An Exclusive new piece of fiction from the award winning, bestselling Strangely Beautiful series by Leanna Renee Hieber
February 13th, 1894, café La Belle et La Bete, London
It was late at La Belle et La Bete, and the rest of what was once the Guard- though they’d always think of themselves as the Guard- had gone home. Josephine cleaned up alone behind her smooth wooden bar, offering a few choice admonishments in French to the ghosts who wished to readjust her glassware. She heard the key in the front door lock and smiled, sliding a heaping glass of wine across the bar for the richly dressed blonde man in a foppish coat who strode towards her, a grin engaging his sharp features.
“Ah, ma cherie, and where have you been?” she asked, her French accent always heightened around him. Because he liked it.
“The rich have many errands,” Lord Elijah Withersby said with a lofty chuckle.
Her lover of nearly twenty years, Elijah was now five years her husband. The pretense that had hid them as a couple felt silly now, but they’d long kept their affair away from their unlikely band of six spectral police. Not because they cared about the opinion of their fated coterie, but because the Guard were dear friends and frankly the romantic dynamics between them had been wretchedly uncomfortable. A tangled mess of love triangles, none of them, save Josephine and Elijah, were requited.
But Miss Percy Parker changed all that in the fall of ‘88, had made their group of six into seven, among many other spectacular things. Her sweet and radiant presence too, had changed the dynamics of the Guard, allowing for love to take precedence for once, for all of them. Josephine would always cherish Percy most for that.
Elijah flopped down at the bar, making a face at The General, a resident ghost in a uniform of the late 1700s who had been drinking at that very spot for far longer than they’d owned the place.
“So, my sweet,” he began at a drawl, absently tapping his bejeweled rings on the stem of his wine glass. “You’ve been making broad hints about tomorrow and I’ve learned I ought not ignore a lady’s hints. Is there something I should be aware of, else I dash myself upon the treacherous rocks of feminine expectation?”
Josephine looked at her husband pointedly. “The date, tomorrow, Lord Withersby.”
“Ah, yes, the 14th of February. Wretched month, February.”
“This barkeep needs to know if she should mend and press her finery for an engagement or if she should keep her apron on instead to reluctantly serve the enamored coming through her doors.”
“Saint Valentine. The man was beheaded, you know. That’s romance for you. Beheaded, I say. There’s hardly anything known about him, why he’s all cherubim, hearts and arrows is a mystery. Perhaps he was known for marrying Christians but as for love notes, flowers and sweets; it’s the fault of Chaucer and this fool romantic age. Would you have me go to absurd lengths for Chaucer’s sake?”
Josephine shrugged. “For me.”
He arched an eyebrow. “For absurd French sentimentalism?”
“I don’t know about French sentimentalism any more than English.” She curved her lips at him. “But we French are better at the ways of love…” Her look had him shudder delightedly in his chair.
“That you are, my pet, that you are…”
“And it is a day marked to celebrate love, no matter how obscure or unrelated the traditions.”
“And so I should put stock in a calendar mandate of romantic notions?”
“Well, you have before. We live in a society run by men, dear, and men need calendar dates to remind them to attend to basic niceties for their women. I recall many nice things you’ve done for me on certain appointments.”
He leaned in over the bar. His cravat woven with shimmering thread and tied with a too-large bow bounced a bit as he spoke. “And since when am I predictable?”
Putting glasses on a shelf she replied over her shoulder. “Never. Not even in living with you, as your wife, do I dare make assumptions or take anything for granted. Why do you think, then, that I ask?”
As far as Josephine was concerned, they were only going about their fond verbal volley as usual. But Elijah’s face darkened, and his voice was a terrible murmur. “Because you think I’ll fail you.”
There was a disquieting silence. Oh, no, would he bring that up?
Josephine reached out but he drew his hand away. “No, cherie, of course not, you know-”
His tone gave her pause and she returned to cleaning.
Elijah had once- goodness was it fifteen years ago now- done something terribly unpredictable indeed. Abandoned the Guard. It was a mess. Being without their mentalist, had put them in danger and had cost a young life… But that was then. Elijah had repented, long ago thrown himself again at their feet and into Josie’s arms. She’d tried not to take on the guilt that had collared her when he left, after a private fight… Still, it had everyone second guessing Elijah then, and it still lingered like a ghost so many years later. Even haunting her.
She should know better, she thought, leaving Elijah to his glass of wine, dabbing oil on a rag to polish the ornate carved wooden corners of the bar shelves. She knew how his mistake pained him, and that the wretched event had indeed occurred in February, not too long from this date so marked by Victorian sentiment. She alone knew the depth of his burden but only he could truly reconcile it, and she prayed he someday would. The child that perished still quite truly haunted him, especially near the anniversary of his death. But that was Elijah’s journey, his cross to bear.
They each had their own private crosses.
Josephine pined for Paris and thankfully these days she was free to go on a whim. The Grand Work had tied her to London, and while never denying her French identity, she called herself a Londoner, loved the city, its people, and particularly her husband, this ridiculous second son of a marquess. But she’d been known even then to take a few discreet days in that magical city, to breathe deeply and cleanse her palette of the spectral weight the Grand Work heaped on their souls. As long as she wasn’t gone long and stored up paintings for the Guard to hang at the scene, her absence was not keenly felt. She herself considered that as the Artist, she was the least important of their group, though she’d be the only one to ever say so.
Getting away from the city would also do Elijah good, especially around this troubled time. She angled for a romantic excursion as much for his sake as her own need for beignets, baguettes and to gaze down at the Seine.
Hearing a step near the landing she whirled around, ready to say whatever she could to smooth the moment. Was he simply going to walk out? Would they pass an unspeaking night in two separate ends of his fine estate? They two were dramatic souls, passionate souls, there was always a tension, but never enough to overturn the love they’d fought for since their youth… They’d never have lasted this long if they weren’t made for one another… She opened her mouth to protest his departure but the bells on the door were already jingling.
Something near her, white and rectangular, caught her eye.
There was an envelope upon the bar.
The note read: “For partaking in absurd French sentimentalism. I do wish you’d trust me one day, Josie my love.”
Inside were two ferry tickets across the channel and first class train tickets to Paris. They’d leave in the morning. His errands that kept him from dinner were there in the envelope. Josephine couldn’t hold back her smile, or the tear that always came into her eye when he did these small yet profound things.
Maybe this year, she thought, her husband would return to London just a bit less haunted by his past than when he left. She hoped.
Regardless, Josephine’s heart was as buoyant as if cupid had skewered it with arrows and was flying away with it. She did trust him. With her life.
— Finis —
What’s next in the Strangely Beautiful series? Be sure to check out Michael and Rebecca’s novella in A Midwinter Fantasy, anthology available now in digital, releasing in Trade paperback in October. The next novel? A prequel! Learn the dangerous, heartbreaking how and why of the noble sacrifices made to clear the way for Miss Percy and Alexi’s destiny (and if you’re Elijah / Josephine fans, witness their first kiss) in The Perilous Prophecy of Guard and Goddess releasing May 2nd in digital and Trade paperback, along with Strangely Beautiful books 1 and 2 reissued in Trade as well. Fall marks the launch of my new Gothic Victorian Paranormal series set in a 1880s New York City under the threat of black magic, MAGIC MOST FOUL (November 1st from Sourcebooks Teen Fire)
Keep track of the goings on:
Cheers and Happy Valentine’s Day!