Barbara in Hollywood

I suppose you’d like to hear about the day I met Marilyn Monroe.

Of course, she wasn’t the Marilyn then, but just a rather sweet young thing who’d been swept up by Hollywood. Nobody could foresee that she’d become the star she did. I liked her—most women didn’t.

The year was 1949, and I had just married Thaddeus ‘Skip’ Millington, the love of my life. I’d met him in England during the war, and I would have come to America as a GI Bride were it not for the unfortunate fact that Skip was already married. Our crime was to fall in love—or perhaps I should say that our crime was to act on our feelings. Either way, his wife refused to give him a divorce for nine, long and wearying years, and it was only when she herself found someone else, that Skip was finally free. We married quietly the following day.

Of course, it was all a great scandal because he was a Captain in the US Marines, and although he was promoted to Major at the end of the War, I know that our affair stopped his career from progressing as it should. I suppose officers are held accountable to a higher moral code than the rest of us mere mortals. That sounds awfully spiteful, and I don’t mean it like that, but Skip felt so guilty, and his wife, very publicly, sued for divorce on the grounds of his adultery. Sometimes I felt that our love wouldn’t be enough, but amor vincit omnie.

You must think me horribly wicked, and my poor dear mother certainly thought so. She was ashamed that her only daughter had enjoyed a dalliance with a married man—and I have to admit that dallying with Skip was absolutely marvelous. Mother was even more ashamed when I married a divorced man, which was a very odd set of double standards. Oh dear. We’d never been close. It was probably just as well that I was an ocean and a continent away from her. Ah well, she was born in a different century, so I can hardly blame her.

Anyway, Skip was based in San Diego, which meant that’s where I lived, too. To a young woman from London, it was such a thrill to travel to California. I adored going to the cinema so it was all terribly exciting, and I expected to see a film star on every corner. It was nearly as exciting to see real palm trees, and everyone had a shiny car as big as a boat, and telephones in their homes and swimming pools in their gardens. It seemed like Heaven on Earth. But I certainly landed with a bump, because I was deemed to be a scarlet woman by the other’s officers’ wives and I was never invited to any of the Base’s social engagements, coffee mornings, fundraisers, lunches or shopping expeditions. Occasionally, when they simply had to invite Skip for a formal dinner, I was allowed in the Officers Mess, but none of the women spoke to me, and glared daggers at any errant husband who dared to even look in my direction.

So, once I’d waved my darling husband off to work, made the beds and cleaned our little house, there wasn’t much left for me to do. I’d honestly thought that the war had been a breakthrough for women when it came to careers, but it turned out just to be a small blip in a long line of men being in charge. Once the war was over and men returned home, women were pushed back in the kitchen.

I was used to working and I liked working, but now I seemed to be unemployable.

Quite simply, I was lonely.

But one smile from my beloved and I knew that every snub and slur was worth it.

Oh, you should have seen Skip then! So handsome in his Dress Blues, so tall and strong, with eyes the color of a summer sky, his hair bleached blond by the sun. He looked like a movie star. And I wasn’t the only who thought so.

Anyway, to cheer me up, Skip suggested that we motor up to Los Angeles for the weekend and do all those wonderfully touristy things. Those quiet moments were the best days. I simply adored having Skip to myself without a uniform in sight.

We stayed at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel which was overflowing with actors and actresses, and glamorous people sipping cocktails at nine in the morning. I hadn’t realized that the Roosevelt had been financed Hollywood bigwigs like Louis B. Mayer, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. It was terribly swanky and I adored it on sight.

It also turned out that Joe Mankiewicz was staying there while he worked on a new movie. He’d directed one of my favorite films, The Philadelphia Story, and I was simply dying, dying to ask him about Cary Grant.

Joe was a darling bear of a man, never seen without his pipe, although he rarely lit it. That was a pity, because I was rather fond of the aroma of pipe tobacco. Anyway, as soon as he saw Skip, he came over to shake his hand and ask him about his latest role.

“I think you have me confused with someone else, buddy,” Skip said genially. “I’m not in the acting business.”

“Then you’re a producer, right? I know I’ve seen you somewhere.”

“Sorry,” Skip said, shaking his head, his eyes sparkling with amusement in a way that made me hopelessly gooey. “I’m just a boring ole US Marine—Major Skip Millington, and let me introduce my wife Barbara.”

Joe shook his hand. “Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Well, thank you for your service, Major, but I gotta say, the country’s gain is Hollywood’s loss. Say! I could get you a screen test like that!” and he snapped his pudgy fingers.

Skip laughed. “I haven’t acted since my college days so I’ll have to give that a pass.”

“Sure I can’t change your mind? The audience would eat up your kind of all-American looks with a spoon.”

“An activity I prefer to reserve for myself,” I interjected tartly.

He turned to look at me for the first time, his bushy eyebrows shooting upwards.

“Say, you’re British! The business can always use a British accent—you guys are pure class.”

“Thank you very much,” I smiled. “One tries one’s best.”

He grinned at us both. “I can see my pitch isn’t working on you two.”

“We are neither actor nor actress, Mr. Mankiewicz,” I smiled. “But I simply must say how much I enjoyed The Philadelphia Story. I saw it four times at the cinema. Is it true what they say about Cary Grant?”

“Depends on which rumor that you’ve heard?”

“Oh, glory! How delightful! Do tell me about all of them, please?”

He grinned. “Well, I could tell you a story or two, but how about you guys come by the studio. I’m shooting a new movie with Bette Davis, All About Eve.”

I glanced at Skip, thrilled with the idea. “Oh, darling, let’s! It sounds such fun and I’ve never been to a film studio.”

“Sure,” Skip said easily.

And so we arranged with Joe to visit at the Twentieth Century Fox lot the following day.

I adored our cherry red Cadillac Convertible and I adored the California weather—sunshine every day. Such a change from a gray and dreary bomb-damaged London with its rationing and endless queues. Skip drove with the top down all the way to Century City, south of Santa Monica, and I felt like I was with my very own film idol. Every day, Skip made me feel worshipped and loved.

Joe had left our name with the sweet little security guard at the entrance, and he told us where to park.

The film set was lit up like a Christmas tree, scaffolding bristling with lights, all pointed at a make-believe theater lobby.

It was absolutely thrilling to see Bette Davis stride onto the set, a cigarette in one hand and her script in the other.

Joe waved at us to join him, and we sat in a pair of canvas directors’ chairs and felt terribly important.

“Bette is such a professional,” he said happily. “Always letter perfect. No—syllable perfect. She’s a director’s dream: the prepared actress.”

“I’d always heard she was difficult,” I whispered.

He shrugged. “Only because she’s so good—she holds everyone to the same high standard. She can be tough.”

“What’s happening in this scene?” Skip asked.

“We got Bette playing Margo Channing, an aging actress…”

“She’s 41!” I said huffily.

I was a little sensitive on the subject since I’d reached the grand old age of 30 before getting Skip to the altar.

“Yeah, Bette’s getting a little long in the tooth for Hollywood,” he said, with no trace of irony. “Then there’s Anne Baxter playing Eve Harrington, an actress who’s pretty much taken over her role as the big star.” He dropped his voice. “It’s a good thing that Bette and Anne get along or there could have been fireworks, what with Anne having the title role.”

“Gosh, yes!” I said, listening avidly.

“Then we have George Sanders playing the important theater critic, Addison deWitt; and a new girl … uh Marilyn something. It’s just a bit-part for her. She’s lucky to have a speaking role, if you ask me.”

I think he might have said something even more indiscreet but one of the young men employed as a set ‘runner’ interrupted, so we sat back to enjoy the scene.

Bette looked stunning in a black silk cocktail dress and so teeny-tiny, barely more than five feet; her imperious eyebrows tilted up, and her supercilious mouth tilted down. Anne Baxter was adorable in navy velvet, and George Sanders looked very distinguished in evening dress, his pocket handkerchief folded just so.

I was astonished to see a young makeup artist hurry over and brush a little powder over his forehead.

“The studio lights are hot,” said Joe. “Makes everyone perspire like crazy. By the end of a long day, it gets pretty ripe in here.”

“Fascinating,” I said, slightly appalled.

And then a fourth person walked onto the set. I say ‘walked’, but really she glided, part-angel, part-Amazon, and all woman.

Even Skip sat up straighter, then grinned at me and squeezed my hand. “I prefer brunettes,” he said.

“I should hope so!” I chuckled, but my gaze was on the blonde goddess.

Her frock was the color of champagne with quite a décolletage that she filled to perfection. She wore elbow-length evening gloves to match her dress, and a white fox-fur coat. She seemed tall next to Bette and Anne, her face so young and lovely and fresh. Her red-painted lips were naturally pouting, and she had a tiny beauty-spot above her mouth—an imperfection on other women, but not on her.

Women like that make the rest of us feel like potato farmers. I have nothing against potato farmers—I used to be one; I simply mean that her beauty was on such a level, the rest of us were mere peasants by comparison.

But then I noticed something: her hands were shaking.

Underneath the beauty and glamor, the poor creature was utterly terrified.

“Positions, everyone! On your marks,” one of the runners yelled.

Joe leaned forward, his attention suddenly acute as the actor and three actresses moved to their places where little pieces of Scotch tape had been stuck to the floor.

“Tape rolling … lobby scene, take 1 … action!”

The clapperboard snapped shut and Bette spoke first, the words rolling from her like a sparkling fountain.

“I distinctly remember, Addison, crossing you off my guest list. What are you doing here?”

“Margo, you do remember Miss Caswell.”

“I do not. How do you do?”

“We’ve never met. Maybe that’s why.”

“Cut!” called Joe. “Marilyn … you need to smile more. You’re excited to meet the great Margo Channing. You’re a fan!”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Mankiewicz,” she said, her cheeks flushing at being singled out.

“Sure, kid,” he said, with a kind smile.

“Tape rolling … lobby scene, take 2 … action!”

“I distinctly remember, Addison, crossing you off my guest list. What are you doing here?”

“Margo, you do remember Miss Caswell.”

“I do not. How do you do?”

“We’ve never met. Maybe that’s why.”

“Miss Caswell is a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts. Ah, Eve!”

“Good evening, Mr. DeWitt.”

“Cut!” Joe called again. “Marilyn, honey. Stop looking so scared. Act excited.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Mankiewicz,” she said breathlessly.

He muttered something under his breath.

“Tape rolling … lobby scene, take 3 … action!”

“I had no idea you two knew each other,” said Bette, her character acting rather smug.

“We must have met in passing,” said Anne Baxter, totally in control of herself and her lines.

“That’s how you met me,” said Marilyn. “In person.”

“Cut!” yelled Joe.

“The line is ‘in passing’, not ‘in person’!”

Marilyn hung her head and apologized again. Skip threw me a look.

“Tape rolling … lobby scene, take 4 … action!”

“We must have met in passing.”

“That’s how you met me,” said Marilyn. “In passing.”

The scene seemed fine to me, but Joe made them do it three more times and Marilyn fluffed her line each time.

“Good God, have you read the script?” Bette asked coldly.

“Yes! Yes, I have,” Marilyn said helplessly.

“Then trying same the correct line in the correct place,” Bette snapped.

“Tape rolling … lobby scene, take 8 … action!”

“Then you two must have a long talk,” Bette’s character said to Anne Baxter, a great lady bestowing a favor.

“I’m afraid Mr. DeWitt would find me boring if we talked for too long,” Anne Baxter said ingenuously.

“You won’t bore him, honey,” said Marilyn as Miss Caswell. “You won’t even get a chance to talk.”

I slapped my hand over my mouth and giggled. She was funny! What marvelous comic timing. But once again, Joe called ‘cut’, saying that she’d delivered the line too quickly.

The next take it was too slowly, and we could all see that Bette Davis was growing irritated. Anne Baxter and George Sands simply continued gracefully, neither denigrating Marilyn nor supporting her.

“Have you ever been in a film studio before?” Bette asked impatiently.

Marilyn’s lips trembled. “Yes, ma’am. But just the one time.”

Bette pressed her lips together and tossed her hair.

“Then try to get your lines right, or your second appearance could well be your last,” Bette barked loudly.

Skip pulled a face, and I had to agree. Watching this poor young woman do take after take was like seeing a car crash in slow motion. I had to watch the 11th take through my fingers and I held my breath, until Joe called out:

“That’s a take it. Print it. Well done everyone. Take five.”

Marilyn gave a wobbly smile as Bette and Anne talked quietly together and George Sanders lit a cigarette. She stood there for a moment, alone and friendless, then suddenly bolted from the room.

“You’d better go check on her,” Skip whispered to me.

I raised my eyebrows but did as he asked. I suspect he was one in a long line of men who felt the need to protect little Marilyn. It wasn’t her fault—shouting at her was like shouting at Bambi.

I followed her out of the studio, the crystals on her gown glinting in the sunshine as she hurried across the dusty lot and into the ladies powder room.

Through the closed door, I heard the sound of her vomiting, and I felt so terribly sorry for her. She appeared a few minutes later, her face flushed and her eyes red, the sadness on her face turning to horror as she realized that I’d heard her.

Her gaze dropped to the floor, and she rinsed her mouth self-consciously, finally turning to acknowledge me.

“I just get so horribly nervous,” she said. “I hate it.”

I squeezed her hand sympathetically. “I understand, dear, but why do it if you hate it?”

“Because … because … I love it, too!” she said, her eyes lighting up with a childlike excitement. “When I was growing up, I didn’t like the world around me because it was kind of grim. Some of my foster families used to send me to the movies to get me out of the house and there I’d sit all day and way into the night. Up in front, there with the screen so big, a little kid all alone, and I loved it. When I heard that this was acting, I said that’s what I want to be.” She shrugged. “So here I am. I know I’m terrible…”

“You’re not terrible!” I said quickly.

“That’s awfully sweet of you to say that, but I know I am.”

“Not at all. You’re actually very funny with perfect comic timing.”

Her eyes widened. “I am?”

“Yes, and with a little more confidence, I feel sure that you’ll do wonderfully.”

I was so surprised when she threw her arms around me and hugged me tightly.

“Thank you, ma’am,” she said. “I sure appreciate that.”

She checked her lipstick, then glided from the powder room, her head held high.

What a strange place Hollywood was—a land where everything on the screen was fake and nothing was real. I was very glad that I wasn’t an actress.

I walked back to Skip, deep in thought.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“She’s a poor thing,” I said, shaking my head. “She said she was brought up in foster homes. And I think she’s lonely.”

Joe interrupted whatever Skip was about to say.

“Hey, you guys want to be extras in the background? You don’t have to say anything—we’re shooting a crowd scene next.”

Skip grinned at me and nodded. “Sure, why not?”

It appeared that I was about to become an actress for the day after all.

As we motored back to the Roosevelt happy and tired, Skip tuned the radio to a news station. It had been such an exciting day, and we still had to shower and dress before dinner with Joe and one of the film’s producers.

As we pulled in the hotel’s palm-fringed parking lot, we just caught the end of the radio announcer about Kim il-Sung meeting with Stalin.

“Who’s Kim il-Sung?”

“The Premier of North Korea,” Skip answered grimly.

“Korea? What’s happening in Korea? Why’s he visiting Stalin?”

“There’s a lot of tension there—guerilla action on the border.”

“Good God, surely not? Isn’t the world weary of war?”

“You’d think so. But something’s brewing.”

I didn’t know then how prophetic his words were, or how much the Korean conflict would come to dominate our lives.

Skip opened the Cadillac’s door and helped me out.

“Korea: that’s on the 38th parallel, isn’t it?”

Skip laughed. “It is. Anyone would have thought you’d worked for the British government as a spy.”

I laughed. “I was never a spy, as you well know.”

“No, just doing something very top secret,” he said, tapping his nose.

I ignored his teasing. “Someone should write a book, a thriller, and call it ‘The Thirty-Eighth Parallel’.”

“You should write it, Miss Smarty-pants.”

“That’s Mrs. Smarty-pants to you, Major Millington.”

He grinned his adorable smile and swept me into a Hollywood kiss.

“And don’t you forget it, Mrs. Millington.”

“Never,” I breathed, lost in the fervent joy of being in this man’s arms.

We’d had a wonderful day in Hollywood, a punctuation mark in our happiness.

As for Miss Marilyn Monroe, I never did meet her again.


I hope you enjoyed that gallop through Hollywood of 1949. All About Eve was a commercial success. I have invented Bette Davis’ comments to Marilyn Monroe, but it is true that during a scene that took 11 takes, Marilyn vomited from sheer nerves.

The film premiered in 1950, the same year that the Korean War began.

If you enjoyed the characters of Skip and Barbara, you can meet them again in my duel-timeline novel
The Lilac Cadillac

The Bet

This month, we’re going back to the carnival, a series that I first started several years ago. Funnel cake, cotton candy, carousels, and smokin’ hot stunt riders!

Buckle up! It’s going to be a bumpy ride!

“Come on, sugar. Let’s go get you some cotton candy.”Tucker held my hand as we strolled along the midway, unembarrassed to show affection, perfectly at ease with the role of adoring boyfriend. He grinned down at me and winked.I knew what he was doing: he was trying to take my mind off his upcoming performance.

I hadn’t seen this side of Tucker before. He always seemed so reckless, so free; but there was another side to him, a thoughtful, caring side. And I couldn’t help loving him a little more.

“Want some funnel cake, Tera?”

“I’d love to, but I can’t afford the calories, and you shouldn’t eat something so heavy before a show.”

“No can’t with us, sugar. We’re at the carnival—funnel cake is part of the fun. Do what feels good.”

“I’ll get fat and you won’t want me anymore.”

He chuckled quietly. “Just more of you to hold in my arms.”

“Very smooth, Mr. McCoy.”

“You’re welcome, Miss Hawkins.”

At that moment Jade, one of the trapeze artist twins, walked past wearing the smallest shorts I’d ever seen and a strip of material covering her chest that might generously be called a bandage, maybe a Band-Aid, although I think it was supposed to be a tube top.

She glared at me, threw a look at Tucker as if to say, see what you’re missing, then tossed her glossy hair over her shoulder and stalked off.

“I can see your eyeballs swiveling from here,” I griped.

“I was being polite,” he grinned at me.

“What? How on earth did you come up with that?”

“I only looked at the parts she’s got covered.”

A reply floundered on my lips as I took in his amused expression.

“Aw, sugar. She’s got nothin’ on you. I wouldn’t say her tits are small, but they’d be pointless without nipples.”

I settled for tickling the life out of him, but he dodged away laughing.

“You’re such a guy! I bet you couldn’t go a whole evening without making a boob joke. Maybe an evening—definitely not a whole week.”

“Is that a fact?”

“Yes! That’s a fact!”

He gave me a foxy grin. “Yeah? And what do I get if I win?”

“You, me, alone at home with a tub of ice cream.”

Tucker licked his lips. “Deal. Salted caramel crunch.”

“Hmm, what makes you assume you’ll win?”

He leaned down, his breath warm across my neck. “Because I want the prize.”

I laughed hungrily. “I could win, and you haven’t even heard my terms yet.”

“Okay,” he said, crossing his arms across his chest. “You won’t win, but what do you want?”

“You, naked.”

Tucker laughed. “Sugar, you have that every night.”

I glanced around me for inspiration when my eyes lit on the carousel and the stripy wooden zebra with golden hooves. It was my favorite of all the carousel animals.

“You, naked on the carousel.”

Tucker’s eyebrows shot up.

“You have to ride it naked for one complete rotation.

Tucker snorted with amusement.

“Not that you’ll win, sugar, but I’ll scare the kids doin’ that … and their mommas.”

“After the fairground closes,” I smiled serenely. “Is it a bet?”

“Salted caramel crunch,” he stated.

“The zebra,” I reminded him as we shook hands.


“Deal,” I grinned.

“Want to take a ride with me now?” he asked, one corner of his mouth lifting. “With clothes?”

“Sure, I’d love…”

But then the PA announced that the Daredevils would be performing in an hour.

Tucker sighed. “Gotta get going. Raincheck on the carousel?”

I loved and hated this part: I loved seeing Tucker doing what he loved, which was hurling his stunt bike high into the air, up ramps, over jumps, through walls of flames, the crowd gasping, cheering, yelling; and I hated it because I loved him and I didn’t want to see him get hurt. I hated that every day, he put himself in danger.

But he was one of four Daredevils in my half-brother’s carnival motorcycle show.

I’d have to learn to deal.

Tucker seemed born to smile, but I’d learned that it was a mask he wore to cover the harshness of his early years. Now, it felt like his smile was real, and it was for me. And he loved the carnival with all its color and noise and excitement.

I watched as he pulled on a set of leathers with body armor, then covered his face, neck and hands with flameproof gel. I watched as his focus became intense, and I watched as he fastened the crash helmet over his head, and pulled on his leather gloves.

Then I made my way to the stands to watch the show from between my fingers.

And 40 minutes later, when my throat was hoarse from screaming, gasping and shouting, and my palms were sweaty, and I walked weak-kneed and wobbly to the performers’ area, Tucker kissed me with all the hunger and passion a man can have.

Then he hauled me behind him to the RV, bent me over the bed and made me scream again.

An hour later, we drove home to my cottage, enjoying each other in a more relaxed way.

We lay in the bath tub together, soaking off the stickiness and sweat of our love-making, me leaning against his chest and reading a magazine; Tucker kissing my neck and alternately stroking my thighs.

“I love your thighs,” he muttered, his breath hot against the back of my neck. “I love this lil ole beauty spot right here,” and he pressed his finger against it. “I love how soft your skin is,” and he ran a finger up my leg. “And I love your sweet tits,” he sighed. “I love that they’re big enough to keep a magazine dry while you’re reading in the tub,” and he sniggered.

He knew that I thought my boobs were too big, and even though he didn’t, he knew his comment would annoy me, so he wasn’t prepared for my smile.

“You just lost our bet, Tucker.”

“What be— Oh shit, no!”

“Oh yes,” I said, giving my evil laugh. “I knew you couldn’t resist a boob joke. Well, the joke’s on you—one naked streak through the fairground followed by a naked carousel ride. There’s a zebra out there with your name on it.

“Sugar, that wasn’t a boob joke,” he said weakly, “that was just statin’ a fact.”

“Are you welching on the bet?” I asked, my eyebrows shooting up.

He squirmed, unable to meet my sever gaze.

“Nooo,” he said at last. “But you’re not gonna make me do it, are you?”

“You bet your sweet ass I am. And maybe it’ll teach you not to be boobist.”

Of course, I told everyone about the bet when we returned to the Pomona fairground. It was all the carnies could talk about, so by the time the last paying customer had left, there was quite a crowd waiting and watching.

“You’re really going to make me do this?” he whined.

The expression on Tucker’s face was priceless.

“Yes, I’m really going to make you do this: a bet is a bet.”

“And it has to be the zebra?”

I grinned at him. “I like the stripes.”

He leaned in closely, his warm breath making me shiver.

“I think you just want to get me out of my clothes, Miss Hawkins.”


He grinned back.

“You’re really going to make me do this?” he asked once more, shaking his head.

“Are you going to back out, chicken?” I laughed.

Tucker threw me a look as everyone around him started clucking.

“Please, please back out!” Aimee begged. “I don’t want to see Tucker’s schlong again!”

The other Daredevils laughed while my half-brother, Kes, glared at Tucker.

“When did she see your dick?”

Aimee rolled her eyes. “More times than I care to remember. He’s always forgetting to take his towel into the shower!” Then she looked at me and winked. “Nice going, Tera.”

Tucker smirked, and I thought Kes was going to lose his temper, but then Aimee whispered something in his ear, and his gaze went from annoyed to heated in a split second.

“Sugar, I’ll drop my pants for you anytime you want,” said Tucker, and to prove his point, he started unbuttoning his jeans. “Tell Carl to start up the carousel!”

“Oh God, he’s really doing it,” Aimee moaned.

Tucker winked at her and pushed his jeans to the ground, then stepped out of them, his bare feet kicking free.

Then he yanked his t-shirt over his head and tossed it to me.

“Wait!” I yelped as he started to slide his hands inside his briefs. “What…? When did you do that?”

I pointed at his back. Across the smallest of his tattoos, the star resting in the small of his back, there was a red, irritated patch, and a new addition to the ink.

I walked up to him and stared. It was my name: the word ‘Tera’ had been written in flowing script across his golden skin.

“Tucker, I…”

Tears stared in my eyes.

“Hush now, sugar,” he said gathering me into his arms.

“I can’t believe you did that,” I said, my voice awed.

He shrugged, as if it was no big deal.

“You shine so bright, Tera,” he said, his voice soft. “Wherever I travel, I’ll always find my way home to you.”

Damn him. Those beautiful words were going to make me cry.

“Pussy!” coughed Zef suddenly, making everyone laugh.

“Hey!” I protested. “We were having a moment!”

Tucker grinned at me. “Probably the kind of moment we’d best have in private, if you know what I mean.”

And he glanced down at the front of his briefs.

“Oh, wow, sorry!” I said, unsure whether to step back, or help him hide a rather enormous erection.

“Still want me to strip and run naked across the fairground?” he asked, quirking an eyebrow at me.


In the distance, we heard the music of the carousel start up.

“Play or pay, brother,” Zef smirked. “Admit you’re a pussy and…”

But Tucker had already pushed his briefs over the curve of his ass, showcasing that fabulously tight butt. Then he was off and running, his dick swinging in the wind.

“My eyes, they burn,” Aimee groaned, covering her face.

I grabbed Tucker’s jeans as I heard his happy laughter echoing across the fairground. And I ran after him clutching my phone. I was going to record this to show our grandchildren one day. Well, maybe not all of it.

That man, that fine, fine man. My man.


You can read Tera and Tucker’s story in Roustabout

The Year Book: Volume 1: an anthology of short stories

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Jordan’s Valentine’s Day letter

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I was challenged to write a Valentine’s Day love letter from one of my main characters to the love of his life.
I chose Jordan Kane from my contemporary romance LIFERS.

I hope you enjoy it!


Today was Valentine’s Day. I know. I’m sorry. Sorry that I didn’t buy you a card or give you red roses. I also know that you told me you didn’t want those things or dinner in a restaurant covered with paper hearts. You didn’t want any of that because you said it was rip off and commercial and invented to separate people from their hard-earned money.

So I didn’t. And then I saw the disappointment in your eyes when you woke up this morning. I never want to see that look in your eyes again. I never want to disappoint you.

I’m an ex-con working a blue-collar job for 18 bucks an hour. But in my head, I imagine that I’m wearing a fine Italian suit like you saw in that magazine last week, and you’d be wearing something fancy, something real expensive. And I’d try to remember to compliment you on your dress, but I wouldn’t have a clue what you were wearing because when I look at you, I can’t see past the incredible woman with a heart as big as Texas: I can only see my beautiful wife.

If I could, I’d take you somewhere real upscale. There’d be a starched white cloth on the table, napkins folded into fancy shapes, and candles all around us. I’d order champagne and the best food on the menu. We’d eat and laugh and talk, and I’d take you dancing till dawn. Then I’d lay you down on soft sheets and love you till the sun was high in the sky.

But I wanted you to know that I don’t need a special day to tell me to love you more, one day in a year when I treat you good and tell you how much I love you and appreciate you. Because every day, you are my world, my reason for getting up in the morning. I open my eyes and see your beautiful face, your hair tangled around you, all wild and sexy. And your eyes open and you look at me with such trust, so much love, and my heart feels like it could explode from how big my love is for you.

All those days I spent in juvie, all those days in prison, my life was gray, meaningless, hopeless. My punishment was to carry on living. Meeting you was the sun blazing down on my hard Texas heart, my broken bitter heart. I didn’t believe life was worth living ’til I met you. I’m so, so happy I was wrong. You brought me back to life.

And now every day is special. You are the sun that lights my path.

I love you more than…

My letter was interrupted by Torrey herself, large as life and twice as gorgeous.

“Whatcha doing, stud?”

“Nothin’,” I said, squinting up as the sun cast a halo around her.

“Well, it looks a lot like something,” she grinned, arching one eyebrow. “And I just checked in the kitchen and it looks like someone is cooking someone else a roast dinner with all the trimmings.”

“Someone sure might be,” I grinned back.

“Hmm, interesting. And it looks a lot like someone has bought someone else so much of that French candy that someone likes, it’s enough to open a sweet shop.”

“You don’t say?”

“And I might just happened to have noticed about a billion sunflowers in vases all over the kitchen.”

“Well, ain’t that amazin’! Specially as sunflowers always remind me of you,” I smiled. “I guess some other fella must a’ thought you’d like ‘em, too.”

“It’s possible, but why would I be interested in any other man when my husband is so freakin’ gorgeous, loves me from here to Sunday every day of the week, and makes me scream when he’s loving me in our bed?”

“When you put it like that, I have no idea.”

“And now I’m wondering why you’re sitting in the back yard with one of my old student notebooks and a broken bit of pencil. It might make a suspicious woman think that you were writing a love letter.”

“Is that a fact?”

“That’s a fact. And I want to read it.”

“Maybe it’s not for you,” I teased.

“Jordan Kane! If that letter isn’t for me, you just breathed your last breath, buddy.

“Throttle back, firecracker,” I grinned at her, standing up and holding the letter just out of reach.

I was 6’ 2” and her tiny five foot nothing frame couldn’t reach my outstretched arm.

“Jordan! Give me my damn letter before I climb you like a tree!”

“Is that a threat? ‘Cause it’s soundin’ pretty good so far, sweetheart.”

“You’re really not going to give me that letter?” she asked, her head cocked on one side, the corner of her mouth turning up in a sly smile.

“Nope,” I said, wondering what her sneaky mind would come up with.

She placed her hand over my zipper and sweat broke out on my forehead.

“I’d really like to read my letter,” she said, rubbing her hand up and down my crotch, stoking the heat that swept through my body like wildfire. “After all, you were writing it for me.”

“It’s not finished,” I said stubbornly as my knees began to shake.

I closed my eyes and groaned as she tugged open my belt and slid her hand into my jeans, tugging them down.

“Torrey!” I grit out, my voice getting hoarse.

And then when I started to wrap my hands around her, the little witch grabbed the letter and danced away. I tried to follow but hobbled by my jeans, I tripped over and ended up face down in the dirt.

“Damn, woman! You’re mean!” I spluttered, coughing and wheezing as the dry dirt billowed around me.

“Quiet! I’m reading my Valentine letter!”

She held out her hand, stopping me from coming closer, even though I was still laying in the dirt and too dazed to move.

I sat up slowly, watching her face as she read all the way through, every emotion flashing across her expressive face. A smile played on her beautiful lips. Until she got to the end.

“You love me more than what, Jordan?” Love was stark and raw in her eyes as she gazed up at me. “What do you love me more than?”

She crawled into my lap and I held her in my arms, my mouth hovering above hers.

“I love you more than my own life, darlin’.”

And then I kissed my beautiful wife and prayed our love would follow us through the years.

She was my sunshine, and she’d taught me to hope.



Jordan and Torrey’s story is available in Amazon’s KU

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Read Totally Booked’s review “5 gut-wrenching stars”


This month, I bring you NOTORIOUS! A case of mistaken identity!

Welcome to your monthly short story! There’ll be love, loss, laughs, heartache and heartbreak as we travel through the year, wherever my imagination takes me. I enjoy writing drama, comedy, paranormal, children’s stories, historical romance—I love writing in all sorts of genres.

This month, I bring you NOTORIOUS! A case of mistaken identity!


I’m not normally one of those people who wears sunglasses inside because only nightclub bouncers and celebrities can get away with that, but I had the mother of all hangovers after several tequila shots too many last night.

It was Patty’s fault, my awesome best friend who had the great idea for a post-holiday-banish-the-blues-girls-night-in-with-pizza-and-shots—I think Hallmark make a card for that now. But mostly, we gorged ourselves because neither of us had dates, again. So, the girls’ night-in had turned into a pity party for two with aforementioned tequila shots and singing a medley of karaoke duets very badly.

Which meant that right now, light of any kind burned my retinas and made my head pound like someone was jackhammering inside my skull. Which was why I was standing in line at Chick-fil-A ordering four sausage, egg and cheese biscuits at 630 calories each, a 16oz black coffee to-go, and yeah—wearing dark glasses.

“You should be ashamed of yourself!” hissed the woman standing behind me, which seemed a little harsh.

My calorific-intake was between me and my elasticated sweatpants.

“It’s not all for me,” I protested. “One is for me, and the others are for a friend.”

I was lying: we were having two each to try and soak up tequila with a healthy dose of grease.

“You’re the kind of person who gives all women a bad name!” she said, raising her voice. “He’s married!”

“Who? The Chick-fil-A server?”

I peeked over my shoulder as she scowled at me. Great, I was in the line with a resident weirdo.

I tried to ignore her and hunched my shoulders a little, relieved that my order was up next. I grabbed my food and coffee, mumbling thanks to the server who was staring at me open-mouthed. What the fred-and-ginger was with everyone today?

I shuffled off breathing in the delicious aroma of fresh coffee, almost drooling at the fried-goodness of sausage, egg and cheese biscuits, so I wasn’t prepared when the crazy-lady shoved me in the back.

I stumbled in my flip-flops, sloshing hot coffee over my t-shirt, my sunglasses slipping down my nose.

“Hey!” I yelled up at her.

I was nonplussed to see that she had her cell phone out and was honest-to-God filming me! And she wasn’t the only one. As I gazed around the Inglewood branch of Chick-fil-A, every single person there was taking photographs; no one was helping me.

“Oh-em-gee!” yelled a teenage girl from behind me. “It’s her! Ya know, the one who slept with that movie star and made a sex-tape!”

“Caleb Logan!”

“His wife left him because of it! Greta something…”

“Greta Saxonby!”

“You mean Great Sex-on-me!” laughed a guy in the corner. “Hey, girl! Thought you lived in Beverly Hills. What you doin’ slummin’ it here?”

Suddenly, people were yelling at me from all directions.

“What’s Caleb like in bed?”

“Is it true that Caleb’s wife called you a homewrecker?”

“Perez Hilton said you were a scarlet ho!”

“Are you carrying Caleb Logan’s baby?”

I was hungover, hadn’t yet inhaled my first hit of caffeine, and I was surrounded by an angry mob, jostling to step all over me. I started to panic, and shouldered my way through the crowd. But they followed me outside, still yelling, getting in my face and filming it all, surrounding me, pushing and shoving. I dropped my coffee and biscuits and ran, losing one of my spangled flip-flops in the process.

“Start the car!” I screeched at Patty.

I saw her head bob up from her cell phone, eyes widening as the mob with phones instead of pitchforks chased me through the Chick-fil-A parking lot.

“Hurry!” I yelled, praying that her little Toyota wouldn’t choose this precise moment to break down again, but Esmeralda started first time, and I leapt into the passenger seat.

“What’s happening?” Patty screamed.

“Drive! Drive! Drive!”

I hid my face in my hands as flashlights from cell phones nearly blinded me, and several people banged on the window then the trunk of the car. Patty blazed out of there like she was driving at a NASCAR race.

She blew through a stop sign at 50mph and finally braked at the first red light we came to. My hands were shaking so badly, it took three tries to clip my seatbelt into place. A motorcycle cop shook his head at me as he pulled alongside. I was too freaked by what had just happened to care.

Patty looked like she was in shock, her hands strangling the steering wheel.

“What was that?” she whispered, her voice quivering.

“They thought I was an actress Greta Something. Then they all started screaming at me. It was freakin’ scary.”

She turned to look at me, her eyes widening. “Greta Saxonby! I always said you looked like that skinny white chick,” she gasped. “Except you’re prettier.”

“Thanks, I think,” I said, shaking my head.

“Why were they so mad at you?”

“Something about Caleb Whatsisface, the actor.”

“Wait! Caleb Logan? The Caleb Logan?”

“I guess?”

“And they chased you? Why?”

I shook my head, dazed and definitely confused.

“You need to know!” she said emphatically.

I googled ‘Greta & Caleb’ on my phone, eyes widening with each line I read; then I groaned.

“Oh no, I get it now. Kind of. Greta Saxonby and Caleb Logan made a sex-tape and it’s all over the internet.”

“Wow, he’s only been married six months to that Country & Western singer, Donna something.”

“I know, right? What a dick.”

“Yeah, totally. And you know what else? It’s really unfair that this Greta chick gets the blame. She’s single; she’s not the one swinging a dick at anyone within reach. Caleb Logan is such a horn dog!”

She was right. The single woman in this, Greta Saxonby, was getting the blame even though the douche movie star Caleb Logan had been the one who was married, the one who was cheating. Another case of Hollywood double standards. The Washington two-step was for crooked politicians; in LA, it was the blame-game in a state where divorce assets were split 50-50.

“Hey, where’re my biscuits?” Patty complained, tossing her long dreads over her shoulder and squinting at me. “You know I need biscuits like Momma made after a tequila session.”

I threw her a look that said, I was chased by a mob, nearly lynched and lost my favorite flip-flop, so sorry-not-sorry about your darn biscuits!

“Lame,” she muttered, sticking out her lower lip.

By the time she’d driven the four miles to our tiny one-story cottage in Westchester, whining the whole way about how hungry she was and how she needed home-cooked biscuits, two things had happened: I was ready to kill my best friend, and the photos of me in Chick-fil-A were all over Instagram and Twitter.

Groaning, I switched off my phone and trudged to our ancient coffee machine, staring in despair at the filter which had already been re-used twice, but I definitely wasn’t braving the great outdoors again.

I had no way of knowing that there was worse to come.

We spent the rest of the morning in yoga pants and baggy t-shirts binge-watching Bridgerton,drooling over the Earl of Hastings and laughing at Colin Bridgerton’s hair.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when someone hammered on the front door and wouldn’t stop. I grabbed my prized baseball bat signed by Erik Karros and peeked through the spyhole.

“Holy shit! Have you looked outside?” whispered Patty. “There are three news vans outside and a bunch of reporters. Oh my God! Check your phone!”

While we’d been watching TV, the story had gone viral. Only this time, people had found out my name and were now saying that I was the one who’d made a sex-tape with Caleb Logan, that Greta Saxonby was an innocent victim, and that I was a home-wrecking ho who’d slept with a married man. In the space of four hours, I’d become notorious.

“You have to put out a press release setting the facts straight,” said Patty.

“A press release? I’m a barista at Peet’s Coffee Hut not Kim Kardashian!” I yelled, very, very quietly.

“Right now you’re trending way higher than Kim,” she grinned at me.

“Not helping! I am so freaked right now!”

“Yeah, my bad,” she admitted. “But I’m not kidding about the press release. Put a post on your Instagram page and Tweet something as well. But, um, don’t read any of the messages and I think you should turn off commenting.” She bit her lip, her dark eyes flashing. “I’m going to call Diego and Stanley,” she said, mentioning her brother and his husband. “We’re going to need some serious muscle to get out of our house today.”

“Maybe we should just stay here and, you know, hide?”

Someone banged on the backdoor.

“I’m calling the cops!” I yelped. “Those jerks are trespassing!”

Patty wrinkled her nose. “Take a shower first and put on some makeup. You want to look your best on Huff Post.”

I hated that she was right.

I’d just finishing blow-drying my hair and dressed in my favorite jeans and cute little shirt when Stanley and Diego arrived, pushing their way through the crowds outside. I felt a little teary when I saw them: apart from the fact they were the cutest couple ever, it was like having two scarily enormous big brothers to look out for me.

“You know how to cause a sensation, girl!” said Diego, scooping me into a hug. “So how was Caleb? He as hot as he looks in his movies?”

“You’re kidding me, right? You don’t really think I made a sex-tape with Caleb Logan?”

He looked genuinely disappointed.

“You sure?” asked Stanley.

“Jeez, Stan! I think I’d remember something like that! Everyone has me confused with Greta Saxonby.”

“Um, well, I hate to tell you, but Greta Saxonby just put out a press release saying that the sex-tape wasn’t her and that she’d never sleep with a married man. Basically, she just threw you under a bus.”

My knees gave way. “Oh God,” I whispered. “Who’s going to believe me now? I feel sick!”

“You need an escort to work?” asked Diego kindly.

“You should take the day off,” said Patty, rubbing my shoulder. “Call Maurice and tell him you’re sick and can’t work tonight.”

My stomach lurched. “I think I’ll do that. It won’t even be a lie,” I said, my lips trembling.

It took me three tries to get through to my boss at Peet’s because the line was busy. But when I finally spoke to him, he fired me on the spot.

“I didn’t do anything!” I protested.

“There’s a clause in your contract that says you can’t do anything to damage the company’s good name,” he sneered. “Making a celebrity sex-tape definitely counts; I checked with our lawyers. This is a family restaurant!” and he cut the call.

I stared at my cell phone in disbelief. In a few hours, my life had fallen apart because of a case of mistaken identity. I wasn’t naïve enough to think that being innocent was going to protect me.

“What do I do now?” I asked, my eyes begging my friends for an answer.

But none of them would meet my gaze. Eventually, Patty replied.

“It’s still worth putting out your own press release,” she said softly.

“For all the good that will do now Greta-big-fat-liar-Saxonby has put out hers,” I sniffed, very close to tears.

Diego squeezed my hand. “Get out of town for a few days. Go visit your parents,” he suggested. “By the time you come back, this will all have died down.”

“Maybe,” I said uncertainly, “but every internet search from now until the sun goes supernova will link my name with a sex-tape and a douchey movie star. How’s that going to look on a résumé? No one will believe me. No one will hire me.”

“There is one way,” Patty said slowly. “Maybe.”

I looked up, hope flaring inside my chest. “What? What is it?”

“Get Caleb Logan to tell the truth.”

My hope died a sudden and tragic death. “He’ll never do that.”

Patty chewed her lip. “He might! He’s got nothing to lose by telling the truth. In fact, if he tries to help you, it’ll make him look good. Well, better than the cheating scum he is; he’ll be a cheating scum with a heart. This is Hollywood—everyone loves a comeback kid!”

Diego grinned at his sister. “I think that’s a great idea. All we have to do is make a call to the guy’s publicist. I can guarantee he’ll already be looking for a way to spin the story.”

Hope took a tiny peek out from under a dark cloud and told me that this could work. Possibly. But it was my only chance.

“Give me a dollar,” said Stanley, looking at me.

“Excuse me? My life is going down the toilet and you want me to lend you a buck?” I huffed.

He gave a deep, booming laugh. “I’m a lawyer and if you pay me a retainer, I can represent you.”

“You’re a tax attorney,” laughed Patty.

Stanley shrugged. “I’ll make the call and tell them I’m Gemma’s lawyer. It won’t be a lie.” He smiled at me. “And it’ll be more way more fun than tax law.”

“You guys are the best,” I hiccoughed, feeling happier and weepy at the same time. “Legit, my best friends in the whole world.”

“Remember that when you’re being interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel,” Patty grinned.

I held my breath while Stanley googled Caleb Logan’s publicist, then exhaled deeply while he was put on hold.

And waited.

And waited.

And then I made coffee for everyone and waited some more.

Eventually, Stanley spoke to someone and nodded. Then he shook his head, talked about suing, nodded, shook his head, waited some more, then finally said, “We’ll be ready.”

“What did they say?”

“They’re sending a car to bring Ms. Gemma Parkinson and her attorney, moi, to meet Caleb Logan’s publicist. Better put your game-face on, girlfriend!”

Stanley high-fived me while I squealed with a mixture of shock, relief and excitement.

We agreed that we’d all go, mostly because Patty and Diego didn’t want to be imprisoned in the house all day, and because I was very happy to have my friends with me.

Twenty minutes later, Stanley’s phone buzzed and he nodded. “The car’s outside: sunglasses on, everybody. Remember, whatever anyone says, reply ‘no comment’. Even if they ask you about the weather. Right, let’s go!”

As soon as Diego opened the front door, it was like the Chick-fil-A parking lot all over again except ten times worse. Reporters shoved huge, hairy microphones at me and yelled in my face as Diego wrapped his arm around my waist and almost carried me to the waiting limo. I glanced at Patty over my shoulder, and even her excited smile had dropped at the sight of the crowd and the horrible things that were being shouted.

An enormous security guard pulled open the limo’s door and shoved us inside, telling the reporters to back off.

The noise was horrendous and horribly intimidating. How on earth did real celebrities put up with this all of the time?

The limo nudged its way through the crowd as bright camera flashes surrounded us like fireworks. Thank God the windows were tinted. I was still shaking by the time the car made it to the 405 heading north.

“We’re being followed,” Patty said, pressing her face to the window.

The driver glanced in the rear view mirror and put his foot down, screaming through a light on amber and leaving the journalists fuming at the lights.

“Thank you!” I gasped gratefully, earning me a smile.

We turned off the freeway and headed toward Topanga Canyon, pulling through the gates of a pretty ranch-style house on the hills above the beach. It was smaller than I’d expected from a world-famous movie star, but still four times the size of our apartment, and it had a beautiful pool out on one side.

When the driver opened my door, a huge hairy hound came bounding towards me barking and growling. I squealed and tried to get back in the limo, but the dog pinned me to the car and started slobbering all over my carefully applied makeup.

“Get! Off! Me!” I spluttered.

“Boss! Down!” someone yelled.

The dog obligingly took its huge paws off of my shoulders and dropped down to all fours, pushing his nose in my crotch. And then, the giant mangy beast cocked his leg and peed on me.

I stood staring in horror and disbelief as a stream of yellow urine cascaded down my favorite jeans.

“Boss, no!” shouted the same man.

He came hurrying forwards and grabbed the dog’s collar.

“What are you doing here?” he shouted. “This is private property!”

“Your Rottweiler just peed all over my jeans and you’re yelling at me?”

“Who are you?” he insisted, his stormy gray eyes flashing.

“Gemma Parkinson,” I said in a small voice, still dripping as the dog tried to sniff me again.


Stanley inched out of the limo, eyeing the dog carefully. Even the driver had stayed inside.

“I’m Ms. Parkinson’s attorney. We were given this address for a meeting with Caleb Logan’s publicist.”

The guy cussed a blue streak with the words ‘jerk’ and ‘dick’ repeated several times, and those were just the things that were safe to repeat.

He was easy on the eyes with his wavy chestnut hair, nicely-filled worn jeans and a faded band t-shirt, but he was still a raging a-hole, and I had no clue who he was. He hadn’t even apologized for his socially-unacceptable guard dog.

Just then, a bright-red Ferrari screeched through the gates and Caleb Logan jumped out of the car.

I did a double-take. He looked like a shinier, more polished version of the guy with the dog.

“Hey, you must be Gemma. I hear we had a crazy night of wild monkey sex together! Wish I could remember it!” He held out his hand then frowned at the other man. “Dude, can you smell piss?”

“What are you doing here, Caleb?” the other man asked.

“This is my big brother Caden,” the movie star grinned as my gaze flitted between them. “I’m the younger, handsomer version.”

I shook his hand limply, then stared at the movie star’s brother. This man’s hair was darker and he didn’t have the famous, easy-going charm of his brother. In fact, he looked very intense, and very annoyed. But I’d have to be blind not to notice that he was also very hot.

“How nice,” I grit out, determined not to go fan-girl on either of them.

“I’m Stanley Cooper, Ms. Parkinson’s attorney,” said Stanley in a smooth voice, eyeing the brothers appreciatively.

“These are my friends Patty and Diego,” I said weakly as they scrambled out of the limo. “We couldn’t leave them at the house—it’s surrounded by reporters.”

Caleb just winked at me, but his brother Caden looked mad.

“And you invited them to my house because…?”

Caleb shrugged. “Donna threw me out and I needed somewhere private for this… whatever.”

Caden shook his head but didn’t reply. Instead, he turned and led us through the house and out to a private patio at the back where we sat under the shade of three towering dogwood trees.

“Uh … you want some water, coffee?” he asked, shoving his hands in his jean pockets.

“Both,” I said tiredly. “And some pee-free jeans, if you have them.”

“Sorry about that,” he mumbled. “It just means that Boss likes you. He’s really gentle when you get to know him.” He gave me a faint smile. “I have a pair of sweatpants you can borrow.”

“Thanks,” I sighed. “Just when I thought this day couldn’t get any worse…”

He led me into the house and darted into a room where I could hear him opening drawers. He finally emerged with a pair of enormous sweatpants.

“They’re way too big for you but they’re all I’ve got,” he shrugged. “You can wash up in there.”

In his bathroom, I cleaned myself off as best I could, then pulled on the enormous sweatpants. I looked like a clown and had to hold up the pants with one hand. I shuffled back outside where everyone was waiting for me.

“Please, help yourself,” Caden said, waving at a coffee pot and jug of water.

He waited until everyone had gotten a drink then stared pointedly at his brother.

“So, what can I do for you, Ms. Parkinson?” Caleb asked. “Or can I call you Gemma, seeing as we slept together?”

“No, you can’t!” I snapped, my eyes narrowing. “We did not sleep together or make a sleazy sex tape, and you haven’t earned the right to call me by my first name.”

He looked completely taken aback, but I saw that Caden had a small smile on his face. I glanced at Stanley who explained the situation succinctly as I blushed bright red when the sex-tape was mentioned again, and I felt Caden’s dark gray eyes pinned on me.

“It wasn’t me on that tape,” I said softly. “But since Greta Saxonby pretty much said it was me, well, it’s been awful. People are saying terrible things about me—untrue things. I even lost my job. My boss said I’d brought Peet’s Coffee into disrepute.”

“You’re a barista?” Caden asked.

I nodded.

“You’re not an actress?”

“No, I’m in school.”

“What are you studying?”

“Math. I want to be a teacher.”

“It didn’t take you long to lawyer-up,” Caleb sneered, apparently annoyed at being left out of the conversation.

I blinked up at him, surprised by his aggression. He certainly wasn’t trying to be charming anymore.

“Stanley is Diego’s husband, and Diego is Patty’s brother. Patty is my best friend. So getting all lawyered-up as you put it is my friends helping me out,” I said fiercely. “And maybe this is another day in Lala Land to you, but this is my whole life! No one will ever hire me as a teacher if they think there’s a sex-tape out there. I know that I didn’t sleep with you and you know that, too. Presumably Greta Saxonby knows that she did sleep with you, but seeing as she’s not prepared to tell the truth, I’m hoping that you will.” I looked down. “Or my life will be ruined for something that I didn’t do.”

He leaned back in his chair, a smug smile on his face. “Why should I?”

His brother gave him a sharp look. “Don’t be such a dick, Caleb.”

I was surprised at his support and managed a weak smile.

“And I think your brother’s supporters would like to see him do the right thing for an innocent woman,” said Stanley.

Caleb’s smug smile fell. “How much do you want?”

“Excuse me?”

He leaned forward, glaring at me. “I’m not saying we’ll pay you off, but how much money do you want?”

“I don’t want your money!” I said, offended. “I just want you to tell the truth.”

Stanley nudged my elbow. “I need to confer with my client.” Then he lowered his voice. “Don’t be a fool, girl! You could pay off your student loans, maybe even have enough for a down payment on your own place.”

I could tell that the brothers heard every word and a strange look passed across Caden’s face. Caleb just looked bored.

“I should be with my wife. Trying to save my marriage. I need to make a call.”

He stood up and wandered off with his phone in his hand.

“Yeah? Well, it isn’t Gemma’s fault that you can’t keep it in your pants,” Patty called after him, “but it’s my friend who’s paying the price!”

“Caleb is definitely paying the price,” Caden said between gritted teeth. “His wife threw him out.”

“He deserves it,” I snapped, my eyes flashing. “I don’t!”

He met me glare for glare, but then his angry face softened as he stared at me.

“I need to talk to my brother,” he said at last. “I can advise him, but I can’t promise anything.”

“We’re going to need more assurance than that!” said Stanley. “My client can’t go to her own home, she’s been fired from her job, and is seriously worried about the impact this will have on her future career. You need to do more than advise him, Mr. Logan. He needs to tell the truth.”

Caden’s eyes grew dark. “I think you’d better remember, Mr. Cooper, that my brother hasn’t made any statement about Ms. Parkinson. Nor has Greta Saxonby. So the only people you can sue for defamation are the reporters, and I don’t think you’ll have much luck with that … unless your client has very deep pockets.”

I blanched at the anger in his voice. Wasn’t this always what it came down to? Rich people could get away with anything, and the little people like me had to pay the price. Furious tears pricked my eyes.

“Then you’re as big an a-hole as your jerkoff brother!” I said. “Who the fred-and-ginger do you think you are?”

He blinked at me in surprise. “What did you just say?”

“I don’t like swearing,” I muttered.

His grin was brief and surprising. “I promise that I’ll do everything I can to clear your name. But I cannot promise what Caleb will do. I’m his brother, not his keeper.”

I nodded, understanding that this meeting was over.

Caden gripped my hand. “I’ll reserve a suite for you at the Ritz Carlton. They’re used to dealing with reporters so you’ll get some peace and quiet there.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“No problem,” he smiled. “My brother keeps it for when he’s in town, so he’s paying. That seems fair.”

“Very fair,” I smiled back shyly.

“What do you think?” I asked Stanley, as we left the brothers arguing loudly.

“Caleb’s a douche but the brother is hot,” said Diego, earning the stink-eye from his husband, “and he’s totally into our little Gemma.”

I rolled my eyes. “Do you think he’ll get his Caleb to tell the truth?”

Diego’s smile slipped. “I think he’ll try.”

We all traipsed back to the limo, me shuffling because of the clown-trousers I was forced to wear. Boss came bounding out again and I cringed when he licked my face, but at least he didn’t pee on me again.

The hotel suite was amazing and best of all we ordered room service and gorged ourselves on fabulous food and a range of cocktails—virgin for me, I was still hungover and my head throbbed so hard, my eyeballs were ready to roll across the thick carpet.

Two hours later, as we all lay in a sleepy food and trash-TV coma, there was a knock at the door. I shuffled off the bed, looked through the spyhole, then opened the door. Caden was standing there. He held my jeans in one hand, washed and dried, and a large envelope in his other.

“Sorry about your jeans,” he smiled. “Boss really liked you.”

“That’s … nice?”

He smiled, then slid a sheet of paper out of the envelope.

“All you have to do is sign this, and your problems go away.”

“Wait, let me see,” said Stanley, bustling over and reading the contract.

His eyes widened.

“My client accepts!” he said, thrusting a pen at me.

“I haven’t read it,” I objected.

“Your attorney has read it and approved it,” Stanley said pompously.

I snatched it from him and read every detail. “Fifty-thousand dollars? He’s going to pay me that and say the sex-tape was made with Greta, not me?”

Caden shrugged. “What can I say? My brother’s an asshole. But sometimes he does the right thing. I’m sorry you’ve gotten caught up in all his shi— um, crap.”

I held the pen, about to sign, then read the final clause. “Wait, it says here I have to have dinner with … with you!”

I stared up at Caden and he grimed at me. “I had that clause put in. I didn’t think you’d say yes otherwise, and I really did want to apologize for Boss’s behavior.”

“Sign it!” Patty said, nudging me hard in the ribs.

Diego gave me a thumbs up and Stanley smiled encouragingly.

“Fine,” I sighed. “I’ll sign.”

I scrawled my name across the paper and Caden looked very pleased with himself.

“By the way,” he said, “you’re much prettier than Greta Saxonby. Boss would never have peed on her leg.”

“I’m honored?”

He laughed.

“I really am sorry for everything you’ve been through, but right now I’m kind of glad. Can I call you about dinner?”

I smiled shyly. “Are you sure you want to have dinner with someone so notorious?”

He gave me a broad grin. “You’ve met my brother—I’ve had a lot of practice. See you soon, Ms. Notorious.”


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A Winter Gift

Stan was more used to the cold than me and better equipped to deal with it. His thick fur shielded him from the worst of the biting wind that whipped along the street, snapping and tearing at my snow-soaked clothes.

I pulled my jacket tighter around me, burying my face in the layers of scarves that left nothing but my eyes uncovered. I shivered so hard, my whole body trembled. I didn’t remember the last time I could feel my feet.

A man with a heavy overcoat, laden down with brightly-wrapped gifts darted around me cursing under his breath, and I smiled grimly to myself.

“We’re not invisible today, Stan. Although I’m not sure that’s a step up.”

Stan rubbed his heavy head against my leg, and his deep brown eyes lifted in a frown. He seemed to say, Life sucks, boss.

We were both used to being ignored. It happens a lot when you’re homeless and hopeless.

But today was different. Today we had somewhere to go. And although we walked slowly, plodding along the frozen streets, we walked with purpose. My stomach growled, the emptiness burning a hole through the middle of me. I licked my lips in anticipation—Stan and I would eat well today.

Denver Rescue Mission was a large building on the industrial edge of the city, a distinct redbrick warehouse built in the 1930s, I’d guess. They were open 365 days of a year with 300 beds—more when the weather dropped below freezing. I never stayed there because of Stan.

But I knew that he’d be welcome today, although no sleepovers. Besides, I didn’t like being around people much.

The building seemed to glow with light and cheer as we approached, the large neon cross calling the faithful and unfaithful alike.

As we arrived at the front door, an older man in worn jeans and a thick sweater stood at the entrance.

“Welcome, brother,” he said.

I nodded without speaking, smiling slightly as he bent down to stroke Stan.

“He seems like a good ole boy,” he said, “but you’ll still have to put him on a leash.”

I nodded again, and pulled a piece of rope out of my pocket and tied it to Stan’s collar. He gave me an offended look, huffing softly.

“Please make yourselves at home,” said the man. “We have a donated clothes table if there’s anything that you need, showers and laundry are in the back, but there’s a waiting line for both, I’m afraid.”

We walked inside and were immediately hit by a wall of warmth that had me peeling off my hat, gloves, scarves and jacket. As the heat hit my wet clothes, a pungent wave of body odour drifted from them. I knew that I reeked, but most of the time, you can’t smell yourself after three days—and it had been a lot longer than that for me since I’d last showered. Stan didn’t care. But here, among people, humiliation was stronger than hunger. And that’s saying something when you haven’t eaten in two days. Or was it three?

I gathered my stinking clothes, bundling them into my duffel bag. Then I snatched up jeans and a couple of shirts from the donated clothes. You know you’ve hit a new low when donated underwear seems like a good idea.

There was a young girl working the clothing area, late teens I’d guess—a college girl or maybe a senior at high school. Even though I was only 32, I felt old. Old and tired.

Her parents hovered behind, her father wearing black jeans, a dog collar and a wide smile; her mother-friendly and bustling.

I was used to people side-eyeing me and Stan, but this family met my eyes, not afraid to smile.

As the girl handed me some extra t-shirts, her eyes fell on Stan.

“Can I pet him?”

I nodded, a smile hidden behind my thick beard.

Her fingers sank into Stan’s warm fur.

“What’s his name?”

My smile dropped. I hated this part.

“Sssss…” I hissed at her. “Sssss…”

Her eyes widened as she watched me warily.

“Ssss-tttt-an,” I finally managed to spit out.

She blinked several times.

“Stan? His name is Stan?”

I nodded, relieved that she wasn’t going to make me repeat myself.

“Hello, Stan,” she said softly.

Stan’s tongue lolled from his mouth in a happy smile, and she giggled when he licked her hand.

Her laughter was like liquid sunshine, and for a moment I bathed in the warmth of her smile. But I wasn’t the only one. Across the room, a boy of about the same age looked up at the sound of her voice. His eyes fixed on her immediately, admiration obvious in his gaze, desire in his eyes.

He was working on the food line, handing out plates of roast turkey, vegetables and mashed potatoes. He seemed out of place here, in his neatly-pressed, preppy clothes. But when he looked at the girl, I knew exactly why he was here.

Then the boy glanced away, his lips pressing together as his expression dissolved into hopelessness.

My stony heart cracked, and I remembered what it was like to feel that for another person, to feel love. My older, cynical side wanted to warn the boy to stay far away from the girl, from women in general, but I knew he wouldn’t listen. And maybe that was the right thing to do. Just because my wife had turned out to be a cheating, evil bitch, it didn’t mean that all females were. Most of them, probably. But not all. Not this girl with the smiling eyes.

I glanced in the direction of the showers, seeing that the line was shorter now. I thought longingly of hot water and soap, trying to remember the last time I’d been able to shampoo my matted, greasy hair.

The girl noticed the direction of my gaze.

“Would you like me to look after Stan while you take a shower?”

I was going to say no. I didn’t trust anyone else with Stan. He was my only family now, and I couldn’t lose him. But some animal instinct told me that this girl wouldn’t hurt me and she wouldn’t hurt Stan. It was hard to trust, but…

I glanced across at the boy again as his eyes flicked to the girl. He couldn’t keep his eyes off her.

“Stan will be fine with me,” she said softly, as if reading the hesitation and doubt in my face. “I’m Honor.”

Of course you are, I wanted to say.

The boy was still watching her, even as he served the turkey dinner to a long line of homeless people.

And then I had an idea.

I knew I was broken. I accepted that. Broken and probably crazy, but maybe when society has abandoned you, that’s when you see most clearly the things that really matter.

My holiday gift to this girl would be trusted.

“Ffff…” I stammered. “Fff…ood.” And I pointed to Stan.

“Oh! Of course,” she said. “Stan must be hungry, too. Would you like me to feed him while you’re showering?”

I nodded briefly, then knelt down next to Stan and whispered in his ear so only he could hear.

“Turkey coming your way, buddy. Just be nice to the girl. Do that cute thing with your eyes. Yeah, that’s it. Go sit beside that kid who’s jonesing for Miss Honor. Our good deed of the day.”

He cocked his head to one side, and I’d swear he understood every word.

Sure thing, boss!

He trotted off with Honor, enjoying the attention, as well as the aroma of cooked meat and gravy that filled the room.

I couldn’t help smiling when the boy just about tripped over his own feet when he saw the girl walking toward him, Stan at her heels.

I watched long enough to see him fix a plate for Stan, listening intently as the girl chatted away to him.

Joy, sadness—it’s all just a toss of the coin. And who’s to say which way it will fall for you.

I’d had it all: a wife I loved, a home, a job that I enjoyed and was good at. And I lost it all. Everything. Maybe even my sanity.

Life is made up of moments.

As I showered, enjoying the blistering heat that penetrated the cold center of my heart, I thought about the boy and Honor. Maybe it was their moment today. Maybe that moment would be the one they’d always remember—for good reasons, I hoped. But you can never tell.

Maybe in ten years, they’d be screaming at each other while their divorce lawyers prepared the paperwork.

Maybe. Maybe not.

But today, I’d seen something good, something hopeful. Maybe a crazy person sees things others ignore.

I am but mad north-north-west.

When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw*.

I dressed in clean clothes for the first time in a month. I held the old, plaid shirt to my face, breathing in the faint scent of laundry soap. My eyes burned with unshed tears as a thousand memories filled my head, a thousand sounds, a thousand colors, voices and laughter, smiles and pain. Too much pain.

And I knew. This was my moment, as well.

I needed to change. I needed to get better. For my sake and Stan’s.

I threw my soiled clothes into a washing machine and went to find him.

He was still with the girl, lying at her feet, his eyes sleepy and his belly full. This was what he deserved. His life had been hard enough, and in his old age he deserved more.

Guilt filled me, along with the determination to be better, for his sake.

Honor smiled as I bent down to stroke Stan’s ears.

“He’s a cool dog,” said the boy.

“This is my new friend, Adam,” said the girl. “He loves dogs, too.”

I nodded, my smile hidden by my beard, my eyes hidden by my straggly hair.

Then I sat at the long trestle table and ate my turkey dinner, my eyes fixed on my food, glancing up when someone spoke to me, but not uttering a sound in return.

No one minded. Here, crazy was part of the picture. Besides, I had Stan. And people spoke to him when they couldn’t speak to me. It worked for both of us.

The boy and girl smiled at each other, and I watched them swap phone numbers.

My work is done. It was up to them now.

I pulled on my new-old overcoat, wrapping two scarves around my neck and face as I pulled my beanie down low over my ears.

Stan stood beside me, leaning his heavy head against my leg.

The girl looked up at me, a huge smile on her face.

“Thank you for coming!” she said. “I don’t even know your name. Well, happy holidays!”

I nodded briefly, then dropped my eyes to the floor.

We were already at the door, when I turned to look at the boy and girl for one last time.

“Alex,” I murmured. “Alex Winters. Happy holidays.”

And then we walked out into a world of white.



*   *   *   *   *

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Best friends Rick Roberts and Vince Azzo have given up the single life and are happily married: Rick to radio host, Cady Callaghan; and Vince to event organizer and lawyer, Grace.

But when both wives become pregnant within weeks of each other, are the guys up to the challenge of hormones on parade, Lamaze classes, and shopping trips for two tiny humans who are months from making an appearance?

When the babies are born, all four adults have a steep learning curve. Life never goes completely smoothly, and there are tears and tantrums along the way – and not just from the newborns. As their children grow, life becomes an amazing adventure for the four friends. And when Cady wants a night off from mom-hood to celebrate her 40th birthday with her bff, Grace, the guys are left in charge. After all, looking after two tiny toddlers – how hard can it be?

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Must Love Dogs

Men sucked. Being one didn’t stop me from thinking that.

I stared at my reflection in the train window, wondering for the billionth time what I was doing. What was wrong with me? Why did my relationships never last? I was reasonably good-looking. I went to a gym every other morning, grunting and sweating with the other early morning punters. I had defined biceps, maybe even a six-pack, or at least the shadow of a six-pack, possibly a two-pack.

I sighed, and my breath painted a small cloud on the window.

I was brooding again, something that my last long-term boyfriend had commented on endlessly. Jerry said I was ‘moody’, ‘no fun’, and most damning of all, ‘boring’. But I couldn’t party every night because I worked shifts as a carer and was a tired a lot. Twelve pounds an hour had just about paid for our shitty flat in Balham. Jerry had been a tubby, nerdy student with acne when we’d met, but also sweet and loveable. Now, he worked in a tech start-up, earning squillions selling non-fungible art to bitcoin billionaires and wore Paul Smith. The tubbiness had vanished along with his love.

For two months, I licked my wounds, then one day I was idly scanning job ads and dreaming of being Shawn Mendes’ personal assistant, preferably in the Bahamas, when this ad caught my eye:

Live-in Carer for Life-Loving Senior Citizen, Devon

Must love Elton John and Dogs.

How bizarre was that? I swiped the screen on my phone, but something made me go back. Maybe leaving London and trying a fresh start was just what I needed. Ten years in the capital had made me wonder if I really was a city boy after all. I’d been brought up in a small, rural community … and I’d run like hell the first chance I’d had. It was no fun being the only gay in the village (and, thanks to the TV show Little Britain, another stereotype). But I was older now, pushing 30, and tired of the endlessly competitive gay scene.

So, I’d applied for the job, and was now on my way to an interview in the sleepy Devon town of Budleigh Salterton, ‘one of Devon’s most un-spoilt and charming towns, a tranquil and historic retreat from the stress of everyday living’.

A fresh start, or retreating from life?

I scrubbed my hands over my face, frowning as my forefinger hit a patch of stubble that I’d missed when I shaved this morning. That wouldn’t make a good impression. Maybe she’d be short-sighted.

Following the instructions in the handwritten letter (pink paper, scented), I caught the bus from Exeter, arriving 50 minutes later and 50 years back in time.

The small town of terracotta bricks and whitewashed villas looked quaint and slightly shabby in the pale winter sunshine, perched above a broad swathe of sand and shingle beaches.

My destination was a large, Victorian house set in a quiet cul-de-sac. Several of the other properties had been redeveloped into flats, but this house was still intact and very private, circled by tall trees on the edge of a park, and beyond the park was the sea.

I liked the idea of waking up to this view every day—it would make a change from the blunt backs of terraces in Balham.

I rang the bell and waited. And waited and waited, until finally an elderly woman wearing a tweed suit and pearls opened the door. She looked like Miss Marple.

“You must be Mr. Maynard. I’m Lady Annabel Moncreiffe. How nice to meet you. Do come in.”

She was tiny, barely up to my shoulder, thin, and slightly stooped, but her manner was brisk.

I followed her at a snail’s pace as she led me into a cosy sitting room, lined with books, where a moth-eaten Pomeranian snoozed in front of the fire.

“Dante doesn’t like the cold,” she said, pointing her walking stick at the elderly dog.

I let the dog sniff my hand, then gave it a tentative stroke. He let out a long sigh, then stretched out so I could rub his belly.

“Oh, he likes you! We’re off to a jolly good start. Now, I shall call you Tom and you may call me Annabel. I can offer you tea or instant coffee, but you’ll have to make it yourself as I’m too decrepit to carry hot drinks, or so my nephew tells me. The kitchen is through there. I’ll have a milky tea, no sugar. And do bring some biscuits.”

I found a stained porcelain teapot, two cups and saucers, milk jug, tray, dessert plates, and an unopened packet of Custard Creams, then carried everything into the sitting room.

“Marvellous!” she smiled. “Dante adores Custard Creams, don’t you, boy?”

I blinked, then placed a biscuit next to the little dog who licked it without enthusiasm.

“Do help yourself,” Annabel said with a wave. “Now then, what can I tell you about the job? As I’m getting rather forgetful with increasing levels of decrepitude, I need a little more help than I did. There’ll be some light cleaning duties, although I have Emma who comes in to hoover and rearrange the dust once a week. Some personal care, with help bathing, and how are you on cooking?”

“I’m not a great cook—I can do scrambled eggs, that sort of thing.”

“Never mind, we’ll work on that. Now, tell me all about you, Tom.”

I started to list my experience and qualifications, but she waved her hand dismissively. I’ve already checked your references, dear boy, I want to know about you. Any significant other that you’d be leaving behind in London?”

“N-no,” I stammered, caught off-guard.

“Shame, a nice looking boy like you. And you think you’ll enjoy the quieter life that Devon has to offer?”

“Yes, I’m looking for a change.”

“Wonderful, so am I. Now, do you like music?”

I remembered what she’d written in the ad. “I like Elton John,” I said gamely.

“Really?” she asked, raising a thin, pencilled eyebrow.

“Uh well, some of his songs.”

She frowned, then gave me a sly smile as she flashed her false teeth. “I’m not an Elton John fan at all.”

“But the ad said…”

“Well, dear, I wasn’t allowed to advertise for a gay man, so I thought if I put Elton John, a smart boy like you would crack the code—and here you are, so it worked beautifully.”

My mouth fell open.

“You are gay, aren’t you? Oh, I know I’m not supposed to ask questions like that. But I thought it would be too obvious if I said I was a Judy Garland fan. I met her once, you know, very sad. There isn’t much of a ‘scene’ down here, as you young people say, but the Exeter Pride march is always popular, or so I’m told.”

I stared at her, cut adrift from reality.

“The pay is £15 an hour and you’ll live in, of course—you’ll have your own suite on the top floor. All meals are included, although you’ll have to cook them. I have a Waitrose delivery every Tuesday.”

Calculating quickly, I realised that would be a significant pay rise and I wouldn’t have to find rent either. It couldn’t be that easy, could it?

“Do you have any questions for me, Tom?”

“Um, I was wondering why you specifically wanted a gay carer?” I blurted out.

“Yes, that’s a good question. Well done for having the guts to ask me. Some of my dearest friends were gay at a time when it was illegal. Their lives were tinged with fear, and even after 1967, things didn’t improve right away.” She gave me a piercing look. “As I’m sure you’re aware.” Then she smiled again. “It’s probably one of those awful stereotypes, but I’m hoping we can go shopping together and talking about handsome young men. What do you say?”

“Are you offering me the job?”

“You used a teapot and Dante likes you. I think we’ll do very well together. But let’s say a three month trial period. When can you start?”

I made a decision.

“I have to give a month’s notice, but yes, I think that sounds great.”

She clapped her hands. “Oh, wonderful! You’ll be here for Christmas. How exciting. I always collect a few strays for Christmas lunch and we have such fun. One never knows who is going to turn up.”

With some difficulty, she stood and shook my hand.

“Do call and let me know when exactly you’ll be able to start.”

“I will. Thank you, Lady Moncreiffe.”

“Annabel,” she said firmly. “Now then, Jethro has been working in the vegetable garden, but he says he’ll be happy to give you a lift into Exeter. You’ll find him by the potting shed. Goodbye, Tom. Until the next time.”

Still smiling, I wandered through the kitchen into the back garden.

A faded summerhouse sat on one side of the carefully striped lawn, and further down, I saw a small greenhouse with a tiny shed next to it. And then my breath caught in my chest.

“Bloody hell,” I mumbled, staring at the gorgeous guy bent over a row of cabbages.

When she’d mentioned ‘Jethro’ was her gardener, I’d imagined an elderly man in a cloth cap, but I was very, very wrong.

He was my age, or younger, tanned, with a shaggy mane of dark, curly hair that was at least two weeks past needing a cut. He was wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt with the arms rolled up showing strong forearms; a pair khaki shorts revealing thick, muscular thighs; and, bizarrely, a pair of yellow Wellington boots.

When he realised he wasn’t alone, he looked up, then smiled at me and strode across with his hand stretched out. I wanted to throw myself into those strong arms, then grovel at his feet and beg to lick his Wellingtons.

“Hi, I’m Jethro. I guess she offered you the job then?”

“Er, yes,” I said weakly. “How did you know?”

“Because Annabel said that if she liked you, I was to give you a lift to the station.”

“And if she didn’t like me?”

“You’d be walking, mate.”

I laughed and shook my head. “She’s quite a character.”

His face became serious. “Annabel’s amazing. She’s done more for me than my own family.”

I could tell that there was a story there, and perhaps when I knew him better, I’d ask.

“Do you work for her full time?”

“No, I’m on the boats out of Dawlish.” He paused, realising I didn’t know what he was talking about. “Fishing. I go out once a week on a trawler for four or five days, depending on how the catch goes. I work for Annabel on my days off.”

A fisherman! It explained the yellow Wellies. A manual worker with real muscles and rough hands that I could…

I realised I was getting carried away again. It would be hell being around someone as gorgeous as Jethro. Unless…

“Do you like Elton John?” I asked. “Or Judy Garland?”

Jethro threw his head back, laughing long and loudly.

“Both,” he grinned, then threw me a flirty wink. “And I love dogs, too.”

My heart sang, and I felt happier than I had in months.

Things were definitely looking up.



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Sophie Judas, Demon

“I can never decide if I love or loathe Hallowe’en. All those silly little humans who wander around the streets trying to look like me. Such pathetic little creatures. Oh, don’t look at me like that—I couldn’t eat a whole one. On the other hand (or claw, depending on your demon-type), it’s the one time of year when we can wander the Earth unchecked and unremarked. We get a free pass to cause as much mayhem as possible before we’re tucked up in our lairs by dawn. Otherwise, you need a Demon Passport issued by the Powers-That-Be, and those are very hard to find—mostly, because you can’t fake them without being zapped from above and ending up in a whirlwind of hellfire that drags you back Down Under, and has even been known to melt your skin, or at the very least, singe your eyebrows, and who wants to walk around looking like that for a millennia or two.

“Oh, you didn’t know my kind walked the Earth? How absolutely adorable of you, and how disgustingly naïve. Let me explain in words of one syllable so that your little human brain can understand: demons are real. Humans are prey. Yadda yadda yadda, as my colonial demon cousins might say. Or howl.

“Frankly, delve a little deeper than your local Starbucks, and you’ll soon find out that most cities have a healthy demon population. Of course, the tourist boards don’t advertise this fact but demons, and other creatures of the night, are drawn to the most populated areas like party-goers to an all-you-can-eat buffet: vampires (tedious wannabes with bad skin and ugly shoes), werewolves (bad breath who shed all over the sofa), zombies (no manners, no taste, no style—just no), succubus, incubus, banshees, ghouls, gremlins, goblins, golems, and then, of course, my kind—demons.

“We’re a very broad church, so to speak, and there are many, many different kinds of demonic presence.

“Level One demons are dim-witted, slow-moving and perpetually hungry, with an unpleasant pallid green skin like a student with a bad hangover, and an unwashed odour. They live by pickpocketing and blood-drinking in the rough part of the city. They steal the washing from clothes lines and leave litter on the street. Sometimes they eat small children who should have known better than to go out alone after dark. They’re not too much of a problem. Not worth bothering with.

“Level Two demons—moi—are strong, stylish, always fashionable and fashionably late, and certainly not second-rate in anyone’s book. Although, according to the few humans who are aware of our existence, we’re nasty and vicious and like to pick fights with men who have more muscles than brains. Then we eat the brains. But that’s just nit-picking.

“And then there are the Level Three demons. I avoid them at all costs. They’re party-poopers of the ‘let’s have an Apocalypse’ kind. I just can’t understand why they’d want to take over the Earth and slay the human population, because whilst I’m all for a little havoc, I’ve been to Hell, and frankly, it’s very dull. I’m much rather be slightly evil on Earth.

“Oh, my name? It’s Sophie Judas—no relation. And I work with the police. Yes, that surprised you, didn’t it? Well, one day I was…”

“Sophie! What the heck? I thought we agreed that was telling this story?”

“Max, darling! Don’t be ridiculous! You couldn’t possibly tell it with the flare and sophistication that I bring to a torrid tale.”

“Yeah, what about truth?”

“Don’t be such a bore.”

“I’m the detective.”

“And your point is?”

[Max turns off the recorder on Sophie’s phone.]

“It’s the story of how we met and I’ve already written the report.” [Pulls police notebook out of his pocket.]

“A notebook! How deliciously quaint. You do know it’s the twenty-first century AD, darling Max? And it’s Hallowe’en—that’s my time of the year, so I’m telling this story.”



Max Darke was about to have a really bad day, although he didn’t know it yet as he pushed may way through the crowds of early morning commuters in London’s Victoria.

The businessmen and women with their sharp suits and expensive watches gave Max a wide berth, their eyes flicking up and down at the tall, broad-shouldered man with the unusual bronze-coloured hair and his long, heavy overcoat. It wasn’t the shabbiness of his clothing that made him stand out particularly, or the weary expression on his youthful face, but the whiff of barely concealed violence that seemed to cling to him. Which was a pity, really, because Max enjoyed the company of people: it wasn’t something he got a lot of in his job.

He lowered his wide, grey eyes to the pavement and tried not to step on the cracks—it gave his gait an odd, skipping-shuffling rhythm.

“Don’t step on the cracks or the bears will get you… never can be too sure,” he muttered to himself, startling a woman who was striding past in the opposite direction.

Max continued carefully down Broadway, passing the ugly, modern building of New Scotland Yard: a grey, concrete monolith, ill at ease with the many Georgian and Victorian buildings that surrounded it. He glanced up briefly but didn’t see anyone he recognised. The triangular sign – announcing that you had arrived at the offices of London’s Metropolitan Police—revolved slowly. It was a favourite backdrop for journalists and public relations staff organising impromptu press conferences. Tourists liked it, too.

Scotland Yard is the headquarters of London’s police force and is famous across the world. But it had a secret—a big, dark, nasty secret.

Max was the guardian of the secret.

He turned right and dodged down a narrow alleyway. An unnumbered, unnamed blue door was set back from the kerb. If you hadn’t known it was there, you would hardly have noticed it as you walked past. There was no knocker and no bell. Max used his key to let himself in, making sure that nobody was watching. Better safe than sorry.

Not many of his colleagues used the backdoor entrance and Max preferred to keep a low profile. In fact, if he thought about it, his bosses were rather insistent that he kept a low profile: sometimes Max felt that he was almost invisible. He shrugged his shoulders—there were times when it would have been useful in his job.

He made his way down a brightly lit corridor. A few ‘Wanted’ posters were pinned to the wall along with fire notices and a pair of fading health and safety memos that had remained unchanged for the last four years. The police at New Scotland Yard had too many criminals to catch without worrying about minor things like how to change a lightbulb safely, or the correct way to climb a ladder.

Max’s office was small and gloomy. It was as insignificant as possible, tucked away next to the Traffic Division and behind building maintenance. There was no name on the door, just the number 13 and the sign that told people they had reached ‘D Division’.

Most people ignored this door and walked straight past it. If anyone had bothered to stop, knock politely and look inside, this is what they would have seen: three small desks, two telephones, three computers and Max. And if you had asked Max who he was, he’d give you the ghost of a smile and say,

“I’m Detective Darke, Demon Division.”

He’d left the police training college at Hendon two years earlier and had worked in the Demon Division at Scotland Yard for most of that time. He had never met a Level Three demon. His luck was about to run out.

Max scowled at his computer screen: 32 emails, plus 19 text messages on his mobile already, not to mention a lot of shrieking and growling on the voicemail that Max didn’t have time to translate. That wasn’t good. In fact, that was really, really bad. In fact it meant something really, really bad.

He scanned through the list of emails. Most of them came from Level Two demons. That was no surprise because Level Twos were considerably brighter than the dim-witted, slow-moving Level Ones, who would look at a computer and wonder where they put the powder for the washing machine—even assuming that most Level Ones bothered to wash the food stains out of their clothes, or the blood (which was often the same thing).

All the demons on Max’s patch had a Demon Passport. The Powers That Be issued them on a demon’s arrival from the nether regions. Max had never met the PTBs, although he had their email. Max had the right to revoke a demon’s passport for repeat offences or really nasty first offences such as decapitation and organ tasting. That usually meant a termination and a return down under.

Max read through the emails quickly, then stared blankly at the screen, his pulse just a little faster than usual, his fingers raking through his untidy hair. The emails all said the same thing—a nest of Brood demons had arrived in the city. Level Threes. The worst kind. And they were on the hunt—for who or what, no-one was saying. They didn’t need to because it was always the same: blood and bodies. Human blood, human bodies.

Max stood up slowly. He had to find these demons—and fast. A nest like that could breed rapidly, killing dozens of people in just one meal. From what he’d read about Level Threes they were clever, leaving little evidence behind them, just a string of mysterious disappearances. It had certainly put the wind up the tail of a lot of Level Twos, which was why Max had received so many messages—there was no honour amongst demons; there was already too much competition for food. And Level Threes would take out any other demon who got in their way.

But what were the Brood doing here in the first place? Why risk termination for travelling without a permit? There must be a reason. Even stupid demons didn’t act without a clear purpose. That worried Max more than he liked to admit. For all their demonic bad behaviour, most demons preferred the status quo. It must mean something serious was just over the horizon. But what?

Max collected his weapons, mentally checking them off his list:

“Holy water, silver letter opener, water pistol and garlic. If the first three don’t work, I’ll just eat the garlic and breathe on them.”

The messages told him that the Brood were staying at the Ritz hotel. They liked rich victims because they tasted better. Rich people were much more likely to eat organic food and also have nice, furry arteries for added fibre.

You can tell a Level One demon by its red eyes and green skin. A Level Two demon always wears a hoodie, hat or a baseball cap to hide its horns. But a skin-stealing, soul-sucking Level Three demon—they look just like me or you.

He didn’t need to be told that Brood demons were difficult to spot. One of the reasons was that these Level Threes were darned smart demons. The other reason was that the Brood didn’t simply eat their victims—they sucked out their souls first. Then they stole their victims’ skins—to wear.

Despite this, Max knew that he would have no difficulty spotting the demons once he’d located them. Sometimes he really hated his gift.

Max sighed. It was 9am—already it was a really bad day.

Max left discreetly through the blue door. He strode past the Home Office and nodded a greeting to the smartly-dressed security guards who stood at the entrance. To the untutored eye they looked human, if rather bad tempered. Max knew that they were Level Twos doing their day job. It was surprising the number of demons who worked in government—some at the very highest levels. It was even rumoured that in the past, one or two Prime Ministers had been rather less than human, although Max was inclined to discount this as urban legend. Mind you, there was that one with the hypnotic eyes and manic smile that he’d wondered about… If he’d seen him in the flesh he would have known for sure.

Max strolled across St James’s Park, enjoying the fresh air and graceful trees. He saluted the memorial of Queen Victoria and couldn’t help smiling when a couple of Japanese tourists watched him, looked serious and bowed back politely.

Still grinning, Max took his favourite short cut across Green Park. The deck chair attendant didn’t even notice him and carried on laying out rows of striped beach chairs. The summer was only just beginning but the day was already promising to be hot. Max loosened his tie and felt his armpits grow rather damp. Whether this was because of the gentle rise in temperature, or whether this was because Max was about to face a nest of the most dangerous demons he had ever met during his unusual career, well—who knows?

The Ritz was the most expensive hotel in town. Film stars stayed there and reality TV winners liked to have their photographs taken going in, although many of them then left by the rear entrance, Max happened to know. Everyone else looked through the windows and wished they were rich, too.

Only phenomenally wealthy people stayed at the Ritz. A suite of rooms for a couple of days could set a detective back an entire year’s salary. Max sighed. He’d never be able to afford a place like this.

“Excuse me, sir,” said the snooty doorman, gazing just beyond Max’s left ear after a swift appraisal of Max’s finances based on the scruffiness of his clothing, “but this is the Ritz. The Ritz is only for very special guests, sir.”

Max gazed at the doorman. “I know. I’m here to see some of your very special guests.”

The doorman looked again at Max’s long coat. To be fair it was rather dirty—Level Two demon blood was so hard to wash out.

“Did you haveto say that, Max? That’s just simply horrid of you! It was probably one of my friends that you killed.”

“You hate all your friends, Sophie.”

“That isn’t the point.”

“I’m going on with the story now.”

The doorman said coolly, “If you don’t leave now, young man, I shall call the police.”

“I am the police,” said Max, smiling coldly and flashing his warrant card.

The doorman raised a supercilious eyebrow but snapped to attention.

“I do beg your pardon, sir. Please do go in. Although may I suggest that in future, sir should endeavour to wear something a little more appropriate and, er, clean, when visiting this establishment.”

Max nodded. It was a fair point. “I’ll take it under advisement.”

The foyer led to a circular, over-decorated lobby. A few reproduction armchairs stood to attention by the walls, but otherwise there was nowhere to sit and relax. Guests of the Ritz didn’t wish to be seen by all and sundry – they vanished to their rooms to enjoy their solitary luxury.

Max turned right from the lobby, pausing momentarily to allow his eyes to become accustomed to the brighter lights of the Palm Court.

It was a favourite place for well-heeled tourists to take tea. Not your ordinary Tetley’s or Brooke Bond, but a wide variety of speciality teas that smelled like wood smoke and tasted of old socks. Max had to admit that he was rather too downmarket to enjoy the refinements offered by the most expensive hotel in town. He preferred builders’ tea in a chipped mug with four sugars and an Eccles cake. What can you do? You are what you eat.

The room glittered with electric chandeliers and tea cups tinkled merrily on their Royal Worcester saucers. Stacks of tiny sandwiches rested daintily on lace doilies. Max couldn’t have looked more out of place if he’d worn a tutu and danced a clog dance to the theme from The Sound of Music.

Unconcerned with human attention, Max’s eyes scanned the room. He spotted a group of five businessmen reading the Financial Times. “Got you!” hissed Max, his voice icy.

He was surprised that the Brood had given themselves away so easily; everyone knew that rich people only read Hello magazine.

Not that he needed to detect the reading matter—their faint olive green auras rather gave the game away, to those who had the gift of Seeing.

“By the way, dearest Max, did you know that if I drank your blood, I’d absorb your gift, too?”

“Yeah, I know. Keep your fangs to yourself.”

“You’re such a grump.”

“Yeah, but a live grump. Can I finish the story now?”

Max backed slowly out of the room, chewing on his lip. This was not the right place for an intervention: he needed to lure the Brood into an empty room. Human witnesses meant some difficult questions that he’d rather not answer. Severed body parts tended to upset people, especially if they were their own.

Max was worried: five Level Three demons were poor odds—for him, at least.

“I need back up,” thought Max. He pulled out his mobile phone and dialled.

“Ooh! This is the part where I come in! Finally! I was getting bored.”

Heads turned as Sophie walked through the door of the Ritz Hotel. Men stared and smiled; women stared and glared. Sophie was an extraordinarily, unnaturally beautiful woman with long, red hair, the colour of leaves in Autumn. Today she wore her hair up high on her head with red curls hanging down her slim, white neck. The piled up hair hid a sharp pair of horns—Sophie was a Level Two demon.

“Why, Max! You say the sweetest things!”

Max watched her approach with his arms folded casually across his chest.

She spotted him at once, although he was partially concealed in a handy alcove.

“Max, darling,” she said, looking wary. “You called and I came.”

Max had to admit that Sophie was a beautiful creature, even with the shimmer of red light that surrounded her, an aura of evil that few humans could detect but Max was trained to see.

“Truce?” said Max, keeping beyond arm’s reach. “I could really use your help. I’m guessing you know what the problem is—I’ve had a stack of emails from your lot already.”

Sophie rolled her haunting green eyes.

“Max, really! ‘My lot’? Is that any way to speak to someone whose help you’re seeking?”

Her voice sounded like cut glass being scraped down a blackboard. It made Max wince slightly, although it didn’t ever seem to bother anyone else.

“I don’t have time for the social graces,” he said bluntly.

“You never do, darling Max,” snarled Sophie, showing just a hint of fang.

Max stared back. Maybe asking for her help had been a bad idea. On the other hand, he was out of options.

“Look,” he said. “Level Threes are just as likely to kill your lot, er, colleagues, as humans. It’s in both our interests to stop them before things get out of hand.”

Sophie frowned, an exquisite furrow appearing between her lovely brows.

“And what makes you think I would risk life and limb and a rather delicious Yves St Laurent vintage dress for you?”

Max could see that she still needed some convincing. He could understand her point of view: it didn’t go down well within the demon community if one of their own kind started helping the police with their enquiries. It was a Blood Oath thing or some nonsense.

“Look, Sophie, the Brood are here without a visa. If I had spent time going through the formal channels, a lot more innocent people are going to get hurt. But if you help me kill the Brood, I’ll renew your Demon Passport, no questions asked.”

Sophie stared at the Brood demons in their stolen businessmen-skins. For the briefest moment she looked hungry.

Max’s offer was too tempting.

“Do I have a choice?” she sighed. “A truce then, just till the Brood are dead.”

They shook hands. Max’s skin crawled at the touch of her icy flesh.

“Well, there’s no need to be so rude! I’m dead! I don’t have a beating heart to pump delicious hot blood around my body. You’re so speciesist!”

“Save it for someone who cares, Sophie.”

“You’re a beastly brute!”


“What do you want me to do?” she asked.

“I’ve got to get the Brood somewhere private,” he replied. “I need a girl who can handle herself until I get there—just in case.”

“Okay,” she said thoughtfully. “I’ll do it. Just don’t splash any of that Holy Water on me!”

“Fine, but you’d better take this for protection,” he said, passing her a fully-loaded water pistol.

Sophie hesitated.

Max smiled. “You can trust me, Sophie. I’m one of the good guys.”

“Huh!” said Sophie, wrinkling her lovely brow. “You killed my friend Sonia last week.”

That was true.

“Yeah, well. I can’t allow you Level Twos to go around eating people,” Max said uncomfortably.

Sophie sniffed. “I don’t see why not. She only ate really stupid people.”

Max sighed. Sometimes his job just wasn’t so simple. Arguing with Sophie gave him a headache.

The Maitre D’ was only too happy to usher Sophie to the best table in the Palm Court. Max wasn’t sure whether she had used her natural charm and beauty, or her unnatural charm: the one where she hypnotised simple humans into following her to the ends of the earth, whereupon she was quite likely to eat them, gizzards first, eyeballs second. A girl had to have standards.

Sophie smiled gratefully at the Maitre D’ and Max could tell by the look on the man’s face that he’d already forgotten he was a father of five and happily married. He frowned. He didn’t like Sophie using her demon charms like that. On the other hand, he had asked for her help. He’d have to remember to de-charm the man later. Right now he had a rather less humane job to complete.

Sophie seated herself within the Brood’s eye-line. It was only a matter of time before they took the bait.

She pretended to scan the menu, throwing coy glances from beneath her long, black lashes.

It was easy. The Brood took one look at Sophie’s gleaming hair and dazzling smile and they were hooked.

“Excuse me, Miss,” said the Brood demon with the handsome skin. “I don’t like to see a lady dining alone: would you care to join us?”

“Oh, that’s so kind,” gushed Sophie. “I do hate eating by myself. You are a poppet!”

Max could tell that the Brood demon was already sizing her up and trying not to drool too openly.

“It’s rather crowded in here,” he whispered in her delicate ear. “So many ugly huma… people. Perhaps you’d prefer a little privacy. We have a suite… up there.”

His eyes flicked towards the ceiling, indicating that the demons had taken the Executive Suite on one of the upper floors.

Sophie giggled. “Oh, I really shouldn’t, but it does sound fun! I’ve never been in one of the rooms here before.”

The Brood demon smiled. “What a crime. A beautiful lady like you should have the opportunity to experience all that life has to offer. May I show you the way?”

He held out a perfectly manicured hand adorned by a very expensive Swiss watch.

“I do love an adventure,” gushed Sophie.

Max could see the Level Threes exchanging amused glances. They couldn’t believe how easily their prey had been caught: like a lamb to the slaughter.

Although if Max had been a man given to thinking in similes, he might have argued that she was more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The handsome demon took Sophie’s arm and led her to the lobby. Together with his four brethren, they escorted Sophie to the lift.

This was the part that was the most dangerous: Max had to leave Sophie alone with the Brood for the time it took him to track them to their room without them realising they were being set up. He didn’t think they’d try anything in the lift: too much potential for being seen when the doors re-opened. At least the Brood’s sense of discretion was on his side. Max watched the dial by the elevator shaft. It stopped at five. Max took the returning lift to the fifth floor. The corridor was thickly carpeted and as quiet as the tomb. Max had no idea which room the Brood were using but all he had to do was wait – and the answer would come to him.

A moment later the service elevator clunked into life.

Max watched as two waiters carried bottles of chilled Cristal champagne and Sevruga caviar to room 513. Max cursed. Trust Sophie to order the best there was. This was going to be expensive. He hoped the Yard wouldn’t quibble about the row of zeroes if this ended up on his expense account. He had a feeling the Brood weren’t going to be around long enough to pay the bill.

Max thrust his warrant card in the faces of the surprised waiters and placed a finger on his lips, telling them to be quiet. They hurried away, throwing shocked and excited glances over their shoulders.

Max skulked out of sight until he was sure the two waiters had left, then he knocked firmly on the door.

“Yes, what is it?” shouted an annoyed Brood through the door.

“Room Service,” said Max.

“Leave it outside,” came the surly response through the heavy door.

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” said Max firmly, “but I need to open the Cristal for sir.”

“We can open our own damn champagne!” shouted one of the Brood, forgetting that he was still trying to impress Sophie with his expensive sophistication.

“Management policy, sir. Health and Safety,” said Max.

He heard a Brood demon stomping towards the door and readied himself.

As soon as the door opened, Max pushed past the demon and strode to the centre of the room. There was a chance—a very small chance—that they could talk this through and no violence would be necessary. He saw Sophie sitting next to one of the Level Threes who was dressed in the skin of a merchant banker. The skin looked a bit worn and pasty—human skin only lasts a couple of days when a Brood demon wears it. After all, you couldn’t really call it fair wear-and-tear.

“Who are you? This is a private party,” said the Brood.

“Don’t you just hate gate-crashers,” replied Max. “I normally skip the introductions for illegals, but as you’re new in town I’ll give you one chance: I’m Detective Darke, D-Division, Scotland Yard—and you’re in violation of the Terrestrial Code of Conduct, Section 3, Paragraph 12.”

“Why, Detective Darke, what a pleasure,” snarled the Brood demon. “We’re here for a… party conference. There are quite a few more of us on their way here right now. I’m sure if you check, you’ll find the paperwork is in order.”

Max was confused. This wasn’t how he’d expected the conversation to go at all.

“Yes, we have a special dispensation,” said a second demon silkily. “But please feel free to check with the PTBs. This room has WiFi.”

How thoughtful.

“Okay. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt for the time it takes me to check in with the PTBs,” said Max. “But if you’re spinning me a line, the penalties are going to be serious.”

He pulled out his phone and hunched over it to send a message.

Max felt rather than saw a Brood demon moving towards him.

He dropped to the floor and rolled sideways, hurling a bottle of Holy Water over his shoulder.

His aim was good. The demon’s stolen skin started to fizz and bubble as the Holy Water burned the evil inside.

The Brood began to scream. Max smiled.

Panic broke out. Brood were running everywhere. Sophie was firing Holy Water from her water pistol and laughing like a drain. “Yee-ha!” she yelled. She was having fun.

The smell of burning Brood filled the room.

One huge Brood demon dressed as a marketing consultant ran straight at Max, who was still on the ground. Claws sprang from its hands splitting the human skin. The discarded disguise peeled away and dropped to the floor like a set of dirty clothes, which was a pretty fair description. The demon’s orange eyes burned with hatred.

“Time to die, human!”

The claws dug into Max’s arm. The sudden pain caused him to drop the Holy Water.

The demon opened its mouth, revealing powerful canines ready to rip off Max’s head and suck out his soul, along with the spouting blood.

Max tore the small, silver letter opener from his pocket and thrust it into the demon’s wrinkled, green skin.

“Fangs for the memory,” muttered Max.

The Brood demon screamed in fury but already the magical alchemy of the silver was doing its job, and the gaping wound in the demon’s neck was shrivelling the demon flesh. Pungent, yellow mucus oozed down Max’s arm, making him jerk the silver letter opener free, dropping it on the carpet.

Max pushed himself up from the floor, pretty certain he’d have a good collection of bruises in the morning. He was used to it.

“That was easier than I expected,” said Max quietly, but he wasn’t one to look a dead-demon-gift-horse in the mouth.

The five Brood demons were dead or dying: if you could call it dying. It was more like melting or dissolving, leaving an unpleasant smell of sulphur.

Max surveyed the carnage in the room—all that was left was a couple of fast food wrappers that looked distinctly out of place in a hotel of this quality—along with the fact that Brood demons didn’t eat ordinary meals. Max automatically filed away the information until he could make sense of it.

He turned slowly, sensing that he was being watched.

Sophie’s eyes blazed with unholy joy. Her glowing green eyes were fixed on Max.

She smiled. “Oh dear, Max,” she said, revealing her long canines. “Looks like you’re out of weapons.”

Max swung round to face her, the blood draining from his face.

“What about our truce?”

She glided towards him, her mouth growing wider and wider as she revealed her demon nature.

“Mmm, yes. Well, I did say the truce would hold until the Brood were dead, and voila! Lots of dead Brood.”

Max took a step backwards and felt his knees graze a chair behind him.

“I should have listened to you, Gran,” said Max to himself. “How many times did you tell me, never trust a girl with horns, fangs or claws.”

He looked around desperately. His silver letter opener was still on the floor and out of reach. His Holy Water pistol was empty. It wasn’t looking good. In fact it was looking really, really bad.

Sophie advanced, claws and fangs outstretched. “Time to say goodbye,” she hissed.

Max had just seconds before Sophie tore him limb from limb, and ate what was left.

His hand brushed against his coat as he stepped around the chair away from Sophie.

“I’ve still got one weapon left!”

He pulled the garlic from his pocket and, without waiting to peel it, put three whole cloves in his mouth and started to chew quickly.

Sophie stopped in her tracks.

“Max! You wouldn’t! I kept my part of the truce, sort of.”

“Sophie,” said Max, “I’m afraid I won’t be renewing your Demon Passport.” Then he breathed garlicky breath in her face.

“Aaaaaaaagh!” she screamed.

She clutched at her face as it began to slide to the floor.

“Maaaaaaax,” she gurgled as her voice box disintegrated.

Max watched sadly as Sophie decomposed, until there was nothing left but a pool of green slime on the carpet.

“Shame,” he said. “She was a nice girl, for a demon.”

“Really? You think so, dearest Max?”


There was a knock on the door. It was the hotel waiter returning with the manager. They stared open-mouthed at the room: broken chairs, an overturned table, large burns all over the carpet and something green and sticky on his shoe.

“Sorry about that,” said Max. “Send the cleaning bill to Scotland Yard.

Max knew that the first lot of Brood had been careless and that he had been very lucky. The way this day was going, he felt pretty sure that he couldn’t count on his luck lasting.

He sighed, remembering Sophie. He was genuinely sorry that he’d had to terminate her. But that was the trouble with demons – you just couldn’t trust them. They didn’t have a sense of what was right and wrong. Spawn today just weren’t what they used to be.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the story, because Sophie has a way of turning up like a bad penny. And Sophie Judas, demon second class, was just reason why he had to watch his back.

“Oh, you’re such a tease, Max darling. I could just eat you all up. Aren’t you going to tell all those delicious little humans about how I was summoned by the PTBs and we became partners in solving supernatural crime?”

“Nope, they’ll have to read the book for that.”

“You’re such a tease.”

“When’s it coming out?”

“May next year.”

“That’s such a long time away!”

“I know, but it’ll be worth the wait. Happy Hallowe’en, Sophie.”

The Dark Detective – coming in English and Portuguese in May 2022.

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Troll: My Life in Bomb Disposal

I’m greatly honoured to have published the memoirs of Justin ‘Troll’ Bell QGM.

He was a soldier in the British Army for 23 years, an expert in bomb disposal, for which he won the Queen’s Gallantry Medal. He was a husband and a father, and he was my friend.

We became friends when I started writing the play Later, After, and it was Justin’s expertise that made it so incredibly moving. You can see the theatrical trailer on the play’s page on this website.

Over the years, he sent me poems and writing he’d done about his time in the Army and how it affected him. When he became ill at the end of 2018, the race was on to collect all his work together and publish it. None of his friends believed that cancer would kill him, when two decades of terrorists couldn’t.

Just before Justin died in 2019, I was able to show him a paperback copy of his memoirs, but it was a rushed job and not as polished as I knew he would want it to be. It was two years before his widow and I felt able to face finishing the job.

I’m so glad we did.

Justin ‘Troll’ Bell served in the British Army for 23 years, most of those as an EOD Operator – a bomb disposal expert.

This is his story of tours served in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan – the adventures, the camaraderie, the hard truths and painful costs of a dangerous and stressful job.

But also the jokes, the pranks, and the stark humanity of a man who made ‘The Lonely Walk’ many, many times.

* * *
Justin J Bell joined the British Army in the late 1980s and quickly qualified as an Ammunition Technician within the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. He completed over 20 years’ service as an Army Counter Terrorism Bomb Disposal Operator seeing service in three major conflicts.

He commanded EOD operations on High-Threat tours in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan; supporting over a decade of front line UK counter-terrorism activity including responding to the 2005 London bombings. He constituted part of the National Contingency Capability for dealing with weapons of mass destruction.

Justin supported discrete Foreign and Commonwealth Office tasks to various countries as part of a wider defence diplomacy programme, and finished his service as a Senior Explosive Ordnance Disposal Soldier responsible for the supervision and provision of multiple EOD teams in support of UK National Contingency Operations. During his service he received the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for his EOD activities, and was subsequently rewarded a second time on the Queen’s New Year Honours list on his retirement.

Identifying that the psychological well-being of EOD Operators was being largely ignored, he was instrumental in the implementation within EOD Units of the Trauma Risk Management programme originally instigated by the Royal Marines. He retired in 2009 to spend more time with his wife and children and pursue a career lecturing.

Troll: My Life in Bomb Disposal
Published: 1st December 2021
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