It's release day! Excerpt time! From Chapter One of "A Christmas Carroll" (Strangely Beautiful #2.5) Featured in A MIDWINTER FANTASY anthology- NOW AVAILABLE digitally from Dorchester Publishing. (Please note: this title will release in Trade Paperback in October 2011)
Copyright Leanna Renee Hieber 2010
From "A Christmas Carroll" - Chapter One:
In the beginning The Guard had been simple teenaged youths, arraigned by a goddess-like force and called to duty. They’d been universally awkward and unlikely companions from disparate backgrounds and classes; they’d suspected little of their lives ahead. Vicar Michael Carroll hadn’t known anything when he began seeing ghosts, when he began learning how his respective gift augmented their group. He hadn’t known how long it would take for their prophesied seventh member to join their ranks—or that one of their beloved number would fall in recent battle.
What he did know was that, from the very first moment he laid eyes on her, he loved the young and spindly brunette who would be their second in command. He’d loved Rebecca Thompson since Westminster Bridge in the summer of 1867. She, in turn, likely from that very same moment, had loved the young man who would become their leader. Alexi. The battle with Darkness and the Whisper-world, in retrospect, seemed the easy part.
Michael pressed his hands harder against the table, slid them farther from his body, stretching his taut muscles and wrestling with his nerves like Jacob did the angel. He’d not seen Rebecca since they laid Jane in the tomb three days prior; she had gone to her apartments and locked herself in. She blamed herself, he could tell, wished God had taken her instead. Michael thought the sentiment might kill him. Nothing felt familiar. He’d lost his powers, Jane, and now he was losing Rebecca. His heart, so full of joy and love, was suffering a tumbling withdrawal from its preternaturally augmented height. It was a terrifying, dizzying fall.
“Pull yourself together, man,” he murmured. “It’s nearly Christmas.”
His front door burst open, making him jump and splash warm wine onto his hand. Pursing his lips, knowing just who it was without even a glance, he finally looked up to behold the stern and striking figure upon his threshold. All in black stood his dear friend and unintentional rival, Alexi Rychman, former leader of the London Guard.
“Dear God, Professor. I truly thought, now that the weight of the known world is no longer entirely on your shoulders, you might at least allow yourself the more socially preferred custom of knocking upon a friend’s door before entering.”
“Old habits,” Alexi intoned, his voice rich, low and commanding. It would always be thus, even though he had no group to lead any longer.
Behind Alexi, a moonbeam of a young woman stood with an apologetic look on her face. Michael grinned and forgot his irritation. “Ah, well, Mrs. Rychman…with you at his side, all debts are erased.”
Alexi turned proudly to his entering bride. She was certainly the youth among them, Alexi not quite twice her age, but then again, where ancient prophecies were concerned, when gods were fiddling with mortal lives and taking their bodies as their own, age hardly mattered. Her fine taffeta skirts, in her favourite shade of rich blue, brushed the coarse wood of the door and rustled as she closed it. She received Michael’s warm expression with a radiant smile that transformed her death-white face into a ray of magical starlight. There was nothing about her that was ordinary. The whole of Mrs. Persephone Rychman remained white as a spectre, even the hair piled atop her head in an elegant coif. But the light here was diffuse enough that she did not have to wear the dark blue tinted glasses that shielded her eerie, breathtaking, ice blue eyes from any harshness.
“My husband never allows me to get to a door first, Vicar Carroll, otherwise I might abate his most startling tradition,” she said sweetly.
“Since we’ve lost so many traditions, I suppose we’d best keep the ones remaining,” Michael chuckled in reply.
While he had wanted an evening alone—to plan, to ruminate, to dream—he could not deny that Persephone made all disappointments bearable. She had saved them all from spectral Armageddon, and her mere presence reminded him of hope. Even her husband, a cold and fearsome man, eased into something more handsome around his strangely beautiful wife.
“Come then, you must sit down, now that you’ve come calling and disturbed my quiet. I see your nostrils flaring at the smell of it, Professor, so I know you’ll want a cup of your favourite brew.”
Alexi nodded and drew out a chair for his wife. She looked up at him with fond eyes, her hand unconsciously grazing her abdomen where her corset stays were bound more loosely these days. Having almost lost what she’d hardly knew she had, under horrific circumstances Michael didn’t wish to relive, he noticed her hand now rested there often, cradling the invisible life one of their beloved number had died to save.
Ducking into his small kitchen, he returned with a glass of wine for Alexi and a cup of steaming tea for Percy: as a parochial vicar for the Church of England, he always had a kettle of water at the ready, for he never knew when a parishioner might need guidance. It was more often that The Guard came calling. Would they still, now that they had lost their gifts?
The pair accepted their drinks, and Alexi wasted no time in admitting the reason for his visit.
“Michael, dear chap, now that we’re no longer arbiters of escapees from the spectral realm, I feel it necessary that Percy and I take the genuine, lengthy honeymoon we were so rudely denied by the onslaught of spectral warfare. However, I think it ill advised to leave Athens Chapel unattended, should there be…spiritual backlash or any other such nonsense. I’ll need your assistance to keep an eye open in case something flares up. Not that we could band together again without our powers, without our Healer…” Alexi’s usually firm voice faltered, and everyone looked at the table. He cleared his throat. “I assume this is not a problem?”
Michael opened and closed his mouth. He didn’t want more responsibility; he wanted time, now, to be a suitor.
Alexi read the conflict upon his face. “You’ve something better to do?”
“The good vicar does have a job, Alexi,” Percy murmured.
Alexi looked unimpressed. “Be that as it may, I may need him to step in and assist Rebecca with goings-on at the school, too. I’m not officially an administrator, but I might as well have been. The headmistress deferred to my judgement in many things.”
True, Rebecca often listened to him, but Alexi didn’t have to be so smug about it. His unwavering air of confidence rode Michael far rougher than usual. About to open his mouth and chide his friend, he stopped and considered the impulse. What was this? What was this overwhelming irritation he felt for his dear comrade? He had always suffered notions of fleeting jealousy or resignation, like any mortal, but never with such a sudden sense of petty anger. His great heart had indeed withered with the loss of his gift. He wondered if his inner foundation of faith, too, his touchstone of assurance, would prove similarly shaken.
Percy’s voice roused him from his worried reverie. “How are you faring, Michael, in our new retirement?” She spoke softly, brushing her hand over his. Looking into her eyes, he fancied he could see her thoughts. Curious, empathizing, she was so intuitive despite her innocence, such an old soul in such a young, inexperienced body.
He shrugged. “Good, good. I spend more time at the church—never a bad place to be when one faces such a dramatic shift in life. There’s more chance to think, to pray… I’ve plans, you know. You two are not the only ones trying to make up for lost time.” Percy took a breath, but Michael continued before she could interject. “And how is he faring?” He indicated Alexi.
“I’m not sure he quite knows what to do with himself,” Percy replied, allowing herself a little grin.
Alexi turned. “Please don’t you go calling me insufferable, as The Guard has always done.”
At that moment the door was thrown wide and a nasal voice was quick to comment, “Did I hear the word ‘insufferable’?” Lord Elijah Withersby entered, a lean, flaxen-haired man in foppish satin sleeves, and he opened his arms to the assembled company. “Why, you must be talking about His Royal Eerieness, Minister of the Constant Sneer!” He bounded forward and clapped the grimacing Alexi on the arm.
Percy bit back a giggle, ever entertained by Lord Withersby’s outlandish titles for her imperious, black-clad husband. Michael was glad she was so good-humoured about the teasing, The Guard’s eldest tradition of all.
“Alexi, my dear man,” Elijah exclaimed, “I know you simply cannot be away for long without missing me terribly, so I thought I’d oblige you. Rebecca said you were here on business. Hullo, Vicar! Wine, please!”
“Rebecca spoke with you?” Michael asked, on edge. “Did you see her?”
Elijah shrugged. “She barked at me from the other side of her door.”
Alexi nodded. “Have we all called upon her then, and she has admitted no one?”
“So it would seem.” Michael wasn’t sure if his clenched fists were noticed, but he couldn’t be bothered if they were. He sighed, rose and went for more wine. The instinct of hospitality ran deep.
A beautiful and impeccably dressed woman appeared through the front door. Rolling her eyes, she closed it behind her with the same consideration as Percy had done and moved to Lord Withersby’s side. “Neither of you knock,” she complained, offering fond, French-accented derision to both Elijah and Alexi. She looked at Percy with empathy, a twinkle in her eye. “We trail behind well-dressed animals, my dear.”
Josephine Belledoux, the Artist of London’s onetime Guard, and Lord Withersby, its Memory, had been lovers for longer than they’d cared to reveal. Not wanting to conflict with the delicate, pathetic love triangles already scoring the group, they’d thought it best to keep their happy pairing away from their cohorts. The truth of their relationship had been only recently admitted. Michael returned with more mulled wine and pulled spare, rickety chairs from what could hardly be called a sitting room into the dining area.
“Yes, I am here on business, Withersby.” Alexi eyed the turquoise fabric of Elijah’s sleeve splayed upon the table. Reaching out to finger the starched, gilt lace upon the cuff, he withdrew in distaste. “What are you doing?”
“I don’t know what to do!” Elijah cried, collapsing dramatically upon the table. “How on earth can I traipse about London as I wish, commandeer Auntie’s house as I please, if I cannot bend anyone’s mind to my bidding? If I cannot make them forget, if I cannot become invisible in their presence… Oh, the horror of living the real life of a gentleman!”
“Oh, Withersby, you’re hardly a gentleman. You’ll make do just fine,” Alexi replied.
“He’s maddening,” Josephine muttered. “I’m painting more beautiful canvases than I’ve ever painted in my life, finally, subjects besides angels and death, and he won’t leave me alone for a minute. Mon Dieu. I told him he should take up a sport, use all this excess energy of his—”
“You know, Withersby, I’ve shuddered to think what would have happened to you without our Grand Work to set your life’s early course,” Alexi remarked. “That said, you might enjoy what leisure your class offers you, now that you’re free to fully take part.”
Elijah stared as if his friend were daft. “You’ll never understand the finer points of high society. Why, if I’ve taught you nothing, I’d thought you’d realized it’s a requirement of my class never to be content!”
Everyone turned, eyeing Josephine with pity. “I know, I know, I’m a fool,” she said, her French accent making her words drip with drama. “I tell him he needs a hobby, a new club, something. But no, he goes careening about the estate or pacing madly about our flat—”
“You’ve a flat?” Michael asked.
“We’ve always had a flat,” Elijah replied. “But with the upcoming nuptials—”
Josephine interrupted. “That’s truly the reason why we’re here, Vicar, we need to set a date for the wedding.”
Alexi turned to her. “You know, you don’t have to do this.”
Josephine chuckled. “Our fates were sealed long ago,” she said with mock weariness, touching her fiancé’s face with such obvious adoration that no sarcasm in the world could have countered it. “I accept as best I can and suffer onward. Right, Madame Rychman?”
Percy shrugged. “Alexi’s not nearly the handful that Lord Withersby is. I find myself resigned to no fate but happiness.” She smirked at Elijah, a sparkle in her eerie eyes. Alexi grinned triumphantly and snuggled his wife close.
It was still uncanny, Michael thought, to see Alexi smile. Twenty years he’d known the man and all Alexi had done was scowl. The transformation truly was remarkable. But some things would never change, particularly such endless verbal fencing.
“Alexi,” Elijah whined, “how ever will I have the upper hand now that you have this sweet young thing to take your part?”
Alexi shrugged. “Your fiancé will have to put on a better act of being your champion.”
Josephine lifted her hands in mock chagrin. Elijah grabbed her fingers and kissed them.
Further discourse was ended as the room suddenly lit with a strange and shifting light, as if the air were a curtain blown in a breeze. A spirit burst through the wall—a young boy—and the temperature plummeted. Alexi jumped up and lifted his palms. The Guard all stood and reached for one another, ready for action. Percy rose from respect, having been brought late into their circle. She was not quick on the defensive, having been rarely ambushed by ghosts of the villainous variety, and she stared at this boy in recognition.
Alexi opened his mouth to say a benediction in a foreign tongue never meant for mortal ears, bequeathed only to The Guard. He anticipated the bursts of an angelic choir, braced himself for a charged and ancient wind that would whip up around them, magnifying their powers against the restless dead… But he could say nothing. He could hear nothing. There was no familiar blue fire crackling from his hand, no celestial music hanging glorious the air. He was a demigod no more. None of them retained such honours. They had earned this retirement, but clearly none of them had grown accustomed to it.
The spirit bobbed before them, a ghostly urchin, unperturbed. Michael recognized him, too: he haunted the ceiling of the foyer of Athens Academy, circling the chandelier, always watching the headmistress with interest.
Alexi’s upraised arm slowly sank, defeated. Michael watched his former leader and felt for him; the general was back from the war with nothing to command, with over half his life spent in service. No, it was not an easy shift. For any of them.
Percy instinctively took her husband’s hand. “It’s all right, Alexi. Billy means no harm, he comes bearing tidings,” she murmured. Her beloved sank into a chair, crestfallen, and Percy gave him one last empathetic glance before turning her attention to the spirit. “Yes? What have you come to tell me, Billy?”
The boy only had eyes for Percy, with an occasional glance at Michael. The one-sided conversation continued as the boy rapidly gesticulated. Percy nodded, clearly still translator to the dead, their medium, the only member of The Guard who had ever been able to hear spirits speak and the only one still apparently in possession of any of her powers. Translating had been part of her duty as The Guard’s prophesied seventh member, if only one of her many gifts.
A second spirit bobbed through the wall, a once-lovely girl now cast in a ghostly greyscale, her clothing dated a half century prior, her spectral curls weightless in a phantom breeze. Percy’s eerie eyes widened. “Oh, Constance!” she cried, rushing joyfully forward. The ghost moved to embrace her with a cold gust of air. Percy closed her eyes and waited out the chill, as if this were a perfectly normal greeting—and for a girl who was born seeing spirits and calling them friends, it likely was. “How I’ve missed you, Constance,” she said. “Are you well and at peace?” The female spirit spoke as animatedly as the boy, but she seemed to be offering reassurances. She turned to the urchin and they both nodded—glancing again, Michael noted uncomfortably, at him. “I think it’s a lovely idea!” Percy exclaimed.
“What is?” the ex-Guard chorused.
Percy turned to them with a mysterious smile, her eyes lingering on Michael in a way that made him even more uneasy. “Oh, nothing, just a bit of a Christmas present these spirits have in mind.” She looked demurely at the company. “Pardon me, Michael, but might the spirits and I discuss matters in the adjoining sitting room? I feel it is rude for me to carry on a conversation none of you is privy to and”—excitement played across her lips—“that I’m not at liberty to relay, it being private business.”
Her husband scowled in clear displeasure at being left out. Percy dotingly stroked his black hair but offered no apology. Michael gestured to the next room. Percy moved into it, the spectral boy close on her heels. Constance wafted to follow, offering Alexi a curtsey on the way out.
Percy. They’d found her so late in the course of their Grand Work, she’d been with them for such a short time before their powers were taken back, that Michael wondered what more they might have accomplished had she spent her entire life with them. Then again, she was only nineteen, and had he known her as a child it would have been awkward for Alexi to up and marry her. But true love overcame all obstacles, despite needing to await its time. Michael supposed if an immortal incarnation of Rebecca had taken up residence in one of his young parishioners and sought him out at an appropriate juncture, he’d think about her age a bit differently, too. As for its time…he had certainly awaited love long enough.
Elijah and Alexi fell to quarreling, filling up the silence with familiar chatter. Withersby demanded Alexi be present for his and Josephine’s imminent wedding, but Alexi was set upon taking immediate time away. Each demanded theirs was the more important event, and neither budged. The debate then progressed to who, in truth, was the more difficult man in the realm of cohabitation. Josephine steered clear of a vote.
The two men whirled on Michael at the same time, both clearly expecting his acquiescence.
“You’ll take care of the Athens particulars I delineate?” Alexi barked.
“You’ll arrange the wedding?” Elijah insisted.
Michael took a breath and called upon the one gift that thankfully had not left him: his patience. He took a sip of mulled wine and examined his anxious compatriots. “Professor, you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere I’d rather be than at Athens Academy, to help the headmistress,” he said. “And Withersby, anything to get you into a church—may the Lord forgive me or bless my efforts.” He smiled. “Perhaps it’s best if Alexi and you aren’t both under one sacred roof, though. I fear other guests might be harmed by chastising lightning bolts from Heaven should you quarrel so in His house.”
Percy breezed back into the room. The spirits were gone. Alexi stared at her expectantly. She kissed her husband on the head, beaming. “I love Christmas!” she exclaimed, and took her empty teacup into the kitchen. If any of the former Guard were waiting for an explanation, they received none. But they were clearly up to something. And, Michael surmised, it had something to do with him...
(End of Excerpt)
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Thanks to all my Strangely Beautiful fans for your support of the series, this novella is SO close to my heart. I hope it will bring you the holiday cheer I intended. Here's
May angels be ever with you!