Saturday, November 10, 2018

Veteran's Day 2018: 100th Anniversary of the Armistice Part 2


I have always focused my Veteran's Day blog post on WW1 & post-WW1 era LGBT stories so with 2018 being the 100th anniversary of the Amistice, this year's posts features a collection of my favorite WW1/post-war era M/M romances and gay fiction.  These are stories that even if you don't normally read LGBTQ+ genre or generally not a fan of historicals, I highly recommend and think you will still enjoy.  They are tales of strength, resilience, overcoming adversity, they will break your heart one minute and warm the soul the next.  Along the way Armistice Day became Veteran's Day and we need to honor all veterans every day but somewhere in the name switch many forget why November 11 is important, why that date was chosen.  So as the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month approaches remember why this date was chosen and why we should never forget those who served in the Great War.

Part 1  /  Part 3

All Lessons Learned by Charlie Cochrane
Summary:
The Great War is over. Freed from a prisoner of war camp and back at St. Bride’s College, Orlando Coppersmith is discovering what those years have cost....

All he holds dear—including his beloved Jonty Stewart, lost in combat.

Then a commission to investigate a young officer’s disappearance temporarily gives Orlando new direction... The deceptively simple case becomes a maze of conflicting stories—is Daniel McNeil a deserter, or a hero?—taking Orlando into the world of the shell-shocked and broken. And his sense of Jonty’s absence becomes painfully acute. Especially when a brief spark of attraction for a Cambridge historian, instead of offering comfort, triggers overwhelming guilt.

As he hovers on the brink of despair, a chance encounter on the French seafront at Cabourg brings new hope and unexpected joy. But the crushing after-effects of war could destroy his second chance, leaving him more lost and alone than ever…

Original Review August 2014:
This was definitely the most emotional entry in the series so far. Recovering from the war, dealing with loss, trying to return to "normal" life, and a mystery that seems to embody all those elements as well. Definitely a multi-hankie read. Not much I can say about this one other than it plays havoc on your heart, even pretty much knowing what the outcome will be from the very beginning. A true example of how the greatness of a story isn't always in where it ends but the getting there. I'm eager to read number 9 & 10 but as I didn't look into it ahead of time, I have to wait for the paperbacks to arrive as they aren't yet available in ebook form, at least that I've discovered. Once they arrive I will be digging in immediately.

RATING: 

Bonds of Earth by GN Chevalier
Summary:
In 1918, Michael McCready returned from the war with one goal: to lose himself in the pursuit of pleasure. Once a promising young medical student, Michael buried his dreams alongside the broken bodies of the men he could not save. After fleeing New York to preserve the one relationship he still values, he takes a position as a gardener on a country estate, but he soon discovers that the house hides secrets and sorrows of its own. While Michael nurses the estate’s neglected gardens, his reclusive employer dredges up reminders of the past Michael is desperate to forget.

John Seward’s body was broken by the war, along with his will to recover until a family crisis convinces him to pursue treatment. As John’s health and outlook improve under Michael’s care, animosity yields to understanding. He and John find their battle of wills turning into something stronger, but fear may keep them from finding hope and healing in each other.

Original Review February 2015:
I found both Michael and John to be what some might call damaged, I personally found them complex but not damaged.  Having survived the Great War, had they not had issues I would have found the story lacking. This touches on what they saw and felt without being overrun with those horrors taking away from their story of surviving.  I also found myself falling in love with the supporting cast, not an easy accomplishment in my opinion.  Secondary characters are obviously important to the story but to make the reader fall for them and still keep them as secondary is not always met.  I've been in a historical mood lately, especially concentrating on the Great War era, Bonds of Earth was an excellent addition to my library.

RATING: 

The Captain and the Cavalry Trooper by Catherine Curzon & Eleanor Harkstead
Summary:
As the Great War tears Europe apart, two men from different worlds find sanctuary in each other’s arms.

Captain Robert Thorne is the fiercest officer in the regiment. Awaiting the command to go to the front, he has no time for simpering, comely lads. That’s until one summer day in 1917 when his dark, flashing eye falls upon the newest recruit at Chateau de Desgravier, a fresh-faced farmer’s boy with little experience of life and a wealth of poetry in his heart.

Trooper Jack Woodvine has a way with strong, difficult stallions, and whispers them to his gentle will. Yet even he has never tamed a creature like Captain Thorne.

With the shadow of the Great War and the scheming of enemies closer to home threatening their fleeting chance at happiness, can the Captain and the Cavalry Trooper make it home safely? More importantly, will they see peacetime together?

💥Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of violence, some of which is homophobic, and a brief scene of sexual assault.💥 

Original Review April 2018:
When Trooper Jack Woodvine arrives at Chateau de Desgravier, he takes a liking to Apollo, a horse that frightens most of the other grooms.  When Jack meets Apollo's rider, Captain Robert Thorne, he's not sure which is more in need of tempered care.  Their love of Apollo brings together these two soldiers in a time when the end could be just over the next hill but is it enough when Jack is given his orders to return home and Robert is sent to the front?

I love World War 1 era stories and there just isn't enough in the M/M genre, so when I come across one I jump at the chance to read it.  I may be a bit of a history buff but I will be the first to admit that as much as I am fascinated by the era, WW1 is a time that I have limited knowledge of so I can't speak to all the accuracy of The Captain and the Cavalry Trooper however I do think the emotions of the time are pretty spot on.

Jack's desire to care for Apollo and Robert, Robert's desire to see Jack safe, Apollo's devotion to both men.  Some might say its a little over the top in regards to love and sweetness in a time of war but I don't see it as OTT, I see it as living while you can.  Tales like Jack and Robert may not be commonplace in regards to the Great War but its not entirely unheard of either.  Afterall, this is work of fiction in a historical setting so there is definitely room for creative tampering and I think the authors balance accuracy with said tampering very well.

The Captain and the Cavalry Trooper is a well written tale of historical love with intriguing characters, both main and secondary,  filled to the brim with romance, drama, lust, desire, and enemies.  Talking about enemies, I won't give anything away but let me just say that there is a couple of secondary characters in here that I longed to see them get what was coming to them but you'll have to read for yourself if they do😉.  This is a lovely addition to my historical shelf.

RATING: 

The Fortune Hunter by Bonnie Dee
Summary:
A man with nothing finds everything.

Abandoned at birth, WWI veteran Hal Stanton faces bleak employment prospects in post-war London. Desperation spurs him to reinvent himself to hook a wealthy wife, one he will be devoted to even if he feels no real passion. But when he meets his fiance’s cousin, Julian Needham, it’s all he can do to keep his heart in check and his eye on the prize.

From the moment he’s introduced to the charming stranger Margaret plans to marry, Julian suspects the man’s motives yet fights a relentless attraction. He’s determined to reveal Hal as a fraud but must handle the matter delicately to protect his sweet cousin’s feelings. A weekend at the family estate should allow time and opportunity for him to expose Halstead Wiley.

Even as the men match wits in a battle of attempted unmasking, powerful sexual attraction threatens to overcome them both and win the day. Can a true love connection possibly grow between these adversaries without destroying lives and loved ones?

Original Review February 2018:
Upon returning from the war, Hal Stanton finds employment hard to come by so he decides to become something he's not and hook a wealthy wife.  Julian Needham has kept himself away from the family trying to run from the guilt he felt over his last meeting with his brother and not having reconciled before his death.  Once Julian meets his cousin's fiancee, he's determined to prove he isn't the Hal Stanton he's presenting himself as.  When the attraction between the two blossoms will the truth of Hal's identity get in the way?

It's no secret that I am a huge historical fan and if you follow my blog it will also come as no surprise that I love historicals with Bonnie Dee's name attached.  Well, The Fortune Hunter is no exception.  Post-WW1 is a time frame that I don't think is explored nearly enough so when I find one I gobble it up and I was not disappointed with Fortune.  Miss Dee has a way that lets the reader feel as if you looked out your front window, 2018 would disappear and 1920 would be the world you saw.  From the scenery to the dialogue to the emotions, its all so authentic and obviously respectfully researched, which only heightens the reading experience for me.

As for the characters, well what's not to like?  You got Hal who hasn't exactly been dealt a winning hand in life and you got Julian who has always felt like the spare.  I couldn't make up mind most of the time whether to wrap them up in a big bear hug to show my love and support or to whack them upside the head until they sat down and talked properly.  When an author can make the reader feel such conflicting emotions and still leave them happily entertained, for me that is what makes a good book.  I highly recommend giving this story a chance because whether you like historicals or not, The Fortune Hunter is a well written tale with interesting and intriguing characters that left a smile on my face and frankly I can't ask for more when it comes to my reading.

RATING: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 


All Lessons Learned by Charlie Cochrane
High Table was excellent as always and coffee back in the SCR was almost as good as the stuff Matthew had tasted in Boston with Rex. “I didn’t think you could get coffee like this in England. Camp Coffee seems to be the standard fayre and that’s hardly worth the effort of putting in the hot water.”

“Might as well drink diluted shoe polish,” Orlando agreed, with a smile. “The world’s changing, Mr. Ainslie, and I’m not sure I like the way it’s turning out.” Outside the security of his study they were back to surnames, just as it had always been his custom with Jonty. They wouldn’t change things, especially now the driving force for change had gone. “Goodnight, Dr. Panesar.” Orlando waved a greeting as the man in question departed, grinning madly as he dragged a poor unsuspecting guest off to the labs to show him his latest heap of metal masquerading as a technological breakthrough.

“He was on good form tonight. Certainly lights this place up.” Matthew tipped his head towards the other occupants of the SCR, only half a dozen remaining now and three of those apparently asleep.

“Aye, Panesar keeps this college alive at times. All the rest seem to have descended into semi-torpor.” Just so must life in St. Bride’s have been prior to 1905.

The comparative solitude gave the opportunity to speak more openly than usual in this room. “Why did you sign up for the army? You were doing such a worthwhile job already in Room 40.”

“Worthwhile? I suppose it must have been. It was certainly safe, if you’re really asking why anyone should turn up a cushy number in search of a surefire way of getting himself killed.” Orlando couldn’t hide the bitterness in his voice.

“I’m not asking that. It just occurred to me that your brain was maybe more usefully employed doing things that only men of your intelligence could do.”

“As opposed to being cannon-fodder like any other man with two arms and two legs and who cares how much brain?” Orlando frowned, passing his hand over his face. “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. Your argument’s a fair one and I had it put to me on more than one occasion. How best to serve my country and all that.” He closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead as if soothing away the years. “Too many of them had died, Mr. Ainslie. My students. Did you know the Stewarts turned the Manor into a sort of hospital-cum-convalescent home? Opened the doors to a stream of soldiers—not just officers, other ranks as well—who needed some peace and quiet and care. My Italian sort-of-cousin took charge of the medical side and Mrs. Stewart was quartermistress.”

“Ah, the Italian connection.” Matthew grinned. “I saw the Baron Artigiano del Rame in The Times recently, taking over as chairman of Mrs. Stewart’s charity for—what did she call them? Unfortunate girls.”

“That’s the one.” Orlando couldn’t hide his pride in the family he’d never known he had, not until he was a grown man. “They’ve become quite pally, the houses of Coppersmith—Italian version—and Stewart. There’ll be an intermarriage with one of the latest batch of offspring, no doubt. One of Paolo’s girls and young George Broad is where the smart money lies.” Shame the really great love match between the two families could never have been officially recognised.

“Do you see a lot of them?”

“Not as much as I should, I suppose. I like them, don’t get me wrong, and they’ve welcomed me beyond all I could have hoped for, but it’s not like it was with the Stewarts.” Once experienced, nothing could compare to that family’s love and generosity.

“The hospital at the Manor…” Matthew brought the conversation back before the silence became awkward.

“Of course. I went down and visited one of my ex-students there.” Orlando shuddered in remembrance. “Physically it looked as if nothing had touched him and his mathematical capabilities were all still there, better than most of my dunderheads. But something had snapped inside him.”

Matthew nodded. “Never to be put together, no matter what any of the king’s horses or men could do?”

“It was that visit which made up my mind for me. How could I sit in a safe little room playing with letters and numbers when young men I’d had in my study trying to understand vectors, were being sacrificed? Little more than boys, who’d not seen anything of life, some of them.”

“So young.” Matthew shook his head, staring into his coffee cup. So many fresh faced lads he’d seen, passing through on their way to the front, enthusiastic and emboldened. He’d seen a few of them passing back—broken shells, bare remnants of humanity.

“So many.” The silence of the SCR was broken only by a murmuring from the other end of the room, one whispered conversation and the droning of gentle snores. “We had to go. We couldn’t not go, in all conscience.”

“At least you didn’t have to lie about your ages.”

“We’d have only had to if we’d been quick off the mark. By 1916, they weren’t so choosy.”

“I wish they’d been more scrupulous. Dear God, some of the lads I saw looked no more than schoolboys.” Such meticulous and painstaking checking there’d been at some of the recruitment centres, such desperation to get bodies into the system. Seventeen, did you say? Go out and come back in and then answer the question again, there’s a good man. Babes in arms, literally.

“There were times I didn’t think there’d be one of us left standing.”

“I still can’t believe I’ll never see Mrs. Stewart again. Oh, I’m sorry.” Matthew worried whether he’d overstepped the line, if the pain of bereavement was still too close for anything more than formal expressions of condolence. Orlando’s face suggested too much hurt still lingered.

“No, please talk about them. So few people do talk of the dead.” Orlando managed an unexpected smile. “A world without Mrs. Stewart’s kind heart seems a much colder place. She meant a great deal to me.”

“I saw the obituaries in the papers, although they didn’t do either of their subjects justice.” Matthew drew out his wallet. “I kept the clippings, just in case you wanted them and hadn’t been able to get hold of the newspapers. I’ll understand if you would find them too painful.”

Orlando put out his hand, which was shaking slightly. “I’d appreciate them very much, thank you.” He took the little pieces of paper without reading them, putting them in his notebook for later scrutiny. Perhaps.

“It was the flu, they said, that took both of them. Or complications following it.” Matthew slipped his wallet back into his inside pocket, the action giving him time to choose his words. “The newspapers weren’t very clear.”

“Lavinia said they’d made a bit of a mess of things, one of the so-called correspondents getting all the details wrong. There was quite a stir, I believe, among the family.” Orlando studied his hands. “I wish I’d been here to help, to clear up the mess. I felt so bloody helpless, miles from anyone.”

The uncharacteristic swearing—especially in the SCR—the equally uncharacteristic baring of the Coppersmith soul, took Matthew aback. Still, it was understandable. He had Rex to tell his troubles to, if the occasion arose, but Orlando hadn’t a confidante in all the world, except for him.

“The news shook me up pretty badly. God knows, I saw enough death out there, but that…” he ran his hands through his hair, “…that was almost the last straw. Something snapped inside me.”

Matthew held his tongue. There’d been at least one occasion in the past when things had snapped, when things had overwhelmed Orlando to the extent he’d upped sticks and left, leaving Jonty and his family bereft and desperate to find their prodigal.

“I volunteered for a mission from which I didn’t expect to return.” Orlando raised his hand to prevent any interruption. “I was an idiot, I know. And apparently they didn’t expect me to return, either. Missing, presumed dead, that’s what everyone was told.”

“Couldn’t you get word back?”

“I did as soon as I could. Trouble is I was out for the count for a fortnight. I woke up in a German hospital and couldn’t even remember who I was for the first few days. Lost a lot of blood, with it.” Orlando passed his hand over his eyes, in remembrance of the previous time he’d lost his memory. Some mysterious part of his brain seemed inclined to shut down when it decided he needed protecting. “It seemed to take forever to get word back that I was still alive. It must have been the October of last year.”

Matthew waited as Orlando gathered himself again. He knew what it was like to lose someone you loved to a violent death, but for loss to have piled upon loss… No wonder something “had snapped”. Maybe it could never be repaired.

“I’m sorry, I sound like some snivelling child.”

“That’s fine, old man. God knows it doesn’t bother me.” Matthew reached into his pocket again. It was time for decisive action. “This may not be the opportune moment, but I’ve got something here—I’d be grateful if you could cast your eye, and your mind, over it.” He produced an envelope, which he put in Orlando’s shaking hand.

The effect was better than he’d hoped, his friend showing an instant, if slightly grave interest in the letter the envelope held. “It’s from Collingwood.” The genuine note of curiosity in Orlando’s voice was a good sign. “Isn’t he retired by now?”

“Do solicitors ever retire? He keeps his hand in, for favoured clients. He remembered the time you helped us and he wanted to turn to you again.” Matthew was heartened by the glint in his friend’s eye, one he hadn’t seen there for a long time. “If you’re still willing to take a commission.”

“Willing?” Orlando turned the letter in his hands, as if he was trying to remember what a commission might entail, why it was being brought to him. He smiled, suddenly and unexpectedly. “Of course I will. It’ll give me something to live for, Mr. Ainslie. I thought I would never have that feeling again.”

Bonds of Earth by GN Chevelier
Chapter One
April 1919
THE early spring evening still held a reminder of the winter’s chill, but as soon as Michael opened the door of the Saint Alexander’s Baths, it might as well have been high noon in the middle of summer. The sultry heat and humidity washed over him, drawing him inside and tugging him down the wide steps to the place that, for all its chipped paint and flickering Mazda lamps, had become his second home, his refuge.

By the time he reached Millie’s office, he had shed his jacket and collar and was working on the buttons of his vest. He was not looking forward to this conversation, but there was nothing else to be done. He had no choice.

“Darling! You’re early!” The sweet scent of Millie’s perfume momentarily drowned out the stronger odors of the bathhouse as she hugged him to her ample bosom. When she released him, she peered into his eyes, that sapphire-blue gaze seeing right through him, as it always had. “What’s the matter?”

Michael motioned her to her overstuffed chaise; she shot him another glance but did as he wished, and he sat in the chair opposite. “I wanted to let you know I have an interview tomorrow for a position. I’m probably going to get the job; my uncle’s all but fixed it.”

Millie pursed her rouged lips. “Refresh my memory, dear. You have so many relatives.”

“Padraig, my mother’s eldest brother. He’s a gardener—works for the City most of the time, though he also does some work for the types with mansions near the Park.”

“You’re going to work as… a gardener?” Millie’s sour expression made it clear what she thought of that idea. Reaching out, she gripped Michael’s broad hands in her finer ones. “Your poor, talented hands—you’ll ruin them!” she exclaimed in horror.

Michael squeezed her fingers before drawing away. “I’ll be fine. As Uncle Paddy says, it’s a good opportunity for a working man.” He forced a twisted smile that wasn’t intended to convince her of the statement.

Millie made a derisive noise. “Yes, well, you know what I think of that.” She sighed. “I suppose it’s not the end of the world. At least you should still have a bit of time to work here, especially in the winter.”

Michael shook his head, the rage he’d been feeling since hearing from his meddling bastard of an uncle threatening to stop his throat. “If this comes through, I’ll be leaving New York. One of the old blueblood biddies needs someone to tend her Hudson River estate. If I’m lucky, I’ll manage to visit Manhattan once a month, if that.”

Millie stared at him, her carefully plucked eyebrows climbing. “But why? Why leave the city? Everything is here.”

For a moment, Michael considered telling her. For all her flash, she was a kind-hearted soul, and she’d been a good friend to him over the years. All the more reason, though, not to burden her with his troubles. He knew full well she’d survived more than he ever had, and while she would be outraged on his behalf, it would do neither of them any good. Instead, he shrugged and murmured, “Time for a change, that’s all.”

Millie shook her head, then leaned forward slightly. “Have you given any more thought to what we talked about last week?”

Michael settled further into the chair. “You know I haven’t.”

Millie scowled, the deep lines revealing her age in a way that Michael was sure would horrify her. “If you’d just stop being such a—” she began hotly.

Cutting her off with a sharp gesture of his hand, he said, “I’m not going to take your money, Millie. I already owe you too much. And even if I could, I don’t want the things you think I want. That discussion is finished.”

“Consider it a loan,” she persisted. “You can pay me interest if it offends your virtue. And you owe me nothing. You’ve long since paid me back for everything I put toward your education. You know that.”

Michael stood, suddenly eager for the conversation to be over. “I’m sorry. And please don’t think I’m not grateful you gave me my old job after I came back from the war. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and you made it possible for me to—”

Millie waved away his words, and he smiled in spite of his mood. “Well, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. I was a rough, ungrateful Mick ruffian before you taught me manners.”

Rising to her feet, Millie took his face gently between her palms. “You were never a ruffian, my darling,” she said softly. “And I wish you’d think about what I’m offering you. When you left six years ago, you had such dreams.”

Christ, Millie, he wanted to say, you have no idea. For you, it’s been a few short years. For me, it feels like a fucking century. And every time I dream now, it’s a nightmare.

“This is a good position,” he said, parroting his uncle’s speech. “A good opportunity.”

“Well,” Millie said, releasing him with a final pat, “perhaps the country air will clear your head.”

Michael leaned down and brushed his lips against hers softly. “From your mouth to God’s ear.” Too bad the old bastard is deaf, he added silently.

Sighing, Millie hooked an arm around his neck and pressed into his embrace for a moment before releasing him. He tried not to notice that her eyes were bright when she pulled away. “Get to work, you loafer,” she whispered. “Your customers are waiting.”

Michael touched her cheek with his fingertips, the faintest hint of beard greeting them even through the heavy layer of paint. At least you still have your disguise, Henry m’dear, he thought, allowing himself a moment of fierce sentimentality. “Mustn’t disappoint the customers,” he murmured, planting one final kiss on her forehead before plunging back into the tropical atmosphere of the bath, filled with the seductive scents of sweat and lust.

Michael was almost disappointed when his shift progressed much the same way it always had: the same customers, the same faces, nothing out of the ordinary. The pressure from the bulls had let off in the last month, so there wasn’t even the excitement of a possible raid to break the monotony. The Greenwich Village baths like Millie’s attracted a mixed crowd, bohemians and fairies and rough Ninth Ward Italian boys who weren’t allowed to touch the nice girls their mothers wanted them to marry. They all liked Michael because he’d forgotten more about massage than most of the city’s rubbers knew, and because he had long since trained his voice to be nearly as soothing as his hands. It didn’t hurt that he was over six feet besides, with a longshoreman’s build, hair the color of a raven’s wing, and blue-gray eyes that more than one customer had called “hypnotic.” Michael didn’t give a tinker’s damn what they called his eyes or any other part of him; a hollow shell would serve them as easily as he did, and they’d still come away satisfied. Most nights, a hollow shell was all they got.

Geoffrey, one of his regulars, arrived not long before closing. He was a middle-aged fellow, soft hands and a soft manner, the sort you usually saw at the Everard rather than up in the Village baths. A businessman, Michael guessed, or perhaps a lawyer, someone inclined to seek out a bathhouse where he would not be recognized. His face wasn’t remarkable, but his eyes were dark, almost black, like a Gypsy’s. He was always polite. Michael liked the way he said his name, though he liked the way he tipped even better. The skin of Geoffrey’s shoulders was pale as milk, and his arms and chest were slim but not without muscle. He preferred for Michael to start with his neck and work his way down his front first, starting with effleurage and graduating to frictions and petrissage of his arms. His father had suffered from debilitating arthritis, he told Michael, and he was terrified that the same would happen to him.

“I have to believe that your treatments will be a help to me,” Geoffrey would say, as Michael gently stroked his fingers.

“Can’t hurt,” Michael would reply.

After that, Michael would move on to his lower extremities, kneading from the feet to the calves to the thighs, hands moving constantly, checking for signs of weakness or fibrosis automatically, although after four months he knew Geoffrey’s body almost as well as his own, was familiar with the span and stretch of every muscle and tendon. By the time he reached the hips, Geoffrey was usually restless and showing the first signs of arousal. He was an odd one; most men who came to the Saint Alex were hard the minute they walked in the door. But then most of the clientele of the Saint Alex kept the animal inside them close to the surface, while men like Geoffrey spent their whole lives hiding theirs from the light of day. Regardless of where each of them spent their days, darkness was the safest place for desires whose indulgence could bring arrest and imprisonment.

This was usually the time when Michael asked him to turn over, but tonight he felt a strange need, a desire to make a connection, and so he said, “You probably won’t see me next week.”

Geoffrey’s eyes opened, dark gaze startled and confused. “I’ll be leaving the city soon,” Michael explained. “I don’t imagine I’ll be back here.”

“Oh,” Geoffrey said softly. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”

“You’re just worried about your arthritis,” Michael remonstrated.

“No!” Geoffrey exclaimed, pushing himself up off the table, his expression earnest. “I don’t—I haven’t only been coming here for that.”

Michael looked pointedly down at the towel that was barely covering Geoffrey’s groin. Geoffrey’s face flushed. “Not only for that, either. I—”

“What’s your real name?” Michael demanded, suddenly in earnest for no reason he could explain, to himself or anyone. “I know damned well it’s not Geoffrey.” The other man’s face grew fearful. Michael cursed himself silently but pressed on nevertheless. “You can tell me. I’ll share it with no one.”

Geoffrey shut his eyes and took several deep breaths, as one preparing for a dive into freezing water. Finally, he whispered, “Joseph. It’s Joseph.”

“Well, Joseph,” Michael said, leaning forward and bestowing a gentle kiss on his brow, “how’s about you turn over for us now, hm?”

Joseph nodded and sank back onto the table as though the admission had exhausted him, robbed the resistance from his bones. He lay limp and unresponsive at first, but Michael had the sweetest hands of any rubber in the baths, and within minutes Joseph was trembling and moaning and grinding his hips into the table. His pleasure sounds drew a crowd, and by the time Michael began to press inside him there were a dozen hands on Joseph’s pale back, striping it with every shade of olive and tan and brown.

Joseph gave him five dollars before he left, and Michael kissed him for it, lingering in the soft, pliant depths of Joseph’s mouth as though they were lovers loath to part from one another. When Joseph drew back, he searched Michael’s face for a moment before turning and walking away, soon disappearing in the fog that surrounded them all.


MARGARET looked up from the money Michael had pressed into her hand, her face revealing her confusion and hurt. “You’ve only just come back, and now you’re going away again?”

Michael stroked Donald’s cheek where the baby lay warm and cozy in his bassinette, a sturdy drawer pulled from the dresser. His nephew looked exactly like Margaret had at that age: both strong and fragile, a contradiction that lived inside her still. He reluctantly lifted his head to meet her gaze. The fragility was harder to find now, but she was no less dear to him for that.

“It’s a good opportunity,” he repeated, hoping that the speech he’d used on Millie would work on her as well. He didn’t have the patience to come up with new arguments, particularly when the reason for his exile was staring him in the face.

No, he thought sharply, it’s not her fault. It’s Paddy’s. Don’t forget that.

Reaching out, he took her hands in his. “You know I’ve been at loose ends since coming home,” he said, trying a smile he knew didn’t reach his eyes. “God knows you’ve probably grown sick of my black moods.” She opened her mouth to speak, but he shook his head to forestall her. “Perhaps this will give me a chance to break out of my rut.”

She looked up at him sadly, squeezing his hands as she spoke. “I wish you could tell me what happened over there,” she murmured.

“No, you don’t,” he replied gently. “If you had seen a tenth of what I’ve seen, m’darling, you’d pray every night to have God take the memory of it from you.”

Margaret’s face crumpled as she took his face in her hands. “If telling me about it would help you, I’d gladly bear it, Michael. I’d—”

Gut knotting, Michael hugged her to him tightly so that he wouldn’t have to see her face. “Don’t cry. I’m not worth crying over.”

“You’re worth more than all the gold in the world,” Margaret murmured against his shoulder, repeating words he’d said to her since the day she was born. “We never used to keep secrets from one another. You used to tell me everything.”

“Not everything,” Michael said, trying to keep his voice light and failing miserably. “I want you to love me, don’t I?”

Margaret tipped her head back and stared at him. He filled the silence before she could ask the question, because in his agitated state, he might finally tell her the truth, Paddy and the police and God be damned. But he also knew that if he spoke now, he would lose the last thing that still mattered to him, and so he only smiled and said, “Cheer up, now. I’m only going up the Hudson, not across the Atlantic. I’ll be back to visit before you know it.”

Margaret lived only a block from the place in which she’d been born, in a tenement less ramshackle than most thanks to Michael’s weekly supplements. When they were children, Michael would sneak her out on summer Sunday mornings before his aunt woke them for Mass and spirit her off to Central Park. They’d spend the day lost among the tall trees far from the beaten paths, imagining themselves intrepid explorers in uncharted territory, and return sunburnt and tired and exhilarated. Paddy would cane Michael for it, but he’d never lay a hand on Margaret, perhaps because he knew Michael would kill him in his sleep if he ever touched her. Someday, he would tell her, someday we’ll be gone from this place.

But in the end, she had never escaped this handful of overcrowded streets of filth and feuding humanity, and even though she was barely twenty-one, he doubted she ever would. And Michael had fled across an ocean only to learn that the world was steeped in such filth as made the Bowery seem the most pristine wilderness imaginable.

“Uncle Michael!” Michael turned to see Edith, her short sturdy legs stumbling as she raced to reach him. Striding toward her, he caught her just before she would have fallen and swung her up into his arms.

He tickled her, and she giggled happily. “Anna took me to the park!” she exclaimed, flinging an arm out to indicate the skinny olive-skinned girl standing in the doorway. She nodded to him, then began talking quietly with Margaret.

“Well, that was very kind of Anna,” Michael said softly, “but we must keep our voices down. Your brother’s sleeping.”

A tiny line appeared between her brows. “I don’t like him,” she confessed in a whisper. “When he came, Papa went away.”

Michael squeezed the child a little tighter. Paul, Margaret’s husband, had left three months ago for Philadelphia, claiming to be following a lead on a steelmaking job. Margaret hadn’t heard from him since. “Your Papa has left to find work,” he said, as soothingly as he could. “He’ll send for you before you know it.”

Edith’s frown didn’t abate, as though she could tell he didn’t believe a word he was telling her. “You mustn’t blame your brother,” Michael added. “He needs you to love him and take care of him.”

“The way you took care of Mommy?” the child asked.

Michael stroked the fine blonde hair back from her forehead. “Oh, I know you can do better, m’dearie,” he murmured. “Much, much better.”


“REMEMBER your promise,” Paddy warned as he stopped the truck in front of the tall wrought-iron gates.

“I don’t need to be bloody reminded,” Michael spat back. “You’ve made it damned clear what my choices are.”

“Watch your language,” hissed Paddy, peering nervously out the windows of the truck. “I hope you don’t talk like that in there.”

Michael sighed, suddenly wanting it all to be over with. “I’ll get the job, Uncle.”

“See that you do,” Paddy sniffed. “When I think about your poor mother looking down on you from above, knowing what you’ve done—”

“Uncle—”

“She sees you, don’t think she doesn’t—”

Michael reached for the door handle. “I suspect heaven’s not that much different from this world as they’d like us to believe. Ma’s likely too busy washing rich men’s socks to be looking down and watching me fuck—”

The word was barely out of his mouth when his uncle clapped him soundly across the face with his open hand. Michael wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of flinching, even though it hurt like the devil. After all, he was used to it by now.

“Shift yourself,” Paddy said lowly. “Or I’ll call for a constable. And then I’ll tell Margaret just what kind of a pervert you are.”

Without another word, Michael reached for the door handle and let himself out of the cab. The street was busy but not clogged; in this part of the city, the sidewalks were wide, and there was fresh macadam on the roads. There were well-dressed clerks hurrying to and fro, and the occasional young woman wearing a shirtwaist and heavy skirts. Many women had given up—or been forced to give up—their office positions as soon as the war ended. He knew Annie Sewell from the floor above him had had to go back to her first job working in the kitchen of one of these fine houses. A year ago she’d been eagerly talking about her new “career” as a clerk and how her boss didn’t try to take liberties with her the way the old master had.

He gave his name to the stiff who answered the door and waited in the library for the lady of the house to appear. He’d kill for a cheroot right now, but he’d sworn off the things because he didn’t want all the teeth to rot out of his head by the time he turned thirty. With what this position was likely to pay, it wasn’t a sound idea for him to take up the habit again. The fewer vices he indulged, the more of his wages he’d be able to save, even after sending Margaret whatever he could.

What he was saving them for, well, that he couldn’t say exactly. That would require planning, and Michael had worked hard to avoid making plans for some time now.

“Mr. McCreeley?”

Michael turned to face the well-dressed woman with silver-blonde hair who had spoken to him. “McCready, mum. Michael McCready.”

“Yes,” she said, looking him up and down with a delicately wrinkled nose. He didn’t offer his hand, merely bowed slightly at the waist and nodded. She hesitated for a moment, perhaps trying to decide which of her chairs she’d risk sullying. Finally she picked one and waved him to it.

“Your uncle does you a great service. He says you are an excellent gardener—surely a great credit from such a fine one as Mr. Sullivan.”

Michael smiled. She couldn’t know how funny he found that statement and would just take it as pleasure at the compliment. “Yes, mum. He’s taught me all I know.”

“I understand you worked with him before you went overseas?”

“Yes, mum.” That much was at least partly true. He’d sweated for Paddy since he’d gone to live with him at the age of twelve, because if he hadn’t pulled his weight, Paddy wouldn’t have fed him. As it was, there’d been more than a few nights when Paddy had drunk so much of his paycheck that there wasn’t enough food for Michael, Margaret, and Paddy’s six children besides. When the settlement house do-gooders had quit dragging him back three years later, he’d escaped to work for himself.

She asked him more questions, and he answered them easily, embellishing in places and omitting in others, telling her the things she would want to hear. While she droned on about the requirements of the position, he let his mind return to his last job interview, nearly two years ago now.


Doctor Randolph Parrish of the American Convalescent Hospital in Somerset sits behind his huge oaken desk, one finger tapping the side of his nose as he studies the report. Short and rotund, he has the appearance and mannerisms of a jocular Christmas elf and the steel-gray gaze of a Viking warrior. Michael finds himself drawn to the contradiction.

“You want to join my staff, then, do you?” Parrish says, raising his eyes to contemplate Michael.

“Yes, sir.” Michael does not say that he has requested this transfer because he’s only a few short steps from madness. Parrish deals with shell-shock victims every day; he can recognize the signs of a man who is heartily sick of the trenches.

“Your record as an ambulance driver is commendable,” Parrish says, “and you have completed a year of medical school?”

“Yes, sir. In Dublin, before the war.”

“Where did you study massage?”

Michael launches into the carefully prepared speech. “I’m mostly self-taught, sir, though I did study the Ling methods, as well as some of the more modern techniques.”

“Hm.” Parrish nods thoughtfully. “Do you have any experience with electromechanotherapy?”

“No, but I did use hydropathy in my work. I’ve read Doctor Baruch’s writings and attended one of his lectures at Columbia.” Michael doesn’t add that he’d snuck into the medical building and stood at the back of the hall while the real students looked askance at him and his threadbare suit.

Parrish flips through the papers in his hands. “I don’t recall seeing references from your massage work.”

“I spent over three years working at one of the finer men’s clubs in Manhattan,” Michael replies smoothly. “Unfortunately, the letter of reference my employer sent never reached me overseas.” A brief flash of anger accompanies this statement, but he tamps it down swiftly. The truth is that the word of the man who transformed Michael from ignorant tough to idealistic young medical student would be worthless to a man like Parrish. It is equally true that no amount of anger will change this fact. Worse, his physical therapy experience is all in the baths, and although he spent long nights applying the techniques he learned in long days of self-study, he knows that the merest whisper of his years at the Saint Alex will lose him more than this position. A self-confessed invert is doomed to prison at best and a mental institution at worst, where the alienist’s latest “cure” will be only too joyfully inflicted upon him.

“Will you be going back to medical school afterward?”

The question takes Michael by surprise, and suddenly he is trapped by that sharp gray gaze. It seems as though Parrish can read every one of his secrets as easily as the headlines of the morning’s Times. “I don’t know,” he says, surprising himself with an uncharacteristic display of honesty.

Parrish leans back in his chair, folding his hands over his ample belly. “The men on this ward have need of an experienced masseur. More than that, however, they have need of a man who is committed to their recovery, more so in most cases than they are. You must be prepared to never let them see your disgust, your fear, your despair, and I guarantee you, you will feel those things every day. Privately, you may be as uncertain as you wish, but you must never show them a moment’s hesitation. Do you understand?”

Michael wants to tell him no, wants to walk out of the room right now and resign from the Red Cross—he’s a civilian, there is no force holding him here—but this is his last chance. He can see the hundreds, thousands of dead rise up before him, and he wants so desperately to help something to live, wants to make one last attempt to revive the dream he can barely remember before it leaves him forever.

“Yes,” he says. “Yes, I understand, sir.”

“Well, then, God help you,” Parrish says wearily, rising to his feet and offering Michael his pudgy hand, “the position is yours.”


“The position pays well—thirty dollars a week,” Mrs. Anderson said, the mention of money bringing Michael back to the present. He nodded at the woman politely. Millie paid him forty, and he often made that much again in tips. But at least here he’d have no expenses for food and lodging.

“That’s very generous, mum.” It was, truthfully, more than he’d been expecting; the bluebloods loved their charities, but they were notorious for paying their help next to nothing.

“Well,” she said with some asperity, rising to her feet, “you look like you’ve a good strong back, and you have a pleasant manner. With Mr. Sullivan vouching for you, I’m willing to offer you the position. I’m off to Philadelphia at the end of the week, and I can’t be bothered with interviewing twenty men who are probably equipped with few qualifications and even fewer references.”

“I’m honored to accept, mum. When shall I start?”

“As soon as possible. Can you be ready to leave Thursday?”

Two days. “I believe so. Yes, mum.”

“Good. I’ll have a ticket waiting for you at the station for the five o’clock train. Thomas will meet you in Stuyvesant.” She waved a hand at Michael’s unspoken question. “Thomas Abbott. He and his wife are the caretakers, but he’s advancing in years and isn’t able to tend the garden any longer.”

“Are they the only residents, mum?” Many of the estates on the Hudson were little more than summer homes or places to deposit the maiden great-aunt or the mad relative. He wasn’t looking forward to sharing a house with the family embarrassment.

“No. My nephew—my brother’s only son—has been living there for several months now.” She made another sour face. “He’s recently returned from the war as well.”

Michael nodded. No doubt he’d served his country as an ass-licking aide-de-camp or rear-echelon paper-chaser. “And I suppose I will be reporting to him?”

“You will be reporting to Thomas,” the woman informed him, ice in her words, “and Thomas will report to me. You will have no need to bother my nephew.”

“Yes, mum,” Michael said woodenly. Wonderful. The man was either mentally incompetent, a drunkard, or a completely useless bastard—or perhaps all three. Well, Michael had certainly put up with worse.

“If you have no more questions, I believe our business is concluded most happily for both of us. Thank you for your time, Mister McCreeley.”

Michael did not even consider correcting her again. “Thank you, mum. I will do everything in my power to give you satisfaction.”

“I’m sure you will,” she said distantly, already having dismissed him in her mind.

Taking his cue, Michael bowed slightly and let himself out. Once back on the street, he took a deep breath of the Manhattan spring air, which even in this fine neighborhood had the slight tang of the city’s ever-present layer of filth in it.

“I’ll miss you, you ugly old bitch,” Michael murmured, startling a young woman bustling past him on the sidewalk. Nodding at her, he tipped his hat and headed off in the opposite direction, toward the streetcar.

The Captain and the Cavalry Trooper by Catherine Curzon & Eleanor Harkstead
Northern France
1917
The wagon carrying Jack Woodvine bumped and jerked along the poplar-lined lanes, a fine spray of mud rising up each time the huge wooden wheels splashed through a puddle.

He had given up checking the time and, even though the journey was far from comfortable, tried to doze as he passed along under the iron-gray sky. A chateau, they’d said. Different from the barracks he’d been in when he was first deployed. Doubtless it would be a dismal old fortress, but was it silly of him to hope for bright pennants fluttering from a turret?

Finally, the wagon drew up at a gatehouse of pale stone. As Jack climbed out, dragging his kitbag behind him, sunlight nudged back the clouds and turned the gray slate of the roofs to blue.

“You the new groom?” A soldier appeared from the gatehouse. His cap was so low over his eyes that Jack couldn’t make out his expression.

“Yes—Trooper Woodvine. Jack Woodvine.” He took a letter from his pocket and held it out to the man. “I’ve been transferred from another battalion. This is the Chateau de Desgravier?”

“Yes, Trooper! Turn left at the bottom of the drive for the stables. Quick march!”

The last thing Jack wanted to do was march, quickly or otherwise, but he shouldered his kitbag, jammed his cap onto his head and marched down the tree-lined avenue.

It was thickly leaved, but through the branches he could see the white stone of the chateau ahead. He rounded a bend in the driveway and he saw it—Chateau de Desgravier.

An enormous tower rose up in front of him, its roof reaching into a delicate point. Jack sighed, the spots of mud on his face cracking as he smiled. It might not have had pennants floating from it, but it was exactly like something from a fairytale. Beside the tower were the stone and brick and filigreed windows of what looked to Jack like a palace. Who would ever think that the front was only a few miles to the east?

Quick march!

Jack continued on his way, turning to his left just as he’d been ordered. The path here bore evidence of horses—straw, manure, the marks of horseshoes. Ahead, an archway, figures at work. A lad of Jack’s age maneuvering a wheelbarrow, another leading a horse out to the paddock.

This wouldn’t be so bad. It seemed to be a peaceful place, and easy work for a lad like Jack. He raised his hand and grinned at the grooms as he headed under the archway and into the vast stable yard.

Then he heard singing. In French.

Jack dropped his kitbag and looked round. The voice was that of a man, yet heightened slightly, giving it a teasing, effeminate edge, and Jack couldn’t help but follow it like a sailor lured by a siren, pulled along the row of open stables toward that lilting chanson. Inside those stables young men labored and sweated, brooms swept and spades shoveled, yet one of the boxes at the far corner of the yard seemed to have been transformed into an impromptu theater.

Jack hardly dared glance through that open door, yet he couldn’t help himself, blinking at the hazy darkness of the interior where half a dozen grooms lounged in the straw, watching the chanteur in rapt silence.

Right in front of Jack, his back to the door, was the figure of a young man, clad in jodhpurs, polished riding boots and nothing else. No, that wasn’t quite true, because he was wearing something, the sort of something Jack didn’t really see much of in Shropshire. It was some sort of silken scarf, a shawl, perhaps, that was looped around his neck twice, the wide, dazzling red fabric decorated with intricate yellow flowers. They were bright against the pale skin of his naked back, as bright as the tip of the cigarette that glowed in the end of a long ebony cigarette holder that the singer held in his elegant right hand. He gestured with it like a painter with his brush, making intricate movements with his wrist as he sang, his voice a low purr, then a high, tuneful trill, then a comically deep bass that drew laughter from his audience.

He moved with the confidence of a dancer, hips swinging seductively, head cocked to one side, free hand resting on his narrow hip and here, in this strange fairytale place, he was bewitching.

The singer executed a near-perfect pirouette yet quite suddenly, when he was facing Jack, stopped. He put the cigarette holder to his pink lips, drew in a long, deep breath and blew out a smoke ring, his full lips forming a perfect O.

“Well, now.” He sucked in his pale cheeks and asked, “Who on earth have we here?”

Jack blinked as the smoke ring drifted into his face.

“Tr-trooper Woodvine, reporting for Captain Thorne. I’ve been transferred—I’m his new groom. I don’t suppose—”

The words dried in Jack’s throat. As enthralling as this otherworldly figure was, with his slim face and high cheekbones, there was an unsettling glint of mockery in his narrow blue eyes.

“Sorry.” Jack took a half-step backward. “I interrupted your song. I should…”

The singer moved a little, just enough that he could dart his head forward on its slender neck and draw his nose from Jack’s shoulder to his ear, breathing deeply all the way. They didn’t touch but the invasion, the authority, was clear. However lowly their station, Jack had wandered innocently into someone else’s domain.

When the young man’s nose reached Jack’s ear he threw his head back and let out a loud sigh through his parted lips, arms extended to either side. Then he finally spoke again, declaring to the heavens, “I smell new blood!”

Behind him, his small audience tittered nervously and his head dropped once more, those glittering blue eyes focused on Jack.

“Trooper Charles, sir!” He executed a courtly bow, the hand that held the cigarette twirling elaborately. “But you’re so darling and green that you may address me as Queenie. Aren’t you the lucky one?”

Jack reached for the doorframe to casually prop himself against it and essay the appearance of calm. Queenie?

“You may call me Jack.”

He extended his free hand to shake. A handshake showed the mettle of a man, his father was always telling him so. A good, firm hand at the market and a fellow would never have his prices beaten down.

Queenie’s narrow gaze slid down Jack like a snake and settled on his hand. He didn’t take it, didn’t move at all for a few seconds as the silence between them grew thicker. Then, in one quick movement, he placed his cigarette holder between Jack’s fingers and said, “Have a treat on me. Welcome to Cinderella’s doss house!”

Jack brought it hesitantly to his lips, smiling gamely at the grooms who made up Queenie’s audience. He pouted his lips against the carved ebony and inhaled.

The cough was so violent that Jack nearly dropped the holder, but an instinct in him born of a lifetime on a farm of tinder-dry hay meant he clamped it between his fingers. As he heaved for breath, he stamped on the nearby straw, suffocating any sparks that might have fallen.

The other grooms laughed and Queenie’s head tipped back to emit a bray of hilarity as a strong hand walloped Jack’s back.

A friendly Cockney burr chirruped, “Cough up, chicken—there’s a good lad!”

“We have a new little chicky in our nest,” Queenie told his audience, turning to address them. “I want you all to make him terribly welcome, or he might burn down our stables and then where would your Queenie sing?”

The stocky lad who had rescued Jack from his coughing fit was a head shorter than him. He pulled a face that could have been a smile or a sneer and took the cigarette holder from his fingers. He passed it to Queenie, all the while fixing his stare on the new arrival.

“Trooper Cole. Wilfred, that’s me. You’re Captain Thorne’s new boy, aren’t you?”

He laughed, then turned his head to spit on the floor, pulling a skinny roll-up from behind his ear.

“I’m Jack Woodvine. I mean…Trooper Woodvine.”

“I s’pose me and Queenie better take you to your quarters?”

“That would— But…oughtn’t I to introduce myself to Captain Thorne?”

“I’d say that’s a bit difficult, seeing as he’s not here at the moment.” Wilfred picked up Jack’s kitbag as easily as if it were spun from a feather. “Come on, soldier. Your palace awaits!”

“Captain T is an angel.” Queenie draped one arm sinuously around Jack’s shoulders and walked him back across the stable yard, his naked torso pressed to Jack’s rough tunic. “You’re going to have a bloody easy war, he’s soft as my mother’s newborn kitten.”

He glanced back at Wilfred and asked, “Wouldn’t you say so, Wilf?”

“Not half!” Wilfred laughed, striking a match to light his cigarette. “You couldn’t find a nicer bloke in the entire regiment.”

Jack grinned as they headed up the creaking wooden stairs above the stables. New quarters and new friends, and he wouldn’t have to rough it in a tent. Maybe there’d even be warm water for a bath.

“Well, that’s good to know. The officers were a bit…brusque at my last place.”

“Brusque?” Wilfred raised an amused eyebrow. “That’s a fancy word for a groom!”

“Ignore our lovely Wilf. Strong as an ox, bright as a coal shed.” At the top of the stairs Queenie turned to address Wilfred and Jack, his pale hand resting on the crooked handrail. “Thorny is adorable, not brusque at all. Welcome to our little slice of heaven!”

With that he lifted the latch and threw the door open, directing Jack to enter with another low bow.

The Fortune Hunter by Bonnie Dee
Drawing up in front of the Needham house on the curved driveway, Hal felt as if he ought to be arriving in a carriage and four rather than Margaret’s Daimler motorcar. The sprawling limestone house was a convoluted collection of roof peaks, turrets, and wings added on over the years. It looked like a castle, proclaiming nobility dwelt within and an outsider like him would never belong.

Hal didn’t resent the upper class their wealth, power, and prestige. He merely wanted to become one of them. Was that so awful? A friend had once come to Hal’s flat begging a sanctuary to spend a night or two. The stay had turned into something more like two months. But Hal certainly understood that desire to lay down the burden of constant struggle to survive and find a quiet, comfortable resting spot.

Margaret would be his safe place, and he would be hers, making certain she never wanted for companionship. In return, he’d have a nice house, good food, and a fine wardrobe. He would guard her fortune as if it were his own, spending wisely and increasing it shrewdly. He wouldn’t be a burden but a life companion in an easygoing, if chaste, arrangement.

He got out of the passenger side of the car, and Margaret came around to join him. “What do you think? The house may appear grand, but don’t let the battlements fool you. Inside, it’s quite shabby. Despite a respectable family name, my aunt and uncle aren’t wealthy by any means.”

Hal tucked her hand through the loop of his arm. “I’m not nervous. I’m quite ready to meet them and explain why I’ve fallen in love with their one-of-a-kind niece. This must have been a wonderful place to grow up with all those nooks and crannies to explore.”

“It truly was. Mother and I could have afforded to stay in our own home after Father died. But I’m so glad we came to live with Aunt Agnes and Uncle Harold; otherwise, I never would’ve had brothers like Julian and James.” She frowned. “After nearly two years, I still have trouble thinking of James in the past tense.”

Hal recalled James had survived France but died in the influenza epidemic almost immediately upon his return home. He put an arm around Margaret and hugged her. “You must miss him terribly.”

“His passing has been difficult for me but nearly killed my aunt and uncle. They’re still mourning. And Julian…” She shook her head.

“Misses his brother and perhaps blames himself for being alive,” Hal guessed. “I understand that feeling, having lost many comrades at the front.”

Margaret stopped at the doorstep and turned to him, eyes shining. “You survived because God had more for you to do in this life. He brought you to me, for which I am ever grateful.”

Hal hated himself just a little more at her declaration. When he’d begun this plan, he’d imagined landing a wealthy older widow who knew the score and didn’t mind so long as she had a handsome young husband to show off to her friends like a trophy. But then he’d met Margaret. He’d been so taken with her blend of sweetness and assertiveness that it had seemed possible to make a sham marriage work. Now he was stuck with the plan he’d devised.

The door opened before they knocked. A stooped older man with a paunch swelling his waistcoat greeted them. “Welcome home, Miss Margaret.”

“Hello, Grover. You’re looking very dapper today. I’m so glad to be back. I’ve missed home these past months. May I present my fiancé, Mr. Halstead Wiley.”

The butler bowed. “Good day, sir. Welcome to Barton Park.”

Hal almost returned the bow, then recalled his proper standing and nodded politely instead. “I’m happy to be here.”

Grover escorted them to the drawing room, where Mr. and Mrs. Needham and Julian were already gathered. Hal assessed the room before following Margaret inside. Pale blue walls and rug offered a sense of tranquility and the room was not overly cluttered. The dark, heavy pieces of furniture from an older century didn’t fit the pale color palette that suggested a more chic, modern décor.

Margaret’s aunt and uncle rose to greet him. The outdated style of Mrs. Needham’s gown didn’t detract from her aura of grace and refinement as she offered her hand. “Mr. Wiley, we’re pleased you could come. Darling Margaret is the daughter we never had, and we were eager to meet the man she’s chosen.”

“Quite so,” Mr. Needham said.

Hal wasn’t certain if he was meant to shake Mrs. Needham’s hand or kiss it. The customs of the gentry weren’t familiar to him. He gave a polite press before letting go, then turned to offer a hearty shake to Mr. Needham. “The pleasure is mine. Your niece is a prize.”

“Yes, she is.” Mr. Needham gave Hal an assessing look with gray eyes very much like his son’s.

Hal scanned the rest of the room to find Julian standing near the window. Sunlight burnished his brown hair with golden highlights. His well-cut profile with its straight nose and strong jawline was haloed in light. When he turned his stern gaze toward Hal, a little hum of anticipation awoke within him.

Hal squelched this reaction to a man he considered an adversary. Needham had invited him here to poke holes in his story, so he must be on guard every moment not to give himself away. If this wedding were to be called off, he’d be jobless and desperate again. One would expect work to be plentiful in the aftermath of the Great War with so few veterans returning, but the economy was in shambles. Odd jobs were all Hal had been able to find, spurring him to his mad scheme to land a wealthy woman.

He offered a bright smile. “Good to see you again, Mr. Needham.”

As much as it wasn’t, it actually was. Needham intrigued Hal, not only his physical demeanor but his affectionate manner with Margaret and his magnetic presence. Had they met under other circumstances, he and Julian might have been friends—or probably something more than friends, for Hal guessed “confirmed bachelor” Julian shared his attraction to men.

Hal dragged his thoughts away from the sorts of activities they might have gotten up to in another time and place, as he sat beside his betrothed on a sofa. “You have a lovely home,” he complimented his hosts. “Its history must be fascinating.”

“Thank you,” Mrs. Needham said. “Barton Park was built in 1640 and belonged to several families before the Needhams took possession.”

Her husband added dryly, “You may learn the entire history on every second Wednesday of the month, when the house is open. I daresay the tour guide is more educated on both the history and the architecture than we are.”

“Tours?” Julian abandoned his spot by the window to stride across the room with long-legged grace. “When did this begin?”

“Surely I mentioned this in one of my letters. A company that arranges tours approached us this past summer,” Mrs. Needham explained. “At first, your father refused to speak with their representative, but when we learned other owners of other estates were allowing tours, we decided to give it a go. It’s a respectable way to share one’s heritage and is little trouble at all. Thus far, the tourists, both domestic and foreign, have been orderly and respectful.”

“Not at all annoying having strangers troop through one’s home,” Mr. Needham continued in his sub-Saharan tone. “And you’d know about this if you paid the least attention to what your mother writes, or if you came for a visit every so often.”

Julian stood before his parents, scowling. “You did not mention this in any of your letters. I’d no idea you’d reached such a…” He glanced at Hal and seemed to reconsider airing his family’s financial business. “That you were considering such a thing.”

“It has become quite common these days for historical houses to be on display,” Mrs. Needham pointed out. “As you’ve said, times are changing.”

“More’s the pity,” the elder Needham growled.

Hal sat very still, wishing he were someplace else and not witnessing this family argument. He’d had no idea the Needhams were in such difficult straits until today. Apparently, their children hadn’t either. Surely Margaret would want to offer financial help, which would cut into the inheritance from her father’s side. He was a horrible person to immediately consider how the Needham family’s misfortune might affect him and his plans.

“Honestly, I think it’s rather brilliant to open the house to tours.” Margaret smoothed the folds of her modish knee-length dress. “Tourists enjoy seeing grand houses from a former century. The building should earn its maintenance at the very least. But if you require more financial assistance, please let me know. I want to do my part for the family.”

Julian Needham quickly added, “I can offer help as well. My investments are doing well enough.”

“We’re not quite destitute, although apparently our home has become a museum artifact to be gawked at by strangers,” Mr. Needham said.

“Thank you, my dears, for your generous thought. But such a discussion is most inappropriate at this celebratory occasion.” Mrs. Needham turned her attention to Hal. “Tell us how you two met.”

“We were both browsing at a bookstore. I shared a recommendation with Hal, and we talked for hours. You can see how that conversation ended.” Margaret turned her beaming smile on Hal. “Or never ended, for we always find something to discuss.”

“I was taken with Margaret from the moment we met. She manages to be both imaginative and levelheaded at the same time. One doesn’t let a quality woman like Margaret slip away.”

“Your family approves the arrangement?” Mr. Needham probed.

Hal seized a quick breath before plunging into his embroidered history. He hadn’t tried to pretend to Margaret that he came from any sort of gentility, instead inventing middle-class parents of modest means.

“My parents have passed, and I have no extended family. But I’m certain both Father and Mother would have welcomed Margaret with open arms.”

“Tell us about your parents,” Needham senior pushed.

“My father owned several shipping concerns. But in one year, a freighter was lost at sea and another seized by pirates. This put a great strain on his fortune and took a toll on his health.” Hal patted his chest, indicating possible heart failure or a broken heart. Let them decide which. “He passed away within a year, and my dear mother followed soon after. I believe she couldn’t face life without him.”

Mrs. Needham gave a soft murmur, and Margaret reached to pat Hal’s hand. He bowed his head, hoping he wasn’t overdoing the drama.

“Were you left penniless then?” Julian’s tone was cool and less than sympathetic.

“Julian!” Mrs. Needham exclaimed at his shocking ill manners.

“It’s all right, Mrs. Needham. It is quite reasonable to wonder about the stranger your niece has brought home. I should have followed custom and asked permission for her hand.” Hal offered an apologetic smile, then continued trying to reassure them he had nothing to hide.

“I invested the small inheritance I received and have increased it over the years, so I live quite comfortably. I won’t pretend to be more than I am. I come from a middle-class background, and I’m in love with a woman who is clearly above me. But I care for Margaret very much.”

The last part at least was true. Hal took her hand, gazed into her eyes, and prayed his selfish intentions could be forgiven.

Margaret smiled. “As I care for you.”

Julian made a small sound that might have signaled either acceptance or disgust.

Hal darted a sharp glance at him.

“It’s a lovely afternoon. I should like to take you on a tour of the land before supper,” Margaret said.

“Perfect weather for an invigorating walk,” Hal agreed and blessed her for freeing him from the relentless questioning.

“I’ll go with you.” Julian had not taken a seat during the entire conversation, and now he started for the door. “I should like to see how the farms are doing.”

They bid their elders goodbye and entered the hallway. Margaret excused herself to change into proper attire.

Hal had brought no walking shoes and lingered awkwardly with Julian, who scanned him up and down.

“You’ll want a pair of Wellingtons. The fields and woods are muddy. And a drover’s coat to cover this fine wool.” He fingered the lapel of Hal’s jacket, tailored for a gentleman and discovered by Hal in a secondhand store.

Julian stood so near, Hal felt the heat of his body and inhaled the scent of his shaving lotion. Did Julian mean to be intimidating? Probably, because he stared at Hal with the assessing eyes of judge, jury, and executioner.

When Julian at last stepped back, Hal took a deep breath. Unfortunately, the man wasn’t only a barrier to breach, he also unleashed attraction such as Hal hadn’t felt in a long time. Perhaps Julian sensed his desire and was baiting him to make an impulsive move.

But Hal wouldn’t reveal himself so foolishly. Nothing could come between him and the quiet, calm, comfortable life he craved. He must convince this doubting Thomas before he derailed Hal’s matrimonial plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, Mr Anderson…”

“Jack, please,” Jack said.

“Very well, and please call me Robert.”

Jack inclined his head in acknowledgement.

“My secretary saw you?”

“Yes.”

“He explained what I was looking for?”

“A companion,” Jack said politely.

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

“Milk and sugar?”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

GN Chevalier
G N Chevalier has lived in Ottawa, Toronto, Québec City, and Montréal, but currently resides in Nova Scotia with her partner of many years. A long-time student of history, she is particularly interested in helping to tell the hidden stories that are only now being rediscovered. Some of her hobbies include playing music, video remixing, and photography.

Catherine Curzon
Catherine Curzon  is a royal historian who writes on all matters of 18th century. Her work has been featured on many platforms and Catherine has also spoken at various venues including the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, and Dr Johnson’s House.

Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, writes fiction set deep in the underbelly of Georgian London.

She lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.

Eleanor Harkstead
Eleanor Harkstead likes to dash about in nineteenth-century costume, in bonnet or cravat as the mood takes her. She can occasionally be found wandering old graveyards. Eleanor is very fond of chocolate, wine, tweed waistcoats and nice pens. Her large collection of vintage hats would rival Hedda Hopper's.

Originally from the south-east, Eleanor now lives somewhere in the Midlands with a large ginger cat who resembles a Viking.

Bonnie Dee
Dear Readers, I began telling stories as a child. Whenever there was a sleepover, I was the designated ghost tale teller guaranteed to frighten and thrill with macabre tales. I still have a story printed on yellow legal paper in second grade about a ghost, a witch and a talking cat.

As an adult, I enjoy reading stories about people damaged by life who find healing with a like-minded soul. When I couldn’t find enough such books, I began to write them. Whether you’re a fan of contemporary historical or fantasy romance, you’ll find something to enjoy among my books.

To stay informed about new releases, please sign up for my newsletter. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter @Bonnie_Dee.

Scarlet Blackwell
Scarlet writes erotic romance.

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


Charlie Cochrane
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GN Chevalier
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Catherine Curzon
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Scarlet Blackwell
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All Lessons Learned by Charlie Cochrane

Bonds of Earth by GN Chevalier
*Currently only available in paperback from third party sellers*
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The Captain and the Cavalry Trooper by Catherine Curzon & Eleanor Harkstead
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The Fortune Hunter by Bonnie Dee
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Half a Man by Scarlet Blackwell
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