This is an excerpt from my story “Love at Dawn,” which first appeared in the anthology Crazy Little Spring Called Love. This excerpt comes from about a third of the way into the story.
Leora took her time moving around the shop, even though they had a standing order ready to be picked up and she needed only a few extra items. She’d started making this trip as a child, and had fallen hard for the tall, handsome lad who helped a small girl without any sense of superiority or condescension. He’d gotten items from high shelves, picked up heavy things, and helped her locate whatever she needed, all while smiling and making pleasant conversation.
Was it any wonder that she, and nearly every other girl in town, had tumbled hopelessly into love with Linden?
Today, he was busy with another customer, but she waited, loitering near the sacks of dried beans. The other customer was a girl they’d both gone to school with, a year older than Leora and three years younger than Linden. Tana had been too old to be eligible as the goddess avatar, but as Leora listened in on her conversation with Linden, she could tell that the other woman was trying to surreptitiously discover if Linden had been the avatar for the god.
Leora rather desperately wanted to know the answer to that question as well.
Linden avoided the not-so-subtle questions with good cheer and practiced ignorance. He always did that when he didn’t want to talk about something, and you couldn’t get mad at him because he was so honestly amused by whatever other subject he insisted on talking about. But her heart sank a little, because there was no way she would be able to get ’round him if he’d already started on his usual tactics. Every eligible woman in town had probably been in the store while she was gone, feeling him out about his role in the Rite.
Whether he’d been the avatar or not, Linden would never tell. He was a staunch believer in the rules of their society, and he had been horrified as a child the few times Leora had done something that bent or questioned the strictures of their world. She used to adore that about him, and tried to hold herself to his same standards, but today she wished he wouldn’t be such a hide-bound zealot.
Unbidden, the image of Reed, staring at her with desire in his intense blue eyes, rose in her mind. Would he tell her? Even if he said it hadn’t been him, she would know the truth. Reed wasn’t so constrained by rules as Linden, but the laws around the quarter-century rites were not as easily bent or broken as some of the sillier rules created by society. The incarnation laws ensured that their land prospered.
First, that none of the eligible candidates or the elders would ever reveal who was chosen. Second, that if a child resulted from the union, the mother would tell the elders. The elders would then tell the father, and he would choose to either make himself known…or not. If not, she would raise the child as the offspring of the gods, and would be allowed to take no other lover or husband.
If these laws were obeyed, their country would enjoy twenty-five more years of prosperity: good harvests, adequate rainfall, no blight or pestilence. If the laws were broken, the gods would withdraw their blessing, and famine, drought, and disease would follow.
She couldn’t ask either man to break the law.
Leora huffed and went up to the counter, annoyed with herself for even considering it. Linden was all smiles, his black eyes crinkling at the corners. But he didn’t look at her the way Reed had. His interest was genial, but impersonal. He didn’t want her. She’d known it, intellectually, for a long time. But now she had Reed’s fiery desire as a comparison, and for the first time she truly felt Linden’s cool friendliness for what it was: disinterest.
If by some chance she was pregnant, and he was the father, he would likely choose not to come forward. And if he did, it would only be because of his duty to the child. She didn’t want him that way. And for the first time in years, she questioned whether she wanted him at all.
He chatted with her, as he always did, as he did with everyone. It shouldn’t hurt so much that she was just another customer to him, but cherished dreams didn’t suddenly disappear, no matter how much one wanted to acknowledge them as the silly construct of an impetuous young girl.
Maybe it was time to leave. To cut this tie forever and free herself of something that could never be in favor of something that could. No one would stop her apprenticing herself to a healer in the capital, and taking up her true dream.
Reed washed his hands for the hundredth or more time that day in the small room that was his personal space inside the surgery building. There were sinks and running water in every room—Leora and her master had installed them in her first years as an apprentice. That was when he’d noticed the changes transforming the beloved scamp of his childhood into the bewitching woman she would become. She’d grown four inches in a year and suddenly had curves and breasts that made his teenage cock harden whenever he saw her.
Every time he turned the water on he still thought of her, although his anatomy was under much better control these days. The familiar ritual calmed him, even if it did leave him with very dry skin.
The door opened behind him and he looked up. He wondered why he hadn’t sensed her—usually he could tell if she was even in the building.
She waited in the doorway, hesitating.
“Is something wrong, Leora?”
He said her name deliberately, a reminder that he was not a stranger, and not just an acquaintance. They’d known each other since they were children, and he’d loved her always. First, with a warm, friendly love, a youthful adoration, full of admiration for her indomitable will and her amusing antics. But later, when they’d both gone through puberty, that adoration had shifted from innocent to stark and hungry.
But by then, she’d hated him, and he’d never understood why.
“Not wrong, exactly,” she answered, finally coming into the room. There wasn’t much to impede her progress—just a cot and a clothespress that held a few trousers and shirts, and a number of surgical aprons and extra linens. She stopped beside the cot. “But something is different.”
The quavering note in her voice drew him as though she’d pulled a rope tied round his middle. He’d never heard her sound so bleak, so forlorn.
He took her hands, and they were cold, as though she’d just gone down to the ice house and laid her palms on a preserved block.
“What is it?”
She pulled her hands out of his and put them on either side of his face. He wasn’t very much taller than her, and so she didn’t have far to pull before she’d brought his head down to hers and pressed her mouth against his.
Excerpt from “Love at Dawn” © 2017 Cara McKinnon
If you enjoyed that, you can read the rest of the story in Crazy Little Spring Called Love, along with seven other stories of fantasy romance by some truly amazing writers!