Home » , , , , , , , » A Lady of Many Charms and Other Stories by Heidi Wessman Kneale

A Lady of Many Charms and Other Stories by Heidi Wessman Kneale

Lady Daphne Collister is unimpressed with the other young ladies in Society. These marriage-minded misses have no qualms over using magic to trap eligible bachelors into marriage. She knows their methods are a recipe for disaster. But will her approach of honesty lead her to a successful marriage?
A Lady of Many Charms and Other Stories
A Lady of Many Charms and Other Stories by Heidi Wessman Kneale
When Peregrine, Marquess of Lindsey must hide from a mob of magic-wielding debutantes, he encounters guileless Daphne. When this young lady does not attempt to charm him, he realises that he may have found someone he could respect. But does she feel the same about him? This had to be the most ridiculous gown ever, thought Lady Daphne Collister. Looking at herself in full court dress in the fitting room mirror was enough to make her cringe. But one does not say such things in front of one’s modiste, especially when Madame Emilie was armed with pins. She moved around Daphne making last-minute adjustments, as if that would improve the hideousness of court dress. This gown was the illegitimate child of an overstuffed pork sausage and a self-important meringue. Whoever thought an Empire waist and hoops would suit each other was either blind, or playing a cruel joke. Yes, a cruel practical joke on every young lady who wished to be presented at court. She sighed. “Can I take it off yet?” “Non,” replied Madame Emilie through a mouthful of pins. Daphne’s mother, Lady Collister, sprang from her chair along the wall of the fitting room. “Absolutely not. This dress must be perfect.” Her hands fluttered. “Oh, you must be the most splendid young lady there.” Madame Emilie stepped back, satisfied with her pinning. “Quelle charms will ze young lady be wearing?” Ah. Magic. The one thing that might be able to overcome the terribleness of the court dress. Every young lady had charms and enchantments and the advantages of the ether to aid her in her appeal. Jewellery was the best at holding enchantments, with silver the superior vessel, as was platinum. Gold, for some odd reason, couldn’t keep an enchantment the way a child couldn’t hold a sweet in his hand for more than five minutes. Lady Collister returned to her chair. Her hand strayed to her throat. “Beauty, of course, and Admiration. Grace and Thoughtfulness.” She touched each earlobe. “Anticipation.” Madame Emilie made approving noises. “Zat eez une bonne chose.” She helped Daphne out of the monstrosity so she would not disturb the pins. For most noble families a court dress was a terrible waste of money and taste. Thank the stars she would only have to wear it once. While her heart raced at the thought of being presented to Queen Charlotte, did it have to be in such a silly dress? Once she was back in decent, fashionable clothing, Daphne was more than ready to quit the modiste’s. Alas, no sooner had they departed than Lady Collister saw Mrs. Higginsbotham, a woman who could talk until the leaves fell from the trees. Lady Collister was fond of autumn; they would be there all afternoon. The street was one of the nicer ones in Piccadilly, full of high-end shops and just around the corner from some good addresses. While her mother talked, Daphne watched random quality stroll by on this unusually sunny afternoon. A few dandies in their striped waistcoats passed her by, tipping their hats in greeting. She gave them a bob of a curtsey and let them pass on their way. A few moments later those same dandies came back, their footsteps determined and urgent as they passed her by. What could have spooked them so? A group of determined young ladies strode down the street, their eyes darting to and fro. No wonder the dandies ran. These young ladies were on the prowl. But what, or who, was their quarry? Daphne pitied the poor bachelor who stumbled into their sights. Mrs. Higginsbotham’s conversation could not hold Daphne’s interest. In boredom, she cast about. One door down, she spied a confectioner--Smith’s Sweet Shop, the sign pronounced. “I’m stepping in to the confectioner’s,” Daphne said to her mother. “Mm, hmm,” her distracted mother replied. Apparently Mrs. Higginsbotham’s latest on-dit was far more interesting than the desertion of her daughter. As she entered the door, a little bell tinkled. Once inside, she stopped. Her breath caught in her throat. It wasn’t a mere shop, but an entire dining establishment. Buntings of white gauze about the windows gave a light, airy feel to the place. Little tables with pretty wrought-iron chair filled the shop, cradling the bottoms of their happy patrons. It wasn’t the people inside that drew Daphne’s attention, but the beautiful, creamy ices on the tables in front of them. Such sweet scents filled her nose--strawberry and vanilla and cream. Daphne inhaled it with deep breaths. Behind her, the bell above the door tinkled. An arm slipped around her waist. Daphne let out a little squeak as a man pushed her deeper into the shop, spun her around until she fell into a chair at a vacant table in the far corner. No sooner had her bottom hit the seat than he snatched the bonnet off her head. “I say!” she cried as he put it on his own, before hunkering down in the opposite chair, his back to the door. What was he doing with her bonnet? Where was his own hat? A few people at nearby tables looked over in their direction. Daphne looked around. Here she was, apparently unescorted, at a table with a strange man wearing her bonnet. There was gossip-fodder. Before she could hide her face or slink away, the door flew open and a half-dozen young ladies, their cheeks red and their chests heaving with exertion, piled into the shop. The hunting party had arrived. The people at the tables lost interest in Daphne and her companion and looked to the rather intrusive misses. Her companion slouched down even further. He picked at something on his wrist. The young ladies’ looked about fruitlessly. One declared, “I told you he came in here.” “But where’d he go?” another asked. Her eyes met Daphne’s and narrowed. Daphne blinked in confusion. Surely they were not in pursuit of her accidental companion? Of course they were. How crass. Daphne frowned at the young lady and sniffed. She disapproved of such callow behaviour. The young lady broke eye contact first. Declaring defeat, the young ladies left the shop, much to the relief of the shopkeepers. Daphne leaned over the table. The man remained slouched down. Or rather, should she call him a gentleman? His clothes were of fine cut. His dark coat fit snugly about his form. His waistcoat was a pleasant blue--no stripes there. As for his leg, Daphne could not see them under the table. Were they as shapely as the rest of him? He still wore her bonnet. She reached for it, but he clapped his hand on the top and leaned back. “They are gone now,” she told him. The man, his blue eyes cautious, did not turn around. “Do not let them fool you. Believe me, they are lying in ambush outside.” Could he hunch down any further without falling under the table? Daphne stretched up to look out the window. Sure enough, a few young ladies loitered about, trying not to look so predatory. Meanwhile, her mother and Mrs. Higginsbotham chatted on, oblivious. “Looks like you’ll be here a while.” A shopkeeper, his rotund belly covered by a striped apron, stopped by the table. “May I get you some refreshment today, perhaps a wet confect?” He held a silver tray as if expecting to receive something. Daphne’s companion pulled her bonnet even lower. “No, thank you.” Oh, no. If this anonymous gentleman was going to drag her in here and use her bonnet and her reputation as a shield against marauding misses, by gum, he could spot her a few refreshments. She beamed a smile to the shopkeeper. “What flavours do you have today in ices?” “Aside of the perennial favourite of strawberry, today we have a delicate lemon ice.” “That sounds lovely. May we have two-- no, wait. Give us one of each.” That way if one of them did not like the lemon, there was the strawberry. Only then did her gentleman companion look up. His blue eyes, wide in surprise, peered at her. “You’re ordering?” “It would be odd if I didn’t.” She fixed him with a stare. He gave in. With a sigh of defeat, he extracted his calling card and placed it on the waiting tray. The shopkeeper read it and gave a small bow. “Of course, my lord.” He left to fill their order. So he was a lord. Alas, the shopkeeper whisked away the card before Daphne had an opportunity to read the name. No matter. He’d forced his company on her. After she’d enjoyed an ice at his expense, he’d slink off when the coast was clear and she’d go back to her life. She studied him. “Do I get my bonnet back?” “Not yet.” “At least sit up. You look like your bones have turned to jelly.” He complied. He rested his arms on the table, the better to pick at something about his wrist, his movements desperate and ineffective. “What have you got there?” Daphne asked. He muttered and gave up. “One of them slipped a ribbon about my hand. Now I can’t get the dratted thing off.” Daphne held out her hand. “Let me try.” In frustration, he gave her his wrist. Sure enough, he’d been snagged by an enchanted ribbon. The silver threads shot through would have held enough magic for this to be a most effective tool, if used properly. As she ran her hands over it, Daphne found a poorly-cast Slow Down spell. Had the spell been any stronger, her companion might not have made it to the shop without being caught. Daphne picked at the knot until it came free. “There” she said, letting the ribbon fall to the floor. “All better now.” Her companion examined his wrist. “Thank God.” He patted himself down, even checking his back. “They didn’t leave anything else on me, did they?” Daphne gave him the once-over. “I don’t see anything.” Nor did she feel any aura or presence that would have signalled a spell. He sighed in relief, sat up and gently returned her bonnet. “My heroine.” Daphne gave him a shy little grin as she re-seated her bonnet. She’d never been called a heroine before. It felt nice. “Glad to rescue a gentleman in distress.” The lemon ice had been placed before her. She picked up the spoon and let the first taste slide onto her tongue. So cold! Its tanginess blended nicely with the sweetness of sugar. Yes, she’d chosen well. “You must try this one.” Without thinking she offered him a spoonful. Now that he was hatless, she saw what he truly looked like. His golden curls matched his blue eyes nicely. His aristocratic nose betrayed his blue blood and his high cheekbones balanced out his face. His clean-shaven chin made him look younger at first, but as Daphne looked deeper into his eyes, she saw weariness. Was that age, or was that simply due to outrunning ambitious young ladies? No matter. He was here with her and they were enjoying ices. He looked at the full spoon she proffered him. He took the bowl of the spoon in his mouth and gently pulled the ice off with his lips. He savoured the flavour, giving it much consideration. “You’re right. Delicious.” He looked down at his own strawberry ice with regret. “I can swap you if you wish.” He regarded her. “No. You keep that one.” He dug into his own. “So, what is a young miss like you doing out on her own?” “Oh, I’m not on my own,” Daphne replied. She surreptitiously pointed out the window. “See those ladies conversing there?” He turned to look briefly. “Your chaperones?” “My mother and her friend. I dare say they’ll be there all day.” “So you sought refuge in the confectioners?” His face relaxed in a smile. What a difference that made! Once free from fear and worry, his handsomeness shone as if illuminated by an inner light. No wonder those young ladies were after him. “Good choice.” Daphne shrugged. “I only meant to have a look. But since you invited me in, how could I refuse?” She bit her lip to keep her smile from spreading. Now he had the good manners to look abashed. “Sorry about that. They’re getting positively feral, these young ladies.” Daphne took another bite of lemon ice. “Can you blame them? They are all brought to Town for the sole purpose of finding a husband. What else is there for them to do?” He said nothing while he had a few more spoonsful of ice. “What about you? Are you come to Town for the same reason?” “Yes,” she admitted. “Though I plan on going about my business in a better way. More reasoned. Chasing every bachelor that crosses my path with enchanted ribbons isn’t my idea of how a successful marriage should start.” She frowned. “Must we speak of marriage?” He smiled. It was as if the sun had risen in his face. “No, I dare say we must not.” “Good. Let us talk of anything but.” And so they did, through the rest of their ices and a pot of tea. He talked of politics, of city life versus rustication and even discussed fashion when she shared her dreadful court dress story. With empty bowls in front of them, Daphne sighed. If she had her druthers, she’d keep him here all day. His conversation was the best she’d had in a long time. Still, it wouldn’t be polite to monopolise him all afternoon. “I believe it’s safe now.” He looked out the window. “I suppose,” he replied, not sounding terribly enthused. “Best you hurry on before they find you again.” He looked wistful. “I doubt I shall remain safe.” Before he departed, he lifted her fingers to his lips. “Thank you for saving me. I will always be most grateful.” They separated outside the confectioners, him going one way and Daphne returning to her mother’s side. The world outside did not seem as lovely as it had been in the shop. Her mother and Mrs. Higginsbotham had not moved from their spot. Daphne doubted her mother had noticed her gone. ~*~ Peregrine Bertram, the Marquess of Lindsey, hurried home. Having escaped one pack of magicked-up huntresses this afternoon, he had no desire or the energy to deal with another. They were getting more determined, these young ladies. A month into the Season and it seemed he could not leave his townhouse without being assaulted by some marriage-minded miss. Now they were hunting in packs. This was not how he wished to go about finding a wife and the mother his children. He thought about his companion at the confectioner’s--she of the coffee hair and chocolate eyes. She who was bold enough to order an ice for him, yet not so overwhelming as to take over the conversation. Her interest in a variety of topics had pleased him. He’d never encountered a young lady with a genuine interest in, well, everything. Not once did he detect even a whiff of magic about her. How refreshing. Peregrine sighed. After such a lovely afternoon, he’d not come away with her name. How would he find her again? St James and the Queen’s Drawing-room? That was a possibility. The on-dits about town suggested the first Drawing-room in more than a year was a spectacle not to be missed. He passed a pair of twittering misses out for a walk. As he passed, they giggled again and fluttered their parasols. He ducked his head and hurried on his way. Any lady who looked at him like that could not be up to any good. He glanced over his shoulder, but they had not pursued him. What a relief. They were such a contrast to… whatever her name was. A stray thought popped into his head: future Marchioness. He shoved that one out as soon as he could. After all, at four and twenty, wasn’t he too young for marriage? One thing was certain: she was a young lady whose company he truly enjoyed. No other miss had been able to achieve that. ~*~ A few nights later and Peregrine found himself at the Ravenswoods’ ball. And such a crush it was. In a ballroom more suited to fifty, they managed to press a good two hundred. This meant every time a quadrille or other set was called, everyone who did not dance had to press against the walls. The heat from dozens of candles contributed to the extra warmth from dancing bodies. As the stuffy closeness of the bon ton pressed in, he tugged at his cravat. His valet Charles would have a fit if he saw the mess his master made of his painstakingly difficult work. He had to be extra-careful here. In the closeness of a crowd it was all too easy to be approached by a young lady bent on determining his future. Any ambitious young lady could slip a token in his pocket or pin a small enchanted brooch to the back of his jacket. Peregrine was wise to their tricks. As soon as he felt a strange attraction to any particular chit, he checked his clothes. He knew magic when it hit him. Its results left a coppery taste in his mouth and a shallow, euphoric feeling as if he’d had too much negus punch. These sweet things with their endearing young charms might appear to be good company for the evening, but what were they like in the cold light of morning? Peregrine had had enough. After one particularly desperate lass remained clinging to his arm after the post-quadrille promenade, the only way he could disengage was to physically prise her fingers off his sleeve. He fled the ballroom in hopes of escape. To his relief, the townhouse had a small library. The room was not much bigger than a cloakroom but it had one thing the ballroom did not--silence. It was a charming retreat, with its walls of bookshelves and only a single sofa facing the fireplace. While the fireplace remained thankfully empty, some servant had left a few candles burning. The air felt much cooler in here. Peregrine sank gratefully to the sofa and loosened his cravat. A shame he did not think to bring a drink. No sooner did he give himself over to the blessed quietude than the door of the library opened and a figure slipped in, letting out a sigh of relief. Peregrine sat up. Why, it was the young lady from the confectioners shop. He rose to his feet. “Hello again.” She startled. “Goodness. I thought nobody was in here.” She tendered her curtsey, possibly out of habit more than anything else. “Nobody is.” He returned her a bow and invited her to sit on the sofa. She didn’t need asking a second time. He studied her as she settled next to him. This was a young lady with no pretentions, no attitudes or assumed airs. How refreshing to encounter a creature who wasn’t out to band him and brand him as a husband. “I say,” she began. “The Ravenswoods may think a crush is a mark of success, but I find it tedious. Surely there is a better way to celebrate the Season.” Her words amused him. “You are weary of the Season?” “Heavens, no. But some part of the Season have been more amusing than others.” His forgotten manners tweaked at him. “Forgive me, but we haven’t been introduced yet.” As he drew enough breath to support his name, she said, “Do we need to be?” He blinked. Was she turning down a formal acquaintance? “I believe that is the norm.” Her lips twitched. “If we are formally introduced, that means we must interact in public. Whatever social requirements are made of our names and positions, we will be forced to act upon them.” She put a hand to her forehead. “I’m afraid I am too tired this evening to take on that additional social burden.” “But what do we call each other?” She thought on this. “I shall call you Jack and you will call me Martha and nobody but us will know to whom we are referring.” No, that would not do. “How about you call me Perry?” Her nose wrinkled at this. “Is that your real name?” “It is,” he confessed, “But only my mother calls me Perry, so no one else will know to whom you are referring.” Her lips twitched again before she gave in to her smile. “Call me Daphne.” Peregrine took her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Daphne.” “Pleased to meet you, Perry.” She did not relinquish his hand. He did not want her to. The touch of her skin felt reassuring. No magic, no ulterior motives. So why did he want to pull her closer? “So,” she said. “You’re in Town for Parliament, are you?” “Mainly, yes. But also for the Season. It’s is how we escape the pressures of our business.” Daphne sniffed. “All well and good for you, but for us young ladies, it is our business. What is there for us to escape to?” Good point. For all of Society’s daughters, the Season had but one goal--marriage. For them, it was the hunting Season. Best to come well-armed. Several years ago when his father brought him to Town as a lad on the cusp of manhood, Peregrine had known about ladies and their magic, but had not been adequately warned. Suffice it to say, an ambitious young miss who knew her Debrett’s had charmed him so well into a compromising position his father had to buy him out of it in order to avoid both a scandal and a poorly-matched marriage. Since that day Peregrine had established some very firm rules. He swore he’d never let his head or heart be turned by the magic of a lady, not even for a brief dally, no matter how much he thought he liked the young miss. Peregrine inhaled deeply. He detected the particular smell of old books, leather, the faded smokiness of the fireplace and nothing else. He found no magic, no charms or other inducements. Could it be he liked her for herself? “So you are here to find a husband?” She nodded. “Why haven’t you delved into the magical entrapments all the other ladies indulge in?” He didn’t mean to be so bold. She laughed, a genuine, hearty sound. “Surely you don’t think me as desperate as all that.” She gave his hand an extra squeeze. “You are the first young lady I’ve met that didn’t reek of desperation, or magic. I like it.” She scooted closer until her thigh was pressed against his. Even through his trousers, he felt the heat of her body. She leaned over as if to impart a secret. “I confess, while I am interested in marriage, I believe in going about things the best way. Tricking a man into a proposal is not the best way to start.” Was there another way? “I sense you have a method.” She inclined her head. “I don’t know if I would call it a method. It’s more a dream.” Her gaze met his. Her eyes were soft and honest. “I am a very silly girl who dreams of a love match. But that can only happen if I am honest.” “I like that dream,” he murmured. A wisp of hair lay on her forehead. Before he could think, his fingers brushed it back. Honest, she said. That’s what it was. She didn’t hide behind manners and magic. What you saw with Daphne was what you got. He wanted her very much. Peregrine leaned in, letting his lips brush gently across hers. Her hands, still wrapped about his, stiffened. He pulled back. Had he offended her? Daphne leaned forward and kissed him back. She let go of his hands, to grip the lapels of his jacket. His arms slid about her slim waist, to pull her closer. He wanted more. His lips parted as he deepened the kiss and she responded. He tasted sweetness, and something else. It reminded him of the lemon ice they’d shared the other day. He’d not thought about it then, but the use of a single spoon between them had been rather intimate. Before he knew it, she was in his lap, her arms twined about his neck, her mouth playing with his. Soft. That’s what she was, soft. Yet determined. It was as if she was as hungry as he was. Until she had kissed him, he never realised how hungry he’d been. Starving. If he had his way, he would spent the rest of the evening--no, the rest of his life--on this sofa with Daphne. One by one he pulled out the hairpins so he could run his fingers through her soft, glossy curls. Her hands had slid under the lapels of his coat to slide across his shirt. Such an intimate touch awoke something under his skin. His coat had become rather inconvenient. He couldn’t divest himself of it fast enough. After all, wasn’t it getting awfully warm in here? At first her lips were unsure, unskilled. But the more he kissed her, the more responsive she became. His heartbeat quickened and his senses fled. “I say, what have we here?” someone said. The intrusion of this new voice was like ice water over his ardour. Cold reality descended in the form of light and noise from the open library door. A drunken figure, little more than a silhouette, wavered in that light. Daphne pulled back in shock. Immediately, she rose from the sofa, her fingers pressed to her lips. Peregrine followed. He scooped her into his arms and shielded her from the gaze of the stranger. The man stumbled into the room, a little too foxed to stand straight, but not so foxed he couldn’t see what was going on. “Why, Bertie-boy. Imagine you in here.” Peregrine groaned. Of all the people to discover him, Viscount Rathbone was the last man he wanted. Old Rathie loved a good story, the more scandalous, the better. He had a way of scooping up the merest whiff of a juicy story and pouring it direct into the ears of Society’s best gossips. Rathbone leaned on the sofa, whether to remain upright or to get a better look, Peregrine wasn’t sure. “Are you breaking your own rules?” At that, Daphne looked up, her brown eyes alarmed. He had to get her out of here before Rathbone’s unthinking words did any more damage. He snatched up his discarded coat. As he draped it over her head, he gave her a reassuring smile. “For you,” he whispered, “I’d do anything.” The wavering Rathbone stumbled about the sofa. “So, who’s this tempting armful--” He tripped, giving Peregrine the opportunity to hasten a covered Daphne out. “Off you go, Martha.” Take that, Rathbone. Peregrine shoved Daphne through the library door, shut it gently, and turned to deal with Rathbone so he couldn’t follow her. For the first time in his life, Peregrine had an overwhelming desire to keep a young lady safe. Could it be he had finally found the one he did not need to fear? ~*~ In an obscure hatbox deep in Daphne’s wardrobe sat the carefully folded coat of the man she only knew as Perry. It had been three days since she saw him last. Late at night, with no one else was around, she’d take it out and inhale deeply of his scent. How intoxicating. Or was that the memory of his kiss? Her head still buzzed from the unexpected intimacy they’d shared. If this was intimacy, no wonder all the other young ladies were desperate for marriage. But that was the thing. Was it the same with someone you didn’t care about? Daphne had been enjoying the Season since February. She’d met plenty of gentleman--some handsome, some witty, yet none of them excited her heart as her mysterious Perry. That he was a lord, she was certain. That he was considered most eligible had been obvious, with the young ladies insane pursuit last week. Until she had met him, she’d had no desire to further the acquaintance of any gentleman, much to her parents’ dismay. Again, she pressed her finger to her lips as if to keep the memory of his kiss alive. She’d privately scoffed at the hunting parties of desperate misses that made some eligible bachelor’s life a misery. Indeed, some men had become quite notorious for attracting entire mobs of the creatures--Viscount Beauchamp, Honourable Mr. Lygon Valpern, the Marquess of Lindsey, Charles Lord Bridport. Daphne would not have traded places with a single one of the famed Albany Bachelors set. Was her Perry one of these? She hoped not. Some of them were downright notorious. She had not the foggiest why so many young ladies pursued them. But then, there was that kiss, that oh-so-delightful kiss. Unfair. What if she never saw him again? That night she snuggled into his jacket. It might not have had magic, but she had been ensnared. How did that happen? ~*~ Before Daphne knew it, Thursday had arrived and with it, her day of presentation. Time for that hideous court dress. It took two lady’s maids and a good hour to get her into the contraption. Daphne gave herself over to poking and prodding and pulling as she was imprisoned in the epitome of bad taste. Then she endured the fussing and primping of her hair. It had to be sufficiently secure to sport the white ostrich plumes that Queen Charlotte considered mandatory. Daphne amused herself by imagining all the poor, naked ostriches running around. Surely someone would have made them an apron or something? In the end, it was her mother who laid the final touches to her daughter. Lifting each enchanted jewel, her mother paused and smiled with memories. First the silver diamond necklace. “Your grandmother had great success with Admiration.” She draped it over Daphne’s throat. Daphne touched the centre stone with reverent fingers. How many generations of women had worked on this necklace? Admiration was a splendid enchantment, far more useful than Notice Me. Too many young ladies focused on gaining a gentleman’s attention without paying sufficient notice to what he would attend. Her mother held up earrings. “Anticipation.” Of course. Nothing flattered someone more than the thought that you wanted to know them. Next came Fidelity and Grace and Popularity and a dozen other qualities, all designed to put Daphne in the best light. “I don’t know why I need all this. Surely Her Majesty would see through the magic.” “Because,” her mother said as she sorted through the final rings, “This is no ordinary presentation.” Queen Charlotte had not held her famous Drawing-rooms at all last year in deference to King George’s illness. So after such a social drought, dozens of young ladies had come to be presented and recognised by the queen. But what she didn’t know, and her mother explained, was the spectacle that came with it. “The whole bon ton will be there outside of St James to see who has been presented. That could very well include a future husband.” Daphne sighed. So that’s what the enchantments were for. Her mother hoped she would attract a gentleman’s attention. She wanted a gentleman to love her for herself, not her enchantments. What a quandary. Her mother continued. “I would not have you relegated to anonymity because you could not keep up with the other young ladies.” This was true. Still, it irked her that she needed to compete with the marriageable misses today of all days. In the end, her mother declared her as ready as she could be. Thus they piled into the carriage to await the long, tedious and extremely slow line carriages leading up to St James Palace. Honestly, it would have been faster to walk, even in this hooped monstrosity of a gown. As they inched closer, Daphne began to understand why her mother insisted on arming her to her toes; the largest crowd of people Daphne had ever seen thronged the courtyard in front of St James. One by one the young ladies descended awkwardly from their carriages with the help of their sponsor--usually their mothers, and made their careful way into the palace. Every once in a while a young lady’s popularity was marked by cheers from the crowd. When Daphne’s turn came, she gathered up her hoops and descended with minor incident, though perhaps with too much stocking showing. Outside the carriage, while her mother fussed with Daphne’s plumes and scooped up her train, she had a look around. It was as if her eye had been drawn to him. There, amid a most elegant-looking set, stood Perry. Their gazes met. He touched the brim of his hat and gave her a secret smile. Daphne’s heart swelled. Perry had come and he had noticed her. She could not hide her pleasure. She entered the palace with a most brilliant smile. All the young ladies had been pressed into an over-warm room to await their audience in the Queen’s Drawing-room. Much to everyone’s dismay, no refreshments were served and necessary visits to the ladies’ withdrawing room were kept to a minimum. A full court dress was not the easiest clothing to handle when one needed to relieve oneself. Daphne’s head spun with the miasma of magic in the room. It was as if every young lady had worn every single piece of enchanted jewellery that the family owned. Beauty, Charm, Attraction--the air swam with competing enchantments. Several young ladies availed themselves of the fans their thoughtful mothers brought. Lady Collister had not been one of them. Thus Daphne waited her turn amid sweaty petulance. One by one the young ladies and their mothers were called out to be presented. As their numbers dwindled, so the tension rose among those remaining. On the other side of the room a squabble broke out as two misses’ tempers frayed. While her mother attempted to engage her in conversation, Daphne was not interested. How could she focus when her name could be called any minute? It was not, and the number of young ladies dwindled. Ah well, thought Daphne. Someone had to be last. As she kicked at her hoops, Daphne heard raised voices somewhere else in the palace. Sounded like a high-spirited party. Her mother had told her down to the finest details what happened during a presentation. However, she’d neglected to mention what happened after. Was it a reception? Would they receive refreshment at last, even if only a glass of water? When her turn did come, they had only enough time for her mother to dab away the perspiration from Daphne’s complexion before the footman took them to Queen Charlotte’s Drawing-room. “Apologies for the delay,” the footman murmured. “There’s been some excitement outside.” Excitement? What did that mean? Before Daphne could ask, the footman opened a pair of double doors and ushered them in. She nearly forgot to breathe. Queen Charlotte’s Drawing-room was not as large as Daphne expected. A large pianoforte dominated one corner of the room. Opposite this magnificent instrument sat Her Majesty on a sofa of exquisite style. The light from the windows behind her cast Her Majesty’s face in shadow so Daphne could not ascertain the Queen’s expression. The years had turned her hair pale and wrinkles draped her face. Her hands trembled ever so slightly. Another footman took her mother’s card. “Mary, Lady Collister and her daughter Lady Daphne Collister.” As she had rehearsed so many, many times. Daphne came in, made her slow, deep curtsey, then rose, to await Queen Charlotte’s pleasure. Queen Charlotte beckoned her forward. Daphne obeyed and sank down once more into a proper curtsey. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” said Queen Charlotte. Relief blossomed in her heart. The Queen approved of her. “I thank you, Your Majesty.” To Daphne’s surprise, the queen’s aged hands cupped Daphne’s face. Startled, she looked up. “I like you,” the Queen confided. She leaned over and pressed a royal kiss to Daphne’s forehead. Her Majesty had one last word of advice for this newest member of Society. “Be careful when you depart, child. I hear there has been some excitement outside.” Daphne rose. All too soon, it was over. Before she could think, they had been escorted out of the Queen’s Drawing-room. Only after they were in the corridor, among the other triumphant young ladies, did her mother unleash her excitement. “Oh, my darling girl! You have the Queen’s favour.” Did she? She raised curious fingers to her forehead. The Queen had given her a royal kiss. Did she kiss every maiden, or were there only a select few who obtained such personal attention? Her heart thumped as she pondered on the significance of such favour. At the end of the corridor the doors burst open. Through them strode a rather large and angry man. His shouts rang off the walls. Daphne’s breath caught in her throat. She’d been about enough in Society to recognise the most powerful man in England--the Prince Regent. But it was his words that shook her to her very core. “I ought to have you arrested for inciting a riot!” ~*~ Peregrine, like so many other people, had come to see this rare arrival of young ladies to be presented at St James Palace. It had been so long since the Queen’s last Drawing-room, everyone had turned out to view the parade of young lady after young lady. He’d seen Daphne and she’s seen him. That had been worth waiting for. After the last noble young lady had entered St James, the crowd, for the most part, dispersed. As Peregrine enjoyed a high noble rank, he’d been able to procure a good spot close to the front door, as did several other noblemen. Indeed, once the parade had finished, they stood around discussing the various noblemens’ daughters. “Pon rep,” declared James, Lord Alderman. “With all those eligible young misses gathered together in St James, one could restore order to the streets of London by torching the palace.” He lifted a handkerchief to his rather prominent nose. “What?” replied Lord Chumley, and leave only the lower ranking gels? I swear, they mob together to bring down the bachelors one man at a time. Peregrine nodded. “I hear they caught poor Teppie. Now he’s destined for the parson’s mousetrap.” They all nodded in silent commiseration. While Lord Templeton had not been terribly flush in the pocket, his title and tolerable looks had been inducement enough for pursuit and eventual capture by one lucky lass. A familiar figure waddled out of the doors of St James, one who could not be ignored. Amid a flurry of bows and curtseys from the remaining crowd, the Prince Regent strode over to Peregrine and the other lords. As one, they all tendered their bow. Prinny huffed and waved a hand at them. “It’s a bit too much in in there for a man’s comfort. One would positively fall asleep, thinking the palace was a feather bed, there were so many ostrich plumes.” There had been plenty of feathers, in heads as well as on them. “I dare say,” he continued, “You must be relieved those marriage hunters are all inside and not out here pursuing you.” Lord Chumley agreed. “Our respite is but temporary. The moment they return, the streets will not be safe.” Too true. All too soon, Lord Chumley’s words came to pass. Out came the first few young ladies, their eyes bright and their hands all a-flutter as they chattered about their brief audience with the Queen. As they waited for their carriages to come around, the conversation of the young ladies turned to the one topic that occupied them the most--eligible bachelors. Peregrine’s skill crawled as the young ladies gazes turned his way. “Do you think it’s too late to escape?” he murmured to Lord Chumley, only to turn and discover his friend had escaped while the going was good. Meanwhile Prinny had slipped a bit further into the crowd, not that he had to worry. His shackles were altogether another story. Like their arrivals, the departure of the young ladies was a slow and tedious process as carriage after carriage lined up. This meant the young ladies congregated. Getting them together in a crowd with nothing to do--especially armed with more magic than any of them had ever possessed in their lives--it was disaster waiting to happen. It started with the matchmaking mamas. Fresh back from official recognition from the queen, each daughter was more than eligible for such a fine catch as Peregrine, Marquess of Lindsey. “Have you met my daughter, Lady Emmeline,” said one bold mother who had cornered him before he could get away. Peregrine looked at the unfortunate girl with her limp hair and too-red face. “Yes, we have met,” he lied. Before he could make his excuses and leave, another mother, not wanting to be outdone, came up. Those overpuffed hoopskirts made it impossible for him to leave. “Ah, Lord Lindsey. How good to see you again. You remember my daughter…” Before he knew it, a circle of overeager and overmagicked ladies surrounded him. One particularly forceful young lady practically pushed her way into his arms. “So good to see you again,” she gushed as the miasma of magic washed over him. Another young lady, not wanting to lose advantage, shoved the first out of the way. “Hello, Your Honour.” Nothing drives the passions like a combination of ambition and desperation. The shoved young lady cried out in fury and shoved the second back. While they squabbled, another slipped up quietly and managed to secure his wrist with a ribbon. As soon as the knot was tied, he looked down and blinked. Light and noise faded away, leaving only a silver ribbon about his wrist. What spell was in that ribbon? He lifted it up and stared at it. It was as if he couldn’t focus. Surely there was something he needed to do? While he was pondering that, someone else took his other hand and led him away. As he looked at the ribbon, someone else grabbed this hand. With deft skill, she removed the ribbon. Peregrine’s senses returned to him. He shook the cobwebs from his head as the noise roared around him. And such a to-do. A good dozen young ladies in ridiculously high-waisted hoop skirts brawled like sailors in front of St James. The young lady who had released him from her rival’s ribbon attempted to slip a ring on his finger. He struggled against her surprising strength until an angry shout startled them all. The Prince Regent strode in, waving his hands. “Be gone, the lot of you!” As one, the young ladies stopped their war and shrank back. The whole crowd retreated, leaving a bemused Peregrine in the middle. He pulled off the ring and threw it away. Who knew what nefariousness it possessed? Prinny’s gaze narrowed. “Bertram. Why am I not surprised it is you?” Peregrine’s jaw dropped. What could he say? Before he could answer his sovereign, Prinny said, “Lindsey, walk with me.” Oh no. When His Highness went from family name to title, no good would come from this. Peregrine had no choice but to obey. He followed Prinny into St James. At least if he was to be berated, it would be in private. Or not. The entrance hall of St James was not empty of spectators. Many ladies had paused there, fresh from their presentations. All were witness to his chastisement. As the angry Prince Regent strode past, they all dipped their curtseys. Their eyes, however, were only for Peregrine. “I thought you had more sense than that, Lindsey,” shouted Prinny. His Highness pushed through another set of doors. “I ought to have you arrested for inciting a riot!” Peregrine stopped short, just inside the door. It closed behind him, blocking his escape. “What?” Did he blame Peregrine? “It wasn’t my fault.” The Prince Regent spun about and shook a fat finger in his face. “Oh, it is very much your fault. Young ladies of quality should not brawl in public.” Again, how was that his fault? “Your Highness, I would stop it if I could, but I--” “Oh, you will stop it.” His Highness stepped back. “Lindsey, you have been a troublesome bachelor for too long. I order you to pick one of these young ladies and marry her.” Peregrine’s heart sank. Did His Highness just order him to… to marry a stranger? He looked about. A dozen belled ladies and their mothers stood surprised in this corridor. Surely Prinny did not intend-- Then he spied her. Daphne was there, her eyes just as bewildered as the rest. “Her,” Peregrine said, pointing quite clearly. “I choose her.” This startled Daphne. “What?” she cried out. She looked from Prinny to Peregrine. “No,” she declared. Silence fell throughout the corridor. Now it was Peregrine’s turn to utter, “What?” Did she just refuse him? Or worse--did she just commit treason? Prinny thought not. “Ah well. Choose another.” “I will not,” Peregrine replied, risking the wrath of his sovereign. “It’s Daphne or nothing.” “Daphne, is it?” said Prinny, his voice full of inflection. “So you know the young lady?” He turned to look at her. In shock and embarrassment, both Daphne and her mother tendered further curtseys. Her mother, for that was who Peregrine presumed her escort to be--said, “If I may have a brief word, Your Highness?” At his permission, Daphne’s mother hurried up and had a quick, quiet discussion with the Prince Regent. In the end, Prinny nodded. “The rest of you,” he ordered, “leave.” All the other young ladies and their mothers departed, the disappointment at missing such drama very evident on their faces, as well as more than one jealous glare in Daphne’s direction. In the end, only the four of them remained. The Prince spoke first. “Lady Collister. I know of you. This is your daughter?” Lady Collister gave another brief curtsey. “Yes sir. May I present my daughter Lady Daphne Collister.” Lady Daphne Collister. So that was who she was. No wonder Peregrine had never met her before. Lord Collister was a backbencher for the other party. While their social circles often crossed, the chances of sufficient acquaintance warranting an introduction were not great. The Prince Regent looked her up and down. “I must say, Bertram, you can pick them, when pressured.” Daphne had been staring at him the whole time, wariness in her eyes. “Wait. I know you now. You’re Lord Peregrine Bertram, Marquess of Lindsey.” She drew a breath and stepped back. “You’re notorious as one of the most eligible bachelors in London.” “Not for long,” warned the Prince Regent. Her chest heaved as if she was about to cry. “Do I not get a say in the matter?” Her voice came out small, almost a squeak. At this, Prinny stopped. “Why would you not want a husband like the Marquess of Lindsey? I dare say he is a prime catch.” To himself he muttered, “I dare say that’s what the female half of the ton believes.” Kind of His Highness to complement Peregrine, even if it was a bit backhanded. “It’s not that I object to the choice of groom.” Her hands twisted in her skirt. “But I do not desire an arranged marriage.” Her gaze darted to her mother. “I hoped for a marriage based on respect and love.” Her hand pressed to her chest as if to still her beating heart. Lady Collister let out small sound. “What are you saying?” Daphne looked to her. “I have witnessed yours and father’s marriage. I don’t know if I could be as lonely as you two are. Do not think I do not remember your tale of the young man you could have married. I know you regret the choice you made.” Lady Collister retreated, a hand pressed to her lips as tears welled in her eyes. Peregrine thought to his own parents’ marriage. There was a kind of respect between the Duke and Duchess. But did his parents truly love each other? Theirs had been an arranged marriage. They had got on well enough. But not passionately. Peregrine’s heart burned with the memory of Daphne’s kiss. Ever since then, he had wanted to kiss her again, possibly for the rest of her life. Daphne continued, her hands held out, making her jewels sparkle. “But this? I cannot trust a marriage proposal, even a forced one, when I’m wearing all this magic.” She stripped the rings off her fingers and thrust them at her mother. Lady Collister caught the rings before they fell to the floor. Daphne slid off the bracelets and unhooked the earrings. These she dumped into her mother’s hands. “What are you doing?” Lady Collister cried. Daphne’s fingers worked at the necklace’s catch. “I will not be proposed to with all this magic about me. This is not real. How would it be in the cold light of morning to see who I truly am, if this,” off came the necklace, “and these,” out came her jewelled hair pins, sending her feathers fluttering to the floor, “and this.” To everyone’s surprise, she lifted her hoops and pulled at the silver buckles on her shoes. Every last bit of magic went into her disappointed mother’s hands. Finally divested of every last bit of jewellery, Daphne held out her arms. “There,” she said, her hair askew. She stared at Peregrine, a challenge if ever there was one. As he looked at her, his heart swelled. “Daphne,” he began, even though her mother’s gaze darted disapproval at the intimacy of her Christian name, “I did not choose you because of the magic. I chose you in spite of it. Since the very beginning, I’ve loved your honesty and your agreeableness. I know you would never do anything unless it was on your own terms.” He knelt down in front of her and took her hands. “I offer you true courtship, free from the coercion of magic so many ladies insist upon. I ask that you consider my proposal of marriage, with as long an engagement as you wish. All I ask is that you give me an opportunity to win your love and respect.” Conflicting emotions warred in her face. In his heart, he begged her not to reject him. He didn’t think he could bear the humiliation, not when his whole heart was on the line. After a few breaths for courage, she said, “Your name really is Perry--Peregrine?” He smiled. “Only my mother calls me that.” “And me.” Her lips twitched. “If you’ll let me.” The joy filled his heart until it felt ready to burst. “For the rest of my life.” Then, to the scandal of her mother and the delight of the Prince Regent, Daphne kissed him, deep and intimate, with the promise of further kisses--and more--ever after. The End Ellie Loves Josh Ellie loved Josh. Josh never gave a second thought to Ellie. To a teenage girl, this imbalance seems rather unfair. After other methods to get his attention failed, she turns to the advice column of Good Witch Glenda. Could a love spell be just the thing? After all, what could possibly go wrong? Ellie loved Josh. Josh never gave a second thought to Ellie. Ellie thought this tremendously unfair, since her world revolved around him. She had carved his name on the back of three school bus seats. That way she would be guaranteed to see his name every morning. This was in case she failed to open her notebook and forgot to gaze at his name written one hundred and thirty-two times on the inside cover. At school, Ellie thanked her lucky stars she shared three classes with Josh, not to mention that extra lucky star that destined Josh to sit in front of her in algebra. She spent most her time and all of her brain cells staring at the back of his gorgeous brown hair. Who cared about quadratic equations when the only math Ellie wanted to do was addition: one plus one equalled… one point something? One point something. Yeah. Never two. Sigh. The only problem with this otherwise happy love affair was that Josh barely knew Ellie existed. It was as if she was a piece of furniture, like the ezy-chair in which one of the support straps had broken, so one had best not sit in it until it was fixed. This irked her to no end. How on earth could he ignore her when she loved him so much? Sure, he wasn’t perfect (Ellie made sure that she didn’t delude herself) but that didn’t matter. A touch portly could be awfully cuddly. And weren’t slightly crooked teeth supposed to be adorable in a British sort of way? There were more pressing matters than quadratic equations. Like how to get Josh to fall in love with her. Smiling at him in the hallway between classes didn’t work. His eyes just skirted by her without hesitation. Even marching up to him and saying “Hello” failed to grab his attention. She needed a little help. In her alternative magazine column, Good Witch Glenda Bellwether suggested a rather nice spell for drawing love to you. Alas, even that failed. Perhaps Ellie had burned the wrong type of candles. Perhaps the pink sheet of paper she enfolded about her grass-wrapped apple twig was the wrong shade of pink. And when she said it was supposed to go under her bed, was it under-under, or just under the mattress? No matter. It didn’t work. Maybe she needed someone who knew what they were doing? Luckily, her almost-best-friend Marta’s ex-aunt Luna (who was divorced from Marta’s uncle) claimed to be a witch. Marta really didn’t like talking to her aunt, “who was awfully weird", which is why her uncle divorced her. “But I need help with a spell,” Ellie whined. Marta sighed and rolled her eyes at Ellie. “Come on! Everyone knows that stuff isn’t real.” “The goths believe in it. They’re always doing their coven circles first thing in the morning in the Faith Room, before the Christians arrive from early morning seminary.” Marta sighed even deeper, her patience teetered on the edge of tolerance. “You’ve been reading Good Witch Glenda again, haven’t you? Can’t you just stick to the horoscopes in the magazine?” Ellie’s face split with her grin. “I did. Mine said that I’d discover a solution to a problem this weekend.” Marta didn’t fall for it. “Didn’t say which problem.” “I doubt it’s going to mean I’ll finish my homework. Just gimmie your aunt’s phone number.” ~*~ The next day Marta slipped Ellie a piece of paper with Aunt Luna’s phone number. That evening, Ellie called Aunt Luna. About an hour into the conversation, she realised why Marta thought her aunt was “awfully weird". Aunt Luna couldn’t stay on topic. Ellie learned the meaning of the two of cups (assuming it was the Tarot card she nattered about and not a recipe for bread), the best place in a Reiki wand to place the amethyst crystal and why columnist Good Witch Glenda’s love spell didn’t work. “As everyone knows, love spells cannot be cast without a piece of the person you’re casting it on. It’s not just a ‘personal item’ you have to use, but actual body parts.” Ick. “What sort of body parts?” Josh wasn’t going to fall in love with her if she chopped off one of his fingers. “A shirt could work, but only if it was dirty and recently worn, as it’d have flakes of skin, and they’d count.” Double-ick. “Look, Aunt Luna. I can’t go rummaging through his laundry hamper. I’ve only been to his house once, and even then, it was a Friday night, and I simply sat in the car across the street because I didn’t have the courage to go knock on the door. So I spent the evening watching his cat leap at moths around the porch light.” Aunt Luna tched in sympathy. “You poor dear. Perhaps you need more courage.” As Aunt Luna rattled through a spell to bring the caster courage, Ellie remembered how she spent the first quarter of her freshman year slipping love notes--signed, no less--into Josh’s locker. She stopped that when she watched him pick up her note without a glance and drop it in the nearest garbage can. No wonder she felt like beige wallpaper in an unused room of the next-door neighbor to the house of Josh’s world. Ellie interrupted Aunt Luna. “Courage isn’t a problem. Unrequited love is the problem.” “Oh. Well then, try Glenda’s love spell again.” “Yes, but what do I use?” “Use?” “Parts of him. What do I use?” “Hair will do. Yes. Use some of his hair. I trust you can manage that?” ~*~ Ellie’s best chance for hair of Josh was in algebra class… assuming he was there, which he wasn’t, when she arrived. Ellie plunked herself down behind his empty desk and waited. The bell rang. No Josh. The teacher droned on and on, marking letters and numbers on the board. Still, no Josh. Four ex squared plus two ex plus two. Maybe. Ellie wasn’t sure. Josh wasn’t sick, was he? How on earth could she concentrate on quadratic equations when Josh was missing? She needed his hair! Two ex plus one, two ex plus two. She thought. Oh, where was he? She spotted him later that day at his locker between sixth and seventh periods. He’d missed all his morning classes and they didn’t share the same lunch schedule. Propriety? What’s that? Ellie skidded and slammed into the locker next to Josh. “Where you’ve been? You weren’t in class this morning!” Josh looked at Ellie. Was that surprise or annoyance on his face? He certainly couldn’t pretend she wasn’t there. When she didn’t go away, he said, “Dentist,” and that was that. Ellie ignored that half his lower lip seemed a little puffy and droopy. “Oh.” She turned to walk away. Josh turned back to his locker. Oh wait! The hair! Ellie reached up and ran both hands through Josh’s rather short hair. In surprise, Josh turned around and stared at her as if she sprung three more heads. Ellie froze, her fists clenched to her small chest. “You had a spider in your hair,” she squeaked. Josh turned back to his locker cautiously, always keeping an eye on a retreating Ellie. She’d done it. Clenched between her middle and ring fingers of her right hand were two short hairs, one light, one dark. To be sure she didn’t lose these precious two, she taped them into the inside of her notebook. Once home, she locked herself in her bedroom and cast her spell. ~*~ Ellie had spent a sleepless night. Did it work? More than once she leaned over the side of the bed to peer at the paper-wrapped spell she’d placed under there. Not that she’d know if it had worked until tomorrow at school. How would Josh behave? What would he say? Or do? At four thirty in the morning, Ellie got up, got ready for school and finished the homework she couldn’t concentrate on the night before. She was at the bus stop long before its six-thirty arrival. Somewhere between climbing on the bus and arriving at school, butterflies popped up in her stomach. Now whether they flew down her mouth when she wasn’t looking or they hatched out of her cornflakes, she didn’t know. All she knew is that they flitted about her insides, brushing the walls of her tummy with their tickly, tickly wings. She was almost too afraid to go inside the school. Josh would be there. Perhaps it was better when he was ignoring her. At least, she’d know what to expect. He was at his locker, as he was every single morning at this time. Ellie froze in the hallway, staring at him, until he turned at looked at her. Rolling his eyes as if to say, “Oh, it’s you again,” he turned back to his locker. What? Was that it? It couldn’t be. Ellie had to do something. She strode on past and very politely said, “Good morning, Josh.” In mild surprise he paused. “Uh, morning,” he replied with a mildly puzzling look on his face before turning back to his locker. And that was that. She hastened on. No use standing there looking even more stupid. The butterflies in Ellie’s stomach turned to lead and sank to her intestines. Her spell had failed. Perhaps Marta was right, and she’d been reading Good Witch Glenda a little too much. Throughout the morning he spirits sank lower and lower until even the sight of the back of Josh’s head in Math couldn’t cheer her up. One square plus one negative constant equalled one frustrated square whose love was not requited despite her best efforts. Ellie sank her head down on her desk. She would not cry. She absolutely would not cry. Not in class, not in public. So busy was she in trying not to cry, that Ellie did not hear the suppressed giggles and shufflings of the rest of the class. “Mrowp?” Ellie startled upright as something landed on her desk. Before she could get her thoughts together, something warm, fuzzy and purring rubbed its face against hers, over and over. It was a black and white cat. And it loved her very much. “Hey!” Josh cried out. “That’s my cat!” All sense of discipline left the classroom. Mrs Keir, the math teacher, was none too pleased. “Joshua, what is your cat doing here?” “I don’t know,” Josh grabbed for the cat, but it wriggled out of his grasp, and back to Ellie. As it rubbed against her, she stroked its soft fur. “Hey, kitty,” she murmured. “What are...” Then she noticed the fur. It was the exact shade of light and dark as the two hairs she’d taken from Josh. The butterflies were back. This time, they were doing dive bomb raids on her heart. She’d cast her love spell using cat hair. Gathering the cat into her arms, she pressed her face into its soft fur. Oh, how could things go so wrong? Good news was the spell worked. Bad news was it was the wrong hair. “Joshua, if that is your cat, I suggest you remove it to the office until your mother can pick it up.” Ellie hastily stood. “Oh, don’t worry. I can do it.” “Ellie, I said--” With the cat pressed firmly to her chest, Ellie hurried out of the classroom.” “…Josh.” Mrs Keir sighed. ~*~ Oh dear, oh dear,” Ellie muttered over and over. “What am I going to do with you?” The cat didn’t care. It stroked its face up and down her chin, kneading her chest with its sharp little claws and purring loudly. It wasn’t until she stood before her locker that she realised she didn’t know where she was going or what she was going to do. She couldn’t just abandon the cat outside, for it would find its way inside, and the school would just call the pound. No. Something had to be done about the cat until she could break the spell. Could the spell be broken? Oh no. What if it couldn’t? She never asked Aunt Luna if the spell could be undone or if a counterspell was required. This was not good. “What are you doing with my cat?” Josh stood behind her, hands on his hips. “What’s going on?” Ellie turned, dropping the affectionate cat. “I... I’m not sure.” “What are you doing with my cat?” he repeated. Josh stood to scoop up the cat, which had been rubbing figure-eights around Ellie’s ankles. “What are you doing with that cat?” asked a new voice. Ellie and Josh turned to find Mrs Betts, the assistant principal standing behind them. The butterflies of Ellie’s stomach turned to ice, to fall down and shatter into fragments against her intestines. “I would also like to know what the two of you are doing out of class. Perhaps you’d like to tell me in my office.” ~*~ A... spell...” Mrs Betts repeated. Her elbow rested on her chair, her chin resting on her fist. One eyebrow furrowed deeply over one eye while the other raised itself in disbelief. Ellie nodded, sinking lower into the chair. Josh couldn’t keep a hold of the cat. It insisted on sitting in Ellie’s lap and he gave up on restraint. She stroked the purr-machine absently. “It was an accident. A couple of cat hairs got into a spell I was casting and caused this. I promise, I never meant to cast a spell on the cat. The cat has nothing to do with this.” Mrs Betts changed position by leaned on her desk and cupped her chin in her hand. The eyebrows never moved. Ellie hoped vainly that she was buying her story. After all, it was the truth. “And how did you get hair from Josh’s cat?” Ellie squirmed. “I must have picked it up yesterday. Josh had a bug in his hair, and I shooed it out.” That sounded lame. She glanced over at Josh and then looked away. Josh didn’t look at her once. All his attention was on Mrs Betts. He absolutely refused to look at Ellie. Things weren’t supposed to go like this. “A ‘spell’? I suggest you uncast it.” Ellie nodded. “Yes, Mrs Betts.” Mrs Betts turned to Josh. “And I think we’ll give your mom--” “Dad,” he corrected. “--dad a call and he can pick up the cat. The both of you will receive warnings on your records. If I see this cat in this school again, you both will receive detention.” “Yes, Mrs Betts,” they both chimed before rising. Suddenly, Ellie realised this could be her last chance. “I need more hair.” She turned to Josh. “Give me some of your hair, and then I’ll break the spell over the cat.” “No way!” Josh spat. Still, he backed up. He wasn’t fast enough. Dropping the cat on the floor, Ellie sprang at Josh. She grasped what she could of his short hair and gave it a good shake. “Eleanor Smith, stop that.” Mrs Betts chastised her. Ellie didn’t listen. She pulled at Josh’s hair while he protested loudly and swatted at her. Finally, she came away with a fistful of hair. “Ow!” he hissed. “Why’d you do that?” “Eleanor, sit down!” Ellie looked up, fists pressed tightly to her chest. Oh, please, she begged the powers of the universe, please to have let her have some hair. “Sorry. I’ve got some spellcrafting right now.” She worked the doorhandle with two clenched fists and shot out the door before anyone could stop her. ~*~ The next day, when Ellie got out of detention for assault, invading personal body space, fibbing and disobeying an assistant principal, she found Josh waiting for her. That she had not expected. “Hi,” he said, nervously. Ellie expected the butterflies in her stomach, but there weren’t any. Instead, she felt a cold lump inside. She felt really bad about assaulting Josh like that. It was the only way she could get some hair. It wasn’t like he had a hairbrush or anything she could raid. “Hi.” Then all her words came out in a rush. It was like she had to. That, or throw up the lump of coal that had taken residence in her gut. Ellie didn’t like throwing up in front of people, especially in the rather full hallway. Definitely not in front of Josh. “Look. I’m terribly sorry about yesterday. I desperately needed your hair, and I knew if I asked you wouldn’t--” Josh held up his hand. “Ellie. Ellie.” “But I couldn’t think of any way of getting it--” “Ellie! Stop.” Ellie stopped. She looked at Josh. His brow furrowed. “Oh, never mind!” She turned to flee down the hallway, but the crowd blocked her way. A hand descended to her shoulder, halting her. Josh turned her around to face him. “Look. I gotta talk to you.” What could he have to say to her that wouldn’t make everything worse? All this time, all these years, he’d ignored her or spurned her or threw away her notes unread, but she persevered. The cold lump of coal dissolved into a cold puddle, to envelop her heart and flow through her veins. It made her hands shake. How much heartache had she wasted on him? How much of her pride had she forsaken in her efforts to have him pay this much attention to her? Now that he wanted to speak to her, she didn’t want to hear it. With his hair, she’d cast one last spell. No love, or anything like that. She cast the first spell she’d ever learned from Good Witch Glenda’s column--the spell of Good Luck. Interesting spell, that one. One could not cast it for oneself. One could only cast it for the benefit of someone else. Until now, Ellie had never given a thought as for whom she could cast a Good Luck spell. She cast it for Josh as her way of saying goodbye. Let him go on and do well in algebra. Go on and maybe he’d find a girlfriend. Get into a good university. Marry that girlfriend and have many fat babies. As for Ellie? No more spells. “Ellie,” he said. “You’re weird.” Perhaps throwing up would be a good thing. She’d certainly feel better, and nothing could be more embarrassing than realising what a fool one has been for most of one’s teenage life. “You’re really weird,” Josh continued. “I don’t know if I can handle it. It scares me. You couldn’t be scarier if you dressed up like Freddy Kruger.” He started to run his fingers through his hair, but stopped when he winced in pain. Guilt spidered within Ellie. No doubt she’d bruised him in her grapplings. She took a shuffle back and looked around her for an easy way to run. Students pushed past them, their noise crackling through the air. “But ever since yesterday, I can’t stop thinking about you.” Really? Ellie abandoned her plans to dash and stared slack-jawed at Josh. “I thought I scared you,” she mocked. Josh fidgeted. “You do. But I can’t stop but wonder why you’d bother doing all this.” Couldn’t get any more honest than that. “Well, you don’t need to worry about that. I’m not going to bother you anymore. You’re more trouble than you’re worth.” He caught her arm. “Wait. I didn’t mean it like that.” “How did you mean it?” Josh, still holding her arm let out a sigh of frustration. “I don’t know. Look. Ellie. I know this sounds strange, but realising that you’d do anything for me--even go to detention--is kind of flattering.” He sighed again. This seemed difficult. “All I’m saying is that I don’t know how to deal with this. Just...” he released her arm. The crowds of students in the hallway had thinned as they ducked into their classrooms. The bell would ring soon. “Just let me think about it. I need time.” “Time? Time?! I gave you plenty of time!” She fought the tears and won, for now. “No, no. That’s not what I meant.” He turned from her. “I just can’t handle--” He waved his arms in confusion. “Look, just gimmie some time.” Final straggling students dashed past them. The bell would ring soon. Ellie had an excuse for being late; Josh did not. She looked at him, standing alone in that hallway, fidgeting. Oh, how she had loved him, once. He’d filled her head with deliciousness and caused her heart to ache so much. She’d gone through embarrassment after embarrassment for him. The last act of her love for him had been to go to detention. Love, true love, could not die in a moment. She loved him still. And it still ached. “You really are afraid, aren’t you, Josh?” He drew in a breath and looked her in the eye. “Yes.” “Why? I’m just a girl.” A laugh broke out from him. “A girl is the scariest thing I can think of.” The tardy bell for next class rang. Instinctively, Ellie and Josh dashed down the hall. Ellie’s class was first. She paused in the doorway and called after him. “I do have a spell for courage, if you’re interested.” He paused, turning back to look at her. “Another spell?” Ellie smiled at him, one of her truly genuine smiles, one of the multitudes she’d been saving up for this moment, the moment when she had his full attention. “Give it some thought.” The End The Valentine Raffle Leo and his co-worker Katerina have fallen in love. Secretly, of course, for an office romance is illegal, and all marriages are strictly regulated. In a dystopian corporate future, where women outnumber men four to one, love is no longer a matter of personal choice. There’s only one exception: the Valentine Raffle. But to win at love, Leo and Katerina may need to cheat the system… Leo loved Monday mornings because it meant he would see Katerina. He hummed along with the sonic shower. He forgot to eat breakfast. He drummed his feet to the rhythm of the shuttle tube as it carried him and thousands of other workers into the Business District. In his pocket lay a handwritten note on the back of a napkin that said, “Friday’s report could use another pass.” He couldn’t wait to give it to her. Such an important message could not be trusted to email, IM or even a txt. Anything sent through electronic channels would become part of the permanent record. That was a dangerous thing. Absolutely no one had to know that Friday’s report could use another pass, or the figures looked satisfactory today or no audit was required. Well, almost no one. Katerina knew. And that was all that mattered. Leo stepped out of the elevator onto the 18th floor. This had been his office for three years, ever since his demotion. Sure, with some hard work he might have been re-promoted to his former position or even laterally to another department. But that meant he’d have to leave Katerina. He would stay in this position forever if it meant he could spend every working day with the woman he loved, even if only as co-workers. Leo looked about the 18th floor. The gentle colours of blue and green soothed the souls of office workers reclining at their stations. The interface modules lay across their foreheads with the visual displays hovering over them. He found Katerina in her station, her fingers twitching on her belly as she interfaced with the network in her reclined position. Leo loved how her body responded to her work with little movements. It was as if she had immersed herself completely. Her lips moved as she read reports and forms. Her hands flicked as she scrolled through databases. How he yearned to reach out and touch her. But that bordered on illegal. Instead, he pulled out his handheld and dashed off an IM: “Got a moment? Had a thought from yesterday.” Let the records department figure that one out. He stood by her recliner and waited for her to re-emerge from the network. She was lovely, with her soft brown hair and fine eyes. Her figure looked relaxed as she worked. Gradually she emerged, lifting the interface module off her forehead. Katerina sat up with a smile that might have been dangerously cheerful had anyone been paying too close attention. “Good morning, Leo. Can I help you?” Oh, she could bring him back to life. “I had a thought yesterday during lunch.” He drew the napkin from his pocket and handed it to her. Her eyes softened as she took it reverently from his hand. They lingered, letting their fingers touch. He yearned to gather her into his arms, maybe even kiss her. That would get him fired, possibly imprisoned. And if Katrina didn’t make a fuss and file a report on him, she could go to prison as well. A co-worker glanced over, studying them. Leo jerked his hand back and shoved it into his pocket. Katerina dropped her own hand. “Why didn’t you just text me after lunch?” Her gaze slid sideways. Clever girl. Leo shrugged. “Something came up, and I forgot.” In the beginning of their clandestine relationship, Leo cultivated the peculiar habit of turning off his handheld at lunch, in the shower and even on the toilet. His reason: being available constantly was not good for a man’s digestion. Thus, when an idea struck him, he’d taken to the old-fashioned habit of jotting down his thoughts on whatever paper was available. Nearly everyone on the floor had gotten a note on a napkin or even, to their horror, toilet paper—enough so that nobody noticed Katerina received more notes than anyone else. She read the napkin. “I already went over Friday’s report. I sent it off that afternoon.” Meaning gave her words extra weight. Katerina had submitted her Valentine Raffle application. Leo’s heart rate increased. “Have you?” He didn’t mean to sound so eager. Raffle acceptance was more difficult for women, with the general population outnumbering men four to one. She’d applied several times before, only to be rejected. Maybe this time she’d succeed. “Must have missed the notification,” he said. At this, she laughed, drawing the attention of her co-worker. Uh oh. Things were getting dangerous. “Next time I’ll write you a note.” He couldn’t help but smile. She’d done that—written him notes. To everyone else, it seemed like a joke, mocking Leo’s funny ways. But Leo knew exactly what those notes meant. She loved him back. He retreated from her. “I’m glad it’s done.” Here’s hoping for success this time with the ‘Friday report’. The first two applications they put in together. Leo got in, Katerina did not. When that happened, Leo had deliberately failed the Raffle. He couldn’t afford to do that a third time. Fail a Raffle too often and one would get the status of ‘difficult’ and the government would look a bit too close to one’s personal life. Katerina had already laid her module across her forehead, ready to immerse herself back in the network. But the telltale blush on her face let him know what she really thought. “I’ll get right on it.” The napkin was still in her fingers. His gaze met her co-worker, who had not stopped staring. “Morning, Nemmie,” he greeted her. Nemmie gave him a nod, then, with her suspicious eyes still locked on him, she returned to her work. Did Nemmie suspect? Would she report him? He and Katerina hadn’t done anything wrong, said nothing suspicious. Surely it wouldn’t be enough to draw some awkward attention from higher-ups. A figure brushed past Leo and he jumped back. A hand reached out and snatched the napkin from Katerina’s fingers. Jasper, Katerina’s floor coordinator. Where had he come from? Jasper scowled as he read the note. “Come with me.” Katerina’s good mood evaporated. Tossing a worried glance at Leo, she removed her module and rose from her recliner. Leo stuck his hands in his pocket and turned to leave. A pinch at his sleeve and a warning murmur from Jasper stopped him. “You too.” His heart sank. Jasper was not his coordinator; he could do nothing serious to Leo. Katerina, however, was very much at Jasper’s mercy. Leo followed, if only to keep her safe. The floor had several meeting rooms for face-to-face business. Jasper selected the closest one, ushered them in and closed the door. Most business took place on the network. But for important things, face-to-face was the proper protocol. This ensured a person’s full attention. Jasper had theirs. He didn’t say a word at first but fondled the napkin. He checked his handheld, then looked at the napkin once more. Leo heard Katerina beside him draw in a shuddery breath. He didn’t dare look at her. He ached to take her hand, to comfort her. When Jasper pulled someone aside, it was never good. Jasper could be downright nasty. Jasper asked, “Katerina, you turned in the Friday report on time, did you now?” “That’s what I told him,” she said, her words tumbling out too fast. Jasper tapped his handheld against his chin. “So why would someone not a member of your pod team recommend you give your Friday report another pass when,” he turned his glare to Leo, “he has nothing to do with Friday reports?” Katerina shuddered and closed her eyes. Leo’s heart ached for her. If he didn’t go on the offensive, Jasper would corner poor Katerina and bully the confession out of her. “Why are you chastising her for doing her job?” Jasper crumpled the napkin in his hand. “Except she wasn’t doing her job. She was talking to you.” Leo’s fists balled. “We are encouraged to say hello to our co-workers. Team-building and all that.” Jasper’s eyes narrowed. “But she’s not on your team.” “She’s not in my pod. But her pod and my pod are on the same team.” Leo leaned over. “You know that.” It was no secret Jasper did not like Leo. Never had. So why was he giving Katerina a hard time in front of Leo, unless… Leo swallowed. “Why don’t you say what’s really on your mind, Jasper?” Katerina might not be able to talk back to Jasper without consequenses, but he and Leo were equals in job position. Something had to be done about Jasper. A grimace spread across Jasper’s thin lips. He shook his head. “Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on.” He consulted the napkin. “‘Friday’s report?’ You’re having an unauthorised romantic relationship.” “What?” Katerina cried. “What do Friday reports have to do with… with…?” She waved her hands in the air. A shudder ran through Leo. Had she given away too much? Could he bluff his way out of this one? “That’s a very serious accusation, and one that you can’t prove.” “Can’t I?” “No,” spat Katerina. Doubt tugged at Leo’s gut. Surely Jasper couldn’t. He and Katerina had been ever so careful. He had to be bluffing. But before Leo could call his bluff, Jasper drew a breath and dropped his bombshell. “Katerina, for your illegal activity, you’re fired.” The room stilled as Katerina froze. She whirled around. “You can’t do that!” Jasper didn’t stop the smug little smirk on his face. “I just did.” Katerina’s whole body shook. Her mouth gaped open, but nothing came out. “Actually,” said Leo, “You can’t. Not without a trial. If you fire her before a guilty verdict is returned, she could sue for wrongful dismissal.” He leaned in close to Jasper. “And if you fire her for any other reason, that won’t stand up either. She has a clean working record.” Jasper didn’t lose his smirk. “Then maybe I will report this.” He pulled out his handheld and flicked through the network. Katerina’s drew a sharp breath through her nose and clenched her fists. Leo folded his arms. “Won’t do you any good without evidence.” But Jasper wasn’t backing down. “Doesn’t matter. I lodge a complaint, you get investigated.” He jabbed a finger in Leo’s chest. “If there’s evidence—” “There isn’t any.” “They’ll find it. You’ll both be fired.” Leo’s gaze flickered ever so briefly in Katerina’s direction. She had both hands over her mouth. He didn’t know if she was going to cry or explode in anger. Either way, he was going to make Jasper pay for this. While putting his fist through the weaselly little man’s face would be temporarily satisfactory, that would only get him dismissed. “And when they don’t find any evidence?” “The inconvenience of an investigation will become a permanent mark on your record. You might even get demoted again.” A thought struck Leo. “Wait a minute. This isn’t about Katerina at all. This is about you and me.” His first week here, Leo had shown Jasper up a few times. Leo’s predecessor must have been incompetent for Jasper to get away with the sloppiness that he had. While Jasper had cleaned up his act, he never forgot that initial embarrassment. “You’re doing this to get to me.” A squeak escaped from Katerina. “You’re using me for petty revenge against a co-worker?” With that, she spun on her heel and fled the room. Over her shoulder she threw, “I’m reporting you for this.” The door slammed behind her. Leo let out a sigh of relief. Clever Katerina. Jasper had caught her by surprise, but at least she was able to rattle his cage, perhaps enough for Leo to finish the job. Jasper’s gloating expression wavered. Did he believe Katerina would make good on her threat? Leo knew she wouldn’t. If she made an accusation against Jasper, then his accusation would come out and Leo and Katerina would be investigated. They couldn’t risk it. But this wasn’t about them conducting an illegal relationship, was it? Had Leo found the core of the matter? “It didn’t matter if I was talking to Katerina, or Nemmie, or Pragati. I could have been talking to anyone.” The chutzpah of this horrid little man shocked Leo. “You’re using that woman in revenge against me? That’s low.” He’d hit the spot. Jasper pulled himself upright and returned to his original plan. “You’ve been conducting an illegal romance.” He jabbed at his handheld once more. Leo swiped Jasper’s handheld away from his grasp. “Oh no. I will not let you ruin that woman’s record or her chance to enter the Raffle for some stupid little vendetta against me.” Jasper grabbed at his handheld but Leo kept it out of reach. “You can’t stop me.” No, he couldn’t. If Leo stuck by his lie that they were not conducting a secret, illegal romance, Jasper would report them. There would be an investigation. Regardless of the results, this would be a blot on their records. For more than a year she’d been putting in application after application for the Valentine Raffle. Katerina had failed every time. Still, she kept trying. Leo had waited to hear of her success before he launched his own application. That time had never come. He might not have known it, but Jasper was right about the napkin note crumpled and forgotten in his hand; Katerina’s application went in on Friday. Leo held up Jasper’s handheld. His voice low and defeated, he said, “I can’t let you ruin this woman’s life. What do you want from me?” Jasper’s eyes lit up in triumph. “I want you gone. I want you to put in for a transfer, out of my department, off my floor.” Leo drew a shuddery breath. Jasper had well and truly cornered him. If he didn’t do this, Jasper would drag them through the mud. “Fine.” Images of being torn away from Katerina, of their delicately-balanced cover story crumbling, danced before his eyes. Jasper licked his ferrety lips. “How do I know you’ll do it?” “I’ll put in the request right now.” Leo pulled out his handheld, pulled up HR’s form page and while Jasper watched, he filled in a transfer request form and sent it off. “There.” Only then did he give Jasper back his handheld. “Now. You will leave Katerina alone. You will not fire her, or even threaten to fire her. You will not bully her, or talk to her any more than necessary.” Jasper folded his arms tightly across his skinny little chest. “Go make her withdraw her complaint.” A little moment of hope sprang in his chest--an opportunity to openly speak with Katerina in public. “I’ll do that.” He did his best to make it sound reluctant. “But in the future, if I see or hear you say one wrong thing to her over this, or to any other co-worker on the floor, I will come after you.” “You’ll get fired if you do that,” Jasper shrilled. “Of course, I will. There will be plenty of evidence in your broken bones and blood all over the walls.” Leo’s handheld chimed—incoming message from HR. “That was fast,” he said aloud as he read through the acceptance of his transfer request, and could he meet with Pearl this afternoon? Privately, Leo wasn’t surprised. For a few months now his friends had been making noises about an upcoming position. Leo had resisted making a move. To apply for that position would mean moving away from Katerina. Now, he had no choice. Damn Jasper for forcing his hand! “If you dare give her any grief, I will personally help her report you for harassment. If you bully her over that, I will make your life a living nightmare. Do you understand me?” Jasper did his best to retain his bravado, but his shaking hands betrayed him. “Once your transfer is final, there won’t be any need for collateral damage.” Collateral damage? Leo strode out of there before he did something regretful. ~*~ Co-worker Sandra pointed Leo in the direction of the restrooms when he asked after Katerina. “She ran that way. Is something wrong?” “Jasper said something stupid to her.” Sandra muttered something unsavoury under her breath about Jasper. Then louder, she said, “You going to help her file a report?” “What makes you say that?” Leo’s throat dried up. He found it difficult to swallow. She lifted a shoulder in a half-shrug. “Between you and me, Jasper’s an ass. But he never steps out of line--not that you can do anything about it. But I’ve never seen Katerina rattled like that. If he’s finally done something reportable, please help her nail his ass to the wall.” Leo nodded. “I’ll do my best.” As he approached the ladies’ room, Leo listened at the door. He didn’t hear a sound. No crying, no raging, no conversation. He pushed open the door just a crack. “Katerina, you in here?” “Leo?” came her reply, echoing through the tiled lavatory. “Are you alone?” he asked. When she said yes, he eased his way in to the unfamiliar territory. There he found Katerina hunched over a porcelain sink, her head bowed. Beautiful brown hair veiled her face. At least her shoulders weren’t shaking. He didn’t dare gather her into his arms, just in case someone else walked in. “Are you okay?” She nodded. “I can’t tell you how tempted I am to report him for this.” She drew a breath for courage. “If it wasn’t for… you know, I’d have sent the report off by now.” He moved in closer so they could whisper. They had some serious conversation due, straight up and unencoded. At least if anyone walked in and discovered them, they’d overhear nothing incriminating. And there was Sandra to back up their alibi. He leaned against the sink. Katerina lifted her head. Her eyes and nose were red, though no tears dampened her face. “He’s found us out,” she murmured. “I don’t know how, but he has.” Leo patted her hand in a friendly, co-worker appropriate way. “For all his faults, he is a cunning and scheming little weasel. Saw a few clues, put them together, and came up with the truth.” He kept this very low. “He’s put us in quite a position.” She turned worried eyes to him. “Is he going to fire me?” Leo shook his head. He drew a shuddery breath. “I had to make a deal to let you keep your job.” Grief filled her countenance and she straightened up. “Oh no. Leo, what did you do?” He bowed his head as tears rolled down his cheeks. “In order for him to leave you alone, I had to agree to a job transfer.” Katerina’s hands shook as she brought them to her mouth. “Surely you’re not going to go through with it.” He couldn’t meet her gaze. “He watched as I put in my application. HR’s already accepted my request.” “But what about… What do we do? I-- I don’t know what I’ll do if you leave.” While they could keep in contact with one another if he worked a different floor, the chances of them getting caught in their illegal relationship rose exponentially. “I don’t want you to lose your job.” Leo wiped at his face. Of all the times for him not to have a tissue or napkin. He let out a sad little chuckle. “It’s not the first time I’ve lost a job.” A glimmer of hope rose in his breast. Leo took Katerina’s hand. “Did I ever tell you about my cousin Marinda?” Katerina shook her head. “She works in the BDM department--applications.” At first, Katerina had no idea of what he was referring to. Then realisation dawned across her face. “Births, Deaths and Marriages? You mean, she’s the one who handles Valentine Raffle applications?” Leo nodded. “She owes me a Really Big Favor.” Katerina punched him in the arm, much to Leo’s surprise. “Why on earth didn’t you say anything before?” Her earlier anger flared up once more. “Why didn’t you do something with our previous applications?” At first, Leo didn’t know what to say. “All this time and disappointment, and we could have--” Only Leo’s hand on her mouth silenced her rant. The soft touch of her lips on his fingers made him ache to kiss her. “It was too risky. If anything went wrong, if she was discovered, then that would have been bad for all three of us. She’d lose her job and we’d be banned forever from ever making a Raffle application.” At least before, when they took their chances honestly, there were no consequences other than having to wait until the next application could go in. Katerina took in his explanation. He watched her roll it about her head. “But now?” she eventually asked. “Now, unless I call in the Really Big Favour, we risk losing it all.” Katerina nodded, then bowed her head. “Do it.” ~*~ HR wanted to see him right away. It was as if they had been expecting his transfer application. He’d left the position of choice blank, but Leo knew which position awaited him--Ondine’s. Before his demotion, Leo had had his eye on the Contract Adjuster position. Everyone knew it. After his demotion, he’d met Katerina, and such things had become less important to him. In the past six months, everyone who knew him from before kept dropping hints. Ondine was due for Parental Leave. She had entered the Valentine Raffle two years ago with great success. She’d chosen a good husband out of the candidate pool and was rewarded with a five-year marriage contract; now they were having a baby, which would extend their contract another twenty years. Lucky her. With Ondine off for the obligatory two years of Parental Leave, it only made sense to promote someone internally. Only a fool would turn down such an opportunity if it were offered to him. A fool, or someone with something to hide. Had the rumours started already? It had been several months since Ondine’s pregnancy had been announced. Would his hesitation to apply for this highly-sought-after role be considered evidence against him, should Jasper make good on his threat? This was not how Leo had wanted to do things. To save Katerina he had to go through with the transfer. To save their future, he had to get her into the Raffle. In the elevator he thumbed a quick message to his cousin Marinda—“Cancel yr plans; we must meet fr lunch today. Favor some empanadas?” Would Marinda understand his message? She replied before his elevator reached HR’s floor: “How many empanadas?” He texted back: “All you can eat.” The elevator doors opened. She responded with a single, terse word: “Fine.” He imagined her groan of doom. It had been three years. About time he called in his Really Big Favour. ~*~ Leo sat in an upright chair across from Pearl the Position Coordinator. Unlike most co-workers, Pearl had a desk, not so much for working at but to be the barrier wall between her and the poor sap she’d summoned. Most everyone sat across from Pearl for one of two reasons: a job offer or a job termination. Leo had been here twice before. “We would like to offer you the job of Contract Adjuster for the period of two years.” Pearl huffed and sniffed after she delivered the news. “Thank you,” Leo replied, his heart a mixed bag. “Had my eye on it for years.” Pearl grunted. “You have sufficient experience in Contracts and, in spite of your mishandling of an application a few years back…” Leo winced. Of course, Pearl would bring that up. Pearl continued, “Your job performance reviews over the past three years have been stellar. Is there anything else you need to mention regarding your transfer application?” By law, Leo had to disclose anything that might affect his employment status. “I must tell you that I have put in my application for the Valentine Raffle today.” He licked his lips. “That wouldn’t affect my eligibility for this position?” Pearl leaned back in her chair, her hands across her belly. Rumour had it Pearl had once emerged successful from the Raffle. Did she and her husband have children? He didn’t see pictures of spouse or offspring here. “Of course not. We look favourably on successful Raffle applicants.” She emphasised ‘successful’. Many layers of meaning were not lost on Leo. “I see.” Of course, HR knew about his last two applications. Naturally, he’d been accepted. Healthy, educated men with steady jobs often were. The Valentine Raffle involved an intensive week-long workshop where one ‘courted’ other applicants through a series of interviews. If two people agreed that they could be compatible, they would win a five-year marriage contract that came with counselling and other social benefits to ensure the success of the marriage. At first, Leo and Katerina put in their applications at the same time. He got in twide, she didn’t. When that happened, he deliberately failed the Raffle. Leo had eyes only for Katerina. Since then, Leo would not put in an application until they heard back from hers. However, this was different. This time, he aimed to succeed. Leo stood up and shook hands with Pearl. “Thank you for the offer. I will give you my answer tomorrow.” As he left Pearl’s office, a chilling thought occurred to him. What if Marinda was not successful with his Really Big Favour? ~*~ As he had suggested, Leo took his cousin Marinda to the local empanada place. After they placed their order, Leo turned off his handheld in front of her face. Suspicion furrowed her brow. “What are you doing?” “Today, we are celebrating my upcoming promotion,” he said, louder than necessary. A few people at other tables looked their way. One guy gave him a thumbs-up. “No, I meant…” Marinda waggled her finger at his handheld. He pointed to hers and made a turning signal. Marinda wasn’t stupid. She turned her handheld off and leaned in close. “Aren’t your co-workers going to get suspicious?” He shook his head. “I always turn my handheld off at lunch. They’re used to it.” “Mine aren’t.” Still, she didn’t turn hers on. He leaned closer. “Tell them you went to lunch with me. They’ll understand.” He hoped the news of his eccentric behaviour had spread to other floors. Marinda wrinkled her nose. “And the ‘promotion’?” “Genuine.” She sat up in surprise. “Oh. So we are celebrating?” She breathed out a sigh of relief. “For a moment there, I thought you were calling in your Really Big Favour.” He raised an eyebrow. “Wait. Are you?” She slumped. He tapped the side of his nose. Marinda’s head sank to the table. “Please, nothing that will get me fired.” The empanadas arrived. Leo dug in while Marinda left hers untouched. “I don’t see why it should,” he said. “I need to you approve a certain application.” She inhaled. “I can’t do that.” “It’s your job to do that.” She looked about. “There are protocols for this sort of thing. What if I’m found out?” Marinda gripped his hand as he reached for another empanada. The tension from her hand rippled across his skin. She had every right to be frightened. Three years ago she’d asked him for a Really Big Favour. Marinda had needed that job, desperately. Once upon a time Marinda had successfully entered the Raffle and came away with a good husband who gave her three beautiful children. Alas, the cancerous hand of fate bereft her of that husband, leaving her in Single Parenthood. She had a choice--be a stay-at-home parent to her three children on a poverty-level government pension, or get a job with a sufficient salary to live well and afford a nanny. Leo’s heart went out to her when she came into his office with her plight and a supplication. Marinda’s job application had been one of two up for consideration for this position. As a favour to her, Leo had ‘mishandled’ her rival’s application—immoral, sure. Illegal? Unprovable. Marinda got her job. Everything would have been fine if her rival had not challenged the decision. Poor Marinda had been subjected to a month of probation while her application and her rival’s had been examined. Marinda’s application was squeaky-clean. Of course it was. Leo wasn’t stupid. Her rival’s, it turned out, had suffered from a typo, one that Leo should have caught. This typo meant one of the rival’s selection criteria had not been parsed correctly by the computer. Under normal circumstances, the typo would have been corrected, and both applications sent through again. But Marinda’s current supervisor had decided against this. Marinda’s rival had behaved so unprofessionally during the challenge that she disqualified herself for poor behaviour. Leo, on the other hand, had been demoted, as his ‘failure to double-check for errors’ had led to the challenge, costing the company time and money. It wasn’t a total loss. In his new position, he had met Katerina. “You will be fine,” he reassured Marinda. “I need you to approve the Valentine Raffle application for one Katerina Claremont. That’s all.” No need for typos, no need to falsify information. Simply tick ‘approved’. “Who’s Katerina Claremont?” “The woman I want to marry.” Now Marinda’s eyes widened. “Are you telling me…” she couldn’t voice the rest of her thought. Leo lifted an empanada and held it to her mouth. Marinda fumbled with the food, but ate the offering. Leo leaned in closer. “I’m telling you I want to do things legally.” Carrying on a romantic relationship without a government contract could lead to fines and imprisonment. It could also lead to ineligibility for future Valentine Raffles. “We’ve been good friends for a few years now. We work well together. I think we would do well as a legal couple.” “She’s a co-worker?” Marinda said, her voice carrying beyond their table. A few gazes from other diners turned their way. Panic gripped Leo’s heart for a moment. To cover his cousin’s slip of the tongue, he replied, just as loud. “Oh, I didn’t know she was a co-worker of yours. I wondered where she’d applied to.” Marinda put her head down, shaded her eyes, and shoved an empanada in her mouth. Everyone’s attention drifted away from them. Leo leaned in closer, picking up an empanada. “Of course she’s a co-worker. All I do is work, Marinda. When you and I socialise after work, it’s with co-workers. You know, keeping things platonic and legal. We know no one else. How are we to meet anyone interesting?” She wasn’t buying it. “You’ve been in the Raffle before. If you’re so lonely, why didn’t you choose a wife then?” He shrugged. “Nobody caught my fancy.” None of them were Katerina. Leo took Marinda’s hand once more. “Katerina Claremont. She put in her application last Friday.” “When did you put yours in?” She dipped her empanada in the sauce then took a big bite. “Today.” He’d done it after leaving Pearl’s office and before meeting up with Marinda. “I’m not worried about my application. You know I always get accepted. But Katerina’s, you need to make sure she gets in. Promise me.” Tears welled in Marinda’s eyes. She reached for the paper napkin. “Leo…” His name on her lips dripped with doubt. “I lost my job for you.” She closed her eyes, letting her chin sink to her chest. “Fine. I’ll do this.” Leo breathed out in relief. “Katerina. Claremont. Memorise that name. If all goes well, you’ll be saying it for the rest of your life at every family gathering.” ~*~ Two days before he was to be transferred, Leo learned Marinda had been true to her word. When he came into the office on Wednesday, he walked in on a celebratory atmosphere. Several co-workers were gathered about Katerina, offering her congratulations. Leo suppressed his smile. As he passed Jasper’s station, he quipped. “I didn’t know it was her birthday.” Jasper shook himself free from the network and removed his module. “If you bothered to turn your handheld on in the morning you’d know she won a place in the Valentine Raffle.” He managed to look pleasantly surprised. “She has? Good for her. I wish her well.” Jasper took one last jab: “Want a tissue so you can send her a note?” An icy chill ran through Leo. Drawing a deep breath so his words would come out even, he replied. “Nah. I’m out of here in two days.” As he walked away from his soon-to-be-former co-worker, he fired one last parting shot. “I never did thank you for recommending me for promotion.” Jasper’s eyes narrowed, but he kept his own counsel. ~*~ Still, Leo had to talk to Katerina. It had been a tense couple of weeks. The news of his promotion had spread before he’d had a chance to drop her an encoded note. The hurt he’d seen in her eyes had pierced him to the core. When he did have a chance to pass her a napkin last week, she’d blown her nose on it without reading a word. He waited until the end of the day. As he passed her station, he said, “I hear congratulations are in order.” She startled as his voice pulled her out of the network. Katrina sat up and pulled off her module. A blush infused her cheeks. “Oh, thank you. Also, I’d been meaning to congratulate you on your promotion.” Leo gave a shrug. “Thanks. I didn’t want to say anything about that until I had a chance to,” he took a breath and his gaze met hers, “speak with my cousin.” As she looked back at him, embarrassment filled her eyes. Ever so subtly, she mouthed the word, “Sorry.” “I guess news travels fast. Anyhow, I’ll miss you.” She pressed her lips together in amusement. “I’ll miss all of you,” Leo said, for the benefit of the eavesdropping co-workers. Then he went around and had a brief goodbye chat with each one until the end of Katrina’s shift. Eventually, he made it back to her as she hung up her module. “So,” he said in the way of casual conversation. “Ever been in a Valentine Raffle before?” She shook her head. “This is my first successful application.” He nodded sagely as they wandered toward the elevator. “I’ve been in a few. Never successful.” He shrugged. “Don’t fancy trying again. But good luck to you.” He couldn’t help his grin as he pushed the elevator button. Under her breath, she muttered, “When did you hear about your application?” “A week ago.” “And you didn’t tell me?” He looked away. “Didn’t want to say anything until we heard about yours.” The doors opened. Leo and Katerina squeezed into an already crowded elevator. For the next two minutes Leo got to enjoy Katerina’s body pressed up against his. Their Valentine Raffle was next week. After that, no more secrets.

0 comments:

Post a Comment

Read free eBooks, English Fiction, English Erotic Story

Delicious Digg Facebook Favorites More Stumbleupon Twitter