Wheeeeee, it’s done. It’s done! The holiday novella is clocking in at 30,958 words total, putting today’s count at just over 5,800 words. It still needs quite a bit of work so the next two weeks will still be full. However, I’m taking a few days off from the novella to work on the Maya #2 synopsis. That way I’ll have a somewhat fresh eye when I come back to revision.
This is first draft only, subject to heavy revision, and like I said earlier, an entirely new endeavor for me, but one I’ve been thinking and planning for a long time.
Lady Doctor Wyre’s
“I cannot marry you.” Charlotte Wilder struggled to take a deep breath through the heartache banding her chest, made even more difficult by her corset. A lady could have some luxuries even on a backwater colony planet deemed too insignificant to draw the Empire’s notice despite their pitiful attempt at rebellion. “I’m sorry, truly.”
“I mean no disrespect, my lady.” Sheriff Gilead Masters stiffened but kept his voice mild. “I know it’s customary on Britannia for the lady to make the proposal but we don’t hold to such rigid tradition here.”
“I’m not offended, Sheriff, but my answer is still no.”
He made no hasty retort, but the tightening of his eyes and the flexing of his jaws betrayed him. Once a colonel in what the Americus colonists called the Revolutionary War—where they’d managed to take over the small Imperial space port and cut communication with Britannia—he rarely showed any emotion. Only someone who knew him very well indeed would recognize his silent growl of frustrated agony, and Charlotte had come to know him very well indeed in the past months.
Oh, how she knew…and appreciated…him: broad shoulders to block the miserable heat of the fiercest summer sun; powerful chest and arms to hold a woman through the long blizzards; and big, rough body strong enough to separate a foolish man from his gun without drawing his own weapon. Although she bemoaned the provincial cut and cloth of his coat, he’d never looked at her with scorn like the grand ladies and their lords at Court, or worse, fear at what she had wrought.
Because I haven’t dared tell him the truth, she thought with a wince.
“I thought,” he rasped out in a graveled voice as he twisted the brim of his old cavalry hat in both big hands, “that you…that we…”
“I do,” she whispered, blinking the tears from her eyes. “I never meant to mislead you in any way.”
He gathered his tattered pride about him, looking anywhere but her face. He jammed his now lopsided hat on his head and whirled to leave. Spurs jingled, a merry sound punctuated by the heavy thud of his boots as he retreated. “I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you in any way, my lady.”
It would be better, safer, for him to leave. Even after the spectacular incident in which she’d presumably died seven years ago, she couldn’t count on safety from Her Majesty’s Guards. Eventually even this insignificant colony would fail to provide sanctuary. She’d be forced to run and hide again, no matter how much it galled her pride.
The heavy outer door beeped at his approach and automatically slid open, letting in blowing snow. Winds moaned and howled, an endless agonizing wail in the dead of winter. Her first winter on Americus had almost succeeded where the Queen’s torturers would have failed. She would have babbled every last research secret she knew in order to escape the endless winter. Others looked forward to the Solstice, but she dreaded it more and more each year. A holiday of renewal and hope had come to mean only one thing to her: loss.
And if the Solstice had come to represent loss, then the Solstice Eclipse every seven years was even worse. She’d died on the last holiday. Now, she faced losing her only friend on Americus. Another holiday, another loss.
Befriending Masters had provided a charming outlet to pretend that she was simply a lady he fancied and not the feared Duchess of Wyre, the traitorous doctor whose experiments had worked entirely too well. Her harmless flirtation had become something dreadfully more important to her, no matter how hard she tried to pretend otherwise. I can’t bear to lose him, too.
She rushed after him. “Wait, Sheriff Masters. Don’t go yet!”
“You have made your affections—or rather the lack thereof—perfectly clear, my lady. I won’t bother you again.”
She laid her hand on his straining back and he quivered beneath her palm. “Gil, please. Let me explain.”
Slowly, he allowed the door to whoosh shut against the blowing snow and howling winds, but he didn’t turn around.
“Don’t you want to know why I can’t marry you when I love you so very much?”
“You love me?” He whirled around so quickly he knocked her off balance. “Then why can’t you marry me, Miss Charlotte?”
Seizing both of her arms above her elbows, he hauled her close so her skirts tumbled against his thighs. At least her gown was sensible, warm homegrown wool and not fine, crushable linen. Or silk. How she longed to wear silk again! Every night she pored over cycles-old transmissions of the Royal Gazette, though she knew she’d never again have cause to wear such wondrously frivolous clothes.
She let him hold her for a moment, enjoying the feel of his warmth, protection, and yes, his respect. He’d been so courteous these past months that she’d never allowed herself to contemplate a physical relationship with him. With his arms around her and his heart pounding beneath her cheek, she suddenly ached to take him to her bed.
He smelled of wool, tobacco, and some sort of sweet oil that she suspected he used to polish his pistol. The antique weapon gleamed from his exceptional care, even if he chose not to use it unless forced by necessity.
I wonder if he’d let me modify it slightly…
She pushed out of his arms as she pushed that traitorous thought away. She couldn’t indulge in her hobby for it would bring the Raven Guards flocking upon her like a fresh corpse, for that was exactly what she’d be.
Years of running and constantly being on guard, jerking awake at the slightest noise, denying her intellectual and scientific gifts that burned to be used…all weighed upon her shoulders like the massive Tower of Londonium, which would no doubt be her future home if Queen Majel found her.
“Sit down,” Charlotte sighed. “I’ll tell you everything.”
Or at least not enough to get you killed.
In her tidy kitchen, the tall, muscular soldier turned lawman sat down at her table and folded his rugged, scars hands together. She’d reluctantly fallen in love with him and those hands, so incredibly gentle in their ruthlessly slow attack against her every resistance without ever once touching her intimately. Slow, careful, and deliberate, he’d groomed his horse until the animal drooped with sheer bliss, polished his silver star and glossy boots until they blinded her, and gently wiped a child’s tears who’d lost her mother to influenza. Yet she’d also seen him plow a meaty fist into a miscreant’s jaw and haul him off to jail and yes, she’d seen him shoot and kill a criminal in the act of robbing the town’s only bank.
Gentle but strong and unwavering when the town—and I—need him the most. How could I not love him?
She’d known scores of men, from Court dandies to sheepherders, princes to highwaymen, and none had ever touched her heart like Gil. Not even him, the dark outlaw standing in her memories between her and this honorable man.
Lightly, she touched the locket hanging around her throat, the gold glowing hotter than her skin. The delicate filigreed heart made a beautiful piece of jewelry, but costly metals didn’t make the simple heart so irreplaceable. Inside, the last of her most skillful technology resided, keeping a violent, wounded man alive and providing a tie to her that would never be broken.
Silently, Gil watched her stir the coals, add a few sticks of wood to the stove, and set a small coffee pot on the hottest spot. She’d nearly starved and frozen to death before she’d learned how to work the medieval stove, so she was quite proud of the skills she’d learned without the shining technology to which she was used. After rumors began trickling in from other conquered planets, she was extremely thankful for that lack which she’d once sorely rued, for once the Empire had ultimate control of one’s food, drink, and housing, then they could do whatever they wished. Including the injection of experimental “enhancements” into meals, water, even the air.
The thought made her stomach twist painfully. If Gil knew that her research as Lady Doctor Wyre had made all these Imperial abominations possible, would he turn from her in horror? Or be the first to lynch her?
He cleared his throat, but his voice was still ragged as he asked, “Is it another man?”
Pouring a vile brew the colonists called coffee, she let her mind whirl through possibilities. Indeed, he’d given her a way out without having to tell him the full sordid story of her past. It would hurt him, but it was the truth as far as she could tell him.
“Yes.” She straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and turned to face him holding two cups of steaming brew. “In fact, there is another man.”
The look on his face would have made her laugh if her heart wasn’t weeping at the hurt she caused him. His dark eyes flared with shock, his mouth slackened, and the wooden table groaned beneath his fierce grip. To keep his hands from trembling, or from drawing his ancient six-barreled pistol? Was he the kind of man who’d hunt down his competition?
She paled at the thought, for that would be far from an even match. Gil might be a respectable shot, but he didn’t have a prayer against a man rumored to have killed over a thousand men throughout the galaxy and beyond, sometimes for little more than an insult regarding the tie of his cravat.
Fearing she’d caused Gil to leap from one threat to an even more dangerous situation, she quickly went on. “I met him my first Winter Solstice here on Americus and we have a standing arrangement to share each holiday.” She forced her voice to brighten, although the accompanying smile practically shattered her face. “Why, he should be arriving in the next few days at the latest.”
“You haven’t mentioned him before.”
She had to applaud the evenness of his voice, though he still gripped the table as though his life depended on it. “He’s not a very…pleasant man.” A perfect match for me. “I didn’t want to worry you.”
“Do you love him very much?”
So even and hard his voice, cutting her heart like the finest trillium blade. How can anyone love a murdering assassin? She took a drink from her cup, trying to buy a few moments for her to gather her thoughts, but the swill made her mouth twist. “It’s complicated.”
Gil leaned across the table and she suddenly realized that he could be a very large and intimidating man when he chose. “Explain it for me. Please. Do you love him more than me?”
Her heart thudded, blood pounding hot and frantic through her veins, her skin burning hotter to match the unnaturally warm locket. It seemed an eternity since she’d held a man and felt his heat and solid presence in her bed. She couldn’t count the man who came to her but once a year and almost always left the very next day. He needed much more…and less…than simple lovemaking.
In the beginning of her exile, she’d been too consumed by survival to even think about selecting a lover. Then she hadn’t dared let alone too close for fear she’d unconsciously betray her breeding and heritage no matter how hard she tried to pretend to be just a common colonist.
When Gil had come into her life, she’d enjoyed his gentle but insistent courting. It’d been nice to pretend for just a while that she was of no importance, that she had no duty to her House or dread threat from the Queen.
The locket weighed very heavy on her chest, a fiery brimstone reminder of the man who’d be coming to her in less than a fortnight. He wouldn’t care if she took a lover and she’d never required fidelity from him. In fact, he’d likely find the very notion laughable at the thought of her pining away for him. Their relationship was based on need—base, raw, and primal. Not romance.
Her mind wanted to probe that tender, sore spot in her heart, but she refused to dwell on what she could not have. Especially when a most pleasing male stood before her, jealousy pumping, muscles bunching for battle, and she knew very well that this one she could have, at least for awhile.
She planted her hands on the table and rose up, leaning in so they were eye to eye. “I’ll explain it to you,” she said, letting her voice drop to a husky purr that darkened his eyes. “In my bedchamber.”