The Christmas Ball: Excert Two: My True Love Hath My Heart

  Wench- wiki Stockeld_Park_HouseJoanna here —

As you remember from Anne's posting last week, all the Wenches will be posting an excerpt from our stories from the anthology the Last Chance Christmas Ball, one each Sunday in the lead-up to Christmas.

Here's Anne's excerpt from the story Mistletoe Kisses

I'll just repeat what she said last week:

"We wenches had written a Christmas anthology before with a linking theme, but for this one we decided all the stories would be linked to an event, based around an annual Christmas ball, held by Lady Holbourne known as Lady Holly to her friends." Last ChanceXmasBall

Here's the blurb for the collection:  Christmas 1815. Upstairs and downstairs, Holbourne Abbey is abuzz with preparations for a grand ball to celebrate the year’s most festive—and romantic—holiday. For at the top of each guest’s wish list is a last chance to find true love before the New Year…

My story is titled My True Love Hath My Heart. In it, we meet a legendary jewel, a heroine seeking revenge, a handsome scoundrel, housemaids gossiping, a bit about jewelry design, young love, and somewhat older love which is more complicated, this being the second time round.
And . . . well . . . Christmas.

The title of my short story comes from the eponymous Sir Phllip Sidney poem. (I have been waiting to use the word eponymous for a long time.)

My true-love hath my heart and I have his,
By just exchange one for the other given:
So. My excerpt opens in Holbourne Abbey in the insufferable Mr. Gower's bedroom. Our heroine Claire, dressed in a maid's uniform, is rifling through Mr. Gower's jewel boxes.

. . . Hand w jewels bought as shutterstock_118640449

“I always wondered what housemaids did in their leisure time.” The voice came from the doorway. “Theft, apparently.”

There was an instant like lightning, filled with a flash of recognition in the midst of blank surprise. She recognized him at once. How could she not? Nobody else spoke like silk over steel. Like honey and granite rock. Shouting in panic, sarcastic over the card table, whispered across a pillow, that was not a voice one could forget. She turned slowly to face him.

Nick Lafford stood in the doorway, a man not taking his dismissal seriously. She was furious with him. She was impatient and unforgiving. And everything inside herheart, mind, and spirit was glad to see him.

He strolled into the room. Time flowed sluggishly around him, giving her a long opportunity to feel five or six emotions in a row, all of them complicated and contradictory.

“Picture of a maid dusting the jewelry,” he said. “How thorough of you.”

“Searching it, actually.”

“We rise above the banal, then. I always enjoy rising about the banal with you.” He came to look past her into the box on the wardrobe shelf. “We have the very likeness of plunder. I feel quite piratical. Is the loot immensely valuable?”

“Not so far.” She closed the leather case with the rubies and put it firmly back in the tray. “If they were vegetables, this would be a pile of potatoes.”

“Not counting the Coeur de Flamme.” Nick wore one of his deceptively open expressions. 

“Not counting the Coeur, which I haven’t found yet. What in the name of sanity are you doing here?”

“I appear to have joined you in ransacking with intent. Embarrassing if I’m caught at it.” He leaned to look into the jewel box and they touched, just a little. A brush of his jacket on her shoulder. A feeling of warmth at her side. Nothing really.

He said, “I’ll bet these dainty little leather boxes contain the good stuff.”

“AlYork_old_uk_england_house_building_castle_beautiful-145011 creativecommonsmost certainly. Go away, Nick.”

“I don’t think so. You may, eventually, be glad I’m here.” He stirred a finger into the jewels, inquisitive. “Or, of course, you may not. But I’m here anyway.”

This was so typical of him. Ready to filch jewels at her side or lead her onto the dance floor in Vienna in front of the assembled nobility of Europe. Once, he’d helped her relocate an inconvenient body. Once he

Blast him for being Nicholas. For being sneaky and single-minded and never giving up. For being clever enough to move her like a chess piece to this time and this place. For saying he loved her.

Blast her for being happy to see him again, even for a minute.

She squashed down the anticipation and gladness that was springing up inside her like so many bubbles rising to the top of beer. She concentrated on being stern. He’d taken her by surprise. That was all. Nothing had changed.

He hooked up entangled necklaces and bracelets and let them dangle. “What a hoard for a man to lug about the north country. They almost beg to be stolen, don’t they?”

Wench winter womqn 2 kaemmerer“No.”

“I hear their siren call. ‘Pick me up and carry me away,’ they say. Surely he won’t miss a few.”

“I’m busy, Nick. I don’t have time for this.”

“And we’re not thieves, like the regrettable Mr. Gower,” When she didn’t comment he said, “The money doesn’t matter, does it? He didn't just cheat you out of money. He stole your work. He tried to steal your good name.”

Nick understood. That was what made him so insidious. He’d always understood her.

She batted his hand out of the way and picked up the next leather case. “You contrived this. Both of us in the same house. It’s not some cosmic mischance.”

“Humbly, I admit it. I arranged for a guest list to the House party to land in the papers. You saw it. You’re here.”

“I should have been suspicious.”

“I’m glad you weren’t. I’m also glad you’re here,” he gestured a circle, taking in the rest of the room, Holbourne Abbey, and Northumberland, “with me, instead of breaking into Gower’s townhouse. He keeps guards. With guns.”

“Guns in his garden and the unbreakable safe he brags about. I hope someone robs it one fine evening, but it won’t be me. Damn you for interfering.”

“I can’t help myself, you know. Indulged from childhood. No self-discipline.”

He hadn’t changed a whit in the months since she’d sent him away. Still the perfect English aristocrat, casually confident, wrapped in the armor of first-class tailoring. Still the long, intelligent, handsome face that didn't show a tenth of what he was thinking. Brown hair in fashionable disorder. Brown eyes, carefully controlled in what they revealed.

He reached past her and selected a leather jewel case, flicked it open, and found emeralds. “This is nice.”

Very nice. Trust Nick to see that. “It’s famousboth the bracelet and the central stone. Spanish work, from stones plundered out of the New World. It’s been owned by most of the royal families of Europe at one time or another.”

“It must cringe at the company it keeps. May I confiscate it for you in my capacity as representative of the British government?”

“You may put it away.”

“You’re almost impossible to give jewelry to, my sweet.”

“Well, you can’t steal it for me.”

Red heart 1“I can’t buy it for you either, alas. I’ve tried.” He set the emeralds aside. His next leather case held a necklace of citrine and gold.

Her choice held a diamond broach, the stones cut at least a generation ago. She said, “This came to the daughter from her mother's family. The girl's name escapes me–“


“That’s right. I expected to find it yesterday when I searched her room. He must hand her trinkets out to her, one by one, and take them back at night.”

“One of several petty punishments. They disagree over her choice of marriage partner.”

The English nobility were particular about who they let marry into the family. Wasn’t that the root of her own unhappy problem? “Who would be the daughter of a Gower? I’d rather scrub and dust for a living.”

She opened the next case. Opals. Then the next . . . and held her breath.

Nick whispered, “Well, well, well.”

Here was the Coeur de Flamme, the Heart of Fire.

Interview with Jeannie Lin


Joanna here. GambledAway-hires

I’m interviewing Jeannie Lin, writer of most excellent

Historical Romances set in Tang Dynasty China and Steampunk set in an alternate but formidably realistic historical China. She writes love, adventure, complicated family relationship, and high stakes in a world that sets all our assumptions wobbling. These are not your everyday Romances, folks.

This week Jeannie and I celebrate the release of our new novellas — hers and mine — in the e-anthology Gambled Away.

Joanna:  Howdy Jeannie. Glad to see you.

Jeannie: Hello! So glad to be back here with the Wenches. Can you believe Gambled Away is finally here?

Joanna:  I'm so happy to share an anthology with you. Oddly enough, I think both our stories are, at the core, about women escaping the constraints that narrow and bind their choices. 'Taking their lives into their own hands' as you put it.

My Aimée, in Gideon and the Den of Thieves, was sold into the service of Lazarus, the King Thief of Regency-era London. One does not just walk away from that service. One runs. We see Aimée trying to free herself from Lazarus.

Jeannie: I must admit after reading Lazarus, I had big baddie envy. I want to go back and rewrite the entire last half of my story. *smacks hand* Lazarus is so dark and twisted and complicated! Completely unpredictable.

AncientchinesecoinsMy crime lords are much more straightforward — they're businessmen. They don't make emotional decisions, which makes them neither evil nor good. Unlike everyone else in the story, they have  nothing to hide and their goals are quite clear. It's all the other characters who sneak and lie and betray one another, often times believing they are doing the right thing. 

New york bowry street gangJoanna: I’ll just reassure you that there is no lack of menace in your crime lords. Pretty chilling customers.

While my Aimée faces the obvious practical problem associated with dwelling among the brutal and larcenous, Wei-wei’s life is more comfortable — on the surface. But it is not, perhaps, more free.


Jeannie:  There's two sides of that coin for me. Chinese women in imperial times are known for being subservient — it's a stereotype often perpetuated in the West. But for me what's interesting is the ways that women have empowered themselves while keeping the illusion that they were not wresting power. When Chinese women were forbidden to write, they came up with their own written language, for instance.

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