#RainbowSnippets – 1-20-18

Hi there, and welcome to the blog 🙂 I’ve been hard at work, between *trying* to finish Three Dog Night before February 1st, editing Little Infinities so I can get ARCs out, and trying to brainstorm Dog Days, but I can’t forget about #RainbowSnippets!

In case you didn’t know, #RainbowSnippets is a Facebook group for LGBTQ+ authors, readers, and bloggers to gather once a week to share six sentences from a work of fiction–a WIP or a finished work or even a 6-sentence book recommendation.

We’re in Apollo’s POV today for a sexy snippet. I’ll tell you, I’m halfway through edits and my gosh, there is a reason these boys are my favorite thing *ever*!

I sucked at his lower lip and his piercing rasped against my tongue and teeth. I tugged and rolled it between my lips. Sebastian’s body shuddered under my touch and he opened his mouth to welcome me inside.

I dove in headfirst, fearless and brash.

I’d only fantasized about this very moment for four years, nine months, and twenty-three days—but who was counting?

Our skin was static cling. Little bolts of desire rippled through me with each crushing, bruising kiss. Our tongues danced and slid together in tandem, a fight for dominance without an end in sight, and I only broke away to suck in a shaken breath.

#RainbowSnippets – 1-13-18

Hard to believe we’re almost halfway through January 0.0 Where is the time going? Okay, well most of this month was spent sick with the cold/flu which sucked. I dragged butt at the day job and it makes me even more determined to “make it” writing full-time (even if I have to work part-time at the day job–though eventually, my goal is complete self-employment, booyah!) Lord knows I have plenty of ideas. Ideas for DAYS.

I started a “for fun” project that came to me last week, a slightly dark-ish MM paranormal romance between a vampire and his werewolf slave-turned-fated mate. Still in the “honeymoon” phase for this one, but it’s a good break from the dredges of my almost-done Three Dog Night, which I have 16 scenes left on. THE END IS NIGH.

However, today it’s time for my contribution to #RainbowSnippets. In case you didn’t know, #RainbowSnippets is a Facebook group for LGBTQ+ authors, readers, and bloggers to gather once a week to share six sentences from a work of fiction–a WIP or a finished work or even a 6-sentence book recommendation.

We’re jumping back into Little Infinities, which I will be jumping into edits here soon for a still-hopeful February release 🙂

SEBASTIAN

He made a face. “…You should never trust lettuce. You never know when that shit will turn around and chomp off an arm.” He flicked his fingers over a dark green arugula leaf and wrinkled his nose.

“Not a vegetable fan. Got it.” I stabbed my fork into the salad, crunching it loudly on purpose, and I cracked up when he kicked me beneath the table. I flashed him an evil grin, then stuffed my mouth full of salad and made a show of it, groaning softly with pleasure. “You don’t know what you’re missing, Apollo.”

He rolled his eyes. “You enjoy it for both of us, then.”

He did, however, indulge in the fruity raspberry wine that Penny brought to the table.

“I guess fruit’s not on your shit list then, I take it?” I teased him.

Merry Christmas – FREE STORY

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone, and here’s to many more ❤

Until December 26th, you can download my debut MM Christmas novella “Second Chances” on Amazon for FREE! Second Chances is a 28,000 word novella with no cheating, no cliffhanger, and a guaranteed HEA.

This is my gift to you this season. I hope you enjoy Ky and Nikolas as much as I do.

second chances ebook

Universal Amazon Link: myBook.to/KGSecondChances

~Kiska

#RainbowSnippets – 12-23-17

Happy holidays, everyone and welcome back for another round of #RainbowSnippets!

In case you didn’t know, #RainbowSnippets is a Facebook group for LGBTQ+ authors, readers, and bloggers to gather once a week to share six sentences from a work of fiction–a WIP or a finished work or even a 6-sentence book recommendation.

This week will be an excerpt from Three Dog Night–the book that’s given me utter HELL. I started it last January, and I’m determined to finish it THIS January. Not sure why it’s fought me so much, but it definitely has, lol! Enjoy and have a wonderful holiday season, whatever you celebrate ❤

“Look. Either you move in, or I’m gonna have to take it upon myself to drive out to fucking Bluewater and pick you up every morning at the ass-crack of dawn. Don’t make me do that. It’ll be easier this way. Okay? It’s cool. We’re cool. It’s done. End of discussion.” He felt the sudden urge to stomp a foot to prove his point.

Hemi let out a shaky breath, then seemed to buck up. “Okay. Thank you. I’ll pay you back the minute I can afford—”

Kit raised a hand, jabbing a finger in the younger man’s general direction. “Can you cook?”

“Uh… Yes?” He looked puzzled.

“Good, then you’re hired cuz I can’t. I’ve been living off microwave dinners and Kraft mac and cheese for years. I would just about kill for something that’s not loaded with sodium. I’ll buy the groceries if you cook something better than tomato soup and peanut butter sandwiches. Deal?”

#RainbowSnippets 12-2-17

Happy holidays, everyone! 🙂

Welcome back for another round of #RainbowSnippets!

In case you didn’t know, #RainbowSnippets is a Facebook group for LGBTQ+ authors, readers, and bloggers to gather once a week to share six sentences from a work of fiction–a WIP or a finished work or even a 6-sentence book recommendation.

Today’s snippet comes from the novel I just finished, Little Infinities. Apollo and Sebastian knocked on my head until I wrote their story, and they just flew out of me. 73k in 39 days. It hasn’t been edited yet–my brain needs a break from them!–but I can’t wait for you guys to meet these two. They’re definitely my favorite guys I’ve written so far 🙂

This is in Apollo’s POV, from Chapter 2:

Ten grand and the shiny, gold-embellished business card of a rather famous modeling agency—that’s what my devastatingly handsome savior had given me the following morning.

I’d been shell-shocked when pulled out his checkbook and wrote me out a check, signed with a flourish of purple ink, for an amount of money I’d never in my life imagined to see.

Me. A worthless teenage whore fresh out of the foster system, dead broke and turning dirty tricks on the streets of upstate New York just to try and survive. I’d gaped at him, utterly confused and uncertain if I should turn him down or take the check and run like hell.

Who in the world would offer someone like me money like that? I didn’t understand.

Free Fic Friday – Worth Waiting For

Inspiration photograph courtesy timeisjustanumber on tumblr

Worth Waiting For

 

Caden wasn’t out. I was.

Yet, I loved him more than life itself. My heartbeat fluttered at every little touch, with every last kiss; my soul seemed to sprout wings and fly whenever he was around, whenever he’d smile in that shy schoolboy way of his.

I wouldn’t lie—knowing that I was his secret, his hideaway lover, kept shrouded from the sunlight in his life? It hurt, but I understood why he did what he did. His home life was a hot mess. His father was a fly-by-night playboy who’d never paid a dime of child support and his mother was an angry drunk. I’d never seen Mona sober, honest to god, and I’d known Caden since we were twelve.

I’d loved him just as long.

For four years, I longed to tell him the truth. I ached to tell him how I felt about him. How I got lost in his whiskey-lullaby eyes. How the low bass rasp of his voice on the phone line, late at night, did all sorts of magical things to me. How I wished I could cradle his face in my hands, smooth back his floppily-unkempt brown hair and lay a gentle kiss atop his nose.

I wished I could promise him the world.

When I did finally confess my love for him, Caden didn’t say anything for several long moments. Our eyes locked together and in their dark amber depths, I saw my soul reflected back at me.

“I love you.” The word had slipped from my mouth, lonely spirits seeking refuge.

“I know.” He’d smiled, then, with a sorrowful tilt to his full lips. “But we… We can’t,” he’d said, ever so softly. He dropped his gaze to our hands, to where I’d flattened my palms against his to hook our fingers together. “I can’t. Not where people can see. I’m sorry, Ryder.”

I shook my head and stepped forwards, drawing our linked hands to my chest. “Then let’s be us where the people aren’t.” I bit my lip, worrying it between my teeth. “I can wait for you, Caden. I can wait until you’re ready.”

His fingers squeezed over mine. “It’s not fair to you.”

“I don’t care. I don’t. So long as we’re together, I’m happy,” I’d promised him.

It was mostly true. My longing was different these days. I wished with all my heart that Caden would be brave enough to step out of the shell that he’d built around himself. I knew it was a safe haven. A fortress where no one could hurt him, because how could they hurt him if they didn’t know the truth.

He told me I was lucky, because my family was the type that welcomed me and my newfound pride with open arms and tears of happiness. He told me that Mona wouldn’t understand, that his older brother would shit a brick. He told me that it wasn’t safe for him, but it didn’t stop me from wishing.

How long until I ran out of wishes?

I gazed up at the snowflakes that drifted down around me, lazy and slow. They settled over my coat and hat with the barest of noises in the silence of the night. My hands in my pockets, I strolled down the lane, void of traffic and people alike. The street lamps that lined the road glowed down over the sidewalk, catching the snowflakes in their yellow pallor.

I stood outside the elementary school playground. When I was seven, the swing sets and the slide seemed so much bigger, so much more vast… Now, I saw it for what it was: A small square of land with an ancient aluminum slide and a rickety swing set, its chains squeaking gently with each soft bluster of wintry air. The chain-link fence that surrounded the lot was old and rusty and peeled away at one corner where the neighborhood kids snuck in after hours. After so many repairs, the school finally gave up trying to mend the hole.

I smiled at that. How many evenings had we spent together out here, stolen away on a pair of swings, holding hands beneath the cover of darkness and talking without so many words?

I breathed in the crisp smell of winter—clean and fresh and untouched—and closed my eyes. I tilted my face back until I felt tiny snowflakes gathering in my lashes to melt against the warmth of my skin. My cellphone stayed eerily silent in the back pocket of my jeans. Where are you? 

Meet me at the school. I need you. That was the last text he’d sent. Two hours ago. I would wait for him. I promised him that I would. It didn’t matter that we had class in the morning, though we were only a couple weeks away from graduation now. Soon we’d don our caps and gowns and take the short walk into adulthood. After that?

They said that the world was our oyster, but could I spend the rest of my life, hung up on a boy who may never give me all of himself? Were we doomed from the beginning, undeserving of a happily ever after?

Ryder.”

I twisted around at the sound of my name, almost moaned from the busted lips of my best friend, my secret boyfriend, the guy who meant everything to me. In the dim glow of the street lights, I saw the dark smear of blood over his nose and mouth to drip down the front of his hoodie. He stood there with his arms wrapped so tight around himself, as if he was desperately trying to hold the broken pieces together.

Panic ripped through me, followed quickly by an overwhelming sense of concern.

“Oh my god, Caden! What happened?” I was at his side in an instant. He threw his long arms around me and buried his face in my jacket, and I held on tightly. He began to sob in broken, jagged breaths. It broke my damn heart. “Cade. Talk to me. What happened? Did she hit you?” The idea of Mona, drunk off her ass and taking her self-destruction out on Caden made me ache.

He wiped snot and blood away with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. His eyes were wild, glancing back and forth, up and down—everywhere but at me. “Y-Yeah, I… I told her, Ry. I told her the truth and I shouldn’t have, ‘cause she was drunk, but I thought maybe, maybe she’d just hiccup and tell me to go out and buy her smokes, but she freaked. She really… Fuck. She’s so pissed.” He raked his hands through his hair, yanking at the nut brown locks.

“I’m sorry, baby,” I murmured with emotion thick in my throat. He’d come out. Isn’t that what I wanted? But he looked so broken, so scared. “Come here, Caden.” I pulled him closer and wiped the blood away from his face with the stray Kleenex I found stuffed into my left coat pocket.

He sniffed and closed his eyes. “What happens next?” he whispered. “I can’t go back home.”

“No. You’re not going back there. You’re coming home with me,” I told him firmly. “My parents adore you. They know, and it’ll be okay. I promise, we’ll get through this. Graduation isn’t too far away and then we’ll be free to get real jobs—not some dinky ass part-time burger flipping jobs, either. I’ve been saving money anyway, for an apartment. For us.”

His eyes went wide. “For us?”

I nodded with a small smile. “If you wanted.”

But instead of looking relieved, his expression crumpled like a torn page tossed into a waste paper basket. He swiped a hand over his face when tears began to fall once more. “Ryder… What the hell do you see in me? I don’t deserve you.”

“You’re wrong,” I said gently. I caught his hands in mine and drew us together, like I had the day I poured my heart and soul out to him. I kissed his knuckles and pulled them to my chest. “You deserve the world and if I could give it to you, I would in a heartbeat. I wish I could take away your pain and give you bravery instead. You are sweet and gentle and the kindest damn person I’ve ever known, okay, and I love you.”

He pulled his hands free, only to rest them on either side of my neck. His cold fingers trailed over my skin and I shivered, but it was soon forgotten as he kissed me. His lips brushed over mine with a tender sort of ferocity that made me reach for him, to drag him closer. “I love you, too,” he murmured against my mouth, voice hitching. “So, so much. I’m a fool and a coward and—”

“Shh.” I bit his lip, tugging it between my teeth. “You are not.”

“I don’t deserve you.”

“You do.”

He melted into my touch, wrapping his arms around me in a tight hug. I buried my face in the crook of his neck, breathed in his summer-sky smell, and listened to the rapid thud-thud of his heart. I clung to him and we stood there, under the snowflakes and the lamp light, for what seemed like forever until, finally, he let me go.

Caden dragged in a deep breath and let it seep back out between his teeth. “You think so?”

It took me a moment to realize what he was asking. I nodded. “I know so. Come home with me tonight, and tomorrow night, and every night after that. If anyone is undeserving, it’s your mom. She can’t see how great of a person you are through the vodka-induced coma she’s living in.” I snorted.

He cracked a small grin. “You’re right.” He reached his hand out to me, palm up and fingers waiting. “You think your parents will freak if they find me in your bed come morning?”

My own smile felt positively wicked as I leaned up and planted a swift kiss on his lips. “Probably, but who cares, right?” I took his hand in mine and squeezed. His laugh made heat bloom to the surface of my chilled skin, reverberating up my arm to swell inside of me. It felt like hope. It felt like love. “I think so long as we’re both wearing pants, we’ll be fine.”

“Aw. Where’s the fun in that?” He giggled soft.

“That’s why we’re gonna get an apartment together, remember?” I tugged on his arm. “It can be a pants-free zone. We just have to wait a little bit longer. I can wait for you, Caden. I told you that a long time ago.” I felt that truth deeper than the marrow in my bones. The smile that stretched across his face lit up my world.

“You think?”

“I know. Some things are just worth waiting for.”

Second Chances: Cover Reveal

Seeing as all I have left to do is finalize a few things and upload to Amazon, I’ve decided to drop the cover and blurb of my debut novella, Second Chances!

This is the first book in the Sheltered Hearts series–a series of stand-alones that are set in small-town Sundog Park, Indiana, revolving around cute guys and their colorful cast of rescued pets 🙂 It’s a MM contemporary second-chance romance with a HEA and no cheating. All the books in the Sheltered Hearts series stand alone, but characters overlap in later books!

Second Chances is 28,000 words and will be in Kindle Unlimited, so subscribers to KU read free! It will also be in print at a later date.

Cover is by the amazing Amy Queau at Q Designs!

second chances ebook

BLURB:

Fear took him away, but longing brought him back…

Six years ago, Nikolas Steele’s heart was broken when his best friend—the man who he thought was his forever—walked out on him without an explanation. Now, Ky Kendall is back in town, just in time for the holidays. When he shows up at Nikolas’s Santa Shop with a little girl who looks like him, Nik has questions.

In a time of need, Ky steps up to play the part of Santa’s Helper to keep the spirit of Christmas alive, but neither of them expect those old sparks to fly. Despite their renewed passion, Ky’s still running scared and Nikolas knows that at any moment, their fragile relationship could be shattered once more.

And this time, he isn’t sure if he’s strong enough to survive it.

November Update

Depression is a bitch. It grabs you by the throat and it pins you to the ground and it messes you up, and you’re left feeling shaken and exhausted to the bone, with no creative mental energy, what-so-ever.

The good news is, I think I finally found a med-cocktail that works! I’m writing more than ever and I’m getting super excited about the upcoming year!

2018 is The Year Of Getting Things Done — and published! I’m starting from scratch, a new name and a new me, but I hope that in time, people will love my books (and my boys) as much as I do.

In July, I wrote a short story about a pride parade’s kissing booth meet cute, where the two guys who used to crush on each other back in high school finally meet again. It’s called The Kissing Booth and it will be a free read that I’ll pop up on Instafreebie here soon.

In October, I wrote something that I’d planned to be a standalone, but it turned into a series. This story poured out of me–73k in 39 days–and I laughed and cried along with these two men. They’re my favorite thing I’ve ever written, in all the years of writing that I’ve done. It’s title is Little Infinities and it’s the second chance story of a rockstar and the model whose life he saved, several years prior. (Plus I’m now 22k deep into Book #2 of this series, going strong!)

Lastly, Second Chances (Sheltered Hearts #1) is getting one last edit sweep. I’ve got a cover. I’ve got a blurb. I’ve got a plan. Since it’s a Christmas story, I want to get it out into the world for the holidays, for anyone who needs a smile and some holiday cheer. Check back soon for details.

~Kiska

July Update

When I fall off the wagon, I fall off hard LOL

No but seriously. I finished Second Chances (Sheltered Hearts #1) at the end of May and June was a bust (I dabbled, but didn’t get anywhere on any of my current projects).  I managed about 20k on a YA project for my original pen name and then boom–radio silence, static in the brain. Nothing, nada. Third shift sucks, yo.

So I turned to brainstorming. I re-read Second Chances and fell back in love with the characters, and that made me come back to ruminating on the issues I had with Kit and Hemi–and I /think/ I managed to figure up the hangup that made me come to a screeching halt on Three Dog Night.

I also think I might’ve figured out how to FIX the issues (yaaaay!) as well as came up with motivation and plots for books 3 & 4. FINALLY A BREAKTHROUGH!

Here, have a cookie ~

“It’s ok. Hey. Actually… I know you’ve just moved back. Any chance you need a job?” He flashed an innocent smile.

Ky looked taken aback for a moment. “Is that a trick question?”

“No. I mean, hell. You saw my assistant. She’s sick and without a photographer, I’m sunk. You know how many little kids are gonna be heartbroken when they find out Santa isn’t gonna be there this year? All those little kids…just like Hope?” He was practically begging, but he didn’t care. “Please? You were always so good with a camera. I’m desperate here.”

Ky groaned, but he was grinning. “Is the elf suit optional?”

“Ehh…” Nikolas tilted his hand back and forth a little.

“Damn it, Nik. You know I look awful in green.” But that wasn’t a no, and they both knew it. “When do you need me?”

“Uh. Tomorrow morning, nine AM. I know that’s short notice, but—”

“Yeah. I’ll be there,” he said softly. “I owe you.”

Nikolas shook his head. “You don’t, but thank you. You are a literal lifesaver.”

“I think you’re misunderstanding the word ‘literal’,” Ky said dryly.

“I don’t think I care,” Nikolas replied with a smirk. “Nine AM. Thank you.”

Second Chances ~ Chapter 1 {Teaser!}

For the readers and fellow writers wandering onto my site, wondering if I’m someone you want to read…figure there’s no harm in dropping the first chapter of #SecondChances here, at least until I publish it officially 🙂 Enjoy!

~Kiska

ONE

Deep inside the satin-lined pocket of the well-loved Santa Claus suit he wore, his phone vibrated violently against his outer thigh for the eleventh time in the past four hours. He didn’t need to fish it out to know it was his mother—for the eleventh time in the past four hours. He’d already answered two of the calls on his last break, not to mention replied to a handful of text messages /and/ rang the on-call nurse, even though he felt like it was pointless. It wasn’t like there was much he could do but relay information, but if it gave her peace of mind, so be it.

Damn he hated this.

Up front in the lobby, a little girl with pigtails had thrown herself dramatically on the hardwood floor, twisting and kicking and screaming bloody murder because she didn’t want to wait in line. She wanted to see Santa Claus and she wanted to see him /now/ and no amount of cooing and coddling from her incompetent mother was helping the matter.

On top of that, his assistant was trying to manage the clients while coughing up a lung every five minutes. The poor thing looked like he felt—dead on her feet and totally /over/ today. God, he was over the holidays in general and they were only halfway through December and that wasn’t like him at all.

His family /lived/ for the holidays. Christmas was such an integral part of their blood. There was so many traditions passed down from generation to generation, so much so that Grandpa Nick had founded this little slice of holiday cheer when he’d retired in [1947].

Old Saint Nick’s was his dream project, born of his heart and soul. His grandfather had wanted some way to give back to their tight-knit community. He’d bought the little shop on the courthouse square with it’s plate-glass front and had turned it into a place where kids and adults alike could come enjoy a slice of Christmas and meet Santa Claus. Years later, it was a yearly thing now in Sundog Park. It might’ve been a tourist attraction to some, but for the people who’d known and loved Grandpa Nick, his memory lived on.

He loved the shop. He loved the people and the joy on little kids’ faces when they saw Santa in the flesh. It was just…complicated this year. Nikolas Steele III hadn’t planned on taking on the family business for a long time. Especially not at twenty-eight and without a single gray hair in his beard, but things happened. Cancer happened, and now? Stressed out was an understatement. Nikolas would’ve given just about anything for a smoke break.

With another round of coughing, Mara Crosswind doubled over, hacking up gunk into a tissue in the most unladylike of ways. Nikolas glanced up at the ancient hand-carved wooden cuckoo clock on the wall and his lips twisted down into a frown. They were still technically open for four more hours, but he didn’t think either of them would make it that long.

“Hey, do me a favor, would you? Flip the sign,” he said as she dabbed at her watering eyes. Her gaze flicked up to him, obviously questioning his decision, but Nikolas shook his head. “Do it. You need to see a doctor before you end up with walking pneumonia. Your health is worth more than this. Flip the sign and lock the doors. We’ll finish up the clients left in the shop and call it a day. Okay?”

Relief flooded her reddened cheeks. “Thank you, Nikolas.”

“It’s Saint Nick to you, Elfie,” he said around a chuckle, gesturing to her own green and red get-up, complete with a pair of realistically molded elf ears. Thank god for Amazon Prime. Mara started to laugh, but it fast turned to another set of body-wracking coughs, thick and rattling. He was gonna put his bet on bronchitis and that meant he needed to find a stand-in photographer pronto.

Just another layer to heap on to the pile of stress.

He straightened his red velvet robe and settled in for the next kid. The hellion that had just screamed bloody murder stomped in next, trussed up in a complicated silk and lace outfit with way too many frills. Her face was as bright red as her dress, flushed and tear-streaked from her tantrum. Her slip-on flats clapped against the polished wooden floor as she shot a glare at her mother, who looked just as charming as she’d sounded.

Mara made a face and ducked behind the camera. Probably because the heavyset forty-something with a soccer mom bob and pasty makeup was none other than her sister-in-law.

The little girl climbed up into his lap and squirmed, grinding her bony butt over his knee. Her blue eyes were bright with a fire only an enraged toddler could have. “You aren’t really Santa Claus. Momma says you’re a fake.” Her lips pursed into a pout and her mother offered an apologetic smile. Nikolas had to suppress the snort that begged to be released.

“Maybe your Momma doesn’t believe in me anymore,” he said simply, with a wave of his white-gloved hand. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t believe. What’s your name, sweetheart?” He fell back into that smooth, soothing tone his father always used, smiling behind the itchiness of the beard.

She side-eyed him, like she wasn’t quite sure she could trust him. “Priscilla Amelia Greyson,” she said, and not without a touch of pride. She looked at him for a moment and he’d never seen such a condescending little four year old. Jesus. At least she’d stopped wiggling. That in itself was a small miracle.

“Of course. How could I forget you, Priscilla.” He winked and leaned in. “But I need you to do something for me, okay? See, Santa Claus exists because all the little boys and girls around the world believe in him. Their love and their belief make magic happen and that magic makes it possible for him to fly from house to house, near and far, and deliver presents every Christmas. If you stop believing in him, there would be no magic…and if there was no more magic, you see, there would be no Christmas.”

Her jaw loosened, eyes widening just a fraction. “…Really?”

“Yes, really. Santa needs you to believe in him. Can you do that for him?”

Priscilla hunched her shoulders, but her lips twitched up at the corners in the beginnings of a smile. “Do I get a present if I do?”

He laughed in the way only Santa Clause himself could laugh—hearty and full of ho-ho-hos. “Of course, little girl! What do you want for Christmas, Priscilla?”

“I want an iPad and the new Monster High doll—the vampire, not the zombie—and a One Direction CD and… I want a pony. A black pony named Sugar.” She bounced up and down in his lap, squirming once more as she reached up to twirl a pigtail between her fingers before nibbling on the frayed ends of the blonde strands.

“My, my. Santa will do his best to make your Christmas very special,” he said gently, tapping her chin with his fingertip to draw her face back up. Her gaze met his and he smiled. “Remember to believe in him. Old Saint Nick needs your magic, okay Priscilla?”

She pulled a face, like she was done believing in his mumbo jumbo, but she nodded and then grinned a gap-toothed smile, big as you please. “Okay, Santa. I promise.”

“There’s a good girl. Now sit still so Elfie can take a picture for your Momma,” he said, shifting her around so she was facing the camera. Her legs swung off his lap, heels kicking against his shins. She flattened her hands over the silk taffeta of her dress, then posed for the camera like a damn model. The flash popped with a flare of light that made little spots dance in front of Nikolas’ eyes. “I’ll see you next year, Priscilla. Be a good little girl!”

“Okay, Santa. Oh.” She paused to contemplate something. With a wicked little grin, she cupped her hand around her mouth and stage-whispered, “Tell Rudolph hi. Give him a kiss for me, but don’t tell the other reindeer that he’s my favorite.” She slid off his lap to land with a click of shoes on the floor. She danced over to her mother, the flouncy layers of her dress bouncing with each step.

The moment the door shut behind them with a merry chime of bells, Nikolas shot up out of his seat, scrubbing both hands over his face. “How many are left in the lobby? I need a damn smoke break.”

“…Nikolas.” Mara gave him the stink eye.

He grunted and waved her off. “Yeah, yeah, you and my mother both. I already told myself this is my last carton. It’ll get me through the holiday rush, anyway. I promise I’ll quit. Okay?” He meant it, though. The last thing he wanted was to end up on the other end of an IV line, getting pumped with chemical pharmaceuticals that supposedly killed cancer. Guess they did a pretty good job at killing you, too. The side effects of the chemo alone were enough to make him want to stomp out the cigarette before he ever lit it.

“Nikolas, honey, it’s your life. You don’t have to promise me anything. Just think about your poor mother.”

He groaned out loud. “I can only deal with one thing at a time, Mar.”

“Go.” She gestured to the back door that led to the alleys behind the courthouse square. Someplace no one could see jolly old Saint Nick lighting up a cancer stick. “Five minutes. We have one kid left. The end is near.”

“Glory god, hallelujah,” Nikolas said with a laugh before grabbing the pack of camels and making a beeline for the alley. The moment he lit up and inhaled that first icy blast of menthol, he could feel his muscles, like tightly coiled springs, slowly relax. With each puff and exhale of smoke through his nose, his spirits rose. Why did something so bad for you have to be so good?

“One more kid,” he told himself as he stubbed out the cigarette on the chipped brick of the alley wall and let the butt fall to the snow-damp ground. One more and he could close shop, lock the doors, and go home and take a hot shower to relieve some of this pent up energy. One more. He could do this. He took a leak and adjusted his suit in the mirror, puffing up the pillow that made up his big belly. Santa Claus couldn’t be skinny—it just wasn’t right. He fixed his beard, took in a deep breath, and went back out into the parlor.

He sat down in his chair and gestured for Mara to send the last client in. A chubby little girl with a full head of coffee-colored curls launched herself at him. She was maybe five, if that, but she didn’t seem to have a single worry in the world as she wrapped her short arms around him and hugged him. “Santa! Daddy, look! I told you! I told you he was real!” she chimed out and Nikolas all but melted. This. This was the reason he did this. Not for spoiled little kids like Priscilla, but for the ones with hope in their eyes.

“Of course he’s real, princess.” Her father shuffled into the room and his laugh, low and husky, made goosebumps prickle across every single inch of Nikolas Steele’s skin. His head popped up fast enough to nearly give him whiplash as his gaze landed on the tall, broad-shouldered man who stood almost awkwardly in the center of the room. He stood with his hands stuffed into his pockets and his elbows jutting out at an odd angle, like he wasn’t sure what to do with his hands.

For a moment, all Nikolas could do was stare at the man, whose expression twisted up, almost painfully rueful as their eyes met and held. He didn’t look away. Nikolas couldn’t. He was trapped there, transfixed as his pulse began to jackhammer, shattering every last thought in his mind in rapid succession as he gazed at the dark-haired man who’d walked out of his life six long years ago.

“Hello again, Saint Nikolas,” he murmured.

Niko swallowed around the lump that was fast forming in his throat. Even though he stood right there, right in front of him, smiling despite the world-weary lines etched into his face, Nikolas couldn’t believe his eyes.

Ky Kendall was home.