Hello, everyone. As I mentioned last time, my story, “The Devil’s Masquerade,” is one of the stories being considered for inclusion in Circlet’s upcoming “Best of…” anthology. The catch is, only the top vote-getters will make it in, and let’s be honest: some of my esteemed competition are kicking my butts. I can only assume they have more friends, a larger family, compromising pictures of the right people, better social media skills, or pacts with unnamed dark forces.  (Or, of course, they could be really awesome authors with whom I’d be lucky and honored to share a table of contents…) What’s a guy to do?

Why, share a little of the story with you! In the interests of thoroughly whetting your appetites and convincing you to vote for me and/or go out and buy the book, I’m giving you a taste of the story. So just jump past the cut to read on!

From The Devil’s Masquerade, originally published in Masked Pleasures (Circlet Press, 2011)

As Grace’s hand lifted to fidget with her mask for the twelfth time in as many minutes, I lightly swatted it away. “Quit it. You look fine.” It was true. With the elegant white feathered mask masking her features, all I could recognize of my partner were her short brown hair, sharp green eyes and scarlet-painted lips, currently pursed in a frown.

“I feel ridiculous, Starling” she grumbled, reluctantly lowering her hands while I gave her the once-over. “This job is ridiculous. We should be out on the streets in nice, sensible leathers and armor, beating people over the head until they stop misbehaving. Not tarted up like harem girls.” Despite her obvious discomfort in the brightly-colored silks that draped her slim frame and hinted at the curves underneath, there was no hiding the fact that she cleaned up very nicely indeed, when she so chose. I reached out, retying the cord around her waist. We only wanted the illusion that things would come apart at the slightest provocation, not the reality. I stepped back, studying her before giving my nod of approval. Inspector Grace Wintersford, champion of the downtrodden, terror of the wicked, in as unlikely an outfit as you’d ever find her. Wrapped in gaudy, diaphanous clothing that fluttered with every movement, she looked like a tropical bird set free in an alien environment. I’d lost the argument when it came to jewelry; Grace refused to wear anything shiny or sparkly. It would have to do.

“I know.” There was genuine sympathy in my tone. “This isn’t my ideal assignment either. Nor my ideal outfit.” While I wore something much like Grace’s fluttering silks, I’d put more effort into artfully arranging them to show off my own generous curves, my long red hair teased into a bead-decorated waterfall of curls. Teasing and provoking without giving anything away. That was the only way we’d get anywhere tonight.

Grace’s eyes flicked up and down as she eyed me, and I could feel her attention linger on my breasts, which currently threatened to escape their dubious coverage. As it stood, there was certainly plenty on display to ogle, nipples barely concealed. One wrong move on my part and…. I shivered, turning away after a few seconds, trying not to let the gaze get to me. Bad enough I felt all but naked dressed like this, I didn’t need to go in already aroused. That would be … awkward. “You look a lot better than I feel,” Grace said. “Clearly, you should have been a courtesan, not a Ducal Investigator.”

“It was my third career choice, falling right after any-bloody-thing else,” I replied. My hand on the hallway door, I paused. “Ready? Once we go out there, it’s showtime.”

“After you,” said Grace, giving me a cocky grin. “Let’s go find us a demon.”

We exited the bedroom we’d been lent as a changing room and staging area, and made our way through the opulent halls of Dressarie House, passing idealized portraits of long-dead people, sculptures that bordered on obscene, and knick-knacks worth more than the both of us made in a year. We passed one closed door after another, slowing whenever we heard a suspicious sound slipping through the cracks, speeding up once we were sure they were sounds of pleasure. One particularly enthusiastic squeal was enough to make my own toes curl with envy; I picked up the pace. Soon enough, after descending a winding marble staircase, we found ourselves downstairs, A moment later, a silently attentive butler ushered us into the ballroom. And that’s how Grace and I entered the infamous Devil’s Masquerade.