Saturday, March 10, 2018

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Puddledown Mysteries by Kate Aaron

The Dead Past #1
Runner Up: Rainbow Awards 2014 Best Gay Historical Romance

Puddledown, England

The year is 1948, the war is over and the evacuees have gone home, although rationing continues. For Hugo Wainwright, who escaped conscription and never had to fight for his country, very little has changed. He lives a quiet life away from the big cities, knowing his desires for other men will lead to disaster if he ever acts on them.

Tommy Granger spent his service on the battlefields of France. He experienced it all: the bloody horrors of war, and the chaos of Dunkirk. Finding employment as groundskeeper in the woods on the outskirts of Puddledown, he lives in solitude, trying to forget all the terrible things he’s seen.

When Hugo stumbles over a body not far from Tommy’s cabin, both men’s lives change forever. There’s a killer in the woods, and the townsfolk are sure Tommy is the culprit. Can Hugo unmask the murderer and prove the innocence of the man he’s falling for, or are the deadly consequences of Tommy’s past about to catch up to him and separate the two men forever?

The Coward's Way #2
Two months after the discovery of a murderer in their midst, life for the inhabitants of Puddledown has settled back to normal for everybody except Hugo Wainwright. Having accepted his feelings for groundskeeper Tommy Granger, for Hugo, everything has changed.

Hugo wants nothing more than to make his friend happy, but the voices in his head won't let him. If he can't bring himself to tell Tommy he's having nightmares about the evening the killer came for him, how can he possibly explain the panic he feels every time Tommy tries to take their fledgling relationship further?

When the local Viscount's daughter goes missing after a ball from which Hugo and Tommy were the only guests to leave early, suspicion falls firmly on them. But the police inspector isn't the only one keeping a close eye on the cabin in the woods, and as the net closes, Hugo has a decision to make. Will he be brave, or will he take the coward's way out?

The Poison Pen #3
Spring, 1949

All of Puddledown is excitedly preparing for the upcoming wedding of Helena Fairfax, the Viscount’s daughter, to Walter Evans, a farmer’s son. The unlikely love match is the talk of the town, but Hugo Wainwright and Tommy Granger are dealing with a distraction closer to home. Tommy’s family have announced their intention to visit.

Hugo wants nothing more than to impress his friend’s sister and mother, but Tommy’s brother-in-law, the Rev. Daniel Stone, makes it clear from the moment he arrives he has no time for Tommy. Hugo never considered himself a violent man, but Daniel’s constant dismissal of Tommy brings all his protective instincts to the surface.

Then the letters start arriving.

The community is torn apart as malicious notes are pushed through doors all over Puddledown, and when Hugo receives one, Tommy starts to panic. The police have no suspects, so it’s up to Hugo to expose the culprit before the wedding is ruined and Tommy’s family leave, perhaps never to return. Can he solve the mystery, or will the veiled threats of an anonymous stranger drive Hugo and Tommy apart forever?

The Dead Past #1
Original Review February 2015:
This has been on my Kindle for the past year or more and I'm afraid to say, forgotten.  Then, I won a ebook of my choosing by Kate Aaron through Diverse Reader blog and I chose #2 of the Puddledown Mysteries.  So I finished what I was reading and jumped in!  Hugo had my heart from the very beginning.  He is so self tortured over his desires and understandably so considering it's 1948.  When we meet Tommy, he too found his way into my heart and it was pretty obvious where the pair was headed but it was most definitely not an easy road.  Throw in the murders and the cops with their determination to find Tommy guilty and this book had me riveted.

The Coward's Way #2
Original Review February 2015:
I love the continuation of Hugo and Tommy's relationship in this second installment.  It's real, believable, and completely keeping in character.  The mystery is pretty easy to figure out but then I think it was suppose to be.  It's not so much the mystery as a "mystery" as it is how it relates to Hugo and Tommy's relationship and how they move forward.  When I started The Dead Past, I was kicking myself for waiting so long to read it, then I realized at least I was able to go directly into The Coward's Way, but while putting this post together I seen there is going to be a third one later this year.  Now, I'm torn between kicking myself with the left foot for waiting to start and kicking myself with my right foot for not waiting till the third one is closer at hand.  Who am I kidding? I'm glad I read them now and the anticipation while waiting for number 3 will only enhance the pleasure when it arrives.

The Poison Pen #3
Original Review April 2015:
I think what I loved most about this installment of the Puddletown Mysteries, was how Hugo and Tommy pretty much switched places in their relationship.  In The Dead Past and The Coward's Way, Tommy was more confident and outgoing but here we have Hugo stepping up and taking the lead.  I think a lot of that has to do with the visit from Tommy's family.  Most of us turn back the clock a little towards our childhood when we find ourselves with our parents, and here we have Tommy's mother, sister, and brother-in-law visiting Puddletown in The Poison Pen.  As for Daniel, the brother-in-law, he's quite a pill to swallow so I won't even begin to go there.  As for the mystery letters, it may not be murder but I found it just as intriguing because everyone has something they don't want others knowing, so it truly can be anyone wielding The Poison Pen.


The Dead Past #1
Tea, toast, strawberry jam. It was the same breakfast Hugo Wain- wright took each morning. He rose every day at the first insistent ring of his alarm clock, closed the lever over the clapper, and touched the two brass bells atop the greying white face to stop the hollow, residual echo of the chime. They vibrated a little as he pressed his finger pads against them. His fingertips were smooth, his hands uncalloused save for a lump of hard skin on the side of his third finger, where his fountain pen rested as he wrote. After a quick douse with a flannel in cold water, he dressed in a white vest, blue shirt without collar or cuffs, a brightly knitted pullover, and dark green corduroy trousers with suspenders, well-worn and comfortable. The pullover was a Christmas gift, knitted by old Mrs Andrews during the war, before her eyes got too bad for her to see by lamplight during the blackout. The colours were garish, but she had spent a good portion of her rationing coupons on the wool, and Hugo felt churlish for disdaining it. He wore the pullover as a reminder to be more grateful, to please old Mrs Andrews when he went of an evening to read to her, and to add a splash of colour to his black and white newsprint life.

On this particular morning, after rinsing his breakfast dishes, Hugo put on his overcoat and boots and proceeded out into the crisp air of what was to become a beautiful mid-autumn day.

Working as the Arts and Literature correspondent for the Gazette, a respectable publication with a small but respectable readership, had many advantages, chief amongst them being the freedom to spend his time as he pleased. Hugo had submitted his latest article the previous day, and had plenty of time before him in which to read his next assign- ment and formulate an opinion. He therefore felt no guilt as he strolled through the lanes and streets of Puddledown, greeting townsfolk and neighbours with a cordial tip of his flat cap.

Main Street was busy with housewives and harried mamas, and Hugo quickly changed his path, taking a quieter backstreet which ran behind the bakery and butcher’s shop and haberdasher and greengrocer’s, up through the town and out again into the surrounding countryside of the south of England.

The fields were mostly bare so late in the year; the soil churned and hardened into haphazard troughs and peaks. The occasional green of a ripening cabbage harvest or the tall stems of Brussels sprouts added a splash of oily colour to the washed-out landscape, gaunt trees stretching splayed limbs skyward through the slowly-lifting mist.

Hugo pulled his overcoat closer around himself, rubbed his hands, and thrust them deep into his pockets alongside a stubby pencil, a coin or two, half a paper bag of mints, and a screwed-up hanky: the detritus of a man without a wife at home to make him empty his pockets, as his mama had done when he’d been a little boy.

A small flock of geese flew overhead, their strange honking call sounding oddly flat and muted in the damp and misty air. To Hugo’s right, the hedgerow rose, its myriad twigs crisscrossed and laced higher than his head, obscuring his view of the fields and, beyond, the shingle- roofed houses of the town. To his left, the road dipped into a gully Hugo knew in spring would be filled with rushing water, before rising again where the first trees of the woods stood bare and isolated from their brothers, Nature’s pioneers.

Hugo examined them as he passed, noting their peeling bark, the occasional fallen branch, here a whole trunk leaning haphazardly against its neighbours. As winter rolled in and the winds got up, some would fall, mighty giants slain with a deafening crack and a groan of limbs, roots snapping, hauling the very earth in their wake. Such was the nature of things.

The forest belonged to the local manor house, managed by a groundskeeper and maintained, as it had been for centuries, to encour- age the pheasants and other game which the local Lord hunted in season with his lofty friends. Hugo crossed the road and entered the woodland, following an ancient path which gave right of way through the forest and would bring him home in a looping five or six mile amble.

The path would cross right by the groundskeeper’s cabin, fallen into disrepair over the long, bleak years of the war, when young men had been needed on the Western Front and not tending His Lordship’s game. The last time Hugo had passed this way, it had seemed some improvements had begun: the door was freshly painted, new shingles nailed to the roof, and curtains hung in the windows once more. Hugo had gathered from this that a new groundskeeper had at last taken up residence, although who the man was, and from whence he’d come, Hugo did not know. Never one to listen to idle gossip, if the townsfolk had mentioned a new arrival, Hugo hadn’t heard.

There was nobody visible at the cabin when he passed, although he took a moment to look around and shout hallo. Groundskeepers woke early, Hugo reasoned, and judging by the thin plume of smoke drifting from the cabin’s chimney, the fire was well on its way to dying down. No doubt the man had been out doing his job since before the sun had come up.

Shrugging, Hugo moved on.

The forest was quiet, many of the songbirds having left already for warmer climes, and those that remained were no doubt silently watching Hugo stride past, the hard ground crunching under his stout boots, his breath swirling in smoky plumes around him. Hugo liked to be fit. A pudgy child, for whom sports had been a torment, he had walked and run off the puppy fat in these very woods, and listened with horror to his mother’s tales of life in London, where she had lived for a spell with his papa, a city so steeped in dirt and sin that to tread its streets was to invite robbery. One stepped outside clean and glowing but returned black and grey with soot and smoke.

He rarely walked through the woods these days—in hunting season it wasn’t safe, for a start—but he enjoyed the tranquillity on this fine, misty morning, the way the fog shrouded the path and made it seem as though he was the only soul alive and abroad, sauntering through a landscape of shadowy ghosts.

Hugo popped a mint into his mouth, enjoying the sharp burst of flavour and the hard clack of the sweet against his teeth. He whistled a few tuneless notes for the sake of hearing them flatten and fade in the dead air.

A splash of colour on the ground between the trees caught his eye, and he paused, looking carefully at the spot. A reddish smear on a trunk just off the path, that he would have dismissed as a discolouration of the bark were it not for the blue and white paisley pattern of a scrap of material lying sodden on the hard earth beyond it, jumped out at him. Crunching the mint nervously, Hugo stepped off the path, startling as a twig cracked underfoot, the sound like a gunshot, shattering the silence of the woodland.

He paused, listening. The hairs on the back of his neck rose, his palms sweating. He rubbed them against his corduroy trousers. It was a scrap of material, he reasoned as he continued his approach through the eerily silent forest, his skin crawling as he imagined a thousand eyes upon him.

He saw the hand first. Bone-white with blue blotches, fingers clawed, the nails seeming freakishly long and inhuman. It was a small hand, Hugo noted, feeling oddly detached. It was like the whole world slowed and tilted sideways and, if asked later, Hugo would say it was as though he didn’t inhabit his body in that moment but was above it, floating somewhere in the bare canopy of the tree branches, looking down on himself as he looked down on that hand.

The hand was attached to an arm, clad in a tweed overcoat which seemed too big and bulky for the frail form it contained, and the arm led to a body: a small body, light, contorted at the oddest angles, like a broken, discarded doll. The paisley was a headscarf, Hugo now saw, hanging in tatters around a face frozen in the rictus of death, its mouth open in a final, eternal scream.

Hugo’s gorge rose and he staggered back, a shaking hand over his mouth as his stomach heaved, sending him into a fit of dry retches. He stood trembling for long moments, trying to calm his thundering heart and queasy gut while his brain pieced together what he had seen.

A blue eye, cloudy with cataracts, glazed and fixed in wide astonishment. A lined face, elderly, skin which in life would have been papery and marbled with bluish veins now chalk-white and waxy. Long wisps of grey hair, threaded with silver. A bun, perhaps, untangled in a struggle. For surely there must have been a struggle. The old woman had not come to these lonely woods to die, of that Hugo was certain. Scratches on her exposed wrist, the torn headscarf, and the ugly, gaping wound in her chest attested to the fact her death had been a violent one.

Hugo had only seen one dead body before. His mama had passed badly enough, taken by a fever which produced hot and cold sweats, shakes, and a hacking cough. For day after endless day, Hugo had watched her disintegrate before him, one piece of flaking skin, one gob of mucus at a time, until there was nothing left but an empty husk and a death-rattle which seemed to go on and on.

Yes, his mama’s death had been bad enough, but nothing compared with how this woman had met her grisly end.

Moved now by empathy—for the body had once been alive, and not so long ago: someone’s friend, or wife, or mother—Hugo approached again, fighting down the rising tide of nausea from his roiling stomach. He knew very little about death, about the decomposition of the human body, but the corpse was intact and seemed frozen stiff, although as a result of rigor mortis or simply a night exposed to the elements in the wintry woods, Hugo couldn’t tell.

He should get help, he realised. There was a small police station in the town. One of the local constables could take over, could offer Hugo a soothing cup of sweet tea and ask clipped, businesslike questions about the discovery.

A fresh panic overcame Hugo as he realised he hadn’t worn his wristwatch, didn’t even know what time it was. What would he say when the constable asked him the simplest of questions? What would they think when he didn’t know the answers? Would he look guilty? And what if—Heaven forbid—he ran all the way to the town, brought the constable back to the woods, and couldn’t find the body again? The pathway had few distinguishing features, the bare forest like a warren, a maze of never changing scenery. How would he ever find this exact spot again?

Hugo took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. He was an intelligent man, a sensible man. The logical thing would be to leave a marker on the path so he could be sure of the location. If only he had worn his woollen scarf! He fumbled in his pockets, groping for anything which could be of use. He thumbed a large copper penny, the old notion of placing coins over a corpse’s eyes to pay the ferryman occurring to him. The stuff of superstition, of course, and besides, he couldn’t touch the body. Hugo at least knew that.

He was still fumbling in his pockets when the silence of the forest was broken by a slow scraping sound. Hugo froze, all the hairs on the back of his neck rising once more, listening as the strangely metallic scrape, scrape moved closer.

Palms slicked with cold and nervous sweat, Hugo took short, shallow breaths, and hoped the thunder of his heart was not audible through his sensible layers of winter woollens and overcoat. The sound moved closer, an irregular, unearthly thing, and Hugo’s imagination ran riot, conjuring the shining sickle of Death himself, scratching a path through the bare branches of the trees.

The mist swirled through the woods in a confounding eddy of movement and shadow, separating here to reveal only the silent, unmoving trees, and thickening there to the density of a body, a misshapen body, dark and malevolent. And still the sound came closer.

A swirl of fog to Hugo’s right made him start, half-turned towards the path to flee, an alarmed cry lodged deep in his throat. At the last instant he recovered, recalled that grown men didn’t scream and run from imaginary terrors, and held his ground, hypnotised by the darkening shadow of a figure, grotesquely outlined by a shaft of sunlight streaming through the canopy behind it.

The shadow moved closer until Hugo could discern the shape of a man about his own height, maybe an inch or two shorter. Not a big man at all. Slim of frame, although broad in the shoulders, their breadth emphasised by the square cut of a thick wax jacket edged in leather. The man wore a dark cap pulled low over his face so all that was visible to Hugo was a granite jaw peppered with two or three days’ growth. His hands were surprisingly slender, the fingers long and almost delicate, although roughened and calloused, tobacco-yellowed, and blotchy red in the cold air.

The scraping sound, Hugo now saw, was caused by a shovel the man dragged carelessly, bumping and catching at the sparse undergrowth and the hard-packed ground. It slid over an exposed rock and there—scraaaape—was the sound which had caused Hugo’s heart to thunder so. But the man also dragged something else, something even more terrible than a shovel in the woods on a cold October morning, for in the same hand as the shovel he gripped the drawstring of a hessian sack, seeping and stained with blood.

Hugo’s terror rose to fever pitch as the figure advanced towards him—towards the body hidden in the cold, lonely woods, where nobody ever went—and just as Hugo was about to pass out or run, the man looked up, paralysing him with his black-eyed stare, with eyes as black as sin.

The Coward's Way #2
 Hugo Wainwright smiled grimly at his reflection in the bathroom mirror as his face emerged from a thin layer of shaving cream, smooth square slabs of skin exposed by the blade of his straight razor. He must be losing his faculties to have allowed himself to be talked into attending the annual Winter Ball at Crowe Hall, the local manor house. 

Every year Robert Fairfax, Viscount Crowe, opened his home to the employees of his estate and the worthy townsfolk of Puddledown. It was a tradition held as long as Hugo could recall—aside from those years during the war when the Hall had been put to use as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers—and no doubt spanned the centuries, one esteemed Lord after another offering a benevolent hand to the simple folks who lived and worked on his land. Hugo’s late mother, Constance, had always received a special invite, guest of honour as one of the nurses employed to tend the soldiers brought back from the Front following the First War, but since her passing, back in the winter of ’45, Hugo had declined his invitations. 

For three years, he had managed to avoid the Winter Balls. Three years blessedly free of an evening which was, for quiet, withdrawn Hugo, nothing but a torment. He had never fared well amid people, preferring instead his own company to the idle chatter of the church ladies or the overly-hearty backslapping of the men. If it hadn’t been for Tommy, Hugo wouldn’t be attending at all. 

As the newly-employed groundskeeper for the Crowe estate, Thomas Granger had of course received an invitation written on thick, gilt-edged paper and delivered personally to his little cabin in the woods by one of the footmen. Tommy had shown it to Hugo, his dark eyes— almost black, but not quite—bright with anticipation. Hugo couldn’t bear to be the one to wipe the happy expression from his friend’s face, and had assented to attend with barely a ripple of protest. 

Now here he was, shaving with extraordinary care at four in the afternoon, his black suit laid neatly on his bed, waiting to once more be pressed into service. At least this time it would not be for a funeral. Hugo wiped his chin with a rough cloth, removing the last of the residue from the shaving lather, wondering if Tommy was even now following the same routine. 

Tommy shaved only sporadically, and Hugo didn’t think he’d ever seen his friend completely free of the beard stubble which so scandalised the ladies of the town. Stubble that scratched his cheeks and chin when Tommy kissed him, an erotic rasp which sent a spike of lust through Hugo’s veins at its sheer maleness. Kissing Tommy was rapidly becoming Hugo’s favourite pastime, and he found it hard to believe how hesitant he’d first been to indulge. 

Much had changed in the two months since Hugo met Tommy. Their friendship had blossomed under the most unlikely of circumstances: stumbling across a murdered body in the woods on the out- skirts of Puddledown, a short distance from Tommy’s cabin. Then again, perhaps such traumatic experiences had always brought people together, forged friendships when there was precious little else in common. 

Hugo couldn’t say what had first drawn him to the enigmatic groundskeeper—or rather, he couldn’t bring himself to say. The attraction he felt towards Tommy had been there from the first, even when he’d suspected the man of being guilty of the crime they uncovered. The police inspector certainly believed Tommy guilty, and even now, despite the real killer having been unmasked, he gave the groundskeeper and Hugo a wide berth whenever their paths crossed. 

It made Hugo uneasy that people might suppose there was more to his friendship with Tommy than was strictly proper. It was criminal, to be as they were—to act upon it, at any rate. A senseless, ridiculous crime, when they both consented and hurt nobody, but Inspector Owens would still see them clapped in irons for it were they ever to be discovered. 

Tommy seemed not to care. Tommy was young and fearless, had taken lovers in the past, and was wont to forget himself in the most inop- portune of places. Then again, Hugo suspected Tommy rather enjoyed the thrill, the possibility of discovery, or else desired to be discovered, like he believed himself deserving of punishment. The men in Tommy’s past had been worthless scoundrels who cared nothing for his sweet nature, who sought only to slake their lusts upon his body and leave. Hugo’s gorge rose as he thought of them, a low growl rumbling in his throat as he gripped the handle of the straight razor a little too tightly, his knuckles ivory-pale around it. 

Those men still knew Tommy in a way Hugo did not. After a life- time of self-imposed restraint, even kissing had taken all Hugo’s courage, and the thought of acting upon his baser desires left him feeling dirty and confused. He was not like those other men, and didn’t want to become so. Tommy deserved someone who appreciated him, who cherished him for who he was, not what he could offer. 

Hugo placed the blade on the edge of the sink, hung the rough cloth over the lip of the bath to dry, and forced himself to dress. He’d only worn this particular suit twice before: first at his mama’s funeral, then again at the funeral of old Mrs Fairchild, the murderer’s first victim. The body Hugo and Tommy had stumbled across that fateful day in the woods. 

Hugo suppressed a shudder as he ran his hands over the front of his neat white shirt, checking for wrinkles. Tommy had been arrested on the day of the funeral, and Hugo still felt the bitter tang of panic as he re- called his frantic conversation with Constable Jimmy Cooper the day he’d read in the newspaper that his friend was in gaol. Jimmy’s leering insinuations, and his absolute conviction in Tommy’s guilt. His grim prophecy of the hangman’s noose. 

It didn’t happen. Hugo forced himself to remember Tommy’s name had been cleared, his innocence proven beyond doubt. No black- clothed judge waited in Tommy’s future to pass the final sentence. Still, Hugo knew his friend blamed himself for the old woman’s death, and that of the young man who had met his end in the same woods a week later. Their murders had been a message, the killer the father of a man whom Tommy had befriended during the war. Reg Davies blamed Tommy for his son’s death at Dunkirk, and had determined to punish Tommy by murdering everyone the groundskeeper held dear, Hugo included. 

But Hugo wasn’t thinking about the night Reg finally came for him, the night he’d stared his own mortality in the face and believed himself a goner. Tommy had saved his life that night, then they had watched, horror-struck, as Reg turned the knife with which he’d murdered Mrs Fairchild and Archie Bucket upon himself. Hugo had waited with the dying man while Tommy ran to fetch help from the town, so it had been Hugo who’d watched the light leave Reg’s eyes, listening to the man gargle his own blood, spitting curses all the while. 

Too soon. Much, much too soon. He still saw those moments in his dreams, and woke sweating and screaming into his counterpane, trembling from head to foot. He daren’t tell even Tommy he was having nightmares, profoundly ashamed of himself for being unable to stomach one death when his friend had seen so many. Tommy had been a soldier, as had almost every other man in Puddledown. Only Hugo had remained behind, escaping conscription by finding employment as master of the town school. 

After the war ended, Hugo had gratefully handed his responsibilities over to the original schoolmaster and returned to his quiet life working as Arts and Literature correspondent for the Gazette. For three years, nothing changed. Then he met Tommy, and everything had changed at once. 

Hugo fastened his white bowtie, tweaking the ends just so, then shrugged on his black jacket. He hoped he looked respectable enough for such a formal occasion. Not as formal as other balls Viscount Crowe was used to hosting, he was sure, but all the townsfolk would be there, dressed in their finest and judging their neighbours if so much as a stray hair was out of place. Hugo ran an anxious hand over his neatly Bryl- creemed wave. He would be arriving alone, the very thought of appearing on Tommy’s arm too shocking to bear, but he wished with all his heart they could walk into the imposing hall together, as other couples were able to do. 

He could use some of Tommy’s courage, his unshakable confidence in everything turning out all right. Tommy had smiled, then laughed, when Hugo confessed to nerves the previous evening, chucked him under the chin and kissed him so thoroughly all his doubts were chased away in an instant. Tommy had pressed Hugo up against the back of the old horsehair sofa which dominated his small cabin and ground their bodies together, cupping his face in rough hands, anchoring him in the safety and security of their embrace. 

Hugo felt the tether of that anchor still, a slim thread winding its way through the woods and into his home, into his heart. Foolish sentiment, to have fallen so thoroughly for Tommy, and so quickly. Yet miracle of miracles, Tommy seemed to reciprocate Hugo’s feelings. 

The thought warmed him, saw him through donning his overcoat and exiting the house. The air was brisk, his breath billowing in the darkness of the late December day, the sun having already set behind the woods Tommy called home. Crowe Hall lay on the other side of those woods, but Hugo set off in the opposite direction, along Ferndale Lane towards the town centre. 

The new electric lights shone brightly on Main Street, illuminating the small group collected outside the local tavern, the Crowe Arms. The old-fashioned carriages the Viscount had provided to ferry partygoers to and from the ball were waiting patiently, the light thrown from the pub windows and streetlamps flashing off the buckles and fastenings of bits and bridles as the horses tossed their heads. Hugo found a seat in a carriage beside Mr Ponsonby, the rector, and his wife, and opposite the Reverend Brown, who was accompanied by his wife, Edith. The women chattered happily as the carriage swayed along the rutted lanes around the wood, but Hugo chose to ignore them, watching shadows pass by through the small side window. 

He supposed Tommy would walk to the manor. Tommy wasn’t the sort to mind if he arrived at the Hall with mud on his boots or his hair out of place. What would the other guests think of him? Hugo met the glass eyes of the fox strung around Mrs Ponsonby’s neck with apprehension. He had been like that fur once: a dead thing which looked fine enough on display but didn’t engage. Yet the fox had once been alive, had run through the woods, careless and free. Hugo didn’t think he’d ever been truly alive before he met Tommy. 

The vicar looked neat in a dark suit, the white of his clerical collar standing out in stark contrast. His wife wore a blue dress with a fashionably cinched waist, the silk flowers in her hat dyed to match. Mr Ponsonby wore full white tie, the jacket looking a little tight around the shoulders, his shirtfront overly starched. Hugo felt sure he must be uncomfortable, but he couldn’t imagine Mrs Ponsonby allowing her husband to attend in anything less. The lady herself was enrobed in a riot of colour, so much that Hugo got a headache looking in her direction. Her conservatively-cut frock was an old-fashioned floral print, with one too many fussy details added in lace. The fox around her neck looked positively doleful to find itself part of such a brash ensemble. 

The darkness outside the window was broken by the distant lights of the Hall, crouched amid sloping lawns at the end of a long gravelled drive. The carriage swayed as they turned through the gates, the rhythmic clop clop of the horses’ hooves softening to the crunch and skitter of stones. Mr Ponsonby dusted his top hat, and Edith Brown pulled her shawl closer about her shoulders as they approached the edifice, the guests making minor adjustments to their appearance in preparation for being judged by their peers and betters. Hugo again ran a nervous hand over his sandy hair, checking it was still neatly held in place. He wished fervently that Tommy was by his side, even as he acknowledged the futility of such wishes. The carriage rolled to a stop and, clearing his throat, Hugo followed the other occupants out into the cool, crisp night. 

The Poison Pen #3
It was a pleasant morning in February of 1949, and spring seemed to have come early to the small English town of Puddledown. Hugo Wainwright had risen with the dawn and now, still a little before nine o’clock, the sun was already shining brightly through the window in Hugo’s kitchen, a chorus of twittering sparrows serenading him from the hedgerows as he stoked a small fire in the open range, placed a kettle on the hob to boil, and laid out teapot, cup, and saucer on his table. 

The kettle had just begun to whistle when a familiar head passed by the window, and a moment later, Tommy Granger let himself in. 

“Good timing,” Hugo said, greeting Tommy with a kiss. “Kettle’s just boiled.” 

Tommy grinned and sat at the table as Hugo set out an extra mug and glass ashtray, and filled the teapot. Tommy removed his flat cap, lit a cigarette, and relaxed in his chair, idly stirring his tea while he waited for it to cool. 

It wasn’t unknown for Hugo and Tommy to share a companionable breakfast, but it was unusual to find Tommy in Hugo’s kitchen so early on a morning when he hadn’t spent the previous night. As groundskeeper for the Crowe Estate, Tommy lived a little way out of Puddledown, managing the woods in which he lived, plus the acres of open land surrounding the Hall, where Viscount Crowe kept horses and livestock. The Estate itself comprised much of the county, but the vast majority was leased to tenant farmers. Still, there was more than enough work to keep one man busy, and Hugo rather suspected they’d had an easy time of it over the winter. Come summer, he doubted he’d see Tommy barely at all. 

“Looks nice out,” Hugo observed, slicing a crusty loaf of bread he’d procured the previous day from Mrs May at the bakery and spearing the rounds on the tines of a large fork for toasting over the open fire. 

“It is.” Tommy nodded. “It’d be fine for May, this weather.” 

“Forecast says it’s set to stay for the month.” 

“That’ll be good. I can get a start on some of the jobs I’ve had backin’ up.” 

“Is that what you plan for today?” Hugo asked, removing the browned slices of bread and turning them to toast the other side. He didn’t like to intrude on Tommy’s work and couldn’t understand why the man would make the effort to call on him if he had chores which needed doing. 

Tommy took a drag of his cigarette, rolled the lit end delicately against the edges of the ashtray to remove the excess ash, and contem- plated the pointed tip he’d created. “Mebbe.” 

“Tommy, is something wrong?” As a rule, Hugo disliked con- frontation, but his friend appeared to be out of sorts, and he disliked that even more. Ever since he’d met Tommy, some four months earlier, he’d found himself acting more and more in a manner he would once have considered out of character. He supposed at this point, he would be better off accepting that his character had changed. Drab, dull Hugo Wainwright was no more: in his place stood a man in every way his better—no matter what the law had to say on the matter. 

Tommy, with a great show of reluctance, took a crumpled envelope from his jacket pocket and tossed it onto the table. 

Removing the toast from the fire—the rounds weren’t quite done, but they were close enough—Hugo shook them gently off the fork onto a plate and placed it on the table beside the envelope, noting it hadn’t been opened. 

“What is it?” he asked, straining for nonchalance as he lifted the lid from the butter dish and set it and a knife on the table. 

“It’s from our Beth.” Tommy’s sister, Hugo knew. From what he understood, they had rather lost contact when she married a vicar and moved with him to Scarborough. Tommy’s mother now lived with her, too. 

“Why ever haven’t you opened it?” Hugo asked, sitting opposite. “I should have thought you’d have been thrilled to hear from her.” 

“I’ve had several letters,” Tommy admitted, stubbing his cigarette in the ashtray and repositioning himself on his chair. He wouldn’t meet Hugo’s eyes, and his dark hair was sticking out at all angles from the back of his head, usually the result of him running a nervous hand through it. 

“And you didn’t tell me?” Hugo couldn’t keep the hurt out of his voice. Tommy’s family was important, and although they could never know him for who he was in Tommy’s life, Hugo hadn’t thought the reverse was true: that Tommy would keep from telling him about them. 

“It weren’t supposed to be anythin’ much,” Tommy said, having the grace to colour slightly. “After that business with Reg Davies.... Well, he said he’d been there, didn’t he? To Scarborough. I needed to know they was all right.” 

“And are they?” Hugo asked, fresh worry gripping him. Reg Davies had been a madman who blamed Tommy for the death of his son. He had planned to murder Tommy, but not before he killed everyone Tommy held dear first. Hugo felt he was only just beginning to put the night Reg had come for them behind him, and he still flinched whenever he heard his name. He hadn’t thought, in all the time which had passed since, of the safety of Tommy’s family. He felt an utter heel for not suggesting Tommy contact them. 

Tommy shrugged. “Beth says so.” 

“Well what’s preventing you from opening this letter, then?” 

Tommy hung his head. “I invited them to stay,” he admitted. 

“You did what?” 

“It were a spur of the moment thing.” Tommy looked at him, brown eyes wide. “An’ now our Beth’s replied, an’ I don’t know which is worse, if she says she’ll come or not. An’ I feel like a fool for not knowin’.” 

“Now then.” Hugo reached across the table and took Tommy’s hand. “It’s perfectly understandable you’d be conflicted. You haven’t seen them for a long time, and you miss them, but at the same time, you value your independence. That’s not so unusual.” 

“Would you open it?” Tommy asked quietly. 

“Of course, if that’s what you’d prefer.” Hugo released Tommy’s hand and took up the envelope. “Are you sure?” he asked, and at Tommy’s nod, he ripped it open. 

Beth Stone wrote with a small, neat hand in black ink. The paper was expensive and bore the letterhead of the diocese of York, where her husband, the Reverend Daniel Stone, was incumbent. It took Hugo a moment to decipher the handwriting and pass over the usual opening of greeting and well-wishes to get to the crux of the matter. “They’re coming,” he said. “All three of them.” 

“They ain’t!” Tommy snatched the letter to read it for himself. “Oh Lord,” he said, slumping in his chair. “I never expected her to bring him.” 

That Tommy had a fraught relationship with his brother-in-law, Hugo already knew. How much the Rev. Stone actually understood of Tommy’s nature, however, was a mystery. 

“I’m sure it’ll be all right,” he said in an effort to be consoling. “You’ll get a chance to see your mother and sister again. Look at it that way.” 

“There is that,” Tommy grudgingly conceded. “But where am I going to put them up? It says here Daniel’s got a fortnight off, an’ I can’t afford to lodge them in the coach house for two whole weeks.” 

“They can stay here,” Hugo suggested. 

“I can’t let you do that,” Tommy exclaimed. 

“Of course you can. I’ve got two bedrooms.” 

“An’ where will you sleep?” 

“I’ll stay with you.” 

Tommy pulled a face. “I can’t see Daniel acceptin’ that.” 

“Folks do it all the time,” Hugo said easily. “You’ve got a sofa. I’ll say I’m sleeping there.” 

“An’ let them think they’re puttin’ you out of a bed, when you’re a stranger to them?” Tommy shook his head. “It ain’t goin’ to work. I’ll have to speak to Lord Crowe, see if he can forward me some of my wages.” 

Hugo didn’t doubt the Viscount would forward the money and more, happily, given that only days before Christmas he’d offered Tommy the sum of five thousand pounds as reward for his part in convincing his runaway daughter to return home. Money Tommy had refused at the time, seeing no need to have such a large fortune to his name. 

Still, Hugo disliked the idea of Tommy going cap-in-hand to his employer, no matter how highly the man thought of him, and it was a terrible way to squander Tommy’s hard-earned wages when there was no need to go to such expense. 

“I insist,” Hugo said firmly. “If they’re here for a fortnight, I assume I’ll be meeting them anyway, in the guise of friend. For all they know, I’m a little eccentric and enjoy spending my nights on my friends’ furniture.” 

Tommy laughed grudgingly at that. “They’ll think you’re queer all right,” he said. “Do you really mean it?” 

“I wouldn’t have offered if I didn’t.” Hugo smiled at his friend. “I must confess to an ulterior motive, however. The thought of having an excuse for spending two weeks sleeping in your cabin is simply too good to pass up.” 

Tommy smiled properly at that, his dark eyes dancing with mischievous intent. “There is that.” 

It wasn’t like Hugo hadn’t spent many nights with Tommy over the previous four months, but there was always the concern of being seen, of his neighbours noticing the nights his house was left empty, or the mornings on which Tommy snuck out before dawn. He and Tommy lived and loved outside the law, and it would never do for them to forget that fact, no matter how improbable or unfair it seemed. 

Hugo knew he couldn’t meet Tommy’s family as the man who loved him—couldn’t ask his mother’s permission to court her son, couldn’t greet his sister as his own—but he still wanted to make a good impression. He realised he wanted them to approve of him, in whatever small way; he wanted them to be happy he was part of Tommy’s life. Hugo liked to think his mama would have accepted Tommy, although she had passed long before they’d met. He only hoped he could earn the respect of Tommy’s family during the short time they were visiting. 

Author Bio:
Born in Liverpool, Kate Aaron is a bestselling author of the #1 LGBT romances What He Wants, Ace, The Slave, and other works.

She holds a BA (Hons) in English Language and Literature, and an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture, and is an outspoken advocate for equal rights.

Kate swapped the North West for the Midwest in October 2015 and married award-winning author AJ Rose. Together they plan to take over the world.


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