Once St. Louis’s greatest superhero, Lieutenant Vince Strong has now retired to civilian life. With his newfound free time, he finds himself reminiscing about Jace – the perfect and gorgeous submissive that he pushed away years ago. When Jace returns to town after a ten-year absence, he reignites the fierce love and passion that Vince has never been able to forget.
Determined to correct the biggest mistake of his life, Vince sets out to win Jace’s heart once more. Before he can do so however, a previously defeated foe reemerges. Carrying a grudge hardened by hate, his old enemy threatens to destroy everything and everyone Vince cares about – including Jace.
Vince will do whatever it takes to earn a second chance with the only man he’s ever loved. But Jace is reluctant to give himself to the man who broke his heart. Can these reunited lovers find their way back to each other or will past hurt and the menacing threat of a vengeful villain keep them apart forever?
"Last night a number of St. Louisans received quite a scare when a section of the Metro Link bridge they were traveling over collapsed. Thankfully, a couple of our local superheroes were on the scene with the save. Here's exclusive footage from Channel 8 News."
Vince stepped onto the treadmill in his small home gym. Pressing the Start button, he began a steady walk while the morning news played on the TV mounted to the wall. He watched with narrow-eyed concentration as Helios - the most powerful superhero in St. Louis flew in and caught the front of the light rail train before it could plunge to the ground below. Helios had averted the initial disaster.
Unfortunately, more sections of the bridge began to break apart and crumble. One by one, the other cars on the train began to tip over as well, dragged down by the awkward angle and dead weight of the car before it. Helios rushed to halt the domino effect of falling train cars. But he couldn't hold them all up at once. The superhero was fast and powerful, but there was only so much he could do on his own.
Luckily, Sonica arrived in the nick of time to assist. Using her powers of teleportation, she was able to clear the train of all passengers, freeing Helios up to push the train off the bridge back onto a safe section of the light rail track.
The footage ended and the newscaster appeared on screen, a smile on her pretty face. "Helios and Sonica save the day once again."
Vince was relieved to see that the two heroes had been successful. He was well aware there might have been a much different outcome if Sonica hadn't arrived in time. The close call served as proof that he was on the right track with the project he was starting. In fact, he was taking a big step with that project today. As the broadcast moved on to weather, his phone dinged with a text.
Verifying that we are good to look at the first location at eleven a.m.
He texted back a quick affirmative that he would be there, then walked for the remainder of the newscast. Once the channel began to play a reality court room show, he turned off the TV, hit stop on the treadmill, and stepped off.
It was almost time for that eleven o'clock appointment. Vince grabbed his wallet and tablet in preparation for leaving, but before leaving the house, he remembered there was something he wanted from the hall closet. There was a notebook where he'd jotted down ideas when the inspiration for this project first came to him several years ago. As he pushed holiday decorations, light bulbs, and a bulk package of paper towels aside in search of the notebook, a box that he hadn't seen in years caught his eye. The notebook momentarily forgotten, he reached for the slim leather box and slowly picked it up.
Memories, both sweet and painful, came to him when he raised the lid. Inside the box lay a red, brushed-metal submissive's collar. He'd kept the collar all this time even though he hadn't seen the person it was intended for in nearly fifteen years. Jace Morgan. The man he'd loved and hoped to spend the rest of his life with. Jace was his perfect match. Sweet, caring, smart. And gorgeous, with warm, sherry-brown eyes, smooth brown skin, and a delicate face. Jace had always been especially beautiful when he was kneeling submissively or handcuffed to Vince's bed.
Another memory of Jace rose to the forefront of his mind as he traced a finger over the cool metal of the collar. That of his tear-stained face yelling at Vince to get out.
Vince sighed regretfully. He closed the lid and shoved the box back into its place in the rear of the closet. It wasn't as easy to shove the memories away, but he had years of practice doing so. Checking the bottom shelf, he found what he was looking for - a one-subject spiral notebook with a faded blue cover. Notebook in hand, he shut the door to the closet and headed out for his meeting.
As Vince steered his big SUV out of his subdivision, he glanced at the dashboard clock. He had time to stop for a coffee and still arrive ahead of schedule for his meeting. Already anticipating his favorite hot drink, he headed to Cafe Morgan, the local coffee shop he often frequented.
Inside Cafe Morgan, it smelled as wonderful as always. Coffee and sugar and baked goods combined into a warm scent that immediately relaxed him. It was after the morning commuter rush so the coffee shop wasn't too crowded. But the reputation Cafe Morgan had for delicious beverages and food meant that there were several tables with customers and a short line of people at the counter.
Vince knew what he wanted to drink, but he wasn't sure which breakfast pastry he wanted. He focused on the chalkboard menu high on the wall, reading the specials for the day as he slowly approached the counter. When it was his turn to order, he looked down from the menu and at the barista. His mouth dropped open in surprise at the person in front of him.
Jace was in a similar state of shock, staring up at Vince with his eyes wide.
"Jace. You're here." His comment wasn't a groundbreaking conversation starter, but it snapped Jace out of his freeze. The other man cleared his throat before speaking.
"Yes. Gran decided to retire and I moved back to take over as owner of the cafe."
"It's good to see you," Vince said sincerely while still struggling to recover from his surprise.
"You as well."
Jace looked down for a moment. When he raised his head again, his expression was one of professional politeness.
"What can I get for you today?"
Remembering why he was there and that there were people waiting behind him, Vince placed his order. "I'll take an iced Americano and a chocolate croissant."
The careful politeness to Jace's expression eased somewhat, and a teasing twinkle appeared in those familiar brown eyes.
"You still have a sweet tooth, I see," Jace said as he pressed the correct buttons on the cash register.
Vince smiled. "I do."
Jace returned his smile but didn't say anything else as Vince tapped his credit card on the card reader.
Although he had a dozen questions to ask Jace, he stepped to the side to allow the next customer to order. He visited Cafe Morgan at least twice a week and he was on friendly terms with Rose Morgan, Jace's grandmother. But she hadn't mentioned anything about retiring or Jace returning. It wasn't unpleasant seeing the man he loved and had hoped to spend the rest of his life with. But the unexpected suddenness of Jace's appearance had thrown him for a loop.
From the corner of his eye, Vince watched Jace help the next customer. He looked good. Still slim, with a bit more definition in his chest and arms. At forty, his face was smooth and unlined, but there were a few sprinkles of gray in the dark hair that he wore in short natural curls. And the lovely smile that Vince remembered came readily to his face as he conversed with each customer. He was completely caught up in watching Jace until someone spoke behind him.
"Excuse me, I need to grab a napkin."
Realizing he was blocking the table of napkins and sugars, Vince apologized and moved out of the way. He went to stand by the windows that looked out onto the street, giving himself something besides Jace to watch while he waited. Cars drove by, people going about their normal business while Vince stood on the other side of the glass, emotionally rocked.
Jace, his Jace, was back in town. He'd never wanted to let him go. Now he was in the same room as him for the first time in fifteen years. He didn't know what to do or what to say. No, he did know what he wanted to say. But he doubted Jace wanted to hear I still love you. Come home with me so we can talk from the man who'd broken his heart.
"Iced Americano and chocolate croissant for Vince."
The voice that called out to him wasn't the one he'd hoped to hear. A Cafe Morgan employee handed Vince his order when he reached the counter. Jace had disappeared into the back. Disappointed that he wouldn't see his former lover again but realizing that was probably for the best, Vince dropped his tip in the jar and left with his coffee and pastry.
Ten minutes later, he pulled into a parking lot to meet with Caleb, a young tech genius who'd agreed to come in on his upcoming project. Caleb was waiting for him in front of an empty storefront in a small shopping center. The young man was dressed in jeans and a yellow plaid flannel shirt. His bright blue hair shone in the morning sun.
"Good morning," Caleb greeted him.
"Morning," Vince tipped the cup of iced Americano in a small salute as he returned the greeting.
Caleb eyed the cup. "You went to Morgan's. I love their coffee."
"Best in town," Vince replied. "So, what do we have here?"
"First, I just want to say that I think it's awesome that you're starting a superhero team."
"Thank you. I think it's long past time that we had one."
"Second, all the places I have for us to look at meet most if not all of your criteria. The location here makes it a weaker choice, but the interior could make up for it."
"I can put up shields and encrypt phone and internet lines going in and out, but I think it will be difficult to maintain any real level of secrecy here."
Vince looked over the space with a critical eye. It was flanked by a nail salon on one side and an Ethiopian restaurant on the other. "I see what you mean. It won't take long for locals to notice that there are superheroes in the area with unusual regularity and start wondering what's up."
"And is secrecy a main priority?"
"It is. But let's look inside first before we discount it outright."
Caleb entered the combination on the key lock box and a compartment fell open to release the key to the building. They stepped inside. It was clean but the air was stale and musty, signaling that the building had been closed up for some time. The one room shop looked structurally sound and the previous occupants had left their shelving and display cases behind.
"We can set up a fake store with stuff no one wants to buy and work out of the back."
Caleb led the way behind the service counter to the back. It was a large area, probably used at one time for a combination storage and employee break room. There was a bathroom, a manager's office, and that was it.
After only a quick glance, Vince shook his head. "This won't work. I want a bigger space so it's not cramped when we have multiple team members on-site. This feels too closed in."
Caleb tapped something on his tablet. "I'll put this one in the No column but hold off on getting back to the realtor until we've looked at the other options."
Vince nodded. "Sounds good. Let's ride together to the rest of the locations so we can discuss them as we drive."
They went back outside and after locking up, got into Vince's SUV. Caleb tapped his tablet screen a few times and directions issued from the speaker. Vince pulled out of the parking lot following the directions.
"I really like the idea of a superhero team," Caleb said. "What made you come up with it?"
Vince smoothly navigated through the streets of St. Louis as he answered Caleb's question. "When I was an active superhero, I had two non-enhanced Airmen assigned to work with me. Having a support team made my job easier. But now, since none of the superheroes in St. Louis are military or government backed, they all work as individuals. There are no partnerships or team-ups and I think that's detrimental both to them and the city. I don't know if you saw the news this morning, but Helios was in a tough spot last night."
Caleb nodded. "I saw."
"If the heroes were already organized onto a team, we could have sent someone with him or dispatched backup as soon as it looked like he needed help. Instead, we were lucky that Sonica noticed the situation on her own and showed up right before things went south. That was too close a call with too many lives at stake."
"I'm sure the people on the train were sweating bullets while waiting to be rescued."
"A team of heroes will help eliminate some of those close calls. And the sooner we get started the better. It'll take time - both to get everything set up and to decide who to bring in on the team."
"Yeah. I'm going to need to order lots of technology in order to monitor where and when we're needed and keep records of villains and their activity."
"Exactly. It might be six months or so before we're officially up and running."
In five hundred feet, turn right. Your destination will be on the left.
They'd arrived in an area where there wasn't a lot of foot traffic. But it wasn't so sparsely populated that the appearance of vehicles coming and going would stand out. They drove down a side street, headed for an abandoned fire station.
"I like that it's out of the way from the main road," Vince said as they drew closer.
"This location was suggested by Ignite," Caleb supplied that information as they turned into the cracked and weed-choked parking lot. "I'll be able to set up shields here that are a lot more effective than at the store front spot."
Vince parked and looked out the windshield at an old fire station. "It makes sense that a firefighter pyrokinetic superhero would suggest an old firehouse for a headquarters. Let's check it out."
They got out of his SUV and went up to the tan and white brick building. Caleb checked his phone for the code he'd been given from the real estate agent that would open the electronic lock. He punched it in, the lock beeped, and a light turned green. Caleb opened the door and moved aside for Vince to enter first.
The firehouse was a lot bigger than the store. It was a long building with a high ceiling, made to accommodate fire trucks and emergency vehicles. And in the rear, a loft level held a small kitchen and room for lounging. With such a large, open space, they'd have plenty of room for their operation.
"It needs work but it's a good space." Caleb stood in the middle of the room and turned around in a circle. "The command station could go here in the center."
"I like it," Vince said. Even empty, with some of the dry wall missing or damaged, and every surface covered in a thick layer of dust, he could see the potential. Unfortunately, he wasn't one hundred percent focused on reviewing the location. He couldn't stop thinking about the fact that this morning he'd come across the collar he'd intended to give Jace and not an hour later, run into Jace himself. Vince didn't believe in fate, but he couldn't overlook the uncanny timing of the two events. Should he reach out to Jace now that he'd returned to town? Did Jace want him to reach out?
"Are you all right?" Caleb asked, his forehead creased with concern.
Vince snapped out of his musings when Caleb asked him a direct question. "Yes." At the other man's doubting expression, he made an effort to shake off the memories flooding his mind and answered with more detail. "This morning, I ran into someone I knew from years ago."
"An old flame?"
"What makes you assume it was an old flame?"
"Seeing a former teacher or casual acquaintance wouldn't cause the emotions you're giving off."
Vince sighed. Of course. Caleb was an empath. Naturally he would sense the turmoil he was feeling at seeing Jace again. "Yes, he was an old lover," Vince admitted.
"Why did you guys break up?"
Vince gave a bare-bones explanation to the end of his relationship with Jace. "We dated during the early years of my superhero career, but as time went on, I grew worried for his safety being associated with me. And I was gone a lot, rushing off to save the day at all hours of the day and night. I didn't think it was fair to him that I wasn't able to give myself one-hundred percent to our relationship."
"So, you pushed him away." Caleb accurately guessed.
"I pushed him away," Vince confirmed. A pang hit deep within his chest as he remembered the day he'd told Jace they had to stop seeing each other. "He left town immediately after our breakup. Today was the first time I've seen him in fifteen years."
"Wow. No wonder you're rattled."
Vince didn't bother to deny that he was rattled as Caleb was clearly reading his tumultuous emotions. "Yes, I'm rattled. But this task is important."
He looked around the old firehouse with renewed focus. There were offices, a locker room, and plenty of space to set up a workout and training area. "I like this location much better than the first option. But I'd still like to look at the others before we make our final decision."
Caleb nodded. "Okay, let's go and check them out."
* * *
Jace worked the next hour of his shift in a daze. He helped customers, restocked the bakery case, and wiped down table tops on autopilot. Every task was completed while his mind was focused on Vince. He'd expected to run into his ex on his return to St. Louis at some point. But he'd only been back in town for a week! Seeing his former lover this soon had thrown him off his game. He should have had more time to prepare - as if all the years he'd been away weren't enough.
Through his shock, he'd noticed that his former Dom looked as good as he had the last time he'd seen him. He was as muscular as ever, his chest and biceps firmly filling out the short-sleeve, powder blue Polo shirt he wore. His handsome light-brown face was a little sterner than Jace remembered and there were scatterings of white in the black of his short hair and goatee. But his dark eyes were the same, as were the full lips that had once kissed over every inch of his body.
The towel he was using to wipe down the table slowed as he went still, remembering the passion he'd once shared with the tall, handsome superhero. Their nights together had been fast and rough, slow and sensual, and everything in between. He could see Vince in his mind's eye, hovering over him, a roguish grin curling his lips and twinkling in those dark eyes before he did everything in his power to send Jace to the highest ecstasy.
His fingers tightened on the damp towel. He was perilously close to getting lost in memories when the door opened and a big group of people in athletic wear and carrying yoga mats entered. Grateful for the save, Jace shook off the bittersweet flashback. With a polite smile, he returned to the counter to give the group the attentive and friendly service that kept customers coming to his Gran's coffee shop.
When the manager arrived on the floor for her shift later that afternoon, Jace took off his apron, tired and ready to leave for the day. After carefully counting down his drawer and filling her in on stock levels and other details, he was out the door.
The sun was bright overhead, a slight breeze stirring the warm air. When he slid inside his car, the seat and steering wheel were hot. He turned up the air conditioner before he put the car in gear and pulled out of the lot.
Jace drove down the familiar streets of his hometown. Some things had changed over the years. The candy shop where he and his friends had hung out after school was still there but with a different sign than the one he remembered above the door. The local library had been torn down and rebuilt from the ground up. And the trees lining the sidewalks were taller. But it was still home.
It wasn't long before he pulled up to his Gran's house, where he was temporarily staying in the converted garage apartment at the rear of the property. Before heading to his place, he jogged up the stairs to her house to fill her in on how the day had gone. He knocked on the door, waiting only a few seconds before his grandmother came to open it.
Rose Morgan was as stylish as always. Her long, silver hair was styled in a thick braid draped over her shoulder, her makeup was carefully applied in warm summer hues, and she wore a hot pink apron over a yellow blouse and tan capri pants.
"Hey, sweetie. Come on in."
Jace stepped inside, then followed as she went down the short hallway to her large, sunshine yellow and white kitchen. A delicious smell filled the air, wafting from the many pastry covered cooling racks on the counter.
"What are you doing baking all this?" Jace asked as he eyed the pastries. "You're retired."
Rose laughed. "I'm retired from baking for money. But you'll never get me away from my babies," she said as she patted one of her two stainless steel ovens.
"Of course not," Jace agreed with a fond smile. His grandmother loved to bake and had passed her love and knowledge on to him. He sat down at the table. "Vince came into the cafe today," he said as he watched her bustling around the kitchen. She froze for a second before going to the fridge and taking out a tub of sour cream.
"Yes, it's Wednesday. He's usually ready for a cup of good coffee by the middle of the week. Better than the stuff he makes at home."
Jace's eyebrows rose. "He's a regular there? And you didn't tell me?"
"I didn't? I must have forgot."
Jace seriously doubted that. His grandmother rarely forgot anything. It was unlikely she'd forgotten something as important as the man her grandson had once been romantically involved with coming into her cafe on a weekly basis.
"Okay, I didn't forget."
"Why didn't you tell me?" There had to be a good excuse for the omission. His grandmother wouldn't have kept the secret for any malicious reason, he knew.
"Because I didn't want you to spend any time dreading his eventual appearance while you were focused on taking over the cafe. I thought it best to just let it happen without the days of worry beforehand. Here, have some Zeljanica."
She put a saucer with a rolled pastry and a dollop of sour cream on the side in front of him. Jace dipped the Zeljanica in the sour cream and took a bite. The pastry was flaky and warm and he tasted savory spinach and eggs in the filling. "It's good." Of course it was. Anything that came out of his grandmother's oven was delicious.
She beamed. "Thank you! It's a Bosnian dish. My neighbor served them during her turn hosting our card night and I had to try the recipe for myself." She sat down across from Jace. "So is the Zeljanica good enough for you to forgive me?"
"There's nothing to forgive. You're right. Seeing him would have happened no matter what and a warning would have just made me worry. I'm glad that first meeting is done and over with and I didn't have to stress about it beforehand."
Rose leaned back in her chair with an air of relief.
"Good. What did you think when you saw him?"
Jace shook his head. "Nope. Gran, I love you but we are not having that conversation." He stood up from the table with his empty plate in hand. "But I will take another piece of Zeljanica for the road."
Jace went the short distance to his apartment, munching on a second piece of pastry lightly smeared with sour cream as he walked. When he made it inside, he immediately went to change out of his work clothes and wash up. Dressed in a T-shirt and soft jersey shorts, he flopped onto the couch and stretched out on his back.
Vince, his one-time lover and Dominant, had been right there in front of his face. The pain from their break up had wrecked him for a long time. Especially since he'd had the feeling that Vince was planning to ask him for a commitment more permanent than boyfriends. And then out of the blue - bam! - he'd said they had to end it. Jace hadn't understood where the breakup had come from. He'd known that Vince's work as a superhero was dangerous and accepted that he wouldn't have as much time with him as he'd liked. But Vince had been adamant that their relationship wouldn't work.
After that awful night, his first instinct had been to get out of town. He couldn't stand to see Vince appearing on local TV newscasts and social media on a daily basis, flying around the city being a hero while he was emotionally raw from their breakup. So, he'd moved to Atlanta where his mother and step father lived, taken a job in a popular cafe chain, and finished his culinary training there. He'd learned a lot in Atlanta and over the years moved up the corporate ladder at work until he was in charge of his own location. His job had been fulfilling and he'd built a life he was happy with down South, but when his grandmother called to tell him she was retiring and wanted to pass her coffee shop on to him, he'd returned to St. Louis without hesitation.
Now he was back, and seeing Vince again had shaken him more than he cared to admit. He tossed an arm over his eyes, blocking out the lights in the living room, but not the memories of that night...
STRONG - An Arch City Guardians Prequel Novella will be available May 3, 2022. The ebook version will be up for free download on my website or on Amazon for .99. Don't miss it!
And don't forget to check out BLAZE & DR. Z - books 1 & 2 in the Arch City Guardians superhero romance series!
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My rambling and not at all edited thoughts on romance novels, writing, and pop culture.