Josef shares a secret with Charlotte.
London – 1841
‘Digging another hole?’ I asked and rested my hand against the rough bark of a tree to peer into the trench Josef was digging.
He was shirtless, all solid muscles and hair, and he looked as comfortable digging as he did in his silk waistcoats.
‘I thought a stream might be nice,’ he said, without pausing his work. ‘The children can sail boats on it.’
I suppressed an amused smile.
Josef’s garden was so huge and dense you couldn’t tell we were in the middle of London. It had everything from fruit trees to herb gardens to flower beds. Even with my memory it might be possible to get lost in it. It looked like he was winding the stream across the whole garden, it would be a long way to sail a toy boat.
‘Freyja’s decided to haunt me until I release her from her promise,’ I said. ‘She’s gives the impression she doesn’t like you much. What did you do to annoy her?’
Josef stopped digging. ‘She reads minds, it could be anything.’ He smiled. ‘Maybe she thinks I’m an arsehole.’
‘You are arsehole,’ I said, frowning at the blooms above me.
He shrugged his broad shoulders and went back to digging. ‘She took an instant dislike to me. You have a lot in common.’
‘She said the first time she saw you was in the arena in Rome.’ I picked at a loose piece of bark.
He missed a beat in the rhythm of his labour. ‘It was a different time, a different life.’
‘Carthage, two thousand years ago,’ I murmured to myself.
‘My home burned, my family died and Rome enslaved me.’ He stabbed the spade down so hard it sank to the shaft. ‘The story of my mortal life.’
‘I wasn’t asking for your autobiography,’ I said, ‘simply wondering what Freyja has against you.’
He smiled faintly. ‘Ah, you always have that effect on me. I want to…’ He chuckled. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Oh, I think you know,’ I replied.
He sat down on the edge of the trench with his back to me. There were lash marks across his back, not as many Bran had but Bran had been practicing Mortification of the Flesh for seven hundred years.
I sat down beside Josef and crossed my legs. ‘She suggested fighting wasn’t all they made you do.’
‘The Mighty Saracen was once the slave and a whore. There aren’t many left that know that.’ He rubbed his face, his callused hand rasped on his beard and left dirt in its wake. ‘After all that when The Puppet Master took my friend I did nothing. That was how the world worked.’ He glanced at me. ‘You would have.’ He flexed his jaw as if it ached. ‘The way you looked at me when I said I’d done nothing… It has been a long time since anything hurt like that.’
I considered his profile as he stared at the trench.
‘I want you to like me,’ he added. ‘It’s a strange thing, I can’t remember the last time I really cared if someone liked me or not, but you I do.’
Given that he had claimed he loved me in the past it wasn’t a surprising declaration, I might gone for ‘liking’ before declarations of love.
I brushed dirt from the side of his face. ‘Do you really think I would’ve got so angry if I didn’t like you?’
‘With you I don’t know.’ His rough hand touched my face very gently.
My fingers flexed ready to smack him if he kissed me.
‘When people will do what you want so easily and never argue it’s easy to forget important things,’ he said.
‘Bran argues with you.’
He grinned. ‘Bran disapproves and may suggest corrections but he will never call me an arsehole and throw a book at me.’
‘Most people would say that’s excessive.’
He trailed his fingers down my neck then withdrew. ‘Some of us are too used to getting what we want.’
‘I thought you didn’t know what you wanted.’ I swipe my hand over my cheek to clean away the dirt he’d left.
He shook his head and frowned at the dirt caking the knees of his trousers. ‘I am not accustomed to this… Feeling this.’
I pondered asking precisely what he meant by ‘this’, if Josef had words for ‘this’ he would’ve used them, rare was the day Josef Mathers lacked words. Sometimes I wished he lacked words more often, and no doubt he wished I did too.
‘I’ve fallen in love with my best friend’s wife and I don’t know what to do.’
I leaned in. ‘A new experience for you then.’
He chuckled then sobered. ‘Don’t tell anyone what I was’ he murmured then risked a glance. ‘Please.’
‘Secrets are my trade, Josef, they’re safe with me.’
‘Until it becomes profitable,’ he observed. ‘In the context of the metaphor.’
‘You’re my friend, Josef. I won’t tell your secrets any more than Bran’s.’ I turned his face towards me. ‘Does that need a solemn oath?’
‘No,’ he whispered. ‘I trust you.’
‘Most wouldn’t.’ I got up and brushed off my trousers. ‘And they’d be right not to.’
He looked up at me. ‘You’re a woman of honour, even if you pretend otherwise.’
I arched my eyebrows at him.
‘A woman without honour would not have shown Bran the love and kindness you have,’ he said.
‘Hm. Well, don’t be telling everyone or they’ll think I’ve gone soft.’ I unfastened my jerkin and tossed it onto the grass. ‘Sitting around won’t get your bloody folly finished.’
‘A folly is a useless structure,’ he said. ‘Not a stream.’
I pulled the spade from the ground like I was King Arthur with Excalibur. ‘Who said I was talking about the stream?’
He chuckled and leaned back, showing off all the muscle in his chest and his taut stomach. ‘Bran will complain I’ve spoilt your soft hands.’
I jabbed his leg with the butt of the shovel. ‘You’re just worried the little human woman will show you up.’
‘I’ll get another spade,’ he said.
I waited until he disappeared through the trees then started digging. I couldn’t outpace a vampire as old as Josef, a head start was only fair.
Part of Jesse’s Studio’s extended Fiction Frenzy there will be a new episode of Victorian Mistress everyday until 24th June 2017.