Sunday, August 20, 2017

Her Gypsy Lord



Castle Keyvnor, Cornwall ~ October, 1811

Lady Charlotte Beck took a step back and glanced at the door. She could make her escape and nobody would notice. Certainly not her father, who often forgot he even had a daughter when her older brothers were in the room.
The oldest, Anthony, Viscount Redgrave, lounged against a settee, a smirk upon his lips. Anthony enjoyed whenever Michael, the third born, was called on the carpet by their father.
The two brothers were as different as night and day, and had been since the moment of birth. Or so she suspected since she was seven years younger than her eldest brother. Anthony had always been the perfect son. He probably hadn’t ever cried as an infant and, more than likely, slept through the night from the start. Michael, on the other hand, probably started flirting with the nursery maid when he was only an hour old. And then there was Harry, the second born, who had recently returned from the Navy. He sat upright in his chair, watching the scene with great curiosity.
Or perhaps it was boredom. Harry left when Charlotte was only seven years old, and she didn’t really know him. She still was not certain if he was friend or foe.
Anthony and Michael were certainly foes.  But for all of their differences, there was one topic in which they were in full agreement—any gentleman who might even glance in Charlotte’s direction was to be discouraged, then investigated. With those two always near, and glaring, it was a wonder any gentleman even bothered to sign her dance cards last season. 
“Explain to me why St. Giles, Blackwater, and Ashbrook are at Castle Keyvnor,” her father, Marquess of Halesworth, demanded of Michael. The gentlemen were some of Michael’s closest friends, and it really hadn’t surprised Charlotte that the trio had traveled to Cornwall with her brother.
“They were with me in Newmarket when you ordered me here.”
“So you invited them?” His irate tone prompted Charlotte to edge closer to the exit. She caught Harry’s eye, and if she wasn’t mistaken, his lips quirked ever so slightly.
“Not so much invited,” Michael hedged. “Devon Lancaster is here too, and he wasn’t invited either.”
“You do realize this gathering is for the reading of a will. Not a house party!” their father roared.
“I don’t even understand why it’s necessary for all of us to be present,” Michael complained. “Banfield was Mother’s uncle, surely whatever was left to her is but a token and does not require the entire family to be present.”
If Father could breathe fire, it would surely be coming from his mouth and nose this very instant. At the very least, as red as his face had suddenly become, smoke should be coming from his ears.
Anthony’s smile broadened, Harry came to his feet and reached for his cane, and Charlotte slipped out of the room. Father’s temper was only going to get hotter, and she preferred to be far away.
A sigh escaped as she exited into the corridor, glad to be rid of her family and excited to be at Castle Keyvnor for the next sennight. Here she wouldn’t be watched nearly as closely as she had been anywhere else. Other than the four uninvited gentlemen, everyone else in attendance was some form of relation, no matter how distant. Not that she had cause to be worried about Lords St. Giles, Blackwater, Ashbrook, or Mr. Lancaster. Other than standing up with her on occasion at balls, none had ever showed her any interest, and she certainly had none in them.
“One would think those two would have grown up, at least somewhat, during my absence.”
A smile blossomed as Charlotte turned to find Harry behind her. Finally, someone who found Anthony and Michael as irritating and obnoxious as she did.
“Tell me, do either of them ever approach anything with any respect or seriousness?”
He planted his feet and put his hands behind his back--the stance of an officer used to being on the deck of a ship and ordering others about. Oh, she hoped he’d share stories of daring and danger with her one day, but they’d barely spoken since his return.
“Anthony can be very serious, downright stuffy even. However, when Michael is in trouble, he quickly reverts to a child.”
Harry’s frown deepened. “I’d heard Michael had a certain reputation. I’d hoped I had heard wrong.”
“Oh, he does.” She laughed. “A rake of the first order. Or, at least when I’m not around. If he’s tasked with escorting me, then he becomes the most protective chaperone to ever grace London.”
Harry gestured ahead and they moved further down the corridor, away from the parlor where the argument between Michael and their father was getting louder by the moment. There were times Harry leaned heavily on his cane, and at other times, like now, it was nothing more than an accessory, yet it was always with him.
Charlotte hated that he was in pain but was so grateful he was home with said leg intact. From what she understood, it had been a close as to whether the surgeon would allow him to keep it.
A shiver ran down her spine at the danger her brother put himself in for King and Country. She’d been too young to really understand where he went, but after Father showed her his name in the newssheets, Charlotte had saved every article where he’d been mentioned and wasn’t above bragging about him when she could.
Oh, if only she could experience just an ounce of the adventure Harry had. Charlotte nearly sighed. Adventure was well and good and something she craved, though she didn’t exactly wish to put herself in danger either. Unlike Harry, who faced it head on even when the odds were against him.
“You are one and twenty, correct?”
“Yes and directly on a path to spinsterhood if those two have their way.”
“You know, my first night back the three of us spoke—actually they spoke, and I listened—about all the things they felt I needed to understand. One of those ‘things’ was you.”
Oh dear. Maybe Harry was a foe after all.
“They warned me that you are much too curious for your own good, that you need to be watched, and that left to your own devices, you might go off somewhere and find yourself in all kinds of trouble.”
I’m going to kill them both the first chance I have.
“I feared that perhaps you were the one who hadn’t grown up and were still very much the seven-year-old that I left behind.”
“Please, Harry,” she begged. “I’ve enough of our family treating me as a child.”
“As well you should.” He stood back and took a good look at Charlotte. Admiration shone in his deep brown eyes. “What I see is a woman who knows her own mind, intelligent, and sensible.”
Relief flowed through her. Finally, a family member who wouldn’t hover. “Why can’t you stay here and send Anthony and Michael off to the Navy?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “My dear Charlotte. They’d not last a fortnight, which would result in me becoming the heir and that would never do.”
Charlotte reached out and took his hands in hers. “I hope you’re home for a while and that we can spend more time together.”
His smile softened. “Perhaps. We shall have to see how this leg of mine progresses.”
Michael stormed out of the parlor and headed towards them.
Harry pulled away from Charlotte. “Well, I’m off to explore the grounds of this supposedly haunted castle.”
She intended to disappear just as quickly. That last thing Charlotte wanted to do was hear Michael complain about their father. “Do warn me if you come across any ghosts.”
Harry chuckled. “You and I both know that is not likely to happen,” he called back as he headed toward the large castle door and Charlotte ducked into the sitting room.
 “Oh, Harry, why couldn’t you have come back sooner?”
However, she was happy he was here now. If anything, it would make being with her other brothers immensely more bearable.
With a grin, Charlotte twirled around in the center of the room.  The history of this gothic castle fascinated her, even if the stories were a bit embellished. She certainly believed people had been executed and witches burned, not that they were really witches of course. Gruesome events had transpired all throughout history, so it wasn’t surprising that some horrific things happened here. But, what was truly entertaining was that people actually believed there were still ghosts, fairies, and witches about. And, even better, apparently a band of gypsies actually lived on Banfield land. 
There was so much to explore, and she couldn’t wait. But first, she must know where to find the gypsies. She could have asked Harry to keep an eye out for them while he was exploring, but she wanted to keep his good opinion of her and not make him question if Anthony and Michael were correct and that she lacked sensibilities.
Not that she believed in curses or fortune telling or any of that nonsense, but it would be delightfully fun to have her fortune told just the same. Would they use a crystal ball? Cards? Read the lines on her hands?
“Why in the world is Lord St. Giles here?”  Lady Cassandra Priske, her cousin, entered the room and dropped onto a settee across from Charlotte. Oscar, her cousin’s bothersome black poodle, hopped up beside his owner. Had she known Cassy was bringing Oscar, Charlotte might have brought Princess, her black cat, who thoroughly enjoyed chasing the yappy dog.
“Michael said he invited himself. No idea why he’d want to be here if he didn’t have to be.” However, she couldn’t complain of his presence or that of any of Michael’s friends since they would keep her brother occupied. It was a shame Anthony hadn’t brought a friend as well, then she’d have all the freedom she needed.
A breeze swept through the room and goose pimples popped out on Charlotte’s arms just as Oscar barked and stood at attention. She may adore old castles, but they could be downright chilly at times.
“Heavens!” Cassy exclaimed.
One would have thought Princess just sauntered into the room by the way that dog was behaving. “What’s wrong with Oscar?”
Cassy blinked at her cousin. “Didn’t you feel that?”
Charlotte frowned slightly. “Feel what?”
“Like a breeze or a wind blow through the sitting room?”
Charlotte shook her head. “It’s an old castle. All the rooms are drafty.”
Oscar barked again, much to Charlotte’s irritation. If she could figure out a way to muzzle that dog, she would.
“Ahem!” Someone cleared her throat in the threshold and Charlotte glanced up to find the stern housekeeper frowning at them. “We do not have animals on the furniture at Castle Keyvnor.”
“Oh!” Cassy snatched Oscar up in her arms and he nestled against her chest.
“Sorry, Mrs. Bray,” Charlotte said. “We didn’t know.”
The woman narrowed her eyes on Cassy. “Well, now you do.”
Now was not the time to upset the housekeeper since there was still so much Charlotte needed to learn. She pushed out of her seat and gave the woman what she hoped was a kind and apologetic smile. “Um, Mrs. Bray, I wonder if you could answer a question for me.”
“Yes, Lady Charlotte?” she asked with suspicion.
“Well, I heard tale that there were gypsies on Keyvnor land. Is there any truth to that?”
“The Earls of Banfield have always welcomed their lot,” Mrs. Bray replied. “They have a camp near Hollybrook Park.”
“That is delightful.” Charlotte grinned at the news.
“You best not be disturbing them,” Mrs. Bray warned. “We stay away from them, and they stay away from us, even if his lordship welcomed them.”
“Yes, of course.” Charlotte schooled her features. “I was simply curious. I would never dream of visiting gypsies.”
The older woman shrugged and then departed as Charlotte fell back onto the settee. “I can’t wait to have my fortune told.”
“I think you’ve lost your mind.” Cassy shook her head, and that nasty little dog barked.
As much as she wanted to go, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if she were alone; and with that thought, Charlotte slid forward in her seat.  “It’ll be a grand adventure, Cassy, just think! A band of marauding gypsies telling tales by the fire. It’s just a lark, of course. Something to pass the time while we’re here.”
“It sounds perfectly horrid.”
Charlotte rolled her eyes. “You are too stuffy by half, did you know?” She should have known Cassy wouldn’t go with her. After all, her cousin never did anything daring.
“You think I’m stuffy? I can’t wait to hear you tell Anthony, Harry, and Michael that you mean to visit a band of gypsies.”
She wouldn’t tell them, would she? Cassy and she may not enjoy the same pastimes, but they’d always held each other’s confidences. “You can’t tell them!” Charlotte insisted. “They’ll ruin any bit of enjoyment there is to be had here.”
“We’re here for the reading of a will, not enjoyment.”
She sounded like Papa. “You can find enjoyment anywhere,” Charlotte claimed. “Or at least you can if your overbearing brothers don’t know what you’re about.” Even though Harry didn’t appear to be overbearing, she wasn’t about to chance this either. “You must promise me not to tell them.”
“I’m not going to tell them,” Cassy vowed. “But I don’t think you should visit the gypsies. It could be dangerous, and I have an awful feeling about Keyvnor. Don’t you feel it too?”
Where Charlotte craved adventure, Cassy’s imagination was as adventurous as she got. “I think your imagination is running wild again.”
Oscar barked, hopped off Cassy’s lap and bolted towards the doorway. Charlotte glanced up, hoping Mrs. Bray hadn’t returned, but found Lord St. Giles leaning against the doorjamb instead. Dear Lord, she hoped Michael wasn’t nearby. He’d ruin everything.
The poodle sat before the baron and panted up at him as though waiting for a treat.
Nasty little beggar.
Then, St. Giles winked at Cassy, completely taking Charlotte by surprise, before he gave a small bite of something to the dog.  Had St. Giles taken an interest in her cousin? Charlotte wasn’t sure if she should warn him away or be delighted and watch how the situation progressed. St. Giles did have a certain reputation, not much better or worse than Michael’s, and they both left broken hearts in their wake.
“What did you give him?” Cassy pushed off the settee.
“Charmed a scullery maid for a bit of pheasant.”
Charlotte nearly snorted. Charm should be St Giles’s middle name, and the same could be said of Michael.
“Are you attempting to bribe my dog?” Cassy demanded.
“Bribe? What an ugly word.” St. Giles gave her cousin an unrepentant grin. “Simply making a new friend. You can never have too many, after all.” Then he glanced towards Charlotte. “And your secret is safe with me, my dear. None of your brothers will hear of your expedition into gypsy territory from my lips.” 
Blast, he had heard and her face heated with embarrassment. “Lord St. Giles,” she greeted him.
The baron stepped further into the sitting room. “I am a firm believer in having a bit of fun every now and then, so I certainly wouldn’t stand in the way of you having yours.”
Perhaps St. Giles had more substance than she’d given him credit for. Just because he was a good friend of Michael’s didn’t mean there wasn’t some worth to him. Besides, she could do far worse in having someone to take her side should her brothers learn of her plans. As he said, you could never have too many friends. She just never thought to consider him as such. “Thank you.”
“You sent for me, Puri daj?” Adam Vail asked his grandmother as he stepped into the gypsy camp.
“It’s going to rain,” she announced. Her back was permanently hunched from age and years of bending over palms and telling fortunes. Her once black hair was more grey and white, though she tried to smooth her frazzled mane back into a knot behind her head.
“You summoned me to tell me it’s going to rain?” She was getting on in years, ancient even, though Adam could only guess at her age.  Grandmother had never summoned him for something as trivial as the weather.
“You’ll be needed.”
He glanced around. The brightly painted wagons were pulled into a half circle and the small cottages along the tree line were lit from within, except for one. It belonged to his grandmother. Adam had had it built, but she refused to live in something so permanent. This was where the gypsies, his mother’s family, would spend their winter. It had been this way since his father married Lela Boswell, daughter of the woman who had sent for him.
A large fire burned at the center of the camp, and many of his relatives moved about preparing food and settling in. They’d only arrived a few days earlier, and he was glad they were once again where they belonged. Or at least near where they belonged.
“Exactly how will I be needed?” he asked.
“You shall see.” His grandmother was often cryptic, and many times it irritated him to no end. But Adam still did as she asked.
He glanced to the sky. It had been overcast all day, but not a drop of rain had fallen. He wasn’t about to argue with his grandmother, however. If she said it was going to rain, then it was going to rain and he’d be needed here. He’d long ago stopped questioning her premonitions because she was never wrong. The gift of second sight, his mother had claimed. One he had not inherited.
“What are you working on?” His grandmother sifted through beads, feathers, shells and gems. Selecting some, discarding others, and pushing the ones she approved into a small leather pouch.
“Making a talisman.”
“A young lady will need it to protect her at Castle Keyvnor.” His grandmother sighed. “The vision is not yet clear. I’ll know more when we meet.” She dropped a feather into the putsi.
“Just because Banfield allowed you to live on his land does not mean you can go about handing out talismans to the castle’s guests.” Several of Banfield’s relatives had recently arrived to attend the reading of the late earl’s will. Adam couldn’t remember the last time so many had been at the castle at one time, if ever.
“She will come to me,” his grandmother insisted, not bothering to look at Adam as she continued sifting through charms. “You know we never venture inside the walls, and I don’t like it when you do either.”
Though how a putsi could protect anyone from anything was beyond Adam, yet he was never without his, the one Grandmother and his mother had made upon his birth. Too often she was correct about the unexplained, and at a young age, he learned to trust in her counsel when it often had no meaning and was beyond his understanding. There were simply things in the world, and particularly at Castle Keyvnor and in this corner of Cornwall, that could not be explained away with reason. If his grandmother believed that evil dwelled within the walls, Adam believed her. Not that he’d experienced anything evil on his visits, but the place was certainly haunted.  
“Aren’t you concerned that once the will is read you’ll be without a winter home?” The Earl of Banfield was now dead, and Adam knew nothing about the heir.
“There is no reason to worry about things that cannot be changed.” This was often his grandmother’s approach about anything. But in his twenty-seven years, she’d also not had to worry about where her family would spend the winter.
“What if he has you removed?”
She finally glanced up at him, her dark eyes clouded with age. “Dear boy, all things will be as they should be, as it always is.” His grandmother patted his hand.
If things were as they were supposed to be, his gypsy relatives would be living at Hollybrook Park, but his cantankerous grandfather refused to allow them safe harbor. His mother’s people should be on his father’s land, not just on the other side of the border, living off the generosity of a neighbor.
“You have not shaved,” she nodded in approval.
“As is custom.” Adam hadn’t followed all the Gypsy customs upon the death of his older brother, but he’d not taken a razor to his face and would not until after Thomas was placed in the ground. On second thought, he might not shave until next spring, when he returned to London, only to further irritate his grandfather.
“You will wear white!”
“I will wear black,” Adam corrected. There would be mourners at the cemetery, and they might believe he’d lost his mind.
“Red handkerchief and waistcoat,” she proclaimed.
Mourners were to wear white for purity or red for vitality. As there was nothing even remotely pure when it came to Thomas, or Adam for that matter, he’d wear red.
“Your stepmother, sisters, and brother? Have they returned?”
His stepmother had taken her children, four daughters and a son, from Hollybrook Park as soon as Thomas returned home. She feared them becoming infected somehow. That was nearly two years ago and he hadn’t seen them since. “No.”
If something happened to his grandfather, his five younger half-siblings would become his responsibility. Adam’s stomach churned at the very thought, though they apparently were doing well without him or their grandfather.
Grandmother pursed her lips in disapproval and shook her head. “You asked for forgiveness?”
“Yes, Puri daj, as you instructed.” Not that his older brother had been in a state of mind to accept any apologies, and Adam had been hard pressed to find something he was sorry for. It was his brother who should have been seeking compassion, but his mind was already gone.
She nodded. “It is good. You will make a better viscount.”
“I never wanted to be a viscount.” His life was simpler before Thomas became ill. Hopefully his grandfather was too stubborn to die, and Adam wouldn’t have to assume the title, or responsibility to the estate, town and smugglers for many, many years.

“A man like Thomas did not deserve to be viscount.” Her dark eyes looked into Adam’s. “He was one of them.” She practically spit out the word. “You, my dear boy, are one of us. A Rom.”
If anyone else referred to him as a dear boy, Adam would take issue. But, this was his grandmother.

And, he was Rom. It was in his bones. He much preferred the life of a gypsy, though that wasn’t his lot in life. He was destined to be the next Viscount Lynwood.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Shake, Rattle & Roll

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 “Seriously? Feel Your Balls?” I read the sign above one of the booths at the health fair. The booth next to it has a sign Feel Your Boobs?
“Got your attention, didn’t it?” Mary Robins grins at me.
“Can we go feel boobs and balls?” Zach asks.
“Only after you give blood,” Mary assures Zack the same way a mom would promise ice cream after booster shots. At least that’s what a few of my foster moms were like. The good ones, when I was still a little kid.
“Right over there.” Mary points to a huge white tent. Inside are recliners and about half of them are filled with people giving blood.
“They have cakes, cookies and juice for when you’re done,” she continues in a cajoling voice as she herds the guys toward the tent.
I watch as my roommates slink off, shoulders slouched and heads hanging. Really, the needle isn’t that big and they only take a bag of blood. It’s really no big deal.
Mary comes back to me, fists on her hips and stares me down.
“Can’t.” I hold up my hands and step back. “I’m a regular giver,” I remind her.  “It’s not my time yet.” And, they never let me forget either. With A negative blood, they love to get their needle in me to fill a bag and usually call to schedule an appointment two weeks before I’m due.
“Maybe you should be on Alex watch.”
I laugh. I wasn’t there, but last time Alex gave blood he passed out. “Kelsey’s with him. He won’t wimp out in front of her.”
“It’s not wimping out to get light headed.”
“He’s a fucking tattoo artist, and needles and blood make him squeamish. Explain that.”
She rolls her eyes. “Totally different kinds of needles and a hell of a lot more blood.”
We are right in the middle of the campus where on normal days students just hang out between classes, but today it’s filled with all things health fair related. I didn’t know what to expect, but not all of this. In one corner is a fenced off area, kind of like you’d see in a petting zoo, but it’s filled with little kids and playground equipment. Adults are in there watching too. The kids are running, screaming, playing and crying. Right next to it is a booth with the sign Are You Ready for This? With an arrow pointed to the playground. “Birth control booth?”
“Whenever possible, it’s best to demonstrate. A crying baby is a lot more effective than a pamphlet sometimes.” Mary laughs.
“So, what are you demonstrating?” Mary needs to be at a booth in a few minutes for her volunteer work.
“The proper use of a condom.”
“Um, isn’t that a given?”
“You’d be surprised at how many guys were never taught the proper technique of rolling one on and leaving a reserve.”
“Sad, I know.”
“It’s just as important for girls to know too,” I point out. Except a girl hasn’t been around my dick in, well, too damn long. I’m not even sure the condoms I own haven’t expired.
It’s not that I don’t have the opportunity to get laid, like every weekend, but that got old real quick. Something about being in a band makes girls wet. I know this because they’ve told me. And, it was fun for a while but damn, I want more than a quick fuck in the back room of a bar.  “So, you’re at the booth next to the kids.”
“No, they are just handing out information about the clinic, services that are offered, a map of the health fair. More of an information booth.”
I nod and do a full turn. There are a ton of booths and tents. I can’t even see everything they have, and the place is packed. They are mostly students, but it’s a huge turnout. I’m not sure I went to one health fair when I was in college. They seemed so lame and I didn’t really think I needed to learn anything new. Damn, if I knew they were like this, I probably would have stopped in.
“I’m next to the balls. Condoms and balls kind of go hand in hand, don’t you think?” She wags her eyebrows at me.
“If you’re doing it right.” I laugh as we start walking in that direction. 
Mary slips behind the table, relieving the girl who was standing there. Roll it Right reads the sign above her head and another sign on the table says One Break Can Last a Lifetime and Free for the taking, in front of tubs filled with condoms. Guys are grabbing up handfuls as they come by.
Two guys stop and look at Mary.
She tilts her head, giving them a saucy grin. “You sure you know how to use that thing?”
One of them looks at his friend, then nods. “Maybe you should show me, just so I know I’m doing it right.
“I’d love too.”
What the hell? What kind of health fair is this? I glance back to make sure Dylan, my roommate and her boyfriend, is still in the tent. Did Dylan know what she was going to be doing?
The guy leans on the table, getting closer to Mary. “Should we go somewhere, um, more private?”
She grabs a condom out of the tub. “I’m more of an exhibitionist.” She dismisses him as if the idea of putting on a condom in front of everyone is no big deal, then reaches under the table and brings out a neon green dildo on a stick.
“Oh, man,” the guy says with disappointment and I about lose it because I’m laughing so hard. She so played him. Though, if Mary is going to spend her afternoon showing guys how to use condoms, even if it is on a dildo, I may have to make sure Dylan is occupied elsewhere. He sure as hell is not going to like witnessing what I just did. Not that Mary did anything wrong. Hell, she didn’t even flirt or lead the guy on, but a girl offering to help with a condom is enough to get a guy thinking about what happens after the condom is on and that guy was definitely jumping ahead to wearing the condom and being with Mary.
I glance at the next booth and forget to breathe. It’s the girl who was coming out of the campus clinic with Mary a few months back. I never got her name. I introduced myself and all she said was “I know. You play sax, right?” Then she was gone. I’ve wanted to ask Mary about her, but I don’t want Mary to start trying to fix me up with people either. Girls do that when they are in love. Kelsey worked on getting Dylan and Mary together and I have no doubt Mary would do the same to me and the auburn-haired beauty with light blue eyes if she had any idea how interested I am.
She’s standing right beneath the Feel Your Balls sign and now that’s all I can think about. Her hands on my balls, stroking my shaft and maybe using that gorgeous mouth in the most pleasurable of ways.
A slow smile comes to her face as I approach, as if she can read my mind. Hell, of course she can. You don’t put a sexy girl under a sign like that and not expect guys to immediately think of feeling and tasting.
“Are you the one doing the feeling?”
“Maybe.” She leans on the table, hands flat against the surface, her upper arms pressing her tits together, making the cleavage deep. 
“I hear that guys like it when someone is feeling their balls.”
I lean in. “If you want to feel mine, I have no objection.” Even though I know she is working me, like Mary worked the guy on proper condom use, I’m happy to play along. Except, I’m not getting what this booth is about. How can feeling a guy’s balls be health related? Unless it’s to warn against blue balls. Which if this flirtation keeps up, I may have a serious case of.
“You probably don’t spend much time with your balls,” she says. “Most guys, when taking themselves in hand, just jack off in the shower and give no attention to the family jewels.”
Well, that’s true. If it’s bad enough that I have to take care if it myself, ball attention isn’t necessary.
“Did you know that could also be deadly?” Her voice is low and those blue eyes are boring into mine.
“Why? I could slip on a bar of soap.”
“I’m serious.”
“So am I. I don’t want to die in the shower.” I lean in closer. Our noses are practically touching. She’s turning me on like no woman ever has and we aren’t even touching. “Maybe you should shower with me, for protection.”
“Give me your hand.”
I’m about to break out in a sweat. She can have my hand. She can have anything she wants.
I expect her hand to go into mine, but she places something soft and light in the palm. I glance down and it takes a moment before I realize what I’m holding and then drop it immediately.
“I hope you don’t treat your own balls so poorly.”
“What is that?” Well, it looks like a sack, balls, and scrotum, whatever, and the poor dick is even cut off.
“Guess you don’t look at yours too often either.” She snorts.


Holy crap! I’m flirting with Christian Sucato and we are talking about balls, feeling balls, and all I can think about are his balls and his cock and those light brown eyes.
This isn’t the first time I’ve given demonstrations, but I normally don’t flirt. It’s not professional and we aren’t supposed to. This booth is for information that could save a life, but when Christian walked up, it was almost as if I couldn’t help myself.
“Why did you just put balls in my hand?”
I try not to laugh but it is so freaking funny that practically every guy drops them as if the testicular exam simulator has cooties or something.
“To save your life,” I answer.
Damn, I’ve gotten more requests today to perform personal exams than I can count. If Christian were to ask, I’m not so sure I’d really want to tell him no.
I’ve had a thing for him for a good year. Ever since I saw his band play at a club one night. There’s just something about him and the way he plays that sax that is so fucking hot. Hotter than anyone I’ve encountered, not that I ever did anything about it. I’m pretty sure he has a fan base full of pretty girls who are all willing to feel his balls and anything else and I’m not a groupie. It’s not my thing. I’d just rather admire from afar, and it’s no different than seeing a hot guy in a movie. Nice to think about but knowing you’ll never actually get him. Out of reach, that is what Christian Sucato has been to me and after this display is done, at least I’ll have this encounter to remember.
He probably has more girls come on to him than he can keep up with and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even remember meeting me a few months back when I was with Mary. That unexpected meeting left me tongue tied and I got the hell out of there before I made a fool of myself by drooling or throwing my number at him. This time, I did my best to prepare when I saw him. Equally hoping he wouldn’t come over and hoping he would.
The point of this fair is to entice people to take their health seriously, even if it means luring them in to a booth with sexual innuendos. After all, sex sells and if that is what it takes to save a life, I’m not above it.
“Exactly how is playing with fake balls going to save my life?”
“Did you know that about 50% of all males who develop testicular cancer are between twenty to thirty-four years old?”
He pulls back in surprise. “No, actually.”
Even though I hate getting clinical, sometimes we need to and this topic is important to me. More than the others, except maybe drug addiction and depression. Hell, all of them are important and it’s why I took on the health fair this year. It needed to be more than general topics, generic information and pamphlets. It needed to be fun to draw the students in and hopefully, it might save some lives, which is why no topic was ignored and they are being presented in a manner that won’t bore the student body.
“How old are you?” I ask.
“Twenty-four. How old are you?”
“Old enough to know that I need to check my body for lumps.”
He tilts his head and frowns. “That’s not really an answer.”
“Twenty-two,” I finally answer, not that my age matters where his balls are concerned.
“Testicular cancer is rare though, right? I mean, not like breast and lung cancer.”
“Almost 6 men in every 100,000 will be diagnosed, but wouldn’t it suck to be one of those six and you die because you are too squeamish to feel around your balls?”
“I’m not squeamish,” he defends, though his cheeks start to turn a little pink.
“Look, nobody thinks twice about women doing breasts exams, touching their boobs and feeling for lumps, but ask a guy to do the same to his balls and they get all weird, so tell me, why?”
Christian shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess I’ve never thought about.” Then he narrows his eyes on me. “How would I even know what to look for?”
I grin and pick up the exam stimulator. I feel around until I locate the lump then place it in his hands. “Now, with the tips of your fingers, press and feel your way around and become familiar with what is normal and what isn’t.”
At first he balances it in his hand and then does as I ask. His eyes go wide. “This almost feels like the real thing.”
“I thought you said you don’t play with your balls.”
His face gets even brighter. “Well, there have been moments,” he grudgingly admits. “Like when I was a kid and had only myself.”
“To play with,” I tease.
Just because this is a serious topic doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with it. Besides, I’ve found most guys are more comfortable learning when humor is involved.
At least he is taking this seriously, unlike some of the guys who came by and got wigged out. So far today, it’s been about 60% who really wanted to learn something and 40% who were too immature to understand the seriousness of the disease and how easy it is to check for.
I don’t get it, not really. It’s nothing for a girl to feel around her boobs when she’s washing them in the shower so why can’t guys take a few extra minutes when washing their balls. At least, I hope they’re washing them.
I watch as Christian presses over the spot where I know the lump is and goes on. Then he stops and goes back. “Is this it?”
“Ding, ding, ding. We have a winner.”
He grins at me and sets the simulator down. “What’s my prize?”
“You get to start playing with your balls in the shower for a reason instead of just pleasure.”
He presses his palms on the table and leans in close. “I still think it would be more thorough, and pleasurable if you were doing the examining.”
So do I, but I need to remain professional. “You and the twenty guys who were here before you.” Then I pull back. “Sorry, I’m only here for demonstration, not actual hands-on.”
“So, that’s all I do?” He asks. “Press my fingers around my balls and see if there is a lump?”
“Yes and no. First, the best time to examine yourself if after a bath or shower because the skin is relaxed. Hold your penis out of the way, then hold your testicle between your thumbs and fingers and roll it gently between your fingers, feeling for lumps like you felt on the simulator, or any type of mass or something that might not feel like it belongs.”
 “Hey, Bethany, sorry I’m late.”
Carina, who was supposed to man this booth starting an hour ago steps behind the table. “Matt worked over and I didn’t have a sitter to fill in until he got home.”
Matt is her husband, a police officer with the NYPD and they have a nine-month-old son. “That’s okay. I had this.”
She glances up at Christian then recognition lights in her eyes. Carina was with me the night we saw his band play. Carina also knows that I kind of really crushed on him that night. I hope to hell she doesn’t say anything.
“So, if you don’t need me, I think I’ll do a check.”
“Go ahead.” She’s grinning, but at least she’s keeping her mouth shut.
“What do you need to check?” Christian asks as I come around the table.
“This, all of it.” I spread my arms about indicting the entire health fair. “It’s my baby this year and I need to make sure all is going well and that nobody needs anything.”
While it would be nice to spend more time with Christian, I do have a job to do and I’m sure he wants to go find his friends because I’m pretty sure he didn’t come with just Mary since she’s dating Dylan.
“Mind if I tag along?”
No words could surprise or thrill me more. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” He shrugs. “I’m in the mood to learn something.”

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

All Horns & Rattles: The Baxter Boys #5 (The Baxter Boys ~ Rattled)


Twelve years since Nina White’s family was ripped apart.
Twelve years since she’s seen her siblings. 
Twelve years she’s had to fight for everything, including her own life and her freedom.  

Tex has known Nina since she was a smart-mouthed, tough teen working with him at Miguel’s Gym. Tex knows nothing of Nina’s past, and he’s never had to fight for anything, until he decides he wants Nina, scars and all.

Nina has had it bad for Tex, not that she’d ever tell him. His sweet smile and a heart the size of Texas are way too good for her. If he ever learned about the ugliness of her past, he’d go back to his perfect family and his perfect home and his perfect life. What sane man wouldn’t? 

Tex insists that she try to find her family.
Tex insists that she lower the walls surrounding her heart.
Tex insists that she love him back.

One kiss sends her world spinning out of control. The past has a way of catching up with you, and the future she never dreamed of is within her grasp.  Will it be fleeting? Or can she make it hers? 

***New Adult novel intended for audiences over the age of 18 due to adult language and sexual content**

* * *



 “You’re eighteen today, Nina.” Mrs. Graft yells into my room. “State won’t pay for you anymore so you’ve gotta go.”
I knew this day would come, but are they really kicking me out this early? It’s like seven in the morning.
On New Year’s Day!
“Can I get a shower and food first?”
She steps into the bedroom I share with three other girls and scowls at me. “Make it quick. No point in dragging out the inevitable.”
“Thank you.” I push back the covers on my lower bunk and get out of the bed, careful not to bump my head, which I’ve done more times than I can count.
“Do you really have to go, Nina?” Ellie, the six-year-old who is on the top bunk asks, tears in her deep brown eyes.
“I’m eighteen. Those are the rules.”
A tear leaks out of the corner of her eye as she holds out her scrawny arms to me.
I lean in and hug her. She’s such a sweet little girl and has only been with us about six months.
“I’m going to miss you,” she whispers into my hair.
“I’ll miss you too, but remember what I told you.” I pull back and look into her eyes. “Take care of yourself, be strong, and don’t ever be afraid to tell your caseworker, policeman, firefighter or teacher if someone is being mean to you.” She’d been physically abused, but like so many children in her situation, had been too afraid to say anything. It wasn’t until a trip to the emergency room after a teacher noticed she was in pain and couldn’t reach a parent that Ellie finally spoke up. She was taken from her home and put into the system. She misses her mom and dad, and despite all the physical pain they inflicted on her, they are still her parents.
I remember all too well feeling lost and scared when I’d been taken from my family. Except I didn’t miss my parents. I missed my older brothers and younger sister. I especially remember asking why I couldn’t be with Dylan. He was the oldest and was the one who tried to take care of us.
“I promise,” she says.
I wish I could keep her and make a place for just her and me so she didn’t have to go through what I did, but no social worker is going to allow me to raise a kid. I can barely afford to take care of myself.
“Go back to sleep,” I whisper and tuck her into bed, along with the stained and battered rag doll she keeps close.
I grab my toiletry bag and hurry off to the bathroom as I try to swallow past the lump in my throat. It’s not that I love it here, but it’s a roof over my head and food in my stomach. Once I walk out that door, I’ll be on my own.
At least I have a part-time job. Make that two part-time jobs. Not that they pay enough, combined, to rent any kind of apartment, but at least I’ll get to keep my paychecks instead of handing them over to Mrs. Graft.
She takes money from all the foster kids in the house. Her rule is that as soon as we are old enough we have to get a job to help out financially. She claims the state doesn’t pay her enough to house, feed and clothe us. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I never asked my caseworker about it because my paycheck is a small price to pay to live in a house where I’m not bothered or scared, and the others are basically decent people. If I would have snitched on Mrs. Graft, I may have been pulled from here and put somewhere else. I wasn’t about to risk ending up someplace worse than this. I’ve been to worse and didn’t want to go back.
Plus, I have half of my tips from the past two years. As soon as Mrs. Graft asked for my paycheck, I told her that I had to turn in all my tips so taxes could be taken out. Which is partially true if a customer paid with a card. However, any cash left for me, I got to keep, after sharing it with the cook. I bus my own tables since it’s only a diner, so I don’t have to share with a lot of people like at larger restaurants. I’ve saved what I could, hiding it, because I knew this day would come.
Eighteen and out and I’ve saved $1,506.47. It’s not much, but it’s a start for the first day of being an adult.
Truthfully, I’ve been on my own since I was six. Just like Ellie, and it’s just the beginning for her.
Twelve years, and even though I’ve been in about half a dozen foster homes, I’ve been alone.
This one might be the hardest to leave. Not because the Grafts are exactly loving, because truthfully they are in in for the money, but I’ve been here for two years and I like the other kids. And, I’ll worry about Ellie. But, there is nothing I can do for her and I know as well as anyone that a kid’s hands are tied. We just need to roll with the rules, and the punches, and protect ourselves as best as we can.
At least I had the forethought to push through school and get all the necessary credits so I could graduate early. There was no way in hell I was going to try and finish out my senior year while living on the streets. Just eight months to survive and then I’ll be in a dorm. I hope. I’m still waiting to hear back if I’ve been accepted to any colleges.
December graduates go quietly. We take our last test and walk out the door for good. But, I will walk with the rest of my class in May. I busted my ass for good grades and I want the pomp and circumstance, and the cap, gown and diploma.
Shit! The cap and gown. I ordered and paid for it, but it won’t arrive at the school for a few months.  Once I get a place, I’m going to have to let my counselor know where I am. If I don’t have a place, I’ll ask Miguel about using the gym’s address for mail and stuff. I work there part-time and practically live there anyway when I’m not at my other job or when I wasn’t at school.
My suitcase is waiting by the front door when I finish my eggs and toast. It’s old and battered, but it’s mine. I found it beside a dumpster when I was eight and took it back to my foster home and cleaned it up. It’s much better than a garbage sack. That’s what most foster kids put their stuff in and I hated it. When it’s time to leave and go to a new home, the old parents just toss your clothes and toys, if you are lucky enough to have any, into a big plastic bag and send you out the door, just like the garbage. I’ve had this suitcase for ten years, and it’s my home. Not that I sleep in it, but anything that is important to me stays in that suitcase.
Mrs. Graft hands me an envelope. “It’s got your immunization record, school transcripts and anything else you need.”
My life in one large manila envelope.
Swinging my bag over my shoulder, I shove the envelope inside and lift my suitcase. “Thanks for everything.”
Five kids from ages six to seventeen are standing on the other side of the room watching me. Ellie is holding onto the hand of Darius. He’s seventeen and will be the next to go, but Darius will watch out for Ellie until then. He’s a good guy who has learned to keep his head low, quiet and just get through.
This is their future, they know it. Just like I knew it when I was the one watching another eighteen-year-old leave. Except, the others usually had a social worker come by. That’s not an option for me. It’s a holiday and the one I’ve been assigned is out of the office for a few months.
I step outside and take a deep breath as the door closes behind me. Ten a.m. on the first day of the year. Nothing but the future ahead of me.


It sure is a beautiful sunrise. I only wish I wasn’t watching it alone. My family is asleep in the big old farmhouse I grew up in, and my friends, who I was once really tight with, are likely hung over and have a long, painful day ahead of them.
We had a great time last night, but it wasn’t the same as in the past. We’ve grown apart, which I suppose is normal, but it has me questioning a lot of things. Like my future.
The wide open plains of Texas are spread out before me and go on forever. There’s a nip in the air and it’s just cold enough that I can see my breath in the early morning dawn. To Texans, this is cold, only a few degrees below freezing. To me, after living in New York for the past couple of years, this is just chilly.
The fields and the cattle before me are the scenery I grew up with and thought I’d come home to. Except, I’m not so sure Texas is really my home anymore. Going to college in New York was my way of seeing the world. Stupid young kid going off to the big city two and a half years ago. I was going to be a boxer. The best.
I’m not a boxer and no matter how much Miguel tries to teach me, I’ll never be great.
At least I went after my dream. That’s all anyone can do and I won’t be suffering from the what ifs when I’m old.
But, what now? I graduate in a year and a half and need to decide if I stay there or come back home. I’m working on a degree in Sports and Fitness Administration so I could be a fitness director, athletic trainer and run a gym.
I like sports and the physical and have always been athletic. I’m just not good enough to ever be professional. Out of all the sports I played in high school, and I played them all, boxing was the one thing I loved, and I didn’t learn that at school but at a community center that has long since shut down.
Maybe I can come back and reopen it. Give the kids a place to go since there isn’t much to do in this tiny town. It doesn’t even need traffic lights. Hell, if you stick to the back roads, you can drive from one end of the county to the other and only run into a handful of stop signs.
I don’t want to come back here to nothing and do nothing. What I want is to stay in New York and keep working at Miguel’s.
Miguel’s gym was the first place I headed after unpacking in my dorm room. Mom and Dad said I could pursue my dream of boxing, and encouraged it, as long as I got a degree in something. They didn’t really care what as long as I got a piece of paper with a bachelor’s degree on. They knew I had to get the boxing bug out of me before I could move on.
Well, the boxing bug isn’t gone, it’s just been refocused.
I’ve learned a lot from Miguel and the other guys at his gym, but if I do anything with boxing, it will be training, not fighting, and I’ve come to accept that.
I don’t know what I’d do without that old man. Miguel is like my father in New York. I have a great mom and dad here too, but Miguel kept my head on straight when I could have made some poor ass decisions. I was so unprepared for everything New York City had to offer. It’s not like I hadn’t been to big cities before, but I was basically raised in the country, on a ranch, not far from a town that can boast a population of like three thousand, on a good day. Worse, I think I may be related to half of the residents one way or another.
I just had to get out of here. I didn’t want to live in Texas for my entire life even if I do love the land. I needed more. Wanted more. My roots are here, in the desert, cattle, horses and oil. My heart is in New York.
Except, she will be leaving in the fall. Not that Nina has any clue she’s the reason I don’t want to come back to Texas.
I don’t even know when it all happened and when she became so important to me.
Heck, when I stepped into Miguel’s for the first time, she was just a kid, smart-mouthed, tough, and armored up like an armadillo, contrary and so fucking brave that she’d charge into hell with a bucket of ice water. All horns and rattles, that one. The slightest thing could get her riled up and she’d go off on the person, which is why I started calling her Horns. It used to be just me but more and more people started calling her that, and not really knowing why. The last time I ordered team jerseys I even had Horns put on the back of her jersey, instead of her last name, just to be ornery.
She’s not so much that way anymore. She’s still armored up, but she’s softened. Not that she’s all warm and fuzzy, never that. But I’ve seen some glimpses beneath her tough exterior, more and more over time, and as much as Horns will deny it, she’s got a really soft heart.
Eighteen today in fact. And she’s not like any of the girls I’ve ever known, which became painfully clear after hanging with my friends these past couple of days, and I had to face what my gut already recognized. Nina may be just eighteen, but she’s got a world of maturity and common sense above the girls who are my age and whom I’ve known since we were all dragging our diapers on the ground.
I’ve always admired Nina but she’s no longer just another girl at the gym. She’s my friend and I’ve fallen hard for her. I didn’t even see it coming until it was there.
And, she has no fucking clue about how I feel and I have no idea what to do about it.
I’d ask Miguel because I ask him everything, but I can’t talk to him about Nina. She’s like a granddaughter to him, put up on a pedestal to be seen and not touched. If the old man had any clue what I was thinking or wanting, he’d kick my sorry ass out of the gym and lock the door behind me.
But damn, she’s prettier than the sunrise, with her light brown hair and light grey eyes, pert nose and the most kissable lips God has ever created.
Lips I haven’t kissed. Lips I don’t dare kiss. Lips I can only dream about, like the rest of her. Slim, strong and toned with legs that any man would love to have wrapped around him. Not that I’ve really seen all of her legs because she only wears shorts that come down to her knees, but I sure as hell can imagine.
       And, they’ll never be wrapped around me. She’s my friend and I love her, but if I cross that line and let her know how I feel, I will lose her, and having a part of Nina is better than not having her at all.