Character sketch: If you are working on character development, think about your character’s stuff. What objects are in his desk drawer?
A short story based on the writing challenge above, featuring two characters in the novel I’m working on. I wrote this last month so challenge-wise, it’s quite late – and a bit long.
He had been gone just twenty minutes, off to see a patient who required his immediate attention, and except for the tick-tock of the great clock in the receiving room, the house was silent. Once assured that he was truly gone, his carriage now fading in the distance and the servants back to the downstairs kitchen to prepare for dinner and maybe do their usual gossiping about their master’s exotic wife, she slipped into his office.
The smell of leather and dark woods greeted her as she pushed the door close, and she took a deep intake of breath to take it all in. But she had no intent to simply breathe in the air of his study. No, she’d come here for something else, something she’d spied earlier as she watched him writing on a ledger while she was reading a book–or trying to.
Judging by the postmark that she could see now, the letter was recent, sent from New York City, and tucked between two volumes of Latin prayer books on the shelf, next to the works of Shakespeare and Dante. The prayer books had been given to her by her godfather and were her only remembrances of the man. Luna had asked Devlin to set them aside for her in his study, for her own receiving room – a ‘lady’s study’ he called it – was still in the process of being decorated and was woefully devoid of books. It was really just a pathetic imposter to his own study, which was why at every chance she could get, she would slip into his study and sit in his chair and read his books. It was also more exciting that way.
Luna sighed as her eyes returned to the books on the shelf. Normally she never would have paid those prayer books any attention, for he always had other things more interesting to read in his study. But the corner of the letter nagged at her, as if challenging her to pick it up.
And for a few minutes, she obediently stayed away from the shelf, where she often found him during some evenings, looking over figures of his investments or the income generated from the lands that his uncle bequeathed him.
No, she shouldn’t do it. She shouldn’t pry.
But even Luna knew that it would only be a matter of time before she’d casually walk over towards the shelf, delicately pry the letter carefully from between the two books, and sit down before his desk to investigate her latest acquisition.
His desk was not cluttered. Far from it, it was neat, with everything in its proper place. The inkwell with its loosely covered ink bottle (which she tightened) and the ink blotter were both arranged on the left side of the desk, and she found herself smiling. Devlin wrote with his left hand, the first she’d ever seen anyone do and one that she had to admit, had charmed her when she first met him. Her godfather used to say that to write with one’s left hand was the work of the devil, but Luna didn’t care.
Holding the letter she’d just plucked out from his book shelf, Luna sat down on his chair, and making a mental note as to how the papers had been arranged just before Lord Chesterfield’s note arrived requesting his services as a medical doctor, she gingerly slipped the contents from its envelope.
There was no letter. Instead, a photograph emerged from the inner confines of the envelope and Luna frowned. The subject was seated on a cane-backed chair, one leg bent at the knee and brought higher than her hip. She was looking playfully at the camera, her slim waist enhanced by the tight corset that she wore – which was plain to see because other than her underthings which included her chemise top, stockings and boots, she was not wearing anything else. There were no voluminous skirts with their petticoats peeking underneath. No morning coat to cover her bare shoulders either.
Instead, the young woman on the photograph wore strings of pearls around her neck, and other than her underthings, she wore nothing else. Just her, dressed or undressed as she was, seated on the chair, looking straight into the camera.
For a moment, Luna stared at the photograph, confused. In the world of London, this was not how women were supposed to dress in front of the camera in 1894, except maybe, in the privacy of the bedroom.
Of course, in her old world, where the temperatures rose and along with it the draining humidity, stockings, petticoats and corsets were unheard of unless one was a foreigner willing to withstand the heat all covered up for the sake of modesty, while the locals walked around with only a thin blouse and a wrap skirt, and dainty slippers on their feet. But she was no longer in Manila, Luna thought. She was in London now, and she’d spent more than two weeks getting educated on how she was supposed to dress from here on – from the corsets that were supposed to bind her waist and give her an even more curvaceous form than she already had, to the skirts and their petticoats that made walking up and down stairs and narrow hallways almost an impossible task, not to mention getting in and out of carriages without any help.
Yet here she was, Luna thought, staring at a photograph of a woman who should have been fully dressed like she herself was now, even though she was at home. She’d need the help of the maid to get out of the layers later on that evening, though more often than not, it was Devlin who did the loosening of the ties that bound her corset as well as the slipping of the silks off her skin, one delicious layer at a time. She looked forward to it every night, the moment the half-open door between their rooms opened wider and he’d walk in, dressed only in his shirt and his trousers, his coat and waistcoat left in his room. It made having two separate rooms a useless arrangement, for they had yet to sleep separately since arriving in London two months earlier.
It did make the task of having to dress each morning with the help of her maid a chore, but Luna knew it made Devlin happy to take her out to see London, walking through lush green gardens for spring had set upon the land, and he wanted to capture each bright new day before the rains, he said, would return. Some days she barely saw him during the day, the hours spent with solicitors and investors and sometimes, with Lord Chesterfield, an old friend of his uncle’s.
But as Luna stared at the photograph, she forgot all about the garden walks and the strolls through the museums. She forgot the nights spent in his arms, crying out his name as he claimed her with his mouth, his hands, his body and his soul. And when Luna turned the photograph over, the words the woman had written made her throat tighten, and the tears cloud her vision.
To my Dev,
“Put your thoughts to sleep,
do not let them cast a shadow
over the moon of your heart.
Let go of thinking.”
Congratulations on your marriage. I see that you followed your heart…finally.
Lady Tara! Panic mingled with envy as Luna’s mouth turned dry. She stared at the woman’s face, her belly clenching at the thought that once, Devlin had loved such a woman as this, seducing him long after the photograph had been taken. She felt anger build inside her, the jealousy growing as she dragged her gaze away from the woman’s beautiful face, her perfect nose and wide eyes, lips that curled slightly along the edges, as if she knew something that Luna didn’t.
The pulse drummed between Luna’s temples, deafening beyond the sounds of the clock ticking on the mantelpiece behind her. The letters and the inkwell, along with the books and neat stacks of paper in front of her, blurred in front of her eyes as she fought the urge to crush the photograph in her hands, rip it to pieces and toss the remnants into the fireplace downstairs. Her fingers trembled as she stared at the woman again, her mind taking in the woman’s beauty despite the horrible assumption of what she was.
A woman of the night perhaps? She dreaded the thought, though she hated herself more for even thinking it.
“She can be quite dramatic with her quotations of Rumi.” Devlin’s deep voice broke through the thundering of the pulse between Luna’s temples, forcing every other thought inside her head to be silent.
She turned to face him. “Lady Tara? Why would she send you this?”
“Why would she not?” Devlin drew closer, and without taking his eyes off her own, plucked the photograph from her hands. “Does she offend you?”
Luna did not answer. Something in his tone told her not to say anything. It was in his eyes, in the way they turned into ice. Offend? His question surprised her. She did not feel as offended as she felt the familiar slivers of jealousy coursing through her veins at the sight of scantily clad woman in the photograph. All she really wanted to know now was whether Devlin truly loved her, or did he still have feelings towards this brazen creature, who dared call herself Lady Tara.
Devlin returned the photograph between the two leather-bound notebooks, the same corner still sticking out like it did earlier.
“I forgot my satchel. There’s no point in trying to treat a patient without it, even if all he wants to do is talk,” he said, turning away from her and picking up the leather bag next to the desk. He headed towards the door, as if he had not even noticed that she had just discovered a secret he’d been keeping from her.
“Are you having an affair?” Luna asked, finding her voice again.
Devlin stopped before he reached the door but did not turn to face her. She heard him chuckle. “And when would I have time to have an affair when someone already holds all of my heart? Are you jealous, my love?”
“Don’t you dare call me my love when you have a half-naked woman sending you her congratulations and writing to you like a lover.”
“Who do you think she is, Luna? Is she someone who warrants your hatred, or maybe your jealousy? Or maybe from the way she is dressed, is it the feeling of disgust that she brings out in you?” He asked, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s nothing new to Lady Tara. She’s quite used to that. Not everyone is used to her boldness.”
His words confused her for a moment, but Luna gathered her wits about her, and she took a deep breath before answering. “Disgust and hatred, no,” she said softly as she touched his shoulder, wishing he would turn to face her. “But I am jealous, yes. Jealous that another woman holds a claim to your heart besides myself, and one that you seem to defend so wholeheartedly, even though you cloak your words so. Have I not given everything up for you? Is that not enough, Devlin?”
When Devlin turned to face her, Luna saw the faint smile on his lips, his neatly trimmed beard hiding the dimples that would have made him look him much younger than his thirty-seven years. His blue eyes twinkled.
“It is more than any man deserves,” he whispered. “But cannot a sister have a little hold on her brother’s heart, too? Can’t I make room for her even when you’ve claimed all of mine already?”
Luna frowned, baffled by what she had just heard. “I don’t understand. You have a sister?” she stammered. “Why is she dressed…or rather, not dressed -”
Devlin gently placed a finger on her lips. “Tonight, I shall tell you all about her,” he said. “But I have to leave before Lord Chesterfield sends his carriage to fetch me, or worse, send for the undertaker, for the old man thinks he is dying again.”
“Is he? He’s been complaining of death for the last five days.”
“No, he is not dying. Just overindulgence of the sinful things in life, if you ask me. And a general lack of exciting conversation about the adventures you and I have had in the past year.”
Devlin stepped out into the hallway but stopped when she called out his name. He turned to look at her.
“How she is dressed – her attire, is that what you -” Luna began, stopping when she saw Devlin look around to make sure that none of the servants were close by, his eyes narrowing. He returned into the room and stood in front of her, the medical bag now on the floor, forgotten.
“Is that what you men like?” She asked boldly, though her eyes looked down towards the floor and her cheeks turned red.
The corner of Devlin’s lips curled upwards as he shut the door behind him. He approached, his voice dipping even lower as he drew closer, his face mere inches from hers. She smelled the scent of him, clean and manly, sending tingles up and down her spine.
“It’s not what I like…to see my own half-sister with only her underthings on, that is. And I would not know what other men like either,” Devlin said, his hand tracing the pulse beating against Luna’s neck and down to the curve of her skin where neck met her shoulder.
Ever since they arrived in London, Luna’s body, once covered by thin blouses and wrapped skirts that were the fashion in the islands, was now completely covered with the latest in London fashion. A high collar covered her neck and Devlin pushed down the swath of cloth, his hands moving down towards her back to undo the buttons that kept her skin, once so easily accessible to him because of the humidity of the typhoon belt, now covered up.
“But I think you already know what I like,” Devlin murmured as his lips descended on hers, gentle and soft like a caress. “Even though what I like prefers to skulk around in my study when I’m not home, peering into things she knows well enough I share openly with her.”
“It is more exciting that way,” she whispered, feeling his body so close now, the tension that had long built between them the moment he caught her red-handed almost leaving her breathless.
“Is it?” Devlin asked, not waiting for her answer as his lips descended upon hers, claiming her, his hands drawing her even closer. When he drew back, she caught her breath, realizing he had taken it away for that moment, and she looked up into his eyes as if hypnotized.
“I can think of something else more exciting than that,” he whispered, kissing her again as he lifted Luna up onto the desk behind her, the sounds of the soft rustling of her skirts drowning out the tick-tock of the clock outside. Luna sighed, her arms wrapping about his neck as her body molded against his, the things on his desk, the treasures that she always enjoyed investigating in secret, now forgotten as his mouth and his hands investigated, tasted, and claimed her.
And in another part of London, Lord Chesterfield, not really dying but only suffering from a bad case of gas from too much cabbage soup, opened the note of apology from his young friend, frowning with disappointment at the news that the doctor was unable to see him that afternoon for something else had come up – something that required the doctor’s utmost – and most undivided – attention.