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 Autism Awareness Blog Hop organized by the wonderful RJ Scott. One post by a different author every day at their blog with the aim of raising awareness about the challenges autistic people and their families face, and to encourage charitable donations. And there will be a few giveaways and prizes along the way! You can find the master post at RJ’s blog here.
An autism fact: Dogs have been shown to improve autistic children’s quality of life, independence, and safety. The presence of a trained dog can reduce aggressive behavior, calm the child, and serve as a link to the child’s community.
This year’s theme is one near and dear to my heart: food glorious food. I think we’re all very food-obsessed these days, from snacking to baking to supporting the restaurant workers on the front lines. One thing that’s got me a little wistful this year is not being able to indulge in one of my favorite Quebec spring traditions, going to the cabane à sucre (or, as you might know it, the sugar shack).
Every year once the snow starts melting, maple syrup farmers welcome guests to large log cabins in the woods for a homey feast of fat, sugar, salt, and brine. Picture long communal tables by roaring fires in a rustic setting. Homemade bread and condiments, such as ketchup, pickles, and beets, are there to greet you. The first course is a piping bowl of pea soup. Then the family-style plates come pouring out of the kitchen: baked beans, bacon and sausages, skillet eggs, cretons, tourtière, boiled potatoes, and braised ham. Maple syrup is the drizzle of choice. Then, for dessert, favorites like pancakes, sugar pie, pouding chômeur, and grand-pères.
But the pièce de résistance, if you can haul your stomach up from the table after all that food, is outside at the syrup processing plant for tire. They pour heated, thickened syrup out over troughs of snow and, once it solidifies, you roll up strips into little maple taffy popsicles. Sweet, but with that little maple tingle, it’s springtime perfection.
What are some of your local/cultural traditions involving food? Comment here or on my Facebook post about the blog hop to win an ebook copy of my Italy-set contemporary M/M romance (which has lots of mouth-watering food descriptions) In Wild Lemon Groves.
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.
It’s not often we get an M/M historical set in swoon-worthy 1920s Paris, but my good friend Liv Rancourt has written a romance befitting such a worthy setting. I invited her to the blog to tell you all about it. Read on!
so much, Selina, for inviting me to your blog! I really appreciate the chance
to share Lost & Found
with your readers!
been a while since I released a new book and while my promo skills were a
little rusty, I’m finding my way. Self-publishing has so many moving parts it
can feel like juggling plates with one almost always ready to crash.
definitely going to need a vacation after this. 😊
given that it’s the setting of Lost
& Found, the top vacation spot on my list is Paris. Writing a book
about a city I’ve never visited was either very brave or a fine example of
questionable judgment. I love the idea of Paris, though, so visiting in my mind
was better than nothing at all.
did a lot of reading – the history of Paris, a book about Montmartre,
Moveable Feast – and I scrolled through tons of old photos. (You can check out
my Pinterest page here. The page is under the story’s original name, L’Ami
Mysterieux.) I could have done more research – I never watched Chocolat, for
example, although it’s set in France at about the same period.
well. I’ll save that for the sequel.
also made a sincere effort to resuscitate my high school French. Duolingo and
Babbel were my new best friends. I had a free hand with adding French phrases
to the story and though I did my very best, my Parisian
beta reader made a number (!!) of corrections.
Selina, someday I’m going to take you up on your offer to help me practice – for the next book! [SK note: Je suis à votre service, chérie.]
love Paris because the whole place was designed with an eye to beauty and
romance. Practicality was and is lower on the list. One of the main reasons I
haven’t ever visited is that when I go, I’m going to want to stay for six
months or a year, for long enough that I feel like part of the scene. I want to
get to know the city’s nooks and crannies, the places that rarely make a
then, I’ll stick with the Paris in my mind. While I haven’t started the sequel
yet, I have ideas for how it should go, so I know I’ll be back.
I hope you’ll visit with me! Lost & Found is on sale for $2.99 from now until the end of GRL on 10/20/19 at all ebook retailers, and it’s also available in paperback. Check out the excerpt here, and be sure and enter my rafflecopter giveaway for a $25 gift card. Happy reading!!
dancer who cannot dance and a doctor who cannot heal must find in each other
the strength to love.
History books will call it The Great War,
but for Benjamin Holm, that is a misnomer. The war is a disaster, a calamity,
and it leaves Benjamin profoundly wounded, his mind and memory shattered. A
year after Armistice, still struggling to regain his mental faculties, he
returns to Paris in search of his closest friend, Elias.
Benjamin meets Louis Donadieu, a striking
and mysterious dance master. Though Louis is a difficult man to know, he offers
to help Benjamin. Together they search the cabarets, salons, and art exhibits
in the newly revitalized city on the brink of les années
folles (the Crazy Years). Almost despite himself,
Benjamin breaches Louis’s defenses, and the two men discover an unexpected
As his memory slowly returns, Benjamin will need every ounce of courage he possesses to recover Elias’s story. He and Louis will need even more than that to lay claim to the love – and the future – they deserve.
Liv is a huge fan of paranormal romance and urban fantasy and loves
history just as much, so her stories often feature vampires or magic or they’re
set in the past…or all of the above. When Liv isn’t writing she takes care of
tiny premature babies or teenagers, depending on whether she’s at work or at
home. Her husband is a soul of patience, her kids are her pride and joy, and
her dogs – Trash Panda and The Boy Genius – are endlessly entertaining.
Richard was wise to have sent me straightaway. By the time I strolled down the
Boulevard de Magenta to Le Marais, found the street and the shop, and had an
extensive fitting, I barely made it home in time to meet Louis. I was putting
the finishing touch on my tie—the Windsor knot gave me trouble—when he knocked
on my door.
“Bonjour, I’ll be…” All I could do was stare.
Never a shabby dresser, tonight the exquisite cut of his suit made the most of
his broad, lean body, and his precise hairstyle brought out the dramatic lines
in his face. “One, um, one moment.”
backed away, gesturing for him to come in. Even his cane had been replaced by
an elegant black walking stick with a gold handle.
paused a moment before responding to my request. “Double breasted? Where have
you been hiding this? You look superb.”
busied myself collecting my wallet, murmuring the name of the shop.
the Marais Quarter?” He spoke with a hint of amusement. “You traveled far.”
myself, I moved toward the door. “M. Richard sent me.”
smirked. “Good thinking on his part.”
evening was warm and clear, the memory of sunset only an aqua light in the
western sky. In the half-light, I brought myself to broach the possible
awkwardness between us. “I was surprised to hear from you.”
find myself drawn to your plight.”
couldn’t tell if he was laughing or not. “Regardless, I do appreciate the
invitation.” We smiled at each other through the twilight. “Now, should I rely
on you to speak for me?”
earned me a raised eyebrow.
laughed. “My friend tells me that most of the other guests share your
particular malady, so you’ll feel at home.”
chuckle dispelled what was left of my distress, and we walked on in comfortable
silence. Navigating the narrow stairs to the Métro proved a challenge for
Louis, so once we were on the platform, I took the initiative. “Someday, you
should let me look at that.” I waved in the direction of his leg.
I would like you to do more than just look.”
met my surprise with bland amusement, though when it became apparent I was too
flustered to respond, he changed the subject. “The train won’t come for a
while. Tell me more about your friend Elias. I need to know the kind of man he
is, to know whom I should talk to tonight.”
kind of man?” Looking to the past was safer than dealing with the gentleman
standing next to me, so in the concrete cave, under the harsh fluorescent
lights, I told him a story. “Elias is always up to something, you know? Like…”
A particular memory made me smile. “Do you ski?”
“Un peu.” He indicated a small distance
with thumb and forefinger.
so one night, he knocked on my window after I’d gone to bed. There was about
three feet of snow on the ground, but the moon was out, and he wanted to ski.”
dressed as quickly as possible. Outside, the air was so cold, ice crystals
formed with every breath. “He followed me to the barn, where I saddled up our
old gelding Rocky. Elias didn’t have skis of his own, so he grabbed mine and
climbed up behind me on the horse. The moon was huge that night, and so bright
we could see just fine.”
rode up along the ridge behind our house, four, maybe five miles until we got
to the crest. Our plan was he should ski, and I’d ride down to meet him, and
then we’d switch. Rocky was stable enough even for Elias to ride.”
expression neutral, Louis nodded at me to continue. A rumble started from far
off. The train must be coming.
what we didn’t figure was there was ice underneath the snow. Things had warmed
up just enough to melt a little, then we’d had a hard freeze, followed by
another dump of snow. Elias got himself buckled into the skis, and right as
he’s about to take off, he hollers to the heavens.” And with the moon behind
him, he’d looked like some forest spirit come to life. “That yell stirred
things up, and the snow started sliding.”
rumble grew, and a pinpoint of light appeared in the tunnel ahead of us. “He’d
set off an avalanche.” Though miles and years away from that moment, my heart
still skipped a beat. The noise of the train echoed the roar of the snow in my
mind. “I thought, God, he’s done. He’ll be buried in snow, and I’ll never find
brought Rocky as close to the edge as I dared, but all I saw was snow and ice
and torn-up trees. We raced down the ridge, faster than I’d ever seen that
horse move, through the valley to the place where we usually met up. I figured
Rocky and I would do better climbing up to find Elias rather than trying to get
down from the top. And you know what?” Full of the one moment I’d never forget,
I barely looked at Louis. “He skied up like nobody’s business. He’d stayed just
ahead of the snow, said he’d never skied so fast in his life.” I looked toward
the ceiling, blinking fast. Elias had made it, his face burned from the cold.
His eyes, though. His eyes had been full of stars.
Louis took my arm, leading me back to the present as much as onto the train. We
fell silent, settling side by side on one of the wooden bench seats. When Louis
spoke, the sound of his voice startled me.
think your friend has a very big soul.”
kept my gaze fixed on the window, though all I could see was the gray cement
wall of the tunnel. “Big soul? Yes.” And a bigger heart.
Announcing the first ever LGBTQ+ romance event in Canada! Some fellow authors and I are having a signing/meet-and-greet in October in Toronto at Glad Day Bookshop and would love to see you there! Come for the great books, stay for the tasty beverages, snacks, prizes, and great conversation with authors like RJ Scott, Keira Andrews, Vicki Locey, Noah Steele, and Kat Cassidy
Details below! Check out our event page on Facebook for all the latest info!
Happy New Year! 2018 was a big year for me on many fronts, which left very little time for reading. For that reason, I won’t be doing my normal Best Of list. But 2018 was a year where I discovered a lot of new (and sometimes new-to-me) authors. I also got back to reading a bit of YA thanks to some amazing recs. And I thought, what better way to round up the year than to share the wealth? So here are five authors who need to be on your TBR list!
Shameful, is what it is, that I had never read Alyssa Cole before now. But once I did, I understood all of the so-well-deserved acclaim. From her sparkling contemporary romances to her riveting dystopian trilogy to her heart-rending and uplifting Loyal League historical series (set during the Civil War), Ms. Cole does it all and does it best. She switches flawlessly from M/F to LGBTQ romance. She’s the kind of writer where the pairing doesn’t matter, you’re really there for her. If you’re not reading her, then you are seriously missing out on a major talent.
If I had made a Best Of list, Salt Magic Skin Magic would have definitely been on it. Rarely have I read a novel so assured, so impeccable, and so all-consuming. Combining folklore with historical romance is no mean feat, but Ms. Welch weaves both strands together flawlessly. She is already an auto-buy for me, and I cannot wait to see what she writes next.
With thanks to the lovely Moog Florin for indulging our mutual love of boarding school mysteries. A tweet of hers led me to discover Truly Devious, the new series by Maureen Johnson. After devouring book 1 only to learn there was no book 2 yet, I switched to her Shades of London series and consumed the first two adventures whole. It’s rare at this time in my life for me to get so involved in a book that I throw it across the room when I’m angry about an ending, but that’s exactly how I felt by the end of The Madness Underneath (though I did not toss my Kobo–I do have some instinct for self-preservation). Needless to say, any author who can inspired that kind of obsession/emotion is one you might want to check out.
The idea of a Lady Sherlock series is delectable to me, and so as soon as I heard of A Study in Scarlet Women, I downloaded the preview. Charlotte Holmes is a character as tremendous as her namesake, and one you will want to follow on many, many adventures. That this Sherlock has a love interest out of her reach, providing tons of simmering tension and heartbreaking misunderstandings, only improves on the original. And wait till you meet Watson! I am parceling out the next two volumes because writing as vibrant and plots as twisty as Ms. Thomas’ must be savored.
Sara Dobie Bauer
The Escape trilogy (of which only the first two books are out) is that rare series that reinvents something familiar and nostalgic. My romance journey started with Lestat and Louis frolicking in Anne Rice’s Savage Garden. And in Ms. Bauer’s writing, I’ve found that world again. She brings to life the alluring velvet dark of late-1800s New Orleans, with a vampire even more sexy and vicious in her Andrew, and a tenderheart more magnetic and adventurous in her Edmund. These two blaze a path from exile to amour that you are desperate to follow. I can’t wait to see how it all ends.
This year I had the huge honor of being invited to participate in the Rainbow Advent Calendar where authors new and known are contributing free holiday short stories. Two per day! An embarrassment of riches for your reading pleasure. So once you’ve done reading Stoker & Bash 2.5, please head on over to the RAC FB page for more gifts than a romance reader could ever hope to ask for (and don’t forget to pop back in once you’ve read the stories to give the authors some love). You can also access the stories on one convenient page using the Master List.
Enjoy this sweet little bonbon of a tale, featuring Hiero and Tim from my Stoker & Bash series, and I hope the season is kind to you.
August 2nd, 1874
The sight of his Kip easing himself out of the sultry waters of a midmorning bath never failed to draw Hiero’s undivided attention. He ceased the trimming and sculpting of his crown jewel—his moustache—to turn away from the mirror, toward a vision comparable to Venus on her scallop parting the waves of the Aegean. Weeks of convalescence had softened and slimmed Kip’s muscle-striped frame, which only made him look more elfin. With his wispy trails of copper hair and rosebud pallor, not to mention the horn of plenty that jutted from between his hips, Kip could have played the pan in a Dionysian rite. Hiero had certainly done his damndest to indoctrinate him in the ways of debauchery.
Over time Hiero had trained his eyes to ignore Kip’s war wounds: the angry scar that snaked around his left calf, the bramble of rosacea raised across his chest by weeks of poultices, the purple smudges that ringed his throat. Timely reminders of how close Hiero had come to losing one most dear. Perhaps one day he would see them as badges of honor, but today was not that day.
No, today he would attempt to foil one of the keenest minds in his acquaintance, that of the very man who stood, dripping and naked, before him.
As Hiero dragged his kicking and screaming mind away from thoughts of pinning Kip to the bed and drying him, pantherlike, with his tongue, Kip scrubbed a towel up his legs, giving Hiero a side view of the most pert buttocks in the land, further testing his resolve. Kip must have been in one of his deductive fugues, because only once he was wrapped in his robe, his dark-red hair finger-combed off his face but still trickling onto his collar, did he notice Hiero.
“One does, when the occasion calls for it.”
Kip no longer smothered his smiles, even when they were at Hiero’s expense. He considered this a personal victory.
“And what occasion beckons at such an ungodly hour, on such a…” He peeked around the edge of the heavy curtains that blacked out their bedroom. “Well, to be charitable, fair London day.”
“The only kind that would see me rise before noon,” Hiero declared. “An appointment with the finest lady of my acquaintance.”
Normally Hiero might have bristled at his displeasure. A vital part of maintaining the charade of his high-society persona (and securing them cases) was making calls to those who would receive him and attending lavish dinners, the price of his admission being he would entertain the hostess’ guests with tales of his mysterious escapades. Kip, perceived to be his social inferior, could not accompany him and Callie. Nor did he particularly care to, Hiero knew. The barred door, the airs, the snobbery, and the fact that Hiero sung to these vain lemmings for his supper burned Kip, not his own lack of an invitation. But needs must, and so Hiero often absented himself of an afternoon or an evening, leaving his convalescing detective to stew.
Not a healthy pastime, either for Kip’s recovery or their relationship. Hiero well remembered how stifled Kip felt earlier that year, how he’ almost lost him amidst the drudgery of the moneymaking in-between cases, the lost dogs and stolen jewels and misplaced letters. Not every case of theirs could involve man-eating lions or baby-farming cultists, but Hiero could keep Kip’s voracious mind well fed during these intervals by finding him… Well, that was the rub. Until he’d done some scheming of his own—in other words, consulted Han—and devised a challenge his intrepid amour would be unable to resist. He could, after all, lure a Kip to water, but he could not make him drink.
“Lady Weatherby again?” Kip asked with only the slightest petulance to his tone. “She’s made you her pet.”
Hiero scoffed. “I am done with collars after our last adventure, and, as you well know, you’re the only one I care to be leashed to.” Hiero drew him close and showed him just how much he appreciated being tethered to him. After a thorough kissing, he slipped the first clue into Kip’s pocket. “An idea to be thoroughly explored at a later hour. For now I must warn you not to exert yourself too much and bid you good morning.”
At Kip’s bewildered look, Hiero almost lacked the wherewithal to leave. Then Kip fished the key out of his pocket. Hiero wanted to cheer when that telltale furrow creased his brow.
“Something to occupy you whilst I’m gone.”
“Care to tell me what it opens, or shall I use it to—”
“No on both counts.” Hiero smiled his wickedest smile, dove in for another kiss, gave the most pert buttocks in all the land a fulsome squeeze, and grabbed his cape off the hook. “Come find us when you’re done, if you care to. You are very much invited to tea.”
“Tea? With whom? Where will you be?” But Kip gave soft voice to these questions, already examining the key for revealing details.
“That, my dearest of dears, is for you to discover.”
Tim paused every so often while he dressed to glance at the key on the nightstand, but no new insight sprang to mind. The mystery here was twofold: what did the key open, and why had Hiero given it to him? He made quicker work of solving the latter. Ever conscious of the threat boredom posed, Tim had been working on small assignments for the Yard: translating letters, searching through financial documents, evaluating the quality and clarity of junior officers’ reports, and the like. Nothing that would tax his still-precarious health. Also nothing that would catch Hiero’s attention since Tim deferred to these duties when Hiero was either sleeping or out. Still, the key… intrigued. As did the notion Hiero had designed a puzzle for him.
The thought infused him with a rush of warmth. In truth, the fortnight since he’d moved into Berkeley Square had been some of the best days of his life. Mornings spent taking exercise with Han, noontime debates around the dining table, afternoons of study, evening recitals, and nights spent in every kind of intimate conversation with his Hiero. Tim had hardly had time to grow accustomed to this routine, let alone take it for granted.
He reclined back on his favorite pillow, the one that smelled like Hiero’s hair oil, while he considered this peculiar gift: a heavy iron key with little embellishment. A sizeable key for a sizeable door. Perhaps a front or cellar door? Surely Hiero couldn’t expect him to try every lock in the house. But then Tim had no evidence the key’s complement lived here. Narrowing the possibilities down to “somewhere in London” got him precisely nowhere. Until.
While reexamining the loop, he noticed a slight irregularity. The join between the loop and the stem was thicker on the left side. Tim applied a bit of pressure using his pinkie finger, and… The stem sprang open like miniature jaws, spitting out a teensy scroll of paper. Tim hurried to unspool it.
I’ve been abandoned in plain sight
One of forty, favored by none
A hideaway for one long gone
Now hidden away for far too long
Once the jewel of this hallowed house
Now naught but a forgotten tomb
An abandoned room, then. But where? Tim read the riddle through five times, then again once he’d retrieved his notebook. “One long gone” doubtless referred to Admiral the Viscount Pankhurst. But surely Hiero hadn’t gone to all this trouble to give him a key to Apollo’s study. Was there another room he’ liked to use as an escape? “Hallowed house” might have pointed an amateur away from Berkeley Square, toward a place of worship, but Tim knew Hiero considered their home the holiest of holies.
Which, Tim admitted to himself, he hadn’t truly explored. Despite being a detective, he didn’t make a habit of nosing about in other people’s private quarters. That, he feared, was about to change. He hopped off the bed, laced his boots, and slung on his coat. To the hunt!
After stopping to test a few obvious doors just in case the riddle proved simpler than expected, Tim went outside to count the windows. Each of the forty rooms alluded to in the riddle, with the exception of the cold room in the cellar, had at least one window. If Tim could account for every window, he would find Apollo’s hideaway.
As he sketched out a rudimentary version of the townhouse in his notebook, Tim crossed out the windows he could identify on sight. The attic only had three rooms, and the number of windows matched this assessment. He’d looked out of the study’s two often enough to X them out. After a bit of deduction, he located their bedroom apartment on the third floor. It dismayed him to think those were the only eliminations he could make. Perhaps this little adventure served a greater purpose after all.
Tim reentered through the servant’s entrance in the back. A fog of cinnamon-scented steam engulfed him. In defiance of the season, Lillian and Shahida, guided by Minnie’s sure hand, decorated a sheet of apple tarts with leaf-shaped scraps of dough. Tim stole a scoop of applesauce from the cooling pot, shared a conspiratorial wink with Shahida, then sprinted upstairs. Three windows deliciously accounted for.
Tim had frequented the first floor often enough to hurry through it, poking his head in the drawing and dining rooms before being brought up short when he looked in the parlor. He hovered half-in, half-out of the doorway as three familiar faces turned to him. Hiero was indeed enjoying tea with a very fine lady. Two, in fact: little Ting, the daughter of Angus, their chauffeur, and Jie, their ladies’ maid, and Callie, glamorous as a Scandinavian queen in her ice-blonde wig and twinkling blue dress.
Tim understood something of an etiquette lesson was underway, what with Ting swathed in a miniature version of the latest fashion, her normally sleek black hair pinned and ringletted in a style that mirrored Callie’s. A bountiful tea service had been spread between them, dainty china cups and a swan-necked pot, filigree trays of scones, sandwiches, and petit fours. Tim felt far less envious, and a good deal more enamored, having learned how Hiero spent his time away.
“Mr. T!” Ting squealed, dropping a mangled finger sandwich to wave at him with both hands. “T for Ting, T for Tim!”
Hiero, chuckling, clicked his tongue. “Now, now, Princess Teongsang, one must wait to be introduced to a new guest by the hostess.”
“But I know Mr. Tim.”
“As do we all, but manners must be observed.”
“He’s yet to be invited in,” Callie noted in an accent so haughty Tim snorted.
“Quite correct.” Hiero beamed his dark-star eyes at Tim, a challenge glimmering in their depths. “Would you care to join us, Sir Kipling?”
“A kind offer, but no.” He met and matched Hiero’s bold look. Challenge accepted. “I’ve only stopped in to count the windows. Princess Teongsang, will you help me? How many do you see?”
“One, two… three!”
“Thank you kindly.” Tim performed a deep bow. “I bid you a pleasant afternoon.”
He climbed the stairs with an extra swing to his step, further motivated to solve the puzzle before the end of the tea party. But Tim hesitated when confronted with the uniform row of doors on the second floor. He’d recuperated from a brutal beating in one of the guest rooms the year before, but otherwise rarely ventured into what was Callie’s domain. He picked out her string of rooms at the far end but didn’t dare intrude upon them. Even in so lax a house as this, Tim wouldn’t enter a lady’s private space without permission.
He took account of the guest rooms while he pondered how to proceed, moving toward the back of the house. And unfamiliar territory. There, where the corridor hooked around to what Tim had assumed was a linen closet, he found it. A massive, ornate oak door engraved with nautical motifs. The door could not have been more Apollo if there had been a nameplate.
The key gave him some grief, but soon enough, the lock clicked open. After a hard shove and a resounding crack, he entered… and stood, gaping. Two glorious stories of empty bookshelves. A compass tiled on the floor mosaic. Gas lamps in the shape of ships with illuminated sails. Dust and cobwebs galore, but beyond, potential. And above it all, a stained-glass skylight, through which shot gauzy rays of sunlight in naval colors: yellow, silver, and every shade of blue.
Handkerchief to his mouth, Tim spun around the center of the room, taking it all in. He’d completed five revolutions before succumbing to a coughing fit. Hiero hadn’t been wrong about protecting his recovering lungs. He spared a moment to catch his breath before attempting the ladder to the upper floor, when he caught sight of Hiero looming in the doorway.
“Thrown over by the princess?”
“In favor of pie-making, yes.” Hiero sighed eloquently. “I also hadn’t foreseen how tedious it would be to send you out on a treasure hunt but not bear witness to your triumph.”
Tim smiled so wide his cheeks ached. He hopped off the ladder and moved to join Hiero.
“It’s magnificent. But why is it empty?”
“My dear Apollo never managed to fill it.” Tim didn’t miss the wistful glimmer in his eyes. “Not the most devout reader. He donated his collection of military and historical tomes to some university or other, and his collection of signed play folios—more quietly—to the Reading Room at the British Museum. We’d burned so many holes in the upholstery between my cigarettes and his pipe that they weren’t fit for scrap. And so it is, as you see, a tabula rasa.” He startled himself with a cough, reaching for his own handkerchief. “One in need of a thorough cleaning. I’ll instruct Jie to begin at once.”
But Tim couldn’t spare a thought to anyone but his Hiero. He caught his hands and pulled them around his waist, then sank against him. Tim found his lips parted and ready for a kiss that promised more than simple gratitude.
“Thank you,” Tim whispered before delving deeper… only to be barred by a determined finger.
“Tempting as you are, I fear I would be remiss in taking advantage when you have not yet completed your quest.”
“Not…?” Tim followed the finger as it pointed to a nearby bookshelf. Where stood a note addressed to him.
“Part two. On which I would care to accompany you, if you’ve no objections.”
“Of course not.”
Hiero grinned a decidedly un-innocent grin.
“Then do lead on.”
Not quite ready to relinquish his hold on Hiero, Tim twined their hands before guiding him over to the bookshelf. He reclined against his chest as he considered the note, pleased when Hiero anchored an arm around him and rested his chin on Tim’s head. In private they’d become more tactile over the months of his convalescence, ever conscious of how the public affections others were permitted would forever be denied them. After years of solitary living, Tim had already become somewhat addicted to their togetherness, to these rudimentary expressions of their care. Though theirs was the love that still had not spoken its name, their bodies were in deep and constant communication.
Tim turned the note over once, twice before unfolding it. He sniffed the envelope’s edge, detecting a sour note under the trace of Hiero’s musk.
Hiero chuckled. “You’re meant to read it, not test its vintage.”
“A shrewd investigator uses every clue available to him.”
“Including the biscuits I ate?”
“Perhaps.” Tim curled the word around his tongue as his lover might, relishing his laugh in response. Tim slid the card out and held it to the light.
Let me paint for you a scene
A fanatical crowd, a jaded host
A glass box of salt and secrets
An interloper parts the seas
Across the room, meets eyes so green
As to stop his heart, his breath, time
Enough to find a lesser key
And ’scape the lion’s maul
To end the play begun that night
Go to the place where first we met
“You mean for me to venture to Lord Blackwood’s house?” Tim turned in Hiero’s embrace that he might read his expression. “Last I’d heard it had been sold.”
“As did I.” Hiero gave nothing away except a spark of amusement in his dark eyes.
“And the contents… Ha!” Tim pressed the note to his nose, inhaled deeply. “Newsprint!”
He tugged Hiero after him as he dashed back down to the kitchens. The entire family had been conscripted in Minnie’s pie-making efforts, though they’d switched from sweet to savory. Han and Angus butchered strips of fish and venison into mince while Callie, Jie, and Ting diced the vegetables. Shahida and Lillian rolled out enough dough to fit the massive plate. Minnie enjoyed a well-deserved cup of tea by the hearth as Aldridge stoked the fire. Feng gurgled in his bassinet, oblivious. Everyone chattered and teased as they always did, with more than a few scraps surreptitiously launched across the table in an ongoing silent battle.
Tim felt a bit foolish, racing in to interrupt this quaint domestic scene. But they welcomed him and Hiero with a cheer, and Aldridge presented him with yesterday’s newspaper before he could ask. They all whispered clues until Hiero hissed at them, but Tim remembered the item well enough.
And there it was on the back page, in the coded language that spoke to believers in the occult. An auction, taking place that very afternoon, that promised “rare items and treasures unseen for decades.” No exaggeration, that. From what Tim had seen during that fateful night of the second séance, Lord Blackwood’s trove of books and tools stood unrivaled among private collectors. He must be in dire straits indeed to be selling off the lot.
The thought welled not a drop of sympathy in Tim.
He looked up from the paper to find them all staring at him, eyes bright, mouths poised to cheer, anticipating his delight. And how Tim wanted to please them, this lovely new family of his. How he wanted to throw himself in Hiero’s arms and squeeze him silly, this man who would pluck the stars from the sky for him.
Instead he folded the paper with the advert on top, then tucked it under his arm.
“Hiero, a word?”
Tim cursed himself five kinds of villain as he watched Hiero furrow his brow, or perhaps not villain enough to take further advantage of such immeasurable kindness. The family returned to their chores as they moved out to the back mews and into the stables, hands flirting with gentle touches though they dared not link.
“It’s too much.” Tim cut to the quick before Hiero could blanket him with words. “You’ve given me a home and a family. You still won’t accept any rent despite my continued protests. You arranged for Lady Odile’s far too generous reward for what was simply my duty. You’ve just given me a library! And the gifts, the thoughtful, precious gifts: the suits, my room, the nights at the theater… My dear, you need not woo me as if you were some horse-faced baron with pitiful table manners and a pea-sized cock. I am yours.”
Hiero regarded him thoughtfully for a time, then said, “I think that’s the longest speech I’ve ever heard you utter.”
Tim barked a laugh. “Possibly.”
“Definitively. You’re given to economy.”
“All the better to partner someone as verbose as you.”
“In that and so many ways.” He shined Tim a warm smile. “Let me give you this.”
Tim sighed. “I cannot in good conscience.”
“Then join me on the dark side. It’s rather more fun.” He lifted a hand when Tim made to renew his protests. “Allow me to clarify. I confess I do want to give you the world, but my motives here are not so pure. First among them is to use the information contained in Blackwood’s collection against those like him. You would serve not as owner, but as curator and researcher, for as long as our team remains in operation. The second is…” The corner of his lip curled, giving him a sinister air. “Well, revenge.”
“Revenge? Whatever for? Last I recall, he’s ruined and set to hang.”
“For threatening your life.” Hiero’s fingers caressed down the side of his face, his own more sober than Tim had ever seen it. “For nearly succeeding in ending it. For feeding that boy to his beasts and so many before him. Set to hang?” He scoffed. “A crack of the neck’s no punishment at all. But to know that your most precious possessions, the treasures you’ve collected and hoarded for decades, now belong to the men who foiled you… That you, with your keen mind and your righteous heart, are using his weapons to better the world…”
Tim crashed a kiss to his lips. They staggered, groping, devouring until Hiero slammed him against the stable wall, drawing indignant snuffles from the horses. Their passion lit, they ground against each other until a flicker blazed into flame. Tim sank to his knees to worship him, this wicked, wounded, complicated man who went to such lengths to avenge and to keep him. Lord Blackwood would never understand just what he’d wrought when he introduced them.
Afterward, as Hiero righted Tim’s shirt while continuing to kiss him boneless, Tim had a thought. Unexpected given the circumstances, but such was the mystery of his ever-working mind.
“Let me have the key.”
Hiero moved away from him with visible reluctance. “I believe that’s how this whole adventure started.”
“The Lesser Key of Solomon, I mean. You may purchase the rest, but the grimoire is mine.”
“As a trophy of sorts?”
“A memento, more like. Of the case that brought us together.”
Hiero looked at him then with fondness, with admiration, with an emotion they could not yet name aloud but which resonated in every glance, every gesture.
“As you wish, my dearest Kip.”
The Stoker & Bash series is now available in print and ebook from all major vendors!
Finding lost poodles and retrieving stolen baubles is not how DI Tim Stoker envisioned his partnership with his lover, Hieronymus Bash. So when the police commissioner’s son goes missing, he’s determined to help, no matter what secrets he has to keep, or from whom.
When a family member is kidnapped, Hiero moves heaven and earth to rescue them. Even if that means infiltrating the Daughters of Eden, a cult of wealthy widows devoted to the teachings of Rebecca Northcote and the mysterious contents of her box. The Daughters’ goodwill toward London’s fallen women has given them a saintly reputation, but Hiero has a nose for sniffing out a fraud. He will need to draw on some divine inspiration to rattle the pious Daughters.
Like weeds gnarling the roots of Eden’s fabled tree, Tim and Hiero’s cases intertwine. Serpents, secrets, and echoes from Hiero’s past lurk behind every branch. Giving in to temptation could bind them closer together—or sever their partnership forever.
I am so excited to welcome author Lee Welch to the blog today. Her new paranormal, historical M/M romance Salt Magic, Skin Magic is, as the French say, my newest coup de coeur. Not only is it an incredible twist on the usual country house drama, it deftly combines folklore, a novel magic system, and Victorian tropes into a book that I defy you to put down. Not to mention two protagonists that will make you swoon and break your heart. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the talented Ms. Welch had to say.
SK: What inspired you to write Salt Magic, Skin Magic?
LW: A folktale, but if I tell you which one, it’ll be a huge spoiler, so I’ll tell you a story instead…
Originally, I planned to write a completely different book. It was going to be set in a dystopian future Antarctica (not Victorian England). It was a M/M romance between a monk and a charismatic meat-smuggler (in this future world, eating meat is illegal). There was no magic, though there was some pretty cool technology.
I loved this idea so much I was scared I wouldn’t do it justice because I hadn’t written anything for years. So, I decided to come up with another idea “just to practice on” – and that idea was Salt Magic Skin Magic. The MCs – Soren and John – quickly asserted themselves on the page and I realized my “practice idea” was actually going to be heaps of fun to write and worth putting effort into.
SK: The magic system used in the book is very unique. I would never have thought to imbue everyday things like pins and bricks with magical properties. How did you devise it?
LW: Traditionally, magical objects are quite common – think about lucky horseshoes or four-leaved clovers; think chalk pentagrams and bowls of blood. So, it wasn’t too big a leap to imagine a magician who works with other everyday things.
Also, John’s an industrial magician. His type of magic is considered ‘rather common’. It’s looked down upon by elite magicians who are more likely to conjure demons. I wanted John’s methods to reflect this hierarchy. Most people are careless with everyday things; if they lose a pin, they don’t care because they don’t value it. Of course, John cherishing seemingly unimportant things is key to the plot.
SK: The world of the book is, in some ways, recognizable to fans of historical romance–the country house, the family hierarchy–but you turn a lot of that on its head by tying it in to local myths and folklore. What kind of research was involved in writing the book?
LW: I’ve had a lifetime of reading folklore. I didn’t have to research much of that.
What I did do was read LOTS and LOTS of Victorian history. I had to get the customs and everyday life right. I also had to know about the Crystal Palace and the people involved (such as Joseph Paxton and the Duke of Devonshire) because of course John would know them. It’s mainly backstory, but that kind of thing gives a book depth.
I also spent a lot of time checking etymology as I wrote to make sure I didn’t use any words or metaphors that wouldn’t have been used by people in 1851.
SK: At the heart of the book is the age-old push-pull of class differences. What’s the best thing, and the most challenging, about writing characters within these social restrictions?
LW: It was great fun writing characters from different classes because their experiences of life are so different. This means the metaphors that occur to them are different, their observations about life are different, and so on.
For example, Soren (an Oxford-educated aristocrat) sees a Savonnerie carpet and a rather fine painting by Lawrence. John (a magician and the son of an ironmonger) sees something he’ll need to roll back if he wants to put his salt down, and a picture of a beautiful woman.
SK: Like all the author interviews on the blog, I end with a fun question. Choosing from any of the characters in the published works you’ve written, with whom would you like to have a one-night stand, a long-term relationship, and an HEA?
LW: OMG! Do other authors really answer that question? My characters are taken (by each other). To imagine them with me feels absolutely transgressive. Soren would NEVER cheat on John. Or vice versa. Same with Alex and Joe in Mended with Gold. They’re together. They’re in love. To try to imagine myself having an HEA with Joe means that Alex would be alone somewhere. Alex would be sad. Oh, God, all the noes. I can’t contemplate it. I’m ignoring your question 😉
However, if I was to invite someone for dinner, I’d choose John from Salt Magic Skin Magic. He’s a spectacularly good listener and kind to hedgehogs (I like hedgehogs). We’d talk about magic, and life in Victorian London, and he could tell me what all my household objects are thinking.
Lord Thornby has been trapped on his father’s isolated Yorkshire estate for a year. There are no bars or chains; he simply can’t leave. His sanity is starting to fray.
When industrial magician John Blake arrives to investigate a case of witchcraft, he finds the peculiar, arrogant Thornby as alarming as he is attractive. John soon finds himself caught in a dark fairytale, where all the rules of magic—and love—are altered.
To set Thornby free, both men must face life-changing truths—and John must accept that the brave, witty man who’s winning his heart may also be about to break it. Can they escape a web of magic that’s as perilous as love?
“Magic, folklore, dark deeds, and hot romance combine in this wildly enjoyable, inventive story set in a lovely alt-Victorian Gothic world. More please!”
—KJ Charles, RITA™-nominated author of THE MAGPIE LORD and SPECTRED ISLE
“Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch is the sort of book you want to read again the moment you reach the end. Beautifully written, with a romance that is by turns sweet and scorching, it belongs on the keeper shelf of any lover of paranormal historical.”
—Jordan L. Hawk, author of the WHYBORNE AND GRIFFIN and HEXWORLD series
Lee Welch lives on a hill in the windiest city in the world – Wellington, New Zealand. She shares the house with her partner, two kids and two cats. Hedgehogs visit occasionally, which makes her happy. Lee wrote her first novel (an unpublished pastiche of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) when she was seven and has been writing on-and-off ever since. She studied ancient history at Auckland University and creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London.
By day, she works as an editor and business communications adviser for a large government department. By night, she writes mostly m/m romances, usually with magic in them. She likes crumbling mansions, cavernous libraries and most things with tentacles.