Grace A. Johnson
Featured Story: Miss Verona by Linyang Zhang
You know how life is. You can't get everything you want...just like you can't pick every story to go in your Christian romance anthology (definitely a situation we can all relate to, am I right?). So when push came to shove and I had to pick only a few stories (twelve being the exact number), I reserved a few to publish here on my blog! Give you a little taste of what you might find in the anthology, eh?
Our first featured story is by my dearest friend Linyang Zhang...y'all, I adore this girl's writing. She's got a very unique and interesting style - one that can take some getting used to, but soon comes to life with a vibrancy all its own - and her stories are all intriguing and captivating in a mysterious, enigmatic slice-of-life kind of way! (Basically, her writing is a reflection of her personality. *winks*)
For all this, though...she never writes romance. Like...never. Maybe a subplot or two, I think, but never a full-fledged romance with the words "I love you." She literally asked me upfront if her submission had to have "I love you" in it. *snorts* You see what I mean.
So when this story came through the form, I was in total shock. She had actually written me a romance.
This is definitely not a conventionally romance story (obviously, even though we did manage those three little words), and I'll warn ya, there's a lot of drinking and whatnot in here, but the dynamic between Miss Verona and Elisha...the way Elisha cares for her...THAT. ENDING. (Y'all, the ending ripped my heart out, I legit could have cried, I just...augh. I need more.)
So suffice to say, I adored this story, and I hope y'all will too!
Without further ado, Miss Verona by the lovely Linyang Zhang!
The raindrops glistened in the lamplight on the window, almost more dazzling than the jewels within. Verona Davenport stood there, close enough that her breath almost misted up the glass, gaze caught by the necklaces and earrings and rings on display.
“When do you plan on returning, Miss Verona?” A dark-haired man stood by her side, tilting an umbrella over her head. The back of his suit was lightly damp, and a couple of raindrops were splattered across his shoulders, caught on the strands of hair over his brow.
“Soon,” Verona replied, unwavering.
“You’ll catch a cold, Miss Verona.”
“It’s barely autumn, Elisha. I’ll be fine.” She blinked, and Elisha stared at those long lashes of hers, and those beautiful, shining eyes behind them. But his expression was impassive, and he was so still he barely breathed.
“You have plenty of jewels already, Miss Verona.”
“There is one in particular I want.”
Elisha flicked his gaze to the glass. “Which one? I’ll buy it for you.”
Verona gave a laugh. “You? Buy it for me? Where would you get the money?”
“Well…” Elisha glanced back at her. “You’re paying me. And I’ve been saving.”
“So it’s still my money, in the end.”
“No. My money.” The corner of Elisha’s mouth twitched. “Which one do you want? How about that pearl ring over there? It would match your earrings and necklace.”
“That? It seems so simple.”
“But I think a simple elegance suits you.” Elisha found himself staring at her again. “And it’s probably the only thing here that my pocketbook can afford.”
She laughed again, and her laugh was like bells, like a fresh gust of wind on a slightly cloudy spring day. And Elisha had wondered when she had looked this beautiful to him.
He had been a former bodyguard, working for the president of some large company, but after his client was killed, he was laid off, and subsequently no one was willing to hire him. After all, the person he was supposed to protect had died on his watch.
And so he was out of work for several months, and he spent his time wandering the streets or haunting the local libraries, perhaps sitting in cars parked by the curb, wondering why he had quit smoking so long ago. But he couldn’t bring himself to take up another cigarette; he could only roll it between his fingers, unlit. It seemed that he had dulled his feelings already, ever since the day his former employer had died.
At some point his savings began running out, and Elisha knew that he had to find another job. But there wasn’t much else he could do, besides bagging groceries and shelving books. So he reached out to a couple of friends, acquaintances, asking if they had any connections.
“You any good at mixing cocktails?” Cal Hathaway asked, stirring his vibrantly colored drink.
Elisha shook his head, barely touching his own tequila. He tried to tune out the sounds of the bar around them, and it seemed to work, for soon all the chatter and the clinking of glasses and music had all faded, save for Cal’s voice.
“Well, that’s a pity.” Cal took a long sip from his glass. “I bet you could be a waiter.”
“I don’t like talking to people.”
“Shame. You’d look mighty good in waiter’s dress. At least, that’s what my sister says.”
“No offense, but I don’t particularly care what your sister thinks.”
Cal scoffed. “Well, neither do I. Look, how about this? There’s this rich young lady–”
Elisha held up a hand. “I can’t be a bodyguard anymore.”
“You didn’t even let me finish! No, she doesn’t want a bodyguard, she wants an attendant. A personal aid, to accompany her sometimes when she’s out walking. To hold an umbrella for her when it rains. Nothing more.”
“Nothing more?” Elisha lightly tilted his glass, watching the liquor swish around within. “Interesting.”
“Really? Because so far you haven’t been interested in any of the jobs I’ve recommended you.”
Elisha gave him a side glance. “I said it was interesting.”
“Wouldn’t a young lady prefer another female?”
“No, no, she says she wants a man, tall and dark and considerably strong, enough to carry her shopping, at least.”
“And…does she want anything more than just an attendant?”
Cal let out a scoff of disbelief. “Man, if you had seen her…”
“I just don’t want her or myself to be uncomfortable.”
“Well, you’ll have to ask her. So, what do you think? Want me to mention you to her?”’
Elisha downed his glass, wincing at the strong twang of the alcohol. “Go ahead. Tell her I’d be delighted.”
On the day they first met, however, she stared at him, unimpressed.
“You certainly don’t look delighted.”
He didn’t change expression. “Trust me, I’m absolutely ecstatic on the inside.”
“Hmph.” She began walking slowly around him, examining his attire. “Then I suppose smiling must be hysterical for you. Stand up straight. No slouching.” She prodded him in the back with her golden pipe. “And where did you get these clothes? Don’t you have any nicer ones? These are practically falling apart at the seams.”
“I’ve been out of work for months; what did you expect?”
“I expected someone professional.”
He let out a small sigh through his nose and straightened up, removing his hands from his pockets. “I assure you, I’ll buy myself some new clothes after my first paycheck.”
“Well, no need for that. Come. We’re going out now.”
He was taken by surprise, the way she so breezed past him, her steps fast and elegant. The confidence of rich people, surely…
She took him to one of the largest department stores in the city, several stories high and all lit up like a Christmas tree, one that he had been to a couple of times with his previous boss. But all those times he had merely stood around with his hands in his pockets, not even touching the railings. The things they sold in those kinds of stores weren’t for people like him. No, people like him shopped at stores with only one floor. There wasn’t any need for a second.
“Here, try these on.” Verona Davenport was quickly sifting through the clothing hanging on the racks, occasionally taking out a jacket or a pair of pants and holding them up to him for size. “Changing rooms are that way.”
Elisha took the armful of clothing, surprised. But still he kept the same stony face, pretending like this happened every day.
When he came out of the changing room she was waiting there, and she had him stand this way and that, and she looked over him and nodded at her own fashion decisions. “I suppose plain black does look best on you, though it’s too formal for a lot of occasions. How about this dark gray? And how do you feel about ties?”
“I don’t suppose I feel anything about them,” he replied, as she draped a dark purple tie around his neck.
“Then tie it. I want to see.”
He fumbled with the silk, and left it draped rather loosely around his neck. Tighter, and he felt like he was going to choke. And his previous employer had always had him tie them too tight.
She dragged him over to the mirror, and they both stared at his reflection, she, squinting; he, averting his gaze. He never did like to see himself, and he seemed quite out of place next to this rich young lady.
“This tie can be for special occasions,” she finally decided. “Or a black bow tie will do. On the streets you can do without.”
When they approached the exits, he briefly wondered how he was going to pay, but before he knew it she had already brushed through.
“Isn’t this - ?”
“I already paid beforehand,” she replied, not slowing her stride. “I’m a valued member.”
Figured. Elisha tried to stifle a sigh and hurried on after her, shopping bags in his hands.
“I want you to wear the suits I bought you when you’re working, and I want you to be on time. Punctual. Not one second late. Do you hear me?”
“And don’t you ‘ma’am’ me. ‘Miss’ will do.”
“Certainly, miss.” He smiled a little on the inside. She was obviously young. He had only called her “ma’am” to see her reaction.
“Right, then. Work starts tomorrow. You’ll be here at when?”
“At three o’clock.”
“Good. Don’t disappoint me.”
Most days Verona Davenport went out at three, usually around town, sometimes to shop, most days to visit various cafes, but always for a fresh walk, even when it was raining. Elisha usually arrived at her residence half an hour before he was needed and waited out by the gardens, pretending to read a book, trying not to look too out of place. What a boring job Cal had set him up with. He was never good around women. He never knew what to say.
“You’re awfully quiet, Elisha. Couldn’t you say something?” Verona said one afternoon.
“I didn’t know that was part of my job description, miss.”
“Well, it isn’t, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to make small talk once in a while.”
“Only if you ask me to.”
Yes, he never knew what to say. Always so stiff, so quiet, so cold. Like a corpse, his former employer had said. And Elisha, true to his nature, had kept his mouth shut.
On one such afternoon as they were passing by a boutique Elisha felt Verona tense up, and her breath stiffen. “Walk a little faster, won’t you?” she muttered, slipping her arm into his.
Elisha’s bodyguard senses tingled back to life, and he scanned the street, trying to see who had aggravated her in such a way. There was a shiny black car, and a man sitting within along with his chauffeur, and they were driving at an unusually slow pace. So Elisha quickened his feet and almost carried Verona along until they had turned several corners and had wound up somewhere more private, near the library. He hadn’t meant to bring her here, but it seemed that his feet had acted on their own.
Elisha waited for her to catch her breath. “Who was that?”
Verona rolled her eyes. “One of my former suitors. He used to take me out and buy me chocolates and roses. Apparently he doesn’t think our relationship is over.”
“Ah.” Elisha cast another glance down the road. “And how many more of these suitors might there be, miss?”
“He was the only serious one. He scared the others off.”
“So an aggressive type?”
“Perhaps. I don’t wish to think about him. He makes me quite unhappy.”
Elisha gave a sigh and sat down on the front steps of the library, ignoring the dirt and the dust. “So, might the reason you have hired me, was to scare him off?”
She gave him a hard look, almost bordering on a glare, and said: “What makes you think such a thing?”
“Oh, I don’t know. You can sit down.” He brushed the spot on the concrete step next to him.
She hesitantly did so, then relaxed a little and changed the subject. “The way you call me ‘miss’ sounds so stiff.”
“Oh? Then what would you like me to call you?”
“I don’t know. What do you want to call me?”
What was this, playing a game? “Miss Davenport?” he guessed, giving her a sideways glance.
Her expression remained unchanged. “No. Too formal. Too impersonal. Like those teachers at school.”
“Miss Verona, then.”
Her expression relaxed, just a little, and he felt his heart lighten a little. He had guessed right, though it had taken him two tries.
“You may call me Miss Verona.”
“But I don’t suppose you want chocolate and roses.”
“No,” she agreed. “Not right now.”
“I’ll remember that.”
“What’s there to remember? You’re just my attendant.”
His heart dipped a little. He had thought, perhaps, that they were companions. No, that was getting his hopes up, and he wasn’t thinking straight. Women, he could never tell what they were thinking. And they clouded his mind of clear judgment and rational thoughts.
But there were times when she called him irregularly, too. Once, after midnight, he was called to a bar to pick her up. And when he arrived, he found her completely wasted.
“Why didn’t you call me to come drinking with you?” he asked, wrapping his coat around her shoulders, trying to get her to lean on him.
“Because…you didn’t seem like…the type to drink.” She gave a slurred laugh, and he winced at the heavy smell of alcohol.
“I’d drink if you wanted me to,” he replied, doing his best to guide her out of the bar. “Or I’d stay sober and drive you home.”
“It’s no fun to…drink alone.”
“But you were drinking alone tonight, weren’t you?” He hailed a taxi and helped her in, and told the driver a place not too far from her residence.
As they sat in the back, she gradually dozed off against him, and he tried not to move, instead staring at the moonlight passing over the inside of the car and touching the edge of his sleeve. Why was the moon so quiet, yet the sun so loud? And he asked this to her, quietly.
“You can actually…look at the moon. You can’t…stare at the sun. The moon is…prettier.”
His old boss had tried to set him up with women on various occasions. The kind that sat in bars, talked too loud and too fast, wore too much makeup and too short skirts, the kind with that odd gleam in their eye. He had always taken them to be rather fake, like plastic. And he had assumed Verona Davenport to be the same. No, if he ever settled down, he wanted a girl who was more real, one with beautiful eyes he could get drunk in.
But here, underneath the moonlight, it seemed that Verona Davenport had shed a layer of plastic to reveal something a little more real. And Elisha found his gaze lingering on her longer than usual.
As she fell asleep again, he wrapped his coat a little tighter around her. And as they arrived, he picked her up so that she wouldn’t be disturbed, and carried her all the way back to her residence, and handed her off to her butler.
“Make sure to give her something for her hangover tomorrow.”
“Thank you for coming out so late, Elisha.”
Elisha shrugged. “Just doing my job.” He wanted to ask why she had been out drinking, but he didn’t suppose that she would remember the next time they saw each other, either truly or intentionally. So he didn’t pry, and he never brought it up. But it had looked like she had been crying…
On a certain day in mid-February, the snow was flying outside, so Elisha decided to head in, to see if she would like to leave for her usual walk.
But as he entered her room, he found purple petals scattered all over and her sitting on the floor, eyes red.
"Something the matter, Miss Verona?" he asked, crouching down.
"That old fool…" She was tearing up the stems of the roses between her fingers. "He thinks he can still win me over with flowers? As if! My word, I wish he were dead! So that I wouldn't have to go through this every day…"
"You're bleeding." He gently took her hands and pried open her fingers, removing the stems from her grip. "Where are the medical supplies?"
She sniffed. "As if I'd know!"
He resisted a sigh and stood. "I'll have one of the maids come in. In the meantime, go get yourself cleaned up, Miss Verona. The snow is beautiful today."
He didn't have the heart to tell her the roses were from him.
Outside, he offered to open an umbrella, but she declined. There was a new rhythm in her gait. Snowflakes caught on her hair, her lashes, and her cheeks were tinged pink not from tears but from the cold.
"Do you like snow?" she asked, as if her previous emotions were forgotten.
"It's very pretty to look at," he admitted.
"Oh, but it's so much more wonderful to see it out here! Especially when it comes down!" She gave a little spin.
He gave a thin smile. "I don't see this side of you often, Miss Verona."
"Well, can't I act like how I want?"
He swallowed, feeling a lump in his throat for no reason at all. "Today is a…good day for being yourself. With the snow and all."
Cal was right. She truly was beautiful.
“So what happened in your previous line of work?” she asked him once.
“I thought you knew.”
“I want to hear it from you.”
Elisha sighed. “Well, I was guarding the president of this company…and some hitman came and shot him dead, right in front of my eyes.”
“And you didn’t do anything about it?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Your eyes are sharp; didn’t you notice?” Verona seemed unperturbed.
“I did notice. It was just…I suppose it didn’t occur to me to do anything.”
“You’re a bodyguard; that’s your job.”
“I know. And I have taken bullets and knives for others before. It’s just…I don’t know. I suppose I didn’t like my boss very much, and that seeped into my subconsciousness so that in the moment, I failed to do anything.”
Verona laughed. “I’m glad I didn’t hire you as my bodyguard, then.”
One day, he came at his usual time, but Verona was nowhere to be seen. After quite a while, Elisha went to the door to inquire, but the butler informed him that she was feeling under the weather.
"Oh? Is something wrong?" For while she had been sick occasionally she had never been "under the weather."
"Well, perhaps you can come see her. Perhaps you can make her stop."
"Stop? Stop what?"
Verona Davenport was sitting on the floor, knees pulled up to her chest, glass of alcohol between her fingers. By the looks of it, she had almost downed the whole bottle. Shards of glass lay on the floor, both from another glass and from a picture frame. Elisha knelt down and began to gingerly pick up the larger shards.
"Elishaaa…you're here," Verona mumbled, burying her face in the crook of her arm. "Are we going…out walking today?"
"I don't think so, Miss Verona." He paused as he picked up the broken picture frame, the picture soaked in alcohol. There was Verona, and he recognized the man who had made her uncomfortable.
"Elisha…tell me you love me."
Elisha cleared his throat uncomfortably and put the glass off to the side. "I don't like it when you drink, dear," he said quietly.
"Elishaa…" She threw her arms around his neck, taking him by surprise. "Tell me you love me."
"And why should I?"
"Do you love me?"
"You reek of alcohol, Miss Verona."
"So?" She pulled him closer, trying to focus on his eyes. "Do you mind?"
"I think it'd be best if you let go, Miss Verona," he said, even more quietly. "One of the servants might come in and misunderstand the situation."
"Then let them misunderstand." And she kissed him.
Perhaps it was the alcohol on her lips affecting him, but he closed his eyes and let her, his heart pounding louder and louder. Something he had only dreamed about having, and that she would surely forget tomorrow…
He came to senses and opened his eyes, pushing her away. "That - that's enough, Miss Verona. And you've had quite enough to drink."
He found himself breathless, somewhat, and his heartbeat going faster than it had ever before. What was going on? Why did he feel so hot? Was it the alcohol?
"Well, Elisha?" She gave a slight pout. "Do you love me?"
"Yes," he said. "I do love you." And he meant it.
And though he hated it when she was drunk, he found that they could only have their realest conversations when she was so, and sometimes he drank with her, just enough for him to open up as well. Because he knew that she never remembered.
"Let's run away and get married," she said on one such occasion.
"I don't think I have the money for that," he replied. He was in a rather unusually good mood, most likely from the buzz of the alcohol.
"What do you need money for?"
"Well, to buy you a ring, of course. Can't get married without a ring."
She laughed. "You can just use my money, then."
He smiled, and shook his head. "I'll only marry you after you stop drinking."
"Well, that just isn't fair!" She put a whine in her voice. "It sounds like you just don't want to marry me after all!"
He couldn't help but think that she was cute when she pouted. "Well, it's not that I don't want to marry you, it's just that I don't think I'd have the money to buy you fine wine."
"There you go again, about money." She crawled over to him and laid her head on his chest. "I told you, just use mine!"
He wondered if she could hear his heart beating, and gently kissed her on the forehead. "I like you better when you're not drunk, Verona Davenport."
"You're drinking too," she mumbled.
"Yeah. I'll stop."
And then, when they were both properly awake and out on their daily walk, him, his usual quiet and inexpressive demeanor and she, brisk and taking the lead, he wondered if that had all been a dream, and whether or not that Verona Davenport was real, because the one before him had no scent of alcohol on her whatsoever. And she treated him about the same as before, having him carry her bags and accompany her on long exhausting shopping trips and hold an umbrella over her head when it rained. And she said nothing of love or marriage and he couldn't tell if she thought of them at all, behind those eyes of hers. So he said nothing, and instead looked quietly forward to three o'clock in the afternoons.
"So how's the new job going?" Cal Hathaway asked the next time the two of them happened to frequent a bar together.
"It's going fine," Elisha replied.
"Oh? What does she have you do? Assistant? Bodyguard? Boy- "
"Just to keep her company, really." Elisha was about to down his glass, then thought better of it and put it down. "I think she's lonely."
"Lonely? Her? Really?" Cal scoffed. "She has all that money!"
And she spent quite a lot of it on alcohol, Elisha thought to himself. But he would never say that out loud, not to anyone.
"Well, thanks for the drink and the job, Cal. I'll see you later." He got down from the bar stool and dusted himself off.
"Wait, where're you going? You haven't even finished your drink yet!"
"I don't need it," Elisha replied.
Cal stared, then gave a short laugh. "Well, well, well…"
But he knew he was deluding himself. He knew that he had become too enchanted with her, and that he should have never trusted his feelings. There was no way that there was actually anything between the two of them. Perhaps he wanted to believe that they were in a relationship. But they weren’t. And Verona, during perhaps the last time she was wasted, was unusually serious, because, perhaps, she too had come to this realization.
"Don't say anything to me when I'm sober," she mumbled.
"Because people will think that you're a fool."
"Many men have tried to love me before. But they were all fools. They were after my money, my beauty…"
"So are you using me as a replacement?" Elisha asked, tracing the carved edge of the crystal cup.
She gave a laugh. "I suppose you could say that. When you're out with me, no one dares to touch me. You, you're dressed merely as a bodyguard. They know from your attire and appearance alone that there's no way you're with me. With you by my side, I'm free to go where I wish with no worry of men."
"And I suppose I am also in that category of men?" Elisha's voice was quiet.
"I'm paying you to be with me. At least, my sober self is. What you do here with me now is merely part of your job."
Oh, how he hated working with women. Their unexplainable thoughts and flighty feelings, when they said one thing and meant something else, how were you possibly supposed to know what they want? Elisha knew that anything he said, anything they did, any “I love you”s exchanged between them when there was alcohol present meant nothing, because when they were sober, they were to pretend that they had never been drunk. And he knew that he could never bring himself to say those three words to her when they were both wide awake, because she would never allow it, and that was outside of his job description.
And so that night, they stood there by the jeweler’s window, having stayed out for much longer than they usually did on their afternoon trips. And Elisha found himself staring at her, a pain in his heart, and he wanted to say something but couldn’t. And he had tried, all night, to phrase what he wanted to say to her, but nothing seemed right, and it seemed that the air was sucked out of his lungs every time he opened his mouth.
“Is something the matter, Elisha?” Verona asked, turning to look at him. “It seems like you want to tell me something.”
“It’s nothing, Miss Verona. I just…” He trailed off, seeing the look in her eyes. Sadness, a sort of pleading, perhaps, “Please don’t say it.” And words that had been said so casually in the light of alcohol had been lost under the bitter rain.
He held the umbrella over her head, and his arm wasn’t tired, he could do this forever…
He was about to suggest that they begin heading back when he noticed the strange swerving a car along the wet roads. And all too quickly he remembered his previous boss, and what he had tried so hard to forget…
The umbrella was knocked from his head, and it rolled around the rainy pavement, crumpled.
“You’re here again, Verona Davenport.” The nurse’s voice was cool, but not unkind.
“So I am.” She bit her lip. “How is he?”
“Oh, the same as last time. Still no sign of waking. I wouldn’t keep your hopes up, if I were you.”
“I see.” Verona took a seat by the bed, clutching her purse, her hands trembling ever so slightly. It had been so long since she had touched a drop of alcohol, and even just a whiff of it reminded her of what had happened with that drunken driver. She wanted to escape, but it was too painful to. Because every time she did, she remembered the times that they had shared together then.
And because there was a trailing silence, and the nurse had lingered in the room, Verona found herself speaking, perhaps to alleviate herself of some heavy weight, or to fill the quiet in the room.
“You know…it’s funny. I didn’t even hire him as a bodyguard. He had no reason to do that for me.”
“You don’t think he…did it because he loved you?”
A smile twitched at the edge of her lips. “I was cruel. I knew he did, but I pretended he didn’t. Because I couldn’t bear the thought of…” And, realizing that she was saying too much, she shut herself up. “You can leave now.”
The nurse took his cue, and Verona sat there, and took Elisha’s still hand between her own, and let out a small sigh.
“One day, when we’re sober, I’ll tell you I love you too.”
about the author
Linyang Zhang is a Chinese-American Christian who has an affinity for coffee ice cream and lemon pastries. She enjoys learning new languages and dabbles in translation. She writes to glorify her King and to touch the souls of others. When she's not studying, sleeping, or working on a project she enjoys Christopher Nolan movies, listening to music, and watching anime. She currently resides in Eastern Mass as a student. Connect with her at her website zhanglinyang.weebly.com!
yours in spirit and script,
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