Instead of my usual Work-in-progress Wednesday excerpt, I'm putting up the first of six short vignettes about Russ and Clare at Christmas time. Each piece takes place after or within the events of the novels. I'll be posting these little stocking stuffers between now and Epiphany. Today's story occurs immediately after the end of In the Bleak Midwinter.
Clare's legs gave way. She sat with a thud in the World War II admiral's chair. I didn't know. How could I have fallen in love and not known?
It had been instinct, sheer self-preservation that had made her shove his chest. He probably thought she was rejecting him. She shook her head, as dumb as any animal witnessing a miracle. Not you. Me. She had been pushing herself away. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil. It didn't feel like evil, though. It felt like... she looked around at her office, half-lit by the setting sun and smelling of balsam. It felt like a birth. Like something new and fine had come into the world.
She was on her feet again and out the door before she could second guess herself. She had to catch him. She had to make him understand... whatever it was that had just happened. She wasn't sure what she'd say, but she'd figure that out when she reached him. What if he walks out of the church and keeps on going? She broke into a trot. She might never see him again. Oh, God. The thought was like an icicle tracing up her spine.
She burst through the door into the church and collided with a canvas-aproned woman. Clare caught her parishioner before the older woman could hit the stone floor. Boxwood and red satin bows went everywhere.
“Oh, my heavens. I'm so sorry--” the name came to her, thank God, “Delia. Are you all right?”
Delia Hall laughed shakily. “Well, that's one way to green the church.”
Over her shoulder, Clare could see Russ's back as he disappeared into the nave. She could still stop him – if she ran. If she abandoned her duties and let someone else pick up the mess she'd made. The realization hit her like a cold wave; her first instinct had been the right one. Saying no. Pushing him away. Sending him home to his wife.
“Reverend Fergusson? Are you okay?” Delia Hall peered at Clare. “You look a little peaked.”
Clare stooped to pick up a boxwood cutting. “I'm fine.” By the time she stood up, she had a smile on her face. “Were you putting these on the candle holders? Let me help you.”