me, baby. Chupa me,” he whispered. “Boa,” he said, over and over.

I brought him close before his fingers along my jawline signaled me to stop. His eyes were half hidden by their pale-purple lids. “You got any condoms left, baby?” he purred. I started to pull away to get him one. “Ainda.” He kept my head in place with one calloused hand while the other groped for an unopened package on the nightstand. “Get on the floor, Davi,” he said, as he slipped the rubber on. “I gonna ride you like a brahma bull. Gonna fuck you good so you don’t forget me before Albuquerque.”

I got on the floor and into position. Joao knelt behind me and began riding me hard. In just a couple minutes, he went wild, fucking me like I guess the bulls fucked the cows in his father’s fields back home, banging away and bellowing. I loved hearing him.

“Sorry it was so quick, Davi,” he said. “But you know I gotta go. You gotta go too.” Joao was right—another day, another rodeo—so we cleaned up and dressed, grabbed our bags, and went outside to our trucks, my beat-up old Ford next to his brand-new Dodge like before and after.

“So, you going to Zuni next, right?” he asked. I nodded yes, knowing he wasn’t. Too small time for him now. He entered only major rodeos in huge arenas while I was still pissing around in small towns.

“I’ll see you in Albuquerque,” he promised. I nodded again but that was two weeks away and a lot could happen. It probably would. I had heard the rumors. But, fuck, I didn’t have a ring on my finger and neither did he. I did stuff too—for money mostly, sure as hell not for love or whatever it was Joao and I had. I wondered how much longer whatever it was would last…”

September: “Garden Party”
“Henry, what you doin’ for Labor Day?” my friend Bill Barnes drawled at me after plopping his long, lean body onto one of the green fabric chairs facing my desk.

“Nuthin,” I drawled back. Which wasn’t precisely true. I had an invitation to drive home to Nashville for a family picnic, but that could wait if Bill Barnes had a better idea. I loved my family, but I’d been after my colleague for years.

“Good,” he said, slapping his well-tailored thighs and standing up. “You’re coming home with me then. We can leave work early on Friday. Old Man Lafferty’s bound to announce an early closing. Bring a suit or two.”

“Wait! Where are we going?” I asked before his bodacious ass could sashay out of my door.

“The Delta, Henry. We still on for lunch?”

I nodded, sitting back in my chair. The Delta with Bill Barnes, his home territory. Well, I swan—as my granny used to say. The possibilities made it difficult for me to concentrate on the Smallsby case. I had heard about his family’s house, with its fluted columns and full-frontal verandah, often enough to wonder whether it truly existed. People do make up stories about plantations and civil war family valor. Wanting Bill Barnes and wondering about the house had come together in my mind, all part of my family’s upward social trajectory.

On the day, bags in hand, we ambled through heat and humidity toward the parking garage, Bill Barnes talking all the way. Mr. Lafferty, our managing attorney, had indeed let the staff leave early and given us attorneys the option. Normally, I might not have taken it, but I would follow Bill Barnes’s smile anywhere, anytime.

I gave God a little thank-you Bill had a convertible. The weather was so hot and heavy I had sweat through my dress shirt already. We headed south on US 61—the Blues Highway, Bill called it—through fields of farmers’ market gardens. I’d been to some on weekends.

“Do you like the blues?” I asked him.
“Not really. How about you?”
“Not really,” I repeated, staring at the mound of his

left pectoral exposed by the wind sluicing through the car, made possible by Bill undoing at least three buttons after he removed his tie. “I’m looking forward to meeting your family,” I said, trying to take my mind off his chest.

He gave me a funny look, but it vanished, and he slapped my thigh. “Hope you like crowds!” he exclaimed.

Just north of Clarksdale, a town I’d only seen on a map, we did a jog west and then south again on a narrow state highway, flanked by telephone poles along one side and a line of cottonwoods on the other. We drove fast through one disintegrating little southern town after another until Bill announced, “Here we are! Rosedale, Mississippi, my hometown.” I had imagined rows of elegant mansions and manicured lawns, given Bill’s often recited family history, so Rosedale with its rundown, ruined, and empty storefronts was quite disappointing. I wasn’t sorry when Bill didn’t stop. On the other side of town, we passed through a brief forest of sweet gums and more cottonwoods into a wide field of low green plants.

“What’s that?” I asked, nodding right.

“Our soybeans,” Bill answered. “We’re close to Beaulieu now.”

October: “Disaster Day”
“You don’t see many guys like him in a Native American bar unless they’re looking for red meat. Too big, too blond, and too white.

“Can I buy you a drink?” I asked, coming up alongside him. He looked startled like a deer in deep brush when he notices your gun.

“Uh, I guess so,” he said, ducking his head. His hair was short but curly, the kind you like to catch your fingers in.

“Okaaay, what’ll it be then?” I asked, after a few seconds had ticked by. Even in the dim light of the bar, I could tell he was blushing. Good. I like embarrassing white guys. Still, it was kind of funny, him being so big and all.

“A beer is fine.” He gulped like he was already drinking one. I waited some more, tapping my fingers on the bar. “Anything,” he said, stuttering a little.

I looked down at his tight shirt, tight body, and tight pants. “Anything?” I asked, wondering if he understood me.

He straightened up and looked me square in the eye, so I guess he did.

“Frank,” I said, not putting my hand out to shake.

“Randy,” he answered.

“Sure hope you are,” I said into his ear, giving it a lick. He jumped away and looked around the bar. I didn’t.

Everybody in the place knew I was queer, and nobody cared.

“Still want that beer?” I asked, keeping my face close to his.

“Sure,” he muttered, his mouth grim like I was bad medicine he had to take.

“A pale ale and an Eight Ball,” I told the bartender. Sarge didn’t ask which brand or ask for money. He probably figured the white guy would pay.

“Here you go,” Sarge said when he sat our beers down in front of us.

“Which one is mine?” the white guy asked, looking nervous. Hell, this guy wanted sex so badly I could smell it. One beer and we’re out of here was my bet.

I held the stout up for him to taste. He made a face. I handed him the pale ale.

“That’s good,” he said, after he swallowed some. “Thank you.”

Figures, I thought. Paleface, pale ale. I laughed. “What’s so funny?” he asked.
“Bottoms up!” I said, winking at him and clinking his glass with mine. He smiled uncertainly and took a big gulp. No, sir, it wouldn’t take long.

“Haven’t seen you around. Are you just passing through?” I asked. Passing through would be good. No complications.

“No,” he said, looking eager. “I live here now.” He didn’t say what part of town or where he was from originally, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t expect us to become Facebook friends. “

November: “Home on Leave”
“I was in my old room with posters of famous athletes still on the walls. My trophies lined the bookshelves. The comforter my mother crocheted for me covered my double bed. The same curtains, bought at Sears, framed the window. My teenage and college clothes hung in the closet or lay folded neatly into drawers.

“Maybe you’ll be able to wear them again,” Mom said behind me. I looked at her in disbelief. I’m an inch taller than high school and weigh forty pounds less than college, thanks to PT and carrying a ninety-pound pack.

“Okay, Mom. I’ll try them on.”

She smiled at me like only a mom can and smoothed an imaginary bump in the comforter. She had mailed another one to me—in red, white, and blue—during my basic training. It was on my bed back at Fort Benning. I didn’t care what the guys said about it. It said home to me, and home was a good place to be, especially at Thanksgiving.

My parents had met me in a new car at Logan. On the drive to Lawrence, they had asked the usual questions about the flight, the food, what I was going to do during my visit and whom I was going to see.

“Mary Jo Gleason is in town,” my mother said with an expectant smile. I didn’t have any specific plans yet, but one thing was for sure: I didn’t plan to hook up with an old girlfriend from high school.

In my room Mom brought it up again—not Mary Jo Gleason but dating women. “Any Georgia peaches?” she asked.

“Plenty, Mom,” I answered and started selecting clothes to try on, culling obvious ones for the Saint Vincent de Paul bin.

“I’ll leave you to it then,” she said and turned toward the door. Over her shoulder she added, “That sweater always looked good on you.” I took my high school varsity sweater out of the Saint Vincent pile and hung it back in the closet.

After Mom went downstairs, I stopped sorting old clothes and changed out of my uniform, which I hung in the middle of my sartorial past. I dressed in civvies bought in Georgia and went downstairs to watch football with my dad.

“Go help your mother,” he said, giving me a smile and a nod of his head in the right direction. I looked a lot like him from the neck down. From the chin up, I was all Mom.

As soon as I got through the swinging door to the kitchen, my sister, Mary Margaret, yelled, “What? No football?” I gave her a smooch and watched her shell peas. She looks like Mom too—all dark hair and pale skin. I still burn, even after all my assignments to sunny locales. My sister smiled our mother’s smile, handed me a knife, and jabbed hers at waiting bunches of carrots. We played sous chef and talked. She didn’t ask me about girls.

After a few minutes, I heard the front door open and three loud male voices coming our way. One was Dad’s, another was my brother’s, and the third I didn’t know. Its owner came into the kitchen first, leaned down, and gave my mother a kiss on the cheek.”

December: “Eight Nights”
“A package was waiting for me Monday morning, wrapped in blue paper and white ribbon. There was a card attached. The computer-generated printing read Dear Steven, Happy Hanukkah. I’m not Jewish but my name is Steven, and it was my desk, so I untied the ribbon and pried apart the blue paper and gold tissue. Inside was a simple black rubber ring two inches across. What kind of joke was this? A cock ring? Who would give me a cock ring? After staring at it a while, though, I wondered if I should try it on. I stretched it tentatively. Voices approaching made me hide the thing in my desk drawer as fast as I could.

Later, during a bathroom break, I slid it on in the privacy of a stall. A perfect fit. My brain said weird, but my cock seemed to like it. It swelled, ready for action, so I let my right hand have its way with me. Afterward, I eased the thing off and went back to work, not that I accomplished much. I spent most of the morning researching Hanukkah. Eight nights, miracle of the oil, symbolic of the survival of the Jewish people, gift giving each day. Got it.

I pondered what kind of Jewish admirer would give me a cock ring for the first night and what would he give me tomorrow. Images of cute Jewish men at Hendley Cavanaugh paraded through my thoughts. During an ostensible coffee break, I made an eleven o’clock tour of their company locations and looked meaningfully at each of them, but no one looked meaningfully back.

At six, the cock ring and I left for the evening. I wore it until I went to bed. My hand got very tired.

The second day another package said hello when I arrived. It was a little larger and softer but was also wrapped in blue and white with a small card on top. Happy Hanukkah it repeated, adding Wear me today. I opened and closed the tissue quickly. I had seen a jock strap inside, and it looked used. I scanned our office bay for hidden cameras, waited five minutes, and then thought why not?

I took the package to the men’s room. Back in the same stall, I held the jock up for a second look. It was white, or had been, and, yes, there were yellow stains on the crotch. Thinking about sharing cock space with another man made me horny. I rushed out of my slacks and boxers and slid the jock up my legs. The cup was tight around my cock and balls. The straps bit into my ass. The waistband was my size. Hmm.

That night, I introduced my first two gifts to each other. They played together nicely.

Wednesday, I arrived a half hour earlier than usual, but the package still beat me to my desk. This one was bigger yet, pliant but semi-hard. So was I. I ripped into it. A black leather vest. Kinky. And expensive. Was I being bought? Yes, I answered, and took my jacket off. The vest felt a little tight over my undershirt, dress shirt, and tie.

That night in the privacy of my own ten by ten studio apartment (plus the kitchenette), I dressed up in all three presents and stared at the full-length hanging mirror that came with the lease. One look proved you could take the Midwest out of the boy…

My Review:
If you are an anthology fan, I think you will really enjoy this one. I’m not going to review each story individually, but I will say that there is a nice diversity of characters and settings. There are interesting pairings–from a survivor of molestation in the church meeting the new Father What-A-Waste (that’s what the gals called sexy young priests back in my parish). Or the grieving partner who makes an unlikely connection visiting his lover’s grave. Or a tongue-tied. mid 30s, white accountant who inexplicably falls for the barely-legal Mexican tree salesman at the local nursery.

There are moments of heat, but not every story has them. There are definitely fade-to-black and implied intimacy parts, so steam is not a big factor in these stories. Instead, I think what ties all of these stories together is an unusual meet-cute coupled with a building connection. Though the stories are short, the time frame for each can span several months to a year, in some cases. So it’s not all about immediate gratification, even if the narrator would sometimes like that. You can expect the majority of these couples to talk to one another, to determine if they have compatible interests before they pursue something physical.

I do have a personal preference for novels, but these novella-length stories are just right for quick reads while commuting by bus or train, or during a brief downtime between video meetings, these days. You can pretty much expect a happy ending/happy for now ending from each of the stories, but do not expect them to build on one another. One might be a little spicy, and the next might be decidedly mild, in terms of sexual heat. But the connections will be strong and present, and the guys will find the right person for them in that moment and for the foreseeable future. Very enjoyable, and especially recommend to people who crave solid, but short, reads.

Interested? You can find GAY ALL YEAR on Goodreads, NineStar Press, and Amazon.

****GIVEAWAY****

Click on this Rafflecopter giveaway link for your chance to win a $10 GC to NineStar Press.
Good luck and keep reading my friends!

About the Author:
Richard May’s short fiction has been published in his collections Inhuman Beings: Monsters, Myths, and Science Fiction and Ginger Snaps: Photos & Stories (with photographer David Sweet) and numerous anthologies and literary periodicals. Rick also organizes two book readings at San Francisco bookstores, the Word Week annual literary festival, and the online book club Reading Queer Authors Lost to AIDS. He lives in San Francisco.

You can reach out to Richard on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Beating the Storm SEND LAWYERS, GUNS AND ROSES–Review and Giveaway

Hi there! Today I’m sharing an excerpt, review and giveaway for a contemporary M/M romance suspense novel newly re-released from Heloise West. SEND LAWYERS, GUNS, AND ROSES is the sequel to HITTING BLACK ICE, and really should be read in order.

Catch the review, excerpt and enter to win a $10 GC below.
About the book:
When Hunter and Alex are given the vacation of a lifetime, it’s a chance for them to pay attention to romance and get out of the path of danger. The tiny Caribbean island of Saba is gorgeous, the first to have marriage equality, and the Sabans are the nicest people on earth.

There’s lots of rum poolside for relaxing and a room with a mirror on the ceiling for passion. Hot karaoke nights, cold beer, and new friends.

But their new friends Orfeo and Max, and Max’s sister Talisha, share a troubling secret. Alex and Hunter want to help. As a hurricane bears down on them, a dead body surfaces, and a purple backpack loaded with stolen jewels leads a pair of dangerous men to the island.

Alex would rather poke his own eyes out with a pointy stick than call on his old enemy Nick Truman for help; he’d also do anything to keep Hunter out of danger. But even his nemesis can’t reach them now.

Once again, they only have each other to depend on as their paradise is about to become hell on earth.

How about a little taste?

Alex
The door closed behind the last customer, and the noisy bar returned to silence, a booze-fumed, tacky-underfoot silence where the small noises Alex made seemed twice as loud. His ears rang as he picked up the broom to sweep out the crap on the floor behind the bar.

The front door opened again, and his shoulders tensed. He cursed himself for not locking it when he’d shoved out the last drunk patron, distracted by the e-mail he’d received. A rookie mistake. He groped under the bar for the bat the owner had urged him to use if he suspected he needed to.

“Excuse me,” the man in the doorway said. He’d been in the bar earlier, an Asian man along with a rather bland, nondescript white guy.

Alex looked closer, not letting go of the bat. “We’re closed. Need me to call a cab for you?”

The man appeared innocuous, but innocuous-looking people could still be trouble. The instincts Alex had honed all those months on the run had stayed with him. Director Flint’s warnings about retaliation flashed through his mind.

The guy opened his mouth to answer Alex’s question, but someone shoved him from behind before he could speak, and he stumbled. Alex grabbed the neck of the bat.

“Didja ask him? Is it him?” The pushy friend pressed himself forward a few steps, far drunker than his buddy.

“We’re. Closed.” Alex threw some menace behind the authority in his voice and revealed the bat. The Asian man flinched and grabbed at his friend, who fished in his pocket for something.

“It’s him. You. Boy Blue,” the drunk man burbled.

Alex froze, shifting gears. He tightened his grip on the bat. Anger fueled his ass up and over the bar to land a few feet in front of the drunk who pulled out a phone, aimed it in his direction, and blinded him with the flash.

“You fucker!” Alex reached out to slap the phone away—too late, because the man had thrust it back into his pocket. Alex smacked the bat against the tiles on the floor. It made a sharp, solid noise, and they both looked at him with drunken, slow-motion surprise. “Get out before I call the cops!”

“Asshole!” The first guy grabbed his friend again, shoved him out the door, and slammed it shut behind him.

Alex locked it this time and leaned against it, heart racing. When it began to slow, he took a deep breath and another, and his temper faded. He had a date tonight, and if he didn’t move his ass, he’d be late. Cranking up Dropkick Murphys to exorcise the intruders, Alex cleaned the place out in record time. Once done, he grabbed his phone and clicked on the video text. Happy Birthday! The handmade sign filled the screen. Alex smiled.

Bare feet on their unmade bed. Hunter wiggled his toes, and Alex laughed. The phone camera traveled along Hunter’s shins to his knees, all dusted with brown and copper-tinged hair, and as he bent his left knee, the sheet fell from his muscular thigh. Hey, the pointed birthday hat covered his… Hunter stretched like a big cat, and the tip of the hat rocked as he adjusted his hips. Alex swallowed hard, mesmerized as the camera swept across Hunter’s hips and flat belly, up the opposite side of his body, past an erect pink nipple, the tattoo, and the hairy armpit, along his biceps, which he flexed, then forearm to wrist and the silver bracelet around it. Alex’s heart gave a little lurch, beating faster. His boyfriend had handcuffed himself naked to the bed for his birthday.

Oh, honey. Alex groaned, grabbed his wallet and keys from the cash register, and ran for the door.

He jogged out into the warm June night, the sky clear and sparkling over Delingham as he jumped into the car. He hoped to get home without wrecking the care while Hunter’s video replayed in his head. His blood boiled for Hunter.

He drove through the quiet streets. Alex hadn’t wanted to come back to Delingham at all, but Hunter’s family had made sure the rent got paid on his apartment. At least they had a safe place to go to when Hunter recovered from Dale Markham’s accidental gunshot wound. Dale Markham, former FBI agent, rotting in jail—someplace hot, Alex hoped, good practice for when he got to hell. Nick Truman, too, but a big black hole existed where he’d once been. Maybe they had put him in Witness Protection like Nick had hoped. The case against the two men who had murdered Alex’s uncle had become a nonissue, since before they could be taken into custody, someone had killed them.

Nothing like thinking about those things to defeat his raging hard-on, so he blasted out Dropkick Murphys again to fuel up the testosterone.

“Here I come, baby,” he murmured.

Not finding a parking spot near the apartment building set him seething and grinding his teeth. His lot in life had improved, but not his temper. He dropped the keys twice on the front stairs and made it through the door before he considered alerting Hunter. Alex texted—coming up now—and smiled to think again of Hunter there, waiting, naked, and handcuffed to the bed. They’d talked about playing like this but hadn’t got around to it yet. In the video, Hunter had kept the wounded leg covered; he hated the scar, the asymmetry where they’d taken part of the muscle during surgery. Doing better after a pretty deep depression before his physical therapist motivated him on the road to getting back in shape.

Yeah, we’re doing good.

Alex kicked away his shoes and whipped off his socks. “It’s me!” In the bedroom, both the music and the lights were low. Alex opened the door, grinning from ear to ear. Hunter grinned back at him, naked on the bed, the party hat on his head tipped at a rakish angle. A second set of cuffs dangled off the tips of his fingers. Alex pulled his shirt up and over his head, wrecking his hair, but he didn’t care. Hunter’s eyes were on him; Alex wanted Hunter drinking him in as much as Alex drank in Hunter. Alex had set himself up with a rigorous workout schedule to prep for the physical part of the special agent application process. He didn’t know for sure if he’d get accepted, but the real payoff lay in Hunter’s eyes.

Alex worked the zipper of his jeans. “Have you been waiting long?” He stripped off his jeans and underwear.

“I’m fine. Come and have your birthday cake.” Hunter laughed, the sexy, dirty laugh Alex loved. Hunter’s whole body moved in a sinuous, inviting wiggle, and the cuffs rattled. Alex’s cock and heart led him right into the bed like the needle on a compass pointing true north. He straddled Hunter, their legs tangling together in the sheets. He ran his hands over Hunter’s bulging biceps; he and Hunter had been working out together.

Hunter, his dream of love, impossible, unreachable. His selfishness for staying with Hunter kept him awake at night, tossing and turning, his head filled with fear. Vargas or Truman would take Hunter from him, from the world, and he’d be left to live out his days without Hunter, knowing he had been the one to cause his death.

Alex kissed Hunter to burn away his fears. When he put his hand down on the bed to brace himself, he touched the second set of cuffs. “I can’t believe you did this for me.”

“I guess you liked the video?”

Alex froze for a moment, like he had in the bar when the drunk guy had called him Boy Blue. Looking around, he found the webcam on the nightstand beside Hunter’s laptop and moved it into the top drawer.

“Ah,” Hunter said. “I thought you might want to make a sex tape, you know, for us?” He smiled cute and sexy, but Alex shook his head.

“I want my cake.” He nibbled Hunter’s neck.

“Did something happen in the bar tonight?” Hunter’s eyes were so light blue they appeared gray, but this close they were dark with concern. “You looked worried there for a minute.”

“Nothing to worry about,” Alex assured him, hoping he spoke the truth.

“Okay?” Hunter bucked his hips under his. “Come on, baby. Let’s go. I’ve been lying here thinking about you and all the things you’re going to do to me when you get home.”

My Review:
This is the second book in a series and is best enjoyed when read in order.

Alex and Hunter are two men healing from a tragic event. (Alex had been wanted by the FBI due to fabricated charges and double-agent shenanigans. Hunter was shot in the kerfuffle, and is still recuperating.) They met when Alex was working at a busy, urban hospital emergency room together. Hunter is a Physician’s Assistant, though he hasn’t worked in six months due to recovery from his injury. Alex had his graduate school dreams derailed by the FBI manhunt and has since found a new purpose: joining the FBI to help root out bad agents, if he gets accepted.

In the meantime, they accept a trip to the isolated Caribbean isle of Saba to spend time with old friends of Alex’s mothers. Reunited with a childhood friend, Orfeo, Alex’s budding Feeb senses begin to tingle–particularly when Orfeo’s partner Max and his sister Talisha seem to get freaked out by Alex’s desire to join the FBI. Hunter can’t help noticing how agitated they become, too, so it’s not only Alex getting worried about his friend’s welfare. This is not an exaggeration; the island’s first murder in a decade occurs a few days later, and the subject was a PI staying at Orfeo’s hotel. Despite their worries, Alex and Hunter make a lot of headway into their own sexytimes–and Hunter considers making some serious declarations…of the marital type. If he can muster the nerve, that is.

As a hurricane bears down on Saba the whole mystery becomes infinitely more deadly. And not just because of the weather. Max and Talisha have Really Bad Guys on their tail who are probably only the tip of the gargantuan iceberg of their problems. Expect a lot of hiding, scrabbling for incriminating details, and sexytimes. Oh, also, a hurricane, two desperate chases, dangerous criminals, and collaboration with known felons to hopefully make it out alive. It’s an intriguing romantic suspense, and I’m sure we’ll see more of Hunter and Alex in another book, likely set in Quantico, VA!

Interested? You can find SEND LAWYERS, GUNS, AND ROSES on Goodreads, NineStar Press, and Amazon.

****GIVEAWAY****

Click on this Rafflecopter giveaway link for your chance to win a $10 gift code to NineStar Press.
Good luck and keep reading my friends!

About the Author:
Heloise West, when not hunched over the keyboard plotting love and mayhem, dreams about moving to a villa in Tuscany. She loves history, mysteries, and romance of all flavors. She travels and gardens with her partner of 10 years, and their home overflows with books, cats, art, and red wine.

You can find Heloise on her blog, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Tumblr and Goodreads.

Now Available M4M–Excerpt and Giveaway!

Hi there! Today I’m excited to share an excerpt and giveaway for a newly re-released M/M romance from mega-writer Rick R. Reed. M4M explores the darker side of dating in the gay world, with apps and images attempting to connect lonely souls. If you liked THE PERILS OF INTIMACY, LEGALLY WED, or THE SECRETS WE KEEP you’ll likely enjoy this one, too.

Scroll down for an excerpt and to enter the $10 GC giveaway.
About the book:
Three great stories. One great love.
VGL Male Seeks Same

Poor Ethan Schwartz. It seems like he will never find that special someone. At age forty-two, he’s still alone, his bed still empty, and his 42-inch HDTV overworked. He’s tried the bars and other places where gay men are supposed to find one another, but for Ethan, it never works out. He wonders if it ever will. Should he get a cat?

But all of that is about to change…

NEG UB2

Poor Ethan Schwartz. He’s just had the most shocking news a gay man can get—he’s been diagnosed HIV positive. Up until today, he thought his life was on a perfect course. He had a job he loved and something else he thought he’d never have: Brian, a new man, one whom Ethan thought of as “the one.” The one who would complete him, who would take his life from a lonely existence to a place filled with laughter, hot sex, and romance.

But along with the fateful diagnosis comes another shock—is Brian who he thinks he is?

Status Updates

Ethan finds himself alone once more and wonders if life is worth living, even one with a cat. Via a Facebook friend request, an old nemesis appears, wanting to be friends. Ethan is suspicious but intrigued because it seems this old acquaintance has turned his life around…and the changes just might hold the key to Ethan getting a new lease on life…and love.

How about a little taste?

Ethan Schwartz was alone. At forty-two, the state of being alone was almost like having another person by his side, a person he was growing to know more and more intimately with each passing night in his too-big-for-one bed. In fact, Ethan sometimes wondered if being alone was his natural state of being. Perhaps it was simply his fate to spend his evenings in front of his brand-new forty-two-inch Toshiba HDTV, watching classic 1940s movies from an endless queue at Netflix.

He wondered if his life would ever change. Maybe he would continue to go to work at his job as a publicist for several Chicago theater companies, come home about seven o’clock, nuke a Lean Cuisine, fall asleep in front of the TV, and repeat the routine until he expired.

He had thought, as he tossed in bed at night, in those endlessly stretching hours slogging their way toward dawn, of getting a dog or even a cat. He envisioned himself walking into his apartment door at night, greeted by a French bulldog’s grin or the slightly harlotish leg rub of a Maine coon. But an animal just didn’t seem like—well, it just didn’t seem like enough.

In the above scenario, he also imagined a man coming in the same door minutes later and Ethan getting the four-legged companion riled up by saying “Daddy’s home!” No, Ethan knew—in his heart of hearts—he wanted an animal of the two-legged variety, one who would talk back to him, one he could spend long autumn weekends in Door County with, one he could take out to dinner parties and bring home to his family at Christmas. He wanted an animal that wouldn’t shed and would need little housebreaking. Well, at least not much. At forty-two, Ethan had lowered expectations.

He also dreaded the thought of subjecting some poor tabby or Boston terrier to a solitary existence much like his own. After all, the stand-in-for-a-boyfriend pet would spend most of its time roaming the apartment by his or her lonesome and staring mournfully out the window because of Ethan’s long hours at work.

He knew from experience that subjecting an unsuspecting animal to an existence akin to his own would be cause for calling out the SPCA.

So Ethan would have to go on dreaming of meeting Mr. Right in human form and continue to watch as those dreams faded into wispy gossamer as the years relentlessly marched toward old age. Already Ethan found it necessary to use a moisturizer on his face and a depilatory on his back. His dark brown hair he kept buzzed close to his skull in an effort to minimize its traitorous thinning. Starting at around age thirty-two, every year he’d added a pound or two to his five-foot-ten-inch frame, and every year that pound or two became harder and harder to lose, in spite of long, sweaty hours on the treadmill or a diet consisting chiefly of the frozen culinary delights of the people at Smart Choice, Lean Cuisine, or South Beach Diet.

Heading toward middle age sucked…especially when you were doing it alone.

Tonight Ethan dug in the Doritos bag for one remaining chip of decent size while glued to the adventures of Ugly Betty. Why couldn’t he at least find a nice nerd, as Betty once had? Why couldn’t he at least have a little drama at work, like the Mexican magazine assistant faced every single day of her charmed life? Ethan’s days were spent trying to chat up theater critics in hopes of persuading them to write a review or feature on whatever play he was pushing that week. Or he holed up in his cube and wrote the same press release over and over, with only the titles, venues, and dates changed. When he had taken the job ten years ago, he’d thought the free nights out at the theater would be a great way to get dates. He’d assumed he would meet lots of handsome actors, and they would all want to cozy up to the publicist who could get them so much press.

He’d thought wrong.

Ethan got up and shut off the TV and threw his Doritos bag in the trash. He stretched and looked out the window. His move to this North Side Chicago neighborhood had been another misguided romantic maneuver, one that started full of hope and confidence and had been dashed by cold reality. He felt even more isolated and alone as he looked down from his studio apartment on Halsted Street, the blocks between Belmont and Addison that Chicagoans referred to as Boystown. When he had rented the little studio above a gay bookstore a decade ago, he had reasoned that wrangling a date would be no more difficult than hanging out his third story window with a smoldering gaze and a come-hither pout.

He had reasoned wrong.

Shortly after Ethan had moved in and hung his first Herb Ritts poster, Boystown had begun quickly gentrifying itself. Most of the gays moved farther north to Andersonville or even Rogers Park. Sure, gay bars still lined the street, and the teeming throngs continued to taunt him with luscious examples of masculinity on the prowl, but it had been a long time since one of the minions had made his way up the creaking stairs to Ethan’s studio.

Oh, he supposed he could throw on some jeans, T-shirt, and his Asics and run across the street to Roscoe’s or any of the other watering holes lining the rainbow-pyloned avenue, but he had been to that dry well too many times to even consider it. Every year, it seemed, there was a new crop of gorgeous twentysomethings laughing and drinking…and practiced in the art of ignoring nice but nondescript men like Ethan. One could only endure so long the hours of standing against a wall, Stella Artois in hand, trying to look approachable and then never being approached. It didn’t do much for the ego.

And it didn’t do much for the wallet. Or the self-esteem. Or certainly the romantic, or even sex, life.

No, the bars had long ago lost their allure, becoming more and more an exclusive club for younger gays looking to hook up, or dance, or text message each other…or whatever other ways they found these days to make Ethan feel old. Besides, Ethan hoped for a more meaningful connection.

And with each gray hair, each crow’s-foot and laugh line stamped upon his features, he despaired of ever finding it.

He padded into the little bathroom and gasped as a cockroach beat a hasty retreat into a crack between the baseboard and linoleum-tiled floor. He shook his head and thought that even the bugs wanted nothing to do with him.

He looked at his tired face in the mirror and laughed. “Jesus,” he said to his reflection, “you’re pathetic.” He held his aging mug up to the light cast by the overhead fixture and said, “What’s wrong with everybody? You’re not so old. You’re not so bad.” And indeed, Ethan spoke the truth. He looked every bit of his forty-two years, but that was still pretty young, wasn’t it? Didn’t somebody at the office just yesterday say something about forty being the new thirty? And his face, while certainly not Brad Pitt sexy, was pleasing, with a nice cleft in his chin, a strong nose, and deep blue eyes framed by long black lashes. His lips were a bit thin—a gift from his German father—and he could probably use some sun to give his pasty complexion a little pizzazz, but all in all, it wasn’t a face one would run from, screaming into the night. It was every bit as cute as a Tom Hanks or Will Ferrell.

Ethan pulled his toothbrush from the medicine cabinet and decorated its bristles with orange gel—when had toothpaste gone orange?—and gave his teeth a savage brushing, even though his dentist always admonished him about that, telling him a slow, gentle course was the way, lest he wanted to erode his gums entirely away. But Ethan had never been able to dissuade himself from the idea that the harder the brush, the whiter the teeth.

He spit and wiped his mouth on the hand towel and headed back into the common area to pull out his queen-size—hush!—futon for another night of lonely slumber.

Tomorrow, he thought, he had to do something about his depressing state. And he did not mean moving out of Illinois. Somewhere there had to be a companion for him, just waiting. His dream man wasn’t in all the places he had fruitlessly checked, like the bars, backstage, and in his office. But he was out there, and like Ethan, he too was pulling the covers up by himself and thinking the answer to the riddle of how to escape a solitary existence was just within reach.

Just before he fell asleep, he wondered if his mystery man also cynically told himself the same thing every night.

“Shut up!” Ethan cried into the darkness. And then whispered, muffled into his pillow, “Tomorrow will be different. I just know it.”

I won’t be reviewing this, because I’m too strapped for time with teaching remotely, and getting my little ones on the remote learning cycle, but I would have if I could have!!

Interested? You can find M4M on Goodreads, NineStar Press, and Amazon.

****GIVEAWAY****

Click on this Rafflecopter link for your chance to win a $10 NineStar Press GC.
Good luck and keep reading my friends!

About the Author:
Real Men. True Love.

Rick R. Reed is an award-winning and bestselling author of more than fifty works of published fiction. He is a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Entertainment Weekly has described his work as “heartrending and sensitive.” Lambda Literary has called him: “A writer that doesn’t disappoint…” Find him at http://www.rickrreedreality.blogspot.com. Rick lives in Palm Springs, CA, with his husband, Bruce, and their fierce Chihuahua/Shiba Inu mix, Kodi.

Catch up with Rick on his website, Facebook, twitter and Instagram.

Making That Connection BETTER THAN PEOPLE–A Review

Hi there! Today I’m sharing a review for a contemporary M/M romance from Roan Parrish. BETTER THAN PEOPLE features a temporary invalid with a pack of rescue animals and the deeply introverted man whose assistance with cat feeding and dog walking melts his icy heart. Previous books I’ve enjoyed from this author include RIVEN and REND and RAZE, all rock romances, so they were very different to this sweet and tender story.

About the book:
It’s not long before their pet-centric arrangement sparks a person-centric desire…

Simon Burke has always preferred animals to people. When the countdown to adopting his own dog is unexpectedly put on hold, Simon turns to the PetShare app to find the fluffy TLC he’s been missing. Meeting a grumpy children’s book illustrator who needs a dog walker isn’t easy for the man whose persistent anxiety has colored his whole life, but Jack Matheson’s menagerie is just what Simon needs.

Four dogs, three cats and counting. Jack’s pack of rescue pets is the only company he needs. But when a bad fall leaves him with a broken leg, Jack is forced to admit he needs help. That the help comes in the form of the most beautiful man he’s ever seen is a complicated, glorious surprise.

Being with Jack—talking, walking, making out—is a game changer for Simon. And Simon’s company certainly eases the pain of recovery for Jack. But making a real relationship work once Jack’s cast comes off will mean compromise, understanding, and lots of love.

My Review:
Jack Matheson is an introverted illustrator of children’s books. He lives alone with his pack of rescued animals–dogs and cats alike, near his older brother Charlie in rural Wyoming. Jack met a man in college, a Davis, who became a friend. Knowing Jack was a good artist, Davis asked him to illustrate a school project, then a story to celebrate his sister’s baby. And, that developed into a partnership after college. Unfortunately, Davis took Jack’s idea for a story and shopped it as his own, and Jack’s been in a depression- and rage-fueled block that has robbed him of his lifelong passion of art for almost the past year.

One night Jack’s out walking his dog pack when skittish shenanigans leave Jack in the bottom of a ditch with a badly broken leg. He can’t manage his animals’ care while in a cast on crutches, so Jack seeks help via an app called PetShare, and that’s when Jack’s life starts to turn around.

Simon Burke is beautiful. Like an angel almost in Jack’s opinion. But Simon has troubles with his intense shyness. A single man, he lives as a companion to his recently widowed grandma, and owns his own graphic design business. When he agrees to assist Jack in the care of his cats and dogs, Simon is almost unable to even knock at Jack’s door he’s so scared. But the animals love Simon. And Simon finds that he is able to talk to them as surrogates for people. Simon finds Jack to be utterly sexy, not that he’s able to say so. Yet, the needs of the animals put Jack and Simon into close proximity twice daily, and with exposure comes bravery, on Simon’s part—and Jack seems to find him a muse worth sketching. Their conversation is a battle, almost, to see if they can find common ground enough to confess their attraction, and Jack makes a key choice to have Simon text him when he’s too overwhelmed to speak, even if they are sitting side by side on Jack’s couch.

The close they become, the more intense Simon’s shyness—because Jack’s healing and he soon won’t need Simon around. And why would such a sexy man want a shy, recluse of a partner anyway?

This really is a special story with two men who’ve been emotionally wounded by some of the people who should have most cared for them. Jack’s relationship with Charlie is so key, He really loves his elder brother who became his guardian when their parents died. And as close as they are, it takes this big setback for Jack to challenge himself to get to know Charlie, who has become a rather solitary man. Was that because of his duties to his brother? And how can Jack show Simon how much he loves him, if Simon wants to shut him out to protect his fragile heart.

They are some very yummy sexy times, as Jack teaches Simon all he can about pleasing a partner. I really loved both Jack and Simon, and all their crazy fur-babies. They had such cute personalities, especially Pirate the cat who thinks she’s the leader of the dogs. I think she may have inspired sweet Simon to stretch himself into social situations he was barely able to manage. I loved how both Simon and Jack grew in this story. Jack learned to trust both himself and others again, and he also stretched himself both personally and professionally in very new ways. And, Simon gets way more than his first kiss from Jack, who truly loves him properly. It’s delightful and endearing. Highly recommend!

Interested? You can find BETTER THAN PEOPLE on Goodreads, Carina Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books and Kobo. I read a review copy via NetGalley.

About the Author:
Roan Parrish lives in Philadelphia, where she is gradually attempting to write love stories in every genre.

When not writing, she can usually be found cutting her friends’ hair, meandering through whatever city she’s in while listening to torch songs and melodic death metal, or cooking overly elaborate meals. She loves bonfires, winter beaches, minor chord harmonies, and self-tattooing. One time she may or may not have baked a six-layer chocolate cake and then thrown it out the window in a fit of pique. She is represented by Courtney Miller-Callihan of Handspun Literary Agency.

You can find Roan online on her website, Facebook and twitter.

Thanks for popping in and keep reading my friends!

Appearances Deceive GOING DUTCH–A Review

Hi there! Today, I’m sharing a review for a TBT M/M contemporary “dramady” from James Gregor. GOING DUTCH features a single gay graduate student in NYC struggling to find direction, purpose and love in his life.

About the book:
Exhausted by dead-end forays in the gay dating scene, surrounded constantly by friends but deeply lonely in New York City, and drifting into academic abyss, twenty-something graduate student Richard has plenty of sources of anxiety. But at the forefront is his crippling writer’s block, which threatens daily to derail his graduate funding and leave Richard poor, directionless, and desperately single.

Enter Anne: his brilliant classmate who offers to “help” Richard write his papers in exchange for his company, despite Richard’s fairly obvious sexual orientation. Still, he needs her help, and it doesn’t hurt that Anne has folded Richard into her abundant lifestyle. What begins as an initially transactional relationship blooms gradually into something more complex.

But then a one-swipe-stand with an attractive, successful lawyer named Blake becomes serious, and Richard suddenly finds himself unable to detach from Anne, entangled in her web of privilege, brilliance, and, oddly, her unabashed acceptance of Richard’s flaws. As the two relationships reach points of serious commitment, Richard soon finds himself on a romantic and existential collision course—one that brings about surprising revelations.

Going Dutch is an incisive portrait of relationships in an age of digital romantic abundance, but it’s also a heartfelt and humorous exploration of love and sexuality, and a poignant meditation on the things emotionally ravenous people seek from and do to each other. James Gregor announces himself with levity, and a fresh, exciting voice in his debut

My Review:
Richard is a gay graduate student in New York City struggling to complete his doctoral thesis due to writer’s block. His living money is dependent upon him continuing to write papers and win grants, and he just…can’t. He’s eternally depressed, and pines for his best friend–a situation that doesn’t get any better.

It’s a bit of a crisis, this not having money, and his advisor is less than helpful. Richard’s fortunes seem to change when one of his fellow grad students, Anne, offers to help him with his writing. All she wants is his company. And, not in a sexy way. She’s wealthy and lonely, and they get along. They’re friends…of a sort. Richard actually doesn’t have a lot of close friends. Richard isn’t above having Anne write any and all work on his behalf. He doesn’t outright take credit for all the work she’s done, but he also doesn’t admit to how little of the writing he does in their “collaboration” either.

Richard looks for love in the way of young urban men in the digital age–via his apps. And it seems like he gets a bunch of duds. One disastrous date with Blake seems to put him off looking for men altogether, and that’s okay, because he has Anne’s odd fascination/friendship to prop him up and help him feel somewhat worthwhile. Spoiler alert: Richard isn’t really that worthwhile, at least, that’s how he feels and that’s how he came across the page to me, as a guy biding his time fore the Bigger Better Deal he couldn’t actually accomplish for himself.

As Richard commits more and more of his time to Anne and her desires, while sponging off of her generosity, he and Blake actually make a latent connection. And, it seems like Richard will FINALLY make a good choice, one that will jump start his lackadaisical approach to everything. And…I got my hopes up too soon on that one.

This book is billed as a “dramedy” and a comedy of manners, but my Midwestern manners didn’t align with Richard’s by any stretch. I thought I could connect because I was once a starving grad student who had to write her thesis in order to get paid, too. Unfortunately, Richard’s a guy I wouldn’t want to be friendly with, for fear he’d be looking down at me while simultaneously holding his hand out for a payout. His handling of relationships with both Anne and Blake definitely qualified as falling into the “user” category, and that’s never how I like my MCs. Despite the dubious character flaws, I found the prose interesting and compelling, causing me to read on even when I knew I was traveling into parts I wouldn’t care for. And, even though I didn’t much care for any of the characters or their choices, they had a gritty authenticity and enough texture that I could see these vapid sort of folks as real beings. They were just the sort of people I don’t like to spend time with, even when it’s time on the page. I’m sure the plot is like some great and timely show on TV, or a movie about urban folks doing their urban thing, but I don’t watch a lot of that stuff, so it didn’t resonate with me as a reader.

That said, if you like contemporary urban gay fiction the book might be a winner for you. It had some great press behind it upon release, which was why I chose to read it.

Interested? You can find GOING DUTCH on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books and Kobo. I read a review copy provided by NetGalley.

About the Authors:
James Gregor holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia. He has been a writer in residence at the Villa Lena Foundation in Tuscany and a bookseller at Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris. James was born and grew up in Canada. Going Dutch is his first novel.

Thanks for popping in, and keep reading my friends!

New Beginnings in TRADE DEADLINE–A Review

Hi there! Today, I’m sharing a review for a new M/M contemporary hockey romance from the writing team of Avon Gale and Piper Vaughn. TRADE DEADLINE featuers a veteran hockey player whose tranfer to a failing team doesn’t bring the professional results he was looking for, but does reconnect him to his childhood love. I really enjoyed PERMANENT INK and OFF THE ICE by this team and I wasn’t let down with this new story.

About the book:
It’s a reunion to remember…

Daniel “Bellzie” Bellamy should be on top of the world—a Stanley Cup is the perfect topper to his fourteen-year NHL career. But despite the post-win high, something’s missing. When the chance to play for his hometown team, the Miami Thunder, comes along, he’s open to it. And when he runs into an old friend from his past soon after he makes the move, he wonders if it might be kismet.

Micah Kelly never thought he’d see his childhood crush—and first kiss—again. Danny Bellamy moved on to bigger and better things when they were teenagers, and the idea that Micah’s relationship with the professional hockey player could be anything more than one-sided Instagram thirst seems too good to be true.

Maybe too good to be true is the new reality, though. As the season goes on, Micah teaches Daniel to surf, and Daniel introduces Micah to his lovable pack of rescue dogs and the world of being a hockey boyfriend. Life is good. But when things on the ice don’t go as planned, they’ll have to decide if their rediscovered romance is built to last.

My Review:
Daniel Bellamy is the captain of the Stanley Cup winning Atlanta Venom, and he’s evaluating his life and career goals. Though he’s satisfied, he’s not sure that he’s truly happy. He’s in his mid 30s, recently amicably divorced, and feeling a bit unsettled–especially as he’s really beginning to embrace his bisexual side. He has two young kids, and his ex-wife is beautiful and lovely, but really she’s his best friend after all these years together.

Daniel is presented with an opportunity to move from the Venom to his childhood hometown of Miami, to play for the Thunder, a perennial cellar-dwelling team. For Daniel, it would bring him close to his retired parents, and allow him to share his experience on a top team with guys who are struggling to make it to the playoffs. His ex is willing to relocate her home, too, so they can continue to co-parent their kids. She likes the idea of having the grandparents nearby, and they all dote on Daniel’s rescued dogs–of which there are many.

So, they all make the move. And…Daniel’s new team is a challenge. There are interpersonal issues with his new captain–who thinks Daniel is there to take over the team. The stands are either empty or filled with fans of the opposing team, and the coaching staff seems to be on autopilot. In short, Daniel is having the worst season of hockey ever–even if his personal stats aren’t horrible. One bright spot, however, is the reconnection he makes with his childhood best friend, Micah Kelly. Daniel had a fierce crush on Micah as a teen, but he moved to Chicago to play juniors hockey, and he’s not been back too often since. They lost touch, and Micah blamed himself for taking a chance and kissing Daniel just before he left.

Micah is gay, and was disowned by his parents in high school when he was outed. He worked hard to complete high school while couch surfing, and paid his way through both college and grad school to become a marine biologist. He currently manages a refuge and rescue aquarium where sea animals injured in the wild get brought for treatment and rehabilitation, or permanent care if they can’t be safely returned to the wild. Micah has struggled to find a steady relationship, because he works long hours and his partners weren’t always respectful of that. And, he’s kinda always had a residual crush on Daniel, who he’s been able to keep tabs on via social media. Their reconnection was a bit of kismet–Daniel seeing him in the nearly empty stands of a game–and their friendship picks up easily. Almost too easily.

Micah has abandonment issues–because of his family abandoning him. He doesn’t want to get too close to Daniel, only to have him get traded, or worse: return to his family. It takes a bit of convincing, actually for Micah to take Daniel’s interest and attraction seriously. Daniel is not a player, in the sexual sense. He craves stability and a long-standing love. He will always love his ex-wife, they both agree it will only be platonic. And, the career move may be a reality–with the Thunder still having chemistry and play issues, they might trade Daniel to another team for financial or player considerations. So, while Daniel’s personal life seems to be soaring, his professional life is a hard slog. The one saving grace there is an entry into pee-wee hockey, which his 5 y/o daughter seems to love. And, the juniors team is really hoping to meet Daniel and gain insight into getting into hockey as a career.

This is a really sweet reconnection romance for Daniel and Micah. They have insecurities and vulnerabilities, and they do the hard work of discussing them, once their fling shapes up to be something quite more permanent. I loved watching this blended family share experiences and holidays together. Micah really fits Daniel’s life and friend spheres, as well. Daniel’s decision-making, as the trade deadline approaches, is the main focus of the conflict, but Micah has a big decision t make, too. Will he be happy having Daniel in his life even part-time, if a trade takes him far from their home in Miami? There’s a lot of good people in this story, and some yummy sexytimes, as Micah shares his own expertise in the art of loving a man. I enjoyed this story, and couldn’t stop turning the pages, thoroughly charmed by the low angst and total sweetness of these men falling in love. The epilogue is as delicious an HEA as I’ve recently read.

If you like hockey romance, this might be a good pick for you.

Interested? You can find TRADE DEADLINE on Goodreads, Carina Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books and Kobo. I read a review copy provided by NetGalley.

About the Authors:
Avon Gale lives in a liberal Midwestern college town, where she spends her days getting heavily invested in everything from craft projects to video games. She likes road trips by car, rock concerts, thunderstorms, IPAs, Kentucky bourbon and tattoos. As a queer author, Avon is committed to providing happy endings for all and loves to tell stories that focus on found families, strong and open communication, and friendship. She loves writing about quirky people who might not be perfect, but always find a place where they belong. In her former life, Avon wrote fanfiction at her desk while ostensibly doing work in non-profit fundraising for public radio and women’s liberal arts education, and worked on her books in between haircuts and highlights as a stylist. Now she’s a full-time writer, delighted to be able to tell stories for a living.

Avon is represented by Courtney Miller-Callihan of Handspun Literary Agency.

You can find Avon on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest or sign up for her newsletter.

Piper Vaughn is a queer Latinx author and longtime romance reader. Since writing their first love story at age eleven, they’ve known writing in some form was exactly what they wanted to do. A reader to the core, Piper loves nothing more than getting lost in a great book.

Piper grew up in a diverse neighborhood in Chicago and loves putting faces and characters of every ethnicity in their stories, making their fictional worlds as colorful as the real one. Above all, Piper believes there’s no one way to have an HEA, and every person deserves to see themselves reflected on the page.

You can find Piper online on her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Thanks for popping in, and keep reading my friends!

Necessary Upheaval for THE ASSISTANT–Review and Giveaway!

Hi there! Today I’m sharing a review for a M/M contemporary romance from John Tristan. THE ASSISTANT features a down-on-his-luck veteran of Hawaiian descent making life simultaneously more comfortable and more difficult for his new boss, a wealthy trans-man with fibromyalgia.

Scroll down for an excerpt, and to enter the giveaway for a $10 GC.
About the book:
Burned out ex-soldier Nick Kurosawa has drifted from job to job since he lost his family in a car crash. Lately, he’s been working on and off as a bouncer, barely managing to cover his bills; an opportunity for steady, well-paying work is just what he needs to get his life back in order.

Jacob Umber, a secretive philanthropist, gives him that opportunity. Umber has fibromyalgia and needs a personal assistant to help him with the tasks of daily living—someone strong, adaptable, and, most of all, willing to let Umber take the lead.

It seems a perfect opportunity for Nick. More than anything, he craves guidance and a purpose, and Umber gives him that in spades. When Nick starts craving more, it seems an impossible complication, but even the reserved Umber can’t deny Nick’s talent—and need—for following his orders. But Umber’s shadowy past holds secrets that could undo their fragile new relationship and any hope Nick has of a normal life.

How about a little taste?

It was a clear autumn night, with the moon low and yellow above the city. Between its fullness and the lights, only a few stars could be made out, pinpoints in the raw black silk of the night. Nick stood with his fists balled above the man breathing hard in the gutter. A trickle of spilled beer ran into his hair, foaming like shampoo. He smelled sour, of sweat and fear.

“Jesus, man!” The man’s companion—a skinny young guy with a circular Band-Aid over one eye, like a discount pirate—crouched beside him. “Somebody call an ambulance! Call the cops!”

“By all means,” Nick said. He forced himself to take a step back, unclench his fists. “Let’s call the cops and tell them the whole story.”

Discount Pirate slit his eye at him and helped his companion to his feet. The man was dazed but seemed unhurt. Still—he could easily have a concussion.

Nick hesitated. “Maybe we should call an ambulance—”

“Forget it,” the man said thickly and spat into the gutter. In the neon and moonlight, the blood in his mouth looked black. His eyes met Nick’s, and this was the worst part: they understood each other perfectly. He’d wanted to start a fight, and Nick had taken the bait. Another night, it would have fallen out differently.

“Let’s get out of here,” Discount Pirate said, putting a proprietary arm around his companion’s waist and dragging him off into the darkness.

Nick let out a shaky breath. The street was empty, now; if he was lucky, this wouldn’t get back to Merritt, who owned the Hellhole. He hadn’t hired Nick to start fights but to stop them as gently as possible—de-escalation, not macho bullshit. The Hellhole was the only gay bar in Westerley, which meant it drew both the occasional snickering asshole and its share of ex-boyfriend drama. Merrick wouldn’t thank him for bad publicity.

“Jesus, Nick.”

Fuck. This was the last thing he needed. He turned toward the familiar voice. “Hey, Alex.”

Alexander Finn—his friend, once-upon-a-time fuck-buddy, and self-appointed social worker—had come up out of the Hellhole at just the wrong time. Sweat was still beaded on his pale forehead, cooling rapidly in the night air. “What happened?”

“Didn’t know you were down here tonight,” Nick said, affecting a breezy tone. “Must have been here before my shift started.”

Alex rolled his eyes. “I know you’re not jealous, so you’re trying to deflect. What happened?” He took out his cigarette case—silver, engraved—and popped one into his bow-lipped mouth, then offered one to Nick.

He reached for it, then hesitated. “Haven’t smoked in months.”

Alex gave him a skeptical look. “Come on.”

“Vaping doesn’t count.”

He laughed softly. “I’ll give you that one.” He snapped the case closed and tucked it away. “Talk.”

“I don’t know.” Nick ran his hands through his hair. “The guy just. Got under my skin. It’s like he knew how to push my buttons.”

“You’re not supposed to have buttons while you’re on the door.”

“Fuck you. Give me a cigarette.”

He did; they smoked together in the neon-lit dark.

“This job…” Alex chewed on his thoughts for a moment. “It’s not good for you. This isn’t the first time you’ve let someone…push your buttons.”

Alex was right—he’d never let himself take it this far before, but there were more than a few times over the last few weeks when a sneer or a snicker or a muttered insult had gotten under his skin and launched him right in someone’s face, teeth bared, eyes glittering. His fuse frayed shorter every week he was out here. He took a long, slow draw from the cigarette and laughed bitterly. “Well. I still need the rent paid.”

“How long until your shift is over?”

Nick grinned sideways at Alex. “Why, you want to take me home?”

He sighed and shook his head, but it had raised a smile. “Just think you could do with a good night’s sleep. After that…” Alex hesitated a moment. “Can you take the next few days off?”

“I’m not back on shift until Monday evening.”

Alex nodded and took a card out of his pocket—his business card, Nick recognized—and then fished out a pen. “Turn around,” he said.

Nick did. Alex leaned on him, using his back as a desk to write on. He could feel the scratch of the pen through his shirt.

When Alex was done, he handed him the card. Nick frowned at it. There was an address on it, a place in the financial district, and a name: Jacob Umber. “What’s this?”

“Someone—someone I know is looking to hire. I thought…well, you already have a job, and I had someone else lined up, but—”

“You always have someone lined up for something, don’t you?” There was a slight edge of bitterness to Nick’s words. Alex networked—he always had a side hustle lined up for someone, for the washouts and burnouts, the ex-cops and ex-military, the bikers and drifters he seemed to draw into his orbit. His type: like Nick. “Is this meant to be charity? Because you can pass it on to one of your other tricks. I don’t need it.”

“Call it what you will. And you’re not a trick, Nicholas.” Alex leaned in to kiss him on the cheek, chastely. “You’re my friend.”

Nick swallowed a sudden lump in his throat and stuffed the card in the back pocket of his jeans. “Yeah, all right, fine. There’s no number on the card—am I meant to just show up?”

“I wrote hours on there,” Alex said. “Nine to three. Weekdays.”

“Right.”

“Nick…” He seemed to be struggling with his words. “This isn’t a guaranteed job. I can get you a way in, but you’ll have to impress.”

“Come on, Alex.” Nick flashed a smile. “Don’t you think I can pull out the stops when I need to?”

He laughed and shook his head. “I know you can. Good luck, Nick.”

“Thanks. No, really…thank you.”

He nodded and left him on the empty street. Nick took his vape out of his pocket and sucked down a nicotine cloud; he noticed his hands were shaking. There was a subtle ache in his knuckles, where they’d collided with the man’s cheekbone. He felt a tiredness deeper than exhaustion, something like lead in his bones, and on top of that, a thin hot skin of queasy arousal. He didn’t know if he wanted to sleep for a year or get fucked up against the wall of the nearest alley. Well, he told himself, right now it’s going to be neither. He smoked until his hands stopped shaking and then waited for the sky to lighten—for his shift to be over—so he could go home.

My Review:
Nick Kurosawa is a former army man, trying to maintain his cool despite his inner trauma. He still suffers the loss of his family, even though it’s been several years. He is working as a bouncer at a gay bar, and is bored to tears–and also struggling to make sure he doesn’t get too physical with the troublemakers he encounters.

Nick’s friend and some-time sexual partner Alex recommends making contact with Mr. Jacob Umber, a wealthy curiosity shop owner who needs a personal assistant. Mr. Umber is older, but not elderly. Fastidious and formal, it’s the fibromyalgia that’s slowing this feisty transman down. Nick, who hasn’t had any real spark with a sexual partner in a while, is slowly finding an inordinate attraction to Mr. Umber’s commanding nature and uncanny sense of knowing. It’s clear early on that Mr. Umber has secrets buried in his past, and astute Nick isn’t even surprised when an FBI agent comes a-knocking.

The mystery of Mr. Umber is tantalizing, and his commanding presence moves easily from the workspace to the bedroom–once these lonely men find their way through some difficult but frank discussions. Nick is reticent to ask for his needs to be met, and Jacob needs to pry these stipulations from Nick before he will engage. Their affair might be short-lived, however, if the FBI won’t back down.

This story is quiet, yet enthralling. It had the hallmarks of a good suspense thriller, without all the gore. I really enjoyed how things unfolded, with Nick being the faithful attendant and Jacob his one true connection to fading humanity, for a bit. There is some conflict, naturally, but it is the kind that really pushes the MC–Nick–to grow in new and exciting ways. It was good to see Nick’s life change for the better when he learns to live without the hangups of depression by seeking proper treatment for perhaps the first time in his life. Though he’s unsettled by the situation with Jacob, he’s one hundred percent invested in sticking by his man. The end has a nice little twist, and it’s a definite HEA situation, but again in a quiet way. There are some sexytimes in the story but they are mild and mostly more about the domination that Nick craves than hot and heavy moments.

Interested? You can find THE ASSISTANT on Goodreads, NineStar Press, and Amazon.

****GIVEAWAY****

Click on this Rafflecopter giveaway link for your chance to win a $10 NineStar Press GC.
Good luck and keep reading my friends!

About the Author:
John Tristan is a multinational gay nerd, currently living in Manchester, UK. When he’s not writing, he works in the voluntary sector; when he’s not doing either, he’s probably playing video games or tabletop RPGs. After his mother banned books at the table during mealtimes, he read the backs of sauce bottles. His stories are sometimes romantic, sometimes erotic, often speculative, and always queer.

You can catch up with John on his website and twitter.