Happy Holidays, everyone!
Once again this year, I’m participating in the Rainbow Advent Calendar, in which a new story from a different LGBTQ+ romance author is available each day. You can find them all collected at the above link, or in the FB group. A huge thank you to Alex Jane for all her hard work and for hosting this event!
My contribution is this year is a Stoker & Bash short, Three Impossible Words. I call it Stoker & Bash 2.75, since it occurs, like last year’s short, between the events of book 2, The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree, and the still WIP book 3, The Death Under the Dark Arches. It’s almost an outtake, a scene that didn’t quite fit into the plot for S&B 3, but that I wanted to write anyway. Even though it’s set in summer, I hope it brings you a little holiday spirit. Have a wonderful holiday.
Stoker & Bash
Three Impossible Words
August 17th, 1874
Shahida shifted, and shifted, and shifted again. She cupped her hands under her belly and lifted, hoping to alleviate some of the pressure on her insides. A sharp jab let her know what exactly The Pea thought of that. She leaned forward, adjusted her support pillows for the tenth time, and reclined back on this new configuration, but to no avail. Though the chair was soft as a pony’s neck and the cushions fat-cat fluffy, at this stage of up-the-duffery—two months or so out from the blessed day—comfort didn’t exist.
Someone might have warned her. Her mother, for instance, or her midwife aunt, or one of the many nurses at the former religious cult, now fallen women’s home, where she gave grooming lessons once a week. She’d never understood the conspiracy of silence around childbearing and the carnal act, or the great many things one must never speak of, according to those who did not care to speak of them. As if secretiveness ever helped anyone do good.
Shahida dragged her mind back from its latest tangent, another refuge from her never-ending discomfort. She found Lillian, a vision of serenity amidst the flower beds of their rooftop garden, and waved. Lost to painting a leaf and blossom motif on The Pea’s cradle, Lillian made no reply. She’d retreated back into herself in the wake of her ordeal at the hands of the Daughters of Eden, but Shahida found quiet, useful activities, like painting or gardening, helped to slowly lure Lillian back out of her shell.
Shahida shifted again, this time farther under her parasol. The sun gave no quarter on this bright midsummer afternoon. Though banks of smog on the horizon’s edge threatened to befoul the day, for now the silver shimmer of the sky capped air thick with breathless humidity. Shahida daydreamed of the ices Minnie had served the night before as a special treat, of wading bare-legged in the shallows of the Serpentine as disapproving boaters floated by.
Just as the weight of her boredom threatened to crush her like, well, a pea, Callie marched out of the house carrying an armful of wallpaper samples rolled into a tight scroll. Hiero slunk out behind her, a cat with his tail between his legs, and collapsed onto a chaise longue with a dramatic sigh. As Callie fanned the samples out across the small table between them, Shahida could not help the snicker that escaped her. Not only did their arrival signal the end to her boredom (though never her discomfort), but they had both come seeking her counsel in their own awkward, avoiding ways. Shahida recognized the signs well enough. The rest of the afternoon should prove to be amusing, at the very least.
“The latest from Mr. William Morris,” Callie declared while sliding a few of the samples in her direction. Shahida stared, feigning incomprehension, until Callie plopped them atop her belly. Resisting the urge to launch one at her head, Shahida began to flip through them. “Some lovely blue shades there.”
Shahida stared at Callie, who sorted them by color with brisk efficiency, pausing every so often to pull a promising pattern out.
“Renovations begin on Monday. Unless you’d prefer to select a room on a lower floor,” Callie remarked without looking up. “Then we might postpone them. I don’t believe the babe will upset Mother, but you’re welcome to your privacy, of course.”
“Of course.” Shahida almost choked on the words. The tears came fierce and fast these days, much to her annoyance. She’d never been one for sorrow. Even joyful tears made her cross. Too much wonder in the world to weep over, she’d always thought. Like the refuge she and The Pea had found here due to nothing more than her father’s unlikely friendship with the captain of the ship he worked on. So many at the fallen women’s home, and other less hospitable places besides, reminded her daily of her good fortune. “The attic. Can’t be too far from our Lil.”
“As mentioned, you can if you prefer. If only for the first few months. A room could be arranged, and then you’ll move up to the new nursery once you’ve… got the sense of things.”
Shahida welcomed the chance to retreat back into what she knew best: teasing the life out of Callie.
“Things? And what things are these?”
Callie firmed her mouth but would not give Shahida the benefit of her irritation.
“Motherly tasks, I suppose. Bathing and feeding and… cradling. And whatnot.”
“And what shades match with mothering, do you think? Just the blue, or—”
She harrumphed. “Whatever suits.”
“Suits? Suits me? Or The Pea? We’ll both be staring at them walls for hours on end. Pea more than me, even. Should we ask her, then?”
Callie visibly fought a smile. “If you’re confident in her answer.”
“She does like to make herself felt.” Shahida grunted, the babe striking right on cue. “How was the rugby?”
That earned her a genuine smile. “Oh, wonderful. A player on the opposing team dislocated his shoulder.”
Only Callie would describe such a painful turn of events as “wonderful,” Shahida mused.
“Blimey. Is he all right?”
“Stubborn as an ox, but yes. Though if he means to continue to ignore sound advice and offers of help from unconventional sources, I cannot say much for his future wellbeing.”
Shahida chuckled. “By which you mean you told him to call in a doc, he said, ‘Not if London Bridge was burning down,’ you insisted he let you give it a go, he told you to stuff it, you gave his arm a tug, and he nearly socked you one… with his bad arm, now mended.”
“Really, it’s as if you were there.”
“Hardly needed to be, did I?” Shahida let out a sharp breath, shifted again. “I hope he stood you a pint.”
“He did not.” But by the blush that crept up her cheeks and the way Callie averted her eyes, he’d offered her something, probably in the crudest language possible. And the offer had not been unwelcome. “But his team had the grace to lose, so I consider the debt paid.”
“And where was himself while you played nurse with the rugger bloke?”
Callie shrugged, giving her rigorous attention to a section of animal patterns. But in doing so, she’d exposed her belly, and Shahida knew just where to prod.
“Abandoned you, did he, ’midst a throng of sweaty, strapping sportsmen? That don’t sound like him.”
An exasperated sigh gusted in her direction. “Nor was it. He stood at my side and observed. As always.” Though Callie still would not meet her eyes, she intuited the look Shahida shot in her direction. “He knows better than to intervene.”
“Until he must?”
“And has he ever?”
“Once or twice,” Callie replied through gritted teeth. “And made his feelings on the matter known afterward.”
Shahida laughed, knowing only too well how that must have gone. Still, that kind of tension between two people could lead to interesting places. If the two people in question let their guard down long enough to see in the other what shined lighthouse bright to everyone else. Some nights, when the three of them sat around the hearth, chatting or gaming or reading aloud, it was all she could do not to shove the two of them together and shout, “Kiss!” But then she’d never been one for half measures in affairs of the heart.
A silence more pregnant that she was fell over them. Shahida flipped through a few more samples, waited Callie out. She’d felt the tremors of change rumbling within her friend ever since their ordeal with the Daughters of Eden, but they had yet to make a crack in Callie’s composure, let alone crumble the foundation of her self-possession in order to build anew. Too prideful by far, she was, though Shahida had grown to like her imperiousness. And discovered it masked an innocence that brought out Shahida’s maternal side a few months too early.
“If I may be impertinent…” Callie began, eyes fixed on a horrid yellow pattern of wasps and nests.
“Please! I could do with some impertinence, and some scandal besides.”
“How did you know?” She fussed with the edge of a sample until it curled. Mr. Morris would not be pleased. “Your beau, I mean.”
Callie blew out a long breath. “That he would be a good companion. That… that what you felt for him was more than just…” She whipped the page over. “That he was worthy.”
Shahida threw her head back and laughed her lungs out. “Worthy? I didn’t. Still don’t, because he isn’t, is he? Look how he left me.” She fought to catch her breath and to give Callie an answer she deserved. “Some, like my mum and dad, might say I didn’t think at all. And truth be told, they aren’t half right. You don’t think and mope and write forty sonnets about a bloke like some penniless poet. It just… happens.”
“But how? Your parents can’t have left you alone together.”
She snorted. “Their mistake was letting us meet at all. Soon as I got a look at him…” Shahida waded into the memories of that time. “You can be alone with someone in a room packed full of people. No one pays anyone else much mind in the ale room of an inn unless you’ve forgotten to serve them their ale. No one who works the docks has a care for a clerk tucked in the corner, fussing with his books. And if an enterprising young lass happens to meet said clerk on the street while on her way to market, why, it’s only polite to say a quick hello. And if he lingers in the ale room till the last bell, it’s only too easy to have a quiet word with him while your mum’s shouting people out. When he’s all you can think about, and you’re all he wants, it’s easy to slip a note or sneak away for an hour or steal an afternoon meant to be spent elsewhere. But I knew from that first look, from the first tilt of his hat, and from there it was just… when, where, how. No stopping us.”
Shahida swam from the pool of her thoughts into the hard bank of Callie’s stare. She found disappointment reflected there along with worry and regret.
“Did you love him?”
She huffed. “Fool that I am. Worse, I trusted him.”
A tortured groan drew their attention—as intended—over to the chaise longue, where Hiero remained collapsed, hand to brow like some tragic heroine. When they made to resume their conversation, a second, bleating sound interrupted them. Hiero flopped about, dejected, a fish in the bottom of a boat. Except instead of air, he gasped for attention.
After sharing a look, the ladies gave over to the true child among them. Shahida hoped The Pea wasn’t taking notes.
But instead of indulging his obvious desire to discuss his own romantic woes—of which there couldn’t have been many, since he and Mr. Stoker had spent the summer devoted to one another—Shahida decided to teach Hiero to share. Something that came naturally to him in some ways but less so in personal matters.
“But why ask me when we’ve our very own Romeo here?” Shahida barely swallowed her giggles. “Were you set on Mr. Stoker from the first, Mr. Bash? Or did you lurk under his balcony at night, desperate to catch a glimpse, wailing to the moon?”
Callie cackled so loudly she covered her mouth with her hand.
With feline grace, Hiero leapt to his feet, prowled over to their table, and curled into a waiting chair. He appeared to contemplate batting at a long string of leaves from one of Lillian’s overhanging plants.
“My dear Kip pursued me, I’ll have you know. Only much later was I won over by his charms.”
Callie scoffed. “If by ‘pursued’ you mean ‘investigated for criminal misconduct.’ And by ‘charms’ you mean—”
“Do recall you are speaking of the man I adore beyond measure.”
“And what calamity has ripped him from your side on this—” Callie took quick stock of their surroundings. “—passably fair afternoon?”
Hiero scowled. “A visit. From our physician.”
To Shahida’s surprise, this softened Callie. She reached over to squeeze Hiero’s arm.
“All will be well.”
Though he nodded, Hiero replied only, “Perhaps.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “Shall I ring for tea?”
“If you please,” Callie answered.
“In this unbearable heat?” Shahida grumbled, shifting anew. She watched him rise and return, scheming her next question. “And once he won you—Mr. Stoker, this is—did you think it just a passing fancy? Or were you sunk straightaway?”
A series of half-serious, half-comical expressions played out on his face. Hiero opened and closed his mouth several times, pursing, curving, and biting his lips before confessing, “I can’t recall.”
“You don’t recall how you came to adore the man you adore? One might even say ‘love.’”
Hiero startled in his seat as if a mouse scurried underfoot.
“You might, I daresay.”
“What? When? Where? Who has been talking out of school? Or our apartments, more like. Snooping. Spying. Was it you? What have you heard? J’accuse!”
Shahida gaped, still not accustomed to his fits of nonsense babble.
Callie, an old hat at Hiero interpretation, deciphered his meaning.
“My dear Hiero.” She chuckled a little under her breath as she turned his endearment against him. “Have you not said those three precious words to your Kip?”
Hiero huffed. Inhaled so deep his chest puffed up, only to deflate when he failed to find the words. He angled his torso away from them and contemplated the chimneysweep view of Mayfair, looking as if he’d rather pitch himself over the rail than give an honest reply. Not that they couldn’t guess what that would be.
“Three impossible words,” he muttered. He grabbed a bunch of samples, tossing each one back post-evaluation, then set one before Shahida and stabbed a finger down. “There.”
Shahida cradled the book. An elephant and marigold motif on cream paper, with accents of gold, dark gray, and lapis blue.
“This one,” she confirmed, passing it over to Callie, who nodded her approval.
Shahida contemplated Hiero, who preened in the wake of his success, though whether in selecting the wallpaper or avoiding an answer, she did not know. There was no question in her mind he and Mr. Stoker were well matched. Indeed, they appeared to her so settled a couple that she was shocked to learn they’d only met the previous October. And yet for reasons of his own, Hiero couldn’t commit to even saying the word “love.” This struck her as a wrong that must be righted.
She waited to pounce until the tea had been served and peace restored.
“Impossible to feel or impossible to say?”
She heard Callie’s soft gasp but continued to gaze expectantly at Hiero, who’d stopped stirring his tea. He shut his eyes.
“No heart is entirely closed to…” He waved a hand at the sky. “Certainly not when one is as entrenched as I.”
“Is it to do with Uncle?” Callie asked in a girl’s voice far from her usual snapping tone.
“After a fashion.” Hiero sighed, then, courage stuck, explained. “I spoke those words to your uncle on many an occasion, in times of true devotion and in times of… well. Six years, you know. Not every second was paradise.” Callie nodded. He cleared his throat. “You are aware, I’m sure, of how I made his acquaintance?”
“He kept you,” she said plainly, but not unkindly, her maturity restored. “But you cared for him. I saw it.”
“I did. And deeply. He’s mourned, and will forever be. But with Kip…”
The change in his expression, the warmth, the worship, the awe, made Shahida smile. No other word for that quality of look.
“He’s yours.” She rubbed her belly, hoping to baste The Pea in her affection. “To have. To love. And to lose.”
Hiero bowed his head. “I have something of a history in that regard.”
“Both of us, I reckon.” Shahida hummed in understanding. “Said things to my beau I never heard back. Never shown back, neither. But even with all that’s happened… No regrets. You got to live what you feel in that moment. If it all gets dashed later… at least you shined. You strutted and fretted your hour upon the stage, you might say.”
“And then was heard no more?” Hiero laughed ruefully.
“But you was heard,” Shahida reminded him. “Loved. And Mr. Stoker would know that he’s loved. That’s not nothing.”
A hint of a smile curled the corner of Hiero’s lips. His eyes, when they met her own, sparked back to mercurial life. They shared a conspiratorial moment that left Shahida thinking Mr. Stoker was a lucky man indeed.
“Whilst on the subject,” Hiero announced, “and in the spirit of good practice starts good habits… I do hope you know, my dear, just how grateful we all are that you and your nearly there agreed to be a part of our wild family. As with most things, we never knew how we needed you until you were there.”
For too long a minute, Shahida couldn’t speak. When both Hiero and Callie reached for her hands, she crushed theirs in her eagerness to form a strong, if imperfect, circle.
“See?” Shahida poorly masked a sniffle. “Speak such nonsense to Mr. Stoker, and you’ll never be free of him.”
Their laughter rang out over the rooftops of Mayfair, into the bright, perfect day.