Announcing my first new original story in two years!
Love’s Inferno is out on November 15, just in time to warm up the coming winter.
I thought about trying to explain it, or talk about what inspired it, but I finally decided to get out of my own way and allow you all a look at the work itself, with a first chapter excerpt.
This is safe for work. The rest of the book is decidedly not. It is X-rated and it does feature some violent fetish scenes. (Years ago, in Jenny Crusie’s Cherry Group, someone dubbed me the “Twisted Cherry,” so I supposed it’s time I lived up to my name.)
Without further ado:
Ike leaned back in the admittedly comfortable wooden chair, sipped his beer, and felt zero desire to speak to a single soul.
He tapped the crumpled letter in his pocket, resisting the urge to read it again. Family. They stuck to you like burrs, prickly forever.
Instead of following the anger down an endless loop again, he contemplated the gorgeous sunset over Lake Crystal, visible through the closed sliding doors of Bar & Grill. Around him, he heard the regulars chatting about work and kids and school. A group of twentysomethings played pool while drinking. They seemed to be doing the drinking more effectively than the pool. At least they were playing pool, not darts. Who originally had the bright idea of installing a game with pointy projectiles in bars anyway? That was like using “password” as your password. Bound to lead to trouble.
Especially with the world the way it was now.
He glanced up at the silent television, filled with scenes of the latest attack by the Anarchists, the self-dubbed, super-powered terrorists who believed all political structure was meaningless. Since those gifted with ESP and other psychic powers had come out several years ago, everyone had separated into camps which often clashed violently with each other.
Except here in this bar, and that was due to his friend, Lis, the bar’s owner and ringmaster.
He heard her familiar voice behind the bar as she ordered one of her bartenders to turn off the television. Even unpowered, Ike could sense the silent tension dissipate. Bar & Grill was an oasis and Lis enforced a no tolerance policy for fights, verbal or otherwise.
Lis always seemed to know what to say, when to listen, or when someone needed to be cut off or sent home.
The place, all warm wood floors and ceilings, reflected her personality, especially the gorgeous antique pecan wood bar she held court behind every night. Her long hair was tied back, she wore a tight-fitting blue vest over a light t-shirt and while he knew she’d never be his type, she moved with a grace that made her fascinating to watch.
Her bar was a safe space and everyone knew it. So here he was, brooding, but at least in company. A step above sitting home alone in the dark. He supposed he could have gone searching for sex – and found some – but that didn’t suit his mood. He wanted to absorb the Zen of this oasis.
Matt Hawkins, Lis’s husband, pulled out the chair next to Ike and sat down. Terrific. While Lis’s presence was calming, Hawk disturbed Ike, in ways he shouldn’t be thinking about his very married, very straight best friend.
Hawk was a man of a thousand faces, and it was never easy to tell which one was real, save the man who worshiped his wife, baby son, and grown foster daughter, Akemi, a telepath. Enigmatic and intense, with a psychic gift for self-healing which made him near-invincible in battle, Hawk had been catnip for Ike at first sight. Damn, but Ike would love to break through Hawk’s surface and have all that intensity directed at him.
But Hawk was now happily married. Lis and Hawk were his friends. Good friends were rare. Ike kept his lust under wraps.
Hawk said nothing, just sat there, keeping him company while the sun set. The man possessed patience in multitudes and could probably watch and wait for hours for Ike to say something. When they worked together rebuilding a classic car, sometimes all Hawk said was, “yep,” “nope” and the occasional grunt.
Ike liked it. It meant Hawk felt no need to put on a false face with him. No pretense, no powers, only simple companionship. Yet here the man was, without the excuse of an engine rebuild, sitting next to him.
Is he worried about me? Huh. Ike would have believed that of Lis, who’d known him longer. But not Hawk, not until today.
A hand slammed down hard on the bar. He and Hawk turned their heads at the same time. An overly large, bald man stood, kicking back his stool. Lis reached out her hand to him.
Ike rose. This man could be powered. Lis needed back-up. Hawk put up an arm to stop him. “She’ll handle it. Watch.”
Lis spoke so softly Ike doubted anyone but the man could hear. In a minute, his shoulders slumped and his belligerence vanished. He fished into his pocket and handed over his car keys. Lis waved and summoned Jake, the retired Marine who was a fixture at the place. Jake took the keys and escorted the drunk out, peacefully.
Ike sat down. “Whew.”
“Lis has been handling people like him for years,” Hawk said,“ a note of pride in his voice. “Relax. I’ll get you another beer.”
Hawk brought him another. Ike nursed it for an hour, with Hawk’s silent companionship. Finally, Hawk spoke again.
“Game of darts?” he asked.
Since his legs were getting cramped and he’d lost his taste for beer, Ike agreed. “But doesn’t Lis need your help?”
“It’s clearing out. And she’ll ask for help if she needs it.”
True enough. Hawk would keep an eye on his wife for any sign she needed help, and do whatever needed to be done—or not done, as happened earlier. Hawk noticed everything about his wife. Most people saw Hawk as all muscle, no heart, refusing to listen to anyone. But he listened to his wife and, so far as Ike knew, did whatever he could to please her.
From her end, Lis watched over her husband as if he was a precious, fragile thing that might break at any moment. Before her, Hawk had been the lone wolf, the last person Ike would have pegged from their specialized, Anarchist-battling ops team to settle down. Yet Lis and Hawk worked. Something about their past connected them, though neither had ever elaborated on what.
“Cricket, then?” Hawk erased the old score from the blackboard next to the dartboard.
“Sure.” It’d take time to go around the dartboard and close out all the numbers. Time he wouldn’t have to spend brooding.
Plus, it would be a fair contest, as Hawk’s powers would not come into play. “Closest to the center goes first.”
Hawk stepped behind the line and settled for his shot. Ike took a minute to appreciate how Hawk’s rolled-up sleeves showed off his muscled forearms. Anyone with a pulse would notice, Ike decided, along with the way Hawk’s fingers held the dart with just the right amount of pressure, in hands that should be weathered and gashed from working on his antique car yesterday.
But Hawk’s hands would never show wear and tear for long. His psychic power would kick in and heal the hands in hours.
Just like his healing power had de-aged him from early 40s to late 20s. Ike kinda missed the salt and pepper hair, truth be told, but he never mentioned it.
Hawk’s shot hit left of the inner bullseye, in the small pie. Not bad. Ike set himself up, rolled the dart in his hand to check the weight, drew back his arm, aimed, and let go.
“Inner bullseye,” Hawk announced and made a note on the board, setting up the scoring. “Your turn.”
After Ike won the first game, Hawk asked for two out of three. His host won the second, so they had to play a third. Ike wondered if Hawk’d deliberately thrown the first game so they could keep playing. He suspected that would be easier for Hawk than to admit he enjoyed playing darts with a friend.
When he won the last game, Ike glanced around. The bar had emptied except for him, Hawk, Lis, who was cleaning up, and baby Sam, Lis and Hawk’s son, gurgling in a bouncy seat.
“One more game?” Lis suggested. “A chance for the house to redeem itself?”
Ike shook his head. “It’s late. Thanks for the games, Hawk. They did the trick.”
“Did they?” Lis put her hands on her hips. “Anything I can do to help?”
“You’ve already done it.”
“Is there a problem with Ghost6? Can I fix it for you?” Hawk offered.
Ike’s eyes widened. Was Hawk asking to be aimed at a target? Oh, hell. That was putting a lot of power into Ike’s hands. Besides the healing ability, Hawk’s specialties included wet work to eliminate small threats before they grew into larger problems. Ike suspected Hawk was behind the disappearance of the Anarchists’ original leader, a man bent on remaking the world by destroying what currently existed.
Now Hawk was placing his power in Ike’s hands. Fucking enticing. But no: every single member of Ghost6, their ops team, was his friend. His true brothers, and that brotherhood went back to Ike’s days as a Navy SEAL, back in the days when the threats had only been human.
Too bad he couldn’t aim Hawk at his blood family. But no one could change their hearts.
“Not with Ghost6. It’s all good,” he said.
“Ah.” Lis said. “If you won’t say right out, how about raising the stakes on darts?”
“New stakes? What did you have in mind? Money?”
“Nothing so boring.” She grinned. “We each take a turn. Whoever gets closest to the center wins the right to ask any question of the others.”
“So, basically, you want me to talk about what’s bothering me,” Ike said.
“Hell, yes,” she answered. “But you also get a chance to ask us anything. Fair’s fair.”
“Anything?” he asked, with a quick fantasy of asking the question he craved the answer to about their fetish scenes. Lis had asked him for advice when she first married Hawk because she knew he had experience as a dom.
Uh, yeah. Totally out of bounds.
Her husband frowned. “Can we refuse to answer?”
“That kinda defeats the purpose of winning, Hawk,” she said.
“How about we can pass on one question but we have to answer the next?” Ike offered.
“That works.” Lis rubbed her hands together. “Let’s get this started.”
He glanced at Hawk. “Have I just been hustled by your wife?”
Hawk shrugged. “Probably.”
But it was Hawk who won the first round with a casual throw that hit the inner bullseye and made Ike wonder all over again if Hawk had thrown the earlier games.
Hawk surprised him again by directing his question at his wife.
“Tell me, Amaryllis: Why bars? Why this one?”
“That’s two questions.” But she laughed. “Okay they’re wrapped together, so I’ll answer them.”
She leaned back against her bar, elbows on the pecan wood. Amaryllis. Her full name, but so far as Ike could tell, her husband was the only one who ever used it.
“This place was a dump when I found it.” She waved her hand at the ceiling. “Cracked planks up there. The floor wasn’t much better. The tables and chairs were a mess and didn’t fit together. About the only thing in good shape was the deck. I think the owner liked his boat more than the bar. But,” she straightened, hands stretched out to form a picture frame, “I could see it had good bones. And it had presence, you know. It was solid. It’s been here for years and you couldn’t kill it. It practically dripped with character. It just needed some love, more than the owner could afford. I knew I could fix it, make it mine, give people who needed it a real place to hang, a place where they could just be without anyone bothering them.”
She smiled. “That’s why I like bars. The good ones, they’re solid. Not those ’it’ places that come and go, but the ones that put down roots. You can’t move them out and you don’t want to. They’re home to people who don’t have a home and that’s needed, especially now.”
“’You want to go to where everyone knows your name,’” Ike supplied. As she’d spoken, he’d felt a sliver of her psychic charisma.
“Cheers.” She nodded. “They had it right. It’s where people come to be where they belong.”
“It’s practically second home to Ghost6 now,” Ike said. “Not to mention the younger ones who don’t know who or what they are yet. They can relax here. No hassles.”
“They come because of Amaryllis,” Hawk said.
And he stared at her with a longing so thick that Ike felt parched just watching the pair. He cleared his throat. “Next round?”
Hawk, as the winner, went first with a shot that almost hit the wall. Lis hit the outer bullseye. Ike’s dart landed just inside hers.
“Damn. Nice shot.” Lis collected the darts. “What’s your question, Ike?”
“It’s for Hawk,” Ike said. The possibilities went through his brain in a flash. How did you manage to change your life after so many years alone? And more…How much pain can you take in the fetish scenes? How often do you need to submit? Do you like being on your knees when receiving pain?
Damn, the power there would be in Hawk’s trust and surrender.
Ike shook his head, chasing away his imagination. Lis, new to being a domme, had come to him for help and he would not abuse her trust.
“I like working on rebuilding the cars with you, Hawk, but for me, it’s a good change from tech. Gets me back to basic engineering. Why do you do it?”
Hawk tilted his head, as if surprised by the question. Lis sipped a glass of water and watched her husband. With her foot, she bounced her son’s seat. His eyelids drooped.
For a long moment, Ike thought Hawk wouldn’t answer, but he finally spoke.
“I like taking something old that people have thrown away and putting it back together, better than ever.”
Lis laced her fingers together with her husband’s. “I love that answer, babe.”
Ike turned away and swallowed. That was love. And probably too intimate for him to witness.
“I should go,” Ike said.
“Nope, I get one more chance to beat you,” Lis said.
“I go last, then,” Ike said.
“Agreed,” she said.
As the pair took their turns, Ike pondered their answers. Lis’s answer was exactly why he’d sought sanctuary at her bar tonight. But Hawk…..Did he think of himself as old and useless? Useless, never, but Ike suspected he was more tired and worn down than old. He was continually putting himself back together from being physically wrecked. Hell, the first time Ike had met the man, he’d been bleeding internally from a bullet wound.
And yet that man was different from the one who rebuilt engines with him. And vastly different from the face he showed to others and on the rare occasions when he had to fight publicly. Again, Ike wondered what Hawk was like in private. Maybe he was getting a glimpse tonight.
Helluva gift. One his blood family sure as hell couldn’t provide.
Lis hit dead center. She had him this time. He drew back his arm, told himself to think positive, but it was his worst shot of the night, landing all the way in the fat.
“Did you throw that on purpose?” Lis asked.
“Freudian flip of the wrist?” he allowed.
“Hm…well, then, my question is simple. What’s wrong?”
He shook his head. “Nothing big. Family.”
“Oh, sure. Nothing big. Just family.”
Ike shrugged. “There’s a rift. Sucks. I can live with it. What else can I do?”
Lis and Hawk exchanged a look, a private communication. “What did I just say?” Ike asked.
“Maybe I’ll tell you sometime, if you ever tell me more about what’s wrong,” Lis said. “Is it about your work with Ghost6?”
“Nah, not that. That’s defending our country. My family is all for that.” Ike grimaced.
“Ah,” Lis said, understanding laced through the one syllable.
Sam stirred. Hawk scooped him up, gathered him close and began walking the floors with his son.
Lis watched them with a smile. “Just remember this, Ike. There’s more than one kind of family. Takes time to find it, but you will.”
When he did, Ike hoped to hell it was as good as theirs.”