Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Veteran's Day 2020

Promises Made Under Fire by Charlie Cochrane

France, 1915

Lieutenant Tom Donald envies everything about fellow officer Frank Foden—his confidence, his easy manner with the men in the trenches, the affectionate letters from his wife. Frank shares these letters happily, drawing Tom into a vicarious friendship with a woman he's never met. Although the bonds of friendship forged under fire are strong, Tom can't be so open with Frank—he's attracted to men and could never confess that to anyone.

When Frank is killed in no-man's-land, he leaves behind a mysterious request for Tom: to deliver a sealed letter to a man named Palmer. Tom undertakes the commission while on leave—and discovers that almost everything he thought he knew about Frank is a lie…

Re-Listen Audiobook Review November 2020:
This story just keeps getting better and better every time I listen/read.  Promises Made Under Fire is going to be one of those stories that no matter how many times I experience it, one or a thousand, Tom's journey will never leave me not entertained. Charlie Cochrane's love and respect for The Great War and post-war era is obvious in all the tiny details that help paint the picture as Tom delivers a letter and discovers something more(I know I'm being vague but still no spoilers from me even after four years😉).

Original Audiobook Review September 2019:
There's just something about Charlie Cochrane's WW1 era stories that really bring the time to life and Promises Made Under Fire is no different.  Though the voices from Kevin Stillwell's narration may not be what I heard in my head originally, he did a wonderful job bringing Tom's journey to life.

Re-Read Review November 2018:
Having read my original review there really isn't much I can add here.  Promises Made Under Fire is about friendships and balancing what we think we know and what we find out.  Watching Tom face that scale is equally heartbreaking and heartwarming.  Charlie Cochrane has a knack for not only setting the scene when it comes to WW1 era stories but also perfectly blending realism, fiction, not making the story into a school lesson, and doing it all while completely entertaining the reader. Her respect for the era comes alive with Tom's journey of discovery and that only furthers to heighten my love of the story and I'm already looking forward to the next re-read.

Original Review November 2016:
Sometimes life throws us on an unexpected journey that may appear unwanted but leads us exactly where we should be and Promises Made Under Fire is a prime example of just that.  When Tom's friend and fellow officer Frank is killed he finds a letter left to him asking him to visit Frank's mother.  When Tom is home and visits he finds more questions than answers but when he finally discovers the answers will they be what he expected, will they bring him some unexpected happiness, or will they throw everything he thought he knew about his friend for a loop?  For those answers, you will have to read Promises for yourself and trust me you won't be disappointed.  Once again, Charlie Cochrane takes us into the era of The Great War with scenes of the frontlines and the homefront, she does it with such devotion to detail that you feel you are right there.  Whether you are a history lover or not, if you love a good story with believable characters than you will definitely want to add this one to your reading list.


Out of the Blue by Josh Lanyon
France, 1916. The Great War. High above the carnage in the trenches, British and German aces joust like knights of old for control of the skies. The strain and tension of living every day on the edge of death leads to dangerous choices and wild risks. When British ace Bat Bryant's past catches up with him, he strikes out in panic and kills the man threatening him with exposure. But there's a witness: the big, handsome American pilot Cowboy Cooper.

Cowboy, it seems, has his own ideas of rough justice.

Re-Listen Audiobook Review November 2020:
Out of the Blue is one those stories that will never get old or that I'll tire of it.  I can understand why some might not like Cowboy's domineering side, that kind of alpha male is not everybody's cup of tea, frankly I don't always care for it either but there's something about Josh Lanyon's character creation that makes him so enjoyable in my mind. As I've said before there is just not enough WW1/post-war stories for my liking but I've found pilots from that era an even bigger missing feature, I don't think people fully grasp the added danger pilots faced during the Great War.  Josh Lanyon conveys that danger without the reader feeling like they are being taught a history lesson and that is a huge tick in my historical box: inform but don't lecture.  Out of the Blue continues to be a win-win in my heart.

Original Audiobook Review September 2019:
I rarely listen to audiobooks that I haven't already read and that's because I listen to them while I'm working on something else or doing chores so no matter how much I love the story I tend to zone out occasionally so having read the story previously then I know I won't be lost by missing minutes here and there.  Out of the Blue is a novella that I've read three times previously and love it every time, well Alexander Masters voice kept me enthralled from beginning to end, not once did I "zone out" while listening to Bat and Cowboy's journey.  There's just not enough WW1 stories in the M/M genre but I have a feeling if there 10X what there is, Out of the Blue would still be one of my favorites.

2nd Re-Read Review November 2018:
There is something about WW1 stories that always break my heart, even if it is a HEA of HFN, the lives lost alone is enough pain but with an M/M genre story there is an extra level of heartache added just because of the hiding they had to do.  So when I find a story like Out of the Blue, even as my heart hurts for the conditions the characters are living in, when I can still smile, laugh, and reach the final page for the third time and know it won't be the last time then I know I have definitely found a keeper.

Re-Read Review 2016:
I have upped my rating to 5 with my re-read.  Since reading it the first time 2 years ago, I have come to have a deeper respect for novellas and don't knock off 1/2 a bookmark just for it's shortness.  As for the story, it was fantabulous!!  I am a huge lover of WW1 stories so that just added to my enjoyment.  Even knowing how the story goes, Cowboy's actions and attitude still left me reeling but loved every ounce of him.

Original Review 2014:
This story is several of my favorite genres all rolled into one: historical, male/male relationships, romance, drama, and erotica. With main characters named Bat and Cowboy you expect to be dropped in the middle of a western, which by the way is also a favorite genre of mine, but this time author has brought her way with words to the airfield of World War One. Now, I won't lie, the first time you meet Cowboy you're not real sure if you are suppose to like him or not but we quickly find out that there's more to him than he first lets on. The only reason I gave this a 4-1/2 bookmark instead of 5 is because I would have loved for it to have been longer. Simply put, I was just not ready to let go of this pair when the final page came. Once again, I was not let down by Ms. Lanyon's work.


On Wings of Song by Anne Barwell

A chance meeting they never forgot.

Six years after meeting British soldier Aiden Foster during the Christmas Truce of 1914, Jochen Weber still finds himself thinking about Aiden, their shared conversation about literature, and Aiden’s beautiful singing voice. A visit to London gives Jochen the opportunity to search for Aiden, but he’s shocked at what he finds.

The uniform button Jochen gave him is the only thing Aiden has left of the past he’s lost. The war and its aftermath ripped everything away from him, including his family and his music. When Jochen reappears in his life, Aiden enjoys their growing friendship but knows he has nothing to offer. Not anymore.

Author’s note: This story was originally published in 2014 by another publisher. This edition has some added content, and uses UK spelling to reflect its setting.

Re-Read Review August 2020:
It's been five years since I originally read On Wings of Song and it hasn't lost any of its appeal, as a matter of fact I found it even more enjoyable that I upped it from 4-1/2 to 5 bookmarks.  Perhaps it's because I haven't found nearly enough WW1/post-war stories that make the ones I do and even brighter gem. Aiden and Jochen are still just as amazingly beautifully now as they were in 2015. If you're looking for a delightful tale of friendship, love, hope, heart, and growth(some might call recovery but I prefer "growth") then this is definitely the one for you, even if you don't generally read historicals On Wings of Song is one that warms your heart.

Original Review April 2015:
This is a beautifully written tale of a chance meeting becoming something more.  Not all chance meetings are instant bonds but when Aiden and Jochen find themselves talking over literature during the WW1 Christmas truce, it's pretty obvious that bond is real and the author conveys that in a way that is beautiful and believable.  If you love historical fiction than this is a must for your reading list and even if they aren't your typical fare, I still highly recommend this great story.  It's the first time I've read this author but it won't be the last.


Awfully Glad by Charlie Cochrane

WWI hero Sam Hines is used to wearing a face that isn’t his own. When he’s not in the trenches, he’s the most popular female impersonator on the front, but a mysterious note from an anonymous admirer leaves him worried. Everyone realizes—eventually—that Sam’s not a woman, but has somebody also worked out that he also prefers his lovers to be male?

When Sam meets—and falls for—fellow officer Johnny Browne after the war, he wonders whether he could be the man who wrote the note. If so, is he the answer to Sam’s dreams or just another predatory blackmailer, ready to profit from a love that dare not speak its name?

2nd Re-Read Review November 2020:
Not much to add that hasn't already been said so I'll just reiterate that Charlie Cochrane's love of the era shines through in all the tiny moments.  Don't get me wrong, they shine through in the big moments too but it's the small details that some might "forget" or don't fully research that make her one of top 1-click authors and her WW1/post-war stories are some of my absolute favorites.

Re-Read Review November 2018:
Not much more I can say about Awfully Glad that I didn't say when I originally read it back 2015.  Watching Sam and Johnny navigate the whole "is he or isn't he" debate is just as fulfilling as it was over three years ago.  Like I said before, if they just communicated more clearly so many answers would have been discovered but then not only would that make this little gem way too short but not very accurate either.  Nobody wants their nose broken if they got the assumptions wrong and it was also illegal to be in a homosexual relationship so its no wonder they were edging around the question.  Once again Charlie Cochrane has proven her respect for the era as well as her respect for her readers with her storytelling in this little gem.

Original Review February 2015:
A nice little tale of war, post war, romance, and a bit of "what's he after?" thrown in for good measure.  Sam is such an interesting character but as himself and as Madeline, who brought such joy to the men during the war.  Now that the war is over and he's put Madeline behind him, he is reunited with one of the men he met after one of his Madeline's shows.  I just love watching Sam trying to figure Johnny out and what he's after.  Of course, there's a bit of "if they just communicated" but then the story would be even shorter and where's the fun in that?  Definitely a great addition to my library and once again, I was not let down by the writings of Charlie Cochrane.


Calon Lân by Elin Gregory
As war rages in France, battles are also being fought on the Home Front.

Bethan Harrhy, farmer's wife, does her best to keep her family happy as prices rise and the weather worsens. Nye, her husband, is angry and worried. Alwyn, her brother, is injured and shaken by his experiences in the trenches. Her baby is teething and there's another on the way. Surely having her brother's best friend to stay, another face, another voice, another pair of hands, can only be a good thing? But when Joe arrives, Bethan is forced to confront ideas she had never even guessed at and makes a terrible mistake.

With conflict at home and abroad, can there be a happy ending for any of them?

Re-Read November 2020:
My reading mojo has been out of whack in 2020, so when November started I decided to re-visit a few of my WW1 reads.  Calon Lân is still just as lovely as it was a couple of years ago.  I still loved Alwyn and Joe and still just as frustrated with Nye as I was.  Truth is there isn't anything I can add to my original review so I'll just say, Calon Lân is a true delight and though I wished it was longer as I didn't want to say goodbye to Alwyn and Joe, I don't think I could love it anymore than I already do. The respect Elin Gregory has for history is evident in the realism of the friendship, family, frustrations, and overall heart within the pages of this short novella and it only furthers to heighten the entertainment value. 

Original Review November 2018:
Having come home from the war early due to injuries, Alwyn sets out to help his sister and her husband on the farm but more hands are needed.  When Alwyn's friend and fellow soldier answers the call, nothing will ever be the same for any of them.  Will the four of them find peace and be able to work together and maybe even find some happiness?

I wish there were more World War One era stories in the M/M genre so when I find one I tend to just gobble it up so I am not sure how this one slipped my sites for a whole year.  Having finally read Calon Lân I can honestly say it is amazing.  As it is a short story/novella I won't go into too much but I do want to say that Alwyn and Joe are wonderfully written and Bethan definitely has her hands full keeping the peace in her home.  As for the author, I think its pretty clear that Elin Gregory respects the past and does a wonderful job balancing reality and fiction to bring the reader a healthy glimpse of a time gone by.

As for Alwyn and Joe, well of course you want to see them get their HEA but whether they do or not is something you have to read for yourself.  Don't even get me started on Bethan's husband, Nye.  I understand and respect his frustrations but I also wanted to bang his head against the wall more than once or at least make sure he ran into a door frame or two . . . or six😉.

Would I have liked for Calon Lân to be longer? Of course, that's a no-brainer but at the same time some stories and authors only need a novella to tell their characters' journeys and that's what Elin Gregory brings us: a wonderful story of discovery.  Another element I loved about this gem is that it isn't just about Alwyn and Joe finding happiness but its about all four living in that house, Alwyn, Joe, Bethan, and Nye, discovering what love really means.  I may not re-read this every Veteran's Day but it isn't the last I've seen of this family either.


The Fortune Hunter by Bonnie Dee
A man with nothing finds everything.

Abandoned at birth, WWI veteran Hal Stanton faces bleak employment prospects in post-war London. Desperation spurs him to reinvent himself to hook a wealthy wife, one he will be devoted to even if he feels no real passion. But when he meets his fiance’s cousin, Julian Needham, it’s all he can do to keep his heart in check and his eye on the prize.

From the moment he’s introduced to the charming stranger Margaret plans to marry, Julian suspects the man’s motives yet fights a relentless attraction. He’s determined to reveal Hal as a fraud but must handle the matter delicately to protect his sweet cousin’s feelings. A weekend at the family estate should allow time and opportunity for him to expose Halstead Wiley.

Even as the men match wits in a battle of attempted unmasking, powerful sexual attraction threatens to overcome them both and win the day. Can a true love connection possibly grow between these adversaries without destroying lives and loved ones?

Re-Read Review November 2020:
There is so much in The Fortune Hunter that I loved just as much now as two years ago.  The realism, the beauty, the heartache, the frustration, all tied to post-WW1 and post-Spanish Flu epidemic.  With high change come high chaos and I personally feel no era faced more change than early 1920s because the war was over, the epidemic was recovering and the world literally was never the same.  Hal and Julian face these changes as well as dealing with their attraction to each other in a time when it was not only frowned upon as immoral but also illegal.  These are the stories that entertain but also help us to see how far we have come in society, no where near far enough but it helps to further the respect for those who came before us that were "different".  The Fortune Hunter may not be on my annual re-read list but it isn't the last time I re-visit Hal and Julian's heartwarming journey.

Original Review February 2018:
Upon returning from the war, Hal Stanton finds employment hard to come by so he decides to become something he's not and hook a wealthy wife.  Julian Needham has kept himself away from the family trying to run from the guilt he felt over his last meeting with his brother and not having reconciled before his death.  Once Julian meets his cousin's fiancee, he's determined to prove he isn't the Hal Stanton he's presenting himself as.  When the attraction between the two blossoms will the truth of Hal's identity get in the way?

It's no secret that I am a huge historical fan and if you follow my blog it will also come as no surprise that I love historicals with Bonnie Dee's name attached.  Well, The Fortune Hunter is no exception.  Post-WW1 is a time frame that I don't think is explored nearly enough so when I find one I gobble it up and I was not disappointed with Fortune.  Miss Dee has a way that lets the reader feel as if you looked out your front window, 2018 would disappear and 1920 would be the world you saw.  From the scenery to the dialogue to the emotions, its all so authentic and obviously respectfully researched, which only heightens the reading experience for me.

As for the characters, well what's not to like?  You got Hal who hasn't exactly been dealt a winning hand in life and you got Julian who has always felt like the spare.  I couldn't make up mind most of the time whether to wrap them up in a big bear hug to show my love and support or to whack them upside the head until they sat down and talked properly.  When an author can make the reader feel such conflicting emotions and still leave them happily entertained, for me that is what makes a good book.  I highly recommend giving this story a chance because whether you like historicals or not, The Fortune Hunter is a well written tale with interesting and intriguing characters that left a smile on my face and frankly I can't ask for more when it comes to my reading.


The Captain and the Cavalry Trooper by Catherine Curzon & Eleanor Harkstead
Captivating Captains #1
As the Great War tears Europe apart, two men from different worlds find sanctuary in each other’s arms.

Captain Robert Thorne is the fiercest officer in the regiment. Awaiting the command to go to the front, he has no time for simpering, comely lads. That’s until one summer day in 1917, when his dark, flashing eye falls upon the newest recruit at Chateau de Desgravier, a fresh-faced farmer’s boy with little experience of life and a wealth of poetry in his heart.

Trooper Jack Woodvine has a way with strong, difficult stallions, and whispers them to his gentle will. Yet even he has never tamed a creature like Captain Thorne.

With the shadow of the Great War and the scheming of enemies closer to home threatening their fleeting chance at happiness, can the captain and the cavalry trooper make it home safely? More importantly, will they see peacetime together?

Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of violence, some of which is homophobic, and a brief scene of sexual assault.

Re-Read Review August 2020:
I thought I'd give Jack and Robert's story another read when I recently read two of the contemporary entries in Curzon & Harkstead's Captivating Captains series.  I love them just as much now as I did 2 years ago.  Truth is there isn't anything more I can add to the original review, there still isn't nearly enough WW1 era stories out there so when you find one as brilliant as The Captain and the Cavalry Trooper it is a true pleasure to reread the journey and experience it all over again.  When the authors obviously have a healthy respect for history it makes the story all the more beautiful.

Original Review April 2018:
When Trooper Jack Woodvine arrives at Chateau de Desgravier, he takes a liking to Apollo, a horse that frightens most of the other grooms.  When Jack meets Apollo's rider, Captain Robert Thorne, he's not sure which is more in need of tempered care.  Their love of Apollo brings together these two soldiers in a time when the end could be just over the next hill but is it enough when Jack is given his orders to return home and Robert is sent to the front?

I love World War 1 era stories and there just isn't enough in the M/M genre, so when I come across one I jump at the chance to read it.  I may be a bit of a history buff but I will be the first to admit that as much as I am fascinated by the era, WW1 is a time that I have limited knowledge of so I can't speak to all the accuracy of The Captain and the Cavalry Trooper however I do think the emotions of the time are pretty spot on.

Jack's desire to care for Apollo and Robert, Robert's desire to see Jack safe, Apollo's devotion to both men.  Some might say its a little over the top in regards to love and sweetness in a time of war but I don't see it as OTT, I see it as living while you can.  Tales like Jack and Robert may not be commonplace in regards to the Great War but its not entirely unheard of either.  Afterall, this is work of fiction in a historical setting so there is definitely room for creative tampering and I think the authors balance accuracy with said tampering very well.

The Captain and the Cavalry Trooper is a well written tale of historical love with intriguing characters, both main and secondary,  filled to the brim with romance, drama, lust, desire, and enemies.  Talking about enemies, I won't give anything away but let me just say that there is a couple of secondary characters in here that I longed to see them get what was coming to them but you'll have to read for yourself if they do😉.  This is a lovely addition to my historical shelf.


Promises Made Under Fire by Charlie Cochrane
First light. A distant sound of something heavy being moved. A thin curtain of rain--the sort of misty, drizzly rain that soaked us through to the skin. Prospect of something for breakfast that might just pretend to be bacon and bread.

Good morning, France. An identical morning to yesterday and bound to be the same tomorrow. Tomorrow and tomorrow, world without end, amen.

I looked up and down the trench. The small world I'd become bound in was now starting to rouse, stretching and facing a grey dawn. The men were stirring, so I had to get out my best stiff upper lip. If I showed how forlorn I felt, then what chance had I of inspiring them?

"Morning, sir." Bentham, nominally my officer's servant but in reality a cross between a nursemaid and a housemaster, popped up, smiling. "Breakfast won't be that long. You and Lieutenant Foden need something solid in your stomachs on a day like this."

"Aye." I nodded, not trusting myself to say anything else until I'd got my head on straight.

"Tea's ready, though." He thrust a steaming mug into my hands. Add telepathist to the list of his qualities. Maybe when I'd got some hot tea into me then the world might seem a slightly better place. "Quiet, last night."

"It was." I was going to have to enter into conversation whether I wanted to or not. "I don't like it when they're quiet. Always feel that Jerry's plotting something."

"He's probably plotting even when he's kicking up Bob's a dying."

"Bob's a dying?"

"Dancing and frolicking, sir. Not that I think Jerry has much time for fun." Bentham nodded, turned on his heels and went off, no doubt to make whatever we had in store for breakfast at least vaguely appetising. I took a swig of tea.

"Is it that bad?" Foden's voice sounded over my shoulder.

"Do you mean the tea or the day? You'll find out soon enough about the first and maybe sooner than we want about the second."

"The perennial ray of sunshine." He laughed. Only Frank Foden could find something to laugh about on mornings like these, when the damp towel of mist swaddled us.

"Try as I might, I can't quite summon up the enthusiasm to be a music-hall turn at this unearthly hour." I tried another mouthful of tea but even that didn't seem to be hitting the spot.

"If you're going to be all doom and gloom, can you hide the fact for a while? The colonel's coming today. He'll want to see 'everything jolly.'" The impersonation of Colonel Johnson's haughty, and slightly ridiculous, tones was uncanny. Trust Foden to hit the voice, spot on, even though his normal, chirpy London accent was nothing like Johnson's cut-glass drawl.

"Oh, he'll see it. So long as he doesn't arrive before I've had breakfast."

Foden slapped my back. "That's the ticket. Don't shatter the old man's illusions." He smiled, that smile potentially the only bright spot in a cold grey day. In a cold grey life. Frank kept me going, even on days when the casualty count or the cold or the wet made nothing seem worth living for anymore.

"How the hell can you always be so cheerful?"

"Because the alternative isn't worth thinking about. Why make things more miserable when there's a joke to crack?" They weren't empty words--that was how he seemed to live, always making the best of things. He wasn't like a lot of the other officers, plums in their mouths and no bloody use, really. The men loved him.

"I bet it's not raining at home."

Out of the Blue by Josh Lanyon
France, November 1916
“Don’t be too hasty, Captain Bryant,” Orton warned. “Not like I’m asking a king’s ransom. Not like you can’t find the ready, eh? What’s a couple a bob ’ere and there? Could ’ave gone to the major, but I didn’t, did I? Not one word to ’im about what you and poor Lieutenant Roberts used to —”

Bat punched him.

He was not as tall as the mechanic, but he was wiry and strong, and his fist connected to Orton’s jaw with a satisfying crack. Orton’s head snapped back. He staggered, tripped over something in the shadowy darkness of the stable, and went down slamming against the side of the stall.

The elderly dappled gray mare whickered softly. Leaning over the stall door, she lipped at Orton’s fallen form.

For a second, perhaps two, Bat stood shaking with rage — and grief.
“Get up, you swine,” he bit out.

Orton’s head lay out of reach of the uneven lamplight, but his limbs were still — and something in that broken stillness alerted Bat.

He moved the lantern and the light illuminated Orton’s face. The man’s head was turned at an unnatural angle — watery eyes staring off into the loft above them.

Bat smothered an exclamation. Knelt beside Orton’s body.

The mare raised her head, nickering greeting. The lantern light flickered as though in a draft. He could see every detail in stark relief: the blue black bristle on the older man’s jaw, the flecks of gray in his mustache, oil and dirt beneath his fingernails.

There was a little speck of blood at the corner of his mouth where Bat’s ring had cut him. But he was not bleeding. Was not breathing.
Bat put fingers to Orton’s flaccid throat and felt for a pulse.
There was no pulse.

Sid Orton was dead.

Bat rose. Gazed down at the body.

Christ. It seemed...unreal.

He was used to thinking swiftly, making life-and-death decisions for the entire squadron with only seconds to spare, but he could think of nothing. He’d have to go to the CO. Chase would have to go to the Red Caps...

Bat wiped his forehead with his sleeve. First he’d need to come up with some story — some reason for what he’d done. Gene mustn’t be dragged into it. No one could know about Gene and him. Wasn’t only Gene’s name at stake. There was Bat’s own family and name to think of. This ... just this ... murder ... was liable to finish the old man.

He couldn’t seem to think beyond it. Disgrace. Dishonor.

He ought to feel something for Orton, surely? Pity. Remorse. He didn’t. He hadn’t meant to kill him, but Orton was no loss. Not even an awfully good mechanic. And Bat had killed better men than Orton — ten at last count — for much worse reason.

A miserable specimen, Orton.

But you couldn’t murder a chap for that.

Gaze riveted on the ink stain on the frayed cuff of Orton’s disheveled uniform, Bat tried to force his sluggish brain to action. Yes, he needed a story before he went to the major. More, he had to convince himself of it — get it straight in every detail — in case he was cross-examined. Mustn’t get tripped up.

If only he had ignored Orton’s note ... Why the devil hadn’t he?

“You waiting for him to tell you what to do?” a voice asked laconically from behind him.

Bat jerked about.

Cowboy leaned against the closed stable door. His eyes glinted in the queer light. Bright. Almost feral as he watched from the half shadows.

“P-pardon?” Bat asked stupidly.

“If you don’t plan on getting jugged by the MPs, you better get a move on.”

It was as though he were speaking to Bat in a foreign language. Granted, Cowboy was a Yank — a Texan, at that — and did take a bit of translation at the best of times.

Bat said, “I don’t — what d’you mean? I-I shall have to report this.”

“Why’s that?” Cowboy left his post at the door and came to join him. Oddly, it gave Bat comfort, Cowboy’s broad shoulder brushing his own. Together they stared down at Orton’s body.

Already he had changed. His face had a waxy, sunken look. The smell of death mingled with kerosene and horse and hay.

Bat’s stomach gave a sudden lurch and he moved away, leaning over a rusted harrow. But there was nothing to vomit. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday. Hadn’t eaten since Gene bought his packet and crashed in flames in the woods of the estate his family once owned near Hesdin.

Instead, he hung white-knuckled onto the rough metal frame heaving dry, empty coughs and nothing coming out but a few exhausted tears. Not for Orton. For Gene.

“You better pull yourself together, boy,” Cowboy told him when the worst of it was over. Listening distantly to that terse voice, Bat knew he was right. He shuddered all over. Forced himself upright, blinking at the American.

Cowboy was a big man. Several inches taller than Bat. Broad shoulders and narrow hips. Long legs. Must be the way they grew them in Texas. Cowboy certainly fit Bat’s notion — based entirely on the works of Zane Grey and Max Brand — of a man of the West. He’d been attached to the RFC for about two months. Which was a bloody long time in this war. Several lifetimes, really.

The old mare stretched her long neck and nibbled at the collar of Cowboy’s tunic. He patted her absently and drawled, “Orton was a sidewinder. A low-down, miserable piece of shit pretending to be a man. He wasn’t even a very good mechanic. Whatever else you might be, you’re one hell of a pilot. And the RFC is running short on pilots these days. Let alone aces.”

Bat blinked at him, wiped his face again. He felt hot and cold, sick and sweaty. He felt as though he were coming down with something — something fatal. He was unable to think beyond the thing at their feet. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying what the hell’s the point of you going to jail for killing that skunk? Anyway, I saw what happened. It was an accident. You slugged him and he fell and hit his head.”

“It’s still...” But he didn’t finish it. He felt a flicker of hope. “You’ll back me up then? When I go to Major Chase?”

“I don’t think you want to do that.”

Too right there. Bat didn’t. But...

“How are you going to explain what he said that got you so mad you punched him? Or what the hell you were doing in the stables this time of night?”

Before Bat thought of an answer — assuming he’d have come up with one — Cowboy added, “I guess Orton ain’t the only one who ever noticed you and Lieutenant Roberts were kinda sweet on each other.”

Bat lunged, and Cowboy sidestepped, grabbing him and twisting his arm behind his back in a wrestling move they never taught in any officer’s training course Bat had received. It was fast and efficient. Pain shot through his shoulder and arm and he stopped struggling, sagging against Cowboy. The American was so big, so powerfully built, it was easy to underestimate how fast he was when he needed to be. Not least because he never seemed to be in a hurry. He spoke in a lazy drawl and moved with easy, loose-limbed grace. Even when he flew into battle, he picked off enemy planes as though he were potting birds off a branch with a rifle. As though he had all the time in the world.

Listening to the calm, strong thud of Cowboy’s heart, Bat thought dizzily that this was the closest he’d come to being in a man’s arms ever again.

Cowboy’s voice vibrated in his chest as he intoned, “Never realized you had such a temper, Captain Bryant. One of these days it’s going to land you in a fix you can’t get out of.”

Bat yanked free and Cowboy let him go.

“Not tonight, though.”

Bat rubbed his wrist where Cowboy’s fingers had dug into the tendons. “What d’you mean?”

“I mean, if you can simmer down long enough to listen, I’m going to help you.”

“Help me how?”

Cowboy wasn’t looking at Bat. He stared down at Orton’s body. Thoughtfully, as though only making his mind up to it, he said, “I’m going to get rid of him once and for all.”


“Never mind how. It’ll be better if you don’t know. Go back to the mess, and make sure everyone sees you. Close the place down. Then head up to your quarters. Understand?”

The flicker of hope flared. Bat knew a cowardly longing to do exactly as Cowboy instructed. Leave it to him, go get blind drunk, then retire to bed and forget any of this happened.

He forced himself to say, “Awfully good of you, old chap, but you must see I can’t ... can’t let you do this.”

Amused, Cowboy retorted, “You don’t even know what I’m going to do, old chap, so why argue about it?”

He was staring at Bat, smiling that funny crooked grin of his. Bat had never noticed how blue Cowboy’s eyes were. Blue as the sky — back when the sky was empty of anything worse than clouds — light and bright in his deeply tanned face. His hair was soft gold. Palomino gold.

Helplessly, Bat said, “Why should you do this? Why should you help me? I haven’t been ... it’s not as though...”

“You’ve acted like a stuck-up sonofabitch since the day I arrived, is that what you were going to say?” Cowboy asked easily. “Not a member of your old boys’ club, am I? Well, I guess it could be that I like you anyway. Or it could be having you around makes my life easier — ’cept days like today when you seem bent on getting yourself blown out of the sky.”

His gaze held Bat’s, and there wasn’t anything Bat could say. Today. Yes. What a long time ago it seemed.

If Cowboy hadn’t been there today ... Sid Orton would still be alive.

“Git,” Cowboy said softly. “I’ll find you later.”

And so ... Bat got.

On Wings of Song by Anne Barwell
“I’ve seen it,” Aiden said quietly. “I wish to God I hadn’t.” He looked directly at Jochen. Jochen met Aiden’s gaze. He’d seen an echo of Conrad’s fire in Aiden when he’d talked about his music earlier that afternoon.

“Don’t die on the wire, Aiden.”

“I’ll try not to.” Aiden’s words were an empty promise. They both knew it, but what else was he going to say?

The red-haired man Aiden had spoken to about arranging the burials walked over to him. He too held a shovel, and he wiped perspiration from his brow despite the cold. “There’s going to be a combined service for the dead,” he told them. “In about ten minutes in no man’s land in front of the French trenches.”

As they made their way over, men were already beginning to gather, soldiers from opposite sides sitting together, conversation dwindling to a respectful silence. A British chaplain stood in front of them, a Bible in his hand, a German beside him. Jochen recognized him, although he didn’t know his name. The young man was only a few years older than Jochen and was studying for the ministry—would he ever get the chance to complete those studies?

Jochen and Aiden found somewhere to sit a few rows back from the front and joined the company of men. The German spoke first. “Vater unser, der du bist im Himmel. Geheiligt werde dein Name.”

The British chaplain repeated the words in English. “Our Father who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy Name.”

They then spoke a few words each, some from the Bible, the rest from their hearts. Their congregation was silent apart from a few quiet “amens.” Jochen saw a couple of men wipe tears away. He was close to it himself.

Finally the chaplain bowed his head in prayer. When he’d finished, he spoke quietly to the man who had come to stand next to him. It was Captain Williams. He nodded and looked over the crowd, his gaze fixing on Aiden.

Aiden must have guessed what Williams wanted. He inclined his head in response and then stood. Jochen glanced between the two men, confused. What did Williams expect Aiden to do?

“Aiden?” Jochen asked softly.

Aiden smiled at him and began to sing. “O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining….” He lifted his head, his voice strong and clear, each note building on the last to create something truly beautiful, something angelic. Aiden’s eyes shone; his body swayed slightly in time with the music. He was the music.

His audience sat in awe. Jochen could feel the emotion rippling through the men around him, tangible, as though he could reach out and touch it. He felt something inside himself reach out, wanting to be a part of it, to be carried along the wave of pure music, to grab it and never let go.

Awfully Glad by Charlie Cochrane
A makeshift stage. An audience. An entirely male audience, in khaki. A high sense of anticipation. The Macaronis concert party about to perform. Music starts, curtain is pulled across—to an outbreak of applause—revealing a group of men in evening dress, who take up the tune. The show begins.

They’d reached the part where the comic had finished his rendition of “Gilbert the Filbert,” leaving the stage to guffaws of laughter and thundering applause, and the tenor had come on to the opening strains of “Roses of Picardy.” The audience settled down, lulled by the familiar tune but with the first buzz of expectation starting to rise. They’d been briefed about this concert party by a couple of the officers whose friends had seen them perform before. So far, the advance information had been correct—good singing, good jokes, a couple of things slightly near the knuckle but not going too far.

And now, the much-vaunted and long-awaited “Roses of Picardy.” That song could only mean one thing—the imminent appearance of the lovely Miss Madeleine.

Second Lieutenant Hampson nudged his fellow officer in the ribs. “She’s on her way. I wonder if she’s really as hot a piece of stuff as they say.”

Lieutenant Browne shrugged. “I hope so. I’ve been looking forward to this a long while.”

An agitated “Shh!” from somewhere along the line of spectators put a stop to conversation as the tenor’s rendition of the verse began. The holding of breaths within the audience became palpable, especially when the curtain to one side of what passed for a stage twitched slightly. The chorus came, and with it Madeleine, gorgeous in a lavender dress to match her eyes and a sumptuous hat, worn at a coquettish angle. An outbreak of wolf whistling, a single shout of “Cor!” and more “Shh!”s, mainly from the colonel in the front row who’d leaned forward to get a better view of the trim ankles that appeared as she sashayed across the stage.

“What a peach,” Hampson whispered, staring up at the stage, spellbound.

“Not bad at all.” Browne tipped his head to one side to set up a better line of observation of the trim waist, the pert backside, and the well-proportioned décolletage. Those curves were just what you wanted in a woman.

The song came to an end among rapturous applause, whistling, and stomping of feet. The tenor kissed Miss Madeleine’s hand and led her upstage, where she prepared for her solo, batting her eyelashes flirtatiously at the colonel. She looked like a nice girl, dressed like a nice girl, was rumoured to have no truck with any of the officers who beat a path to her stage door, but there was a roguish twinkle in her eye which belied all of that.

The first few bars of “Home Fires Burning” welling up from the small orchestra stifled any expectations of a saucy song to match the saucy twinkle. Her voice was clear, bell-like, incredibly moving. By the time the song had finished, sleeves were being drawn across faces and noses blown. Even Hampson, who had never been known to show much in the way of emotion—apart from getting worked up over a shapely, slim-waisted form—had a tear in his eye.

“Marvellous,” he said, clapping wildly. “And think. We’re the lucky blighters who’ll get to meet her afterwards.”

Browne laughed. “She’ll never look twice at you. Not with that shock of hair—she’ll think a scarecrow’s come in.”

“Is it that bad? Could you lend me a comb?” Hampson tried—in vain—to flatten his locks into submission.

“We’ll have you turned out like the Queen of the May.” Browne grinned. “Now hush.”

Madeleine had been joined by the tenor for a haunting love duet, one which soon had the audience thinking of home and happier times, far away from trench foot and whiz-bangs. They’d be back to that soon enough, but for now they had a glimpse of something heavenly, and not just in the form of Madeleine’s shapely arms.

Calon Lân by Elin Gregory
Bethan put Nye's plate on the table and craned her neck to peer past her husband and through the window. The farmyard, misty even though it was past noon, was empty apart from a few fowls.

"He's run down the lane." Nye picked up his knife and fork. "We saw the post cart. Beats me what Alwyn and his pals find to write about."

He began to eat, and Bethan covered the other plate and set it to warm on the side of the range.

"I'm glad for him," she murmured. "They went through a lot. It's good for him to have someone who understands."

"You'd think he'd sooner forget the bloody war." Nye's mouth was full of boiled ham but Bethan heard the swear word clearly.

"Nye Harrhy, I'll wash your mouth out," she said. "I won't have language like that in my house." She shot a pointed glance towards the crib and Nye nodded, finishing his mouthful.

"I would have gone, you know, but farming –"

"I'm glad you didn't. Look at poor Alwyn."

"Listen, more like." Nye cut more ham and dipped it in the piccalilli. "How many times did he wake you last night?"

"Only twice." Bethan looked to the window again and there was Alwyn strolling across the yard with Fly a black and white shadow at his heels. He had the open letter tilted to catch the light for his one good eye. Her adored big brother, dark and quick, had turned heads, but now he could barely look anyone in the face, even those who loved him. She studied him: his mouth drawn awry by the scars that seamed his right cheek, his once smooth skin like old oak bark, the stub of an ear. He was too far away for her to see the drooping lid that covered the clouded remains of the eye that had once been so bright. She suppressed a shiver and got up to fetch his plate.

On the threshold Alwyn gestured Fly away to her barrel bed in the shelter of the byre then came in and kicked off his boots. He gave them both his usual nod of greeting then settled at the table with a whisper of thanks. He ate quickly, just nodding as Nye complained about the high prices for fodder.

"They say it's all going to France to feed the draft beasts. Better prices from the War Office. And now they've called up most of the men, how are we going to harrow and plant with just us two?"

"I can harrow," Bethan pointed out.

"You've got the baby now," Nye said, "and another on the way. I'm not having my wife out in the fields."

"I wanted to talk to you about that." Alwyn's gruff whisper was so unexpected that it cut sharply over Nye's grumbling. "I have a friend who needs a job. Was in my platoon. He's home, not fit to go down the pit."

"A miner? What use will a miner be?"

"He worked with the ponies." Alwyn glanced at Bethan. "He's a good worker."

"And he's a friend," Bethan said. "Nye? We could see how he does."

Nye turned from brother to sister, his mouth tightening in the exasperated moue he always made when they ganged up on him. "Well." His tone was grudging. "Ponies, horses – all the same, isn't it, apart from the size."

While Alwyn went to find a pen to write a reply, Nye admitted that he'd had doubts about getting all their work done even if Bethan had helped.

"There's only so many hours in the day and Alwyn's not the man he was. We can try this fellow, see how he does." Nye nodded as he put his coat back on. "Even if he only helps about the stable and yard, it will be better than nothing."

The Fortune Hunter by Bonnie Dee
Drawing up in front of the Needham house on the curved driveway, Hal felt as if he ought to be arriving in a carriage and four rather than Margaret’s Daimler motorcar. The sprawling limestone house was a convoluted collection of roof peaks, turrets, and wings added on over the years. It looked like a castle, proclaiming nobility dwelt within and an outsider like him would never belong.

Hal didn’t resent the upper class their wealth, power, and prestige. He merely wanted to become one of them. Was that so awful? A friend had once come to Hal’s flat begging a sanctuary to spend a night or two. The stay had turned into something more like two months. But Hal certainly understood that desire to lay down the burden of constant struggle to survive and find a quiet, comfortable resting spot.

Margaret would be his safe place, and he would be hers, making certain she never wanted for companionship. In return, he’d have a nice house, good food, and a fine wardrobe. He would guard her fortune as if it were his own, spending wisely and increasing it shrewdly. He wouldn’t be a burden but a life companion in an easygoing, if chaste, arrangement.

He got out of the passenger side of the car, and Margaret came around to join him. “What do you think? The house may appear grand, but don’t let the battlements fool you. Inside, it’s quite shabby. Despite a respectable family name, my aunt and uncle aren’t wealthy by any means.”

Hal tucked her hand through the loop of his arm. “I’m not nervous. I’m quite ready to meet them and explain why I’ve fallen in love with their one-of-a-kind niece. This must have been a wonderful place to grow up with all those nooks and crannies to explore.”

“It truly was. Mother and I could have afforded to stay in our own home after Father died. But I’m so glad we came to live with Aunt Agnes and Uncle Harold; otherwise, I never would’ve had brothers like Julian and James.” She frowned. “After nearly two years, I still have trouble thinking of James in the past tense.”

Hal recalled James had survived France but died in the influenza epidemic almost immediately upon his return home. He put an arm around Margaret and hugged her. “You must miss him terribly.”

“His passing has been difficult for me but nearly killed my aunt and uncle. They’re still mourning. And Julian…” She shook her head.

“Misses his brother and perhaps blames himself for being alive,” Hal guessed. “I understand that feeling, having lost many comrades at the front.”

Margaret stopped at the doorstep and turned to him, eyes shining. “You survived because God had more for you to do in this life. He brought you to me, for which I am ever grateful.”

Hal hated himself just a little more at her declaration. When he’d begun this plan, he’d imagined landing a wealthy older widow who knew the score and didn’t mind so long as she had a handsome young husband to show off to her friends like a trophy. But then he’d met Margaret. He’d been so taken with her blend of sweetness and assertiveness that it had seemed possible to make a sham marriage work. Now he was stuck with the plan he’d devised.

The door opened before they knocked. A stooped older man with a paunch swelling his waistcoat greeted them. “Welcome home, Miss Margaret.”

“Hello, Grover. You’re looking very dapper today. I’m so glad to be back. I’ve missed home these past months. May I present my fiancé, Mr. Halstead Wiley.”

The butler bowed. “Good day, sir. Welcome to Barton Park.”

Hal almost returned the bow, then recalled his proper standing and nodded politely instead. “I’m happy to be here.”

Grover escorted them to the drawing room, where Mr. and Mrs. Needham and Julian were already gathered. Hal assessed the room before following Margaret inside. Pale blue walls and rug offered a sense of tranquility and the room was not overly cluttered. The dark, heavy pieces of furniture from an older century didn’t fit the pale color palette that suggested a more chic, modern décor.

Margaret’s aunt and uncle rose to greet him. The outdated style of Mrs. Needham’s gown didn’t detract from her aura of grace and refinement as she offered her hand. “Mr. Wiley, we’re pleased you could come. Darling Margaret is the daughter we never had, and we were eager to meet the man she’s chosen.”

“Quite so,” Mr. Needham said.

Hal wasn’t certain if he was meant to shake Mrs. Needham’s hand or kiss it. The customs of the gentry weren’t familiar to him. He gave a polite press before letting go, then turned to offer a hearty shake to Mr. Needham. “The pleasure is mine. Your niece is a prize.”

“Yes, she is.” Mr. Needham gave Hal an assessing look with gray eyes very much like his son’s.

Hal scanned the rest of the room to find Julian standing near the window. Sunlight burnished his brown hair with golden highlights. His well-cut profile with its straight nose and strong jawline was haloed in light. When he turned his stern gaze toward Hal, a little hum of anticipation awoke within him.

Hal squelched this reaction to a man he considered an adversary. Needham had invited him here to poke holes in his story, so he must be on guard every moment not to give himself away. If this wedding were to be called off, he’d be jobless and desperate again. One would expect work to be plentiful in the aftermath of the Great War with so few veterans returning, but the economy was in shambles. Odd jobs were all Hal had been able to find, spurring him to his mad scheme to land a wealthy woman.

He offered a bright smile. “Good to see you again, Mr. Needham.”

As much as it wasn’t, it actually was. Needham intrigued Hal, not only his physical demeanor but his affectionate manner with Margaret and his magnetic presence. Had they met under other circumstances, he and Julian might have been friends—or probably something more than friends, for Hal guessed “confirmed bachelor” Julian shared his attraction to men.

Hal dragged his thoughts away from the sorts of activities they might have gotten up to in another time and place, as he sat beside his betrothed on a sofa. “You have a lovely home,” he complimented his hosts. “Its history must be fascinating.”

“Thank you,” Mrs. Needham said. “Barton Park was built in 1640 and belonged to several families before the Needhams took possession.”

Her husband added dryly, “You may learn the entire history on every second Wednesday of the month, when the house is open. I daresay the tour guide is more educated on both the history and the architecture than we are.”

“Tours?” Julian abandoned his spot by the window to stride across the room with long-legged grace. “When did this begin?”

“Surely I mentioned this in one of my letters. A company that arranges tours approached us this past summer,” Mrs. Needham explained. “At first, your father refused to speak with their representative, but when we learned other owners of other estates were allowing tours, we decided to give it a go. It’s a respectable way to share one’s heritage and is little trouble at all. Thus far, the tourists, both domestic and foreign, have been orderly and respectful.”

“Not at all annoying having strangers troop through one’s home,” Mr. Needham continued in his sub-Saharan tone. “And you’d know about this if you paid the least attention to what your mother writes, or if you came for a visit every so often.”

Julian stood before his parents, scowling. “You did not mention this in any of your letters. I’d no idea you’d reached such a…” He glanced at Hal and seemed to reconsider airing his family’s financial business. “That you were considering such a thing.”

“It has become quite common these days for historical houses to be on display,” Mrs. Needham pointed out. “As you’ve said, times are changing.”

“More’s the pity,” the elder Needham growled.

Hal sat very still, wishing he were someplace else and not witnessing this family argument. He’d had no idea the Needhams were in such difficult straits until today. Apparently, their children hadn’t either. Surely Margaret would want to offer financial help, which would cut into the inheritance from her father’s side. He was a horrible person to immediately consider how the Needham family’s misfortune might affect him and his plans.

“Honestly, I think it’s rather brilliant to open the house to tours.” Margaret smoothed the folds of her modish knee-length dress. “Tourists enjoy seeing grand houses from a former century. The building should earn its maintenance at the very least. But if you require more financial assistance, please let me know. I want to do my part for the family.”

Julian Needham quickly added, “I can offer help as well. My investments are doing well enough.”

“We’re not quite destitute, although apparently our home has become a museum artifact to be gawked at by strangers,” Mr. Needham said.

“Thank you, my dears, for your generous thought. But such a discussion is most inappropriate at this celebratory occasion.” Mrs. Needham turned her attention to Hal. “Tell us how you two met.”

“We were both browsing at a bookstore. I shared a recommendation with Hal, and we talked for hours. You can see how that conversation ended.” Margaret turned her beaming smile on Hal. “Or never ended, for we always find something to discuss.”

“I was taken with Margaret from the moment we met. She manages to be both imaginative and levelheaded at the same time. One doesn’t let a quality woman like Margaret slip away.”

“Your family approves the arrangement?” Mr. Needham probed.

Hal seized a quick breath before plunging into his embroidered history. He hadn’t tried to pretend to Margaret that he came from any sort of gentility, instead inventing middle-class parents of modest means.

“My parents have passed, and I have no extended family. But I’m certain both Father and Mother would have welcomed Margaret with open arms.”

“Tell us about your parents,” Needham senior pushed.

“My father owned several shipping concerns. But in one year, a freighter was lost at sea and another seized by pirates. This put a great strain on his fortune and took a toll on his health.” Hal patted his chest, indicating possible heart failure or a broken heart. Let them decide which. “He passed away within a year, and my dear mother followed soon after. I believe she couldn’t face life without him.”

Mrs. Needham gave a soft murmur, and Margaret reached to pat Hal’s hand. He bowed his head, hoping he wasn’t overdoing the drama.

“Were you left penniless then?” Julian’s tone was cool and less than sympathetic.

“Julian!” Mrs. Needham exclaimed at his shocking ill manners.

“It’s all right, Mrs. Needham. It is quite reasonable to wonder about the stranger your niece has brought home. I should have followed custom and asked permission for her hand.” Hal offered an apologetic smile, then continued trying to reassure them he had nothing to hide.

“I invested the small inheritance I received and have increased it over the years, so I live quite comfortably. I won’t pretend to be more than I am. I come from a middle-class background, and I’m in love with a woman who is clearly above me. But I care for Margaret very much.”

The last part at least was true. Hal took her hand, gazed into her eyes, and prayed his selfish intentions could be forgiven.

Margaret smiled. “As I care for you.”

Julian made a small sound that might have signaled either acceptance or disgust.

Hal darted a sharp glance at him.

“It’s a lovely afternoon. I should like to take you on a tour of the land before supper,” Margaret said.

“Perfect weather for an invigorating walk,” Hal agreed and blessed her for freeing him from the relentless questioning.

“I’ll go with you.” Julian had not taken a seat during the entire conversation, and now he started for the door. “I should like to see how the farms are doing.”

They bid their elders goodbye and entered the hallway. Margaret excused herself to change into proper attire.

Hal had brought no walking shoes and lingered awkwardly with Julian, who scanned him up and down.

“You’ll want a pair of Wellingtons. The fields and woods are muddy. And a drover’s coat to cover this fine wool.” He fingered the lapel of Hal’s jacket, tailored for a gentleman and discovered by Hal in a secondhand store.

Julian stood so near, Hal felt the heat of his body and inhaled the scent of his shaving lotion. Did Julian mean to be intimidating? Probably, because he stared at Hal with the assessing eyes of judge, jury, and executioner.

When Julian at last stepped back, Hal took a deep breath. Unfortunately, the man wasn’t only a barrier to breach, he also unleashed attraction such as Hal hadn’t felt in a long time. Perhaps Julian sensed his desire and was baiting him to make an impulsive move.

But Hal wouldn’t reveal himself so foolishly. Nothing could come between him and the quiet, calm, comfortable life he craved. He must convince this doubting Thomas before he derailed Hal’s matrimonial plan.

The Captain and the Cavalry Trooper by Catherine Curzon & Eleanor Harkstead
Northern France
The wagon carrying Jack Woodvine bumped and jerked along the poplar-lined lanes, a fine spray of mud rising up each time the huge wooden wheels splashed through a puddle.

He had given up checking the time and, even though the journey was far from comfortable, tried to doze as he passed along under the iron-gray sky. A chateau, they’d said. Different from the barracks he’d been in when he was first deployed. Doubtless it would be a dismal old fortress, but was it silly of him to hope for bright pennants fluttering from a turret?

Finally, the wagon drew up at a gatehouse of pale stone. As Jack climbed out, dragging his kitbag behind him, sunlight nudged back the clouds and turned the gray slate of the roofs to blue.

“You the new groom?” A soldier appeared from the gatehouse. His cap was so low over his eyes that Jack couldn’t make out his expression.

“Yes—Trooper Woodvine. Jack Woodvine.” He took a letter from his pocket and held it out to the man. “I’ve been transferred from another battalion. This is the Chateau de Desgravier?”

“Yes, Trooper! Turn left at the bottom of the drive for the stables. Quick march!”

The last thing Jack wanted to do was march, quickly or otherwise, but he shouldered his kitbag, jammed his cap onto his head and marched down the tree-lined avenue.

It was thickly leaved, but through the branches he could see the white stone of the chateau ahead. He rounded a bend in the driveway and he saw it—Chateau de Desgravier.

An enormous tower rose up in front of him, its roof reaching into a delicate point. Jack sighed, the spots of mud on his face cracking as he smiled. It might not have had pennants floating from it, but it was exactly like something from a fairytale. Beside the tower were the stone and brick and filigreed windows of what looked to Jack like a palace. Who would ever think that the front was only a few miles to the east?

Quick march!

Jack continued on his way, turning to his left just as he’d been ordered. The path here bore evidence of horses—straw, manure, the marks of horseshoes. Ahead, an archway, figures at work. A lad of Jack’s age maneuvering a wheelbarrow, another leading a horse out to the paddock.

This wouldn’t be so bad. It seemed to be a peaceful place, and easy work for a lad like Jack. He raised his hand and grinned at the grooms as he headed under the archway and into the vast stable yard.

Then he heard singing. In French.

Jack dropped his kitbag and looked round. The voice was that of a man, yet heightened slightly, giving it a teasing, effeminate edge, and Jack couldn’t help but follow it like a sailor lured by a siren, pulled along the row of open stables toward that lilting chanson. Inside those stables young men labored and sweated, brooms swept and spades shoveled, yet one of the boxes at the far corner of the yard seemed to have been transformed into an impromptu theater.

Jack hardly dared glance through that open door, yet he couldn’t help himself, blinking at the hazy darkness of the interior where half a dozen grooms lounged in the straw, watching the chanteur in rapt silence.

Right in front of Jack, his back to the door, was the figure of a young man, clad in jodhpurs, polished riding boots and nothing else. No, that wasn’t quite true, because he was wearing something, the sort of something Jack didn’t really see much of in Shropshire. It was some sort of silken scarf, a shawl, perhaps, that was looped around his neck twice, the wide, dazzling red fabric decorated with intricate yellow flowers. They were bright against the pale skin of his naked back, as bright as the tip of the cigarette that glowed in the end of a long ebony cigarette holder that the singer held in his elegant right hand. He gestured with it like a painter with his brush, making intricate movements with his wrist as he sang, his voice a low purr, then a high, tuneful trill, then a comically deep bass that drew laughter from his audience.

He moved with the confidence of a dancer, hips swinging seductively, head cocked to one side, free hand resting on his narrow hip and here, in this strange fairytale place, he was bewitching.

The singer executed a near-perfect pirouette yet quite suddenly, when he was facing Jack, stopped. He put the cigarette holder to his pink lips, drew in a long, deep breath and blew out a smoke ring, his full lips forming a perfect O.

“Well, now.” He sucked in his pale cheeks and asked, “Who on earth have we here?”

Jack blinked as the smoke ring drifted into his face.

“Tr-trooper Woodvine, reporting for Captain Thorne. I’ve been transferred—I’m his new groom. I don’t suppose—”

The words dried in Jack’s throat. As enthralling as this otherworldly figure was, with his slim face and high cheekbones, there was an unsettling glint of mockery in his narrow blue eyes.

“Sorry.” Jack took a half-step backward. “I interrupted your song. I should…”

The singer moved a little, just enough that he could dart his head forward on its slender neck and draw his nose from Jack’s shoulder to his ear, breathing deeply all the way. They didn’t touch but the invasion, the authority, was clear. However lowly their station, Jack had wandered innocently into someone else’s domain.

When the young man’s nose reached Jack’s ear he threw his head back and let out a loud sigh through his parted lips, arms extended to either side. Then he finally spoke again, declaring to the heavens, “I smell new blood!”

Behind him, his small audience tittered nervously and his head dropped once more, those glittering blue eyes focused on Jack.

“Trooper Charles, sir!” He executed a courtly bow, the hand that held the cigarette twirling elaborately. “But you’re so darling and green that you may address me as Queenie. Aren’t you the lucky one?”

Jack reached for the doorframe to casually prop himself against it and essay the appearance of calm. Queenie?

“You may call me Jack.”

He extended his free hand to shake. A handshake showed the mettle of a man, his father was always telling him so. A good, firm hand at the market and a fellow would never have his prices beaten down.

Queenie’s narrow gaze slid down Jack like a snake and settled on his hand. He didn’t take it, didn’t move at all for a few seconds as the silence between them grew thicker. Then, in one quick movement, he placed his cigarette holder between Jack’s fingers and said, “Have a treat on me. Welcome to Cinderella’s doss house!”

Jack brought it hesitantly to his lips, smiling gamely at the grooms who made up Queenie’s audience. He pouted his lips against the carved ebony and inhaled.

The cough was so violent that Jack nearly dropped the holder, but an instinct in him born of a lifetime on a farm of tinder-dry hay meant he clamped it between his fingers. As he heaved for breath, he stamped on the nearby straw, suffocating any sparks that might have fallen.

The other grooms laughed and Queenie’s head tipped back to emit a bray of hilarity as a strong hand walloped Jack’s back.

A friendly Cockney burr chirruped, “Cough up, chicken—there’s a good lad!”

“We have a new little chicky in our nest,” Queenie told his audience, turning to address them. “I want you all to make him terribly welcome, or he might burn down our stables and then where would your Queenie sing?”

The stocky lad who had rescued Jack from his coughing fit was a head shorter than him. He pulled a face that could have been a smile or a sneer and took the cigarette holder from his fingers. He passed it to Queenie, all the while fixing his stare on the new arrival.

“Trooper Cole. Wilfred, that’s me. You’re Captain Thorne’s new boy, aren’t you?”

He laughed, then turned his head to spit on the floor, pulling a skinny roll-up from behind his ear.

“I’m Jack Woodvine. I mean…Trooper Woodvine.”

“I s’pose me and Queenie better take you to your quarters?”

“That would— But…oughtn’t I to introduce myself to Captain Thorne?”

“I’d say that’s a bit difficult, seeing as he’s not here at the moment.” Wilfred picked up Jack’s kitbag as easily as if it were spun from a feather. “Come on, soldier. Your palace awaits!”

“Captain T is an angel.” Queenie draped one arm sinuously around Jack’s shoulders and walked him back across the stable yard, his naked torso pressed to Jack’s rough tunic. “You’re going to have a bloody easy war, he’s soft as my mother’s newborn kitten.”

He glanced back at Wilfred and asked, “Wouldn’t you say so, Wilf?”

“Not half!” Wilfred laughed, striking a match to light his cigarette. “You couldn’t find a nicer bloke in the entire regiment.”

Jack grinned as they headed up the creaking wooden stairs above the stables. New quarters and new friends, and he wouldn’t have to rough it in a tent. Maybe there’d even be warm water for a bath.

“Well, that’s good to know. The officers were a bit…brusque at my last place.”

“Brusque?” Wilfred raised an amused eyebrow. “That’s a fancy word for a groom!”

“Ignore our lovely Wilf. Strong as an ox, bright as a coal shed.” At the top of the stairs Queenie turned to address Wilfred and Jack, his pale hand resting on the crooked handrail. “Thorny is adorable, not brusque at all. Welcome to our little slice of heaven!”

With that he lifted the latch and threw the door open, directing Jack to enter with another low bow.

Charlie Cochrane
As Charlie Cochrane couldn't be trusted to do any of her jobs of choice - like managing a rugby team - she writes. Her favourite genre is gay fiction, predominantly historical romances/mysteries, but she's making an increasing number of forays into the modern day. She's even been known to write about gay werewolves - albeit highly respectable ones.

Her Cambridge Fellows series of Edwardian romantic mysteries were instrumental in seeing her named Speak Its Name Author of the Year 2009. She’s a member of both the Romantic Novelists’ Association and International Thriller Writers Inc.

Happily married, with a house full of daughters, Charlie tries to juggle writing with the rest of a busy life. She loves reading, theatre, good food and watching sport. Her ideal day would be a morning walking along a beach, an afternoon spent watching rugby and a church service in the evening.

Josh Lanyon
Bestselling author of over sixty titles of classic Male/Male fiction featuring twisty mystery, kickass adventure and unapologetic man-on-man romance, JOSH LANYON has been called "the Agatha Christie of gay mystery."

Her work has been translated into eleven languages. The FBI thriller Fair Game was the first male/male title to be published by Harlequin Mondadori, the largest romance publisher in Italy. Stranger on the Shore (Harper Collins Italia) was the first M/M title to be published in print. In 2016 Fatal Shadows placed #5 in Japan's annual Boy Love novel list (the first and only title by a foreign author to place on the list).

The Adrien English Series was awarded All Time Favorite Male Male Couple in the 2nd Annual contest held by the Goodreads M/M Group (which has over 22,000 members). Josh is an Eppie Award winner, a four-time Lambda Literary Award finalist for Gay Mystery, and the first ever recipient of the Goodreads Favorite M/M Author Lifetime Achievement award.

Josh is married and they live in Southern California.

Anne Bawell
Anne Barwell lives in Wellington, New Zealand. She shares her home with Kaylee: a cat with “tortitude” who is convinced that the house is run to suit her; this is an ongoing “discussion,” and to date, it appears as though Kaylee may be winning.

In 2008, Anne completed her conjoint BA in English Literature and Music/Bachelor of Teaching. She has worked as a music teacher, a primary school teacher, and now works in a library. She is a member of the Upper Hutt Science Fiction Club and plays violin for Hutt Valley Orchestra.

She is an avid reader across a wide range of genres and a watcher of far too many TV series and movies, although it can be argued that there is no such thing as “too many.” These, of course, are best enjoyed with a decent cup of tea and further the continuing argument that the concept of “spare time” is really just a myth. She also hosts and reviews for other authors, and writes monthly blog posts for Love Bytes. She is the co-founder of the New Zealand Rainbow Romance writers, and a member of RWNZ.

Anne’s books have received honourable mentions five times, reached the finals four times—one of which was for best gay book—and been a runner up in the Rainbow Awards. She has also been nominated twice in the Goodreads M/M Romance Reader’s Choice Awards—once for Best Fantasy and once for Best Historical.

Elin Gregory
Elin Gregory lives in South Wales and works in a museum in a castle built on the edge of a Roman Fort! She reckons that's a pretty cool job.

Elin usually writes on historical subjects, and enjoys weaving the weird and wonderful facts she comes across in her research into her plots. She likes her heroes hard as nails but capable of tenderness when circumstances allow. Often they are in danger, frequently they have to make hard choices, but happy endings are always assured.

Current works in progress include one set during the Great War, another in WW2, one set in the Dark Ages and a series of contemporary romances set in a small town on the Welsh border.

Bonnie Dee
Dear Readers, I began telling stories as a child. Whenever there was a sleepover, I was the designated ghost tale teller guaranteed to frighten and thrill with macabre tales. I still have a story printed on yellow legal paper in second grade about a ghost, a witch and a talking cat.

As an adult, I enjoy reading stories about people damaged by life who find healing with a like-minded soul. When I couldn’t find enough such books, I began to write them. Whether you’re a fan of contemporary historical or fantasy romance, you’ll find something to enjoy among my books.

To stay informed about new releases, please sign up for my newsletter. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter Bonnie_Dee.

Catherine Curzon
Catherine Curzon is an author and royal historian of the 18th century.

In addition to several non-fiction books on Georgian royalty, available from Pen & Sword, she has written extensively for a number of internationally-published publications,  and has spoken at venues and events across the United Kingdom. Her first play, Being Mr Wickham, premiered to sell-out audiences in September 2019.

Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine can often be found cheering for the mighty Huddersfield Town. She lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill with a rakish colonial gentleman, a long-suffering cat and a lively dog.

Eleanor Harkstead
Eleanor Harkstead likes to dash about in nineteenth-century costume, in bonnet or cravat as the mood takes her. She knows rather a lot about poisons, and can occasionally be found wandering old graveyards. Eleanor is very fond of chocolate, wine, tweed waistcoats and nice pens, and has a huge collection of vintage hats. She is the winner of the Best Dressed Sixth Former award and came third in the under-11s race at the Colchester Fire Swim.

Originally from the south-east of England, Eleanor now lives somewhere in the Midlands with a large ginger cat who resembles a Viking.

Charlie Cochrane

Kevin Stillwell(Narrator)

Josh Lanyon

Alexander Masters(Narrator)

Anne Barwell

Elin Gregory

Bonnie Dee

Catherine Curzon

Eleanor Harkstead

Promises Made Under Fire by Charlie Cochrane

Out of the Blue by Josh Lanyon
On Wings of Song by Anne Barwell

Awfully Glad by Charlie Cochrane

Calon Lân by Elin Gregory

The Fortune Hunter by Bonnie Dee

The Captain and the Cavalry Trooper by Catherine Curzon & Eleanor Harkstead

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