What better way to celebrate a holiday Monday than with the final historical chapter of That Still Untitled Selwick Christmas Novella?
Check back this Wednesday to beguile the final day before the release of The Temptation of the Night Jasmine with a special Eloise and Colin double feature. Our favorite modern pair will be starring in the Prologue and Epilogue to That Still Untitled Christmas Novella.
Finally, come visit the following Monday (the 26th) for a Title That Blasted Novella! Contest, which will run all that week, winners to be announced on Saturday, January 31st.
Now onto Chapter Seven….
All out of darkness we have light,
Which made the Angels sing this night.
Glory to God and peace to men,
Now and for evermore. Amen.
— Sussex Carol
Her husband shook his head. “You what?”
“You heard me.” Amy folded her arms across her chest. “I’m not going, and I don’t want to.” That had come out the wrong way round, hadn’t it? Drat. “What I mean is, I don’t—”
She never got to explain what she meant. In two exuberant bounds, Richard had crossed the space between them, and she found herself squished flat against his waistcoat. “Thank goodness for that.”
Amy’s nose was mashed up against her husband’s lapel. Not that she was complaining about the sentiment that appeared to have motivated it, but asphyxiation didn’t quite constitute a full answer. In muffled tones, she said, “But you’re the one who wanted me to go.”
“No, I just wanted you to be able to go if you wanted to go.”
Language. So confusing. There were times when Amy wondered if they might not all be better off just scratching and grunting and miming at each other, or drawing cave pictures.
“Then why did you offer?” Amy demanded, scratching her chin on the wool of Richard’s jacket as she tilted her head back.
Richard eyed her warily, trying to determine whether that were a trick question. “You seemed so unhappy,” he said, “about Jane.”
Amy felt a little twinge of guilt. She had been. On his behalf as well as her own, she reminded herself. So, really, it had been a very generous sort of unhappiness, taking on his as well as her own. Generous, but perhaps just a little counter-productive.
“I thought you were unhappy,” she countered, “about not being able to spy anymore.”
Drawing himself up, Richard opened his mouth to deliver what looked like it was gearing up to be a rousing oration of denial—and closed it again.
Abandoning the pose, he deflated like a balloon, his breath whistling out beneath his teeth in a long sigh. “I was,” he admitted. “I am. But not as unhappy as I would be if the situation were reversed.”
“But you were happy there,” Amy pressed. “Before.”
He took a moment to think about, looking out somewhere into the space over her left shoulder, as though France might be found just to the right of the French doors. “I enjoyed what I did,” he said at long last. “A great deal. If it hadn’t been for circumstances—”
“For me,” Amy interjected.
“—I would probably have gone on doing it.”
Amy’s blue eyes narrowed. Was this supposed to be reassuring? Because if it was, he was going about it all wrong.
“But,” Richard said, tilting back her chin to look her straight in the eye, “it couldn’t have gone on forever. Sooner or later, Delaroche would have caught up with me. Even if he hadn’t, one of these days, we’ll finally put paid to Bonaparte’s ambitions and see another king back onto the throne.”
“Here, here,” Amy replied by rote.
A grin flickered across Richard’s lips before he sobered again. “Either way, capture or success, it had to end eventually. And where would I have been then?”
“In a French prison?” contributed Amy helpfully.
“Hopefully not. Have you seen their accommodations?”
In fact, she had, iron maiden and all. A certain member of Bonaparte’s secret police had somewhat eccentric and antiquarian notions of proper interrogation methods.
“So,” said Amy, summing it all up, “what you’re telling me is that life with me is marginally preferable to durance vile in one of Monsieur Delaroche’s deeper dungeons.”
“A little more than marginally,” said Richard generously. “It’s right up there with one of his shallower dungeons. Ouch!” He rubbed his shoulder where Amy had whapped it. “Mid-level, then.”
“And what if it had all ended in a restoration, rather than a dungeon cell?” Amy prodded.
Releasing her, Richard prowled across the carpet, kicking the warming pan out of his way. “That would have been even worse. At least in the dungeon, I could entertain myself plotting my escape and making mocking noises at my gaolers. At home….” He shrugged helplessly. “What was there to do? I’ve never been one for estate management. I don’t find any thrill in betting large sums on the rattle of a pair of dice, and I’ve never been able to see the point in driving my horses too fast. Unless someone is chasing me, that is.”
Amy thought about it. It was true; after their nine months together, she couldn’t imagine Richard being happy with the polite dissipations that contented his peers. They were driven by boredom; Richard by something else entirely.
It was a something else that Amy understood very well, not a mere search for diversions to beguile the days, but a quest for something bigger, grander. A cause. A quest. Honor. Glory. Something with a purpose to it. Danger for danger’s sake, risk for risk’s sake was not enough.
Sensing he had her, Richard pressed his advantage home, “Without you,” he said fulsomely, “I wouldn’t have known what to do with myself. I would never have thought of starting a school for spies. I would be all alone with nothing to beguile the evenings but a pile of old newspaper clippings.”
Amy snorted. “Nonsense,” she said, in unconscious imitation of Miss Gwen. “I’m sure you would have found multiple candidates to share your hearth and your newspaper clippings with you.”
“But they wouldn’t have been you.” Memory curved a smile across Richard’s face. “How many women can infiltrate the dungeons of the Ministry of Police and banter with the guards in the local dialect?”
Now that he mentioned it, that had been a rather nice piece of work on her part. Even constructed on short notice, the serving wench costume had worked perfectly. Amy nodded. “True,” she agreed.
Richard shoved his hands into his pockets. “I wouldn’t want to go back, or change anything that happened. It’s just…. ” He frowned at the woodwork, scrounging for the proper words, “It is always easier to wax nostalgic about what we can’t have than appreciate what we do.”
It was hard to argue with that. Amy heaved a sigh deep enough to make the draperies flutter. “I’ve been guilty of that, too.”
“About that,” said Richard. “When you said you don’t want to go back France… does that mean you don’t want to go back?”
“I wouldn’t quite put it that way,” Amy hedged, even though she was the one who had in the first place. But if Richard was going to scrub his soul clean, then it was only fair that she do the same. “It’s not that I don’t want to go back at all. Under the proper circumstances, of course I want to go back. It all went by too fast.”
Across the room, Richard shifted his weight, jamming his hands deeper into his pockets.
Taking a deep breath, Amy said definitively, knowing that she was closing a door, even as she propping open another, “But these aren’t those circumstances. I don’t want to go back without you.”
Richard smirked. It was just a little smirk, but easily identifiable to the experienced wifely eye.
Just in case he got too smug, Amy added frankly, “In any event, I wouldn’t like playing second fiddle to Jane.” It was true. It had been one thing when she and Jane had been neophytes together, both learning their way in the murky world of Bonaparte’s Paris. Back then, she had been the one to take the lead. To go back now, now that Jane had had eight months to build up her own methods and networks, would be impossibly galling. “I’m not very good at following orders. I prefer to be right up front, not following along behind.”
Richard raised an eyebrow. “What about side by side?”
“Side by side?” Amy echoed.
Richard strolled towards her, never breaking his gaze. “Side by side,” he confirmed. “A partnership. No leading, no following. I’d say we’ve done fairly well at that so far. Tonight, for example.”
Could it really be counted as side by side when he had been up on a balcony?
Amy momentarily ignored that academic wrinkle and went straight for the more important point. “Partnership or not, we’re still on this side of the Channel,” she pointed out.
“Someone pointed out to me tonight that there’s work to be done here, too,” said Richard, and even though he kept his voice level, Amy could sense the excitement behind it. “The émigré community here is a hotbed of rumors and sedition. I know many of them from my work abroad….”
“And I don’t know any of them,” put in Amy, caught by the possibility. She looked up at her husband with eyes gone starry. Costumes! She would have the chance to wear costumes again and creep out back alleys and climb through windows. “You could approach them directly, while I could conduct surveillance to make sure they weren’t lying to you!”
“You can reprise your serving maid performance,” second her husband, enjoying himself hugely.
“And a few others,” muttered Amy. “There were so many disguises I never had the chance to use….”
“If that doesn’t work out,” said her husband thoughtfully, “there are other countries, too. Places where no one ever saw the Purple Gentian. We couldn’t go as ourselves—our names are known—but our faces aren’t. We could travel safely under an assumed persona.”
“Italy!” Amy’s face lit up. “They’ve suffered under Bonaparte’s yoke long enough. Or Russia. Surely, there must be work to be done there.”
“The weather is better in Italy,” decreed Richard. “Not to mention the food.”
“We never really did have a proper honeymoon,” said Amy, clapping her hands. “Where better than Italy?”
“Let’s try the London route first,” said her husband prudently. “Just to get back into practice first.”
Amy started to argue, and then remembered that she didn’t speak any Italian. Years of practicing French dialect wasn’t likely to be much help in Tuscany. Perhaps a few language classes were in order before going abroad again. “Yes,” she agreed demurely. “And we really can’t just abandon our responsibilities at the spy school. If we go the London route, we do both at once, teaching and spying.”
A thoughtful expression spread across Richard’s face. “It could work,” he said slowly. “It could work very well.”
“You would have to come up with a new name, of course…”
“We,” Richard corrected. “We would have to come up with a new name.”
Amy abruptly ceased to envy Jane her lonely Carnation. Jane might have the notoriety, but she was a flower alone, a single bud on a bare stem, or something of that nature. Miss Gwen could only be counted as a thorn.
A husband-and-wife flower—what would the illustrated papers have to say to that? Who had ever heard of such a thing? They would take the front pages by storm. And Bonaparte, too, of course.
Amy could just picture it.
Amy beamed up at her husband. “How did you know exactly what I wanted for Christmas?” She eyed Lady Uppington’s decorations. “We could be the Holly and the Ivy!”
Richard grimaced in an exaggerated fashion. “Must we?” There was a dangerous glint to his green eyes. “I much prefer mistletoe.”
Amy craned her neck. “I don’t see any.”
“You’re just not looking hard enough,” said her husband blandly.
“Oh, no,” insisted Amy, “I really don’t think we put any in here. I should know. I hung most of it.” Her hands still bore the scratches to prove it. Mistletoe wasn’t quite as friendly as it pretended to be, especially when one was up on a ladder with one’s mother by marriage calling out instructions.
Richard stepped closer, blotting out her view of the rest of the room. “Really?” he said, his breath ruffling the hair at her temples.
“Oh,” said Amy breathlessly. “That mistletoe.”
There would be plenty of time to work out the details of their new venture. After Twelfth Night, perhaps. As for now, her husband’s former infatuation had been moved safely out of his heart and into the box room, a rosy new dawn was streaking the snow, her relatives by marriage were all safely on the other side of a very thick oak panel, and the imaginary mistletoe was calling. Amy gave herself happily up to the joy of unwrapping her very favorite Christmas present.
‘Twas the season, after all.