Posted in Books, Falstaff Books, Free Reads, LGBTQ fiction, LGBTQ historical fiction, Lucy Blue Short Story, Short Story

The Dark Lady – a freebie for Pride Month

In honor of Pride Month 2019, here’s a short story I wrote for a 2016 anthology Falstaff Books put together to raise money for LGBTQ support and awareness. Get your copy of the full anthology HERE. In my story, a transgender woman who found herself as a boy actor at Shakespeare’s Globe makes peace with the playwright she loves as  father.

The Dark Lady

Burbage expected a scene of squalor. But he found a neat little house of fresh plaster and timbers built on the edge of the suburban village he had never heard tell of before. He was ushered into a second floor parlor and told he might wait if it pleased him. A fire was burning in the hearth, and the mantelpiece was lined with polished silver plate.

He had just taken a seat in the best cushioned chair when the door opened and a lady swept in. “Forgive me, mistress,” he said, getting up again with his old player’s grace. “I fear I must have come to the wrong house.” She was a very pretty lady, too, with thick, glossy waves of dark brown hair drawn back in a veil of gold net and wide, bright hazel eyes. Her gown was plain but rich, black brocade with white linen collar and cuffs, and she wore a simple choker at her throat with a dark red stone in the shape of a heart. As he bowed to her, she smiled, and a dimple appeared at the corner of her mouth. And suddenly he knew her. “God save us!” He fell back into the chair, all courtesy forgotten. “Orlando!”

“Hello, Dick,” the little monster said, still smiling. “And if you don’t mind, it’s Mistress Thatcher now—or Rosalind, if you must.”

“Monster!” he said. “It’s an outrage. It’s indecent! I’ll have the sheriff on you, you impertinent pup!”

“Are you a magistrate now, Dick Burbage, that you would lecture me on decency and threaten me with the law?” she said, her cheeks flushing pink. “My father-in-law is, and he loves me well.” The arch of her eyebrow was familiar, too, a trick she had used to great effect against him in battles of wit on the stage. “He will stake his considerable purse and influence to defend my honor, should you accuse me. Think you, player, that you are his match?”

Burbage considered the silver plate along the mantelpiece and the jewel at her throat. “Forgive me, chuck,” he said, tempering his tone. In the old days back at the Globe, he would have boxed the creature’s ears for speaking to him so, but now this seemed imprudent. “I was but surprised to see you so—I loved you so well as a boy.”

“Loved me?” she said, her smile returning. “Nay, Dick, not once, though not for lack of trying. Will you have a drink?” Without waiting for his answer, she poured a cup of malmsey wine and put it in his hand.

“Thanks, Mistress…Thatcher, did you say?” he said, taking a drink.

“I did.” She poured a cup of her own and sat down. “But call me Rosalind. You did so once before easily enough.”

“On the stage, aye,” he said. The wine had calmed his nerves, and he was able to look at her again and smile. “But that is all the world, isn’t it, chuck? So our Will did say.” He drank again; the wine was excellent. “You always were a pretty thing.”

“I thank ye kindly, sir.” Rosalind surveyed the old ruin with weary affection. “But have you come just to pay me compliments and threaten me with shackles? ‘Tis a funny sort of visit.”

“I’ve come for Will.” The old actor’s eyes were red from more than drink, she thought. “He is dying, Orlando—Rosalind. He has fallen into a stupor, and I thought it would ease him to see you again.”

“And why should you think that?” She took a long swallow of wine to mask her sudden grief. Will Shakespeare dying? It couldn’t be so. “’Tis twenty years since I left London. ‘Twould be passing strange if he remembered me at all.”

“Go to, monkey,” he said. “As if any of us could forget you, whatever you might have become.” For a moment, she was offended, but his eyes were twinkling, and she couldn’t be angry. She raised her glass instead, and he returned the salute. “He spoke of you right recently, in fact,” he said, holding out his empty glass. “Drayton and I made a party to visit him in Stratford a month or so past,” he said as she refilled it. “He had just made his will, and Michael asked if he felt well. He said he felt content but for a few small matters now out of his power to help.” In his eyes and manner, she could see the great tragic player he had been. She knew how dearly he loved Will; in his eyes she saw he was telling the truth. “I asked him what small matters, and he mentioned you. He said your parting still troubled him, and he would give much to speak with you again.”

Her eyes had filled with tears as he spoke. “A month ago this was?”

“Aye, chuck,” Burbage said. “It has taken me a fortnight to find you—I began when he fell ill.” He leaned forward in his chair and offered her his hand, and after a moment, she took it. “Will you not go to him, Orlando?” he said. “Our Will did love you once.”

“Don’t try to be Hamlet to me now, Dick,” she said. “You haven’t the legs for it anymore.” But she couldn’t be cursed with him, not now. “Of course I will go.” She went to the door and called in the maid who was eavesdropping there. “I must away to Stratford-upon-Avon with Mr. Burbage to visit a sick friend,” she said. “Call for my carriage and bring me my cloak. And if any do have need of me before I return, tell them I may be found there.”

“At New Place,” Burbage said. “But God’s life, sirrah—mistress—will you not change your costume?”

“Nay, sir,” she said. “I go as myself or not at all.”

After a moment, the old player nodded. “Aye, chuck. As you will.”

 

 

For the first few miles, Burbage kept up a lively monologue, catching her up on what he knew of all their old friends from London. But old age conspired with the gentle rocking of the carriage and the wine he had drunk, and soon he was asleep, leaving her alone with her thoughts.

She had ridden this rutted road with him before, though not in comfort. She’d still been Orlando then and had perched like a monkey on top of a wagonload of scenery. They had been bound for some further place, some country manor or other, to play Romeo and Juliet for a rich noble and his household outside the plague-ridden danger of London. Juliet had been Orlando’s first noteworthy role with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men; he had been barely fourteen years old and as a boy looked younger because of his size. Will Shakespeare and Dick Burbage had stopped off at Stratford-upon-Avon on the way, and they had taken Orlando with them for reasons neither had bothered to explain.

Dick and Orlando had waited for Will in a sort of orchard across the road from the house where Will’s wife and children lived with his in-laws. “You must cheer him up when he returns,” Burbage had said, settling on the ground against a tree as if he expected a long wait.

“Why does Will need cheering up?” Orlando had asked. The playwright had been sad and quiet since they’d left the Globe. “Dick, what’s happened?”

“Never you mind,” the older player had said, pulling his hat down over his eyes. “Just be ready with your best japes when he returns and none of your tragedy.” Orlando had been a clown before Will had cast him as Juliet, and to Dick’s mind, he ought to have stayed one.

Dick was soon asleep, leaving Orlando alone to wait. More than an hour had passed; he knew it by the chiming of the village church bells. But he saw no sign of Shakespeare’s return. Finally, reckless with boredom, he left Burbage sleeping and ventured across the road.

He didn’t have the nerve to knock on the front door, so he sallied around to the back of the house like he knew where he was going. There was a stable and a flock of geese in the yard, but all was strangely quiet. From an open window upstairs, he could hear a woman crying and the soft voice of a man who might have been Will. But he couldn’t make out the words.

“Who are you?” a voice spoke behind him. Turning, he found a girl of what looked to be his own age.

“Orlando, mistress.” He made a deep bow as Burbage would have done, on-stage and off. “At your service.”

“What are you doing here?” She was a pretty girl with serious brown eyes that were very like Will’s.

“I’ve come with Will Shakespeare,” he said. “I’m one of his players.”

“Oh!” She looked more interested. “Then you must be wicked.”

“Must I?” He rarely talked to girls his own age and never of this class. “Who says so?”

“My mother,” she said. “Will Shakespeare is my father. I’m Susannah.” She walked around  him like he might have been a camel displayed at the fair. “You’re very handsome.”

“I have to be,” he said. “I play the lady’s parts. Or in truth, I play the whole lady. Her parts are hidden—as they must be, mind, as I am playing her.” She didn’t even smile. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mistress Susannah,” he said, bowing again. The girl continued to stare at him. “Are you glad to have your father home to visit?”

This had seemed the most harmless of questions, but the girl’s expression crumpled. “Yes.” She turned her back on him and hid her face in her hands. “Go away!”

“What is it?” He put a hand on her trembling shoulder. “What ails you, child?”

“I said go away!” She ran from him down the garden toward the orchard, and for a moment, he thought he’d let her go and go back to Burbage. But that seemed cowardly. The girl was obviously upset. So he ran after her.

He found her leaning on the gnarled trunk of an apple tree, sobbing like her heart was broken. “Don’t look at me,” she ordered, looking back when she heard him approach. “It isn’t decent.”

“What isn’t decent?” He touched her shoulder again. “That I should see you cry?” She nodded, crying all the harder. “Susie, why are you crying?”

She turned to him. “Because my brother’s dead.”

“Your brother?”

“Hamnet.”

“You poor darling.” Without thinking, he pulled her close, and she pressed her hot little face to his breast. “I’m so sorry. No wonder you have to cry.”

“Mother says I mustn’t,” she said. “She says Hamnet has gone to heaven, so we must rejoice. But I don’t feel like rejoicing.”

“Of course you don’t,” Orlando said, stroking her hair. “And just between us, your mother is a horse’s ass.”

She almost giggled through her tears. “No, she isn’t,” she said. “She’s a very godly woman.”

“In a pig’s eye,” he said. “I promise you, Susie, I know my business. My father was a priest. He would have been a bishop if he had lived. And when he died, I cried and cried for a fortnight in the bishop’s own house, and no one once told me to stop.”

“You lived with the bishop?” she said.

“I did indeed until I ran away,” he said. He handed her his handkerchief. “You were right before; I am very wicked. But I promise you are not.”

“I don’t think you are either,” she said. “I think you’re very kind.”

Will stepped out of the shadows of the trees. “So do I.” He held out his arms to Susannah, and she ran to him. Orlando turned away, not wishing to intrude. From a discreet distance, he heard the girl’s soft weeping and her father’s tender voice speaking comfort. Tears stung his own eyes, and he wiped them away.

He was just about to leave them in peace and go back to Burbage when Will spoke to him. “Is Dick drunk in the tavern yet?”

“Sleeping where you left him,” Orlando said, turning back to him. Will had his arm around Susannah, and she was tucked close to his side. “Shall I tell him we’re going on without you?”

“And who will be your Friar Lawrence?” Will said. “No, I must come, too.”

“Please don’t go, Papa,” Susannah said.

“I must,” he said, hugging her close. “But we shall be back in three days’ time, after the performance.” He kissed her forehead. “In the meantime, Orlando was right. You must weep for Hamnet all you like, you and Judith both. I give you my permission.” He had tears of his own on his cheeks.

“Yes, Papa.” She wiped away her father’s tears with Orlando’s handkerchief. “I will see you in three days.”

Walking back to Burbage, Orlando hadn’t known what he should say, so he kept silent. But before Will woke up Dick, he suddenly turned to Orlando and hugged him close much as he had Susannah.

“I’m sorry about Hamnet, Will,” the boy she had been had said, half-choked with tears.

“Thank you, chuck.” Burbage had let out an almighty snore, and they had both laughed. “I am sorry, too.”

 

 

 

The village of Stratford-upon-Avon had changed very little in the twenty years since her last visit. But Will Shakespeare’s family’s fortunes had obviously improved. “Our William did very well for himself in the end,” Burbage said as he climbed down from the carriage in front of the fine New Place. “Though perhaps not so well as you.”  Rosalind stood in the door of the carriage waiting, one eyebrow raised. “Oh, God’s almighty teeth,” Dick swore. “Come on, then.” He offered his hand for support, and Rosalind took it and climbed down. “Insolent puppy,” Dick grumbled.

Rosalind just smiled. “That’s insolent bitch to you.”

Will’s wife was none too keen to welcome either of them. “How dare you come back here, Richard Burbage,” she said, coming down to stop them as soon as they crossed the threshold of the hall. “’Twas you put my husband on his deathbed, you and Drayton. Carousing so at your age and dragging him with you. And what strumpet is this that you’ve brought to my house?”

“Mistress Rosalind Thatcher,” Rosalind said, making a deep curtsey that would have passed muster at the royal court.

“Go to, both of you,” Anne said. “Out of my house at once.”

“Mother?” A younger woman was coming down the stairs. “Is this not still my father’s house?” With a shiver of shock, Rosalind recognized Susannah. “Think you he would not wish to see his friends?” She offered her hand to Burbage “Well met, Dick.” When she turned to Rosalind, her eyes widened in recognition. “And you…Mistress Thatcher, did you say?”

“I did,” Rosalind said. “At your service.”

“My father was most eager to speak to you,” Susannah said as her mother made an ugly snort that added nothing to her meagre charm. “Won’t you come upstairs?”

She led her to a bedroom with windows facing west. “He always wants to see the sunset,” Susannah explained in a hushed tone. “He says the twilight is the best time of day.”

“So has he always done,” Rosalind said. She could hardly believe the man lying so still on the bed could be Will.

“It is safe to come near him,” Susannah said. “My husband says it is a fever of the brain that ails him, not the plague. He’s a doctor, my husband.”

“I wouldn’t mind it either way,” Rosalind said. She sat on the edge of the bed and lay her hand over Will’s. He felt warm, and his face though lined now with age and pain was just as she remembered. “I would risk much more than plague to speak with him again.”

“He mostly sleeps now,” Susannah said. “But he has awakened twice since yesterday to ask for water and to talk with me and John. I believe he might wake again for you.”

“May God so will it,” Rosalind said. “Do you remember me, Susannah?”

“Of course I do.” She still had her father’s eyes and her father’s sad, sweet smile. “You still play the lady’s part, I see.”

“It is no part,” Rosalind said. “Not anymore.”

Susannah put a hand on her shoulder. “Then we must be as sisters,” she said. “My father loves you as a child.” Before Rosalind could answer, she had gone, leaving her alone with Will.

“Is that so, ancient Will?” she asked, clasping his hand. “Can you love me as a daughter as you loved me as a son?” But he didn’t answer.

She waited beside him holding his hand as the shadows crept across the floor. Susannah came back in every hour or so to look in on them, but otherwise, they were alone.

As the sun was setting, Rosalind went to the window. “I love the twilight, too,” she said. “At the Globe, Hamlet would just have been dying now.” Ophelia had been one of her last roles. It was said even the Queen herself had been moved to tears by her performance.

But her last part had been as Rosalind in As You Like It. She remembered her last performance. Her last night on the stage. Her last night as the boy Orlando.

She had lingered long after she thought all the others had gone until a messenger came with a bundle she had saved her wages for weeks to buy. In the empty tiring house by the light of two small candles, she took off her boyish habit for the last time and put on her new clothes, a plain gown such as a shopkeeper’s wife might wear. She combed out her hair, grown long for years so she never had to wear the wigs that so plagued other ladies on the stage, and pinned it in coils under a white linen cap.

She was just fastening a ribbon around her throat when she saw Will Shakespeare reflected in the copper mirror in front of her. “What new mummery is this?” he asked.

“None at all,” she said, tying her ribbon. “I am leaving, Will.”

“Who has procured you?” She heard the fury in his tone but knew it wasn’t for her. He had thrashed a minor player within an inch of his life two seasons before for playing pimp between nobles and another boy. “If your purse is light, why not come to me?”

“My purse is fine,” she said. “I’m not playing whore, Will.” She stood up and turned to him. “I’m leaving. Leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, leaving London. Leaving Orlando.” She could see from his face he didn’t understand. “I can’t playact innocent girls any longer. I am ready to be a woman.”

“Queen Gertrude,” Will said. “Lady Macbeth. Cleopatra—are these not women?”

“Aye, Will, but they are imaginary parts,” she said. “Your parts, the women who live inside your head. I am ready to be myself.”

Finally she saw the beginning of understanding in her master’s eyes. “But you can not be this woman, chuck,” Will said not unkindly. “I made you a woman for the stage, but God made you a man.”

“Do you mean now to preach me a sermon?” she said. “You know me, Will, as well almost as I know myself. Was Rosalind not written so that the world might see me as I am, as you do?”

“Rosalind was written to amuse a mob,” Will said. “She is a thing of air and fancy.”

“Aye, but I am not.”

“And who has taught you this strange text?” Will asked. “What wizard has promised to transform your parts and make you his bride?” She blushed and turned away. “You are right, boy, when you say I know this malady.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “But malady it is, a fever of the mind, not magic that may undo nature. I would have you escape this hell, Orlando, and for my part in bringing you to it, I must beg the pardon of Almighty God.”

“You’ve done naught but be as a father to me!”

“And a right poor one, too, methinks,” Will said. “I have made you believe you are a monster.”

“Then what of your noble patron?” Rosalind said. “Your most beautiful beloved, your holy soul? What manner of monster is he?”

Will slapped her so hard he sent her sprawling. “A poison tongue does not become thee, Orlando,” he said, his voice trembling.

“Orlando isn’t here, Will.” She wiped blood from her mouth. “What’s more, you know he is not, else why strike me with your open hand and not your fist? If a man so offended thee, why not draw thy sword?” She could see from Will’s horrified expression that he understood. “I am younger than you are and stronger. If I be a man as you are, why should I allow you to strike me down?”

“Get up, for pity,” Will said. “Get up and stop this.”

“’Twas your Almighty God made me a woman, Will, not you. You know I am no monster, and you know I am no man.” She climbed to her feet. “I have taken nothing from the company but honest wages. I ask nothing of you but your blessing. The blessing of a father to his daughter as she leaves his house.” Tears were streaming down her cheeks. “Will you not grant me that?”

For a moment, she had thought he would. She had seen in his eyes that he wanted to, that he loved her still. Then he had turned away. “Go to, boy,” he said, the last words he had spoken to her. “Go to.”

Now twenty years later she went back to Will’s bedside, tears brought on by memory wet on her cheeks. “Fairly met, master-father.” She went down on her knees beside the bed and clasped his cold hand between her own. As cold as any stone, she thought, remembering the death of old Falstaff. She had played the boy in old King Henry’s play, her first time ever on the stage. She had been paid for it with the first good meal she’d had in weeks, an orphan and runaway apprentice alone on the streets of London. “You saved me, Will,” she said. “For certes, you must know that.” She brushed the last wisps of his hair back from his fine, handsome brow. “Dick Burbage said you wished to see me,” she said. “I am here.” His lips were pale, and his eyelids looked bruised purple. Old Hamlet, she thought. How many times had she seen him made up as the ghost? She held his hand against her cheek. “Will you curse me again with your silence?”

Will’s eyelids fluttered. “You,” he said, a rasp barely louder than a whisper. “Is it you?”

“Aye.” She smiled.

He smiled, too. “My lady still…” He stroked her cheek. “Ophelia, then?”

“Nay, love. Rosalind.” She kissed his wrist and felt the flutter of his pulse against her lips. “A merry wench, I promise.”

“Good.” He frowned as if something pained him. “Aye me…” She gripped his hand more tightly. “Blessing….” He laid his hand on her head. “All blessings, daughter,” he said, smiling as she cried. “All my blessings on thee.” She leaned down and kissed his cheek, and she felt him kiss her back. But when she drew back, his eyes were closed, and he was sleeping.

 

 

She returned to her own house in the morning, and her own sweet Lydia met her in the yard. “Well met, beloved,” her wife said, kissing her. “Well met, wife.” Rosalind dissolved in tears against Lydia’s breast, and she held her close. “Welcome home.”

 

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Posted in Books, Free Reads, historical romance, Lucy Blue Short Story, Sherlock Holmes, Short Story

Scandalous Sherlock Holmes

small-butterflyMy baby sister, Alexandra Christian, and I are both big Sherlock Holmes fans in almost every incarnation, and bless our hearts, we do write romance. So last year as a lark we challenged one another to each write a Victorian romance with a hero that was both romantic and a reasonably authentic version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective. My offering was the story excerpted here, The Butterfly. (To read Lexie’s take, check out the excellent novella, Chasing the Dragon.)  Both stories are free to download through Saturday, February 16, 2017:

The glass-domed greenhouse stretched the entire width of the house and extended deeply into the patch of garden behind it. The late Lord Northrup, whose fortune had been greatly enlarged over two decades in India, had kept his own private jungle in the center of London. It was reported to have been his favorite room in the house, and he had died here, sprawled in an embarrassing attitude across a wicker chaise. The butler now led Holmes past the same spot which was now bare of furniture.

Lady Northrup was in a far corner near the glass wall. Her mourning costume had been augmented with a straw sun hat and a pair of gardening gloves. “Good morning, Mr. Holmes,” she said without turning around as she tended some large, rather ferocious-looking plant. “If your intent was to surprise me, you’ve succeeded.”

“No doubt you find it surprising that I would dare show my face here,” Holmes said, feeling uncomfortably like a small boy caught being naughty.

“Not at all.” She turned around with her hands full of colorful flowers. “I imagine you would dare anything.” She handed these to the butler. “Thank you, Mr. Poag.” Giving Holmes one last glare, the butler took his blossoms and left. “But I never dreamed you would come here to apologize.”

“It seemed appropriate.” After their last visit, Watson had declared Lady Northrup to be “quite striking.” Holmes was not the connoisseur of female beauty his friend was, but he couldn’t pretend the woman was unattractive. “Thank you for seeing me.”

“I could hardly resist.” She took off the hat and gloves. “Pray commence, sir.” She was almost smiling. “Apologize.”

“Of course.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “I deeply regret any embarrassment to yourself caused by my investigation of your husband’s death.”

“Embarrassment?” She walked past him, headed toward the rest of the house. “Is that what you’d call it?”

“Perhaps rather more than that.” He followed her. “Though in my defense, I must protest that I never once said you were a can-can dancer.” She led him out of the solarium into a cozy parlor with a grand piano and several overstuffed chairs. In contrast to what he’d seen of the rest of the house, these furnishings looked brand new. “I merely reported that you were a member of the ensemble at an establishment in Paris where the can-can is performed.”

“Was performed, Mr. Holmes.” She took one of the chairs and pointed him to another. “The nightclub has long since closed.” Tea had been laid on the table between them. “And I was not a member of the ensemble.” She poured a cup and smiled. “I was the star.” She held up the cup. “Cream and sugar?”

“Neither, thank you.” He took the tea and sipped, an act of faith, considering he had recently implied she might be a poisoner.

“You’re quite welcome.” She put sugar and cream in her own cup. “And your apology is accepted. I’m sure you only did what you felt was right.”

“I was engaged within the compass of my profession.” He would have turned the case down, but for some reason his brother, Mycroft, had insisted he take it. “And you must allow that the circumstances of your husband’s death bore investigation.”

“A man well past the prime of life in less-than-perfect health with a known fondness for tobacco, alcohol, and other indulgences drops dead with his trousers unbuttoned in the presence of a half-dressed upstairs maid,” she said, stirring her tea. “Yes, Mr. Holmes, very mysterious.”

“A maid who seemed to vanish into thin air immediately after making her report to the police,” Holmes pointed out.

“Indeed,” she said. “Are you certain I didn’t kill her, too?”

“Quite certain,” Holmes said. “I spoke to the young lady four days ago at her mother’s home in Brighton.”

“Oh, you found her.” Her tone and manner were calm, but he saw fury in her eyes. “I wonder that the papers didn’t mention it.”

“The papers weren’t told,” he said. “I saw no need to disrupt the poor creature’s life any further. She’s been through quite an ordeal already.”

“Indeed.” Her teacup rattled on the saucer. “How very chivalrous of you.”

“Lady Northrup, I had no idea your late husband’s nephew would go to the papers with my report.”

“Didn’t you?” she said, setting down her cup. “I thought you were meant to be clever. Having failed to deprive my son of his inheritance by sending me to the gallows, any fool could see his only recourse was to have me publicly declared a slut.”

“Lady Northrup—“

“By the time those papers went to press last night, he had already engaged his lawyers to enter a suit to declare my son, Sebastian illegitimate based on my—how do the documents phrase it?—my well-known history of lewd and immoral behavior.’ And with the help and faith of more fine, intelligent men like yourself, he’ll win his case.”

“Lady Northrup, I assure you—“

“You have made your apology, Mr. Holmes,” she cut him off as she stood up. “Your conscience is clear. And I have taxed my lowborn understanding of good manners to the utmost by not bouncing you out my front door on your arse. So really, we have nothing left to say to one another. I think it must be time for you to go.”

“Peter Northrup is the lowest form of weasel,” Holmes said. “I told him as much to his face the first day he came to see me. I only agreed to take the case to prove how petty and ridiculous it was. If you had shown the slightest genuine regret at the loss of your husband—“

“Dear god, man, why should I regret it?” she demanded. “He made my life a living hell for eleven years and died forcing his attentions on my maid.” She seemed to remember herself and sat back down. “No, Mr. Holmes, I do not grieve for my husband. I grieve for my son who will have no father. But for my husband, no.” She smiled slightly. “But that doesn’t mean I killed him.”

“When you and I first spoke, I knew very little of the circumstances of your husband’s death,” Holmes said.

“Only what Peter had told you.”

“Yes.” He felt a most uncomfortable heat on his face. “I do not like to think his prejudice against you influenced my perceptions.”

“I dare say it was my fault entirely,” she said. “I knew only too well what Peter must have told you. I could have easily played the grieving widow to perfection. I am a very accomplished actress—or at least I used to be.” She picked up her teacup again. “Would you be flattered to hear your reputation frightened me? That I was afraid you would see through my performance?”

“Flattered, yes, perhaps,” he said with a small smile of his own. “But not convinced.”

She laughed, a brief, musical lilt. “I was furious, Mr. Holmes, at my husband’s nephew and at you. How dare you come into my home and accuse me when I had suffered so much?”

Holmes found this much easier to believe. She looked like the sort of woman accustomed to fits of fury far beyond her own self-interest. “Rather a rotten husband, then?” he said, sipping his tea.

“Rather,” she drawled, mocking his diction. “He was a wealthy, titled Englishman. I was an Irish-born actress. Can you not picture our courtship?”

“Dr. Watson said it must have been quite romantic,” Holmes said.

“Dr. Watson was mistaken,” she said. “Bless him.” She set down her teacup and looked away as if she couldn’t decide what she should tell him. “Ours was very much a business arrangement. He gave me security of a kind, a name and a home for as long as I could play the part. It was quite understood that he would divorce me the moment anyone discovered my true identity. But no doubt you know that already.”

“Yes,” he said. “There were papers to that effect in the safe. I considered that your most likely motive for murdering him.”

“As well you might,” she said. “But before you exposed me, I played the role to perfection. Did you find anyone in England besides Richard’s solicitor who knew?”

“No one,” he admitted. “Even the nephew was fooled until the solicitor told him. So what did your husband receive in this contract, if I may ask?”

“You just have asked,” she said, laughing. “Why aren’t I surprised?”

“Your charms would certainly seem to be sufficient compensation for most men,” Holmes said. “But he was, as you say, giving chase to the chambermaids.”

“Perfectly expressed, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “The chase was the attraction for Richard, always. He married me because he couldn’t have me any other way. And in Paris, he had to have me.” He followed her gaze to a colorful painting hanging over the fireplace, a poster in the new French style depicting a woman in a striking black and blue gown. “I was La Papillon,” she said. “The Butterfly. The prize. Every man in Paris wanted to possess me.” She smiled her fragile smile again. “But no doubt you are immune to such attractions.”

“Generally speaking,” he said. “Though in your case, I believe I understand.”

“Why, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “You take my breath away.”

“I said I understand the disease, Lady Northrup,” he said. “I never said I was afflicted.” Watson had often accused him of willful cruelty, but that was almost never true. He rarely meant to wound anyone with his remarks; he simply had no tact. But something about this woman made him want to cut past her arrogant façade and lay her bare.

She obliged his base desire to hurt her by gasping slightly in shock, her eyes widening. Then she smiled. “Indeed,” she said. “So tell me, Mr. Holmes. Why have you decided I didn’t kill my husband after all?”

“Because I can determine no method nor opportunity by which you might have done so,” he said. “Your husband died suddenly while undertaking strenuous physical activity, though not of a nature unusual or outside his accustomed routine.”

“No,” she said. “Richard was always active.”

“The maid who was with him at the time testified that he exhibited only a brief period of distress during which his left arm appeared to stiffen and give him pain and his face first flushed then turned pale. She has not wavered in this account of his passing except to add, after my questioning, certain other details inappropriate for polite conversation that are also consistent with the sudden, violent onset of heart failure or stroke.”

“He lost control of his bowels but maintained an impressive erection,” Lady Northrup said. “You forget, Mr. Holmes, the butler and I were the first assistance the poor girl summoned to the scene.”

“Quite so,” Holmes said. “Marked dilation of the right pupil observed postmortem by Dr. Watson also indicated a strong possibility of stroke.”

“Then why suspect me at all?” she said.

“Mr. Northrup’s certainty of your guilt combined with your own apparent resignation to if not pleasure at your husband’s death made my suspicion inescapable,” he said. “No detective worthy of the name could have failed to investigate.”

“Oh yes, I forgot,” she said. “It was my fault. So what was your theory of the crime? How did you imagine I had done it?”

“As you were not present at the time of death, poison seemed the most likely method,” he said. He rather enjoyed talking it over with her this way; her lack of histrionics in the face of his deductions was far more charming to him than her looks. “Though until I spoke to the maid myself, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that she had lied to the police and was in fact your accomplice.”

“How relieved she must have been to hear you’d changed your mind,” she said, finishing her tea. “So why don’t you still think I poisoned him?”

“I consulted many sources within my own library and at the medical college and corresponded with several experts and determined that there is no poison available in London that could have produced precisely such a death,” he said. “Certain toxins injected directly into the bloodstream via syringe might conceivably produce similar symptoms, but they would have had to have been administered by someone in Lord Northrup’s presence when he was struck. You were upstairs in your dressing room with two other maids and Peter Northrup’s wife. More to the point, no needle marks were found on the body, only bug bites. Your husband’s valet testified that these were received on a hunting expedition the week before.

“Are they so different?” she said. “Bug bites and needle marks?”

“Chalk and cheese, Lady Northrup,” he said. “Or so Dr. Watson assures me.”

“So my husband died of a stroke.”

“Your husband died of a stroke.” Regret was not a luxury he allowed himself often, but sitting across the tea table from her now and remembering the boy he had met in the hall, he could hardly avoid it. “And I have done you harm.”

“I’ve lived through worse,” she said. “Though if you wanted to make amends, there is something you could do for me.”

He instantly regretted his regret. “Indeed?”

“I would very much like to go to the theatre this evening. The new Gilbert and Sullivan is opening at the Savoy, and my late husband and I have a box. Under the circumstances, I can hardly attend on my own.” She paused as if waiting for him to make a helpful suggestion, but he would sooner have taken a bite from his teacup, chewed it up and swallowed it. “As my current situation as a social pariah is at least partially your fault, would you be so kind as to accompany me?”

“Certainly not,” he said. “I do not care for the theatre, particularly the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.”

“My dear Mr. Holmes,” she said, laughing. “What you do or do not care for is entirely beside the point.” Her lovely smile was rather frightening. “I care for the theatre very much. And you owe me.”

He could have brushed off this challenge like a butterfly from his sleeve, but he found he didn’t want to. “So it’s to be torture, then?” he said, returning her smile.

“So it seems.” Her color was high and quite fetching in spite of her mourning gown. “Are you man enough to bear it?”

“We shall see.” He stood up. “Until this evening, Lady Northrup.”

She laughed. “Call for me at seven, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “I refuse to turn up late.”

Posted in Books, Horror, Lucy Blue Short Story, Paranormal romance, Short Story

Valentine Zombies, Old West Edition

updated-deadsperadoIn honor of Valentine’s Day (and as a break from our regularly-scheduled political outrage and apocalyptic panic), we chicks over at Little Red Hen Romance have put our entire catalog on Amazon for free. Here’s a link to one of my favorites: Dead-Sperado

And here’s an excerpt:

I woke up to the sound of Cade loading a shotgun. I sat up in bed to find him standing at the window with his back to me, dressed in nothing but his longhandles and boots. “Are they here already?” I said, still half-asleep.

“Who?” he said, looking back at me.

Before I could answer, the door crashed open, the lock and frame splintering. Some nasty, moaning, dead-looking thing that looked like Deputy Coy Carter with his guts spilled out ripped the remains from the hinges and flung it toward me, making me duck under the covers. It bounced off the footboard, and I slid out of the bed on the far side from the door, wrapping the sheets around me.

Cade fired the shotgun, blowing another hole in the thing from the back big enough I could see the outlaw through it, but the dead thing barely staggered. It reeled around like a drunk to face Cade, waving its pistol over its head like a club. Cade shot again, aiming for the head this time, and brains exploded in every direction, including all over me. I screamed, and the now-headless thing lurched forward. Cade never batted an eyelash, just started reloading his shottie. But the thing couldn’t live without its head, apparently. After a couple more staggering steps in Cade’s direction, it fell flat to the floor with a sickening splat.

“What the hell is that?” I demanded.

“Put some damned clothes on,” Cade ordered at the exact same time.

“Yeah, but what is it?” I crept out from behind the bed.

“How the hell should I know?” He kicked the body over and looked down at his badge. “Deputy Somebody.”

“Carter,” I said. “Coy Carter.” I grabbed clothes out of the wardrobe, my plainest dress and boots, and dove behind the bed again to retrieve my good corset. “But what the hell happened to him?”

“I couldn’t tell you, honey.” He kicked off his boots and pulled on his pants, then grabbed my hand while I was still hooking up my corset. “But it seems to have happened to most of the town.”

“Wait,” I said, half-hopping, half-falling as he dragged me toward the door. “What are you talking about?”

“Look.” He grabbed my face and turned it toward the window.

Down in the street, it looked like a cross between a drunken riot and a lynch mob. People who still looked healthy were screaming and fleeing in every direction as walking corpses like Carter lurched and crawled after them. “Holy Mary, Mother of Christ,” I said.

“Any help she can offer would be most appreciated,” Cade said, putting on his boots.

“Cade!” One of the dead things had climbed up the steps to the balcony and was staggering towards the window.

“Get back.” He raised the shotgun and blew the thing’s head off. Only as it was falling did I recognize Doc Hastings.

“Oh my God,” I said, trying not to be sick.

“Friend of yours?” Cade said, grabbing my hand again. “Come on.”

We crept half-crouching down the hall to the gallery that overlooked the saloon. “I don’t remember telling you my name,” he said like we were having a casual stroll among the buttercups.

“Like you didn’t know I knew exactly who you were.” One of the other girls, Sadie, came out of her room looking terrified, and I motioned for her to fall in behind us. “Swaggering in here like you owned the place, scaring everybody else out.” She crouched just behind me and reached for my other hand. I let her take it for barely a second and squeezed then let her go. I had the feeling I might need it.

“Fair enough.” Cade let go of my other hand and drew the six gun from his belt. “But when you woke up, you asked me if they were here.” The saloon still looked deserted, but I caught a scurry of movement behind the bar. I nudged Cade, and he turned the pistol that way. But it was just Hector, hiding. Cade nodded to him, and he crossed himself. “Who were you expecting?”

“The sheriff,” I said. “I was supposed to keep you busy until he and his posse showed up.”

Mr. Lindstrom from the general store came crashing through the saloon doors. “Help!” he screamed. “Somebody help us!” A monster in a big hat and a long coat with a silver badge I’d have known from half a mile away lurched in behind him and grabbed him. Before Cade could raise the pistol, the thing had bitten Lindstrom on the neck, tearing his head half off. Sadie screamed, and Cade fired, and the monster fell back twitching as Lindstrom fell forward. Cade went down the stairs still firing, unloading his pistol dead into the monster’s face, but it was still moving, still moaning, still reaching out for him. “Caaaaaade,” it growled, its lips barely hanging from its bloody skull. Only when Cade raised the shotgun and blew its head off did it fall.

“That sheriff?” he said, emptying the shells.

“Yes sir,” I said. “That would be the one.”

“Sorry, honey,” he said, reloading. “He ain’t coming.” He snapped the barrels back into place.

Lindstrom was moaning, trying to roll over on his back. “Mr. Lindstrom!” Sadie said, running down the stairs to him.

“Sadie, wait!” I said, running after her. “I don’t think you should touch him!”

Just as she reached him, Lindstrom lurched up and bit her, too. His skin had already gone green like he’d been dead for days, and as Sadie stood there screaming her fool head off, she started to turn green, too. Cade shot Lindstrom point blank, decapitating him with a single shell without a second thought. But he backed away from Sadie, looking shaken up for the first time since the madness started.

“I ain’t gonna hurt you, mister,” Sadie said, her voice slurred like she’d been drinking whiskey with a laudanum chaser. “I’m just so hungry.” She was moving closer, reaching out for him, and he couldn’t seem to make himself shoot.

A machete sliced through the air, and her head went flying as her body fell. Hector was standing behind her, still holding the blade. “Sorry, chiquita,” he said, making the sign of the Cross.

Two more men came running in, and Cade raised the shotgun, and Hector raised his machete. “Hang on!” Cade said. “They’re with me.”

The two men looked frightened out of their minds, but very much alive. One was black-skinned; the other was wearing a serape. Both were carrying pistols, and the black man had a shotgun slung in a holster across his back. “Holy shit, boss,” the serape wearer said to Cade. “Holy shit.”

“Zombies,” the black man said.

“Zombies?” Hector repeated. “What the heck is a zombie?”
“You want me to explain, or you want to get out of here?” the black man said.

“Both,” Cade said. “But one at a time.” I was behind the bar grabbing all the ammunition I could find. “Come on, Daisy.” I threw it all in a sack and came out, and Cade grabbed my hand again. “When all this is over, you and I are going to have to have a conversation.”

“Shotgun shells,” I said, handing the sack to the black man.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat and smiling. “Much obliged.”

“We should go to the mission,” Hector said. “Father Rodrigo will know what to do.”

“Not a chance,” Cade said, moving to the window, dragging me behind him.

“Actually, boss, it’s not a bad idea,” the black man said, following. “I’m Thomas, by the way, miss.” He offered me his hand.

“Daisy,” I said, shaking it.

“You think maybe we can stick to the subject?” Cade said.

“A priest has a better chance to turning these things away than anything else,” Thomas said. “Plus whoever raised them probably stole some kind of holy relic to do it. We’re going to run out shells eventually.”

Cade did not look happy. “Well hell.” He looked at me. “Can you shoot?”

“I can,” I said.

“If I give you a gun, are you going to shoot me?” Thomas and the serape wearer both snickered.

“I reckon not,” I said. “For now.”

He took a second pistol from his belt, checked the bullets, and handed it to me. “The bang comes out of that end,” he said. “Now come on.”

I couldn’t resist pointing it at the back of his head as he walked away, but Thomas shook his finger at me, grinning, and I lowered it again and followed him out to the street.

Posted in Books, Horror, Lucy Blue Short Story, Paranormal romance, Publishing, Short Story, Sneak peeks at the new stuff

Cowboys & Krampus – A Christmas Romance

cowboys-and-krampusSo in honor of the season, I’ve written a sequel to my insane zombie western, Dead-sperado, called Cowboys & Krampus. It’s available here right now from Amazon, and it starts off something like this:

Two days before Christmas, we had been on the run from a bank job for a week and a half. I had expected us to head south toward old Mexico, but Cade had led us straight north. The rest of the gang seemed to know what he was doing and trust him, and I had only been riding with them since Halloween, so I kept my mouth shut. But looking up at the sky, I was pretty sure we were headed straight into a blizzard.

Just as it started to snow, we rode up to a two-story hotel in the literal middle of nowhere. The hotel and its stable were the only buildings in sight in the middle of a flat, open plain surrounded by mountains.

The little round innkeeper came out from behind his desk as soon as we walked in the door. “Mr. Cade,” he said as we huffed and stomped and peeled out of the frozen layers of our coats. “Danke Gott! When we received your telegram, I was afraid you’d be lost on the road.”

“Telegram?” I said, raising an eyebrow. As far as I knew, we’d been riding for our lives. When had he stopped and sent a telegram?

“Of course. We couldn’t just show up without a reservation, Daisy.” The smile on his face made him look like a man I’d never met. Elbert Cade was not a smiler. “That would be rude.”

“But who is this?” the innkeeper said as I unbuttoned my duster. “Daisy? You have brought your young lady?”

“Mr. Bhaer, meet Mrs. Cade,” he said. “Daisy, honey, meet our host, Mr. Bhaer.”

To my credit, I didn’t faint from shock. “Pleased to meet you,” I said, giving Cade a slant-eyed look that should have shaved off one of his sideburns. Rule number one of the gang was never dispute our fearless leader in front of decent folks, so I wouldn’t. But I wasn’t no more Mrs. Cade than I was the queen of Sweden.

Mein Gott!” Bhaer said. “Mother, come quickly! Cade has taken a wife!”

“Uh-oh,” Thomas, Cade’s second-in-command, said with a grin. “Now you’ve done it.”

The swinging doors behind the front desk opened, and people came pouring out, a stout little woman with blonde braids wrapped around her head and half a dozen little tow-headed kids. “You don’t mean it!” the woman exclaimed in the same thick German accent as her husband. “Congratulations!” She kissed Cade on both cheeks, leaving flour in his whiskers. “Papa, look!” She took my hands and beamed at me. “Ain’t she lovely?”

“Daisy,” Bhaer said. “Her name is Daisy.”

“Mr. Cade, are you crazy?” one of the kids asked, a freckle-faced little bruiser with mischief dancing off of him like sparks off an anvil. “Whatcha want to get some stupid girl for?”

“Klaus!” his mother cried, scandalized.

“Well, Klaus, to tell you the truth, I didn’t have much of a choice,” Cade said with a bit of mischief in his own eyes. “I fed her one time, and she followed me home.”

“Klaus, you are a very naughty boy,” Mrs. Bhaer said. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Krampus carried you away tomorrow night.” She smacked Cade on the arm. “And you, too.”

“I don’t think Krampus will be traveling tomorrow night,” Mr. Bhaer said. “Not in this storm.”

“But Papa, what about Saint Nicholas?” one of the other kids said, this one a girl barely as tall as her papa’s boots. “Ain’t he coming either?”

“Not to worry, poppy seed,” Thomas said, swinging the little girl up in his arms. “Saint Nick can always make it through.”

“Something surely smells good in the kitchen, Mrs. Bhaer,” said Luis, Cade’s other lieutenant. He’d been all but hopping on one foot since we came in.

“I am baking gingerbread, Mr. Gonzales,” she said. “Or did you mean Clara?” Her husband and all the other men but Luis laughed at her joke. Me, I thought I must have fallen off my horse and hit my head at some point without noticing. This had to be a crazy dream. “She’s been waiting for you all day,” Mrs. Bhaer went on. “You’d better come see her. Papa, get everyone else settled into their rooms. I’m sure Mrs. Cade is exhausted.”

“So how long have you two been married?” Bhaer asked.

“Not long at all,” Cade said.

“No kidding,” I muttered.

“We’re still on our honeymoon,” Cade said, stepping on my foot. I bit back a shriek of pain.

Wunderbar,” Mrs. Bhaer said. “The bridal suite it is. Come, children, help me fetch Mrs. Cade a hot bath.”

“Aw, nuts,” Klaus grumbled, making me laugh. That child was a caution and cute as he could be.

“That’s quite enough from you, young Klaus,” his father said. “Go now and help your mother.”

When we got to the top of the stairs, Cade went so far as to carry me over the threshold. But as soon as Bhaer left us alone, he set me down, and the honeymoon was over.

“What in hell has gotten into you?” I said.

“Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer are good Christian folks,” he said. “They’d be mightily offended if they thought I’d brought some…” He let his thought trail off.

“Some what, Elbert Cade?” I said. “And remember, I have a gun.”

“They ain’t like us, Daisy, he said. “They’re good and kind and peaceful, and they don’t understand that the rest of the world ain’t like that.”

The rest of the world like him and me. “Which makes me wonder how they know you,” I said.

“I got shot up real bad a couple of years ago about twenty miles from here,” he said. “The rest of the gang thought I was going to die, and most of them skinned out and left me. But Thomas and Luis loaded me up on a half-busted wagon and tried to get me to help. Just when they figured it was hopeless, they found this hotel.”

“And these folks took you in?” I said. I was shaking just thinking about him getting hurt so bad, but I’d have sooner died than let him know it. “A wanted outlaw?”

“Thomas told them we were scouts,” he said. “He said we’d been set upon by bandits when we were leading a wagon train west, and that I had fought off half a dozen men single-handed to save the rest of the party.”

“Lord God Almighty.”

“Hey, I had—they just happened to have been a lawful posse.” If I hadn’t been so mad, I might have thought his little grin was charming. “Anyhow,” he said, seeing my frown. “The Bhaers got me a doctor, and when I woke up, I was a hero. And we’ve been coming back here every Christmas since. Luis and the cook even have an understanding to wed.”

“And they don’t know you’re outlaws?” I said.

He at least had the decency to look embarrassed. “Like I said, they’re good people.”

“Stupid people, maybe.” When I had taken up with him, I had known I was giving up any hope of eve being respectable, that I wasn’t ever going to be the nice married lady I had always dreamed I’d be. But I had wanted him so much, I had told myself it didn’t matter, that there were things more important than being respectable. But now here we were, and he expected me to pretend.

“Now don’t be like that,” he said. “I didn’t tell you we were coming here because I wanted it to be a surprise. I thought you’d like it.” He took my hand and tugged me closer, and I let him. “Just think, darling. A clean bed.” He kissed me on the forehead, sweet and soft. “A hot bath.” I couldn’t help but smile, slumping against him. “When was the last time you had a hot bath?”

“It has been a while.” The last time had been in Carson City, and a fine time it had been.

“We can stay here and ride the storm out safe and sound, eating Clara and Mrs. Bhaer’s fine cooking.” I twined an arm around his neck, and he kissed my mouth. “Sleeping as late as we like.”

“That does sound nice.” Getting up before the sun was the thing I hated most about being an outlaw.

“No posse breathing down our necks.” He nibbled the back of my neck. “No Thomas or Luis snoring one bedroll away.” He kissed behind my ear. “No biting my shoulder to the bone, trying to keep quiet.” I giggled, and he kissed me on the mouth. I melted against him, and he walked me backward toward the bed. “And I was thinking,” he said, nuzzling my throat.

“Thinking what?” I untied the bandana at his throat.

“When the storm does break and we do ride out…” He kissed me again, cuddling my head in his hand the way he knew I liked. “…you could stay on here a while.”

I broke the kiss. “Beg pardon?”

“Just for a little while.” He put up his hands like I might have been a sheriff with a shotgun. “Just until the weather warms up and things calm down a bit.”

“You want to just dump me?” I said.

“Of course not.”

“Have I ever once whined or told you I was tired?” I demanded. “Did I ever cry when I got shot at or fail to shoot when I had to?”

“No, honey. I just thought–”

“I ride as good as Thomas and better than Luis.” I had never been so mad at anybody in my life. “If you’re sick of me, Cade, all you’ve got to do is say so. If you’re ready for another piece of–”

“Stop right there!” He didn’t holler at me often, but when he did, it was impressive. “I don’t want no other women, damn it! That’s the gawddamn point! I want you to be safe!”

“Then you ought not to have let me come with you in the first place!”

“You think I don’t know that?”

I caught my breath like he had hit me. Truth be told, I wished he had.

Somebody knocked on the door. “Mrs. Cade?” It was Mrs. Bhaer. “We have your bath.”

Cade reached out a hand to me. “Daisy…”

“Get out.” I couldn’t stand for him to see me cry. “Just get out.” I opened the door. “Thank you kindly, Mrs. Bhaer,” I said, putting on a smile. “Elbert was just leaving.”

Check out Cowboys & Krampus and the rest of our holiday stuff at our website, http://lucybluecastle.wixsite.com/littleredhenromance. Merry Christmas! 

 

Posted in Books, Current events, Lucy Blue Short Story, Other People's Awesome, Personal Real Life Stuff, Politics, Pop Culture, Publishing, Short Story

We Are Not This: Carolina Writers for Equality – Press Release

small-we-are-not-thisI’m lucky enough to have a story in this–“The Dark Lady” about a transgender actress in the days of Shakespeare. But even if I didn’t, I’d promote the living juice out of it. Much, much great stuff to read, all profits benefiting a magnificent cause. It’s available as an ebook right now from Amazon here, and print copies are on the way. Get a copy, boost the signal, spread the word. HB2 and the hate it represents are NOT North Carolina. 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CHARLOTTE SMALL PRESS RELEASES CHARITY ANTHOLOGY PROTESTING HB2

For Details, contact John G. Hartness
john@falstaffbooks.com

10/25/16

In an “October Surprise” for Governor Pat McCrory and members of the NC General Assembly, Charlotte-based micro-press Falstaff Books today released We Are Not This – Carolina Writers for Equality. The anthology, a collection of 31 short stories, poems, and essays by North Carolina writers or writers who feel a strong tie to the Carolinas, was created as a response to HB2, the divisive “bathroom bill” passed by the NC General Assembly earlier this year.

We Are Not This includes stories from NY Times bestselling author A. J. Hartley, noted singer-songwriter David Childers, Bram Stoker Award nominee Jake Bible, Charlotte Observer columnist and longtime educator Kay McSpadden, Hugo-award nominated editor Edmund Schubert, and a host of other writers. The anthology is currently available as an ebook, and will be available in print within the month.

In his introduction, publisher John G. Hartness writes “We understand that people are people, and all people deserve to be protected from discrimination. We understand that insuring equal rights for one group does not take away rights from another group. We understand that laws restricting freedom and taking away someone’s chance for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is the opposite of the values that this country was founded upon. We understand that we are stronger together, and that love is love.”

Proceeds from the sale of the anthology will be divided among NC-centric LGBTQ charities, non-profits, and lobbying organizations. The first group of organizations to receive funding will be Time Out Youth, Queen City Theatre Company, and EqualityNC.

Posted in Books, Horror, Lucy Blue Short Story, Paranormal romance, Short Story

Until Death: An Anthology of Twisted Love Stories – new from LRH!

Me and my baby sis are at it again – new scary sexy just in time for Halloween! Get it here from Amazon

until-death-1

True love never dies…
That’s the story that all the fairy tale books are peddling. According to TV producer Dale, that was all it was—a fairy tale. A hustle perpetrated upon our culture by Walt Disney and romance novels. But while filming his hit new zombie show, Dale meets a charming extra who tries to convince him otherwise. She weaves tales of twisted love and obsession: a sinister family secret that comes home to roost, a grieving husband whose sadness gives birth to an all-consuming evil, a woman who forsakes salvation to rescue her greatest love from the cold clutches of death, and the promise of love’s redemption in the afterlife are just a few in her arsenal. But will Dale find himself in the middle of his own love story, or will his mysterious companion be the death of him?

Posted in Backlist, Books, Lucy Blue Short Story, Publishing, Short Story, Writing process

The Shocking Truth About What Writing Fiction Pays (a personal comparison)

librarianEarlier this week, I got my royalty statement for Little Red Hen Romance for September 2015 from Amazon and went into a full-blown fidget. In spite of the fact that we had outsold our previous best-selling month, June 2015, by more than two to one, moving more than twice as many books to paying customers (excluding promotional freebies from both months’ sales figure, of course), we made less than one-quarter as much money. How the fuck does THAT happen? I shrieked, racing figuratively around the internet squawking for most of the afternoon.

The villain who had stolen from me, I soon determined, was that damned Jeff Bezos with his double-damned Kindle Unlimited – specifically, the new rules for Kindle Unlimited that went into effect July 1, 2015 (you know, the day after our big month). Under the new system, publishers and self-pubbed writers get paid by the page read instead of by the copy downloaded. In June, the Hens were paid $1.25 per KU download, quite a trick since our books average about 25 standard pages and only cost 99 cents each. We were, to be perfectly bald-faced frank about the thing, one of the short works publishers who were unintentionally scamming the KU payment system, collecting as much payment on our short stories as novelists at comparable sales rank were getting for full-length books. Even in mid-squawk, I had to admit that wasn’t fair and that some sort of correction had been required. But I still felt screwed by the steepness of the sudden drop.

After a little arithmetic, I figured out that for KU downloads, we were now being paid about 12 cents a book or $0.005 per page. Since the royalty on those books when sold outright is about 35 cents, Kindle Unlimited still seemed like a really bad idea for us, money-wise, and I met with my fellow Hen, Alexandra Christian, to discuss how much we wanted to continue to help Amazon sell free shipping and baby diapers with our books.  We’re still working on that, and to that end, I sat down this morning with my calculator and contracts (including the stone tablets on which my traditional publishing contracts were carved back in the 2000s) to do a little comparing. I also took into account good points made by friends on both sides of the issue about what something like KU takes away from authors and publishers versus what it offers in exposure and promotion. My findings surprised me, and since I know a lot of other people are trying to make the same kinds of decisions at the moment, I thought it might be helpful if I shared them here.

I have published just about every way there is except Xeroxing my fan fiction and selling it out of the back of a van in the parking lot at Comic Con. For my purposes here, I’ll compare traditional publishing (contracts under Pocket Books/Simon and Schuster for full-length romances under the old template, about 400 pages/100,000 words), independent small press publishing (contracts under Purple Sword Publications, a fairly typical, better-than-average small press for full-length romances under the new template, about 250 pages/60,000 words), Little Red Hen Romance (a sort of self-pubbing co-op my sister and I started for short story romances, about 25 pages/7500 words), and Kindle Unlimited downloads of those same shorts. (None of the other stuff is available from Kindle Unlimited; the people making those decisions have already voted no.) All of these figures are for e-books; the Pocket contracts were primarily negotiated for print sales, but they do establish an e-book royalty that I’m still collecting on e-book editions of those books today.

Traditional Publishing: My cheapest e-books from Pocket retail for $8.99 (yeah, I know, no kidding), and I get paid a 15 percent royalty or $1.34. The books are about 400 pages long, so that works out to be about $0.003 per page. My two most successful books with them retail in e-book for $15.99 for 400 pages, with the same 15 percent royalty. So if anybody is desperate enough for medieval vampire romance in e-book to pay that, I make $2.39 or 0.005 per page (which, incidentally, is the same rate KU downloads pay–probably a coincidence, but I don’t know). The obvious advantage for Pocket in print is scope and reach–those books in print sold in the tens of thousands, not the tens, because Pocket was able to ship and place multiple copies all over the world at once and did; you could buy my books in any mall in the US and most of the world. But them days are over, for chain bookstores and for me, and these e-books are competing on the same digital playing field as stuff that’s much, much cheaper. I suppose there are probably readers who are more likely to buy a book from a traditional publisher (assuming they happen upon it in their keyword search), but at those prices? And by this royalty scale, if the sales figures aren’t hugely better, I’m not making any more money; my share comes out to be about the same in spite of the inflated price tag.

Small Press:  Most of my e-books from Purple Sword cost $6.99, run about 250 pages, and pay me a more-than-fair royalty of 50 percent. This works out to be about $3.49 or $0.01 per page paid to me, which for me is as good as it gets. (Writers who self-publish AND self-distribute are working in a different office.) Problem is, I don’t sell any books through Purple Sword. It’s not their fault; other PS writers are doing much better through them than I am. I’m pretty sure the problem here is me and my books–not enough active promotion on my part of those titles and books that don’t really fit the brand of the press as a whole.

Little Red Hen:  My sister and I started Little Red Hen as a way to try to give the people what they want – good, cheap romances short enough we could afford to sell them for only 99 cents each. (Because it takes us a couple of weeks to write each one versus the six months to a year we’d put into a full-length novel.) Currently, we distribute them only through Amazon, and our royalty for each one sold is 35 cents. This works out to be $0.01 per page, the same as the small press books, except that I’m actually selling quite a few. So while I’m still not pricing summer homes in Tuscany, I am able to call the experiment a success; the co-op is self-sustaining. But obviously I’d prefer to do more.

Little Red Hen – Kindle Unlimited: And here’s where we get to the problem of today. Little Red Hen shorts downloaded through KU pay us $0.005 per page or about 12 cents per full book, less than half what non-KU sales pay. We also tend to have 3 KU downloads for every 1 outright sale. (This is not an exact statistic – some books do better in KU; some books do better in regular sales. But it’s a fair generalization for the press as a whole.) Amazon is obviously committed to promoting KU; consequently books listed through KU are treated more kindly by their sales ranking algorithms. We’ve also been doing a free book promotion for every new release, something that’s only available through Amazon for KU books. Like a writer friend who is listing his on-going serial with KU pointed out, we are almost certainly reaching readers through KU that we would never reach without it, and that can’t be easily dismissed. But are we losing royalties to Amazon on readers who would want the book enough to buy it if they had to but are downloading it through KU instead? The many KU haters would say of course; Amazon would say certainly not. Me, I just don’t know.

I’m still mad at Amazon for the snake oil salesman approach they’ve taken with writers about KU. I get emails from KDP every month congratulating me on my brilliance for signing up and promising the moon when in fact, best case scenario, it’s paying me at exactly the same page rate as the fat cat traditional publishing model Amazon keeps saying it means to vanquish forever. (As I wrote more than a year ago in an open letter to Jeff Bezos, stop pissing on my shoes and telling me it’s raining.) But KU’s sins aren’t nearly as black as I wanted to paint them when compared to the alternative. My guess is Lexie and I will end up compromising, listing some books through KU for the sake of the promotional push and withholding others; in any case, we will have to take a hard look at every step in our current protocol. And I would advise any other author who isn’t James Patterson to do the same.