Rarer Than Rubies by EM Lynley, Excerpt 1

July 29, 2011

RARER THAN RUBIES by EM Lynley
Paperback, 214 pages

When Trent Copeland runs into Reed Acton at a Bangkok airport, he thinks the handsome American is too good to be true. Why would someone like Reed be interested in a quiet, introverted gay-romance writer? After all, even an obvious tourist like Trent can see that there is more to Reed’s constant unexplained appearances in his path than meets the eye.

Reed Acton has one mission and one mission only—he needs to get the map that was accidentally slipped into Trent’s bag and keep the mobsters who want the priceless artifact from taking deadly revenge. Trent Copeland is a delicious and damned near irresistible diversion, but Reed can’t afford distractions right now, especially if he wants to keep Trent safe.

From Bangkok’s seediest back alleys to the sacred north, the two men will fight to stay one step ahead of the bad guys and learn that the only treasure worth finding is… each other.

http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=2430

EXCERPT

Prologue

“WE’LL be landing in Bangkok in approximately thirty minutes.”

The voice over the loudspeaker broke into Trent Copeland’s consciousness and he pushed it away, thinking it was simply part of his dream. He attempted to return to the comfort of his slumber.

“Sir, your immigration card.” Someone shook his shoulder and pushed an official-looking form at him, and he realized he wasn’t dreaming at all. It was real. And about to get even more real.

He blinked and sat up, bringing his reclining seat to a sitting position. He heard, as well as felt, a shift, as the jet literally changed gears and began its descent.

For a moment he stared at the paper, trying to trace the steps that had brought him here. Had it been only two weeks earlier that he’d been jolted out of the security of his routine by an unexpected and unwelcome phone call from his literary agent?

What had he been thinking, letting Beth and Cassandra plan this trip for him?

He better get plenty of inspiration for his next novel, or plenty of sex—or both—or someone was going to be in big trouble when he got back. If he got back. He took a deep breath and pressed his face to the tiny window, wondering what lay in store for him once he landed.

- 1 -

Two weeks earlier

Los Angeles, California

THIS wasn’t really happening. It had never happened to him before. Okay, once. But never twice—in a row. His friends told him it was natural and sooner or later it happened to everyone. Now it was happening to Trent.

“Rejected? What’re you talking about, rejected?”

“Trent, honey, I’m sorry. The publisher isn’t interested this time around.” Cassandra’s slightly British-accented voice came through the phone clear as crystal, but still Trent didn’t think he’d heard her correctly.

“Why not? I’m one of their top-selling authors!” If there were a New York Times best-seller list for gay erotic romance, every one of his books would have been on it. “Aren’t I?” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew he sounded like a child.

Trent got up from the couch, tipping his Siamese cat Godiva off his lap and causing her to loudly meow her displeasure as she landed on all fours. Trent paced around the living room, cordless phone pressed tightly to his ear. He wished he had a phone with a cord so he could twist it around his editor’s neck. No, Cass’s neck. What the hell kind of agent was she, if she couldn’t sell either of his last two books?

“Yes, Trent, you are one of the top sellers, but your editor told me she’d read this one already. Twice.”

“What the fuck? I just finished it! How could she have read it twice? Is she a psychic as well as an editor?” He stopped in the middle of the living room and Godiva, who had been tagging along at his heels, crashed into him with a less-than-ladylike snarl. She hopped back onto the vacant couch, out of his way.

“Well, honey, it is an awful lot like the last one you wrote, you know?” Cassandra’s voice rose ever so slightly at the end of the sentence, as if he actually were a child she wanted to appease. It didn’t work.

“Grrr,” was all he could manage in reply. He started pacing again, trying to burn off anger and nervous energy while he crafted a suitable response. “What kind of agent are you, anyway? You’re supposed to get them to want it.”

“Trent, honey, I’m a pretty good agent, but I’m not a miracle worker. You always have the option of coming up with a new pen name and I can shop this to someone else.”

“No!” Trent practically shouted. He remembered how hard it had been choosing a pen name in the first place. He and his two best friends since college days, Beth and Mick, had sat around in his crummy old apartment tossing around ideas; he’d had to endure asinine suggestions such as I.M. Hung from Mick. Finally, with Cassandra’s input, he’d settled on J.T. Dallas, though he came from a little town in Oklahoma and hated when people thought he was Texan. But Cassandra said Texas sounded sexy to readers and Dallas brought back images of the rich and ruthless, which always helped sell romance. She’d been right, as usual, and it had proved a good decision. Since then, she’d been much more than an agent. She’d not only helped shape his heretofore successful career, but had become one of his closest and most-trusted friends.

He realized Cassandra had been talking while he’d been strolling down memory lane and he struggled to catch up to what she was saying.

“… but I think you just need a little change of pace, a vacation or something. Get a new perspective,” Cassandra went on. “Shake things up a bit and spark your creativity….”

“I don’t know how they can say this is like the last one!” He wasn’t giving up. “This one is about a cowboy and a NASA scientist, while the last one was about a university professor and a… cowboy….” His voice trailed off at the end. “Okay, maybe there are some similarities. Slight similarities.” He couldn’t even convince himself. No wonder the editor had thrown it back.

“You’ve finished two books already this year. Take some well-earned time off and spend some of those fat royalty checks you’re piling up.”

“I don’t need a vacation.”

“Yes, you do. You can’t just sit around all day watching Turner Classic Movies and Lifetime.”

Trent grabbed the TV remote and quickly hit the mute button. Damn, she knew him entirely too well.

“Give me a call in a couple of days and we’ll go for lunch with Beth and you can tell me where you decide to go for your vacation, okay? Gotta run, sweetie. Love you!”

Cassandra disconnected and Trent tossed the phone onto the couch, narrowly missing Godiva, who meowed imperiously before racing for safety behind the television.

“Sorry, baby.” Trent plopped himself down on the couch and pouted while he figured out what to do next.

Maybe Cass was right and a vacation wasn’t such a bad idea. He had gotten into a rut. He glanced down at the carpet and wouldn’t have been surprised to find he’d worn a trail into the floor following the same path over and over and over. He should visit the travel agent around the corner and pick up some brochures. Better yet, he’d call Beth and she could help him choose a destination.

He’d get right on that, after he finished watching Now, Voyager, one of his favorite films. He adored the classic scene where Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes at once, before handing one to Bette Davis. It made him want to take up smoking, the way the Thin Man films left him craving dry martinis. Trent clicked on the volume, grabbed a box of tissues, and settled back onto the couch.

****

Stay tuned for another excerpt!

Blind Items excerpt #3

July 28, 2011

I shrugged and stood up. “I should probably get going home.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Where do you live?”

“I’m renting out the ground floor of a house in Boerum Hill.”

“Oh. I’ve always liked Boerum Hill. How do you like it?” I walked outside, wincing at the wall of humidity that hit me as we left the air-conditioned bar. The weather clearly hadn’t gotten the memo about it being fall.

“It’s nice. I’m on Dean Street. It’s a pretty neighborhood.”

And then this bit of stupidity slipped from my lips: “Ah. Well, I’m not too far from there. Do you want to share a cab?”

“Sure, all right.”

I was afraid to say anything important. I proposed walking towards First Avenue because it would be easier to get a cab there. I shoved my hands in my pockets to curb the temptation to touch him, and we walked in companionable silence, speaking only to comment on the temperature or to warn each other away from detritus on the sidewalk. When we got to First Avenue, I held up my hand and we got a cab fairly quickly. I directed the cabbie to go over the Brooklyn Bridge.

We hit traffic near Canal Street. Jonathan looked out the window and groaned. “Look at all the kids out. Clubbing on a Wednesday? Really?”

“Kids? Aren’t you only twenty-five?”

“Twenty-six. Too old for that scene.”

“Aw, come on. You didn’t go through that phase when you were right out of college and finally living on your own, when you just went nuts? I remember being twenty-three and… God, I did a lot of stupid things.”

“Yeah?” He looked like he wanted to ask what those stupid things were. I wasn’t anxious to volunteer. A lot of going home with the wrong men, more risky sex than I was really willing to confess to. But Jonathan just said, “No, I never went through a phase like that.”

“And yet you drink like a fish.”

Jonathan sighed. “I was nervous tonight.”

The parade of stupid continued when I heard myself ask, “Do I make you nervous?” Jonathan’s eyes widened, which was all the answer I needed. Breaking through the Great Wall of Denial would be the challenge here. Whispering, I said, “My editor wanted me to out you in the article, but I couldn’t do it. I want you to know that.”

Jonathan closed his eyes. Then the light changed and the cabbie raced through the intersection at Canal Street and hit a pothole hard, jostling us passengers, who hadn’t bothered with seat belts. I was pushed towards Jonathan, and I put out my hand to prevent myself from falling over his lap. Instead, my hand landed on his thigh, and when the cab was moving smoothly again, I found I was leaning against him, his face just inches from mine, our lips perfectly aligned.

“Uh…,” Jonathan said.

I listened as the cabbie chatted in Arabic to the hands-free device in his ear. “That guy hardly speaks English. He doesn’t know who you are.”

“Doesn’t change anything.”

“It does. You can be someone else, if only for as long as you’re in this cab.”

“Who would I be?”

“Whoever you want, babe.”

Jonathan parted his lips but didn’t move closer. I was close enough that when I opened my mouth to say something else, my lips brushed against his. “Are you attracted to me?” I whispered.

“Drew, please don’t—”

“It’s a simple question.”

“I….”

We hung there, mouths poised to touch, not moving, breathing hard. Then the cab pulled onto the bridge and jostled us together again. I smashed my lips against Jonathan’s.

Blind Items excerpt #2

July 28, 2011

Rey and I did not see eye to eye on interior decorating, which was something I got a an earful about during a brief interlude when Rey was having the top floor of his house re-done. I decided to let him stay with me, meaning he slummed it by camping out on the futon in my living room. It was a mod furniture special with a lime-green cover on the mattress. I liked things that were clean and modern and brightly colored. Rey’s house was more muted and decorated in what I thought of as “pricey cheap,” furniture he paid full price for at high-end shops but that looked like it could have been bought at a thrift store.

Anyway, he’d told me on many occasions that he thought my futon couch was maybe the ugliest thing he’d ever set eyes on, so I was somewhat surprised to find him asleep on it when I came in one afternoon. He’d kept his keys from when he’d stayed with me in case of emergency, which usually meant that he just let himself in if he was coming to see me instead of knocking like a normal person.

I stood over him for a moment, and he slowly opened his eyes. I said, “Don’t you have those overstuffed monstrosities in your own house for use at nap time?”

Rey rubbed his eyes and sat up. “Oh, sure,” he said, “but I thought what I really needed was an unsatisfying nap and some back pain. What the hell is this stuffed with, Styrofoam?”

“To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“I wanted your advice on something.”

I sat and draped an arm over the back of the futon. I flicked at an errant lock of Rey’s hair with the tip of my finger. “Don’t do it,” I said.

“You don’t even know what I’m going to ask yet.”

“No, but I recognize that expression on your face. That’s the look you get when you’re going to ask my opinion on something but already know I won’t approve. I’m saving us time, see.”

“You and the high horse. I don’t know where you get off judging me, like you’re so righteous. You’re so afraid of anything bad happening that you don’t ever take any risks anymore.”

I tried not to get too defensive, primarily because I didn’t want him to know that he was kind of right. “I take risks,” I said.

“No, you don’t. I talked to Allie. She said you hardly ever go out anymore because you’re still avoiding Aaron.”

Geez Louise, why was everyone so obsessed with this? “I’m not avoiding Aaron.”

“If you’re not going to the places where you and Aaron used to hang out because you’re afraid of running into him, you’re avoiding Aaron.”

“I prefer to think of it as giving us both space.”

“So it’s true.”

I shrugged. Okay, so maybe I was avoiding Aaron. But there were armed conflicts that had more peaceful resolutions than our relationship. I deserved some slack. I tried to sound casual. “Maybe. It’s probably better for my soul if I spend less time in gay bars. I’m not a twenty-two-year-old twink anymore.”

Rey pursed his lips, looking skeptical.

“Look, I know that what happened is for the best, but Aaron and I were together for more than a year, so I think I deserve a little bit of time to mourn. But you did not come here to pester me about Aaron. Stop stalling. What do you need advice about?”

Rey rolled his eyes. “I need a date for the show’s premiere.”

I put a hand on his chest and batted my eyelashes. “And you’re asking me? Honey, I’m flattered.”

“No, you idiot. A female date.”

“I think I could pull off looking like a woman. I have a very pretty face. The right wig, a stuffed bra. What do you think?”

Rey laughed. I preened.

“If you were a foot shorter, maybe,” he said. “I hate to do this to you, man, but I’m not bringing you to the premiere.”

“Boo.”

“What do you think of me asking Allie?”

That was not something I liked one bit. “Aren’t there any aspiring starlets whose hearts you can break? The last time you went out with one of my friends, she stopped talking to me.”

“She moved to Virginia for a job.”

“Still. I like Allie. I want to keep her. She has a little bit of a crush on you as it is. You know I love you, but you, my friend, have a terrible track record with women. You going out with her… that can only end badly.”

“Fine. Maybe I’ll ask one of my costars.”

“Good.”

There was a pause. “How’d the interview with Jonathan go?”

“It went okay. I’m not allowed to print anything good, but it went okay.”

“What do you mean, you aren’t allowed to print anything good?”

I shifted on the couch. “I got him to tell me that he disagrees with his father on social issues, specifically on that whole banning-gays-from-the-country thing, but he told me he doesn’t want to get caught publicly disagreeing with the Senator. He just wanted me to know.”

“Right. Did you tell him you’re gay?”

“Not in so many words.”

Rey raised his eyebrows. “What does that mean?”

“I showed him one of my Forum columns, but I didn’t say anything else on the matter. Not that it’s a big secret, of course.”

He sighed. “Probably he put together that the Forum is lefty propaganda and didn’t want to piss you off. Or he read your column and figured you are not in favor of Uncle Richard’s stance on stripping you of more of your rights.”

“Or he wants something else.” I raised an eyebrow. I hadn’t let myself entertain the possibility that he could possibly want me, but there it was.

Rey understood. “Wishful thinking.”

“On whose part?”

He rolled his eyes. “I still think you’re wrong about Jonathan. He’s not gay. I’d know.”

“You didn’t know I’m gay until I told you. Actually, I don’t think you really knew until you walked in on me having sex with Jake Monaghan back when we roomed together.”

Rey winced. “We were young. I didn’t know anything back then.”

“Well, anyway, I’m writing a really tame article and Wade’s going to hate it. So I must somehow reconcile the fact that your cousin came off as nice and sweet but kind of boring with the fact that if I don’t turn in an interesting story, Wade will never hire me for a feature story again.”

“There isn’t always a story.”

I stood to motion Rey out of the apartment. “That’s not the problem here. The problem is that there is a story here, but Jonathan won’t let me tell it.”

Blind Items excerpt #1

July 28, 2011

THE second time in my life that I had the premonition that everything was about to change was the moment I first laid eyes on Jonathan Granger.

I was making dinner in Rey’s kitchen. Rey was hopeless when it came to cooking, but he had the sort of kitchen that I’d always dreamed of, which seemed unfair. In fact, he lived in the sort of house I had always wanted to own, a gorgeous Park Slope brownstone constructed circa 1890 that had been renovated and restored before he bought it, with five floors and four bedrooms and really much more space than one man needed, but such is the life of a famous actor, I suppose.

Rey leaned on the counter, nursing a beer and making small talk while I cooked. It was pleasant, just the two of us, hanging out like old times. Then the doorbell rang. When Rey went to answer it, all of my nervous nausea came back. I checked on every element of the dinner I was cooking while I waited.

Rey returned, followed by a guy that must have been Jonathan, and, again, I just knew. The hair rose on the back of my neck, and I thought, Oh, fuck. Rey, oblivious as always, smiled and introduced us.

In an effort not to think about how attractive Jonathan was, I concentrated on looking for family resemblances as we shook hands. They weren’t obvious at first. Rey’s father and Jonathan’s mother were siblings but had chosen very different spouses, so where Rey was all dark good looks inherited from his Dominican mother, Jonathan looked a little washed out: dirty blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin. And yet they had similar faces: the set of their eyes, the curves of their eyebrows, their long, thin noses. Except where Rey was somewhat broad and boorish at first glance, Jonathan was effete and elegant. He was neatly dressed, not a hair out of place. He had long fingers like a piano player. Where Rey looked strong, Jonathan looked delicate. In other words, Rey was classically movie-star hot. But Jonathan was beautiful.

Rey introduced me as “My old friend Drew.”

Jonathan shook my hand. His palm was warm and his handshake firm, which made him seem a little more like a living person and less like porcelain. He smiled warmly. “Nice to meet you,” he said.

“Drew is in charge of meal preparation,” Rey said. “I don’t cook.”

“That’s a shame,” said Jonathan, looking around. “This is a great kitchen.”

“My sentiments exactly.” I felt the need to talk, to get a word in, to make Jonathan notice me. Like an idiot, I added, “I hope you’re not vegetarian, Jonny. There’s steak on the menu tonight.”

Jonathan turned to me and looked surprised. For the briefest of moments, he looked afraid, but then his face settled into a smile.

“Nope,” he said. “Steak sounds great.”

Our eyes met briefly before his gaze shifted down. I watched his eyes; he looked at my chest for a while, then he abruptly looked up again. I thought maybe he was checking me out, but it was hard to tell if it was that or if he just wanted to know where I bought my shirt. Before I could figure it out, Rey interrupted and said, “Can I get you something to drink? Red wine? Beer?”

“I’d love a beer,” Jonathan said.

I faked like I was turning back to my cooking and caught Jonathan looking at me again. I didn’t know what to do with that. On the one hand, I was always happy for a man I found attractive to be checking me out. On the other, I really didn’t want to be right about my suspicion that he was gay. I’d been hoping that Jonathan would turn out to be the straightest of straight guys so that I could go back to Wade, tell him there was no story, and call it a day. Instinct told me this wasn’t meant to be.

Rey escorted him over to the table and told him to sit. They chatted for a moment. I grabbed a short stack of plates and carried them over to the table. “Make yourself useful,” I told Rey, handing him the plates. I lingered for a moment, determined now to figure out what was going on in Jonathan’s head. He didn’t give me any clues. I tried smiling at him, but he frowned and looked at the straw placemat on the table in front of him.

Equilibrium excerpt #3

June 24, 2011

The excerpt I’m going to post this time is a little more adult; it takes place just after Michael and Ryan have finally gotten their act together.


THE sun was setting as he drove out to the Mitchell farm, the bag of Ryan’s supplements on his passenger seat and his stomach full of butterflies. He drove up the driveway and skirted around the back of the main house, following the dirt road that led off the main driveway to Ryan’s little cabin out the back. Parking in front of the house, he mounted the steps and knocked on the door, but received no answer. Tucking the package under his arm, he stepped off the veranda and went around the back.

Ryan was in the practice paddock, taking Charlie through her moves, ducking and weaving around barrels and witches hats, turning and whirling on a twenty-cent piece. It was impressive, just as much as it had been the other day—more so, maybe, because this time the mare had on a different bridle, one without a bit, and Ryan wasn’t using a saddle. He looked relaxed, fluid, matching Charlie’s movements as if they were one, of one heart and a single mind. Again, he didn’t seem to be giving her any direction, although now Michael knew that he had to be, and it was only his untutored eye that couldn’t see it. Regardless, it was incredible.

It was also a massive turn-on.

During the next pirouette, Ryan saw him. He grinned and gave Charlie a command, making her stop dead right where she stood. He patted her neck and said something else to her, and then they were walking toward him. Michael moved then, too, stepping up to the fence as Ryan drew Charlie up alongside it.

“Well… this isn’t really a surprise,” Ryan said, smiling down at him. “I see you’ve got my supplements.”

Michael smiled and balanced them on a fence post. “Would it matter if I didn’t?”

“Not really, no.” Ryan was staring at Michael’s mouth again, but instead of hopping down like Michael expected him to, after a moment of silence he slid back a little, toward Charlie’s rump, then patted where he’d just been sitting. “C’mere, you.”

“Oh now, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Michael said, shaking his head. “Why don’t you come down here instead?”

“I don’t think so. Uncle Michael said he’d try riding later. It’s later.” Ryan held out his hand, and when he spoke again, his tone was softer, intimate enough to give Michael the shivers. “Come on, Michael. I’ll make it worth your while.”

Michael hesitated a moment, then gave in, like there was ever going to be any question when Ryan used that voice on him. “All right, but you better.”

“Oh, I will,” Ryan said as Michael climbed the fence, awkwardly hitching himself over it and onto Charlie’s back.

“You better not let me fall.”

Ryan chuckled and moved forward, molding himself against Michael’s back and picking the reins up with one hand. “I won’t,” he said against Michael’s ear, and suddenly Charlie stepped forward.

“Holy crap!” Surprised, Michael jammed his heels into Charlie’s sides, and she jumped forward but then pulled up suddenly at a word from Ryan. Michael swayed and grabbed at Ryan’s thighs to get some purchase. “Oh, this is not a good idea at all. I’m going to fall off, and it’s going to be all your fault.”

Ryan laughed against the side of Michael’s neck. “No, it’s going to be all your fault, since you insist on jamming your heels into the sides of my horse.” Ryan’s feet insinuated themselves in between Michael’s feet and Charlie’s belly.

“Her skin moves, for Christ’s sake!”

“Of course it does, you bloody idiot. What did you think it’d do? God, if I’d known you were going to be such a frigging drama queen….” One arm snaked around Michael’s waist, holding him tightly against Ryan’s chest, and they moved forward again. “I’m not going to let you fall, all right?”

Michael remained unconvinced, but after a moment or two of relatively slow and stable movement, he relented a little. “All right. Just… no funny business.”

Ryan’s huff of laughter was warm against his neck. “No funny business, and no one’s falling off. Cross my heart and hope to die.”

Michael snorted. “Yeah, easy for you to say, Man from Snowy River. Shut up and drive.”

Ryan laughed again but made no sign of contemplating funny business. Once they’d completed a couple of sedate turns around the paddock, Michael finally began to relax, and Ryan loosened his hold a little, from vise-like to merely snug.

Michael had barely enough time to feel disappointed about that before Ryan moved again, but this time it was to press a soft kiss to the nape of Michael’s neck. At the same time, the hand resting on Michael’s waist moved lower, slipped under the hem of Michael’s shirt and began caressing the skin of his belly. Michael sucked in a shaky breath. “I thought you said there’d be no funny business.”

Ryan laughed softly, his breath tickling the side of Michael’s neck. “I lied,” he said, nuzzling at Michael’s ear.

Michael closed his eyes for a moment, trying to ignore how snug his jeans were beginning to get. “No one’s going to see us out here, are they?”

Ryan kissed the nape of Michael’s neck again as the hand under Michael’s shirt moved up Michael’s chest, the material rucking up on Ryan’s wrist as his fingers brushed over Michael’s nipple. “Nah. See over by the house there? Murphy’s hanging around, waiting to bludge some food. Good, loyal old Murph never tries to bludge off me if Dad and Andrew are home.”

“Oh. Good.”

Ryan kissed the side of Michael’s neck, grazing the skin with his teeth. Michael shivered, and felt Ryan’s lips pull up in a smile.
“I’ve thought about the other night a lot,” Ryan breathed, putting his head up and his lips to Michael’s ear, his nose in Michael’s hair. “Too much, probably. Can’t work, can’t sleep, and when I do sleep I wake up so hard… God, Michael….”

Michael could feel Ryan’s heart beating fast against his back. Ryan’s arm tightened around him suddenly, pulling him back against Ryan’s chest again, Michael’s backside fitting snugly against Ryan’s crotch. Michael gasped, his breathing quickening as Ryan bit his shoulder through his shirt, dropping the reins so he could run his free hand up the inside of Michael’s spread thighs, stopping tantalizingly close to Michael’s crotch. Michael’s breath hitched, and he shifted, trying to press back against Ryan some more. “Ryan….”


How mean am I, to stop right there? :) If you enter the contest you might be able to find out what happens next!

Equilibrium excerpt #2

June 24, 2011

I suppose if I’ve said good morning to you all while I was asleep that it’s redundant to say it now. I have another excerpt from Equilibrium for you – this one features Michael’s sister Jen and her two kids, Jack and Lilly, who’ve come to Burreela for a visit. Jack is horse mad, so Ryan’s invited them all to his place to look at his horses, with no ulterior motive whatsoever. :)

THEY took Jen’s car to the Mitchell farm, because it had car seats and the kids’ CDs in it. Within ten minutes Michael was considering throwing himself under the next truck that passed their way.

“I have no idea how you can put up with this music,” he said quietly as Jack shouted the lyrics to the incredibly repetitive and simpleminded kids’ song blaring out of the car speakers at the top of his lungs. “And I’m sorry to say, your son is never going to be a famous singer.”

Jen laughed. “You get used to it, the songs and the singing.” She paused a moment before she looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “So. This Ryan bloke. Have you and he got something going on?”

Michael’s stomach dropped, and he jerked his head around to look at her. “No!” He cast a look back at the kids, but they were happily oblivious. “What makes you say that?”

Jen shrugged. “I don’t know. You looked pretty comfortable together at the market the other day, and it seems to me he’s going out of his way to impress you, inviting us to his farm and all.”

Oh, God. Horror prickled down Michael’s spine at the thought that she’d picked up on that so easily. “Don’t be ridiculous. He’s not going out of his way to impress me. Why would he do that? He’s just being friendly, that’s all.”

Jen made a sceptical noise before shrugging again. “There’s friendly and there’s friendly. And I think he’s being the type of friendly that ends with sticking your hand down someone’s pants.”

“Jen! Jesus, not in front of the kids.” Michael looked back at the kids again as Jen laughed. “If Jack regurgitates that in front of Ryan, I will kill you.”

“Oh, what’s he going to say, Mikey? Nothing. He’ll be too excited at all the horses, anyway.” She paused. “Do you know if he’s gay?”

“No. No, I do not know if he’s gay.” Except, of course, he did know. But Ryan hadn’t actually told him that, and so for the purposes of this conversation, he didn’t. “And I’m not going to ask him, either. And don’t you ask him!”

“I’m not going to ask him,” she said, in the tone of voice that he knew meant that she would if she could get away with it. “But I’m going to be watching him. I’m going to watch him very closely.”

“Oh, God,” Michael said, scrunching down in his seat. “Just… just don’t embarrass me, Jen, please. I have to live here.”

She laughed and reached over to ruffle his hair. “Aw, little brother. When have I ever embarrassed you?”

Michael snorted. “There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to list them all, believe me.”

Jen laughed, then joined in a chorus of the song, smiling at him as she sang the words into his face. Michael groaned and sank further down in his seat, burying his face in his hands.

He’d perked up by the time they got to Ryan’s place, mainly because he had no desire to let Ryan see that the visit was affecting him in any way. Ryan was waiting for them in the main yard, with Murphy but no horses. When Jen slowed at the end of the driveway he approached them.

“See that offshoot of the driveway there?” He pointed at what amounted to no more than a dirt track snaking around the back of the main house. “Drive around there until you get to another house, and park out the front of it. I’ll meet you back there.”

They did as he’d instructed, Michael doing his level best to not give Jen any more ammunition by refusing to watch Ryan walk away toward the stables. The house they parked in front of was a cozy-looking wooden cottage, plain but well kept. Behind the house, Michael could see various fenced-off paddocks, a couple of sheds, and a building that looked like another set of stables, as well as a practice yard that was set up with various drums and flags, like an obstacle course.

They got out of the car, Jack almost vibrating with excitement. Ryan grinned at them. “I’ve got a couple of horses in the home paddock if you want to come around,” he said, leading them around the back of the house.

“Is this your house?” Michael asked him as they walked, Lilly balanced on his hip as Jen gripped Jack’s hand to stop him from running forward.

Ryan nodded. “Yeah. Before I joined the police force, I lived in the main house, but when I moved back, I thought I’d live out here. I was used to living out of home then, you know?” He grinned. “I was used to the privacy. I’m sure you know what I mean.”

Dimly, Michael was aware of Jen in his peripheral vision, smirking at him. “Ah, yeah. Yeah, I think I have some idea.”

“I thought you might.” Ryan chuckled and turned his gaze to Jen. Michael hoped against hope that she was quick enough to wipe the smirk of her face before Ryan looked at her. “So, Jen, Michael doesn’t talk about himself much. Got any embarrassing stories to share?”

Jen laughed. “Yes, but I’ve already been told not to embarrass him—”

“Jen!”

“—so I better not.”

Ryan made a disappointed noise and looked over his shoulder at Michael. “Spoilsport.”

Michael attempted to defend himself. “There’s not much to tell, so you’re not missing out on anything.”

“So you say.” Ryan glanced at Jen with a smile. “We’ll talk later,” he said in a stage whisper.

Jen grinned. “Okay.”

Equilibrium excerpt, plus a contest

June 24, 2011

OK, I’m back with the first excerpt that I’m going to post today. This scene is from the beginning of the book, when Michael’s still a newcomer to Burreela and he’s trying to find his feet. Just when he thinks he’s got a handle on things, Ryan Mitchell comes along and knocks him completely off balance. :)

Within this excerpt you’ll find the answers to the following questions:

What is Ryan’s horse’s name, and why do they have to call the vet out to see her?

Everyone who comments with the correct answer goes into a draw to win an ebook copy of Equilibrium.

—-

JANUARY

THE heat hit Michael like a ton of bricks as he opened the door of his borrowed ute, the stifling air heavy with the smell of dirt and animal. A yellow Labrador standing in the shade of the main house’s wraparound veranda barked at him, its tail waving. Where the house’s yard stopped and the farm began, a pair of black and tan working dogs slumped against the stable wall, snapping at flies and ignoring him completely. A scorching wind blew across the open ground, making little whirlwinds out of the dry topsoil and the branches of the big eucalyptus trees flanking the house creak and groan. It snatched at the brim of Michael’s brand new Akubra hat, threatening to send it tumbling into the dirt.

Michael’s stomach churned as he turned and walked toward the stables, adjusting his hat with an unsteady hand. He’d been in Burreela two weeks. Every day of those two weeks, his new boss, Bill, had been shadowing him, looking over his shoulder during his consults and his surgeries, taking him to farms out in the middle of nowhere, making Michael do all the dirty work while he leaned against the fence and chatted to farmers who pretended that Michael wasn’t even there. But apparently two weeks was some magic number, because this morning, when he’d been looking at the appointment book and finishing off his morning coffee, Bill had come into the back room and thrown the ute’s keys at Michael’s head, Michael just managing to catch them before they’d smacked him in the forehead.

“Leave that,” Bill had said. “Take the ute, and go up to the Mitchell farm. They’ve got a horse that needs seeing to.”

Michael had stared at him, his fingers wrapped tightly around the keys. “But I’ve never been to the Mitchell farm before.”

Bill had smiled. “Well, it’s about time you went then, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but, Bill….”

“‘Yeah, but Bill’ nothing, Michael.” Bill had stepped into the room and taken the appointment book out of Michael’s hands. “Get your ass up to the Mitchell farm, and fix their horse.” He’d turned and walked out of the room with the appointment book tucked firmly under his arm, leaving Michael no choice but to finish his coffee in two huge gulps that burned his mouth and throat, grab his kit, and get in the ute.

When he’d first arrived in Burreela, Bill had given him a map of town and the surrounding countryside. He’d used the map to get to the Mitchell farm, feeling like a bloody tourist and wishing desperately for a GPS unit as he drove with the map spread out half in his lap and half on the steering wheel. Even with the map, he’d still managed to almost miss the farm’s entrance, but now he was here, with his guts turning to water and his legs like jelly, to cure a horse of only God knew what because he’d forgotten to ask.

As Michael got closer to the wide-open stable door, he could see a dark-colored horse in a stall a couple down from the entrance, and two men standing near the door of the stall: a young man, who looked a few years older than Michael’s own twenty-six, facing the stable doorway, and an older man standing facing the horse. They were both tall and broad, but lean, the older man, who looked about sixty judging from the gray in his hair, only just starting to get the belly to go with his age. The younger one nodded toward Michael as he approached the stable door, saying something to his companion, who turned to look at Michael with the exact expression of someone who’d just bitten down on a lemon.

“You’re not Bill.”

Michael tried for a smile, the expression feeling fixed and fake even to him. “No, I’m not,” he said, as cheerfully as he could. “I’m Michael, the new vet. Michael Stone.” He stuck out his right hand; the old man stared at it like it was a snake readying itself to strike. For several long, excruciating moments there was silence while Michael stood there with his hand stuck out like an idiot, but then the younger man stepped forward and shook it firmly.

“I’m Andrew Mitchell,” he said with an apologetic smile. “This is my dad, Greg. This is his farm.”

“Oh yeah, of course,” Michael said, smiling back without bothering to hide his relief. “Nice to meet you.”

Andrew nodded. “Nice to meet you too.”

Silence descended again, but Michael broke it this time, nodding toward the horse in the stall, which he could now see was a bay with a white stripe down the middle of its face. “Is this the horse that you’ve got a problem with?”

Andrew looked toward the stall. “Yeah, that’s her. Charlie. She got herself tangled up in some barbed wire in a back paddock overnight. She must have panicked and tried to pull away from it but just got tangled up more, and some of it dug in pretty deep. We’d take care of it ourselves, but she’s a valuable horse and we can’t afford to have it getting infected. Plus, she’s my brother’s horse, and he was all for getting the vet out.” He smiled again. “So here you are.”

“Here I am.” Michael looked toward the stall again. He’d done his equine placements just like everyone else in his year, but he hadn’t done much horse work since then, so what he knew about them was mostly from books. He steeled himself against his nerves; he could do this. “I’ll take a look at her.”

He gathered himself and headed for the stall door, but Andrew beat him to it, stepping around him and unlatching the door. “I’ll go in with you. She’s a good horse, but she has spent the night tangled in barbed wire. That’s enough to make anyone grumpy.”

“Of course,” Michael said, hoping his tone was implying that he was just about to suggest that himself. He stepped into the stall after Andrew, who’d clipped a lead rope to Charlie’s halter and was holding it with enough slack to give the horse freedom of movement, but not enough that she could turn and bite Michael while he was examining her, for which Michael was profoundly glad. To his relief, the horse didn’t bat an eyelash when he reached a hand up to pat her neck, murmuring some comforting words of nonsense to her as he did so. As he ran his hand slowly down her neck, he was acutely conscious of the attention of the two Mitchell men, whose complete silence told him they were watching him carefully. He could see the problem from where he stood, a length of nasty looking barbed wire wrapped tightly around the mare’s right foreleg, just above the fetlock. The Mitchells had obviously done some work, cutting away most of the wire protruding from her leg and leaving only what was deeply imbedded in her flesh. He squatted down to get a closer look, and when he reached out to touch the leg just above the wound, the mare flinched, shifting away from him so suddenly that he had to slam a hand against the side of the stall to stop himself from overbalancing and ending up on his ass. His Akubra tipped off his head and onto the straw covering the stable floor. He looked up, and Andrew Mitchell was looking down at him.

Andrew smiled. “Sorry.”

Michael attempted a smile and tried to ignore the flush he could feel creeping up his neck. “No worries.” He reached for his hat, brushing it off before standing up. “I’ll just go and get my gear, won’t be long.”

He let himself out of the stall and stepped around Greg Mitchell, slapping his hat back onto his head just before he headed back out into the yard, squinting against the too-bright sun. He hated the hat: it was hot and annoying, and he was sure he looked ridiculous in it, but he had to wear it. He’d inherited his father’s brown hair, but that was where any hints of swarthiness ended, because he’d also gotten his mother’s gray eyes and English complexion, the type of complexion that on her had been described as “porcelain” but on him was described as “glow-in-the-dark white.” He knew from the painful experience of his first two days in Burreela that if he didn’t wear the hat in the scorching summer sun his face and neck would go from snow white to fire-engine red in about five seconds, and he’d be using aloe vera on his blistered and peeling skin for the next week.

He went around to the covered bed of the ute and flipped up the hard top, reaching in for his bag and rummaging through it to make sure he had what he needed before heading back. He could barely see a thing as he entered the stables, struck blind by the bright sun, but as his eyes became more accustomed to the dimmer light, he realized that Andrew and his father had been joined by another man, one who looked so much like Andrew that it had to be his brother. The man looked at Michael as he approached and smiled. “Hi. I’m Ryan.”

Michael’s stomach dropped at the sight of that smile, and he could do nothing but stare at the man, stare into hazel eyes that looked almost gold against the man’s sun-browned skin. His gaze took in the high cheekbones and the square jaw dusted with a couple of days worth of reddish-brown stubble, the brown hair that curled around his ears and at the nape of his neck where it showed under his hat. The edges of the man’s—Ryan’s—hair looked damp, wet from the sweat that glistened on the nape of his neck. Michael’s mouth went suddenly dry.

Ryan raised an eyebrow, and Michael realized that he was waiting for Michael to speak. “Oh. Sorry. I’m Michael. I’m the new vet. In town.”

Ryan smiled. “Yeah, I thought so, what with you carrying a fancy bag and all.” He nodded toward the stall. “You going to go back in there, Doc, or were you going to use voodoo to fix her up?”

Michael’s face heated. “Right. Yes. I’m going back in.” He stepped toward the stall again, but this time it was Ryan who went in before him. He did his best to ignore Ryan’s presence as he crouched in the corner to fish out some syringes and vials from his bag, then stood and patted Charlie’s neck again before reaching out for her leg once more. She shifted again when he touched her, but this time Ryan kept her from shying away; Michael could hear him crooning to her under his breath, and that made Michael’s skin prickle with an almost painful awareness of the other man. He did his best to ignore it, concentrating hard on the horse instead. He gave her some local anesthetic around the wound, and a couple of shots of antibiotics and a tetanus shot while he was waiting for it to numb. Glancing up at Ryan as he placed the needles carefully out of the way next to his bag, he saw that Ryan was watching him. He cleared his throat and made an attempt at intelligent conversation. “Do you know how long she was wrapped up in the wire for?”

That got a reaction, but not one that Michael really wanted, as Ryan frowned, his expression dark and thunderous. “Too long.” He turned his head slightly and raised his voice, directing his next words over his shoulder at his brother and father. “Those back paddocks were supposed to be cleaned up ages ago. I never would have let her in there if I’d known they were still full of crap.”

“Hey, don’t look at me,” Andrew said from behind him. “I thought they’d been done. Otherwise I wouldn’t have let you put her in there.”

“Yeah, well,” Ryan said, his tone still harsh. “I better not find out who didn’t clean it up properly, or they’ll feel my boot up their ass.” He looked back at Michael, who turned away from him quickly, frowning down at the wound as he gently assessed it for numbness, trying not to show how the gruffness of Ryan’s tone had sent a shiver down his spine.

“Right, she’s ready,” he said, more to distract himself from Ryan than give a blow-by-blow account of what he was doing. He took the end of the remaining wire and gently pulled it out of the wound, then set about cleaning the damaged flesh. “Okay.” He glanced up at Ryan when he turned to get bandages out of his bag, feeling a bit more stable now that he had instructions to give. “It looks pretty clean, and even though there’s a bit of swelling there, it doesn’t look as if there’s any tendon damage, which is good. The cut’s deep but not wide, so I’m not going to stitch it up. I’ll dress it, and it can heal on its own. Happy with that?”

Ryan nodded. “Yeah. Do I need to do anything to it?”

Michael shrugged. “Just keep her somewhere where she’ll keep it clean.” He got out some antibiotic powder and puffed it liberally over the wound before starting to bandage it up. “I gave her an antibiotic shot, and now she’s got antibiotic powder on it, too, so it shouldn’t get infected. I’ve given her a tetanus shot as well. I’ll leave you some powder and fresh dressings so that if she does get it dirty, you can change it. In a few days, change it anyway. If it looks weepy or inflamed, give me—” He felt himself blushing again. “Give us a call, and we’ll come out to look at it, but it should be fine. The dressings can come off altogether in about ten days or so.” He tied the bandages off, pulled a packet of wet wipes from his bag, cleaned his hands, then packed up, gathering his bag and the used syringes as he stood. “Okay?”

“Okay,” Ryan said, smiling again and sticking out his hand. “Thanks Doc. Michael.”

Michael had to switch his bag to his other hand before he could shake Ryan’s hand, but as he gripped it, his heart skipped a beat, and he hoped desperately that he wasn’t blushing again. Ryan’s hand was warm, the skin slightly rough, and his grip strong. Michael suppressed a shiver and smiled, hoping he didn’t look as hysterical as he felt. “That’s no problem. Just doing my job, right?”

“Right.” Ryan held on to Michael’s hand for just a moment too long before letting it drop. He stepped to the side to let Michael out of the stall. “But thanks anyway.”

Michael left the stall, nodding to Andrew and Mr. Mitchell as he left. He walked all the way to his ute without looking back, but as he finished disposing of his syringes and stowing his bag in the back and went to climb into the cab, he couldn’t resist. Glancing back as casually as he could, he saw Ryan standing in the entrance of the stables, leaning against the door and watching him. Their gazes locked as Michael closed the ute’s door, and they stared at each other until Ryan moved suddenly, looking back over his shoulder as his brother and father came up behind him. He straightened, saying something to them as they walked past him, Andrew slapping him on the shoulder. All three men headed to the main house, Ryan lingering behind as Michael started the ute, touching the brim of his hat and flashing Michael a grin as he turned the car around and headed down the driveway. Michael watched the house in his rearview mirror until a bend in the driveway put it out of his sight, and he drove the whole way back into town with his stomach in knots.

Excerpt: Loving Luki Vasquez (the rest of chapter one)

June 20, 2011

SONNY couldn’t get his mind around weaving. This happened rarely. Actually, it happened never, but this time thoughts of Delsyn’s absence loomed so large, he scarcely had room in his mind for anything else.

Almost true, he thought. Delsyn left room for one other subject: Luki Vasquez.

He’d reached an impasse in his thinking on both subjects, so in disgust, he moved away from the loom and into the rough-floored mudroom, which he’d set up with tubs and flasks and boxes of ingredients—even a long rack for stripping bark and a freezer for storing bags of exotic, color-yielding insects. He’d dedicated the space for making and using dyes, and that’s what he set about.

He had a project in mind, something he wanted to do that, for once, had not been commissioned. To be honest, he had two in mind, but one involved a sore subject, and he chose not to think about it. The project he applied himself to that morning nearly matched his mood, though perhaps a little brighter. It needed a big sky that duplicated the color and feel of the cloud-strewn mornings these last few weeks.

Colors just a hair off from what was called for could change a piece completely, even ruin it—Sonny knew that better than just about anyone. Creating effective, precise dyes had been the core of his doctoral work, and the subject had become a mainstay in his rare academic appearances. Being the kind of man that rarely does anything the way anybody else would, he’d developed a quirky but relaxing way to get every hue, tint, and shade exactly right. And now seemed a good time for relaxation.

Before dawn, he gathered swatches of silk cloth, dyed and set two days ago in a range of hues from off-white to beige to various grays. After tying each onto its own slender pole, he carried them to the beach at the edge of the straits. Hiking east up the beach, he stopped when he found a place that seemed right and had some high rocks to watch from. He planted the poles in the sand and climbed to his perch just in time for the light to show.

The job involved a lot of doing nothing. Or so it would seem from the outside. In reality, he observed and noted and carefully recorded, all in his brain. But when he saw Luki Vasquez running along the shore, he knew that if the islander saw him, he’d think he was lazing about. Strange, though, for all Luki’s “I’m a professional bad guy” attitude, he didn’t spot Sonny there until he came upon the silk flags fluttering in the breeze. He turned to scan the beach but still didn’t see him. When finally he did, he stood for a minute, inscrutable, then walked toward Sonny’s rocks.

“Hey,” Sonny said.

“Hi.”

Silence. A promising start. Sonny scooted over on his rock. There was room for two. “You want to sit?”

Luki climbed up and cleared his throat a few times before speaking. “I was working.”

“You do that a lot?”

“Not as much as I used to. I’m trying to cut back.”

By the sound of his voice, Sonny would have sworn the man was smiling, but when he turned to face him, he didn’t see any expression more mobile than ice. At first. Then it peeked out, that tiny, shy little bit of something sweet behind his eyes, in the set of his mouth. A smile? Maybe so.

“What are you doing?” Luki stared at the flags as if trying to decode a hidden clue.

“I’m testing dyes, colors.”

“Aren’t they all pretty much the same?”

Sonny sighed, pretty sure this new acquaintance would lead nowhere. He wondered briefly what Luki wanted out of him. He suspected it would be a quick fling before he returned to his real life in Chicago. Maybe he had a lover there, though Sonny’s intuition told him not. Anyway, the last thing Sonny wanted was a one-nighter. He avoided them. That habit, coupled with his lack of the time needed to find love—or have any real relationship—had left him alone and even shyer than he’d been when he started out. And, he knew, probably the most inexperienced twenty-nine-year-old man, gay or not gay, this side of the moon.

But he had Delsyn to worry about, and that took up too much of his mind and heart to make room for lovers anyway. Now that he’d grown up enough to realize that Delsyn’s well-being couldn’t be expected to take care of itself, he would gladly devote himself to doing the caring if only Del would stay home. He wouldn’t, never did. But the boy knew he needed to come home every two weeks, maybe three at the most—his life might depend on it. That’s what Sonny needed to think and worry about. Not Luki Vasquez.

“No,” he answered. “They’re not the same.” He jumped down from the rocks, gathered up his poles, and strode away, affording Luki a wave.

RIVER sounds climbed the muddy bank where Luki stood shivering in moonlight so bright it glared, and he had to shield his eyes. He knew there were other kids in the water, though he couldn’t hear them, could barely make out the dark shapes of their heads, like shadows. He heard a call from a short distance off to his left, and when he turned his head, there was another shape. A boy, and something gleaming silver in the air.

Again he heard his name. “Luki, come on over here. I’ve got something for you.”

“Not again, no,” he whispered to himself.

“Yes,” Ronny said. “Again, and again, and again….”

Luki cried out, woke, and rolled instantly off the bed and onto his feet. Sweat soaked him, and the left side of his face burned as if newly slashed. Fear, then grief took their brief turns with him, each like a punch to his throat, cutting off his air. He hurried past them and embraced rage, stood in its white-hot flame until, for this time, it burned itself out.

He knew the drill, knew the dream, knew how to shake off its remaining shards.

Seconds after he woke, he gauged the light and estimated, morning. Which, he knew, demonstrated his brilliant powers of deduction.

“Better than Sherlock Holmes.”

As an alternative to testing his detective skills, he looked at the clock. Eight thirty. Still early by his standards, but he never contemplated going back to bed. He stumbled into the bathroom to vomit—an old and bothersome reaction—not even trying to hold it back this time.

Thanks to his invisible housekeeper, who came every day in his absence, somehow always knowing when he’d be gone, he had coffee ready to brew by the cup. He brushed his teeth so he could enjoy the taste and did just that. Two cups of black and sweet, into the shower, out again in no time. He put on his old and ragged clothes. Yes, he had some. He remembered Sonny’s blunt question. “Why the getup?” He almost smiled, almost wished the intriguing… frustrating and intriguing man could see him now.

Meanwhile, he got out three handguns of various sizes and capabilities, placed them in a case designed for just that purpose, and added ammunition. He kept his firearms, always, clean and in perfect condition. None of his weapons were intended for sport. Intimidation, protection, and defense constituted the mainstay of his profession and of his habits; a life, even his own, could depend on them. And honing all his skills, working them to stay in top form, fought off the dream and the havoc it would otherwise wreak. Guns and targets this morning, and then perhaps tai chi—which he considered the best and deadliest of his martial arts.

By the time he’d driven to the range outside of Port Angeles, reassured himself, and impressed his fellow shooters, the need for breakfast finally caught up, so he stopped at Front Street, a corner restaurant that served steak and eggs seasoned and cooked to perfection. On the way back to Port Clifton, he set his phone on speaker and delegated the day’s work to his various staff, using his fabulous office admin as a go-between.

“They won’t listen to me, boss. You know that.”

“Contrary, Jude. I know you put fear in their hearts every time you speak, and they wouldn’t dare go against you. Make my nefarious plans your orders, and they’ll get it done.”

“Are you coming back soon?”

“No.”

“That’s all I get, just no?”

“Yes.”

After an exasperated groan, Jude hung up. For the second time that day, Luki almost smiled. Which made him think maybe he should go back. Port Clifton was turning him soft.

FOOD digested, business taken care of, cigarette half-smoked, he decided to go straight down to the beach. He could have gone home. He had plenty of room in his condo, or on the balcony, for tai chi. He had a key to the top floor gym, a luxurious space that boasted a three-sixty view. But luxury had never seemed right for tai chi, and, Nebraska child that he was, saltwater still fascinated him. Besides, this was the closest he’d ever come to a vacation. He might as well at least make a pretense of it.

He drove a little way past town to a stretch not lined by houses and not crowded with people—in fact, it looked deserted. Perfect. For the first part of his tai chi practice, he always worked carefully and slowly through forms; for the next part, he “fought” target posts of various sizes, each about two inches in diameter. In early days, the posts had been wrapped with padding and duct tape, but once he’d mastered the art, he left them bare. The “give” had to be in his own hands, his own stance, and that’s what imbued his blows with deadly force.

He took the targets out of the car, removed his shoes, and walked across the beach to the edge of the water, where the wet sand provided a perfect base. After he’d set his poles and taken a minute to perfect his state of mind, he began the first form, working thoughtfully, slowly, aware of every muscle, every move.

By the time he’d finished, the sun had risen almost midway. With heat and exertion, he’d broken into a profuse sweat. He turned his face into the breeze, let it riffle his curls, took his shirt off, and tossed it to hang on one of his targets.

A dot in the distance moving up the beach toward him. A person. Sonny, no flags in sight.

Crap.

Oh well, no problem. If there was anything he knew how to do, it was shut out emotional disturbance. He’d just continue with his practice, maybe work another form first, as if Sonny weren’t there. But with Sonny’s long legs, he covered a lot of distance in a short time, and now he’d come almost close enough for eye contact. My God, the man is beautiful.

“Hey,” Luki said.

“Hi.”

“Nice out, huh?” Oh, yeah. Great. Talk about the weather.

Sonny ignored the comment.

Thank you, universe.

“It’s like dancing.”

The conversation seemed like some kind of mirror image of the last time they spoke, when Sonny was checking out colors, which certainly weren’t all the same, or so Sonny informed him, leaving him to feel foolish. Nice thing was, now they were in his territory. But he had no taste for retaliation.

“It’s been called that. Tai chi.”

“Oh. Yeah. I’ve heard of it. Sort of dancing that can kill. Seems exactly right.”

Luki didn’t know what he meant by that last remark, so he stayed silent.

“It’s graceful, the way you do it.”

Luki remained at a loss for a response. Was that a compliment?

“I’ve even thought about trying to learn it. But I could never get away from my studio—or maybe I should say get my studio out of my head—long enough for anything like that.”

Luki still said nothing, but now he subtly eyed Sonny from head to toe—a pleasant undertaking but one with purpose. “You’re in good enough shape to do it well.”

“I suppose.”

Luki didn’t know how he could speak and hold his breath at the same time, but it felt that way. “I could teach you a little,” he said, “right now.”

To his surprise and nervous delight, Sonny agreed after only a second’s hesitation. Soon Luki had him barefoot and mastering a perfect opening stance. From there, he taught him some traditional warm-ups—not part of the forms but a good way to get the feel of the art. Though his long, loose limbs gave him some trouble and made Luki want to secretly and fondly laugh, and though Sonny giggled—yes, giggled—at a few of the early warm-ups, he attended well and learned fast.

They’d reached the last of the warm-up exercises: Pushing Chi. A little more complicated than the ones that came before, it took focused coordination. When Sonny could Push Chi with acceptable grace, Luki decided to introduce him to at least part of the Chen form: First, he revisited the simple but all-important Opening Movement. Then, Pound the Pestle, Lazy Tying Coat, and Six Sealing, Four Closing.

Single Whip led into White Crane Spreads Its Wings, the name of which made Sonny adorably… all right fine, adorably happy. The sequence involved motions that at first felt counterintuitive. Like probably every student in the centuries tai chi had been around, Sonny needed help with it. As he would with any other student, Luki stood behind him, using his own hands to guide Sonny through the move. He wondered if he could get away with teaching him all the rest of the moves in just that way. Perhaps for hours. Every day. For a long time.

As he was teaching and wondering and probably even almost smiling, a wind rose up, splashing spray and sand and whipping Sonny’s long hair at Luki’s face and right into his mouth. On the word “open,” appropriately enough.

Sonny spun around, gathering up his luxurious baked-earth red hair. Before Luki had a chance to close his mouth, Sonny kissed him. A passionate, seeking sort of kiss. A kiss that Luki instinctively returned, though kissing wasn’t a large part of his intimate life, and especially not kissing on the beach.

As suddenly as he started it, Sonny ended it, leaving Luki bereft… frustrated and bereft.

Sonny turned away, refusing eye contact. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have done that.” Without any further explanation, he stepped away.

Luki knew fear, could spot it from afar and pick it out in a crowded room. Right now, it ran hot through Sonny’s veins. He reached for Sonny’s arm. “Sonny, what….” What are you afraid of? he ended the question silently. Sonny had already gone.

Luki hated roller coasters, both the mechanical ones and the emotional. In response to hating it, he relaxed completely, letting his tension be soaked up in the wet sand. Then he took that emotion out on his targets. Using tai chi fajin in a rapid-fire assault, he took every one of those posts down before they knew what hit them. Especially the last.

“You never even saw me leap, you stupid post.”

Another Excerpt—Meet Luki and Sonny

June 20, 2011

Straits of Juan de Fuca (Where Sonny Lives)

Washington State, 2010

BRIGHT clothes, sunburns. Summer had arrived, and Port Clifton was awash in tourists. Since Juan de Fuca Boulevard constituted most of the town, they had nowhere else to go. They chattered and milled about, and Sonny Bly James wasn’t in the mood for chatter or milling because he was worried about his nephew, Delsyn, who always stayed gone for days, but who should have come home by now. Sonny quickened his long-legged strides and slid through the crush, trying to disturb the air as little as possible on the way to his truck.

Then he saw a man.

Which in itself wasn’t unusual, but this man, an islander, maybe Hawaiian, by the look of him, lounged cool and beautiful in loose summer whites, half-sitting on the fender of an ice-blue Mercedes, a strip of sand beach and the blue straits for a backdrop. Dark chestnut curls shining; straight, white teeth softly teasing a lush, plum-red bottom lip. His eyes, startling pale blue against brown skin, roved all over Sonny; the islander made no effort to pretend otherwise, and besides, Sonny could feel them. Their touch trickled over him like ice water, exciting every nerve he had, even those he’d never heard from before.

Which scared Sonny, a recluse by choice—and, he knew, because he’d always managed to be socially… well, clumsy. So, he turned to the weapon that had been his first line of defense since adolescence, when all the reservation had noticed that their star young grass dancer didn’t mind being gay: a smart mouth.

“What are you looking at?”

Even though the islander had responded by looking away, Sonny knew he hadn’t—couldn’t have—intimidated him. The stranger might have been a few inches shorter than him, but judging by his physique, and despite his laid-back manner, Sonny guessed the man could have dropped him with a cold look and a slap. It would have been less of a blow if he had. Instead, he freed his lower lip from his teeth and spoke.

“I beg your pardon.”

Sonny wanted to let a whole raft of words spill out, starting with “I didn’t mean it,” and ending with “so kiss me, now.” But the man’s attention had turned away. A baby in a stroller dropped a floppy brown bear at his feet. The young mother looked frazzled, at her wit’s end, carrying another child and trying to keep a third from making a dash down the boulevard. The islander squatted down—a graceful move—and picked up the bear. Right before Sonny’s eyes, his icy exterior melted, and though he didn’t smile and couldn’t pass for cheerful, he somehow seemed kind. He handed the stuffed creature back to the baby, who seemed to like him. She expressed her gratitude by spouting a number of syllables that all sounded a lot like “da.”

Sonny, angry with himself for blowing his chance to meet this chill but beautiful stranger—who might be trying to hide a kind heart—pretended he hadn’t seen. He turned his faux-stoic shoulder and walked away. A little shaky, perhaps; already sorry. Three strides and he heard a voice, unexpectedly scratchy, even hoarse.

“Hey.”

Sonny turned.

The man took a deep, lovely breath, flashed his cold-fire eyes at Sonny, and said, “I have coffee most mornings at Margie’s. In case you’re interested.”

MARGIE’S it was, then, the very next day. Sonny had weighed the wisdom of that, thinking it might be better if he didn’t seem so anxious. But hell, he thought, I am anxious. Nothing about me is un-anxious.

He took the truck—which his Uncle Melvern had left him when he died a year ago and which functioned as a good luck charm. After he pulled over to the curb a half-block from Margie’s, he forced the clutch to cooperate, wrestled the column shift into first, and shut the engine down. Sort of. It kicked and spluttered, backfired, and groaned to death. He really, really hoped that the man he had come to meet had not heard that. He wanted to make a good impression. He crashed his shoulder into the door to get out, slammed the door twice to shut it, then paused to look in the side-view mirror. Some other person spoke out of his mouth—or at least that’s how it felt. “Sonny,” it said, “here’s your chance. Don’t blow it.”

Great. A confidence builder.

The wooden sign attached over the arched brick entry said “Margie’s Cup O’ Gold,” but nobody ever called the cafe anything but just plain Margie’s. The elegant door—leaded glass set in oak panels—had been pushed open and held there with a shoe. All that stood between Sonny and whatever fate awaited him inside was a wooden screen door, the old-fashioned kind; it might have been there since the block was built in the 1890’s. He crossed the threshold wearing a smile for Margie, then reached back just in time to stop the screen from slamming behind him. “Hey, Marge,” he said, maybe not quite as loud as usual. He glanced around lazily, as if he weren’t looking for the man he’d come to think of as “the islander.” He didn’t see him. He let out a long breath that he must have been holding, wondering if he felt disappointed or relieved. He walked, casually he hoped, across the expanse of black and white parquet floor.

“Well,” Margie said, hand on hip and scolding in ringing tones. “Hello, Sonny. You’re here awfully early.”

“Margie, usually people don’t give other people a hard time for being early.”

“Shush, Sonny Bly. So what do you want? Never mind, I already know. You and your fancy coffees. What’s wrong with a good old-fashioned cuppa, eh? Now that young man that came in a little earlier—real nice looking fella; I think you’d like him—now he just ordered coffee, black and sweet. There’s a man that knows what he likes, I say.”

She’d nearly finished making the latte by the time she stopped. That was one thing about a conversation with Margie. Sonny never worried about what to say, because he was pretty sure he’d never get a chance to say it. But this time she had him a little dumbfounded. She’d said, “that nice fella” with a sly glance out of the corner of her eye. Sonny figured she was on to him, but he couldn’t decide whether that was good or bad.

She cleared up those muddy waters as soon as she handed over his latte. “He’s around the corner, dear. The last table. Don’t worry, you look fine.”

Which left Sonny absolutely certain he should have worried more about how he looked.

There he was, the islander. Same skin, same lips, eyes, even hair. Of course. But the rest of him was dressed in a posh business suit, a light gray, summer fabric so finely tailored that he might have been born in it. “So why the getup?” Sonny asked.

“Ah,” the stranger remarked. “A way with words.”

He didn’t have to say that. Sonny was already giving his forehead a mental smack. He stared at his coffee for what seemed like, maybe, a hundred and twenty-four years. He’d all but decided to bid an embarrassed farewell and beat a retreat, when the islander spoke.

“I have to go to work in a while,” he said. When Sonny looked up he added, “That’s why the getup.” No smile went with the words, but his eyes danced, like they were laughing—or maybe teasing. He reached halfway across the tile-topped table, holding out his long-fingered, manicured hand.

Sonny stared at it.

The islander said, “I thought maybe introductions would be a good place to start. I’m Luki. Luki Vasquez.”

Embarrassed again, Sonny blushed, which—he knew from experience—made his off-brown skin look purple. But in an act of sheer bravery, he put his own dye-stained and calloused hand out and took hold of Luki’s. Somehow, what felt like gibberish came out sounding like his name. “Sonny James.”

Luki leaned back when the handshake was done, draped his left arm casually over the back of the chair… revealing a bit of leather strap that might be part of a shoulder holster and something sort of gun-shaped half-hidden under his jacket.

“Is that what I think it is?”

Luki pulled his jacket back and showed him what was under there. Or some of what was under there, and not necessarily what Sonny wanted to see.

“Is that what you thought it was?”

“I’m afraid so. Police?”

Luki shook his head. “Used to be, sort of—ATF. Not anymore.”

“ATF?”

“Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms.”

Sonny said, “Oh.” Thinking he’d probably heard of such an organization, sometime. “What now?”

“Security.”

Security? Sonny’s mind raced. Luki couldn’t possibly have meant he was one of those people that walk around the factory at night. That wouldn’t make enough money for a man to feed himself, never mind buy a suit handmade by the angels of heaven. What kind of security work might be so lucrative? He imagined Luki running alongside royalty as they headed for the limo, staving off the paparazzi.”What, like bodyguard?”

Luki’s voice, low and raspy but sweet, tightened a bit. Apparently he hadn’t expected to be quizzed about how he paid the bills. “Yes, from time to time. And property—gems and what not. Investigations, sometimes. What about you? What do you do?” The look he shot Sonny was almost a glare.

The most honest response would have been, “Please, don’t look at me like that,” but belligerence is a tough habit to break. “I play with yarn.”

“Yarn?”

“And string.”

“String.”
“Yep,” Sonny said aloud. Silently, he told himself he’d probably gone too far. He wasn’t sorry that Luki’s cell phone, attached to his belt in a stylishly businesslike manner, buzzed just then.

Luki glanced at the number, looked up, and caught Sonny’s eyes with an entirely unreadable gaze. He set his hand on the table, preparing to rise. “Sorry,” he said, “I’d better go.”

“Alright,” Sonny responded, his voice faint. A wish that he’d spent this time with Luki getting to know him a little, rather than engaging in subtle verbal warfare hit him so hard that it took his breath. Heart pounding, acting on either bravery or desperation, he put his hand on Luki’s where it lay on the table. Luki’s hand turned and grabbed hold. His thumb washed across Sonny’s knuckles; his fingers promised Sonny’s palm a kiss, which struck remote bits of anatomy like lightning. Sonny tried to put some of his chagrin into a smile. His lips had gone dry, and he licked them. “Luki—” He stopped, surprised at how the name filled his mouth with something sweet. He laughed a little and went on. “Maybe we can try this again?”

Luki stayed silent, worrying softly at his bottom lip—again.

Sonny stopped breathing.

“Yeah,” Luki said, with that already familiar something in his eyes. “I’d like that. Tomorrow?”

Sonny’s confidence underwent significant restoration as a result of that promising end. He smiled a farewell to Luki and sat a few minutes longer to contemplate and sip the last of his tepid, but still delicious, raspberry latte. Getting ready to leave, he stood, slid his feet more firmly into his flip-flops, and patted his back pocket, as always, to make sure that indeed his wallet was still there. He took a step toward the door, but stopped when he heard conversation around the corner. He’d thought Luki must have gone out the back door to the parking lot, but there was no mistaking his voice.

“The man plays with string, Margie.”

Step one, Sonny thought, deflate ego.

“Oh, yes he does,” Margie said. “And he does it better than anyone I know. Would you like to see?”

Step two: remember who your friends are.

“Not today, Margie. I have to go. Some other day, maybe. I’m sure it’s spectacular.”

Step three: write off potential romance as a loss for tax purposes.

Footsteps. The back door opened, closed. Sonny came out of hiding to find Margie standing with arms crossed and a raised eyebrow.

“Well?” Margie made words like that into whole dissertations, having a talent for saying more when she spoke less.

“The man plays with guns,” he mumbled.

“Quite competently, so I’ve heard. Any word from Delsyn?”

Sonny didn’t mind changing the subject, but thoughts of his too-long-absent nephew hardly cheered him up. He shook his head.

“Don’t worry so, dear. He’ll come home.”

This time Sonny nodded, wished Margie a good day, and started for the door.

“He wants to see your work sometime.” Which, of course, did not refer to Delsyn.

“Don’t bother, Marge.” Hoping to convince himself that he didn’t care, he added, “He wouldn’t know crimson from scarlet if they jumped up and shouted their names.”

THE next day, Sonny talked himself through some considerable misgivings and went to Margie’s as arranged. Luki didn’t show. After an hour and 2.8 lattes, he left. He didn’t say a word, but Margie did. Of course.

“His work is unpredictable, Sonny. He should have told you that.”

“No big deal, Marge.”

“He doesn’t live here, you know. Leases one of those condos up the street, temporarily.”

“Luxury, I’m sure.”

Margie raised her eyebrows. “I expect so. Anyway, he said he lives in Chicago, has a business there, but he can run it from anywhere. It takes him all over the world, I guess, and right now, he has a job here.”

Sonny remembered how closemouthed Luki seemed. “You got him to say all that?” But of course Margie could get a signpost talking if she had a few minutes to spend. She didn’t answer, but she did keep talking.

“He likes it here, said he’s tired of Chicago, tired of always being on edge. Decided he’d stay a while, maybe not work so hard.”

“Why are you telling me all this, Margie?

“Because you want to know.”

LUKI glanced in the mirror for a minimal look before leaving his condo. He’d dressed more casually than he generally did when working—which in the past had been always—but today his face looked even more grim than usual. He didn’t like to see it, anyway. The scar that ran straight down the left side of his face from scalp to chin made him ugly, and he knew it. And he knew that, try as he might to distract people with perfect clothes and beautiful curls, that scar scared people and turned them away. Everyone except kids.

And Sonny James, maybe.

Which explained the grimmer look.

He’d been working, a nasty job that involved a wife trying to get her jewels back from a former trophy husband who, it turned out, had full access to a lowlife but dangerous security force of his own—exactly the kind of job he hated the most, though it paid well. He couldn’t help missing his date… sort of date with Sonny, but Sonny had no way of knowing that. He’d called Margie late that first day and asked for Sonny’s cell. She didn’t think he had one, she said, for practical reasons. That left Luki baffled, and then before he could ask for his landline, things started happening outside. “Tell him I called,” he’d said. Three days ago.

“Maybe I’ll be lucky and have a chance to explain,” he told his reflection.

He walked the four miles to Margie’s for exercise. And because he didn’t think Margie’s would be open this early anyway. Not being someone who could remotely be called a “morning person,” he’d never paid much attention to what time things opened. They were always open before he got there, except when he had to get up for work, in which case he didn’t go have leisurely coffee with a beautiful… exceptionally beautiful man.

I can’t believe it, he thought. I’ve got freaking butterflies in my stomach. Cigarette.

He had one in the first mile and hoped the next three would blow away the smell of smoke. I should quit. Not knowing why he thought St. Christopher might help in a situation like this, he touched the medal he always wore on its chain. Let him be there.

Right. Because I’d certainly be there if someone stood me up without a word and didn’t show up for three days….

Sonny didn’t appear at Margie’s that day, nor the next, nor the next, despite Luki getting there early—though admittedly later each day. Margie said he hadn’t been in after that first day, and when he asked where Sonny lived, she laughed. He hadn’t expected a laugh, but he hadn’t really expected an answer, either—other than the usual, “It’s not my business to tell you that.”

Instead: “You’d never find it, Luki.”

“I’m a detective.”

“Well, if you can detect yourself around the forest, through the bog, and over the back roads, then you’ll do fine. He lives about an hour out of town—not because of distance, because of the roads. Hardly ever comes to town, to tell the truth. One of those reclusive artist types, you know?”

No. He didn’t know. When would he have had a chance to know what “artist types” do with their off time? “What about his phone, then?”

“Well, I don’t know….”

“I’m sure you have it.”

“I do, and I’ve got your phone number too. Do you want me to just hand it out to any looker that asks?”

“If the looker is Sonny James, yes.” He meant it, but it didn’t look like Margie even heard it. She’d already walked away, heading for a table newly filled with four tourists.

Luki left, resolving not to come back with his hopes in the air again. Why he had done it in the first place mystified him. He never pursued relationships. Went out of his way to avoid them, in fact. He liked a tryst as well as the next guy, had honed his skills at sex the same way he perfected his marksmanship and tai chi. But relationships? No; single instances, adding just enough class to keep them from being sordid. He found the idea of a relationship dangerous.

Sonny James threatened his well-being. Better left alone. So he told himself, but after he walked out Margie’s door, he turned around and walked back in.

“You said you’d show me some of his work sometime. Can you do that now?”

Here’s an excerpt (PG rated) from Loving Luki Vasquez

June 20, 2011

(There is a sexy hot excerpt coming later. Just so you know.)

If you want to comment on this or any post, click on the post title to see the comment box at the bottom.

Loving Luki Vasquez Cover

Prologue

Oak Flats, Nebraska, 1982

A MUD-SPATTERED pickup in the front yard of a weathered house. Summer-gold hayfields rolling back farther than the eye could see. In the west, a sinking sun screened by a line of trees—cottonwoods and willows. Under those trees, a band of children just into their teens, whooping and laughing in that way that kids do in the summer when night is just on the edge of the next breath.

Luki ran faster than all the rest, and then looped back to taunt them. Excitement like electricity ran through him. Something about this day, this hour, this prelude to night, was special. “Maria,” he yelled. “I’ll race ya!”

It started a stampede, all seven of the boys and Maria, the one girl who always hung out with them, running as if they could fly, thrashing through brambles and over sticks and stones as if they couldn’t feel them. Out onto the Old Granary Road, onto the bridge, right over the rail and into the river, just as they’d done hundreds of times before.

Luki swam underwater for as long as he could hold his breath, which was longer than anyone, except maybe Maria. When he came up, laughing and spitting, and slicked his hair back out of his eyes, all of the other boys had gathered at the shore, whispering, or maybe arguing. Maria hadn’t even gone in, and now she was worming her way down the steep embankment from the road to the river.

The sun sank under the skyline, and the river turned dark, and Luki felt a chill run through him.

“Hey, Luki, c’mon over here, man.” It was Ronny Jemison, the boy that was a bit taller, a bit rougher, a bit meaner than any of the rest. Maybe the leader, if they had been a gang. “We’ve got something for you. C’mon.”

Ronny scared him when he was like this. Luki had seen the bully push Little Jimmy down the bank, yank Maria’s hair hard enough to put her on her knees, kill birds and frogs and rabbits—anything that lived—just to be killing. But, scared or not, Luki knew he had to choose: go and fight and maybe get hurt, or be deemed a coward and so get picked on—probably for the rest of his life.

So Luki went.

Before he quite made it safely to dry land, Ronny smacked him hard in the face with a balled up fist, and yelled one word, spit it at Luki as if it was made of acid and would flay him.

“Faggot!”