Saturday, November 11, 2017

Veteran's Day 2017


Winton's Strays by Hollis Shiloh
Summary:
Two young men meet on a train in 1917.

Miles is out of the hospital in time for Christmas, traveling to relatives he doesn't want to see. He was lucky to survive the Great War. But he doesn't feel very lucky right now. Until blue-eyed Winton trips on a scarf and into his life. Winton, with his quirky smile, gentle nature, and rescued pets.

Miles could love this man, he really could. But how the hell can he burden this kind, bright young man with his wounded, limping self?

Original Review November 2016:
A great blend of historical, romance, a bit of drama, a couple of cute little creatures, a lost kitten and it's all wrapped up in a lovely petite Christmas package.  You can't help but love both Miles and Winton, their adorable as their connection is immediate.  I will admit that I would have liked to have seen more of their story but as a holiday novella it's a beautiful and heartwarming read.  Definitely one for more holiday shelf that I will be re-reading for many Christmases to come.

RATING:

Poppies in Paris by Jules Radcliffe
Summary:
World War One. The Western Front. Winter. 

Duke Lindsay is going to die. He knows it’s only a matter of time. The war that was supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime has turned into a terrifying nightmare that has crushed his once carefree spirit. With no family to care what becomes of him, and all his friends dead, he has nothing to live for.

Until Corporal Driscoll comes along.

Driscoll forces Duke to obey him, to be a man, to stay alive. As they undergo hardship and fight bitter battles side by side, Duke comes to realise Driscoll cares for him in a way noone ever has before. With Driscoll’s help, Duke finds in himself the man he was always supposed to be.

From the ashes of war, an enduring friendship begins to blossom.

Original Review March 2017:
What a lovely little novella of war, survival, and above all friendship.  Driscoll and Duke have a bond that is born of battle but the friendship and connection will not only endure but it allows both to survive and grow.  What a lovely addition to the WW1 section of my historical shelf.

RATING: 

Break Another Day by Jay Lewis Taylor
Summary:
The Great War is over. Jack Townsend, no longer a hospital orderly, is back at work in his photographer’s shop in Lewisham. But there is no peace yet; his blackmailer is still in business, and Celia Vavasour seems determined to manage his life. All his life; even his love-life ...

Meanwhile in Sussex, David Lewry, former army officer, is still holding off from a closer relationship with Alan Kershaw, once in the Navy and now the village’s GP. Lew knows how much Alan wants him, but this last step is one he cannot take - not yet, unless something changes ...

Click for Across Your Dreams #1(Part of Veteran's Day 2016)

Original Review April 2017:
What a lovely surprise to find a sequel to one of my favorite reads of 2016.  When you find a book with characters that you just don't want to let go of, it's a treasure and that was what Across Your Dreams was for me.  So even as a novella, getting to see the fates of Jack, David, and Alan was something I truly enjoyed.  I still hated to let go of the boys when the last page opened but at least their future was more set for me.

With Break of Another Day, the war is over but the author shows us that just because the battle is done, the effects left on that generation didn't just disappear.  Jack's tale holds more of the story than David and Alan in this sequel which I appreciated greatly because in the first book he was more of a secondary character but I felt him to be a bit more complex than what we were initially seeing.

This is a lovely addition to my historical shelf and if you haven't read Across Your Dreams yet, I highly recommend both of these beautiful tales.  Personally, I would recommend these Jay Lewis Taylor stories even if you are not a history reader because the journey these characters take is complex but very heartwarming and truth is, they made me appreciate my journey in life even more.

RATING:

Half a Man by Scarlet Blackwell
Summary:
In a world torn apart by war, solace is hard to find… 

It is 1919, less than a year after the end of the First World War and a recovering Britain is in the grip of the influenza pandemic. Times are hard. Victory came at a price for everyone left behind.

Crippled veteran of the Battle of the Somme, Robert Blake, is looking for someone to ease his nightmares of France. He carries never ending guilt over the fate of his commanding officer in the trenches. He turns to educated rent boy Jack Anderson for physical solace.

Jack didn’t go to war but faces struggles in his own way, selling his body to earn enough money to survive. The two are drawn inexorably together from the start, not expecting how deeply they will soon become immersed in each other’s lives.

Publisher's Note: This book was previously released by another publisher. It has been revised and re-edited for release with Totally Bound Publishing.

Original Review January 2017:
Followers of my reviews now that I absolutely love historical tales so when I saw this was a post-WW1 story, I just hoovered it up as it's one of my favorite time periods.  Having one of the main characters wheelchair bound drew me in too, my grandfather was in a wheelchair by the time I was born, he wasn't paralyzed but he couldn't walk(he had MS) so when I see a character like Robert, my interest is piqued even further.  Throw in Jack, a book shop clerk/rent boy, doing what he has to to survive, and you have a recipe that screams "TRY ME!"  So I tried it and loved it.

Half a Man may be a bit shorter than I would have liked because there were areas that could have been expanded on to make it an even greater tale, but those missed scenes did not detract me from not being able to put it down.  I've never read Scarlet Blackwell before but it most certainly won't be the last time, I look forward to checking out her backlist.  A truly inspiring story that proves you're never too broken to experience life to the fullest.

RATING: 

Aunt Adeline's Bequest by Amy Rae Durreson
Summary:
One snowy evening, wounded WWI veteran Jasper Pritchard arrives at Valentine Nugent’s sweet shop with an unusual request. Jasper’s deceased great-aunt has left him a fortune, along with a box of indiscreet letters she wants returned to the writer, and the only clue is a tin sold in Valentine’s shop over twenty years ago. As they search the shop’s records and uncover a love story from long ago, they find far more than the answer to the mystery.

A part of the "A Valentine Rainbow" set of 14 holiday stories.

Original Review October 2017:
I should start by saying that I have not yet read any of the other  stories from Dreamspinner's 2014 A Valentine Rainbow set so I can't speak to whether any of them are connected but as they are a variety of authors I'm guessing there only connection is Valentine's Day but I could be wrong.

As for Aunt Adeline's Bequest, I'll admit I read this one now because it is centered around a WW1 veteran and it is November which always piques my interest in stories about the Great War.  I haven't read everything by Amy Rae Durreson but I have loved what has reached my Kindle and Aunt Adeline's Bequest is no different.  Yes, its a short story but its packed with warmy goodness.  Because it is a short story I won't say much more but that I found it worth the time to read it because as I said its warmy goodness was uplifting and exactly what I needed.  Jasper and Valentine's connection is pretty instant but it fits the setting, the characters, and I guess simply put: it just works.

RATING: 

Count the Shells by Charlie Cochrane
Summary:
Michael Gray returned from World War One injured, but at least he returned. Others were not so fortunate, including his first and greatest love, Thomas Carter-Clemence, with whom Michael had parted bitterly before the conflict began.

Broch, the Carter-Clemence home in Porthkennack, was an integral part of pre-war holidays for the Grays, the two families drawn together in the wake of their sons’ friendship. Returning to the once-beloved Cornish coast for a break with his sister and her family, Michael has to find the courage to face old memories . . . and dare new relationships.

When Thomas’s brother Harry makes an unexpected appearance, Michael is surprised to find himself deeply attracted to Harry for his own sake. But as their relationship heats up, it unearths startling revelations and bitter truths. Michael must decide whether Harry is the answer to his prayers or the last straw to break an old soldier’s back.

Original Review November 2017:
Michael Gray returned home from the Great War injured but his first and dearest love Thomas did not.  While vacationing with his sister and her family at Porthkennack where so many memories of Thomas reside, Michael comes across Harry, Thomas' younger brother.  Will learning some unknown truths weaken or strengthen Michael and Harry's blossoming romance?

First, I just want to say I have never read any of Riptide's Porthkennack series', contemporary or historical, so I really can't say to how much any of them are connected other than the island itself but since its from a variety of authors and they are tagged as standalones I'm going to believe that the tag is accurate.  As for Charlie Cochrane's Count the Shells, well followers of my blog and reviews will probably remember that I am a huge Cochrane fan especially of her historicals.  Her contemporaries are good but her devotion to detail and blending it into a fictional journey is absolutely amazing in my opinion and Count is no different.

I won't go into plot details because of the mystery aspect with the revelations that Michael discovers but let me just say, even though I had an inkling where it was headed, Miss Cochrane still surprised me and kept me enthralled and turning(or swiping) the pages till I reached the last and when I reached the last I was devastated to find I was there so soon.  This is always an indication for me just how darn good the book was: can't put it down because I need to know what happens and then once reached the conclusion getting mad at myself I didn't read it slower to savor the journey.

Count the Shells is a great post-war story that doesn't linger on the horrors the soldiers witnessed and experienced but nor does it gloss over it and expects us to accept that everything is A-Okay.  From Michael the returning veteran to his sister who waited on the homefront to his young niece and nephew the children who grew up after.  Charlie Cochrane gives us a story that encompasses all of it but never so much that we lose sight of a wonderful heartwarming(and breaking at times) love story.

RATING: 


Winton's Strays by Hollis Shiloh
“Isn't it the most beautiful snow?” asked Win. “I could just eat it.”

“You’d get cold.”

“Yes, but--” He cast Miles a startled look. “Cold. You are cold, aren't you? And you just got out of the hospital.” He made an annoyed sound in his throat and halted. “I’m sorry. Here.” He put down his suitcase and retrieved the gigantic blue scarf from his bulging coat pocket.

“You’ll choke me,” warned Miles, grinning.

“I won't.” Winton wound the long, thick scarf around Miles’s neck, his fingers gentle, his slender face close.

Close enough to kiss, if things were just a bit different: if this place were less exposed, if they’d known each other longer, if he was sure. Miles's mouth tingled, but he kept his hands firmly by his side, his mouth to himself.

Win's fingers were careful and light as he fixed the scarf. At length, he drew away with almost a caress, and smiled, his gaze warm and full. “It looks better on you.”

He took Miles's arm again, and they fell into step.

Poppies in Paris by Jules Radcliffe
Chapter One
As full-blown poppies, overcharged with rain,
Decline the head, and drooping kiss the plain;
So sinks the youth: his beauteous head, depress’d
Beneath his helmet, drops upon his breast.
Homer, Iliad

Curled around the flickering lamp, Duke inhaled deeply, waiting for the pain to melt away. But this time it did not. The knot behind his ribs still ached, shortening his breath, robbing him of speech. He tried to move, but his body refused to obey him.

Others were in the room with him, dim shapes curled around little lights of their own. A large shadow moved closer to him, and resolved into Jack Newland.

“G’day, Dukie boy,” said Jack, his lips turning up into his brilliant, never forgotten smile.

Duke tried to speak, but nothing came out of his mouth. His heart began to pound.

“Heard you’d had some troubles. Nothing like our troubles, but.”

“I’m s-sorry Jack,” Duke managed to gasp.

“Yeah, we’re all bloody sorry, mate. I can’t go home now, and it’s your fault.”

As Duke watched, bits of flesh began to decay, falling from Jack’s face.

“No, don’t,” Duke whimpered. He tried to lift his hands, to stop his friend’s face from crumbling, or perhaps to cover his eyes so he would not see it. His hands were stuck fast, glued in place.

“You’re a coward, Duke. A bloody coward. I come here because of you, and you left me. You didn’t even have the guts to see it through with me. You can try to hide in here, dreaming your life away, but you know it won’t work. You’ll never forget what you done, Duke. Never.”

By now, Jack was skeletal, hair and tendrils of putrefying flesh hanging from the bony skull. His mouth was all teeth and jawbone, but his voice was still as clear as his accusations were just.

Tears were running down Duke’s face. “I never wanted to leave you, Jack. I wish I was dead.”

“Don’t worry, mate, you will be. Bloody Fritz’ll do for you soon enough, like Johnny Turk done for me. Hope you’re enjoying this piece of hell the Huns’ve made for you, you bloody deserve it.”

Jack reached out and grabbed his arm.

Duke woke with a yell.

“’S’all right, Lindsay, ’s’just a dream,” came a mumble in his ear.

Corporal Driscoll’s hand was gripping his arm, shaking him awake. Duke realised he was trembling, whimpering sounds escaping his lips. He pulled himself together and choked back the noise, although he knew the man curled around him could feel every tremor that ran through his frame. He hoped Driscoll would think it was from the cold. The corporal’s breath was warm on the back of his neck. It was reassuring to have that contact, that evidence of life; to feel it and know he was not the only one left.

As the Australian Imperial Force was not generous enough to issue more than one thin blanket apiece to its lowly ranks, the two men lay spooned together for warmth. In the harsh French winter, with no fires and few comforts, soldiers had quickly discovered that, in addition to sleeping fully clothed, the best way to not freeze to death in the trenches was for two men to lie close and pile their blankets and greatcoats on top.

Unlike the others, Duke never had a choice about who his sleeping mate was going to be—duties permitting, his corporal never let him out of his sight. Although some slept back to back, most men spooned as it was warmer, turnabout so each had his share of being warmed by the other. But Driscoll always curled around Duke, his arm over Duke’s ribs holding him against his own chest. Duke could never get up in the night without waking him.

Feeling suffocated by his nightmare, Duke pulled the blanket from his sweaty face, sucking the frozen night air down into his lungs. The cold made him gasp, and he quickly twitched the blanket back into place. He desperately wanted a cigarette, but even if he could manage to smoke it while mostly tucked under the blankets, it was too cold to even think about crawling out of their makeshift bed to roll one. Besides, Driscoll would be furious with him if Duke disturbed him for something unimportant.

Duke was exhausted, but afraid to close his eyes lest the vision of Jack’s rotting face appeared again. Not that he deserved to sleep. The newspapers had called it the adventure of a lifetime; the army recruiters who came to Murphy’s Flat had said it would make them men. Don’t miss out, join up now! It would be over in a few weeks, in six months, in a year.

There was still no end in sight, and Jack, and Frank, and Norman, and all the others Duke had persuaded to come along to this fiasco had been lost. He had left them behind to rot in the stony ground of Lone Pine. A dry sob shook him, and Driscoll pulled him closer.

“I can’t sleep either,” Driscoll said in his ear, his tone prosaic, as if Duke were not silently crying in his arms. “Guess you’re looking forward to rest camp as much as me. Can’t wait to get a beer and some proper food, been thinking about it all bloody day.”

Duke swallowed. “Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “Can’t wait.”

“You know the rules though. No going off on your own.”

“I know, Corp.”

“Good, ’cause you’ll get FP number one again, and you know how much fun you had last time.”

Remembering the three days he had endured of being tied immobile to a post for two or three hours, Duke shrugged. The humiliation and discomfort of field punishment meant nothing to him. He could hardly sink much lower.

Driscoll snorted quietly, the huff of it gusting through Duke’s hair. “Dunno why I bother with you sometimes, Sapper,” he growled in an undertone.

Duke felt this required an answer, and mumbled sullenly, “Dunno either, Corp.”

“I’ll tell you why, then. Noone in my section has ever been disgraced or court-martialled, and it sure as shit isn’t starting with you. It’s a point of honour with me; I look after my own.”

Duke gave a tight little laugh. “Your own? You reckon I belong to you?”

“You eat with me, you sleep with me, you go to the bloody latrine with me. The lieutenant put you under my command, so yeah, you’re mine, Sapper, until he says otherwise. Don’t bloody forget it.”

Sighing, Duke surrendered the argument. If Driscoll was really worried about honour, he would have asked Lieutenant Ryan to move his most troublesome subordinate to another section months ago.

“I’ll try not to let you down, Corp.”

The arm around Duke tightened again, and he relaxed into the embrace.

“Don’t try, Sapper. You make good or I’ll personally make sure you come a gutzer.”

“Yes sir!”

There was silence for a little while.

“And I bother with you, Sapper, ’cause you’re the most talented bloody bomb maker I ever worked with, even if you are a fuckup.”

Even in the dark, with Driscoll behind him, Duke was sure that the other man smiled. He settled against Driscoll’s chest.

“Yes, sir, thank you, sir,” he said, and his own mouth twitched into something that was almost a smile.
“Go back to sleep. Big day tomorrow. You’ll be digging until you drop, and then I’ll find more work for you. You’re going to be so tired if Theda Bara herself dropped into this trench and showed you her tits you won’t get it up.”

Duke could not help giving a little laugh at that. He was so tired right now, thinking about his favourite movie star stark naked would not get him hard. Not that he wanted that, not with Driscoll pressed close to his body. His corporal would feel every movement if Duke dared to touch himself. With Driscoll on his case, that kind of relief was getting to be impossible.

Almost since Duke had been put under Driscoll’s command, he had kept Duke close, rarely letting him out of his sight, keeping Duke too busy to think about anything else. His corporal demanded absolute obedience and drove Duke relentlessly, but the uncompromising requirements and strict rules always calmed him. The rules were something of substance to focus on in this life that made no sense.

Every day, he and his fellow field engineers risked their lives to repair the wire barriers, strengthen the hurdles, fix communications, under shelling, or gunfire, or gas attack. The thunderous noise of shells exploding and the deafening chatter of machine guns would swamp Duke’s senses until sometimes he believed the world was and always would be this.

There were days when the guns were silent. Then there was the strain of jittering nerves, and Duke would be desperate to keep himself busy amidst the constant threat of death. Sometimes Duke would hear the soft pop of a sniper’s rifle and somewhere a man would fall, half his head gone. Their numbers would shrink, and then grow back as men were transferred in to fill the dead soldiers’ boots.

Duke wondered how long it would be before someone was called to fill in his boots. He hoped to God it was him before anything happened to Driscoll. He had no idea how he would endure his fate if his corporal fell first. Dying was one thing, but dying without what sanity he had left was a terrible fate, and only Driscoll could save him from that. His corporal was the stability in Duke’s surreal existence; with Driscoll at his back the world had some kind of order to it.

Finally, too exhausted to keep his eyes open any longer, he closed them, and sleep, uneasy and unhealing, took him down.

Break of Another Day by Jay Lewis Taylor
October 1919
He was huddled on the studio side of the partition, trying to cough up whatever clogged his throat and lungs. Let it be a bad day in the shop. Please, let it be a bad day in the shop. Jack’s mouth twisted. When else have I prayed for a bad day?

The shop door opened with a clang of the bell as a customer stepped on the mat. Reluctantly, Jack hauled himself, hand over hand on a mock garden trellis, to a standing position. His chest hurt, and the dreadful half-breathing, half-coughing paroxysm threatened to come on again as he walked round the screen.

“Good aftern – oh.” Jack pulled himself together. I don’t have to call him ‘sir’ any more. “Good afternoon, Doctor Kershaw.” He noted, dispassionately, that his hands were shaking.

“Mr Townsend.” The cool voice sharpened a little. “You’re ill.”

“Unfit for service. Grade 3. Remember? Asthma. You never asked about it. At the time.” Jack leaned on the counter, snatched in a breath, and said, “What can I do for you?”

Kershaw hung up his hat, and set down a package that he was holding. “We’ll talk business later. Has your doctor given you nothing for that?” He pulled off his gloves and took Jack’s pulse.

“Can’t afford the doctor. It’ll pass. Not – not usually this bad.” He looked up as the warm touch left his wrist. “What are you doing?”

“Closing the shop,” Kershaw said, shutting the door and turning the Open sign to Closed. “You’re not fit to be up, and I can see you’ve a black eye too.”

Jack pushed himself away from the counter. “I have a living to make. You leave my shop alone.”

“You need to be alive to make it,” Kershaw said. “Where’s the nearest pharmacy?” He picked up a chair. “Sit down.”

“I can’t – “

“Sit down. Pharmacy.” Kershaw nudged the chair hard against Jack’s knees, and perforce he sat down.

“Hospital. Turn right. Six minutes’ walk. I can’t afford it.”

“Never mind that for now.” Kershaw was gone.

Gritting his teeth, Jack got to his feet, took an uncertain step forward, and then let his shoulders sag. Why are the virtuous always so bloody right?

Half a Man by Scarlet Blackwell
February, 1919
Jack Anderson watched from the window, agog, as the car swept up the tree-lined driveway to the country manor. The house perched atop the grounds, as though overseeing its environs, leaded windows flashing in the wan winter light. Despite the tidiness of the gardens, the driver’s expensive livery and the ostentatious car, something about the house suggested neglect, dereliction. He was shown into the grand house by the butler and waited patiently at the foot of the sweeping staircase while the man took his hat, gloves, scarf and coat. Jack looked at the paintings on the walls, the marble floor, the glittering chandelier, and the vast corridor stretching out before him. All was silent, the atmosphere closed and still. He coughed nervously. Really, most of his business was dealing with rich men, but he wasn’t sure he had ever been to a house quite like this before.

“This way, sir.” The butler led him down the hall.

Jack followed, wiping damp palms on his jacket, telling himself this was no different from any other engagement.

The butler opened the door to a large living room. “Mr Jack Anderson, sir,” he announced loudly, as though his employer was deaf.

“Thank you, Clarke,” came a soft voice.

The butler stepped aside and looked pointedly at Jack. Jack hurried inside, crossing the hardwood floor swiftly. The door closed behind him and Jack stood looking at a man in a wheelchair.

Sitting down, it was difficult to tell, but he appeared tall, his body lean in a smart dark suit with white shirt. His black hair was brushed back neatly from his pale face with brilliantine and his eyes were an unusual mix of grey-green. He was handsome, but he looked sickly, like he hadn’t been out of the house or seen sunlight in years. His gaze carried a certain look of wariness and undisguised sadness.

He perused Jack with an enquiring gaze, eyes roaming over his body and back up to his face. Jack tried to stand tall, like a soldier awaiting inspection.

Finally, he coughed to break the silence. “Jack Anderson, sir,” he said. He moved forward and held out his hand.

“Forgive my manners,” the man said, shaking it briskly. “I’m Robert Blake. Do sit down.”

Jack stepped back to a chaise longue behind him. He glanced around the room. Expensive furniture was lit by the light from the huge windows and rugs scattered the highly polished floor. In a corner was a floor-to-ceiling bookcase, a large oak desk before it. To the far side, a fire blazed in the hearth, warming the chilly room.

“So, Mr Anderson…”

“Jack, please,” Jack said.

“Very well, and please call me Robert.”

Jack inclined his head in acknowledgement.

“My secretary saw you?”

“Yes.”

“He explained what I was looking for?”

“A companion,” Jack said politely.

“Just so. And he explained my”—Robert gestured vaguely to his own body and the chair—“circumstances.”

“Of course.” Robert was a war veteran, now confined to a wheelchair. His secretary had not expanded beyond this and Jack had thought it imprudent to ask.

“Very well. I’ll pay you for your time today, and should I wish to take further advantage of your services, it would be for an hour a week, if that’s agreeable to you.”

“Yes.” Jack was rather unsure about what providing services to a man in a wheelchair consisted of, but he suspected it might be the easiest money he had made in some time. He wasn’t hugely successful. He still worked two days a week in a bookshop in London to supplement his income, but this might be just the job for him, even if the nature of his employer’s circumstances unsettled him somewhat.

“Well then,” Robert said. “Tea?” He pushed his wheelchair closer to the occasional table and lifted the teapot.

“Thank you.”

“Milk and sugar?”

“Just milk.” Jack got up to take the fine china cup and saucer with a polite ‘thank you’.

“And a biscuit or a cake? My cook is legendary in these parts.”

Jack took a delicate little currant bun, placed it on a side plate and withdrew to his chaise longue. Robert poured himself some tea. He sipped, watching Jack over the rim of his cup.

Jack took a bite of his bun. Certainly he had yet to go anywhere where his employer seemed less inclined to get down to the business in hand than here. It struck him then that maybe this was actually a job interview—that nothing but a formal chat would take place. He would have to be careful. He didn’t want to make a fool of himself by suggesting anything when Robert had brought him here merely to drink tea and eat cakes.

Aunt Adeline's Bequest by Amy Rae Durreson
VALENTINE HAD stepped away from the counter to turn up the gaslights when the shop door opened with a jangle of bells. He turned to smile at his customer, wondering how many more would shuffle through his door before closing. Sleet and snow had been coming down heavily all afternoon, but it was the thirteenth of February, and every hopeful lad in Chester would be trying to woo his girl tomorrow.

By the cut of his coat, this one could afford to treat his ladylove to more than a paper twist of barley sugar, so Valentine stepped forward politely. “Good evening, sir. How can I help you?”

The customer was still hesitating just inside the door. He was a tall man, and his hat was pulled forward over his face. He wore an old, soft school scarf, wound high, and all Valentine could see of him was the tip of his nose. For a moment, Valentine felt worried. His day’s takings were in the register, which was old and could be easily forced by a strong man with a crowbar, and this was always one of the most profitable days of the year in a sweet shop.

The customer said, sounding politely bewildered, “There was an old man in charge when I was last here. I was hoping to speak to him.” His voice was soft, every syllable carefully enunciated, and it was undeniably posh, with none of the blunt vowels that fell out of Valentine’s mouth no matter how hard he tried to hold them back.

Valentine’s throat closed up for a moment before he spoke. “My grandfather, that would be. He died just over a year ago, I’m afraid. The Spanish influenza.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” the customer said, sounding sincere. His shoulders fell, and he added, “I won’t trouble you any further. Good evening.”

“Wait, please!” Valentine protested. “I use all his recipes, and he taught me the craft. If there was some particular thing you were after, I’m sure I can supply it.”

“I was hoping for your grandfather’s advice,” the stranger said and then confided, his tone a little sheepish, “I’m afraid I’ve been wasting your time, Mr. Nugent. I had no intention of buying any confectionery.”

In that case, Valentine would do his best to change his mind. Rich patrons should not be easily dismissed. Besides, the man had piqued his curiosity. Quickly, he pulled forward the chair in the corner (designed for grandmamas and nannies, so they would be willing to let their charges shop longer), putting it in front of the fire. “The weather’s ghastly. Please, sir, sit awhile, and perhaps I can help you instead. May I take your hat?”

It was a polite question, but the man tensed up. Then, with an almost defiant swiftness, he reached up and plucked his hat from his head, exposing his face.

At once, Valentine’s heart hurt for him. It had been over a year since the armistice, and the war still haunted them. There were empty places in the church pews every Sunday, and he had many friends who had survived themselves but lost beloved older brothers and cousins. Then there were those like this man, who would never be able to forget, not while he owned a mirror. He must have been a handsome man before the war, and it still showed on the right side of his face. The other side was as stiff as a mask. He’d clearly had a good doctor, but there were some miracles even modern medicine could not perform, and his left eye still drooped at the corner, the edge of his mouth sloped, and the side of his cheek was puckered under newly grown skin. His left eye was glass and lacked the blue depths of the other.

Valentine realized he had been staring too long when the man’s mouth twisted down on the other side as well. Drawing a breath, he decided not to draw attention to it by apologizing. Instead, he took the proffered hat and said, “Please come and sit down, sir. Would you like a chocolate?”

“A chocolate?” the stranger echoed, but he made his way forward. He limped badly, and Valentine was glad he had moved the chair, especially when he caught the little sigh and the easing of the lines around the man’s mouth as he settled into it. Valentine busied himself bringing over the plate of samples from the counter.

“I recommend the violet creams,” he said, pointing them out. “Though they’re a little sugary for some tastes, in which case there are rum truffles or crystallized ginger.”

“How much are the truffles?”

“They’re free.”

He realized too late that it might sound as if he was offering pity, as he saw the man’s hand flinch back, so he added hurriedly, “They’re all misshapen leftovers. I give them away to customers as a sample.”

“How shrewd,” the stranger said but plucked a truffle from the edge of the plate anyway.

The bell jangled then, and a young lad slid into the shop, his hands tucked into his armpits for warmth. He looked both determined and a little terrified, and Valentine smiled at him as he stood up, blocking the boy’s view of his stranger. A few questions revealed that, yes, he did want a present for his sweetheart, that she was pretty and kind and good, and he didn’t know what she liked, no sir. Her name, though, was Rose, so Valentine packed him up a little bag of sugar roses.

“They’re pretty,” the boy ventured, cradling them gently in his big hands.

“Tell her that,” Valentine suggested, winking at him. “And then tell her she’s prettier.”

“I couldn’t do that, sir.”

“Give it a try,” Valentine said, taking his money and ushering him out gently. “Keep those dry now.”

“And a ladies’ man as well.” The comment was made in a quiet, amused tone as Valentine closed the door behind the boy. Valentine pretended not to hear. It was easy to flirt if you didn’t care in the least whether the girls would flirt back. Love, though, was a different matter. He’d begun to think he would never find it here. The town was too small and too sleepy. He didn’t want to leave, but the cities held more men of his type, and so a better chance to find what he wanted: just a sweetheart of his own, nothing more daring or illicit than that.

“So,” he said, heading back to the counter. “What did you want to ask?”

The man hesitated. “It’s a matter of discretion.”

“I’m discreet.” Valentine caught his doubtful look and held up his hand. “I won’t share your secrets. By my mother’s grave.”

“It concerns a lady’s reputation. I really don’t think I should….”

Valentine leaned forward, touching his arm without thinking. “You came here for a reason, Mr.…. What should I call you?”

For a moment, the man stared down at Valentine’s hand on his sleeve. His face showed more confusion than outrage, so Valentine didn’t pull back, even though he knew quite well he was being rude.

Without looking up, his stranger said, “My name is Jasper.”

“Mr. Jasper.”

“It’s my Christian name.” He looked up then. “I’m sorry to be familiar, but….”

“I understand,” Valentine said, belatedly taking his hand away in case it was a hint as well. “You are very welcome to call me Valentine.”

“Like the saint?”

“I was born on his feast day.”

“My felicitations. Dare I ask how old you will be?”

“Twenty.” He gave out an exaggerated sigh. “There’s my first score gone, and so much left to do.”

“‘Since to look at things in bloom, fifty springs are little room,’” Jasper murmured and then added soberly, “It’s a good day for it. I was on the Somme when I turned twenty.”

“I’m sorry,” Valentine said and reached for his hands again. This was a man who needed to be touched. Only four years between them, though he would have guessed more. “At the time, I was angry that I was too young, but I think now I was very lucky. I’m sorry you had to suffer it.”

Jasper’s hands were shaking under his, but he took a breath and said, “I have—had—a great aunt. She died last month and left me, well, the half of her estate that didn’t go to the RSPCA, and a box of letters.”

“Letters?” Valentine prompted.

Jasper cleared his throat. “Indiscreet letters.”

Valentine had worked out who he was talking to by now, and he felt his eyebrows go up. This must be the unexpected heir. Adeline Pritchard had been the wealthiest and most cantankerous old maid in Chester, and every gossip in the city had been twittering about her will. No one, however, had ever dared breathe any suspicion that Miss Pritchard was anything other the soul of propriety, no matter how much they had personally disliked her.

“She wanted them returned to the writer.”

“And you brought them here?” Grandpa had been a scoundrel, no doubt, but he was also the one Valentine had inherited his weakness for pretty boys from, so he wouldn’t have been sniffing at Miss Pritchard’s no doubt formidable petticoats.

Jasper shifted in his chair. “It was a slim hope. You see, none of them are addressed or signed with more than a doodle, which was no doubt very wise at the time but makes tracing the author damned hard. All I’ve got to go on is the tin my aunt kept them in.”

“One of our tins?”

Jasper nodded. “I know it could be pure coincidence, but I thought perhaps she kept the letters in that particular tin for good reason. I was hoping your grandfather might have a record of his sales around the time of the first letter.”

“Do you have the tin?”

Jasper reached inside his coat and drew out the tin. It was six inches deep and almost as wide, shaped like a heart, with patterned sides and a picture of an ice skater printed on its lid. Valentine reached for it, and Jasper’s fingers tightened.

Count the Shells by Charlie Cochrane
Chapter 1
“Count the shells, please, Uncle Michael.”

“As you’ve asked so nicely, Richard, I will. Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq.” Michael Gray smiled indulgently at his nephew as he laid down each limpet shell in turn. He picked them up to lay them down again, one by one. “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco.”

Richard Cavendish scooped them into a pile, dropping them into Michael’s hands with a plea for him to count again. Nothing changed; children throughout time must have enjoyed repetition of their favourite things. Michael tipped his hat forward, shading his eyes against a sun that was beating fiercely down on the beach and performing dazzling dances on the sea. He’d always loved the beaches on the Porthkennack headland, since he could first remember coming here as no more than a toddler. This area had always been a place of refuge, of comfort, of hope.

“Uncle?” Richard tapped his arm.

“Sorry, old man. I was woolgathering. Where was I? Yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp.” He laid the last shell down with a flourish of his hand, like a conjuror performing a trick.

Richard burst into giggles. He always liked the sheep-counting style best of all the ones Michael used. “Again, please.”

“Yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp.” Michael, stifling a yawn, spoke the words slowly and pompously this time, lining up the shells like a colonel inspecting his troops. The mewing of gulls, the susurration of the waves—he’d almost forgotten how soporific sounds of the seaside could be.

“Are you tired, Uncle Michael? Is it your leg?” Richard was the only one in the family who referred casually to his wound, with a child’s typical candour.

“No, the leg’s fine.” He’d come out of things a lot better off than many of his comrades. The thing functioned pretty well, despite being pockmarked where they’d taken all the shrapnel out, although his foot looked a mess where the little toe had gone. He couldn’t—and wouldn’t—complain. “Simply the effect of the local beer I had last night, making me a bit sluggish. Don’t tell your mother.”

“I promise I won’t.” Richard put his hand on his heart while making the vow. “Will you do the ‘Einz vie’ one?”

“Eins, zwei,” Michael replied, automatically. He’d known this was going to happen, and he couldn’t refuse the request, not without having to tell a lie about why it upset him. Just saying he couldn’t use the language of his once-enemy wasn’t enough; it wasn’t true, anyway. The words had acquired new connotations in his mind, over the years, connotations Richard might never understand.

Michael collected all the shells, took a deep breath, then began to lay them down one by one.

“Eins.”

Number one was Thomas. Thomas Carter-Clemence. Eins. One. The first. Never to be forgotten, even after they’d parted in such a dramatic fashion, with the mother of all rows, the spring of 1909.

“Zwei.”

That would be Laurence; Laurie, as Michael had preferred to call him, especially in the heat of passion, when “Laurence” seemed so ridiculously formal. Simple remembrance of those times brought a prickle to the back of Michael’s neck.

“Drei.”

Jimmy. No, not him; Jimmy hadn’t been the third. Michael had forgotten Freddie.

Freddie was third. Or maybe third and fifth, because he’d been an extra station on the line of romance when Michael and Laurence had suffered a temporary estrangement. A station which had been passed through and left behind when Michael and Laurence had made things up again, then revisited when their paths had crossed years later. He had no idea where Freddie was now, couldn’t begin to say whether he was alive or dead, or whether he remembered that fleeting, if chilly, night by the river at Maidenhead or the equally fleeting, if warmer, encounter in Brighton.

Time to lay down another shell, before Richard became suspicious of the silence. He might be still a child, but he possessed a startling maturity of awareness and an unnerving habit of speaking his mind.

“Vier.”

The fourth one was Jimmy: bright, lively, and first seen pulling pints. Michael had been on a couple of days leave in London and gone for a drink in . . . What had that pub been called? Frustrating that he couldn’t remember, even though he recalled every minute of the night they’d spent together.

“FΓΌnf.”

Little Wilfred. They’d met in Scarborough, fleetingly, in a stationer’s of all places. Shared a joke, shared a glance, shared an appreciation of a particularly fine pen. Shared a bed, sort of, briefly.

“Sechs.”

“There isn’t another shell, Uncle.” Richard shook his head indulgently, as though he were dealing with Lily, his three-year-old sister.

Michael jolted. He’d been far away, among lovers, mud, and metal shells.

“Sorry about that, old man. Got carried away. Discount sechs.” Lucky that Richard was too young to get the play on words. No sixth shell and no sixth bloke as of yet. Discount sex indeed, at least for the time being. It would happen when it happened, although how long he’d be prepared to wait was a moot point. Freddie had been an act of desperation, as had Wilfred. Always a dangerous game to play when you weren’t sure of the ground you were playing on.

“Can we paddle?” Richard tugged at Michael’s sleeve.

“Of course we can.” Barefoot already, so they could enjoy the sensation of sand between their toes, they scampered down to the sea as spontaneous as a pair of children, to splash among the shallows.

“Do you like the seaside or the city best?” Richard posed the question as solemnly as a bishop might when addressing confirmation candidates.

“Seaside, naturally. Much more freedom here.” The hustle and bustle of crowded streets no longer appealed. Not like the lapping of the waves at his feet and the mewing of gulls overhead. “What about you?”

“What a silly question. Here!” Richard flicked water with his toes as they walked along the waterline. “I wish I could be on holiday every day, rather than going to school to learn algebra and grammar.”

“It’s a burden that has to be borne, old man. Same for me when I was your age.”

“But why has it got to be learned about? Do you ever use algebra?”

“Can’t say I do, much. But I couldn’t do without grammar. I say. What’s that?” Michael stopped by a mound of rocks, where little pools of trapped water promised boyish delights. He reached beneath the surface of one to draw out something green and glistening.

“A bottle of course.” Richard shook his head at such dim-wittedness.

“Ah, but is it an ordinary bottle or a magic one? If we rub it will a genie come out and grant us three wishes? And how would we divide them if he did?”

Richard frowned; clearly neither algebra nor grammar held the answer to that. “One each and one for mother,” he stated, at last, and with a conviction that could brook no argument. “None for Lily because she’s too young to use them sensibly.”

“You’re probably right.” Would Richard ever regard his sister as being old enough to act sensibly? “I like that way of dividing them. What would you wish for? All the sweets in the shop?”

Richard giggled, looking exactly like his mother when she was the same age. “That’s the kind of thing Lily would want. I’d wish an end to algebra or grammar lessons for any boys forever. What about you?”

“I’m not sure. You’ve taken care of the school stuff, already.”

“I know what mother would wish for,” Richard said, suddenly serious.

“And what’s that?” Michael asked, attention only half on his nephew, the other half considering what he would do if really presented with the opportunity to make that wish. To have such power—the responsibility would be overwhelming.

“She’d wish for all the soldiers who were hurt in the war to be whole again.”

“Oh.” Michael, unable to say anything further, kept his gaze straight out at sea. Maybe if he concentrated extremely hard, he could keep at bay the tears that threatened to unman him.

“Yes, and she’d wish for the dead to come home too.”

The only safe reply was a simple nod. Michael thought of the shells he’d just counted, the parade of names. How could he trust himself not to break down, to blurt out that roll call, then have to provide a backstory to each of them? Richard had the knack of making all his defences too relaxed to work effectively.

“Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”

Michael forced a reply. “I think it’s excellent. What a shame it’s only an empty bottle with nothing in it.”

“Yes. Fairy tales never come true, I suppose.”

“No. That’s one of the sad things you learn in life, alongside the algebra.”

Richard made a disdaining face, although whether that was at the algebra or the fairy tales, Michael couldn’t tell. “It is sad. Otherwise we could have wished home your friend Thomas.”

“Thomas?” Having just recovered his composure, Michael felt unmanned again, the waves beating more violently about him than they’d done previously—or was that simply the rushing of blood in his ears? He steadied himself with a hand on his nephew’s shoulder.

“Are you feeling ill, Uncle? Come on, back up the beach.” Richard took his hand, leading him like a small child.

“It’s only a touch of something. Made me feel odd for a moment. Dizzy.” He managed a smile. “Probably that beer last night.”

“Mother says people shouldn’t drink too much. So does Father.”

“They’re right.” Eric would be giving his professional point of view, being a medical man. “And last night I was a good boy and only had one pint. I probably had a dirty glass.”

“I won’t snitch.”

“Good man.” They’d reached the place where they’d made their little camp of towels, shoes and shells; Michael settled himself on a flat rock, then took a deep, steadying breath. Caroline never discussed the war in his presence, or those who’d been lost in it, but she must be ready to discuss it with her family when he wasn’t there. And mention quite freely those people she never spoke to him about.

“You’ve got a better colour now. You were as white as if you’d seen a ghost.”

“Not quite.” Not seen, merely thought of one. “Thanks for playing nurse. We should get ourselves home or we’ll be in trouble.”

By the time they’d dried their feet and got their shoes and socks back on, Michael had pulled himself together enough to ask, “How did you know about Thomas? Has your mother been talking about the time he yanked her pigtail?”

“No. Did he really?” Richard’s eyes widened. “He must have been very brave to do that.”

“I suspect it was a case of foolhardy rather than brave. He regretted it afterwards.” Michael could just about smile again in remembrance of those fond, silly adventures from that summer of emerging manhood, when Thomas had first come to visit the Gray family and left a never-to-be-erased mark on everyone’s hearts.

“Mother has a picture of you and him, at home. Did he always have funny hair?”

“He certainly did. I never knew anybody who looked more like the scullery maid had upended him and used him for a mop.” Especially after they’d been playing tennis. Or in the morning, after a night in which it had been tousled by passion.

“Was he a good friend? Do you miss him?” Richard was wearing his serious face again, his ever-changing thoughts and emotions plainly displayed.

“Yes and yes.” Michael concentrated on sorting out a nonexistent knot in his laces. “He was my very best friend at school. Like that rascal George you hang around with.”

Richard giggled. “George isn’t so bad. He has three older sisters, poor thing.”

“Then he deserves a medal.”

George was supposed to be with them, but a mysterious rash had struck his family and he’d been quarantined along with his sisters. Once the all clear was given, he’d be allowed to travel down, and until then, Michael was doing his avuncular duty to the best of his ability.

He held out his hand. “Come on. Home. Or we’ll be court-martialled.”

* * * * * * *

At the top of the trail which led up in a zigzag from the bay, a small gate gave onto a path cutting through shrubs and borders to High Top, the house the Gray family had taken for the summer ever since Michael could remember. The views across the bay were stunning, the beach close by, if a bit of a scramble, and the lawns smooth enough for croquet or tennis. There were maturer pleasures close at hand too: the twin delights of dances or dinners down in Porthkennack or Padstow, although Michael had always preferred the simpler things. Nobody could try to pair him up with an eligible girl when he was out on the rocks, sketching.

A party of females emerged from the French windows as Michael and Richard came across the lawn. Caroline, Michael’s sister, holding hands with Lily, and Alice, the nursery maid, close behind.

“I was about to send out a search party, although I suppose they’d never risk missing luncheon, would they, Lily?” Caroline said, as her men folk approached.

“Not in a million years.” Michael winked at his nephew. “Especially as we’ve spent the morning wrestling with giant squids and fending off vicious mermen. It’s hungry work.”

Caroline rolled her eyes. “I guess there’s no chance you’ll ever grow up.”

“I’m afraid not. Beyond hope.” Michael ruffled Richard’s hair. “Let’s hope this youngster turns out more to your approval. Go on, Richard. Hands to wash.”

Richard surrendered to the ministrations of Alice, who whisked him and his sister off to get Lily ready to take her meal and to make her brother presentable for appearing at the table with the adults.

“I’ve never disapproved of you, Michael,” Caroline said, once her son was out of earshot. “I wish you wouldn’t say that in front of the boy.”

Michael slipped his arm through his sister’s. “It was in jest. Richard’s used to my ways, and he knows what’s meant seriously and what’s just fun.”

“He’s only a boy.”

“That’s as may be, but he’s a lot smarter than either of you give him credit for. He notices what goes on. He understands it.”

“Does he? Then he’s taking after his uncle.” Caroline patted his arm. “He thinks the world of you. You’d never disappoint him, would you?”

“I’ll always try my best never to let him down. He’s too important to me. Nearest thing I’m likely to have to a son.” Michael steered his sister towards the flower bed, which lay in full bloom by the steps up to the house, then stopped. “He mentioned Thomas.”

Caroline frowned. “Did he?”

“I wouldn’t have said if he hadn’t, would I? Sorry,” he stroked her hand, “shouldn’t have snapped at you. He did. He said he was highly amused by the state of Thomas’s hair in a photograph you must have of the both of us. I didn’t realise you’d kept one.”

Caroline, blushing, kept her gaze on the petunias. “Oh, it’s an old one. I have it at home. Remembrance of when we were much younger. You and me here, Thomas at Broch, Eric at— Whatever was his uncle’s house called?”

“Cataclews.” It had been a ghastly gothic pile, on its last legs when Eric’s family had used it for holidays. “The only good thing about it was being the vehicle to his meeting us.”

“So he says, as well.” Caroline smiled. “Anyway, that picture kept me going all those long days when the family waited for the next letter from you.”

Michael nodded. Many a photograph must have kept families, wives, and sweethearts comforted over the years. “Not just me, I suspect. You always had a soft spot for Thomas, didn’t you?”

“He was rather handsome. We all liked him.”

Did she know how far Michael’s liking had gone? It wasn’t something they could ever have freely discussed, but Caroline was far from stupid. She must have noticed exchanges of glances, overheard whispers or mysterious laughter, wondered why Michael wasn’t quite the same with Thomas as he was with other friends. Or had she simply assumed that was how men were when they had close friendships? Many people lived in blissful ignorance of what really went on between some couples of the same gender who shared a house or habitually holidayed together.

“Michael?” Caroline nudged him. “Are you feeling all right?”

“Yes. Just lost in memories. I can almost see him here, now. Running along this very lawn with that wretched kite.”

“The one he couldn’t get to fly?” Caroline snorted.

“That’s the one.” They’d have been fifteen, the family holidaying here and Michael introducing Thomas to them for the first time. He’d lived not far away, at a house called Broch, which was apparently some type of ancient Scottish dwelling and had been the brainchild of a previous, Celtic, owner of the property. Thomas had dropped in on the Grays on an almost daily basis, although nobody had complained at the intrusion. As Caroline had pointed out, he had been universally liked. It had been a glorious summer of warmth and light, the two boys teetering on the brink of understanding that their camaraderie was not like that of their schoolmates. “I was glad when that kite broke. I always felt he’d get so enthralled he wouldn’t realise where he was running and he’d go down the path and right over the cliff with it.”

Caroline, sly smile creeping over her face, patted his hand. “I have a terrible confession to make, although I won’t do it until you swear you won’t tell Richard.”

“I swear,” Michael promised, intrigued.

“I was the one who broke that kite. I had exactly the same concern as you did—he was so terribly reckless, so . . .” She shrugged. “I’ve lived with it on my conscience, but it had to be done.”

“And it was well done. I was tempted to do the same, but never had the courage. I wonder if he ever suspected?” Although given that Thomas had such an open, trusting mind, that was unlikely.

“I always feel it’s a shame I couldn’t have taken up all those guns in France and broken them. Such a waste, but you don’t need that particular sermon.” Caroline shook herself. “Come on, luncheon.”

As usual, any mention of the war had been forestalled, although she’d revealed more about herself in these last few minutes than she had in the year. Michael was going to have to reassess his view of his sister.

As Michael finished tidying himself up, the gong announced that lunch was imminent; he entered the dining room to find himself the last to arrive.

“Sorry to keep you. Too much sand to get off me,” he said, with a self-deprecating smile.

“You’re forgiven.” Caroline unfolded her napkin as a sign to begin, the wonderful aroma of freshly cooked fish pervading the air as it waited to be served. New potatoes and peas gently steamed in their bowls, reminding Michael of days when he’d eagerly awaited every meal, desperate for permission to get stuck in. School days, army days, so often things had revolved around filling one’s stomach.

Eric said a short grace—most likely for his son’s benefit—then the maid dished out the trout. At nine, Richard was granted the privilege of taking his luncheon with the grown-ups, an honour his sister was some years short of. The Grays had never believed in children being seen and not heard, and he took his full part in the conversation. It was clear he’d already learned to moderate his talk in accord with the situation, his carefree chatter of the morning made less happy-go-lucky. He asked his father if there had been any interesting stories in the newspaper and was either genuinely interested in the response, or managed to feign a genuine interest, just as impressive a skill.

Eric gave a brief account of what might be of relevance to a nine-year-old boy, finishing his rΓ©sumΓ© with, “I saw that one of your teachers has got himself wedded.”

“Mr. Grimshaw?” Richard nodded. “We thought that, although we weren’t supposed to know. Not officially.”

“So how do you find these things out?” Caroline gave her son a helping of peas likely far in excess of what he’d have taken for himself.

“Somebody’s mother saw the announcement of his engagement. Word soon spread. Thank you.” Richard gave his mother one of his dazzling smiles.

“You’re like a bunch of old women for gossiping.” Caroline helped herself, then passed the bowl to Michael.

The next few minutes were taken up with little in the way of chat, everybody properly appreciative of what was on their plates, albeit it wasn’t there for long. The trout had tasted as good as the aroma had promised.

After the maid had cleared their plates and before pudding arrived, Richard turned to Michael and, as innocently as if asking whether they’d be fishing later, enquired, “Why have you never married, Uncle? Is it because you don’t like girls?”

Michael, taken unawares by the question, was grateful for having raised his glass for a mouthful of water, and so had time to gather his thoughts. And to pray that his sister wouldn’t leap in and make some comment which made matters even more awkward.

Rescue came, unexpectedly, from Eric. “Just because you’re not keen on the female of the species, don’t tar everyone with the same brush, young man. For all you know, your uncle has left a trail of broken hearts behind him.”

“Sorry, Father.” Richard sounded—and appeared—suitably abashed.

“He’s under the influence of his pal George, apparently.” Michael managed a grin. “George has three sisters.”

“And doesn’t think much of them, or so we’ve been told. His—” Caroline was interrupted by the arrival of the fruit salad. Once the maid had departed again, she continued. “His mother despairs of him at times. Says he’ll end up as a woman hater.”

“I don’t hate women.” Michael could say that with complete candour. “How could I have grown up with an elder sister such as you and not admire the fairer sex?”

“Oh, tush,” Caroline said, with a not-hidden-soon-enough grin. “Don’t swell my head.”

“See, Richard?” Michael winked at his nephew. “Ladies simply require careful handling.”

“Behave. That’s enough about ladies or we’ll turn on you.” Caroline wagged her finger. “Now, tomorrow. If Lily’s tooth is through and she’s not as grizzly, how about a picnic on the beach for all the family?”

And with that skilfully imposed change of subject, talk turned to what were the best provisions to avoid the peril of sand with everything. Sometimes domestic talk was the only safe talk.

Chapter 2
Richard wasn’t too old to be whisked off to the nursery for a postprandial rest, even if he was excused an afternoon nap and allowed to spend the time reading or an equally sedentary occupation. He was likely to be the only one of the family who didn’t slip into the arms of Morpheus, given that Lily still enjoyed her sleep—especially when she was teething—and the adults had reached the stage where it felt like a slightly wayward, and daringly continental, indulgence to take a siesta.

Eric and Caroline headed for the sofas in the drawing room, while Michael sought the harbour of the old orchard, where a capacious and surprisingly comfortable hammock was slung between a pair of gnarled old apple trees. He’d brought a novel, in case he couldn’t get off to sleep; occasionally his leg gave him some jip, particularly if there were storms in the offing or out at sea. The book, a murder mystery, was well written, engaging, and required the minimum of intellectual concentration. He read page after page, but sleep wouldn’t come, the slight twinge which had developed around his knee on the way up from the beach a touch too persistent. He wriggled, turned, wriggled again, but comfort eluded him.

Eventually, he laid down the novel and swung gently, watching the rustle of the leaves, thinking of all the times he’d lain in this spot and the wonderful afternoon when he’d shared this hammock with Thomas. They’d done nothing other than swing and chat and laugh—given the proximity of the rest of the family—but the closeness of their bodies had been intoxicating.

Thomas had stayed with them on and off that holiday, taking the other bed in Michael’s room, but once he’d sneaked across when the rest of the household were tucked up. Then the young men had put into action what they’d only dared dream of that afternoon. Not their first time—that had been in the boathouse on Thomas’s estate, the previous year—although every encounter had been memorable back then.

Michael’s body began to react to the memories, a horribly noticeable reaction should anybody come along at this point. He turned on his side, trying to think of something that might cool his ardour, but his brain kept veering back to well-worn tracks, that list of lovers he’d run down as he’d counted those shells for Richard, and the lack of anybody to warm his bed now. He’d have to admit that he’d not met anybody since his discharge who could hold a candle to the least of those five men. Surely every truly decent man couldn’t have gone the way of all flesh?

How could they have been so naΓ―ve as to think it would all be over by the first Christmas of the war? Although Thomas would have welcomed seeing that season, in France or at home; he hadn’t made it through to All Souls’ Day. But, then, he’d been a career soldier, giving up his studies and taking the king’s shilling four years before war had been declared. He’d gone over with the British Expeditionary Force and, like so many of them, claimed a small corner of a foreign field to hold forever for England.

Michael wondered if he’d approached death with the same cheery smile he’d seemed to wear every day, the smile which had lit up Michael’s school years and carried on shining through the university vacs when they’d met up. Either in Sussex or—more usually—Cornwall. Thomas’s family had lived not far from High Top, so the summers had always featured him, with the Grays and the Carter-Clemences forming a friendship that had been rooted and grounded in the two boys’ friendship. Michael vividly remembered the first conversation he and Thomas had had about Porthkennack, and the envy he’d felt that Thomas could live in such a wonderful place all the time. Thomas, naturally, had envied the Grays’ life so close to the delights of London. The grass was always greener on the other side.

Like it had touched so much else, the war seemed to have loosened the bonds between the families, death casting a wide shadow, although the rot had set in earlier, with the terrible row he and Thomas had suffered not long before their last year at university. Without their intense relationship at the heart of the family friendship, the rest of the connection had always been at risk of withering. The others must have known that something had gone badly wrong, but they’d let it pass without comment, far too English in their reserve to make a fuss, and Michael had been up at university for weeks on end. Even Caroline had restrained her normally inquisitive nature when he’d been home; perhaps his pain had been written large on his face.

It had felt like hell—although Michael had gained an increasingly accurate impression of hell during his time in France—and now those feelings were reawakening to torment him. He’d managed to put Thomas to the back of his mind for so long, but Richard’s carefree comment had brought him back in all his golden glory, brown eyes flashing in Michael’s memory like dark stars. He’d never loved anyone so much, nor—he believed—would he ever love so intensely again. Lightning couldn’t strike twice.

Michael opened his book and tried to read, but the dappled light through the trees played on the pages, bringing him to that comfortably drowsy stage at last. Forty winks were called for, although he felt like he’d managed less than half a dozen before Richard’s voice cut into his slumbers.

“Uncle Michael, do you really think girls require . . . what was it?”

“Sorry? Can you say that again, please, old man? I was having a bit of shut-eye.”

“Oh, sorry. Should I go?”

“No, I’m awake now.” He consulted his watch, to find that he’d managed considerably more sleep than he’d realised. “Just as well you roused me. I could have been here until morning.”

“You’d have got all wet with dew.” Richard plonked himself down on the grass. “Girls. At lunch you said they required something.”

“‘Careful handling,’ I think.” Michael tried to stir up his sleep-addled wits.

“Oh yes, that was it.”

It was time to cut off this particular discussion. “Talking of females, have you been let out of jail for the rest of the day?”

“Jail?”

“The nursery. I know those bars on the window are there to stop you falling out, but they do make me think of incarceration. I guess you’ve been let out on parole for good behaviour?”

Richard chuckled. “Only until teatime. And only if I promise not to go down to the beach. Alice says there’s a running sea and it wouldn’t be safe.”

“Then we must heed her warning and stick to dry and sandless land.” Michael grinned. “We can find plenty of mischief to get up to elsewhere.”

Richard put his hand to his mouth. “I’d better not tell her you said that. Her reaction might need ‘careful handling.’”

“No ‘might’ about it. I’d be in big trouble.”

Richard nodded, then lay back, letting the sunlight play on his face. The ability to sit in—occasional—companionable silence was one of the qualities Michael found most admirable in his nephew.

“This ‘careful handling’ thing,” the boy continued, eventually. “I wondered if that was why you hadn’t bothered to marry. Because it would be too much hard work dealing with girls all the time.”

Back there again. Well, Michael supposed he couldn’t keep putting off the conversation; Richard was bright, as determined as a dog with a bone, and deserved an answer.

“There’s probably some truth in your theory.” It would have been hard work to force himself to go with a woman, but he could have done it if the circumstances demanded. Plenty of men did, hiding themselves in semi-platonic marriages or the like. Better to tell Richard as much of the truth as possible, despite the fact it couldn’t be the whole truth at this point. Maybe it could never be the whole truth. “I have to admit I find females rather daunting.”

“Maybe you’ll get used to them one day. You’re still quite young.”

Michael grinned at the quite. When he’d been Richard’s age, a man of thirty would have seemed almost ancient. “Maybe.” He could just about conceive of a situation where he might take a wife to give him appropriate cover. At the very least doing so would prevent an interrogation such as he was experiencing.

“I won’t ever get married. Not even to please Mother.” Richard flipped onto his stomach, the better to idly pick blades of grass, then split them lengthwise. “Girls are so silly. Fancy having to put up with that all day.”

“Are you basing your opinion of all females on your little sister? Every three-year-old, girl or boy, can seem slightly daft when you’re five years older than they are, but most of them grow out of it. You did,” Michael added, with a grin.

“I was never daft.” Richard looked up, clearly offended. “Was I?”

“A little bit. You’ve matured remarkably well.” Not that Michael had seen much of him back then; he’d felt rather an intruder in the days when his nephew was small, especially as Caroline and Eric had been so besotted with him. Surely every firstborn was regarded by his parents as the pinnacle of God’s creation? “One day you might find that girls are the best things in the world.”

Richard made a face, showing he didn’t believe a word of it. “Is it five o’clock yet?”

Michael consulted his wristwatch. “Only twenty to. Why?”

“I have to go in then to get ready for tea. Alice says the cook’s making some rather nice sandwiches for Lily and me.”

“Is she? Then we’ll keep an eye on the time—don’t want them to spoil and go curly at the edges.” Michael began to rock the hammock again.

“Doesn’t that make you feel sick, Uncle?”

“Not really. Does it you?”

“Not when I’m watching. When I get in, it’s like I’m in a boat.” Richard chuckled. “I don’t mind a swing, going back and forth, but side to side . . .” He grimaced as though he were about to be sick.

“Don’t let your mother see you wearing that expression. She’ll say it’s not the sort of thing a young gentleman should do in polite company.”

“That’s sounds like what Alice would say.” Richard rolled his eyes. The fact both he and Lily were still under the control of a nursery maid clearly stuck in the boy’s unusually mature craw.

“You should listen to her. And to your parents. Listen and remember.” Michael peered over the hammock, to face his nephew directly. “You’ll have plenty of time to make your own judgements about what’s fitting for a gentleman when you’re older.”

“You never tell me what to do and what not to do.”

“Not my place.” Michael swung the hammock again. “I hope your sandwiches are as good as the fish was at lunch. That was trout par excellence. As good as you’d get at the Savoy. Better, probably, and I speak from experience.”

“I’ve heard Father mention the Savoy.” Richard wriggled on the grass. “Is it posh?”

“Extremely. I’m not certain it’s entirely my cup of tea. Hall in college was better—at least you’re among pals there and don’t have to be completely on your best behaviour.”

“I like the sound of that.” Richard sighed. “I have to be on my very best behaviour at tea.”

“I’m sure there’s a lot of latitude in that ‘best behaviour.’” Michael chuckled. “Maybe Alice will let me come and keep you and Lily company this afternoon.”

Richard sat up beaming, no doubt at the prospect of further time to be spent in male company. “She will if you ask nicely. She likes you.”

“Does she?” Michael had only passed a few words with the girl. “How on earth do you know these things?”

“Oh, I’ve seen the way she looks at you. The same way that Lily looks at a plate of rice pudding.”

The remark left Michael speechless. Richard was going to be an extremely dangerous quantity one day, so long as he learned when to share, and when not to share, the profits of his formidable powers of observation.

“You continue to astound me,” Michael remarked, eventually, valuing that comfortable bond in which constant conversation wasn’t required. He swung his legs over the side of the hammock. “Time to report for duty soon.”

“Yes, sir.” Richard leaped to attention, giving a mock salute.

A sudden, piercing memory of lads seemingly no older than his nephew standing to attention on parade grounds made Michael shiver.

“Are you all right? Is it that beer in the dirty glass playing up again?”

“No. Just someone walking over my grave, I think. Come on.” Michael took the boy’s hand. “We seem to spend all our time dashing off to report to the ladies.”

“It’s part of that ‘careful handling,’ Uncle.” Richard giggled.

“I could grow tired of that phrase.” Michael laughed, then composed himself for his visit to the nursery. Did Alice really look at him like that? And why couldn’t she have a nice brother who’d want to consume him like a rice pudding?


Hollis Shiloh
Hollis Shiloh writes love stories about men, also called gay romance or m/m romance, with the preferred genres of contemporary, historical, and fantasy. Hollis's stories tend towards the sweet rather than the spicy. When not writing, the author enjoys reading, retro music, and being around animals.

Jules Radcliffe
I love to write. I’ve been writing fiction and telling stories–in a good way!–since I was a child.

I tried to write standard romances, but it wasn’t until I discovered MMF and MM erotic romance that I really found my voice. As an aficionado of all thing retro, it made sense to use historical settings. I have no particular favourite era or culture–I often choose my setting and era based on my inspiration for the story.

People often ask me how I think up a story. That’s actually quite a hard question. Sometimes I think of a situation, sometimes it’s a scene, sometimes it’s a character. Whatever it is, I usually plot out some basics, do a bit of research to make sure I’ve picked the right time and place for my story, and start writing!

I’m a bit pedantic about researching my settings and the historical minutiae, such as the brand of margarine available in Berlin in 1920–but I’m the first to admit I sometimes get it wrong. I don’t like being wrong, but no one is perfect after all…

My main focus is on writing believable and unique characters. My central characters always live happily ever after. No exceptions.

Jay Lewis Taylor
Despite having spent most of my life in Surrey and Oxfordshire, I now live in Somerset, within an hour’s drive of the villages where two of my great-great-great-grandparents were born. Although I work as a rare-books librarian in an abstruse area of medical history, I am in fact a thwarted medievalist with a strong arts background.

I have been writing fiction for over thirty years, exploring the lives of people who are on the margins in one way or another, and how the power of love and language can break down the walls that we build round ourselves.

Scarlet Blackwell
Scarlet writes erotic romance.

Scarlet would rather stick pins in her eyes than go on Facebook but now sees the necessary evil of it. Please join her there for useless writing-related ramblings and hot men musings and ease her in gently. Bah.

Amy Rae Durreson
Amy Rae Durreson is a writer and romantic, who writes m/m romances. She likes to go wandering across the local hills with a camera, hunting for settings for her stories. She's got a degree in early English literature, which she blames for her somewhat medieval approach to spelling, and at various times has been fluent in Latin, Old English, Ancient Greek, and Old Icelandic, though please don't ask her to speak any of them now.

Amy started her first novel nineteen years ago (it featured a warrior princess, magic swords, elves and an evil maths teacher) and has been scribbling away ever since. Despite these long years of experience, she has yet to master the arcane art of the semi-colon.

Charlie Cochrane
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.

Her Cambridge Fellows series of Edwardian romantic mysteries were instrumental in seeing her named Speak Its Name Author of the Year 2009. She’s a member of both the Romantic Novelists’ Association and International Thriller Writers Inc.

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.


Hollis Shiloh
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Jules Radcliffe
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Jay Lewis Taylor
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Scarlet Blackwell
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Charlie Cochrane
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EMAIL:  cochrane.charlie2@googlemail.com



Winton's Strays by Hollis Shiloh
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Poppies in Paris by Jules Radcliff
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Break of Another Day by Jay Lewis Taylor
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Half a Man by Scarlet Blackwell
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Aunt Adeline's Bequest by Amy Rae Durreson
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Count the Shells by Charlie Cochrane