Thank you for stopping by That’s What I’m Talking About for today’s Mistletoe Madness spot. For a line up of all of the authors featured here and at The Book Nympho, and to enter the overall event giveaway for a free book (two chances to win!), please click on the image above or go to the kickoff post on December 2, 2013.
Book: Disenchanted & Co.
Release Date: January 28th, 2014
Publisher: Pocket Star
This is a story about the heroine of Disenchanted & Co. playing Santa.
I had meant to have my Christmas Eve at home, where I could comfortably watch my Yule log burn while I sipped hot cider and nibbled on shortbread. Instead I spent the day at the office correcting my ledger (unbalanced by two pence), writing up case reports (I’d closed twenty since the solstice) and sending out payment reminders (the magic of the holidays often made clients forget what they owed me.)
I didn’t mind, not really. I lived alone so there was no one waiting at home for me to arrive. I had no presents to open, feast to prepare, or tree to decorate. No one would try to kiss me under the mistletoe. Funds had been so tight I couldn’t afford gifts for my friends, and truth be told, I hadn’t even bothered to buy a Yule log this year.
Christmas was for families to celebrate; for me it was just another day.
“Haven’t you something better to do?”
I looked up from the last of the billing to see a portly old gent standing before my desk. I’d have told him to piss off, but the starched white collar round his neck suggested I’d someday burn in hell for it. Also, he wore the white fur-trimmed red jacket, hat and pants of Father Christmas, and it didn’t seem polite to insult a clergyman dressed up as a holiday saint.
“I’ve already donated for the needy this month, Vicar.” Behind him my office door stood shut and locked, which made me frown. “How did you–”
“Never mind that. We’ve business to discuss.” He dropped a bulging velvet sack atop my desk. “Now, you’re to deliver these three gifts tonight, before the stroke of midnight, if you please.”
I peeked inside the sack, which held brightly-wrapped boxes. “I’m a detective, Vicar, not a delivery service.”
He glared at me. “You’re for hire, and I’m hiring you. Deliver the parcels to the names on the tags–”
“There aren’t any names.” I showed him a blank tag.
“They’re bespelled,” he snapped. “You must hold them in your hand to reveal the writing.”
I did, and writing slowly appeared on the tag. “Lovely trick. Lemon juice ink, I presume?”
“Magic,” he insisted. “Put the gifts under their Christmas trees, but don’t let them see you at it.” He made a shooing gesture. “Don’t dawdle, gel. Get on with you.”
I wrinkled my nose. “I don’t work for free, Vicar. I also don’t have any means of transportation.”
“Mercenary wench.” He produced a handful of crumpled notes, which he tossed onto my desk beside the sack. “I’ve a carri waiting for you outside. You’re to deliver the three gifts before midnight, no exceptions. Give me your word.”
“Very well, I promise I’ll deliver all three.” I counted out the notes — thirty pounds, which would pay my rent until Easter — before I deposited them in my cash drawer. “Does your driver know . . . Vicar?”
The fake Father Christmas had vanished.
My first delivery was conveniently located inside my office building; specifically to the old mech whose workshop occupied the entire basement (we called it the Dungeon.) I didn’t worry about slinking downstairs, for the din there was perpetual, thanks to my mate Reginald P. Docket. The old mech was usually so busy tinkering on his latest gadget that he wouldn’t notice me unless I shouted for him.
I would have left the oddly-shaped gift on his work bench, but the old priest’s warning about stowing it under the tree came back to me. I looked round until I spotted an odd sort of bush assembled from wire brushes and roller shafts. Hanging from the branches were dozens of pocket watch cases, each filled with sprung gears, glass chips and other bits of glittering mech. Since Doc was forever long on parts but short on coin it made sense that he’d build his own mech version of a Christmas tree.
As soon as I placed the gift beneath the lowest wire-brush branches I heard cursing and the clatter of tools. Quickly I darted behind a crate of carri wheels and watched as Doc dragged a twisted snarl of mech over to his work bench, where he hefted it into a parts bin.
“Useless,” he shouted at the bin before dropping onto a stool and rubbing the side of his head. “Bloody damn useless. Just like me.” His shoulders lifted and fell on a sigh before his head turned and his ferocious expression softened. “Now what’s this?”
I watched my mate retrieve the gift from under his mechtree and turn it round a few times in his grease-stained hands. The canny vicar must have known Doc had few luxuries in life, I thought, and hoped the present would be something very nice. Yet when Doc opened the gift, all I saw was a grimy little wooden dog with wheels instead of legs and a rusty coil for a tail.
I started to step out so I could apologize when I heard Doc say, “Oh, Spot, my sweet Spot. How on earth did you get here?”
Doc carefully placed the wooden toy on the floor, and then drew it along by the faded ribbon tied round its neck. The wheels squealed as it rolled, but its coil tail wagged and its jaw opened and shut. When Doc crouched down to pet its little dirty head, it rolled up onto its back wheels and let out a tinny little bark.
“Never thought I’d see you again.” The old man picked up the toy and cradled it as if it were the Crown jewels. “Not after Da tossed you out with the rubbish for making too much noise.” He reach for a rag to wipe away the dirt clouding the toy’s bright button eyes. “But here, Spot, here you may bark as much as you fancy.”
I turned, swallowing against the tightness in my throat as I picked up my sack and made for the stair. The wooden dog couldn’t have been the same toy Doc had lost in his youth, of course. He must have at some time confessed his longing for it to the vicar, who had then obtained or fashioned another like it. Having me deliver it so secretly made its appearance seem like magic. No doubt the clergyman would arrive tomorrow and claim that so that he might wheedle a generous donation from Doc.
I despised this sort of deception; it seemed so cruel to use such fond memories to swindle unsuspecting souls. But I’d taken the vicar’s money, and I had given him my word, so there was no escaping the task.
I stalked outside to the curb, where a red-painted carri stood waiting. Behind the wheel sat Chief Inspector Thomas Doyle of New Scotland Yard, and he didn’t look pleased as he pushed open the passenger door.
“Get in, Miss Kittredge.”
“You work as a vicar’s driver?” I asked as I climbed in.
“Just for tonight.” He sounded quite unhappy about it, too. “Where to now?”
I checked the tag on the next gift, which had been made out with the name of the most notorious woman in Rumsen, who also happened to be my oldest friend. “The busiest brothel in the city, please.”
Doyle drove me across town to what had once been a respectable boarding house. Now called the Eagle’s Nest, the place offered rooms and services of a very different nature, thanks to the Mrs. Carina Eagle and her staff of pretty and utterly pliant gels.
“I should only be a few minutes,” I told him as I got out. “Or do you want to come in with me?”
“I’d better not.” He glared at the red-curtained windows. “Unless you want me to arrest everyone on the premises.”
“Surely you’re not working on Christmas Eve, Miss Kit?” Almira, Rina’s cook, asked as she let me in the tradesmen’s door.
“No rest for the wicked.” I heard laughter and rhythmic thumping coming through the ceiling and tried not to imagine the source. “Is Rina occupied?”
“Only with what’s left of the good brandy,” the cook said, and nodded toward Rina’s private sitting room. “She’s been in a mood all day, I’ll warn you.”
I tapped on the door before I slipped inside. My friend the madam sat dressed in a gown as golden as her hair, a half-bottle of brandy in her hand as she stared at a tall, unadorned pine standing in the corner.
“Happy Christmas, Carina,” I said softly.
“Come to make merry with me, Kit?” She didn’t glance at me as she drank from the bottle. “Too late. I’m mostly-bent as it is. I tried to call on me Mum again, but she wouldn’t have her daughter the whore in the house. I hate Christmas.”
So did I, but I couldn’t let her sit and get drunk in front of a bare tree. “I could help you, ah, decorate.”
“The gels will see to it tomorrow.” Rina rose and drank again before she dropped the bottle on a side table. “I’ll get you a glass and we’ll have a drink.”
As soon as she staggered out I deposited her gift under the bare pine before I headed for the door. When I stepped out into the hall, I heard an odd tinkling sound and glanced back to see the parcel opening like a flower. Beams of sparkling light shot up from it, and everywhere the light touched an ornament or star or some other holiday bauble appeared, until the tree stood richly decorated from tip to trunk. Finally the gift box itself changed shape, turning a dark rich brown and sprouting fur as it arranged itself into a small, cheekily grinning bear.
It couldn’t be magic — I didn’t believe in it — and yet nothing else could explain the exquisite decorations or the little toy bear. I was tempted to go back in the room and touch them, to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, but at that very moment Rina rejoined me.
“Oy, you can’t leave me to get pissed by meself,” Rina said, and then caught her breath. “Kit?”
“None of my doing.” I gave her a little push into the room, and watched as she fell to her knees and picked up the bear, holding it as tenderly as she would an infant.
“Mum gave me this when I was a wee gel.” Rina swiped at her eyes. “I thought she burnt it with the rest of my things.”
I didn’t want to watch her croon and cry over the toy, or look anymore at the beautiful shimmering tree, so I made my way outside. Snow was falling on the carri, trimming it with white, and when I climbed in Doyle covered me with a plaid blanket.
“Where’s the last to go, then?” he asked.
The final parcel in the sack was rather small, but the name that appeared on the tag when I touched it made me groan. Of course it would be him; it was always him.
“Drive me to the cliffs outside the city,” I told Doyle.
He peered at me. “Nothing out there but rocks, sea and that sodding death mage’s house.”
“His name is Lord Lucien Dredmore,” I corrected, and glowered at the little box in my hands. “And this last gift is for him.”
Doyle wanted to take the gift in, of course; he hated Dredmore almost as much as I did.
“I gave my word, Tommy.” I climbed down out of the carri. “But if I’m not out in ten minutes you might come in shooting. Not at me, of course.”
He caught my arm and leaned out to touch my cold cheek. “All I’ve ever wanted is to protect you. Especially from him . . . ”
“It’s all right.” I smiled and covered his hand with me. “Be back before you know it.”
I marched up to the front door, which opened as soon as I presented myself before it.
“Good evening, Miss.” The silver-haired, bland-faced servant bowed a little. “His lordship is expecting you.”
Dredmore wanted me to believe he could take peeks into the future by checking the portents or some other such magical nonsense; I suspected he had men watching me and reporting on everything I did.
“I’m making a delivery, not a call.” I held out the gift box. “This is for his lordship.” I felt someone behind me and glanced over my shoulder to see Connell standing there. Doyle and the carri were gone. “What happened to my friend? What did you do to him?”
Neither man said anything, so I stomped inside, and followed the servant to a large study lit only by the flames burning brightly in the fireplace.
“If you’ll wait here, Miss.” The servant withdrew and closed the door, leaving me to pace back and forth. Just as I was considering heaving the gift through a window, climbing out and walking back to the city, a shadow separated itself from a dark corner and stepped into the light.
Lord Dredmore stood tall, handsome and ominous as ever. He had the darkest eyes of any man I knew, but then they matched his heart. “Charmian.”
“Lucien.” I tossed the box to him, which he caught neatly. “A vicar hired me to deliver this to you. Happy Christmas. What have you done with Doyle and my carri?”
“Nothing at all.” He turned the box over in his hands. “As a death mage I am considered a damned soul. No clergyman would ever send me a gift.”
“Perhaps this one was especially forgiving. Or inebriated.” I sighed and gestured at the box. “Go on, open it. It will be some grubby little treasure from your childhood. That’s what the devious sod has had me delivering to everyone else.”
“I doubt it.” He began peeling off the wrap. “As a child I was never permitted to have toys.” He opened the box and looked inside, going very still.
“Well?” I folded my arms. “What is it?”
“Perhaps your vicar does know me.” He showed me the inside of the box, which was empty.
As much as I despised Dredmore I felt a wave of pity. “Wretched man. I’m sorry, Lucien. I didn’t know.”
He set aside the box and came toward me. “The gifts he sent to the others, did they make them happy?”
I thought of Docket’s face as he pulled along the wooden dog, and the tears in Rina’s eyes as she held her bear. “Yes. Very much so.”
“Only one thing in my life has ever given me hope of happiness, Charmian.” He took my hands in his. “And while he could never fit that into this box, he has sent it to me tonight.”
“No, I think it’s just a cruel joke.” I meant to tug away my hands but he was moving his to hold my waist and pull me close. “It’s almost midnight, milord. I should really be on my way, if you could locate my cop and carri.”
“Give me my gift first.” He touched his mouth to mine, and his breath warmed my lips. “Yes. You taste of hope, my sweet.”
That one, brief kiss made a shiver race down my spine just as the room began to spin . . .
I jerked upright, and swatted at a piece of paper stuck to my face. I was not in Dredmore’s arms or his study or his great gloomy house; I’d fallen asleep at the desk in my office. I checked my brooch watch, which told me it was half past six; when I got up and went to the window I saw the sun rising in the east. Red ribbons fluttered above every doorway, gaily announcing that Christmas Day had arrived.
It had all been a dream, I decided, and a fairly ridiculous one at that. As I yawned and went to put on the kettle, I tried to imagine myself being driven about Rumsen by Inspector Doyle so I could deliver magical gifts for Father Christmas. Doyle would never agree to such nonsense, of course. I’d do anything for my friends Rina and Docket, naturally, but that business at the end with Dredmore . . . I wouldn’t have agreed to that for three thousand pounds. As for the vicar, he couldn’t have been Father Christmas. Like magic, he and his presents simply did not exist.
I had gotten the chance in the dream to give precious gifts to my friends, however, and that made me smile a little. Perhaps someday my situation would improve, and I could afford to do the same in real life.
The door to my office flung open as Docket came in and held out a bag of sticky buns. “A merry morning, Kit.”
“Same to you, mate.” I came round to hug him. “Will you stay and have a cup with me?” I heard an odd sound come from his jacket and drew back. “What’s that?”
“Something Father Christmas left for me.” He pulled out small wooden dog with a spring tail and wheels instead of legs. “Right under me little mech tree, can you believe that?”
In the Provincial Union of Victoriana, a steampunk America that lost the Revolutionary War, Charmian “Kit” Kittredge makes her living investigating crimes of magic. While Kit tries to avoid the nobs of high society, she follows mysteries wherever they lead.
Unlike most folks, Kit doesn’t believe in magic, but she can’t refuse to help Lady Diana Walsh, who claims a curse is viciously wounding her while she sleeps. As Kit investigates the Walsh family, she becomes convinced that the attacks are part of a more ominous plot—one that may involve the lady’s obnoxious husband.
Sleuthing in the city of Rumsen is difficult enough, but soon Kit must also skirt the unwanted attentions of a nefarious deathmage and the unwelcome scrutiny of the police chief inspector. Unwilling to surrender to either man’s passion for her, Kit struggles to remain independent as she draws closer to the heart of the mystery. For the truth promises to ruin her life—and turn Rumsen into a supernatural battleground from which no one will escape alive.
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Now, head over the THE BOOK NYMPHO to see today’s feature with Jennifer Estep.