Alexis Hall: There Will Be Phlogiston

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Blurb
 
 

An instructive story in which vice receives its just reward.

Inspired by true and scandalous tales of the Gaslight aristocracy, we present the most moral and improving tale of Lady Rosamond Wolfram.

Weep, reader, for the plight of our heroine as she descends into piteous ruin in the clutches of the notorious Phlogiston Baron, Anstruther Jones. Witness the horrors of feminine rebellion when this headstrong young lady defies her father, breaks an advantageous engagement, and slips into depravity with a social inferior. Before the last page is turned, you will have seen our heroine molested by carnival folk, snubbed at a dance, and drawn into a sinful ménage a trois by an unrepentant sodomite, the wicked and licentious Lord Mercury.

Reader, take heed. No aspect of our unfortunate heroine’s life, adventures, or conduct is at all admirable, desirable, exciting, thrilling, glamorous, or filled with heady passion and gay romance.

See more at: http://riptidepublishing.com/titles/there-will-be-phlogiston#sthash.dNf84Yk1.dpuf

 
This is a novella in the same steampunk world as Alexis Hall’s novel ‘Prosperity‘ published by Riptide Publishing October 2014
Excerpt:

Chapter One

“That one,” said the Phlogiston Baron. “I want her.”

Lord Mercury gently lowered the man’s arm. “It’s rude to point.”

“In your neck of the woods, it’s rude to breathe.”

“Well, yes, if you do it loudly and offensively, and in a way that could be considered frightening to ladies.”

“And I suppose I do?” Anstruther Jones stuffed his hands in his pockets, ruining the line of his otherwise exquisitely tailored evening wear.

Lord Mercury compressed his lips on a smile. “On occasions, but perhaps I find such occasions rather invigorating.”

“You mean—” Jones leaned in “—when I’m fucking you.”

The blunt words travelled all the way along Lord Mercury’s spine like the caress of a rough hand. Heat swept upwards and, more worryingly, downwards. He did not dare turn his head. The man’s eyes would be too full of knowledge, too full of purpose, and Lord Mercury would be able to think of nothing but how it felt to be the object of such a gaze. “Please don’t. Not—”

He didn’t know how to finish, or if he even meant what he was saying, but it didn’t matter because Jones pulled back immediately, his attention returning to the woman who had initially caught it. “Tell me about her.”

There was absolutely no reason for Lord Mercury to feel . . . what? Disappointed? Was that what it was? These thorns in his heart? He had been the one to curtail whatever it was Jones had been trying to do. Taunt him. Flirt with him. Unravel him in the middle of a ball, a notion at once terrifying and strangely enticing, all his filthy secrets spattering to the pristine floor. The last scion of Gaslight’s oldest family: nothing but a catamite and a whore. And even his ruin was incidental, for Anstruther Jones needed only one thing from him. Anything else was mere diversion.

Lord Mercury swallowed his pride—what little he had left of it—and gave the Phlogiston Baron what he wanted. As he had from the beginning, little knowing where his compromises and his capitulations would lead. “That’s Lady Rosamond, Lord Wolfram’s daughter.” His voice echoed in his ears as though it belonged to a stranger’s. “She’s insipid. A china doll. I don’t know what you can possibly see in her.”

“Something I like,” was the Phlogiston Baron’s only answer.

“Acquaintance will likely cure you of that.”

Jones laughed—an ungentlemanly burst of mirth that made people stare at them. It should have made Lord Mercury uncomfortable. It did make him uncomfortable. Immoderate laughter was uncouth, as he had explained on several occasions, but Anstruther Jones would not be curbed. On any matter.

He laughed when he felt like laughing.

And there was something frighteningly pleasing in that.

He set off towards Lady Rosamond, trusting Jones would follow. She was standing demurely at her mother’s side—a diminutive creature, golden haired, rose-cheeked, decked out in a three-flounced, pink silk ball gown with skirts so wide it seemed a light breeze might sweep her into the sky as if she were made of nothing but light and air.

She had only recently made her debut, so Lord Mercury knew little about her. Like all young ladies, she was said to be charming, amiable, and lovely to behold. Her family was good, her portion was good. She was greatly admired by gentlemen, but not—he thought—by the other debutantes.

He knew well enough that there had only been pique in his dismissal. Her beauty was striking. It would have been, even if delicacy had not been the current mode. Picture-perfect womanhood: soft, yielding, fragile, rosebud pink lips formed in the shape of a kiss to be taken.

He bowed to her. “Lady Wolfram, Lady Rosamond, will you allow me to introduce to you my—” the word caught a little in this throat, a lie in so many ways “—friend, Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones, Lady Wolfram, Lady Rosamond.”

“Of course you may.” Lady Rosamond’s voice was a sweet, ladylike trill. “Introduce him, that is.”

Jones performed something that was probably a bow (if you happened to have your eyes closed while he did it) and then recited, “It gives me great pleasure to form your acquaintance, Lady Rosamond.”

Her eyes, which were blue—not like Jones’s eyes were blue, but bright and hard-glazed like the willow pattern on porcelain—slid past them. “I’m sure.”

Her tone had not wavered, but it was not the response Lord Mercury had told Jones to expect Nevertheless the Phlogiston Baron only shrugged.

Shrugged. In a ballroom. In front of a lady.

“Do you want to dance?”

“No,” returned Lady Rosamond.

It was all Lord Mercury could do not to put his head in his hands.

Jones glanced his way. “Is she allowed to say that?”

This was rapidly becoming unsalvageable. He appealed in silent desperation to Lady Wolfram, but the woman only laughed the strangest laugh, and murmured, “Charming, how very charming.”

“Perhaps,” he tried, “perhaps Lady Rosamond does not feel like dancing tonight?”

Lady Rosamond tossed her head like a wilful horse. “I do not feel like dancing with Mr. Jones.”

“Then—” he sketched another bow “—we should take our—”

“Why not?” asked Anstruther Jones.

“Because I am too good for you. Good night, Mr. Jones.”

And, for the second time that evening, the Phlogiston Baron laughed.

***

Lord Mercury had not initially been receptive when Anstruther Jones turned up on his doorstep, sans invitation, introduction, or even calling card, wanting to “cut a deal.” But he had a way of getting what he wanted, and Lord Mercury was, frankly, running out of things to lose. For all he could trace his line back at least a century—high royalty for Gaslight nobility—the only thing it meant in real terms was a hundred years of gambling, drinking, and ill-advised investments. Jones’s offer had been simple, if galling: he would repair Lord Mercury’s fortunes in return for his assistance in entering society.

“I want a house,” Jones explained, “like this house. For my children to call theirs and give to their children. And family. I want to have a family.”

Lord Mercury could still remember the arrogant way the man had sprawled across his Chippendale sofa. The tatty brown duster that reeked of tar and phlogiston. His weathered face, his harsh mouth, and his eyes, grey-blue, restless and protean like the sky.

“You don’t need social acceptance for that.”

“No, but I’ll damn well have it.” Of course what he said was ’ave it—those broad Gaslight As. “If not for me, for them as follow.”

“You can’t buy Gaslight.” Lord Mercury mustered all the hauteur of his name. “And you certainly cannot buy me.”

Anstruther Jones said nothing, his silence somehow no less forceful than his words, and reached deep into the pockets of that dreadful coat. He began to pull out paper after paper after paper. Debts, all of them: vowels, bills, promissory notes.

Mortified, Lord Mercury turned his head away. It was one thing for a matter to be generally understood but never admitted to or spoken of. Quite another for an ill-mannered commoner with ideas above his station to scatter the undeniable truth all over Lord Mercury’s last Axminster.

“What do you want?” he asked, hating how weak he sounded.

“I told you.” Jones ticked his ambitions off on his fingers. “Home, position, family. Your help.”

“You can’t afford me.”

The man’s mouth curled into an unexpected smile—a little bit wicked, a little bit sweet. “Try me.”

Lord Mercury named a sum so outrageous it embarrassed him to utter it aloud.

“Done.”

“I . . . I beg your pardon?”

“Done.” Jones spat into his palm, and held it out.

Lord Mercury stared at the other man’s hand blankly and bleated, “Oh, what are you doing?”

“Sealing the deal.”

“Well, consider this a . . . a . . . preliminary lesson, but in polite society we do not spit on ourselves, or each other. Or at all, as it happens.”

“So what do you do with cherry stones?”

“We transfer them politely from our mouths to the spoon and then—” It belatedly occurred to Lord Mercury that he was being laughed at.

Jones’s eyes were full of light as he wiped his hand on his trousers and extended it again.

It was surely a devil’s bargain.

But Lord Mercury had a household to manage, factories to run, appearances to maintain, and debts to pay, so many debts. He had been intending to marry money—a devil’s bargain of a different kind.

He stared at the hand, then at Jones.

The man’s gaze did not waver.

The truth was, Lord Mercury could no longer afford the luxury of pride.

They shook. The rub of the calluses on Jones’s palm sent sparks all through Lord Mercury’s skin. Made him feel tender in comparison.

It was faintly humiliating, but also . . . not.

The next few months were difficult. It was not that Jones was stupid, or that he did not take well to instruction, but he questioned everything. It was not enough for him to simply know a thing was, he had to know why it was. And Lord Mercury was increasingly conscious that his answers amounted to little more than “Because that is the way of it.”

Nevertheless he tried.

He instructed Jones on etiquette, taught him how to bow, how to choose wine (though not to enjoy it), traced for him the lineage of all the major families, talked him through their fortunes, their histories, their scandals. He did his best to smooth the Gaslight from his voice, but the raihn in Spaihn stubbornly rehned on the plehn, and attempts to educate the man’s taste were similarly unsuccessful.

It was not, Lord Mercury had to admit, that Jones had bad taste. Merely that he made no distinction between, say, the music hall and the opera, and formed his opinions without giving consideration to what others might think of them. Opinions, as far as Lord Mercury was concerned, were derived from social context. They were like a well-chosen hat: framing one’s elegance of taste, and proving that one both knew, and could afford, the right sort of hatter. But, for Jones, they were a round of drinks at a common tavern: selected purely for personal gratification and shared liberally with all and sundry.

Effort to convince Jones to engage a valet also failed. He said he had no interest in hiring a grown man to ponce round him with a clothes brush. Lord Mercury would have tried to explain the vital importance of proper attire but, as it happened, Jones dressed well. Or rather, he dressed badly, in clothes more suited to an airship than a drawing room, but he wore them with ease and conviction. And, once Lord Mercury had introduced him to a proper tailor, he looked . . . oh, he looked . . .

A well-cut frock coat and some made-to-measure trousers didn’t precisely transform him miraculously into a gentleman. If anything, they just framed more completely who he was. No rough diamond, Anstruther Jones. He was coal, through and through, coarse and strong, possessed of private lustre.

But everything had only truly started unravelling when he tried to teach Jones to dance. He had feared the potential for gossip if he hired a master, so instead he had purchased a copy of Strauss’s Liebesständchen on wax cylinder and set up his mother’s phonograph in the ballroom. As he pulled the curtains back from the windows, grey light sloshed over the unpolished floors and the tarnished mirrors, making the dust motes gleam like broken stars.

It had been a long time.

His mother had glittered here, more brightly than the gilt, more brightly than the jewels she wore. He remembered the scent of her perfume, the sound of her laughing. He saw her every time he looked in the mirror: he had her eyes, her hair, her skin. He had learned later that she was profligate, degenerate, a reckless gambler, a shameless sybarite, but she had been his world. She had taken him to Paris at the age of six, to Vienna at eight. He had tasted his first champagne at nine and developed a taste for it by eleven. He had shared her box at the opera, dined with poets and revolutionaries, waited for her in artists’ studios while she reclined upon tiger skins and was painted.

Everyone said it was no way to raise a child, but he had never been a child. He’d been her acolyte, her companion, her confidant. And, a little after his fourteenth birthday, she had fled to Italy with one of her lovers, leaving him with a broken heart, a crumbling house, a name he could not afford, and a note that said, Sorry darling.

“Are you all right?” asked Jones.

He flinched. How had he not heard the man approaching? Jones was hardly the quiet sort. “Yes. Of course.”

To his horror, Jones reached out and swept something from his eyelashes. It glinted on the tip of his finger, a tear, already disappearing into Jones’s skin, becoming nothing. “What were you thinking about?”

“The past, I suppose. It’s not important.”

Jones shoved his hands into his pockets, and Lord Mercury bit back an urge to tell him not to. It would be futile, anyway—it was almost as though he had magnets in them. “This place could do with a bit of work.” He nodded towards the green stains marbling the plasterwork. “I think you’ve got some rising damp.”

“I will have it seen to.” Even though he now had the resources, Lord Mercury found himself oddly reluctant to plan the work the townhouse required. Perhaps he had grown too accustomed to living this way. Or perhaps he had simply grown tired of laying increasingly elaborate façades over broken things.

Jones turned, too bold, too vivid, for that time-washed place. Smiled his crooked smile. “I feel like I’m in a fairy tale. You just need some briars growing round your cursed castle.”

“Well,” returned Lord Mercury sharply, “I am in no need of a handsome prince. I am waiting to teach you the waltz.”

“All right.” Jones shrugged. “What do I do?”

Lord Mercury set the needle against the wax cylinder he had already placed in the phonograph. There was a crackle, and the opening notes of Strauss’s waltz slipped quietly into the ballroom. The delicate pizzicato seemed to echo the anxious quivering of his nerves. Old grief, he thought, and irritation at Jones. Who was still standing with his—

“One does not waltz with one’s hands in one’s damn pockets.”

“One offers one’s most sincere apologies.”

There was a comedically well-timed orchestral boom from the phonograph, as if Strauss had deliberately written the piece to make Lord Mercury look silly in front of Anstruther Jones. “Position,” he said, “is very important. Under no circumstances should the dancing couple stand vulgarly close. That is for Europeans. You should clasp the lady’s hand, and place your own hand at her waist thus.” He demonstrated on himself. “Neither any higher nor any lower, certainly not embracing her, and you must only touch her lightly. You are not, under any circumstances, to press your hand upon her.”

“Why?” asked Jones. “Will she break?”

“No, but she would probably find you pawing at her with barbaric enthusiasm deeply unpleasant.”

Jones tilted his head, the mischief still in his eyes. “Are you friends with many women?”

“I have many female acquaintances. Now, please attend me as I demonstrate the basic steps.” Lord Mercury’s heels clicked far too loudly as he made his way to the centre of the dance floor. Knowing Jones was watching him made him aware of himself in peculiar ways: the flow of his coat over his hips, the cling of his trousers to his thighs. “The gentleman begins like this: on the beat, left foot, as so, then the right, and another step with the left, like this. And no galloping, Jones. Remember you are dancing with a lady, not a racehorse. And, after that, you simply continue, left-right-left—are you attending?—for the next six beats.”

“I’m attending.”

It was . . . It was . . . beyond strange, dancing with an imaginary partner in an empty ballroom for Anstruther Jones. Lord Mercury knew he was a good dancer—he was renowned for it, in fact—and, as a general rule, he enjoyed it. But now he wasn’t sure what was wrong with him. Light-headed and hot and absurdly exposed.

“And then the . . . then the . . .” He had no reason to be out of breath, but nevertheless he was. His heart was beating hard enough to choke him. “Then the gentleman reverses his steps, like this, in order that the couple may continue about the room.”

“I think I can manage that.”

“Good.” Relief rolled through him. It was only dancing. It shouldn’t have felt as though he knelt naked at the man’s feet. “Now to put it into practice. Take your posi—” And that was when Lord Mercury realised precisely what this lesson entailed. For some reason—perhaps self-protection—his mind had slid away from the reality of it. Or perhaps it hadn’t. Perhaps the part of him that was weak and fleshly and traitorous had wanted this all along.

“Do you want to lead?” The gentleness in Jones’s voice was mortifying. Magnified, somehow, too, by the silence as the cylinder reached its end.

“No. You need to learn. I will . . . I will take the part of the lady. On this occasion.”

“It’s just a dance, Arcadius.”

“I am well aware of that.”

Lord Mercury went to restart the music. Came back slowly, almost reluctantly, fearful of what it might have meant had he been otherwise.

Jones stepped close to him. Vulgarly close. It had to be vulgarly close because why else would Lord Mercury be so . . . so conscious of him? The shape of his body, the heat. Except, when he opened his eyes (oh, when, why, had he closed them?), he realised Jones was standing entirely properly and upright as directed. “I’ll try not to barbarically paw at you,” he promised.

A dreadful breathy sound issued from between Lord Mercury’s lips.

And then Jones tried to take his hand, and Lord Mercury jumped away like a startled rabbit. “We . . . You . . . would most properly be wearing gloves. I should fetch some.”

Jones gave him a look, exasperated but softened by affection. “I washed my face and hands before I came. I don’t have the skypox.”

The man was right. He was being a fool, and his foolishness was more revealing than indifference could ever have been. He grabbed for Jones’s hand—ignoring the rough kisses of all those calluses against his tender palms—and yanked him back into position. Then he realised he was going to have to put his other hand somewhere. Tentatively he rested it on Jones’s shoulder. He didn’t want to be so physically dependent on him, but at the same time it felt so vulnerable to be led, and it was all he could do not to cling.

“You look good when you’re dancing.” Lord Mercury’s head jerked up at that, and God, Jones was far too close. He could see the patterns of lines in his lips, the radials in his irises . . . “Happy.”

“Start on the left foot,” he said.

“I remember.” Jones stepped, and Lord Mercury stood on his foot. “Ow.”

He felt the blush burning on his cheeks. “I’m sorry, I’m not accustomed to doing it this way.”

Jones grinned. “Starting on the left . . . one, two, three . . . step.”

They managed six beats, not entirely disastrously, but then Lord Mercury forgot he was meant to be transitioning into travelling step rather than pivot step, and they collided. For a moment they were flush, carnally interlocked, thigh-to-thigh, chest-to-chest, and Lord Mercury startled so violently that he tripped over Jones’s leg. Thus the most graceful man in Gaslight ended up on his arse on the ballroom floor, Jones staring down at him with astonishment, and incipient hilarity.

Lord Mercury put his head in his hands. “Don’t laugh at me. Please don’t laugh.”

“Never.” A pause. Perhaps Jones was willing himself to sobriety. “Are you hurt, pet?”

“Just my pride,” he mumbled, too stricken even to chafe against what was surely an inappropriate endearment.

“Only one cure for that.”

“I didn’t think there were any.”

“Stand up, head up, try again. Besides, I think I was just starting to get the hang of it.”

Lord Mercury had rather been hoping for spontaneous demise, but Jones was right. He peeled himself off the floor, reset the cylinder, and stepped once again into the man’s arms.

Just a dance. Just a dance. Just a dance.

The light brush of fingers under his chin made him look up.

“I’m not expert,” said Jones. “But I think it might be easier if you stopped trying to lead.”

Lord Mercury could not quite repress his shiver of response. It felt so strange to be touched in that fashion, romantic in bewildering, impossible ways. Gentling him. “It . . . It . . . It’s difficult when you . . . can’t see where you’re going.”

“I realise I’m new at this, but I’m not going to walk you into a wall.”

“I know but—”

“Can you trust me?”

“Yes.” Oh God. Was there anything more terrifying than the truth, uttered without thought?

Jones smiled. Such a smile, his eyes all sky. “One, two, three, and . . .”

And they danced.

For about thirty seconds, Lord Mercury let another man hold him. Protect him. Whirl him round the room where his mother had once danced and dazzled.

Jones’s arms were strong, his steps certain. He smelled of the cold morning, fresh and clean. And Lord Mercury—

Pulled away, just managing to avoid another humiliating stumble. Tried to steady his breath, his heart, his voice. Ignore the hollow ache that rose up like some unspeakable leviathan from deep inside and . . . and . . . wanted. “I think you have mastered at least the basics. If you need more practice, I suggest you engage a dancing master. Good day.”

He turned on his heel and left the ballroom. He considered it to his credit that he did not run.

He did not see Jones again for the best part of a week. Business had called him to London, and Lord Mercury had time to half-convince himself that his responses had been exaggerated, his feelings imagined. A fevered moment born of simple physical proximity.

But then Jones came back, and Lord Mercury knew he had only been lying to himself.

Tucked under Jones’s arm was a neatly wrapped parcel from Henry Poole & Co of Number Fifteen Savile Row, London, the tailor to whom Lord Mercury had introduced him. “For you,” he said. “They already had your measurements.”

“I . . . What is it?”

Jones stuffed his hands into his pockets. “You’ll see if you open it.”

It was a waistcoat. Lilac silk, so fine that holding it made his hands feel rough. The most opulently beautiful thing Lord Mercury thought he had ever seen. Also the most inappropriate.

Perhaps in London. For the pre-Raphaelite set.

But in Gaslight? For him?

How did Jones know? Could one tell? Had he heard something?

God, that dockhand . . . but how did he know? How did he know Lord Mercury was Lord Mercury? He had offered the man nothing more than coins and his body, all other traces of identity carefully removed before he left his house, fittingly enough by the back passage. Unlike others of his acquaintance, Lord Mercury was discreet, so very discreet, and he rarely surrendered to his inclinations. Only when the hollowness of his flesh and spirit became too much to bear.

“Is this a jest?” he asked, with what he thought was admirable calm.

Jones shrugged. “It’s a present.”

“I’m not . . .” That sentence was absolutely impossible to finish. “Not your mistress.”

There was a look on Jones’s face that Lord Mercury couldn’t read. “Just thought I’d like to thank you.”

“I am not what you think I am.”

Lord Mercury turned away in what he thought was obvious dismissal. But while he was fairly sure Jones could recognise a hint, he had never been able to persuade him to actually take one.

Jones’s arms came round him from behind, pulling him against that tall body, all heat and strength and work-made muscle. The man’s breath was hot against his ear. “What are we, Arcadius?”

“Using my given name without permission again.” It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be an exchange, a necessity, an imposition, a sacrifice for his family name.

“I came to you because I needed you. I stayed because I liked you.” Soft words from a hard man. Lord Mercury had prepared no defence against such things. A blunt-fingered hand pressed against his erection. Nearly made him groan with the longing to be touched. For the terrifying vulnerability of skin. “Say no, and I’ll stop.”

Lord Mercury twisted helplessly like a heretic on the rack. Unable to utter the word that would end his torment. No, and he would be a gentleman again, and Anstruther Jones would be nothing but an upstart. His unshapeable Galatea. A sordid fantasy for endless solitary nights.

Jones gripped him. Even through fabric, he could feel the warmth of the man’s hand, and it was beautiful, horrifying, blissful. Then he stilled. “Say yes, and I’ll continue.”

He shook his head frantically. He couldn’t say that either. One thing to have this happen, in darkness and in shame, an act perpetrated between unaccountable strangers. Another entirely to ask for it. Be part of it.

“I don’t bed the unwilling.”

Lord Mercury couldn’t quite restrain the pleading tilt of his hips. He wasn’t unwilling. He wished he was.

“Or people who don’t know what they want.”

Jones was going to let him go. Let him go and walk away. Leave him like this.

And it didn’t matter . . . It didn’t matter . . . because he would go out tonight. Find a Jack tar or a soldier or airman. Acts, they were nothing but acts, the things he craved. It would be the same.

It wouldn’t be the same.

He wouldn’t be held like this. Or touched like this. It wouldn’t be Jones. With his grey-sky eyes and his smile-hiding mouth, his certainties and convictions, his heedless kindness.

Jones’s other hand came round him, brushed the edge of his jaw. Found the piece of skin above his collar. Stroked him there.

Where it shouldn’t have meant anything.

“Tell me,” he whispered. Not command, not demand, not plea.

And Lord Mercury was undone. “Yes. If you must know. Yes.”

To his bewilderment and his quick-flaring horror, Jones let him go. It had been a trick, nothing but a trick, some further mortification, blackmail perhaps, or—

“Where’s your bedroom?”

“That’s . . . that’s not necessary.”

Jones laughed. Leaned down and—of all things—pressed their brows together. “I’ve spent most of my life on airships, making do. You can be damn sure it’s necessary.”

Lord Mercury was never quite sure why he allowed it.

But, somehow . . .

In his own bed. With Anstruther Jones.

It was not like it had ever been before.

He thought of pleasure as something to be snatched from whatever was done to him, but Jones lavished him with it. Made him wanton.

And, afterwards, Lord Mercury hid his face in the crook of his elbow and cried with shame.

“You’ve done that before? I didn’t hurt you?” Jones’s fingertips skated lightly down his sweat-slick spine, the sweetness of his touch spreading a kind of sickness in their wake.

Lord Mercury shook his head.

The bed shifted as Jones settled on the coverlet. “That good, eh?”

“No . . . I mean . . . It’s just now I am truly your whore.”

There was a long silence. Even muffled by his arm, Lord Mercury could hear his own breaths, too loud and ragged. “Well,” said Jones, “this is awkward because I don’t remember agreeing to pay you.”

Lord Mercury sat up, feeling more naked than his nakedness warranted, and tugged a pillow over himself. “You already bought me.”

“I didn’t buy this. You asked me for it.”

Heat gathered horribly under his skin—it burned in his cheeks, spilling down his throat, over his chest, a spreading scarlet brand. “I . . . I know.”

“And I didn’t buy you either.” Jones stretched out, unabashed and magnificently naked, sweat glinting on the dark hair that curled across his chest and thighs. “Trade is trade. I don’t see the rush to make it something filthy.”

“But I’m a gentleman.”

“And my mothers were whores. I don’t think any less of either of you.” He reached out and pulled the pillow away from Lord Mercury’s body.

He thought about resisting, but it would have been undignified. Covered himself with his hands instead.

Jones grinned at him. “You’d think you’d never been naked with a man before.”

It was hard to manage hauteur when he could smell sex on his own skin, but he tried. “As it happens, I am not in the habit.”

“You’d better make the most of it, then.” Jones held out his arms, and Lord Mercury, without entirely realising what he was doing, tumbled into them.

The shock of intimacy hit him like cold water, and made him gasp. After the sins they had just committed, a simple embrace should have been nothing. He stared helplessly at Jones’s still-smiling mouth, so close to his own that he could almost taste his breath.

If he . . .

If Jones . . .

He jerked his head away, and Jones’s lips grazed his cheek. When he turned back, any trace of softness in the man’s expression was gone.

Lord Mercury had intended his coupling with Jones to be a one-time aberration—a moment of weakness they could both pretend had never happened—but his will proved unequal to the task. Unlike his furtive, back-alley encounters, Jones could not be boxed away and ignored. He was there, present and inescapable, his clothed body a constant reminder of his naked one, even the most innocent movement of those big hands sufficient to reduce Lord Mercury to a quivering ruin of lust and need.

He always had to instigate.

Every single time, he told himself it would be the last.

But he came to pleasure like an opium addict to his pipe, and Jones broke him with ecstasy. Made him sob and scream and beg, utter the most unthinkable obscenities, disport himself with unspeakable wantonness. But he never held him again. Or tried to kiss him.

And it was never quite the same as that first afternoon.

– See more at: http://riptidepublishing.com/titles/there-will-be-phlogiston#sthash.dNf84Yk1.jYqB0oWX.dpuf

Rainbow Awards Winner- Josephine Myles

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merry-gentlemen

amazon.co.uk: amazon.com: samhainpublishing.com

’Tis the season of goodwill to all men…even the one who dumped you.

Riley MacDermott’s ambitions are simple. Managing the annual Bath Christmas Market—which involves long hours in the cold and a whole lot of hassle—will secure the promotion he needs to afford to move out of his noisy, top-floor flat. Where not even his balcony is safe from an aggressive herring gull.

The last stallholder he expects to see is his ex. Riley never recovered from their break up, and five years on the old chemistry still sparkles. So does their habitual head butting.

Stan never wanted to leave the love of his life, but the pull of the woods was too strong—and Riley was firmly planted in the city. Reconnecting is painful, but Stan still jumps at the chance to stay with his old flame during the Market. And damn the consequences.

As the weeks pass, the two grow closer than ever. But despite scorching sex and cozy intimacy, they both know they face a cold and lonely future. Unless one of them can compromise.

Excerpt:

You could lose yourself in Stan’s eyes. Well, I could. They reminded me of sun-bleached denim, with a deeper indigo ring around the outside. They were the kind of eyes that spoke of hard work in the great outdoors, and if it hadn’t been for the fact they’d been just the same back when he’d slaved away as a housing officer, I’d believe they really had been lightened by the sun. His hair certainly had. I’d always thought of him as a dirty blond rather than a honey one.

I still thought of him as a dirty blond, although not because of the colour of his hair.

Before my brain could get hijacked by thoughts of just how dirty Stan could be, I recovered my manners and stuck my hand out.

“Stan. Fancy seeing you here. I had no idea. Really.”

Stan stared at my hand like I was offering him a slice of mouldy pizza. I was just about to snatch it back when he grabbed it and held on.

“Ri? You look… You haven’t changed. Not one bit.”

Normally I’d preen a little at a comment like that. Make some allusion to Botox—not that I had any desire to freeze the expression out of my forehead, as how would I cope if I couldn’t do my patented single-eyebrow raise?

But right now, with Stan holding my hand in his rough, calloused—oh my God, he had genuine, honest to goodness callouses!—paw, I found it hard to do anything other than fight down my body’s instinctive response to him. I wanted to hit him and I wanted to lick him all over, and I couldn’t bloody well figure out which urge was winning.

Actually, right now I needed to stop paying any attention to my body and concentrate on keeping my cool. Couldn’t have Stan seeing me ruffled.

“Well, you’ve definitely changed,” I said. “You’ve got that whole rugged, outdoorsy vibe working for you now.” I didn’t need to hide the fact I was checking him out, thank Christ, so I took my time drinking in the sight of him. “Going back to nature really does pay off, doesn’t it? Shit, you never bulked up this well in the gym. And you’re tanned in the winter, but not a streak of orange to be seen. It’s a modern day miracle. Hallelujah.”

“I don’t need to fake it,” Stan growled, tilting his head back to look down at me and making the most of his three-inch height advantage. It was his arrogant-bastard pose, and he bloody well knew I was a sucker for it because I’d once made the mistake of telling him. Never, ever let a toppy git know just how much they turn you on, or you’ll spend your whole bloody life in a state of perpetual turned-on-ness. Was that even a word? It was now.

“What happened to your hair?” I said, reaching out for a lock. “Totally hot, but aren’t you getting a bit old for the whole surfer look? And you’re way too landlocked, down in deepest, darkest Somersetshire.”

“Piss off, Ri,” Stan said, but there was no heat in his words. The heat was all in his eyes, beaming out and frying me like a laser beam. They’d find me later, nothing more than a pair of melted boot soles on the cobbles.

Was that angry heat or turned-on heat? Couldn’t figure it out on him either. I had to face it, we both had ample reason to be pissed off with each other, but five years was a long time to hold a grudge.

“Much as I’d love to get on my way, it’s actually my job to check up on you. See if there’s anything you need any help with. Lend a hand, you know.” Jesus, could I have made that sound any more like a come-on? Clearly my mouth was in cahoots with my dick rather than my brain. I bit the inside of my lower lip, just to show it who was boss.

But Stan just carried on staring at me, while the sun-warmed denim of his eyes frosted over.

“Right. Just your job.” Oh, that guttural Slovakian accent! After the best part of a decade of living in the UK, Stan’s had definitely mellowed compared to when we’d first met, but it was still sexy as hell. “I’ll make sure I let you know if there’s anything you can help me with.” He stepped a little closer then, and tucked both thumbs into the waistband of his combats, hands framing his package like I needed any reminding of what was hidden in there. Well, not so hidden. Whereas I was a grower, Stan was most definitely a show-er, meaning his tackle was almost as big flaccid as it was erect. Not that that was a disappointment. More of a relief, really. If he’d got any bigger when hard, I’d have had to make like a snake and dislocate my jaw before giving him a blowjob.

And I really didn’t need to be remembering blowing Stan right now.

I thought I’d concealed my arousal pretty damn well, but something must have registered, because Stan got this triumphant grin. “You’d better get back to work. Can’t have you giving up your chance at climbing the corporate ladder for my sake.” And the bastard turned his back on me and went back to fiddling with the display board.

Ouch. That was an old barb, and one I’d had thrown at me many times in the months leading to our breakup. Or my dumping, as I thought of it in my maudlin moments. Usually while cradling a glass of pinot noir and listening to bluesy jazz.

I had to set things straight. Let Stan know I’d turned over a new leaf. “Actually, I’m working for the council now. Public sector. Not corporate.”

“And I should care why, exactly?”

Double ouch. And worse yet, I knew I probably deserved it, as I had made it very clear my career was the priority back then.

“I’ll be on my way, then. If you need anything, Janine and I are patrolling. Should be one of us checking up on you every half hour or so. Oh, and I’m sorry about your pitch.” I indicated the litter bin that sat in front of it. “Not the best we have to offer. You’ll have to get in quick next year if you want one of the prime ones with decent footfall.”

Stan just shrugged. “It’s fine. I’m used to things being quiet.”

“Yeah, I bet.” I wanted to ask him more about how it was going out in the woods, but he’d made it pretty clear he didn’t want to talk. “Bye, then.”

I got a grunt in response. Bloody charming.

Cavemen. You can try to civilise them, but the minute they get back to the great outdoors, they go all feral again. I pitied the good folk of Somerset, having to put up with a grumpy old hermit in their midst.

And I kind of envied them too.

Yeah, I was so not over Stan, it wasn’t even funny.

Rainbow Awards Winner- Rebecca Cohen

ForeverHoldHisPeace

amazon.co.uk: amazon.com: dreamspinner.com

Sequel to Duty to the Crown
The Crofton Chronicles: Book Three

Sebastian Hewel has never been happier. But his life playing the role of his twin sister Bronwyn, the wife of Anthony Redbourn, Earl of Crofton, is about to change. Rumors abound that Bronwyn is using witchcraft to enthrall her husband, and false evidence has been found. Practicing witchcraft is a crime that could have Bronwyn brought in for questioning by the sheriff, and that would reveal Sebastian and Anthony’s secret.

Together they must decide whether it is time to lay Bronwyn to rest. Anthony intends to ensure that whoever implicated Bronwyn pays for the treacherous deed. Whatever happens, Sebastian and Anthony must prepare to face an unknown future together.

Excerpt:

Chapter 1

THE DANCING shadows of the undergrowth provided excellent cover. Sebastian moved quietly, placing each foot with care and avoiding the dry twigs whose treacherous snaps would give him away in an instant. He headed deeper into the woods and crouched down. The summer warmth didn’t penetrate this far, and he paid no attention to the gnats as they flew around his head or the earthy smell of the damp ground. His ears pricked at what he thought were footsteps, and he fought to keep his breathing shallow so not to disclose his hiding place. The sunshine dappled through the canopy of the trees, the pockets of light catching something and making it glint. Grinning to himself, he picked up a stone and threw it to the right, expecting it to draw out his quarry.

A flash of dark green, just visible in the shadows, coupled with a rustle of leaves only inches from where he hid had Sebastian ready to attack. He balanced himself, curled up like a frog about to leap to a lily pad, and sprung out of the undergrowth. But no one was there. He whipped around, convinced his prey should be here, but saw only trees and the mossy covering of the forest floor.

His instincts told him he should get back undercover, head to the safety of the trees before he became the hunted and not the hunter. He turned to dive back into his hiding place, but the weight of something hitting him hard sent him to the ground. With the air knocked out of him, Sebastian lifted his head and peered over his shoulder. Rolling backward, he stared up into Anthony’s grinning face.

Anthony sat astride him, grabbed his wrists, and held Sebastian’s arms above his head. “Not bad.”

“I thought I had you that time.”

“Oh, you’re a long way from being able to catch me in these woods, Sebastian. I’ve been causing mayhem in here since I was a boy.”

Sebastian tried to wriggle out of Anthony’s grasp. “Well played, my lord. Now may I be so bold as to ask you to let me get up?”

“And if I were to do that, how would I claim my prize?”

Sebastian struggled again but not with any real effort, and from Anthony’s wolfish smile, he could see his lover knew he was not really trying to escape. “But surely getting the better of me is good enough? There cannot be many men of your age who could claim they have beaten a man of mine.”

“I’ll give you ‘man of my age,’ you insolent whelp!”

Anthony’s kiss was hot and insisting, and Sebastian moaned greedily into it. The weight of Anthony holding him down excited Sebastian. As Anthony used his lower body to keep Sebastian in place, Sebastian felt the undeniable urgency of Anthony’s ardor in the press of his hard cock.

The sound of hooves in the distance made Anthony stop and pull back.

Sebastian tried to see what Anthony was looking at and was disappointed when Anthony rolled away. “What’s going on?” he asked as Anthony helped him to his feet.

“There’s someone on the other side of the trees.”

Sebastian tried to brush away the evidence of his adventure on the forest floor. He hoped he’d been successful and worried his appearance would make it all too clear what he was really doing with his brother-in-law.

“My lord!” came the cry.

The anxiety dissipated with the voice of Wallace, the steward of Crofton Hall. And although disappointed they had been disturbed, at least it was by a trusted member of Anthony’s household.

Anthony led the way through the thicket, and they emerged where they had tethered their horses to see Wallace waiting for them.

“Apologies, my lord, for disturbing you when you are hunting,” said Wallace, and by the way the man averted his eyes, Sebastian could tell he was a little ill at ease. “But the gentleman insisted that he speak to you.”

“What gentleman?”

“The Duke of Marchent, my lord.”

Anthony swung himself into the saddle of his horse, Zeus. “What is His Grace doing here?”

“He did not say, my lord. Just said that he needed to speak to you urgently.”

Sebastian blushed as Anthony bent down to pull a leaf out of Sebastian’s hair. “Come on, Sebastian. I need to get back to the hall.”

Sebastian mounted Star. “It is probably time for young William’s reading lesson. I hope he’s finished the work I set him.”

“If that son of mine hasn’t, you send him to me. He knows what he should be doing. Don’t let those big blue eyes of his fool you otherwise.”

Sebastian decided not to comment on how much five-year-old William Crofton was like his father in that respect, and instead he encouraged Star to walk on with a kick of his heels. Wallace rode on ahead, and Sebastian spent much of the ride back to the hall picking bits of dried foliage out of his hair and from his doublet, much to Anthony’s amusement.

“Who is the Duke of Marchent?” asked Sebastian.

“An old friend. Stephen’s been busy overseas after a rather delicate altercation with the daughter of the Spanish ambassador. I’ve not seen him for several years.”

“So you weren’t expecting him?”

Anthony ducked to avoid a low-hanging branch. “No. I knew he was back in the country, but I thought I’d catch up with him when we’re at court later in the week. I doubt he’s here to chat about old times and drink my wine.”

“Why not? Seems to be the case with most of your friends.”

“Because Stephen, when he’s not been imbibing the claret, is generally of a serious disposition. He wouldn’t turn up here claiming urgency where there was none.”

Sebastian laughed. “Then how in the heavens have you managed to stay friends for so long?”

“He also happens to be William’s uncle.”

Sebastian almost fell out of his saddle. “Did you not think it might be prudent to mention that he was your first wife’s brother?”

“Not really.”

“And what will he say when he meets your new wife?”

Anthony chuckled. “You trouble yourself far too much. I am sure he will be charmed by Bronwyn.”

Sebastian’s hope of an evening of reading and having Anthony to himself vanished. He’d grown to cherish the rare occasions when there weren’t guests at the hall and they could be alone. Instead, he readied the lie to cover Sebastian’s absence in order for Bronwyn to attend supper.

“Then it is fortunate that my sister is in good health for once.”

Anthony’s dry chuckle accompanied a friendly pat to Sebastian’s arm. Not the type of touch he’d hoped to receive from Anthony that afternoon, but he supposed, as Crofton Hall’s entrance came into view, it was better than nothing.

They dismounted at the front of the hall and handed the reins to Wallace to take the horses to the stables at the back. Anthony had only gone a few steps when a man about Sebastian’s height, with a slim frame, darted out of the hall. His eyes were wide, and his mouth set in a grim line extenuated by his ginger moustache. His wiry ginger hair stuck out in all directions, as if he’d dragged his fingers repeatedly through it.

“Anthony, thank the Lord you’re back!”

Anthony clapped his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Stephen, whatever is the matter?”

“I need to speak to you alone,” he insisted.

Marchent’s gaze lingered on Sebastian, and Anthony moved to answer his friend’s curious stare. “Allow me to introduce you to my brother-in-law, Mr. Sebastian Hewel. A trusted member of the family.”

Stephen nodded curtly and turned to Anthony. “Alone, Anthony. This is not the subject for a stranger’s ears.”

Deciding to ignore the dismissive tone of Marchent’s words, Sebastian excused himself. “Please excuse me, gentlemen, but the future Earl of Crofton requires his reading lesson.”

“You will join us for supper?” asked Anthony, giving Sebastian his cue to provide his excuse.

“Alas, no. I leave for Stratford midafternoon and won’t be back before you depart for London.”

“Travel safe,” said Anthony.

Sebastian took Anthony’s words as the excuse he needed to leave and headed inside to find William, even though he burned with curiosity about what Anthony’s friend had to say.

 

 

SEBASTIAN WINCED as Miriam laced him into another new gown. He could never accuse Anthony of being a miser; it was fair to say Anthony was overly generous at times. Sebastian conceded needing the new stockings, having ruined several pairs with his less-than-ladylike feet, but the rest of the attire was there to show Anthony’s wealth by dressing his wife in the latest fashions.

“What was wrong with the blue one?” he asked of the skirt Miriam had whisked away. “It was lighter than most of the others I have.”

“Because it was out of date. Really, Sebastian, you know what it’s like at court—it’s important to his lordship that he shows his love for his wife with extravagant gifts.”

Sebastian tugged at the bodice, trying to make it sit in such a way that it didn’t restrict his breathing.

Miriam smacked his hands away and pulled up the linen of his shift from under his bodice to give him the illusion of womanly breasts. “It’s hard enough as it is trying to give you a proper shape. You playing with it isn’t helping.”

“Don’t know why you care. No one’s going to look at my flat chest with what some of the ladies of the court have on display. I hardly know where to look at times.”

“You should be grateful you needn’t be troubled by that particular fashion. It’s a good job you’re married and so must keep yourself covered. Otherwise we’d have to explain your lack of bosom.”

Sebastian winced at a particularly sharp tug. “You don’t make me cover my hair.”

“And I bet you get all sorts of spiteful remarks because of it,” said Miriam. “But the periwig makes you look like Lady Crofton, and not just Sebastian Hewel in a dress.”

Sebastian dusted his face with white powder, thankful he didn’t wear the ceruse at home by Anthony’s insistence, and took care not to smudge the vermilion he applied to his lips and cheeks. He turned his back on the mirror to see Miriam holding a new ruff. The lace monstrosity was several inches bigger than the one he usually wore. His throat constricted involuntarily at the thought of wearing it. “That’s enormous.”

“I’m afraid the fashion has moved on again.”

She tied it in place and Sebastian pouted. “Can’t I wear the old one?”

Miriam sighed and untied the ruff. “You’ll need to wear this one at court,” she warned.

“It won’t be the only thing I wear solely for court. It can be added to the ceruse and the really uncomfortable shoes.”

Miriam pinned his periwig in place, checked all his layers once more, and chased him out of his room. “If his lordship mentions the ruff, make sure you tell him I tried.”

Sebastian swept through the halls of the manor and arrived in the great hall to find Anthony and Marchent already there. They rose as he entered.

Anthony, smiling broadly, came to greet him and held out his hands, which Sebastian accepted with a shallow curtsey. “Stephen, it is my pleasure to introduce you to my wife, Bronwyn, Lady Crofton. My lady, this is Stephen Winters, Duke of Marchent.”

Sebastian curtseyed, lower this time, and Marchent bowed. Sebastian wasn’t sure what response he would draw from the former Lady Crofton’s brother, but Marchent didn’t appear to be holding any sort of grudge that Anthony had taken a new wife.

“My lady. I feel I should offer my apologies that this is the first time we meet. Alas, my business interests in Venice and Naples have kept me away from my home, but I am relieved to see Anthony has finally found someone to tame him.”

Perhaps, thought Sebastian, Marchent had not been fond of Anthony’s old ways. Sebastian took his seat. “What was it that drew you to those cities, Your Grace?”

“I am a patron of the arts, so naturally I found my way there when I wanted to spend some time overseas.”

Seeing Anthony’s smirk, Sebastian realized Marchent must be the source of Anthony’s pamphlet collection, the ones with the lewd drawings and exciting prose. “It sounds wonderful, Your Grace. But how did you come to choose where you did?”

“I traveled for a while but couldn’t force myself to settle in one place, so divided my time between the great cities of Venice and Naples—both lively and bewitching.” Marchent seemed to disappear into his own thoughts for a moment. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, but soon one longs for home.”

Anthony snorted. “And which cuckolded husband caught you this time?”

Marchent looked part scandalized, part awkward. “Anthony, must you say such things in front of a lady?”

“I have heard much worse about my lord and his other accomplices,” said Sebastian to keep the peace. “I am sure that compared to their stories, you would be considered the most gentlemanly of Lord Crofton’s friends.”

Marchent raised his pewter goblet. “You are no doubt right, my lady. Anthony was a wild spirit at times. Although it appears that has changed.”

Sebastian was amazed that Marchent appeared not to care about Anthony’s reputation, one he had started building even before he was married to his first wife, Marchent’s sister, the former Lady Jane Winters.

Anthony reached over and took Sebastian’s hand. “And for that you can thank my dear Bronwyn.”

“Some would say you were either a miracle worker or an enchantress to have managed to do such a thing to Anthony.”

“I wish it were so. It is more a fortunate timing, and my uncle ensuring me the match.”

“Uncle? Do I know this Cupid?” asked Marchent.

“I would hardly call Sir Francis Haven a god of love. More an old devil at times,” said Anthony sourly. “His estates are in Northumberland, which, quite frankly, is too close for my liking.”

“I would’ve thought you would be singing his praises for delivering you his niece.”

“For that he has my eternal gratitude. But he can be a little harsh at times.”

Marchent drank deeply from his wine and signaled a servant to bring more. “We all have family members like that. I had an elderly aunt who could melt gold with her wicked words and leave marks on the skin from a lash of her tongue. Her funeral feast was more a celebration than a dirge.”

Sebastian was a little surprised at Anthony’s frankness with Marchent. Before today, Anthony had never spoken of the man, let alone as the close friends they appeared as they traded stories and bandied insults and slurs on other members of the nobility. Anthony treated Marchent almost like a brother, but considering Anthony had known his first wife since they were children, Marchent was probably the closest thing Anthony had to a brother.

“Dartley is an idiot,” said Marchent, on his fifth goblet of wine. “If his father wasn’t the Duke of Malbac, he’d be dead in a ditch somewhere.”

“Surely that’s something that could be said of most of the nobility,” said Sebastian before he could hold his tongue. He might speak his mind as a man, but while playing his sister, he was supposed to be demure and circumspect with his words, and he took a drink of wine to cover his error.

“Oh, Anthony, you have a woman to match your spirit! If I had doubted the match before, then I would be completely convinced now.” He waved his wine in Sebastian’s direction. “Feel free to speak your mind with me, my lady. What has caused the disdain I hear?”

“I should not have spoken out of turn,” said Sebastian, shooting a look in Anthony’s direction to try to gather what his best course of action would be.

“Nonsense!” called Marchent with an exaggerated sweep of his arm. A large measure of wine slopped out of the goblet.

Anthony leaned away from the spilt wine running across the tabletop. “Lady Crofton has fallen foul, on occasion, of the whispers at court. It is not a surprise that it has colored her opinions.”

“The tongues at court are some of the most wicked in the land. With hair like this, I have suffered through many jibes myself.”

Sebastian laughed as Marchent tugged at his ginger curls. He was a very likable man, and there was no trace of what had troubled him when he had arrived at Crofton Hall. Whether due to the relaxing effects of the wine or Anthony managing to calm him down remained to be seen. And when Anthony went to bed, Sebastian intended to find out.

With the final set of plates cleared away, Sebastian got ready to make his excuses to leave. Anthony and Marchent were embroiled in a tale that involved a countess and her stolen jewels, hand-to-hand combat with a Venetian dueling master, and a race across the country on the back of a donkey. Sebastian expected it would be several hours before they were through. He made to stand, but Marchent suddenly stopped midsentence, burped loudly, and collapsed forward. The sound of Marchent’s head hitting the table made Sebastian wince.

“Is he well?” asked Sebastian.

“Yes, perfectly fine. He has never been able to hold his drink. I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t carried to bed when he visited.”

Sebastian stared at Marchent, the duke’s loud snores making the hair of his moustache quiver. “Not quite what I expected when you said he was one of your sensible friends.”

“He is when he’s sober. You go on up. I’ll have someone carry him to bed, and then I’ll join you.”

Sebastian left the great hall and took the stairs back to his room. Halfway up the stairs, he looked back to see the still-snoring Duke of Marchent being carted across the entrance hall by two male servants. He smiled to himself and carried on.

Miriam was waiting to undress him, and having made short work of Bronwyn’s wardrobe, he let himself into Anthony’s bedchamber and made himself comfortable in Anthony’s bed, wearing just his shift.

It took longer than he had expected for Anthony to join him. “Is His Grace safely in his bed?”

Anthony locked the door and checked the bolt of the connecting door to Lady Crofton’s room. “I’m surprised we can’t hear him from here.”

“I thought you’d be here sooner. Is there something wrong?”

Anthony removed his boots and began to undress. “No, I had to send a couple of messages. I didn’t get the chance before supper.”

Sebastian pulled back the bedclothes in invitation. “What was so urgent it couldn’t wait until morning?”

Anthony climbed into bed. “Stephen brought with him some disturbing news about someone we both consider a good friend.”

“How good a friend?” asked Sebastian suspiciously, knowing full well he was sounding jealous and a little petulant.

Anthony kissed his forehead. “Not that kind of friend,” he said with a laugh. “Someone I can count on to watch my back, and to keep his ears open for useful information.”

“Someone I know?”

“You’ve met him, but I introduce you to so many people both here and at court, I doubt you’d place him. Jacob Galway—he’s the Marquis of Denmouth.”

“And the problem?”

“Earlier this year he narrowly avoided being connected to Robert Devereux and charged with treason, but unlike the Earl of Essex, he kept his head and his reputation intact. Now Stephen has learnt that Denmouth is up to something else… possibly to do with King James VI of Scotland.”

“God’s teeth, Anthony! What are you getting embroiled in now?”

“Hush, it may be nothing. Or indeed it might be something he has been instructed to do, but Stephen is fretful that Jacob has become infatuated with a young lady, and she may sway his judgment.”

“And the letter you’ve sent is to find out more?”

“Among other things.”

Anthony pulled Sebastian close and leaned him back so he was lying flat. He pressed a kiss to the side of Sebastian’s neck. Sebastian tilted his head to give Anthony access and opened his legs so Anthony could slide between them. Anthony sucked gently below his ear—a spot he knew drove Sebastian wild.

“Sebastian?”

“Hmmm?”

“I have a small favor to ask.”

Anthony played with his nipples, licking and sucking at them as if they were a marzipan treat. Sebastian gasped. “You reprehensible swine, Crofton! Asking me now of all times.”

Anthony chuckled. “That wasn’t a no.”

Sebastian squirmed as Anthony moved down his body and nuzzled into his groin. “What do you want?”

Anthony ran his ran hand over Sebastian’s thigh. “When we’re at court, I want you to ask a few questions. See if you can get some of the ladies to tell you their gossip.”

Sebastian was about to argue that most of the women at court were more likely to speak about him than to him, but Anthony’s mouth closed around his already-aching cock. He groaned happily as the hot, wet heat engulfed him. He arched upward only for Anthony to pull back.

“Well?”

“You louse!” Sebastian pushed Anthony back to his cock. “Let’s see if you can convince me.”

Sebastian let his head roll back as Anthony continued what he’d started. Anthony was extremely talented with his mouth, knowing exactly how much pressure to apply with his tongue and how much to suck to make Sebastian scream. Sebastian didn’t know whether to buck or bear down as Anthony worked his fingers inside him. He loved Anthony filling him, and along with the delicious antics of Anthony’s mouth, Sebastian was barely coherent as he tumbled through his climax, Anthony drinking down his release.

Anthony trailed kisses over his belly and his chest as he worked his way up Sebastian’s body. “So,” he said, grinning, “did I convince you?”

“If you promise to do that again, I’ll do whatever you want.”

“You really shouldn’t say such things. It gives me terrible notions.”

Sebastian stretched languidly, his body warm and pliable and his eyelids fluttering shut. “You don’t need any encouragement.”

“You’re not allowed to fall asleep on me, Sebastian. I’m far from finished with you yet.”

Rainbow Awards Winner- S.a. Meade

10858386_10152546308244646_4338896452909411873_n

 

tournament of shadows

amazon.co.uk: amazon.comtotallybound.com

In a shadowy game where defeat can mean death, a deal with the enemy can change things forever. 

In 1842, Captain Gabriel O’Riordan of the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars is sent on a mission to Bukhara. His task—to try to free two of his compatriots from the clutches of a mentally unstable Emir. On his way, he encounters Valentin Yakolev, an officer in the Russian Army, who is also on a mission—to persuade the Emir that an alliance with Russia would be in his best interests. Gabriel, disguised as a holy man, is not happy to be the object of Yakolev’s intense scrutiny. After all, he’s working for the opposing team in the Great Game being played between their two nations. When Gabriel realises that his mission is little more than a forlorn hope, a game he has no chance of winning, he’s desperate enough to turn to Valentin to help and offer him anything in return. What he doesn’t expect is to have his plans to return to Calcutta scuppered by events.

Instead, he and Valentin flee north, fighting off bandits, their desire for each other and the hardship of desert travel. Their travails bring them closer together until a secret from Valentin’s past tears them apart.

Can they set the past behind them and move on together?

Excerpt:

I had more important things to worry about than whether the man who trailed several miles behind me was a coincidental traveller or someone with a far more sinister purpose. My horse was hopping lame and I needed to find somewhere to rest. The prospect of dealing with potential trouble in a country ripe with dangerous possibilities did not appeal to me. I patted the animal’s warm neck and kept walking, trying my best to ignore the dust and discomfort of the desert.

A hopeful patch of green glimmered in the distance, distorted by the heat. It was promise enough. I urged the horse on. I cleared my mind of everything but becoming the travelling scholar once more. A harmless fool immersed in research for the sake of it, not a paid fool sent to rescue two other idiots. The May heat left me bad tempered. I just wanted to find a place to rest for a day or two, perhaps lie in wait for my unwanted travelling companion. I knew there was a caravanserai on the road ahead but I didn’t want the crowds, the braying camels, persistent hawkers. I just wanted peace and quiet.

I talked to myself in Uzbek. I talked to the horse. His ears twitched at the sound of my voice and he let loose a long, flubbering sigh as he hobbled along beside me. The oasis drew closer, rising out of the scorched earth in a cluster of trees and earthen buildings. The horse quickened his step and I hurried alongside him, desperate for cool, green shade and a place to rest, even if it was just a rug laid out beneath a tree. I needed all the rest I could get in preparation for the impossible task ahead.

 

* * * *

 

The furnace wind kicked up dust and dead leaves, hurling them across the road. I was glad to leave the desert behind and reach the refuge of the village. I searched for the closest thing they had to an inn—a small, mud-walled building beneath a canopy of trees. The proprietor, a wizened old man with skin like creased, oiled leather hobbled out into the courtyard and offered me a toothless smile. There were a few cots scattered beneath a wood-shingled awning. One or two were already occupied by weary, dusty travellers sleeping in the shade. I chose the bed at the far end, desiring as much peace and quiet as possible, not wanting to be bothered by conversation or company.

The horse came first. I led him to a stable.

“Your horse has a bad limp, sir.”

I bent down and examined the injured leg. “I think it’s his foot.”

The horse shuddered when I reached for his hoof. It was hot to the touch and a close study of the sole revealed a tell-tale black line, which told me that he had an abscess. “Can I have some warm water?”

“Yes, sir.” The innkeeper smiled, nodded then walked away.

I searched my saddle pack for the small bags of things I kept for medicinal purposes including Epsom salts, then pulled the knife from my belt. The innkeeper returned with a basin of water and stood watching when I dug my knife into the animal’s hoof. The horse groaned and snorted but remained still as pus streamed from his foot. I dropped Epsom salts into the water, then dunked an unrolled bandage into it. Once the cloth was soaked, I wrapped it carefully around the horse’s hoof, all under the watchful eye of my host.

“You are a clever man, sir.” His grin was brilliant in the seamed leather of his face.

I straightened my back and patted the horse’s warm neck. “No, just one who has learnt to care for his horse.” I didn’t much care for such close scrutiny and hoped the innkeeper wasn’t one of those talkative sorts who need to know the life story of each of his guests.

He stooped to retrieve the basin and flung the water onto the dirt. “I will leave you to rest. I will bring you some food later.”

“Thank you.” I salaamed, made sure the horse was settled then sought refuge on my bed.

It was cool enough in the shade to be comfortable. I lay down on my bedroll and fell asleep to the warbling of a bird in the dusty trees.

 

* * * *

 

The sun slipped beyond the walls of the inn. My host carried a tray across the yard and set it on a small table beside my bed. “It is but a simple meal, sir.”

I glanced at the bowl of aromatic stew, the cup of cloudy white rice, the pickles and slab of flatbread. “It is a feast after days of traveller’s fare. Thank you.”

He left me to eat in peace, which I did, until the bowl was empty, wiped clean by the last wedge of warm bread. I washed the repast down with the lukewarm tea he’d provided. It was more than enough to satisfy me. I returned the tray to the house then went to see to my horse.

The gelding dozed, resting his afflicted foot. I removed the bandage and poultice, pleased to note that the wound had finished draining. There was still some heat in the sole, which meant I faced a day or two of enforced rest.

“It’s all right, my friend,” I murmured into his ear. “A day or two isn’t going to make much of a difference.

I wasn’t sure I believed my own words but I needed a sound horse more than I needed the firearm hidden in my saddlebag. The gelding nudged me, then rubbed his head against my shoulder, seeking relief from some hidden itch. I obliged by scratching his cheek and offering up prayers to every god I could think of to speed his recovery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rainbow Awards Winner- KC Wells

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 amazon.co.uk: amazon.com: dreamspinnerpress.com

Christmas is a time for goodwill to all, but Collars and Cuffs co-owner Thomas Williams receives an unexpected gift that chills him to the bone. A Dom from another Manchester club asks Thomas for his help rescuing an abused submissive, Peter Nicholson. Thomas takes in the young man as a favor to a friend, offering space and time to heal, but he makes it clear he’s never had a sub and doesn’t want one.

Peter finds Thomas’s home calm and peaceful, but his past has left him unwilling to trust another Dom. When Thomas doesn’t behave as Peter expects, Peter’s nightmares begin to fade, and he decides he’d like to learn more about D/s life. A well-known trainer of submissives, Thomas begins to teach Peter, but as the new submissive opens up to him, Thomas finds he cares more for Peter than he should. Just as he decides it’s time to find a permanent Dom for Peter, they discover Peter’s tormentor is still very much a threat. With their lives in danger, Thomas can’t deny his feelings for Peter any longer. The question now becomes, can Peter make it out of the lions’ den alive, so that Thomas can tell his boy that he loves him?

Excerpt:

One

New Year

 

 

“PETER’S definitely not here, Sir,” murmured David. Steven straightened.

“You’re sure? You’ve looked everywhere?” He heard every word, in spite of the music booming through the speakers. Everyone was talking, laughing, dancing….

David dipped his head once. “And I also overheard Christian talking. I might have misunderstood, but I’m sure he said something about Peter being in a cage tonight.”

Steven went still. “You’re sure he said ‘cage’?”

David nodded, his eyes wide. “He didn’t really mean Peter is in a cage… did he? I mean, he shouldn’t be in the cage if his master isn’t present.” Steven’s heart swelled. David remembered everything he was taught. Not for the first time, Steven thought how proud he was to have David as his submissive.

“Listen to me, boy.” He cupped David’s chin, lifting it so the sub was forced to look at him directly. “Curtis Rogers is not a Dom, all right? He has no right to call himself Peter’s master. And we are going to get Peter away from him so he can learn what it means to be a submissive, if that’s what he wants.”

David’s gaze never wavered. He nodded slowly, swallowing.

“Then I need your help.”

David composed himself quickly. “What do you need me to do, Sir?”

Steven gave him a quick grin and kissed his cheek. “Good boy.” David’s blush was delightful. “I need you to keep a lookout for me. I’m going to find Curtis’s car keys, because hopefully there will also be a set of house keys attached.” His grin widened as David inhaled sharply. “Come on, then. Let’s go to the parking bay.”

Dom and sub made their way through the throng of partygoers toward the back of the club, where the boys who did the valet parking were sprawled on chairs, drinking Cokes. The back door was open, despite the chill winter’s air: the boys were smoking. Steven turned to look at the wall behind him and saw a board with many hooks laden with keys, all neatly labeled.

“Right,” he whispered to David, “you go strike up a conversation. Keep them talking for about five minutes, then meet me outside the club. Okay?” David nodded and headed for the three boys. Steven hurried to the board and searched rapidly through the myriad bunches of keys until at last he spied Curtis’s name. With a triumphant smirk he grabbed the set of keys and cast a darting glance toward his sub. David was chatting animatedly with the boys, who were laughing and joking with him. Good boy. Steven glanced at his watch. Ten thirty. Plenty of time to get to Curtis’s house, grab Peter, take him to Thomas, and then get back here to replace the keys. At least he knew Curtis would be staying put until midnight. The sub auction wasn’t due to happen until just before twelve.

Abruptly, Steven’s heart began to race. Okay, so maybe what he was about to do was slightly illegal. Hell, who was he kidding? It was damned illegal, but he kept telling himself the end justified the means. Peter couldn’t stay with that brute a second longer. He needed rescuing.

 

 

THE house was virtually in darkness.

“Shouldn’t we be worried about an alarm, Sir?” David peered out anxiously through the car window.

Steven shook his head. “He’s not likely to have set the alarm if Peter is inside, is he?” Well, Steven fervently hoped the alarm wasn’t set. “Come on, let’s have a look around.”

As silently as possible, the two men got out of the car and walked up to the house. The only light visible came from a lamp softly glowing in the large front window and the wall light next to the front door. Steven peered at the window. No sign of Peter. Then he reasoned: As if Curtis would leave Peter where he could be seen. He motioned to David to follow him, and they took the path that led along the side of the house until they arrived at the huge expanse of a garden. Steven glanced at the windows again. A faint light shone from deeper within the house. He took out his phone and activated its flashlight function to examine the lock on the back door. After glancing down at the keys in his hand, he let out a quiet whoop of triumph.

“We’re going in.”

Stealthily, they crept inside. They found themselves in a large kitchen filled with shiny appliances and black marble work surfaces. “Head for the light,” he whispered and went toward the open kitchen door. The light came from a room off the small hallway.

“Master? Christian? Is that you? Who’s there?”

Steven stiffened at the sound of Peter’s voice, which quavered. He edged his way carefully into the room… and stopped.

In the corner sat a cage about four feet high and three feet wide. Peter raised his head from his curled-up position on the floor of the cage. His wrist and leg restraints were connected by chains to a thick loop of steel suspended from the roof of the cage, allowing him little movement. A bottle of water sat beside him. He wore a thin pair of sweatpants and an equally thin T-shirt. His feet were bare.

Peter’s eyes grew round as he saw the two men approach the cage.

“I-I remember you,” he whispered, his gaze alighting on Steven. He glanced at David, who smiled kindly at him. Instantly, Peter froze. “You have to leave! He could be back any second!”

Steven gave the small room a cursory glance. A set of keys hung from a nail on the wall… ones just about the right size to be the keys for Peter’s restraints. He grabbed them and opened the cage door. It wasn’t locked: no need—Peter wasn’t going anywhere. Clumsily, Steven fumbled with the restraints, his hands shaking.

“You’re coming with us,” he said firmly. Peter shook his head, aghast.

“I can’t! I can’t leave my master!”

“Boy, I don’t have time to wait. We need to get you out of here now.”

Peter trembled violently. “You don’t understand,” he whispered. “I can’t leave him—he won’t let me. He’s my master. He would beat me if I tried to leave.”

“Then we’re going to get out of here before he comes back.” Steven stared at Peter. “Will you come with me?” Stubbornly, Peter shook his head. “Then I will just have to carry you out.” Peter howled in protest as Steven pulled him gently from the cage and then hefted him up over his shoulder. At five feet eleven and with well-defined musculature, thanks to his hours spent in the local gym, Steven had no problem carrying the slight sub. All the fight promptly went out of Peter, and he sagged against Steven, a deadweight.

David led the way out of the house and locked the door behind them.

“Sir, if you want to go in the back with Peter, I can drive, as long as you give me directions.”

Steven gave his sub a fond look. “That’s okay, David. I’ll strap Peter into the front seat, and then I’ll drop you outside the club. Can you get the keys back to the parking board?” David nodded. “We’ll wait outside for you. Then we’ll take Peter here to Master Thomas’s house. Once Peter is safe, you and I can go home. You did really well, David. As a reward, you’re sleeping in my bed tonight… when we eventually get to sleep, that is.”

David beamed with pride, and his sharp intake of breath and happy grin spoke volumes.

Steven chuckled. He’d always planned on fucking the boy tonight—nothing like letting the New Year in with a bang—but he wanted to go to sleep with his submissive in his arms. And judging by the contented expression on David’s face, his sub wanted that too.

First things first, however. While David was returning the keys to their rightful position, Steven would ring Thomas. Better warn the man they were on their way—with a houseguest for him.

Rainbow Awards Winner- KJ Charles

Congratulations KJ, from ukgayromance. Much deserved! 

10850222_1582393778650445_6441132464746584406_na-case-of-possession

samhainpublishing.comamazon.co.ukamazon.com

Magic in the blood. Danger in the streets.

A Charm of Magpies, Book 2

Lord Crane has never had a lover quite as elusive as Stephen Day. True, Stephen’s job as justiciar requires secrecy, but the magician’s disappearing act bothers Crane more than it should. When a blackmailer threatens to expose their illicit relationship, Crane knows a smart man would hop the first ship bound for China. But something unexpectedly stops him. His heart.

Stephen has problems of his own. As he investigates a plague of giant rats sweeping London, his sudden increase in power, boosted by his blood-and-sex bond with Crane, is rousing suspicion that he’s turned warlock. With all eyes watching him, the threat of exposure grows. Stephen could lose his friends, his job and his liberty over his relationship with Crane. He’s not sure if he can take that risk much longer. And Crane isn’t sure if he can ask him to.

The rats are closing in, and something has to give…

Excerpt:

On a hot summer’s night, in a small, bare clerk’s room in Limehouse, a few streets from the stench of the river and three doors down from an opium den, Lucien Vaudrey, the Earl Crane, was checking lading bills.

This was not his preferred way to spend an evening, but since his preferences hadn’t been consulted, and the work needed to be done, he was doing it.

His iron nib scratched down the paper. It was a functional, cheap pen, like the basic deal desk and the plain, sparse office. There was no evidence of wealth in the room at all, in fact, except for Crane’s suit, which had cost more than the house he was sitting in.

As Lucien Vaudrey, trader and occasional smuggler, he had made himself satisfactorily rich, and his unexpected elevation to the peerage had brought him a huge fortune along with the title. He was now one of England’s most eligible bachelors, to anyone who didn’t know or chose to disregard his reputation in China, and he was this very evening failing to attend three separate soirees at which he could have met perhaps thirty women who would be enthusiastically available for the position of the Countess Crane. On his bureau at home were several dozen more visiting cards, invitations, requests for money, requests for meetings: a thick sheaf of laissez-passer to the highest society.

He could have his pick of London’s beauties, socialise with the best people, assert his place in the top few hundred of the Upper Ten Thousand, claim the social status of which many people dreamed and for which some would sacrifice everything. He could have all that if he lifted a finger, and if someone held a gun to his head to make him do it.

Crane had spent his entire adult life in Shanghai, cheek by jowl with smugglers, prostitutes, gamblers, killers, traders, drinkers, shamans, painters, corrupt officials, slumming mandarins, poets, opium eaters and other such scum, and he loved that sweaty, vivid, intoxicated world. Polite soirees and elegant dinners with people whose achievement in life began and ended with birth held no appeal at all.

So he declined, or ignored, the invitations, because in comparison to high society, identifying where someone had shaved his shipment of Szechuan peppercorns was a much more rewarding pursuit.

Not as rewarding as the pursuit of a certain amber-eyed individual whose small, lithe, delightfully yielding body kept him awake at night, but that wasn’t an option right now because the little devil had once again vanished off to work.

Stephen’s elusiveness was a novelty for Crane, who had always found getting rid of lovers more of a challenge than picking them up, and who had never had a partner who worked harder than himself. His new level of idleness was the problem, really, since if his days were fuller he would spend less of them wondering what Stephen was up to, but to amend that by setting up a serious business would require a commitment to England that he couldn’t quite bring himself to make. Not when he had a perfectly good trading house in Shanghai, where life was easier, more comfortable, and so much more fun.

There would be no Stephen in Shanghai, of course, but then for all Crane knew to the contrary, he wasn’t in London either. He had disappeared two nights ago without a word, and would return as it suited him.

And that was quite reasonable. Stephen was a free man, and one with responsibilities that made Crane’s international business look like a casual pastime. They both had work to do, and since Crane had never tolerated lovers who expected him to put aside his business for their entertainment, he was hardly going to make those demands on Stephen’s time. It was merely irritating that the boot was so firmly on the other foot, for once; that it was Crane waiting for Stephen to turn up on his own unpredictable schedule, knowing that he would offer no more than a lopsided, provocative smile as explanation for his absence.

Thinking of his lover’s irresistible foxy grin led Crane to a moment’s consideration of more interesting uses his desk could be put to. He concluded that the damn thing would doubtless fall apart under the stresses he intended to apply as soon as he got his hands on the little so-and-so, and on that thought, at last spotted where the factor’s well-massaged figures didn’t quite work.

Not a bad effort, he reflected, and a nicely judged theft, enough to be worthwhile for the factor, and quite tolerable for Crane as part of a very competently handled bit of business. He nodded, pleased. The man would work out well.

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think-of-england

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Lie back and think of England…England, 1904. Two years ago, Captain Archie Curtis lost his friends, fingers, and future to a terrible military accident. Alone, purposeless and angry, Curtis is determined to discover if he and his comrades were the victims of fate, or of sabotage.Curtis’s search takes him to an isolated, ultra-modern country house, where he meets and instantly clashes with fellow guest Daniel da Silva. Effete, decadent, foreign, and all-too-obviously queer, the sophisticated poet is everything the straightforward British officer fears and distrusts.

As events unfold, Curtis realizes that Daniel has his own secret intentions. And there’s something else they share—a mounting sexual tension that leaves Curtis reeling.

As the house party’s elegant facade cracks to reveal treachery, blackmail and murder, Curtis finds himself needing clever, dark-eyed Daniel as he has never needed a man before…

Excerpt:

The burglar moved forward in total silence, progress only indicated by the movement of the light. He was coming towards the storage-room door at the back of the library, where Curtis stood. A little closer, and he could spring on the fellow. He readied himself for action.

The light travelled up, over the desk, and stopped with a jerk on the dark lantern that Curtis had left there. He tensed, and the light swung round and beamed directly into his face.

Shocked, blinded but unhesitating, Curtis launched himself forward, left fist leading into—nothing, because the intruder wasn’t there. He heard the faintest whisper of movement, and a hand was clapped over his mouth, warm fingers pressing against his lips.

“Dear me, Mr. Curtis,” murmured a voice in his ear. “We really must stop meeting like this.”

Curtis froze, then as the smooth hand moved from his mouth, he hissed, “What the devil are you playing at?”

“I might ask you the same.” Da Silva was right behind him, body pressed close, and his free hand slid, shockingly intimate, over Curtis’s hip.

He shoved a vicious elbow back, getting a satisfying grunt from da Silva as he made contact, although not as hard as he’d have liked, but when he turned and grabbed where his opponent should have been, he found only empty space. He glared into the dark, frustrated.

“Well, well.” Da Silva’s low voice came from a few steps away. The little light flicked on again. Curtis moved towards it, intending violent retribution, and stopped short as he saw what it was illuminating. His skeleton keys, in da Silva’s hand.

“You picked my bloody pocket!”

Quiet.” The beam of light flickered off the keys, around the room and over the desk. “Don’t shout, and please don’t start a fight. Neither of us wants to be caught.”

Enragingly, that was true. “What are you doing in here?” demanded Curtis, trying to keep his voice as low as da Silva’s murmur.

“I was going to break into Sir Hubert’s storage room. And, given the skeleton keys and dark lantern, I think you had the same idea.”

Curtis opened and shut his mouth in the darkness. He managed, “Are you a thief?”

“No more than you. I suspect we may have shared interests, unlikely as that may seem.”

“It seems damned unlikely to me!”

“And this is likely?” Da Silva beamed his light at the dark lantern. “Archibald Curtis, late of His Majesty’s service, a Boy’s Own Paper reader if ever I saw one—a burglar? I don’t think so. I certainly hope not. You’re dreadful at it.”

Curtis seethed. “Whereas you’re a natural, I suppose.”

“Keep your voice down.” Da Silva’s voice was only just audible, entirely controlled.

“Give me one reason I shouldn’t raise the house,” Curtis said through his teeth.

“If you were going to, you’d have done it already. Two choices, Mr. Curtis. Do the decent thing, shout for help, and watch me spoil your plans while you spoil mine. Or…”

“Or what?”

He could hear the purr in da Silva’s voice. “Or I could open that door.”

Curtis didn’t reply, because he could think of nothing to say. Da Silva went on. “If we have common interests, we’ll find out when we’re in there. If we don’t, well, I shan’t stand in your way and I trust you won’t stand in mine. If neither of us finds what we seek, we’ll apologise to our host in thought, and pretend this never happened. But all of that depends on getting through that door. What do you say?”

It was outrageous. He ought to tell him to go to the devil. It was unthinkable that he should ally himself to this bounder.

What he said was, “Can you open it?”

“Probably. May I?” Da Silva moved to the dark lantern and flicked the slide to shed light on the door lock. He handed the flashlight to Curtis as though they were regular partners. “Take this and listen out.”

Da Silva dropped to his knees by the door, silhouetted in the light from the dark lantern. Curtis bent closer and saw he was manipulating long, slender pieces of metal.

“Are you picking that lock?” he demanded.

“Is that worse than using skeleton keys?”

“You are a thief!”

“On the contrary.” Da Silva sounded unruffled. “My father’s a locksmith. I learned his trade in my cradle. Some day I shall give you his views on the uselessness of skeleton keys. I trust you didn’t pay too much for them.”

Curtis bit back an angry response, knowing it would be bluster. Da Silva’s slim fingers moved, steady, skilful and unhurried.

The house was silent, only his own breathing audible. Feeling useless, Curtis flicked on the flashlight, admiring the strength of its beam. The newfangled things tended to be weak and unreliable, but this was an impressive piece of kit; he should like to examine it when he had a chance. He played the light over the door, checking for other locks or bolts in lieu of anything better to do, and his eyes widened as the light caught something that he hadn’t noticed before.

“Da Silva,” he hissed.

“Busy.”

Da Silva.” Curtis grabbed his shoulder, digging his fingers in. The dark head swung round, black eyes unfriendly.

“What?”

“That.” Curtis circled the light on his discovery.

What?

Da Silva was still on the floor, holding his picks in the lock, looking up at the unobtrusive metal plate on the door with no sign of understanding. Curtis knelt to bring their heads level, and felt a stab of pain and weakness in his kneecap as his leg bent. He grabbed for da Silva’s shoulder to steady himself, leaning on the kneeling man, and heard him give a very slight grunt of effort as he took Curtis’s weight.

Curtis lowered himself to the floor, hand still gripping the slender shoulder that seemed stiff with effort or tension, and whispered into da Silva’s ear, feeling the warmth of his own breath bounce off the skin so close to his mouth. “Wire running to the door. Metal plate on the frame and the door. It’s an electrical contact. If you open the door, you’ll break the circuit.”

“Meaning?”

“I think it might be an alarm.”

Da Silva’s body went rigid under Curtis’s hand. “Well,” he breathed. “How thrillingly modern. Doesn’t want us to get in there, does he?”

Curtis would have voiced a strong objection to “us”, but that was drowned in the rush of sensation along his nerves. If Sir Hubert was really hiding something… If Lafayette had been right…

If that was the case, no matter that the man was his host, and elderly. He would break his damned neck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Release: JL Merrow – Batteries Not Included

How would you react if you woke up one morning to find you were in bed with your favorite rock star? More to the point: how would the rock star react?

Animal rescue worker Sam is content to live a quiet life, dreaming of an unattainable man, rock sensation Cain Shepney.  Trouble is, his meddling mother, Lilith, thinks he deserves to have all his dreams come true—and she isn’t above performing a little magic to achieve her ends!  Sam’s shocked to wake up one morning to find himself actually in bed with his celebrity crush—but that’s nothing to how Cain feels about it! Suddenly Sam’s got to deal with an irate, naked, andvery distracting rock star in his bed.

Cain has it all—he’s good-looking, famous, and adored by millions. But his life takes a turn for the surreal when he wakes up in bed with Sam. Expecting everyone to be worried sick by his disappearance, Cain’s horrified to find his manager—and even his mum—insisting that he’s an imposter, and that the real Cain Shepney is right where he belongs.

Sam just wants to help, but with Cain convinced he’s a crazed, celebrity-kidnapping stalker, Sam’s got his work cut out to convince the object of his affections to trust him long enough to find out just what the hell’s going on.

Available in ebook:  JMS Books | Amazon UK | Amazon US

Note:this story first appeared in the 2010 Dreamspinner Advent Calendar, now out of print. This version has been re-edited, but not substantially altered.

EXCERPT:

I swung my legs off the bed, glad I’d slept in my boxers. “Um. Would you like some breakfast while you wait?”

Cain glared at me. “You think I’m eating or drinking anything you give me? I should have you arrested. Bloody date-rapist!”

We both jumped when the phone rang. Cain snatched it up. “Hello?” His face drained of colour, completing the Goth look. “What? What the hell do you –? No, of course it’s not a bloody hoax! Well, did she check? Neil? Neil?” Cain stared at the phone for a moment, then put it down without looking. It missed the bedside table and hit the carpet with a dull thud.

“Look, maybe I’m jumping to conclusions, here,” I said cautiously, “but — car not coming, after all?”

Cain looked at me, his eyes deep pits of despair, blacker than the kohl that surrounded them. “He said he’d rung my mum, and she’d told him the real Cain Shepney was snoring in his bed over at hers, just like he was supposed to be.”

I gave him a sympathetic grimace. “Mothers, eh? Look, you’ve got this all wrong, you know. I haven’t got a clue how you ended up here, either. And, you know, I don’t think anything actually happened last night.” At least, I bloody well hoped it hadn’t. I’d be gutted if I’d shagged Cain Shepney and then forgotten all about it. And I’d seen enough to be damn sure I’d have remembered it if he’d shagged me.

I stood up and stretched. Cain stepped back and pulled the duvet more tightly around himself. Possibly because, standing up, I was taller than him by around a foot. Or, you know, it could have been the raging stiffy that was doing its best to poke through my boxers in a way that could, in the circs, conceivably be viewed as threatening. “Er, sorry about that,” I said, looking down. “It’ll go away in a mo. I just need to think about my mother for a bit.”

“You sick bastard,” he muttered.

“Hey, not fair! Sick would be thinking about my mother to get a stiffy –” Oh, fuck. Thinking of Lilith had made me remember that bloody doll.