Grace A. Johnson
Short Story Saturday: The Gift of Her Heart
I am so excited about sharing the first scene from The Gift of Her Heart today! I know it's not technically a short story, but it will (hopefully) get y'all wanting to read my latest release. Just a few days ago, the giveaway for The Gift of Her Heart ended, so if you're still sore than you haven't won, then look no further! You get a sneak peek right here!
Port Royal, Jamaica
Christmas Eve, 1683
This was not going entirely as planned.
An audible gulp hitched Chloe Wellington’s throat as she hesitantly moved her gaze from the similar bob of Kit—ahem, Lord Marshing’s Adam’s apple to his narrowed sea-green eyes, above which were a pair of furrowed brows. The sardonic twist of his mouth, slightly amused and mostly annoyed, spoke volumes more than his calm, well-polished tone when he said, rather flatly, “I don’t consume alcohol, your ladyship.”
Did she detect a hint of mockery, the selfsame kind he had employed countless times before in hopes of irking her—when in reality it only served to remind her of his lowborn status? Which, come to think of it, in fact did itself irk her to no end, so perhaps his goal had been achieved.
Stifling an unladylike sigh, Chloe shoved her beautifully wrapped and tantalizingly sweet fruitcake toward the heartless brute of a peasant who dared to call himself a…
“For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee.”
The verse from last week’s sermon arose suddenly to haunt her and, along with Charles’ desperate plea that she at least try this time, banished her evil thoughts and replaced them with the image of Lord Marshing’s unruly head of auburn curls bursting into smoldering flames as each strand of hair turned to ash and tumbled down his shoulders.
“’Tis Cook’s special nonalcoholic concoction,” she began on a soft puff of breath as a substitute for the huff she so wanted to emit. “She hates to see drink about the house for fear Charles will take to the bottle.” Somehow, she managed to infuse her words with something other than outright exasperation—she couldn’t dare claim anything remotely similar to kindness or patience, now could she?—as she once again attempted to deposit the cake into Lord Marshing’s clasped hands.
Surely the confounded man realized that if he would simply take the cake and wish her a merry Christ-mas that she would leave him be. If the smirk tugging at his lips were of any indication, he most certainly did.
Folding a pair of thick arms over his waistcoat, his lordship took a smooth step back with the wrinkle of his much too straight nose. “I don’t indulge in sweets.”
He was toying with her, blast it. And all because the idiot liked to watch her squirm. Well, she most certainly wouldn’t grant him the pleasure of experiencing such this go-round.
She lifted her chin in a stubborn tilt, determined not to back down, and batted her eyelashes just for good measure. “I believe I saw you quite clearly ‘indulging’ in a plethora of ‘sweets’ at the Duke of Rothford’s ball in August. Am I not correct?” Oh, how her heart soared with suppressed gloating! He would have to relent now, accept her token of goodwill, then bid her goodbye.
Then she could forever forget being near Christopher Bradley Arlington ever again.
So long as Lord Marshing made a point of her worthy efforts to her brother, who could then give her leave to keep her rightful distance from his incorrigible business partner for the remainder of her very long life.
If only, she mused, Charles hadn’t gotten the hare-brained idea into his head to own stock in a sugar cane plantation in the hot, sticky, savage Caribbean three years ago, then she could have stayed in Margate this entire time and would never have crossed paths with His Royal Painfulness in the first place. But, alas, he had, nearly draining what remained of their father’s almost-depleted “wealth” in what had begun as a terrible investment in the ruination of her life.
Not that Port Royal was all too unbearable. For a native country brimming with lawless criminals, ill-reputed scum, and people of all races who spoke languages she could never hope to understand, Jamaica was quite beautiful and a welcome escape from the monotony of her life in England. ‘Twas the lawful, well-reputed, English-speaking lords that destroyed her plans for a pleasant Christmas eve curled up by the fireplace with a book.
Never mind the fireplace. It so happened to be hotter than hellfire in December this year.
And she wasn’t necessarily referring to the weather.
Lord Marshing commenced to getting cozy with the doorjamb, slacking a hip and supporting himself with a muscled arm against the frame, as though he intended to stay there for quite some time. The lively dance of mirthful green and precarious sky blue in his eyes all but taunted her, begging her to snap and let him play with each broken piece as she struggled to pull herself together.
She wouldn’t. Not today. Not on Christmas eve. Not when Charles had promised her a full month of balls and soirées and operas in January if she made amends with this...this...thing. She couldn’t think of a word nasty enough, and rightly so, for if she did, she was liable to spout it at his face and reveal her weakness, ruining—yet again, as always—everything.
“You are indeed correct, princess,” Lord Marshing stated abruptly, nodding his head slowly as though he were unsure whether to let her have the argument or continue to wrestle with her. “You are. But that does not change the fact that I have turned over a new leaf since you last saw me.”
A new leaf? Bah! The man’s coldhearted nature wouldn’t change even if Christ Himself prayed over him.
Not that the prayers of Jesus wouldn’t at least help in his lordship’s case.
“I have decided to distance myself from sugar and coffee and pork and butter and a number of fattening foods. I’m sure you’ve noticed the extra weight I’ve put on over the last several months.” He patted a stomach as thick and tight as a strong board, certainly rippling with muscles beneath his vest and shirt. Not that Chloe was concerned about her nemesis’ physique, of course. She was only pointing out to herself that the point he was trying to point out was not a valid point at all.
“I simply must do something about it, so I simply must refuse.” A full grin tip his mouth into a broad, crooked curve, barely revealing the teeth she knew to be just slightly crooked themselves.
“Should you be distancing yourself from your plantation and trading then?” she questioned, toying with his words as that boyish smile toyed with her heart and the stormy waves of nausea—or was that pleasure?—in her own stomach.
Finally she caught him!
A lone eyebrow raised, disappearing beneath a lock of hair that had fallen over his forehead, as that curve evened out into a straight line. “I, uh, I don’t believe I understand, my lady. Care to explain?”
“Well—” she balanced her cake in the crook of her arm, preparing to stay as long as it took—and it appeared it would take quite some time—whilst she eased her weight onto her other foot “—if you plan to, as you say, distance yourself from these products, then you must stay a safe distance from the plantation and from even all those heavy crates you’re so often lifting onto Lord Turenly’s ships. You know, being that they are full of sugar, coffee, alcohol, and such substances.”
A deafening chorus of applause sounded in her mind as Chloe tempered a smirk. The sight of Lord Marshing’s flaring nostrils and twitching lips told her everything she needed to know—her comment had hit its mark. His lordship didn’t work in the fields like a slave. The future Viscount Turenly didn’t load the merchants with goods like a common sailor. He balanced numbers and assigned tasks and managed the managers of the slaves and common sailors.
She had made him mad, banishing the teasing smile, the pompous arrogance, and the twinkling eyes with her own jab and tone of condescension. Now he would—if her calculations were correct, and they usually were in the subject matter of Christopher Arlington—wrench the fruitcake out of her hands, slam the door before her, and storm away.
Took you long enough, you roguish imp—uh, sweet, darling person.
But he didn’t.
He just stood there, a low breath slowly easing out from between clenched teeth to ruffle his open collar. Then he slipped back a step, holding the door open a small crack more. “Fine idea, your ladyship. I would do good take your advice. Now, get out of the cold and come inside, and I’ll share your, em, gift of goodwill with my family.”
Chloe stared at him blankly. For one, it was hotter in December here in Jamaica than it ever had been in Margate during the summer. And for two, it was obvious that he knew her gift was not one of goodwill. It was, plainly put, a selfish peace offering that would secure her a lifetime of freedom and, well, peace and a month of Charles catering to her, during both of which she would never see Christopher Arlington again.
(Aside from, of course, all the many times they would possibly cross paths once he inherited the viscount-cy and returned to Margate himself. In which case, she would do good to move her permanent residence to Jamaica.)
For three, why was he not relenting? She had obviously hit the sore spot that had always caused him to retreat before—like several months ago when she’d commented that she would like to see his ill-begotten, beggarly behind thrown into the sea and marooned on a deserted island. Later that evening, she had regretted her rash—and harsh—remark, as the image of the pain etched into his features still had not left her mind to this day. And because he was not actually illegitimate or impoverished, but the rumors that had surrounded him since he had entered the viscount’s family as stepson still brewed and would likely haunt him for the remainder of his life.
Now, she realized that saying such a heartless thing—for she most assuredly wouldn’t want it said of her—was the most stupid mistake of all her life. Mostly for the fact that it left her standing on his doorstep peddling cake, partly because it meant he despised her even more, and slightly because it pained her as well.
Which had to be the result of the first two reasons, rather than a reason all its own with a separate origin.
Well, all that nonsense aside, she simply had to find a way out of the perilous position he had put her in. The last thing she needed on Christmas eve—when she had a book waiting for her—was to surround herself with Kit—eh, Lord Marshing’s boisterous family of besotted parents; flirtatious brother; outspoken sister; as-sarcastic-as-her-half-brother sister; nosy adopted sister; and moody brother, demure sister-in-law, and squalling infant nephew.
(Yes, in comparison to Chloe’s one older brother and long-deceased parents, the Arlingtons were the largest family that had ever lived. Right next to Jacob and his twelve sons, that was.)
Placing one foot behind her and imperceptibly lowering herself to the third doorstep, she once again held out the fruitcake. “I am truly sorry, your lordship—” for this and much else “—but I’m afraid I must decline. You see, Charles has a large supper planned for this evening, and I should need ample time to prepare,” she lied, and quite expertly, with the tip of her nose in the air. “But, please, share the cake and wish your family a merry Christmas for me.”
With a scoff nearly as perfect as one of her own, Lord Marshing all but threw the door open and began to advance toward her, purely evil intent emblazoned upon his face. One hand closed around the fruitcake, a welcome vise for sure, but then his other came to clamp upon her forearm, each thick finger a brand on not only her skin but also her soul, gripping, tightening—did she dare think it?—beckoning.
Her knees grew weak, buckled, her physical strength melting along with her resolve. She had been standing out here for thirty minutes, sweating half to death in her usual winter attire, with only one thing keeping her from turning around and walking away—hope.
Hope that she could spend her Christmas in a pleasant, serene mood. Hope that Charles would finally let her have her way for once.
Hope that Kit would quit hating her.
If she let him drag her into the lion’s den, might his loathing cease? Might his taunting tongue still and leave her be? Might she be able to sleep at night without dreams of his smoldering eyes and heartless laugh and too-perfect face?
He inclined his head, bending down as he drew her up the remaining two steps until her body was flush with his—the hem of her dress brushing against the toe of his boots, the heat of his stuttering exhale blanketing her, his well-muscled frame boxing her in until there was absolutely no escape whatsoever.
They were so close. They had never been this close—where she could see each individual eyelash making up the dense bronze red forest ‘round his eyes, could memorize every curve of his strong mouth, could taste the coffee on his breath. He was so beautiful, and…
Good heavens! Was she going insane?
She had to escape. She had to.
Or else his half-lidded, sleepy-eyed gaze might just swallow her whole and then she wouldn’t want to escape.
“K-Kit—” no, Chloe, wrong name “—Christopher.” Wrong again. Spit it out, imbecile!
“I love it when you say my name,” he crooned, the hand around her arm loosening as his fingers splayed out against her side, there beneath the heavy thud of her heart, surely feeling each echoing beat, his touch melting into her body even though layers of fabric separated them.
More than fabric needed to separate them.
She had to pull away. Or at least get him to, since it appeared her feet were bolted to the doorstep.
His tongue darted out, within only a quarter of a second, to lick his lips, drawing her attention from his shuttered eyes to his mouth. What was it she was supposed to say? “Please don’t kiss me,” perhaps?
Oh, but what would it be like to taste him? to feel the warm pressure of his mouth on hers? to have his love, his desire, rather than his blatant abhorrence?
She would never find out. She couldn’t. Not when she had spent three careful years abhorring him in return.
“Chloe...” It came out on a sigh that flitted over her, the besotted groan that followed a sure sign that he was going to kiss her. Were they ready for that? Were three years of an opposing relationship enough to give them leave? Was a distance of thirteen years far too great of a divide? Did she even want this?
What? No! Of course not! She hated Christopher Arlington and Christopher Arlington hated her. Upon their very first meeting, he had called her—an innocent fifteen year old girl at the time—a selfish, spoiled brat. The next time she had seen him, she’d been ready, and had retaliated with the vicious statement that he, in return, was a heartless fool who never thought beyond his own little world and his own little preferences and his own little happy family.
How true the both of their remarks had been—were still, in fact.
He could not possibly be attracted to her—although that was not to say she was unattractive, of course—and she could not be attracted to him. Although he was not entirely unattractive himself, what with the mane of auburn waves he never hid from sight, his straight Greek nose and prominent features, his gorgeous eyes and muscular physique.
But love was blind and so was hatred. His pretty face, and likely hers as well, was only marred by their own disdain for each other.
Resolved, she jerked back, spoiling the strange moment that had passed between them, causing the cake to tumble from their entwined arms and his body to sway forward then back with shock.
She ducked her head to catch the cake before it hit the ground and to avoid his wide-eyed glare, then, depositing her gift into his listless hands as she had set out to do in the first place, swept past him and in through the open doorway.
It wasn’t until she was halfway through the foyer that she heard the patter of the footman’s footsteps—where had he been all this time?—and the unsteady clomp of Chris—Lord Marshing’s behind her.
She was going to end this, once and for all, even if ‘twas the very last thing she did.
Copyright © 2020 Grace Ann Johnson