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Bittersweet Kisses on Stolen Lips

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Nancy steps off the back of the carriage, coughing into her fist at the cloud of dust that rises after her boots hit the dirt path. She waves her thanks to the driver, waiting until the rattling wheels have taken him elsewhere before beginning to cross the field between the road and nearby wooden house. Tall grass shoots scrape past her ankles, the sun on her back a pleasant change from London’s stifling grey murk.

On the winding trail up to the house, a sign swings in the wind. The wood is marked ‘HECTOR’ in sweeping knife strokes, and below that: ‘Carpentry, wood-working, and other furnishings’ in smaller letters.

Nancy sighs, the sign not telling her half of what she wants to know. It means she’ll have to go inside, ask questions, and doing so rarely ends with friendliness. More than once over the past few years, she has tried convincing herself to end this search. That her tossing around Bonny’s name and opening old familial wounds was doing more harm than good, but then another name would be passed along to her, and she couldn’t rest until the lead was thoroughly pursued.

As she had found out, Bonny was far from the first person to be disowned by the Lancaster family. There had been many men and women desperate to shed their venomous last name by marrying out of it or leaving the country entirely, some of whom succeeded in escaping and others who did not. Nancy looks down at the paper in her hand, reading the names scrawled on it and the notes alongside them. Outcasted, shunned, dead in a ditch, the list goes on.

Nancy starts, disturbed from her thoughts by a chicken pecking at a loose thread on her dress skirt, the lower half of her dress dragging in the dirt. She shoos the bird off with a hiss, and it hurries away with a ruffling of feathers. Behind one of the windows on the side of the house, a figure walks past, startling her again, but the man through the glass doesn’t notice her. Nancy steps up to the front door of the house, placing her hand over the door handle, and takes a deep breath, heading inside.

The man, now standing at a workbench, is greying and a terrible hand at shaving, the sideburns near his ears trimmed in a quick, slapdash manner. He eyes Nancy as she enters, his gaze flicking up and then back down to the model nailed together in his hands as though during his brief moment of observation, he has taken in everything he needs to know about her.

“What do you want?” he asks flatly, a simple enough question. Before Nancy can provide her rehearsed answer, he continues, “It can’t be woodwork. I heard you arrive in that carriage, and it doesn’t look like it’s there anymore. You would have to carry whatever you bought from me back to wherever you came from. So, unless you have a rickety highchair, or a three-legged table stashed under that dress…”

“I’m looking for someone,” Nancy tells him. “Your brother’s daughter, Bonny Lancaster —”

The gun is levelled at her chest before Nancy can do so much as blink, pulled out from a drawer. The weapon is nearly swallowed in the broad width of the woodworker's palm, but she can see the barrel and his finger tucked around the trigger. She doesn’t doubt the pistol is loaded, her whole body going rigid. The threat of being shot doesn’t terrify her as much as the stillness of his hand, the sureness with which he holds the gun.

“Did she send you?” he demands. “How do you know about her?”

“I don’t — she —” Nancy stammers. “We’re…” Friends, lovers, enemies? She squeezes her eyes shut, trying to focus.

“Keep in mind how quiet it is out here. How many places there are I could bury your corpse and be done with it.”

Nancy opens her eyes, reaching into her pocket and wincing at the click of the pistol’s hammer being drawn back. “I have something of hers.”

The grey-haired man doesn’t speak, only watching her place the journal onto the benchtop between them.

It was cruel of her to keep it, Nancy knows. Bonny had left it behind at her house, forgetting to take it with her when she stormed out after their explosive argument.

Nancy should have returned it to her, but among the poems inside the journal, there are also entries of her time spent on Captain Marius’s ship. She had worried if she gave the journal back, Bonny would burn it out of repulsion, destroying not only the writings that described her Captain, who betrayed and left her for dead, in high regard, but her drawings and poetry as well.

The old man thumbs through the journal, settling on a certain page. He reads it over and then looks up at Nancy, reciting from the page, “‘Beryl eyes that invoke jealousy from the sea’, that sounds like her.” Chuckling wryly, he sets the pistol aside, giving the journal back to her. “I’ll never understand the youth of today. You’re from London, then?”

“London, yes,” Nancy is late to answer, trembling slightly from being held at gunpoint only a few seconds ago.

“I think I recognise you now. You aren’t wearing black, so I didn’t place you for the woman in all of those drawings she keeps in her room. And you don’t have the…” He gestures with his hands, most of what he says going over Nancy’s head as she fights to recompose herself, grasping the backboard of a chair off to one side of the room for balance. Noticing how drastically her face has drained of colour, the old man frowns. “Rod. I’m sorry, I thought you were a spy sent by that bitch mother of hers.”

“Is she here? Bonny?”

“She’s outside, bringing in lumber from the forest. If you’d like, you can wait — hey!

Nancy barges past him through the back door of the house, entering a field of wild grass dotted with poppies. The glare from the sun is strong, overwhelming her for a moment, but after blinking several times, she makes out the edge of the forest and the pines looming in the distance. Her gaze follows the treeline, searching, until it latches onto a figure dragging along a firewood sled encumbered with chopped down trunks, their branches hacked off.

An old leather coat that’s two sizes too big is draped over their shoulders, the lapels of it hanging past their waist. With their back to Nancy, they pull their load towards a shed, unaware of her brash exit from the house.

Nancy doesn’t dare to move, watching them toss a handful of grain to the hens wandering the field. Bonny’s hair spills down her back in wild curls, unusually woman. She has let it grow out to a considerable length. All of the emotions Nancy had imagined she would feel in this moment — spite, resentment, fear — vanish in exception of relief. Her feet carry her across the field, stumbling at first in a sloppy gait, but then quickening to hurried footfalls trampling the earth.

Bonny turns her head, alerted by the noise, and raises her hand to block out the sunlight so she can see. Her eyes are as Nancy remembers them, copper pan brown. Bronze, under the sunlight.

When Bonny does manage to speak, the first syllable of Nancy’s name is crushed back into her mouth by the impact of their bodies knocking together. Nancy throws herself into the other woman’s arms, embracing her tightly. Bonny stumbles backwards, her legs buckling so she has to crouch down on her knees in the grass.

Her hand grips Nancy’s shoulder, and then the back of her neck as they gasp. She seems to realise how hands-on she’s being, trying to draw back.

“I’m sorry, is this —”

“It’s fine,” Nancy says before she can finish.

“How did you find me?” Bonny asks breathlessly.

“I never stopped looking, that’s how,” Nancy replies. “Do you know how hard it is to look for members of a family so disgraced their names have been struck off every record that exists? I had to interrogate old servants of your house. I even met your wet nurse.”

Bonny laughs, her head burrowed into Nancy’s collarbone. Although the barking sound is full of cheer, Nancy can feel wetness on her cheek.

“Did you? You clever fox. Have you met Hector? He’s my uncle, on my father’s side.”

“I know.” Nancy nods. It is hard to speak wrapped up so tightly in Bonny’s arms, so she encourages them loose from around her body. She takes Bonny’s hands tightly in her own, squeezing them to allay the excitement coursing through Bonny’s fingers that yearn to caress her face, her hair. “He tried to shoot me.”

“He what?” Bonny asks, surprised. “Is that why you’re so pale?”

“I’m fine,” Nancy assures her, but the dizziness rushing to her head proves otherwise. Her breath comes out fast, and she grasps to the sleeves of Bonny’s coat, worried that if she passes out now, the other woman will disappear. When she voices these concerns, Bonny swears that isn’t going to happen, helping her to stand and catching her when she staggers, grazing her knees on the ground.

Nancy fights the darkness engulfing her vision with a passionate ire. She and Bonny haven’t even kissed yet, there isn’t any time to —

 

O

 

She comes to slumped against a chair, cushions propped behind her back, to a crackling fire. The light from the flames reflects off an uncorked bottle of brandy on a table near her feet. Surrounding her are strange machines of varying size and height, boxes of nails and other metal parts she can’t put names to stacked on top of and underneath tables. Cracking her eyes open, she sees Bonny pacing in the room beyond the workshop.

“Well, perhaps if you hadn’t pointed a gun at her…” Her voice floats in, followed by Hector’s blunt retort.

“How was I supposed to know who she was?” he asks in an unbothered tone, a pair of round spectacles slid over his face. He tinkers with a stool laid on its side, knocking hammer into nail while Bonny bristles silently in front of him, struggling to hold her tongue.

It’s dark outside, she notices, feeling a pang of worry in her chest. How long has she been asleep? Candles have been placed around the room and lit, filling the space with a dull orange glow.

Bonny spies Nancy through the ajar door. Dismissing Hector’s list of reasons one shouldn’t trust strangers with a scoff, she slides through the doorway into the workshop and comes to kneel in front of Nancy.

“You must be tired. You slept half the afternoon away.”

“I don’t sleep much anymore,” Nancy admits, feeling a pang of guilt when Bonny’s expression softens, her eyes flashing with guilt. She dips her chin, turning her back on Nancy to pour both of them glasses of brandy. One is slid into her hand, strong-smelling under her nose. After throwing back her lot in a single gulp, Bonny takes a hold of Nancy’s other palm, rubbing circles on her knuckles.

The old grey-haired man, Hector, steps into the room briefly to collect a deerstalker’s cap from one of the workbenches.

Bonny looks over, calling out to him before he can leave, “Where are you off to?”

Off,” he answers curtly. “To hunt or occupy my time by some other means while both of you have your lover’s bout. I’d rather not be within earshot.”

Bonny tsks, waiting until he has left the house to face Nancy again. “We’re not going to have a bout,” she says, but then her gaze drops down to Nancy’s hand, unable to linger on her face for long. Her voice quietens, uncertain. “Are we?”

“Even if I wanted to, I lack the strength,” Nancy responds.

Silence stretches on between them, Bonny feeling the callouses on her palms. “I’m learning my uncle’s trade as a carpenter,” she says. “I could show you some of the things I’ve made when you’re feeling stronger.”

“I can’t stay long.”

“That’s alright, I know you have a house to tend to. Please tell me you’ll at least stay the night. It’s far too dark to go anywhere now.”

“It is,” Nancy agrees.

Bonny turns her head, staring at the flames consuming the logs in the fireplace. Heat splits the wood open with sharp pops and crackles, embers spraying into the air. The firelight reflects off Bonny’s face, bringing attention to the tears that are threatening to brim over her eyes. “I owe you an apology.”

“Just one?” Nancy smiles thinly, earning a chuckle from Bonny. The other woman shakes her head. Still on her knees, she clutches Nancy’s hand between two palms.

“I’m scared, Nancy. I’ve been so scared lately. After Marius, I didn’t know what to do with myself,” she confesses. “I felt like a husk of the person I was without the purpose I had on The Admiral. I had nothing, no wealth, no standing…”

“You had me.”

Bonny nods, swallowing thickly. “And what a fool I was not to be grateful for that much. I was scared before, it’s why I fought you when you asked me to stay in London. I never should have sent you away, it was heartlessly cruel of me. If it hadn’t been for my uncle, I’m not sure I would still be alive.”

“Why didn’t you write to me?” Nancy asks. “If you had come to London, I would have looked after you.”

“I felt ashamed of how I treated you, abandoning you like I did. So, I kept playing the part of the coward. I threw myself into the prize-fighting, hoping I’d forget about you and that with enough time, you would forget me too. I nearly drank myself to death. Hamish threw me out of the bar. Whelma was against it, but he refused to let me participate in the fights any longer. I was sleeping in the street for a few months, and one night, an older gentleman toed me awake. He said I might’ve looked half-dead, but there was no mistaking his brother’s daughter.”

Nancy doesn’t know whether to chastise or soothe her. She gnaws her lip, maintaining a stiff expression while wanting desperately to pull her closer, cradle her head on her lap, and thread her fingers through her hair until the smile has returned to her face and the mirth to her eyes. Instead, she restrains herself to let Bonny finish.

“I’m so sorry, Nancy. You didn’t deserve to suffer because of my wounded pride. My selfishness,” Bonny spits the bitter word, shaking her head.

“You still have me.”

The words hang in the air, Bonny’s eyes brightening when she realises Nancy means them wholeheartedly. “I do?” she asks.

Nancy nods, collecting Bonny in her arms when she leans forwards and wraps her arms around her abdomen. The kiss they share is sweet in its tenderness, a gentle brushing of lips. After a few beats, Nancy presses her fingertips to Bonny’s sternum, both of them puffing small breaths when they part.

“Good,” Bonny says. “Because I don’t think it’s possible to prevent any facet of myself from loving you.”

Nancy wishes the embrace could last forever, her breathing in Bonny’s scent with the other woman’s arms knotted around her torso. Their bodies pressed against each other, feeling whole like this. She sighs in contentment, but there’s a lump in her throat. A difficult topic of conversation she has yet to broach.

She forces herself to speak. “There’s something else.”

A horse’s whicker from outside interrupts her. Nancy lifts her head, coaxing Bonny back to push herself out of her chair to go to investigate the cause of the interruption at the window. At the sight of the twin horses and carriage outside, her throat clenches, stomach seizing with dread. Bonny goes to join her side, her eyes narrowing in confusion.

Nancy grabs onto her arm when she goes to confront the visitors, pulling her back into the workshop.

“It’s for me,” she explains, taking advantage of Bonny’s momentary surprise to push past her and hurry through the front door of the house. Stepping outside, she pushes her back against the door to stop Bonny from following her, the cold night air causing the sweat that breaks out across her forehead to chill.

“Nancy?” a familiar voice calls out, thick with concern. “Are you alright? I was worried when the coachman returned alone.”

“There was no need for you to come. I said I would return soon.” Nancy feels the door behind her back shake as Bonny knocks on the wood, trying to push it open from the other side. She implores the figure who has stepped out of the carriage, “If you don’t leave, you’re going to make matters more than complicated…”

“Nancy?” Bonny’s voice echoes from around the back of the house. Nancy curses, stepping away from the door and turning her head just in time to see Bonny round the corner. She stops and stares, dumbfounded by the sight of the luxurious carriage and saddled horses that have appeared without reason in the middle of nowhere.

Her stare slides over to Nancy, but she flounders, unable to explain.

And then Bonny sees the other woman. A tall lady, lamp-black hair falling down her shoulders in unpinned curls, steps down from the carriage steps. Dressed in a crème nightgown, she stands with elegant poise despite appearing a touch dishevelled as if she has only just recently rushed out of bed to join them in the countryside.

Bonny leans back against the wall, her mouth parting to let out an “oh”. Nancy would almost prefer silence to the crickets in the nearby brush, their chirping an overbearing buzz between her ears.

“I’ll be inside,” Bonny says and slips back through the front door of the house, pretending not to hear Nancy call out to her as she goes.

Nancy turns around to face Isabella, her voice fretful. “Will you wait for me a while?” she asks.

“Is this Bonny?”

At Nancy’s nod, the other woman’s lips press into a smile and she reaches up to touch her face.

“Then take your time.”

Bonny is waiting for Nancy in the back room of the shop, sitting on the chair she had woken up in with a freshly poured glass of brandy in her hand. Her eyes harbour neither anger nor sadness when she looks up, much to Nancy’s relief. Bonny smiles at her warily, swallowing a mouthful of drink from her glass.

“I suppose I’ve missed a lot over these last few years.”

“You have.” Nancy nods, stepping over to the fireplace. She stares into the leaping flames, afraid to meet Bonny’s eyes. “Her name is Lady Isabella. I met her several years ago during a nasty feud between a close friend’s bawdy house and another’s. Do you remember the woman who kept me captive as a child? Isabella helped us bring her down, so she would never hurt another girl again. She’s been invaluable. Our feelings for each other have only recently become…intimate.”

She is surprised to hear Bonny laugh, turning around to see her stand up from her chair and make her way across the room. “Do you think I expected the world to stop turning while I was gone? She’s beautiful, Nancy.”

Nancy’s eyes widen, the softness Bonny speaks with surprising her. “I…I’m glad you think so,” she says, taking Bonny’s journal from her pocket. She holds it out to her. “I almost forgot to give this to you.”

“I wondered where that had got to.” Bonny takes the journal, stuffing it into one of the pockets of her coat.

“There’s your hat too,” Nancy remembers. “You left it at mine. I can have it posted to you —”

“Ah, that old thing. Keep it.” Bonny waves her hand dismissively. She sweeps aside a curl of black hair that has fallen over Nancy’s forehead, and Nancy tries desperately to memorise her touch, the roughness of her fingertips.

“So, this is it, then,” Bonny says.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” Nancy whispers. She throws an arm around the back of Bonny’s neck, pulling her in close so her forehead is leant against the other woman’s shoulder.

“We had fun, didn’t we?” Bonny asks, the grin on her face trembling as she rests her chin on the crown of Nancy’s head. Noticing a shadow move in the doorway, she flinches backwards, carefully disentangling her arms from Nancy’s torso.

Nancy pulls back too, and Isabella frowns, lifting a gloved hand. “I apologise. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“It’s fine,” Nancy says, dragging a sleeve under her eyes to dry the sticky tear tracks on her face.

“I wondered if I might have a word with Bonny.”

Nancy meets Isabella’s eyes. “I don’t think that’s —”

“It’s alright,” Bonny cuts in, nodding to Isabella. She bends down to pour herself another drink, pausing when Nancy’s hand touches her shoulder.

Nancy hands her an envelope, the folded bank notes Bonny glimpses inside after tearing open the seal thick enough to make her eyes widen in shock.

“Nancy, it’s too much.”

“You’ll take it,” Nancy says firmly. She stares at Bonny, her mouth trembling, but can’t think of the words to say and ducks out of the room, leaving the house to go and wait by the carriage.

Once it is only herself and Isabella in the room, Bonny pulls up another chair, gesturing for Isabella to sit down. She drops into the second chair, clearing her throat. “There isn’t any need for bribes,” she assures the other woman. “I can see Nancy is happy with you, and you’re good for her. I’ll leave well enough alone.”

“Oh no, I would never try to bribe you.” Isabella shakes her head. “I suppose you don’t remember me. We met once before almost a decade ago. I attended your wedding.”

Bonny stares at Isabella. She takes in all of her features so she can search her mind for a name to place to her face. It’s like gazing into a mirror and seeing her past self, smothered beneath layers of a ridiculously expensive dress and cloying white powder, hair pinned up, bits of jewellery hanging around her neck.

“Fitzwilliam?” she asks, and then adds when Isabella looks surprised, “My mother always used to make me practise reciting the names of the neighbouring influential families.”

“I see.” Isabella nods. She smiles, recalling a fond memory. “That day, when you declared you wouldn’t marry in the face of everyone there, your mother, especially, I remember thinking you were the bravest woman I had ever seen. You’ve strengthened those traits in Nancy, and I can’t thank you enough for that.”

“If you aren’t here to dissuade me from seeing her, then what do you…?” Bonny pauses, putting the pieces together. “You want my blessing to be with her?”

"I will cherish her as much as I am able.” The words are spoken like a solemn vow.

“That, I don’t doubt,” Bonny replies. Seeing the nervousness creasing the corners of Isabella’s mouth, she goes on, “You don’t need to ask, you’ve earned it for taking care of Nancy all this time while I’ve been gone.”

“She speaks highly of you often. It would be my pleasure if you dined with us at my home. There is so much we have to tell you.”

Bonny nods although her mind is elsewhere, far away. Their conversation ends with Isabella reaffirming Nancy’s offer that if Bonny should want for anything at all, she need only ask. She clasps Bonny’s hands in her own, smiling warmly, and thanks her a final time before taking her leave from the house.

When Bonny comes back to her senses, she is alone inside the workshop. Glancing at the nearby window, she registers the road outside the house is empty, faint wheel marks left in the dirt.

Another piece of paper has been slid into her palm, addressed to her in neat flourishes of ink. An invitation, cordially asking her to the Fitzwilliam estate for dinner. Beneath an address, date, and time, she reads a message written hastily in Nancy’s familiar hand. I hope after I’ve spent so much time looking for you, you won’t spirit away again.

Hector re-enters the house, the front door slamming shut behind him. He lumbers into the workshop to find Bonny standing in front of the fireplace, a glass of brandy in one hand, absorbed in dour thought.

“If your friend is going to stay the night, you’ll have to get the blankets from the loft,” he tells her gruffly.

Bonny manages a weak smirk, tossing the rest of her drink onto the scorched logs in the hearth. “She isn’t staying, old man. She was collected by her lady friend a short while ago. I doubt she’ll be returning.”

“Oh.” Hector approaches her, patting her shoulder with a heavy hand. “I’m sorry, Bonny.”

A few ragged sobs tear free from her chest. He holds her until they subside, Bonny choking the anguished noises back and pushing herself away from him. She picks up an envelope off the table, offering him several banknotes from inside and pushing them into his palm when he baulks to accept. “Here, Uncle. For looking after me. It’s time I left.”

“That money is enough to live off comfortably for months, Bonny. What will you do now?”

Bonny flaps her coat, pulling it tightly around her shoulders. “Firstly, I’m off to London for a dinner, and then I think there’s some information a Justice ought to hear about a dangerous criminal parading around as a Navy Captain.”

Her uncle reaches out to grasp her arm, his hand a tight band around her elbow. “Bonny, you know the dangers of —”

“Which is why I’m going to compromise with them,” she interrupts him. “Surely the law and I can come to an understanding in exchange for my knowledge of the monster himself. They’ll let me chase him across all the seven seas, and Uncle, I will sail again.”

She pulls him against her chest, the most alive she’s felt in years. He must feel the warmth that emanates from her embrace because he doesn’t stop her as she leaves, bursting out into the night with a rucksack slung over her shoulder. He only watches from the doorway until she disappears into the darkness, and shakes his head in wonder of his brother’s reckless child.