Posted in Black history, Books, History, Sherlock Holmes, Short Story

Dr. John Watson and “The Adventure of the Burning Man”

sherlock-300x444Mocha Memoirs Press and editor A.C. Thompson have done another anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories with a paranormal twist, Curious Incidents: More Improbable Adventures, and I have a story in it! The theme this time was any time or place EXCEPT Victorian London, and most of the stories have a definite science fiction double feature flair—steampunk, Weird Wild West, dystopian futures, pure stark screaming horror. But mine, “The Adventure of the Burning Man,” is a classic 1940s-style noir set in Los Angeles. And I guess the biggest twist on the usual canon (other than the Nazi fire demon) is that Dr. John Watson is black.

african-americans-wwii-042In this version, both Holmes and Watson are veterans of World War II, and Watson was one of the more than 19,000 men and women of color attached to the US Army’s Medical Department. Primary source information on the specifics of their service is thin on the ground—a stronger historian than me really should write a book on the subject because it’s fascinating, and there’s a definite gap to be filled. Racist segregation was rampant in the MD the same as everywhere else, particularly early in the USA’s involvement in the war, and most black medical personnel apparently worked as ambulance drivers and medics or in “sanitary companies,” regardless of their medical training. But there were some segregated hospital units with black doctors and nurses for black wounded soldiers. The picture above is from the National Archives: “Captain Ezekia Smith, 370th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division, receives treatment at the 317th Collecting Station, for shell fragments in face and shoulders suffered near Querceta, Italy.” February 10, 1945.  Bull. 111-SC-236685 (african_americans_wwii_042.jpg). In my story, Dr. Watson started the war driving an ambulance in North Africa and ended it as a field surgeon in France. Now he’s running his own small medical practice on the first floor of a seedy L.A. office building also occupied by a certain English consulting detective.

Curious Incidents is available now from Amazon as a Kindle e-book and in print through Mocha Memoirs Press. And here’s an excerpt, the opening of “The Adventure of the Burning Man:”

 

For Watson, it started with the girl.

He had just locked up the clinic for the night and was waiting for the elevator. It finally opened with an oily wheeze, and the four employees of the second floor accounting firm came out, each one giving him their own version of the stink eye as they passed. “Evening,” he said, tipping his hat to the prune-faced receptionist. “Y’all have a good night.” Usually he took the stairs specifically to avoid these little scenes. But tonight it was raining, and his leg was paining him, and these California crackers would just have to cope.

He was just about to step inside when the girl ran in from the street—blonde, tall, soaking wet with her little blue frock plastered to her body like a second skin. With an inward sigh, Watson stepped back to let her board the elevator without him. “I’ll wait for the next one.”

“There’s only one, and it’s slower than Christmas,” she said, laughing. “Come on, don’t be ridiculous.” Miss Prune Face had stopped at the street door and turned all the way around to gape at them, and her mouth dropped open like a dead trout’s as he stepped inside. The blonde waved to her and stuck out her tongue just as the doors heaved closed.

“What floor, miss?” Watson asked, suppressing a smile.

“Three,” she said. “I work for Mr. Holmes.”

Watson had never stopped on the third floor, but he’d seen the name on the directory in the lobby. “So what does a consulting detective do?” he asked. “Spy on cheating husbands, that kind of thing?”

“Nothing like that,” she said. “At least not so far. To tell you the truth, all I’ve seen him do since he hired me a week ago is think a lot and teach me to make what he calls an almost passable cup of tea. He’s English.”

“Oh.” Even Watson, who wasn’t particularly inquisitive by nature, wondered what kind of tea brewing she meant to do at seven-thirty on a Friday night. But then, seeing the way her wet dress clung to her hips, he reckoned he could guess. “Here we are then,” he said as the elevator lunged to a stop. “Third floor.”

“Thanks—Dr. Watson, isn’t it?” she said.

“It is.” She was a pretty girl; he hoped this English Mr. Holmes deserved her. “Have a good night.”

“You too.” She took his dangling hand and shook it. “I’m Grace.” She stepped out and started down the hall. “Good night.” When the elevator closed, he was still watching her walk away.

The rain was still pounding when he stepped out on the roof. The pigeons stirred and cooed as always, sidling along their perches, jockeying for position. “Sorry, kids,” he said, filling their troughs with seed. “It’s too wet to fly.” The old man who had left him the birds as payment of his bill had spent hours on the roof, day and night, rain or shine, talking to his pets and letting them fly for hours. But Watson didn’t have that kind of time. He tried to release them to exercise for a little while every day, but he didn’t keep the careful count when they came back that Mr. Rosenbaum had, and over the past month, he’d lost a few. He wouldn’t have grieved much if they’d all flown away for good; keeping pigeons was not his idea of a good time, and the stairs were murder on his leg. But the old man had been his first patient when he’d come to Los Angeles. He’d never mentioned or seemed to notice the color of Watson’s skin, only that he was a doctor close by who made house calls. He had trusted him, respected him, befriended him, and he had died. So Watson took care of his birds.

A crack of thunder made the building shake under his feet, and the pigeons screeched and fluttered as lightning lit the sky. But he heard something else, too—a woman’s scream. “Help!” It was Grace; he was sure of it. “Somebody help!”

He sprinted down the stairs, leaping the last flight in a single clumsy bound, ignoring the pain in his leg. Her screams rose again, sharper, wordless with pain. His brain flashed on the revolver locked in his desk drawer on the ground floor then on the heavy cane he’d dropped on the roof, but he ran on.

The door to the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective Agency was standing ajar. As he reached for the knob, still running, it crashed open, knocking him backwards, his forehead cracking the glass. He only caught a glimpse of a male figure dressed in black, some kind of big, floppy coat and a hat pulled low on his brow, shading his face. But he smelled him, a pungent, acrid smell like burning leaves. The mystery man had disappeared into the stairwell before Watson got his bearings. He thought of going after him, but the girl was still inside.

But she wasn’t screaming any more. He found her on the floor behind the desk. She had been stabbed in the chest; there was blood everywhere. But she was alive.

He fell to his knees beside her. “John.” Her voice was weak but urgent. Her pretty face was deathly pale and slick with sweat. “Listen.” Her dress had been ripped open, and her chest was gushing blood in spurts in rhythm with her weakening heart, too much to actually see the wound. He tore off his jacket, wadded it up, and pressed it to the blood flow. She screamed, grabbing his arm, and he felt her sternum giving way.

“Holy God.” The bastard had cracked her open like a surgeon.

“Dying.” Her red nails dug into his wrist. “Tell Mr. Holmes…the fox.” Blood bubbled from her lips, and her eyes went blank.

“No!” He could hear footsteps coming closer, voices from below. At night, the empty building was like an echo chamber, but he thought someone was coming up the hall. “Somebody help me!” he shouted. “We need help!” But Grace was gone.

“Don’t move,” a man’s voice commanded. “Stay exactly as you are.” He heard the door creak, and looked back over his shoulder. “I said don’t move!” This man was white and dressed in brown, a strange, cloak-like tweed coat and a hat Watson’s grandfather would have called a deerstalker. Watson started to stand. “Please, be still one more moment.”

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, Paranormal romance, sci fi romance, Short Story, steampunk romance

Repairing the Perfect Beast

small-annabelThree more days of freebies over at Little Red Hen Romance, including Miss Annabel Lee and the Clockwork Wolf, the first chapter in our steampunk series. Wanna taste?

As soon as she knew they were gone, Annabel went down to the cellar. She dragged the old milk cans out of the corner, swept back the carefully strewn layer of dirt, opened the heavy trap door underneath, and took out a carpetbag she hadn’t touched since the day she arrived in Persistence.

She carried it back up to the bedroom where the Dragonfly was sleeping. “Let’s hope you’re worth it,” she muttered, setting it down. She squatted beside it and pressed a thumb to either side of the lock. “Annabel Lee MacGuffin,” she said in a clear, flat tone. “Blackwood Corporation ID number four-nine-seven-dash-three.” With a whirring of gears and a stench of burning gas, the carpetbag snapped open.

She took out her goggles (still partially charged, thank heavens), her rubber apron, and her tool/first aid kit. She tied on the apron and put the goggles on her forehead, then unrolled the kit on the bedside table. Back in the lab, she would have sprayed her hands with disinfectant and put on thin rubber gloves. Here on the Prairie, she made do with washing up with house soap then rinsing with vodka.

She pulled the goggles into place and pulled back the sheet from her patient. He was in a near-perfect state of stasis, the only movement his eyes twitching under his eyelids as if he might be dreaming. She clicked on the infrared sensor on her goggles, and he seemed to explode into fiery red light—he was burning up. “Are you malfunctioning?” she asked softly. “Or are you some kind of new model?” Whatever he was, he was beautiful. Dragonflies were always strong, but this one looked like he’d been carved from marble by a Renaissance master; every muscle and limb was in perfect proportion. And unlike most of the soldiers she’d seen in the course of her escape, he had a handsome face, too, with high cheekbones and a strong jaw under the short-cropped beard.

She ran her fingertips down his torso until she felt the thrum of his control pack under the skin just above his navel. He carried it lower than normal; most were installed just under the heart. And unlike the early models she had helped design, he apparently had no zipper access that she could find. “Sorry, soldier,” she said, taking out her scalpel. “I promise to sew you up pretty.”

As soon as the point of the scalpel touched his skin, the power pack underneath started to glow. An entire network spread out from it in lines along his neural network—a new security feature, no doubt. She withdrew the scalpel, but the glowing didn’t stop; in fact, it seemed to intensify, and his whole body began to twitch. Swearing an oath and thinking a prayer, she repeated her Blackwood security code, “Annabel Lee MacGuffin, Blackwood Corporation ID number four-nine-seven-dash-three.” The glowing immediately subsided. “Lovely,” she muttered, going back to work. “Just grand.”

The main control pack module looked mostly familiar but was twice the size of the ones she was used to, and a secondary unit like nothing she had ever seen before was mounted above it. Still, she was pretty sure his recovery protocols would be the same. If he was stable, she should be able to repair each of his systems one by one and accelerate the natural healing process at least enough to wake him up. With a tiny screwdriver, she opened up the brass plate on the main power plant and saw that yes, he was in an artificial stasis probably triggered by the impact of the crash. The miniscule crystal over his vitals gauge was cracked, but the readings were surprisingly good. The doc had been quite wrong; once his stasis was broken, his kidneys should function perfectly along with the rest of his organs. “How is that possible?” she mused aloud as she plucked out the broken crystal with tweezers. “At least some of you ought to be jelly.”

She replaced the crystal with a new one from her kit, and when she withdrew the tweezers, the very tip tapped the edge of the secondary control unit. The man spasmed all over, and the vitals gauge leapt up. She pulled her goggles back down and saw parts of him had gone even hotter—his brain, his heart, and his sex organs. “That can’t be good.” As she watched, the heat level started to fall, and the gauge dropped back to healthy stasis levels. But as it was falling, she noticed something else. A deep, nasty gash in his shoulder had started to knit itself closed.

“They didn’t,” she breathed. “They couldn’t have.” Her former mentor, Horace Blackwood, had worked for decades on a way to make his supersoldiers self-healing, but he had never cracked it. How could the apes in the military have found the answer in four short years?

She switched off the infrared sensor on her goggles and engaged the second level of magnification. The secondary unit seemed to have its own stasis failsafe attached to the man’s central nervous system. But while the primary unit had two settings, on and off, this one seemed to have at least six. The control cog was so tiny and so delicately calibrated, she could barely read it even with the goggles. Stranger still, these controls seemed to be entirely disconnected from the others; if she meant to wake him up, she’d have to turn on both.

“Secondary unit calibration test,” she said, forgetting she wasn’t in the lab being filmed. “Level one.” With one of the tiny instruments from her kit, she turned the cog up a notch. She noted a slight rise in body temperature and an increase in the REM sleep twitching, but his wounds remained unchanged. “Level two.” More heat, more twitching, and superficial skin wounds began to heal. “Level three.” The man went rigid, and she heard a rippling, crackling sound—his bones were actually healing. “I can’t believe it.” She checked the vitals gauge on the primary unit. His organs and functions all seemed to be fine; in fact, they seemed stronger.

“Level four.” She turned up the cog one more time. The man began to twitch more violently, fingers flexing, and a low moan, almost a growl, came from his throat. His jawline began to change, growing longer and thinner, and his brow began to protrude. His fingers and toes grew longer and started to curl.

“Level three,” she repeated, her scientist’s nerve kicking in, keeping her calm. As soon as she turned the cog back, the twitching stopped, and his bone structure returned to normal. “Oh good.” She ran a hand down the arm that had been shattered before and found it whole. The crackling had slowed down; his skeleton must be almost healed. “Good for you.” With rest, he would be as good as new. “Werewolf DNA,” she said, trying not to notice the tremor in her voice. “That explains it.” Some of the military consultants even back in her own day in the City had suggested splicing werewolf DNA into soldiers, but Blackwood had always refused to consider it—this issue had been one of the sticking points that had led to his downfall within the government. Apparently with him and his team out of the way, the apes had pressed on.

She set the timers on both units to keep the man in stasis another eight hours. “A good night’s sleep will fix you right up,” she said, replacing the brass cover and screwing it back into place. She pulled the edges of the incision gently closed, and before she could reach for her needle and silk, it had already started to seal itself back up. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

 

Posted in Books, Horror, Paranormal romance, Short Story, Witch Romance

Furious Angels (Need Love, Too)

wetworkHe is her special angel . . . bless her heart. Wet Work, available free this week from Little Red Hen Romance:

Rosie woke up on a bed with a sombrero-shaped headboard. “Ay carimba.”

“You.” Matthias, the angel she remembered from her first night as a witch, was pacing over her. “It just had to be you.”

She sat up, all her joints still aching from the cold outside. “You recognize me?” The television was on, and a show about a pawn shop was playing—a weird choice for an angel.

“Of course I recognize you.” He was wearing the floppy overcoat she remembered, and his face was exactly the same. “I told you to be good.” A pair of men’s pants with the belt still attached was draped over the chair, and a pair of workboots with the socks stuffed inside was lined up in front of it. “I commanded you to stop using magic for good.”

“You commanded me?” She stood up, but he was still a head taller than she was. “I’ve got to pee.” If she could get out the bathroom window without him hearing, she’d at least have a head start.

“I wouldn’t if I were you.”

She opened the bathroom door and saw a naked dead man lying half in and half out of the tub. “Holy shit!”

“Be nice,” the angel said as she slammed the door. “In his condition, you’d look just as bad.” The corner of his mouth quirked. “Well, maybe not quite.”

“He’s dead!”

“Yeah.” He sounded the way she remembered him, too, dry and sarcastic. “That’s how I knew he wouldn’t get in the way.”

“You knew he was dead?” Suddenly the TV was creeping her out, and she grabbed the remote and switched it off. “How?”

“I’ve got connections.” As if on cue, there was a knock at the door, then another angel in another floppy overcoat walked straight through it without bothering to open it.

“Are you decent?” He was bulkier than Matthias with a full beard and mustache. “Well damn.” He grinned at Rosie. “Hello there.”

“Your guy’s in the tub,” Matthias said.

“You don’t say,” the other one said. “They are looking everywhere for you, by the way.” He grinned again. “Israel is so pissed.”

“He’s got the rest of eternity to get over it,” Matthias said. “You think maybe you could move this along? We could use a little privacy.”

“I’ll bet.” He was looking at Rosie again. “Should I plan to come back?”

“I’ll let you know.” Matthias was looking at her, too, but he wasn’t smiling. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“Don’t take too long. He’ll break the shield eventually.” He opened the bathroom door. “Hey buddy. How’s it hanging?” He went in, closing the door behind him, and she heard a muffled conversation. A few seconds later, the door opened, and the dead man and the angel came out. The man was now wearing boxer shorts and a tee-shirt. His color was better; in fact, he seemed to be glowing with health.

“Can I grab my pants?” he asked. He didn’t seem to notice Rosie or Matthias.

“Sure thing, bud,” the other angel said. “Whatever helps. But hustle, you’ve got an appointment.” The man seemed to pick up the pants and put them on, but they were still draped over the chair, too. The other angel gave Matthias a little salute then took his charge by the arm and led him straight through the door.

Rosie looked back in the bathroom. The corpse was still there. “So that was the angel of death?”

“One of them, yeah.” Matthias was lighting a cigarette with an old-fashioned silver lighter.

“So if he comes back, he’ll be coming after me.” He took a long drag and held it like he hadn’t had one in a while. “Because you’re going to kill me.”

He let out the smoke in a cloud. “That would be the protocol. From what I see, I should have done it the first time we met.”

“I’m glad you didn’t.” She knew a lot more now about the standard interaction between angels and witches than she had then, so much that fear dribbled down her spine like ice water. But she was sure she felt an attraction that wasn’t just her, an electricity between them dancing on her skin. The markings from her magic that looked like tattoos were tingling, reacting to his presence. If she could harness that energy and use it, she might still get out of this alive.

“Look at you,” he said, stubbing out the cigarette half-smoked. “You’re covered in Nephilim markings now. You must have done hundreds of spells.”

“Thousands, actually.” There was a spell she had learned but never used, ancient and dangerous. In her mind now, she recited the incantation.

“Black magic,” he said.

“Pretty black.” She’d spent less than an hour with him the night they’d met, and she’d been a scared, freaked out kid in the middle of a crisis. But she had never forgotten a single detail about the way he had looked or sounded. She’d never fallen in love with another human because no human could ever measure up.

“Lovely.” His scowl reminded her of how he’d looked standing over her mother and her stepfather’s bed, making her mom see the truth.

“Would it help if I said I was sorry?” She barely knew what she was saying; her mind was focused almost completely on the spell. But there was one word she had to speak aloud to make it work. “Would it help, Matthias?”

She felt the magic unfurling from her like petals, curling like tendrils of vapor, binding her to him like chains. He was walking around her, studying the markings. He touched her back with one fingertip, and she gasped. The spell was working on her, too. “How long have you had the wings?” he asked.

“Not long.” She had noticed the wing-shaped markings only the day before. She had stepped out of the shower in front of a full-length mirror in another fleabag motel, and there they were. They extended from the tops of her shoulders to the backs of her knees, and they’d shown up sometime after she’d taken possession of the artifact in her pocket now. “Are they special?” She trembled as he traced a line down her back.

“Like you don’t know.” He grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her around. “Nephilim,” he snarled, shoving her back against the wall.

“I don’t know anything,” she protested. “You didn’t tell me—“

“Do you think this is smart, Rosie?” His saying her name was as potent as her spell; her knees went weak. “Putting a love spell on an angel?” His face was so close to hers, she could feel his breath, and the fury in his eyes made her shiver. “We live forever, you know.”

“I know.”

“And we have all the same emotions as you and almost unlimited power.” He bent his head, his lips barely brushing her jaw as he spoke, and goose flesh broke out all over her. “And I am deeply, profoundly pissed.” His voice was almost a growl. “Does that sound like the perfect boyfriend?”

She looked up into his eyes. “Honestly?”

“Damn it, Rosie.”

Posted in Books, Free Reads, Other People's Awesome, sci fi romance, Short Story

Homicidal Lovers in Outer Space

small-geminiAlso available this week for absolutely no financial outlay whatsoever, my baby sister, Alexandra Christian’s amazing sci-fi romance, Gemini. Here’s an excerpt:

Xander sat straight up, gasping for air and startling Kaia.  She reached for him, but he thrashed violently and shoved her aside.  He was trying to move, but his limbs seemed to short-circuit. Kaia was reminded of a fish out of water as he desperately tried to get to his knees.  “Xander… just… calm down.  Let me help you,” she said, trying to grab hold of his arm.  Before she could touch him, he coughed and gagged until he was throwing up a bright white fluid.  It was the cryogenic chemical that they had pumped into his body ten years previous, holding him in this stasis.  She knew it was necessary, but it frightened her, and she turned away, weeping into her hands.  Surely it would kill him.  There was so much.  How could his body possibly repair itself after such trauma?

Finally he stilled, falling forward on the glassy floor and breathing heavily.  Kaia approached him carefully, not sure if she should touch him.  He still looked so frail.  His skin was so pale that it was almost blue, and his black hair hung in his face in wet, knotty tendrils.  His limbs were splayed awkwardly, almost as if he were broken.  “Xander?” she murmured. He didn’t answer, but he opened his eye, and a tear rolled down his cheek.  His pupil shrank in the light making his blue eye look like untouched ice.  “Do you know me?”  No recognition sparkled there, and Kaia felt her heart sink like a stone.  She reached for him, and this time he let her help him sit up.  His eyes never left her as she pushed his hair back from his brow and used the hem of her shirt to wipe at his mouth.  “It’s all right.  You’ll remember me in time.”  She hoped.  “Do you understand?” He raised a hand to her mouth as she spoke, feeling her lips as they formed the words.  Kaia smiled and grabbed his hand, placing it against her chest.  “Kaia,” she said. He didn’t speak, but she could see his lips moving as if trying to mimic her speech.  “I came here to help you.”  She smiled and stroked the back of his hand as if to reassure him. Slowly she stood up, letting him lean heavily against her.  Kaia prayed that he would remember how to use his feet.  There was no way she’d be able to carry him all the way to the small vessel that was docked on the other side of the prison.  After a few steps he seemed to get the hang of it, copying her movements as they made their way slowly down the corridor toward where the transporter waited for them.

“Hold on just a bit longer, love,” she soothed, holding him tight against her as the transporter carried them up to the docking bay. “Once we get on the ship you can rest.”  She tried not to think about the bodies of the guards that lay strewn at their feet all along the corridor leading to the ship.  It wasn’t that she was particularly disturbed by the carnage carried out by her own hand, but these men were innocents.  They had been doing their jobs, and she hadn’t relished having to dispose of them like vermin, but only Xander mattered.  Both of them, all of the Gemini in fact, had been trained as assassins, but the men they’d dealt with in the past were not “good men.”  They were enemies that brought destruction and death to innocents.  But no one is ever the villain of their own story.

The walk from the transporter to the landing dock was an eternity.  Xander could barely control his limbs, and they fell down several times.  At one point he’d begun to shake so violently that Kaia was afraid he’d pummel them both to death as they practically crawled onto the ship.  She took him immediately to the living quarters on board and helped him lie down across the bed.  Luckily, the ship she’d grabbed from the spaceport on Sirrine-10 was a small luxury vessel, fully equipped for a vacation in space.  Kaia had managed to knick it completely undetected from a poor maladjusted pop star fleeing from rehab.  The décor wasn’t much to her taste, but it had the most important things:  an interstellar system, food, and a bedroom.

Kaia sat down beside where he lay, breathing heavily after her exertions getting him this far.  In a moment she’d have to take off and comb the maps for a friendly planet far out of reach of the IU.  She wasn’t sure where they would go or if this craft would even get them there, but she couldn’t think of it that way.  She had to take this mission one step at a time, or she’d lose her mind completely.

“You mean you haven’t already?”

Kaia gasped as the cloudy recesses of her brain where Xander’s voice lived began to open up.  The wall that had resided there for so long was crumbling to dust as his body, mind and soul awakened.  “Xander?”

“Is there anyone else out there with whom you’ve formed a psychic bond?”

Kaia looked, and he was smiling weakly.  She began to laugh in spite of herself and threw her body against him.  “You do know me!  I… I thought perhaps you’d forgotten.  It’s been so long.”

“Of course not.  Your thoughts are much too loud to be forgotten.  But I do have questions.”

“Anything,” she choked, almost sobbing as she lay against his chest, reveling in the comforting rhythm of his breath.

“My body.  Why can’t I use my body?  And I can’t talk.”

“Shush now,” Kaia soothed, laying down by his side and cradling his head to her chest.  “Let your body rest.  You’ll be well soon enough.”  A blanket of relief settled around her as he nuzzled closer.  She took his hand in hers, raising it to a cool cheek.  He was getting warmer now, and she could feel a strengthening pulse in his wrist.  His mind went quiet, and his eyes closed, relaxing into her cradling arms.  They would lie there together until their bodies were once again synced.  Their heartbeats, the rhythm of their breath, the speed of the blood rushing through their veins would work in tandem until they were a united circuit through which their one soul could navigate.

 

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!