Hieronymus Bash sank into the velvet fathoms of his favorite armchair and let out a blissful sigh. With a tray of Turkish biscuits, a sin-dark coffee, and the late editions at his side, he pulled a blanket over his aching legs and turned his face into the sunlight, dreaming of distant shores. A holiday, perhaps, to Italy or Egypt. Surely, after nigh on three years of investigating the weirdest and wildest cases in London, they could afford a brief escape, to the continent or beyond. Despite his avowed dislike of anything resembling a boat, Hiero, weary but restless, longed to be anywhere but this, his beloved home.
A Fabergé egg of furniture, with its half-shell oval shape and luxurious, jewel-toned fabrics, he’d stationed the armchair in the only sunlit corner of the new wing of their apartment—or so he liked to call the series of rooms that now bisected the third floor of their two adjoined houses. Due to some civic planning mystery best left to the borough politicians to sort out, their conjoined address now read 17-23 Berkeley Square. Whether 19 and 21 Berkeley Square ever existed was a subject for future historiographic research by his biographers. Of which there would be many, Hiero had no doubt.
Nominally, 23 Berkeley Square was the public-facing headquarters of London’s most selective consulting detective, while 17 Berkeley Square was DI Timothy Stoker’s private residence, a fact known only to their solicitors. But in practice, their ever-growing household had expanded across both houses. Angus and Jie now had their own suite of rooms, the perfect fit for their little family. Minnie and Aldridge had taken over their old bedroom, while Ting’s nursery became Minnie’s sewing parlor, where the older ladies convened most nights to knit and gossip. Shahida coerced Lillian down from the attic so that Kashika might share Ting and Feng’s playroom. They’d engaged a new under-butler, Solomon, one of Han’s most faithful rabbits, now the yang to Aldridge’s yin. And Hiero had expanded his and Tim’s apartment into the other house, since it wouldn’t do for the owner of Number 17—as the family called it—not to have a bed chamber in his own home.
In one of his more clever fits of inspiration, Hiero had installed a trompe l’oeuil movable wall that, when set at the right angle, concealed the Number 23 portion of their rooms but still gave the impression of Kip asleep in his bed. He lay there now, the genuine article, collapsed onto his stomach in his shirt and trousers after a long night trolling the pubs for the villain the press had dubbed the Leicester Square Vampire, due to his tendency to… well, Hiero thought the details too dreadful to bear and had excused himself from the case. He’d bundled some sheets atop his Kip, slipped a pillow under his head, pressed a kiss into the short, sweaty, coppery tendrils at the nape of his neck, the lingering scent of smoke and dark liquor doubling Kip’s allure. As all of this failed to rouse him, Hiero retreated to his armchair to wait his exhaustion out. And his own, not insignificant fatigue as well.
As a gentleman of leisure, albeit one who’d deceived and inveigled and adored his way into a fortune, he expected his non-investigative days to consist of lazy mornings, playtime with the children, and flirty lunches with his beloved that led to afternoon ‘naps’ that stretched to teatime. But Number 17 had been left in, well, a state by the nonagenarian Lord Darly, RIP. Hiero had been the only one available, the only one capable, really, of taking on such a project, being said gentleman of leisure. The challenge of renovating and redecorating and securing an entire house, organizing controlled demolition to build three passageways between the houses, hiring new staff, and still fitting in enough ‘naps’ to nurture his relationship with his dearest Kip, had felt very close to something Hiero detested with every speck of his indelible essence. Indeed, he shuddered even to think of the words…
…having a job.
But a measure of self-employment had been his daily bread for the better part of a year; little wonder his limbs felt like molded butter, his joints stuck with jam. To say nothing of the permanent stitch between his shoulder blades, a wobbly hip, a loose tooth, and a patch of blood-specked, mottled skin on his thigh. The latter may be a love bite, he inwardly conceded, or Kip testing some vampire-related theories—Hiero had been too distracted by Kip kneeling between his legs to care. Really, it was a wonder Kip still fancied him at all, given how exertion had wilted his night-bloom grandeur. He paused a moment in his wallowing mire to concede that Kip’s love was in and of itself a miracle, and so managed to drag himself out and replenish with coffee and biscuits.
Just then, an item in the evening edition caught his eye, in that it blared from the largest headline Hiero had ever seen. A famous portrait by Thomas Gainsborough, of the Duchess Georgiana Cavendish, one of the most notorious women of the 18th century, had been stolen a mere three weeks after its sale at auction at Christie’s. Thieves climbed into the poorly guarded Agnew Gallery during the night and cut the wicked-eyed duchess right out of her frame. For a brief, selfless moment, Hiero considered whether he should offer his assistance to the yobs at the Yard, given the pedestrian nature of the execution versus the plethora of suspects at large in the city.
Notion considered, then rejected. Surely even detectives of their rudimentary skill might bribe their way into an answer? Hiero hardly needed leave his armchair to guess the culprit (given Han had informed him an American counterpart of theirs had rented a palatial suite in Piccadilly, pretending to be a banker). Instead, Hiero refolded the newspaper, downed the last of his coffee, and raised his heavy bones out of his armchair. Not without a certain measure of regret, it should be said.
Which dissipated as soon as he spread himself across the bed, face-to-mop of ginger hair with Kip, who grumbled into his pillow but turned his cheek into Hiero’s caress.
“Care for a nap, my dear?”
Kip groaned, but shifted to give Hiero better access to his neck and the exposed ‘V’ of his chest despite refusing to open his eyes. Hiero set about unbuttoning the rest of his shirt, Kip’s necktie and waistcoat having been hastily flung at the wardrobe but landed on the carpet, per usual. His coat had faired better, drooping over the back of a chair.
“It may shock you to learn, my love,” Kip mumbled, “that I am currently indulging in one.”
“And yet, despite our intimacy, I am not quite privy to the images that flicker behind your eyelids.”
“More’s the pity,” Kip drawled, a half-smile curling his lips. “You feature prominently in most of them.”
“‘Most’?” Hiero feigned protest, but paused to press a soft kiss to Kip’s wrist as he undid his cufflinks. “Tease.”
Kip hummed in response, permitting Hiero to maneuver him about as he stripped off his shirt. He shivered, but not enough to rouse himself out of his state of semi-consciousness. Bemused and deeply adoring, Hiero made quick work of his trousers, then half-tucked Kip under the covers, his taut, freckled torso feast enough for now. Hiero shed his robe as he selected from his collection of scented oils and ointments, singing sotto voce to soothe his weary Kip.
When he returned to the bed, he found Kip turned onto his front, the sinuous slip of his back like a scythe moon amidst the night sky of their indigo coverlet. Straddling his legs, Hiero poured a generous stripe down his spine, then set about massaging the oil into his skin. Kip purred, low and content, as Hiero smoothed the knots of tension from his muscles and joints. He nudged him with his thigh—a request to keep singing—but Hiero wasn’t done with his ministrations. Kip might yearn for slumber, but Hiero knew well enough he wouldn’t enjoy true rest until he’d unburdened.
“How goes the hunt?” He dug his thumb under the edge of Kip’s shoulder blade.
The answer came in a whine. “Too soon to tell.” Then, after a grunt. “Han fears we will have to bait him. Callie, as predicted, volunteered, with the expected result.”
“The pair of them. Insufferable,” Hiero tutted. “Do you require my intervention?”
“Not as yet.” Kip arched into his touch as Hiero kneaded his lower back. “Mmm. My shoulder, love, if you’d be so kind.”
Hiero planted an elbow into the familiar ache, calming Kip’s hiss with a soft hold at the base of his skull. “Were you set upon?”
“Hmm?” He chuckled. “No, Lulu. You know how she gets when she’s on a scent.”
“I do indeed.” Hiero flexed a knee into the meat of Kip’s thigh.
Kip let out a long, raspy moan, then melted further into the mattress. Hiero retreated, stroking his hands the length of Kip’s frame, up and down, up and down, until Kip canted his hips to expose the tops of his buttocks. Requiring no further invitation, Hiero shed his bedclothes and extended his body over Kip’s, letting his full weight cover his lover as Hiero sucked at the delicate nape of his neck. The sound Kip made, sensual but thoroughly relaxed, spoke to Hiero’s soul.
“You saw the item?” Kip murmured, pushing into Hiero’s embrace.
“One for the board?”
“Unlikely, but… perhaps.” Hiero grazed his teeth along the edge of Kip’s jaw, considered. “Leave it with me.”
Kip sighed, husky and slightly drowsy still, and angled into Hiero’s kiss.
“Such capable hands.”
With a slither of his tongue and a grind to his hip, Hiero took full command. They were, after all, at their leisure.
Happy Holidays to all! Have fun and stay safe, mes anges!
Here’s to better things (and a new book!) in 2022!
Timothy Kipling Stoker inhaled deep of the wintery woodland air. Though the ash and field maple trees that surrounded him did not quite evoke the same scents of the season as holly or pine, their frost-garlanded bows made up for it, framing the view quite prettily. And what a view. Near sunset on this solstice afternoon, shades of blue and gold rippled across the sky. The distant Purbeck Hills glinted as if dusted with a fine crystal sheen, the hilltop ruins of Corfe Castle burnished in the sun’s fading glow. Nature grasped her shining moment before plunging into the longest night—a terrible dark for some, but not for Tim. Not this year.
He sank back against Hiero’s solid frame, let Hiero hug his arms around him and notch his head against Tim’s own. Basked in the same blanketing peace that enveloped him when they lounged in bed or curled up in their favorite armchair, or whenever they found a quiet moment together. Though he would never admit it to Hiero, Tim felt quite snug wrapped in Hiero’s frankly ludicrous fur coat, better suited to a mid-February stroll around the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg than a trek through the forests around their hunting lodge.
Apollo’s hunting lodge, rather. When Callie had suggested they escape the city for a spell and spend the holiday at the lodge, Tim suffered an uncharacteristic bout of anxiety. Their family had been ensconced in the house at Berkeley Square for so long that Hiero had time to make his mark. That is, if a Rococo fever dream with erotic murals and a library of rare occult tomes could be said to be a mark. But the lodge had been Apollo’s private oasis. Hiero, by his own admission no kind of sportsman, , disdained the place, rarely accompanying Apollo on his sojourns there. Tim, a city boy to his bones, worried he wouldn’t care for even a brief taste of country life, or that Apollo’s specter would haunt every room, that the memories and their moods would sour the sweetness between them, which had flowed thick and heady ever since they declared their love.
He needn’t have given these concerns a moment’s thought. The lodge, far from being a spartan, trophy-laden shack, was instead a lavish cottage with ample room for everyone. An older, once-abandoned residence on a larger estate nestled in a wood, it bordered a small lake and had its own stable and a grand fieldstone hearth around which the family could gather each night. With no one in residence at the main house, its cooks were able to dedicate themselves to their meals, giving Minnie a well-deserved rest (though Han still spent the wee hours boiling up soups and stews to stave off his insomnia).
Tim, for his part, had discovered the joy of wandering. Not that he’d lacked for walking in the city. But here… here he could roam. Endless country lanes. Grasslands that stretched to the sea. The iconic white-chalk coastline around Swanage. And long forest strolls with Hiero where they could link arms like the lovers they were, or tuck against each other, or kiss under a willow tree. Tim had never thought himself much of a romantic, but here he felt at one with the poets. He could listen to Hiero recite Wordsworth or Keats or Shelley endlessly, and did.
To be sure, Tim had lost several afternoons to his trove of grimoires, arcane texts, and other personal research projects. He hadn’t spent the whole fortnight swooning over a meadow. But he found their escape remedial in a spiritual sense, a collection of perfect moments that made new space in his mind, sweeping out old pains and aches.
Tim hugged Hiero’s arms tighter around him, twined their gloved fingers as an amber tone deepened the countryside’s luster.
“We’d best return,” Hiero murmured.
“In a moment.”
A warm chuckle tickled his ear. “Only a year gone, and already I’ve lost you to the wilderness.”
“The fault is your own for giving me an eye for beauty.”
“Ha! I taught you nothing. You’ve always been discerning. You chose me, after all.”
Tim sighed, then bid farewell to the view, turning in Hiero’s arms. “And what a treasure you’ve proved to be.”
He drew Hiero down into one of the long, luxurious kisses they permitted themselves here, with no demands on their time and no one to censure them. Hiero folded Tim into his coat so he might be enveloped by his warmth. For all his grousing about the chill, Hiero ran wonderfully hot, and he infused Tim with more than just a sheltering heat. Tim sucked teasingly on his bottom lip, then licked into his mouth, each movement rich with unspoken promises for a later hour, when the long dark descended and their family retired and they could worship one another at leisure. They didn’t so much part as shift into a different configuration, Tim stitched tight to Hiero’s side, Hiero’s arm knit around Tim’s shoulders as they wove their way back to the lodge.
The sight that welcomed them back grew Tim’s heart a few sizes more: Han pulling Ting and Feng’s sled across the snow-swept lawn, two antlers poking out of his hat. The children squealed with delight at every dip and swerve. The silhouetted figures of Angus and Jie could be seen strolling around the lake, their daily respite. Aldridge had moved a rocking chair to the back terrace, the better to smoke his pipe away from the delicate sensibilities of the ladies inside.
This gallantry went unnoticed by said ladies, who gathered around the fire in the great hall, cackling and crafting. The clickety-clack of knitting needles underscored their mirth, with Minnie and Lillian flanked by twin baskets, one of yarn skeins, one of completed pieces. Callie tinkered with the cogs of a disassembled mantle clock—time truly had no meaning here at the lodge. Shahida regaled them with a comical (and likely bawdy) tale as she burped Kashika, who cooed contentedly as she settled back into her mother’s arms.
Tim held Hiero back a moment, not wanting to disturb them. He attempted to veer them into an adjoining parlor, but Hiero tugged him forward, never one to flee from an audience. And the cheer that rang out at their arrival reminded Tim he should not always retreat from such gatherings.
In truth, he’d not yet grown accustomed to being part of a family—and a large, unconventional one at that. One on one, he took comfort in the company of every member of the household, but he still struggled to find his voice at dinners and in these relaxed moments. He’d been dedicated to his work for so long that he lacked certain social niceties. But he recognized this in himself and wanted very much to be not just Hiero’s partner, but a part of the family. And so he gave himself a brief reprieve by fetching their tea and biscuits from the sideboard, deliberately ignoring the newspaper awaiting him there, and took his place beside Hiero on the loveseat.
Shahida was in rare form, recounting the first time her father took her land-loving mother sailing during their courtship. Hiero chimed in with a similar tale from his and Apollo’s time together, and before Tim knew it, he choked with laughter.
By the time darkness had fallen and the others rejoined them, Tim felt bold enough to share the story of his first tempestuous Channel crossing, he and his mother hugging the rails amidst a thunderstorm when they weren’t retching over the side. He mustn’t have bungled it too badly, for they laughed at the right moments and mewled in sympathy at the harrowing ones. Little Ting even chose to sit on his lap for the telling, giggling into her clasped hands at his more exaggerated gestures.
Tim felt a tingle of sadness when the party dispersed to prepare for supper, leaving him and Hiero alone with Callie. Hiero threaded his arm around him and again pulled him close. Tim knew they too should change out of their outdoor clothes and refresh themselves… but at the moment, he couldn’t be bothered to move. Or lift his head from Hiero’s chest. Or think of anything other than how gluttonously happy he was.
Until Callie cleared her throat.
“A somber note,” she remarked, “to begin our evening. Lord Darlinghouse has died.” When her news met with a tense silence, she added, “In his sleep.”
“Ah!” Tim and Hiero exclaimed in relief that they were not being called back to action, then made the appropriate murmurs of condolence.
“Who is to inherit?” Hiero asked. Tim elbowed him in the side. “What? The man gave us no end of trouble.”
“Perhaps because we gave him no end of noise,” Tim retorted. “In what, apparently, were his final years.”
“Oh dear.” Hiero looked not a whit contrite when he said, “Might the recent quiet have signed his death warrant? Could our absence have hastened his demise?”
“More likely that amidst the peace, he felt himself able to take his eternal rest.”
Callie tisked. “The pair of you. More incorrigible by the day.”
“Do not claim to mourn him,” Tim countered. “The man you once threatened to use as target practice when he complained about your… hobby.” Callie had a habit of working on her gunmanship in the cellar they shared with Lord Darlinghouse.
“To answer your question,” she said to Hiero, ignoring Tim. “No one.”
That got their attention.
“But surely there’s some distant cousin of a cousin champing at the bit for his circumstances to be improved?” Hiero asked.
“Indeed,” Callie replied with a knowing smirk. “And improved he would be, were it not for the vast sinkhole of debt into which Lord Darly had lowered the ancestral pile. The very entailed pile. And so…”
A second, more pregnant silence descended, one in which gestated—if Tim was not mistaken—a sure-to-be-controversial proposition. Hiero’s chest stiffened under his hand, as if he braced for a fight, or perhaps a flight from the room. Callie, for her part, appeared uncharacteristically hesitant, gnawing a welt into her bottom lip. Tim wondered if he should leave them to it, the venting of some old trouble, but Hiero’s arm cinched him in, an accidental vise. Tim caught his free hand and nestled it between them.
Whatever storm brewed, they would weather it together.
Callie, never one to bandy about the bush, said, “It would be a shrewd investment.”
Though Hiero had not relaxed his posture, he nevertheless responded, “Make your case.”
“Safety, for one, if I may say,” Tim interjected, seeing the logic immediately. “I fear the Gaiety killers will not be the last to threaten us. It would be useful to be able to disappear the family from the house in a matter of minutes.”
Callie nodded. “And given how our family has a tendency to expand with each case…” They both stared at Hiero, who raised his chin, unrepentant. “If we arranged a generous private offer, through our intermediary, no one need know we purchased the property. And think of it. Angus, Jie, and the children could have their own apartment. Minnie and Aldridge a room above the kitchens. Some of Han’s older rabbits could be trained in service.”
“And subterfuge,” Tim added.
Callie smiled, warming to her argument since Hiero had not yet protested. “And we’d have ample room to welcome others, should anyone new be collected.” When Hiero made no reply, she continued, “And, really, if we do not bid for it, there’s no telling who our new neighbours might prove to be.”
Hiero drew in a deep breath, ending on a frown. One of consideration or displeasure, Tim couldn’t fathom. He did wonder why the matter struck Hiero so solemn; he would have thought the chance to protect their family and expand their holdings would thrill him. But then Tim knew very little about the financial side of the household, which he’d only recently learned Hiero personally oversaw.
It was only after Hiero made three aborted attempts at replying that Tim realized he intended to refuse. Their eyes met, Tim’s reflecting his shock, Hiero’s his dismay. Tim hugged him tighter, unyielding in his support.
“The idea has merit,” Hiero finally said, his tone the most sober Tim had ever heard it, “but I fear our resources do not stretch to maintaining three houses and a large portion of the Castleside compound.”
Callie shined him a look, just then, that might have broken the resolve of a lesser man, full of determination, resilience, affection, and shared history and heartache. “Mine do.”
Hiero shook his head. “My dear—”
“For the benefit of our family, Hiero. For their security.”
“Which is not currently under threat. And is the very reason we installed the tunnel.”
“That lets out into the street. Where are they to go, should the worst occur?”
“You know very well provisions have been made. Plans have been set in place.”
“Plans change!” Callie shot to her feet. “Do I not, as a woman of one and twenty, know my own mind? Will I know it any more or less in four years?”
“I daresay you are still too young to know how much can change in a year,” Hiero countered softly, almost tenderly. Tim felt the fervent squeeze to his hand as Hiero added, “One’s whole world can alter in the blink of an eye, should you meet the right person.” He let out a heavy sigh. “Regardless. I did not set the circumstances of your inheritance. Whether I agree with the terms your uncle decided upon or not is immaterial. I am bound by the same legal restrictions that delay your independence.”
Callie scoffed. “The great Hieronymus Bash, master detective, reformed scoundrel, and genial raconteur can inveigle any living soul except a firm of lawyers.”
“You mistake me. I could intercede. But I will not act against Apollo’s wishes. And whether you believe it or not, I promise you, he took great care in every matter that concerned your future.”
Chastened, Callie bowed her head. “He did. I well know it.”
Hiero reached out a hand to her. She hovered behind the table a moment, defiant, but eventually crossed the room to clasp his hand and take the chair at their side.
“And because he kindled that spark within you instead of snuffing it out,” Hiero continued, “you’ve become the enterprising young woman we all admire. So, Madam Detective, how do we solve this?”
Callie renewed her efforts to dig a chunk out of her lip, her gaze travelling around the room. An investigator of considerable skill, part of her earlier fervor likely stemmed from the fact that she had already worked out several alternate solutions, and the second-best choice she did not like one bit.
Scrunching up her face as if to hold back the words, she said, “Sell the lodge?”
Tim and Hiero simultaneously emitted a wail of protest.
“Equally impossible,” Hiero sighed. “We cannot leave Odile exposed in such a manner.”
Tim’s ears pricked up at this. “But what has Lady Odile to do with it?”
“Has no one said?” Callie explained, “The lodge is on her estate.”
“Oh!” Tim smiled. “Perhaps we can beg a tour of the main house after all.”
Hiero chuckled fondly. “I’m sure it would be no bother, although she is not in residence. As per her last letter…” He looked to Callie.
“On her nuptial voyage or her year of mourning?” Tim asked.
“Mourning, of course.” Hiero winked. “I forwarded your condolences.”
“How very thoughtful of you, my love.” They shared a private, appreciative glance, and Tim’s smile broadened. “So under no circumstances can we sacrifice the lodge. Not that I’d care to, given how pleasant our stay here has been.”
“Indeed,” Callie huffed. “Option three—”
“Hold a minute,” Tim said. “I may be in a position to make an offer. Not a generous one, so there will be some finagling to be done on that score, but… yes.” Tim stole a moment to admire the astonishment on their faces. “With a promise of my own. That if, when you are five and twenty, you still wish to purchase the house from me, Callie, I will happily sell it.”
“Wonderful!” Callie clapped her hands. “I’ll write to our solicitors at once.” To Tim’s surprise, she swooped down and hugged him fiercely. To Hiero she said, “How very clever. A great deal can change in a year if you meet the right person.”
Tim settled back into Hiero’s side as Callie left for the kitchens to announce the news to the family. He felt champagne giddy at having finally found a way to contribute to their togetherness in a meaningful way. But a glance at Hiero warned that Tim’s bubbles might soon burst, popped on the sharp point of his one upraised eyebrow.
Tim smirked. “You’re wondering.”
“I…” He watched the conflict of emotions play out on Hiero’s face. “Your affairs are in almost every way my affairs, save in this type of affair, which you may keep or share, as is your preference. Excepting that in this particular affair, our affairs do seem to… intermingle, as it were, so I would feel more confidence in my support if you were willing to provide a bit of insight into this… affair.”
Tim laughed. “You need only ask.”
“So you are.” Tim very much wanted to smooth a finger across his upper lip, where his world-renown moustache was still in the process of regrowing to its former majesty. “The rewards, of course, have been generous. Tumnus, even, showed his gratitude.” Tim did not mention how admirable it had been of Hiero to permit him to keep the lion’s share of the reward money they earned as investigators. “I did not care to say in front of Callie, but, as you know, I recently turned five and twenty—”
“An evening I well recall.”
Tim fought against his rising blush. “Quite. And it seems my father’s employer set up a trust for me as well, as a form of… of…”
“Blood money,” Hiero all but growled.
“It was my intention to pay the gentleman in question a visit upon our return, to thank him and refuse since I am well established in my own right. But now…”
Hiero recovered his mood. “Now you have a family to consider.”
“Indeed I do.” Tim cupped his face, met him in a giving kiss.
After a dinner full of merriment, spirited conversation, and good cheer, they all retired, the early darkness and an afternoon of fresh air conspiring with their fatigue. All except Hiero, who loved nothing more than to sit in front of the roaring hearth in the grand hall with a cup of mulled wine and the companionship of his beloved. At a later hour, he would allow himself to be lured up to the sultry climes of their bed. But for the first time since Apollo passed, Hiero had someone with which to revive their ritual of extinguishing all the lights save the glow of the flames, curling up in a double-size armchair and basking in the moment.
Peace reigned within him. Hiero hadn’t been certain if his Kip, with his relentless curiosity and busy mind, would be able to give sway to contemplation. But as they reclined, one of Lillian’s downy quilts tucked around them, Hiero felt the languor overtake Kip.
So content that he almost started to doubt it, Hiero instead carded his fingers through the copper strands of Kip’s hair, burnished in the firelight. This outing had had the unexpected consequence of healing Kip in heart. Hiero had known his lungs hadn’t quite recovered from his springtime injury, but the flush of their new love had masked how weary Kip had become of the grind of city life. Of keeping his place and earning his keep. But here Kip had been able to exhale. Here both his mind and his feet could wander. Here their love had deepened still, had strengthened into an indelible bond. Previously they had adventured together, struggled together… Now they could simply be together.
Wherever that might lead.
Hiero took another draught of the rich, spicy wine, gone a bit lukewarm after being neglected on the side table. Still potable, but just. His lazy mind reached for a verse that befitted the tranquil evening, but nothing of particular romance or gravitas came to him. Though he could breathe life into the floweriest or most pedantic of speeches—and had, during his long stage career—Hiero struggled to express his true desires, to woo Kip with his own words. And his Kip, who saw to the heart of Hiero as no one else could, deserved to be wooed. To be flattered. To be made to feel like—
Scratching at the door put a halt to his meandering thoughts. Hiero stilled, craned an ear upward. Again a bestial scratching attacked the front door, which shuddered in its frame. Hiero sympathized, stifling his own shiver. Did wolf packs hunt this far south? Were bears known to roam this close to the seaside? A rabid fox? A starving lynx? A very resentful badger?
The scratching intensified. Whatever fell beast lurked beyond let out a chilling howl.
Kip, half-lost to slumber, startled and lifted his head. “What the dickens?”
Before Hiero could protest, Kip threw back the quilt, uncurled himself from their embrace, and sat up straight, listening.
“Shh!” Kip pressed a finger to Hiero’s lips. He rubbed it along the underside of his moustache as he listened, chuckling quietly to himself. Hiero snatched it and bit the tip. The scratching and howling continued, somehow less menacing now that his own guard dog had the scent. “What could it be? Have you had any such trouble in the past?”
“Nothing of the sort.”
“It doesn’t sound particularly fearsome. Or large.”
“Ah, but ferocious things do, on occasion, come in tiny packages.”
To Hiero’s dismay, Kip relinquished the last of his hold on him to go and stand before the door. He pressed his hand to the trembling wood, feeling lower and lower until he located the point of impact. Whatever demanded entry so persistently wasn’t taller than infant.
“Perhaps someone’s mislaid their pet ferret?” Hiero quipped. He gathered all his courage as he moved to Kip’s side.
“Or a mink stole revived and made its escape?”
Hiero snickered. “A bat smashed into one of the windows and lost its sense of direction.”
“Ha!” Kip exclaimed, then covered his mouth out of fear of waking the others. “Well, since I can’t top that, we’d best see if the poor thing requires our help.”
Hiero stopped him before he reached the lock. “Must we?”
A desperate howl all but pierced through the door; the scratches grew cutting, frantic.
“I daresay. But if you prefer to barricade yourself in our bedchamber…”
“And leave you to…” Hiero couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought. “But perhaps we should arm ourselves?”
Kip laughed. “With what weapons?”
With a fond shake of his head, Kip shooed him off. “Fetch a blanket. It might require some care.”
Charged with his mission, Hiero strode off… then realized he’d abandoned Kip to who knew what danger, so he grabbed the quilt and tiptoed back.
By this time, Kip had unlatched the door and eased it back, leaving a thin slit of space through which he surveyed their stoop. No sooner had he set eyes on their intruder than he let out a cry of upset, threw open the door, and knelt to comfort the wounded beast.
The creature, a blur of fur and claws and teeth that shot through his legs as soon as there was space, barrelled straight for Hiero. He promptly yelped and jumped onto a chair. The wild, wet thing circled the great hall three times, barking at the top of its lungs until Kip managed to lock the door and snatch it up in the quilt.
“There, there, now, little wolf,” Kip cooed—cooed!—to the creature. “You’ve found us. What’s the trouble? Got a fright out there on your lonesome, did you? You’re safe now.”
Kip cradled the wriggling bundle to his chest until it stilled. Its dark, bedraggled head found its way out of the quilt. A pair of huge brown eyes looked down a long, regal snout at Kip. After a final, anguished howl that likely woke the household, the thing set about bathing Kip’s chin with licks.
Hiero, bristling, set a cautious foot on the ground. “What is it, to be so… familiar?”
Kip, petting and clicking his tongue at the small beast, barely spared him a glance. “Whatever can you mean? It’s a dog.” The ungrateful thing barked and nipped Kip on the jaw. He turned to address it with doe eyes. “A puppy, rather. Forgive me, Your Grace.”
“It’s hardly the Duke of Wellington,” Hiero scoffed, inching closer but still wary. He caught a whiff of its scent and leapt back, pinching his nose. “And it could do with a bath.”
To his dismay, Kip appeared utterly taken with the pup, rubbing it behind the ears and letting it gnaw on his knuckles to calm it. “Had a good old tumble through the snow and the mud, did you? You must have had an awful fright to run so far away from home.”
“Home?” Hiero perked up. “Do you mean it absconded from a local farm?”
“A farm? Not with a coat like this.” Kip brushed his hand through the puppy’s damp but—Hiero hated to admit—lustrous black-and-blonde fur. “I’d say that he… He?” He lifted the dog’s hind legs. “She! Escaped from a nearby manor house. She’s far too well-fed and groomed to be a herder, and with all this hair…” The pup’s forelegs resembled a pair of hand muffs, so puffy was her fur, and light-blonde ruffles fanned out from her dark snout and around her ears. “I doubt she’s a ratter. She’s too…”
Kip almost blushed as he confessed, “Beautiful.”
Aghast, Hiero retreated behind the double armchair. “If she’s missing, then we must reunite her with her family.” He pretended not to hear the soft sigh Kip let out. “Posthaste.”
“My love, it’s the dead of night.” Kip shifted the now-docile puppy onto his shoulder and cautiously approached. “The longest night. And who knows how far she’s come? We’ll send someone out to make inquiries at the main house in the morning. But for tonight…”
Kip tucked himself back against Hiero’s side and nuzzled into his neck. When Hiero looked down, he met a simmering green gaze that affected him in ways he had never been able to resist. And could not begin to now.
“A blanket in front of the fire will have to suffice.” Hiero huffed a breath, let his Kip console him with a sweet, lingering kiss. “In our bedchamber, but not on the bed.”
“Of course not, love,” Kip whispered against his lips, linking their hands that he might guide him away to their leisure.
Though a part of him still wondered what he was getting into, Hiero followed.
Tim woke the next morning to a tail curled around his head. He opened his eyes to find the pup sitting on his chest like a queen on a river barge, in a pose that demanded both admiration and worship. With a haughty yip, she flicked a tail-tip in his eye and pointed her snout toward the door.
And somehow Tim became all the more smitten. He hardly required an alienist to understand why such a proud, elegant, and affectionate creature had him wrapped around her paw. He’d begged a dog from his parents for most of his childhood but was always denied. And one hardly needed be a detective to notice the link between the preening pup and the vanity of the man dozing beside him.
Or, rather, not. Tim surveyed the empty bed with a gimlet eye as he set the dog down on the floor and tugged on a robe. Just as he wondered what came first, the pup invading their bed space or Hiero’s retreat, the man himself entered, carrying a tea tray. Tim fought to stop his jaw from falling open at the sight of Hiero, fully dressed and groomed at a quarter to nine in the morning, and with tea, no less.
“Sleep well, mon amour?” Hiero asked as he deposited the tray on the night table and began pouring Tim’s usual cup, cream first, one lump.
The puppy, seizing its chance, raced out the door. A chorus of squeals sounded when she found the children.
“Well informed, yes, and Jie there to supervise,” Hiero assured him. “I sent Angus to the main house to make inquiries among the servants.”
Tim couldn’t help a frown. “How efficient.”
“Her family must be beside themselves with worry.”
“Mmm. Perhaps.” Tim let it be known by his tone that he was not fooled—and privately held doubts about the quality of the pup’s owners since caring people did not let a vulnerable creature out into the wilderness. But time would tell, and certainly they were obligated to do some cursory investigation. Even if…
Well. Hiero had not actually said, Don’t let yourself get too attached, but if he had, he would have been correct. Much to Tim’s dismay.
He received his teacup with begrudging politeness and set about preparing for the day. By the time they descended to break their fast, Ting and Feng chased the lively pup around the great hall while Jie, Lillian, and Shahida looked on fondly. Han was busy devising a makeshift leash for her, and Minnie chopped up some stewed meat for her bowl. Aldridge whistled the puppy to him and slipped her a slice of carrot. Callie shot Tim and Hiero a knowing look when they entered but couldn’t help a smile.
Tim fought to quell the pang in his chest as he grabbed a plate for the buffet. Especially since, as soon as he took his place at the table, the pup abandoned her charges and came to sit on his feet. He snuck a hand down to pet her when Hiero turned his focus elsewhere. She gazed up at him with those sweet brown eyes, and the pang became an ache.
The door let out a loud crack as Angus returned.
Two hours later, he and Hiero wove their way around to the front of the main house. Hiero relinquished Tim’s arm just before they exited the woods, and Tim felt the loss acutely. The puppy had surprised him with her energy, bounding along the grass as they crossed the lawn. Tim had let her lead drop to see if she recognized her home, but she only seemed interested in running circles around them and rolling in the snow. He took this as a good omen.
“Tell me again who’s in residence?” He’d been a touch distracted when Angus explained that someone was indeed living at the house, though Lady Odile herself remained abroad.
“Odile’s Great-Aunt Millicent.”
“Ah.” Tim nodded but did not understand. “Her real aunt, or…”
“Who can say?” Hiero shrugged. “As you know, Odile’s adventures often take her off the beaten path. She claims Millicent is a spinster aunt who fled the family in her youth and became a pirate.”
“Bloody Millie Thunderheart, the Terror of la Trinidad. Claims to have sailed with Lafitte and killed over a hundred Royal Navy men.”
“That’s rather wonderful.”
“Isn’t it?” Hiero grazed the back of his hand across Tim’s, a static spark even through his thick leather gloves. “She’s old as an oak now, of course. Ah, but to have seen her in her day, astride the… front bit—”
“—sword in hand—”
“Cutlass, you mean?”
Hiero let out a blustery breath. “Bah! What do I know of sailing?”
“You shared a bed with an admiral for half a decade?”
“A bed, yes. Not a…” Hiero mimed swinging.
“Hammock?” He shuddered.
Tim pressed a fist to his mouth to stifle his laughter. “We’re never so much as crossing the Channel, are we?”
“I desperately hope not.”
Tim gathered the puppy into his arms and wiped the snow off her paws as they approached the entrance. She lay her fluffy head on his shoulder. Helpless to her charms, he petted her soft belly. They found the door ajar and the head butler awaiting them. With his pocked, spoiled-milk complexion and one rheumy eye, it was a miracle he possessed the energy to usher them down an endless hall to a parlour that connected to Great-Aunt Millicent’s boudoir for reasons that became readily apparent.
A woman so frail a loud knock might have shattered her sat on a throne chair, her skeletal limbs arranged in artful welcome on the wide, cushioned arms. She wore a robe of such riotous florals that its pinks and tangerines and teals greyed her skin, the white wisps of her hair bound in a scarf and pinned with a fat emerald brooch. Her eyes, still the blue of deep ocean, appeared to focus on another time, another place, a memory.
Tim realized immediately they had come to the right place. Two manicured hounds of the longest, most luxurious manes Tim had ever seen, one corn-silk yellow, one black and silver, sat at her feet. The puppy barked, lunged at her mother, but Tim didn’t want to let her go. Not just yet.
Great-Aunt Millicent snapped to attention, though the dogs did not.
“Ah! There you are, Lupina.” She tittered, sharp as wind chimes. “I did wonder.”
“As did we,” Hiero responded with a bow. “Roused by rabid scratching in the middle of the night.”
She squinted in his direction. “I believe we are acquainted, are we not?”
“Long ago, madam, at the Black Masquerade.”
“Oh, yes!” A laugh shook through her, so forceful Tim feared she might expire. “On the arm of the sun god, you were. Dear Apollo. Wait!” She raised a quivering finger. “Don’t tell me… ‘Is it not Hiero? Who can blot the name with any just reproach?’”
“The very same.” He waved Tim forward. “May I present Detective Inspector Timothy Kipling Stoker. DI Stoker, Miss Millicent Goldenplover.”
“Call me Millie, dear heart.” She giggled. “I fear you are come too late with your shackles, Inspector. They will do naught but snap my bones, and I will slip free.”
“I wouldn’t dare defile such delicate wrists.” Tim bowed in turn. To his dismay, the puppy took this as her cue to leap out his arms and set about sniffing around the room. Curiously, she did not go to her mother. “But I would caution you to keep this little one on a shorter leash.”
“Yes, yes.” She wheezed out a sigh. “What will we do with you, Lupina? The servants are beside themselves. Knocked over a priceless porcelain vase. Bit a corner off a medieval tapestry. Odile will have my head. The runt of the litter, you know. And yet still a princess. But no one will have her. What can I do?”
Tim wanted, so very, very badly, to glace at Hiero, but he was no fool. He knew the power Hiero’s looks had over him—those dark, gleaming eyes like a midnight sky—therefore his own gaze must have some effect on Hiero. But Tim recognized no good would come from begging. Neither could he figure out a way to persuade Hiero it was his idea to keep the dog, all while persuading Great-Aunt Millicent to let them have her.
The puppy, oblivious to the machinations surrounding her fate, attacked the gold-fletched leg of an armoire.
After a long silence, during which Tim feared Great-Aunt Millicent had fallen asleep, Hiero cleared his throat.
“Do you mean to say, dear Millie, that this”—he waggled a finger in the puppy’s direction—“is descendant from these two glorious creatures?”
Tim perked up his head but still did not turn Hiero’s way, not daring to hope.
Great-Aunt Millicent straightened in her chair and decreed, “Princess Lupina Kush Khadija Barakzai is indeed the daughter of these two royal Persian hounds, a gift to me from the Emir of Afghanistan at the conclusion of our hunting expedition in the Afghan Hills.”
“These dogs are hunters?” Tim asked, pulse quickening.
“Do not be fooled by their dignified demeanor and abundant coiffure. They are swift. They are canny. They are agile. And they are exceptionally loyal.” As if to demonstrate, Great-Aunt Millicent pursed her lips in a breathy whistle.
Gangly little Lupina raced to the center of the room, eager to obey until she saw who beckoned her. She stopped several feet short of the throne chair and glanced over her shoulder, right at Tim. Her head toggled back and forth, back and forth, duty and desire until she let out a yip of protest and retreated back to Tim. In a stunning bit of insight for a wee pup, she sat herself between Hiero and Tim, snout raised in defiance.
Tim did look at Hiero then, pleading with everything in him. But Hiero’s dark-star eyes were already cast downward at sweet Lupina, who had claimed them as her own. Hiero bent to pat her on the head. When he straightened, he met Tim’s eyes with an ardent look, and for all he wanted the dog, Tim suddenly wished they were alone.
“Merry Christmas,” Hiero mouthed to him, then to Great-Aunt Millicent, “It seems she has found her place. If, that is, you are willing to part with her.”
Bloody Millie Thunderheart, Terror of la Trinidad, chirped a delighted laugh. “Far be it from me to defy a lady who knows her own mind.”
Some hours and several cups of tea later, they strolled through the winter woods, a gentle snowfall twinkling the air with pixie dust. Lupina galloped far ahead of them, then circled back, bound ahead and circled back, as if celebrating her freedom. A steady arm knit his Kip to his side, Hiero dropping the occasional kiss to his crown, or his brow, or his upturned lips. He thrilled to see Kip so happy, far worth the inconvenience of a wild little dog… or anything, ever. The world had done his beloved more than a few injustices, and if it was within his power to right them, Hiero would.
He slowed their pace as they approached the lodge, wishing the moment would never end—Kip’s taut body married to his own, the enchanted forest, their sprightly guide. But then Ting and Feng, making snow angels, spotted the dog and started jumping up and down. Lupina sprinted toward them to join in the fun. The squealing and barking drew the rest of the family out of the house to welcome them back: Angus and Jie, Minnie and Aldridge, Callie and Shahida arm in arm, Lillian trailing behind, Han cradling Kashika.
Kip called out, and the pup trotted back to them, weaving around their feet as they walked the last few paces home. Hiero loosed his hold a bit so that Kip might scoop her up. Hiero reached over to tame the swathes of her hair to make her presentable to her new family. One day, Hiero knew, she would be an incomparable beauty and a fierce huntress. For now, a bit of impromptu grooming would do.
They all rushed toward him with pets and squeezes for the wee pup. The brightness of Kip’s smile almost distracted Hiero, but after a short, diverting daydream, he remembered himself.
“Family, may I formally present our new arrival, our sweetest and most precious Lulu.”
Author’s Note: Lulu is, as you may have guessed, an Afghan hound. In the Victorian era, the breed was known as the Persian hound, though in contemporary times that name belongs to a different breed of dog.
Happy holidays, and a safe and healthy New Year to you all!
Once again this year, I’m participating in the Rainbow Advent Calendar, in which a new story from a different LGBTQ+ romance author is available each day. You can find them all collected at the above link, or in the FB group. A huge thank you to Alex Jane for all her hard work and for hosting this event!
My contribution is this year is a Stoker & Bash short, Three Impossible Words. I call it Stoker & Bash 2.75, since it occurs, like last year’s short, between the events of book 2, The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree, and the still WIP book 3, The Death Under the Dark Arches. It’s almost an outtake, a scene that didn’t quite fit into the plot for S&B 3, but that I wanted to write anyway. Even though it’s set in summer, I hope it brings you a little holiday spirit. Have a wonderful holiday.
Stoker & Bash
Three Impossible Words
August 17th, 1874
Shahida shifted, and shifted, and shifted again. She cupped her hands under her belly and lifted, hoping to alleviate some of the pressure on her insides. A sharp jab let her know what exactly The Pea thought of that. She leaned forward, adjusted her support pillows for the tenth time, and reclined back on this new configuration, but to no avail. Though the chair was soft as a pony’s neck and the cushions fat-cat fluffy, at this stage of up-the-duffery—two months or so out from the blessed day—comfort didn’t exist.
Someone might have warned her. Her mother, for instance, or her midwife aunt, or one of the many nurses at the former religious cult, now fallen women’s home, where she gave grooming lessons once a week. She’d never understood the conspiracy of silence around childbearing and the carnal act, or the great many things one must never speak of, according to those who did not care to speak of them. As if secretiveness ever helped anyone do good.
Shahida dragged her mind back from its latest tangent, another refuge from her never-ending discomfort. She found Lillian, a vision of serenity amidst the flower beds of their rooftop garden, and waved. Lost to painting a leaf and blossom motif on The Pea’s cradle, Lillian made no reply. She’d retreated back into herself in the wake of her ordeal at the hands of the Daughters of Eden, but Shahida found quiet, useful activities, like painting or gardening, helped to slowly lure Lillian back out of her shell.
Shahida shifted again, this time farther under her parasol. The sun gave no quarter on this bright midsummer afternoon. Though banks of smog on the horizon’s edge threatened to befoul the day, for now the silver shimmer of the sky capped air thick with breathless humidity. Shahida daydreamed of the ices Minnie had served the night before as a special treat, of wading bare-legged in the shallows of the Serpentine as disapproving boaters floated by.
Just as the weight of her boredom threatened to crush her like, well, a pea, Callie marched out of the house carrying an armful of wallpaper samples rolled into a tight scroll. Hiero slunk out behind her, a cat with his tail between his legs, and collapsed onto a chaise longue with a dramatic sigh. As Callie fanned the samples out across the small table between them, Shahida could not help the snicker that escaped her. Not only did their arrival signal the end to her boredom (though never her discomfort), but they had both come seeking her counsel in their own awkward, avoiding ways. Shahida recognized the signs well enough. The rest of the afternoon should prove to be amusing, at the very least.
“The latest from Mr. William Morris,” Callie declared while sliding a few of the samples in her direction. Shahida stared, feigning incomprehension, until Callie plopped them atop her belly. Resisting the urge to launch one at her head, Shahida began to flip through them. “Some lovely blue shades there.”
Shahida stared at Callie, who sorted them by color with brisk efficiency, pausing every so often to pull a promising pattern out.
“Renovations begin on Monday. Unless you’d prefer to select a room on a lower floor,” Callie remarked without looking up. “Then we might postpone them. I don’t believe the babe will upset Mother, but you’re welcome to your privacy, of course.”
“Of course.” Shahida almost choked on the words. The tears came fierce and fast these days, much to her annoyance. She’d never been one for sorrow. Even joyful tears made her cross. Too much wonder in the world to weep over, she’d always thought. Like the refuge she and The Pea had found here due to nothing more than her father’s unlikely friendship with the captain of the ship he worked on. So many at the fallen women’s home, and other less hospitable places besides, reminded her daily of her good fortune. “The attic. Can’t be too far from our Lil.”
“As mentioned, you can if you prefer. If only for the first few months. A room could be arranged, and then you’ll move up to the new nursery once you’ve… got the sense of things.”
Shahida welcomed the chance to retreat back into what she knew best: teasing the life out of Callie.
“Things? And what things are these?”
Callie firmed her mouth but would not give Shahida the benefit of her irritation.
“Motherly tasks, I suppose. Bathing and feeding and… cradling. And whatnot.”
“And what shades match with mothering, do you think? Just the blue, or—”
She harrumphed. “Whatever suits.”
“Suits? Suits me? Or The Pea? We’ll both be staring at them walls for hours on end. Pea more than me, even. Should we ask her, then?”
Callie visibly fought a smile. “If you’re confident in her answer.”
“She does like to make herself felt.” Shahida grunted, the babe striking right on cue. “How was the rugby?”
That earned her a genuine smile. “Oh, wonderful. A player on the opposing team dislocated his shoulder.”
Only Callie would describe such a painful turn of events as “wonderful,” Shahida mused.
“Blimey. Is he all right?”
“Stubborn as an ox, but yes. Though if he means to continue to ignore sound advice and offers of help from unconventional sources, I cannot say much for his future wellbeing.”
Shahida chuckled. “By which you mean you told him to call in a doc, he said, ‘Not if London Bridge was burning down,’ you insisted he let you give it a go, he told you to stuff it, you gave his arm a tug, and he nearly socked you one… with his bad arm, now mended.”
“Really, it’s as if you were there.”
“Hardly needed to be, did I?” Shahida let out a sharp breath, shifted again. “I hope he stood you a pint.”
“He did not.” But by the blush that crept up her cheeks and the way Callie averted her eyes, he’d offered her something, probably in the crudest language possible. And the offer had not been unwelcome. “But his team had the grace to lose, so I consider the debt paid.”
“And where was himself while you played nurse with the rugger bloke?”
Callie shrugged, giving her rigorous attention to a section of animal patterns. But in doing so, she’d exposed her belly, and Shahida knew just where to prod.
“Abandoned you, did he, ’midst a throng of sweaty, strapping sportsmen? That don’t sound like him.”
An exasperated sigh gusted in her direction. “Nor was it. He stood at my side and observed. As always.” Though Callie still would not meet her eyes, she intuited the look Shahida shot in her direction. “He knows better than to intervene.”
“Until he must?”
“And has he ever?”
“Once or twice,” Callie replied through gritted teeth. “And made his feelings on the matter known afterward.”
Shahida laughed, knowing only too well how that must have gone. Still, that kind of tension between two people could lead to interesting places. If the two people in question let their guard down long enough to see in the other what shined lighthouse bright to everyone else. Some nights, when the three of them sat around the hearth, chatting or gaming or reading aloud, it was all she could do not to shove the two of them together and shout, “Kiss!” But then she’d never been one for half measures in affairs of the heart.
A silence more pregnant that she was fell over them. Shahida flipped through a few more samples, waited Callie out. She’d felt the tremors of change rumbling within her friend ever since their ordeal with the Daughters of Eden, but they had yet to make a crack in Callie’s composure, let alone crumble the foundation of her self-possession in order to build anew. Too prideful by far, she was, though Shahida had grown to like her imperiousness. And discovered it masked an innocence that brought out Shahida’s maternal side a few months too early.
“If I may be impertinent…” Callie began, eyes fixed on a horrid yellow pattern of wasps and nests.
“Please! I could do with some impertinence, and some scandal besides.”
“How did you know?” She fussed with the edge of a sample until it curled. Mr. Morris would not be pleased. “Your beau, I mean.”
Callie blew out a long breath. “That he would be a good companion. That… that what you felt for him was more than just…” She whipped the page over. “That he was worthy.”
Shahida threw her head back and laughed her lungs out. “Worthy? I didn’t. Still don’t, because he isn’t, is he? Look how he left me.” She fought to catch her breath and to give Callie an answer she deserved. “Some, like my mum and dad, might say I didn’t think at all. And truth be told, they aren’t half right. You don’t think and mope and write forty sonnets about a bloke like some penniless poet. It just… happens.”
“But how? Your parents can’t have left you alone together.”
She snorted. “Their mistake was letting us meet at all. Soon as I got a look at him…” Shahida waded into the memories of that time. “You can be alone with someone in a room packed full of people. No one pays anyone else much mind in the ale room of an inn unless you’ve forgotten to serve them their ale. No one who works the docks has a care for a clerk tucked in the corner, fussing with his books. And if an enterprising young lass happens to meet said clerk on the street while on her way to market, why, it’s only polite to say a quick hello. And if he lingers in the ale room till the last bell, it’s only too easy to have a quiet word with him while your mum’s shouting people out. When he’s all you can think about, and you’re all he wants, it’s easy to slip a note or sneak away for an hour or steal an afternoon meant to be spent elsewhere. But I knew from that first look, from the first tilt of his hat, and from there it was just… when, where, how. No stopping us.”
Shahida swam from the pool of her thoughts into the hard bank of Callie’s stare. She found disappointment reflected there along with worry and regret.
“Did you love him?”
She huffed. “Fool that I am. Worse, I trusted him.”
A tortured groan drew their attention—as intended—over to the chaise longue, where Hiero remained collapsed, hand to brow like some tragic heroine. When they made to resume their conversation, a second, bleating sound interrupted them. Hiero flopped about, dejected, a fish in the bottom of a boat. Except instead of air, he gasped for attention.
After sharing a look, the ladies gave over to the true child among them. Shahida hoped The Pea wasn’t taking notes.
But instead of indulging his obvious desire to discuss his own romantic woes—of which there couldn’t have been many, since he and Mr. Stoker had spent the summer devoted to one another—Shahida decided to teach Hiero to share. Something that came naturally to him in some ways but less so in personal matters.
“But why ask me when we’ve our very own Romeo here?” Shahida barely swallowed her giggles. “Were you set on Mr. Stoker from the first, Mr. Bash? Or did you lurk under his balcony at night, desperate to catch a glimpse, wailing to the moon?”
Callie cackled so loudly she covered her mouth with her hand.
With feline grace, Hiero leapt to his feet, prowled over to their table, and curled into a waiting chair. He appeared to contemplate batting at a long string of leaves from one of Lillian’s overhanging plants.
“My dear Kip pursued me, I’ll have you know. Only much later was I won over by his charms.”
Callie scoffed. “If by ‘pursued’ you mean ‘investigated for criminal misconduct.’ And by ‘charms’ you mean—”
“Do recall you are speaking of the man I adore beyond measure.”
“And what calamity has ripped him from your side on this—” Callie took quick stock of their surroundings. “—passably fair afternoon?”
Hiero scowled. “A visit. From our physician.”
To Shahida’s surprise, this softened Callie. She reached over to squeeze Hiero’s arm.
“All will be well.”
Though he nodded, Hiero replied only, “Perhaps.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “Shall I ring for tea?”
“If you please,” Callie answered.
“In this unbearable heat?” Shahida grumbled, shifting anew. She watched him rise and return, scheming her next question. “And once he won you—Mr. Stoker, this is—did you think it just a passing fancy? Or were you sunk straightaway?”
A series of half-serious, half-comical expressions played out on his face. Hiero opened and closed his mouth several times, pursing, curving, and biting his lips before confessing, “I can’t recall.”
“You don’t recall how you came to adore the man you adore? One might even say ‘love.’”
Hiero startled in his seat as if a mouse scurried underfoot.
“You might, I daresay.”
“What? When? Where? Who has been talking out of school? Or our apartments, more like. Snooping. Spying. Was it you? What have you heard? J’accuse!”
Shahida gaped, still not accustomed to his fits of nonsense babble.
Callie, an old hat at Hiero interpretation, deciphered his meaning.
“My dear Hiero.” She chuckled a little under her breath as she turned his endearment against him. “Have you not said those three precious words to your Kip?”
Hiero huffed. Inhaled so deep his chest puffed up, only to deflate when he failed to find the words. He angled his torso away from them and contemplated the chimneysweep view of Mayfair, looking as if he’d rather pitch himself over the rail than give an honest reply. Not that they couldn’t guess what that would be.
“Three impossible words,” he muttered. He grabbed a bunch of samples, tossing each one back post-evaluation, then set one before Shahida and stabbed a finger down. “There.”
Shahida cradled the book. An elephant and marigold motif on cream paper, with accents of gold, dark gray, and lapis blue.
“This one,” she confirmed, passing it over to Callie, who nodded her approval.
Shahida contemplated Hiero, who preened in the wake of his success, though whether in selecting the wallpaper or avoiding an answer, she did not know. There was no question in her mind he and Mr. Stoker were well matched. Indeed, they appeared to her so settled a couple that she was shocked to learn they’d only met the previous October. And yet for reasons of his own, Hiero couldn’t commit to even saying the word “love.” This struck her as a wrong that must be righted.
She waited to pounce until the tea had been served and peace restored.
“Impossible to feel or impossible to say?”
She heard Callie’s soft gasp but continued to gaze expectantly at Hiero, who’d stopped stirring his tea. He shut his eyes.
“No heart is entirely closed to…” He waved a hand at the sky. “Certainly not when one is as entrenched as I.”
“Is it to do with Uncle?” Callie asked in a girl’s voice far from her usual snapping tone.
“After a fashion.” Hiero sighed, then, courage stuck, explained. “I spoke those words to your uncle on many an occasion, in times of true devotion and in times of… well. Six years, you know. Not every second was paradise.” Callie nodded. He cleared his throat. “You are aware, I’m sure, of how I made his acquaintance?”
“He kept you,” she said plainly, but not unkindly, her maturity restored. “But you cared for him. I saw it.”
“I did. And deeply. He’s mourned, and will forever be. But with Kip…”
The change in his expression, the warmth, the worship, the awe, made Shahida smile. No other word for that quality of look.
“He’s yours.” She rubbed her belly, hoping to baste The Pea in her affection. “To have. To love. And to lose.”
Hiero bowed his head. “I have something of a history in that regard.”
“Both of us, I reckon.” Shahida hummed in understanding. “Said things to my beau I never heard back. Never shown back, neither. But even with all that’s happened… No regrets. You got to live what you feel in that moment. If it all gets dashed later… at least you shined. You strutted and fretted your hour upon the stage, you might say.”
“And then was heard no more?” Hiero laughed ruefully.
“But you was heard,” Shahida reminded him. “Loved. And Mr. Stoker would know that he’s loved. That’s not nothing.”
A hint of a smile curled the corner of Hiero’s lips. His eyes, when they met her own, sparked back to mercurial life. They shared a conspiratorial moment that left Shahida thinking Mr. Stoker was a lucky man indeed.
“Whilst on the subject,” Hiero announced, “and in the spirit of good practice starts good habits… I do hope you know, my dear, just how grateful we all are that you and your nearly there agreed to be a part of our wild family. As with most things, we never knew how we needed you until you were there.”
For too long a minute, Shahida couldn’t speak. When both Hiero and Callie reached for her hands, she crushed theirs in her eagerness to form a strong, if imperfect, circle.
“See?” Shahida poorly masked a sniffle. “Speak such nonsense to Mr. Stoker, and you’ll never be free of him.”
Their laughter rang out over the rooftops of Mayfair, into the bright, perfect day.
DI Tim Stoker leaned against a lamppost, coughing his lungs out. A dense pillow of fog had smothered the city for weeks. Not even the first breath of winter’s chill had thinned it, or the torrents of icy rain that flooded the city. There on the Strand, near the river, the night was so thick that the gas lamps’ aura didn’t reach the ground. Pedestrians fumbled their way forward through a blanket of grey mist, aiming for the next floating orb of light.
His boots waterlogged and his overcoat soaked through, Tim lurched into an alcove to collect himself before sprinting the last half block to the Gaiety. A few measured inhalations—and half his windpipe hacked into his handkerchief—and his chest settled. He’d spent all day outside the back entrance to the Spanish embassy on the lookout for the private secretary to the Duke of Wellington. His lordship suspected the formerly trusted Mr. Tolliver of selling some family portraits to the ambassador’s wife, an ungrateful cousin. An umbrella being too conspicuous, Tim was forced to do without. Thus his moist and congested state.
He wiped a line of condensation off one of the windows in a vain attempt at catching his reflection. After shaking the rain off the brim of his hat, he combed his hair into something tamer than unruly spikes, fingers rigid from cold. He thought again about returning to the meager warmth and poky comforts of his flat or, better yet, slumping in a nearby corner to sleep off his exhaustion. But he had missed every performance of Three Ghosts A-Haunting, the Gaiety’s take on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which Hiero played both Marley-Bone Jacobs and the Ghost of Father Christmas’s Knickers.
Tonight was his final chance, but his omnibus had been delayed by the fog, and he’d missed the first two acts. If Tim hurried—and every inch of his body ached not to—he’d catch the last act and perhaps dry off enough to venture backstage afterward, where the fainting couch in Hiero’s dressing room might get put to its actual use. Because the thought of rushing out into the foggy, frigid damp gave Tim a turn.
Hunching up his collar, he legged it to the Gaiety’s door, only to find it locked. He tried a second one. A third. Biting his tongue to keep from howling in despair, he then noticed a billboard advertising the afternoon show, which had been sold out. Tim punched a fist into the door, hissed as pain exploded across his knuckles. Another coughing fit seized him, and he fell against it, wanting nothing more than to crawl into a ball on the stoop. Instead he hobbled around to the stage door.
Which opened at his touch. Tim stumbled in, shook himself off. The backstage area was fully lit. Perhaps someone lingered? Certainly Mr. Marcus, the manager, would recognize him, as would a few of the stagehands. Tim crept through the serpentine corridors, too shy to call out but hoping to encounter a sympathetic soul. The farther he ventured into the theater, the stronger the savory scent of a roast grew. His stomach urged him past the artisans’ quarters—all empty—and around the bend to the dressing rooms.
He caught the distant hum of conversation and the strum of music. Tim wondered if he’d interrupted some sort of private celebration. He considered retreating to Hiero’s dressing room for the night—he could make quick work of the lock—so as not to disturb them but thought it better to make his presence known. Tucking his hands into his armpits in the hope of restoring his circulation, he pressed on.
A drunken pair he recognized from the troupe skipped into view at the far end of the corridor. And into each other’s arms against the far wall. Before too many layers of clothing could be shed, Tim cleared his throat.
“Oi, it’s Mr. Kipling!” Bertie shouted, shoving his would-be lover off. “Best of the season to you, sir!”
Hiero had introduced him by his middle name to the Gaiety staff so as to avoid anyone identifying him as a detective. Not that Hiero tended to use Tim’s given name much at all.
“He’s been waiting for you.” Giselle, a dancer, slathered the words with innuendo. “Keeps looking at the door.”
“Then he might have left it unlocked.” Tim tried for a playful tone but only sounded grumpy. Possibly something to do with his chattering teeth and soggy boots. “Have I missed the play?”
“Oh, aye. But don’t worry,” Giselle reassured him, “the night’s still young. Plenty of drama left to be lived.”
“Marcus is trying it on with Nell,” Bertie said in a whisper more bullhorn than stage. “Though he’s just broken with Kitty.”
“And his wife’s here looking scammered.” She tittered. “Nell’s been stringing Irving along for ages—price of doing work, that—while juggling some foreign count and a marchioness…”
“But they ain’t here tonight!” Both cackled.
Tim chuckled, buoyed by their high spirits. “And where, pray tell, can I find Mr. Beastly?”
“Where else?” Giselle grinned, gesturing toward where they came. “Center stage.”
After thanking them, Tim wove his way into the wings. Or what would have been the wings, had the usual tiered curtains not been replaced with a backdrop that blocked out the entire side of the stage. A few more revelers exiting toward the back end made quick work of the obstacle. Tim traced back their steps until he came to a small tinsel archway hung between the back and side drops. He glanced inside to make sure he wasn’t interrupting a performance…
And caught his breath. Not from another fit of coughing, but the sight before him.
A table as magnificent as the one at Buckingham Palace dominated the stage, laden with a Christmas feast to rival the royals’. Roast goose, a hock of ham, a rib of beef with Yorkshire pudding, oysters, potatoes, peas, and mince pies, just for a start, with at least five sauces, had Tim wiping the drool from his mouth. A bushel of children almost hid the smaller sweets table at the back, where Tim spotted trifle, Nesselrode pudding, and Lumps of Delight, as well as a near-empty bowl of Roman punch.
The set had been decorated in the manner of a stately home, with candelabra at every corner and a huge, candle-laden chandelier above. An impromptu band hung off the front of the stage, playing Christmas carols on their tin flutes, drums, and fiddles. Every member of the company—other than those already overtaken by amorousness—had a full plate and a group to chat with and had come in full costume. The lively crowd, which Tim guessed included a few family members, spilled out into the audience, everyone twinkle-eyed and smiling.
Tim coughed into his sleeve, his throat suddenly tight.
He spotted Han first in a jade-green brocade coat, arm-wrestling with Angus, who flew his clan colors in a tartan kilt. Little bun-headed Ting cheered them on, a Christmas fairy in gauzy wings. Jie and Minnie snickered into their punch as part of a circle of dancers, while Callie, in a fancier version of her Archie togs, raced some boys up the center aisle. Aldridge, in a powdery barrister’s wig and regal blue robes, played harmonica with the band. And Hiero, the master of ceremonies himself, in a floor-length coat of military red with two flanks of buttons and a gold top hat, held court at the head of the table, half listening as Lady Odile de Volanges moaned over yet another soured love affair.
Tim took a few hesitant steps forward. A glance of his starburst eyes was all Tim got before Hiero leapt to his feet, marching over to greet him to his own eccentric beat.
“You came!” Hiero grabbed the hand Kip reached out to him, spun him into close quarters. “Only the first of the evening’s many eruptions, I hope.”
“I think you mean disruptions,” Kip murmured, taking a step back so as not to dampen his clothes.
“Of course not.” Hiero tisked. “It’s as if you’ve never known me at all.”
“Oh, I’m well aware of your tongue’s… deviousness.”
“Care for further demonstration?”
“Not here,” Tim admonished, curling his fingers into Hiero’s lapels to warm them and keep him at a respectable distance. “Though a brandy would do nicely.”
It was only then Hiero seemed to notice the state of him.
“Goodness! Did they dredge you out of a swamp?”
“Something of the like.” Tim’s stomach snarled like a starving wolf. “Some of that roast might go a long ways toward drying me off—”
“Nonsense. You have no costume.”
“Don’t I make a fetching half-drowned, half-frozen, half-suffocated detective?”
“Forgive me, dear Kip, but that’s rather uninspired.” Hiero sighed, but his black eyes glittered with promise. “I’ll just have to sweep you off—”
“By the Fates, Horace,” Lady Odile blessedly intervened, twining Tim’s arm so tight against her it almost cradled her bosom, “can’t you see the lad’s in desperate shape. Come along, Mr. Kipling, I’ll make you a plate.”
Two heaping helpings and a brandy heated by candle flame later, Tim began to feel more like a prince than a toad. Not that Hiero’s attentions had wavered during this inner transformation. A press of fingertips to his wrist, a knock of foot, a nudge of knee, a smirk so arrow pointed it shot straight to Tim’s funny bone. Lady Odile took great relish in once again recounting the lonely tale of William, her suitor-not-to-be, to which Hiero provided such color commentary that Tim snorted cranberry sauce up his nose. All the while the crackle of Hiero’s regard fuzzed the right edge of his vision, growing in force and intensity until Tim’s skin tingled from its sear.
When Lady Odile called for a slice of the Nesselrode pudding, it was Tim who shushed her.
“Later,” he promised, patting her hand. “I could do with a change of clothes.”
Hiero sprang out of his seat before Lady Odile could answer.
“Allow me to escort you.” He wove a possessive arm around Tim’s middle, steering him toward the backstage. “Man of inconvenient appetites.”
“Myself, or Lady Odile?”
“Both. Neither.” Hiero backed away a step. “You’re very wet.”
“Said the bishop to the nun.”
Hiero threw his head back and laughed. “And in better spirits. Good. Now we just need to pretty you up…”
They’d slipped through a door at the far side of the stage and down a rickety staircase to the bowels of the theater.
“Oh, is that why you’ve lured me down here?”
Something in Tim thrilled at being led blind through the dark to an undisclosed—and intimate—location. Away from the revels and with some senses blocked, Hiero’s natural musk, of smoke, strong coffee, and a touch of sweat, tempted him closer.
The flick of the gaslights murdered the illusion.
The green, sickly cast and the underground gloom muted the vibrant colors of the costumes. Tim wondered how the actors looked so sharp if this was where they had their fittings. Beside a pair of sewing machines and a wall of mirrors, a maze of costume racks stretched on to infinity—or perhaps just the end of the room, obscured by furs and felts and feathers in every style and from every era. Tim recognized Hiero’s phallic horns and red cape from a recent production of Faust, or Who the Devil Wouldn’t? His performance as Misanthrophiles had inspired a great deal of sinning and swearing in Tim, though he hadn’t gone so far as to sign over his soul. As of yet.
No sooner had the door shut than Hiero pinned him against a wall, clammy clothes and squishy boots be damned. His kiss scorched Tim down to the tips of his toes, sensuous and mustached in perfect measure. Hiero was rarely forceful, but the height and size of him thrilled Tim, licking tongues of sensation wherever they touched. He wanted to crawl into his skin, wrap himself in Hiero’s velvet pelt.
But just as suddenly, his heat and heft was gone.
“Strip!” Hiero commanded, then disappeared into the racks.
“I thought that fell under your purview.”
With a chuckle, Tim shed a few layers, relieved to discover the damp hadn’t seeped all the way to his skin. Not that being dry saved him from the chill. By the time Hiero emerged with a dusty quilt, shivers wracked his body. He moaned when Hiero wrapped the quilt around him.
“Don’t get too cozy.” He stepped back, scrutinizing Tim with a master’s eye.
“Oh, forget all that. Any old sack will do. Come here.”
Hiero deftly evaded his grabby hands. “Costume first, whilst my mind is clear.”
Tim laughed. “We haven’t got an eternity. They’ll find us here weeks from now, sword pricked and savage. Rut-meo and Fool-liet.”
Hiero raised a pointed brow. “Have you ever thought of writing for the theater?”
“I prefer to fuck in them.”
“Testy.” A scapegrace smile. “Just how I like you. Oh, hell.”
He lunged at Tim, scooping him up and setting him on a fat-cushioned ottoman pushed against a prop throne. Hiero yanked the quilt from under them to serve as a cover, cocooning in their body heat. The oddity of their surroundings—or perhaps the night in general—gave Tim a fit of the giggles. Hiero silenced them with another breath-stealing kiss. Tim surrendered himself to his tender, passionate care, the softness of his lips and the grind of his hips, the brand of his teeth on his taught chest, the bliss found in the depths of his throat.
Tim lay there afterward, crushed by Hiero’s slinky but solid frame, his spirits floating up to the ceiling. He felt golden; he felt adored. More, he felt grateful, for this man and his ministrations, for this little oasis from the sleet and the smog and the drone of city life. He could be at his lodging house, warm and dry but alone. Instead he played couch to a slumbering giant who’d fed him and loved him and would later revel with him till the wee hours.
“Thank you,” Tim whispered into the dark waves of his hair.
“For being you. For welcoming me into your world.”
“That’s a rather generous description of recent events.”
“Your magnanimity is starting to rub off on me.”
“Rub off? Intriguing. Tell me more…”
Tim blew one of the holly leaves from his crown out of his eyes before settling in beside Hiero on the divan. The entire company had oohed and ahhed at their entrance—with a few catcalls thrown in for good measure. Hiero had exchanged his ringmaster getup for a dark wizard/Father Time-esque ensemble, while Tim—his so-called masterpiece—had been forced into a Puck costume. He had bartered the green hose for Robin Hood’s cape and trousers, but at the price of the Ghost of Christmas Present’s holly crown. He even let Hiero paint his eyes. Though he would never admit it if pressed, he didn’t hate the overall effect. It made him see something different in himself, and he strode back into the gathering with new confidence.
By the time they returned, the table had been moved to the back and the chairs set up as a small audience to one side. Mr. Marcus’s office had been raided for a divan and a few wingback chairs, on which Hiero and family were given pride of place since they’d provided all the food and drink, a fact that made Tim’s stomach do a little flip but came as no surprise. Beastly or Bash or whichever birth name remained undiscovered, the Hieronymus whose presence at his side warmed Tim to the core was a man of the people. And on this night, Tim was proud to be counted among his nearest and dearest.
After bowls of pudding and tots of hot buttered rum were distributed, the performances commenced. A few of the children enacted a little skit, folk and festive songs were sung, and a couple of stagehands braved the criticism of their actor peers by reading a poem or reciting a monologue. Callie shocked them all with a mellifluous rendition of Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, which had all the ladies nodding along to the rhythm. Lady Odile played opera diva with an aria from Handel’s Messiah. And then Tim found the spot beside him empty as Hiero rose for his turn.
Tim had heard his tongue-twisty librettos and pompous villain solos from the burlesques the Gaiety put on, comedic or melodramatic tunes that suited his undeniable panache. But as the fiddler strummed out the first strains of Silent Night, Tim realized he had never really heard Hiero sing.
His voice, rich and smooth as the rum in Tim’s cup, with just a hint of rasp for spice, made the stage, the hall, the entire theater tipsy with contentment. Tim curled his legs up and listened, transported out of himself to a hush winter landscape by that sonorous voice. A spark, not unlike the birth of a star, glimmered deep in his heart.
Their gazes met, locked. Tim felt the blush stain his cheeks but gave in to the cosmic thrall of Hiero’s eyes.
A song, a look, a Christmas gift for him alone.
Wishing you and your loved ones a wonderful holiday season and a very happy New Year! Much love from Hiero, Tim, Callie, Han… and me!