Friday, April 4, 2014

EXCERPT: Wireless

Title: Wireless
Author: L.A. Witt
Publisher: Loose Id, LLC
Format: ebook


Several decades from now…

The ground was always moving in San Angeles. If it wasn’t one of the massive machines lumbering from one monolithic construction project to the next, it was another day, another earthquake. Yesterday, there was a quake strong enough to spill my coffee on the sleek stainless console in Sim Room 12, and just this morning, a smoke-belching earthmover—one of the small ones, the kind with tire treads that can only fit two full grown adults—went by and made the lights flicker. After thirty-two years in this place, I was used to all of that.

But every other Thursday at exactly fourteen thirty, my balance went straight to hell. Whatever I was holding had about a fifty percent chance of tumbling to the floor, so I always made sure my hands were empty and, if I could swing it, I was sitting.

Because every other Thursday at exactly fourteen thirty, Aiden Maxwell strolled in through the simhouse’s front door.

And he always asked for me.

It was Thursday again, and it was fourteen twenty-nine when Lacey leaned into my office.

“Keith, you’ve got a patient.”

“Already?” I didn’t know why I bothered to act surprised, or look at the clock on the wall like I’d actually lost track of time. “Well. Where’s the day going?”

She laughed but said nothing. As I followed her down the hall to the waiting area, I wondered if she knew. But then, who cared? I’d never touched the man except as my job required it, and that meant gloves on. Just because he screwed up my breathing and blood pressure the moment he walked into the simhouse didn’t mean a thing. That much, at least, wasn’t illegal.

It’s the first step down a dangerous road, I reminded myself as Lacey opened the door leading out to the waiting area.

The door slid open, and I was surprised every ECG in the building didn’t go haywire from the spike in my pulse. Of course that was completely irrational. No such thing had happened on any previous Thursday afternoon when the same spike happened upon the arrival of this same patient. Shouldn’t have surprised me it didn’t this time.

Across the room, Aiden Maxwell smiled and pushed himself to his feet, his skintight black-and-silver suit creaking softly.

Get your head together, Borden. He was wearing the same suit every goddamned person in San Angeles—myself included—wore. I saw dozens of people every day, and they all wore the same thing. Neck down, covering every inch of flesh right down to wrists and ankles, leaving our hands and feet to be covered by formfitting gloves and laced-up boots. The suits were insulated to keep us cool in the summer, warm in the winter. Thin enough to move and breathe, thick enough to serve their primary purpose: prevent skin-to-skin contact.

There were thirty million people in San Angeles, fully half of them in the quadrant where I lived. I’d seen so many of these suits on so many bodies, they were as novel as pollution and pavement.

But the way Aiden’s suit fit him did things to me I couldn’t explain. It was like the damn thing was made to accentuate his narrow hips or the fact that he had shoulders that wouldn’t quit. Walking down the hall from the waiting area to Sim Room 8, it was all I could do not to sneak a few glances. It should have been a crime for a man to look this good. Especially since it practically was a crime for me to have the fantasies I’d had about him in and out of that suit. Living out those fantasies? A felony. Not worth entertaining even within the confines of my mind, but sometimes I just couldn’t help myself.

The skintight suit wasn’t the worst part. He was here for a sim session, which meant—just as it did for the hundreds of people who came through this simhouse without making me bat an eye—the suit was coming off. So were the boots, the gloves—everything. Every layer peeled away, revealing the exquisitely defined arms and shoulders that a decade of heavy construction work had chiseled to perfection.

It was all coming off, and since he always asked for me, I was the one who got to put the electrodes on him. On his neck. The insides of his elbows. His flat, flawless abs. Not to mention the equipment that went over his penis and testicles to provide the stimulation that would ultimately bring him to orgasm.

Good thing no one on staff had ever noticed—or questioned—that I always booked my own sim sessions for immediately after Aiden’s.

We stepped into the small utilitarian sim room. There wasn’t much in here. A couple of chairs, a horizontal sim chamber with its lid open and ready, and the control console.

As soon as the sim room door shut behind us, my pulse was all over the place just like it always was with him around, but as always, I didn’t let it show. I went through the usual motions: pulling up his program, scanning the chip behind his ear to make sure he was free of diseases, and signing off on his records to state he’d been here for his prescribed session. A lot of patients avoided small talk at all costs, but not Aiden, and when he was around, I was never sure how articulate I would be.

As I entered his information into the system, he said, “You’re doing well, I presume?”

“I… Yes. Doing fine.” I looked up, meeting his eyes. God, one look at him, and goose bumps prickled the length of my spine. “And you?”

He smiled warmly, though there was always something devilish in the way the corners of his eyes crinkled like that. “Quite well, thank you.” He glanced at my hands on the keyboard. “You know, I have to say, I’m quite surprised every time I come in here and don’t see a ring on your hand.”

My fingers froze a split second before I could tell myself not to react. I never realized how conspicuous that lack of a gold band around my gloved finger was until someone pointed it out. A lot of people did these days—I was thirty-two, after all—but when Aiden mentioned it, my heart pounded. I swallowed. “Oh. Um. You know how it is. Takes time for the Department to, um…” Our eyes locked again, and speech eluded me. “Eventually. I’ll…” What were we talking about?

Aiden chuckled, that quiet, knowing sound that made me wonder if he could read my mind. If he knew how much just looking at him made my knees shake, or if he knew that the reason I was still unmarried was because I kept dragging my feet when the Department matched me to a woman. Or if he’d read between the lines of my glances and my habitual speechlessness and knew damn well why I kept dragging my feet.

I cleared my throat and nodded toward his hands. “You’re not wearing a ring either.”

“No.” He looked down at his left hand, turning it over as if inspecting it. “I can’t say the Department has been very successful in finding me”—his gaze flicked up and met mine again, and the corner of his mouth rose slightly—“a good match.”

I gulped. Aiden grinned.

Damn him.

I cleared my throat again, just to get some air moving. “All right, that’s enough formalities. Your records are updated, so…” Without looking at him or waiting for a response, I moved to the control console to start setting up his sim program, but even with my attention focused on the monitor between us, my mind’s eye filled in the rest. Such was the problem when I’d seen him do this so many times; all it took was the sound of the separating zipper and the faint squeak of his suit and the rustle of the under layer across his flesh to fill in everything I couldn’t see.

Once he was completely naked, Aiden lay back in the open machine. He pulled on the virtual reality goggles. I attached electrodes, one by one, to various erogenous areas, plus the extras he always requested: two instead of one on each side of his neck and an additional one on either side just beneath his jaw.

As I attached one to the inside of his wrist, my glove grazed his skin. Aiden sucked in a breath. Gooseflesh sprang to life around the electrode and the place my glove touched him, continuing all the way up his dark-haired forearm. I suppressed a shiver; it would have been a hell of a lot easier to ignore—try to ignore—my reactions to him if he didn’t also react to me.

With all the electrodes in place, I put on the larger device. I did this every hour of every day, and had for over a decade, and I’d long ago stopped noticing cocks, but Aiden’s—well, I supposed it was no surprise anymore. Other patients didn’t get any kind of reaction out of me, but with him, I’d never been able to put the equipment in place without feeling that familiar dull heaviness below my belt. By the time the machinery was fitted over his erection, I always had one of my own.

What was wrong with me?

Finally, I had everything ready to go, and moved to the computer to set up his simulation.

The screen changed to the partner selection program.

“Which partner do you want this time?” I asked.

“Actually,” he said, “I think I want to try a new one.”

I glanced at him. “You’ve got four saved already. If you save a new one, you’ll have to delete one of the others.”

“Delete all four of them.” He waved a hand, and the leads coming off the attachments clipped to his fingers rattled against the table.

“You sure?” I asked.


“All right.” I deleted the four partners and started on a new one. “Specs?”

“Male, of course,” he said, and I made adjustments as he instructed me. “Light skin. Not so tanned. Oh yes, that’s better. Hmm, not quite so tall. About—” He paused. “How tall are you, Keith?”

My fingers froze above the controls. “I beg your pardon?”

“I’m not very good with heights,” he said with a grin I didn’t quite understand. “Give me a frame of reference.”

I cleared my throat, still eyeing him over the monitor. “About a hundred and seventy-eight centimeters.”

“Perfect. Go with that.”

I threw him another look, even though he couldn’t see me, but then entered the dimensions into the system. “Hair color?”

“Brown. Dark brown. And short. Not quite military, but close to it.”

I entered the specification. “How about this?”

“That looks—” He lifted the goggles and looked at me. After a second, he replaced the goggles. “Oh yes, that’s perfect.”

Is it, now?

As we continued adjusting the sim partner’s appearance—blue eyes, no, bluer—something twisted deep in the pit of my stomach. Thanks to the bright overhead lights and the screen’s slick surface, my mostly transparent reflection was visible. As if I needed something to remind me that his newly created sim partner bore an uncanny resemblance to me.

What in the world was he doing?

“Perfect,” he said at last.

“Very well, then.” I came around the console and reached for the machine’s lid. “Enjoy the ride.”

“Oh,” he said with a grin, “I will.”

I lowered the lid over him, switched on the program, and then dropped into my chair so I could monitor him. And catch my breath. And regain my balance.

I couldn’t see him, and I couldn’t see the simulation that he was seeing. The monitor where I adjusted his sim partner’s appearance—I was imagining the resemblance to myself, wasn’t I?—now showed the readouts of Aiden’s vital signs. His quickening pulse. The brainwaves reflecting the increasing levels of dopamine. His rapid, shallow breathing. He always liked his sessions to run long, enjoying every second like he was drinking a rare bottle of wine instead of dutifully taking the fastest route to his prescribed, rationed orgasm.

I wondered if he knew what he was doing to me while he took his sweet time with the sim. Watching his vitals, I shifted in my seat. There was a suppressor in the pocket of my suit, and a single inhalation would ease this edginess and soften the erection that was making my suit progressively more uncomfortable. If I didn’t have my own sim session coming up shortly, I’d have taken a double dose of the suppressor, because holy fuck, I needed it.

I looked past the monitor at the chamber in which Aiden was currently lost in his fantasy, and that knot in the pit of my stomach tightened a little more. They said every simtech was eventually tempted. Someone came along, some highly attractive patient, who tempted the tech into taking off a glove and indulging in a fleeting moment of skin-to-skin contact. It was a dangerous road, though. That kind of contact was a misdemeanor, which was more than enough for a simtech to lose his credentials. Worse, I’d heard a brush of skin on skin was enough to tempt some people into wanting more, and that led them to the highly illegal underground and its wireless lounges where people went far, far beyond a simple touch.

I’d been a simtech for fourteen years. I’d hooked up plenty of patients who stuck around in my fantasies for a little while. But I had never—never—considered crossing that line.

Not until recently, anyway.

I shifted my gaze back to the monitor. He was coming down from his climax now, his heart and respiration steadily slowing, and I was the one with sweat on the back of my neck. I grabbed a clean towel off the rack where we kept them for patients, and dabbed away the moisture on my forehead and above my collar. With any other patient, I’d have been hurrying to get the chamber open and machinery removed, since most people liked to get out of the machine and back into their suits as quickly as possible, but Aiden liked to savor the aftermath as much as he did the buildup.

So I was in no rush. The longer he took, the less likely he’d notice the dampness that was curling the ends of my hair, or the extra color that had no doubt appeared in my cheeks.

Eventually, though, I raised the lid. I disconnected the machinery and electrodes, and the whole time, Aiden didn’t move. His eyes were closed, his chest rising and falling, but aside from that, he was still.

“You all right?” I asked.

Aiden opened his eyes. His pupils were still blown, but the flush of pink was fading from his face and neck. Slowly, he sat up. He was always the very picture of blissful satisfaction when he left the simhouse, more than most people, but even more so today.

“Ahh.” He smiled. “I needed that.”

I handed him his suit. “See you in two weeks?”

“Absolutely.” His gaze slid toward me, and the corner of his mouth lifted. “You know, after a session like that, it’s hard not to wonder what the real thing would be like.”

I responded with a watery smile. “We can wonder all we want, but there’s a reason it’s illegal.”

“Indeed there is.” There was also a note of something in his voice that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Not sarcasm, but close. He pulled on his gloves and tilted his head to one side, then the other. “Well. Thank you for another…lovely experience, Mr. Borden.”

“Don’t mention it,” I replied a split second before I remembered what his sim partner looked like. I gulped, and Aiden gave a quiet, knowing chuckle before he left. He’d been here enough times, he knew the place as well as I did, so he showed himself out, while I retreated on unsteady legs to Sim Room 9. As it always was, my own session was scheduled for the moment Aiden walked out of the simhouse.

Setting up my own program was one of the perks of being a simtech. I pulled up my bank of sim partners, and chose the one I’d used every time for months, and tweaked him a little to sharpen his resemblance to Aiden. As the changes rendered, I glanced over my shoulder. None of the other techs would come barging in—I knew that—but I was paranoid nonetheless. The closer my sim partner came to resembling someone my colleagues might also recognize, the more dangerous this little game was.

I adjusted the sim partner’s hair color until it was as close to the dark blond tint as I could get it, and modified the green of his eyes just a little. They were still too vivid, too green, but after weeks of tinkering, I was pretty sure I’d nearly gotten it to that perfect shade that just bordered on pale blue.

The sim partner’s smile didn’t quite match Aiden’s, and the corners of his eyes didn’t crinkle the same way, but he was close enough. I never had learned to like sim partners’ facial expressions; they were little more than muscle movements, not the manifestation of a devilish thought or quiet amusement.

I glanced around, letting my gaze dart toward the door and then up to the camera bubble on the ceiling. Why I was so worried, I didn’t know. No one could possibly have known what was going on in my mind, or understood anything I was doing.

Paranoia is the hallmark of a guilty conscience, I’d heard time and time again.

I wasn’t doing anything wrong, damn it.

I got into the machine and hooked up all the electrodes. That was always a little clumsy and awkward, but after years of practice, I could do it without much work. I glanced up at the security camera, then pressed an extra electrode onto either side of my neck and another pair on the underside of my jaw. I had no idea if it would do anything, but Aiden liked it, so it was worth a try.

Once the rest of the equipment was in place, I pulled the lid down on the sim chamber and started the program. An image of Aiden appeared in front of me. The setting was a sparsely furnished, unembellished bedroom not unlike my own and with about as much personality as the sim partner, the computer rendering of Aiden who lay across my bed. His suit was already off. I never could convince this version of him to look at me quite the same way, and though his eyes were beautiful, they weren’t quite so magnetic. Not quite so devilish and hungry.

But I went to him anyway, and as he put his arms around me, the faintly chemical scent of pheromones tickled my nose. My eyes rolled back as the electrodes tingled against my nerve endings. The simulated version of Aiden ran his fingertips along my neck, and the electrodes there responded with featherlight sensations.

The virtual Aiden turned around and let me take him, and the machinery around my cock created just enough friction and pressure to convince my body I was really inside him. My hands slid over his hips, my fingers and palms tingling with the gentle brush of skin across skin. It wasn’t an exact match—I’d run my hands over my own flesh enough to know it wasn’t perfect—but it was damn close. Close enough it didn’t take long, especially after being in the presence of the real thing, for me to get off.

I lifted the lid, and then carefully removed the equipment from my now very sensitive cock and then unceremoniously shoved it away. The self-cleaning mechanism kicked on, and as I peeled electrodes off my skin, I was thankful for the millionth time that we were long past the days when the machinery had to be cleaned by hand. The interns we had right then had no idea how lucky they were.

I sat up and rubbed my temples. My sim partner was still front and center in my mind, and he was quickly turning into a long-memorized image of the man he was based on.

Why did I keep tempting myself like this? This was dangerous. I needed to use a different sim partner from here on out. Maybe take a suppressor for a while instead of going through a sim session at all. Maybe it would even be a good idea to request a transfer to a simhouse where the world didn’t lurch out from under me every other Thursday at fourteen thirty.

Because the more I looked, the more I wanted to touch.

And if I touched, I lost everything.

EXCERPT: The United and The Divided

Title: The United & The Divided (Tooth & Claw #3)
Author: L.A. Witt
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Format: ebook, paperback


“Ian.” Someone nudged my shoulder. Darius, my brain figured out after a moment. “Hey, you awake?”

I burrowed my face into the pillow. “Do I have to be?”

“We’re here.”

And with that, I was awake. Apprehension burrowed under my skin and dug itself in.

Sitting up slowly, I rubbed my stiff neck. The muscle would loosen itself soon enough, and if I’d actually slept on it badly enough to do some damage, it would be healed within the hour. This vampire deal wasn’t all that bad sometimes.

Darius’s dark hair was disheveled, so he must not have been awake long himself. He rested a hand above the bunk and swayed a little, adapting to the slow rocking of the boat. That constant motion had alternately nauseated me and put me to sleep since we’d left Levi’s grandmother’s house in Sitka. Now that we’d arrived at our destination, a tiny island off the coast of Alaska near Kodiak Island, it wasn’t the rocking that made me queasy.

I took a deep breath. I was so not ready for this. An island full of wolves belonging to the same clan that had been trying to kill us did not feel like safe harbor to me.

“This still seems like a really bad idea.”

“Relax.” Darius touched my shoulder. “We’ll be all right.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” I muttered, running a hand through my hair in a half-assed attempt to straighten it.

He scowled but didn’t say anything. As much as he tried to reassure me, I was pretty certain he wasn’t any more thrilled about this arrangement than I was. He kept a calm demeanor and a relaxed front, but his slightly elevated heart rate gave him away.

A pair of booted feet came down the ladder behind him. Darius turned around and, a second later, Levi dropped into full view. He looked better than he had recently. He was more put together than Darius, his near-black hair perfectly arranged except for a few strands the wind had blown into his face. Still, he was obviously exhausted. He hadn’t been a vampire long enough to be quite as pale as Darius or myself, but what lack of sunlight hadn’t yet done, pure exhaustion certainly had. The life of a fugitive wasn’t an easy one, as we’d learned all too well recently.

Levi sank onto the bunk beside me. “Grandma’s going ashore to talk to the Elders. They already know we’re coming, but she wants to make sure everything is clear with this arrangement.”

“And if it is?” Darius asked. “I mean, what happens now?”

Levi shook his head. “No idea. I know this isn’t going over well with the pack, though. And even if the pack on the island is okay with it, the clan is going to be pissed.”

“Are we sure there’s nowhere else to go?” I asked. “This just doesn’t seem safe.”

Darius shook his head, sighing heavily. “Remember? Levi and I can’t feed off humans. Only wolves.”

I groaned. That issue was going to be the death of all three of us. Levi and Darius were both wolves now, and both vampires; a bite to feed the vampire would convert a human into a wolf. Without willing wolves, we were fucked.

“So what happens if the shit hits the fan?” I asked. “Or if no one allows us to feed? This is an island. And there’s only a few hours of daylight at a time right now, but it doesn’t take much, you know?”

Levi sighed, shaking his head again. “I don’t know. I really don’t.” His shoulders sagged, and when he reached up to brush a few strands of dark hair out of his face, that simple movement seemed to take all the energy he had.

I wrapped my arms around him and let him lean against me. Watching Levi like this was hell. He’d always been the stronger of the two of us, but now he was so beaten down, demoralized, on the verge of total defeat. As much as he’d tried to stay strong, he was cracking under the weight of everything that had happened recently. His entire world had crumbled beneath him in a matter of weeks, and he was starting to crumble right along with it.

“We’ll be okay,” I whispered and kissed his cheek, wondering if he believed me any more than I’d believed Darius.

The boat listed a little to the left, and then heavy footsteps thunked on the deck above us. All three of us looked up, silently tracking the steps as they approached the ladder. Then a pair of faded baby-blue arctic boots appeared, and I released my breath.

“How did it go?” Levi asked.

“Well,” Grandma said as she came fully into view. “They’re not happy, but the Elders are explaining the situation to the rest of the pack in the morning.”

“What do we do until then?” Levi asked. “Just…stay here?”

She nodded and stepped off the ladder. “I’m not taking you into that village until every wolf in the pack knows they’re not to lay a hand on any of you.” Her expression hardened. “There’s plenty left in that shotgun for anyone who objects.” For a woman who’d originally turned us over to the wolves before deciding at the last second to save our asses, she was certainly protective of us now.

The three of us exchanged uncertain glances.

“Relax, boys.” Grandma patted the air with both hands. “The Elders and I will keep the pack in line. You three keep your heads low and don’t make any waves.” Her gaze landed on Levi, and she arched an eyebrow. “Am I clear?”

All three of us nodded. Even Levi.

“All right.” She patted Levi’s shoulder before heading back toward the ladder. “It’s just about dawn right now, so you boys hang tight for a little while. I’ll be back when the sun’s down.”

We all nodded. She disappeared onto the upper deck, and the three of us sat in apprehensive silence for a moment. I wasn’t sure which was worse: the constant running for our lives, or waiting to be running for our lives, especially since I wasn’t yet convinced that the whole running-like-hell part was over yet.

“Well.” Darius exhaled hard and ran a hand through his hair. “I guess now we wait.”

“Yep,” Levi said.

I chewed my lip, then looked at Levi. “As long as we’re just sitting here, there’s something that’s been bugging me the last few days.”

“Only one thing?” Levi smirked. “Lucky you.”

“Very funny.”

He squeezed my leg. “Sorry. What’s on your mind?”

“When we got cornered up at your grandmother’s house, and one of the wolves had me pinned down, why did you and Darius surrender? Why didn’t you just tell him that biting me would kill him too?”

The brief flicker of humor in Levi’s expression was long gone, and he slid his hand over my leg, a gesture that was as affectionate as it was protective. “Because the wolves had the upper hand, and reminding them that vampirism is contagious would have just gotten us all killed. Starting with you.”

“Not that biting me would have done him any good.”

“Shooting you—or me or Darius—through the heart would have.”

I shuddered.

He slid his hand up and down my leg. “I thought about it. Believe me, I did. Whatever I had to do to save you, I was willing, but that?” He shook his head. “I couldn’t take the risk.”

“We got out,” Darius said. “All three of us. That’s all that matters.”

“Agreed.” I put my hand on top of Levi’s. “I was just curious. Not making any accusations.”

“I know.” He kissed me gently. “I’m just glad we all made it out.”

“Me too,” I said.

“Definitely,” Darius said quietly.

And though no one said it, I had no doubt we were all thinking it.

We’d made it out alive, but how long would that last?

Since winter days in Alaska were incredibly short, sundown was only a few hours away. Shortly after, as Levi and I were sitting at the small table belowdecks and Darius was restlessly pacing back and forth, Grandma returned.

“Coats and boots, boys,” she said as she stepped off the ladder and into the cramped quarters. “We’re going ashore.”

Levi’s heart sped up. “And everyone knows? They’re…okay with this?”

“They will be,” Grandma declared. “There’s going to be what amounts to a town meeting tomorrow, with all of us and everyone in the village.”

Leaning against the bulkhead near the ladder, Darius shifted his weight. “No one’s bringing stakes, are they?”

“I dare them,” Grandma said.

Levi laughed. “I’ll take that.”

“Good.” Grandma squared her shoulders. “Now let’s get you on land so we can all sleep in real beds tonight.”

I pushed myself up out of my chair and reached for my sweatshirt. As I put it on, I gave myself a moment just to savor the soft warmth against my skin. It seemed like a silly thing, enjoying the feel of a sweatshirt, but then again, it was amazing how quickly things like this could become priceless luxuries. Tyler and Levi’s grandmother had gone ashore in one of the small towns between Sitka and here, and they’d brought back an armload of parkas and some clothes that weren’t saturated with half-frozen blood. I’d never take a clean, warm shirt for granted again.

Especially since even after the last few weeks—had it been that long?—of running around in Canada and Alaska in the dead of winter, I hadn’t begun to get used to being cold. If we were going to be here for a while, I supposed I’d better adapt. And I would. Tomorrow. Maybe.

But for now? Sweatshirt. Heaven. I’d take any little creature comfort I could get.

Once I was dressed—ahh, I’d have to thank Tyler again for these arctic-grade boots—I headed abovedeck to join everyone else.

The boat was moored at the far end of an old pier. One by one, we stepped onto the graying wood, and once everyone was off the boat, we started toward the shore. Tyler and Grandma walked ahead, and Levi stayed between Darius and me. All the way down the long dock, the pointed bows bobbed and rocked on either side of us like a fiberglass gauntlet, each hull eerily bright against the darkness, thanks to this vampire night vision. Everything was clear, like in daylight, but against a dark sky and deep shadows.

And thanks also to that sharp vision, I had a completely clear view of what waited for us at the other end of the pier: a large group of people standing on a patch of ground that was only partially snow covered, like it had been trampled numerous times since the last snowfall. The northern lights cast an eerie green glow over all of them, the light rippling across faces and glinting off narrowed eyes. Most of them were in human form, watching with everything from curiosity to outright contempt. The few who were in wolf form growled quietly. Their lips curled up over their impressive teeth, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I remembered a few too many instances of being on the wrong end of a wolf’s fury.

As we stepped off the dock, our boots crunched on the semifrozen ground. We halted in front of the gathered crowd. I tried not to think of them as a mob. Least of all an angry mob. The glares, though, and the vaguely threatening semicircle they formed around us didn’t help me get that thought out of my head.

One of the wolves in human form stepped forward, hands tucked into a zipped-up parka. “I’m Martin, one of the Elders of this pack.” His voice was as taut as his expression, and he didn’t offer a handshake. I told myself it was because of the biting cold. “We’ve heard about your…situation.”

Levi cleared his throat. “And we appreciate you allowing us to stay here for the time being.”

“Well.” Martin glanced at another man beside him, who offered a subtle nod. Martin shifted his attention back to Levi. “Before we guarantee that the three of you will be allowed to stay—”

“Hold on just a minute,” Grandma broke in. “This can be discussed tomorrow, but they need to rest. Tyler and I need to rest. The world won’t end if we let everyone catch their breath and get some sleep before we hash this out.”

“Sleep?” Someone scoffed. “With them in our community?”

A low growl rose in Levi’s throat. I touched his arm, glove to sleeve, and he quieted. He rested his hand over the top of mine, which drew some contemptuous looks from the crowd in front of us.

“She’s right,” Martin said. “This will be better handled when everyone has had a chance to rest and settle in.”

A wolf in canine form beside Martin snarled and gnashed his teeth. A wave of Martin’s hand silenced him, though, and the dog lay down on the frozen ground with a soft whine.

Martin turned back to us. “We’ll discuss this after everyone has rested. Julie will show you to the cabin that will be yours for your visit.” He emphasized the word visit in an odd way, as if to make sure we all knew damn well we wouldn’t be staying here long.

A woman stepped forward, brown hair tied up in a loose ponytail and her expression as taut as the Elder’s had been. She gestured sharply for us to follow her. She must have been the one named Julie.

“This way,” she said tersely.

“Oh, I don’t think so.” A broad-shouldered guy, hair and eyes dark like Levi’s, elbowed his way through the crowd. “She’s not going off alone with them.”

Julie glanced at him, her expression a mixture of annoyance and relief, like she was thankful not to be stuck alone with us, but also irritated at the intrusion.

“Fine.” Martin gestured dismissively. “Just go. Show them to their cabin, where they will be left alone. Is that clear?”

A few people nodded; others murmured affirmatives. Levi, Darius and I exchanged uncertain looks, but it wasn’t like we had a lot of choice, so we followed Julie and the other guy.

The night was deathly silent except for our boots crunching on the snow and the subtle chorus of heartbeats that only the three of us could hear. Darius’s and Levi’s would always be more pronounced to me since Darius had converted me and I had converted Levi, so I felt every bit of their apprehension, underscored by the varying degrees of nervousness coming from those who quietly watched us walk into their settlement.

As we crested a small hill and entered the village itself, my skin prickled. Whoever hadn’t come out to see us in from the boat was watching us now. I could feel their stares. It was a creepy feeling that reminded me of the day Levi and I had gone to the temple for that ill-fated bonding ceremony. People had watched me so intently I swore they were burning holes in my skin. I knew damn well they didn’t want me there, in their community or in their temple, and the whole place had vibrated with quiet contempt.

We followed Julie into the village, and I hoped against hope that wherever they put us would be at the very edge of the small settlement. Maybe near the forest or something.

But no, we got a cabin right smack in the fucking middle, just a few doors down from the island’s temple, the huge structure that loomed over everything from the center of several rings of houses and buildings. Far too close to everyone else. Maybe that was the only empty place. Or maybe it was conveniently located so the pack could keep tabs on us. Either way, I wasn’t at all comfortable with the arrangement.

The cabin was a lot like the ones at the farm where Levi’s pack lived back in Washington. Though the blackout curtains over the windows relaxed me about the impending sunrise, they also made me wonder who had known we were coming. If this pack was anything like Levi’s—which they probably were, since they were all part of the same clan—they wouldn’t be happy about vampires in their midst.

Especially not the three of us.

Levi, who’d insisted on bonding to a human male instead of his predestined female mate, which had been the catalyst for this endless disaster.

Darius, who’d converted Levi’s bonded human mate into a vampire.

And me, the mate who hadn’t been able to withstand the year apart from Levi after that hellish bonding, and had ultimately gotten Darius entangled in all this and had pretty much secured my spot as the wolf clan’s public enemy number one for the foreseeable future. The fact that I’d shot a wolf in Oregon hadn’t helped matters, even if it had been in self-defense. And not long after that, the death of Selena, Levi’s clan-chosen mate, had been another nail in all our coffins. All the bodies we’d left in our wake? More nails.

The last place in the world I felt safe was among wolves. Keeping us here smacked of dropping some mice into the middle of a pride of lions and insisting it was for their own good. Levi’s grandmother had turned on us once before. She’d been the one to sound the alarm and bring in the wolves who’d damn-near killed us all. Yeah, she’d turned around and been our savior in the end, but who was to say she wouldn’t change her mind again? Or that this wasn’t part of some elaborate plan to get us to complacently, quietly, willingly face the clan’s judgment?

I didn’t like this. I didn’t like it one bit.

But I didn’t have a choice.

None of us did.

EXCERPT: The Only One Who Matters

Title: The Only One Who Matters
Author: Cat Grant, L.A. Witt
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Format: ebook, paperback


Coming home was always weirder than it should have been.

With every completed mission, Lieutenant Commander Josh Walker thought that feeling would go away, but it didn’t. Sliding into the driver’s seat of his Mustang—after blasting the A/C to cool it down after four weeks in the sun, of course—felt like climbing into the cockpit of an alien ship. Feeling the seat belt through his shirt reminded him he was no longer wearing a protective layer of body armor. When he glanced in the rearview and side mirrors, he was so caught up in checking for insurgents and IEDs, he nearly forgot to check for pedestrians and passing cars. He remembered, though, and just in time not to back over a pair of civilian contractors.

He paused, elbow on the steering wheel, and rubbed a hand over his jaw. Even his goddamned face felt weird, with a few weeks’ worth of scruff now absent, replaced only by about twenty-four hours of stubble. He was so used to his hair tickling the back of his neck, it was strange to feel cold air on it now. The haircut, the air-conditioning, the lack of the Middle Eastern sun—welcome home, Josh.

Home. That thought brought a smile to his lips.

He checked the mirrors again, this time for passersby and cars instead of phantom insurgents, and backed out of the parking space.

Traffic was lighter than usual, thank God, and he sped past the familiar-but-strange scenery. It was good to see a landscape that wasn’t desert, and, even better, something that wasn’t the drab, bare-bones inside of a cargo jet.

He parked in front of the one-story rental house, killed the engine and got out. He didn’t even bother pulling his rucksack out of the trunk. He’d carried men who outweighed him by a good hundred pounds through hellish conditions, but just the thought of picking up that bag made him tired. Between the long, miserable flights home—it took a hell of a storm to make a dozen SEALs airsick—and this afternoon’s debrief, he was exhausted.

Though the ground floor had been picked out for other reasons, he was sure thankful for it today. If he’d had to drag his ass up any stairs, he might’ve just napped in the damned car.

As he was putting his key in the door, a neighbor’s dog started barking. Josh rolled his eyes. Great. All he wanted to do was sleep, and now there—

He opened the door, and a huge German shepherd rushed at him.

“What the—”

“Major! Down!

The dog instantly dropped onto its haunches but whined softly as it wagged its tail so hard it almost toppled itself. Josh stared at it for a moment.

Then he raised his gaze, and in spite of his surprise at the strange dog in his house, grinned.

Leaning heavily—but not nearly as heavily as a month ago—on a cane, David returned the grin, green eyes shining just right to make Josh almost forget how exhausted he was. “Hey. Didn’t realize you’d landed already.”

Josh shrugged. “Thought I’d surprise you. I just, uh…” He glanced at the dog. “Wasn’t expecting Cujo here.”

David laughed. “Major, go lay down.”

The dog whined again, but then trotted over to the recliner and lay beside it, head on his enormous paws.

Josh kicked the door shut and closed the distance between him and David. Damn, it had been a while, hadn’t it? David was obviously getting around better now. His sandy blond hair was a little longer—still within regs, even though he’d been retired for months, but longer than when Josh had left.

“God, I missed you,” Josh whispered, wrapping his arms around him.

“Missed you too,” David murmured and kissed him. He put one arm around Josh’s waist and rested the other hand, the one still holding the cane, on Josh’s hip. His kiss was soft, not as demanding as it could be when he was turned on, and Josh was grateful for it. Sometimes he came back from missions and wanted to fuck until they couldn’t move, but sometimes, he… Hell, he already couldn’t move.

David broke the kiss and touched his forehead to Josh’s. “Tired?”


He drew back enough to meet Josh’s eyes. Then he nodded down the hall. “Why don’t you go get some sleep?”

“I will.” Josh touched David’s face. “But I want—”

“Josh.” David gave him a look that took Josh back to the days of SEAL training, back when they’d been Chief Flint and Lieutenant Walker. “I could tell the second you came in the door that you were dead on your feet. Just go get some sleep.”

“But you—”

“Will be here when you get up.” He nudged Josh toward the bedroom. “Go.”

Josh wanted to argue. He hadn’t seen David in a damned month. He wanted to catch up. Just be with him. Find out how his physical therapy was going and his leg was healing and…

And he was too fucking tired.

He kissed David softly. “Just a few hours.”

David smiled. “Enjoy it.”

Josh startled awake in a pitch-black room. Heart racing. Panic running through his veins. Fear. Adrenaline. The cool air didn’t feel right. Not on sunburned skin and—

No, he wasn’t sunburned.

And the sand in his mouth was gone.

The dream faded. He couldn’t remember what he’d dreamed about, only that he had, in fact, dreamed, and his blood was still pumping from it. Whatever it was, it was over.

Except that Josh was immobile. The sheet draped over his body from the waist down was tight. Heavy. What the hell?

He squinted in the darkness as some faint light spilling in from down the hall illuminated his familiar surroundings. The mismatched silhouettes of a couple of craigslist dressers. The outline of the footboard. The dark rectangle that he finally recognized as a framed print his mom had given them as a housewarming gift.

Home. He was home.

And the warm, solid shape beside him was David, sound asleep, snoring softly, and safe. Josh closed his eyes and exhaled. A few fleeting images from the dream flashed through his mind, and he remembered being back out on the last mission, except this time, David was with him. Still a SEAL. Still running like the best of them, or crouching along a wall as they crept into a building, or carrying one of the guys. Then there’d been a grenade.

Josh shuddered. All the dreams were different, but the recurring theme was the same—David was healthy and mobile, and then he was down, and then he was gone.

But he was okay now. Josh was home, and David was asleep beside him, his cane probably propped up against the nightstand and his leg scarred from the bullet that had ended his career.

Josh started to roll toward him so he could put an arm over him, but the sheet was still pulled tight. He couldn’t move. Something heavy was pressed up against him. What the fuck was going on here?

He felt around, and his hand met thick, coarse fur.

The dog. Right.

Wait, the dog was in bed with them?

He pushed himself up onto his elbows, and sure enough, the dog—Major, wasn’t that what David had called him?—was sprawled out beside Josh, his paws hanging over the side of the bed. Seriously?

He dropped back onto the mattress and stared up at the ceiling. Then he rolled over, which was a challenge when he was between David and Major, and draped an arm over David’s waist. David stirred a little, grumbling something in his sleep, and put a hand over Josh’s.

Closing his eyes, Josh kissed the back of David’s shoulder. This felt so weird. The dog was new, of course, but even sleeping in his own bed with his arm around David was…strange. Warm skin against warm skin made him feel vulnerable. Much like the seat belt against his thin shirt, David’s body against his reminded him he no longer wore that protective shell of Kevlar and trauma plates. The blackout curtains over the window behind his back didn’t make him feel any less like a pair of eyes or a sniper scope might peer through it. The air tasted strange without the coppery tinge of blood or the sour bite of sweat.

Sleep was a very real possibility here. No dreamless catnaps whenever he could get them. He could fall asleep. He could dream. Pressed against David, he shuddered.

He was home, damn it. Home and safe.

Why the fuck did he feel like he’d landed on another planet?

When Josh awoke again, he was alone. David was gone, and so was the dog.

He sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Every muscle in his body ached, but it was that ache that came from sleeping too long, so he couldn’t complain. He stretched a little, then got up, put on a pair of shorts—holy fuck, it felt good not to be wearing sandy, sweaty camos for once—and shuffled into the bathroom to take a leak. He considered grabbing a shower but desperately needed a cigarette and some coffee first.

He headed out to the kitchen. There, David was standing at the counter, the dog sitting beside him on the mat in front of the sink with its tongue hanging out and tail wagging. Glancing over his shoulder, David smiled. “Mornin’.”

“Mornin’.” Josh squinted against the bright sunlight. “How long have I been out?”

“About sixteen hours.”

“Jesus.” That was probably more than he’d slept in the entire four-week deployment. Now he remembered why he preferred those short-and-sweet missions that had him home before the fatigue had a chance to catch up with him.

As his eyes adjusted to the brightness, he realized David was standing unassisted by the counter. A month ago, he’d been glued to the cane.

“You’re getting around a lot better, I see.”

David smiled halfheartedly. “Still can’t quite leave that thing behind”—he gestured at the cane propped up beside the kitchen table—“but I can get further away from it.”

“That’s progress.” Josh smiled. “What else has been going on?”

David leaned against the counter, subtly taking some weight off his injured leg. “Same as when you left. Physical therapy. Still trying to find a fucking job.”

“Any bites there?”

“Nah.” David shook his head. “Not exactly qualified for much behind a desk, and can’t stand long enough or move well enough to do anything I am qualified to do.” He paused. “On a positive note, my physical therapist is cutting me down to once every other week.”

“Really?” Josh grinned. “That’s great.”

David managed a somewhat more enthusiastic expression. “Yeah. Only getting tortured twice a month now.”

“Glad to hear you’re getting better.”

“Something like that,” David muttered. Before Josh could press, David reached for him and put a hand on his waist. “How about you? You doing all right?” He never asked for details about the mission. He knew better. It was against regs to discuss it, and Josh suspected he didn’t want to know anyway.

Josh nodded. “Yeah. I’ll be fine.”

At their feet, the dog fidgeted, his tags jingling.

Josh regarded him curiously. “Didn’t realize you’d found a dog already.”

“He was Hanley’s dog. The wife was getting overwhelmed keeping up with a puppy and two toddlers, and now with a new baby on the way…” David gestured at Major. “I said I’d take him off her hands.”

“He seems pretty happy here.”

David glanced at the dog. “I like him. What do you think?”

“Not sure yet. Is he, uh, friendly?”

David threw him a good-natured glare. “No, Josh. I got us a vicious biter who’s going to tear your throat out if you look at him cross-eyed.”

Chuckling, Josh flipped him off. He knelt in front of the dog, careful not to look him straight in the eyes, and held out his hand. Major sniffed him, then licked his fingers.

“How old is he?” Josh asked as he petted him.

“Little over a year.” David came closer, resting his hand on the counter to make up for the absence of the cane. “Sort of halfway between a puppy and not.” He paused. “Housebroken already, thank God.”

“Well, that’s good. Especially if he’s sleeping on my side of the bed.”

David laughed, eyes darting away. “We can, uh, get him his own bed. I hadn’t meant for him to get in the habit, but…”

Josh rose. “It’s okay. I really don’t mind.”

“You sure?”

Josh nodded. “It was just something to, you know, get used to. Kind of, uh…” He hesitated. “Just kind of startled me the first time.”

David locked eyes with him. “You still having nightmares?”

Josh swallowed. “You telling me you aren’t?”

They held each other’s gazes.

Then David broke away, clearing his throat. “Coffee’s ready. You feel like having eggs or anything?”

“Sure. Eggs sound good. I need to have a smoke first.”

As David went to the refrigerator, his limp less pronounced but still unmistakable, Josh sighed. He looked down at the dog sitting at his feet and absently scratched Major’s ears.

Coming home really was always weirder than it should have been.

EXCERPT: Changing Plans

Title: Changing Plans (2nd Edition)
Includes previously publishing novellas - Getting off the Ground, Infinity Pools, & On the List
Author: L.A. Witt
Format: ebook

Excerpt (Getting off the Ground):

This is just what I need.

White sand beaches. Palm trees. Two weeks, give or take a day, in paradise with gorgeous, available men wearing more suntan lotion than clothing.

I put down the travel brochure and glared at the motionless aircraft just beyond the window. Not that I could see it very well; its white fuselage was nearly camouflaged behind the snow that tumbled out of the gray sky and spun and swirled in the heavy wind.

A freak snowstorm when I was trying to get the hell out of here. Yeah, that was what I needed.

The other passengers milled around the gate, waiting with knitted eyebrows and folded arms. Anytime one of the staff members went near the microphone to make an announcement or call for a specific passenger, everyone stiffened and craned their necks, waiting for updates. Worried phone calls were made, tense breaths were taken and released, and the floor vibrated with the faint percussion of pacing feet.

A narrow aisle divided my row of stiff, faux leather chairs from a facing row. The woman sitting across from me between two bored-looking kids leaned forward.

“Do you think our flight will be delayed again?” she asked.

I glanced out the window once more. I hadn’t seen anything take off in at least two hours, and it didn’t look like that was changing any time soon. Nodding, I faced her again. “Yeah, they’ll probably delay it again.”

She pursed her lips. “Well, hopefully we won’t be stuck here too much longer.” She sat back, staring out the same window and folding her hands in her lap.

“Guess we’ll see,” I muttered.

A few seats over from her, a good-looking guy with sandy blond hair and five o’clock shadow looked up from his laptop. He glanced at her, then me, and a vague look of amusement tried to curl the corner of his mouth before he turned his attention back to the screen.

I wondered how the hell he was so relaxed when everyone else walked the fine line between concern and panic. Unlike those of us who wouldn’t truly be on vacation until we landed in Honolulu, he was dressed like his vacation had already begun. He didn’t look at all like someone stranded in Seattle during a surprise blizzard.

It wasn’t just the sandals, khaki shorts, and tasteful blue Hawaiian shirt with the top button undone, either. His feet were propped up on his suitcase and crossed at the ankles, the computer balanced on his knees, and he didn’t look like he gave a shit or even noticed what was going on all around him. He’d been there for the last hour or two, and he’d barely batted an eye when the first delay was announced. Nor the second. When the snow came down harder, he’d looked, but no reaction registered on his face.

At first I wondered if he’d had a few drinks or maybe thrown back a Valium like my mother always did when she flew, but that theory went out the window when I watched his hands for a moment. Judging by the way his fingers moved on the keyboard, he was playing a game. It was easy to tell, even from here: the same keystrokes, over and over, and sometimes his brow furrowed and lips tightened as those keystrokes quickened. Then he’d exhale, shake his head, and punch in some other command before resuming the repetitive motions.

He was way too alert to be drugged but appeared, aside from momentary displays of frustration with his game, completely relaxed and unperturbed. He must have been one of those people who didn’t get pissed off in traffic jams, either. One of those aggravatingly relaxed ones who just turned up the radio, tapped the beat into the steering wheel with his thumbs, all the while reminding himself over and over, “I’ll get there eventually, no sense getting stressed over it.” I, meanwhile, would be three cars back, white-knuckling the wheel and praying for sweet death if it meant not sitting there for another two minutes. Once our plane finally boarded and took off, this guy would probably be sound asleep for the entire flight while I drummed my fingers on a shared armrest and tried in vain to get comfortable.

His eyes flicked up and met mine, and I quickly shifted my gaze away, my cheeks burning as I wondered just how long I’d been absently staring at him.

It wasn’t only his relaxed state that had drawn my attention. He was definitely easy on the eyes. The loose sleeves of his Hawaiian shirt were just short enough to hint at his well-toned biceps, and his sculpted forearms, tanned and lightly dusted with dark blond hair, didn’t belong to someone who spent all his time fucking off and playing video games. His legs were similarly toned and bronzed. Chiseled jaw, prominent cheekbones, and—

And I was staring again.

I cleared my throat and turned to riffle through my carry-on bag. I didn’t actually need anything out of it, but it gave me something to focus on besides Mr. Calm, Collected, and Fucking Hot.

“Attention passengers waiting for flight two-zero-five bound for Honolulu International Airport,” the flight attendant’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker, giving me something else to think about. “Due to snow conditions here at Sea-Tac, this flight will be delayed another two hours.” A collective groan rippled through the crowd and drowned out her sincerest apologies for the inconvenience. The guy in the Hawaiian shirt pursed his lips and muttered something under his breath, but otherwise didn’t react.

I looked at my watch. It was ten past noon. As of now, our flight wouldn’t be leaving until at least three, and that assumed the weather cleared up. If it got to be four or five in the evening, the sun—wherever the fuck it was—would be going down. Even if the snow stopped coming down, the temperature wouldn’t be rising, and that meant only one thing: ice.

Glancing around the terminal, I made note of several other gates that were crowded with impatient-looking souls. It wasn’t a terribly busy travel day and it was off-peak season, so it wasn’t wall-to-wall people like it would have been in June or around Thanksgiving. Still, there were a hell of a lot of people stranded like myself and the mother who fretted and fidgeted across from me. A lot of people who weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

I pulled my laptop out of its case and powered it up.

I’d promised myself this wouldn’t be another vacation full of neurotic pre-planning or doing things just to be on the safe side. This would be as close to reckless as Elliott Chandler was capable of being.

Still, this was an extenuating circumstance, and I convinced myself that even my devil-may-care partner—ex-partner—wouldn’t have argued.

When my computer finished starting up, I paused to look at the desktop background I’d put up last night. It was a screenshot of my to-do list on this trip.


1.      Cancel a reservation at the last minute.
3.      Some random guy I haven’t met yet.
5.      Sex on the beach.

I chuckled to myself. Only I would make a to-do list for a damned vacation, especially one that may as well have just said, stop planning and go get laid, dumbshit. And only I would consider cancelling a reservation at the last minute to be wild and reckless. Knowing me, it wouldn’t turn out to be anything riskier than canceling a dinner reservation and eating someplace else at the last second. Yeah, I was extreme.

Oh, well. The very fact that I was still taking this trip was unusual by my standards, especially since I was going alone. I wasn’t supposed to be going alone, but why let both expensive honeymoon tickets go to waste?

After logging into the airport’s obscenely overpriced wireless network, I did a quick search of nearby hotels. There was no sense paying for a shuttle and going home for the night; if the weather was bad enough to cancel my flight, then I didn’t relish the idea of being driven in it, either. My house was an hour away in decent weather. It would easily be three hours or more in this shit, with the added risk of a wreck because of ice or low visibility. No, thanks.

A hotel was clearly the more prudent option, and a few clicks later, I had a reservation for tonight. A larger and more expensive room than I’d wanted, but it was all that was available, so I took it. While my computer shut down, I pulled out my cell phone. There were a few missed calls, which didn’t surprise me. That was exactly why my phone had been on silent since last night anyhow.

They could wait a minute. I dialed the hotel.

A female voice picked up on the other end. “Front desk, how may I help you?”

“I just made a reservation online for tonight,” I said. “I’d like to confirm that it came through. Last name is Chandler.”

“One moment, please.” Keys clicked in the background. Then, “Elliott Chandler?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I have you down for a non-smoking room with two queen beds for one night. Is that correct?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“Excellent,” she said. “Looks like you got one of the last available rooms for tonight.”

I forced a laugh even though my mind reeled with what if I’d waited another ten minutes to make the call? “Guess I booked it just in time.”

“Yes, you did,” she said. “We’ll see you this evening, Mr. Chandler.”

“Thank you.”

With that out of the way, I scrolled through my missed calls. My mom again. My sister Cassie. I wasn’t sure if it should have surprised me or not that Ben, my ex as of much too recently, had called twice. Maybe it should have, maybe it shouldn’t have, but it damn sure did. The only thing I wanted to hear from him right now was, “I’ll be moved out by the time you get back.” That much could be contained in a voice mail, and he hadn’t left one.

I didn’t feel like talking to my mom, and I was not calling Ben anytime soon, but Cassie was always a welcome diversion.

“Hey, Ell,” she said when she answered. “How are you holding up?”

“I’ll live.”

“God, I hope so,” she said, a hint of a laugh in her voice. “But, I’m serious, how are—wait, where are you?”

“The airport.”

“The…airport?” she sputtered. “You’re not…I thought you were joking about going.”

“I was,” I said. “But then I decided it was a good idea, so here I am.”

“Wow.” She exhaled. “So, you’re actually taking a honeymoon by yourself?”

I laughed dryly. “I don’t think it qualifies as a honeymoon anymore now that I’m going by myself.”

Mr. Calm and Cool’s eyes flicked toward me for a split second. The woman across from me raised her eyebrows. I buried my gaze in my carry-on bag.

“So, what are you going to do?” she asked.

“Spend two weeks in Hawaii pretending I didn’t just get dumped, I guess,” I said. “We had all kinds of things planned, so—”

“Jesus, Ell,” she said. “Only you would plan every minute of your damned honeymoon.”

“I didn’t plan every minute of it.”

“Yes, you did.”

“Okay, fine, I did.” I laughed again, but didn’t put much effort into it. “Yes, the whole trip is planned down to the last minute, but at least it’s better than moping around the house.”

“True. I can’t argue with that.” She sighed. “Are you sure you’ll be okay? After what happened?”

“Not like I’m the first guy to get stood up at the altar.”

The squeak of movement on leather made me instinctively look up, and the mother across from me met my eyes. Her eyebrows were up, so I had no doubt she’d overheard me. I dropped my gaze again.

“You’re not the first,” Cassie said. “But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Shouldn’t you take some time to deal with it?”

“I am, Cass. That’s why I’m going. Maybe it’ll give him time to move his crap out of the house while I’m gone. I just, I need to be as far from him as I can get right now.”

A sharp breath preceded more movement in front of me. I glanced up as the woman and her kids collected their things. She shot me a disgusted look just before they moved to another row of seats.

I didn’t have the energy to get offended and didn’t bother rolling my eyes. I didn’t care. It had been less than twenty-four hours since the man who was supposed to love me decided to ditch me at our own wedding. Anyone who didn’t like two men getting married could shove their judgment right up their ass at this point.

“You still there?” Cassie asked.

“Yeah, sorry,” I said. “Just got…distracted.”

“That doesn’t surprise me right now.” She blew out a breath. “Well, have fun on your trip.”

“I will, assuming the plane ever gets off the ground.”

“Oh, shit, yeah,” she said. “They said on the news they’re canceling flights left and right. You still going to make it out of there tonight?”


She was quiet for a moment. “You sound way too okay with that. Are—oh, wait. You have a backup plan, don’t you?”

I laughed. “Of course I have a backup plan.”

“You would. Listen, I have to run, but try to have a good time, okay?”

“Will do.”

“Put it on your to-do list or something.”

“Shut up.”

“Bye, Ell.”

Chuckling, I hung up and slid my phone back into my pocket. As I sat back, I caught Mr. Calm and Cool’s eye. A ghost of a grin gave his lips the most mouthwatering shape and added a devilish sparkle to his eyes.

Those sparkling blue eyes darted toward the empty seats across from me, then to the place the woman and her kids had parked themselves, then back to me. The grin broadened.

“Was it something I said?” he asked.

I laughed again and shrugged. “More like something I said.”

He threw a dismissive gesture in her direction. “Fuck her.”

“I’d rather not, thanks,” I muttered.

He snickered and dropped his feet from on top of his suitcase to the floor. Laptop in one hand, leather case slung over his other shoulder, he toed his suitcase across the floor. He set everything else in one of the seats the woman and her kids had occupied. Before he took a seat himself, he extended his hand.

“Derek Windsor.”

I shook his hand. “Elliott Chandler.”

He dropped into the chair opposite me and leaned back, crossing his feet at the ankles and lacing his fingers behind his head. As he’d been all along, the very picture of relaxed.

“So, what’s taking you to Hawaii?” I asked. “Business or pleasure?”

“Actually, I’m heading home,” he said. “I was in Denver on business, stopped into Seattle for a few days to visit family, and now I’m on my way home.”

“You live in Hawaii?”

He nodded. “Maui, actually.”

Damn. Wrong island. “Must be nice.”

He shrugged. “Oh, the novelty wears off after a while, but I do love it.” He threw a smirk toward the windows. “I certainly don’t miss the snow.”

“I could do without it myself,” I grumbled.

“Ah, come on now, it doesn’t snow here that much.” He paused. “Or, is this just a stopover for you?”

“No, no, I live here,” I said. “And I do like it. Aside from the”—I gestured at the window—“humidity.”

Derek laughed. “Just wait until you get to Hawaii. That, my friend, is humidity.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“Never been there?”

I shook my head. “Haven’t done a lot of traveling, I’m afraid.” I leaned back and slung one arm across the back of the chair beside me, trying to look a hell of a lot more relaxed than I felt. Though I had to admit, Derek’s calm-amidst-the-storm demeanor was contagious. People like that usually just served to remind me how wound up I was. Derek may as well have been kneading my shoulders and whispering in my ear right then.

I wish, I thought as I stole another glance at his arms.

I cleared my throat. “Any recommendations for a clueless tourist?”

He smiled. “I thought I heard you saying you’d planned every minute of your trip.” He paused, then quickly added, “Not that I was trying to eavesdrop. You know how it is…” He gestured around the crowd of passengers.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Bound to overhear a conversation or two in here. And to answer your question, I did have it all planned, but I was also planning to have someone with me. Since that plan’s changed, why not throw the rest out the window with it?”

He gave a slow nod. “Point taken. Which island are you visiting?”

“Oahu. Staying in Honolulu”

“Hmm. Can’t say I’m familiar enough with Oahu to help you much. Now, Maui and Molokai? I know those two like the back of my hand.”

Just my luck. “Sounds like I picked the wrong island, then.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” His eyes met mine, and my heart skipped. The water surrounding Hawaii only aspired to be that blue. “There’s still plenty to do on Oahu. I just wouldn’t be much of a tour guide.” He brought his hands down, letting one rest on the handle of his suitcase while he leaned the other elbow on the chair’s armrest. “Are you the type who likes the more touristy places, or the out of the way things only the locals know about?”

I chewed my lip. Which type was I? Before today, I was the type who planned everything to the last minute, never strayed off the beaten path, and took every recommended precaution. Plus a few extra precautions for good measure. I followed guidebooks like they were brain surgery manuals.

Yesterday, my perfectly planned world was yanked out from under my feet. Every plan I’d made from this point forward was screwed. This morning, when I’d left for the airport, the guidebook remained beside my bed. Whether it was for spite, or because I just didn’t give a fuck anymore, I’d left it behind. All I had was a brochure with the number and address of my hotel.

“Quite honestly,” I said finally, “I don’t know what type of tourist I am.”

Derek tilted his head and regarded me silently. He absently traced his lower lip with the tip of his thumb. My own fingertips tingled, reminding me I wasn’t touching him. As if I’d forgotten.

“Well,” he said, his voice quiet but reaching me with ease in spite of the voices and movement all around us, “I do have some friends on Oahu. I could give you their contact information. They know a lot of the places no one tells the tourists about.”

“They wouldn’t mind a tourist joining them?”

He laughed and shook his head. “Hardly. Some of the places are just restaurants, secluded beaches, the good hiking trails. Things like that. Some are”—he glanced at the mother who’d herded her children away from me, then looked at me and lowered his voice a little more—“friendlier than others, if you know what I mean.”

My heart sped up. “Are there places like that on all the islands?”

“There are.” Derek held my gaze. “Some more than others.”

“More places than others?” I asked. “Or friendlier than others?”


I gulped. I really was going to the wrong island.