WINTER’S DAWN is a new novella in the Flos Magicae series, and is now available for preorder! A 24,000-word gothic fantasy, WINTER’S DAWN is a standalone queer romance set in a 1920s alternate-universe steeped in magic. It’s my first book with a major nonbinary character (the love interest and Irish radical Winter), and I’m so excited to bring that representation to the page.
Thomas Brighton, a professor of theoretical magic, has been accused of treason. Imprisoned in the bleak Blackwood Gaol as he awaits his trial, he is cut off from his magic and his studies: a fate worse than death for the scholar who has devoted his life to academia. His only company is Winter, the mysterious prisoner in the neighbouring cell. As Thomas’ trial drags nearer, their whispered conversations are the only thing keeping him from giving in to boredom and despair.
Winter is a radical, a murderer, and a traitor to the crown. Everything Thomas fears and looks down on. But as Blackwood continues to crush his spirit and his magic, Winter might be his only ally. And Thomas might be Winter’s only chance of escape. Because if Blackwood and its guards don’t kill them both, the hangman’s noose surely will.
(Content warnings are listed at the bottom of this post, for those interested)
Read the first page:
Blackwood Gaol stood upon an unforgiving rocky jut of ground with nothing but the dark, rolling moors of Northern England beyond its gates. It might have been considered a beautiful place if the scenery hadn’t been marred by the ugly blockiness of the architecture, and if Thomas were one for appreciating the grandeur of nature. But he was far more interested in his books than in any landscape, and besides which, it was difficult to focus on anything other than the prison itself. Thomas knew the place intimately, from its core out, though he had never before visited. However, that familiarity gave him no comfort. Although he itched with curiosity to see the building up close and in person, that itch wasn’t strong enough to overpower his suspicion that this was going to be a singularly miserable experience from start to finish. Dread coiled in the pit of his stomach and skittered around the edges of his mind, both relatively new sensations for him. He had always considered anxiety the trait of an idle brain that only required a dose of firm logic to dispel, but now that he was in its grips, he found to his consternation that it wasn’t so easily dismissed. And it was far from his only source of discomfort. The chains that looped from his wrists to ankles were awkward, their weight still unfamiliar, and they dragged at his every movement. Outside the transport vehicle, the sky was grey with a coming storm. Inside, he sat cramped in the company of nine other prisoners, all of them shivering and despondent, huddled under the bored eye of their guard. Thomas’ breath frosted the air with every exhalation.
There was still another month before his trial. Winter had settled in early, snowy and fiercely cold. At university they would be in the heart of flu season and Thomas would have sequestered himself in his office for weeks on end, avoiding company until the worst was past. Perhaps a prison cell would afford him the same shelter? But he doubted it. He might avoid the flu only to fall prey to pneumonia, or some other such disaster. Blackwood was only ten years old but looked ancient, a monolith hewn from rough stone and stern magic, designed to inspire fear rather than provide safety or rehabilitation. He had never considered the wellbeing of its inmates before.
The vehicle rolled to a halt and the guard rocked to his feet, clapping his truncheon against his open palm. “On your feet. Single file.”
Thomas struggled up, his arms tucked close to his sides and his hands curled inwards like broken bird wings. He wasn’t tall, but he had to stoop to avoid hitting his head against the vehicle’s roof, and the chains dragged him lower still.
Another month. And after that—
He already wore the drab grey uniform demanded by the prison; his clothes and belongings had long since been confiscated and filed away. Regardless of the trial’s outcome, his assets would be frozen and dispersed, his home rented to other people, his position at the university terminated and filled by someone else with better qualifications and fewer scandals attached to their name. The thought of other people rifling through his things and dismantling the careful organisation of his desk made his stomach swoop with discomfort. People would dogear his books and fail to properly clean his fountain pens and they would use that one oil that always made his eyes water when they wiped down his desk. It would be horrible.
Of course, if he was convicted, none of that would matter.
WINTER’S DAWN is darker than the previous Flos Magicae books, and leans into themes of loneliness and enforced isolation that might hit some readers harder due to individual experiences with lockdowns and quarantines.
Content Warnings: suicide ideation, brief homophobia, themes of depression, anxiety, and isolation, mention of weight loss due to malnutrition, animal death.
To all my readers: take care of yourselves, stay safe, and happy January.
Alphonse Hollyhock is blessed with wealth, class, and more beauty than brains. Though he hasn’t got a lick of wit or magic to his name, he’s perfectly content living life as an airheaded bachelor with his valet—the clever, unflappable Jacobi—by his side to ensure everything runs smoothly. All he lacks, according to his mother, is a wife.
Despite Alphonse’s protests, he’s to marry Aaliyah Kaddour: a bright, headstrong young woman who would probably be charming company if she didn’t threaten everything about Alphonse’s way of life. Marrying means giving up his fashionable flat, his fast car, and, worst of all, it means losing Jacobi.
Perhaps most distressingly, this talk of marriage is bringing all sorts of confusing feelings to the forefront. Because rather than falling for the beautiful girl being pushed into his arms, Alphonse seems to be falling for his valet. Except a man can’t fall in love with another man. Can he?
Meanwhile, Aaliyah has plans of her own. She’s as devious as she is pretty, but if Alphonse wants to get through this marriage business in one piece, he’ll have to trust her. Her and Jacobi, and, most dangerously, his own feelings.
The Bachelor’s Valet is a 55,000-word novel in the Flos Magicae series, a collection of queer romances set in an alternate 1920s universe awash with casual magic. Both the stories so far are standalones and can be read in any order.
Read on below for an excerpt from the first chapter:
CHAPTER ONE: IN WHICH A MARRIAGE IS PROPOSED
Alphonse Hollyhock was a golden-haired thing with guileless, cornflower-blue eyes and a good temper. His only shortcoming was a lamentable lack of grey matter, which he took in stride, cheerfully proclaiming that while he might not have two brain cells to rub together, he was dim enough that he didn’t notice their lack. Thankfully, he could rely on his breeding and status to compensate. He had wealth, good looks, a broad social circle, and a nice flat in a fashionable part of London. All he lacked, according to his mother, was a wife.
“I’m sorry, I must have misheard you. You want me to do what? With whom?”
Estellabeth Hollyhock levelled him with an unimpressed glare over the rim of her porcelain teacup. Her hair was as pale as sun-bleached wheat and her eyes as flat and grey as the London sky, though otherwise, she looked much like her son—if all the life had been drained out of him. He had accepted her invitation to brunch at the estate, which he should have known was a trap, and had regretted his decision from the moment he set foot over the threshold. They were set up in the conservatory, just the two of them: a little nook overlooking the back garden, thriving with potted plants and hanging flower baskets. It was a deceptively tropical place, and, like a jungle cat, his mother had waited until her prey was comfortably settled and nibbling on jam biscuits before pouncing and digging her claws into his tender flesh.
“I can’t possibly marry,” he protested. “Why, a woman— I don’t— There simply isn’t—”
“You will, and there is. You’re the perfect age for it. All your friends are engaged.”
“Some of my friends have been engaged for years! And the rest have been engaged to three or four different girls in the last six months. The only one with any hope of actually seeing a marriage at the end of it is Darius Featherstrop, but that’s a case of true love, if you can believe it. You can’t count him.”
“I do count him,” she said firmly, “and you ought to be looking to him as an example, even if you can’t manage to fall in love yourself. You’re nearly thirty, for heaven’s sake.”
“I’m only twenty-six. Besides which, there are plenty of respectable bachelors well past the age of thirty.”
Her mouth thinned into such an intimidatingly small line that Alphonse trembled, his teacup clacking against its saucer. He set both down on the table between them in the futile hope that she wouldn’t notice his nerves.
Clearing his throat, he said, “Fine. I take it you’ve already set your sights on some poor girl?”
“Miss Aaliyah Kaddour. Her family owns a silk-trading empire.”
Alphonse furrowed his brow. He vaguely remembered meeting an Aaliyah Kaddour at a party the previous summer: the image of a charming young woman flashed through his mind, all dusky skin and sparkling eyes, with bright flowers in her hair. She had seemed to tolerate him well enough, as far as he could recall. But he couldn’t recall much, on account of having had imbibed somewhat more heavily than intended, as was often the case with such parties.
“I don’t suppose she has any more say in the matter than I?”
“She’s agreed to see you, which is more than I had hoped. Since you refuse to show any interest in the fairer sex and entrap a mate by more conventional means, I must rely on your money and good looks to snare you one. The latter won’t last forever, and the former, I fully expect you to gamble away in some ill-placed bet with your peers in those infernal clubs.” She raised one finger, warningly. “Don’t think I don’t know how much you lost last month betting on those useless horses at the tracks.”
Alphonse swallowed his protest. He always had terrible luck with the horses and everyone knew it.
“Therefore, time is of the essence,” his mother continued, as if she hadn’t interrupted herself, “and I won’t have you wasting any more of it.”
He heaved a mournful sigh, fully aware that it wouldn’t garner him an ounce of sympathy. “But I’m happy living life unwed and unshackled. Doesn’t my happiness count for anything?”
“Certainly not. Now: she’s coming to dinner this Friday. Have your man choose your outfit. You need to wear something nice, and you’re hopeless at dressing yourself. And Alphonse.” She fixed him with a steely look that would make lesser men quaver. “If you try to sabotage this in any way—if I catch so much as a whiff of some hare-brained scheme to set this astray—then I shall have no choice but to engage my backup plan, and believe me when I say that you will care for that even less than the first.” She held his gaze until he was sweating from nervous anticipation. “If you don’t do your utmost to procure an engagement from this girl, you shall be cut off, not only from the inheritance, but from the entire estate. Do you understand? It’s well past time for you to grow up.”
Alphonse went faint, the blood fleeing his face until he was as white as a sheet. “Really, Mother, surely that’s a bit drastic—”
“Then an engagement should pale in comparison.” She took a sip of tea without breaking eye contact. “Now, call in your man, will you? I want him to hear this in my own words, so you can’t try to weasel your way out of it.”
Alphonse groaned, but obediently turned to the door. Before he could so much as open his mouth, his valet stepped inside with seemingly telepathic efficiency. He entered the room, sleek and silent, his uniform black from tip to toe, to stand behind Alphonse’s chair, awaiting instruction.
Jacobi had been like that for as long as he had been in Alphonse’s employ. While it was natural to expect a valet to have a certain inherent sense of good timing, Jacobi’s bordered on the preternatural, and if Alphonse didn’t know better, he might suspect the man of using magic. Not that it was illegal for valets to use magic, but it was acknowledged to be in somewhat bad taste for the serving class to show it off, and Jacobi could never be accused of anything resembling bad taste.
“Jacobi.” Alphonse’s mother wore a smile for the first time all morning. Alphonse was privately certain that she would prefer if Jacobi were her son instead, class difference aside. “You heard all that, I presume?”
He inclined his head. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Then you understand the importance of Friday’s dinner going well. Don’t let Alphonse squirm his way out of it.”
She settled back in her chair and waved her hand dismissively, as regal as a queen. “That will be all, then. Help yourself to a biscuit on your way out.”
Dutifully, Jacobi selected one from the plate. Alphonse rose with a huffy sigh, sidling around the little table to press a kiss to his mother’s cheek.
“Oh, don’t make such a fuss,” she said. “You’ll thank me for this, one day.”
“Yes, Mother.” Turning his back to her to face Jacobi, Alphonse rolled his eyes expansively. Jacobi’s expression never wavered as he held the door for him to depart.
As soon as they were on the other side with it securely shut behind them, Alphonse let out a strangled burst of frustration, striding quickly through the long halls of the house.
“Can you believe that? Marrying! Me! And to Aaliyah Kaddour, of all people!”
“Do you dislike her, sir?” Jacobi kept pace one stride behind him as they made for the front doors.
“Not at all. But that’s just it! I barely know the girl. What if I come to dislike her, the more we talk? Or, more likely, she comes to dislike me? We don’t know anything about one another apart from our names, and we’re to be engaged in less than a week!”
“Matches of such a nature are hardly unusual, sir.”
Alphonse snorted and waved him away. “Hardly unusual. It’s hardly mandatory, though, is it? I was perfectly happy in my bachelorhood, I’ll have you know. I had everything just the way I liked it, and I was rather looking forward to continuing on in that manner for the foreseeable future. What on earth do I need a wife for?”
“Presumably to carry on the family name, sir.”
Alphonse pushed through the heavy front doors and onto the walkway. The Hollyhock estate was a grand old house in the countryside, sprawling over acres of green, hilly land, with gardens all around and a pond further back. Alphonse had been content there as a child, but as an adult, it seemed to look on him with as much disapproval as his mother, and he liked to escape its glower as quickly as possible. His car, a fashionable, state-of-the-art type of thing, was parked at the end of the drive, as near the gate as possible, and he headed for it with single-minded intent, Jacobi close at his heels.
“The family name will carry on just fine on its own. I’ve got more cousins than I can count; surely one or two of them will be happy to step up.” He pulled the car door open with more aggression than was normally found in his body, flinging himself into the passenger seat.
“Your mother likely wants to see grandchildren from you, sir.”
“Grandchildren! Sticky little monsters, the lot of them. If it’s just a matter of her entering a broody phase, I’ll wait it out. It’s probably cyclical; by this time next year, she’ll have moved onto some other way to torment me.”
“I suppose that’s possible, sir.”
Alphonse crossed his arms, well aware that he was acting like a petulant child, but unable to stop himself. “Can’t you offer any hope at all, Jacobi? I’m in need of a silver lining. Or, better yet, some means of escape.”
“Unless you manage to make yourself so off-putting to Miss Kaddour that she withdraws her interest, I fail to see one,” Jacobi said apologetically, taking the driver’s seat and turning the engine to life.
It came to with a cough before settling into a rumbling purr, the kind that normally warmed Alphonse to his bones. His car was his pride and joy: shiny and black, with a great chrome grill and enough style to be the talk of the town. If he had a wife and children, he would have to give it up for something safer and slower and less fashionable. He wrinkled his nose at the thought.
Alphonse had long relied on his own personal failings to keep him from marriage, and wasn’t sure how to get out of such a direct approach. Generally, women were happy to avoid topics of courtship, marriage, or love with him. He was perfectly pleasant to be around, or such was his impression: he had plenty of gentleman friends and got along with all their sisters and cousins and seasonal flings. Even Darius Featherstrop’s fiancée liked him well enough. There was nothing off-putting in his manners that had women skirting around him. He simply wasn’t interested in procuring a wife, or indeed anything else. And even a woman most desperate for an engagement appreciated a little amorous attention, which to Alphonse, it simply never occurred to offer.
And then there was the matter of his magic. Or, rather, lack thereof.
Every gentleman was expected to know a few basic charms and dazzlements at the bare minimum, and some turned scholarly and learned a great deal more. It was even becoming fashionable for women to learn a handful of spells to show off to their friends, and of course no party was complete without a showcase of the host’s talent.
Alphonse was absolutely miserable at it. He hadn’t a spark of innate talent and no amount of schooling had ever penetrated his pretty blond head, leaving him with an embarrassing dearth of tricks with which to woo a girl. While his peers flashed their magic around like birds of paradise dancing for their mates, Alphonse was left sitting in the corner nursing a drink, quite entirely by himself. Which, for the most part, suited his purposes just fine, though he could do without the vague sense of shame.
“Of course,” Jacobi continued, pulling past the gate and onto the open stretch of country road, “if you did alienate Miss Kaddour, your mother would suspect you of sabotage, and I fear she is quite serious in her threats to cut you off.”
“She can’t possibly disown me! Why, look at me, Jacobi. How can she expect me to earn an honest living on my own? Especially here in London! Everyone knows me. I’d be a laughing stock. No: I’d have to leave the country and her nefarious interference once and for all. I’d go to—to America, perhaps. There’s plenty of respectable self-made men in America, and I should have a fighting chance to start afresh. What do you say, Jacobi? Shall we book two tickets and make our way across the ocean as free men?”
“Though charmed by the prospect, sir, I do not have any particular wish to travel to America, and I must point out that were you to quit the estate, before or after being disinherited, you would lose all means by which to keep me on your payroll.”
“Damn it all. I suppose you’re right.”
They drove in silence for some time, the only sound the rumbling growl of the engine and the pavement under their wheels. The countryside provided a charming view, all green hills and rolling pastures, but Alphonse took little delight in it.
“Sir, if I may . . .”
Jacobi paused, awaiting permission to continue. Valets were a particular breed of servant given to taking liberties that the common maid or housekeeper would never dream, and Jacobi was no exception. Though, admittedly, Alphonse gave him a very long leash. He rather enjoyed the liberties Jacobi took, the subtle ways in which he talked back and the less subtle ways in which he occasionally ignored, if not outright disobeyed, orders. Alphonse let him get away with it all for the sole reason that Jacobi had never yet steered him wrong. He was more than happy to let the man run his life, provided his life turned out the better for it. Thus far, in the five years he had had Jacobi, things had been altogether pleasant. And, as his mother would say, he was absolutely hopeless at running his own life, so he might as well turn the reins over to someone more competent.
“Is there any specific reason you are so opposed to marrying Miss Kaddour, or is it the thought of marriage in general that you find chafing?”
“Yes, that one. Chafing is just the word for it. I’m happy with my flat and my car and you taking care of things. I don’t want a big house to look after, and I don’t want to get rid of my car, and I don’t see any reason at all to replace you with a woman. I’m entirely comfortable just the way I am, and I don’t see why I should bend over backwards to appease my mother when it’s only going to make me miserable.”
“You don’t know that it will make you miserable. You might find that you very much like Miss Kaddour.”
Jacobi was quiet as he took them around a wide bend in the road, and then: “Is it women in general, sir?”
“What about women?”
“You’ve never seemed especially taken with any in the time I’ve known you. Your friends have all fallen in and out of love more times than one can count, but you have maintained an impressive air of disinterest, if I may observe, sir.”
“I suppose I just have better things to do. It seems so terribly inconvenient to be running about like that all the time, like a chicken with its head cut off. Some of my friends have been engaged on and off to the same girl for years! It’s all a bit of nonsense, if you ask me. I’d much rather keep my independence, thank you very much.”
“Quite right, sir,” Jacobi said mildly, never taking his eyes from the road.
The drive evened out and the buildings stood closer together as they neared the city, the emerald hills flattening and giving way to houses and courtyards instead of estates and farms. Alphonse was a city boy through and through, much preferring clubs and businesses to fields and ponds, and he enjoyed the constant crush of company and never-ending bustle of humanity to the solitary introspection of the countryside. If there was one occupation he disliked, it was introspection. In fact, he made a point of avoiding it whenever possible, and while his friends were generally happy to let him be—most of them as cheerfully oblivious to their inner workings as he to his—Jacobi was less so. Alphonse doubted the man would drop the matter of women and marriage, especially not when they were so conveniently trapped together in the car.
Jacobi steered them into the city proper, the car rumbling along as the roads widened and filled with traffic.
“Out with it, then,” Alphonse said, at great length. “You have that expression on your face: I know the one. The one that means you want to pry into all the nooks and crannies of my life.”
“Certainly not, sir.”
“I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I know what your face looks like.”
“I have no intention of making you uncomfortable, sir.”
Jacobi’s tone indicated that he wouldn’t be pushed into speaking any further. It was a tone with which Alphonse was intimately familiar, so he sighed and leaned his temple against the window, watching the city whoosh by.
Alphonse’s flat was situated on the west side of Portman Square, where he had lived for the past seven years, even before taking on Jacobi’s employment. The building’s facade was clean and white, a good ten storeys high, with wrought iron balconies and hanging baskets of bright flowers at every window, even in the throes of autumn. The Square housed beneath it a spacious parking garage, and the rooms were wired up with the very forefront of electric technology and a hot water system of which he had yet to encounter a shortage. It was, all in all, the very pinnacle of fashionable housing: expensive, certainly, but money had never been an issue before. His stomach dropped to think of it becoming one should he refuse to marry.
“Steak for dinner tonight, sir?” Jacobi asked, as they rode the lift to their rooms. The operator stood stoically by the door, long accustomed to the back-and-forth between the two, and too professional to show any interest, besides.
Alphonse had no real preference, largely due to Jacobi’s exceptional skill in the kitchen that ensured every ingredient in whose direction he so much as glanced would be rendered delectable the instant it was put on a plate.
“Oh, whatever you like. Only, nothing too extravagant; I think this morning’s conversation might have put me off my feed.”
“A simple rice and vegetable dish, perhaps?”
Alphonse cast him an affronted look. “I’m not a rabbit.” Though of course, they both knew he would eat whatever Jacobi set in front of him.
“A spot of tea and toast?” Jacobi suggested, perfectly straight-faced.
“Between you and my mother, I’m going to waste away into a shrivelled husk of my former self. And while I know she’s quite incapable of feeling remorse, or, indeed, any sympathetic human emotion, I expect you to take your fair share in the responsibility of my untimely passing.”
“Steak it is then, sir.”
The lift came to a stop at the tenth floor, and the operator slid the ornate gold gate open for them to pass through. Alphonse flashed him a bright, if distracted smile, and the operator doffed his cap, expressionless.
Dinner was generally a casual affair, and would have been more casual still if Jacobi were less damnably stubborn. He refused to eat with Alphonse no matter how often he was invited, or how often Alphonse loudly, and at great length, spoke of how little he cared for the strict boundaries set between young gentlemen and their valets. As flexible as his manners may be in almost every other situation, there were some few rules Jacobi absolutely would not break.
He would, however, bend them.
Most evenings, Alphonse chattered to him as Jacobi went in and out of the kitchen, preparing dessert or washing dishes or ironing Alphonse’s clothes for the next day, or whatever else needed to be done. Alphonse was perfectly capable of carrying on a conversation one-sided, and thus Jacobi was rarely required to offer more than an attentive hum every few minutes, but that evening, Alphonse was uncharacteristically quiet, and let Jacobi work undisturbed. He couldn’t distract his mind from his mother’s threats, nor, perhaps more aggravatingly, from his ensuing conversation with Jacobi in the car. The steak was cooked to tender perfection, the spears of asparagus crisp in their bed of lemon-butter sauce on the side, yet he found little enjoyment in his food. It was as he had suspected: the sudden stress had ruined his appetite.
But his mother wasn’t present to take the blame, so his attention turned to Jacobi’s unasked question from the car, looking it over from all directions, trying to puzzle out what it could have been. There were few things that caused Jacobi to hold his tongue, at least when they were alone together. In fact, Alphonse could scarcely recall the last time his valet had refused to voice an opinion in private.
But it seemed a mighty shame to let such good cooking go to waste, so he chased his food around the plate with increasing despondency until Jacobi gently cleared his throat from the doorway.
“Sir. Shall I take your plate?”
Alphonse sighed. “I suppose you’d better. Unless you’d like to take a seat and keep me company while I finish?” he added hopefully. “My brain’s in such a state, perhaps if it were distracted with some conversation rather than letting it run in circles, I could eat.”
But Jacobi merely fixed him with the familiar, disapproving furrowing of his brows that he engaged every time Alphonse suggested they eat together, so Alphonse set his cutlery down and let him clear the table.
“I’m going to have an early night. Perhaps when I wake up tomorrow morning, I’ll find this entire day to have been an unfortunate dream.”
Thank you to all my ARC readers, everyone who preordered a copy or hyped it up on twitter, and everyone looking forward to reading! If you enjoy the book, please leave a review on Amazon! It’s one of the most important things you can do for an indie author and it means the world to me.
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An 18,000-word m/m fantasy romance, THE BOTANIST’S APPRENTICE is out now in ebook! Set in a lush greenhouse full of magical (and often deadly) plants, eager college graduate Eli Katz must convince his mentor, the esteemed botanist Robert Lord-Harding, of his worth as an apprentice. Eli has his budding attraction to the man under control—until the greenhouse’s carnivorous sex-pollen plant grows impatient watching them dance around each other, and decides to take matters into its own hands.
This is the first in a series of standalone queer romances set in a 1920s alternate-universe awash in casual magic.
THE BOTANIST’S APPRENTICE originally appeared in a NineStar Press student/teacher anthology in 2018. This release is a revised and extended version. Read on for an excerpt from the opening pages:
Eli Katz stood on the front step of Mr. Robert Lord-Harding’s house, his hands clasped before him after having rung the bell, waiting to see if the door would be answered. It was a beautiful house, all stately white brick with ivy and wild roses crawling up the front, situated on a sprawling estate outside the city. Eli couldn’t see the greenhouse from the front of the place, but he imagined it tucked away around the back with its great glass panels catching the sun, and he hoped Lord-Harding would let him see it that very day.
Footsteps sounded from the other side of the door and Eli straightened his posture, adjusting the strap of the satchel he wore over his shoulder. When the handle turned, the door swung open to reveal a man younger than Eli had expected: mid-forties, perhaps, with a sophisticated bearing and his hair shot through with silver at the temples, a pair of black-framed rectangular glasses giving him a stern expression.
“Can I help you?” asked Lord-Harding.
This was not a man nearing his retirement. Eli rallied and held out his hand.
“Mr. Lord-Harding, my name is Eli Katz. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Lord-Harding took his hand with a faintly dubious expression, looking him up and down until Eli shifted uncomfortably. Perhaps the man had forgotten such details as his name.
“I’m here for the apprenticeship?”
“I’ve not taken an apprentice in over five years,” said Lord-Harding slowly. “And I do not accept unsolicited offers, Mr. Katz.”
Eli blinked. “No, sir— We were put in connection by Miss Clarkson. Miss Grace Clarkson? She said you were expecting me . . .”
Lord-Harding watched him with an air of cautious bemusement.
“But I see that is not the case,” Eli finished, his heart dropping into his shoes.
“No, it is not.”
“I’m so sorry for wasting your time,” Eli said, at a loss for any better words. “I’ll just . . .” He looked around. His cab was long gone; the road stretched on empty in either direction for as far as he could see. “Ah,” he said, a little helplessly. “I hate to impose, but might I use your telephone to call for a drive back to the city? I’ll wait out here on the steps; I won’t bother you any further.”
Lord-Harding heaved a long-suffering sigh and held the door open wider. “Come inside, boy. I’ll get you an iced tea.”
The house was as magnificent inside as it appeared from without, with glossy dark floors and high ceilings and art hanging in heavy frames on the walls. Eli did his best not to look around too obviously as Lord-Harding led him through to the kitchen, though he felt a little pang at not being allowed to stay longer. The kitchen was equipped with state-of-the-art technology, from the stove to the bright lights fixed to the ceiling, and Eli stared admiringly as Lord-Harding poured him a drink from the refrigerator, topping it with ice and fresh lemon. Eli accepted it with a murmur of thanks, his fingers slippery against the glass’ condensation.
“So what else did Grace Clarkson tell you?” Lord-Harding asked, leaning one hip against the marble counter, arms folded impassively across his chest.
“Only that you agreed to take me on.” The iced tea was sweet and cold, a welcome relief from the oppressive Georgia heat that still clung to his skin. “She spoke very highly of you when I first mentioned your name.”
Lord-Harding lifted his brow ever so slightly. “Indeed?”
“I’ve been cultivating an interest in botany, sir. I have no natural aptitude for complicated spellwork, though I’m quite proficient, I think, in potions. But it’s botany where my passion lies, and every contemporary source agrees that you have the most extensive collection of magically-inclined plants in the country. Miss Clarkson promised to arrange something with you on my behalf.” Eli dropped his gaze to study the water droplets beading around his fingers. “She said you were quite amenable to an apprenticeship, sir. And that there was no need for me to contact you directly, as she assured me that she would settle everything herself.”
“Miss Clarkson,” said Lord-Harding, “has a long and colourful history of meddling in my affairs. Despite all my protests to the contrary she’s gotten it into her head that I should reopen my doors to the magical youth of America and see what I can make of them. I told her in no uncertain terms that I’m not in the slightest bit interested, but naturally, she took things into her own hands. Again. And here you are.”
“I won’t keep you. Let me just—” Eli set his drink down on the counter, locating the telephone on the other side of the refrigerator.
“Actually, I should rather like to speak to Miss Clarkson while I have you here, seeing as it’s her mess.”
“Shall I call her?” Eli asked, going over and hesitantly lifting the receiver from its cradle.
“Please. For all the good it’ll do,” Lord-Harding added under his breath.
Grace Clarkson picked up on the second ring. “Hello?”
“Hello, Miss Clarkson.”
“Eli, darling, is that you?”
“Yes. Um. About that meeting with Mr. Lord-Harding . . .”
Eli could hear the purr of amusement in her sweet Southern drawl.
“Well, he says he’d like a word, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t care whether she minds,” Lord-Harding said, holding out his hand. Eli passed him the receiver. “Grace? Yes, the boy is here. Yes, at my house, where you told him to go. Well, I don’t particularly care what you think would be good for me. I explicitly told you I’m not interested.”
“Considering how your last round of interference went, I don’t see why I should ever listen to anything you advise ever again,” Lord-Harding said frankly. “You’re an absolute menace to my peace and well-being and I’d thank you to keep your nose far out of my future affairs.” He ended the call with a scowl, dropping the receiver back into its cradle with a heavy clunk.
“I hope that resolved things,” Eli said meekly, taking up his glass again just to hide behind it. “She never indicated any troublesome past, and I never suspected—”
“No,” Lord-Harding said shortly, “of course you wouldn’t have suspected.”
Eli set his glass aside for the last time and prepared to beat a hasty retreat. Perhaps he could flag down a passer-by and hitch a ride back to town rather than call for a cab and prolong this discomfort.
But before he could flee, Lord-Harding cleared his throat, resuming his earlier position against the counter. “Botany, you say. What did you study in school? I take it you attended college.”
Eli eased back from the kitchen doorway. “I tried a bit of everything, sir. My parents wanted a well-rounded education for me; I didn’t begin to specialize until my junior year. I wrote my senior thesis on the use of magical plants in traditional medicine.” He fumbled the clasp of his bag open and pulled out a thick steel-ring binder. “I have a copy of it here, in fact, if you’d like to read it.”
“That’s not the most original thesis,” Lord-Harding said, but he accepted the binder all the same. “Your advisor didn’t push for anything more ground-breaking?”
“He said competence was more important than ground-breaking at an undergraduate level. But I’m more interested in reintroducing dangerous plants back into medical practices. It used to be quite common among aboriginal cultures; it was only after the Europeans began establishing colonies that the practice went into decline before being abolished outright.”
Lord-Harding raised his brows behind his glasses and leafed through the pages. “That is somewhat more original, yes. You’re arguing that these plants should be studied for uses beyond those of poisonous substances or curiosities?”
“Yes, sir, that’s it exactly. I’m convinced a record of their old uses must be preserved somewhere, even orally amongst more isolated indigenous cultures.”
“So why not continue on to your graduate studies? You’re clearly champing at the bit for it.”
“I thought taking a year in an apprenticeship would make my application more appealing to the board when I do apply, sir. There’s not much interest in dangerous plants at the moment. I thought if I had your name attached to me, they might take me more seriously.” Eli cleared his throat and looked away. “Still. I don’t mean to waste your time.”
“I have,” said Lord-Harding slowly, not taking his gaze from Eli’s paper, “quite a respectable collection of dangerous plants.”
Thank you to all my ARC readers, everyone who preordered a copy, and everyone looking forward to reading! If you enjoy the book, please leave a review on Amazon! It’s one of the most important things you can do for an indie author. Happy June and happy Pride!
An 18,000-word fantasy romance, THE BOTANIST’S APPRENTICE is now available for preorder! This is the first of a series of standalone queer romances set in a 1920s alternate-universe awash in casual magic.
Release day is June 7, and it will be available to read for free in Kindle Unlimited.
Recent college graduate Eli Katz is desperate to continue his studies in the field of magical botany. When a family friend arranges an apprenticeship for him with the most famous botanist in the country, Eli leaps at the chance without asking questions.
Robert Lord-Harding is a reclusive bachelor with an interest in dangerous plants. What he’s not interested in is another apprentice—especially not after the scandal of his last one. But, intrigued by Eli’s research, he offers Eli the chance to prove himself and earn access to his greenhouse.
Ever the keen student, Eli thrives under the attention. And if Lord-Harding is younger and more attractive than Eli had imagined, and if his teaching methods are more hands-on . . . Well, it’s not the first time Eli has had a crush on an instructor. It doesn’t mean he has to act on it.
But Eli and Lord-Harding aren’t the only ones in the greenhouse. A carnivorous plant that emits pheromones to lure men into its deadly embrace has been watching them flirt for weeks. Its pollen is irresistible, and it has certain effects on male physiology that make it impossible to ignore. Eli and Lord-Harding might be able to resist their attraction to each other, but resisting the man-eater is something else altogether.
THE BOTANIST’S APPRENTICE originally appeared in a NineStar Press student/teacher anthology in 2018. This release is a revised and extended version.
On Sat Jan 30th, 7pm GST (2pm EST), I’m participating in Romancing the Gothic’s Day of Creation with a host of other amazing authors and artists! The events run all day, and you can sign up using the form below. They’re completely free, but each session does cap out at 100 attendees, so if you’re interested, make sure you grab your spot soon! My session, shared with Premee Mohamed and SC Parris, is dedicated to author readings and a Q&A. I’m excited to be reading an excerpt from my new southern gothic novella THE BAYOU, and I’d be thrilled if people came to chat.
“Eugene didn’t know if he believed in the devil beyond the wicked things people did of their own accord, but if the devil had a face, it would look like Johnny Walker’s.”
A queer, southern gothic horror novella set in small-town Louisiana, drenched in the atmosphere of the Deep South in the midst of the Public Enemies era. THE BAYOU is now available in ebook and paperback, and free to read in Kindle Unlimited! Content warnings are listed at the bottom of this post.
The summer of 1935 was a hot one: the kind of damp, heavy heat that seemed like it would last forever. The scent of roses hung stilted in the air, an all-pervading perfume that clung to Eugene’s clothes and caught in the back of his throat. People moved slowly, like they were walking underwater; even the birds sang sluggishly, and the frogs croaked their dusk songs under duress. The weather felt like something dying.
A cop was bleeding out in front of the National Bank.
He lay on his back, eyes wide and staring as he gasped uselessly for air. He should have been dead before he hit the ground, the back of his head blown clean off and his brains leaking onto the pavement. Instead, he clung to the edge of life, refusing to accept the inevitable. The entry wound from a single bullet burrowed messily in between his eyes. Flies were already starting to gather, humming discordantly around his face like a threat.
Eugene stared at him from the other side of the street, pressed flat to the ground and using his car as a shield. He had dropped to the pavement as soon as the shooting started, the gunfire the only thing loud enough to drown out the cicadas screaming from the trees. Keeping his camera curled protectively against his chest, he shut his eyes and tried to breathe. If he breathed through his nose, he could smell the cop dying: blood so dark it looked black on the asphalt, bowels loosening as his body gave up on him. If he breathed through his mouth, he could taste it.
He hadn’t come to Baton Rouge to take pictures of a dead cop, not even one the papers would laud as a hero. Never mind the fact that the cop had shot first, that there might not have been any violence at all if he’d been a little less keen on pulling that trigger.
Eugene opened his eyes as a pair of boots came into view on the other side of the car’s undercarriage. Black and polished to a shine, out of place in a desperate bank robbery. Eugene straightened up by inches, balancing his camera on the roof of the car as he slicked his hair out of his face one-handed. His glasses were slipping down his nose and sweat pooled in the small of his back, his shirt limp from the humidity, as his heart rabbited behind his ribs.
Johnny Walker stood in the middle of the street like the heat didn’t bother him and bullets couldn’t touch him. Like there wasn’t a cop dying at his feet. Angelique Monnet stood by his side, her revolver pointed to the ground, a bag of stolen cash in her other hand. The gun was a Colt Peacemaker, the name as ironic as they came, long-nosed and gleaming dully in the sun. Monnet looked indifferent to the violence, her sharp eyes flickering up and down the street, cataloguing witnesses and potential threats, before settling on Walker. His tommy gun rested against his shoulder, his hat set at a smart angle to keep the sun out of his eyes, but it did nothing to hide his face.
Eugene froze, his fingers locked around the camera. Johnny Walker met Eugene’s gaze through the lens as Eugene pressed his finger to the trigger and snapped the shot. It was over in a fraction of a second, but his heart stuttered and skipped a beat at the look they shared, as if Walker knew him. He didn’t. They had never set foot in the same town together, before Baton Rouge.
Johnny Walker and Angelique Monnet had been declared public enemies months ago. Together they had mapped a trail across America, zigzagging back and forth across state lines all through the South and Midwest, leaving a wake of bodies and stolen cash behind them. They were a handsome couple, Walker in his sharp suits and Monnet in her flashy black dresses, both of them with smiles like razorblades for the cameras. They took up residence in the public consciousness like they belonged there, and Eugene, pale-faced in his ill-fitting suits, was pulled to them like a moth to the flame. They made trouble at every turn, always skipping just out of reach of the law, like stones over water. They couldn’t keep it up forever, the authorities promised, grim and mirthless. They would burn bright for a few months and then die hard, the same as all the others before them.
Eugene wasn’t so sure. There was something almost preternatural about the way their luck ran, like they had God or the devil on their side. They had a wildness about them, something beyond the guns and the way they laughed in the sweltering heat, their teeth white like animals’.
Walker broke into a slow smile, his coal-dark eyes still locked on Eugene’s, before he turned and murmured something to Monnet. As one, they broke away from the scene of the crime, piling into a dusty black car and tearing off as the mournful wail of city sirens closed in.
THE BAYOU is a 33,000-word southern gothic novella with an m/m relationship, firmly planted in the horror genre. Content warnings: on-page suicide, child sexual abuse, one scene of dubious consent, period-typical homophobia, graphic descriptions of gore and violence, gun violence, religion, blasphemy, smoking.
A queer, southern gothic horror novella set in small-town Louisiana, drenched in the atmosphere of the Deep South in the midst of the Public Enemies era. Available in ebook, paperback, and on Kindle Unlimited on January 12th, 2021. Preorder the ebook on Amazon, or add to your list on Goodreads. Content warnings are listed at the bottom of this post.
“Eugene didn’t know if he believed in the devil beyond the wicked things people did of their own accord, but if the devil had a face, it would look like Johnny Walker’s.”
Small-town Louisiana, 1935.
When Eugene was twelve, a girl from town disappeared. Everyone said the gators must have got her when she strayed too near the bayou. No foul play, just a terrible accident. But Eugene can’t shake the conviction that Mary Beth’s death had something to do with the man who used to haunt her—the man no one else could see.
Now, nearly two decades later, there are more dangerous things than gators in Chanlarivyè. People are disappearing again, and this time, no one can find the bodies. As the town’s unease grows, charismatic fugitive Johnny Walker arrives on the scene, shedding bullet casings and stolen bank notes in his wake. He tangles himself up in Eugene’s life and awakens memories Eugene thought he had laid to rest years ago. Memories of the mysterious man who followed Eugene into his dreams, and memories of the bayou—and of the horrifying entity that lurks beneath the water’s surface, slowly seeping into the town like a stain.
THE BAYOU is a 33,000-word southern gothic novella with an m/m relationship, firmly planted in the horror genre. Content warnings: on-page suicide, child sexual abuse, one scene of dubious consent, period-typical homophobia, graphic descriptions of gore and violence, gun violence, religion, blasphemy, smoking.
Loxley woke cold and stiff. He was not in his bed but on the ground outside, his clothes crisp with frost, and with moss tousled in his hair. His fingers ached, and he unfurled them slowly as he rose to his hands and knees. Hurting all over, his back protested with every movement, and his neck was sore, his coat collar chafing the skin. As if filled with fog, his mind was curiously blank, and his thoughts were slow to return to him.
Something was wrong.
The purple heather was flattened where he had lain; the sky above stretched pale and grey in all directions. It was just past dawn, the November air chill and damp. But more troubling than his location in the heathered moors was the ring of mushrooms that encircled him where he knelt.
An instinctive fear flared in him at the sight, and his breath stuttered as he froze in his attempt to rise. The mushrooms grew on thick, cream-coloured stalks, their caps broad and brown and speckled with pale teardrop markings. Though they did not form an intimidating physical border, growing only a few inches tall, he did not dare break their circle.
Lowering himself back down, he examined one in closer detail. Wild mushrooms were nothing uncommon, and he had even spotted rings before—they were said to spring up around sources of rot, all superstition aside—but he had never been so foolish as to step into one. They were rarely seen in England; indeed, almost unheard of in his day and age, and it was generally accepted that such old magic had long since returned to its deep slumber beneath the earth.
“I wouldn’t touch that, if I were you.”
Loxley flinched, twisting around to face the speaker.
A man sat some yards away under a tree beyond the circle’s border, a gnarl of roots his throne, with one long leg crossed over the other, a pipe in hand. The tree’s leaves were fiery copper, and its canopy was resplendent with a host of bright red apple-like berries, which lay scattered across the ground at the man’s feet. It was a hawthorn tree, a sight that tugged at Loxley’s foggy memory, and the only one to be seen from one horizon to the other. A faerie tree, he’d heard them called, when they stood alone in a field without another living thing for company. A sign of something old and powerful, best avoided.
The man sitting amongst its roots regarded Loxley with a calm, almost indifferent air, as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
“Well, of course I wasn’t going to touch it,” Loxley said. Whether he believed the old stories or not, he had woken far from home, and the haze in his mind troubled him. Something strange was afoot, and he had no desire to learn firsthand what happened to a soul who broke a faerie ring. “I don’t suppose you know how I got here?”
“No, but I can guess.” The man took a drag from his pipe; the smoke smelled sweet and spicy.
“Do you know how I might get out again?” Loxley kept his voice purposefully light, to avoid giving strength to his fear. But he could not keep the tremor from his words when he added, “Only, I don’t particularly care to be cursed or have my soul stolen away, if I can at all avoid it.”
“No,” said the man shortly, “you do not.”
He tapped the ash from his pipe onto the roots beside him before rising to his feet and approaching the ring. Loxley rose to meet him. Despite the circumstance of their meeting, Loxley was quite certain that the stranger was not, himself, one of the Fair Folk. Though the scent of spiced incense clung to his clothes like magic, his face was too rugged to be anything but human, and his clothes too travel-worn to have any hint of glamour about them. He was of Loxley’s height, though broader across the shoulders, and seemed broader still by the cut of his coat. He had brown skin and long, dark hair barely held in check by a tie at the nape of his neck, which made him look to be one of the Romanichal people, though he lacked the bright colours of their dress. Coming to a halt before Loxley and taking care not to step within the circle, he looked Loxley up and down. His eyes were dark as coal, and from Loxley’s closer vantage point, now seemed more curious than indifferent.
“You’re not from here,” he observed.
His accent was thickly northern, his vowels flat and his tone lazily impersonal. He looked Loxley over with a clearly judgemental eye, though whatever opinion he formed, he kept it to himself. His brusqueness seemed born from a lack of regular conversation rather than a dislike of it, and Loxley could forgive a man for that more easily than he could forgive intentional rudeness.
“I was born here,” Loxley corrected, faintly, “though I’ve spent my adult years in London, it’s true. I came north because—” There was an uncomfortable gap in his memory where reason ought to have sat. “Where am I, exactly? These are the moors—”
“You’re in Yorkshire, and it pays to take more care here.”
A shiver ran through Loxley’s frame, as if a cool breeze had found its way under his coat to run its fingers down his spine. “Are you talking about magic?” he asked in hushed tones. “But no one has seen one of the Fair Folk in centuries!”
“Not outside of Scotland or Ireland, it’s true. Certainly not in London. But man-made borders hold no meaning for the Folk. I’ve been alive these past four decades and more, yet you’ve never seen me before today. Did I not exist, either?”
“That’s different. I have seen other men, after all. Where are the Fair Folk, if they have been present in England all this time?”
The man shrugged. “I did not say faeries themselves were common, only that their magic has never left the land. I’m no scholar; I can only tell you what I’ve seen. And I’ve seen magic. It lingers in the tree roots and the season’s first frost. It’s deep in the earth—though not so far out of reach as you might think.” He bared his teeth in a smile. “This is the north. The land is still half wild up here. It remembers how things used to be.”
“You speak of the north as if it were a separate country,” Loxley whispered. “We are still in England, are we not?”
“We are. And you’re right. No one just wanders into a faerie ring, Londoner or not. You’ve been played foul, and foulness is clinging to you still.”
Loxley’s throat was dry, his head throbbing; he must have spent all night on the moors, his head filled with that fog to keep him from waking. But how on earth had he got out there in the first place? It was as if he’d been snatched from his bed: he was still dressed in his nightclothes, under his coat, and his feet were bare in their boots. He swallowed down his fear. There would be time to dwell on such questions later, once he was clear of the danger he had so unwittingly stumbled into. “What foulness?”
“Step out between these two here,” the man said, ignoring his query to point to two particular mushrooms at Loxley’s feet. They didn’t look any different from the others, and Loxley hesitated, torn between the intrinsic fear of breaking the ring and the threat of foul play upon his person. The man rolled his eyes. “Sooner than later, if you please.”
England, 1810. The north is governed by a single rule. Faerie will take as it pleases.
William Loxley is cursed. A pale and monstrous creature haunts his dreams, luring him from London to the desolate, grey landscape of his forgotten childhood. There, it will use him to open a door to Faerie—a fate that will trap Loxley in that glittering, heathen otherworld forever.
His only hope of escaping the creature’s grasp lies with John Thorncress, a dark and windswept stranger met on the moors. The longer Loxley stays in Thorncress’ company, the harder it becomes to fight his attraction to the man. Such attraction can only end in heartbreak—or the noose.
But Thorncress has his own bleak ties to Faerie. They come creeping in with the frost, their howls carrying on the winter wind. If Thorncress’ past catches up with him before they can break the curse, then Loxley will not only lose his soul.
He’ll lose Thorncress, too.
THE FAERIE HOUNDS OF YORK is a 49,000-word historical fantasy with an m/m relationship. Content warnings: self-harm and suicide ideation, period-typical homophobia and racism.
When Kris Golding leaves his dusty Kansas hometown for a fresh start in New York, he thinks an apartment and a job are waiting for him. But when he finds neither, rather than admit defeat, he takes his chances busking—and meets Rayne Bakshi of international rock band The Chokecherries. Rayne needs a new guitarist, and gives Kris his first break since leaving home.
Rayne wears makeup and glitter and thinks nothing of kissing Kris in front of twenty thousand screaming fans for the attention. Instantly infatuated, Kris begins to question whether he might have a crush on Rayne—could he be bisexual? But since Kris originally claimed to be straight, Rayne’s wary of getting involved offstage.
As their tour gains momentum, Kris’s sexuality becomes the least of his troubles. Between his conservative brother hell-bent on “rescuing” him from his life of debauchery, a peacock that may or may not be the avatar of a cult god, and a publicity stunt that threatens to upend the band, Kris is definitely not in Kansas anymore.