Happy Midsummer Night!

In honor of the shortest night of the year, a little snippet from my story “Midwinter” from Eat the Peach. And oh yeah, it’s pretty racy stuff, so consider yourself warned.

from “Midwinter”

In the cold, dark night before the shortest day, the priestess Alena dreamed of summer. She was a maiden again, one of many who might be chosen as the vessel of the Goddess, and she was waiting. All of the maidens were waiting at the center of the circle, hands clasped, as the unholy villagers gathered around them to echo their sacred songs. Any of the holy maidens could be chosen by the Summer King, but Alena knew inside her dream, as she had known that night, that she would be the one.

She heard screaming from the forest at the foot of the hill, the shouts of the Summer King and his huntsmen drawing closer. The maiden beside her squeezed her hand, trembling like a leaf in a high wind. All of them were trembling, voices quavering. But Alena wasn’t afraid.

The king burst from the trees, head lowered—the chosen of the Goddess. His name was Wil, and she had known he’d be the one to take down the stag. The Goddess had whispered the secret in her ear the first moment Alena had seen him. The great antlers were fastened on his head, and the blood of the stag was streaked through his hair and down his naked arms and chest. The other maidens quickly looked away from him, eyes fixed on the ground, voices rising higher as the villagers hailed the new king and his huntsmen. Alena didn’t look down, and she stopped singing. She looked the consort of the Goddess in the eye, thinking, I choose you. The king started toward her, and she broke from the circle and ran.

She made him chase her back into the trees, away from the ritual, so far she couldn’t hear the others any more, only his breathing behind her and the pounding of her own heart. She ran as fast and as far as she could, making him prove himself worthy of the Goddess. If he hadn’t caught her, she would have run all night or dropped dead a virgin in the wood.

But he had caught her. His hand came down on her shoulder, knocking her off balance, and as she fell, he caught her, carrying her to the ground. She pushed against his shoulders, but she didn’t fight. He had won her; she would yield. When his mouth came down on hers, she kissed him gladly, twining her arms around his neck. His eyes were warm and soft, but his cock curved hard against her stomach, and she tasted the blood of the stag on his mouth. She called out the name of the Goddess as he drove inside her, and there was no pain, only waves and waves of pleasure as he filled her up.


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I don’t even know what to title this …

I wrote this story way back in 2012 the day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. I was a different writer then and a different person–younger, more hopeful, less angry, more easily bruised. Writing it gave me comfort, and I hope reading it can still comfort someone else. But every time this happens, I become less sure that comfort is what we need.


The Teacher

The gunshots were loud, close, coming closer.  Later some of her friends who lived would be saying it had all happened so fast.  But she knew she wouldn’t be with them.

The lights were out, and the door was ajar, so from the hallway the classroom would look empty.  The children were huddled in a ring around her at the back of the room on the Story Carpet.  “Quiet,” she had whispered to them, forcing herself to sound calm, to even smile a little.  “We have to be perfectly quiet.”  They were trying so hard to obey, holding hands with one another, two of them holding her hands.

Please God, she prayed inside her head.  My babies . . . please, God, please please please please please please please . . . .

She felt hands folded over her hands.  She opened her eyes and found him crouched on the Story Carpet with them, an angel.  He was beautiful, and he was smiling, but his eyes were sad.  His wings, translucent in the dim light from the windows, spread and curved around their circle, holding the children as his hands held hers.

I was sent to be with you.  She heard his voice inside her head, and in an instant, she felt calmer.  You don’t have to talk; I can hear you.

She was still terrified.  More gunshots rang out, coming from next door.  Can you save them? she asked inside her head though she already knew the answer.  Can you take them away from here?  A tear slid down the angel’s cheek, confirming what she knew.  She thought for a moment about her husband and her family and her best friend and all the ones she loved so much, and for that moment, she thought she would shatter.  But the angel held her hands and looked into her eyes, and after that one moment, she could stand it.

Can the children see you? she asked.

They can feel me, he answered.  She knew it was true.  She could feel some of the tension going out of them, some of their fear melting away.  The ones holding her hands inside the angel’s hands looked almost dreamy, sleepy-eyed and smiling.  But they don’t need to see me, the angel said.  They see you.

A moment later, the door slammed open–screaming, a terrible  noise.  She had just enough time to stand and turn, arms outspread, to think, no, you can’t have them, you bastard!  And all the time the angel was behind her, hands on her shoulders, holding her tight.  A single, terrible moment of pain ripping through her, screams of the children . . . .

Then she was walking in an open field, green and lush, gentle sunshine all around, a playground from a fairy tale.  The children were running around her like running out to recess, laughing, shouting, perfect in their joy.  She looked to one side and saw the teacher from next door.  She was holding hands with one of her students, a boy who had been in a wheelchair, barely able to speak.  Now he was walking beside her, tall and strong.  And everyone was smiling.

The angel was walking beside her.  “What will happen to them now?” she asked him right out loud, all thought of fear forgotten.

“They’ll decide.”  Peple were coming toward them, calling out greetings.  The children knew them; they were running toward them, arms outstretched, being scooped up and hugged close.  “Some of them might stay here, but most of them will probably choose to go back and start over.  They were all so young.”

“Miss, look!”  A little boy from her class had stopped and was dancing in front of her, pointing.  “It’s my pawpaw!”  An old man dressed in camoflage with a bright orange hat on his head was coming toward them.  Suddenly the little boy was dressed just the same, and he ran to his grandfather’s arms.

“What about you, Teacher?” the angel asked.  A woman had appeared on the crest of the hill just ahead of her, and her heart skipped a beat with joy.  “Will you go back?”

“I don’t know.”  She had an idea that beyond these hills, this place was even more beautiful, not a place of clouds and golden harps but of peace and laughter and love.  But the place she’d left behind had been beautiful, too, with so much love her heart ached remembering it.

She turrned to the angel.  “If I go back, will I remember this?”

“No,” he said, smiling.  All of the sadness was gone from his eyes.  Here, he had no wings she could see.  He looked just like everybody else.  “You’ll start fresh, a whole new life.”  He took her hand.  “But I will remember you.”

the end

The Princess and the Peonies – sneak peek!

So you know how Stella has been engaged to George Barrington since the end of Guinevere’s Revenge? Well, in Stella 4, The Princess and the Peonies, they finally cross the finish line. In more ways than one.

But don’t let me spoil it for you. How about a sneak peek at Chapter 1?

_____________________________________________________

Stella had always thought Barrington Hall looked like a fairy tale castle with its towering spires and lush green gardens. The first time she visited for her mother’s wedding to Lord Henry Barrington two years ago, she found it cold and unwelcoming, a museum full of snobs. But now, coming back to the English manor from Hollywood for her own wedding to Henry’s nephew and heir, George, she knew she was coming home.

She and George were back exactly one week before the wedding. “Ridiculous. I ought to spank both of you,” Stella’s mother said as they took off their coats and hats and handed them over to Hennessey, the butler. “I can’t believe you’ve taken so long to get here.”

“Hello, Aunt Grace,” George said. He shook Lord Barrington’s hand. “Hello, uncle.”

“My boy,” Henry said. “So good to have you home.”

“Honestly, I don’t see how on earth we can manage,” Mom went on. “You must think I’m some sort of magician. Do you realize your Granny Hart is due to arrive here tomorrow?”

“And you and Hennessey have everything well in hand,” Henry said, patting her shoulder.

Stella couldn’t speak. For more than a month, through the most horrible, disheartening, frantic weeks of her life so far, she had clung to George and dreamed of the moment when they’d finally make it home. Finishing her latest picture had been an absolute horror show with a nasty real-life murder smack dab in the middle of it. Now that the murder was solved and the movie was finished and they were finally here, all she could do was cry. “Oh Mom,” she finally choked out. “I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, my darling.” Mom gathered her up in a hug. “My poor sweet girl.” George put a hand on her back as she had a little weep against her mother’s shoulder. “It will all be fine now,” Mom said, stroking her hair. “It will be beautiful.”

“You must both be exhausted,” Henry said. “But no murders on the boat this time, I trust?”

“None that we knew about,” George said. Stella let go of Mom and hugged him, and he squeezed her tight. “We left strict instructions with the steward that unless the victim was Sophie, Sid, or a member of the Royal Family, we didn’t want to be disturbed.” He kissed Stella’s cheek. “All right, then, sausage?”

“Yes, thanks.” She let him go and laughed, pulling herself together. “I can’t imagine why I’m so soppy.”

“Brides are meant to be,” Henry said. “You were, weren’t you dearest?”

“All three times,” Mom said. “But come on, this is England, isn’t it? We should have some tea.”

“Actually, I was thinking of having a nap,” Stella said.

“Think again, puss,” Mom said. “You have much too much to do. Did you have lunch on the train?”

“We barely had breakfast,” Stella said.

“George, darling, you must be starving,” Mom said. “Hennessey, send down to the kitchen for some sandwiches with the tea.”

“Can’t I have a sandwich too?” Stella said.

“If you can eat while you help me plan a seating chart for the reception,” Mom said. “Come into the drawing room so we can get started.”

***

The seating chart was only the beginning. Mom spent the next hour pummeling Stella with what felt like a million details—food, flowers, clothes, guests, the whole pageant of an English society wedding. Henry slipped the leash and fled after the first cup of tea was drunk, but George, heaven bless him, stuck it out at Stella’s side.

“George, your Mr. Knox is apparently out of the country until Monday, but he has promised to be here then,” Mom said. “Though why a boys school math teacher needs to spend so much time abroad is beyond me.”

“It’s a mystery,” Stella said, exchanging a smile with George. The best man was actually a spy for His Majesty’s government, but Mom didn’t need to know that. “But why do we need him so early?”

“Early?” Mom said. “The rest of the wedding party will be here by tomorrow.”

“Rest of what wedding party?” Stella said. “You mean Oliver and Jeremy?” George’s Cousin Clara’s two boys were very much favorites of the happy couple. Jeremy, the youngest at age six, would be the ring bearer, and Oliver, who was nine, would be a very short but very handsome usher. “I thought they were coming with their parents today.”

“They are—their train is due in half an hour,” Mom said. “Clara has promised to help, bless her, and Michael is finally home from the Amazon. So he’ll be here to help wrangle the boys if nothing else, But no, puss, I meant your bridesmaids and Brooks.”

“My bridesmaids?” Stella said.

“Who is Brooks?” George said.

“Stella’s cousin, my brother’s son,” Mom said. “He and Stella were very close when they were children.”

“We spent one summer together when we were five years old, and I’ve seen him less than half a dozen times since,” Stella said. “Mater, where have you acquired bridesmaids? Central casting?” As a silent film actress who was either working or traveling all the time, Stella didn’t have many girlfriends. And she doubted the ones she did have would meet Mom’s criteria for bridesmaids. Her best female friend in all the world was her lady’s maid, Sophie, who had already politely declined the position as a duty she didn’t need.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mom said, fussing with her pearls—a sure sign she was about to spring a trap. “Your cousin Veronica is coming with your Granny Hart.”

“I suppose that’s only to be expected,” Stella said. She hadn’t seen much of her late father’s family from Newport, Rhode Island, since she was seven. But she did remember her Aunt Julia who lived in Kentucky having a daughter, Veronica, who was about Stella’s age. “George, we should fix her up with Knox.”

“And Henry thought it would be nice if you asked Jack Pitts’s daughter, Caroline,” Mom said, obviously trying to sound innocent and just as obviously failing. “So you did—or rather, I did on your behalf.”

“Oh Mom, do you really think that’s a good idea?” Caroline Pitts’s brother, Monty, had been murdered on an ocean liner, and Stella and George had solved the case. But the killer had been a man named Charles Ferguson who had been one of George’s best friends and Caroline’s former fiancé. He had been hanged a couple of months before while Stella and George were in Hollywood.

“That does seem potentially awkward,” George agreed.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Mom said. “Jack is Henry’s oldest friend, and he’s concerned that Caroline isn’t getting out enough these days. And as it turned out, she was actually quite pleased to do it. In fact…” She trailed off, glancing over at George.

“In fact what?” Stella said.

“She asked if she could bring along a friend,” Mom said. “And I thought why not? The more the merrier. Three bridesmaids will look perfect.”

“And what is this merry friend’s name?” Stella said.

“I’ve never actually met her, but I’m sure she’s charming,” Mom said, getting up. “Hennessey, what time is it?”

“The name, Mom?” Stella said.

“Nearly three, my lady,” the butler said. “Shall I send the car to the station?”

“Yes, please,” Mom said. “Better send the big car. Heaven only knows how much luggage they’ll have brought with them. Henry told Michael to bring his things from the expedition.”

“Mom?” Stella said.

“Alisande St. John-Smythe,” Mom said. George sputtered over his teacup. “Her name is Alisande St. John-Smythe, and she’s meant to be lovely.”

George looked stricken. “Aunt Grace, why?”

“I am so sorry, darling,” she said. “I didn’t realize until it was too late to say no.”

“Didn’t realize what?’ Stella said. “What’s wrong with this girl besides her ridiculous name?”

“Nothing,” George said. He caught her hand and hauled her to her feet. “Come on, Mugsy. Let’s hit the station and round up the rest of the gang.”

“But wait,” she said.

He kissed her. “I’ll explain later,” he said with his crooked smile. “Honestly, it will be fine.”

10 Great Romances from 31 Days of Oscar

All I want to do these days is stay home and watch Turner Classic Movies – it’s 31 Days of Oscar month! As you could probably guess even if I didn’t talk about it all the time, I am an absolute sucker for old movies. And looking over this year’s schedule, I’m realizing just how much influence and inspiration I’ve taken from them in writing my own versions of romance.

The whole month is stuffed with great films (and not so great films that were overrated in their day), but I can draw a straight line from any of these to my own ideas about relationships and the stories I’ve written about them. (All aired or will air on TCM at some point in March 2022; some are streaming on HBOMax.)

Cabaret (1972): I saw this the first time on pay cable in the middle of the night when I was about 12 years old, and if you hold a gun to my head and ask me to name my absolute favorite movie of all time, I might very well say this one. It is a classic example of a big ideas, big concept epic that is held together and made real by the love story at its center, scary and swooney and sad. It was the first romantic story I ever really engaged that wasn’t about two cis straight people; it introduced me to ideas like the potential beauty of decadence in squalor and art as the whole universe and sex as both a game and an expression of the soul. And Liza Minelli literally sings her heart out. I recently introduced my teen-age niece (a goth theater kid after my own heart in every way) to it, and she fell completely in love just like I did. Streaming on HBOMax

Dr. Zhivago (1965): My grandmother, who I adored, absolutely adored this movie, and the first time it came on network TV, we all gathered at her house to watch it. And Omar Sharif and Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin were all impossibly beautiful and tragic and yearning, and I got completely caught up in the story. But later, thinking about it, I realized that as a love interest Yuri Zhivago was not, to use the time-honored Southern expression, worth the dynamite it would take to blow him up. Weak and indecisive, he half-heartedly tries to do the right thing with no conviction and ends up making everything worse for everybody every single time. He was my first, “he’s pretty but damn” romantic hero, and I make a concentrated effort to never write a guy like him myself. Streaming on HBOMax

The Philadelphia Story (1940): One of the greatest screwball comedies of all time and a major inspiration for my own Stella Hart stories. I adore almost every little thing about this movie about a prideful but hilarious society beauty and the poor saps who just can’t help falling in love with her. Katherine Hepburn’s persona is on perfect display here and used to its best possible effect, and neither Cary Grant nor Jimmy Stewart was ever sexier. I watch it every single time it comes on and always will. Streaming on HBOMax

Sense and Sensibility (1995): If you’re only going to allow one Jane Austen movie adaptation into your life, skip the many excellent versions of Pride and Prejudice and pick this one. Alan Rickman gets to break out his perfect yearning lover face in a role where he actually survives the story AND washes his hair; Hugh Grant is the best version of his floppy-haired English heartthrob self, and Kate Winslet and Greg Wise both look good enough to eat. And when Emma Thompson as Eleanor breaks down in happy sobs at the end, she is every smart, sensible woman who ever finally got exactly what her foolish heart has always wanted, and she is glorious. Showing March 13 at 8:00 p.m.; streaming on HBOMax

Wuthering Heights (1939): This is not my favorite movie adaptation of the gothic classic; that would be the version from 1992 with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche. That one hews much closer to the original story, and Fiennes and Binoche play Heathcliff and Cathy much more as written than Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon do in this film. But this is the one that turns a very twisted and complicated psychological novel into a swoon-worthy tragic romance. It omits the entire second volume of Bronte’s original, so the audience never sees just what a sadistic, controlling piece of crap Heathcliff actually becomes. And in Oberon’s portrayal, Cathy becomes less his match in cruelty and more the innocently careless seductress so popular in romances of the day (think Scarlett O’Hara or Bette Davis’s character in Jezebel–the Depression Era version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl). But Olivier never looked more beautiful or acted more romantic on screen. When he plunges out into the storm in pursuit of the ghost of his beloved, my heart breaks every time. Showing March 14 at 2:30 p.m.

Camelot (1967): Beautiful Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere can’t sing a lick, and Guinevere as a character is kind of a twerp. Handsome Franco Nero’s Lancelot struck me as bombastic and over the top and anything but romantically appealing even the first time I saw this when I was about nine. But Richard Harris as Arthur is pure delight–that Guinevere breaks his heart to be with Lancelot just proves what a nincompoop she is. And this movie was my gateway drug not just to the Matter of Britain but all medieval fantasy, aka the absolute best thing ever. If I hadn’t sat up half the night watching this on TV in my grandmother’s living room with my Aunt Kathy all those years ago, I might have missed out on Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings, and about half of my own fiction catalog. Showing March 18 at 1:30 a.m.; streaming on HBOMax

A Fish Called Wanda (1988): This not-quite-a-Monty-Python comedy makes me laugh until tears run down my face every time I see it. I would love it even if it had no romantic subplot to speak of. But the love connection between Jamie Lee Curtis’s sexy jewel thief Wanda and John Cleese’s repressed barrister Archie Leach is one of my all time favorites in any movie ever. Like every femme fatale since Barbara Stanwyck came down the stairs in a towel and an anklet, Wanda goes after Archie boobs hiked and guns blazing in the beginning to take something he has. Her pretending to be smitten with him starts out as one of the jokes. Why would a girl like Wanda ever go for a guy like Archie? (His name is a clue, though–Archie Leach was Cary Grant’s real name.) But of course the great twist is, she falls for him for real. She chooses him over the prettier but abysmally stupid Otto (played by a very pretty Kevin Kline) not just because Archie really can speak Italian and Russian but because he’s smart and kind and sees her even when she’s faking. Repressed or not, he tells her with absolute sincerity and no hesitation that she is “the sexiest girl [he has] ever seen.” Who could resist that? Showing March 20 at 3:00 a.m.

The Gay Divorcee (1934): Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and another major inspiration for Stella Hart. It’s all snappy dialogue and impossible settings and frothy costumes on Ginger Rogers that swirl like seafoam when she dances and a plot that even if you manage to follow it makes almost no sense whatsoever. It’s a sanitized version of a much more sophisticated musical play, The Gay Divorce, with songs by Cole Porter. Astaire and Rogers would play a much more coherent version of a slightly naughty mistaken identity plot the next year in Top Hat, also a favorite. But this is the one with that heavenly dance number set to Porter’s “Night and Day.” Showing March 22 at 12:15 a.m.

Casablanca (1942): If you don’t know why this one made the list, I can’t help you. And if you’ve never actually seen it before, I’m jealous. Play it, Sam. Showing March 26 at 11:00 a.m.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988): Far and away the most heartbreaking story on this list. And this list has Cabaret, Wuthering Heights AND Dr. Zhivago. Michelle Pfeiffer, John Malkovich, and Uma Thurman are all insanely good, and Keanu Reeves is very, very beautiful to look at. The story is sexy and chilling and impossibly sad, and Malkovich makes a perfect dark romantic anti-hero. (Yes, John Malkovich! I know, right?) The cruellest kiss off ever uttered is apparently, “It is beyond my control.” And yeah, Cruel Intentions is based on the same book–if you like that, please watch this. And bring a tissue. Showing March 27 at 2:00 a.m., streaming on HBOMax.

Brown Butter Ginger Snaps

‘Tis the season for sharing time-honored family recipes, and I have a bunch of those–my grandmother’s fruitcake, my mom’s snowball cookies, the obligatory Southern woman’s cheese straws. But this year I’ve decided I’m not going to bake as much. I’ve got so much else to do, and frankly, y’all, I’m tired. So I tried to think of the one thing I make that neither of my sisters can make just as well or better, the Christmas treat that is so much me and so good I can’t do without it. And I came up with this. It isn’t a family recipe; my mama never made a ginger snap in her life. It’s adapted from a recipe I found on another baker’s blog less than five years ago. But it has become the cookie everybody asks for, and it’s the one I want to eat.

So I hope y’all will make a batch of your own and have an amazing holiday!

Brown Butter Ginger Snaps

Ingredients:

2 2/3 cups AP flour

2 1/3 teaspoons ground ginger (I’ve never used fresh or candied ginger in these, so I don’t know if it would work)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ sticks (3/4 cup) of butter, browned and brought back to room temp

1 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup brown sugar, packed

2 large eggs, room temp

¼ cup molasses (mild not blackstrap)

½ teaspoon orange zest

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Coarse decorating sugar

Several hours before baking:

Melt the butter in a small pan over medium-low heat, stirring frequently and cooking until it turns light brown and smells slightly nutty. Watch it; this takes forever, but when it starts happening, it happens FAST. Transfer to a small bowl and bring it back to room temp in the fridge.

About 90 minutes before baking:

Whisk together flour, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, baking soda, and salt, set aside.

Add butter and sugars to body of a stand mixer with paddle attachment, beat on medium until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. (I have done this with a hand mixer, and it was fine, but a stand mixer makes life much easier.) Beat in eggs one at a time, incorporating well and scraping sides as needed. Add molasses, orange zest and vanilla, beat until combined. Slowly add flour mixture in increments, beating just until combined. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for an hour. (Or overnight – I’ve left this as long as two days, and it was fine.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Roll dough into 1” balls, roll the balls in coarse sugar, space them on the baking sheets about 2 inches apart. Smush them with the flat bottom of a whiskey glass. Sprinkle on more sugar if you think it needs it. Bake 9-10 minutes until puffed and lightly golden. Cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes, then cool completely on wire rack. Makes about four dozen. Fair warning: these cookies are more chewy than ‘snappy,’ which I like. But if you want a more biscuit-like texture, add another 2/3 cup of flour. I have even used the stiffer dough to make gingerbread cutouts.

A sneak peek at The Devil Makes Three

The action of my new Southern gothic horror novel, The Devil Makes Three, kicks off on Indigenous People’s Day. And the book officially releases this week, October 14. So I thought now would be a good time to show off a sample chapter. xoxo Lucy

Serena had come home to Saxon County two years before because she’d had no choice. Once upon a time, she believed she would do great things, but the world taught her better. Now she just survived.

That Tuesday, she woke up at seven a.m. in the bed her late husband had slept in as a child. She ate toast and drank a smoothie while standing at the kitchen sink. Her mother-in-law fixed bacon and eggs for her father-in-law, and he sat at the table reading the morning paper. The three of them chatted, exchanging pleasantries and discussing the news of the day, nothing she could have remembered later if she’d thought to try. She told them she was leaving for work, and Claudine, her mother-in-law, told her to have a blessed day. She said she’d try and told them to do the same.

“You be careful, sugar,” her father-in-law, Henry, known as Rooster, called as she walked out the door.

As she got into her car, her eyes happened to fall on her keychain. It was a thick, clear plastic rectangle encasing a stylized portrait of an African goddess. Her late husband bought it for her at a gift shop in New Orleans on a long weekend away. “She looks like you,” he had said, and she had laughed.

The name of the goddess, Oshun, was printed in gold script across the portrait, a beautiful woman with an elaborate braided hairstyle who held a little round fan poised against her chin. Serena had looked up the name on the internet and read a few website articles about the Orisha, but she wasn’t really interested. She’d been raised Baptist and wasn’t in the market for any new gods. She was a historian, not a mythologist. She kept the keychain because it was a gift from Trey, and usually she didn’t notice it at all, any more than she noticed she had five fingers on each hand.

But that morning, she saw it. She stared at it, her mind wandering for several seconds. Mama, she thought, a word that rarely passed through her mind. Mama had one like this. Then she broke the trance and put the key in the ignition.

She pulled her car into the parking lot of the Briarwood Community Center half a minute behind Miz Rae, the branch librarian, just as God and Miz Rae intended she should. She helped her boss unload a monster-sized pumpkin from the trunk of her ancient Cadillac. They put it on the porch next to the library door. “Get that old scarecrow out of the storeroom,” Miz Rae said when they went inside. “And did you get those leaves?”

“Yes, ma’am, I did.” She put her mid-morning snack in the refrigerator and turned on her computer. She checked the book drop—a James Patterson hardback and three cowboy movie videos. Kirk Benson had been by.

She spent the rest of the morning decorating while Miz Rae sat at the front desk. She dusted off the scarecrow and stapled down a hank of his yarn hair that had gotten yanked loose the year before and fluffed his floppy felt hat to cover the spot. She put him on the porch beside the pumpkin. While she was out on the porch, she chatted about the weather and the relative dangers of trick-or-treating with a homeschool mom while Miz Rae dealt with the woman’s wild-ass children inside. She pasted colored paper leaves on the glass doors leading from the community center proper to the library, making swirls across the glass.

At noon, Miz Rae’s best friend, Miz Regina, turned up with lunch for the three of them—white Styrofoam plates from the Columbus Day hot dog and bake sale at the Briarwood Baptist Church with Styrofoam cups of sweet tea. Serena put up the “Be Back at 1:00” sign, locked the library doors, and joined the older ladies in the back office.

They ate at the work table in the back, and Miz Rae made Serena and Miz Regina laugh until they cried, talking about the people at the church. “You bad, Rae,” Miz Regina said, wiping her eyes with her paper napkin. “You know you so bad.”

“I’m just telling the truth,” Miz Rae said without cracking a smile, but Serena saw the twinkle in her eye.

At 12:45, Serena had just traded her little bag of barbecue potato chips for Miz Regina’s slice of lemon poundcake when the back door from the parking lot suddenly opened.

Tom Stewart, the director of the Saxon County Library, had let himself in with his key. “Afternoon, ladies,” he said. “Don’t let me disturb your lunch.”

“You can’t disturb us,” Miz Regina said. But of course, he could. He was a man, and he was White, and technically he was the boss. His arrival changed everything. Miz Rae grunted in a way he was welcome to interpret as pleasant.

Tom was nice enough; they all liked him fine. But he was the boss, even though Miz Rae had worked for the library for forty years. She had worked at the main branch in town when Tom and Serena had each gotten their first library cards. When the library board passed over her to give the director’s position to Tom and his graduate degree, they had opened this branch at the Briarwood Community Center and made Miz Rae branch manager as a way to smooth things over. Mostly it had worked. Tom acknowledged the branch as her special queendom, and Miz Rae didn’t make waves. But he knew, she knew, and Serena knew he would always be that White boy the board had given Miz Rae’s big job to.

“What are you doing working today, Tom?” Serena asked. “I thought county council decided to close down everything in town for the holiday.”

“Oh, we’re closed,” Tom said. “We don’t work hard like y’all do.” The Saxon County Council, all Republicans, had decided they were all aggrieved on behalf of Christopher Columbus and would make a big show of recognizing his holiday. Miz Rae thought that was foolishness. She kept the Briarwood branch open and put “Happy Indigenous People’s Day!” up on the big sign out front.

She also stayed open all day on Saturday instead of just the morning with the help of high school volunteers (Serena had Saturdays off), and she refused to allow public use computers. Tom left these issues to her best judgment, and they both slept better because of it. “Carol Ann Sweatt called me at home.”

“Oh lord,” Miz Rae said, immediately sympathetic. Carol Ann was a real estate agent and the chairwoman of the library board, a go-getter from Atlanta who thought the whole county belonged to her and her husband, the president of the bank. “What does she want now?”

“Y’all will never believe it,” Tom said. “She sold the Briarwood place.”

Both the older ladies cried out in shock. Miz Regina turned over her tea. “You can’t mean it,” she said, grabbing it up before the lid came off.

“The old Briarwood plantation?” Serena said. “I didn’t even know it was for sale.”

“It’s always been for sale,” Miz Rae said. “But didn’t nobody ever believe there’d be somebody fool enough to buy it.”

“I couldn’t believe it either, but that’s what she says,” Tom said. “Serena, you’ll never guess who she says bought it.”

“Who?” Serena said. Miz Regina wasn’t looking well, she noticed.

“Jacob McGinnas.”

This time it was Serena who gasped. “You’re kidding!”

“Who is that?” Miz Regina asked Miz Rae.

“That writer who writes all those horrible books about monsters and demons and I don’t know what all ungodly mess,” Miz Rae said. Miz Rae’s own reading tended toward Maya Angelou, Jane Austen, and Agatha Christie, with the occasional biography thrown in. “You might know it’d be some kind of fool like that.”

“Carol Ann is supposed to be meeting him over at the Briarwood house this afternoon,” Tom said. “She wanted me to come and bring him copies of everything we had on the house and the murders.”

“You need to go out there and tell him he’s crazy,” Miz Regina said. “Don’t nobody need to try to stay in that house.”

“Is it really haunted?” Serena asked. She had moved away from Saxon County when she was seven years old. Her husband had been the real native, but she knew about the murders.

“Ain’t no such thing as haunted,” Miz Rae said, fixing Tom with a baleful glare that dared him to dispute her. Tom was a semi-professional paranormal investigator. Miz Rae was a Baptist.

“I don’t think the trust that owned it has ever let it be investigated,” Tom said. “Maybe if he buys it, McGinnas will.”

“That’s probably why he’s buying it.” Serena was a huge fan of Jacob McGinnas’s books. She’d been reading him faithfully since she was a teenager. “Maybe he’ll write a book about it.” She had liked his last two non-fiction books, but she yearned for a new novel.

“Carol Ann seems to think that’s the attraction,” Tom said. “I thought I remembered there being a whole file of stuff in the local history room at the main branch, but I couldn’t find it. So then I thought since this branch is closer to the actual site, it might have gotten moved out here.”

“I’ll go look,” Serena offered, getting up.

“I don’t think we’ve got anything,” Miz Rae said, also getting up. “You’re going to have to talk to Miss Creighton about that.”

Miss Florence Creighton was the former director of the library. She had held the post from the Monday after she graduated from the Winthrop Training College in 1922 until her forced retirement due to advanced dementia four years before. She was the one who hired Miz Rae in 1960, staring down a segregationist board with her watery blue eyes and daring them to tell her she couldn’t. When she was forced to retire, the present-day board had brought back Tom, who had worked at the main branch as the local history librarian for a year and a half before he went to grad school. Miss Creighton now lived in a rest home in the mountains and was, by all reports, withered as a raisin and entirely out of her mind.

“Let’s just look,” Tom said, giving Serena a glance. “You never know.”

***

But Miz Rae was pretty much right. All they found in the tiny walk-in utility closet that functioned as the archives for the branch was a single thin folder in the vertical file with a photocopy of a newspaper article Tom himself had written ten years ago when he’d been the local history librarian.

“This is good,” Serena said, reading through the first few paragraphs. “I didn’t realize you were such a good writer.”

“Yeah, well, that was back when I had time to practice.” He took the article from her. “I know there was more stuff, though. I used it to write this in the first place.”

“Maybe somebody borrowed it and forgot to bring it back.” Serena couldn’t stop herself wondering if Tom had neglected to put it back himself. He was a great guy but the classic absent-minded academic. His wife, Evie, swore they’d need a second house soon just for his books and papers. The missing file could be stuffed in a box in his attic with a bunch of comic books. “What are you going to tell Carol Ann?”

“That we’ll keep looking, I suppose.” He closed the file drawer. “Go to hell, if I could tell her what I want to tell her.”

Serena smiled. “Which you absolutely cannot.”

“Which I absolutely cannot.” He looked at his watch. “And I’ve got to go.”

“I’m sorry, Tom.” The door was open, and out in the library proper, she could see Miz Regina was still there, standing at the desk with Miz Rae. The two of them were huddled together like they were planning a heist. “Hey, can I come with you?”

He looked surprised but not unhappy. “Yeah, if you want.”

“I’ve always wanted to see that place.” Miz Rae was watching them, she realized. She pretended to be listening to her friend, but she was really watching over Miz Regina’s shoulder. “And you know what a big fan I am of Jacob McGinnas.”

“Come on and go, then,” Tom said, grinning. “I can use the help.”

It’s Peach Season, Y’all

This week’s update from The Bitter Southerner is all about peaches. (Do y’all read The Bitter Southerner? If you don’t, you should – it’s the best overview of the best things about the so-called New South I’ve seen; I like it way better than the Oxford American.) August is prime peach season, and I am very much a fan. The best boyfriend present I ever got from anybody before I met my darling Thunder was a gallon bucket of fresh peaches straight off the tree, still warm from the sunshine. And as anybody who’s ever driven past the Peachoid water tower in Gaffney can tell you, they are an inherently sensuous fruit. Legend has it that Eve gave Adam an apple; historians who speculate about that kind of thing say no, it must have been a pomegranate. Nonsense, says I – no woman would have risked getting herself and her lover kicked out of Eden for the privilege of picking out pomegranate seeds. Me, I’m pretty sure it must have been a peach.

So anyway, feeling as I do, naturally I wrote a story about peaches and sex. It’s the anchor story of my anthology Eat the Peach, and this is an excerpt. The heroine, Susannah, is a filmmaker who has just crashed and burned at a festival and come home to rest and regroup at her Grandmama Ikey’s peach farm.

***

I was at Grandma Ikey’s house for three more days before I met Dylan. Grandma Ikey couldn’t have been more amazing. She was a lot older than I had expected her to be. All my friends’ grandmothers were still holding on to that raw-boned, hair-dyed tightness thing. But Ikey was beautiful. She wore her hair in a long, white braid down her back, and her body was curvy and soft. Any old dude would have counted himself lucky to get a piece of that. And sitting beside her on the back porch shelling peas, I noticed that we had the exact same hands, and for some reason it gave me hope for the first time since I’d gotten on that bus in Colorado.

The next morning when we were making breakfast, we heard a motorcycle pull up in the backyard. “Oh good,” she said. “I want you to meet Dylan.”

She had already told me about Dylan. He owned the land right next to hers. He grew cotton and soy beans on his land, but he leased Grandma Ikey’s land to grow the peaches, and the two of them owned a farm stand and ice cream parlor out on the highway together. The way she had described him and twinkled when she talked about him, I had expected him to be about her age; I thought he must have been her boyfriend. But when we walked out on the back porch, we found a country hunkerrific of no more than thirty-five climbing off the bike.

“Morning, Ikey,” he said. “How are you?” He had messy reddish-blondish hair and a scruffy beard, and he was built to pick up trucks.

“I’m just grand, darling,” Ikey said as he came up the steps. “Just grand.” He put his arm around her and kissed her on the cheek, and she laughed like a girl. “Dylan, meet my granddaughter, Susannah.”

“Granddaughter?” He offered me his hand to shake. “I can’t believe it.” I took it, and a kind of warm, electric current ran through me that made me want to smile and hide at the same time. “You must be tall for your age.”

“Now, now, stop all that,” Ikey scolded, still smiling. “Come on inside; we were just about to have breakfast.”

“Thank you, Ikey, but I couldn’t,” he said. “I figure I’ve got just about enough time this morning to change the plugs on that old truck of yours.”

“Oh, piss on that truck,” Ikey said. “Come eat your breakfast.”

“Now Ikey—”

“I made biscuits.” Eve offering the apple couldn’t have looked slyer.

Dylan looked at me and grinned like we had a secret, and I noticed he had the bluest eyes I had ever seen. “Well, I can’t say no to that.”

I hadn’t seen Ikey make biscuits, but as soon as we walked in, she took a big pan full out of the oven, plump and cushiony and golden brown. “Get the honey out of the cabinet, Susannah,” she said. “And see if you can’t find a jar of those peach preserves in the back.”

“You told me you were out!” Dylan said.

“I might be,” she said, putting the biscuits on a pink willow plate. “Look way in the back.”

“Susannah, your grandmamma makes the best peach preserves in the world,” Dylan said, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “We get people stopping at the stand on their way back to Yankeeville from the beach every year just to buy a fresh jar. Last year she didn’t make any, and we just about had to set up a crying pew out front.”

“Stop being so silly,” Ikey said, dishing up the scrambled eggs and bacon. “You want me to slice up a couple of tomatoes?”

“Not on my account,” Dylan said.

“Susannah likes them, though, don’t you, sweetheart?” she said, patting my cheek as she passed.

“I do.” It had been so long since anyone had noticed I liked something without me saying so, I was shocked. But I had eaten a sliced, homegrown tomato from her garden every meal since I’d arrived, so I supposed it wasn’t all that shocking. Still, it was nice. “Grandma Ikey, are these the preserves?” I pulled out a sticky mason jar full of amber goo.

“Oh good,” she said, taking it. “Half a jar left.” She set it on the table in front of Dylan. “Now let me get that tomato.”

“You’ll have to persuade Ikey to teach you her recipe,” Dylan said.

“That might be arranged,” Ikey said, putting down the sliced tomatoes and leading me to the table. She took both our hands and said a brief grace.

“That sounds great,” I said. “Learning the recipe, I mean.” Dylan took four of the biscuits and broke them open on his plate, then slathered each one with preserves. “Is it really that good?”

“Taste.” He popped a piece of biscuit in my mouth.

“Oh my God,” I said, actually moaning with my mouth full, it was so good. Sweet and tangy with an edge of spice, perfect with the hot, flaky biscuit.

“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, Susannah,” Ikey said, patting my hand. “It’s only a biscuit.”

“So good,” I said. “Grandmamma, that’s amazing.”

“Aren’t you sweet?” she said, but I could see from her eyes she was pleased. “Dylan, eat some eggs and bacon before you give yourself diabetes.”

He grinned that secret grin at me again. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Maybe I will teach you that recipe,” Ikey said.

“I’d love that,” I said. “If I’m here that long. I mean, I don’t know how long I’ll be staying.”

“Are you just here for a visit?” Dylan asked.

“Sort of.” All the way there on the bus, I had tried to imagine what I’d say when people asked me what had happened. It was all so humiliating and silly, and besides, what would people like Ikey and Dylan know or care about stuff like my film career, anyway? But he had asked, so I supposed I had to try. “I’m a filmmaker.”

“Wow,” he said, looking genuinely impressed.

“Oh, you don’t want to hear about all that,” Ikey said. “Besides, I want to talk about you. Did I hear that fiancée of yours tearing out of here after midnight last night?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Dylan looked embarrassed, but I couldn’t tell if it was for me or for him. “I made her pretty mad, I think.”

For the next twenty minutes, the two of them hashed over his engagement to a woman Ikey obviously couldn’t stand—a schoolteacher from the sound of it. But I couldn’t have cared less. I couldn’t believe she had just shut me down that way. I ate the rest of my breakfast in silence, lost in my own thoughts.

“I better get started on those plugs,” Dylan finally said, pushing back from the table. “It was nice to meet you, Susannah.”

“You too.” I shook his hand and was again vaguely aware of how warm he felt. But I was still busy being mad at Ikey.

“I hope to see you again while you’re here.” He kissed my grandmother’s cheek. “I’ll leave the keys on the hook.”

Ikey stood at the back door and watched him go while I got up and cleared the table. “That is one fine specimen of human,” she said. “A woman could do a lot worse than to get herself lost with something like that.”

“He’s cute.” Botox hadn’t made it out here to the sticks yet, but the horny old lady trope apparently had.

“Baby ducks are cute.” She turned back to me. “That’s a man.” She saw what I was doing. “Oh, thank you, sweetheart.”

“You’re welcome.” I put the dishes in the sink. “It’s the least I can do after crashing on you like this.” I squirted in soap and turned on the tap.

“You came home,” she said, putting the butter in the fridge. “Everybody needs to sometimes.” She picked up the jar of peach preserves, now almost empty. “I’m glad you came.” She screwed on the lid and put it back in the cabinet. “You better put some hot in that dishwater, honey, or the germs will carry us off.”

“Oh.” I hadn’t planned to actually wash the dishes, just sort of soak them.

“I’ve been waiting on those elves that come to finish half done housework all my life,” she said. “They haven’t shown up yet.” She handed me a dishtowel. “I’ll wash. You dry.”

“I still cannot understand what Dylan sees in that girl of his,” she said, turning on the hot water and bathing both of our faces with steam. “Why waste your time chasing after somebody who won’t want you until you agree to be somebody else? But she’s got her mind on that piece of land—and that ass, unless she’s dumber than she looks.” She handed over a slippery plate. “You’ll meet her eventually, I’m sure. Then you’ll see.”

“Grandmamma, why wouldn’t you let me talk about my movie?” I could have brooded in silence for several more hours; it’s one of my best things. But I didn’t think Ikey would care. “Are you ashamed of me?”

“I’m very proud of you,” she said without missing a beat, as if this had been our topic of conversation all along. “But you aren’t ready to talk to people about that.”

I wanted to argue with her. But of course she was right.

****

Wanna know how she gets rid of the bitchy fiancee? Get your copy here.

Beach Breakfast (Sausage gravy recipe)

Last week the whole HeeHaw gang went to the beach for our annual beach trip—me, my darling Thunder, both my gorgeous sisters and their incomparably handsome husbands, my niece (aka the Most Perfect Teenager on the Planet), and my beloved bestie. And yes, it was weird being there without either of my parents. Lots of things were different this year. We stayed in a condo tower instead of the ramshackle house we stayed in every summer for decades with Mom and Dad. We rented chairs and umbrellas like rich Yankees instead of trekking out to the beach to set up a camp Mad Max would be proud of every morning. We had our groceries delivered instead of fighting the crowd at the Wal-Marts that first night. (The lady in front of us in line with a cart full of milk and hot dogs and a fist full of expired coupons back in 2018 will forever live in family legend.) We ate a lot of sandwiches and takeout instead of doing a lot of cooking. But Sunday morning, our first morning, I did my mama proud. I got out of bed at the ungodly hour of 7:30 and made Beach Breakfast.

Katie (the aforementioned MPT on the P) coined the phrase Beach Breakfast when she was six for the big spread we put on the table most mornings on vacation that we would never attempt most of the rest of the year. (Christmas Breakfast is related but not identical, relying heavily as it does on Danish and Christmas cookies.) The standard menu is scrambled eggs with cheese, grits, whomp biscuits (to steal the perfect term for canned biscuits coined by author Jill Conner Brown, the Sweet Potato Queen herself), and either bacon or sausage and sausage gravy. Sliced cantaloupe and sliced homegrown tomatoes are optional but always welcome.

I can literally cook this stuff in my sleep, as I proved again last week, and so can my sisters. But it has come to my attention that some people labor under the misapprehension that making sausage gravy is hard. (I blame the Cracker Barrel and every other “country cooking” restaurant that ever got away with charging the starved and unknowing an arm and a leg for it.) I promise you, it’s not. Here’s how I make mine.

Sausage Gravy

Ingredients:

2 lbs of sausage (I prefer regular, but if you like mild or spicy, go right on.)

¼ cup of all-purpose flour

¼ cup of butter

Enough milk to get the right consistency; 2-3 cups. Whole is probably best, but I usually end up using 2% because that’s what we drink

Salt and pepper

Directions:

Form the first pound of sausage into patties and fry them in a great big skillet, preferably non-stick. (For those of you who don’t know how to fry sausage patties, put the sausage patties in the cold skillet, put the skillet on the stove, turn the heat on to medium high and leave it until the sausage starts to sizzle. Crank the heat back to medium low and cook until it’s done all the way through, flipping often—this usually takes about 10-15 minutes.) Remove the sausage patties and put them on a plate covered with a paper towel to drain. Put a lid over them if you want them to stay hot.

Crumble the second pound of sausage into the grease from the first and brown it thoroughly. Keep an eye on your heat and knock it back if the bits stuck to the pan start to get too dark—dark brown is fine; black is not.

Melt the butter into the crumbled, browned sausage, using a whisk safe for your skillet to scrape up the stuck bits. (Is it de-glazing if you do it with butter? Hell if I know, but that’s the general concept.) Sprinkle in the flour and stir with the whisk until the sausage is all coated and the flour is slightly browned—this takes 30 seconds to a minute. If you have more grease floating around un-pasted, sprinkle in a little more flour and stir it in.

Pour in about a cup of milk and whisk until it’s a thick, smooth, bubbling sludge, then pour in another cup and keep whisking. Ina Garten advises that you heat up your milk before you put it in; I have not found this to be necessary. It takes a little longer to come up to a simmer and thicken, but just keep whisking. It’ll happen even if you poured it cold straight out of the refrigerator. Keep cooking, whisking, and adding milk in splashes until you get the consistency you want, keeping the gravy bubbling but not boiling over.

Salt and pepper to taste. I like some salt and LOTS of pepper.

And that’s it. This makes enough gravy to slather over four rolls of cheap whomp biscuits or two rolls of not-so-cheap whomp biscuits or a full batch of homemade biscuits if you’re energetic enough to make them just to slather them with gravy. My baby sister, Alexandra Christian, prefers her gravy without the sausage bits in it, so if you’re cooking for her and those like her, just fry up both pounds of sausage in patties and skip the whole browning and crumbling step.

So now you can tell Cracker Barrel to suck it.

The Hips of the Eel – Slang in the 1920s

One of the most fun things about writing Stella Hart is her dialogue. She’s a classic, F. Scott Fitzgerald-style New York flapper working in Hollywood as a silent movie actress and running around the globe solving murders with her hunky love interest, George Barrington, 13th Baronet of Kingsley-on-Pike. And she talks like a party girl of that era–if she were alive today, her TikTok would be amazing. The 1920s were a period of huge upheaval and cultural growth, and the slang reflects that. What amazed me when I started researching it was 1)how funny and snarky it was in a very contemporary way, and 2)how many of these expressions still sound modern right now. I mean, check this stuff out:

Bunny: Someone sweet but not very smart, usually female, though Stella has been known to apply it equally to men. ‘Dumb bunny’ is one step more clueless. ‘Poor dumb bunny’ is just pitiful.

Bushwa: One of Stella’s favorites, something that isn’t true, a less coarse word for bullshit. See also: Applesauce, baloney, banana oil, horsefeathers, hokum

Carry a torch: I still use this one today but apparently it originated in the 1920s. To have a crush on someone, particularly someone who doesn’t crush you back.

Crush: Also from the 1920s – a romantic infatuation

Eel’s hips, the: Something that’s awesome and amazing. See also: The cat’s meow, the bee’s knees. Stella usually takes this one a step further and says ‘the hips of the eel.’

Giggle water: alcoholic beverages. Stella’s favorite is champagne, but George prefers a good gin and tonic.

Jalopy: An old, junker car, though Stella uses it ironically to refer to George’s very expensive, state-of-the-art roadsters.

Kid/kiddo: A familiar form of address. Stella tends to call any woman she likes ‘kid.’

Nerts: A wholesome expletive to express disgust, dislike, or disbelief. Stella saying, “Nerts to that noise!” never fails to make George laugh.

Ossified: Intoxicated. See also: Spifflicated.

Screwy: Insane, bizarre, crazy. Bugs Bunny uses this one a lot, too–I think Bugs must have learned to talk in the 1920s.

Sex appeal/sexy: The 1920s is when this expression first became common, and it was still considered rather risque.

Valentino: A handsome, sexy man, obviously inspired by the movie star Rudolph Valentino. Stella applies it to George; George rolls his eyes.

There’s lots more, obviously, but these are some of ones Stella uses a lot. Check out her latest adventure, The Baronet Unleashed, on July 29.

Available July 29 – pre-order now!

Sneak peek – Chapter 1 of The Baronet Unleashed

The third Stella Hart mystery is available now for pre-order from Falstaff Crush. This is the one that takes place in Hollywood in the 1920s, and it’s an absolute scream. You’ll love it, I promise. Click the cover to … oh. You want a sample before you’re ready to commit. Fine then. Have a look at Chapter 1.

xoxo

Lucy

The Baronet Unleashed – Chapter 1

Stella was chained to the castle wall with shackles that were becoming damned uncomfortable. “Do your worst, Lord Blackguard!” she exclaimed with much tossing of her waist-length locks. “I shall never submit!”

“We shall see about that, my dear!” Blackguard snarled, bracing an arm over her head. He leered down at her, his hot breath smelling suspiciously like gin and tonic. “Is your virtue worth your father’s life?”

“You heartless fiend.” If her hands had been free, she would have slapped a delicate wrist to her forehead. As it was, she made do with flopping her head sharply to one side, trying not to dislodge her wig in the process. She closed her eyes and heaved her bosom, such as it was. “How can you be so cruel?”

“Easy,” Blackguard said, leaning too close for the camera to see his lips. “Your friend Sylvia wrote me this way.”

“Eddie, I swear to heaven,” she hissed through clenched teeth as she bit her lower lip in maidenly revulsion. He had made her laugh and ruin three takes already, the swine.

“Unhand that damsel, you cur,” a props assistant droned from off camera. Blackguard, also known as Edgar Worth, Hollywood’s most celebrated heavy, recoiled toward the camera, and Stella broke out in her most elated smile.

Lance Laramie swung in on a rope tied to a crane, a stunt he had perfected on his and Stella’s first picture together, The Ape Man Unleashed. But this time, alas, he missed his mark. Instead of landing lightly between Stella and her villainous attacker, he overshot and crashed face first into the wall.

“Darling!” Edgar cried, dropping character to run to his lover’s aid. “Oh, your poor nose!” Everyone on Maid of Avalon knew Lance and Edgar had been much more than roommates for years, though the rest of the world was in the dark.

“Now, Eddie, don’t make a fuss,” Lance honked as his hand filled up with blood.

“Cut!” the director shouted, incensed. “For God’s sake, get some ice!”

“You poor darling,” Stella said.

“Oh, I’ve had worse, I dare say,” Lance said gamely. “Not to worry…” His eyes rolled back in his head as he collapsed.

“Somebody get the nurse!” the production assistant called as the director flung down his bullhorn, followed by his hat.

“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Stella said to Edgar, who looked on the point of hysterics.

“His nose is squashed flat!” Edgar said.

“It is,” she had to admit. She would have liked to have given him a comforting pat or something, but she was still chained to the wall.

“Clear the way, please,” a medic said. The nurse led Edgar gently away as Lance was heaved onto a stretcher.

“Say, Eddie,” Stella called as they all walked away. “Do you have the key to these shackles?” But no one seemed to hear.

“That’s a wrap for today, everyone,” the assistant director called through his boss’s dented bullhorn. “See you all tonight at Mr. Scott’s party—sober, if you don’t mind; it’s for charity.” Lights were going off all over the set.

“Excuse me!” Stella shouted as people started disappearing from the stage like rats deserting a sinking ship. “Isn’t anybody going to turn me loose?” She gave her shackles a healthy tug, but the props department had outdone themselves. They didn’t budge. “Oh come on,” she cried as all the lights but a single spot went out. “This is ridiculous!”

A man’s silhouette stepped into the spotlight. “Pardon me, miss,” a familiar voice said. “Are you in distress?”

“George, thank heavens,” she said, laughing with relief. “They’ve all gone off and left me.”

“So it seems.” Her fiancé, George Barrington, thirteenth Baronet of Kingsley-on-Pike and the future Lord Barrington, came out of the light. “That’s rather a pickle you’re in, Miss Hart, if you’ll pardon my mentioning it.”

“My handsome hero,” she said. And he was, too; he looked very dashing and just a bit disreputable in a stylish leather coat. “Go quick and find out who has the key.”

“Oh, I have the key,” he said, holding it up with mischief dancing in his eyes. “But what makes you think I’m the hero?”

“Oh dear,” she said. “The villain, then?” She felt a lovely little flutter in her stomach. “Will you ravish me before you set me free?”

He leaned closer, bracing a hand on the wall the same way Edgar had. “What an intriguing suggestion.” His lips were so close to hers, they were almost kissing already. “I suppose I could.”

“I’ll scream,” she warned.

“Will you?”

“Well, maybe not scream,” she said as he nuzzled behind her ear, making her shiver. “More like sigh…and maybe the odd moan or two.” He made a bit of a moan himself as he kissed her, pressing her to the wall.

“Miss Stella!” her maid, Sophie, bellowed, her heels clicking on the concrete floor. “Are you still in here?”

“Damn the woman,” George grumbled, banging his forehead against the wall over her shoulder.

“George, darling, stop,” Stella said, laughing. “You’ll be concussed.” She kissed his cheek. “Over here, Sophie!”

“Hey, what’s this?” Sophie said, coming into the light. “Mr. Barrington, I’m surprised at you!”

“If it helps, I’m thinking of dead puppies,” Stella murmured in his ear.

“Thanks for that, sausage,” he muttered, stepping away. “Sorry to disappoint you, Sophie.” He unlocked the shackles.

“Oh, I’m not disappointed,” Sophie said. “Just surprised. You ought to leave her chained up there until she promises to stop postponing the wedding.”

“It’s not my fault!” Stella protested. “No one expected The Ape Man Unleashed to be such a smash.”

“No one who hadn’t seen you and Mr. Laramie in those rags they called costumes, anyway,” Sophie said.

“And Bertie said we really needed to strike while the iron was hot,” Stella finished.

“Bertie said,” George said. “You mean Nathan Stanley said.”

“Him, too.” Nathan Stanley was her stepfather’s partner at Pinnacle Pictures. He was also the one man on the planet she had ever seen George openly dislike. “The point is, Maid of Avalon was already in the pipeline, and Lance and I were under contract. I really had no choice.” They both looked skeptical. “Anyway, we’re almost done. We should be one more week at the most. Just as soon as we wrap, we’ll be on the train to New York and on a boat to England in plenty of time to be home at Barrington Hall for the new wedding date.”

“And our visit to your grandmother in Newport?” George said, arching an eyebrow.

“We may just have to give Granny Hart a miss,” she said.

“There’s a shocker,” Sophie said.

“Trust me, darling, it’s no great loss,” Stella said.

“Say, are you folks almost done?” one of the stage technicians called from the shadows. “I’d like to lock up sometime before midnight.”

“All right, keep your shirt on,” Sophie called back. “We’re coming.”

#

With Sophie’s help, getting out of her costume and into her jodhpurs was the work of moments. “Call ahead and tell Bertie we’re on our way,” she told Sophie as she tossed a scarf around her neck. “I’ll see you at the house.”

“No taking any long, romantic rides,” Sophie ordered. “You’ll need a full overhaul before that party tonight.”

“See you later, kid,” Stella called back over her shoulder.

George was waiting outside the stage on his shiny new red Indian motorcycle. “It’s a bit chilly, sausage,” he said, handing her a pair of goggles. “Would you like my coat?”

“No, thank you.” She slid the goggles over her curls and climbed on behind him, snuggling close. “I’ll be fine.”

And that’s it, kittens! To find out what happens next, get your copy starting July 29!