EXCERPT FROM “The Contingency Plan” by Addison Albright:
With everyone who was expected now in attendance, Queen Giselle stepped forward. “Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Lords, and people of Zioneven, please accept our warm welcome to Sheburat, and I hope you’ll accept our sincere apology for the chaos you find us in today.”
Prince Efren inclined his head. “Of course, Your Majesty. On behalf of Zioneven, I offer our heartfelt condolences on the loss of your beloved daughter.”
“Thank you,” Queen Giselle replied. “Sadly, our loss yesterday affects more than simply causing us private pain.”
“Indeed.” Prince Efren kept his reply short, perhaps diplomatically leaving it to Queen Giselle to either further the conversation toward whether or not he was ready to choose his alternate, or to wait for a time when her grief would be less immediate.
His mother would put diplomacy first, Marcelo didn’t doubt that. The conversation may or may not happen today, but it would occur during this visit. Diplomacy always came ahead of personal concerns.
“Although disappointment caused by the cancellation of the wedding we’d expected tomorrow is unavoidable,” Queen Giselle said. “I hope you’ll find a small comfort in knowing that you may now make your own choice of your future bride from among my younger daughters rather than the arrangement that was made on your behalf at the tender age of five.”
Again, Prince Efren inclined his head. “Sibling.”
“Sibling. The terms of the treaty specify I may choose an alternate from among Princess Marcela’s younger siblings. It didn’t restrict the choice to daughters.”
Marcelo stiffened. What in the world could Prince Efren mean by that? Men didn’t marry men. At least, he’d never heard of such a thing occurring in Sheburat. Marcelo wasn’t alone in his bewilderment. Everyone on his side of the room stilled. None of the faces opposite them exhibited confusion. Was that an acceptable option in Zioneven’s culture?
It was only by mere minutes, but Marcelo did qualify as a younger sibling to Marcela.
For the first time in Marcelo’s recollection, his mother faltered. “Do … surely … but …”
Marcelo turned his head toward her, his wide eyes silently imploring her to voice an objection. Kemble may have recently grown complacent thinking herself in the clear, but she’d at least spent her life knowing she was the likely backup plan.
As a royal son in this matriarchal society, Marcelo had grown up knowing he would never marry. Never. Royal sons did not marry. Period.
He’d been perfectly happy with that knowledge because he’d never experienced the attraction that men outside the royal family felt toward women. In fact, he’d enjoyed knowing he would not have to merge his life with a woman’s with the expectation of having to bed her.
His gaze flicked back and forth between Queen Giselle and Prince Efren before settling on the prince. Prince Efren had kept his eyes locked with the queen’s, but as if sensing Marcelo’s scrutiny, his head turned to reflect Marcelo’s regard.
Marcelo’s heart thudded so vigorously in his chest, surely everyone in the room must hear it. His respiration quickened. That single word uttered by Prince Efren had shattered Marcelo’s understanding of everything he knew about the world and had expected in his life.
Queen Giselle remained frozen for a few more moments, her brows drawn together as she processed the unexpected direction of this discussion. She cast a brief, apologetic glance toward Marcelo, then lifted her shoulders in a barely visible shrug. “The treaty does indeed use that word. Prince Efren, the choice is yours.”
Marcelo’s stomach dropped as her words echoed through the silent hall even though he’d known in his heart that she’d put Sheburat before her son’s individual concerns. So, he felt no personal betrayal. It was who is mother had to be.
Prince Efren continued to stare at Marcelo as he firmly stated, “I choose His Royal Highness, Prince Marcelo. The wedding will proceed tomorrow as planned.”
Marcelo swayed as the blood drained from his face. How could this be? How did such a marriage work? Would he be expected to —
“Marcelo?” Suky’s whispered tone voiced her concern. “Are you unwell?”
She repeated the words, but from farther away. Or did her voice only seem distant? He wobbled as the people around him faded, and then, thankfully, this nightmare all went away.
EXCERPT FROM “No Rulebook for Flirting” by Laura Bailo:
In the end, Gabriel won the game, with Aitor coming a close second, having gone after him once he’d clued in on what Gabriel was doing and sabotaging him at every opportunity that would also benefit Aitor.
Gabriel smiled at him. “Well done. You were close.”
Aitor crossed his arms over his chest and glared at him. “Imagine how good you’d have done if you’d focused on playing instead of making sure we failed.
“But where would be the fun in that?”
Aitor opened his mouth to answer, but another voice interrupted.
“Whenever you two are done with this weird flirting you have going on, want to play another game?”
Gabriel gave him an enthusiastic “Hell yes,” and Aitor nodded.
Once the guy in charge started mixing the tiles again, Aitor looked at Gabriel. “Let’s make this more interesting. I bet you can’t win without obstructing anyone else’s game, just by your own merits.”
“You’re on. And you’re going to regret making that bet.” Gabriel had no intention of losing, though being unable to be a nuisance to the rest of the players would take away half the fun of the game for him.
Aitor smiled, which made him look even younger. “We’ll see. Loser buys the winner a drink after this game?”
The game started again and Gabriel did his best to achieve points without interrupting anyone, but ended up coming in third.
Aitor came in first this time and smirked at Gabriel.
“I accept my defeat.”
Aitor nodded while they put their tiles back in the box. “It’s a shame we weren’t playing a stripping game, then I’d have enjoyed your defeat even more.”
Gabriel’s face heated. “Well, you definitely need to buy me a drink before I start stripping anywhere. A small one would do.”
“Speaking of drinks, do you want to pay that bet now?”
One player — Raúl, according to his nametag — who hadn’t said anything during both games, sneered at them. Or rather, at Gabriel. “Oh, my God, just go flirt somewhere else!”
Gabriel glanced down at his own shirt, but paid Raúl no mind. “Let’s go, Aitor. I have no interest in gaming with bigots.”
He felt the guy glaring at him all the way to the bar, but ignored him. “So, Aitor, what do you want to drink?”
EXCERPT FROM “Hero Worship” by Kris T. Bethke:
The little bastard had been right, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to admit it to him. Or anyone else, for that matter. Matt had turned out to be an excellent housemate, just as he’d said he would. I saw him nearly every day but only briefly, he cleaned up after himself, and there was always a covered dish waiting for me in the fridge when I got home. He never forgot to clean the bathroom or take the trash to the curb when it was his turn and didn’t yell at me when it was my turn to vacuum or wash the dishes and I forgot. He paid for his share of the bills on time and without fuss. I never needed to remind him like I had with Carrie. Three months we’d lived together, and it really was an ideal situation.
Our paths crossed on an almost daily basis but never for more than a couple of hours at a time. He made himself scarce when I had the day off. I told him he didn’t need to do that, but he insisted it was fine, that I should have some peace on my downtime.
“The work you do is important,” he’d said when I talked to him about it. “And emotionally taxing. You should be able to decompress in whatever way you need without having to worry about me.” I had given an internal sigh at that. He’d been sweet and earnest about it, but I really didn’t need to be on that pedestal.
It took me a while to convince him he didn’t need to disappear. In the end, the only way I managed it was to invite him to go running with me. On my days off, we would both get up early and head out. I went to the gym on days I had to work, but running was my preferred method of exercising. I found I enjoyed it even more with Matt by my side. Or in front of me, as the case was. He had a shorter stride, and if he didn’t lead, I’d end up outpacing him. Plus he had an amazing ass, and I did enjoy staring at it as we ran. But my longer stride definitely came in handy when we reached the end of our five-mile runs and I could put on a burst of speed, beat him into the house, and claim the first shower.
He’d taken to waiting for me to finish right outside the bathroom door. After every run we took together, he would be there with a bottle of water straight from the fridge. As soon as I opened the door, the steam spilling out behind me, he would shove the bottle into my chest, the shock of cold making me gasp, and then squeeze by me without waiting for me to move out of the doorway. The way his chest rubbed against my shoulder was deliberate, I was sure. As was the fact that his cock, in a state of semiarousal, always managed to graze my hip. I gritted my teeth and endured it, loving that bit of contact because it was all I would allow myself to have.
It had been such smooth sailing that I hadn’t realized three months had passed until I got home one day from running errands and he was banging around in the kitchen. I had the day off, the first of three consecutive days, so after I hung my freshly laundered uniforms in the closet, I headed in there to see if I could help. I wasn’t much of a cook, but I could put together a mean salad.
“What’re you doing?” I asked, startling him from his contemplation of the meat in front of him. He jumped a little and gave a self-deprecating chuckle. I crowded close to look over his shoulder to see what he was concentrating on. He gave a little wiggle and a happy sigh. It was only then that I realized what I had done. I stepped back to give him his space. He half-turned and ruffled my hair with his hand, letting it linger for a moment, before playfully pushing me away with a nudge to my head.
“It’s still pretty warm and balmy outside, despite being late September. I thought I’d grill some steaks.”
“Nice,” I murmured appreciatively. Steaks hadn’t been in our food budget. I knew because I’d done the grocery shopping that week. “To what do I owe the honor?”
EXCERPT FROM “Motorcycle Man” by Sarah Hadley Brook:
You could have knocked him over with one finger when he opened the door and found Ben standing there, his hands braced on the doorjamb. He knew he was staring, but damn, what was he doing there?
“I was worried about you,” Ben told him.
Crap. Had he spoken aloud?
“You going to let me in?” Ben’s eyebrow raised as his gaze slowly traveled down Angus’s body.
Angus stepped back, still unable to speak, pulling the door wider. Ben stepped through the doorway and glanced around the tidy living room. Angus closed the door, but remained silent.
Ben smiled at him. “I guess I woke you up.”
Angus nodded, still not understanding what the hell was happening.
Ben pulled his jacket off and set it on top of the black leather recliner before turning his attention back to Angus. Something in the way he stared made Angus shiver and it had nothing to do with being cold.
Angus swallowed hard and tried to calm his growing nerves. “W-what are you….?” His voice trailed off as he swung his arm out to the side, gesturing to the living room.
“What am I doing in your apartment?”
“I told you. I was worried about you, Angus.” Ben took a step toward him.
“I-I’m fine,” Angus lied.
Ben looked like he didn’t believe him. “Really?” Big brown eyes stared him down.
Angus’s shoulders slumped and he shook his head. “No,” he whispered. What was it about Ben that made him want to reveal everything?
Ben moved quickly and before Angus could even process what was happening, he was wrapped in Ben’s arms, pulled tight against his broad chest, their hips and thighs pressed together. He breathed in and smiled, remembering just a few hours he’d thought he’d never see the man again. Angus wasn’t sure why he’d been wrong, but he wasn’t going to argue while feeling so incredibly secure in Ben’s embrace.
“I shouldn’t have let you leave,” Ben murmured, his lips so close, Angus felt his hot breath against his ear.
Angus pulled back a little and looked into his eyes. “Of course you should have. You had a class to teach. And why would you chase after me? You barely know me.”
A small smile played on Ben’s lips and his eyes flashed when he looked at Angus. “You’re right. I barely know you. But Angus? Getting to know you is my new goal in life.”
EXCERPT FROM “Unexpected Christmas” by Nell Iris:
A few minutes later, a vehicle approached from behind. Reacting instinctively, I turned around and waved my arms, hoping the big truck would stop and have mercy on my freezing ass.
I let out a giddy yelp as it slowed down, but it got stuck in my throat when the driver rolled down the window.
He was huge and couldn’t hold his head upright without banging it on the ceiling. Big steel gauges adorned both his ears — at least an inch and a half wide — and his hair was black and so closely cropped it resembled a five o’clock shadow more than an actual haircut.
“You need a ride?” he asked and his voice was deeper than the Mariana Trench, perfectly matching his frightening appearance. Black tattoos crept up his neck and snaked down his hands below his sleeves. His shoulders were wide, his muscles strained the sleeves of his thick black jacket, and his cheeks were hollow. I was one second from shitting myself.
“I’m not riding with a serial killer!” The words slipped out of my mouth and I groaned. I couldn’t have kept my mouth shut for five fucking seconds to avoid being chopped up and thrown to the wolves?
He threw his head back and let out a thunderous laugh.
“What’s so goddamned funny?” I glared at him, but he didn’t seem to care.
“I’m no serial killer.”
“And I’m just supposed to take your fucking word for it?” I raised an eyebrow. I knew I was being combative and taking out my frustration on this stranger, but I couldn’t stop myself.
“You could call my ma for references.”
“Ha ha. Very funny.” With a deep sigh, I resigned to my fate and started walking again. No way was I getting into a car with that mammoth of a man.
“Where you goin’?” he called after me. When I didn’t bother to answer, he eased off the break and let his truck crawl after me.
I swirled around. “Stop following me, you creep,” I hissed.
He let go of the steering wheel with one hand and held it up as if he surrendered. “Look, man. It’s freezin’. You’re wet and miserable. Get in the truck and lemme take you wherever you’re goin’.” His deep voice was surprisingly gentle. Non-threatening, as if he’d come to expect reactions like mine.
“I’m really not a bad guy.” He stuck out his lower lip in a pout that would have made a five-year-old girl green with envy and I had to bite my lip to stop a smile from erupting.
“Really?” I tried to hang on to my mistrust, but he made it hard. His appearance screamed RUN AND HIDE, but there was something soft in his eyes that told a different story.
He shot me a crooked smile. “It was worth a try. It works on my niece every time.”
The fucker knew all the right words to say to disarm me. “And how old is she?”
I huffed out a reluctant chuckle. “Well, you know how it is. Everyone always says how they couldn’t believe their neighbor was a serial killer because he seemed like such a nice guy.”
His eyes grew big and round. “You’re sayin’ you don’t trust my niece as a character witness?” He sounded as I’d just delivered the biggest insult of his life, but the amused glint in his eyes told me it was all for show.
“Can you blame me?”
“I guess not.” He sighed and grew serious. “Please. I couldn’t live with myself if I left you here to freeze to death.”
My body screamed at me to take him up on his offer. The ice pellets were relentless and I was soaked and gloomy and was starting to feel like maybe being ax murdered wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen to me right now.
The openness in his posture and honesty in his eyes had me on the verge of caving. “You promise you won’t kill me?” I sounded like a scared little kid even to my own ears.
EXCERPT FROM “Hitting It Big” by Shawn Lane:
“What are you doing, Mitch? Why all of a sudden are you coming on to me?”
“Is that what I’m doing?”
“When someone puts their hands on my ass, that’s what I’m thinking,” Billy said. He’d noticed Mitch’s hands hadn’t moved from their grasp of Billy’s ass.
Mitch’s grin was impish. “Okay, so yeah, I am.”
“Maybe we should talk about this elsewhere.”
Billy pushed at Mitch’s shoulders, but the man wouldn’t budge. “Talk about what? We had a one-night stand years ago. What else is there? You want another one?”
Billy blinked, stunned into silence. He hadn’t expected Mitch to admit to that.
Mitch pulled Billy so close he nearly crushed him. He lowered his mouth to Billy’s ear and whispered, “I want to fuck you, Billy. I want to take you home, get you naked, and fuck you for hours, until you’re too exhausted to do anything but moan my name.”
Instantly hard, shivers went up Billy’s spine. He closed his eyes and sagged against Mitch. So unfair that he could melt so easily for this man.
“Billy?” The whispered words stirred the auburn hair at the nape of his neck, goose bumps covering his skin.
“Let’s get out of here,” Mitch growled. His hand closed over Billy’s hand and he tugged him off the dance floor and past the crowded tables of the bar.
“Hey, where are you going?” Andy called after them.
Mitch barely paused as he shoved open the bar door and yelled over his shoulder. “Talk later.”
The cool night air hit Billy in the face and it almost had the same effect as a glass of ice water being thrown on him. “We probably shouldn’t.”
Mitch pushed him against the nearest wall, framed his face with his big hands, and smashed his lips over Billy’s. Doubts flew from his mind as the lips he’d tasted only once before covered his. Billy moaned into the kiss, opening his mouth and letting Mitch’s tongue invade.
Why shouldn’t they? He couldn’t remember now. And didn’t want to. His cock throbbed hard against his jeans. He was tempted to crawl up Mitch’s body.
EXCERPT FROM “Leather and Tea” by K.L. Noone:
In their living room, under the soft amber glow of the lamps, surrounded by the drifting scents of tea and sugar, he used a fingertip to nudge that pointed chin upward, getting frosted-ocean eyes to meet his. “I’m here. And I can do this for you. For us. Tell me if there’s anything you need, or if it’s not enough, all right?”
He got a nod, a lip-lick, and a movement of an obviously unthinking leg in quest of a better position on the carpet. Ben, who’d been expecting exactly this, already had one foot braced to support their long-suffering table.
His husband sighed. “Creative people are more prone to clumsiness, you know. Our brains get easily distracted. Thinking about other things. I read that somewhere. Academic study.”
“I one hundred percent believe you.”
“Oh thanks very much.”
“I love you.” Ben coiled a hand over the right wrist cuff, adding weight to the leather. “Have you been wearing these all week?”
“Love you. And yes … you told me to … and it helped, after yesterday. I mean, I took them off to shower and so on, but otherwise yes.” Simon contemplated the hand as well. “Thank you.”
“No. Yesterday, you said.” He couldn’t quite keep the flare of alarm out of his voice, knew it’d register as displeasure. Well, fair enough; he wasn’t pleased about it. “You could’ve called. You have all the codes to get through.”
True, as he ensured it was true, every time. Made his other half memorize them backward and forward. Technically this was a breach of national security, but Ben had long ago decided he didn’t give a damn.
“I know. But I didn’t want to — it wasn’t an emergency, and I knew you’d be back soon. Speaking of, weren’t you supposed to need another day? Not that I’m objecting.”
“I missed you,” Ben told him, echoing those words from earlier, and saw the answering tentative smile. “I know you didn’t want to worry me. But I want you to tell me if you’re not okay, understand? I’m not happy you didn’t.”
That gaze dropped to the floor, conceding the point. Mostly, anyway. “I would’ve if it had been any longer. I’m sorry, sir.”
“I don’t know … yes … that helps as well. More real.”
“Then say it if you need to.” He’d never asked for that one. Had been surprised the first time Simon had said it, lying between his legs in a luxurious Parisian hotel room, Ben’s hand in his hair. He’d absolutely liked the sound of that — the acknowledgement, that word in that elegant voice, saying yes sir, yours, always — but he’d never wanted to be that strict, even if his other half wouldn’t mind.
“You said you wanted this –” A lift of the collar, slender and black and simple. “On. Why didn’t you?”
“You didn’t say I could,” Simon told the floor. Ben’s heart ached. He wanted to reach out and offer a hug, to put his arms around those shoulders and say everything would be fine. But that wasn’t what Simon needed at this moment.
“Look at me,” he said, and when those forlorn eyes met his, went on, “you can if you need to. I’m giving you permission. Next time. Whenever. I’ll never be angry with you for wearing it when I come home. Come on, you think I ever would be?”
EXCERPT FROM “Doggone Love” by Deirdre O’Dare:
Damon was saddling up his favorite gelding, a blaze-faced dun, when a whirlwind roared into the ranch yard. As the dust settled, he saw the motorcycle, a sleek black Harley. The rider dismounted and took off his helmet, revealing a head of sandy blond hair.
Eric rides a Harley? It took him a moment to absorb this surprising bit of information. He hadn’t pegged the young vet for a biker type, but then he’d been wrong in his judgment about the man once already. Maybe he’d better try for an open mind. I think I’m getting to be a sour old codger ahead of my time, stuck in my narrow rut out here. Time to snap out of it.
The vet slithered out of his leathers and draped them over the bike. When he turned to start Damon’s way, Damon noticed how his faded jeans clung to muscular legs, how totally masculine he looked in them and a matching western cut shirt. He wasn’t wearing a hat, but, to be reasonable, Damon had to admit a cowboy hat and a cycle helmet would hardly work together. Maybe he could scare up an old one because Eric was too fair-skinned to go bareheaded in the sun all day.
Without quite realizing what he was doing, Damon had stopped and just watched as Eric strolled toward the barn. He moved with an easy gait, just short of a swagger. Cocky sucker, isn’t he? Given the way his Levi’s molded his body, cocky now took on a whole new meaning. Damon grinned. We’ll see if he’s still feeling that good when Ole Red gets through with him.
Almost every rancher had a horse like Ole Red, a savvy, old cowpony who separated the real cowboys from the wannabees with uncanny skill. The old horse would never seriously hurt anybody, but he’d left many a drugstore cowboy to limp back to the ranch in pinching boots after scraping him off with a low hanging limb, doing a little buck-jump at an awkward time or balking suddenly after starting off at a lope. If Eric managed to stay on board the full day, Damon would give him an honorary cowboy degree for sure.
Eric did not comment at first when Damon indicated the rangy chestnut waiting at the hitching rack, but Damon saw him look the gelding over. “I can saddle him if you’ll point me at the gear. And you don’t have to give me the kid-and-old-lady horse. I’ve ridden.”
“Old Red is no kid horse. He’s one of the savviest cow ponies you’ll ever see. Just give him a slack rein and let him work.” He’s just smart enough to tell if you know what you’re doing.
Damon kept an eye on the other man, but it was soon clear he’d tacked up a horse before. He settled the blanket, then the saddle in place, cinched it up, dropped the halter and put on the bridle, then went back to give the latigo another tug. One of Ole Red’s favorite tricks was to puff himself up when cinched. That way the saddle stayed loose. When the rider went to climb on, the saddle usually rolled to dump him on his ass.
When Eric swung up and settled in the saddle, Damon could see the stirrups were a little long. No surprise since he judged the other man to be about five-nine, which resulted in legs a bit shorter than those of someone Damon’s six-two. He crossed the dusty ground to stand by Eric’s left knee.
“Let me adjust those stirrups a notch or two. I usually trot to get out to where I’m going. It’ll be a butt-thumping ride if you can’t take some weight on your feet.”
Eric drew his boot free of the stirrup. Damon’s hands were not quite steady as he worked the buckle loose and set it up two notches on the strap. He circled the horse to do the same on the off side. That done he stood a moment, bemused. Without thinking, he put his hand on Eric’s solid thigh. The muscle felt hard and warm beneath his hand, and flexed slightly to his touch. The sensation went through him like a jolt of electricity. He jerked back his hand as he felt the flush heat his face. Damn, what’s getting into me?
EXCERPT FROM “Commanding Officer Thomas” by J.M. Snyder:
Lee kept an eye on her as she benched the weight, but most of his attention was diverted to the sexy guy now doing side planks. Lee toyed with the idea of approaching him, but how would that look? Hey, I saw you exercising. You’re kinda hot. Any way he played it out in his head, he knew it sounded like nothing more than a bad pickup line.
The guy jumped up from the plank and ran in place, feet a blur, knees pumping double time. Then he started doing lunges, alternating legs and turning a quarter turn with each set.
As he turned, Lee admired the way his little gym shorts pulled taut across his pert ass. When he added arm crunches to his routine, the muscles in his arms stood out, veins cabling in relief.
Lee watched, entranced. He liked this one — so energetic. What would that energy be like in bed? His dick stirred at the sight of the guy’s buttocks flexing beneath the thin fabric. He imagined them both naked together, in his quarters, that round ass clenched tight and waiting beneath him. He could almost feel that pliant flesh in his hands as he massaged those ass cheeks, kneaded them, then pushed them together to ease his cock between them. He could almost see the dark tip of his dick peek out between the juicy twin mounds as he humped them once, twice, God. Just thinking about it made him hard.
Below him, Brenna made an exasperated sound. “Dude, you’re tenting. Chill.”
Lee shifted his legs to hide his budding erection. Budding? Hell, a few minutes more and he’d get off on his fantasy alone.
The barbell clanked back into the rack and Brenna sat up. Then she grabbed her towel off the bench and wiped the sweat off her face. With a sigh, she said, “Look, I know when I’m being ignored.”
“I’m not ignoring you!” Lee jiggled the barbell. “Come on, you need to get in your reps. I’m sorry –”
“It’s fine,” she assured him. “I’m done. Go talk to him already, will you?”
Sudden fear lurched in Lee’s chest. “What? I can’t. I don’t know him.”
“But you want to,” Brenna said. “So go over there and introduce yourself.”
Across the gym, the guy they were discussing stopped exercising abruptly, as if he’d heard them. He raised his left leg, then reached back with his right hand to grab his foot and pull it back into a slow stretch. After a moment, he switched legs. Then he twisted at the waist, and he caught Lee staring.
Lee felt his face flush. God.
“He knows you now,” Brenna said. “Go on, man up.”
Before Lee could gather up his courage, the guy grabbed a nearby towel to wipe down and headed their way.
“Go on,” Brenna hissed.
The pressure was on. Lee’s palms grew slick, his cheeks burned. This was it, his moment, go for it. But what should he say? “Hey baby,” was a bit too blunt, but “Sup” sounded too informal. The guy was coming closer, he was almost close enough to speak to, damn.
Suddenly Lee’s mind locked up, and his mouth moved on its own. His tongue curved over his teeth, his bottom lip curled, and he let out a randy whistle.
The guy froze and stared at them. His eyes were dark — blue? black? Lee wasn’t sure, but they flashed under heavy brows knit together in confusion or anger, one of the two. Not exactly the reaction Lee had hoped for.
“Was that directed at me?” the guy asked.
His voice was level, calm. Maybe Lee was misreading the situation. Still, just to be safe, he gave a one-shouldered shrug and made a noncommittal noise he hoped could be read as either yes or no, depending on how it was interpreted.
The guy looked unimpressed. “What’s your name, mister?”
Maybe he was interested, after all. Lee tamped down the flicker of hope in his chest. “Lee. Lee Mallory with the 58th. This is –”
The blasé way he drew out Lee’s name set off all kinds of warning bells. “How’d you know my rank?”
Rubbing the towel over his close-cropped hair, the guy sounded casually disinterested as he replied, “You’re right. We haven’t been formally introduced. But I’ve heard all about you, Lieutenant.”
Beside him, Brenna groaned. “Oh no.”
Lee still didn’t get it. “What do you mean?”
“He’s our new CO,” Brenna moaned.
Now he smiled, a cold, hard slash across his face. “It’s Thomas. And you’ll address me as Commander or sir, is that understood?”
“Sir! Yes, sir!” Lee snapped to attention, as if that might help dig him out of trouble.
It didn’t. “So I’ll ask you again,” Thomas drawled. “Was that whistle directed at me?”
Lee didn’t know how to answer, what to say. What could he say? “Um …”
EXCERPT FROM “No Snarkasm in Love” by J.D. Walker:
I had tried relationships before, but I was either too acerbic, or not adventurous enough in bed, or not the right build, or looks, or whatever. The dating game got old fast, and then work became my passion because I could at least exert some sort of control over that.
If Ingrid’s instincts were correct about Donal’s interest, then what did I do about it, if anything? Was I kidding myself, or was that just years of bitterness talking?
As difficult as I could be, what was it like for someone like Donal? Did I even have a chance with the man? And how did I go about finding out more? So aggravating, this dating thing, or whatever it was.
Thoughts in a whirl, I decided to go to the grocery store early, for once, and stock up for the week. There was a Publix five blocks from the condo, so I decided to walk, especially since the wind was brisk and in the teens with wind speed. At least the sun was out.
I dressed in dark green jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt and sweater, with a jacket on top. A thick red scarf around my neck, I added a fuchsia knit cap and matching gloves, and put on sturdy boots before heading out with my shopping bag, wallet, keys, and cell phone.
The walk to the grocery store was chilly enough I could only focus on getting to my destination, and not Donal. When I stepped inside the warmth of the store, I just stopped and stood where I was for a minute, trying to get feeling back in my legs and hands.
“Excuse me, you’re blocking the way,” a familiar voice said. I closed my eyes. No, it couldn’t be.
I turned around and saw the man of my thoughts, dressed in midnight blue and dark gray today. “Sorry,” was all I said before moving toward the carts to get one of my own. Speak of the devil.
I decided it was best to focus on my reason for being in the store and not think about the man being in the same place as me. These coincidences were becoming unnerving. I went down the necessary aisles, grabbing what I needed to buy before heading to the self-checkout to pay for everything.
I was walking through the parking lot before I saw Donal again, in his Lexus, pulling up beside me.
“Need a lift?” he asked, gloved hands clenched on the steering wheel. His black hair looked a little windblown, which I didn’t think he’d ever allow. Mm. Okay, enough of that.
“Er, no, I’m fine, thanks, Mr. Soames.” I kept on walking, and he kept pace with me in the car. “Something you need?”
“Are you always this stubborn, Nye?”
My heart stopped. He knew my first name? Well, of course, he did. I was being silly. But hearing him say it like that … Wait a minute.
“Stubborn? Me? I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mr. Soames.” I kept on walking. He followed.
“You can call me Donal, you know? We’re not working right now.”
“What, so we’re friends, all of a sudden?” Please say yes.
“I don’t know. You have this prickly shell that makes it hard to tell what you really feel.”
I stopped and faced him, hands clenched with my shopping bag dangling from my fingers. “Excuse me, Mr. Perfect, but you’re not exactly a prime example, are you? You’re so stiff, a block of ice would melt before you ever could.”