“It’s not Valentine’s yet,” you reply.
“Yes, but tomorrow I’m headed away for a romantic weekend so I’m posting for V-Day now,” I say.
Who doesn’t like early presents?
This is not widely known but the first book I published was called Brave in Heart, a historical romance set during the American Civil War. Basically no one read it. And I can’t blame you all because beyond the setting, it’s very first-book-y. But had anyone read it, I intended for it to be the first book in a series. I had, in fact, started a sequel, which I never named, except then I started writing the book that became Special Interests and that project consumed me.
However, when I started to think about what kind of Valentine’s Day extra I could publish, I started to think about the words I’d written for the Brave in Heart sequel. Most of them aren’t great…except for these.
So if you read this, know that I don’t like the chapters I wrote after this one. And between my dissatisfaction with the rest of those chapters and a marketplace that’s not terribly interested in mid-nineteenth century American historical, I probably won’t ever finish this. But as long as we’re on the same page, this is your Valentine’s present from me: a meet-cute and a one very sexy, Creole, not-quite gentleman named August Wainwright.
There was a rock in Matilda Winters’ boot. Even now a tiny sharp burr of stone poked her toe most unmercifully. For the fourth time since setting out from the rooms she shared with her father, she stopped and wriggled. There was no connection between her face and her feet, true, but she found herself gritting her teeth and pursing her lips. She knew the behavior was most unladylike but she had to move the thing.
Finally it budged, bouncing toward her toe. She straightened and glanced around to assure herself no one was watching before she set out again.
She needn’t have worried. There were entirely too many people out for one lone woman to attract any attention. The street before her teamed with conveyances and traffic. Everything in the Capitol City was crowded these days, what with the troops quartered on the mall and the wounded men filling the hospitals and the refugee former slaves crowding into refugee camps. The city strained at the closures, livelier than it had ever been.
Matilda had become for the first time an in-demand correspondent. All of her friends from the Middletown Female Seminary where she had spent three happy years wanted to know what Washington was like. She obliged them writing sheets and sheets every morning. If only there were more to tell. Her father’s ministry kept him always busy. After mornings keeping house, every afternoon she joined him in the hospitals cheering the wounded men.
Aside from those responsibilities, however, her life was routine. Mundane even.
Today was no different, but if that silly stone kept moving, she would be late to meet papa. And one couldn’t, one shouldn’t, fail in her life’s only obligation.
She picked up her feet, attempting to hurry through the throng. Heel, toe, heel toe. She could hear the clicking of her boots on the sidewalk, a drumbeat propelling her through the crowd.
You’re a saint, Phoebe King had opined in her latest letter. Everyone said so, but dodging through the bodies on the sidewalk, Matilda didn’t feel saintly. She never did. She didn’t even feel that good. She simply tried to live according to the principles that everyone espoused. Was that so notable?
Sometimes she wished she could be as headstrong as Rebecca Livingston. Three years ago, Rebecca had somersaulted into love like something out of a book. She’d come up ringing with a broken heart a few months later, but with a new identity. No one doubted her passion or her complexity. No one thought she was demur or, worse, nice.
Matilda was tired of nice.
At the thought a sharp, decidedly un-nice, shooting pain ricocheted through her body.
“Ouch!” she muttered. Moving to the side to allow the couple behind her to pass, she listed against a wall and once again fidgeted with her toe to urge the offending pebble into the space at the tip of her boot. She grunted and changed position, shaking her foot hoping to dislodge it downward.
Her tactics simply weren’t working. The stone would not move and she had to get the thing out. Ducking into the alleyway ahead of her between two rows of townhomes, Matilda took action. Lowering herself onto a pile of crates and pulling off her gloves, she sighed deeply. What a preposterous thing to happen. Surely Phoebe would never be caught with a stone in her boot. She would simply will it not to happen and it wouldn’t. Matilda lacked the strength of character for such an order, however. Things happened to it her rather than the other way around.
As she leaned over to unlace her boot, the back of her neck prickled and she shot up and looked around.
The faintest hum of traffic echoed around her: the bump of cartwheels yards away in the street, the impression of a laugh from an open window overhead, and the squawk of a bird flying low above the buildings. But no one was near.
Reassured that she was alone, Matilda reached again for her foot and began unlacing. In truth her shoes were a bit small. They pinched, even in the absence of stones. This was only the beginning of her sartorial complaints. Her corset was worn. Her cuffs and hem had been turned at least twice. Her gloves were more ashen than snowy. While papa might be indispensable, he was not well compensated. And the war and blockade had made cotton very dear. Well, the rewards would come in the next life.
After a moment’s struggle, her foot sprung free from its black leather cage. She exhaled with relief and rubbed her throbbing toes. Knowing that she needed to get going if there were any chance of arriving on time, she shook the boot over her hand. With a quaint thud, a stone fell into her palm. Seeing that it was covered with points like a star, she understood why it had caused so much discomfort.
“So you’re the thing that’s been giving me trouble. You’re rather impolite, you know?” she whispered, turning it over between her fingers to feel the tiny prickles on the tips. She smiled and sat up to throw it away, freezing as she looked into the face of a small boy who stood not two feet from her.
“You startled me!”
“I’m sorry, miss,” he said, shaking his head in apology. The boy had a slight lisp but there was something about his eyes that belied his abbreviated stature and the affectation in his voice. World-weary, she’d call those eyes. Far too old and cynical for his years. A cold shiver of …something ran through Matilda’s body.
“Do you have any change?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, I haven’t.” It was true. She never carried more than a few pennies. Those she needed.
“That’s too bad, miss,” came another voice this time from behind her.
Matilda jumped to her feet and stumbled back toward the wall. She regarded the two other boys who stood behind the crates. The eyes of all three shared the same look. Worse yet, between all of them, she was surrounded. She swallowed slowly to push down the lump that was rising in her throat, an impulse she refused to give into. She clutched more firmly to the boot in her hand to ward off the jittery dampness in her palms. She recognized the feeling as fear but she pushed the word away as soon as it came into her head.
“Now, boys,” she said, trying to project her voice without shouting. This might not be as bad as it seemed. “I haven’t anything at all.” She glanced into her basket resting on the ground. “An orange? I have an orange. You’re welcome to it.”
“Do you hear that? She has an orange.” The third boy’s laugh ended abruptly after a few halting seconds. He leered at her.
While it was frightening, Matilda’s heart constricted. Her father was a great devotee of Reverend Tuckerman, whose pamphlets on his ministry to the poor in Boston were some of the reading of her youth. No child should have that look in his eye. No child should go hungry. No child should feel his only recourse was to join a roving street gang.
“I’m sorry I haven’t anything more,” she said sincerely, “but my father, Reverend Winters?” She paused to see if the name was familiar. The boys looked at her as if she were touched in the head. “Well, his church runs a soup kitchen over on C Street. I’m sure they could set you up with something to eat. I could give you directions.”
“I just bet you could,” the first boy muttered.
He began walking toward Matilda. He seemed as one in a dream, each motion excruciatingly slow. One hand drifted up as if he was going to strike her. Her eyes were riveted to the tiny fist, by the dirt caked around his fingernails. Her mind was distracted by the details. How could something so small intend such malice? When did you last have a bath?
But this wasn’t a dream: it was a nightmare. Vision blurring and pulse thumping, Matilda raised her boot, uncertain what she intended to do with it, and opened her mouth to scream.
Before any sound could emerge, however, the boy dissolved into giggles. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see his companions doing the same. This was…some sort of joke? One of them reached over the crates and snagged her orange and the three darted down the alley, their eerie laughter echoing back toward her.
Letting go of the bitter fear in her mouth with a deep exhalation, Matilda sagged onto the crates and regarded the boot in her hand. Her shoulders slumped forward and her spine bowed. How Miss Bates—the deportment teacher at Middletown—would chide her! But if ever a body had earned a right to bad posture, it was her after that ordeal. Whatever had that been about? What had they intended to do to her? Why had they stopped?
“I say,” a voice called, “are you all right?”
A figure stood at the end of the alley, framed in light. After a brief pause, it strode toward her. A young man confident and bold judging by his gait. Tall too. It was impossible for her to judge precisely how tall given her aspect, but enough to tower over most men. As he drew nearer, she could make out more of his features. Wavy brown hair hung over his brow. Dark, fine eyes topped by brows arched in concern. Full lips the color of wine pursed with apprehension.
He knelt before her and clasped her hands. “I saw the gang running from the alley. Are you unharmed?”
“Yes.” Matilda straightened instantly. She was surprised to hear her voice. She sounded confused but strong. There was none of her body’s shakiness in her mouth. “Yes,” she repeated, “they harassed me but didn’t harm me.”
“Good.” He nodded and smiled, revealing perfectly straight teeth the color of pearls. “How did they entice you here?”
“Oh no,” she replied lifting her hand with the boot. “I…that is, I,” she stammered feeling her cheeks color, “I needed to deal with a stone.”
His eyes, which had seemed like melting chocolate, flashed with anger. “What the devil?” he snapped. “I beg your pardon, but that was not a good idea. Do you know what could have happened?”
Matilda pushed her shoulders back and glared at him. He was correct of course, her experience proved that, but it wasn’t as if anything had happened. She’d been alarmed and teased by some unfortunates. It had been frightening, but no lasting harm had occurred. “You’re very kind,” she said, not entirely able to keep the hiss out of her voice, “but I need to put this on and be on my way.”
Her annoying would-be protector seized the boot from her hand and then reached under her skirt for her foot.
“Sir!” she yelped. “What are you doing?” She began thrashing about, trying to get away from him and his big roving beautiful hand.
He was muttering, something about women and safety that she couldn’t quite make out, and paying her struggles no mind when he paused. He had located her foot and was holding it at eye level. That was disturbing enough, but the look on his face, frozen and enthralled, made her think something more momentous was occurring. Matilda stilled and followed his eyes, which were adhered to a hole on her stocking, through which her pudgy pink baby toe poked out.
At this, Matilda’s temperature shot up. She could feel a bead of sweat loose from her neck and travel down her spine to the top of her corset. Whereas before she had been embarrassed, now she was mortified. She was dreadfully, agonizingly aware of the man’s hand clasping her foot. His grip was strong but not painful. It was not a hold that could be easily broken. She should know; she had tried. Had a man had ever touched her foot before?
His gaze was intense as if she were exposed before him. As if he was looking not at a mere inch of skin but at fully unprotected nakedness. His touch, his look felt intimate.
Which was absurd. Toes were generally covered up to be sure, but they were a most prosaic body part. This was a toe framed by a decaying stocking, nothing more. People got holes in their stockings daily. He probably had one now.
Except she didn’t want to think about his legs. Judging by the muscles that rippled under his coat, his legs were likely—no! Absolutely not. No, she wasn’t going to join him in immodesty. That had been a thought not becoming of her.
“It’s a just a rent,” she said, trying to break the spell.
“Uh-huh,” the man replied, shaking his head and fumbling with her boot. “There are a number of…rents in your stocking,” he pointed out.
“Yes,” she agreed quietly while she watched him try to jam the too small boot onto her foot.
“And many have been repaired before?” he said, looking up at her.
“Yes.” She pulled away again and this time he released her. She rose, though he remained kneeling, while she tapped her heel on the ground several times until her foot finally popped into place. She sighed, relieved that this ordeal was coming to a close.
She placed her hands on her hips and looked down at him, feeling quite silly. “Stockings in need of darning are the most usual of things.”
He motioned for her to sit. She didn’t want to. She wanted to make a polite good-bye, to run off and not stop until she reached papa at the hospital. But without lacing her boot, she couldn’t do any of those things. And the only way to do it herself would be to hike her skirt up to her calf. With this man before her, on his knees, eyes burning into hers, well, she refused to do that.
“Perhaps we should begin again,” he said, his voice now soft and gentle. “I’m August. August Wainwright.”
He extended one of those sculpted hands. Matilda regarded him carefully. His was not a kind face, but it was a face that told stories. Expressive. Lined. Interesting. Handsome. After a moment, she lowered herself back onto the crates and set her hand into his.
“Matilda Winters,” she whispered.
The dainty virgin had become much more interesting.
That wasn’t quite true, August supposed: she’d been interesting from the first. He wasn’t quite sure what had occurred before he’d entered the alley, but most women would have been quivering and sobbing from the stress of it. Not Matilda Winters. If anything, she had been more moved with anger at him for pointing out her folly than by the boys who had threatened her.
His lips quirked at the memory. She was pretty when she was mad. Her cheeks flushed a most becoming shade of pink. Her mouth transformed into a pouty rose bud. Her grey-blue eyes flashed like those of an aggrieved Athena. He wanted to nettle her some more. He wanted her to tear that bonnet off in frustration so he could see if her hair would be more red or brown in the sun. But one didn’t nettle bourgeois ladies. Usually.
So he released her tiny hand with a squeeze and went back to lacing her worn boot, trying not to think about the pink toe within, the toe that elevated her from merely comely to definitely interesting.
He wasn’t sure why the toe had affected him so. The vulnerability of it, probably. It made a man think of all the other places a woman was pink, all the soft, hidden, forbidden places that he liked best. But it wasn’t just her toe, as alluring as that was, it was the hominess of her stocking.
The stocking was shabby but tended. Most stockings he encountered were silk and store-bought. Those in his extensive experience were snowy and lacy, never darned.
Matilda was doing her best to ignore him by pulling on her gloves now. They too were far from new—but again, there was something well cared for about them. The honesty of the cleanliness and the repairs communicated domestic energies, or maybe he was put in mind of that because she smelled of tea and cinnamon. He wondered if she’d taste like it too but immediately put the thought from his mind. She probably wasn’t a virgin at all, come to think of it. She likely had a pack of squally brats tucked away in some house not far from here.
“Where are you headed this afternoon, Miss Winters?” He hoped she would correct him. He could seduce a married woman.
“Armory Square Hospital,” she replied. Her voice was low. Most would call it grave, but to him, it was adorned with unawakened musical notes. He was good at awakening.
“Visiting a husband? A sweetheart?” he asked, standing and offering her his arm.
She paused and stared at him without moving. “No, my father. That is, he isn’t a patient. He’s a minister. We visit the wounded every day.”
His dainty virgin was a minister’s daughter? Of course.
She rose unassisted and fussed with her dress, smoothing her skirt with long strokes and putting herself aright. “I appreciate your assistance, Mr. Wainwright. You’ve been…most kind.”
He stifled a laugh. She didn’t think he’d been kind at all. “I’ll escort to you Armory Square,” he asserted.
“No, you won’t. I can find my own way. I do almost every day.”
August examined her, incredulous. The city was packed with thieves worse than the children who’d harassed her today, not to mention randy soldiers, freed slaves, and men like himself. A woman, any woman, would be quite stupid to walk about unescorted.
“By yourself?” he asked.
Her brows pulled together in a dark straight line and her forehead wrinkled. “Of course by myself. How else would I go?”
This is why he wanted to learn more about her, this combination of frankness, annoyance, and sweetness. He wasn’t sure he’d ever encountered it before. But it was overarched by some painful naïveté.
“Perhaps your father could escort you?” he asked mildly.
She shook her head and spoke carefully as if she were explaining catechism to a child, “He’s occupied elsewhere in the mornings. I assure you this is the first time I’ve had any trouble.”
He allowed his displeasure to show on his face, favoring her with his most impressive scowl. This was becoming tedious. He seized her wrist and pulled it through his arm. “Today at least, I insist.” He marched her down the alley and turned onto the street, blinking in the strong sunlight.
From the corner of his eye, he could see her open her mouth in protest but then snap it shut like a fish indignant at being caught. “Surely you haven’t time for this.”
“Probably not but I’ll do it anyway.”
“Thank you, kind sir,” she said between clenched teeth without any gratitude in her voice.
He set a brisk pace but she kept up without trouble. Once they were well on their way, August hazarded a glance at her. He wanted to laugh. He wanted to yell at her also and at her negligent father, but for the moment, he would enjoy the simple pleasure of walking down the street with a woman’s arm draped through his. A woman with adorable toes and darned stockings. A minister’s daughter and a dainty virgin. Well, stranger things occurred these days.
They walked several blocks in silence, passing seemingly every person in Washington. Their path took them past the Capitol Building, where scaffolding covered the still-unfinished dome. Workers crawled about on the black web as small as insects from this distance.
“Will they never finish?” his companion whispered.
“Aye, they’ll finish. The fools,” he said. He still couldn’t believe they continued to work without pay.
Matilda’s grey-blue eyes shifted to him, flashing with annoyance that he had responded to what had been apparently private commentary. She was an objectively pretty girl under any circumstances, but when she flicked saucy insolence at him every part of him took note.
She ought to have a care. A few more looks like that, and he would decide absolute to seduce her. He wasn’t quite sure how to warn her, however, or if he wanted to. Instead, he tried to remind himself why that was a cruel plan. She’d done nothing to deserve his attentions. She was a Ladies’ Aid Society-type if he’d ever met one.
“Whatever do you find to do at the hospital daily?” he asked.
She sighed and wrangled her exasperation down to a manageable level in order to answer. She couldn’t resist the bait as she doubtless felt the need to please everyone. “Reading mostly, books and newspapers, and writing letters. I took a nursing course, so sometimes I change a bandage or give a bath to help the staff. Whatever I can do to give aid and bring cheer.”
Wasn’t that sweet? He was certain he ought to think so. She was probably lauded at parties—if she ever went to parties—by society women who would be ill if their feet ever darkened the threshold of a sick ward. Why, aren’t you a paragon, Miss Winters? All those wounded men! He shifted, rearranging her hand on his arm. It was cool and light. Reassuring.
He didn’t like to think of hospitals. They called to mind long-forgotten smells, lightening illuminating the dark narrow room, blood on a sheet…
He shook his head to dismiss the images and asked, “Why, Miss Winters? Why do you do it? To make your father happy?”
“Yes. No! I mean they’ve given so much to all of us. To keep Washington safe. To spread the blessings of liberty.” He could see only the thinnest sliver of her profile under the rim of her bonnet. She had a delightfully pert nose. When she turned suddenly and looked up at him, he was startled by the depth of feeling in her face. “Should we not care for them?”
August rolled his eyes. He didn’t agree, but at this moment, he wasn’t interested in parsing his feelings about the war for her. He pressed the question that puzzled him, “But why you?”
She stilled, gazing into his face. He could see her thoughts whirling away behind her eyes. Had she never considered this before? She pulled her lower lip between her teeth and chewed absently for a moment.
“To know of a problem, Mr. Wainwright, to have seen it with one’s own eyes and not to act to ameliorate it? That is a grave sin indeed.” She turned away from him.
They were descending away from the noise of the Capitol construction. Soon Armory Square would be in sight. He hounded her again. “But surely you don’t always act, Miss Winters. What about the thieves who accosted you this afternoon? What did you do to aid them?”
“They took an orange from my basket,” she said. She seemed a bit absent—not ignoring him, he didn’t think but carefully considering what he was saying. “I offered to direct them to a soup kitchen, but they…ran off.”
His hand clenched into fists. “You’re lucky that’s all they took.”
She waved her orange-free basket to dismiss his interjection. “Never mind that. It’s a matter of degree, Mr. Wainwright. We cannot act in all cases, true. But we can act in some. And when there is great need, or when we are particularly equipped to help, we should. There is a very great need at the hospitals just now and I can bring cheer.”
“I have no doubt that you bring more…cheer than you know,” he spat. “I only hope your father guards you better in the hospital than he does on your journey there.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“I will not insult your modesty,” August said, knowing that he would worse than insult it given the chance, “but a woman such as yourself should be careful around so many men.”
“A woman such as myself?” she echoed. “You’ve made it clear how you see me. Naïve, coddled, breakable. And yet you think I need to be shielded from all that is real in the world. Would you have me be a porcelain figurine in a curio cabinet then?”
He swallowed. She was right, of course. The problem was that he only knew two ways of handling china dolls: breaking them or locking them up. Every moment they spent together, he was further tempted to break Matilda Winters. He had to warn her.
He stepped in front of her, impeding her progress, and looked down into her sweet face, raised up to him expectantly and lit with the strong feelings he had provoked. “Mô shou, the world does not deserve your…kindnesses. But if you must act, please do so carefully. Not every gang of pickpockets will steal merely an orange. Not every man in there,” he jerked his arm at the hospital across the street, “will be put off by the fact your father is a few floors away. There are not always guardian angels waiting around to save you.”
He had been aiming for moderation in his tone, but he had not quite achieved it. Her pupils widened in surprise and perhaps fear. She licked her rosy lips, staring up at him for a moment before she found her voice.
“I know that is so,” she said slowly, “but you were there today. Is not your presence evidence of divine Providence?”
August shook his head in short, vigorous motions. “No, quite the opposite. I am the biggest danger to you of all.”
A smile broke over her face, animating her features with happiness. “You’re vexing, Mr. Wainwright, but you’d never harm me.”
“You’re wrong,” he assured her. “I’m a rogue. Likely you shouldn’t even be seen on my arm.” He released her hand with some sadness and pointed at Armory Square. “Go now. I’ll be merciful. This time.” He meant it as a joke, but once he said it, he knew it was true. He’d ruined most of the women he’d known. If Matilda continued to expose herself to him, it wouldn’t end well for her.
The silly woman didn’t move, however. “Haven’t you been listening to a thing I said? If you are a…a rogue, I’m certain you don’t want to be. I’ll help you.”
Life was that simple to her. She looked at him and saw a young man. Someone who could be saved with minimal discomfort and effort on either of their parts. She knew even less of about the world than he had assumed and nothing at all about men.
“Miss Winters, we’ll never see one another again.” He couldn’t resist canting forward and taking a deep breath. Her scent called to memories he didn’t have—warm, homey, gentle things that he had never really known. It and she were not for him. He leaned back on his heels, regarding her for a moment. “Take care of yourself, for Heaven’s sake,” he said, his voice like the pull of stones against one another. “Good-bye.”
Without another look, he took off down the street, his stride as long as he could make it without breaking into a run. After two blocks, he stopped and turned. He was just in time to see her entering the door, safe he hoped. She moved out of his life as easily as she’d entered it. He trusted for her own sake she would stay away.
He only hoped he could do the same.