Articles for the Year 2016

Happy Holidays Blog Hop

*Pokes head out of hibernation cave temporarily*

I’m participating today in the Happy Holidays Blog Hop, coordinated by the generous Nicki J Marcus. When you’re finished here, please visit her blog for the master list of all the awesome authors taking part in this; the link is at the end of the post.

And I really do feel like I’m hibernating today, because there’s snow on the ground! (By the way, if you’re visiting this post for a second time, you might notice additional content. That’s because I was supposed to add more last night before I went to bed, but my sleepy body had other ideas…Sorry about that!)

On my Free Reads page, I have two Christmas stories available as downloadable PDFS: “Rockin’ Under the Christmas Tree” and “Little Black Dress.” I’ll be adding a third, “Christmas Eve Snow,” later today, so I hope you’ll come back for that!

Please check out Nicki J Marcus’s site for the post containing all the other hop links. Happy holidays!

Teaser Thursday- Shiny Objects

shadow in pink

They walked back to her car and got in. Niko slid the passenger seat backward and reclined the back of the seat, and Elena moved her seat back slightly.

Niko pushed his hood off his head and rested against the seat back, eyes closed. “Comfortable,” he murmured.

“So you’re going to take a nap?” Elena teased.

“Not with you sitting here. That would defeat the purpose.” He opened his eyes and stared into hers. “What is the purpose? Why did you agree to meet me tonight?”

“I wanted to see you,” she said softly. “Our kiss Friday. I didn’t feel wrong about it then, and I don’t now. The only ‘wrong’ thing about it was that it made me dishonest to Corin and what I have with him.”

“Until you told him about it.” He took her hand and turned it palm up, then slipped his own hand over it. “That made it honest.”

“Right.” She relaxed under his touch.

“So there wasn’t anything wrong about it.” With his other hand, he brushed her face. ”You told me he said he didn’t have a problem with it.”

“He did.” She took a shuddering breath. “You’re making it really hard to have a conversation.”

“I am?” He raised an eyebrow. “Funny, I know human touch is powerful. I didn’t realize it had the power to take away speech.”

“You know what I mean.” She turned to face him. “You asked why I came here tonight. Why did you?”

“I wanted to see you.” With one finger, he traced her lips. “You told me your man would have no problem if you and I got something going. Or maybe I should say resumed what we used to have. You wouldn’t have told me if the idea didn’t appeal to you. I’d like to see just how much appeal it has.”

“So this is an experiment?” she muttered. “See how far you can persuade me to go?”

“See how far you’re willing to go.” He leaned closer to her, his face now mere inches from hers. In less than a second, he would be able to kiss her if he wanted. If she allowed it. He had to give her the choice, but having her so near, knowing she would no longer hide behind her fear of cheating on her man, made holding back even more difficult than before. “You have permission to explore what you want. Will you take the chance, or are you going to keep trying to play it safe?”

“It isn’t possible to play it safe with you.” She ran her hand up his arm. “This should be peaceful, like at your apartment. It isn’t. Far from it.”

“Possibilities.” Niko kissed her forehead. “Whatever happens here tonight won’t change my opinion of you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“It might change mine,” she said softly.

“You’re here. I’m here.” He rested his hand on her thigh, and she shivered again. “Relax,” he whispered. “If you can’t make up your mind, let me make it up for you. For once, stop trying so hard to be in control, and see what happens if you let go.”

He watched her, seeing in her expression her struggle to decide what to do. What happened next might change everything between them. From their previous relationship, they’d formed a friendship, but Niko couldn’t leave it at that any longer. His feelings for her were too strong to accept mere friendship.

He didn’t know if even mere friendship would survive between them if either of them developed any doubts. Or if Elena’s man changed his mind.

But he couldn’t predict the future. All he knew was here and now, sitting in Elena’s car with her, hearing the rain as it hit the car, watching Elena’s uncertainty give way to determination.

“Okay,” she said softly.

Some Ways to Poly

Last week I said I would blog this week about some of the different configurations of polyamory. This is far from being an exhaustive list, but I’ve encountered a number of people who believe there’s only one way to do polyamory, and that’s definitely not the case.

Red hearts in 3D

The configuration most people seem familiar with is a triad. This is a relationship in which three people are all involved with each other, and often, at least as most often portrayed, aren’t involved with anyone else. Many of the people I’ve encountered online who are new to polyamory, or aren’t polyamorous but are reading about it, assume that all poly relationships are triads that started when a married heterosexual couple decided to “add a female” to their marriage. (I use that phrasing because of the sheer number of times I’ve seen people using it in posts online.)

The “female” becomes a girlfriend to both the husband and wife. Unfortunately, in the real world, that sometimes, if not often, leads to the husband and wife prioritizing each other and the marriage, and having one-on-one time, while the other woman is left a distant second in the priorities and is only “allowed to” interact with the couple together, not with either individual.

That isn’t to say triads can’t work. They absolutely can, if everyone makes and sticks to agreements, communicates fully, and treats each other like human beings instead of marital aids. In online forums, one tends to see the relationships that are struggling, so what I’ve seen about triads that are failing or aren’t even getting off the ground isn’t necessarily representative of every triad in existence. But what I’ve stated above is the overwhelming majority of what I’ve seen in those forums.

Another poly configuration is often known as a “V”. This is a situation in which one person, the point of the V, has two partners who are *not* involved with one another. Each of those partners might also have other partners, or they might not. In my novel Shiny Objects, published in 2011 and out of print since 2014, the heroine, Elena, is in a V with her boyfriends Corin and Niko. In the novel, Elena and Corin had an existing relationship, and Corin consented to Elena beginning a relationship with Niko. Sometimes that’s how V’s start; an existing couple agrees to open up to seeing other people.

Other times, there is no existing couple. Some people are “solo poly”; that is, they aren’t living with or legally entangled with any partner, but have more than one person they date. This might still take the form of a V configuration or even a triad, if the solo person is dating people who are involved with one another in some way. Or it might take other forms.

Some people are part of poly networks, in which they might be dating two or more people who are dating two or more people, etc., but there’s overlap within who’s dating whom. For example, Sally might be dating Ed, Sheila, and Dave, while Ed is also dating Sheila and Elaine, and Elaine is also dating Dave, Marcus, Mary, and Nathan, and Mary and Nathan are married and don’t date anyone other than Elaine, and so on.

If that sounds confusing…well, yeah. It can be. And as I said, those are definitely not the only possible configurations in polyamory. Polyamory can be a lot of work, because within any grouping there are several relationships going on. For example, a triad isn’t only a relationship among three people; it’s actually four relationships: the three people together, person A and B, person B and C, and person C and A. Any relationship takes work, and the work can increase exponentially.

But the work is worth it for those who are polyamorous, just as the work that goes into any relationship is worth it.

If you want to learn more, leave your questions in the comments; if I can’t answer them myself, I’ll link to resources and sites where you can find more information.

Teaser Thursday- Shiny Objects

On the subject of communication in polyamorous relationships.

As she puttered, making Niko’s cup of coffee, she kept an ear on the conversation in the living room. For the first few minutes, it consisted of more strained chatter. Finally, just as she poured boiling water into her cup, Niko said, “Elena said you wanted to meet the man you’re sharing her with.”

Corin coughed. “I guess that’s one way to put it. I just want to make sure no one, Elena especially, ends up hurt in this.”

“Most people would care more about whether they themselves end up hurt,” Niko said.

“Elena’s very important to me,” Corin replied firmly. “If it came to a choice between me being hurt or her, I’d choose myself.”

“I admire that,” Niko said. “I question it, but then again, I don’t know you well enough to say if you’d stick to it.”

“I already have. I told her it would be okay if she saw you.”

Elena flinched. She hadn’t expected Corin to state so bluntly how he felt about her relationship with Niko. Especially not to Niko himself. More than ever, she wished she’d never kissed Niko, that she’d never put herself or the men into this situation.

But wishing did no good. She couldn’t change the past.

She stirred the coffee and carried the cup to Niko with a forced smile. “Caffeine.”

“Thanks.” Niko took a sip of it then set the cup in front of him on the coffee table. Looking at Corin, he said, “I told Elena I wouldn’t do anything to come between her and you. I guess like you, I’ll do whatever I can to make sure she isn’t hurt.”

Tears pricked Elena’s eyes, and she blinked rapidly to keep them back. “Just stop. No one wants to see anyone hurt. Right now, I like I’ve screwed up both your lives, and I hate it.” She swallowed the lump in her throat.

“You haven’t.” Corin reached for her hand. “Honey, that isn’t what I meant at all.”

“Me either,” Niko said firmly. “You should know me better than that. If something screwed up my life, it wouldn’t be part of my life anymore.”

“I know.” Elena sank onto the loveseat beside Corin. “So tell me what you meant. This is what I was afraid of. You both sound pissed, and I’m not sure this is going to work.”

“We’ll make it work,” Niko said roughly. “If it’s what you want, we’ll make it work.”

“What about what you guys want?”

Corin ran his hand through his hair. “I want to know you aren’t leaving me. I want to know that every night, you’ll be sleeping in our bed, even if you’ve been with Niko.”

“Which works for me, because I have nowhere for her to sleep,” Niko said. “Having a roommate isn’t always conducive to having sleepover guests.”

Corin nodded. “Okay. That takes care of one of my concerns.”

“I’m not leaving you.” Elena rested her hand on Corin’s knee. “I told you that. I don’t want Niko instead of you. I don’t know what the hell I’m thinking. I always thought I was a one-man woman. But I want both of you.”

“All I want is for you to be happy and comfortable with what’s going on,” Niko said quietly. “If you’re not, we end my part in it. It’s that simple.”

After what he’d told her the other night, she doubted it would be that simple for him. But if he had to let her go, he would never express any qualms. That wasn’t Niko.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome.”

Elena turned to Corin, who gave her a reassuring smile. “You and I discussed things before you started with Niko,” he said. “Maybe we should have involved Niko in the discussion.”

“What is there to discuss?” Niko asked. “We both want her, and she wants both of us. She lives with you. She’s home every night. She visits me when she can and when I have a place for us to be together. That won’t be often, unfortunately, since I think for most of the winter her car won’t be the best location, and she told me you’d rather she not bring me here.”

“Her car?” Corin snarled.

“Not the other night,” Elena said quickly. “His roommate went out. And the time in my car, it was warm out.” To her own ears, it sounded like a lame explanation.

Niko nodded. “As I said, having a roommate isn’t conducive to having company. And Elena’s worth far more than fumbling in a car like a couple of teenagers. We had no other option that night. If this is going to be an ongoing thing, I’ll find a solution.”

“Her car,” Corin muttered.

“Let it go.” Elena grinned, hoping to lighten the mood. “Being in a car can be exciting sometimes.”

“Not when it’s twenty degrees out,” Niko said. “I’ll think of something better.” He studied Corin. “So why did you want me over here today?”

“To straighten out a few things,” Corin replied, an edge to his voice. “Elena told me you and she f—slept together the other night, and I took it harder than I expected. I agreed to it, and I don’t want to blame Elena for doing what I said I wouldn’t have a problem with her doing.”

Anger sparked in Niko’s eyes. “Is that why you didn’t call me yesterday, Elena?”

She hesitated. The guys had almost been getting along. She didn’t want another conflict to start. “Corin and I needed to sort things out, and we did. That’s why I asked you to come over.”

“To make this work, we have to be on the same page,” Corin said. “And it isn’t fair to Elena to have to be our go-between. I can see you’re pissed at me. Not my problem. My problem was that I got pissed off when I shouldn’t have. Elena and I worked that out. It was between her and me.”

Niko glared and said nothing.

“It’s okay,” Elena assured him. “We did work it out.”

“Good.” Niko folded his arms. “All right, any other agreements we need to make? Maybe we should set a schedule of when Elena’s allowed to see me?” His voice dripped with sarcasm.

Corin bristled. “You know, when I asked Elena to move in with me, I expected to spend the rest of my life with her. I didn’t expect to share her with another guy. You can be as pissy as you want. I’m doing this for her, and it would help if we were all on the same page about it. Speaking of which, did you use a condom, at least?”

Niko opened his mouth. To fend off another snarky comment, Elena spoke quickly, cringing inside at the fear of what Corin might say. “No. We talked about it. We both know we test negative for everything, and I can’t get pregnant, so we decided we didn’t need one.”

Corin’s face clouded. “I don’t think I like you letting him come inside you.”

Elena’s chest tightened. She should have talked to Corin about sexual health before going condom-free with Niko. She hadn’t even thought of it.

“I didn’t,” Niko said. “I came on her belly. I don’t need to come inside her and mark my territory. I just didn’t want anything between us.”

“If anything happens because of this—” Corin said.

“Stop,” Elena stood. “You guys are not going to fight about me. Or if you are, I’m not going to listen to it. I’ll be in the other room. Let me know when the fists are done flying.”

“We aren’t fighting,” Niko said.

“You’d better not be. I still need to leave the room. Be right back.” She hurried to the bathroom and shut herself in.

Communication, Poly Style

Communication is the cornerstone and foundation of any relationship. If you aren’t able to talk to one another effectively, the relationship will likely crumble under conflict, differences in opinions or wants or needs, or just because you feel like you can’t get along.

In a polyamorous relationship, where more than one partner is involved in various configurations, communication is even more important. I’m not going to get into all the different types of poly configurations in this post, because that’s long enough to warrant a post of its own. (Stay tuned next Monday.)

But regardless of whether you have a triad where three people are all involved with each other, or a network where two people are involved with each other, and each of them is also involved with other people who are involved with other people and so on, at the core, every connection between any two people is a relationship in and of itself, as well as part of the larger configuration. Each of those connections needs to be nurtured and cared for, and to do that, everyone needs to communicate.

Different people have different communication needs. One person might prefer openness and honesty, and define that as sharing explicit details of dates and sexual interactions with the partners who weren’t involved. Another person might only want to know, and only want to share, that they have a date with another partner, and not discuss it beyond that. Some don’t even want to know that much.

Within a poly configuration, there might be people with different communication styles and needs, and part of the communication has to be figuring out what and how to communicate. What is each person comfortable knowing about other relationships or connections? What is each comfortable having other partners know about them? Is it okay to vent to one partner about another when something stressful arises? Does one partner even want to hear that you have other partners?

Relationships take work, and a lot of that work is communication. Polyamorous relationships take exponentially more work and communication, because more people’s needs, privacy, and so on have to be taken into account.

The work is worth it, whether you’re in a couple or a triad or a poly network large enough that you can’t even keep track of who has how many partners. Make no mistake, it isn’t easy. But it is worth it.

Teaser Thursday- Lost Soul

As promised in Monday’s post about safer sex practices in fiction. Warning: Explicit adult content.

Joel gasped and let go of Lanny’s hair as Lanny slid his mouth up and down the shaft. Joel’s cock pulsed against his lips and tongue, and Lanny knew he was close. He stroked himself with one hand, holding back from coming but needing some kind of touch. His arousal was so heightened he knew he would go insane if he didn’t touch himself.

Of course, his own touch wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted, needed, Joel’s touch, but that would wait.

“Stop!” Joel gasped.

Lanny considered ignoring the instruction, but he knew damn well that if Joel came now, the fun would be over. Joel would never allow Lanny to fuck him if he soul-ripped him first. Reluctantly, he pulled back and stood, smiling smugly at the man who stood in front of him breathing like a marathon runner.

Joel touched his lips to Lanny’s and pulled him toward the bed. “I need you.”

“I know.” Lanny smiled and pushed the other man forward onto the mattress. Joel growled low in his throat and positioned himself on his hands and knees, proving Lanny’s assumption that the guy would be a bottom. “The soul rip—”

“When one of us comes, it starts. I’m careful. It will be just like before.” Joel took a couple deep breaths. “Please, no more talking. I want you to come first, but I’m too fucking close to hold back for long.”

“Well, you’re going to have to, because I’m not going to just slam into your ass.” Lanny glanced around. Even with a bonfire raging inside him, he was too smart to be stupid. “Lube? Condoms?”

“Magic. No diseases, and magic works better than lube. Trust me.”

“How do you convince other people to do without condoms?”

“I use them if I’m asked.” He looked over his shoulder at Lanny. “Don’t ask. I promise you, we don’t need either. I want to feel you inside me.”

Lanny caressed Joel’s ass. He wasn’t about to argue. He had no reason to doubt what Joel said, and he wasn’t exactly against the idea of fucking him bareback, even though he’d never done it with any other guy. Then again, none of the other guys he’d fucked had been sorcerers.

He was too turned on to think about it anymore. “I’ll take your word for it. Back up.”

Safer Sex in Fiction

Since I started writing erotica and erotic romance nearly a decade ago, I’ve repeatedly seen debates about safer sex practices in that type of fiction. Some say that the stories are fiction, or fantasies, and including condoms or dental dams or any other type of barrier or birth control takes the reader out of the moment. Others say that as authors, it’s part of our responsibility to educate our readers, and that includes making sure readers know safer sex practices are important, sometimes literally a matter of life and death.

My personal opinion is somewhere in the middle. I disagree that including safer sex practices in fiction pulls the reader out of the story. When I read fiction, especially contemporary erotica or erotic romance, I’m pulled out of the story if the author *doesn’t* include safer sex practices, or at least have the characters mention them. At the same time, as an author, I don’t think it’s my responsibility to “educate”; it’s my responsibility to entertain by portraying realistic situations (inasmuch as things like werewolves and vengeance demons can be realistic…)

In all of my fiction that includes sex, whether explicit or off the page (which is more my young adult stuff than my romances), I at least mention safer sex. Sometimes the characters decide not to use it. In my male/male novel Lost Soul, the main character, Joel, is a sorcerer who uses magic to prevent diseases, so he doesn’t have a need for condoms or other barriers. But the first time Joel has sex with Lanny, they talk about *why* condoms aren’t necessary. It’s a brief conversation (I’ll share the excerpt that includes it on Thursday, so stay tuned), but it’s still there.

Likewise in my heterosexual urban fantasy novel Beta Test, where werewolf Justin tells his human mate Tara that werewolves can’t get pregnant so they don’t need birth control, and werewolves (in that universe, at least) don’t carry any type of human illness or disease. However, Justin has failed to take into account the fact that Tara isn’t a werewolf, so while no STIs occur, Tara does get pregnant.

In most of my contemporary fiction, the characters use condoms. Those are brief exchanges as well; most of them are not much longer than, “Do you have a condom?” “Yes” followed by the guy putting on a condom.

Depending on the story and characters, this discussion can even give readers a glimpse into the personality of the characters. Does one of them hesitate about using a condom, or try to refuse? In a heterosexual interaction, is the woman terrified of pregnancy? Has one of them already experienced an STI, or lost someone to AIDS?

Safer sex practices, or the discussion thereof, don’t have to be long interruptions in the flow of a story, any more than they have to be long interruptions in the flow of a sexual interaction in real life. And an author doesn’t necessarily have to include it every time the characters have sex; I generally include the discussion and use of a condom with the characters’ first sexual interaction, and figure readers will assume (correctly) that the characters use condoms for all future interactions. But I do think it’s important to establish that the characters are playing safe.

Teaser Thursday- Vengeance Is Sweet

200

The entire Ruiz house was dark. I doubted Alex had gone to bed so early, and my instincts told me he and Keeley hadn’t left the building. There should have been light. I opened my mouth to call their names.

Ghast put his hand over my face. “Silence,” he whispered.

Frantic to find Alejandro and Keeley, I struggled against his grasp and then realized he was right. Whoever had caused this might still be there.

When I relaxed enough to focus, I sensed at least two demons and an unfamiliar presence which might have been an angel, though without the usual angelic aura of good. If we detected them, they likely had detected us. Still, if we didn’t speak, they might have more difficulty finding us.

Down the hall, I heard a faint whimper. Keeley. Screw any bad guys who might have been nearby. I had to protect the child. Without waiting for Ghast, I hurried toward the sound. He followed.

The pitch blackness of Keeley’s room came from more than a mere lack of electric light. It was the total absence of light of any kind, other than a small spark in one corner of the room, which I realized came from Keeley.

My heart would have stopped if I’d had one. That spark was no match for the darkness. And in this room, I sensed more than three presences, none of which had Keeley’s best interests in mind.

Angels visited the child. So where the Heaven are they? Jochiel and his pals had sworn to protect her, and the fuckers, excuse me, the idiots had evidently fallen down on the job. Although at least one of the presences had an angelic nature, I doubted it was one of the ones Keeley had mentioned. She hadn’t been afraid of those angels. Her fear of this one permeated the entire room.

A piece of darkness turned toward me and snarled, “Leave.”

“Not a chance.” I sounded pretty darn brave for someone who didn’t even have the power to defend herself. “She hasn’t done anything to you. She’s only a child. You tried to take her once and failed. Leave her alone.”

“Omara?” Keeley whimpered.

“I’m here.” I waved even though I knew she couldn’t see me and took a step toward the bed, hoping I wouldn’t trip. All I could see was her tiny spark.

“Not for long,” the darkness said. A bolt of deeper blackness shot toward me. I ducked and it missed, hitting the wall. The force of it shook the entire house.

Good thing I’d ducked.

“Omara!” Keeley cried.

From another room came the sound of Alex’s voice. “Keeley!”

“I’m okay,” I said.

I refused to leave Keeley, but I desperately wanted to make sure Alex hadn’t been hurt. Thinking Ghast might find out for me, I opened my mouth to call out to him.

I stopped myself. While the others had sensed me, I wasn’t sure they realized Ghast had accompanied me. I didn’t want to clue them in.

I took another step toward the small light. Greater darkness obscured it.

“The child is ours,” another piece of darkness hissed. “You cannot help her.”

“Want to bet?” I needed to shift to my true form. Scaring Keeley didn’t worry me. She wouldn’t be able to see me anyway, and even if she did, saving her mattered too much. I doubted I would frighten her more than what had already occurred.

Concentrating as hard as possible, I tried to shift. Maybe I had some last residue of power.

It didn’t work.

Loving Someone with Chronic Illness

Having a partner or family member who is dealing with any type of chronic illness is difficult. Sometimes you wish you could make them better, so they wouldn’t have to struggle anymore. Sometimes you resent that they need so much care and time—and it’s okay to feel that way, by the way, as long as you aren’t taking it out on them or others.

When you have a loved one who deals with one of the so-called “invisible illnesses,” it can be even more difficult. How can they say they don’t have strength to help clean the house? They look perfectly fine, and they didn’t have any trouble going to the kitchen for a glass of water. How can they say being at a family gathering on a holiday is triggering? My family’s perfectly nice, nothing at all like the one that abused them. How can they spend the entire day in bed and not do anything? There’s so much that has to get done!

People with those illnesses, which include mental illnesses, chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia, migraines, and others, don’t “look sick.” And because of the nature of those illnesses, sometimes people who have them don’t *feel* sick either. Personally, I have a few “invisible illnesses.” Some days I get up, shower, get dressed, and I’m off to tackle the day, getting more done before bed than my husband says he would be able to do in a week. I walk fairly easily, and I appear, and sometimes even feel, happy.

But other days, the “demons” attack. I feel like the world’s going to end, and I can’t stop crying. I’m in so much pain and having so much trouble with coordination that walking from the bedroom to the bathroom—which is right beside the bedroom—is almost more than I can manage. I can’t leave the house. I force myself to at least be in the living room instead of the bedroom, but that takes so much out of me that I end up dozing on the couch most of the day.

My husband is wonderful on those days. He knows I’m not “faking it” or “lazy” when I ask him to go to the store because I can’t manage leaving the house, or when I ask him to finish mopping the kitchen because I’m too exhausted after only doing a third of it. But it took a while to get on the same page about him helping me with tasks. If I said, “I can’t handle going to the store, but we need things,” he sometimes said, “Then I guess you have to go to the store.” I had to learn to actually ask him to go instead of hinting.

It also took him a while to understand that if I say “I’m in so much pain right now, I hate this,” I’m not asking him to fix it. There isn’t anything he can do about the pain. I’m asking for comfort and for reassurance that I’m not burdening him by asking him to take over doing some of my usual tasks, and now that he realizes that, he’s great about giving me a hug, or walking me to the bedroom and bringing me a glass of water while I settle down to read or sleep.

It isn’t easy having an “invisible illness” (or more than one). It definitely isn’t easy being a loved one of someone who has “invisible illnesses,” something I also know from personal experience since I’m not the only one in my family who has them. But if you work together to figure out what the person with the illnesses needs, and how to meet those needs without sacrificing others’ needs, and if you recognize that at the base, the person with the illnesses most needs love and compassion, it can be managed.

Teaser Thursday- Dawn Over Dayfield

DawnOverDayfield200

Blinking against a too-bright light, Weston tried to inhale. The air stabbed his lungs like knives, and when he coughed, the pain worsened exponentially. He was covered with a thin sheet, and the smell of soot surrounded him.

“Easy.” An unfamiliar female face appeared above him. “You inhaled a lot of smoke. We’re getting oxygen set up for you. Take it easy.”

Reassured by her soothing voice, Weston closed his eyes again.

The next time he opened them, a mask covered his mouth and nose. The light wasn’t as bright now. He tried to sit up, and a hand pressed his shoulder.

“You need to be still.” The voice sounded like the same woman as earlier.

“Andy.” Weston couldn’t even understand himself through the mask.

Apparently the woman—a nurse, he guessed—had some practice at translating oxygen-mask speak. “Your friend is in the next room. He’s unconscious. Try to breathe normally. I’ll find out what’s happening with him.”

Weston nodded his thanks and stared up at the white ceiling, listening to the nurse’s footsteps fade and trying to sort out his memories of what had happened.

A fire. Someone had set fire to the library as soon as Mildred was out of the building.

The crash in the main room must have been the arsonist breaking out through one of the windows so Andy and Weston wouldn’t see him.

Someone had chained the back door shut.

Someone had wanted Andy and Weston dead badly enough to make sure they couldn’t escape. Badly enough to destroy the entire library.

Andy should never have come to Dayfield. The town had never been a good place, but Weston hadn’t realized exactly how deep the darkness ran until Andy showed up.

“Your friend’s doing better.” The nurse walked over to stand beside Weston. “Still unconscious, but the doctor says he’s going to be fine.”

Weston started to speak, but his throat was too raw and sore to make another sound. Instead, he simply nodded again.

For a little while, he dozed off and on, waking each time someone entered the room. He expected his mother to show up, but she didn’t appear.

Finally, a male doctor carrying a clipboard entered with the nurse Weston had seen first. Without a word, she removed Weston’s mask.

“Try taking a breath,” the doctor said. “Slowly.”

Weston obeyed. His chest ached, but the sharp pain had faded enough for him to draw in some air.

He put his hand on his throat. “Water?”

The doctor nodded. “We’ll get you some. How are you feeling?”

Like I almost died in a fire, idiot. “Hurts.”