Inspiration, Shifting Isles, Teasers and Excerpts

Awkward: Party of One [includes an excerpt from Betrayal]

It seems to be a general understanding that writers are socially-awkward creatures. We’re in our heads, making up fake people and fake places and fake scenarios all the time, too wrapped up in our thoughts to be aware of the fact that there’s a real world out there, with real people in it.

Real people who might run into us and wonder if we’re not slightly off our rockers.

I was in the midst of writing Betrayal (Shifting Isles, Book 6) when I had a particularly awkward and embarrassing situation.

Because my brain-mouth connection is just awesome.

I was lying in bed one night, thinking about the plot, when an idea for a scene ran through my head. The dialogue and action played out just right, and I knew it would be a good addition to the story. But did I get up and immediately write it down? No. Of course not. Because I knew, I just knew, I’d remember it all the next morning.

I always do. Somehow, my writer memory is, by far, the most reliable part of my memory. Everything else falls by the wayside. But my stories? Stick like glue.

Except this time. This time, I woke the next morning, and had no fucking clue what the scene entailed.

I remembered an argument, but that was about it. It was something between the main character, Sam, and his fellow mage, Ithyn. But what they argued about, and why, completely eluded me.

Normally, when this memory lapse happens, it only takes a few minutes of thinking it over for the whole scene to come rushing back.

Nope. Not this time. This time, I agonized for hours. What the hells was the scene? What were they arguing about? Why couldn’t I remember?

I needed just a clue. A keyword. A hint. Something to bring it all back.

And, of course, being the awesome socially-awkward person I am, it all came to me in a public setting. Most likely work (since, let’s face it, where the hells else do I ever go outside my house?), possibly the grocery store, definitely somewhere that involved other people.

“Whore!” That’s it. That’s the keyword I needed.

And, of course, I said it out loud.

Cue the what-the-fuck looks from people around me.

And cue the furious blush on my face.

Yeah, y’all totally didn’t just hear me say ‘whore’ randomly just now. You imagined it. Totally didn’t happen. Wasn’t me. Carry on.

At least–thank gods–I salvaged the scene, but I definitely could have done without that particular moment of revelation.

So, without further ado, here’s part of the scene in question, in which Sam recovers from having taken an unknown substance from amidst the stock of herbs and drugs that Ithyn–a specialist in healing–keeps on hand. The scene references the Erosti Guildmates, who are renowned throughout the world of the Shifting Isles for being highly-trained professionals in all manner of entertainments (sex, massage, singing, dancing, cooking, etc.). To be particularly crass, they are–to some–nothing but glorified whores.

Enjoy!

 

 

WHEN SAM came to, he found a blurry figure bent over him, swimming in his vision.

Shhh-sh-sh. Do not move,” a voice murmured.

Sam tried to lift his head, then groaned and closed his eyes again.

Drink this,” the soft voice said as a hand slipped around the back of Sam’s neck and cradled his head, lifting it slightly as a cup was touched to his lips.

Sam drank, and gagged, but the person holding the cup wouldn’t let him stop. The foul concoction was forced into his mouth, so Sam had no choice but to swallow as quickly as possible or choke.

Finally, the cup was taken away and Sam’s head was rested back down. Panting, Sam blinked heavily several times before his vision began to clear and he was able to make out Ithyn leaning over him.

Gods all around, Samril.” Ithyn sighed, gently pressing his wrist to Sam’s forehead. “What were you thinking?”

Sam tried to answer, felt his stomach lurch in response, and shut his mouth again.

Ithyn shook his head. “You nearly killed yourself, do you realize that?”

Sam’s eyes went wide, but he still couldn’t speak quite yet. Killed myself? What the hells did I take?

Ithyn continued looking him over, checking his pulse, examining his eyes and tongue, feeling the glands under his jaw, then sat back with another sigh. “Thank Kalos, I was able to determine which powder you took. Why did you not simply wait for me? I might have been able to assist you with…whatever it was you were attempting to accomplish.”

Needed,” Sam whispered, testing his voice, “an escape.”

Oh, Sam.” Ithyn sighed. “But to take your own life?”

Sam slowly shook his head, thankful the room didn’t spin when he did so. “Wasn’t my intention.”

What was your intention?”

Just…a break. A little break from the world.”

And you used that?” Ithyn asked incredulously.

Sam shrugged and slowly sat up. He found himself on the sofa in Ithyn’s sitting room, not far from where he’d collapsed on the floor. “It did say For Master Shyford.”

Ithyn gave him a puzzled look, then glanced over at the table where all the herbs were arranged. He gave an exasperated sigh and shook his head. “That note had nothing to do with the powders. It was for the books I placed in your room the day you arrived, and I simply forgot to discard the note. Besides, you had my jars all out of arrangement, anyway. How could you possibly match the note to one of them?”

Sam felt the tips of his ears go red. He really had made a bad assumption there.

The blue one looked like–”

Like what?” Ithyn asked when Sam broke off and fell silent.

Sam shook his head. Father’s love, I’m an idiot. He knew herb lore was not his strong point. “Looked just like the drug the Guildmate gave me.”

A puzzled look flashed across Ithyn’s face before it gave way to a stony expression. “I see,” he bit off. Then he was silent for a moment before he suddenly jumped up from his perch on the edge of the sofa and went over to the table, roughly rearranging the bottles and keeping his back to Sam.

Sam slowly sat up, testing his body for any further pain or dizziness, and turned to look at Ithyn. “Did I say something wrong?”

Ithyn paused his movements, gave a tight shake of his head, and went back to whatever he was doing.

Sam stood. “Ithyn, look, I’m sorry I messed with your bottles there. I just–”

Ithyn whirled on him. “You know, when you cavort with whores, you are no better than one yourself.”

Sam’s eyes went wide. “Excuse me? You’re calling me a whore?”

You have been with one,” Ithyn accused. “You admitted as much yourself.” He paused and gave Sam a quick once-over. “And more than once, if I had to guess.”

He’s not a whore!” Sam threw up his hands.

Ithyn clasped his hands before himself, the posture on him somehow more threatening than if he’d crossed his arms over his chest. “Does he accept payment in return for bodily pleasures?”

Of course.”

Whore,” Ithyn reiterated, and turned back to his jars and bottles.

Betrayal (Shifting Isles, Book 6) is now available on Amazon.com in both print and Kindle formats!

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News, Publishing, Shifting Isles, Teasers and Excerpts

Looking Ahead

I’ve just gone through and added a few updates to the site, mostly to keep myself motivated and on-track. The last few months have been…

Well, you know the saying: You make plans, and life happens. Oh boy, does it happen.

Between massive stress at work and a bit of a person crisis, I’ve been having a really hard time focusing on writing. The odd thing is that I’m actually ahead of the schedule I’d set for myself, but over the last few months, I’ve been slipping farther and farther behind and letting myself get distracted and upset by life in general. So, to keep myself going and get this next series out, I’ve already posted projected release dates for each of the next fourteen novels, as well as some preliminary information about other works that I’ll be releasing after those. Hopefully having posted deadlines will keep me moving and give me something to look forward to.

Starting late next month, I’ll be releasing the Shifting Isles series, a set of fourteen books set in a fantasy world. At my current writing pace, I should be able to put out a new volume every three months. That is certainly the goal, anyway. That puts the series wrapping up in June 2018, after which I’ll be releasing a standalone novel and another series, all set in the same world but at different time periods. I’ll be posting more information about the Shifting Isles series, the standalone novel, and the following series as more time passes and more information can be released without offering spoilers.

I know, this is like Marvel-level teasing, but I just can’t help myself.

The hard part is that all of this is teasing me as well. The new series idea (which won’t start releasing until 2019) is really grabbing my attention lately and making it difficult to focus on drafts for the upcoming SI series — another reason for the posted deadlines. Now I have to put the new ideas aside and get these SI drafts done so I can finally move on to the editing stages.

So, on that note, back to writing!

Inspiration, Lethean, Publishing, Teasers and Excerpts

Trilogy: Complete!

Hale and FarewellThree books, two years, and one very happy author.

With the launch of Hale and Farewell today, the Lethean Trilogy is now complete! I can’t tell you how excited I am to be releasing this third volume in the series. I absolutely love the story and the characters: Hale, the tough warrior-woman being pulled in different directions; Nagi, the aspiring scholar with a heart of gold; Weber, the tireless leader of the vast Underground network. Even the less-than-savory characters, such as Marcus and Bergin, have sides to them that I find interesting.

As for the story, the idea for it started with the climactic battle, since it put an interesting and intense spin on the Lethean soul connection. Once I knew how it had to end, the rest of the story just seemed to fall into place — with a few surprises along the way, of course. The story is told in order but with occasional flashbacks filtered in to better illustrate what is happening in the present, as well as character motivations. Weber’s flashback to his introduction to the Underground was a complete surprise as I was writing it, but I just ran with it and it totally worked.

What I love best about this book is that it really makes me feel something as I read it. Some parts make me laugh, some make me cry. Weber’s speech right before the climactic battle gives me good chills every single time, and Hale’s final battle and her ultimate realization makes me grin uncontrollably.

If you want to read a sample, click here for the prologue and first two chapters. You can also purchase the book from CreateSpace, as well as on Amazon in Print or Kindle formats.

For anyone on Pinterest, you can check out my boards for the different novels. There’s not much to them yet but I’m slowly building them as I find things (and I’ll gladly take suggestions for pins from anyone who has read the books!). Here’s one I really had to search for but was totally worth the effort:

Hale's eyes
Hale’s mismatched eyes

And now, I’ll leave you with an extra little excerpt:

“There have been times in our history when Lethean were feared and condemned as witches or tools of the Devil; then times when we were respected and sought out for our ability to tell truth from lies. At other times, we simply stayed in hiding, wanting to live as normal lives as possible, since people stopped wanting truth. There was no longer a use for us, when people wanted to live in a fantasy world where they expected things to come to them merely by whim and wish, a world where they could put on blinders to reality and deny basic human nature. But now, when people are looking for truth again…”
She fell silent, and he finished for her sadly, “You may be the last.”

Lethean, Teasers and Excerpts

Teasers

Just a quick site update, and for your reading pleasure, I’ve updated the Books page to include links to teasers from each of the books. So far, I’ve posted the prologue and first two chapters of The Lethean, as well as the first three chapters of Uncommonly Strong. The prologue and first two chapters for the third book, Hale and Farewell, should be up by the end of the week, in time for the book’s release on June 29th.

From now on, as I add new titles, I’ll continue adding free teaser content for each book to give you a taste of the story, as well as links at the end for where you can purchase the books in full, either in print or Kindle formats.

Enjoy!

Hat-Tips, Links, and Shout-Outs, Lethean, Publishing, Teasers and Excerpts

Hale and … Pause

Hale and FarewellLook at this beauty! Another wonderful cover by my dear NFD. So dark, and grim, and dystopian — just right for the final installment of the Lethean Trilogy, Hale and Farewell, which takes place in a futuristic dystopian United States (or, at least, what’s left of it).

Right now, the proof is slowly making its way to my mailbox, and the book is scheduled to be released for sale on June 29th, the second anniversary of the day I started writing The Lethean.

Once again, I must extend my sincerest thanks to author Lisa Clark O’Neill for all her guidance and encouragement, but also her suggestion that I serialize The Lethean, which was originally intended to be a standalone novel. I find it amusing that, of all three books in the trilogy, Hale and Farewell wound up being my favorite by far, considering I — qua reader — absolutely devour all things Regency England (hence the setting of The Lethean) and actively avoid all things dystopian.

Took me by surprise, but I couldn’t be happier. I absolutely love Hale and Farewell.

Well, I suppose I could be happier. I realize now — too late, of course — that I made a mistake with Uncommonly Strong, the second book in the trilogy. I got overeager, wanting to plow through releasing these books, mostly because I was far too excited to get the third book out, that I rushed the second. It’s not perfect; it lacks a certain proper pacing; it has some unnecessary scenes; it’ll never get rave reviews…

Yet, in a way, that’s okay. It was a good learning experience, and now I know what not to do from now on. In the meantime, I’m studying story craft (something I obviously should have delved into much more deeply before I even thought about publishing in the first place) and using it to fine-tune my upcoming works.

Right now my computer is bursting with files in progress. I’ve got a 14-part fantasy series that will explore a variety of themes, people, and ideas: oppressive government (no surprise there), murder, the sanctity of the mind, economics, magic, addictions, rape, technology, travel, war, love and marriage, GLBT issues, philosophy, and much more. I’m hoping to have the first one ready to go by the end of the year, but we’ll see how that goes, considering there’s another standalone project I also have in the works: the one book that I really must write, a massive reworking of the book that got me started writing in the first place, five years ago now.

Goodness, how time flies! Seems like just yesterday…

That book, in particular, will probably be a while in coming. I’m doing some massive outlining and trying to make sure it all weaves together properly before I even think about tackling a single line of it, let alone a chapter. Thus, in the meantime, a pause in releasing new books.

But for now: Coming soon! Hale and Farewell.

Happy reading!

Here, have a teaser:

She took one step forward, putting herself one step closer to the Tower than to the Underground, and felt her chin come up, her spine straighten, and her shoulders square. That single step was the most difficult thing she’d ever done in her life, but she knew in the very depths of her soul that it was right.

Chances were great that she would lose everything she wanted, but it would be worth it. Better to die with honor and truth than to live with shame and a lie.

She clenched her hands into fists. The choice was made.

‘Sleep well, Marcus Thane. Tonight will be your last…’

Hat-Tips, Links, and Shout-Outs, Inspiration, Lethean, News, Publishing, Teasers and Excerpts

Round Two (Teaser Included!)

Uncommonly StrongUncommonly 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!

 

Chapter 1

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.”

Yes, but…how?”

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–”

“–or sports–”

“–or art–”

“–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.

What?”

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.

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Lethean Teaser: Prologue to Book 1

What can I say? Life happens.

The first novel in the Lethean trilogy has been sitting on the self-publishing platform for a couple months now, only waiting for the cover art to be complete and ready to launch. The big hold-up in the meantime is that my wonderfully-talented cover artist has been battling UPS over a damaged computer — a device she badly needs in order to create my cover art, not to mention dozens of other projects she has lined up for others. If you’re on Facebook, and have seen the page Unbound Quotes and Notes (among others), you’ve likely seen the beautiful work by NFD. She’s an amazingly awesome woman and graciously offered to do my artwork; and, considering her talent, I’m holding The Lethean until UPS finally releases her computer so she can work on the file.

By the way, if you’re feeling generous, and want to help out a fantastic woman who is trying to support two kids, you can join me in donating to NFD here. 🙂

In the meantime, while waiting to launch book 1, I’m engaged in an editing battle with book 2, while book 3 sits patiently in the wings, urging book 2 to cooperate and waiting its turn. I think book 2 might be the death of me, but I’m really excited to get around to publishing book 3, so the battle will be worth it.

And now, to the teaser. Hopefully book 1 will be ready to launch soon (please cooperate, UPS!), but for now, here is the prologue. Enjoy!

John Humphreys strode across his drawing room, puffing angrily at his cigar. His Hessian boots sank into the plush blue carpet as he paced from window to sofa and back, skirting around a high-backed chair in the process. Several times, he brushed past a delicate mahogany table, causing his cooling, untouched teacup to rattle on its saucer in the most irritating fashion. Through narrowed eyes, he glanced out the grand window, framed elegantly with gold-tone drapes that set off the gilt frames on the chairs and sofa, but still saw nothing other than the empty drive that stretched away into the distance between two perfect rows of stately oaks. With his unoccupied hand, Humphreys tugged free his watch, nearly tearing the pocket in his frustration, and noted the time.

Five minutes more,” he grumbled to himself, thrusting the silver timepiece back in place.

Jack, dearest,” his lady murmured, “I’m sure the inspector will arrive on schedule.”

Mrs. Humphreys sat alone on the sofa, a few of her grey-streaked light brown curls dangling from her cap as she bent her plump figure over her needlework. The sound of her voice grated on Humphreys’s nerves, and he whirled to face her, removing the cigar from his lips to better deliver a retort.

Well I damned wish he’d be early,” he spat as he tapped his cigar over the fire, then stepped closer to his wife. “It’s trial enough to be robbed, but then to be kept waiting–”

His complaint ceased as the sound of the front door being knocked upon and answered alerted him to the arrival of the inspector. Mr. Humphreys thrust aside his cigar and checked his reflection in a large, gilt mirror, ensuring his cravat was neatly tied and his patterned silk waistcoat showed to advantage beneath his new broadcloth tailcoat. He brushed his fingers over his smooth chin, turned his head to the right and the left to confirm his dark hair was tidy, poked idly at the large, ugly mole just below his right eye, then spun away from the mirror and came to a halt at the fireplace, resting an elbow on the pure white mantle while his chin gained a few inches of elevation.

A footman bustled into the room, holding the door open as he bowed an introduction. “Inspector Farnsworth, sir.”

Mr. Humphreys offered the footman a mere jerk of a nod in response, and the man quietly vanished while the inspector approached. Humphreys almost smirked with satisfaction, seeing the inspector had not wasted any time by allowing the servants to take his hat and overcoat from him, and instead entered the room still bundled against the chilly weather.

Mr. Humphreys.” The inspector bowed, sweeping his hat from his head, a businesslike alertness to his bright blue eyes. “I am at your service, sir.”

What have you found?” the gentleman barked.

Inspector Farnsworth’s eyes flicked a bit wider, clearly abashed at the discourteous beginning, but wisely did not comment, and immediately reported, “We have recovered the stolen jewel, sir. It will be along shortly. Your jeweler, Mr. Pritchett, offered his services to transport the item securely.”

Mr. Humphreys snorted with impatience. He didn’t care much for the jewel in question – beside the fact that his wife would have given all manner of bother about it had it not been recovered – though he was livid over the simple matter of having been stolen from. It was not the jewel he wanted, so much as its taker.

And the thief?” he demanded.

Ah.” The inspector brightened, his eyes twinkling with the pleasure of success. “We have him in custody, though it was a bit of a trial to restrain him. With that accomplished, however, it was simplicity itself to wring a confession from the man. You see, he attempted to lie about the theft, but was unable to do so.”

Mr. Humphreys caught the inflection in the inspector’s words, but not understanding the meaning, he gave the inspector a puzzled look and asked, “Unable?”

Yes, he–” the inspector began, nodding vigorously, then checked himself. He looked around, clearly noting that Mrs. Humphreys was watching the exchange with rapt attention, then cleared his throat and stepped closer, lowering his voice. “He was not one of us, sir.”

I beg your pardon?”

The inspector motioned with his hand, and Mr. Humphreys, growling impatiently again, leaned closer. A single word of three syllables drifted into his ear, and at the sound of it, Humphreys reared back and roared, “Them! They are a menace! I do wish the Crown would do away with the lot of them!”

Whom, dear?” his wife gasped, her needlework slipping from her fingers as her attention fixed on the two men.

My dear!” he cried angrily, and gave his lady a look that she rightly understood to mean she was excused. The little woman rapidly gathered her things and bustled away, leaving the two men alone.

A menace, I tell you!” he repeated once the door clicked shut. He spun away from the fireplace and resumed pacing, the carpet now useless to quiet his thundering steps. “Can nothing be done about them?”

The inspector spread his hands and shrugged. “They exist all over the world, sir, from what I hear. Not that there are a great many of them, comparatively speaking – a minor and dwindling race, as I understand it. Still, you can hardly judge the lot of them by the actions of one–”

I may judge as I wish!” the gentleman spat, purpling with rage. “This one has used his abilities to his advantage, and against me! I would see the lot of them hanged!”

Sir, if I may, in all my years, this is only the second I’ve encountered in a criminal role. Surely–”

When Mr. Humphreys turned his angry glare upon the inspector, the latter quickly silenced himself and waited, clasping his hands before him while his hat still dangled from where it was pinched between a thumb and forefinger. After a tense moment, Mr. Humphreys huffed angrily, then gave a curt bow. “Thank you for your trouble, Inspector. Good afternoon.”

Inspector Farnsworth stared at his host for a moment, clearly astounded at the conversation, then bowed deeply, giving a polite but forced, “Sir,” before he swept from the room.

 * * *

That evening, facing her parents in the carriage as it rolled over the cobblestone streets, Agatha Humphreys sat as quietly as she could, knowing her father was still in a rather foul mood. She’d seen him brooding all afternoon, and he’d threatened to cancel their attendance at the ball that evening, until Agatha had begun to cry and he had given in.

When they arrived at the Caldwell’s townhouse, Agatha alighted from the carriage with the help of her father’s hand. She glanced down to make sure the skirt of her primrose gown was flowing just so, but straightened abruptly when she realized her father still maintained his clasp on her fingers. Startled, Agatha looked up and saw a hint of a smile on his face. He patted her cheek, being careful not to disturb the dark curls that graced her temples, then took Agatha and her mother on either arm as he led them inside. Agatha’s spirits soared, knowing she was her father’s dearest treasure as usual.

Once inside, servants helped them become divested of hats and cloaks, and Agatha followed her parents up a grand staircase and through to a large hall, emptied of furniture except for the chairs that lined the paneled walls. All earlier tension was forgotten as Agatha glanced over the sea of guests, looking for one face in particular amidst the swirling mass of ribbons, lace, monocles, tailcoats, gloves, and fans.

Mr. Humphreys!”

Agatha fought to keep her eager grin restrained as she turned with her parents at the sound of the voice. It belonged to a handsome young gentleman who was approaching them with a welcoming smile.

Good evening, sir!” the young man exclaimed as he shook hands with Agatha’s father. “Please excuse my tardiness. I ought to have met you in the receiving line.” Then he turned to Mrs. Humphreys, repeating his apology while politely pressing her fingers, and finally bowed gallantly at Agatha herself. “Miss Humphreys. Might I have the honor of the first dance?”

Certain that she was blushing to the roots of her hair, Agatha dropped a curtsy and murmured, “It would be my pleasure, Mr. Caldwell.”

Young Mr. Caldwell bowed to them all again, his dark brown hair sweeping into his equally dark eyes as he did so, and Agatha longed to reach out and brush those locks aside, though the change in gravity did it for her as he straightened. With the flash of a perfect smile, he disappeared to greet other guests, and Agatha sighed to herself, resigned to wait. She followed her parents through the rooms, only stopping occasionally to chat gaily with her friends, but always keeping an eye on the young man who had captured her heart.

When it was finally time to dance, Mr. Caldwell escorted her to the dance floor, making up the set, and she hardly noticed the movements, so enraptured as she was by his presence. He continued a lively stream of conversation, in which she participated she knew not how, and marveled at how effortless it was to dance with such an accomplished partner. The music came to an end long before she imagined possible.

For the next set, Agatha danced with another fine young gentleman, one whom she also considered a desirable match, though no one quite attained Mr. Caldwell’s amiability. Throughout the dance, she tried to be attentive to her partner, but also kept an eye on the other gentleman, secretly jealous of seeing him dancing with another girl, particularly as he was equally lively and gentlemanly with her.

The third set found Agatha resting on a chair near the wall, sipping a glass of lemonade while she watched the dancers and caught her breath. Going down the dance, Mr. Caldwell was easy to find: his confident, upright frame easily stood out amongst the crowd.

There was something different about him at that moment, though, and Agatha felt her spirits begin to sink. Instead of his usual smiling conversation, Mr. Caldwell was utterly silent as he danced with Miss Jane Parrish. The pair gazed intently at one another without saying a word, and something about the look in Mr. Caldwell’s eyes made Agatha want to cry.

Miss Parrish did not qualify as a great beauty, though Agatha knew the girl was quite an accomplished young lady – indeed, Agatha could not even begin to compete with Jane’s skill at the pianoforte, let alone in such matters as painting and a mastery of multiple languages. Nevertheless, despite the unremarkable face and average figure, Mr. Caldwell was clearly intoxicated by Jane Parrish, his gaze full of restrained longing as he led his partner down the dance.

There was a striking sense of intimacy in the way the pair danced. Despite the timing of the movements, Mr. Caldwell and Miss Parrish clasped hands as soon as they could reach, and released hands again only at the last possible moment before the steps took them away from one another. As Agatha watched, it struck her that both partners had removed their gloves, and she realized that she had never seen either of them without that article of dress – except for when they danced together.

Heart thudding with envy, Agatha saw the pair come together again, their hands meeting smoothly without either of them breaking their shared gaze. Agatha knew them for accomplished dancers, but their hands were certainly beyond the range of peripheral vision, as Agatha knew perfectly well from having participated in this dance herself several times in the past. She shut her mouth with a snap, realizing her jaw had dropped while she’d been lost in wonder of how their coordination and spacial awareness could be so precise.

An amused smile tugged at Mr. Caldwell’s lips, and a moment later Miss Parrish was showing every symptom of trying not to laugh aloud. Studying their features, Agatha saw their expressions change from amused to inquisitive to desiring, yet they said not a word to one another. She got the distinct impression that they were somehow reading one another’s minds.

But that’s impossible! Agatha thought, but another invitation to dance interrupted any further pursuit of her curiosity, and she found she had to force on a smile while she temporarily banished her musings.

The evening wore on, and when Agatha found herself paired with Mr. Caldwell again, all her jealousies were quickly forgotten as she lost herself in his presence and his utterly contagious joy. Surely this was the man of her dreams, and she would simply have to capture his heart.

When the dance ended, Mr. Caldwell retrieved two glasses of lemonade and escorted Agatha to the side of the room, helping her to a chair and taking one beside her as they watched the crowd. Conversation turned to various matters of couples and dress, each of them remarking how Mr. Hunter was a dreadfully clumsy dancer, and how elderly Mrs. Eastwood had simply refused to keep up with the latest fashions, her gowns all made with a cut that belonged to a prior decade. They maintained a steady stream of commentary until Mr. Caldwell made a passing remark about a couple newly engaged, and his tone seemed rather wistful to Agatha’s ears.

Mr. Caldwell,” Agatha began, encouraged by the look on his face, though she knew she was performing a gross impropriety by saying: “You know, I come of age this year.”

He turned to her, eyes wide in a startled expression as he asked, “Pardon me, Miss Humphreys?”

Agatha blushed, realizing she’d made a mistake, and cast her eyes downward. “Charles– I mean, Mr. Caldwell…please forgive me. Forget what I said. I simply–”

She broke off, embarrassed, and an awkward silence ensued. When she looked up again, she found Mr. Caldwell giving her a strange, searching look, and then he sighed, seemingly resigned to something.

Miss Humphreys, you must understand, I–”

He paused, and glanced across the room, gazing at something for a long moment, then turned back to her again, saying very quietly, “Miss Humphreys, I’ve no wish to cause you pain, but I realize now that it is important for me to tell you something. You are a darling girl and should make any man quite happy, but please do not waste your hopes on me. I am not at liberty–”

A deep, cheerful, masculine voice interrupted him, booming out, “Charles!”

Agatha saw Mr. Caldwell turn, a smile lighting up his face as he greeted the other gentleman, and as Agatha fought to hold back her tears of rejection, she barely noticed when the men bowed and took their leave of her. She turned her face from the crowd, trying with all her might to school her features, and only when she had forced herself to a sufficient calm did she slowly rise from her seat and make her way through the room to find her parents.

Forced gaiety wore on her as the evening continued, and just when she thought she couldn’t bear anything more, she caught sight of Mr. Caldwell once again. He was standing with a group of men who were deep in conversation, though he was looking past them and not really contributing much in the way of words. Agatha followed his gaze across the room and saw that Jane Parrish was gazing directly back at him, a hint of a smile on her face. As Agatha watched, she saw Mr. Caldwell give the subtlest of nods, which Jane returned, and after a few moments, though no one else appeared to have noticed, she saw Jane disappear through a side door, followed a few minutes later by Charles.

Before the tears could burst from her eyes again, Agatha’s father came to her side and took her arm, announcing that they were going home. Agatha nodded absently and followed him.

 * * *

Mr. Humphreys looked at his daughter, a woman grown and the pride of his life, sitting demurely in the carriage across from himself and his wife. He could tell something had upset Agatha, but decided to wait until they were home and he could have a moment alone with her to discuss it, not wanting his wife present to complicate matters the way she always managed.

Once home, Mr. Humphreys called his daughter into his study and helped her to a seat. The room was dim and quiet, the light of a few candles pushing the shadows back against the dark wood panels and bookshelves that encircled a patterned red carpet and a capacious writing desk. Humphreys leaned back against the desk as he looked down at his daughter, sitting there quietly with her hands neatly folded in her lap.

Now, my pet,” he murmured, crossing his arms over his chest. “What troubles you? You look quite distressed.”

Agatha shook her head, her ringlet curls dancing sweetly as she did so. “Nothing is the matter, Papa. I’m quite well.”

Agatha,” he insisted, reaching out and putting a finger under her chin, forcing her to look up at him.

She instantly burst into tears. “Oh, Papa! It’s so unfair! I’m sure I shall break my heart!”

Tell me, child,” he soothed, dropping to one knee and clasping her hands between his.

Charles– Forgive me, Mr. Caldwell,” she sobbed. “I had such hopes, but…he said–”

His daughter put her face in her hands, shaking as she cried, and Mr. Humphreys swallowed down his anger at the gentleman mentioned, trying to keep his tone light as he asked, “What has he done to hurt you, my sweet?”

Oh, Papa, you said he would make such a good match, and I love him so! But he told me to put the idea right out of my head! He said he wasn’t at liberty, but he’s never announced an engagement to anyone else! Oh, it’s not fair!”

Shhh, child, shhh,” he soothed, rocking her. “We’ll just see about this, alright? Don’t you fret. Your dear papa will get to the bottom of this, I promise.”

After a good deal more crying, he finally got his treasure to calm herself enough to go to bed, and once she was out of the study, Mr. Humphreys took himself to his desk, wrote a brief note, and handed it to a servant to deliver first thing in the morning.

 * * *

The next day dawned bright and clear, finding Mr. Humphreys already dressed and pacing about while he awaited the breakfast hour. He attended to business throughout the morning while also watching the clock, counting down the hours until he would likely receive a reply to his note.

It arrived sooner than expected, and in Charles Caldwell’s elegant hand. Proper and polite, the note informed him that the young man had agreed to Mr. Humphreys’s summons, and that he would attend him promptly at the requested hour of two o’clock. Mr. Humphreys threw himself back into his work, helping the hours pass with productive activity.

Five minutes before the clock chimed two, Mr. Charles Caldwell entered Mr. Humphreys’s study.

Thank you for coming, Mr. Caldwell,” his host greeted, shaking hands, and offered the young gentleman a seat.

My pleasure, sir,” the young man replied with a smile. “However I might be of assistance to you–”

Mr. Humphreys held up a hand to silence him. “I’ll come right to the point, sir. My daughter was quite distressed after last night’s party, and she claims it was due to something you said. I would like an explanation, sir.”

The handsome young man sighed. “I must beg your forgiveness, sir. It was never my intention to hurt Miss Humphreys, though I’m afraid I did so inadvertently. It became apparent to me, last night while she and I were conversing, that I was considered an acceptable match. I had to inform her – indeed, I did not know any other way to do so – that I was not one upon whom she ought to set her ambitions.”

And is my daughter not good enough for you, sir?!” Mr. Humphreys growled. “She has had the finest education; she’s well thought of in the highest circles; she–”

The young man nodded. “She will make an ideal wife to any man, sir. However, not to me.”

And why is that, sir?!”

That handsome face looked at him steadily, one of the very few which had never cowered under his angry glare. After a long moment, Charles Caldwell sighed with resignation, reached into a pocket of his coat, and pulled out a simple gold ring which he slipped onto his left ring finger, holding the hand up for inspection. Humphreys’s jaw dropped at the sight.

I’m already joined,” the young man explained. “My partner and I are bound for life, and it is only a matter of Jane and myself to come of age – thanks to the confounded norms and legalities in this country – before our union is considered ‘legitimate’ and fit to be recognized. For now, it is a secret.”

How is it you are married, sir?!” Mr. Humphreys almost bellowed, shocked by the break with tradition. “You are far too young!”

Charles Caldwell laughed. “Jane and I have been ‘married’ these three years, at least. I can assure you, our parents are fully aware of the fact. Though, more to the point, we are not yet married by law, but simply and naturally joined by soul.”

Mr. Humphreys started at that, his eyes widening as he stared at the young man across from him. His mind reeled, his anger from the day before rising up once more and joining the new anger he was feeling at that moment.

You–” he began, fuming. “You are not human, are you?”

With a perfectly serious expression, the young man answered, “No, sir. I am not.”

Then you are–”

Yes.”

One of them!”

Mr. Caldwell seemed a bit startled by the angry outburst, but offered neither excuse nor apology. The young man sat perfectly still under Humphreys’s angry glare, the expression on his face showing clearly that he felt his revelation was the most natural thing in the world, despite law and tradition. The shocking disregard for social norms was more than Humphreys could bear.

Out!” Mr. Humphreys roared.

But sir–”

I said, out! I will not tolerate your kind in my house!”

Mr. Caldwell rose smoothly to his feet, bowed politely, and took himself from the room. Mr. Humphreys watched him go, his eyes wide with anger, and once the door shut between them, he slammed his fist down on his desk, sending his pens and ink pots rattling.

I’ll see the lot of them hanged, I will!”

* * *

A few days later, long after the sun had set, Mr. Humphreys ordered his carriage and traveled across town, arriving just at the border of the least reputable part of the city. Making sure he was well-cloaked, Mr. Humphreys got out and continued on foot, leaving his driver and footmen – all armed – to stay with the carriage until he returned.

He slunk through the shadows, weaving his way through cramped, filthy alleyways until he reached the building to which he’d been directed. It was by no means prepossessing: the windows were so thick with grime that one could hardly even discern the flicker of candlelight within, and the garbage strewn about made Humphreys pick his steps very carefully. Bracing himself, he knocked upon the rotting door.

It was promptly answered by a middle-aged man – slightly stooped, with greasy, lank hair, and a vile grin that lacked a few teeth. Without a word, the man welcomed him inside, and Mr. Humphreys took care not to touch anything as he followed the man through the crowded opium den to an empty back room.

Once shut inside and away from prying eyes, Mr. Humphreys uncloaked himself and took an offered chair, sitting gingerly on its edge, while the other man sank lazily onto a bench across from him, saying, “I hear tell you need information.”

Yes,” Mr. Humphreys answered shortly, trying to swallow his disgust at the sight of yellowed, rotten teeth when the man had spoken. “And I have a little…problem…I would like to have addressed.”

Oh, aye, I’m good at problems.” The man grinned, rubbing his dirty hands together, his rags swaying loosely on his unwashed arms as he did so.

Mr. Humphreys extracted a purse from his coat and tossed it to the man, who caught it from the air and whisked a coin from within all in one fluid motion. He tested the coin between his teeth, savored the rattle of the purse in his hand, then sneered, “How can I help you, Mr. Smith?”

Mr. Humphreys leaned forward conspiratorially and narrowed his eyes, growling, “Tell me everything you know about the Lethean.”

The man across from him leaned back against the wall, leisurely stretched out his legs, and grinned.