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Parasite by Ridley Harker

Title: Parasite

Author: Ridley Harker

Publisher:NineStar Press

Release Date: 06/28/2022

Heat Level: 3 – Some Sex

Pairing: M/NB

Length: 82500

Genre: Horror, LGBTQIA+, Action/adventure, coming-of-age, dark, humorous

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Description

Seventeen-year-old Jack Ives is used to being unlucky. His only friend has just moved away to college, his parents are alcoholics, and he’s relentlessly bullied by the town psychopath. All that begins to change with the arrival of a handsome but quirky new student, Lucien, who wants to be more than friends.

Their newfound happiness doesn’t last, however, as a strange new illness strikes the island. Fishermen go missing, and the villagers left behind aren’t themselves anymore. When Lucien is suspected to be the cause of the outbreak, can Jack overcome his teenage hormones and save Eldrick Isle? Will he even want to?

Excerpt

Parasite
Ridley Harker © 2022
All Rights Reserved

0054 hours

September 2, 2015

Gulf of Maine

When some kooky mainlanders offered to pay extra for a midnight ferry, Bill Jamison had jumped at the chance to pay off his bar tab. Now he regretted it. The middle-aged fisherman leaned morosely against the starboard rail while beside him his business partner, Jim Kendrick, fought the uphill battle of smoking a pipe during a storm. The rain pounded against the deck in a dull roar and, judging from Kendrick’s cursing, the pipe had gone out once again.

Not for the first time, Jamison reluctantly noted that his partner was getting on in years. Kendrick’s coat hung from his wizened frame like a cloak. His mysterious weight loss had made them both nervous, not that either one said anything. For an Eldrick Islander, the prospect of cancer was like foul weather; something to be endured without complaint.

“Goddamned son-of-a—” Kendrick upended the pipe and a sodden wad of tobacco fell onto the deck. He kicked it away, smearing it across the boards.

“We shouldn’t have gone out tonight,” Jamison said.

“Horse shit,” Kendrick huffed. “We’ve sailed through worse than this.”

“That ain’t what I meant.” Jamison jerked his head toward the mainlander lurking near the bow of the ferry.

Tall and blond, his passenger’s washed-out appearance resembled a photograph, the kind found in a neglected attic of subjects long deceased. Judging by the young man’s pinched frown, Jamison assumed that Silas Spencer was either a lawyer or an undertaker. He shuddered; Jamison hated lawyers, having seen enough of their kind during his divorce. Blood-sucking monsters the lot of them, in his opinion, but he had never been afraid of them, not even when the wretches helped his ex-wife take half of everything he’d owned.

But he was afraid of this one.

It was the eyes. He had seen eyes like that once before, years ago. Back when he had spent much of his days drunk. Once, while Kendrick cleaned their catch, Jamison had gone too far and drunk too much. His legs had betrayed him, and he had tumbled over the side. He remembered tasting blood. A tangy mix of iron and salt that burned his lungs when he tried to inhale. His eyes had stung. He had floundered in the icy water. He, a man who had learned to swim before he could walk, was drowning.

Then the moment of panic was gone, and instinct had set in. Jamison’s powerful legs had propelled him upwards, his arms outstretched toward the boat. He had nearly reached it before the shadow was beneath him. It came at him like a torpedo, almost too fast for his gin-addled brain to comprehend. A massive, prehistoric monster armed with muscled jaws and sandpaper skin. The soulless black pits of its eyes rolled back in its head, and its gaping maw expanded to reveal rows upon row of serrated teeth.

In the split second before the attack, Jamison had stared into the darkness of oblivion—then he had been shaken like a terrier on a rat. The shark had separated the flesh from his leg and sentenced him to a month in a mainland hospital whose bill he was still struggling to pay off. The very existence of such a creature disproved the notion that humans sat at the top of the food chain.

Safely back in the present, Jamison shuddered and remembered to breathe. He rubbed at his forearms, warm beneath his thick woolen sweater. He had been lucky. If he had drunk a little more gin, perhaps he wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to sink his knife deep into the shark’s eye socket. Now only scars and nightmares remained, and he hadn’t touched the bottle since. He liked to say that his rock bottom was on the ocean floor.

Jamison recognized something of that great white shark in Spencer. The man’s flat, grey eyes made his skin crawl. He glowered at Spencer’s broad-shouldered back, but Spencer didn’t seem to notice or care. His attention lay on the swirling mists beyond the ferry’s bow. Typical yuppie mainlander. Pretentious bastard, Jamison thought.

“They’re up to something,” he said aloud, glancing toward the cabin where the other one had sequestered himself.

Kendrick only snorted. “They’re mainlanders. They’ll spend a few weeks on the Isle, get bored, and then go back to whatever hell hole they came from. You know the type. We get a few every other year or so.”

Jamison did know the type. Unlike Nantucket, or Martha’s Vineyard, Eldrick Isle never attracted the summer crowd. There was nothing to offer. The once booming fishing industry had been usurped by commercial trawlers decades ago, forcing the neighboring isles to turn to seaweed farming instead. Eldrick, however, chose to bow its head and soldier on, clinging to the memory of its glory days. Billboards advertised a hotel that had long since shuttered its doors. The lone diner had a Visitor’s Special that no one ever ordered. The pier greeting the newcomers reeked of dead fish, the ever-present stench emanating from the dozen or so rusted fishing boats docked in the harbor.

Then there was the island itself: Eldrick’s shores were steep, rocky cliffs, with edges sharp and jagged like broken teeth. The surf stirred up debris and rotting vegetation, littering the island’s few beaches with trash from the abandoned canning factory on the island’s east side. Even the hottest days of summer were damp and chilly. Mist obscured the frigid waters. It crept onto the island, soaking through the sturdiest of coats. The few vacationers that showed up in August inevitably took one look at the dying town and turned around to book their return ticket.

Rain splattered against Jamison’s hood, echoing in his ears. Kendrick tried his pipe again to no avail. The storm lulled enough that the sound of retching was audible from within the depths of the cabin. Rasping coughs followed by the wet splatter of vomit. The downpour returned with a roar. It slipped past Jamison’s hood, soaking his neck. His shiver had nothing to do with the cold.

Kendrick abandoned his pipe and frowned, his rheumy eyes searching Jamison’s face. Jamison cleared his throat, striving to be heard over the rain and yet not loud enough for Spencer to hear. “Something’s wrong,” he shouted into Kendrick’s ear. “We were barely on the water before the kid got sick—”

“Billy, you been drinking again?” Kendrick asked, clasping Jamison’s shoulder with gnarled fingers. “When’d you get so goddamned superstitious?”

“No, I haven’t been fucking drinking! I’m only saying that this whole thing feels wrong; if one of my brothers were puking like that, I’d at least go check on him. I think the kid’s got something bad—what if it’s contagious?”

“What, like ee-bolah?” Kendrick asked, with a sharp look toward the ferry’s cabin. “Naw, it couldn’t be…”

“You checked on him?”

“No.”

“Well, someone ought to,” Jamison said.

“You do it,” Kendrick said dubiously. “Last time, I slipped in it and damn near broke my back.”

“Go check it out. If he’s only seasick then I’ll clean it up myself, but I’m telling you, something’s very wrong with that kid.”

“Christ, Billy! Nag anymore and you’re gonna sound like my wife.” Kendrick gave him a shove and then marched across the deck toward the cabin. Jamison caught movement in the corner of his eye and found Spencer watching them, his back against the railing. Their eyes met, and all of a sudden Jamison couldn’t hear the storm. There was nothing but the blood pounding in his ears. One corner of Spencer’s thin mouth twitched upward into a razor’s edge of a smirk. Jamison’s skin crawled. He wrenched his eyes away.

“Jim, wait!” Jamison shouted over the rain, but Kendrick had already knocked on the cabin door. The old sailor reached for the handle, his calloused fingers closing in on the doorknob. Jamison sucked in his breath.

Kendrick half turned around, his shoulders squared and his lips pursed, eyes narrowed beneath his bushy white brows. His hand was still on the cabin door. “Jesus Christ, Billy, what now?” he demanded. “What in the hell’s wrong with you, you crazy son of a bitch? You’re shaking like a virgin on—” He paused and glanced down. Jamison didn’t know why until Kendrick tried to take a step back. His boot remained glued to the floor.

Kendrick shoved at the door and yanked at his shoe. He stumbled as it came loose, trailing a viscous black gel behind it. More of the substance pooled out from underneath the cabin door. Lightning flashed, and a rainbow sheen coated the surface of the muck. The door creaked open.

Before Jamison shouted in warning, something darted out from the gloom. Thick and ropy, like a bundle of rotten vines, it hit Kendrick’s wrist with a wet slap, latching onto his bare skin. Kendrick sputtered, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open in a perfect caricature of surprise—then another tentacled limb emerged and shoved itself down his gullet. Like a fish on a hook, he was yanked into the cabin.

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NineStar Press | Books2Read

Meet the Author

Ridley Harker is an up-and-coming horror author who delights in all things gay and spooky. While past careers have included reptile keeping at a zoo and EMT work at a casino, writing is his true passion. His favorite books are those with enemies to lovers, small town settings, and great villains. He currently lives in the Middle of Nowhere with his two dogs, a grumpy old snake, and a host of pet tarantulas.

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Turtle Bay by John Patrick

Title: Turtle Bay

Series: Tides of Change, Book Two

Author: John Patrick

Publisher:NineStar Press

Release Date: 06/28/2022

Heat Level: 1 – No Sex

Pairing: Male/Male

Length: 85400

Genre: Historical, LGBTQIA+, gender-bending, cross-dressing, businessman, humor, law enforcement, political, PTSD, Postwar America, sexual discovery

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Description

It’s 1947, and New York City is awaiting the construction of the new United Nations building, the FBI is actively pursuing Communists and Soviet spies as the Cold War begins to build, and homosexual men have even more reasons to hide who they are.

Uptight FBI Agent Arthur Mason is so deep in the closet he doesn’t even realize he’s in one. Clueless about his own sexuality, he’s surprised at his reaction to both Hans Schmidt and his twin sister, Ada. Under pressure from work, Mason investigates Hans and his boarders, including the highly suspicious Hank Mannix, a known member of the Communist Party. Though Mason can’t seem to locate Ada, he can’t stop thinking about Hans and keeps going back to visit.

Hans Schmidt is a cross-dressing German immigrant running a boarding house for “a certain type of man,” and he wants nothing to do with Agent Mason and his ill-fitting suits and bad haircut. Until he begins to see Mason more as a man and less as a government official.

Hans enjoys dressing as a woman from time to time, and once his feelings for Arthur begin to change, he realizes he needs to share his Ada persona if they are to have a future together.

Secrets on both sides must be revealed and cherished beliefs challenged if these two men are to find the love and happiness they deserve.

This story can be read on its own; however, characters from book one, Dublin Bay, play a prominent role as secondary characters, so it’s recommended to read that first.

Excerpt

Turtle Bay
John Patrick © 2022
All Rights Reserved

Hans

Even after five years in America, Hans still startled every time the telephone rang—an abrupt, clanging sound insisting on attention. Why couldn’t a country capable of producing an atomic bomb be able to create a more discreet way of letting a person know about an incoming call? He vaguely remembered the phones in Ireland giving a soft chime first, before beginning to ring in earnest, but his time there had been short and chaotic, always one step ahead of capture, so he couldn’t be sure.

He didn’t remember the sound of telephones in Germany at all, even though he knew one hung on the wall in the university’s administration office. He pictured it there next to the corkboard but couldn’t reconstruct its sound.

He hoped the new dial telephone would have a more melodious tone. Assuming the phone company ever got around to swapping out his candlestick model for something more modern as they had been promising for months.

The telephone sat atop the counter in the small reception hallway. Hans swiveled his stool and picked up the entire device, bringing the mouthpiece forward and lifting the receiver close to his ear. He was surprised a call had even come through; most of the operators had gone out on strike.

“Schmidt’s Boarding House, Hans Schmidt speaking.”

“Hans, old boy! It’s Wally, up in Albany.”

“Oh, Wally, so good to hear from you. Is this business or pleasure?”

“Business, I’m afraid. I have a live one for you. And don’t forget I’m still on a party line here.”

That was code for anyone could be listening. Hans appreciated the reminder. The boarding house had its own private line, and he sometimes forgot most people outside the city still used party lines. As if to prove the point, Hans heard muffled soft breathing in the background.

He sighed and glanced at the wall clock, mentally rearranging his calendar for the afternoon. “Hold on.” He placed the transmitter back on the desk, switched the receiver to his left hand, and pulled a pad and pencil out of the drawer. He leaned closer to the mouthpiece so he could still be heard. “A day or two’s notice would make a nice change. But go on.”

“Sorry, there was no advance notice this time. He came right up to the counter and said, ‘One-way ticket to New York City, please, next available bus.’ You’ve got two more hours. I’m certain of this one, Hans. We served together.”

“Oh, were you…?”

“No. Nothing like that,” Wally responded. “But I knew, of course.”

“I understand. Greyhound?” Hans asked.

“Yes, arrives at three thirty.”

That was good news at least. The Greyhound terminal was next to Penn Station, which was only a half-hour walk if he hurried.

“Would you recommend Ada or Hans?”

“Oh, Ada for sure, dear boy. This one seems quite skittish. A direct approach won’t do. He needs to see what’s possible,” Wally replied. “He’s a good kid, Hans. Don’t let him get swallowed up by the Y.”

“Understood, and thanks for the tip. What will he be wearing?”

Wally laughed, and the connection broke up a bit. “Oh, not to worry. You can’t miss him.” Hans heard a click as someone hung up, or perhaps someone else picked up to check if the line was available.

“Will you be coming down yourself anytime soon?” Hans asked. “You absolutely must see David Brooks in Brigadoon. He’s in a kilt most of the time. We could make a weekend of it.”

“That sounds grand! Maybe next month.”

They exchanged a few additional pleasantries and ended the call.

Hans needed at least an hour to get Ada ready, and he was thankful he hadn’t yet put on cologne. He’d planned a shopping trip this afternoon to resupply a few staples—coffee, tea, and biscuits for the ladies’ reception parlor—but that could be rescheduled. But he couldn’t put it off for too long; the ladies did not like to run out of biscuits during their social hour.

As he descended the stairs to Ada’s room on the garden level—a New York euphemism for below ground—he was reminded how much easier things were for men. He wore a simple gray suit with a narrow navy tie, appropriate for all seasons and conservatively bland. Why, a fellow could disappear into any crowd wearing such an outfit.

Ada, though—she had a much tougher go of it. It was spring, technically, but still quite chilly. She’d need something…delightful. Yes, Hans thought, that was the right word. Not too frivolous, but sufficiently feminine to show the world there was still joy in beauty. But she’d also need to wear an outercoat and sensible enough shoes for a bit of a walk. She wouldn’t want to invite scrutiny, but she’d want people to see her and appreciate the effort she’d made.

Hans stepped into Ada’s room and opened the closet. He considered his options. He’d have to use last spring’s coat; he hadn’t had the time or funds to completely reoutfit this season. But it would do the job. It was robin’s-egg blue with a fitted waist rather than a belt. Five oversized white buttons ran down its length. Sadly, American fashion houses continued to insist on outrageously padded shoulders even now, nearly two years after the war’s end.

A thrill ran through Hans as he stood in front of Ada’s closet. It always did, right before the transformation.

He eyed the spring dress he’d bought two weeks ago and knew it would be perfect. He took it out of the closet and laid it flat on the bed. It was a creamy off-white cotton, with a hint of pink. It dropped to midcalf and had a layer of tulle underneath the skirt—an extravagant use of material that would have been unthinkable only a year ago, when rationing and scarcity were just starting to give way. Large red cherries created a pattern, and a back zipper allowed for a smooth, uninterrupted front.

Hans removed his suit and his baggy, shapeless boxers, making a mental note to remember to take the clothes back to his own room, behind the kitchen. He spent the next half hour on underclothing and shapewear, then makeup, and finally a softly curling blonde wig that matched his natural hair color.

Hans was more comfortable dressed as a woman than he was dressed as a man. He always had been; it’s what got him in trouble back in Germany.

Dressed as a woman, Hans absolutely sparkled. His slight frame and delicate features fit Ada better than they fit Hans, and more than once he wondered what it would have been like to have been born as Ada. He’d met men who claimed to actually be women, deep inside, but he didn’t fully grasp that. At the heart of it, Hans liked being a man and being attracted to other men. He just liked dressing and acting like a woman sometimes.

It was enough for him.

The dress itself—the item everyone saw—was the easiest part but for the back zipper, which he managed eventually.

He slipped on square-heeled navy shoes, tied a gauzy pink scarf around his hair as protection against the breeze, and then headed out the door.

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NineStar Press | Books2Read

Meet the Author

Author John Patrick is a Lambda Literary Award finalist living in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, where he is supported in his writing by his husband and their terrier, who is convinced he could do battle with the bears that come through the woods on occasion (the terrier, that is, not the husband). An introvert, John can often be found doing introverted things like reading or writing, cooking, and thinking deep, contemplative thoughts (his husband might call this napping). He loves to spend time in nature—“forest bathing” is the Japanese term for it—feeling connected with the universe. But he also loathes heat and humidity, bugs of any sort, and unsteady footing in the form of rocks, mud, tree roots, snow, or ice. So his love of nature is tempered—he’s complicated that way.

John and his husband enjoy traveling and have visited over a dozen countries, meeting new people, exploring new cultures, and—most importantly—discovering new foods.

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Love Burns Bright by Rien Gray

Title: Love Burns Bright

Series: Fatal Fidelity, Book Three

Author: Rien Gray

Publisher:NineStar Press

Release Date: 06/15/2022

Heat Level: 3 – Some Sex

Pairing: F/NB

Length: 54100

Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQIA+, contemporary, romantic suspense, nonbinary, queer, bisexual, interracial, light D/s, bondage, established couple, assassin, artist, dark, Mafia, revenge, PTSD, family issues, #ownvoices

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Description

Love always comes with a price.

No one knows that better than Justine. Her freedom has cost two bodies and counting, but now that she’s back in the United States, the only thing she can think about is seeing her parents again. After an abusive marriage kept Justine away from them for ten years, she’s returning to New York City a changed woman—and with the assassin she loves in tow.

Campbell lost what little family they had years ago, and their cover as a killer relies on never attracting attention. Publicly playing Justine’s rich lover risks stripping that mask away, but Campbell is willing to give her anything, no matter how dangerous.

Everything comes to a head the night Justine and Campbell touch down in New York. Their friend Sofia is kidnapped by her Mafia relatives and held for ransom. The trade? Her life for that of a vicious mob boss. And the clock’s ticking. As Campbell plans the kill, the lies they share with Justine start to strain their relationship, and even a second’s exposure will destroy everyone they care about.

It only takes one spark to start a blaze, and this fire could bring the whole city down with them.

Excerpt

Love Burns Bright
Rien Gray © 2022
All Rights Reserved

Justine

“All rise. The Honorable Judge Matthews presiding.”

I stand, but my heart doesn’t come with me. It lingers in my stomach like a lodestone, every beat a nauseous pulse as the judge walks into the room. Matthews looks to be in his sixties, white and heavyset, trapping a pair of sharp blue eyes behind too-small glasses. He takes his high seat with the reserved poise of a man who has done it a thousand times before, and that should comfort me. People come to this courthouse every day—there’s nothing strange about it.

They just don’t do it for the same reasons I am.

“Good morning, everyone,” he says, plucking the first file off the stack on his bench: mine. “Relax, sit down. Let’s get our petitions going for the day. Starting with Ms.…Cattaneo. I don’t think I’ve seen you in my court before.”

“You haven’t, Judge.” Sofia stays standing, reflecting his early-riser cheer with her own, utterly at ease. I’m glad to be in the chair again, one hand under the desk and gripping my thigh tight, grounding myself in the moment. “I’m from New York, like my client, so I’m only serving in an advisory capacity. Mrs. Fortin asked me to attend as a favor.”

Actually, Sofia offered representation pro bono. She said it was an olive branch, extended after mistaking my intentions. Her phrasing was both far too loaded and far too vague to be anything but Campbell’s intervention. I’m used to their bloodless reserve, but Sofia is a paragon of serpentine charm, warm as the sun one moment and venomous the next. The two of them are close friends, so if she wants to be on my good side, this is a pretty clever way to go about it.

I wish Campbell could be in here with me, but bringing a gun into the courtroom is out of the question, and ever since I was kidnapped in Paris, they’ve refused to go unarmed. At least I know they’re waiting outside, ready to drive Sofia and me away the moment this is over.

I tighten my fingers again, nails biting through the black drape of my dress. Sofia said to dress as if I was in mourning, which meant a conservative length and high collar, concealing the marks Campbell left in bed last night. The garter belt I’m wearing isn’t standard funerary issue, but it’s not like the judge will know any better.

“Very well,” Matthews murmurs, flipping to the next page in the file. “This is a petition to change your client’s surname?”

“To restore her maiden name,” Sofia corrects, tone light. “The paperwork should already be in order.”

The judge nods, only to frown as he starts reading through the forms. “I see a marriage certificate here. Did you file for divorce from your husband, Mrs. Fortin?”

Instinct clenches my jaw; I have to steal a breath, force myself to relax. “No, Your Honor.”

He raises a gray brow. “Does that mean you’re still married?”

The phrasing was “till death do us part,” so I certainly don’t consider myself to be married anymore. “No, Your Honor.”

What I want to say is he’s rotting in the ground, Your Honor. Richard abused me in every way he could think of for a decade, and I knew the so-called justice system would see a successful man cast against an ungrateful woman, despite the fact that I’d funded everything from his master’s degree to the particular brand of bourbon he liked to drink. So, I took matters into my own hands and hired the best assassin I could find to cut him out of my life.

Who I found was Campbell—a consummate killer. They’re the poison slipped into your favorite cup of coffee, the knife cutting brake lines in perfect silence, a fire started in the house while you’re peacefully asleep. Fluid and deadly as mercury, quicksilver gorgeous. The person who saw their own pain reflected in the broken mirror of my life and stepped closer to help pick up the pieces.

I love them more than I’ve ever loved anyone else.

Which is why I look Judge Matthews in the eyes, calling up the first hint of tears to my own, and lie without an ounce of guilt. “Richard committed suicide last year.”

It’s so easy to say, vindication outweighing the truth. I’ve been free ever since, no one the wiser, save for this last important detail.

“Ah.” He clears his throat, suddenly awkward. “My condolences.”

“Richard Fortin’s death certificate is at the bottom of the file,” Sofia adds, breezy in her helpfulness. I barely stifle my surprise—she must have done that on purpose. “Justine has experienced undue grief and no longer maintains contact with his side of the family. She would be far more comfortable using her maiden name on documentation and ID.”

“I see you filed a motion to waive the publication clause.” Matthews gestures with the form. He has the entire file spread across his desk now, clearly keen to avoid a second round of embarrassment. “Is there a reason your client doesn’t want her name change to become public record?”

“Illinois law requires three weeks of publication in a newspaper with the declaration, Judge. That’s three more weeks of stress for Justine and could attract reporters or other media attention, especially when you consider the circumstances of her husband’s unfortunate passing.”

Sofia slips a note of sympathy around the word “unfortunate,” pitch-perfect yet utterly false. Damn, she’s good. “If Justine had divorced him, the court wouldn’t require any public notice to restore her maiden name.”

“A fair point.” The judge acknowledges it with a tilt of his head before his attention recenters on me. “Do you have a criminal record, ma’am? Have you ever been convicted of a felony in this state or any other?”

Committed, yes. Convicted, thankfully not. Conspiracy comes with the territory while dating someone like Campbell. “No, Your Honor.”

“Then this appears to be in order.” Matthews picks up his gavel and strikes it once. “Petition granted. File these forms with the circuit clerk, and you’ll have the legal right to reclaim your name.”

God, I can breathe again. “Thank you so much.”

“Have a good day, Ms. Zhang.” His eyes fall to the bailiff. “Next case!”

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NineStar Press | Books2Read

Meet the Author

Rien Gray is a queer, nonbinary writer who has worked in ghostwriting, TTRPGS, and video games. They have a treasured (and ever-growing) collection of LGBTQ+ history books as well as a deep, abiding love for Greek myth. Rien has an upcoming short story in Neon Hemlock’s Baffling Magazine. They live in Ireland.

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Ashes To Ashes by Rachel Ford

Title: Ashes to Ashes

Series: Aubrey Blake Thrillers, Book One

Author: Rachel Ford

Publisher:NineStar Press

Release Date: 06/28/2022

Heat Level: 1 – No Sex

Pairing: Female/Female

Length: 93800

Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQIA+, contemporary, murder mystery, crime, lesbian, private detective, cleric/priest, guns, violence, anger issues, Action/adventure, bartenders, pets, religion, revenge, slow burn

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Description

A private eye and a vigilante priest face off to bring down a corrupt band of evildoers—by the book, or off the books. Her way, or his.

Years ago, Aubrey Blake joined the police force to make a difference. She almost lost everything in the pursuit of justice. Now she’s about to do it again.

Disillusioned with her former career, she makes a living as a private detective. A living, but not a life.

Then the killings start. The police are on it. But Blake can’t let it be. She can’t walk away. She’s not wired that way.

Then again, neither are the killers…

Excerpt

Ashes to Ashes
Rachel Ford © 2022
All Rights Reserved

Chapter One

The old man glanced at his watch. Thirteen minutes after nine. He was behind schedule. He should have been at the halfway mark already. He should have passed it thirteen minutes ago.

He gritted his teeth and pressed onward, pumping his legs as fast as they’d go. Not so fast these days. People might say age was only a number, but those people didn’t understand numbers. Numbers weren’t just innocuous lines on a page or a reflection of self-image. Numbers made the difference between success and failure, on time or too late, life and death.

One hundred and forty-five beats per minute.

Eleven hundred feet per second.

One round.

One shot.

One kill.

If you dug deep enough, everything was a numbers game. And right now, he was losing. He’d covered just about two miles. That meant he still had over two miles left. And forty-seven minutes to do it in.

Numbers, again. It all came down to numbers. Twenty years ago, those numbers wouldn’t have made a difference. But age understood the numbers game, even if people didn’t. Arthritic knees and old lungs and stiff hips understood the difference twenty years could make.

He puffed as he walked, drawing in one short, quick breath after the next. He hit the two-mile mark about three minutes later.

Two miles.

Halfway.

Forty-four minutes left.

He hit the nine-thirty mark a little closer to schedule. He still had over a mile to go, but he’d been making up lost time. He was close now.

Nine hours. Thirty minutes after the hour.

There’d be meetings and doctor appointments and lawyer appointments and business openings happening all over town right now. But that wasn’t what those numbers meant to the old man.

He was contemplating an entirely different set of figures.

Eleven hundred feet per second.

One round.

Tyler Morehouse was already dead. If everything had gone according to plan, he would have been dead about five minutes earlier.

One shot.

One kill.

And if it hadn’t? Well, the old man had bigger problems to worry about than his heart rate. And that was certainly higher than one hundred and forty-five beats per minute.

A hundred and forty-five beats per minute was the maximum recommended heart rate for a guy his age, according to something he’d read online a long time ago. American Heart Association, or John Hopkins Medicine, maybe. He didn’t remember at the moment, but he remembered the formula: two hundred and twenty beats per minute, minus your age.

One hundred and forty-five, in his case. Another set of critical numbers. He was feeling the impact of ignoring those numbers.

His breathing had grown more laborious, and his lungs burned. He felt mild tightness in his chest.

Six.

That was what he would have rated himself on the pain scale his doctor liked to use: six out of ten. Which, he decided, pun not intended, left him a little breathing room. He still had four out of ten degrees of pain left before he was either immobile or dead.

Four degrees and thirty minutes to go. He’d faced worse. He could tough that out.

And he did. Half an hour and two minutes later, he made the rendezvous. The bench was occupied, as per the arrangement. He took a seat next to the other man and didn’t say anything. He just sat there puffing with exertion and slipped a smartphone out of his pocket.

The other guy didn’t speak either. He took the phone and slid it into his own pocket. They sat there for three minutes, until five after ten.

Then the other guy got up. The old man stayed seated, stayed puffing long breaths of air into old lungs that weren’t used to that kind of exercise.

The other guy said, “It’s done.”

The old man nodded, but he didn’t speak. Not because it was some predetermined code or anything like that. He was still wheezing for breath.

“You okay?”

He nodded. “You better go. You’re on a schedule.”

“You sure you’re all right?”

“Just not used to that kind of pace.”

The other guy smiled, the kind of smile that writers would say “didn’t quite reach his eyes.” The old man hadn’t always understood that phrase, but once he’d lived long enough, he did. Age was more than just a number, after all. “Been a long time, hasn’t it?”

He nodded and said again, “You better go.”

And then the other guy did go. The old man sat on his bench alone, no longer counting the minutes as he collected his thoughts and caught his breath.

Tyler Morehouse was dead. It was over.

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Meet the Author

Award-winning author Rachel Ford is a software engineer by day, and a writer most of the rest of the time. She is a Trekkie, a video gamer, and a dog parent, owned by a Great Pyrenees named Elim Garak and a mutt of many kinds named Fox (for the inspired reason that he looks like a fox).

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Returning To You by Gwen Tolios

Title: Returning to You

Author: Gwen Tolios

Publisher:NineStar Press

Release Date: 06/21/2022

Heat Level: 2 – Fade to Black Sex

Pairing: Female/Female

Length: 64500

Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQIA+, romance, contemporary, family-drama, bisexual, biromantic, aromantic, asexual, influencer, forced outing, father/daughter relationship, mother/daughter relationship, workplace harassment, dementia, fake-dating

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Description

Monica’s relationship with her father is falling apart, made more obvious when her return to Madison after years aboard results in him throwing her out of the house. Lisa Carson, her BFF and old college roommate, takes her in. Turns out Lisa has her own issues with her parents – they’re pushing her to date despite her lack of desire. So when Monica joins a Carson family dinner, she lies and says it’s starting a relationship with Lisa that brought her back to America.

Lisa goes along with the rouse – it gets her parents off her back and it’s only until Monica repairs her relation-ship with her father and moves out. What Monica failed to take into account however is that crush she had on Lisa in college? Yeah, that didn’t go away.

Excerpt

Returning to You
Gwen Tolios © 2022
All Rights Reserved

Lack of Communication

The bustle and urgency of O’Hare Airport calmed Monica’s nerves as she stepped off the plane. Colder-than-wanted air conditioning, people sitting on the floor next to outlets, automated announcements, and large blue signs. After five years of almost constant traveling, bus stations, train stations, and airports were familiar enough to be second homes.

Ay Dios, it’d be nice to not jump around for a bit. From October through December, she’d be home and nestling into her childhood pillows.

She took a deep breath, pushing aside her rising anxiety, and made her way to baggage claim. As much as she knew she had to come, the thought of spending the next three months with her father made Monica bite the inside of her lip. Their past five calls had ended with him yelling at her. For the past year, their relationship had been on edge, and she hated it.

So she came home to fix it.

Waiting for her bags, she logged into the airport Wi-Fi. WhatsApp filled with messages from friends wishing her a safe flight. She typed landed!, then flipped to Instagram. She recorded a short video, complete with an ear-popping yawn, to inform her followers her flight had been screaming baby free.

A soft thunk turned Monica’s attention to the now-appearing luggage. Ten minutes later, she pushed a trolley out the door with one hand and called her father on the other. Eric Ubach picked up on the first ring. “Hey, Globetrotter. Almost there.”

Monica sighed. He’d answered with her childhood nickname. That had to be a good sign, right? “¡Hola, Papi! I’m by the D door.”

“You remember the car?”

Monica rattled off the license plate and Eric laughed. “How you remember things like that, I wish I knew. See you in a bit, mija.”

“Okay, Papi.”

She hung up and took a deep breath of Chicago air, the cold burning her lungs compared to the Mediterranean warmth she’d left. He hadn’t raised his voice. He sounded happy throughout their entire, though brief, conversation. Coming back had been a good choice. They’d spent too long apart for being each other’s only family.

A red Saturn Astra caught her eye, as did the tall, dirty-blond man cramped behind the wheel. Monica waved to get her father’s attention. Eric waved back and cut to the curb. They went into action—opening doors, throwing in suitcases, exchanging brief hugs—to a soundtrack of horns and traffic guards shouting at cars to move. Within minutes, Monica plopped into the passenger seat, grinning. She held up her hands to the car’s heat vent and rubbed her hands together.

Eric patted her thigh and started driving. “How was the flight?”

Monica filled him in, from her mad dash to the gate to the small rivalry she developed with a username on the in-flight trivia game. The conversation made Monica feel younger. Younger than twenty-seven, or twenty-one, or even eighteen. She slipped back to middle school, safe and warm in the car as her father drove her home from school and asked about her day.

She must have fallen asleep during the two-hour trip to Madison because the next thing she knew her dad was shaking her shoulder in the garage. “Come on, Globetrotter. Up to bed. Gotta sleep off that jet lag.”

Monica groaned. “I want to take a shower first. Get the travel dust off.”

“You remember where the towels are?”

“I used to live here, Papi. I doubt it changed too much.”

They lugged her bags into her bedroom. It looked just like she left it heading off to college: high school posters on the walls, the bookshelf full of Baby-sitters Club books, the nest of pillows and stuffed animals on her bed.

She grabbed her stuff and headed to the bathroom.

Ah, American showers. She’d gotten used to older European showers, showerheads above drains with a small lip made of tile to contain water if she was lucky. Now, she relished standing in a basin and not having to worry about water all over the floor or keeping her elbows in. Monica hummed to herself, lathering her hair, when Eric burst through the door.

“Papi!” she shrieked. “¡Lárgate!”

“Just getting something,” he said, opening the medicine cabinet.

Before the shampoo dripped into Monica’s eyes, her dad grabbed whatever he needed and left. The door clicked shut.

Ay Dios! Who cared if the glass was frosted? Her dad should never have come in! Fuming, she scurried to the door, locked it, and stepped back under the spray.

Warm from embarrassment and the steam, Monica quickly finished. Before heading to her room, she took a detour to lean over the railing at the top of her stairs. She heard her father in the kitchen, and as much as she wanted to scold him—it’s not like he hadn’t known she was showering—she couldn’t imagine facing him without blushing scarlet.

“In case you need anything else from the bathroom,” she called down the stairs, “I’m out.”

She hoped her indignation was obvious, but the apology she expected never came. She debated demanding one, but that seemed petty. Plus, who wanted to draw out mutual embarrassment?

Monica crawled into bed. Lying under the sheets, she browsed Instagram and responded to comments. Keeping an active profile kept her followers engaged, which in return increased the likelihood of brands wanting to pay her for a bit of publicity. She never imagined using her business degree more for her side hustle than her day job as customer support for a travel agency, but oh well.

She got a ping from Lisa on WhatsApp.

Lisa: Ah! You’re in America again! How was the flight?

Monica: long, but okay

Monica: what’d you do today?

Lisa: Did some work, then had a lunch date.

Monica: Oo, la la. anything happen?

Lisa: He was cute, but not cute enough.

Monica: hahaha

Lisa: We still doing brunch Sunday?

Monica: yeah

Monica stared at the screen for a moment, wondering if it was worth the fuss of bringing up her dad’s earlier behavior. Probably not, she decided. It’d been awkward, not something she’d ever expect considering how courteous he’d been when she was a teen, but not malicious. For the majority of the past nine years, Eric had been living alone. He simply had to readjust to sharing the house.

And relearn manners? Monica shook her head. People made mistakes, and there were worse ones than barging into an in-use bathroom. No use going all reality-TV-drama over it.

She texted Lisa good night and slipped her eye mask over her eyes.

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Meet the Author

Gwen Tolios is an ace author who after traveling and time abroad settled in Chicago. She lives with a cat who refuses to cuddle and spends the weekends chugging coffee and typing words.

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