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?

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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.”

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.

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!

The Passion of Miss Cuthbert

Stella 2 Passion of Miss CuthbertI have a new book out. It’s called The Passion of Miss Cuthbert, and it’s the second in my series of romantic mysteries starring amateur detective Stella Hart. Stella is a silent movie actress in the 1920s whose stepfather owns an English manor house. Her fiancé and partner in crime-solving is George Barrington, Thirteenth Baronet of Kingsley-on-Pike. Stella is white. George is white. Stella’s mom and stepfather are white. Stella and George spend this installment on an ocean liner where the passengers we meet are all white, including the corpse, the killer, and Miss Cuthbert, the frumpy chaperone whose passion ignites the plot.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past couple of weeks, you begin to see my problem.

The book was actually released as scheduled on June 4, 2020, a/k/a Day 10 of the protests following the murder of George Floyd by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department. That morning, my publishers and I talked it over and agreed that yeah, any kind of big promo push for my book that day would be disrespectful, tone deaf, and just generally gross. We all had friends on the front lines of the protests. More importantly, we had friends and colleagues whose lives were in danger every time they left the house.

I won’t pretend it made me happy to ignore my book release. I worked really hard on that story, and I’m proud of it. Plus it’s the first book I’ve ever written specifically and completely for Falstaff Crush, the Falstaff Books romance line, and I think that’s kind of cool. And trust me, I’m as arrogant and self-involved as any writer alive, and I really, really want to sell books. But not even I could stomach doing commercials for an easy-breezy story of a white girl on a cruise ship last Thursday.

John, Melissa, and I decided to wait to do any major promo until tomorrow, June 9, and as you can see, I’m blogging about it today. Is that any better? Is it still too soon? Honestly, I don’t have a clue.

Diversity has been on my mind with these books since the beginning. My original inspirations for this kind of story were  two of the most overtly racist popular writers of the twentieth century, Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse. (If you don’t know what I’m on about, Google it. I don’t have the heart to tell you.) I knew going in I had to fix that, that my main characters were going to be sensitive to the world view of people not like them and aware of their privilege. And I think I’ve stayed true to that; I hope I have. But in these first two books at least, everybody is still #sowhite. I actually toyed with the idea of making Stella’s lady’s maid, the wise and fearless Sophie, a Black woman. I even floated the idea to my alpha reader, my sister, Alexandra Christian. Together we agreed it was a bad idea for two reasons: one, I’d only be doing it to have a Black character in the story, and two, if my story was only going to have one Black character, she did NOT need to be a lady’s maid.

So in Book One: Guinevere’s Revenge, which is set at that English manor house, everybody’s white. The second book I actually wrote for the series was The Baronet Unleashed. It takes place in Hollywood and has multiple Black characters, at least two of whom are scheduled to turn up in future installments. But when I started writing the Miss Cuthbert story, I realized it needed to happen before George saw Hollywood, so The Passion of Miss Cuthbert became Book 2, and The Baronet Unleashed became Book 3. If we’re all still around and books are still a thing, it should be coming out sometime this fall.

I wrote The Passion of Miss Cuthbert in January, February, and March of 2020 as the dumpster fire that my own personal life had become exploded outward into the dumpster fire that has engulfed everybody else. Writing it was my comfort, my escape, and I make no apologies for it. It’s a damned good book. Do I wish that for the week of its release, half of America was not at war with the other half? That we weren’t all in danger of getting sick and/or making one another sick, that some of us weren’t threatening violence for the right to make our neighbors sick? That Black Americans could live their lives as safely and fearlessly as I do mine, that we as a country could collectively agree to that as their inalienable right instead of brutalizing them in the public streets for even asking? I do, of course I do. I wish that every day whether I have a new book out or not. I’ve written lots of words that speak to that wish both in fiction and not, and I’ll keep doing that because writing words is the thing I do best.

But this week, I’ve got Stella, and she’s good. She’s fun. She means well. If that seems wrong to you, I get it; ignore me. My feelings won’t be hurt. But if you could use what my editor calls “All goodness and light with just a little touch of murder,” let me hook you up.

Three Things I Love (About Winter Knight)

winter knightWinter Knight, the book I have coming out on February 11, 2020, is the only romance I’ve ever written just for me. I love all my kissy book stories, all my heroines, all my heroes. But with Winter Knight, I asked myself, if I was on Amazon or at the bookstore looking for a romance to sweep me off my feet, what would that book be? And then I wrote it. Here are three things it has that would make me love it even if it wasn’t mine.

1 – An Enchanted Castle: When I was a sprout, my favorite book was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. If you’ve never read it, it’s the story of a plain, pissy little orphan girl who discovers happiness and friends exploring the dark corners and overgrown gardens of an English manor house. When I got a little older, I fell head over heels for the YA novel Beauty by Robin McKinley. This fairy tale retelling is as much about the castle as it is about the Beast, and if you like the Disney version of this story, you like this book–they ripped off McKinley shamelessly. I’ve toured Biltmore House more times than I can count, and in Ireland, I spent more time wandering through castles than I did drinking Guinness. Something about walking through grand, empty ballrooms and exploring twisting hallways is endlessly fascinating to me.

In Winter Knight, the heroine, Christabel finds herself in a huge, mostly-empty manor house in the mountains of North Carolina in the middle of a blizzard. She is the unexpected guest of a mysterious handsome stranger, Bernard, and his even-more-mysterious staff of servants who anticipate her every need. And she spends an awful lot of the story poking around empty nooks and crannies and discovering magical secrets.

2 – A Beastly Brainiac: Speaking of Beauty and the Beast … Anybody who knows me or my husband knows I’m a sucker for a smartass. Washboard abs and big bank accounts are lovely, but it’s the big brains and snarky quips that really light me up. (Alexandra Christian calls this being a sapiosexual.) From Sherlock in Sherlock to Doc Holliday in Tombstone to Deadpool to Tony Stark to Hamlet to Fox Mulder to Henry V to Harry Dresden to Quincy Harker, I love’em better when they’re smart and damanged and just the slightest bit mean. And if they also happen to be just a little bit crazy, that can only help. (Not for nothing do I call my husband Evil Genius.)

Bernard is a brilliant scientist who works alone in his lab in the bowels of his mansion. He’s equal parts heartthrob (he does have those abs because did I mention this is my fantasy?) and goofball (he wears sweatpants and geeky t-shirts under his lab coat and uses Rick and Morty Band-Aids on his boo-boos). He’s bossy and snarky–at one point, Christabel tells him, “Don’t be an asshole,” and he replies, “Can’t help it. It was a birth defect.” But he’s also kind and protective and fiercely romantic. And magical. And he’s read all of Christabel’s books. And y’all, I just adore him.

3 – A Heroine Like Me: I have a former fan fiction goddess’s horror of writing a Mary Sue, but with Christabel, I decided I didn’t care and went for it. She is a romance novelist. She isn’t a virgin in her early twenties; when the story begins, she’s on her way to get a facelift. She’s successful, capable, smart, sometimes confident, sometimes terrified. She desperately wants true love, but she has a hard time trusting her instincts and an even harder time trusting other people. She’s a hopeful romantic, and when she meets Bernard, she’s thrilled, intrigued, and scared to death. And I just adore her, too.

I wrote this story to distract myself from all the bad stuff in the world, and for me, it worked. I really hope reading it will do the same for y’all.

An Outlaw Meaner than Krampus

bury me notHey Kittens – in case I haven’t mentioned it, there’s what I consider to be a really sweet Christmas story in Bury Me Not called “Cowboys and Krampus.” Here’s a little sneak peek:

By suppertime, the snow was drifted halfway up the windows downstairs, and the hotel was full enough to bust. People had drifted in all afternoon like ghosts in thick coats dusted white—trappers, gamblers, a traveling preacher, even a couple of farm families with kids. Just as Mrs. Bhaer and her daughters were setting the table, the big doors opened again, and two men came inside, one carrying a fiddle case. “Hooray!” the oldest daughter hollered, clapping her hands. “Now we can have dancing!”

They put me next to Cade at the table for supper, of course, and by the time we tucked in to Clara’s special brandy pudding, we were managing to be civil. But when the fiddler and his friend the piano player tuned up, we got as far away from one another in the big main room as we could get.

After a while Thomas came over to where I was loitering by the hearth. “Hey Daisy,” he said, offering me his hand. “Care to take a turn?”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Cade had parted a fellow’s hair with the butt of his rifle in Kansas City for less.

“Aw, it’s Christmas,” he said. “I’ll risk it.”

I looked over at Cade, who was back to playing cards with one of the farmers, the preacher, and a professional gambler who would probably fleece the lot of them. “Yeah, I’m his fake wife now,” I said. “He probably won’t even notice.”

Thomas laughed. “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far. What’s got you in such a fidget, anyhow? Don’t you like Christmas?”

“Not especially.” Luis and Clara were having a sweet little smooch under the mistletoe. Our Mexican bandito was wearing a clean white shirt and had wet his hair and slicked it down flat until he looked like a bank clerk.

“Don’t be like that. These kids get a real hoot out of Saint Nicholas. I’ve been carrying a toy train for that bad little Klaus in my saddlebag since May just to see the look on his face.”

“That’s real sweet of you, Thomas.” Klaus and one of the farm kids were hiding under a table near Cade and his cronies, plotting mischief. I hoped they gave them all a hot foot. “But Saint Nicholas can kiss my ass.”

“From the mouth of a lady,” Thomas said. “What did poor ol’ Saint Nick do to cross you, Daisy?”

“Nothing, since he ain’t real,” I said. He just kept looking at me, waiting. “It’s a pitiful story.” Still waiting, one eyebrow raised. “When I was nine years old, there was a dolly in the window of the general store,” I said, turning my back on the room to face the fire. “She was the prettiest thing I ever saw, in a white dress, a bride. She had blue eyes and yellow curls like me, and I stood at the window for a while every day for a month just staring at her, wishing she was mine. My daddy got wind of it, and he told me not to worry, that if I was good, he was just positive Saint Nicholas would bring her to me for a Christmas present.”

“Oh hell,” Thomas said.

“Oh hell is right,” I said. “I wanted that dolly so bad, I forgot my daddy was the town drunk and wouldn’t know the truth if he met it in the road. Three days before Christmas, that dolly disappeared from the store window, and I was just sure he had gotten her for me. He kissed me good night on Christmas Eve, and I just knew when I woke up, I would have my doll. I even had a name for her all picked out. I was going to call her Charlotte Russe after a sign I had seen in an eating house.

Thomas was standing beside me, blocking my view of the room. “I’m just guessing it didn’t work out that way.”

“Not quite, no.” I was glad he was hiding me from the others. I had tears in my eyes for a dolly I hadn’t seen for twenty years and had never owned; I felt like God’s own fool. “When I woke up, there wasn’t no doll nor no daddy either. I had to go down to the saloon and scrape him up to keep the sheriff from throwing him in jail for drunk and disorderly. Then as we were walking back, him leaning on my shoulder singing, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ like some damned idiot, I saw this wagon full of folks riding past us on their way to church. They had a girl about my age; I knew her from school.” I wiped the foolish tears away. “She was sitting up front with her daddy, and my Charlotte Russe was sitting on her lap.”

“Damn,” Thomas said, glancing back at something over my shoulder. “That might be the saddest tale I ever heard.”

Before he finished saying it, I looked back and saw Cade right behind me. Before I could say a word, he had picked me up and slung me over his shoulder.

“What do you think you’re doing, you crazy bastard?” I said, kicking and beating on his back as he carried me to the stairs. “Put me down!”

“Nope.” Everybody in the room looked shocked, but nobody made a move to help me. Luis was grinning like a possum.

“Y’all sleep tight now,” Thomas called. “Don’t let the bed bugs bite!”

The Paperback Rack at the Big Star

Every writer has a touching story about their favorite bookstore or library as a child, the place where they discovered the ineffable delights of literature. I can go on at great length about my love for Miss Daisy at the Chester County Library or my swoon of ecstasy the first time I walked into the original strip mall location of The Bookworm in Rock Hill or my nostalgia for The Intimate Bookshop at the chichi-poopoo mall in Charlotte. But if I’m honest, the repository of fiction that influenced me most strongly in the years I was becoming the writer I am was the paperback rack at the Big Star grocery store. It was right inside the doors, just past the buggies, across from the produce section, and I hit it up every single week. And if I didn’t hit it up myself, my sweet mama hit it up for me. She’d be on her way out the door, and I would emerge from my headphones full of Alice Cooper or the Bay City Rollers and holler, “Mama, find me something to reeeeeeead!!!!” And bless her precious soul, she always did.

So I read the top of the paperback bestseller charts, about six months behind, for the entirety of my adolescence. (A book had to be a pretty safe sales bet to make it all the way to the Big Star.) And y’all, those books were awesome. I grieve deeply for the variety and insanity of the Big Star book rack. It taught me story, crowd-pleasing, popular story, the stuff that’s kept us author types in business since we were buying our place at the fire with our fresh new take on Beowulf. I read some great literary novels–back then, literary novels came out in pulpy paperback all the time. But it’s the genre fiction, the “trashy novels” I devoured like popcorn that really branded themselves on my brain. I can see their influence now in every book I write.

salems lotSalem’s Lot by Stephen King: I still stand in awe at Mama’s perception in picking this out for me. This was the first King book I ever read and my first contemporary, grown-up horror book, and it came to me at the bottom of a bag full of frozen fish sticks and tater tots when I was about 13. I stayed up all night reading it, loved every single syllable of it. As soon as I finished it the first time, I flipped back to the beginning and started reading it again. If I had to pick one writer who has influenced my style and my focus and my beliefs about writing as an art and a job the most, King would be it. And that all started with this book. There’s an element of horror in almost everything I write, no matter how sweet or romantic it might be, and that came from here, too. And oh yeah, vampires … mine evolved to be very, very different (thanks, Anne Rice and Frank Langella!), but Uncle Stevie also introduced me to vampires. My bestselling book series so far has been about vampires, and I’ve got a WIP going about them right this very now.

lonesome doveLonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry: This is one of those literary novels I was talking about–I mean, it won the Pulitzer Prize–but it’s also a gloriously pulpy, down and dirty western. I’ve blogged before about how I grew up watching western movies with my dad and how that influenced my writing. But with all appropriate apologies to Zane Grey and Louis L’amour, this is the first western novel I ever read that really spoke to me. For one thing, the women are just as layered and interesting and just as important to the story as the men–there’s a lot of the actual lonesome dove, Lorena Wood, in Daisy, the protagonist of my own weird western stories. McMurtry’s book and its sequels and outgrowths gave me a clearer, more realistic picture of the real world behind the western myth, and I hope that comes through in my work.

laceLace by Shirley Conran: Holy Moses on the Nile, y’all, have you read this book? Forget Judith Krantz; forget Danielle Steele. This is the ultimate trashy women’s novel, the ultimate guilty pleasure, the ultimate lurid potboiler. I plowed through it in less than a day, exclaiming in delighted shock at regular intervals, and when I finished, I gave it to Mama who did the same. She gave it to one of my aunts, who gave it to one of her friends, and so on and so on and so on. The premise is Einstein-level genius: a beautiful and notorious movie star invites four fabulously wealthy and successful women from four very different worlds to tea and says, “All right. Which one of you bitches is my mother?” And of course we find out that these four women were all roommates at boarding school, and we flashback to each one’s story in turn to discover the answer to the question. And every plot twist is more outrageous and deliciously awful than the one before it. American Starlet and its upcoming sequels are very much my hopefully-fresh take on this kind of book. They are my Lace; any time I get stuck on my plotting, I think, “what would Shirley do?” and go as wild and wooly as my imagination will allow. I can only pray I am doing her legacy justice.

He’s never been anything but kind and encouraging, but I suspect I drive my publisher batshit crazy with this stuff. Standard wisdom in the book writing business right now is pick a series and stick with it. Or if not a series, at least a genre. I try, y’all. I really, really do. And there are definite, discernible connections between all of my books. They all have strong relationship plots; they all feature smart people; most of them are pretty sexy, even–especially–if they have vampires. (Sorry, Uncle Steve.) But in the ways that make them easy to tag for the Amazon search engine, I’m afraid they’re all over the place. For better or worse, I write for that paperback rack. So I really hope y’all keep wanting to read it.

demon's kissbury me notamerican starlet

Good Grief

angel-art-black-and-white-96127I know I’m late, y’all, sorry. My dad is in the hospital. He fell again, and even though we’re still very hopeful that he’s going to be absolutely okay, it’s a whole big thing. Anybody who’s ever had a sick parent knows what I mean. Anybody who’s ever had a sick parent who is former military and a graduate of The Citadel REALLY knows what I mean.

I’m usually a pretty roll-with-the-punches kind of girl, but this has really thrown me off my game. And I know it’s because it’s taken me straight back to when my mom died. Unlike Dad, who has been in near-perfect health my whole life, Mama was in and out of the hospital from the time I was eight years old until she died eleven years ago. One of the underlying themes of my entire life and the lives of my sisters was Mama being sick, and the last few weeks when we knew that this time she wasn’t getting better is as close to hell as I ever want to see. Dad’s situation isn’t nearly as dire, but just being in that setting brings it all back.

At that time, I had just finished up my last contract with Pocket Books and just decided I wasn’t interested in writing what they were interested in publishing next from me. My sister was publishing with Ellora’s Cave at the time and looking to write something a little less sexy. Right after the funeral, she found a submissions call for angel romances, and she shared it with me. I needed a distraction, so I decided to give it a try. And I ended up writing the book that eventually became Misguided Angel. (The title is borrowed from a really lovely Cowboy Junkies song you can listen to here.) And y’all, I’ll be honest. It’s crazy.

The heroine is an artist who has just lost her husband to cancer. Her mother was a suicide who Kelsey believes was delusional because she had visions of angels. Kelsey is seriously considering suicide herself, so her dead husband sends Tristan, the angel who guards souls as they transition from one life to the next, to comfort her and stop her. So Tristan, bless him, tries, and in the process, he falls in love with her. But of course when he tells her the truth about himself, she thinks she’s going crazy, too. Lucifer is the big bad–he wants to use Kelsey as leverage to make Tristan fall.

And some of this book is the best stuff I’ve ever written. And a whole lot of this book is just cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. It’s been finished for a while, and I’ve always been conflicted about publishing it just because it’s so raw and weird and so different from everything else I’ve ever done. When I first heard the narrator’s audition for the audiobook version, I bawled my eyes out all over again. Even though it has a sort of happy ending, it’s a sad, sad book. It might well even be a triggering book; there’s a trigger warning on the Amazon page for it. I have often considered asking my publisher to pull it.

But every time I think I will, the same strange thing happens. Some reader will come up to me at a signing or a convention and ask me if I’m the Lucy Blue who wrote Misguided Angel. And when I say I am, they will tell me how my wackadoodle romance novel comforted them when they were completely shattered with grief. I’ve had people tell me my version of faith speaks to them. I’ve had people say it helped just watching my heroine go through the same kind of pain they were feeling and coming out the other side.

For whatever reason, my crazy baby of a book spoke to them in a way that made things better for them in the same way that writing it made things better for me. So while I doubt it will ever sell a lot of copies, I will always consider it a success.

Free E-Books, No Stealing!

adult-blur-bracelets-1324859Everybody loves free stuff. Some readers love it so much, they’re bankrupting writers by supporting pirate sites. The crazy thing is, it is perfectly possible to get all kinds of great free fiction without bending the rules or pissing off your favorite author. Sites like Prolific Works have shiny, well-produced, absolutely-bug-free E-books from every genre available for download—short stories, excerpts, even full-length novels.

For example, I have an excerpt listed from my latest full-length novel, American Starlet. It’s not a sample; it’s a short-story-sized chunk with a beginning, middle and end. And it should give you a good idea of what the book is like (snarky and steamy and just a little bit over-the-top) for the ever-popular bargain price of absolutely nothing:

https://claims.prolificworks.com/free/Y8XyPWW2…

Patrick Dugan, author of the Darkest Storm science fiction series (including Storm Forged, winner of the 2019 Imadjinn Award for Best Science Fiction) has an extremely nifty steampunk adventure up—and did I mention it’s free?

https://claims.prolificworks.com/free/DPYANcbB

Science fiction/urban fantasy authors Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin and their M/M romance-writing alter ego, Morgan Brice, have all kinds of great stuff listed. And they’ve tied them in with multiple group giveaways so you can get access to all kinds of great stuff with one easy click:

139 FREE fantasy & paranormal 2019 Reading Giveaway @Prolific_Works with my full Restless Nights @MorganBriceBook story & excerpt from Spells Salt & Steel @GailZMartin Ends 11/4 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/td69kKw8e6DiegzGQp1n

17 FREE fantasy & scifi reads in Good Omens giveaway @Prolific_Works giveaway w excerpt from Sons of Darkness Ends 11/10 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/2WydAYcc1ft3a4z41HZb

9 FREE scifi reads in Electric Dreams giveaway @Prolific_Works w excerpt from Salvage Rat @LNMartinAuthor Ends 11/10 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/NHINlDscEUuqpFKYbu5y

17 FREE paranormal reads in Something Wicked giveaway @Prolific_Works w excerpts from Spells Salt & Steel and Sons of Darkness Ends 11/10 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/7zZmgq0kpCiVkVlkTGNs

106 FREE sci-fi/fantasy reads in Discover New Series giveaway @Prolific_Works w full Reconciling Memory and The Last Mile stories + excerpt from Salvage Rat Ends 12/31 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/LXvGYAaAlhqYVuDmiBaH

155 FREE sci-fi/fantasy reads in Fantastical SF giveaway @Prolific_Works w full The Last Mile story + excerpt from Salvage Rat Ends 12/31 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/NzQXkP23yQLrLYlM62dA

77 FREE sci-fi reads in Discover New SF giveaway @Prolific_Works w excerpt from Salvage Rat Ends 12/31 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/MtsrZbfglhUGB5jprvnD

50 FREE paranormal/horror books in Things That Go Bite in the Night giveaway @Prolific_Works w excerpt from Sons of Darkness @GailZMartin Ends 11/1 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/ulH61YGooVnHnQIlPRd8

Some of these are ending soon, so check’em out now! Happy Halloween!!!