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The Coward's Way (Puddledown Mysteries, #2)

The Coward's Way (Puddledown Mysteries, #2)

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The Coward's Way (Puddledown Mysteries, #2)

Length:
181 pages
2 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Aug 11, 2014
ISBN:
9781310345470
Format:
Book

Description

Two months after the discovery of a murderer in their midst, life for the inhabitants of Puddledown has settled back to normal for everybody except Hugo Wainwright. Having accepted his feelings for groundskeeper Tommy Granger, for Hugo, everything has changed.

Hugo wants nothing more than to make his friend happy, but the voices in his head won't let him. If he can't bring himself to tell Tommy he's having nightmares about the evening the killer came for him, how can he possibly explain the panic he feels every time Tommy tries to take their fledgling relationship further?

When the local Viscount's daughter goes missing after a ball from which Hugo and Tommy were the only guests to leave early, suspicion falls firmly on them. But the police inspector isn't the only one keeping a close eye on the cabin in the woods, and as the net closes, Hugo has a decision to make. Will he be brave, or will he take the coward's way out?

45,000 words.

Publisher:
Released:
Aug 11, 2014
ISBN:
9781310345470
Format:
Book

About the author

Born in Liverpool, Kate Aaron is a bestselling author of the #1 LGBT romances What He Wants, Ace, The Slave, and other works. She holds a BA (Hons) in English Language and Literature, and an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture, and is an outspoken advocate for equal rights. Kate swapped the North West for the Midwest in October 2015 and married award-winning author AJ Rose. Together they plan to take over the world.


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The Coward's Way (Puddledown Mysteries, #2) - Kate Aaron

THE COWARD’S WAY

Puddledown Mysteries, Book Two

Kate Aaron

Copyright 2014 Kate Aaron

Smashwords Edition

Croft House

Croft House | Licence Notes

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written permission from the publisher, except where permitted by law, or in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For more information, contact: Author@KateAaron.com

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Cover image by Elizabeth Mackey Graphics

ElizabethMackeyGraphics.com

Edited by Theo Fenraven

Excerpt quoted from The Symposium by Plato.

KateAaron.com

WARNING: This book contains scenes of an adult nature.

Index

The Coward’s Way

Author’s Note

About the Author

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THE COWARD’S WAY

Puddledown Mysteries, Book Two

Kate Aaron

Copyright 2014 Kate Aaron

Croft House

CHAPTER ONE

Hugo Wainwright smiled grimly at his reflection in the bathroom mirror as his face emerged from a thin layer of shaving cream, smooth square slabs of skin exposed by the blade of his straight razor. He must be losing his faculties to have allowed himself to be talked into attending the annual Winter Ball at Crowe Hall, the local manor house.

Every year Robert Fairfax, Viscount Crowe, opened his home to the employees of his estate and the worthy townsfolk of Puddledown. It was a tradition held as long as Hugo could recall—aside from those years during the war when the Hall had been put to use as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers—and no doubt spanned the centuries, one esteemed Lord after another offering a benevolent hand to the simple folks who lived and worked on his land. Hugo’s late mother, Constance, had always received a special invite, guest of honour as one of the nurses employed to tend the soldiers brought back from the Front following the First War, but since her passing, back in the winter of ’45, Hugo had declined his invitations.

For three years, he had managed to avoid the Winter Balls. Three years blessedly free of an evening which was, for quiet, withdrawn Hugo, nothing but a torment. He had never fared well amid people, preferring instead his own company to the idle chatter of the church ladies or the overly-hearty backslapping of the men. If it hadn’t been for Tommy, Hugo wouldn’t be attending at all.

As the newly-employed groundskeeper for the Crowe estate, Thomas Granger had of course received an invitation written on thick, gilt-edged paper and delivered personally to his little cabin in the woods by one of the footmen. Tommy had shown it to Hugo, his dark eyes—almost black, but not quite—bright with anticipation. Hugo couldn’t bear to be the one to wipe the happy expression from his friend’s face, and had assented to attend with barely a ripple of protest.

Now here he was, shaving with extraordinary care at four in the afternoon, his black suit laid neatly on his bed, waiting to once more be pressed into service. At least this time it would not be for a funeral. Hugo wiped his chin with a rough cloth, removing the last of the residue from the shaving lather, wondering if Tommy was even now following the same routine.

Tommy shaved only sporadically, and Hugo didn’t think he’d ever seen his friend completely free of the beard stubble which so scandalised the ladies of the town. Stubble that scratched his cheeks and chin when Tommy kissed him, an erotic rasp which sent a spike of lust through Hugo’s veins at its sheer maleness. Kissing Tommy was rapidly becoming Hugo’s favourite pastime, and he found it hard to believe how hesitant he’d first been to indulge.

Much had changed in the two months since Hugo met Tommy. Their friendship had blossomed under the most unlikely of circumstances: stumbling across a murdered body in the woods on the outskirts of Puddledown, a short distance from Tommy’s cabin. Then again, perhaps such traumatic experiences had always brought people together, forged friendships when there was precious little else in common.

Hugo couldn’t say what had first drawn him to the enigmatic groundskeeper—or rather, he couldn’t bring himself to say. The attraction he felt towards Tommy had been there from the first, even when he’d suspected the man of being guilty of the crime they uncovered. The police inspector certainly believed Tommy guilty, and even now, despite the real killer having been unmasked, he gave the groundskeeper and Hugo a wide berth whenever their paths crossed.

It made Hugo uneasy that people might suppose there was more to his friendship with Tommy than was strictly proper. It was criminal, to be as they were—to act upon it, at any rate. A senseless, ridiculous crime, when they both consented and hurt nobody, but Inspector Owens would still see them clapped in irons for it were they ever to be discovered.

Tommy seemed not to care. Tommy was young and fearless, had taken lovers in the past, and was wont to forget himself in the most inopportune of places. Then again, Hugo suspected Tommy rather enjoyed the thrill, the possibility of discovery, or else desired to be discovered, like he believed himself deserving of punishment. The men in Tommy’s past had been worthless scoundrels who cared nothing for his sweet nature, who sought only to slake their lusts upon his body and leave. Hugo’s gorge rose as he thought of them, a low growl rumbling in his throat as he gripped the handle of the straight razor a little too tightly, his knuckles ivory-pale around it.

Those men still knew Tommy in a way Hugo did not. After a lifetime of self-imposed restraint, even kissing had taken all Hugo’s courage, and the thought of acting upon his baser desires left him feeling dirty and confused. He was not like those other men, and didn’t want to become so. Tommy deserved someone who appreciated him, who cherished him for who he was, not what he could offer.

Hugo placed the blade on the edge of the sink, hung the rough cloth over the lip of the bath to dry, and forced himself to dress. He’d only worn this particular suit twice before: first at his mama’s funeral, then again at the funeral of old Mrs Fairchild, the murderer’s first victim. The body Hugo and Tommy had stumbled across that fateful day in the woods.

Hugo suppressed a shudder as he ran his hands over the front of his neat white shirt, checking for wrinkles. Tommy had been arrested on the day of the funeral, and Hugo still felt the bitter tang of panic as he recalled his frantic conversation with Constable Jimmy Cooper the day he’d read in the newspaper that his friend was in gaol. Jimmy’s leering insinuations, and his absolute conviction in Tommy’s guilt. His grim prophecy of the hangman’s noose.

It didn’t happen. Hugo forced himself to remember Tommy’s name had been cleared, his innocence proven beyond doubt. No black-clothed judge waited in Tommy’s future to pass the final sentence. Still, Hugo knew his friend blamed himself for the old woman’s death, and that of the young man who had met his end in the same woods a week later. Their murders had been a message, the killer the father of a man whom Tommy had befriended during the war. Reg Davies blamed Tommy for his son’s death at Dunkirk, and had determined to punish Tommy by murdering everyone the groundskeeper held dear, Hugo included.

But Hugo wasn’t thinking about the night Reg finally came for him, the night he’d stared his own mortality in the face and believed himself a goner. Tommy had saved his life that night, then they had watched, horror-struck, as Reg turned the knife with which he’d murdered Mrs Fairchild and Archie Bucket upon himself. Hugo had waited with the dying man while Tommy ran to fetch help from the town, so it had been Hugo who’d watched the light leave Reg’s eyes, listening to the man gargle his own blood, spitting curses all the while.

Too soon. Much, much too soon. He still saw those moments in his dreams, and woke sweating and screaming into his counterpane, trembling from head to foot. He daren’t tell even Tommy he was having nightmares, profoundly ashamed of himself for being unable to stomach one death when his friend had seen so many. Tommy had been a soldier, as had almost every other man in Puddledown. Only Hugo had remained behind, escaping conscription by finding employment as master of the town school.

After the war ended, Hugo had gratefully handed his responsibilities over to the original schoolmaster and returned to his quiet life working as Arts and Literature correspondent for the Gazette. For three years, nothing changed. Then he met Tommy, and everything had changed at once.

Hugo fastened his white bowtie, tweaking the ends just so, then shrugged on his black jacket. He hoped he looked respectable enough for such a formal occasion. Not as formal as other balls Viscount Crowe was used to hosting, he was sure, but all the townsfolk would be there, dressed in their finest and judging their neighbours if so much as a stray hair was out of place. Hugo ran an anxious hand over his neatly Brylcreemed wave. He would be arriving alone, the very thought of appearing on Tommy’s arm too shocking to bear, but he wished with all his heart they could walk into the imposing hall together, as other couples were able to do.

He could use some of Tommy’s courage, his unshakable confidence in everything turning out all right. Tommy had smiled, then laughed, when Hugo confessed to nerves the previous evening, chucked him under the chin and kissed him so thoroughly all his doubts were chased away in an instant. Tommy had pressed Hugo up against the back of the old horsehair sofa which dominated his small cabin and ground their bodies together, cupping his face in rough hands, anchoring him in the safety and security of their embrace.

Hugo felt the tether of that anchor still, a slim thread winding its way through the woods and into his home, into his heart. Foolish sentiment, to have fallen so thoroughly for Tommy, and so quickly. Yet miracle of miracles, Tommy seemed to reciprocate Hugo’s feelings.

The thought warmed him, saw him through donning his overcoat and exiting the house. The air was brisk, his breath billowing in the darkness of the late December day, the sun having already set behind the woods Tommy called home. Crowe Hall lay on the other side of those woods, but Hugo set off in the opposite direction, along Ferndale Lane towards the town centre.

The new electric lights shone brightly on Main Street, illuminating the small group collected outside the local tavern, the Crowe Arms. The old-fashioned carriages the Viscount had provided to ferry partygoers to and from the ball were waiting patiently, the light thrown from the pub windows and streetlamps flashing off the buckles and fastenings of bits and bridles as the horses tossed their heads. Hugo found a seat in a carriage beside Mr Ponsonby, the rector, and his wife, and opposite the Reverend Brown, who was accompanied by his wife, Edith. The women chattered happily as the carriage swayed along the rutted lanes around the wood, but Hugo chose to ignore them, watching shadows pass by through the small side window.

He supposed Tommy would walk to the manor. Tommy wasn’t the sort to mind if he arrived at the Hall with mud on his boots or his hair out of place. What would the other guests think of him? Hugo met the glass eyes of the fox strung around Mrs Ponsonby’s neck with apprehension. He had been like that fur once: a dead thing which looked fine enough on display but didn’t engage. Yet the fox had once been alive, had run through the woods, careless and free. Hugo didn’t think he’d ever been truly alive before he met Tommy.

The vicar looked neat in a dark suit, the white of his clerical collar standing out in stark contrast. His wife wore a blue dress with a fashionably cinched waist, the silk flowers in her hat dyed to match. Mr Ponsonby wore full white tie, the jacket looking a little tight

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