Happy Holidays, my lovelies!
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!
Book 1 – The Fangs of Scavo
Book 2 – The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree