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.”

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.

Because I need distraction, and maybe you do, too.

guinevere's revenge coverThis has been an awful week, and now that I’ve expressed my outrage until I’m sick of the sound of my own voice, I’m looking around for things to make me forget reality entirely. I wrote my latest, Guinevere’s Revenge, in exactly that spirit. It’s an extremely light-hearted romantic mystery–Agatha Christie plus P.G. Wodehouse minus the racism.

The heroine, Stella Hart, is an American silent movie actress whose divorced socialite mother is married to an English lord. Stella is visiting the manor house for a shooting party and ends up solving a murder with the help of George Barrington, her stepfather’s favorite nephew. The story was inspired by screwball romances with lots of snappy banter like Bringing Up Baby and the kind of comforting mysteries where the bad are punished and the good go on in their goodness and all ends up right with the world. And right now, I really want to believe in that world, and I’m thinking maybe the rest of you might, too. Here’s an excerpt to show you what I mean:

****

“Thanks, Hennessey,” she said, taking the phone. “Hello? This is Stella Hart.”

“Finally,” a voice that was all too familiar boomed over the line. “You okay, dollface? It sounds like they’ve got you locked in an ivory tower. I’ve been trying to reach you all night!”

She slammed the phone down once, then three more times as if to break the connection for all eternity. George came out into the hall as she was putting the receiver down on the table, leaving it off the hook.

“Okay, Mugsy, where’d you hide the loot?” he teased.

“What?” She was too panicked to understand the joke.

“You’re behaving like a cat burglar who double-crossed her partners and absconded with the jewels.” He took her hand. “The jig’s up, kiddo.” For once his crooked smile made her want to cry. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“You’re closer than you think.” She had promised herself and poor Bertie that she wouldn’t breathe a word of this to anyone in England, but she had no choice. “You know all that money Lord Carraway thinks movie people make? It’s not quite so.”

“Darling, if you need money—”

“No, no, not me,” she said, smiling as she squeezed his hand. “Bertie’s last picture cost the lost treasures of Egypt to make. And he wasn’t as discerning as he might have been in how he got it. He borrowed money from what he called ‘a consortium of interested businessmen’ in New York to finish it, promising to pay them back when the picture was released.”

“What’s all this got to do with you?” George asked, frowning.

“The picture is a big success, but Bertie paid all the people who worked on it first,” she said. “Then he sort of . . . well, he spent a bundle on a leading man and a director for his next project.”

“Oh good lord . . .”

“He’ll definitely pay them back; he always does. But he’s taking a little longer than they were expecting, particularly with the picture doing so well.”

“Longer than he promised, you mean.”

“Yes, that.” She was in no fit state to explain away her stepfather’s faults the way she usually would have, not to George. She could never lie to George. “The leader of this . . .”

“Consortium?”

“Yes. He sent his son, Anthony, to Los Angeles to speak to Bertie about it, and Bertie asked me to . . . well . . . to distract him.”

“He did not!”

“Nothing awful!” she said, drawing him further from the dining room before he put the whole house in an uproar. “I just happened to run into the two of them at the Coconut Grove, and Bertie introduced us. I danced with Tony once or twice, and we drank some champagne. It was all perfectly innocent, really.” She hated the way George was looking at her, so sympathetic and horrified all at the same time. “But Tony apparently made more of it than I realized. He’s gotten sort of attached.”

George raised an eyebrow. “Attached?”

“He’s driving me crazy,” she confessed. “He sends me presents; he calls me night and day. The day I finally threw in the towel and ran, he had hired an entire string quartet to come to the set where I was working and play ‘Come to Me, My Melancholy Baby’ until I agreed to go out with him again.”

George laughed, the swine. “Sounds like the poor devil’s got it bad, sausage,” he said. “You should let him off the hook. Just tell him you’re not interested.”

“I can’t,” she said. “If I brush him off, he’ll remember about the money, and he might break poor Bertie’s knees or something.”

“Well, you can’t continue scurrying around the globe this way,” he said. “It’s round; you’ll eventually catch him up.” As he said this, she watched with horror as Hennessey came out, realized the phone was off the hook, and picked up the receiver.

“Hennessey, no!” she cried as he replaced it. Within mere seconds, it rang.

“Shush,” George said, pushing her gently aside to answer it. “Barrington Hall. George Barrington speaking.” She could hear Tony’s booming baritone, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. “Yes, Mr. Bartinelli, I’ve just been hearing all about you from our little Stella.” She grabbed his arm and gazed up at him with pleading eyes. “She tells me you’re quite a chap, and she’s quite taken with you.” He put his hand over hers and patted, giving her a nod that said he’d take care of everything. “Problem is, she’s my fiancée.”

“George!” she gasped.

“Yes, I knew it would be something of a shock,” George said, putting his hand over her mouth. “That scamp—I should have known better than to let her loose in California without me.” She heard Tony say something even more loudly than usual. “Yes, a good spanking is probably exactly what she needs. But what can I do, Mr. Bartinelli? I adore her.” A short pause. “Yes, I thought you’d understand.” Another pause. “Yes, it’s been in the works for years. Her stepfather is my uncle, you see.” Pause. “No, not that one—the other one, Lord Barrington.” Pause. “Too bad, yes. That would solve a great many problems, wouldn’t it?” Longer pause, and George frowned. “Now see here, Mr. Bartinelli, I hardly think . . .” Then he laughed. “Yes, I suppose I do understand. I’m just glad you’re taking it so well. She wasn’t too terribly naughty, was she? . . . Oh good, good, glad to hear it . . . No, no, not at all . . . That sounds fine. Good-bye.”

He hung up the phone. “I can’t believe it,” Stella said. “You darling madman . . . I can’t believe you told him we were engaged.”

“Inspiration of the desperate man and all that.” He looked a little pale. “And he believed it, by the way. Said it made perfect sense.”

“Well, what else could he say?” She felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. “George, I swear I could kiss you.”

“Good,” he said, his voice rather hollow. “You’ll need the practice.”

“What do you mean?” she said.

“You’ll have to make a good show of it, sausage,” he answered with a sickly grin. “He’s on his way here.”

“What?”

“He wants to be certain you’re happy with our engagement.”

“Oh for pity’s sake!”

“He’s only looking out for you, sausage. I think he really is quite smitten.”

“That’s very sweet, but dear heavens!” Could things get any worse? “Did you tell him we would just wait around here until his boat arrives?”

“Oh, his boat arrived this morning, half an hour after yours did.” She clutched his arm, too shocked to speak. “He’s at the post office,” he said. “He’ll be here in ten minutes.”

“George, really,” Mavis said, coming out of the dining room. “This is intolerable. They’re about to serve dessert.” She looked back and forth between George and Stella, the two of them sort of clutching one another like orphans in a storm. “What the devil is going on?”

“Mavis, darling, thank heavens you’re here,” George said, letting go of Stella to go to her. “We’re going to have to play a little game.”

****

Wanna know how it comes out? Get your copy from Amazon here.