The Dead Past #1
Runner Up: Rainbow Awards 2014 Best Gay Historical Romance
The year is 1948, the war is over and the evacuees have gone home, although rationing continues. For Hugo Wainwright, who escaped conscription and never had to fight for his country, very little has changed. He lives a quiet life away from the big cities, knowing his desires for other men will lead to disaster if he ever acts on them.
Tommy Granger spent his service on the battlefields of France. He experienced it all: the bloody horrors of war, and the chaos of Dunkirk. Finding employment as groundskeeper in the woods on the outskirts of Puddledown, he lives in solitude, trying to forget all the terrible things he’s seen.
When Hugo stumbles over a body not far from Tommy’s cabin, both men’s lives change forever. There’s a killer in the woods, and the townsfolk are sure Tommy is the culprit. Can Hugo unmask the murderer and prove the innocence of the man he’s falling for, or are the deadly consequences of Tommy’s past about to catch up to him and separate the two men forever?
This has been on my Kindle for the past year or more and I'm afraid to say, forgotten. Then, I won a ebook of my choosing by Kate Aaron through Diverse Reader blog and I chose #2 of the Puddletown Mysteries. So I finished what I was reading and jumped in! Hugo had my heart from the very beginning. He is so self tortured over his desires and understandably so considering it's 1948. When we meet Tommy, he too found his way into my heart and it was pretty obvious where the pair was headed but it was most definitely not an easy road. Throw in the murders and the cops with their determination to find Tommy guilty and this book had me riveted.
The Coward's Way #2
Two months after the discovery of a murderer in their midst, life for the inhabitants of Puddledown has settled back to normal for everybody except Hugo Wainwright. Having accepted his feelings for groundskeeper Tommy Granger, for Hugo, everything has changed.
Hugo wants nothing more than to make his friend happy, but the voices in his head won't let him. If he can't bring himself to tell Tommy he's having nightmares about the evening the killer came for him, how can he possibly explain the panic he feels every time Tommy tries to take their fledgling relationship further?
When the local Viscount's daughter goes missing after a ball from which Hugo and Tommy were the only guests to leave early, suspicion falls firmly on them. But the police inspector isn't the only one keeping a close eye on the cabin in the woods, and as the net closes, Hugo has a decision to make. Will he be brave, or will he take the coward's way out?
I love the continuation of Hugo and Tommy's relationship in this second installment. It's real, believable, and completely keeping in character. The mystery is pretty easy to figure out but then I think it was suppose to be. It's not so much the mystery as a "mystery" as it is how it relates to Hugo and Tommy's relationship and how they move forward. When I started The Dead Past, I was kicking myself for waiting so long to read it, then I realized at least I was able to go directly into The Coward's Way, but while putting this post together I seen there is going to be a third one later this year. Now, I'm torn between kicking myself with the left foot for waiting to start and kicking myself with my right foot for not waiting till the third one is closer at hand. Who am I kidding? I'm glad I read them now and the anticipation while waiting for number 3 will only enhance the pleasure when it arrives.
The Dead Past
The forest was quiet, many of the songbirds having left already for warmer climes, and those that remained were no doubt silently watching Hugo stride past, the hard ground crunching under his stout boots, his breath swirling in smoky plumes around him. Hugo liked to be fit. A pudgy child, for whom sports had been a torment, he had walked and run off the puppy fat in these very woods, and listened with horror to his mother’s tales of life in London, where she had lived for a spell with his papa, a city so steeped in dirt and sin that to tread its streets was to invite robbery. One stepped outside clean and glowing but returned black and grey with soot and smoke.
He rarely walked through the woods these days—in hunting season it wasn’t safe, for a start—but he enjoyed the tranquillity on this fine, misty morning, the way the fog shrouded the path and made it seem as though he was the only soul alive and abroad, sauntering through a landscape of shadowy ghosts.
Hugo popped a mint into his mouth, enjoying the sharp burst of flavour and the hard clack of the sweet against his teeth. He whistled a few tuneless notes for the sake of hearing them flatten and fade in the dead air.
A splash of colour on the ground between the trees caught his eye, and he paused, looking carefully at the spot. A reddish smear on a trunk just off the path, that he would have dismissed as a discolouration of the bark were it not for the blue and white paisley pattern of a scrap of material lying sodden on the hard earth beyond it, jumped out at him. Crunching the mint nervously, Hugo stepped off the path, startling as a twig cracked underfoot, the sound like a gunshot, shattering the silence of the woodland.
He paused, listening. The hairs on the back of his neck rose, his palms sweating. He rubbed them against his corduroy trousers. It was a scrap of material, he reasoned as he continued his approach through the eerily silent forest, his skin crawling as he imagined a thousand eyes upon him.
He saw the hand first. Bone-white with blue blotches, fingers clawed, the nails seeming freakishly long and inhuman. It was a small hand, Hugo noted, feeling oddly detached. It was like the whole world slowed and tilted sideways and, if asked later, Hugo would say it was as though he didn’t inhabit his body in that moment but was above it, floating somewhere in the bare canopy of the tree branches, looking down on himself as he looked down on that hand.
The hand was attached to an arm, clad in a tweed overcoat which seemed too big and bulky for the frail form it contained, and the arm led to a body: a small body, light, contorted at the oddest angles, like a broken, discarded doll. The paisley was a headscarf, Hugo now saw, hanging in tatters around a face frozen in the rictus of death, its mouth open in a final, eternal scream.
Hugo’s gorge rose and he staggered back, a shaking hand over his mouth as his stomach heaved, sending him into a fit of dry retches. He stood trembling for long moments, trying to calm his thundering heart and queasy gut while his brain pieced together what he had seen.
A blue eye, cloudy with cataracts, glazed and fixed in wide astonishment. A lined face, elderly, skin which in life would have been papery and marbled with bluish veins now chalk-white and waxy. Long wisps of grey hair, threaded with silver. A bun, perhaps, untangled in a struggle. For surely there must have been a struggle. The old woman had not come to these lonely woods to die, of that Hugo was certain. Scratches on her exposed wrist, the torn headscarf, and the ugly, gaping wound in her chest attested to the fact her death had been a violent one.
Hugo had only seen one dead body before. His mama had passed badly enough, taken by a fever which produced hot and cold sweats, shakes, and a hacking cough. For day after endless day, Hugo had watched her disintegrate before him, one piece of flaking skin, one gob of mucus at a time, until there was nothing left but an empty husk and a death-rattle which seemed to go on and on.
Yes, his mama’s death had been bad enough, but nothing compared with how this woman had met her grisly end.
Moved now by empathy—for the body had once been alive, and not so long ago: someone’s friend, or wife, or mother—Hugo approached again, fighting down the rising tide of nausea from his roiling stomach. He knew very little about death, about the decomposition of the human body, but the corpse was intact and seemed frozen stiff, although as a result of rigor mortis or simply a night exposed to the elements in the wintry woods, Hugo couldn’t tell.
He should get help, he realised. There was a small police station in the town. One of the local constables could take over, could offer Hugo a soothing cup of sweet tea and ask clipped, businesslike questions about the discovery.
A fresh panic overcame Hugo as he realised he hadn’t worn his wristwatch, didn’t even know what time it was. What would he say when the constable asked him the simplest of questions? What would they think when he didn’t know the answers? Would he look guilty? And what if—Heaven forbid—he ran all the way to the town, brought the constable back to the woods, and couldn’t find the body again? The pathway had few distinguishing features, the bare forest like a warren, a maze of never changing scenery. How would he ever find this exact spot again?
Hugo took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. He was an intelligent man, a sensible man. The logical thing would be to leave a marker on the path so he could be sure of the location. If only he had worn his woollen scarf! He fumbled in his pockets, groping for anything which could be of use. He thumbed a large copper penny, the old notion of placing coins over a corpse’s eyes to pay the ferryman occurring to him. The stuff of superstition, of course, and besides, he couldn’t touch the body. Hugo at least knew that.
He was still fumbling in his pockets when the silence of the forest was broken by a slow scraping sound. Hugo froze, all the hairs on the back of his neck rising once more, listening as the strangely metallic scrape, scrape moved closer.
Palms slicked with cold and nervous sweat, Hugo took short, shallow breaths, and hoped the thunder of his heart was not audible through his sensible layers of winter woollens and overcoat. The sound moved closer, an irregular, unearthly thing, and Hugo’s imagination ran riot, conjuring the shining sickle of Death himself, scratching a path through the bare branches of the trees.
The mist swirled through the woods in a confounding eddy of movement and shadow, separating here to reveal only the silent, unmoving trees, and thickening there to the density of a body, a misshapen body, dark and malevolent. And still the sound came closer.
A swirl of fog to Hugo’s right made him start, half-turned towards the path to flee, an alarmed cry lodged deep in his throat. At the last instant he recovered, recalled that grown men didn’t scream and run from imaginary terrors, and held his ground, hypnotised by the darkening shadow of a figure, grotesquely outlined by a shaft of sunlight streaming through the canopy behind it.
The shadow moved closer until Hugo could discern the shape of a man about his own height, maybe an inch or two shorter. Not a big man at all. Slim of frame, although broad in the shoulders, their breadth emphasised by the square cut of a thick wax jacket edged in leather. The man wore a dark cap pulled low over his face so all that was visible to Hugo was a granite jaw peppered with two or three days’ growth. His hands were surprisingly slender, the fingers long and almost delicate, although roughened and calloused, tobacco-yellowed, and blotchy red in the cold air.
The scraping sound, Hugo now saw, was caused by a shovel the man dragged carelessly, bumping and catching at the sparse undergrowth and the hard-packed ground. It slid over an exposed rock and there—scraaaape—was the sound which had caused Hugo’s heart to thunder so. But the man also dragged something else, something even more terrible than a shovel in the woods on a cold October morning, for in the same hand as the shovel he gripped the drawstring of a hessian sack, seeping and stained with blood.
Hugo’s terror rose to fever pitch as the figure advanced towards him—towards the body hidden in the cold, lonely woods, where nobody ever went—and just as Hugo was about to pass out or run, the man looked up, paralysing him with his black-eyed stare, with eyes as black as sin.
Kate Aaron lives in Cheshire, England with two dogs, a parrot, and a bearded dragon named Elvis.
She has the best of friends, the worst of enemies, and a mischievous muse with a passion for storytelling that doesn't know the difference between fact and fiction.
She holds a BA (Hons) in English Language and Literature, and an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture, and is an outspoken advocate for equal rights. When not hitting the campaign trail or doting slavishly on Elvis, she does what she does best – writes about men in love.
The Dead Past #1
The Coward's Way #1