A Shapeless Voice – A Short Story

I missed Snippet Monday yesterday. Yeah, yeah. Go ahead and yell at me. I’ll send my battalion of children off to attack you (though they’ll most likely just ask for snacks and want you to watch My Little Pony with them.)

Instead, I bring you a short story (quite short, only a tad over 1200 words) from the world of The Half Killed, more specifically, a look into Dorothea Hawes’ life before the events of The Half Killed.

So without further ado (because really, I need to get started on dinner and herd the children inside for French Toast and bacon) here is A Shapeless Voice. Enjoy!

*** A Shapeless Voice

The matron’s woolen dress smelled of perpetual damp, the fumes growing stronger, transforming into a miasma that dulled the senses and brought out a headache when she stood quite near the fire or any other source of heat. The heavy skirt, darkened with dirt near the hem, swished across the scrubbed wooden floor, catching on the edges of threadbare rugs, or knocking the occasional chair off balance.

But it was when she stood over your shoulder, the rough weave of the wool scratching at your arm, that you could think of nothing but brushing it off as you would an irritating insect. Of course, you could not move as you wished, and so you remained still, with the old woman breathing down your neck, her bones creaking in time with the slow, steady cadence of your words.

And when you faltered, she only struck your back with the flat of her hand, your spine straightening, sometimes arching away from her touch. It was never a forceful hit, nothing meant to cause you considerable pain, but simply a reminder that she was there, behind you, beside you, watching, listening to the word of God as recited by your tongue. It became clear, quite soon after your arrival, that she never touched you but to hit you, that this same quirk of her personality was followed through with her treatment of all the other girls. And there were so many of them now, more than enough girls to fill every bed, crammed onto the tiny mattresses in pairs, so that you fell asleep every night to the sounds of heartbeats other than your own as your thin legs fought for a share of the blanket.

As soon as you finished with your turn, the book passed on to the next girl, and then the next, until the entire lesson had been read. One of the other matrons spoke up then, ordering the lot of you to the rooms at the top of the house, and the lights were extinguished behind you, darkness filling your wake as the footsteps of fifty girls stamped up the narrow staircase to the dormitories.

There was some light from the moon, enough to cast shadows on the wall as you stepped out of your dress and took care to hang it on the peg beside your bed. Your shift was scant protection against the cold, and you shivered as you clambered into bed, the stiff fabric sliding up your legs no matter how much you tried to keep it pulled down. The blanket you tugged up to your chin, then over your mouth, just high enough so you wouldn’t have to see the pale cloud of vapor escaping from your mouth on every exhalation.

One by one, the girls around you succumbed to sleep. Better to sleep than suffer through the cold. You were one of the few still with your own bed, and so there was no other body’s warmth to calm the trembling that shook your bones. You wished for sleep to come to you, but it never did, leastways not until the pale, sickly light of dawn brightened the tall, greasy windows. Light, then. A few minutes of rest were what you found before the bells began their ringing, another day called to life with the sound of shuffling feet, of coughings, whisperings, scratchings, all as faces and necks were scrubbed, as the previous day’s dresses were donned, as the fifty pairs of feet tramped along the corridors and down the stairs again to breakfast.

But the sleep itself was not what frightened you. No, no. It was the dreams, the visions that flashed before your eyes, always so close, yet always seemingly just beyond your reach. And the voices… the voices were louder then, because in rest you did not possess the power to fight against them, to shut them out. And knowing this, they taunted you, telling you things you never wished to know.

And come morning, every morning, when the ringing of the bells pushed that other less melodious ringing of sound from your head, there was only more exhaustion than the night before. Though you made every attempt to disguise it, still the other girls inquired if you were well. But you told them there was no reason to worry, and so you washed your face, and braided your hair, pinning it close to your head before covering it with the itchy white cap.

Another day of lessons then, of basic reading and copywork, all of it followed by hours of sewing. Or, in your case, because your stitches had never been fine, of untangling bits of thread and yarn for the others to use. The work was dull, numbing to both body and mind, and you sat with your eyes narrowed, back bent over your task until the light from the windows dimmed. A few candles would be lit, though you still had to bring the work quite near to your face. By the time the call for the evening meal came, your eyes were narrowed to slits, the red reaching in from the corners, stinging until you wiped the tears away with the back of your hand.

Night came again, overtaking you before you were aware of it. The bells rang, and you fell into step behind the other girls. Another night, your dress hanging on the peg, the exhaustion sweeping over and around you until the dreams pressed in again. The voices found you, attacking with greater precision, never pushing at the same place twice in their search for a point of greater weakness.

And when they found it, they slipped inside, all stealth and cunning. One voice in particular struck you with more familiarity than the others, yet it spoke softly to you – so softly – lulling you into a deeper slumber, one that threatened to smother you with its offer of peace and comfort.

The screaming was not enough to wake you. Your throat was already sore from it, as though you had been crying out for some time without any knowledge of it. When you finally opened your eyes, you saw the other girls in the dormitory, all of them crowding away from you, pressed against their own beds, against the walls, a few of them running out the door, falling over each other in their haste to escape.

One of the matrons appeared then, a younger woman with dark hair unbound, still in her nightdress. You remembered the expression on her face, the horror that flashed in her eyes. Then, you noticed it. The placement of the other beds and furniture in the room, all of it shoved far away from your own, as if they’d been swept towards the walls by a great hand. Only your bed, you recalled, sat untouched in its original position.

The matron staggered forward, her hands reaching out for your shoulders, gripping them, shaking shaking shaking until the screaming stopped. You gasped for breath, realizing then how close you were to fainting from lack of air. Before you could blink, before you could form a single word on the tip of your tongue, she struck you across the cheek, the wound stinging from the scrape of her bony knuckles.

A stupid girl, she called you. A monster. And as she spoke, the soft familiar voice echoed the same thought in your ear. Only you were more inclined to believe him above all others.

***

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Snippet Monday: The Death Within

Busy, busy, busy. This is the life I lead. But we seem to have tailored the daily homeschooling down to about three hours, finishing by lunch, and then a flurry of chores and other things give me leave to write while the youngest naps in the mid-afternoon.

The last two weeks I’ve shared bits of Dust and Silver, my paranormal historical mystery, but today I’m jumping over to an excerpt from The Death Within, the sequel to my book The Half Killed.

In this story, there is an illness that is infecting people in London, one that kills them in a horrible manner. Dorothea Hawes connects one of the victims to a local temperance society, and so attends a meeting in order to see if there is anything of importance to be discovered, or if the connection is merely coincidence. 800px-Accueil_scribe

***

“Pardon me, but I do not believe we have yet been introduced?”

Mrs. Newton is taller than I imagined, my original impression of her height taking into account the small stage on which she stood. But even without the aid of a platform, she stands at least a head above me. On top of that head, held to her hair with a jet-tipped pin, she wears a simple hat, adorned with only a few black silk roses tucked away in tight curls of lace.

“Miss Hawes,” I say, and hold out my hand. The other hand I slip behind my back, my handkerchief and its plunder held well out of sight.

She takes my fingers and shakes them gently, as if one of us will shatter should she attempt a more forceful maneuver. “Miss Hawes, is it?” Her fair eyebrows pinch together, then pull apart as her forehead clears and a smile pushes her cheekbones out and upwards. “Miss Dorothea Hawes? Am I correct?”

I must admit, I am stunned that she knows who I am. I am far from claiming myself as a celebrated personage, and what fame I did have when I was younger has long since dissipated, even before the loss of what gifts had plagued me. But her hand drops quickly away from my own, her fingers working inside her gloves like one brushing a few particles of dust from the tips of them.

“Yes.” A rough sound drags itself out of the back of my throat, the word sticking there before I cough behind my hand and say it again. “Yes, though I am not what I once was. I am reformed, you might say.”

“We are more enlightened now, I think. Spiritualism, seeking to commune with those departed from us…” Her lips nearly disappear between her teeth. “A perilous return to the superstitions of the Dark Ages. We are better than that. Such great scientific discoveries of the last few years have brought about a new age, don’t you think?”

“A renaissance, you mean?” I glance towards the nearest window, where the sky darkens over a city hunkered down beneath a drifting fog of smoke and sleet and the discolored fumes spewed out from the various factories and mills gathered near the river. Since the last intellectual rebirth swept across Europe, has anything about London really altered? If my history has not failed me, it was a fire and not science that brought about any change to that sea of buildings, stretching towards the horizon.

Mrs. Newton smiles, her gaze dipping down in what appears to be an affectation of shyness. Or perhaps I am being too harsh, though the lack of that smile in her eyes when she again raises her head leads me to cling to my original assumption. “And what else? The poverty, the filth, the drink and vice that infect these streets… I fear we can descend no further, Miss Hawes.”

Even lacking my ability to delve into her thoughts, to trawl through the sins of those assembled around me, snacking on their edibles while they stir cream and sugar into their tea, I wonder at the gall of this woman to make such an assertion. In all of mankind’s history, and here, at this moment, we have only now fallen to the nadir of our development? But I pull my mouth tight, an expression one could almost mistake for a smile as artificial as Mrs. Newton’s. If only I could touch on the fringes of whatever cogitations are currently spinning around beneath that silk-flowered hat, but I push the desire away before it can lead me in a less healthful direction.

“But you believe we have begun to rise again?” I pose the question easily enough, giving them the tone of being the first words to leap into my head. The truth is that Mrs. Newton’s manner is rather open, considering that this is our first encounter with one another. If her wish is to win me over as a new recruit to her cause, I wonder at her willingness to delve so quickly into subjects that would make the typical London housewife curl her lip in offense.

“Do you not agree?” She steeples her fingers in front of her, taking on a pose I would expect from one standing to have their likeness painted. “You yourself have already left the foolishness of Spiritualism behind. There are no great mysteries that cannot be solved without the dedication of great intellectual minds and the tools they yield. We will conquer all of the scourges that have plagued humanity, from illness to war…” She spreads her hands apart, leaving the rest of her statement open.

“Perhaps even death itself?” I suggest, still managing to keep my voice light.

A small laugh escapes from the back of her throat. “Oh, I’m not sure we’ll press matters that far. But with the advances we’ve seen these last few decades, I would not rule out anything, Miss Hawes.”

***

Snippet Monday (belated): Dust and Silver

I apologize for the lateness of this post, but my reasons are good: I was caught up untangling some plot messes yesterday, forgot to write up this post, and ta-da! It’s suddenly Tuesday and whoops.

So, this week, I bring you another excerpt from Dust and Silver. In this scene, Lady Drummond arrives at a meeting with several others, to discuss a recent string of murders that has occurred in London…female_angel_praca_dos_restauradores_2

***

“Another one?” I pose the question to whichever of them decides to provide me with an answer. Mr. Albert Goring, the man at the table, is the first to reply.

“That makes three now. A prostitute, a kitchen maid, and now the wife of a banker.”

I scan through a few more lines, my eyes narrowing as I attempt to make out the notes, apparently written in some haste. “Hmm, seems to be moving up steadily along the rungs of society. And there is nothing in common other than the manner of their deaths?”

Mitchell sniffs and lets the window blind fall back into place. When he turns towards us, his dark eyebrows are pinched together, the creases between them the only lines on an otherwise smooth, ageless face. “The head nearly chewed off. Hell, this one was barely held to the body by more than a scrap of sinew.” He comes up behind Goring, reaching over him to shuffle through a few of the papers until he finds what he wants: A photograph, one that he takes the trouble to walk around the length of table in order to bring to my side.

“No,” I say, as my gaze falls on the image. “Not a clean wound at all.”

I try not to imagine how much worse the scene must have appeared to the naked eye. Rendered in black and white, a majority of the blood is reduced to mere mottled shadow, or stains that could be explained away as something – anything – else. But the position of the woman’s head cannot be interpreted as a play of light and shadow or a simple photography trick. There it lies, against her shoulder, the thick, wet ropes of her dark hair spread out around her, in a grotesque simulation of a crown or the rays of the sun.

There is no elegance to the injury. A knife or even the swift slice of an axe would have left some line of the woman’s throat intact. But this is a nothing short of a mess. Flesh that appears to have been gnawed on, torn apart, the skin hanging ragged around the still-gleaming white and visible vertebrae of her spine. The rest of her remains untouched, and I wonder at how so much violence could be inflicted on a single part of her body, and nowhere else.

“What was her name?”

“Mrs. Lillian Butler,” Goring tells me. “Married less than a year. The police, of course, have their eye on the husband. But he wasn’t even in the country when the last murder occured. They were on their wedding journey, in Paris at the time.”

I push the photograph away from me, face-down on the tabletop. “So we have three deaths over the span of a year—”

“Fourteen months.”

I glance at Mitchell, who has resumed his place by the window.

“Fourteen months,” I amend. “Three women, vastly different backgrounds, and there’s nothing connecting the location of their deaths?”

Goring clears his throat. “Mrs. Butler was murdered in her home. In Leadenhall Street.”

“And the ladies’ maid, Miss Docking, was in St. James’ Street. Though she wasn’t killed there.” Instead, her body had been found in the mews behind the townhouse in which she lived and worked, the straw of an empty horse’s stall soaked in her blood. “And Miss Patton—”

“The whore,” Mitchell interrupts. I refuse to even flick my eyes in his general direction.

“—was discovered in an alley off Chancery Lane. And there is nothing else? Place of birth? Even where their parents, their grandparents hailed from?”

Goring shakes his head. “Nothing but the, uh…” He waves a hand in front of his collar, the vicious wounds shared by three separate victims recreated with a waggle of wrinkled fingers.

I lean back in my chair, drum my fingers on the edge of the table. “So we are precisely where we were before, when Miss Docking was killed.”

***

Snippet Monday: Dust and Silver

I’ve given myself a deadline to have two books finished before the new baby arrives in June (possibly three if I don’t rest on my laurels) and so to help with that, I’m going to share an excerpt from one of those works-in-progress every Monday, just to help keep me moving forward. female_angel_praca_dos_restauradores_2

Today’s snippet is from Dust and Silver, a historical paranormal set in the Victorian era. There will be werewolves, witches, secret societies, and so very much more! For some context, we have Lady Drummond and Mr. Muir working – grudgingly – together to solve a series of extraordinarily violent murders.

***

“Ariadne.”

The knife is out before he’s finished speaking the final syllable of my name. I find his throat in the darkness, or where his throat should be beneath layers of collar and silk necktie. That he doesn’t flinch deflates some of my confidence, though he does raise a gloved hand, palm towards me, fingers crooked in a relaxed manner.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

Not until the words are out do I realize it’s the second time I’ve asked this question of him within the last six hours.

“You really should see about hiring a new driver.” Mr. Muir’s tone is purely conversational, not a quaver in his voice despite the pressure of the silver edged blade nestled against the underside of his jaw. “I’m sure you’re rather loyal to Melchett after all these years, but the poor man hardly blinked when I let myself into your vehicle.”

“He let you in?”

“Perhaps you need to question his loyalty to you. To have a servant in your employ who will let any ruffian in off the street…”

I apply more pressure to the knife, until I see the dark blot of blood appear on his skin. “Are you checking up on me? Are you my nurse, come to see that I’ve had my porridge and tonic and am tucked safe in bed for the night?”

He raises his chin slightly, so that the small bead of blood trickles down towards his collar. “I’d be more worried if that’s all you got up to at night.”

I pull the weapon back, snapping the blade into its engraved handle. It is not until the sharpened edge is put away and out of sight that Mr. Muir visibly relaxes – a breath slipping out of him, a small slump to his shoulders –  no matter how casual he managed to appear as I drew that single thread of blood from his throat.

“What fool notion made you come all the way back to London when there’s someone going about ripping apart young women’s necks, hmm?” The knife again in my sleeve, I plant my hands on the tops of my thighs and lean against the seat. I want to close my eyes and tip my head back, but I cannot look away from my fellow passenger, at least not while he is in such close proximity. “You should have remained safely tucked away in Venice. No one would have any reason to suspect you then.”

“So they do suspect me?” Is that a whisper of pride underlying his words?

“Not for the first two, at least. But this business with Mrs. Butler…” I dig my fingers into my legs, pushing at the layers of skirt and petticoats and flesh underneath until the urge to lash out again recedes. “They want to question you, as they call it.”

He scoffs. “Want to see my pelt tacked to the wall, is what you mean.”

“They will not relent. Even if they do manage to lay their hands on the true culprit.”

Mr. Muir puts his own head back, allowing me a view of his throat and jaw, stubbled with dark hair and the stain of the injury I gave him. “They’re beyond their levels of comprehension with this case. They’ll be responsible for the deaths of another dozen victims before they understand that a bit of bigotry and brute force will not be enough to give them their victory.”

The seat creaks beneath me as I lean forward, hands sliding down to wrap around my knees. “You know something. What is it?”

“Not enough,” he mutters to the roof of the carriage. And then he shakes his head. “Creatore di mostro.”

The Italian clashes with his accent, and it takes me a moment to decipher the words from their original language. “Monster creator?”

“And there’s the rub.” He regards me in the low light of the carriage; eyes, hair, hat all blurring into the smudge of shadows behind him. “Find one of these killers, and there’ll most likely already be another to take its place.”

***

And stay tuned for next week’s excerpt!

An Excerpt from An Unpracticed Heart

The week, the entire month is slipping away all too quickly. The release date for An Unpracticed Heart is only ten days away (*hyperventilates*) and here I am, twiddling my thumbs like a regular thumb-twiddler.

Today, I bring you an excerpt from the very first chapter, in fact the very first scene, introducing us to our heroine, Charlotte Claridge.

Read on and enjoy!

***355px-Glaspalast_München_1891_111b

There was little preamble to the coach’s departure. A loud oath from the old driver’s mouth, the brief, sharp rattle of harness, and then nothing but the wet slap of horses’ hooves and wheels slipping on the damp ground before the vehicle trundled off and disappeared around a bend in the road.

Charlotte stood still, the mud sucking at her boots as she gazed into the distance. Two miles, the driver had said. Two more miles to Ellesferth Castle. She glanced over her shoulder at the darkening horizon. Two miles, without light, on an unfamiliar highway that threatened to pull her into the mire with every step. She took a deep breath, the chill in the air making her nose run and her eyes water. If she moved, she knew she would at least keep some of the cold at bay.

She stayed on the matted line of grass and weeds at the edge of the road, her bag gripped tightly in her hands. There had been no time to pack all of her belongings. Indeed, there had been no time even to mourn her grandmother, barely cold in her grave before the message had arrived that she was to leave Shepherd’s Bush and go to her great aunt in Scotland.

Charlotte reminded herself to be grateful that even this much care had been taken for her future. She had expected less attention from her stepmother, but the attraction of a greater distance between them may have won out over any desire her father’s second wife possessed to simply forget his only daughter had ever existed in the first place.

Twilight faded faster than Charlotte had anticipated. She slowed her steps, doing her best to avoid stumbling over any rocks or impediments that might lie in her path. No moon lit her way, and not even the glint of a few stars came out to reassure her. Only clouds, and mist, and a darkness so thick she thought it would soon prevent her from seeing her own hand in front of her face.

A few more minutes passed before she saw a light, seeming to wink at her from a distance. She didn’t blink, afraid that to do so would risk its vanishing. Her pace quickened again, mud splattering from her heels as she moved towards the glow and the great black mass that loomed up behind it.

She paused at the gate, two stone columns that rose out of the ground like the trunks of ancient trees. Ahead of her, the ground changed from a road pockmarked with dirt and sharp stones to a neat path strewn with a pale shade of gravel. She followed the path for several yards before stepping off it once she realized it would lead her away from the beckoning light. A few more steps and she found herself in front of a shabby wooden door. She searched for a knocker or bell of some sort, but found nothing. With no other recourse before her, she raised her bare fist and gave the door three hard raps.

She heard a shuffling from the other side, before the door was opened wide to her. A grey-haired, wiry woman filled only a small portion of the doorway, but the intensity of the woman’s gaze caused Charlotte to take a wary step backwards into the night.

“What d’you want?”

Charlotte had prepared herself for a heavy Scottish brogue, but the old woman’s accent was more Cheshire than anything.

“Mrs. Faraday?”

The woman tilted her head to one side, but gave no indication that she might be the Mrs. Faraday in question.

Charlotte cleared her throat and began again. “I’m looking for a Mrs. Harriet Faraday. My name is Charlotte Claridge. I am your… Well, her niece.”

The woman drew in a breath and held onto it as she took in every detail of Charlotte’s appearance from head to toe. “Wipe your boots,” she said, and stepped aside to let Charlotte enter.

***

Pre-order An Unpracticed Heart at Amazon.com today!

Friday Fights: An excerpt from An Unpracticed Heart

In my next release An Unpracticed Heart, Lord Cowden’s story begins with a fight… A fight in which he accidentally kills a man. This event speeds up an already downward spiral in his existence, and takes him up to Scotland where he’ll meet up with our lovely heroine and…

Well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

In today’s excerpt, I bring you a fight. A boxing match, actually. Told from Hartley’s (Lord Cowden) perspective. Be aware, he is not a man who minces words or passes up an opportunity for one good punch.

***

“Hartley!”ecd9737865e879eed70a2c4e23d3f239--the-georgian-regency-era

The sound of his name made him wince.

“Damn you, Hartley! Get up!”

He raised a hand to his face and touched something warm on his cheek. Blood? Possibly. His own? More than likely. An experimental movement of his jaw brought out a groan from deep within his chest. He wondered if he still possessed all of his teeth, but his tongue felt too thick and heavy in his mouth to aid in his finding out.

“I’ve got ten guineas on this fight, and if you don’t get up off your ass…”

He managed to open his left eye at that. A mistake, as the face of his cousin swam before him in a most nauseating fashion.

“Only ten, Ballard?” Hartley swallowed quickly as the taste of bile rose in the back of his throat. “I would’ve thought you had more faith in me than that.”

Edward Ballard gripped his cousin under his arms and hoisted him up until he had almost returned to something that resembled an upright position. “I didn’t say I’d wagered it on you,” he shouted in Hartley’s ear, before one firm push sent him hurtling back towards his opponent.

Hartley wiped at his face a second time. A glance at his fingers showed him the crimson streak of blood that had trickled from his nose. His opponent—an ox of a man whose name he’d promptly forgotten once the first hit had sounded against his jaw—stood near the edge of the makeshift ring, no wounds or obvious injuries on his person. Only the faintest sheen of perspiration on the man’s forehead showed the slight amount of effort expended in what was shaping up to be a clear victory for him.

Hartley gave his head a shake and tried to clear his vision. He’d toppled larger men than this, but that had been half a dozen years ago and while sober. He’d arrived here this morning still struggling to digest the enormous supper—not to mention the bottle of wine—he’d demolished the night before.

Unfortunately, those were the only details of the night he could remember. So it had been more than a shock to find himself forcibly dragged from the comfort of his bed this morning and bundled off to some hovel in Wapping for a fight. A fight in which he was apparently the main attraction.

He recognized a few of the men on the outskirts of the circle. There was Lord Chadwick, Marquess of Beningfield. And just to his right was that damned Baron Oaksley. Hartley would’ve suspected his involvement above all others if he’d had a spare minute to think. But at that moment, he had no more spare minutes.

The man—the ox—came lunging towards him; not light on his feet or darting with any sort of strategy, but simply using his sheer mass as an advantage, ready to tear down whatever object might lie in his path. Hartley, still dazed from the last punch, moved back a step. And then another. The ring of onlookers that surrounded them gave him little room to maneuver. The shouts and curses of their audience rang through his head, distracting him, confusing him.

And the worst part? He couldn’t even recall why he was here. What foolish boast on his part had brought about this fight? And who was this man stalking towards him, one massive slab of a fist already raised and ready to break Hartley’s skull?

He ducked as quickly as his dizziness allowed—not quite quick enough as rough knuckles grazed his ear. That brought on more ringing in his head, but he recovered with some speed, stepping back until the jeers of the crowd overwhelmed him and he was once again pushed forward from behind.

“Enough.” The word came out under his breath, a breath that burned its way out of his lungs. He would have to end this, or else allow every tooth to be battered loose from his jaw.

He never took his eyes off his opponent. The other man was huge, his massive size his greatest asset. But it made him clumsy. Hartley noticed how every time the man moved forward, arm lifted to swing, he left his face—his entire upper torso, in fact—open and unprotected. And this was where Hartley would put his speed and agility to good use. Well, what speed and agility were left to him since the first collision of the other man’s fist against his skull.

The shouts from the circle of spectators grew to a fevered pitch. They must have noticed the change in Hartley’s behavior, the way he began to dart forward, testing his balance as he teased his opponent into making more brazen and thoughtless attacks, the other man depending on nothing but his breadth and width to save him.

And before he knew it, there it was. The opening Hartley needed. It was the briefest of windows. A single glance to either side and he would’ve missed it. He heard nothing from the crowd around him, felt nothing but the point of contact between his fist and the underside of the other man’s jaw.

The pain came a second. His hand, his arm, his entire shoulder reverberated from the shock as if recoiling from a pistol shot. No doubt he’d broken something, possibly something important. Better your hand than your head, he reminded himself and took a step back just as the large man’s frame—all twenty stone of it—dropped to the floor.

Someone in the crowd—probably Ballard, though he couldn’t be sure—tossed a clean, white handkerchief to him. Hartley wasted no time wiping the effluence of blood and perspiration from his face. More blood trickled down the back of his throat. A ragged cough scraped it clean before he spat out the foul substance onto the floor beside him.

Still too dazed to revel in his victory over the giant, Hartley bent over, bracing his forearms on his knees. Already, various twinges in his muscles foretold the agony he would experience later, when he began to relax. Copious amounts of alcohol would be needed to dull the oncoming pain. He cursed the rapid deterioration of his physical state for preventing him from participating in the raucous joy currently spreading through the gathered crowd. Or at least the minority of them who had seen their pockets lined by his victory.

He glanced over at his opponent, sprawled across the floor, his head thrown back and one arm pinned beneath his side. A flurry of movement surrounded the man, and then a harsh shout went up, quickly echoed by a half dozen others.

“Hartley.” Ballard’s hand gripped his arm, to restrain him or urge him forward, he couldn’t tell.

“What…?” Hartley couldn’t keep his voice strong enough to finish the question. The cries he’d heard were for a doctor, but it was an unheeded request. He had only to look at his former opponent’s face, his eyes wide open, his unseeing gaze evidence enough of a life that had been so suddenly snuffed out.

“Come along.” Ballard tugged at him.

“But I didn’t…” Before he could protest further, Ballard’s grip on his arm tightened as he was pulled towards the back of the room.

“An accident, old man,” he heard Ballard say. “No one’s fault. You must have struck him in just the right spot. Or the worst spot, as it were. Simply one of those things.”

Hartley was pushed into a chair, a silver flask pressed into his hand. He held onto it, his knuckles changing color from red to white, but he didn’t take a drink.

“Just stay here.” Ballard’s tone was unlike anything Hartley had ever heard before. “Stay here and I’ll—”

“Ballard.” He caught the edge of his cousin’s coat between fingers that didn’t want to work. “What happened?”

Ballard opened his mouth and closed it again.

“He’s dead?”

Ballard nodded once, his expression stricken.

“I killed him.”

“Yes.” Ballard breathed out the word on a sigh. “Yes, old man. I’m afraid you did.”

***

 

comp_3Charlotte Claridge lives a life dictated by her stepmother’s whims. Sent to live with one family member and then another, she finally arrives in Scotland, on the doorstep of a crumbling estate abandoned by its owner. With her aunt, she spends her days mending curtains and peeling potatoes, a quiet existence that changes with the appearance of a carriage bearing a coat of arms.

From out of the carriage falls Hartley, Lord Cowden. Drunk, unconscious, and bleeding, Charlotte and her aunt carry him into his ancestral home. As he recovers in Charlotte’s care, Hartley confesses to a crime that nearly sent him spiralling towards his grave. But can she entrust him with her own secrets while coaxing him back from the dead?

Pre-order on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk!

 

Giveaway! Giveaway! Giveaway!

Last month was the second bookiversary (or “book birthday”, if you prefer words my laptop doesn’t tag with a red, squiggly line as being not real) for my historical fantasy/horror The Half Killed. Now, I had it all planned out in my head. I checked the calendar, made certain I still had plenty of time to put everything together, and then – WHOOSH – August 25th came and went and here we are halfway through September and I’m late to the party. DSCN0498

So! Here’s the good part: You get a chance to win one of two signed copies of The Half Killed (signed by me, sorry) that will be delivered to your door (not by me, sorry) IF you win. And how do you win? Well, let’s see…

Rules:

To enter you must write a haiku. What’s a haiku? A poem that is 5-7-5, or five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third.

I don’t like haikus.

But I like to win free stuff.

What a quandary!!!

See? That easy. Post your haikus in the comment section below, and I will read through them all!

More rules:

The contest will remain open until midnight (EST) October 12th.

Your haiku must stick to the 5-7-5 rule. Any shenanigans and your entry will be disqualified.

Your haiku must include the word bacon.

What was that?

Yes, it must include the word bacon. I might be lenient if you manage to reference or allude to bacon without actually using the word. Creativity counts!

I will be the only judge (possibly I’ll bring in my husband to help judge if I’m stymied.)

One winner will be selected randomly. The other winner will be purely my choice (Bias! Get your bias here!)

And with that, I wish you all good luck and happy haiku-ing!