New Release: Lessons for Sleeping Dogs by Charlie Cochrane

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Lessons for Sleeping Dogs by Charlie Cochrane

Buylinks: Riptide | Amazon | All Romance

Blurb: When amateur sleuth Jonty Stewart comes home with a new case to investigate, his partner Orlando Coppersmith always feels his day has been made. Although, can there be anything to solve in the apparent mercy killing of a disabled man by a doctor who then kills himself, especially when everything takes place in a locked room?

But things are never straightforward where the Cambridge fellows are concerned, so when they discover that more than one person has a motive to kill the dead men—motives linked to another double death—their wits get stretched to the breaking point.

And when the case disinters long buried memories for Jonty, memories about a promise he made and hasn’t kept, their emotions get pulled apart as well. This time, Jonty and Orlando will have to separate fact from fiction—and truth from emotion—to get to the bottom of things.

Excerpt: 

Chapter One

Cambridge, September 1921

“Damn, damn, damn, damn, and blast.” A string of swear words preceded Orlando Coppersmith into the dining room of Forsythia Cottage.

“You seem slightly put out, old man.” Jonty Stewart, currently at the dinner table, put down the newspaper he’d been perusing. “Dunderheads playing up?”

“For once, no. I’ve been invited to address the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, at Birdcage Walk, in London.” Orlando took his place at the table, pouring himself a glass of wine and risking getting it all over the tablecloth given his lack of concentration, all the while waving what must be the invitation itself.

Jonty ignored the sumptuous smells coming from the kitchen in order to deal with the matter in hand. “Well, that doesn’t sound like anything to be cursing over. You’ll love discussing torque and moments and all that other nonsense.”

“I would, normally. But it’s the same day as the bridge tournament down at St. Francis’s College.”

“Ah.” That explained everything. Bridge was the thing Orlando loved most in the world, after mathematics and Jonty Stewart. And amateur sleuthing. “They can’t rearrange the date?”

“Of the talk? Or the bridge?” It wasn’t like Orlando to look confused, but today he seemed totally perplexed.

“Either. Or both. Although, in the latter case, preferably not to the same day.” Jonty smiled, amused at how an intelligent man could get himself into quite such a doodah over something so trivial—although that was Orlando all over. Maybe his appointment to professor had contributed, given that many of the breed seemed to be verging on stark staring mad.

“I don’t think that I dare ask them to change the bridge event. They can be set in their ways and quite belligerent.”

Jonty felt like saying, For goodness’ sake, you faced much worse in France than some crusty old dons who can’t decide on three no trumps or four clubs! but held his tongue. The war wasn’t a subject to joke about.

Instead he settled for, “Then talk to those there mechanical engineers. I bet they’re decent enough sorts. Plead a prior, vital university engagement, which is nothing but the truth.”

“It isn’t just that. There’s the date itself. November the fifteenth.”

“Ah.” The anniversary of their meeting.

“Now do you see the problem?” Orlando’s anger was now bordering on distress. The man was coming to terms with life again, after the long, bleak years of war—years that had set him back emotionally and left scars worse than the physical one across his chest. He’d returned from France in a slough of despond—understandable given that he believed Jonty dead—and had been dragging himself out of it since. While he wasn’t quite back to his 1913 peak of confidence, he wasn’t far off, and Jonty hadn’t had to worry quite so often about signs of regression. Although the fact this particular matter was clearly weighing heavy on him rang alarm bells.

“We could always defer our anniversary celebrations.” With affection, Jonty rubbed the gold ring he habitually wore on his little finger. Made from Welsh gold, of a stunning hue, this was the signet ring Orlando had given him in remembrance. “The world won’t come to an end if we push the date a day or two in one direction or the other. We’ve had worse anniversaries.” He didn’t add the years concerned—Orlando would know what he meant. The pall of war would take a long time to slip from the memory, if it ever did.

Orlando opened his mouth, as though to argue, shut it again, smiled, then nodded his head deferentially. “So long as you’re happy for me to proceed. But I’ll make sure the sixteenth of November is kept sacrosanct. Mark it in your diary.”

“I will do that very thing.” Jonty made the sort of sign he’d made as a boy, to assure his brothers he was making an unbreakable vow. “Any particular reason you’ve chosen that day above any other?”

“Of course. It’s only logical. That’s the first day I felt the urge to murder you. The chair incident, of course.”

“Of course.” Jonty smiled as his lover’s face relaxed. So far so good. He watched him ease into his seat, readying himself for the arrival of dinner, which must have been imminent given the sounds now coming from the kitchen. “Why hadn’t you already decided to do away with me? The wrong bottom having plonked itself into that chair the day before?”

“Because I was still thinking the matter through. I couldn’t have decided to murder you if I hadn’t already decided whether I liked you or not.”

Jonty snorted. For all his lover’s much vaunted sense of logic, he did talk twaddle at times. “Speaking of important engagements, I’ve got several coming up myself and one might involve you. Would your whites pass muster?”

“Whites? Isn’t it a little late in the year for a game of cricket?”

“It’s a traditional late fixture. Some clubs make a point of playing at unusual times of the year, like midwinter, although I suspect that’s mainly to take advantage of a nice roaring fire and a hot toddy or three afterwards. Ah!”

The arrival of Mrs. Ward, bearing plates of beef stew with vegetables on the side and dumplings on the top, put discussion to a temporary halt.

“You asked if my whites would pass muster? I noticed yesterday that yours were out on the washing line, where poor Mrs. Ward has no doubt had to employ the local fuller to get the accumulated grime of summer off them. And you were out in the garden last evening, practicing your cover drives.”

“I thought you were working on that paper of yours!” Jonty felt distinctly miffed at having been spied on.

“And I thought you were working on your exposition of ‘Sonnet 29.’ Or so you told me.”

“I was. A man can do two things at the same time. And the elegant, flowing lines of a cut over mid-off exactly correspond with the elegant, flowing lines from Shakespeare’s pen—quill,” he corrected himself. “Anyway, I believe that all my impressive wrist and foot work will be to no avail, despite the invitation for me to play.”

Orlando narrowed his eyes. “I don’t recall an invitation coming my way, not that I’m complaining about the fact. Why might this involve me, if you’re the one who’s been put on the team sheet?”

“It’s another case of double booking. I can’t make that date.” Jonty carried on tucking into his food. Such an excellent meal needed to be eaten while it was still hot. “I’m already spoken for. An engagement I dare not break, or my guts would be made into garters.”

Orlando looked up, grinning, fork laden with beef and peas that seemed—by some stroke of magic—to be safely adhering to the tines. Jonty could never have managed the feat. “That means women. Lavinia? Or Ariadne Sheridan?”

“Ariadne, naturally. We’re meeting for a cup of tea and a cake or two—our occasional celebration of the day she walked straight into Dr. Sheridan.” Quite literally and totally accidentally, changing her life in one random incident, much as he’d done by sitting in Orlando’s chair.

“Rather like you sitting on my chair.” Orlando, whose thoughts never seemed to go far from that incident, put his fork back to work again. “Irrespective of me wanting to murder you for it, would we have met otherwise, but for that random act?”

“Of course we would, you great noggin. I’d have been sitting across high table from you and you couldn’t have failed to notice my boyish charm, nor I to notice your unruly curls. Such things are meant to be.”

Orlando smiled. “Do you reenact this meeting literally? On the threshold of the tailor’s shop or wherever it was?”

“I should say not, given that they don’t provide food or drink. We usually meet on King’s Parade, which also featured in the story. But on Friday she’s insisting it’s chez Sheridan, so I’ll be knocking on the door of the master’s lodge at St. Bride’s.” Jonty gleefully stabbed a carrot with his fork. “Much more comfortable in terms of seating, and a better nosebag.”

“Do you ever think of anything but your stomach?”

“Sometimes. I think of your stomach quite a lot, as well. How flat and smooth it still is. How muscular and—”

“Do be quiet.” Orlando cast a glance at the closed door.

“It’s a shame when a man can’t praise his lover’s anatomy in the privacy of their own home,” Jonty said, with a grin. “And we’re at no risk of Mrs. Ward hauling us up in front of the beak. Nor her granddaughter, as it would risk her continued employment.”

“Clearly all that serious consideration of the sonnets you allege you’re indulging in is stuff and nonsense. I don’t think your thoughts ever get off parts of your—and my—anatomy. And no—” Orlando held up his hand. “No taradiddle about iambic pentameters and rhyme schemes or whatever. It’s nothing more than a smokescreen to hide your true nature.”

Jonty, recognising the signs, concentrated on his food. Orlando’s tetchiness could only mean one thing. “You need a case. To improve your mood.”

Orlando opened his mouth as if he was going to argue, then shut it again and laid down his fork. “You’re right. I have no idea how I filled my days before this all happened.” He swept his hand in a gesture that seemed to take in Jonty, their cottage, and the elegant piece of silverware on the mantelpiece. The long-necked jug, a gift from a grateful client, was symbolic of investigations.

Jonty held his tongue. He had no idea how Orlando could have survived back then, cocooned in his own little world.

“Maybe,” he said at last, “our guardian angels—the ones you refuse to believe in despite all the evidence that they’re working like billy-o—are even now trying to push a case in our direction. The devil makes work for idle hands, and they wouldn’t want us put into temptation, would they?”

Orlando broke into a grin. “You do talk rot.”

Jonty lifted his napkin to his mouth. “So, can you take the field for me? You’ve an excellent eye for a ball, and that fifty you put together back in May for the St. Bride’s Fellows XI was a poem. A sonnet in itself, iambic pentameter or not.”

The talk turned to sport, and the beef was enjoyed against a background of leg spin and off drives.

***

The seats in the master’s lodge were just as comfortable as Jonty had predicted, and by the look of the laden plates on the table, the nosebag promised to be equally good. His hostess had made him nice and cosy, as she always did, finding them a seat in the autumn sunshine; although Jonty couldn’t help noticing there were three chairs at the table.

“Dr. Sheridan joining us?”

“Not today,” Ariadne replied, offering no further explanation. She’d always had a formidable knack of saying things in a manner that brooked no reply; Jonty would simply have to be patient and see who she’d invited. Maybe it would be Dr. Panesar, the brilliant but batty fellow of St. Bride’s who brought a formidable intellect—and more than a hatful of daft ideas—to the Senior Common Room.

Jonty’s thoughts turned to the last time Dr. Panesar had tried to create a time machine and the startled faces of the firemen who’d had to put the consequent fire out.

“How are things with ‘himself’?” Ariadne asked.

“Not so bad.” He shrugged. “Getting a bit restless, as he always does when nobody’s beating a path to our door pleading with us to solve some mystery that’s perplexed everyone else for years on end.”

“I might be able to help.” Ariadne picked up her cup and sipped her tea demurely.

“You haven’t got a case hidden in that reticule of yours by any chance?”

“No.” Ariadne smiled, a mischievous grin that took ten years off her age. She could by no means be described as a handsome woman, but when she smiled her face lit up with inner beauty. “But I know somebody who does. And”—she looked up at the clock—“he’ll be here in about three minutes’ time. Assuming he’s punctual.”

Jonty sighed happily. What better present to take back to Forsythia Cottage than the possibility of a case for Orlando to get his nose into? If he felt a fleeting pang of guilt that Orlando wasn’t there as the starter’s gun went off on a new investigation, he soon dismissed it; the man concerned would be having fun over his cuts through mid-off, so couldn’t complain. Even though he would. “You’re magnificent, do you know that?”

Ariadne beamed. “I have to admit I did, as my dear Robert reminds me of it often. You might not think so when you hear about the case.”

“I’ll reserve judgement.”

A loud rapping from the knocker on the lodge door sent Ariadne scurrying to open it—strictly the butler’s role, but she preferred to usurp it for honoured guests. Jonty could hear her greeting whoever it was, with a profuse apology to the butler for having got to the door first. She’d evidently charmed him, as he said there was nothing to forgive and formally offered to take the visitor’s hat. Moments later, Ariadne ushered a man into the room and towards the third chair, a seat with a better view than the one Jonty occupied. It was plain that the visitor must be someone for whom his hostess had great affection. The smile she wore would have made that plain anyway.

“Dr. Stewart, this is Robert’s cousin, Gerald Blackett.”

“I’m delighted to meet you.” Jonty, already standing, held out his hand, appraising him while they passed a few pleasantries. Younger than Dr. Sheridan by ten years, maybe; handsome in a rather Victorian fashion; well dressed, with an elegant cane in his hand; possessor of a winning smile.

As they resumed their seats and Ariadne ensured they all had adequate refreshments, Blackett laid down his cane. “You will, I hope, forgive me if we get to the matter in hand straightaway?”

“Please do. Straight at ’em, as Nelson would have said.” Jonty’s mother had said that too; mind you, she’d have brought off the victory at Trafalgar in half the time and got all the prizes home. The storm wouldn’t have dared to sink any.

Blackett smiled. “My wife’s brother, Edward Atherton, died in peculiar circumstances. Not, I should add, that there is any doubt what happened to bring about the end. He was very ill—a terrible wasting disease, which had left him barely able to move.”

“I remember him only a few years ago, the life and soul of the party.” Ariadne shook her head. “Full of tricks, full of fun. He could keep the most fractious child enthralled.”

“Some people have that knack,” Jonty said, in fond remembrance of someone who had the same facility, the same irresistible charm. “You should have seen Papa with his first grandchildren. He’d say, ‘Thomas, we don’t cry in Grandpapa’s house,’ and he’d just stop. I don’t know whether it’s the male voice, exerting calm and kindly authority, or some sort of innate reaction, like how you respond to your bank manager, but it worked a treat.”

“It is a particular gift, one that would be terrible to lose. Such an awful thing for the mind to outlive the body.” Blackett took a fortifying sip of tea. “My brother-in-law had got to the point where he said he couldn’t bear to live. He couldn’t take his own life, though.”

“Because of the hurt it would cause your family?” The illegality of the act was unlikely to be a consideration for someone determined to succeed. They’d have no repercussions to face in this world.

“No.” Blackett shook his head. “The practicalities defeated him. He was reliant on other people for everything; therefore, he had to rely on them to help him commit the deed.”

“Ah.” A shiver went up Jonty’s spine at the direction this case was moving in. Orlando’s father had taken his own life, something that had affected his son for years afterwards.

“Dr. Stewart, what is bothering you?” Ariadne’s voice, all concern, snapped Jonty out of his thoughts.

“I’m sorry. I’d spotted that dark cloud,” he dissembled. “Professor Coppersmith is supposed to be playing cricket today and if that decides to let loose a deluge over the wicket, he’ll never get to bat.”

“The opposition will be grateful for that,” Ariadne replied smoothly, although the keen look in her eye suggested she was trying to read Jonty’s mind.

“Back to the matter in hand.” Jonty smiled at Blackett. “Did your brother-in-law find someone who’d perform that service?”

“It appears so. Dr. Paul Robertson.”

Ariadne had glanced up at the word appears. “Is there any uncertainty surrounding Robertson’s involvement?”

“Not as far as I’m aware, though the exact nature of it is a puzzle, perhaps. There is little uncertainty surrounding the events which occurred. It was in Robertson’s consulting room, where we’d taken Edward earlier that day. To be treated, so we thought.” Blackett spoke slowly and objectively, but his face betrayed a wealth of emotion.

Jonty got out a notebook—not his investigational one, as he’d not assumed that would be needed, but the serviceable one he kept for writing comments about the dunderheads or making up rude limericks about St. Bride’s archenemy, “the college next door.”

“Was Robertson brought to book for this crime?” Could this be their commission? To see that justice was served?

“He wasn’t, and couldn’t be, due to the fact he took his own life at the same time. Possibly,” Blackett added, “or so it seems, because he was feeling guilty about hastening my brother-in-law’s death. He left a letter explaining how he’d offended and wanted to be forgiven. Although the letter was slightly ambiguous.”

“Ambiguous? Go on.”

“It wasn’t a straightforward case of, ‘I can’t go on; this is the end.’ It was open to a range of interpretations, which were aired at the inquest. Including the implication that he too felt he had nothing left to live for.” Blackett finished his cup of tea, and then, at his hostess’s insistence, offered it to be refilled.

Jonty came to the end of a sentence, then tapped his notepad with his pen. “Could one of the interpretations have been that he actually had no intention of committing suicide, whatever the reason behind it?”

“Nobody thought that. The whole thing pointed to his taking his own life, as did the fact that people felt it hadn’t been written at the time, but earlier.”

“Earlier?” Ariadne frowned. “So how could it have been interpreted as remorse if he hadn’t yet committed the act concerned?”

Blackett shrugged. “They were of the opinion he might have agreed to go through with helping Edward to kill himself, but the guilt at having done so tipped him over the edge.”

“Extraordinary.” Jonty wasn’t sure that motivation added up, although could one expect a potential suicide to think logically? “So how can we help? Given that there’s no obvious mystery to be solved except for why Robertson killed himself, and I somehow don’t think you’re here to pursue that.”

“Ah. There’s the rub. My wife believes her brother had a last-minute change of heart. Not quite at the last minute, but during the last weeks of his life. A light on the road to Damascus, only it was the road to St. Albans.” Blackett smiled ruefully. “Edward had never been a religious man, hence his having no qualms about the sacredness of his own life or the need to face up to judgement. But that changed.”

“How? I mean,” Jonty added, “I believe that men see the light as effectively as St. Paul did, and have the subsequent change of heart, but what actually prompted the change in your brother-in-law?”

“Not what, but who. A nun he met in a park of all places, discussing the dabbling ducks in the water, the beauty of nature, and so on.” Blackett shrugged. “I don’t know the details, but that simple conversation profoundly affected him. My wife, Sheila, says he’d never have countenanced taking his own life after that.”

“Nobody knows the content of another person’s mind. Not in its entirety.” Ariadne spoke with gravity, evidently not wanting to belittle Mrs. Blackett’s feelings. “And which of us keeps the same attitude all the time? Especially when somebody is feeling depressed in spirits, as Edward must have been. People can have periods when they’re happy and rational, then the dark clouds draw in and they think quite irrationally again.”

Jonty nodded. Orlando’s family history seemed peppered with men who would fit this bill.

“That’s what I keep telling Sheila, but she won’t have it. Says she’s absolutely certain Edward wouldn’t have killed himself. Which leaves . . .”

“Accident or murder.” Jonty tried to tone down the enthusiasm in his voice at the prospect of a new case. Death was no matter to be excited about.

“Precisely.” Blackett inclined his head. “I suppose it could have been an accident, maybe some treatment that went wrong—although I fail to see why Edward would have been treated with cyanide. And before you point out that I’m no medical expert, which I freely admit, the coroner and Edward’s doctor agreed that it wouldn’t have been appropriate.”

Ariadne nodded. “How was it administered? And in what dose?”

“As capsules; however, there is some debate as to whether those were dissolved in a drink to make them more palatable, or taken separately and washed down. And I’m afraid the dose itself would mean nothing to me, but I know it was ingested—by both of them—in a sufficiently lethal quantity for death to have been guaranteed, although not immediate.” Blackett shook his head. “Dr. Robertson, I assume, watched Edward die before inflicting the same fate on himself.”

Jonty, who’d been diligently jotting down his observations, tapped his pad. “And if he’d somehow administered it to Edward in error, one might have expected him to try to treat him, or to seek help, so we appear to rule out an accident. Although we must note there’s no way of knowing that for sure, given that Robertson isn’t here to bear witness.”

“It seems extremely far-fetched that there could be two such accidents, one hard on the heels of the other.” Ariadne raised her eyebrows. “And it certainly wouldn’t explain the suicide letter. A letter suggests premeditation. What does your wife think really happened?”

“My wife has convinced herself that her brother was murdered—probably by Robertson—who took his own life afterwards so he wouldn’t face the consequences.”

“But that doesn’t explain that wretched letter, either!” Ariadne slapped her spoon on the table.

“Sheila believes the letter was a smokescreen, and Robertson had intended to take his own life, being happy for people to think Edward’s death was an act of mercy for a patient who had begun to suffer beyond his ability to cope. She’s convinced herself that Robertson didn’t want them to think he was a murderer.” Blackett spread his hands apologetically. “I can tell from your faces that you think as little of that theory as I do. But she is determined to find the truth, for her brother’s sake.”

It seemed thin, perilously thin to base an investigation on, but they’d had cases that had started just as tenuously in the past. Sometimes a person’s instinct that somebody had been done away had turned out to be correct, despite the superficial evidence that all had been aboveboard. And the contrary, too, it had to be admitted: suspicious deaths that had turned out to be natural. Best to take this at face value.

Jonty wrinkled his nose. “What motive does she think Robertson had for killing him?”

“That’s part of the mystery. All we know is that Edward, in an unguarded moment, told us that Robertson had secrets, things that he wouldn’t want made public. Edward had found out, although he didn’t share the details with us.” Blackett ran a hand across his brow. “But he told Robertson that he knew about them, which Sheila thinks led Robertson to kill him. I take a different interpretation.”

“Which is?”

“That Edward used the information to persuade Robertson to help him take his life. Why else would a physician do such a thing?”

“It happens, I’m afraid,” Ariadne said—slowly, quietly and with the sort of moral authority that brooked no argument.

“So Edward used blackmail? It’s possible.” Jonty wasn’t sure he believed the whole I know a secret but I won’t share it thesis, but it had to be considered. People did like to boast of some special knowledge they possessed. He tapped his notepad. “Your wife hasn’t considered whether anyone else could have committed the murder? A double murder, perhaps, with both men killed by a third party? Someone who was drawn into this web of secrets?”

“That would be a possibility to explore, were it not for the locked door, which sealed the room they were found in.”

Jonty stifled a groan. Orlando loved a mystery, but he hated reading one featuring a locked room. Too often he felt the solution was too clever and contrived to be likely in real life. “I think you’d better explain the scenario as you understand it. My colleague Professor Coppersmith will want all the details.”

“Very wise.” Blackett nodded, then began. “Edward’s visit to Robertson was, on the surface, just as they had been in the past. He always found some relief in the mixture the doctor made up for him. He was taken in a cab, with our gardener’s lad—who’d become a sort of manservant to him as his needs grew greater—to carry him into and out of the vehicle and to manoeuvre his wheelchair.”

“Did this manservant stay with Edward? And do we need more tea? Or does this require something a little stronger?” Ariadne glanced briefly at a decanter of sherry on the sideboard.

“I’d be happy with tea, thank you,” Blackett replied, much to Jonty’s disappointment. A small dry sherry might have been just the thing to oil his brain. He’d have to settle for another bit of cake, instead.

After Ariadne had ordered a fresh pot of tea, Blackett continued. “Now, you asked whether the manservant stayed. He didn’t, but that was usual. He’d go to run some errands for us, then return at the time he’d been instructed to. On this occasion he’d been asked to stay away for an hour and a half.”

Jonty contended with cake, notepad, pen, and trying to understand what had gone on. “That seems a long time for a consultation. Was that unusual?”

“We didn’t think so back then.” Blackett shrugged. “The visits had been getting longer and longer. Sometimes Dr. Robertson would employ someone to massage Edward’s limbs, and he would need to rest afterwards, before travelling home.”

“Was the masseur there on this occasion?”

“No. My wife, of course, has even wondered if the massages were just a ruse to lull us, so we wouldn’t be suspicious of a longer visit.” Blackett’s voice had an exasperated tone. “Anyway, when Wilshire, the servant, returned, he found that the consultation was still going on and Mrs. McGinley, the doctor’s housekeeper, had been told not to interrupt them. They waited, but Wilshire became increasingly concerned. Bright lad. He insisted on listening at the door even though the housekeeper protested that it was unacceptable. I’m pleased he did, because the lack of any sound from inside made him suspicious.”

“What did he do?” Ariadne asked.

“Broke in. Luckily he’s a big strong lad and the door had a panel which could be smashed so he could get his hand round to the key. By then it was too late to help either of them.”

A door locked from the inside so they couldn’t be interrupted—that would be equally appropriate for murder or suicide. The arrival of another pot of tea led to a round of cup filling and the opportunity for getting thoughts straight before they carried on.

Jonty smoothed out the paper in his pad. “They were both dead?”

Blackett nodded. “Yes. And appeared to have been for some time, although neither Wilshire nor Mrs. McGinley could give an opinion on that. The medical man the housekeeper called for was of the opinion that death had followed shortly after their going into the consulting room.”

Ariadne looked up, cup poised halfway to her lips. “They both died at the same time?”

“He couldn’t give the exact minute, naturally, but he seemed to think the two deaths had been pretty well concurrent.”

They sat, quietly drinking their tea, listening to the sounds of college life filtering through the window.

“It’s an intriguing puzzle,” Ariadne said at last, “but how do you—or Sheila—anticipate Dr. Stewart and Professor Coppersmith finding any solution to it, given that you have no witnesses to the event?”

Jonty was relieved his hostess had asked the question, because it was uppermost in his mind.

“Don’t think I haven’t considered this.” Blackett sighed, then took a long draught of tea. “I told Sheila that it feels like an impossible task, but Ariadne here”—he gave his hostess a smile—“had told her you can work wonders. The men who solved the Woodville Ward case, as my wife keeps reminding me.”

“In that instance we had a bundle of newly discovered manuscripts to get our teeth into. Codes to break, good solid information.” Jonty needed to get a grip; this was defeatist talk, but how could they hope to decode what had gone on in that room? “I suppose it won’t hurt to make a few preliminary enquiries, starting with your good lady. It’s always possible that she knows, or suspects, more than she’s shared with you. As Ariadne said so perceptively earlier, it happens.”

Blackett smiled. “I know that from experience. Young Wilshire might be able to furnish you with further details as well. An eyewitness account is better than one related third-hand.”

“Indeed. And Mrs. McGinley also saw what he saw. Maybe she noticed some detail which would help us.”

Blackett leaned forward. “You would have to tackle this with a degree of discretion, but I’m sure you have that capacity. Edward dropped hints that she knew about her employer’s secrets too.”

“Of course! The staff know everything that goes on.” That had always been true of the Stewart household as Jonty had grown up. Luckily for him, several of his misdemeanours hadn’t been reported back above stairs. He made a note of all the names and addresses as Blackett produced them, then went down his list. “Your wife, Wilshire, the housekeeper. Anyone else we should be considering?”

“I believe Robertson had a brother, although I have no idea of his address. Mrs. McGinley would be able to provide it for you. Oh, and I nearly forgot this.” Blackett picked up his briefcase, opening it to withdraw a thin manila wallet. “My wife put these together. A report of the case from the newspapers and some notes she took at the inquests, so I’d have been in trouble if I’d not given them to you.”

Jonty took the file. “Inquests, plural?”

“Yes. She attended both Edward’s and Dr. Robertson’s. The brother was at both of them too. You’ll find his name there amongst the papers.”

“Thank you.” Maybe there would be some other people mentioned there who’d be worth talking to.

A sudden squall driving across the court and the first splashes of rain against the window made everyone look up.

“It looks like Professor Coppersmith’s game will be interrupted, unless this is very localised.” Ariadne got up to close the window where the odd drop was getting in. “He’ll be disappointed.”

“I doubt it.” Jonty grinned. “He was ever so slightly coerced into playing. But any disappointment will soon be overcome when I tell him about this case.”

“You’ll be doing us a great favour by taking it on.” Blackett gave a gracious inclination of his head.

Jonty made an equally gracious gesture with his hand. “Not half as much of a favour as you’re doing us in asking.” Soaking at the cricket match notwithstanding, Orlando was going to be thrilled.

Chapter Two

Orlando sat in his study, wading through a pile of notes for a lecture he was putting together and wondering why the sun had the nerve to be shining now. It was too late in the day to play cricket, or to dry out a pitch waterlogged in places after the deluge of the afternoon. At least he’d been fielding on the boundary when the heavens opened, so hadn’t got too wet, and although the match had been cancelled, the excellent refreshments hadn’t. Mrs. Ward had prepared a cold collation for tea—as both her gentlemen would have lined their stomachs with cakes galore—so they could dine whenever they wanted.

Which was as well, given that Jonty still wasn’t home after his afternoon tea with Ariadne Sheridan, though that was to have been followed by a little college business with the chaplain, who wanted some ideas for a variation on the harvest service. Orlando wondered if either sherry or a pint of beer would be essential to the planning process, and whether—in that case—Jonty would be able to make his bicycle advance in a straight line all the way back home.

A screech of brakes outside Orlando’s study window, accompanied by cheerful whistling, suggested that Jonty had returned, and was in a pretty chipper mood with it.

Soon his smiling face appeared round the door. “I’ve brought you a lovely present, but you have to guess what it is.”

“I’m too old for games.” Orlando looked up slowly, trying to make sure his expression didn’t belie his words. The papers neatly piled on his desk caught his eye; he’d been hard at work for too long and needed a rest. He started tidying them out of sight.

“Nobody is too old for games. Come on.” Jonty came round the desk, grabbed Orlando’s arm, and yanked him out of the chair. “You have three guesses.”

“A new set of mathematical tables?” Orlando’s slightly dog-eared copy—too well used and too well loved—also lay on the desk, looking forlorn.

“No, although it seems like that should be your anniversary present. Try again.”

“Another story by Bret Harte?” Orlando sighed, wistfully. “The Stolen Cigar Case” had been one of the best Christmas presents Orlando had ever received.

Jonty shook his head. “Alas, no.”

“Then I give up.”

“You can’t, until you’ve used up all your guesses. I’ll give you a clue. Something which would make you deliriously happy. Happier even than—” Jonty glanced over his shoulder, probably to check he’d closed the door behind him “—than a romp in bed with me.”

“A case? A case!” Orlando rubbed his hands together. “I was beginning to think we’d never get another.”

“Well, you’re wrong on that score. Dr. Sheridan has a cousin, who has a wife, who had a brother who might or might not have been murdered.”

“I think you need to explain that to me all over again, only much more slowly and with more detail. And preferably accompanied by a glass of sherry. I’ll move the chairs into best position for sharing notes.”

“You and chairs.” Jonty grinned and went off to fetch the decanter.

Orlando smiled fondly, his own words of 1905 ringing in his ears. “The particular chair a man inhabits after high table is regarded as sacrosanct.” What a miracle that Jonty had seen behind the pomposity.

Sherry, notepads, pens accumulated, chairs drawn into position either side of a fire that was needed on an unseasonably nippy evening, Jonty began his account. As usual, he presented the conversation apparently verbatim—rather than in a logical order as Orlando would have done. As it was, he tried to note them down a little more carefully than they’d been presented to him.

“Don’t get your hopes up, though.” Jonty scratched his brow. “I can’t help feeling that even if we suspect murder was committed by Robertson or by persons unknown, we’d not be able to prove it. Still, there are plenty of little bits to intrigue us. Like, if Atherton had changed his mind about taking his own life, would he carry on visiting Dr. Robertson?”

“And why did he let himself be locked up in the same room as the man? Unless he was oblivious to the doctor’s motive to kill him.” Orlando shook his head. “We’ll have to establish whether he might have called for help.”

Jonty slapped his thighs. “This has all the makings of an unsolvable puzzle. Although I suppose you’ll relish the challenge of that.”

“The challenge, yes. And I’d be happy to satisfy us that we’ve got to the truth, even if we can’t write QED at the bottom of the solution.” Orlando smiled. “So. Mrs. Blackett first?”

“Yes, with a side dish of Wilshire while we’re there. Before our party split up, I arranged with her husband for us to visit them this weekend. They’ve got a place just outside Guildford, and I hope we can drop in to see Dr. Robertson’s housekeeper on the way home.”

“Excellent plan. Where is she located?”

“Where she was at the time, apparently. In his old house.” Jonty consulted his notes. “It seems the house was left to Robertson’s brother, who is letting it out to another physician. He took Mrs. McGinley on with the property.”

“That’s useful. Maybe we can get a peek at the consulting room itself.” Not that any evidence would remain, but maybe they’d get inspired by the feel of the place. At any rate Jonty would be inspired by that aspect, and he could look at the layout and see if that locked room was an impenetrable as it was supposed to be.

“Cui bono?”

Orlando jolted out of thoughts of secret passages and false doors. “I beg your pardon?”

“Cui bono. Who benefits?” Jonty tipped his head to one side, an indication that he was thinking. “Why would somebody want to kill Edward Atherton? Or Dr. Robertson, assuming it wasn’t him who did the deed? Would covering up a secret or putting off a blackmailer be enough?”

“You’re putting together some daft theory. I can see it in your eyes. Would you care to elucidate?”

“I was just thinking about inheritances. Who did they leave their money to? If Edward left his to Robertson, the order of death would be vitally important. We’ve a lot to consider.” Jonty smiled gleefully.

“And you’re running before you can walk. Patience.”

Jonty snorted. “That’s rich, coming from you!” He left his chair, put another log on the fire, and turned on another light. “Would you really like a Bret Harte? I’m not sure if he’s done any others in the same vein.”

“If he hasn’t, it’s a shame. Was it an inspired present or a lucky guess?”

“Inspired, naturally!” Jonty took his place again. “I knew you’d like it. No guessing necessary. How could a pastiche of Conan Doyle fail? Even I enjoyed it and I like Sherlock Holmes.”

“It was the best present I’ve ever had, I think. Even better than the Woodville Ward case.” At first he thought he’d hate the book, just as he hated Holmes, but Harte’s sly sense of humour—if such deliberate pastiche could be called sly—and his depiction of a thinly veiled Watson slobberingly obsessed with an even more thinly veiled Holmes had made him laugh aloud.

The (presumably) inadvertent use of terms such as “penetration” had added to the humour, especially when Jonty had read the story out loud in the garden one balmy evening this past summer, putting his usual emphasis on certain words. Orlando had felt forced to drag the man inside before he scandalised the neighbours. They might not exactly be love’s young dream, but a man couldn’t help feeling desires, could he?

They’d discussed before whether the original Holmes and Watson’s relationship had carried anything romantic in it, even if that romance were entirely platonic. Unlike Orlando and Jonty, who hadn’t lost their passion in their forties, Holmes had never seemed to possess the inclination towards physical passion in the first place. His affection for Watson, however, appeared—in Orlando’s opinion—to be the thing that sustained him. Maybe Harte had pondered the same thing?

“Shall I read it for you this evening?” Jonty had the sort of mischievous glint in his eye that filled Orlando with a mixture of qualms and amorous thoughts. Which would eventually prevail usually depended on how public their situation was and how much mischief was in the offing. That said, Jonty could have found capacity for mischief on a quiet Monday in a Trappist monastery.

“Hmm. It depends on how well you behave yourself in the meantime. Be useful. Find the steps which would lead to the solution for this intriguing mystery, or something. If mystery it is, I hasten to add, and not exactly what it seems to be on the surface.”

“If it turns out to be that, we can as a minimum eliminate the lady’s doubts. That itself is a solution worth reaching.”

“It is.” Orlando nodded, but he wasn’t sure he agreed. Where was the challenge in proving what had already been proved? “Maybe it’ll turn out to be suitably tortuous.”

“Perhaps.” Jonty crinkled his brow.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

“Not worth a farthing. Something buzzing around the old bonce, as usual, but I can’t pin it down.”

“Something you’ve done you’d like to confess?” Orlando grinned.

“Lots and not particularly, only that’s not it.” Jonty returned the smile but he still looked troubled. “Something I’ve left undone, I think. But I’ve no idea what.”

***

The lodge to the Blacketts’ house, seen suddenly as their cab from the train station turned a corner in the road, made Jonty’s heart sing. Roses round the door, a garden awash with autumn crocuses and Japanese maples, warm stone walls, leaded light windows, and a thatched roof—it resembled the ideal of the good fairy’s cottage from some children’s tale. Hopefully that boded well for the big house.

“That’s the sort of place we should retire to.” He smiled at Orlando as their cab crept up the drive.

“I thought it’s the sort of place we already have?” Orlando frowned.

“Not that garden. Ours needs a bit of a going over to reach that height of English perfection. I shall have to get you away from Euclid and out with your spade. Ah!” Jonty pointed to the elegant Georgian house at the end of the drive. “Very nice. Only that’s not the sort of place I want to retire to. Too much work.”

“At last you’re speaking sense. I hope it’s as welcoming there as the lodge appears to be. Houses which are just for show are anathema as far as I’m concerned. Even the Old Manor, grand as it was, was a proper home.”

“Aye.” Jonty smiled in fond remembrance of his parents’ country house. Little short of a castle, it had still felt as homely as a cottage. He cast a sideways glance at his partner, who had the apprehensive—if keen—look on his face that always marked the start of a new case. Who knew what paths they’d be walking down this time?

They got out of the cab and took a deep breath before Jonty knocked.

The appearance of a neatly turned-out maid at the door—a maid with a pleasant smile and just the right mixture of warmth and deference—raised Jonty’s hopes of a pleasant visit, as did the smell of baking that pervaded the hallway where he and Orlando waited before being ushered into the morning room. Maybe some of those biscuits or cakes or whatever they were might be ushered in the direction of their stomachs? Mrs. Blackett greeted them, offered them refreshments, settled them in a pair of comfortable chairs, and apologised for her husband’s absence, saying he’d an appointment with his stockbroker that couldn’t be rescheduled.

Jonty had the notion that Mr. Blackett had deliberately arranged their interview for a time when he wouldn’t be present, which confirmed their first impression: Gerald Blackett was dubious about his wife’s theory.

“Don’t feel you need to make pleasantries or small talk.” Mrs. Blackett smiled. “I’m quite happy to get down to things straightaway.”

“Thank you. That makes our task easier,” Orlando replied, graciously inclining his head. He was at least twenty-seven percent more handsome when he was solemn, which clearly wasn’t lost on their hostess, who rearranged herself in her chair, positively blossoming.

“I’m so grateful that you’ve agreed to look into things. I want to know the truth, that’s all.” She folded her hands in her lap.

Orlando, who already had notepad and pen to hand, asked, “Did you raise your concerns at the time of your brother’s death?”

“No, although with hindsight I wish I had. Gerald kept telling me it was only the grief affecting my perceptions of events. But it wasn’t, and it isn’t, I promise you.”

“We’ll do our very best to try to clarify matters. I’m sorry if this will cause you discomfort, but we have to explore every avenue. So can you explain to us once more exactly what happened the day your brother died, as the coroner had it?” Jonty smoothed a fresh page on his notepad. “Then maybe as you interpret those events?”

“It causes me no discomfort, Dr. Stewart.” She shifted herself in her chair, straightening her back and rearranging her hands. “It’s wonderful to have somebody taking me seriously. You’ve read the papers I gave Gerald to pass on to you?”

“I have, but I—we—would like clarification on a few points, and we can’t ask questions of a written account, no matter how well presented it is. Cyanide was found to have been administered to both men. How?”

“Definitely in capsule form, because they found the bottle on the desk with some still present. Possibly they were taken dissolved in two glasses of whisky.”

“Whisky?” The arrival of liquid refreshment—though not the water of life—interrupted Jonty’s flow, but Mrs. Blackett carried on with her answer as she served coffee and biscuits.

“It had always been Edward’s favourite tipple. If he did take his life, I can imagine him wanting that to be the last thing he tasted. He’d have had to be helped to drink it obviously.”

“Thank you.” Orlando took the cup of coffee offered him. “Did he have no use of his limbs by this point?”

“Very little. And no grip in his fingers.” For the first time, Mrs. Blackett seemed distressed, clenching her hands and ignoring the cup she’d poured herself. Maybe she was afraid she’d spill it. “How awful for your body to shut down, with all the consequent indignities. It appeared to sweep through him from toe to top, leaving just his upper half working. Eventually, it was only really his head which could function. Thank goodness he could talk and eat without difficulty, although he needed help to get the food to his mouth. He used to live in London, but as he got progressively worse, I insisted he live here with us so I could make sure he was looked after.”

Insisted? An interesting choice of word. “I suppose he was cross at having to give up his independence.”

“He was. He kept on his flat in London so that he could rest there if necessary when he went to see the doctor, before facing the return journey here.” Mrs. Blackett shook her head. “He hated to have to be beholden to other people, but what choice did he have? He’d tried staying in London, but he’d never succeeded in finding someone who could deal with his particular needs. We had a marvellous male nurse for him here and even Edward—who would never admit I was right if he could help it—had to say that being here made his life more bearable. It was the war.”

Orlando paused, cup halfway to his mouth. “I beg your pardon?”

“The war. That’s why he ended up ill. He volunteered straight away, before that first Christmas.” The Christmas it was all supposed to have been over by. How naive they’d been in 1914. “He was back home the next spring. I suspect it was the effects of gas.”

Jonty held his tongue. As far as he was aware, gas hadn’t been used that early in the conflict, but that was obviously the story Edward had used when he got home. Maybe he had been poisoned out there, gas not being the only thing that had affected people, or maybe that was just an assumption he’d made, to explain the inexplicable—why he’d been afflicted with some terrible wasting disease.

Orlando spoke for them. “Which regiment?”

“The King’s Royal Rifles,” Mrs. Blackett said with evident pride.

“They gave their country good service.” Best to get back to Atherton and the method of his death, although perhaps also best to avoid the actual details. “The coroner had no doubt about the verdict he gave on your brother?”

Mrs. Blackett shook her head. “I’m afraid he didn’t doubt it being two cases of suicide. Even if . . .”

Jonty’s heart leaped. An “even if.” How often had they been sent down a new, important investigational path with a simple “even if” or “however”? “Yes?”

“There was some doubt about whether the poison had been in the whisky or whether that was used to wash the capsules down. Sweeten the pill, as it were.”

Or provide Dutch courage? “It’s in those sorts of doubts that the first light sometimes dawns in a case. Who had them?”

“Two of the scientific experts.” She rolled her eyes at the last word. “They couldn’t agree on whether there was a trace of cyanide in one glass or in both. You’d have thought tests would be beyond doubt, wouldn’t you? Anyway, as the cause of death was indisputable, as was—in the coroner’s mind—the fact of suicide, they didn’t count it as important. Not to them, anyway. The two men had evidently ingested a lethal dose, whether the capsules had been dissolved in whisky or bitten and washed down.”

That dispute might indeed be important, even though Jonty couldn’t see why, as yet. “Which glass did they agree had the poison?”

“Ah, that’s another thing. They weren’t sure which glass was which, because only Dr. Robertson had touched the glasses, and he’d touched both. They agreed on that point, thank goodness, and not just because the weakness in my brother’s fingers and arms meant he couldn’t raise a glass. Fingerprints.”

Jonty smiled. “It’s good to hear they agreed on something, and that people were so up-to-date with investigational methods.”

Orlando was fascinated by fingerprints, although he’d yet to try out his pad, ink, powder, and brush—just about as popular a present from Jonty as the Bret Harte had proved to be—on a serious case. He and young George Broad, who found the idea nearly as enthralling as his almost-uncle did, had cheerfully examined the entire Broad household, above and below stairs, one wet day during the Easter holidays; but apart from discovering a remarkable range of prints on the chocolate tin, they had run no felons to ground.

“It’s a shame there isn’t a modern investigational method that could have recorded what exactly went on in that room.” Mrs. Blackett knitted her brows. “Like the newsreels they show.”

Orlando nodded. “It would make everyone’s lives easier. Is it your conviction that Robertson deliberately killed your brother, against his will?”

Mrs. Blackett took a deep breath. “I simply don’t know, but that does seem the obvious thing, were it not for the character of the man. I met Robertson, and spoke to him at length twice, when I accompanied my brother to his consulting rooms. He was the gentlest of men, with no concern other than his patients’ best interests. I find it hard to believe he could have done such a thing. We talked about Edward’s wish to take his life, back when my brother was at his lowest. I did try to dissuade him from having any part of it.”

“To which his response was . . .?”

“Sympathetic. He said he could only take the ultimate course if it got to the point where there was no alternative in terms of Edward’s quality of life. He’d served out in France too, you know. Been sent back with neurasthenia. He understood.” Mrs. Blackett stopped suddenly, her eyes fleetingly lighting on Jonty’s scarred cheek. “You served as well?”

“I did. Later in the war. Up till then I’d . . .” He remembered he couldn’t mention Room 40. “We’d been doing some important work for the government. You don’t need to explain the effect the last few years have had on anyone who saw what we saw.”

He stopped again, aware that he’d said too much for his own comfort. Only Orlando had been privy to his bleakest memories from those days. None of his family—not even Lavinia—had been granted a glimpse into that deep well. Maybe young George, when he was a man, would be told. So that his generation would know, and not fall too readily into conflict. For the moment, best to change tack, especially as he couldn’t get his mind around what his hostess was thinking.

“I’m afraid I’m getting myself a tad confused.” Playing the slightly dim card had proved successful in the past. “Your husband gave us to believe that you thought Robertson murdered your brother.”

Mrs. Blackett avoided his gaze. “Sometimes I think that, but I don’t know. It seems so far-fetched. But then Edward taking his own life seems far-fetched. When I last saw him that morning, he gave no indication that he still meant to go through with it. I was certain he’d changed his mind.”

Orlando was almost jumping in his chair with impatience. “Then what else do you think could have happened? Some terrible accident?”

“I don’t know. I believe there may have been somebody else present that day.”

Jonty and Orlando looked at each other, startled, before Orlando continued. “Somebody else present in the room?”

“No. Not as far as I’m aware. Certainly not when Wilshire broke in. It’s just that the housekeeper mentioned something to me at Robertson’s funeral. I went there to pay my respects, although I have to admit I was actually there to see what I could find out.”

Jonty nodded, trying to reorganise his thoughts about the mystery man. “Funerals can often be a useful source of unguarded remarks. What did she say?”

“That there’d been somebody at the house that day, asking for Edward.”

“At Robertson’s house? Why there and not here?” Jonty shared a puzzled glance with Orlando.

“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask her. I got the impression she was embarrassed at having mentioned the fact. As though the emotion of the occasion had overcome her and loosened her tongue more than she’d intended. She steered clear of me afterwards.”

“Hmm.” Orlando finished writing a sentence, then tapped the pad. “There are things here which would bear investigation, but there remains a stumbling block to the murder theory. The suicide letter your brother left.”

Mrs. Blackett gazed down at her cup, then turned to look out of the window. It was a lovely morning, although Jonty could see nothing there to grab her attention. Surely she must have anticipated the question, so was she buying thinking time or just evading their gaze again?

“I believe,” she said at last, “that letter strengthens my case rather than weakens it. My brother couldn’t write or type. So how could it have been produced? I didn’t write any letters for him and neither did anyone else in this house.”

“Did nobody think to mention that to the coroner? If it hadn’t already occurred to him?” Jonty sighed, exasperated.

“My husband believed he’d had it dictated by some agency or amanuensis in London. He spent every Thursday at his flat, attending to any business he had in hand. It would have been easy enough for him to have used that time to produce a letter. I have to admit,” she added with evident reluctance, “he had signed it himself, or made his official mark.”

“Official mark?”

“Yes. He had devised a sort of hieroglyph or symbol that he’d had officially recognised by a solicitor while he could still write with some clarity, to be his approved signature when he could no longer produce a legible version of that. There were many documents to be dealt with.”

That made sense. “So the coroner accepted the signature as genuine?”

“Yes. My husband was sure there was nothing suspicious in the letter, as was Edward’s solicitor.”

Jonty nodded. It sounded as though the coroner had explored that avenue thoroughly. “That matter of producing a verified signature shows a lot of foresight. Did your brother have many business matters to deal with?”

Mrs. Blackett nodded, speaking with pride in her voice, “We inherited quite an estate from our father, between us, and Edward knew he’d have things to be addressed. Papa taught us to be vigilant against the chance of fraud. There are many people who would jump at the chance of stealing someone’s money, especially when that someone is vulnerable. Edward didn’t want to take that risk as his illness developed, and he maintained that same determination right to the end. That’s another reason I don’t think he would take his life.”

Jonty wasn’t sure that argument held water. Maybe the man was just preserving his estate as he’d been raised to do, as much a matter of habit as conscious decision. Or maybe he was just taking proper steps to secure his sister’s inheritance.

Inheritance.

Orlando’s mind must have been running down the same lines. “I’m sorry to have to pose what might be a delicate question, but you’ll understand why I need to ask it. Where did Edward’s estate go?”

“I understand entirely.” Mrs. Blackett gave a fond smile. “It went to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, apart from a token amount to Wilshire with which to toast my brother’s passing to the next world. I didn’t need any money, being well provided for already, and neither Edward nor myself had any offspring to benefit from us.”

“I see.” Orlando’s puzzled expression seemed to give the lie to his words. “Why that place in specifically?”

“Because he loved Peter Pan, of course.”

Jonty nodded. He knew of the bequest Barrie had made to the hospital, ensuring that the profits from the play would benefit many boys and girls, lost or not. He’d also known Barrie himself, in passing, although their paths hadn’t crossed in many a year.

“Such a sad family,” their hostess said, suddenly. “Would you like more coffee?”

“Er . . . yes, please. And could you clarify that remark? I don’t quite follow.” Jonty had heard a few stories about the Barrie marriage, concerning a lack of rousings in the masculine bushes, but wasn’t sure whether he believed them or not. And Mrs. Blackett didn’t seem like the sort of lady to refer to such strictly below-the-waist matters.

“The Llewelyn Davies family,” she replied, handing Jonty his cup then pouring one for Orlando. “Those poor boys.”

“Ah, yes. Indeed.” Five of them, orphaned at a tender age, left in the care of Barrie—who’d made a pretty good fist of things. Or so Jonty’s parents had averred, and he’d always trusted their judgement. Mr. Stewart in particular had known the family, through his many cricketing connections. But then, the Stewarts were renowned for having connections with just about everyone.

“I’m pleased to hear that Edward invested in such a good cause,” Orlando averred.

“Edward knew them, you know.”

“Did he?” Jonty—whose mind had gone off down a track in which memories of Barrie, cricket, two previous cases (could that really have been a dozen years ago?), all tumbled pell-mell—jolted back to the present. “So did my parents, at a remove. It’s a small world.”

“It is indeed. He’d had a sweetheart, you know, back in our younger days, who was a friend of the Llewelyn Davies family. And then one of the brothers, George, was in the King’s Rifles, too.”

Jonty picked his words carefully. “I have a feeling this story might have a sad ending. Where is his sweetheart now?”

“Your feeling is correct. She died young, just as the boys’ mother did. Edward never got over it. It’s the reason he never married.”

“How sad. I did wonder if it was something similar.” Jonty also wondered, fleetingly, if that had been the true reason, or just what he’d told his sister. There was another obvious reason that a man might choose not to marry—or have a wife simply as a mask to wear in society—but he and Orlando didn’t want to consider that possibility unless they had to. There was such a thing as getting too close for comfort.

“My brother was completely taken with the family and always took an interest in their doings.” Mrs. Blackett stopped, then wagged her finger. “Sorry, we’re digressing, aren’t we?”

“It appears so. My mother always said it was one of my faults, not keeping to the point.” Jonty smiled, then nodded towards Orlando, who was perching on the edge of his chair. “My colleague is evidently anxious to get us back on track.”

“If we could.” Orlando turned over a new page in his notebook. “Your husband told Dr. Stewart that Edward had found out something about Robertson. Some secret which might perhaps be used to coerce him.”

“My brother was no blackmailer, thank you very much!”

Jonty almost dropped his notebook at the volume of Mrs. Blackett’s response.

“Nobody is suggesting blackmail,” he said at last, in measured tones. Apart from you. “The doctor might not have had to be threatened to feel under threat, if that makes sense.”

“A secret can be just as dangerous for the one who knows about it as the one who possesses it,” Orlando added.

“Yes, you’re right. I’m sorry. Gerald—my husband—believes Edward might have used this knowledge he possessed to coerce Robertson into helping him die, but he didn’t need to. As I told you earlier, the doctor would have acted if he’d believed it to be in Edward’s best interest.” She laid her cup down on the table with a suggestion of finality. “Maybe he thought it was in Edward’s best interest, even if my brother had changed his mind.”

Jonty wasn’t ready for the interview to end. “Have you any idea what Edward knew? Or how he’d come across whatever it was?”

“No. On both counts. I wish I did know the wretched thing, because that might shed some light on matters, but I suspect it’s gone to the grave with him.” She looked out of the window again, then turned to face her guests. “Edward was so pleased with himself when he learned whatever he learned. He was like a dog with two tails. If he hadn’t known, if he hadn’t let Robertson know he knew, he might still be here.”

She buried her face in her handkerchief, and Jonty knew they would get no further on this occasion.

NEW RELEASE: LESSONS FOR IDLE TONGUES BY CHARLIE COCHRANE

Blurb:

Cambridge, 1910

Amateur detectives Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith seem to have nothing more taxing on their plate than locating a missing wooden cat and solving the dilemma of seating thirteen for dinner. But one of the guests brings a conundrum: a young woman has been found dead, and her boyfriend is convinced she was murdered. The trouble is, nobody else agrees.

Investigation reveals that several young people in the local area have died in strange circumstances, and rumours abound of poisonings at the hands of Lord Toothill, a local mysterious recluse. Toothill’s angry, gun-toting gamekeeper isn’t doing anything to quell suspicions, either.

But even with a gun to his head, Jonty can tell there’s more going on in this surprisingly treacherous village than meets the eye. And even Orlando’s vaunted logic is stymied by the baffling inconsistencies they uncover. Together, the Cambridge Fellows must pick their way through gossip and misdirection to discover the truth.

Excerpt: (found at Riptide Publishing)

The Stewarts’ home, London, 1910

“Thirteen for dinner. It’s desperately unlucky, Jonathan.” Mrs. Stewart pronounced the fact as though it were gospel truth that disaster must follow upon such a situation. “It can’t be countenanced.”

Jonty Stewart — expert on Shakespeare’s sonnets, distinguished fellow of St. Bride’s College, Cambridge, but apparently barely more than a seven-year-old boy as far as his mother was concerned — rolled his eyes. He was obviously already in trouble, given her use of the full version of his name.

“Thirteen’s certainly a cursed number,” Orlando Coppersmith agreed. As the most brilliant mathematician at the same august institution, he should have been in the best position to know, but he usually had no truck with associating luck — good or otherwise — with ordinal numbers.

Jonty rolled his eyes again. “You’ve changed your usual tune.”

Orlando drew himself up to his full, impressive height, his exceptionally handsome appearance complemented by the perfection of his dinner jacket. His abundant locks were, as usual, only just being kept under control. He’d always been a fine-looking creature, and at last he had begun to believe it, which added to the overall impression.

“If you’d let me finish,” he said, “I was about to say it was cursed in people’s minds, from full-blown triskaidekaphobia to simply not wanting to live in a house bearing the number.”

“I’d agree with that.” Mr. Stewart nodded enthusiastically. He was a splendidly handsome creature as well, even though his head bore barely a hair. Given the splendour of the costumes on show and the natural good looks of the four people wearing them, anybody peering through the window of the Stewarts’ drawing room might have labelled the tableau A typical representation of the cream of the new Georgian society, seen in its home.

But there was nothing typical about the Stewarts. Mr. Stewart was a lord but refused to use his title; Mrs. Stewart was the daughter of an earl but had been known — in her younger days — to lay out unwanted suitors with a right hander that wouldn’t have disgraced a prize fighter; and the youngest Stewart was not only a Cambridge fellow, but indulged in amateur sleuthing with his colleague.

And, of course, the least typical thing about them was that Jonty and Orlando were lovers, a situation of which the Stewarts were aware and seemed supremely unbothered.

It had become a matter of routine for Jonty and Orlando to spend part of the long vacation in the company of Jonty’s parents, usually en route to more exotic climes. This summer was no exception, the south of Italy being on the menu and a few days in London being a delightful hors d’oeuvre.

“I think it’s the superstition itself that brings bad luck, like it probably does on Friday the thirteenth,” Jonty said airily. “All those people looking over their shoulders, worrying about the slightest thing; it’s bound to make something daft happen, isn’t it? Maybe all the little mishaps which occur every day of the week get counted that particular Friday, in the same way they might be counted when someone’s walked under a ladder. And maybe exactly the same mishaps would be forgotten about if they happened on Tuesday the twenty-first, or after the person concerned had gone round the ladder in question.”

Mr. Stewart nodded. “Excellent point. Like so many things, it’s all in the mind. It must go back to the Last Supper, of course,” he continued.

At the theological reference, Jonty switched onto automatic mode, nodding and saying, “Oh, yes, I see,” and taking little notice. It tended to be the most effective strategy when being lectured. He’d had plenty of practice, during all those hours when Orlando was twittering on about vectors or random numbers or some such nonsense.

The Last Supper — yes, Jonty had always suspected there’d been more people milling about than reported in the gospels. And hadn’t Judas gone sneaking off at some point to leave just the twelve, which made the unlucky number aspect all a bit illogical? Whatever the reasoning behind it, the thing was just bloody stupid.

“I said, ‘Wouldn’t you agree, Jonathan?’”

“Absolutely.” Jonty nodded enthusiastically. He hadn’t actually heard his mother’s question, but — statistically, as Orlando would appreciate — there was a ninety percent chance that it was safest just to agree with whatever she had said.

“I was saying that I shouldn’t feel cross at Dr. Roberts’ having let us down at the last minute,” Mrs. Stewart continued, in a manner suggesting she was perfectly aware that her youngest son hadn’t been listening. “I’m sure he didn’t intend his appendix to explode, or whatever appendixes do to themselves to require being removed immediately.”

“Of course he didn’t.” Mr. Stewart, who had been having his annual check — ensuring the working of his engine, as he described it — at the time, had witnessed it all. “He was midconsultation when he just keeled over, face like a ghost. I thought he’d died.” Mr. Stewart had called for an ambulance, the physician in question clearly not being able to heal himself.

“I’ve sent him flowers” — Mrs. Stewart made a helpless gesture — “but they won’t be any use in rustling up a guest for tonight at the last moment. I suppose we’ll have to find somebody to draft in. I did wonder about Simon Bouverie, seeing as he’s in town.” Mrs. Stewart seemed to be deliberately avoiding her nearest and dearest’s gaze. “If he wouldn’t mind —”

“If he didn’t mind, then he damn well should.” Mr. Stewart rapped a tattoo with his knuckles on the chair arm.

“Language, Richard.”

“Sorry, Helena, but poor Simon gets a bad enough deal from this family. Ignored eleven-twelfths of the time and then expected to drop everything just to help us out.” Mr. Stewart turned to Orlando with a frown. “You won’t have met Simon, will you? He’s been abroad most of the time since you hove onto the horizon.”

“Richard, Orlando is not a battleship! He did not hove onto the horizon or any such nonsense.” She favoured Orlando with a charming smile, as a consequence not seeing Mr. Stewart rolling his eyes and grinning, which was just as well or he’d have had a full broadside. Mrs. Stewart could always be relied on to take her not-quite-son-in-law’s part against all comers, even in precedence to her husband’s and son’s. The smug little grin — quickly hidden — on Orlando’s face acknowledged how much pleasure he drew from that fact. Jonty didn’t begrudge him it, not really — he’d had precious little affection from his own family.

Mr. Stewart took up the account again. “Simon had the bad luck to be born to a wastrel of a father, Charlie Bouverie, a one-time friend of my uncle. He always hung about with us when we were younger. Nice lad. Officially he was Charlie’s ward, but then it turned out he was the natural son, born the wrong side of the blanket. Poor Simon became a bit of a . . . social embarrassment might be the best way to describe it. I mean, my family was very polite to him, of course, didn’t ban him from the house or anything, but there was always an air of being tainted by association. Or condescension, which is possibly worse.”

“Poor chap.” Orlando spoke with evident feeling. The Stewarts could have found him an embarrassment, or an object for pity, but he’d always been treated as Jonty’s equal. Mrs. Stewart circulating the story that he was her ward had, naturally, helped to keep up that standing with society as a whole. Had anybody discovered the truth about Orlando’s father’s bastardy and suicide, and then dared use that against him, the full might of the Stewart family would have come down upon them.

“Can we please get back to the matter of my dinner table and how I avoid disaster?” Mrs. Stewart wrung her handkerchief. “Is there nobody you could conjure up for me?”

“What about Dr. Peters?” Orlando said from the direction of the bookshelf, where he’d been greedily eyeing a book about the use of codes by Queen Elizabeth’s secret agents.

“Is he in town?” Mrs. Stewart’s distressed tone had disappeared, to be replaced with girlish enthusiasm. Dr. Peters, the master of St. Bride’s, was charming, handsome, and erudite. “Could you get him to come? He would be an ornament to any woman’s table.”

Not least because he was remarkably good-looking, Jonty thought, but wisely kept to himself. His mother had an elastic arm that could slap one of her offspring, irrespective of age, at about twenty yards. It was a shame that Ariadne, the master’s sister, wasn’t in the city; she would provide the erudition and charm without reducing Mrs. Stewart to drooling.

“He’s advising on an exhibition at the British Museum,” Orlando said. “I believe we should be able to contact him via the St. Bride’s porters’ lodge. Would you like me to try?”

“Please do, dear.” Mrs. Stewart beamed. “Avail yourself of all our facilities. Say there’s a lady who needs a white knight. Or a man on a white horse. Or something.”

Unfortunately, all the facilities at the disposal of St. Bride’s couldn’t actually connect Orlando with his quarry, although a message was left at his hotel to ring the Stewarts as a matter of urgency.

“What about the cat?” Mr. Stewart suddenly asked, in the sort of voice and with the sort of expression Archimedes must have used when he discovered his principle.

“What cat?” Orlando and Mrs. Stewart replied in unison.

“The cat they keep at the Dauphine Hotel. Great wooden monstrosity that gets wheeled out when there aren’t the required number of people at dinner and some superstitious soul wants to make the numbers up. He takes the fourteenth place.” Mr. Stewart looked suitably pleased with himself. “We could ask to borrow him.”

“Him? Are you sure he’s wooden and not some horrible moggy?” Orlando had no great love for feline creatures, or indeed for small furry animals of any sort. Apart from Jonty.

“He’s wooden all right,” Mr. Stewart assured him. “You can rap him on the head and check if you want. Would he work, Helena?”

“He certainly would. If you could ask, please, Richard.” Mrs. Stewart sounded and looked as she must have done when they were courting, all girlish enthusiasm and a dimpled smile. No wonder Jonty’s papa had been so smitten.

“I’ll get round there right now and talk to the manager. I’m sure he couldn’t resist an entreaty on behalf of a damsel in distress. Come on.” He gestured to his sometime fellow investigators. “You can add your most persuasive voices to the entreaty.”

“I’d love to, but I think I should stay here.” Orlando returned to his chair. “Just in case Dr. Peters returns our telephone call.”

“Excellent point, dear.” Mrs. Stewart reached across to pat his arm. “And you can keep me from fretting. I can always lay a fifteenth place if we end up with both Dr. Peters and the cat, but thirteen will not happen.”

***

Jonty hadn’t been in the Dauphine in years, but it didn’t seem to have changed that much. His father always averred that it was almost the same as when he used to take Jonty’s mother there — chaperoned, of course — in their courting days. The Stewarts still wandered over sometimes to have dinner, and not just for the sake of nostalgia.

“Mr. Stewart!” A tow-haired chap, maybe Jonty’s age, greeted them as they came through the revolving door. “A pleasure to see you, sir. Will you be gracing us with your presence at lunch?”

“No, alas, Mr. Chuter.” Mr. Stewart spoke to the man with the same easy respect with which he addressed anybody, from highest to lowest in the land. “Taking the nosebag at home today. You’ll not have met my youngest, Jonty . . .” He effected the introductions between his son and the deputy manager of the hotel with his usual practiced grace. “Is Mr. Wilmot available, by any chance?”

“Not at present, sir. Would I be able to help you?” Chuter looked disappointed at being passed over. He also eyed Jonty with a slight degree of trepidation, something that was becoming common now that the combination of Stewart and Coppersmith — not Coppersmith and Stewart, the cadence was all wrong with that combination — were gaining such public notoriety for their feats of amateur detection.

“I’m sure you would.” Mr. Stewart nodded sagely. “It’s about the cat. Montgomery.”

Chuter couldn’t have looked more relieved if he’d been in the thick of things at Mafeking when the siege was lifted. “Oh. Begging your pardon, gentlemen, but I assumed you were here on . . . detective business. I was concerned that one of our guests or — heaven forfend — one of the staff had blotted their copybook.”

“Nothing like that.” Mr. Stewart patted the man on the shoulder. “Although we’ll have blotted ours if we return home empty-handed. Montgomery’s services haven’t been booked for this evening, by any wonderful chance?”

“Not that I’m aware of, sir. Do you need him at your table?”

“I’m afraid I’m seeking more than that. We wondered, Helena and I, whether we could take him home and let him be our guest for dinner? We’d bring him back first thing tomorrow,” he added, maybe in case Chuter thought they’d never see the cat again.

“That should be quite in order.” Chuter smiled, inclined his head at Mr. Stewart’s profuse thanks, and summoned over a porter. “Launchbury, could you fetch Montgomery? He’s going to have an outing.”

“Well done, Papa.” Jonty tipped his head to one side, admiring, in an abstract sort of way, the neat cut of the porter’s trousers — or maybe the neat line of his backside. “Looks like your plan’s going to save the day. Maybe we have time for a snifter?”

“Oh, that sounds an excellent idea. Mr. Chuter, might we . . .” Mr. Stewart’s question died on his lips as Launchbury reappeared, looking alarmed and going at the fastest lick acceptable on the marble of the Dauphine’s entrance hall. He shattered all their plans on that same floor.

“He’s not there, Mr. Chuter. Montgomery.”

“Maybe he’s just been moved, or taken for cleaning,” Chuter said airily, although his wrinkled brow suggested concern.

“That’s what I’d have thought, sir, if it weren’t for —” Launchbury produced a piece of paper. “This was left where he should have been.”

Chuter unfolded the paper, looked even more alarmed, then handed it to Mr. Stewart.

Montgomery has gone on his holidays. He’ll be back once he’s helped light some fires.

“He’s been nicked!” Launchbury immediately corrected himself before Chuter could. “Purloined, I should say.”

“It certainly looks like it.” A gleam had appeared in Mr. Stewart’s eye that Jonty associated with the thrill of the chase.

“Mr. Stewart, Dr. Stewart,” Chuter said, addressing each man in turn. Jonty knew what was coming next. The deputy manager had At least we have the right men for the job on hand written all over his face. “I know such a matter would probably be beneath your notice, but would you consider helping us to find him? He’s an asset to the hotel and . . .” He spread his hands helplessly.

Jonty hid a smile, aware that Montgomery gave the Dauphine an advantage over other similar establishments, and that business might suffer due to his absence.

“He’s been taken on a previous occasion, I recall?” Mr. Stewart looked at the note again.

“Yes, it must be thirty years ago.” Chuter wrinkled his nose. “A rugby dinner. Blackheath. He was returned the next week looking slightly worse for wear but with money to cover French polishing. I just hope that bit about lighting fires isn’t literal.”

“I’m sure it isn’t.” Jonty felt less optimistic than his words suggested. “Not if he’s supposed to be coming back. We’d be delighted to help you find him, although I suggest it’s always best to start on your own doorstep. My colleague Dr. Coppersmith often loses things and then finds they’ve just been moved slightly, probably by him. He’s walked past them half a dozen times, taking no more notice than if they were part of the wallpaper pattern.” If the same could be said of Jonty, he’d keep that to himself for the moment. “I’ve no doubt that you will look everywhere, unlike Dr. Coppersmith, but it’s entirely possible Montgomery’s been moved by somebody to another location within the hotel. Note notwithstanding.”

“Good thinking, Dr. Stewart. We’ll scour the place for him and let you know if it turns out your services are not required.” Chuter nodded, then added ruefully, “He went halfway round the world the last time he was taken.”

“Let’s hope his wanderlust has been assuaged and he manages no farther than the home counties, then.” Mr. Stewart still eyed the note as though it should be telling him something but he couldn’t quite work out what. “The lads can’t manage to search the entire world before Michaelmas term.”

Chuter left them with the note in their custody, a poor substitute for the cat. He was clearly dreading having to report Montgomery’s disappearance, but at least he could also report securing the services of a distinguished pair of amateur detectives, should they be needed.

“The Dauphine will sorely miss that cat,” Jonty said, once they were alone.

“He went before. He’ll return. Whether with our assistance or without it.” Mr. Stewart had the voice of total confidence, even though the look he gave Jonty suggested he expected the game would soon be afoot.

“Let me tell Orlando about helping to find Montgomery.” Jonty cuffed his father’s elbow. “It’s been a while since he had a proper case to dig his teeth into, and he might get a bit upset at having another one that he feels is beneath his powers. Lost items pale into insignificance compared to murders or codes.”

“Point noted.” Mr. Stewart produced a sympathetic smile. “Maybe we could put his mind to this.” He held out the piece of paper.

“What’s bothering you about that note?”

“I don’t know. What is it I’ve heard you say? It’s like an insect buzzing about my head, that I can neither identify nor swat.” Mr. Stewart studied the piece of paper yet again. “It rings a bell — although whether that’s because I’ve seen the writing before, or the wording is familiar, or something else entirely, I couldn’t tell you. But it’s damned annoying.” The use of such a strong word, in public, illustrated the depth of his perplexity.

“That note won’t help you when we get home.” Jonty shuddered. “We’re still only thirteen. Should we go and drag somebody off the street so Mama doesn’t have to spend all evening waiting for somebody to drop dead? Or pray that Montgomery will return, maybe by magic, within the next thirty seconds?”

“We could pray for a miracle.” Mr. Stewart looked ashen. “What on earth are we going to tell her?”

Available now at Riptide PublishingAmazon.com, .co.uk and ARe

NEW RELEASE: LESSONS FOR SUSPICIOUS MINDS BY CHARLIE COCHRANE

Blurb:

1909

In the innocent pre-war days, an invitation to stay at the stately country home of a family friend means a new case for amateur sleuths Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith. In fact, with two apparently unrelated suicides to investigate there, a double chase is on.

But things never run smoothly for the Cambridge fellows. In an era when their love dare not speak its name, the risk of discovery and disgrace is ever present. How, for example, does one explain oneself when discovered by a servant during a midnight run along the corridor?

Things get even rougher for Orlando when the case brings back memories of his father’s suicide and the search for the identity of his grandfather. Worse, when they work out who the murderer is, they are confronted with one of the most difficult moral decisions they’ve ever had to make.

Excerpt: (on Riptide website)

Cambridge, June 1909

“Post, Dr. Coppersmith, Dr. Stewart.” Mrs. Ward, the housekeeper at Forsythia Cottage, bustled through the dining room door before neatly arranging the morning post on the table for her gentlemen to read once they’d dealt with their bacon and eggs.

“Thank you.” Jonty Stewart eyed his post eagerly. “That looks like Lavinia’s writing. I’ll save her epistle as a postprandial treat.”

“Unless you’re in trouble with your sister, again, in which case it’ll be a postprandial punishment.” Orlando Coppersmith, having put away the last bit of egg, picked up the other letter. It was addressed to him even though the handwriting was clearly that of Jonty’s mother. Her style could have been spotted a mile off, let alone from the other side of the table.

“Why’s Mama writing to you?”

“Not having the ability to see through paper, nor being able to read her mind, I couldn’t say.” Orlando deliberately took his time in opening the envelope and reading the contents, aware of Jonty almost bouncing with curiosity. It would do the man good to develop some patience. “We’ve been summoned. July. A visit to London and then off to somewhere called Fyfield. I’ve never heard of it.”

“Fyfield?” Jonty almost dropped his bacon in surprise. “It’s a house. Well, a house with a great big estate. I’ve not been there since I was a boy. Mama’s godmother lived there.”

“She still does, if she’s a dowager duchess. Alexandra Temple?”

“That’s the very one.”

“I thought as much, as your mother says she’s a very old friend of the Forsters. Is this Fyfield a nice place?”

“Nice?” Jonty consumed the bacon before it got either cold or dropped again. “It’s spectacular. Knocks the Old Manor into a cocked hat.”

“Oh.” The Stewarts’ country home in Sussex, an unfinished Tudor castle with later additions (ones never envisaged by the original owner, even before he—literally—lost his head), had seemed to Orlando the height of class and opulence. If Fyfield was better, it must be spectacular indeed. “Sounds like a treat, then.”

“Sounds like a case.”

Orlando looked up sharpish. A case. There’d been a steady stream of them over the last few months. Two had involved breaking old codes—which was meat and drink for him—and another had been solved by Jonty finding a parallel with Shakespeare and producing an outrageous piece of what he said was deduction and what Orlando vowed was pure luck. There was always room for another.

“What do you know that I don’t?” he asked.

“Nothing in the way of facts, but much regarding how my parents’ minds work.” Jonty made a face. “Must we go?”

Orlando could have sworn he’d heard his lover—colleague, best friend, fellow detective, everything that mattered—express a lack of enthusiasm for the invitation. He must have misheard. “I beg your pardon?”

“Must we go? To Fyfield.”

“Yes, we must.” Orlando tapped the letter. “This is articulated in the most forceful yet polite of terms, staying just this side of a three-line whip. And if there’s the chance of a case to investigate, we’d be mad not to go.”

“But I’ve a million things to do.” Jonty tapped the table with his fork, defiance writ large over his handsome face, although he seemed to be evading Orlando’s gaze. Could the contents of the man’s teacup suddenly have become sofascinating?

Orlando thought awhile before replying. This wasn’t how things usually went between the inhabitants of Forsythia Cottage. He was usually the one reluctant to take up offers of holidays or other novel, exhilarating experiences.

Drawing a bow at a venture and trying to hit bull seemed the best way forward. “This is not like you. You’re hiding something. When you act out of character, you’re usually up to no good.” How couldn’t Orlando know when he was being given the runaround? Especially when he’d seen that belligerently innocent look used many a time on the rugby pitch, usually when Jonty had dirty work afoot at the base of the scrum. “Out with it.”

“Guilty as charged.” Jonty smiled, then folded his hands together as if in prayer. “Forgive me my dissemblance. A sin of both commission—wanting to get out of the trip—and omission—not telling you about some of the things that happened there in my childhood years.”

“Oh.” The wind was taken out of Orlando’s sails. He knew how Jonty’s schooldays had been terribly blighted by bullying of the worst kind. Was this more of the same?

“No, not that,” Jonty said quickly, evidently reading his mind. “They’re a formidable family, the Temples. They always made me feel like a seven-year-old who’d been caught scrumping apples. Even when I wasn’t and hadn’t.”

Orlando grinned, delighted at seeing his lover’s discomfort. “You’ll just have to be brave.” How could either of them turn down a summons from Jonty’s mother, especially if it involved a commission? Even Admiral Nelson himself would have quaked in his shoes at the thought of crossing Helena Stewart. “We’ll have to discharge our responsibilities.”

Our familial responsibilities? You’re a Stewart now?” Jonty grinned.

“As good as. We may not have spoken vows in a church, but am I not as wedded to you as your Lavinia is wed to her Ralph?”

“I suppose you’re right.” Jonty sighed. “And it’s been an age since I’ve seen Mama’s godmother. I suspect I was barely above being dandled on her knee. At least I don’t recall her being overpowering.”

“How old is the dowager duchess? And how has she avoided contact with such a gregarious rogue as you?”

Jonty lifted the lid of the teapot, looked disappointed, got up, and rang the little bell on the mantelpiece. “None of your business, and the Atlantic.”

“Atlantic?” Orlando frowned, as the housekeeper bustled in.

“Atlantic, Dr. Coppersmith? It’s an ocean.” Mrs. Ward smiled indulgently, as if doctors of mathematics had no knowledge of geography. In the case of most Cambridge mathematicians she might well have been right, but Orlando was that rare beast who occasionally got his nose out of Euclid and into an atlas. “Are you thinking of sailing it single-handed?”

“No such luck, Mrs. Ward.” Jonty grinned. “Could you oblige us with a pot of tea—we need more sustenance.”

“Coffee for me, please.” Orlando forced a smile, not sure whether he’d murder Jonty or their housekeeper first. Not that he’d ever commit the deed, but devising undetectable ways of doing it always gave him intellectual satisfaction.

“My pleasure. Any more toast?”

“No, thank you,” Orlando replied, just as Jonty piped up, “Yes, please.”

“Right you are, then.” Mrs. Ward, used by now to the contrasting ways of her two gentlemen, took it all in her stride. Half a rack of toast would appear with the tea and the coffee just as, on notable occasions, an apple crumble might appear on the table alongside a treacle tart.

“Where do you put it all?” It must be the umpteenth time Orlando had posed the question. Why Jonty wasn’t the size of St. Bride’s chapel was a mystery in itself, given the quantity of fodder he stuck away.

“Bottomless boots.” Jonty took his rightful place again at the breakfast table.

“And the significance of the Atlantic?”

“Alexandra Temple—the dowager duchess, remember?—has been living in America, Boston, I believe, the last few years, with her younger son. And before that she was globe-trotting. Getting over the shock of being made a widow at . . . at an age too young to be made one.” Jonty waved his hand airily.

“What did her family think of that? Plenty of scope for scandalous speculation, I’d have thought.”

“You’ve not met her, Orlando. Not yet, anyway. She’s such a pillar of rectitude she should be exhibited in Trafalgar Square as an example to the young people of today. She’ll be behind this commission, whatever it is. She likes righting wrongs.”

Orlando groaned. If the whole family were like that, no wonder Jonty felt cowed by them. “If she’s so self-righteous, I’m not sure I want to meet her.”

“I didn’t say she was self-righteous. Do you really think Mama would want somebody like that in charge of her favourite son’s spiritual welfare, even at one remove?” Jonty’s voice was laden with affection. “She probably went round the world doing good deeds—the sort of ones people actually want done to them as opposed to the usual kind—and hiding her light under a bushel en route.”

“We’ll see how kindhearted she is when she finds out what a rogue you’ve turned into. She’ll hand in her grand-godmotherly cards. Or whisk you off to a monastery. You’re certain there’s a case involved?”

“I’d put a tenner on it. Ah, thank you, Mrs. Ward!” The welcome arrival of the housekeeper with toast and tea took precedence over conversation.

“Coffee’s on its way, Dr. Coppersmith. I didn’t quite have enough hands.”

“Let me come and get it.” Orlando rose from the table, catching Jonty’s look of concern from the corner of his eye. What was that about?

By the time he’d returned, pot in hand, Jonty was buttering toast and getting crumbs everywhere—as usual—and reading the newspaper.

“Interesting article here about a man who lost his hat on a train and found it four days later in a cab.” Jonty pointed at the paper with a triangle of toast, signally thinking he’d changed the subject. Orlando wasn’t going to let the little toad get away with it.

“What’s up? Apart from having to go back to where you’ve clearly misbehaved as a boy?”

Jonty jerked his head away from the paper. “Why should there be something up? And I didn’t misbehave. I was angelic. If you want misbehaviour, talk to my brother Clarence.”

He was at it again, deflecting attention from where it should be. Same as on the rugby pitch, making it look like somebody else was playing dirty—usually one of the opposition.

“Come on. This isn’t like you, to be so reluctant to go somewhere.” Orlando leaned over and ruffled his lover’s hair. “No secrets, remember?”

Jonty smiled, leaning into the caress. “No secrets, then. I was just a touch worried you’d react to a new case in the wrong way. After last year and all the upset it caused after your grandmother died.”

Orlando rubbed his hand slowly and thoughtfully along Jonty’s cheek. His grandmother’s death, and the challenge she’d left him to identify the family who’d disowned her, had led to his finding he was the scion of a noble—and rather nice—Italian family. But it had almost lost him his reason, as it had probably cost his father his sanity. His great-grandfather’s rejection of his daughter had left a legacy of disquiet down the generations.

“You needn’t worry about me. I’m not a child.” Orlando felt inclined to slap Jonty’s backside for being such a fuss-box, but the chairs and the table precluded him. “I’ve never known you to refuse an invitation to join your parents, or one to visit somewhere you’ll be plied with food, drink, and recreation. No wonder the alarm bells started to ring.”

“I’m sorry. I really do have reservations about the Temples, but not about their cellar or kitchens. Nor their gardens.”

“Gardens?” Orlando rolled his eyes. “I won’t be dragged round them and given a long list of Latin plant names to bore me rigid?”

“Rigid? I love it when you’re rigid.” Jonty grinned.

“You can’t mollify me with smutty talk.” Not at that time of the morning, with their housekeeper in the offing, anyway. “And keep your voice down. Mrs. Ward will hear.”

“And do you think she would care? Do you think she doesn’t notice there’s only ever one bed slept in out of the nominal two?”

“I’m sure she does, but there’s a world of difference between us all knowing something and keeping quiet about it, and shouting the fact from the rooftops.” Discretion had always been their safety net—that and most people thinking they’d ended up having to share a house because no other sane person, woman or man, would put up with either for five minutes.

“Right, Fyfield. We’ll go, and we’ll take what we’re given, whether it be vintage champagne or a murder to solve.”

“Both, I’d hope. And some stunningly good vintage of red wine.” Jonty’s eagerness was waxing. “I’m almost looking forward to it.”

“Just so long as you don’t get so deep in your cups you spend all the time telling your grand-godmother about my foibles.” Orlando wrested one last cup of coffee from the pot.

“If I try to do that, she’ll soon knock some sense into me, as will Mama.”

“If your mother hasn’t managed to knock any sense into you by now, there’s no chance.” Orlando got up from the table with a yawn, a stretch, and a nod. “Summer’s sorted, then. Maybe for once we’ll get a nice, quiet holiday.”

“I really wish you hadn’t said that. Go out of the room, turn three times, and knock on the door to be let in or something.”

“I know I shouldn’t ask this, but I will. Why?”

Jonty pushed his cup and saucer from him with a sigh. “Because it’s as bad as mentioning Macbeth. Nice, quiet holiday? The universe will hear what you said and is bound to make us regret it.”

Available now at Riptide, Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and ARe

Lone wolf by Aleksandr Voinov and L.A. Witt

LoneWolf_500x750-NoRoosh

amazon.com: amazon.co.uk: riptidepublishing.com

Blurb:

Hunter Easton is screwed. Fans, producers, and his agent are all chomping at the bit for the next book in his wildly popular Wolf’s Landing series, but he’s got epic writer’s block and is way behind deadline. Then he reads The World Tree, a fanfic novel by his online friend “Lone Wolf.” It isn’t just a great story—it’s exactly what the series needs.

Kevin Hussain is thrilled when “Wolf Hunter” wants to meet up after reading The World Tree. When Wolf Hunter turns out to be Hunter Easton himself, Kevin is starstruck. When Hunter tells him he wants to add The World Tree to Wolf’s Landing, Kevin is sure he’s being pranked. And when their online chemistry carries over—big time—into real life, Kevin is convinced it’s all too good to be true.

The problem is . . . it might be. The book deal, the sex, the money—everything is amazing. But fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and Kevin is left wondering if Hunter really loves him, or just loves his book.

Excerpt:

Chapter One

Hunter Easton decided there was definitely something to be said about casually dating a man who loved showers, not to mention shower sex. The stall in Ryan’s bathroom was large enough to clean a truck in and the water pressure was oh-just-so-right. While Ryan dozed in the other room, Hunter positioned himself in the sweet spot that all those nozzles targeted and moved a bit to get his sorest areas massaged. Those between his shoulders. Not the other ones.

Over the sound of the water, he couldn’t hear a thing. Not Ryan’s soft snores, and certainly not Hunter’s phone. That little tyrant was still in the bedroom, and on purpose. His voice mail was rapidly filling up with messages from all the people who really wanted book eight because it meant another large deposit in their various bank accounts.

Ryan’s shower was damn near orgasmic, which was nice when his body had run out of the other kinds of orgasms. Hunter stretched under the water, then leaned forward against the lapis lazuli tiles to enjoy the massage jet hitting his spine. Nothing else existed. Only hot water, steam, his body, and a mind that was very slowly waking up. Yesterday he’d been stressed out, but Ryan had fixed that with a couple of hours in the gym, a steak at a friendly grill, and then lots of sex. Also, Ryan didn’t read fiction. He wasn’t dumb, just a bit of a meathead. If he cracked a cover at all, it was a fitness manual or a nutrition book. No time for paranormal thrillers.

Perfect fit.

Hunter’s brain was kicking into gear and with that came his to-do list. Get coffee. Drive home. Finish chapter ten. Probably return a few calls lest somebody leak to a reporter that he’d gone “missing.” His agent Leanne kept joking that he was the type of author who’d just vanish midseries to join a Buddhist temple in Lhasa. Preemptive mind control via guilt-trip. But it kept him somewhat on the straight (ha) and narrow.

He fully expected several voice mails from Leanne. More from her than anyone else. After all, she was the only one who’d caught on thus far that there might not be an eighth book because . . . because he had no idea what needed to happen next. He’d been beating his head against the wall for months, and he’d reached the point of avoiding his entire office for hours, even days at a time because he couldn’t stare down the barrel of that book anymore. Wolf’s Landing had pretty much poured out of his brain for seven and a half volumes, but now he didn’t know where to go with it. He hadn’t told Leanne what was happening—or not happening, as it were—but she’d caught on regardless. And he just couldn’t deal with her today. He couldn’t deal with anything. All the pressure and obligation was seriously getting old.

The water started to get cold, so Hunter shut it off and stepped out. He dried himself and dressed in the bathroom so he wouldn’t wake Ryan, but as he crept back into the bedroom, Ryan stirred.

“You’re leaving?”

“Yeah.” Hunter slid his phone into his back pocket without daring to look at the screen. “It’s pushing noon.”

Ryan stiffened. He scrubbed a big hand over his face and glared at the clock beside the bed. “I’ll be damned. This is what happens when you keep me up until four.”

Hunter laughed as he leaned down to kiss Ryan’s scruffy cheek. “Well, it was worth it. I’ll see you on Thursday?”

“Mm-hmm. Mind putting the coffee on before you go?”

“Always do.”

“Thanks.”

 

 

Trowchester Blues by Alex Beecroft

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 riptidepublishing: amazon.co.uk: amazon.com

Blurb:

Michael May is losing it. Long ago, he joined the Metropolitan Police to escape his father’s tyranny and protect people like himself. Now his father is dead, and he’s been fired for punching a suspect. Afraid of his own rage, he returns to Trowchester—and to his childhood home, with all its old fears and memories. When he meets a charming, bohemian bookshop owner who seems to like him, he clings tight.

Fintan Hulme is an honest man now. Five years ago, he retired from his work as a high class London fence and opened a bookshop. Then an old client brings him a stolen book too precious to turn away, and suddenly he’s dealing with arson and kidnapping, to say nothing of all the lies he has to tell his friends. Falling in love with an ex-cop with anger amanagement issues is the last thing he should be doing.

Finn thinks Michael is incredibly sexy. Michael knows Finn is the only thing that still makes him smile. But in a relationship where cops and robbers are natural enemies, that might not be enough to save them.

Excerpt:

Chapter One

Thirty seconds after Smith knocked at the front door, the suspect threw open the back and charged out. Michael May, standing to one side waiting, kicked the guy’s knees out from under him, and moved in to try to seize an arm, get the bastard in a half nelson, under control.

But this guy—Watkins—was tougher than these white-collar city boys usually came. He took the fall like a pro, used the momentum to roll, and came up running. He was a wiry git, taller than May—most men were—with long legs. That damn kung fu fall set off all kinds of alarms in May’s head, but at this stage it was fight or lose him, and he was not going to let the bastard get away.

A wheelie bin in the narrow passage between the back of the house and the street slowed the perp up enough so May could throw himself at those long legs and rugby tackle him to the ground. Watkins went down, but he squirmed like an eel. May took a heel to the balls, and blessed his own foresight in wearing rugby protection down there. He held on tight, not wanting to walk his hold up the guy’s body and potentially give him a better angle to use his fists. Pinned by May’s considerable weight, facedown on the pavement, there wasn’t a lot the guy could do to him. May could lie here just fine until Reed or Smith got round to coming to help.

The perp tried rolling. No luck. He pushed himself up on his arms, trying with better leverage. Failed again. In terms of sheer physical force, May outclassed him easily.

“Nigel Howard Watkins”—this was an unusual position from which to make an arrest, but May wasn’t going to turn down anything that worked—“you are under arrest for—”

Watkins flopped flat. One of his long, flailing arms went to the back of his designer suit trousers. His jacket shifted, and there was the bulge of a gun stuffed down the back of his waistband.

May’s heart kicked up beneath his ribs. Fuck, every villain had a gun these days, and they hadn’t brought any armed officers with them. His mind went white and clear even as his lips tingled with cold adrenaline. Don’t let him draw it.

He punched Watkins in the kidney with his left hand, reached up with the right to try to grab for the gun. The moment his hold loosened, Watkins squirmed again, got one leg out from under him and kneed May in the ribs with it. May body-slammed the guy back to the pavement, swarmed up him, got his hand on Watkins’s hand just as it grasped the gun, and kept it pressed down hard against the guy’s back, so if he did pull the trigger, he’d shoot his own arse.

“May?” Acting Detective Constable Reed called from the exit to the road.

“Here! I could use a little help.”

The yard gate swung open. Reed—a tall, skinny kid who lived up to his name—ran through, pushed past the wheelie bin, and got his knees on Watkins’s shoulders.

“You’re not going anywhere, sir.” May managed to get his thumb on the pressure point of Watkins’s wrist. Watkins jerked like he knew exactly what May was doing, knew that as soon as May dug in there, his hand would go numb, he would let go of the gun, and it would be all over.

If the man was going to shoot at all, it would be now. And yes, the bullet would go through his own buttock on the way to tearing into May’s belly, lodging itself in his pelvis or his spine, but May would still be dead, and he’d be alive. Could he be tough enough for that? Tough enough to get another shot off afterwards, take Reed down too, and escape?

“You’re not going anywhere,” May said again, digging in to the pressure point with his fingers, pushing with his own resolve against Watkins’s determination. “Nigel Howard Watkins, you are under arrest for kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment of a minor.”

Watkins struggled against May’s hold, but his fingers opened involuntarily, and May wrenched the gun out of his hand, threw it out of reach. The high, shrill edge to May’s mood quietened down into a more familiar wariness. Okay, okay. Thank God, we’re all fine.

He breathed out hard, pushing the panic aside, and drew on the comforting blanket of routine. “You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”

Reed passed him handcuffs. He snapped them on, breathed again two, three times before giving the ADC a smile. “Good work. Let’s get him up.”

The fight had gone out of their prisoner. He rose easily enough, stood between them meekly with his smart white shirt black all over with the exhaust residue and smut of London’s streets. Jermyn Street tailoring, gold watch, this season’s spiky City cut on his muddy-blond hair, manicured hands. Maybe with blood under the nails, they’d have to check.

“You can’t touch me,” he said, obviously trying for suave and not quite making it.

“You got him?” Smith appeared at the yard door, wiping her hands over and over against her jeans. Jenny Smith, May’s longtime partner, was hard and clear as diamond. His already queasy stomach—roiling with the comedown of that sudden flood of fight or flight—sank at the sight of her. Mouth pale, skin greenish, creases of strain between her eyebrows. It was bad.

“Bag the gun,” he replied, nodding to it.

She knelt down to do it, not looking at him, not looking at Watkins. “Is he going to be secure in the car? You should see inside.”

May could almost feel the confidence coming back to his prisoner, as if he were a vase being filled under a tap of it. Being physically overwhelmed and disarmed tended to knock even the most egotistical down a peg, but this guy was bouncing back from it with all the arrogance of his suit. He wasn’t going to sit still and be a good boy while he waited for the police to gather evidence.

“We’ll bring him.”

Inside the man’s house, it was glossy. A whole Victorian terrace house, not even split into flats. The ground floor was open plan, finished in pale wood, with a floating staircase up to the second and third floors. The bannisters were wrought iron. Nice and sturdy, so May used his own cuffs in addition to Reed’s and secured Walker there, each wrist cuffed to a different spoke.

Smith passed the bagged gun to Reed. “Stay here. Make sure he stays too.”

May caught Smith’s gaze and raised his eyebrows. Reed’s staying here?

She shoved a tendril of barley-sugar-coloured hair back into her plait and gave him a twist of the lips that said, ADC Reed is twenty-one. Too young for this. “I’ve already called for forensics, but you should see, so you can corroborate my evidence.”

The smell began halfway down the stairs to the cellar. Very clean stairs. They ended in a small stone room full of racks of wine. Not a speck of dust on the floor, probably because if there had been, the place where the far wall swung out to reveal a hidden room would have been obvious at a glance. May drew on gloves, though he didn’t intend to touch anything.

His educated nose picked up the bouquet of blood and burned flesh, layered with the fainter and yet more disturbing scents of semen and corpse. The energy of the fight had well and truly worn off now. His hands in his pockets shook no matter how hard he clenched them. He stopped where the false wall, cheerful with green bottles, still blocked his view, and closed his eyes for good measure.

“Jenny, I . . .”

But she was a woman and a mother. She’d seen everything he’d seen over their shared career. If she could take it, what kind of a pathetic excuse for a man did it make him that he could not?

Smith looked at him with a kind of cold fury that meant, You are not leaving this all to me. Pull yourself together, but what she said was, “No, you know, on second thoughts, why don’t you and Reed just take him in? I’ll wait for forensics.” And see, he was letting down his partner with his weakness. She’d have to go home at night and know she was the only one with this stuff in her head. She’d have no one to talk to about it, no one to understand the pain that came out as morbid jokes and obsessive hand washing and one too many beers on a Friday night, if you were lucky.

No one needed to tell him he’d been flaky lately. He knew he’d been unravelling for the better part of the last year. That didn’t mean he had to give in to it. He could try acting like a man and suck it up.

“Let me see,” he said. Didn’t miss her look of relief and guilt. No matter how concerned she might be about him, she didn’t want to be alone with this.

The victim was a fourteen-year-old girl. Quite dead. By the look of her, she’d been dead for a couple of days. Her wrists, where she’d been chained to the radiator, had melted into the metal. Stacey Merriweather: ran away from home after a family argument over her grades at school, failed to return.

Cameras on Platform 3 of Piccadilly Station had seen her sitting with her back to the wall, crying. A disconsolate little package of short skirt and Hello Kitty hairband. Had seen the camel-coated back of the kind gentleman who’d comforted her, and a flash of his pocket watch as he’d reached down to help her to her feet.

They’d traced that watch to waterfront properties, a high-powered job in the City, every luxury money could buy and then some. A slew of false names, this house belonging to one of them. And then they’d followed the trail down and down again to this room with its operating table and its instruments and its chains. To this corpse with its internal organs removed and placed in labelled jars. With its lips sewn shut and its eyes sewn open and a Hello Kitty hairband in its hair.

May thought he said something. Pretty sure the strangled noise was his voice. But he’d mostly lost himself, not quite following who was striding back up the stairs with Smith’s shouts chasing him and a head full of such rage that the skull had shattered under the pressure and the fury was smoking behind him in a tail like a dark comet.

Footsteps came running behind him, but he was in the living room now, looking at white furniture, deep white carpets like clouds. Looking at polish and varnish and golden autumn light slanting through high windows onto a monster in an Armani suit.

“Sir!” Reed squeaked as May reached out a lazy hand and shoved him aside.

Fingers tried to grab hold of his jacket from the back. “May! May! Michael! Listen to me.”

He twitched them aside, drew back, and punched Watkins straight in the gut, the satisfying impact reverberating through his knuckles into every bone of his body. How about he show the bastard what it was like when his internal organs were pulped?

Watkins tried to double over, still cuffed to the stair rods like a crucifixion. It brought his smug mouth down perfectly to the level of May’s fists, and May hit him twice more, splitting his lip, bloodying his nose, making spittle and blood fly. He grinned, fierce, righteous, because this was just what the guy deserved. No. He deserved more, so much more. May drew back his hand to strike again.

But something was stopping him from swinging. He tried his hardest, succeeded in unbalancing Smith and dragging her forwards, but she kept right on clinging to his arm as Reed’s long grasp locked around his waist and the ADC fought to pull him away.

May could have shaken them both off without much effort, but the contact, their grip, their concerned voices, started to wake up something human in him again. He was coming to after having been unconscious, all the madness that had been spiralling around his head contracting into a little black hole that he swallowed back down.

Just because the guy deserved this didn’t mean May could go around beating up defenceless citizens. He was not fucking Batman. He was better than this.

“Shit,” he said, appalled, and stepped away from the prisoner. “Shit. Jenny, Mark. I’m sorry.”

They let him go. Stood, looking at him with shocked and unsettled eyes, Jenny with that guilt back, all over her face like she somehow thought any of this was her fault.

Silence while it all sank in, and then Watkins raised his head and smiled. “I have friends in places so high you don’t even know they exist. I’m going to be fine. But you? I’m going to see you broken for police brutality at the least. At the very least.”

 

New Release: Lessons for Survivors by Charlie Cochrane

Lessons for Survivors

A more than professional interest . . . a more than personal intrigue.

Orlando Coppersmith should be happy. WWI is almost a year in the past, he’s back at St. Bride’s College in Cambridge, his lover and best friend Jonty Stewart is at his side again, and—to top it all—he’s about to be made Forster Professor of Applied Mathematics. And although he and Jonty have precious little time for an investigative commission, they can’t resist a suspected murder case that must be solved in a month so a clergyman can claim his rightful inheritance.

But the courses of scholarship, true love, and amateur detecting never did run smooth. Orlando’s inaugural lecture proves almost impossible to write. A plagiarism case he’s adjudicating on turns nasty with a threat of blackmail against him and Jonty. And the murder investigation turns up too many leads and too little hard evidence.

Orlando and Jonty may be facing their first failure as amateur detectives, and the ruin of their professional and private reputations. Brains, brawn, the pleasures of the double bed—they’ll need them all to lay their problems to rest.

Author bio:

As Charlie Cochrane couldn’t be trusted to do any of her jobs of choice–like managing a rugby team–she writes. Her favourite genre is gay fiction, predominantly historical romances/mysteries, but she’s making an increasing number of forays into the modern day. She’s even been known to write about gay werewolves–albeit highly respectable ones.

She was named Author of the Year 2009 by the review site Speak Its Name but her family still regard her writing with a fond indulgence, just as she prefers.

Happily married, with a house full of daughters, Charlie tries to juggle writing with the rest of a busy life. She loves reading, theatre, good food and watching sport. Her ideal day would be a morning walking along a beach, an afternoon spent watching rugby and a church service in the evening.

Excerpt

Cambridge, 1919

Chapter One

“Stand still.”

“I am standing still.”

“You aren’t. You’re jiggling about like a cat after a pigeon.” Jonty Stewart made a final adjustment to Orlando Coppersmith’s tie, then stood back to admire his efforts. “I think that’s passable.”

“You should wear your glasses, then you wouldn’t have to go back so far. You can’t use that old excuse about your arms getting shorter so you have to hold the paper farther away.” Orlando turned to the mirror, the better to appreciate the perfectly tied knot. “Faultless. Thank you.”

The hallway of Forsythia Cottage benefited from the full strength of the morning sun through the windows and fanlight, enough for even the vainest creatures to check every inch of their appearance in the mirror before they sauntered out onto Madingley Road. Still, what would the inhabitants of Cambridge say to see either Jonty or Orlando less than immaculate, especially on a day such as this?

“It’s as well you had me here to help, or else you’d have disgraced yourself and St. Bride’s with it.” Jonty smiled, picking at his friend’s jacket. If there were any specks on it, Orlando had to know they were far too small for Jonty to see without his glasses. “I’m so proud of you. Professor Coppersmith. It will have a lovely ring to it.”

Orlando nodded enthusiastically, sending a dark curl springing rebelliously up, a curl that needed to be immediately flattened, although even the Brilliantine he employed recognised it was fighting a losing battle.

His hair might have been distinctly salt and pepper, but he was still handsome, lean but not angular, nor running to fat like some of his contemporaries. He’d turned forty when the Great War still had a year to run, so there was a while yet before he hit the half century. Jonty was a year closer to that milestone and never allowed to forget it. “I won’t believe it until I see the first letter addressed to me by that title.”

“Conceit, thy name is Coppersmith.” Jonty nudged his friend aside and attended to his own tie. Silver threads lay among his own ruddy-gold hair now, and the blue eyes were framed with fine lines. He knew he could still turn a few heads and young women told him he was handsome. If the young women concerned were his nieces . . . well, that didn’t invalidate their opinions.

Orlando snorted. “Conceit? That’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black.” He slicked back his hair again, frowning.

“You seem unusually pensive, even for the new Forster Professor of Mathematics.” Jonty stopped his grooming, turned, and drew his hand down Orlando’s face, remapping familiar territory. Coppersmith and Stewart. Stewart and Coppersmith. They went together like Holmes and Watson, Hero and Leander, or strawberries and cream. Colleagues, friends, lovers, and amateur detectives, they were partners in every aspect of their lives, and neither of them entirely sure whether the detection or the intimacy was the most dangerous part.

“I was just thinking how sad it is that neither your parents nor my grandmother are here today.” Orlando fiddled with his tiepin, at which Jonty slapped his hand away and straightened the offending object once more.

“Leave that alone. I’d only just got it right.” Jonty stuffed a hat into Orlando’s hands—not the one he was going to wear today, but one he could twist nervously to his heart’s content, with no damage done. “Perhaps it’s as well they’re not here for your inaugural lecture. They might have had to put on a magnificent act to cover their boredom. Computable numbers? Hardly the stuff of gripping entertainment.” Jonty smiled, trying to keep his lover’s spirits up. He knew how deeply Orlando still felt the horrible series of losses he’d suffered during the years of the Great War.

So many people he’d been close to, now gone; it had left a gap in his life that Jonty knew even he couldn’t entirely fill. Not that, as Orlando swore, he loved Jonty any the less—nor, as Orlando frequently said, was there any less of him to love. The reports of the college veterans’ rugby matches still referred to him as a little ball of muscle, and Orlando said he was beautiful beyond the power of words or numbers—even imaginary ones—to describe. Both of which were nice, if perhaps biased, compliments.

“Thank you for your vote of confidence.” Orlando ruffled his lover’s hair, grinning smugly as Jonty scurried back to the mirror to begin priddying again.

“My pleasure. I’m looking forward to the lecture, of course. I’ve a list of keywords that I’ll tick off as they come. If I get them all, I’ll win five quid off Dr. Panesar.”

“Does he have a list as well? Does everyone?” When they’d first met, Orlando would have been thrown into a panic at such a statement. Now he was older, wiser, and alive to Jonty’s attempts to make game of him. “And do I get a cut of the proceeds? I’d write my lecture specifically to help out the highest bidder.”

“That’s the spirit. I’ll start the bidding.” Jonty leaned forward and kissed Orlando as tenderly as when they’d first been courting. “That’s the deposit. You can guess what constitutes the rest of the payment.” He was pleased when Orlando, visibly happier, returned the kiss; he couldn’t let Orlando succumb to melancholy now. The man might start blubbing through his inauguration.

“Oh, Lord, look at my hair!” The romantic interlude earned Orlando a return to the mirror to repair the damage to his coiffure. “No more of those before the big event, thank you.”

“We’re not turning into a pair of sissies, are we? I don’t ever remember spending as much time in front of a looking glass, not even when I was in my twenties.” Jonty resisted the temptation to have another glance at his reflection.

“This is an occasion without precedent. We can take as long as we want. You said it was a matter of the college’s honour—surely we can’t have people thinking St. Bride’s is inhabited by scarecrows!” Inhabited by old duffers, eccentrics, and a pair of amateur detectives who had the habit of getting their names into The Times, certainly. “Anyway, make the most of that kiss. There may be no more forthcoming before I give my lecture.”

“That’s hardly the spirit I expect, Orlando. If I were ever to gain a Chair in Tudor Literature or some such wonderful thing, I’d insist on regular romantic activity to fortify and inspire me. A man can’t live by hair pomade and computation alone.” Jonty made good the knot in his lover’s tie for what seemed the umpteenth time. “How far have you got with your first draft, by the way?”

“First draft? At this rate, it’ll never get written. Too many distractions. You being at the top of the list.” Orlando screwed up his face. “Perhaps I should simply write it on the subject of ‘Equations quantifying the known nuisance values of Jonathan Stewart.’”

“That would be impossible to quantify, I’m afraid. Didn’t you tell me there are no numbers bigger than infinity?” Jonty pulled down his lover’s brow to reachable level, but had second thoughts about kissing it, just in case hair and tie both got mussed up again. “If you’re that distracted, we should deem it protocol to sleep in separate beds the next few nights. Then you could scribble away to your heart’s content.”

“It could be done. And the thought of resumption of bed sharing would be a positive incentive to get the wretched thing sorted out. I need something to give me the proverbial boot up the backside.” Orlando deliberately moved away from the mirror. “Right, that’s it. If I’m not fit for public view now, I never will be. Thank goodness it’s just the official bit today and the lecture’s all of a fortnight away.”

“At least that’ll give Lavinia the chance to buy a dress suitable for the occasion. She’s dragging her heels about getting the right outfit. Worse than you. And she’s almost as nervous as you are. Feels she’s representing all the Stewarts and has to be on her best behaviour.” Lavinia Broad, Jonty’s sister and the matriarch of the family now that their formidable mother had died, was developing into the role with surprising dignity and good sense.

“She’s bound to be better behaved than you, so everyone will be relieved.” Orlando smiled, a twinkle in his eye to show that he didn’t mean any—or at least much—of what he’d said.

“And you’ll have Antonio there, to represent your illustrious relatives.” Jonty took out his spectacles and gave them a special polish in honour of the occasion. Not that he intended to wear them. “He can sit next to Lavinia, looking proud and patriarchal.”

“At this point, I’m glad my grandmother had to change her name. Professor Artigiano del Rame sounds a bit pretentious. And they’d never manage to paint all of that on the sign at the bottom of the staircase at Bride’s. They had enough trouble with O’Shaughnessy.” Orlando made one final adjustment to his jacket, ignored Jonty’s whisper of I was right when I said ‘Vanity, thy name is Coppersmith,’ and turned to the door. “It shows you what a state I’m in that I don’t object to turning up in the metal monster. If I was quite myself, I’d have insisted on a horse-drawn cab.”

“The metal monster” was one of the kinder ways Orlando referred to whichever one in the procession of Jonty’s cars was currently standing outside the house, allegedly polluting the vicinity. Only the fact that one of the earlier incarnations had helped save Jonty’s life made the possession of an automobile tolerable, even if the current version was one that Orlando deemed deficient in the number of required wheels.

“You love it, really. Especially since we got the Morgan.” Jonty grabbed their academic gowns, opened the front door, and ushered his lover through it. “Come on, let’s get the bride to the altar.”

“Not the analogy I’d have chosen, but it’ll do. Lead on, Macduff.”

Lay on, Macduff, you mean. You’re worse than the dunderheads at times.” He closed the door behind them and took a deep breath of the autumn air. “It’s going to be a glorious day, in more ways than one.” As they reached the car, he dropped his voice to barely a whisper. “That moratorium on my bed doesn’t have to start until tomorrow. Only don’t think about that fact while you’re being inaugurated or invested or installed or whatever it is they’re about to do to you, as you won’t look very good in the photographs with a lascivious grin all over your gob.”

Alexis Hall: There Will Be Phlogiston

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Mini Blog Tour Link:

http://riptidepublishing.com/events/tours/there-will-be-phlogiston-alexis-hall

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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