Monday, January 2, 2017

9th Day of Christmas Author Spotlight: Amy Rae Durreson

Author Bio:
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.


A Frost of Cares
Military historian Luke Alcott leaps at the chance to live in the seventeenth-century country mansion of Eelmoor Hall, home of the Royal Military School of Medicine, after being offered a job cataloging the school’s archives. Luke believes he chose the perfect place to start a new life and put his broken past behind him. But soon after settling into the old house, he hears strange noises—like footsteps—and he begins to suffer from terrible nightmares.

The only person Luke can turn to for help is the taciturn caretaker, Jay, a veteran of the Afghanistan war who carries an old battle wound. Together they try to understand Eelmoor Hall’s history and decipher what could be causing the haunting. As the weather grows colder and snow dusts the countryside, a child goes missing. Luke needs to deal with his own demons and learn to trust in love again if he hopes to face down the angry spirit and find the missing girl.

Original Review June 2016:
A Frost of Cares has a little bit of everything.  Paranormal, gothic, mystery, romance, history, ghosts, all tied together with a certain level of creepiness that will definitely keep you on your toes.  Halloween may be months away but it's a great read for any time of the year, however if you only read paranormal in October, you must put this near the top of your spooky TBR list.  I always find tales of mystery the hardest to review because I just do not do spoilers so I guess, I'll make this short and sweet:  I highly recommend this creepy romance!  This is the first Amy Rae Durreson story I've read but it most definitely won't be the last.  I know that not every one is comfortable when it comes to new-to-them authors but I find they fill me with almost as much anticipation as opening a new book and Durreson is no different.


Lord Heliodore's Retirement
Unlikely hero Lord Adem Heliodor saved his queen’s life during the Screaming, a magical attack on his city, but his broken nerves have forced him into an unwanted early retirement to his country estate. Adem thinks his life is over, but retirement holds some surprises. First, there’s his new librarian, who turns out to be not just the first love he thought was dead, but also someone surprisingly knowledgeable about political intrigue. Then there’s the assassin in the orchard and the discovery that the Screaming was just the first attack on the city.

Original Review July 2016:
Even though this is a tale of fantasy and magic, it's also a tale of recovery and second chances.  Lord Heliodor is dealing with what we now call PTSD and when he is sent home from what he sees as disgrace, a second chance at a new beginning finds him.  This is a great little read that combines fantasy with historical wrapped up together in a nice romantic bow.  Lord Heliodor's Retirement may be a novella but it is jam packed with reading goodness.


Aunt Adeline's Bequest
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.

When lonely artist Siôn Ruston retreats to the seaside village of Rosewick Bay, Yorkshire, to recover from a suicide attempt, he doesn’t expect to encounter any ghosts, let alone the one who appears in his bedroom every morning at dawn. He also doesn’t expect to meet his ghost’s gorgeous, flirty descendant working at the local museum… and the village pub, and as a lifeboat volunteer. But Mattie’s great-great-grandfather isn’t the only specter in Rosewick Bay, and as Siôn and Mattie investigate an ill-fated love affair from a bygone era, they begin a romance of their own, one that will hopefully escape the tragedy Mattie’s ancestor suffered.

But the ghosts aren’t the only ones with secrets, and the things Siôn and Mattie are keeping from each other threaten to tear them apart. And all the while, the dead are biding their time, because the curse of Rosewick Bay has never been broken. If the ghosts are seen on the streets, local tradition foretells a man will drown before the summer’s end.

Original Review Octoer 2016:
I had never read this author before this past summer and Spindrift is my fourth in about 3 months time, can I just say that Amy Rae Durreson knows how to tell a ghost story.  Spindrift, like the others, is so much more than just a ghost story, it's a love story with wonderful characters and incredible detail to atmosphere, combined they create an incredible tale I just couldn't put down until I reached the last page.  Mix in secrets, a past mystery, and a ghost or two and what you have is a read that leaves you mesmerized and a little creeped out, okay a lot creeped out at times but completely hooked.  A definite must for paranormal lovers.


For a thousand years, since their defeat of the Shadow at Eyr, the dragons have slept under the mountains. Now their king, Tarnamell, has woken. Driven mad by loneliness, he hurls himself south until he finds and tries to claim the Alagard Desert. Unfortunately, the desert already has a guardian spirit, and he doesn't want to share. Amused by the cocky little desert spirit, Tarn retreats, planning to return in human form.

When his caravan enters the desert, however, Alagard is missing. Rumors fly of a dark power, and soon Tarn's caravan encounters the living dead and an amnesiac mage called Gard.

Forced to take refuge in the Court of Shells, a legendary fortress in the heart of the desert, Tarn, Gard, and their allies decide to seek out the Shadow before it destroys the desert. But to confront the Shadow, Tarn needs to gather his strength. A dragon's power depends on the love and loyalty of his human hoard, but Tarn's original hoard has been dead for centuries. Before he can face his most ancient enemy, he must win the trust of new followers and the heart of a cynical desert spirit.

The Ghost of Mistletoe Lock
After lonely divorcé Isaac leaves his job as a banker to work as a conservationist on a country river, he gives up on finding the love he always wanted. Then he meets flirty jeweler Ryan and assumes Ryan's out of his league, but Ryan's just as lonely as Isaac. Ryan also has the housemates from hell, and when he storms out of the riotous Christmas party they forgot to warn him about, he soon finds himself lost in the snow.

Ryan passes out in front of the lock cottage where Isaac lives, and once Isaac brings him in from the cold, they finally have a chance to get to know each other. But when their insecurities get in the way, it's up to the ghost of Mistletoe Lock to ensure they give love a chance.

Original Review June 2016:
A beautifully written little holiday romance.  Some might not feel the insta-love between Isaac and Ryan but I did.  I found their connection very believable and enjoyable, afterall this is fiction and I'm not looking for a true to life story but even if I was, insta-love can happen so for me that is not an issue at all.  This is a just a wonderful holiday romance that is entertaining any time of the year.


A Frost of Cares
Chapter One
IN A way this story begins with me standing by the window of my London flat on Boxing Day with a cricket bat in my hands, seriously considering smashing every bloody fucking pane of glass in the bloody fucking flat into bloody fucking shards. The thing that stopped me, in the end, was the handle of the bloody bat, wrapped in a fraying green grip. The end of the grip was peeling up, and that tiny imperfection, that little spike of lighter green, by being out of place, threatened to tear open the whole grip. Staring at it, I realized that I didn’t know whether the bat was mine or Danny’s.

Well, fuck, I thought. You’ll have to excuse the paucity of my vocabulary at this point in the story. Obviously I was drunk as the proverbial skunk, and several of its cousins as well, and I never was much good at talking about my (bloody fucking) feelings.

The bat could have been mine. For two brief summers as a gangling teenager, I had been a proud but somewhat unlikely member of my school’s second eleven. It hadn’t lasted, and I couldn’t remember if I’d kept any of that once treasured kit or whether it was in Mum and Dad’s loft with the other detritus of our childhoods.

Danny, on the other hand, was keen on every sport going: cricket, rugby, tennis, golf, football, anything that can be discussed in arcane and passionate depth with complete strangers —or as he used to put it, I like anything with a nice set of balls. And there was the dilemma. If this was Danny’s bat and I damaged it by using it on the windows…. It was unthinkable. What if he came home and found out I’d wrecked his stuff and so turned back round and walked away again?

Of course, by then I was 90% convinced that Danny was never coming home. He’d been missing for almost a decade, after all.

And that was why I didn’t break any windows. Instead I put the bat down, poured myself another drink, and decided to get the fuck out of London.

And by “another drink,” I mean the rest of the bloody pack, obviously.

Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best place to start this story, because I’m pretty sure right now you’re just thinking about what a sad and lonely fuckup this loser narrator is. Was. I’ve changed. Honest. Of course, I’ve no idea who “you” are. Who the fuck am I even writing this down for? I know what happened. I remember every moment of it. The only reason I’m trying to write this is because Jay thinks I’m clinging onto it a little too hard.

“Ten years ago, now,” he said to me yesterday, calmly challenging in that way only Jay can be. “You’re okay. Maybe, y’know, let it go? Let her go.”

“She is gone,” I reminded him. Of that, at least, I’m sure.

“Not if she’s still in your head.” He propped his chin up on his fist and looked at me, calm, steady, and analytical. (I still think of it as his “army face,” though I never knew him while he was still on active duty.)

“I hardly ever think about it.”

He smiled at me, wry and knowing. “Yeah? How many times this month have you slept with the light on?”

“Fuck off. Hardly any.”

“Twelve. I know because I’m in the bed with you.”

Hard to argue with that. “I can’t just switch bad dreams off.”

“You’re not going to be that guy.”

“What guy?”

“Never gets over seeing a ghost. Sits there in the old people’s home trying to scare all the nurses. I’m not letting you.”

“What am I supposed to do about it, then?”

“Get it out of your system,” he said and shrugged. “Write it down. Lock it away somewhere and stop thinking about her.”

I’m not convinced it’s going to work, but Jay asked, and since he did, I suppose I have to try. He doesn’t ask me for much. So I suppose I’m my own audience, or perhaps I’ll do the traditional thing and one day pass on a flaking and dusty, well, Word document to some eager young great-nephew.

Or not.

Jay has just leaned over my shoulder and asked why I’m writing about hypothetical nephews. Fair question, though he blatantly knows the answer as well as I do.

I do like the smell of procrastination in the morning.

Also coffee. I like coffee. Perhaps I need to make some to help me get started. Mmm, coffee. Or tea. A whole pot, brewed from the leaf, slowly strained and served with Rich Tea biscuits. I don’t think we have any Rich Teas. I could just pop out to—

Okay, and that was the point where Jay took my tablet away and made disappointed faces at me. No more procrastinating. I’ll be good.

I don’t want to write about her. What if it brings her back?

My husband is now trying to bribe me with filthy promises. Cheater.


Here goes, in proper ghost story style:

The professor first went down to E—— Hall on the 27th December 20—. At the time when he boarded the train at Waterloo, he had little apprehension that—

No, can’t do it. Bit too much of the M. R. James in that, and I never liked old Monty much. Too much prose, too little action, and far too many phobias of damp and hairy things lurking under the bed, poor closeted git.

Truth is, I wasn’t in a fit state to be apprehending anything that day, because I was as hungover as one of those aforementioned skunks would have been if they tried to sleep it off in the bottom of a hop kiln. It was late afternoon by the time I got to the station, and I had to wait ages for a train. I’d managed to stumble over to my estate-agent sister’s that morning, timing it for while Mum and Dad were out taking their Day After Boxing Day stroll across the common, and I’d tossed my key at Katie before I could change my mind. I’d told her to go ahead and do what she’d been begging me to do for years: shove my crap and Danny’s into storage and put the flat on the market.

I’d finally had enough of waiting.

I was regretting it bitterly by the time I got to Waterloo, but I resisted the urge to phone Katie and tell her I’d changed my mind. Enough was enough.

If Danny came back while Katie was there, she’d make sure he stayed around long enough for me to rush back up to town. I trusted her, even though it galled me to ask my little sister to clean up the mess that was my life.

I had enough self-awareness to know I couldn’t do it without help, though.

I actually had a good reason to be leaving London. “Professor” is a bit of a stretch, but I was already steadily on the academic career path. I was a Junior Research Fellow at one of the lesser-known London colleges, specializing in the nineteenth-century development of the British Army. I’d done a lot of work with military archives before, and my PhD supervisor, now my boss, had done considerably more.

At the time I went to Eelmoor Hall, the Army was in a state of quiet upheaval. After seventy years, it had just been announced that they would be withdrawing British troops from Germany. By the end of 2016, the Army claimed at the time, 11,000 troops and 17,000 support staff and family members stationed overseas would be back in the UK. To house them, there needed to be a vast reorganization of British Army bases. Barracks that had long stood empty were being spruced up, and regiments and organizations were being relocated all over the country.

One of the many changes underway was the relocation of the Royal Military School of Medicine from its traditional home in North Hampshire to a cheaper and more modern campus in the northeast. The RMSM had been housed in Eelmoor Hall, between the towns of Fleet and Aldershot, since 1923, and as part of the move, their CO had written to my supervisor to ask if he could recommend a keen young chap who might be interested in spending a few weeks cataloging and organizing their archives and small museum in preparation for the move. They were offering a decent wage, it would get me out of London for a few weeks, and they were putting me up for free in the now empty hall itself.

Jay says I’m waffling again, bloody backseat driver that he is.

Well, that got rid of him, though I’ll have to offer makeup sex later. So, where was I?

Eelmoor Hall.

It was dusk by the time the taxi drew up at the gates, the sort of dull winter dusk that is only the steady fading of a gray day into true darkness. There was supposed to be an on-site caretaker, one Sergeant McBride, who would let me in the gate. I climbed out of the taxi to hit the buzzer on the intercom and started to shiver. The air here was noticeably crisper than it had been in London, and my breath immediately rose in clouds.

Sergeant McBride took his time answering and was curt when he told me to wait until the gate opened. I shoved my hands into my pockets and took another breath of that cold air. It tasted cleaner than London air, and I squinted through the gates to see the grounds of Eelmoor Hall. There were lawns on this side, and a long drive running towards a pillared frontage. The old house had two wings that stretched back from the main front so the hall was longer than it was wide, and I knew there were a number of modern buildings in the grounds behind it—offices, accommodation and teaching rooms—as well as several assault courses and firing ranges. The archive was in the library, in the east wing of the old hall.

Standing there, gazing up at the stark lines of the hall, it looked as dark and tired as I felt, its redbrick frontage turned brown by the fading light. The windows were dark, but I could easily imagine that someone was standing in there, hidden behind the heavy curtains and watching my approach.

The gate whirred open, and I scrambled back into the taxi. When we finally drew up on the front drive, a man was waiting by the front entrance, leaning back against the base of the right oriel window with his arms crossed. He wore a khaki jacket and had a woolen cap pulled down low, although a few fair curls escaped around the back. He didn’t say anything as I paid the driver and lugged my case up the low steps. Only when I put it down at the top did he nod to me. “Dr. Alcott, I presume?”

“Luke,” I corrected him and held out my hand. “You must be Sergeant Mc—”

“Jay. Not in the Army much longer.” His voice was flat. “Was expecting you a little earlier.”

That explained his bad mood. In the emotional tumult, I’d forgotten to phone and let him know I was running several hours late. “Shit, I’m so sorry. It’s been a day, man. I didn’t mean to—”

“Library key,” he cut over me, handing an old brass key over. “Master key for bedrooms and kitchens, passcode for the gate and external doors, which changes on Saturday. You’re in Room 221. The corridor can be accessed from the main stairs or the library gallery. Crates and packing material are in the ground floor store cupboard by the main library door. If you get lost or need something, I’m on extension 445, unless I’m at work.”

“And then?”

“I’m at work. This isn’t my main job.”

“Then I’m even more sorry to have screwed with your day. Don’t the Army pay a proper wage for this?”

He lifted one shoulder in a slow shrug. “They just don’t want the place to sit here empty. I live here and keep an eye on things, and they don’t charge me rent.”

“Oh, the property-guardian thing. Couple of my grad students do that. Always thought it sounded like a bit of a scam, but this looks like a nice setup.” I was babbling, thrown by his grim, unresponsive face. He was handsome, now I looked properly, and that just made me want to talk more. “I mean, it must be good to have a whole bloody mansion to call your own. Or the Army’s own, I suppose, though—” I made a conscious effort to stem the word-dribble. “Um. So. I should be getting inside.”

He didn’t move, but a faint hint of amusement around his eyes salted the grimness. He had an accent, faintly underlaying everything he said with that peculiarly Ulster combination of musicality and muscle. “If you like.”

He clearly wasn’t going to come with me, and I bit back a little irritation of my own. Okay, so I’d inconvenienced him, but he didn’t have to be rude. “Point me in the right direction?”

“East,” he said and pointed. “Thataway.”

“Cheers,” I said and lugged my case inside. I glanced back to see him still leaning against the wall, scowling out over the now shadowy line of the drive where it curled back towards the gates and the lodge.

Look, I never claimed it was love at first sight.

Inside, the foyer had that odd mixture of institutional function and faded grandeur that seems to characterize old schools and posh hotels. It was dark, but lights came on as I moved forward, triggered by some motion sensor somewhere, and I was able to follow signs to the library, the lights rising and fading as I walked. I stopped for a moment at the bottom of a stairway, wondering whether it was a shortcut to my room or whether I should just carry straight on and find the way through the library.

I must have stood still too long for the motion sensors, because the lights went off. It was dark—country dark, not London dark—with no lights outside to shine through the windows, and suddenly the big house seemed even vaster and colder. I could hear a faint rattling in the wall, a distant electronic hum from somewhere, a creak of floorboards upstairs, all the normal sounds of an old and empty building.

And, as you sometimes do in old buildings, I suddenly felt that I wasn’t alone. I thought that someone else was there in the darkness, breathing in perfect time with me, so close that I could have reached out and touched them. I startled, and the lights came back on.

I was alone, of course, in an empty hallway filled with blank notice boards. It had just been my imagination.

I made my way to the library, and once I was there, I forgot all about the creepy hallway and Sergeant Arsehole McBride and got caught up in the work. They had records in there going back to the founding of the school, and the last catalog had been done back in the eighties, when they’d actually employed a part-time archivist and librarian. His neat little cabinet of index cards was still there, although one glance showed me they were hopelessly muddled. Some of the newer material had been added, but that effort seemed to fizzle out in the mid-nineties. There was a computer, a PC old enough that it still had a floppy disk drive and a dial-up modem. A faded Post-it note on the front told me that it was available for half-hourly slots only (“Please do not abuse your extranet privileges”).

So the first step would be to find out exactly what I had in here.

I’ll spare you the details. I find them fascinating, but in the end they’re not what this story is all about. What I do need to explain is what I was thinking about that first night in the library. Jay reckons, and I agree, albeit reluctantly, that if I had been any other type of miserable, I probably wouldn’t have caught her attention in the way I did.

Lord Heliodore's Retirement
Chapter One: Return to Worldham
IT WAS not the Screaming itself that forced Lord Adem Heliodor into early retirement. Indeed everyone in the court was in full agreement that his lordship had acted with extraordinary and unexpected courage during the incident. After all, it was no common occurrence for a mere minister of ports and customs to be called upon to save the life of the queen, let alone in the face of a horror such as the Screaming.

No, Lord Heliodor’s retirement came two months later, in the wake of a council meeting where a passing remark of blinding stupidity drove him to his feet to shout, spittle flying and fists clenching, at the lackwitted, mealymouthed, porridge-brained imbecile who had made it.

And then, when the red mist cleared from his eyes and the rage stopped clutching in his throat, he found himself surrounded by silence, staring into the young, troubled face of the queen he had just insulted. Around the table, the rest of the cabinet were staring at him in wide-eyed shock, his old familiar colleagues and adversaries looking at him as if he was a stranger and the young, newly appointed councilors clearly wondering if the old man was mad.

“Give us the room, friends,” the queen said softly.

Heliodor stood there as they filed out, shaking harder and harder. He could feel a scream rising in his throat, and that in itself made him feel sick with fear. Had it caught up with him at last?

The queen closed the door behind the last of the council, poured a cup of tea, and brought it over to Heliodor. “Sit down, my lord, please. Here.” Her hand was warm and steady on Heliodor’s shoulder, pressing him gently into his seat, and Heliodor did as he was told, taking the cup with a shaking hand and sipping at the tea mechanically.

He had already been at court when the queen was born. He could even remember the royal baby’s naming feast, how he had spent it flirting with a certain golden-haired guardsman with merry eyes and a mouth as sweet as sparkling wine (for Heliodor had been young then, and wild, before he had spent his life in quiet service). Now his laughing guardsman was thirty-five years dead, and that baby was queen and had a husband and young son of her own, and Heliodor was… was just….

Heliodor was crying.

The queen waited patiently until he managed to choke back his tears. Then she said, her voice very kind, “You seem tired, my lord. If anyone in this kingdom has earned a chance to rest awhile, it is you.”

“Perhaps,” Heliodor said, and winced to hear how old and dry his voice sounded, “I could be excused from your council until tomorrow.”

The queen was quiet for a few moments. Then she said, “When did you last spend any significant time at home, Heliodor? In Worldham, I mean.”

Heliodor lifted his face with a mixture of shame and dismay. No. Surely she couldn’t just dismiss him to his country estate, to retirement. He swallowed hard and said, “My ministry?”

“Lord Zircon—”

“Zircon!” Heliodor flared up, anger blazing through him again. “That jumped-up little piece of—” Then he realized that he was bellowing at his sovereign for the second time in minutes and stopped, biting his lip hard enough that he could taste blood (blood on their mouths, running like tears from their eyes, and all the while the screaming, the endless shrill screaming….)


The queen’s voice recalled him, and he bowed his head, hunching his shoulders up. He said, “I’m sorry.”

“You have served your country so well,” the queen told him. “Take your reward, my lord. Go home. Rest, and let us remove the burdens of your office from your shoulders.”

But they are my burdens, Heliodor wanted to say. He refrained, though. He had done enough damage today.

By the end of the week, he was on his way out of the city, being driven back toward the country estate he had not visited in decades.

Worldham was relentlessly green. As his coach slowed down on the fifth morning of his journey, his city-bred driver cursing at the narrow rutted lanes that made even the most well-sprung of modern carriages jolt across the road, Heliodor stared out of the window at hedgerows, orchards, and fields full of grazing livestock. The valley was too low and damp for vineyards, but hops grew here by the row, and the air smelled thick, green, and faintly sour.

It felt like he had stepped back in time as he had passed over the leagues between here and the crown city. Where were the coffeehouses and salons, the theaters and concert halls? Where were the bustling streets full of merchants, sailors, beggars, and fine lords and ladies? How was he supposed to endure the soft twitter of hedgerow birds when he was accustomed to the squall of seagulls?

He had spent much of his childhood dreaming of escaping the tedium of the countryside. How awful to be sent here to end his days.

For this was an ending, no matter how kindly it had been phrased. It was a much gentler one than others had been granted, but it was still an end.

There had been so much blood. Politicians did not always die in their beds, but even assassination was a clean death by comparison, a dose or a stab or a swift accident. Lord Chalcedon, coolest of heads and driest of wits, had earned a dignified death, not the blood-drenched horror of the Screaming. Lady Avocet had been the lightest of dancers in her youth; she had stumbled at the end, blinded by her own blood. Hillis Wren had been a musician, a man of peace.

He was shaking again, pressing back into the corner of his carriage as it rumbled and jerked along the tough roads. It felt like a cage, the rich man’s version of an asylum cell.

At least they had spared him that.

By the time they finally rumbled to a halt outside Worldham Hall, he was sick of travel. His bladder was full, his joints ached from the jolting of the coach, and his clothes clung unpleasantly where more than one wave of sweaty panic had swept over him. His head was pounding, pain knotting in his temple and at the back of his neck.

Inevitably, the entire staff had gathered on the steps of the hall. They began to cheer as he climbed out, needing his footman’s arm in a way that made him feel old.

He was only fifty-six. Why did he feel one step from the grave?

He raised his hand weakly to the staff, wondering what all the damn noise was about. They hadn’t done this last time he came home.

A man he dimly recognized came forward to pump his hand. “Lord Heliodor, welcome home! We’re all so proud.”


“Saving the queen’s life like that,” said his steward—what was the man’s name? “Extraordinary.”

“Oh,” Heliodor said, “Of course. I’m honored, but perhaps we could—”

“Everyone is waiting to meet you,” the man continued, hustling him forward.

He had to live and work with these people for… well, for the rest of his life. There was nothing to gain from alienating them. He gritted his teeth against his headache and went forward to shake hands and smile at these kind strangers who managed his estates, and who would be feeding, clothing, and housing him.

It made him feel even more useless. His city house had been full of secretaries and clerks. He had been a busy man there, in need of many servants. Here, he served no purpose, beyond paying a great many wages.

By the time he made it into the house, he wanted nothing more than a very stiff drink.

What he got was a book landing on his head.

Heliodor scrambled backward with a shout of surprise.

Another book slammed down to his left and one more to his right. The noise and the rush of movement made his heart clench hard in his chest, and suddenly he was back in the council chamber, blocking the cold hearth as his colleagues, his friends, staggered at him, screaming and bleeding.

His friends. His friends, who were dead, who he had held back with a poker and an overturned table, who had become monsters before they died, though their eyes had still been human.

He knew he was shouting, but he couldn’t hear what, not over the shrill sound of the Screaming. When someone grabbed his shoulders, he tried to fight them off. If they touched him, the Screaming would take him too, and the queen was behind him, wedged into the shelter of the fireplace. Heliodor had to hold them off, had to force them back, had to get their damn hands off him!

“Adem, you are in Worldham,” a steady voice said. “You are safe. You are in Worldham Hall. You are safe.”

The darkness slid away, and he found himself standing in the dimly lit entrance hall once more. A stranger was standing in front of him, a sturdy man with a broad, kind face. He had blue eyes, and the color caught Heliodor’s attention, gave him something to focus on—blue eyes, like the horizon on a still spring morning, framed by laugh lines, and currently watching him with terrible compassion.

“What happened?” Heliodor demanded. “What kind of lackwitted moron goes around throwing books at people?”

“I’m afraid that I’m the lackwit in question,” the stranger said, still watching him with steady concern. “I apologize. I slipped on the step down to the landing.”

“And who the devil are you?”

The stranger’s smile faded a little, and he said slowly, “It’s Corun. Corun Larkspur. I’m your librarian now.”

“You’re fired!” Heliodor snarled and shoved past him, taking the stairs at a near run to get away from the shocked faces below.

It took him two attempts to find his rooms, and he stumbled in with a cry of relief.

He’d wanted a drink, or a piss, but all he managed to do was crash down on the bed and shake.

Aunt Adeline's Bequest
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.

Chapter 1
SIÔN DREAMED he went back to the bridge again, stepping out along the pedestrian walkway with his camera banging against his chest where it hung uselessly. The fog was just as deep as it had been on that day in March, wrapping around him like a bag around his head. It muffled his steps and made even the occasional rumble of passing cars sound far, far away. The fog closed behind him, hiding the north bank and the river below. As he walked he became convinced that he would never reach the far end, that he would walk forever through this damp gray shadow of a world.

Gradually, just like the first time, his steps slowed until he simply stood where he was. A bleak, quiet conviction settled over him.

He was completely alone in the world.

It seemed inconceivable that there even was a world out there beyond the fog, and he knew there was no one there who would miss him if he stayed here forever. He had no family, no friends, no lover, only a few colleagues he never socialized with. He didn’t even have a cat.

So why keep walking? Why not just stay here in the fog?

But he knew that the fog would lift and the world would still be there, and it would still be empty for him.

Even as he thought it, fear was clenching around his heart. Something was wrong.

Something was wrong with him.

And a shadowy figure came walking out of the mist toward him, stopping a foot away. Siôn recognized him at once—knew the expensive camera hanging around his neck, the soft old university hoodie with the St John’s College logo faded on the breast, the jeans that had never sat comfortably over his narrow hips and too long legs, the flop of pale hair. He was looking at himself, but it was a version of himself that had no face.

Looking at that dark emptiness, feeling that thin, screaming fear in his heart, Siôn suddenly understood. It wasn’t the world that was empty. It was him. He was the problem.

It seemed only logical to turn to the water. The stone handrail was elbow height, easy enough to climb, and he knew the river below was deep and fast enough to suck him down. Carefully, he took off his camera, handing it to his shadow self, and made for the edge.

Out in the gray, a gull cried, and then another and another, squabbling with sudden energy.

Their noise pulled Siôn away from the bridge, and he came out of the dream with a sudden gulp of relief. The cold fear released him so fast that he choked on his own indrawn breath and began to cough painfully, his lungs hurting.

By the time he could breathe again, he was fully awake and knew where he was—not on that cold bridge, but tucked under the sloping ceiling of Spindrift Cottage. The first light of the summer dawn was spilling softly through the dormer window and the lace curtains, creating thin patterns of light on the polished wooden floor and tufted rag rug in front of the unused hearth. Those seagulls were still squabbling outside his window, and he could just hear the sea breathing softly against the harbor bar.

He was alive. He was sane again. He was safe.

He was still alone.

But that was one of the thoughts he had learned to guard against, so he took another steadying breath, pushed himself up against the pile of lace-trimmed pillows, and went through his mantra again.

Alive. Sane. Safe. It had been three months since the bridge, and—with the help of a change of scene, mandatory therapy, and plenty of pills—he knew everything he had seen and felt up there had been false. He no longer believed that death was the only logical conclusion.

Tempting sometimes, but not logical.

Another breath, and this time he said the three words aloud to remind himself more firmly. “Alive. Sane. Safe.”

It helped to be here, in a sunlit room in this quiet house. Siôn had been reading before he went to sleep, Gavin Francis’s travelogue True North, and he reached out for his e-reader to keep going. There was nothing like the fascinating yet distant details of life in a cold climate to soothe his restless mind.

But as he turned, he heard a soft noise from his bedroom door. Then he saw the man standing there.

He was an ordinary-looking young man, of average height and squarely built, not much more than twenty. His dark hair was cropped close to his skull, and his face was ruddy and weathered. He had a slightly pointed face, not unhandsome, but not remarkable either, his expression solemn, although there was something around his eyes that suggested he could laugh. He wore a heavy navy blue jersey, cable-knit in complex patterns that drew Siôn’s eye, and faintly oily looking.

He had a thin little mustache and a gray leather flat cap, both of the sort Siôn associated with period films and a particular subset of urban hipster, and they seemed out of place in this little coastal retreat.

The initial surprise was giving way to indignation. Siôn had let the cottage for the next three months, and the agency had promised him that he would be left alone to enjoy it. They had also mentioned that the owner’s grandson would be staying in the basement flat once his university term was over, and “if you need owt and can’t get us on t’ phone, young Mattie will take a gander for thee.”

Siôn had managed to hide his instinctive grimace at both the idea and the exaggerated-cod Yorkshireism being thrown in his tourist face, but at least he now had a clue who this intruder was and how he had managed to get in. Bloody students.

Irritated, he snapped out, “What the devil do you think you’re doing?”

The man turned his head toward Siôn. His eyes were very wide and a little unfocused, as if they were seeing things Siôn could not, and suddenly the room felt icy, all the soft heat of early June seeping away like a retreating tide. The hairs on his arms stood on end, and his back cramped.

“Sarah,” the man said, and his voice was as cracked and distant as an old record, fading more with every syllable. “…Sorry… d—ned… shua….”

And he came forward across the room, bringing with him a stink of salt and rotten seaweed and something worse, something old and deep and dead.

Siôn couldn’t move.

Frozen in place, naked under the duvet, he watched this man—this dead thing—come gliding closer and closer to him, and he couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even flinch.

The ghost passed across the room, his blank eyes unblinking, brushed past the bed, and walked toward the wide, low window where the dawn light was blazing in, thin and white and dazzling. He stepped into it and was gone, leaving behind only a lingering smell of death.

And then Siôn could breathe again, though part of him didn’t want to. The thing he had feared since he woke up in hospital had finally come to pass.

He had lost his mind again.

HE DIDN’T go back to sleep, though it was a long time before he could talk himself out of the bed. It was only when his alarm went off that he forced himself up. Routine was important, and he followed his with a dim, cold sense of detachment.

He ate his breakfast standing at the sink, forcing cornflakes into his mouth as he stared out of the window, for once not registering the soft loveliness of the morning light over the rooftops and harbor below. He washed up his bowl, put it carefully in the rack to dry, showered, and tried to shave.

His hand was shaking so much he put the razor down before he hurt himself.

It was only then that he realized he was tensed for that feeling—the bridge feeling—to come back, for that certainty to steal over him and make him believe it was time to die. If his brain was starting to break apart, to show him ghosts, that was the inevitable next step, wasn’t it? He was hallucinating again, this time without the excuse of months of insomnia. If his eyes had failed him, how long would it be before his logic turned on him too? He was used to analyzing risk, to recognizing situations that could not be overcome, and he wondered, a little frantically, what it would be this time—a bridge or the sea or, oh God, the cliffs?

What had possessed him to come and recuperate in a place with cliffs?

Had he been self-sabotaging even then?

It was the worst thought yet—that all these months of dealing with the shock and fear of what he had done, of recognizing that he wasn’t okay, whatever logic told him, and slowly picking up the pieces… they had all been for nothing if the dark, cold place inside him was still building traps.

“Routine,” he said to his reflection, which was hollow cheeked and wan, but at least still possessed a face. “Get back to routine.”

Routine meant dressing in light summer clothes and then shrugging on his windbreaker, because it might be June, but it was still Yorkshire. It meant gathering up his art supplies, checking that his phone was charged—for all the good that would do him when he couldn’t get a signal at the bottom of the village—and making sure he had some cash to buy lunch in the pub.

Staring at the emergency numbers pinned to the kitchen notice board wasn’t part of his usual routine, but it took an effort to drag himself away. Should he be calling someone? What would he say? Hi, I’m not suicidal and am frankly embarrassed that I ever was. I feel fine, except for the fact that I just saw a dead man walk across my bedroom.

What could they say to that? Nothing much, beyond suggesting it had been a bad dream and he should come in for a checkup, which would mean either a whole day driving or hours on buses and trains followed by twiddling his thumbs in the too solemn quiet of the waiting room, then having to find a hotel, and then losing another day traveling back. No. Let them spend their time on people who really were at breaking point. He would monitor himself as closely as he could and call if he started feeling genuinely bad.

Newly resolute, Siôn picked up his bag and strode out the door of the cottage and down the narrow steps into the sloping street.

Spindrift Cottage stood on the corner of a lane in the village of Rosewick Bay. The road curved down around the house to drop toward the tiny harbor below. Siôn had to enter the house by climbing a steep flight of steps to the kitchen door. The front windows of his living room looked over the rooftops and tiny patio gardens of the houses on the street below, while the back ones overlooked a small patio of his own and the foundations of the houses on the next street up. Below his part of the house was a tiny single-floor flat that backed into the cliff side on two faces, had a door opening onto the street at the front, and a window that was above head height on the sloping road that turned around the corner of the house. The whole village was a precarious tumble of red-tiled rooftops and terraced houses crammed into every foothold.

It had been an artists’ paradise since Edwardian times, and Siôn had chosen to retreat here for that reason. He had been here a fortnight already and was still not tired of trying to capture the higgledy lines of the houses, the water below, the gulls soaring overhead, and the light over the North Sea.

Today he walked briskly down through the village, heading for the harbor bar. It was early enough that the air was still cool, though in a way that promised heat later. The light was as thin and bright as sugar glaze, and he quickened his stride, no longer alarmed by the startling steepness of the lanes and the narrow ginnels that wound between the houses.

The harbor was pressed between two high cliffs, both of which were the haunts of seabirds who screeched and yammered as he walked below them and headed out across the breakwater that stretched from the foot of Minehouse Nab, the northern cliff. From the breakwater he could position his easel so he could look back at the village, and he took his time selecting a good spot.

But today, miserably, the art would not come. Every thin line he sketched seemed skewed, and when he gave up on guidelines and tried to splash watercolor straight onto the page, everything came out misshapen or saccharine.

He had never lost his art before—and he knew that, not the pills and therapy, was the main reason he had recovered as well as he had. He had heard so many horror stories about creativity and antidepressants. He had always been able to paint, although the mood and nature of his paintings had changed, the grays and stark lines of his urban landscapes giving way to a more dreamy, romantic palette. So he had come here to paint, and nothing else. Sometimes, still, he woke in the night with his heart pounding at the thought of going back to the silence and loneliness of London. Here, though, in this little bubble of light and sea and watercolor, he was safe.

But today, his muse failed him.

Perhaps it was the worry. Perhaps it was the way the keening gulls sounded so eerie today, or the way the sigh of the sea on the other side of the breakwater kept making the hairs rise on the back of his neck. Perhaps it was the memory of the hallucination’s eyes focusing on something other than Siôn, something only it could see.

“It was a dream,” he said firmly out loud. That was the only logical explanation. He had woken from a nightmare, and his still-dreaming brain had constructed something out of shadows and reflections.

He had never before had a nightmare that smelled like anything, let alone rot and water.

Just thinking of it brought the memory of the scent back so strongly that he was sure it was rising out of the big boulders of the modern breakwater behind him.

It was the harbor and the tide, he told himself. He had been living in the city so long he just didn’t know how to cope with natural smells any longer.

But the tide was high, and the stink was getting stronger and stronger.

Behind him there was a faint scrabbling noise, as if the rocks were shifting—or something was crawling across them.

Siôn shot to his feet, knocking his easel over, and spun, throwing his hands out defensively.

There was nothing there—only the open sea and the long stretch of the coast, the far cliffs still soft with morning mist.

All the same, since his paper was ruined and he was clearly getting nothing done here, he gathered his stuff and headed along the breakwater to get his feet back on solid ground.

He wandered the village for a while, trying to find a perspective that appealed to him, but nothing worked and the first coachload of day-tripping retirees had arrived. Giving up, he took his easel back to the cottage and contemplated just staying there, taking advantage of the light in the attic studio to improve some earlier pieces.

But isolating himself in this frame of mind was a bad idea, so he dragged himself out again, tucking his sketchbook under his arm as a defense against the world. He wasn’t required to talk to anyone directly, but he could eavesdrop a bit and sketch a few poses, and so feel a little more connected to the rest of the world. His first instinct might always be to isolate himself, but he had been forced to learn better, however much he resented having to step out into the world.

Halfway down the hill, he passed the open doors of the Rosewick Bay Heritage Center and paused. He hadn’t been in there yet, and perhaps this was the day. He could find out a little more about the history of the place and soak up some inspiration. If he was very lucky, they might even have some information about the Rosewick Group, that little offshoot of the Yorkshire impressionists who had settled in the village in the 1890s and early years of the twentieth century. One of the first pieces he had bought when he was finally earning enough to invest in real art had been Elinor Castle’s Rosewick Cobles, showing fisherwomen helping to pull a boat ashore. The painting had brought him here when he’d had to choose a place to recuperate. He had liked the idea of following in the footsteps of an artist he admired, and although her studio, now a lucrative little holiday cottage, had been let all summer, his inquiring phone call to the letting agent had brought him to Spindrift Cottage, which had been a family home until last year and had only just become available.

There was no guarantee the little museum would have anything about Castle and her circle, but they were the village’s only claim to fame, so there ought to be a postcard reproduction or two for sale at least. Castle herself was still moderately famous, and her pieces sold for more than a local museum could afford, but there might even be some works by, or information about, the lesser artists of the group. Siôn knew little about them, and perhaps today was the day to repair that gap in his knowledge.

Inside, the museum was bigger than it had looked from the outside. A glance along the main corridor revealed that a new frontage must have been built across the original terrace, because there was space for a whole row of Victorian-style shops done up in painstakingly authentic style. A spiral staircase led upstairs, with a sign taped to it that announced, “Fishing gallery, Art and Artists in Rosewick Bay, a Victorian Missionary in the South Seas, Childhood Past and Present.”

There was a wooden sign on the wall by the door that stated the entrance fees, as well as a counter, although it was unmanned. Someone had Blu-Tacked a bit of paper to it that read, in a scrawl of purple felt-tip, “Back in 5m! Please leave cash in honesty box!”

Siôn guessed that meant the wooden box with a slit in the top that was chained to the counter. He put his two pounds in, amused and oddly touched. London seemed very far away.

He wandered over to the first exhibit, a display of fishing lines carefully strung with hooks, and leaned in to read the typed explanation pinned to wall above. It was surrounded by framed photographs of fishermen and boats, old newspaper clippings, and a rather ferocious-looking fish mounted on a board with its teeth showing. Glancing around, Siôn realized that every wall was covered in the same way. At a guess, he would say that every single scrap of the village’s history was on display here.

It was charming, in a cluttered sort of way, and he moved on to study the contents of a reconstructed chemist’s shop, which seemed to feature the rescued contents of local medicine cabinets from Victorian times to the 1970s, all arranged so the brand names faced outward. There was even a door with an old-fashioned knocker. It was closed, and he wasn’t sure if it was just for effect or whether there was more to see inside the shop. Carefully, he reached out and pushed at it slightly, to see if it would open.

“Nowt but wall behind that one,” a warm, cheerful voice said behind him. “You have to go round to get to the history of the lifeboat.”

Irrationally embarrassed, Siôn stepped back. “I’m sorry.”

“You weren’t to know,” the kid behind him said. He had a nice voice, deep with a thick Yorkshire accent. He sounded friendly, young, confident—everything Siôn struggled with. “I keep telling Mrs. Peacock that we ought to put a sign up, but she won’t have it. Says it would spoil the authenticity.”

Siôn turned round, preparing a smile, and started to say, “I’d hate to see anyone try to force….”

Then the words dried up in his throat.

The young man leaning over the counter and grinning at him looked very, very familiar. In fact, Siôn had last seen him only a few hours ago, although he had been dressed very differently then.

This was the man who had walked across his room at dawn and vanished into a blur of light.

Chapter 1: Awakening
THE DRAGON came out of the cold north, riding the wind on vast golden wings. He had been sleeping for centuries, his dreams barely disturbed by the rise and fall of the great empires and realms of men. The mountains had grown wild around him; forests had hidden his resting place and had risen along the long ridge of his spine. Great spars of quartz had formed between his gleaming scales, and his claws had furred over with moss and lichen whilst sleep healed his wounds from the last great battle that had felled his brothers and nearly brought all that lived and loved in the world to naught.

Some shadow moving through the world had disturbed his slumber and woken him to the sight of his dark and empty citadel. Now, maddened by the cold air and the lifeless green remnants of his hoard, he threw himself south in search of warmth.

He eventually found a desert—where there had been an ocean in the days when he had last walked among men—and followed the wind down into rolling salt-pale dunes covered in shimmering films of shifting sand. He curled himself into the sand and sank down between the curves of the dunes, digging his claws in deep and rolling out his wings in a slow stretch.

He wasn’t ready for the long sleep again, not so soon, but flight had stretched muscles long unused, so he relaxed slowly, unwilling to move again. The hot sands slowly warmed his blood, and the sun blazed down from a gem-bright sky, heating his long back and drying out the damp wads of forest along his spine.

Breathing in the dust-dry scent of the wind, he tasted the desert. It fizzed with life: scuttling lizards, fleet-footed rats, and birds that hung on the wind. Cool oases added a tang of sweetness, and the prickly flowering plants of the high steppes and central mountains layered in more scents and flavors. Above all, the desert tasted loved.

It was not a human love, smutty and dense and urgent, but a bubbling, laughing love that had its roots in the bedrock and arched as high as the sky. It felt like his love for his hoard—the love of a creature of spirit and elements.

The dragons were still sleeping, though, and this desert was too young for any other solemn and daunting spirit to have arisen here. There could be no one here equal to him in power and dignity. Ignoring the clear sense that the place was already occupied, the dragon went to sleep, contemplating how pleasant it would be to claim this place and make it his new home.

He was woken by an itch.

It was only a little itch, nipping at the end of his tail. He smacked his tail down irritably, and it stopped.

Then it started again, above his right nostril. Then on his spine, at the back of his neck, on the soft scales in the fold beneath his knee.

Annoyed, the dragon woke to see that he was surrounded by tiny whirls of sand, spinning against the wind to attack him from all sides.

The dragon was, like all his kind, a creature of air and fire. Mildly amused, he took a deep breath, filling the great hollows of his lungs. Then, with a twist of his head, he blew the dust devils away.

They reformed almost instantly as one dark whirl of wind, sand, and indignation.

“Go away!” the desert spirit demanded. “This is my country. I don’t want you here!”

“I like it here,” the dragon said, his voice creaking with long disuse. “Begone, sprite.”

“I am the Great Desert Alagard!” the spirit corrected, picking up more sand in its fury. “I span nations and spurn conquerors! I am the Dry Death and the Devourer of Souls! You are not welcome here!” Then it added, voice shrill, “And don’t call me a sprite, you overgrown lizard!”

So it was a courageous little spirit, even if it didn’t know it was outmatched. Entertained, the dragon deigned to answer it in kind. “I am the keeper of the hoard of Tarn Amel, dragon lord of the first hatching. I battled the Shadow on the field of Astalor and threw down the demon kings of Eyr. Shiver in my presence, and be humble.” And then, just because he could, he added, “Sprite.”

Little puffs of sand fumed out the side of Alagard’s whirlwind. “None of that makes you special. It just makes you old. Go away!”

“Old, wise, and powerful beyond your understanding,” the dragon agreed, dropping his head back down on his front legs. “And tired. I shall have you for my new hoard, little sprite, you, this land, and all the treasures that dwell within your bounds.”

“I am not something to be collected!”

The dragon closed his eyes and ignored the sounds of indignation flitting around his ears. It reminded him somewhat of the days of old, when he had dwelt in the midst of a great hoard and the lords of men had argued strategy and honor by his feet. After so many centuries of silence, a voice was soothing.

He was disappointed when the desert spirit flounced away, leaving only the kiss of the wind shifting the sand and the distant cry of carrion birds.

Then a little voice by his front claw piped up, “Thief! Thief! Thief!”

The dragon raised an eyelid enough to spot a little desert rat. It saw him looking, and squeaked before darting back into its hole.

He closed his eye again.

“Thief! Thief! Thief!” hissed a snake, sliding insolently over the tip of his tail.

“Thieeeeef!” whistled the wind, spitting sand against his side, between his scales, and into his eyes. A wide-eared desert fox jeered it at him, lizards chittered it, horned toads belched it, and all the while the wind blasted sand at his sides in relentless gusts, lulling him into relaxation before it raged at full force again.

So Alagard commanded the loyalty of the creatures that lived in his country. It made him all the more appealing as an acquisition. The dragon prized things that commanded love.

Amused, he shifted away from the blast of the wind a little and went back to ignoring the jabber of the little desert creatures. When the wind came at him from a different angle, he shifted again, burrowing into the warm sand like one of the little lizards chattering by his knee. The eternal fire in his belly, which would burn for as long as he lived, had dimmed to a low flicker during his centuries of slumber. Now, as his body grew warm and he soaked in the love of the desert animals for their guardian spirit, his flames began to burn higher. By the time the desert night fell, bringing the cold, blazing stars and countless night creatures to add their voices to the chorus of reproach, he was beginning to feel aware and alert, shaking off the sleepy instincts that had driven him south.

What had become of the men who had followed him? he wondered. What had happened to the world after the abyss had swallowed the demons of Eyr and torn the earth asunder? Had the realms of men survived, or had humanity been cast back to its primitive beginning? Did anyone remember that dragons had once filled the sky and walked the earth in the guise of men, with great armies at their backs? Could others of his brethren have woken before him, or was he alone in these later days?

What had the power to break him out of his sleep?

All the while, bit by bit, he shifted away from the nagging wind. It wasn’t until his tail snagged around an acacia tree that he realized how far he had come, right to the western edge of the desert.

“Alagard!” he roared in indignation.

He hadn’t meant to put a note of summoning in it, but it dragged the desert spirit to him in a bedraggled cloud of dust and fury. When it saw him, though, it let out a distinct snicker. “That’s right, lizard. Keep heading that way. Out, out, out!”

The dragon drew breath to blow him away and storm back into the desert. Then he reconsidered. Now that he was more awake, he recalled winning followers before. At first, before his name resounded through the world of men, it had not been so simple. Once, he had known how to court allies and win supporters. He needed a new hoard, full of precious things, and he could build one around this fierce spirit, if only he could win him.

Feigning humility, he lowered his belly against the ground and slid his long neck forward to curl around his brave little whirlwind. “I will leave you to your peace.”

“Hah!” Alagard crowed, spinning faster in glee. “And so you should.” Then it added, a little sulkily, “I thought you had more fight in you, lizard.”

“I will return,” the dragon promised.

“What? No, no, no!”

“Yes,” the dragon vowed and blinked at him lazily. “And when I do, I will win you. You will give yourself to me gladly, and I will possess you and all that is yours as the new heart of my hoard.”

Smirking, he rose up on his hind legs and extended his wings to their full extent so the air cracked like thunder. As he launched himself into the wind, he could still hear the little desert spirit sputtering and fuming behind him, and he laughed as he flew back north.

The Ghost of Mistletoe Lock
Prologue: Emily
EMILY had drowned on a day like this, when the snow fell softly from the steel-gray sky and the water roared through the weir. Her husband had pulled her from the ice-flecked water, the tears cold on his ruddy, honest face.

She still missed him, her Harry. When he courted her in the spring, he had been a laughing boy. He had married her in the summer as the happiest man she knew, and every barge on the river had escorted them home through the warm dusk. Their first son had been born in autumn the next year, dear solemn Alfie, and Mary the year after that, her pretty girl.

The baby had cried for hours while Emily floated in the water, on that long ago winter’s day when she had left her darlings forever. The echo of those tears still held her here, kept her wishing, hold my child, somebody hold my child, even now after Mary had grown and birthed pretty babies of her own, and aged and died and gone away.

“Love,” Emily sighed, over the cold water. There had been so much love in that little cottage by the lock, in her time and the years afterward. She had watched Harry grieve and heal, his sad heart given comfort by a bargeman’s pretty daughter. Mary had kissed handsome boys beside the sweeping willow and married the plainest and kindest of them all. She’d seen Alfie love a boy and let him go, and she’d witnessed the courtships of grandchildren and great-grandchildren for two centuries.

It was her only comfort, caught here above the cold water. Love, in all its forms, was all that mattered.

There were no more barges, and no one kept the lock. Her home was too small for families, the last keeper had said, even as she wept to see him leave, her tears dissolving into the swift water. It had been so lonely the last few years, until the new man came.

He was trudging home now, along the river bank with the snow catching in his dark hair. His shoulders were bowed and he looked so tired. So lonely, this latest man of hers. When would he bring love home?

“Love,” she reminded him, her voice thin in the quiet hush of falling snow. “You must find love.”

Chapter One: Isaac
AS HE stomped up the ironstone path, shaking the snow off his boots, Isaac felt even more remote from the world than usual. On the step of the old lock-keeper’s cottage, he turned and looked along the river, watching the snow sift onto the lock gates and the covered boats on the bank.

He’d wanted isolation, wanted to get away from everything that had made up his life before. Now he had it, he just felt even more tired and sad.

The surroundings suited his mood—the river was gray, its edges dull with ice. The snow was steadily weighing down the trees and blanketing the heavy, tangled balls of mistletoe that grew so abundantly here. In the distance, the sound more muffled than usual, he could hear the low groan of traffic heading into Guildford, but it seemed like a noise from another world.

Then, woven between the noise from the road and the whisper-soft sigh of the snow, he heard a woman weeping.

It came from the other side of the lock, where the water tumbled endlessly down the stepped weir. Shivering, Isaac squinted through the swirling snow, wondering if he’d see her this time. There was nothing out there, though, just snow and water and the sound of tears. The other lengthsmen who tended the river had told him stories when he first took the job. She had been a lock-keeper’s wife. Only children ever saw her, watching over them as they played.

She made the lock gardens flower for a wedding.

“Come inside, Emily,” he said softly. “It’s too cold for anyone out here.”

The sound of her tears followed him as he unlocked the door and stepped inside, shrugging off his heavy overcoat. It got thrown onto the polished wooden coatrack at the bottom of the stairs, and Isaac leaned back against the door, surveying his small domain.

He couldn’t blame the ghost for weeping at this time of year, not if this had once been her home. It was pristine, in his defense—he had polished the antique Aga range until he could see his face in its red veneer, waxed the old wooden floors, and spent long evenings bringing the brass fire surround and tongs back to their original sheen.

There was no sign of Christmas, though. He’d got as far as bringing the boxes down from the spare room, but his heart hadn’t been in it.

Last year his tree had been so huge that he’d struggled to get it into the lift of their expensive apartment building. He’d festooned every wall of the sleek flat with specially ordered evergreen garlands. Subtle lights had twinkled discreetly around the windows, and the tree had been laden with expensive ornaments. A playlist of cathedral choirs singing carols in soaring voices had played quietly in the evenings. He’d bought a mulled wine kit and spent Christmas Eve breathing in the rich scent of it, dreaming about Christmases yet to come. He’d even started thinking about children, about creating perfect memories for them.

It had been too soon, of course, only the first Christmas of their marriage. He had wanted that life, though. The thought of Amelia round with his child was somehow more attractive than any other thought of her.

He must have realized at some level, he thought bitterly now. Why try so hard to create the perfect fantasy Christmas if he wasn’t already aware that she was slipping away?

She’d been very nice about all his efforts, very kind. Then, on New Year’s Eve, she had asked for a divorce and told him about the other man, the soldier she thought she should have married in the first place.

He’d stumbled back to his parents’ house. There, in the bustle of their New Year’s celebrations, he’d sought solace in copious amounts of whisky and the boy next door, a pretty pouty-lipped undergrad who’d been only too willing to sneak into the garage and suck him off to the strokes of midnight.

Which would have been all very well, had his mother not walked in just as he was coming down the throat of a boy he’d once babysat.

As if the thought had summoned her, the phone began to ring.

He was a bad son, Isaac thought glumly. A good son wouldn’t be wishing this fervently for a double-glazing salesman. A glance at the caller ID told him he wouldn’t be that lucky.

“I’ve been calling all morning,” his mother said. “Where have you been?”

“Working,” Isaac said patiently. “We cut back the vegetation around the towpath in winter.”

“On a Saturday?” His mother’s tone conveyed her opinion of any job that required working, let alone manual labor, on weekends. “Right before Christmas too. Really, Isaac, there are better things you could be doing with your life.”

“It’s the National Trust,” he tried. Usually, that mollified her a little. She’d probably have disowned him if he’d started working for English Heritage. When it came to preserving the English countryside, after all, venerable charitable institutions were clearly more respectable than mere upstart government bodies, at least in the eyes of his mother’s cream tea and church fete set.

He could hear the sniff all the way down the line and closed his eyes in response. He loved his mother, he really did, her drive, sharp wit, and overprotectiveness. He just didn’t love failing to live up to her expectations.

“Now, about Christmas,” she continued briskly. “You’ll be here in time for Midnight Mass, of course. You should know that I’ve invited Amelia—”

“You’ve done what?” Isaac asked, startled into interrupting.

“Invited Amelia.”

“You’ve invited my ex-wife for Christmas?”

“You know I’m very fond of the poor girl, and her family is so far away—”

“She hates me.”

“Well, you can understand why, darling, given your lifestyle choices—”

“She left me first!” Isaac yelped. His mother always made him feel like he was twelve again. Making an effort to claw back the intervening two decades, he took a breath and said, as calmly as he could, “If she’s there, I won’t be.”

“Oh, be reasonable, Isaac.”

“I hardly think I’m the one being unreasonable, Mother.”

“You never do,” she accused and then took a breath. “Jonathan, speak to your child.”

Isaac heard his father grumbling in the background, but then he came on the phone to say, “I’m on your side, son. I told her it was a bad idea.”

So why didn’t you stop her? Isaac thought as his mother protested faintly. Then he reminded himself that wasn’t fair. Nobody could stop his mother once she had an idea in her head. Instead he said, “I’d really rather not see Amelia again. We’re never going to reconcile.”

“Your mother did hope,” Jonathan Cobbett began, and Isaac groaned.


“So are you bringing some chap along? That would set the cat among the pigeons,” he added with a slight chuckle.

“Don’t give the boy ideas, Jonathan!”

“Not this year,” Isaac said, and his father sighed. That made him feel worse than talking to his mother. Dad had been astonishingly supportive, even though he was the sort of vicar who winced faintly at the very word “reform.” He heard his father walking away and the click of the study door. “I’m sure your mother will come round. She wanted grandchildren.”

“I know,” Isaac said and tried to hide how that made him feel. He’d wanted children so much, enough that he ignored the way he liked the girls he dated well enough, but looked only at men as he sat on the Tube or walked down the street. No women had ever made him hunger for their touch.

“I’ll talk to her. A good present wouldn’t go amiss, either. Now, how’s the job? Any winter weather yet?”

A Frost of Cares

Lord Heliodore's Retirement

Aunt Adeline's Bequest



The Ghost of Mistletoe Lock

No comments:

Post a Comment