Thursday, April 15, 2010

Can short be satisfying?

For some reason, I'm thinking about short stories this month, perhaps because of the RNA's Elizabeth Goudge trophy, awarded at the Conference in July. This year, because it's the RNA's 50th anniversary year, the theme is to be Anniversary so I'm trying to get my mind into gear for an anniversary short story. The major difficulty, for me, is the length. Maximum of 1400 words. Quite a challenge for a writer who's used to producing 80,000 or so. Can short be satisfying too? [Sorry, couldn't resist. Possibly best not to answer that one...]

However, thinking about the Elizabeth Goudge reminded me that I did write a short story about Jack, the hero of His Forbidden Liaison. It was published as a hero spotlight on the eHarlequin website, but I don't think many readers found it, since it wasn't very well signposted. There is so much material on eHarlequin that it can be a nightmare to navigate. I had difficulty finding my story myself!

So for existing fans of Jack, and readers who may become fans in the future, here he is, back in London after his adventures in France, and still a spy...

London— May, 1815

What man in his right mind would be a spy?

It was long after midnight. It should have been pitch black, for there was no moon. But fleeting patches of light from flambeaux or link-boys drew the eye, throwing the shadows into even deeper relief. The last carriage clattered across the cobbles, its flickering lamps soon swallowed up by the gloom. From the lurking darkness, low voices murmured, occasionally broken by a husky laugh and, once, a woman’s scream, quickly stifled.

The very walls were menacing. Covent Garden at this hour was no place for a lone man to linger.

Jack felt a wry smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. Would his contact arrive at all? He had no way of knowing. He leaned back against the cold stone and drove his hands deep into his pockets, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. Such was the lot of a spy. Simply to wait.

That scream again.

Jack recognised real fear in the woman’s voice this time. Whoever she was, he could not ignore her plight. He sprinted lightly towards the sound, his fists clenched, all his senses alert.

In a narrow alley of overhanging buildings, a man held a woman pinned up against the wall, his hands around her neck. Her skirts had been pushed up above her waist. She was struggling valiantly, trying to knee him in the groin, but he was choking the life out of her. In a moment, she would be unconscious.

Jack grabbed the man by the shoulder and spun him round. The ruffian’s filthy face registered shock, followed by exploding fury, just as Jack felled him with a straight right to the chin. The man hit the stone wall and slithered down into an untidy heap on the ground.

Rubbing his knuckles, Jack rapidly assessed his options. The man should be taken in charge, but Jack dare not quit his post. A lone woman could not do it, especially not a woman of this class. The blackguard would have to remain where he lay, with only a damaged jaw as punishment for his crime.

Beside him, the woman was automatically trying to smooth down her skirts. Only when that was done to her satisfaction did she straighten and raise her hands to her injured neck.

He knew her! That beautiful stretching body was unmistakable.

‘Why, it’s Hetty, isn’t it? Good evening, ma’am.’ Jack had no hat to doff, but he bowed to the lightskirt as if to a countess. Hetty was no common harlot. Only gentlemen frequented the house where she worked.

She had been smiling her thanks, but now her eyes widened in recognition and she laughed, though the sound was hoarse in her bruised throat. ‘Get along with you, Lord Jack.’ She let her gaze drift over his immaculately tailored evening clothes, his pristine white shirt and the silk-lined cloak hanging carelessly from his shoulders. The large ruby pin nestling in the folds of his cravat made her eyes goggle. ‘Taking a bit of a risk wearing that here, ain’t yer?’

‘Aren’t you taking a risk by walking here alone?’ he flashed back. At least he was armed; she was defenceless.

Hetty shrugged in response, seeming to accept that he was right.

Jack said nothing. He knew better than to probe further, for she would simply tell him—with a chuckle—to mind his business. He had rescued her from her folly. She was too sensible to repeat it.

Hetty glanced down at her assailant. ‘I hope you broke his jaw,’ she said, with venom, letting Jack take her elbow and usher her out of the lane. ‘Where you been these last months?’ She narrowed her eyes assessingly, now that his face was no longer in shadow. ‘You look different. Still a handsome devil, but different. Older.’ She dropped him a curtsy. She had never done that before.

‘Dare I hope that you think I look wiser, too, Hetty?’

‘What, you? The maddest gambler and scapegrace in London? It’d take more than a couple of years in your dish to change your wild ways.’ She let her gaze soften. ‘Want to come back for a nightcap?’ Her voice had sunk to a seductive murmur.

He shook his head. ‘Prior engagement, I fear.’

‘Another night then?’ Hetty smiled her most inviting smile.

Jack realised he should have expected this. He had always tipped well. All the muslin company knew that.

He hesitated, unwilling to give her a straight answer. There were some things—private, deeply-cherished things—that a man did not share. ‘My evenings are …er… devoted to other pursuits, these days. Will you get home safe? I’m afraid I am not free to escort you.’

Hetty grinned. ‘Lord love yer, I’m a working girl. Don’t you worry none about me. I’ll hurry. And I promise I’ll keep away from the shadows.’

Relieved, Jack put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her lightly on the cheek. Then, remembering his duty, he bowed to her once more and turned away, strolling lazily across the square to resume his vigil. He had long ago concluded that a spy’s lot consisted of long periods of boredom, punctuated by rare bursts of frenzied action. He found himself grinning into the challenging gloom. He had probably had his full quota of excitement for tonight.

Hetty stared after his retreating back. Not the same man at all, she decided. No longer a playboy. And no longer a boy, either. Some woman—some very lucky woman—had caught Lord Jack Aikenhead and shown him the value of life and love, values that only a grown man could appreciate. Who was she? And how on earth had she worked such a miracle?

Hetty shook her head. Chances were that she would never know.

But if you would like to learn about the woman who tamed London’s most outrageous playboy, you can read their adventures in His Forbidden Liaison.



kate tremayne said...

What a tease you are Joanna. You got me reeled in and totally hooked before I knew what was happening. I loved this taster so much I immediately have to know more. His Forbidden Liaison is now top of my book to buy next list.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Kate. I'm glad the teaser worked on you. Frankly, it would have worked better on eHarlequin if more people had found it. But that's water under the bridge now.

I hope you enjoy Jack. He's the first playboy hero I've done for a while. In His Forbidden Liaison, the poor boy has to grow up. And quick.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I loved this, Joanna. It's very atmospheric - the lurking shadows, the flickering light from the flambeaux, etc. I was yanked into the story at once.

I've just got to read His Forbidden Liaison! I want to know more!

Louise Allen said...

Lovely - I just wish I'd read it before the books - for anyone who hasn't, rush out and get them :-)

Jane Holland said...

Hi Joanna. Love your books, as I've told you before.

What a great blog title though. "Can short be satisfying?"

I saw it and thought 'What the ... @*%$?' and just had to click.

Yes, the e-harl site can be a riot of different links and confusing signposts at times. I often get lost there myself.


Anonymous said...

So glad I managed to catch your interest, ladies. Thank you. Yes, I was trying to create atmosphere, as well as character. As I said in the blog, I have trouble writing short, so I had to work really hard on this piece to create the "feel" without overrunning the prescribed wordcount.

As to the title, Jane... Well, I'm afraid I do like to tease and this particular title was irresistible! When a good idea pops into my head, I've learn to grab it with both hands and nail it to the floor before it gets away.