THE BACHELOR’S VALET IS OUT NOW!

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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.”

“No, ma’am.”

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.”

Alphonse sniffed.

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.”

“Very good.”

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.”

“Perhaps, sir.”

“You don’t think it likely, do you.”

“Not very, sir, no.”

_____________________________________________________________

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