Happy Hump Day! Let’s celebrate it with another wonderful Mid Week Tease, courtesy of the lovely and talented Sandra Bunino. This week, I’ll be sharing a teaser from Behind the Iron Cross, my historical MMF romance set in 1923 Berlin. In this snippet, we find how Friedrich took his first steps into the world’s oldest profession.
Enjoy, and make sure to hit the list after the teaser to see other great Mid Week Teases!
In the aftermath of World War I, Berlin has become a hotspot of decadent pleasures, and American millionairess Kat Tracy is determined to enjoy each and every one of them with Sam Hellman, her late brother’s lover and her convenient “fiancé.” But when the two of them meet Friedrich von Bader, a former German Army officer turned reluctant prostitute, their wicked games take on a new meaning.
Friedrich stood in front of the door, staring at the worn brown paint, the battered number plate. He hated this, going hat in hand to someone who was practically a stranger, neighbor or not.
And having to ask someone like Gunter Strauss for money rankled. Tall and effeminate, the man was a performer at one of the nightclubs down on Alexanderplatz. Friedrich suspected that he was also a transvestite, from the carefully plucked eyebrows and traces of makeup the man occasionally sported. But Strauss was kind to Lilli and Rudi, and he always had money.
Unlike Friedrich, who had spent the last twenty years, man and boy, serving in the German army, as his father and grandfather had done before him, as every male von Bader had done since the rise of the Prussian Empire. But after the Great War and the enforced reduction of the German army, there was no room for hereditary soldiers. Friedrich abruptly found himself retired, unemployable, and with two dependents to support in a Berlin he hardly recognized anymore.
He steeled himself and knocked.
After a moment, the door opened, revealing a slender man in a lavish rose satin bed jacket and matching pajamas. His arched eyebrows rose even higher when he saw Friedrich. “Ah, Herr von Bader. How lovely to see you again,” he said, leaning against the doorframe with a smile. “What can I do for you?”
Friedrich forced down the irritation that always rose with Strauss’s outrageous flirting. “Herr Strauss,” he said formally. “I need to ask — that is, I was wondering if you could do me — us — a favor.”
Strauss smirked at that. “Possibly, depending on what it was. But I never negotiate on an empty stomach. You’d better come in.”
Reluctantly, Friedrich followed him into the flat. Unlike his own, Strauss’s flat boasted simple furniture but in a vibrant array of colors and fabrics, with brightly tinted feather boas draped over the lintels and a wide swath of what looked like purple silk covering the sitting room window in place of drapes. The wall across from the window was covered with a bewildering array of playbills, posters and other advertisements from nightclubs and cabarets across Berlin.
“So, you were saying something about a favor?” Strauss threw over his shoulder, sauntering into the tiny dining area.
Friedrich spotted the silverware and loaded plate on the dining table, and flushed in embarrassment. “You’re eating. I’m sorry, I can come back later–“
“Nein, it doesn’t bother me.” Strauss sat at the table, picking up his fork. “Go on.”
“I — we need to borrow some money.” He took a deep breath, and his stomach gurgled at the heavenly smell of Strauss’s dinner. “It’s for Rudi, you see. He’s sick again.”
“Poor child.” Strauss took a delicate bite of his sauerbrauten. “I suppose I could lend you something, but really, Herr von Bader, I’m not made of money.”
Friedrich swallowed. “I know, Herr Strauss, and I know how much we already owe you–“
The man waved his fork airily. “None of that. I gave what I did willingly, but there is only so much I can do, even for someone as charming as you.” He smiled at Friedrich’s discomfort. “And your sister-in-law, of course.”
Friedrich’s stomach picked that moment to rumble again, more loudly this time. He felt his face get even hotter as Strauss chuckled at him. “No, don’t blush. All men get hungry. It’s the way of the world,” the slender man said, dabbing at his lips with his napkin. He rose, gesturing at the seat across the table. “Sit. I’ll make you a plate.”
“No, that’s not necessary–”
“Stop being such a Junker, von Bader. You’re hungry. I have food. Sit.” With a flourish, Strauss moved to the tiny stove.
Suddenly exhausted, Friedrich dropped into the seat. Moments later, a steaming plate of roast beef, spätzle and red cabbage was deposited in front of him. The smell of the meat in particular made his mouth water. They hadn’t been able to afford any for a month.
“Eat, eat,” Strauss said gently, taking his seat again.
It took all of Friedrich’s military discipline not to fall on the food like a starving wolf. Gripping his cutlery, he forced himself to cut small portions of the meat, wrapping noodles and cabbage around each forkful before devouring it. Before the war, he would have turned his nose up at the pedestrian meal. Now, it was ambrosia.
Across the table, Strauss lit a cigarette and watched him eat. “I take it the job hunt hasn’t been successful?”
Friedrich chewed and swallowed, shaking his head. “They keep asking about my qualifications,” he muttered. “I’m qualified to be a colonel in the German army. Not a lot of call for that these days.”
“Hmm.” Strauss took a contemplative drag, letting the smoke stream from the corner of his mouth as he gave Friedrich a long, thoughtful look. “Well, there’s not much work for anyone, really. But there are other ways to make money.”
Friedrich paused, fork in mid-air. “I won’t join the gangs,” he said bluntly.
“God in heaven, no,” Strauss said, waving a languid hand. “You’re far too law-abiding and upright for a criminal gang. Besides, it’s too much risk for too little money.” He paused, nodding to himself. “No, I was thinking of something else. More along the line of, shall we say, services?”
Friedrich frowned. “You mean, like a valet?”
“Oh, you’re a delight,” the singer chortled. “No, I meant personal services, von Bader. Very personal, very … pleasurable.”
Strauss’s meaning dropped on him like a lead weight. His stomach roiled, threatening to bring up its contents. “You’re joking.”
“Hardly.” Strauss puffed on his cigarette again, blowing a stream of smoke from the corner of his mouth. “That sort of work can pay quite well, you know, depending on the circumstances. And with your looks and manner, you’d have quite the clientele in no time. I can introduce you to the right people, if you like.”
Friedrich put his fork down. Like that, his appetite was gone. “You are seriously suggesting that I become…” The words ‘a whore’ sat on his tongue like bitter fruit.
“I am suggesting that you use what Heaven has blessed you with to make money and support your family,” Strauss said gently. “We can’t afford our treasured German morality anymore, colonel. The damned Americans and British made sure of that. So turn the tables and make some money off of them. God knows they have more than enough of it.” The singer leaned back, running a fingertip along the spotless rose satin of his bed jacket. “And if you’re worried that you’ll have to swish around like me, you won’t. Plenty of customers prefer their companions to be clean-cut and masculine. All you’d have to do is show up at the club in your uniform, and you’d be beating them off with a stick.”
His eyebrows, plucked to a womanly curve, rose and fell in a flicker of humor. “Charge extra for that, by the way.”
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