Every moment of your life exists somewhere.
The people and places you’ve lost. The voices you never thought you’d hear again. Your younger self. You can return whenever you want. As often as you like. But you can’t change a thing. Time moves forward, children grow up, lovers move on, everyone still dies in the end.
And She Was follows a twenty-first century archivist, a Victorian poet, and an eighteenth-century astronomer through inevitable loss and the ineffable beauty of the present moment.
Everything changes. Nothing stays the same.
EXCERPT: Nell and Alec
Inscape, Maine, January, This year
Alec cradled Nell’s face and kissed her forehead. “Why did you leave?”
Nell kept her arms pressed to her sides as if she could keep her terrible secret by physical force, like it was a tangible thing and if she just stayed strong enough she could hold onto it forever. “Please don’t ask me. Please.”
Alec pulled her closer, smelling of coffee and soap, old hotel and cold air. Despite herself, or more likely because of herself and her own weakness, Nell sucked in deeper, desperate to draw out and hold onto some essence of Alec before he left Inscape for good.
In rhythm with his quiet breath Alec’s chest met her lips again and again.
Then, just above his heart, she kissed him. So lightly it was hardly a kiss at all.
He gasped and the expansion of his chest crushed against Nell’s mouth as if his heart had kissed her in return. The memory of his face gazing down as he supported his weight with his beautiful arms, his muscular chest falling and rising as he moved within her was suddenly so present and so palpable she was certain Pop-Pop’s office and the snow outside and the scent of undrunk coffee in the kitchen was a fantasy, and right now she and Alec were in their bed in New Hampshire, her legs entwined with his as he thrust inside her.
Heedless of the real and present Inscape snow and sunlight, Pop-Pop’s death, and Jared’s presence, Nell wrapped her arms around Alec’s neck and threaded her fingers through his hair. She hummed in response to his intake of breath and soft moan. Holding tightly to his strong shoulders, she rose onto her tiptoes then slowly dropped her heels to the floor to feel the length of his hardness press against her.
Alec groaned and kissed Nell’s neck just below her ear, nudging her earring out the way so he could open his mouth and lick her sensitive skin.
A door slammed upstairs and Nell remembered herself.
She pulled away, her hands resting on his shoulders, a distant alarm sounding in her heart.
A wary expression flashed in Alec’s dark eyes and he stepped back.
This was the moment. The moment she should have said, I’m sorry. Sorry to have left you, sorry to have hurt you, so, so sorry to have betrayed the trust that was so hard for you to give. And so sorry she couldn’t give him the one thing he’d asked her for. The reason he’d come back to this house today when all he’d wanted was to grieve for the only man who’d ever acted like a father to him, who had loved Alec unconditionally, more than any son.
But she didn’t.
Instead, she took, again, a moment that didn’t belong to her, and a heart and soul entrusted to her once, that she had no right to claim now. She was weak and she knew it. Cruel and she knew it. She should have pushed Alec away, apologized and kept her unbearable secret. Let Alec leave her now to fall in love with some better, kinder, stronger woman.
But she didn’t.
Nell opened her hands on Alec’s chest and caressed him, sliding her fingers between the buttons of his shirt to feel his warm skin and soft hair. He lifted her chin, cautious hope written on his face, waiting for her to say something, waiting for her to do the right thing.
EXCERPT: Aurora and Fred
Inscape, Maine, June, 1859
The young man whose name she had not heard refused to speak. Sixteen-year-old Aurora David turned her mechanical chair to the window and picked up her pen.
I am a poet.
I am an invalid.
In-valid: of no legal force, of no weight.
I do not feel weightless. I do not understand less, breathe less, feel less. I am no angelic, declining lady: a celestial, earth-bound spirit whom Providence has blessed with infirmity because she is worthy of it, a soul pure enough to endure suffering. I am disagreeable. I am noisy. I am not too good for this world. I am shut in but I am not – nor shall I ever be – quiet.
The young man did not respond to the vigorous scratching of her pen.
“You need not pretend to feel pleasure at the prospect of entertaining me for the afternoon,” Aurora said sharply when she could no longer bear the silence.
“What?” the young man asked in breathy sullenness as if he’d hoped to continue to imagine he was alone in the fragrant, sun-filled conservatory. “What do you mean?”
“It is irksome, I know, to sit with the infirm,” Aurora said gazing directly at him. He looked away as soon as his eyes met hers. “It is a penance; unless one is a young lady then it is a blessed obligation, of course.” She smiled. He did not return it. “Have you committed a sin? I hope so.”
“A sin?” he said. “Whatever do you mean? No. My sister Edith is in Portsmouth at the dressmakers. My mother, as always, refused to part with her. And I have accompanied my father here.” He watched a butterfly at the window then turned to Aurora. “Why would you have wanted me to have committed a sin?”
“So we would have something captivating to discuss.” She attempted to smile again, but the young man looked discomfited. He turned to scan the titles of the books piled on a table near the blooming orange tree. Aurora stared at the back of his head and wished she had something better to say.
“What books do you love?” she asked.
“Yes. Books. Will you repeat everything I say?” she asked. “That tempts me to think of saying something wicked.”
“You are strange,” the young man said getting up and walking toward the door through which his father and Mr. David had exited.
“I’m bored,” she said quietly. “That’s all.” She shifted on her chair, which creaked in protest. She frowned. “I love Mr. Keats devotedly, Mrs. Browning passionately and Mr. Emerson ardently.”
The young man said nothing.
A red-bodied dragonfly flew in through the open window and landed on Aurora’s dress.
“Aren’t you afraid?” the young man asked.
“Of a dragonfly?”
“I thought ladies loathed everything not beautiful or delicate,” he said, meeting her eyes for the first time.
“What is more delicate and beautiful than a dragonfly?” Aurora asked.
The young man came and sat nearer to her. He smelled like new mown hay and the warm leather of carriage seats. Aurora breathed in the scent of his hair along with the sweetness of the jasmine in a box near the window. She did not reveal how much the moment thrilled her. She had had seen few young men up close.
“Your hands are dirty,” she said.
He hid them beneath his legs then pulled them out again.
“What were you doing?” she asked.
He colored. “Nothing.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” she said. “Dirty hands make you interesting.”
The young man gazed more intently at her than he had before. Aurora could see flecks of gold in his green eyes, which were heavily fringed with light brown lashes. He asked her a question. Something to do with her making him an object of study like a living fossil, or an illuminated manuscript, but his words ran in and out of her ear. The indignant movement of his mouth swallowed his voice, and rolled over Aurora’s imagination as the relief of sleep overcomes a baby.
He stopped talking, took her hand and turned it over in his palm.
“Why are your hands dirty?” he asked.
“Ink,” she said. It pleased her to allow him hold her hand rather than to pull it away in a show of offended modesty. “I am a poet.”
He laughed and leaned back. She drew her hand away. Impulsive unkindness captured the young man’s handsome face, but he said nothing, and returned to carelessly inspecting objects in the room.
“Are you taking an inventory of my father’s possessions?” Aurora asked tartly not willing to hide the hurt in her voice.
“You are far too arch for someone so easily wounded, Miss David,” he said taking a Meissen shepherd from a table and turning it over to examine the bottom.
“And you are very sure of yourself, Mr. –” she hesitated.
He laughed. “I knew you weren’t listening. You gazed through me when your father introduced us.”
“Well, what is your name then?” she asked. Humiliation heated the back of her neck.
The young man cocked his blond head and returned the shepherd to its position of partnership with the swinging china girl. “Guess.”
“Guess?” Aurora echoed.
“Will you repeat everything I say, Miss David? That tempts me to keep my name a secret from you forever.”
EXCERPT Meg and Carl
London, June 1801
Carl pulled away and gazed at her, his eyes so beautiful Meg could hardly believe they were hers to look at.
He drew her nearer and Meg let him kiss her again. She never wanted him to stop. She wanted to stand here in the dusty, falling sunlight and kiss him forever. He kissed her forehead and held her close. His heart beat soothingly into her ear. She laid her fingertips against his chest, surprised at the warmth even through his shirt and the thin fabric of her gloves.
“I am prodigiously gifted with a needle,” she said. “I can sew finer and swifter than anyone in London.” Carl smiled at her and Meg felt, for a moment, that there could be no heaven anywhere else because it was right here on Carl Saker’s beautiful face. “And someday you will make a name for yourself.”
The smile faded from his eyes. He ran his fingers over her face as if he could drink her in through his skin.
“There are ways to avoid having children,” she said.
“There are,” he said.
Carl took her face in his hands as if he wanted to say something. Meg kissed him before he said anything she didn’t want to hear.
A pudding-faced young man walked by and made a vulgar comment about costs and services. Carl gave him a murderous look. The man laughed. He ran down the street then tripped, cursing, over a cat that had just missed being crushed by a cart.
“Come inside,” Carl said, his voice like brushed steel.
He opened his front door and let Meg in. She opened her mouth to speak but Carl was already pacing in front of the empty fireplace. He seemed to be arguing with himself. Meg heard half-words, and frustrated nonsense.
“You shouldn’t be here at all,” he said, his voice thin and strained. “And what if someone saw that kiss?”
Meg sucked in a mouthful of air. It was all she could do not to run to Carl and kiss him again. He saw that desire in her eyes and his expression became more sorrowful than Meg could bear.
“If Addison discovered…” he said hoarsely. “I cannot believe I am in a position to say such a thing, to betray another man, and in doing so to betray you and myself.” He covered his eyes with the heels of his hands.
“Sit down,” he said.
Meg gaped at him.
“Please,” he said, pulling out a rough chair.
“I am able to live at the level of subsistence only,” he said when she was seated. “I have chosen to live in this way so I, the son of no one, can work as I please and be beholden to no man.”
“I would never ask you to – ” she interrupted.
“Please,” Carl said, his voice nearly breaking.
“To live in such a way, even with the money you could bring in and without children, is to be perpetually in danger of losing something, food, home, fuel,” he said. “There is no room in such a life for anything unexpected.”
Meg stood up.
“You forget,” she said, inflamed by his refusal to see the possibility, “that I already support two people. I buy the food and the coal and the necessities. I pay for all of that now.”
“Who pays the rent?” Carl asked quietly. “And the taxes?”
“Mrs. Lewis pays the rent and the taxes,” she said softly. “Her husband left her a small annuity.”
“The money you make pays for food and fuel and small necessities,” Carl said. “And that is all.”
Meg sat down again.
The distorted glass on the table caught a finger of sunlight and threw spots of color around the room, painting Carl’s face with flecks of blue.
He didn’t say anything. Meg stood up and pulled her chair closer to his.
Oh, his face. His dark, sky-bright eyes and his soft mouth. His face made everything seem possible.
“You cannot wait for me,” he said. “Because I cannot guarantee that I will ever make enough money to support us.”
She took his hand, which was lying across his thigh. Her fingertips brushed the hard muscle of his leg and he took in a soft mouthful of breath.
“Meg,” he murmured.
“You cannot prevent me from waiting for you,” she said. “I, like you, am free to make my own decisions.