In 1888 Austin, Texas, a shy medium with clubfoot is visited by the grisly spirits of murdered children and enlists the help of a rugged Texas Ranger to pursue their killer. As the two men hunt the murderer, they find themselves not only in the grip of a taboo love that could—at best—send them to prison, but also in danger of becoming the killer’s next prey.
In the twenty three years of his life, Thomas Carillon has known nothing but unrequited love. People don’t notice him; they only notice his clubfoot. He has given himself up to a solitary existence with only the companionship of his cat and the ghosts who visit him. When a rare child ghost, her massive injuries evident, asks Thomas for help, the only law man that will listen is a hard-bitten Texas Ranger who reawaken’s Thomas’s secret desires. The two grow closer as they chase the killer, but can they hold onto their fragile, budding love in such hard times?
Hadrian Burton thinks Thomas looks like an angel, except for whatever horror he’s hiding in that strange boot. Temporarily leaving life on the range and his complicated past to track down a killer with Thomas, Hadrian finds himself doing something he vowed never to do again—falling in love. Their “congress,” as Thomas calls it, is more intense than he has ever experienced. After a lifetime of virginity, the clubfooted man is going wild, and he doesn’t balk at Hadrian’s unconventional appetites. But Hadrian fears he will only hurt Thomas in the end. And yet, he has never fallen so hard for another man. How can he keep both his and Thomas’s hearts from being broken? And how can he bring the elusive Child Slayer to justice with only the help of a medium and ghosts?
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Friday, January 27
Thomas Carillon set down his teacup as he watched his cat, Gracie, lift up from his lap in a black and white ruffle of fur, her ghost puff. She had sensed a presence. He sighed. Ghosts never respected his privacy. He enjoyed helping them, but sometimes they demanded attention—usually when he wanted to be alone in his drawing room. “Is it more Confederates? I’m so tired of goddamned Confederates. It’s always ‘what did I die for’ and telling them, ‘not a damn thing’ doesn’t send them off to the Great Beyond.”
Thomas smoothed Gracie’s rumpled coat. It was thick and wispy at the same time, too short to call long and too long to call short. Consequently, the only time it laid flat was when Thomas sleeked it back with his hand, and then it only stayed down for a few seconds. This excited burst of hair, of course, was different. Gracie’s ghost puff. He was the medium, true enough, but Gracie always saw ghosts first, and it was this distinctive puff of hair and body that announced every spectral visitor to Carillon House.
“Show yourself, spirit. I sense your presence and will endeavor to listen to your tale.” He left out that Gracie was truly the one who sensed the specter’s presence. Gracie, for all her intuitiveness, couldn’t speak to ghosts. That was his talent.
This spirit didn’t have the distrust or sudden coyness displayed by most of the ghosts who called on him. This one appeared right beside the arm of his wingback chair. She flickered, wan and bloodless. His breath caught in his throat, and his chest tightened. Seeing a spirit rarely triggered one of his asthma attacks anymore, but the ones who had suffered terrible injuries still affected him.
“You are Mister Carillon” asked the girl. He didn’t usually see child ghosts. Something about them, perhaps their innocence, allowed them to cross over without all of the problems that burdened adults and kept them bond to the realm of the living.
She looked about five years old with duckling blonde hair done up in curls atop her head and crowned with a large red bow. Dirt and blood-stained white lace gloves were the only article of clothing she wore. She held her bowels in her arms as if cradling a large bouquet.
“Yes. Yes, I’m Mr. Carillon. Please, call me Thomas.” He tried to right himself. Whatever had happened to this child, he knew she meant him no harm. People were scared of ghosts, but the most fearful beings wore flesh and skin flushed with blood. “What is your name, my child?”
“Rebecca. The pretty painted ladies told me to come here.”
The whores. All of the whores liked him. They knew he wasn’t like the men who plagued them in life. Homosexuals spent as little time as possible with naked females—and they certainly didn’t pay to do so. He had helped some cross over and entertained with the others. A number of them didn’t want to cross over, content to haunt men and make them impotent or help him impress rich old women at séances.
“Rebecca. That’s a lovely name.” He could have used a sip of tea, but Rebecca’s condition made his stomach shiver. “What brings you to seek me out?”
“I like your cat.”
“Do you? Thank you. Yes, she is a rather nice cat.”
“What’s her name?”
He was thankful most children crossed over. He wasn’t accustomed to dealing with them. He hadn’t understood them even when he was one. At twenty-three, he should have been starting his own family, but he didn’t call on women. He knew they wouldn’t have wanted to marry him even if he had courted one. The two his mother had tried to collect for him had practically run away. “Her name is Gracie.”
Rebecca giggled, holding twists of guts as easily as she might lift a skirt. “That’s a funny name for a cat!”
“She’s a funny cat. Tell me, dear, what happened to you?”
She sobered. “He hurt me. He hurt my private places, then he cut me with his knife.”
A burst of anger flared bright and hot in Thomas’s face.
Rebecca cringed. “Please, don’t be angry, Mister.”
His grief at her condition and her fear fanned the flames of his asthma. He fought for a breath. A small wheeze escaped him. “I’m not angry at you. Not even a trifle. Tell me, Rebecca, tell me who he is.”
“His knife was the biggest knife I’ve ever seen. It was much bigger than his…. He hurt me.”
Raw fury tightened his chest more than asthma. He fought to keep his voice even, not wishing to frighten the child. A Bowie knife—that could have belonged to nearly half the men in Austin. He needed more information. “Did you know him?”
She shook her head negatively, curls bouncing. “I was playing with Sarah and Rose outside Rose’s house. Her house is next door, but Sarah lives on another street. He came up and wanted to tell us a Bible story. I didn’t like it. It was about Lot. He said I needed to come with him because my mother said so, but we didn’t go see my mother. We went to some place where cows are, and he did things to me. And chickens. There were chickens there, too. The black spotty kind. I like those.”
Thomas went ahead and helped himself to his tea. He drained his cup despite its coolness, and set it back down. “I’ll go see the Marshal,” he said gently. Maybe, if he was truly fortunate, the police would discover her corpse so her poor mother could bury her. “That was a terrible man, but no one is going to hurt you anymore, Rebecca. What happened to you in life didn’t happen to your spirit body. Think about how you usually looked.”
As she thought, her ghostly flesh righted itself, and she became well and whole, although she was still a specter, pale and flickering like a candle flame. She wore a pretty, lacy frock and was a lovely little girl. Thomas smiled at her. “There, that’s better, isn’t it?”
He was about to try to send her to the Great Beyond, when she chirped, “What about the boy?”
“The boy in the barn. The man brought him there after he hurt me. Before he cut me. He hurt the boy, too. The boy was a tiddy baby, but I didn’t call him one. He wouldn’t stop crying. I don’t want the man to cut him, though.”
Thomas tapped his shoulder. Gracie, who had been quiet in his lap, leapt on his shoulder and balanced as he grabbed his cane from against the chair and stood. Even with the special boot, the clubfoot was a menace. It kept his bed empty and his heart forever yearning.
“What are you doing?” asked Rebecca.
We’re going to see the police.” He reached into his vest and pulled out his pocket watch. He opened it and showed it to Rebecca. “You can ride in here, and I’ll let you out when we talk to the Marshal.”
She tilted her head to the side. “It’s a special watch?”
He smiled. “It was my great grandfather’s. It’s very special to me. I don’t know why it works the way it does, but I can carry two spirits in it if they are so inclined.”
“And Gracie’s going, too?”
“Gracie goes everywhere I go. Always.” He actually went precious few places, preferring the quiet seclusion of his home.
Gracie blinked at the girl with a slow bat of her black lashes. A cat kiss. A blessing.
Rebecca’s face broke out in a huge grin. “Then I’ll go, too.” She turned to a white mist and disappeared into the watch. Thomas put it in his pocket and shuffled toward the foyer. Despite his confidence when speaking with the girl, a chill licked down his spine. He hoped they could find the boy before he became a specter as well.
Before I started writing full time, I volunteered as a grant writer for animal rescue nonprofits. I love animals, and they inevitably find their way into my stories. I share my life with my husband and seven spoiled cats. I’m also the emotional support human to a husky.