Stoker & Bash
A New Arrival
December 21st, 1874
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.
“My dears,” Hiero announced, “we return triumphant.”
A chorus of cheers and applause rung out.
“Do you mean we get to keep her?” Ting asked.
“We do!” Kip crowed.
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!