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Uncommonly Strong (Lethean Trilogy, Book II) is finally here!
I know, I just put out Book I less than two months ago, so it’s odd to say finally in this case, but considering how much I had to fight the plot in this book, finally feels very apropos.
Whereas The Lethean (Book I) and Hale and Farewell (Book III) seemed to practically write themselves, Book II gave me a world of trouble. There were huge chunks that I tore out and rewrote several times before I became even just content with the story, and finally got it to a point where I was happy with it. It could still probably use some improvement — what couldn’t? — but as a reader, I quite enjoy it now, particularly for the characters.
Though I do rather adore Landon and Victoria from Book I, I had a little more fun with the personalities of the characters in Book II. Sati is always making lighthearted comments that no one finds funny (I don’t know anyone like that…*ahem*…); Joseph is all about the love of his family, even when they drive him crazy (cue plugging his ears when Thomas and Spencer start in on their openly intimate talk); Thomas is Joseph’s three-minute-older twin brother, the stylish, suave one who is the most open-minded and often the voice of reason, though he does have his dark side, too; and Thomas’s partner, Spencer, who is pretty much the adult kid in the family, always smiling and enjoying life.
As a bonus, Uncommonly Strong includes a short story at the end, partly inspired by the 2013 documentary Bridegroom. The overall theme of the Lethean trilogy is that love is love, despite what society or the law may have to say, and after watching that film, it triggered some inspiration to delve a little more deeply into the characters of Thomas and Spencer. In general, though, it’s not just about any particular minority rights, so much as general human rights. In The Lethean, Landon and Victoria come from vastly different social circles, and their relationship would have been at least frowned upon if not forbidden in Regency England. In Uncommonly Strong, Thomas and Spencer being a gay couple certainly has its related persecution — and even Sati and Joseph’s relationship is questioned by Sati’s very religious foster family. In Hale and Farewell…well, I won’t spoil it. That one is not as obvious a forbidden romance but the element does come into play.
I am so thankful that author Lisa Clark O’Neill suggested serializing The Lethean. It was originally meant to be a standalone novel, but after she mentioned the possibility of turning it into a series, I started looking more into certain aspects of the Lethean lifestyle and culture and wondered how those aspects would play into different situations. Thus, Books II and III came to life — and I’m so glad they did, because I absolutely love Book III and can’t wait to get to that one! It’s already written, just waiting for a few final rounds of editing, and should be available in July.
By the way, Lisa has a new novel out as of yesterday. Be sure to check it out here. And if you haven’t come across her Southern Comfort series, I highly recommend it.
And, of course, I must once again tip my hat to the beautiful and talented Natalie Fawn Danelishen for her work on the cover art.
So, without further ado, here is Chapter 1 from Uncommonly Strong. Enjoy!
Are you ready?”
Joseph Hale put the question to his twin brother, Thomas, as they stood side-by-side at the mirror in the immaculate men’s bathroom on the twenty-third floor of Haven Marketing. Just down the hall was the conference room where they were scheduled to present a new ad campaign, and they had ducked into the bathroom to check their teeth and straighten their ties before meeting the new client.
The brothers were nearly indistinguishable. They had the same straight nose, the same diamond chin with the same short boxed beard, the same broad shoulders, and even the same steel grey eyes. Other than the fact that Joseph favored pinstripe grey suits, while his brother preferred his signature taupe, the only way to tell them apart was that Joseph’s hair was so dark it was almost black, while Thomas’s was closer to chestnut brown. Even then, people still mixed them up – and once, back in high school, when Thomas had dyed his hair to match that of his three-minute-younger brother, not even their own mother could tell them apart without reading them by touch.
“I’m always ready.” Thomas grinned confidently, and pulled out a comb to run through his hair.
Joseph laughed. “You’re not ready.”
Thomas pocketed the comb with a sigh, rolled his eyes, and turned to face his brother, grabbing Joseph around the back of the neck and bringing their foreheads together.
Joseph’s laugh vanished as he and his twin turned serious – head-to-head, eyes closed – and he realized he was more anxious about the presentation than he wanted to admit. Without thinking about it, his hand copied that of his brother, and they stood there for a long moment, clasping one another’s necks while they shared encouraging thoughts through the touch of their foreheads.
It was a habit that had developed from childhood, an unspoken ritual that they never failed to perform, especially when something important was about to occur. They tried to do it where they wouldn’t be seen, strange as it must look for two men to stand so close and so silent for so long, and hoped that if anyone ever did witness it, they could chalk it up to nothing more than a twin bond.
Yet, it was so much more.
Thomas focused all his thought on the celebratory drinks they would share once they succeeded in their presentation; and Joseph, reading his brother’s thought, grinned.
* * *
Peter Jenkins, President and CEO of Haven Marketing, rarely had a chance to sit in on a campaign pitch – and seldom visited the San Francisco office – but when it came to a potential client the size of Carson Electronics, he certainly couldn’t afford not to be present.
“Especially,” he muttered to himself, “not after two of my best teams have failed.”
He watched the Hale twins stroll down the hallway toward him, looking composed and confident. At least, he certainly hoped they were confident. Carson’s Board of Directors were being extremely gracious coming for a third presentation, and though circumstances weren’t exactly dire, Jenkins wanted the security of this contract in order to help Haven weather the shaky economy.
Jenkins stuffed his hands into his pockets and tried to swallow his nerves, wondering if the Hales’ presentation would be accepted where the others had not been.
The first two teams had taken radically different approaches to the sample television spots they’d made for the Carson Board. One was raucous and colorful, the other pale and muted. The only similarity between the two presentations had been the dull monotones of the team leaders’ voices.
Both presentations had been utter failures.
Jenkins had asked the Hale brothers to rehearse their pitch for him the day before. The ad itself took rather a middle ground between the two failed presentations, being neither too boisterous nor too quiet. It was a good, professional product, but what struck him most were the brothers themselves. Whereas the other two teams had been so businesslike as to be almost boring, the Hales had given an energetic, masculine introduction to their ad. Jenkins hoped this more impressive lead-in would be what it took to capture the attention of Daniel Carson – a man who looked like he belonged in a plaid shirt with a hunting rifle slung over his shoulder rather than in a business suit with a pen in his hand.
“Good morning, Mr. Jenkins,” the twins said in their annoyingly perfect synchronicity.
“Good morning, good morning,” he responded, a little too gruffly, shaking their hands in turn. “Are you boys ready for this?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Jenkins,” the light-haired one responded. Joseph? Or Thomas? He wasn’t quite sure and was too anxious to bother asking.
“You both know how much we could use this contract,” he said sternly, and watched them both nod in reply. “I like your presentation, and I’ve heard good things about you from your department head, so if you can pull this off – if you can succeed where Edwards’s and Benson’s teams failed – it’ll mean tremendous promotions for you both.”
“We’re ready, Mr. Jenkins.”
“We won’t let you down, sir.”
Jenkins looked from one to the other, opened his mouth to say something, but was interrupted by a secretary coming to an abrupt stop at his side, nervously clutching a binder to her chest.
“Mr. Jenkins,” she said quietly, “the Carsons are here. I’ve just shown them into the conference room.”
Jenkins swallowed and forced on a smile. “Thank you, Tina. That’ll be all.”
The secretary nodded and hurried off, while Jenkins spun on his heel and led the way to the conference room, hearing the light footfalls of the twins behind him.
* * *
The first handshake was always the most stressful part of meeting a new client. Joseph knew that both he and Thomas were steeling themselves for the physical contact that would give them the competitive edge they needed – or would reveal their secret.
Upon Mr. Jenkins’s introduction, Joseph and his brother took turns shaking hands with Daniel Carson himself, and both twins inwardly sighed with relief when they realized their secret was safe. Then it was Mr. Carson’s turn to introduce his associates: a wiry assistant named Brian and a voluptuous blonde named Gertrude. Their handshakes with Gertrude lingered ever so slightly, and as the Carson team took their seats, Joseph and his twin shared a look of understanding.
* * *
Jenkins was already irritated. He didn’t think anyone else could tell, but he had seen the extended handshakes the Hale twins had shared with the woman, and his first thought was that his boys no longer had their focus on the task at hand. He had to admit, Gertrude was quite the distraction, and he realized he was already bracing himself for another utter failure.
Across the room, at the foot of the conference table, he saw the twins share a brief look, and the almost imperceptible nod one gave the other right before they both turned their attention to the Carson representatives.
Jenkins clenched his fists in his lap, waiting for the rugged, manly presentation he’d seen rehearsed the day before, and felt his jaw drop when he began to witness something entirely different.
Whereas, the day before, the twins had been the very image of a boys’ night out – an approach that Jenkins was sure would work on rugged Mr. Carson – they had now slipped into entirely different mannerisms. Their movements were fluid instead of rigid, their voices soft instead of bold. The words were precisely the same as they’d been during their rehearsal, but what Jenkins saw now was something that bordered on sensual.
To further his dismay, he saw that, while certainly not ignoring Mr. Carson, the twins were directing their attention and presentation primarily toward the woman.
“Carson Electronics,” Thomas wrapped up, giving the woman a look that could only be described as smoldering while he delivered the tag line: “One step ahead.”
Jenkins felt himself turning red with anger. He was going to throw both of these boys out on the street as soon as they received their certain rejection from the Carson team.
“Very impressive, Mr. Hale, and Mr. Hale.” Daniel Carson nodded to each of the twins after a brief, whispered conversation with the woman at his side. “I just have one question for you. No one has ever seen through our farce before. How did you know that Gertrude has the final say?”
Jenkins choked on a “What?” as his jaw dropped again, and he saw the twins share a look, grinning with satisfaction.
* * *
“Alright, explain to me what just happened in there!”
Joseph and his brother, along with Mr. Jenkins, had just said goodbye to the Carson team – after signing a six-figure advertising contract – and now the twins braced themselves as the boss was finally free to drop his forced calm and explode.
“Just like they explained, sir,” Joseph said. “Gertrude is actually Gertrude Carson, who started the company, but no one has ever taken her seriously because she’s a woman, so on paper she’s only V.P. while she lets her cousin Daniel appear as acting President.”
“Yes, yes, I heard all that.” Mr. Jenkins waved his hands in frustration. “What I want to know is how you two knew that! And you didn’t say a word about it yesterday! When you started changing your presentation, I thought I was going to have a heart attack!”
“We didn’t know it yesterday, sir,” Thomas added respectfully. “We only just…realized it when we met them today.”
Joseph looked at his brother, who shrugged, so he simply turned a smile on his boss and said, “Call it a hunch.”
* * *
At their favorite downtown bar, Joseph and his twin squeezed through the crush of bodies and took a booth in a relatively quiet corner. In the heat of the room, and free from contact with other people, Thomas gladly divested himself of his jacket, lounging comfortably in a black polo shirt and khaki slacks, with an off-white fedora tilted low over his brow. Joseph unbuttoned the cuffs of his blue-and-white striped dress shirt and rolled the sleeves up to his elbows.
A waitress took their drink orders, and once the brothers were alone again, Thomas pulled a gold ring from his pocket and slid it onto his left ring finger. Though Joseph was used to the action by now, he still couldn’t fathom how his brother could stand not to wear his ring at all times. Joseph knew that, when he finally met his own partner someday, he would never want to see his own ring off his hand. At least Thomas’s partner was aware of the behavior and didn’t seem to mind one bit.
A few minutes later, the brothers were enjoying their respective bourbon and scotch, while a martini sat at Thomas’s elbow, waiting for its drinker.
They sipped in silence, watching the crowds around the pool tables and on the small dance floor, one brother occasionally resting a hand on the other’s arm to silently share a thought. Whereas the cacophony of thoughts that could be picked up from direct contact with such a crowd could be burdensome, silent contact with one another was a source of amusement. The brothers, being what they were, could watch people and make comments about them without uttering a single audible word.
Joseph rested his elbows on the table while Thomas slouched back, tugging the fedora down lower over his eyes. Joseph could see his older brother smiling to himself as he sipped his drink, quietly enjoying their accomplishment of the day.
Across the room, Joseph spotted a young man wearing skinny jeans, a pink plaid button-up T-shirt, and a grey scarf. Blond curls peeked out from beneath a black slouch beanie, and a broad smile lit up the man’s freshly shaved face as he squeezed through the crowd, walking with a slight limp.
Joseph set down his drink and rested a hand on Thomas’s arm, making him grin.
“You don’t need to tell me he’s coming.” Thomas laughed, sitting up straight and pushing his hat back with an index finger to the underside of the brim. “I can feel him, you know.”
Joseph shrugged and laughed. “Force of habit.”
“Hi boys!” The newcomer giggled, blowing Joseph a kiss before sitting down right beside Thomas. “Sorry I’m late–”
His words cut off as Thomas gathered him up in his arms and gave him a long, deep kiss.
Joseph rolled his eyes. “Tom, Spencer, really? Can’t you guys wait until you get home?”
The couple ignored him, kissing one another hungrily, so Joseph focused on his drink and tried not to laugh.
“Mmmm, I missed you too,” Spencer managed to get out when Thomas stopped for a breath. “What was that for?”
“We had a really good day,” Thomas murmured, and kissed him again.
“Guys, come on!” Joseph laughed.
Thomas sighed and nodded toward his brother. “We really need to find him his partner.”
Spencer gave Joseph a pointed look, then made a show of kissing Thomas back before straightening himself on the bench and resting his head on his partner’s shoulder.
“Really, Joseph,” Spencer said, “you just don’t understand.”
“I just thought we were celebrating, that’s all.”
“And what do you think we were just doing?” Spencer grinned childishly. “What are we celebrating, anyway?”
Spencer started sipping at the martini while the twins recounted their successful presentation, and he had to look back and forth between the two as they habitually finished one another’s sentences.
When they were finished, Spencer sat forward and held up his hands, saying, “Wait a minute, wait a minute! You guys read your clients? Again? Isn’t that cheating?”
“How so?” Thomas asked.
“Well…doesn’t that give you an unfair advantage, being able to read their thoughts?”
“Not necessarily,” Thomas said. “An advantage, sure, but–”
“–it’s no different from any other ‘advantage’ a person could conceivably have–” Joseph continued.
“–like some people are naturally better at math–”
“–and some at making speeches–”
“–and some at engineering–”
“–and they couldn’t help being born the way they were–”
“–and neither could we help being born Lethean–”
“–so we just use what we have to work with, that’s all.”
Spencer put a finger to his lips and loudly shushed them, then shook his head, dizzy from the conversation.
Thomas looked slightly chagrined at having said the word aloud, but as the trio glanced around, no one seemed to have taken any notice of their conversation, so they each heaved a sigh of relief. There were very few of their kind left in the world, but maintaining the secret of their Lethean heritage was still considered a cardinal virtue.
They knew perfectly well that, should their abilities ever be made public, they could be in for a world of trouble.
“It’s not like we asked to be born this way,” Thomas continued, lowering his voice. “It just simply happened, so like Joseph said, we use what we’ve got.”
“Right. It’s not like you’d see a world-famous athlete give up his ability just because of some supposed ‘unfair’ advantage over, say, someone who’s disabled,” Joseph added, to which Spencer had to nod in agreement.
“Besides–” Thomas grinned, putting an arm around his partner. “I wouldn’t give it up for all the money in the world. I hear the sex isn’t as great for regular humans.”
“Pfff, speak for yourself.” Spencer laughed. “I’d still be great in bed, even if I were only human.”
Thomas looked at his brother and shrugged. “He’s got a point there.”
“Mmmm, you know it–”
“Guys! Really?” Joseph interrupted, rolling his eyes.
Spencer laughed and jabbed his partner in the ribs. “You know what we should do? As soon as we get a chance for a vacation, we should take your brother traveling to find his partner. Get him all nice and paired up and then he’ll finally understand what he’s been missing, and stop pestering us about our pillow talk.”
“You know, that’s not a bad idea.” Thomas grinned and turned to his twin. “How about it, Joe? Where is she, do you think?”
“She?” Spencer raised an eyebrow, and laughed deviously. “What if it’s a he?”
Joseph looked down at the empty glass between his hands, and quietly responded, “No, she. I’m not sure how, but I can tell it’s a woman. And she’s very far away. Very faint. Somewhere east, but…”
He felt the other two watching him, but didn’t take his eyes off his glass. After a moment, Thomas reached over and rested a hand on his shoulder, asking seriously, “Joe, what’s wrong?”
Joseph glanced up at his twin and back down at his hands, sighing. “She’s in pain, and always so tired. It’s very faint but I can always feel it there. She’s very weak, and I can feel her fear. I wish I could understand it, but she’s too far away.”
“Have you tried sending her positive feelings?” Spencer asked, serious for a change. “I know that helped when Tom did that for me. Remember? When we were in the hospital and–”
Thomas visibly shuddered. “Ugh, don’t remind me,” he said, automatically reaching down to massage Spencer’s bad leg.
“Have you tried that, Joe?” Spencer asked again.
Joseph nodded. “Every day. I can’t tell if she feels it, though. She’s just…ugh, by Lethe, she’s just too far away.”
“Well, I think–” Spencer began, but got interrupted when another man approached their table.
“Tom! Joe!” the man called, and Joseph looked up to see their coworker, Brad Edwards. “I hear you got the Carson contract. Congratulations.”
Joseph shook his offered hand, surprised at the truth and sincerity in the man’s voice, considering Brad’s was one of the Carson pitches that had failed.
“Thank you,” Joseph replied while Brad perched on the edge of the bench next to him.
“No hard feelings?” Thomas joked while he reached across the table to shake Brad’s hand.
“Nah.” Brad waved it off. “I knew our pitch was crap. But what could I do? The team insisted it was good enough, but it didn’t seem right to me, and I couldn’t very well go against four other people who agreed with each other, now, could I?”
“Why not?” Thomas asked. “If you know in your gut that something isn’t right, why would you play along? Why would you let others decide for you?”
Brad shrugged. “Just easier that way.”
Joseph stifled a laugh, thinking of all the times he and his twin had bickered over certain ad concepts, neither one backing down without good reason. He could never understand how people like Brad would simply bow down to the opinions of others.
Looking over at his twin, he figured Thomas was probably thinking the same thing.
A low whistle distracted him out of his thoughts, and he heard Brad say, “Would you get a load of those legs! Look, Joe, I think they’re checking us out.”
Joseph felt his twin kick him under the table, and turned to follow Brad’s gaze. Leaning against the bar were two women who looked as though they’d just stepped off a magazine cover, complete with slender legs, short skirts, and overflowing low-cut tops.
Brad smacked him on the arm. “Come on, Joe.”
“No, thank you.”
Brad swung around to face him with an incredulous look. “Are you crazy? They’re looking right at us and you’re going to pass that up?”
Joseph shrugged and spun his empty glass around on the table.
“Dude, tell me you’re joking.”
In response, Joseph just shook his head.
“What, are you gay or something?” Brad asked, then a horrified look came over his face. “Shit. Sorry, Tom. No offense.”
Thomas held up a hand like he was waving off the comment. “None taken.”
“You’re really not interested?” Brad asked again, and Joseph shook his head. “Christ Almighty, man. Very well. Suit yourself.”
With that, Brad got up and approached the bar alone, and Thomas kicked his twin under the table again.
“You’re supposed to at least pretend,” his twin hissed, and Spencer nodded along beside him. “You don’t want another Mike Callahan incident, do you?”
Joseph grimaced, remembering the fight with Mike all those years ago. “No,” he answered. “But do you have any idea how hard it is to fake interest in a human?”
Thomas grinned. “Oh, sure. It’s hysterical.” He shared a look with his partner and the two burst out laughing.
“Did I miss something?” Joseph asked.
When Thomas finally got his laughter under control, he said, “Spencer dragged me to this gay bar one night, a couple months back, even though he knows I hate dancing.” He paused and shot his partner a look, but Spencer just grinned back at him. Thomas cleared his throat and continued, “As a joke, he asked me to try dancing with other men. I couldn’t keep a straight face for the life of me, and this one guy was absolutely furious that he couldn’t get me hard.”
“Ha!” Spencer laughed. “I almost forgot about that. The guy with a tattoo on the back of his hand, right? Oh, the look on his face was priceless.”
Joseph cut through their laughter, asking, “So you couldn’t do it for one hour, yet you expect me to keep up the charade day after day?”
“Well, until you find your partner, Joseph, I–”
“I don’t like pretending to be something I’m not,” Joseph interrupted him, and the mirth across the table evaporated.
Thomas reached over and squeezed his hand. “You’re right, Joe. I’m sorry. I just don’t want to see you have to go through another incident like–”
He was cut off when Spencer grabbed his arm, gasping, “Ah! Tom, it’s our song. Come on, let’s dance!”
Spencer jumped up from the booth, tugging on Thomas’s hand, while his partner complained, “Did I not just remind you – again – that I hate dancing? And besides, you’re only going to aggravate your leg.”
“Pfff, like you don’t enjoy helping me with my stretches.” He tugged on Thomas’s hand again. “Thomas, darling, dearest, mera pyaar, mon amour.” He pouted. “Please?”
Thomas turned to his brother and sighed. “The things I do for love.”
Spencer grinned and seemed to drag Thomas to the dance floor, but once there, Joseph could tell that his brother was happy right where he was, in the arms of the person he loved more than anyone else in the entire world.
In the arms of the person who carried the other half of his soul.