A Valentine’s Day Sneak Peak (Part 3)

If you’re just joining me, here’s Chapter 1 and Chapter 2!

Sample Synopsis: London is just recovering from the brutal war that saw most of the city demolished. Lydia’s life has been upended but much is still frustratingly the same. She still works as a barmaid in her uncle’s pub and she’s still frozen with indecision about what to do with her life, post-war.

Then one night, a man named Nat enters the pub and everything changes. What starts out as harmless flirting, quickly wrenches Lydia into a world where unexplainable things are happening to survivors of the Blitz. In this new world, danger lies around every corner and Lydia must choose whose side she’s on before her beloved city is torn apart once more.

blitze-d

 

Chapter 3

Today was Valentine’s Day. Nat hadn’t shown up at The Huntsman for a week. I’d started making decorations for the occasion days ago, cutting out red and pink paper hearts, buying tissue doilies to serve The Cupid on. But as the days passed and Nat failed to show, I started to lose my motivation.

I half-heartedly taped some paper hearts on the front door and threw the rest in the rubbish bin. I really wasn’t in the mood for this holiday.

Ernest and all the rest were back to being fake-chipper when they greeted me, that pitying look behind their eyes. It was the Colin breakup all over again. Except, this time I hadn’t even gotten as far as being asked out in the first place. How pathetic was that?

Having an audience for my latest failure didn’t help matters. I went about my work, trying not to make eye contact with anyone more than I had to. Nat had probably found a newer pub. One with younger patrons and a cuter girl behind the bar. I bet that’s where he was tonight. Who would want to spend Valentine’s Day in a moldy, centuries-old pub anyway? Better yet, he wasn’t in a pub at all. He’d probably taken the cute barmaid out for a date. Somewhere romantic, beside the water.

I was knee deep in my self-pity daydream when the door chimed. It was to my surprise, and everyone else’s, that Nat walked in. He made his way over to the bar amid stares from Frank and Ernest that were halfway between enmity and confusion. He dropped onto the barstool.

“Water, please.”

I put a glass under the tap and set it down without a word. The need to be angry with him warred with my confusion over his appearance. He finished his water and the silence grew. The anger started to win out. Not even a, “Hello, sorry I disappeared for a week?”

I stopped myself. Something didn’t seem right. There were dark circles under his eyes and his hair was in need of combing. He was even a little out of breath, like he’d been… running? I wondered if he’d gotten into some kind of trouble.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” he said, looking at my expression. “Sorry I haven’t been aro— I haven’t been coming.” He looked behind him at the door.

“It’s okay,” I found myself saying. I was thoroughly perplexed now. A sheen of sweat dampened his forehead and for the first time, I noticed him holding something against his chest under his coat. The corners of a file folder and some papers were just visible next to his lapel.

“Listen, is everything all right?” I asked.

“Um, yeah. Sort of.”

The lights over the bar dimmed and flickered then steadied themselves. Heads twisted in their direction and the general hum of the pub turned down a notch. Effect of the war— both the lights and the men’s reaction. The wiring had never been the same after the bombs. And I guessed we’d never be the same either after spending countless hours in the nearby Tube station, watching the lights flicker off and on just like that.

Just then, the front door swung open on a pair of unlikely patrons. A woman in a fashionable hat and bright red lipstick flicked her eyes right and left as her companion, a man whose size made him immediately the center of attention lumbered in behind her.

“Lydia!” whispered Nat, tapping the bar to get my attention.

“Hm?” I tore my eyes from the two by the door who were peering through the smoke as if looking for someone.

“Lydia, if I asked you to get me out of here, through a back way, could you do it?”

“What?” I asked. He really was acting strange.

“Could you do it?”

“I— I suppose…Do you know them?”

The woman was saying something to her companion, pointing over towards the bar.

“Time to go,” he said.

“Wha—“ but before I could finish my sentence, Nat had flung himself across the bar, landing beside me. He pulled my hand towards the back room.

“Is it this way?” He asked.

“Yes, but why—“ he didn’t stop, but went through the door, pulling me with him. He closed it and locked it.

“Nat!” I cried. “Stop! Tell me what’s going on! My uncle, he’s going to be furious.”

“I don’t have time to explain.” he pushed his hair back nervously and looked around him, presumably for the exit. It was a maze of boxes back here, the hallways built over centuries by different owners who never seemed to follow what his predecessor had in mind.

“You’ll need me to show you the way,” I said. “But first you have to tell me what’s going on.”

There was a loud knock on the door. “Lydia?” It was my uncle. “Lydia! What are you doing? Are you okay?”

“If I stop to tell you now, I won’t live to explain the rest. But I promise, help me out and I’ll tell you everything.”

The knocking continued. “I’m okay, Uncle Jack. I’ll just be a minute.”

Uncle Jack yelled, “There are some folk here, say they’re looking for the chap you’ve been talking to.”

“Get out of the way!” That was a woman’s voice, the one with the bright lipstick, I assumed.

“Lydia,” said Nat. “Please. Do you trust me?”

“Of course I don’t trust you! I only just—“

And then the door caught fire.

I grabbed his hand, feeling the space where his fingers should be, and took off running. Behind us we heard the crunch of burnt wood as someone kicked through the door.

“This way.” I pulled him left down a corridor lined with crates and boxes. The bare bulbs hanging above our heads flickered on and off again. We were in some of the older parts of the pub now, the ceilings almost brushing our heads, the floor treacherous with large cracks and uneven brick.

We heard voices not far behind. “That way, Croft!”

A box came crashing down behind us, its contents spilling across the floor. I looked back and saw the man rounding the corner, the box behind him on fire. He reached out ahead of him and flames rolled out of his palms and licked the shelves along the wall.

I screamed, but kept running.

We rounded a corner that led into storage. Nat skidded to a halt.

“It’s this way!” I shouted.

Nat ignored me and reached around the corner back towards Croft. The lights above us flickered and went out leaving only an orange glow where one box still burned. I put my hand out to find the wall but before I could touch it, an arc of light crackled in the air, washing Nat’s face in electric blue light.

The current jumped from Nat’s outstretched hand down the corridor to where the Croft was standing. I pressed myself against the wall and screamed.

The lights flicked back on to reveal Croft groaning on his back, his coat lightly smoking.

The red lipstick woman had only been a few paces behind. She stooped to briefly check on her companion.

“Surrender yourself, Nathanial! You know it’s not a choice!” she said, drawing a gleaming pistol from her handbag.

“Is that how you plan on getting me to do your work?” Nathanial asked.

“Put the papers back in safe hands and we’ll forget this little… incident,” she said.

Nat clutched tighter to the folder beneath his jacket. “I’d hardly call your hands ‘safe.’”

Croft was stirring, trying to stand.

I wasn’t waiting around any longer. If anything, I had to get the danger away from my uncle’s pub and all the people inside it. I yanked Nat’s sleeve and we took off running again. The crack of a bullet hitting the stone wall followed in our wake. We were almost there. I lead Nat through Uncle’s office and down one last corridor. I started to reach out for his hand before I remembered what I had just seen and thought better of it.

We reached the door and I unbolted it as quickly as possible with shaking hands. I felt heat on my back as fire roared to life just a few feet away but we were through. Nat kicked the door shut and we picked up the pace now that we were outside.

The back door led to an alley between The Huntsman and a strip of other shops that backed up against a row of houses. The darkness felt almost solid after the fire and blinding light of the chase but I knew my way. How many times had I sprinted through these paths with the sounds of sirens filling my head, my chest?

Nat had a grip on the back of my blouse as I led him through zigzagging alleyways. We heard shouts behind us. Arguing. For the first time since seeing the door catch fire, I thought I might make it out of this alive.

We ran on and at some point it switched from me leading Nat to him choosing which turns to take, which side streets to disappear down. I could no longer hear a pursuit of any kind.

“Need a break,” I gasped. Now that the immediate danger was behind us, I was very aware that it had been quite some time since secondary school gym class.

Nat slowed to a stop on a lonely street lined on either side with abandoned flats, gap-toothed where the bombs had made their selections. He waited for me as I doubled over to catch my breath, but couldn’t stop his head from swiveling left and right and left again, looking for any sign from our pursuers.

I gathered myself enough to rasp out words between breaths, “What. The hell. Was that?”

“Not here,” was all he said. I followed him down the broken street.

After checking once again that no one watched us from the lattice of shadows, Nat pulled me into a gap between the shelled out buildings. I stumbled as my foot caught on rubble hidden in the darkness. Nat caught my arm. “Careful.”

The flat that had been here was nothing but a foundation and a few piles of broken furniture. Where the bottom floor was still intact, you could see the impressions of where the walls had been. We passed through them like ghosts and Nat found the place he was looking for. He crouched down to feel around on the floor. There was a, “Ah!” when he found what he was looking for, a bit of rope among the broken bricks and glass.

He tugged on it and with it came part of the floor— a door that opened onto a set of fully intact stairs. It must have been the cellar. I was surprised to see the faint glow of a light or flame at the very bottom. Nat started down the stairs and then turned back to offer me his undamaged hand.

I didn’t move.

Less than an hour ago, I had been standing behind the ancient bar in my uncle’s pub, serving Ernest and Frank and the rest. Now I’d been chased through said pub by a woman with a gun and a man throwing fire, seen the fellow I’d been flirting with for weeks electrocute someone with his bare hands, and been led to some bombed-out flat in a part of London I didn’t recognize, being asked to follow him down some godforsaken hole in the ground.

“I won’t shock you, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he said. I thought I caught the barest smile on his lips.

I placed my hand gingerly in his. This might be the last decision I ever made, but at least I made one.

We made our way carefully down the tunnel-like staircase towards the light. I could hear voices now as we emerged, echoing against the brick walls of the cellar. They belonged to a group of people I wouldn’t think normally spent much time in each other’s company.

There was a young boy, no older than eight or nine tilting back in a chair so that it balanced on two legs. His mop of curly dark hair was interrupted by an ugly scar the length of a pencil behind his ear.

He was speaking to a woman who could’ve been around my age. She drank something dark and foamy from a chipped glass. In the corner sat an old man doing nothing but staring at the wall blowing smoke rings of differing sizes. It took me a moment to realize he wasn’t holding a cigarette.

The woman and boy turned as we rounded the corner.

“Nat! Where’ve you been?” said the woman. She wore an expensive looking coat but the fur trim looked a bit ratty in places.

“I got into a spot of trouble, but no worries. We’re all right.”

“Who’s this? Did you find someone else? Was she part of the program?” she asked. They boy leaned further back to get a look at me and had to catch himself before he tipped over.

“This is Lydia. She’s not from the program. She’s—“ he glanced at me and hesitated, “— not Blitzed.”

“What?” Lydia’s eyebrows shot up. “Nat! Why did you bring her here? What does she know?”

“She’s the barmaid at—“

“The barmaid?!”

“Listen, Sam, it couldn’t be helped. Croft and Odella were on my tail so I ducked into her pub for a few minutes to try and lose them. Only, they must’ve seen me go in because they showed up not long after.” He looked at me guiltily.

Sam crossed her arms. “And I assume that didn’t go too well.”

“Let’s just say Lydia saw some things you can’t exactly unsee.”

You better believe it, I thought. I glanced at his hands.

“Did you get the files?” Sam asked. In answer, Nat pulled out the folder from his coat. I’d almost forgotten about it. He dropped the stack of papers onto the foldout table. The boy dropped all four chair legs to the ground and leaned over to look at the folder.

“Did you see her?” The boy asked.

Nat shook his head. “Once I had the files, I had to get out quick.” The boy tried unsuccessfully to hide his disappointment. The old man in the corner paid no attention to us whatsoever but continued to blow smoke in more and more intricate patterns.

Sam looked at me. “I take it if I asked you to forget what you saw tonight and go home quietly, that wouldn’t have much chance of happening.”

It wasn’t a question.

“Well, you’re in it now. Should you explain or should I?” She directed this question at Nat.

“Here,” he said to me, “you should probably have a seat.” He pulled over one of the dusty looking chairs.

“I’d prefer to stand, thank you.” I felt off balance in this damp room full of strangers that obviously knew more than I did. I felt like I was meeting Nat for the first time. If he felt hurt by my cold formalities, he didn’t show it.

“It might take awhile. Really, sit. We’ve just had a rather exerting jaunt through the city.” I couldn’t argue with that. My legs had started to feel an awful lot like jam.

“Sam, do we have any water down here?”

She reached into a rucksack and pulled out a dented, dark green canteen. She handed it to Nat who passed it over to me, allowing me the first sip. The water had a tang of metal to it but I was grateful. Something about an act as normal as drinking water grounded me when everything else seemed to be coming loose at the seams.

Nat sat across from me, taking a swig once I was done. He tapped the folder between us. “Maps,” he said. “Maps of every bomb dropped during the Blitz.”

He opened the folder and pulled out a map of Greater London. It was covered in a dizzying amount of red x’s. My stomach lurched. I’d never seen such a comprehensive account of the horrors of those months. “Ah, Union Street.” There was a big red X penciled over the street in question. “The street I grew up on.”

He traced the grid to find the coordinates and then rifled through the stack of papers left in the folder. The boy and Sam leaned over to watch him. The papers were organized by the coordinates on the map, followed by a list of addresses and bomb shelter locations. Nat found an address and turned the papers toward me so I could see.

“203-B Union Street. Mr. Richard Harker, deceased. Mrs. Mary Harker, deceased. Nathanial Harker, L&R.”

“L&R?” I asked.

“Located and Retrieved.”

I looked at him, puzzled. He looked up Sam’s address and the boy’s, whose name was James and had been living in a house for children of Jewish refugees. They both had the same L&R signifier next to their names.

“But what does it mean?”

“The government has been very interested in finding survivors of the Blitz, anyone near a bomb site, ever since their intelligence found out that the Germans were doing some experimental things with a fraction of their bombs. The Blitz was a sort of lab test of what the bombs could do. But what the Germans don’t know is that some of their science projects had… unintended consequences.”

I looked over at the old man with his never-ending smoke supply. “Is that why you… how your hands…?”

Nat turned his palm over and a spark arced across his fingertips.

“Stop showing off,” said Sam, though she smirked.

“Can you all do that?” I asked.

“It has manifested in different ways for each of us,” she said.

“But that man, Croft— he had it too. He was catching things on fire with just his hands!”

“Yes,” said Nat, “He’s been Blitzed too. But I wouldn’t call him one of us, exactly.”

“What do you mean?”

“He buys into the whole “it’s our national duty to become the new modern weapon” rubbish they want us to believe.”

“What about that woman that was with him?”

“Odella? She’s not Blitzed. She’s sort of what you would call Croft’s handler. They pair you up when— “

“What in the hell is this?”

Everyone turned to the man who’d spoken. He stood at the bottom of the stairs, his long army-issued trench slick with rain. His sandpaper jaw was rigid with anger as he stared straight at me.

I hope you enjoyed a little look into what some of my work looks like in the early stages. Would you or a friend enjoy a book with this premise? Is it a story idea worth pursuing? Let me hear your thoughts below!

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A Valentine’s Day Sneak Peek (Part 2)

If you’re just joining me, here’s Chapter 1!

Sample Synopsis: London is just recovering from the brutal war that saw most of the city demolished. Lydia’s life has been upended but much is still frustratingly the same. She still works as a barmaid in her uncle’s pub and she’s still frozen with indecision about what to do with her life, post-war.

Then one night, a man named Nat enters the pub and everything changes. What starts out as harmless flirting, quickly wrenches Lydia into a world where unexplainable things are happening to survivors of the Blitz. In this new world, danger lies around every corner and Lydia must choose whose side she’s on before her beloved city is torn apart once more.

blitze-d

 

Chapter 2

I felt ridiculous over the coming days. Popping up from behind the bar or the back room every time I heard the front door open, hoping to see a clean white button-down among the stained sweaters. I had never been like this about Colin, not even in the early days of our relationship. We’d all been a little too preoccupied with the war and the bombs dropping on our heads.

Of course, the war had been a catalyst for many of my friends’ relationships, making them quick to fall in love, quick to make promises. There were even a few babies to prove it. It had the opposite effect on me. I’d dated Colin because he’d asked me to and it was hard to say no to a man headed off to the front. But I’d stayed distant. I knew every relationship, no matter how brief, held the potential for unimaginable grief.

It had been for my sister-in-law.

I stopped there. It was still too painful to remember the weight of the telegram in my hands.

***

Nat showed up again that night and, as promised, ordered another Cupid when he sat down. He made no effort to conceal his hand this time. You would think by this point I would be used to seeing young men maimed by the war. With most of the boys home, you couldn’t walk a block without skirting around a wheelchair or seeing shirtsleeves neatly pinned over a missing arm. But it’s different when you’re speaking to a disfigured man face to face— when the horrors of war reflected in his eyes are just as plain as his missing limb.

“How’s the new job?” I asked him as he sipped his drink.

He was silent a moment before answering. “A bit stressful.”

“Is that why you’ve decided to hang out at a pub full of men twice your age?” I smiled.

“I don’t think it’s the patrons that have me coming back.” He looked up at me until I blushed. “It’s this brilliant drink!” He held up The Cupid.

I laughed but at the same time, I could hear alarm bells going off in my head. Flirting with Nat was nice, I could admit that. And that was probably all that was going on here, but I wasn’t at all comfortable with how much I was enjoying it.

Ernest sidled up to the stool next to Nat and sat down, pint in hand. “She’s a good lass, our Lydia.”

Right. It was only a matter of time before one of them noticed. I gave Nat a look that said, I’m so sorry but he seemed unperturbed.

“I can see she’s a real godsend to you gentlemen,” Nat said, his expression all seriousness now.

“That she is, that she is. The name’s Ernest. What’s your name, chap?” Ernest reached for his hand. When he shook it he noticed the missing fingers. He stopped and swept off his hat. “God bless you, son. Thank you for your service.” Like my uncle, Ernest had served in the first war and held a tremendous amount of respect for his fellow soldier.

It was the first time I saw Nat get genuinely embarrassed. A red tinge crept up around his ears.

“I didn’t… I didn’t serve in the war, sir. Was too young when they started the conscription, then I got this during the Blitz and they said I wasn’t fit for combat.”

I could see it pained him to keep eye contact with Ernest while he spoke.

“My dear boy,” said Ernest, taking both his hands in his own. “You’ve served your country in more ways than you realize just by living, going to work every day, chatting up pretty girls in pubs. That bomb took a few fingers with it, but you didn’t let it take your spirit!”

Nat looked up, surprised.

“It was a cruel game, that war, but every one of us that keeps on going, keeps building a life of good, has served this nation far more than we give them credit for.” His eyes left Nat and settled on me. I knew he was thinking of my brother. “A pint for the young chap, on me,” he said.

Other customers pulled me away from the two men but I watched them out of the corners of my eye while I went about pouring drinks and tending tables. They spoke amiably for a while, Nat looking much more at ease, until Ernest left to rejoin his card game.

“He can be a bit forward, Ernest,” I said when I was back at the bar. “I hope he didn’t make you uncomfortable.”

“Oh, not at all. No, quite the opposite. He’s a good man.” He smiled up at me. My heart pitched forward.

***

Over the coming days, Nat showed up night after night at The Huntsman. The other regulars were starting to greet him when he walked in and the teasing showed no signs of letting up.

“I’m making your job a bit difficult, aren’t I?” he asked me one night after Frank had cracked a joke about decorating the pub for a wedding.

I laughed, “A bit, yes.”

“I can stop, if you want me to,” he said, suddenly serious. That gave me pause. This was getting a little out of hand. But I didn’t want him to leave.

And I didn’t want him to stop.

“No, it’s ok. They always give me a hard time. Besides,” I raised my voice, “I look forward to talking to someone who doesn’t have one foot in the grave!”

This caused an uproar of mock-hurt all around which I quailed by going to the back to bring out more ale. While among the kegs and boxes I took a moment to breathe. Valentine’s Day was this Thursday and now that I thought about it, I realized deep down I was expecting him to ask me out.

I tried sorting out my feelings on the matter while I sorted bottles. Could I really expect him to ask me on a date or was he just harmlessly flirting? And more importantly, if he did, should I accept? The memory of my sister-in-law’s face, drained of all color at the sound of the doorbell that night, leapt into my mind. I gripped the bottle in my hand tightly and held it to my stomach,  scrunching up my eyes, willing the image away. The war was over. There wouldn’t be any more telegrams.

I’d decided. If he asked, I would accept. There was no hurt in one date.

To be continued…. Here’s Chapter 3!

Be sure to let me know your thoughts below with a comment. Know someone who would love a story like this? Don’t be shy, share away!

A Valentine’s Day Sneak Peek

What started out as a Valentine’s Day short story challenge set by a friend, ended up fueling so many ideas that it looks like I have a new novel on my hands, whether I want one or not. So, to celebrate February 14th, I thought I’d publish the first three chapters here. The chapters are still in their early stages. If this idea ever makes it into a full novel worth publishing, there’s no doubt that these chapters would change dramatically. Still, it can be fun to poke your nose into a writer’s first or second drafts.

The challenge: Write a 5k-10k short story that includes the words heart, surrender, Valentine, Cupid, and sweet somewhere within the text.

My thought process: The challenge words made my mind jump immediately to the Romance genre. A story that takes place in the here and now. Except, I don’t write Romance and all my stories take place in other worlds entirely. That could make this tricky. After a lot of thinking and a notepad covered in scribbles, I started tracing out a plan: A Historical Fantasy set in London, 1946, recovering from WWll. The more I thought about it, the more the ideas multiplied, and I realized this would not be a short story… My friend suggested I write the first three chapters of the novel for the challenge instead and Blitzed was born.

I will post one chapter a day on the blog until Valentine’s when all three chapters are released. I hope you enjoy the sneak peek at one of my works in progress!

blitze-d

 

Chapter 1

I set the clean glass on the counter and started wiping down another. Ten down, twenty more to go.

“There’s nothing doing once a lad’s got his mind made up to sow his oats and that one’s been growing wheat for years if you ask me.”

I hadn’t asked him, but there Frank was, on the same stool he’d sat on for the better part of sixty years, going on about my apparently failed love life.

“Yeh’ve got to show him who’s in charge, lass. Real subtle like though, or you’ll scare ‘em.”

“Right,” I said, setting another clean glass on the counter a little more firmly than was necessary. I’d worked in my uncle’s pub, The Huntsman, officially since I was fifteen. Unofficially, I’d worked here as long as I can remember, if only to run errands between coloring in the back of the phone book in the corner booth. The men here, the regulars, had seen me grow up and felt a sense of responsibility, grown out of some sort of paternal duty, to see that my life was a happy one.

“Those ears of his could pick up radio signals from Munich; could’ve helped the war effort!” called Ernest from his place at a round wooden table that was probably as old as he was. He and Frank laughed and raised their glasses. I couldn’t help smiling. Colin’s ears had been awfully large.

What they hadn’t understood, though, was that I was perfectly happy with how things ended. Mostly the fact that they had ended. I’d been trying to figure out a way to break up with Colin for the past month, but he beat me to it. I just wish he would have waited until after Valentine’s Day. Thinking me brokenhearted right before the saint’s holiday was half the reason the old codgers wouldn’t let up.

“Lydia,” came my uncle’s voice from the back room. “I need you back here for a moment.”

I tucked the rag into my front apron pocket and pushed open the door set into the stone wall behind the counter. Frank and Ernest were the only two patrons at the moment, but more would soon be arriving as it neared six ‘o clock.

My uncle Jack stood with a clipboard next to a stack of boxes labeled with the Charrington stamp. He was one of those people that carry themselves in a way that makes them look much taller than they really are. He owned three of the same sweaters in slightly different variations of muted brown on which he always wore a fastidiously kept red, paper poppy.

My uncle had told me countless times with great pride about the day he’d enlisted in the first war illegally at the age of sixteen. It almost broke his mother’s heart, he’d said. So when the news of the second war broke, he’d marched down to the army’s registrar’s office fully intending to enlist again. When they turned him down on account of a previous injury, he came straight home, pinned the poppy to his lapel and threw himself into the home front war effort more than any other single person I knew.

“I need these logged into inventory before the rush,” he said, tapping the stack of boxes.

“I’m on it.”

“Oh, and Lydia? Are you sure about that drink of yours?”

“Yes, yes. It’ll be a hit, I promise!”

In an attempt to cheer me up, my uncle had suggested I put one of my cocktails I’d been dying to try on the menu. The Huntsman was a strictly ale and stout kind of pub but I had been pestering Uncle Jack to let me try making some of the drink recipes I’d seen in Woman. I thought it would bring in the younger crowds, not to mention some ladies for once.

This being my chance, I’d mixed up my own special recipe for Valentine’s Day that I’d named The Cupid. It involved candy hearts, a cherry, and a good deal of gin. I mixed one up for Uncle Jack last night and he seemed more than a little wary. I made sure to mention that I’d had to return a few of Colin’s things earlier.

***

That night was an especially busy one on account of it being the Saturday after payday. The men were in a raucous mood with many refrains of “The Foggy Dew” being sung at every new round of drinks. I spun around my uncle, holding pitchers of beer in both hands as he scraped together change from the register’s drawer.

I glanced at the chalkboard where I’d meticulously written “Valentine’s Day Special: The Cupid! Try it tonight!” with curlicues and embellishments. Not a single one had been ordered.

“Another round of Barclays over here, lass!”

I hurried to the tap. Guess my uncle was right. There’s no use selling a drink for a young lady when we didn’t yet have any. He’s never going to let me try out a new drink again, I thought, sullenly filling another pitcher.

I scanned the bar to count up the number of people waiting on drinks when I noticed someone new gingerly push open the door and look around. He was wearing a clean white button-up, underneath a twill jacket, like he’d just come from an office or something and it immediately put him at odds with his surroundings.

The men of the Huntsman were almost all labor workers- metal, construction, the docks. It wasn’t often we saw an accountant, or whatever he was.

He sidled up to the bar, one hand in his pocket, looking at what we had on tap. When Gregory left his stool to go join a game of cards, the newcomer took his spot.

“Erm, whiskey please. Linkwood if you have it.” A lock of brown wavy hair fell over his forehead and he pushed it back in place. He was quite young, now that I had a clear look at him. Probably around my age.

“That we do, Mr…”

“Harkers. Nathanial Harkers. But call me Nat, if you don’t mind.”

“Alright, Nat. Welcome to The Huntsman. Linkwood Whiskey it is then.”

I poured a glass and set it down in front of him. He finished it in one go.

“Thirsty are ya?” I asked laughing.

“A little. Another, please?”

“Sure thing.”

This one he took slower, one modest sip at a time. I left him to it and made my rounds through the tables. Most barmaids had to worry about pinches or pats on the bum every night, but no one here would even let it cross their mind. Not to someone they’d given hard candies to as a child, still warm from their pocket. And even if some of the younger men did think to get a little handsy, my uncle would have them out on their arses before they could blink.

“Tell ‘em, Lyd! Tell ‘em I won the final hand night before last!” Ernest said, pulling me over to his table.

“I’m sorry Greg, he certainly did.”

“Ha! What’d I tell ya? You were too gone in your cups!” Ernest slapped his cards down. “You’d better pay up or I’ll call ‘round to the missus!” I winked at Ernest as Gregory counted out the pounds.

Back behind the bar, I ran a rag over the hundred-year-old surface, worn at the edges where countless bellies had rubbed against it.

“You seem rather popular in here,” said Nat.

“You would be too if you’d control over the alcohol,” I laughed. “You new to this area? Just start a job or something?” I looked again at his clean button up.

“Oh, yeah, you could say that.”

“What do you do?”

“Electricity, mainly.”

“An electrician? You don’t look like it.”

He laughed. “Well, you don’t look much like a barmaid yourself.”

“Now, what is that supposed to mean?”

He blushed faintly. “Only, I dunno. You look like you could be one of those girls that travels a lot. Seen a lot of the world. Like in the pictures.” His voice trailed off and he looked down at his drink. “Don’t mind me, I always end up saying stupid things once someone gets me talking.”

I burst out laughing— the kind of laughing that makes people around you look up and take notice, which is exactly what happened. It was just… that was probably the poorest description I’d ever heard of myself. I had lived in the same flat with my parents since the day I was born. I’d never gone anywhere but to the country for a bit during the worst of the war.

Once I’d recovered myself enough to speak, I said, “Must be something off with our whiskey to get you to say something like that. But I thank you. If it was a compliment of sorts, I’ll take it.”

Nat looked up at me and grinned. He had a cheeky little smile. Mischievous, like the kind of grin I imagined got him in and out of trouble as a child. His ice clinked around his empty glass.

“Another whiskey, is it?”

“I’d better switch to ale, Miss.”

As I went to pour one from the tap I saw my uncle look up at the chalkboard and shake his head a little. I stopped.

“Hey, Nat,” I said leaning over the bar so he could hear my lowered voice. “Listen, would you mind terribly doing a favor for me?”

He looked at me quizzically for a moment then shrugged. “Sure?”

“Would you order the special for this week? It’d really help me out.”

“What is it?”

“Just a little something I made up for Valentine’s Day. There’s gin,” I added quickly.

He blew out a breath. “Ok, but you’re walking me home if I end up falling off this barstool.”

“Deal,” I laughed. “One special, coming right up!” I said loudly enough for my uncle and everyone at the bar to hear.

I took my time, making sure everything was just right. When I sat the pink concoction down in front of him, he just stared at it.

“You want me… to drink that?”

I nodded with enthusiasm. The men around him were starting to turn to look at him. A few craned around their companions to get a look at the martini glass. There were a few chuckles.

He looked up at me again. “You owe me one,” he said under his breath, then picked up the drink and downed it.

“You’re not supposed to—“ I started, but too late. He sat back, crunching on the conversation hearts from the bottom. Cheers went up and down the bar.

“It’s not bad, really!” he called out to the men cracking jokes. “A little sweet, but I actually liked it!”

I beamed.

“Lass?” It was Frank, sidling up to the bar. “I’d like to try one of them specials.” He gave me a wink and patted Nat on the back who wobbled dangerously on his stool.

And that’s all it took. Once the men saw how happy it made me every time someone ordered The Cupid, there was a pink martini glass on almost every table.

I might need to get my heart “broken” more often.

***

The night was over quicker than usual thanks to conversation with Nat between cleaning tables and drink orders. I found myself thinking up reasons to go to his end of the bar and talk to him. It was nice to have someone my age to talk to. He argued over who had the best album— Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra. I’d always be a Sinatra girl no matter what he said.

The bar was emptying and Uncle Jack and I were busy collecting tabs.

“How much do I owe you?” asked Nat.

“Let’s see, um, looks like one pound, fourteen pence.”

He took the hand that had stayed in his coat pocket all night out with his wallet. Two of his fingers were missing, his pinky and ring finger, and most of what was left was shiny with burn scars.

“Oh,” I said, and immediately berated myself for drawing attention to it.

“Oh, this? I’d actually almost forgotten about it for once.” He smiled ruefully.

“The war?” I said. How stupid. Of course it was the war. First I draw attention to it, now I’m asking questions about it? I could feel whatever friendliness that had grown between us dissipating along with the cigar smoke in the pub.

“Bomb. It was a bomb. Here I mean, in London.”

“Oh,” I said again. I wished I could melt into the floor.

“It’s all right. Really,” he said, seeing my discomfort. “I can’t always keep it hidden. And the drinks help.” He gave me a wink. His hair was in he eyes again. He placed the money on the bar and put his wallet away, leaving both hands out of his pockets.

“Thank you. For ordering that drink, I mean,” I stammered.

“How long will it be on special?”

“What?”

“The Cupid— how long will you have it on special?”

“Until Valentine’s Day, I suppose.”

“Brilliant. I’ll be sure to come in for another.”

My heart leapt and I stared stupidly at him from behind the bar.

“See you next time?” he laughed.

“Yes!” I was finally catching up. “See you, then!”

He made his way to the door, only a little unsteady on his feet, and was gone into the cold night.

I immediately put my forehead down onto the bar and groaned. I was such an idiot.

“Tired?” Said my uncle, coming over to collect Nat’s money. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but your drink was a hit! Maybe we can start having a cocktail special on the weekends, eh?” He nudged my elbow. I just grunted.

“Looks like that young gentleman of yours left you a good tip.” I stood up as he handed over the change.

“He’s not my gentleman, Uncle Jack. Don’t be getting any ideas.”

“I would never,” he said with a wink.

To be continued…. Look for Chapter 2 tomorrow! 

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