The Apprenticeship of Julian St. Albans
The Apprenticeship of Julian St. Albans follows on nearly a year after the events of The Courtship of Julian St. Albans, and I’ve decided to call the series “Consulting Magic” because Amazon forced me to decide.
These books are part gay romance, part murder mystery, part urban fantasy, and a whole lot of food porn. The culture is a mix of old traditions and modern technology, in a world where magic charms and cell phones are used side by side. Julian, now living with Alex, finds himself doing an old-fashioned apprenticeship when he finds out that he’s got more magical talent than he ever suspected.
The Fairy Flower art on the cover is also my own, and I think it makes a gorgeous companion to the first book.
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The Official Description
In this sequel to The Courtship of Julian St. Albans, Julian – once a member of the pampered elite and Courted by the cream of society – is now an Apprentice and the still-pampered boyfriend of consulting mage Alex Benedict
He arrives one bright August morning at the plant nursery where he’s working through his apprenticeship, only to find a dead body among the lucky clover. This is the first in a series of strange murders that keep getting closer and closer to home, to Julian’s wonderful new life and all the magic threading through it, including the new magic that’s blossomed inside him.
Alex Benedict is left working against an unknown threat to solve the murders and keep his lover alive, and it seems like all of his magic won’t be enough. With opposition from inside the Agency and out, and only Alex’s wards for refuge, Julian has to learn to use his own powers fast enough to keep from becoming another casualty.
Want a sample chapter?
You know you do. Or you can buy the whole thing on Amazon, if you like. I don’t mind. This chapter is cut slightly short to keep it PG-13 for the website.
Julian St. Albans unlocked the nursery with his own set of magical keys, proud that Mary Margaret trusted him to open up without her a few days a week now. The morning sun shone through the glass walls all around him, and he locked up behind himself and did the morning walk-through just the way he’d been taught, looking for plants that seemed to need attention, eyes sharp for signs of disease or pests.
When he rounded the hydrangeas, he expected to see a neat bed of lucky clover seedlings, not a mangled corpse amidst trampled plants.
His first thought was to call Alex, but he shoved that aside and pulled out his phone with trembling fingers, dialling the emergency number instead. Once he was assured someone was on their way, he called Murielle, wanting a friendly face with some official power, and she promised to come right over. It wasn’t until that call ended that he permitted himself the indulgence of a call to his lover.
“Julian, what’s up?” asked Alex, sounding just as cheerful as he had when Julian had kissed him good-bye half an hour ago.
“I already called Murielle,” blurted Julian, then he took a deep breath. “There’s a body in the nursery. A dead one. I called the police first, and then her, that was right, wasn’t it?”
“That was perfect, love, do you have your amulet on you?” asked Alex, voice steady and soothing and exactly what Julian needed to hear.
“Yes, I always wear it, you made me promise,” said Julian, a small smile on his face. Alex wasn’t his master-husband, or even wanting a consort, but he still took good care of Julian. “Will you come?”
“Of course,” said Alex. “I’ll head down and get a cab, do you want me to stay on the line?”
There was a banging at the door. “Oh! No, I have to let them in, but I’ll call if I need you again.”
“Love you,” said Alex.
“Love you,” Julian replied, retracing his steps back to the front door and hanging up, bolstered by the knowledge that he wouldn’t be alone in this. “You’re fast,” he said as he let in the four emergency responders. “I don’t think you’ll be much help, though,” he said to the two paramedics, leading them to the body.
“You’re right about that,” said the taller of the two police officers. “I’ll call in the coroner, if you want to confirm?”
“I’ll do it,” said the female paramedic, moving forward to check for a pulse in the closest limb, an ankle. “Definitely dead, and cold. When did you find the body?”
“Just a few minutes ago, I come in early to check the plants before opening,” said Julian, sighing. “We’ll have to do something else about lucky clover this season.”
“Is that what was planted here?” asked the shorter police officer, leading Julian a little bit away from the scene.
Julian nodded. “We try to keep most of the magical plants in the ground until they’re potted for sale, they’re more potent that way.”
The officer made a note in his book. “We’ll have to cordon everything off, bring in the crime scene techs and take your statement,” he said apologetically.
Julian smiled wryly. “I know, my boyfriend’s a consultant with the Agency. Actually, I called one of my friends there after I called emergency, I hope that’s okay.”
“Oh, really, who?” asked the officer, interested.
“Me,” said Murielle, coming up behind Julian and giving him a bit of a fright. She held out a hand to the officer. “Agent Murielle Lapointe. Have you boys cleared the scene yet?”
The officer blanched, but he shook her hand. “Mike O’Malley, ma’am, and no, ma’am, we haven’t been here long. Hey, Tiny! Let’s clear the scene, the Agent’s here.”
“That was fast,” said the tall officer, joining his partner. “Is there anything that’s supposed to be locked?”
“The offices there,” said Julian, “and a couple of greenhouses in back. I haven’t opened them up yet, should I?”
“Wait until we’re done,” said Tiny, and he and Mike headed off to do a circuit of the big nursery with its many little paths and turnings.
“Thanks,” said Julian, relaxing a little. “Let’s make tea, everyone will like that, right?”
“Right,” agreed Murielle, letting Julian lead her back to the front register and the little tea station they kept back there. He filled the kettle to the top in the old, rusty work sink, then set it to boil and got out the big teapot, finding comfort in the familiar motions. He’d been a bit useless the first time Mary Margaret asked him to do this; going from the St. Albans estate full of servants to Alex’s house with its helpful brownies, he’d never had a chance to make his own tea. Doing it now made him feel more independent, like he was finally learning to be normal.
“You called Alex?” asked Murielle, helping him set up cups and condiments on the counter.
“I did, I think he still had to get dressed, though,” said Julian fondly. “You know how he is about his pyjamas.”
“I do,” said Murielle with a laugh. “He’ll be useful for seeing if this was ritual or random, anyway.”
“It was awful,” said Julian softly, shivering. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“I’m sorry you had to.” Murielle looked sympathetic, patting his shoulder awkwardly.
Julian chuckled. “You suck at being comforting. Will you get the case, since you’re here?”
“I don’t know yet, I’ll call in while you let the officers take your statement the usual way,” she said. They poured tea for themselves and offered cups to the two paramedics, who were making their way out.
“Not much for us to do this time,” said the woman, accepting a cup and drinking it black. “Ta.”
“You’re welcome,” said Julian. Her partner refused the cup with a smile and they headed out, leaving behind their own filled-out paperwork for the officers.
“Efficient,” said Julian, looking it over.
“The coroner will do the hard parts there,” said Murielle. There was a knock at the door. “Go let him in, I locked up when I came in,” she said, nodding to where Alex was making puppy eyes through the glass.
Julian laughed. “Yes, Mom,” he teased, making up a cup of tea and taking it to the door. He traded it for a kiss, then waited long enough to let in the coroner and his assistant before locking up behind them.
“Are you okay?” asked Alex, once they’d directed the men over to tea, and then back to the body.
Julian took a deep breath and let it out, then nodded. “It helps that it’s no one I know,” he said, snuggling up against Alex’s familiar tall frame. “Still, I didn’t think apprenticing in a plant nursery would lead to dead bodies.”
Alex chuckled and kissed him, tasting of sweet, milky tea. “This one’s not even my fault.”
“You’d think it would be,” said Lapointe, shaking her head as she hung up her phone. “It’s my case officially, by the way, and I’ve got leave to get you to look things over before the coroner mucks it all up, come on.”
“Your wish is my command,” said Alex. “You’ll be all right here alone?”
The two police officers rounded a corner. “Looks all clear.”
Julian smiled. “I won’t be alone, I have to give my statement.” He stole another kiss. “Go on, I’ll be fine.” He turned to the officers. “Tea?”
They accepted gratefully, and soon more officers arrived, and crime scene techs, and Julian opened up the office to give his statement. Then Mary Margaret arrived, and there was more chaos while they got their alibis sorted out. Lapointe kept Alex busy with the crime scene, Mary Margaret took over making tea and giving directions, and Julian felt more and more out of place as the day wore on.
Eventually, he stationed himself at the door with poor Tiny, who’d been designated to turn away customers and assure them they’d be back open as soon as they could. Julian had been uncertain about that part of his apprenticeship, working with people as well as plants, but he turned out to be as good at customer service as Alex was bad at it. The officer with him backed up his story, and everyone took the refusal with good grace, though a few had to get referrals to another nursery for things they needed right off.
“You’re still here?” said Alex, pulling him into a warm kiss as he emerged from the greenhouse. “I’m sorry, you know how I get caught up in work… I can steal him away, can’t I?”
“You can,” said Lapointe. “Feed him,” she added to Julian, “He did a lot of poking around.”
“Yes, Mom,” said Julian happily. “Mary Margaret’s still here, you’ll tell her I went?”
“Yes, and we won’t be done for a while yet, anyway,” said Lapointe with a sigh. “This place is a maze.”
“Come on, we’ll get curry at Padma’s, she loves to spoil you still,” said Alex, and Julian let himself be ushered away and tucked into a cab, curled against Alex’s side.
“It doesn’t seem real,” he said, snuffling against his lover and getting a whiff of familiar scents, from Alex’s soap to sun-warmed skin to growing things from the greenhouse. “Do they even know who it was yet?”
“Not yet, but they’re working on it. We’re pretty sure why, anyway,” said Alex. “And I even got permission to talk to you about it, in case you remember anyone asking relevant questions.”
“Ooh, permission. That’s new,” teased Julian. “After lunch, though? I want to not think about it for a little bit.”
“After lunch, and we’ll get takeaway sweets and curl up with tea and spoil ourselves rotten,” Alex agreed, giving Julian sweet kisses and holding him comfortingly close until they got to the restaurant.
Alex did all the little things at lunch that made Julian feel safe and loved, pulling out his chair and serving his portions, then stealing bites off his plate and sharing from his own. Julian was glad not to be locked into a position as Alex’s consort, but at the same time, he still enjoyed the parts of that role that came naturally between them. Alex was teaching him to be more independent, from encouraging his apprenticeship to making sure he had his own stipend from the St. Albans estate, but he never seemed to resent Julian’s need to be taken care of both in bed and out.
By the time they got home, Julian was feeling both shakier and less shocked, as the reality of it all set in. He dragged Alex to their favourite spot, a giant, squashy armchair with room enough for two so long as they cuddled. It had been a favourite reading spot when he was a boy, and Emmy had let him take it from the study at the estate. They had a cup of chai each, and a little dish of sweets to share; their house-brownies, Nat and Alys, insisted they use proper dishes rather than eat out of the takeaway containers.
“Are you all right, love?” asked Alex.
Julian smiled softly, glad of his consideration — he knew that with nearly anyone else, Alex would have skipped straight to the work and ignored any delicate feelings. “It’s very strange, it’s not like shock, really, but it’s sinking in that some poor soul was killed in our nursery. We’ll have to redo all the blessings!”
Alex kissed him, a gentle, undemanding comfort. “I’ll help, and I won’t even charge her since she lets me use your employee discount,” said Alex, kissing the tip of his nose.
Julian giggled. “She’ll appreciate that, we’ll lose some business until it’s all taken care of,” he said. He knew, from talking to her, that the nursery was in fine financial shape, but no small business could weather too big of a hit.
“We’ll get Master Stephen to come out, and then go plant that luck garden he’s always asking you for,” said Alex with a grin. Ever since Julian had been tested by the Temple for his talent and found to have a magical affinity for plants, Stephen had been trying to lure him over to plant a luck garden in one of the Temples.
Julian laughed a little sadly. “We’ll have to wait, we haven’t any clover left, except my window box here.”
Alex’s Courting-gift had been installed outside the kitchen window, where it attracted the occasional fairy to chat through the wards with their own pet butterfly. Alex occasionally offered to take her somewhere else, but she adamantly refused. Julian couldn’t blame her, here she got to see interesting people, there were brownies and visiting fae to talk to, and they fed her fresh treats on a daily basis.
“Well, that’s about ready to burst, so maybe we can take a few cuttings?” Alex kissed him softly. “One for the Temple and one for Mary Margaret.”
Julian sighed, relaxing into Alex’s sure embrace. “You always know what to do,” he said, sipping his tea.
“Not always, remember our first dinner out? I thought I was going to mess everything up, between the timing and the tailoring.” Alex offered Julian a ball of sticky-sweet gulab jamun, which Julian ate with extra finger-licking.
“Mmm, I seem to remember it being a very good date, though not as good as our last one.” Julian offered another treat, and then sighed. “I’m just avoiding it now, so tell me about the case?”
“If you’re ready, love.” At Julian’s nod, Alex began. “Well, it was probably a nature sacrifice of some kind, that’s why they picked your greenhouse. Mary Margaret’s got a really prime spot for growing things, in the heart of the city on land that gets regularly blessed, and now with you working there all the magic has built up quite nicely.”
“Oh,” said Julian, curling up a little smaller.
“It’s not your fault, stop that,” said Alex, stealing a kiss. “Anyway, it looks like they broke in through that old back door she uses for deliveries, which we all know had a terrible lock that didn’t catch very well, and the victim was likely drugged with something plant-based to make him pliable. If they’re raising power for something, I’m guessing this will be the first of multiple rites.”
“They’ll come back?” asked Julian, sitting up alarmed.
“No, no, they’ve taken what they could from the nursery, they’ll have to find someplace else for their next raising,” said Alex. “I’d have led with that, if I thought you were in danger, love.”
Julian huffed at Alex’s chiding tone. “You get distracted,” he pointed out, then distracted him more with a kiss and a bit of raita from his fingers.
Alex mmmed, nodding his acknowledgement as he sucked sweet milk from Julian’s fingers. “You’re very distracting, but no, they won’t be back. Once we’ve identified the victim and I’ve done some research, we’ll have a better idea of what the ritual was about.”
“So, what was it I’m supposed to be trying to remember?” asked Julian, eating a bite of sweet on his own.
“Oh, yes, well first you’d want to think if there’s anyone who bought lucky clover and asked to choose their own seedlings, especially if they dug up a few different plants from around the bed.”
Julian thought about this, sipping his tea and accepting another bite from Alex’s fingers, feeling very safe while he rifled through his memories. “There were three, besides you, and only the one guy that was really annoying about it, poking and staring and tasting things before he finally bought three little plants.”
Alex chuckled. “I forgot about my own suspicious purchase,” he said, amused. “I think I still have one of those in my work room.”
“You do, I watered it this morning,” said Julian. “It was nice of you to make those luck-charms for the department softball team, though.”
“Well, how could I resist getting Smedley and Geoff in my debt?” teased Alex. “Besides, I made a profit off the extras, which went to the 17th precinct’s night patrols.”
“You’re still nice,” said Julian, giving Alex a little poke. “When you want to be.”
“When I want to be,” agreed Alex, kissing Julian the way he did when Julian was making a point Alex didn’t like to acknowledge but couldn’t deny.
Julian had never discouraged this behaviour, because he enjoyed the extra kisses. Plus, it meant he’d won even if they changed the subject afterward. “Well, the suspicious man paid in cash, but he left his name and number because he wanted some virgin white lilies, and we have to get those from the Temple.”
“Did he come back for them?” asked Alex, filing that away.
Julian shook his head. “We got them in yesterday afternoon, but he didn’t answer his phone… I wonder if they’re still there?”
Alex looked distant, clearly trying to remember. “The office wasn’t rifled, where were they kept?”
“We have a special greenhouse where we store stuff like that, off in the west corner. It’s not really big enough to grow our own, but it’s good for storing without tainting the plants with worldly pollutants.” Julian managed to say the last without any irony, though he’d considered the whole thing pretty silly at first. He wasn’t in the mood for a lecture on magical symbolism at the moment.
Alex’s lectures were usually pretty interesting, but sometimes Julian got tired of being reminded of all the things his lover knew that Julian didn’t.
“Hm, I don’t remember. Do you mind calling to ask Mary Margaret for me?” Alex made a show of patting Julian down and pulling out his phone, which made Julian giggle and squirm.
“I suppose I could be convinced,” said Julian, dialling the greenhouse and putting her on speaker. She was still there, of course, and she went right away to check.
“Everything’s still here, the lock’s intact,” she reported. “But the plants look a bit wilted, maybe he needed them present but not, you know, involved?”
“Hm. If there’s a mage with the crime scene techs, you might get him to look it over, or I can come back after Julian’s settled in for the afternoon.”
“I’m not a delicate flower, you know,” protested Julian.
“Alex just likes to tend to you as though you were,” teased Mary Margaret. “Enjoy it while it lasts.”
“I know for a fact that your Mr. Stone still spoils you rotten, Mary Margaret,” retorted Alex. “So don’t go making my Julian think I ever intend to stop.”
There was laughter and goodbyes, and then more kissing, which made Julian very happy. “And how will you ‘get me settled,’ then, hm?”
Alex grinned. “I thought perhaps once we’d had our sweets, we’d have a bit of dessert,” he said sensually, stroking Julian’s side down his flank and then sneaking up under his shirt. Alex’s hands were always so warm, all of him radiating welcome heat into Julian’s body when they were close.
“I do have a very favourite cream-filled treat I’d enjoy,” said Julian.
Their tea was finished in short order after that, the dishes and sweets set aside for the brownies to deal with. Alys could get tetchy if they tried to clean up after themselves, which had taken Alex a lot longer — and several rather inconvenient pranks — to get used to. Julian kept fond memories of the day Alys charmed Alex’s soap to turn him bright blue, revealing that he was a very thorough bather, but forgot the spot behind his left ear.
Alex swept Julian off his feet, carrying his giggling body to their bedroom and the big, soft bed they shared.